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audience: the brilliance of phrase and sparkle of repartee; the consummate mastery of verse - now sweet and lyrical, now throbbing with passion, now echoing the tread of armies, now heavy with thought; - the ingenuity of the stage-craft; the variety of scene and atmosphere. But to the modern student there are deeper things to be found, which may or may not have been evident to his contemporaries, of some of which the poet himself may not have been explicitly conscious.
It has been frequently charged against Shakespeare that in contrast with poets like Dante and Goethe his work embodies no religion, no philosophy. Whatever of truth there may be in this, it is surely inaccurately phrased. Certain it is he was no fanatic, the propagandist of no sect; what philosophy he had is presented in no systematic scheme. If he had been or done these things, he could not have been the supreme dramatist. But the profoundest thought is not necessarily framed into a scheme; the most philosophical artist need not speak through allegory or abstractions. Philosophical ideas find abundant expression in both the dramas and the sonnets of Shakespeare; obiter dicta occur of immense suggestiveness and power; and it is hardly possible to read the plays as a whole without becoming conscious of a characteristic attitude toward human nature and the problems of human life. The expression of this attitude naturally varies with the period and the theme. In the Histories the dominant idea is that which one finds elsewhere in the early narratives of these sad stories of the death of kings. Among the strange paradoxes of the Middle Ages none is more remarkable than the persistence, among the Christian conceptions of the Catholic Church, of the pagan goddess of Fortune. So continually is she referred to as the determining force in the destinies of the great, so awed and reverential is the tone in which her caprices are alluded to, that one is forced to the conclusion that she was to the men of that age no mere figure of speech, but a deity who was always feared and often worshipped. The narratives on which Shakespeare based his Histories were pervaded by this conception, and it survives with impressive effect in the speeches of his characters. How far he personally shared it, it is hard to say; but he availed himself of it in a hundred instances of dramatic irony, and it underlies his melancholy insistence on the merely human limitations that assert themselves in the career of every king. With no lack of appreciation of the pomp of monarchy, he yet asserts in play after play that, whether coupled with the futile piety of Henry VI, the unscrupulous tenacity of Richard III, the policy of Henry IV, or the triumphant effectiveness of Henry V,
'T is not the balm, the sceptre, and the ball,
That beats upon the high shore of this world, that can separate the king from the pathos of common humanity.
In the Comedies there is no such unity of idea ; but generalized reflection is abundantly evident in the dwelling in successive plays on certain tendencies of human nature and their results in action and character; such tendencies as sentimentalism, cynicism, selfishness, and self-deception. The philosophical significance of these plays stops short, as a rule, of the fifth act. The marrying off, at the close, of all eligible youths and maidens is more a concession to the convention of the happy ending demanded by the particular type of drama than the logical outcome of the characters or their deeds. One is not convinced that Shakespeare believed that this was the way things happened in life ; but a comedy must end so, and he provided accordingly a conventional dénouement, too often showing traces of the perfunctoriness of his interest in such an artificial adjustment.
Very different is his treatment of the conclusion of Tragedy. Here the crime or weakness which marks the tragic hero is shown bearing its inevitable fruit in suffering and disaster; and the great Tragedies form the crown of his achievement not only because they deal with the more serious problems of life, but because here are found all the elements of poetry, characterization, and construction, in each of which he had attained mastery in earlier plays, but which now are brought to their loftiest pitch and combined. Nowhere else are the two great dramatic elements of character and plot found in such perfect balance, in such complete interaction; nowhere else are they clothed in language so weighty with thought or so glorified by imagination. But it is in the determination of the catastrophes that the philosophical supremacy of the Tragedies most appears, as it is from these that critics who find evidence of pessimism in Shakespeare produce their proof. “Here,” they say, pointing to the fifth act of King Lear, “here, at least, Shakespeare loses faith; here good and bad go down together in indiscriminate disaster.” But so to observe is, surely, to lose sight of the most profound distinction running through these plays, the distinction between the spiritual and the physical. From Romeo and Juliet to Coriolanus it is clear that Shakespeare hands over to natural and social law the bodies and temporal fortunes of good and bad alike, and such law is permitted its unrelenting sway. But it is equally clear that he regards the spiritual life of his creations as by no means involved in this welter of suffering and death. Occasionally, as in Macbeth, the bero's spiritual career runs at the end parallel to his worldly fortune; more often, as in Othello or Lear, the moment of physical disaster witnesses a moral purgation, a spiritual triumph; always it is possible to discern two lines of interest, two kinds of value, two clearly distinguished spheres of existence.
For the lack of correspondence between these two lines of action, the absence in Tragedy of any control of worldly happiness in the interest of the good, he attempts no explanation. For he is not concerned to construct a philosophical system, to preach a gospel. Even the all-pervading distinction just set forth is not preached or argued. It is merely implied because no treatment of the greater issues of human life could be at once true and profound without this implication. Thus this limitation, as it has been regarded by those who would have the poet an explicit philosopher, is no limitation at all, but the mark of his allegiance to the true artistic ideal, the proof that he played his own game according to its own rules, and devoted himself with unparalleled disinterestedness, unparalleled range and profundity of insight, to the picturing of things as they are.
W. A. N.
TO THE READER
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut ; Wherein the Grauer had a strife
with Nature, to out-doo the life : O, could he but haue drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
All, that vyas euer vvrit in brasse.