« ZurückWeiter »
It was in 1803, when our country was threatened with invasion, and the arms of France seemed almost resistless, that a great poet, Wordsworth, wrote these lines :
“ In our halls is hung
I believe those words first made me a student of Shakspere.
Wordsworth's lines embodied no idle boast. The connection between England's freedom and the name of England's greatest writer was not an imaginary one.
The “armoury that was hung in “our halls” was not the breast-plate and the helmet that our fathers wore at Agincourt. The “armoury” to which the poet alludes was the inheritance of thoughts and feelings which we had derived from the great minds who had
From him whose name “is the greatest in our literature—it is the greatest in all literature ;" we have received such a stock of household thoughts, gradually but surely entering into the national soul during successive generations, that we who speak the tongue which he spake “must be free or die.” Nor was it that we were to find in the mass of writings which Shakspere has bequeathed to us any specific exhortations to freedom, any rapturous declamations on our national greatness, any incense to that pride which all nations feel, and would be unworthy of the name of nation if they did not feel. There is much in Shakspere to excite, incidentally, a just patriotism ; but there is very little of what may be called patriotic poetry. There is, however, something better. Freedom, in
the highest sense of the word, is the result of a nation's intelligence, not the intelligence which consists in mere skill in the imitative arts, in accurate knowledge of the abstract sciences, in the applications of mechanical and chemical discovery important as I deem such intelligence), but which is created out of the habit of looking at the entire physical and moral world with ore especial reference to man's ultimate capabilities and destinies than to the mere sensual utilities of the things around us. It is the great and enduring effect of a high literature, such as England possesses, and of which Shakspere is the unquestioned head, to keep alive this nobler intelligence; to diffuse it through every corner of the land ; to make its light penetrate into the humblest cottage ; to mould even the lisping accents of the child to the utterance of its words. A literature such as this follows in the wake of the higher spiritual instruction, an auxiliary to what we may emphatically call Wisdom. To estimate the influence of such a writer as Shakspere upon the intelligence of England would be a vain attempt, because the most powerful effects of that influence are indirect. It is sufficient to say, there has lived amongst us a man who possessed a power, surpassing that of all other men, of delineating almost every possible combination of human charaacter. He has not represented mere abstract qualities, such as a good man and a bad man; a mild and passionate ; a humble and a proud ; but he has painted men as they are, with mixed qualities and mixed motives, the result of temperament and education; and so painting them he has not only succeeded in kindling and cherishing within us the highest admiration and love of what is noble, and generous, and just, and true, but, in making us kind and tolerant towards the errors of our fellow-creatures, compassionate even for their vices. But the same man has never broken down the distinction, as other writers have done, between what is worthy to be loved and imitated, and what to be pitied and shunned. We have no moral monsters in Shakspere, no generous housebreakers, no philanthropic murderers. We see men as they are; but we see them also with a clearness that it would be vain to expect from our own unassisted vision. The same great master of all the secrets of the human heart is also the expounder of the very highest and noblest philosophy. Books of no inconsiderable size have been made out of his mere moral axioms. To those who are familiar with Shakspere's writings there is scarcely a situation of human affairs which will not suggest a recollection of something that may be applied to it for instruction out of what he has written. Many of the habitual sayings, that enter into the minds even of the uninstructed as something to which they have become familiar without books, are Shakspere’s. If two men of average education converse together for half an hour on general subjects, there can be little doubt that, without actual quotation, the genial wit of Shakspere will be found to have given point, and his universal poetry elevation, to their discourse. The mode in which the mind of Shakspere is penetrating through all other lands exhibits the stages in the progress of his universality in our own land. He first becomes the property of the highest and the most educated minds. They have acknowledged his influence at first timidly and suspiciously; but the result is invariable: the greatest intellects become prostrate before this master intellect. Under false systems of criticism, both in our own and in other countries, the merits of Shakspere as a whole have been misunderstood ; and he has been held as a violator of certain conventional principles of art, upon which poetry was to be built as churches were built in the same age, with nothing irregular, nothing projecting, a good solid cube, with one window exactly like another, and a doorway in the middle. The architects of our fine old gothic cathedrals and Shakspere were equally held to be out of the pale of regular art. They were wild and irregular geniuses, more to be wondered at than imitated. But, with all this, there never was a period, however low its standard of taste, when many a votary did not feel a breathless awe as he entered such cathedrals as York and Lincoln, and had his devotion raised and refined by the matchless beauty and sublimity of the temple in which he prayed. And, in the same way, there never was a period since Shakspere's plays were first acted in a mean theatre, without scenery or decorarations, up to the present time when they are the common
possession of Europe, and are known amongst millions of men who inhabit mighty continents and islands where the English tongue was almost or wholly unspoken when he lived ; there never was a period when the love and reverence which England now bears him were not most ardently cherished in the hearts of the best and the most influential of the people—those who thought for themselves. Even those who scoffed at his art, never doubted his power. They would criticise him,-they would attempt to mend him,—but he was always “the incomparable.” They held, too, that he was unlearned ; but they also held that he knew everything without learning. Nature did for him, they said, what study did for other men. Thus they endeavoured to raise him in the mass, and degrade him in the detail ; and by dint of their absurd general admiration, and their equally absurd depreciation of minute parts of his writings, they laboured to propagate an opinion which would have been fatal to one less really great—that he was a person, not exactly inspired, but producing higher efforts of imagination, and displaying the most varied and accurate knowledge, without the education and the labour by which very inferior productions of literature were ordinarily produced. These were the critics of our own country, from the days of the Restoration almost up to the end of the reign of George III. But, in the meanwhile, after the hateful taste was put down that we imported from France, with all the vices of the court of Charles II., Shakspere again became the unquestionably best property of the English stage. There never was a period in which he was not diligently read. Four folio editions of his works were printed in 62 years—1623 to 1685, a time most unfavourable to literature. It is in this way-by the multitude of readers—that Shakspere has become universal. If books were now to perish, if “letters should not be known,” the influence of Shakspere could not be eradicated from amongst those who speak his tongue ; the moral and intellectual influence would remain after the works which had produced it had perished. But they could not perish wholly : some fragments of the knowledge of which he is full—some consecutive words of the exquisite diction in which he abounds, some dim abbreviation of the wonder