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ESSAYS ON SHAKESPEARE
In expressing our opinions of a great author we are beset by some difficulties not necessarily inherent in the subject itself. A theory of the man and of his writings having been framed by criticism, and adopted by the public, every new speculation is expected to fall within the limits of that theory and to be throughout in harmony with it. The newness consequently must consist rather in fresh discoveries of excellences, in forms of praise, in outbursts of admiration, in idolatry, more or less mitigated, than in an impartial investigation into the genuine nature of his productions.
Though Shakespeare is not and cannot be to us, what Homer was to the Greeks, the source of religion, philosophy, and politics, he embodies so large a portion of the national consciousness that he will probably be our most cherished intellectual companion as long as we continue to form a nation. Yet he must be differently estimated by each succeeding age according to the measure of its culture and intelligence. He is not to us what he was to the contemporaries of Raleigh and Bacon, of Addison and Pope, of
Gibbon and Johnson ; all these had their pedantries and their prejudices, in literature, in theology, and in ethics, which modified their admiration and gave a colour to their criticism. We also have our prejudices and our pedantries, which we can no more shake off than we can think in Chinese.
Of certain books which were once to be found on the shelves of every library Johnson observes that it is easier to praise than to read them. Many critics find dispraise no less easy, especially when engaged in heaping up adulation on some favourite author, whom they seek to elevate at the expense of every other individual who can by any contrivance be forced into comparison with him.
Shakespeare, who has excellences lying in the foreground as well in the obscure distance, has seldom, as it appears to me, been subjected to useful criticism. Was he lawyer's clerk, was he schoolmaster, was he a woolstapler, was he a butcher, was he poor, did he hold gentlemen's horses at the door of the theatre, was he rich-either through the results of his own industry or by the generosity of certain noblemen? Inquiries without end have been entered into on these comparatively trivial questions. But did he write the plays attributed to him, and, if so, what is the value of those plays to us of the present generation and to posterity? If he wrote all or most of the dramas usually found in the collected editions of his works, together with certain poems and sonnets, it may be worth while to examine once more such of them as appear to be his, and to ascertain if possible the amount of merit to be found in them, or, if there be demerit, to point it out and justify the decision. More good may be effected in this way than
by piling up eulogies which often prove nothing more than that their authors wanted discrimination, and were determined that the world should know it.
It was no fault of Shakespeare's certainly, but he has been the occasion of more nonsense than almost any other writer, either ancient or modern. Aristotle indeed had ten thousand commentators, who, as Swift suggests, knew as little of him as he did of them.
From the date of Rowe's edition, 1709, down to the publication of Malone's 'Shakespeare' by Boswell in 1821 there appeared numerous elaborate editions, accompanied by a formidable array of notes and prefaced for the most part with extravagant eulogies. The eighteenth century may in fact be regarded as a Shakespeare era, the very perihelion of the poet's fame, during which many able critics sought to outdo each other in the servility of their admiration. Rowe, indeed, confines his praise within modest limits; sometimes underrating the merits of Shakespeare, as where he tells us that the parasite and the vainglorious in Parolles is as good as anything of that kind in Plautus or Terence. What he says of Shakespeare's treatment of the supernatural is well expressed : The greatness of this author's genius does nowhere so much appear as where he gives his imagination an entire loose, and raises his fancy to a flight above mankind and the limits of the visible world.'
When Pope nineteen years later undertook to point out Shakespeare's great qualities he exhibited as little regard for truth as he did for his own reputation. His knowledge of antiquity, notwithstanding his Homeric studies, was very limited, though he desired to be thought a great proficient in that kind of learning. 'If ever any author,' he says, deserved the name of an original, it was Shakespeare. Homer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of nature; it proceeded through Egyptian strainers and channels, and came to him not without some tincture of the learning or some cast of the models of those before him.'
Mr. Gladstone in his learned and admirable picture of the Homeric age, and of the ages immediately preceding it, is at some pains to show that the belief in the Unity of God reached Hellas from the East; but he knows nothing of those 'strainers and channels' through which Pope imagines Homer to have derived his knowledge of the poetical art. The Arabs of Tyre and Sidon no doubt imported some knowledge with their merchandise into Greece and other European countries, but the Greeks knew too little of Arabic, and the Arabs of Greek, to render the transmission of poetic ideas and refinement possible. Pope proceeds: • The poetry of Shakespeare was inspiration indeed : he is not so much an imitator as an instrument of Nature, and it is not so just to say that he speaks from her, as that she speaks through him.' As Pope has made himself an object of admiration to us by many of his own writings, and still more by his translation of Homer, it is a matter of regret that he should have put forward so many erroneous opinions respecting Shakespeare, whom he really understood less than many writers inferior in other respects to him. Possessed by a sort of mania for saying striking things, he lost sight of truth, and, as his authority in literature was very great, may be said to have set the fashion of elevating Shakespeare into an object of idolatry. His aim was, however, much less to eulogise