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ESSAY XVI

POLITICAL AND MISCELLANEOUS OPINIONS

WHEN Shakespeare looked around him he could not fail to observe what was the prevalent mode of thought in political matters: in Elizabeth's reign everybody worshipped, or professed to worship, the Queen, not merely as sovereign, but as a woman.

. Not to regard her as wisest, discreetest, best; not to descant on her golden locks, her sweet voice, her imperial walk; not to maintain that in the arts of sway she was as just and as wise as Jove, and that her moderation and gentleness were equal to her wisdom, was almost to be guilty of treason. Hence the happy phrase of

Vestal throned by the west,

and hence the prophetic outburst of Cranmer over her cradle, foretelling that when the baby lying there should be a woman the world would witness a return of the Golden Age. Still more tyrannous was opinion in James's reign. The King's political doctrines being in the highest degree arbitrary, his manners offensive, and his morals dissolute, it was almost understood to be a necessity to uphold the right divine of kings to govern wrong.'

Bacon and even Raleigh, whatever they may have thought secretly, bowed the knee to despotism, not awkwardly and grudgingly, but with apparent earnestness and delight. What less therefore could be expected of Shakespeare? They stood upon that high and pleasant mount, where he imagines Fortune to be throned, at the bottom of which, though as yet they knew it not, their career was to terminate. Shakespeare already stood on that low social level, condemned to live more or less by flattery, by vailing his lofty brow to every minion of fortune, by calling black white and white black, by suppressing in his soul every nobler sentiment, when he saw or suspected it might interfere with his bread and cheese.

Never therefore did man with an intellect of vast capacity labour under more powerful temptations to fabricate an esoteric system of opinions, and to preserve their incognito through life. He probably prayed, in the words of Naaman the Syrian, · When thy servant goeth into the house of Rimmon’ etc., for assuredly he could not bow the knee voluntarily to the idols he pretended to admire and worship.?

" After the death of Elizabeth, Shakespeare spoiled Cranmer's prophetic speech by introducing a fulsome panegyric on this vilest of kings, to whom, and not to Raleigh, he attributes the founding of our colonial Empire :

Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine,
His honour and the greatness of his name

Shall be, and make new nations. ? Most persons have read or heard, whether they have profited by it or not, the story of the woman taken in adultery. Shakespeare had profited by it, and condemning the practice of his time, sought to recommend a more merciful system of morality than that which he saw in vogue. Unchastity is certainly an offence, but not in any case punishable by law, though the brutal notions of our ancestors

On questions of morals it was, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, no less imperative to conceal any tendency towards heterodoxy. Indeed, in all ages and countries there is, and has been, a certain ethical pattern set up after which everybody is expected to fashion his proceedings, as well as his ideas, of what is right or wrong; but, considering the infinite varieties of human character, the prevalence of understanding in some, of imbecility in others, the existence in many minds of what may be called a moral twist or contortion which often proves incurable, a disinclination to conform, in matters of passion and emotion, to established types : in short, all forms of individualism or idiosyncrasies combine to render it impossible that all men should think or act alike, either in their relations to one another or to society at large. But there is a convenient vice which, when possessed in its largest development, influences mankind like virtue and creates at least a semblance of peace and goodwill among them-I mean hypocrisy. It is this alone that enables a man to go through the daily round of life without at every step coming into collision with some sharp angle of his neighbour's character, and thus giving or receiving wounds that may rankle for ever. led them to whip women at a cart's tail for a breach o chastity. Seeing thoroughly the wickedness of such an act, Shakespeare yet thought it only safe to condemn it through the mouth of a madman :

Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand I etc. In looking at the constitution of social life, and beholding dishonest wealth fastening with the fangs of law upon dishonest poverty, he exclaims: Go make thyself like a nymph o' the sea.

For spirits ... with ease
Assume what sexes and what shapes they please.

Pope, Rape of the Lock, i. 69-70.

You may know that man to be a knave, and that woman to be a courtesan; but if circumstances compel you to associate with one or both of them, policy closes your lips not only when they are present but when they are absent also. The world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players'; which shows that Shakespeare had made up his mind to play his part so as to shock as little as possible the susceptibilities of those about him.

No man appears to have derived more satisfaction than he from the doctrine in the old song,

My mind to me a kingdom is. If a man be determined to cage his thoughts, he is their absolute master; he can arrange them, discipline them, throw them into innumerable combinations and watch the results; he can make them play tricks for his amusement and lead them out into forbidden grounds, can set them at entire difference from the rest of the world, can condemn what he sees or hears, can believe or disbelieve, can overthrow cities, dethrone kings, extirpate religions, practise all kinds of virtues or indulge in every conceivable modification of vice, and yet walk with a smooth face among his neighbours. Fronti nulla fides,' observes the Roman historian who passed his life among deluding masks; and Shakespeare, surrounded by analogous circumstances, has given us an admirable translation of the phrase :

There's no art To find the mind's construction in the face. No, there is no such art, which, like all other men, he found highly advantageous to his fortunes. Bacon, when he wrote his Essay on Wisdom for a Man's Self,' regarded this closeness, as he terms it, as one of the most valuable attributes of man. If you have it, you live in an impregnable fortress with all your intellectual wealth exclusively at your own disposal ; neither cajolements nor menaces nor law nor despotism can compel you to yield up one jot of what you have within. The soul may safely take sanctuary there and bid defiance to the arts and power of everything finite. Our predecessors used to think, and Mr. Froude among late writers agreed with them, that pain or torture applied without mercy can wring truth from the boldest nature. Experience and history prove the contrary. Everybody remembers the Pythagorean woman whom a tyrant desired to betray her friends; when the extremities of torture appeared to be on the point of overcoming her firmness, she bit off her tongue and spat it in the monster's face. Her mind was her kingdom, and she defended it to death. Insanity can only shatter the defences of this fortress, it cannot destroy them: death only can achieve that work.

If, as I suppose, Shakespeare had in his mind many things which he found it convenient to conceal, he was wise enough to commune with his own heart in his chamber, and to put a padlock on his tongue when outside of it. With him, esoteric opinions were a necessity. Orthodox opinions, while they occasion no shock in society, are equally distant from affording much pleasure; they are regarded as matters of course, and the men who profess them often pass among the discerning for hypocrites, who, as a rule, are not worth being unmasked. It is only erratic forms of thought, which run counter to received doctrines, that excite astonishment or hostility. In religion the case is still worse than in morals or politics. Formerly any deviation from the crooked line which people call

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