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despised. They, bedizened with opulence and gorged with wealth, were born, he knew, 'to eat, to drink, to propagate and rot'; while he, by the necessities of his own nature, was engaged in generating thoughts which would put—though not in forty minutes—a girdle round about the earth to fade only with the human race itself.
Everybody is familiar with the allegory of Prodicus -the Choice of Hercules-in which the hero, in spite of the most bewitching allurements, prefers virtue to vice. But the picture is drawn after the manner of moralists, not of philosophers; for vice does not present herself in the tawdry frippery which she wears in the sophist's production, but too often steals in, in the rear of some gigantic passion, which completely obscures her approach, till her presence, felt rather than seen, has softened the heart, and rendered it tolerant of her familiarity. Shakespeare's life was probably one long tragedy, interspersed with pleasant episodes, but terminating in delirium. It is true he laughs in his plays, but it is seldom with the laughter of the heart:
Full in the fount of joy's delicious springs
His melancholy is genuine ; no flush of good fortune comes without some drawback of evil; even his fools perish in their folly, while the greatest and noblest natures he portrays are entangled in the net of destiny and perish miserably. Nothing bright and beautiful sets precisely as it rises, but the splendour in which it comes forth soon suffers the eclipse of affliction. Domestic felicity, nobility, riches, are blighted by love, which should be their ornament and preserver; power comes forth by the same throes as guilt ; philosophy itself screens not its owner from blight and ruin; and even the most harmless innocence is brought to a premature grave by the gloom and perversity of others. The world is :
An unweeded garden,
Looking keenly at the circumstances of society, Shakespeare discerned and has described the fallacies by which men are usually deluded. It is an old saying that · Wisdom crieth in the street, and no man regardeth’; but let the same Wisdom cry out in a palace, and she will be sure to command attention. The reverse also is true—that is, nonsense or folly uttered by men in high places may either be made to pass for wisdom, or if united with ever so much wickedness will be sure to be excused.
Having materials of this kind of which he wished to be delivered, Shakespeare cared much less than he ought about framing his plots and laying a probable foundation. He shirked the groundwork altogether in the best way he could, and trusted to what he meant to build on it for the effect he desired to produce.
SOME years ago a theory was in vogue among us which taught that the language of all our great writers, if not pure Anglo-Saxon, approximated nearly to that dialect. The language of Shakespeare, however, though it be English, is not Anglo-Saxon, but a rich assemblage of ornament, like a Corinthian capital, made up of all known languages, and luxuriant even to redundance.
The Athenians when they planted their colonies in Asia, and carried on commerce with the greater part of the ancient world, gradually imported new words with their merchandise, until the Attic came to be distinguished from the other dialects of Greece by a certain foreign aspect which some regarded as a beauty, others as a defect. But, whether defect or beauty, such is the aspect of the English language, made up of spoils from all cultivated nations, trophies of commerce or conquest.
In truth, the speech of a wide-ruling people, which through some of its relations, pacific or warlike, touches upon all parts of the world, must of necessity exhibit a character expressive of its political position, which in the case of England is that of the foremost among nations, colonising, subduing, civilising, till it can scarcely be doubted that as centuries roll on it will exercise command over the greater part of the earth.
The masters of English thought may look forward therefore with pleasure to the vast field prepared for their ideas by the arms, enterprise, and industry of their countrymen; and I have shown already that among these masters Shakespeare ranks with the highest, nor is his language less deserving of admiration than his ideas. Spenser speaks of Chaucer as a pure well of English undefiled, though in truth he is almost as much Norman as English: that is, in his vocabulary, for the structure of his style is in most cases conformable to the type of our natural speech. This is still more true of Shakespeare, who, though he takes words from all sources within his reach, welds them together after the English fashion, so as to make them appear perfectly at home in his style; sometimes, when they will serve his purpose, he uses the simplest words, like one who culls bouquets from the wild flowers on a heath. Yet he is never sweeter than at such times, never more musical, never nearer to the inner emotions of the heart :
Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
As man's ingratitude ;
Although thy breath be rude.
As benefits forgot :
As friend remember'd not. Above, in the fifth line, the poet suggests, though in a way liable to be misunderstood, that when he who is guilty of ingratitude is far away out of sight, the
wound he has made in the heart is like one received from external nature, whereas his presence must augment and exasperate the pain. Contrast with these elementary expressions, so to speak, the fiery eloquence of Lady Macbeth :
Come, you spirits
This speech, in the gloomiest vein of tragedy, exbibits the workings of a mind not naturally cruel, but bent on perpetrating the worst of crimes at the prompting of ambition. The speaker is a woman, young, a mother with milk in her breasts, and therefore alive to all the tenderest sympathies of nature, yet in grasping at the golden round of sovereignty, ready to ally herself with hell. Words gush from her heart like gouts of blood; her imagination, though on fire, is dark with guilt, so that, like her husband, she is not only ready but eager to jump the life to come.
This, the chief among what are generally reckoned Shakespeare's great women, yields the first place, however, in my estimation to the young and beautiful