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ESSAY XVIII

PLOT AND STORY

CONSTRUCTING plots is not Shakespeare's forte. There is not, in fact, in all his plays a single plot well constructed. In Lear' there is, properly speaking, no plot at all, but a number of distinct contrivances developing themselves in the most horrible manner, one repulsive act following close upon the heels of another, until ultimately the stage is left reeking with blood like a slaughter-house. It is difficult to discover what he really aims at in this tragedy, which is replete with contradictions, with acts of hideous cruelty, contrasting certainly with displays of fidelity, gratitude, affection, loyalty, and devotion. Two series of tragic action run through the piece--the tragedy of Gloucester and the tragedy of Lear--and these, exhibiting themselves alternately, dispute for pre-eminence in the interest they excite; as in “Macbeth,' we must seek for the germ

of the drama in events antecedent to its commencement.

Through the effects of years, possibly, and possibly through other causes, Lear, when he comes before us in a scene which should really be enacted nowhere out of Bethlehem Hospital, is undoubtedly in a state deserving of commiseration. He talks several times in the course of the play of losing his wits, but he had lost them before it began, though it is doubtful whether Shakespeare did or did not

intend him to be looked upon from the outset as a madman. The act of abdicating sovereign power was never yet, in the world's history, achieved with impunity, since men invested with supreme authority are certain to do, or be suspected of doing, things for which, when they have thrown off, like Prospero, their magic robes, they are sure to be called to account in some way or another. Even Lucius Sylla, the boldest of usurpers and the most reckless of abdicators, might have bewailed his generosity had not an early death placed him beyond the reach of the dagger.

Shakespeare seems to have set about his plots in haste and to have been impatient of the labour of inventing an artificial plan, and still more so of following it strictly. As a rule he took the bases of his plays from some other writer in verse or prose and steadily adhered to them, narrating the events as they were related by his originals, bringing out the characters into prominent relief, imagining a peculiar idiosyncrasy for each, and putting into their mouths suitable speeches. No doubt he took care to find good subjects—I mean generally—for several of the subjects he chose are bad and barren of incidents; or if incidents abound, they are so unnatural that, with the utmost force of his genius, he can make nothing of them. This is the case with Cymbeline,' “Troilus and Cressida,' 'Pericles, Prince of Tyre,' Titus Andronicus,' 'Love's Labour's Lost,'Two Gentlemen of Verona,'• Comedy of Errors,' and some others. As to probability, he evidently cared little or nothing about it, since he set it at naught whenever it suited bis purpose, instead of it sometimes substituting splendid impossibilities—in this conforming to the advice of Aristotle, who tells us that an impossibility that is probable is better than a possible thing

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which is improbable. An old Greek poet being reproached with relating things which were not likely to have occurred, replied “In great length of time it is probable that very improbable things should happen.' Shakespeare appears to have taken this for his creed, and therefore set about his dramatic creations with little respect for probability. In most of his plays there is no plot at all, but instead a number of incidents and events thrown arbitrarily together, arranged without art, and resulting in a catastrophe which need not have followed from anything that had taken place. Yet we are in most cases interested by the story—that is, by the manner in which things often contrary to Nature are told. Sometimes, as in. The Winter's Tale,' a series of episodic scenes of rare beauty is introduced in the midst of events and circumstances distinguished chiefly for their absurdity. The events of this play, stripped of their gorgeous clothing and exhibited naked to the mind, are in fact so preposterous that they only excite commiseration for the writer who could discredit his genius by setting them forth. It may, however, be inferred that in this play as in many others Shakespeare designed to demonstrate the folly by which the rulers of mankind are too often actuated, for Leontes and Polixenes are so destitute of commonsense that their equals could hardly be found out of Bedlam. Yet in relating the actions of those individuals, so worthless in themselves, Shakespeare often contrived to touch the heart and throw open the sources of pity. Hermione, whom Shakespeare brings from Russia to Sicily, where she appears native and to the manner born, manages by her hoydenish behaviour to inspire her foolish husband with jealousy, so that he regards her as an adulteress and causes her to be tried for her life.

Acquitted through the instrumentality of the oracle at Delphi, which is made contemporaneous with Julio Romano, she is nevertheless thrown into prison, where she is delivered of a daughter, which Leontes orders to be exposed. Strange events now spring up thicker and faster: Leontes commands one of his courtiers to sail to Bohemia, that is to the kingdom of Polixenes—the fact that it was an inland country not being thought of any consequence. To shield the poet from the charge of not being correct in his geography, Pope, in his edition, substitutes Bithynia for Bohemia. But the thick and thin Shakespeareans will have none of his Bithynia, and return indignantly to the original Bohemia. On the coast of Bohemia, therefore, the King's daughter is cast, and there a bear devours the courtier who exposes her, but abstains from making a mouthful of the child, upon the principle advocated by Falstaff, that a lion will not touch the true prince. Giving the infant time to grow up to be a woman, we return to Sicily, where the Queen is supposed to die, and to be shifted off with so little ceremony that no one knows what becomes of her body, royal funerals there being of so little account that they were attended by no one, that no undertaker was employed to make a coffin, and no mourning establishment to supply a shroud. Leontes, being delivered from his adulterous Queen, as he would have it, concerns himself no more about the matter, and refuses to see her put decently into the earth. This behaviour the reader will, I think, allow to be improbable, yet it is trifling compared with what follows. Hermione's baby-having been picked up by a shepherd, who, while he gives it to his wife to nurse, prudently preserves the rich garments in which it had been thrown into the jungle—receives the name of Perdita, is brought up by the shepherdess, and becomes the prettiest lass in all the countryside. But princes and princesses are attracted to each other like iron and the loadstone. The son of Polixenes, with the romantic name of Florizel, finds out Perdita and falls in love with her, while she, with all the beauties and graces of a princess, casts a spell over her lover, who resolves in spite of father and friends to make her his queen. For the present, however, he considers it judicious to escape from his father's anger, and now it turns out that the poet has provided against this contingency, for a Sicilian nobleman who had escaped from Sicily with Polixenes, being in his old age desirous of returning home, counsels Florizel to make for that quarter, and to frame a story after the manner of Odysseus to account for his appearance there with his bride. While events are shaping themselves into something like order in the palace of Leontes, Polixenes and the fugitive Sicilian nobleman rush in, and matters are soon adjusted to the satisfaction of all parties. But then comes the crowning event. Paulina, widow of the courtier who had been eaten by the bear, invites Leontes and his guests to view a splendid statue which she had just received from Italy; they accept the invitation and repair to the house, enter the gallery, a curtain is withdrawn, and Hermione as a marble statue stands before them. Shakespeare's Julio Romano had anticipated Gibson, for, as Paulina assures us, he had painted his statue and the colours were not even then dry. However, Leontes, who no longer regarded his helpmate as an adulteress, being strongly desirous of touching her body, is withheld by Paulina till at length the eyes move, the bosom heaves with breath,

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