Abbildungen der Seite

Shakespeare than to shine himself, which may be affirmed with equal truth of his friend Warburton, one of the ablest and most unamiable men who have written on Shakespeare. Each succeeding editor, with the exception of Steevens, seems to have looked upon it as a religious duty to exceed all his predecessors in the force and fervour of devotion, which may be said to have culminated in the phrase : He came out of Nature's hand, like Pallas out of Jove's head, at full growth and mature.' In this style critics went on to the time of Coleridge, who closed the list of able writers of the apotheotic class. Exaggeration could be carried no further; the public grew weary of idolising Shakespeare, though writers of mean intellect, urged by some instinct, in spite of Nature and their stars, to write, go on still harping on the same string. It is time, however, to have done with adulation and yield to the influence of truth. But whither will this lead us? Not certainly to disparage Shakespeare, but to hold up, if possible, such a mirror as shall reflect faithfully both the man and his writings. There is nothing to be gained by considering him worse or better than he is, truer or less true to nature, completer or less complete in his art, wiser or less wise in his philosophy. If I often differ from other critics, it is through no desire to confute them, but only because my studies have forced me to different conclusions. Thought is free, and if in the hurry of its movements it sometimes falls in and incorporates itself with error, the remedy is at hand in a new and more diligent consideration of the subject.

At first sight it would be no disparagement to Shakespeare to place · Philaster' side by side with his best tragedy. Throughout the works, indeed, of these celestial twins' there is so much beauty, so rich a store of imagery, so many touching passages and incidents, so constant a recurrence of exquisite descriptions, that to a real lover of sweet imaginative literature they would supply reading for a whole life.

Hazlitt says of Coleridge that he had a knack of preferring the unknown to the known, which, though the habit deserted him in the case of Shakespeare, may account for the preference he accords to the Gothic rather than to the Greek literature. Shakespeare entertained no such preference. Nothing but the scantiness of his knowledge prevented him from diving more deeply into antiquity, and bringing forth from its depths à still larger array of exquisite imageries than those which adorn his plays. His finest thoughts are cast in the very mould of antiquity, he invents as Hellas invented, his imagination sat with Sophocles all night on the banks of the Ilissus and heard the gurgling of the stream mingle with the song of the nightingale. This to me, at least, is one of his greatest charms, because he is never fuller of fancy, never more happy in his conceptions, never sways more resistlessly the powers of our inner nature, than when he invokes the hidden soul of some Greek mythus, or presents us with dewy flowers from the gardens of the Hesperides :

Violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes

Or Cytherea's breath.? If there be nothing of this in the mythology, there ought to have been, since it contains no thought or image more beautiful.

Beaumont and Fletcher.
% The Winter's Tale, act iv. sc. 3.

If it does not fall to the lot of anyone who speaks truth to judge in the same spirit of all Shakespeare's dealings with antique themes, this is the poet's own fault, or rather misfortune. He should have studied more carefully the topography of his inventions. If he has not done this we may lament the fact, but are under no necessity of denying it. Shakespeare had a genius which would have enabled him under proper conditions to invest with all the colours of life and truth an additional episode of the Trojan War; it was within his competence to revivify the great misanthrope of Athens, and to surround him with circumstances in strict accordance with history, which in this case is only another word for nature; he might have done the same thing for the war of Coriolanus, for the extinction of the republic, for the dalliance and death of the grossest of the Triumvirs, with his shameless partner in licentiousness. But no one who respects himself and cherishes a stern reverence for truth will venture to affirm that Shakespeare fulfilled the conditions which he imposed upon himself when he undertook to write his Greek and Roman plays.

While following the current of Shakespeare's thoughts, through the whole extent of his genuine works, all readers probably experience a desire to ascertain what on many great questions his real opinions were: for example, on religion, on spirit, on matter, on politics, on women, on ethics, and generally on the relations of social life. By a prolonged and careful study, I have sought to arrive at something like a probable conclusion on those subjects, though I by no means flatter myself that I have succeeded in all, or even in most cases.

If language, as has been said, was given to man to conceal his thoughts, Shakespeare may often be complimented on having skilfully made use of it for that purpose, since there are points on which it seems all but impossible to discern the drift of his reasoning. As a rule it may be affirmed, that when a man aims at veiling his opinions from his contemporaries, and even from posterity, he is impelled into this course by the consciousness that he cherishes notions deemed heterodox by the multitude, and likely therefore to alienate their affections from him. The working of Shakespeare's mind, which appears sometimes to bring forth its conceptions with great throes, convinces me that he is at such times engaged in suggesting ideas which it might be dangerous to express.

No writer of deep and earnest thought has perhaps been able to square all his theories in strict conformity with popular views, though he may desire to keep on good terms with the majority whose favour or disfavour might affect his social well-being; yet the wish to be understood by minds of an elevation like his own must lead him to the employment of symbolical or enigmatical language, intelligible only to the initiated. From time immemorial this practice has been in vogue, since very early reference is made to the words of the wise, and their dark sayings, which however were only dark to the unwise. When Alexander reproached Aristotle for publishing his · Metaphysics,' since his esoteric doctrines would now, he said, be revealed to everyone, the philosopher replied that none would penetrate their significance but such as deserved to understand them. It is the same with Shakespeare: few with him are admitted behind the veil, perhaps no one completely, so that nothing can be more rash than to predicate of this or that belief that it is Shake

speare's. Horace, a much more superficial writer, when asking himself how many would comprehend and correctly estimate the whole extent of his conceptions, replies: Aut duo, aut nemo.'

Some things whispered at Eleusis have left no echo audible to us; and Shakespeare at the Blackfriars and the Globe gave utterance to many a phrase on which the seal of unintelligibility is still stamped. This to writers like Charles Lamb has suggested the persuasion that Shakespeare's plays ought not to be acted, it being impossible that motley audiences, such as usually fill a theatre, should divine all their meaning. But it is by no means necessary that they should. The language of the passions addresses itself to all grades, and all grades understand it, which is the fact that qualifies Shakespeare to speak to us in our collective capacity. It needs no subtle philosophical apprehension to sympathise with the sorrows of Hamlet, with the jealousy of Othello, with the madness of Lear, with the torturing avarice and the baffled pride of Shylock, or with the devouring love of Juliet. This at least is a language which all who run may read, while they who are gifted with acute powers of observation cannot fail to perceive that behind these obvious phenomena there lies a stratum of subtle thoughts to penetrate which must be a work of time.

Ariel in The Tempest' and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream' are spirits, we are told. Did Shakespeare, then, believe in the existence of such spirits ? To help ourselves to an answer we must examine the speech of Theseus, the soliloquy of Hamlet, and many other portions of the plays.

Was the conclusion at which Shakespeare had

« ZurückWeiter »