CHAPTER XV. WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE, (CONTINUED.)
The Grounds of his Fame. Creation of Character. Imagination and Fancy.
Power of Expression. His Faults. Influence of Elizabeth. Sonnets.
Ireland and Collier. Concordance. Other Writers.
THE GROUNDS OF HIS FAME.
From what has been said, it is manifest that as to his plots and historical reproductions, Shakspeare has little merit but taste in selection; and indeed in most cases, had he invented the stories, his merit would not have been great: what then is the true secret of his power and of his fame? This question is not difficult to answer.
First, these are due to his wonderful insight into human nature, and the philosophy of human life: he dissects the human mind in all its conditions, and by this vivisection he displays its workings as it lives and throbs; he divines the secret impulses of all ages and characters—childhood, boyhood, manhood, girlhood, and womanhood; men of peace, and men of war; clowns, nobles, and kings. His large heart was sympathetic with all, and even most so with the lowly and suffering; he shows us to ourselves, and enables us to use that knowledge for our profit. All the virtues are held up to our imitation and praise, and all the vices are scourged and rendered odious in our sight. To read Shakspeare aright is of the nature of honest self-examination, that most difficult and most necessary of duties.
CREATION OF CHARACTER.—Second: He stands supreme in the creation of character, which may be considered the distinguishing mark of the highest literary genius. The men and women whom he has made are not stage-puppets moved by hidden strings; they are real. We know them as intimately as the friends and acquaintances who visit us, or the people whom we accost in our daily walks.
And again, in this varied delineation of character, Shakspeare less than any other author either obtrudes or repeats himself. Unlike Byron, he is nowhere his own hero: unlike most modern novelists, he fashions men who, while they have the generic human resemblance, differ from each other like those of flesh and blood around us: he has presented a hundred phases of love, passion, ambition, jealousy, revenge, treachery, and cruelty, and each distinct from the others of its kind; but lest any character should degenerate into an allegorical representation of a single virtue or vice, he has provided it with the other lineaments necessary to produce in it a rare human identity.
The stock company of most writers is limited, and does arduous duty in each new play or romance; so that we detect in the comic actor, who is now convulsing the pit with laughter, the same person who a little while ago died heroically to slow music in the tragedy. Each character in Shakspeare plays but one part, and plays it skilfully and well. And who has portrayed the character of woman like Shakspeare?—the grand sorrow of the repudiated Catharine, the incorruptible chastity of Isabella, the cleverness of Portia, the loves of Jessica and of Juliet, the innocent curiosity of Miranda, the broken heart and crazed brain of the fair Ophelia.
In this connection also should be noticed his powers of grouping and composition; which, in the words of one of his biographers, “present to us pictures from the realms of spirits and from fairyland, which in deep reflection and in useful maxims, yield nothing to the pages of the philosophers, and which glow with all the poetic beauty that an exhaustless fancy could shower upon them.”
IMAGINATION AND FANCY.—And this brings us to notice, in the third place, his rare gifts of imagination and of fancy; those instruments of the representative faculty by which objects of sense and of mind are held up to view in new, varied, and vivid lights. Many of his tragedies abound in imaginative pictures, while there are not in the realm of Fancy's fairy frostwork more exquisite representations than those found in the Tempest and the Midsummer Night's Dream.
POWER OF EXPRESSION.—Fourth, Shakspeare is remarkable for the power and felicity of his expression. He adapts his language to the persons who use it, and thus we pass from the pompous grandiloquence of king and herald to the common English and coarse conceits of clown and nurse and grave-digger; from the bombastic speech of Glendower and the rhapsodies of Hotspur to the slang and jests of Falstaff.
But something more is meant by felicity of expression than this. It applies to the apt words which present pithy bits of household philosophy, and to the beautiful words which convey the higher sentiments and flights of fancy; to the simple words couching grand thoughts with such exquisite aptness that they seem made for each other, so that no other words would do as well, and to the dainty songs, like those of birds, which fill his forests and gardens with melody. Thus it is that orators and essayists give dignity and point to their own periods by quoting Shakspeare.
Such are a few of Shakspeare's high merits, which constitute him the greatest poet who has ever used the English tongue—poet, moralist, and philosopher in one.
HIS FAULTS.—If it be necessary to point out his faults, it should be observed that most of them are those of the age and of his profession. To both may be charged the vulgarity and lewdness of some of his representations; which, however, err in this respect far less than the writings of his contemporaries.
Again: in the short time allowed for the presentation of a play, before a restless audience, as soon as the plot was fairly shadowed, the hearers were anxious for the denouement. And so Shakspeare, careless of future fame, frequently displays a singular disparity between the parts. He has so much of detail in the first two acts, that in order to preserve the symmetry, five or six more would be necessary. Thus conclusions are hurried, when, as works of art, they should be the most elaborated.
He has sometimes been accused of obscurity in expression, which renders some of his passages difficult to be understood by commentators; but this, in most cases, is the fault of his editors. The cases are exceptional and unimportant. His anachronisms and historical inaccuracies have already been referred to. His greatest admirers will allow that his wit and humor are very often forced and frequently out of place; but here, too, he should be leniently judged. These sallies of wit were meant rather to “tickle the ears of the groundlings” than as just subjects for criticism by later scholars. We know that old jokes, bad puns, and innuendoes are needed on the stage at the present day. Shakspeare used them for the same ephemeral purpose then; and had he sent down corrected versions to posterity, they would have been purged of these.
INFLUENCE OF ELIZABETH.—Enough has been said to show in what manner Shakspeare represents his age, and indeed many former periods of English history. There are numerous passages which display the influence of Elizabeth. It was at her request that he wrote the Merry Wives of Windsor, in which Falstaff is depicted as a lover: the play of Henry VIII., criticizing the queen's father, was not produced until after her death. His pure women, like those of Spenser, are drawn after a queenly model. It is known that Elizabeth was very susceptible to admiration, but did not wish to be considered so; and Shakspeare paid the most delicate and courtly tribute to her vanity, in those exquisite lines from the Midsummer Night's Dream, showing how powerless Cupid was to touch her heart:
A certain aim he took
At a fair vestal, throned by the west;
And loos'd his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts:
But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft
Quench'd in the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon;
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy free.
SHAKSPEARE'S SONNETS.—Before his time, the sonnet had been but little used in England, the principal writers being Surrey, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sidney, Daniel, and Drayton. Shakspeare left one hundred and fifty-four, which exhibit rare poetical power, and which are most of them addressed to a person unknown, perhaps an ideal personage, whose initials are W. H. Although chiefly addressed to a man, they are of an amatory nature, and dwell strongly upon human frailty, infidelity, and treachery, from which he seems to have suffered: the mystery of these poems has never been penetrated. They were printed in 1609. “Our language,” says one of his editors, “can boast no sonnets altogether worthy of being placed by the side of Shakspeare's, except the few which Milton poured forth—so severe and so majestic.”
It need hardly be said that Shakspeare has been translated into all modern languages, in whole or in part. In French, by Victor Hugo and Guizot, Leon de Wailly and Alfred de Vigny; in German, by Wieland, A. W. Schlegel, and Buerger; in Italian, by Leoni and Carcano, and in Portuguese by La Silva. Goethe's Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister is a long and profound critique of Hamlet; and to the Germans he is quite as familiar and intelligible as to the English.
IRELAND: COLLIER.—The most celebrated forgery of Shakspeare was that by Samuel Ireland, the son of a Shakspearean scholar, who was an engraver and dealer in curiosities. He wrote two plays, called Vortigern and Henry the Second, which he said he had discovered; and he forged a deed with Shakspeare's autograph. By these he imposed upon his father and many others, but eventually confessed the forgery.
One word should be said concerning the Collier controversy. John Payne Collier was a lawyer, born in 1789, and is known as the author of an excellent history of English Dramatic Poetry to the Time of Shakspeare and Annals of the Stage to the Restoration. In the year 1849, he came into possession of a copy of the folio edition of Shakspeare, published in 1632, full of emendations, by an early owner of the volume. In 1852 he published these, and at once great enthusiasm was excited, for and against the emendations: many thought them of great value, while others even went so far as to accuse Mr. Collier of having made some of them himself. The chief value of the work was that it led to new investigations, and has thus thrown additional light upon the works of Shakspeare.
CONCORDANCE.—The student is referred to a very complete concordance of Shakspeare, by Mrs. Mary Cowden Clarke, the labor of many years, by which every line of Shakspeare may be found, and which is thus of incalculable utility to the Shakspearean scholar.
OTHER DRAMATIC WRITERS OF THE AGE OF SHAKSPEARE.
Ben Jonson, 1573-1637: this great dramatist, who deserves a larger space, was born in London; his father became a Puritan preacher, but after his death, his mother's second husband put the boy at brick-making. His spirit revolted at this, and he ran away, and served as a soldier in the Low Countries. On his return he killed Gabriel Spencer, a fellow-actor, in a duel, and was for some time imprisoned. His first play was a comedy entitled Every Man in his Humour, acted in 1598. This was succeeded, the next year, by Every Man out of his Humour. He wrote a great number of both tragedies and comedies, among which the principal are Cynthia's Revels, Sejanus, Volpone, Catiline's Conspiracy, and The Alchemist. In 1616, he received a pension from the crown of one hundred marks, which was increased by Charles I., in 1630, to one hundred pounds. He was the friend of Shakspeare, and had many wit-encounters with him. In these, Fuller compares Jonson to a great Spanish galleon, “built far higher in learning, solid and slow in performance,” and Shakspeare to an “English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention.”
Massinger, 1548-1640: born at Salisbury. Is said to have written thirty-eight plays, of which only eighteen remain. The chief of these is the Virgin Martyr, in which he was assisted by Dekker. The best of the others are The City Madam and A New Way to Pay Old Debts, The Fatal Dowry, The Unnatural Combat, and The Duke of Milan. A New Way to Pay Old Debts keeps its place upon the modern stage.
John Ford, born 1586: author of The Lover's Melancholy, Love's Sacrifice, Perkin Warbeck, and The Broken Heart. He was a pathetic delineator of love, especially of unhappy love. Some of his plots are unnatural, and abhorrent to a refined taste.
Webster (dates unknown): this author is remarkable for his handling of gloomy and terrible subjects. His best plays are The Devil's Law Case, Appius and Virginia, The Duchess of Malfy, and The White Devil. Hazlitt says “his White Devil and Duchess of Malfy come the nearest to Shakspeare of anything we have upon record.”
Francis Beaumont, 1586-1615, and John Fletcher, 1576-1625: joint authors of plays, numbering fifty-two. A prolific union, in which it is difficult to determine the exact authorship of each. Among the best plays are The Maid's Tragedy, Philaster, and Cupid's Revenge. Many of the plots are licentious, but in monologues they frequently rise to eloquence, and in descriptions are picturesque and graphic.
Shirley, 1594-1666: delineates fashionable life with success. His best plays are The Maid's Revenge, The Politician, and The Lady of Pleasure. The last suggested to Van Brugh his character of Lady Townly, in The Provoked Husband. Lamb says Shirley “was the last of a great race, all of whom spoke the same language, and had a set of moral feelings and notions in common. A new language and quite a new turn of tragic and comic interest came in at the Restoration.”
Thomas Dekker, died about 1638: wrote, besides numerous tracts, twenty-eight plays. The principal are Old Fortunatus, The Honest Whore, and Satiro-Mastix, or, The Humorous Poet Untrussed. In the last, he satirized Ben Jonson, with whom he had quarrelled, and who had ridiculed him in The Poetaster. In the Honest Whore are found those beautiful lines so often quoted:
... the best of men
That e'er wore earth about him was a sufferer;
A soft, meek, patient, humble, tranquil spirit;
The first true gentleman that ever breathed.
Extracts from the plays mentioned may be found in Charles Lamb's “Specimens of English Dramatic Poets who lived about the time of Shakspeare.”