« AnteriorContinuar »
known plays), the same exaggeration and confusion of character, the same mock (with occasional real) sublimity, which the tragedies of Marlowe present; and, above all, the same villanous ferocity and bloodthirstiness which Marlowe delighted to indulge in, and which Shakspere's far-sighted genius altogether disdained. Marlowe (although he has fine and even grand bursts of poetry) stands forth, the historian of lust and villany, and the demonstrator of physical power; whilst Shakspere is ever the champion of humanity and intellect.
If the two last mentioned plays may, contrary to my expectation, claim Shakspere for their author, then I think that they must have been the earliest of his dramatic productions; and, in all probability, the Second and Third Parts of "HENRY THE SIXTH" speedily followed; for the style throughout is like that of Marlowe, although those "parts" present more subtle and numerous distinctions of character than that dramatist has ever drawn.
About this time Shakspere must have begun to assume an independent style in his plays; and now, I imagine, he composed the "Two GENTLEMEN OF VERONA." This play has, in all respects, a youthful character, and it is undoubtedly his. Almost all the similes and sentiments have reference to love, without the intermixture of weightier matter. The metre is wanting in pliancy and sinew; but the occasional sententious lines, the play upon words, the style and quality of the comedy, with its jokes dovetailed and full of retorts, all point him out as the author. It is a slight play compared with many others of later date; but there is a passion and freshness in it, as though it had been breathed forth in that time of year when April
"Had put a spirit of youth in everything."
Perhaps "LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST" may be placed next. It is a decided advance in power, in style, and even in dramatic skill. With the exception of Launce (in whom the germ of much that afterwards blossomed out is obvious), and, perhaps, of Julia, there is little of character in the "Two GENTLEMEN OF VERONA." But Biron and Rosaline, Boyet, Armado and his page, Moth ("that handful of wit"), Holofernes, and Costard, are all clear outlines, although all of them may not be very strong. And some of the poetry in this play is, as mere poetry, equal to that of Shakspere's maturer time. The aphorism
"A jest's prosperity lies in the ear
is profound and Shaksperian. The play itself looks as though it rested on some event in the history of Provence, in times when the Troubadours figured in the solemn masquerades of Love. The two principal characters, Biron and Rosaline, were afterwards recast by Shakspere, with some alterations, and appear under the names of Benedick and Beatrice.
In what order the rest of the plays followed, at what period the greatest dramas were produced, and what was the final work of this unequalled poet, I will not pretend to guess. As a general principle, however, I would say, that the plays in which signs of imitation (particularly imitation of style) are manifest, should be accounted the earliest; and that those wherein the poetry is redundant and far exceeds the necessities and purposes of the story, should be held to have preceded, in point of time, the great and substantial dramas, in which the business of the play is skilfully wrought out, and where the poetry springs out of the passion or humour of the characters, and serves to illustrate and not to oppress them. In conformity with this view, I think that the
"WINTER'S TALE," although perhaps not actually performed until the year 1611, can never have been the last work of Shakspere. It is far more like the labour of his youth. That the "TEMPEST" should have been the last play is far less unlikely; and I would fain connect it, if possible, with his farewell to the stage, were it only for those beautiful and melancholy words of Prospero, with which he (another enchanter) abandons his "so potent art:"
WHATEVER doubts may exist concerning the parentage or education of Shakspere;concerning his residence, his mode of life, his progress from poverty to wealth; or concerning the order of his dramas, shewing thereby his ascension from the immaturity of boyhood, to that full perfection of mind which he afterwards attained; there can be none as to the quality of his intellect, nor, in my opinion, as to the vast benefits which he conferred upon the world.
Poetry, the material in which Shakspere dealt, has been treated often as a superfluity— as a thing unimportant to mankind, and as a luxury against which sumptuary laws might be fairly levelled. This is the opinion of men of literal understanding, who, seeing no merit in poetry because it differs from science, and overlooking its logic, which is involved instead of being demonstrated, pronounce at once against it. It is more especially an opinion of the present age; an age in which the material world has been searched and ransacked to supply new powers and luxuries to man; and in which the moral world has been too much neglected.
We do not encourage the poet; but we encourage the chemist and the miner, the capitalist, the manufacturer. We encourage voyagers, who penetrate the forests of Mexico, the South Indian pampas, and the sterile tracts of Africa beyond the mountains of the moon. These people tell us of new objects of commerce; they bring us tidings of unknown lands. Yet, what a vast unexplored world lies about us! what a dominion, beyond the reach of any traveller-beyond the strength of the steam-engine-nay, even beyond the power of material light itself to penetrate-is there to be attained in that region of the brain! Much have the poets won, from time to time, out of that deep obscure. Homer has bequeathed to us his discoveries, and Dante also, and our greater Shakspere. They are the same now, as valuable now, as on the day whereon they were made. our earth, all is for ever changing. One traveller visits a near or a distant country; he sees traces (temples or monuments) of human power; but unforeseen events, earthquake or tempest, obliterate them; or the people who dwelt near them migrate; the eternal forest grows round and hides them; or they are left to perish, for the sake of a new artist, whose labours are effaced in their turn. And so goes on the continual change, the continual decay. Governments and systems change; codes of law, theories
philosophical, arts in war, demonstrations in physics. Everything perishes except Truth, and the worship of Truth, and Poetry which is its enduring language.
And now, when I am about to speak of some of the great qualities of Shakspere, I do not propose to be very critical. It is better to approach him with, as I think Mr. Coleridge has suggested, an "affectionate reverence." It is safer to err on the side of too much respect. I am unwilling to discuss, at length, his (so called) want of utility, or his morality, or his historical, geographical, or verbal errors; some of which last may be ascribed to the age he lived in, whilst others may be safely placed to the account of interpolators or transcribers of his plays. Besides, our poet deals with subjects so many and so various, and he is of so high an intellect, that I dare not venture to speak of him as of any other writer. He has been denounced lately, I hear, as an offender against letters; stripped and hacked and scarified, to satisfy the bad humour of some very unenviable person. I have forborne to read this libel against the greatest man that the world has produced, being already sufficiently acquainted with the freedom of preceding critics.
The flattery or goodnature of these writers (now an important body) has done but little harm. No book can live and take its permanent place, unless it has in itself the seeds of vitality. But the injury which literature suffers from dishonest, malignant criticism, is very great. It is true, that a commanding genius is not to be repressed by malevolence or envy and it is true, perhaps, that merit of every order will make its way in the end, and secure its due reputation. But, in the meantime, we, the cotemporaries, are defrauded of the fruits gathered in for us; and the labourer is cheated of his hire. Readers of books are for the most part an indolent race. They prefer taking the opinions of the present or last generation, to searching for those which are a century old. In fact, men associate themselves insensibly with the people of their age. Their habits, including even the habit of thinking, run very much in the same current. An original thinker will indeed accept nothing upon hearsay; he will investigate and judge for himself. But the rank and file of men hug an error to their souls; repeat and propagate it, till even Truth is for a time discomfited. The fact is, that fame sometimes depends upon a happy conjunction of influences. Not only Pallas and Apollo, but Jove and Mercury also, must assemble and determine the point. England lay inhumed, without mark or epitaph, for 170 years. India House, whose taste led him to ponder over ancient books, which they lay, and saw their value. It was as though a diver, suddenly let down in some remote spot of the ocean, had beheld these "sumless wrecks and sunken treasuries," and had brought up wealth inexhaustible, rich gems, and gold, and antique ornaments, -for ages neglected or forgotten!
The old dramatists of At last, a clerk in the pierced the darkness in
Shakspere himself has suffered, in his time, from commentators and critics, foreign and domestic. The opinions of Voltaire, even now, interfere with the progress of his fame in France. Our great poet, however, has, by dint of his irrepressible power, risen above all ordinary impediments which beset the course of authors,
"Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot,"
and has taken his station at the head of all. In this country, at least, he requires no defender; scarcely, indeed, an expounder of his meaning, notwithstanding the change that our language has undergone since his time. All that is left is to have some discretion in our worship; to enumerate some of his qualities; to reckon up, as far as space and one's own ability will permit, the good deeds that he has done; and thus leave him
-in a new shape-tended and decorated by a new artist, his characters drawn out by the pencil, and many of his delicate fancies (as I think) delicately handled, to take his chance with the English public.
And here, it may be well to advert to some of the points on which others have already spoken. Amongst other titles to respect, Shakspere has been styled the originator of our "romantic Drama." This phrase conveys a very erroneous, for it conveys a very insufficient, idea of what he did, even for the Drama. The word "romantic," either in its old signification (of "wild" or "improbable"), or coupled with its recent and more ludicrous associations, is, to the last degree, disparaging and untrue, as applied to him. That he pursued the lofty, the heroic, and the supernatural, and subdued them to his use, is well known; but probability and truth are the very qualities by which he is distinguishable, above all other writers. Taking the outline of his stories for granted (a necessary postulate), his plots are admirably managed; and his characters are absolutely living people; true in the antique time, true in his own, and true in ours:
"Age cannot wither them, nor custom stale
To know what Shakspere achieved, it is only necessary to look at the previous history of the stage. Before his time, the drama was a narrow region. With the single exception of the Greek drama, it bore no comparison, in any country, with the other departments of national literature. And even in Greece, as elsewhere, the drama was cramped and limited in its very nature. It did not extend beyond its own history, or superstitions; it dealt with a single event that was familiar to all, and in which the whole course of the story was visible from the outset to the end. It embodied the anger of Jove, the power of remorse, the pains and penalties of sinful or presumptuous men; or it reflected the distorted humours or singularities of the time, after the fashion of a farce or a satire. This was the case throughout all antiquity.
In our own rude beginnings, the same meagreness of outline and poverty of character prevailed; without any of the grandeur of thought, or beauty of language, which distinguished the drama of Athens. As Eschylus had given to the ancients, Diana and Apollo, Strength, Force, and the Furies; so the English Mysteries and Moralities presented to our forefathers Knowledge, and Good Councill, and Death, and Sathan the Devil, and the rest. The names of such personages sufficiently announce their errands, and shew that the object of these little, dramas was simply didactic. They conveyed moral and religious lessons to communities who were unacquainted with books; and possessed, we may imagine, some extrinsic attractions, which drew together spectators and auditors whom the homilies of the ecclesiastics had failed to collect.
The growing intelligence of the public could not, however, long rest content with these inartificial dramas; and accordingly Tragedy and Comedy began, simultaneously, about the time of the birth of Shakspere, to manifest themselves in more regular shapes upon the English stage. This dawn announced a coming day. Yet, there is nothing in this period, except the plays of Marlowe, that need detain us; although Peele has sweet and flowing lines, and Lily some charming passages, in which he has revived all the romance and more than the sentiment of the ancient Grecian fables. Marlowe was the only great