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“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:"
“This rough magic
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 superfluityas 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! at 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. In 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. The old dramatists of England lay inhumed, without mark or epitaph, for 170 years. At last, a clerk in the India House, whose taste led him to ponder over ancient books, pierced the darkness in 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!
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:
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. 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 th: ought, or beauty of language, which distinguished the drama of Athens. As Æschylus bad 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 precursor of Shakspere. He was far from a perfect dramatist. His characters are defective in discrimination, in delicacy, and in truth. Nevertheless, he was a daring and powerful writer, and his "mighty line" is known, by reputation at least, to all readers of English literature. Some of his thoughts and images are not unworthy of Shakspere himself. The well-known lines
“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burned the topless towers of Ilium ?"
may be referred to as a fine instance of imagination. His bold, reckless heroes, however, are carried to the very limits of extravagance, and his women are extravagant also, or without mark. He is altogether of the earth, earthy: he riots in the sensual and diabolical, and tramples down all probabilities. And yet, amidst all this, are interspersed proud and heroic thoughts, classical allusions, harmonious cadences. that elevate and redeem his dramas from, otherwise, inevitable disgust. For some of these faults Marlowe was himself answerable, but many of them may be fairly ascribed to the barbarism of his age.
Such was the state of things when Shakspere came; the good Genius who brought health and truth, and light and life, into the English drama; who extended its limits to the extremity of the earth, nay, into the air itself; and peopled the regions which he traversed, with beings of every shape, and hue, and quality, that experience or the imagination of a great poet could suggest.
The benefits which Shakspere bestowed upon the stage may possibly be readily admitted, although the precise nature of those benefits must, by most readers, be taken upon trust. But the full importance of his writings to the land he lived in will never, perhaps, be generally understood. Their effect can scarcely be exaggerated. The national intellect is continually recurring to them for renovation and increase of power:
“As to their fountain, other stars Repairing, in their golden urns draw light."
They are a perpetual preservative against false taste and false notions. Their great author is the true reformer. He stands midway between the proud aristocracy of rank and wealth, and that " fierce democratie" which would overwhelm all things in its whirl; à true philosopher; a magician more potent than his own Prospero, and never otherwise than beneficent and wise.
There is no part of the drama which he did not amend. Until his time (for Marlowe's tragedy is merely speckled and bespotted by vulgar farce) the grave and the comic were never permitted to unite. Tragedy was barred out from Comedy by some traditional law. The picture presented was either gloomy and without relief, or it was trivial and jocosé, wanting in depth and stability. The true aspect of human nature, therefore, which is various and always changing, had never been seen upon the stage. Instead thereof, a mask, hideous or grotesque, as the case might be, but always inflexible, was exhibited for our edification or amusement; and we were taught to laugh only with people who could never be serious, or to sympathise with heroes to whom it would be derogatory to smile. This defect, a defect under which the great Athenian dramas labour, Shakspere remedied; not hy engrafting temporary jests or fleeting fashions upon the enduring form of tragedy, but liv