Characters of Shakespeare's Plays
With an Introduction by Sir Arthur Quiller-couch
First published in 1817.
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The book here included among The World’s Classics made its first appearance as an octavo volume of xxiv + 352 pages, with the title-page:
Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, By William Hazlitt. London: Printed by C. H. Reynell, 21 Piccadilly, 1817.
William Hazlitt (1778–1830) came of an Irish Protestant stock, and of a branch of it transplanted in the reign of George I from the county of Antrim to Tipperary. His father migrated, at nineteen, to the University of Glasgow (where he was contemporary with Adam Smith), graduated in 1761 or thereabouts, embraced the principles of the Unitarians, joined their ministry, and crossed over to England; being successively pastor at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, at Marshfield in Gloucestershire, and at Maidstone. At Wisbech he married Grace Loftus, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer. Of the many children granted to them but three survived infancy. William, the youngest of these, was born in Mitre Lane, Maidstone, on April 10, 1778. From Maidstone the family moved in 1780 to Bandon, Co. Cork; and from Bandon in 1783 to America, where Mr. Hazlitt preached before the new Assembly of the States–General of New Jersey, lectured at Philadelphia on the Evidences of Christianity, founded the First Unitarian Church at Boston, and declined a proffered diploma of D.D. In 1786–7 he returned to England and took up his abode at Wem, in Shropshire. His elder son, John, was now old enough to choose a vocation, and chose that of a miniature-painter. The second child, Peggy, had begun to paint also, amateurishly in oils. William, aged eight—a child out of whose recollection all memories of Bandon and of America (save the taste of barberries) soon faded—took his education at home and at a local school. His father designed him for the Unitarian ministry.
The above dry recital contains a number of facts not to be overlooked as predisposing causes in young Hazlitt’s later career; as that he was Irish by blood, intellectual by geniture, born into dissent, and a minority of dissent, taught at home to value the things of the mind, in early childhood a nomad, in later childhood ‘privately educated’—a process which (whatever its merits) is apt to develop the freak as against the citizen, the eccentric and lop-sided as against what is proportionate and disciplined. Young Hazlitt’s cleverness and his passion for individual liberty were alike precocious. In 1791, at the age of thirteen, he composed and published in The Shrewsbury Chronicle a letter of protest against the calumniators of Dr. Priestley: a performance which, for the gravity of its thought as for the balance of its expression, would do credit to ninety-nine grown men in a hundred. At fifteen, his father designing that he should enter the ministry, he proceeded to the Unitarian College, Hackney; where his master, a Mr. Corrie, found him ‘rather backward in many of the ordinary points of learning and, in general, of a dry, intractable understanding’, the truth being that the lad had set his heart against the ministry, aspiring rather to be a philosopher—in particular a political philosopher. At fourteen he had conceived (‘in consequence of a dispute one day, after coming out of Meeting, between my father and an old lady of the congregation, respecting the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts and the limits of religious toleration’) the germ of his Project for a New Theory of Civil and Criminal Legislation, published in his maturer years (1828), but drafted and scribbled upon constantly in these days, to the neglect of his theological studies. His father, hearing of the project, forbade him to pursue it.
Thus four or five years at the Unitarian College were wasted, or, at least, had been spent without apparent profit; and in 1798 young Hazlitt, aged close upon twenty, unsettled in his plans as in his prospects, was at home again and (as the saying is) at a loose end; when of a sudden his life found its spiritual apocalypse. It came with the descent of Samuel Taylor Coleridge upon Shrewsbury, to take over the charge of a Unitarian Congregation there.
He did not come till late on the Saturday afternoon before he was to preach; and Mr. Rowe [the abdicating minister], who himself went down to the coach in a state of anxiety and expectation to look for the arrival of his successor, could find no one at all answering the description, but a round-faced man, in a short black coat (like a shooting-jacket) which hardly seemed to have been made for him, but who seemed to be talking at a great rate to his fellow-passengers. Mr. Rowe had scarce returned to give an account of his disappointment when the round-faced man in black entered, and dissipated all doubts on the subject by beginning to talk. He did not cease while he stayed; nor has he since.
Of his meeting with Coleridge, and of the soul’s awakening that followed, Hazlitt has left an account (My First Acquaintance with Poets) that will fascinate so long as English prose is read. ‘Somehow that period [the time just after the French Revolution] was not a time when nothing was given for nothing. The mind opened, and a softness might be perceived coming over the heart of individuals beneath “the scales that fence” our self-interest.’ As Wordsworth wrote:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven.
It was in January, 1798, that I was one morning before daylight, to walk ten miles in the mud, to hear this celebrated person preach. Never, the longest day I have to live, shall I have such another walk as this cold, raw, comfortless one in the winter of 1798. Il-y-a des impressions que ni le tems ni les circonstances peuvent effacer. Dusse-je vivre des siecles entiers, le doux tems de ma jeunesse ne peut renaitre pour moi, ni s’effacer jamais dans ma memoire. When I got there the organ was playing the 100th Psalm, and when it was done Mr. Coleridge rose and gave out his text, ‘And he went up into the mountain to pray, himself, alone.’ As he gave out this text, his voice ‘rose like a stream of distilled perfumes’, and when he came to the two last words, which he pronounced loud, deep, and distinct, it seemed to me, who was then young, as if the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe. . . . The preacher then launched into his subject, like an eagle dallying with the wind.
Coleridge visited Wem, walked and talked with young Hazlitt, and wound up by inviting the disciple to visit him at Nether Stowey in the Quantocks. Hazlitt went, made acquaintance with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and was drawn more deeply under the spell. In later years as the younger man grew cantankerous and the elder declined, through opium, into a ‘battered seraph’, there was an estrangement. But Hazlitt never forgot his obligation.
My soul has indeed remained in its original bondage, dark, obscure, with longings infinite and unsatisfed; my heart, shut up in the prison-house of this rude clay, has never found, nor will it ever find, a heart to speak to; but that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language that expresses itself, I owe to Coleridge.
Coleridge, sympathizing with the young man’s taste for philosophy and abetting it, encouraged him to work upon a treatise which saw the light in 1805, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action: Being an Argument in favour of the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind. Meantime, however,—the ministry having been renounced—the question of a vocation became more and more urgent, and after long indecision Hazlitt packed his portmanteau for London, resolved to learn painting under his brother John, who had begun to do prosperously. John taught him some rudiments, and packed him off to Paris, where he studied for some four months in the Louvre and learned to idolize Bonaparte. This sojourn in Paris—writes his grandson and biographer—‘was one long beau jour to him’. His allusions to it are constant. He returned to England in 1803, with formed tastes and predilections, very few of which he afterwards modified, much less forsook.
We next find him making a tour as a portrait-painter through the north of England, where (as was to be expected) he attempted a portrait of Wordsworth, among others. ‘At his desire’, says Wordsworth, ‘I sat to him, but as he did not satisfy himself or my friends, the unfinished work was destroyed.’ He was more successful with Charles Lamb, whom he painted (for a whim) in the dress of a Venetian Senator. As a friend of Coleridge and Wordsworth he had inevitably made acquaintance with the Lambs. He first met Lamb at one of the Godwins’ strange evening parties and the two became intimate friends and fellow theatre-goers.
Hazlitt’s touchy and difficult temper suspended this inintimacy in later years, though to the last Lamb regarded him as ‘one of the finest and wisest spirits breathing’; but for a while it was unclouded. At the Lambs’, moreover, Hazlitt made acquaintance with a Dr. Stoddart, owner of some property at Winterslow near Salisbury, and his sister Sarah, a lady wearing past her first youth but yet addicted to keeping a number of beaux to her string. Hazlitt, attracted to her from the first,—he made a gloomy lover and his subsequent performances in that part were unedifying—for some years played walking gentleman behind the leading suitors with whom Miss Stoddart from time to time diversified her comedy. But Mary Lamb was on his side; the rivals on one excuse or another went their ways or were dismissed; and on May 1, 1808, the marriage took place at St. Andrew’s Church, Holborn. Lamb attended, foreboding little happiness to the couple from his knowledge of their temperaments. Seven years after (August 9, 1815), he wrote to Southey. ‘I was at Hazlitt’s marriage, and had like to have been turned out several times during the ceremony. Anything awful makes me laugh.’ The marriage was not a happy one.
Portrait-painting had been abandoned long before this. The Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805) had fallen, as the saying is, stillborn from the press: Free Thoughts on Public Affairs (1806) had earned for the author many enemies but few readers: and a treatise attacking Malthus’s theory of population (1807) had allured the public as little. A piece of hack-work, The Eloquence of the British Senate, also belongs to 1807: A New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue for the use of Schools to 1810. The nutriment to be derived from these works, again, was not of the sort that replenishes the family table, and in 1812 Hazlitt left Winterslow (where he had been quarrelling with his brother-in-law), settled in London in 19 York Street, Westminster—once the home of John Milton—and applied himself strenuously to lecturing and journalism. His lectures, on the English Philosophers, were delivered at the Russell Institution: his most notable journalistic work, on politics and the drama, was done for The Morning Chronicle, then edited by Mr. Perry. From an obituary notice of Hazlitt contributed many years later (October 1830) to an old magazine I cull the following:
He obtained an introduction, about 1809 or 1810, to the late Mr. Perry, of The Morning Chronicle, by whom he was engaged to report Parliamentary debates, write original articles, etc. He also furnished a number of theatrical articles on the acting of Kean. As a political writer he was apt to be too violent; though in general he was not a man of violent temper. He was also apt to conceive strong and rooted prejudices against individuals on very slight grounds. But he was a good-hearted man. . . . Private circumstances, it is said, contributed to sour his temper and to produce a peculiar excitement which too frequently held its sway over him. Mr. Hazlitt and Mr. Perry did not agree. Upon one occasion, to the great annoyance of some of his colleagues, he preferred his wine with a few friends to taking his share in reporting an important discussion in the House of Commons. Added to this, he either did not understand the art of reporting, or would not take the trouble to master it. . . . His original articles required to be carefully looked after, to weed them of strong expressions.
Hazlitt’s reputation grew, notwithstanding. In 1814 Jeffrey enlisted him to write for The Edinburgh Review, and in 1815 he began to contribute to Leigh Hunt’s paper The Examiner. In February 1816 he reviewed Schlegel’s ‘Lectures on Dramatic Literature’ for the Edinburgh, and this would seem to have started him on his Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. Throughout 1816 he wrote at it sedulously.
The MS., when completed, was accepted by Mr. C. H. Reynell, of 21, Piccadilly, the head of a printing establishment of old and high standing; and it was agreed that 100 pounds should be paid to the author for the entire copyright. . . . The volume was published by Mr. Hunter of St. Paul’s Churchyard; and the author was gratified by the prompt insertion of a complimentary notice in the Edinburgh Review. The whole edition went off in six weeks; and yet it was a half-guinea book.’ [Footnote: Memoirs of William Hazlitt, by W. Carew Hazlitt, 1887. Vol. i, p. 228.]
The reader, who comes to it through this Introduction, will note two points to qualify his appreciation of the book as a specimen of Hazlitt’s critical writing, and a third that helps to account for its fortune in 1817. It was the work of a man in his thirty-eighth year, and to that extent has maturity. But it was also his first serious essay, after many false starts, in an art and in a style which, later on, he brilliantly mastered. The subject is most pleasantly handled, and with an infectious enthusiasm: the reader feels all the while that his sympathy with Shakespeare is being stimulated and his understanding promoted: but it scarcely yields either the light or the music which Hazlitt communicates in his later and more famous essays.
For the third point, Hazlitt had made enemies nor had ever been cautious of making them: and these enemies were now the ‘upper dog’. Indeed, they always had been: but the fall of Napoleon, which almost broke his heart, had set them in full cry, and they were not clement in their triumph. It is not easy, even on the evidence before us, to realize that a number of the finest spirits in this country, nursed in the hopes of the French Revolution, kept their admiration of Napoleon, the hammer of old bad monarchies, down to the end and beyond it: that Napier, for example, historian of the war in the Peninsula and as gallant a soldier as ever fought under Wellington, when—late in life, as he lay on his sofa tortured by an old wound—news was brought him of Napoleon’s death, burst into a storm of weeping that would not be controlled. On Hazlitt, bound up heart and soul in what he regarded as the cause of French and European liberty and enlightenment, Waterloo, the fall of the Emperor, the restoration of the Bourbons, fell as blows almost stupefying, and his indignant temper charged Heaven with them as wrongs not only public but personal to himself.
In the writing of the Characters he had found a partial drug for despair. But his enemies, as soon as might be, took hold of the anodyne. Like the Bourbons, they had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.
The Quarterly Review moved—for a quarterly—with something like agility. A second edition of the book had been prepared, and was selling briskly, when this Review launched one of its diatribes against the work and its author.
Taylor and Hessey [the booksellers] told him subsequently that they had sold nearly two editions in about three months, but after the Quarterly review of them came out they never sold another copy. ‘My book,’ he said, ‘sold well—the first edition had gone off in six weeks—till that review came out. I had just prepared a second edition—such was called for—but then the Quarterly told the public that I was a fool and a dunce, and more, that I was an evil disposed person: and the public, supposing Gifford to know best, confessed that it had been a great ass to be pleased where it ought not to be, and the sale completely stopped.
The review, when examined, is seen to be a smart essay in detraction with its arguments ad invidiam very deftly inserted. But as a piece of criticism it misses even such points as might fairly have been made against the book; as, for example, that it harps too monotonously upon the tense string of enthusiasm. Hazlitt could not have applied to this work the motto—‘For I am nothing if not critical’—which he chose for his View of the English Stage in 1818; the Characters being anything but ‘critical’ in the sense there connoted. Jeffrey noted this in the forefront of a sympathetic article in the Edinburgh.
It is, in truth, rather an encomium on Shakespeare than a commentary or a critique on him—and it is written more to show extraordinary love than extraordinary knowledge of his productions. . . . The author is not merely an admirer of our great dramatist, but an Idolater of him; and openly professes his idolatry. We have ourselves too great a leaning to the same superstition to blame him very much for his error: and though we think, of course, that our own admiration is, on the whole, more discriminating and judicious, there are not many points on which, especially after reading his eloquent exposition of them, we should be much inclined to disagree with him.
The book, as we have already intimated, is written less to tell the reader what Mr. H. knows about Shakespeare or his writings than what he feels about them—and why he feels so—and thinks that all who profess to love poetry should feel so likewise. . . . He seems pretty generally, indeed, in a state of happy intoxication—and has borrowed from his great original, not indeed the force or brilliancy of his fancy, but something of its playfulness, and a large share of his apparent joyousness and self-indulgence in its exercise. It is evidently a great pleasure to him to be fully possessed with the beauties of his author, and to follow the impulse of his unrestrained eagerness to impress them upon his readers.
Upon this, Hazlitt, no doubt, would have commented, ‘Well, and why not? I choose to understand drama through my feelings.’ To surrender to great art was, for him, and defnitely, a part of the critic’s function—’ A genuine criticism should, as I take it, repeat the colours, the light and shade, the soul and body of a work.’ This contention, for which Hazlitt fought all his life and fought brilliantly, is familiar to us by this time as the gage flung to didactic criticism by the ‘impressionist’, and in our day, in the generation just closed or closing, with a Walter Pater or a Jules Lemaitre for challenger, the betting has run on the impressionist. But in 1817 Hazlitt had all the odds against him when he stood up and accused the great Dr. Johnson of having made criticism ‘a kind of Procrustes’ bed of genius, where he might cut down imagination to matter-of-fact, regulate the passions according to reason, and translate the whole into logical diagrams and rhetorical declamation’.
Thus he says of Shakespeare’s characters, in contradiction to what Pope had observed, and to what every one else feels, that each character is a species, instead of being an individual. He in fact found the general species or didactic form in Shakespeare’s characters, which was all he sought or cared for; he did not find the individual traits, or the dramatic distinctions which Shakespeare has engrafted on this general nature, because he felt no interest in them.
Nothing is easier to prove than that in this world nobody ever invented anything. So it may be proved that, Johnson having written ‘Great thoughts are always general’, Blake had countered him by affirming (long before Hazlitt) that ‘To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the great distinction of merit’: even as it may be demonstrable that Charles Lamb, in his charming personal chat about the Elizabethan dramatists and his predilections among them, was already putting into practice what he did not trouble to theorize. But when it comes to setting out the theory, grasping the worth of the principle, stating it and fighting for it, I think Hazlitt may fairly claim first share in the credit.
He did not, when he wrote the following pages, know very much, even about his subject. As his biographer says:
My grandfather came to town with very little book-knowledge. . . . He had a fair stock of ideas. . . . But of the volumes which form the furniture of a gentleman’s library he was egregiously ignorant . . . Mr. Hazlitt’s resources were emphatically internal; from his own mind he drew sufficient for himself.
Now while it may be argued with plausibility, and even with truth, that the first qualification of a critic—at any rate of a critic of poetry—is, as Jeffrey puts the antithesis, to feel rather than to know; while to be delicately sensitive and sympathetic counts more than to be well-informed; nevertheless learning remains respectable. He who can assimilate it without pedantry (which is another word for intellectual indigestion) actually improves and refines his feelings while enlarging their scope and at the same time enlarging his resources of comparison and illustration. Hazlitt, who had something like a genius for felicitous, apposite quotation, and steadily bettered it as he grew older, would certainly have said ‘Yes’ to this. At all events learning impresses; it carries weight: and therefore it has always seemed to me that he showed small tact, if some modesty, by heaping whole pages of Schlegel into his own preface.
For Schlegel [Footnote: Whose work, by the way, cries aloud for a new and better English translation.] was not only a learned critic but a great one: and this mass of him—cast with seeming carelessness, just here, into the scales—does give the reader, as with a jerk, the sensation that Hazlitt has, of his rashness, invited that which suddenly throws him up in the air to kick the beam: that he has provoked a comparison which exhibits his own performance as clever but flimsy.
Nor is this impression removed by his admirer the late Mr. Ireland, who claims for the Characters that, ‘although it professes to be dramatic criticism, it is in reality a discourse on the philosophy of life and human nature, more suggestive than many approved treatises expressly devoted to that subject’. Well, for the second half of this pronouncement—constat. ‘You see, my friend,’ writes Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World, ‘there is nothing so ridiculous that it has not at some time been said by some philosopher.’ But for the first part, while a priori Mr. Ireland ought to be right—since Hazlitt, as we have seen, came to literary criticism by the road of philosophical writing—I confess to finding very little philosophy in this book.
Over and above the gusto of the writing, which is infectious enough, and the music of certain passages in which we foretaste the masterly prose of Hazlitt’s later Essays, I find in the book three merits which, as I study it, more and more efface that first impression of flimsiness.
(1) To begin with, Hazlitt had hold of the right end of the stick. He really understood that Shakespeare was a dramatic craftsman, studied him as such, worshipped him for his incomparable skill in doing what he tried, all his life and all the time, to do. In these days much merit must be allowed to a Shakespearian critic who takes his author steadily as a dramatist and not as a philosopher, or a propagandist, or a lawyer’s clerk, or a disappointed lover, or for his acquaintance with botany, politics, cyphers, Christian Science, any of the thousand and one things that with their rival degrees of intrinsic importance agree in being, for Shakespeare, nihil ad rem.
(2) Secondly, Hazlitt always treats Shakespeare as, in my opinion, he deserves to be treated; that is, absolutely and as ‘patrone and not compare’ among the Elizabethans. I harbour an ungracious doubt that he may have done so in 1816–17 for the simple and sufficient reason that he had less than a bowing acquaintance with the other Elizabethan dramatists. But he made their acquaintance in due course, and discussed them, yet never (so far as I recall) committed the error of ranking them alongside Shakespeare. With all love for the memory of Lamb, and with all respect for the memory of Swinburne, I hold that these two in their generations, both soaked in enjoyment of the Elizabethan style—an enjoyment derivative from Shakespeare—did some disservice to criticism by classing them with him in the light they borrow; whenas truly he differs from them in kind and beyond any reach of degrees. One can no more estimate Shakespeare’s genius in comparison with this, that, or the other man’s of the sixteenth century, than Milton’s in comparison with any one’s of the seventeenth. Some few men are absolute and can only be judged absolutely.
(3) For the third merit—if the Characters be considered historically—what seems flimsy in them is often a promise of what has since been substantiated; what seems light and almost juvenile in the composition of this man, aged thirty-nine, gives the scent on which nowadays the main pack of students is pursuing. No one not a fool can read Johnson’s notes on Shakespeare without respect or fail to turn to them again with an increased trust in his common-sense, as no one not a fool can read Hazlitt without an equal sense that he has the root of the matter, or of the spirit which is the matter.
To Charles Lamb, Esq.
This Volume is Inscribed as a Mark of old Friendship and Lasting
By the Author
It is observed by Mr. Pope, that ‘If ever any author deserved the name of an original, it was Shakespeare. Homer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of nature; it proceeded through AEgyptian strainers and channels, and came to him not without some tincture of the learning, or some cast of the models, of those before him. The poetry of Shakespeare was inspiration: indeed, he is not so much an imitator, as an instrument of nature; and it is not so just to say that he speaks from her, as that she speaks through him.
His characters are so much nature herself, that it is a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as copies of her. Those of other poets have a constant resemblance, which shows that they received them from one another, and were but multipliers of the same image: each picture, like a mock-rainbow, is but the reflection of a reflection. But every single character in Shakespeare, is as much an individual, as those in life itself; it is as impossible to find any two alike; and such, as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be twins, will, upon comparison, be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of character, we must add the wonderful preservation of it; which is such throughout his plays, that had all the speeches been printed without the very names of the persons, I believe one might have applied them with certainty to every speaker.’
The object of the volume here offered to the public, is to illustrate these remarks in a more particular manner by a reference to each play. A gentleman of the name of Mason, [Footnote: Hazlitt is here mistaken. The work to which he alludes, ‘Remarks on some of the Characters of Shakespeare, by the Author of Observations on Modern Gardening’, was by Thomas Whately, Under–Secretary of State under Lord North. Whately died in 1772, and the Essay was published posthumously in 1785 [2nd edition, 1808; 3rd edition, with a preface by Archbishop Whately, the author’s nephew, 1839]. Hazlitt confused T. Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening with George Mason’s Essay on Design in Gardening, and the one error led to the other.] the author of a Treatise on Ornamental Gardening (not Mason the poet), began a work of a similar kind about forty years ago, but he only lived to finish a parallel between the characters of Macbeth and Richard iii which is an exceedingly ingenious piece of analytical criticism. Richardson’s Essays include but a few of Shakespeare’s principal characters. The only work which seemed to supersede the necessity of an attempt like the present was Schlegel’s very admirable Lectures on the Drama, which give by far the best account of the plays of Shakespeare that has hitherto appeared. The only circumstances in which it was thought not impossible to improve on the manner in which the German critic has executed this part of his design, were in avoiding an appearance of mysticism in his style, not very attractive to the English reader, and in bringing illustrations from particular passages of the plays themselves, of which Schlegel’s work, from the extensiveness of his plan, did not admit. We will at the same time confess, that some little jealousy of the character of the national understanding was not without its share in producing the following undertaking, for ‘we were piqued’ that it should be reserved for a foreign critic to give ‘reasons for the faith which we English have in Shakespeare’. Certainly, no writer among ourselves has shown either the same enthusiastic admiration of his genius, or the same philosophical acuteness in pointing out his characteristic excellences. As we have pretty well exhausted all we had to say upon this subject in the body of the work, we shall here transcribe Schlegel’s general account of Shakespeare, which is in the following words:
‘Never, perhaps, was there so comprehensive a talent for the delineation of character as Shakespeare’s. It not only grasps the diversities of rank, sex, and age, down to the dawnings of infancy; not only do the king and the beggar, the hero and the pickpocket, the sage and the idiot, speak and act with equal truth; not only does he transport himself to distant ages and foreign nations, and pourtray in the most accurate manner, with only a few apparent violations of costume, the spirit of the ancient Romans, of the French in their wars with the English, of the English themselves during a great part of their history, of the Southern Europeans (in the serious part of many comedies) the cultivated society of that time, and the former rude and barbarous state of the North; his human characters have not only such depth and precision that they cannot be arranged under classes, and are inexhaustible, even in conception:—no—this Prometheus not merely forms men, he opens the gates of the magical world of spirits; calls up the midnight ghost; exhibits before us his witches amidst their unhallowed mysteries; peoples the air with sportive fairies and sylphs:—and these beings, existing only in imagination, possess such truth and consistency, that even when deformed monsters like Caliban, he extorts the conviction, that if there should be such beings, they would so conduct themselves. In a word, as he carries with him the most fruitful and daring fancy into the kingdom of nature,—on the other hand, he carries nature into the regions of fancy, lying beyond the confines of reality. We are lost in astonishment at seeing the extraordinary, the wonderful, and the unheard of, in such intimate nearness.
‘If Shakespeare deserves our admiration for his characters, he is equally deserving of it for his exhibition of passion, taking this word in its widest signification, as including every mental condition, every tone from indifference or familiar mirth to the wildest rage and despair. He gives us the history of minds; he lays open to us, in a single word, a whole series of preceding conditions. His passions do not at first stand displayed to us in all their height, as is the case with so many tragic poets, who, in the language of Lessing, are thorough masters of the legal style of love. He paints, in a most inimitable manner, the gradual progress from the first origin. “He gives”, as Lessing says, “a living picture of all the most minute and secret artifices by which a feeling steals into our souls; of all the imperceptible advantages which it there gains; of all the stratagems by which every other passion is made subservient to it, till it becomes the sole tyrant of our desires and our aversions.” Of all poets, perhaps, he alone has pourtrayed the mental diseases,—melancholy, delirium, lunacy,—with such inexpressible, and, in every respect, definite truth, that the physician may enrich his observations from them in the same manner as from real cases.
‘And yet Johnson has objected to Shakespeare, that his pathos is not always natural and free from affectation. There are, it is true, passages, though, comparatively speaking, very few, where his poetry exceeds the bounds of true dialogue, where a too soaring imagination, a too luxuriant wit, rendered the complete dramatic forgetfulness of himself impossible. With this exception, the censure originates only in a fanciless way of thinking, to which everything appears unnatural that does not suit its own tame insipidity. Hence, an idea has been formed of simple and natural pathos, which consists in exclamations destitute of imagery, and nowise elevated above every-day life. But energetical passions electrify the whole of the mental powers, and will, consequently, in highly favoured natures, express themselves in an ingenious and figurative manner. It has been often remarked, that indignation gives wit; and, as despair occasionally breaks out into laughter, it may sometimes also give vent to itself in antithetical comparisons.
‘Besides, the rights of the poetical form have not been duly weighed. Shakespeare, who was always sure of his object, to move in a sufficiently powerful manner when he wished to do so, has occasionally, by indulging in a freer play, purposely moderated the impressions when too painful, and immediately introduced a musical alleviation of our sympathy. He had not those rude ideas of his art which many moderns seem to have, as if the poet, like the clown in the proverb, must strike twice on the same place. An ancient rhetorician delivered a caution against dwelling too long on the excitation of pity; for nothing, he said, dries so soon as tears; and Shakespeare acted conformably to this ingenious maxim, without knowing it.
‘The objection, that Shakespeare wounds our feelings by the open display of the most disgusting moral odiousness, harrows up the mind unmercifully, and tortures even our senses by the exhibition of the most insupportable and hateful spectacles, is one of much greater importance. He has never, in fact, varnished over wild and blood-thirsty passions with a pleasing exterior,—never clothed crime and want of principle with a false show of greatness of soul; and in that respect he is every way deserving of praise. Twice he has pourtrayed downright villains; and the masterly way in which he has contrived to elude impressions of too painful a nature, may be seen in Iago and Richard the Third. The constant reference to a petty and puny race must cripple the boldness of the poet. Fortunately for his art, Shakespeare lived in an age extremely susceptible of noble and tender impressions, but which had still enough of the firmness inherited from a vigorous olden time not to shrink back with dismay from every strong and violent picture. We have lived to see tragedies of which the catastrophe consists in the swoon of an enamoured princess. If Shakespeare falls occasionally into the opposite extreme, it is a noble error, originating in the fulness of a gigantic strength: and yet this tragical Titan, who storms the heavens, and threatens to tear the world from off its hinges; who, more terrible than AEschylus, makes our hair stand on end, and congeals our blood with horror, possessed, at the same time, the insinuating loveliness of the sweetest poetry. He plays with love like a child; and his songs are breathed out like melting sighs. He unites in his genius the utmost elevation and the utmost depth; and the most foreign, and even apparently irreconcilable properties subsist in him peaceably together. The world of spirits and nature have laid all their treasures at his feet. In strength a demi-god, in profundity of view a prophet, in all-seeing wisdom a protecting spirit of a higher order, he lowers himself to mortals, as if unconscious of his superiority: and is as open and unassuming as a child.
‘Shakespeare’s comic talent is equally wonderful with that which he has shown in the pathetic and tragic: it stands on an equal elevation, and possesses equal extent and profundity. All that I before wished was, not to admit that the former preponderated. He is highly inventive in comic situations and motives. It will be hardly possible to show whence he has taken any of them; whereas, in the serious part of his drama, he has generally laid hold of something already known. His comic characters are equally true, various, and profound, with his serious. So little is he disposed to caricature, that we may rather say many of his traits are almost too nice and delicate for the stage, that they can only be properly seized by a great actor, and fully understood by a very acute audience. Not only has he delineated many kinds of folly; he has also contrived to exhibit mere stupidity in a most diverting and entertaining manner.’ Vol. ii, p. 145.
We have the rather availed ourselves of this testimony of a foreign critic in behalf of Shakespeare, because our own countryman, Dr. Johnson, has not been so favourable to him. It may be said of Shakespeare, that ‘those who are not for him are against him’: for indifference is here the height of injustice. We may sometimes, in order ‘to do a great right, do a little wrong’. An over-strained enthusiasm is more pardonable with respect to Shakespeare than the want of it; for our admiration cannot easily surpass his genius. We have a high respect for Dr. Johnson’s character and understanding, mixed with something like personal attachment: but he was neither a poet nor a judge of poetry. He might in one sense be a judge of poetry as it falls within the limits and rules of prose, but not as it is poetry. Least of all was he qualified to be a judge of Shakespeare, who ‘alone is high fantastical’. Let those who have a prejudice against Johnson read Boswell’s Life of him: as those whom he has prejudiced against Shakespeare should read his Irene. We do not say that a man to be a critic must necessarily be a poet: but to be a good critic, he ought not to be a bad poet. Such poetry as a man deliberately writes, such, and such only will he like. Dr. Johnson’s Preface to his edition of Shakespeare looks like a laborious attempt to bury the characteristic merits of his author under a load of cumbrous phraseology, and to weigh his excellences and defects in equal scales, stuffed full of ‘swelling figures and sonorous epithets’. Nor could it well be otherwise; Dr. Johnson’s general powers of reasoning overlaid his critical susceptibility. All his ideas were cast in a given mould, in a set form: they were made out by rule and system, by climax, inference, and antithesis:—Shakespeare’s were the reverse. Johnson’s understanding dealt only in round numbers: the fractions were lost upon him. He reduced everything to the common standard of conventional propriety; and the most exquisite refinement or sublimity produced an effect on his mind, only as they could be translated into the language of measured prose. To him an excess of beauty was a fault; for it appeared to him like an excrescence; and his imagination was dazzled by the blaze of light. His writings neither shone with the beams of native genius, nor reflected them. The shifting shapes of fancy, the rainbow hues of things, made no impression on him: he seized only on the permanent and tangible. He had no idea of natural objects but ‘such as he could measure with a two-fool rule, or tell upon ten fingers’: he judged of human nature in the same way, by mood and figure: he saw only the definite, the positive, and the practical, the average forms of things, not their striking differences—their classes, not their degrees. He was a man of strong common sense and practical wisdom, rather than of genius or feeling. He retained the regular, habitual impressions of actual objects, but he could not follow the rapid flights of fancy, or the strong movements of passion. That is, he was to the poet what the painter of still life is to the painter of history. Common sense sympathizes with the impressions of things on ordinary minds in ordinary circumstances: genius catches the glancing combinations presented to the eye of fancy, under the influence of passion. It is the province of the didactic reasoner to take cognizance of those results of human nature which are constantly repeated and always the same, which follow one another in regular succession, which are acted upon by large classes of men, and embodied in received customs, laws, language, and institutions; and it was in arranging, comparing, and arguing on these kind of general results, that Johnson’s excellence lay. But he could not quit his hold of the commonplace and mechanical, and apply the general rule to the particular exception, or show how the nature of man was modified by the workings of passion, or the infinite fluctuations of thought and accident. Hence he could judge neither of the heights nor depths of poetry. Nor is this all; for being conscious of great powers in himself, and those powers of an adverse tendency to those of his author, he would be for setting up a foreign jurisdiction over poetry, and making criticism a kind of Procrustes’ bed of genius, where he might cut down imagination to matter-of-fact, regulate the passions according to reason, and translate the whole into logical diagrams and rhetorical declamation. Thus he says of Shakespeare’s characters, in contradiction to what Pope had observed, and to what every one else feels, that each character is a species, instead of being an individual. He in fact found the general species or didactic form in Shakespeare’s characters, which was all he sought or cared for; he did not find the individual traits, or the dramatic distinctions which Shakespeare has engrafted on this general nature, because he felt no interest in them. Shakespeare’s bold and happy flights of imagination were equally thrown away upon our author. He was not only without any particular fineness of organic sensibility, alive to all the ‘mighty world of ear and eye’, which is necessary to the painter or musician, but without that intenseness of passion, which, seeking to exaggerate whatever excites the feelings of pleasure or power in the mind, and moulding the impressions of natural objects according to the impulses of imagination, produces a genius and a taste for poetry. According to Dr. Johnson, a mountain is sublime, or a rose is beautiful; for that their name and definition imply. But he would no more be able to give the description of Dover cliff in Lear, or the description of flowers in The Winter’s Tale, than to describe the objects of a sixth sense; nor do we think he would have any very profound feeling of the beauty of the passages here referred to. A stately common-place, such as Congreve’s description of a ruin in The Mourning Bride, would have answered Johnson’s purpose just as well, or better than the first; and an indiscriminate profusion of scents and hues would have interfered less with the ordinary routine of his imagination than Perdita’s lines, which seem enamoured of their own sweetness—
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes,
Or Cytherea’s breath.—
No one who does not feel the passion which these objects inspire can go along with the imagination which seeks to express that passion and the uneasy sense of delight accompanying it by something still more beautiful, and no one can feel this passionate love of nature without quick natural sensibility. To a mere literal and formal apprehension, the inimitably characteristic epithet, ‘violets dim’, must seem to imply a defect, rather than a beauty; and to any one, not feeling the full force of that epithet, which suggests an image like ‘the sleepy eye of love’, the allusion to ‘the lids of Juno’s eyes’ must appear extravagant and unmeaning. Shakespeare’s fancy lent words and images to the most refined sensibility to nature, struggling for expression: his descriptions are identical with the things themselves, seen through the fine medium of passion: strip them of that connexion, and try them by ordinary conceptions and ordinary rules, and they are as grotesque and barbarous as you please!—By thus lowering Shakespeare’s genius to the standard of common-place invention, it was easy to show that his faults were as great as his beauties; for the excellence, which consists merely in a conformity to rules, is counterbalanced by the technical violation of them. Another circumstance which led to Dr. Johnson’s indiscriminate praise or censure of Shakespeare, is the very structure of his style. Johnson wrote a kind of rhyming prose, in which he was as much compelled to finish the different clauses of his sentences, and to balance one period against another, as the writer of heroic verse is to keep to lines of ten syllables with similar terminations. He no sooner acknowledges the merits of his author in one line than the periodical revolution in his style carries the weight of his opinion completely over to the side of objection, thus keeping up a perpetual alternation of perfections and absurdities.
We do not otherwise know how to account for such assertions as the following: ‘In his tragic scenes, there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy, for the greater part, by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.’ Yet after saying that ‘his tragedy was skill’, he affirms in the next page, ‘His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature: when he endeavoured, like other tragic writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.’ Poor Shakespeare! Between the charges here brought against him, of want of nature in the first instance, and of want of skill in the second, he could hardly escape being condemned. And again, ‘But the admirers of this great poet have most reason to complain when he approaches nearest to his highest excellence, and seems fully resolved to sink them in dejection, or mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. What he does best, he soon ceases to do. He no sooner begins to move than he counteracts himself; and terror and pity, as they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.’ In all this, our critic seems more bent on maintaining the equilibrium of his style than the consistency or truth of his opinions.—If Dr. Johnson’s opinion was right, the following observations on Shakespeare’s plays must be greatly exaggerated, if not ridiculous. If he was wrong, what has been said may perhaps account for his being so, without detracting from his ability and judgement in other things.
It is proper to add, that the account of the Midsummer Night’s Dream has appeared in another work.
April 15, 1817
Cymbeline is one of the most delightful of Shakespeare’s historical plays. It may be considered as a dramatic romance, in which the most striking parts of the story are thrown into the form of a dialogue, and the intermediate circumstances are explained by the different speakers, as occasion renders it necessary. The action is less concentrated in consequence; but the interest becomes more aerial and refined from the principle of perspective introduced into the subject by the imaginary changes of scene as well as by the length of time it occupies. The reading of this play is like going [on?] a journey with some uncertain object at the end of it, and in which the suspense is kept up and heightened by the long intervals between each action. Though the events are scattered over such an extent of surface, and relate to such a variety of characters, yet the links which bind the different interests of the story together are never entirely broken. The most straggling and seemingly casual incidents are contrived in such a manner as to lead at last to the most complete development of the catastrophe. The ease and conscious unconcern with which this is effected only makes the skill more wonderful. The business of the plot evidently thickens in the last act; the story moves forward with increasing rapidity at every step; its various ramifications are drawn from the most distant points to the same centre; the principal characters are brought together, and placed in very critical situations; and the fate of almost every person in the drama is made to depend on the solution of a single circumstance—the answer of Iachimo to the question of Imogen respecting the obtaining of the ring from Posthumus. Dr. Johnson is of opinion that Shakespeare was generally inattentive to the winding up of his plots. We think the contrary is true; and we might cite in proof of this remark not only the present play, but the conclusion of Lear, of Romeo and Juliet, of Macbeth, of Othello, even of Hamlet, and of other plays of less moment, in which the last act is crowded with decisive events brought about by natural and striking means.
The pathos in Cymbeline is not violent or tragical, but of the most pleasing and amiable kind. A certain tender gloom o’erspreads the whole. Posthumus is the ostensible hero of the piece, but its greatest charm is the character of Imogen. Posthumus is only interesting from the interest she takes in him, and she is only interesting herself from her tenderness and constancy to her husband. It is the peculiar characteristic of Shakespeare’s heroines, that they seem to exist only in their attachment to others. They are pure abstractions of the affections. We think as little of their persons as they do themselves, because we are let into the secrets of their hearts, which are more important. We are too much interested in their affairs to stop to look at their faces, except by stealth and at intervals. No one ever hit the true perfection of the female character, the sense of weakness leaning on the strength of its affections for support, so well as Shakespeare—no one ever so well painted natural tenderness free from affectation and disguise—no one else ever so well showed how delicacy and timidity, when driven to extremity, grow romantic and extravagant; for the romance of his heroines (in which they abound) is only an excess of the habitual prejudices of their sex, scrupulous of being false to their vows, truant to their affections, and taught by the force of feeling when to forgo the forms of propriety for the essence of it. His women were in this respect exquisite logicians; for there is nothing so logical as passion. They knew their own minds exactly; and only followed up a favourite idea, which they had sworn to with their tongues, and which was engraven on their hearts, into its untoward consequences. They were the prettiest little set of martyrs and confessors on record. Cibber, in speaking of the early English stage, accounts for the want of prominence and theatrical display in Shakespeare’s female characters from the circumstance, that women in those days were not allowed to play the parts of women, which made it necessary to keep them a good deal in the background. Does not this state of manners itself, which prevented their exhibiting themselves in public, and confined them to the relations and charities of domestic life, afford a truer explanation of the matter? His women are certainly very unlike stage-heroines; the reverse of tragedy-queens.
We have almost as great an affection for Imogen as she had for Posthumus; and she deserves it better. Of all Shakespeare’s women she is perhaps the most tender and the most artless. Her incredulity in the opening scene with Iachimo, as to her husband’s infidelity, is much the same as Desdemona’s backwardness to believe Othello’s jealousy. Her answer to the most distressing part of the picture is only, ‘My lord, I fear, has forgot Britain.’ Her readiness to pardon Iachimo’s false imputations and his designs against herself, is a good lesson to prudes; and may show that where there is a real attachment to virtue, it has no need to bolster itself up with an outrageous or affected antipathy to vice. The scene in which Pisanio gives Imogen his master’s letter, accusing her of incontinency on the treacherous suggestions of Iachimo, is as touching as it is possible for any thing to be:
Pisanio. What cheer, Madam?
Imogen. False to his bed! What is it to be false?
To lie in watch there, and to think on him?
To weep ’twixt clock and clock? If sleep charge nature,
To break it with a fearful dream of him,
And cry myself awake?
That’s false to’s bed, is it?
Pisanio. Alas, good lady!
Imogen. I false? thy conscience witness, Iachimo,
Thou didst accuse him of incontinency,
Thou then look’dst like a villain: now methinks,
Thy favour’s good enough. Some jay of Italy,
Whose mother was her painting, hath betrayed him:
Poor I am stale, a garment out of fashion,
And for I am richer than to hang by th’ walls,
I must be ript; to pieces with me. Oh,
Men’s vows are women’s traitors. All good seeming,
By thy revolt, oh husband, shall be thought
Put on for villany: not born where’t grows,
But worn a bait for ladies.
Pisanio. Good madam, hear me—
Imogen. Talk thy tongue weary, speak:
I have heard I am a strumpet, and mine ear,
Therein false struck, can take no greater wound,
Nor tent to bottom that.—
When Pisanio, who had been charged to kill his mistress, puts her in a way to live, she says:
Why, good fellow,
What shall I do the while? Where bide? How live?
Or in my life what comfort, when I am
Dead to my husband?
Yet when he advises her to disguise herself in boy’s clothes, and suggests ‘a course pretty and full in view’, by which she may ‘happily be near the residence of Posthumus’, she exclaims:
Oh, for such means,
Though peril to my modesty, not death on’t,
I would adventure.
And when Pisanio, enlarging on the consequences, tells her she must change
—Fear and niceness,
The handmaids of all women, or more truly,
Woman its pretty self, into a waggish courage,
Ready in gibes, quick answer’d, saucy, and
As quarrellous as the weasel—
she interrupts him hastily;
Nay, be brief;
I see into thy end, and am almost
A man already.
In her journey thus disguised to Milford Haven, she loses her guide and her way; and unbosoming her complaints, says beautifully:
—My dear Lord,
Thou art one of the false ones; now I think on thee,
My hunger’s gone; but even before, I was
At point to sink for food.
She afterwards finds, as she thinks, the dead body of Posthumus, and engages herself as a foot-boy to serve a Roman officer, when she has done all due obsequies to him whom she calls her former master:
With wild wood-leaves and weeds I ha’ strew’d his grave,
And on it said a century of pray’rs,
Such as I can, twice o’er, I’ll weep and sigh,
And leaving so his service, follow you,
So please you entertain me.
Now this is the very religion of love. She all along relies little on her personal charms, which she fears may have been eclipsed by some painted jay of Italy; she relies on her merit, and her merit is in the depth of her love, her truth and constancy. Our admiration of her beauty is excited with as little consciousness as possible on her part. There are two delicious descriptions given of her, one when she is asleep, and one when she is supposed dead. Arviragus thus addresses her:
—With fairest flowers,
While summer lasts, and I live here, Fidele,
I’ll sweeten thy sad grave; thou shalt not lack
The flow’r that’s like thy face, pale primrose, nor
The azur’d hare-bell, like thy veins, no, nor
The leaf of eglantine, which not to slander,
Out-sweeten’d not thy breath.
The yellow Iachimo gives another thus, when he steals into her bed-chamber:
How bravely thou becom’st thy bed! Fresh lily,
And whiter than the sheets I That I might touch—
But kiss, one kiss—Tis her breathing that
Perfumes the chamber thus: the flame o’ th’ taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids,
To see th’ enclosed lights now canopied
Under the windows, white and azure, laced
With blue of Heav’ns own tinct—on her left breast
A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops
I’ the bottom of a cowslip.
There is a moral sense in the proud beauty of this last image, a rich surfeit of the fancy,—as that well—known passage beginning, ‘Me of my lawful pleasure she restrained, and prayed me oft forbearance,’ sets a keener edge upon it by the inimitable picture of modesty and self-denial.
The character of Cloten, the conceited, booby lord, and rejected lover of Imogen, though not very agreeable in itself, and at present obsolete, is drawn with great humour and knowledge of character. The description which Imogen gives of his unwelcome addresses to her—‘Whose love-suit hath been to me as fearful as a siege’—is enough to cure the most ridiculous lover of his folly. It is remarkable that though Cloten makes so poor a figure in love, he is described as assuming an air of consequence as the Queen’s son in a council of state, and with all the absurdity of his person and manners, is not without shrewdness in his observations. So true is it that folly is as often owing to a want of proper sentiments as to a want of under-standing! The exclamation of the ancient critic, ‘O Menander and Nature, which of you copied from the other?’ would not be misapplied to Shakespeare.
The other characters in this play are represented with great truth and accuracy, and as it happens in most of the author’s works, there is not only the utmost keeping in each separate character; but in the casting of the different parts, and their relation to one another, there is an affinity and harmony, like what we may observe in the gradations of colour in a picture. The striking and powerful contrasts in which Shakespeare abounds could not escape observation; but the use he makes of the principle of analogy to reconcile the greatest diversities of character and to maintain a continuity of feeling throughout, has not been sufficiently attended to. In Cymbeline, for instance, the principal interest arises out of the unalterable fidelity of Imogen to her husband under the most trying circumstances. Now the other parts of the picture are filled up with subordinate examples of the same feeling, variously modified by different situations, and applied to the purposes of virtue or vice. The plot is aided by the amorous importunities of Cloten, by the tragical determination of Iachimo to conceal the defeat of his project by a daring imposture: the faithful attachment of Pisanio to his mistress is an affecting accompaniment to the whole; the obstinate adherence to his purpose in Bellarius, who keeps the fate of the young princes so long a secret in resentment for the ungrateful return to his former services, the incorrigible wickedness of the Queen, and even the blind uxorious confidence of Cymbeline, are all so many lines of the same story, tending to the same point. The effect of this coincidence is rather felt than observed; and as the impression exists unconsciously in the mind of the reader, so it probably arose in the same manner in the mind of the author, not from design, but from the force of natural association, a particular train of feeling suggesting different inflections of the same predominant principle, melting into, and strengthening one another, like chords in music.
The characters of Bellarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, and the romantic scenes in which they appear, are a fine relief to the intrigues and artificial refinements of the court from which they are banished. Nothing can surpass the wildness and simplicity of the descriptions of the mountain life they lead. They follow the business of huntsmen, not of shepherds; and this is in keeping with the spirit of adventure and uncertainty in the rest of the story, and with the scenes in which they are afterwards called on to act. How admirably the youthful fire and impatience to emerge from their obscurity in the young princes is opposed to the cooler calculations and prudent resignation of their more experienced counsellor! How well the disadvantages of knowledge and of ignorance, of solitude and society, are placed against each other!
Guiderius. Out of your proof you speak: we poor unfledg’d
Have never wing’d from view o’ th’ nest; nor know not
What air’s from home. Haply this life is best,
If quiet life is best; sweeter to you
That have a sharper known; well corresponding
With your stiff age: but unto us it is
A cell of ignorance; travelling a-bed,
A prison for a debtor, that not dares
To stride a limit.
Arviragus. What should we speak of
When we are old as you? When we shall hear
The rain and wind beat dark December! How,
In this our pinching cave, shall we discourse
The freezing hours away? We have seen nothing.
We are beastly; subtle as the fox for prey,
Like warlike as the wolf for what we eat:
Our valour is to chase what flies; our cage
We make a quire, as doth the prison’d bird,
And sing our bondage freely.
The answer of Bellarius to this expostulation is hardly satisfactory; for nothing can be an answer to hope, or the passion of the mind for unknown good, but experience.—The forest of Arden in As You Like It can alone compare with the mountain scenes in Cymbeline: yet how different the contemplative quiet of the one from the enterprising boldness and precarious mode of subsistence in the other! Shakespeare not only lets us into the minds of his characters, but gives a tone and colour to the scenes he describes from the feelings of their imaginary inhabitants. He at the same time preserves the utmost propriety of action and passion, and gives all their local accompaniments. If he was equal to the greatest things, he was not above an attention to the smallest. Thus the gallant sportsmen in Cymbeline have to encounter the abrupt declivities of hill and valley: Touchstone and Audrey jog along a level path. The deer in Cymbeline are only regarded as objects of prey, ‘The game’s a-foot’, &c.—with Jaques they are fine subjects to moralize upon at leisure, ‘under the shade of melancholy boughs’.
We cannot take leave of this play, which is a favourite with us, without noticing some occasional touches of natural piety and morality. We may allude here to the opening of the scene in which Bellarius instructs the young princes to pay their orisons to heaven:
—See, Boys! this gate
Instructs you how t’ adore the Heav’ns; and bows you
To morning’s holy office.
Bellarius. Now for our mountain-sport, up to yon hill.
What a grace and unaffected spirit of piety breathes in this passage! In like manner, one of the brothers says to the other, when about to perform the funeral rites to Fidele:
Nay, Cadwall, we must lay his head to the east;
My Father hath a reason for’t.
Shakespeare’s morality is introduced in the same simple, unobtrusive manner. Imogen will not let her companions stay away from the chase to attend her when sick, and gives her reason for it:
Stick to your journal course;
The breach of custom is breach of all!
When the Queen attempts to disguise her motives for procuring the poison from Cornelius, by saying she means to try its effects on ‘creatures not worth the hanging’, his answer conveys at once a tacit reproof of her hypocrisy, and a useful lesson of humanity:
Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.
The poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Macbeth and Lear, Othello and Hamlet, are usually reckoned Shakespeare’s four principal tragedies. Lear stands first for the profound intensity of the passion; Macbeth for the wildness of the imagination and the rapidity of the action; Othello for the progressive interest and powerful alternations of feeling; Hamlet for the refined development of thought and sentiment. If the force of genius shown in each of these works is astonishing, their variety is not less so. They are like different creations of the same mind, not one of which has the slightest reference to the rest. This distinctness and originality is indeed the necessary consequence of truth and nature. Shakespeare’s genius alone appeared to possess the resources of nature. He is ‘your only tragedy-maker’. His plays have the force of things upon the mind. What he represents is brought home to the bosom as a part of our experience, implanted in the memory as if we had known the places, persons, and things of which he treats. Macbeth is like a record of a preternatural and tragical event. It has the rugged severity of an old chronicle with all that the imagination of the poet can engraft upon traditional belief. The castle of Macbeth, round which ‘the air smells wooingly’, and where ‘the temple-haunting martlet builds’, has a real subsistence in the mind; the Weird Sisters meet us in person on ‘the blasted heath’; the ‘air-drawn dagger’ moves slowly before our eyes; the ‘gracious Duncan’, the ‘blood-boltered Banquo’ stand before us; all that passed through the mind of Macbeth passes, without the loss of a tittle, through ours. All that could actually take place, and all that is only pos-sible to be conceived, what was said and what was done, the workings of passion, the spells of magic, are brought before us with the same absolute truth and vividness.—Shakespeare excelled in the openings of his plays: that of Macbeth is the most striking of any. The wildness of the scenery, the sudden shifting of the situations and characters, the bustle, the expectations excited, are equally extraordinary. From the first entrance of the Witches and the description of them when they meet Macbeth:
—What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants of th’ earth
And yet are on’t?
the mind is prepared for all that follows.
This tragedy is alike distinguished for the lofty imagination it displays, and for the tumultuous vehemence of the action; and the one is made the moving principle of the other. The overwhelming pressure of preternatural agency urges on the tide of human passion with redoubled force. Macbeth himself appears driven along by the violence of his fate like a vessel drifting before a storm: he reels to and fro like a drunken man; he staggers under the weight of his own purposes and the suggestions of others; he stands at bay with his situation; and from the superstitious awe and breathless suspense into which the communications of the Weird Sisters throw him, is hurried on with daring impatience to verify their predictions, and with impious and bloody hand to tear aside the veil which hides the uncertainty of the future. He is not equal to the struggle with fate and conscience. He now ‘bends up each corporal instrument to the terrible feat’; at other times his heart misgives him, and he is cowed and abashed by his success. ‘The deed, no less than the attempt, confounds him.’ His mind is assailed by the stings of remorse, and full of ‘preternatural solicitings’. His speeches and soliloquies are dark riddles on human life, baffling solution, and entangling him in their labyrinths. In thought he is absent and perplexed, sudden and desperate in act, from a distrust of his own resolution. His energy springs from the anxiety and agitation of his mind. His blindly rushing forward on the objects of his ambition and revenge, or his recoiling from them, equally betrays the harassed state of his feelings.—This part of his character is admirably set off by being brought in connexion with that of Lady Macbeth, whose obdurate strength of will and masculine firmness give her the ascendancy over her husband’s faltering virtue. She at once seizes on the opportunity that offers for the accomplishment of all their wished-for greatness, and never flinches from her object till all is over. The magnitude of her resolution almost covers the magnitude of her guilt. She is a great bad woman, whom we hate, but whom we fear more than we hate. She does not excite our loathing and abhorrence like Regan and Goneril. She is only wicked to gain a great end; and is perhaps more distinguished by her commanding presence of mind and inexorable self-will, which do not suffer her to be diverted from a bad purpose, when once formed, by weak and womanly regrets, than by the hardness of her heart or want of natural affections. The impression which her lofty determination of character makes on the mind of Macbeth is well described where he exclaims:
—Bring forth men children only;
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males!
Nor do the pains she is at to ‘screw his courage to the sticking-place’, the reproach to him, not to be ‘lost so poorly in himself’, the assurance that ‘a little water clears them of this deed’, show anything but her greater consistency in depravity. Her strong-nerved ambition furnishes ribs of steel to ‘the sides of his intent’; and she is herself wound up to the execution of her baneful project with the same unshrinking fortitude in crime, that in other circumstances she would probably have shown patience in suffering. The deliberate sacrifice of all other considerations to the gaining ‘for their future days and nights sole sovereign sway and masterdom’, by the murder of Duncan, is gorgeously expressed in her invocation on hearing of ‘his fatal entrance under her battlements’:
—Come all you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here:
And fill me, from the crown to th’ toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage of remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murthering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night!
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heav’n peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry, hold, hold!—
When she first hears that ‘Duncan comes there to sleep’ she is so overcome by the news, which is beyond her utmost expectations, that she answers the messenger, ‘Thou’rt mad to say it’: and on receiving her husband’s account of the predictions of the Witches, conscious of his instability of purpose, and that her presence is necessary to goad him on to the consummation of his promised greatness, she exclaims:
—Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with me valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal.
This swelling exultation and keen spirit of triumph, this uncontrollable eagerness of anticipation, which seems to dilate her form and take possession of all her faculties, this solid, substantial flesh-and-blood display of passion, exhibit a striking contrast to the cold, abstracted, gratuitous, servile malignity of the Witches, who are equally instrumental in urging Macbeth to his fate for the mere love of mischief, and from a disinterested delight in deformity and cruelty. They are hags of mischief, obscene panders to iniquity, malicious from their impotence of enjoyment, enamoured of destruction, because they are themselves unreal, abortive, half-existences, and who become sublime from their exemption from all human sympathies and contempt for all human affairs, as Lady Macbeth does by the force of passion! Her fault seems to have been an excess of that strong principle of self-interest and family aggrandizement, not amenable to the common feelings of compassion and justice, which is so marked a feature in barbarous nations and times. A passing reflection of this kind, on the resemblance of the sleeping king to her father, alone prevents her from slaying Duncan with her own hand.
In speaking of the character of Lady Macbeth, we ought not to pass over Mrs. Siddons’s manner of acting that part. We can conceive of nothing grander. It was something above nature. It seemed almost as if a being of a superior order had dropped from a higher sphere to awe the world with the majesty of her appearance. Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine; she was tragedy personified. In coming on in the sleeping-scene, her eyes were open, but their sense was shut. She was like a person bewildered and unconscious of what she did. Her lips moved involuntarily—all her gestures were involuntary and mechanical. She glided on and off the stage like an apparition. To have seen her in that character was an event in every one’s life, not to be forgotten.
The dramatic beauty of the character of Duncan, which excites the respect and pity even of his murderers, has been often pointed out. It forms a picture of itself. An instance of the author’s power of giving a striking effect to a common reflection, by the manner of introducing it, occurs in a speech of Duncan, complaining of his having been deceived in his opinion of the Thane of Cawdor, at the very moment that he is expressing the most unbounded confidence in the loyalty and services of Macbeth.
There is no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face:
He was a gentleman, on whom I built
An absolute trust.
O worthiest cousin, [addressing himself to Macbeth]
The sin of my ingratitude e’en now
Was great upon me, &c.
Another passage to show that Shakespeare lost sight of nothing that could in anyway give relief or heightening to his subject, is the conversation which takes place between Banquo and Fleance immediately before the murder-scene of Duncan.
Banquo. How goes the night, boy?
Fleance. The moon is down: I have not heard the clock.
Banquo. And she goes down at twelve.
Fleance. I take’t, tis later, Sir.
Banquo. Hold, take my sword. There’s husbandry in heav’n,
Their candles are all out.—
A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,
And yet I would not sleep: Merciful Powers,
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose.
In like manner, a fine idea is given of the gloomy coming on of evening, just as Banquo is going to be assassinated.
Light thickens and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood.
. . . . . .
Now spurs the lated traveller apace
To gain the timely inn.
Macbeth (generally speaking) is done upon a stronger and more systematic principle of contrast than any other of Shakespeare’s plays. It moves upon the verge of an abyss, and is a constant struggle between life and death. The action is desperate and the reaction is dreadful. It is a huddling together of fierce extremes, a war of opposite natures which of them shall destroy the other. There is nothing but what has a violent end or violent beginnings. The lights and shades are laid on with a determined hand; the transitions from triumph to despair, from the height of terror to the repose of death, are sudden and startling; every passion brings in its fellow-contrary, and the thoughts pitch and jostle against each other as in the dark. The whole play is an unruly chaos of strange and forbidden things, where the ground rocks under our feet. Shakespeare’s genius here took its full swing, and trod upon the furthest bounds of nature and passion. This circumstance will account for the abruptness and violent antitheses of the style, the throes and labour which run through the expression, and from defects will turn them into beauties. ‘So fair and foul a day I have not seen,’ &c. ‘Such welcome and unwelcome news together.’ ‘Men’s lives are like the flowers in their caps, dying or ere they sicken.’ ‘Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.’ The scene before the castle-gate follows the appearance of the Witches on the heath, and is followed by a midnight murder. Duncan is cut off betimes by treason leagued with witchcraft, and Macduff is ripped untimely from his mother’s womb to avenge his death. Macbeth, after the death of Banquo, wishes for his presence in extravagant terms, ‘To him and all we thirst,’ and when his ghost appears, cries out, ‘Avaunt and quit my sight,’ and being gone, he is ‘himself again’. Macbeth resolves to get rid of Macduff, that ‘he may sleep in spite of thunder’; and cheers his wife on the doubtful intelligence of Banquo’s taking-off with the encouragement—‘Then be thou jocund: ere the bat has flown his cloistered flight; ere to black Hecate’s summons the shard-born beetle has rung night’s yawning peal, there shall be done—a deed of dreadful note.’ In Lady Macbeth’s speech, ‘Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t,’ there is murder and filial piety together, and in urging him to fulfil his vengeance against the defenceless king, her thoughts spare the blood neither of infants nor old age. The description of the Witches is full of the same contradictory principle; they ‘rejoice when good kings bleed’; they are neither of the earth nor the air, but both; ‘they should be women, but their beards forbid it’; they take all the pains possible to lead Macbeth on to the height of his ambition, only to betray him in deeper consequence, and after showing him all the pomp of their art, discover their malignant delight in his disappointed hopes, by that bitter taunt, ‘Why stands Macbeth thus amazedly?’ We might multiply such instances everywhere.
The leading features in the character of Macbeth are striking enough, and they form what may be thought at first only a bold, rude, Gothic outline. By comparing it with other characters of the same author we shall perceive the absolute truth and identity which is observed in the midst of the giddy whirl and rapid career of events. Macbeth in Shakespeare no more loses his identity of character in the fluctuations of fortune or the storm of passion, than Macbeth in himself would have lost the identity of his person. Thus he is as distinct a being from Richard iii as it is possible to imagine, though these two characters in common hands, and indeed in the hands of any other poet, would have been a repetition of the same general idea, more or less exaggerated. For both are tyrants, usurpers, murderers, both aspiring and ambitious, both courageous, cruel, treacherous. But Richard is cruel from nature and constitution. Macbeth becomes so from accidental circumstances. Richard is from his birth deformed in body and mind, and naturally incapable of good. Macbeth is full of ‘the milk of human kindness, is frank, sociable, generous. He is tempted to the commission of guilt by golden opportunities, by the instigations of his wife, and by prophetic warnings. Fate and metaphysical aid conspire against his virtue and his loyalty. Richard, on the contrary, needs no prompter, but wades through a series of crimes to the height of his ambition from the ungovernable violence of his temper and a reckless love of mischief. He is never gay but in the prospect or in the success of his villanies; Macbeth is full of horror at the thoughts of the murder of Duncan, which he is with difficulty prevailed on to commit, and of remorse after its perpetration. Richard has no mixture of common humanity in his composition, no regard to kindred or posterity, he owns no fellowship with others, he is ‘himself alone’. Macbeth is not destitute of feelings of sympathy, is accessible to pity, is even made in some measure the dupe of his uxoriousness, ranks the loss of friends, of the cordial love of his followers, and of his good name, among the causes which have made him weary of life, and regrets that he has ever seized the crown by unjust means, since he cannot transmit it to his own posterity:
For Banquo’s issue have I ‘fil’d my mind—
For them the gracious Duncan have I murther’d,
To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings.
In the agitation of his thoughts, he envies those whom he has sent to peace. ‘Duncan is in his grave; after life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.’ It is true, he becomes more callous as he plunges deeper in guilt, ‘direness is thus rendered familiar to his slaughterous thoughts’, and he in the end anticipates his wife in the boldness and bloodiness of his enterprises, while she, for want of the same stimulus of action, is ‘troubled with thick-coming fancies that rob her of her rest’, goes mad and dies.
Macbeth endeavours to escape from reflection on his crimes by repelling their consequences, and banishes remorse for the past by the meditation of future mischief. This is not the principle of Richard’s cruelty, which resembles the wanton malice of a fiend as much as the frailty of human passion. Macbeth is goaded on to acts of violence and retaliation by necessity; to Richard, blood is a pastime.—There are other decisive differences inherent in the two characters. Richard may be regarded as a man of the world, a plotting, hardened knave, wholly regardless of everything but his own ends, and the means to secure them.—Not so Macbeth. The superstitions of the age, the rude state of society, the local scenery and customs, all give a wildness and imaginary grandeur to his character. From the strangeness of the events that surround him, he is full of amazement and fear; and stands in doubt between the world of reality and the world of fancy. He sees sights not shown to mortal eye, and hears unearthly music. All is tumult and disorder within and without his mind; his purposes recoil upon himself, are broken and disjointed; he is the double thrall of his passions and his evil destiny. Richard is not a character either of imagination or pathos, but of pure self-will. There is no conflict of opposite feelings in his breast. The apparitions which he sees only haunt him in his sleep; nor does he live like Macbeth in a waking dream. Macbeth has considerable energy and manliness of character; but then he is ‘subject to all the skyey influences’. He is sure of nothing but the present moment. Richard in the busy turbulence of his projects never loses his self-possession, and makes use of every circumstance that happens as an instrument of his long-reaching designs. In his last extremity we can only regard him as a wild beast taken in the toils: we never entirely lose our concern for Macbeth; and he calls back all our sympathy by that fine close of thoughtful melancholy:
My way of life is fallen into the sear,
The yellow leaf; and that which should accompany old age,
As honour, troops of friends, I must not look to have;
But in their stead, curses not loud but deep,
Mouth-honour, breath, which the poor heart
Would fain deny and dare not.
We can conceive a common actor to play Richard tolerably well; we can conceive no one to play Macbeth properly, or to look like a man that had encountered the Weird Sisters. All the actors that we have ever seen, appear as if they had encountered them on the boards of Covent Garden or Drury Lane, but not on the heath at Fores, and as if they did not believe what they had seen. The Witches of Macbeth indeed are ridiculous on the modern stage, and we doubt if the furies of Aeschylus would be more respected. The progress of manners and knowledge has an influence on the stage, and will in time perhaps destroy both tragedy and comedy. Filch’s picking pockets, in the Beggars’ Opera, is not so good a jest as it used to be: by the force of the police and of philosophy, Lillo’s murders and the ghosts in Shakespeare will become obsolete. At last there will be nothing left, good nor bad, to be desired or dreaded, on the theatre or in real life. A question has been started with respect to the originality of Shakespeare’s Witches, which has been well answered by Mr. Lamb in his notes to the Specimens of Early Dramatic Poetry:
“Though some resemblance may be traced between the charms in Macbeth and the incantations in this play (the Witch of Middleton), which is supposed to have preceded it, this coincidence will not detract much from the originality of Shakespeare. His Witches are distinguished from the Witches of Middleton by essential differences. These are creatures to whom man or woman plotting some dire mischief might resort for occasional consultation. Those originate deeds of blood, and begin bad impulses to men. From the moment that their eyes first meet with Macbeth’s, he is spellbound. That meeting sways his destiny. He can never break the fascination. These Witches can hurt the body; those have power over the soul.—Hecate in Middleton has a son, a low buffoon: the hags of Shakespeare have neither child of their own, nor seem to be descended from any parent. They are foul anomalies, of whom we know not whence they are sprung, nor whether they have beginning or ending. As they are without human passions, so they seem to be without human relations. They come with thunder and lightning, and vanish to airy music. This is all we know of them.—Except Hecate, they have no names, which heightens their mysteriousness. The names, and some of the properties which Middleton has given to his hags, excite smiles. The Weird Sisters are serious things. Their presence cannot coexist with mirth. But, in a lesser degree, the Witches of Middleton are fine creations. Their power too is, in some measure, over the mind. They raise jars, jealousies, strifes, ‘Like a thick scurf o’er life.’”
Julius Caesar was one of three principal plays by different authors, pitched upon by the celebrated Earl of Halifax to be brought out in a splendid manner by subscription, in the year 1707. The other two were the King and No King of Fletcher, and Dryden’s Maiden Queen. There perhaps might be political reasons for this selection, as far as regards our author. Otherwise, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is not equal, as a whole, to either of his other plays taken from the Roman history. It is inferior in interest to Coriolanus, and both in interest and power to Antony and Cleopatra. It, however, abounds in admirable and affecting passages, and is remarkable for the profound knowledge of character, in which Shakespeare could scarcely fail. If there is any exception to this remark, it is in the hero of the piece himself. We do not much admire the representation here given of Julius Caesar, nor do we think it answers to the portrait given of him in his Commentaries. He makes several vapouring and rather pedantic speeches, and does nothing. Indeed, he has nothing to do. So far, the fault of the character might be the fault of the plot.
The spirit with which the poet has entered at once into the manners of the common people, and the jealousies and heartburnings of the different factions, is shown in the first scene, when Flavius and Marullus, tribunes of the people, and some citizens of Rome, appear upon the stage.
Flavius. Thou art a cobbler, art thou?
Cobbler. Truly, Sir, all that I live by, is the awl: I meddle with no tradesman’s matters, nor woman’s matters, but with-al, I am indeed, Sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when they are in great danger, I recover them.
Flavius. But wherefore art not in thy shop today? Why dost thou lead these men about the streets?
Cobbler. Truly, Sir, to wear out their shoes, to get myself into more work. But indeed. Sir, we make holiday to see Caesar, and rejoice in his triumph.
To this specimen of quaint low humour immediately follows that unexpected and animated burst of indignant eloquence, put into the mouth of one of the angry tribunes.
Marullus. Wherefore rejoice!—What conquest brings he home?
What tributaries follow him to Rome,
To grace in captive-bonds his chariot-wheels?
Oh you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome!
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The live-long day with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath his banks
To hear the replication of your sounds,
Made in his concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out an holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the Gods to intermit the plague,
That needs must light on this ingratitude.
The well-known dialogue between Brutus and Cassius, in which the latter breaks the design of the conspiracy to the former, and partly gains him over to it, is a noble piece of high-minded declamation. Cassius’s insisting on the pretended effeminacy of Caesar’s character, and his description of their swimming across the Tiber together, ‘once upon a raw and gusty day’, are among the finest strokes in it. But perhaps the whole is not equal to the short scene which follows when Caesar enters with his train.
Brutus. The games are done, and Caesar is returning.
Cassius. As they pass by, pluck Casca by the sleeve,
And he will, after his sour fashion, tell you
What has proceeded worthy note today.
Brutus. I will do so; but look you, Cassius—
The angry spot doth glow on Caesar’s brow,
And all the rest look like a chidden train.
Calphurnia’s cheek is pale; and Cicero
Looks with such ferret and such fiery eyes,
As we have seen him in the Capitol,
Being crost in conference by some senators.
Cassius. Casca will tell us what the matter is.
Caesar. Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.
Antony. Fear him not, Caesar, he’s not dangerous;
He is a noble Roman, and well given.
Caesar. Would he were fatter; but I fear him not:
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much;
He is a great observer; and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men. He loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort,
As if he mock’d himself, and scorn’d his spirit,
That could be mov’d to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease,
Whilst they behold a greater than themselves;
And therefore are they very dangerous.
I rather tell thee what is to be fear’d
Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.
Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf,
And tell me truly what thou think’st of him.
The History of King Lear is an adaptation by Nahum Tate of William Shakespeare's King Lear. It first appeared in 1681, some seventy-five years after Shakespeare's version, and is believed to have replaced Shakespeare's version on the English stage in whole or in part until 1838.
Unlike Shakespeare's tragedy, Tate's play has a happy ending, with Lear regaining his throne, Cordelia marrying Edgar, and Edgar joyfully declaring that "truth and virtue shall at last succeed." Regarded as a tragicomedy, the play has five acts, as does Shakespeare's, although the number of scenes is different, and the text is about eight hundred lines shorter than Shakespeare's. Many of Shakespeare's original lines are retained, or modified only slightly, but a significant portion of the text is entirely new, and much is omitted. The character of the Fool, for example, is absent.
Although many critics – including Joseph Addison, August Wilhelm Schlegel, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Anna Jameson — condemned Tate's adaptation for what they saw as its cheap sentimentality, it was popular with theatregoers, and was approved by Samuel Johnson, who regarded Cordelia's death in Shakespeare's play as unbearable. Shakespeare's version continued to appear in printed editions of his works, but, according to numerous scholars, including A.C. Bradley and Stanley Wells, did not appear on the English stage for over a hundred and fifty years from the date of the first performance of Tate's play. Actors such as Thomas Betterton, David Garrick, and John Philip Kemble, who were famous for the role of Lear, were portraying Tate's Lear, not Shakespeare's.
The tragic ending was briefly restored by Edmund Kean in 1823. In 1838, William Charles Macready purged the text entirely of Tate, in favour of a shortened version of Shakespeare's original. Finally, Samuel Phelps returned to the complete Shakespeare text in 1845.
Comparison with Shakespeare
In Shakespeare's version, Lear, King of Britain, is growing old, and decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters – Goneril, wife of the Duke of Albany, Regan, wife of the Duke of Cornwall, and the youngest daughter, Cordelia, sought in marriage by the Duke of Burgundy and the King of France. The King decides that he will give the best part of the kingdom to the daughter who loves him most, and asks his three daughters to state how much they love him. Goneril and Regan make hypocritical, flattering speeches, and are rewarded with a third each; Cordelia, however, cannot or will not stoop to false flattery for gain, and tells her father that she loves him as much as she should, and that she will love her husband as well if she marries. Enraged, the King disinherits and disowns his once-favourite child, and divides her portion between her two elder sisters. The loyal Earl of Kent speaks up boldly to defend Cordelia, and is banished by the furious King. The Duke of Burgundy withdraws his suit on finding Cordelia deprived of a dowry, but the King of France gladly accepts her as his bride.
In a sub-plot, the Earl of Gloucester is tricked by his wicked, illegitimate younger son, Edmund, into believing that his virtuous, legitimate elder son, Edgar is plotting his death. Edgar is forced to flee for his life, and disguises himself as a madman.
Kent, returning in disguise, offers himself in service to Lear, and is accepted. Lear also enjoys the loyalty of his Fool. Goneril and Regan, now that they have the kingdom, treat their father with contempt, and demand that he reduce the number of knights attending on him. Lear curses his daughters, and rushes out into the storm.
Gloucester tries to assist the King, despite being forbidden to by Regan and Cornwall. Edmund betrays his father, to inherit sooner. Regan and Cornwall interrogate Gloucester, and Cornwall gouges out Gloucester's eyes, before being killed by a horrified servant. Lear is raving in the storm with Kent and the Fool, his sanity gone. They are joined by Edgar, pretending to be mad. Edgar meets his blinded father. Grieved and shocked, he maintains his disguise but stays with his father and manages to save him from suicide.
Goneril and Regan both fall in love with Edmund and become jealous of each other. Edgar fights and kills a servant sent by Goneril to kill his father. He finds in the dead servant's pocket a letter from Goneril to Edmund, proposing that Edmund murder Albany and marry her. Cordelia meets Lear and they are reconciled. His frenzy has passed, and doctors are taking care of him.
Edgar, still disguised, gives Goneril's incriminating letter to Albany. An army, sent by Cordelia's forces in France, fights the British forces and is defeated. Lear and Cordelia are captured and sent to prison. Albany intends to show them mercy, but Edmund secretly sends a message to the prison to have them hanged. Edgar accuses Edmund of treachery, and challenges him to a duel. The two brothers fight, and Edmund is fatally wounded. Goneril rushes out in despair. Regan dies, and Goneril stabs herself to death, after confessing that she poisoned Regan. Edgar then reveals his identity to Edmund, and tells how their father died from frailty, joy, and grief, when Edgar revealed himself to him. Edmund expresses remorse, and confesses his order to have Lear and Cordelia hanged in prison. A reprieve is sent too late: Lear enters with Cordelia's body in his arms, howling in anguish. Kent tries to tell Lear how he served him in disguise, but Lear is unable to comprehend this, and has thoughts only for his dead daughter — "I might have saved her; now she's gone for ever." His heart breaks and he dies. Albany says that Kent and Edgar will rule in the Kingdom, but Kent hints at his own approaching death.
Tate's version omits the King of France, and adds a romance between Cordelia and Edgar, who never address each other in Shakespeare's original. Cordelia explains in an aside that her motive for remaining silent when Lear demands public expressions of love is that he leave her without a dowry, so she can escape the "loathed embraces" of Burgundy. Nevertheless, when Burgundy departs, his obvious self-interest temporarily causes her to lose faith in Edgar's love and fidelity, and, left alone with him, she tells him not to speak to her again of love.
There is no Fool in Tate's version, so Lear, left to his daughters' mercies, has the fidelity only of the disguised Kent. Cordelia never leaves for France, but stays in England and tries to find her father in the storm, to help him. Tate gives her a servant or confidant, Arante. Tate adds further wickedness to the character of Edmund, who plans to rape Cordelia, and sends two ruffians to abduct her. They are driven off by the disguised Edgar, who then reveals his identity to Cordelia, and is rewarded by being accepted back into her love again.
The battle to restore Lear to the throne is not from a foreign army sent by Cordelia, but from the British people, who are resentful of the tyranny of Goneril and Regan, indignant at their treatment of Lear, and outraged by the blinding of Gloster (changed in spelling from Shakespeare's original). As in Shakespeare's version, Lear's side loses, and he and Cordelia are taken prisoner. Edmund ignores Albany's wish to show mercy, and sends a secret message to have them hanged. Edgar reveals his identity to Edmund before the brothers fight. Edmund dies with no sign of remorse and makes no attempt to save Lear and Cordelia. Instead of Goneril poisoning Regan and later stabbing herself, the two sisters secretly poison each other. Gloster survives the shock of learning the identity of Edgar, whom he has treated unjustly. Lear kills two men who approach Cordelia to hang her, and Edgar and Albany arrive with a reprieve. Albany resigns the crown to Lear, and Lear announces that "Cordelia shall be Queen." Lear gives Cordelia to Edgar — "I wrong'd Him too, but here's the fair Amends." Lear, Kent, and Gloster will retire "to some cool Cell." The overjoyed Edgar declares that "Truth and Virtue shall at last succeed."
Tate's version is about 800 lines shorter than Shakespeare's. Some of Shakespeare's original lines are left intact; some are modified slightly, or given to different speakers. In the words of Stanley Wells, Tate "rather asked for trouble by retaining as much of Shakespeare as he did, thereby inviting odious comparisons with verse that he wrote himself." But Wells also points out that at the time that Tate was making his alterations, Shakespeare was not regarded as a master whose works could not be touched, but "as a dramatist whose works, however admirable, required adaptation to fit them for the new theatrical and social circumstances of the time, as well as to changes in taste."
Many of the changes that are made by Tate are a result of Restoration ideas of the time. Tate's play was popular in the 1680s, after the restoring of the monarchy after the Interregnum. This time is known as the Restoration and there were specific tastes and ideas about theatre at this time due to the political and social climate which influenced the changes Tate made. James Black supports this claim by stating, "The Restoration stage was often an extension of the real-life political and philosophical milieu." Tate chose to draw upon politics and restore Lear to his throne just as Charles II was restored as the English monarch making the play more topical and relatable with audiences at the time. Not only can Tate's restoring Lear to the throne be justified by Restoration sensibilities but the addition of the love story between Cordelia and Edgar, and the omission of the Fool are also the result of Restoration ideas.
Background and history
The earliest known performance of Shakespeare's King Lear is one which took place at the court of King James I on 26 December 1606. Some scholars believe that it was not well received, as there are few surviving references to it. The theatres were closed during the Puritan Revolution, and while records from the period are incomplete, Shakespeare's Lear is only known to have been performed twice more, after the Restoration, before being replaced by Tate's version.
Tate's radical adaptation — The History of King Lear — appeared in 1681. In the dedicatory epistle, he explains how in Shakespeare's version, he realised that he had found "a Heap of Jewels, unstrung and unpolisht; yet so dazling in their Disorder, that [he] soon perceiv'd [he] had seiz'd a Treasure", and how he found it necessary to "rectifie what was wanting in the Regularity and Probability of the Tale," a love between Edgar and Cordelia, which would make Cordelia's indifference to her father's anger more convincing in the first scene, and would justify Edgar's disguise, "making that a generous Design that was before a poor Shift to save his Life."
The History of King Lear was first performed in 1681, in the Duke's Theatre in London, with the leading roles taken by Thomas Betterton (as Lear) and Elizabeth Barry (as Cordelia), both remembered now for their portrayal of Shakespeare's characters. Tate relates that he was "Rackt with no small Fears" because of the boldness of his undertaking, until he "found it well receiv'd by [his] Audience"
This happy-ending adaptation was, in fact, so well received by audiences, that, according to Stanley Wells, Tate's version "supplanted Shakespeare's play in every performance given from 1681 to 1838", and was "one of the longest-lasting successes of the English drama." As Samuel Johnson wrote, more than eighty years after the appearance of Tate's version, "In the present case the public has decided. Cordelia from the time of Tate has always retired with victory and felicity." Famous Shakespearean actors such as David Garrick, John Philip Kemble, and Edmund Kean who played Lear during that period were not portraying the tragic figure who dies, broken-hearted, gazing at his daughter's body, but the Lear who regains his crown and gleefully announces to Kent:
- Why I have News that will recall thy Youth;
- Ha! Didst Thou hear 't, or did th' inspiring Gods
- Whisper to me Alone? Old Lear shall be
- A King again.
Although Shakespeare's entire text did not reappear on stage for over a century and a half, this does not mean that it was always completely replaced by Tate's version. Tate's version was itself subject to adaptation. It is known that Garrick used Tate's complete text in his performances in 1742, but playbills advertising performances at Lincoln's Inn Fields the following year (with an anonymous "Gentleman" playing Lear) mentioned "restorations from Shakespeare". Garrick prepared a new adaptation of Tate's version for performances given from 1756, with considerable restoration from the earlier parts of the play, although Tate's happy ending was retained, and the Fool was still omitted. Garrick's rival Spranger Barry also played Tate's Lear the same year, in a performance which, according to the poet and playwright Frances Brooke, moved the whole house to tears, though Brooke marvelled that Spranger and Garrick should both have given Tate's work "the preference to Shakespeare's excellent original", and that Garrick, in particular, should "prefer the adulterated cup of Tate to the pure genuine draught offered him by the master he avows to serve with such fervency of devotion."
Although Garrick restored a considerable amount of Shakespeare's text in 1756, it was by no means a complete return to Shakespeare, and he continued to play Tate's Lear in some form to the end of his career. His performances met with enormous success, and continued to draw tears from his audiences, even without Shakespeare's final, tragic scene where Lear enters with Cordelia's body in his arms.
As literary critics grew increasingly scornful of Tate, his version still remained "the starting point for performances on the English-speaking stage."John Philip Kemble, in 1809, even dropped some of Garrick's earlier restorations of Shakespeare, and returned several passages to Tate. The play was suppressed for several years prior to the death of King George III in 1820, as its focus on a mad king suggested an unfortunate resemblance to the situation of the reigning monarch. But in 1823, Kemble's rival, Edmund Kean (who had previously acted Tate's Lear), "stimulated by Hazlitt's remonstrances and Charles Lamb's essays," became the first to restore the tragic ending, though much of Tate remained in the earlier acts. "The London audience," Kean told his wife, "have no notion of what I can do till they see me over the dead body of Cordelia." Kean played the tragic Lear for a few performances. They were not well received, though one critic described his dying scene as "deeply affecting", and with regret, he reverted to Tate.
In 1834, William Charles Macready, who had previously called Tate's adaptation a "miserable debilitation and disfigurement of Shakespeare's sublime tragedy", presented his first "restored" version of Shakespeare's text, though without the Fool. Writing of his excessive nervousness, he relates that the audience appeared "interested and attentive" in the third act, and "broke out into loud applause" in the fourth and fifth acts. Four years later, in 1838, he abandoned Tate altogether, and played Lear from a shortened and rearranged version of Shakespeare's text, with which he was later to tour New York, and which included the Fool and the tragic ending. The production was successful, and marked the end of Tate's reign in the English theatre, though it was not until 1845 that Samuel Phelps restored the complete, original Shakespearean text.
In spite of Macready's visit to New York with his production of a restored Shakespeare version, Tate remained the standard version in the United States until 1875, when Edwin Booth became the first notable American actor to play Lear without Tate. No subsequent production reverted to Tate, except for occasional modern revivals as historical curiosities, such as that offered by the Riverside Shakespeare Company in March 1985 at The Shakespeare Center in New York City.
While Tate's version proved extremely popular on the stage, the response of literary critics has generally been negative. An early example of approval from a critic is found in Charles Gildon's "Remarks on the Plays of Shakespeare" in 1710:
The King and Cordelia ought by no means to have dy'd, and therefore Mr Tate has very justly alter'd that particular, which must disgust the Reader and Audience to have Vertue and Piety meet so unjust a Reward. . . . We rejoice at the deaths of the Bastard and the two Sisters, as of Monsters in Nature under whom the very Earth must groan. And we see with horror and Indignation the Death of the King, Cordelia and Kent.
The translator and author Thomas Cooke also gave Tate's version his blessing: in the introduction to his own play The Triumphs of Love and Honour (1731), he commented that Lear and Gloucester "are made sensible or their Errors, and are placed in a State of Tranquility and Ease agreeable to their Age and Condition . . . rejoicing in the Felicity of Edgar and Cordelia." Cooke added that he had "read many Sermons, but remember[ed] no one that contains so fine a Lesson of Morality as this Play."
Samuel Johnson also approved of the happy ending, believing that the fact that Tate's version had so successfully supplanted Shakespeare's was evidence that Shakespeare's tragedy was simply unendurable. Taking the complete disappearance of the tragic ending from the stage as a sign that "the public [had] decided", he added:
And if my sensations could add anything to the general suffrage, I might relate that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.
Others were less enthusiastic about the alterations. Joseph Addison complained that the play, as rewritten by Tate, had "lost half its beauty", while August Wilhelm Schlegel wrote:
I must own, I cannot conceive what ideas of art and dramatic connexion those persons have who suppose that we can at pleasure tack a double conclusion to a tragedy; a melancholy one for hard-hearted spectators, and a happy one for souls of a softer mould. After surviving so many sufferings, Lear can only die, and what more truly tragic end for him than to die from grief for the death of Cordelia? and if he is also to be saved and to pass the remainder of his days in happiness, the whole loses its signification.
In a letter to the editor of The Spectator in 1828, Charles Lamb expressed his "indignation at the sickly stuff interpolated by Tate in the genuine play of King Lear" and his disgust at "these blockheads" who believed that "the daughterly Cordelia must whimper [her] love affections before [she] could hope to touch the gentle hearts in the boxes." Some years previously, Lamb had criticised Tate's alterations as "tamperings", and had complained that for Tate and his followers, Shakespeare's treatment of Lear's story:
- is too hard and stony; it must have love-scenes, and a happy ending. It is not enough that Cordelia is a daughter, she must shine as a lover too. Tate has put his hook in the nostrils of this Leviathan, for Garrick and his followers, the showmen of scene, to draw the mighty beast about more easily. A happy ending!—as if the living martyrdom that Lear had gone through,—the flaying of his feelings alive, did not make a fair dismissal from the stage of life the only decorous thing for him. If he is to live and be happy after, if he could sustain this world's burden after, why all this pudder and preparation,—why torment us with all this unnecessary sympathy? As if the childish pleasure of getting his gilt-robes and sceptre again could tempt him to act over again his misused station,—as if at his years, and with his experience, anything was left but to die.
Quoting that extract from Lamb, and calling him "a better authority" than Johnson or Schlegel "on any subject in which poetry and feelings are concerned", essayist William Hazlitt also rejected the happy ending, and argued that after seeing the afflictions that Lear has endured, we feel the truth of Kent's words as Lear's heart finally breaks:
- Vex not his ghost: O let him pass! he hates him
- That would upon the rack of this tough world
- Stretch him out longer.
The art and literature critic Anna Jameson was particularly scathing in her criticism of Tate's efforts. In her book on Shakespeare's heroines, published just six years before Macready finally removed all traces of Tate from Shakespeare's play, Jameson wondered
who, after sufferings and tortures such as [Lear's], would wish to see his life prolonged? What! replace a sceptre in that shaking hand?—a crown upon that old grey head, on which the tempest had poured in its wrath, on which the deep dread-bolted thunders and the winged lightnings had spent their fury? O never, never!
Jameson was equally appalled by the introduction of a romance between Cordelia and Edgar, which had not been part of the old legend. While acknowledging that prior to Shakespeare's writing of King Lear, some versions of the story had ended happily, and that Tate's returning of the crown to Lear was therefore not a complete innovation, Jameson complained that on stage:
they have converted the seraph-like Cordelia into a puling love heroine, and sent her off victorious at the end of the play—exit with drums and colours flying—to be married to Edgar. Now anything more absurd, more discordant with all our previous impressions, and with the characters as unfolded to us, can hardly be imagined.
The Shakespearean critic A.C. Bradley was more ambivalent. Though agreeing that we are right to "turn with disgust from Tate's sentimental adaptations, from his marriage of Edgar and Cordelia, and from that cheap moral which every one of Shakespeare's tragedies contradicts, 'that Truth and Virtue shall at last succeed'", yet he "venture[d] to doubt" that "Tate and Dr. Johnson [were] altogether in the wrong". Sharing Johnson's view that the tragic ending was too harsh, too shocking, Bradley observed that King Lear, while frequently described as Shakespeare's greatest work, the best of his plays, was yet less popular than Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello; that the general reader, though acknowledging its greatness, would also speak of it with a certain distaste; and that it was the least often presented on stage, as well as being the least successful there. Bradley suggested that the feeling which prompted Tate's alteration and which allowed it to replace Shakespeare on stage for over a century was a general wish that Lear and Cordelia might escape their doom. Distinguishing between the philanthropic sense, which also wishes other tragic figures to be saved, and the dramatic sense, which does not, but which still wishes to spare Lear and Cordelia, he suggested that the emotions have already been sufficiently stirred before their deaths, and he believed that Shakespeare would have given Lear "peace and happiness by Cordelia's fireside", had he taken the subject in hand a few years later, at the time that he was writing Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. Agreeing with Lamb that the agony that Lear has undergone makes "a fair dismissal from the stage of life the only decorous thing for him", Bradley argues that "it is precisely this fair dismissal which we desire for him", not the renewed anguish which Shakespeare inflicts on him with the death of Cordelia.
As Tate's Lear disappeared from the stage (except when revived as a historical curiosity), and as critics were no longer faced with the difficulties of reconciling a happy ending on the stage with a tragic ending on the page, the expressions of indignation and disgust became less frequent, and Tate's version, when mentioned at all by modern critics, is usually mentioned simply as an interesting episode in the performance history of one of Shakespeare's greatest works.
Tate's Lear in the 20th and 21st centuries
Nahum Tate's The History of King Lear was successfully remounted in New York, at The Shakespeare Center on Mahattan's Upper West Side, staged by the Riverside Shakespeare Company in 1985. For this production, conventions of the mid-17th century English theatre, when Tate's Lear was popular, were used in the staging, such as raked stage covered with green felt (as was the custom for tragedies), footlights used for illumination on an apron stage (or curved proscenium stage), and period costumes drawn from the era of David Garrick. Musical interludes were sung by cast members during the act breaks, accompanied by a harpsichord in the orchestra pit before the stage. The production was directed by the company's Artistic Director, W. Stuart McDowell, and featured Eric Hoffmann in the role of Lear, and supported by an Equity company of fifteen, including Frank Muller in the role of the Bastard Edmund. The play, with its "happy ending", became known as a "King Lear for optimists" by the press, and proved one of the most popular productions by the Riverside Shakespeare Company.
The play formed part of the American Shakespeare Center's 2013-2014 "Slightly Skewed Shakespeare" Staged Reading series, produced on 19 April 2014 by graduate students from Mary Baldwin College's Shakespeare and Performance MLitt/MFA program.
- ^ abcdefgStanley Wells, "Introduction" from King Lear, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 63; Stanley Wells and Michael Dobson, eds., The Oxford Companion to ShakespeareOxford University Press, 2001, p. 247; Grace Ioppolo, ed., King Lear, New York, Norton Critical Edition, 2008, Introduction, p. xii.
- ^ abcA.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904. Reprinted by Macmillan 1976. Lecture VII, p. 199.
- ^Bradley, Lecture VIII, p. 261.
- ^ abWells, p. 62.
- ^Wells and Dobson, p. 247.
- ^ abcdCharles Boyce, Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare, New York, Roundtable Press, 1990, p. 350.
- ^ abNahum Tate, The History of King Lear, Epistle Dedicatory.
- ^Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, London, Penguin Books, 1989, p. 222-3.
- ^Frances Brooke, The Old Maid (1756), reprinted in Brian Vickers, ed. Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage Volume 4, London, Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1974, p. 249.
- ^ abcdeWells, p. 69.
- ^Grace Ioppolo, William Shakespeare's King Lear: A Sourcebook. London, Routledge, 2003, p. 79.
- ^Edward Dowden, "Introduction to King Lear" in Shakespeare Tragedies, Oxford University Press, 1912, p. 743.
- ^ abGeorge Daniel, quoted in Ioppolo, Sourcebook, p. 79.
- ^ abIoppolo, Sourcebook, p. 69.
- ^Extracts from Macready's Reminiscences and Selections from his Diaries and Letters ed. F. Pollock, 1876, reproduced in Ioppolo, Sourcebook, p. 80.
- ^Eleanor Blau, Lear with a Twist, New York Times, 8 March 1985
- ^Ioppolo, Sourcebook, p. 49.
- ^Thomas Cooke, The Triumphs of Love and Honour (1731), reprinted in Brian Vickers, ed., Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage Volume 2, London, Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1974, p. 465-6.
- ^Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, p. 222-223.
- ^Joseph Addison in The Spectator no. 40, 16 April 1711, quoted in Brian Vickers (ed) Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage Volume 2, London, Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1974, p. 273.
- ^August Wilhelm Schlegel, Dramatic Art and Literature translated by John Black, London, Henry G. Bohn, 1846, p. 413.
- ^Charles Lamb, "Shakespeare's Improvers", Letter to the Editor of The Spectator, 22 November 1828. Reprinted in Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, Volume 1, ed Thomas Hutchinson, Oxford University Press, 1908, pages 420–421.
- ^Charles Lamb, On the Tragedies of Shakespeare.
- ^William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespear's Plays, 1817, reprinted London, Bell and Daldy, 1870, p. 124.
- ^Act V, Scene 3, quoted in Hazlitt, p. 124.
- ^ abAnna Jameson, Shakespeare's Heroines, 1832, reprinted London, G. Bell and Sons, 1913, p. 213.
- ^Bradley, p. 205-206.
- ^Bradley, pages 198–9.
- ^ abBradley, p. 206.
- ^Eric Sven Ristad. "Excellent production of butchered King Lear." The Tech, Tuesday, 9 April 1985.
- ^ abHoward Kissell, "King Lear for Optimists," Women's Wear Daily, 22 March 1985.
- ^Mel Gussow, "Tate's Lear at Riverside," The New York Times, 5 April 1985.
The History of King Lear public domain audiobook at LibriVox