The Art Of Shakspere, As Revealed By Himself by George MacDonald

Story type: Essay

[Footnote: 1863.]

Who taught you this?
I learn’d it out of women’s faces.

Winter’s Tale, Act ii. scene 1.

One occasionally hears the remark, that the commentators upon Shakspere find far more in Shakspere than Shakspere ever intended to express. Taking this assertion as it stands, it may be freely granted, not only of Shakspere, but of every writer of genius. But if it be intended by it, that nothing can exist in any work of art beyond what the writer was conscious of while in the act of producing it, so much of its scope is false.

No artist can have such a claim to the high title of creator, as that he invents for himself the forms, by means of which he produces his new result; and all the forms of man and nature which he modifies and combines to make a new region in his world of art, have their own original life and meaning. The laws likewise of their various combinations are natural laws, harmonious with each other. While, therefore, the artist employs many or few of their original aspects for his immediate purpose, he does not and cannot thereby deprive them of the many more which are essential to their vitality, and the vitality likewise of his presentation of them, although they form only the background from which his peculiar use of them stands out. The objects presented must therefore fall, to the eye of the observant reader, into many different combinations and harmonies of operation and result, which are indubitably there, whether the writer saw them or not. These latent combinations and relations will be numerous and true, in proportion to the scope and the truth of the representation; and the greater the number of meanings, harmonious with each other, which any work of art presents, the greater claim it has to be considered a work of genius. It must, therefore, be granted, and that joyfully, that there may be meanings in Shakspere’s writings which Shakspere himself did not see, and to which therefore his art, as art, does not point.

But the probability, notwithstanding, must surely be allowed as well, that, in great artists, the amount of conscious art will bear some proportion to the amount of unconscious truth: the visible volcanic light will bear a true relation to the hidden fire of the globe; so that it will not seem likely that, in such a writer as Shakspere, we should find many indications of present and operative art, of which he was himself unaware. Some truths may be revealed through him, which he himself knew only potentially; but it is not likely that marks of work, bearing upon the results of the play, should be fortuitous, or that the work thus indicated should be unconscious work. A stroke of the mallet may be more effective than the sculptor had hoped; but it was intended. In the drama it is easier to discover individual marks of the chisel, than in the marble whence all signs of such are removed: in the drama the lines themselves fall into the general finish, without necessary obliteration as lines: Still, the reader cannot help being fearful, lest, not as regards truth only, but as regards art as well, he be sometimes clothing the idol of his intellect with the weavings of his fancy. My conviction is, that it is the very consummateness of Shakspere’s art, that exposes his work to the doubt that springs from loving anxiety for his honour; the dramatist, like the sculptor, avoiding every avoidable hint of the process, in order to render the result a vital whole. But, fortunately, we are not left to argue entirely from probabilities. He has himself given us a peep into his studio–let me call it workshop, as more comprehensive.

It is not, of course, in the shape of literary criticism, that we should expect to meet such a revelation; for to use art even consciously, and to regard it as an object of contemplation, or to theorize about it, are two very different mental operations. The productive and critical faculties are rarely found in equal combination; and even where they are, they cannot operate equally in regard to the same object. There is a perfect satisfaction in producing, which does not demand a re-presentation to the critical faculty. In other words, the criticism which a great writer brings to bear upon his own work, is from within, regarding it upon the hidden side, namely, in relation to his own idea; whereas criticism, commonly understood, has reference to the side turned to the public gaze. Neither could we expect one so prolific as Shakspere to find time for the criticism of the works of other men, except in such moments of relaxation as those in which the friends at the Mermaid Tavern sat silent beneath the flow of his wisdom and humour, or made the street ring with the overflow of their own enjoyment.

But if the artist proceed to speculate upon the nature or productions of another art than his own, we may then expect the principles upon which he operates in his own, to take outward and visible form–a form modified by the difference of the art to which he now applies them. In one of Shakspere’s poems, we have the description of an imagined production of a sister-art–that of Painting–a description so brilliant that the light reflected from the poet-picture illumines the art of the Poet himself, revealing the principles which he held with regard to representative art generally, and suggesting many thoughts with regard to detail and harmony, finish, pregnancy, and scope. This description is found in “The Rape of Lucrece.” Apology will hardly be necessary for making a long quotation, seeing that, besides the convenience it will afford of easy reference to the ground of my argument, one of the greatest helps which even the artist can give to us, is to isolate peculiar beauties, and so compel us to perceive them.

Lucrece has sent a messenger to beg the immediate presence of her husband. Awaiting his return, and worn out with weeping, she looks about for some variation of her misery.


At last she calls to mind where hangs a piece
Of skilful painting, made for Priam’s Troy;
Before the which is drawn the power of Greece,
For Helen’s rape the city to destroy,
Threatening cloud-kissing Ilion with annoy;
Which the conceited painter drew so proud,
As heaven, it seemed, to kiss the turrets, bowed.


A thousand lamentable objects there,
In scorn of Nature, Art gave lifeless life:
Many a dry drop seemed a weeping tear,
Shed for the slaughtered husband by the wife;
The red blood reeked, to show the painter’s strife.
And dying eyes gleamed forth their ashy lights,
Like dying coals burnt out in tedious nights.


There might you see the labouring pioneer
Begrimed with sweat, and smeared all with dust;
And, from the towers of Troy there would appear
The very eyes of men through loopholes thrust,
Gazing upon the Greeks with little lust:
Such sweet observance in this work was had,
That one might see those far-off eyes look sad.


In great commanders, grace and majesty
You might behold, triumphing in their faces;
In youth, quick bearing and dexterity;
And here and there the painter interlaces
Pale cowards, marching on with trembling paces,
Which heartless peasants did so well resemble,
That one would swear he saw them quake and tremble.


In Ajax and Ulysses, O what art
Of physiognomy might one behold!
The face of either ciphered either’s heart;
Their face their manners most expressly told:
In Ajax’ eyes blunt rage and rigour rolled;
But the mild glance that sly Ulysses lent
Showed deep regard, and smiling government.

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There pleading might you see grave Nestor stand,
As ’twere encouraging the Greeks to fight;
Making such sober action with his hand,
That it beguiled attention, charmed the sight;
In speech, it seemed his beard, all silver-white,
Wagged up and down, and from his lips did fly
Thin winding breath, which purled up to the sky.


About him were a press of gaping faces,
Which seemed to swallow up his sound advice;
All jointly listening, but with several graces,
As if some mermaid did their ears entice;
Some high, some low, the painter was so nice.
The scalps of many, almost hid behind,
To jump up higher seemed, to mock the mind.


Here one man’s hand leaned on another’s head,
His nose being shadowed by his neighbour’s ear;
Here one, being thronged, bears back, all bollen and red;
Another, smothered, seems to pelt and swear;
And in their rage such signs of rage they bear,
As, but for loss of Nestor’s golden words,
It seemed they would debate with angry swords.


For much imaginary work was there;
Conceit deceitful, so compact, so kind,
That for Achilles’ image stood his spear,
Griped in an armed hand; himself behind
Was left unseen, save to the eye of mind:
A hand, a foot, a face, a leg, a head,
Stood for the whole to be imagined.


And, from the walls of strong-besieged Troy,
When their brave hope, bold Hector, marched to field,
Stood many Trojan mothers, sharing joy
To see their youthful sons bright weapons wield,
And to their hope they such odd action yield;
That through their light joy seemed to appear,
Like bright things stained, a kind of heavy fear.


And from the strond of Dardan, where they fought,
To Simois’ reedy banks, the red blood ran;
Whose waves to imitate the battle sought,
With swelling ridges; and their ranks began
To break upon the galled shore, and then
Retire again, till, meeting greater ranks,
They join, and shoot their foam at Simois’ banks.

The oftener I read these verses, amongst the very earliest compositions of Shakspere, I am the more impressed with the carefulness with which he represents the work of the picture–“shows the strife of the painter.” The most natural thought to follow in sequence is: How like his own art!

The scope and variety of the whole picture, in which mass is effected by the accumulation of individuality; in which, on the one hand, Troy stands as the impersonation of the aim and object of the whole; and on the other, the Simois flows in foaming rivalry of the strife of men,–the pictorial form of that sympathy of nature with human effort and passion, which he so often introduces in his plays,–is like nothing else so much as one of the works of his own art. But to take a portion as a more condensed representation of his art in combining all varieties into one harmonious whole: his genius is like the oratory of Nestor as described by its effects in the seventh and eighth stanzas. Every variety of attitude and countenance and action is harmonized by the influence which is at once the occasion of debate, and the charm which restrains by the fear of its own loss: the eloquence and the listening form the one bond of the unruly mass. So the dramatic genius that harmonizes his play, is visible only in its effects; so ethereal in its own essence that it refuses to be submitted to the analysis of the ruder intellect, it is like the words of Nestor, for which in the picture there stands but “thin winding breath which purled up to the sky.” Take, for an instance of this, the reconciling power by which, in the mysterious midnight of the summer-wood, he brings together in one harmony the graceful passions of childish elves, and the fierce passions of men and women, with the ludicrous reflection of those passions in the little convex mirror of the artisan’s drama; while the mischievous Puck revels in things that fall out preposterously, and the Elf-Queen is in love with ass-headed Bottom, from the hollows of whose long hairy ears–strange bouquet-holders–bloom and breathe the musk-roses, the characteristic odour-founts of the play; and the philosophy of the unbelieving Theseus, with the candour of Hippolyta, lifts the whole into relation with the realities of human life. Or take, as another instance, the pretended madman Edgar, the court-fool, and the rugged old king going grandly mad, sheltered in one hut, and lapped in the roar of a thunderstorm.

My object, then, in respect to this poem, is to produce, from many instances, a few examples of the metamorphosis of such excellences as he describes in the picture, into the corresponding forms of the drama; in the hope that it will not then be necessary to urge the probability that the presence of those artistic virtues in his own practice, upon which he expatiates in his representation of another man’s art, were accompanied by the corresponding consciousness–that, namely, of the artist as differing from that of the critic, its objects being regarded from the concave side of the hammered relief. If this probability be granted, I would, from it, advance to a higher and far more important conclusion–how unlikely it is that if the writer was conscious of such fitnesses, he should be unconscious of those grand embodiments of truth, which are indubitably present in his plays, whether he knew it or not. This portion of my argument will be strengthened by an instance to show that Shakspere was himself quite at home in the contemplation of such truths.

Let me adduce, then, some of those corresponding embodiments in words instead of in forms; in which colours yield to tones, lines to phrases. I will begin with the lowest kind, in which the art has to do with matters so small, that it is difficult to believe that unconscious art could have any relation to them. They can hardly have proceeded directly from the great inspiration of the whole. Their very minuteness is an argument for their presence to the poet’s consciousness; while belonging, as they do, only to the construction of the play, no such independent existence can be accorded to them, as to truths, which, being in themselves realities, are there, whether Shakspere saw them or not. If he did not intend them, the most that can be said for them is, that such is the naturalness of Shakspere’s representations, that there is room in his plays, as in life, for those wonderful coincidences which are reducible to no law.

Perhaps every one of the examples I adduce will be found open to dispute. This is a kind in which direct proof can have no share; nor should I have dared thus to combine them in argument, but for the ninth stanza of those quoted above, to which I beg my readers to revert. Its imaginary work means–work hinted at, and then left to the imagination of the reader. Of course, in dramatic representation, such work must exist on a great scale; but the minute particularization of the “conceit deceitful” in the rest of the stanza, will surely justify us in thinking it possible that Shakspere intended many, if not all, of the little fitnesses which a careful reader discovers in his plays. That such are not oftener discovered comes from this: that, like life itself, he so blends into vital beauty, that there are no salient points. To use a homely simile: he is not like the barn-door fowl, that always runs out cackling when she has laid an egg; and often when she has not. In the tone of an ordinary drama, you may know when something is coming; and the tone itself declares–I have done it. But Shakspere will not spoil his art to show his art. It is there, and does its part: that is enough. If you can discover it, good and well; if not, pass on, and take what you can find. He can afford not to be fathomed for every little pearl that lies at the bottom of his ocean. If I succeed in showing that such art may exist where it is not readily discovered, this may give some additional probability to its existence in places where it is harder to isolate and define.

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To produce a few instances, then:

In “Much Ado about Nothing,” seeing the very nature of the play is expressed in its name, is it not likely that Shakspere named the two constables, Dogberry (a poisonous berry) and Verjuice (the juice of crab-apples); those names having absolutely nothing to do with the stupid innocuousness of their characters, and so corresponding to their way of turning things upside down, and saying the very opposite of what they mean?

In the same play we find Margaret objecting to her mistress’s wearing a certain rebato (a large plaited ruff), on the morning of her wedding: may not this be intended to relate to the fact that Margaret had dressed in her mistress’s clothes the night before? She might have rumpled or soiled it, and so feared discovery.

In “King Henry IV.,” Part I., we find, in the last scene, that the Prince kills Hotspur. This is not recorded in history: the conqueror of Percy is unknown. Had it been a fact, history would certainly have recorded it; and the silence of history in regard to a deed of such mark, is equivalent to its contradiction. But Shakspere requires, for his play’s sake, to identify the slayer of Hotspur with his rival the Prince. Yet Shakspere will not contradict history, even in its silence. What is he to do? He will account for history not knowing the fact.–Falstaff claiming the honour, the Prince says to him:

“For my part, if a lie may do thee grace,
I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have;”

revealing thus the magnificence of his own character, in his readiness, for the sake of his friend, to part with his chief renown. But the Historic Muse could not believe that fat Jack Falstaff had killed Hotspur, and therefore she would not record the claim.

In the second part of the same play, act i. scene 2, we find Falstaff toweringly indignant with Mr. Dombledon, the silk mercer, that he will stand upon security with a gentleman for a short cloak and slops of satin. In the first scene of the second act, the hostess mentions that Sir John is going to dine with Master Smooth, the silkman. Foiled with Mr. Dombledon, he has already made himself so agreeable to Master Smooth, that he is “indited to dinner” with him. This is, by the bye, as to the action of the play; but as to the character of Sir John, is it not

“Conceit deceitful, so compact, so kind”–kinned–natural?

The conceit deceitful in the painting, is the imagination that means more than its says. So the words of the speakers in the play, stand for more than the speakers mean. They are Shakspere’s in their relation to his whole. To Achilles, his spear is but his spear: to the painter and his company, the spear of Achilles stands for Achilles himself.

Coleridge remarks upon James Gurney, in “King John:” “How individual and comical he is with the four words allowed to his dramatic life!” These words are those with which he answers the Bastard’s request to leave the room. He has been lingering with all the inquisitiveness and privilege of an old servant; when Faulconbridge says: “James Gurney, wilt thou give us leave a while?” with strained politeness. With marked condescension to the request of the second son, whom he has known and served from infancy, James Gurney replies: “Good leave, good Philip;” giving occasion to Faulconbridge to show his ambition, and scorn of his present standing, in the contempt with which he treats even the Christian name he is so soon to exchange with his surname for Sir Richard and Plantagenet; Philip being the name for a sparrow in those days, when ladies made pets of them. Surely in these words of the serving-man, we have an outcome of the same art by which

“A hand, a foot, a face, a leg, a head,
Stood for the whole to be imagined.”

In the “Winter’s Tale,” act iv. scene 3, Perdita, dressed with unwonted gaiety at the festival of the sheep-shearing, is astonished at finding herself talking in full strains of poetic verse. She says, half-ashamed:

“Methinks I play as I have seen them do
In Whitsun pastorals: sure, this robe of mine
Does change my disposition!”

She does not mean this seriously. But the robe has more to do with it than she thinks. Her passion for Florizel is the warmth that sets the springs of her thoughts free, and they flow with the grace belonging to a princess-nature; but it is the robe that opens the door of her speech, and, by elevating her consciousness of herself, betrays her into what is only natural to her, but seems to her, on reflection, inconsistent with her low birth and poor education. This instance, however, involves far higher elements than any of the examples I have given before, and naturally leads to a much more important class of illustrations.

In “Macbeth,” act ii. scene 4, why is the old man, who has nothing to do with the conduct of the play, introduced?–That, in conversation with Rosse, he may, as an old man, bear testimony to the exceptionally terrific nature of that storm, which, we find–from the words of Banquo:

“There’s husbandry in heaven:
Their candles are all out,”–

had begun to gather, before supper was over in the castle. This storm is the sympathetic horror of Nature at the breaking open of the Lord’s anointed temple–horror in which the animal creation partakes, for the horses of Duncan, “the minions of their race,” and therefore the most sensitive of their sensitive race, tear each other to pieces in the wildness of their horror. Consider along with this a foregoing portion of the second scene in the same act. Macbeth, having joined his wife after the murder, says:

“Who lies i’ the second chamber?

Lady M. Donalbain.
* * * * *
“There are two lodged together.”

These two, Macbeth says, woke each other–the one laughing, the other crying murder. Then they said their prayers and went to sleep again.–I used to think that the natural companion of Donalbain would be Malcolm, his brother; and that the two brothers woke in horror from the proximity of their father’s murderer who was just passing the door. A friend objected to this, that, had they been together, Malcolm, being the elder, would have been mentioned rather than Donalbain. Accept this objection, and we find a yet more delicate significance: the presence operated differently on the two, one bursting out in a laugh, the other crying murder; but both were in terror when they awoke, and dared not sleep till they had said their prayers. His sons, his horses, the elements themselves, are shaken by one unconscious sympathy with the murdered king.

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Associate with this the end of the third scene of the fourth act of “Julius Caesar;” where we find that the attendants of Brutus all cry out in their sleep, as the ghost of Caesar leaves their master’s tent. This outcry is not given in Plutarch.

To return to “Macbeth:” Why is the doctor of medicine introduced in the scene at the English court? He has nothing to do with the progress of the play itself, any more than the old man already alluded to.–He is introduced for a precisely similar reason.–As a doctor, he is the best testimony that could be adduced to the fact, that the English King Edward the Confessor, is a fountain of health to his people, gifted for his goodness with the sacred privilege of curing The King’s Evil, by the touch of his holy hands. The English King himself is thus introduced, for the sake of contrast with the Scotch King, who is a raging bear amongst his subjects.

In the “Winter’s Tale,” to which he gives the name because of the altogether extraordinary character of the occurrences (referring to it in the play itself, in the words: “a sad tale’s best for winter: I have one of sprites and goblins”) Antigonus has a remarkable dream or vision, in which Hermione appears to him, and commands the exposure of her child in a place to all appearance the most unsuitable and dangerous. Convinced of the reality of the vision, Antigonus obeys; and the whole marvellous result depends upon this obedience. Therefore the vision must be intended for a genuine one. But how could it be such, if Hermione was not dead, as, from her appearance to him, Antigonus firmly believed she was? I should feel this to be an objection to the art of the play, but for the following answer:–At the time she appeared to him, she was still lying in that deathlike swoon, into which she fell when the news of the loss of her son reached her as she stood before the judgment-seat of her husband, at a time when she ought not to have been out of her chamber.

Note likewise, in the first scene of the second act of the same play, the changefulness of Hermione’s mood with regard to her boy, as indicative of her condition at the time. If we do not regard this fact, we shall think the words introduced only for the sake of filling up the business of the play.

In “Twelfth Night,” both ladies make the first advances in love. Is it not worthy of notice that one of them has lost her brother, and that the other believes she has lost hers? In this respect, they may be placed with Phoebe, in “As You Like It,” who, having suddenly lost her love by the discovery that its object was a woman, immediately and heartily accepts the devotion of her rejected lover, Silvius. Along with these may be classed Romeo, who, rejected and, as he believes, inconsolable, falls in love with Juliet the moment he sees her. That his love for Rosaline, however, was but a kind of calf-love compared with his love for Juliet, may be found indicated in the differing tones of his speech under the differing conditions. Compare what he says in his conversation with Benvolio, in the first scene of the first act, with any of his many speeches afterwards, and, while conceit will be found prominent enough in both, the one will be found to be ruled by the fancy, the other by the imagination.

In this same play, there is another similar point which I should like to notice. In Arthur Brook’s story, from which Shakspere took his, there is no mention of any communication from Lady Capulet to Juliet of their intention of marrying her to Count Paris. Why does Shakspere insert this?–to explain her falling in love with Romeo so suddenly. Her mother has set her mind moving in that direction. She has never seen Paris. She is looking about her, wondering which may be he, and whether she shall be able to like him, when she meets the love-filled eyes of Romeo fixed upon her, and is at once overcome. What a significant speech is that given to Paulina in the “Winter’s Tale,” act v. scene 1: “How? Not women?” Paulina is a thorough partisan, siding with women against men, and strengthened in this by the treatment her mistress has received from her husband. One has just said to her, that, if Perdita would begin a sect, she might “make proselytes of who she bid but follow.” “How? Not women?” Paulina rejoins. Having received assurance that “women will love her,” she has no more to say.

I had the following explanation of a line in “Twelfth Night” from a stranger I met in an old book-shop:–Malvolio, having built his castle in the air, proceeds to inhabit it. Describing his own behaviour in a supposed case, he says (act ii. scene 5): “I frown the while; and perchance, wind up my watch, or play with my some rich jewel”–A dash ought to come after my. Malvolio was about to say chain; but remembering that his chain was the badge of his office of steward, and therefore of his servitude, he alters the word to “some rich jewel” uttered with pretended carelessness.

In “Hamlet,” act iii. scene 1, did not Shakspere intend the passionate soliloquy of Ophelia–a soliloquy which no maiden knowing that she was overheard would have uttered,–coupled with the words of her father:

“How now, Ophelia?
You need not tell us what lord Hamlet said,
We heard it all;”–

to indicate that, weak as Ophelia was, she was not false enough to be accomplice in any plot for betraying Hamlet to her father and the King? They had remained behind the arras, and had not gone out as she must have supposed.

Next, let me request my reader to refer once more to the poem; and having considered the physiognomy of Ajax and Ulysses, as described in the fifth stanza, to turn then to the play of “Troilus and Cressida,” and there contemplate that description as metamorphosed into the higher form of revelation in speech. Then, if he will associate the general principles in that stanza with the third, especially the last two lines, I will apply this to the character of Lady Macbeth.

Of course, Shakspere does not mean that one regarding that portion of the picture alone, could see the eyes looking sad; but that the sweet observance of the whole so roused the imagination that it supplied what distance had concealed, keeping the far-off likewise in sweet observance with the whole: the rest pointed that way.–In a manner something like this are we conducted to a right understanding of the character of Lady Macbeth. First put together these her utterances:

“You do unbend your noble strength, to think
So brainsickly of things.”

“Get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hands.”

“The sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures.”

“A little water clears us of this deed.”

“When all’s done,
You look but on a stool.”

“You lack the season of all natures, sleep.”–

Had these passages stood in the play unmodified by others, we might have judged from them that Shakspere intended to represent Lady Macbeth as an utter materialist, believing in nothing beyond the immediate communications of the senses. But when we find them associated with such passages as these–

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“Memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only;”

“Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done’t;

“These deeds must not be thought
After these ways; so, it will make us mad;”–

then we find that our former theory will not do, for here are deeper and broader foundations to build upon. We discover that Lady Macbeth was an unbeliever morally, and so found it necessary to keep down all imagination, which is the upheaving of that inward world whose very being she would have annihilated. Yet out of this world arose at last the phantom of her slain self, and possessing her sleeping frame, sent it out to wander in the night, and rub its distressed and blood-stained hands in vain. For, as in this same “Rape of Lucrece,”

“the soul’s fair temple is defaced;
To whose weak ruins muster troops of cares,
To ask the spotted princess how she fares.”

But when so many lines of delineation meet, and run into, and correct one another, assuming such a natural and vital form, that there is no making of a point anywhere; and the woman is shown after no theory, but according to the natural laws of human declension, we feel that the only way to account for the perfection of the representation is to say that, given a shadow, Shakspere had the power to place himself so, that that shadow became his own–was the correct representation as shadow, of his form coming between it and the sunlight. And this is the highest dramatic gift that a man can possess. But we feel at the same time, that this is, in the main, not so much art as inspiration. There would be, in all probability, a great mingling of conscious art with the inspiration; but the lines of the former being lost in the general glow of the latter, we may be left where we were as to any certainty about the artistic consciousness of Shakspere. I will now therefore attempt to give a few plainer instances of such sweet observance in his own work as he would have admired in a painting.

First, then, I would request my reader to think how comparatively seldom Shakspere uses poetry in his plays. The whole play is a poem in the highest sense; but truth forbids him to make it the rule for his characters to speak poetically. Their speech is poetic in relation to the whole and the end, not in relation to the speaker, or in the immediate utterance. And even although their speech is immediately poetic, in this sense, that every character is idealized; yet it is idealized after its kind; and poetry certainly would not be the ideal speech of most of the characters. This granted, let us look at the exceptions: we shall find that such passages not only glow with poetic loveliness and fervour, but are very jewels of sweet observance, whose setting allows them their force as lawful, and their prominence as natural. I will mention a few of such.

In “Julius Caesar,” act i. scene 3, we are inclined to think the way Casca speaks, quite inconsistent with the “sour fashion” which Cassius very justly attributes to him; till we remember that he is speaking in the midst of an almost supernatural thunder-storm: the hidden electricity of the man’s nature comes out in poetic forms and words, in response to the wild outburst of the overcharged heavens and earth.

Shakspere invariably makes the dying speak poetically, and generally prophetically, recognizing the identity of the poetic and prophetic moods, in their highest development, and the justice that gives them the same name. Even Sir John, poor ruined gentleman, babbles of green fields. Every one knows that the passage is disputed: I believe that if this be not the restoration of the original reading, Shakspere himself would justify it, and wish that he had so written it.

Romeo and Juliet talk poetry as a matter of course.

In “King John,” act v. scenes 4 and 5, see how differently the dying Melun and the living and victorious Lewis regard the same sunset:


. . . . . this night, whose black contagious breath
Already smokes about the burning crest
Of the old, feeble, and day-wearied sun.


The sun in heaven, methought, was loath to set;
But stayed, and made the western welkin blush,
When the English measured backward their own ground.

The exquisite duet between Lorenzo and Jessica, in the opening of the fifth act of “The Merchant of Venice,” finds for its subject the circumstances that produce the mood–the lovely night and the crescent moon–which first make them talk poetry, then call for music, and next speculate upon its nature.

Let us turn now to some instances of sweet observance in other kinds.

There is observance, more true than sweet, in the character of Jacques, in “As You Like It:” the fault-finder in age was the fault-doer in youth and manhood. Jacques patronizing the fool, is one of the rarest shows of self-ignorance.

In the same play, when Rosalind hears that Orlando is in the wood, she cries out, “Alas the day! what shall I do with my doublet and hose?” And when Orlando asks her, “Where dwell you, pretty youth?” she answers, tripping in her role, “Here in the skirts of the forest, like fringe upon a petticoat.”

In the second part of “King Henry IV.,” act iv. scene 3, Falstaff says of Prince John: “Good faith, this same young sober-blooded boy doth not love me; nor a man cannot make him laugh;–but that’s no marvel: he drinks no wine.” This is the Prince John who betrays the insurgents afterwards by the falsest of quibbles, and gains his revenge through their good faith.

In “King Henry IV,” act i. scene 2, Poins does not say Falstaff is a coward like the other two; but only–“If he fight longer than he sees reason, I’ll forswear arms.” Associate this with Falstaff’s soliloquy about honour in the same play, act v. scene 1, and the true character of his courage or cowardice–for it may bear either name–comes out.

Is there not conscious art in representing the hospitable face of the castle of Macbeth, bearing on it a homely welcome in the multitude of the nests of the temple-haunting martlet (Psalm lxxxiv. 3), just as Lady Macbeth, the fiend-soul of the house, steps from the door, like the speech of the building, with her falsely smiled welcome? Is there not observance in it?

But the production of such instances might be endless, as the work of Shakspere is infinite. I confine myself to two more, taken from “The Merchant of Venice.”

Shakspere requires a character capable of the magnificent devotion of friendship which the old story attributes to Antonio. He therefore introduces us to a man sober even to sadness, thoughtful even to melancholy. The first words of the play unveil this characteristic. He holds “the world but as the world,”–

“A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.”

The cause of this sadness we are left to conjecture. Antonio himself professes not to know. But such a disposition, even if it be not occasioned by any definite event or object, will generally associate itself with one; and when Antonio is accused of being in love, he repels the accusation with only a sad “Fie! fie!” This, and his whole character, seem to me to point to an old but ever cherished grief.

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Into the original story upon which this play is founded, Shakspere has, among other variations, introduced the story of Jessica and Lorenzo, apparently altogether of his own invention. What was his object in doing so? Surely there were characters and interests enough already!–It seems to me that Shakspere doubted whether the Jew would have actually proceeded to carry out his fell design against Antonio, upon the original ground of his hatred, without the further incitement to revenge afforded by another passion, second only to his love of gold–his affection for his daughter; for in the Jew having reference to his own property, it had risen to a passion. Shakspere therefore invents her, that he may send a dog of a Christian to steal her, and, yet worse, to tempt her to steal her father’s stones and ducats. I suspect Shakspere sends the old villain off the stage at the last with more of the pity of the audience than any of the other dramatists of the time would have ventured to rouse, had they been capable of doing so. I suspect he is the only human Jew of the English drama up to that time.

I have now arrived at the last and most important stage of my argument. It is this: If Shakspere was so well aware of the artistic relations of the parts of his drama, is it likely that the grand meanings involved in the whole were unperceived by him, and conveyed to us without any intention on his part–had their origin only in the fact that he dealt with human nature so truly, that his representations must involve whatever lessons human life itself involves?

Is there no intention, for instance, in placing Prospero, who forsook the duties of his dukedom for the study of magic, in a desert island, with just three subjects; one, a monster below humanity; the second, a creature etherealized beyond it; and the third a complete embodiment of human perfection? Is it not that he may learn how to rule, and, having learned, return, by the aid of his magic wisely directed, to the home and duties from which exclusive devotion to that magic had driven him?

In “Julius Caesar,” the death of Brutus, while following as the consequence of his murder of Caesar, is yet as much distinguished in character from that death, as the character of Brutus is different from that of Caesar. Caesar’s last words were Et tu Brute? Brutus, when resolved to lay violent hands on himself, takes leave of his friends with these words:

My heart doth joy, that yet, in all my life,
I found no man, but he was true to me.”

Here Shakspere did not invent. He found both speeches in Plutarch. But how unerring his choice!

Is the final catastrophe in “Hamlet” such, because Shakspere could do no better?–It is: he could do no better than the best. Where but in the regions beyond could such questionings as Hamlet’s be put to rest? It would have been a fine thing indeed for the most nobly perplexed of thinkers to be left–his love in the grave; the memory of his father a torment, of his mother a blot; with innocent blood on his innocent hands, and but half understood by his best friend–to ascend in desolate dreariness the contemptible height of the degraded throne, and shine the first in a drunken court!

Before bringing forward my last instance, I will direct the attention of my readers to a passage, in another play, in which the lesson of the play I am about to speak of, is directly taught: the first speech in the second act of “As You Like It,” might be made a text for the exposition of the whole play of “King Lear.”

The banished duke is seeking to bring his courtiers to regard their exile as a part of their moral training. I am aware that I point the passage differently, while I revert to the old text.

“Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam–
The season’s difference, as the icy fang,
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind?
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say–
This is no flattery; these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.
Sweet are the uses of adversity.”

The line Here feel we not the penalty of Adam? has given rise to much perplexity. The expounders of Shakspere do not believe he can mean that the uses of adversity are really sweet. But the duke sees that the penalty of Adam is what makes the woods more free from peril than the envious court; that this penalty is in fact the best blessing, for it feelingly persuades man what he is; and to know what we are, to have no false judgments of ourselves, he considers so sweet, that to be thus taught, the churlish chiding of the winter’s wind is well endured.

Now let us turn to Lear. We find in him an old man with a large heart, hungry for love, and yet not knowing what love is; an old man as ignorant as a child in all matters of high import; with a temper so unsubdued, and therefore so unkingly, that he storms because his dinner is not ready by the clock of his hunger; a child, in short, in everything but his grey hairs and wrinkled face, but his failing, instead of growing, strength. If a life end so, let the success of that life be otherwise what it may, it is a wretched and unworthy end. But let Lear be blown by the winds and beaten by the rains of heaven, till he pities “poor naked wretches;” till he feels that he has “ta’en too little care of” such; till pomp no longer conceals from him what “a poor, bare, forked animal” he is; and the old king has risen higher in the real social scale–the scale of that country to which he is bound–far higher than he stood while he still held his kingdom undivided to his thankless daughters. Then let him learn at last that “love is the only good in the world;” let him find his Cordelia, and plot with her how they will in their dungeon singing like birds i’ the cage, and, dwelling in the secret place of peace, look abroad on the world like God’s spies; and then let the generous great old heart swell till it breaks at last–not with rage and hate and vengeance, but with love; and all is well: it is time the man should go to overtake his daughter; henceforth to dwell with her in the home of the true, the eternal, the unchangeable. All his suffering came from his own fault; but from the suffering has sprung another crop, not of evil but of good; the seeds of which had lain unfruitful in the soil, but were brought within the blessed influences of the air of heaven by the sharp tortures of the ploughshare of ill.

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