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Here we have another pregnant point of divergence from the Classic form. For, as it is unnatural that a man should continue altogether the same character, or subject to the same passion, or absorbed in the same purpose, through a period of ten years; so it is equally against nature that a man should undergo much change of character, or be occupied by many passions, or get engrossed in many purposes, the same day. If, therefore, a character is to be represented under various phases and fluctuations, the nature of the work evidently requires much length of time, a great variety of objects and influences, and, consequently, a wide range of place. Thus, in the Gothic Drama, the complexity of matter, with the implied vicissitudes of character, was plainly incompatible with the Minor Unities. On the other hand, the clearness and simplicity of design, which belong to the Classic Drama, necessarily preclude any great diversity of time and place; since, as the genius of the thing requires character to be represented mainly under a single aspect, the time and place of the representation must needs be limited correspondingly.
Again: It is admitted on all hands that in Shakespeare's works, far more than in almost any others, every thing appears to come, not from him, but from the characters; and from these too speaking, not as authors, but simply as men. The reason of which must be, that the word is just suited to the character, the character to the word; every thing exactly fitting into and filling the place. Doubtless there are many things which, considered by themselves, might be bettered; but it is not for themselves that the Poet uses them, but as being characteristic of the persons from whom they proceed; and the fact of their seeming to proceed from the persons, not from him, is clear proof of their strict dramatic propriety. Hence it is that in reading his works we think not of him, but only of what he is describing : we can hardly realize his existence, his individualfty is so lost in the objects and characters he brings before us. In this respect, he is a sort of impersonal intelligence, with the power to make every thing visible but itself. Had he been merely an omniloquent voice, there could hardly have been less of subjective idiom in his deliverances. That he should have known so perfectly how to avoid giving too much or too little; that he should have let out and drawn in the reins precisely as the matter required ;this, as it evinces an almost inconceivable delicacy of mind, is also one of the points wherein his originality is most 'conspicuous.
Equally remarkable is the Poet's intellectual plenipotence in so ordering and moving the several characters of a play as that they may best draw out each other by mutual influences, and set off each other by mutual contrasts. The persons are thus assorted and attempered with perfect insight both of their respective natures and of their common fitness to his purpose. And not the least wonderful thing in his works is the exquisite congruity of what comes from the persons with all the circumstances and influences under which they are represented as acting; their transpirations of character being withal so disposed that the principle of them shines out freely and clearly on the mind. We have a good instance of this in Romeo's speech just before he swallows the poison ; every word of which is perfectly idiomatic of the speaker, and at the same time thoroughly steeped in the idiom of his present surroundings. It is true, Shakespeare's persons, like those in real life, act so, chiefly because they are so; but so perfectly does he seize and impart the germ of a character, along with the proper conditions of its development, that the results seem to follow all of their own accord. Thus in his delineations every thing is fitted to every other thing; so that each requires and infers the others, and all hang together in most natural coherence and congruity.
To illustrate this point a little more in detail, let us take his treatment of passion. How many forms, degrees, varieties of passion he has portrayed ! yet I am not aware that any instance of disproportion or unfitness has ever been successfully pointed out in his works. With but two or three exceptions at the most, so perfect is the correspondence between the passion and the character, and so freely and fitly does the former grow out of the circumstances in which the latter is placed, that we have no difficulty in
justifying and accounting for the passion. The passion is thoroughly characteristic, and pervaded with the individuality of its subject. And this holds true not only of different passions, but of different modifications of the same passion; the forms of love, for instance, being just as various and distinct as the characters in which it is shown. Then too he unfolds a passion in its rise and progress, its turns and vicissitudes, its ebbings and flowings, so that we go along with it freely and naturally from first to last. Even when, as in case of Ferdinand and Miranda, or of Romeo and Juliet, he ushers in a passion at its full height, he so contrives to throw the mind back or around upon various predisposing causes and circumstances, as to carry our sympathies through without any revulsion. We are so prepared for the thing by the time it comes as to feel no abruptness in its coming. The exceptions to this, save in some of the Poet's earlier plays, are very rare indeed: the only one I have ever seemed to find is the jealousy of Leontes in The Winter's Tale, and I am by no means sure of it even there. This intuitive perception of the exact kind and degree of passion and character that are suited to each other; this quick and sure insight of the internal workings of a given mind, and of the why, the when, and the how far it should be moved; and this accurate lettingout and curbing-in of a passion precisely as the law of its individuality requires; in a word, this thorough mastery of the inmost springs and principles of human transpiration ; — all this is so extraordinary, that I am not surprised to find even grave and temperate thinkers applying to the Poet such bold expressions as the instrument, the rival, the co-worker, the completer of Nature.
Nor is this the only direction in which he maintains the fitness of things: he keeps the matter right towards us as well as towards his characters. It is true, he often lays on us burdens of passion that would not be borne in any other writer. But, whether he wrings the heart with pity, or freezes the blood with terror, or fires the soul with indignation, the genial reader still rises from his pages refreshed. The reason of which is, instruction keeps pace with excitement: he strengthens the mind in proportion as he loads it. Shakespeare has been called the great master of passion : doubtless he is so; yet he is not more that than he is every thing else: for he makes us think as intensely as he requires us to feel; while opening the deepest fountains of the heart, he at the same time kindles the highest energies of the head. Nay, with such consummate art does he manage the fiercest tempests of our being, that in a healthy mind the witnessing of them is always attended by an overbalance of pleasure. With the very whirlwinds of passion he so blends the softening and assuaging influences of poetry, that they relish of nothing but sweetness and health ; as in case of “the gentle Desdemona,” where pathos is indeed carried to the extreme limit of endurance, so that “all for pity I could die,” yet there is no breach of the rule in question. For while, as a philosopher, he surpassed all other philosophers in power to discern the passions of men; as an artist, he also surpassed all other artists in skill
“so to temper passion, that our ears Take pleasure in their pain, and eyes in tears Both weep and smile.”
Another point well worth the noting is the perfect evenhandedness of Shakespeare's representations. For, among all his characters, with the single exception, perhaps, of “ Prince Hal,” we cannot discover from the delineation itself that he preferred any one to another; though of course we cannot conceive it possible for any man to regard, for example, Edmund and Edgar, or Iago and Des
demona, with the same feelings. It is as if the scenes of his dramas were forced on his observation against his will, himself being under a solemn oath to report the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He thus leaves the characters to make their own impression upon us. He is their mouth-piece, not they his : what they say is never Shakespeare ventriloquizing, but is to all intents and purposes their own. With the right or wrong, the honour or shame, of their actions, he has nothing to do: that they are so, and act so, is their concern, not his; and his business is, not to reform nor deprave, not to censure nor approve them, but simply to tell the truth about them. And so, because he would not serve as the advocate of any, therefore he was able to stand as the representative of all; which is indeed his characteristic office.
Most of the many faultings of Shakespeare's workmanship on the score of taste are easily disposed of from this point. As a general thing, the blame laid upon him in this behalf belongs only to his persons, and as regards him the matter of it should rather be a theme of praise. Take, for example, the gross images and foul language used by Leontes when the rage of jealousy is on him : the matter is offensive enough certainly in itself, but it is the proper outcome of the man's character in that state of mind ; that is, it is a part, and an essential part, of the truth concerning him: as the passion turns him into a brute, so he is rightly made, or rather allowed to speak a brutal dialect; and the bad taste is his, not the Poet's. That jealousy, such as that of Leontes, naturally subverts a man's understanding and manners, turns his sense, his taste, his decency all out of doors, and causes him to gloat over loathsome thoughts and fancies, — this is among the things of human nature which it would be a sin to omit in a delineation of that passion.
And so of the many absurdities and follies and obscenities which Shakespeare puts into the mouths of certain persons: for the most part, they have an ample justification in that they are characteristic of the speakers: if not