« AnteriorContinuar »
writers, in that it exhibits him, where a right-minded study should specially delight to contemplate him, as holding his unrivalled inventive powers subordinate to the higher principles of Art. He cared little for the interest of novelty, which is but a short-lived thing at the best; much for the interest of truth and beauty, which is indeed immortal, and always grows upon acquaintance. And the novel-writing of our time shows that hardly any thing is easier than to get up new incidents or new combinations of incidents for a story; and as the interest of such things turns mainly on their novelty, so of course they become less interesting the more one knows them: which order – for “a thing of beauty is a joy for ever” — is just reversed in genuine works of art. Besides, if Shakespeare is the most original of poets, he is also one of the greatest of borrowers; and as few authors have appropriated so freely from others, so none can better afford to have his obligations in this kind well known.
Shakespeare's Humour is so large and so operative an element of his genius, that a general review of his works would be very incomplete without some special consideration of it. And perhaps, except his marvellous duality of mind, there is nothing in his poetry of which it is more difficult to give a satisfactory account. For humour is nowise a distinct or separable thing with him, but a perfusive and permeating ingredient of his make-up: it acts as a sort of common solvent, in which different and even opposite lines of thought, states of mind, and forms of life are melted into happy reconcilement and co-operation. Through this, as a kind of pervading and essential sap, is carried on a free intercourse and circulation between the moral and intellectual parts of his being; and hence, perhaps, in part, the wonderful catholicity of mind which generally marks his representations.
It follows naturally from this that the Poet's humour is widely diversified in its exhibitions. There is indeed no part of him that acts with greater versatility. It imparts a certain wholesome earnestness to his most sportive moods, making them like the honest and whole-hearted play of childhood, than which human life has nothing that proceeds more in earnest. For who has not found it a property of childhood to be serious in its fun, innocent in its mischief, and ingenuous in its guile? Moreover it is easy to remark that, in Shakespeare's greatest dunces and simpletons and potentates of nonsense, there is something that prevents contempt. A fellow-feeling springs up between us and them; it is through our sympathetic, not our selfish emotions, that they interest us: we are far more inclined to laugh with them than at them; and even when we laugh at them we love them the more for that which is laughable in them. So that our intercourse with them proceeds under the great law of kindness and charity. Try this with any of the Poet's illustrious groups of comic personages, and it will be found, I apprehend, thoroughly true. What distinguishes us from them, or sets us above them in our own esteem, is never appealed to as a source or element of delectation. And so the pleasure we have of them is altogether social in its nature, and humanizing in its effect, ever knitting more widely the bands of sympathy.
Here we have what may be called a foreground of comedy, but the Poet's humour keeps up a living circulation between this and the serious elements of our being that stand behind it. It is true, we are not always, nor perhaps often, conscious of any stirring in these latter: what is laughable occupies the surface, and therefore is all that we directly see. But still there are deep undercurrents of earnest sentiment moving not the less really that their movement is noiseless. In the disguise of sport and mirth, there is a secret discipline of humanity going on; and the effect is all the better that it steals into us unseen and unsuspected: we know that we laugh, but we do some
thing better than laughing without knowing it, and so are made the better by our laughter; for in that which betters us without our knowledge we are doubly benefited.
Not indeed but that Shakespeare has characters, as, for example, the Steward in King Lear, which are thoroughly contemptible, and which we follow with contempt. But it is to be observed that there is nothing laughable in Oswald; nothing that we can either laugh with or laugh at: he is a sort of human reptile, such as life sometimes produces, whom we regard with moral loathing and disgust, but in whose company neither mirth nor pity can find any foothold. On the other hand, the feelings moved by a Bottom, a Dogberry, an Aguecheek, or a Slender, are indeed very different from those which wait upon a Cordelia, an Ophelia, or an Imogen, but there is no essential oppugnance between them: in both cases the heart moves by the laws of sympathy; which is exactly reversed in the case of such an object as Oswald : the former all touch us through what we have in common with them; the latter touches us only through our antipathies. There is, therefore, nothing either of comic or of tragic in the part of Oswald viewed by itself: on the contrary, it runs in entire oppugnance to the proper currents of them both.
Much of what I have said touching Shakespeare's comic scenes holds true, conversely, of his tragic scenes. For it is a great mistake to suppose that his humour has its sole exercise in comic representations. It carries the power of tears as well as of smiles: in his deepest strains of tragedy there is often a subtile infusion of it, and this too in such a way as to heighten the tragic effect; we may feel it playing delicately beneath his most pathetic scenes, and deepening their pathos. For in his hands tragedy and comedy are not made up of different elements, but of the same elements standing in different places and relations: what is background in the one becomes foreground in the other; what is an undercurrent in the one becomes an uppercurrent in the other; the effect of the whole depending almost, perhaps altogether, as much on what is not directly seen as on what is. So that with him the pitiful and the ludicrous, the sublime and the droll, are like the greatness and littleness of human life: for these qualities not only coexist in our being, but, which is more, they coexist under a mysterious law of interdependence and reciprocity; insomuch that our life may in some sense be said to be great because little, and little because great.
And as Shakespeare's transports of humour draw down more or less into the depths of serious thought, and make our laughter the more refreshing and exhilarating because of what is moving silently beneath; so his tragic ecstasies cake a richness of colour and flavour from the humour held in secret reserve, and forced up to the surface now and then by the superincumbent weight of tragic matter. This it is, in part, that truly makes them “awful mirth.” For who does not know that the most winning smiles are those which play round a moistening eye, and tell of serious thoughts beneath ; and that the saddest face is that which wears in its expression an air of remembered joy, and speaks darkly of sunshine in the inner courts of the soul ? For we are so made, that no one part of our being moves to perfection unless all the other parts move with it: when we are at work, whatever there is of the playful within us ought to play; when we are at play, our working mind ought to be actively present in the exercise. It is this harmonious moving together of all the parts of our being that makes the true music of life. And to minister in restoring this “concord of a well-tuned mind,” which has been broken by “discords most unjust,” is the right office of Culture, and the right scope of Art as the highest organ of Culture. And in reference to this harmonious interplay of all the human faculties and sensibilities, I may not unfitly apply to Shakespeare's workmanship these choice lines from Wordsworth:
“Brisk Youth appeared, the Morn of youth,
With freaks of graceful folly,
Life's temperate Noon, her sober Eve,
Her Night not melancholy ;
In harmony united,
By cordial love invited.”
I cannot, nor need I, stay to illustrate the point in hand, at any length, by detailed reference to the Poet's dramas. This belongs to the office of particular criticism, and therefore would be something out of keeping here. The Fool's part in King Lear will readily occur to any one familiar with that tragedy. . And perhaps there is no one part of Hamlet that does more to heighten the tragic effect than the droll scene of the Gravediggers. But, besides this, there is a vein of humour running through the part of Hamlet himself, underlying his darkest moods, and giving depth and mellowness to his strains of impassioned thought. And every reflecting reader must have observed how much is added to the impression of terror in the trial-scene of
The Merchant of Venice, by the fierce jets of mirth with which Gratiano assails old Shylock; and also how, at the close of the scene, our very joy at Antonio's deliverance quickens and deepens our pity for the broken-hearted Jew who lately stood bcfore us dressed in such fulness of terror. But indeed the Poet's skill at heightening any feeling by awakening its opposite; how he manages to give strength to our most earnest sentiments by touching some spring of playfulness; and to further our liveliest moods by springing upon us some delicate surprises of seriousness ; - all this is matter of common observation.
But the Poet's humour has yet other ways of manifesting itself. And among these not the least remarkable is the subtile and delicate irony which often pervades his scenes, and sometimes gives character to whole plays, as in the case of Troilus and Cressida, and Antony and Cleopatra. By methods that can hardly be described, he contrives to establish a sort of secret understanding with the reader, so