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So that in his seeming abruptness Leontes, after all, does but exemplify the strange transformations which sometimes occur in men upon sudden and unforeseen emergencies. And it is observable that the very slightness of the Queen's indiscretion, the fact that she goes but a little, a very little too far, only works against her, causing the King to suspect her of great effort and care to avoid suspicion. And on the same principle, because he has never suspected her be fore, therefore he suspects her all the more vehemently now: that his confidence has hitherto stood unshaken, he attributes to extreme artfulness on her part; for even so, to an ill-disposed mind perfect innocence is apt to give an impression of consummate art. A passion thus groundless and self-generated might well be full-grown as soon as born. The more greedy and craving, too, that it has nothing real to eat; it therefore proceeds at once to “make the meat it feeds on,” causing him to magnify whatever he sees, and to imagine many things that are not. That jealousy, however, is not the habit of his mind, appears in that it finds him unprepared, and takes him by surprise; insomuch that he forthwith loses all self-control, and runs right athwart the rules of common decency and decorum, so that he becomes an object at once of pity, of hatred, and scorn.
I think the Poet hardly anywhere shows a keener and juster insight of nature than in the behaviour of this man while the distemper is upon him. He is utterly reasonproof, and indeed acts as one literally insane. For the poison infects not only his manners, but his very modes of thought: in fact, all his rational and imaginative forces, even his speech and language, seern to have caught the disease. And all the loathsome filth which had settled to the bottom of his nature is now shaken up to the surface, so that there appears to be nothing but meanness and malignity and essential coarseness in him. Meanwhile an instinctive shame of his passion and a dread of vulgar ridicule put him upon talking in dark riddles and enigmas : hence the confused, broken, and disjointed style, an odd jumble of dialogue and soliloquy, in which he tries to jerk out his thoughts, as if he would have them known, and yet not have them known. I believe men generally credit themselves with peculiar penetration when they are in the act of being deluded, whether by themselves or by others. Hence, again, the strange and even ludicrous conceit in which Leontes wraps himself. “Not noted, is ’t,” says he, referring to the Queen's imaginary crime, —
“not noted, is 't,
Perchance, are to this business purblind.”
“You may as well
Is pild upon his faith.”
“Though I am satisfied, and need no more
Than what I know, yet shall the Oracle
Give rest to th' minds of others." Which means simply that he is not going to let the truth of the charge stand in issue, and that he holds the Divine authority to be a capital thing, provided he may use it, and need not obey it; that is, if he finds the god agreeing with him in opinion, then the god's judgment is infallible; if not, then, in plain terms, he is no god. And they who have closely observed the workings of jealousy, know right well that in all this Shakespeare does not one whit “overstep the modesty of Nature.”
The Poet manages with great art to bring Leontes off
from the disgraces of his passion, and repeal him home to our sympathies, which had been freely drawn to him at first by his generosity of friendship. To this end, jealousy is represented as his only fault, and this as a sudden freak, which passes on directly into a frenzy, and whips him quite out of himself, temporarily overriding his characteristic qualities, but not combining with them; the more violent for being unwonted, and the shorter-lived for being violent. In his firm, compact energy of thought and speech, after his passion has cleared itself, and in his perennial flow of repentance after his bereavement, are displayed the real tone and texture of his character. We feel that, if his sin has been great, his suffering is also great, and that if he were a greater sinner, his suffering would be less. Quick, impulsive, headstrong, he admits no bounds to anger or to penitence; condemns himself as vehemently as he does others; and will spend his life in atoning for a wrong he has done in a moment of passion: so that we are the more willing to forgive him, inasmuch as he never forgives himself.
The old poets seem to have contemplated a much wider range of female excellence than it has since grown customary to allow; taking for granted that whatsoever we feel to be most divine in man might be equally so in woman; and so pouring into their conceptions of womanhood a certain manliness of soul, wherein we recognize an union of what is lovely with what is honourable, — such a combination as would naturally inspire any right-minded man at the same time with tenderness and with awe. Their ideas of delicacy did not preclude strength : in the female character they were rather pleased than otherwise to have the sweetness of the violet blended with the grandeur of the oak; probably because they saw and felt that woman might be big-hearted and brave-minded, and yet be none the less womanly; and that love might build all the higher and firmer for having its foundations laid deep in respect.
This largeness of heart and liberality of thought often comes out in their writings, and that too whether in dealing with ideal or with actual women; which suggests that in what they chose to create they were a good deal influenced by what they were accustomed to see. For in a thing that works so much from the sympathies, it could hardly be but that they reflected the mind and spirit of their age. Of this the aptest illustration that my reading has lighted upon is in Ben Jonson's lines on the Countess of Bedford, describing “ what kind of creature I could most desire to honour, serve, and love”:
'I meant to make her fair, and free, and wise,
Of Destiny, and spin her own free hours.” That Shakespeare fully shared in this magnanimous bravery of sentiment, we need no further proof than is furnished in the heroine of this play. We can scarce call Hermione sweet or gentle, though she is both; she is a noble woman, — one whom, even in her greatest anguish, we hardly dare to pity. The whole figure is replete with classic grace, is shaped and finished in the highest style of classic art. As she acts the part of a statue in the play, so she has a statue-like calmness and firmness of soul. A certain austere sweetness pervades her whole demeanour, and seems, as it were, the essential form of her life. It is as if some masterpiece of ancient sculpture had warmed and quickened into life from its fulness of beauty and expression.
Appearing at first as the cheerful hostess of her husband's
friend, and stooping from her queenly elevation to the most winning affabilities, her behaviour rises in dignity as her sorrow deepens. With an equal sense of what is due to the King as her husband, and to herself as a woman, a wife, and a mother, she knows how to reconcile all these demands; she therefore resists without violence, and submits without weakness. And what her wise spirit sees to be fit and becoming, that she always has strength and steadiness of character to do: hence, notwithstanding the insults and hardships wantonly put upon her, she still preserves the smoothnesses of peace; is never betrayed into the least sign of anger or impatience or resentment, but maintains, throughout, perfect order and fitness and pro portion in act and speech : the charge, so dreadful in itself, and so cruel in its circumstances, neither rouses her passions, as it would Paulina's, nor stuns her sensibilities, as in the case of Desdemona; but, like the sinking of lead in the ocean's bosom, it goes to the depths without ruffling the surface of her soul. Her situation is indeed full of pathos, - a pathos the more deeply-moving to others, that it stirs no tumults in her; for her nature is manifestly fitted up and furnished with all tender and gentle and womanly feelings; only she has the force of mind to control them, and keep them all in the right place and degree. “They are the patient sorrows that touch nearest." And so, under the worst that can befall, she remains within the region of herself, calm and serenely beautiful, stands firm, yet full of grace, in the austere strengths of reason and conscious rectitude. And when, at her terrible wrongs and sufferings, all hearts are shaken, all eyes wet, but her own, the impression made by her stout-hearted fortitude is of one whose pure, tranquil, deep-working breast is the home of sorrows too big for any eye-messengers to report:
“Calm pleasures there abide, majestic pains." The delineation keeps the same tone and texture through | all its parts, but the sense of it is specially concentrated in