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Elizabethan Demonology by Thomas Alfred Spalding

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Mr. Furnivall's Introduction to the Leopold Shakspere.]

118. But this is not by any means all that this subject reveals to us
about Shakspere; if it were, the less said about it the better. To look
upon "The Tempest" as in its essence merely a return to "The Dream"--the
end as the beginning; to believe that his thoughts worked in a weary,
unending circle--that the Valley of the Shadow of Death only leads back
to the foot of the Hill Difficulty--is intolerable, and not more
intolerable than false. Although based upon similar material, the ideas
and tendencies of "The Tempest" upon supernaturalism are no more
identical with those of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" than the thoughts of
Berowne upon things in general are those of Hamlet, or Hamlet's those of
Prospero. But before it is possible to point out the nature of this
difference, and to show that the change is a natural growth of thought,
not a mere retrogression, a few explanatory remarks are necessary.

There is no more insufficient and misleading view of Shakspere and his
work than that which until recently obtained almost universal credence,
and is even at the present time somewhat loudly asserted in some
quarters; namely, that he was a man of considerable genius, who wrote
and got acted some thirty plays more or less, simply for commercial
purposes and nothing more; made money thereby, and died leaving a will;
and that, beyond this, he and his works are, and must remain, an
inexplicable mystery. The critic who holds this view, and finds it
equally advantageous to commence a study of Shakspere's work by taking
"The Tempest" or "Love's Labour's Lost" as his text, is about as
judicious as the botanist who would enlarge upon the structure of the
seed-pod without first explaining the preliminary stages of plant
growth, or the architect who would dilate upon the most convenient
arrangement of chimney-pots before he had discussed the laws of
foundation. The plays may be studied separately, and studied so are
found beautiful; but taken in an approximate chronological order, like a
string of brilliant jewels, each one gains lustre from those that
precede and follow it.

119. For no man ever wrote sincerely and earnestly, or indeed ever did
any one thing in such a spirit, without leaving some impress upon his
work of his mental condition whilst he was doing it; and no such man
ever continued his literary labours from the period of youth right
through his manhood, without leaving behind him, in more or less legible
character, a record of the ripening of his thought upon matters of
eternal importance, although they may not be of necessity directly
connected with the ostensible subject in hand. Insincere men may ape
sentiments they do not really believe in; but in the end they will
either be exposed and held up to ridicule, or their work will sink into
obscurity. Sincerity in the expression of genuine thought and feeling
alone can stand the test of time. And this is in reality no
contradiction to what has just been said as to the necessity of a
receptive condition of mind in the production of works of true genius.
This capacity of receiving the most delicate objective impressions is,
indeed, one essential; but without the cognate power to assimilate this
food, and evolve the result that these influences have produced
subjectively, it is, worse than useless. The two must co-exist and act
and react upon one another. Nor must we be induced to surrender these
principles, in the present particular case, on account of the usual fine
but vague talk about Shakspere's absolute self-annihilation in favour of
the characters that he depicts. It is said that Shakspere so identifies
himself with each person in his dramas, that it is impossible to detect
the great master and his thoughts behind this cunningly devised screen.
If this means that Shakespere has always a perfect comprehension of his
characters, is competent to measure out to each absolute and unerring
justice, and is capable of sympathy with even the most repulsive, it
will not be disputed for an instant. It is so true, that it is dangerous
to take a sentence out of the mouth of any one of his characters and say
for certain, "This Shakspere thought," although there are many
characters with whom every one must feel that Shakspere identified
himself for the time being rather than others. But if it is intended to
assert that Shakspere has so eliminated himself from his writings as to
make it impossible to trace anywhere the tendencies of his own thought
at the time when he was writing, it must be most emphatically denied for
the reasons just stated. Freedom from prejudice must be carefully
dissociated from lack of interest in the motive that underlies the
construction of each play. There is a tone or key-note in each drama
that indicates the author's mental condition at the time when it was
produced; and if several plays, following each other in brisk
succession, all have the same predominant tone, it seems to be past
question that Shakspere is incidentally and indirectly uttering his own
personal thought and experience.

120. If it be granted, then, that it is possible to follow thus the
growth of Shakspere's thought through the medium of his successive
works, there is only one small point to be glanced at before attempting
to trace this growth in the matter of supernaturalism.

The natural history of the evolution of opinion upon matters which, for
want of a more embracing and satisfactory word, we must be content to
call "religious," follows a uniform course in the minds of all men,
except those "duller than the fat weed that roots itself at ease on
Lethe's wharf," who never get beyond the primary stage. This course is
separable into three periods. The first is that in which a man accepts
unhesitatingly the doctrines which he has received from his spiritual
teachers--customary not intellectual, belief. This sits lightly on him;
entails no troublesome doubts and questionings; possesses, or appears to
possess, formulae to meet all possible emergencies, and consequently
brings with it a happiness that is genuine, though superficial. But this
customary belief rarely satisfies for long. Contact with the world
brings to light other and opposed theories: introspection and
independent investigation of the bases of the hereditary faith are
commenced; many doctrines that have been hitherto accepted as eternally
and indisputably true are found to rest upon but slight foundation,
apart from their title to respect on account of age; doubts follow as to
the claim to acceptance of the whole system that has been so easily and
unhesitatingly swallowed; and the period of scepticism, or no-belief,
with its attendant misery, commences--for although Dagon has been but
little honoured in the time of his strength, in his downfall he is much
regretted. Then comes that long, weary groping after some firm, reliable
basis of belief: but heaven and earth appear for the time to conspire
against the seeker; an intellectual flood has drowned out the old order
of things; not even a mountain peak appears in the wide waste of
desolation as assurance of ultimate rest; and in the dark, overhanging
firmament no arc of promise is to be seen. But this is a state of mind
which, from its very nature, cannot continue for ever: no man could
endure it. While it lasts the struggle must be continuous, but
somewhere through the cloud lies the sunshine and the land of peace--the
final period of intellectual belief. Out of the chaos comes order; ideas
that but recently appeared confused, incoherent, and meaningless assume
their true perspective. It is found that all the strands of the old
conventional faith have not been snapped in the turmoil; and these,
re-knit and strengthened with the new and full knowledge of experience
and investigation, form the cable that secures that strange holy
confidence of belief that can only be gained by a preliminary warfare
with doubt--a peace that truly passes all understanding to those who
have never battled for it,--as to its foundation, diverse to a miracle
in diverse minds, but still, a peace.

121. If this be a true history of the course of development of every
mind that is capable of independent thought upon and investigation of
such high matters, it follows that Shakspere's soul must have
experienced a similar struggle--for he was a man of like passions with
ourselves; indeed, to so acute and sensitive a mind the struggle would
be, probably, more prolonged and more agonizing than to many; and it is
these three mental conditions--first, of unthinking acceptance of
generally received teaching; second, of profound and agitating
scepticism; and, thirdly, of belief founded upon reason and
experience--that may be naturally expected to be found impressed upon
his early, middle, and later works.

122. It is impossible here to do more than indicate some of the
evidence that this supposition is correct, for to attempt to investigate
the question exhaustively would involve the minute consideration of a
majority of the plays. The period of Shakspere's customary or
conventional belief is illustrated in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and
to a certain extent also in the "Comedy of Errors." In the former play
we find him loyally accepting certain phases of the hereditary Stratford
belief in supernaturalism, throwing them into poetical form, and making
them beautiful. It has often before been observed, and it is well worthy
of observation, that of the three groups of characters in the play, the
country folk--a class whose manner and appearance had most vividly
reflected themselves upon the camera of Shakspere's mind--are by far the
most lifelike and distinct; the fairies, who had been the companions of
his childhood and youth in countless talks in the ingle and ballads in
the lanes, come second in prominence and finish; whilst the ostensible
heroes and heroines of the piece, the aristocrats of Athens, are
colourless and uninteresting as a dumb-show--the real shadows of the
play. This is exactly the ratio of impressionability that the three
classes would have for the mind of the youthful dramatist. The first is
a creation from life, the second from traditionary belief, the third
from hearsay. And when it has been said that the fairies are a creation
from traditionary belief, a full and accurate description of them has
been afforded. They are an embodiment of a popular superstition, and
nothing more. They do not conceal any thought of the poet who has
created them, nor are they used for any deeper purpose with regard to
the other persons of the drama than temporary and objectless annoyance.
Throughout the whole play runs a healthy, thoughtless, honest, almost
riotous happiness; no note of difficulty, no shadow of coming doubt
being perceptible. The pert and nimble spirit of mirth is fully
awakened; the worst tricks of the intermeddling spirits are mischievous
merely, and of only transitory influence, and "the summer still doth
tend upon their state," brightening this fairyland with its sunshine and
flowers. Man has absolutely no power to govern these supernatural
powers, and they have but unimportant influence over him. They can
affect his comfort, but they cannot control his fate. But all this is
merely an adapting and elaborating of ideas which had been handed down
from father to son for many generations. Shakspere's Puck is only the
Puck of a hundred ballads reproduced by the hand of a true poet; no
original thought upon the connection of the visible with the invisible
world is imported into the creation. All these facts tend to show that
when Shakspere wrote "A Midsummer Night's Dream," that is, at the
beginning of his career as a dramatic author, he had not broken away
from the trammels of the beliefs in which he had been brought up, but
accepted them unhesitatingly and joyously.

123. But there is a gradual toning down of this spirit of unbroken
content as time wears on. Putting aside the historical plays, in which
Shakspere was much more bound down by his subject-matter than in any
other species of drama, we find the comedies, in which his room for
expression of individual feeling was practically unlimited, gradually
losing their unalloyed hilarity, and deepening down into a sadness of
thought and expression that sometimes leaves a doubt whether the plays
should be classed as comedies at all. Shakspere has been more and more
in contact with the disputes and doubts of the educated men of his time,
and seeds have been silently sowing themselves in his heart, which are
soon to bring forth a plenteous harvest in the great tragedies of which
these semi-comedies, such as "All's Well that Ends Well" and "Measure
for Measure," are but the first-fruits.

124. Thus, when next we find Shakspere dealing with questions relating
to supernaturalism, the tone is quite different from that taken in his
earlier work. He has reached the second period of his thought upon the
subject, and this has cast its attendant gloom upon his writings. That
he was actually battling with questions current in his time is
demonstrated by the way in which, in three consecutive plays, derived
from utterly diverse sources, the same question of ghost or devil is
agitated, as has before been pointed out. But it is not merely a point
of theological dogma which stamps these plays as the product of
Shakspere's period of scepticism, but a theory of the influence of
supernatural beings upon the whole course of human life. Man is still
incapable of influencing these unseen forces, or bending them to his
will; but they are now no longer harmless, or incapable of anything but
temporary or trivial evil. Puck might lead night wanderers into
mischance, and laugh mischievously at the bodily harm that he had caused
them; but Puck has now disappeared, and in his stead is found a
malignant spirit, who seeks to laugh his fiendish laughter over the soul
he has deceived into destruction. Questions arise thick and fast that
are easier put than answered. Can it be that evil influences have the
upper hand in this world? that, be a man never so honest, never so pure,
he may nevertheless become the sport of blind chance or ruthless
wickedness? May a Hamlet, patiently struggling after truth and duty, be
put upon and abused by the darker powers? May Macbeth, who would fain do
right, were not evil so ever present with him, be juggled with and led
to destruction by fiends? May an undistinguishing fate sweep away at
once the good with the evil--Hamlet with Laertes; Desdemona with Iago;
Cordelia with Edmund? And above the turmoil of this reign of terror, is
there no word uttered of a Supreme Good guiding and controlling the
unloosed ill--no word of encouragement, none of hope? If this be so
indeed, that man is but the puppet of malignant spirits, away with this
life. It is not worth the living; for what power has man against the
fiends? But at this point arises a further question to demand solution:
what shall be hereafter? If evil is supreme here, shall it not be so in
that undiscovered country,--that life to come? The dreams that may come
give him pause, and he either shuffles on, doubting, hesitating, and
incapable of decision, or he hurls himself wildly against his fate. In
either case his life becomes like to a tale

"Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying--nothing!"

125. It is strange to note, too, how the ebb of this wave of scepticism
upon questions relating to the immaterial world is only recoil that adds
force to a succeeding wave of cynicism with regard to the physical world
around. "Hamlet," "Macbeth," and "Othello" give place to "Lear,"
"Troilus and Cressida," "Antony and Cleopatra," and "Timon." So true is
it that "unfaith in aught is want of faith in all," that in these later
plays it would seem that honour, honesty, and justice were virtues not
possessed by man or woman; or, if possessed, were only a curse to bring
down disgrace and destruction upon the possessor. Contrast the women of
these plays with those of the comedies immediately preceding the Hamlet
period. In the latter plays we find the heroines, by their sweet womanly
guidance and gentle but firm control, triumphantly bringing good out of
evil in spite of adverse circumstance. Beatrice, Rosalind, Viola,
Helena, and Isabella are all, not without a tinge of knight-errantry
that does not do the least violence to the conception of tender,
delicate womanhood, the good geniuses of the little worlds in which
their influence is made to be felt. Events must inevitably have gone
tragically but for their intervention. But with the advent of the second
period all this changes. At first the women, like Brutus' Portia,
Ophelia, Desdemona, however noble or sweet in character and well
meaning in motive, are incapable of grasping the guiding threads of the
events around them and controlling them for good. They have to give way
to characters of another kind, who bear the form without the nature of
women. Commencing with Lady Macbeth, the conception falls lower and
lower, through Goneril and Regan, Cressida, Cleopatra, until in the
climax of this utter despair, "Timon," there is no character that it
would not be a profanity to call by the name of woman.

126. And just as womanly purity and innocence quail before unwomanly
self-assertion and voluptuousness, so manly loyalty and unselfishness
give way before unmanly treachery and self-seeking. It is true that the
bad men do not finally triumph, but they triumph over the good with whom
they happen to come in contact. In "King Lear," what man shows any
virtue who does not receive punishment for the same? Not Gloucester,
whose loyal devotion to his king obtains for him a punishment that is
only merciful in that it prevents him from further suffering the sight
of his beloved master's misery; not Kent, who, faithful in his
self-denying service through all manner of obloquy, is left at last with
a prayer that he may be allowed to follow Lear to the grave; and beyond
these two there is little good to be found. But "Lear" is not by any
means the climax. The utter despair of good in man or woman rises higher
in "Troilus and Cressida," and reaches its culminating point in "Timon,"
a fragment only of which is Shakspere's. The pen fell from the tired
hand; the worn and distracted brain refused to fulfil the task of
depicting the depth to which the poet's estimate of mankind had fallen;
and we hardly know whether to rejoice or to regret that the clumsy hand
of an inferior writer has screened from our knowledge the full
disclosure of the utter and contemptuous cynicism and want of faith with
which, for the time being, Shakspere was infected.

127. Before passing on to consider the plays of the third period as
evidence of Shakspere's final thought, it will be well to pause and
re-read with attention a summing-up of Shakspere's teaching as it has
been presented to us by one of the greatest and most earnest teachers of
morality of the present day. Every word that Mr. Ruskin writes is so
evidently from the depth of his own good heart, and every doctrine that
he enunciates so pure in theory and so true in practice, that a
difference with him upon the final teaching of Shakspere's work cannot
be too cautiously expressed. But the estimate of this which he has given
in the third Lecture of "Sesame and Lilies"[1] is so painful, if
regarded as Shakspere's latest and most mature opinion, that everybody,
even Mr. Ruskin himself, would be glad to modify its gloom with a few
rays of hope, if it were possible to do so. "What then," says Mr.
Ruskin, "is the message to us of our own poet and searcher of hearts,
after fifteen hundred years of Christian faith have been numbered over
the graves of men? Are his words more cheerful than the heathen's
(Homer)? is his hope more near, his trust more sure, his reading of
fate more happy? Ah no! He differs from the heathen poet chiefly in
this, that he recognizes for deliverance no gods nigh at hand, and that,
by petty chance, by momentary folly, by broken message, by fool's
tyranny, or traitor's snare, the strongest and most righteous are
brought to their ruin, and perish without word of hope. He, indeed, as
part of his rendering of character, ascribes the power and modesty of
habitual devotion to the gentle and the just. The death-bed of Katharine
is bright with visions of angels; and the great soldier-king, standing
by his few dead, acknowledges the presence of the hand that can save
alike by many or by few. But observe that from those who with deepest
spirit meditate, and with deepest passion mourn, there are no such words
as these; nor in their hearts are any such consolations. Instead of the
perpetual sense of the helpful presence of the Deity, which, through all
heathen tradition, is the source of heroic strength, in battle, in
exile, and in the valley of the shadow of death, we find only in the
great Christian poet the consciousness of a moral law, through which
'the gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to
scourge us;' and of the resolved arbitration of the destinies, that
conclude into precision of doom what we feebly and blindly began; and
force us, when our indiscretion serves us, and our deepest plots do
pall, to the confession that 'there's a divinity that shapes our ends,
rough-hew them how we will.'"[2]

[Footnote 1: 3rd edition, sec. 115.]

[Footnote 2: Mr. Ruskin has analyzed "The Tempest," in "Munera
Pulveris," sec. 124, et seqq., but from another point of view.]

128. Now, it is perfectly clear that this criticism was written with two
or three plays, all belonging to one period, very conspicuously before
the mind. Of the illustrative exceptions that are made to the general
rule, one is derived from a play which Shakspere wrote at a very early
date, and the other from a scene which he almost certainly never wrote
at all; the whole of the rest of the passage quoted is founded upon
"Hamlet," "Macbeth," "Othello," and "Lear"--that is, upon the earlier
productions of what we must call Shakspere's sceptical period. But these
plays represent an essentially transient state of thought. Shakspere was
to learn and to teach that those who most deeply meditate and most
passionately mourn are not the men of noblest or most influential
character--that such may command our sympathy, but hardly our respect or
admiration. Still less did Shakspere finally assert, although for a time
he believed, that a blind destiny concludes into precision what we
feebly and blindly begin. Far otherwise and nobler was his conception of
man and his mission, and the unseen powers and their influences, in the
third and final stage of his thought.

129. Had Shakspere lived longer, he would doubtless have left us a
series of plays filled with the bright and reassuring tenderness and
confidence of this third period, as long and as brilliant in execution
as those of the second period. But as it is we are in possession of
quite enough material to enable us to form accurate conclusions upon the
state of his final thought. It is upon "The Tempest" that we must in
the main rely for an exposition of this; for though the other plays and
fragments fully exhibit the restoration of his faith in man and woman,
which was a necessary concurrence with his return from scepticism, yet
it is in "The Tempest" that he brings himself as nearly face to face as
dramatic possibilities would allow him with circumstances that admit of
the indirect expression of such thought. It is fortunate, too, for the
purpose of comparing Shakspere's earliest and latest opinions, that the
characters of "The Tempest" are divisible into the same groups as those
of "The Dream." The gross _canaille_ are represented, but now no longer
the most accurate in colour and most absorbing in interest of the
characters of the play, or unessential to the evolution of the plot.
They have a distinct importance in the movement of the piece, and
represent the unintelligent, material resistance to the work of
regeneration that Prospero seeks to carry out, and which must be
controlled by him, just as Sebastian and Antonio form the intelligent,
designing resistance. The spirit world is there too, but they, like the
former class, have no independent plot of their own, and no independent
operation against mankind; they only represent the invisible forces over
which Prospero must assert control if he would insure success for his
schemes. Ariel is, perhaps, one of the most extraordinary of all
Shakspere's creations. He is, indeed, formed upon a basis half fairy,
half devil, because it was only through the current notions upon
demonology that Shakspere could speak his ideas. But he certainly is not
a fairy in the sense that Puck is a fairy; and he is very far indeed
from bearing even a slight resemblance to the familiars whom the
magicians of the time professed to call from the vasty deep. He is
indeed but air, as Prospero says--the embodiment of an idea, the
representative of those invisible forces which operate as factors in the
shaping of events which, ignored, may prove resistant or fatal, but,
properly controlled and guided, work for good.[1] Lastly, there are the
heroes and heroine of the play, now no longer shadows, but the centres
of interest and admiration, and assuming their due position and
prominence.

[Footnote 1: It is difficult to accept Mr. Ruskin's view of Ariel as
"the spirit of generous and free-hearted service" (Mun. Pul. sec. 124);
he is throughout the play the more-than-half-unwilling agent of
Prospero.]

130. It is probable, therefore, that it is not merely a student's fancy
that in Prospero's storm-girt, spirit-haunted island can be seen
Shakspere's final and matured image of the mighty world. If this be so,
how far more bright and hopeful it is than the verdict which Mr. Ruskin
finds Shakspere to have returned. Man is no longer "a pipe for fortune's
fingers to sound what stop she please." The evil elements still exist in
the world, and are numerous and formidable; but man, by nobleness of
life and word, by patience and self-mastery, can master them, bring them
into subjection, and make them tend to eventual good. Caliban, the
gross, sensual, earthly element--though somewhat raised--would run riot,
and is therefore compelled to menial service. The brute force of
Stephano and Trinculo is vanquished by mental superiority. Even the
supermundane spirits, now no longer thirsting for the destruction of
body and soul, are bound down to the work of carrying out the decrees of
truth and justice. Man is no longer the plaything, but the master of his
fate; and he, seeing now the possible triumph of good over evil, and his
duty to do his best in aid of this triumph, has no more fear of the
dreams--the something after death. Our little life is still rounded by a
sleep, but the thought which terrifies Hamlet has no power to affright
Prospero. The hereafter is still a mystery, it is true; he has tried to
see into it, and has found it impenetrable. But revelation has come like
an angel, with peace upon its wings, in another and an unexpected way.
Duty lies here, in and around him in this world. Here he can right
wrong, succour the weak, abase the proud, do something to make the world
better than he found it; and in the performance of this he finds a
holier calm than the vain strivings after the unknowable could ever
afford. Let him work while it is day, for "the night cometh, when no man
can work."

131. It is not a piece of pure sentimentality that sees in Prospero a
type of Shakspere in his final stage of thought. It is a type altogether
as it should be; and it is pleasing to think of him, in the full
maturity of his manhood, wrapping his seer's cloak about him, and, while
waiting calmly the unfolding of the mystery which he has sought in vain
to solve, watching with noble benevolence the gradual working out of
truth, order, and justice. It is pleasing to think of him as speaking
to the world the great Christian doctrine so universally overlooked by
Christians, that the only remedy for sin demanded by eternal justice "is
nothing but heart's sorrow, and a clear life ensuing"--a speech which,
though uttered by Ariel, is spoken by Prospero, who himself beautifully
iterates part of the doctrine when he says--

"The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further."[1]

It is pleasant to dwell upon his sympathy with Ferdinand and
Miranda--for the love of man and woman is pure and holy in this
regenerate world: no more of Troilus and Cressida--upon his patient
waiting for the evolution of his schemes; upon his faith in their
ultimate success; and, above all, upon the majestic and unaffected
reverence that appears indirectly in every line--"reverence," to adapt
the words of the great teacher whose opinion about Shakspere has been
perhaps too rashly questioned, "for what is pure and bright in youth;
for what is true and tried in age; for all that is gracious among the
living, great among the dead, and marvellous in the Powers that cannot
die."

[Footnote 1: V. l. 27.]

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