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Lectures on Dramatic Art by August Wilhelm Schlegel trans John Black

Part 8 out of 10

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all sorts of active or passive persons, pass in review before us: the
hypocritical Lord Deputy, the compassionate Provost, and the hard-hearted
Hangman; a young man of quality who is to suffer for the seduction of his
mistress before marriage, loose wretches brought in by the police, nay,
even a hardened criminal, whom even the preparations for his execution
cannot awaken out of his callousness. But yet, notwithstanding this
agitating truthfulness, how tender and mild is the pervading tone of the
picture! The piece takes improperly its name from punishment; the true
significance of the whole is the triumph of mercy over strict justice; no
man being himself so free from errors as to be entitled to deal it out to
his equals. The most beautiful embellishment of the composition is the
character of Isabella, who, on the point of taking the veil, is yet
prevailed upon by sisterly affection to tread again the perplexing ways of
the world, while, amid the general corruption, the heavenly purity of her
mind is not even stained with one unholy thought: in the humble robes of
the novice she is a very angel of light. When the cold and stern Angelo,
heretofore of unblemished reputation, whom the Duke has commissioned,
during his pretended absence, to restrain, by a rigid administration of
the laws, the excesses of dissolute immorality, is even himself tempted by
the virgin charms of Isabella, supplicating for the pardon of her brother
Claudio, condemned to death for a youthful indiscretion; when at first, in
timid and obscure language, he insinuates, but at last impudently avouches
his readiness to grant Claudio's life to the sacrifice of her honour; when
Isabella repulses his offer with a noble scorn; in her account of the
interview to her brother, when the latter at first applauds her conduct,
but at length, overcome by the fear of death, strives to persuade her to
consent to dishonour;--in these masterly scenes, Shakspeare has sounded
the depths of the human heart. The interest here reposes altogether on the
represented action; curiosity contributes nothing to our delight, for the
Duke, in the disguise of a Monk, is always present to watch over his
dangerous representative, and to avert every evil which could possibly be
apprehended; we look to him with confidence for a happy result. The Duke
acts the part of the Monk naturally, even to deception; he unites in his
person the wisdom of the priest and the prince. Only in his wisdom he is
too fond of round-about ways; his vanity is flattered with acting
invisibly like an earthly providence; he takes more pleasure in
overhearing his subjects than governing them in the customary way of
princes. As he ultimately extends a free pardon to all the guilty, we do
not see how his original purpose, in committing the execution of the laws
to other hands, of restoring their strictness, has in any wise been
accomplished. The poet might have had this irony in view, that of the
numberless slanders of the Duke, told him by the petulant Lucio, in
ignorance of the person whom he is addressing, that at least which
regarded his singularities and whims was not wholly without foundation. It
is deserving of remark, that Shakspeare, amidst the rancour of religious
parties, takes a delight in painting the condition of a monk, and always
represents his influence as beneficial. We find in him none of the black
and knavish monks, which an enthusiasm for Protestantism, rather than
poetical inspiration, has suggested to some of our modern poets.
Shakspeare merely gives his monks an inclination to busy themselves in the
affairs of others, after renouncing the world for themselves; with
respect, however, to pious frauds, he does not represent them as very
conscientious. Such are the parts acted by the monk in _Romeo and Juliet_,
and another in _Much Ado about Nothing_, and even by the Duke, whom,
contrary to the well-known proverb, the cowl seems really to make a monk.

The _Merchant of Venice_ is one of Shakspeare's most perfect works:
popular to an extraordinary degree, and calculated to produce the most
powerful effect on the stage, and at the same time a wonder of ingenuity
and art for the reflecting critic. Shylock, the Jew, is one of the
inimitable masterpieces of characterization which are to be found only in
Shakspeare. It is easy for both poet and player to exhibit a caricature of
national sentiments, modes of speaking, and gestures. Shylock, however, is
everything but a common Jew: he possesses a strongly-marked and original
individuality, and yet we perceive a light touch of Judaism in everything
he says or does. We almost fancy we can hear a light whisper of the Jewish
accent even in the written words, such as we sometimes still find in the
higher classes, notwithstanding their social refinement. In tranquil
moments, all that is foreign to the European blood and Christian
sentiments is less perceptible, but in passion the national stamp comes
out more strongly marked. All these inimitable niceties the finished art
of a great actor can alone properly express. Shylock is a man of
information, in his own way, even a thinker, only he has not discovered
the region where human feelings dwell; his morality is founded on the
disbelief in goodness and magnanimity. The desire to avenge the wrongs and
indignities heaped upon his nation is, after avarice, his strongest spring
of action. His hate is naturally directed chiefly against those Christians
who are actuated by truly Christian sentiments: a disinterested love of
our neighbour seems to him the most unrelenting persecution of the Jews.
The letter of the law is his idol; he refuses to lend an ear to the voice
of mercy, which, from the mouth of Portia, speaks to him with heavenly
eloquence: he insists on rigid and inflexible justice, and at last it
recoils on his own head. Thus he becomes a symbol of the general history
of his unfortunate nation. The melancholy and self-sacrificing magnanimity
of Antonio is affectingly sublime. Like a princely merchant, he is
surrounded with a whole train of noble friends. The contrast which this
forms to the selfish cruelty of the usurer Shylock was necessary to redeem
the honour of human nature. The danger which almost to the close of the
fourth act, hangs over Antonio, and which the imagination is almost afraid
to approach, would fill the mind with too painful anxiety, if the poet did
not also provide for its recreation and diversion. This is effected in an
especial manner by the scenes at Portia's country-seat, which transport
the spectator into quite another world. And yet they are closely connected
with the main business by the chain of cause and effect: Bassanio's
preparations for his courtship are the cause of Antonio's subscribing the
dangerous bond; and Portia again, by the counsel and advice of her uncle,
a famous lawyer, effects the safety of her lover's friend. But the
relations of the dramatic composition are the while admirably observed in
yet another respect. The trial between Shylock and Antonio is indeed
recorded as being a real event, still, for all that, it must ever remain
an unheard-of and singular case. Shakspeare has therefore associated it
with a love intrigue not less extraordinary: the one consequently is
rendered natural and probable by means of the other. A rich, beautiful and
clever heiress, who can only be won by the solving the riddle--the locked
caskets--the foreign princes, who come to try the venture--all this
powerfully excites the imagination with the splendour of an olden tale of
marvels. The two scenes in which, first the Prince of Morocco, in the
language of Eastern hyperbole, and then the self-conceited Prince of
Arragon, make their choice among the caskets, serve merely to raise our
curiosity, and give employment to our wits; but on the third, where the
two lovers stand trembling before the inevitable choice, which in one
moment must unite or separate them for ever, Shakspeare has lavished all
the charms of feeling--all the magic of poesy. We share in the rapture of
Portia and Bassanio at the fortunate choice: we easily conceive why they
are so fond of each other, for they are both most deserving of love. The
judgment scene, with which the fourth act is occupied, is in itself a
perfect drama, concentrating in itself the interest of the whole. The knot
is now untied, and according to the common ideas of theatrical
satisfaction, the curtain ought to drop. But the poet was unwilling to
dismiss his audience with the gloomy impressions which Antonio's
acquittal, effected with so much difficulty, and contrary to all
expectation, and the condemnation of Shylock, were calculated to leave
behind them; he has therefore added the fifth act by way of a musical
afterlude in the piece itself. The episode of Jessica, the fugitive
daughter of the Jew, in whom Shakspeare has contrived to throw a veil of
sweetness over the national features, and the artifice by which Portia and
her companion are enabled to rally their newly-married husbands, supply
him with the necessary materials. The scene opens with the playful
prattling of two lovers in a summer evening; it is followed by soft music,
and a rapturous eulogy on this powerful disposer of the human mind and the
world; the principal characters then make their appearance, and after a
simulated quarrel, which is gracefully maintained, the whole end with the
most exhilarating mirth.

_As You Like It_ is a piece of an entirely different description. It
would be difficult to bring the contents within the compass of an ordinary
narrative; nothing takes place, or rather what is done is not so essential
as what is said; even what may be called the _dénouement_ is brought
about pretty arbitrarily. Whoever can perceive nothing but what can as it
were be counted on the fingers, will hardly be disposed to allow that it
has any plan at all. Banishment and flight have assembled together, in the
forest of Arden, a strange band: a Duke dethroned by his brother, who,
with the faithful companions of his misfortune, lives in the wilds on the
produce of the chase; two disguised Princesses, who love each other with a
sisterly affection; a witty court fool; lastly, the native inhabitants of
the forest, ideal and natural shepherds and shepherdesses. These lightly-
sketched figures form a motley and diversified train; we see always the
shady dark-green landscape in the background, and breathe in imagination
the fresh air of the forest. The hours are here measured by no clocks, no
regulated recurrence of duty or of toil: they flow on unnumbered by
voluntary occupation or fanciful idleness, to which, according to his
humour or disposition, every one yields himself, and this unrestrained
freedom compensates them all for the lost conveniences of life. One throws
himself down in solitary meditation under a tree, and indulges in
melancholy reflections on the changes of fortune, the falsehood of the
world, and the self-inflicted torments of social life; others make the
woods resound with social and festive songs, to the accompaniment of their
hunting-horns. Selfishness, envy, and ambition, have been left behind in
the city; of all the human passions, love alone has found an entrance into
this wilderness, where it dictates the same language alike to the simple
shepherd and the chivalrous youth, who hangs his love-ditty to a tree. A
prudish shepherdess falls at first sight in love with Rosalind, disguised
in men's apparel; the latter sharply reproaches her with her severity to
her poor lover, and the pain of refusal, which she feels from experience
in her own case, disposes her at length to compassion and requital. The
fool carries his philosophical contempt of external show, and his raillery
of the illusion of love so far, that he purposely seeks out the ugliest
and simplest country wench for a mistress. Throughout the whole picture,
it seems to be the poet's design to show that to call forth the poetry
which has its indwelling in nature and the human mind, nothing is wanted
but to throw off all artificial constraint, and restore both to mind and
nature their original liberty. In the very progress of the piece, the
dreamy carelessness of such an existence is sensibly expressed: it is even
alluded to by Shakspeare in the title. Whoever affects to be displeased,
if in this romantic forest the ceremonial of dramatic art is not duly
observed, ought in justice to be delivered over to the wise fool, to be
led gently out of it to some prosaical region.

_The Twelfth Night, or What you Will_, unites the entertainment of an
intrigue, contrived with great ingenuity, to a rich fund of comic
characters and situations, and the beauteous colours of an ethereal
poetry. In most of his plays, Shakspeare treats love more as an affair of
the imagination than the heart; but here he has taken particular care to
remind us that, in his language, the same word, _fancy_, signified
both fancy and love. The love of the music-enraptured Duke for Olivia is
not merely a fancy, but an imagination; Viola appears at first to fall
arbitrarily in love with the Duke, whom she serves as a page, although she
afterwards touches the tenderest strings of feeling; the proud Olivia is
captivated by the modest and insinuating messenger of the Duke, in whom
she is far from suspecting a disguised rival, and at last, by a second
deception, takes the brother for the sister. To these, which I might call
ideal follies, a contrast is formed by the naked absurdities to which the
entertaining tricks of the ludicrous persons of the piece give rise, under
the pretext also of love: the silly and profligate Knight's awkward
courtship of Olivia, and her declaration of love to Viola; the imagination
of the pedantic steward Malvolio, that his mistress is secretly in love
with him, which carries him so far that he is at last shut up as a
lunatic, and visited by the clown in the dress of a priest. These scenes
are admirably conceived, and as significant as they are laughable. If this
were really, as is asserted, Shakspeare's latest work, he must have
enjoyed to the last the same youthful elasticity of mind, and have carried
with him to the grave the undiminished fulness of his talents.

_The Merry Wives of Windsor_, though properly a comedy in the usual
acceptation of the word, we shall pass over at present, till we come to
speak of _Henry the Fourth_, that we may give our opinion of the character
of Falstaff in connexion.

_The Midsummer Night's Dream_ and _The Tempest_, may be in so far compared
together that in both the influence of a wonderful world of spirits is
interwoven with the turmoil of human passions and with the farcical
adventures of folly. _The Midsummer Night's Dream_ is certainly an earlier
production; but _The Tempest_, according to all appearance, was written in
Shakspeare's later days: hence most critics, on the supposition that the
poet must have continued to improve with increasing maturity of mind, have
honoured the last piece with a marked preference. I cannot, however,
altogether concur with them: the internal merit of these two works are, in
my opinion, pretty nearly balanced, and a predilection for the one or the
other can only be governed by personal taste. In profound and original
characterization the superiority of _The Tempest_ is obvious: as a whole
we must always admire the masterly skill which he has here displayed in
the economy of his means, and the dexterity with which he has disguised
his preparations,--the scaffoldings for the wonderful aërial structure. In
_The Midsummer Night's Dream_, on the other hand, there flows a luxuriant
vein of the boldest and most fantastical invention; the most extraordinary
combination of the most dissimilar ingredients seems to have been brought
about without effort by some ingenious and lucky accident, and the colours
are of such clear transparency that we think the whole of the variegated
fabric may be blown away with a breath. The fairy world here described
resembles those elegant pieces of arabesque, where little genii with
butterfly wings rise, half embodied, above the flower-cups. Twilight,
moonshine, dew, and spring perfumes, are the element of these tender
spirits; they assist nature in embroidering her carpet with green leaves,
many-coloured flowers, and glittering insects; in the human world they do
but make sport childishly and waywardly with their beneficent or noxious
influences. Their most violent rage dissolves in good-natured raillery;
their passions, stripped of all earthly matter, are merely an ideal dream.
To correspond with this, the loves of mortals are painted as a poetical
enchantment, which, by a contrary enchantment, may be immediately
suspended, and then renewed again. The different parts of the plot; the
wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, Oberon and Titania's quarrel, the flight
of the two pair of lovers, and the theatrical manoeuvres of the mechanics,
are so lightly and happily interwoven that they seem necessary to each
other for the formation, of a whole. Oberon is desirous of relieving the
lovers from their perplexities, but greatly adds to them through the
mistakes of his minister, till he at last comes really to the aid of their
fruitless amorous pain, their inconstancy and jealousy, and restores
fidelity to its old rights. The extremes of fanciful and vulgar are united
when the enchanted Titania awakes and falls in love with a coarse mechanic
with an ass's head, who represents, or rather disfigures, the part of a
tragical lover. The droll wonder of Bottom's transformation is merely the
translation of a metaphor in its literal sense; but in his behaviour
during the tender homage of the Fairy Queen we have an amusing proof how
much the consciousness of such a head-dress heightens the effect of his
usual folly. Theseus and Hippolyta are, as it were, a splendid frame for
the picture; they take no part in the action, but surround it with a
stately pomp. The discourse of the hero and his Amazon, as they course
through the forest with their noisy hunting-train, works upon the
imagination like the fresh breath of morning, before which the shapes of
night disappear. Pyramus and Thisbe is not unmeaningly chosen as the
grotesque play within the play; it is exactly like the pathetic part of
the piece, a secret meeting of two lovers in the forest, and their
separation by an unfortunate accident, and closes the whole with the most
amusing parody.

_The Tempest_ has little action or progressive movement; the union of
Ferdinand and Miranda is settled at their first interview, and Prospero
merely throws apparent obstacles in their way; the shipwrecked band go
leisurely about the island; the attempts of Sebastian and Antonio on the
life of the King of Naples, and the plot of Caliban and the drunken
sailors against Prospero, are nothing but a feint, for we foresee that
they will be completely frustrated by the magical skill of the latter;
nothing remains therefore but the punishment of the guilty by dreadful
sights which harrow up their consciences, and then the discovery and final
reconciliation. Yet this want of movement is so admirably concealed by the
most varied display of the fascinations of poetry, and the exhilaration of
mirth, the details of the execution are so very attractive, that it
requires no small degree of attention to perceive that the
_dénouement_ is, in some degree, anticipated in the exposition. The
history of the loves of Ferdinand and Miranda, developed in a few short
scenes, is enchantingly beautiful: an affecting union of chivalrous
magnanimity on the one part, and on the other of the virgin openness of a
heart which, brought up far from the world on an uninhabited island, has
never learned to disguise its innocent movements. The wisdom of the
princely hermit Prospero has a magical and mysterious air; the
disagreeable impression left by the black falsehood of the two usurpers is
softened by the honest gossipping of the old and faithful Gonzalo;
Trinculo and Stephano, two good-for-nothing drunkards, find a worthy
associate in Caliban; and Ariel hovers sweetly over the whole as the
personified genius of the wonderful fable.

Caliban has become a by-word as the strange creation of a poetical
imagination. A mixture of gnome and savage, half daemon, half brute, in
his behaviour we perceive at once the traces of his native disposition,
and the influence of Prospero's education. The latter could only unfold
his understanding, without, in the slightest degree, taming his rooted
malignity: it is as if the use of reason and human speech were
communicated to an awkward ape. In inclination Caliban is maliciously
cowardly, false, and base; and yet he is essentially different from the
vulgar knaves of a civilized world, as portrayed occasionally by
Shakspeare. He is rude, but not vulgar; he never falls into the prosaic
and low familiarity of his drunken associates, for he is, in his way, a
poetical being; he always speaks in verse. He has picked up every thing
dissonant and thorny in language to compose out of it a vocabulary of his
own; and of the whole variety of nature, the hateful, repulsive, and
pettily deformed, have alone been impressed on his imagination. The
magical world of spirits, which the staff of Prospero has assembled on the
island, casts merely a faint reflection into his mind, as a ray of light
which falls into a dark cave, incapable of communicating to it either heat
or illumination, serves merely to set in motion the poisonous vapours. The
delineation of this monster is throughout inconceivably consistent and
profound, and, notwithstanding its hatefulness, by no means hurtful to our
feelings, as the honour of human nature is left untouched.

In the zephyr-like Ariel the image of air is not to be mistaken, his name
even bears an allusion to it; as, on the other hand Caliban signifies the
heavy element of earth. Yet they are neither of them simple, allegorical
personifications but beings individually determined. In general we find in
_The Midsummer Night's Dream_, in _The Tempest_, in the magical part of
_Macbeth_, and wherever Shakspeare avails himself of the popular belief in
the invisible presence of spirits, and the possibility of coming in
contact with them, a profound view of the inward life of nature and her
mysterious springs, which, it is true, can never be altogether unknown to
the genuine poet, as poetry is altogether incompatible with mechanical
physics, but which few have possessed in an equal degree with Dante and

_The Winter's Tale_ is as appropriately named as _The Midsummer Night's
Dream_. It is one of those tales which are peculiarly calculated to
beguile the dreary leisure of a long winter evening, and are even
attractive and intelligible to childhood, while animated by fervent
truth in the delineation of character and passion, and invested with the
embellishments of poetry lowering itself, as it were, to the simplicity of
the subject, they transport even manhood back to the golden age of
imagination. The calculation of probabilities has nothing to do with such
wonderful and fleeting adventures, when all end at last in universal joy;
and, accordingly, Shakspeare has here taken the greatest license of
anachronisms and geographical errors; not to mention other incongruities,
he opens a free navigation between Sicily and Bohemia, makes Giulio Romano
the contemporary of the Delphic oracle. The piece divides itself in some
degree into two plays. Leontes becomes suddenly jealous of his royal
bosom-friend Polyxenes, who is on a visit to his court; makes an attempt
on his life, from which Polyxenes only saves himself by a clandestine
flight;--Hermione, suspected of infidelity, is thrown into prison, and the
daughter which she there brings into the world is exposed on a remote
coast;--the accused Queen, declared innocent by the oracle, on learning
that her infant son has pined to death on her account, falls down in a
swoon, and is mourned as dead by her husband, who becomes sensible, when
too late, of his error: all this makes up the three first acts. The last
two are separated from these by a chasm of sixteen years; but the
foregoing tragical catastrophe was only apparent, and this serves to
connect the two parts. The Princess, who has been exposed on the coast of
Polyxenes's kingdom, grows up among low shepherds; but her tender beauty,
her noble manners, and elevation of sentiment, bespeak her descent; the
Crown Prince Florizel, in the course of his hawking, falls in with her,
becomes enamoured, and courts her in the disguise of a shepherd; at a
rural entertainment Polyxenes discovers their attachment, and breaks out
into a violent rage; the two lovers seek refuge from his persecutions at
the court of Leontes in Sicily, where the discovery and general
reconciliation take place. Lastly, when Leontes beholds, as he imagines,
the statue of his lost wife, it descends from the niche: it is she
herself, the still living Hermione, who has kept herself so long
concealed; and the piece ends with universal rejoicing. The jealousy of
Leontes is not, like that of Othello, developed through all its causes,
symptoms and variations; it is brought forward at once full grown and
mature, and is portrayed as a distempered frenzy. It is a passion whose
effects the spectator is more concerned with than with its origin, and
which does not produce the catastrophe, but merely ties the knot of the
piece. In fact, the poet might perhaps have wished slightly to indicate
that Hermione, though virtuous, was too warm in her efforts to please
Polyxenes; and it appears as if this germ of inclination first attained
its proper maturity in their children. Nothing can be more fresh and
youthful, nothing at once so ideally pastoral and princely as the love of
Florizel and Perdita; of the prince, whom love converts into a voluntary
shepherd; and the princess, who betrays her exalted origin without knowing
it, and in whose hands nosegays become crowns. Shakspeare has never
hesitated to place ideal poetry side by side of the most vulgar prose: and
in the world of reality also this is generally the case. Perdita's foster-
father and his son are both made simple boors, that we may the more
distinctly see how all that ennobles her belongs only to herself.
Autolycus, the merry pedlar and pickpocket, so inimitably portrayed, is
necessary to complete the rustic feast, which Perdita on her part seems to
render meet for an assemblage of gods in disguise.

_Cymbeline_ is also one of Shakspeare's most wonderful compositions.
He has here combined a novel of Boccacio's with traditionary tales of the
ancient Britons reaching back to the times of the first Roman Emperors,
and he has contrived, by the most gentle transitions, to blend together
into one harmonious whole the social manners of the newest times with
olden heroic deeds, and even with appearances of the gods.

In the character of Imogen no one feature of female excellence is omitted:
her chaste tenderness, her softness, and her virgin pride, her boundless
resignation, and her magnanimity towards her mistaken husband, by whom she
is unjustly persecuted, her adventures in disguise, her apparent death,
and her recovery, form altogether a picture equally tender and affecting.
The two Princes, Guiderius and Arviragus, both educated in the wilds, form
a noble contrast to Miranda and Perdita. Shakspeare is fond of showing the
superiority of the natural over the artificial. Over the art which
enriches nature, he somewhere says, there is a higher art created by
nature herself. [Footnote: The passage in Shakspeare here quoted, taken
with the context, will not bear the construction of the author. The whole
runs thus:--
Yet nature is made better by no mean,
But nature makes that mean: so, o'er that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock;
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather; but
The art itself is nature.
_Winter's Tale_, Act iv. sc. 3.
Shakspeare does not here mean to institute a comparison between the
relative excellency of that which is innate and that which we owe to
instruction; but merely says, that the instruction or art is itself a part
of nature. The speech is addressed by Polyxenes to Perdita, to persuade
her that the changes effected in the appearance of flowers by the art of
the gardener are not to be accounted unnatural; and the expression of
_making conceive a bark of baser kind by bud of nobler race_ (i.e.,
engrafting), would rather lead to the inference, that the mind derived its
chief value from the influence of culture.--TRANS.] As Miranda's
unconscious and unstudied sweetness is more pleasing than those charms
which endeavour to captivate us by the brilliant embellishments of a
refined cultivation, so in these two youths, to whom the chase has given
vigour and hardihood, but who are ignorant of their high destination, and
have been brought up apart from human society, we are equally enchanted by
a _naïve_ heroism which leads them to anticipate and to dream of
deeds of valour, till an occasion is offered which they are irresistibly
compelled to embrace. When Imogen comes in disguise to their cave; when,
with all the innocence of childhood, Guiderius and Arviragus form an
impassioned friendship for the tender boy, in whom they neither suspect a
female nor their own sister; when, on their return from the chase, they
find her dead, then "sing her to the ground," and cover the grave with
flowers:--these scenes might give to the most deadened imagination a new
life for poetry. If a tragical event is only apparent, in such case,
whether the spectators are already aware of it or ought merely to suspect
it, Shakspeare always knows how to mitigate the impression without
weakening it: he makes the mourning musical, that it may gain in solemnity
what it loses in seriousness. With respect to the other parts, the wise
and vigorous Belarius, who after long living as a hermit again becomes a
hero, is a venerable figure; the Italian Iachimo's ready dissimulation and
quick presence of mind is quite suitable to the bold treachery which he
plays; Cymbeline, the father of Imogen, and even her husband Posthumus,
during the first half of the piece, are somewhat sacrificed, but this
could not be otherwise; the false and wicked Queen is merely an instrument
of the plot; she and her stupid son Cloton (the only comic part in the
piece) whose rude arrogance is portrayed with much humour, are, before the
conclusion, got rid of by merited punishment. As for the heroical part of
the fable, the war between the Romans and Britons, which brings on the
dénouement, the poet in the extent of his plan had so little room to
spare, that he merely endeavours to represent it as a mute procession. But
to the last scene, where all the numerous threads of the knot are untied,
he has again given its full development, that he might collect together
into one focus the scattered impressions of the whole. This example and
many others are a sufficient refutation of Johnson's assertion, that
Shakspeare usually hurries over the conclusion of his pieces. Rather does
he, from a desire to satisfy the feelings, introduce a great deal which,
so far as the understanding of the _dénouement_ requires, might in a
strict sense be justly spared: our modern spectators are much more
impatient to see the curtain drop, when there is nothing more to be
determined, than those of his day could have been.


Criticisms on Shakspeare's Tragedies.

_Romeo and Juliet_, and _Othello_, differ from most of the pieces which we
have hitherto examined, neither in the ingredients of the composition, nor
in the manner of treating them: it is merely the direction of the whole
that gives them the stamp of Tragedy. _Romeo and Juliet_ is a picture of
love and its pitiable fate, in a world whose atmosphere is too sharp for
this the tenderest blossom of human life. Two beings created for each
other feel mutual love at the first glance; every consideration disappears
before the irresistible impulse to live in one another; under
circumstances hostile in the highest degree to their union, they unite
themselves by a secret marriage, relying simply on the protection of an
invisible power. Untoward incidents following in rapid succession, their
heroic constancy is within a few days put to the proof, till, forcibly
separated from each other, by a voluntary death they are united in the
grave to meet again in another world. All this is to be found in the
beautiful story which Shakspeare has not invented, and which, however
simply told, will always excite a tender sympathy: but it was reserved for
Shakspeare to join in one ideal picture purity of heart with warmth of
imagination; sweetness and dignity of manners with passionate intensity of
feeling. Under his handling, it has become a glorious song of praise on
that inexpressible feeling which ennobles the soul and gives to it
its highest sublimity, and which elevates even the senses into soul,
while at the same time it is a melancholy elegy on its inherent and
imparted frailty; it is at once the apotheosis and the obsequies of love.
It appears here a heavenly spark, that, as it descends to the earth, is
converted into the lightning flash, which almost in the same moment sets
on fire and consumes the mortal being on whom it lights. All that is most
intoxicating in the odour of a southern spring,--all that is languishing
in the song of the nightingale, or voluptuous in the first opening of the
rose, all alike breathe forth from this poem. But even more rapidly than
the earliest blossoms of youth and beauty decay, does it from the first
timidly-bold declaration and modest return of love hurry on to the most
unlimited passion, to an irrevocable union; and then hastens, amidst
alternating storms of rapture and despair, to the fate of the two lovers,
who yet appear enviable in their hard lot, for their love survives them,
and by their death they have obtained an endless triumph over every
separating power. The sweetest and the bitterest love and hatred, festive
rejoicings and dark forebodings, tender embraces and sepulchral horrors,
the fulness of life and self-annihilation, are here all brought close to
each other; and yet these contrasts are so blended into a unity of
impression, that the echo which the whole leaves behind in the mind
resembles a single but endless sigh.

The excellent dramatic arrangement, the significance of every character in
its place, the judicious selection of all the circumstances, even the most
minute, have already been dwelt upon in detail. I shall only request
attention to a trait which may serve for an example of the distance to
which Shakspeare goes back to lay the preparatory foundation. The most
striking and perhaps incredible circumstance in the whole story is the
liquor given by the Monk to Julia, by which she for a number of hours not
merely sleeps, but fully resembles a corpse, without however receiving the
least injury. How does the poet dispose us to believe that Father Lorenzo
possesses such a secret?--At his first appearance he exhibits him in a
garden, where he is collecting herbs and descanting on their wonderful
virtues. The discourse of the pious old man is full of deep meaning: he
sees everywhere in nature emblems of the moral world; the same wisdom with
which he looks through her has also made him master of the human heart. In
this manner a circumstance of an ungrateful appearance, has become the
source of a great beauty.

If _Romeo and Juliet_ shines with the colours of the dawn of morning,
but a dawn whose purple clouds already announce the thunder of a sultry
day, _Othello_ is, on the other hand, a strongly shaded picture: we
might call it a tragical Rembrandt. What a fortunate mistake that the Moor
(under which name in the original novel, a baptized Saracen of the
Northern coast of Africa was unquestionably meant), has been made by
Shakspeare in every respect a negro! We recognize in Othello the wild
nature of that glowing zone which generates the most ravenous beasts of
prey and the most deadly poisons, tamed only in appearance by the desire
of fame, by foreign laws of honour, and by nobler and milder manners. His
jealousy is not the jealousy of the heart, which is compatible with the
tenderest feeling and adoration of the beloved object; it is of that
sensual kind which, in burning climes, has given birth to the disgraceful
confinement of women and many other unnatural usages. A drop of this
poison flows in his veins, and sets his whole blood in the wildest
ferment. The Moor _seems_ noble, frank, confiding, grateful for the
love shown him; and he is all this, and, moreover, a hero who spurns at
danger, a worthy leader of an army, a faithful servant of the state; but
the mere physical force of passion puts to flight in one moment all his
acquired and mere habitual virtues, and gives the upper hand to the savage
over the moral man. This tyranny of the blood over the will betrays itself
even in the expression of his desire of revenge upon Cassio. In his
repentance, a genuine tenderness for his murdered wife, and in the
presence of the damning evidence of his deed, the painful feeling of
annihilated honour at last bursts forth; and in the midst of these painful
emotions he assails himself with the rage wherewith a despot punishes a
runaway slave. He suffers as a double man; at once in the higher and the
lower sphere into which his being was divided.--While the Moor bears the
nightly colour of suspicion and deceit only on his visage, Iago is black
within. He haunts Othello like his evil genius, and with his light (and
therefore the more dangerous,) insinuations, he leaves him no rest; it is
as if by means of an unfortunate affinity, founded however in nature, this
influence was by necessity more powerful over him than the voice of his
good angel Desdemona. A more artful villain than this Iago was never
portrayed; he spreads his nets with a skill which nothing can escape. The
repugnance inspired by his aims becomes tolerable from the attention of
the spectators being directed to his means: these furnish endless
employment to the understanding. Cool, discontented, and morose, arrogant
where he dare be so, but humble and insinuating when it suits his
purposes, he is a complete master in the art of dissimulation; accessible
only to selfish emotions, he is thoroughly skilled in rousing the passions
of others, and of availing himself of every opening which they give him:
he is as excellent an observer of men as any one can be who is
unacquainted with higher motives of action from his own experience; there
is always some truth in his malicious observations on them. He does not
merely pretend an obdurate incredulity as to the virtue of women, he
actually entertains it; and this, too, falls in with his whole way of
thinking, and makes him the more fit for the execution of his purpose. As
in every thing he sees merely the hateful side, he dissolves in the rudest
manner the charm which the imagination casts over the relation between the
two sexes: he does so for the purpose of revolting Othello's senses, whose
heart otherwise might easily have convinced him of Desdemona's innocence.
This must serve as an excuse for the numerous expressions in the speeches
of Iago from which modesty shrinks. If Shakespeare had written in our days
he would not perhaps have dared to hazard them; and yet this must
certainly have greatly injured the truth of his picture. Desdemona is a
sacrifice without blemish. She is not, it is true, a high ideal
representation of sweetness and enthusiastic passion like Juliet; full of
simplicity, softness, and humility, and so innocent, that she can hardly
form to herself an idea of the possibility of infidelity, she seems
calculated to make the most yielding and tenderest of wives. The female
propensity wholly to resign itself to a foreign destiny has led her into
the only fault of her life, that of marrying without her father's consent.
Her choice seems wrong; and yet she has been gained over to Othello by
that which induces the female to honour in man her protector and guide,--
admiration of his determined heroism, and compassion for the sufferings
which he had undergone. With great art it is so contrived, that from the
very circumstance that the possibility of a suspicion of her own purity of
motive never once enters her mind, she is the less reserved in her
solicitations for Cassio, and thereby does but heighten more and more the
jealousy of Othello. To throw out still more clearly the angelic purity of
Desdemona, Shakspeare has in Emilia associated with her a companion of
doubtful virtue. From the sinful levity of this woman it is also
conceivable that she should not confess the abstraction of the
handkerchief when Othello violently demands it back: this would otherwise
be the circumstance in the whole piece the most difficult to justify.
Cassio is portrayed exactly as he ought to be to excite suspicion without
actual guilt,--amiable and nobly disposed, but easily seduced. The public
events of the first two acts show us Othello in his most glorious aspect,
as the support of Venice and the terror of the Turks: they serve to
withdraw the story from the mere domestic circle, just as this is done in
_Romeo and Juliet_ by the dissensions between the houses of Montague
and Capulet. No eloquence is capable of painting the overwhelming force of
the catastrophe in _Othello_,--the pressure of feelings which measure
out in a moment the abysses of eternity.

_Hamlet_ is singular in its kind: a tragedy of thought inspired by
continual and never-satisfied meditation on human destiny and the dark
perplexity of the events of this world, and calculated to call forth the
very same meditation in the minds of the spectators. This enigmatical work
resembles those irrational equations in which a fraction of unknown
magnitude always remains, that will in no way admit of solution. Much has
been said, much written, on this piece, and yet no thinking head who anew
expresses himself on it, will (in his view of the connexion and the
signification of all the parts) entirely coincide with his predecessors.
What naturally most astonishes us, is the fact that with such hidden
purposes, with a foundation laid in such unfathomable depth, the whole
should, at a first view, exhibit an extremely popular appearance. The
dread appearance of the Ghost takes possession of the mind and the
imagination almost at the very commencement; then the play within the
play, in which, as in a glass, we see reflected the crime, whose
fruitlessly attempted punishment constitutes the subject-matter of the
piece; the alarm with which it fills the King; Hamlet's pretended and
Ophelia's real madness; her death and burial; the meeting of Hamlet and
Laertes at her grave; their combat, and the grand determination; lastly,
the appearance of the young hero Fortinbras, who, with warlike pomp, pays
the last honours to an extinct family of kings; the interspersion of comic
characteristic scenes with Polonius, the courtiers, and the grave-diggers,
which have all of them their signification,--all this fills the stage with
an animated and varied movement. The only circumstance from which this
piece might be judged to be less theatrical than other tragedies of
Shakspeare is, that in the last scenes the main action either stands still
or appears to retrograde. This, however, was inevitable, and lay in the
nature of the subject. The whole is intended to show that a calculating
consideration, which exhausts all the relations and possible consequences
of a deed, must cripple the power of acting; as Hamlet himself expresses

And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

With respect to Hamlet's character: I cannot, as I understand the poet's
views, pronounce altogether so favourable a sentence upon it as Goethe
does. He is, it is true, of a highly cultivated mind, a prince of royal
manners, endowed with the finest sense of propriety, susceptible of noble
ambition, and open in the highest degree to an enthusiastic admiration of
that excellence in others of which he himself is deficient. He acts the
part of madness with unrivalled power, convincing the persons who are sent
to examine into his supposed loss of reason, merely by telling them
unwelcome truths, and rallying them with the most caustic wit. But in the
resolutions which he so often embraces and always leaves unexecuted, his
weakness is too apparent: he does himself only justice when he implies
that there is no greater dissimilarity than between himself and Hercules.
He is not solely impelled by necessity to artifice and dissimulation, he
has a natural inclination for crooked ways; he is a hypocrite towards
himself; his far-fetched scruples are often mere pretexts to cover his
want of determination: thoughts, as he says on a different occasion, which

----but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward.-----

He has been chiefly condemned both for his harshness in repulsing the love
of Ophelia, which he himself had cherished, and for his insensibility at
her death. But he is too much overwhelmed with his own sorrow to have any
compassion to spare for others; besides his outward indifference gives us
by no means the measure of his internal perturbation. On the other hand,
we evidently perceive in him a malicious joy, when he has succeeded in
getting rid of his enemies, more through necessity and accident, which
alone are able to impel him to quick and decisive measures, than by the
merit of his own courage, as he himself confesses after the murder of
Polonius, and with respect to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet has no
firm belief either in himself or in anything else: from expressions of
religious confidence he passes over to sceptical doubts; he believes in
the Ghost of his father as long as he sees it, but as soon as it has
disappeared, it appears to him almost in the light of a deception.
[Footnote: It has been censured as a contradiction, that Hamlet in the
soliloquy on self-murder should say,
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns-----
For was not the Ghost a returned traveller? Shakspeare, however, purposely
wished to show, that Hamlet could not fix himself in any conviction of any
kind whatever.] He has even gone so far as to say, "there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so;" with him the poet loses
himself here in labyrinths of thought, in which neither end nor beginning
is discoverable. The stars themselves, from the course of events, afford
no answer to the question so urgently proposed to them. A voice from
another world, commissioned it would appear, by heaven, demands vengeance
for a monstrous enormity, and the demand remains without effect; the
criminals are at last punished, but, as it were, by an accidental blow,
and not in the solemn way requisite to convey to the world a warning
example of justice; irresolute foresight, cunning treachery, and impetuous
rage, hurry on to a common destruction; the less guilty and the innocent
are equally involved in the general ruin. The destiny of humanity is there
exhibited as a gigantic Sphinx, which threatens to precipitate into the
abyss of scepticism all who are unable to solve her dreadful enigmas.

As one example of the many niceties of Shakspeare which have never been
understood, I may allude to the style in which the player's speech about
Hecuba is conceived. It has been the subject of much controversy among the
commentators, whether this was borrowed by Shakspeare from himself or from
another, and whether, in the praise of the piece of which it is supposed
to be a part, he was speaking seriously, or merely meant to ridicule the
tragical bombast of his contemporaries. It seems never to have occurred to
them that this speech must not be judged of by itself, but in connexion
with the place where it is introduced. To distinguish it in the play
itself as dramatic poetry, it was necessary that it should rise above the
dignified poetry of the former in the same proportion that generally
theatrical elevation soars above simple nature. Hence Shakspeare has
composed the play in Hamlet altogether in sententious rhymes full of
antitheses. But this solemn and measured tone did not suit a speech in
which violent emotion ought to prevail, and the poet had no other
expedient than the one of which he made choice: overcharging the pathos.
The language of the speech in question is certainly falsely emphatical;
but yet this fault is so mixed up with true grandeur, that a player
practised in artificially calling forth in himself the emotion he is
imitating, may certainly be carried away by it. Besides, it will hardly be
believed that Shakspeare knew so little of his art, as not to be aware
that a tragedy in which Aeneas had to make a lengthy epic relation of a
transaction that happened so long before as the destruction of Troy, could
neither be dramatical nor theatrical.

Of _Macbeth_ I have already spoken once in passing, and who could exhaust
the praises of this sublime work? Since _The Eumenides_ of Aeschylus,
nothing so grand and terrible has ever been written. The witches are not,
it is true, divine Eumenides, and are not intended to be: they are ignoble
and vulgar instruments of hell. A German poet, therefore, very ill
understood their meaning, when he transformed them into mongrel beings, a
mixture of fates, furies, and enchantresses, and clothed them with tragic
dignity. Let no man venture to lay hand on Shakspeare's works thinking to
improve anything essential: he will be sure to punish himself. The bad is
radically odious, and to endeavour in any manner to ennoble it, is to
violate the laws of propriety. Hence, in my opinion, Dante, and even
Tasso, have been much more successful in their portraiture of daemons than
Milton. Whether the age of Shakspeare still believed in ghosts and
witches, is a matter of perfect indifference for the justification of the
use which in _Hamlet_ and _Macbeth_ he has made of pre-existing

No superstition can be widely diffused without having a foundation in
human nature: on this the poet builds; he calls up from their hidden
abysses that dread of the unknown, that presage of a dark side of nature,
and a world of spirits, which philosophy now imagines it has altogether
exploded. In this manner he is in some degree both the portrayer and the
philosopher of superstition; that is, not the philosopher who denies and
turns it into ridicule, but, what is still more difficult, who distinctly
exhibits its origin in apparently irrational and yet natural opinions. But
when he ventures to make arbitrary changes in these popular traditions, he
altogether forfeits his right to them, and merely holds up his own idle
fancies to our ridicule. Shakspeare's picture of the witches is truly
magical: in the short scenes where they enter, he has created for them a
peculiar language, which, although composed of the usual elements, still
seems to be a collection of formulae of incantation. The sound of the
words, the accumulation of rhymes, and the rhythmus of the verse, form, as
it were, the hollow music of a dreary witch-dance. He has been abused for
using the names of disgusting objects; but he who fancies the kettle of
the witches can be made effective with agreeable aromatics, is as wise as
those who desire that hell should sincerely and honestly give good advice.
These repulsive things, from which the imagination shrinks, are here
emblems of the hostile powers which operate in nature; and the repugnance
of our senses is outweighed by the mental horror. With one another the
witches discourse like women of the very lowest class; for this was the
class to which witches were ordinarily supposed to belong: when, however,
they address Macbeth they assume a loftier tone: their predictions, which
they either themselves pronounce, or allow their apparitions to deliver,
have all the obscure brevity, the majestic solemnity of oracles.

We here see that the witches are merely instruments; they are governed by
an invisible spirit, or the operation of such great and dreadful events
would be above their sphere. With what intent did Shakspeare assign the
same place to them in his play, which they occupy in the history of
Macbeth as related in the old chronicles? A monstrous crime is committed:
Duncan, a venerable old man, and the best of kings, is, in defenceless
sleep, under the hospitable roof, murdered by his subject, whom he has
loaded with honours and rewards. Natural motives alone seem inadequate, or
the perpetrator must have been portrayed as a hardened villain. Shakspeare
wished to exhibit a more sublime picture: an ambitious but noble hero,
yielding to a deep-laid hellish temptation; and in whom all the crimes to
which, in order to secure the fruits of his first crime, he is impelled by
necessity, cannot altogether eradicate the stamp of native heroism. He
has, therefore, given a threefold division to the guilt of that crime. The
first idea comes from that being whose whole activity is guided by a lust
of wickedness. The weird sisters surprise Macbeth in the moment of
intoxication of victory, when his love of glory has been gratified; they
cheat his eyes by exhibiting to him as the work of fate what in reality
can only be accomplished by his own deed, and gain credence for all their
words by the immediate fulfilment of the first prediction. The opportunity
of murdering the King immediately offers; the wife of Macbeth conjures him
not to let it slip; she urges him on with a fiery eloquence, which has at
command all those sophisms that serve to throw a false splendour over
crime. Little more than the mere execution falls to the share of Macbeth;
he is driven into it, as it were, in a tumult of fascination. Repentance
immediately follows, nay, even precedes the deed, and the stings of
conscience leave him rest neither night nor day. But he is now fairly
entangled in the snares of hell; truly frightful is it to behold that same
Macbeth, who once as a warrior could spurn at death, now that he dreads
the prospect of the life to come [Footnote: We'd jump the life to come.],
clinging with growing anxiety to his earthly existence the more miserable
it becomes, and pitilessly removing out of the way whatever to his dark
and suspicious mind seems to threaten danger. However much we may abhor
his actions, we cannot altogether refuse to compassionate the state of his
mind; we lament the ruin of so many noble qualities, and even in his last
defence we are compelled to admire the struggle of a brave will with a
cowardly conscience. We might believe that we witness in this tragedy the
over-ruling destiny of the ancients represented in perfect accordance with
their ideas: the whole originates in a supernatural influence, to which
the subsequent events seem inevitably linked. Moreover, we even find here
the same ambiguous oracles which, by their literal fulfilment, deceive
those who confide in them. Yet it may be easily shown that the poet has,
in his work, displayed more enlightened views. He wishes to show that the
conflict of good and evil in this world can only take place by the
permission of Providence, which converts the curse that individual mortals
draw down on their heads into a blessing to others. An accurate scale is
followed in the retaliation. Lady Macbeth, who of all the human
participators in the king's murder is the most guilty, is thrown by the
terrors of her conscience into a state of incurable bodily and mental
disease; she dies, unlamented by her husband, with all the symptoms of
reprobation. Macbeth is still found worthy to die the death of a hero on
the field of battle. The noble Macduff is allowed the satisfaction of
saving his country by punishing with his own hand the tyrant who had
murdered his wife and children. Banquo, by an early death, atones for the
ambitious curiosity which prompted the wish to know his glorious
descendants, as he thereby has roused Macbeth's jealousy; but he preserved
his mind pure from the evil suggestions of the witches: his name is
blessed in his race, destined to enjoy for a long succession of ages that
royal dignity which Macbeth could only hold for his own life. In the
progress of the action, this piece is altogether the reverse of
_Hamlet_: it strides forward with amazing rapidity, from the first
catastrophe (for Duncan's murder may be called a catastrophe) to the last.
"Thought, and done!" is the general motto; for as Macbeth says,

The flighty purpose never is o'ertook,
Unless the deed go with it.

In every feature we see an energetic heroic age, in the hardy North which
steels every nerve. The precise duration of the action cannot be
ascertained,--years perhaps, according to the story; but we know that to
the imagination the most crowded time appears always the shortest. Here we
can hardly conceive how so very much could ever have been compressed into
so narrow a space; not merely external events,--the very inmost recesses
in the minds of the dramatic personages are laid open to us. It is as if
the drags were taken from the wheels of time, and they rolled along
without interruption in their descent. Nothing can equal this picture in
its power to excite terror. We need only allude to the circumstances
attending the murder of Duncan, the dagger that hovers before the eyes of
Macbeth, the vision of Banquo at the feast, the madness of Lady Macbeth;
what can possibly be said on the subject that will not rather weaken the
impression they naturally leave? Such scenes stand alone, and are to be
found only in this poet; otherwise the tragic muse might exchange her mask
for the _head of Medusa_.

I wish merely to point out as a secondary circumstance the prudent
dexterity of Shakspeare, who could still contrive to flatter a king by a
work in every part of whose plan nevertheless the poetical views are
evident. James the First drew his lineage from Banquo; he was the first
who united the threefold sceptre of England, Scotland, and Ireland: this
is foreshown in the magical vision, when a long series of glorious
successors is promised to Banquo. Even the gift of the English kings to
heal certain maladies by the touch, which James pretended to have
inherited from Edward [Footnote: The naming of Edward the Confessor gives
us at the same time the epoch in which these historically accredited
transactions are made to take place. The ruins of Macbeth's palace are yet
standing at Inverness; the present Earls of Fife are the descendants of
the valiant Macduff, and down to the union of Scotland with England they
were in the enjoyment of peculiar privileges for their services to the
crown.] the Confessor, and on which he set a great value, is brought in
very naturally.--With such occasional matters we may well allow ourselves
to be pleased without fearing from them any danger to poetry: by similar
allusions Aeschylus endeavoured to recommend the Areopagus to his fellow-
citizens, and Sophocles to celebrate the glory of Athens.

As in _Macbeth_ terror reaches its utmost height, in _King Lear_
the science of compassion is exhausted. The principal characters here are
not those who act, but those who suffer. We have not in this, as in most
tragedies, the picture of a calamity in which the sudden blows of fate
seem still to honour the head which they strike, and where the loss is
always accompanied by some flattering consolation in the memory of the
former possession; but a fall from the highest elevation into the deepest
abyss of misery, where humanity is stripped of all external and internal
advantages, and given up a prey to naked helplessness. The threefold
dignity of a king, an old man, and a father, is dishonoured by the cruel
ingratitude of his unnatural daughters; the old Lear, who out of a foolish
tenderness has given away every thing, is driven out to the world a
wandering beggar; the childish imbecility to which he was fast advancing
changes into the wildest insanity, and when he is rescued from the
disgraceful destitution to which he was abandoned, it is too late: the
kind consolations of filial care and attention and of true friendship are
now lost on him; his bodily and mental powers are destroyed beyond all
hope of recovery, and all that now remains to him of life is the
capability of loving and suffering beyond measure. What a picture we have
in the meeting of Lear and Edgar in a tempestuous night and in a wretched
hovel! The youthful Edgar has, by the wicked arts of his brother, and
through his father's blindness, fallen, as the old Lear, from the rank to
which his birth entitled him; and, as the only means of escaping further
persecution, is reduced to assume the disguise of a beggar tormented by
evil spirits. The King's fool, notwithstanding the voluntary degradation
which is implied in his situation, is, after Kent, Lear's most faithful
associate, his wisest counsellor. This good-hearted fool clothes reason
with the livery of his motley garb; the high-born beggar acts the part of
insanity; and both, were they even in reality what they seem, would still
be enviable in comparison with the King, who feels that the violence of
his grief threatens to overpower his reason. The meeting of Edgar with the
blinded Gloster is equally heart-rending; nothing can be more affecting
than to see the ejected son become the father's guide, and the good angel,
who under the disguise of insanity, saves him by an ingenious and pious
fraud from the horror and despair of self-murder. But who can possibly
enumerate all the different combinations and situations by which our minds
are here as it were stormed by the poet? Respecting the structure of the
whole I will only make one observation. The story of Lear and his
daughters was left by Shakspeare exactly as he found it in a fabulous
tradition, with all the features characteristical of the simplicity of old
times. But in that tradition there is not the slightest trace of the story
of Gloster and his sons, which was derived by Shakspeare from another
source. The incorporation of the two stories has been censured as
destructive of the unity of action. But whatever contributes to the
intrigue or the _dénouement_ must always possess unity. And with what
ingenuity and skill are the two main parts of the composition dovetailed
into one another! The pity felt by Gloster for the fate of Lear becomes
the means which enables his son Edmund to effect his complete destruction,
and affords the outcast Edgar an opportunity of being the saviour of his
father. On the other hand, Edmund is active in the cause of Regan and
Gonerill, and the criminal passion which they both entertain for him
induces them to execute justice on each other and on themselves. The laws
of the drama have therefore been sufficiently complied with; but that is
the least: it is the very combination which constitutes the sublime beauty
of the work. The two cases resembles each other in the main: an infatuated
father is blind towards his well-disposed child, and the unnatural
children, whom he prefers, requite him by the ruin of all his happiness.
But all the circumstances are so different, that these stories, while they
each make a correspondent impression on the heart, form a complete
contrast for the imagination. Were Lear alone to suffer from his
daughters, the impression would be limited to the powerful compassion felt
by us for his private misfortune. But two such unheard-of examples taking
place at the same time have the appearance of a great commotion in the
moral world: the picture becomes gigantic, and fills us with such alarm as
we should entertain at the idea that the heavenly bodies might one day
fall from their appointed orbits. To save in some degree the honour of
human nature, Shakspeare never wishes his spectators to forget that the
story takes place in a dreary and barbarous age: he lays particular stress
on the circumstance that the Britons of that day were still heathens,
although he has not made all the remaining circumstances to coincide
learnedly with the time which he has chosen. From this point of view we
must judge of many coarsenesses in expression and manners; for instance,
the immodest manner in which Gloster acknowledges his bastard, Kent's
quarrel with the Steward, and more especially the cruelty personally
inflicted on Gloster by the Duke of Cornwall. Even the virtue of the
honest Kent bears the stamp of an iron age, in which the good and the bad
display the same uncontrollable energy. Great qualities have not been
superfluously assigned to the King; the poet could command our sympathy
for his situation, without concealing what he had done to bring himself
into it. Lear is choleric, overbearing, and almost childish from age, when
he drives out his youngest daughter because she will not join in the
hypocritical exaggerations of her sisters. But he has a warm and
affectionate heart, which is susceptible of the most fervent gratitude;
and even rays of a high and kingly disposition burst forth from the
eclipse of his understanding. Of Cordelia's heavenly beauty of soul,
painted in so few words, I will not venture to speak; she can only be
named in the same breath with Antigone. Her death has been thought too
cruel; and in England the piece is in acting so far altered that she
remains victorious and happy. I must own, I cannot conceive what ideas of
art and dramatic connexion those persons have who suppose that we can at
pleasure tack a double conclusion to a tragedy; a melancholy one for hard-
hearted spectators, and a happy one for souls of a softer mould. After
surviving so many sufferings, Lear can only die; and what more truly
tragic end for him than to die from grief for the death of Cordelia? and
if he is also to be saved and to pass the remainder of his days in
happiness, the whole loses its signification. According to Shakspeare's
plan the guilty, it is true, are all punished, for wickedness destroys
itself; but the virtues that would bring help and succour are everywhere
too late, or overmatched by the cunning activity of malice. The persons of
this drama have only such a faint belief in Providence as heathens may be
supposed to have; and the poet here wishes to show us that this belief
requires a wider range than the dark pilgrimage on earth to be established
in full extent.


Criticisms on Shakspeare's Historical Dramas.

The five tragedies of which I have just spoken are deservedly the most
celebrated of all the works of Shakspeare. In the three last, more
especially, we have a display of a loftiness of genius which may almost be
said to surpass the powers of human nature: the mind is as much lost in
the contemplation of all the heights and depths of these works as our
feelings are overpowered by the first impression which they produce. Of
his historical plays, however, some possess a high degree of tragical
perfection, and all are distinguished by peculiar excellencies.

In the three Roman pieces, _Coriolanus_, _Julius Caesar_, and _Antony and
Cleopatra_, the moderation with which Shakspeare excludes foreign
appendages and arbitrary suppositions, and yet fully satisfies the wants
of the stage, is particularly deserving of admiration. These plays are the
very thing itself; and under the apparent artlessness of adhering closely
to history as he found it, an uncommon degree of art is concealed. Of
every historical transaction Shakspeare knows how to seize the true
poetical point of view, and to give unity and rounding to a series of
events detached from the immeasurable extent of history without in any
degree changing them. The public life of ancient Rome is called up from
its grave, and exhibited before our eyes with the utmost grandeur and
freedom of the dramatic form, and the heroes of Plutarch are ennobled by
the most eloquent poetry.

In _Coriolanus_ we have more comic intermixtures than in the others,
as the many-headed multitude plays here a considerable part; and when
Shakspeare portrays the blind movements of the people in a mass, he almost
always gives himself up to his merry humour. To the plebeians, whose folly
is certainly sufficiently conspicuous already, the original old satirist
Menenius is added by way of abundance. Droll scenes arise of a description
altogether peculiar, and which are compatible only with such a political
drama; for instance, when Coriolanus, to obtain the consulate, must
solicit the lower order of citizens whom he holds in contempt for their
cowardice in war, but cannot so far master his haughty disposition as to
assume the customary humility, and yet extorts from them their votes.

I have already shown [Footnote: Page 240.] that the piece of _Julius
Caesar_, to complete the action, requires to be continued to the fall
of Brutus and Cassius. Caesar is not the hero of the piece, but Brutus.
The amiable beauty of this character, his feeling and patriotic heroism,
are portrayed with peculiar care. Yet the poet has pointed out with great
nicety the superiority of Cassius over Brutus in independent volition and
discernment in judging of human affairs; that the latter from the purity
of his mind and his conscientious love of justice, is unfit to be the head
of a party in a state entirely corrupted; and that these very faults give
an unfortunate turn to the cause of the conspirators. In the part of
Caesar several ostentatious speeches have been censured as unsuitable. But
as he never appears in action, we have no other measure of his greatness
than the impression which he makes upon the rest of the characters, and
his peculiar confidence in himself. In this Caesar was by no means
deficient, as we learn from history and his own writings; but he displayed
it more in the easy ridicule of his enemies than in pompous discourses.
The theatrical effect of this play is injured by a partial falling off of
the last two acts compared with the preceding in external splendour and
rapidity. The first appearance of Caesar in festal robes, when the music
stops, and all are silent whenever he opens his mouth, and when the few
words which he utters are received as oracles, is truly magnificent; the
conspiracy is a true conspiracy, which in stolen interviews and in the
dead of night prepares the blow which is to be struck in open day, and
which is to change the constitution of the world;--the confused thronging
before the murder of Caesar, the general agitation even of the
perpetrators after the deed, are all portrayed with most masterly skill;
with the funeral procession and the speech of Antony the effect reaches
its utmost height. Caesar's shade is more powerful to avenge his fall than
he himself was to guard against it. After the overthrow of the external
splendour and greatness of the conqueror and ruler of the world, the
intrinsic grandeur of character of Brutus and Cassius is all that remain
to fill the stage and occupy the minds of the spectators: suitably to
their name, as the last of the Romans, they stand there, in some degree
alone; and the forming a great and hazardous determination is more
powerfully calculated to excite our expectation, than the supporting the
consequences of the deed with heroic firmness.

_Antony and Cleopatra_ may, in some measure, be considered as a
continuation of _Julius Caesar_: the two principal characters of _Antony
and Augustus_ are equally sustained in both pieces. _Antony and
Cleopatra_, is a play of great extent; the progress is less simple
than in _Julius Caesar_. The fulness and variety of political and
warlike events, to which the union of the three divisions of the Roman
world under one master necessarily gave rise, were perhaps too great to
admit of being clearly exhibited in one dramatic picture. In this consists
the great difficulty of the historical drama:--it must be a crowded
extract, and a living development of history;--the difficulty, however,
has generally been successfully overcome by Shakspeare. But now many
things, which are transacted in the background, are here merely alluded
to, in a manner which supposes an intimate acquaintance with the history;
but a work of art should contain, within itself, every thing necessary for
its being fully understood. Many persons of historical importance are
merely introduced in passing; the preparatory and concurring circumstances
are not sufficiently collected into masses to avoid distracting our
attention. The principal personages, however, are most emphatically
distinguished by lineament and colouring, and powerfully arrest the
imagination. In Antony we observe a mixture of great qualities,
weaknesses, and vices; violent ambition and ebullitions of magnanimity; we
see him now sinking into luxurious enjoyment and then nobly ashamed of his
own aberrations,--manning himself to resolutions not unworthy of himself,
which are always shipwrecked against the seductions of an artful woman. It
is Hercules in the chains of Omphale, drawn from the fabulous heroic ages
into history, and invested with the Roman costume. The seductive arts of
Cleopatra are in no respect veiled over; she is an ambiguous being made up
of royal pride, female vanity, luxury, inconstancy, and true attachment.
Although the mutual passion of herself and Antony is without moral
dignity, it still excites our sympathy as an insurmountable fascination:--
they seem formed for each other, and Cleopatra is as remarkable for her
seductive charms as Antony for the splendour of his deeds. As they die for
each other, we forgive them for having lived for each other. The open and
lavish character of Antony is admirably contrasted with the heartless
littleness of Octavius, whom Shakspeare seems to have completely seen
through, without allowing himself to be led astray by the fortune and the
fame of Augustus.

_Timon of Athens_, and _Troilus and Cressida_, are not historical plays;
but we cannot properly call them either tragedies or comedies. By the
selection of the materials from antiquity they have some affinity to the
Roman pieces, and hence I have hitherto abstained from mentioning them.

_Timon of Athens_, of all the works of Shakspeare, possesses most the
character of satire:--a laughing satire in the picture of the parasites
and flatterers, and Juvenalian in the bitterness of Timon's imprecations
on the ingratitude of a false world. The story is very simply treated, and
is definitely divided into large masses:--in the first act the joyous life
of Timon, his noble and hospitable extravagance, and around him the throng
of suitors of every description; in the second and third acts his
embarrassment, and the trial which he is thereby reduced to make of his
supposed friends, who all desert him in the hour of need;--in the fourth
and fifth acts, Timon's flight to the woods, his misanthropical
melancholy, and his death. The only thing which may be called an episode
is the banishment of Alcibiades, and his return by force of arms. However,
they are both examples of ingratitude,--the one of a state towards its
defender, and the other of private friends to their benefactor. As the
merits of the General towards his fellow-citizens suppose more strength of
character than those of the generous prodigal, their respective behaviours
are not less different; Timon frets himself to death, Alcibiades regains
his lost dignity by force. If the poet very properly sides with Timon
against the common practice of the world, he is, on the other hand, by no
means disposed to spare Timon. Timon was a fool in his generosity; in his
discontent he is a madman: he is every where wanting in the wisdom which
enables a man in all things to observe the due measure. Although the truth
of his extravagant feelings is proved by his death, and though when he
digs up a treasure he spurns the wealth which seems to tempt him, we yet
see distinctly enough that the vanity of wishing to be singular, in both
the parts that he plays, had some share in his liberal self-forgetfulness,
as well as in his anchoritical seclusion. This is particularly evident in
the incomparable scene where the cynic Apemantus visits Timon in the
wilderness. They have a sort of competition with each other in their trade
of misanthropy: the Cynic reproaches the impoverished Timon with having
been merely driven by necessity to take to the way of living which he
himself had long been following of his free choice, and Timon cannot bear
the thought of being merely an imitator of the Cynic. In such a subject as
this the due effect could only be produced by an accumulation of similar
features, still, in the variety of the shades, an amazing degree of
understanding has been displayed by Shakspeare. What a powerfully
diversified concert of flatteries and of empty testimonies of devotedness!
It is highly amusing to see the suitors, whom the ruined circumstances of
their patron had dispersed, immediately flock to him again when they learn
that he has been revisited by fortune. On the other hand, in the speeches
of Timon, after he is undeceived, all hostile figures of speech are
exhausted,--it is a dictionary of eloquent imprecations.

_Troilus and Cressida_ is the only play of Shakspeare which he allowed to
be printed without being previously represented. It seems as if he here
for once wished, without caring for theatrical effect, to satisfy the
nicety of his peculiar wit, and the inclination to a certain guile, if
I may say so, in the characterization. The whole is one continued irony of
that crown of all heroic tales, the tale of Troy. The contemptible nature
of the origin of the Trojan war, the laziness and discord with which it
was carried on, so that the siege was made to last ten years, are only
placed in clearer light by the noble descriptions, the sage and ingenious
maxims with which the work overflows, and the high ideas which the heroes
entertain of themselves and each other. Agamemnon's stately behaviour,
Menelaus' irritation, Nestor's experience, Ulysses' cunning, are all
productive of no effect; when they have at last arranged a single combat
between the coarse braggart Ajax and Hector, the latter will not fight in
good earnest, as Ajax is his cousin. Achilles is treated worst: after
having long stretched himself out in arrogant idleness, and passed his
time in the company of Thersites the buffoon, he falls upon Hector at a
moment when he is defenceless, and kills him by means of his myrmidons. In
all this let no man conceive that any indignity was intended to the
venerable Homer. Shakspeare had not the _Iliad_ before him, but the
chivalrous romances of the Trojan war derived from _Dares Phrygius_.
From this source also he took the love-intrigue of _Troilus and Cressida_,
a story at one time so popular in England, that the name of Troilus had
become proverbial for faithful and ill-requited love, and Cressida for
female falsehood. The name of the agent between them, Pandarus, has even
been adopted into the English language to signify those personages
(_panders_) who dedicate themselves to similar services for inexperienced
persons of both sexes. The endless contrivances of the courteous Pandarus
to bring the two lovers together, who do not stand in need of him, as
Cressida requires no seduction, are comic in the extreme. The manner in
which this treacherous beauty excites while she refuses, and converts the
virgin modesty which she pretends, into a means of seductive allurement,
is portrayed in colours extremely elegant, though certainly somewhat
voluptuous. Troilus, the pattern of lovers, looks patiently on, while his
mistress enters into an intrigue with Diomed. No doubt, he swears that he
will be revenged; but notwithstanding his violence in the fight next day,
he does no harm to any one, and ends with only high-sounding threats. In a
word, in this heroic comedy, where, from traditional fame, and the pomp of
poetry, every thing seems to lay claim to admiration, Shakspeare did not
wish that any room should be left, except, perhaps, in the character of
Hector, for esteem and sympathy; but in this double meaning of the
picture, he has afforded us the most choice entertainment.

The dramas derived from the English history, ten in number, form one of
the most valuable of Shakspeare's works, and partly the fruit of his
maturest age. I say advisedly _one_ of his works, for the poet
evidently intended them to form one great whole. It is, as it were, an
historical heroic poem in the dramatic form, of which the separate plays
constitute the rhapsodies. The principal features of the events are
exhibited with such fidelity; their causes, and even their secret springs,
are placed in such a clear light, that we may attain from them a knowledge
of history in all its truth, while the living picture makes an impression
on the imagination which can never be effaced. But this series of dramas
is intended as the vehicle of a much higher and much more general
instruction; it furnishes examples of the political course of the world,
applicable to all times. This mirror of kings should be the manual of
young princes; from it they may learn the intrinsic dignity of their
hereditary vocation, but they will also learn from it the difficulties of
their situation, the dangers of usurpation, the inevitable fall of
tyranny, which buries itself under its attempts to obtain a firmer
foundation; lastly, the ruinous consequences of the weaknesses, errors,
and crimes of kings, for whole nations, and many subsequent generations.
Eight of these plays, from _Richard the Second_ to _Richard the
Third_, are linked together in an uninterrupted succession, and embrace
a most eventful period of nearly a century of English history. The events
portrayed in them not only follow one another, but they are linked
together in the closest and most exact connexion; and the cycle of
revolts, parties, civil and foreign wars, which began with the deposition
of Richard II., first ends with the accession of Henry VII. to the throne.
The careless rule of the first of these monarchs, and his injudicious
treatment of his own relations, drew upon him the rebellion of
Bolingbroke; his dethronement, however, was, in point of form, altogether
unjust, and in no case could Bolingbroke be considered the rightful heir
to the crown. This shrewd founder of the House of Lancaster never as Henry
IV. enjoyed in peace the fruits of his usurpation: his turbulent Barons,
the same who aided him in ascending the throne, allowed him not a moment's
repose upon it. On the other hand, he was jealous of the brilliant
qualities of his son, and this distrust, more than any really low
inclination, induced the Prince, that he might avoid every appearance of
ambition, to give himself up to dissolute society. These two circumstances
form the subject-matter of the two parts of _Henry the Fourth_; the
enterprises of the discontented make up the serious, and the wild youthful
frolics of the heir-apparent supply the comic scenes. When this warlike
Prince ascended the throne under the name of Henry V., he was determined
to assert his ambiguous title; he considered foreign conquests as the best
means of guarding against internal disturbances, and this gave rise to the
glorious, but more ruinous than profitable, war with France, which
Shakspeare has celebrated in the drama of _Henry the Fifth_. The early
death of this king, the long legal minority of Henry VI., and his
perpetual minority in the art of government, brought the greatest troubles
on England. The dissensions of the Regents, and the consequently wretched
administration, occasioned the loss of the French conquests and there
arose a bold candidate for the crown, whose title was indisputable, if the
prescription of three governments may not be assumed to confer legitimacy
on usurpation. Such was the origin of the wars between the Houses of York
and Lancaster, which desolated the kingdom for a number of years, and
ended with the victory of the House of York. All this Shakspeare has
represented in the three parts of _Henry the Sixth_. Edward IV. shortened
his life by excesses, and did not long enjoy the throne purchased at the
expense of so many cruel deeds. His brother Richard, who had a great share
in the elevation of the House of York, was not contented with the regency,
and his ambition paved himself a way to the throne through treachery and
violence; but his gloomy tyranny made him the object of the people's
hatred, and at length drew on him the destruction which he merited. He was
conquered by a descendant of the royal house unstained by the guilt of the
civil wars, and what might seem defective in his title was made good by
the merit of freeing his country from a monster. With the accession of
Henry VII. to the throne, a new epoch of English history begins: the curse
seemed at length to be expiated, and the long series of usurpations,
revolts, and civil wars, occasioned by the levity with which the Second
Richard sported away his crown, was now brought to a termination.

Such is the evident connexion of these eight plays with each other, but
they were not, however, composed in chronological order. According to all
appearance, the four last were first written; this is certain, indeed,
with respect to the three parts of _Henry the Sixth_; and _Richard
the Third_ is not only from its subject a continuation of these, but is
also composed in the same style. Shakspeare then went back to _Richard
the Second_, and with the most careful art connected the second series
with the first. The trilogies of the ancients have already given us an
example of the possibility of forming a perfect dramatic whole, which
shall yet contain allusions to something which goes before, and follows
it. In like manner the most of these plays end with a very definite
division in the history: _Richard the Second_, with the murder of that
King; _the Second Part of Henry the Fourth_, with the accession of his son
to the throne; _Henry the Fifth_, with the conclusion of peace with
France; _the First Part of Henry the Sixth_, also, with a treaty of Peace;
the third, with the murder of Henry, and Edward's elevation to the throne;
_Richard the Third_, with his overthrow and death. _The First Part of
Henry the Fourth_, and _the Second of Henry the Sixth_, are rounded off in
a less satisfactory manner. The revolt of the nobles was only half quelled
by the overthrow of Percy, and it is therefore continued through the
following part of the piece. The victory of York at St. Alban's could as
little be considered a decisive event, in the war of the two houses.
Shakspeare has fallen into this dramatic imperfection, if we may so call
it, for the sake of advantages of much more importance. The picture of the
civil war was too great and too rich in dreadful events for a single
drama, and yet the uninterrupted series of events offered no more
convenient resting-place. The government of Henry IV. might certainly have
been comprehended in one piece, but it possesses too little tragical
interest, and too little historical splendour, to be attractive, if
handled in a serious manner throughout: hence Shakspeare has given to the
comic characters belonging to the retinue of Prince Henry, the freest
development, and the half of the space is occupied by this constant
interlude between the political events.

The two other historical plays taken from the English history are
chronologically separate from this series: King John reigned nearly two
centuries before Richard II., and between Richard III. and Henry VIII.
comes the long reign of Henry VII., which Shakspeare justly passed over as
unsusceptible of dramatic interest. However, these two plays may in some
measure be considered as the Prologue and the Epilogue to the other eight.
In _King John_, all the political and national motives which play so
great a part in the following pieces are already indicated: wars and
treaties with France; a usurpation, and the tyrannical actions which it
draws after it; the influence of the clergy, the factions of the nobles.
_Henry the Eighth_ again shows us the transition to another age; the
policy of modern Europe, a refined court-life under a voluptuous monarch,
the dangerous situation of favourites, who, after having assisted in
effecting the fall of others, are themselves precipitated from power; in a
word, despotism under a milder form, but not less unjust and cruel. By the
prophecies on the birth of Elizabeth, Shakspeare has in some degree
brought his great poem on English history down to his own time, as far at
least as such recent events could be yet handled with security. He
composed probably the two plays of _King John_ [Footnote: I mean the
piece with this title in the collection of his works. There is an older
_King John_, in two parts, of which the former is a re-cast:--perhaps
a juvenile work of Shakspeare, though not hitherto acknowledged as such by
the English critics. See the disquisition appended to this Lecture.] and
_Henry the Eighth_ at a later period, as an addition to the others.

In _King John_ the political and warlike events are dressed out with
solemn pomp, for the very reason that they possess but little of true
grandeur. The falsehood and selfishness of the monarch speak in the style
of a manifesto. Conventional dignity is most indispensable where personal
dignity is wanting. The bastard Faulconbridge is the witty interpreter of
this language: he ridicules the secret springs of politics, without
disapproving of them, for he owns that he is endeavouring to make his
fortune by similar means, and wishes rather to belong to the deceivers
than the deceived, for in his view of the world there is no other choice.
His litigation with his brother respecting the succession of his pretended
father, by which he effects his acknowledgment at court as natural son of
the most chivalrous king of England, Richard Coeur de Lion, forms a very
entertaining and original prelude in the play itself. When, amidst so many
disguises of real sentiments, and so much insincerity of expression, the
poet shows us human nature without a veil, and allows us to take deep
views of the inmost recesses of the mind, the impression produced is only
the more deep and powerful. The short scene in which John urges Hubert to
put out of the way Arthur, his young rival for the possession of the
throne, is superlatively masterly: the cautious criminal hardly ventures
to say to himself what he wishes the other to do. The young and amiable
prince becomes a sacrifice of unprincipled ambition: his fate excites the
warmest sympathy. When Hubert, about to put out his eyes with the hot
iron, is softened by his prayers, our compassion would be almost
overwhelming, were it not sweetened by the winning innocence of Arthur's
childish speeches. Constance's maternal despair on her son's imprisonment
is also of the highest beauty; and even the last moments of John--an
unjust and feeble prince, whom we can neither respect nor admire--are yet
so portrayed as to extinguish our displeasure with him, and fill us with
serious considerations on the arbitrary deeds and the inevitable fate of

In _Richard the Second_, Shakspeare exhibits a noble kingly nature,
at first obscured by levity and the errors of an unbridled youth, and
afterwards purified by misfortune, and rendered by it more highly and
splendidly illustrious. When he has lost the love and reverence of his
subjects, and is on the point of losing also his throne, he then feels
with a bitter enthusiasm the high vocation of the kingly dignity and its
transcendental rights, independent of personal merit or changeable
institutions. When the earthly crown is fallen from his head, he first
appears a king whose innate nobility no humiliation can annihilate. This
is felt by a poor groom: he is shocked that his master's favourite horse
should have carried the proud Bolingbroke to his coronation; he visits the
captive king in prison, and shames the desertion of the great. The
political incident of the deposition is sketched with extraordinary
knowledge of the world;--the ebb of fortune, on the one hand, and on the
other, the swelling tide, which carries every thing along with it. While
Bolingbroke acts as a king, and his adherents behave towards him as if he
really were so, he still continues to give out that he has come with an
armed band merely to demand his birthright and the removal of abuses. The
usurpation has been long completed, before the word is pronounced and the
thing publicly avowed. The old John of Gaunt is a model of chivalrous
honour: he stands there like a pillar of the olden time which he has
outlived. His son, Henry IV., was altogether unlike him: his character is
admirably sustained throughout the three pieces in which he appears. We
see in it that mixture of hardness, moderation, and prudence, which, in
fact, enabled him to secure the possession of the throne which he had
violently usurped; but without openness, without true cordiality, and
incapable of noble ebullitions, he was so little able to render his
government beloved, that the deposed Richard was even wished back again.

The first part of _Henry the Fourth_ is particularly brilliant in the
serious scenes, from the contrast between two young heroes, Prince Henry
and Percy (with the characteristical name of Hotspur.) All the amiability
and attractiveness is certainly on the side of the prince: however
familiar he makes himself with bad company, we can never mistake him for
one of them: the ignoble does indeed touch, but it does not contaminate
him; and his wildest freaks appear merely as witty tricks, by which his
restless mind sought to burst through the inactivity to which he was
constrained, for on the first occasion which wakes him out of his unruly
levity he distinguishes himself without effort in the most chivalrous
guise. Percy's boisterous valour is not without a mixture of rude manners,
arrogance, and boyish obstinacy; but these errors, which prepare for him
an early death, cannot disfigure the majestic image of his noble youth; we
are carried away by his fiery spirit at the very moment we would most
censure it. Shakspeare has admirably shown why so formidable a revolt
against an unpopular and really an illegitimate prince was not attended
with success: Glendower's superstitious fancies respecting himself, the
effeminacy of the young Mortimer, the ungovernable disposition of Percy,
who will listen to no prudent counsel, the irresolution of his older
friends, the want of unity of plan and motive, are all characterized by
delicate but unmistakable traits. After Percy has departed from the scene,
the splendour of the enterprise is, it is true, at an end; there remain
none but the subordinate participators in the revolts, who are reduced by
Henry IV., more by policy than by warlike achievements. To overcome this
dearth of matter, Shakspeare was in the second part obliged to employ
great art, as he never allowed himself to adorn history with more
arbitrary embellishments than the dramatic form rendered indispensable.
The piece is opened by confused rumours from the field of battle; the
powerful impression produced by Percy's fall, whose name and reputation
were peculiarly adapted to be the watchword of a bold enterprise, make him
in some degree an acting personage after his death. The last acts are
occupied with the dying king's remorse of conscience, his uneasiness at
the behaviour of the prince, and lastly, the clearing up of the
misunderstanding between father and son, which make up several most
affecting scenes. All this, however, would still be inadequate to fill the
stage, if the serious events were not interrupted by a comedy which runs
through both parts of the play, which is enriched from time to time with
new figures, and which first comes to its catastrophe at the conclusion of
the whole, namely, when Henry V., immediately after ascending the throne,
banishes to a proper distance the companions of his youthful excesses, who
had promised to themselves a rich harvest from his kingly favour.

Falstaff is the crown of Shakspeare's comic invention. He has, without
exhausting himself, continued this character throughout three plays, and
exhibited him in every variety of situation; the figure is drawn so
definitely and individually, that even to the mere reader it conveys the
clear impression of personal acquaintance. Falstaff is the most agreeable
and entertaining knave that ever was portrayed. His contemptible qualities
are not disguised: old, lecherous, and dissolute; corpulent beyond
measure, and always intent upon cherishing his body with eating, drinking,
and sleeping; constantly in debt, and anything but conscientious in his
choice of means by which money is to be raised; a cowardly soldier, and a
lying braggart; a flatterer of his friends before their face, and a
satirist behind their backs; and yet we are never disgusted with him. We
see that his tender care of himself is without any mixture of malice
towards others; he will only not be disturbed in the pleasant repose of
his sensuality, and this he obtains through the activity of his
understanding. Always on the alert, and good-humoured, ever ready to crack
jokes on others, and to enter into those of which he is himself the
subject, so that he justly boasts he is not only witty himself, but the
cause of wit in others, he is an admirable companion for youthful idleness
and levity. Under a helpless exterior, he conceals an extremely acute
mind; he has always at command some dexterous turn whenever any of his
free jokes begin to give displeasure; he is shrewd in his distinctions,
between those whose favour he has to win and those over whom he may assume
a familiar authority. He is so convinced that the part which he plays can
only pass under the cloak of wit, that even when alone he is never
altogether serious, but gives the drollest colouring to his love-
intrigues, his intercourse with others, and to his own sensual philosophy.
Witness his inimitable soliloquies on honour, on the influence of wine on
bravery, his descriptions of the beggarly vagabonds whom he enlisted, of
Justice Shallow, &c. Falstaff has about him a whole court of amusing
caricatures, who by turns make their appearance, without ever throwing him
into the shade. The adventure in which the Prince, under the disguise of a
robber, compels him to give up the spoil which he had just taken; the
scene where the two act the part of the King and the Prince; Falstaff's
behaviour in the field, his mode of raising recruits, his patronage of
Justice Shallow, which afterwards takes such an unfortunate turn:--all
this forms a series of characteristic scenes of the most original
description, full of pleasantry, and replete with nice and ingenious
observation, such as could only find a place in a historical play like the

Several of the comic parts of _Henry the Fourth_, are continued in _The
Merry Wives of Windsor_. This piece is said to have been composed by
Shakspeare, in compliance with the request of Queen Elizabeth, [Footnote:
We know with certainty, that it was acted before the Queen. Many local
descriptions of Windsor and its neighbourhood, and an allusion in
which the Order of the Garter is very poetically celebrated, make it
credible that the play was destined to be first represented on the
occasion of some festival of the Order at the palace of Windsor, where the
Knights of the Garter have their hall of meeting.] who admired the
character of Falstaff, and wished to see him exhibited once more, and in
love. In love, properly speaking, Falstaff could not be; but for other
purposes he could pretend to be so, and at all events imagine that he was
the object of love. In the present piece accordingly he pays his court, as
a favoured Knight, to two married ladies, who lay their heads together and
agree to listen apparently to his addresses, for the sake of making him
the butt of their just ridicule. The whole plan of the intrigue is
therefore derived from the ordinary circle of Comedy, but yet richly and
artificially interwoven with another love affair. The circumstance which
has been so much admired in Molière's _School of Women_, that a
jealous individual should be made the constant confidant of his rival's
progress, had previously been introduced into this play, and certainly
with much more probability. I would not, however, be understood as
maintaining that it was the original invention of Shakspeare: it is one of
those circumstances which must almost be considered as part of the common
stock of Comedy, and everything depends on the delicacy and humour with
which it is used. That Falstaff should fall so repeatedly into the snare
gives us a less favourable opinion of his shrewdness than the foregoing
pieces had led us to form; still it will not be thought improbable, if
once we admit the probability of the first infatuation on which the whole
piece is founded, namely, that he can believe himself qualified to inspire
a passion. This leads him, notwithstanding his age, his corpulency, and
his dislike of personal inconveniences and dangers, to venture on an
enterprise which requires the boldness and activity of youth; and the
situations occasioned by this infatuation are droll beyond all
description. Of all Shakspeare's pieces, this approaches the nearest to
the species of pure Comedy: it is exclusively confined to the English
manners of the day, and to the domestic relations; the characters are
almost all comic, and the dialogue, with the exception of a couple of
short love scenes, is written in prose. But we see that it was a point of
principle with Shakspeare to make none of his compositions a mere
imitation of the prosaic world, and to strip them of all poetical
decoration: accordingly he has elevated the conclusion of the comedy by a
wonderful intermixture, which suited the place where it was probably first
represented. A popular superstition is made the means of a fanciful
mystification [Footnote: This word is French; but it has lately been
adopted by some English writers.--TRANS.] of Falstaff; disguised as the
Ghost of a Hunter who, with ragged horns, wanders about in the woods of
Windsor, he is to wait for his frolicsome mistress; in this plight he is
surprised by a chorus of boys and girls disguised like fairies, who,
agreeably to the popular belief, are holding their midnight dances, and
who sing a merry song as they pinch and torture him. This is the last
affront put upon poor Falstaff; and with this contrivance the conclusion
of the second love affair is made in a most ingenious manner to depend.

King Henry the Fifth is manifestly Shakspeare's favourite hero in English
history: he paints him as endowed with every chivalrous and kingly virtue;
open, sincere, affable, yet, as a sort of reminiscence of his youth, still
disposed to innocent raillery, in the intervals between his perilous but
glorious achievements. However, to represent on the stage his whole
history subsequent to his accession to the throne, was attended with great
difficulty. The conquests in France were the only distinguished event of
his reign; and war is an epic rather than a dramatic object. For wherever
men act in masses against each other, the appearance of chance can never
wholly be avoided; whereas it is the business of the drama to exhibit to
us those determinations which, with a certain necessity, issue from the
reciprocal relations of different individuals, their characters and
passions. In several of the Greek tragedies, it is true, combats and
battles are exhibited, that is, the preparations for them and their
results; and in historical plays war, as the _ultima ratio regum_,
cannot altogether be excluded. Still, if we would have dramatic interest,
war must only be the means by which something else is accomplished, and
not the last aim and substance of the whole. For instance, in _Macbeth_,
the battles which are announced at the very beginning merely serve to
heighten the glory of Macbeth and to fire his ambition; and the combats
which take place towards the conclusion, before the eyes of the spectator,
bring on the destruction of the tyrant. It is the very same in the Roman
pieces, in the most of those taken from English history, and, in short,
wherever Shakspeare has introduced war in a dramatic combination. With
great insight into the essence of his art, he never paints the fortune of
war as a blind deity who sometimes favours one and sometimes another;
without going into the details of the art of war, (though sometimes he
even ventures on this), he allows us to anticipate the result from the
qualities of the general, and their influence on the minds of the
soldiers; sometimes, without claiming our belief for miracles, he yet
exhibits the issue in the light of a higher volition: the consciousness of
a just cause and reliance on the protection of Heaven give courage to the
one party, while the presage of a curse hanging over their undertaking
weighs down the other. [Footnote: Aeschylus, with equal wisdom, in the
uniformly warlike tragedy of the _Seven before Thebes_, has given to the
Theban chiefs foresight, determination, and presence of mind; to their
adversaries, arrogant audacity. Hence all the combats, excepting that
between Eteocles and Polynices, turn out in favour of the former. The
paternal curse, and the blindness to which it gives rise, carry headlong
the two brothers to the unnatural strife in which they both fall by the
hands of each other.--See page 91.] In _Henry the Fifth_, no opportunity
was afforded Shakspeare of adopting the last-mentioned course, namely,
rendering the issue of the war dramatic; but he has skilfully availed
himself of the first.--Before the battle of Agincourt he paints in the
most lively colours the light-minded impatience of the French leaders for
the moment of battle, which to them seemed infallibly the moment of
victory; on the other hand, he paints the uneasiness of the English King
and his army in their desperate situation, coupled with their firm
determination, if they must fall, at least to fall with honour. He applies
this as a general contrast between the French and English national
characters; a contrast which betrays a partiality for his own nation,
certainly excusable in a poet, especially when he is backed with such a
glorious document as that of the memorable battle in question.
He has surrounded the general events of the war with a fulness of
individual, characteristic, and even sometimes comic features. A heavy
Scotchman, a hot Irishman, a well-meaning, honourable, but pedantic
Welchman, all speaking in their peculiar dialects, are intended to show us
that the warlike genius of Henry did not merely carry the English with
him, but also the other natives of the two islands, who were either not
yet fully united or in no degree subject to him. Several good-for-nothing
associates of Falstaff among the dregs of the army either afford an
opportunity for proving Henry's strictness of discipline, or are sent home
in disgrace. But all this variety still seemed to the poet insufficient to
animate a play of which the subject was a conquest, and nothing but a
conquest. He has, therefore, tacked a prologue (in the technical language
of that day a _chorus_) to the beginning of each act. These prologues,
which unite epic pomp and solemnity with lyrical sublimity, and
among which the description of the two camps before the battle of
Agincourt forms a most admirable night-piece, are intended to keep the
spectators constantly in mind, that the peculiar grandeur of the actions
described cannot be developed on a narrow stage, and that they must,
therefore, supply, from their own imaginations, the deficiencies of the
representation. As the matter was not properly dramatic, Shakspeare chose
to wander in the form also beyond the bounds of the species, and to sing,
as a poetical herald, what he could not represent to the eye, rather than
to cripple the progress of the action by putting long descriptions in the
mouths of the dramatic personages. The confession of the poet that "four
or five most vile and ragged foils, right ill disposed, can only disgrace
the name of Agincourt," (a scruple which he has overlooked in the occasion
of many other great battles, and among others of that of Philippi,) brings
us here naturally to the question how far, generally speaking, it may be
suitable and advisable to represent wars and battles on the stage. The
Greeks have uniformly renounced them: as in the whole of their theatrical
system they proceeded on ideas of grandeur and dignity, a feeble and petty
imitation of the unattainable would have appeared insupportable in their
eyes. With them, consequently, all fighting was merely recounted. The
principle of the romantic dramatists was altogether different: their
wonderful pictures were infinitely larger than their theatrical means of
visible execution; they were every where obliged to count on the willing
imagination of the spectators, and consequently they also relied on them
in this point. It is certainly laughable enough that a handful of awkward
warriors in mock armour, by means of two or three swords, with which we
clearly see they take especial care not to do the slightest injury to one
another, should decide the fate of mighty kingdoms. But the opposite
extreme is still much worse. If we in reality succeed in exhibiting the
tumult of a great battle, the storming of a fort, and the like, in a
manner any way calculated to deceive the eye, the power of these sensible
impressions is so great that they render the spectator incapable of
bestowing that attention which a poetical work of art demands; and thus
the essential is sacrificed to the accessory. We have learned from
experience, that whenever cavalry combats are introduced the men soon
become secondary personages beside the four-footed players [Footnote: The
Greeks, it is true, brought horses on the tragic stage, but only in solemn
processions, not in the wild disorder of a fight. Agamemnon and Pallas, in
Aeschylus, make their appearance drawn in a chariot with four horses. But
their theatres were built on a scale very different from ours.].
Fortunately, in Shakspeare's time, the art of converting the yielding
boards of the theatre into a riding course had not yet been invented. He
tells the spectators in the first prologue in _Henry the Fifth_:--

Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs in the receiving earth.

When Richard the Third utters the famous exclamation,--

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

it is no doubt inconsistent to see him both before and afterwards
constantly fighting on foot. It is however better, perhaps, that the poet
and player should by overpowering impressions dispose us to forget this,
than by literal exactness to expose themselves to external interruptions.
With all the disadvantages which I have mentioned, Shakspeare and several
Spanish poets have contrived to derive such great beauties from the
immediate representation of war, that I cannot bring myself to wish they
had abstained from it. A theatrical manager of the present day will have a
middle course to follow: his art must, in an especial manner, be directed
to make what he shows us appear only as separate groups of an immense
picture, which cannot be taken in at once by the eye; he must convince the
spectators that the main action takes place behind the stage; and for this
purpose he has easy means at his command in the nearer or more remote
sound of warlike music and the din of arms.

However much Shakspeare celebrates the French conquest of Henry, still he
has not omitted to hint, after his way, the secret springs of this
undertaking. Henry was in want of foreign war to secure himself on the
throne; the clergy also wished to keep him employed abroad, and made an
offer of rich contributions to prevent the passing of a law which would
have deprived them of the half of their revenues. His learned bishops
consequently are as ready to prove to him his indisputable right to the
crown of France, as he is to allow his conscience to be tranquillized by
them. They prove that the Salic law is not, and never was, applicable to
France; and the matter is treated in a more succinct and convincing manner
than such subjects usually are in manifestoes. After his renowned battles,
Henry wished to secure his conquests by marriage with a French princess;
all that has reference to this is intended for irony in the play. The
fruit of this union, from which two nations promised to themselves such
happiness in future, was the weak and feeble Henry VI., under whom every
thing was so miserably lost. It must not, therefore, be imagined that it
was without the knowledge and will of the poet that a heroic drama turns
out a comedy in his hands, and ends in the manner of Comedy with a
marriage of convenience.

The three parts of _Henry the Sixth_, as I have already remarked,
were composed much earlier than the preceding pieces. Shakspeare's choice
fell first on this period of English history, so full of misery and
horrors of every kind, because the pathetic is naturally more suitable
than the characteristic to a young poet's mind. We do not yet find here
the whole maturity of his genius, yet certainly its whole strength.
Careless as to the apparent unconnectedness of contemporary events, he
bestows little attention on preparation and development: all the figures
follow in rapid succession, and announce themselves emphatically for what
we ought to take them; from scenes where the effect is sufficiently
agitating to form the catastrophe of a less extensive plan, the poet
perpetually hurries us on to catastrophes still more dreadful. The First
Part contains only the first forming of the parties of the White and Red
Rose, under which blooming ensigns such bloody deeds were afterwards
perpetrated; the varying results of the war in France principally fill the
stage. The wonderful saviour of her country, Joan of Arc, is portrayed by
Shakspeare with an Englishman's prejudices: yet he at first leaves it
doubtful whether she has not in reality a heavenly mission; she appears in
the pure glory of virgin heroism; by her supernatural eloquence (and this
circumstance is of the poet's invention) she wins over the Duke of
Burgundy to the French cause; afterwards, corrupted by vanity and luxury,
she has recourse to hellish fiends, and comes to a miserable end. To her
is opposed Talbot, a rough iron warrior, who moves us the more powerfully,
as, in the moment when he is threatened with inevitable death, all his
care is tenderly directed to save his son, who performs his first deeds of
arms under his eye. After Talbot has in vain sacrificed himself, and the
Maid of Orleans has fallen into the hands of the English, the French
provinces are completely lost by an impolitic marriage; and with this the
piece ends. The conversation between the aged Mortimer in prison, and
Richard Plantagenet, afterwards Duke of York, contains an exposition of
the claims of the latter to the throne: considered by itself it is a
beautiful tragic elegy.

In the Second Part, the events more particularly prominent are the murder
of the honest Protector, Gloster, and its consequences; the death of
Cardinal Beaufort; the parting of the Queen from her favourite Suffolk,
and his death by the hand of savage pirates; then the insurrection of Jack
Cade under an assumed name, and at the instigation of the Duke of York.
The short scene where Cardinal Beaufort, who is tormented by his
conscience on account of the murder of Gloster, is visited on his death-
bed by Henry VI. is sublime beyond all praise. Can any other poet be named
who has drawn aside the curtain of eternity at the close of this life with
such overpowering and awful effect? And yet it is not mere horror with
which the mind is filled, but solemn emotion; a blessing and a curse stand
side by side; the pious King is an image of the heavenly mercy which, even
in the sinner's last moments, labours to enter into his soul. The
adulterous passion of Queen Margaret and Suffolk is invested with tragical
dignity and all low and ignoble ideas carefully kept out of sight. Without
attempting to gloss over the crime of which both are guilty, without
seeking to remove our disapprobation of this criminal love, he still, by
the magic force of expression, contrives to excite in us a sympathy with
their sorrow. In the insurrection of Cade he has delineated the conduct of
a popular demagogue, the fearful ludicrousness of the anarchical tumult of
the people, with such convincing truth, that one would believe he was an
eye-witness of many of the events of our age, which, from ignorance of
history, have been considered as without example.

The civil war only begins in the Second Part; in the Third it is unfolded
in its full destructive fury. The picture becomes gloomier and gloomier;
and seems at last to be painted rather with blood than with colours. With
horror we behold fury giving birth to fury, vengeance to vengeance, and
see that when all the bonds of human society are violently torn asunder,
even noble matrons became hardened to cruelty. The most bitter contempt is
the portion of the unfortunate; no one affords to his enemy that pity
which he will himself shortly stand in need of. With all party is family,
country, and religion, the only spring of action. As York, whose ambition
is coupled with noble qualities, prematurely perishes, the object of the
whole contest is now either to support an imbecile king, or to place on
the throne a luxurious monarch, who shortens the dear-bought possession by
the gratification of an insatiable voluptuousness. For this the celebrated
and magnanimous Warwick spends his chivalrous life; Clifford revenges the
death of his father with blood-thirsty filial love; and Richard, for the
elevation of his brother, practises those dark deeds by which he is soon
after to pave the way to his own greatness. In the midst of the general
misery, of which he has been the innocent cause, King Henry appears like
the powerless image of a saint, in whose wonder-working influence no man
any longer believes: he can but sigh and weep over the enormities which he
witnesses. In his simplicity, however, the gift of prophecy is lent to
this pious king: in the moment of his death, at the close of this great
tragedy, he prophesies a still more dreadful tragedy with which futurity
is pregnant, as much distinguished for the poisonous wiles of cold-blooded
wickedness as the former for deeds of savage fury.

The part of Richard III. has become highly celebrated in England from its
having been filled by excellent performers, and this has naturally had an
influence on the admiration of the piece itself, for many readers of
Shakspeare stand in want of good interpreters of the poet to understand
him properly. This admiration is certainly in every respect well founded,
though I cannot help thinking there is an injustice in considering the
three parts of _Henry the Sixth_ as of little value compared with
_Richard the Third_. These four plays were undoubtedly composed in
succession, as is proved by the style and the spirit in the handling of
the subject: the last is definitely announced in the one which precedes
it, and is also full of references to it: the same views run through the
series; in a word, the whole make together only one single work. Even the
deep characterization of Richard is by no means the exclusive property of
the piece which bears his name: his character is very distinctly drawn in
the two last parts of _Henry the Sixth_; nay, even his first speeches
lead us already to form the most unfavourable anticipations of his future
conduct. He lowers obliquely like a dark thundercloud on the horizon,
which gradually approaches nearer and nearer, and first pours out the
devastating elements with which it is charged when it hangs over the heads
of mortals. Two of Richard's most significant soliloquies which enable us
to draw the most important conclusions with regard to his mental
temperament, are to be found in _The Last Part of Henry the Sixth_.
As to the value and the justice of the actions to which passion impels us,
we may be blind, but wickedness cannot mistake its own nature; Richard, as
well as Iago, is a villain with full consciousness. That they should say
this in so many words, is not perhaps in human nature: but the poet has
the right in soliloquies to lend a voice to the most hidden thoughts,
otherwise the form of the monologue would, generally speaking, be
censurable. [Footnote: What, however, happens in so many tragedies, where
a person is made to avow himself a villain to his confidants, is most
decidedly unnatural. He will, indeed, announce his way of thinking, not,
however, under damning names, but as something that is understood of
itself, and is equally approved of by others.] Richard's deformity is the
expression of his internal malice, and perhaps in part the effect of it:
for where is the ugliness that would not be softened by benevolence and
openness? He, however, considers it as an iniquitous neglect of nature,
which justifies him in taking his revenge on that human society from which
it is the means of excluding him. Hence these sublime lines:

And this word love, which graybeards call divine.
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me. I am myself alone.

Wickedness is nothing but selfishness designedly unconscientious; however
it can never do altogether without the form at least of morality, as this
is the law of all thinking beings,--it must seek to found its depraved way
of acting on something like principles. Although Richard is thoroughly
acquainted with the blackness of his mind and his hellish mission, he yet
endeavours to justify this to himself by a sophism: the happiness of being
beloved is denied to him; what then remains to him but the happiness of
ruling? All that stands in the way of this must be removed. This envy of
the enjoyment of love is so much the more natural in Richard, as his
brother Edward, who besides preceded him in the possession of the crown,
was distinguished by the nobleness and beauty of his figure, and was an
almost irresistible conqueror of female hearts. Notwithstanding his
pretended renunciation, Richard places his chief vanity in being able to
please and win over the women, if not by his figure at least by his
insinuating discourse. Shakspeare here shows us, with his accustomed
acuteness of observation, that human nature, even when it is altogether
decided in goodness or wickedness, is still subject to petty infirmities.
Richard's favourite amusement is to ridicule others, and he possesses an
eminent satirical wit. He entertains at bottom a contempt for all mankind:
for he is confident of his ability to deceive them, whether as his
instruments or his adversaries. In hypocrisy he is particularly fond of
using religious forms, as if actuated by a desire of profaning in the
service of hell the religion whose blessings he had inwardly abjured.

So much for the main features of Richard's character. The play named after
him embraces also the latter part of the reign of Edward IV., in the whole
a period of eight years. It exhibits all the machinations by which Richard
obtained the throne, and the deeds which he perpetrated to secure himself
in its possession, which lasted however but two years. Shakspeare intended
that terror rather than compassion should prevail throughout this tragedy:
he has rather avoided than sought the pathetic scenes which he had at
command. Of all the sacrifices to Richard's lust of power, Clarence alone
is put to death on the stage: his dream excites a deep horror, and proves
the omnipotence of the poet's fancy: his conversation with the murderers
is powerfully agitating; but the earlier crimes of Clarence merited death,
although not from his brother's hand. The most innocent and unspotted
sacrifices are the two princes: we see but little of them, and their
murder is merely related. Anne disappears without our learning any thing
farther respecting her: in marrying the murderer of her husband, she had
shown a weakness almost incredible. The parts of Lord Rivers, and other
friends of the queen, are of too secondary a nature to excite a powerful
sympathy; Hastings, from his triumph at the fall of his friend, forfeits
all title to compassion; Buckingham is the satellite of the tyrant, who is
afterwards consigned by him to the axe of the executioner. In the
background the widowed Queen Margaret appears as the fury of the past, who
invokes a curse on the future: every calamity, which her enemies draw down
on each other, is a cordial to her revengeful heart. Other female voices
join, from time to time, in the lamentations and imprecations. But Richard
is the soul or rather the daemon, of the whole tragedy. He fulfils the
promise which he formerly made of leading the murderous Macchiavel to
school. Notwithstanding the uniform aversion with which he inspires us, he
still engages us in the greatest variety of ways by his profound skill in
dissimulation, his wit, his prudence, his presence of mind, his quick
activity, and his valour. He fights at last against Richmond like a
desperado, and dies the honourable death of a hero on the field of battle.
Shakspeare could not change this historical issue, and yet it is by no
means satisfactory to our moral feelings, as Lessing, when speaking of a
German play on the same subject, has very judiciously remarked. How has
Shakspeare solved this difficulty? By a wonderful invention he opens a
prospect into the other world, and shows us Richard in his last moments
already branded with the stamp of reprobation. We see Richard and Richmond
in the night before the battle sleeping in their tents; the spirits of the
murdered victims of the tyrant ascend in succession, and pour out their
curses against him, and their blessings on his adversary. These
apparitions are properly but the dreams of the two generals represented
visibly. It is no doubt contrary to probability that their tents should
only be separated by so small a space; but Shakspeare could reckon on
poetical spectators who were ready to take the breadth of the stage for
the distance between two hostile camps, if for such indulgence they were
to be recompensed by beauties of so sublime a nature as this series of
spectres and Richard's awakening soliloquy. The catastrophe of _Richard
the Third_ is, in respect of the external events, very like that of
_Macbeth_: we have only to compare the thorough difference of handling
them to be convinced that Shakspeare has most accurately observed poetical
justice in the genuine sense of the word, that is, as signifying the
revelation of an invisible blessing or curse which hangs over human
sentiments and actions.

Although the last four pieces of the historical series paint later events,
yet the plays of _Henry the Fourth and Fifth_ have, in tone and
costume, a much more modern appearance. This is partly owing to the number
of comic scenes; for the comic must always be founded not only in
national, but also in contemporary manners. Shakspeare, however, seems
also to have had the same design in the serious part. Bloody revolutions
and devastations of civil war appear to posterity as a relapse into an
earlier and more uncultivated condition of society, or they are in reality
accompanied by such a relapse into unbridled savageness. If therefore the
propensity of a young poetical mind to remove its object to a wonderful
distance has had an influence on the style in which _Henry the Sixth_
and _Richard the Third_ are conceived, Shakspeare has been rightly
guided by his instinct. As it is peculiar to the heroic poem to paint the
races of men in times past as colossal in strength of body and resolution,
so in these plays, the voices of a Talbot, a Warwick, a Clifford, and
others, so ring on our ear that we imagine we hear the clanging trumpets
of foreign or of civil war. The contest of the Houses of York and
Lancaster was the last outbreak of feudal independence; it was the cause
of the great and not of the people, who were only dragged into the
struggle by the former. Afterwards the part was swallowed up in the whole,
and no longer could any one be, like Warwick, a maker of kings. Shakspeare
was as profound a historian as a poet; when we compare his _Henry the
Eighth_ with the preceding pieces, we see distinctly that the English
nation during the long, peaceable, and economical reign of Henry VII.,
whether from the exhaustion which was the fruit of the civil wars, or from
more general European influences, had made a sudden transition from the
powerful confusion of the middle age, to the regular tameness of modern
times. _Henry the Eighth_ has, therefore, somewhat of a prosaic
appearance; for Shakspeare, artist-like, adapted himself always to the
quality of his materials. If others of his works, both in elevation of
fancy and in energy of pathos and character, tower far above this, we have
here on the other hand occasion to admire his nice powers of
discrimination and his perfect knowledge of courts and the world. What
tact was requisite to represent before the eyes of the queen [Footnote: It
is quite clear that _Henry the Eighth_ was written while Elizabeth
was still alive. We know that Ben Jonson, in the reign of King James,
brought the piece again on the stage with additional pomp, and took the
liberty of making several changes and additions. Without doubt, the
prophecy respecting James the First is due to Ben Jonson: it would only
have displeased Elizabeth, and is so ill introduced that we at once
recognize in it a foreign interpolation.] subjects of such a delicate
nature, and in which she was personally so nearly concerned, without doing
violence to the truth! He has unmasked the tyrannical king, and to the
intelligent observer exhibited him such as he was actually: haughty and
obstinate, voluptuous and unfeeling, extravagant in conferring favours,
and revengeful under the pretext of justice; and yet the picture is so
dexterously handled that a daughter might take it for favourable. The
legitimacy of Elizabeth's birth depended on the invalidity of Henry's
first marriage, and Shakspeare has placed the proceedings respecting his
separation from Catharine of Arragon in a very doubtful light. We see
clearly that Henry's scruples of conscience are no other than the beauty
of Anne Boleyn. Catharine is, properly speaking, the heroine of the piece;
she excites the warmest sympathy by her virtues, her defenceless misery,
her mild but firm opposition, and her dignified resignation. After her,
the fall of Cardinal Wolsey constitutes the principal part of the
business. Henry's whole reign was not adapted for dramatic poetry. It
would have merely been a repetition of the same scenes: the repudiation,
or the execution of his wives, and the disgrace of his most estimable
ministers, which was usually soon followed by death. Of all that
distinguished Henry's life Shakspeare has given us sufficient specimens.
But as, properly speaking, there is no division in the history where he
breaks off, we must excuse him if he gives us a flattering compliment of
the great Elizabeth for a fortunate catastrophe. The piece ends with the
general joy at the birth of that princess, and with prophecies of the
happiness which she was afterwards to enjoy or to diffuse. It was only by
such a turn that the hazardous freedom of thought in the rest of the
composition could have passed with impunity: Shakspeare was not certainly
himself deceived respecting this theatrical delusion. The true conclusion
is the death of Catharine, which under a feeling of this kind, he has
placed earlier than was conformable to history. I have now gone through
all the unquestionably genuine works of Shakspeare. I have carefully
abstained from all indefinite eulogies, which merely serve to prove a
disproportion betwixt the feeling and the capability of expressing it. To
many the above observations will appear too diffuse for the object and
plan of these Lectures; to others they will perhaps seem unsatisfactory. I
shall be satisfied if they place those readers who are not yet familiar
with the poet in the right point of view, and pave the way for a solid
knowledge, and if they recall to the minds of intelligent critics some of
those thoughts which have occurred to themselves.


_Respecting the Pieces said to be falsely attributed to Shakspeare._

The commentators of Shakspeare, in their attempts to deprive him of parts
of his works, or even of whole pieces, have for the most part displayed
very little of a true critical spirit. Pope, as is well known, was
strongly disposed to reject whole scenes as interpolations by the players;
but his opinion was not much listened to. However, Steevens acceded to the
opinion of Pope, as to the apparition of the ghosts and of Jupiter, in
_Cymbeline_, while Posthumus is sleeping in the dungeon. But Posthumus
finds on waking a tablet on his breast, with a prophecy on which the
_dénouement_ of the piece depends. Is it to be imagined that Shakspeare
would require of his spectators the belief in a wonder without a visible
cause? Can Posthumus have got this tablet with the prophecy by dreaming?
But these gentlemen do not descend to this objection. The verses which the
apparitions deliver do not appear to them good enough to be Shakspeare's.
I imagine I can discover why the poet has not given them more of the
splendour of diction. It is the aged parents and brothers of Posthumus,
who, from concern for his fate, return from the world below: ought they
not consequently to speak the language of a more simple olden time, and
their voices, too, ought they not also to seem a feeble sound of wailing,
when contrasted with the thundering oracular language of Jupiter? For this
reason Shakspeare chose a syllabic measure which was very common before
his time, but which was then going out of fashion, though it still
continued to be frequently used, especially in translations of the
classical poets. In some such manner might the shades express themselves
in the then existing translations of Homer and Virgil. The speech of
Jupiter is, on the other hand, majestic, and in form and style bears a
complete resemblance to Shakspeare's sonnets. Nothing but incapacity to
appreciate the views of the poet, and the perspective observed by him,
could lead them to stumble at this passage.

Pope would willingly have declared the _Winter's Tale_ spurious, one
of the noblest creations of the equally bold and lovely fancy of
Shakspeare. Why? I suppose on account of the ship coming to Bohemia, and
of the chasm of sixteen years between the third and fourth acts, which
Time as a prologue entreats us to overleap.

_The Three Parts of Henry the Sixth_ are now at length admitted to be
Shakspeare's. Theobald, Warburton, and lastly Farmer, affirmed that they

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