Part 2 out of 2
profession cannot be denied. An affecting story I read many years ago
--in that elegant and entertaining work, Lempriere's 'Classical
Dictionary'--well illustrates the feeling of the Roman world. Julius
Decimus Laberius was a Roman knight and dramatic author, famous for
his mimes, who had the misfortune to irritate a greater Julius, the
author of the 'Commentaries,' when the latter was at the height of his
power. Caesar, casting about how best he might humble his adversary,
could think of nothing better than to condemn him to take a leading
part in one of his own plays. Laberius entreated in vain. Caesar was
obdurate, and had his way. Laberius played his part--how, Lempriere
sayeth not; but he also took his revenge, after the most effectual of
all fashions, the literary. He composed and delivered a prologue of
considerable power, in which he records the act of spiteful tyranny,
and which, oddly enough, is the only specimen of his dramatic art that
has come down to us. It contains lines which, though they do not seem
to have made Caesar, who sat smirking in the stalls, blush for
himself, make us, 1,900 years afterwards, blush for Caesar. The only
lines, however, now relevant are, being interpreted, as follow:
'After having lived sixty years with honour, I left my home this
morning a Roman knight, but I shall return to it this evening an
infamous stage-player. Alas! I have lived a day too long.'
Turning to the modern world, and to England, we find it here the
popular belief that actors are by statute rogues, vagabonds, and
sturdy beggars. This, it is true, is founded on a misapprehension of
the effect of 39 Eliz. chap. 4, which only provides that common
players wandering abroad without authority to play, shall be taken to
be 'rogues and vagabonds;' a distinction which one would have thought
was capable of being perceived even by the blunted faculties of the
[* Footnote: See note at end of Essay.]
But the fact that the popular belief rests upon a misreading of an Act
of Parliament three hundred years old does not affect the belief, but
only makes it exquisitely English, and as a consequence entirely
Is there anything to be said in support of this once popular
It may, I think, be supported by two kinds of argument. One derived
from the nature of the case, the other from the testimony of actors
A serious objection to an actor's calling is that from its nature it
admits of no other test of failure or success than the contemporary
opinion of the town. This in itself must go far to rob life of
dignity. A Milton may remain majestically indifferent to the
'barbarous noise' of 'owls and cuckoos, asses, apes, and dogs,' but
the actor can steel himself to no such fortitude. He can lodge no
appeal to posterity. The owls must hoot, the cuckoos cry, the apes
yell, and the dogs bark on his side, or he is undone. This is of
course inevitable, but it is an unfortunate condition of an artist's
Again, no record of his art survives to tell his tale or account for
his fame. When old gentlemen wax garrulous over actors dead and gone,
young gentlemen grow somnolent. Chippendale the cabinet-maker is more
potent than Garrick the actor. The vivacity of the latter no longer
charms (save in Boswell); the chairs of the former still render rest
impossible in a hundred homes.
This, perhaps, is why no man of lofty genius or character has ever
condescended to remain an actor. His lot pressed heavily even on so
mercurial a trifler as David Garrick, who has given utterance to the
feeling in lines as good perhaps as any ever written by a successful
'The painter's dead, yet still he charms the eye,
While England lives his fame shall never die;
But he who struts his hour upon the stage
Can scarce protract his fame thro' half an age;
Nor pen nor pencil can the actor save--
Both art and artist have one common grave.'
But the case must be carried farther than this, for the mere fact that
a particular pursuit does not hold out any peculiar attractions for
soaring spirits will not justify us in calling that pursuit bad names.
I therefore proceed to say that the very act of acting, _i. e._,
the art of mimicry, or the representation of feigned emotions called
up by sham situations, is, in itself, an occupation an educated man
should be slow to adopt as the profession of a life.
I believe--for we should give the world as well as the devil its due--
that it is to a feeling, a settled persuasion of this sort, lying
deeper than the surface brutalities and snobbishnesses visible to all,
that we must attribute the contempt, seemingly so cruel and so
ungrateful, the world has visited upon actors.
I am no great admirer of beards, be they never so luxurious or glossy,
yet I own I cannot regard off the stage the closely shaven face of an
actor without a feeling of pity, not akin to love. Here, so I cannot
help saying to myself, is a man who has adopted a profession whose
very first demand upon him is that he should destroy his own identity.
It is not what you are, or what by study you may become, but how few
obstacles you present to the getting of yourself up as somebody else,
that settles the question of your fitness for the stage. Smoothness of
face, mobility of feature, compass of voice--these things, but the
toys of other trades, are the tools of this one.
Boswellites will remember the name of Tom Davies as one of frequent
occurrence in the great biography. Tom was an actor of some repute,
and (so it was said) read 'Paradise Lost' better than any man in
England. One evening, when Johnson was lounging behind the scenes at
Drury (it was, I hope, before his pious resolution to go there no
more), Davies made his appearance on his way to the stage in all the
majesty and millinery of his part. The situation is picturesque. The
great and dingy Reality of the eighteenth century, the Immortal, and
the bedizened little player. 'Well, Tom,' said the great man (and this
is the whole story), 'well, Tom, and what art thou to-night?' 'What
art thou to-night?' It may sound rather like a tract, but it will, I
think, be found difficult to find an answer to the question consistent
with any true view of human dignity.
Our last argument derived from the nature of the case is, that
deliberately to set yourself as the occupation of your life to amuse
the adult and to astonish, or even to terrify, the infant population
of your native land, is to degrade yourself.
Three-fourths of the acted drama is, and always must be, comedy,
farce, and burlesque. We are bored to death by the huge inanities of
life. We observe with horror that our interest in our dinner becomes
languid. We consult our doctor, who simulates an interest in our stale
symptoms, and after a little talk about Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, and Dr.
Merriman, prescribes Toole. If we are very innocent we may inquire
what night we are to go, but if we do we are at once told that it
doesn't in the least matter when we go, for it is always equally
funny. Poor Toole! to be made up every night as a safe prescription
for the blues! To make people laugh is not necessarily a crime, but to
adopt as your trade the making people laugh by delivering for a
hundred nights together another man's jokes, in a costume the author
of the jokes would blush to be seen in, seems to me a somewhat
unworthy proceeding on the part of a man of character and talent.
To amuse the British public is a task of herculean difficulty and
danger, for the blatant monster is, at times, as whimsical and coy as
a maiden, and if it once makes up its mind not to be amused, nothing
will shake it. The labour is enormous, the sacrifice beyond what is
demanded of saints. And if you succeed, what is your reward? Read the
lives of comedians, and closing them, you will see what good reason an
actor has for exclaiming with the old-world poet:
'Odi profanum vulgus!'
We now turn to the testimony of actors themselves.
Shakespeare is, of course, my first witness. There is surely
significance in this. 'Others abide our question,' begins Arnold's
fine sonnet on Shakespeare--'others abide our question; thou art
free.' The little we know about our greatest poet has become a
commonplace. It is a striking tribute to the endless loquacity of man,
and a proof how that great creature is not to be deprived of his talk,
that he has managed to write quite as much about there being nothing
to write about as he could have written about Shakespeare, if the
author of _Hamlet_ had been as great an egoist as Rousseau. The
fact, however, remains that he who has told us most about ourselves,
whose genius has made the whole civilized world kin, has told us
nothing about himself, except that he hated and despised the stage. To
say that he has told us this is not, I think, any exaggeration. I
have, of course, in mind the often quoted lines to be found in that
sweet treasury of melodious verse and deep feeling, the 'Sonnets of
Shakespeare.' The 110th begins thus:
'Alas! 'tis true I have gone here and there,
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gor'd my own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.'
And the 111th:
'O for my sake do thou with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means, which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works on, like the dyer's hand.
Pity me, then, and wish I were renewed.'
It is not much short of three centuries since those lines were
written, but they seem still to bubble with a scorn which may indeed
be called immortal.
'Sold cheap what is most dear.'
There, compressed in half a line, is the whole case against an actor's
But it may be said Shakespeare was but a poor actor. He could write
_Hamlet_ and _As You Like It_; but when it came to casting the parts,
the Ghost in the one and old Adam in the other were the best he could
aspire to. Verbose biographers of Shakespeare, in their dire extremity,
and naturally desirous of writing a big book about a big man, have
remarked at length that it was highly creditable to Shakespeare
that he was not, or at all events that it does not appear that he was,
jealous, after the true theatrical tradition, of his more successful
brethren of the buskin.
It surely might have occured, even to a verbose biographer in his
direst need, that to have had the wit to write and actually to have
written the soliloquies in _Hamlet_, might console a man under
heavier afflictions than the knowledge that in the popular estimate
somebody else spouted those soliloquies better than he did himself. I
can as easily fancy Milton jealous of Tom Davies as Shakespeare of
Richard Burbage. But--good, bad, or indifferent--Shakespeare was an
actor, and as such I tender his testimony.
I now--for really this matter must be cut short--summon pell-mell all
the actors and actresses who have ever strutted their little hour on
the stage, and put to them the following comprehensive question: Is
there in your midst one who had an honest, hearty, downright pride and
pleasure in your calling, or do not you all (tell the truth)
mournfully echo the lines of your great master (whom nevertheless you
never really cared for), and with him
'Your fortunes chide,
That did not better for your lives provide
Than public means, which public manners breeds.'
They all assent: with wonderful unanimity.
But, seriously, I know of no recorded exception, unless it be Thomas
Betterton, who held the stage for half a century--from 1661 to 1708--
and who still lives, as much as an actor can, in the pages of Colley
Cibber's _Apology_. He was a man apparently of simple character,
for he had only one benefit-night all his life.
Who else is there? Read Macready's 'Memoirs'--the King Arthur of the
stage. You will find there, I am sorry to say, all the actor's faults
--if faults they can be called which seem rather hard necessities, the
discolouring of the dyer's hand; greedy hungering after applause,
endless egotism, grudging praise--all are there; not perhaps in the
tropical luxuriance they have attained elsewhere, but plain enough.
But do we not also find, deeply engrained and constant, a sense of
degradation, a longing to escape from the stage for ever?
He did not like his children to come and see him act, and was always
regretting--heaven help him!--that he wasn't a barrister-at-law. Look
upon this picture and on that. Here we have Macbeth, that mighty
thane; Hamlet, the intellectual symbol of the whole world of modern
thought; Strafford, in Robert Browning's fine play; splendid dresses,
crowded theatres, beautiful women, royal audiences; and on the other
side, a rusty gown, a musty wig, a fusty court, a deaf judge, an
indifferent jury, a dispute about a bill of lading, and ten guineas on
your brief--which you have not been paid, and which you can't recover
--why, ''tis Hyperion to a satyr!'
Again, we find Mrs. Siddons writing of her sister's marriage:
'I have lost one of the sweetest companions in the world. She has
married a respectable man, though of small fortune. I thank God she is
off the stage.' What is this but to say, 'Better the most humdrum of
existences with the most "respectable of men," than to be upon the
The volunteered testimony of actors is both large in bulk and valuable
in quality, and it is all on my side.
Their involuntary testimony I pass over lightly. Far be from me the
disgusting and ungenerous task of raking up a heap of the weaknesses,
vanities, and miserablenesses of actors and actresses dead and gone.
After life's fitful fever they sleep (I trust) well; and in common
candour, it ought never to be forgotten that whilst it has always been
the fashion--until one memorable day Mr. Froude ran amuck of it--for
biographers to shroud their biographees (the American Minister must
bear the brunt of this word on his broad shoulders) in a crape veil of
respectability, the records of the stage have been written in another
spirit. We always know the worst of an actor, seldom his best. David
Garrick was a better man than Lord Eldon, and Macready was at least as
good as Dickens.
There is however, one portion of this body of involuntary testimony on
which I must be allowed to rely, for it may be referred to without
Our dramatic literature is our greatest literature. It is the best
thing we have done. Dante may over-top Milton, but Shakespeare
surpasses both. He is our finest achievement; his plays our noblest
possession; the things in the world most worth thinking about. To live
daily in his company, to study his works with minute and loving care--
in no spirit of pedantry searching for double endings, but in order to
discover their secret, and to make the spoken word tell upon the
hearts of man and woman--this might have been expected to produce
great intellectual if not moral results.
The most magnificent compliment ever paid by man to woman is
undoubtedly Steele's to the Lady Elizabeth Hastings. 'To love her,'
wrote he, 'is a liberal education.' As much might surely be said of
But what are the facts--the ugly, hateful facts? Despite this great
advantage--this close familiarity with the noblest and best in our
literature--the taste of actors, their critical judgment, always has
been and still is, if not beneath contempt, at all events far below
the average intelligence of their day. By taste, I do not mean taste
in flounces and in furbelows, tunics and stockings; but in the
weightier matters of the truly sublime and the essentially ridiculous.
Salvini's Macbeth is undoubtedly a fine performance; and yet that
great actor, as the result of his study, has placed it on record that
he thinks the sleep-walking scene ought to be assigned to Macbeth
instead of to his wife. Shades of Shakespeare and Siddons, what think
you of that?
It is a strange fatality, but a proof of the inherent pettiness of the
actor's art, that though it places its votary in the very midst of
literary and artistic influences, and of necessity informs him of the
best and worthiest, he is yet, so far as his own culture is concerned,
left out in the cold--art's slave, not her child.
What have the devotees of the drama taught us? Nothing! it is we who
have taught them. We go first, and they come lumbering after. It was
not from the stage the voice arose bidding us recognise the supremacy
of Shakespeare's genius. Actors first ignored him, then hideously
mutilated him; and though now occasionally compelled, out of deference
to the taste of the day, to forego their green-room traditions, to
forswear their Tate and Brady emendations, in their heart of hearts
they love him not; and it is with a light step and a smiling face that
our great living tragedian flings aside Hamlet's tunic or Shylock's
gaberdine to revel in the melodramatic glories of _The Bells_ and
_The Corsican Brothers_.
Our gratitude is due in this great matter to men of letters, not to
actors. If it be asked, 'What have actors to do with literature and
criticism?' I answer, 'Nothing;' and add, 'That is my case.'
But the notorious bad taste of actors is not entirely due to their
living outside Literature, with its words for ever upon their lips,
but none of its truths engraven on their hearts. It may partly be
accounted for by the fact that for the purposes of an ambitious actor
bad plays are the best.
In reading actors' lives, nothing strikes you more than their delight
in making a hit in some part nobody ever thought anything of before.
Garrick was proud past all endurance of his Beverley in the
_Gamester_, and one can easily see why. Until people saw Garrick's
Beverley, they didn't think there was anything in the _Gamester_; nor
was there, except what Garrick put there. This is called creating a
part, and he is the greatest actor who creates most parts.
But genius in the author of the play is a terrible obstacle in the way
of an actor who aspires to identify himself once and for all with the
leading part in it. Mr. Irving may act Hamlet well or ill--and, for my
part, I think he acts it exceedingly well--but behind Mr. Irving's
Hamlet, as behind everybody else's Hamlet, there looms a greater
Hamlet than them all--Shakespeare's Hamlet, the real Hamlet.
But Mr. Irving's Mathias is quite another kettle of fish, all of Mr.
Irving's own catching. Who ever, on leaving the Lyceum, after seeing
_The Bells_, was heard to exclaim, 'It is all mighty fine; but
that is not my idea of Mathias'? Do not we all feel that without Mr.
Irving there could be no Mathias?
We best like doing what we do best: and an actor is not to be blamed
for preferring the task of making much of a very little to that of
making little of a great deal.
As for actresses, it surely would be the height of ungenerosity to
blame a woman for following the only regular profession commanding
fame and fortune the kind consideration of man has left open to her.
For two centuries women have been free to follow this profession,
onerous and exacting though it be, and by doing so have won the
rapturous applause of generations of men, who are all ready enough to
believe that where their pleasure is involved, no risks of life or
honour are too great for a woman to run. It is only when the latter,
tired of the shams of life, would pursue the realities, that we become
alive to the fact--hitherto, I suppose, studiously concealed from us--
how frail and feeble a creature she is.
Lastly, it must not be forgotten that we are discussing a question of
casuistry, one which is 'stuff o' the conscience,' and where
consequently words are all important.
Is an actor's calling an eminently worthy one?--that is the question.
It may be lawful, useful, delightful; but is it worthy?
An actor's life is an artist's life. No artist, however eminent, has
more than one life, or does anything worth doing in that life, unless
he is prepared to spend it royally in the service of his art, caring
for nought else. Is an actor's art worth the price? I answer, No!
VAGABONDS AND PLAYERS.
The Statute Law on this subject is not without interest. Stated
shortly it stands thus: By 39 Eliz. c. 4, it was enacted, 'That all
persons calling themselves Schollers going abroad begging ... all idle
persons using any subtile craft or fayning themselves to have
knowledge in Phisiognomye, Palmestry, or other like crafty science; or
pretending that they can tell Destyneyes, Fortunes, or such other like
fantasticall Ymagynaeons; all Fencers, Bearwards, _common players of
Interludes and Minstrels wandering abroad_ (other than players of
Interludes belonging to any Baron of this realm, or any honourable
personage of greater degree to be auctorised to play under the hand
and seale of Arms of such Baron or Personage); all Juglers, Tinkers,
Pedlars, and Petty Chapmen wandering abroad ... shall be taken,
adjudged, and deemed Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars, and shall
sustain such payne and punyshment as by this Act is in that behalf
Such 'payne and punyshment' was as follows:
'To be stripped naked from the middle upwards, and shall be openly
whipped until his or her body be bloudye, and shall be forthwith sent
from parish to parish by the officers of every the same the next
streghte way to the parish where he was borne. After which whipping
the same person shall have a Testimonyall testifying that he has been
punyshed according to law.'
This statute was repealed by 13 Anne c. 26, which, however, includes
within its new scope 'common players of Interludes,' and names no
exceptions. The whipping continues, but there is an alternative in the
House of Correction: 'to be stript naked from the middle, and be
openly whipped until his or her body be bloody, or may be sent to the
House of Correction.' 17 Geo. II. c. 5 repeals a previous statute of
the same king which had repealed the statute of Anne, and provides
that 'all common players of Interludes and all persons who shall for
Hire, Gain, or Reward act, represent, or perform any Interlude,
Tragedy, Comedy, Opera, Play, Farce, or other Entertainment of the
Stage, not being authorized by law, shall be deemed Rogues and
Vagabonds within the true meaning of the Act.' The punishment was to
be 'publicly whipt,' or to be sent to the House of Correction. This
Act has been repealed, and the law is regulated by 5 Geo. IV. c. 83,
which makes no mention of actors, who are therefore now wholly quit of
this odious imputation.
A ROGUE'S MEMOIRS.
One is often tempted of the Devil to forswear the study of history
altogether as the pursuit of the Unknowable. 'How is it possible,' he
whispers in our ear, as we stand gloomily regarding the portly
calf-bound volumes without which no gentleman's library is complete,
'how is it possible to suppose that you have there, on your shelves--
the actual facts of history--a true record of what men, dead long ago,
felt and thought?' Yet, if we have not, I for one, though of a
literary turn, would sooner spend my leisure playing skittles with
boors than in reading sonorous lies in stout volumes.
'It is not so much,' wilily insinuates the Tempter, 'that these
renowned authors lack knowledge. Their habit of giving an occasional
reference (though the verification of these is usually left to the
malignancy of a rival and less popular historian) argues at least some
reading. No; what is wanting is ignorance, carefully acquired and
studiously maintained. This is no paradox. To carry the truisms,
theories, laws, language of to-day, along with you in your historical
pursuits, is to turn the muse of history upside down--a most
disrespectful proceeding--and yet to ignore them--to forget all about
them--to hang them up with your hat and coat in the hall, to remain
there whilst you sit in the library composing your immortal work,
which is so happily to combine all that is best in Gibbon and
Macaulay--a sneerless Gibbon and an impartial Macaulay--is a task
which, if it be not impossible is, at all events, of huge difficulty.
Another blemish in English historical work has been noticed by the
Rev. Charles Kingsley, and may therefore be referred to by me without
offence. Your standard historians, having no unnatural regard for
their most indefatigable readers, the wives and daughters of England,
feel it incumbent upon them to pass over, as unfit for dainty ears and
dulcet tones, facts, and rumours of facts, which none the less often
determined events by stirring the strong feelings of your ancestors,
whose conduct, unless explained by this light, must remain
When, to these anachronisms of thought and omissions of fact, you have
added the dishonesty of the partisan historian and the false glamour
of the picturesque one, you will be so good as to proceed to find the
present value of history!'
Thus far the Enemy of Mankind:
An admirable lady orator is reported lately to have 'brought down'
Exeter Hall by observing, 'in a low but penetrating voice,' that the
Devil was a very stupid person. It is true that Ben Jonson is on the
side of the lady, but I am far too orthodox to entertain any such
opinion; and though I have, in this instance of history, so far
resisted him as to have refrained from sending my standard historians
to the auction mart--where, indeed, with the almost single exception
of Mr. Grote's History of Greece (the octavo edition in twelve
volumes), prices rule so low as to make cartage a consideration--I
have still of late found myself turning off the turnpike of history to
loiter down the primrose paths of men's memoirs of themselves and
Here at least, so we argue, we are comparatively safe. Anachronisms of
thought are impossible; omissions out of regard for female posterity
unlikely, and as for party spirit, if found, it forms part of what
lawyers call the _res gestae_, and has therefore a value of its
own. Against the perils of the picturesque, who will insure us?
But when we have said all this, and, sick of prosing, would begin
reading, the number of really readable memoirs is soon found to be but
few. This is, indeed, unfortunate; for it launches us off on another
prose-journey by provoking the question, What makes memoirs
Is it necessary that they should be the record of a noble character?
Certainly not. We remember Pepys, who--well, never mind what he does.
We call to mind Cellini; _he_ runs behind a fellow-creature, and
with 'admirable address' sticks a dagger in the nape of his neck, and
long afterwards records the fact, almost with reverence, in his life's
story. Can anything be more revolting than some portions of the
revelation Benjamin Franklin was pleased to make of himself in
writing? And what about Rousseau? Yet, when we have pleaded guilty for
these men, a modern Savonarola, who had persuaded us to make a bonfire
of their works, would do well to keep a sharp look-out, lest at the
last moment we should be found substituting 'Pearson on the Creed' for
Pepys, Coleridge's 'Friend' for Cellini, John Foster's Essays for
Franklin, and Roget's Bridgewater Treatise for Rousseau.
Neither will it do to suppose that the interest of a memoir depends on
its writer having been concerned in great affairs, or lived in
stirring times. The dullest memoirs written even in English, and not
excepting those maimed records of life known as 'religious biography,'
are the work of men of the 'attache' order, who, having been mixed up
in events which the newspapers of the day chronicled as 'Important
Intelligence,' were not unnaturally led to cherish the belief that
people would like to have from their pens full, true and particular
accounts of all that then happened, or, as they, if moderns, would
probably prefer to say, transpired. But the World, whatever an
over-bold Exeter Hall may say of her old associate the Devil, is not
a stupid person, and declines to be taken in twice; and turning a deaf
ear to the most painstaking and trustworthy accounts of deceased
Cabinets and silenced Conferences, goes journeying along her broad
way, chuckling over some old joke in Boswell, and reading with fresh
delight the all-about-nothing letters of Cowper and Lamb.
How then does a man--be he good or bad--big or little--a philosopher
or a fribble--St. Paul or Horace Walpole--make his memoirs
To say that the one thing needful is individuality, is not quite
enough. To be an individual is the inevitable, and in most cases the
unenviable, lot of every child of Adam. Each one of us has, like a tin
soldier, a stand of his own. To have an individuality is no sort of
distinction, but to be able to make it felt in writing is not only
distinction but under favouring circumstances immortality.
Have we not all some correspondents, though probably but few, from
whom we never receive a letter without feeling sure that we shall find
inside the envelope something written that will make us either glow
with the warmth or shiver with the cold of our correspondent's life?
But how many other people are to be found, good, honest people too,
who no sooner take pen in hand than they stamp unreality on every word
they write. It is a hard fate, but they cannot escape it. They may be
as literal as the late Earl Stanhope, as painstaking as Bishop Stubbs,
as much in earnest as the Prime Minister--their lives may be noble,
their aims high, but no sooner do they seek to narrate to us their
story, than we find it is not to be. To hearken to them is past
praying for. We turn from them as from a guest who has outstayed his
welcome. Their writing wearies, irritates, disgusts.
Here then, at last, we have the two classes of memoir writers--those
who manage to make themselves felt, and those who do not. Of the
latter, a very little is a great deal too much--of the former we can
never have enough.
What a liar was Benvenuto Cellini!--who can believe a word he says?
To hang a dog on his oath would be a judicial murder. Yet when we lay
down his Memoirs and let our thoughts travel back to those far-off
days he tells us of, there we see him standing, in bold relief,
against the black sky of the past, the very man he was. Not more
surely did he, with that rare skill of his, stamp the image of Clement
VII. on the papal currency than he did the impress of his own singular
personality upon every word he spoke and every sentence he wrote.
We ought, of course, to hate him, but do we? A murderer he has written
himself down. A liar he stands self-convicted of being. Were anyone in
the nether world bold enough to call him thief, it may be doubted
whether Rhadamanthus would award him the damages for which we may be
certain he would loudly clamour. Why do we not hate him? Listen to
'Upon my uttering these words, there was a general outcry, the
noblemen affirming that I promised too much. But one of them, who was
a great philosopher, said in my favour, "From the admirable symmetry
of shape and happy physiognomy of this young man, I venture to engage
that he will perform all he promises, and more." The Pope replied, "I
am of the same opinion;" then calling Trajano, his gentleman of the
bed-chamber, he ordered him to fetch me five hundred ducats.'
And so it always ended; suspicions, aroused most reasonably, allayed
most unreasonably, and then--ducats. He deserved hanging, but he died
in his bed. He wrote his own memoirs after a fashion that ought to
have brought posthumous justice upon him, and made them a literary
gibbet, on which he should swing, a creaking horror, for all time; but
nothing of the sort has happened. The rascal is so symmetrical, and
his physiognomy, as it gleams upon us through the centuries, so happy,
that we cannot withhold our ducats, though we may accompany the gift
with a shower of abuse.
This only proves the profundity of an observation made by Mr. Bagehot
--a man who carried away into the next world more originality of
thought than is now to be found in the Three Estates of the Realm.
Whilst remarking upon the extraordinary reputation of the late Francis
Horner and the trifling cost he was put to in supporting it, Mr.
Bagehot said that it proved the advantage of 'keeping an atmosphere.'
The common air of heaven sharpens men's judgments. Poor Horner, but
for that kept atmosphere of his, always surrounding him, would have
been bluntly asked, 'What he had done since he was breeched,' and in
reply he could only have muttered something about the currency. As for
our especial rogue Cellini, the question would probably have assumed
this shape: 'Rascal, name the crime you have not committed, and
account for the omission.'
But these awkward questions are not put to the lucky people who keep
their own atmospheres. The critics, before they can get at them, have
to step out of the everyday air, where only achievements count and the
Decalogue still goes for something, into the kept atmosphere, which
they have no sooner breathed than they begin to see things
differently, and to measure the object thus surrounded with a tape of
its own manufacture. Horner--poor, ugly, a man neither of words nor
deeds--becomes one of our great men; a nation mourns his loss and
erects his statue in the Abbey. Mr. Bagehot gives several instances of
the same kind, but he does not mention Cellini, who is, however, in
his own way, an admirable example.
You open his book--a Pharisee of the Pharisees. Lying indeed! Why, you
hate prevarication. As for murder, your friends know you too well to
mention the subject in your hearing, except in immediate connection
with capital punishment. You are, of course, willing to make some
allowance for Cellini's time and place--the first half of the
sixteenth century and Italy. 'Yes,' you remark, 'Cellini shall have
strict justice at my hands.' So you say as you settle yourself in your
chair and begin to read. We seem to hear the rascal laughing in his
grave. His spirit breathes upon you from his book--peeps at you
roguishly as you turn the pages. His atmosphere surrounds you; you
smile when you ought to frown, chuckle when you should groan, and--O
final triumph!--laugh aloud when, if you had a rag of principle left,
you would fling the book into the fire. Your poor moral sense turns
away with a sigh, and patiently awaits the conclusion of the second
How cautiously does he begin, how gently does he win your ear by his
seductive piety! I quote from Mr. Roscoe's translation:--
'It is a duty incumbent on upright and credible men of all ranks, who
have performed anything noble or praiseworthy, to record, in their own
writing, the events of their lives; yet they should not commence this
honourable task before they have passed their fortieth year. Such, at
least, is my opinion, now that I have completed my fifty-eighth year,
and am settled in Florence, where, considering the numerous ills that
constantly attend human life, I perceive that I have never before been
so free from vexations and calamities, or possessed of so great a
share of content and health as at this period. Looking back on some
delightful and happy events of my life, and on many misfortunes so
truly overwhelming that the appalling retrospect makes me wonder how I
have reached this age in vigour and prosperity, through God's goodness
I have resolved to publish an account of my life; and ... I must, in
commencing my narrative, satisfy the public on some few points to
which its curiosity is usually directed; the first of which is to
ascertain whether a man is descended from a virtuous and ancient
family.... I shall therefore now proceed to inform the reader how it
pleased God that I should come into the world.'
So you read on page 1; what you read on page 191 is this:--
'Just after sunset, about eight o'clock, as this musqueteer stood at
his door with his sword in his hand, when he had done supper, I with
great address came close up to him with a long dagger, and gave him a
violent back-handed stroke, which I aimed at his neck. He instantly
turned round, and the blow, falling directly upon his left shoulder,
broke the whole bone of it; upon which he dropped his sword, quite
overcome by the pain, and took to his heels. I pursued, and in four
steps came up with him, when, raising the dagger over his head, which
he lowered down, I hit him exactly upon the nape of the neck. The
weapon penetrated so deep that, though I made a great effort to
recover it again, I found it impossible.'
So much for murder. Now for manslaughter, or rather Cellini's notion
'Pompeo entered an apothecary's shop at the corner of the Chiavica,
about some business, and stayed there for some time. I was told he had
boasted of having bullied me, but it turned out a fatal adventure to
him. Just as I arrived at that quarter he was coming out of the shop,
and his bravoes, having made an opening, formed a circle round him. I
thereupon clapped my hand to a sharp dagger, and having forced my way
through the file of ruffians, laid hold of him by the throat, so
quickly and with such presence of mind, that there was not one of his
friends could defend him. I pulled him towards me to give him a blow
in front, but he turned his face about through excess of terror, so
that I wounded him exactly under the ear; and upon repeating my blow,
he fell down dead. It had never been my intention to kill him, but
blows are not always under command.'
We must all feel that it would never have done to have begun with
these passages, but long before the 191st page has been reached
Cellini has retreated into his own atmosphere, and the scales of
justice have been hopelessly tampered with.
That such a man as this encountered suffering in the course of his
life, should be matter for satisfaction to every well-regulated mind;
but, somehow or another, you find yourself pitying the fellow as he
narrates the hardships he endured in the Castle of S. Angelo. He is so
symmetrical a rascal! Just hear him! listen to what he says well on in
the second volume, after the little incidents already quoted:
'Having at length recovered my strength and vigour, after I had
composed myself and resumed my cheerfulness of mind, I continued to
read my Bible, and so accustomed my eyes to that darkness, that though
I was at first able to read only an hour and a half, I could at length
read three hours. I then reflected on the wonderful power of the
Almighty upon the hearts of simple men, who had carried their
enthusiasm so far as to believe firmly that God would indulge them in
all they wished for; and I promised myself the assistance of the Most
High, as well through His mercy as on account of my innocence. Thus
turning constantly to the Supreme Being, sometimes in prayer,
sometimes in silent meditation on the divine goodness, I was totally
engrossed by these heavenly reflections, and came to take such delight
in pious meditations that I no longer thought of past misfortunes. On
the contrary, I was all day long singing psalms and many other
compositions of mine, in which I celebrated and praised the Deity.'
Thus torn from their context, these passages may seem to supply the
best possible falsification of the previous statement that Cellini
told the truth about himself. Judged by these passages alone, he may
appear a hypocrite of an unusually odious description. But it is only
necessary to read his book to dispel that notion. He tells lies about
other people; he repeats long conversations, sounding his own praises,
during which, as his own narrative shows, he was not present; he
exaggerates his own exploits, his sufferings--even, it may be, his
crimes; but when we lay down his book, we feel we are saying good-bye
to a man whom we know.
He has introduced himself to us, and though doubtless we prefer saints
to sinners, we may be forgiven for liking the company of a live rogue
better than that of the lay-figures and empty clock-cases labelled
with distinguished names, who are to be found doing duty for men in
the works of our standard historians. What would we not give to know
Julius Caesar one half as well as we know this outrageous rascal? The
saints of the earth, too, how shadowy they are! Which of them do we
really know? Excepting one or two ancient and modern Quietists, there
is hardly one amongst the whole number who being dead yet speaketh.
Their memoirs far too often only reveal to us a hazy something,
certainly not recognisable as a man. This is generally the fault of
their editors, who, though men themselves, confine their editorial
duties to going up and down the diaries and papers of the departed
saint, and obliterating all human touches. This they do for the
'better prevention of scandals;' and one cannot deny that they attain
their end, though they pay dearly for it.
I shall never forget the start I gave when, on reading some old book
about India, I came across an after-dinner jest of Henry Martyn's. The
thought of Henry Martyn laughing over the walnuts and the wine was
almost, as Robert Browning's unknown painter says, 'too wildly dear;'
and to this day I cannot help thinking that there must be a mistake
To return to Cellini, and to conclude. On laying down his 'Memoirs,'
let us be careful to recall our banished moral sense, and make peace
with her, by passing a final judgment on this desperate sinner, which
perhaps, after all, we cannot do better than by employing language of
his own concerning a monk, a fellow-prisoner of his, who never, so far
as appears, murdered anybody, but of whom Cellini none the less felt
himself entitled to say:
'I admired his shining qualities, but his odious vices I freely
censured and held in abhorrence.'
THE VIA MEDIA.
The world is governed by logic. Truth as well as Providence is always
on the side of the strongest battalions. An illogical opinion only
requires rope enough to hang itself.
Middle men may often seem to be earning for themselves a place in
Universal Biography, and middle positions frequently, seem to afford
the final solution of vexed questions; but this double delusion seldom
outlives a generation. The world wearies of the men, for, attractive
as their characters may be, they are for ever telling us, generally at
great length, how it comes about that they stand just where they do,
and we soon tire of explanations and forget apologists. The positions,
too, once hailed with such acclaim, so eagerly recognised as the true
refuges for poor mortals anxious to avoid being run over by fast-driving
logicians, how untenable do they soon appear! how quickly do they grow
antiquated! how completely they are forgotten!
The Via Media, alluring as is its direction, imposing as are its
portals, is, after all, only what Londoners call a blind alley,
'Ratiocination,' says one of the most eloquent and yet exact of modern
writers,[*] 'is the great principle of order in thinking: it reduces a
chaos into harmony, it catalogues the accumulations of knowledge; it
maps out for us the relations of its separate departments. It enables
the independent intellects of many acting and re-acting on each other
to bring their collective force to bear upon the same subject-matter.
If language is an inestimable gift to man, the logical faculty
prepares it for our use. Though it does not go so far as to ascertain
truth; still, it teaches us the _direction_ in which truth lies,
and _how propositions lie towards each other_. Nor is it a slight
benefit to know what is needed for the proof of a point, what is
wanting in a theory, how a theory hangs together, _and what will
follow if it be admitted_.'
[* Footnote: Dr. Newman in the 'Grammar of Assent.']
This great principle of order in thinking is what we are too apt to
forget. 'Give us,' cry many, 'safety in our opinions, and let who will
be logical. An Englishman's creed is compromise. His _bete noir_
extravagance. We are not saved by syllogism.' Possibly not; but yet
there can be no safety in an illogical position, and one's chances of
snug quarters in eternity cannot surely be bettered by our believing
at one and the same moment of time self-contradictory propositions.
But, talk as we may, for the bulk of mankind it will doubtless always
remain true that a truth does not exclude its contradictory. Darwin
and Moses are both right. Between the Gospel according to Matthew and
the Gospel according to Matthew Arnold there is no difference.
If the too apparent absurdity of this is pressed home, the baffled
illogician, persecuted in one position, flees into another, and may be
heard assuring his tormentor that in a period like the present, which
is so notoriously transitional, a logician is as much out of place as
a bull in a china shop, and that unless he is quiet, and keeps his
tail well wrapped round his legs, the mischief he will do to his
neighbours' china creeds and delicate porcelain opinions is shocking
to contemplate. But this excuse is no longer admissible. The age has
remained transitional so unconscionably long, that we cannot consent
to forego the use of logic any longer. For a decade or two it was all
well enough, but when it comes to fourscore years, one's patience gets
exhausted. Carlyle's celebrated Essay, 'Characteristics,' in which
this transitional period is diagnosed with unrivalled acumen, is half
a century old. Men have been born in it--have grown old in it--have
died in it. It has outlived the old Court of Chancery. It is high time
the spurs of logic were applied to its broken-winded sides.
Notwithstanding the obstinate preference the 'bulk of mankind' always
show for demonstrable errors over undeniable truths, the number of
persons is daily increasing who have begun to put a value upon mental
coherency and to appreciate the charm of a logical position.
It was common talk at one time to express astonishment at the
extending influence of the Church of Rome, and to wonder how people
who went about unaccompanied by keepers could submit their reason to
the Papacy, with her open rupture with science and her evil historical
reputation. From astonishment to contempt is but a step. We first open
wide our eyes and then our mouths.
'Lord So-and-so, his coat bedropt with wax,
All Peter's chains about his waist, his back
Brave with the needlework of Noodledom,
Believes,--who wonders and who cares?'
It used to be thought a sufficient explanation to say either that the
man was an ass or that it was all those Ritualists. But gradually it
became apparent that the pervert was not always an ass, and that the
Ritualists had nothing whatever to do with it. If a man's tastes run
in the direction of Gothic Architecture, free seats, daily services,
frequent communions, lighted candles and Church millinery, they can
all be gratified, not to say glutted, in the Church of his baptism.
It is not the Roman ritual, however splendid, nor her ceremonial,
however spiritually significant, nor her system of doctrine, as well
arranged as Roman law and as subtle as Greek philosophy, that makes
It is when a person of religious spirit and strong convictions as to
the truth and importance of certain dogmas--few in number it may be;
perhaps only one, the Being of God--first becomes fully alive to the
tendency and direction of the most active opinions of the day; when,
his alarm quickening his insight, he reads as it were between the
lines of books, magazines, and newspapers; when, struck with a sudden
trepidation, he asks, 'Where is this to stop? how can I, to the extent
of a poor ability, help to stem this tide of opinion which daily
increases its volume and floods new territory?'--then it is that the
Church of Rome stretches out her arms and seems to say, 'Quarrel not
with your destiny, which is to become a Catholic. You may see
difficulties and you may have doubts. They abound everywhere. You will
never get rid of them. But I, and I alone, have never coquetted with
the spirit of the age. I, and I alone, have never submitted my creeds
to be overhauled by infidels. Join me, acknowledge my authority, and
you need dread no side attack and fear no charge of inconsistency.
Succeed finally I must, but even were I to fail, yours would be the
satisfaction of knowing that you had never held an opinion, used an
argument, or said a word, that could fairly have served the purpose of
your triumphant enemy.'
At such a crisis as this in a man's life, he does not ask himself, How
little can I believe? With how few miracles can I get off?--he demands
sound armour, sharp weapons, and, above all, firm ground to stand on--
a good footing for his faith--and these he is apt to fancy he can get
from Rome alone.
No doubt he has to pay for them, but the charm of the Church of Rome
is this: when you have paid her price you get your goods--a neat
assortment of coherent, interdependent, logical opinions.
It is not much use, under such circumstances, to call the convert a
coward, and facetiously to inquire of him what he really thinks about
St. Januarius. Nobody ever began with Januarius. I have no doubt a
good many Romanists would be glad to be quit of him. He is part of the
price they have to pay in order that their title to the possession of
other miracles may be quieted. If you can convince the convert that he
can disbelieve Januarius of Naples without losing his grip of Paul of
Tarsus, you will be well employed; but if you begin with merry gibes,
and end with contemptuously demanding that he should have done with
such nonsense and fling the rubbish overboard, he will draw in his
horns and perhaps, if he knows his Browning, murmur to himself:--
'To such a process, I discern no end.
Cutting off one excrescence to see two;
There is ever a next in size, now grown as big,
That meets the knife. I cut and cut again;
First cut the Liquefaction, what comes last
But Fichte's clever cut at God Himself?'
To suppose that no person is logically entitled to fear God and to
ridicule Januarius at the same time, is doubtless extravagant, but to
do so requires care. There is an 'order in thinking. We must consider
how propositions lie towards each other--how a theory hangs together,
and what will follow if it be admitted.'
It is eminently desirable that we should consider the logical termini
of our opinions. Travelling up to town last month from the West, a
gentleman got into my carriage at Swindon, who, as we moved off and
began to rush through the country, became unable to restrain his
delight at our speed. His face shone with pride, as if he were pulling
us himself. 'What a charming train!' he exclaimed. 'This is the pace I
like to travel at.' I indicated assent. Shortly afterwards, when our
windows rattled as we rushed through Reading, he let one of them down
in a hurry, and cried out in consternation, 'Why, I want to get out
here.' 'Charming train,' I observed. 'Just the pace I like to travel
at; but it _is_ awkward if you want to go anywhere except
Paddington.' My companion made no reply; his face ceased to shine, and
as he sat whizzing past his dinner, I mentally compared his recent
exultation with that of those who in the present day extol much of its
spirit, use many of its arguments, and partake in most of its
triumphs, in utter ignorance as to whitherwards it is all tending as
surely as the Great Western rails run into Paddington. 'Poor victims!'
said a distinguished Divine, addressing the Evangelicals, then
rejoicing over their one legal victory, the 'Gorham Case'; 'do you
dream that the spirit of the age is working for you, or are you
secretly prepared to go further than you avow?'
Mr. Matthew Arnold's friends, the Nonconformists, are, as a rule,
nowadays, bad logicians. What Dr. Newman has said of the Tractarians
is (with but a verbal alteration) also true of a great many
Nonconformists: 'Moreover, there are those among them who have very
little grasp of principle, even from the natural temper of their
minds. They see this thing is beautiful, and that is in the Fathers,
and a third is expedient, and a fourth pious; but of their connection
one with another, their hidden essence and their life, and the bearing
of external matters upon each and upon all, they have no perception or
even suspicion. They do not look at things as part of a whole, and
often will sacrifice the most important and precious portions of their
creed, or make irremediable concessions in word or in deed, from mere
simplicity and want of apprehension.'
We have heard of grown-up Baptists asked to become, and actually
becoming, godfathers and godmothers to Episcopalian babies! What
terrible confusion is here! A point is thought to be of sufficient
importance to justify separation on account of it from the whole
Christian Church, and yet not to be of importance enough to debar the
separatist from taking part in a ceremony whose sole significance is
that it gives the lie direct to the point of separation.
But we all of us--Churchmen and Dissenters alike--select our opinions
far too much in the same fashion as ladies are reported, I dare say
quite falsely, to do their afternoon's shopping--this thing because
it is so pretty, and that thing because it is so cheap. We pick and
choose, take and leave, approbate and reprobate in a breath. A
familiar anecdote is never out of place: An English captain, anxious
to conciliate a savage king, sent him on shore, for his own royal
wear, an entire dress suit. His majesty was graciously pleased to
accept the gift, and as it never occurred to the royal mind that he
could, by any possibility, wear all the things himself, with kingly
generosity he distributed what he did not want amongst his Court. This
done, he sent for the donor to thank him in person. As the captain
walked up the beach, his majesty advanced to meet him, looking every
inch a king in the sober dignity of a dress-coat. The waistcoat
imparted an air of pensive melancholy that mightily became the Prime
Minister, whilst the Lord Chamberlain, as he skipped to and fro in his
white gloves, looked a courtier indeed. The trousers had become the
subject of an unfortunate dispute, in the course of which they had
sustained such injuries as to be hardly recognisable. The captain was
convulsed with laughter.
But, in truth, the mental toilet of most of us is as defective and
almost as risible as was that of this savage Court. We take on our
opinions without paying heed to conclusions, and the result is absurd.
Better be without any opinions at all. A naked savage is not
necessarily an undignified object; but a savage in a dress-coat and
nothing else is, and must ever remain, a mockery and a show. There is
a great relativity about a dress-suit. In the language of the
logicians, the name of each article not only denotes that particular,
but connotes all the rest. Hence it came about that that which, when
worn in its entirety, is so dull and decorous, became so provocative
of Homeric laughter when distributed amongst several wearers.
No person with the least tincture of taste can ever weary of Dr.
Newman, and no apology is therefore offered for another quotation from
his pages. In his story, 'Loss and Gain,' he makes one of his
characters, who has just become a Catholic, thus refer to the stock
Anglican Divines, a class of writers who are, at all events, immensely
superior to the Ellicotts and Farrars of these latter days: 'I am
embracing that creed which upholds the divinity of tradition with
Laud, consent of Fathers with Beveridge, a visible Church with
Bramhall, dogma with Bull, the authority of the Pope with Thorndyke,
penance with Taylor, prayers for the dead with Ussher, celibacy,
asceticism, ecclesiastical discipline with Bingham.' What is this to
say but that, according to the Cardinal, our great English divines
have divided the Roman dress-suit amongst themselves?
This particular charge may perhaps be untrue, but with that I am not
concerned. If it is not true of them, it is true of somebody else.
'That is satisfactory so far as Mr. Lydgate is concerned,' says Mrs.
Farebrother in 'Middlemarch,' with an air of precision; 'but as to
Bulstrode, the report may be true of some other son.'
We must all be acquainted with the reckless way in which people pluck
opinions like flowers--a bud here, and a leaf there. The bouquet is
pretty to-day, but you must look for it to-morrow in the oven.
There is a sense in which it is quite true, what our other Cardinal
has said about Ultramontanes, Anglicans, and Orthodox Dissenters all
being in the same boat. They all of them enthrone Opinion, holding it
to be, when encased in certain dogmas, Truth Absolute. Consequently
they have all their martyrologies--the bright roll-call of those who
have defied Caesar even unto death, or at all events gaol. They all,
therefore, put something above the State, and apply tests other than
those recognised in our law courts.
The precise way by which they come at their opinions is only detail.
Be it an infallible Church, an infallible Book, or an inward spiritual
grace, the outcome is the same. The Romanist, of course, has to bear
the first brunt, and is the most obnoxious to the State; but he must
be slow of comprehension and void of imagination who cannot conceive
of circumstances arising in this country when the State should assert
it to be its duty to violate what even Protestants believe to be the
moral law of God. Therefore, in opposing Ultramontanism, as it surely
ought to be opposed, care ought to be taken by those who are not
prepared to go all lengths with Caesar, to select their weapons of
attack, not from his armoury, but from their own.
How ridiculous it is to see some estimable man who subscribes to the
Bible Society, and takes what he calls 'a warm interest' in the
heathen, chuckling over some scoffing article in a newspaper--say
about a Church Congress--and never perceiving, so unaccustomed is he
to examine directions, that he is all the time laughing at his own
folly! Aunt Nesbit, in 'Dred,' considered Gibbon a very pious writer.
'I am sure,' says she, 'he makes the most religious reflections all
along. I liked him particularly on that account.' This poor lady had
some excuse. A vein of irony like Gibbon's is not struck upon every
day; but readers of newspapers, when they laugh, ought to be able to
perceive what it is they are laughing at.
Logic is the prime necessity of the hour. Decomposition and
transformation is going on all around us, but far too slowly. Some
opinions, bold and erect as they may still stand, are in reality but
empty shells. One shove would be fatal. Why is it not given?
The world is full of doleful creatures, who move about demanding our
sympathy. I have nothing to offer them but doses of logic, and stern
commands to move on or fall back. Catholics in distress about
Infallibility; Protestants devoting themselves to the dismal task of
paring down the dimensions of this miracle, and reducing the
credibility of that one--as if any appreciable relief from the burden
of faith could be so obtained; sentimental sceptics, who, after
labouring to demolish what they call the chimera of superstition, fall
to weeping as they remember they have now no lies to teach their
children; democrats who are frightened at the rough voice of the
people, and aristocrats flirting with democracy. Logic, if it cannot
cure, might at least silence these gentry.
There is more material for a life of Falstaff than for a life of
Shakespeare, though for both there is a lamentable dearth. The
difficulties of the biographer are, however, different in the two
cases. There is nothing, or next to nothing, in Shakespeare's works
which throws light on his own story; and such evidence as we have is
of the kind called circumstantial. But Falstaff constantly gives us
reminiscences or allusions to his earlier life, and his companions
also tell us stories which ought to help us in a biography. The
evidence, such as it is, is direct; and the only inference we have to
draw is that from the statement to the truth of the statement.
It has been justly remarked by Sir James Stephen, that this very
inference is perhaps the most difficult one of all to draw correctly.
The inference from so-called circumstantial evidence, if you have
enough of it, is much surer; for whilst facts cannot lie, witnesses
can, and frequently do. The witnesses on whom we have to rely for the
facts are Falstaff and his companions--especially Falstaff.
When an old man tries to tell you the story of his youth, he sees the
facts through a distorting subjective medium, and gives an impression
of his history and exploits more or less at variance with the bare
facts as seen by a contemporary outsider. The scientific Goethe,
though truthful enough in the main, certainly fails in his
reminiscences to tell a plain unvarnished tale. And Falstaff was
_not_ habitually truthful. Indeed, that Western American, who
wrote affectionately on the tomb of a comrade, 'As a truth-crusher he
was unrivalled,' had probably not given sufficient attention to
Falstaff's claims in this matter. Then Falstaff's companions are not
witnesses above suspicion. Generally speaking, they lie open to the
charge made by P. P. against the wags of his parish, that they were
men delighting more in their own conceits than in the truth. These are
some of our difficulties, and we ask the reader's indulgence in our
endeavours to overcome them. We will tell the story from our hero's
birth, and will not begin longer _before_ that event than is
usual with biographers.
The question, _Where_ was Falstaff born? has given us some
trouble. We confess to having once entertained a strong opinion that
he was a Devonshire man. This opinion was based simply on the flow and
fertility of his wit as shown in his conversation, and the rapid and
fantastic play of his imagination. But we sought in vain for any
verbal provincialisms in support of this theory, and there was
something in the character of the man that rather went against it.
Still, we clung to the opinion, till we found that philology was
against us, and that the Falstaffs unquestionably came from Norfolk.
The name is of Scandinavian origin; and we find in 'Domesday' that a
certain Falstaff held freely from the king a church at Stamford. These
facts are of great importance. The thirst for which Falstaff was
always conspicuous was no doubt inherited--was, in fact, a
Scandinavian thirst. The pirates of early English times drank as well
as they fought, and their descendants who invade England--now that the
war of commerce has superseded the war of conquest--still bring the
old thirst with them, as anyone can testify who has enjoyed the
hospitality of the London Scandinavian Club. Then this church was no
doubt a familiar landmark in the family; and when Falstaff stated,
late in life, that if he hadn't forgotten what the inside of a church
was like, he was a peppercorn and a brewer's horse, he was thinking
with some remorse of the family temple.
Of the family between the Conquest and Falstaff's birth we know
nothing, except that, according to Falstaff's statement, he had a
grandfather who left him a seal-ring worth forty marks. From this
statement we might infer that the ring was an heirloom, and
consequently that Falstaff was an eldest son, and the head of his
family. But we must be careful in drawing our inferences, for Prince
Henry frequently told Falstaff that the ring was copper; and on one
occasion, when Falstaff alleged that his pocket had been picked at the
Boar's Head, and this seal-ring and three or four bonds of forty
pounds apiece abstracted, the Prince assessed the total loss at
After giving careful attention to the evidence, and particularly to
the conduct of Falstaff on the occasion of the alleged robbery, we
come to the conclusion that the ring _was_ copper, and was not an
heirloom. This leaves us without any information about Falstaff's
family prior to his birth. He was born (as he himself informs the Lord
Chief Justice) about three o'clock in the afternoon, with a white head
and something a round belly. Falstaffs corpulence, therefore, as well
as his thirst, was congenital. Let those who are not born with his
comfortable figure sigh in vain to attain his stately proportions.
This is a thing which Nature gives us at our birth as much as the
Scandinavian thirst or the shaping spirit of imagination.
Born somewhere in Norfolk, Falstaff's early months and years were no
doubt rich with the promise of his after greatness. We have no record
of his infancy, and are tempted to supply the gap with Rabelais'
chapters on Gargantua's babyhood. But regard for the truth compels us
to add nothing that cannot fairly be deduced from the evidence. We
leave the strapping boy in his swaddling-clothes to answer the
question _when_ he was born. Now, it is to be regretted that
Falstaff, who was so precise about the hour of his birth, should not
have mentioned the year. On this point we are again left to inference
from conflicting statements. We have this distinct point to start
from, that Falstaff, in or about the year 1401, gives his age as some
fifty or by'r Lady inclining to three-score. It is true that in other
places he represents himself as old, and again in another states that
he and his accomplices in the Gadshill robbery are in the vaward of
their youth. The Chief Justice reproves him for this affectation of
youth, and puts a question (which, it is true, elicits no admission
from Falstaff) as to whether every part of him is not blasted with
We are inclined to think that Falstaff rather understated his age when
he described himself as by'r Lady inclining to three-score, and that
we shall not be far wrong if we set down 1340 as the year of his
birth. We cannot be certain to a year or two. There is a similar
uncertainty about the year of Sir Richard Whittington's birth. But
both these great men, whose careers afford in some respects striking
contrasts, were born within a few years of the middle of the
Falstaff's childhood was no doubt spent in Norfolk; and we learn from
his own lips that he plucked geese, played truant, and whipped top,
and that he did not escape beating. That he had brothers and sisters
we know; for he tells us that he is _John_ with them and _Sir
John_ with all Europe. We do not know the dame or pedant who taught
his young idea how to shoot and formed his manners; but Falstaff says
that _if_ his manners became him not, he was a fool that taught
them him. This does not throw much light on his early education: for
it is not clear that the remark applies to that period, and in any
case it is purely hypothetical.
But Falstaff, like so many boys since his time, left his home in the
country and came to London. His brothers and sisters he left behind
him, and we hear no more of them. Probably none of them ever attained
eminence, as there is no record of Falstaff's having attempted to
borrow money of them. We know Falstaff so well as a tun of man, a
horse-back-breaker, and so forth, that it is not easy to form an idea
of what he was in his youth. But if we trace back the sack-stained
current of his life to the day when, full of wonder and hope, he first
rode into London, we shall find him as different from Shakespeare's
picture of him as the Thames at Iffley is from the Thames at London
Bridge. His figure was shapely; he had no difficulty _then_ in
seeing his own knee, and if he was not able, as he afterwards
asserted, to creep through an alderman's ring, nevertheless he had all
the grace and activity of youth. He was just such a lad (to take a
description almost contemporary) as the Squier who rode with the
'A lover and a lusty bacheler,
With lockes crull as they were laid in presse,
Of twenty yere of age he was, I gesse.
Of his stature he was of even lengthe,
And wonderly deliver, and grete of strengthe.
* * * * *
Embrouded was he, as it were a mede,
All ful of freshe floures, white and rede;
Singing he was, or floyting alle the day,
He was as freshe as is the moneth of May.
Short was his goune, with sleves long and wide,
Wel coude he sitte on hors, and fayre ride,
He coude songes make, and wel endite,
Juste and eke dance, and wel pourtraie and write.
So hot he loved that by nightertale,
He slep no more than doth the nightingale.'
Such was Falstaff at the age of twenty, or something earlier, when he
entered at Clement's Inn, where were many other young men reading law,
and preparing for their call to the Bar. How much law he read it is
impossible now to ascertain. That he had, in later life, a
considerable knowledge of the subject is clear, but this may have been
acquired like Mr. Micawber's, by experience, as defendant on civil
process. We are inclined to think he read but little. _Amici fures
temporis:_ and he had many friends at Clement's Inn who were not
smugs, nor, indeed, reading men in any sense. There was John Doit of
Staffordshire, and Black George Barnes, and Francis Pickbone, and Will
Squele, a Cotswold man, and Robert Shallow from Gloucestershire. Four
of these were such swinge-bucklers as were not to be found again in
all the Inns o' Court, and we have it on the authority of Justice
Shallow that Falstaff was a good backswordsman, and that before he had
done growing he broke the head of Skogan at the Court gate. This
Skogan appears to have been Court-jester to Edward III. No doubt the
natural rivalry between the amateur and the professional caused the
quarrel, and Skogan must have been a good man if he escaped with a
broken head only, and without damage to his reputation as a
professional wit. The same day that Falstaff did this deed of daring--
the only one of the kind recorded of him--Shallow fought with Sampson
Stockfish, a fruiterer, behind Gray's Inn. Shallow was a gay dog in
his youth, according to his own account: he was called Mad Shallow,
Lusty Shallow--indeed, he was called anything. He played Sir Dagonet
in Arthur's show at Mile End Green; and no doubt Falstaff and the rest
of the set were cast for other parts in the same pageant. These tall
fellows of Clement's Inn kept well together, for they liked each
other's company, and they needed each other's help in a row in
Turnbull Street or elsewhere. Their watchword was 'Hem, boys!' and
they made the old Strand ring with their songs as they strolled home
to their chambers of an evening. They heard the chimes at midnight--
which, it must be confessed, does not seem to us a desperately
dissipated entertainment. But midnight was a late hour in those days.
The paralytic masher of the present day, who is most alive at
midnight, rises at noon. _Then_ the day began earlier with a long
morning, followed by a pleasant period called the forenoon. Under
modern conditions we spend the morning in bed, and to palliate our
sloth call the forenoon and most of the rest of the day, the morning.
These young men of Clement's Inn were a lively, not to say a rowdy,
set. They would do anything that led to mirth or mischief. What passed
when they lay all night in the windmill in St. George's Field we do
not quite know; but we are safe in assuming that they did not go there
to pursue their legal duties, or to grind corn. Anyhow, forty years
after, that night raised pleasant memories.
John Falstaff was the life and centre of this set, as Robert Shallow
was the butt of it. The latter had few personal attractions. According
to Falstaff's portrait of him, he looked like a man made after supper
of a cheese-paring. When he was naked he was for all the world like a
forked radish, with a head fantastically carved upon it with a knife:
he was so forlorn that his dimensions to any thick sight were
invincible: he was the very genius of famine; and a certain section of
his friends called him mandrake: he came ever in the rearward of the
fashion, and sung those tunes to the over-scutched huswives that he
heard the carmen whistle, and sware they were his fancies or his
good-nights. Then he had the honour of having his head burst by John o'
Gaunt, for crowding among the Marshal's men in the Tilt-yard, and this
was matter for continual gibe from Falstaff and the other boys.
Falstaff was in the van of the fashion, was witty himself without
being at that time the cause that wit was in others. No one could come
within range of his wit without being attracted and overpowered. Late
in life Falstaff deplores nothing so much in the character of Prince
John of Lancaster as this, that a man cannot make him laugh. He felt
this defect in the Prince's character keenly, for laughter was
Falstaff's familiar spirit, which never failed to come at his call. It
was by laughter that young Falstaff fascinated his friends and ruled
over them. There are only left to us a few scraps of his conversation,
and these have been, and will be, to all time the delight of all good
men. The Clement's Inn boys who enjoyed the feast, of which we have
but the crumbs left to us, were happy almost beyond the lot of man.
For there is more in laughter than is allowed by the austere, or
generally recognised by the jovial. By laughter man is distinguished
from the beasts, but the cares and sorrows of life have all but
deprived man of this distinguishing grace, and degraded him to a
brutal solemnity. Then comes (alas, how rarely!) a genius such as
Falstaff's, which restores the power of laughter and transforms the
stolid brute into man. This genius approaches nearly to the divine
power of creation, and we may truly say, 'Some for less were deified.'
It is no marvel that young Falstaff's friends assiduously served the
deity who gave them this good gift. At first he was satisfied with the
mere exercise of his genial power, but he afterwards made it
serviceable to him. It was but just that he should receive tribute
from those who were beholden to him, for a pleasure which no other
It was now that Falstaff began to recognise what a precious gift was
his congenital Scandinavian thirst, and to lose no opportunity of
gratifying it. We have his mature views on education, and we may take
them as an example of the general truth that old men habitually advise
a young one to shape the conduct of his life after their own. Rightly
to apprehend the virtues of sherris-sack is the first qualification in
an instructor of youth. 'If I had a thousand sons,' says he, 'the
first humane principles I would teach them should be to forswear thin
potations, and to addict themselves to sack'; and further: 'There's
never none of these demure boys come to any proof; for their drink
doth so over-cool their blood, and making many fish-meals, that they
fall into a kind of male green sickness; and then when they marry they
get wenches: they are generally fools and cowards, which some of us
should be too but for inflammation.' There can be no doubt that
Falstaff did not in early life over-cool his blood, but addicted
himself to sack, and gave the subject a great part of his attention
for all the remainder of his days.
It may be that he found the subject too absorbing to allow of his
giving much attention to old Father Antic the Law. At any rate, he was
never called to the Bar, and posterity cannot be too thankful that his
great mind was not lost in 'the abyss of legal eminence' which has
received so many men who might have adorned their country. That he was
fitted for a brilliant legal career can admit of no doubt. His power
of detecting analogies in cases apparently different, his triumphant
handling of cases apparently hopeless, his wonderful readiness in
reply, and his dramatic instinct, would have made him a powerful
advocate. It may have been owing to difficulties with the Benchers of
the period over questions of discipline, or it may have been a
distaste for the profession itself, which induced him to throw up the
law and adopt the profession of arms.
We know that while he was still at Clement's Inn he was page to Lord
Thomas Mowbray, who was afterwards created Earl of Nottingham and Duke
of Norfolk. It must be admitted that here (as elsewhere in
Shakespeare) there is some little chronological difficulty. We will
not inquire too curiously, but simply accept the testimony of Justice
Shallow on the point. Mowbray was an able and ambitious lord, and
Falstaff, as page to him, began his military career with every
advantage. The French wars of the later years of Edward III. gave
frequent and abundant opportunity for distinction. Mowbray
distinguished himself in Court and in camp, and we should like to
believe that Falstaff was in the sea-fight when Mowbray defeated the
French fleet and captured vast quantities of sack from the enemy.
Unfortunately, there is no record whatever of Falstaff's early
military career, and beyond his own ejaculation, 'Would to God that my
name was not so terrible to the enemy as it is!' and the (possible)
inference from it that he must have made his name terrible in some
way, we have no evidence that he was ever in the field before the
battle of Shrewsbury. Indeed, the absence of evidence on this matter
goes strongly to prove the negative. Falstaff boasts of his valour,
his alacrity, and other qualities which were not apparent to the
casual observer, but he never boasts of his services in battle. If
there had been anything of the kind to which he could refer with
complacency, there is no moral doubt that he would have mentioned it
freely, adding such embellishments and circumstances as he well knew
In the absence of evidence as to the course of his life, we are left
to conjecture how he spent the forty years, more or less, between the
time of his studies at Clement's Inn and the day when Shakespeare
introduces him to us. We have no doubt that he spent all, or nearly
all, this time in London. His habits were such as are formed by life
in a great city; his conversation betrays a man who has lived, as it
were, in a crowd, and the busy haunts of men were the appropriate
scene for the display of his great qualities. London, even then, was a
great city, and the study of it might well absorb a lifetime. Falstaff
knew it well, from the Court, with which he always preserved a
connection, to the numerous taverns where he met his friends and
eluded his creditors. The Boar's Head in Eastcheap was his
headquarters, and, like Barnabee's, two centuries later, his journeys
were from tavern to tavern; and, like Barnabee, he might say
'_Multum bibi, nunquam pransi_.' To begin with, no doubt the
dinner bore a fair proportion to the fluid which accompanied it, but
by degrees the liquor encroached on and superseded the viands, until
his tavern bills took the shape of the one purloined by Prince Henry,
in which there was but one halfpenny-worth of bread to an intolerable
deal of sack. It was this inordinate consumption of sack (and not
sighing and grief, as he suggests) which blew him up like a bladder. A
life of leisure in London always had, and still has, its temptations.
Falstaff's means were described by the Chief Justice of Henry IV. as
very slender, but this was after they had been wasted for years.
Originally they were more ample, and gave him the opportunity of
living at ease with his friends. No domestic cares disturbed the even
tenor of his life. Bardolph says he was better accommodated than with
a wife. Like many another man about town, he thought about settling
down when he was getting up in years. He weekly swore, so he tells us,
to marry old Mistress Ursula, but this was only after he saw the first
white hair on his chin. But he never led Mistress Ursula to the altar.
The only other women for whom he formed an early attachment were
Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the Boar's Head, and Doll Tearsheet,
who is described by the page as a proper gentlewoman, and a kinswoman
of his master's. There is no denying that Falstaff was on terms of
intimacy with Mistress Quickly, but he never admitted that he made her
an offer of marriage. She, however, asserted it in the strongest
terms, and with a wealth of circumstance.
We must transcribe her story: 'Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt
goblet, sitting in my Dolphin-chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal
fire, upon Wednesday in Whitsun-week, when the Prince broke thy head
for liking his father to a singing-man of Windsor; thou didst swear to
me then, as I was washing thy wound, to marry me, and make me my lady
thy wife. Canst thou deny it? Did not goodwife Keech, the butcher's
wife, come in then, and call me Gossip Quickly? coming in to borrow a
mess of vinegar; telling us she had a good dish of prawns; whereby
thou didst desire to eat some; whereby I told thee they were ill for a
green wound? And didst thou not, when she was gone downstairs, desire
me to be no more so familiarity with such poor people; saying that ere
long they should call me madam? And didst thou not kiss me, and bid me
fetch thee thirty shillings? I put thee now to thy book-oath; deny it
if thou canst!'
We feel no doubt that if Mistress Quickly had given this evidence in
action for breach of promise of marriage, and goodwife Keech
corroborated it, the jury would have found a verdict for the
plaintiff, unless indeed they brought in a special verdict to the
effect that Falstaff made the promise, but never intended to keep it.
But Mistress Quickly contented herself with upbraiding Falstaff, and
he cajoled her with his usual skill, and borrowed more money of her.
Falstaff's attachment for Doll Tearsheet lasted many years, but did
not lead to matrimony. From the Clement's Inn days till he was
threescore he lived in London celibate, and his habits and amusements
were much like those of other single gentlemen about town of his time,
or, for that matter, of ours. He had only himself to care for, and he
cared for himself well. Like his page, he had a good angel about him,
but the devil outbid him. He was as virtuously given as other folk,
but perhaps the devil had a handle for temptation in that congenital
thirst of his. He was a social spirit too, and he tells us that
company, villainous company, was the spoil of him. He was less than
thirty when he took the faithful Bardolph into his service, and only
just past that age when he made the acquaintance of the nimble Poins.
Before he was forty he became the constant guest of Mistress Quickly.
Pistol and Nym were later acquisitions, and the Prince did not come
upon the scene till Falstaff was an old man and knighted.
There is some doubt as to when he obtained this honour. Richard II.
bestowed titles in so lavish a manner as to cause discontent among
many who didn't receive them. In 1377, immediately on his accession,
the earldom of Nottingham was given to Thomas Mowbray, and on the same
day three other earls and nine knights were created. We have not been
able to discover the names of these knights, but we confidently expect
to unearth them some day, and to find the name of Sir John Falstaff
among them. We have already stated that Falstaff had done no service
in the field at this time, so he could not have earned his title in
that manner. No doubt he got it through the influence of Mowbray, who
was in a position to get good things for his friends as well as for
himself. It was but a poor acknowledgment for the inestimable benefit
of occasionally talking with Falstaff over a quart of sack.
We will not pursue Falstaff's life further than this. It can from this
point be easily collected. It is a thankless task to paraphrase a
great and familiar text. To attempt to tell the story in better words
than Shakespeare would occur to no one but Miss Braddon, who has
epitomised Sir Walter, or to Canon Farrar, who has elongated the
Gospels. But we feel bound to add a few words as to character. There
are, we fear, a number of people who regard Falstaff as a worthless
fellow, and who would refrain (if they could) from laughing at his
jests. These people do not understand his claim to grateful and
affectionate regard. He did more to produce that mental condition of
which laughter is the expression than any man who ever lived. But for
the cheering presence of him, and men like him, this vale of tears
would be a more terrible dwelling-place than it is. In short, Falstaff
has done an immense deal to alleviate misery and promote positive
happiness. What more can be said of your heroes and philanthropists?
It is, perhaps, characteristic of this commercial age that benevolence
should be always associated, if not considered synonymous, with the
giving of money. But this is clearly mistaken, for we have to consider
what effect the money given produces on the minds and bodies of human
beings. Sir Richard Whittington was an eminently benevolent man, and
spent his money freely for the good of his fellow-citizens. (We
sincerely hope, by the way, that he lent some of it to Falstaff
without security.) He endowed hospitals and other charities. Hundreds
were relieved by his gifts, and thousands (perhaps) are now in receipt
of his alms. This is well. Let the sick and the poor, who enjoy his
hospitality and receive his doles, bless his memory. But how much
wider and further-reaching is the influence of Falstaff! Those who
enjoy his good things are not only the poor and the sick, but all who
speak the English language. Nay, more; translation has made him the
inheritance of the world, and the benefactor of the entire human race.
It may be, however, that some other nations fail fully to understand
and appreciate the mirth and the character of the man. A Dr. G. G.
Gervinus, of Heidelberg, has written, in the German language, a heavy
work on Shakespeare, in which he attacks Falstaff in a very solemn and
determined manner, and particularly charges him with selfishness and
want of conscience. We are inclined to set down this malignant attack
to envy. Falstaff is the author and cause of universal laughter. Dr.
Gervinus will never be the cause of anything universal; but, so far as
his influence extends, he produces headaches. It is probably a painful
sense of this contrast that goads on the author of headaches to attack
the author of laughter.
But is there anything in the charge? We do not claim anything like
perfection, or even saintliness, for Falstaff. But we may say of him,
as Byron says of Venice, that his very vices are of the gentler sort.
And as for this charge of selfishness and want of conscience, we think
that the words of Bardolph on his master's death are an overwhelming
answer to it. Bardolph said, on hearing the news: 'I would I were with
him wheresoever he is: whether he be in heaven or hell.' Bardolph was
a mere serving-man, not of the highest sensibility, and he for thirty
years knew his master as his valet knows the hero. Surely the man who
could draw such an expression of feeling from his rough servant is not
the man to be lightly charged with selfishness! Which of us can hope
for such an epitaph, not from a hireling, but from our nearest and
dearest? Does Dr. Gervinus know anyone who will make such a reply to a
posthumous charge against him of dulness and lack of humour?