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Shakespeare: His Life, Art, And Characters, Volume I. by H. N. Hudson

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That tears shall drown the wind."

With these I suspect may be fitly classed, notwithstanding its
delicacy, the following from Iachimo's description of Imogen, when he
comes out of the trunk in her chamber:

"The flame o' the taper
Bows toward her; and would under-peep her lids,
To see th' enclosed lights, now canopied
Under these windows, white and azure, lac'd
With blue of heaven's own tinct."

Also this, from the soliloquy of Posthumus in repentance for the
supposed death of Imogen by his order:

"My conscience, thou art fetter'd
More than my shanks and wrists: you good gods give me
The penitent instrument to pick that bolt,
Then free for ever!"

I add still another example; from one of old Nestor's speeches on the
selection of a champion to fight with the Trojan hero:

"It is suppos'd,
He that meets Hector issues from our choice:
And choice, being mutual act of all our souls,
Makes merit her election; and doth boil,
As 'twere from forth us all, a man distill'd
Out of our virtues."

All these--and I could quote a hundred such--are, to my thinking,
instances of happy and, I will add, even wise audacity: at least, if
there be any overstraining of imagery, I can easily shrive the fault,
for the subtile felicity involved in them. They are certainly quite at
home in the millennium of poetry which Shakespeare created for us;
albeit I can well remember the time when such transcendent raptures
were to me as

"Some joy too fine,
Too subtle-potent, tun'd too sharp in sweetness,
For the capacity of my ruder powers."

It would be strange indeed if a man so exceedingly daring did not now
and then overdare. And so I think the Poet's boldness in metaphor
sometimes makes him overbold, or at least betrays him into
infelicities of boldness. Here are two instances, from _The Tempest_,
v. 1:

"The charm dissolves apace;
And as the morning steals upon the night,
Melting the darkness, so their rising senses
Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle
Their clearer reason."

"Their understanding
Begins to swell; and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable shore
That now lies foul and muddy."

And here is another, of perhaps still more questionable character,
from _Macbeth_, i. 7:

"His two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so convince,
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only."

What, again, shall be said of the two following, where Coriolanus
snaps off his fierce scorn of the multitude?--

"What's the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?"

"So shall my lungs
Coin words till their decay against those measles,
Which we disdain should tetter us, yet sought
The very way to catch them."

Either from overboldness in the metaphors, or from some unaptness in
the material of them, I have to confess that my mind rather rebels
against these stretches of poetical prerogative. Still more so,
perhaps, in the well-known passage of _King Henry the Fifth_, iv. 3;
though I am not sure but, in this case, the thing rightly belongs to
the speaker's character:

"And those that leave their valiant bones in France,
Dying like men, though buried in your dunghills,
They shall be fam'd; for there the Sun shall greet them,
And draw their honours reeking up to heaven;
Leaving their earthly parts to choke your clime,
The smell whereof shall breed a plague in France.
Mark, then, abounding valour in our English;
That, being dead, like to the bullet's grazing,
Break out into a second course of mischief,
Killing in relapse of mortality."

But, whatever be the right mark to set upon these and some other
instances, I find but few occasions of such revolt; and my only wonder
is, how any mere human genius could be so gloriously audacious, and
yet be so seldom chargeable with passing the just bounds of poetical

Metaphors are themselves the aptest and clearest mode of expressing
much in little. No other form of speech will convey so much thought in
so few words. They often compress into a few words what would else
require as many sentences. But even such condensations of meaning did
not--so it appears--always answer Shakespeare's purpose: he sometimes
does hardly more than _suggest_ metaphors, throwing off several of
them in quick succession. We have an odd instance of this in one of
Falstaff's speeches, Second Part of _King Henry the Fourth_, i. 2:
"Well, he may sleep in security; for he hath the horn of abundance,
and the lightness of his wife shines through it: and yet cannot he
see, though he have his own lantern to light him." Here we have a
thick-coming series of punning metaphors, all merely suggested. So
Brutus, when hunting after reasons for killing Caesar: "It is the
bright day that brings forth the adder." Here the metaphor suggested
is, that the sunshine of kingly power will develop a venomous serpent
in the hitherto noble Julius. So, again, Cleopatra, when Antony dies:
"O, see, my women, the crown o' the earth doth melt";--"O, wither'd is
the garland of the war, the soldier's pole is fall'n";--"Look, our
lamp is spent, it's out." And so in Macbeth's,--"The wine of life is
drawn, and the mere lees is left this vault to brag of";--"Better be
with the dead than on the torture of the mind to lie in restless
ecstasy";--"Come, seeling night, scarf up the tender eye of pitiful
day." Also one of the Thanes, when they are about to make their
ultimate set-to against Macbeth:

"Meet we the medicine of the sickly weal;
And with him pour we in our country's purge
Each drop of us."

_Macbeth_ indeed has more of this character than any other of the
Poet's dramas; he having judged, apparently, that such a style of
suggested images was the best way of _symbolizing_ such a wild-rushing
torrent of crimes, remorses, and retributions as that tragedy consists

Near akin to these is a number of passages like the following from one
of Antony's speeches:

"The hearts
That spaniel'd me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar; and this pine is bark'd,
That overtopp'd them all."

Here we have several distinct images merely suggested, and coming so
thick withal, that our powers might be swamped but for the prodigious
momentum or gale of thought that carries us through. I am aware that
several such passages have often been censured as mere jumbles of
incongruous metaphors; but they do not so strike any reader who is so
unconscientious of rhetorical formalities as to care only for the
meaning of what he reads; though I admit that perhaps no mental
current less deep and mighty than Shakespeare's would waft us clean
over such thought-foundering passages.

* * * * *

There is one other trait of the Poet's style which I must briefly
notice. It is the effect of some one leading thought or predominant
feeling in silently modifying the language, and drawing in sympathetic
words and phrases by unmarked threads of association. Thus in the
hero's description of Valeria, in _Coriolanus_, v. 3:

"The noble sister of Publicola,
The moon of Rome; chaste as the icicle,
That's curded by the frost from purest snow,
And hangs on Dian's temple."

Here, of course, the leading thought is chastity; and observe how, as
by a kind of silent sympathy, all the words and images are selected
and toned in perfect unison with that thought, so that the whole may
be said literally to relish of nothing else. Something of the same,
though in a manner perhaps still better, because less pronounced,
occurs in _As You Like It_, ii. 1, where, the exiled Duke having
expressed his pain that the deer, "poor dappled fools, being native
burghers of this desert city," should on their own grounds "have their
round haunches gor'd," one of the attendant lords responds:

"Indeed, my lord,
The melancholy Jaques grieves at that.
To-day, my Lord of Amiens and myself
Did steal behind him, as he lay along
Under an oak whose antique root peeps out
Upon the brook that brawls along this wood;
To the which place a poor sequester'd stag,
That from the hunter's aim had ta'en a hurt,
Did come to languish: and indeed, my lord,
The wretched animal heav'd forth such groans,
That their discharge did stretch his leathern coat
Almost to bursting; and the big round tears
Cours'd one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase; and thus the hairy fool,
Much marked of the melancholy Jaques,
Stood on th' extremest verge of the swift brook,
Augmenting it with tears."

Here the predominant feeling of the speaker is that of kindred or
half-brotherhood with the deer; and such words as _languish, groans,
coat, tears, innocent_, and _hairy fool_, dropping along so quietly,
impart a sort of semi-humanizing tinge to the language, so that the
very pulse of his feeling seems beating in its veins.

The Poet has a great many passages from which this feature might be
illustrated. And it often imparts a very peculiar charm to his
poetry;--a charm the more winning, and the more wholesome too, for
being, I will not say unobtrusive, but hardly perceptible; acting like
a soft undertone accompaniment of music, which we are kept from
noticing by the delicate concert of thought and feeling it insensibly
kindles and feeds within us. Thus the Poet touches and rallies all our
most hidden springs of delight to his purpose, and makes them
unconsciously tributary to the refreshment of the hour; stealing fine
inspirations into us, which work their effect upon the soul without
prating of their presence, and not unlike the virtue that lets not the
left hand know what the right hand doeth. And all this, let me tell
you, is a very different thing from merely making "the sound an echo
to the sense,"--as much better too as it is different.

* * * * *

Everybody conversant with the subject knows that an author's style, if
genuine, (and it is not properly a style, but a mannerism, if
ungenuine,) is a just measure of his mind, and an authentic
registration of all his faculties and forces. It has indeed passed
into a proverb, that "the style is the man." And there is no other
English writing, probably no uninspired writing in the world, of which
this is so unreservedly true as of Shakespeare's; and this, because
his is the most profoundly genuine: here the style--I mean in his
characteristic pieces--is all his own,--rooted perfectly in and
growing entirely from the man himself,--and has no borrowed sap or
flavour whatever. And as he surpasses all others alike in breadth and
delicacy of perception, in sweep and subtilty of thought, in vastness
of grasp and minuteness of touch, in fineness of fibre and length and
strength of line; so all these are faithfully reflected in his use of
language. There is none other so overwhelming in its power, none so
irresistible in its sweetness. If his intellect could crush the
biggest and toughest problems into food, his tongue was no less able
to voice in all fitting accents the results of that tremendous
digestion. Coleridge, the profoundest of critics, calls him "an
oceanic mind," and this language, as expressing the idea of
multitudinous unity, is none too big for him; Hallam, the severest of
critics, describes him as "thousand-souled," and this has grown into
common use as no more than just; another writer makes his peculiarity
to consist in "an infinite delicacy of mind"; and whatsoever of truth
and fitness there may be in any or all of these expression's has a
just exponent in his style.

All which may suffice to explain why it is that Shakespeare's style
has no imitators. He were indeed a very hardy or else a very imbecile
man, who should undertake to imitate it. All the other great English
poets, however, have been imitated in this respect, and some of them
with no little success. Thomson's _Castle of Indolence_, for example,
is an avowed imitation of Spenser; and that, I think, is Thomson's
best poem. Beattie's _Minstrel_, too, is another happy imitation of
the same great original. I cannot say so much for any of Milton's or
Wordsworth's imitators, though both have had many of them. But no one,
apparently, ever thinks of trying to tilt in Shakespeare's Titanic


Much of what may need to be said on this topic will come in more fitly
in speaking of particular plays and characters. A few observations of
a very inclusive scope will be sufficient here.

And I will begin by saying that soundness in this respect is the
corner-stone of all artistic excellence. Virtue, or the loving of
worthy objects, and in a worthy manner, is most assuredly the highest
interest of mankind;--an interest so vital and fundamental, that
nothing which really conflicts with it, or even postpones it to any
other regards, can possibly stand the test of any criticism rooted in
the principles of human nature. To offend in this point is indeed to
be guilty of all: things must be substantially right here, else there
can be nothing right about them. So that, if an author's moral
teaching or moral influence be essentially bad; or even if it be
materially loose and unsound, so as to unstring the mind from thinking
and doing that which is right; nay, even if it be otherwise than
positively wholesome and elevating as a whole; then I more than admit
that no amount of seeming intellectual or poetical merit ought to
shield his workmanship from reprobation, and this too on the score of
art. But then, on the other hand, I must insist that our grounds of
judgment in this matter be very large and liberal; and that to require
or to expect a poet to teach better morals than are taught by Nature
and Providence argues either a disqualifying narrowness of mind in us,
or else a certain moral valetudinarianism which poetry is not bound to
respect. For a poet has a right to the benefit of being tried by the
moral sense and reason of mankind: it is indeed to that seat of
judgment that every great poet virtually appeals; and the verdict of
that tribunal must be an ultimate ruling to us as well as to him.

But one of the first things to be considered here is the natural
relation of Morality to Art. Now I believe Art cannot be better
defined than as the creation or the expression of the Beautiful. And
truth is the first principle of all Beauty. But when I say this, I of
course imply that truth which the human mind is essentially
constituted to receive as such. And in that truth the moral element
holds, constitutionally, the foremost place. I mean, that the human
mind draws and cannot but draw to that point, in so far as it is true
to itself: for the moral consciousness is the rightful sovereign in
the soul of man, or it is nothing; it cannot accept a lower seat
without forfeiting all its rights, and disorganizing the whole
intellectual house. So that a thing cannot be morally false and
artistically true at the same time. And in so far as any workmanship
sins in the former kind, just so far, whatever other elements of the
Beautiful it may have, it still lacks the very bond of order which is
necessary, to retain them in power; nay, the effect of those other
elements is to cultivate a taste which the whole thing fails to
satisfy; what of true beauty is present tends to awaken a craving for
that part which is wanting.

Nor need we have any fear but that in the long run things will come
right in this matter. In this, however, as in most things, truth is
the daughter of time. The moral sense and reason is so strong a force
in the calm and disinterested judgments of mankind, that it must and
will prevail: its verdict may be some time in coming, but come it
will, sooner or later, and will ultimately have things all its own
way. For the aesthetic conscience is probably the most impartial and
inexorable of the human powers; and this, because it acts most apart
from any regards of self-interest or any apprehension of consequences.
The elections of taste are in a special sort exempt both from hope of
profit and from fear of punishment. And man's sense of the Beautiful
is so much in the keeping of his moral reason,--secret keeping indeed,
and all the surer for being secret,--that it cannot be bribed or
seduced to a _constant_ admiration of any beauty where the moral
element is wanting, or even where it is excluded from its rightful
place. In other words, the law of goodness or of moral rectitude is
so closely interwoven with the nature and truth of things, that the
human mind will not set up its rest with any workmanship in Art where
that law is either set at nought or discrowned. Its natural and just
prerogatives will assert themselves in spite of us; and their triumph
is assured the moment we go to resisting them. That which appeals
merely to our sense of the Beautiful, and which has nothing to
recommend it but as it touches that sense, must first of all have the
moral element of beauty, and this too in the foremost place, else it
stands no chance of a permanent hold upon us.

It is indeed true that works of art, or things claiming to be such, in
which this law of natural proportion is not respected or not observed,
may have a transient popularity and success: nay, their success may be
the greater, or at least the louder and more emphatic, for that very
disproportion: the multitude may, and in fact generally do, go after
such in preference to that which is better. And even men not exactly
of the multitude, but still without the preparation either of a
natural or a truly educated taste,--men in whom the sense of beauty is
outvoiced by cravings for what is sensational, and who are ever
mistaking the gratification of their lower passions for the
satisfaction of their aesthetic conscience;--such men may be and often
are won to a passing admiration of works in which the moral law of Art
is plainly disregarded: but they seldom tie up with them; indeed their
judgment never stays long enough in one place to acquire any weight;
and no man of true judgment in such things ever thinks of referring to
their preference but as a thing to be avoided. With this spirit of
ignorant or lawless admiration the novelty of yesterday is eclipsed by
the novelty of to-day; other things being equal, the later instance of
disproportion always outbids the earlier. For so this spirit is ever
taking to things which are impotent to reward the attention they
catch. And thus men of such taste, or rather such want of taste,
naturally fall in with the genius of sensationalism; which, whatever
form it takes on, soon wears that form out, and has no way to sustain
itself in life but by continual transmigration. Wherever it fixes, it
has to keep straining higher and higher: under its rule, what was
exciting yesterday is dull and insipid to-day; while the excess of
to-day necessitates a further excess to-morrow; and the inordinate
craving which it fosters must still be met with stronger and stronger
emphasis, till at last exhaustion brings on disgust, or the poor thing
dies from blowing so hard as to split its cheeks.

It is for these reasons, no doubt, that no artist or poet who aims at
present popularity, or whose mind is possessed with the spirit of such
popularity, ever achieves lasting success. For the great majority of
men at any one time have always preferred, and probably always will
prefer, that which is disproportioned, and especially that which
violates the law of moral proportion. This, however, is not because
the multitude have no true sense of the Beautiful, but because that
sense is too slow in their minds to prevent their being caught and
carried away by that which touches them at lower points. Yet that
sense is generally strong enough to keep them from standing to the
objects of their present election; so that it is ever drawing them
back one by one to the old truth from which the new falsehood withdrew
them. Thus, however the popular current of the day may set, the
judgment of the wise and good will ultimately give the law in this
matter; and in that judgment the aesthetic and the moral conscience
will ever be found to coincide. So that he who truly works upon the
principle, "Fit audience let me find, though few," will in the long
run have the multitude too: he will not indeed be their first choice,
but he will be their last: their first will be ever shifting its
objects, but their last will stand firm. For here we may justly apply
the aphoristic saying of Burke: "Man is a most unwise and most wise
being: the individual is foolish; the multitude is foolish for the
moment, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise."

I have said that in the legislation of Art the moral sense and reason
must not only have a voice, but a prerogative voice: I have also said
that a poet must not be required to teach better morals than those of
Nature and Providence. Now the law of moral proportion in Art may be
defeated as well by overworking the moral element as by leaving it out
or by making too little of it. In other words, redundancy of
conscience is quite as bad here as deficiency; in some respects it is
even worse, because its natural effect is to set us on our guard
against the subtle invasions of pious fraud: besides, the deficiency
we can make up for ourselves, but the evil of such suspicions is not
so easily cured. For of all the things that enter into human thought,
I suppose morality is the one wherein we are naturally least tolerant
of special-pleading; and any thing savouring of this is apt to awaken
our jealousy at once; probably from a sort of instinct, that, the
better the cause, the less need there is, and the more danger there is
too, of acting as its attorney or advocate. And the temptation to "lie
for God" is one to which professed moral teachers are so exposed, that
their lessons seldom have much effect: I even suspect that, in many
cases, if not in most, their moralizing is of so obtrusive a kind,
that it rather repels than wins the confidence of the pupils.

Then too moral demonstrativeness is never the habit either of the best
poets or of the best men. True virtue indeed is a very modest and
retiring quality; and we naturally feel that they who have most of it
have "none to speak of." Or, to take the same thing on another side,
virtue is a law of action, and not a distinct object of pursuit: those
about us may know what object we are pursuing, but the mind with which
we pursue it is a secret to them; they are not obliged to know it; and
when we undertake to force that knowledge upon them, then it is that
they just will not receive it. They will sometimes learn it from our
life, never from our lips. Thus a man's moral rectitude has its proper
seat inside of him, and is then most conspicuous when it stays out of
sight, and when, whatever he does and wherever he goes, he carries it
with him as a thing of course, and without saying or even thinking any
thing about it. It may be that our moral instincts are made to work in
this way, because any ambition of conscience, any pride or ostentation
of virtue, any air of moral vanity or conceit, any wearing of
rectitude on the outside, as if put on for effect, or "to be seen of
men," if it be not essentially fictitious and false, is certainly in
the most direct course of becoming so. And how much need there still
is of those eloquently silent lessons in virtue which are fitted to
inspire the thing without any boasting of the name,--all this may well
be judged when we consider how apt men are to build their hopes on
that which, as Burke says, "takes the man from his house, and sets him
on a stage,--which makes him up an artificial creature, with painted,
theatric sentiments, fit to be seen by the glare of candlelight."

These positions indicate, I believe, pretty clearly the right course
for poetry to pursue in order to keep the just law of moral proportion
in Art. Ethical didacticism is quite out of place in workmanship of
this kind. To go about moralizing as of set purpose, or to be
specially dealing in formal precepts of duty, is not the poet's
business. I repeat, that moral demonstrativeness and poetry do not go
well together. A poet's conscience of virtue is better kept to
himself, save as the sense and spirit thereof silently insinuate
themselves into the shapings of his hand, and so live as an
undercurrent in the natural course of truth and beauty. If he has the
genius and the heart to see and to represent things just as they
really are, his moral teaching cannot but be good; and the less it
stands out as a special aim, the more effective it will be: but if,
for any purpose, however moral, he goes to representing things
otherwise than as they are, then just so far his moral teaching will
miss its mark: and if he takes, as divers well-meaning persons have
done, to flourishing his ethical robes in our faces, then he must be
content to pass with us for something less or something more than a
poet: we may still read him indeed from a mistaken sense of duty; but
we shall never be drawn to him by an unsophisticated love of the
Beautiful and the True.

* * * * *

So much for what I hold to be the natural relation of Morality to Art.
And I have put the matter thus, on the well-known principle, that the
moral sensibilities are the most delicate part of our constitution;
that as such they require to be touched with the utmost care, or
rather not to be touched directly at all; and that the thrusting of
instruction upon them tends to dull and deaden, not to quicken and
strengthen them. For the true virtue-making power is an inspiration,
not a catechism; and the truly cunning moral teacher is he who, in the
honest and free enthusiasm of moral beauty, steals that inspiration
into us without our knowing it, or before we know it. The author of
_Ecce Homo_ tells us, and truly too, that "no heart is pure that is
not passionate; no virtue is safe that is not enthusiastic." And there
is probably no vainer labour than the going about to make men good by
dint of moral arguments and reasoned convictions of the understanding.
One noble impulse will do more towards ennobling men than a volume of
ethical precepts; and there is no sure way to put down a bad passion
but by planting a good one. Set the soul on fire with moral beauty,
that's the way to burn the devils out of it. So that, for making men
virtuous, there is, as Gervinus says, "no more fruitless branch of
literature than ethical science; except, perhaps, those dramatic
moralities into whose frigid impotence poetry will always sink when it
aims at direct moral teaching."

Now, I do not at all scruple to affirm that Shakespeare's poetry will
stand the test of these principles better than any other writing we
have outside the Bible, His rank in the School of Morals is indeed no
less high than in the School of Art. He is every way as worthy to be
our teacher and guide in what is morally just and noble and right as
in what is artistically beautiful and true. In his workmanship the law
of moral proportion is observed with a fidelity that can never be too
much admired; in other words, the moral element of the beautiful not
only has a place, but is in the right place,--the right place, I mean,
to act the most surely and the most effectively on the springs of
life, or as an inspiration of good thoughts and desires. And in the
further explication or amplification of the matter I shall take for
granted that the old sophism of holding Shakespeare responsible for
all that is said and done by his characters is thoroughly exploded;
though it is not many years since a grave writer set him down as a
denier of immortality; because, forsooth, in _The Winter's Tale_ he
makes the rogue Autolycus say, "For the life to come, I sleep out the
thought of it." This mode of judging is indeed so perverse or so
ignorant, that to spend any words in refuting or reproving it would be
a mere waste of breath; or, if there be any so innocent as to need
help on that point, it is not to them that I write.

As to the exact features of Shakespeare's own moral character as a
man; whether or how far he was himself a model of virtuous living; in
what measure the moral beauty of his poetical conceptions lived in the
substance of his practical conversations; the little that is known
touching the facts of his life does not enable us to judge. The most
we can say on this score is, that we have a few authentic notes of
strong commendation, and nothing authentic whatever to set against
them. Thus Chettle, in his apology, tells us that "divers of worship
have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty";
and his editors, Heminge and Condell, in their dedication claim to
have no other purpose than "to keep the memory of so worthy a friend
and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare." Ben Jonson, too, a pure and
estimable man, who knew him well, and who was not apt to be
over-indulgent in his judgments of men, speaks of him as "my beloved
Shakespeare" and "my gentle Shakespeare"; and describes him as

"Look, how the father's face
Lives in his issue, even so the race
Of Shakespeare's mind _and manners_ brightly shines
In his well-turned and true-filed lines."

These things were said some seven years after the Poet's death; and
many years later the same stanch and truthful man speaks of him as
"being indeed honest, and of an open and free nature." I do not now
recall any other authentic testimonials to his moral character; and,
considering how little is known of his life, it is rather surprising
that we should have so much in evidence of his virtues as a man. But
it is with what he taught; not what he practised, that we are here
mainly concerned: with the latter indeed we have properly nothing to
do, save as it may have influenced the former: it is enough for our
purpose that he saw and spoke the right, whether he acted it or not.
For, whatever his faults and infirmities and shortcomings as a man, it
is certain that they did not infect his genius or taint his mind, so
as to work it into any deflection from the straight and high path of
moral and intellectual righteousness.

I have said that Shakespeare does not put his personal views,
sentiments, and preferences, in a word, his individuality, into his
characters. These stand, morally, on their own bottom; he is but the
describer of them, and so is not answerable for what they do: he holds
the mirror up to them, or rather to nature in them; they do not hold
it up to him: we see them in what he says, but not him in what they
say. And, of course, as we may not impute to him, morally, their
vices, so neither have we any right to credit him, morally, with their
virtues. All this, speaking generally, is true; and it implies just
the highest praise that can possibly be accorded to any man as a
dramatic poet. But, true as it is generally, there is nevertheless
enough of exception to build a strong argument upon as to his moral
principles, or as to his theory of what is morally good and noble in
human character.

I have already mentioned Henry the Fifth as the one of his characters
into whom the Poet throws something of his own moral soul. He delivers
him both as Prince Hal and as King in such a way, that we cannot but
feel he has a most warm and hearty personal admiration of the man;
nay, he even discovers an intense moral enthusiasm about him: in the
Choruses, where he ungirds his individual loves from the strict law of
dramatic self-aloofness, and lets in a stream from his own full heart,
he calls him "the mirror of all Christian kings," and ascribes to him
such qualities, and in such a way, as show unequivocally his own
cherished ideal of manhood, and in what course the current of his
personal approval ran. Here, then, we have a trustworthy exhibit of
the Poet's moral principles; here we are left in no doubt as to what
moral traits of character he in heart approved, whether his own moral
character exemplified them or not. What sort of a man he represents
this his favorite hero to be; how modest in his greatness, how great
in his modesty; how dutiful and how devout; how brave, how gentle, how
generous, how affable, how humane; how full of religious fervor, yet
how bland and liberal in his piety; with "a tear for pity, and a hand
open as day for melting charity"; how genuine and unaffected withal
these virtues grow in him; in short, how all alive he is with the
highest and purest Christian _ethos_ which the old "ages of faith"
could breathe into a man;--all this must stand over till I come to the
plays wherein he is delineated.

Something further to the same point may be gathered, not so much from
the Poet's treatment of particular good characters, as from the
general style of character which he evidently prefers to draw in that
class, and from the peculiar complexion and grain of goodness which he
ascribes to them. Antonio the Merchant, Orlando, the Sebastian of
_Twelfth Night_, Horatio, Kent, Edgar, Ferdinand, Florizel,
Posthumus, Pisanio, are instances of what I mean. All these indeed
differ very widely from each other as individuals; but they all have
this in common, that their virtues sit easy and natural upon them, as
native outgrowths, not as things put on: there is no ambition, no
pretension, nothing at all boastful or fictitious or pharisaical or
squeamish or _egoish_ in their virtues; we never see the men hanging
over them, or nursing and cosseting them, as if they were specially
thoughtful and tender of them, and fearful lest they might catch cold.
Then too, with all these men, the good they do, in doing it, pays
itself: if they do you a kindness, they are not at all solicitous to
have you know and remember it: if sufferings and hardships overtake
them, if wounds and bruises be their portion, they never grumble or
repine at it, as feeling that Providence has a grudge against them, or
that the world is slighting them: whether they live or die, the mere
conscience of rectitude suffices them, without further recompense. So
that the simple happiness they find in doing what is right is to us a
sufficient pledge of their perseverance in so doing. Now all this is,
in its degree, just the ideal of virtue which Christian morality
teaches and exemplifies. For so the right way of Christian virtue is
when a man's good deeds are so much a matter of course with him, that
he thinks not of himself for having done them. As bees when they have
made their honey; as birds when they have carolled their hymn; as the
vine when it has produced its clusters; so it is with the truly good
man when he has done a good act: it suffices him that he has borne his
proper fruit; and, instead of calling on others or even himself to
note what he has done, he goes right on and does other good acts, just
as if nothing had happened.

But if all this be true of the Poet's men, it is true in a still
higher degree of his women. Here it is that the moral element of the
Beautiful has its fullest and fairest expression. And I am bold to say
that, next to the Christian religion, humanity has no other so
precious inheritance as Shakespeare's divine gallery of Womanhood.
Helena, Portia of Belmont, Rosalind, Viola, Portia of Rome, Isabella,
Ophelia, Cordelia, Miranda, Hermione, Perdita, Desdemona, Imogen,
Catharine of Arragon,--what a wealth and assemblage of moral beauty
have we here! All the other poetry and art of the world put together
cannot show such a varied and surpassing treasure of womanly
excellence. And how perfectly free their goodness is from any thing
like stress! How true it is in respect of their virtues, that "love is
an unerring light, and joy its own security!" They are wise, witty,
playful, humorous, grave, earnest, impassioned, practical,
imaginative; the most profound and beautiful thoughts drop from them
as things too common and familiar to be spoken with the least
emphasis: they are strong, tender, and sweet, yet never without a
sufficient infusion of brisk natural acid and piquancy to keep their
sweetness from palling on the taste: they are full of fresh, healthy
sentiment, but never at all touched with sentimentality: the soul of
romance works mightily within them, yet never betrays them into any
lapses from good sense, or any substitutions of feeling for duty.

Then too how nobly and serenely indifferent the glorious creatures are
to the fashions and opinions and criticisms of the world! How
composedly some of them walk amidst the sharpest perils and
adversities, as "having the spirit to do any thing that is not foul in
the truth of their spirit." Full of bitterness their cup sometimes is
indeed; yet they do not mind it,--not they!--save as the welfare and
happiness of others are involved in what pinches them. Several of them
are represented passing through the most ticklish and trying
situations in which it is possible for female modesty to be
placed,--disguised in male attire and sharing as men in the
conversations of men; yet so unassailable is their modesty, that they
give themselves, apparently, no trouble about it. And, framed as they
are, all this may well be so: for indeed such is their fear of God,
or, which comes to the same thing, their fear of doing wrong, that it
casts out all other fears; and so their "virtue gives herself light
through darkness for to wade." Nor do we wonder that, timid maidens as
they are, they should "put such boldness on"; for we see that with

"Mighty are the soul's commandments
To support, restrain, or raise:
Foes may hang upon their path, snakes rustle near,
But nothing from their inward selves have they to fear."

It is very noteworthy, withal, how some of them are so secure in the
spirit and substance of the moral law, that they do not scruple, in
certain circumstances, to overrule its letter and form. Thus Isabella
feigns to practise sin; and she does so as a simple act of
self-sacrifice, and because she sees that in this way a good and pious
deed may be done in aid of others: she shrinks not from the social
imputation of wrong in that case, so her conscience be clear; and she
can better brave the external finger of shame than the inward sense of
leaving a substantial good undone. Helena, also, puts herself through
a course of literal dishonours, and this too, with a perfect
understanding of what she is about; yet she yields to no misgivings;
not indeed on the ground that the end justifies the means, but because
she knows that the soul of a just and honorable purpose, such as hers,
will have power to redeem and even to sanctify the formal dishonours
of its body. Much the same principle holds, again, in the case of
Desdemona's falsehood, when, Emilia rushing into the room, and finding
her dying, and asking, "Who has done this?" she sighs out, "Nobody--I
myself: commend me to my kind lord." I believe no natural heart can
help thinking the better of Desdemona for this brave and tender
untruth, for it is plainly the unaffected utterance of a deeper truth;
and one must be blind indeed not to see that the dying woman's purpose
is to shield her husband, so far as she can, from the retribution
which she apprehends will befall him, and the thought of which wrings
her pure breast more sharply than the pangs of death.

These are plain cases of virtue tried and purified in the straits of
self-humiliation, virtue strained, as it were, through a close-knit
fabric of difficulties and hardships, and triumphing over the wrongs
that threaten its total defacement, and even turning its obstructions
into a substance glorious as its own; that is, they are exceptional
instances of a conscious departure from the letter and form of moral
beauty for the fuller and clearer manifestation of its spirit and

Nor are the virtues of Shakespeare's men and women the mere result of
a certain felicity and harmony of nature, or the spontaneous movements
of a happy instinct so strong in them that they do what is right
without knowing or meaning it. No; his Henry the Fifth, and Horatio,
and Kent, and Edgar, and Posthumus, his Helena, and Isabella, and
Cordelia, and Hermione, and Imogen, and Catharine, are most truly
"beings breathing thoughtful breath." Virtue is with them a discipline
as well as a joy; a strong upright will is the backbone of it, and a
healthy conscience is its keeper. They all have conscious reasons for
what they do, and can state them with piercing eloquence, if occasion
bids. For so the Poet, much as he delights in that fineness of nature
or that innate grace which goes right of its own accord, evidently
prefers, even in women, the goodness that has passed through struggles
and temptations, and has its chief seat, not in impulse, but in
principle, a virtue tested, and not merely instinctive: rather say, he
delights most in the virtue that proceeds by a happy consent and
marriage of the two. He therefore does not place his highest
characters, whether men or women, in an atmosphere so pure that
average mortals cannot breathe in it: he depicts their moral nature in
conflict, with the powers of good and evil striving in them for the
mastery; and when the former prevail, it is because they have "a
strong siding champion, Conscience," to support them. Thus through
their weakness they come near enough to get hold of us, while at the
same time in their strength they are enough higher than we to lift us

But Shakespeare's main peculiarity as a teacher of goodness lies in
this, that he keeps our moral sympathies in the right place without
discovering his own. With the one exception of Henry the Fifth, we
cannot perceive, from the delineation itself, whether he takes part
with the good character or the bad; nevertheless he somehow so puts
the matter that we cannot help taking part with the good. For I run no
risk in saying there is not a single instance in his plays where the
feelings of any natural-hearted reader fail to go along with those who
are, at least relatively, the best. And as he does not make nor even
let us see which side he is on, so of course we are led to take the
right side, not because he does, but simply because it is the right
side. Thus his moral lessons and inspirations affect us as coming, not
from him, but from Nature herself; and so the authority they carry is
not his, good as that may be, but hers, which is infinitely better.
Thus he is ever appealing directly to the tribunal of our own inward
moral forces, and at the same time speaking health and light into that
tribunal. There need be, there can be, no higher proof of the perfect
moral sanity of his genius than this. And for right moral effect it is
just the best thing we can have, and is worth a thousand times more
than all the ethical arguing and voting in the world. If it be a
marvel how the Poet can keep his own hand so utterly unmoved by the
passion he is representing, it is surely not less admirable that he
should thus, without showing any compassion himself, move our
compassion in just the degree, and draw it to just the place, which
the laws of moral beauty and proportion require.

Herein even Milton, great and good as he unquestionably is, falls far
below Shakespeare as a moral poet. Take the delineation of Satan in
_Paradise Lost_. Now Milton does not leave us at all in doubt as to
where his own moral sympathies go in that delineation: they are
altogether on the side of God and the good Angels. And he tells us
again and again, or as good as tells us, that ours ought to be there;
so that there is no possibility of mistake in the matter.
Notwithstanding I suspect he does not quite succeed in keeping the
reader's moral sympathies there. He does indeed with me: my own
feelings have somehow been so steeped in the foolish old doctrine or
faith which holds obedience to be a cardinal virtue, that they have
never sided with Satan in that controversy. But I believe a majority
of readers do find their moral feelings rather drawing to the rebel
side; this too, notwithstanding their moral judgment may speak the
other way: and when the feelings and the judgment are thus put at
odds, the former are pretty sure, in effect, to carry the day.

Now Milton's Satan, I think, may be not unfitly described as a highly
magnified realistic freethinker. Iago and Edmund are also realistic
freethinkers, the former slightly magnified, the latter unmagnified,
though both may be somewhat idealized. And both of them speak and act
strictly in that character. Accordingly all religion is in their
account mere superstition; and they take pride in never acknowledging
their Maker but to brave Him. Both exult above all things in their
intellectuality; and what they have the intellect to do, that is with
them the only limit to intellectual action; that is, their own will is
to them the highest law: hence to ruin another by outwitting and
circumventing him is their characteristic pastime; and if they can do
this through his virtues, all the better. Iago's moral creed may be
summed up in two of his aphoristic sayings,--"Virtue! a fig! 'tis in
ourselves that we are thus or thus"; and, "Put money in thy purse";
while Edmund wants no other reason for his exploiting than that his
brother is one

"Whose nature is so far from doing harms,
That he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty
My practices ride easy."

The characters of the two freethinking heroes are delineated
consistently throughout, in keeping with these ideas, no one can say,
no one has ever said, that the Poet discovers any the least prejudice
against them, or any leanings of moral or personal sympathy towards
their victims. Nothing comes from him that can be fairly construed as
a hint to us against warming up to them. Nor has any one a right to
say that he overdoes or overstresses their wickedness a jot: he merely
shows it, or rather lets them show it, just as it is. He lends them
the whole benefit of his genius for the best possible airing of their
intellectual gifts and graces; all this too without swerving a hair
from the line of cold, calm, even-handed justice: yet how do our
feelings, how do our moral sympathies, run in these cases? I need not
say they run wholly and unreservedly with the chivalrous but infirm
Cassio, the honest and honour-loving Othello, the innocent though not
faultless Desdemona; with the pious and unsuspecting Edgar, the erring
indeed but still upright and sound-hearted Gloster. Nay, more; we
would rather be in the place of the victims than of the victors:
virtue wronged, betrayed, crushed, seems to us a more eligible lot
than crime triumphant, prosperous, happy.--Such is the moral spirit of
these great delineations.

I could easily go through all the Poet's instances of virtue and
innocence in conflict or in contrast with villainy and guilt, and show
that he never fails thus to keep our moral sympathies in the right
place without discovering his own; that he is just as far from
overdoing or overstressing the villainy of the bad as the virtue of
the good; both of which fall alike under the censure of moral
demonstrativeness, while, as in the two cases specified, his moral
teachings, even because they thus come from Nature, not from him,
therefore bring in their right hand sanctions which we cannot appeal
from if we would, and would not if we could.

There is one more point on which it may be needful to say a few
words.--Johnson and others have complained that Shakespeare seems to
write without any moral purpose; and that he does not make a just
distribution of good and evil. Both charges are strictly true; at
least, so I hope, and so I believe. As regards his seeming to write
without any moral purpose, on the same principle he seems to write
without any art. But who does not know that the very triumph of art
lies in concealing art; that is, in seeming to write without it? And
so, if the Poet writes without discovering any moral purpose, that
very fact is just the highest triumph of art in the moral direction.
For no one has alleged that he seems to write with an immoral purpose.
Here, then, I have but to say that, with so consummate an artist as
Shakespeare, if the charge is not true, it ought to be. Redundancy of
conscience is indeed fatal to art; but then it is also, if not fatal,
at least highly damaging to morality; "for goodness, growing to a
plurisy, dies in its own too much." Verily, a moral teacher's first
business is to clear his mind of cant. And so much the wise and good
Dr. Johnson himself will tell us.

If, again, Shakespeare fails to make a just distribution of good and
evil, so also does Providence. If, in his representations, virtue is
not always crowned with visible success, nor crime with apparent
defeat; if the good are often cast down, the evil often lifted up, and
sometimes both cast down together; the workings of Providence in the
actual treatment of men are equally at fault in that matter. Or if he
makes the sun of his genius to rise on the evil and on the good, and
sends the rain of his genius on the just and on the unjust, why should
this be thought wrong in him, when Providence manifestly does the

For, explain the fact as we may, it is certain that the consummations
of justice are not always experienced here. The world is full of
beginnings that are to be finished elsewhere, if finished at all.
Virtue often meets with very rough usage in the present order of
things: poverty and want, hardship, suffering, and reproach, are often
the lot of the good; while men of the opposite character have their
portion carved to them out of the best that the world has to bestow.
Nay, it sometimes happens that the truest, the kindest, and most
upright souls are the most exposed to injuries and wrongs; their
virtues being to them a kind of "sanctified and holy traitors," and
the heaven within them serving to disable them from winning the prizes
of earth: whereas the very unscrupulousness of the bad, their hardness
of heart and unbashfulness of front build or open for them the palaces
of wealth and splendour and greatness; their want of principle seems
to strengthen their hands; they rise the higher, that they care not
whose ruins they rise upon, and command the larger success for being
reckless how they succeed.

And is a poet, who professedly aims at nothing better than a just
reflection of human life and character as he finds them, is he to be
blamed for faithfully holding the mirror up to facts as they are in
this respect? That our Shakespeare, the mighty and the lovely,
sometimes permits the good to suffer while their wrongers prosper, I
thence infer, not indeed that he regarded them indifferently, but that
he had a right Christian faith in a further stage of being where the
present disorder of things in this point is to be rectified, and the
moral discriminations of Providence consummated. His judgment clearly
was, that suffering and death are not the worst things that can happen
to a man here. He reverences virtue, he does not patronize it. And the
virtue he has in reverence is not a hanger-on at the counters of
worldly thrift. He knew right well that "the fineness of such metal is
not found in Fortune's love," but rather "in the wind and tempest of
her frown"; and so he paints it as a thing "that Fortune's buffets and
rewards doth take with equal thanks." And, surely, what we need here
is a deeper faith, a firmer trust in the government of a Being "in
whose pure sight all virtue doth succeed"; yea, and perhaps succeeds
most highly in those very cases where the course of things in this
world fails to recognize its claims.

For so in fact it seems pretty clear that the forces of Nature have
little sense or discernment of right and wrong: the sunshine and the
rain are rather blindly given to favouring the good and the evil
indiscriminately; the plague and the thunderbolt are strangely
indifferent to moral distinctions where they strike. What of that?
these things are but the under-agents of Providence in the government
of the world: whereas the inward conscience of truth and right is the
immediate smile of God himself; and that is the Paradise of the truly
good man's soul, the very life of his life; he can live without
happiness, but he cannot live without that. Shakespeare's delineations
reflect, none so well, none so well as his, this great, this most
refreshing article of truth; and I heartily thank him for it; yes,

So then, what though the divine Cordelia and the noble Kent die, and
this too in the very sweetness and fragrance of their beauty? Is it
not, do we not feel that it is, better to die with them than to live
with those who have caused their death? Their goodness was not acted
for the sake of life, but purely for its own sake: virtue such as
theirs does not make suit to Fortune's favours, nor build her trust in
them; pays not her vows to time, nor is time's thrall; no! her
thoughts are higher-reared; she were not herself, could she not "look
on tempests, and be never shaken." And such characters as these,
befall them what may, have their "exceeding great reward" in the very
virtue that draws suffering and death upon them: they need nothing
more, and it is their glory and immortality not to ask any thing more.
And shall we pity them, or shall we blame the Poet, that their virtue
is not crowned with Fortune's smiles? Nay, rather let us both pity and
blame ourselves for being of so mean and miserable a spirit.

As for those poets, and those critics of poetry, who insist that in
the Drama, which ought to be a just image of life as it is, there
shall always be an exact fitting of rewards and punishments to moral
desert; or that the innocent and the guilty, the just and the unjust,
shall be perfectly discriminated in what befalls them; as for such
poets and critics, I simply do not believe in them at all: their
workmanship is radically both unchristian and immoral; and its moral
effect, if it have any, can hardly be other than to "pamper the coward
heart with feelings all too delicate for use."

Wherefore, if any students of Shakespeare are still troubled with such
criticisms as the one in question, I recommend them to make a thorough
study of the _Book of Job_, and not to leave it till they shall have
mastered the argument of that wonderful and divine poem. They will
there find that, when the good man was prosperous, the Accuser brought
against him the charge, that his serving God so well was from his
being sure of good pay; and that therefore he would presently give
over or slack his service, if the pay should be withheld: they will
also find that, when he was in affliction, his comforters sought to
comfort him with the cruel reproach of having been all the while
secretly a bad man, and with arguments no less cruel, that his
afflictions were sent upon him as a judgment for his secret sins: and,
further, they will find that, when his wife urged him to "curse God
and die," her counsel proceeded upon the principle, that the evils
which fall upon the upright prove the government of the world to be in
the hands of a being who has no respect for the moral character of his
subjects; or, in other words, the sufferings of good men are taken by
her as evidence that goodness is not the law of the Divine

Now, it was from such teachers as Nature and Job, and not from such as
Job's Accuser and comforters and wife, that Shakespeare learnt his


* * * * *


A Midsummer-Night's Dream was registered at the Stationers' October 8,
1600, and two quarto editions of it were published in the course of
that year. The play is not known to have been printed again till it
reappeared in the folio of 1623, where the repetition of certain
misprints shows it to have been printed from one of the quarto copies.
In all three of these copies, however, the printing is remarkably
clear and correct for the time, insomuch that modern editors have
little difficulty about the text. Probably none of the Poet's dramas
has reached us in a more satisfactory state.

The play is first heard of in the list given by Francis Meres in his
_Palladis Tamia_, 1598. But it was undoubtedly written several years
before that time; and I am not aware that any editor places the
writing at a later date than 1594. This brings it into the same period
with _King John, King Richard the Second_, and the finished _Romeo and
Juliet_; and the internal marks of style naturally sort it into that
company. Our Mr. Verplanck, however, thinks there are some passages
which relish strongly of an earlier time; while again there are others
that with the prevailing sweetness of the whole have such an
intertwisting of nerve and vigour, and such an energetic compactness
of thought and imagery, mingled occasionally with the deeper tonings
of "years that bring the philosophic mind," as to argue that they were
wrought into the structure of the play not long before it came from
the press. The part of the Athenian lovers certainly has a good deal
that, viewed by itself, would scarce do credit even to such a boyhood
as Shakespeare's must have been. On the other hand, there is a large
philosophy in Theseus' discourse of "the lunatic, the lover, and the
poet," a manly judgment in his reasons for preferring the "tedious
brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisbe," and a bracing
freshness in the short dialogue of the chase, all in the best style of
the author's second period. Perhaps, however, what seem the defects of
the former, the fanciful quirks and far-fetched conceits, were wisely
designed, in order to invest the part with such an air of dreaminess
and unreality as would better sort with the scope and spirit of the
piece, and preclude a disproportionate resentment of some naughty acts
into which those love-bewildered frailties are betrayed.

There is at least a rather curious coincidence, which used to be
regarded as proving that the play was not written till after the
Summer of 1594. I refer to Titania's superb description, in ii. 1, of
the strange misbehaviour of the weather, which she ascribes to the
fairy bickerings. I can quote but a part of it:

"The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose;
And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the Spring, the Summer,
The childing Autumn, angry Winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension."

For the other part of the coincidence, Strype in his _Annals_ gives
the following passage from a discourse by the Rev. Dr. King: "And see
whether the Lord doth not threaten us much more, by sending such
unseasonable weather and storms of rain among us; which if we will
observe, and compare it with what is past, we may say that the course
of nature is very much inverted. Our years are turned upside down: our
Summers are no Summers; our harvests are no harvests; our seed-times
are no seed-times. For a great space of time scant any day hath been
seen that it hath not rained." Dyce indeed scouts the supposal that
Shakespeare had any allusion to this eccentric conduct of the elements
in the Summer of 1594, pronouncing it "ridiculous"; but I do not quite
see it so; albeit I am apt enough to believe that most of the play was
written before that date. And surely, the truth of the allusion being
granted, all must admit that passing events have seldom been turned to
better account in the service of poetry.

* * * * *

I can hardly imagine this play ever to have been very successful on
the stage; and I am sure it could not be made to succeed there now.
Still we are not without contemporary evidence that it had at least a
fair amount of fame. And we have authentic information that it was
performed at the house of Dr. John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln, on
Sunday, the 27th of September, 1631. The actor of Bottom's part was on
that occasion sentenced by a Puritan tribunal to sit twelve hours in
the porter's room of the Bishop's palace, wearing the ass's head. This
Dr. Williams was the very able but far from faultless man who was
treated so harshly by Laud, and gave the King such crooked counsel in
the case of Strafford, and spent his last years in mute sorrow at the
death of his royal master, and had his life written by the wise,
witty, good Bishop Hacket.

* * * * *

Some hints towards the part of Theseus and Hippolyta appear to have
been taken from _The Knight's Tale_ of Chaucer. The same poet's
_Legend of Thisbe of Babylon_, and Golding's translation of the same
story from Ovid, probably furnished the matter of the Interlude. So
much as relates to Bottom and his fellows evidently came fresh from
Nature as she had passed under the Poet's eye. The linking of these
clowns with the ancient tragic tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, so as to
draw the latter within the region of modern farce, is not less
original than droll. How far it may have expressed the Poet's judgment
touching the theatrical doings of the time, were perhaps a question
more curious than profitable. The names of Oberon, Titania, and Robin
Goodfellow were made familiar by the surviving relics of Gothic and
Druidical mythology; as were also many particulars in their habits,
mode of life, and influence in human affairs. Hints and allusions
scattered through many preceding writers might be produced, showing
that the old superstition had been grafted into the body of
Christianity, where it had shaped itself into a regular system, so as
to mingle in the lore of the nursery, and hold an influential place in
the popular belief. Some reports of this ancient Fairydom are choicely
translated into poetry by Chaucer in _The Wife of Bath's Tale_.

But, though Chaucer and others had spoken about the fairy nation, it
was for Shakespeare to let them speak for themselves: until he clothed
their life in apt forms, their thoughts in fitting words, they but
floated unseen and unheard in the mental atmosphere of his fatherland.
So that on this point there need be no scruple about receiving
Hallam's statement of the matter: "_A Midsummer-Night's Dream_ is, I
believe, altogether original in one of the most beautiful conceptions
that ever visited the mind of a poet,--the fairy machinery. A few
before him had dealt in a vulgar and clumsy manner with popular
superstitions; but the sportive, beneficent, invisible population of
the air and earth, long since established in the creed of childhood,
and of those simple as children, had never for a moment been blended
with 'human mortals' among the personages of the drama." How much
Shakespeare did as the friend and saviour of those sweet airy
frolickers of the past from the relentless mowings of Time, has been
charmingly set forth in our day in Hood's _Plea of the Midsummer

What, then, are the leading qualities which the Poet ascribes to
these ideal or fanciful beings? Coleridge says he is "convinced that
Shakespeare availed himself of the title of this play in his own mind,
and worked upon it as a dream throughout." This remark no doubt
rightly hits the true genius of the piece; and on no other ground can
its merits be duly estimated. The whole play is indeed a sort of ideal
dream; and it is from the fairy personages that its character as such
mainly proceeds. All the materials of the piece are ordered and
assimilated to that central and governing idea. This it is that
explains and justifies the distinctive features of the work, such as
the constant preponderance of the lyrical over the dramatic, and the
free playing of the action unchecked by the conditions of outward fact
and reality. Accordingly a sort of lawlessness is, as it ought to be,
the very law of the performance. King Oberon is the sovereign who
presides over the world of dreams; Puck is his prime minister; and all
the other denizens of Fairydom are his subjects and the agents of his
will in this capacity. Titania's nature and functions are precisely
the same which Mercutio assigns to Queen Mab, whom he aptly describes
as having for her office to deliver sleeping men's fancies of their
dreams, those "children of an idle brain." In keeping with this
central dream-idea, the actual order of things everywhere gives place
to the spontaneous issues and capricious turnings of the dreaming
mind; the lofty and the low, the beautiful and the grotesque, the
world of fancy and of fact, all the strange diversities that enter
into "such stuff as dreams are made of," running and frisking
together, and interchanging their functions and properties; so that
the whole seems confused, flitting, shadowy, and indistinct, as fading
away in the remoteness and fascination of moonlight. The very scene is
laid in a veritable dream-land, called Athens indeed, but only because
Athens was the greatest beehive of beautiful visions then known; or
rather it is laid in an ideal forest near an ideal Athens,--a forest
peopled with sportive elves and sprites and fairies feeding on
moonlight and music and fragrance; a place where Nature herself is
preternatural; where everything is idealized, even to the sunbeams and
the soil; where the vegetation proceeds by enchantment, and there is
magic in the germination of the seed and secretion of the sap.

The characteristic attributes of the fairy people are, perhaps, most
availably represented in Puck; who is apt to remind one of Ariel,
though the two have little in common, save that both are
preternatural, and therefore live no longer in the faith of reason.
Puck is no such sweet-mannered, tender-hearted, music-breathing
spirit, as Prospero's delicate prime-minister; there are no such fine
interweavings of a sensitive moral soul in his nature, he has no such
soft touches of compassion and pious awe of goodness, as link the
dainty Ariel in so smoothly with our best sympathies. Though
Goodfellow by name, his powers and aptitudes for mischief are quite
unchecked by any gentle relentings of fellow-feeling: in whatever
distresses he finds or occasions he sees much to laugh at, nothing to
pity: to tease and vex poor human sufferers, and then to think "what
fools these mortals be," is pure fun to him. Yet, notwithstanding his
mad pranks, we cannot choose but love the little sinner, and let our
fancy frolic with him, his sense of the ludicrous is so exquisite, he
is so fond of sport, and so quaint and merry in his mischief; while at
the same time such is the strange web of his nature as to keep him
morally innocent. In all which I think he answers perfectly to the
best idea we can frame of what a little dream-god should be.

In further explication of this peculiar people, it is to be noted that
there is nothing of reflection or conscience or even of a
spiritualized intelligence in their proper life: they have all the
attributes of the merely natural and sensitive soul, but no attributes
of the properly rational and moral soul. They worship the clean, the
neat, the pretty, and the pleasant, whatever goes to make up the idea
of purely sensuous beauty: this is a sort of religion with them;
whatever of conscience they have adheres to this: so that herein they
not unfitly represent the wholesome old notion which places
cleanliness next to godliness. Every thing that is trim, dainty,
elegant, graceful, agreeable, and sweet to the senses, they delight
in: flowers, fragrances, dewdrops, and moonbeams, honey-bees,
butterflies, and nightingales, dancing, play, and song,--these are
their joy; out of these they weave their highest delectation; amid
these they "fleet the time carelessly," without memory or forecast,
and with no thought or aim beyond the passing pleasure of the moment.
On the other hand, they have an instinctive repugnance to whatever is
foul, ugly, sluttish, awkward, ungainly, or misshapen: they wage
unrelenting war against bats, spiders, hedgehogs, spotted snakes,
blindworms, long-legg'd spinners, beetles, and all such disagreeable
creatures: to "kill cankers in the musk-rosebuds," and to "keep back
the clamorous owl," are regular parts of their business. Their intense
dislike of what is ugly and misshapen is the reason why they so much
practise "the legerdemain of changelings," stealing away finished,
handsome babies, and leaving blemished and defective ones in their
stead. For the same cause they love to pester and persecute and play
shrewd tricks upon decrepit old age, wise aunts, and toothless,
chattering gossips, and especially such awkward "hempen home-spuns" as
Bottom and his fellow-actors in the Interlude.

Thus these beings embody the ideal of the mere natural soul, or rather
the purely sensuous fancy which shapes and governs the pleasing or the
vexing delusions of sleep. They lead a merry, luxurious life, given up
entirely to the pleasures of happy sensation,--a happiness that has no
moral element, nothing of reason or conscience in it. They are indeed
a sort of personified dreams; and so the Poet places them in a kindly
or at least harmless relation to mortals as the bringers of dreams.
Their very kingdom is located in the aromatic, flower-scented Indies,
a land where mortals are supposed to live in a half-dreamy state. From
thence they come, "following darkness," just as dreams naturally do;
or, as Oberon words it, "tripping after the night's shade, swifter
than the wandering Moon." It is their nature to shun the daylight,
though they do not fear it, and to prefer the dark, as this is their
appropriate work-time; but most of all they love the dusk and the
twilight, because this is the best dreaming-time, whether the dreamer
be asleep or awake. And all the shifting phantom-jugglery of dreams,
all the sweet soothing witcheries, and all the teasing and tantalizing
imagery of dream-land, rightly belong to their province.

It is a very noteworthy point that all their power or influence over
the hearts and actions of mortals works through the medium of dreams,
or of such fancies as are most allied to dreams. So that their whole
inner character is fashioned in harmony with their external function.
Nor is it without rare felicity that the Poet assigns to them the
dominion over the workings of sensuous and superficial love, this
being but as one of the courts of the dream-land kingdom; a region
ordered, as it were, quite apart from the proper regards of duty and
law, and where the natural soul of man moves free of moral thought and
responsibility. Accordingly we have the King of this Fairydom endowed
with the rights and powers both of the classical god of love and the
classical goddess of chastity. Oberon commands alike the secret
virtues of "Dian's bud" and of "Cupid's flower"; and he seems to use
them both unchecked by any other law than his innate love of what is
handsome and fair, and his native aversion to what is ugly and foul;
that is, he owns no restraint but as he is inwardly held to apply
either or both of them in such a way as to avoid all distortion or
perversion from what is naturally graceful and pleasant. For
everybody, I take it, knows that in the intoxications of a life of
sensuous love reason and conscience have as little force as they have
in a life of dreams. And so the Poet fitly ascribes to Oberon and his
ministers both Cupid's delight in frivolous breaches of faith and
Jove's laughter at lovers' perjuries; and this on the ground,
apparently, that the doings of those in Cupid's power are as harmless
and unaccountable as the freaks of a dream.

In pursuance of this idea he depicts the fairies as beings without any
proper moral sense in what they do, but as having a very keen sense of
what is ludicrous and absurd in the doings of men. They are careless
and unscrupulous in their dealings in this behalf. The wayward follies
and the teasing perplexities of the fancy-smitten persons are pure
sport to them. If by their wanton mistakes they can bewilder and
provoke the lovers into larger outcomes of the laughable, so much the
higher runs their mirth. And as they have no fellow-feeling with the
pains of those who thus feed their love of fun, so the effect of their
roguish tricks makes no impression upon them: they have a feeling of
simple delight and wonder at the harmless frettings and fumings which
their merry mischief has a hand in bringing to pass: but then it is to
be observed also, that they find just as much sport in tricking the
poor lover out of his vexations as in tricking him into them; in fact,
they never rest satisfied with the fun of the former so long as there
is any chance of enjoying that of the latter also.

* * * * *

All readers of Shakespeare are of course familiar with the splendid
passage in ii. 1, where Oberon describes to Puck how, on a certain

"I heard a mermaid, on a dolphin's back,
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song."

And all are no doubt aware that the subsequent lines, referring to "a
fair vestal throned by the west," are commonly understood to have been
meant as a piece of delicate flattery to Queen Elizabeth. Mr. Halpin
has recently given to this famous passage a new interpretation or
application, which is at least curious enough to justify a brief
statement of it. In his view, "Cupid all arm'd" refers to Leicester's
wooing of Elizabeth, and his grand entertainment of her at Kenilworth
in 1575. From authentic descriptions of that entertainment we learn,
that among the spectacles and fireworks witnessed on the occasion was
one of a singing mermaid on a dolphin's back gliding over smooth water
amid shooting stars. The "love-shaft" which was aimed at the "fair
vestal," that is, the Priestess of Diana, whose bud has such
prevailing might over "Cupid's flower," glanced off; so that "the
imperial votaress passed on, in maiden meditation, fancy-free."

Thus far, all is clear enough. But Halpin further interprets that the
"little western flower" upon whom "the bolt of Cupid fell" refers to
Lettice Countess of Essex, with whom Leicester carried on a secret
intrigue while her husband was absent in Ireland. The Earl of Essex,
on being apprised of the intrigue, set out to return the next year,
but died of poison, as was thought, before he reached home. So Halpin
understands the "western flower, before milk-white," that is,
innocent, but "now purple with love's wound," as referring to the
lady's fall, or to the deeper blush of her husband's murder. And the
flower is called "love-in-idleness," to signify her listlessness of
heart during the Earl's absence; as the Poet elsewhere uses similar
terms of the pansy, as denoting the love that renders men pensive,
dreamy, indolent, instead of toning up the soul with healthy and noble
aspirations. The words of Oberon to Puck, "that very time I saw--but
thou could'st not," are construed as referring to the strict mystery
in which the affair was wrapped, and to the Poet's own knowledge of
it, because a few years later the execution of Edward Arden, his
maternal relative, was closely connected with it, and because the
unfortunate Earl of Essex, so well known as for some time the Queen's
favourite, and then the victim of her resentment, was the son of that
Lettice, and was also the Poet's early friend and patron.

Such is, in substance, Halpin's view of the matter; which I give for
what it may be worth; and freely acknowledge it to be ingenious and
plausible enough. Gervinus regards it as "an interpretation full of
spirit," and as "giving the most definite relation to the innermost
sense of the whole piece." And I am very willing to believe that
Shakespeare often took hints, perhaps something more than hints, for
his poetry from the facts and doings of the time: nevertheless I
rather fail to see how any real good is to be gained towards
understanding the Poet from such interpretations of his scenes, or
from tracing out such "definite relations" between his workmanship and
the persons and particulars that may have come to his knowledge. For
my own part, I doubt whether "the innermost sense" of the play is any
the clearer to me for this ingenious piece of explanation.

Besides, I have yet to learn what proofs there are that the ill-fated
Essex was an early patron and friend of Shakespeare. That great honour
belongs to the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke. It was Lord Bacon,
not Shakespeare, who enjoyed so richly the friendship and patronage of
the generous Essex; and how he requited the same is known much too
well for his credit. I am not unmindful that this may yield some
comfort to those who would persuade us that Shakespeare's plays were
written by Lord Bacon. Upon this point I have just four things to say:
First, Bacon's requital of the Earl's bounty was such a piece of
ingratitude as I can hardly conceive the author of _King Lear_ to have
been guilty of: Second, the author of Shakespeare's plays, whoever he
may have been, certainly was not a scholar; he had indeed something
vastly better than learning, but he had not that: Third, Shakespeare
never philosophizes, Bacon never does anything else: Fourth, Bacon's
mind, great as it was, might have been cut out of Shakespeare's
without being missed.

* * * * *

Any very firm or strong delineation of character, any deep passion,
earnest purpose, or working of powerful motives, would clearly go at
odds with the spirit of such a performance as I have described this
play to be. It has room but for love and beauty and delight, for
whatever is most poetical in nature and fancy, and for such tranquil
stirrings of thought and feeling as may flow out in musical
expression. Any such tuggings of mind or heart as would ruffle and
discompose the smoothness of lyrical division would be quite out of
keeping in a course of dream-life. The characters here, accordingly,
are drawn with light, delicate, vanishing touches; some of them being
dreamy and sentimental, some gay and frolicsome, and others replete
with amusing absurdities, while all are alike dipped in fancy or
sprinkled with humour. And for the same reason the tender distresses
of unrequited or forsaken love here touch not our moral sense at all,
but only at the most our human sympathies; love itself being
represented as but the effect of some visual enchantment, which the
King of Fairydom can inspire, suspend, or reverse at pleasure. Even
the heroic personages are fitly shown in an unheroic aspect: we see
them but in their unbendings, when they have daffed their martial
robes aside, to lead the train of day-dreamers, and have a nuptial
jubilee. In their case, great care and art were required, to make the
play what it has been blamed for being; that is, to keep the dramatic
sufficiently under, and lest the law of a part should override the law
of the whole.

So, likewise, in the transformation of Bottom and the dotage of
Titania, all the resources of fancy were needed, to prevent the
unpoetical from getting the upper hand, and thus swamping the genius
of the piece. As it is, what words can fitly express the effect with
which the extremes of the grotesque and the beautiful are here brought
together? What an inward quiet laughter springs up and lubricates the
fancy at Bottom's droll confusion of his two natures, when he talks,
now as an ass, now as a man, and anon as a mixture of both; his
thoughts running at the same time on honey-bags and thistles, the
charms of music and of good dry oats! Who but Shakespeare or Nature
could have so interfused the lyrical spirit, not only with, but into
and through a series or cluster of the most irregular and fantastic
drolleries? But indeed this embracing and kissing of the most
ludicrous and the most poetical, the enchantment under which they
meet, and the airy, dream-like grace that hovers over their union, are
altogether inimitable and indescribable. In this singular wedlock, the
very diversity of the elements seems to link them the closer, while
this linking in turn heightens that diversity; Titania being thereby
drawn on to finer issues of soul, and Bottom to larger expressions of
stomach. The union is so very improbable as to seem quite natural: we
cannot conceive how any thing but a dream could possibly have married
things so contrary; and that they could not have come together save in
a dream, is a sort of proof that they _were_ dreamed together.

And so, throughout, the execution is in strict accordance with the
plan. The play, from beginning to end, is a perfect festival of
whatever dainties and delicacies poetry may command,--a continued
revelry and jollification of soul, where the understanding is lulled
asleep, that the fancy may run riot in unrestrained enjoyment. The
bringing together of four parts so dissimilar as those of the Duke and
his warrior Bride, of the Athenian ladies and their lovers, of the
amateur players and their woodland rehearsal, and of the fairy
bickerings and overreaching; and the carrying of them severally to a
point where they all meet and blend in lyrical respondence; all this
is done in the same freedom from the laws that govern the drama of
character and life. Each group of persons is made to parody itself
into concert with the others; while the frequent intershootings of
fairy influence lift the whole into the softest regions of fancy. At
last the Interlude comes in as an amusing burlesque on all that has
gone before; as in our troubled dreams we sometimes end with a dream
that we have been dreaming, and our perturbations sink to rest in the
sweet assurance that they were but the phantoms and unrealities of a
busy sleep.

* * * * *

Though, as I have already implied, the characterization is here quite
secondary and subordinate, yet the play probably has as much of
character as were compatible with so much of poetry. Theseus has been
well described as a classic personage with romantic features and
expression. The name is Greek, but the nature and spirit are
essentially Gothic. Nor does the abundance of classical allusion and
imagery in the story call for any qualification here; because
whatsoever is taken is thoroughly steeped in the efficacy of the
taker. This sort of anachronism, common to all modern writers before
and during the age of Shakespeare, seems to have arisen in part from a
comparative dearth of classical learning, which left men to
contemplate the heroes of antiquity under the forms into which their
own mind and manners had been cast. Thus their delineations became
informed with the genius of romance; the condensed grace of ancient
character giving way to the enlargement of chivalrous magnanimity and
honour, with its "high-erected thoughts seated in the heart of
courtesy." Such in Shakespeare's case appears to have been the no less
beautiful than natural result of the small learning, so often smiled
and sometimes barked at, by those more skilled in the ancient
languages than in the mother-tongue of nature.

* * * * *

In the two pairs of lovers there are hardly any lines deep and firm
enough to be rightly called characteristic. Their doings, even more
than those of the other human persons, are marked by the dream-like
freakishness and whimsicality which distinguish the piece. Perhaps the
two ladies are slightly discriminated as individuals, in that Hermia,
besides her brevity of person, is the more tart in temper, and the
more pert and shrewish of speech, while Helena is of a rather milder
and softer disposition, with less of confidence in herself. So too in
the case of Demetrius and Lysander the lines of individuality are
exceedingly faint; the former being perhaps a shade the more caustic
and spiteful, and the latter somewhat the more open and candid. But
there is really nothing of heart or soul in what any of them do: as we
see them, they are not actuated by principle at all, or even by any
thing striking so deep as motive: their conduct issues from the more
superficial springs of capricious impulse and fancy, the "jugglery of
the senses during the sleep of reason"; the higher forces of a mental
and moral bearing having no hand in shaping their action. For the
fairy influences do not reach so far as to the proper seat of motive
and principle: they have but the skin-depth of amorous caprice; all
the elements of character and all the vital springs of faith and
loyalty and honour lying quite beyond their sphere. Even here the
judgment or the genius of the Poet is very perceptible; the lovers
being represented from the start as acting from no forces or
inspirations too deep or strong for the powers of Fairydom to
overcome. Thus the pre-condition of the two pairs in their
whim-bewilderment is duly attempered to the purposed dream-play of the
general action. Nor is the seeming stanchness of Hermia and Demetrius
in the outset any exception to this view; for nothing is more wilful
and obstinate than amorous caprice or skin-deep love during its brief
tenure of the fancy.

* * * * *

Of all the characters in this play, Bottom descends by far the most
into the realities of common experience, and is therefore much the
most accessible to the grasp of prosaic and critical fingers. It has
been thought that the Poet meant him as a satire on the envies and
jealousies of the greenroom, as they had fallen under his keen yet
kindly eye. But, surely, the qualities uppermost in Bottom the Weaver
had forced themselves on his notice long before he entered the
greenroom. It is indeed curious to observe the solicitude of this
protean actor and critic, that all the parts of the forthcoming play
may have the benefit of his execution; how great is his concern lest,
if he be tied to one, the others may be "overdone or come tardy off";
and how he would fain engross them all to himself, to the end of
course that all may succeed, to the honour of the stage and the
pleasure of the spectators. But Bottom's metamorphosis is the most
potent drawer-out of his genius. The sense of his new head-dress stirs
up all the manhood within him, and lifts his character into ludicrous
greatness at once. Hitherto the seeming to be a man has made him
content to be little better than an ass; but no sooner is he conscious
of seeming an ass than he tries his best to be a man; while all his
efforts that way only go to approve the fitness of his present seeming
to his former being.

Schlegel happily remarks, that "the droll wonder of Bottom's
metamorphosis is merely the translation of a metaphor in its literal
sense." The turning of a figure of speech thus into visible form is a
thing only to be thought of or imagined; so that probably no attempt
to paint or represent it to the senses can ever succeed. We can
bear--at least we often have to bear--that a man should seem an ass to
the mind's eye; but that he should seem such to the eye of the body is
rather too much, save as it is done in those fable-pictures which have
long been among the playthings of the nursery. So a child, for
instance, takes great pleasure in fancying the stick he is riding to
be a horse, when he would be frightened out of his wits, were the
stick to quicken and expand into an actual horse. In like manner we
often delight in indulging fancies and giving names, when we should be
shocked were our fancies to harden into facts: we enjoy visions in our
sleep, that would only disgust or terrify us, should we awake and find
them solidified into things. The effect of Bottom's transformation can
hardly be much otherwise, if set forth in visible, animated shape.
Delightful to think of, it is scarce tolerable to look upon:
exquisitely true in idea, it has no truth, or even verisimilitude,
when reduced to fact; so that, however gladly imagination receives it,
sense and understanding revolt at it.

* * * * *

Partly for reasons already stated, and partly for others that I scarce
know how to state, _A Midsummer-Night's Dream_ is a most effectual
poser to criticism. Besides that its very essence is irregularity, so
that it cannot be fairly brought to the test of rules, the play forms
properly a class by itself: literature has nothing else really like
it; nothing therefore with which it may be compared, and its merits
adjusted. For so the Poet has here exercised powers apparently
differing even in kind, not only from those of any other writer, but
from those displayed in any other of his own writings. Elsewhere, if
his characters are penetrated with the ideal, their whereabout lies in
the actual, and the work may in some measure be judged by that life
which it claims to represent: here the whereabout is as ideal as the
characters; all is in the land of dreams,--a place for dreamers, not
for critics. For who can tell what a dream ought or ought not to be,
or when the natural conditions of dream-life are or are not rightly
observed? How can the laws of time and space, as involved in the
transpiration of human character,--how can these be applied in a place
where the mind is thus absolved from their proper jurisdiction?
Besides, the whole thing swarms with enchantment: all the sweet
witchery of Shakespeare's sweet genius is concentrated in it, yet
disposed with so subtle and cunning a hand, that we can as little
grasp it as get away from it: its charms, like those of a summer
evening, are such as we may see and feel, but cannot locate or define;
cannot say they are here, or they are there: the moment we yield
ourselves up to them, they seem to be everywhere; the moment we go to
master them, they seem to be nowhere.


The Merchant Of Venice was registered at the Stationers' in July,
1598, but with a special proviso, "that it be not printed without
license first had from the Right Honourable the Lord Chamberlain." The
theatrical company to which Shakespeare belonged were then known as
"The Lord Chamberlain's Servants"; and the purpose of the proviso was
to keep the play out of print till the company's permission were given
through their patron. The play was entered again at the same place in
October, 1600, his lordship's license having probably been obtained by
that time. Accordingly two distinct editions of it were published in
the course of that year. The play was never issued again, that we know
of, till in the folio of 1623, where the repetition of various
misprints shows it to have been reprinted from one of the quarto

_The Merchant of Venice_ also makes one in the list of Shakespeare's
plays given by Francis Meres in 1598. How long before that time it was
written we have no means of knowing; but, judging from the style, we
cannot well assign the writing to a much earlier date; though there is
some reason for thinking it may have been on the stage four years
earlier; as Henslowe's _Diary_ records _The Venetian Comedy_ as having
been originally acted in August, 1594. It is by no means certain,
however, that this refers to Shakespeare's play; while the workmanship
here shows such maturity and variety of power as argue against that
supposal. It evinces, in a considerable degree, the easy, unlabouring
freedom of conscious mastery; the persons being so entirely under the
author's control, and subdued to his hand, that he seems to let them
talk and act just as they have a mind to. Therewithal the style,
throughout, is so even and sustained; the word and the character are
so fitted to each other; the laws of dramatic proportion are so well
observed; and the work is so free from any jarring or falling-out from
the due course and order of art; as to justify the belief that the
whole was written in the same stage of intellectual growth and

In the composition of this play the Poet drew largely from preceding
writers. Novelty of plot or story there is almost none. Nevertheless,
in conception and development of character, in poetical texture and
grain, in sap and flavour of wit and humour, and in all that touches
the real life and virtue of the work, it is one of the most original
productions that ever came from the human mind. Of the materials here
used, some were so much the common stock of European literature before
the Poet's time, and had been run into so many variations, that it is
not easy to say what sources he was most indebted to for them. The
incidents of the bond and the caskets are found separately in the
_Gesta Romanorum_, an ancient and curious collection of tales. There
was also an Italian novel, by Giovanni Fiorentino, written as early as
1378, but not printed till 1550, to which the Poet is clearly
traceable. As nothing is known of any English translation of the novel
dating as far back as his time, it seems not unlikely that he may have
been acquainted with it in the original.

Such are the principal tributaries to the fund of this play. I cannot,
nor need I, stay to specify the other sources to which some parts of
the workmanship have been traced.

* * * * *

The praise of this drama is in the mouth of nearly all the critics.
That the praise is well deserved appears in that, from the reopening
of the theatres at the Restoration till the present day, the play has
kept its place on the stage; while it is also among the first of the
Poet's works to be read, and the last to be forgotten, its interest
being as durable in the closet as on the boards. Well do I remember it
as the very beginning of my acquaintance with Shakespeare; one of the
dearest acquaintances I have ever made, and which has been to me a
source of more pleasure and profit than I should dare undertake to

Critics have too often entertained themselves with speculations as to
the Poet's specific moral purpose in this play or that. Wherein their
great mistake is the not duly bearing in mind, that the special
proposing of this or that moral lesson is quite from or beside the
purpose of Art. Nevertheless, a work of art, to be really deserving
the name, must needs be moral, because it must be proportionable and
true to Nature; thus attuning our inward forces to the voice of
external order and law: otherwise it is at strife with the compact of
things; a piece of dissonance; a jarring, unbalanced, crazy thing,
that will die of its own internal disorder. If, then, a work be
morally bad, this proves the author more a bungler than anything else.
And if any one admire it or take pleasure in it, he does so, not from
reason, but from something within him which his reason, in so far as
he has any, necessarily disapproves: so that he is rather to be
laughed at as a dunce than preached to as a sinner; though perhaps
this latter should be done also.

As to the moral temper of _The Merchant of Venice_, critics have
differed widely, some regarding the play as teaching the most
comprehensive humanity, others as caressing the narrowest bigotries of
the age. This difference may be fairly taken as an argument of the
Poet's candour and evenhandedness. A special-pleader is not apt to
leave the hearers in doubt on which side of the question he stands. In
this play, as in others, the Poet, I think, ordered things mainly with
a view to dramatic effect; though to such effect in the largest and
noblest sense. And the highest praise compatible with the nature of
the work is justly his, inasmuch as he did not allow himself to be
swayed either way from the right measures and proportions of art. For
Art is, from its very nature, obliged to be "without respect of
persons." Impartiality is its essential law, the constituent of its
being. And of Shakespeare it could least of all be said,

"he narrow'd his mind,
And to party gave up what was meant for mankind."

He represented men as he had seen them. And he could neither repeal
nor ignore the old law of human nature, in virtue of which the wisest
and kindest men are more or less warped by social customs and
prejudices, so that they come to do, and even to make a merit of
doing, some things that are very unwise and unkind; while the wrongs
and insults which they are thus led to practise have the effect of
goading the sufferers into savage malignity and revenge. Had he so
clothed the latter with gentle and amiable qualities as to enlist the
feelings all in their behalf, he would have given a false view of
human nature, and his work would have lost much of its instructiveness
on the score of practical morality. For good morals can never be
reached by departures from truth. A rule that may be profitably
remembered by all who are moved to act as advocates and
special-pleaders in what they think a good cause.

The leading incidents of the play are soon told. Antonio, the
Merchant, has a strange mood of sadness upon him, and a parcel of his
friends are bending their wits to play it off. Among them, and dearer
to him than any of the rest, is one Bassanio, a gentleman who, young
and generous, has lavished his fortune. Bassanio's heart is turning
towards a wealthy heiress who, highly famed for gifts and virtues,
resides not many miles off; and from whose eyes he has received "fair
speechless messages." But he wants "the means to hold a rival place"
among her princely suitors. Antonio's wealth and credit are freely
pledged to his service. His funds, however, being all embarked in
ventures at sea, he tries his credit with a rich Jew, whose person he
has often insulted, and whose greed his Christian liberality has often
thwarted. The Jew, feigning a merry humour, consents to lend the sum,
provided Antonio sign a bond authorizing him, in case of forfeiture,
to cut a pound of flesh from whatever part of his body he may choose.
Antonio readily agrees to this, and so furnishes his friend for the
loving enterprise. Bassanio prosecutes his suit to the lady with
success. But, while yet in his first transports of joy, he learns that
Antonio's ventures at sea have all miscarried, and that the Jew, with
malignant earnestness, claims the forfeiture. Leaving his bride the
moment he has sworn the sweet oath, he hastens away, resolved to save
his friend's life at the expense, if need be, of his own.

Thereupon his virgin wife forthwith gets instructions from the most
learned lawyer in those parts, and, habiting herself as a doctor of
laws, repairs to the trial. To divert the Jew from his purpose, she
taxes her wisdom and persuasion to the utmost, but in vain: scorning
the spirit of Justice, and deaf to the voice of Mercy, both of which
speak with heavenly eloquence from Portia's lips; rejecting thrice the
amount of the bond, and standing immoveable on the letter of the law;
he pushes his revenge to the very point of making the fatal incision,
when she turns the letter of the law against him, strips him of
penalty, principal, and all, and subjects even his life to the mercy
of the Duke. As the condition of his life, he is required to sign a
deed securing all his wealth to his daughter who, loaded with his
ducats and jewels, has lately eloped with another of Antonio's
friends, and is staying at Portia's mansion during her absence. The
play winds up with the hastening of all the parties, except the Jew,
to Portia's home. When all have met, Portia announces to Antonio the
safe return of his ships supposed to be lost, and surprises the
fugitive lovers with the news of their good fortune.

* * * * *

In respect of characterization this play is exceedingly rich, and this
too both in quantity and quality. The persons naturally fall into
three several groups, with each its several plot and action; yet the
three are skilfully complotted, each standing out clear and distinct
in its place, yet so drawing in with the others, that every thing
helps on every thing else; there being neither any confusion nor any
appearance of care to avoid it. Of these three groups, Antonio,
Shylock, and Portia are respectively the centres; while the part of
Lorenzo and Jessica, though strictly an episode, seems nevertheless to
grow forth as an element of the original germ; a sort of inherent
superfluity, and as such essential to the well-being of the piece. But
perhaps it may be better described as a fine romantic undertone
accompaniment to the other parts; itself in perfect harmony with
them, and therefore perfecting their harmony with each other.

In the first entry at the Stationers', the play is described as "_The
Merchant of Venice_, or otherwise called _The Jew of Venice_." This
would seem to infer that the author was then in some doubt whether to
name it from Antonio or Shylock. As an individual, Shylock is
altogether _the_ character of the play, and exhibits more of
mastership than all the others; so that, viewing the persons
severally, we should say the piece ought to be named from him. But we
have not far to seek for good reasons why it should rather be named as
it is. For if the Jew is the more important individually, the Merchant
is so dramatically. Antonio is the centre and main-spring of the
action: without him, Shylock, however great in himself, had no
business there. And the laws of dramatic combination, not any accident
of individual prominence, are clearly what ought to govern in the
naming of the play.

* * * * *

Not indeed that the Merchant is a small matter in himself; far from
it: he is a highly interesting and attractive personage; nor am I sure
but there may be timber enough in him for a good dramatic hero, apart
from the Jew. Something of a peculiar charm attaches to him, from the
state of mind in which we first see him. A dim, mysterious presage of
evil weighs down his spirits, as though he felt afar off the coming-on
of some great calamity. Yet this unwonted dejection, sweetened as it
is with his habitual kindness and good-nature, has the effect of
showing how dearly he is held by such whose friendship is the fairest
earthly purchase of virtue. And it is considerable that upon tempers
like his even the smiles of Fortune often have a strangely saddening
effect. For such a man, even because he is good, is apt to be haunted
with a sense of having more than he deserves; and this may not
unnaturally inspire him with an indefinable dread of some reverse
which shall square up the account of his present blessings. Thus his
very happiness works, by subtle methods, to charge his heart with
certain dark forebodings. So that such presentiments, whatever the
disciples of positivism may say, are in the right line of nature:

"Oft startled and made wise
By their low-breathed interpretings,
The simply-meek foretaste the springs
Of bitter contraries."

But the sorrow can hardly be ungrateful to us, that has such noble
comforters as Antonio's. Our nature is honoured in the feelings that
spring up on both sides.

Wealth indeed seldom dispenses such warnings save to its most virtuous
possessors. And such is Antonio. A kind-hearted and sweet-mannered
man; of a large and liberal spirit; affable, generous, and magnificent
in his dispositions; patient of trial, indulgent to weakness, free
where he loves, and frank where he hates; in prosperity modest, in
adversity cheerful; craving wealth for the uses of virtue, and as the
sinews of friendship;--his character is one which we never weary of
contemplating. The only blemish we perceive in him is his treatment of
Shylock: in this, though evidently much more the fault of the times
than of the man, we cannot help siding against him; than which we need
not ask a clearer instance of poetical justice. Yet even this we blame
rather as a wrong done to himself than to Shylock; inasmuch as the
latter, notwithstanding he has had such provocations, avowedly grounds
his hate mainly on those very things which make the strongest title to
a good man's love. For the Jew's revenge fastens not so much on the
man's abuse of him as on his kindness to others.

* * * * *

The friendship between the Merchant and his companions is such a
picture as Shakespeare evidently delighted to draw. And so fair a
sentiment is not apt to inhabit ignoble breasts. Bassanio, Gratiano,
and Salarino are each admirable in their way, and give a pleasing
variety to the scenes where they move. Bassanio, though something too
lavish of purse, is a model of a gentleman; in whose character and
behaviour all is order and propriety; with whom good manners are the
proper outside and visibility of a fair mind,--the natural foliage and
drapery of inward refinement and delicacy and rectitude. Well-bred, he
has that in him which, even had his breeding been ill, would have
raised him above it and made him a gentleman.

Gratiano and Salarino are two as clever, sprightly, and voluble
persons as any one need desire to be with; the chief difference
between them being, that the former _lets_ his tongue run on from good
impulses, while the latter _makes_ it do so for good ends. If not so
wise as Bassanio, they are more witty; and as much surpass him in
strength, as they fall short of him in beauty, of character. It is
observable that of the two Gratiano, while much the more prone to
flood us with his talk, also shows less subjection of the individual
to the common forms of social decorum; so that, if he behaves not
quite so well as the others, he gives livelier proof that what good
behaviour he has is his own; a growth from within, not a piece of
imitation. And we are rather agreeably surprised, that one so
talkative and rattle-tongued should therewithal carry so much weight
of meaning; and he sometimes appears less sensible than he is, because
of his galloping volubility. But he has no wish to be "reputed wise
for saying nothing"; and he makes a merit of talking nonsense when, as
is sometimes the case, nonsense is the best sort of sense: for, like a
prime good fellow, as he is, he would rather incur the charge of folly
than not, provided he can thereby add to the health and entertainment
of his friends.

* * * * *

Lorenzo and Jessica, the runaway lovers, are in such a lyrical state
of mind as rather hinders a clear view of their characters. Both are
indeed overflowing with sweetness and beauty, but more, perhaps, as
the result of nuptial inspiration than of inherent qualities. For I
suppose the worst tempers are apt to run sweet while the honeymoon is
upon them. However, as regards the present couple, it may be justly
said that the instrument should be well-tuned and delicately strung to
give forth such tones, be it touched ever so finely. Even Love, potent
little god as he is, can move none but choice spirits to such
delectable issues. Jessica's elopement, in itself and its
circumstances, puts us to the alternative that either she is a bad
child, or Shylock a bad father. And there is enough to persuade us of
the latter; though not in such sort but that some share of the
reproach falls to her. For if a young woman have so bad a home as to
justify her in thus deserting and robbing it, the atmosphere of the
place can hardly fail to leave _some_ traces in her temper and

Lorenzo stands fair in our regard, negatively, because he does nothing
unhandsome, positively, because he has such good men for his friends.
And it is rather curious that what is thus done for him, should be
done for Jessica by such a person as Launcelot Gobbo. For she and the
clown are made to reflect each other's choicer parts: we think the
better of her for having kindled something of poetry in such a clod,
and of him for being raised above himself by such an object. And her
conduct is further justified to our feelings by the odd testimony he
furnishes of her father's badness; which testimony, though not of much
weight in itself, goes far to confirm that of others. We see that the
Jew is much the same at home as in the Rialto; that, let him be where
he will, it is his nature to snarl and bite.

Such, in one view of the matter, is the dramatic propriety of this
Launcelot. His part, though often faulted by those who can see but one
thing at a time, materially aids the completeness of the work, in
giving us a fuller view both of Jessica and of her father. But he has
also a value in himself irrespective of that use: his own personal
rights enter into the purpose of his introduction; and he carries in
himself a part of the reason why he is so, and not otherwise: for
Shakespeare seldom if ever brings in a person _merely_ for the sake
of others. A mixture of conceit and drollery, and hugely wrapped up in
self, he is by no means a commonplace buffoon, but stands firm in his
sufficiency of original stock. His elaborate nonsense, his grasping at
a pun without catching it, yet feeling just as grand as if he did, is
both ludicrous and natural. His jokes to be sure are mostly failures;
nevertheless they are laughable, because he dreams not but they
succeed. The poverty of his wit is thus enriched by his complacency in
dealing it out. His part indeed amply pays its way, in showing how
much of mirth may be caused by feebleness in a great attempt at a
small matter. Besides, in him the mother element of the whole piece
runs out into broad humour and travesty; his reasons for breaking with
his master the Jew being, as it were, a variation in drollery upon the
fundamental air of the play. Thus he exhibits under a comic form the
general aspect of surrounding humanity; while at the same time his
character is an integral part of that varied structure of human life
which it belongs to the Gothic Drama to represent. On several accounts
indeed he might not be spared.

* * * * *

In Portia Shakespeare seems to have aimed at a perfect scheme of an
amiable, intelligent, and accomplished woman. And the result is a fine
specimen of beautiful nature enhanced by beautiful art. Eminently
practical in her tastes and turn of mind, full of native, homebred
sense and virtue, Portia unites therewith something of the ripeness
and dignity of a sage, a mellow eloquence, and a large, noble
discourse; the whole being tempered with the best grace and
sensibility of womanhood. As intelligent as the strongest, she is at
the same time as feminine as the weakest of her sex: she talks like a
poet and a philosopher, yet, strange to say, she talks, for all the
world, just like a woman. She is as full of pleasantry, too, and as
merry "within the limit of becoming mirth," as she is womanly and
wise; and, which is more, her arch sportiveness always relishes as
the free outcome of perfect moral health. Nothing indeed can be more
fitting and well-placed than her demeanour, now bracing her speech
with grave maxims of practical wisdom, now unbending her mind in
sallies of wit, or of innocent, roguish banter. The sportive element
of her composition has its happiest showing in her dialogue with
Nerissa about the "parcel of wooers," and in her humorous description
of the part she imagines herself playing in her purposed disguise. The
latter is especially delightful from its harmonious contrast with the
solid thoughtfulness which, after all, forms the staple and frame-work
of her character. How charmingly it sets off the divine rapture of
eloquence with which she discourses to the Jew of mercy!

"I'll hold thee any wager,
When we are both accoutred like young men,
I'll prove the prettier fellow of the two,
And wear my dagger with the braver grace;
And speak between the change of man and boy
With a reed voice; and turn two mincing steps
Into a manly stride; and speak of frays,
Like a fine-bragging youth; and tell quaint lies,
How honourable ladies sought my love,
Which I denying, they fell sick and died,--
I could not do withal;--then I'll repent,
And wish, for all that, that I had not kill'd them:
And twenty of these puny lies I'll tell;
That men shall swear I've discontinu'd school
Above a twelvemonth. I've within my mind
A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks,
Which I will practise."

Partly from condition, partly from culture, Portia has grown to live
more in the understanding than in the affections; for which cause she
is a little more self-conscious than I exactly like: yet her character
is hardly the less lovely on that account: she talks considerably of
herself indeed, but always so becomingly, that we hardly wish her to
choose any other subject; for we are pleasantly surprised that one so
well aware of her gifts should still bear them so meekly. Mrs.
Jameson, with Portia in her eye, intimates Shakespeare to have been
about the only artist, except Nature, who could make women wise
without turning them into men. And it is well worth the noting that,
honourable as the issue of her course at the trial would be to a man,
Portia shows no unwomanly craving to be in the scene of her triumph:
as she goes there prompted by the feelings and duties of a wife, and
for the saving of her husband's honour and peace of mind,--being
resolved that "never shall he lie by Portia's side with an unquiet
soul"; so she gladly leaves when these causes no longer bear in that
direction. Then too, exquisitely cultivated as she is, humanity has
not been so refined out of her, but that in such a service she can
stoop from her elevation, and hazard a brief departure from the
sanctuary of her sex.

Being to act for once the part of a man, it would seem hardly possible
for her to go through the undertaking without more of self-confidence
than were becoming in a woman: and the student may find plenty of
matter for thought in the Poet's so managing as to prevent such an
impression. For there is nothing like ostentation or conceit of
intellect in Portia. Though knowing enough for any station, still it
never once enters her head that she is too wise for the station which
Providence or the settled order of society has assigned her. She would
therefore neither hide her light under a bushel, that others may not
see by it, nor perch it aloft in public, that others may see it; but
would simply set it on a candlestick, that it may give light to all in
her house. With her noble intellect she has gathered in the sweets of
poetry and the solidities of philosophy, all for use, nothing for
show; she has fairly domesticated them, has naturalized them in her
sphere, and tamed them to her fireside, so that they seem as much at
home there as if they had been made for no other place. And to all
this mental enrichment she adds the skill

"So well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say
Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best."

Portia's consciousness of power does indeed render her cool,
collected, and firm, but never a whit unfeminine: her smooth command
both of herself and of the matter she goes about rather heightens our
sense of her modesty than otherwise: so that the impression we take
from her is, that these high mental prerogatives are of no sex; that
they properly belong to the common freehold of woman and man; and that
the ladies of creation have just as good a right to them as the lords.
Some of her speeches, especially at the trial, are evidently
premeditated; for, as any good lawyer would do, she of course prepares
herself in the case beforehand; but I should like to see the masculine
lawyer that could premeditate any thing equal to them. It is to be
noted withal that she goes about her work without the least misgiving
as to the result; having so thoroughly booked herself both in the
facts and the law of the case as to feel perfectly sure on that point.
Hence the charming ease and serenity with which she moves amid the
excitements of the trial. No trepidations of anxiety come in to
disturb the preconcerted order and method of her course. And her
solemn appeals to the Jew are made in the earnest hope of inducing him
to accept a full and liberal discharge of the debt. When she says to
him, "there's thrice thy money offer'd thee," it is because she really
feels that both the justice of the cause and the honour of her husband
would be better served by such a payment than by the more brilliant
triumph which awaits her in case the Jew should spurn her offer.

Thus her management of the trial, throughout, is a piece of consummate
art; though of art in such a sense as presupposes perfect integrity of
soul. Hence, notwithstanding her methodical forecast and preparation,
she is as eloquent as an angel, and her eloquence, as by an
instinctive tact, knows its time perfectly. One of her strains in this
kind, her appeal to the Jew on the score of mercy, has been so often
quoted, that it would long since have grown stale, if it were possible
by any means to crush the freshness of unwithering youth out of it.
And I hope it will not be taken as any abatement of the speaker's
claim as a wise jurist, that she there carries both the head and the
heart of a ripe Christian divine into the management of her cause. Yet
her style in that speech is in perfect keeping with her habitual modes
of thought and discourse: even in her most spontaneous expressions we
have a reflex of the same intellectual physiognomy. For the mental
aptitude which she displays in the trial seems to have been the
germinal idea out of which her whole part was consistently evolved; as
the Poet's method often was, apparently, first to settle what his
persons were to do, and then to conceive and work out their characters

It has been said that Shakespeare's female characters are inferior to
his characters of men. Doubtless in some respects they are so; they
would not be female characters if they were not; but then in other
respects they are superior. Some people apparently hold it impossible
for man and woman to be equal and different at the same time. Hence
the false equality of the sexes which has been of late so often and so
excruciatingly advocated. On this ground, the Poet could not have made
his women equal to his men without unsexing and unsphering them; which
he was just as far from doing as Nature is. The alleged inferiority,

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