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

Part 9 out of 9

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And her character is answerably reflected in the minds of the King's
chief counsellors, whose very swords seem stirring with life in the
scabbards, and yearning to leap forth and vindicate the honour of
their glorious Queen, but that awe of the crown restrains them.

Her last speech at the trial is, I am apt to think, the solidest piece
of eloquence in the language. It is like a piece of the finest
statuary marble, chiselled into perfect form; so compact of grain,
that you cannot crush it into smaller space; while its effect is as
wholesome and bracing as the atmosphere of an iced mountain when
tempered by the Summer sun. The King threatens her with death, and she

"Sir, spare your threats:
The bug which you would fright me with I seek.
To me can life be no commodity:
The crown and comfort of my life, your favour,
I do give lost; for I do feel it gone,
But know not how it went: my second joy,
And first-fruits of my body, from his presence
I'm barr'd, like one infectious: my third comfort,
Starr'd most unluckily, is from my breast,
The innocent milk in its most innocent mouth,
Hal'd out to murder: myself on every post
Proclaim'd a strumpet; with immodest hatred,
The child-bed privilege denied, which 'longs
To women of all fashion: lastly, hurried
Here to this place, i' the open air, before
I have got strength of limit. Now, my liege,
Tell me what blessings I have here alive,
That I should fear to die. Therefore, proceed.
But yet hear this; mistake me not: My life,
I prize it not a straw; but for mine honour,
Which I would free, if I shall be condemn'd
Upon surmises, all proofs sleeping else
But what your jealousies awake, I tell you
'Tis rigour, and not law."

Noble simplicity of the olden time, when the best and purest of women,
with the bravest men in presence, thought no shame to hear themselves
speaking such plain honest words as these!

The Queen's long concealing of herself has been censured by some as
repugnant to nature. Possibly they may think it somewhat strained and
theatrical, but it is not so: the woman is but true to herself, in
this matter, and to the solid and self-poised repose in which her
being dwells. So that the thing does not seem repugnant to nature as
individualized by her reason and will; nor is her character herein
more above or out of nature than the proper ideal of art abundantly
warrants. For to her keen sensibility of honour the King's treatment
is literally an _infinite_ wrong; nor does its cruelty more wound her
affection, than its meanness alienates her respect; and one so strong
to bear injury might well be equally strong to remember it.
Therewithal she knows full well that, in so delicate an instrument as
married life, if one string be out of tune the whole is ajar, and will
yield no music: for her, therefore, all things must be right, else
none are so. And she is both too clear of mind and too upright of
heart to put herself where she cannot be precisely what the laws of
propriety and decorum require her to seem. Accordingly, when she does
forgive, the forgiveness is simply _perfect_; the breach that has
been so long a-healing is at length _completely_ healed; for to be
whole and entire in whatever she does, is both an impulse of nature
and a law of conscience with her. When the King was wooing her, she
held him off three months, which he thought unreasonably long; but the
reason why she did so is rightly explained when, for his inexpressible
sin against her, she has locked herself from his sight sixteen years,
leaving him to mourn and repent. Moreover, with her severe chastity of
principle, the reconciliation to her husband must begin there where
the separation grew. Thus it was for Perdita to restore the parental
unity which her being represents, but of which she had occasioned the

Such is Hermione, in her "proud submission," her "dignified
obedience," with her Roman firmness and integrity of soul, heroic in
strength, heroic in gentleness, the queenliest of women, the
womanliest of queens. She is perhaps the Poet's best illustration of
the great principle, which I fear is not so commonly felt as it should
be, that the highest beauty always has an element or shade of the
terrible in it, so that it awes you while it attracts.

"If I prove honey-mouth'd, let my tongue blister,
And never to my red-look'd anger be
The trumpet any more."

"Good Queen, my lord, good Queen; I say, good Queen,
And would by combat make her good, so were I
A man, the worst about you."

"For ever
Unvenerable be thy hands, if thou
Tak'st up the Princess by that forced baseness
Which he has put upon 't."

Such are some of the words that boil over from the stout heart of
Paulina,--the noblest and most amiable termagant we shall anywhere
find,--when, with the new-born babe in charge, she confronts the
furious King. He threatens to have her burnt, and she replies

"I care not:
It is an heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in 't."

If her faults were a thousand times greater than they are, I could
pardon them all for this one little speech; which proves that
Shakespeare was, I will not say a Protestant, but a true Christian,
intellectually at least, and far deeper in the spirit of his religion
than a large majority of the Church's official organs were in his day,
or, let me add, have been any day since. And this was written, be it
observed, at a time when the embers of the old ecclesiastical fires
were not yet wholly extinct, and when many a priestly bigot was
deploring the lay ascendency which kept them from being rekindled.

Paulina makes a superb counterpart to Hermione, heightening the effect
of her character by the most emphatic contrast, and at the same time
reflecting it by her intense and outspoken sympathy. Without any of
the Queen's dignified calmness and reserve, she is alive to all her
inward beauty and greatness: with a head to understand and a heart to
reverence such a woman, she unites a temper to fight, a generosity to
die for her. But no language but her own can fitly measure the ardour
with which she loves and admires and even adores her "dearest,
sweetest mistress," whose power has indeed gone all through her, so
that every part of her nature cannot choose but speak it, when the
occasion kindles her. Loud, voluble, violent, and viraginous, with a
tongue sharper than a sword, and an eloquence that fairly blisters
where it hits, she has, therewithal, too much honour and magnanimity
and kind feeling either to use them without good cause, or to forbear
using them at all hazards when she has such cause. Mrs. Jameson
classes her, and justly, no doubt, among those women--and she assures
us there are many such--who seem regardless of the feelings of those
for whom they would sacrifice their life.

"I thought she had some great matter there in hand; for she hath
privately, twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione,
visited that removed house." Such is the speech of one gentleman to
another, as the royal party and all the Court are going to Paulina's
house to see the mysterious workmanship of Julio Romano. Nothing could
better suggest the history of that quiet, placid intercourse, with its
long record of patient, self-rewarding service; a fellowship in which
little needed to be said, for each knew what was in the other's mind
by a better language than words. It is such an idea of friendship as
it does the heart good to rest upon. Just think of those two great
manly souls, enshrined in womanly tenderness, thus communing together
in secret for sixteen long years! And what a powerful charm of love
and loyalty must have been cast upon Paulina's impulsive tongue, that
she should keep so reticent of her dear cause through all that time!
To play the woman after that fashion would not hurt any of us.

* * * * *

During the first three Acts the interest of this play is mainly
tragic; the scene is densely crowded with incidents; the action
hurried, abrupt, almost spasmodic; the style quick and sharp, flashing
off point after point in brief, sinewy strokes; and all is rapidity
and despatch: what with the insane fury of the King, the noble agony
of the Queen, the enthusiasm of the Court in her behalf, and the
King's violence towards both them and her, the mind is kept on the
jump: all which, if continued to the end, would generate rather a
tumult and hubbub in the thoughts, than that inward music which the
title of the play promises; not to say, that such a prolonged hurry of
movement would at length become monotonous and wearisome. Far
otherwise the latter half of the play. Here the anticipations proper
to a long, leisurely winter evening are fully met; the general effect
is soothing and composing; the tones, dipped in sweetness, fall gently
on the ear, disposing the mind to be still and listen and contemplate;
thus making the play, as Coleridge describes it, "exquisitely
respondent to the title." It would seem, indeed, that in these scenes
the Poet had specially endeavoured how much of silent effect he could
produce, without diverging from the dramatic form. To this end, he
provides resting-places for thought; suspending or retarding the
action by musical pauses and periods of lyrical movement, and
breathing in the mellowest strains of poetical harmony, till the eye
is "made quiet by the power of beauty," and all tumult of mind is
hushed in the very intensity of feeling.

In the last two Acts we have a most artful interchange and blending of
romantic beauty and comic drollery. The lost Princess and the
heir-apparent of Bohemia, two of the noblest and loveliest beings that
ever fancy conceived, occupy the centre of the picture, while around
them are clustered rustic shepherds and shepherdesses amid their
pastimes and pursuits, the whole being enlivened by the tricks and
humours of a merry pedler and pickpocket. For simple purity and
sweetness, the scene which unfolds the loves and characters of the
Prince and Princess is not surpassed by any thing in Shakespeare.
Whatsoever is enchanting in romance, lovely in innocence, elevated in
feeling, and sacred in faith, is here concentrated; forming, all
together, one of those things which we always welcome as we do the
return of Spring, and over which our feelings may renew their youth
for ever. So long as flowers bloom and hearts love, they will do it in
the spirit of this scene.

It is a pastoral frolic, where free thoughts and guileless hearts rule
the hour, all as true and as pure as the tints and fragrances with
which field and forest and garden have beautified the occasion. The
neighbouring swains and lasses have gathered in, to share and enhance
the sport. The old Shepherd is present, but only as a looker-on,
having for the nonce resigned the command to his reputed daughter.
Under their mutual inspiration, the Prince and Princess are each in
the finest rapture of fancy, while the surrounding influences of the
rustic festival are just enough to enfranchise their inward music into
modest and delicate utterance. He has tastefully decked her person
with flowers, till no traces of the shepherdess can be seen, and she
seems herself a multitudinous flower; having also attired himself
"with a swain's wearing," so that the prince is equally obscured.

"These your unusual weeds to each part of you
Do give a life: no shepherdess; but Flora,
Peering in April's front. This your sheep-shearing
Is as a meeting of the petty gods,
And you the queen on't."

Thus he opens the play. And when she repeats her fears of the event:

"Thou dearest Perdita,
With these forc'd thoughts, I pr'ythee, darken not
The mirth o' the feast: or I'll be thine, my fair,
Or not my father's; for I cannot be
Mine own, nor any thing to any, if
I be not thine: to this I am most constant,
Though destiny say no."

The King and Camilla steal upon them in disguise, and while they are
present we have this:

"_Perdita_. Come, take your flowers:
Methinks I play as I have seen them do
In Whitsun pastorals: sure, this robe of mine
Does change my disposition.

_Florizel_. What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I'd have you do it ever: when you sing,
I'd have you buy and sell so; so give alms;
Pray so; and, for the ordering your affairs,
To sing them too: when you do dance I wish you
A wave o' the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so, and own
No other function. Each your doing is
So singular in each particular,
Crowning what you have done i' the present deed,
That all your acts are queens.

_Perdita_. O Doricles!
Your praises are too large: but that your youth,
And the true blood that peeps so fairly through 't,
Do plainly give you out an unstain'd shepherd,
With wisdom I might fear, my Doricles,
You woo'd me the false way.

_Florizel_. I think you have
As little skill to fear as I have purpose
To put you to 't. But come; our dance, I pray.

_Polix_. This is the prettiest low-born lass that ever
Ran on the green-sward: nothing she does or seems
But smacks of something greater than herself,--
Too noble for this place.

_Camil_. He tells her something
That makes her blood look out: Good sooth, she is
The queen of curds and cream.

_Polix_. 'Pray you, good shepherd, what fair swain is this
Which dances with your daughter?

_Shep_. They call him Doricles; and boasts himself
To have a worthy feeding: I but have it
Upon his own report, and I believe it;
He looks like sooth. He says he loves my daughter:
I think so too; for never gaz'd the Moon
Upon the water, as he'll stand, and read,
As 't were, my daughter's eyes: and, to be plain,
I think there is not half a kiss to choose
Who loves another best.

_Polix_. She dances featly.

_Shep_. So she does any thing, though I report it,
That should be silent."

Perdita, notwithstanding she occupies so little room in the play,
fills a large space in the reader's thoughts, almost disputing
precedence with the Queen. And her mother's best native qualities
reappear in her, sweetly modified by pastoral associations; her nature
being really much the same, only it has been developed and seasoned in
a different atmosphere; a nature too strong indeed to be displaced by
any power of circumstances or supervenings of art, but at the same
time too delicate and susceptive not to take a lively and lasting
impress of them. So that, while she has thoroughly assimilated, she
nevertheless clearly indicates, the food of place and climate,
insomuch that the dignities of the princely and the simplicities of
the pastoral character seem striving which shall express her
goodliest. We can hardly call her a poetical being; she is rather
poetry itself, and every thing lends and borrows beauty at her touch.
A playmate of the flowers, when we see her with them, we are at a loss
whether they take more inspiration from her or she from them; and
while she is the sweetest of poets in making nosegays, the nosegays
become in her hands the richest of crowns. If, as Schlegel somewhere
remarks, the Poet is "particularly fond of showing the superiority of
the innate over the acquired," he has surely nowhere done it with
finer effect than in this unfledged angel.

There is much to suggest a comparison of Perdita and Miranda; yet how
shall I compare them? Perfectly distinct indeed as individuals, still
their characters are strikingly similar; only Perdita has perhaps a
sweeter gracefulness, the freedom, simplicity, and playfulness of
nature being in her case less checked by external restraints; while
Miranda carries more of a magical and mysterious charm woven into her
character from the supernatural influences of her whereabout. So like,
yet so different, it is hard saying which is the better of the two, or
rather one can hardly help liking her best with whom he last
conversed. It is an interesting fact also, for such it seems to be,
that these two glorious delineations were produced very near together,
perhaps both the same year; and this too when Shakespeare was in his
highest maturity of poetry and wisdom; from which it has been not
unjustly argued that his experience both in social and domestic life
must have been favourable to exalted conceptions of womanhood. The
Poet, though in no sort a bigot, was evidently full of loyal and
patriotic sentiment; and I have sometimes thought that the government
of Elizabeth, with the grand national enthusiasm which clustered round
her throne and person, may have had a good deal to do in shaping and
inspiring this part of his workmanship. Be that as it may, with but
one great exception, I think the world now finds its best ideas of
moral beauty in Shakespeare's women.

* * * * *

Florizel's character is in exquisite harmony with that of the
Princess. To be sure, it may be said that if he is worthy of her, it
is mainly her influence that makes him so. But then it is to be
observed, on the other hand, that as in such cases men find only what
they bring the faculties for finding, so the meeting with her would
not have elicited such music from him, had not his nature been
originally responsive to hers. For he is manifestly drawn and held to
her by a powerful instinct of congeniality. And none but a living
abstract and sum-total of all that is manly could have so felt the
perfections of such a woman. The difference between them is, that she
was herself before she saw him, and would have been the same without
him; whereas he was not and could not be himself, as we see him, till
he caught inspiration from her; so that he is but right in saying,--

"I bless the time
When my good falcon made her flight across
Thy father's ground."

Nevertheless it is a clear instance of the pre-established harmony of
souls: but that his spirit were akin to hers, he could not have
recognized his peer through such a disguise of circumstances. For any
one to be untouched and unsweetened by the heavenly purity of their
courtship, were indeed a sin almost too great to be forgiven.

Shakespeare knew,--none better,--that in order to be a lover in any
right sense of the term, one must first be a man. He therefore does
not leave the Prince without an opportunity to show that he is such.
And it is not till after the King has revealed himself, and blown up
the mirth of the feast by his explosion of wrath, that the Prince
displays his proper character in this respect. I need not stay to
remark how well the Poet orders the action for that purpose; suffice
it to say that the Prince then fully makes good his previous

"Were I crown'd the most imperial monarch,
Thereof most worthy; were I the fairest youth
That ever made eye swerve; had force and knowledge
More than was ever man's; I would not prize them,
Without her love; for her employ them all;
Commend them or condemn them to her service,
Or to their own perdition."

The minor characters of this play are both well conceived and
skilfully disposed, the one giving them a fair personal, the other a
fair dramatic interest. The old Shepherd and his clown of a son are
near, if not in, the Poet's happiest comic vein. Autolycus, the
"snapper-up of unconsidered trifles," is the most amiable and
ingenious rogue we should desire to see; who cheats almost as divinely
as those about him love, and whose thieving tricks the very gods seem
to crown with thrift in reward of his wit. His self-raillery and droll
soliloquizing give us the feeling that his sins are committed not so
much for lucre as for fun.--The Poet was perhaps a little too fond of
placing his characters in situations where they have to be false in
order to be the truer; which no doubt sometimes happens; yet, surely,
in so delicate a point of morality, some care is needful, lest the
exceptions become too much for the rule. And something too much of
this there may be in the honest, upright, yet deceiving old lord,
Camillo. I speak this under correction; for I know it is not safe to
fault Shakespeare's morals; and that they who affect a better morality
than his are very apt to turn out either hypocrites or moral coxcombs.
As for the rest, this Camillo, though little more than a staff in the
drama, is nevertheless a pillar of State; his integrity and wisdom
making him a light to the counsels and a guide to the footsteps of the
greatest around him. Fit to be the stay of princes, he is one of those
venerable relics of the past which show us how beautiful age can be,
and which, linking together different generations, format once the
salt of society and the strength of government.

I have never seen this play on the stage; but I can well understand
how the scene with the painted statue, if fairly delivered, might be
surpassingly effective. The illusion is all on the understandings of
the spectators; and they seem to feel the _power_ without the _fact_
of animation, or to have a _sense_ of mobility in a _vision_
of fixedness. And such is the magic of the scene, that we almost fancy
them turning into marble, as they fancy the marble turning into flesh.


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