Part 3 out of 7
How many days will finish up the year;
How many years a mortal man may live.
* * * * *
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Passed over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave."
All this it seems to me is as finely characteristic of the gentle
melancholy of Shakespeare's youth as Jaques' bitter words are of the
deeper melancholy of his manhood:
"And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour we rot and rot
And thereby hangs a tale."
The "Third Part of Henry VI." leads one directly to "Richard III." It
was Coleridge's opinion that Shakespeare "wrote hardly anything of this
play except the character of Richard. He found the piece a stock play
and re-wrote the parts which developed the hero's character; he
certainly did not write the scenes in which Lady Anne yielded to the
usurper's solicitations." In this instance Coleridge's positive opinion
deserves to be weighed respectfully. At the time when "Richard III." was
written Shakespeare was still rather a lyric than a dramatic poet, and
Coleridge was a good judge of the peculiarities of his lyric style. Of
course, Professor Dowden, too, is in doubt whether "Richard III." should
be ascribed to Shakespeare. He says: "Its manner of conceiving and
presenting character has a certain resemblance, not elsewhere to be
found in Shakespeare's writings, to the ideal manner of Marlowe. As in
the plays of Marlowe, there is here one dominant figure distinguished by
a few strongly marked and inordinately developed qualities."
This faulty reasoning only shows how dangerous it is for a professor to
copy his teacher slavishly: in "Coriolanus," too, we have the "one
dominant figure," and all the rest of it. The truth seems to be that in
the "Third Part of Henry VI." Shakespeare had been working with Marlowe,
or, at least, revising Marlowe's work; in either case he was so steeped
in Marlowe's spirit that he took, as we have seen, the most splendid
piece of Richard's self-revealing directly from the older poet.
Moreover, the words of deepest characterization in Shakespeare's
"Richard loves Richard--that is, I am I,"
are manifestly a weak echo of the tremendous
"I am myself alone"
of Marlowe's Richard. At least to this extent, then, Shakespeare used
Marlowe in depicting Richard's character. But this trait, important as
it was did not carry him far, and he was soon forced to draw on his own
experience of life. Already he seems to have noticed that one
characteristic of men of action is a blunt plainness of speech; their
courage is shown in their frankness, and, besides, words stand for
realities with them, and are, therefore, used with sincerity.
Shakespeare's Richard III. uses plain speech as a hypocritical mask, but
already Shakespeare is a dramatist and in his clever hands Richard's
plain speaking is so allied with his incisive intelligence that it
appears to be now a mask, now native shamelessness, and thus the
characterization wins in depth and mystery. Every now and then, too,
this Richard sees things which no Englishman has been capable of seeing,
except Shakespeare himself. The whole of Plato's "Gorgias" is comprised
in the two lines:
"Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe."
The declaration of the second murderer that conscience "makes a man a
coward ... it beggars any man that keeps it; it is turned out of all
towns and cities for a dangerous thing; and every man that means to live
well endeavours to trust to himself and to live without it," should be
regarded as the complement of what Falstaff says of honour; in both the
humour of Shakespeare's characteristic irony is not to be mistaken.
The whole play, I think, must be ascribed to Shakespeare; all the
memorable words in it are indubitably his, and I cannot believe that any
other hand drew for us that marvellous, masterful courtship of Anne
which Coleridge, naturally enough, was unwilling to appreciate. The
structure of the play, however, shows all the weakness of Marlowe's
method: the interest is concentrated on the protagonist; there is not
humour enough to relieve the gloomy intensity, and the scenes in which
Richard does not figure are unattractive and feeble.
One has only to think of the two characters--Richard II. and Richard
III.--and to recall their handling in order to get a deep impression of
Shakespeare's nature. He cannot present the vile Richard II. at all; he
has no interest in him; but as soon as he thinks of Richard's youth and
remembers that he was led astray by others, he begins to identify
himself with him, and at once Richard's weakness is made amiable and his
sufferings affecting. In measure as Shakespeare lets himself go and
paints himself more and more freely, his portraiture becomes
astonishing, till at length the imprisoned Richard gives himself up to
melancholy philosophic musing, without a tinge of bitterness or envy or
hate, and every one with eyes to see, is forced to recognize in him a
younger brother to Hamlet and Posthumus. "Richard III." was produced in
a very different way. It was Marlowe's daemonic power and intensity that
first interested Shakespeare in this Richard; under the spell of
Marlowe's personality Shakespeare conceived the play, and especially the
scene between Richard and Anne; but the original impulse exhausted
itself quickly, and then Shakespeare fell back on his own experience and
made Richard keen of insight and hypocritically blunt of speech--a sort
of sketch of Iago. A little later Shakespeare either felt that the
action was unsuitable to the development of such a character, or more
probably he grew weary of the effort to depict a fiend; in any case, the
play becomes less and less interesting, and even the character of
Richard begins to waver. There is one astonishing instance of this
towards the end of the drama. On the eve of the decisive battle Richard
starts awake from his terrifying dreams, and now, if ever, one would
expect from him perfect sincerity of utterance. This is what we find:
"There is no creature loves me;
And if I die no soul shall pity me;
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?"
The first two lines bespeak a loving, gentle nature, Shakespeare's
nature, the nature of a Henry VI. or an Arthur, a nature which Richard
III. would certainly have despised, and the last two lines are merely an
objective ethical judgement wholly out of place and very clumsily
To sum up, then, for this is not the place to consider Shakespeare's
share in "Henry VIII.," I find that in the English historical plays the
manly characters, Hotspur, Harry V., the great Bastard, and Richard
III., are all taken from tradition or from old plays, and Shakespeare
did nothing more than copy the traits which were given to him; on the
other hand, the weak, irresolute, gentle, melancholy characters are his
own, and he shows extraordinary resource in revealing the secret
workings of their souls. Even in early manhood, and when handling
histories and men of action, Shakespeare cannot conceal his want of
sympathy for the practical leaders of men; he neither understands them
deeply nor loves them; but in portraying the girlish Arthur and the
Hamlet-like Richard II., and in drawing forth the pathos of their
weakness, he is already without a rival or second in all literature.
I am anxious not to deform the truth by exaggeration; a caricature of
Shakespeare would offend me as a sacrilege, even though the caricature
were characteristic, and when I find him even in youth one-sided, a poet
and dreamer, I am minded to tell less than the truth rather than more.
He was extraordinarily sensitive, I say to myself, and lived in the
stress of great deeds; he treated Henry V., a man of action if ever
there was one, as an ideal, and lavished on him all his admiration, but
it will not do: I cannot shut my eyes to the fact; the effort is worse
than useless. He liked Henry V. because of his misled youth and his
subsequent rise to highest honour, and not because of his practical
genius. Where in his portrait gallery is the picture of a Drake, or even
of a Raleigh? The adventurer was the characteristic product of that
jostling time; but Shakespeare turned his head away; he was not
interested in him. In spite of himself, however, he became passionately
interested in the pitiful Richard II. and his untimely fate.
Notwithstanding the praise of the critics, his King Henry V. is a wooden
marionette; the intense life of the traditional madcap Prince has died
out of him; but Prince Arthur lives deathlessly, and we still hear his
childish treble telling Hubert of his love.
Those who disagree with me will have to account for the fact that, even
in the historical plays written in early manhood, all his portraits of
men of action are mere copies, while his genius shines in the portraits
of a gentle saint like Henry VI., of a weakling like Richard II., or of
a girlish youth like Arthur--all these favourite studies being alike in
pathetic helplessness and tender affection.
It is curious that no one of the commentators has noticed this
extraordinary one-sidedness of Shakespeare. In spite of his miraculous
faculty of expression, he never found wonderful phrases for the virile
virtues or virile vices. For courage, revenge, self-assertion, and
ambition we have finer words in English than any that Shakespeare
coined. In this field Chapman, Milton, Byron, Carlyle, and even Bunyan
are his masters.
Of course, as a man he had the instinct of courage, and an admiration of
courage; his intellect, too, gave him some understanding of its range.
Dr. Brandes declares that Shakespeare has only depicted physical
courage, the courage of the swordsman; but that is beside the truth: Dr.
Brandes has evidently forgotten the passage in "Antony and Cleopatra,"
when Caesar contemptuously refuses the duel with Antony and speaks of
his antagonist as an "old ruffian." Enobarbus, too, sneers at Antony's
"Yes, like enough, high-battled Caesar will
Unstate his happiness, and be staged to the show
Against a sworder."
Unhelped by memory, Dr. Brandes might have guessed that Shakespeare
would exhaust the obvious at first glance. But the soul of courage to
Shakespeare is, as we have seen, a love of honour working on quick
generous blood--a feminine rather than a masculine view of the matter.
Carlyle has a deeper sense of this aboriginal virtue. With the fanatic's
trust in God his Luther will go to Worms "though it rain devils"; and
when in his own person Carlyle spoke of the small, honest minority
desperately resolved to maintain their ideas though opposed by a huge
hostile majority of fools and the insincere, he found one of the finest
expressions for courage in all our literature. The vast host shall be to
us, he cried, as "stubble is to fire." It may be objected that this is
the voice of religious faith rather than of courage pure and simple, and
the objection is valid so far as it goes; but this genesis of courage is
peculiarly English, and the courage so formed is of the highest. Every
one remembers how Valiant-for-Truth fights in Bunyan's allegory: "I
fought till my sword did cleave to my hand; and when they were joined
together, as if a sword grew out of my arm, and when the blood ran
through my fingers, then I fought with most courage." The mere
expression gives us an understanding of the desperate resolution of
But if desperate courage is not in Shakespeare, neither are its
ancillary qualities--cruelty, hatred, ambition, revenge. Whenever he
talks on these themes, he talks from the teeth outwards, as one without
experience of their violent delights. His Gloucester rants about
ambition without an illuminating or even a convincing word. Hatred and
revenge Shakespeare only studied superficially, and cruelty he shudders
from like a woman.
It is astounding how ill-endowed Shakespeare was on the side of
manliness. His intellect was so fine, his power of expression so
magical, the men about him, his models, so brave--founders as they were
of the British empire and sea-tyranny--that he is able to use his
Hotspurs and Harrys to hide from the general the poverty of his
temperament. But the truth will out: Shakespeare was the greatest of
poets, a miraculous artist, too, when he liked; but he was not a hero,
and manliness was not his forte: he was by nature a neuropath and
He was a master of passion and pity, and it astonishes one to notice how
willingly he passed always to that extreme of sympathy where nothing but
his exquisite choice of words and images saved him from falling into the
silly. For example, in "Titus Andronicus," with its crude, unmotived
horrors, Titus calls Marcus a murderer, and when Marcus replies: "Alas,
my lord, I have but killed a fly," Titus answers:
"But how, if that fly had a father and mother?
How would he hang his slender gilded wings,
And buzz lamenting doings in the air?
Poor harmless fly!
That with his pretty buzzing melody,
Came here to make us merry! and thou hast killed him."
Even in his earliest plays in the noontide of lusty youth, when the heat
of the blood makes most men cruel, or at least heedless of others'
sorrows, Shakespeare was full of sympathy; his gentle soul wept with the
stricken deer and suffered through the killing of a fly. Just as Ophelia
turned "thought and affliction, passion, hell itself" to "favour and to
prettiness," so Shakespeare's genius turned the afflictions and passions
of man to pathos and to pity.
SHAKESPEARE AS LYRIC POET: "TWELFTH NIGHT"
Shakespeare began the work of life as a lyric poet. It was to be
expected therefore that when he took up playwriting he would use the
play from time to time as an opportunity for a lyric, and in fact this
was his constant habit. From the beginning to the end of his career he
was as much a lyric poet as a dramatist. His first comedies are feeble
and thin in character-drawing and the lyrical sweetness is everywhere
predominant. His apprenticeship period may be said to have closed with
his first tragedy, "Romeo and Juliet." I am usually content to follow
Mr. Furnival's "Trial Table of the order of Shakspere's Plays," in which
"Richard II.," "Richard III.," and "King John" are all placed later than
"Romeo and Juliet," and yet included in the first period that stretches
from 1585 to 1595. But "Romeo and Juliet" seems to me to be far more
characteristic of the poet's genius than any of these histories; it is
not only a finer work of art than any of them, and therefore of higher
promise, but in its lyrical sweetness far more truly representative of
Shakespeare's youth than any of the early comedies or historical plays.
Whatever their form may be, nearly all Shakespeare's early works are
love-songs, "Venus and Adonis," "Lucrece," "Love's Labour's Lost," "The
Two Gentlemen of Verona," and he may be said to have ended his
apprenticeship with the imperishable tragedy of first love "Romeo and
In the years from 1585 to 1595 Shakespeare brought the lyric element
into something like due subordination and managed to free himself almost
completely from his early habit of rhyming. Mr. Swinburne has written of
Shakespeare's use of rhymed verse with a fullness of knowledge and
sympathy that leaves little to be desired. He compares it aptly to the
use of the left hand instead of the right, and doubts cogently whether
Shakespeare ever attained such mastery of rhyme as Marlowe in "Hero and
Leander." But I like to think that Shakespeare's singing quickly became
too sincere in its emotion and too complex in its harmonies to tolerate
the definite limits set by rhyme. In any case by 1595 Shakespeare had
learned to prefer blank verse to rhyme, at least for play-writing; he
thus made the first great step towards a superb knowledge of his
The period of Shakespeare's maturity defines itself sharply; it
stretches from 1595 to 1608 and falls naturally into two parts; the
first part includes the trilogy "Henry IV." and "Henry V." and his
golden comedies; the second, from 1600 to 1608, is entirely filled with
his great tragedies. The characteristic of this period so far as regards
the instrument is that Shakespeare has come to understand the proper
function of prose. He sees first that it is the only language suited to
broad comedy, and goes on to use it in moments of sudden excitement, or
when dramatic truth to character seems to him all important. At his best
he uses blank verse when some emotion sings itself to him, and prose as
the ordinary language of life, the language of surprise, laughter,
strife, and of all the commoner feelings. During these twelve or
fourteen years the lyric note is not obtrusive; it is usually
subordinated to character and suited to action.
His third and last period begins with "Pericles" and ends with the
"Tempest"; it is characterized, as we shall see later, by bodily
weakness and by a certain contempt for the dramatic fiction. But the
knowledge of the instrument once acquired never left Shakespeare. It is
true that the lyric note becomes increasingly clear in his late
comedies; but prose too is used by him with the same mastery that he
showed in his maturity.
In the first period Shakespeare was often unable to give his puppets
individual life; in maturity he was interested in the puppets themselves
and used them with considerable artistry; in the third period he had
grown a little weary of them and in "The Tempest" showed himself
inclined, just as Goethe in later life was inclined, to turn his
characters into symbols or types.
The place of "Twelfth Night" is as clearly marked in Shakespeare's works
as "Romeo and Juliet" or "The Tempest." It stands on the dividing line
between his light, joyous comedies and the great tragedies; it was all
done at the topmost height of happy hours, but there are hints in it
which we shall have to notice later, which show that when writing it
Shakespeare had already looked into the valley of disillusion which he
was about to tread. But "Twelfth Night" is written in the spirit of "As
You Like It" or "Much Ado," only it is still more personal-ingenuous and
less dramatic than these; it is, indeed, a lyric of love and the joy of
There is no intenser delight to a lover of letters than to find
Shakespeare singing, with happy unconcern, of the things he loved
best--not the Shakespeare of Hamlet or Macbeth, whose intellect speaks
in critical judgements of men and of life, and whose heart we are fain
to divine from slight indications; nor Shakespeare the dramatist, who
tried now and again to give life to puppets like Coriolanus and Iago,
with whom he had little sympathy; but Shakespeare the poet, Shakespeare
the lover, Shakespeare whom Ben Jonson called "the gentle," Shakespeare
the sweet-hearted singer, as he lived and suffered and enjoyed. If I
were asked to complete the portrait given to us by Shakespeare of
himself in Hamlet-Macbeth with one single passage, I should certainly
choose the first words of the Duke in "Twelfth Night." I must transcribe
the poem, though it will be in every reader's remembrance; for it
contains the completest, the most characteristic, confession of
Shakespeare's feelings ever given in a few lines:
"If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that surfeiting
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again;--it had a dying fall:
Oh, it came o'er my ear like the sweet south
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour.--Enough! no more
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before."
Every one will notice that Shakespeare as we know him in Romeo is here
depicted again with insistence on a few salient traits; here, too, we
have the poet of the Sonnets masquerading as a Duke and the protagonist
of yet another play. There is still less art used in characterizing this
Duke than there is in characterizing Macbeth; Shakespeare merely lets
himself go and sings his feelings in the most beautiful words. This is
his philosophy of music and of love:
"Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die";
"Enough, no more; 'Tis not so sweet now as it was before."
--the quick revulsion of the delicate artist-voluptuary who wishes to
keep unblunted in memory the most exquisite pang of pleasure.
Speech after speech discovers the same happy freedom and absolute
abandonment to the "sense of beauty." Curio proposes hunting the hart,
and at once the Duke breaks out:
"Why, so I do, the noblest that I have.
O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence.
That instant was I turned into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me."--
Valentine then comes to tell him that Olivia is still mourning for her
brother, and the Duke seizes the opportunity for another lyric:
"O, she that hath a heart of that fine frame
To pay this debt of love but to a brother,
How will she love, when the rich golden shaft
Hath killed the flock of all affections else
That live in her; when liver, brain, and heart,
These sovereign thrones, are all supplied and filled--
Her sweet perfections--with one self King!--
Away before me to sweet beds of flowers,
Love-thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers."
The last two lines show clearly enough that Shakespeare was not troubled
with any thought of reality as he wrote: he was transported by Fancy
into that enchanted country of romance where beds of flowers are couches
and bowers, canopies of love. But what a sensuality there is in him!
"When liver, brain, and heart,
These sovereign thrones, are all supplied and filled--
Her sweet perfections--with one self King!--"
Of course, too, this Duke is inconstant, and swings from persistent
pursuit of Olivia to love of Viola without any other reason than the
discovery of Viola's sex. In the same way Romeo turns from Rosaline to
Juliet at first sight. This trait has been praised by Coleridge and
others as showing singular knowledge of a young man's character, but I
should rather say that inconstancy was a characteristic of sensuality
and belonged to Shakespeare himself, for Orsino, like Romeo, has no
reason to change his love; and the curious part of the matter is that
Shakespeare does not seem to think that the quick change in Orsino
requires any explanation at all. Moreover, the love of Duke Orsino for
Olivia is merely the desire of her bodily beauty--the counterpart of the
sensual jealousy of Othello. Speaking from Shakespeare's very heart, the
"Tell her, my love, more noble than the world,
Prizes not quantity of dirty lands;
The parts that Fortune hath bestowed upon her,
Tell her, I hold as giddily as Fortune;
But 'tis that miracle and queen of gems
That nature pranks her in attracts my soul."
So the body wins the soul according to this Orsino, who is, I repeat
again, Shakespeare in his most ingenuous and frankest mood; the contempt
of wealth--"dirty lands"--and the sensuality--"that miracle and queen of
gems"--are alike characteristic. A few more touches and the portrait of
this Duke will be complete; he says to the pretended Cesario when
sending him as ambassador to Olivia:
"Cesario, Thou knowest no less but all; I have unclasped
To thee the book even of my secret soul; Therefore, good youth,"--
and so forth.
It is a matter of course that this Duke should tell everything to his
friend; a matter of course, too, that he should love books and bookish
metaphors. Without being told, one knows that he delights in all
beautiful things--pictures with their faerie false presentment of forms
and life; the flesh-firm outline of marble, the warmth of ivory and the
sea-green patine of bronze--was not the poop of the vessel beaten gold,
the sails purple, the oars silver, and the very water amorous?
This Duke shows us Shakespeare's most intimate traits even when the
action does not suggest the self-revelation. When sending Viola to woo
Olivia for him he adds:
"Some four or five, attend him;
All if you will; for I myself am best
When least in company."
Like Vincentio, that other mask of Shakespeare, this Duke too loves
solitude and "the life removed"; he is "best when least in company."
If there is any one who still doubts the essential identity of Duke
Orsino and Shakespeare, let him consider the likeness in thought and
form between the Duke's lyric effusions and the Sonnets, and if that
does not convince him I might use a hitherto untried argument. When a
dramatist creates a man's character he is apt to make him, as the French
say, too much of a piece--too logical. But, in this instance, though
Shakespeare has given the Duke only a short part, he has made him
contradict himself with the charming ease that belongs peculiarly to
self-revealing. The Duke tells us:
"For such as I am all true lovers are,
--Unstaid and skittish in all motions else,
Save in the constant image of the creature
That is beloved."
The next moment he repeats this:
"For, boy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and won,
Than women's are."
And the moment after he asserts:
"There is no woman's sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman's heart
So big, to hold so much; they lack retention.
Alas! their love may be called appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That suffers surfeit, cloyment, and revolt!"
Hamlet contradicts himself, too: at one moment he declares that his soul
is immortal, and at the next is full of despair. But Hamlet is so
elaborate a portrait, built up of so many minute touches, that
self-contradiction is a part, and a necessary part, of his many-sided
complexity. But the Duke in "Twelfth Night" reveals himself as it were
accidentally; we know little more of him than that he loves music and
love, books and flowers, and that he despises wealth and company;
accordingly, when he contradicts himself, we may suspect that
Shakespeare is letting himself speak freely without much care for the
coherence of characterization. And the result of this frankness is that
he has given a more intimate, a more confidential, sketch of himself in
Duke Orsino of "Twelfth Night" than he has given us in any play except
perhaps "Hamlet" and "Macbeth."
I hardly need to prove that Shakespeare in his earliest plays, as in his
latest, in his Sonnets as in his darkest tragedy, loved flowers and
music. In almost every play he speaks of flowers with affection and
delight. One only needs to recall the song in "A Midsummer's Night's
Dream," "I know a bank," or Perdita's exquisite words:
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes
Or Cytherea's breath; pale primroses,
That die unmarried ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength, a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips, and
The crown-imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one";
or Arviragus' praise of Imogen:
"Thou shalt not lack
The flower that's like thy face, pale primrose, nor
The azured harebell like thy veins; no, nor
The leaf of eglantine, whom not to slander
Outsweetened not thy breath."
Shakespeare praises music so frequently and so enthusiastically that we
must regard the trait as characteristic of his deepest nature. Take this
play which we are handling now. Not only the Duke, but both the
heroines, Viola and Olivia, love music. Viola can sing "in many sorts of
music," and Olivia admits that she would rather hear Viola solicit love
than "music from the spheres." Romeo almost confounds music with love,
as does Duke Orsino:
"How silver-sweet sound lovers' tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears!"
"And let rich music's tongue
Unfold the imagin'd happiness that both
Receive in either by this dear encounter."
It is a curious and characteristic fact that Shakespeare gives almost
the same words to Ferdinand in the "Tempest" that he gave ten years
earlier to the Duke in "Twelfth Night." In both passages music goes with
passion to allay its madness:
"This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air"
and Duke Orsino says:
"That old and antique song we heard last night,
Methought it did relieve my passion much."
This confession is so peculiar; shows, too, so exquisitely fine a
sensibility, that its repetition makes me regard it as Shakespeare's.
The most splendid lyric on music is given to Lorenzo in the "Merchant of
Venice," and it may be remarked in passing that Lorenzo is not a
character, but, like Claudio, a mere name and a mouthpiece of
Shakespeare's feeling. Shakespeare was almost as well content, it
appears, to play the lover as to play the Duke. I cannot help
transcribing the magical verses, though they must be familiar to every
lover of our English tongue:
"How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica: Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubims.
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it."
The first lines of this poem are conceived in the very spirit of the
poems of "Twelfth Night," and in the last lines Shakespeare puts to use
that divine imagination which lifts all his best verse into the higher
air of life, and reaches its noblest in Prospero's solemn-sad lyric.
Shakespeare's love of music is so much a part of himself that he
condemns those who do not share it; this argument, too, is given to
"The man that hath no music to himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted."
That this view was not merely the expression of a passing mood is shown
by the fact that Shakespeare lends no music to his villains; but Timon
gives welcome to his friends with music, just as Hamlet welcomes the
players with music and Portia calls for music while her suitors make
their eventful choice. Titania and Oberon both seek the aid of music to
help them in their loves, and the war-worn and time-worn Henry IV. prays
for music to bring some rest to his "weary spirit"; in much the same
mood Prospero desires music when he breaks his wand and resigns his
Here, again, in "Twelfth Night" in full manhood Shakespeare shows
himself to us as Romeo, in love with flowers and music and passion.
True, this Orsino is a little less occupied with verbal quips, a little
more frankly sensual, too, than Romeo; but then Romeo would have been
more frankly sensual had he lived from twenty-five to thirty-five. As an
older man, too, Orsino has naturally more of Hamlet-Shakespeare's
peculiar traits than Romeo showed; the contempt of wealth and love of
solitude are qualities hardly indicated in Romeo, while in Orsino as in
the mature Shakespeare they are salient characteristics. To sum up:
Hamlet-Macbeth gives us Shakespeare's mind; but in Romeo-Orsino he has
discovered his heart and poetic temperament to us as ingenuously, though
not, perhaps, so completely, as he does in the Sonnets.
SHAKESPEARE'S HUMOUR: FALSTAFF
Shakespeare's portraits of himself are not to be mistaken; the changes
in him caused by age bring into clearer light the indestructible
individuality, and no difference of circumstance or position has any
effect upon this distinctive character: whether he is the lover, Romeo;
the murderer, Macbeth; the courtier, Hamlet; or the warrior, Posthumus;
he is always the same--a gentle yet impulsive nature, sensuous at once
and meditative; half poet, half philosopher, preferring nature and his
own reveries to action and the life of courts; a man physically
fastidious to disgust, as is a delicate woman, with dirt and smells and
common things; an idealist daintily sensitive to all courtesies,
chivalries, and distinctions. The portrait is not yet complete--far from
it, indeed; but already it is manifest that Shakespeare's nature was so
complex, so tremulously poised between world-wide poles of poetry and
philosophy, of what is individual and concrete on the one hand and what
is abstract and general on the other, that the task of revealing himself
was singularly difficult. It is not easy even to describe him as he
painted himself: it may be that, wishing to avoid a mere catalogue of
disparate qualities, I have brought into too great prominence the gentle
passionate side of Shakespeare's nature; though that would be difficult
and in any case no bad fault; for this is the side which has hitherto
been neglected or rather overlooked by the critics.
My view of Shakespeare can be made clearer by examples. I began by
taking Hamlet the philosopher as Shakespeare's most profound and complex
study, and went on to prove that Hamlet is the most complete portrait
which Shakespeare has given of himself, other portraits being as it were
sides of Hamlet or less successful replicas of him; and finally I
tried to complete the Hamlet by uniting him with Duke Orsino, Orsino the
poet-lover being, so to speak, Shakespeare's easiest and most natural
portrait. In Hamlet, if one may dare to say so, Shakespeare has
discovered too much of himself: Hamlet is at one and the same time
philosopher and poet, critic and courtier, lover and cynic--the extremes
that Shakespeare's intellect could cover--and he fills every part so
easily that he might almost be a bookish Admirable Crichton, a type of
perfection rather than an individual man, were it not for his feminine
gentleness and forgivingness of nature, and particularly for the
brooding melancholy and disbelief which darkened Shakespeare's outlook
at the time. But though the melancholy scepticism was an abiding
characteristic of Shakespeare, to be found in his Richard II. as in his
Prospero, it did not overshadow all his being as it does Hamlet's. There
was a summer-time, too, in Shakespeare's life, and in his nature a
capacity for sunny gaiety and a delight in life and love which came to
full expression in the golden comedies, "Much Ado," "As You Like It" and
"Twelfth Night." The complement to Hamlet the sad philosopher-sceptic is
the sensuous happy poet-lover Orsino, and when we take these seeming
antitheses and unite them we have a good portrait of Shakespeare. But
these two, Hamlet and Orsino, are in reality one; every quality of
Orsino is to be found or divined in Hamlet, and therefore the easiest
and surest way to get at Shakespeare is to take Hamlet and deepen those
peculiarities in him which we find in Orsino.
Some critics are sure to say that I have now given a portrait of
Coleridge rather than a portrait of Shakespeare. This is not altogether
the fact, though I for one see no shame in acknowledging the likeness.
Coleridge had a "smack of Hamlet" in him, as he himself saw; indeed, in
his rich endowment as poet and philosopher, and in his gentleness and
sweetness of disposition, he was more like Shakespeare than any other
Englishman whom I can think of; but in Coleridge the poet soon
disappeared, and a little later the philosopher in him faded into the
visionary and sophist; he became an upholder of the English Church and
found reasons in the immutable constitution of the universe for aprons
and shovel-hats. Shakespeare, on the other hand, though similarly
endowed, was far more richly endowed: he had stronger passions and
greater depth of feeling; the sensuousness of Keats was in him; and this
richness of nature not only made him a greater lyric poet than Coleridge
and a far saner thinker, but carried him in spite of a constitutional
dislike of resolve and action to his astounding achievement.
But even when we thus compare Shakespeare with Coleridge, as we compare
trees of the same species, showing that as the roots of the one go
deeper and take a firmer hold of earth, so in exact measure the crest
rises into higher air, still there is something lacking to our
comparison. Even when we hold Hamlet-Orsino before us as the best
likeness of the master-poet, our impression of him is still incomplete.
There remains a host of creations from Launce to Autolycus, and from
Dame Quickly to Maria, which proves that Shakespeare was something more
than the gentle lover-thinker-poet whom we have shown. It is
Shakespeare's humour that differentiates him not only from Coleridge and
Keats, but also from the world-poets, Goethe, Dante, and Homer. It is
this unique endowment that brings him into vital touch with reality and
common life, and hinders us from feeling his all-pervading ideality as
disproportioned or one-sided. Strip him of his humour and he would have
been seen long ago in his true proportions. His sympathies are not more
broad and generous than Balzac's; his nature is too delicate, too
sensitive, too sensuous; but his humour blinds us to the truth. Of
course his comic characters, like his captains and men of action, are
due originally to his faculty of observation; but while his observation
of the fighting men is always superficial and at times indifferent, his
humorous observation is so intensely interested and sympathetic that its
creations are only inferior in artistic value to his portraits of the
The intellect in him had little or nothing to go upon in the case of the
man of action; he never loved the Captain or watched him at work; it is
his mind and second-hand knowledge that made Henry V. and Richard III.;
and how slight and shallow are these portraits in comparison with the
portrait of a Parolles or a Sir Toby Belch, or the ever-famous Nurse,
where the same intellect has played about the humorous trait and
heightened the effect of loving observation. The critics who have
ignorantly praised his Hotspur and Bastard as if he had been a man of
deeds as well as a man of words have only obscured the truth that
Shakespeare the poet-philosopher, the lover quand meme, only
reached a sane balance of nature through his overflowing humour. He
whose intellect and sensibilities inspired him with nothing but contempt
and loathing for the mass of mankind, the aristocrat who in a dozen
plays sneers at the greasy caps and foul breaths of the multitude, fell
in love with Dogberry, and Bottom, Quickly and Tearsheet, clod and
clown, pimp and prostitute, for the laughter they afforded. His humour
is rarely sardonic; it is almost purged of contempt; a product not of
hate but of love; full of sympathy; summer-lightning humour, harmless
Sometimes the sympathy fails and the laughter grows grim, and these
lapses are characteristic. He hates false friends and timeservers, the
whole tribe of the ungrateful, the lords of Timon's acquaintance and his
artists; he loathes Shylock, whose god is greed and who battens on
others' misfortunes; he laughs at the self-righteous Malvolio and not
with him, and takes pleasure in unmasking the pretended ascetic and
Puritan Angelo; but for the frailties of the flesh he has an ever-ready
forgiveness. Like the greatest of ethical teachers, he can take the
publican and the sinner to his heart, but not the hypocrite or the
Pharisee or the money-lender.
It does not come within the scope of this essay to attempt a detailed
criticism of Shakespeare's comic characters; it will be enough for my
purpose to show that even in his masterpiece of humour, the incomparable
Falstaff, he betrays himself more than once: more than once we shall
find Shakespeare, the poet, or Shakespeare, the thinker, speaking
through Falstaff's mouth. Yet to criticize Falstaff is difficult, and if
easy, it would still be an offence to those capable of gratitude. I
would as soon find fault with Ariel's most exquisite lyric, or the
impeccable loveliness of the "Dove Sono," as weigh the rich words of the
Lord of Comedy in small balances of reason. But such considerations must
not divert me from my purpose; I have undertaken to discover the very
soul of Shakespeare, and I must, therefore, trace him in Falstaff as in
Falstaff enters and asks the Prince the time. The Prince answers that
unless "hours were cups of sack and so forth, he can't understand why
Falstaff should care about anything so superfluous as time." Falstaff
replies: "Indeed you come near me now, Hal; for we that take purses go
by the moon and the seven stars and not by Phoebus, he, 'that wandering
knight so fair.'" Here we have a sort of lyrical strain in Falstaff and
then a tag of poetry which gives food for thought; but his next speech
"Let us be Diana's foresters, gentlemen of the shade,
minions of the moon; and let men say we be men of
good government, being governed, as the sea is, by our
noble and chaste mistress, the moon, under whose
This is Shakespeare speaking, and Shakespeare alone: the phrases sing to
us in the unmistakable music of the master-poet, though the fall at the
last to "--steal," seems to be an attempt to get into the character of
Falstaff. It is, of course, difficult to make the first words of a
person sharply characteristic; a writer is apt to work himself into a
new character gradually; it is only the sensitive self-consciousness of
our time that demands an absolute fidelity in characterization from the
first word to the last. Yet this scene is so excellent and natural, that
the uncertainty in the painting of Falstaff strikes me as peculiar. But
this first speech is not the only speech of Falstaff in which
Shakespeare betrays himself; again and again we catch the very accent of
the poet. It is not Falstaff but Shakespeare who says that "the poor
abuses of the time want countenance"; and later in the play, when the
character of Falstaff is fully developed, it is Shakespeare, the
thinker, who calls Falstaff's ragged regiment "the cankers of a calm
world and a long peace." In just the same way Hamlet speaks of the
expedition of Fortinbras:
"This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks."
But though the belief that Shakespeare sometimes falls out of the
character and slips phrases of his own into Falstaff's mouth is
well-founded, it should nevertheless be put aside as a heresy, for the
true faith is that the white-bearded old footpad who cheered on his
"Strike.... Bacon-fed knaves! they hate us youth:
down with them! fleece them!"
"On, bacons, on! What, ye knaves! young men
is the most splendid piece of humorous portraiture in the world's
Who but Falstaff would have found his self-justification in his
youth?--splendide mendax! and yet the excuse is as true to his
sack-heated blood when he uses it on Gadshill as it was true also to
fact when he first used it forty years before. And who but Falstaff
would have had the words of repentance always on his lips and never in
his heart? I ascribe these illuminating flashes to Falstaff, and not to
Shakespeare, for no imagination in the world has yet accomplished such a
miracle; as a miracle of representment Falstaff is astonishing enough,
as a miracle of creation he is simply unthinkable. I would almost as
soon believe that Falstaff made Shakespeare as that Shakespeare made
Falstaff without a living model. All hail to thee, inimitable,
incomparable Jack! Never before or since has poet been blessed with such
a teacher, as rich and laughterful, as mendacious and corrupting as life
I must not be taken to mean that the living original of Falstaff was as
richly humorous, as inexhaustibly diverting as the dramatic counterfeit
who is now a citizen and chief personage in that world of literature
which outlasts all the fleeting shows of the so-called real world. It
seems to me to be possible for a good reader to notice not only
Shakespeare's lapses and faults in the drawing of this character, but
also to make a very fair guess at his heightening touches, and so arrive
at last at the humorous old lewdster who furnished the living model for
the inimitable portrait. The first scene in which Falstaff appears
talking with Prince Henry will supply examples to illustrate my meaning.
Falstaff's very first speech after he asks Hal the time of day gives us
the key; he ends it with:
"And I pr'ythee, sweet wag, when thou art king,--as,
God save thy grace--majesty, I should say, for grace
thou wilt have none,--"
Here he is interrupted and breaks off, but a minute or two later he
comes back again to his argument, and curiously enough uses exactly the
"But, I pr'ythee, sweet wag, shall there be gallows
standing in England when thou art king? and resolution
thus fobbed as it is with the rusty curb of old father
Antick, the law?"
Now, this question and the hope it expresses that justice would be put
to shame in England on Prince Henry's accession to the throne is taken
from a speech of the Prince in the old play, "The Famous Victories of
Henry the Fifth." Shakespeare would have done better to leave it out,
for Falstaff has far too good brains to imagine that all thieves could
ever have his licence and far too much conceit ever to desire so unholy
a consummation. And Shakespeare must have felt that the borrowed words
were too shallow-common, for he immediately falls back on his own brains
for the next phrase and gives us of his hoarded best. The second part of
the question, "resolution thus fobbed," and so forth, is only another
statement of the famous couplet in "Richard III.":
"Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe."
These faults show that Shakespeare is at first unsure of his personage;
he fumbles a little; yet the vivacity, the roaring life, is certainly a
quality of the original Falstaff, for it attends him as constantly as
his shadow; the pun, too, is his, and the phrase "sweet wag" is probably
taken from his mouth, for he repeats it again, "sweet wag," and again
"mad wag." The shamelessness, too, and the lechery are marks of him, and
the love of witty word-warfare, and, above all, the pretended
"O, thou hast damnable iteration, and art, indeed,
able to corrupt a saint. Thou hast done much harm
upon me, Hal,--God forgive thee for it. Before I knew
thee, Hal, I knew nothing; and now am I, if a man
should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked.
I must give over this life, and I will give it over; by the
Lord, an I do not, I am a villain; I'll be damned for
never a king's son in Christendom."
In this first scene between Falstaff and Prince Henry, Shakespeare is
feeling his way, so to speak, blindfold to Falstaff, with gropings of
memory and dashes of poetry that lead him past the mark. In this first
scene, as we noticed, he puts fine lyric phrases in Falstaff's mouth;
but he never repeats the experiment; Falstaff and high poetry are
anti-podes--all of which merely proves that at first Shakespeare had not
got into the skin of his personage. But the real Falstaff had probably
tags of verse in memory and lilts of song, for Shakespeare repeats this
trait. Here we reach the test: Whenever a feature is accentuated by
repetition, we may guess that it belongs to the living model. There was
assuredly a strong dash of Puritanism in the real Falstaff, for when
Shakespeare comes to render this, he multiplies the brush-strokes with
perfect confidence; Falstaff is perpetually repenting.
After the first scene Shakespeare seems to have made up his mind to keep
closely to his model and only to permit himself heightening touches.
In order to come closer to the original, I will now take another passage
later in the play, when Shakespeare is drawing Falstaff with a sure
"Fal. A plague of all cowards, I say, and a vengeance
too! marry and amen!--Give me a cup of sack, boy.--
Ere I lead this life long, I'll sew netherstocks, and mend
them, and foot them, too. A plague of all cowards!--
give me a cup of sack, rogue.--Is there no virtue extant?
Here is surely the true Falstaff; he will not lead this life long; this
is the soul of him; but the exquisite heightening phrase, "Is there no
virtue extant?" is pure Shakespeare, Shakespeare generalizing as we saw
him generalizing in just the same way in the scene where Cade is talked
of in the Second Part of "King Henry VI." The form too is Shakespeare's.
Who does not remember the magic line in "The Two Noble Kinsmen "?
"She is all the beauty extant."
And the next speech of Falstaff is just as illuminating:
"Fal. You rogue, here's lime in this sack, too; there is nothing
but roguery to be found in villainous man: yet a coward is worse than a
cup of sack with lime in it--a villainous coward.--Go thy ways, old
Jack; die when thou wilt, if manhood, good manhood, be not forgot upon
the face of the earth, then am I a shotten herring. There live not three
good men unhanged in England, and one of them is fat and grows old: God
help the while! A bad world I say----"
At the beginning the concrete fact, then generalization, and then merely
a repetition of the traits marked in the first scene, with the addition
of bragging. Evidently Shakespeare has the model in memory as he writes.
I say "evidently," for Falstaff is the only character in Shakespeare
that repeats the same words with damnable iteration, and in whom the
same traits are shown again and again and again. When Shakespeare is
painting himself in Richard II. he depicts irresolution again and again
as he depicts it also in Hamlet; but neither Hamlet nor Richard repeats
the same words, nor is any trait in either of them accentuated so
grossly as are the principal traits of Falstaff's character. The
features in Falstaff which are so harped upon, are to me the features of
the original model. Shakespeare did not know Falstaff quite as well as
he knew himself; so he has to confine himself to certain qualities which
he had observed, and stick, besides, to certain tags of speech, which
were probably favourites with the living man.
In another important particular, too, Falstaff is unlike any other comic
character in Shakespeare: he tells the truth about himself in a magical
way. The passage I allude to is the first speech made by Falstaff in the
Second Part of "Henry IV."; it shows us Shakespeare getting into the
character again--after a certain lapse of time:
"Fal. Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me; the
brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not able
to invent anything that tends to laughter, more than I
invent or is invented on me: I am not only witty in myself,
but the cause that wit is in other men--"
Just as in the first act Shakespeare introducing Falstaff makes him talk
poetically, so here there is a certain exaltation and lyrical swing
which betrays the poet-creator. "Foolish-compounded," too, shows
Shakespeare's hand, but the boast, I feel sure, was a boast often made
by the original, and thus brings Shakespeare into intimate union with
the character; for after this introduction Falstaff goes on to talk pure
Falstaff, unmixed with any slightest dash of poetry.
Who was the original of Falstaff? Is a guess possible? It seems to me it
must have been some lover of poetry--perhaps Chettle, the Chettle who
years before had published Greene's attack upon Shakespeare and who
afterwards made amends for it. In Dekker's tract, "A Knight's
Conjuring," Chettle figures among the poets in Elysium: "In comes
Chettle sweating and blowing by reason of his fatnes; to welcome whom,
because hee was of olde acquaintance, all rose up, and fell presentlie
on their knees, to drinck a health to all the louers of Hellicon." Here
we have a fat man greeted with laughter and mock reverence by the
poets--just such a model as Shakespeare needed, but the guess is mere
conjecture: we don't know enough about Chettle to be at all sure. Yet
Chettle was by way of being a poet, and Falstaff uses tags of
verse--still, as I say, it is all pure guesswork. The only reason I put
his name forward is that some have talked of Ben Jonson as Falstaff's
original merely because he was fat. I cannot believe that gentle
Shakespeare would ever have treated Jonson with such contempt; but
Chettle seems to have been a butt by nature.
That Falstaff was taken from one model is to me certain. Shakespeare
very seldom tells us what his characters look like; whenever he gives us
a photograph, so to speak, of a person, it is always taken from life and
extraordinarily significant. We have several portraits of Falstaff: the
Prince gives a picture of the "old fat man,..." that trunk of humours
"... that old white-bearded Satan"; the Chief Justice gives us another
of his "moist eye, white beard, increasing belly and double chin."
Falstaff himself has another: "a goodly portly man, i' faith and a
corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble
carriage." Such physical portraiture alone would convince me that there
was a living model for Falstaff. But there are more obvious arguments:
the other humorous characters of Shakespeare are infinitely inferior to
Falstaff, and the best of them are merely sides of Falstaff or poor
reflections of him. Autolycus and Parolles have many of his traits, but
they are not old, and taken together, they are only a faint
replica of the immortal footpad.
Listening with my heart in my ears, I catch a living voice, a round, fat
voice with tags of "pr'ythee," "wag," and "marry," and behind the
inimitable dramatic counterfeit I see a big man with a white head and
round belly who loved wine and women and jovial nights, a Triton among
the minnows of boon companions, whose shameless effrontery was backed by
cunning, whose wit though common was abundant and effective through long
practice--a sort of licensed tavern-king, whose mere entrance into a
room set the table in a roar. Shakespeare was attracted by the
many-sided racy ruffian, delighted perhaps most by his easy mastery of
life and men; he studied him with infinite zest, absorbed him wholly,
and afterwards reproduced him with such richness of sympathy, such magic
of enlarging invention that he has become, so to speak, the symbol of
laughter throughout the world, for men of all races the true Comic Muse.
In any case I may be allowed one last argument. The Falstaff of "The
Merry Wives of Windsor" is not the Falstaff of the two parts of "King
Henry IV."; it is but a shadow of the great knight that we see, an echo
of him that we hear in the later comedy. Falstaff would never have
written the same letter to Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page; there was too much
fancy in him, too much fertility, too much delight in his own mind- and
word-wealth ever to show himself so painfully stinted and barren. Nor is
it credible that Falstaff would ever have fallen three times running
into the same trap; Falstaff made traps; he did not fall into them. We
know, too, that Falstaff would not fight "longer than he saw reason";
his instinct of self-preservation was largely developed; but he could
face a sword; he drew on Pistol and chased him from the room; he was not
such a pitiful coward as to take Ford's cudgelling. Finally, the
Falstaff whom we all know could never have been befooled by the Welshman
and his child-fairies. And this objection Shakespeare himself felt, for
he meets it by making Falstaff explain how near he came to discovering
the fraud, and how wit is made "a Jack-a-Lent when 'tis upon ill
employment." But the fact that some explanation is necessary is an
admission of the fault. Falstaff must indeed have laid his brains in the
sun before he could have been taken in by foppery so gross and palpable.
This is not the same man who at once recognized the Prince and Poins
through their disguise as drawers. Yet there are moments when the
Falstaff of "The Merry Wives" resumes his old nature. For example, when
he is accused by Pistol of sharing in the proceeds of the theft, he
answers with all the old shameless wit:
"Reason, you rogue, reason; think'st thou I'll endanger
my soul gratis?"
and, again, when he has been cozened and beaten, he speaks almost in the
"I never prospered since I forswore myself at primero.
Well, if my wind were but long enough to say my
prayers, I would repent."
But on the whole the Falstaff of "The Merry Wives" is but a poor thin
shadow of the Falstaff of the two parts of "Henry IV."
Had "The Merry Wives" been produced under ordinary conditions, one would
have had to rack one's brains to account for its feebleness. Not only is
the genial Lord of Humour degraded in it into a buffoon, but the
amusement of it is chiefly in situation; it is almost as much a farce as
a comedy. For these and other reasons I believe in the truth of the
tradition that Elizabeth was so pleased with the character of Falstaff
that she ordered Shakespeare to write another play showing the fat
knight in love, and that in obedience to this command Shakespeare wrote
"The Merry Wives" in a fortnight. For what does a dramatist do when he
is in a hurry to strike while the iron is hot and to catch a Queen's
fancy before it changes? Naturally he goes to his memory for his
characters, to that vivid memory of youth which makes up by precision of
portraiture for what it lacks in depth of comprehension. And this is the
distinguishing characteristic of "The Merry Wives," particularly in the
beginning. Even without "the dozen white luces" in his coat, one would
swear that this Justice Shallow, with his pompous pride of birth and his
stilted stupidity, is a portrait from life, some Sir Thomas Lucy or
other, and Justice Shallow is not so deeply etched in as his cousin,
Master Slender--"a little wee face, with a little yellow beard,--a
cane-coloured beard." Such physical portraiture, as I have said, is very
rare and very significant in Shakespeare. This photograph is slightly
malevolent, too, as of one whose malice is protected by a Queen's
commission. Those who do not believe traditions when thus
circumstantially supported would not believe though one rose from the
dead to witness to them. "The Merry Wives" is worthful to me as the only
piece of Shakespeare's journalism that we possess; here we find him
doing task-work, and doing it at utmost speed. Those who wish to measure
the difference between the conscious, deliberate work of the artist and
the hurried slap-dash performance of the journalist, have only to
compare the Falstaff of "The Merry Wives" with the Falstaff of the two
parts of "Henry IV." But if we take it for granted that "The Merry
Wives" was done in haste and to order, can any inference be fairly drawn
from the feebleness of Falstaff and the unreality of his love-making? I
think so; it seems to me that, if Falstaff had been a creation,
Shakespeare must have reproduced him more effectively. His love-making
in the second part of "Henry IV." is real enough. But just because
Falstaff was taken from life, and studied from the outside, Shakespeare
having painted him once could not paint him again, he had exhausted his
model and could only echo him.
The heart of the matter is that, whereas Shakespeare's men of action,
when he is not helped by history or tradition, are thinly conceived and
poorly painted, his comic characters--Falstaff, Sir Toby Belch, and
Dogberry; Maria, Dame Quickly, and the Nurse, creatures of observation
though they be, are only inferior as works of art to the portraits of
himself which he has given us in Romeo, Hamlet, Macbeth, Orsino, and
Posthumus. It is his humour which makes Shakespeare the greatest of
dramatists, the most complete of men.
SHAKESPEARE'S EARLY ATTEMPTS TO PORTRAY HIMSELF AND HIS WIFE:
BIRON, ADRIANA, VALENTINE
In the preceding chapters I have considered those impersonations of
Shakespeare which revealed most distinctly the salient features of his
character. I now regard this part of my work as finished: the outlines
at least of his nature are established beyond dispute, and I may
therefore be permitted to return upon my steps, and beginning with the
earliest works pass in review most of the other personages who discover
him, however feebly or profoundly. Hitherto I have rather challenged
contradiction than tried to conciliate or persuade; it was necessary to
convince the reader that Shakespeare was indeed Hamlet-Orsino, plus an
exquisite sense of humour; and as the proofs of this were almost
inexhaustible, and as the stability of the whole structure depended on
the firmness of the foundations, I was more than willing to call forth
opposition in order once for all to strangle doubt. But now that I have
to put in the finer traits of the portrait I have to hope for the
goodwill at least of my readers. Even then my task is not easy. The
subtler traits of a man's character often elude accurate description, to
say nothing of exact proof; the differences in tone between a
dramatist's own experiences of life and his observation of the
experiences of others are often so slight as to be all but unnoticeable.
In the case of some peculiarities I have only a mere suggestion to go
upon, in that of others a bare surmise, a hint so fleeting that it may
well seem to the judicious as if the meshes of language were too coarse
to catch such evanescent indication.
Fortunately in this work I am not called on to limit myself to that
which can be proved beyond question, or to the ordinary man. I think my
reader will allow me, or indeed expect me, now to throw off constraint
and finish my picture as I please.
In this second book then I shall try to correct Shakespeare's portraits
of himself by bringing out his concealed faults and vices--the
shortcomings one's vanity slurs over and omits. Above all I shall try to
notice anything that throws light upon his life, for I have to tell here
the story of his passion and his soul's wreck. At the crisis of his life
he revealed himself almost without affectation; in agony men forget to
pose. And this more intimate understanding of the man will enable us to
reconstruct, partially at least, the happenings of his life, and so
trace not only his development, but the incidents of his life's journey
from his school days in 1575 till he crept home to Stratford to die
nearly forty years later.
The chief academic critics, such as Professor Dowden and Dr. Brandes,
take pains to inform us that Biron in "Love's Labour's Lost" is nothing
but an impersonation of Shakespeare. This would show much insight on the
part of the Professors were it not that Coleridge as usual has been
before them, and that Coleridge's statement is to be preferred to
theirs. Coleridge was careful to say that the whole play revealed many
of Shakespeare's characteristic features, and he added finely, "as in a
portrait taken of him in his boyhood." This is far truer than Dowden's
more precise statement that "Berowne is the exponent of Shakespeare's
own thought." For though, of course, Biron is especially the mouthpiece
of the poet, yet Shakespeare reveals himself in the first speech of the
King as clearly as he does in any speech of Biron:
"Let Fame, that all hunt after in their lives,
Live registered upon our brazen tombs,
And then grace us in the disgrace of death;
When, spite of cormorant devouring Time,
The endeavour of this present breath may buy
That honour which shall 'bate his scythe's keen edge,
And make us heirs of all eternity."
The King's criticism, too, of Armado in the first scene is more finely
characteristic of Shakespeare than Biron's criticism of Boyet in the
last act. In this, his first drama, Shakespeare can hardly sketch a
sympathetic character without putting something of himself into it.
I regard "Love's Labour's Lost" as Shakespeare's earliest comedy, not
only because the greater part of it is in rhymed verse, but also because
he was unable in it to individualize his serious personages at all; the
comic characters, on the other hand, are already carefully observed and
distinctly differenced. Biron himself is scarcely more than a charming
sketch: he is almost as interested in language as in love, and he plays
with words till they revenge themselves by obscuring his wit; he is
filled with the high spirits of youth; in fact, he shows us the form and
pressure of the Renaissance as clearly as the features of Shakespeare.
It is, however, Biron-Shakespeare, who understands that the real world
is built on broader natural foundations than the King's womanless
Academe, and therefore predicts the failure of the ascetic experiment.
Another trait in Biron that brings us close to Shakespeare is his
contempt for book-learning;
"Small have continual plodders ever won
Save bare authority from others' books.
* * * * *
Too much to know is to know nought but fame;
And every godfather can give a name."
Again and again he returns to the charge:
"To study now it is too late,
Climb o'er the house to unlock the little gate."
The summing up is triumphant:
"So, study evermore is overshot."
In fine, Biron ridicules study at such length and with such earnestness
and pointed phrase that it is manifest the discussion was intensely
interesting to Shakespeare himself. But we should have expected
Shakespeare's alter ego to be arguing on the other side; for
again and again we have had to notice that Shakespeare was a confirmed
lover of books; he was always using bookish metaphors, and Hamlet was a
student by nature. This attitude on the part of Biron, then, calls for
explanation, and it seems to me that the only possible explanation is to
be found in Shakespeare's own experience. Those who know England as she
was in the days of Elizabeth, or as she is to-day, will hardly need to
be told that when Shakespeare first came to London he was regarded as an
unlettered provincial ("with little Latin and less Greek"), and had to
bear the mocks and flouts of his beschooled fellows, who esteemed
learning and gentility above genius. In his very first independent play
he answered the scorners with scorn. But this disdain of study was not
Shakespeare's real feeling; and his natural loyalty to the deeper truth
forced him to make Biron contradict and excuse his own argument in a way
which seems to me altogether charming; but is certainly undramatic:
"--Though I have for barbarism spoke more
Than for that angel knowledge you can say."
Undramatic the declaration is because it is at war with the length and
earnestness with which Biron has maintained his contempt for learning;
but here undoubtedly we find the true Shakespeare who as a youth speaks
of "that angel, knowledge," just as in "Cymbeline" twenty years later he
calls reverence, "that angel of the world."
When we come to his "Life" we shall see that Shakespeare, who was thrown
into the scrimmage of existence as a youth, and had to win his own way
in the world, had, naturally enough, a much higher opinion of books and
book-learning than Goethe, who was bred a student and knew life only as
"Einen Blick in's Buch hinein und zwei in's Leben
Das muss die rechte Form dem Geiste geben."
Shakespeare would undoubtedly have given "two glances" to books and one
to life, had he been free to choose; but perhaps after all Goethe was
right in warning us that life is more valuable to the artist than any
transcript of it.
To return to our theme; Biron is not among Shakespeare's successful
portraits of himself. As might be expected in a first essay, the drawing
is now over-minute, now too loose. When Biron talks of study, he
reveals, as we have seen, personal feelings that are merely transient;
on the other hand, when he talks about Boyet he talks merely to hear
"the music of his own vain tongue." He is, however, always nimble-witted
and impulsive; "quick Biron" as the Princess calls him, a gentleman of
charming manners, of incomparable fluent, graceful, and witty speech,
which qualities afterwards came to blossom in Mercutio and Gratiano. The
faults in portraiture are manifestly due to inexperience: Shakespeare
was still too youthful-timid to paint his chief features boldly, and it
is left for Rosaline to picture Biron for us as Shakespeare doubtless
desired to appear:
"A merrier man,
Within the limits of becoming mirth,
I never spent an hour's talk withal.
His eye begets occasion for his wit;
For every object that the one doth catch,
The other turns to a mirth-moving jest,
Which his fair tongue, conceit's expositor,
Delivers in such apt and gracious words
That aged ears play truant at his tales,
And younger hearings are quite ravished,
So sweet and voluble is his discourse."
Every touch of this self-painted portrait deserves to be studied: it is
the first photograph of our poet which we possess--a photograph, too,
taken in early manhood. Shakespeare's wit we knew, his mirth too, and
that his conversation was voluble and sweet enough to ravish youthful
ears and enthrall the aged we might have guessed from Jonson's report.
But it is delightful to hear of his mirth-moving words and to know that
he regarded himself as the best talker in the world. But just as the
play at the end turns from love-making and gay courtesies to thoughts of
death and "world-without-end" pledges, so Biron's merriment is only the
effervescence of youth, and love brings out in him Shakespeare's
"By heaven, I do love, and it hath taught me to
rhyme, and to be melancholy."
Again and again, as in his apology to Rosaline and his appeal at the end
of the play to "honest plain words," he shows a deep underlying
seriousness. The soul of quick talkative mirthful Biron is that he loves
beauty whether of women or of words, and though he condemns "taffeta
phrases," he shows his liking for the "silken terms precise" in the very
form of his condemnation.
Of course all careful readers know that the greater seriousness of the
last two acts of "Love's Labour's Lost," and the frequent use of blank
verse instead of rhymed verse in them, are due to the fact that
Shakespeare revised the play in 1597, some eight or nine years probably
after he had first written it. Every one must have noticed the
repetitions in Biron's long speech at the end of the fourth act, which
show the original garment and the later, finer embroidery. As I shall
have to return to this revision for other reasons, it will be enough
here to remark that it is especially the speeches of Biron which
Shakespeare improved in the second handling
Dr. Brandes, or rather Coleridge, tells us that in Biron and his
Rosaline we have the first hesitating sketch of the masterly Benedick
and Beatrice of "Much Ado about Nothing"; but in this I think Coleridge
goes too far. Unformed as Biron is, he is Shakespeare in early youth,
whereas in Benedick the likeness is not by any means so clear. In fact,
Benedick is merely an admirable stage silhouette and needs to be filled
out with an actor's personality. Beatrice, on the other hand, is a woman
of a very distinct type, whereas Rosaline needs pages of explanation,
which Coleridge never dreamed of. A certain similarity rather of
situation than of character seems to have misled Coleridge in this
instance. Boyet jests with Maria and Rosaline just as Biron does, and
just as Benedick jests with Beatrice: all these scenes simply show how
intensely young Shakespeare enjoyed a combat of wits, spiced with the
suggestiveness that nearly always shows itself when the combatants are
of different sexes.
It is almost certain that "Love's Labour's Lost" was wholly conceived
and constructed as well as written by Shakespeare; no play or story has
yet been found which might, in this case, have served him as a model.
For the first and probably the last time he seems to have taken the
entire drama from his imagination, and the result from a playwright's
point of view is unfortunate; "Love's Labour's Lost" is his slightest
and feeblest play. It is scarcely ever seen on the stage--is, indeed,
practically unactable. This fact goes to confirm the view already put
forth more than once in these pages, that Shakespeare was not a good
playwright and took little or no interest in the external incidents of
his dramas. The plot and action of the story, so carefully worked out by
the ordinary playwright and so highly esteemed by critics and
spectators, he always borrows, as if he had recognized the weakness of
this first attempt, and when he sets himself to construct a play, it has
no action, no plot--is, indeed, merely a succession of fantastic
occurrences that give occasion for light love-making and brilliant talk.
Even in regard to the grouping of characters the construction of his
early plays is puerile, mechanical; in "Love's Labour's Lost" the King
with his three courtiers is set against the Princess and her three
ladies; in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" there is the faithful Valentine
opposed to the inconstant Proteus, and each of them has a comic servant;
and when later his plays from this point of view were not manufactured
but grew, and thus assumed the beautiful irregular symmetry of life, the
incidents were still neglected. Neither the poet nor the philosopher in
Shakespeare felt much of the child's interest in the story; he chose his
tales for the sake of the characters and the poetry, and whether they
were effective stage-tales or not troubled him but little. There is
hardly more plot or action in "Lear" than in "Love's Labour's Lost."
It is probable that "The Comedy of Errors" followed hard on the heels of
"Love's Labour's Lost." It practically belongs to the same period: it
has fewer lines of prose in it than "Love's Labour's Lost"; but, on the
other hand, the intrigue-spinning is clever, and the whole play shows a
riper knowledge of theatrical conditions. Perhaps because the intrigue
is more interesting, the character-drawing is even feebler than that of
the earlier comedy: indeed, so far as the men go there is hardly
anything worth calling character-drawing at all. Shakespeare speaks
through this or that mask as occasion tempts him: and if the women are
sharply, crudely differentiated, it is because Shakespeare, as I shall
show later, has sketched his wife for us in Adriana, and his view of her
character is decided enough if not over kind. Still, any and every
peculiarity of character deserves notice, for in these earliest works
Shakespeare is compelled to use his personal experience, to tell us of
his own life and his own feelings, not having any wider knowledge to
draw upon. Every word, therefore, in these first comedies, is important
to those who would learn the story of his youth and fathom the
idiosyncrasies of his being. When AEgeon, in the opening scenes, tells
the Duke about the shipwreck in which he is separated from his wife and
child, he declares that he himself "would gladly have embraced immediate
death." No reason is given for this extraordinary contempt of living. It
was the "incessant weepings" of his wife, the "piteous plainings of the
pretty babes," that forced him, he says, to exert himself. But wives
don't weep incessantly in danger, nor are the "piteous plainings of the
pretty babes" a feature of shipwreck; I find here a little picture of
Shakespeare's early married life in Stratford--a snapshot of memory.
AEgeon concludes his account by saying that his life was prolonged in
"To tell sad stories of my own mishaps"
--which reminds one of similar words used later by Richard II. This
personal, melancholy note is here forced and false, for Aegeon surely
lives in hope of finding his wife and child and not in order to tell of
his misfortunes. Aegeon is evidently a breath of Shakespeare himself,
and not more than a breath, because he only appears again when the play
is practically finished. Deep-brooding melancholy was the customary
habit of Shakespeare even in youth.
Just as in "Love's Labour's Lost" we find Shakespeare speaking first
through the King and then more fully through the hero, Biron, so here he
first speaks through Aegeon and then at greater length through the
protagonist Antipholus of Syracuse. Antipholus is introduced to us as
new come to Ephesus, and Shakespeare is evidently thinking of his own
first day in London when he puts in his mouth these words:
"Within this hour it will be dinner-time:
Till that, I'll view the manners of the town,
Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings,
And then return and sleep within mine inn;
For with long travel I am stiff and weary."
Though "stiff and weary" he is too eager-young to rest; he will see
everything--even "peruse the traders"--how the bookish metaphor always
comes to Shakespeare's lips!--before he will eat or sleep. The utterly
needless last line, with its emphatic description--"stiff and
weary"--corroborates my belief that Shakespeare in this passage is
telling us what he himself felt and did on his first arrival in London.
In the second scene of the third act Antipholus sends his servant to the
"I will not harbour in this town to-night
If any bark put forth."
From the fact that Shakespeare represented Antipholus to himself as
wishing to leave Ephesus by sea, it is probable that he pictured him
coming to Ephesus in a ship. But when Shakespeare begins to tell us what
he did on reaching London he recalls his own desires and then his own
feelings; he was "stiff and weary" on that first day because he rode, or
more probably walked, into London; one does not become "stiff and weary"
on board ship. This is another snapshot at that early life of
Shakespeare, and his arrival in London, which one would not willingly
miss. And surely it is the country-bred lad from Stratford who, fearing
all manner of town-tricks, speaks in this way:
"They say this town is full of cozenage;
As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such-like liberties of sin:
* * * * *
I greatly fear my money is not safe."
This Antipholus is most ingenuous-talkative; without being questioned he
tells about his servant:
"A trusty villain, sir; that very oft,
When I am dull with care and melancholy,
Lightens my humour with his merry jests."
And as if this did not mark his peculiar thoughtful temperament
sufficiently, he tells the merchant:
"I will go lose myself,
And wander up and down to view the city."
And when the merchant leaves him, commending him to his own content, he
talks to himself in this strain:
"He that commends me to mine own content,
Commends me to the thing I cannot get,
* * * * *
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself."
A most curious way, it must be confessed, to seek for any one; but
perfectly natural to the refined, melancholy, meditative, book-loving
temperament which was already Shakespeare's. In this "unhappy" and
"mother" I think I hear an echo of Shakespeare's sorrow at parting from
his own mother.
This Antipholus, although very free and open, has a reserve of dignity,
as we see in the second scene of the second act, when he talks with his
servant, who, as he thinks, has played with him:
"Because that I familiarly sometimes
Do use you for my fool, and chat with you,
Your sauciness will jest upon my love,
And make a common of my serious hours.
When the sun shines let foolish gnats make sport,
But creep in crannies when he hides his beams."
The self-esteem seems a little exaggerated here; but, after all, it is
only natural; the whole scene is taken from Shakespeare's experience:
the man who will chat familiarly with his servant, and jest with him as
well, must expect to have to pull him up at times rather sharply.
Antipholus proceeds to play with his servant in a fencing match of
wit--a practice Shakespeare seems to have delighted in. But it is when
Antipholus falls in love with Luciana that he shows us Shakespeare at
his most natural as a lover. Luciana has just taken him to task for not
loving her sister Adriana, who, she thinks, is his wife. Antipholus
answers her thus:
"Sweet mistress,--what your name is else, I know not,
Nor by what wonder you do hit of mine,--
Less in your knowledge and your face you show not,
Than our earth's wonder; more than earth divine,
Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak;
Lay open to my earthy-gross conceit,
Smother'd in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words' deceit. ..."
He declares, in fact, that he loves her and not her sister:
"Sing, siren, for thyself and I will dote:
Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
And as a bed I'll take them and there lie;
* * * * *
It is thyself, mine own self's better part,
Mine eye's clear eye, my dear heart's dearer heart."
And as if this were not enough he goes on:
"My food, my fortune, and my sweet hope's aim,
My sole earth's heaven, and my heaven's claim."
The word-conceits were a fashion of the time; but in spite of the verbal
affectation, the courting shows the cunning of experience, and has,
besides, a sort of echo of sincere feeling. How Shakespeare delights in
making love! It reminds one of the first flutings of a thrush in early
spring; over and over again he tries the notes with delighted iteration
till he becomes a master of his music and charms the copses to silence
with his song: and so Shakespeare sings of love again and again till at
length we get the liquid notes of passion and the trills of joy all
perfected in "Romeo and Juliet"; but the voice is the voice we heard
before in "Venus and Adonis" and "The Comedy of Errors."
Antipholus' other appearances are not important. He merely fills his
part till in the last scene he assures Luciana that he will make good
his earlier protestations of love; but so far as he has any character at
all, or distinctive individuality, he is young Shakespeare himself and
his experiences are Shakespeare's.
Now a word or two about Adriana. Shakespeare makes her a jealous,
nagging, violent scold, who will have her husband arrested for debt,
though she will give money to free him. But the comedy of the play would
be better brought out if Adriana were pictured as loving and constant,
inflicting her inconvenient affection upon the false husband as upon the
true. Why did Shakespeare want to paint this unpleasant bitter-tongued
When Adriana appears in the first scene of the second act she is at once
sketched in her impatience and jealousy. She wants to know why her
husband should have more liberty than she has, and declares that none
but asses will be bridled so. Then she will strike her servant. In the
first five minutes of this act she is sketched to the life, and
Shakespeare does nothing afterwards but repeat and deepen the same
strokes: it seems as if he knew nothing about her or would depict
nothing of her except her jealousy and nagging, her impatience and
violence. We have had occasion to notice more than once that when
Shakespeare repeats touches in this way, he is drawing from life, from
memory, and not from imagination. Moreover, in this case, he shows us at
once that he is telling of his wife, because she defends herself against
the accusation of age, which no one brings against her, though every one
knows that Shakespeare's wife was eight years older than himself.
"His company must do his minions grace,
Whilst I at home starve for a merry look.
Hath homely age the alluring beauty took
From my poor cheek? then he hath wasted it ...
... My decayed fair
A sunny look of his would soon repair:
But, poor unruly deer, he breaks the pale,
And feeds from home; poor I am but his stale."
The appeal is pathetic; but Luciana will not see it. She cries:
"Self-harming jealousy! fie, beat it hence!"
In the second scene of this second act Adriana goes on nagging in almost
the same way.
In the second scene of the third act there is a phrase from the hero,
Antipholus of Syracuse, about Adriana which I find significant:
"She that doth call me husband, even my soul
Doth for a wife abhor!"
There is no reason in the comedy for such strong words. Most men would
be amused or pleased by a woman who makes up to them as Adriana makes up
to Antipholus. I hear Shakespeare in this uncalled-for, over-emphatic
"even my soul doth for a wife abhor."
In the fifth act Adriana is brought before the Abbess, and is proved to
be a jealous scold. Shakespeare will not be satisfied till some
impartial great person of Adriana's own sex has condemned her. Adriana
admits that she has scolded her husband in public and in private, too;
the Abbess replies:
"And thereof came it that the man was mad."
And she adds:
"The venom clamours of a jealous woman
Poisons more deadly than a mad dog's tooth."
Again, a needlessly emphatic condemnation. But Adriana will not accept
the reproof: she will have her husband at all costs. The whole scene
discovers personal feeling. Adriana is the portrait that Shakespeare
wished to give us of his wife.
The learned commentators have seemingly conspired to say as little about
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" as possible. No one of them identifies the
protagonist, Valentine, with Shakespeare, though all of them identified
Biron with Shakespeare, and yet Valentine, as we shall see, is a far
better portrait of the master than Biron. This untimely blindness of the
critics is, evidently, due to the fact that Coleridge has hardly
mentioned "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and they have consequently been
unable to parrot his opinions.
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" is manifestly a later work than "Love's
Labour's Lost"; there is more blank verse and less rhyme in it, and a
considerable improvement in character-drawing. Julia, for example, is
individualized and lives for us in her affection and jealousy; her talks
with her maid Lucetta are taken from life; they are indeed the first
sketch of the delightful talks between Portia and Nerissa, and mark an
immense advance upon the wordy badinage of the Princess and her
ladies in "Love's Labour's Lost," where there was no attempt at
differentiation of character. It seems indubitable to me that "The Two
Gentlemen of Verona" is also later than "The Comedy of Errors," and just
as far beyond doubt that it is earlier than "A Midsummer Night's Dream,"
in spite of Dr. Furnival's "Trial Table."
The first three comedies, "Love's Labour's Lost," "The Comedy of
Errors," and "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," are all noteworthy for the
light they throw on Shakespeare's early life.
In "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" Shakespeare makes similar youthful
mistakes in portraiture to those we noticed in "Love's Labour's Lost";
mistakes which show that he is thinking of himself and his own
circumstances. At the beginning of the play the only difference between
Proteus and Valentine is that one is in love, and the other, heart-free,
is leaving home to go to Milan. In this first scene Shakespeare speaks
frankly through both Proteus and Valentine, just as he spoke through
both the King and Biron in the first scene of "Love's Labour's Lost,"
and through both AEgeon and Antipholus of Syracuse in "The Comedy of
Errors." But whilst the circumstances in the earliest comedy are
imaginary and fantastic, the circumstances in "The Two Gentlemen of
Verona" are manifestly, I think, taken from the poet's own experience.
In the dialogue between Valentine and Proteus I hear Shakespeare
persuading himself that he should leave Stratford. Some readers may
regard this assumption as far-fetched, but it will appear the more
plausible, I think, the more the dialogue is studied. Valentine begins
"Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits,"--
he will "see the wonders of the world abroad" rather than live "dully
sluggardiz'd at home," wearing out "youth with shapeless idleness." But
all these reasons are at once superfluous and peculiar. The audience
needs no persuasion to believe that a young man is eager to travel and
go to Court. Shakespeare's quick mounting spirit is in the lines, and
the needlessness of the argument shows that we have here a personal
confession. Valentine, then, mocks at love, because it was love that
held Shakespeare so long in Stratford, and when Proteus defends it, he
"Even so by Love the young and tender wit
Is turned to folly; blasting in the bud,
Losing his verdure even in the prime,
And all the fair effects of future hopes."
Here is Shakespeare's confession that his marriage had been a failure,
not only because of his wife's mad jealousy and violent temper, which we
have been forced to realize in "The Comedy of Errors," but also because
love and its home-keeping ways threatened to dull and imprison the eager
artist spirit. In the last charming line I find not only the music of
Shakespeare's voice, but also one of the reasons--perhaps, indeed, the
chief because the highest reason--which drew him from Stratford to
London. And what the "future hope" was, he told us in the very first
line of "Love's Labour's Lost." The King begins the play with"
"Let Fame, that all hunt after in their lives."
Now all men don't hunt after fame; it was Shakespeare who felt that Fame
pieced out Life's span and made us "heirs of all eternity"; it was young
Shakespeare who desired fame so passionately that he believed all other
men must share his immortal longing, the desire in him being a forecast
of capacity, as, indeed, it usually is. If any one is inclined to think
that I am here abusing conjecture let him remember that Proteus, too,
tells us that Valentine is hunting after honour.
When Proteus defends love we hear Shakespeare just as clearly as when
Valentine inveighs against it:
"Yet writers say, as in the sweetest bud
The eating canker dwells, so eating love
Inhabits in the finest wits of all."
Shakespeare could not be disloyal to that passion of desire in him which
he instinctively felt was, in some way or other, the necessary
complement of his splendid intelligence. We must take the summing-up of
Proteus when Valentine leaves him as the other half of Shakespeare's
"He after honour hunts, I after love:
He leaves his friends to dignify them more;
I leave myself, my friends, and all for love.
Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphosed me,--
Made me neglect my studies, lose my time,
War with good counsel, set the world at naught;
Made wit with musing weak, heart sick with thought."
Young Shakespeare hunted as much after love as after honour, and these
verses show that he has fully understood what a drag on him his foolish
marriage has been. That all this is true to Shakespeare appears from the
fact that it is false to the character of Proteus. Proteus is supposed
to talk like this in the first blush of passion, before he has won
Julia, before he even knows that she loves him. Is that natural? Or is
it not rather Shakespeare's confession of what two wasted years of
married life in Stratford had done for him? It was ambition--desire of
fame and new love--that drove the tired and discontented Shakespeare
from Anne Hathaway's arms to London.
When his father tells Proteus he must to Court on the morrow, instead of
showing indignation or obstinate resolve to outwit tyranny, he
generalizes in Shakespeare's way, exactly as Romeo and Orsino generalize
in poetic numbers:
"O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day."
Another reason for believing that this play deals with Shakespeare's own
experiences is to be found in the curious change that takes place in
Valentine. In the first act Valentine disdains love: he prefers to
travel and win honour; but as soon as he reaches Milan and sees Silvia,
he falls even more desperately in love than Proteus. What was the
object, then, in making him talk so earnestly against love in the first
act? It may be argued that Shakespeare intended merely to contrast the
two characters in the first act; but he contrasts them in the first act
on this matter of love, only in the second act to annul the distinction
himself created. Moreover, and this is decisive, Valentine rails against
love in the first act as one who has experienced love's utmost rage:
In love: when scorn is bought with groans; coy looks,
With heart-sore sighs; one fading moment's mirth,
With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights."
The man who speaks like this is not the man who despises love and
prefers honour, but one who has already given himself to passion with an
absolute abandonment. Such inconsistencies and flaws in workmanship are
in themselves trivial, but, from my point of view, significant; for
whenever Shakespeare slips in drawing character, in nine cases out of
ten he slips through dragging in his own personality or his personal
experience, and not through carelessness, much less incompetence; his
mistakes, therefore, nearly always throw light on his nature or on his
life's story. From the beginning, too, Valentine like Shakespeare is a
As soon, moreover, as he has gone to the capital and fallen in love he
becomes Shakespeare's avowed favourite. He finds Silvia's glove and
"Sweet ornament that decks a thing divine--"
the exclamation reminding us of how Romeo talks of Juliet's glove. Like
other men, Shakespeare learned life gradually, and in youth poverty of
experience forces him to repeat his effects.
Again, when Valentine praises his friend Proteus to the Duke, we find a
characteristic touch of Shakespeare. Valentine says:
"His years but young; but his experience old;
His head unmellowed; but his judgement ripe."
In "The Merchant of Venice" Bellario, the learned doctor of Padua,
praises Portia in similar terms:
"I never knew so young a body with so old a head."
But it is when Valentine confesses his love that Shakespeare speaks
through him most clearly:
"Ay, Proteus, but that life is altered now,
I have done penance for contemning love;
* * * * *
For in revenge of my contempt of love
Love hath chased sleep from my enthralled eyes
And made them watchers of my own heart's sorrow.
O gentle Proteus, Love's a mighty lord,"--
and so on.
Every word in this confession is characteristic of the poet and
especially the fact that his insomnia is due to love. Valentine then
gives himself to passionate praise of Silvia, and ends with the "She is
alone" that recalls "She is all the beauty extant" of "The Two Noble
Kinsmen." Valentine the lover reminds us of Romeo as the sketch
resembles the finished picture; when banished, he cries:
"And why not death, rather than living torment? To die is to be banished
from myself; And Silvia is myself: banished from her, Is self from self;
a deadly banishment. What light is light, if Silvia be not seen? What
joy is joy, if Silvia be not by? Unless it be to think that she is by
And feed upon the shadow of perfection. Except I be by Silvia in the
night There is no music in the nightingale,"
and so forth. I might compare this with what Romeo says of his
banishment, and perhaps infer from this two-fold treatment of the theme
that Shakespeare left behind in Stratford some dark beauty who may have
given Anne Hathaway good cause for jealous rage. It must not be
forgotten here that Dryasdust tells us he was betrothed to another girl
when Anne Hathaway's relations forced him to marry their kinswoman.
A moment later and this lover Valentine uses the very words that we
found so characteristic in the mouth of the lover Orsino in Twelfth
"O I have fed upon this woe already,
And now excess of it will make me surfeit."
Valentine, indeed, shows us traits of nearly all Shakespeare's later
lovers, and this seems to me interesting, because of course all the
qualities were in the youth, which were later differenced into various
characters. His advice to the Duke, who pretends to be in love, is far
too ripe, too contemptuous-true, to suit the character of such a votary
of fond desire as Valentine was; it is mellow with experience and
man-of-the-world wisdom, and the last couplet of it distinctly
"Flatter and praise, commend, extol their graces;
Though ne'er so black, say they have angels' faces.
That man that hath a tongue, I say, is no man
If with his tongue he cannot win a woman."
But this is only an involuntary apercu of Valentine, as indeed
Benedick is only an intellectual mood of Shakespeare. And here Valentine
is contrasted with Proteus, who gives somewhat different advice to
Thurio, and yet advice which is still more characteristic of Shakespeare
than Valentine-Benedick's counsel. Proteus says:
"You must lay lime to tangle her desires
By wailful sonnets, whose composed rhymes
Should be full fraught with serviceable vows."
In this way the young poet sought to give expression to different views
of life, and so realize the complexity of his own nature.
The other traits of Valentine's character that do not necessarily belong
to him as a lover are all characteristic traits of Shakespeare. When he
is playing the banished robber-chief far from his love, this is how
Valentine consoles himself:
"This shadowy desert, unfrequented woods,
I better brook than flourishing peopled towns:
Here can I sit alone unseen of any,
And to the nightingale's complaining notes
Tune my distresses and record my woes."
This idyllic love of nature, this marked preference for the country over
the city, however peculiar in a highway robber, are characteristics of
Shakespeare from youth to age. Not only do his comedies lead us
continually from the haunts of men to the forest and stream, but also
his tragedies. He turns to nature, indeed, in all times of stress and
trouble for its healing unconsciousness, its gentle changes that can be
foreseen and reckoned upon, and that yet bring fresh interests and
charming surprises; and in times of health and happiness he pictures the
pleasant earth and its diviner beauties with a passionate intensity.
Again and again we shall have to notice his poet's love for
"unfrequented woods," his thinker's longing for "the life removed."
At the end of the drama Valentine displays the gentle forgivingness of
disposition which we have already had reason to regard as one of
Shakespeare's most marked characteristics. As soon as "false, fleeting
Proteus" confesses his sin Valentine pardons him with words that echo
and re-echo through Shakespeare's later dramas:
"Then I am paid,
And once again I do receive thee honest.
Who by repentance is not satisfied
Is nor of heaven nor earth; for these are pleased;
By patience the Eternal's wrath's appeased."
He even goes further than this, and confounds our knowledge of human
nature by adding:
"And that my love may appear plain and free
All that was mine in Silvia I give thee."
And that the meaning may be made more distinct than words can make it,
he causes Julia to faint on hearing the proposal. One cannot help
recalling the passage in "The Merchant of Venice" when Bassanio and
Gratiano both declare they would sacrifice their wives to free Antonio,
and a well-known sonnet which seems to prove that Shakespeare thought
more of a man's friendship for a man than of a man's love for a woman.
But as I shall have to discuss this point at length when I handle the
Sonnets, I have, perhaps, said enough for the moment. Nor need I
consider the fact here that the whole of this last scene of the last act
was manifestly revised or rewritten by Shakespeare circa
1598--years after the rest of the play.
I think every one will admit now that Shakespeare revealed himself in
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and especially in Valentine, much more
fully than in Biron and in "Love's Labour's Lost" The three earliest
comedies prove that from the very beginning of his career Shakespeare's
chief aim was to reveal and realize himself.
SHAKESPEARE AS ANTONIO, THE MERCHANT
No one, so far as I know, has yet tried to identify Antonio, the
Merchant of Venice, with Shakespeare, and yet Antonio is Shakespeare
himself, and Shakespeare in what to us, children of an industrial
civilization, is the most interesting attitude possible. Here in Antonio
for the first time we discover Shakespeare in direct relations with real
life, as real life is understood in the twentieth century. From Antonio
we shall learn what Shakespeare thought of business men and business
methods--of our modern way of living. Of course we must be on our guard
against drawing general conclusions from this solitary example, unless
we find from other plays that Antonio's attitude towards practical
affairs was indeed Shakespeare's. But if this is the case, if
Shakespeare has depicted himself characteristically in Antonio, how
interesting it will be to hear his opinion of our money-making
civilization. It will be as if he rose from the dead to tell us what he
thinks of our doings. He has been represented by this critic and by that
as a master of affairs, a prudent thrifty soul; now we shall see if this
monstrous hybrid of tradesman-poet ever had any foundation in fact.
The first point to be settled is: Did Shakespeare reveal himself very
ingenuously and completely in Antonio, or was the "royal merchant" a
mere pose of his, a mood or a convention? Let us take Antonio's first
words, the words, too, which begin the play:
"In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself."
It is this very sadness that makes it easy for us to know Shakespeare,
even when he disguises himself as a Venetian merchant. A little later
and Jaques will describe and define the disease as "humorous
melancholy"; but here it is already a settled habit of mind.
Antonio then explains that his sadness has no cause, and incidentally
attributes his wealth to fortune and not to his own brains or endeavour.
The modern idea of the Captain of Industry who enriches others as well
as himself, had evidently never entered into Shakespeare's head.
Salarino says Antonio is "sad to think upon his merchandise"; but
"Believe me, no: I thank my fortune for it.
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place: nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year:
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad."
This tone of modest gentle sincerity is Shakespeare's habitual tone from
about his thirtieth year to the end of his life: it has the accent of
unaffected nature. In bidding farewell to Salarino Antonio shows us the
exquisite courtesy which Shakespeare used in life. Salarino, seeing
Bassanio approaching, says:
"I would have stayed till I had made you merry,
If worthier friends had not prevented me."
"Your worth is very dear in my regard.
I take it, your own business calls on you,
And you embrace the occasion to depart."
More characteristic still is the dialogue between Gratiano and Antonio
in the same scene. Gratiano, the twin-brother surely of Mercutio, tells
Antonio that he thinks too much of the things of this world, and warns
"They lose it that do buy it with much care."
"I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
A stage, where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one."
Every one who has followed me so far will admit that this is
Shakespeare's most usual and most ingenuous attitude towards life; "I do
not esteem worldly possessions," he says; "life itself is too transient,
too unreal to be dearly held." Gratiano's reflection, too, is
Shakespeare's, and puts the truth in a nutshell: