Shakespeare Characters

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THE ATHENĆUM

LONDON, SATURDAY, OCTOBER 3, 1863.

LITERATURE

Shakespeare Characters; chiefly those Subordinate.
By Charles Cowden Clarke. (Smith, Elder & Co.)

 

NEARLY three hundred years have passed by since the little child opened its eyes on the low ceiling and bare walls of the poor birth-place at Stratford-on-Avon, to grow up into that immortal god-send of a man whom we call William Shakspeare.  In all this long procession of years we meet with no other such face looking out on us; the eyes rainy or sunny with the tears and laughters of all time!  No other such genius has come to transfigure English Literature.  Through all this time the world has been getting hints of what the man Shakspeare was, and how infinitely wonderful and precious was the work he did; how richly ennobling to us was the legacy of his name!  Innumerable writers have thrown what light they could upon his page to help the world on its way; but, as Coleridge says, no comprehension has yet been able to draw the line of circumscription round this mighty mind so as to say to itself "I have seen the whole."  There is still room for critics and commentators who are genial and loving like Cowden Clarke.

    In spite of Ben Jonson's eulogy, it is quite demonstrable that Shakspeare's contemporaries had no adequate conception of what manner of man or majesty of mind was amongst them.  We often think that one great reason why he left no greater personal impression on them was because he was so much of a good fellow in general; his nature was so commonly human and perfect all round, as to seem to them nothing remarkable in particular.  Complete enjoyment is but little conscious of causes.  His greatness of soul was not of a kind to puff out any personal peculiarities, or manners "high fantastical."  He did not take his seat in a crowding company with the bodily bulge of big Ben, or tread on their toes with the vast weight of his "mountain belly" and hodman's shoulders, nor come in contact with them as Ben would, with the full force of his hard head and "rocky face."  Shakspeare's personal influence was not of the kind that is so palpably felt at all times, and often most politely acknowledged. He must have moved amongst them more like an Immortal invisible; the deity being hidden in the humanity.  There was room in his serene and spacious soul for the whole of his stage contemporaries to sit at feast.  His influence embraced them, lifted them out of themselves and floated them up from earth as in a balloon; and while their veins ran quicksilver, the life within them lightened, and the blood ran wine, they would shout with Matheo, "Do we not fly high?"  Are we not amazingly clever fellows? Don't we astonish ourselves? How little they knew what they owed to that mighty one in their midst!  How little could they gauge the virtue of his presence which wrapped them in a diviner ether!  When we breathe in a larger life, and a ruddier health from the atmosphere that surrounds us and sets us swimming in a sea of heart's-ease, we seldom pause to estimate how much in weight the atmosphere presses to the square inch!  So was it with the personal influence of Shakspeare upon his fellows.  They felt the exaltation, the radiating health, the flowing humanity that filled their felicity up to the brim; but did not think of the weight of greatness that he brought to bear on every square inch of them. The Spirit of the Age sat in their very midst, but it moved them so naturally that they forgot even to note its personal features.

    It was impossible for Shakepeare's contemporaries to know what there was in his works.  They could not help knowing of his dramatic successes, and would often feel them to be unaccountable.  But there was no great reading public, no criticism to bring out the hidden secrets of his genius.  And if there had been, the drama was comparatively an unpublished literature.  In this fact we may perceive one great reason why a man like Bacon, for example, lived so long in the same city as Shakspeare without discovering him, and evidently left the world without knowing what he had missed on the passage.  The early Poems were well known, and some of the Sonnets were in circulation, but no one could predicate from these the stupendous genius that orbed out and reached its full circle in 'Lear.'

    We may get a curious side-glimpse, and, to some extent, gauge how far Shakspeare was known to his contemporaries in the year 1600, by turning over the pages of 'England's Parnassus,' in the 'Heliconia.'  Here we come upon numerous quotations from the 'Lucrece' and 'Venus and Adonis,' but the extracts from the Plays are most insignificant.  Yet at the time mentioned he had in all probability produced some twenty-two of his dramas, including the 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' 'Merchant of Venice,' 'Taming of the Shrew,' 'Romeo and Juliet,' with other fine works of his early and middle periods.

    It would seem that a breath of the passionate fragrance of the last-named dainty drama had reached beyond the stage.  But how could the editor make so few extracts from such a mine of wealth, and snatch no more from its "dark of diamonds"?  He is in search of illustrations for given subjects, each of which Shakspeare has illustrated with paintings beyond those of all other writers.  He possesses taste enough to quote many of the choicest passages from Spenser's poetry.  The inference is inevitable that the poet and the poetry revealed to its in Shakspeare's plays were unknown to Robert Allot, and possibly he only quoted at second hand.

    A playwright was not looked upon as a poet so much as a worker for the theatre.  Spenser was the great Apollo of his age.  He had the true mythological touch and classical tread. Shakspeare was appreciated so long as he followed in Spenser's track, and wrote "suggared sonnets."  Otherwise he was only one of the playwrights, who had to put up with such appreciation as he could get inside the theatre.  And thus he came upon the stage of his century like the merest and most modest lighter of a theatre. He kindled there such a splendour and jetted such "brave fire" as the world never before saw.  He did his work so silently, and retired so quietly, that the men whose faces now shine for us, chiefly from his reflected light, did not notice him sufficiently to tell us what he was like; did not, one of them, see that this man Shakspeare had come to bring a new soul into the landthat in his plays the spirit of a new faith was to obtain magnificent embodimentthat here was the spontaneous effort of the national spirit to assert itself in our literature, and stand forth free from the old Greek tyranny which might otherwise have continued to crush our drama, as it has crippled our sculpture to this daythat in these plays all the rills of language and knowledge running from other lands were to be merged and made one in this great ocean of English life, and all foreign elements were for the first time welded into oneness.  Not one of them saw clearly that whereas Homer was the poet of Greece, and Dante the poet of Italy, this gentle Willie Shakspeare, player and playwright, was destined to be the Poet of a World.

    Undoubtedly he was better known within the theatre.  Being himself a player and playwright, Ben Jonson got the truest glimpse of Shakspeare's mental stature, and most fully appreciated the poetry of his dramas; although we have little doubt that Ben thought himself by much the better man.  The players rejoiced in such a possession, and boasted of gentle Willie's easy way of working rather too much to suit Ben's taste. Then the plays had enough flesh and blood, and the great conceptions of thought were sufficiently clothed with sights and sounds and movements of Action to carry with them the playhouse audience, which would be much nearer to nature than the predilections of the learned of that time.  He who could touch Nature at all points, could not fail to touch the multitude at many. They had been in the presence of majesty, had looked on the persons of heroes, and would testify lustily to the truth of such representations as came home to their experience.

    Nevertheless, though best known within the playhouse and recognized most nearly on the stage, the works of Shakspeare, with their heights of intellectual reach and fathomless depths of feeling, their boundless scope and range and thousand subtleties of point, could not be grasped in the theatre of his time. The stage did a work in his day towards making the Poet known; it may do so in our own or in future times.  As a rule, the mass of playgoers are little readers at all times.  If they were to pore over Shakspeare's plays at home, they would probably find in them the sedative which Tom Purdie found in the "Waverley Novels."  For them the excitement of action is required to create the heat of mind, and secure sufficient quickness of sympathy and openness of sense for the Poet's meaning to enter the portals of their intelligence.  Their minds require a brisk friction before they will ignite, and they may read more by a lightning-flash of Edmund Kean' s or Mrs. Siddons's inspiration, or the seraphic smile of Helen Faucit's Imogen than they could ever get from books.  But for all that, there is a greatness in some of Shakspeare's characters such as never can be unfolded from the stage, and there are pictures of the soul such as Action can never paint to the eye.  His mighty dramas appeal to a larger vision; the imagination alone affords scope for such things as cannot be represented corporeally.  We quite agree with Charles Lamb in holding that there are worlds of thought and feeling in these plays which never can be revealed on the stage, and that theatrical representation materializes and vulgarizes the finest visions of the poet's mind. Lamb remarks, that whereas Desdemona saw Othello's colour in his mind, we, on the stage, find his mind sunk in the colour: that "the greatness of Lear is not in corporal dimension, but in intellectual.  On the stage we see nothing but corporal infirmities and weakness, the impotence of rage; while we read it we see not Lear, but we are Lear; we are in his mind; we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms."  So that should our managers of theatres desert the Poet altogether, we have but to take him the closer home to us in our closets.  He will exist independently of the stage, as absolutely as though he had never poured his genius into the dramatic mould, by virtue of the preciousness of the metal.

    Great advance has been made in our century and our day towards a more perfect appreciation of Shakapeare's works.  "It is long before the full radiance of this brightest star can reach the world below.  We hear that one man finds out one beauty, another man finds out another;" and so the accumulation of loving tribute goes on.  The loud detractors are silenced.  A critic dares not now assert, with Dr. Johnson, that the famous patriotic speech of our fifth Harry, on the morning of Agincourt, was too long by one half. We only smile to be told that Mr. Rogers one morning challenged the company at his breakfast-table to pick out a single passage from Shakspeare which would not be improved by blotting. As though any such cold-blooded mood of mind could test that which was probably produced by the Poet at the white-heat of thought, with all his powers of soul awake.  Mr. Rogers might as well have made a mirror for his own features in the back of a dessertspoon, as to expect a fair reflexion of Shakspeare at such a time and in such a spirit.

    There are yet living one or two critics, we believe, who still persist in looking upon Shakspeare as a writer far too redundant in expression.  They appear to think the foliage waving above too lusty and large for the sustaining rootage below.  They nurse a fragment of the old feeling that Shakspeare was a poet marvellously endowed by Nature, but deficient in Art: the truth being, that what they mean by Art is, the smack of consciousness in the finish left so apparent that the poetry is as it were stereotyped, and the finish gives to it a kind of metallic face.  Thus, there is something on the surface firm to the touch, and flattering to a certain critical sense.  The secret which, in Shakspeare, is unfathomable can be found out in the works of more self-conscious men. In them Nature is subordinate to Art.  But this is not the greatest Art; it is the lesser Art made more striking because there is less Nature.  In Shakspeare the Nature is so great that the Art is hidden sea-deep.  If the shallow critics could only get into deeper waters themselves,if their own life could compass more Nature, they might approach a little nearer to a full appreciation of the fact that the Art of Shakspeare transcends all other Art as much as his knowledge of Nature exceeds that of other poets, and that his judgment is as sure as his genius is capacious.  In all Shakspeare's great plays his Art is even more consummate, though less apparent, than that of Milton, and it holds the infinitely larger system of human world and starry brood of mind in its wider revolutions, with as safe a tug of gravitation.  It is the testimony of all the greatest and most modest men that the longer they read Shakspeare's works the more reasons they find to admire his marvellous wisdom, and his transcendent intuition in all mysteries of Law as well as knowledge of Life.

    If they have found him, as they fancied, at fault, or caught him tripping, a little more patience and further looking-on has soon shown them that Nature had not revealed to them quite so much as she did to Shakspeare.  And if one has ventured to differ from the master, another comes and shows the master to have been right.  For example, Coleridge quotes these lines front 'Antony and Cleopatra':

 

Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her I' the eyes,
And made their bends adornings: at the helm 
A seeming mermaid steers.

 

And he remarks, "I have the greatest difficulty in believing that Shakspeare wrote the first 'mermaids.'  He never, I think, would have so weakened by useless anticipation the fine image immediately following."  But Coleridge overlooked the fact, that it is so set down in Sir Thomas North's 'Plutarch,' where we find "Her ladies and gentlewomen, also the fairest of them, were apparelled like the Nymphes, Nereides (Which are the Myrmaides of the waters), and like the Graces; some stearing the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge."  We have no doubt Shakspeare did write the passage just as it stands.  And a very curious and rare little bit of testimony it is to Sir Thomas North from William Shakspeare.  The mermaids are an addition of the old translator's.  Shakspeare, of course, knew they were not a creation of the Greeks, but he has followed the old man's version with very noble modesty and repression of self.  Thus what at first sight looks like a flaw, may show us a vein of greater richness in the nature of the man.

    Our latest critic and commentator of the poet is one of the most modest, loving and genial.  He is a man whom gentle Willie would have been delighted to shake hands with, and thank him for the affectionate interest he has taken in some of his graceless characters.  His book is one of the most delightful we have ever met with on the subject.  The "tune of it goes manly."  It is the outcome of a genuine feeling, and a nature heartily English.  It is the growth of years, and not the fruit of haste. Much of the matter has been tried in the shape of lectures, just as Shakspeare tried his plays with his audiences, until it has got well winnowed and is all good grain, now garnered up in a book.  Mr. Clarke's Lectures on Shakspeare's subordinate characters made their mark years ago in the memory of those who had the good luck to hear them, and we are glad to welcome them now in print.

    We can only very briefly point out a few of the many felicitous hints and glimpses of insight that we have found in these commentaries upon twenty of the principal plays.  One is where the critic shows that Shakspeare has positively put a strong infusion of the Scottish national quality of caution into the nature and character of Macbeth.  He also does justice to Jaques in 'As You Like It,' as the model of a man addicted to self-contemplation, who likes to see his face look melancholy and down in the mouth, as he stands before his own mental mirror.  "Shakspeare certainly intended the character of Jaques to be a satire upon your pretenders to wisdom.  Amiens hoaxes him, and, in fact, they all smoke him for being a solemn pretender to a quality not natural to him."  Of Celia's most loveable nature our author says

 

    "Celia is pre-eminently womanly.  She has the best qualities of womanly nature.  She is devoted, constant, femininely gentle, yet frank and firm in opinion. She has touches of warmth, both of liking and disliking, of out-and-out eager partizanahip, and times of vehement indignation; and these qualities are essentially womanly.  For instance, how like a woman in its acknowledgment of the want of personal strength her taking refuge in a crafty device-and that an unfair one-is that exclamation of hers when Orlando is about to try his match with Charles, the wrestler. She says: 'I would I were invisible, to catch the strong fellow by the leg.' One would swear that none but a woman would have thought of that speech!"

 

    Mr. Clarke gives as the strongest proof of Hamlet's insanity being assumed, that in his self-communings he never utters an incoherent phrase.  He takes part against Goethe in his theory of the character of poor Ophelia, and remarks respecting the songs she sings in her insanity

 

    "Goethe, as a psychologist, ought to have known that no such conclusion as his can be drawn from the actions of a person under that suspension.  On the contrary, it is an argument of her native innocence of character; and Shakespeare knew this two hundred years before Goethe lived; experience constantly reminding us that insane people are wont to be, for the time, the total opposites of their real natures, your madmen plotting to kill those whom they most loved when in a state of sanity; your profligates breaking forth into piety; your pious into blasphemies; and the most reserved and chaste indulging in a laxity of expression astonishing to those who knew their former course of life and principles."

 

    We like Mr. Clarke best on the lower stages of Shakspearian life, for there he most enjoys the humour of it, and is hand-in-glove and hail-fellow-well-met with Shakspeare's most arrant specimens of vagrant humanity.  His face absolutely grows glorious, and his eyes glisten with "ungodly dew," while his lips drop fatness in unctuous words over his "pet thief" Autolycus.  Were it not for his known goodness of heart, we should fear for his morals from the natural way in which he takes to such low company, and should not like to leave any linen on the hedge when he came our way!

 

    "Thou prince of quicksilver rogues—thou type of all the nimble-fingered race!  Master Autolycus! that rogue of rogues! that arch-rogue! that knave of knaves! that inexhaustible wag of a pedlar! that scampering rip of a wayfaring huckster!  With what a light hand he disposes of momentous considerations.  How skimmingly he relates that 'having flown over many knavish professions, he settled down in rogue.' He has a positive and unmitigated contempt for right and justice, as being, indeed, but poor and very shallow affairs—and dull.  Laughing he shouts, 'What a fool Honesty is! and Trust, his sworn brother, a very simple gentleman.'  He plumes himself upon his high-bred rascality in a strain of devout thankfulness, as he contemplates the simpleton innocence of the two shepherds:—'How blest are we that are not simple men! yet Nature might have made me as these are; therefore I'll not disdain!'  I am glad thou wast not hanged, my Autolycus!"

 

    We could linger over many pages of Mr. Clarke's work, but must flee from temptation, as we wish to dwell for a moment upon an aspect of our great Poet's character not often alluded to. Meanwhile we have to thank the author of this book for a capital contribution towards the better knowledge and enjoyment of Shakapeare.

    The world does not yet fully fathom the great deep of this mighty mind,cannot yet sum the wealth of his nature, or sun itself in the perfect glory of his works.  It is waking up, however; and although it may not see quite clearly in the matter, it begins to feel its way a little.  In keeping the Poet's Birthday next April on a world-wide scale, we cannot fail to bring the man Shakspeare somewhat nearer home to it.  The note of preparation is already sounded for this great gathering of the nations, and we hope the work will go bravely on.  It is pleasant to know that in this country the Church has responded to the call now raised in Shakspeare's name.

    This is as it should be.  The more we study Shakspeare's works, the more profoundly do we feel how natural piety made a large part of that sweet calm smile in his heart, which is the cheerful sunshine of his philosophy of life He was, indeed, the "priest to all time of the wonder and bloom of the world, which he saw with his eyes, and was glad."  The fruit himself of a ripe time, in him and in his works humanity reaches its ripeness.  "Ripeness is all," he says (Lear, V. 2.); and he leaves the fruit of life just where it falls.  But he knew that the ripeness here contained the seed of other fruit hereafter.  We frequently find signs of a piety, large as life and deep as death, ' solemn as night and shining as its stars.

    What a large and frank confession of belief there is in that expression of Banquo's

In the great hand of God I stand!

And what an inverted depth of spiritual consciousness hollows out its space for other worlds to float in, over that other confession by the rogue Autolycus:"For the life to come, I sleep out the thought of it;" which has in it the lesson of a thousand livesthe essence of a thousand sermons.

    It is not, however, in allusions or hints like these that we seek evidence, or we might multiply them, so much as in his dumb appeal to those feelings that are left vibrating, when some great tragedy of his is over.  It plainly appears to us that amidst all the storms of life in which humanity may be wrecked, the horror of great darkness in which the powers of evil prevail, the misery and madness and midnight homelessness of poor, witless, white-headed old Lear, with his blindness of trust and broken-heartedness of love, Shakspeare knows right well where there is peace beyond the tempest.  Strange glimpses lighten through the rents of ruin.  He sees the waves roll on, and life buffeted and tossed with the turmoil, and all the agony of sinking hearts and outstretched hands; but he also sees the unmoving Eternity, and the "so long impossible" rest.  He knows well enough where the compensations lie for the great dumb love of Cordelia, which could not get expression in life.  He knew of all the love in the hearts of father and child, which would take an eternity to fully unfold; and where could he pillow it with more infinite suggestiveness than beside the grave?  It is for us to see what is dimly visible through that dark window of the other world!  He has said his say-let the rest be told in silence!  And the soul must be dull indeed whose sight has not been purged and feeling purified for the loftier vision on the spiritual stage.  Our interest does not cease when the drama is ended.  "To be continued" is plainly written at the close of its fifth act.  You cannot help looking up from amid the shadows of the dark valley to where the light is breaking overhead, and feel a touch of those immortal relationships which live beyond the human.  Let no one suppose that Shakspeare's genius, being of such stature as it was, could not rise up and "take the morning" that lies beyond this night of time where bewildered souls so often get beclouded.  The fixed calm of his eye, and the patient smile almost hovering about his lips, with which he is able to contemplate the workings of error and evil, and the victories of adverse fate, imply his trust in that revelation which has called in the New World of Christianity to redress the wrong measures and false balances of the Old.  Thus all the action of his tragedy, though confined to human life and this round of time, has a reaction and enriching influence from the touch of other worlds.  The sea of life and its tides of passion, moved to the depths, do not merely throw two dead bodies on the other shore, but a wave comes back with a radiance on its ripple such as makes the dark deeps beautiful.  All this is natural result.  It was not Shakspeare' s place as a writer of tragedy to frighten us and then say something for our comfort.  He points no moral, winds up with no sermon.  It is his work to beget interest, to quicken sympathy and enlarge life; the rest follows.  He knew how much Nature will work for her favourites, and he was her own best favourite, so he has only to set her well at work and quietly steal away, leaving Nature to finish.

    Also, great tragedy works some of its deepest effects dumbly. It gives us a more significant version of that sentiment of Raleigh's

 

Silence in love bewrays more woe
    Than words tho' ne'er no witty;
A beggar that is dumb, you know,
    May challenge double pity.

 

So is it with the final appeal of Shakspeare's tragedy.  Though it leaves you gazing with streaming eyes on those two dead lovers in the dim vault at Verona, yet has he succeeded in creating such a swelling spirit within you, put such a breath of the eternal into your sad sigh that the soul mounts into majesty and reigns and rules high above the region of storms, where the spirits of those immortal lovers shall live their married life and part no more.  For our part, so profound is our sense of the broad religious aspect of Shakspeare's character that we should not feel it to be at all incongruous were his natal day to be one of national thanksgiving and solemn service performed, and pćans of gratitude offered up to the Creator of such a glorious creature, the Giver of such a peerless gift, as well as congratulatory speeches made at many a feast of jollity, and healths drunk to his memory.

 



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