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thence it has proceeded that the nation has undergone from all its neighbours THE REPROACH OF BARBARISM, from which its valuable productions in some other parts of learning would otherwise have exempted it. *
The author of these remarks upon Shakspeare has himself informed us that the volume which contained them, when first published, so far from being popular, was received with one cry of reproach, disapprobation, and even detestation, on account of its political views : nor, if the rest of its contents had been equally erroneous with the passage which I have quoted, would it have deserved any better reception. And how did Hume console himself under the disappointment ? He proceeded to write his Natural History of Religion, in which he gave the world to understand that, as he had looked in vain, in Shakspeare, for purity or simplicity of diction, for taste or elegance, for harmony or correctness, so he had been unable to derive anything but doubt, uncertainty, and suspense of judgment,' from the written Word of God! The concluding remark of the passage quoted above, in which Shakspeare and Ben Jonson are accused of having brought upon us ' as a nation the reproach of barbarism from all our neighbours,' is evidently founded upon the strictures of Voltaire,† who, not long before, had characterized our poet as 'a writer
* Hume's Hist. of England, Appendix to Reign of James I.
† All that can be said in excuse for Voltaire's criticism has been fairly stated by Mr. C. Knight, in his Studies of Shakspeare, p. 540 sq.
of monstrous Farces, called by him Tragedies,' and pronounced Hamlet to be the work of a drunken savage,' * and had attributed barbarism and ignorance' to the nation by which he was admired! What the same French author also thought and wrote of divine Revelation, and of the profession of Christianity, need not be told.
The best answer to this latter critic has been given by another foreigner-not a Frenchman, but a German -Augustus William Schlegel, who has shown an admirable appreciation of the genius and characteristic excellences of our great poet in his masterly Lectures on Dramatic Literature :
Shakspeare is the pride of his nation. . . . He was the idol of his contemporaries; and after the interval of Puritanical fanaticism ... his fame began to revive with more than its original brightness towards the beginning of the last century, and since that period it has increased with the progress of time: and for centuries to come, I speak with the greatest confidence, it will continue to gather strength like an alpine avalanche, at every period of its descent. . . . In general, Shakspeare's style yet remains the very best model both in the vigorous and sublime, and in the pleasing and tender.– Vol. ii. p. 102 sq., and p. 146.
To the criticism of Hume, which first appeared in 1764-exactly a century ago—the best reply will be the Tercentenary Festival in honour of the poet's
* Such criticism is not even yet quite extinct. An American writer has more recently discovered that “Shakspeare and Walter Scott were remarkably morbid men ; while Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, .. were undoubtedly insane!!-See Quart. Rev., Jan. 1864, p. 56. And even M. Taine attributes to Shakspeare an impassioned imagination untrammelled either by reason or by morals.'—See Paul Stapfer, p. 17.
birth, which our 'barbarous nation' is preparing to celebrate in the present year. Or, if we desire to see the very different opinion of another historian of England, and man of letters—a writer, moreover, who was no enthusiast, but cool and cautious in his judgments—it is Mr. Hallam, who pronounces that 'the name of Shakspeare is the greatest in our literature; it is THE GREATEST IN ALL LITERATURE.'
Dr. Farmer, in his famous essay Upon the Learning of Shakspeare, arrived at the conclusion that our poet's studies were demonstratively confined to nature and his own language. To this conclusion (while I partly demur, as I have before intimated, p. 322, to the narrow limits which it assigns to Shakspeare's reading) I would presume to add that, of all the books which he studied in his own language, there was none with which he was more familiar than the English Bible. That the lower † characters in his plays have in every instance treated Holy Scripture with the nice and exact reverence which we should feel to be desirable at the present day, is not to be maintained; but still less is the charge which has been brought
* Hist. of Literature, vol. iii. p. 547.
+ Warburton has the following note upon All's Well that Ends Well, Act iv. Sc. 5, with reference to the dialogue between the Clown and Lafeu :-.Shakspeare is but rarely guilty of such impious trash (?). And it is observable that then he always puts that into the mouth of his fools, which is now grown the characteristic of the fine gentleman. I add, not of his 'fools' only, but of his madmen. Compare Edgar in King Lear, Act iii. Sc. 4.
against him, of frequent irreverence and profaneness in his use of God's Word, to be justified, or received. The mass of reference and allusion to Scripture which his works contain must be looked at as a whole, in order to discover its true animus. This would be only just and fair to an author under any circumstances; but how much more necessary and indispensable is it in our poet's case, when we know that his plays, for the most part, were not published by himself, nor till some years after his death ; and when we also know that in many of his scenes low jokes, for which he is not responsible, were foisted by the players in order to 'please the million. For instance, Dr. Farmer considered it 'extremely probable’ that the French ribaldry * in the last scene of King Henry V. was at first inserted by a different hand; as 'the many additions in that same play most certainly were, after he had left the stage.'
In like manner the wretched jest (which we learn from other quarters to have been current in our poet's days), by which the name of the Ten Commandments was given to the fingers and thumbs of the two hands, has found its way into the Second Part of King Henry VI.; where Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, says to Queen
* We have only to compare the names of Shakspeare's plays with the names of those of the principal dramatists who were his contemporaries
- Ford, Massinger, Marlowe, Beauniont and Fletcher, Rowley, Shirley, and even Ben Jonson-in order to perceive the superior delicacy of our poet's mind for one living in that age.
Margaret, in language as coarse as it is profane-but language, be it remembered, addressed to an adul, teress by one whom she had grievously provoked by reflections upon her husband, and, moreover, grossly insulted by boxing her on the ear :
Could I come near your beauty with my nails,
Act i. Sc. 3. The authenticity of this play has been called in question by good judges; for instance, by Dr. Farmer : though, for my own part, I must confess I agree with Schlegel, if not in accepting the whole as unquestionably Shakspeare's, yet in maintaining that some parts of it, especially the death-scene of Cardinal Beaufort, could have been written by no other hand. It is in the same play that another instance occurs of Scriptural reference, which certainly falls short of what we now feel to be due, in speaking upon so sacred and solemn a subject. Richard, son of the Duke of York, says to young Lord Clifford, who had called the Yorkists 'rebels,
Fye! charity, for shame! speak not in spite,
Act v. Sc. 1. in ironical allusion, evidently, to the promise which our Lord made to the Penitent Thief upon the Cross. However, I must repeat, that before we
* Walter Scott has not scrupled to make use of the same expression; but then he has put it into the mouth of Mrs. Muckleworth. See Waverley, vol. ii. p. 9.