« ZurückWeiter »
of them, or than all of them combined; for it is in him that they all originated and find their unity. Thus to create and project into the world a large number of independent beings is an evidence of the highest genius. Byron could not do it; for through all his works, whatever may be the names of his characters, we recognize the lawless, passionate, misanthropic poet himself. The same is true of Goethe and Victor Hugo, who embody in their works their didactic principles or their idealized experience. Among the world's great writers, Shakespeare and Homer almost alone are hidden behind their works like a mysterious presence.
Shakespeare possessed a profound knowledge of his art. This is obvious both from Hamlet's famous instruction to the players and from the structure of his dramas. He has been criticised for discarding classic rules; but the censure is most unjust. Genius has an inalienable right to prescribe its own creative forms. He laid aside the hampering models of antiquity in order to give the world a new and richer dramatic form. The simple action of the ancient drama could not be adjusted to his great and complex themes. His works possess the one great essential characteristic that of organic unity. After Shakespeare had completed his apprenticeship, his dramas embody an almost faultless structure; they are not pieces of elaborate and elegant patchwork, but of consistent and regular growth. We can but wonder at the range and power of that intellect which grasped a multitude of characters, brought them into contact, carried them through a great variety of incidents, portrayed with justice and splendor the profoundest feelings and thoughts, traced their reciprocal influence, and
symmetrically conducted the whole to a striking and predetermined conclusion.
It scarcely detracts from his greatness that, instead of inventing his themes and characters, he borrowed them from history and literature. His borrowing was not slavish and weak. Whatever materials he appropriated from others, he reshaped and glorified; and he is no more to be censured than is the sculptor who takes from the stonecutter the rough marble that he afterward transforms into a Venus de' Medici or a Greek Slave. His works constitute a world in themselves; and with its inhabitantswith Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Portia, Shylock, and many others we are as well acquainted as with the personages of history.
When Chatham was once asked where he had learned his English history, he replied, "In the plays of Shakespeare." Nowhere else could he have better caught its spirit. In the historical plays of the great dramatist, the mediæval history of England is made to live again; not only its leading events are brought before us, but also its leading actors, animated by their moving passions. "If the poet's work," says Green, "echoes sometimes our national prejudice and unfairness of temper, it is instinct throughout with our English humor, with our English love of hard fighting, our English faith in goodness, and in the doom that waits upon triumphant evil, our English pity for the fallen."
The poet exhibits an almost perfect acquaintance with human nature. His creations are not personified moral qualities or individualized passions, but real persons. They are beings of flesh and blood; but by their relations
and reciprocal influence they are lifted above the dull and commonplace. Shakespeare removes the veil that hides from common vision the awful significance of human influence, and reveals it in its subtle workings and mighty results. He enables us to see, beneath a placid or rippling surface, the deep currents that move society.
His types of noble men and women Orlando, Horatio, Antonio, Portia, Hermione, Desdemona, and many others are almost matchless. He furnishes us a gallery of exalted manhood and womanhood. Their goodness is beautiful in its ease, simplicity, and naturalness. "The good they do, in doing it, pays itself; if they do you a kindness, they are not at all solicitous to have you know and remember it; if sufferings and hardships overtake them, if wounds and bruises be their portion, they never grumble or repine at it." And the women, to quote Hudson further, "are strong, tender, and sweet, yet never without a sufficient infusion of brisk natural acid and piquancy to keep their sweetness from palling on the taste; they are full of fresh, healthy sentiment, but never at all touched with sentimentality."
As his mode of expression was always suited to his changing characters, he exemplified every quality of style in turn. His faculties and taste were so exquisitely adjusted, that his manner was always in keeping with his matter. He drew with equal facility on the Saxon and the Latin elements of our language, and attained with both the same incomparable results. He had a prodigious faculty for language, surpassing in copiousness every other English writer. The only term that adequately describes his manner of writing is Shakespearian a term that com