Algernon Charles Swinburne.

A Study of Shakespeare online

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This eBook was prepared by Les Bowler.



Begun in the winter of 1874, a first instalment of "A Study of
Shakespeare" appeared in the _Fortnightly Review_ for May 1875, and a
second in the number for June 1876, but the completed work was not issued
in book form until June 1880. In a letter to me (January 31, 1875),
Swinburne said:

"I am now at work on my long-designed essay or study on the metrical
progress or development of Shakespeare, as traceable by ear and _not_
by finger, and the general changes of tone and stages of mind
expressed or involved in this change or progress of style."

The book was produced at the moment when controversy with regard to the
internal evidence of composition in the writings attributed to
Shakespeare was raging high, and the amusing appendices were added at the
last moment that they might infuriate the pedants of the New Shakespeare
Society. They amply fulfilled that amiable purpose.


September 1918




The greatest poet of our age has drawn a parallel of elaborate eloquence
between Shakespeare and the sea; and the likeness holds good in many
points of less significance than those which have been set down by the
master-hand. For two hundred years at least have students of every kind
put forth in every sort of boat on a longer or a shorter voyage of
research across the waters of that unsounded sea. From the paltriest
fishing-craft to such majestic galleys as were steered by Coleridge and
by Goethe, each division of the fleet has done or has essayed its turn of
work; some busied in dredging alongshore, some taking surveys of this or
that gulf or headland, some putting forth through shine and shadow into
the darkness of the great deep. Nor does it seem as if there would
sooner be an end to men's labour on this than on the other sea. But here
a difference is perceptible. The material ocean has been so far mastered
by the wisdom and the heroism of man that we may look for a time to come
when the mystery shall be manifest of its furthest north and south, and
men resolve the secret of the uttermost parts of the sea: the poles also
may find their Columbus. But the limits of that other ocean, the laws of
its tides, the motive of its forces, the mystery of its unity and the
secret of its change, no seafarer of us all may ever think thoroughly to
know. No wind-gauge will help us to the science of its storms, no lead-
line sound for us the depth of its divine and terrible serenity.

As, however, each generation for some two centuries now or more has
witnessed fresh attempts at pilotage and fresh expeditions of discovery
undertaken in the seas of Shakespeare, it may be well to study a little
the laws of navigation in such waters as these, and look well to compass
and rudder before we accept the guidance of a strange helmsman or make
proffer for trial of our own. There are shoals and quicksands on which
many a seafarer has run his craft aground in time past, and others of
more special peril to adventurers of the present day. The chances of
shipwreck vary in a certain degree with each new change of vessel and
each fresh muster of hands. At one time a main rock of offence on which
the stoutest ships of discovery were wont to split was the narrow and
slippery reef of verbal emendation; and upon this our native pilots were
too many of them prone to steer. Others fell becalmed offshore in a
German fog of philosophic theories, and would not be persuaded that the
house of words they had built in honour of Shakespeare was "dark as
hell," seeing "it had bay-windows transparent as barricadoes, and the
clear-stories towards the south-north were as lustrous as ebony." These
are not the most besetting dangers of more modern steersmen: what we have
to guard against now is neither a repetition of the pedantries of
Steevens nor a recrudescence of the moralities of Ulrici. Fresh follies
spring up in new paths of criticism, and fresh labourers in a fruitless
field are at hand to gather them and to garner. A discovery of some
importance has recently been proclaimed as with blare of vociferous
trumpets and flutter of triumphal flags; no less a discovery than
this - that a singer must be tested by his song. Well, it is something
that criticism should at length be awake to that wholly indisputable
fact; that learned and laborious men who can hear only with their fingers
should open their eyes to admit such a novelty, their minds to accept
such a paradox, as that a painter should be studied in his pictures and a
poet in his verse. To the common herd of students and lovers of either
art this may perhaps appear no great discovery; but that it should at
length have dawned even upon the race of commentators is a sign which in
itself might be taken as a presage of new light to come in an epoch of
miracle yet to be. Unhappily it is as yet but a partial revelation that
has been vouchsafed to them. To the recognition of the apocalyptic fact
that a workman can only be known by his work, and that without
examination of his method and material that work can hardly be studied to
much purpose, they have yet to add the knowledge of a further truth no
less recondite and abstruse than this; that as the technical work of a
painter appeals to the eye, so the technical work of a poet appeals to
the ear. It follows that men who have none are as likely to arrive at
any profitable end by the application of metrical tests to the work of
Shakespeare as a blind man by the application of his theory of colours to
the work of Titian.

It is certainly no news to other than professional critics that no means
of study can be more precious or more necessary to a student of
Shakespeare than this of tracing the course of his work by the growth and
development, through various modes and changes, of his metre. But the
faculty of using such means of study is not to be had for the asking; it
is not to be earned by the most assiduous toil, it is not to be secured
by the learning of years, it is not to be attained by the devotion of a
life. No proficiency in grammar and arithmetic, no science of numeration
and no scheme of prosody, will be here of the least avail. Though the
pedagogue were Briareus himself who would thus bring Shakespeare under
the rule of his rod or Shelley within the limit of his line, he would
lack fingers on which to count the syllables that make up their music,
the infinite varieties of measure that complete the changes and the
chimes of perfect verse. It is but lost labour that they rise up so
early, and so late take rest; not a Scaliger or Salmasius of them all
will sooner solve the riddle of the simplest than of the subtlest melody.
Least of all will the method of a scholiast be likely to serve him as a
clue to the hidden things of Shakespeare. For all the counting up of
numbers and casting up of figures that a whole university - nay, a whole
universe of pedants could accomplish, no teacher and no learner will ever
be a whit the nearer to the haven where they would be. In spite of all
tabulated statements and regulated summaries of research, the music which
will not be dissected or defined, the "spirit of sense" which is one and
indivisible from the body or the raiment of speech that clothes it, keeps
safe the secret of its sound. Yet it is no less a task than this that
the scholiasts have girt themselves to achieve: they will pluck out the
heart not of Hamlet's but of Shakespeare's mystery by the means of a
metrical test; and this test is to be applied by a purely arithmetical
process. It is useless to pretend or to protest that they work by any
rule but the rule of thumb and finger: that they have no ear to work by,
whatever outward show they may make of unmistakable ears, the very nature
of their project gives full and damning proof. Properly understood, this
that they call the metrical test is doubtless, as they say, the surest or
the sole sure key to one side of the secret of Shakespeare; but they will
never understand it properly who propose to secure it by the ingenious
device of numbering the syllables and tabulating the results of a
computation which shall attest in exact sequence the quantity, order, and
proportion of single and double endings, of rhyme and blank verse, of
regular lines and irregular, to be traced in each play by the horny eye
and the callous finger of a pedant. "I am ill at these numbers"; those
in which I have sought to become an expert are numbers of another sort;
but having, from wellnigh the first years I can remember, made of the
study of Shakespeare the chief intellectual business and found in it the
chief spiritual delight of my whole life, I can hardly think myself less
qualified than another to offer an opinion on the metrical points at

The progress and expansion of style and harmony in the successive works
of Shakespeare must in some indefinite degree be perceptible to the
youngest as to the oldest, to the dullest as to the keenest of
Shakespearean students. But to trace and verify the various shades and
gradations of this progress, the ebb and flow of alternate influences,
the delicate and infinite subtleties of change and growth discernible in
the spirit and the speech of the greatest among poets, is a task not less
beyond the reach of a scholiast than beyond the faculties of a child. He
who would attempt it with any chance of profit must above all things
remember at starting that the inner and the outer qualities of a poet's
work are of their very nature indivisible; that any criticism is of
necessity worthless which looks to one side only, whether it be to the
outer or to the inner quality of the work; that the fatuity of pedantic
ignorance never devised a grosser absurdity than the attempt to separate
aesthetic from scientific criticism by a strict line of demarcation, and
to bring all critical work under one or the other head of this exhaustive
division. Criticism without accurate science of the thing criticised can
indeed have no other value than may belong to the genuine record of a
spontaneous impression; but it is not less certain that criticism which
busies itself only with the outer husk or technical shell of a great
artist's work, taking no account of the spirit or the thought which
informs it, cannot have even so much value as this. Without study of his
forms of metre or his scheme of colours we shall certainly fail to
appreciate or even to apprehend the gist or the worth of a painter's or a
poet's design; but to note down the number of special words and cast up
the sum of superfluous syllables used once or twice or twenty times in
the structure of a single poem will help us exactly as much as a naked
catalogue of the colours employed in a particular picture. A tabulated
statement or summary of the precise number of blue or green, red or white
draperies to be found in a precise number of paintings by the same hand
will not of itself afford much enlightenment to any but the youngest of
possible students; nor will a mere list of double or single, masculine or
feminine terminations discoverable in a given amount of verse from the
same quarter prove of much use or benefit to an adult reader of common
intelligence. What such an one requires is the guidance which can be
given by no metremonger or colour-grinder: the suggestion which may help
him to discern at once the cause and the effect of every choice or change
of metre and of colour; which may show him at one glance the reason and
the result of every shade and of every tone which tends to compose and to
complete the gradual scale of their final harmonies. This method of
study is generally accepted as the only one applicable to the work of a
great painter by any criticism worthy of the name: it should also be
recognised as the sole method by which the work of a great poet can be
studied to any serious purpose. For the student it can be no less
useful, for the expert it should be no less easy, to trace through its
several stages of expansion and transfiguration the genius of Chaucer or
of Shakespeare, of Milton or of Shelley, than the genius of Titian or of
Raffaelle, of Turner or of Rossetti. Some great artists there are of
either kind in whom no such process of growth or transformation is
perceptible: of these are Coleridge and Blake; from the sunrise to the
sunset of their working day we can trace no demonstrable increase and no
visible diminution of the divine capacities or the inborn defects of
either man's genius; but not of such, as a rule, are the greatest among
artists of any sort.

Another rock on which modern steersmen of a more skilful hand than these
are yet liable to run through too much confidence is the love of their
own conjectures as to the actual date or the secret history of a
particular play or passage. To err on this side requires more thought,
more learning, and more ingenuity than we need think to find in a whole
tribe of finger-counters and figure-casters; but the outcome of these
good gifts, if strained or perverted to capricious use, may prove no less
barren of profit than the labours of a pedant on the letter of the text.
It is a tempting exercise of intelligence for a dexterous and keen-witted
scholar to apply his solid learning and his vivid fancy to the detection
or the interpretation of some new or obscure point in a great man's life
or work; but none the less is it a perilous pastime to give the reins to
a learned fancy, and let loose conjecture on the trail of any dubious
crotchet or the scent of any supposed allusion that may spring up in the
way of its confident and eager quest. To start a new solution of some
crucial problem, to track some new undercurrent of concealed significance
in a passage hitherto neglected or misconstrued, is to a critic of this
higher class a delight as keen as that of scientific discovery to
students of another sort: the pity is that he can bring no such certain
or immediate test to verify the value of his discovery as lies ready to
the hand of the man of science. Whether he have lit upon a windfall or a
mare's nest can be decided by no direct proof, but only by time and the
general acceptance of competent judges; and this cannot often be
reasonably expected for theories which can appeal for support or
confirmation to no positive evidence, but at best to a cloudy and
shifting probability. What personal or political allusions may lurk
under the text of Shakespeare we can never know, and should consequently
forbear to hang upon a hypothesis of this floating and nebulous kind any
serious opinion which might gravely affect our estimate of his work or
his position in regard to other men, with whom some public or private
interest may possibly have brought him into contact or collision.

* * * * *

The aim of the present study is simply to set down what the writer
believes to be certain demonstrable truths as to the progress and
development of style, the outer and the inner changes of manner as of
matter, of method as of design, which may be discerned in the work of
Shakespeare. The principle here adopted and the views here put forward
have not been suddenly discovered or lightly taken up out of any desire
to make a show of theoretical ingenuity. For years past I have held and
maintained, in private discussion with friends and fellow-students, the
opinions which I now submit to more public judgment. How far they may
coincide with those advanced by others I cannot say, and have not been
careful to inquire. The mere fact of coincidence or of dissent on such a
question is of less importance than the principle accepted by either
student as the groundwork of his theory, the mainstay of his opinion. It
is no part of my project or my hope to establish the actual date of any
among the various plays, or to determine point by point the lineal order
of their succession. I have examined no table or catalogue of recent or
of earlier date, from the time of Malone onwards, with a view to confute
by my reasoning the conclusions of another, or by the assistance of his
theories to corroborate my own. It is impossible to fix or decide by
inner or outer evidence the precise order of production, much less of
composition, which critics of the present or the past may have set their
wits to verify in vain; but it is quite possible to show that the work of
Shakespeare is naturally divisible into classes which may serve us to
distinguish and determine as by landmarks the several stages or periods
of his mind and art.

Of these the three chief periods or stages are so unmistakably indicated
by the mere text itself, and so easily recognisable by the veriest tiro
in the school of Shakespeare, that even were I as certain of being the
first to point them out as I am conscious of having long since discovered
and verified them without assistance or suggestion from any but
Shakespeare himself, I should be disposed to claim but little credit for
a discovery which must in all likelihood have been forestalled by the
common insight of some hundred or more students in time past. The
difficulty begins with the really debatable question of subdivisions.
There are certain plays which may be said to hang on the borderland
between one period and the next, with one foot lingering and one
advanced; and these must be classed according to the dominant note of
their style, the greater or lesser proportion of qualities proper to the
earlier or the later stage of thought and writing. At one time I was
inclined to think the whole catalogue more accurately divisible into four
classes; but the line of demarcation between the third and fourth would
have been so much fainter than those which mark off the first period from
the second, and the second from the third, that it seemed on the whole a
more correct and adequate arrangement to assume that the last period
might be subdivided if necessary into a first and second stage. This
somewhat precise and pedantic scheme of study I have adopted from no love
of rigid or formal system, but simply to make the method of my critical
process as clear as the design. That design is to examine by internal
evidence alone the growth and the expression of spirit and of speech, the
ebb and flow of thought and style, discernible in the successive periods
of Shakespeare's work; to study the phases of mind, the changes of tone,
the passage or progress from an old manner to a new, the reversion or
relapse from a later to an earlier habit, which may assuredly be traced
in the modulations of his varying verse, but can only be traced by ear
and not by finger. I have busied myself with no baseless speculations as
to the possible or probable date of the first appearance of this play or
of that on the stage; and it is not unlikely that the order of succession
here adopted or suggested may not always coincide with the chronological
order of production; nor will the principle or theory by which I have
undertaken to class the successive plays of each period be affected or
impaired though it should chance that a play ranked by me as belonging to
a later stage of work should actually have been produced earlier than
others which in my lists are assigned to a subsequent date. It is not,
so to speak, the literal but the spiritual order which I have studied to
observe and to indicate: the periods which I seek to define belong not to
chronology but to art. No student need be reminded how common a thing it
is to recognise in the later work of a great artist some partial
reappearance of his early tone or manner, some passing return to his
early lines of work and to habits of style since modified or abandoned.
Such work, in part at least, may properly be said to belong rather to the
earlier stage whose manner it resumes than to the later stage at which it
was actually produced, and in which it stands out as a marked exception
among the works of the same period. A famous and a most singularly
beautiful example of this reflorescence as in a Saint Martin's summer of
undecaying genius is the exquisite and crowning love-scene in the opera
or "ballet-tragedy" of _Psyche_, written in his sixty-fifth year by the
august Roman hand of Pierre Corneille; a lyric symphony of spirit and of
song fulfilled with all the colour and all the music that autumn could
steal from spring if October had leave to go a Maying in some Olympian
masquerade of melody and sunlight. And it is not easier, easy as it is,
to discern and to define the three main stages of Shakespeare's work and
progress, than to classify under their several heads the representative
plays belonging to each period by the law of their nature, if not by the
accident of their date. There are certain dominant qualities which do on
the whole distinguish not only the later from the earlier plays, but the
second period from the first, the third period from the second; and it is
with these qualities alone that the higher criticism, be it aesthetic or
scientific, has properly anything to do.

A new method of solution has been applied to various difficulties which
have been discovered or invented in the text by the care or the
perversity of recent commentators, whose principle of explanation is
easier to abuse than to use with any likelihood of profit. It is at
least simple enough for the simplest of critics to apply or misapply:
whenever they see or suspect an inequality or an incongruity which may be
wholly imperceptible to eyes uninured to the use of their spectacles,
they assume at once the presence of another workman, the intrusion of a
stranger's hand. This supposition of a double authorship is naturally as
impossible to refute as to establish by other than internal evidence and
appeal to the private judgment or perception of the reader. But it is no
better than the last resource of an empiric, the last refuge of a
sciolist; a refuge which the soundest of scholars will be slowest to
seek, a resource which the most competent of critics will be least ready
to adopt. Once admitted as a principle of general application, there are
no lengths to which it may not carry, there are none to which it has not
carried, the audacious fatuity and the arrogant incompetence of tamperers
with the authentic text. Recent editors who have taken on themselves the
high office of guiding English youth in its first study of Shakespeare
have proposed to excise or to obelise whole passages which the delight
and wonder of youth and age alike, of the rawest as of the ripest among
students, have agreed to consecrate as examples of his genius at its
highest. In the last trumpet-notes of Macbeth's defiance and despair, in
the last rallying cry of the hero reawakened in the tyrant at his utmost
hour of need, there have been men and scholars, Englishmen and editors,
who have detected the alien voice of a pretender, the false ring of a
foreign blast that was not blown by Shakespeare; words that for centuries
past have touched with fire the hearts of thousands in each age since
they were first inspired - words with the whole sound in them of battle or
a breaking sea, with the whole soul of pity and terror mingled and melted
into each other in the fierce last speech of a spirit grown "aweary of
the sun," have been calmly transferred from the account of Shakespeare to
the score of Middleton. And this, forsooth, the student of the future is
to accept on the authority of men who bring to the support of their
decision the unanswerable plea of years spent in the collation and
examination of texts never hitherto explored and compared with such
energy of learned labour. If this be the issue of learning and of
industry, the most indolent and ignorant of readers who retains his
natural capacity to be moved and mastered by the natural delight of
contact with heavenly things is better off by far than the most studious
and strenuous of all scholiasts who ever claimed acquiescence or
challenged dissent on the strength of his lifelong labours and
hard-earned knowledge of the letter of the text. Such an one is indeed

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Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 1 of 17)