Algernon Charles Swinburne.

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been on both sides as persistently misconceived and misrepresented with
such desperate pertinacity as Hamlet and Iago.

And it is only when Iago is justly appreciated that we can justly
appreciate either Othello or Desdemona. This again should surely be no
more than the truism that it sounds; but practically it would seem to be
no less than an adventurous and audacious paradox. Remove or deform or
diminish or modify the dominant features of the destroyer, and we have
but the eternal and vulgar figures of jealousy and innocence, newly
vamped and veneered and padded and patched up for the stalest purposes of
puppetry. As it is, when Coleridge asks "which do we pity the most" at
the fall of the curtain, we can surely answer, Othello. Noble as are the
"most blessed conditions" of "the gentle Desdemona," he is yet the nobler
of the two; and has suffered more in one single pang than she could
suffer in life or in death.

But if _Othello_ be the most pathetic, _King Lear_ the most terrible,
_Hamlet_ the subtlest and deepest work of Shakespeare, the highest in
abrupt and steep simplicity of epic tragedy is _Macbeth_. There needs no
ghost come from the grave, any reader may too probably remark, to tell us
this. But in the present generation such novelties have been unearthed
regarding Shakespeare that the reassertion of an old truth may seem to
have upon it some glittering reflection from the brazen brightness of a
brand-new lie. Have not certain wise men of the east of
England - Cantabrigian Magi, led by the star of their goddess Mathesis
("mad Mathesis," as a daring poet was once ill-advised enough to dub her
doubtful deity in defiance of scansion rather than of truth) - have they
not detected in the very heart of this tragedy the "paddling palms and
pinching fingers" of Thomas Middleton?

To the simpler eyes of less learned Thebans than these - Thebes, by the
way, was Dryden's irreverent name for Cambridge, the nursing mother of
"his green unknowing youth," when that "renegade" was recreant enough to
compliment Oxford at her expense as the chosen Athens of "his riper
age" - the likelihood is only too evident that the sole text we possess of
_Macbeth_ has not been interpolated but mutilated. In their version of
_Othello_, remarkably enough, the "player-editors," contrary to their
wont, have added to the treasure-house of their text one of the most
precious jewels that ever the prodigal afterthought of a great poet
bestowed upon the rapture of his readers. Some of these, by way of
thanksgiving, have complained with a touch of petulance that it was out
of place and superfluous in the setting: nay, that it was incongruous
with all the circumstances - out of tone and out of harmony and out of
keeping with character and tune and time. In other lips indeed than
Othello's, at the crowning minute of culminant agony, the rush of
imaginative reminiscence which brings back upon his eyes and ears the
lightning foam and tideless thunder of the Pontic sea might seem a thing
less natural than sublime. But Othello has the passion of a poet closed
in as it were and shut up behind the passion of a hero. For all his
practical readiness of martial eye and ruling hand in action, he is also
in his season "of imagination all compact." Therefore it is that in the
face and teeth of all devils akin to Iago that hell could send forth to
hiss at her election, we feel and recognise the spotless exaltation, the
sublime and sun-bright purity, of Desdemona's inevitable and invulnerable
love. When once we likewise have seen Othello's visage in his mind, we
see too how much more of greatness is in this mind than in another
hero's. For such an one, even a boy may well think how thankfully and
joyfully he would lay down his life. Other friends we have of
Shakespeare's giving whom we love deeply and well, if hardly with such
love as could weep for him all the tears of the body and all the blood of
the heart: but there is none we love like Othello.

I must part from his presence again for a season, and return to my topic
in the text of _Macbeth_. That it is piteously rent and ragged and
clipped and garbled in some of its earlier scenes, the rough construction
and the poltfoot metre, lame sense and limping verse, each maimed and
mangled subject of players' and printers' most treasonable tyranny,
contending as it were to seem harsher than the other, combine in this
contention to bear indisputable and intolerable witness. Only where the
witches are, and one more potent and more terrible than all witches and
all devils at their beck, can we be sure that such traitors have not
robbed us of one touch from Shakespeare's hand. The second scene of the
play at least bears marks of such handling as the brutal Shakespearean
Hector's of the "mangled Myrmidons"; it is too visibly "noseless,
handless, hacked and chipped" as it comes to us, crying on Hemings and
Condell. And it is in this unlucky scene that unkindly criticism has not
unsuccessfully sought for the gravest faults of language and manner to be
found in Shakespeare. For certainly it cannot be cleared from the charge
of a style stiffened and swollen with clumsy braid and crabbed bombast.
But against the weird sisters, and her who sits above them and apart,
more awful than Hecate's very self, no mangling hand has been stretched
forth; no blight of mistranslation by perversion has fallen upon the
words which interpret and expound the hidden things of their evil will.

To one tragedy as to one comedy of Shakespeare's, the casual or the
natural union of especial popularity with especial simplicity in
selection and in treatment of character makes it as superfluous as it
would be difficult to attempt any application of analytical criticism.
There is nothing in them of a nature so compound or so complex as to call
for solution or resolution into its primal elements. Here there is some
genuine ground for the generally baseless and delusive opinion of self-
complacent sciolism that he who runs may read Shakespeare. These two
plays it is hardly worth while to point out by name: all probable readers
will know them at once for _Macbeth_ and _As You Like It_. There can
hardly be a single point of incident or of character on which the
youngest reader will not find himself at one with the oldest, the dullest
with the brightest among the scholars of Shakespeare. It would be an
equal waste of working hours or of playtime if any of these should devote
any part of either a whole-schoolday or a holiday to remark or to
rhapsody on the character of Macbeth or of Orlando, of Rosalind or of
Lady Macbeth. He that runs, let him read: and he that has ears, let him

I cannot but think that enough at least of time has been spent if not
wasted by able and even by eminent men on examination of _Coriolanus_
with regard to its political aspect or bearing upon social questions. It
is from first to last, for all its turmoil of battle and clamour of
contentious factions, rather a private and domestic than a public or
historical tragedy. As in _Julius Caesar_ the family had been so wholly
subordinated to the state, and all personal interests so utterly
dominated by the preponderance of national duties, that even the sweet
and sublime figure of Portia passing in her "awful loveliness" was but as
a profile half caught in the background of an episode, so here on the
contrary the whole force of the final impression is not that of a
conflict between patrician and plebeian, but solely that of a match of
passions played out for life and death between a mother and a son. The
partisans of oligarchic or democratic systems may wrangle at their will
over the supposed evidences of Shakespeare's prejudice against this creed
and prepossession in favour of that: a third bystander may rejoice in the
proof thus established of his impartial indifference towards either: it
is all nothing to the real point in hand. The subject of the whole play
is not the exile's revolt, the rebel's repentance, or the traitor's
reward, but above all it is the son's tragedy. The inscription on the
plinth of this tragic statue is simply to Volumnia Victrix.

A loftier or a more perfect piece of man's work was never done in all the
world than this tragedy of _Coriolanus_: the one fit and crowning epithet
for its companion or successor is that bestowed by Coleridge - "the most
wonderful." It would seem a sign or birthmark of only the greatest among
poets that they should be sure to rise instantly for awhile above the
very highest of their native height at the touch of a thought of
Cleopatra. So was it, as we all know, with William Shakespeare: so is
it, as we all see, with Victor Hugo. As we feel in the marvellous and
matchless verses of _Zim-Zizimi_ all the splendour and fragrance and
miracle of her mere bodily presence, so from her first imperial dawn on
the stage of Shakespeare to the setting of that eastern star behind a
pall of undissolving cloud we feel the charm and the terror and the
mystery of her absolute and royal soul. Byron wrote once to Moore, with
how much truth or sincerity those may guess who would care to know, that
his friend's first "confounded book" of thin prurient jingle ("we call it
a mellisonant tingle-tangle," as Randolph's mock Oberon says of a stolen
sheep-bell) had been the first cause of all his erratic or erotic
frailties: it is not impossible that spirits of another sort may remember
that to their own innocent infantine perceptions the first obscure
electric revelation of what Blake calls "the Eternal Female" was given
through a blind wondering thrill of childish rapture by a lightning on
the baby dawn of their senses and their soul from the sunrise of
Shakespeare's Cleopatra.

Never has he given such proof of his incomparable instinct for abstinence
from the wrong thing as well as achievement of the right. He has utterly
rejected and disdained all occasion of setting her off by means of any
lesser foil than all the glory of the world with all its empires. And we
need not Antony's example to show us that these are less than straws in
the balance.

Entre elle et l'univers qui s'offraient a la fois
Il hesita, lachant le monde dans son choix.

Even as that Roman grasp relaxed and let fall the world, so has
Shakespeare's self let go for awhile his greater world of imagination,
with all its all but infinite variety of life and thought and action, for
love of that more infinite variety which custom could not stale. Himself
a second and a yet more fortunate Antony, he has once more laid a world,
and a world more wonderful than ever, at her feet. He has put aside for
her sake all other forms and figures of womanhood; he, father or creator
of Rosalind, of Cordelia, of Desdemona, and of Imogen, he too, like the
sun-god and sender of all song, has anchored his eyes on her whom
"Phoebus' amorous pinches" could not leave "black," nor "wrinkled deep in
time"; on that incarnate and imperishable "spirit of sense," to whom at
the very last

The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch,
That hurts, and is desired.

To him, as to the dying husband of Octavia, this creature of his own hand
might have boasted herself that the loveliest and purest among all her
sisters of his begetting,

with her modest eyes
And still conclusion, shall acquire no honour,
Demurring upon me.

To sum up, Shakespeare has elsewhere given us in ideal incarnation the
perfect mother, the perfect wife, the perfect daughter, the perfect
mistress, or the perfect maiden: here only once for all he has given us
the perfect and the everlasting woman.

And what a world of great men and great things, "high actions and high
passions," is this that he has spread under her for a footcloth or hung
behind her for a curtain! The descendant of that other his ancestral
Alcides, late offshoot of the god whom he loved and who so long was loth
to leave him, is here as in history the visible one man revealed who
could grapple for a second with very Rome and seem to throw it, more
lightly than he could cope with Cleopatra. And not the Roman Landor
himself could see or make us see more clearly than has his fellow
provincial of Warwickshire that first imperial nephew of her great first
paramour, who was to his actual uncle even such a foil and counterfeit
and perverse and prosperous parody as the son of Hortense Beauharnais of
Saint-Leu to the son of Letizia Buonaparte of Ajaccio. For Shakespeare
too, like Landor, had watched his "sweet Octavius" smilingly and
frowningly "draw under nose the knuckle of forefinger" as he looked out
upon the trail of innocent blood after the bright receding figure of his
brave young kinsman. The fair-faced false "present God" of his poetic
parasites, the smooth triumphant patron and preserver with the heart of
ice and iron, smiles before us to the very life. It is of no account now
to remember that

he at Philippi kept
His sword even like a dancer:

for the sword of Antony that struck for him is in the renegade hand of

I have said nothing of Enobarbus or of Eros, the fugitive once ruined by
his flight and again redeemed by the death-agony of his dark and doomed
repentance, or the freedman transfigured by a death more fair than
freedom through the glory of the greatness of his faith: for who can
speak of all things or of half that are in Shakespeare? And who can
speak worthily of any?

I am come now to that strange part of a task too high for me, where I
must needs speak not only (as may indeed well be) unworthily, but also
(as may well seem) unlovingly, of some certain portions in the mature and
authentic work of Shakespeare. "Though it be honest, it is never good"
to do so: yet here I cannot choose but speak plainly after my own poor
conscience, and risk all chances of chastisement as fearful as any once
threatened for her too faithful messenger by the heart-stricken wrath of

In the greater part of this third period, taking a swift and general view
of it for contrast or comparison of qualities with the second, we
constantly find beauty and melody, transfigured into harmony and
sublimity; an exchange unquestionably for the better: but in certain
stages, or only perhaps in a single stage of it, we frequently find
humour and reality supplanted by realism and obscenity; an exchange
undeniably for the worse. The note of his earliest comic style was often
a boyish or a birdlike wantonness, very capable of such liberties and
levities as those of Lesbia's sparrow with the lip or bosom of his
mistress; as notably in the parts of Boyet and Mercutio: and indeed there
is a bright vein of mere wordy wilfulness running throughout the golden
youth of the two plays which connects _Love's Labour's Lost_ with _Romeo
and Juliet_ as by a thread of floss silk not always "most excellently
ravelled," nor often unspotted or unentangled. In the second period this
gaiety was replaced by the utmost frankness and fullness of humour, as a
boy's merry madness by the witty wisdom of a man: but now for a time it
would seem as if the good comic qualities of either period were displaced
and ousted by mere coarseness and crudity like that of a hard harsh
photograph. This ultra-Circean transformation of spirit and
brutification of speech we do not find in the lighter interludes of great
and perfect tragedy: for the porter in _Macbeth_ makes hardly an
exception worth naming. It is when we come upon the singular little
group of two or three plays not accurately definable at all but roughly
describable as tragi-comedies, or more properly in two cases at least as
tragedies docked of their natural end, curtailed of the due
catastrophe - it is then that we find for the swift sad bright lightnings
of laughter from the lips of the sweet and bitter fool whose timeless
disappearance from the stage of _King Lear_ seems for once a sure sign of
inexplicable weariness or forgetfulness on Shakespeare's part, so
nauseous and so sorry a substitute as the fetid fun and rancid ribaldry
of Pandarus and Thersites. I must have leave to say that the coincidence
of these two in the scheme of a single play is a thing hardly bearable by
men who object to too strong a savour of those too truly "Eternal
Cesspools" over which the first of living humourists holds as it were for
ever an everlasting nose - or rather, in one sense, does not hold but
expand it for the fuller inhalation of their too congenial fumes with an
apparent relish which will always seem the most deplorable to those who
the most gratefully and reasonably admire that high heroic genius, for
love of which the wiser sort of men must finally forgive all the noisy
aberrations of his misanthropy and philobulgary, anti-Gallican and
Russolatrous insanities of perverse and morbid eloquence.

The three detached or misclassified plays of Shakespeare in which alone a
reverent and reasonable critic might perhaps find something rationally
and really exceptionable have also this far other quality in common, that
in them as in his topmost tragedies of the same period either the
exaltation of his eloquence touches the very highest point of expressible
poetry, or his power of speculation alternately sounds the gulfs and
scales the summits of all imaginable thought. In all three of them the
power of passionate and imaginative eloquence is not only equal in spirit
or essence but identical in figure or in form: in those two of them which
deal almost as much with speculative intelligence as with poetic action
and passion, the tones and methods, types and objects of thought, are
also not equal only but identical. An all but absolute brotherhood in
thought and style and tone and feeling unites the quasi-tragedy of
_Troilus and Cressida_ with what in the lamentable default of as apt a
phrase in English I must call by its proper designation in French the
_tragedie manquee_ of _Measure for Measure_. In the simply romantic
fragment of the Shakespearean _Pericles_, where there was no call and no
place for the poetry of speculative or philosophic intelligence, there is
the same positive and unmistakable identity of imaginative and passionate

I cannot but conjecture that the habitual students of Shakespeare's
printed plays must have felt startled as by something of a shock when the
same year exposed for the expenditure of their sixpences two reasonably
correct editions of a play unknown to the boards in the likeness of
_Troilus and Cressida_, side by side or cheek by jowl with a most
unreasonably and unconscionably incorrect issue of a much older stage
favourite, now newly beautified and fortified, in _Pericles Prince of
Tyre_. Hitherto, ever since the appearance of his first poem, and its
instant acceptance by all classes from courtiers to courtesans under a
somewhat dubious and two-headed form of popular success, - 'vrai succes de
scandale s'il en fut' - even the potent influence and unequivocal example
of Rabelais had never once even in passing or in seeming affected or
infected the progressive and triumphal genius of Shakespeare with a taint
or touch of anything offensive to healthier and cleanlier organs of
perception than such as may belong to a genuine or a pretending Puritan.
But on taking in his hand that one of these two new dramatic pamphlets
which might first attract him either by its double novelty as a never
acted play or by a title of yet more poetic and romantic associations
than its fellow's, such a purchaser as I have supposed, with his mind
full of the sweet rich fresh humour which he would feel a right to expect
from Shakespeare, could hardly have undergone less than a qualm or a pang
of strong disrelish and distaste on finding one of the two leading comic
figures of the play break in upon it at his entrance not even with "a
fool-born jest," but with full-mouthed and foul-mouthed effusion of such
rank and rancorous personalities as might properly pollute the lips even
of some emulous descendant or antiquarian reincarnation of Thersites, on
application or even apprehension of a whip cracked in passing over the
assembled heads of a pseudocritical and mock-historic society. In either
case we moderns at least might haply desire the intervention of a
beadle's hand as heavy and a sceptral cudgel as knotty as ever the son of
Laertes applied to the shoulders of the first of the type or the tribe of
Thersites. For this brutal and brutish buffoon - I am speaking of
Shakespeare's Thersites - has no touch of humour in all his currish
composition: Shakespeare had none as nature has none to spare for such
dirty dogs as those of his kind or generation. There is not even what
Coleridge with such exquisite happiness defined as being the
quintessential property of Swift - "_anima Rabelaesii habitans in
sicco_ - the soul of Rabelais dwelling in a dry place." It is the fallen
soul of Swift himself at its lowest, dwelling in a place yet drier: the
familiar spirit or less than Socratic daemon of the Dean informing the
genius of Shakespeare. And thus for awhile infected and possessed, the
divine genius had not power to re-inform and re-create the daemonic
spirit by virtue of its own clear essence. This wonderful play, one of
the most admirable among all the works of Shakespeare's immeasurable and
unfathomable intelligence, as it must always hold its natural high place
among the most admired, will always in all probability be also, and as
naturally, the least beloved of all. It would be as easy and as
profitable a problem to solve the Rabelaisian riddle of the bombinating
chimaera with its potential or hypothetical faculty of deriving
sustenance from a course of diet on second intentions, as to read the
riddle of Shakespeare's design in the procreation of this yet more
mysterious and magnificent monster of a play. That on its production in
print it was formally announced as "a new play never staled with the
stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar," we know; must
we infer or may we suppose that therefore it was not originally written
for the stage? Not all plays were which even at that date appeared in
print: yet it would seem something more than strange that one such play,
written simply for the study, should have been the extra-professional
work of Shakespeare: and yet again it would seem stranger that he should
have designed this prodigious nondescript or portent of supreme genius
for the public stage: and strangest of all, if so, that he should have so
designed it in vain. Perhaps after all a better than any German or
Germanising commentary on the subject would be the simple and summary
ejaculation of Celia - "O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful
wonderful, and yet again wonderful, and after that out of all whooping!"
The perplexities of the whole matter seem literally to crowd and thicken
upon us at every step. What ailed the man or any man to write such a
manner of dramatic poem at all? and having written, to keep it beside him
or let it out of his hands into stranger and more slippery keeping,
unacted and unprinted? A German will rush in with an answer where an
Englishman (_non angelus sed Anglus_) will naturally fear to tread.

Alike in its most palpable perplexities and in its most patent
splendours, this political and philosophic and poetic problem, this
hybrid and hundred-faced and hydra-headed prodigy, at once defies and
derides all definitive comment. This however we may surely and
confidently say of it, that of all Shakespeare's offspring it is the one
whose best things lose least by extraction and separation from their
context. That some cynic had lately bitten him by the brain - and
possibly a cynic himself in a nearly rabid stage of anthropophobia - we
might conclude as reasonably from consideration of the whole as from
examination of the parts more especially and virulently affected: yet how
much is here also of hyper-Platonic subtlety and sublimity, of golden and
Hyblaean eloquence above the reach and beyond the snap of any cynic's
tooth! Shakespeare, as under the guidance at once for good and for evil
of his alternately Socratic and Swiftian familiar, has set himself as if
prepensely and on purpose to brutalise the type of Achilles and
spiritualise the type of Ulysses. The former is an enterprise never to
be utterly forgiven by any one who ever loved from the very birth of his
boyhood the very name of the son of the sea-goddess in the glorious words
of Mr. Browning's young first-born poem,

Who stood beside the naked Swift-footed,
And bound [his] forehead with Proserpine's hair.

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Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 10 of 17)