Algernon Charles Swinburne.

A Study of Shakespeare online

. (page 2 of 17)
Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 2 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

"in a parlous state"; and any boy whose heart first begins to burn within
him, who feels his blood kindle and his spirit dilate, his pulse leap and
his eyes lighten, over a first study of Shakespeare, may say to such a
teacher with better reason than Touchstone said to Corin, "Truly, thou
art damned; like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side." Nor could charity
itself hope much profit for him from the moving appeal and the pious
prayer which temper that severity of sentence - "Wilt thou rest damned?
God help thee, shallow man! God make incision in thee! Thou art raw."
And raw he is like to remain for all his learning, and for all incisions
that can be made in the horny hide of a self-conceit to be pierced by the
puncture of no man's pen. It was bad enough while theorists of this
breed confined themselves to the suggestion of a possible partnership
with Fletcher, a possible interpolation by Jonson; but in the descent
from these to the alleged adulteration of the text by Middleton and
Rowley we have surely sounded the very lowest depth of folly attainable
by the utmost alacrity in sinking which may yet be possible to the
bastard brood of Scriblerus. For my part, I shall not be surprised
though the next discoverer should assure us that half at least of
_Hamlet_ is evidently due to the collaboration of Heywood, while the
greater part of _Othello_ is as clearly assignable to the hand of

Akin to this form of folly, but less pernicious though not more
profitable, is the fancy of inventing some share for Shakespeare in the
composition of plays which the veriest insanity of conjecture or caprice
could not venture to lay wholly to his charge. This fancy, comparatively
harmless as it is, requires no ground of proof to go upon, no prop of
likelihood to support it; without so much help as may be borrowed from
the faintest and most fitful of traditions, it spins its own evidence
spider-like out of its own inner conscience or conceit, and proffers it
with confident complacency for men's acceptance. Here again I cannot but
see a mere waste of fruitless learning and bootless ingenuity. That
Shakespeare began by retouching and recasting the work of elder and
lesser men we all know; that he may afterwards have set his hand to the
task of adding or altering a line or a passage here and there in some few
of the plays brought out under his direction as manager or proprietor of
a theatre is of course possible, but can neither be affirmed nor denied
with any profit in default of the least fragment of historic or
traditional evidence. Any attempt to verify the imaginary touch of his
hand in plays of whose history we know no more than that they were acted
on the boards of his theatre can be but a diversion for the restless
leisure of ingenious and ambitious scholars; it will give no clue by
which the student who simply seeks to know what can be known with
certainty of the poet and his work may hope to be guided towards any safe
issue or trustworthy result. Less pardonable and more presumptuous than
this is the pretension of minor critics to dissect an authentic play of
Shakespeare scene by scene, and assign different parts of the same poem
to different dates by the same pedagogic rules of numeration and
mensuration which they would apply to the general question of the order
and succession of his collective works. This vivisection of a single
poem is not defensible as a freak of scholarship, an excursion beyond the
bounds of bare proof, from which the wanderer may chance to bring back,
if not such treasure as he went out to seek, yet some stray godsend or
rare literary windfall which may serve to excuse his indulgence in the
seemingly profitless pastime of a truant disposition. It is a pure
impertinence to affirm with oracular assurance what might perhaps be
admissible as a suggestion offered with the due diffidence of modest and
genuine scholarship; to assert on the strength of a private pedant's
personal intuition that such must be the history or such the composition
of a great work whose history he alone could tell, whose composition he
alone could explain, who gave it to us as his genius had given it to him.

From these several rocks and quicksands I trust at least to keep my
humbler course at a safe distance, and steer clear of all sandy shallows
of theory or sunken shoals of hypothesis on which no pilot can be certain
of safe anchorage; avoiding all assumption, though never so plausible,
for which no ground but that of fancy can be shown, all suggestion though
never so ingenious for which no proof but that of conjecture can be
advanced. For instance, I shall neither assume nor accept the theory of
a double authorship or of a double date by which the supposed
inequalities may be accounted for, the supposed difficulties may be swept
away, which for certain readers disturb the study of certain plays of
Shakespeare. Only where universal tradition and the general concurrence
of all reasonable critics past and present combine to indicate an
unmistakable difference of touch or an unmistakable diversity of date
between this and that portion of the same play, or where the internal
evidence of interpolation perceptible to the most careless and undeniable
by the most perverse of readers is supported by the public judgment of
men qualified to express and competent to defend an opinion, have I
thought it allowable to adopt this facile method of explanation. No
scholar, for example, believes in the single authorship of _Pericles_ or
_Andronicus_; none, I suppose, would now question the part taken by some
hireling or journeyman in the arrangement or completion for the stage of
_Timon of Athens_; and few probably would refuse to admit a doubt of the
total authenticity or uniform workmanship of the _Taming of the Shrew_.
As few, I hope, are prepared to follow the fantastic and confident
suggestions of every unquiet and arrogant innovator who may seek to
append his name to the long scroll of Shakespearean parasites by the
display of a brand-new hypothesis as to the uncertain date or authorship
of some passage or some play which has never before been subjected to the
scientific scrutiny of such a pertinacious analyst. The more modest
design of the present study has in part been already indicated, and will
explain as it proceeds if there be anything in it worth explanation. It
is no part of my ambition to loose the Gordian knots which others who
found them indissoluble have sought in vain to cut in sunder with blunter
swords than the Macedonian; but after so many adventures and attempts
there may perhaps yet be room for an attempt yet unessayed; for a study
by the ear alone of Shakespeare's metrical progress, and a study by light
of the knowledge thus obtained of the corresponsive progress within,
which found expression and embodiment in these outward and visible
changes. The one study will be then seen to be the natural complement
and the inevitable consequence of the other; and the patient pursuit of
the simpler and more apprehensible object of research will appear as the
only sure method by which a reasonable and faithful student may think to
attain so much as the porch or entrance to that higher knowledge which no
faithful and reasonable study of Shakespeare can ever for a moment fail
to keep in sight as the haven of its final hope, the goal of its ultimate

When Christopher Marlowe came up to London from Cambridge, a boy in
years, a man in genius, and a god in ambition, he found the stage which
he was born to transfigure and re-create by the might and masterdom of
his genius encumbered with a litter of rude rhyming farces and tragedies
which the first wave of his imperial hand swept so utterly out of sight
and hearing that hardly by piecing together such fragments of that buried
rubbish as it is now possible to unearth can we rebuild in imagination so
much of the rough and crumbling walls that fell before the trumpet-blast
of _Tamburlaine_ as may give us some conception of the rabble dynasty of
rhymers whom he overthrew - of the citadel of dramatic barbarism which was
stormed and sacked at the first charge of the young conqueror who came to
lead English audiences and to deliver English poetry

From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay.

When we speak of the drama that existed before the coming of Marlowe, and
that vanished at his advent, we think usually of the rhyming plays
written wholly or mainly in ballad verse of fourteen syllables - of the
_Kings Darius_ and _Cambyses_, the _Promos and Cassandra_ of Whetstone,
or the _Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes_ of George Peele. If we turn from
these abortions of tragedy to the metrical farces which may fairly be
said to contain the germ or embryo of English comedy (a form of dramatic
art which certainly owes nothing to the father of our tragic stage), we
find far more of hope and promise in the broad free stretches of the
flagellant head-master of Eton and the bibulous Bishop of Bath and Wells;
and must admit that hands used to wield the crosier or the birch proved
themselves more skilful at the lighter labours of the stage, more
successful even in the secular and bloodless business of a field neither
clerical nor scholastic, than any tragic rival of the opposite party to
that so jovially headed by Orbilius Udall and Silenus Still. These twin
pillars of church and school and stage were strong enough to support on
the shoulders of their authority the first crude fabric or formless model
of our comic theatre, while the tragic boards were still creaking and
cracking under the jingling canter of _Cambyses_ or the tuneless tramp of
_Gorboduc_. This one play which the charity of Sidney excepts from his
general anathema on the nascent stage of England has hitherto been
erroneously described as written in blank verse; an error which I can
only attribute to the prevalence of a groundless assumption that whatever
is neither prose nor rhyme must of necessity be definable as blank verse.
But the measure, I must repeat, which was adopted by the authors of
_Gorboduc_ is by no means so definable. Blank it certainly is; but verse
it assuredly is not. There can be no verse where there is no modulation,
no rhythm where there is no music. Blank verse came into life in England
at the birth of the shoemaker's son who had but to open his yet beardless
lips, and the high-born poem which had Sackville to father and Sidney to
sponsor was silenced and eclipsed for ever among the poor plebeian crowd
of rhyming shadows that waited in death on the noble nothingness of its
patrician shade.

These, I suppose, are the first or the only plays whose names recur to
the memory of the general reader when he thinks of the English stage
before Marlowe; but there was, I suspect, a whole class of plays then
current, and more or less supported by popular favour, of which hardly a
sample is now extant, and which cannot be classed with such as these. The
poets or rhymesters who supplied them had already seen good to clip the
cumbrous and bedraggled skirts of those dreary verses, run all to seed
and weed, which jingled their thin bells at the tedious end of fourteen
weary syllables; and for this curtailment of the shambling and sprawling
lines which had hitherto done duty as tragic metre some credit may be due
to these obscure purveyors of forgotten ware for the second epoch of our
stage: if indeed, as I presume, we may suppose that this reform, such as
it was, had begun before the time of Marlowe; otherwise, no doubt, little
credit would be due to men who with so high an example before them were
content simply to snip away the tags and fringes, to patch the seams and
tatters, of the ragged coat of rhyme which they might have exchanged for
that royal robe of heroic verse wherewith he had clothed the ungrown
limbs of limping and lisping tragedy. But if these also may be reckoned
among his precursors, the dismissal from stage service of the dolorous
and drudging metre employed by the earliest school of theatrical
rhymesters must be taken to mark a real step in advance; and in that case
we possess at least a single example of the rhyming tragedies which had
their hour between the last plays written wholly or partially in ballad
metre and the first plays written in blank verse. The tragedy of
_Selimus, Emperor of the Turks_, published in 1594, {30} may then serve
to indicate this brief and obscure period of transition. Whole scenes of
this singular play are written in rhyming iambics, some in the measure of
_Don Juan_, some in the measure of _Venus and Adonis_. The couplets and
quatrains so much affected and so reluctantly abandoned by Shakespeare
after the first stage of his dramatic progress are in no other play that
I know of diversified by this alternate variation of _sesta_ with _ottava
rima_. This may have been an exceptional experiment due merely to the
caprice of one eccentric rhymester; but in any case we may assume it to
mark the extreme limit, the ultimate development of rhyming tragedy after
the ballad metre had been happily exploded. The play is on other grounds
worth attention as a sign of the times, though on poetical grounds it is
assuredly worth none. Part of it is written in blank verse, or at least
in rhymeless lines; so that after all it probably followed in the wake of
_Tamburlaine_, half adopting and half rejecting the innovations of that
fiery reformer, who wrought on the old English stage no less a miracle
than _Hernani_ on the French stage in the days of our fathers. That
_Selimus_ was published four years later than _Tamburlaine_, in the year
following the death of Marlowe, proves of course nothing as to the date
of its production; and even if it was written and acted in the year of
its publication, it undoubtedly in the main represents the work of a
prior era to the reformation of the stage by Marlowe. The level
regularity of its unrhymed scenes is just like that of the weaker
portions of _Titus Andronicus_ and the _First Part of King Henry the
Sixth_ - the opening scene, for example, of either play. With
_Andronicus_ it has also in common the quality of exceptional
monstrosity, a delight in the parade of mutilation as well as of
massacre. It seems to me possible that the same hand may have been at
work on all three plays; for that Marlowe's is traceable in those parts
of the two retouched by Shakespeare which bear no traces of his touch is
a theory to the full as absurd as that which would impute to Shakespeare
the charge of their entire composition.

The revolution effected by Marlowe naturally raised the same cry against
its author as the revolution effected by Hugo. That Shakespeare should
not at once have enlisted under his banner is less inexplicable than it
may seem. He was naturally addicted to rhyme, though if we put aside the
Sonnets we must admit that in rhyme he never did anything worth Marlowe's
_Hero and Leander_: he did not, like Marlowe, see at once that it must be
reserved for less active forms of poetry than the tragic drama; and he
was personally, it seems, in opposition to Marlowe and his school of
academic playwrights - the band of bards in which Oxford and Cambridge
were respectively and so respectably represented by Peele and Greene. But
in his very first plays, comic or tragic or historic, we can see the
collision and conflict of the two influences; his evil angel, rhyme,
yielding step by step and note by note to the strong advance of that
better genius who came to lead him into the loftier path of Marlowe.
There is not a single passage in _Titus Andronicus_ more Shakespearean
than the magnificent quatrain of Tamora upon the eagle and the little
birds; but the rest of the scene in which we come upon it, and the whole
scene preceding, are in blank verse of more variety and vigour than we
find in the baser parts of the play; and these if any scenes we may
surely attribute to Shakespeare. Again, the last battle of Talbot seems
to me as undeniably the master's work as the scene in the Temple Gardens
or the courtship of Margaret by Suffolk; this latter indeed, full as it
is of natural and vivid grace, may perhaps not be beyond the highest
reach of one or two among the rivals of his earliest years of work; while
as we are certain that he cannot have written the opening scene, that he
was at any stage of his career incapable of it, so may we believe as well
as hope that he is guiltless of any complicity in that detestable part of
the play which attempts to defile the memory of the virgin saviour of her
country. {33} In style it is not, I think, above the range of George
Peele at his best: and to have written even the last of those scenes can
add but little discredit to the memory of a man already disgraced as the
defamer of Eleanor of Castile; while it would be a relief to feel assured
that there was but one English poet of any genius who could be capable of
either villainy.

In this play, then, more decisively than in _Titus Andronicus_, we find
Shakespeare at work (so to speak) with both hands - with his left hand of
rhyme, and his right hand of blank verse. The left is loth to forego the
practice of its peculiar music; yet, as the action of the right grows
freer and its touch grows stronger, it becomes more and more certain that
the other must cease playing, under pain of producing mere discord and
disturbance in the scheme of tragic harmony. We imagine that the writer
must himself have felt the scene of the roses to be pitched in a truer
key than the noble scene of parting between the old hero and his son on
the verge of desperate battle and certain death. This is the last and
loftiest farewell note of rhyming tragedy; still, in _King Richard II_,
and in _Romeo and Juliet_, it struggles for awhile to keep its footing,
but now more visibly in vain. The rhymed scenes in these plays are too
plainly the survivals of a ruder and feebler stage of work; they cannot
hold their own in the new order with even such discordant effect of
incongruous excellence and inharmonious beauty as belongs to the death-
scene of the Talbots when matched against the quarrelling scene of
Somerset and York. Yet the briefest glance over the plays of the first
epoch in the work of Shakespeare will suffice to show how protracted was
the struggle and how gradual the defeat of rhyme. Setting aside the
retouched plays, we find on the list one tragedy, two histories, and four
if not five comedies, which the least critical reader would attribute to
this first epoch of work. In three of these comedies rhyme can hardly be
said to be beaten; that is, the rhyming scenes are on the whole equal to
the unrhymed in power and beauty. In the single tragedy, and in one of
the two histories, we may say that rhyme fights hard for life, but is
undeniably worsted; that is, they contain as to quantity a large
proportion of rhymed verse, but as to quality the rhymed part bears no
proportion whatever to the unrhymed. In two scenes we may say that the
whole heart or spirit of _Romeo and Juliet_ is summed up and distilled
into perfect and pure expression; and these two are written in blank
verse of equable and blameless melody. Outside the garden scene in the
second act and the balcony scene in the third, there is much that is
fanciful and graceful, much of elegiac pathos and fervid if fantastic
passion; much also of superfluous rhetoric and (as it were) of wordy
melody, which flows and foams hither and thither into something of
extravagance and excess; but in these two there is no flaw, no outbreak,
no superflux, and no failure. Throughout certain scenes of the third and
fourth acts I think it may be reasonably and reverently allowed that the
river of verse has broken its banks, not as yet through the force and
weight of its gathering stream, but merely through the weakness of the
barriers or boundaries found insufficient to confine it. And here we may
with deference venture on a guess why Shakespeare was so long so loth to
forego the restraint of rhyme. When he wrote, and even when he rewrote
or at least retouched, his youngest tragedy he had not yet strength to
walk straight in the steps of the mighty master, but two months older
than himself by birth, whose foot never from the first faltered in the
arduous path of severer tragic verse. The loveliest of love-plays is
after all a child of "his salad days, when he was green in judgment,"
though assuredly not "cold in blood" - a physical condition as difficult
to conceive of Shakespeare at any age as of Cleopatra. It is in the
scenes of vehement passion, of ardour and of agony, that we feel the
comparative weakness of a yet ungrown hand, the tentative uncertain grasp
of a stripling giant. The two utterly beautiful scenes are not of this
kind; they deal with simple joy and with simple sorrow, with the gladness
of meeting and the sadness of parting love; but between and behind them
come scenes of more fierce emotion, full of surprise, of violence, of
unrest; and with these the poet is not yet (if I dare say so) quite
strong enough to deal. Apollo has not yet put on the sinews of Hercules.
At a later date we may fancy or may find that when the Herculean muscle
is full-grown the voice in him which was as the voice of Apollo is for a
passing moment impaired. In _Measure for Measure_, where the adult and
gigantic god has grappled with the greatest and most terrible of energies
and of passions, we miss the music of a younger note that rang through
_Romeo and Juliet_; but before the end this too revives, as pure, as
sweet, as fresh, but richer now and deeper than its first clear notes of
the morning, in the heavenly harmony of _Cymbeline_ and _The Tempest_.

The same effusion or effervescence of words is perceptible in _King
Richard II_. as in the greater (and the less good) part of _Romeo and
Juliet_; and not less perceptible is the perpetual inclination of the
poet to revert for help to rhyme, to hark back in search of support
towards the half-forsaken habits of his poetic nonage. Feeling his
foothold insecure on the hard and high ascent of the steeps of rhymeless
verse, he stops and slips back ever and anon towards the smooth and
marshy meadow whence he has hardly begun to climb. Any student who
should wish to examine the conditions of the struggle at its height may
be content to analyse the first act of this the first historical play of
Shakespeare. As the tragedy moves onward, and the style gathers strength
while the action gathers speed, - as (to borrow the phrase so admirably
applied by Coleridge to Dryden) the poet's chariot-wheels get hot by
driving fast, - the temptation of rhyme grows weaker, and the hand grows
firmer which before lacked strength to wave it off. The one thing wholly
or greatly admirable in this play is the exposition of the somewhat
pitiful but not unpitiable character of King Richard. Among the scenes
devoted to this exposition I of course include the whole of the death-
scene of Gaunt, as well the part which precedes as the part which follows
the actual appearance of his nephew on the stage; and into these scenes
the intrusion of rhyme is rare and brief. They are written almost wholly
in pure and fluent rather than vigorous or various blank verse; though I
cannot discern in any of them an equality in power and passion to the
magnificent scene of abdication in Marlowe's _Edward II_. This play, I
think, must undoubtedly be regarded as the immediate model of
Shakespeare's; and the comparison is one of inexhaustible interest to all
students of dramatic poetry. To the highest height of the earlier master
I do not think that the mightier poet who was as yet in great measure his
pupil has ever risen in this the first (as I take it) of his historic
plays. Of composition and proportion he has perhaps already a somewhat
better idea. But in grasp of character, always excepting the one central
figure of the piece, we find his hand as yet the unsteadier of the two.
Even after a lifelong study of this as of all other plays of Shakespeare,
it is for me at least impossible to determine what I doubt if the poet
could himself have clearly defined - the main principle, the motive and
the meaning of such characters as York, Norfolk, and Aumerle. The
Gaveston and the Mortimer of Marlowe are far more solid and definite
figures than these; yet none after that of Richard is more important to
the scheme of Shakespeare. They are fitful, shifting, vaporous: their
outlines change, withdraw, dissolve, and "leave not a rack behind." They,
not Antony, are like the clouds of evening described in the most glorious

2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 2 of 17)