Algernon Charles Swinburne.

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of so many glorious passages put long afterwards by Shakespeare into the
mouth of his latest Roman hero. They "cannot hold this visible shape" in
which the poet at first presents them even long enough to leave a
distinct image, a decisive impression for better or for worse, upon the
mind's eye of the most simple and open-hearted reader. They are ghosts,
not men; _simulacra modis pallentia miris_. You cannot descry so much as
the original intention of the artist's hand which began to draw and
relaxed its hold of the brush before the first lines were fairly traced.
And in the last, the worst and weakest scene of all, in which York pleads
with Bolingbroke for the death of the son whose mother pleads against her
husband for his life, there is a final relapse into rhyme and rhyming
epigram, into the "jigging vein" dried up (we might have hoped) long
since by the very glance of Marlowe's Apollonian scorn. It would be
easy, agreeable, and irrational to ascribe without further evidence than
its badness this misconceived and misshapen scene to some other hand than
Shakespeare's. It is below the weakest, the rudest, the hastiest scene
attributable to Marlowe; it is false, wrong, artificial beyond the worst
of his bad and boyish work; but it has a certain likeness for the worse
to the crudest work of Shakespeare. It is difficult to say to what
depths of bad taste the writer of certain passages in _Venus and Adonis_
could not fall before his genius or his judgment was full-grown. To
invent an earlier play on the subject and imagine this scene a surviving
fragment, a floating waif of that imaginary wreck, would in my opinion be
an uncritical mode of evading the question at issue. It must be regarded
as the last hysterical struggle of rhyme to maintain its place in
tragedy; and the explanation, I would fain say the excuse, of its
reappearance may perhaps be simply this; that the poet was not yet
dramatist enough to feel for each of his characters an equal or
proportionate regard; to divide and disperse his interest among the
various crowd of figures which claim each in its place, and each after
its kind, fair and adequate share of their creator's attention and
sympathy. His present interest was here wholly concentrated on the
single figure of Richard; and when that for the time was absent, the
subordinate figures became to him but heavy and vexatious encumbrances,
to be shifted on and off the stage with as much of haste and as little of
labour as might be possible to an impatient and uncertain hand. Now all
tragic poets, I presume, from AEschylus the godlike father of them all to
the last aspirant who may struggle after the traces of his steps, have
been poets before they were tragedians; their lips have had power to sing
before their feet had strength to tread the stage, before their hands had
skill to paint or carve figures from the life. With Shakespeare it was
so as certainly as with Shelley, as evidently as with Hugo. It is in the
great comic poets, in Moliere and in Congreve, {42} our own lesser
Moliere, so far inferior in breadth and depth, in tenderness and
strength, to the greatest writer of the "great age," yet so near him in
science and in skill, so like him in brilliance and in force; - it is in
these that we find theatrical instinct twin-born with imaginative
impulse, dramatic power with inventive perception.

In the second historic play which can be wholly ascribed to Shakespeare
we still find the poetic or rhetorical duality for the most part in
excess of the dramatic; but in _King Richard III_. the bonds of rhyme at
least are fairly broken. This only of all Shakespeare's plays belongs
absolutely to the school of Marlowe. The influence of the elder master,
and that influence alone, is perceptible from end to end. Here at last
we can see that Shakespeare has decidedly chosen his side. It is as
fiery in passion, as single in purpose, as rhetorical often though never
so inflated in expression, as _Tamburlaine_ itself. It is doubtless a
better piece of work than Marlowe ever did; I dare not say, than Marlowe
ever could have done. It is not for any man to measure, above all is it
not for any workman in the field of tragic poetry lightly to take on
himself the responsibility or the authority to pronounce, what it is that
Christopher Marlowe could not have done; but, dying as he did and when he
did, it is certain that he has not left us a work so generally and so
variously admirable as _King Richard III_. As certain is it that but for
him this play could never have been written. At a later date the subject
would have been handled otherwise, had the poet chosen to handle it at
all; and in his youth he could not have treated it as he has without the
guidance and example of Marlowe. Not only are its highest qualities of
energy, of exuberance, of pure and lofty style, of sonorous and
successive harmonies, the very qualities that never fail to distinguish
those first dramatic models which were fashioned by his ardent hand; the
strenuous and single-handed grasp of character, the motion and action of
combining and contending powers, which here for the first time we find
sustained with equal and unfaltering vigour throughout the length of a
whole play, we perceive, though imperfectly, in the work of Marlowe
before we can trace them even as latent or infant forces in the work of

In the exquisite and delightful comedies of his earliest period we can
hardly discern any sign, any promise of them at all. One only of these,
the _Comedy of Errors_, has in it anything of dramatic composition and
movement; and what it has of these, I need hardly remind the most cursory
of students, is due by no means to Shakespeare. What is due to him, and
to him alone, is the honour of having embroidered on the naked old canvas
of comic action those flowers of elegiac beauty which vivify and
diversify the scene of Plautus as reproduced by the art of Shakespeare.
In the next generation so noble a poet as Rotrou, whom perhaps it might
not be inaccurate to call the French Marlowe, and who had (what Marlowe
had not) the gift of comic as well as of tragic excellence, found nothing
of this kind and little of any kind to add to the old poet's admirable
but arid sketch of farcical incident or accident. But in this light and
lovely work of the youth of Shakespeare we find for the first time that
strange and sweet admixture of farce with fancy, of lyric charm with
comic effect, which recurs so often in his later work, from the date of
_As You Like It_ to the date of the _Winter's Tale_, and which no later
poet had ventured to recombine in the same play till our own time had
given us, in the author of _Tragaldabas_, one who could alternate without
confusing the woodland courtship of Eliseo and Caprina with the tavern
braggardism of Grif and Minotoro. The sweetness and simplicity of lyric
or elegiac loveliness which fill and inform the scenes where Adriana, her
sister, and the Syracusan Antipholus exchange the expression of their
errors and their loves, belong to Shakespeare alone; and may help us to
understand how the young poet who at the outset of his divine career had
struck into this fresh untrodden path of poetic comedy should have been,
as we have seen that he was, loth to learn from another and an alien
teacher the hard and necessary lesson that this flowery path would never
lead him towards the loftier land of tragic poetry. For as yet, even in
the nominally or intentionally tragic and historic work of the first
period, we descry always and everywhere and still preponderant the lyric
element, the fantastic element, or even the elegiac element. All these
queens and heroines of history and tragedy have rather an Ovidian than a
Sophoclean grace of bearing and of speech.

The example afforded by the _Comedy of Errors_ would suffice to show that
rhyme, however inadequate for tragic use, is by no means a bad instrument
for romantic comedy. In another of Shakespeare's earliest works, which
might almost be described as a lyrical farce, rhyme plays also a great
part; but the finest passage, the real crown and flower of _Love's
Labour's Lost_, is the praise or apology of love spoken by Biron in blank
verse. This is worthy of Marlowe for dignity and sweetness, but has also
the grace of a light and radiant fancy enamoured of itself, begotten
between thought and mirth, a child-god with grave lips and laughing eyes,
whose inspiration is nothing akin to Marlowe's. In this as in the
overture of the play and in its closing scene, but especially in the
noble passage which winds up for a year the courtship of Biron and
Rosaline, the spirit which informs the speech of the poet is finer of
touch and deeper of tone than in the sweetest of the serious interludes
of the _Comedy of Errors_. The play is in the main a yet lighter thing,
and more wayward and capricious in build, more formless and fantastic in
plot, more incomposite altogether than that first heir of Shakespeare's
comic invention, which on its own ground is perfect in its consistency,
blameless in composition and coherence; while in _Love's Labour's Lost_
the fancy for the most part runs wild as the wind, and the structure of
the story is as that of a house of clouds which the wind builds and
unbuilds at pleasure. Here we find a very riot of rhymes, wild and
wanton in their half-grown grace as a troop of "young satyrs,
tender-hoofed and ruddy-horned"; during certain scenes we seem almost to
stand again by the cradle of new-born comedy, and hear the first lisping
and laughing accents run over from her baby lips in bubbling rhyme; but
when the note changes we recognise the speech of gods. For the first
time in our literature the higher key of poetic or romantic comedy is
finely touched to a fine issue. The divine instrument fashioned by
Marlowe for tragic purposes alone has found at once its new sweet use in
the hands of Shakespeare. The way is prepared for _As You Like It_ and
the _Tempest_; the language is discovered which will befit the lips of
Rosalind and Miranda.

What was highest as poetry in the _Comedy of Errors_ was mainly in rhyme;
all indeed, we might say, between the prelude spoken by AEgeon and the
appearance in the last scene of his wife: in _Love's Labour's Lost_ what
was highest was couched wholly in blank verse; in the _Two Gentlemen of
Verona_ rhyme has fallen seemingly into abeyance, and there are no
passages of such elegiac beauty as in the former, of such exalted
eloquence as in the latter of these plays; there is an even sweetness, a
simple equality of grace in thought and language which keeps the whole
poem in tune, written as it is in a subdued key of unambitious harmony.
In perfect unity and keeping the composition of this beautiful sketch may
perhaps be said to mark a stage of advance, a new point of work attained,
a faint but sensible change of manner, signalised by increased firmness
of hand and clearness of outline. Slight and swift in execution as it
is, few and simple as are the chords here struck of character and
emotion, every shade of drawing and every note of sound is at one with
the whole scheme of form and music. Here too is the first dawn of that
higher and more tender humour which was never given in such perfection to
any man as ultimately to Shakespeare; one touch of the by-play of Launce
and his immortal dog is worth all the bright fantastic interludes of
Boyet and Adriano, Costard and Holofernes; worth even half the sallies of
Mercutio, and half the dancing doggrel or broad-witted prose of either
Dromio. But in the final poem which concludes and crowns the first epoch
of Shakespeare's work, the special graces and peculiar glories of each
that went before are gathered together as in one garland "of every hue
and every scent." The young genius of the master of all our poets finds
its consummation in the _Midsummer Night's Dream_. The blank verse is as
full, sweet, and strong as the best of Biron's or Romeo's; the rhymed
verse as clear, pure, and true as the simplest and truest melody of
_Venus and Adonis_ or the _Comedy of Errors_. But here each kind of
excellence is equal throughout; there are here no purple patches on a
gown of serge, but one seamless and imperial robe of a single dye. Of
the lyric or the prosaic part, the counterchange of loves and laughters,
of fancy fine as air and imagination high as heaven, what need can there
be for any one to shame himself by the helpless attempt to say some word
not utterly unworthy? Let it suffice us to accept this poem as the
landmark of our first stage, and pause to look back from it on what lies
behind us of partial or of perfect work.

The highest point attained in this first period lies in the domain of
comedy or romance, and belongs as much to lyric as to dramatic poetry;
its sovereign quality is that of sweetness and springtide of fairy fancy
crossed with light laughter and light trouble that end in perfect music.
In history as in tragedy the master's hand has not yet come to its full
strength and skill; its touch is not yet wholly assured, its work not yet
wholly blameless. Besides the plays undoubtedly and entirely due to the
still growing genius of Shakespeare, we have taken note but of two among
those which bear the partial imprint of his hand. The long-vexed
question as to the authorship of the latter parts of _King Henry VI_., in
their earlier or later form, has not been touched upon; nor do I design
to reopen that perpetual source of debate unstanchable and inexhaustible
dispute by any length of scrutiny or inquisition of detail. Two points
must of course be taken for granted: that Marlowe was more or less
concerned in the production, and Shakespeare in the revision of these
plays; whether before or after his additions to the original _First Part
of King Henry VI_. we cannot determine, though the absence of rhyme might
seem to indicate a later date for the recast of the _Contention_. But it
is noticeable that the style of Marlowe appears more vividly and
distinctly in passages of the reformed than of the unreformed plays.
Those famous lines, for example, which open the fourth act of the _Second
Part of King Henry VI_. are not to be found in the corresponding scene of
the first part of the _Contention_; yet, whether they belong to the
original sketch of the play, or were inserted as an afterthought into the
revised and expanded copy, the authorship of these verses is surely
unmistakable: -

The gaudy, blabbing, and remorseful day
Is crept into the bosom of the sea;
And now loud howling wolves arouse the jades
That drag the tragic melancholy night -

_Aut Christophorus Marlowe, aut diabolus_; it is inconceivable that any
imitator but one should have had the power so to catch the very trick of
his hand, the very note of his voice, and incredible that the one who
might would have set himself to do so: for if this be not indeed the
voice and this the hand of Marlowe, then what we find in these verses is
not the fidelity of a follower, but the servility of a copyist. No
parasitic rhymester of past or present days who feeds his starveling
talent on the shreds and orts, "the fragments, scraps, the bits and
greasy relics" of another man's board, ever uttered a more parrot-like
note of plagiary. The very exactitude of the repetition is a strong
argument against the theory which attributes it to Shakespeare. That he
had much at starting to learn of Marlowe, and that he did learn much - that
in his earliest plays, and above all in his earliest historic plays, the
influence of the elder poet, the echo of his style, the iteration of his
manner, may perpetually be traced - I have already shown that I should be
the last to question; but so exact an echo, so servile an iteration as
this, I believe we shall nowhere find in them. The sonorous accumulation
of emphatic epithets - as in the magnificent first verse of this
passage - is indeed at least as much a note of the young Shakespeare's
style as of his master's; but even were this one verse less in the manner
of the elder than the younger poet - and this we can hardly say that it
is - no single verse detached from its context can weigh a feather against
the full and flawless evidence of the whole speech. And of all this
there is nothing in the _Contention_; the scene there opens in bald and
flat nakedness of prose, striking at once into the immediate matter of
stage business without the decoration of a passing epithet or a single

From this sample it might seem that the main difficulty must be to detect
anywhere the sign-manual of Shakespeare, even in the best passages of the
revised play. On the other hand, it has not unreasonably been maintained
that even in the next scene of this same act in its original form, and in
all those following which treat of Cade's insurrection, there is evidence
of such qualities as can hardly be ascribed to any hand then known but
Shakespeare's. The forcible realism, the simple vigour and lifelike
humour of these scenes, cannot, it is urged, be due to any other so early
at work in the field of comedy. A critic desirous to press this point
might further insist on the likeness or identity of tone between these
and all later scenes in which Shakespeare has taken on him to paint the
action and passion of an insurgent populace. With him, it might too
plausibly be argued, the people once risen in revolt for any just or
unjust cause is always the mob, the unwashed rabble, the swinish
multitude; full as he is of wise and gracious tenderness for individual
character, of swift and ardent pity for personal suffering, he has no
deeper or finer feeling than scorn for "the beast with many heads" that
fawn and butt at bidding as they are swayed by the vain and violent
breath of any worthless herdsman. For the drovers who guide and misguide
at will the turbulent flocks of their mutinous cattle his store of bitter
words is inexhaustible; it is a treasure-house of obloquy which can never
be drained dry. All this, or nearly all this, we must admit; but it
brings us no nearer to any but a floating and conjectural kind of
solution. In the earliest form known to us of this play it should seem
that we have traces of Shakespeare's handiwork, in the latest that we
find evidence of Marlowe's. But it would be something too extravagant
for the veriest wind-sucker among commentators to start a theory that a
revision was made of his original work by Marlowe after additions had
been made to it by Shakespeare; yet we have seen that the most
unmistakable signs of Marlowe's handiwork, the passages which show most
plainly the personal and present seal of his genius, belong to the play
only in its revised form; while there is no part of the whole composition
which can so confidently be assigned to Shakespeare as to the one man
then capable of such work, as can an entire and important episode of the
play in its unrevised state. Now the proposition that Shakespeare was
the sole author of both plays in their earliest extant shape is refuted
at once and equally from without and from within, by evidence of
tradition and by evidence of style. There is therefore proof
irresistible and unmistakable of at least a double authorship; and the
one reasonable conclusion left to us would seem to be this; that the
first edition we possess of these plays is a partial transcript of the
text as it stood after the first additions had been made by Shakespeare
to the original work of Marlowe and others; for that this original was
the work of more hands than one, and hands of notably unequal power, we
have again the united witness of traditional and internal evidence to
warrant our belief: and that among the omissions of this imperfect text
were certain passages of the original work, which were ultimately
restored in the final revision of the entire poem as it now stands among
the collected works of Shakespeare.

No competent critic who has given due study to the genius of Marlowe will
admit that there is a single passage of tragic or poetic interest in
either form of the text, which is beyond the reach of the father of
English tragedy: or, if there be one seeming exception in the expanded
and transfigured version of Clifford's monologue over his father's
corpse, which is certainly more in Shakespeare's tragic manner than in
Marlowe's, and in the style of a later period than that in which he was
on the whole apparently content to reproduce or to emulate the tragic
manner of Marlowe, there is at least but this one exception to the
general and absolute truth of the rule; and even this great tragic
passage is rather out of the range of Marlowe's style than beyond the
scope of his genius. In the later as in the earlier version of these
plays, the one manifest excellence of which we have no reason to suppose
him capable is manifest in the comic or prosaic scenes alone. The first
great rapid sketch of the dying cardinal, afterwards so nobly enlarged
and perfected on revision by the same or by a second artist, is as
clearly within the capacity of Marlowe as of Shakespeare; and in either
edition of the latter play, successively known as _The True Tragedy of
Richard Duke of York_, as the _Second Part of the Contention_, and as the
_Third Part of King Henry VI_., the dominant figure which darkens all the
close of the poem with presage of a direr day is drawn by the same strong
hand in the same tragic outline. From the first to the last stage of the
work there is no mark of change or progress here; the whole play indeed
has undergone less revision, as it certainly needed less, than the
preceding part of the _Contention_. Those great verses which resume the
whole spirit of Shakespeare's Richard - finer perhaps in themselves than
any passage of the play which bears his name - are wellnigh identical in
either form of the poem; but the reviser, with admirable judgment, has
struck out, whether from his own text or that of another, the line which
precedes them in the original sketch, where the passage runs thus: -

I had no father, I am like no father;
I have no brothers, I am like no brother;

(this reiteration is exactly in the first manner of our tragic drama;)

And this word love, which greybeards term divine, etc.

It would be an impertinence to transcribe the rest of a passage which
rings in the ear of every reader's memory; but it may be noted that the
erasure by which its effect is so singularly heightened with the inborn
skill of so divine an instinct is just such an alteration as would be
equally likely to occur to the original writer on glancing over his
printed text or to a poet of kindred power, who, while busied in
retouching and filling out the sketch of his predecessor, might be struck
by the opening for so great an improvement at so small a cost of
suppression. My own conjecture would incline to the belief that we have
here a perfect example of the manner in which Shakespeare may be
presumed, when such a task was set before him, to have dealt with the
text of Marlowe. That at the outset of his career he was so employed, as
well as on the texts of lesser poets, we have on all hands as good
evidence of every kind as can be desired; proof on one side from the text
of the revised plays, which are as certainly in part the work of his hand
as they are in part the work of another; and proof on the opposite side
from the open and clamorous charge of his rivals, whose imputations can
be made to bear no reasonable meaning but this by the most violent
ingenuity of perversion, and who presumably were not persons of such
frank imbecility, such innocent and infantine malevolence, as to forge
against their most dangerous enemy the pointless and edgeless weapon of a
charge which, if ungrounded, must have been easier to refute than to
devise. Assuming then that in common with other young poets of his day
he was thus engaged during the first years of his connection with the
stage, we should naturally have expected to find him handling the text of
Marlowe with more of reverence and less of freedom than that of meaner
men: ready, as in the _Contention_, to clear away with no timid hand
their weaker and more inefficient work, to cancel and supplant it by
worthier matter of his own; but when occupied in recasting the verse of
Marlowe, not less ready to confine his labour to such slight and skilful
strokes of art as that which has led us into this byway of speculation;
to the correction of a false note, the addition of a finer touch, the
perfection of a meaning half expressed or a tone of half-uttered music;

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Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 3 of 17)