Algernon Charles Swinburne.

A Study of Shakespeare online

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comedy can hardly serve as counterpoise, in weight and wealth of comic
effect, to the single scene in which Zeal-of-the-Land defines the moral
and theological boundaries of action and intention which distinguish the
innocent if not laudable desire to eat pig from the venial though not
mortal sin of longing to eat pig in the thick of the profane Fair, which
may rather be termed a foul than a fair. Taken from that point of view
which looks only to force and freedom and range of humorous effect,
Jonson's play is to his friend's as London is to Windsor; but in more
senses than one it is to Shakespeare's as the Thames at London Bridge is
to the Thames at Eton: the atmosphere of Smithfield is not more different
from the atmosphere of the playing-fields; and some, too delicate of nose
or squeamish of stomach, may prefer Cuckoo Weir to Shoreditch. But
undoubtedly the phantoms of Shallow and Mrs. Quickly which put in (so to
speak) a nominal reappearance in the _Merry Wives of Windsor_ are
comparatively as poor and thin if set over against the full rich outlines
of Rabbi Busy and Dame Purecraft as these again are at all points alike
inferior to the real Shallow and the genuine Quickly of _King Henry IV_.
It is true that Jonson's humour has sometimes less in common with
Shakespeare's than with the humour of Swift, Smollett, and Carlyle. For
all his admiration and even imitation of Rabelais, Shakespeare has hardly
once or twice burnt but so much as a stray pinch of fugitive incense on
the altar of Cloacina; the only Venus acknowledged and adored by those
three latter humourists. If not always constant with the constancy of
Milton to the service of Urania, he never turns into a dirtier byway or
back alley than the beaten path trodden occasionally by most of his kind
which leads them on a passing errand of no unnatural devotion to the
shrine of Venus Pandemos.

When, however, we turn from the raw rough sketch to the enriched and
ennobled version of the present play we find it in this its better shape
more properly comparable with another and a nobler work of Jonson's - with
that magnificent comedy, the first avowed and included among his
collection by its author, which according to all tradition first owed its
appearance and success to the critical good sense and generous good
offices of Shakespeare. Neither my duly unqualified love for the greater
poet nor my duly qualified regard for the less can alter my sense that
their mutual relations are in this one case inverted; that _Every Man in
his Humour_ is altogether a better comedy and a work of higher art than
the _Merry Wives of Windsor_. Kitely is to Ford almost what Arnolphe is
to Sganarelle. (As according to the learned Metaphraste "Filio non
potest praeferri nisi filius," even so can no one but Moliere be
preferred or likened to Moliere.) Without actually touching like
Arnolphe on the hidden springs of tragedy, the jealous husband in
Jonson's play is only kept from trenching on the higher and forbidden
grounds of passion by the potent will and the consummate self-command of
the great master who called him up in perfect likeness to the life.
Another or a deeper tone, another or a stronger touch, in the last two
admirable scenes with his cashier and his wife, when his hot smouldering
suspicion at length catches fire and breaks out in agony of anger, would
have removed him altogether beyond the legitimate pale of comedy. As it
is, the self-control of the artist is as thorough as his grasp and
mastery of his subject are triumphant and complete.

It would seem as though on revision of the _Merry Wives of Windsor_
Shakespeare had found himself unwilling or rather perhaps unable to leave
a single work of his hand without one touch or breath on it of beauty or
of poetry. The sole fitting element of harmonious relief or variety in
such a case could of course be found only in an interlude of pure fancy;
any touch of graver or deeper emotion would simply have untuned and
deranged the whole scheme of composition. A lesser poet might have been
powerless to resist the temptation or suggestion of sentiment that he
should give to the little loves of Anne Page and Fenton a touch of
pathetic or emotional interest; but "opulent as Shakespeare was, and of
his opulence prodigal" (to borrow a phrase from Coleridge), he knew
better than to patch with purple or embroider with seed-pearl the hem of
this homespun little piece of comic drugget. The match between cloth of
gold and cloth of frieze could hardly have borne any good issue in this
instance. Instead therefore of following the lead of Terence's or the
hint of Jonson's example, and exalting the accent of his comedy to the
full-mouthed pitch of a Chremes or a Kitely, he strikes out some forty
and odd lines of rather coarse and commonplace doggrel about brokers,
proctors, lousy fox-eyed serjeants, blue and red noses, and so forth, to
make room for the bright light interlude of fairyland child's-play which
might not unfittingly have found place even within the moon-charmed
circle of _A Midsummer Night's Dream_. Even in that all heavenly poem
there are hardly to be found lines of more sweet and radiant simplicity
than here.

The refined instinct, artistic judgment, and consummate taste of
Shakespeare were perhaps never so wonderfully shown as in his recast of
another man's work - a man of real if rough genius for comedy - which we
get in the _Taming of the Shrew_. Only the collation of scene with
scene, then of speech with speech, then of line with line, will show how
much may be borrowed from a stranger's material and how much may be added
to it by the same stroke of a single hand. All the force and humour
alike of character and situation belong to Shakespeare's eclipsed and
forlorn precursor; he has added nothing; he has tempered and enriched
everything. That the luckless author of the first sketch is like to
remain a man as nameless as the deed of the witches in _Macbeth_, unless
some chance or caprice of accident should suddenly flash favouring light
on his now impersonal and indiscoverable individuality, seems clear
enough when we take into account the double and final disproof of his
imaginary identity with Marlowe, which Mr. Dyce has put forward with such
unanswerable certitude. He is a clumsy and coarse-fingered plagiarist
from that poet, and his stolen jewels of expression look so grossly out
of place in the homely setting of his usual style that they seem
transmuted from real to sham. On the other hand, he is of all the Pre-
Shakespeareans known to us incomparably the truest, the richest, the most
powerful and original humourist; one indeed without a second on that
ground, for "the rest are nowhere." Now Marlowe, it need scarcely be
once again reiterated, was as certainly one of the least and worst among
jesters as he was one of the best and greatest among poets. There can
therefore be no serious question of his partnership in a play wherein the
comic achievement is excellent and the poetic attempts are execrable
throughout.

The recast of it in which a greater than Berni has deigned to play the
part of that poet towards a lesser than Bojardo shows tact and delicacy
perhaps without a parallel in literature. No chance of improvement is
missed, while nothing of value is dropped or thrown away. {125} There is
just now and then a momentary return perceptible to the skipping metre
and fantastic manner of the first period, which may have been
unconsciously suggested by the nature of the task in hand - a task of
itself implying or suggesting some new study of old models; but the main
style of the play in all its weightier parts is as distinctly proper to
the second period, as clear an evidence of inner and spiritual affinity
(with actual tabulation of dates, were such a thing as feasible as it is
impossible, I must repeat that the argument would here be - what it is
now - in no wise concerned), as is the handling of character throughout;
but most especially the subtle force, the impeccable and careful
instinct, the masculine delicacy of touch, by which the somewhat
ruffianly temperament of the original Ferando is at once refined and
invigorated through its transmutation into the hearty and humorous
manliness of Petruchio's.

It is observable that those few and faint traces which we have noticed in
this play of a faded archaic style trying as it were to resume a mockery
of revirescence are not wholly even if mainly confined to the underplot
which a suggestion or surmise of Mr. Collier's long since assigned to
Haughton, author of _Englishmen for my Money, or A Woman will have her
Will_: a spirited, vigorous, and remarkably regular comedy of intrigue,
full of rough and ready incident, bright boisterous humour, honest lively
provinciality and gay high-handed Philistinism. To take no account of
this attribution would be to show myself as shamelessly as shamefully
deficient in that respect and gratitude which all genuine and thankful
students will always be as ready to offer as all thankless and insolent
sciolists can ever be to disclaim, to the venerable scholar who since I
was first engaged on these notes has added yet another obligation to the
many under which he had already laid all younger and lesser labourers in
the same field of study, by the issue in a form fitly ennobled and
enriched of his great historical work on our early stage. It might seem
something of an unintended impertinence to add that such recognition of
his theory no more implies a blind acceptance of it - whatever such
acceptance on my part might be worth - than the expression of such
gratitude and respect could reasonably be supposed to imply an equally
blind confidence in the authority or the value of that version of
Shakespeare's text which has been the means of exposing a name so long
and so justly honoured, not merely to the natural and rational
inquisition of rival students, but to the rancorous and ribald obloquy of
thankless and frontless pretenders.

Here perhaps as well as anywhere else I may find a proper place to
intercalate the little word I have to say in partial redemption of my
pledge to take in due time some notice at more or less length, of the
only two among the plays doubtfully ascribed to Shakespeare which in my
eyes seem to bear any credible or conceivable traces of his touch. Of
these two I must give the lesser amount of space and attention to that
one which in itself is incomparably the more worthy of discussion,
admiration, and regard. The reason of this lies in the very excellence
which has attracted to it the notice of such competent judges and the
suffrage of such eminent names as would make the task of elaborate
commentary and analytic examination something more than superfluous on my
part; whereas the other has never been and will never be assigned to
Shakespeare by any critical student whose verdict is worth a minute's
consideration or the marketable value of a straw. Nevertheless it is on
other grounds worth notice; and such notice, to be itself of any value,
must of necessity be elaborate and minute. The critical analysis of
_King Edward III_. I have therefore relegated to its proper place in an
appendix; while I reserve a corner of my text, at once out of admiration
for the play itself and out of reverence for the names and authority of
some who have given their verdict in its behalf, for a rough and rapid
word or two on _Arden of Feversham_.

It is with equally inexpressible surprise that I find Mr. Collier
accepting as Shakespeare's any part of _A Warning for Fair Women_, and
rejecting without compromise or hesitation the belief or theory which
would assign to the youth of Shakespeare the incomparably nobler tragic
poem in question. {129} His first ascription to Shakespeare of _A
Warning for Fair Women_ is couched in terms far more dubious and
diffident than such as he afterwards adopts. It "might," he says, "be
given to Shakespeare on grounds far more plausible" (on what, except
possibly those of date, I cannot imagine) "than those applicable to
_Arden of Feversham_." He then proceeds to cite some detached lines and
passages of undeniable beauty and vigour, containing equally undeniable
coincidences of language, illustration, and expression with "passages in
Shakespeare's undisputed plays." From these he passes on to indicate a
"resemblance" which "is not merely verbal," and to extract whole speeches
which "are Shakespearean in a much better sense"; adding in a surely too
trenchant fashion, "Here we say, _aut Shakespeare aut diabolus_." I must
confess, with all esteem for the critic and all admiration for the brief
scene cited, that I cannot say, Shakespeare.

There are spirits of another sort from whom we naturally expect such
assumptions and inferences as start from the vantage ground of a few
separate or separable passages, and clear at a flying leap the empty
space intervening which divides them from the goal of evidence as to
authorship. Such a spirit was that of the late Mr. Simpson, to whose
wealth of misused learning and fertility of misapplied conjecture I have
already paid all due tribute; but who must have had beyond all other sane
men - most assuredly, beyond all other fairly competent critics - the gift
bestowed on him by a malignant fairy of mistaking assumption for argument
and possibility for proof. He was the very Columbus of mare's nests; to
the discovery of them, though they lay far beyond the pillars of
Hercules, he would apply all shifts and all resources possible to an
ultra-Baconian process of unphilosophical induction. On the devoted head
of Shakespeare - who is also called Shakspere and Chaxpur - he would have
piled a load of rubbish, among which the crude and vigorous old tragedy
under discussion shines out like a veritable diamond of the desert. His
"School of Shakspere," though not an academy to be often of necessity
perambulated by the most peripatetic student of Shakespeare, will remain
as a monument of critical or uncritical industry, a storehouse of curious
if not of precious relics, and a warning for other than fair women - or
fair scholars - to remember where "it is written that the shoemaker should
meddle with his yard and the tailor with his last, the fisher with his
pencil and the painter with his nets."

To me the difference appears immeasurable between the reasons for
admitting the possibility of Shakespeare's authorship in the case of
_Arden of Feversham_, and the pretexts for imagining the probability of
his partnership in _A Warning for Fair Women_. There is a practically
infinite distinction between the evidence suggested by verbal or even
more than verbal resemblance of detached line to line or selected passage
to passage, and the proof supplied by the general harmony and spiritual
similarity of a whole poem, on comparison of it as a whole with the known
works of the hypothetical author. This proof, at all events, we surely
do not get from consideration in this light of the plea put forward in
behalf of _A Warning for Fair Women_. This proof, I cannot but think, we
are very much nearer getting from contemplation under the same light of
the claim producible for _Arden of Feversham_.

_A Warning for Fair Women_ is unquestionably in its way a noticeable and
valuable "piece of work," as Sly might have defined it. It is perhaps
the best example anywhere extant of a merely realistic tragedy - of
realism pure and simple applied to the service of the highest of the
arts. Very rarely does it rise for a very brief interval to the height
of tragic or poetic style, however simple and homely. The epilogue
affixed to _Arden of Feversham_ asks pardon of the "gentlemen" composing
its audience for "this naked tragedy," on the plea that "simple truth is
gracious enough" without needless ornament or bedizenment of "glozing
stuff." Far more appropriate would such an apology have been as in this
case was at least superfluous, if appended by way of epilogue to _A
Warning for Fair Women_. That is indeed a naked tragedy; nine-tenths of
it are in no wise beyond the reach of an able, industrious, and practised
reporter, commissioned by the proprietors of the journal on whose staff
he might be engaged to throw into the force of scenic dialogue his
transcript of the evidence in a popular and exciting case of adultery and
murder. The one figure on the stage of this author which stands out
sharply defined in our recollection against a background of
undistinguished shadows is the figure of the adulterer and murderer. This
most discreditable of Browns has a distinct and brawny outline of his
own, a gait and accent as of a genuine and recognisable man, who might
have put to some better profit his shifty spirit of enterprise, his
genuine capacity of affection, his burly ingenuity and hardihood. His
minor confidants and accomplices, Mrs. Drury and her Trusty Roger, are
mere commonplace profiles of malefactors: but it is in the contrast
between the portraits of their two criminal heroines that the vast gulf
of difference between the capacities of the two poets yawns patent to the
sense of all readers. Anne Sanders and Alice Arden stand as far beyond
comparison apart as might a portrait by any average academician and a
portrait by Watts or Millais. Once only, in the simple and noble scene
cited by the over-generous partiality of Mr. Collier, does the widow and
murderess of Sanders rise to the tragic height of the situation and the
dramatic level of the part so unfalteringly sustained from first to last
by the wife and the murderess of Arden.

There is the self-same relative difference between the two subordinate
groups of innocent or guilty characters. That is an excellent and
effective touch of realism, where Brown comes across his victim's little
boy playing truant in the street with a small schoolfellow; but in _Arden
of Feversham_ the number of touches as telling and as striking as this
one is practically numberless. They also show a far stronger and keener
faculty of poetic if not of dramatic imagination. The casual encounter
of little Sanders with the yet red-handed murderer of his father is not
comparable for depth and subtlety of effect with the scene in which
Arden's friend Franklin, riding with him to Raynham Down, breaks off his
"pretty tale" of a perjured wife, overpowered by a "fighting at his
heart," at the moment when they come close upon the ambushed assassins in
Alice Arden's pay. But the internal evidence in this case, as I have
already intimated, does not hinge upon the proof or the suggestion
offered by any single passage or by any number of single passages. The
first and last evidence of real and demonstrable weight is the evidence
of character. A good deal might be said on the score of style in favour
of its attribution to a poet of the first order, writing at a time when
there were but two such poets writing for the stage; but even this is
here a point of merely secondary importance. It need only be noted in
passing that if the problem be reduced to a question between the
authorship of Shakespeare and the authorship of Marlowe there is no need
and no room for further argument. The whole style of treatment from end
to end is about as like the method of Marlowe as the method of Balzac is
like the method of Dumas. There could be no alternative in that case; so
that the actual alternative before us is simple enough: Either this play
is the young Shakespeare's first tragic masterpiece, or there was a
writer unknown to us then alive and at work for the stage who excelled
him as a tragic dramatist not less - to say the very least - than he was
excelled by Marlowe as a narrative and tragic poet.

If we accept, as I have been told that Goethe accepted (a point which I
regret my inability to verify), the former of these alternatives - or if
at least we assume it for argument's sake in passing - we may easily
strengthen our position by adducing as further evidence in its favour the
author's thoroughly Shakespearean fidelity to the details of the prose
narrative on which his tragedy is founded. But, it may be objected, we
find the same fidelity to a similar text in the case of _A Warning for
Fair Women_. And here again starts up the primal and radical difference
between the two works: it starts up and will not be overlooked. Equal
fidelity to the narrative text we do undoubtedly find in either case; the
same fidelity we assuredly do not find. The one is a typical example of
prosaic realism, the other of poetic reality. Light from darkness or
truth from falsehood is not more infallibly discernible. The fidelity in
the one case is exactly, as I have already indicated, the fidelity of a
reporter to his notes. The fidelity in the other case is exactly the
fidelity of Shakespeare in his Roman plays to the text of Plutarch. It
is a fidelity which admits - I had almost written, which requires - the
fullest play of the highest imagination. No more than the most realistic
of reporters will it omit or falsify any necessary or even admissible
detail; but the indefinable quality which it adds to the lowest as to the
highest of these is (as Lamb says of passion) "the all in all in poetry."
Turning again for illustration to one of the highest names in imaginative
literature - a name sometimes most improperly and absurdly inscribed on
the register of the realistic school, {137} we may say that the
difference on this point is not the difference between Balzac and Dumas,
but the distinction between Balzac and M. Zola. Let us take by way of
example the character next in importance to that of the heroine - the
character of her paramour. A viler figure was never sketched by Balzac;
a viler figure was seldom drawn by Thackeray. But as with Balzac, so
with the author of this play, the masterful will combining with the
masterly art of the creator who fashions out of the worst kind of human
clay the breathing likeness of a creature so hatefully pitiful and so
pitifully hateful overcomes, absorbs, annihilates all sense of such
abhorrence and repulsion as would prove the work which excited them no
high or even true work of art. Even the wonderful touch of dastardly
brutality and pitiful self-pity with which Mosbie at once receives and
repels the condolence of his mistress on his wound -

_Alice_. - Sweet Mosbie, hide thine arm, it kills my heart.

_Mosbie_. - _Ay, Mistress Arden, this is your favour_. -

even this does not make unendurable the scenic representation of what in
actual life would be unendurable for any man to witness. Such an
exhibition of currish cowardice and sullen bullying spite increases
rather our wondering pity for its victim than our wondering sense of her
degradation. And this is a kind of triumph which only such an artist as
Shakespeare in poetry or as Balzac in prose can achieve.

Alice Arden, if she be indeed a daughter of Shakespeare's, is the eldest
born of that group to which Lady Macbeth and Dionyza belong by right of
weird sisterhood. The wives of the thane of Glamis and the governor of
Tharsus, it need hardly be said, are both of them creations of a much
later date - if not of the very latest discernible or definable stage in
the art of Shakespeare. Deeply dyed as she is in bloodguiltiness, the
wife of Arden is much less of a born criminal than these. To her, at
once the agent and the patient of her crime, the victim and the
instrument of sacrifice and blood-offering to Venus Libitina, goddess of
love and death, - to her, even in the deepest pit of her deliberate
wickedness, remorse is natural and redemption conceivable. Like the
Phaedra of Racine, and herein so nobly unlike the Phaedra of Euripides,
she is capable of the deepest and bitterest penitence, - incapable of
dying with a hideous and homicidal falsehood on her long polluted lips.
Her latest breath is not a lie but a prayer.

Considering, then, in conclusion, the various and marvellous gifts
displayed for the first time on our stage by the great poet, the great
dramatist, the strong and subtle searcher of hearts, the just and
merciful judge and painter of human passions, who gave this tragedy to
the new-born literature of our drama; taking into account the really
wonderful skill, the absoluteness of intuition and inspiration, with
which every stroke is put in that touches off character or tones down
effect, even in the sketching and grouping of such minor figures as the
ruffianly hireling Black Will, the passionate artist without pity or
conscience, {141} and above all the "unimitated, inimitable" study of
Michael, in whom even physical fear becomes tragic, and cowardice itself


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Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 7 of 17)