Algernon Charles Swinburne.

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no ludicrous infirmity but rather a terrible passion; I cannot but
finally take heart to say, even in the absence of all external or
traditional testimony, that it seems to me not pardonable merely nor
permissible, but simply logical and reasonable, to set down this poem, a
young man's work on the face of it, as the possible work of no man's
youthful hand but Shakespeare's.

No similar question is raised, no parallel problem stated, in the case of
any one other among the plays now or ever ascribed on grounds more or
less dubious to that same indubitable hand. This hand I do not recognise
even in the _Yorkshire Tragedy_, full as it is to overflowing of fierce
animal power, and hot as with the furious breath of some caged wild
beast. Heywood, who as the most realistic and in some sense prosaic
dramatist of his time has been credited (though but in a modestly
tentative and suggestive fashion) with its authorship, was as incapable
of writing it as Chapman of writing the Shakespearean parts of _The Two
Noble Kinsmen_ or Fletcher of writing the scenes of Wolsey's fall and
Katherine's death in _King Henry VIII_. To the only editor of
Shakespeare responsible for the two earlier of the three suggestions here
set aside, they may be forgiven on the score of insufficient scholarship
and want of critical training; but on what ground the third suggestion
can be excused in the case of men who should have a better right than
most others to speak with some show of authority on a point of higher
criticism, I must confess myself utterly at a loss to imagine. In the
_Yorkshire Tragedy_ the submissive devotion of its miserable heroine to
her maddened husband is merely doglike, - though not even, in the
exquisitely true and tender phrase of our sovereign poetess, "most
passionately patient." There is no likeness in this poor trampled figure
to "one of Shakespeare's women": Griselda was no ideal of his. To find
its parallel in the dramatic literature of the great age, we must look to
lesser great men than Shakespeare. Ben Jonson, a too exclusively
masculine poet, will give us a couple of companion figures for her - or
one such figure at least; for the wife of Fitzdottrel, submissive as she
is even to the verge of undignified if not indecorous absurdity, is less
of a human spaniel than the wife of Corvino. Another such is Robert
Davenport's Abstemia, so warmly admired by Washington Irving; another is
the heroine of that singularly powerful and humorous tragi-comedy,
labelled to _How to Choose a Good Wife from a Bad_, which in its central
situation anticipates that of Leigh Hunt's beautiful _Legend of
Florence_; while Decker has revived, in one of our sweetest and most
graceful examples of dramatic romance, the original incarnation of that
somewhat pitiful ideal which even in a ruder and more Russian century of
painful European progress out of night and winter could only be made
credible, acceptable, or endurable, by the yet unequalled genius of
Chaucer and Boccaccio.

For concentrated might and overwhelming weight of realism, this lurid
little play beats _A Warning for Fair Women_ fairly out of the field. It
is and must always be (I had nearly said, thank heaven) unsurpassable for
pure potency of horror; and the breathless heat of the action, its raging
rate of speed, leaves actually no breathing-time for disgust; it consumes
our very sense of repulsion as with fire. But such power as this, though
a rare and a great gift, is not the right quality for a dramatist; it is
not the fit property of a poet. Ford and Webster, even Tourneur and
Marston, who have all been more or less wrongfully though more or less
plausibly attacked on the score of excess in horror, have none of them
left us anything so nakedly terrible, so terribly naked as this. Passion
is here not merely stripped to the skin but stripped to the bones. I
cannot tell who could and I cannot guess who would have written it. "'Tis
a very excellent piece of work"; may we never exactly look upon its like
again!

I thought it at one time far from impossible, if not very nearly
probable, that the author of _Arden of Feversham_ might be one with the
author of the famous additional scenes to _The Spanish Tragedy_, and that
either both of these "pieces of work" or neither must be Shakespeare's. I
still adhere to Coleridge's verdict, which indeed must be that of all
judges capable of passing any sentence worthier of record than are

Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine:

to the effect that those magnificent passages, wellnigh overcharged at
every point with passion and subtlety, sincerity and instinct of pathetic
truth, are no less like Shakespeare's work than unlike Jonson's: though
hardly perhaps more unlike the typical manner of his adult and matured
style than is the general tone of _The Case is Altered_, his one
surviving comedy of that earlier period in which we know from Henslowe
that the stout-hearted and long struggling young playwright went through
so much theatrical hackwork and piecework in the same rough harness with
other now more or less notable workmen then drudging under the manager's
dull narrow sidelong eye for bare bread and bare shelter. But this
unlikeness, great as it is and serious and singular, between his former
and his latter style in high comedy, gives no warrant for us to believe
him capable of so immeasurable a transformation in tragic style and so
indescribable a decadence in tragic power as would be implied in a
descent from the "fine madness" of "old Jeronymo" to the flat sanity and
smoke-dried sobriety of _Catiline_ and _Sejanus_. - I cannot but think,
too, that Lamb's first hypothetical ascription of these wonderful scenes
to Webster, so much the most Shakespearean in gait and port and accent of
all Shakespeare's liege men-at-arms, was due to a far happier and more
trustworthy instinct than led him in later years to liken them rather to
"the overflowing griefs and talking distraction of Titus Andronicus."

We have wandered it may be somewhat out of the right time into a far
other province of poetry than the golden land of Shakespeare's ripest
harvest-fields of humour. And now, before we may enter the "flowery
square" made by the summer growth of his four greatest works in pure and
perfect comedy "beneath a broad and equal-blowing wind" of all happiest
and most fragrant imagination, we have but one field to cross, one brook
to ford, that hardly can be thought to keep us out of Paradise. In the
garden-plot on whose wicket is inscribed _All's Well that Ends Well_, we
are hardly distant from Eden itself

About a young dove's flutter from a wood.

The ninth story of the third day of the Decameron is one of the few
subjects chosen by Shakespeare - as so many were taken by Fletcher - which
are less fit, we may venture to think, for dramatic than for narrative
treatment. He has here again shown all possible delicacy of instinct in
handling a matter which unluckily it was not possible to handle on the
stage with absolute and positive delicacy of feeling or expression. Dr.
Johnson - in my humble opinion, with some justice; though his verdict has
been disputed on the score of undeserved austerity - "could not reconcile
his heart to Bertram"; and I, unworthy as I may be to second or support
on the score of morality the finding of so great a moralist, cannot
reconcile my instincts to Helena. Parolles is even better than Bobadil,
as Bobadil is even better than Bessus; and Lafeu is one of the very best
old men in all the range of comic art. But the whole charm and beauty of
the play, the quality which raises it to the rank of its fellows by
making it loveable as well as admirable, we find only in the "sweet,
serene, skylike" sanctity and attraction of adorable old age, made more
than ever near and dear to us in the incomparable figure of the old
Countess of Roussillon. At the close of the play, Fletcher would
inevitably have married her to Lafeu - or rather possibly, to the King.

At the entrance of the heavenly quadrilateral, or under the rising dawn
of the four fixed stars which compose our Northern Cross among the
constellations of dramatic romance hung high in the highest air of
poetry, we may well pause for very dread of our own delight, lest
unawares we break into mere babble of childish rapture and infantile
thanksgiving for such light vouchsafed even to our "settentrional vedovo
sito" that even at their first dawn out of the depths

Goder pareva il ciel di lor fiammelle.

Beyond these again we see a second group arising, the supreme starry
trinity of the _Winter's Tale_, the _Tempest_, and _Cymbeline_: and
beyond these the divine darkness of everlasting and all-maternal night.
These seven lamps of the romantic drama have in them - if I may strain the
similitude a little further yet - more of lyric light than could fitly be
lent to feed the fire or the sunshine of the worlds of pure tragedy or
comedy. There is more play, more vibration as it were, in the splendours
of their spheres. Only in the heaven of Shakespeare's making can we pass
and repass at pleasure from the sunny to the stormy lights, from the
glory of _Cymbeline_ to the glory of _Othello_.

In this first group of four - wholly differing on that point from the
later constellation of three - there is but very seldom, not more than
once or twice at most, a shooting or passing gleam of anything more lurid
or less lovely than "a light of laughing flowers." There is but just
enough of evil or even of passion admitted into their sweet spheres of
life to proclaim them living: and all that does find entrance is so
tempered by the radiance of the rest that we retain but softened and
lightened recollections even of Shylock and Don John when we think of the
_Merchant of Venice_ and _Much Ado about Nothing_; we hardly feel in _As
You Like It_ the presence or the existence of Oliver and Duke Frederick;
and in _Twelfth Night_, for all its name of the midwinter, we find
nothing to remember that might jar with the loveliness of love and the
summer light of life.

No astronomer can ever tell which if any one among these four may be to
the others as a sun; for in this special tract of heaven "one star
differeth" not "from another star in glory." From each and all of them,
even "while this muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close [us] in," we
cannot _but_ hear the harmony of a single immortal soul

Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins.

The coincidence of the divine passage in which I have for once permitted
myself the freedom of altering for quotation's sake one little word, with
a noble excerpt given by Hallam from the Latin prose writings of
Campanella, may recall to us with a doubly appropriate sense of
harmonious fitness the subtly beautiful image of Lord Tennyson; -

Star to star vibrates light: may soul to soul
Strike thro' a finer element of her own?

Surely, if ever she may, such a clash might we fancy to have passed from
the spirit of the most glorious martyr and poet to the spirit of the most
glorious poet and artist upon the face of the earth together. Even to
Shakespeare any association of his name with Campanella's, as even to
Campanella any association of his name with Shakespeare's, cannot but be
an additional ray of honour: and how high is the claim of the divine
philosopher to share with the godlike dramatist their common and crowning
name of poet, all Englishmen at least may now perceive by study of
Campanella's sonnets in the noble and exquisite version of Mr. Symonds;
to whom among other kindred debts we owe no higher obligation than is due
to him as the giver of these poems to the inmost heart of all among his
countrymen whose hearts are worthy to hold and to hoard up such treasure.

Where nothing at once new and true can be said, it is always best to say
nothing; as it is in this case to refrain from all reiteration of
rhapsody which must have been somewhat "mouldy ere" any living man's
"grandsires had nails on their toes," if not at that yet remoter date
"when King Pepin of France was a little boy" and "Queen Guinever of
Britain was a little wench." In the _Merchant of Venice_, at all events,
there is hardly a single character from Portia to old Gobbo, a single
incident from the exaction of Shylock's bond to the computation of hairs
in Launcelot's beard and Dobbin's tail, which has not been more
plentifully beprosed than ever Rosalind was berhymed. Much wordy wind
has also been wasted on comparison of Shakespeare's Jew with Marlowe's;
that is, of a living subject for terror and pity with a mere mouthpiece
for the utterance of poetry as magnificent as any but the best of
Shakespeare's.

Nor can it well be worth any man's while to say or to hear for the
thousandth time that _As You Like It_ would be one of those works which
prove, as Landor said long since, the falsehood of the stale axiom that
no work of man's can be perfect, were it not for that one unlucky slip of
the brush which has left so ugly a little smear in one corner of the
canvas as the betrothal of Oliver to Celia; though, with all reverence
for a great name and a noble memory, I can hardly think that matters were
much mended in George Sand's adaptation of the play by the transference
of her hand to Jaques. Once elsewhere, or twice only at the most, is any
such other sacrifice of moral beauty or spiritual harmony to the
necessities and traditions of the stage discernible in all the world-wide
work of Shakespeare. In the one case it is unhappily undeniable; no mans
conscience, no conceivable sense of right and wrong, but must more or
less feel as did Coleridge's the double violence done it in the upshot of
_Measure for Measure_. Even in the much more nearly spotless work which
we have next to glance at, some readers have perhaps not unreasonably
found a similar objection to the final good fortune of such a pitiful
fellow as Count Claudio. It will be observed that in each case the
sacrifice is made to comedy. The actual or hypothetical necessity of
pairing off all the couples after such a fashion as to secure a nominally
happy and undeniably matrimonial ending is the theatrical idol whose
tyranny exacts this holocaust of higher and better feelings than the mere
liquorish desire to leave the board of fancy with a palatable morsel of
cheap sugar on the tongue.

If it is proverbially impossible to determine by selection the greatest
work of Shakespeare, it is easy enough to decide on the date and the name
of his most perfect comic masterpiece. For absolute power of
composition, for faultless balance and blameless rectitude of design,
there is unquestionably no creation of his hand that will bear comparison
with _Much Ado About Nothing_. The ultimate marriage of Hero and
Claudio, on which I have already remarked as in itself a doubtfully
desirable consummation, makes no flaw in the dramatic perfection of a
piece which could not otherwise have been wound up at all. This was its
one inevitable conclusion, if the action were not to come to a tragic
end; and a tragic end would here have been as painfully and as grossly
out of place as is any but a tragic end to the action of _Measure for
Measure_. As for Beatrice, she is as perfect a lady, though of a far
different age and breeding, as Celimene or Millamant; and a decidedly
more perfect woman than could properly or permissibly have trod the stage
of Congreve or Moliere. She would have disarranged all the dramatic
proprieties and harmonies of the one great school of pure comedy. The
good fierce outbreak of her high true heart in two swift words - "Kill
Claudio" {154} - would have fluttered the dovecotes of fashionable drama
to some purpose. But Alceste would have taken her to his own.

No quainter and apter example was ever given of many men's absolute
inability to see the plainest aims, to learn the simplest rudiments, to
appreciate the most practical requisites of art, whether applied to
theatrical action or to any other as evident as exalted aim, than the
instance afforded by that criticism of time past which sagaciously
remarked that "any less amusingly absurd" constables than Dogberry and
Verges would have filled their parts in the action of the play equally
well. Our own day has doubtless brought forth critics and students of
else unparalleled capacity for the task of laying wind-eggs in mare's
nests, and wasting all the warmth of their brains and tongues in the
hopeful endeavour to hatch them: but so fine a specimen was never dropped
yet as this of the plumed or plumeless biped who discovered that if
Dogberry had not been Dogberry and Verges had not been Verges they would
have been equally unsuccessful in their honest attempt to warn Leonato
betimes of the plot against his daughter's honour. The only explanation
of the mistake is this; and it is one of which the force will be
intelligible only to those who are acquainted with the very singular
physiology of that remarkably prolific animal known to critical science
as the Shakespearean scholiast: that if Dogberry had been other than
Dogberry, or if Verges had been other than Verges, the action and
catastrophe of the whole play could never have taken place at all.

All true Pantagruelians will always, or at least as long as may be
permitted by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, cherish with an
especial regard the comedy in which Shakespeare also has shown himself as
surely the loving as he would surely have been the beloved disciple of
that insuppressible divine, the immortal and most reverend vicar of
Meudon. Two only among the mighty men who lived and wrote and died
within the century which gave birth to Shakespeare were found worthy of
so great an honour at his hands as the double homage of citation and
imitation: and these two, naturally and properly enough, were Francois
Rabelais and Christopher Marlowe. We cannot but recognise on what far
travels in what good company "Feste the jester" had but lately been, on
that night of "very gracious fooling" when he was pleased to enlighten
the unforgetful mind of Sir Andrew as to the history of Pigrogromitus,
and of the Vapians passing the equinoctial of Queubus. At what precise
degree of latitude and longitude between the blessed islands of Medamothy
and Papimania this equinoctial may intersect the Sporades of the outer
ocean, is a problem on the solution of which the energy of those many
modern sons of Aguecheek who have undertaken the task of writing about
and about the text and the history of Shakespeare might be expended with
an unusually reasonable hope and expectation of arriving at an
exceptionally profitable end.

Even apart from their sunny identity of spirit and bright sweet
brotherhood of style, the two comedies of _Twelfth Night_ and _As You
Like It_ would stand forth confessed as the common offspring of the same
spiritual period by force and by right of the trace or badge they proudly
and professedly bear in common, as of a recent touch from the ripe and
rich and radiant influence of Rabelais. No better and no fuller
vindication of his happy memory could be afforded than by the evident
fact that the two comedies which bear the imprint of his sign-manual are
among all Shakespeare's works as signally remarkable for the cleanliness
as for the richness of their humour. Here is the right royal seal of
Pantagruel, clean-cut and clearly stamped, and unincrusted with any flake
of dirt from the dubious finger of Panurge. In the comic parts of those
plays in which the humour is rank and flagrant that exhales from the lips
of Lucio, of Boult, or of Thersites, there is no trace or glimpse of
Rabelais. From him Shakespeare has learnt nothing and borrowed nothing
that was not wise and good and sweet and clean and pure. All the more
honour, undoubtedly, to Shakespeare, that he would borrow nothing else:
but assuredly, also, all the more honour to Rabelais, that he had enough
of this to lend.

It is less creditable to England than honourable to France that a
Frenchman should have been the first of Shakespearean students to
discover and to prove that the great triad of his Roman plays is not a
consecutive work of the same epoch. Until the appearance of Francois-
Victor Hugo's incomparable translation, with its elaborate and admirable
commentary, it seems to have been the universal and certainly a most
natural habit of English criticism to take the three as they usually
appear together, in the order of historical chronology, and by tacit
implication to assume that they were composed in such order. I should
take some shame to myself but that I feel more of grateful pride than of
natural shame in the avowal that I at all events owe the first revelation
of the truth now so clear and apparent in this matter, to the son of the
common lord and master of all poets born in his age - be they liege
subjects as loyal as myself or as contumacious as I grieve to find one at
least of my elders and betters, whenever I perceive - as too often I
cannot choose but perceive - that the voice is the voice of Arnold, but
the hand is the hand of Sainte-Beuve.

To the honoured and lamented son of our beloved and glorious Master, whom
neither I nor any better man can ever praise and thank and glorify
enough, belongs all the credit of discerning for himself and discovering
for us all the truth that _Julius Caesar_ is at all points equally like
the greatest works of Shakespeare's middle period and unlike the works of
his last. It is in the main a play belonging to the same order as _King
Henry IV_.; but it differs from our English Henriade - as remarkably
unlike Voltaire's as _Zaire_ is unlike _Othello_ - not more by the absence
of Falstaff than by the presence of Brutus. Here at least Shakespeare
has made full amends, if not to all modern democrats, yet assuredly to
all historical republicans, for any possible or apparent preference of
royal to popular traditions. Whatever manner of man may have been the
actual Roman, our Shakespearean Brutus is undoubtedly the very noblest
figure of a typical and ideal republican in all the literature of the
world. "A democracy such as yours in America is my abhorrence," wrote
Landor once to an impudent and foul-mouthed Yankee pseudosopher, who had
intruded himself on that great man's privacy in order to have the
privilege of afterwards informing the readers of a pitiful pamphlet on
England that Landor had "pestered him with Southey"; an impertinence, I
may add, which Mr. Landor at once rebuked with the sharpest contempt and
chastised with the haughtiest courtesy. But, the old friend and lifelong
champion of Kossuth went on to say, his feelings were far different
towards a republic; and if on the one point, then not less certainly on
the other, we may be assured that his convictions and his prepossessions
would have been shared by the author of _Coriolanus_ and _Julius Caesar_.

Having now come perforce to the inevitable verge of _Hamlet_, I hasten to
declare that I can advance no pretension to compete with the claim of
that "literary man" who became immortal by dint of one dinner with a
bishop, and in right of that last glass poured out for him in sign of
amity by "Sylvester Blougram, styled _in partibus Episcopus_, _necnon_
the deuce knows what." I do not propose to prove my perception of any
point in the character of Hamlet "unseized by the Germans yet." I can
only determine, as the Church Catechism was long since wont to bid me,
"to keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongue" not only
"from evil-speaking, lying, and slandering" - though this itself is a form
of abstinence not universally or even commonly practised among the
rampant rout of rival commentators - but also, now as ever throughout this
study, from all conscious repetition of what others have said before me.

In _Hamlet_, as it seems to me, we set foot as it were on the bridge
between the middle and the final period of Shakespeare. That priceless
waif of piratical salvage which we owe to the happy rapacity of a hungry
publisher is of course more accurately definable as the first play of
_Hamlet_ than as the first edition of the play. And this first _Hamlet_,
on the whole, belongs altogether to the middle period. The deeper
complexities of the subject are merely indicated. Simple and trenchant
outlines of character are yet to be supplanted by features of subtler
suggestion and infinite interfusion. Hamlet himself is almost more of a
satirist than a philosopher: Asper and Macilente, Felice and Malevole,
the grim studies after Hamlet unconsciously or consciously taken by


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Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 8 of 17)