Algernon Charles Swinburne.

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Jonson and Marston, may pass as wellnigh passable imitations, with an
inevitable streak of caricature in them, of the first Hamlet; they would
have been at once puerile and ghastly travesties of the second. The
Queen, whose finished figure is now something of a riddle, stands out
simply enough in the first sketch as confidant of Horatio if not as
accomplice of Hamlet. There is not more difference between the sweet
quiet flow of those plain verses which open the original play within the
play and the stiff sonorous tramp of their substitutes, full-charged with
heavy classic artillery of Phoebus and Neptune and Tellus and Hymen, than
there is between the straightforward agents of their own destiny whom we
meet in the first _Hamlet_ and the obliquely moving patients who veer
sideways to their doom in the second.

This minor transformation of style in the inner play, made solely with
the evident view of marking the distinction between its duly artificial
forms of speech and the duly natural forms of speech passing between the
spectators, is but one among innumerable indications which only a
purblind perversity of prepossession can overlook of the especial store
set by Shakespeare himself on this favourite work, and the exceptional
pains taken by him to preserve it for aftertime in such fullness of
finished form as might make it worthiest of profound and perpetual study
by the light of far other lamps than illuminate the stage. Of all vulgar
errors the most wanton, the most wilful, and the most resolutely
tenacious of life, is that belief bequeathed from the days of Pope, in
which it was pardonable, to the days of Mr. Carlyle, in which it is not
excusable, to the effect that Shakespeare threw off _Hamlet_ as an eagle
may moult a feather or a fool may break a jest; that he dropped his work
as a bird may drop an egg or a sophist a fallacy; that he wrote "for
gain, not glory," or that having written _Hamlet_ he thought it nothing
very wonderful to have written. For himself to have written, he
possibly, nay probably, did not think it anything miraculous; but that he
was in the fullest degree conscious of its wonderful positive worth to
all men for all time, we have the best evidence possible - his own; and
that not by mere word of mouth but by actual stroke of hand. Ben Jonson
might shout aloud over his own work on a public stage, "By God 'tis
good," and so for all its real goodness and his real greatness make sure
that both the workman and his work should be less unnaturally than
unreasonably laughed at; Shakespeare knew a better way of showing
confidence in himself, but he showed not a whit less confidence. Scene
by scene, line for line, stroke upon stroke and touch after touch, he
went over all the old laboured ground again; and not to ensure success in
his own day and fill his pockets with contemporary pence, but merely and
wholly with a purpose to make it worthy of himself and his future
students. Pence and praise enough it had evidently brought him in from
the first. No more palpable proof of this can be desired than the
instantaneous attacks on it, the jeers, howls, hoots and hisses of which
a careful ear may catch some far faint echo even yet; the fearful and
furtive yelp from beneath of the masked and writhing poeticule, the
shrill reverberation all around it of plagiarism and parody. Not one
single alteration in the whole play can possibly have been made with a
view to stage effect or to present popularity and profit; or we must
suppose that Shakespeare, however great as a man, was naturally even
greater as a fool. There is a class of mortals to whom this inference is
always grateful - to whom the fond belief that every great man must needs
be a great fool would seem always to afford real comfort and support:
happy, in Prior's phrase, could their inverted rule prove every great
fool to be a great man. Every change in the text of _Hamlet_ has
impaired its fitness for the stage and increased its value for the closet
in exact and perfect proportion. Now, this is not a matter of opinion - of
Mr. Pope's opinion or Mr. Carlyle's; it is a matter of fact and evidence.
Even in Shakespeare's time the actors threw out his additions; they throw
out these very same additions in our own. The one especial speech, if
any one such especial speech there be, in which the personal genius of
Shakespeare soars up to the very highest of its height and strikes down
to the very deepest of its depth, is passed over by modern actors; it was
cut away by Hemings and Condell. We may almost assume it as certain that
no boards have ever echoed - at least, more than once or twice - to the
supreme soliloquy of Hamlet. Those words which combine the noblest
pleading ever proffered for the rights of human reason with the loftiest
vindication ever uttered of those rights, no mortal ear within our
knowledge has ever heard spoken on the stage. A convocation even of all
priests could not have been more unhesitatingly unanimous in its
rejection than seems to have been the hereditary verdict of all actors.
It could hardly have been found worthier of theological than it has been
found of theatrical condemnation. Yet, beyond all question, magnificent
as is that monologue on suicide and doubt which has passed from a proverb
into a byword, it is actually eclipsed and distanced at once on
philosophic and on poetical grounds by the later soliloquy on reason and

That Shakespeare was in the genuine sense - that is, in the best and
highest and widest meaning of the term - a free thinker, this otherwise
practically and avowedly superfluous effusion of all inmost thought
appears to me to supply full and sufficient evidence for the conviction
of every candid and rational man. To that loftiest and most righteous
title which any just and reasoning soul can ever deserve to claim, the
greatest save one of all poetic thinkers has thus made good his right for

I trust it will be taken as no breach of my past pledge to abstain from
all intrusion on the sacred ground of Gigadibs and the Germans, if I
venture to indicate a touch inserted by Shakespeare for no other
perceptible or conceivable purpose than to obviate by anticipation the
indomitable and ineradicable fallacy of criticism which would find the
keynote of Hamlet's character in the quality of irresolution. I may
observe at once that the misconception involved in such a reading of the
riddle ought to have been evident even without this episodical stroke of
illustration. In any case it should be plain to any reader that the
signal characteristic of Hamlet's inmost nature is by no means
irresolution or hesitation or any form of weakness, but rather the strong
conflux of contending forces. That during four whole acts Hamlet cannot
or does not make up his mind to any direct and deliberate action against
his uncle is true enough; true, also, we may say, that Hamlet had
somewhat more of mind than another man to make up, and might properly
want somewhat more time than might another man to do it in; but not, I
venture to say in spite of Goethe, through innate inadequacy to his task
and unconquerable weakness of the will; not, I venture to think in spite
of Hugo, through immedicable scepticism of the spirit and irremediable
propensity to nebulous intellectual refinement. One practical point in
the action of the play precludes us from accepting so ready a solution of
the riddle as is suggested either by the simple theory of
half-heartedness or by the simple hypothesis of doubt. There is
absolutely no other reason, we might say there was no other excuse, for
the introduction or intrusion of an else superfluous episode into a play
which was already, and which remains even after all possible excisions,
one of the longest plays on record. The compulsory expedition of Hamlet
to England, his discovery by the way of the plot laid against his life,
his interception of the King's letter and his forgery of a substitute for
it against the lives of the King's agents, the ensuing adventure of the
sea-fight, with Hamlet's daring act of hot-headed personal intrepidity,
his capture and subsequent release on terms giving no less patent proof
of his cool-headed and ready-witted courage and resource than the attack
had afforded of his physically impulsive and even impetuous hardihood - all
this serves no purpose whatever but that of exhibiting the instant and
almost unscrupulous resolution of Hamlet's character in time of practical
need. But for all that he or Hamlet has got by it, Shakespeare might too
evidently have spared his pains; and for all this voice as of one crying
in a wilderness, Hamlet will too surely remain to the majority of
students, not less than to all actors and all editors and all critics,
the standing type and embodied emblem of irresolution, half-heartedness,
and doubt.

That Hamlet should seem at times to accept for himself, and even to
enforce by reiteration of argument upon his conscience and his reason,
some such conviction or suspicion as to his own character, tells much
rather in disfavour than in favour of its truth. A man whose natural
temptation was to swerve, whose inborn inclination was to shrink and
skulk aside from duty and from action, would hardly be the first and last
person to suspect his own weakness, the one only unbiassed judge and
witness of sufficiently sharp-sighted candour and accuracy to estimate
aright his poverty of nature and the malformation of his mind. But the
high-hearted and tender-conscienced Hamlet, with his native bias towards
introspection intensified and inflamed and directed and dilated at once
by one imperative pressure and oppression of unavoidable and unalterable
circumstance, was assuredly and exactly the one only man to be troubled
by any momentary fear that such might indeed be the solution of his
riddle, and to feel or to fancy for the moment some kind of ease and
relief in the sense of that very trouble. A born doubter would have
doubted even of Horatio; hardly can all positive and almost palpable
evidence of underhand instigation and inspired good intentions induce
Hamlet for some time to doubt even of Ophelia.


The entrance to the third period of Shakespeare is like the entrance to
that lost and lesser Paradise of old,

With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms.

Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Antony, Timon, these are names indeed
of something more than tragic purport. Only in the sunnier distance
beyond, where the sunset of Shakespeare's imagination seems to melt or
flow back into the sunrise, do we discern Prospero beside Miranda,
Florizel by Perdita, Palamon with Arcite, the same knightly and kindly
Duke Theseus as of old; and above them all, and all others of his divine
and human children, the crowning and final and ineffable figure of

Of all Shakespeare's plays, _King Lear_ is unquestionably that in which
he has come nearest to the height and to the likeness of the one tragic
poet on any side greater than himself whom the world in all its ages has
ever seen born of time. It is by far the most AEschylean of his works;
the most elemental and primaeval, the most oceanic and Titanic in
conception. He deals here with no subtleties as in _Hamlet_, with no
conventions as in _Othello_: there is no question of "a divided duty" or
a problem half insoluble, a matter of country and connection, of family
or of race; we look upward and downward, and in vain, into the deepest
things of nature, into the highest things of providence; to the roots of
life, and to the stars; from the roots that no God waters to the stars
which give no man light; over a world full of death and life without
resting-place or guidance.

But in one main point it differs radically from the work and the spirit
of AEschylus. Its fatalism is of a darker and harder nature. To
Prometheus the fetters of the lord and enemy of mankind were bitter; upon
Orestes the hand of heaven was laid too heavily to bear; yet in the not
utterly infinite or everlasting distance we see beyond them the promise
of the morning on which mystery and justice shall be made one; when
righteousness and omnipotence at last shall kiss each other. But on the
horizon of Shakespeare's tragic fatalism we see no such twilight of
atonement, such pledge of reconciliation as this. Requital, redemption,
amends, equity, explanation, pity and mercy, are words without a meaning

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport.

Here is no need of the Eumenides, children of Night everlasting; for here
is very Night herself.

The words just cited are not casual or episodical; they strike the
keynote of the whole poem, lay the keystone of the whole arch of thought.
There is no contest of conflicting forces, no judgment so much as by
casting of lots: far less is there any light of heavenly harmony or of
heavenly wisdom, of Apollo or Athene from above. We have heard much and
often from theologians of the light of revelation: and some such thing
indeed we find in AEschylus: but the darkness of revelation is here.

For in this the most terrible work of human genius it is with the very
springs and sources of nature that her student has set himself to deal.
The veil of the temple of our humanity is rent in twain. Nature herself,
we might say, is revealed - and revealed as unnatural. In face of such a
world as this a man might be forgiven who should pray that chaos might
come again. Nowhere else in Shakespeare's work or in the universe of
jarring lives are the lines of character and event so broadly drawn or so
sharply cut. Only the supreme self-command of this one poet could so
mould and handle such types as to restrain and prevent their passing from
the abnormal into the monstrous: yet even as much as this, at least in
all cases but one, it surely has accomplished. In Regan alone would it
be, I think, impossible to find a touch or trace of anything less vile
than it was devilish. Even Goneril has her one splendid hour, her fire-
flaught of hellish glory; when she treads under foot the half-hearted
goodness, the wordy and windy though sincere abhorrence, which is all
that the mild and impotent revolt of Albany can bring to bear against her
imperious and dauntless devilhood; when she flaunts before the eyes of
her "milk-livered" and "moral fool" the coming banners of France about
the "plumed helm" of his slayer.

On the other side, Kent is the exception which answers to Regan on this.
Cordelia, the brotherless Antigone of our stage, has one passing touch of
intolerance for what her sister was afterwards to brand as indiscretion
and dotage in their father, which redeems her from the charge of
perfection. Like Imogen, she is not too inhumanly divine for the sense
of divine irritation. Godlike though they be, their very godhead is
human and feminine; and only therefore credible, and only therefore
adorable. Cloten and Regan, Goneril and Iachimo, have power to stir and
embitter the sweetness of their blood. But for the contrast and even the
contact of antagonists as abominable as these, the gold of their spirit
would be too refined, the lily of their holiness too radiant, the violet
of their virtue too sweet. As it is, Shakespeare has gone down perforce
among the blackest and the basest things of nature to find anything so
equally exceptional in evil as properly to counterbalance and make
bearable the excellence and extremity of their goodness. No otherwise
could either angel have escaped the blame implied in the very attribute
and epithet of blameless. But where the possible depth of human hell is
so foul and unfathomable as it appears in the spirits which serve as
foils to these, we may endure that in them the inner height of heaven
should be no less immaculate and immeasurable.

It should be a truism wellnigh as musty as Hamlet's half cited proverb,
to enlarge upon the evidence given in _King Lear_ of a sympathy with the
mass of social misery more wide and deep and direct and bitter and tender
than Shakespeare has shown elsewhere. But as even to this day and even
in respectable quarters the murmur is not quite duly extinct which would
charge on Shakespeare a certain share of divine indifference to
suffering, of godlike satisfaction and a less than compassionate content,
it is not yet perhaps utterly superfluous to insist on the utter fallacy
and falsity of their creed who whether in praise or in blame would rank
him to his credit or discredit among such poets as on this side at least
may be classed rather with Goethe than with Shelley and with Gautier than
with Hugo. A poet of revolution he is not, as none of his country in
that generation could have been: but as surely as the author of _Julius
Caesar_ has approved himself in the best and highest sense of the word at
least potentially a republican, so surely has the author of _King Lear_
avowed himself in the only good and rational sense of the words a
spiritual if not a political democrat and socialist.

It is only, I think, in this most tragic of tragedies that the sovereign
lord and incarnate god of pity and terror can be said to have struck with
all his strength a chord of which the resonance could excite such angry
agony and heartbreak of wrath as that of the brother kings when they
smote their staffs against the ground in fierce imperious anguish of
agonised and rebellious compassion, at the oracular cry of Calchas for
the innocent blood of Iphigenia. The doom even of Desdemona seems as
much less morally intolerable as it is more logically inevitable than the
doom of Cordelia. But doubtless the fatalism of _Othello_ is as much
darker and harder than that of any third among the plays of Shakespeare,
as it is less dark and hard than the fatalism of _King Lear_. For upon
the head of the very noblest man whom even omnipotence or Shakespeare
could ever call to life he has laid a burden in one sense yet heavier
than the burden of Lear, insomuch as the sufferer can with somewhat less
confidence of universal appeal proclaim himself a man more sinned against
than sinning.

And yet, if ever man after Lear might lift up his voice in that protest,
it would assuredly be none other than Othello. He is in all the
prosperous days of his labour and his triumph so utterly and wholly
nobler than the self-centred and wayward king, that the capture of his
soul and body in the unimaginable snare of Iago seems a yet blinder and
more unrighteous blow

Struck by the envious wrath of man or God

than ever fell on the old white head of that child-changed father. But
at least he is destroyed by the stroke of a mightier hand than theirs who
struck down Lear. As surely as Othello is the noblest man of man's
making, Iago is the most perfect evildoer, the most potent demi-devil. It
is of course the merest commonplace to say as much, and would be no less
a waste of speech to add the half comfortable reflection that it is in
any case no shame to fall by such a hand. But this subtlest and
strangest work of Shakespeare's admits and requires some closer than
common scrutiny. Coleridge has admirably described the first great
soliloquy which opens to us the pit of hell within as "the motive-hunting
of a motiveless malignity." But subtle and profound and just as is this
definitive appreciation, there is more in the matter yet than even this.
It is not only that Iago, so to speak, half tries to make himself half
believe that Othello has wronged him, and that the thought of it gnaws
him inly like a poisonous mineral: though this also be true, it is not
half the truth - nor half that half again. Malignant as he is, the very
subtlest and strongest component of his complex nature is not even
malignity. It is the instinct of what Mr. Carlyle would call an
inarticulate poet. In his immortal study on the affair of the diamond
necklace, the most profound and potent humourist of his country in his
century has unwittingly touched on the mainspring of Iago's
character - "the very pulse of the machine." He describes his Circe de la
Mothe-Valois as a practical dramatic poet or playwright at least in lieu
of play-writer: while indicating how and wherefore, with all her
constructive skill and rhythmic art in action, such genius as hers so
differs from the genius of Shakespeare that she undeniably could not have
written a _Hamlet_. Neither could Iago have written an _Othello_. (From
this theorem, by the way, a reasoner or a casuist benighted enough to
prefer articulate poets to inarticulate, Shakespeare to Cromwell, a fair
Vittoria Colonna to a "foul Circe-Megaera," and even such a strategist as
Homer to such a strategist as Frederic-William, would not illogically
draw such conclusions or infer such corollaries as might result in
opinions hardly consonant with the Teutonic-Titanic evangel of the
preacher who supplied him with his thesis.) "But what he can do, that he
will": and if it be better to make a tragedy than to write one, to act a
poem than to sing it, we must allow to Iago a station in the hierarchy of
poets very far in advance of his creator's. None of the great
inarticulate may more justly claim place and precedence. With all his
poetic gift, he has no poetic weakness. Almost any creator but his would
have given him some grain of spite or some spark of lust after Desdemona.
To Shakespeare's Iago she is no more than is a rhyme to another and
articulate poet. {179} His stanza must at any rate and at all costs be
polished: to borrow the metaphor used by Mr. Carlyle in apologetic
illustration of a royal hero's peculiar system of levying recruits for
his colossal brigade. He has within him a sense or conscience of power
incomparable: and this power shall not be left, in Hamlet's phrase, "to
fust in him unused." A genuine and thorough capacity for human lust or
hate would diminish and degrade the supremacy of his evil. He is almost
as far above or beyond vice as he is beneath or beyond virtue. And this
it is that makes him impregnable and invulnerable. When once he has said
it, we know as well as he that thenceforth he never will speak word. We
could smile almost as we can see him to have smiled at Gratiano's most
ignorant and empty threat, being well assured that torments will in no
wise ope his lips: that as surely and as truthfully as ever did the
tortured philosopher before him, he might have told his tormentors that
they did but bruise the coating, batter the crust, or break the shell of
Iago. Could we imagine a far other lost spirit than Farinata degli
Uberti's endowed with Farinata's might of will, and transferred from the
sepulchres of fire to the dykes of Malebolge, we might conceive something
of Iago's attitude in hell - of his unalterable and indomitable posture
for all eternity. As though it were possible and necessary that in some
one point the extremities of all conceivable good and of all imaginable
evil should meet and mix together in a new "marriage of heaven and hell,"
the action in passion of the most devilish among all the human damned
could hardly be other than that of the most godlike among all divine
saviours - the figure of Iago than a reflection by hell-fire of the figure
of Prometheus.

Between Iago and Othello the position of Desdemona is precisely that
defined with such quaint sublimity of fancy in the old English
byword - "between the devil and the deep sea." Deep and pure and strong
and adorable always and terrible and pitiless on occasion as the sea is
the great soul of the glorious hero to whom she has given herself; and
what likeness of man's enemy from Satan down to Mephistopheles could be
matched for danger and for dread against the good bluff soldierly
trustworthy figure of honest Iago? The rough license of his tongue at
once takes warrant from his good soldiership and again gives warrant for
his honesty: so that in a double sense it does him yeoman's service, and
that twice told. It is pitifully ludicrous to see him staged to the show
like a member - and a very inefficient member - of the secret police. But
it would seem impossible for actors to understand that he is not a would-
be detective, an aspirant for the honours of a Vidocq, a candidate for
the laurels of a Vautrin: that he is no less than Lepidus, or than
Antony's horse, "a tried and valiant soldier." It is perhaps natural
that the two deepest and subtlest of all Shakespeare's intellectual
studies in good and evil should be the two most painfully misused and
misunderstood alike by his commentators and his fellows of the stage: it
is certainly undeniable that no third figure of his creation has ever

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Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 9 of 17)