Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

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poet that serious study to which alone he yields the
whole secret of his power. Moreover, M. Mezieres
has not confined himself to this. As soon as he
had resolved to introduce precision of historical
information in handling his subject, it became im-
possible for him to omit the surroundings of Shake-
speare — that is to say, the models imitated by the
poet, the influence he exercised, and, in short, the
whole of the literary and social conditions amongst
which he was produced, and amongst which we
must place him once more, if we wish really to
comprehend him. This is what M. Mezieres very
clearly saw, and this is what gives so much value
to his volumes on the predecessors and contempo-
raries of Shakespeare — the completest history that
we have of the English theatre up to the seven-
teenth century.

It is exactly 250 years since Shakespeare died ;
and he thus belongs to an age of full historical
light. Nor was he one of those whose merit is
unrecognized till long after their own day. His con-
temporaries did homage to his genius, and the well-
known verses of Milton are enough to show what
place the great dramatist held in the estimation of
the next age. And yet we know next to nothing
of the life of this extraordinary man. Most of the


items whicli compose his traditional biography,
such as the poaching affair which forced him to
quit his native town and his humble occupations in
London, before he trod the boards, rest, I say, on no
foundation of evidence. The history of his work
in drama is to a great extent conjectural. It has
even been doubted whether he was a Protestant or
a Catholic. The rather uncertain information which
we have in regard to him reduces itself to what
follows. Shakespeare belonged to a middle-class
family, in easy circumstances, and was born at
Stratf ord-on-Avon, in April, 1564. He was married
at the age of eighteen, and was only twenty-two
when he left his wife and children at Stratford to
go and seek his fortune in London. There he joined
a troup of actors, of whom Burbage was manager,
and was not long in distinguishing himself, if not
as an actor, as a dramatist. He cultivated other
styles of poetry at the same time : published
<' Venus and Adonis" in 1593, and "Lucrece" in
1694. He made money by the theatre. We find
him buying a house and lands at Stratford, which
he liked to re-visit, and whither he finally retired
about 1604, at the age of forty. But if he left the
actual theatre, he did not renounce the dramatic
art, and many of his works are posterior to the
date I have just mentioned. He died on April 23,
1616, in the same year as Cervantes, twenty-four
years after the author of the '' Essays," and twenty
years before the production of the "Cid." These


dates indicate sufficiently the stage of formation of
Shakespeare's language, which is a kind of English
less archaic than the French of Montaigne is to us,
and yet less finally settled than is that of Corneille.
The authenticity of the famous portrait known as
the Chandos Shakespeare, and now belonging to the
London National [Portrait] Gallery, is not certain
enough for us to flatter ourselves with the idea that
we know the poet's features. His direct descend-
ants have long been extinct. He left two married
daughters, who in their turn had issue : but these
children died childless.

The strangest thing in Shakespeare's life is the
indifference which he seems to have felt in regard
to his reputation as a dramatist. He published his
poems and his sonnets with the greatest care ; and
yet he neither himself caused any of his plays to
be printed nor left his heirs any directions to that
effect. It might seem that in writing them he had
no other care than for theatrical success and its
contingent profits. And it must not be supposed
that this indifference was common to all the dra-
matic writers of the time. Ben Jonson, for his
part, took as much pains in correcting his work as
in composing it. But what complicates the prob-
lem still further, is that Shakespeare's plays were
in his lifetime eagerly sought after by readers.
The proof of this is that some fifteen of them were
printed and re-printed then and there, though with-
out his connivance or acknowledgment, and in the


most incorrect fashion. They were, in fact, simple
piracies intended to satisfy the public curiosity any-
how. Indeed, there were published under the poet's
name plays that were not his ; and Shakespeare did
not interfere in any way with these publications. He
died : and it was not till seven years after his death,
in 1623, that a collection of his dramatic works at
last appeared. This collection announced itself as
printed from the originals ; but nothing could be less
well founded than this assertion, as the errors of all
sorts with which the volume swarms show. The
editors had simply followed the earlier editions, and
where these failed them, they had used copies made
for the purposes of the theatre.

It will, after this, be understood that the study
of Shakespeare meets, as a first difficulty, with the
absence of a sufficiently correct and authentic text.
There are numerous passages where we have simply
the choice of readings equally doubtful, just as
happens in the study of Greek and Latin authors.
It is true that the comparison of variants, as they
are called, is sometimes curious or instructive.
There is one work especially in which by this means
we can catch the poet's genius, as it were, in the
act and fact of creation : and this is "Hamlet." We
have an edition of this play in which it is hard not
to recognize the first draft of the author's thought.
Polonius is called Corambis. The progress of the
piece is not that which was adopted later- and
towards the end a scene between the Queen and


Horatio has disappeared. Still, though the early-
version contains some fine lines which have van-
ished in the latter, it gives, in a curiously abridged
and imperfect form, the most celebrated passages
of the drama, such as Hamlet's soliloquy and that
of the King on prayer. In the same way we pos-
sess rehandlings of "Eomeo and Juliet." It is
clear that Shakespeare went back on his works,
that he elaborated and perfected them.

No one will begin the study of Shakespeare with-
out inquiring Avhat is the order of succession in his
pieces. We feel a desire to know what were his
first attempts, at what epoch of his life he produced
his masterpieces, and whether his genius main-
tained itself to the last. Fortunately these ques-
tions are not so insoluble as they might be sup-
posed to be, considering the obscurity in which
the author's life is still plunged. Information of
various kinds comes to help us here, and we may
regard the chronology of Shakespeare's theatre as
fairly settled. The poet began by reshaping for
acting purposes plays already existing and of
unknown authorship. Such was the origin of
''Titus Andronicus," of "Pericles," and of the three
parts of " Henry VI." These pieces thus but half
belong to Shakespeare, and it is impossible nowa-
days to determine what part he had in them. The
second period of his dramatic life begins about
1594, when he was thirty years old. It was then
that he wrote the plays drawn from the history of


England, and most of his comedies. His final
period lasted from 1600 to his death, and saw
the birth of his greatest work — the four great
dramas "Hamlet," "Othello," "Macbeth," and
"Lear"; the Koman tragedies; and those delight-
ful romantic comedies "Cymbeline," " The Winter's
Tale," and " The Tempest." It is taken as agreed
that Shakespeare continued to write for the stage
even after he had left London and returned to
Stratford, and that " The Tempest " was the last
of his works, and a kind of farewell to the art
which he had made illustrious.

A farewell to art : we might let this expression
pass, on the understanding that it is merely to be
taken as figurative. But some have gone further,
and have tried to find in " The Tempest " an actual
adieu addressed by Shakespeare to the public, or,
as it has been said elsewhere, the dramatic testa-
ment of the poet, the epilogue of his work and of
his life. M. Mezieres has lent to this hypothesis the
authority of his excellent wit, and quite recently
M. Montegut,^ the subtlest and most ingenious
of our critics, has reproduced it with a fulness of
confidence which may cause some misapprehension
as to the strength of the arguments he uses. It is
indeed by no means the first time that the spectacle
of Shakespeare, given up as a prey to contradictory
interpreters, has been seen. All have made him out

1 [M. Emile Montegut, still (1891) alire, and still deserving
the description of him which M. Scherer gives. — Trans.]


as being on their own side ; all have sought and have
found in him just what they wanted. It has been
thought to exalt him by attributing to him all sorts
of profound intentions ; and Herr Gervinus has
made of him a moralist exclusively concerned with
delivering lectures to society. The attempt is truly
unlucky. For never did any genius give itself up
to art with a more supreme indifference to anything
but art itself. In Shakespeare's eyes, as he himself
has told us, the drama is simply a mirror held up
to Nature, in which Nature reflects herself under
her most diverse aspects. Indeed the impersonality
of our poet's theatre is so great that it is impossible
to draw from it the least information as to his ideas,
his passions, his character. But if Herr G-ervinus
has failed to perceive this capital feature of Shake-
speare's work, what are we to say of M. Rio,^ who
regards it as thick-sown throughout with allusions
to the events of the time and the special situation
of the poet ? M. Rio has a thesis : for him Shake-
speare is a Catholic, who is obliged to hide his faith,
and who makes up for it by slipping into his scenes
as many orthodox allusions as he can. " Julius
Caesar " becomes a glorification of Essex's plot ;
"Measure for Measure" is intended to rehabilitate

1 [Rio, one of the Montalembert-Lacordaire group of Neo-
Catholics, was a very amiable person, and something of an
authority on Christian art, but not a man of much mental power.
Any folly, however, that he may have committed in interpreting
Shakespeare has long been eclipsed and outstripped. — Trans.]


the ascetic ideal of cloistered virginity ; " Othello "
had been a crusader — all evident proofs of the
author's secret sympathies. But M. Eio should
have explained to us how a writer so attached as
Shakespeare to a prescribed form of worship has
brought himself in " Eomeo and Juliet " to talk of
an " evening mass." However, it is fair to recog-
nize that M. Eio has but exaggerated a proceeding
employed by many others, both before and after
him. It is a received doctrine that the vestal of
whom Oberon speaks in "A Midsummer Night's
Dream " (Act ii. scene 2) is no other than Queen
Elizabeth, as if the very context of tlie passage did
not show that the chaste Phoebe is referred to.^
The learned Warburton went further still when, in
the same passage, he applied to the marriage of
Mary Stuart with the King of France's son the
image of the siren on a dolphin's back. But let us
return to M. Montegut. His hypothesis on ''The
Tempest " has not more solidity than those which I
have just mentioned. It will not stand a moment's
examination. It shatters itself at once against
literary feeling and against the facts ; and M. Mon-
tegut does not even seem to have formed a clear
conception of what he wanted to prove. Shake-

1 [Disinclined as I am to the school of comment which M.
Scherer is denouncing, I cannot go with him here. There is
certainly no reference to the chaste Phcebe : M. Scherer has mis-
interpreted the "watery moon," and the reference to Elizabeth
is of the highest probability. — Trans.]


speare, ia his view, has in " The Tempest " taken
leave of the public on the eve of his retirement —
it is his farewell to the stage. Now what are we
to understand by this ? That the poet was on the
point of quitting London to return to his native
town? But he had already resumed his residence
at Stratford for some seven or eight years. That he
was unwilling to write any more for the stage, out
of fear of not keeping up to his own standard ?
What ! Shakespeare feel fears of this kind at forty-
seven or forty -eight, in the vigor of his age, at the
very moment when he had finished " The Tempest,"
one of his masterpieces ? Indeed, it is enough, in
order to refute such suppositions, to state them in
the terms in which they appear. Who can believe
that Sycorax is literary barbarism ; that Caliban
stands for the poet Marlowe ; that the history of
the Enchanted Isle is, " stroke for stroke," the his-
tory of the English stage — in a word, that the
whole piece is a " synthetic allegory " in which
Shakespeare sums up his work ; a picture of what
he has undertaken and executed " in the poetical
solitude of his life " ? Nor is this all. If you ven-
ture to suggest that the dramatic interest of the
work allies itself but ill with allegoric intentions,
if you risk the remark that the poet may very well,
after all, have obeyed the simple inspirations of his
creative fancy, the critic replies that ''these pre-
tended rights of poetic fancy are among the most
idle notions of our time." This, at any rate, is


intelligible enough : it means that the poet is only
a teacher, and art only a veil for instruction.

M. Mezieres has discussed the genius of Shake-
speare very well, seeking what constitutes the true
greatness of the poet, and not conceiving himself
bound to share either the concern of German criti-
cism for system, or the superstitious reverence of
the critics of England. What makes Shakespeare's
greatness is his equal excellence in every portion
of his art — in style, in character, and in dramatic
invention. No one has ever been more skilful in
the playwright's craft. The interest begins at the
first scene ; it never slackens, and you cannot possi-
bly put down the book before finishing it. This
does not mean that the action is always single.
" King John " is the chronicle of an entire reign.
There are two pieces in " King Lear," the story of
the King and that of Edgar; but the reader is
carried along by the rapidity wdth which one event
follows another. Hence it is that Shakespeare's
pieces are so effective on the stage ; they were in-
tended for it, and it is as acted plays that we must
judge them. They are often played in Germany,
and always applauded by the public. They might
succeed better still if the conditions of representa-
tion had not changed so much in the last century.
We demand to-day a kind of scenic illusion to which
Shakespeare's theatre does not lend itself. The
action shifts too often ; you have to represent
battles, castles, ramparts. The fifth act of " Julius


Caesar" sets before us all the vicissitudes of the
battle of Philippi ; the fifth act of " Eichard the
Third" shows us the two rivals encamped and
asleep, so near each other that the ghosts are able
to speak to each of them by turns. There is no
modern stage management which can overcome such
difficulties. Thus it would appear that Shakespeare
is destined to be played less and less ; but the
playwright's cleverness which he displays is not
more wasted for that. From it comes the life, the
incomparable activity, with which his pieces are
endowed, and which is felt in the reading no
less than in the representation.

If there is no drama without action, neither is
there any without character. It may be that the
creation of character is the highest function of art.
There is nothing which more resembles divine
power than the exploit by which the poet evokes
from the depths of his imagination personages who
have never lived, but who thenceforward live for-
ever, and who will take a place in our memories, in
our affections, in the realities of our world, exactly
as if they had been formed by the hand of the
Most High. And if a single creation of this kind
suffices to immortalize a writer, what shall we say
of a poet who, like Shakespeare, has drawn crowds
of characters, all different, all alive, uniting the
most distinct physiognomy and the intensest real-
ity to the highest quality of idealism and poetry ?
The English dramatist is in nothing so marvellous


as in this. He is the magician who can give life
to anything by his wand ; or rather, he is Nature
herself, capricious, prodigal, always new, always
full of surprises and of profundity. His person-
ages are not what are called heroes ; there is no
posing in them ; there is no abstraction ; the idea
has become incarnate, and develops itself as a
whole, with all the logic of passion, with all the
spontaneity of life. The only thing which can be
brought against the author is at times a too sharp
change — one, so to speak, effected on the stage —
in the sentiments of his characters. Aufidius, for
example, passes too quickly from hatred to sorrow
when he sees Coriolanus fall ; and in " Eichard
III." Anne accepts with too great ease the ring of
the man on whom she has just spit in contempt ;
while Elizabeth is too quick in giving her daughter
to the man who has just massacred her sons. This
is certainly turning the corner too sharply, and
there is a want of truth in it.

I think that something of the same kind may be
said of Shakespeare's style. The language which
he puts in the mouths of his characters is not
always appropriate — is sometimes far from being
appropriate — to the circumstances, even to the
characters themselves. The poet delights too much
in the expression for itself and its own sake. He
dwells on it, he lingers over it, he plays with
equivalents and synonyms. Menenius thus com-
plains of the change which has occurred in Corio-


lanus's humor:— "The tartness of his face sours
ripe grapes: when he walks he moves like an
engine, and the ground shrinks before his treading:
he is able to pierce a corselet with his eye : talks
like a knell, and his hum is a battery. He sits in
his state as a thing made for Alexander. What he
bids be done is finished with his bidding. He wants
nothing of a god but eternity and a heaven to throne
in " — I take this quotation at random to exemplify
what I mean. The form in this poet sometimes
overruns in this fashion ; the expression is redun-
dant and out of proportion to the situation. This
remark applies still better to the conceits and the
word-plays which Shakespeare, without troubling
himself about the occasion, puts in everybody's
mouth. The most pathetic speeches are not free
from them. It is not that the author is not con-
scious of the incongruity of these quips.

Do sick men play so nicely with their names?

asks Eichard III. of the Duke of Lancaster, and it
is certain that his last works have much fewer of
these blots than his first. But if there is some-
times ill-placed wit in our poet, what verve is there
in this wit, what gayety, what exuberance ! With
what freedom and caprice does fancy develop itself !
How well (to employ an expression of Madame de
Stael's) do excess and license of talent suit this
unbounded invention ! And we must also say at
once that this wit is but one of Shakespeare's


qualities. He possesses imagination and feeling
in at least equal measure. He lias felt everything,
has understood everything. No man has lived
more, has observed more, has better reproduced
the outward world. And yet he is at the same
time the most lyrical of poets ; he expresses in
finished form, in inimitable poetry, all the emo-
tions of the heart. He says things as no one else
says them, in a manner at once strange and strik-
ing. He has unbelievable depths, subtlenesses of
intuition as unbelievable. There rises from his
writings a kind of emanation of supreme wisdom ;
and it seems that their very discords melt into
some transcendent harmony. Shakespeare has
enlarged the domain of the mind, and, take him
all in all, I do not believe that any man has added
more than he has to the patrimony of mankind.



Facilitating communications does no good. We
are still as far from England as if she were at the
Antipodes. The differences which part us have
their origin in race, in historical development, in
religion ; and they betray themselves every moment
in the spirit which animates institutions, governs
manners, and presides over literature. English lit-
erature in particular, lending itself to what may be
called a verification of fact, daily gives us palpable
proofs of the extent to which England is still a
foreign country to us. Which of us has any notion
of the intellectual activity that occupies our neigh-
bors ? Who has even a superficial knowledge — a
knowledge even of the names — of the schools of
poetry which follow each other on the other side
of the Channel, and divide the interest and the
admiration of the public there ? But the most
striking example, in my eyes, of the ignorance of
the concerns of English literature in which we live
is as follows. There lives in England to-day, in the
full vigor of her talent, a woman-writer inferior to
no one of the sex, except Madame de Stael, in

1 By George Eliot. 1876. 4 vols.



depth, brilliancy, and flexibility of genius. This
lady has published half a dozen novels, each one
of which is a masterpiece. Every work that comes
from her pen becomes at once the event of the day,
holds the attention of the nation, is the subject of
all talk, sets all critics at defiance, interests the
thinker almost as much as it delights the artist and
strikes the fancy of the man of the world. "Well,
this writer is almost unknown in France; the
translations of some of her books which have been
risked have found no public ; her name is lacking
in the " Dictionnaire des Contemporains," and when
our reviews have spoken of Mrs. Lewes,^ it has
been oftenest in the most superficially superior
manner, and with absolute incompetence to judge.

Miss Evans, now Mrs. Lewes, who has published
the whole of her imaginative work under the
pseudonym of George Eliot, was born about 1820.
Up to the age of thirty-six she had only employed
her talents and knowledge in publications dealing
with philosophy and theology; at this epoch she
sought another career, and wrote her first story,
"Amos Barton," which was quickly followed by
two others, and forms with them the "■ Scenes of
Clerical Life," published originally in 1857 in
"Blackwood's Maarazine." The success of this ex-

1 [As a faithful translator I keep my author's form. It is
needless to say that George Eliot was not Mrs. Lewes ; and M.
Scherer, as a later essay {vide infra) shows, was aware of the
fact. — Trans.l


periment determined the author's vocation, and she
successively enriched the literature of her country
with those incomparable masterpieces, " Adam
Bede," "The Mill on the Floss," and "Middle-
march." I purposely leave on one side " Eomola,"
an Italian story of the fifteenth century, because
general opinion has not ratified the admiration of
some and the evident partiality of the author her-
self for this work, and especially because I have
never been able to overcome the aversion, bordering
on disgust, with which the chief character inspires
me. We have here, if I mistake not, a first trace
of the moralizing or didactic tendencies to which
George Eliot leans, and which go near to dim the
purity of her aesthetic sense. It would seem, too,
that this great writer is completely at home, and
has the full use of all her resources, in pictures of
English life only. "Felix Holt the Eadical " was
another mistake, though in a different style, and
was the only one of George Eliot's novels which
public opinion let pass with something like indiffer-
ence. " Silas Marner," on the other hand, a short
story which appeared in 1861, and which I then
reviewed, remains one of the most delicate and
perfect works of this great novelist.

What marks George Eliot off from her fellows is
her possession, in a higher degree, of all the quali-
ties that make the novelist. Her inventive power

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Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 5 of 21)