hends, learns, perceives, drinks, eats, frets, mocks,
weeps, and reasons. There is between life and
him a transparency, — the wall of dreams ; one
sees beyond it, but one cannot step over it. A
kind of cloudy obstacle everywhere surrounds
Hamlet. Have you never, while sleeping, had the
nightmare of pursuit or flight, and tried to hasten
on, and felt the anchylosis of your knees, the
heaviness of your arms, the horrible paralysis of
your benumbed hands? This nightmare Hamlet
suffers while awake. Hamlet is not upon the spot
where his life is. He has ever the air of a man
who talks to you from the other side of a stream.
He calls to you at the same time that he questions
you. He is at a distance from the catastrophe in
which he moves, from the passer-by he questions,
from the thought he bears, from the action he per-
forms. He seems not to touch even what he
crushes. This is isolation carried to its highest
power. It is the loneliness of a mind, even more
than the unapproachableness of a prince. Inde-
cision is, in fact, a solitude ; you have not even
your will to keep you company. It is as if your
own self had departed and had left you there.
The burden of Hamlet is less rigid than that of
Orestes ; it fits patter to his form : Orestes bears
fatality, Hamlet destiny.
And thus, apart from men, Hamlet still has
within him an undefined something which repre-
sents them all. Agnosco fratrem. If at certain
hours we felt our own pulse, we should be con-
scious of his fever. His strange reality is our own
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. 239
reality, after all. He is the mournful man that
we all are in certain situations. Unhealthy as he
is, Hamlet expresses a permanent condition of
man. He represents the discomfort of the soul in
a life unsuited to it. He represents the shoe that
pinches and stops our walking: this shoe is the
body. Shakespeare delivers him from it, and
iightly, Hamlet — prince if you like, but king
never — is incapable of governing a people, so
wholly apart from all does he exist. On the other
hand, he does better than to reign ; he is. Take
from him his family, his country, his ghost, the
whole adventure at Elsinore, and even in the form
of an inactive type he remains strangely terrible.
This results from the amount of humanity and the
amount of mystery in him. Hamlet is formidable,
— which does not prevent his being ironical. He
has the two profiles of destiny.
Let us retract a word said above. The capital
work of Shakespeare is not * Hamlet : ' the capital
work of Shakespeare is all Shakespeare. This is,
moreover, true of all minds of this order. They
are mass, block, majesty, bible ; and their unity is
what renders them impressive.
Have you never gazed upon a beclouded head-
land running out beyond eye-shot into the deep
sea? Each of its hills contributes to its make-up.
No one of its undulations is lost upon it. Its bold
outline is sharply marked upon the sky, and juts
far out amid the waves ; and there is not a useless
rock. Thanks to this cape, you can go amidst the
boundless waters, walk among the winds, see
closely the eagles soar and the monsters swim,
let your humanity wander in the eternal uproar,
penetrate the impenetrable. The poet renders
this service to your mind. A genius is a headland
into the infinite.
With ' Hamlet,' and upon the same level, must
be placed three noble dramas, — ' Macbeth,'
•Othello,' 'King Lear.'
Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear — these four
figures tower upon the lofty edifice of Shakespeare.
We have said what Hamlet is.
To say " Macbeth is ambition," is to say nothing.
Macbeth is hunger. What hunger? The hunger
of the monster, always possible in man. Certain
souls have teeth. Do not arouse their hunger.
To bite at the apple is a fearful thing. The ap-
ple is named " Omnia," says Filesac, that doctor of
the Sorbonne who confessed Ravaillac. Macbeth
has a wife whom the chronicle calls Gruoch. This
Eve tempts this Adam. Once Macbeth has taken
the first bite, he is lost. The first thing that Adam
produces with Eve is Cain; the first thing that
Macbeth accomplishes with Gruoch is murder.
Covetousness easily becoming violence, violence
easily becoming crime, crime easily becoming mad-
ness : this progression is in Macbeth. Covetous-
ness, Crime, Madness — these three night-hags have
spoken to him in the solitude, and have invited him
to the throne. The cat Gray-malkin has called him :
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. 24I
Macbeth will be cunning; the toad Paddock has
called him : Macbeth will be horror. The unsexed
being, Gruoch, completes him. It is done ; Mac-
beth is no longer a man. He is no longer anything
but an unconscious energy rushing wildly toward
evil. Henceforth, no notion of right; appetite is
everything. The transitory right of royalty, the
eternal right of hospitality — Macbeth murders
both. He does more than slay them : he ignores
them. Before they fell bleeding under his hand,
they already lay dead within his soul. Macbeth
begins by this parricide, — the murder of Duncan,
his guest; a crime so terrible that, as a conse-
quence, in the night when their master is stabbed,
the horses of Duncan become wild again. The
first step taken, the ground begins to crumble ; it
is the avalanche. Macbeth rolls headlong; he is
precipitated ; he falls and rebounds from one crime
to another, ever deeper and deeper. He undergoes
the mournful gravitation of matter invading the
soul. He is a thing that destroys. He is a stone
of ruin, a flame of war, a beast of prey, a scourge.
He marches over all Scotland, king as he is, his
barelegged kernes and his heavily armed gallow-
glasses slaughtering, pillaging, massacring. He
decimates the thanes, he murders Banquo, he mur-
ders all the Macduffs except the one that shall slay
him, he murders the nobility, he murders the peo-
ple, he murders his country, he murders " sleep."
At length the catastrophe arrives, — the forest of
Birnam moves against him. Macbeth has infringed
all, overstepped all, destroyed all, violated all ; and
this desperation ends in arousing even Nature..
242 WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.
Nature loses patience, Nature enters into action
against Macbeth, Nature becomes soul against the
man who has become brute force.
This drama has epic proportions. Macbeth rep-
resents that frightful hungry creature who prowls
throughout history — in the forest called brigand,
and on the throne, conqueror. The ancestor of
Macbeth is Nimrod. These men of force, are they
forever furious? Let us be just; no. They have
a goal, which being attained, they stop. Give to
Alexander, to Cyrus, to Sesostris, to Csesar —
what? — the world ; they are appeased. Geoffrey
St. Hilaire said to me one day : " When the lion
has eaten, he is at peace with Nature." For Cam-
byses, Sennacherib, Genghis Khan, and the like, to
have eaten is to possess the whole earth. They
would calm themselves down in the process of
digesting the human race.
Now what is Othello? He is the night. An
immense fatal figure. Night is amorous of day.
Darkness loves the dawn. The African adores the
white woman. Othello has for his light and for his
frenzy, Desdemona. And then, how easy to him
is jealousy ! He is great, he is dignified, he is ma-
jestic, he soars above all heads ; he has as an escort
bravery, battle, the braying of trumpets, the banners
of war, renown, glory; he is radiant with twenty
victories, he is studded with stars, this Othello :
but he is black. And thus how soon, when jealous,
the hero becomes the monster, the black becomes
the negro ! How speedily has night beckoned to
By the side of Othello, who is night, there is
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. 243
lago, who is evil — evil, the other form of darkness.
Night is but the night of the world ; evil is the
night of the soul. How deeply black are perfidy
and falsehood ! It is all one whether what courses
through the veins be ink or treason. Whoever
has jostled against imposture and perjury, knows
it : one must blindly grope one's way with knavery.
Pour hypocrisy upon the break of day, and you
put out the sun ; and this, thanks to false religions,
is what happens to God.
lago near Othello is the precipice near the land-
slip. " This way ! " he says in a low voice. The
snare advises blindness. The lover of darkness
guides the black. Deceit takes upon itself to give
what light may be required by night. Falsehood
serves as a blind man's dog to jealousy. Othello
the negro and lago the traitor pitted against white-
ness and candor: what more formidable? These
ferocities of darkness act in unison. These two
incarnations of the eclipse conspire, the one roar-
ing, the other sneering, for the tragic suffocation
Sound this profound thing. Othello is the
night, and being night, and wishing to kill, what
does he take to slay with? Poison? the club?
the axe? the knife? No; the pillow. To kill is
to lull to sleep. Shakespeare himself perhaps did
not take this into account. The creator sometimes,
almost unknown to himself, yields to his type, so
truly is that type a power. And it is thus that
Desdemona, spouse of the man Night, dies, stifled
by the pillow upon which the first kiss was given,
and which receives the last sigh.
244 WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.
Lear is the occasion for Cordelia. Maternity of
the daughter toward the father. Profound subject !
A maternity venerable among all other materni-
ties, so admirably translated by the legend of that
Roman girl who in the depth of a prison nurses
her old father. The young breast near the white
beard : there is no holier sight ! Such a filial
breast is Cordelia !
Once this figure dreamed of and found, Shake-
speare created his drama. Where should he put
this consoling vision? In an obscure age. Shake-
speare has taken the year of the world 3105, the
time when Joash was king of Judah, Aganippus
king of France, and Leir king of England. The
whole earth was at that time mysterious. Picture
to yourself that epoch. The temple of Jerusalem
is still quite new; the gardens of Semiramis, con-
structed nine hundred years before, are beginning
to crumble ; the first gold coin appears in ^gina ;
the first balance is made by Phydon, tyrant of
Argos ; the eclipse of the sun is calculated by the
Chinese; three hundred and twelve years have
passed since Orestes, accused by the Eumenides
before the Areopagus, was acquitted; Hesiod is
just dead; Homer, if he still lives, is a hundred
years old ; Lycurgus, thoughtful traveller, re-enters
Sparta ; and one may perceive in the depth of the
sombre cloud of the Orient the chariot of fire
which carries Elijah away : it is at that period that
Leir — Lear — lives, and reigns over the dark is-
lands. Jonas, Holofernes, Draco, Solon, Thespis,
Nebuchadnezzar, Anaximenes who is to invent the
signs of the zodiac, Cyrus, Zorobabel, Tarquin,
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. 245
Pythagoras, ^Eschylus, are not yet born ; Coriola-
nus, Xerxes, Cincinnatus, Pericles, Socrates, Bren-
nus, Aristotle, Timoleon, Demosthenes, Alexander,
Epicurus, Hannibal, are ghosts awaiting their hour
to enter among men ; Judas Maccabaeus, Viriatus,
Popilius, Jugurtha, Mithridates, Marius and Sylla,
Caesar and Pompey, Cleopatra and Antony, are far
away in the future ; and at the moment when Lear
is king of Britain and of Iceland, there must pass
away eight hundred and ninety-five years before
Virgil says, " Penitus toto divisos orbe Britannos,"
and nine hundred and fifty years before Seneca
says " Ultima Thule." The Picts and the Celts (the
Scotch and the English) are tattooed, A redskin
of the present day gives a vague idea of an Eng-
glishman then.^ It is this twilight that Shake-
speare has chosen, — a long, dreamy night in which
the inventor is free to put anything he likes : this
King Lear, and then a king of France, a duke of
Burgundy, a duke of Cornwall, a duke of Albany,
an earl of Kent, and an earl of Gloucester. What
matters your history to him who has humanity?
Besides, he has with him the legend, which is also
a kind of science, and as true as history, perhaps,
although from another point of view. Shake-
speare agrees with Walter Mapes, archdeacon of
Oxford, — that is something ; he admits, from
Brutus to Cadwalla, the ninety-nine Celtic kings
who have preceded the Scandinavian Hengist and
the Saxon Horsa: and since he beheves in Mul-
mutius, Cinigisil, Ceolulf, Cassibelan, Cymbeline,
1 Victor Hugo is responsible for the words " English " and
"Englishman," instead of "British" and "Briton." — Tr.
246 WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.
Cynulphus, Arviragus, Guiderius, Escuin, Cudred,
Vortigern, Arthur, Uther Pendragon, he has every
right to believe in King Lear and to create Corde-
lia. This site adopted, the place for the scene
marked out, the foundation laid deep, he takes all
in hand and builds his work, — unheard-of edifice.
He takes tyranny, of which at a later period he
will make weakness, — Lear ; he takes treason, —
Edmund ; he takes devotion, — Kent ; he takes
Ingratitude, which begins with a caress, and he
gives to this monster tvvo heads, — Goneril, whom
the legend calls Gornerille, and Regan, whom the
legend calls Ragaii ; ^ he takes paternity ; he takes
royalty ; he takes feudality ; he takes ambition ;
he takes madness, which he divides, and he places
face to face three madmen — the King's buffoon,
madman by trade ; Edgar of Gloucester, mad for
prudence' sake ; the King, mad through misery.
It is at the summit of this tragic pile that he sets
the bending form of Cordelia.
There are some formidable cathedral towers, — as,
for instance, the Giralda of Seville, — which seem
made all complete, with their spirals, their stair-
cases, their sculptures, their cellars, their caecums,
their aerial cells, their sounding chambers, their
bells, their wailing, and their mass and their spire,
and all their vastness, in order to support at their
summit an angel spreading its golden wings. Such
is the drama, ' King Lear.'
The father is the pretext for the daughter.
1 In Holinshed's Chronicle, Shakespeare's source, the names
are, Gcnorilla, Regan, and Cordeilla ; in Layamon's ' Brut,' Gor-
noille, Regan, and Cordoille or Gordoylle. — Th.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. 247
That admirable human creature, Lear, serves as
a support to this ineffable divine creation, Cor-
delia. All that chaos of crimes, vices, manias, and
miseries finds its justification in this shining vision
of virtue. Shakespeare, bearing Cordelia in his
brain, in creating this tragedy was like a god who,
having an Aurora to establish, should make a
world to put her in.
And what a figure is that father ! What a
caryatid ! It is man stooping. He does nothing
but shift his burdens for others that are heavier.
The more the old man becomes enfeebled, the
more his load augments. He lives under an over-
burden. He bears at first power, then ingratitude,
then isolation, then despair, then hunger and thirst,
then madness, then all Nature. Clouds overcast
him, forests heap their shadow upon him, the hur-
ricane swoops down upon the nape of his neck, the
tempest makes his mantle heavy as lead, the rain
weighs upon his shoulders, he walks bent and
haggard as if he had the t\vo knees of Night upon
his back. Dismayed and yet colossal, he flings to
the winds and to the hail this epic cry : " Why
do ye hate me, tempests? Why do ye persecute
me? Ye are not viy daughters ''^ And then all
is over ; the light is extinguished ; Reason loses
courage, and leaves him ; Lear is in his dotage.
This old man, being childish, requires a mother.
His daughter appears, his only daughter, Cordelia.
1 " Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters :
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness ;
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,
You owe me no subscription."
Act iii., Scene iL
248 WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.
For the two others, Regan and Goneril, are no
longer his daughters, — save so far as to entitle
them to the name of parricides.
Cordelia approaches, — " Sir, do you know me? "
" You are a spirit, I know," replies the old man,
with the sublime clairvoyance of frenzy. From
this moment the filial nursing begins. Cordelia
apphes herself to nursing this old despairing soul,
dying of inanition in hatred. Cordelia nourishes
Lear with love, and his courage revives ; she
nourishes him with respect, and the smile returns;
she nourishes him with hope, and confidence is
restored ; she nourishes him with wisdom, and
reason awakens. Lear, convalescent, rises again,
and step by step returns again to life ; the
child becomes again an old man, the old man
becomes a man again. And behold him happy,
this wretched one ! It is upon this expansion of
happiness that the catastrophe is hurled down.
Alas ! there are traitors, there are perjurers, there
are murderers. Cordelia dies. Nothing more
heart-rending than this. The old man is stunned ;
he no longer understands anything; and, embrac-
ing her corpse, he expires. He dies upon his
daughter's breast. He is saved from the supreme
despair of remaining behind her among the living,
a poor shadow, to feel the place in his heart empty,
and to seek for his soul, carried away by that sweet
being who is departed. O God ! those whom Thou
lovest Thou takest away.
To live after the flight of the angel ; to be the
father orphaned of his child ; to be the eye that no
longer has light; to be the deadened heart that
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. 249
knows no more joy; from time to time to stretch
the hands into obscurity and try to reclasp a being
who was there (where, then, can she be ?) ; to feel
himself forgotten in that departure ; to have lost all
reason for being here below ; to be henceforth a
man who goes to and fro before a sepulchre, not
received, not admitted, — this is indeed a gloomy
destiny. Thou hast done well, poet, to kill this
^ Perhaps the reader will pardon, in view of the remarkable
parallelism, a reference to Charles Lamb's ' Essay on the Trage-
dies of Shakespeare,' which Victor Hugo probably never saw.
" A happy ending ! as if the living martyrdom that Lear had
gone through, — the flaying of his feelings alive, — did not make a
fair dismissal from the stage of life the only decorous thing for
him." — Tr.
ZOILUS AS ETERNAL AS HOMER.
"That vulgar flatt'rer of the ignoble herd."i
THIS line is by La Harpe, who aims it at
Shakespeare. Elsewhere La Harpe says :
" Shakespeare panders to the mob."
Voltaire, as a matter of course, reproaches Shake-
speare with antithesis : that is well. And La Beau-
melle reproaches Voltaire with antithesis: that is
Voltaire, when it is a personal matter with him,
pro doma sua, gets angry, " But," he writes, " this
Langleviel, alias La Beaumelle, is an ass. I defy
you to find in any poet, in any book, a fine thing
which is not an image or an antithesis."
Voltaire's criticism is double-edged. He wounds
and is wounded. This is how he characterizes the
Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs : "Works
without order, full of low images and coarse ex-
1 " Ce courtisan grossier du profane vulgaire."
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. 2$ I
A little while after he exclaims, furious, —
" The barb'rous Crebillon 's preferred to me ! " ^
An idler of the CEil-de-Bceuf, wearing the red
heel and the blue ribbon, a stripling and a marquis,
— M. de Crequi, — comes to Ferney, and writes
with an air of superiority : " I have seen Voltaire,
that old dotard."
That the unjust should receive a counterstroke
from injustice, is nothing more than right; and
Voltaire gets what he deserves. But to throw
stones at men of genius is a general law, and all
have to bear it To be insulted is, it seems, a
For Salmasius, ^schylus is nothing but farrago.^
Quintilian understands nothing of ' The Oresteia.'
Sophocles mildly scorned vEschylus. " When he
does well, he does not know it," said Sophocles.
Racine rejected everything, except two or three
scenes of * The Choephori,' which, by a note in the
margin of his copy of ^schylus, he condescended
to spare. Fontenelle says in his 'Remarks' : "One
does not know what to make of the ' Prometheus'
of iEschylus. .^schylus is a kind of madman."
The eighteenth century, without exception, ridi-
cules Diderot for admiring 'The Eumenides.'
"The whole of Dante is a hotch-potch," says
Chaudon. " Michael Angelo wearies me," says
1 " On m'ose preferer Crebillon le barbare ! "
^ The passage in Salmasius is curious, and worth transcribing :
" Unus ejus Agamemnon obscuritate superat quantum est
librorum sacrorum cum suis hebraismis et sjTianismis et totS
hellenistica supellectile vel farragine." — De Re Hellenistic^, p. 381
252 WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.
Joseph de Maistre. " Not one of the eight come-
dies of Cervantes is tolerable," says La Harpe.
" It is a pit>' that Moliere does not know how to
write," says Fenelon. " Moliere is a base mounte-
bank," says Bossuet. "A schoolboy would have
avoided the mistakes of Milton," says the Abbe
Trublet, — an authority as good as any other.
"Corneille exaggerates, Shakespeare raves," says
Voltaire again, — Voltaire, who must ever be re-
sisted, and ever defended.
" Shakespeare," says Ben Jonson, " talked heavily
and without any wit" How prove the contrary?
What is written abides ; talk passes away. Still, so
much stands denied to Shakespeare. That man of
genius had no wit : how that flatters the numberless
men of wit who have no genius !
Some time before Scudery called Corneille
"corneille deplumee" (unfeathered carrion-crow),
Greene had called Shakespeare "a crow beautified
with our feathers." In 1752 Diderot was sent to
the fortress of Vincennes for having published the
first volume of the ' Encyclopaedia,' and the great
success of the year was a print sold on the quays
which represented a Gray Friar flogging Diderot
Death is always an extenuating circumstance for
those guilty of genius ; but although Weber is dead,
he is ridiculed in Germany, and for thirty-three
years a masterpiece has been disposed of by a
pun. * Euryanthe ' is called the ' Ennuyante '
D'Alembert hits at one blow Calderon and
Shakespeare. He writes to Voltaire [letter cv.] :
" I have announced to the Academy your ' Herac-
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. 253
lius ' of Calderon. The Academy will read it with
as much pleasure as the harlequinade of Gilles
That everything should be perpetually re-exam-
ined, that everything should be contested, even the
incontestable, — what does it matter? The eclipse
is a good test of truth as well as of libert>^ Genius,
being truth and liberty, has a claim to persecution.
What does genius care for what is transient? It
has been, and will be again. It is not toward the
sun that the eclipse casts a shadow.
Anything admits of being written. Paper is
very patient. Last year a grave review printed
this : " Homer is about to go out of fashion."
The judgment passed on the philosopher, on the
artist, on the poet, is completed by the portrait of
Byron killed his tailor ; Moliere married his
own daughter ; Shakespeare " loved " Lord
" At last, with their appetites whetted for vices,
The pit roared for the author, that compend of all." 1
This compendium of all the vices is Beaumarchais.
As for Byron, we mention this name a second
time ; he is worth the trouble. Read ' Glenarvon,'
and listen, on the subject of Byron's abominations,
to Lady Bl , whom he had loved, and who, of
course, resented it.
Phidias was a procurer ; Socrates was an apos-
tate and a thief, " a detacher of mantles ; " Spinoza
1 " Et pour voir k la fin tous les vices ensemble,
Le parterre en tumulte a demande I'auteur."
254 WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.
was a renegade and a legacy-hunter ; Dante was a
peculator ; Michael Angelo was cudgelled by Julius
II., and quietly put up with it for the sake of five
hundred crowns ; D'Aubigne was a courtier sleep-
ing in the king's closet, ill-tempered when he was
not paid, and to whom Henry IV. was too kind ;
Diderot was a libertine; Voltaire a miser; Milton