Leonard Withington.

The Puritan : a series of essays, critical, moral, and miscellaneous (Volume 2) online

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it is many years since I have seen a play, yet 1 distinctly
recollect that the cauldron-scene in the fourth act was, in its
effect on the audience, a perfect farce. Not all the agonies
which Cooper was accustomed to excite in himself, when the
armed head arose, could make the audience sympathize with



THE PURITAN. 45

Certain passages were, to be sure, elevated to a rant ;
an unexpected emphasis was given to certain lines ;
but the general tenor of the play was enfeebled ; and
its pathos and its moral, (if it had a moral,) were less
striking on the public scene, than in the closet.

With little faith, then, in the charms of the theatre,
and still less in its utility as a school of morals, I
cannot help seeing that the dramatic form is the most
striking mode of exhibiting the human heart ; and
that such exhibitions may be moral, so long as ex
ample is a motive to action. I assent to the proposi
tion of the critics, that a good drama, is the highest
effort of human genius ; and, perhaps, no man can
give a faithful analysis of human nature, without ex
hibiting truths, from which a moral inference may be
drawn. The great masters of human nature, how
ever corrupt their own designs may be, must some
times be teatohers. Their keen discernment leads to
truth ; and virtue is built on truth. Rousseau him
self, with all his ravings, is often moral ; and moral
without meaning to be so. When we see something
new in the structure of the human mind, we see more

him. We saw nothing but a company of ridiculous old women,
talking mummery, while they were boiling a pot. When we
read this play, we can imagine the existence of witchcraft,
enough to feel its power ; but when we see it acted, the dream
is broken, and we cannot but laugh. Perhaps the effect be
comes more ludicrous, from the sublimity of the design. We
laugh at the farcical effect; and we laugh more at the contrast,



46 THE PURITAN.

clearly the pivots on which the passions turn, and the
foundations on which actions are built. We advance
in self-knowledge. The corrupt writer, who explores
the mind, is like the assassin, who rips open the
body ; in both cases, it was malice which urged the
attempt ; but the moralist may enlarge his knowledge
from the one crime, and the anatomist from the other;
and both may turn their discoveries to a good ac
count.

Of all the dramatic writers, it seems to me that
Shakspeare is the most moral, though such a design,
when he sat down to write, was the farthest from his
thoughts. He is moral, because he gave himself up
to a kind of instinctive perception of what is true in
human nature ; and thus made his character just
what God has made man a moral being. His pic
tures are so true, his course of events is often (not
always) so natural, that we receive the same im
pression from his drama, as from the living world.
Now no one can doubt that the course of events is
moral. If the life of any man, the worst that ever
breathed, were written faithfully by some recording
angel, it would be a fine moral lesson. Thus Shak
speare is the most instructive of the dramatic writers,
because he painted the human heart just as God
made it.

I have remarked, that he wrote without any moral
design ; and as a proof of the truth of this remark,
I would adduce one of his most moral plays. Mac-



THE PURITAN. 47

beth is one of the noblest productions of his genius.
To say nothing of its fine language, the charming
antique of the expression, the unity of the interest,
the change in the fortunes of the actors, and the
solemn grandeur of the events; we see there an
amiable man, beginning the career of prosperity ;
with many excellent qualities, but corrupted by am
bition, tempted to crime, dallying with the temp
tation, yielding, and going from step to step, until
he dies in a misery as deep as his guilt was great.
Never were the balancings of the mind between duty
and transgression, brought out more fully ; and never
were the agonies of remorse more strongly painted.
Every scene seems to say, Resist the beginnings of
evil ; and beware, beware of those peculiar tempta
tions, which are most powerful, because they are most
adapted to your character. Yet we have reason to
think that this fine play was written without any
moral purpose. Shakspeare went through it with as
much non-chalance as he wrote the filthy scenes in
Love s Labor Lost. There is a passage in Burnet s
History, which, I apprehend, explains the object of
this play. The king (James I.) was once hunting at
Theobalds in a very careless and unguarded manner.
Sir Dudley Carlton told him, that " Queen Elizabeth
was a woman of form, and was so well attended, that
all the plots of the Jesuits to assassinate her, failed ;
but a prince, who was always in woods and forests,
would be easily overtaken. The king sent for him



48 THE PURITAN.

in private, to inquire more particularly into this ; and
he saw it made a great impression on him. But it
wrought otherwise than as he intended. For the
king, resolved to gratify his humor in hunting, and in
a careless and irregular way of life, did immediately
order all that prosecution (i. e. against the papists
for the gunpowder-plot) to be let fall." The truth
is, he lived in constant dread of assassination, and
any production, which showed the agonies of a mur
derer of a king, would be grateful to him. Besides,
he was a great advocate for witchcraft. Shakspeare
knew his trade ; and hence we owe, probably, the
solemn incantations, and the fine moral of this trag
edy to the same cause, the desire to flatter a coward
and a king.

We have, in the first place, presented before us, a
man of a very amiable and excellent character, skilled
in his profession, and warmly devoted to his country.
His valor is unquestioned, and his good conduct has
gained for him the confidence of his sovereign.

O worthiest cousin,
The sin of my ingratitude even now
Was heavy on me ; thou art so far before,
The swiftest wing of recompense is slow
To overtake thee. Would thou hadst less deserved;
That the proportion both of thanks and payment
Might have been mine ! only I have left to say,
More is thy due than more than all can pay.

This testimony in his own favor, he is represented as



THE PURITAN. 49

receiving with great modesty ; and professing still
greater devotedness to his king.

Your highness part

Is to receive our duties ; and our duties
Are to your throne and state, children and servants ;
Which do but what they should, by doing every thing
Safe towards your love and honor.

Nor is it in public stations alone, that the social
virtues of this man are seen. His wife, who is his
bosom friend, and is represented as possessing re
markable discernment and energy of character, draws
his portrait, in lovely colors, which are stronger be
cause she seems to blame them.

Yet I do fear thy nature,
It is too full of the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way ; thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition ; but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,
That thou wouldst holily ; wouldst not play false
And yet wouldst wrongly win.

It is evident, if such a man becomes abandoned, it
must be through the influence of some strong tempta
tion, addressed to some evil principle dormant in his
heart, which may be the root alike of virtues or vices,
as the occasion may be.

Accordingly, Macbeth is tempted by the powers of
hell, and by his wife ; and both of them, with great



50 THE PURITAN.

art, suit their suggestions to the weak side of his
character. The witches meet him on a blasted heath
with predictions, which set before him his future
honors without suggesting the means by which they
should be obtained. This temptation is managed
with great art, inasmuch as it involves one prediction
which is immediately to be fulfilled ; and that, too,
without any crime or agency on the part of Macbeth.
He becomes Thane of Cawdor without any guilt ; and
thus a possible door of hope is left open that he may
reach the crown without soiling his hands in blood.
But the case is doubtful ; the king has sons, is yet
alive, and a crown is a prize, which is seldom inno
cently obtained, except by the lawful heir. Macbeth
is thrown into deep musings ; and, though he does
not resolve to commit a crime, he makes no resolution
against it. The idea of murder crosses his mind ; he
is agitated ; and these are no good symptoms.

Why do 1 yield to that suggestion,
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature ? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings;
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man. that function
Is smothered in surmise ; and nothing is
But what is not.

The last thought is most beautifully expressed ;
though the poet has pushed the energy of language



THE PURITAN. 51

to its utmost limits. He means to say, T am so lost
in those ideal visions ; the future honors of a kingdom
have so absorbed my mind ; that my imaginations
have become realities, and my real state is nothing.
Such was the strong desire of this ambitious heart to
attain its end.

Now it may be laid down as a maxim, that, when
some great prize is before us to be obtained by doubt
ful means, and we shuffle out of sight the means and
think only of the end, we are in a most dangerous
state. The mind, whatever palliations it may offer to
itself, is beginning to incline the wrong way. We
are in the exact situation of our first parents, when
they gazed at the forbidden fruit and forgot the com
mand of God.

Thus far Shakspeare appears as a moralist. But
he now rises almost to the standing of a theologian ;
and his instructions assume the awful solemnity which
is found only in the Bible. One would hardly be
lieve it possible, that such principles of the closest re
ligion would be introduced on the stage with so little
appearance of departing from the histrionic path.
We have always been told by the teachers of religion,
that the law of God, a sacred regard to his authority,
is the only principle that can carry us through the
crossing interests, which meet us in the shock of life.
The virtue, which is based on interest, will vary as
that interest varies ; and the man, who loves the
praise of men more than the praise of God, will act



52 THE PURITAN.

only as his fellow creatures applaud or condemn. He
will regard the outside of his character more than the
state of his heart ; and his seeming goodness is only
ambition in a moral dress. Such characters abound
in the world ; such virtues deceive innumerable hearts.
Human nature has often the sweetest flowers spread
over its depravity, and, what is wonderful, these very
posies are nourished by vice. Hence we find the
man changes with circumstances. He is the same
idolater, but he changes the image which is the object
of worship ; and it is useful, to tell the young and
thoughtless, that that virtue which has no hold on
futurity and no reference to God, is sure in time, to
fall from its foundation. Christianity is a new pas
sion ; and it enables us to overcome the temptations
of life, because we love something better. This is
perfectly philosophic ; the mind is like balances ; and,
if the temptations of life are powerful weights in one
scale, they can only be overcome by a more powerful
weight in the other, supreme love to God.

Shakspeare has introduced Macbeth, in a soliloquy,
in which the contending principles are at war in his
heart. Behold a most interesting spectacle ! Behold
a sinner pausing on the brink of his crimes ! It is an
awful moment. What will be the result ? Will the
better principle prevail ? Will his good Angel come
down to drive away the suggestions, and break the
passions, which impel him to crime ? No ; the battle
is decided before it is begun. He is careful to inform



THE PURITA N. 53

us that he lays religious principle out of the question ;
and such a man must fall. He is like a besieged city
with batteries thundering at every gate, and provisions
and powder exhausted. That man is sure to yield to
temptation, who jumps the life to come.

If it were done when tis done, then twere well
It were done quickly ; if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success ; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But hereupon this bank and shoal of time

WE D JUMP THE LIFE TO COME.

Such was the theology of Shakspeare ; he had no
system, but it was forced upon him by his rapid and
intuitive knowledge of the human heart. Though
Macbeth is conscious that life is but a bank and shoal,
he is willing to give up every principle for its transient
and perishing rewards. Who now will say that a
man s religious faith does not have some control over
his actions ? Believe it, ye licentious, on the authority
of Shakspeare. Real faith is a mental view ; and our
mental views govern us. A man, who has eyes, is
influenced in his walk, by the prospect before him ;
and, in moral things, that prospect is future truth.

But it seems that one lucid interval returns ; Mac
beth resolves not to commit the crime, and this resolu
tion is grounded, not on religious principle, but on
some compunctious visitings of nature. Even the
good purposes that cross his mind rest upon no solid



54 THE PURITAN.

base ; they are the mere calculations of the same
selfish spirit which urged him to murder the king.
There are opposing principles in our hearts, to the
greater crimes, which are not strictly virtuous. The
dialogue between Macbeth and his wife, after the
soliloquy, last alluded to, is the most striking in the
whole play. Let the reader ponder the words well ;
and remember that they are the best purposes which
arise in the murderer s rnind during the whole trans
action. He is talking of repenting and abstaining
from his guilty design, and mark on what his best
purposes are founded.

We will proceed no farther in this business;
He hath honored me of late ; and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which should be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.

Here is not one word said about the intrinsic de
pravity of the deed, no reference to a higher power,
no regard to the law of God, or our obligation to obey
it ; the man shows himself as totally destitute of good
principles, when he is entertaining purposes of amend
ment, as when he is pacing to his crime. It is all a
calculation of selfishness ; it is a striking exhibition
of the great law of nature and doctrine of religion,
that no man is safe who builds his outward virtues on
false principles ; who never reached a higher motive
than the golden opinions, which he could buy of men.



THE PURITAN. 55

We find the effect just what might be expected. A
little sophistry from his wife overcomes him ; and he
soon enters into her design, not only with no reluct
ance, but with eagerness. He hears her detail the
plan of treachery and murder ; and bursts into the
raptures of ambition.

Bring forth men children only !
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.

This is now the turning period of his character ;
he gives himself up to guilt ; he expects all his pleas
ure from it ; he passes the line from which there is no
return ; and whatever remorse he may feel, or how
ever keen his perception of his own state, there re
mains no more place for repentance, though he seek it
carefully icitli tears.

It is thought by some to be an extremely mystical
doctrine, that no man can be good without a great
change in the affections of his heart. But surely a
reference to the principles of our nature will lead us
to this conclusion ; and we have Shakspeare on our
side. Macbeth, in the outset, has every amiable prin
ciple of humanity ; nor was there one new principle
called into action when he proceeded to the last stages
of guilt. All his crimes were grafted on the common
propensities of the heart, But the poet has told us
the secret ; he was a mere man of the world ; he had
no regard to a future state, and no fear of God. He



56 THE PURITAN.

was like thousands of specious characters, who are
living at random, and are ready to receive the
first temptation. No cord of law, no band of faith
bound him to his duty. He was a bark on the sea,
ready to be blown in any direction. He was a speci
men of human nature, and from his mournful story,
every man, who lives for this life only, may learn to
know himself.

These truths have often been taught from the au
thority of revelation ; but they have been disregarded.
They are here repeated, in the hope that some may
receive them on the authority of Shakspeare.

There is another theological truth, which Shaks
peare has brought out and sanctioned in this remark
able tragedy ; and that is, the distinction between
repentance and remorse. Macbeth is in the deepest
remorse ever after he committed the murder ; though
he is as far from repentance as the most desperate
persistency in sin can place him. He knows his
guilt ; he knows the vanity of all his honors ; he
knows that not one moment s repose lies between him
and the grave ; and the prospect beyond he shuts up
in darkness and unbelief. Yet he hugs the vain
shadows of his dignity ; and finds his hope in the ex
hausted rewards of ambition. He stands alone on
the mount ; and enjoys nothing but the playing of the
sunbeams on its barren ice. There is one speech of
his, where the regret of a hardened heart is brought
out in the most striking language that tragedy can



THE PURITAN. 57

show. I allude to the speech, in which the usurper,
in the very bloom of his success, and on the throne
of his power, turns to the victim he has murdered,
contrasts his condition with his own, and envies him
the repose of the tomb. No poet ever surpassed this ;
for a moment, our detestation for the wretch is lost in
pity ; and we own the deep anguish there is in
mental punishment.

Duncan is in his grave.
After life s fitful fever, he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst; nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further !

I have long been convinced, that, when Christianity
assumes or presupposes a distinction in human nature,
a careful analysis of that nature will always show
such distinctions to be just. I am, therefore, happy
to find, in this important tragedy, that the Bible and
Shakspeare agree. That great master of human
nature, who had no theories to support, and hardly a
prejudice to blind him, has come, by the powerful im
pulses of his genius, to a conclusion on which some
of the most important truths of revelation are built.
There is something very convincing in the careless
discernment of an untutored mind. The man of
theory makes observation warp to his system ; but the
voice of nature is always the voice of truth.



VOL. II.



THE PURITAN

No. 36.



How would you be,

*Tf He, which is the top of judgment, should
But judge you as you are 2 O, think on that ;
And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
Like man new made.

Measure for Measure.

WE read, in one of the gospels, that our Saviour
began his conversation with one of the Jewish teachers,
by declaring one of the mystical doctrines of the new
religion, in the strongest language, namely, That a
man must be born again, to see the kingdom of God.

In all ages, men have been led by experience, to
appreciate the duties of morality. We go into the
city for the purpose of making the purchase of certain
articles, necessary or convenient for our use. We
are partially ignorant of the nature of the commodity,
or the state of the market ; and feel ourselves exposed
to be a prey to that cunning selfishness, which can
take an advantage of our simplicity. What a treasure



THE PURITAN. 59

it is, in such cases, to meet with an honest man, with
whom we are confident that the bargain will be just !
Or we are thrown by shipwreck on an unknown coast.
The night is dark, our goods are scattered; the in
habitants come down with their torches ; how com
fortable it is to know that we have not fallen into
such hands as have sometimes disgraced the shores
of Cornwall or New Jersey ! Honesty is beautiful ;
compassion is beautiful ; and why need we look
farther for true excellence, than external deeds ?
Jealous of human nature, why need we pry, for true
virtue, into its seminal principles in the heart of man?
There has been a tendency, ever since the world
existed, to depart from the central point of action, and
find all goodness in external things ; and it is curious
to see, that as men s conceptions become grosser, they
look for the existence of virtue in positions farther and
farther from its real root. As it is in money, or rather
the essence of property, it really exists in the things
we can use, as the necessaries and comforts of life ;
but we first transfer it into gold and silver, and then
into paper and bank bills, which are but the repre
sentation of a representation, until at last, a real miser
prizes the shadow more than the substance. So it is
with virtue ; it really exists in a virtuous disposition ;
but as that is unseen, men proceed to set it in objects
at a greater and greater distance from its source. First
it is a good act combined with a good motive ; then
it is a moral act apart from the motive ; then it passes



60 THE PURITAN.

into some rite or ceremony, and at every step there is
a fearful recession from the heart ; until at last, reli
gion degenerates into superstition ; a dress is holiness ;
blowing an organ is praising God ; profession is piety ;
and kneeling is devotion. Perhaps the greatest de
parture from the true centre, is among the Tartars,
who nail their written prayers to a windmill, and
thus send them up to heaven in a gale ; or among the
Hindoos, whose sins are removed and bodies made
holy, by being sprinkled with the mud of the Ganges.
So widely can the sensualized mind deviate from its
first conceptions !

We smile, or (if we are benevolent men) we weep
perhaps over these melancholy proofs of human de-
generac.y. But he must be very inattentive to the
courses of his own mind, who does not see in himself
the incipient vibrations to the same error. We are
always departing from the pure to the incorporated ;
from the inward to the outward ; from the intention
to the act ; and it is hard to chain the mind, in a
materializing world, to first principles. The value of
every action depends on the motive. From this maxim
no man can escape. If I abstain from any sin with
out the love of God, or regard to his authority, it is
certain, that I am neither a virtuous man nor a saint.
Yet this principle we are always losing sight of. In
others, external actions are all we see; and we too
often make them the sole criterion of judging our
selves.



THE PURITAN. 61

When our Saviour was on earth, these tendencies
had gone to their last extreme. As some rivers hide
their fountains in remote countries, and are to be ex
plored only by the traveller whose curiosity and en
terprise surpass his coequals, so in that age the heart
was hid behind a host of externals. We find there
fore that it was his object to turn the eye inward, to
explore the intention ; to make his hearers ferret out
the motive; in a word, to make them, in a religious
sense, acquainted with themselves. For this purpose,
he declares, Blessed are the pure in heart. \Vhosoever
lookcth on a woman, to lust after her, hath already
committed adultery in his heart. Whosoever is angry
with his brother without a cause, is a murderer.
These are truths hard to be known when the case is
our own ; and finally, it was for this purpose, to throw
our thoughts on the inner man ; to make us enter the
central chambers of our own souls, for the source of
our sins, and the cure, that he pronounced the words
to Nicodemus, so mysterious to those, who have not
felt their power, and so consoling to those, who have.

The original fault of man is in his principles. He
is not the creature of circumstances ; for no circum
stances can have any influence over us but from some
conjunctive cause within. Joseph was chaste in cir
cumstances where frailer virtue wmild have fallen ;
and the whole thing that make the circumstances of
this world dangerous is, they stand around (circum
stantes) a yielding, sinful heart. The fault, then, is



62 THE PURITAN.

found, in all our failures and aberrations, in the last
place where we are willing to ; ee it in our hearts.
They are radically wrong ; and need not only amend


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