Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

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" Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell."

Afterward, when the deed has been committed, and a
knocking is heard at the gate, he cries:

" Wake Duncan with thy knocking. I would thou could'st ! "

Let me give one more instance of dramatic action.
When Antony speaks above the body of Caesar he says :

" You all do know this mantle : I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on
'Twas on a summer's evening, in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii.
Look ! In this place ran Cassius' dagger through :
See what a rent the envious Casca made!
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb'd,
And as he pluck'd his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar followed it."

There are men, and many of them, who are always
trying to show that somebody else chiseled the statue or
painted the picture ; that the poem is attributed to the
wrong man, and that the battle was really won by a

'Of course Shakespeare made use of the work of others,
and, we might almost say, of all others. Every writer
must use the work of others. The only question is, how
the accomplishments of other minds are used, whether
as a foundation to build higher, or whether stolen to the
end that the thief may make a reputation for himself,
without adding to the great structure of literature.

Thousands of people have stolen stones from the Col-



iseum to make huts for themselves. Thousands of writers
have taken the thoughts of others with which to adorn
themselves. These are plagiarists. But the man who
takes the thought of another, adds to it, gives it intensity
and poetic form, throb and life, is in the highest sense

Shakespeare found nearly all of his facts in the writings
of others and was indebted to others for most of the
stories of his plays. The question is not : Who furnished
the stone, or who owned the quarry, but who chiseled
the statue?

We now know all the books that Shakespeare could
have read, and consequently know many of the sources of
his information. We find in " Pliny's Natural History,"
published in 1601, the following: "The sea Pontis ever-
more floweth and runneth out into the Propontis ; but the
sea never retireth back again with the Impends." This
was the raw material, and out of it Shakespeare made the
following :

" Like to the Pontic Sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne'er knows retiring ebb, but keeps due on

To the Propontic and the Hellespont

Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne'er turn back, ne'er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up."

Perhaps we can give an idea of the difference between
Shakespeare and other poets, by a passage from " Lear."
When Cordelia places her hand upon her father's head
and speaks of the night and of the storm, an ordinary
poet might have said:

" On such a night, a dog
Should have stood against my fire. "

A very great poet might have gone a step further and
exclaimed :

" On such a night, mine enemy's dog
Should have stood against my fire."


But Shakespeare said :

" Mine enemy's dog.

Though he had bit me, should have stood that night
Against my fire."

Of all the poets of all the writers Shakespeare is the
most original. He is as original as Nature.

It may truthfully be said that "Nature wants stuff to
vie strange forms with fancy, to make another."

There is in the greatest poetry a kind of extravagance
that touches the infinite, and in this Shakespeare exceeds
all others.

You will remember the description given of the voyage
of Paris in search of Helen:

"The seas and winds (old wranglers), took a truce,
And did him service : he touched the ports desir'd,
And for an old aunt, whom the Greeks held captive,
He brought a Grecian queen, whose youth and freshness
Wrinkles Apollo's, and makes stale the morning."

So, in " Pericles," when the father finds his daughter,
he cries out:

" O Helicanus, strike me, honored sir ;
Give me a gash, put me to present pain,
Lest this great sea of joys, rushing upon me,
O'erbear the shores of my mortality."

The greatest compliment that man has ever paid to the
woman he adores is these lines :

" And those eyes, the break of day,
Lights that do mislead the morn."

Nothing can be conceived more perfectly poetic.

In that marvelous play, the " Midsummer Night's
Dream," is one of the most extravagant things in litera-
ture :

" Thou rememb'rest
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin's back.


Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid's music."

This is so marvelously told that it almost seems prob-

So the description of Mark Antony :

" For his bounty

There was no winter in't ; an autumn t'was
That grew the more by reaping : his delights
Were dolphin-like ; they show'd his back above
The element they lived in."

Think of the astronomical scope and amplitude of this :

" Her bed is India there she lies, a pearl."

Is there anything more intense than these words of

" Rather on Nilus mud
Lay me stark naked, and let the water-flies
Blow me into abhorring ! "

Or this of Isabella :

" Th' impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death, as to a bed
That longing I've been sick for, ere I yield
My body up to shame."

Is there an intellectual man in the world who will not
agree with this ?

" Let me not live

After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff
Of younger spirits. "

Can anything exceed the words of Troilus when parting
with Cressida?

ft We two, that with so many thousand sighs
Did buy each other, most poorly sell ourselves


With the rude brevity and discharge of one,
Injurious time, now, with a robber's haste,
Crams his rich thievery up, he knows not how :
As many farewells as be stars in heaven,
With distinct breath and consigned kisses to them,
He fumbles up into a loose adieu ;
And scants us with a single famish'd kiss,
Distasted with the salt of broken tears."

Take this example, where pathos almost touches the
grotesque :

" Ah, dear Juliet,

Why art thou yet so fair? Shall 1 believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous,
And that the lean, abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour? "

Often when reading the marvelous lines of Shake-
speare, I feel that his thoughts are " too subtle potent,
tuned too sharp in sweetness, for the capacity of my ruder
powers." Sometimes I cry out, " O churl ! write all,
and leave no thoughts for those who follow after."

Shakespeare was an innovator, an iconoclast. He cared
nothing for the authority of men or of schools. He vio-
lated the " unities," and cared nothing for the models of
the ancient world.

The Greeks insisted that nothing should be in a play
that did not tend to the catastrophe. They did not believe
in the episode, in the sudden contrasts of light and shade,
in mingling the comic and the tragic. The sunlight never
fell upon their tears, and darkness did not overtake their
laughter. They believed that nature sympathized or was
in harmony with the events of the play. When crime was
at>out to be committed, some horror to be perpetrated,
the light grew dim, the wind sighed, the trees shivered,
and upon all was the shadow of the coming event.

Shakespeare knew that the play had little to do with
the tides and currents of universal life, that Nature cares
neither for smiles nor tears, for life nor death, and that
the sun shines as gladly on coffins as on cradles.

The first time I visited the Place de la Concorde, where,


during the French Revolution, stood the guillotine, and
where now stands an Egyptian obelisk, a bird, sitting on
the top, was singing with all its might. Nature forgets.

One of the most notable instances of the violation by
Shakespeare of the classic model, is found in the Sixth
Scene of the First Act of " Macbeth."

When the King and Banqito approach the castle in
which the King is to be murdered that night, no shadow
falls athwart the threshold. So beautiful is the scene that:
the King says :

" This castle hath a pleasant seat : the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses."

And Banquo adds:

" This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven's breath
Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle.
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed
The air is delicate."

Another notable instance is the porter scene immedi-
ately following the murder. So, too, the dialogue with
the clown who brings the asp to Cleopatra just before the
suicide, illustrates my meaning

I know of one paragraph in the Greek drama worthy
of Shakespeare. This is in " Medea." When Medea kills
her children she curses Jason, using the ordinary Billings-
gate and papal curse, but at the conclusion says : " I pray
the gods to make him virtuous, that he may the more
deeply feel the pang that I inflict."

Shakespeare dealt in lights and shadows. He was in-
tense. He put noons and midnights side by side. No
other dramatist would have dreamed of adding to the
pathos ; of increasing our appreciation of Lear's agony,
by supplementing the wail of the mad King with the
mocking laughter of a loving clown.

The ordinary dramatists, the men of talent (and there


is the same difference between talent and genius that there
is between a stone-mason and a sculptor), create charac-
ters that become types. Types are, of necessity, carica-
tures: actual men and women are to some extent con-
tradictory in their actions. Types are blown in the one
direction by the one wind : characters have pilots.

In real people, good and evil mingle. Types are all one
way, or all the other all good, or all bad, all wise or all

Pecksniff was a perfect type, a perfect hypocrite; and
will remain a type as long as language lives a hypocrite
that even drunkenness could not change. Everybody
understands Pecksniff, and compared with him Tartuffe
was an honest man.

Hamlet is an individual, a person, an actual being ; and
for that reason there is a difference of opinion as to his
motives and as to his character. We differ about Hamlet
as we do about Caesar, or about Shakespeare himself.
Hamlet saw the ghost of his father and heard again his
father's voice, and yet, afterwards, he speaks of " the
undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler re-

In this there is no contradiction. The reason outweighs
the senses. If we should see a dead man rise from his
grave, we would not, the next day, believe that we did.
No one can credit a miracle until it becomes so common
that it ceases to be miraculous.

Types are puppets, controlled from without : characters
act from within. There is the same difference between
characters and types that there is between springs and
water-works, between canals and rivers, between wooden
soldiers and heroes. In most plays and in most novels
the characters are so shadowy that we have to piece them
out with the imagination.

The dramatist lives the lives of others, and in order
to delineate character must not only have imagination but
sympathy with the character delineated. The great
dramatist thinks of a character as an entirety, as an

I once had a dream, and in this dream I was discussing
a subject with another man. It occurred to me that I
was dreaming, and then I said to myself: If this is a



dream, I am doing 1 the talking for both sides conse-
quently I ought to know in advance what the other man
is going to say. In my dream I tried the experiment. I
then asked the other man a question, and before he an-
swered made up my mind what the answer was to be.
To my surprise, the man did not say what I expected he
would, and so great was my astonishment that I awoke.
It then occurred to me that I had discovered the secret of
Shakespeare. He did, when awake, what I did when
asleep that is, he threw off a character so perfect that
it acted independently of him.

In the delineation of character Shakespeare has no
rivals. He creates no monsters. His characters do not
act without reason, without motive. lago had his rea-
sons. In Caliban, nature was not destroyed; and Lady
Macbeth certifies that the woman still was in her heart, by
saying :

" Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done *t."

Shakespeare's characters act from within. They are
centers of energy. They are not pushed by unseen hands,
or pulled by unseen strings. They have objects, desires.
They are persons real, living beings.

Few dramatists succeed in getting their characters loose
from the canvas. Their backs stick to the wall. They do
not have free and independent action.. They have no
background, no unexpressed motives, no untold desires.
They lack the complexity of the real.

Shakespeare makes the character true to itself.
Christopher Sly, surrounded by the luxuries of a lord, true
to his station, calls for a pot of the smallest ale.

Take one expression by Lady Macbeth. You remem-
ber that after the murder is discovered, after the alarm
bell is rung, she appears upon the scene wanting to know
what has happened. Macduff refuses to tell her, saying
that the slightest word "would murder as it fell." At
this moment Banquo comes upon the scene and Macduff
cries out to him :

" Our royal master's murdered ! "

What does Lady Macbeth then say? She in fact makes


a confession of guilt. The weak point in the terrible
tragedy is that Duncan was murdered in Macbeth's castle.
So when Lady Macbeth hears what they suppose is news
to her, she cries :

" What ! In our house ! "

Had she been innocent, her horror of the crime would
have made her forget the place the venue. Banquo sees
through this, and sees through her. Her expression was
a light, by which he saw her guilt ; and he answers :

" Too cruel anywhere."

No matter whether Shakespeare delineated clown or
king, warrior or maiden ; no matter whether his charac-
ters are taken from the gutter or the throne, each is a
work of consummate art, and when he is unnatural, he is
so splendid that the defect is forgotten.

When Romeo is told of the death of Juliet, and there-
upon makes up his mind to die upon her grave, he gives a
description of the shop where poison could be purchased.
He goes into particulars and tells of the alligators stuffed,
of the skins of ill-shaped fishes, of the beggarly account of
empty boxes, of the remnants of pack thread, and old
cakes of roses ; and while it is hardly possible to believe
that under such circumstances a man would take the
trouble to make an inventory of a strange kind of drug-
store, yet the inventory is so perfect, the picture is so
marvelously drawn, that we forget to think whether it is
natural or not.

In making the frame of a great picture Shakespeare
was often careless ; but the picture is perfect. In making
the sides of the arch he was negligent ; but when he placed
the keystone, it burst into blossom. Of course there are
many lines in Shakespeare that never should have been
written. In other words, there are imperfections in his
plays. But we must remember that Shakespeare fur-
nished the torch that enables us to see these imper-

Shakespeare speaks through his characters, and we
must not mistake what the characters say, for the opinion
of Shakespeare. No one can believe that Shakespeare



regarded life as " a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and
fury, signifying nothing." That was the opinion of a
murderer, surrounded by avengers, and whose wife, part-
ner in his crimes troubled with thick-coming fancies
had gone down to her death.

Most actors and writers seem to suppose that the lines
called " The Seven Ages " contain Shakespeare's view of
human life. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The lines were uttered by a cynic, in contempt and scorn
of the human race.

Shakespeare did not put his characters in the livery and
uniform of some weakness, peculiarity, or passion. He
did not use names as tags or brands. He did not write
under the picture, " This is a villain." His characters
need no suggestive names to tell us what they are; we
see them and we know them for ourselves.

It may be that in the greatest utterances of the greatest
characters in the supreme moments, we have the real
thoughts, opinions, and convictions of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare idealizes the common and transfigures all
he touches; but he does not preach. He was interested
in men and things as they were. He did not seek to
change them; but to portray. He was Nature's mirror;
and in that mirror Nature saw herself.

When I stood amid the great trees of California that
lift their spreading capitals against the clouds, looking
like Nature's columns to support the sky, I thought of
the poetry of Shakespeare.

What a procession of men and women, statesmen and
warriors, kings and clowns, issued from Shakespeare's
brain. What women !

Isabella in whose spotless life, love and reason
blended into perfect truth.

Juliet within whose heart, passion and purity met like
white and red within the bosom of a rose.

Cordelia who chose to suffer loss, rather than show
her wealth of love with those who gilded lies in hope of

Hermione "tender as infancy and grace," who bore
with perfect hope and faith the cross of shame, and who
at last forgave with all her heart.

Desdemona so innocent, so perfect, her love so pure


that she was incapable of suspecting that another could
suspect, and who with dying words sought to hide her
lover's crime, and with her last faint breath uttered a
loving lie that burst into a perfumed lily between her
pallid lips.

Perdita a violet dim, and sweeter than the lids of
Juno's eyes " The sweetest low-born lass that ever ran
on the greensward."

Helena who said :

" I know I love in vain, strive against hope ;
Yet in this captious and intenable sieve
I still pour in the waters of my love,
And lack not to lose still. Thus, Indian-like,
Religious in mine error, I adore
The sun that looks upon his worshipper,
But knows of him no more."

Miranda who told her love as gladly as a flower gives
its bosom to the kisses of the sun.

And Cordelia, whose kisses cured and whose tears re-
stored. And stainless Imogen, who cried : " What is it
to be false ? "

And here is the description of the perfect woman :

" To feed for aye her lamp and flames of love ;
To keep her constancy in plight and youth,
Outliving beauty's outward, with a mind
That doth renew swifter than blood decays."

Shakespeare has done more for woman than all the
other dramatists of the world.

For my part, I love the Clowns. I love Launce and his
dog Crabb, and Gobbo, whose conscience threw its arms
around the neck of his heart, and Touchstone, with his
lie seven times removed ; and dear old Dogberry a pretty
piece of flesh, tedious as a king. And Bottom, the very
paramour for a sweet voice, longing to take the part to
tear a cat in; and Autolycus, the snapper-up of uncon-
sidered trifles, sleeping out the thought for the life to
come. And great Sir John, without conscience, and for
that reason unblamed and enjoyed, and who at the end
babbles of green fields, and is almost loved. And ancient


Pistol, the world his oyster. And Bardolph, with the flea
on his blazing nose, putting beholders in mind of a
damned soul in hell. And the poor Fool, who followed
the mad king, and went " to bed at noon." And the clown
who carried the worm of Nilus, whose " biting was im-
mortal." And Corin, the shepherd, who described the
perfect man : " I am a true laborer; I earn that I eat, get
that I wear; owe no man hate, envy no man's happiness;
glad of other men's good, content with my harm."

And mingling in this motley throng, Lear, within whose
brain a tempest raged until the depths were stirred, and
the intellectual wealth of a life was given back to memory,
and then by madness thrown to storm and night. When
I read the living lines I feel as though I looked upon the
sea and saw it wrought by frenzied whirlwinds, until the
buried treasures and the sunken wrecks of all the years
were cast upon the shores.

And Othello who like the base Indian threw a pearl
away richer than all his tribe.

And Hamlet thought-entangled; hesitating between
two worlds.

And Macbeth strange mingling of cruelty and con-
science, reaping the sure harvest of successful crime
" Curses not loud but deep mouth-honor breath."

And Brutus, falling on his sword that Caesarjmight be

And Romeo, dreaming of the white wonder of Juliet's
hand. And Ferdinand, the patient log-man for Miranda's
sake. And Florizel, who, " for all the sun sees, or the
close earth wombs, or the profound seas hide," would not
be faithless to the low-born lass. And Constance, weep-
ing for her son, while grief " stuffs out his vacant gar-
ments with his form."

And in the midst of tragedies and tears, of love and
laughter and crime, we hear the voice of the good friar,
who declares that in every human heart, as in the smallest
flower, there are encamped the opposed hosts of good
and evil ; and our philosophy is interrupted by the garru-
lous old nurse, whose talk is as busily useless as the babble
of a stream that hurries by a ruined mill.

From every side the characters crowd upon us the


men and women born of Shakespeare's brain. They utter
with a thousand voices the thoughts of the " myriad-
minded " man, and impress themselves upon us as deeply
and vividly as though they really lived with us.

Shakespeare alone has delineated love in every possible
phase, has ascended to the very top, and actually reached
heights that no other has imagined. I do not believe the
human mind will ever produce or be in a position to
appreciate, a greater love-play than " Romeo and Juliet."
It is a symphony in which all music seems to blend. The
heart bursts into blossom, and he who reads feels the
swooning intoxication of a divine perfume.

In the alembic of Shakespeare's brain the baser metals
were turned to gold ; passions became virtues ; weeds be-
came exotics from some diviner land; and common
mortals made of ordinary clay outranked the Olympian
Gods. In his brain there was the touch of chaos that
suggests the infinite ; that belongs to genius. Talent is
measured and mathematical ; dominated by prudence and
the thought of use. Genius is tropical. The creative
instinct runs riot, delights in extravagance and waste,
and overwhelms the mental beggars of the world with
uncounted gold and unnumbered gems.

Some things are immortal : The plays of Shakespeare,
the marbles of the Greeks, and the music of Wagner.

Shakespeare was the greatest of philosophers. He
knew the conditions of success, of happiness ; the relations
that men sustain to each other, and the duties of all. He
knew the tides and currents of the heart, the cliffs and
caverns of the brain. He knew the weakness of the will,
the sophistry of desire, and that

" Pleasure and revenge

Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice
Of any true decision."

He knew that the soul lives in an invisible world, that
flesh is but a mask, and that

" There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face."


He knew that courage should be the servant of judg-
ment, and that

" When valor preys on reason
It eats the sword it fights with."

He knew that man is never master of the event, that
he is to some extent the sport or prey of the blind forces
of the world, and that

" In the reproof of chance
Lies the true proof of men."

Feeling that the past is unchangeable, and that that
which must happen is as much beyond control as though
it had happened, he says :

" Let determined things to destiny
Hold unbewail'd their way."

Shakespeare was great enough to know that every
human being prefers happiness to misery, and that crimes
are but mistakes. Looking in pity upon the human race,
upon the pain and poverty, the crimes and cruelties, the
limping travelers on the thorny paths, he was great and
good enough to say :

" There is no darkness but ignorance." ,^s

In all the philosophies there is no greater line. This
great truth fills the heart with pity.

Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 23 of 38)