William Michael Rossetti William Shakespeare.

The complete works of Shakespeare: With a critical biography online

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perhaps have dared to hazard them ; and yet this must certainly have greatly
injured the truth of his picture. Desdemona is a sacrifice without blemish.
She is not, it is true, a high ideal representation of sweetness and enthusiastic
passion like Juliet ; full of simplicity, softness, and humility, and so innocent,
that she can hardly form to herself an idea of the possibility of infidelity, she
seems calculated to make the most yielding and tenderest of wives. The
female propensity wholly to resign itself to a foreign destiny has led her into
the only fault of her life, that of marrying without her father's consent Her
choice seems wrong ; and yet she has been gained over to Othello by that
which induces the female to honor in man her protector and guide, — admira-
tion of his determined heroism, and compassion for the sufferings which he had
undergone. With great art it is so contrived, that from the very circumstance
that the possibility of a suspicion of her own purity of motive never once
enters her mind, she is the less reserved in her solicitations for Cassio, and
thereby does but heighten more and more the jealousy of Othello. To throw
out still more clearly the angelic purity of Desdemona, Shakespeare has in
Emilia associated with her a companion of doubtful virtue. From the sinful
levity of this woman it is also conceivable that she should not confess the ab-
straction of the handkerchief when Othello violently demands it back : this
would otherwise be the circumstance in the whole piece the most difficult to
justify. Cassio is portrayed exactly as he ought to be to excite suspicion
without actual gilt, — amiable and nobly disposed, but easily seduced. The
public events of the first two acts show us Othello in his most glorious aspect,
as the support of Venice and the terror of the Turks : they serve to withdraw
the story from the mere domestic circle, just as this is done in Romeo and
Juliet by the dissensions between the houses of Montague and Capulet. No
eloquence is capable of painting the overwhelming force of the catastrophe in
Othello^ — the pressure of feelings which measure out in a moment the
abysses of eternity.
Hamlet*^ is singular in its kind : a tragedy of thought inspired by continual

* See page 359.

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and never-satisfied meditation on human destiny and the dark perplexity of the
events of this world, and calculated to call forth the very same meditation in
the minds of the spectators. This enigmatical work resembles those irrational
equations in which a fraction of unknown magnitude always remains, that will
in no way admit of solution. Much has been sjud, much written, on this piece,
and yet no thinking head who anew expresses himself on It, will (in his view
of the connection and the signification of all the parts) entirely coincide with
his predecessors. What naturally most astonishes us, is the fact that with
such hidden purposes, with a foundation laid in such unfathomable depth, the
whole should, at a first view, exhibit an extremely popular appearance. The
dread appearance of the ghost takes possession of the mind and the imagina-
tion almost at the very commencement ; then the play within the play, in
which, as in a glass, we see reflected the crime, whose fruitlessly attempted
punishment constitutes the subject-matter of the piece ; the alarm with which
it fills the king ; Hamlet's pretended and Ophelia's real madness ; her death
and burial ; the meeting of Hamlet and Laertes at her grave ; their combat,
and the grand determination ; lastly, the appearance of the young hero For-
tinbras, who, with warlike pomp, pays the last honors to an extinct family of
kings ; the interspersion of comic characteristic scenes with Polonius, the
courtiers, and the grave-diggers, which have all of them their signification, —
all this fills the stage with an animated and varied movement The only cir-
cumstance from which this piece might be judged to be less theatrical than
other tragedies of Shakespeare is, that in the last scenes the main action
either stands still or appears to retrograde. This, however, was inevitable,
and lay in the nature of the subject. The whole is intended to show that a
calculating consideration, which exhausts all the relations and possible conse-
quences of a deed, must cripple the power of acting ; as Hamlet himself ex-
presses it : —

And thus the natiTe hae of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought ;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry.
And lose the name of action.


With respect to Hamlet's character: I cannot, as I understand the poet's
views, pronounce altogether so favorable a sentence upon it as Goethe does.
He is, it is true, of a highly cultivated mind, a prince of royal manners,
endowed with the finest sense of propriety, susceptible of noble ambition, and
open in the highest degree to an enthusiastic admiradon of that excellence in
others of which he himself is deficient. He acts the part of madness with
unrivalled power, convincing the persons who are sent to examine into his
supposed loss of reason, merely by telling them unwelcome truths, and rallying
them with the most caustic wit But in the resolutions which he so often
embraces and always leaves unexecuted, his weakness is too apparent: he

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does himself only justice when he implies that there fs no greater dissimilarity
than between himself and Hercules. He is not solely impelled by necessity
to artifice and dissimulation, he has a natural inclination for crooked ways ; he
is a h)rpocrite towards himself; his far-fetched scruples are often mere pre-
texts to cover his want of determination ; thoughts, as he says on a different
occasion, which have

but one part wisdom

And ever three i>art8 coward.

He has been chiefly condemned both for his harshness in repulsing the love
of Ophelia, which he himself had cherished, and for his insensibility at her
death. But he is too much overwhelmed with his own sorrow to have any
compassion to spare for others ; besides, his outward indifference gives us by
no means the measure of his internal perturbation. On the other hand, we
evidently perceive in him a malicious joy, when he has succeeded in getting
rid of his enemies, more through necessity and accident, which alone are able
to impel him to quick and decisive measures, than by the merit of his own
courage, as he himself confesses after the murder of Polonius, and with respect
to Rosencrantz and Guildenstem. Hamlet has no firm belief either in himself
or in anything else ; from expressions of religious confidence he passes over
to sceptical doubts ; he believes in the ghost of his father as long as he sees
it, but as soon as it has disappeared it appears to him almost in the light of a
deception.* He has even gone so far as to say, " there is nothing either good
or bad, but thinking makes it so ; " with him the poet loses himself here in
labyrinths of thought. In which neither end nor beginning is discoverable. The
stars themselves, from the course of events, afford no answer to the question
so urgently proposed to them. A voice from another world, commissioned, it
would appear, by Heaven, demands vengeance for a monstrous enormity, and
the demand remains without effect ; the criminals are at last punished, but, as
it were, by an accidental blow, and not in the solemn way requisite to convey
to the world a warning example of justice ; irresolute foresight, cunning
treachery, and impetuous rage, hurry on to a common destruction ; the less
CTilltv and the innocent are eauallv invnlv#»H in th^ or^n#»ral ruin Th#» destinv

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IS conceived. It has been the subject of much controversy among the com-
mentators, whether this was borrowed by Shakespeare from himself or from
another, and whether, in the praise of the piece of which it is supposed to be
a part, he was speaking seriously, or merely meant to ridicule the tragical
bombast of his contemporaries. It seems never to have occurred to them
that this speech must not be judged of by itself, but in connection with the
place where it is introduced. To distinguish it in the play itself as dramatic
poetry, it was necessary that it should rise above the dignified poetry of the
former in the same proportion that generally theatrical elevation soars above
simple nature. Hence Shakespeare has composed the play in Hamlet alto-
gether in sententious rhymes full of antitheses. But this solemn and measured
tone did not suit a speech in which violent emotion ought to prevail, and the
poet had no other expedient than the one of which he made choice : over-
charging the pathos. The language of the speech in question is certainly
falsely emphatical ; but yet this fault is so mixed up with true grandeur, that
a player practised in artificially calling forth in himself the emotion he is
imitating, may certainly be carried away by it Besides, it will hardly be
believed that Shakespeare knew so little of his art, as not to be aware that a
tragedy in which i€neas had to make a lengthy epic relation of a transaction
that happened so long before as the destruction of Troy, could neither be
dramatical nor theatrical.

Of Macbeth * I have already spoken once in passing, and who could exhaust
the praises of this sublime work ? Since the Eumsnides of iEschylus nothing
so grand and terrible has ever been written. The witches are not, it is true,
divine Eumenides, and are not intended to be — they are ignoble and vulgar
instruments of hell. A German poet, therefore, very ill understood their
meaning, when he transformed them into mongrel beings, a mixture of fates,
furies, and enchantresses, and clothed them with tragic dignity. Let no man
venture to lay hand on Shakespeare's works thinking to improve anything
essential; he will be sure to punish himself. The bad is radically odious, and
to endeavor in any manner to ennoble it, is to violate the laws of propriety.
Hence, in my opinion, Dante, and even Tasso, have been much more success-
ful in their portraiture of demons than Milton. Whether the age of Shake-
speare still believed in ghosts and witches, is a matter of perfect indifference
for the justification of the use which in Hamlet and Macbeth he has made of
pre-existing traditions. No superstition can be widely diffused without having
a foundation in human nature. On this the poet builds ; lie calls up from their
hidden abysses that dread of the imknown, that presage of a dark side of
nature, and a world of spirits, which philosophy now imagines it has altogether
exploded In this manner he is in some degree both the portrayer and the

* See page 305.

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philosopher of superstition. That is, not the philosopher who denies and
turns it into ridicule, but, what is still more difficult, who distinctly exhibits its
origin in apparently irrational and yet natural opinions. But when he ven-
tures to make arbitrary changes in these popular traditions, he altogether
forfeits his right to them, and merely holds up his own idle fancies to our
ridicule. Shakespeare's picture of the witches is truly magical : in the short
scenes where they enter, he has created for them a peculiar language, which,
although composed of the usual elements, still seems to be a collection of
formulae of incantation. The sound of the words, the accumulation of rhymes,
and the rhythmus of the verse, form, as it were, the hollow music of a dreary
witch-dance. He has been abused for using the names of disgusting objects j
but he who fancies the kettle of the witches can be made effective with agree-
able aromatics, is as wise as those who desire that hell should sincerely and
honestly give good advice. These repulsive things, from which the imagina-
tion shrinks, are here Emblems of the hostile powers which operate in nature ;
and the repugnance of our senses is outweighed by the mental horror. With
one another the witches discourse like women of the very lowest class ; for
this was the class to which witches were ordinarily supposed to belong : when,
however, they address Macbeth they assume a loftier tone : their predictions,
which they either themselves pronounce, or allow their apparitions to deliver,
have all the obscure brevity, the majestic solemnity of oracles.

We see here that the witches are merely instruments ; they are governed
by an invisible spirit, for the operation of such great and dreadful events would
be above their sphere. With what intent did Shakespeare assign the same
place to them in his play which they occupy in the history of Macbeth as
related in the old chronicles ? A monstrous crime is committed : Duncan, a
venerable old man, and the best of kings, is, in defenceless sleep, under the
hospitable roof, murdered by his subject, whom he has loaded with honors and
rewards. Natural motives alone seem inadequate, or the perpetrator must
have been portrayed as a hardened villain. Shakespeare wished to exhibit a
more sublime picture : an ambitious but noble hero, yielding to a deep-laid
hellish temptation, and in whom all the crimes to which, in order to secure the
fruits of his first crime, he is impelled by necessity, cannot altogether eradicate
the stamp of native heroism. He has, therefore, given a threefold division to
the guilt of that crime. The first idea comes firom that being whose whole
activity is guided by a lust of wickedness. The weird sisters surprise Macbeth
in the moment of ihtoxication of victory, when his love of glory has been
gratified ; they cheat his eyes by exhibiting to him as the work of fate what
in reality can only be accomplished by his own deed, and gain credence for all
their words by the immediate fulfilment of the first prediction. The oppor-
tunity of murdering the king immediately offers ; the wife of Macbeth conjures
him not to let it slip ; she urges him on with a fiery eloquence, which has at

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command all those sophisms that serve to throw a false splendor over crime.
Little more than the mere execution falls to the share of Macbeth ; he is
driven into it, as it were, in a tumult of fascination. Repentance immediately
follows, nay, even precedes the deed, and the stings of conscience leave him
rest neither night nor day. But he is now fairly entangled in the snares of
hell ; truly frightful is it to behold that same Macbeth, who once as a warrior
could spurn at death, now that he dreads the prospect of the life to come,*
clinging with growing anxiety to his earthly existence the more miserable it
becomes, and pitilessly removing out of the way whatever to his dark and
suspicious mind seems to threaten danger. However much we may abhor his
actions, we cannot altogether refuse to compassionate the state of his mind ;
we lament the ruin of so many noble qualities, and even in his last defence we
are compelled to admire the struggle of a brave will with a cowardly conscience.
We might believe that we witness in this tragedy the overruling destiny of the
ancients represented in perfect accordance with their ideas : the whole origi-
nates in a supernatural influence, to which the subsequent events seem inevitably
linked. Moreover, we even find here the same ambiguous oracles which, by
their literal fulfilment, deceive those who confide in them. Yet it may be easily
shown that the poet has, in his work, displayed more enlightened views. He
wishes to show that the conflict of good and evil in this world can only take
place by the permission of Providence, which converts the curse that individual
mortals draw down on their heads into a blessing to others. An accurate
scale is followed in the retaliation. Lady Macbeth, who of all the human
participators in the king's murder is the most guilty, is thrown by the terrors of
her conscience into a state of incurable bodily and mental disease ; she dies,
unlamented by her husband, with all the S)rmptoms of reprobation. Macbeth
is still found worthy to die the death of a hero on the field of battle. The
noble Macduff is allowed the satisfaction of saving his country by punishing
with his own hand the tyrant who had murdered his wife and children^ Banquo,
by an early death, atones for the ambitious curiosity which prompted the wish
to know his glorious descendants, as he thereby has roused Macbeth's jealousy ;
but he preserved his mind pure from the evil suggestion of the witches : his
name is blessed in his race, destined to enjoy for a long succession of ages
that royal dignity which Macbeth could only hold for his own life. In the
progress of the action, this piece is altogether the reverse of Hamlet; it
strides forward with amazing rapidity, from the first catastrophe (for Duncan's
murder may be called a catastrophe) to the last " Thought, and done ! " is
the general motto ; for, as Macbeth says,

The flighty purpose never is overtook.

Unless the deed go with it." — (Act iv. Sc i. 1* 145.)

In every feature we see an energetic heroic age, in the hardy north which

• "We'd jump the life to come." —(Act i. Sc. vii. L 38.)

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steels every nerve. The precise duration of the action cannot be ascertained,
—years perhaps, according to the story ; but we know that to the imagination
the most crowded time appears always the shortest. Here we can hardly con-
ceive how so very much could ever have been compressed into so narrow a
space; not merely external events,-— the very inmost recesses in the minds
of the dramatic personages are laid open to us. It is as if the drags were
taken from the wheels of time, and they rolled along without interruption in
their descent Nothing can equal this picture in its power to excite terror.
We need only allude to the circumstances attending the murder of Duncan,
the dagger that hovers before the eyes of Macbeth, the vision of Banquo at th J
feast, the madness of Lady Macbeth ; what can possibly be said on the sub-
ject that will not rather weaken the impression they naturally leave ? Such
scenes stand alone, and are to be found only in this poet; otherwise the
tragic muse might exchange her mask for the head of Medusa.

I wish merely to point out as a secondary circumstance the prudent dexterity
of Shakespeare, who could still contrive to flatter a king by a work in every
part of whose plan nevertheless the poetical views are evident James the
First drew his lineage from Banquo ; he was the first who united the threefold
sceptre of England, Scotland, and Ireland : this is foreshown in the magical
vision, when a long series of glorious successors is promised to Banquo.
Even the gift of the English kings to heal certain maladies by the touch, which,
James pretended to have inherited from Edward* the Confessor, and on
which he set a great value, is brought in very naturally. With such occa-
sional matters we may well allow ourselves to be pleased without fearing from
them any danger to poetry : by similar allusions iEschylus endeavored to re-
commend the Areopagus to his fellow- citizens, and Sophocles to celebrate the
glory of Athens.

As in Macbeth terror reaches its utmost height, in King Lear\ the science
of compression is exhausted. The principal characters here are not those who
act, but those who suffer. We have not in this, as in most tragedies, the
picture of a calamity in which the sudden blows of fate seem still to honor the
head which they strike, and where the loss is always accompanied by some
flattering consolation in the memory of the former possession ; but a fall from
the highest elevation into the deepest abyss of misery, where humanity is
stripped of all external and internal advantages, and given up a prey to naked
helplessness. The threefold dignity of a king, an old man, and a father, is dis-
honored by the cruel ingratitude of his unnatural 'daughters ; the old Lear, who

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world a wandering beggar ; the childish imbecility to which he was £eist ad-
vancing changes into the wildest insanity, and when he is rescued from the
disgraceful destitution to which he was abandoned, it is too late : the kind con-
solations of filial care and attention and of true friendship are now lost on him ;
his bodily and mental powers are destroyed beyond all hope of recovery, and
all that now remains to him of life is the capability of loving and suffering be-
yond measure. What a picture we have in the meeting of Lear and Edgar in
a tempestuous night and in a wretched hovel ! The youthful Edgar has, by
the wicked arts of his brother, and through his father's blindness, fallen, as the
old Lear, from the rank to which his birth entitled him ; and, as the only
means of escaping further persecution, is reduced to assume the disguise of a
beggar tormented by evil spirits. The king's fool, notwithstanding the volun-
tary degradation which is implied in his situation, is, after Kent, Lear's most
faithful associate, his wisest counsellor. This good- hearted fool clothes reason
with the livery of his motley garb ; the high-born beggar acts the part of in-
sanity ; and both, were they even in reality what they seem, would still be en-
viable in comparison with the king, who feels that the violence of his grief
threatens to overpower his reason. The meeting of Edgar with the blinded
Gloster is equally heart-rending ; nothing can be more affecting than to see
the ejected son become the father's guide, and the good angel, who under the
disguise of insanity, saves him by an ingenious and pious fraud from the
horror and despair of self-murder. But who can possibly enumerate all the
di£ferent combinations and situations by which our minds are here as it were
stormed by the poet ? Respecting the structure of the whole I will only make
one observation. The story of Lear and his daughters was left by Shakespeare
exactly as he found it in a fabulous tradition, with all the features characteris-
tical of the simplicity of old times. But in that tradition there is not the
slightest trace of the story of Gloster and his sons, which was derived by
Shakespeare from another source. The incorporation of the two stories has
been censured as destructive of the unity of action. But whatever contributes
to the intrigue or the denouement must always possess unity. And with what
ingenuity and skill are the two main parts of the composition dovetailed into
one another ! The pity felt by Gloster for the fate of Lear becomes the means
which enables his son Edmund to effect his complete destruction, and affords
the outcast Edgar an opportunity of being the saviour of his father. On the
other hand, Edmund is active in the cause of Regan and Goneril ; and the
criminal passion which they both entertain for him induces them to execute
justice on each other and on themselves. The laws of the drama have there-
fore been sufficiendy complied with ; but that is the least : it is the very com-
bination which constitutes the sublime beauty of the work. The two cases re-
semble each other in the main: an infatuated father is blind towards his
well-disposed child, and the unnatural children, whom he prefers, requite him

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by the ruin of all his happiness. But all the circumstances are so different,
that these stories, while they each make a correspondent impression on the
heart, form a complete contrast for the imagination. Were Lear alone to
suffer from his daughters, the impression would be limited to the powerful com-
passion felt by us for his private misfortune. But two such unheard-of exam-
ples taking place at the same time have the appearance of a great commotion
in the moral world : the picture becomes gigantic, and fills us with such alarm
as we should entertain at the idea that the heavenly bodies might one day fall
from their appointed orbits. To save in some degree the honor of human
nature, Shakespeare never wishes his spectators to forget that the story takes
place in a dreary and barbarous age : he lays particular stress on the circum-
stance that the Britons of that day were still heathens, although he has not
made all the remaining circumstances to coincide learnedly with the time
which he has chosen. From this point of view we must judge of many coarse-

Online LibraryWilliam Michael Rossetti William ShakespeareThe complete works of Shakespeare: With a critical biography → online text (page 8 of 224)