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-the comic and the tragic. In the full flush and luxuriance of his powers he rises upon us bright, lively, and jocund as the dawn; we know not where he will lead us in the abundance of his poetical caprice, what stores of mirth and wanton wiles, what brilliant and ever-changing hues will sparkle, dazzle, and allure us in his ambrosial course. But that bright morningunlike the morning of many of the poet's contemporaries--goes down in a solemn and glorious sunset, canopied with clouds of gold and purple.
For the plots of his comedies Shakspeare was chiefly indebted to French and Italian novelists; for his histories to Hall and Hollinshed; and for his classical plays to the Lives of Plutarch,'translated by North, and to such versions of the classical authors as had appeared in the earlier part of the sixteenth century. Old English authors, plays, chronicles, and ballads furnished him with the groundwork of his tragedies; and this readiness of the poet to lean on the invention of others, however feeble and meagre, rather than rely on his own superior resources for the framework of his plays, has often been quoted as an instance of his carelessness, or at best of his unwillingness to venture upon untrodden ground. He preferred to use the wonderful superstructure of his genius on incidents already familiar to his audience, trusting to his power of investing them with a new character, a more profound or more lively significance, than, like many of his contemporaries, owe his popularity to the horror, the extravagance, the involution, or the novelty of his story. But may not the true solution of this hankering after old and established facts and traditions be found in Shakspeare's intense realism ? He had a profound reverencenot Aristotle more so-for everything that carried with it the stamp of popular recognition. His strongest convictions, the highest dictates of his taste and feelings, are not always proof against this ' settled purpose of his soul. He clung to it with an intense earnestness, as if to abandon it was to commit himself to a sea of doubt and perplexity—a wandering maze without a footing. To Bacon it was enough that any theory, any opinion, any fact should be generally accepted to be unceremoniously rejected. "A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure'; and if truth itself were to become popular, it must be plentifully alloyed with falsehood.* The perfect self-confidence of Bacon, who at sixteen passed judgment on Aristotle, as barren and unfruitful, might set him above the necessity of any such fixed points. But
* Or, as Bacon pithily expresses it: 'Auctoritas pro veritate, non veritas pro auctoritate sit' (p. 105).
then Bacon's vision was limited; his mind and attention, earthfixed and bound up in the investigation of material laws, were in no danger of wandering and being lost in the regions of infinite space, as the eye glanced ‘from Heaven to earth, from earth to Heaven.' His ethical creed might have been comprised in the words, Man delights not me, nor woman either.' But Shakspeare, with stronger, wider, kindlier sympathies, as untrammelled by systems as Bacon, working out for himself, in solitude and unassisted, as true a method of inquiry, as profound an observer as Bacon, as convinced as he of a divine order underlying and overlapping the seeming confusions of this world, dreaded quite as much as Bacon could do the danger of mistaking for realities the dreams of his own phantasy. So, wiser than Lord Bacon, and more truly philosophical, instead of despising popular belief, instead of ignoring it, as if it had no foundation except in falsehood, Shakspeare accepted it, probed the foundation on which it rested, brought into clearer light the half or whole truths enveloped in it, and gave form and coherent meaning to the confused and incoherent creeds of mankind.
Perhaps also to one who carved out for himself a wholly untrodden path like Shakspeare, who had little of the countenance of the learned or the confidence of rules and systems to support him, a fixed faith somewhere was the more indispensable. He was living in a sceptical age, when the freshness of faith and that confidence in the rising glories of Protestantism, which had inspired the poetry of Spenser, were fast dying out. Many had relapsed into Romanism, many had fallen into atheism; the narrow creed of Puritanism could not accommodate itself to the larger sympathies and growing intelligence of the age. It viewed with the utmost consternation and alarm divines like Hooker securely trespassing beyond the pale of its doctrinal conventionalism, and philosophers like Bacon poring over the book of God's works,' as a derogation to the book of God's word.' Sympathizing with Romanism and Protestantism so far as they were human, Shakspeare could not be wholly satisfied with either. There was something deeper than either, perhaps common to both. And whilst the creeds of neither are distinctly enunciated in his writings, whilst neither can claim him as an especial advocate, both recognize in him a sincere and profound religious element, distinct, positive, permeant through his writings; not thrust forward to catch applause or gild a popular sentiment, but a pure, dry vestal light, equally free from fanaticism on one side and from infidelity on the other.
Unfixed, unsettled in their faith, the men of the poet's days looked uneasily at the progress of inductive philosophy; at its bold in
novations, its new tests, its contempt for antiquity, its hatred of Aristotle. How could the faith hold its ground against the invasion of science? How could men immersed in the contemplation of second causes recognize their sole dependence upon Him who is the first cause ? Philosophy might assure them that the province of revelation and the province of science were distinctthat philosophy was as remote from divinity as the terrestrial is from the celestial globe. But the divine felt, and felt truly, that it was not a question of distinct and incommensurate jurisdiction ; not whether the field of science might be occupied with earnest and hardy inquirers, and the field of divinity be cultivated in the authorized mode ; but how far was it likely or possible, that men who had been rigidly trained to one method of investigation, who deferred to one tribunal, from which they admitted no appeal in matters of science and material utility, could or would divest themselves of these ingrained habits, when not science but faith was concerned.* So then, as now, the question was, How shall religion stand before the new philosophy ? How shall reason be reconciled with revelation? For this neither divine nor philosopher could discover the true solution. What help may be found for it in Shakspeare, we will not undertake to say. But if the clearest and the largest transcript of human experience can contribute to that solution, that help is to be found in the draInatist. The data with which he has supplied us are as sound, as certain, as unerring a basis for axioms and deductions, as those of the inductive philosophy; like them, are founded not on notions, but observation, and have been gathered from as wide a circle of experience. We argue, and we justly argue, upon the characters in a play of Shakspeare, or any sentiment propounded by them, or their exhibition of passions and feelings, not as the poet's creations, but as historic realities. In reading or studying his dramas, we feel that we are surrounded not by phantoms, but by flesh and blood closely akin to ourselves; and no hard deduction of logic, no persuasion of any kind, can make us feel or think otherwise. They may be Romans, or Celts, or Italians, or Jews, living in the dark backward and abyss of time which we cannot realize, compacted of influences long since extinguished ; Yet whatever they are they are men, to us more real than those who pass before our eyes, or even tell us their own histories. For if our most intimate friends, throwing away all self-restraint and self-respect, were willing to turn themselves inside out for our inspection, neither would they be able to do it nor we to read
* Bacon anticipated the evil; see pref. to Organon'p. xcvi.; anticipated, but no otherwise provided against it, except by pointing out the danger.
Vol. 131.–No. 261.
or understand the confused characters we should find there without some interpreter. We should be just as much unable to distinguish the writing, as the inartistic mind does a natural landscape, or an unscientific one a complex piece of machinery. Shakspeare supplies the scene, supplies the machinery, and gives with them the interpretation; not from his own conceit or any preconceived theory, not because he has any certain scientific bias or philosophic views of art, which he is desirous to work out and set before us in their concrete forms, but because he held the mirror up to nature.' That 'nuditas animi' which Bacon considered indispensable for the acquisition of truth, with which the severest study must begin and end, Shakspeare possessed more than most men. Unlike the dramatists from the University, who came to their task with imperfect notions of the rules of classical antiquity; unlike Ben Jonson, who thought that a dramatist must be dieted by system, and feed and fast by regimen, to attain perfection, it was the reproach of Shakspeare that he owed nothing to art and all to nature. The reproach was unfounded; but if it be meant that he brought to his task no dry theories, no poetical dogmas, no personal prejudices to interfere with his strict and rigid observance of nature, the remark is just. No poet is more impersonal ; no poet mixes up with his most admired and successful creations less of his personal predilections. It is impossible to select any one character from the whole range of his dramatis personæ of which it can be said, this was a favourite with the poet. In the full torrent of his wit or the excitement of his eloquence, in the successful exhibition of retributive villany or the defence of injured innocence, he stops at the due moment, never overstepping the modesty of nature. The scene closes, the character is dropped, the moment the action requires it; and however just or true or exquisite the conception, it falls back into the void of the past from which it bad been summoned, often to the greatest regret of the reader and spectator, but with no apparent regret on the part of the poet. Artists and painters in general have their likes and their dislikes, as strong but not always the same as the admirers of their works; they can rarely work successfully without such prejudices. It is natural for the artist to fall in love with his own creations, and natural that what he loves and all admire, he should repeat in various shapes again and again. But in Shakspeare this never happens. His is the truthfulness and dispassionateness of a mirror. And if the unfeeling, the erring, and the vicious are not unmitigated monsters in his pages, it is because they are human; not because his sympathies would have concealed their deformities. It is because even the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in
its head. The utmost vice in this life is not beyond redemption; the utmost virtue not without its flaws.
But it may be thought that these remarks are inapplicable to those creations of the poet which lie beyond the pale of human experience ; such as the witches, fairies, and ghosts introduced into some of his plays. Yet it is worth obserying how scrupulous even in these cases the poet is of adhering to popular tradition. Only, as popular credulity is always falling before that idolon (against which Bacon protests), of determining the unseen by the seen, the spiritual by the material, Shakspeare is on his guard against this error. He raises the vulgar witches, with their popular familiars, the cat, the toad, the storm, and the sieve, into spirits of evil, surrounded by spiritual terrors and endowed with spiritual agencies. The fairies have persons, occupations, passions that are not human, nor are they susceptible of human attachments. The same may be said of Ariel and Caliban ; the one above, as the other is below humanity. The habits of each are solitary, not social, and both are alike unsusceptible of friendship or gratitude. The ghost of Hamlet's father is another instance of the poet's wonderful mastery in uniting the vulgar and sublime. How was the poet to combine in the same personality the earthly father calling for revenge with the disembodied spirit—the substantial with the unsubstantial the 'sans eyes, sans teeth, sans every thing,' with voice, motion, armour ? But the popular notion of purgatorial fire, and the half earthly, half unearthly creed of the Middle Ages, on which he readily laid hold, were a great assistance. Here too the genius of Shakspeare delights in triumphing over the union of impossibilities. The ubiquity of the ghost is so harmonized with his local personality, that the reader detects no incongruity in the composition. Besides, when he is first discovered, as the sentinels tramp up and down the parapet of the castle, with the sea roaring fathoms down at the foot, who can tell whether the Ghost comes striding along close by in the impalpable air, or on the firm ground ? That Shakspeare should have acted this part we can well believe, for none but he could have conceived how a spirit would or should talk. The characters least within the bounds of human probability are Falstaff and Richard III. : the former as the ideal humourist, the type and catholic original of those eccentricities, which Sbakspeare's contemporaries tried to draw, but could not; the other as the type of what sixty years of intestine fever and bloodshed must produce--the poisonous fungus generated out of political, social, inoral anarchy, all combined. Both are what Bacon would have called the monads of nature,