Shakespeare, the Man and the Dramatist
THE biography of Shakespeare, if we merely look at the bulk of the books which assume to record it, is both minute and extensive ; but when we subject the octavo or quarto to examination, we find a great deal that is interesting about his times, and some shrewd and some dull guessing about his probable actions and motives, but little about himself except a few dates. He was born in Stratford-on-Avon, in April, 1564, and was the son of John Shakespeare, tradesman, of that place. In 1582, in his nineteenth year, he married Anne Hathaway, aged twenty-six. About the year 1586, he went to London, and became a player. In 1589 he was one of the proprietors of the Black Friars’ Theatre ; and in 1595 was a prominent shareholder in a larger theatre, built by the same company, called the Globe. As a playwright he seems to have served an apprenticeship ; for he altered, amended, and added to the dramas of others before he produced any himself. Between the year 1591, or thereabouts, and the year 1613, or thereabouts, he wrote over thirty plays, the precise date of whose composition it is hardly possible to fix. He seems to have made yearly visits to Stratford, where his wife and children resided, and to have invested money there as he increased in wealth. Mr. Emerson has noted, that about the time he was writing Macbeth, perhaps the greatest tragedy of ancient or modern times, " he sued Philip Rogers, in the boroughcourt of Stratford, for thirty-five shillings tenpence, for corn delivered to him at various times.” In 1608, Mr. Collier estimates his income at four hundred pounds a year, which, allowing for the decreased value of money, is equal to eight or nine thousand dollars at the present time. About the year 1610, he retired permanently to Stratford, though he continued to write plays for the company with which he was connected. He died on the 23d of April, 1616.
Such is essentially the meagre result of a century of research into the external life of Shakespeare. As there is hardly a page in his writings which does not shed more light upon the biography of his mind, and bring us nearer to the individuality of the man, the antiquaries in despair have been compelled to abandon him to the psychologists ; and the moment the transition from external to internal facts is made, the most obscure of men passes into the most notorious ; for this personality and soul we call Shakespeare, the recorded incidents of whose outward career were so few and trifling, lived a more various life — a life more crowded with ideas, passions, volitions, and events — than any potentate the world has ever seen. Compared with his experience, the experience of Alexander, or Hannibal, or Cæsar, or.Napoleon, was narrow and one-sided. He had projected himself into almost all the varieties of human character, and, in imagination, had intensely realized and lived the life of each. From the throne of the monarch to the bench of the village alehouse, there were few positions in which he had not placed himself, and, for a time, identified with his own. No other man had ever seen nature and human life from so many points of view; for he had looked upon them through the eyes of Master Slender and Hamlet, of Caliban and Othello, of Dogberry and Mark Antony, of Ancient Pistol and Julius Cæsar, of Mistress Tearsheet and Imogen, of Dame Quickly and Lady Macbeth, of Robin Goodfellow and Titania, ot Hecate and Ariel. No king or queen of his time had so completely felt the cares and enjoyed the dignity of the regal state as this playwright, who usurped it by his thought alone ; and the freshest and simplest maiden in Europe had no innocent heart-experience which this man could not share,— escaping, in an instant, from the shattered brain of Lear, or the hag-haunted imagination of Macbeth, in order to feel the tender flutter of her soul in his own. And none of these forms, though mightier or more exquisite than the ordinary forms of humanity, could hold or imprison him a moment longer than he chose to abide in it. He was on an excursion through the world of thought and action, to seize the essence of all the excitements of human nature, terrible, painful, criminal, rapturous, or humorous ; and to do this in a short earthly career, he was compelled to condense ages into days, and lives into minutes. He exhausts, in a short time, all the glory and all the agony there is on the throne or on the couch of Henry IV., and then, wearied with royalty, is off to the Boar’s Head to have a rouse with Sir John. He feels all the flaming pride and scorn of the aristocrat Coriolanus ; his brain widens with the imperial ideas, and his heart beats with the measureless ambition, of the autocrat Cæsar ; and anon he has donned a greasy apron, plunged into the roaring Roman mob, and is yelling against aristocrat and autocrat with all the gusto of democratic rage. He is now a prattling child, and in a second he is the murderer with the knife at its throat. Capable of being all that he actually or imaginatively sees, he enters into at will, and abandons at will, the passions that brand or blast other natures. Avarice, malice, envy, jealousy, hatred, revenge, remorse, neither in their separate nor mutual action are strong enough to fasten him; and the same may be said of love and pity and friendship and joy and ecstasy ; for behind and within this multiform personality is the person Shakespeare,—serene, selfconscious, vigilant, individualizing the facts of his consciousness, and pouring his own soul into each creation, without ever parting with the personal identity which is at the heart of all, which disposes and co-ordinates all, and which dictates the impression to be left by all. And this fact conducts us to the question of Shakespeare’s individuality. We are prone to place him as a man below other great men, because we make a distinction between the man and his genius. We gather our notion of Shakespeare from the meagre details of his biography, and in his biography he appears little and commonplace,—-not by any means so striking a person as Kit Marlowe or Ben Jonson. To this individuality we tack on a universal genius, — which is about as reasonable as it would be to take the controlling power of gravity from the sun and attach it to one of the asteroids. Shakespeare’s genius is not something distinct from the man ; it is the expression of the man, just as the sun’s attraction is the result of its immense mass. The measure of a man's individuality is his creative power; and all that Shakespeare created he individually included. We must, therefore, if we desire to grasp his greatness, discard from our minds all associations connected with the pet epithets which other authors have condescended to shower upon him, such as “Sweet Will,” and “Gentle Shakespeare,” and “Fancy’s child,” — fond but belittling phrases, as little appropriate as would be the patronizing chatter of the planet Venus about the dear, darling little Sun ; — we must discard all these from our conceptions, and con - sider him primarily as a vast, comprehensive, personal soul and force, that passed from eternity into time, with all the wide aptitudes and affinities for the world he entered bound up in his individual being from the beginning. These aptitudes and affinities, these quick, deep, and varied sympathies, were so many inlets of the world without him ; and facts pouring into such a nature were swiftly organized into faculties. Nothing, indeed, amazes us so much in the biography of Shakespeare's mind as the preternatural rapidity with which he assimilated knowledge into power, and experience into insight. The might of his personality is indicated by its resistance, as much as its breadth is evinced by its receptivity, of objects; for his force was never overwhelmed or submerged by the multiplicity of impressions that unceasingly rushed in upon it. His soul lay genially open to the world of nature and human life, to receive the objects that went streaming into it, but never parted with the power of reacting upon all it received. This would not be so marvellous had he merely taken in the forms and outside appearances of things. All his perceptions, however, were vital; and the life and force of the objects he drew into his consciousness tugged with his own life and force for the mastery, and ended in simply enriching the spirit they strove to subdue. This indestructible spiritual energy, which becomes mightier with every exercise of might; which plucks out the heart and absorbs the vitality of everything it touches ; which daringly commits itself to the fiercest, and joyously to the softest passions, without losing its moral and mental sanity; which in the most terrible excitements is as “the blue dome of air” to the tempest that rages beneath it; which, aiming to include everything, refuses to be included by anything, and in the sweep of its creativeness acts with a confident audacity, as if in it Nature was humanized and humanity individualized; — in short, this unexampled energy of blended sensibility, intelligence, and will is what constitutes the man Shakespeare ; and this man is no name for an impersonal, unconscious genius, that did its marvels by instinct, no name for a careless playwright who blundered into miracles, but is essentially a person, creating strictly within the limitations of his individuality,— within those limitations appearing to be impersonal only because he is comprehensive enough to cover a wide variety of special natures,—and, above all, a person individually as great, at least, as the sum of his whole works.
In regard to the real mystery of this man's power, both criticism and philosophy are mute. His appearance is simply a fact in the world’s intellectual history, which can be connected with no preceding fact nor with the spirit of his age. “ It is the nature of poetry,” says Emerson, “ to spring, like the rainbow daughter of Wonder, from the invisible, to abolish the past, and to refuse all history.” All that we know is, that the capacities and splendors of Shakespeare’s mind existed potentially in the vital germ of the spiritual nature born with him into the world; and that his works are the result of the unfolding of this. The glory of the Elizabethan age, it is absurd to call him its product, for the puzzle is not so much the peculiarities of what he assimilated as his powers of assimilation; and in any age these powers would probably have worked equal, if different effects. Take, for instance, single thoughts and imaginations of his, such as the following, and see if you can account for them by any knowledge you have of the manners and customs of the England of Elizabeth : —
Melting the darkness.”
Fall on their heads like dew.”
Until a king be by ; and then his state
Empties itself, as doth an inland brook
Into the main of waters.”
Which ever in the haunch of winter sings
The lifting up of day.”
Be you not troubled with the time, which drives
O’er your content these strong necessities ;
But let determined things to Destiny Hold unbewailed their way.”
But single passages like these, though they hint of the inmost essence of the poet, and drop upon the mind, as Carlyle says, “ like a splendor out of heaven,”— though they demonstrate the independence of time and place of the imagination whence they come, — are still no adequate measure of Shakespeare’s power. If, however, we pass from these to what is a more decisive test of his self-conscious, self-directed creative energy, namely, to his mode of organizing a whole drama, we shall find that his method, processes, and results are different from those of the dramatists of his own age or of any age. The materials he uses are as nothing when compared with his transformation of them into works of art. Let us, in illustration, glance at his method of creation, as successfully exerted in any one of his great dramas, say “ Hamlet,” or “ King Lear,” or “ Macbeth,” or “ Othello.”
He takes a story or a history, with which the people are familiar, the whole interest of which is narrative. He finds it a mere succession of incidents; he leaves it a combination of events. He finds the persons named in it mere commonplace sketches of humanity ; he leaves them self-subsisting, individual characters, more real to the mind than the men and women we daily meet.
Now the first fact that strikes us when we compare the original story with Shakespeare’s magical transformation of it is, that everything is raised from the actual world into a Shakespearian world. He alters, enlarges, expands, enriches, enlivens, informs, recreates everything, lifting sentiment, passion, humor, thought, action, to the level of his own nature. Through incidents and through characters is shot Shakespeare’s soul, — a soul that yields itself to every mould of being, from the clown to the monarch, endows every class of character it animates with the Shakespearian felicity and certainty of speech, and, being in all as well as in each, so connects and relates the society he has called into life, that they unite to form a whole, while existing with perfect distinctness as parts. The characters are not developed by isolation, but by sympathy or collision, and the closer they come together the less they run together. They are independent of each other, and yet necessitate each other. None of them could appear in any other play without exciting disorder; yet in this play their discord conduces to the genera] harmony. And so tough is the hold on existence of these beings that, though thousands of millions of men and women have been born, have died, and have been forgotten since they were created, and though the actual world has strangely changed, these men and women of Shakespeare are still alive, and Shakespeare’s world still remains untouched by time.
This drama, thus made self-existent in the free heaven of art, implies, in its conception and execution, processes analogous to those which are followed by Nature herself in the production of her works ; and modern critics have not hesitated to award to Shakespeare the distinction of being an organizer after her pattern. The drama which we have been describing is, like her works, not simple, but complex. It has unity, it has the widest variety, it has unity in variety. The most diverse and seemingly heterogeneous materials all aid to form a whole, “vital in every part”; and the organization is strictly an addition to the world, with nothing in literature and nothing in nature which exactly matches it. And it is alive, and refuses to die. Nature herself is compelled to adopt it into her race,
With Andes and with Ararat.”
You can gaze at it as you can gaze at a natural landscape, where hills, rocks, woods, stubble, grass, clouds, sky, atmosphere, each separate, each related, combine to form one impressive effect of beauty and power.
Perhaps, however, it would be more accurate to call this Shakespearian drama an approximation to an organic product, rather than a realization of one. The processes of nature are followed, but the perfection of nature is the ideal it aims after rather than reaches. Still, if we allow for human defects and imperfections, and take into view the fact that Shakespeare had to submit to conditions imposed by his audience as well as conditions imposed by his genius, his work measurably fulfils the requirements of Kant’s concise definition of an organic creation, namely, “that thing in which all the parts are mutually ends and means.”
Admitting, then, that the drama we are considering has organic form, and not merely mechanical regularity, the question arises, what is the inner law, the central idea, the principle of life, by which, and in obedience to which, it was organized ? Perhaps the new school of philosophic critics have done almost as much injury to Shakespeare's fame, in their attempt to answer this question, as they have done good in rescuing his dramas from the old school of sciolists and commentators, who were pecking at him with their formal rules of taste. The philosophic critics very properly insisted that he should be judged by principles deduced from his own method, and not by rules generalized from the method of the Greek dramatists ; that the laws by which he should be tried were the laws which he acknowledged and obeyed, the laws of his own creative imagination ; and that the very originality of his dramas freed them from tests which are applicable only to the products of imitation. They thus raised Shakespeare from a breaker of the laws into a lawgiver; and the brilliant vagabond, whom every catchpole of criticism thought he could hustle about and reprimand, was all at once lifted into a dictator of law to the bench.
Having relieved Shakespeare from these policemen of letters, and substituted some reach of human vision for their rat’s eyes, the new school of philosophic critics proceeded to state what were the ideas which formed the ground-plans and organizing principles of his works ; but in doing this, they brought Shakespeare down to their own level, and made him their spokesman. Intellectual egotism supplanted intellectual interpretation. Read Schlegel, Ulrici, even Gervinus, and you are delighted as long as they confine themselves to the business of exposing the folly of the critics they supplanted ; but when they come to the real problem, and attempt to state the meaning and purpose of Shakespeare in any given play, you are apt to be as much surprised as was that philanthropist, who was confidentially informed that the ultimate object Napoleon had in view in his numerous wars was the establishment of Sunday schools. They find in Shakespeare’s plays certain ethical, political, or social generalities, which, it seems, they were written to illustrate, or rather from which the plays grow, as from so many roots. But causes are to be measured by effects ; the effects here are marvellous structures of genius ; and these do not shoot up from the withered roots of barren truisms. A whole must be as great as any of its parts ; and yet the philosophic idea of a Shakespearian drama, as eliminated by the German professors, is less than the least of its parts. A single magical word in Shakespeare is often greater, and has more reach of application, than the professorial bit of wisdom which they present as the grand total of the play, and which is often too obvious in itself to make a resort to Shakespeare necessary for a perception of its truth. Their “ ground ideas ” of the dramas are not worth any minor Shakespearian ideas they are asserted to include.
Indeed, before we claim to understand a Shakespearian whole, we must first see if we are competent to take in one of its parts. It is evident that the most important parts are the characters, and in respect to these, and to Shakespeare’s method of characterization, there is much misconception. What are these characters ? Are they copies of men and women, as we see them in the world ? — slightly idealized portraits of persons, witty, passionate, thoughtful, or criminal ? Are they such people as Shakespeare might have seen in the streets of London in the time of Elizabeth ? No, for they are plainly Shakespearian, and not merely Elizabethan. Even the court fools are endowed with the Shakespearian quality, are perfect of their kind, and are such court fools as Shakespeare might have conceived himself to be, if he had, in Mr. Weller's phrase, “been born in that station of life.”
But these characters are certainly not individualized qualities and passions, for they are eminently natural. If their naturalness does not come from their being portraits, slightly varied and heightened, of individuals, in what does their naturalness consist ?
In answer to this question, it is first to be said, that these characters prove that Shakespeare had a conception of human nature, abstracted from all individuals. He not only looked at individuals, and into individuals, but through individuals to their common basis in humanity. But he did not rest here. This imaginative analysis, this vital generalization, this glance into the sources of things, evinces, of course, his possession of the profoundest philosophical genius as the foundation of his dramatic genius ; but it is not the genius itself, for he also surveyed human nature in action, human nature as modified by human life, by manners, customs, institutions, and beliefs, and by that primitive personality which separates men, as humanity unites them.
These characters, then, are individual natures rooted in human nature. The question then arises, Is their individuality particular or representative? The least observation shows, I think, that they stand for more than individuals. We are continually saying that this or that person of our acquaintance resembles one of Shakespeare’s characters ; we may even learn much about him by studying the character be resembles ; but we never thoroughly identify him with the character; for the character is more powerful, more perfectly developed, acts out the law of his being with more freedom, than the actual person with whom he is compared.
Further than this, — if we are accustomed to classify the persons we know, so as to include many individuals under one type, we shall find that we can include scores of our acquaintances in one of Shakespeare’s characters, and then not exhaust its full application. It is not, therefore, his mere variety of characterization, but something peculiar in each of the varieties, which makes him pre-eminently the poet of human nature. Why, for example, is not Charles Dickens as great a novelist as Shakespeare is a dramatist ? Dickens has delineated as wide a variety of persons as Shakespeare, if by variety we mean the absence of repetition. There is no reason but the shortness of life why he should not people literature with new individuals, until his characters are numbered by the thousand, all in a certain sense original, all discriminated from each other, but few or none representative. The single character of Hamlet represents more individuals than all the individuals Dickens has delineated.
Again, Jane Austen is placed by Macaulay next to Shakespeare for the felicity, certainty, and nicety of her portraitures of character. The most evanescent lines of distinction between persons who appear alike she seizes with wonderful tact, and indicates these differences without the least resort to caricature. If the best characterization means simply the best portrait-painting, there is no reason why Elizabeth, in “ Pride and Prejudice,” should not be placed side by side with Juliet and Cordelia.
But everybody feels that neither Dickens, with his range of observation, nor Jane Austen, with her subtilty of observation, makes any approach to Shakespeare. What is the reason ?
The reason is, that Shakespeare does not paint individuals, but individualizes classes. In his great nature, the processes of reason and imagination, of philosophic insight and poetic insight, worked harmoniously together. His observation of persons only supplied him hints for his creations. He did not take up at haphazard this man and that woman, and, because of their oddity or beauty, reproduce them in his story ; but he distinguished in each actual person the signs of a class nature, midway between his general nature and his individual peculiarities. He classified men as the naturalist classifies the animal kingdom. Agassiz is not confused with the perplexing spectacle of the myriads of animals which form the materials of his science; for the moment his eye lights upon them, they fall into certain great natural divisions, distinguished by infallible marks of structure. Under each of a few grand divisions he includes innumerable individuals. Now the difference between Agassiz and a mere observer and describer of animals is the difference between Shakespeare and Dickens, only that Shakespeare works on phenomena more complicated, and presenting more obstacles to classification, than Agassiz.
In his deep, wide, and searching observation of mankind, Shakespeare detects bodies of men who agree in the general tendencies of their characters, who strive after a common ideal of good or evil, and who all fail to reach it. Through these indications and hints he seizes, by his philosophical genius, the law of the class, — by his dramatic genius, he gathers up in one conception the whole multitude of individuals comprehended in the law, and embodies it in a character, — and by his poetical genius he lifts this character into an ideal region of life, where all hindrances to the free and full development of his nature are removed. The character seems all the more natural because it is perfect of its kind, whereas the actual persons included in the conception are imperfect of their kind. Thus there are many Falstaffian men, but Shakespeare’s Falstaff is not an actual Falstaff. Falstaff is the ideal head of the family, the possibility which they dimly strive to realize, the person they would be if they could. Again, there are many lagoish men, but only one Iago, the ideal type of them all; and by studying him we learn what they would all become if circumstances were propitious, and their loose malignant tendencies were firmly knit together in positive will and diabolically alert intelligence. And it is the same with the rest of Shakespeare’s great creations. The immense domain of human nature they cover is due to the fact, not merely that they are not repetitions of individuals, but that they are not repetitions of the same types or classes of individuals. The moment we analyze them, the moment we break them up into their constituent elements, we are amazed at the wealth of wisdom and knowledge which formed the materials of each individual embodiment, and the inexhaustible interest and fulness of meaning and application revealed in the analytic scrutiny of each. Compare, for example, Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, by no means one of Shakespeare’s mightiest efforts of characterization, with Lord Byron, both as man and poet, and we shall find that Timon is the highest logical result of the Byronic tendency, and that in him, rather than in Byron, the essential misanthrope is impersonated. The number of poems which Byron wrote does not affect the matter at all, because the poems are all expansions and variations of one view of life, from which Byron could not escape. Shakespeare, had he pleased, might have filled volumes with Timon’s poetic misanthropy ; but being a condenser, he was contented with concentrating the idea of the whole class in one grand character, and of putting into his mouth the truest, most splendid, most terrible things which have ever been uttered from the misanthropic point of view ; and then, victoriously freeing himself from the dreadful mood of mind he had imaginatively realized, he passed on to occupy other and different natures. Shakespeare is superior to Byron on Byron’s own ground, because Shakespeare grasped misanthropy from its first faint beginnings in the soul to its final result on character, — clutched its inmost essence, — discerned it as one out of a hundred subjective conditions of mind, — tried it thoroughly, and found it was too weak and narrow to hold him. Byron was in it, could not escape from it, and never, therefore, thoroughly mastered the philosophy of it. Here, then, in one corner of Shakespeare’s mind, we find more than ample space for so great a poet as Byron to house himself.
But Shakespeare not only in one conception thus individualizes a whole class of men, but he communicates to each character, be it little or colossal, good or evil, that peculiar Shakespearian quality which distinguishes it as his creation. This he does by being and living for the time the person he conceives. What Macaulay says of Bacon is more applicable to Shakespeare, namely, that his mind resembles the tent which the fairy gave to Prince Ahmed. “ Fold it, and it seemed a toy for the hand of a lady. Spread it, and the armies of powerful sultans might repose beneath its shade.” Shakespeare could run his sentiment, passion, reason, imagination, into any mould of personality he was capable of shaping, and think and speak from that. The result is that every character is a denizen of the Shakespearian world ; every character, from Master Slender to Ariel, is in some sense a poet, that is, is gifted with imagination to express his whole nature, and make himself inwardly known ; yet we feel throughout that the “ thousandsouled ” Shakespeare is still but one soul, capable of shifting into a thousand forms, but leaving its peculiar birthmark on every individual it informs.
Now it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for a critic to reproduce synthetically in his own consciousness, or thoroughly to analyze into all its elements, any single prominent character that Shakespeare has drawn. His characters, however, are not represented apart from each other, but as acting on each other; and great as they separately are, as conceptions, they are but integral portions of a still mightier conception, which includes the whole drama in which they appear. The value of what we call the incidents of such a drama consists in their being such incidents as would most naturally spring from the mutual action of such persons, or as would best develop their natures. The plot is of small account as disconnected from the characters, but of great moment as vitally inwrought with them, and giving coherence to the living organism which results from the combination. It is for this reason that we pay little heed to improbable incidents in the story, provided the incidents serve to bring out the persons. It is very improbable that a bond should have been given payable in a pound of flesh, and still more so that any court in Christendom could have recognized its validity; but who thinks of this in the Shakespearian society of “ The Merchant of Venice ” ?
Now it is doubtless true that a drama of Shakespeare thus organized, with characters comprehending an immense range of human character, and yielding to analysis laws of human nature which radiate light into whole departments of human life, produces on our minds, as we read, the effect of unity in variety. We perceive it as a whole, and think therefore we perceive the whole of it. But is it true that we really receive the colossal conception of Shakespeare himself? Shakespeare, it is plain, can only convey to us what we are capable of taking in ; the mind that perceives reduces greatness to its own mental stature ; and persons according to their taste, culture, experience, height of intelligence, capacity of approaching Shakespeare himself, obtain different impressions, varying in depth and breadth, of each of his great plays. Who, for instance, has stated the general conception of the play of “ Hamlet ” ? The idea of that drama, as given by different critics, is only so much of the idea as could be got into the heads of the critics. Their interpretation at best belongs to the class of Mémoires de Servir ; — the rounded whole is described by minds that are angular ; and Shakespeare’s conception is measuring them, while they are felicitating themselves that they are measuring it.
Even Goethe, the most comprehensive intelligence since Shakespeare, failed to “pluck out the heart” of Hamlet’s mystery. Indeed, it is beginning to be considered, that his remarks on the character, though delicate and profound in themselves, do not touch the essential individuality of Hamlet; that his ingenuity was exercised in the wrong direction ; and that, in his criticism, he resembled the sturdy and rapid walker, who checked his pace to ask a boy how far it was to Taunton. “ If you go on in the way you ’re now going,” was the reply, “it’s twenty-four thousand miles ; if you turn back, it’s only five.’’ But though some critics since Goethe have not been so elaborately wrong as he, Hamlet is still outside of the largest thought in the right direction, A distinguished thinker has said that there are moods of the mind in which Hamlet appears little, for what he suggests is infinitely more than what he is. This is true as to Shakespeare, but not true as to other minds ; for until we have grasped the conception that Shakespeare has embodied, we have no right to suppose ourselves capable of going beyond it into that vastness of contemplation of which, from Shakespeare’s height of vision, the character was an inadequate expression. Again, it is a common remark, that the school of philosophic critics, especially in their attempts to dive into the meaning of Hamlet, are continually giving Shakespeare the credit of their own thoughts. Giving Shakespeare the credit! Well might he reply, if such were the case, “ Poor am I even in thanks ! ”
Shakespeare, then, as regards his most gigantic conceptions, has probably never been adequately conceived. He must be tried by his peers ; and where are his peers ? We know that he grows in mental stature as our minds enlarge, and as we increase in our knowledge of him ; but he has never been included by criticism as other poets have been included. The greatest and most interpretative minds which have made him their study, though they may have commenced with wielding the rod, soon found themselves seduced into taking seats on the benches, anxious to learn instead of impatient to teach ; and have been compelled to admit that the poet who is the delight of the rudest urchin in the pit of the playhouse, is also the poet whose works defy the highest faculties of the philosopher thoroughly to comprehend.