The Growth, Limitations, and Toleration of Shakespeare's Genius

IN an article on Shakespeare in the June number of this Magazine, we spoke of his general comprehensiveness and creativeness, of his method of characterization, and of the identity of his genius with his individuality. In the present article we purpose to treat of some particular topics included in the general theme ; and as criticism on him is like coasting along a continent, we shall make little pretension to system in the order of taking them up.

The first of these topics is the succession of Shakespeare’s works, considered as steps in the growth and development of his powers,—a subject which has already been ably handled by our countryman, Mr. Verplanck. The facts, as far as they can be ascertained, are these. Shakespeare went to London about the year 1586, in his twenty-second year, and found some humble employment in one of the theatrical companies. Three years afterwards, in 1589, he had risen to be one of the sharers in the Blackfriars’ Theatre. In 1592 he had acquired sufficient reputation as a dramatist, or at least as a recaster of the plays of others, to excite the jealousy of the leading playwrights, whose crude dramas he condescended to rewrite or retouch. That graceless vagabond, Robert Greene, addressing from his penitent death-bed his old friends Lodge, Peele, and Marlowe, and trying to dissuade them from “ spending their wits ” any longer in “ making plays,” spitefully declares: “ There is art upstart crow beautified with our feathers, that, with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide, supposes he is as able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you ; and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is, in his own conceit, the only Shake-scene in the country.” Doubtless this charge of adopting and adapting the productions of others includes some dramas which have not been preserved, as the company to which Shakespeare was attached owned the manuscripts of a great number of plays which were never printed ; and it was a custom, when a play had popular elements in it, for other dramatists to be employed in making such additions as would give continual novelty to the old favorite. But of the plays published in our editions of Shakespeare’s writings, it is probable that " The Comedy of Errors,” and the three parts of “ King Henry VI.,” are only partially his, and should be classed among his early adaptations, and not among his early creations. The play of “ Pericles ” bears no marks of his mind, except in some scenes of transcendent power and beauty, which start up from the rest of the work like towers of gold from a plain of sand ; but these scenes are in his latest manner. In regard to the tragedy of “Titus Andronicus,” we are so constituted as to resist all the external evidence by which such a shapeless mass of horrors and absurdities is fastened on Shakespeare. Mr. Verplanck thinks it one of Shakespeare’s first attempts at dramatic composition ; but first attempts must reflect the mental condition of the author at the time they were made ; and we know the mental condition of Shakespeare in his early manhood by his poem of “ Venus and Adonis,” which he expressly styles “the first heir of his invention.” Now leaving out of view the fact that “ Titus Andronicus ” stamps the impression, not of youthful, but of matured depravity of taste, its execrable enormities of feeling and incident could not have proceeded from the sweet and comely nature in which the poem had its birth. The best criticism on “Titus Andronicus ” was made by Robert Burns, when he was nine years old. His schoolmaster was reading the play aloud in his father’s cottage, and when he came to the scene where Lavinia enters with her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, little Robert fell a-crying, and threatened, in case the play was left in the cottage, to burn it. It is hard to believe that what Burns despised and detested at the age of nine could have been written by Shakespeare at the age of twenty-five. Taking, then, “Venus and Adonis” as the point of departure, we find Shakespeare at the age of twenty-two endowed with all the faculties, but relatively deficient in the passions, of the poet The poem is a throng of thoughts, fancies, and imaginations, but somewhat cramped in the utterance. Coleridge says, that “in his poems the creative power and the intellectual energy wrestle as in a war embrace. Each in its excess of strength seems to threaten the extinction of the other. At length in the drama they were reconciled, and fought each with its shield before the breast of the other.” Fine as this is, it would perhaps be more exact to say, that in his earlier poems his intellect, acting apart from his sensibility, and playing with its own ingenuities of fancy and meditation, condensed its thoughts in crystals. Afterwards, when his whole nature became liquid, he gave us his thoughts in a state of fusion, and his intellect flowed in streams of fire.

Take, for example, that passage in the poem where Venus represents the loveliness of Adonis as sending thrills of passion into the earth on which he treads, and as making the bashful moon hide herself from the sight of his bewildering beauty : —

“ But if thou fall, O, then imagine this !
The earth, inn love with thee, thy footing trips,
And all is but to rob thee of a kiss.
Rich preys make true men thieves; so do thy lips
Make modest Dian cloudy and forlorn,
Lest she should steal a kiss and die forsworn.
“ Now of this dark night I perceive the reason :
Cynthia for shame obscures her silver shine,
Till forging Nature be condemned of treason,
For stealing moulds from heaven that were divine,
Wherein she framed thee, in high heaven’s despite,
To Shame the sun by day and her by night.”

This is reflected and reflecting passion, or, at least, imagination awakening passion, rather than passion penetrating imagination.

Now mark, by contrast, the gush of the heart into the brain, dissolving thought, imagination, and expression, so that they run molten, in the delirious ecstasy of Pericles in recovering his long-lost child : —

“ 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,
And drown me with their sweetness.”

If, as is probable, “Venus and Adonis” was written as early as 1586, we may suppose that the plays which represent the boyhood of his genius, and which are strongly marked with the characteristics of that poem, namely, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” the first draft of “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” and the original “ Romeo and Juliet,” were produced before the year 1592. Following these came “King Richard III.,” “King Richard II.,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “ King John,” “The Merchant of Venice,” and “ King Henry IV.,” all of which we know were written before 1598, when Shakespeare was in his thirty-fourth year. During the next eight years he produced “ King Henry V.,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “ As You Like It,” “Hamlet,” “ Twelfth Night,” “ Measure for Measure,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” and “King Lear.” In this list are the four great tragedies in which his genius culminated. Then came “ Troilus and Cressida,” “ Timon of Athens,” “Julius Caesar,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “ Cymbeline,” “King Henry VIII.,”

“ The Tempest,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and “ Coriolanus.” If heed be paid to this order of the plays, it will be seen at once that a quotation from Shakespeare carries with it a very different degree of authority, according as it refers to the youth or the maturity of his mind.

Indeed, when we reflect that between the production of “ The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “King Lear” there is only a space of fifteen years, we must admit that the history of the human intellect presents no other example of such marvellous progress ; and if we note the giant strides by which it was made, we shall find that they all imply a progressive widening and deepening of soul, a positive growth of the nature of the man, until in Lear the power became supreme and becomes amazing. Mr. Verplanck considers the period when he produced his four great tragedies to be the period of his intellectual grandeur, as distinguished from an earlier period which he thinks shows the perfection of his merely poetic and imaginative power; but the fact would seem to be that his increasing greatness as a philosopher was fully matched by his increasing greatness as a poet, and that in the devouring swiftness of his onward and upward movement imagination kept abreast of reason. His imagination was never more vivid, all-informing, and creative, — never penetrated with more unerring certainty to the inmost spiritual essence of whatever it touched, — never forced words and rhythm into more supple instruments of thought and feeling, — than when it miracled into form the terror and pity and beauty of Lear.

Indeed, the coequal growth of his reason and imagination was owing to the wider scope and increased energy of the great moving forces of his being. It relates primarily to the heart rather than the head. It is the immense fiery force behind his mental powers, kindling them into white heat, and urging them to efforts almost preternatural, — it is this which impels the daring thought beyond the limits of positive knowledge, and prompts the starts of ecstasy in whose unexpected radiance nature and human life are transfigured, and for an instant shine with celestial light In truth he is, relatively, more intellectual in his early than in his later plays, for in his later plays his intellect is thoroughly impassioned, and, though it has really grown in strength and massiveness, it is so fused with imagination and emotion as to be less independently prominent.

The sources of individuality lie below the intellect; and as Shakespeare went deeper into the soul of man, he more and more represented the brain as the organ and instrument of the heart, as the channel through which sentiment, passion, and character found an intelligible outlet. His own mind was singularly objective ; that is, he saw things as they are in themselves. The minds of his prominent characters are all subjective, and see things as they are modified by the peculiarities of their individual moods and emotions. The very objectivity of his own mind enables him to assume the subjective conditions of less-emancipated natures. Macbeth peoples the innocent air with menacing shapes, projected from his own fiendhaunted imagination ; but the same air is “ sweet and wholesome ” to the poet who gave being to Macbeth. The meridian of Shakespeare’s power was reached when he created Othello, Macbeth, and Lear, complex personalities, representing the conflict and complication of the mightiest passions in colossal forms of human character, and whose understandings and imaginations, whose perceptions of nature and human life, and whose weightiest utterances of moral wisdom, are all thoroughly subjective and individualized. The greatness of these characters, as compared with his earlier creations, consists in the greater intensity and amplitude of their natures, and the wider variety of faculties and passions included in the strict unity of their natures. Richard III., for example, is one of his earlier characters, and though excellent of its kind, its excellence has been approached by other dramatists, as, for instance, Massinger, in “ Sir Giles Overreach.” But no other dramatist has been able to grasp and represent a character similar in kind to Macbeth, and the reason is that Richard is comparatively a simple conception, while Macbeth is a complex one. There is unity and versatility in Richard ; there is unity and variety in Macbeth. Richard is capable of being developed with almost logical accuracy; for though there is versatility in the play of his intellect, there is little variety in the motives which direct his intellect. His wickedness is not exhibited in the making. He is so completely and gleefully a villain from the first, that he is not restrained from convenient crime by any scruples and relentings. The vigor of his will is due to his poverty of feeling and conscience. He is a brilliant and efficient criminal because he is shorn of the noblest attributes of man. Put, if you could, Macbeth’s heart and imagination into him, and his will would be smitten with impotence, and his wit be turned to wailing. The intellect of Macbeth is richer and grander than Richard’s, yet Richard is relatively a more intellectual character ; for the intellect of Macbeth is rooted in his moral nature, and is secondary in our thoughts to the contending motives and emotions it obeys and reveals. In crime, as in virtue, what a man overcomes should enter into our estimate of the power exhibited in what he does.

The question now comes up,—and we suppose it must be met, though we should like to evade it,—How, amid the individualities that Shakespeare has created, are we to detect the individuality of Shakespeare himself? In answer it may be said, that, if we survey his dramas in the mass, we find three degrees of unity;—first, the unity of the individual characters ; second, the unity of the separate plays in which they appear ; and third, the unity of Shakespeare’s own nature, a nature which deepened, expanded, and increased in might, but did not essentially change, and which is felt as a potent presence throughout his works, binding them together as the product of one mind. He did not go out of himself to inform other natures, but he included these natures in himself; and though he does not infuse his individuality into his characters, he does infuse it into the genera] conceptions which the characters illustrate. His opinions, purposes, theory of life, are to be gathered, not from what his characters say and do, but from the results of what they say and do ; and in each play he so combines and disposes the events and persons that the cumulative impression shall express his own judgment, indicate his own design, and convey his own feeling. His individuality is so vast, so purified from eccentricity, and we grasp it so imperfectly, that we are apt to deny it altogether, and conceive his mind as impersonal. In view of the multiplicity of his creations, and the range of thought, emotion, and character they include, it is a common hyperbole of criticism to designate him as universal. But, in truth, his mind was restricted, in its creative action, like other minds, within the limits of its personal sympathies, though these sympathies in him were keener, quicker, and more general than in other men of genius. He was a great-hearted, broadbrained person, but still a person, and not what Coleridge calls him, an “omnipresent creativeness.” Whatever he could sympathize with, he could embody and vitally represent; but his sympathies, though wide, were far from being universal, and when he was indifferent or hostile, the dramatist was partially suspended in the satirist and caricaturist, and oversight took the place of insight. Indeed, his limitations are more easily indicated than his enlargements. We know what he has not done more surely than we know what he has done ; for if we attempt to follow his genius in any of the numerous lines of direction along which it sweeps with such victorious ease, we soon come to the end of our tether, and are confused with a throng of thoughts and imaginations, which, as Emerson exquisitely says, “sweetly torment us with invitations to their own inaccessible homes.” But there were some directions which his genius did not take, — not so much from lack of mental power as from lack of disposition or from positive antipathy. Let us consider some of these.

And first, Shakespeare’s religious instincts and sentiments were comparatively weak, for they were not creative. He has exercised his genius in the creation of no character in which religious sentiment or religious passion is dominant. He could not, of course, — he, the poet of feudalism, — overlook religion as an element of the social organization of Europe, but he did not seize Christian ideas in their essence, or look at the human soul in its direct relations with God. And just think of the field of humanity closed to him! For sixteen hundred years, remarkable men and women had appeared, representing all classes of religious character, from the ecstasy of the saint to the gloom of the fanatic ; yet his intellectual curiosity was not enough excited to explore and reproduce their experience. Do you say that the subject was foreign to the purpose of an Elizabethan playwright ? The answer is, that Decker and Massinger attempted it, for a popular audience, in The Virgin Martyr "; and though the tragedy of “ The Virgin Martyr ” is a huddled mass of beauties and deformities, its materials of incident and characters, could Shakespeare have been attracted to them, might have been organized into as great a drama as Othello. Again, Marlowe, in his play of “Dr. Faustus,” has imperfectly treated a subject which in Shakespeare’s hands would have been made into a tragedy sublimer than Lear could he have thrown himself into it with equal earnestness. Marlowe, from the fact that he was a positive atheist, and a brawling one, had evidently at some time directed his whole heart and imagination to the consideration of religious questions, and had resolutely faced facts from which Shakespeare turned away.

Shakespeare, also, in common with the other dramatists of the time, looked at the Puritans as objects of satire, laughing at them instead of gazing into them. They were doubtless grotesque enough in external appearance; but the poet of human nature should have penetrated through the appearance to the substance, and recognized in them, not merely the possibility of Cromwell, but of the ideal of character which Cromwell but imperfectly represented. You may say that Shakespeare’s nature was too sunny and genial to admit the Puritan. It was not too sunny or genial to admit Richards, and Iagos, and Gonerils, and “ secret, black, and midnight hags.”

It may be doubted also if Shakespeare’s affinities extended to those numerous classes of human character that stand for the reforming and philanthropic sentiments of humanity. We doubt if he was hopeful for the race. He was too profoundly impressed with its disturbing passions to have faith in its continuous progress. Though immensely greater than Bacon, it may be questioned if he could thoroughly have appreciated Bacon's intellectual character. He could have delineated him to perfection in everything but in that peculiar philanthropy of the mind, that spiritual benignity, that belief in man and confidence in his future, which both atone and account for so many of Bacon’s moral defects. There is no character in his plays that covers the elements of such a man as Hildebrand or Luther, or either of the two Williams of Orange, or Hampden, or Howard, or Clarkson, or scores of other representative men whom history celebrates. Though the broadest individual nature which human nature has produced, human nature is immensely broader than he.

It would be easy to quote passages from Shakespeare’s works which would seem to indicate that his genius was not limited in any of the directions which have been pointed out ; but these passages are thoughts and observations, not men and women. Hamlet’s soliloquy, and Portia’s address to Shylock, might be adduced as proofs that he comprehended the religious element ; but then who would take Hamlet or Portia as representative of the religious character in any of its numerous historical forms ? There is a remark in one of his plays to this effect: —

“ It is an heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in "

This might be taken as a beautiful expression of Christian toleration, and is certainly admirable as a general thought ; but it indicates Shakespeare’s indifference to religious passions in indicating his superiority to them. It would have been a much greater achievement of genius to have passed into the mind and heart of the conscientious burner of heretics, seized the essence of the bigot’s character, and embodied in one great ideal individual a class of men whom we now both execrate and misconceive. If he could follow the dramatic process of his genius for Sir Toby Belch, why could he not do it for St. Dominic ?

Indeed, toleration, in the sense that Shakespeare has given to the word, is not expressed in maxims directed against intolerance, but in the exercise of charity towards intolerant men ; and it is thus necessary to indicate the limitations of his sympathy with his race, in order to appreciate its real quality and extent His unapproached greatness consists not in including human nature, but in taking the point of view ot those large classes of human nature he did include. His sympathetic insight was both serious and humorous ; and he thus equally escaped the intolerance of taste and the intolerance of intelligence. What we would call the worst criminals and the most stupid fools were, as mirrored in his mind, fairly dealt with ; every opportunity was afforded them to justify their right to exist; their words, thoughts, and acts were viewed in relation to their circumstances and character, so that he made them inwardly known, as well as outwardly perceived. The wonder of all this would be increased, if we supposed, for the sake of illustration, that the persons and events of all Shakespeare’s plays were historical, and that, instead of being represented by Shakespeare, they were narrated by Macaulay. The result would be that the impression received from the historian of every incident and every person would be different, and would be wrong. The external facts might not be altered; but the falsehood would proceed from the incapacity or indisposition of the historian to pierce to the heart of the facts by sympathy and imagination. There would be abundant information, abundant eloquence, abundant invective against crime, abundant scorn of stupidity and folly, perhaps much sagacious reflection and judicial scrutiny of evidence ; but the inward and essential truth would be wanting. What external statement of the acts and probable motives of Macbeth and Othello would convey the idea we have of them from being witnesses of the conflict of their thoughts and passions ? How wicked and shallow and feeble and foolish would Hamlet appear, if represented, not in the light of Shakespeare’s imagination, but in the light of Macaulay’s epigrams! How the historian would “ play the dazzling fence ” of his rhetoric on the indecision of the prince, his brutality to Ophelia, his cowardice, his impotence between contending motives, and the chaos of blunders and crimes in which he sinks from view ! The subject would be even a better one for him than that of James II. ; yet the very supposition of such a mode of treatment makes us feel the pathos of the real Hamlet’s injunction to the friend who strives to be his companion in death: —

“Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story."

If the historian would thus deal with the heroes, why, such “small deer” as Bardolph and Master Slender would of course be puffed out of existence with one hiss of lordly contempt. Yet Macaulay has a more vivid historical imagination, more power of placing himself in the age about which he writes, than historians like Hume and Hallam, whose judgments of men are summaries of qualities, and imply no inwardness of vision, no discerning of spirits. In the whole class, the point of view is the historian’s, and not the point of view of the persons the historian describes. The curse which clings to celebrity is, that it commonly enters history only to be puffed or lampooned.

The truth is, that most men, the intelligent and virtuous as well as the ignorant and vicious, are intolerant of other individualities. They are uncharitable by defect of sympathy and defect of insight. Society, even the best, is apt to be made up of people who are engaged in the agreeable occupation of despising each other ; for one association for mutual admiration there are twenty for mutual contempt; yet while conversation is thus mostly made up of strictures on individuals, it rarely evinces any just perception of individualities. James is indignant or jeering at the absence of James in John, and John is horror-stricken at the impudence of James in refusing to be John. Each person feels himself to be misunderstood, though he never questions his power to understand his neighbor. Egotism, vanity, prejudice, pride of opinion, conceit of excellence, a mean delight in recognizing inferiority in others, a meaner delight in refusing to recognize the superiority of others, all the honest and all the base forms of self-assertion, cloud and distort the vision when one mind directs its glance at another. For one person who is mentally conscientious there are thousands who are morally honest. The result is a vast massacre of character, which would move the observer’s compassion were it not that the victims are also the culprits, and that pity at the spectacle of the arrow quivering in the sufferer’s breast is checked by the sight of the bow bent in the sufferer's hands. This depreciation of others is the most approved method of exalting ourselves. It educates us in self-esteem, if not in knowledge. The savage conceives that the power of the enemy he kills is added to his own. Shakespeare more justly conceived that the power of the human being with whom he sympathized was added to his own.

This toleration, without which an internal knowledge of other natures is impossible, Shakespeare possessed beyond any other man recorded in literature or history. It is a moral as well as mental trait, and belongs to the highest class of virtues. It is a virtue which, if generally exercised, would remove mutual hostility by enlightening mutual ignorance. And in Shakespeare we have, for once, a man great enough to be modest and charitable ; who has the giant’s power, but, instead of using it like a giant, trampling on weaker creatures, prefers to feel them in his arms rather than feel them under his feet; and whose toleration of others is the exercise of humility, veracity, beneficence, and justice, as well as the exercise of reason, imagination, and humor. We shall never appreciate Shakespeare’s genius until we recognize in him the exercise of the most difficult virtues, as well as the exercise of the most wide-reaching intelligence.

It is, of course, not so wonderful that he should take the point of view of characters in themselves beautiful and noble, though even these might appear very different under the glance of a less soul-searching eye. To such aspects of life, however, all genius has a natural affinity. But the marvel of his comprehensiveness is his mode of dealing with the vulgar, the vicious, and the low, — with persons who are commonly spurned as dolts and knaves. His serene benevolence did not pause at what are called “deserving objects of charity,” but extended to the undeserving, who are, in truth, the proper objects of charity. If we compare him, in this respect, with poets like Dante and Milton, in whom elevation is the predominant characteristic, we shall find that they tolerate humanity only in its exceptional examples of beauty and might. They are aristocrats of intellect and conscience, —the noblest aristocracy, but also the haughtiest and most exclusive. They can sympathize with great energies, whether celestial or diabolic, but their attitude towards the feeble and the low is apt to be that of indifference or contempt. Milton can do justice to the Devil, though not, like Shakespeare, to “ poor devils.” But it may be doubted if the wise and good have the right to cut the Providential bond which connects them with the foolish and the bad, and set up an aristocratic humanity of their own, ten times more supercilious than the aristocracy of blood. Divorce the loftiest qualities from humility and geniality, and they quickly contract a pharisaic taint; and if there is anything which makes the wretched more wretched, it is the insolent condescension of patronizing benevolence,—if there is anything which makes the vicious more vicious, it is the “ I-ambetter-than-thou ” expression on the face of conscious virtue. Now Shakespeare had none of this pride of superiority, either in its noble or ignoble form. Consider that, if his gigantic powers had been directed by antipathies instead of sympathies, he would have left few classes of human character untouched by his terrible scorn. Even if his antipathies had been those of taste and morals, he would have done so much to make men hate and misunderstand each other, — so much to destroy the very sentiment of humanity, — that he would have earned the distinction of being the greatest satirist and the worst man that ever lived. But instead, how humanely he clings to the most unpromising forms of human nature, insists on their right to speak for themselves as much as if they were passionate Romeos and high-aspiring Buckinghams, and does for them what he might have desired should be done for himself had he been Dogberry, or Bottom, or Abhorson, or Bardolph, or any of the rest! The low characters, the clowns and vagabonds, of Ben Jonson’s plays, excite only contempt or disgust. Shakespeare takes the same materials as Ben, passes them through the medium of his imaginative humor, and changes them into subjects of the most soul-enriching mirth. Their actual prototypes would not be tolerated; but when his genius shines on them, they "lie in light” before our humorous vision. It must be admitted that in his explorations of the lower levels of human nature he sometimes touches the mud deposits ; still he never hisses or jeers at the poor relations through Adam he there discovers, but magnanimously gives them the wink of recognition !

This is one extreme of his genius, the poetic comprehension and embodiment of the low. What was the other extreme ? How high did he mount in the ideal region, and what class of his characters represent his loftiest flight? It is commonly asserted that his supernatural beings, his ghosts, spectres, witches, fairies, and the like, exhibiting his command of the dark side and the bright side, the terror and the grace, of the supernatural world, indicate his rarest quality ; for in these, it is said, he went out of human nature itself, and created beings that never existed. Wonderful as these are, we must recollect that in them he worked on a basis of popular superstitions, on a mythology as definite as that of Greece and Rome, and though he re-created instead of copying his materials, though he Shakespearianized them, he followed no different process of his genius in delineating Hecate and Titania than in delineating Dame Quickly and Anne Page. All his characters, from the rogue Autolycus to the heavenly Cordelia, are in a certain sense ideal; but the question now relates to the rarity of the elements, and the height of the mood, and not merely to the action of his mind ; and we think that the characters technically called supernatural which appear in his works are much nearer the earth than others which, though they lack the name, have more of the spiritual quality of the thing. The highest supernatural is to be found in the purest, highest, most beautiful souls.

Did it never strike you in reading “ The Tempest,” that Ariel is not so supernatural as Miranda ? We may be sure that Ferdinand so thought, in that rapture of wonder when her soul first shone on him through her innocent eyes ; and afterwards when he asks,

“ I do beseech you
(Chiefly that I might set it in my prayers)
What is your name ? ”

And doubtless there was a more marvellous melody in her voice than in the mysterious magical music

“That crept by him upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and his passion
With its sweet air.”

Shakespeare, indeed, in his transcendently beautiful embodiments of feminine excellence, the most exquisite creations in literature, passed into a region of sentiment and thought, of ideals and of ideas, altogether higher and more supernatural than that region in which he shaped his delicate Ariels and his fairy Titanias. The question has been raised whether sex extends to soul. However this may be decided, here is a soul, with its records in literature, who is at once the manliest of men, and the most womanly of women; who can not only recognize the feminine element in existing individuals, but discern the idea, the pattern, the radiant genius of womanhood itself, as it hovers, unseen to other eyes, over the living representatives of the sex. Literature boasts many eminent female poets and novelists ; but not one has ever approached Shakespeare in the purity, the sweetness, the refinement, the elevation, of his perceptions of feminine character, — much less approached him in the power of embodying his perceptions in persons. These characters are so thoroughly domesticated on the earth, that we are tempted to forget the heaven of invention from which he brought them. The most beautiful of spirits, they are the most tender of daughters, lovers, and wives. They are “airy shapes,” but they “syllable men’s names.” Rosalind, Juliet, Ophelia, Viola, Perdita, Miranda, Desdemona, Hermione, Portia, Isabella, Imogen, Cordelia, — if their names do not call up their natures, the most elaborate analysis of criticism will be of no avail. Do you say that these women are slightly idealized portraits of actual women ? Was Cordelia, for example, simply a good, affectionate daughter of a foolish old king? To Shakespeare, himself, she evidently partook of divineness ; and he hints of the still ecstasy of contemplation in which her nature first rose upon his imagination, when, speaking through the lips of a witness of her tears, he hallows them as they fall : —

"She shook the holy water from her heavenly eyes.”

And these Shakespearian women, though all radiations from one great ideal of womanhood, are at the same time intensely individualized. Each has a separate soul, and the processes of intellect as well as emotion are different in each. Each, for example, is endowed with the faculty, and is steeped in the atmosphere, of imagination ; but who could mistake the imagination of Ophelia for the imagination of Imogen ? — the loitering, lingering movement of the one, softly consecrating whatever it touches, for the irradiating, smiting efficiency, the flash and the bolt, of the other? Imogen is perhaps the most completely expressed of Shakespeare’s women; for in her every faculty and affection is fused with imagination, and the most exquisite tenderness is combined with vigor and velocity of nature. Her mind darts in an instant to the ultimate of everything. After she has parted with her husband, she does not merely say that she will pray for him. Her affection is winged, and in a moment she is enskied. She does not look up, she goes up: she would have charged him, she says,

At the sixth hour of morn, at noon, at midnight,
T’ encounter me with orisons, for then
I am in heaven for him."

When she hears of her husband’s inconstancy, the possible object of his sensual whim is at once consumed in the fire that leaps from her impassioned lips, —

“ Some jay of Italy,
Whose mother is her painting, hath betrayed him.”

Mr. Collier, ludicrously misconceiving the instinctive action of Imogen’s mind, thinks the true reading is, “smothers her with painting.” Now Imogen’s wrath first reduces the light woman to the most contemptible of birds and the most infamous of symbols, the jay, and then, not willing to leave her any substance at all, annihilates her very being with the swift thought that the paint on her cheeks is her mother,—-that she is nothing but the mere creation of painting, a phantom born of a color, without real body or soul. It would be easy to show that the mental processes of all Shakespeare’s women are as individual as their dispositions.

And now think of the amplitude of this man’s soul ! Within the immense space which stretches between Dogberry or Launcelot Gobbo and Imogen or Cordelia, lies the Shakespearian world. No other man ever exhibited such philosophic comprehensiveness, but philosophic comprehensiveness is often displayed apart from creative comprehensiveness, and along the whole vast line of facts, laws, analogies, and relations that Shakespeare’s intellect extended, his perceptions were vital, his insight was creative, his thoughts flowed in forms. And now was he proud of his transcendent superiorities ? Did he think that he had exhausted all that can appear before the sight of the eye and the sight of the soul? No. The immeasurable opulence of the undiscovered and undiscerned regions of existence was never felt with more reverent humility than by this discoverer, who had seen in rapturous vision so many new worlds open on his view. In the play which perhaps best indicates the ecstatic action of his mind, and which is alive in every part with that fiery sense of unlimited power which the mood of ecstasy gives, — in the play of “Antony and Cleopatra,” he has put into the mouth of the Soothsayer what seems to have been his own modest judgment of the extent of his glance into the universe of matter and mind : —

“ In Nature’s infinite book of secrecy
A little I can read ! ”