The Anatomizing of William Shakespeare


SHAKESPEARE worked his wonders in the old way. He invented nothing; he created nothing but character. The greatest of dramatists, he contributed to the drama nothing but himself; the greatest of poets, he gave to poetry not even a new rhythm or a new stanza. He ran not only on the old road, but in the old ruts. Like others born to fame, he did his early work in imitation and in emulation of his immediate predecessors and older contemporaries ; unlike most of those who, although inferior to him, were of the superior grade in art, he did not, after the rapid development of his power, contrive for himself new forms, nor did his genius lead him into new methods. The structure of his dramas is simply that of his time, which seems to have been .determined by an unexpressed consensus of all the principal playwrights who between the years 1590 and 1613 (the date of his last work) were, like him, earning their bread by writing for the London theatres. In this respect his later dramas show no advance upon his earlier. Indeed, his latest works, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and Henry VIII., are inferior in constructive art to those of his middle period, and are not only inferior, but marked by a return to the formless structure of the loose, ill-proportioned, unsymmetrical, and purposeless dramatized tales and acted stories that filled the stage in his earlier theatrical life. His thought became grander and stronger, his style more splendid as well as subtler and more delicate ; his conception of character was certainly not weaker nor less vivid when he imagined Cleopatra and Imogen than it had ever been ; but he seems to have been absolutely without a purpose or an ideal in his art, and almost as ready to do a theatrical job after he had written Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, and Othello as he was before he had written Romeo and Juliet. In all literature, where is there another work so formless, so huddled and heterogeneous, so chaotic, as Cymbeline? In all literature, where is the woman whom even her creator would dare to place by the side of Imogen ?

This lack of originality in form, this absence of high art-purpose, is, however, no evidence in derogation of the creative force or the individual newness of his genius. Endeavor for originality is no more than ambition of fame evidence of natural endowment in art, literary or other. Rather, indeed, are they both indications of innate weakness than of innate power. They have oftener been the motives of the feeble than of the strong. Distrust the poet, the painter, the musician, who has determined to be original, who means to give the world something new. Above all, distrust him whose avowed purpose is to elevate his art. Him trust, hope in him, who is urged by inborn impulse to utter that which springs within him, and which in utterance takes form, he knows not how, he asks not why nor wherefore. He who seeks to elevate his art is an egoist, who of the two, he and art, thinks himself the greater. Beethoven, not most inspired, but most individual, self-asserting, and peculiar, if not most original and creative, of the masters of his art, remained not only during his most active and energized period, but during the period of his grandest and most original conceptions, within the forms which dominated the art when he entered it. The strongest and most characteristic works of the latter part of his second period, when he was in the unimpaired plenitude of power, do not vary in form from those which he produced when he had but just left the inadequate tutelage of Haydn, and was emulous of Mozart. The eighth symphony (op. 93) is as “regular” in form not only as the first or the second (op. 21 and 36), but as either of the string trios, which are among his very earliest work (op. 9). And indeed the third of this set (in C minor) is not only in its harmony and movement of parts, but in its treatment of themes, one of his most characteristic works; yet as to its form it might have been written by Haydn;1 but this is also true of later works. A theory and a purpose never quickened creative power, never aided conception of the beautiful, which alone produce that which lives. Every one of the few phrases of Gluck’s music that live in the world’s memory (for example, Che faro and the Choruses in Iphigenia, and the like) might have been written quite as well if he had had no theory. They are born of delight in the beautiful, not of a theory.

Shakespeare was led astray into no vagaries of originality, but went on pouring out the wealth and beauty of his thought through the old channels, — channels cut not by this man or by that, but worn gradually by the course of natural forces. Whether he had impulses toward originality we do not know ; but I am inclined to the belief that he had not, and that in this respect, as in some others, he was not only careless, but even thoughtless, about his art. What engaged him chiefly seems to have been the feeling and the thought suggested by dramatic situation ; and this he expressed just as it came into his mind at the moment (of which there is evidence, as we shall see), not only without elaboration of any kind, but with little or no concern as to the correctness or the logical consistency of his language. It was the significance of his words and of his phrases in the whole that he looked at; and he was content if these conveyed his meaning vividly and forcibly. His success is a perpetual rebuke to the whole tribe of purists and precisians in language, grammarians, rhetoricians, and in sisters upon “ authority ” and the law of best usage and what not; and it defies the efforts of all language classifiers and labelers. His recklessness in this respect led him not unfrequently to clothe the children of his brain in tattered and grotesque array. But his daring and his genius for expression, working together, enabled him, with rare — comparatively rare — exceptions, to triumph over difficulties which cramp the utterance of the devotees of decorum. It is the weight and worth of the thoughts thus put forth in ragged splendor, the gold of which these extravagant paper promises are the sign, upon which the appreciative reader of Shakespeare fixes his attention.

Nevertheless, although Shakespeare is sententious, although his lines are beauty made fruitful by strength, and are pregnant with truth and wisdom, there is in him a notable absence of all endeavor to be sententious. He never shows that conscious effort to be equal to the occasion which is apparent, for example, in Faust, and which is wholly absentin the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Divina Comédia. His inclination to play with language, and his facility in doing it, lead him sometimes into infelicitous antithetical conceits, which are the great blemishes of his writing, and at others into a shower of figures which makes us feel as if we were beaten about the brains with tropes and stoned with epithets. These, however, are exceptional extravagances ; and in his better moods, when he is most radiant, he shines with an unconscious light, and without that labored brilliancy and sententiousness which makes the reading of Taine, and sometimes of Carlyle, as wearisome and exhausting as if we shared their fruitful but audible pangs of travail.

There is no doubt that much of Shakespeare’s power and more of his allurement lie in what has been recognized as his universal sympathy. He does not hold himself aloof from men. As we know him in his writings, he, the strongest, can feel with the weakest; he who can breathe the highest and purest moral atmosphere does not look down upon those in the lowest and foulest. As a writer he was no respecter of persons; and therefore the whole world is his. But we may be no less sure that in great measure this sympathy was a sympathy of indifference. As a man he may have had inclining to good ; as an artist he had no revulsion from evil. His touch lingers as fondly upon reprobate Falstaff, who shares the fruits of his followers’ thievery, as it does upon Cassio, the most completely admirable and lovable of his men. He sympathized as thoroughly with Cleopatra as with Imogen. He does not seem to shrink even from that most contemptible of all his creatures, Parolles. He did not believe enough in the underlying principles of damnation to make an auto da fé of sinners.

Hence we must exempt him from personal responsibility for the utterance of his creatures. It is never safe to assume that “ Shakespeare has said” thus or so. He merely puts into the mouths of his personages what it seemed to him fitting that they should say in the circumstances in which they are placed. It is not he who, after describing a virtuous and lovable woman, says that she is only fit “ to suckle fools and chronicle small beer ; ” it is that sneering reprobate lago. Nevertheless, we feel that he had a certain fellowship, if not with the speaker, with the callous cynicism which found utterance in the speech. There is only this one fault (if it really be a fault) that censoriousness can find with Shakespeare’s treatment of character : that by representing it thus without favor or disfavor, according to nature, he wins some sympathy from us with even the lowest forms of humanity, and presents us very few personages — perhaps only Imogen, Hermione, Antonio, and Cassio — who are in all things to be approved. Shakespeare’s dramatic morality was worldwide ; as wide as the firmament, and as deep as the waters underneath the firmament.

It is to this complete, unquestioning sympathy with his personages — all of them — and to his matchless genius for expression that we owe that introduction of living character into literature which took place in his dramas. Even in Dante we really find little of the complexity and subtlety of organic human nature. We see his figures looming awfully through misty gloom or misty glory ; we hear their sins and sorrows grandly told. In Shakespeare they sin and sorrow and joy before our eyes. Hence it is that, although the course of his dramas, and not only his personages but their characters, are found in the old tales, the novelli, the chronicles, and the old plays, — like Falstaff “of intolerable entrails,” — which he worked up, or worked over, for his stage, they become in his hands the ministers of immortal wisdom and immortal joy. To illustrate this briefly, — with, to me, disappointing brevity : although in the old story of Romeus and Juliet Romeo finds Juliet at her window, leaning her cheek upon her hand, as in the play, it is only Shakespeare who makes the enamored youth exclaim,—

“ O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek! ”

Although in the old story, as in the play, the Nurse praises Paris, and counsels Juliet to marry him, she being already Romeo’s wife, it is only Shakespeare who makes the young wife turn her eyes upon the retreating beldam, and utter those two words, “ Ancient damnation,” that so tell us what the Nurse is and what Juliet. The Cleopatra of Shakespeare is the Cleopatra of Plutarch; — in character, no more, no less ; but it is only from Shakespeare that we know that

“ Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety.”

It is only in Shakespeare that the vanquished queen, not forgetful of her rival in the midst of her despair, says, —

“If knife, drugs, serpents, have
Edge, sting, or operation, I am safe.
Your wife Octavia, with her modest eyes
And still conclusion, shall acquire no honour
Demuring upon me.”

Twinkling specks plucked out of Shakespeare’s dazzling dome of glory, these instances yet show how it was that he changed death into life and darkness into light.

To be Shakespeare, what was it ? — to be this man, before whose usual daily vision the world lay open like a map spread out; who saw men’s secret motives and secret impulses as we see gleams of light in darkness; to whose inner eye all that is beautiful and all that is bad in this beautiful, bad world was as plainly manifest as to his bodily eye were the flowers and the mire about his feet; and who, peasant-born and theatre-bred, was, in Vergil’s phrase, so happy as to know the causes of things, and so fortunate as to gain comfortable livelihood and unlooked-for wealth by telling what he saw and knew in words that charmed his hearers then, and since then have been discovered to be treasures of joy and wisdom, enriching all humanity? What manner of man was it that did this ? What, in his very self, was this miracle of men ? For I take it that Shakespeare was the most nearly miraculous manifestation of the all-forming power that the earth has ever seen. We know very little of him; but if we are hero-worshipers, and he is our hero, that little is too much. There was in the man Shakespeare, as I see him, much to admire and something to like, but nothing to worship. I once asked a friend, whose instincts and perceptions I had learned to respect, without always finding them conclusive, for an opinion upon Shakespeare as a person. The reply was, “I have none, — never have formed one; but,” after a pause, “I suppose he was rather a coarse, vulgar fellow.” To my astonished look of inquiry, the answer came, “ How could he have been otherwise, born in the very lowest condition of rustic life, bred among ruffling players, whose very profession was then a reproach and a condition of vagabondage ? What he wrote is no sign of what he was.”

What surprised me in this hastily uttered opinion was, not so much the opinion itself as its independence, and the application, even in the freedom of friendly intercourse, of such a phrase as “ coarse, vulgar fellow ” to William Shakespeare. Nevertheless, although I could not accept it, or accord with it, I could not but see that for it there was much reason. That a man of Shakespeare’s origin and Shakespeare’s life in the reigns of Elizabeth and James should have been personally coarse and vulgar, conforms to all the probabilities. That Ben Jonson was coarse and vulgar according to our present standard of manners is hardly doubtful ; and if he, why not Shakespeare ? Of the two, Jonson was certainly much the better educated, probably the better bred, and had seen largely more of the world. Yet we may be sure that Shakespeare was, if not in character, in his external personality, notably the superior man, much more in appearance and in manner “a gentleman.” Not, indeed, because of the incomparable superiority of his writing to Jonson’s ; for in this respect the opinion which I have cited is beyond all question sound. Between what a man is and what he writes there is no necessary likeness, no connection of cause and effect. Intellectual perceptions of the finest quality united to the power of expressing them fitly and impressively do by no means imply a corresponding personality in morals or in manners. Goldsmith, we know, “ wrote like an angel and talked like poor Poll; ” and not only so, but that he sometimes acted like Poll’s rival, the monkey. The author of the Vicar of Wakefield, of The Citizen of the World, and of She Stoops to Conquer had not only the most charming style in which modern English has ever been written, but a knowledge of the world which was the result of a singular and almost unequaled union of purity and sagacity. He was, of all the writers of genius known to our literature, the freest from any taint of intellectual vulgarity. His views of life, as presented in his writings, are distinguished by soundness, simplicity, and a good taste which gives them an air of elegance more genuine than Addison’s. And yet all that we know of him — and we know much — points him out as a man who, in his personal bearing, was chiefly notable for the absence of tact, of good taste, and of good breeding. He was lovable, and he was loved, but in spite of his awkwardness, his blunders, his vanity, his egoism, his imprudence, and his bad manners.

In our own day an eminent writer in Europe is an obtrusive example of this incongruity. I have never seen him ; but a New York lady, who had found great delight in his writings because of their purity and elevation of tone, and a certain atmosphere of serene elegance that breathes through them, and chiefly because of his equally lofty and charming ideal of womanhood, told me that, having brought it about that be should call on her, she was shocked at the appearance of a man ignoble in every way : slovenly in dress, unclean in person, coarse in manners, and altogether so uncouth, sordid, and repulsive that she rid herself of his company as soon as she could do so with civility, and sat down in sorrow to mourn over her shattered ideal.

That Shakespeare’s personality was of a very different order from this man’s and from Goldsmith’s, we may safely infer from even the little that has come down to us in relation to him. The tradition that he was “ a handsome, wellshaped man ” is confirmed by his effigy in Stratford church, although that shows him middle-aged, fat-faced, and portly. But what he was in manners and in bearing we know chiefly from a trait in his character which presents him in a light which must make him appear to those who judge by Thackeray’s (literary) standard somewhat unamiable and not entitled to reverence; hardly to admiration. His social tastes and likings led him to seek the society and the friendship of those above him in social position ; and his person and manner were such that in this respect, as in most others, he attained his desire. No sooner did he begin to achieve distinction as a writer and to thrive in purse, than this son of a Warwickshire peasant began also to set up to be a gentleman and the associate of gentlemen. This in the England of Queen Elizabeth was something very different from what it would be in the England of Victoria; it implied a very much greater presumption. But that Shakespeare had a certain warrant for his presumption is shown by his speedy success.

Our first knowledge of his London life shows him to us in 1592, — only six years after his flight from the sordid obscurity of Stratford, to find an inferior place in a profession then regarded as one of disreputable vagabondage, — in favor with people of high social position. Greene’s attack upon him (and Greene, although a very “ deboshed fish,” was a scholar and a man of talent), as “an upstart crow,” a bombaster of blank verse, and a pretender to the honors that belonged to others, showed how he was rising. It was one of those shafts of malice and envy which little souls launch at their superiors who have attained a certain eminence, but one not so high that there is no hope of injuring them by poisoned stings. This, however, touched Shakespeare merely in his literary, or rather his play-writing, function, and is evidence only of his rising reputation as a writer. It gave offense, however, to Shakespeare’s friends ; and from an apology published for it by Cliettle, Greene’s editor (Greene was dead), we learn that among those were persons “ of worship; ” that is, men of recognized social rank as “gentlemen.” Chettle says, too, that he himself had seen Shakespeare’s “ demeanor no lesse civil than he exclent in the qualitie he professes.” It was about this time, also, that the young playwright dedicated his first literary work, Venus and Adonis, to the Earl of Southampton, using language which, although discreet and reserved, — notable, indeed, for dignity and good taste, — showed that he was on easy terms with his patron ; as easy as at that time could obtain between a player-poet and a peer.

What tact, what social craft, what personal fitness, what clear fixedness of purpose, there must have been in the Stratford exile, to bring about so early such relations with such men ! To attain this position, and to have the means to support it, was the sole object of his life, the one great end of his labor. From the way in which he is spoken of and the manner in which he is approached by his old Stratford countrymen, we gather that he had a certain dignity and reserve of manner which — after he had become prosperous; not before — were tolerated and recognized as becoming. He was plainly a man who knew and practiced the art of “ getting on ” socially, which, although it is rarely consistent with independence of character and a high moral tone, is, like lowliness, “young ambition’s ladder.”

Shakespeare was manifestly one of those men who, by a union of prudence and pleasant manner and thrift, are well fitted to attain social success, He was a prosperous man, and in his person, his manners, and his bearing “a gentleman.” It went hardly with him however, that he was not really a gentleman according to the standard of his time and country ; that he could not, like his own Justice Shallow, “ write armigero in any bill, warrant, quittance, or obligation.” He set himself to work diligently to remedy this defect in the article of his gentry. We have not direct testimony as to the fact, but there is not the slightest moral doubt of it. He, however, did not wish to he made a gentleman in his own person, and to be pointed out by his fellow actors as not only a literary but a social upstart. Too crafty for that, his endeavor was to have his father, the poor old bailiff-hunted Stratford peasant, made a gentleman of coat armor ; the consequence of which would have been that he, William Shakespeare, would have been a gentleman by birth. Money did such things then as it has done since; and the Herald’s College went so far as to design and prick out arms for John Shakespeare, accompanied by a draft of a patent containing utterly false assertions as to his origin and that of his wife, which could have had but one source. Here, however, Shakespeare failed. The arms were not confirmed. But as they belonged to no one else, the rich actor and Stratford tithe-owner assumed them and the status which they implied. It must have been a proud day for the author of King Lear and Hamlet when he saw himself described in a law document as “ William Shakespeare, of Stratford-onAvon in the county of Warwick, Gentleman.”

This is not, from the Thackeray (literary) point of view, a very admirable attitude in which to contemplate him whose fame is the greatest in all literature. But Shakespeare being personally the man he was, having the tastes, the character, and the means to sustain the position that he sought, and the customs and habits of his time being what they were, it would be a hard, harsh judgment which condemned him without reserve for this proceeding. For then to be by birth a gentleman of coat armor brought a consideration of a kind which is grateful to the taste and the feelings of any man of gentlemanly habits of mind and life (which Shakespeare certainly had), and which was attainable in no other way. Let those who have never done a “snobbish” thing cast the first stone at his memory. My hand shall not launch the missile ; but as I am seeking and setting forth facts, this one must be recorded and held up in its true light.

Again, what manner of man was Shakespeare in his inner life — morally ? How can we tell ? What do we know of the inner life, the real moral entity, of men with whom for years we have had personal relations ? How often do we find that we have misjudged them, wronged them grievously ! Not all of us are noble and tender enough to be capable of remorse. If we were, how many of us would in this way know its sting! And upon this man, of whom we know so little and at whom we must look back through the obscuring remoteness of nearly three centuries, how shall we dare to sit iu judgment! Yet we are not without some means of knowing pretty surely, although within a narrow range, what kind of man this Shakespeare was.

It has been assumed by many of his admiring critics, commentators, anatomists, that, having been a great poet, he must therefore have been a good man. This is a view likely to have general welcome. Laudation of the great is always welcome to the worshipers of greatness. Many men, perhaps most men, seem to feel that they themselves become admirable by praising that which is praiseworthy. They see their own faces in the brightness that they look upon. Again we have the old story which Shakespeare himself told by the lips of the snarling cynic Jaques, — of giving the sum of more to him which hath too much. Because a man has many things, therefore shall he have all. Because he has little, let us take from him some of that little. Has he nothing ? Let him be damned to eternal poverty and eternal friendlessness. We all know the monstrous magnification of Mr. Charles Knight’s biography of Shakespeare, in which a few meagre facts were expanded and imped until they could bear up an huge octavo volume, in which all Elizabethan England was made a great intellectual and social system revolving around Shakespeare, — a man of whom comparatively few of those in-figuring personages knew anything, and those few only that he was a successful playwright and a pleasant, well-mannered man ; a book whose leaves are all rose-tinted, whose language is all eulogy.

But it is not necessary to come down so far as the middle of the nineteenth century to find personal praise of Shakespeare, Upton, who wrote a century before Knight, and whose little volume shows that he was not only one of the most learned but one of the most perceptive and discreet of Shakespeare’s critics, will have it that he is an “ undoubted example ” of the truth of Ben Jonson’s view of this question. Now Jonson declared that “if men will impartially, and not a-squiut, looke toward the offices and function of a poet, they will easily conclude to themselves the impossibility of any one’s being a good poet without first being a good man,” — a most shameless piece of self-eulogy ; for that Ben was sure that he was not only a good poet, but a great poet, who that knows him can doubt a moment? But Jonson could be generous when he set out to be so ; and he says, in his eulogy prefixed to the folio of 1623,—

“ Looke how the fathers face
Lives in his issue, even so the race
Of Shakespeares mind and manners brightly shines
In his well torned and true filed lines :
In each of which he seemes to shake a lance,
As brandish’t at the eyes of Ignorance.”

But eulogies in verse of recently departed merit, or demerit, may profitably be scanned with doubt and discrimination by those who would know the truth in regard to their subjects. If Shakespeare’s mind and manners were, in Jonson’s opinion, to be judged by the manner in which he turned and filed his lines, an appeal from Jonson drunk with the flow of eulogy to Jonson sober on the bench of criticism would make sad havoc with the character of the “ sweet Swan of Avon,” as we shall see hereafter. As to carefulness and elaboration in writing, Jonson was Shakespeare’s severest censor. Nor is it credible for a moment that Jonson believed what he said (referring to Shakespeare’s armes parlantes, or punning arms) when he declared that the spear-shaker shook his lines in the eyes of ignorance. No one knew better than Jonson that the dramas of the uneducated Shakespeare, filled as they are with wisdom and the evidences of a power of assimilating knowledge which is unequaled and, without hyperbole, marvelous, are in many passages only splendid monuments to their writer’s ignorance,— ignorance of that of which Jonson would have regarded a knowledge as almost elemental in an educated man.

It is much more to the purpose of showing that Shakespeare was loyal, amiable, and good-natured when Jonson says, in his Discoveries, “ I loved the man, and do honour his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any. He was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature.” Here “ honest ” means much more than merely truthful and trustworthy. It does mean loyal, ingenuous, generosus; and this testimony is the most important and significant that we have to the admirable and lovable side of Shakespeare’s personal character. All the more is it so when the rough, gruff, and even quarrelsome and envious nature of the eulogist is considered.

Shakespeare, it would seem, had in a notable degree the attaching quality ; which is sometimes found united with great intellectual power, but which quite as often is found, and at least in an equal degree, in those who are far from being distinguished either for wisdom or for knowledge. Nor, indeed, is this quality always or necessarily accompanied by truthfulness, or purity, or honesty, or kindness, or moral goodness of any kind. Bad men, selfish men, often have it : men of the highest moral excellence, men who are unselfish even to self-sacrifice, are often wholly without its charm. It seems to be the result of a union of manner and tact, and to be quite as often as not the result of purpose, of determination and skill in the art of “ making friends.” Its most common methods and indications are a delicate way of flattering the vanity and serving — generally in small matters — the interests of those around us. Shakespeare himself knew this, as he appears to have known by intuition everything about man’s moral nature ; and his greatest villain, the blackest-hearted human fiend in imaginative literature, —it is needless to name lago, — has it in a greater degree than any other personage that appears in his dramas. Nor was lago, in seeming (and in social relations, if not in personal, seeming is reality), without the other qualities which Jonson found in Shakespeare. Until the catastrophe of the great tragedy is close at hand, we have the testimony of every person involved in it that lago was indeed honest and of an open and free nature. To the noble Moor he was to the very end “ honest, honest Iago; ” and Cassio believed unto the last that lago loved him.

Let me not be misunderstood or misrepresented. That Shakespeare was no such hypocrite and fiend as lago was needs not be said. All that we have to remember is that, according to the very showing of the great master of the human heart, the light-giving sun of worldly wisdom, Jonson’s testimony does not prove that he might not have been so,— does not even prove that upon sufficient provocation and good occasion he might not have put such hypocrisy and fiendislmess in practice. Jonson’s testimony tells us merely what Jonson thought. It does, however, make it highly improbable that Shakespeare was untrustworthy or unscrupulously selfish ; it does make it certain that he appeared to those who were in constant and intimate association with him a man of an honest, frank, lovable nature.

A careful consideration of what we know about Shakespeare the man leads to the conclusion that he was one of those who play to win ; — always, the game of life or any other game. Success, the getting and keeping of his own, were the ends he kept constantly in view. To this he brought an unequaled knowledge of men and things, and an ability in affairs which (considering the limited field of his action in this respect) seems to have been not inferior to his other personal gifts. He presents to us the strange and admirable union of a good manager and a great poet, an economist and a writer of fiction, a player and a man of thrift. Like many other men, — can we not say like most other men? — vastly his inferiors, he had two natures : Shakespeare the poet was one man ; Shakespeare outside the realm of poetry was another man. The two orbits in which his dual nature revolved did not overlap ; they did not even touch. Unlike and far above all the rest of the world in some things, in this he was like many of the humblest of his worshipers.

Now it is sadly sure that success in life, the success which consists chiefly in rising from poverty to wealth, is, with very rare exceptions, the accompaniment and the consequence of a certain hardness of nature. Successful men are those who make hard bargains with the world, and hardly hold to them. If to this quality they add tact, the power of managing, the power of personally pleasing those with whom they are brought in contact; and if, moreover, they have brilliant talents, their success attains the point of splendor. All these qualities seem to have been Shakespeare’s ; all this success he certainly did attain.

The notion that a good poet must he a good man may be dismissed without further consideration, notwithstanding the respectability of the names by which it is supported. Indeed, all general rules of moral judgment, all opinions of men formed upon classification, are futile and untrustworthy. A man is an individual, and must be judged by himself. The interesting question remains, Was this great poet a good man? We don’t know. We only know that he was civil in his demeanor; that his conduct united with his great mental gifts to win him, standing in the lowest social position, the favor of those who were in the highest; that Ben Jonson loved him (his recognition of the merit of Every Man in his Humour brought Ben into notice) and thought him honest and of a free and open nature ; that, being only an actor and a playwright, he rose rapidly from absolute poverty to very considerable wealth ; that to please the coarse tastes of a considerable part of the public, by pleasing which he prospered, he who when he spoke judicially denounced indecency as had in morals and bad in art made his plays more copiously, more grossly, and more ingeniously indecent than any others known to modern literature ; that he sued one of his Stratford townsmen for £1 15s. 10d, and another for £6, and getting judgment against the latter, and not being able to arrest him, he proceeded against his surety ; that he did not save his father from similar prosecution on the part of his creditors, but that he did buy from the Herald’s College a coat-of-arms for that father, and a patent of gentry full of falsehood, of winch he, at least, was cognizant ; and that when William Combe, the squire of Welcombe, projected the inclosure of a large part of the commonfields at Stratford-on-Avon, and there was great opposition in the interests of such men as Shakespeare’s father and the poor agricultural laborers, he, notwithstanding entreaty, stood by the rich, grasping squire.

We may be sure that Shakespeare’s life was, according to the manners and morals of the time, decorous, — considering his profession, notably decorous ; that his manners were ingratiating; and that above all things else he was prudent : that after his first bitter experience at Stratford of the consequences of youthful imprudence the guiding rule of his life was, “Nullum numen abest, si sit prudentia ; ” 2 that he was at the least prudently just; that he was prudently kind in his actions, and perhaps more ; that it probably was agreeable to him to be more than prudently courteous; that he manifested imprudently no personal resentments or dislikes ; and that he brought, with notable discretion, all his great faculties and all his intuitive knowledge of the world not only to his task of play-writing, but to the advancement of his fortunes and the elevation of his social position.

The condition of life in which he found himself was one from which his taste revolted. He loathed his profession, acting, and looked upon his occupation, play-writing, only as a means of getting money. This he tells us himself in two of those sonnets (the 110th and 111th) which he circulated among his private friends. The passages are well known to all students of his life and writings, but they will bear repetition here. They are mingled with others which refer to that bewildering personal story which seems to be told in those fascinating verses. As to his profession, he says in the second of these sonnets, —

‘ O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdu’d
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.”

Most sad, most touching ; in expression almost beyond just admiration. Was bitterness of soul, was the anguish of a man who eats his own heart in secret, ever told with so much of abasement and so much of reserve ? Knowing himself to be so far by nature above most of the grand people he saw around him, he felt every hour how much, in their eyes and in position, he was beneath them ! And then his means were public. He could not conceal from others the stigma of his caste : he must parade it daily, and daily suffer from its contamination. Then as to his play-writing he says in the other sonnet,—

“Alas, ’t is true ; I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gor’d mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new ;
Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely.”

Sad, sad again : this revelation not only of his consciousness that he was deliberately coining his soul into money, but that for money’s sake he had “ looked on truth askance and strangely that for money’s sake he had morally been reckless of his own rede ; that in his counsel he could say meliora probo, but in his action deteriora sequor ; and this not from waywardness, or wantonness, or heat of blood, but in the way of “ business,” — which, by the way, as the common shield of all abomination has become the most loathsome word in the English language. But Shakespeare being the man he was, his position was one of constant suffering and sore perplexity, and his only relief from it was by the attainment of wealth. We need not shut our eyes to the truth as we confess that it becomes very few of us to judge him harshly.

Richard Grant White.

  1. T hese trios those of my fellow amateurs who may not know them (and I have found many such) will thank me for bringing to their attention. They are among Beethoven’s most delightful minor works ; and that in C minor carries weight enough in some passages for a symphony. They would be better known to amateurs if there were more amateur players of the viola, an instrument for which, in private quartette-playing, a professional musician must usually be engaged. It deserves more attention from amateurs of the higher music, to the enjoyment of which it will introduce them at an expenditure of time and practice which is small to that demanded by the violin or the violoncello: and amateur viola-players are in great demand.
  2. If prudence be present, no divinity is absent.