OUR path through Shakespeare’s works and life has brought us near at least to the question of his own view of the value and functions of the former, and his intentions with regard to them. Most of his critics have expressed surprise at his neglect of his plays, and many of them, including recently one of the ablest and best informed, have avowed the belief that it was his intention to prepare them for publication after his retirement to New Place at Stratford. With these opinions I cannot agree ; nor, indeed, for them can I see any ground. Pope did not always tell the truth when he wrote an epigram, — few epigrammatists do tell or care to tell it ; but writing half a century before the Shakespeare cultus was well established, he did write truly and well when he wrote that Shakespeare
And grew immortal in his own despite.”
Here in the word “ roving ” we have an epithet at once picturesque and finely critical, and if rhyme led the versewriting wit to the word “ despite,” we have in it one of the not rare examples of the compensating results of that artificial and distracting device.
Shakespeare’s exuberance of fancy is remarkable for the robust stem of common sense from which it bourgeons,— that common sense which seems, with a somewhat inexorable hardness, to have ruled his life. Of this life-wisdom there is no stronger negative proof than his absolute indifference to the allurement of that ignis fatuus, posthumous fame. For this he seems to have cared nothing ; of it he seems not to have thought. There is no evidence, even of an indirect sort, that it entered at all into his calculations as a part of the reward of his labor. And why should it have tempted him to give one day more to work, or one hour less to pleasure ? Fame is sweet; hut fame post mortem ! — what is it? More shadowy than Falstaff’s honor. I would not sacrifice one year of happy life, one substantial benefit to those I love, to leave behind me even the fame of Shakespeare. To be Shakespeare, to see what he saw, think what he thought, and feel what he felt, might have been in itself a life of highest happiness— and it, might not; but be he in heaven or in hell, or be he simply nowhere, his posthumous fame, supreme and deathless although it is, is no reward to him for any grief he suffered or any joy he lost by being Shakespeare. Wherever his soul may be, whatever may have become of it, what is this fame now to him ? What knows he of it? A fame which gilds the lives and lifts the hearts of a man’s children is payment for much labor and sorrow ; but beyond that fame is naught, — simply naught. Shakespeare saw that in these cases as well as in those to which Macbeth refers “ we still have judgment here.” A man’s earthly reward for his work is what he gets, and what he can give to his children ; what lies beyond that is not his. Shakespeare’s indifference to the fate of his plays was partly due to this view of posthumous fame, and partly to his desire as a “ gentleman ” not to give prominence or endurance to his theatrical reputation. As to his work itself, my own individual opinion, slowly formed through some years of study, is that, if he had been sitting with King Lear, Hamlet, and Othello before him in manuscript, unacted, and unread but bv him, and Southampton had offered him one hundred pounds each1 to destroy them and never rewrite them, the tragedies would have flitted into the lire, and the money have been gleefully locked up in the poet’s strong-box. He seems to have given up early in his career even the desire of contemporary fame in literature. Lucrece, written in 1593, when he was twenty-nine years old, was his second and last public effort in pure literature. His sonnets were private performances, for the gathering and publication of which the world owes a heavy debt of gratitude to a mysterious Mr. W. H.,—letters the shadow of a dead man’s name. In Shakespeare’s time plays were not regarded as literature ; the praise that he received, living, was almost wholly for his Venus and Adonis and his Lucrece. Had he, after writing Lucrece, been ambitious of higher literary fame, he could have as easily published another poem and a greater as have written those wonderful sonnets merely for his private friends ; but he seems to have been content, and to have bid adieu to literature as a profession before he was thirty years old, to give himself up to the business of play-writing and money-saving. Hence, in a great measure, that heedlessness of style, that readiness to torture words and twist constructions, that we find in his plays, and in his play’s only, and chiefly in the later. Anything to get his work into actable shape. As to the thoughts and the beauties that he wrought into it, they cost him neither time nor trouble ; they came by nature. His razors were made to sell : they happened to be bright and keen because he had nothing but steel of which to make them.
A fact has just been mentioned which is well known to all thoughtful students of Shakespeare’s dramas, but which must be here repeated and considered, — that certain conspicuous faults in his style appear chiefly in his later plays. They are found mostly in those plays, and only in his blank verse; never in prose dialogue. We have in Shakespeare the striking phenomenon — isolated, I believe, in the history of literature and art — of a loss of the command of the methods and the material of art accompanying practice and maturing years. This was no consequence of the enfeebling influence of age or of ill-health ; nor could its cause have been the weariness of overwork. Shakespeare’s last play was written when he was only fortynine years old, a period of life when a man’s intellect commonly unites (as his then did unite) the vigor of maturity with the vivacity of youth ; and he had then been working as a playwright only twenty-three years. Yet his later plays are, as literary work, far inferior to his earlier. This we have to say of him who was not only the mightiest intellect — intellect strongest, freshest, most original, most elastic, and most resourceful — known to the world, but also the greatest and completest master of all the mystery of the poet’s art. It is as if Raphael and Titian had lost their mastery of form and color as their faculties matured ; as if their technical skill had diminished with practice. Shakespeare’s thought became grander, higher reaching, as he grew in years, and his conceptions, his imagination, rose with his thought. Of this he could not but give evidence ; he could not be other than himself. But his writing, as literary work, fell often info slovenliness and confusion ; his verse lost much of its nobility and its charm ; and his muse, which once had the grandeur and the grace of a goddess, showing her divinity by her step, began to hobble and to shuffle like a worn-out jade, — this, too, when she was bearing thoughts upon her brow that might have been spoken upon Parnassus.
Need it be said that William Shakespeare at forty-five could have written blank verse with at least as much clearness and vigor and beauty as at any earlier age? It need not be said ; and that he could do so we know ; for he did it when he could do it with no trouble, or with little. But when his quick, thought-laden brain overdrove and overweighted even his large capacity of expression, he sometimes huddled his words into halting verses that had but a grotesque semblance of his splendid meaning.
Here I may fitly justify an assertion made in the earlier pages of this investigation, — that the character of Shakespeare’s genius, the secret of his style, and the charm and suggestiveness of his writing were understood as well as they are now in his own day, since when Shakespearean criticism has spread, but has neither mounted nor penetrated. The secret of his style is told with complete knowledge and apprehension by Ben Jonson. The passage of Jonson’s Discoveries in which he did this has been often quoted, but, as I venture with some confidence to think, without a just appreciation of its meaning and its importance. Jonson, a scholar, a good critic, a poet, although not a great one; a playwright, like the man he tells us that he loved, and to whom he was indebted for the production of his first play, says this : —
“I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, Would he had blotted a thousand! which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted. He 2 . . . had an excellent phantsie, brave notions and gentle expressions; wherein he showed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stop’d: suffaminandus erat, as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too! Many times he fell into those things that could not escape laughter. As when he said in the person of Cæsar, one speaking to him, ‘Cæsar, thou dost me wrong.’ He reply’d, ‘C$#230;sar did never wrong but with just cause; ’ and such like ; which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.”
The blunder here attributed to Shakespeare is not found in the play as it appears in the folio of 1623, our only text. But it is notably characteristic of him in his heedless moments ; and it is at least probable that the passage, as we have it, is corrected, because of such criticism as Jonson’s. It now stands thus:—
I spurn thee like a cur out of my way.
Know, Cæsar doth not wrong, nor without cause
Will he be satisfied.”
(Act III. Sc. 1, 1. 45.)
It will be observed that the speech ends with an imperfect verse. The next speech, instead of completing this, begins with a full and perfect verse. It is quite possible, and not at all improbable, that originally, when Cæsar said, “ I spurn thee,” Metellus Cimber replied, in the speech which Jonson gives, but which is not found in our text, “ Cæsar, thou dost me wrong,” and that the Dictator then said, “ Know, Cæsar doth not wrong but with just cause.” To remedy this, Cimber’s speech was cut out, and Cæsar’s speech was modified. But in consequence Cæsar’s defense of his wrong as it stands is without provocation ; and he is left in the position of one who, excusing himself, accuses himself. This, however, is only probability.
Jonson’s criticism reveals the secret of Shakespeare’s style ; its constant richness and its often splendor, and also its frequent faults. That secret is an open one. It is Shakespeare’s affluence of thoughts and of words, and the headlong heedlessness with which he often wrote. His facility of thought and of expression was so great that he had to be stopped. Sufflaminandus erat; that is, it was necessary, in an expressive vernacular phrase, to “ put on the brakes.” But this characterization of Haterius by Augustus, which Jonson applies to Shakespeare, occurs in a passage the whole of which Jonson plainly had in mind, and which is so pertinent to Shakespeare and so explanatory of Jonson’s criticism that it will be well to consider it in full: —
“ So divus Augustus well said : Our Haterius needed to be checked. For indeed he seemed not to run, but to rush headlong. Nor had he only an affluence of words, but of facts and thoughts.” 3
There could hardly be a more exact and Complete description of Shakespeare’s style than this criticism by Augustus of the almost unknown Haterius, who was an advocate and rhetorician of the post-Ciceronian period. The flood of utterance, the haste of words which becomes hurry, the pressure of knowledge and of thought; all this (but not the repetition of one thing) is Shakespeare to the life. This criticism might be beaten out thin, until it covered pages ; it might be fine drawn, until it would serve Shakespeare’s tricksy spirit to put about the earth, but that would not add a grain to its weight, or increase by a carat its value. Jonson, by the help of him who could not add a word to the Latin language, has perfectly characterized and described Shakespeare’s way of writing. He had an incomparable copiousness of thought and of language, and he used both with a facility which resulted mostly in an affluence of splendor, but sometimes, and too often, in brilliant confusion. Jonson considers the form and the substance of Shakespeare’s poetry : we do not know who it was who revealed to his contemporaries its spirit, and told them why it was that this man’s plays attracted and charmed them, both in the acting and the reading, as no other’s did. In the year 1609, when Shakespeare was forty-five years old, a very new play of his was published, one that had never been acted,— a singular fortune, for Shakespeare’s plays were written only for the stage, and in every other instance had become well known through the theatre before they were printed. How an authentic copy of this play was obtained, we have no means of knowing. This first edition of it was preceded by an address entitled “ A Never Writer to an Ever Reader. Newes,” and its first sentences are these : —
“Eternall reader, you have heere a new play, never stal’d with the Stage, never clapper-clawd with the palmes of the vulgar, and yet passing full of the palm comical; for it is a book of your braine 4 that never undertook anything commicall vainely: and were but the vaine names of Commedies changde for the titles of commodities, or of Playes for Pleas, you should see all those grand censors that now stile them such vanities flock to them for the maine grace of their gravities; especially this author’s Commedies that are so grained to the life that they serve for the most common Commentaries of all the actions of our lives, shewing such a dexteritie and power of witte that the most displeased with Playes are pleasd with his Commedies. And all such dull and heavy-witted worldlings as were never capable of the witte of a Commedie, coming by report, of them to his representations, have found that witte there that they never founde in themselves, and have parted better wilted than they came; feeling an edge of witte set upon them more then ever they dream’d they had braine to ground it on.”
I do not hesitate at saying, that in this passage is told compactly, but comprehensively, the whole secret of Shakespeare’s hold upon the world. Like Jonson’s criticism of his form and substance, it may by beating be spread out thinner, but it cannot be added to essentially. Remark, however, first, how preeminent was the comedy side of Shakespeare’s dramatic reputation. It is not that all dramas were then called comedies, which to a certain extent at least was the case. The “ tragedy ” is recommended as being passing full of the palm comical ; and the reader is reminded that it is the work of a brain that never undertook anything comical vainly. The word “comedies” is, however, applied to all dramas in the most important sentence of this contemporary criticism, strangely not remarked upon hitherto, as I believe. The people of London were told two hundred and seventy-five years ago that this author’s comedies were grained to the life. That was something; and it was then said for the first time, in print at least. But this does not yet touch the very bottom, which is reached in the declaration that Shakespeare’s dramas “ are so grained to the life that they serve for the most common commentaries of all the actions of our lives.” It would puzzle and pose the most effusive of Shakespeare’s eulogists to do more than to dilute that, sentence by adding himself to it, and then to begin exclaiming, O divine Shakespeare ! O exquisite Shakespeare ! O wonderful! For it recognizes the universality of Shakespeare’s genius, his knowledge of man’s heart, his wisdom, his sympathy, his felicity of thought and expression. And this it does in no vague, general way, but in specific terms. Consider them: Shakespeare’s dramas are not only to the life, but so grained to the life that they serve ns for daily commentaries upon all the actions of our own lives. We are told that we may go, and do go, to Shakespeare to apprehend ourselves, to learn the relation that exists between us and the world without us, to understand what we do, and why we do it, and what we are. And this is the secret of Shakespeare’s hold upon mankind. Literature has little value except as a revelation of man to himself. In true poetry that revelation becomes oracular; in dramatic poetry of the ideal sort it attains its highest expression. Now in this highest form of this revelation of man to himself Shakespeare stands supreme. His plays serve for common commentaries upon the actions, upon all the actions, of our lives. That is his supremacy, that his sign and token of power. It has rich garnishment and splendid trappings of beauty, but that is the substance of it ; and to this setting forth of it two centuries and three quarters ago nothing substantial has been added.
Yet (it would seem) that nothing should be lacking to the perfectness of the first appreciation of Shakespeare, there was added to this exposition of his quality a setting forth of the nature of the spell which he has cast upon the world. This is contained in the declaration that heavy-witted worldlings, coming to the representation or the reading of Shakespeare’s dramas, “ have found that wit there that they never found in themselves, and have parted better witted than they came.” Let it be remembered that wit then included both wit and wisdom, as we use the words; and could there be a more comprehensive exhibit than this of the effect of the worthy reading of Shakespeare, or of its strongest allurement to the reader? We go to Shakespeare to find in him the wit and the wisdom that we have not in ourselves ; and we part, or think we part, from him wiser and wittier than we came. My acquaintance with the work of the anatomists and eulogists of William Shakespeare has revealed to me nothing that is not said or implied in Ben Jonson’s criticism, and in that of this prologuer to Troilus and Cressida.
There can be no vainer expenditure of time and of labor than an attempt to treat the works of such a writer as Shakespeare upon a system. This is true equally of the spirit of his dramas and the form of his poetry. All efforts in this direction have resulted only in the production of theories more or less ingenious, which, after attracting little attention, or less than little, are disregarded by the mass of Shakespeare’s intelligent readers, and soon become known only as a part of the huge and heterogeneous Shakespeare bibliography. It is instructively remarkable that critics of Shakespeare who work in this way never benefit either the world or Shakespeare. Of this there could not be a more striking example than William Sydney Walker, who did not live to see the effect of his work, published some twenty or more years ago. He was without a doubt a man of learning, of critical faculty, of industry. His criticism is imposing from its volume, its coherence, its consistency, and its system, and from its consciously laborious air. Much was said of it, much expected. It was textual criticism ; but what service has it done to Shakespeare’s text ? Examine any critical edition produced since that time, and see that its effect has been, if not nothing, inappreciable.
Such work is not difficult to men with even less scholarship and insight than Walker’s. Almost any clever, educated man may set to work with his Shakespeare and half a dozen volumes of commentaries before him, and, abandoning himself to conjecture, elaborate comments and suggestions which to many readers of a certain sort — a mousing sort — shall seem pleasing, and even at times convincing. It is this facility that has flooded the world with the weak wash of Shakespeareanism. Look at Walker’s long, labored work, and see that in that which is not common to him and others, his predecessors or his contemporaries, there is very little of worth or weight. The impression produced by his book at first was due to its systematic arrangement: he worked by classification ; what he did had a scientific look. There is nothing more imposing upon dullness, whether popular or pedantic, than this air of system and science. Let a man arrange commonplaces alphabetically, or platitudes according to a system, and he surely will be looked upon and spoken of, for a time at least, as “an authority.” If the contents of a junk-shop were arranged and catalogued upon a system — characteristic or alphabetical — they would be looked upon with respect. For this there is some reason ; because classification is the first step to scientific knowledge of any subject which includes many related particulars. But it should never be forgotten that it is only the first step. The brains of many “ripe scholars” are little better than literary junk-shops ; and the value of their contents is not largely increased by classification.
I have heretofore mentioned the Shakespeare Lexicon, by the erudite Dr. Alexander Schmidt, of Koenigsberg. How ever learned Dr. Schmidt may be (and I believe that he is a scholar of most respectable attainments), however able (and I would willingly assume that his ability is equal to his scholarship), however painstaking (and his Lexicon shows him to be most commendable in this respect), I cannot but regard that work as absolutely worthless; and not only so, but as a conspicuous example of a kind of effort the fruits of which the world might well be spared. What it is and what is its value may be very briefly told.
Shakespeare used about fifteen thousand words.5 All of these words (except the articles, prepositions, and conjunctions) may be found in Mrs. Cowden Clarke’s Concordance of the Plays and the late much-loved and much-lamented Mrs. Horace Howard Furness’s Concordance of the Poems, — the latter of which has the great value given by the presence of all the words used, articles and what not. In both these works the words appear with brief context, and arranged alphabetically under play, act, and scene, or poem. Any word used by Shakespeare can thus be found at once by the student, and its sense in one passage compared with its sense in all others. Now of Shakespeare’s fifteen thousand words there are not more than two or three hundred of which the reader of general information and intelligence needs explanation because of their obsoleteness, and little more than one hundred because of their use in a sense peculiar to Shakespeare. If any one of my readers is surprised at this assertion, let him consider the question briefly, and I think that he will see that, were it otherwise, Shakespeare could not be read in our day with constantly increasing delight by millions, young and old, educated, half educated, nay, truly uneducated. That the glossaries appended to Shakespeare’s works contain a larger number of words than this — some twelve or fifteen hundred, usually — is not at all to the purpose. Again, a moment’s reflection will make it clear to any reasonable person that if one tenth of Shakespeare’s words were obsolete or esoteric his plays would be unreadable, except by scholars. The numerousness of the lists in the glossaries is easily explained. Opening that of the Globe edition casually, I find in the first of its brief columns that meets my eye the following words given and explained : gaudy, brilliantly festive, “ Let’s have another gaudy night;” gaze, object looked at with curious wonder, “ live to be the show and gaze o’ th’ time; ” gear, matter of business ; general, common ; generations, children ; gentility, good manners ; german, akin (as in cousin - german) ; gifts, talents ; gilt = gold, money, bribes, “ have for the gilt of France confirm’d conspiracy;” glose, to comment; glut, to swallow ; government, self-restraint;gracious, full of grace ; grained, engrained; grange, a farmhouse; gratillity, a Fool’s ludicrous blunder for gratuity; gratulate, to congratulate ; grave, to bury, put in a grave ; green, immature, fresh ; greenly, foolishly ; grossly, palpably; and gentle is given three times, and gird twice, and gleek twice, with essentially the same meaning. These words fill half the column in which they appear. Now I confess at once that I am not writing for those who do not see that such glosses are more than superfluous, — absurd. A reader who needs explanation of such words as those cited above has no business with a Shakespeare, — no business with any book other than a primer and a popular dictionary. Who needs the explanation of such words as those could not read a newspaper of higher class than a Police Gazette; certainly not a Penny Dreadful. Nor do such people read Shakespeare, or even any writer of the day who rises in thought or phrase above the level of the poet’s corner or the humorous column. One reason of this glossarial superfluity would seem to be that tendency which I have before remarked upon, to obtrude explanation of word and phrase when it is the thought that eludes apprehension, and the founding of glossaries upon such notes of explanation ; another, that disposition, also heretofore mentioned, to magnify the Shakespearean office, to set it off as an ism, to make the reading of Shakespeare a cult and the editing him a mystery.
Our brief chance examination of the Globe glossary showed us that not half the words included in it needed glosses for any person who could read an English newspaper of average grade. But even this conclusion overstates the truth. Not six hundred of Shakespeare’s fifteen thousand words need glosses, — not more than two or three hundred, as I have said before. Now what the Shakespeare Lexicon does is to give in two thundering volumes,—a bulk four times as great as that of the Globe Shakespeare — all Shakespeare’s words arranged alphabetically, with their various definitions in the order of the plays. I open casually the volume on which my hand first falls, and find the page before me entirely filled with citations and definitions of the following words : slave, slavelike, slaver, slavery, slavish, slay, slayer, sleave - silk, sledded, sleek, sleek - headed, sleekly, sleep, not one of which, it will be seen, is obsolete or obsolescent, not one of which could not be found in any popular manual-dictionary, not one of which would trouble a common-school boy of average intelligence. Could anything be more superfluous, more absurd ! As to the meaning of Shakespeare’s words which every ordinarily intelligent reader understands, and without such an understanding of which Shakespeare’s writings, and not only they but the general literature of the day, would be incomprehensible, — as to these, no one needs the ministrations of any special Shakespeare lexicographer, nor those of any lexicographer. Where help is needed is in words and phrases of the opposite class. If Dr. Schmidt’s scholarship and his mastery of the English language had enabled him to throw new light upon these, or upon any considerable proportion of them, a brief glossological excursus to that effect by him would have been welcome; and I cannot but believe that it would have been performed by him in a thorough and scholarly manner. But here is exactly where he fails. Where definition and comparison of words and phrases is needless, more than superfluous, he is in most cases triumphantly clear and correct: it is chiefly in the case of obsoleteness or obscurity that he fails to benefit the world by what has been called his “ remarkable and invaluable work,” his “ combination of accuracy and acuteness.”
That, for example, slave means “ a person who is absolutely subject to the will of another ; ” slay, “ to kill, to put to death ; ” sleek-headed, having the hair well combed ; sleep, “ rest taken by a suspension of the voluntary exercise of the bodily and mental powers,” and so forth, we hardly need the aid of scholarship like Dr. Schmidt’s to know. Indeed, every reader of English blood or breeding is likely to know it better than the learned Dr. Schmidt of Koenigsberg does. But when he comes to the words and phrases about which English folk may doubt, although with some inkling of their meaning, he is generally — no, I cannot say generally, for I have yet cut but few leaves of his Lexicon, but generally on such an examination — in a sad muddle of confusion and ignorance. Would it not be somewhat unreasonable to expect otherwise? On the page now accidentally before me, in the passage in the first act of Hamlet, —
When he the ambitious Norway combated;
So frown’d he once, when, in an angry parle
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice,”
because “ Polacks ” happens to be spelled phonetically in the folio Pollax, he will have it that we should read pole-axe; that sledded means having a sledge or heavy hammer on it ; and that “ smote the sledded pole-axe on the ice” means that the elder Hamlet in his anger smote the ice with his pole-axe. There could not be better evidence of Dr. Schmidt’s superfluity as a Shakespearean lexicographer than this amazing, and I must be pardoned for saying ridiculous, explanation. The absurdity of it is felt by every English-minded reader more easily than it is explained. It is so laughably inconsistent with the tone of this scene, awful with the wraith of the majesty of buried Denmark, to picture the royal Dane smiting the ice with his pole-axe, like a testy old heavy father in a comedy ! But on turning to Furness’s variorum edition of this play, I discover, from the first sentence of his array of notes on this passage, that “ German commentators have found more difficulty in this phrase than English.” I should think so. It is not surprising. Dr. Furness, after gathering (as according to his vast plan he must needs gather) a great deal of such lumber together in a compressed or abbreviated form, at last says, in regard to the exegesis of one of these learned German scholars, and one who does not insist upon poleaxe, “This comment paralyzes my power to paraphrase,” and gives it in full thus : —
“I always regarded ‘sleaded,’or, as the modern editors read, ‘sledded,’as nonsense. What a ridiculous position it must have been to see a king in full armour smiting down a sledded man: that is, a man sitting in a sledge ! It would rather not have been a king-like action. And it was of course not a remarkable, not a memorable fact that in the cold Scandinavian country in winter time people were found sitting in a sledge ; nobody would have wondered at it, — perhaps more at the contrary. When the king frowned in an angry parle, he must have been provoked to it by an irritating behavior of the adversary, and Horatio, remembering the fact, will also bear in mind the cause of it ; and so I suppose he used an epithet which points out the provoking manner of the Polack, and, following as much as possible the form sleaded,’ I should like to propose the word sturdy, or, as it would have been written in Shakespeare’s time, sturdie.”
And the man who wrote that undertakes to explain Shakespeare, and even to write verbal criticism on his language ; nay, verily, to propose emendations of his text! Do not suppose that he is ignorant, that he is even a half-scholar, or that he is dull. On the contrary, he, like Dr. Schmidt, is a scholar and a man of ability. It is simply that he does not understand the English idiom and the English way of thinking. If our good German friends would but confine themselves to admiring Shakespeare, although in a somewhat simpler and less profound manner than is their wont, and would confine their verbal and philosophical exegesis to the second part of Faust, and “sech,” it would, I venture to think, tend greatly to edification.
I cannot go at all into the matter here, and indeed as to the Shakespeare Lexicon I don’t profess to be fitly acquainted with it for criticism; but turning the leaves of my copy, I find among many words already checked on its margins these: Apply defined as “ to make use of.” Now a thing applied, whether it is craft, or a poultice, or medicine, is indeed used ; but apply does not therefore mean to make use of. To apply is to set one thing against or to another; as when a plaster is applied, or a student applies himself, or a man applies his memory. The Lexicon very misleadingly confuses two distinct although related thoughts. Contrive, in Taming of the Shrew, I. 2, 1. 268, “ please ye we may contrive this afternoon and quaff carouses,” is defined as either to spend, or to pass away, or to lay schemes; which will seem strange to any Englishwoman who is in the habit of saying, “ How shall we contrive to pass the time?” Here contrive means, merely, manage. Buckle, in passages like “ in single combat thou shalt buckle with me,” is defined “ to join in close fight; ” and this sense is said to be “ probably derived from the phrase to turn the buckle ”! Here is a mistake of the same sort as that about apply. Buckle sometimes applies to joining in fight, but it does not mean that, nor anything like it. We buckle to our work; a studious boy buckles to his lessons; and in an old song a hesitating girl says she “ can’t buckle to,” meaning she can’t bring herself to be married. Buckle means, merely, bend. This meaning appears in the Latin bucca = a cheek, buccula = the curve of a helmet or the boss of a shield, the French boucle = a curl, and our buckle, an implement to hold a thong. We bend (buckle) to our work ; a boy bends (buckles) to his task ; a soldier buckles (that is bends, gives himself body and soul) to combat. The Lexicon, defining that which to an intelligent English reader needs no definition, misleads readers who are not English and not intelligent. Set cock-ahoop certainly does not mean “pick a quarrel ; ” so clearly does every English reader see this, although he may not know the origin of the phrase, that further words on it would be wasted. And how it astonishes us English-tongued folk to be told by a distinguished scholar that lapsed means “ surprised, taken in the act; ” and that when Hamlet says to his father’s ghost that he is “ lapsed in time and passion ” he means, “ I am surprised by you in a time and passion fit for,” etc. ! Yet verily Dr. Schmidt does so tell us. Lapsed means lost in, given up to, abandoned to ; and Hamlet says that he was feebly given up to procrastination and moody feeling. The notion that “ lapsed ” has any reference to the action or to the presence of the fancied ghost, is surely one of the most extraordinary pieces of Shakespearean exegesis that exists in that extraordinary literature. And so when the Shakespeare Lexicon tells us that in Touchstone’s “ Well said ; that was laid on with a trowel,” we have “ a proverbial phrase, probably meaning without ceremony,” how we are tempted into exclamatory utterances and unseemly laughter, — we who, not being scholars, have always understood it as meaning, simply, that was laid on thick, as a bricklayer lays on mortar ! Nor has pitched in “ a pitched battle ” anything to do with “ the custom of planting sharp stakes in the ground against hostile horse.” Pitch (of unknown etymology) means merely to place firmly and suddenly. A man pitches upon a site for his house ; a clergyman pitches upon a text for his sermon ; a singer pitches upon a note ; we pitch upon anything that we choose quickly and decidedly. Tents were and are pitched ; and to pitch a battle was to choose the ground for it and to array the troops. The old preterite was pight, which is used by Shakespeare : —
And found him pight to do it, with curst speech
I threaten’d to discover him.”
(Lear II. 1, 64.)
Here pight means merely fixed, set, as it does in this line of Spenser’s : —
(Faerie Queene. I. viii. 37.) And in Mandeville “ a spere that is pight into the erthe ” means merely a spear that is set into the earth. Pitch and pight used in regard to tents or spears or stakes do not mean more or other than when used in regard to anything else, a site, a text, a note, or what not. Nor does sheep-biter mean “ a morose, surly, malicious fellow,” or anything like that. If Dr. Schmidt had said it meant a thief, he would have had the support of good “ authority” (whatever that may be). It was indeed applied to thieves, as in this line: —
(Fletcher, Rule a Wife, etc., V. 4.) and so it was to malicious persons, as in the following line : —
(Tusser, Description of an Envious and Naughtie Neighbour, p. 112, ed. 1610.)
But it was so applied merely because it was a general term of reproach. It means merely, mutton-eater. This I suggested in my first edition of Twelfth Night (1857) ; and afterwards I found the following reference to the phrase by Addison: —
“Mutton . . . was formerly observed to be the food rather of men of nice and delicate appetites than those of strong and robust constitutions. For Which reason even to this day we use the word Sheep-biter as a term of reproach, as we do Beefeater in a respectful, honorable sense.” (Taller, No. 148.)
Addison’s testimony (and he mentions that he had consulted antiquaries—in 1709 — on the subject of his paper) leaves no doubt as to the meaning of the compound, and as to its use as a general term of reproach. But I venture a dissent from his inference in regard to delicate appetites. Mutton two and three hundred years ago was looked upon as very inferior food to venison and to beef ; and “mutton-eater” coarsened into “sheep-biter” corresponded to the modern “ tripe-eater.” But even a glance here and there at my few casual checks upon the margins of his Lexicon is leading me into prolixity, and I must end it, merely remarking upon the extraordinary misapprehension which gives “one who goes abroad” as the meaning of putter-out, in “ each putterout of five for one; ” which tells us (the word, unseen before, catches my eye just as I turn the leaves) that point blank means “ with certain aim, so as not to miss,”—point blank having nothing to do with aim, or hitting or missing, but meaning merely, in a direct line, on a level, without elevation or depression of the gun ; and finally at the ignorance which tells us that placket was “ probably a stomacher.” Now what a placket was I don’t know; and therefore I say so plainly, and with no shame for my ignorance. But this I do know : that of all the articles of feminine apparel, except a shoe and a bonnet, a stomacher was the one which most surely could not have been called a placket. Placket, if originally the name of an article of dress, was plainly not that of one which had another name.6
How “invaluable” the Shakespeare Lexicon is, how “ admirable a combination of accuracy and acuteness,” we may gather from this cursory glance over its mostly uncut pages. The scholarship of its compiler (and I hint no doubt as to its amplitude and its thoroughness) is not at all to the purpose. The book plainly needs to be examined, article by article, by some competent English scholar of average common sense, and an appreciation of it set forth, before it becomes, by reason of its imposing form, its systematic arrangement, and its seeming scientific method, an “ authority.” Upon my casual examination, I venture merely the opinion that its erudite compiler lacks, perhaps, only one qualification for his task,—an inbred understanding of the English of nowadays and of Shakespeare’s time ; that so far is he from being “ accurate ” that not only in words and phrases which are the proper subjects of explanation, but even as to those which need none to any average reader, he has made many mistakes; and that as to the rest his work is so far from being “ invaluable” that it is utterly needless even to the least learned of my intelligent readers, — a striking and characteristic exhibition and example of the superfluity of Shakespeareanism.7
And now, as it was said when brave Moore was laid to rest in his cloak,
When the clock struck the hour for retiring; ”
nor, indeed, will it be unexpected if I hear from “ the distant random gun That the foe is suddenly firing.”
I have truly not touched half the points as to which I made memorandums for this brief series of articles ; but I must bring it now speedily to an end, and postpone fuller exposition to a more convenient season.8
The present result of what I cannot but feel to have been an incomplete examination of our subject seems to me to be the bringing forth, with evidence not to be gainsaid, of these truths : that most of our Shakespeare literature is a useless burden ; that it is not only needless to the right understanding of Shakespeare, but largely misleading ; that much of it is thus misleading because the writers wished to deliver themselves of something fine upon a great subject, and looked rather into their own “ moral consciousness ” than into Shakespeare himself, or to the facts and forces of which his works were the result ; that the consequence of this has been a misapprehension of the character of Shakespeare’s genius, although not an overestimate of its greatness; that there has been a like amiable misconception of his personal character; that he worked merely as a playwright, and not as a dramatist, with the ethnic, æsthetic aim of such men as Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides ; that the construction of his plays was not in any great degree his own; that he rarely gave it much thought, and that more rarely does it show much skill ; that the characters of his personages were generally not of his conceiving in their elemental traits, but were determined by the old tales he dramatized and the old plays he worked over, from which in this respect they differ essentially in very few instances ; that his personages are not always consistent in essence or in art; that Shakespeare wrote without any ethical purpose either in general design or particular passages, and that he himself was indifferent in his feeling as to the moral character of his personages, and no less as to the decency of his ideas and the decorum of his language ; that in his use of words and phrases he was heedless of correctness and consistency, and under a combinate pressure of thought and haste would set at naught not only the grammar of his time, but that logic which is the grammar of all time ; that he was neither in purpose nor in fact at any time of his life original as to structural form or spirit, either as a dramatist or as a poet.
What, then, was Shakespeare? What is it that makes Time his preserver rather than his destroyer; that causes his reputation to harden into adamant under the pressure of centuries which crumbles others into the impalpable powder of oblivion ; which sets him above — yes, I shall not hesitate to say far above — even Homer and Dante, not to mention Æschylus and Euripides, and hardly to think of Goethe, — what is it ? Any man may shrink, as I know that I shrink, with doubt of his ability to answer this question. But I venture to think that I do know the answer, although to give it here, at the end of an article, with any fullness or with satisfaction to myself would be impossible. Shakespeare’s great and peculiar genius was not the genius of observation, of study, of cogitation, of labor : it was an intuitive, inborn knowledge of men and things in their elemental, eternal nature, and of their consequent relations, combined with an inborn faculty of expressing that knowledge such as has never been manifested in speech or writing by any other man known to history. And chiefly his genius lay in this power of expression. It is probable that many have approached him in his insight of man and of nature; those who enjoy him and understand him must approach him in this respect more or less remotely, or they would neither understand nor enjoy. But to know is one thing, and to tell with convincing effect quite another. A man may have a stable full of horses, and not be able to drive four-in-hand.
If by power of expression I meant merely the ability to write with clearness, force, and beauty — with whatever clearness, whatever force, whatever beauty — that which is both wise and interesting, I should be saying, indeed, what is true, but I should not present any new view of Shakespeare’s genius. His peculiar power in this regard was that of uniting poetical beauty, the charm of fancy and of language, with the utterance of that intuitive knowledge which, in the words of his contemporary critic, makes his writings “ serve for the most common commentaries of all the actions of our lives.” I can here give by examples but hints and suggestions of what I mean:
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
But to fine issues ; nor Nature never lends
The smallest, scruple of her excellence,
But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines
Herself the glory of a creditor —
Both thanks and use.”
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face ;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.”
The dust on antique time would lie unswept,
And mountainous error be too highly piled
For truth to overpeer.”
Things standing thus unknown, shall leave be-
hind me !
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in
To tell my story.”
And see that speech in Troilus and Cressida, Act III. Sc. 3, beginning, “Time hath my lord a wallet,” etc., which in its union of wisdom, beauty, and richness of thought and utterance is unsurpassed by any other from Shakespeare’s pen. These passages are mere chance-remembered examples of a multitude like the pebbles “ on the unnumbered beach ” which constitute, in my judgment, their writer’s peculiar claim upon the attention of the world, his peculiar charm to the world’s ear. Leave him his truth and strength of characterization, his vividness of dramatic speech and action, his imagination, his pathos, his humor, his power in the tender and his power in the terrible, in all of which qualities he is unsurpassed, and in most of which he is unequaled; but take from him his specialty of using language in such a way as to make poetry a comment upon all the actions of our lives, and us conscious of wit and wisdom in his presence, — do this, and the Shakespeare supreme, the unapproachable, is gone.
Shakespeare’s mind surely had in it something of the quality which, having no other name for it, we call divine ; for it seems to have been an exhaustless source of knowledge, of wisdom, and of beauty. Yet something it had very human, too, and sometimes very weak and poor; mortal error and mere human dross. But let us scorn the affectation that would say, Were it not so he would be too good and great for sympathy and love. Nothing is too good and great for man to love and worship, although, like the greatest intellect the world has seen, he may sometimes weakly or wickedly fall away from what he knows that he should love and worship.
Shakespeare in his supremacy stands far above the deterioration of his weaknesses and the contamination of his faults. The high-heaved peak of his lonely genius cleaves the cool serene, no less dazzling pure, no less goldentouched with light of heaven, because of fens and marshes at its base. Around it his great thoughts sweep on mighty wings, none the less majestic because there are foul and venomous creatures creeping below. To him our eyes turn when we need such counsel, such comfort, such delight, as surpasses that which seems mere counsel, mere comfort, mere delight, — such as transcends all other moral good and mental pleasure. The more we know him, the more we find him not quite all knowable. He is the only writer who can be to us in one brief half hour our jester, our singer, our friend, our consoler, our prophet (but never our priest), our sage, — ourselves. There is no mood of our lives that was not a mood of his mind; no sorrow or joy of our hearts that was not a sorrow or a joy of his brain. His intellect was the abstract of humanity. His is the only fame enrolled upon the ages which is not only without a rival, but which no one would hope to rival. The chosen people had only three kings, each of whom was preëminent for certain qualities. Shakespeare in his intellectual royalty suggests them all. The Saul of literature, he stands head and shoulders above even the brothers of his kingly blood; like David, he is the poet of a race and yet of all races, and moreover one who, seeking the means of content, found the crown of immortality ; like Solomon, he is wise with a wisdom which has enlightened the whole world. Like each and all of these who must be united to be his prototype, he is not without faults that would condemn him to death, were he not so great that he is above either punishment or pardon.
Richard Grant White.
- Nearly fifteen thousand dollars now.↩
- Here I omit Jonson’s personal eulogy, which has been already given and considered.↩
- “ Itaque divus Augustus optime dixit: Haterius noster sufflaminandus est. Adeo non currere seal decurrere videbatur; nec verborum tantum illi copia, sed etiam rerum erat.” Excerpta Controversiarum, Lib. IV. Præf. My translation is purposely free and vernacular.↩
- That is, that brain : your brain, as in Falstaff’s “ your excellent sherris.”↩
- This estimate is not mine. It seems to me excessive.↩
- Those who care to refer to passages, few here quotable, which show that a placket could not possibly have been a stomacher may turn to “She’ll swap thee into her plackerd,”Greene’s Fr. Bungay and Fr. Bacon, p. 194; “Clarinda’s placket,’’ B. & F., Lover’s Progress, IV. 3; “At all our crests (videlicet, our plackets)” B. & F., Woman’s Prize, II. 4; “Keep thy hand from thy sword, and from thy laundress’s placket,” B. & F., Little French Lawyer, V. 2; “ Look to your plackard, Madam,” World of Wonders, 1607, p. 44; “to lend him her placket peece,” Idem, p. 132. See passages which must be only referred to in Pills to Purge Melancholy, II. 19, 20, Ib. III. 4, Ib. IV. 217, Ib. IV. 324 ; the placket geer, Wit’s Paraphrase, p. 14; “ quit my placket,” Ib. p. 27; “ from my placket,” Ib. 85; “the witches’ placket,” Ib. p. 111. The two latter especially noteworthy. And see also passages cited in my first edition of Shakespeare on Love’s Labour’s Lost, III. 1, and King Lear III. 4.↩
- A marginal check at the word quill catches my eye. The exhibition is too good to be passed over. Will it be believed ? Bottom’s “ wren with little quill ” is given as an example of the use of quill in the sense “ the strong feather of the wing of a bird.” Any intelligent English-brained school-boy could have told the erudite German professor that here quill means pipe, note : “ little quill ” = feeble note. This whole article on quill is wrong. So, too, I find, on the first page of vol. ii., mad defined as “ besides one’s self,” — this not by misprint, as is shown by the article on besides; and I see that I have no less than eight checks for like blunders to these in Much Ado, etc. I have not looked at this Lexicon since my first hasty glance through it after its publication, nine years ago. It is a very scientific, very systematic, very elaborate performance; and, like many scientific, systematic, elaborate performances, utterly worthless because misleading. This with great respect for Dr. Schmidt’s erudition and industry. The Koenigsberg scholar merely does not apprehend English idiom as if it were his mother tongue, and should therefore not have undertaken to explain Shakespeare, — of all writers!↩
- When these and other papers of their kind shall be published by themselves.↩