A Shakespearean Scholar
RICHARD GRANT WHITE put his hand to the plough in many fields of literature, and in all he showed the sturdiness that denotes yeoman stock. But, apart from his special taste for music, the most of his studies sprang from his love of Shakespeare. In the case of his theatrical and philological writings this is obvious, and in those which illustrate his attachment to England it is fair to ascribe no inconsiderable part to the fondness which, however invigorated and broadened by other traditions, was primarily due to the great dramatist of English history and life. Essays upon words, stage-usages, and matters of music, observations upon our cousins’ ways and customs and modes of speech, international satire, and squibs of all kinds and lengths made up a large part of his industrious literary life; but, for all that, Shakespeare was his profession, and the principal work of his hands was editorial. In some respects this choice of employment was felicitous, and fell in with natural intellectual aptitudes. He had a note-taking mind, and his memory was retentive of details to an extraordinary degree, — a quality invaluable to an editor of texts ; and in addition to this, his clear-headedness, his shrewd sobriety, his content with a plain and honest-seeming meaning, and especially his contempt for the palaver of refining analysts of the German stripe, stood him in such good stead that he holds an honorable place among the students who have made the critical study of Shakespeare part and parcel of the pride of American scholarship.
The substance of his attainments is to be found, of course, in the various essays, prefatory either to the general work or to the individual plays and poems, which conduce so much to the value of his version of Shakespeare in the way of expansion, criticism, and information ; and in these his views are set forth with most modesty, succinctness, and moderation, and his knowledge is deployed with most swiftness and effect. They form, however, only a small portion of his contributions to Shakespeare literature; very much of his labor in his chosen subject was off-hand work, and must be sought in the magazines to which he devoted his less serious moments. Such articles — and their number is legion — usually present some single phase of a Shakespeare theme ; and no matter how dry and formal the topic in itself, he makes it entertaining. For it is a distinction of Mr. White’s that he always interests ; he has the secret of pleasing. His style is wonderfully firm and closeknit ; his facts are cold as an iceberg and hard as a flint ; and he strews the mental way of his readers with the native nuggets of Yankee sense. His individuality counts for more than all. He was himself a character, in the special meaning of the word ; one of those impenetrable pieces of nature’s workmanship which are malleable by no external influence of culture, society, or circumstance. Such persons cannot open their lips without some self-exhibition ; whether their solitude is of the village or the study, they always speak from within, and echo no man. Mr. White, who was as tenacious of his peculiarities as an Englishman, stamped them upon his writings ; and it is due to this that when one reads his words it is, to an unusual degree, as if one heard him speaking. When a man of this sort has the gift of literary expression, he will be a readable author, whatever deficiencies he may have ; and this Mr. White was. Indeed, when one glances over the mass of his minor writing, though it belongs undoubtedly to the literature that springs up and withers in a day, one cannot help wondering at the brightness of its short-lived verdancy. There could hardly seem to be a more thankless task than to make a new paraphrase of Shakespeare’s plays. It is true that poets, great and small, have tried to rewrite those dramas, not seeing how deep their words are graved in the living rock of English speech; but to tell their story over in prose, — no one would do that except for children. Yet in the half dozen cases in which Mr. White tried his hand at this mode of transcription, he made, if not novelettes, certainly most delightful sketches, which, though every incident and characteristic of them was familiar to us from our childhood, have the unmistakable and unrubbed newness that belongs to the magazinemint. These renovations have a use, too, more than to pass an hour of easy reading: they are needed to remind us, who think mostly of the action and thought of Shakespeare’s dramas, how much the story counts in the work, and this is best shown by relieving it from its subordination to character and treating it in the novelist’s way. The Tale of the Forest of Arden, for example. as it is retold, might serve as a lesson in romantic fiction, by revealing how poetry is of the essence of it all, not a matter of expression, but of structure. To descant upon the happiness of Mr. White’s renderings of Shakespeare in prose, however, was not our purpose: they are cited only as a striking instance of his power over the least promising material. He would strike a shower of wheat out of thrice-threshed straw ; or so it seems.
Before his death Mr. White had selected and revised some of these loose articles, which his wife has published in what is perhaps only a first volume 1 of his literary remains ; and it seems a fit occasion to give a less confined notice than such a book would in itself warrant of some of the traits of his Shakespeareanism, which for many years has held a prominent place in this magazine. From the start one perceives that Mr. White possessed a hard-and-fast intellect of the sort about which there is, in the favorite phrase, “no nonsense.” As a Shakespearean, he was himself, in the bent of his mind, one of the class of American readers which he describes, — “ so large and so diffused through society that it cannot be rightly called a class, who do not know that there are German critics, who have little acquaintance with any criticism, to whom Schlegel is unrevealed and Coleridge is but a name, and who yet read and understand and love and delight in Shakespeare, and who would quietly smile at the notion that ‘ at last ’ we understand Shakespeare because some learned people have said very profound sayings about his revelations of the ‘inner life.’ ” His own appreciation of Shakespeare, though so much more informed, was essentially the same which belongs to the people of home-keeping wits, who read their author in that unenlightened fashion in which the audiences of the Globe listened when the text still knew no recension except that of the pirates. His aim as an editor was to restore, so far as was possible, the conditions of the past; to place the reader in the position of the Elizabethan theatre-goer, and leave him to get the original entertainment which Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote. Shakespeare meant to amuse, and in our times it was the part of a loyal adherent of the master to help him in his old purpose. To such a view metaphysics, however acute, was out of place in Shakespeare’s demesne; was a perversion of poetry, like the science which botanizes upon a mother’s grave. No words were too sharp, no denunciations too heavy, in Mr. White’s opinion, for the flagellation of that school which is no longer confined to German lecturerooms, but now in all quarters of criticism makes of Shakespeare a problem instead of a poem.
Perhaps in this onslaught Mr. White might have gained by discriminating. The fact is that the dramas do afford a field for such philosophizing, whether rightly or wrongly. It may have been unbeknown to Shakespeare, but he did write a text-book of human life. By the force of his genius he represented mankind, on its social and spiritual side, with the reality of nature. It is the excellence of his creative art that his characters live, and show their souls not wholly but by glimpses, as common mortals do ; and thus Hamlet, for example, presents to us the puzzle that any highly organized man affords to a thoughtful observer, and allows of countless theories in regard to his personality and motives. All life is to the thinker fair game for his meditation, and in it the universal spiritual laws are to be discerned, or guessed at, or speculated about. It would be foolish to object to any amount of philosophizing on the real phenomena of character; and if Shakespeare has given us the microcosmus of man, if the reality of his imagination is not less truthful than that of actual experience, why should not Germans or Englishmen use it, the more readily because it is a common possession, and not, like ordinary instances, known only to the few who happen to be spectators ? Mr. White was wrong, if he found fault with the Shakespeare philosophers, or denied their positions, simply because they occupied themselves with material not originally written for such an investigation ; and if he was right at all, it was only in maintaining that Shakespeare knew nothing of this value of his work, and cared nothing for it. Of course there has been much error and feebleness and trash written by the members of this critical school, as is done by incompetence in all departments; but there has been also some wisdom, and it would be gratuitous, if not dangerous, to affirm Shakespeare’s ignorance of the worth of his work for instruction. One cannot safely set limits to the knowledge that any great author has of the various meanings which his lines may convey, even if he does not, like Dante, definitely declare that he has expressed a threefold meaning in the same identical words. Wisdom as well as wit often lodges in the ears that hear it as much as on the lips that speak it, and its application to special circumstances frequently discovers hidden truth in the worn words. How many meanings, for example, have Virgil’s lines disclosed to those who for centuries have consulted the Sortes Virgilianæ ! It would be as foolish to credit Virgil with these as with the famous Messianic prophecy in his eclogue. The case illustrates how innocent Shakespeare was of a good part of the exegesis forced upon him by his editors. At the same time it is not likely that they have so exceeded the great master in wisdom that he would be surprised to find that they make of him an understanding author as well as a successful playwright.
The weight of Mr. White’s objurgation, however, falls less upon those who comment upon the text and the general conception of the plays than upon those who reason therefrom to the dramatist’s life and development. He himself allows the existence of periods of literary art in his author, but in “ spiritual stages ” he is almost a total disbeliever. But here, too, one must discriminate, and in much the same way as before. A man grows, but his growth is largely unconscious. The craze to find an “evolution ” in all things could not pass by the prime phenomena of genius ; and so Shakespeare has been furnished with one. The mistake is in giving too firm lines to the progress of his mind and art. Neither the metaphysical nor the literary yard-stick can be applied to the “myriad-minded” one with any but a ludicrous result; and the scholar who would build up Shakespeare’s life in the easy-going fashion of distinct and successive periods is over-confident. The unfolding of his special gift of expression, the apprenticeship and the mastery of art, may be distinguished, from the first smooth-sliding lines to the volcanic fusion of intractable speech in the language of Cymbeline. So may a similar thing be observed in Browning, or Carlyle, or Tennyson, — the mere hand-cunning. And in Shakespeare’s temper of mind a change may be observed, plainly enough, in the successive plays, not taken individually, but in their totality. It is the same, essentially, which the great poets exhibit in passing from youth to age; so pathetic in Virgil, so deadly earnest in Dante, so exalted in Milton, so wise in Shakespeare. But to go further than this, and reconstruct the inner life of these men, and especially of him whose gift of taciturnity outrivaled nature’s secrecy, is another matter ; and for those who do this, and would seem to know Shakespeare better than he knew himself, any one with knowledge of the inner life must have the kind of pity that is akin to contempt. Mr. White had for them unlimited scorn, and poured it forth unceasingly and unsparingly. Those men who assume to know the unsearchable soul of genius, and those who seek to dress the writer of pleasant comedies and tragical histories as an avant-courier of Hegelianism, were foes to be put to flight with all his critical weapons if he could compass it. He was a partisan in the conflict, but even when going to great lengths he did good work. To free Shakespeare from his commentators is more of a gain than a loss, for, generally speaking, they are of the sort that darkens counsel. It is possible to look upon their explanations of the doctrines of life as unfolded in Shakespeare’s plays, and even upon their efforts to reduce his own genius to the familiarity of Rousseau-like autobiography, with a most tolerant spirit; but blessed is he who finds Shakespeare, though he loses them!
But did Mr. White find Shakespeare ? Did he succeed any better than the victims of his own censure in forming an ideal Shakespeare out of the materials at hand on the “ no nonsense” theory ? What his conception of the man Shakespeare was is well known to the readers of these pages. He lost no opportunity of insisting that the genius we idolize was a popular London playwright, whose aim was immediately to please the spectators and thereby get money. If he wrote a good acting play that would draw an audience and increase the stock dividends of the managers, he had achieved his whole purpose. In this was included his entire notion of the use of the divine art and of his own life. This is the substance of Mr. White’s teaching, reiterated almost to weariness. The theory falls in with the common idea that Shakespeare was a kind of Nature’s foundling, to whom benevolent fairies had given the great gifts of wisdom, beauty, and fortune as carelessly as if they were shining pebbles, just as fairies used to do in the old story-books. A few surface facts, principal among them the omission to edit and publish his complete works, give support to the presumed indifference to fame or ignorance of the transcendent worth of his creations on Shakespeare’s part, which is involved in the position. There are ready explanations of the facts referred to, such as the nature of theatrical property in those days, and the desirability of not publishing the plays in order to monopolize their acting by his own company, with which we will not delay the reader. But after giving due weight to all that Mr. White urges, it seems to us that it has been as dangerous for him to stop at the surface of Shakespeare’s life as it was for the anatomists to probe the centre. In attending to his characterization of the man as a money-getter, one is reminded of the ancient science that discovered in humanity a threefold soul, and one thinks that Mr. White may have found one of these in Shakespeare’s case, and has forgotten to look for the other two. In fact, it must be confessed that the editor has sometimes shown a weakness of poetic apprehension, — that his Shakespeare is rather an observer of life than a poet. This comes out strikingly in his statement, for example, that Shakespeare most withdraws the veil from his own personality in Troilus and Cressida. and in the character of Ulysses gives expression to his own views of life. This drama is indeed packed with noble phrases and fine wisdom, but if the present writer were to seek for Shakespeare in it, it would be in the impatience, the undisguised contempt, that the author shows for these wars about the Grecian jade; nor is there more reason to ascribe any special earnestness or directness to the words of the dialogue than in the case of any other of the dramas that allow frequent opportunity for the utterance of universal truths in respect to man’s nature or life. Mr. White’s use of the play is merely to emphasize his notion that Shakespeare was a man of the world exclusively, or at least primarily. It is not incumbent on us to argue against this theory, but merely to point it out as a cardinal trait of the editor’s Shakespeareanism. There would be little need for such argument. The many phrases of the sonnets which prophesy immortality for the verse are not to be set aside as merely customary at the time, or as applicable only to the more pretentious work (as Mr. White thinks) of the poet as distinct from the dramatist ; they have the ring of sincerity too clear for that, the stamp of the mens conscia virtutis which converts a boast into the just superscription of Cæsar. But apart from all these minor matters of evidence, the world will never believe that the man who knew human life more widely and profoundly than any other mere mortal that ever wrote was ignorant only of himself ; or that, with such acquaintance with the noble and ideal ends of life, he contented himself with that one of avarice or of getting on in the world which is held to be among the meanest and most paltry, and which is usually debasing to the higher faculties. Had he been so furnished with insight, imagination, and ideality as he was, so complete in earthly wisdom and so apprehensive of the excellence of human virtue, and had he, notwithstanding, declined to the level of those who care for their gifts and works only as means of merchandise, he would have been a monstrosity so strange that nature could scarce contain his deformities. This is instinctively felt by those whose thoughts keep proportion. In this matter Mr. White exhibited most plainly the limitation of his mind. The truth which gives any color to his characterization of Shakespeare may easily be granted, as that he was always mindful of his audience’s taste, of stage traditions, of the actual conditions under which he practiced his art, and that he made money by his work and was glad to have it, and that he valued social rank and position. The error lies in affirming that this is the whole story; in ignoring the poetic nature, the most self-conscious of all the varieties of temperament; and in passing by all that indicates Shakespeare’s regard for his art, even in the chance ways possible, such as his repeated criticism on the abuses of the stage and his great reform in the disposition made of the Fool. In these last it was not the theatrical manager, but the outraged poet, who spoke ; his impatient contempt for the laughter of the pit and the rant of the stage, though he yielded to them as much as was needful, is the obverse of his love for his art and the value he set upon it. But these hints in regard to the qualities involved in the mere existence of such creative genius, and expressly shown in random flashes of his work, are almost superfluous. Because Shakespeare submitted in his art and worldly life to the conditions imposed on him by fortune, and made that submission the most marvelous triumph of all literature, is not a reason for affirming that he gave his assent to these conditions; and unless he did so with all his soul, the theory that he cared for nothing except to get rich by catering to the apprentices must fall to the ground. We must stop this side of Mr. White’s furthest mark, therefore, and admit only that Shakespeare had the wisdom, as a literary workman, to take the times as he found them and reduce them to the purposes of great art; and that, Heaven be thanked, he was paid for his laborious industry, and left money to pay his debts and provide for his children.
To parody the literary proverb, one might say that the defects of Mr. White’s Shakespeareanism produced its qualities. In a field so large and various, it may be a working advantage to have limitations of outlook and effort, and to take short views. The editor who has once satisfied himself, as did Mr. White, that to build spiritual biography was foolishness and to philosophize about the inner life was futile has greatly simplified his task ; and if to this he adds the positive idea that Shakespeare’s vision was bounded by the circuit of the London theatre, he may well rest contented with the aim of merely restoring the past conditions, and so providing his readers with notes that they can mingle with the crowd at the Globe as with contemporaries. Within these self-imposed bounds the gifts of Mr. White were put to admirable use. In the mere matter of the vocabulary, in elucidating or restoring meanings to words, he was a well - informed and trustworthy guide ; and how large a portion of his study was philological does not need to be pointed out. Perhaps a more important, because rarer, service was his reconstruction of the original acting, the mise-enscène, in which his knowledge of the stage was an efficient aid to his scholarship and insight. He laments the break in the theatrical tradition occasioned by the closing of the theatres under the Commonwealth, because it probably deprived us of Shakespeare’s own conception of how the characters should be represented ; but his essays upon the acting of Rosalind and of Iago, for example, do more to set the Elizabethan interpretation of the plays before us than anything else with which we are acquainted. In fact, Mr. White’s frequent criticism on modern impersonations of Shakespeare’s characters, by showing how far removed they are from the author’s intention, makes a part of his most instructive writings.
Besides the linguistic and the theatrical strands in the more valuable portion of his work, something is to be said for the critical element in the department of characterization. It was here that the editor was strongest. The conception of Iago which he develops is as finely reasoned an essay as can be found in the field, and his restoration of Jaques from a melodramatic fool into his original sour cynicism is a piece of retributive justice too long delayed. There is no space for further detail, but we cannot refrain from expressing a special gratitude for his penetration into the noble nature of Cassio, who has met with little understanding hitherto, and for the clear and sympathetic discovery of it to his readers. It is when Mr. White applies himself to these subjects that he shows the most valuable individual qualities, and merits honor. They belong, however, to the detailed rather than the general criticism of Shakespeare, and therefore cannot be entered upon here where there is no room for specialism. In scholarship he was, perhaps, lacking in breadth, and in more than one instance, as in his discussion of the text of the two quartos of Hamlet, he argues beside the point in dispute. Notwithstanding these things, the real value of Mr. White’s Shakespeareanism is not impaired. The literary form and charm of his style, the hardheadedness of his mind, the practical sense he always displays, make his work, within the limitations which he himself assigned it, of great positive utility ; and the sturdiness with which he stood for common sense, in opposition to the eulogistic gush with which Shakespeare, in common with all the greatest poets, is overwhelmed in our times of Swinburnian rhetoric, is something to be very grateful for. He had his pet notions, as who has not ? and he was a hard hitter,— “ Let the galled jade wince ! ” But he spent his life with his favorite author, and made of him his liberal education ; would that the universities afforded so good a one ! His labor was one of love, and it has the value and respect of the best work a man can do, being deficient only where Nature herself had denied faculty, in this case on the poetic side. He has gone over to the shelves of the " great majority ” of acknowledged commentators, beneath the Stratford bust, and with him go the plaudits of true lovers of Shakespeare for such lifelong and honest service to the god of our literary idolatry.
It is but just to add a few words of acknowledgment for the vigor and brightness shown by Mr. White in his work in other fields. His versatility, information, and industry were very great. He was essentially a littérateur rather than an author. The keen observant power of his view of English life and manners was really marvelous, when one considers his comparatively short residence — or more properly speaking, vacation — in the mother country ; and his knowledge of England, as shown in other volumes than those of travel, appears as intimate as a native’s. He possessed, beside this ready apprehension of facts and insight into human nature, some of the best qualities of the transplanted stock from which he sprang, and showed them in the patience and frugal independence of a self-respecting life, which may well serve as a lesson in simplicity and dignity to the rapidly increasing class of writers who make minor literature their profession. The lack of tolerance which he sometimes exhibited was not that of an unamiable but of a strong nature; and the insistence on some opinion which he seems to have regarded as his private property was the common foible of students. On the other hand, genuine heartiness and an inbred courtesy may be easily discerned beneath his literary exterior ; and although it is only with his literary character that we deal, the same qualities distinguished him among his friends. He will hold a niche in the remembrance of our readers, for the sake of many agreeable hours which he has afforded us all, and for which, independently of his Shakespeare, a large constituency. in common with ourselves, are thankful.
- Studies in Shakespeare. By RICHARD GRANT WHITE. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1886.↩