“Don Quixote,” says Mr. Shorthouse with unctuous gravity, “will come in time to be recognized as one of the saddest books ever written;” and, if the critics keep on expounding it much longer, I truly fear it will. It may be urged that Cervantes himself was low enough to think it exceedingly funny; but then one advantage of our new and keener insight into literature is to prove to us how indifferently great authors understood their own masterpieces. Shakespeare, we are told, knew comparatively little about Hamlet, and he is to be congratulated on his limitations. Defoe would hardly recognize Robinson Crusoe as “a picture of civilization,” having innocently supposed it to be quite the reverse; and he would be as amazed as we are to learn from Mr. Frederick Harrison that his book contains “more psychology, more political economy, and more anthropology than are to be found in many elaborate treatises on these especial subjects,” — blighting words which I would not even venture to quote if I thought that any boy would chance to read them, and so have one of the pleasures of his young life destroyed. As for Don Quixote, which its author persisted in regarding with such misplaced levity, it has passed through many bewildering vicissitudes. It has figured bravely as a satire on the Duke of Lerma, on Charles V., on Philip II., on Ignatius Loyola, — Cervantes was the most devout of Catholics, — and on the Inquisition, which, fortunately, did not think so. In fact, there is little or nothing which it has not meant in its time and now, having attained that deep spiritual inwardness which we have been recently told is lacking in poor Goldsmith, we are requested by Mr. Shorthouse to refrain from all brutal laughter, but with a shadowy smile and a profound seriousness to attune ourselves to the proper state of receptivity. Old-fashioned, coarse-minded people may perhaps ask, “But if we are not to laugh at Don Quixote, at whom are we, please, to laugh?” — a question which I, for one, would hardly dare to answer. Only, after reading the following curious sentence, extracted from a lately published volume of criticism, I confess to finding myself in a state of mental perplexity, utterly alien to mirth. “How much happier,” its author sternly reminds us, “was poor Don Quixote in his energetic career, in his earnest redress of wrong, and in his ultimate triumph over self than he could have been in the gnawing reproach and spiritual stigma which a yielding to weakness never failingly entails!” Beyond this point it would be hard to go. Were these things really spoken of the “ingenious gentleman” of La Mancha, or of John Howard, or George Peabody, or perhaps Elizabeth Fry, — or is there no longer such a thing as a recognized absurdity in the world?
Another gloomy indication of the departure of humor from our midst is the tendency of philosophical writers to prove by analysis that, if they are not familiar with the thing itself, they at least know of what it should consist. Mr. Shorthouse’s depressing views about Don Quixote are merely introduced as illustrating a very scholarly and comfortless paper on the subtle qualities of mirth. No one could deal more gracefully and less humorously with his topic than does Mr. Shorthouse, and we are compelled to pause every now and then and reassure ourselves as to the subject matter of his eloquence. Professor Everett has more recently and more cheerfully defined for us the Philosophy of the Comic, in a way which, if it does not add to our gayety, cannot be accused of plunging us deliberately into gloom. He thinks, indeed, — and small wonder, — that there is “a genuine difficulty in distinguishing between the comic and the tragic,” and that what we need is some formula which shall accurately interpret the precise qualities of each; and he is disposed to illustrate his theory by dwelling on the tragic side of Falstaff, which is, of all injuries, the grimmest and hardest to forgive. Falstaff is now the forlorn hope of those who love to laugh, and when he is taken away from us, as soon, alas! he will be, and sleeps with Don Quixote in the “dull cold marble” of an orthodox sobriety, how shall we make merry our souls? Mr. George Radford, who enriched the first volume of Obiter Dicta with such a loving study of the fat-witted old knight, tells us reassuringly that by laughter man is distinguished from the beasts, though the cares and sorrows of life have all but deprived him of this elevating grace, and degraded him into a brutal solemnity. Then comes along a rare genius like Falstaff, who restores the power of laughter, and transforms the stolid brute once more into a man, and who accordingly has the highest claim to our grateful and affectionate regard. That there are those who persist in looking upon him as a selfish and worthless fellow is, from Mr. Radford’s point of view, a sorrowful instance of human thanklessness and perversity. But this I take to be the enamored and exaggerated language of a too faithful partisan. Morally speaking, Falstaff has not a leg to stand upon, and there is a tragic element lurking always amid the fun. But, seen in the broad sunlight of his transcendent humor, this shadow is as the half-penny-worth of bread to his own noble ocean of sack, and why should we be forever trying to force it into prominence? When Charlotte Brontë advised her friend, Ellen Nussey, to read none of Shakespeare’s comedies, she was not beguiled for a moment into regarding them as serious and melancholy lessons of life; but with uncompromising directness put them down as mere improper plays, the amusing qualities of which were insufficient to excuse their coarseness, and which were manifestly unfit for the “gentle Ellen’s” eyes.