PROFESSOR LOUNSBURY, who reigns sternly but wisely as a critic in the literary demesne where the writer dwells, says that “ Shakespeare is the one writer about whom nothing new can be said ; that is, nothing rational.” Humbly accepting this dictum, though at a loss where a place is to be found for our great critic with his third priceless volume just out, we venture the opinion that some of the things said are not so old but that they are worth saying over again. Is there not, for example, a place for a study of Shakespeare in his habitat ? The ground may yield something like grass,— old, but new and welcome in the spring.
It is a mistake to limit the associations of the great citizen to Stratford-uponAvon. He does not belong so much to this dull little village as to all Warwickshire; and if we are to find any relation between the man and his environment, we must take the wider circuit. The question is not as to the walls within which he was born and the grave where his bones lie curse-protected, but rather what helped to make him; what in nature drew out and fed his mighty genius. The photograph can give us with sufficient accuracy the Henley Street birthplace, the parish church, the site of New Place, the Shottery cottage, the grammar school, and all the other local associations; but it cannot give the Avon, that flows through Warwickshire even as it flows through so many of his lines, nor the landscape, more accurately delineated there than in the photograph. Of course, one must carry out the immemorial custom of tourists, and visit the birthplace and the grave, — the two things pertaining to any man, great or small, least worth heeding, — but either before or after, one should acquaint one’s self with the surrounding country. The ancient town of Warwick, with its castle full of suggestion of Crusader and Templar, and Kenilworth, about which still clung the memory of Elizabeth’s visit, — both within a short drive or a long ramble from Stratford, — cast a stronger influence upon the young Shakespeare than did the town where he was born. It was at Warwick that he saw those strolling players who first kindled the dramatic fire within him, and perhaps inducted him in practical ways into their craft. Eight miles was a short distance for a band of players to attract the young Shakespeare; cart-ropes could not have kept him away. Kenilworth, still ablaze with courtly glory, taught him how queens and dukes and knights bore themselves, — at a future day the pageants of the Henrys would move easily across the stage. Shakespeare learned a vast deal before he went to London; but his lesson-book was all Warwickshire and not the leaf or two of Stratford.
It is significant that Shakespeare came from this shire, which is often spoken of as “the heart of England.” Indeed, I think if he had come from any other, he would have been a different and a poorer Shakespeare. With all his universality he was distinctly and intensely an Englishman, but English in the sense of having the English heart rather than the English brain. His intellect cannot easily be classified, — it comes too near being absolute and without limitations; but his loves and hates and tastes were English to the core. This heart of England , out of which Shakespeare drew his being, is sharply located. As you drive from Leamington to Warwick, your carriage is halted before an oak in the middle of the road, surrounded by an iron fence. The driver reverently rises, points to the tree, and says, “That hoak is the ’art of Hengland.”
The heart of England is poetically supposed to be of oak; and yet your driver is not speaking in a figure, but with geographical accuracy. Draw lines from the Isle of Wight to Tweedmouth; from Yarmouth on the east to St. David’s on the west; from Penzance to Newcastle, and from Hastings to Carlisle, and they would almost if not absolutely intersect this truly royal oak.
When we return to Stratford, and begin the tourists’ round, we are pained to find ourselves beset by uncertainty. Not one of the associations with Shakespeare is wholly trustworthy. There are but two points of close unquestioned association, — the house in which he was born and the church in which he was buried. All else, except a bit of ruined wall, marking New Place, is guesswork. Doubtless he walked these streets, roamed through these fields, swam in the gently flowing Avon, and later — in those mysterious years of his retirement — mingled in the life of the little town; but no sure trace of word or work remains. By far the most interesting association with the poet — because the most poetical — is the garden about the little house where he was born, — a small, well-kept plot of gravel-walks and flowerbeds. When this house was restored, it was proposed to bring together all the flowers named in the dramas. The plan was not carried out, chiefly from lack of energy, for surely it would not have been a difficult task. But enough was done to make the collection interesting and significant. Few and simple as the specimens are, they can be woven into a telling argument for the Shakespearean authorship of the plays, or, at least, for their origin in Central England. An accomplished botanist in Leamington told us that the flowers of Shakespeare are distinctively the flowers of Warwickshire, and that the author of the plays must have observed them here and not elsewhere. It is a remarkable fact that the slight local variations in the flowers of England are to be traced in the lines of Shakespeare. The true poet is a closer observer than the naturalist.
It is impossible wholly to verify any except the most meagre statement of his external history,so that a Life is not to be named, however many have been attempted. But such as they are, perhaps Aubrey’s is the best, being the shortest, containing only about six hundred and twenty words. As he wrote well within a century after the poet’s death, he had little reason for inaccuracy, and less temptation to exaggerate in his estimates, — relying chiefly upon Ben Jonson and first-hand traditions. Great as Shakespeare was, he had not sufficiently impressed his age with his genius to start exaggerations as to his personal character; and as for myths, they are of slow growth. Aubrey’s few words, simple and disconnected to the last degree, — but all the truer for that, — contain one sentence that strikes at the secret of Shakespeare, and is as profound as anything ever said of him: “His comœdies will remaine witt as long as the English tongue is understood, for that he handles mores hominum; now our present writers reflect so much upon particular persons and coxcombeities, that twenty yeares hence they will not be understood.”
We can, however, construct a life, not of gossip indeed, but of reality made from actual records. We do not refer to those inferences, drawn from various sources, that Shakespeare was a school-teacher, a lawyer’s clerk, a physician’s apprentice, a soldier, and so on. We refer instead to that impress of himself which he made in his works, and which can be read, or rather translated, by the careful student. Take, for example, his treatment of flowers. They all have literally the dew of youth upon them. They were not an object of study; they are treated simply in the light of memory and early association. “Rosemary, that’s for remembrance;” “pansies, that’s for thoughts;” “Rue, — we may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays,” — that is, rue, which stands for sorrow, may on Sunday be called an herb of grace, for the day can turn sorrow into that quality. What a flavor there is here of country-life and child-life, — of those things which get fixed in a child’s mind and are never forgotten.
While Shakespeare’s treatment of flowers is essentially that of a poet, there is underneath this use that peculiar sense of them which belongs to childhood, as it interprets popular conceptions. Many times over he tells us by what names flowers are known to different persons, evidently the result of memories of childhood, Memory is par excellence the poet’s faculty. To see a thing as it was, and to see it in the light and with the feelings of memory, this is what makes poetry possible,—a profound impression, cherished and meditated.
Shakespeare’s descriptions of flowers have this quality of remembered association, and they call out the purest exercise of his genius. It is on his two loveliest characters, Ophelia and Perdita, that this wealth of flowers is lavished without stint; in The Winter’s Tale, where love passionate yet pure is woven into each flower, Perdita in disguise gives them to her visitors; and in Hamlet, when Ophelia says “You must wear your rue with a difference,” yet all “she turns to favor and to prettiness.” Nowhere does Shakespeare show the tenderness and keenness of his genius more than in this use of the same common flowers in connection with the tragedy of love brought to despair, and of love in the very height and enchantment of its near-at-hand revelation.
All this tallies with the alleged facts of his life as spent first in Warwickshire, and then in London, where most of his plays were written, and last in Stratford, where the memories of his youth were revived after wide separation from its scenes. There are three conditions essential to a true vision of natural scenery: that one must spend one’s childhood in the presence of it, must leave it, and later on return to it. The close and divine contact of the first period, the memories of the second period, the revival of associations in the third period, — these furnish the poet’s vision of nature.
When the pilgrim has fully mastered the few details of Shakespeare’s birthplace, he proceeds directly to the church, putting but a ten-minutes walk between the cradle and the grave of the poet, — a symbol of how little there is to be known between. The grammar school, the Shottery cottage, Charlecote Park, and the few stones of New Place, are all the material with which to fill the long gap.
Let us not hastily infer, however, that nothing more is to be told of him. Aubrey evidently does not give all he knows or could get at, but only a few salient points and incidents. Along with these reasonably sure facts are a number of hints which may be built up into facts by aid drawn from the writings. It is these hints that reveal the man.
If there is one thing more clear than another it is that Shakespeare was preeminently a man of business and regarded himself as such. His relation to his work seems to have been a violation of all the canons which are supposed to govern poets. There is no trace of literary ambition in connection with his plays; whatever ambition of this sort he may have entertained had to do with two or three poems. Upon his plays he seems to have set no estimate beyond their commercial value. There is about him an almost total absence of the literary atmosphere, and in its place we have the hard-headed, common-sense man of business. We grant the fullness of the poetic gift, the largest with which mortal man was ever dowered. We do not doubt that there was a constant play of the poetic faculty; there was doubtless the dreaminess, the spiritual eye, the responsiveness of the poet to every kind of inspiration; but it was, so to speak, subconscious. He presents himself to us chiefly in the light of a man who is determined to get on in the world by means of business and in business-like ways; he has no other controlling ambition; he uses his great powers simply and solely to advance his fortunes. There are several men to be regarded, each one of which he was, both consciously and of set purpose, before we come to Shakespeare the literary man. There is the man of affairs, the actor and manager, the country gentleman, the family man, and the man of society. This should not lower him in our respect. Almost any departure from the rôle of the literary men of his day, as played by Marlowe, Greene, and Peele, would reflect credit upon him. That he withheld himself from the excessive Bohemianism of his contemporaries shows good sense and sound character. That his ambition took the form of advancing his fortunes has several grounds of justification. He thus simply shows himself genuinely English. To be the author of a popular novel or of a poem that sells, or to be a party leader, is all very well; but when you have discovered what a true Englishman likes above all else, you will find it to be seven hunters and a pack of hounds.
Shakespeare evidently shared in this English liking to the full, and added to it all the fervor of a poet’s heart. The literary men of his day, and for two centuries after, were Londoners. Dr. Johnson and Charles Lamb were types of English literary men up to the beginning of the 19th century, loving London and hating the country, men of clubs and taverns and garrets. Shakespeare seemed not to belong to this set, though Aubrey says that he was “very good company and of a very readie and pleasant smooth witt;” and also says, “He was wont to goe to his native country once a yeare;” which indicates that Shakespeare regarded himself as a citizen of Stratford, and at last remained there altogether. His taste and ambition were gratified in Warwickshire rather than in London.
There is much reason to believe that his interest in business was due not only to natural taste, but to stern determination as well. This much is plain: after a stormy youth that seems to have reached its height in lawlessness, and after an early marriage, he abruptly leaves the country and speedily turns up in London, first in some subordinate position in a theatre, then as an actor, then as a shareholder — and probably a manager — in the Globe and Blackfriars, an author of carefully written poems, a most earnest student of the Italian and French drama, and very soon a writer of original plays, which he produces with great rapidity. Now here is a great revolution. We think it was a moral revolution, of which there was abundant occasion. But probably the main spur and the one that gave him a special direction toward moneymaking, was the condition of his father’s affairs. It is quite clear that his life, from his schooldays on, was a struggle, not so much with poverty, as with business troubles. It is strange that we know more of the father than of the son, but in knowing the former we infer the latter. John Shakespeare followed as many occupations as have been ascribed to his son William, hence the probable explanation of the latter’s wide knowledge of several branches of business. It was not the son but the father who figured in so many callings. He was a glover, a farmer, a butcher, a wool-stapler, a lumber-merchant, a corn-dealer, ale-taster, burgess, constable, chamberlain, alderman, high bailiff, and mayor, and had figured in each calling and office before his son went to London. As the boy had early left the grammar school in order to serve his father, he undoubtedly shared his life and knew all that was to be thus learned. But what proved the boy’s education — and for such a boy none could have been better — became the father’s ruin. Certainly, as the son was attaining manhood, we find John Shakespeare heavily involved in debt, his wife’s property mortgaged, and himself either in the debtor’s jail or in hiding to escape it. How this state of affairs came about is unknown, but it may have been the natural conclusion of a career embracing so many occupations, followed at first with a success that led to social prominence and thus to public life, then to neglect of his affairs, embarrassment, and disaster. Guesses are always in order in connection with Shakespeare, and so — using one of the poet’s own favorite words, which is no Yankeeism, for he uses it more than fifty times — we may guess that the son’s wildness may have, in fact, caused the business misfortunes of the father.
One of the most self-revealing of the Plays is As You Like It. We cannot but feel that in Jaques there is a touch of personal experience, and that as he views the “careless herd, full of pasture ” jump past the wounded deer, and “never stay to greet him,” the author has in mind the vicissitudes of his father’s career.
’T is just the fashion : wherefore do you look
Upon that poor and broken bankrupt there ?
The place — the Forest of Arden, just north of Stratford, and his mother’s birthplace; the character — a bankrupt slighted by his prosperous fellow citizens — make it almost certain that the passage is a bit of family history. The father had lost his position as alderman on account of his embarrassments, and not improbably the son shared in his ostracism, even if he may not have caused it.
It is common to ascribe Shakespeare’s fullness and accuracy in narrative to observation; but the eye, however wide open and keen, does not see all things. Without the touch of experience, all things would pass before it as an unsubstantial vision. Whenever there is unusual depth of meaning, or intensity of feeling, or a prevailing thought in different plays, it is safe to infer that we are listening to a note struck from personal experience. The soliloquy of Hamlet runs close to the autobiographic: —
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes . . .
This is not observation of life; it is the experience, the very distillation of it. The Warwickshire note is heard again in his dealing with courts of justice. Law itself is treated in a lofty way, in the spirit of broadest wisdom, and even religiously; but its administration with bitter complaint, contempt and ridicule. Shakespeare was much too sensible a man to sprinkle his pages with contempt of the courts without good reason for it. We can read between the lines a stern conviction that the administration of law, if not the law itself, was devoid of mercy, and that it bore heavily upon his father; also that in his own case and as administered by country justices, it was a farce. However this be, he gave the keynote to all future treatment of legal proceedings; whatever abuse there may be, there is some stinging phrase with which to pierce it.
It is upon the background of such a life as this — a stormy youth involved in the meshes of the law; a considerable training in business which has come to literal grief and perhaps shame; his father a bankrupt; his mother’s property jeopardized; a young family dependent upon him for support: a man but twenty-two years old, though with the experience of twice these years — with such a life behind him and weighing down upon him, he goes to London, renews acquaintance with actors whom he had met in Warwickshire, and at once enters upon his great career.
One can safely venture assertions in regard to Shakespeare, because if judiciously made no one can prove them false; we mean any assertion except that he did not write the plays. Hence we do not hesitate to assert that on going to London he underwent a revolution. He had, very likely, been a spendthrift ; he had left a wife and children in poverty, a father in business difficulties possibly caused by himself, and the estate of his mother endangered. These facts are sufficient to account for the direction he now took; in prosaic phrase, that of business. He had some skill in acting, — Aubrey says “did act exceedingly well,”—a nimble fancy, a head for affairs; and so, in a very short time, we find him in the full tide of his career as playwright and manager.
No theory of Shakespeare can account for him which does not make a place for immense and incessant toil. He brought to London a head uncommonly full of very superior brains, some slight knowledge of the classics, — “ small Latine and lesse Greek,” is Jonson’s phrase; but Aubrey more fairly says that “he understood Latine pretty well, for he had been in his younger yeares a schoolmaster in the country,” — a memory stored with nearly everything to be seen and known in Warwickshire, some very distinct impressions of the administration of justice in the country and of the inconveniences of poverty and the embarrassment of debt, and a good taste generally “of this rough world.” In a few years he has produced poems and plays which by the vast amount of knowledge wrought into them imply a like amount of study. No degree of genius will teach one a knowledge of Greek mythology and Roman history and the Italian and French languages, and make one an easy master of all the science and statecraft and current wisdom of the world, along with an insight into human nature and conduct that could only spring out of prolonged meditation. To wonder at Shakespeare is a vain thing; there will be enough room left for wonder when we have explained him so far as we can. We are driven to think of him as a man of infinite industry, shunning the ordinary life of the literary man, a life of much roistering and excess, and subordinating every detail to the stern purpose of success. “Put money in thy purse,” is his motto.
The money comes to him, and it goes down to Stratford to take up mortgages and feed wife and babes, to prepare a home and place to redeem what has been lost, and to secure the kind of life he covets. Of literary ambition he gives few signs, except in the sonnets, or it is overborne by a determination to turn his wits to other account. His plays were not bids for immortality, nor even for local reputation; they were so many bills of exchange on the money market of London, — a humiliating conclusion, perhaps, yet we are sure the plays are greater, the genius clearer and more fully authenticated, than if he had worked from the standpoint of authorship and with a consciousness of extraordinary gifts. We thus have a forest instead of a garden, nature instead of art, or, as Polixenes, in The Winter’s Tale says, “The art itself is nature;” a reflection, as in a mirror, of the universe, rather than a study of the universe.
One secret of the greatness of Shakespeare lies in his unconsciousness; it helps to make him infallible. He sees a thing, sets it down, and does not spoil it by overmuch thinking about it; he has no selfish interest in it; he makes no attempt to square it with any theory or previously expressed opinion; he has no reputation that he cares to guard; no hobby or creed to urge; and so his expression is as free and natural as the blowing of the wind; it has in it all the unhindered weight of his native apprehension and the clearness of undistempered vision. It is this freedom of inspired genius that makes every utterance so trustworthy. It can be secured in two ways only, — by a moral superiority to disturbing influences, or by the influence of some foreign motive. Shakespeare, however related to moral superiority, was moved by the foreign motive. Because it was foreign — outside of authordom — it left him free to say what he thought and felt. It is all over with a writer when he has become the head of a school of thought or style and has at his heels a crowd of followers who clamor for the next word that logically follows his previous word. Say it he must, and if it happens to disagree with the former word, they will rend him limb from limb. The prophets have ever dwelt in the desert or in some other isolation of their own — even perhaps their own indifference to the world. No teacher of men is to be trusted who is not in some way separated from outer influences that might sway his thoughts; the pole-star and not the iron of the ship must attract him. Tennyson well understood this; it was the secret of his isolated life; he would not mingle with the world because he would not be disturbed in his judgments by it. He stood aside and looked at the world with that insight of genius which pierces to the meaning of things without analysis or measurement. Shakespeare gained the same point of view by having a remote and absorbing interest; it left his whole nature free to see and to feel.
The motive under which he worked and secured his isolation was a sordid motive, but a worthy sordidness, if one may so speak. Whatever its character, it made room for the free play of his genius. He was an actor, a shareholder and perhaps a manager of two theatres; and he certainly furnished them plays, — at first recasts of the various Henrys, and then, having discovered that he could write as well as Marlowe, launching out into original work like The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet. His ambition is to have a play ready for the next season, and so composed that it will run well and put money in his purse. And so he writes a play, — anything that will do the business. He steals right and left,—a line from Marlowe, a song from Ben Jonson, whole passages, as from Montaigne and contemporary writers, plots wherever he can find them. Plagiarism! What does he care for that ? he is not striving to make a name, but to furnish the Globe with a play. There is much to show that he did not rate the play in itself as belonging to the highest order of literature. He sedulously cared for his poems and sonnets, but abandoned the plays as waifs. Nowhere does he indicate that he troubles himself over the rules that are supposed to govern the composition of a play. He ignores the unities, not as despising them, but simply because he could get along better without them. Yet when it came to the acting —as in Hamlet — his criticism was definite and exacting, for it was the acting that filled the house.
When we speak of Shakespeare as without literary ambition and consciousness, we do not mean that he was devoid of them, but rather that they were not the moving motive. His poems and sonnets are distinct ventures in the world of letters. His poems, at least, were highly popular, and their reception must have fixed his place as an author. But although he forsakes poetry and devotes himself entirely to the drama, he pays no heed to his plays beyond their money value. Possibly they were owned by the theatres. He made no collection of them, and treated them so carelessly as to leave room, if there is room in a vacuum, for the Baconian theorists. Evidently he regarded the plays as having had their day and as of no further account. Here we have an illuminating conjunction of facts, — the successful author sinks himself in the playwright, who abandons his work to oblivion when it has earned a money value. What better proof that he cared little for fame as a dramatist, and had no conception, except perhaps at moments, of the greatness of the plays? Add to this his retirement to Stratford about eight years before his death, still in the full tide of success and popularity and with unabated powers, and we have sufficient elements to construct a very probable character. The chosen course of a man’s life generally reveals him. He goes to London to retrieve his fortunes; he succeeds, achieves a reputation as a poet, and sets it aside; he writes plays — the greatest products of the human intellect, but knows it not; he sells them shrewdly in the market, pockets the money, and leaves them as the property of the stock company, without even his name attached; and before the age of fifty-five retires to Stratford and dwells in London no more. What manner of man have we here ? An Englishman who loves the woods and fields, and has no conception of a home except in the country. We have a man in whom the poetic impulse is so strong that he enjoys contact with nature more than he craves the reputation of a poet. He is a man given to meditation, fonder of his own thoughts than of writing them down. He is of so keen insight into human nature, of so broad and penetrating vision, that he is awed and kept off from action by the very greatness of his knowledge, and so drops to a simple and incommensurate plan of life, — that of the ordinary Englishman, drowned in the sea of his own greatness.
The retirement to Stratford settles with considerable certainty a much-debated point, namely, his domestic relations. The evidence as to happiness is contradictory. Certain expressions in the plays seem to point to a bad condition of things. His marriage will bear two interpretations, but upon the whole the balance inclines towards a fairly comfortable domestic life. Sir Henry Taylor, in his essay on “ Choice in Marriage,” quotes from Webster’s play in answer to the question “What do you think of marriage ? ” —
It locally contains or heaven or hell ;
There is no third place in it.”
Sir Henry thinks the answer correct; but both he and the poet may be doubted. Between those who were evidently mated in heaven, and those whose match was evidently made in hell and tipped with its sulphur, there is a class of marriages that belongs to neither. Love’s dream is not wholly fulfilled, nor is it wholly shattered. “It might have been” rises to the lips in some sentimental mood, but stern common-sense takes up the line and turns it into prose, — “it might have been — worse,” and concludes to make the best of a wife who is not quite an angel, or of a husband who is not what he ought to be. It is an imperfect world, and the largest relation in it is not free from its imperfection.
It is fair to say that Shakespeare treated marriage ideally in his plays and practically in his life. The return to Stratford after an absence rendered necessary in the fulfillment of a cherished purpose is a fairly good sign that there was not a bad state of things domestically in his household. Shakespeare nowhere carries his idealization so far, and with such exquisite delicacy and truth, as in his treatment of woman, especially in the relations of love and marriage; but it does not follow that, because his wife did not reach the standard of Cordelia and Hermione, he failed in love and duty to her. Great poets do not insist on ideals in their wives. Sir Walter Scott, walking in the fields with his wife, said, “Are not these lambs beautiful ? ” “Yes, boiled,” she replied; but he loved her nevertheless. Besides, Shakespeare was not the man to insist on ideals, for the simple reason that his own life was not in them.
It is usually thought that through the medium of Prospero in The Tempest he gives the closest symbol of the twofold part he had played, and will play in life hereafter, — a life of seeming, a revel, a banishment, a dukedom won, after which he betakes himself to reality - home, family, the citizen, rank.
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air.”
So he leaves behind him the creatures of his imagination and goes back to his good, honest wife and plain, wholesome-hearted daughters, Susanna and Judith, quite content with them, for they are the parts and the means of his dream of life as a country gentleman.
We cannot with any certainty detect in him what is usually called the note of religion, unless it may be found in
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come.”
The times were not favorable to clear convictions on this subject; there was too much controversy. As he says in Lear,
At court, and in the circles in which he moved, men were politically Protestants, but Romanists in doctrine. Probably he did his own thinking on such questions, said little, but conformed strictly to the existing order. As a playwright he made much of the Catholic Church, but politically he stands by the historic position of the nation, — as when King John says,
Add thus much more, that no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions.”
He treats the local clergy, as the local magistrates, slightingly. Puritanism was coming on, and already it had begun to infect the clergy, inducing conceit in doctrinal teaching and severity in life, both of which must have been odious to him. And so between the hypocrisy in London and the fanaticism in Stratford, he readily consented to do his own thinking in matters of religion. Doubtless he was a conformist, not from conviction, but as standing by the state. He had not suffered the history of England to pass heated through his brain without learning the lesson of loyalty.
Still we question if he was a good church-goer. The town and church of Stratford had a decided bent toward Presbyterianism, and there is reason to think that he did not get on well with it in this respect. Himself the wisest of preachers, he does not seem to have been fond of preaching. That which sounds most like it —and very wise it is — comes from Polonius, whom he calls “a prating old fool.” We fear that when he walked to church with his wife he went no further than the porch, but strolled along the Avon, where he was found by Susanna and Judith on “a grassy bank,” in close converse with “daisies pied and violets blue,” and “herb-grace,” as became Sunday. And in winter he was not sorry “when coughing drowned the parson’s saw.” The preacher and the poet have never got on well together, and will not until they learn that they are identically the same person, as Cardinal Newman says; and that they must not divide and antagonize what God hath joined together.
Of the few memorials of Shakespeare none will compare in interest with the rude bust perched high upon the wall of the chancel above his grave. It is poor as a work of art, is of plaster, and has been painted and whitewashed and otherwise restored, but there is good reason to believe that it conveys a correct impression of the man. The head full at every point, high, broad, rounded as if to hold all things in true proportion. The face is sphinx-like, expressing nothing and yet everything, — perfect repose, no trace of passion or struggle, no conflict with himself or with the world, no fear, no desire or longing; only a mind beholding all things, yet as the mirror which reflects the landscape, — the shifting cloud, the falling water, the wind-tossed foliage,— but shows in itself no change with the changing objects. It is difficult to think of Shakespeare’s feeling as commensurate with his thoughts; otherwise his heart would have worn itself out in the multitude of its sympathies and agonies. The secret of his method is found in Hamlet’s phrase: “To hold, as ’t were, the mirror up to nature,” —a maxim for the actor, but logically a rule for the author. He suffered all things, whether of man or nature, to pass before him; but when we ask for his own opinion of them, we seldom get a sure answer. There is, however, a range of topics which he seems to treat with personal feeling, — such as questions of a political nature. Whenever he speaks of England —perhaps because of his strenuous study in the historical plays —he flames, and never is his thought more profound than here. It is safe to say that the state was his chief interest ; so one may read between the lines in Lear and Othello and Macbeth, as well as in the historical plays, which Carlyle declares to be the best history of England. He will not let Othello die in remorse without a revelation of his patriotism and reverence for the state: —
I have done the state some service, and they know it.
If we can overlook the many difficulties that surround the sonnets, and regard them as expressions of personal feeling, then we know he was a man who loved with all of love’s passion, who felt sin and hated evil, who was “aweary of the sun,” tired of a world he understood too well, — that beneath the current of a busy life, the details of which he hated, lay solemn depths of feeling and conviction.
From our point of view Shakespeare is the most pathetic of men; for what is more pathetic than unconscious possession of great powers. It seems to be a selfdefrauding, a miscarriage of nature. Milton felt every inch of his greatness, and five pounds for Paradise Lost lowered the world, not himself. But Shakespeare sold his plays —shrewdly bargained for — and measured his success and greatness by the moderate splendors of New Place. And yet he must have been a mystery to himself. He knew there was no true correlation between himself and the men and women about him. He was solitary “not only by the vastness of his sympathies,” but still more by the vastness of his knowledge. This threw him out of gear with the world and made him a perplexity to himself, and so he compromises on the simple country-life and associations of Stratford, turning his back upon himself as a dramatist, and dropping to a life he does understand, —houses, lands, gardens, horses, crops, and the like. The world is to him a mystery, an unreality, a drama like his own, and he will share its fate —
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind ;
and so he goes back to the dreams of his youth as better than any he has known in London. But though life may be a dream, it is also undeniably something else, and so we find him farming, malting, adding field to field, suing his dishonest neighbors in the same courts which he had ridiculed with merciless wit, and laying the foundations of a family in true English fashion. Death overtakes him at fifty-two, and — strangest “scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history” — he is buried in the chancel of the parish church, not as a poet and dramatist, but as a holder of the greater tithes. An evil fate seems to pursue his memory, which is now and then assailed as if it were a guilty criminal in suffering itself to be connected with plays that ought to be bound up with the Novum Organum.
As we found Shakespeare in Warwickshire, so we leave him there; indeed, he is never far away from the field of his keenest delight and deepest impressions. His retirement to Stratford, when regarded in its various lights, is the most revealing phase of his life. Indifferent as he was to his plays in one way, he laid clear emphasis upon them in others. He rounded his work as a playwright with personal significance. The Tempest is not only a farewell to the stage, —filled with the very spirit of it, airy, unreal, fascinating,—it is charged with his weightiest convictions and also with his anticipations and purposes. The play breathes throughout forgiveness toward his enemies in a lofty and yearning temper, struck through with the mercy and pity of a father. Over and over again is the same gracious quality seen in his plays, but in The Tempest it wears the pathos of farewell. It sheds a flood of light upon his ethical convictions. Even a dull reader may note that he often forgets the best interests of the play as to effectiveness, and indulges in meditation over the right and wrong of what is involved, the playwright forgetting himself in the moralist.
In the most quoted of all his words: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” we are not to understand that he gives a definition of human life, nor even an intimation of its destiny, for Shakespeare never seriously transcended the bounds of this world. Prospero is still in the field of this life, and would only say that so long as he has duties in this world of dream-like phantasy he will meet them “though his brain is troubled.” And Shakespeare has another field in mind. When in Stratford, though life may be short, it is real, and its duties will be met as realities. We find in him still the freedom and exhilaration of his period, intensified by the full tides of joy and vitality that flowed through his own veins; but along with them and deeper than any, were ethical convictions whose solidity and depth outweighed all else within him. Of his conduct little is known, but of his nature much may be inferred. It was bedded in the ethics of human life, and especially of conduct in the fundamental relations of men to one another. Three things he invariably demanded and set on high, — justice, mercy, and love as the soul of each. All these are set forth in Prospero as consciously his own. When he abjures his magic, breaks his staff, and drowns his book, and so frees himself from the unreality of the stage, and betakes himself to house and home, he carries with him these high qualities of law and conduct, else the picture of himself which he has so long foreshadowed is out of keeping with the truthfulness with which he had mirrored all human conduct. In the development of society nearly all the great men of the past are now accorded larger measures of goodness than heretofore. The humor, the insight and breadth of vision, the imagination, the charm of Shakespeare will remain as ever, but his ethical sense is more patent and rises to meet the new standards of the unfolding world. There can be no better text-book in our universities for the study of high and spiritual ethics than the plays of Shakespeare, — under the one condition that the teacher shall be adequate in perception and temper of mind and soul to unfold the inwoven lessons.
After all, there is more of nature in Shakespeare than can be found in Warwickshire or in England; more of humanity than can be seen in any one generation. He is as ancient as Job, as modern as Emerson. He did more than fill a place made ready by the political and religious enfranchisement of the English people; more than mount and ride the topmost wave of the nation’s genius. Place and age and opportunity worked in accord for his production, but they did not produce him. We must relegate the problem of his universality, his transcendence, his prophetic outlook, his fathomless insight — all as easy and natural as breathing — to that region and power where all problems must at last be left, namely, creative endowment, the only explanation of great men. The truest measure of him is his unconsciousness of himself; he was too vast to be comprehended by his own thought; he so far surpassed all known standards that he had none for estimating himself; and so, apparently, he made no estimate beyond what might be set down in pounds sterling. He seems in his unconscious greatness almost to lose the qualities of a man, and to be simply a voice of universal nature.
And yet he speaks of no world but this, and touches only everyday humanity. He speaks of man as he is here and now. He deals with the master passions, — love, ambition, jealousy, avarice, pride, and lust. He moralizes on the chief mistakes of men, — the parting with heavenimposed responsibility as in Lear ; indiscriminate and unregulated generosity, as in Timon of Athens ; over-thoughtfulness and brooding in a world of action, as in Hamlet; the insidious growth of evil, as in Macbeth. He is a quarry out of which philosophers dig their most unimpeachable truths; a judgment-seat for whoever brings a cause, outweighing all precedents and decisions; a divine to divines, a fixed star by which all poets measure their flights; yet all this is not more wonderful than a certain protean adaptation to all classes, grades, ages, and generations of men. The Shakespeare of two centuries ago was not the Shakespeare of the last century, and we have to-day a Shakespeare whom even Dr. Johnson did not know. Yet each was real. Equally does he accommodate himself to the varied periods of life. He is a story-teller in childhood; in youthhood he is the reflection of our passion and purpose; in manhood the measure of our strength and action; and in age the philosopher who interprets and confirms our observations of life. And so he delights the rude throng with trenchant wit and hoarse laughter, yet sings to the finest ear in measures unapproachably faultless.
His greatest service, perhaps, is to be found in the fact that he gave the world an inexhaustible body of essential and practical truth in the best form: by which I mean truth stated beautifully, nobly, and engagingly. What a wealth of it, and how accurate, — answering to life as the courses of the stars answer to mathematics! But the truth of Shakespeare is more than exact, more than the mirror held up to nature and humanity; it is truth with its heavenly radiance and native glory. Montaigne tells us the truth in plain and homely ways, and Plutarch prattles it like a child; but Shakespeare penetrated into the temple of truth, and brought it forth in its shining robes and made it speak in its divine accents. It is one thing to see truth as the reality of things; it is another to behold the glory and majesty and strength and beauty of truth. This is the high achievement of Shakespeare: that the eternal secret, the spiritual essence, the absolute nature of any truth he touches, is revealed in his statement of it.
Suh a work as this is to be put by the side of Magna Charta and Habeas Corpus and Trial by Jury, and the Declaration of Independence — as a real contribution to humanity and civilization. What does man more need; what richer heritage can he have than the truth pertaining to himself, put in exact and noble form ? This, we conceive, is the crowning glory of Shakespeare; this is what puts him above the homely Socrates, the dreaming Plato, the plodding Aristotle, and the whole race of philosophers, — that he has revealed humanity to itself, and made it feel its own greatness and glory.
There are heights he does not reach, though hardly depths he does not sound; but he is no evangel, and the tone-note of eternity is seldom struck. He falters when he looks beyond “the flaming ramparts of the world,” and sinks back, saying, —
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep ; ”
or at best only says, —
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
But we must not ask of one mortal man to be the revealer of two worlds. He has shown us one; he uttered no syllable that forbids us to believe in another. Nay, he has made this world so great and beautiful that of itself it calls out for eternity.