Superfluous Kings

Which had superfluous kings for messengers
Not many moons gone by.

Antony and Cleopatra.

As the kings lag, and then pass away from the stage of the world, many men will ask what there is to regret. Assuredly nothing, if not royalty, in the mind of Shakespeare. Mankind will in time probably forget or deny that there was ever anything in the life of the world answering to Shakespeare’s royalty in Perdita, or to his princeliness in Arviragus and Guiderius, or to his kingliness in Lear, or to his glory in Cleopatra. It may be so, as to the world; there may have been nothing thus answerable. But there was Shakespeare.

And our regrets in regard to him cover all his regalities — the hidden and hereditary and unconscious, and the conscious and braggart and manifest: Perdita’s dignity among the romps, and her sportive disputes as to Art and Nature among the clowns, her unflushed composure amid the junketings, and also Lear’s loud and indignant death. The splendor of Shakespeare’s veneration for kings is perhaps deeper where the kingliness — the blood of it — is unrevealed, as in the shepherdess of The Winter’s Tale, for here it is matter of Shakespeare’s faith. So with the brothers of Imogen who, by the way, — and not merely by the way, —like her, discuss flowers—‘Then to arms!’ They too have an inexplicable distinction, unknown to the world of their exile, but known to Shakespeare, who is aware of their blood and lineage. Here, and in The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare makes his resolute and implicit act of belief in the blood of kings.

In Lear that faith suffers outrage and defies it. Many years ago that great actor Rossi, who did not gain in England such honor as was rendered to Salvini, — I fear because his physical personal dignity was not so obvious as Salvini’s, — played King Lear in Italian. But there was one cry, one royal proclamation, that could not be removed from the English. It needed Shakespeare’s own word to vindicate Shakespeare’s royalism. (One might make sport of any kind of translation: say ‘ogni centimetro’ — ‘every centimetre a king’ — is good farce.) No Italian will serve; the Latin mind has not this degree of imaginative reverence, nor has the Italian language the faculty of giving sudden greatness to a customary word.

But Shakespeare, conceiving for royalty not only ‘the beauteous Majesty of Denmark,’ and the ‘courteous action’ of the dead, — ‘being so. majestical,’ — and the dignity of Hermione’s daughter, and the tempest of Lear’s elemental tragedy, will not consent to touch us with nothing more than pity and terror. He confronts us with the uttermost of pride of life in the royalty he sings; confronts us—no, rather brings us to our knees before the arrogant splendor he conceives: —

Where souls do couch on flowers, we ’ll hand in hand,
And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze.

It is the pride of life and the pride of death. Only hand in hand with a queen does Antony venture on the prophecy of that immortal vanity. If to him are given the most surprising lines in any of the tragedies, it is only as the lover of a queen that he has the right to them. To him is assigned that startling word, the incomparable word of amorous and tender ceremony — ‘Egypt.’

I am dying, Egypt, dying.

That territorial name, murmured to his love in the hour of death, and in her arms — I know not in the records of all genius any other such august farewell. Lear’s word is outdone here. Lear a king in every inch of his aged body, but Cleopatra a queen in every league of her ancient realm. Has not majesty spoken its one unexpected word in the mouth of such a lover?

Superfluous kings — Shakespeare’s irony could find no other adjective so overcharged with insolence as this. Kings must be as he conceived them in order to that antithesis: —

Superfluous kings for messengers.

But an antithesis more complete than that of downfall and of servitude is that of mortality. The humiliation of the beaten monarch leaves the Shakespearean conception of kingliness face to face with the mere fortunes of war; the derision of the word ‘superfluous’ implies, in reversal, an inalienable dignity; so in the act of dying, the visible act, done in life; so with ‘sad stories of the death of kings.’ The final contradiction is not here; but in the grave itself, in the hidden burial, out of the sight of the populace: it needs the utmost of Shakespeare’s passion of royalty to answer to that depth. And here is poetry, not by him, but wonderfully worthy of him, that tells us of

High-born dust
In vaults, thin courts of poor unflattered kings.

Shakespeare only, besides Young, could have written this.

Literature, then, will lose this glory, and with this glory this humiliation. Who will say which is greater, the thesis or the antithesis? But they cannot be parted to be compared. There they are, in our national literature, and cannot be effaced. But who shall hinder their becoming, for the student, first a matter of mere literary interest, then a matter of mere literary curiosity, next a matter of some new derision? (We need no new derisions: our wits are apt to mockery.) Is it well that any one of Shakespeare’s many passions should come under our frigid inspection, to be examined so?

When kings are in fact superfluous, Shakespeare’s great word ‘superfluous’ will be canceled out; when kings are no longer flattered, Young’s great word ‘unflattered’ will be a futile word; when there are no full assiduous courts, Young’s ‘thin courts’ will suggest no spectres. Regret is for Shakespeare, as has been said; not for Saul, or Louis the Fourteenth, or Charles the Twelfth. But, short of Shakespeare’s devotion, there will be some sentiment damaged. When the mortality of kings is no sharper sarcasm than is the mortality we all inherit, then the lamps and the gold that enshrine the bony heads of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar at Cologne may take their place, outside of cathedrals, with the unnamed relics of the shepherds who preceded the kings to the manger.

Shakespeare’s greatest splendor, then, that so shines down the splendor of history and the world, is under sentence, and under sentence his greatest compassion, and under sentence his greatest terror, and under sentence his greatest irony. And I have placed at the head of these pages a word of neither terror nor compassion, because the word of irony implies the rest.