« PreviousContinue »
THIS little work is not addressed to those who see no
mystery in the works of Shakespeare. Those who can read his plays, his poems, and his ambiguous language, without any misgivings or further conjecturings, are only to maintain this attitude always, and everything will remain plain to them. In this world, where stale custom reduces everything (to all but philosophers or poets) to the level of the common-place, nothing but novelty succeeds. Idealists and materialists quarrel over their narrow shibboleths, forgetting.that their criterions are such as mere blindness alone prevents them from seeing to be as groundless and unreal as the very questions they attack. Realism, that hopeless chimera of philosophical debate, imagines that it has grasped substantiality when it has only removed the question a step further back. Thus we persist in calling things supernatural and spiritual because uncommon, and neglect the common itself, failing to see the transcendental in it around us; which defies comprehension in itself beyond measurement, order, and relation. Perhaps we should do well to take a lesson from Shakespeare, who refused to acknowledge to names a reality existing beyond the ways we look at things. If we turn to “The Tempest,” we find we are told in one breath :
.. We are such stuff As dreams are made on."
And a little before :
The great globe itself,
There is neither materialism nor idealism here. Only the great mystery, the great unknown, of which we know nothing but our poor one-sided and limited views. As Mr. Lewes truly says, in his “Problems of Life and Mind,” the world is mystic to man. Beyond relation it is probable we can never pass. Indeed it will ever grow more questionable whether mind and thought are in any way true guages of this universe in itself. And this leads us to the comparison of Shakespeare and the mysteries which philosophy seeks to solve. Mr. Swinburne has well compared our Poet to the ocean. May we not apply Mr. Lewes's dictum about the world to Shakespeare with as great felicity? Are not the works of Shakespeare mystic to man? Who can deny this? Who knows anything of Shakespeare himself? We know a Goethe, we know a Milton; but we do not equally know the greatest of all poets.
Fortunately, to those we address, there is no need of such a question. The growth of Shakespearian societies, and of the literature which at home and abroad is ever swelling around the works of our Poet, are sufficient proof that we are beginning to realize the nature of the problem in downright earnest. What is that problem ?
That problem, we answer, is the realization of the man himself—of Shakespeare as a thinker, not alone as an artist. When we study a painting, we try and enter into its creator's mind, to see what he thought and what he intended in his work. We do not ignore the conception because the execution is perfect. That is generally secondary, or it ought to
If there is no conception, only a mere copy, we may admire the artist, but the creator, the genius, is wanting. Thought is at the bottom of all things, and thought alone is
the true measure of genius. Thousands possess the artistic gift, thousands execute like automatons. Witness the artisan, it is he alone who builds the ship or rears the house; but who conceives it ?-the architect. And we like to know what manner of man the architect was. We wish to learn what he thought; and from his house or his ship we trace the man in the unity and breadth of his design alone. We do not take each column of a temple, each section of a ship, and say this shows the man. It is the whole conception alone which satisfies us. Now the nature of Shakespeare's art is much of this character. We see a mosaic of beautiful passages, love-stories, romances, tragedies, comedies, etc. We read them, and we think we know Shakespeare. It is as if we read “Gulliver's Travels” as a child, swallowing the story oblivious of its irony, its philosophy, and its bitterness. Suppose we were to see nothing in “Don Quixote” but a lunatic? Or in “Zanoni” but a magician? We do not commit these errors here; yet we transpose them easily to that giant Shakespeare. Nobody thinks that Dante's work contains no allegory. Readers are not so dense as not to see the “Divina Commedia” requires a key before it can be understood. And we maintain that every creation of genius in literature is more or less of this character. No matter how early we go back, be it to the Bible or the earliest poetry, we find the prevalence of word-painting, of metaphor, and imagery. Now we contend these latter contain the principle of symbolism in them. They are not direct; on the contrary, they avoid harshness by substituting one picture to call up another, by its likeness and suggestiveness. The germs of rationalism are hidden under this similarity, calling out identity from out diversity. Art, we maintain, is easily described as one large metaphor. It images the thoughts, not by signs, but by pictures which resemble those thoughts; and, whilst touching the feelings, appeals to the mind also. If we were to follow the steps of art in all its growth, we should find the symbolism growing wider, deeper, and more intricate. As we ascend into the realms of dramatic literature, we find in “Prometheus,” “Edipus Rex," and the Greek drama generally, attempts to picture the relations of man to destiny. This is the subject of the drama—the struggle of man with fate. Already we have made a gigantic stride; we have passed from poetry, say, like the Psalms with its beautiful imagery, to unity of conception. The universal verity of Prometheus is a gigantic symbol. Here we have man tied to the rock of inexorable destiny, fate, or law. In “Edipus Rex” the Sphinx-like mysticism of this world is well pictured. Like the King, we are hurried to our doom irrespective of ourselves. We have no control over circumstances, chance, or fate. Indeed, as we proceed upon our ascent into modern literature, we find a greater and greater differentiation taking place.
Let us arrive at once to Shakespeare, who may well stand for all art in himself alone. And we naturally ask ourselves, what has Shakespeare symbolized ? There are thousands of people who deny the symbolism of art. And let us ask them if art can be direct ? As it can only speak to our feelings and to our thoughts by a species of dumb language, must it not be symbolical? Is there no thought lurking in the spire ? Does it not, like a silent and solemn finger, point heavenward ? What is the aim of art ?-the ideal. What is the ideal but the voice of the absolute, the perfect, the eternal ? Each man finds a different utterance for it; but whatever be that utterance, it must be symbolical. Is not all mythology of this character ? The ideal is the ideal, because it is not the real. But it is based upon thought, and that thought is conception from abstractions. Out of large generalizations in the philosophic world, gigantic thoughts arise, which cloud-like would roll away, if genius Titanlike did not embody them in types which fascinate us for
Hamlet is such an ideal, not real as a character, but ideal as a creation, and real as a symbol and a thought. When we rationalize the typifications of art into their symbolical ideas and significations, we are in the land of thought and reality once more. That is to say, of a reality in keeping with the possible and the knowledge of this earth. If it is true genius is above this every-day world, it is also true it cannot leave it. Its force exists in its breadth of view. It embraces the centuries in its gaze, and unrolls them like a scroll. When it typifies them into characters, they are gigantic indeed.
Independently of knowing nothing of Shakespeare's life or his opinions, we know nothing of his works. As a genius we know less about him than of any other genius. His Sonnets are before every one; we have but to read, yet who understands them? It is as yet undecided to whom they are addressed. Some say a woman,
Let us turn to his plays. What do we know of them ? Not one alludes in any way to the topics of their day. We can apparently find no thought of the author behind them. Like an invisible abstraction, the creator is not to be seen. The works are there, but the man who conceived them is unapparent. Now there is something about Shakespeare's works which persuades us he is there. The profundity of his art, and probably the width of his conceptions, in their gigantic unity and design, prevents us from seeing the truth. Shakespeare is so much above every other genius that he is perhaps out of the range of ordinary criticism. We see his hands, his feet, his legs, but we are too near the Colossus to see the whole in perspective. Time will alone gradually heighten our view of him. “He who wants the wealth of the Indies should take wealth to the Indies," is an old saying. Do we take anything to Shakespeare ? And can we carry as yet a measure sufficiently large to guage in any way this giant ?
That Shakespeare is behind his works is undoubted.