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Artists and poets have been deservedly and largely praised for the pathetic humanity which they have reflectively suggested in the sorrows and the pains of animals. Burns in poetry has achieved greatness here, and Landseer in painting has achieved equal greatness. But in this pathetic humanity of animal expression, Shakespeare is still the master. We wish we could give his whole picture of the hunted hare; but here is the catastrophe :
“ By this, poor Wat, far off upon a hill,
And being low, never relieved by any." That familiar picture in the school-books, of “ The Dying Deer,” which every schoolboy recollects, we will not reproduce, but the comments on it, which even grave students may not always remember, we will venture to recall.
“ But what said Jaques ?
Upon that poor and broken bankrupt there ?"" The variety of tones in which Shakespeare makes flowers speak from and to the human heart, we cannot here exemplify, — there is no one whom we need remind of the
affecting enumeration of the desolate Ophelia. While Shakespeare opens to us all the divinity and the humanity of nature, while he unfolds nature to us, - in its nobleness, in its beauty, in its implications of wisdom, bounty, and pathos, — he never desecrates the sanctity of nature by any association with the idolatry or folly of superstition. This is all the more admirable, as contrasted with the life and literature of his time; - a time when astrology was a faith to which even acute and able men gave implicit trust; when belief in witchcraft spread darkness over Europe, and made the darkness red with the blazing fagots, amidst which thousands passed through gates of fire out of life; when the drama did not disdain to find horrible interest in the insane atrocity, and when it had a British monarch for its advocate. Then it was, that Shakespeare, darting his keen wisdom generations beyond his age, ventured to ridicule even the comparatively harmless credence in the influence of the stars. “ This is,” he makes one of the characters in Lear say, “the excellent foppery of the world! that when we are sick in fortune, – often the surfeit of our own behavior, - we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on.”
And that which includes both man and nature, yet belongs to nature only by means of man, – that without which no consciousness can be, yet of which consciousness is the medium and the measure, — Time, - that we have most impressively, most multifariously, spiritualized and humanized in the poetry of Shakespeare. With what subtilty it is said of a person, who begins in sickness to despair of recovery, “He hath persecuted time with hope, and finds no other advantage in the process, but only the losing of hope by time.” The moralizing of a sage in motley is thus suggestively presented :
'T is but an hour ago, since it was nine;
And thereby hangs a tale." But after all, the mind, or the state of mind, is the true measure of the hour; and the motion of the hand over the same space on the dial-plate of the clock does not indicate to all the same interval of duration :
“ Time travels in divers paces with divers persons. I'll tell you who time ambles withal, who time trots withal, who time gallops withal, and who he stands still withal. He trots hard with a young maid, between the contract of her marriage and the day it is solemnized : if the interim be but a se'nnight, time's pace is so hard, that it seems the length of seven years. With a priest that lacks Latin, and a rich man that hath not the gout: for the one sleeps easily, because he cannot study; and the other lives merrily, because he feels no pain: the one lacking the burden of lean and wasteful learning; the other knowing no burden of heavy tedious penury: these time ambles withal. He gallops with a thief to the gallows: for though he go as softly as foot can fall, he thinks himself too soon there. He stays still with lawyers in the vacation ; for they sleep between term and term, and then they perceive not how time moves.”
Time, in these passages, is indicated only in its relations to humanity ; but here is one, wherein, with luxuriant description, and thoughtful philosophy, we discern it alike in its relation to humanity and to nature; the passage throbs with beauty, and abounds in pensive imagery.: —
“When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day hung in hideous night;
And die as fast as they see others grow.”
as to both inward and outward nature, — the intuitive discernment which he had of their intercommunion, — we observe not only in the completeness of his genius, but also in the completeness of his art. Whence it comes to pass, that, besides being a great artist himself, he understands the essential principles of all art. We meet with phrases, here and there, in his poetry, which, though having no æsthetic intention, contain the substance of esthetic philosophy. “Nature,” says one of his characters, “is made better by no mean, but nature makes that mean: so o'er that art, which you say adds to nature, is an art that nature makes. .... This is an art which does mend nature, - change it rather; but the art itself is nature.” How deep and true is this! For art is but the union of inward and outward nature, intensified and idealized by genius in human consciousness; and by genius made actual to the world, in body, delineation, or expression. Art is never beyond or out of nature: nature includes art, and gives to art its matter, its form, its meaning, and its life. But both in art and nature, Shakespeare is the poet of HUMANITY. O, most surely, humanity was Shakespeare's peculiar mission! he saw it in every object, he heard it in every sound, and in it all his thoughts were steeped.
We have in this article directed our attention mostly to the general qualities of Shakespeare as a poet. We have hardly been at all specific, or entered on any review of those qualities which have given to him his durability as a dramatic poet, in either tragedy or comedy. But, in both, he has survived generations of dramåtists, belonging to every age, from his own down to ours. It is asserted, and not without truth, that even Shakespeare's plays are now heavy on the stage; but then Shakespeare's are the only plays of his time, with extremely few exceptions, that are ever now brought upon the stage. Nature insists on novelty ; and novelty even, without nature, is too strong for Shakespeare. Shakespeare himself would lose his power with incessant repetition. Yet no dramatist has had such repetition. With it all, he has never lost his freshness, even on the stage; for though he may often fail“ to please the ears of groundlings,” yet, in the smallest audience, he has ever some that hold communion with his noble thoughts. But with the reader in the closet, he is sure to have attentive and fit communion. What numbers of poets, dramatic and otherwise, his age possessed, — also, the intervening ages; but neither on the stage nor in the closet do we find them now. Comedy, indeed, is changeable; and we wonder not that past'. comedy should become to us thus strange. But tragedy, it is asserted, deals with primitive emotions, and cannot thus become obsolete with the lapse of time. Time has no statute of limitation against the passions, - against grief, guilt, and death. Yet few are the tragedies in English which continue to hold the stage, or to secure perusal. Some of Shakespeare's tragedies are constantly acted on the stage; all of them are constantly studied in perusal. The perpetuity of his genius in our literature and in our life is still more decisively exemplified in the perennial freshness of his comedies. Humor is the soul of comedy; but humor, however genuine in essence, is in its manifestation extremely dependent on the day, - on its manners, mode, and fashion. How many writers do we read with the conviction, that the reputation which they had in their time for humor was more than merited; yet we are grave, while we admire. Wizards, such as Rabelais and Cervantes, who once waved the rod of ridicule with such potency as to set all Europe laughing, can hardly now create a smile; and yet we split our sides at the bidding of men, who are, in comparison with these great masters, but jugglers and buffoons. It is no matter of severe difficulty to act on the sense of the ludicrous through immediate associations, and by means of proximate excitements. Drollery and fun are more effective as the time passes, than wit and fancy are when the time has passed; and yet such drollery and fun may have in them neither wit nor fancy. The animal spirits, which exhilarate the blood, may produce mirth in the present moment; when it may not be produced afterwards by the most original imagery that can be fashioned in the brain. The clown of a circus, the harlequin of a pantomime, the jester in a farce, will set thousands in a roar, where the spirit of Yorick, without his gambols, would not provoke a smile. But all such humor expires in the moment of its existence; and even “ to mock its own grinning,” there remains no laugh a moment after.