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Shakspeare regarded the drama as entirely a thing for the people, and at first treated it throughout as such. He took the popular comedy as he found it, and whatever enlargements and improvements he introduced into the stage, were all calculated and conceived, according to the peculiar spirit of his predecessors and of the audience in London. Even in the earliest of his tragic attempts, he takes possession of the whole superstitions of the vulgar, and mingles in his poetry not only the gigantic greatness of their rude traditions, but also the fearful, the horrible, and the revolting. All these, again, are blended with such representations and views of human debasement as passed, or still pass, with common spectators for wit, but were connected in the depths of his reflective and penetrating spirit, with the very different feelings of bitter contempt or sorrowful sympathy. He was not, in knowledge, far less in art, such as since the time of Milton it has been usual to represent him. But I believe that the inmost feelings of his heart, the depths of his peculiar, concentrated, and solitary spirit, could be agitated only by the mournful voice of nature. The feeling by which he seems to have been most connected with ordinary men is that of nationality. He has represented the heroic and glorious period of English history, during the conquests in France, in a series of dramatic pieces, which possess all the simplicity and liveliness of the ancient chronicles, but ap
proach, in their ruling spirit of patriotism and glory, to the most dignified and effectual productions of the epic muse.
In the works of Shakspeare, a whole world is unfolded. He who has once comprehended this, and been penetrated with its spirit, will not easily allow the effect to be diminished by the form, or listen to the cavils of those who are incapable of understanding the import of what they would criticise. The form of Shakspeare's writings will rather appear to him good and excellent, because in it his spirit is expressed and clothed, as it were, in a convenient garment.
P No writer, I believe, has contributed so largely and effectively to the maintenance of national enthusiasm, and its almost necessary result, undaunted confidence and surpassing heroism, as Shakspeare.
4 Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern. Translated from the German. In two Volumes, Edinburgh, 1815. Vol. 2. p. 144. et seq.
ON THE INFLUENCE OF SHAKSPEARE OVER THE
SHAKSPEARE was the profoundest thinker, the wittiest, the airiest, the most fantastic spirit, (reconciling the extremes of ordinary natures,) that ever condescended to teach and amuse mankind. He plunged into the depths of speculation; he penetrated to the inner places of knowledge, plucking out the heart of the mystery; he soared to the stars; he trod the earth, the air, the waters. Every element yielded him rich tribute. He surveyed the substances and the spirits of each ; he saw their stature, their power, their quality, and reduced them without an effort to his own divine command.
It is impossible to forget all that he has done for us, or the world that he has laid open. He was the true magician, before whom the astrologers and Hermetic sages were nothing, and the Arabian wizards grew pale. He did not, indeed, trace the Sybil's book, nor the Runic rhyme ; nor did he drive back the raging waters or the howling winds; but his power stretched all over the human mind, from wisdom to fatuity, from joy to despair, and embraced all the varieties of our uncertain nature. He it was, at whose touch the cave of Prosper opened and gave out its secrets. To his bidding, Ariel appeared. At his call, arose the witches and the earthy Caliban, the ghost who made “night hideous," the moonlight Fays, Titania, and Oberon, and the rest. He was the “so potent” master before whom bowed kings and heroes, and jewelled queens, men wise as the stars, and women fairer than the morning. All the vices of life were explained by him, and all the virtues; and the passions stood plain before him. From the cradle to the coffin he drew them all. He created, for the benefit of wide posterity, and for the aggrandizement of human nature ; lifting earth to heaven, and revealing the marvels of this lower world, and piercing even the shadowy secrets of the grave.
There is, perhaps, no one person of any considerable rate of mind who does not owe something to this matchless poet. He is the teacher of all good-pity, generosity, true courage, love. His works alone (leaving mere science out of the question) contain, probably, more actual wisdom than the whole body of English learning. He is the text for the moralist and the philosopher. His bright wit is cut out “into little stars;" his solid masses of knowledge are meted out in morsels and proverbs; and, thus distributed, there is scarcely a corner which he does not illuminate, or a cottage which he does not enrich. His bounty is like the sea, which, though often unacknowledged, is every where felt; on mountains and plains and distant places, carrying its cloudy freshness through the air, making glorious the heavens, and spreading verdure on the earth beneath.
It is because he has thus outshone all writers of all nations in dramatic skill, in fine knowledge of humanity, in sweetness, in pathos, in humour, in wit, and in poetry;—it is because he has subdued every passion to his use, and explored and made visible the inequalities and uttermost bounds of the human mind,-because he has embodied the mere nothings of the air, and made personal and probable the wildest anomalies of superstition,because he has tried every thing, and failed in nothing,—that we bow down in silent admiration before him, and give ourselves up to a completer homage than we would descend to pay to any other created man.
RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW, Vol. 7th, pp. 380, 381.