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ON SHAKSPEARE'S DELINEATION OF CHARACTER.
SHAKSPEARE's knowledge of mankind has become proverbial : in this his superiority is so great, that he has justly been called the master of the human heart. A readiness in remarking even the nicer involuntary demonstrations of the mind, and the expressing with certainty the meaning of these signs acquired from experience and reflection, constitutes the observer of men; acuteness in drawing still farther conclusions from them, and in arranging the separate observations according to grounds of probability in a connected manner, may be said to be knowing men. The distinguishing property of the dramatic poet who is great in characterization is something altogether different from this, which either, take it which way we will, includes in it this readiness and this acuteness, or dispenses with both. It is the capability of transporting himself so completely into every situation, even the most unusual, that he is enabled, as plenipotentiary of the whole human race, without particular instructions for each separate case, to act and speak in the name of every individual. It is the power of endowing the creatures of his imagination with such self-existent energy, that they
afterwards act in each conjuncture according to general laws of nature: the poet, in his dreams, institutes, as it were, experiments which are received with as much authority as if they had been made on real objects. The inconceivable in this, and what never can be learned, is, that the characters appear neither to do nor to say anything on account of the spectator; and yet that the poet, by means of the exhibition itself without any subsidiary explanation, communicates the gift of looking into the inmost recesses of their minds. Hence Goëthe has ingeniously compared Shakspeare's characters to watches with chrystalline plates and cases, which, while they point out the hours as correctly as other watches, enable us at the same time to perceive the inward springs whereby all this is accomplished.
Nothing, however, is more foreign to Shakspeare than a certain dissecting mode of composition, which laboriously enumerates to us all the motives by which a man is determined to act in this or that particular manner. This way of accounting for motives, the rage of many of the modern historians, might be carried at length to an extent which would abolish every thing like individuality, and resolve all character into nothing but the effect of foreign or external influences, while we know that it frequently announces itself in the most decided manner in the earliest infancy. After all, a man acts so because he is so. And how each man is constituted, Shakspeare reveals to us in the most immediate manner : he demands and obtains our belief, even for what is singular and deviates from the ordinary course of nature. Never, perhaps, was there so comprehensive a talent for characterization as Shakspeare's. It not only grasps the diversities of rank, sex, and age, down to the dawnings of infancy; not only do the king and the beggar, the hero and the pickpocket, the sage and the idiot, speak and act with equal truth; not only does he transport himself to distant ages and foreign nations, and portray in the most accurate manner, with only a few apparent violations of costume, the spirit of the ancient Romans, of the French in their wars with the English, of the English themselves during a great part of their history, of the southern Europeans, (in the serious part of many comedies, the cultivated society of that time, and the former rude and barbarous state of the North ; his human characters have not only such depth and precision that they cannot be arranged under classes, and are inexhaustible even in conception : no, this Prometheus not merely forms men, he opens the gates of the magical world of spirits, calls up the midnight ghost, exhibits before us his witches amidst their unhallowed mysteries, peoples the air with sportive fairies and sylphs; and these beings, existing only in imagination, possess such truth and consistency, that even when deformed monsters, like Caliban, he extorts the assenting conviction, if there should be such beings they would so conduct themselves. In a
word, as he carries with him the most fruitful and daring fancy into the kingdom of nature, on the other hand, he carries nature into the regions of fancy, lying beyond the confines of reality. We are lost in astonishment at seeing the extraordinary, the wonderful, and the unheard of, in such intimate nearness.
Pope and Johnson appear to contradict each other in a singular manner, when the first says, all the characters of Shakspeare are individuals, and the second, they are species. And yet, perhaps, these opinions may admit of reconciliation. Pope's expression is unquestionably the more correct. A character which should merely be a personification of a naked general idea could neither exhibit any great depth nor any great variety. The names of genera and species are well known to be merely auxiliaries for the understanding, that we may embrace the infinite variety of nature in a certain order. The characters which Shakspeare has thoroughly delineated possess undoubtedly a number of individual peculiarities, but at the same time a signification which is not applicable to them alone: they generally supply materials for a profound theory of their distinguishing property. But even with the above correction, this opinion must still have its limitations. Characterization is merely one ingredient of the dramatic art, and not dramatic poetry itself. It would be improper in the extreme, if the poet were to draw our attention to
superfluous traits of character, when he ought to endeavour to produce other impressions.
Whenever the musical or the fanciful preponderate, the characteristical is necessarily thrown into the back ground. Hence many of the figures of Shakspeare exhibit merely external designations, determined by the place which they occupy in the whole: they are like secondary persons in a public procession, to whose physiognomy we seldom pay much attention; their only importance is derived from the solemnity of their dress, and the object in which they are engaged. Shakspeare's messengers, for instance, are for the most part merely messengers, yet not common, but poetical messengers : the messages which they have to bring is the soul which suggests to them their language. Other voices too are merely raised as melodious lamentations or rejoicings, or reflections on what has taken place; and in a serious drama without chorus, this must always be more or less the case, if we would not have it prosaical.
If the delineation of all the characters of Shakspeare, separately considered, is inimitably firm and correct, he surpasses even himself in so combining and contrasting them, that they serve to bring out each other. This is the very summit of dramatic characterization ; for we can never estimate a man altogether abstractedly by himself according to his true worth; we must see him in his relations with others; and it is here that most dramatic poets are deficient. Shakspeare makes