« ElőzőTovább »
ON THE GENIUS OF SHAKSPEARE, AND ON HIS
FOUR DRAMAS, MACBETH, OTHELLO, HAMLET, AND LEAR.
SHAKSPEARE alone is of no age. He speaks a language which thrills in our blood in spite of the separation of two hundred years. His thoughts, passions, feelings, strains of fancy,-all are of this day, as they were of his own; and his genius may be contemporary with the mind of every generation for a thousand years to come.—He, above all poets, looked upon men, and lived for mankind. His genius, universal in intellect and sympathy, could find, in no more bounded circumference, its proper sphere. It could not bear exclusion from any part of human existence. Whatever in nature and life was given to man, was given in contemplation and poetry to him also ; and over the undimmed mirror of his mind passed all the shadows of our mortal world. Look through his plays, and tell what form of existence, what quality of spirit, he is most skilful to delineate? Which of all the manifold beings he has drawn, lives before our thoughts, our eyes, in most unpictured reality? Is it Othello, Shylock, Falstaff, Lear, the Wife of Macbeth, Imogen, Hamlet, Ariel? In none of the other great dramatists do we see any thing perfected art. In their works, every thing, it is true, exists in some shape or other, which can be required in a drama taking for its interest the absolute interest of human life and nature; but, after all, may not the very best of their works be looked on as sublime masses of chaotic confusion, through which the elements of our moral being appear? It was Shakspeare, the most unlearned of all our writers, who first exhibited on the stage perfect models, perfect images of all human characters, and of all human events. We cannot conceive any skill that cculd from his great characters remove any defect, or add to their perfect composition. Except in him, we look in vain for the entire fulness, the self-consistency, and self-completeness, of perfect art. All the rest of our drama may be regarded rather as a testimony of the state of genius--of the state of mind of the country, full of great poetical disposition, and great tragic capacity and power-than as a collection of the works of an art. Of Shakspeare and Homer alone, it may be averred that we miss in them nothing of the greatness of nature. In all other poets we do; we feel the measure of their power, and the restraint under which it is held ; but in Shakspeare and in Homer, all is free and unbounded as in nature; and as we travel along with them in a car drawn by celestial steeds, our view seems ever interminable as before, and still equally far off the glorious horizon.
“After thus speaking” of Shakspeare himself, may we presume yet farther, and speak of his individual works? Although there is no one of them that does not bear marks of his unequalled hand ---scarcely one which is not remembered by the strong affection of love and delight towards some of its characters,—yet to all his readers they seem marked by very different degrees of excellence, and a few are distinguished above all the rest. Perhaps the four that may be named, as those which have been to the popular feeling of his countrymen the principal plays of their great dramatist, and which would be recognised as his master-works by philosophical criticism, are Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, and Lear. The first of these has the most entire tragic action of any of his plays. It has, throughout, one awful interest, which is begun, carried through, and concluded with the piece. This interest of the action is a perfect example of a most important dramatic unity, preserved entire. The matter of the interest is one which has always held a strong sway over human sympathy, though mingled with abhorrence, the rise and fall of ambition. Men look on the darings of this passion with strong sympathy, because it is one of their strongest inherent feelings—the aspiring of the mind through its consciousness of power shown in the highest forms of human life. But it is decidedly a historical, not a poetical interest. Shakspeare has made it poetical by two things chiefly—not the character of Macbeth, which is itself historical—but by the pre
ternatural agencies with which the whole course of the story is involved, and by the character of Lady Macbeth. The illusion of the dagger and the sleep-walking may be added as individual circumstances tending to give a character of imagination to the whole play. The human interest of the piece is the acting of the purpose of ambition, and the fate which attends it--the high capacities of blinded desire in the soul, and the moral retribution which overrules the affairs of men. But the poetry is the intermingling of preternatural agency with the transactions of life-threads of events spun by unearthly hands—the scene of the cave which blends unreality with real life-the preparation and circumstances of midnight murder-the superhuman calmness of guilt, in its elated strength, in a woman's soul--and the dreaminess of mind which is brought on those whose spirits have drunk the cup of their lust. The language of the whole is perhaps more purely tragic than that of any other of Shakspeare's plays; it is simple, chaste, and strong-rarely breaking out into fanciful expression, but a vein of imagination always running through. The language of Macbeth himself is often exceedingly beautiful. Perhaps something may be owing to national remembrances and associations ; but we have observed that, in Scotland at least, Macbeth produces a deeper, a more breathless, and a more perturbing passion, in the audience, than any other drama.
If Macbeth is the most perfect in the tragic
action of the story, the most perfect in tragic passion is Othello. There is nothing to determine unhappiness to the lives of the two principal per
Their love begins auspiciously; and the renown, high favour, and high character of Othello, seem to promise a stability of happiness to himself and the wife of his affections. But the blood which had been scorched in the veins of his race, while under the suns of Africa, bears a poison that swells up to confound the peace of the Christian marriagebed. He is jealous; and the dreadful overmastering passion which disturbs the steadfastness of his own mind, overflows upon his life and her’s, and consumes them from the earth. The external action of the play is nothing—the causes of events are none; the whole interest of the story, the whole course of the action, the causes of all that happens, live all in the breast of Othello. The whole destiny of those who are to perish lies in his passion. Hence the high tragic character of the playshowing one false illusory passion ruling and confounding all life. All that is below tragedy in the passion of love is taken away at once by the awful character of Othello, for such he seems to us to be designed to be. He appears never as a lover-but at once as a husband; and the relation of his love made dignified, as it is a husband's justification of his marriage, is also dignified, as it is a soldier's relation of his stern and perilous life.
It is a courted, not a wooing, at least unconsciouslywooing love ; and though full of tenderness, yet is