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No. IV.



It is in the minor pieces of Shakspeare that we are first introduced to a personal knowledge of the great poet and his feelings. When he wrote sonnets, it seems as if he had considered himself as more a poet than when he wrote plays; he was the manager of a theatre, and he viewed the drama as his business, on it he exerted all his intellect and power; but when he had feelings intense and secret to express, he had recourse to a form of writing with which his habits had rendered him less familiar. It is strange but delightful to scrutinize, in his short effusions, the character of Shakspeare. In them we see that he who stood like a magician above the world, penetrating with one glance into all the depths, and mysteries, and perplexities of human character, and having power to call up

into open day the darkest workings of the

. I am convinced, indeed, that if, in the present day, any fresh light is to be thrown on the character, and even on the circumstances of the life of Shakspeare, it must be from a very close and profound study of his Sonnets. A few years ago a work was advertised under the title of “ Shakspeare his own Biographer,” avowedly built on these materials; but, from some cause or other, it has not hitherto made its appearance.

human passions—that this great being was not deprived of any portion of his human sympathies by the elevation to which he was raised, but preserved, amidst all his stern functions, a heart overflowing with tenderness, purity, and love. His feelings are intense, profound, acute almost to selfishness; but he expresses them so briefly and modestly, as to form a strange contrast with most of those poets who write concerning themselves. For the right understanding of his dramatic works, these lyrics are of the greatest importance. They show us that in his dramas he very seldom speaks according to his own feelings or his own thoughts, but according to his knowledge. The world lay clear and distinct before his eyes, but between him and it there was a deep gulf fixed. He gives us a portrait of what he saw, without flattery or ornament, having the charm of unrivalled accuracy and truth. Were understanding, acuteness, and profoundness of thought, (in so far as these are necessary for the characterizing of human life,) to be considered as the first qualities of a poet, there is none worthy to be compared with Shakspeare. Other poets have endeavoured to transport us, at least for a few moments, into another and an ideal condition of mankind; but Shakspeare is the master of reality. He sets before us, with a truth that is often painful, man in his degraded state, in this corruption which penetrates and contaminates all his being, all that he does and suffers, all the thoughts and aspirations of his fallen spirit. In this respect he may not unfrequently be said to be a satirical poet, and well indeed may the picture which he presents of human debasement, and the enigma of our being, be calculated to produce an effect far more deep and abiding than the whole body of splenetic and passionate revilers, whom we commonly call by the name of satiric poets. In the midst of all the bitterness of Shakspeare, we perceive continually glimpses of thoughts and recollections more pure than satirists partake in; meditation on the original height and elevation of man; the peculiar tenderness and noble-minded sentiment of a poet: the dark world of his representation is illuminated with the most beautiful



patriotic inspiration, serene philanthropy, and glow

ing love.

But even the youthful glow of love appears in his Romeo as the mere inspiration of death, and is mingled with the same sceptical and melancholy views of life which, in Hamlet, give to all our being an appearance of more than natural discord and perplexity, and which, in Lear, carry sorrow and passion into the utmost misery of madness. This poet, who externally seems to be most calm and temperate, clear and lively; with whom intellect seems everywhere to predominate ; who, as we at first imagine, regards and represents every thing almost with coldness,-is found, if we examine into the internal feelings of his spirit, to be of all others the most deeply sorrowful and tragic.

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.P

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.

9 Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern. Translated from the German. In two Volumes, Edinburgh, 1815. Vol. 2. p. 144. et seq.

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