Page images
PDF
EPUB

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

L

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

each of his principal characters the glass in which the others are reflected, and in which we are enabled to discover what could not be immediately revealed to us. What in others is most profound, lies in him at the surface. We should be very ill advised were we always to take the declarations of the characters respecting themselves and others for sterling gold. Ambiguity of intention, very properly in him, overflows with the most praiseworthy principles; and sage maxims are not unfrequently put in the mouth of imbecility, to show how easily such common-place truisms may be acquired. Nobody ever painted as he has done the facility of self-deception, the half self-conscious hypocrisy towards ourselves, with which even noble minds attempt to disguise the almost inevitable influence of selfish motives in human nature. This secret irony of the characterization is deserving of admiration as a storehouse of acuteness and sagacity; but it is the grave of enthusiasm. But this is the conclusion at which we arrive when we have had the misfortune to see human nature through and through ; and besides the melancholy truth that no virtue and greatness are altogether pure and genuine, and the dangerous error that the highest perfection is attainable, we have no remaining choice. Here we may perceive, notwithstanding his power in exciting the most fervent emotions, a certain cool indifference in the poet himself, but still the indifference of a superior mind, which has run through the circle of human existence, and survived feeling.

The irony in Shakspeare has not merely a reference to the separate characters, but frequently to the whole of the action. Most poets who portray human events in a narrative or dramatic form, take themselves apart, and exact from their readers a blind approbation or condemnation of whatever side they choose to support or oppose. The more zealous this rhetoric is, the more easily it fails of its effect. In every case we perceive that the subject does not come immediately before us, but that we view it through the medium of a different way of thinking. When, however, the poet, by a dexterous manæuvre, occasionally allows us a glance of the less brilliant reverse of the picture, he then places himself in a sort of secret understanding with the select circle of the intelligent among his readers or spectators; he shows them that he previously saw and admitted the validity of their objections; that he himself is not tied down by the subject represented, but soars freely above it; and that, if he chose, he could unrelentingly annihilate the beautiful and irresistibly attractive scenes which his magic pen has produced. Wherever the proper tragic enters, it is true, everything like irony immediately ceases ; but from the avowed raillery of comedy, to the point where the subjection of mortal beings to an inevitable destiny demands the highest degree of seriousness, there are a multitude of human

« PreviousContinue »