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ON SHAKSPEARE, IN REFERENCE TO THE AGE IN
WHICH HE FLOURISHED.
SHAKSPEARE flourished and wrote in the last half of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and the first half of that of James the First; and consequently under monarchs who were learned themselves, and held literature in honour. The policy of modern Europe, by which the relations of its different states have been so variously interwoven, commenced a century before. Such was the zeal for the study of the ancients, that even court ladies, and the queen herself, were intimately acquainted with Latin and Greek, and could speak the former with fluency; a degree of knowledge which we should in vain seek for in the European courts of the present day. The trade and navigation of the English, which they carried on with all the four quarters of the world, made them acquainted with the customs and mental productions of other nations; and it would appear that they were then more indulgent to foreign manners than they are in the present day. Italy had already produced nearly all for which her literature is distinguished; and translations were diligently, and even successfully, executed in verse from the Italians. They
were not unacquainted with the Spanish literature, for it is certain that Don Quirote was read in England soon after its first appearance. Bacon, the founder of modern experimental philosophy, and of whom it may be said that he carried in his pocket all that merits the name of philosophy in the eighteenth century, was a contemporary of Shakspeare. His fame, as a writer, did not indeed burst forth till after his death; but what a number of ideas must have been in circulation before such an author could arise! Many branches of human knowledge have, since that time, been cultivated to a greater extent, but merely those branches which are totally unproductive to poetry: chemistry, mechanics, manufactures, and rural and political economy, will never enable a man to become a poet. I have elsewhere* examined into the pretensions of modern cultivation, as it is called, which looks down with such contempt on all . preceding ages; I have shown that it is all little, superficial, and unsubstantial at bottom. The pride of what has been called the present maturity of human reason has come to a miserable end; and the structures erected by those pedagogues of the human race have fallen to pieces like the baby-houses of children.
The tone of society at present compels us to remark that there is a wide difference between cultivation and what is called polish. That artificial polish which puts an end to every thing like
* In my Lectures on the Spirit of the Age.
original communication, and subjects all intercourse to the insipid uniformity of certain rules, was undoubtedly unknown in the age of Shakspeare, as it is still in a great measure in England in the present day. They possessed the consciousness of healthful energy, which always expressed itself boldly, though often petulantly. The spirit of chivalry was not yet extinguished ; and a queen who required the observance of much more regard for her sex than for her dignity, and who, from her determination, wisdom, and magnanimity, was, in fact, well qualified to infuse an ardent enthusiasm into the minds of her subjects, inflamed that spirit to the most noble love of glory and renown. Remains of the feudal independence were also still in existence; the nobility vied with each other in splendour of dress, and number of retinue; and every great lord had a sort of small court of his own. The distinction of ranks was yet strongly marked ; and this is what is most to be wished for by the dramatic poet. In discourse they were delighted with quick and unexpected answers ; and the witty sally passed rapidly like a ball from mouth to mouth, till it could no longer be kept up. This, and the excessive extent to which a play on words was carried, (for which King James himself had a great fondness, so that we need not wonder at the universality of the mode,) may be considered in the light of bad taste; but to take it for a symptom of rudeness and barbarity, is not less absurd than to infer the poverty of a people from their luxurious extravagance. These strained repartees frequently occur in Shakspeare, with the view of painting the actual tone of the society of his day; it does not follow, however, that they met with his approbation, but, on the contrary, it appears that he held them in derision. Hamlet says, in the scene with the grave-digger, “By the Lord, Horatio, these three years I have taken note of it; the age
grown so picked, that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier he galls his kibe.” And Lorenzo, in the Merchant of Venice, alluding to Launcelot :
O dear discretion, how his words are suited !
Besides, Shakspeare, in a thousand places, lays an uncommonly great stress on the correct and refined tone of good company, and warns against every deviation from it, either through boorishness or affected foppery; he not only gives the most admirable lectures on the subject, but he represents it in all its gradations in every rank, age, and sex.— It is true that Shakspeare sometimes introduces us to improper company; at other times he suffers ambiguous expressions to be used in the presence of women, and even by women themselves. This species of petulance was probably not then unusual. He certainly did not do so to please the multitude, for in many of his pieces there
is not the slightest trace of any thing of this sort to be found ; and what virgin tenderness does he not preserve throughout many of his female characters! When we see the liberties taken by other dramatic poets in England in his time, and even much later, we must account him comparatively chaste and moral. Neither must we overlook certain circumstances in the then state of the theatre.
The female parts were not acted by women, but by boys; and no person of the fair sex appeared in the theatre without a mask. Under such a carnival disguise, much might be heard by them, and much might be ventured to be said in their presence, which, in other circumstances, would have been quite unsuitable. It is certainly to be wished that decency should be observed on all public occasions, and consequently also on the stage; but even in this it is possible to go too far. That censorious spirit, which scents out impurity in every sally of a bold and vivacious description, is at best but an ambiguous criterion of purity of morals; and there is frequently concealed under this hypocrisy the consciousness of an impure imagination. The determination to tolerate nothing which has the least reference to the sensual relation between the two sexes, may be carried to a pitch extremely oppressive to a dramatic poet, and injurious to the boldness and freedom of his composition. If considerations of such a nature were to be attended to, many of the happiest parts of the plays of Shakspeare, for example,