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CONTAINING THREE MINIATURE PORTRAITS OF
SHAKSPEARE BY DRYDEN, GOETHE, AND SIR WALTER SCOTT; AND A BRIEF PARALLEL BETWEEN SHAKSPEARE AND SIR WALTER SCOTT
AS DELINEATORS OF CHARACTER.
I HAVE reserved for insertion in this fourth and concluding portion of my volume, three miniature portraits of Shakspeare from the pens of DRYDEN, GOETHE, and Sir WALTER Scott.
Amongst the numerous editors, commentators, and critics on Shakspeare, there are few perhaps, if any, who, in point of genius, can be put in competition with these three celebrated characters ; and it is therefore truly gratifying to record, as emanating in all of them from great, and, in some degree, kindred talent, their deep-felt and pointedly expressed admiration of our immortal bard.
The criticisms of Dryden, indeed, couched as they were in the most rich, mellow, yet spirited prose composition of which our language affords an example, and annexed too, for the most part, in the form of prefaces and dedications, to works of great popularity, contributed more than any other means, perhaps, to keep alive, in an age of un
paralleled frivolity and dissipation, some relish for manly and nervous composition; and there can be as little doubt but that the noble and comprehensive character of the genius of Shakspeare which the following striking though brief passage unfolds, must have powerfully recalled the attention of the public, even retrograding and debased as its taste had long been, to the matchless productions of this first of all dramatic writers.
Shakspeare was the man,” he remarks, “who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily : when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learned; he needed not the
spectacles of books to read nature ; he looked inwards, and found her there. I cannot say he is every where alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat, insipid ; his comic wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great, when some great occasion is presented to him ; no man can
i say he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise himself as high above the rest of poets,
Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi. “ The consideration of this made Mr. Hales of
Eton say, that there was no subject of which any poet ever writ, but he would produce it much better done in Shakspeare; and however others are now generally preferred before him, yet the age wherein he lived, which had contemporaries with him, Fletcher and Jonson, never equalled them to him in their esteem; and in the last king's court, when Ben's reputation was at highest, Sir John Suckling, and with him the greater part of the courtiers, set our Shakspeare far above him."
After contemplating this very striking picture from the hand of powerful and unquestioned genius, though of a cast materially different from that which formed the object of its portraiture, let us now turn to a miniature sketch of the bard from the pencil of one whose dramatic powers are animated
Essay on Dramatick Poesy—Malone's Dryden, vol. i. Part 2, pp. 98, 99. It has not been my object to include in this volume metrical characters of Shakspeare and his writings, as the greater part of these has been given in the Variorum editions of the bard ; but there is one miniature sketch of this description that I do not remember to have seen enrolled in their lists, and which is, perhaps, without exception, the most sublime delineation of surpassing genius that, in so small a compass, was ever perfected by mortal pen. I shall therefore insert it here for the gratification of my readers :
Thus, whilst I wond'ring pause o'er Shakspeare's page,
High o'er the wrecks of man, who stands sublime ;
by no small portion of the spirit which breathes
“the work of a celestial genius, which mixed with mankind in order to make us acquainted in the gentlest way with ourselves.—They are no poems! The reader seems to have open before him the immense books of fate, against which the tempest of busiest life is beating, so as to drive the leaves backwards and forwards with violence. All the anticipations which I ever experienced respecting man and his lot, and which, unnoticed by myself, have attended me from my youth, I find fulfilled and unfolded in Shakspeare's plays. It seems as if he had solved all enigmas for us, and yet it is impossible to say, here or there is found the key. His characters appear to be creatures of nature, and yet they are not. These most perplexing and most complicated of her productions act before us, in his pieces, as if they were clocks, of which the dial-plate and head were of crystal. They show,
according to their intention, the course of the hours; and you can see at the same time the springs and wheels which impel them.”p
p Vide Monthly Review for 1798. vol. xxvii, pp. 544, 545.The enthusiastic delight which Goëthe experienced on first reading Shakspeare, seems to have been felt in a nearly equal degree by a very recent writer, who has made us acquainted with his or her feelings, under similar circumstances, in the following striking and imaginative manner.
“I remember perfectly well it was on a warm summer evening that I strolled out to a favourite seat of mine under an old oak-tree, with a soft bank of moss round it, and so placed that it caught the last rays of the evening sun, and was away from every sound and noise except a little babbling brook that ran through the copse-wood. That evening I left my father dozing over his pipe and his newspaper, and stole out to my favourite haunt with the Midsummer Night's Dream' under my arm; and I never can forget the enthusiastic delight I felt on my first perusal of this piece. Fancy, gentle reader, if you have the least spark of poetry in your soul, fancy what it would be to read Shakspeare for the first time, and never to have heard of him before; to read him without prepossession and without expectation; to have the pleasure and vanity of finding out his beauties, without having seen him murdered on the stage, or mutilated in hackneyed quotations; to read him without reference to imputed plagiarism and disputed readings; in short, to come to him in all the freshness of poetic feelings and young enthusiasm ; to be able to feel poetry, and to feel it for the first time by reading Shakspeare. One must have been almost situated as I was, to comprehend the rush of delight I experienced as I went on. It was like magic to me. I had no need of explanation, I had no need of knowledge to understand my subject; for Shakspeare is so truly the poet of nature, that, ignorant as I was of every thing but nature, my imagination readily conceived every thing he told. The