Page images

there are not only passages, but whole characters in his dramas, the force of which is wholly lost on him who turns to them in no more serious mood than to an ordinary tale or novel. When such a mere dallier, as the youthful reader is apt to be, has become a loving student, and learned to enter into true sympathy with the poet, he discovers a depth of meaning undreamt of before, and catches at length the just significance of his first admiring editors' advice to the great variety of readers’:— Read him, therefore, and again and again; and if then you do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger not to understand him.'

The dramas of Shakespeare have been studied by the present writer under very diverse circumstances. He became possessor of the old 1632 folio in youthful days, when it could be bought on an Edinburgh bookstall for a few shillings. He was already accustomed

. to resort to Shakespeare's pages as a source of rare enjoyment; and in this and other editions the great dramatist was read, in the only way in which the spirit of his writings is to be caught by a venerating, loving student. In more recent years, it has been his pleasant duty to read some of the great master's choicest works with Canadian undergraduates, as part of the Honour Work of the University of Toronto; and thus—in what was, in days greatly more recent than those of Shakespeare, an unexplored wild of the New World,—to fulfil the behest of his first editors: who, having commended the reading and re-reading of the great dramatist as

indispensable for the true understanding of him, thus conclude—'And so we leave you to other of his friends, who, if you need, can be your guides. If you need them not, you can lead yourselves and others; and such readers we 'wish him.'

In such a study of Shakespeare, his many-sidedness, his universality, his ever-renewing modernness, startle the reader afresh, when he has vainly fancied that he already appreciates him at his highest worth. The sympathies of the man seem all-embracing. He comprehends every phase of human character, every impulse and passion of the human soul, every conceivable stage of development of the human mind.

In this age, which, not altogether without justification, claims for itself a more adequate appreciation of England's greatest poet than he has before received, there are engrossing themes, alike in the departments of faith and science, undreamt of in Shakespeare's day; and, above all, there is that one in which science and faith alike claim a share, which professes to furnish entirely novel revelations of the origin of man and the evolution of mind. By Shakespeare, I imagine, the old narrative of what was done in the beginning,' was received undoubtingly as true. As to Sir Thomas Browne, who is accepted in the following pages as, in some respects, the representative of a later and very different age, his mode of affirming his faith in the primitive story is in this quaintly characteristic fashion: “Whether Eve was framed out of the left side of Adam, I dispute not; because I stand not yet assured which is the right side of a man, or whether there be any such distinction in nature. That she was edified out of the rib of Adam I believe, yet raise no question who shall arise with that rib at the resurrection.'

Of such a theory or system of human descent as now challenges universal acceptance, Shakespeare entertained as little thought as Bacon did. The elements of its conception lay remote from every theme with which his mind delighted to dally ; and far apart from all those deeper thoughts on which he mused and pondered, till they assumed immortal embodiment in his own Hamlet. And yet he had thought out, and there sets forth with profoundest significance, the essential distinctions and attributes of humanity

· What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed ? a beast, no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To sust in us unused.'

He had not only sounded all the depths of the human soul, but he had realised for himself the wholly diverse motives and cravings of the mere animal mind, The leading purpose of the following pages is, accordingly, to shew that his genius had already created for us the ideal of that imaginary intermediate being, between the true brute and man, which, if the new theory of descent from crudest animal organisms be true, was our predecessor and precursor in the inheritance of this world of humanity. We have in ‘The Tempest'a being which is 'a beast, no more,' and yet is endowed with speech and reason up to the highest ideal of the capacity of its lower nature. A comparison between this Caliban of Shakespeare's creation, and the so-called 'brute-progenitor of man’ of our latest school of science, has proved replete with interest and instruction to the writer's own mind; and the results are embodied in the following pages, for such readers as may care to follow out the same study for themselves.

The main theme is accompanied with a commentary on two plays of Shakespeare, ‘The Tempest,' and 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' chiefly appealed to in the course of the preceding argument. Some of the conjectural readings and other subjects touched on in this supplement may be of interest to Shakespeare students. Corrupt as the text of Shakespeare's plays undoubtedly is, the author is far indeed from thinking that they stand in need of any great amount of note or comment. The loving student of his dramas, even with the most imperfect text, learns to enter so thoroughly into their spirit and the personality of their characters, that he is scarcely conscious of obscurity. He catches, as it were, the sense of the whole; and in many a controverted passage, has never thought of obscurity, or felt any difficulty in enjoying it, till he has turned to the commentators, and learns how sorely they have been perplexing themselves over its riddles.

Yet commentators have done good service in this, if in no other respect. They have led to the diligent study of Shakespeare, even if it were at times only 'of envy and strife.' But for the well-timed, though indiscriminate censures of Jeremy Collier, in his famous . Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, published in 1698, and the controversies which they provoked, the study of Shakespeare, on which his true appreciation depended, might have been long delayed. The Rev. Joseph Hunter, in his 'Disquisition on Shakespeare's Tempest,' wonders that so much respect has not been paid to Dryden as to find a place in the prolegomena of this play for the portion of the prologue to his own and D'Avenant's transversion of it, in which he pays so fine a compliment to Shakespeare.' But no one who has any regard for the fair fame of Dryden will seek to recall, in association with the name of Shakespeare, the authorship of a 'transversion' which is without exception the most contemptible evidence of the utter incapacity of the Restoration era to comprehend Shakespeare. It is not as a dramatist that Dryden takes rank among England's poets; and least of all would it be a tribute of respect to his memory to revive a prologue appended to one of the most chaste of all the great master's creations, in which the later poet descends to a grossness only too characteristic of the audience for which Miranda and Caliban had to be despoiled of that on which the innocence of the one, and the simple naturalness of the other, mainly depend. If the name

« PreviousContinue »