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A FEW THOUGHTS ABOUT SHAKSPEARE.
Read at a Meeting of the Stourbridge Literary and Scientific
You may remember that verse towards the end of the Book of Proverbs, “The conies are but a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks.”* An article in a Review, on the different Editions and Critics of Shakspeare, which I read long ago, ended with these words, “On the whole we must conclude that these Commentators are but a feeble folk, and that they have no business to make their houses in the rocks which support the everlasting monument of Shakspeare.”
I have no ambition whatever to add to the number of these coney-commentators. I have only attempted to set down a few reflections, with no pretensions to completeness or originality, which have occurred to me in reading Shakspeare ; together with a few illustrations and comparisons from other writers.
In both these respects I have felt a continued sense of imperfection, from my limited acquaintance with literature, and especially with the great language and writings of Germany. In some regards I hardly regret my ignorance of German. I have a strong sympathy with an ancient Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, † whom I well remember, who on being asked whether he had been to a book-sale, replied, “The book-sale ? No: I have not yet got through the Public Library." So, I feel so oppressed by the hopelessness of ever getting through half of the books worth reading in the languages that I do know, that I feel some satisfaction in being sheltered, by the floodgates of ignorance, from the additional inundation of that vast German ocean. But with regard especially to my present subject, I am well aware that this is a loss, as I have said, both as to poetry which may compare with Shakspeare, and criticisms which have expounded him. It seems generally acknowledged that the German commentators on Shakspeare are better than those of his own country. Indeed it has been said of Tieck and Schlegel, that they have probably found many things in the great poet which he himself never meant to put there. Such a thing is not impossible. It is said to have occurred recently in the kindred art of painting, with respect to a very remarkable picture of the Pre-Raphaelite School, by Mr. Hunt, called “The Light of the World.” The celebrated Mr. Ruskin, who acts as a sort of nurse to that infant and promising school of art, being displeased at the ignorance and neglect with which the picture seemed to him to be treated in some quarters, wrote concerning it in the newspapers a long, striking, and ingenious description of the object and intention of every part of the picture-a description which must have greatly enlightened the public, and may have been all the more gratifying to the painter, as it was in great measure new to him.
* Prov. xxx. 26. + Mr. Greenwood.
Such a supposition, however, would be most rash, touching a genius so vast as that of Shakspeare.
Now, I am not about to enter on any general definition of Poetry. But I will refer to one which has been made, noteworthy both in itself and from the authority which has given it, and which I quote because it bears in a special manner on my subject. It is in an article in a Review, understood to have been written by Mr. Keble. I am obliged to refer to it from memory, but the substance of it was very nearly this : “Poetry is the expression of feelings congenial to the nature of him who utters them, but which the circumstances of his time and position debar him from indulging in his outward life.” I remember mentioning this to my friend Mr. Woodgate, who, with that sagacity in such matters of the pure intellect which distinguishes him, at once remarked, “That seems a good accidental definition ”— meaning that it was an intimation of what very often accompanies true poetry, but is not of its essence. The origin of this definition seems clear: it was in Mr. Keble's own circumstances, as must be evident to all who are familiar with the Christian Year, which is throughout an expression of the longing of the writer for a purer state of the Church than was realised around him. The article suggests many apposite instances, such as might occur to any one upon consideration. I will mention only the obvious one of Walter Scott. Including his novels, which are in truth poetical conceptions, nothing can be plainer than that the whole bent of his imaginative feelings was towards the days of chivalry and romance: and that those days being long since passed away, never to return, the rare powers of his mind turned themselves to the reproduction of them in those forms of endless beauty and variety which we find in his works.
But that this is no essential definition of Poetry, is at once most evident by the single case of Shakspeare, not to mention many others. What do we know of the bent of his mind? What were his predominant feelings, or longings which could not be realised in action?
Not only can no answer be given to these questions, but it would be destructive of that which is Shakspeare's great and transcendent glory if there could. This touches on the main subject, a well-known one indeed, on which I intend to dwell.
We know hardly anything of Shakspeare. I lately found a curious remark about this, in the very excellent work entitled “Historical Memoirs of the English Catholics,"* by a Roman Catholic gentleman, the late Mr. Charles Butler ; whom I cannot name without a word of admiration for his eminent moderation, candour, and gentleness. I never read a book which gave a more favourable impression of its writer. The words are these :
“ May the writer premise a suspicion which, from internal evidence, he has long entertained, that Shakspeare was a Roman Catholic ? Not one of his works contains the slightest reflection on Popery, or any of its practices, or any eulogy on the Reformation. His panegyric on Queen Elizabeth is cautiously expressed, while Queen Catherine is placed in a state of veneration; and nothing can exceed the skill with which Griffith draws the panegyric of Wolsey. The ecclesiastic is never presented by Shakespeare in a degrading point of view. The jolly monk, the irregular nun, never ap
* IV. 443, 3d Edition.
pears in his drama. Is it not natural to suppose that this topic, on which, at that time, those who criminated Popery loved so much to dwell, must have often attracted his notice, and invited him to employ his muse upon them, as subjects likely to engage the attention both of the Sovereign and the public? Does not his abstinence from them justify a suspicion that a Catholic feeling withheld him from them? Milton made the Gunpowder Conspiracy the theme of a regular poem : Shakspeare is altogether silent upon it. This conjecture acquires additional confirmation from the indisputable fact, that John Shakspeare, the father of the poet, lived and died in communion with the Church of Rome.”
This may or may not be a probable opinion. But what I would particularly notice is this : the extremely slight and negative evidence on which it is founded, and on which alone it could be founded ; and how different it would be in the case of other great writers. Even setting aside directly controversial matter, no one could fail to see from their works, had they no other evidence, that Dante was a Roman Catholic, that Milton was a Protestant, that Byron was an infidel. And this, as I said, is a part only of the general proposition. It is not an exaggeration : we know nothing of Shakspeare from his writings.
No doubt there is a difference between dramatic writers, whose business it is not to show themselves, and others. But this by no means does more than somewhat modify the question. To take some of the greatest names, it seems easy enough to form a general notion of the characters of Æschylus and Euripides, Racine and