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In Iachimo's practice on the wager his disease reaches the extreme point, which, even because it is extreme, starts a process of moral revolution within him ; setting him to a hard diet of remorse and repentance, and conducting him through these to renovation and health. It is, in short, one of those large over-doses of crime which sometimes have the effect of purging off men's criminality. For such is the cunning leech-craft of Nature: out of men's vices she can batch scorpions, to lash and sting them into virtue.
Those who think Shakespeare apt to postpone the rights of untitled manhood in favour of conventional aristocracy may be sent to school to Pisanio; who is, socially, the humblest person in the drama, yet his being is “all compact” of essential heroism. It is fairly questionable whether he has not as much of noble stuff in him, as much inward adornment and worth of character, as the hero himself. Nor does the Poet stint him of opportunity; but gives him an immediate partnership in the deepest interest of the play, and makes him share in the honour of the best characters, by his sympathy with them, and his self-sacrificing love and service to them. And, what is very strange, this is done with most effect in an instance where the man does not himself appear. For, as soon as Imogen understands Iachimo's proposal, the first thing she does is to call out, “What, ho, Pisanio !” as if she felt assured that this faithful guardian would instantly physic the devil out of the wretch who has thus dared to insult her; and she keeps on calling him, till the insult is withdrawn, and a satisfactory reason for it assigned.
With a fine instinct of rectitude, which pierces deeper perhaps than the keenest sagacity, Pisanio never misses the right, and never falters in his allegiance to it. His fidelity is tried to the utmost on all sides, but nothing so much as tempts him from it. After the Queen has plied him with offers of wealth and honours, he gives us his mind aside :
“But when to my good lord I prove untrue,
I'll choke myself: there's all I'll do for you." When Cloten worries him from point to point with threats and bribes, at last, to save his own life, he counterfeits a make-believe of yielding, but only that he may send the poor wretch off on a fool's errand, and to reap a fool's reward. And if he becomes false to his master, it is only when and because he knows his master has become false to himself. The order from Posthumus to murder his mistress is the hardest trial of all; yet his resolution is instantly taken: “If it be so to do good service, never let me be counted serviceable.” Imogen makes one mistake in regard to her husband : when her eyes have been stabbed with the “ damn'd paper,” her faith in him lapses into the heresy that “some jay of Italy, whose mother was her painting, hath betray'd him.” But the sorrowing servant keeps his faith unshaken, and at once divines the true cause of the monstrous charge:
“ It cannot be but that my master is abus'd :
Hath done you both this cursèd injury.” The pressure of duty on this nobleman in livery always makes the path light before him. He does indeed get mystified at last; but this is because he no longer has any thing to do: in the lack of work, and of information whereon to act, he becomes perplexed; but still retains his confidence in the providential safety of the good, and soothes his anxieties with the reflection, “Fortune brings in some boats that are not steerd.” His whole course shows not one selfregarding purpose or thought: he alone seems to live and breathe purely for others. And what shrewdness, what forecast, what fertility of beneficence there is in him! His character is lifted into the highest region of poetry by his oblivion of self; and even those whom he serves derive much of their poetry from his disinterested and uncorruptible loyalty to them. For there is no stronger testimonial of worth than the free allegiance of such a manly soul.
I must add, that the best idea we get of Imogen at any one time is when Pisanio unconsciously describes her to herself:
“ You must forget to be a woman ; change
Command into obedience ; fear and niceness -
You made great Juno angry.” In this delicious little bundle of poetry he gives both the obverse and the reverse of Imogen's character; yet neither of them sees it: for indeed her beauty so pervades his inner man, and circulates in his mental blood, that he cannot open his mouth to speak of woman but that she fills it.
The organization of the play evidently required that Posthumus should be kept mostly in the background; since, otherwise, he would have to stay beside Imogen; in which case he could not be cheated out of his faith in her, and so there would be no chance for the trial and proof of her constancy. Hence the necessity of putting so much respecting him into the mouths of the other persons; and certainly their tongues are rich enough in his praise. The first scene, which is in substance a prologue to the action, is chiefly devoted to this purpose. There we learn that the hero, sprung of truly heroic stock, was left an orphan from the time of his birth:
“The King he takes the babe,
Which rare it is to do- most prais'd, most lov'd ;
A child that guided dotards.” Thus he has grown up the foster-brother and playfellow of the Princess; and their love, rooted in the innocence of childhood, and twining with all their childish thoughts and studies and pleasures, has ripened with their growth; and now appears a calm, deep, earnest thing, the settled habit of their souls, and not a recent visitation. And when he urges her and she consents to a secret marriage, this is done in no transport of passion, but in the soberness of deliberate judgment and wisdom, to protect her and in her the State against the intriguing malice of the Queen and the splurging violence and incapacity of her son. Nor does the act involve any undutifulness to the King; for they both know that he is not his own man, and that he would be foremost in approving the match, but for the spell that keeps him from himself: in a word, it is not paternal right, but novercal machination that they cross and thwart. And that we may rest assured that this is no self-deluding fancy of theirs, all are represented as secretly glad at what has been done, except those who have none but mean and selfish reason for impugning it. So that the marriage is really no breach of their characteristic faithfulness on either side. As for Imogen, she has weighed well both her father's rights and the counsels of reason, as she also has her own rights and the honour of the crown: she “chose an eagle, and did avoid a puttock.” Her firm conscientiousness in the matter comes out decisively in what she says after bitter experience of the King's anger:
“My dearest husband,
You must be gone ;
Such is the hero's form of character as expressed or inferred in the opening scenes. It was no easy thing to carry him through the part assigned him in the play, without discrediting the claims thus advanced. And the Poet clearly meant that Imogen's wisdom as approved in other things should stand to us a pledge of his worth; that “by her election should be truly read what kind of man he is.” And not the least of Shakespeare's merits as an artist is the skill he has in making his characters so utter themselves as at the same time to mirror each other. In this instance, being forced to withdraw Posthumus from our immediate view, or else to set him before us in a somewhat unfavourable light, the best thing he could do was to give us a reflection of him from Imogen, and to reinforce her opinion by the free suffrage of other parties. And surely it were something bold in any man to wage his own judgment against hers in a matter of this kind; for, as Campbell says, “ she hallows to the imagination every thing that loves her, and that she loves in return."
Still one is apt to suspect that the man's high credit with Imogen and others is partly owing to the presence of such a foil as Cloten. And the grounds of complaint against him are two: first, his entering into the wager and encouraging the trial of his wife ; second, his bloody purpose of revenge and his scheme for effecting it.
In regard to the first, he meets the insinuating freebooter in the company of well-reputed friends and under the roof of his honourable host, where he is bound by the laws of good-breeding to presume him worthy, and to treat him with respect. Then it is a high point of honour with him not to tolerate such low-thoughted and light-hearted petulance in his presence. Womanhood is to him a sacred thing: the whole course of his life has been such as to inspire him with the most chivalrous delicacy towards the sex: for his mother's sake and his own, but, above all, for Imogen's, the blood stirs within him, to hear woman made the theme of profane and scurrilous talk: the stale slander