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Modern Drama"; so that it is sheer ignorance, or something worse, to insist on trying him by the laws of the ancient Tragedy. It is on this ground that Coleridge makes the pregnant remark,-"No work of true genius dares want its appropriate form, neither indeed is there any danger of this. As it must not, so genius cannot, be lawless; for it is even this that constitutes it genius, — the power of acting creatively under laws of its own origination." So that I may fitly close this branch of the subject by applying to Shakespeare a very noteworthy saying of Burke's, the argument of which holds no less true of the law-making prerogative in Art than in the State: "Legislators have no other rules to bind them but the great principles of reason and equity, and the general sense of mankind. These they are bound to obey and follow; and rather to enlarge and enlighten law by the liberality of legislative reason, than to fetter and bind their higher capacity by the narrow constructions of subordinate, artificial justice." *
* Aristotle himself was very far from setting up the form and extent of the drama of his day as a rule for all time. He declared that, as regards the natural limit of the action, the more extended will always be the more beautiful, so long as it is easily surveyed." Shakespeare's practice is strictly correspondent to this rule. But with this rule in mind, he went to the very verge of these limits. He chose his matter as rich and full as possible; he extended its form according to its requirements, but no further: it will not be found, in any of his dramas, that the thought is exhausted before the end; that there is any superfluous extension of the form, or any needless abundance of the matter. To arrange the most ample materials in the amplest form without overstepping its fair proportions, is a task which no one has accomplished as he has done. Therein lies a large part of his artistic greatness. No poet has represented so much in so little space; none has so widely enlarged the space without exceeding the poetical limitations. In this he did not suffer himself to be perplexed by the example of the ancient tragedy. He felt that the peculiar poetic material of the new world would perish in those old forms, and that it was therefore better to mould them afresh. He knew right well that the poet's task was to represent the very substance of his times, to reflect the age in his poetry, and to give it form and stamp: he therefore created, for the enlarged sphere of life, an enlarged sphere of Art: to this end he sought, not a ready-made rule, but the inward law of the given matter, - a spirit in the things, which in the work of art shaped the form for itself. For there
I am next to consider Shakespeare's peculiar mode of conceiving and working out character; as this stands next in order and importance to the article of Dramatic Composition.
Now, in several English writers before him, we find characters discriminated and sustained with considerable judgment and skill. Still we feel a want of reality about them: they are not men and women themselves, but only the outsides and appearances of men and women; often having indeed a good measure of coherence and distinctness, but yet mere appearances, with nothing behind or beneath, to give them real substance and solidity. Of course, therefore, the parts actually represented are all that they have; they stand for no more than simply what is shown; there is nothing in them or of them but what meets the beholder's sense: so that, however good they may be to look at, they will not bear looking into; because the outside, that which is directly seen or heard, really exhausts their whole force and meaning.
Instead, then, of beginning at the heart of a character, and working outwards, these authors began at the surface, and worked the other way; and so were precluded from getting beyond the surface, by their mode of procedure. It is as if the shell of an egg should be fully formed and finished before the contents were prepared; in which case the contents of course could not be got into it. It would have to remain a shell, and nothing more: as such, it might do well enough for a show, just as well indeed as if it were full of meat; but it would not stand the weighing.
is no higher worth in a poetical work than the agreement of the form with the nature of the matter represented, and this according to its own indwelling laws, not according to external rule. If we judge Shakespeare or Homer by any such conventional rule, we may equally deny them taste and law: measured, however, by that higher standard, Shakespeare's conformity to the inner law outstrips all those regular dramatists who learned from Aristotle, not the spirit of regularity, but mechanical imitation. GERVINUS.
With Shakespeare all this is just reversed. His egg is a real egg, brimful of meat, and not an empty shell; and this, because the formation began at the centre, and the shell was formed last. He gives us, not the mere imitations or appearances of things, but the very things themselves. His characters have more or less of surface, but they are solids what is actually and directly shown, is often the least part of them, never the whole: the rest is left to be inferred; and the showing is so managed withal as to start and propagate the inferring process in the beholder's mind.
All which clearly implies that Shakespeare conceived his persons, not from their outside, but in their rudiments and first principles. He begins at the heart of a character, and unfolds it outwards, forming and compacting all the internal parts and organs as he unfolds it; and the development, even because it is a real and true development, proceeds at every step, not by mere addition or aggregation of particulars, but by digestion and vital assimilation of all the matter that enters into the structure; there being, in virtue of the life that pervades the thing, just such elements, and just so much of them, sent to each organ, as is necessary to its formation. The result of this wonderful process is, that the characters are all that they appear to be, and a vast deal more besides: there is food for endless thought and reflection in them: beneath and behind the surface, there is all the substance that the surface promises or has room for, an inexhaustible stock of wealth and significance beyond what is directly seen; so that the more they are looked into the more they are found to contain.
Thus there is a sort of realistic verisimilitude in Shakespeare's characters. It is as if they had been veritable living men and women, and he had seen and comprehended and delivered the whole and pure truth respecting them. Of course, therefore, they are as far as possible from being mere names set before pieces of starched and painted rhetoric, or mere got-up figures of modes and manners: they are no shadows or images of fancy, no heroes of
romance, no theatrical personages at all; they have nothing surreptitious or make-believe or ungenuine about them: they do not in any sort belong to the family of poetical beings; they are not designs from works of art; nay, they are not even designs from nature; they are nature itself. Nor are they compilations from any one-sided or sectional view of mankind, but are cut out round and full from the whole of humanity; so that they touch us at all points, and, as it were, surround us. From all this it follows that there is no repetition among them: though there are some striking family resemblances, yet no two of them are individually alike: for, as the process of forming them was a real growth, an evolution from a germ, the spontaneous result of creative Nature working within them, so there could be no copying of one from another. Accordingly, as in the men and women of Nature's own making, different minds conceive different ideas of them, and have different feelings towards them, and even the same mind at different times: in fact, hardly any two men view them alike, or any one man for two years together; the actual changes in us being reflected and measured by correspondent seeming changes in them: so that a further acquaintance with them. always brings advancing knowledge, and what is added still modifies what was held before. Hence even so restrained, not to say grudging, a critic as Pope was constrained to pronounce Shakespeare's characters "so much Nature herself, that it is a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as copies of her."
"Of Nature's inner shrine thou art the Priest,
Where most she works when we perceive her least."
I have placed Shakespeare's power of dramatic architecture or organization at the head of his gifts and prerogatives as an artist. And so I suppose a just Philosophy of Art is bound to reckon it. But comparatively few men are or can be, in the fair sense of the term, philosophers of Art, as this requires a course of special training and study. But
Shakespeare is a great teacher in the School of Life as well as a great master in the School of Art. And indeed the right use of Art is nowise to serve as the raw material of philosophy, but to furnish instruction and inspiration in the truth of things; and unless it can work home to the business and bosoms of plain practical men, it might as well be struck from the roll of legitimate interests. Now, in the circle of uninspired forces, Shakespeare's art may be justly regarded as our broadest and noblest "discipline of humanity." And his characterization, not his dramatic composition, is his point of contact with us as a practical teacher. In other words, it is by his thorough at-homeness with human nature in the transpirations of individual character that he touches the general mind and heart. Here he speaks a language which all men of developed intelligence can understand and feel. Accordingly it is in his characters that most men place, and rightly place, his supreme excellence: here it is that his wisdom finds and grasps men directly as men; nor, at this point of meeting, does he leave any part of our many-sided being without its fitting portion of meat in due season; while our receptiveness is the only limit to our acquisitions.*
* Here is no stage language or manners, no standing parts, nothing that can be called ideal or favourite stage characters, no heroes of the theatre or of romance: in this active world there is nothing fantastic, nothing unsound, nothing exaggerated nor empty: neither the poet nor the actor speaks in them, but creative nature alone, which seems to dwell in and to animate these images. The forms vary, as they do in life, from the deepest to the shallowest, from the most noble to the most deformed: a prodigal dispenses these riches; but the impression is, that he is as inexhaustible as Nature herself. And not one of these figures is like another in features: there are groups which have a family likeness, but no two individuals resembling each other: they become known to us progressively, as we find it with living acquaintance: they make different impressions on different people, and are interpreted by each according to his own feelings. Hence, in the explanation of Shakespeare's characters, it would be an idle undertaking to balance the different opinions of men, or to insist arbitrarily on our own: each can only express his own view, and must then learn whose opinion best stands the test of time. For, on returning to these characters at another time, our greater ripeness and experience will ever lay open to us new features in them. Whoever has not been wrecked, with his ideals and principles, on the shore of life, whoever has not bled inwardly