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THE ORIGINALITY OF SHAKESPEARE

(1898)

I

The foregoing attempt to trace part of the intellectual development of Shakespeare elicited from the newspaper press, among a number of unexpectedly favourable comments, several protests; and one of these is so superior to the rest, at once in deliberateness and in seriousness of tone, that it seems warrantable to take it as a competent if not a typical statement of the conservative case. It is needless to specify the newspaper sources of this and any other criticisms I may deal with : suffice it to call the principal antagonist “Critic A," and to label the others in series. And first as to the general notion of originality, concerning which critic A thus concludes :

“On the whole, too much is said in these days, by Mr. Robertson and others, of Shakespeare's lack of invention. He invented admirably whenever he pleased—is not ‘A MIDSUMMER Night's Dream, for example, to all intents an invention, and a perennially beautiful one? But beyond this (we intend no paradox) his choice of themes was so inspired that it amounted to invention. The themes of his five great tragedies, Romeo, Hamlet, MACBETH, OTHELLO, Lear, were equally open to his contemporaries ; but it was he, not they, who saw in them the type-tragedies of the world. It is quite a mistake to assume that it is merely his workmanship that makes these plays great. The greatness lies very largely in the subjects. We look in vain among his fellows, not only for such workmanship, but for such themes. He chose them ; others passed them by; and such choice is in a very true sense invention. Ben Jonson was infinitely more at home than he in Roman history ; but while Ben laboured away at the episodes of Catiline and SEJANUS, Shakespeare went straight to the world-historic themes of Julius CÆSAR and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. If it be lack of invention that enables a man to create RoMEO AND JULIET, Othello, and King Lear, then lack of invention is the essential gift of the world-dramatist.”

In examining this deliverance, we need not stay long over the last sentence, which hardly justifies a serious discussion. No one, so far as I am aware, has ever argued that lack of invention "enabled ” Shakespeare to write his tragedies ; but if it were argued that the highest faculty for imaginative and poetic dramatisation of character and feeling was haply correlative with defect of faculty for plot-framing—that the gift of Shakespeare and the gift of Scribe are not likely to go together—then the critic's fling would still be a mere verbalism or petulance, leaving the

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