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before 1600. With increasing age and experience, the poet passed on to profounder themes. It was during this final stage of his development that he gave "King Lear," "Macbeth," and "Othello" to the world, the two former in 1605, and the latter in 1609.
But in one particular his earlier and his later dramas are alike. The personality of the poet is concealed in them all. He enters into sympathy with all his creations, but he can be identified with none. He is greater than any one of them, or than all of them combined; for it is in him that they all originated and find their unity. Thus to create and project into the world a large number of independent beings is an evidence of the highest genius. Byron could not do it; for through all his works, whatever may be the names of his characters, we recognize the lawless, passionate, misanthropic poet himself. The same is true of Goethe and Victor Hugo, who embody in their works their didactic principles or their idealized experience. Among the world's great writers, Shakespeare and Homer almost alone are hidden behind their works like a mysterious presence.
Shakespeare possessed a profound knowledge of his art. This is obvious both from Hamlet's famous instruction to the players, and from the structure of his dramas. He has been criticised for discarding classic rules; but the censure is most unjust. Genius has an inalienable right to prescribe its own creative forms. He laid aside the hampering models of antiquity in order to give the world a new and richer dramatic form. The simple action of the ancient drama could not be adjusted to his great and complex themes. His works possess the one great essential characteristic―that of organic unity. After Shakespeare had completed his apprenticeship, his dramas embody an almost faultless structure; they are not pieces of elaborate and elegant patchwork, but of consistent and regular growth. We can but wonder at the range and power of that intellect which grasped a multitude of characters, brought them into contact, carried them through a great variety
of incidents, portrayed with justice and splendor the profoundest feelings and thoughts, traced their reciprocal influence, and symmetrically conducted the whole to a striking and pre-determined conclusion.
It scarcely detracts from his greatness that, instead of inventing his themes and characters, he borrowed them from history and literature. His borrowing was not slavish and weak. Whatever materials he appropriated from others, he reshaped and glorified; and he is no more to be censured than is the sculptor who takes from the stone-cutter the rough marble that he afterwards transforms into a Venus de Medici or a Greek Slave. His works constitute a world in themselves; and with its inhabitants-with Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Portia, Shylock, and many others—we are as well acquainted as with the personages of history.
The poet exhibits an almost perfect acquaintance with human nature. His creations are not personified moral qualities or individualized passions, but real persons. They are beings of flesh and blood; but by their relations and reciprocal influence they are lifted above the dull and commonplace. Shakespeare removes the veil that hides from common vision the awful significance of human influence, and reveals it in its subtle workings and mighty results. He enables us to see, beneath a placid or rippling surface, the deep currents that move society.
As his mode of expression was always suited to his changing characters, he exemplified every quality of style in turn. His faculties and taste were so exquisitely adjusted, that his manner was always in keeping with his matter. He drew with equal facility on the Saxon and the Latin elements of our language, and attained with both the same incomparable results. He had a prodigious faculty for language, surpassing in copiousness every other English writer. The only term that adequately describes his manner of writing is Shakespearian
a term that comprehends a great deal. It includes vividness of imagination, depth of thought, delicacy of feeling, carefulness of observation, discernment of hidden relations, and what
ever else may be necessary to clothe thought in expressions of supreme fitness and beauty.
Far above every other writer of ancient or modern times Shakespeare voices, in its manifold life, the human soul. This fact makes his works a storehouse of riches, to which we constantly turn. Are we oppressed at times with a morbid feeling of the emptiness of life? How perfectly Shakespeare voices our sentiment:
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
Or again :
"We are such stuff
As dreams are made of, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."
If we recognize the fact that somehow there is a mysterious power controlling our lives, we are told
"There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will."
But, as our consciousness tells us, we are not wholly at the mercy of this overruling agency:
"Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven; the fated sky
What beautiful expression he gives to the trite observation that contentment is better than riches!
""Tis better to be lowly born,
And range with humble livers in content,
What clear expression he gives to the indistinct feeling of beauty that sometimes comes to us in the presence of some object in nature! He surprises its secret, and embodies it in an imperishable word:
"How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!”
But why multiply illustrations, when they are found on almost every page of his works?
And what shall be said of Shakespeare's influence? He so entirely eclipsed his contemporary dramatists that their works are scarcely read. There are passages in his works that we I could wish omitted panderings to the corrupt taste of the time. But they are exceptional, and at heart the poet's sympathy, as in the case of every truly great man, is on the side of virtue. His writings, as a whole, carry with them the uplifting power of high thought, noble feeling, and worthy deeds.
Many of his thoughts and characters pass into the intellectual life of each succeeding generation. "Hamlet," "The Merchant of Venice," and "Romeo and Juliet," are read by nearly every young student; and to have read any one of Shakespeare's master-pieces intelligently marks an epoch in the intellectual life of youth. But his dramas give pleasure not alone to the young. With minds enriched by experience and study, we turn, in the midst of active life, to his works for recreation and instruction. He but appears greater with our enlarged capacity to appreciate him. If he gathered about him a circle of cultivated friends and admirers in his life, he has shown himself still stronger in death. The circle has widened until it comprehends many lands.
He has exerted a noteworthy influence upon foreign literature, especially in Germany and France. Translated into the languages of these countries, his works have been extensively studied, admired, and imitated. He is lectured on in German universities, and some of his ablest critics have been German and French. He has stimulated a prodigious amount of intellectual activity; and his biographers, editors, translators, critics,
and commentators are numbered by the hundred. No other English author has gathered about him such an array of scholarship and literary ability.
There is no abatement of interest in his works. Societies are organized for their systematic study, and periodicals are devoted to their illustration. There is no likelihood that he will ever be superseded; as he wrote in the proud presentiment of genius, —
"Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme."
Future ages will turn to his works as a mirror of nature, and find in them the most perfect expression of their deepest and most precious experience. It is safe to say that his productions are as imperishable as the English language or the English race.