Imatges de pàgina

title to be heard. It is only the class of those who, having studied and appreciated Shakspeare, honestly disapprove and discard him as morally injurious, to whom a reply is due.

The fact, that persons of the most estimable, the most religious character, who may happen to possess a cultivated literary taste, are always found among the students and admirers of Shakspeare, is itself a demonstration that he cannot be justly regarded as a morally injurious writer.

Most unfortunately, we have lost his personal biography ; his Life is as remarkably obscure, as his name and his genius are renowned; but could we the tale unfold, it would probably turn to the credit of his moral character. Thus much is ascertained he settled early in wedded and domestic life; he produced 36 Plays within 26 years of a life that included only 52 years, thus proving his industrious and sober habits; he retired on his fortune, which he had thus nobly earned, for the last ten years of his life; his companions represent him as a "man of sweet and gentle manners; worthy and beloved; of an honest, open, and free nature; and of a smooth and pleasant wit."

In justice to our great dramatist, it should be understood, and remembered by his readers, that he is professedly an allcomprehensive delineator of men and manners; an honest, impartial, universal exhibiter of our species, in all its aspects and varieties, its low buffoonery, as well as its graceful refinement ; its wild, and strange, and horrible excesses, as well as its just, its tender, or its exalted sentiments. With Othello, he says, "I will a round, unvarnish'd tale deliver." As he moved among mankind, he looked on all with an equal eye, he painted all with equal care and skill. Michael Angelo was accustomed to say, that painters were called to represent men and women, "not as they are, but as they ought to be." Shakspeare may be said to have reversed this rule of Buonarotti, and delineated human beings, "not as they ought to be, but as they are." And, as the world, the field of his observation, abounds in folly, vice, and crime, at least as much as in examples of wisdom or virtue; he exhibits characters of the former class to an extent (let it be confessed) quite as large as we might desire or approve,

yet not too large for our actual acquaintance with mankind; while in the felicitous language of Coleridge, one of the purest and finest among the myriads of our Poet's critical admirers, "Shakspeare has no innocent adulteries, no interesting incests, no virtuous vice; he never renders that amiable, which Religion and Reason alike teach us to detest. If he occasionally disgusts a keen sense of delicacy, he never injures the mind; he does not use the faulty thing with a faulty purpose; with him, vice never walks in twilight."

By some I have heard it urged as an objection to the reading of Shakspeare, that it will generate a pernicious taste for the reading of Plays, as inferior to his in purity, as in power :-in reply to this objection, I can only say that it contradicts my own experience, and, I believe, that of all the most earnest admirers of Shakspeare; his immense superiority disrelishes us for all Plays but his own.

It has been the fashion with the critics, to eulogise, with special admiration, the comic scenes: even the sage and solemn Johnson appears to have preferred them to the serious and tragic parts. To such a preference I cannot subscribe. Perfect as the genius of Shakspeare shows itself, whenever it revels in scenes of vulgar merriment, I cannot but regret that he has indulged it, in such scenes, to so great an extent; most gladly would I have exchanged a large proportion of his comic pages, for a corresponding accession to those wise, or solemn, those elegant, or pathetic passages, which compose the only pure and precious gems of his inexhaustible mine. Those Plays are surely the most excellent and admirable, in which serious thought and feeling predominate most over trifling mirth, however brilliant; witness the magnificent instance of Hamlet, the most predominantly serious of all his Tragedies. For the coarse or profane irregularities, which so often encounter us in his comic dialogue, and unfit it for social reading, I am at a loss for any better apology than this: we must pass them by as faithful, and only too faithful delineations of human life, in its ruder, baser forms; just as in the living world, in the noisy tavern, or even in the public street, we are condemned, at

times, to hear language expressive of similar depravity. Besides which, it is evident, that in his wildest scenes of reckless folly, the Poet himself has no more an evil design upon our moral sentiments, than has the satirical manners-painting Hogarth, in his pictures of the Harlot's Progress and Marriage à la Mode. There is a certain manly, healthy, and fearless hardihood, as opposed to an effeminate, sickly, nervous sensitiveness of moral feeling, which is far better suited than the latter to the rude atmosphere of "this working-day world," and quite as nearly allied to sincerity and virtue. Our plain-speaking Poet, is certainly; a formidable foe to all sorts of modern pretension of moral pedantry, and prudence. The very openness and coarseness of these coarse passages, brings its own antidote it is vice without disguise: there is nothing insidious, nothing meretricious; no serpent under the rose; no poison dipt in honey; as in the smooth amatory minstrels and novelists of later times. People talk of the vulgarity that sullies Shakspeare's pages, and too many seem to find their most congenial favourites among his Falstaffs and his Bardolphs; but where beside shall we find such exquisite specimens of refined courtesy and elegant conversation,-such refined models of tenderness and grace, of politeness and nobility, for the study and envy of our ladies and gentlemen, our courtiers, and our Princes?


But, while I vainly wish that he had been less profuse of vulgarity, and more observant of decorum, in his mirthful scenes, "take him for all in all," with fair allowance for the manners of his times, as well as for the comprehensiveness of his design, he has never appeared to me a pernicious or dangerous writer. The only danger attendant on the study of Shakspeare, arises (in my opinion) from another quarter; his unequalled beauty, his irresistible fascination, which puts us in danger of what an eccentric writer of our day has glowingly portrayed as Hero Worship; idolatry of Genius; a serious danger, this, and the only one against which I think it needful to caution the student of Shakspeare. In respect to sentiments of the highest importance, the great truths of Religion, how

much more worthy to be trusted, than those theorists who deny our native depravity, and the Divine atonement,—he who, alike sagacious and unflattering, tells us, that apart from a better influence, "All's oblique; there's nothing level in our cursed nature, but direct villainy :"-he who bids us cry for mercy to Him, "who when all our souls were forfeit, found out the remedy."

Let it be understood that I speak of him merely as a writer, to be read at our homes in hours of social or solitary leisure, apart from the accompaniments of theatrical representation. And, in truth, although his genius is the most strikingly dramatic that has ever appeared, and his scenes the most varied and stirring that were ever prepared for action; none (I am persuaded) did ever so fully appreciate, and enjoy the beauty of Shakspeare, as those who have perused and re-perused him in meditative silence, or in the domestic circle; "while imagination," better than any corporal actor, "bodied forth the form of things unknown;" as Campbell paints his lovely Gertrude wandering forth into the woods of Wyoming; and while she sits in a bowery recess,


"That volume on her lap is thrown, every heart of human mould endears;

With Shakspeare's self she thinks and speaks alone,

And no intruding visitation fears,

To shame the unconscious laugh, or stop her sweetest tears."

The tasteful and philosophic Dugald Stewart has justly remarked, that "When a person, accustomed to dramatic reading, sees for the first time, one of his favourite characters represented on the stage, he is generally dissatisfied with the exhibition. For my own part, (continues Stewart) I have never received from any Falstaff on the stage, half the pleaure which Shakspeare gives me in the closet. It is not always that the actor fails; he disappoints us by exhibiting something different from what our imagination had anticipated, and which consequently appears to us at the moment an unfaithful representation of the Poet's idea."

Theatrical influence excluded, it must surely be our own fault, rather than Shakspeare's, if we are the worse,—if we are not, in some respect, the better, for an occasional and attentive perusal of his more important compositions. For who that is versed in his pages, needs to be told what a treasury they disclose, of noble sentiment, of acute observation, of sage advice ;what a world of practical truth, and moral wisdom, may be explored through his ever-changing scenes of pleasantry or pathos? His plays, as Johnson has remarked, are "replete with practical axioms, and domestic wisdom." Of him, in the larger part, even of his comic scenes, may be said, as is elegantly said by Zenophon of Socrates: επαιζεν αμα σπουδαζων. "He sports with a serious purpose.'

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Shakspeare, indeed, is quite as remarkable for his moral wisdom, as for his poetic beauty and his dramatic power. This is abundantly seen in the more serious scenes of his tragedy; but it is not confined to these. He is doubtless at once the merriest and the wisest of laughing philosophers. It is interesting to observe how many scraps and snatches of instructive reflection meet us in the midst of his wildest comic scenes. Everywhere, among the luxuriant flowers and rampant weeds, his earnest explorer will discover wholesome and nutritious fruits -and these the more agreeable from their contrasted situation and unexpected occurrence. Take the following, as a random specimen, from the dialogue between Hamlet and Polonius, relative to the Players :

"Hamlet. Good my lord, will you see the Players well bestowed? Let them be well used.

"Polonius. My lord, I will use them according to their desert.

"Hamlet. Odd's bodikin, man, much better. Use any man after his desert, and who shall escape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit in your bounty.”

Act II., Scene 2.

Now, in the sprightliness and haste of the dialogue, this reply of Hamlet may escape many a reader or listener, without a pause for reflection. Yet here is carelessly thrown in our way a

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