Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
Shakespeare the Dramatist
By Richard Grant White (1822–1885)
[Born in New York, N. Y., 1822. Died there, 1885. Life and Genius of Shakespeare. 1865.]


EVERY thoughtful reader of Shakespeare must see that his peculiar power as a dramatist lies in his treatment of character. The interest which distinguishes his plays, as plays, from all others, is that which centres in the personages, in their expressions of thought and emotion, and in their motives and modes of action. This was his dramatic art, and this it was in which he had neither teacher nor model. For at the time when he began to write, character, properly so called, was almost, if not quite, unknown either to English literature or even to that of the Latin races. In English dramatic literature Marlowe alone had attempted character, but in a style extremely coarse and rudimentary. The Italian and French novelists who preceded Shakespeare, including even Boccaccio himself, interest by mere story, by incident, and sentiment. Their personages have no character. They are indeed of different kinds, good and bad, lovers, tyrants, intriguers, clowns, and gentlemen, of whom some are grave and others merry. But they are mere human formulas, not either types or individuals.
  It has been much disputed whether Shakespeare’s personages are types or individuals. They are both. Those which are of his own creation are type individuals. So real are they in their individuality, so sharply outlined and completely constructed, that the men and women that we meet seem but shadows compared with them; and yet each one of them is so purged of the accidental and non-essential as to become typical, ideal. He made them so by uniting and harmonizing in them a variety of traits, all subordinated to, yet not overwhelmed by, one central, dominating trait, and by so modifying and coloring the manifestation of this trait that of itself it has individuality. Othello and Leontes are both jealous, and unreasonable in their jealousy, as all the jealous are. But the men are almost as unlike as Lear and Hamlet; and their jealousy differs almost as much as the fierce madness of the old king from the young prince’s weak intellectual disorder. Iachimo and Iago are both villains, who would pitilessly ruin a wife’s reputation for their selfish ends; but the former is a rude and simple villain, who seems to lack the moral sense; the latter, one who has a keen intellectual perception of that moral beauty which he neither possesses nor heartily admires. Shakespeare’s personages are thoroughly human, and therefore not embodiments of single traits or simple impulses, but complicated machines; and the higher their type, the more complex their organization. He combines in one individual and harmonizes qualities apparently incongruous, his genius revealing to him their affinities. Thus Angelo is no mere hypocrite, but really a precisian. He is sincere in his austerity, and has pride, or rather an inordinate secretly enjoyed vanity, in his power to restrain his strong passions in the face of weak temptation. But he is intensely selfish, as most precisians are, and there comes a time when his passions and a great temptation join their forces. Before these his artificial restraint gives way, and he consciously sets out upon a course of monstrous crime, which he yet shrinks from whispering in the solitude of his own chamber. Iago, another hypocrite, on the contrary, dallies with his villany, places it in various lights, and stands off, smiling admiration upon the honest fellow who is working death and ruin. Yet Iago was a good soldier and a brave man, and had he been promoted instead of Cassio, would have made the better lieutenant to Othello, for the very lack of a certain weak amiability which beset Cassio off the battle-field. His victim, poor Othello, who in his relations toward women is one of the most delicate and sensitive of men, in the bitterness of his soul pays his wife’s own maid as he leaves the former’s bedchamber; not either to reward or to offend Emilia, but that he may torment his own soul by carrying out his supposition to its most revolting consequences.  2
  It is this complication of motive which causes the characters of Shakespeare’s personages to be read differently by different people. This variety of opinion upon them, within certain wide and well-determined limits, is evidence of the truthfulness of the characters. Not only does their complex organization give opportunity for a different appreciation of their working, but, as in real life, the character, nay, the very age, of those who pass judgment upon them is an element of their reputation. Not only will two men of equal natural capacity, and equally thoughtful, form different opinions of them; but the judgment of the same man will be modified by his experience. Unlike the personages of the world around us, some of whom pass from our sight while others come forward, and all change with the lapse of time, those of Shakespeare’s microcosm, by the conditions of their existence, remain the same. But our view of them is enlarged and modified by advancing years. As we grow older, we look upon them from a higher point, and the horizon of our sympathy broadens. We lose little and we gain much. For manhood’s eye, ranging over its wider scope, finds that the eminences which were the boy’s bounds of admiration do not pass out of sight, but become parts of a grander and more varied prospect, while distance, in diminishing their importance, casts upon them the tender light of that happy memory which ever lingers upon pure and early pleasures. But, as in real life again, Shakespeare’s characters, during their mimic existence, depend upon and develop each the other. We see how they are mutually worked upon and moulded. And in this interdependence and reciprocal influence, more than in mere structure of plot, consists the unity of Shakespeare’s plays as organic wholes. His personages are not statuesque, with sharp, unchanging outlines. His genius was not severe and statuesque, as for instance Dante’s was. His men and women are notably flexile; and not only so, but they seem to have that quality of flesh and blood which unites changeableness with identity,—as a man’s substance changes, and his soul grows older, year by year, and yet he is the same person….  3
  Shakespeare made souls to his characters: he did not give them his own. It is now the most commonly recognized truth in regard to him, that he is a self-oblivious poet. But this is not true of him without important qualification. In his sonnets, whether they were written in his own person or another’s, he was not oblivious of self. On the contrary, his own thoughts, his own feelings, constantly appear. He pours out his own woes with a freedom in which he equals, but with a manliness in which he far surpasses, Byron. It is as a dramatist that he is self-oblivious; and he is so to a degree too absolute, it would seem, for the ever-conscious people of the world to apprehend. Else we should not hear, as we continually do hear, an opinion or a course of conduct sustained with an air of triumph by the citation of Shakespeare’s opinion in its favor. For there is hardly a course of conduct or an opinion upon a moral question which cannot be thus supported. Shakespeare disappeared in his personages; and it is they who speak, and not their creator. The value, nay, the very meaning of what his creatures say, must be measured by their characters and the circumstances under which it is spoken. It is not William Shakespeare who says, even in jest, that a perfect woman is fit only to “suckle fools and chronicle small beer,”—it is that coarse, jeering villain, Iago. Nor is it he who says that “to be slow in words is woman’s only virtue,”—it is a cynical clown called Launce. It was not Shakespeare who called the first Tudor “shallow Richmond.” We may be sure that no one knew better than he that the man who became Henry the Seventh was deep, prudent, and far-seeing, although not greatly wise. It was Richmond’s enemy, Richard, who said that; and said it not to himself, but to one of his own followers. Let no one who delights in rich garments complacently think that Shakespeare commends a habit as costly as the purse can buy. That advice was given by a shrewd old courtier, at a time when sumptuous apparel was the recognized sign of a certain social standing.  4

  Many people have given themselves serious concern as to the moral influence of Shakespeare’s plays; and critics of great weight, fulfilling their function, have gone down far and stayed down long in the attempt to fathom the profound moral purpose which they are sure must be hidden in the depths of these mighty compositions. But the direct moral influence of Shakespeare is nothing; and we may be sure that he wrote with no moral purpose. He sought only to present life; and the world which he shows us, like that in which we live, teaches us moral lessons according to our will and our capacity. Johnson, meaning censure of “his first defect,” wrote Shakespeare’s highest praise in this respect in saying of him that “he carries his persons indifferently through right or wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their example to operate by chance.” That word “indifferently” is Shakespeare’s eulogy. He gives the means of study, and leads insensibly to reflection. Men resent or turn away from conviction at the lips of others, which they will receive and lay to heart if they hear it from the lips of the inward monitor. And even children see through and despise the shallow device which makes goodness always lead to happiness, and flout the stories which conduct them through artificial paths to bring them out upon a moral. Man, however gifted, can never teach more than life and nature; and among gifted men there has been only Shakespeare who could teach as much. The moral unity which distinguishes his plays is not, as some, especially among the Germans, would have it, the result of a moral purpose deliberately planned and well worked out; but of the fact that those dramatic poems were the spontaneous manifestation of one great, symmetrical mind, in complete and intimate accordance with nature. Shakespeare is able to teach as much as nature, nay, even more than unmitigated nature does, for two reasons. One is, that he presents us something which is not nature, but a perfect reflex of nature. It is strange, but true as strange, that imitation generally interests us more than reality. The very reflection of a beautiful landscape in a mirror wins our attention more, nay, seems more beautiful, than the landscape itself. Seen in a Claude glass it becomes a picture, a quasi work of art, which we study, over which we muse, and to which we again and again recur; while the scene itself, if we see it often, may become to us an unnoticed part of our daily life, like the rising of the sun, that daily miracle. And so the mirror which, following his own maxim, Shakespeare holds up to nature, is more studied by us than nature herself, and by means of it nature is better understood. The phenomena are brought by him within the range of our mutual vision. Reduced in their dimensions, but kept perfect in proportion and true in color, they are transferred to and fixed upon his pages; and we can take down from our shelves these specimens of thought and passion, and muse and ponder over them at leisure. This is measurably true of all imaginative writing; but it is preëminently true of Shakespeare’s.
  But the chief reason of Shakespeare’s ability to teach us as much as nature is a breadth of moral sympathy, a wide intellectual charity, which makes him as impartial as nature. His mirror tinges the scene which it reflects with no color of its own. The life-giving rain of his genius falls equally on the just and the unjust; and as the sunshine and the shower develop both tares and wheat according to their kind, so he never seeks to modify the nature or the seeming of that which he quickens into life; and he is never more impartial than when he is most creative. What viler or more loathsome creature than Parolles was ever spoken into being? who is never more disgusting, though he may be more irritating or ridiculous, than in his interview with Helena on his first appearance. Yet in this very dialogue, unquotable though it be, what insight, what wisdom, what practical sense, are developed through this wretch, though we detest the creature as Helena does, and as Shakespeare meant we should, for uttering then and there the conclusions of his keen but degraded judgment! Yet we look upon this abominable creature with admiration; nay, he fascinates us by his exquisite loathsomeness, which is as proper to him as crawling to a reptile. As Helena herself says in the words which Shakespeare furnished her, concentrating in these four lines all that I have just tried to say, and elevating it into poetry with that apparently unconscious exercise of supreme mastery over expression which must make every man who holds a pen despair,—
           “These fixed evils sit so fit in him
That they take place, when virtue’s steely bones
Look bleak in the cold air. Withal full oft we see
Cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly.”
  It was this quality of universal sympathy in his mental constitution which enabled Shakespeare to unite to the knowledge of man and of truth that knowledge of men and of things which is called knowledge of the world. He seems to have had this latter knowledge in as great a degree as that more abstract knowledge which made him a great dramatic and philosophical poet, and to have been the most perfect man of the world whose name appears upon the roll of literature. All that we know of his life shows him in full possession of this great qualification of the perfect social man, so rarely found in poets; and his works are pervaded with its exhibition. Consider well such characters as Angelo, Parolles, Faulconbridge, Polonius, Jacques, Falstaff, such gentlemen as Bassanio, Mercutio, Prince Henry, Cassio, Antony (in Julius Cæsar), and see what knowledge, not only of the human heart, but of society, of manners, of actual life, in short, to return to the accepted phrase, what knowledge of the world, these characters display. It is this knowledge, this tact, which enables him to walk so firmly and so delicately upon the perilous edge of essential decency, and not fall into the foul slough below, where the elegant dramatists of the last century lie wallowing. This he does notably, for instance, in Faulconbridge and Falstaff,—Falstaff, a gentleman by birth and breeding, but coarse, gross, mean, and selfish, a degraded castaway, yet, with consummate tact and exquisite art never allowed to be vulgar or repulsive, and whose matchless humor makes his company delightful.  7

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