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belongs to such an imagination as his to create in comedy, as well as in tragedy or in poetry of any other kind. Most of the characters that have just been mentioned are as purely the mere creations of the poet's brain as are • Ariel, or Caliban, or the Witches in Macbeth. If any modern critic will have it that Shakspeare must have actually seen Malvolio, and Launce, and Touchstone, before he could or at least would have drawn them, we would ask the said critic if he himself has ever seen such characters in real life; and, if he acknowledge, as he needs must, that he never has, we would then put it to him to tell us why the contemporaries of the great dramatist might not have enjoyed them in his plays without ever having seen them elsewhere, just as we do, or, in other words, why such delineations might not have perfectly fulfilled their dramatic purpose then as well as now, when they certainly do not represent anything that is to be seen upon earth, any more than do Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. There might have been professional clowns and fools in the age of Shakspeare such as are no longer extant; but at no time did there ever actually exist such fools and clowns as his, These and other similar personages of the Shakspearian drama are as much mere poetical phantasmata as are the creations of the kindred humour of Cervantes. But are they the less amusing or interesting on that account?—do we the less sympathise with them 2–nay, do we feel that they are the less naturally drawn 2–that they have for us less of a truth and life than the most faithful copies from the men and women of the real world? But in these, too, there is no other drama so rich as that of Shakspeare. He has exhausted the old world of our actual experience as well as imaginca for us new worlds of his own.” What other anatomist of the human heart has ever searched its hidden core, and laid bare all the strength and weakness of our mysterious nature, as he has done in the gushing tenderness of Juliet, and the “fine frenzy” of the discrowned Lear, and the sublime melancholy of Hamlet, and the wrath of the perplexed and tempest-torn Othello, and the eloquent misanthropy of Timon, and the fixed hate of Shylock? What other poetry has given shape to anything half so terrific as Lady Macbeth, or so winning as Rosalind, or so full of gentlest womanhood as Desdemona 2 In what other drama do we behold so living a humanity as in his 2 Who has given us a scene either so crowded with diversities of character, or so stirred with the heat and hurry of actual existence? The men and the manners of all countries and of all ages are there: the lovers and warriors, the priests and prophetesses, of the old heroic and kingly times of Greece,—the Athenians of the days of Alcibiades and Pericles,—the proud patricians and turbulent commonalty of the earliest period of republican Rome, Caesar, and Brutus, and Cassius, and Antony, and Cleopatra, and the other splendid figures of that later Roman scene,—the kings, and queens, and princes, and courtiers of barbaric Denmark, and Roman Britain, and Britain before the Romans,—those of Scotland in the time of the English Heptarchy, -those of England and France at the era of Magna Charta, all ranks of the people of almost every reign of our subsequent history from the end of the four* Each change of many-coloured life he drew,
teenth to the middle of the sixteenth century, not to speak of Venice, and Verona, and Mantua, and Padua, and Illyria, and Navarre, and the Forest of Arden, and all the other towns and lands which he has peopled for us with their most real inhabitants. But Shakspeare is not a mere dramatist. Apart altogether from his dramatic power he is the greatest poet that ever lived. His sympathy is the most universal, his imagination the most plastic, his diction the most expressive, ever given to any writer. His poetry has in itself the power and varied excellences of all other poetry. While in grandeur, and beauty, and passion, and sweetest music, and all the other higher gifts of song, he may be ranked with the greatest, —with Spenser, and Chaucer, and Milton, and Dante, and Homer, he is at the same time more nervous than Dryden, and more sententious than Pope, and almost more sparkling and of more abounding conceit, when he chooses, than Donne, or Cowley, or Butler. In whose handling was language ever such a flame of fire as it is in his 2 His wonderful potency in the use of this instrument would alone set him above all other writers. Language has been called the costume of thought: it is such a costume as leaves are to the tree or blossoms to the flower, and grows out of what it adorns. Every great and original writer accordingly has distinguished, and as it were individualised, himself as much by his diction as by even the sentiment which it embodies; and the invention of such a distinguishing style is one of the most unequivocal evidences of genius. But Shakspeare has invented twenty styles. He has a style for every one of his great characters, by which that character is distinguished from every other as much as Pope is distinguished by his style from Dryden, or Milton from Spenser.
Shakspeare died in 1616. The space of a quarter of a century, or more, over which his career as a writer for the stage extends, is illustrated also by the names of a crowd of other dramatists, many of them of very remarkable genius; but Shakspeare is distinguished from the greater number of his contemporaries nearly as much as he is from his immediate predecessors. With regard to the latter, it has been well observed by a late critic of eminent justness and delicacy of taste, that, while they “possessed great power over the passions, had a deep insight into the darkest depths of human nature, and were, moreover, in the highest sense of the word, poets, of that higher power of creation with which Shakspeare was endowed, and by which he was enabled to call up into vivid existence all the various characters of men and all the events of human life, Marlow and his contemporaries had no great share, so that their best dramas may be said to represent to us only gleams and shadowings of mind, confused and hurried actions, from which we are rather led to guess at the nature of the persons acting before us than instantaneously struck with a perfect knowledge of it ; and, even amid their highest efforts, with them the fictions of the drama are felt to be but faint semblances of reality. If we seek for a poetical image, a burst of passion, a beautiful sentiment, a trait of nature, we seek not in vain in the works of our very oldest dramatists. But none of the predecessors of Shakspeare must be thought of along with him, when he appears before us, like Prometheus, moulding the figures of men, and breathing into them the animation and all the passions of life.” “The same,” proceeds this writer, “may be said of almost all his illustrious contemporaries. Few of them ever have conceived a consistent character, and given a perfect drawing and colouring of it; they have rarely, indeed, inspired us with such belief in the existence of their personages as we often feel towards those of Shakspeare, and which makes us actually unhappy unless we can fully understand every thing about them, so like are they to living men. . . . The plans of their dramas are irregular and confused, their characters often wildly distorted, and an air of imperfection and incompleteness hangs in general over the whole composition; so that the attention is wearied out, the interest flags, and we rather hurry on, than are hurried, to the horrors of the final catastrophe.”f In other words, the generality of the dramatic writers who were contemporary with Shakspeare still belong to the semi-barbarous school which subsisted before he began to write. George Chapman, already mentioned as the translator of Homer, was born six or seven years before Shakspeare, but did not begin to write for the stage till about the year 1595, after which date he produced sixteen plays that have survived, besides one in the composition of which