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“ There appeared to me contradictions of so violent a character as to upset the features of the man's character which I had gradually created in my mind, distorting them into super-human heroisms, animal weaknesses, and grotesque puerilities."
After speaking of the “logic of life," he went on
" Amidst this structure the poet has placed a being who has but the appearance or outer-casing of strength. It is an incongruity that leads to fall upon fall; hence the tragedy. Macbeth was not a warrior, Macbeth was not a murderer : Macbeth was not a superman of mastery and crime. He was a man, he was one of those small men with laughable souls, with weak and furtive aspirations, who are sometimes misled by a false physical vigour into taking the road in life which is not marked out for them. This because of a puerile ambition and a brutal love of dominion."
These creatures sometimes deck themselves with brilliant appearances. They make the first movement of the strong man; and the consequences realised by that terrible logic of life fall down upon them and crush them. Then comes a terrible agony, in which they struggle, ranting and raging, bereft of all reason, committing the most astounding, the most unexpected acts, loosing catastrophes all round them. Nowadays, such men are described as half-demented. Macbeth is this pathological case minutely annotated, between the phases of which Shakespeare has made manifest the psychological depths and the poetic powers of his genius."
In spite of some exaggeration this study is a remarkable one, and, gives as good an analysis of the character as I remember to have seen. It also brings out in a striking way the
self-element” which is expressed in the character, and which, under the mood of self-censure, reflects, as accurately as can be estimated from the historical record, the character of Francis Bacon. As we have seen, he had much on his conscience at the time when this play was composed-probably in 1605-6-and it would account for the self-expression which is so marked a feature of it. No doubt the story was derived from Holinshed, but Holinshed does not supply the treatment, which is the thing that matters.
The character of Macbeth, as above described, might be illustrated in many passages, but it is summarised most notably in the speech of Lady Macbeth on receiving the letter from Macbeth announcing the appearance of the witches and their promises :
Yet I do fear thy nature ;
No one can study Bacon's life without feeling that these lines, whether consciously or unconsciously, most accurately reflect his character, and an example of its approximation to the nature of Macbeth is to be found in one of his letters, dated February 1615, to Sir George Villiers (Buckingham) in reply to what must have been an undertaking to raise him to the highest position, presumably the Chancellorship, on the death of Ellesmere, or a Privy Councillorship, in return for an unswerving allegiance to himself. The reply was placed in a postscript and was written on a small piece of paper which was enclosed in the letter :
" Sir, I humbly thank you for your inward letter; I have burned it as you commanded : but the flame it hath kindled in me will never be extinguished.” 1
Bacon's imagination was on fire at the prospect, and, with a simplicity of mind which was part of his nature, he committed the fatal imprudence of opening his mind to Villiers, who, being much the stronger character, was not slow to take advantage of it.
The swiftness of the action, and the darkness in which, by many wonderful expedients of art, the play mainly takes place, make it the most formidable of Shakespeare's works. The deterioration of Macbeth is also most skilfully managed, and it is remarkable evidence of the poet's psychological insight that the effect of the king's murder works differently in the case of the woman and the man. The collapse of the man comes about through the workings of the mind, of the woman through her physique. She faints at the first inquiry, she walks in her sleep obsessed with the idea of the blood on her hands, she is haunted by " thick-coming fancies, that keep her
1 Spedding, Letters and Life, v. 249.
from her rest," and she finally destroys herself through inability to endure the strain. The man becomes wholly bad and loses all dignity; the woman on the other hand, criminal though she is, does not wholly lose our sympathy, and in the sleepwalking scene she is awe-inspiring and beautiful. This is quite characteristic of Shakespeare, whose men are seldom or never wholly good, but for whom women, in virtue of their sex and beauty, always have about them some expression of the divine. Goneril and Regan are perhaps exceptions, and yet, cruel as they are, they are not physically repulsive, and they serve as foils to bring out the " love and pity” in Cordelia's nature. But I must not be drawn into a discussion of Shakespeare's women, which would take me beyond the purpose of this book.
King Lear was perhaps composed in 1605. It was first performed at Whitehall in 1606. It is the most desolate of the plays, and expresses, more than any other, a sense of the hardness of the world. It is a fact worth noting—though I do not wish to press it—that in his mother Bacon had a subject which he might have used as a study of forlorn old age. She lived on till 1610, when she was over 80, and except for Bacon's letter to Sir Michael Hicks asking him to her funeral, there is no notice of her after 1600, when Bacon mentioned her in a petition to the Queen about his estate, and among the reasons, "First my love
“First my love to my mother, whose health being worn, I do infinitely desire she mought carry this comfort to the grave.”3 She is alluded to by Bishop Goodman, Court of King James the First, in these words, “ But for Bacon's mother, she was but little better than frantic in her age."4 Indeed she appeared to one of Anthony
1 Goneril, for example, is so sure of her beauty that, in kissing Edmund, she says:
Decline your head : this kiss, if it durst speak
Bacon's servants to be approaching this condition in 1594, for in some letters written from Gorhambury he gives an account of her contrary humours in which the following expressions occur :
" I will give none offence to make her angry; but nobody can please her long together."
“There is not one man in the house but she fall out withal.”
“ She hath fallen out with Crossby and bid him get him out of her sight."
The story of Lear is taken from Holinshed and Geoffrey of Monmouth's pretended "History," and it is a curious fact that it shows certain deviations from the latter similar to those in the story of Lear which appears in the Faerie Queene (II. X. 27-31). The final fate of Lear however in the latter is different.
A good deal has been written about the “ anachronisms in Shakespeare. Thus a writer in the Spectator remarked :
" He gave Scotland cannon three hundred years too early and made Cleopatra play at billiards. Look at his notion of the ' very manners' of early post-Roman Britain in Cymbeline and King Lear. A playwright with a good smattering of knowledge and a supreme genius might do these things, but surely not Bacon."
In my book on Spenser I have argued that these are just the things that Bacon would do from his entire indifference to accuracy and his habit of seeing everything in the light of his own times and experience. This class of criticism is not new and it was severely handled by Johnson in his Preface to Shakespeare : “His adherence to general nature," he writes, “has exposed him to the censure of critics, who form their judgments upon narrower principles. . His story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men,” and so on. In point of fact the writer from whom I quote fell into an error in the case of Lear, who was one of the mythical sovereigns of “ Brutus' sacred progeny” who is said to have reigned in Britain before" Ferrex and Porrex"
and within 700 years of the sack of Troy, whenever that may have been (F. Q. II. x., and Geoffrey of Monmouth). In selecting this character for his story the author was following the example of the Greek tragedians in using native legend as a vehicle for presenting great examples. He also follows them in mixing up the past with contemporary life and making the characters speak in contemporary language, though it is true that he takes greater liberties in this way than they did ; but he was not writing under the strict and semi-religious conditions of the Attic stage. Something in this practice is also to be attributed to the habit of thought of the Renaissance, which saw everything in its own colours. But if we are to exercise our minds about the anachronisms ” Shakespeare's plays, let us at least do so about the real ones, I mean the anachronisms in the thought, and find an explanation, if we can, for such a speech as this in the mouth of a prehistoric chieftain :
Lear. No, no, no, no! Come let's away to prison ;
We two will sing like birds i'the cage :
I suggested an explanation in my previous volume, that the expression “God's spies” means philosophers and comes from Epictetus, who says that philosophers are the "spies and messengers of God"; and that the “mystery of things is rerum causas, the quest of philosophy. The same thought
. occurs in the draft for a pardon after Bacon's fall, written, no doubt, as Spedding says, by himself :
Cum praedilicto consanguineo nostro Francisco Vicecomite St. Alban propositum sit deinceps vitam degere quietam et tranquillam in studiis et contemplatione rerum, atque hoc modo etiam posteritati