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THE “IMPERSONALITY” OF SHAKESPEARE
Nature," wrote Dr. Johnson, "gives no man knowledge, and when images are collected by study and experience, can only assist in combining or applying them. Shakespeare, however favoured by nature, could impart only what he had learned."
Fvery human creation, and a work of art no less than any other, must express the personality of its author. To suppose that Shakespeare's work is an exception is unscientific; it is a theory which has been invented to account for the apparent detachment of his work from his circumstances, and would probably never have been heard of but for that appearance. It does not seem to occur to those who blindly accept this theory to inquire whether the operation which it involves is humanly possible or whether it is confirmed by any other examples. But when inquiry is made it is found that in Shakespeare, under the accepted tradition of his existence, it stands alone. Thus we are asked to believe that he differed from every other member of the human race, and that his work was performed under conditions which apply to no other human being; in short, that he was a miracle.
Believing, as I do, that the plays of Shakespeare were given to the world under the disguise of an actor's name, modified in the spelling, and sometimes printed with a hyphen, to convey the idea of penetration and power, and that their real author was Francis Bacon, I am no longer bound by this theory, but am entitled to do what I should do without
1 Preface to Shakespeare.
question or reproach in the case of every other writer, namely, look for indications of the author's personality and circumstances in his work. It then ceases to be necessary to suppose that the author, under some strange theory of art, deliberately suppressed his own personality, and writing about things of which it was humanly impossible for him to have any firsthand experience, nevertheless was able, from hints derived from books and conversation, to express them with a precision of detail and correctness of sentiment unsurpassed by any other writer. That he appears to do this with the minimum of intrusion of his own individuality I fully allow, and that this is not wholly due to the dramatic form which he uses is evident from other examples, which show that the suppression of the author's personality is not by any means a necessity for the perfection of that form of art. Thus Æschylus, than whom there is no greater dramatist, makes his personality felt throughout his plays, and frequently quite directly, and the same thing is true in the case of Euripides ; true also, though in a lesser degree, in that of Sophocles, and true absolutely of Aristophanes, the almost-Shakespeare of Greece. And similarly throughout all the poets and creative writers, all, that is, except our supposed miraculous genius. But the fact really is that Shakespeare's personality, however concealed, is to be found in his work, and that, in this respect, he presents no exception to the rule.
It seems possible then that we have all along been misled by over-subtlety, and that where Shakespeare has been credited with conscious art based on a preconceived theory of what the drama should be, he has in reality only followed the promptings of his nature and displayed himself as he was, a creature without any definite personality. In short, if he reveals no personality it is mainly because he had none to reveal, or one of so plastic a nature that it took form only in a "projected ” personality, depending on the idea by which his mind was possessed at a given time. If, too, it be the fact that the writer had a motive for self-concealment, this also must have influenced his work.
An explanation for this may emerge if we consider the nature of the male and the female, and realise that in Shakespeare, more than in any other creative artist, the two natures are combined. It has often been remarked that there is a feminine element in all genius. It is this which supplies the responsiveness to impressions. But the sense of form is male ; male also is all constructive originality in whatever field of human activity. It seems that where a woman is content with sensation a man desires its expression in form, and seeks thereby to preserve for future use or admiration its significance. It is clear that the degree of personality in either sex, will, normally, and apart from exceptions, be mainly determined by this difference of psychic quality. Where in the male it may be expected to be more defined, in the female it will be more inchoate and fluid. Thus I take the absence of any well-defined personality in Shakespeare to be due to his intense sensitiveness to impressions. His ideas on the other hand are essentially masculine, and they are always well-balanced and clear. But they proceed from the working of his intellect, and they seem, in him, to have little relation to desire, will or character. Hence it is that he brings to his work a prodigious equipment. All the sources of feeling seem to be open to him, and, by the power of a phenomenal apprehension and memory, he illustrates them by examples drawn not only from life but from a vast range of reading in books ancient and modern and in the leading European languages. But he never failed to remember that he was appealing to unlearned people, and that if he was to influence and instruct them, which was the motive of his work, he must not puzzle or fatigue them, but always hold the beaten way of human speech. Hence with conscious craft, which with time and practice became a second nature, he avoids every appearance of erudition and produces thereby the illusion of being an untutored genius. The illusion is enhanced by his habit of turning Romans and the heroes of Troy into Englishmen, and making, for example, the Queen of ancient Egypt play billiards, and speaking of her in terms in which the poets of the day were accustomed to describe Queen Elizabeth. Wholly wanting in the historical sense! Let
us not be too sure. He knew his audience and wrote for their delectation, quite indifferent to what critics of a more studious age might think about him. As Johnson says, “The story requires Romans or Kings, but he thinks only on men." He himself, as I believe, 1 has explained his method in the following passage in an anonymous Elizabethan volume : ,
we do allow our Courtly Poet to be a dissembler only in the subtilties of his arte: that is when he is most artificiall, so to disguise and cloake as it may not appeare, nor seeme to proceede from him by any studie or trade of rules, but to be his naturall : nor so evidently to be descried, as evry ladde which reads him shall say he is a good scholler, but will rather have him to know his arte well, and little to use it."
“ But for that our maker or Poet, which rests onely in devise and issues from an excellent sharpe and quick invention, holpen by a cleare and bright phantasie and imagination, he is not as the painter to counterfaite the naturall by the like efforts and not the same, nor as the gardiner aiding nature to worke both the same and the like, nor as the carpenter to worke effectes utterly unlike, but even as nature herselfe working by her owne peculiar virtue and proper instinct and not by example or meditation or exercise as all other artificers do, is then most admired when he is most naturall and least artificiall. And in the feates of his language and utterance, because they hold as well of nature to be suggested and uttered as by arte to be polished and reformed, therefore shall our Poet receive prayse for both, but more by knowing of his arte than by unseasonable using it, and be nore commended for his naturall eloquence than for his artificiall, and more for his artificiall well dissembled than for the same over much affected and grossely or undiscretly bewrayed, as many makers and Oratours do."'?
When to this method we add an extraordinary habit of inaccurate quotation, sometimes due to the practice of trusting to his prodigious memory which often played him false, sometimes to a deliberate perversion, to suit his argument, of his authorities from a deficient sense of honesty and presuming on the ignorance of his audience, a habit which is found equally in Spenser and in the acknowledged works of
1 See Edmund Spenser, etc., p. 157.
· Arte of English Poesie, 1589, anonymous, but attributed to one Puttenham.
Bacon, we are enabled to account for a good deal in the plays which would otherwise be hard to explain.
In one of the plays the author expresses, with his usual felicity in the use of concrete images to represent a general idea, the nature of the emotional quality which lay at the root of his personality in relation to his art :
Our poesy is as a gum which issues
Timon of Athens, I. i.
The reading of gum which issues is a conjectural emendation of Pope's for gown which uses. Whether it is right or wrong it is a very happy one, and is in accord with the general sense of the passage, which is designed to express the plastic and spontaneous quality in the artist.
The same idea finds expression in a later passage in the mouth of the same speaker :
My free drift
But I shall be told that this is illegitimate criticism and that Shakespeare never speaks in his own person. My answer to that is that he always speaks in it, that whatever character he assumes for the time being he becomes that character, but the basis of it is always Shakespeare. What Doll Tearsheet or what Hamlet in real life ever talked like Doll Tearsheet and Hamlet in the plays ? They both talk Shakespeare ; and so of all the characters. But the illusion is so wonderful and the proportions are so well preserved that we are deceived into the belief that they are real people. But in reality they have no existence at all apart from the personality of their creator, which pours itself at will into their moulds. They are emanations of his self-consciousness.