Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

"

[ocr errors]

as the legends of the Middle Ages, and the traditions of English history.

Hallam, who advances no opinion lightly, notices the occurrence of numerous Latinisms in Shakespeare's works, “phrases, unintelligible and improper, except in the sense of their primitive roots,” such as, “ Things base and vile, holding no quantity,for value; rivers that have "overborn their continents," the “continente ripa” of Horace; compact of imagination;" "somethingof great constancy,for consistency; “sweet Pyramis transluted there,” “ the law of Athens, which by no means we may extenuate: "expressions which it is not very likely that one, who did not understand their proper meaning, would have introduced into poetry) Hallam's remark is repeated by

. Gervinus; and Mr. S. Neil, the author of a very careful critical biography of Shakespeare, has no hesitation in saying that the poet's language is strongly tinged with Latinisms.

With regard to Greek, we may boldly affirm that he did not know it. Even admitting that he may have learned the declensions and verbs at school, such knowledge would have been quite insufficient to enable him to read a Greek author in the original. Every one knows that Greek is not learned at school, and Hallam declares that if in the sixteenth century men were better versed in Latin than they are now, the case was different with Greek. The extent of Shakespeare's knowledge of it may therefore fairly be measured by that of a school-boy of the present time, whose studies have been broken off unfinished, the result being the most absolute ignorance. But there was no occasion for Knight to make apologies for the great poet on this account—he is not singular in his ignorance, and even Schiller and Goethe, as their correspondence attests, read Homer, Aristotle, and the tragedians in translations.

In discussing the question of Shakespeare's learning,

L

it must never be left out of sight, that poets are possessed of an instrument which is not in the hand of every student—the instrument of genius.

“Great artists,” M. Taine has well said, " have no need to learn,they guess.

I have seen such an one, by means of a suit of armour, a costume, or a collection of old furniture, penetrate more decply into the spirit of the Middle Ages than three savants put together. They rebuild, naturally and surely, in the same way that they build up, by virtue of an inspiration that lends wings to reasoning."

If we take the word “ learning" in its large and liberal sense, and no longer reduce the question to a miserable pedantic wrangling over his more or less of Greek and Latin, then, of all men that ever lived, Shakespeare is one of the most learned.,

“ Armed with indefatigable curiosity, he was an incessant reader," writes Philarète Chasles, “and made himself acquainted with all the current literature of the day: Harrington's translation of Ariosto, Amyot's and North's translations of Plutarch, Fairfax's Tasso, and Florio's translation of Montaigne, were in his hands as soon as published. He read the travels of Sir Walter Raleigh, and a translation of those of Hakluyt, and of the Week,' by Du Bartas. Stories, histories, plays, chronicles, theological works, amorous sonnets, everything printed in the sixteenth century, everything that fell into his hands, all was devoured by him, and his plays form a complete encyclopædia of his times.” Rabelais, too, he knew, a recollection of whom is found in two of his comedies.* And what an open door into classical antiquity he possessed in Montaigne's essays ! Besides these, Pliny's “Natural History” was another book in his library; in “Antony and Cleopatra”(Act III. Sc. 7), there is a learned dissertation on the Nile, and in “ Troilus and Cressida" (Act V., Sc. 3), Troilus reproaches

* In “As You Like It" (Act III., Sc. 2), Rosalind says to Celia, “ Answer me in one word;" to which Celia answers, “You must borrow me Gargantua's mouth first, 'tis a word too great for any mouth of this age's size." In " Love's Labour's Lost,” the schoolmaster's name is Holofernes.

Hector for his clemency towards the vanquished, which he

says, “better fits a lion than a man,”—a notion belonging to Pliny the Elder, who observes that “the lion alone of all wild beasts is gentle to those that humble themselves before him, and will not touch any such upon their submission, but spareth what creature soever lieth prostrate before him.”

Like all men of real learning, Shakespeare was fully conscious of his ignorance. The greatest stores of knowledge that any man has ever possessed are as nothing in comparison with the infinite number of things of which he is ignorant. A dark night lies all around us, and the more brightly our little torch burns, the better are we able to gauge the depth of blackness. In one of his sonnets (LXXVIII.), the image chosen by Shakespeare to describe an immense abyss is the distance that separates learning from his “rude ignorance,” and elsewhere he says that ignorance is the malediction of God, and that learning is the very wing that bears us up to heaven.

Pope's reflection on this subject is very acute, in which he suggests that Shakespeare's ignorance was exaggerated for the sake of opposition and of symmetry, to form a sharper contrast with the vast learning of Ben Jonson. There is, perhaps, no more pernicious source of error in criticism than this mania for contrasting celebrated comtemporaries in hard and fast lines;because Shakespeare is full of fancy, Ben Jonson is set down as having none; and because Corneille writes with a masculine vigour, Racine, in spite of his “Athalie” and “Britannicus,” is said to be characterized by a feminine tenderness. And after all, it is childish to discuss the amount of learning possessed by an author who has taught the whole world, and from whom statesmen declare they have drawn their first notions of politics and of history.

CHAPTER V.

SHAKESPEARE'S ANACHRONISMS.

An anachronism, according to the definition given by Bossuet, is the error that consists in a confusion of times, or, in other words, a mistake in chronology.

An anachronism in dress, language, or manners, consists in attributing to one age the dress, expressions, or customs, which belongs to another age; and, besides this, in poetry and painting, any fault with regard to the peculiar features, the essential characteristics of the subject, is also an anachronism, as accuracy in chronology and in local colour-truth of time and of place—are closely and inevitably united.

There are many anachronisms to be found in Shakespeare's plays, which have been laboriously pointed out by Francis Douce, but his work, “Illustrations of Shakespeare,” written chiefly in the cavilling spirit of a mere pedant, enters into none of those higher considerations that the subject admits of. It will be shown further on, how the question of anachronisms in the drama touches a very lofty æsthetic problem, but it will be necessary first to follow in the steps of Douce, and to give, if not a complete, at all events, an adequate enumeration of Shakespeare's anachronisms.

To begin with the plays taken from classical antiquity, and with “ Timon of Athens” in the first place :

[ocr errors]

of paper.

to introduce into the age and place in which Alcibiades lived, two personages belonging to domestic life in feudal times, a page and a fool, both of whom were unknown to the ancients, is a glaring error as regards chronology and local colour. The guests at Timon's banquet sit upon stools, instead of reclining upon couches, as the Greeks did, and one of the characters speaks of the use

“In a Roman drama," writes Douce, “it might have passed, but we have no evidence that the Greeks used the papyrus plant at this early period.”

In “ Troilus and Cressida,” the great anachronism consists in the presence of the manners and customs of mediæval chivalry, at the siege of Troy. The heroes, armed from head to foot, with closed helmets on their heads, are mounted on war horses, instead of fighting in chariots as in the “Iliad :” judges of the lists; crests, devices, gauntlets, gorgets; love, ladies, honour and fidelity, all the vocabulary and all the custoins of chivalry are to be found in this play; and when Æneas brings the challenge from Hector to the Greeks, he bears himself precisely in the manner of a herald-at-arms at a tournament. Agamemnon and old Nestor himself speak much in the same style; and Pandarus, when he wishes to be figurative, borrows metaphors from falconry. Besides this fundamental anachronism in manners and habits, there are several little oversights in the details of the speeches which are amusing enough, such as the mention of Aristotle by Hector; of Milo of Crotona by Ulysses; of Friday and Sunday by Pandarus, while the Trojan cookery seems not to be a whit behind the culinary art in England.

In the “Comedy of Errors,” where the scene is laid in ancient Ephesus, we meet with ducats, marks, guilders, and an abbess. Allusion is made to Henry IV., of France, and there is also express mention of America and of various kingdoms of modern Europe. We hear

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
« AnteriorContinuar »