Studies of a Biographer/Shakespeare as a Man< Studies of a Biographer
SHAKESPEARE AS A MAN
I am reluctant to break the rule—or what ought to be the rule—that no one should write about Shakespeare without a special licence. Heaven-born critics or thorough antiquaries alone should add to the pile under which his 'honoured bones' are but too effectually hidden. I make no pretence of having discovered a new philosophical meaning in Hamlet, or of having any light to throw upon the initials 'W.H.' I confess, too, that though I have read Shakespeare with much pleasure, I cannot say as much for most of his commentators. I have not studied them eagerly. I spent, however, some hours of a recent vacation in reading a few Shakespeare books, including Mr. Lee's already standard Life and Professor Brandes' interesting Critical Study. The contrast between the two raised an old question. Mr. Lee, like many critics of the highest authority, maintains that we can know nothing of the man. He shows that we know more than the average reader supposes of the external history of the Stratford townsman. But then he maintains the self-denying proposition that such knowledge teaches us nothing about the author of Hamlet. Professor Brandes, on the contrary, tries to show how a certain spiritual history indicated by the works may be more or less distinctly correlated with certain passages in the personal history. The process, of course, involves a good deal of conjecture. It rests upon the assumption that the works, when properly interpreted, reveal character; for the facts taken by themselves are a manifestly insufficient ground for more than a few negative inferences. If, with Mr. Lee, we regard the first step as impossible, the whole theory must collapse. Upon his showing we learn little from the works except that Shakespeare, whatever he may have been as a man, had a marvellous power of wearing different masks. There is no reason to suppose that his mirth or melancholy, his patriotism or his misanthropy, reveal his own sentiments. He could inspire his puppets with the eloquence which would bring down the house and direct money to the till of the Globe. He could drop his mask and become a commonplace man of business when he applied for a coat of arms or requested his debtors to settle their little accounts.
This raises the previous question of the possibility of the general inference from the book to the man. Now I confess that to me one main interest in reading is always the communion with the author. Paradise Lost gives me the sense of intercourse with Milton, and the Waverley Novels bring me a greeting from Scott. Every author, I fancy, is unconsciously his own Boswell, and, however 'objective' or dramatic he professes to be, really betrays his own secrets. Browning is one of the authorities against me. If Shakespeare, he says, really unlocked his heart in the sonnets, why 'the less Shakespeare he.' Browning declines for his part to follow the example, and fancies that he has preserved his privacy. Yet we must, I think, agree with a critic who emphatically declares that a main characteristic of Browning's own poetry is that it brings us into contact with the real 'self of the author.' Self-revelation is not the less clear because involuntary or quite incidental to the main purpose of a book. I may read Gibbon simply to learn facts; but I enjoy his literary merits because I recognise my friend of the autobiography who 'sighed as a lover and obeyed as a son.' I may study Darwin's Origin of Species to clear my views upon natural selection; but as a book it interests me even through the defects of style by the occult personal charm of the candid, sagacious, patient seeker for truth. In pure literature the case is, of course, plainer, and I will not count up instances because, in truth, I can hardly think of a clear exception. Whenever we know a man adequately we perceive that, though different aspects of his character may be made prominent in his life and his works, the same qualities are revealed in both, and we cannot describe the literary without indicating the personal charm.
Is Shakespeare the sole exception? There are obvious difficulties in the way of a satisfactory answer. Shakespearean criticism means too often reckless competition in hyperboles. So long as critics think it necessary to show their appreciative power by falling into hysterics, all distinctive characteristics are obliterated. When the poet is lost in such a blaze of light, we can make no inference to the man. Sometimes out of reverence for his genius he is treated like a prophet whose inspiration is proved by his commonplace character in other moments. The more impossible an explanation, the greater will be the wonder. Some commentators, again, have displayed their affection by dwelling upon his proverbial 'gentleness,' till he seems to be a kind of milksop with no more of the devil in him than there was in the poet of The Christian Year. Others have been so impressed by the vigour of his fine frenzies, and the 'irregularities' of which our forefathers complained, that they describe him as always on the border of insanity. Such discords do not prove necessarily that the man was unknowable, but certainly suggest that to know him a critic must keep his head and be less anxious to exhibit his own enthusiasm and geniality than to form a tolerably sane judgment. The application of sound methods happily seems to be spreading, and may lead to more solid results.
Some objections, indeed, if they could be sustained, would make the investigation impossible from the first. Shakespeare, we are reminded with undeniable truth, was a dramatist. We cannot assume that he is responsible for the opinions which he formulates. It is Orsino, not his creator, who holds that wives should be younger than their husbands, and Shakespeare may not have been thinking of Anne Hathaway. Some of us have personal reasons for hoping that when his characters express a dislike for the lean or for the unmusical, their words do not give his deliberate judgment. If this were a fatal difficulty it would follow that no competent dramatist reveals himself in his works. Yet, as a matter of fact, I suppose that dramatists are generally quite as knowable as other authors. We learn to know Ben Jonson from his plays alone, almost as well as we know his namesake the great Samuel. That surely is the rule. A dramatist lets us know, and cannot help letting us know, what is his general view of his fellow-creatures and of the world in which they live. It is his very function to do so, and though the indication may be indirect, it is not the less significant of the observer's own peculiarities. But, we are told, Shakespeare does not identify himself with any of his characters. He is not himself either Falstaff or Hamlet. This too applies to most dramatists, but it certainly suggests a difficulty.
The most demonstrable, though it may not be the highest, merit of Shakespeare's plays is, I suppose, the extraordinary variety of vivid and original types of character. The mind which could create a Hamlet and a Falstaff, and an Iago and a Mercutio and a Caliban, a Cleopatra and a Lady Macbeth and a Perdita, must undoubtedly have been capable of an astonishing variety of moods and sympathies. That certainly gives a presumption that the creator must have been himself too complex to be easily described. The difficulty, again, is increased by the other most familiar commonplace about Shakespeare, the entire absence of deliberate didacticism. Profound critics, it is true, have discovered certain moral lessons and philosophical theories concealed in his plays. If so, they are bound to admit, though their modesty may restrain their utterance, that he concealed them so cleverly that he has had to wait for a great philosopher to perceive them. If he really meant to enforce them upon the vulgar, his attempt must be regarded as a signal failure. Anyhow, we are without one clue which is given by the didactic writer. To read Dante is to know whom he hated and why he hated them, and what, in his opinion, would be their proper place hereafter. To Shakespeare good men and bad are alike parts of the order of Nature, to be understood and interpreted with perfect impartiality. He gives a diagnosis of the case, not a judgment sentencing them to heaven or hell. His characters prosper or suffer, not in proportion to their merits, but as good and bad fortune decides or as may be most dramatically effective. It does not, indeed, follow that Shakespeare was without moral sympathies or ideals. It would be as erroneous as to infer that a physician who describes a disease accurately is indifferent to the value of health. Shakespeare no doubt held that Iago was a hateful person, and meant him to excite the aversion of his hearers. Only he did not infer, as inferior writers are apt to do, that Iago ought to be misrepresented. The devil ought to be painted just as black as he is and not a shade blacker. A perfectly impartial analysis of character is, surely, the true method of showing what is lovable in the virtuous and hateful in the vicious, and the man who gets angry with his own creatures, and denounces instead of explaining, is really perverting the true moral. When Cervantes makes us love Don Quixote in spite of the crack in his intellect and the absurdity of his career, he is really setting forth in the most effective way the beauty of the chivalrous character. That, I take it, is the true artistic method. It simply displays the facts and leaves the reader to be attracted or repelled according to his power of appreciating moral beauty or deformity. But, undoubtedly, so far as this method is characteristic of Shakespeare's work, it increases our difficulty. These are the facts, he says: make what you can of them; I do not draw the moral for you, or even deny that many very different morals may commend themselves to different people. No great poet can be without some implicit morality, though the morality may be sometimes very bad. He is great because he has a rich emotional nature, and great powers of observation and insight. He must have his own views of what are the really valuable elements in life, of what constitutes true happiness, and what part the deepest instincts play in the general course of affairs. He must therefore have his answer to the great problems of ethics. But we have to translate his implicit convictions into an abstract theory in order to discover his moral system. To do that in the case of Shakespeare would no doubt be a specially difficult and delicate task. He refuses to give us any direct help towards divining his sympathies. Scott, in his most Shakespearean moods, has something of the same impartiality. When he describes an interesting person, Louis XI. in Quentin Durward, or James I. in The Fortunes of Nigel, he shows a power of insight, of making wicked and weak men intelligible and human, which reminds us of Shakespeare's methods. He hated Covenanters like a good Jacobite, and yet he can describe them kindly and sympathetically. But then he has sympathies which he cannot conceal. His love of the manly, healthy type represented in the Dandie Dinmonts and their like reveals the man, and, without reading Lockhart, we can see that, unlike Shakespeare, he is clearly identifying himself with some of his characters.
My inference then would be, not that Shakespeare cannot be known, but that a knowledge of Shakespeare must be attained through a less obvious process. His character, we must suppose, was highly complex, and we are without the direct and unequivocal clues which enable us to feel ourselves personally acquainted with such men as Dante or Milton, to say nothing of Wordsworth or Byron. A distinction, however, must be made. There is such a thing as knowing a man thoroughly and yet being unable to put our knowledge into definite formulæ. I may know a man's face and the sound of his voice well enough to swear to him among a thousand others, and yet I may be totally unable to describe him in such a way as to enable a detective to pick him out of a crowd. I can say that he is six feet high and has a red beard, but I cannot give the finer marks which distinguish tall red-bearded men from each other. So I can often divine instinctively what my friend will say and do and think on a given occasion; and yet be quite unable to give the reasons for my expectation. If I am not a trained psychologist, I shall not have the proper terms, or shall confuse different terms; and if I am a trained psychologist, I may too probably be misled by my own theories, and I shall certainly find that all the common phrases by which we describe character are too vague and shifting to reflect the vast variety of delicate shades of emotional temperament which we can yet recognise in observation. Does not every critic of poetry claim such a knowledge—vivid and yet difficult to grasp and analyse? He professes to recognise Shakespeare's style; he can tell you confidently which plays are Shakespeare's own, and which he produced in collaboration with others; he can point out the scene and even the particular speech at which Shakespeare dropped the pen and Fletcher took it up. Part of this knowledge is derived, it is true, from 'objective' signs. One scene has a larger percentage than others of verses with eleven syllables. That observation requires no critical insight. Yet I do not suppose that any critic would admit that he was unable to discriminate qualities too delicate to be inferred from counting on the fingers. The point of which I am speaking corresponds to the distinction made by Newman in the Grammar of Assent between the 'Illative Instinct' and such formal reasoning as can be put into syllogisms. He illustrates it by Falstaff's 'babbling of green fields.' Some readers, he says, are certain that this was Shakespeare's phrase, while others hold that they do not recognise the true Shakespearean ring. The certitude of either side is therefore not conclusive for the other. Yet the conviction implies that each reader has so vivid a conception of certain characteristics that the verdict 'this is' or 'this is not Shakespearean' arises spontaneously at a particular phrase. 'Shakespearean,' then, must have a definite though not definable meaning. Something in the turn of thought, in the play of humour, fits in or does not exactly fit in with our image, and we must therefore have such an image—whether like or unlike to the reality.
Two difficulties, in fact, are often confounded: the difficulty of knowing and the difficulty of analysing and formulating our knowledge. Language is too rough and equivocal an instrument to enable us to communicate to others the finer shades of difference which we can clearly recognise. Critics, I fancy, were it not for their characteristic modesty, might be induced by a skilful cross-examination to confess that their knowledge of Shakespeare is much more precise and distinct than they venture to claim. If I had the skill required for the most difficult form of literary art, I should try to surmount their diffidence by a Socratic dialogue. I should not endeavour to reveal new truths to them, but endeavour, like Socrates, to deliver them of the truths with which their judgments are already pregnant. Much as critics of the poetry differ, they show a tendency to converge; there are certain commonplaces, and at least as many negations, in which they would agree. As I do not profess to be an expert, I must limit myself to such generalities. What I would try to show is that what is accepted about the poetry really implies certain conclusions about the man. I must leave it to those who unite more thorough knowledge with more poetical insight to fill up the rough outlines which are all that I can attempt to indicate.
One remark will be granted. A dramatist is no more able than anybody else to bestow upon his characters talents which he does not himself possess. If—as critics are agreed—Shakespeare's creatures show humour, Shakespeare must have had a sense of humour himself. When Mercutio indulges in the wonderful tirade upon Queen Mab, or Jaques moralises in the forest, we learn that their creator had certain powers of mind just as clearly as if we were reading a report of one of the wit combats at the 'Mermaid.' It is harder to define those qualities precisely than to say what is implied by Johnson's talk at the 'Mitre' but the idiosyncrasy is at least as strongly impressed upon such characteristic mental displays. If we were to ask any critic whether such passages could be attributed to Marlowe or Ben Jonson, he would inquire whether we took him for a fool. If, indeed, we were considering a bit of scientific exposition, the inference to character would not exist. A mathematician, I suppose, could tell me that the demonstration of some astronomical theorem was in Newton's manner, and the remark would not show whether Newton was amiable or spiteful, jealous or generous. But a man's humour and fancy are functions of his character as well as of his reason. To appreciate them clearly is to know how he feels as well as how he argues; what are the aspects of life which especially impress him, and what morals are most congenial. I do not see how the critic can claim an instinctive perception of the Shakespearean mode of thought without a perception of some sides of his character. You distinguish Shakespeare's work from his rivals' as confidently as any expert judging of handwriting. You admit, too, that you can give a very fair account of the characteristics of the other writers. Then surely you can tell me—or at least you know 'implicitly'—what is the quality in which they are defective and Shakespeare pre-eminent.
Half my knowledge of a friend's character is derived from his talk, and not the less if it is playful, ironical, and dramatic. When we agree that Shakespeare's mind was vivid and subtle, that he shows a unique power of blending the tragic and the comic, we already have some indications of character; and incidentally we catch revelations of more specific peculiarities. Part of my late reading was a charming book in which Mr. Justice Madden sets forth Shakespeare's accurate knowledge of field sports. It seems to prove conclusively a proposition against which there can certainly be no presumption. We may be quite confident that he could thoroughly enjoy a day's coursing on the Cotswold Hills, and we know by the most undeniable proof that his sense of humour was tickled by the oddities of his fellowsportsmen, the Shallows and Slenders. It is at least equally clear that he had the keenest enjoyment of the charms of the surrounding scenery. He could not have written Midsummer Night's Dream or As You Like It if the poetry of the English greenwood had not entered into his soul. The single phrase about the daffodils—so often quoted for its magical power—is proof enough, if there were no other, of a nature exquisitely sensitive to the beauties of flowers and of springtime. It wants, again, no such confirmation as Fuller's familiar anecdote to convince us that Shakespeare could enjoy convivial meetings at taverns, that he could listen to, and probably join in, a catch by Sir Toby Belch, or make Lord Southampton laugh as heartily as Prince Hal laughed at the jests of Falstaff. Shakespeare, again, as this suggests, was certainly not a Puritan. That may be inferred by judicious critics from particular phrases or from the relations of Puritans to players in general. But without such reasoning we may go further and say that the very conception of a Puritan Shakespeare involves a contradiction in terms. He represents, of course, in the fullest degree, the type which is just the antithesis of Puritanism; the large and tolerant acceptance of human nature which was intolerable to the rigid and strait-laced fanatics, whom, nevertheless, we may forgive in consideration of their stern morality. People, indeed, have argued, very fruitlessly I fancy, as to Shakespeare's religious beliefs. Critics tell us, and I have no doubt truly, that it would be impossible to show conclusively from his works whether he considered himself to be an Anglican or a Catholic. But a man's religion is not to be defined by the formula which he accepts, or inferred even from the church to which he belongs. That is chiefly a matter of accident and circumstance, not of character. The same essential religious sentiments may be clothed in the most various and even logically contradictory creeds. We may, I think, be pretty certain that Shakespeare's religion, whatever may have been its external form, included a profound sense of the mystery of the world and of the pettiness of the little lives that are rounded by a sleep; a conviction that we are such stuff as dreams are made of, and a constant sense, such as is impressed in the most powerful sonnets, that our best life is an infinitesimal moment in the vast 'abysm' of eternity. Shakespeare, we know, read Montaigne; and if, like Montaigne, he accepted the creed in which he was brought up, he would have sympathised in Montaigne's sceptical and humorous view of theological controversialists playing their fantastic tricks of logic before high Heaven. Undoubtedly, he despised a pedant, and the pedantry which displayed itself in the wranglings of Protestant and Papist divines would clearly not have escaped his contempt. Critics, again, have disputed as to Shakespeare's politics; and the problem is complicated by the desire to show that his politics were as good as his poetry. Sound Liberals are unwilling to admit that he had aristocratic tendencies, because they hold that all aristocrats are wicked and narrow-minded. It is, of course, an anachronism to transplant our problems to those days, and we cannot say what Shakespeare would have thought of modern applications of the principles which he accepted. But I do not see how any man could have been more clearly what may be called an intellectual aristocrat. His contempt for the mob may be good-humoured enough, but is surely unequivocal: from the portrait of Jack Cade promising, like a good Socialist, that the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, to the first, second, and third citizens who give a display of their inanity and instability in Coriolanus or Julius Cæsar. Shakespeare may be speaking dramatically through Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida; but at least he must have fully appreciated the argument for order, and understood by order that the cultivated and intelligent should rule and the common herd have as little direct voice in state affairs as Elizabeth and James could have desired.
When we have got so far, we have already, as it seems to me, admitted certain attributes, which are as much personal as literary. If you admit that Shakespeare was a humorist, intensely sensitive to natural beauty, a scorner of the pedantry, whether of scholars or theologians, endowed with an amazingly wide and tolerant view of human nature, radically opposed to Puritanism or any kind of fanaticism, capable of hearty sympathy with the popular instincts and yet with a strong persuasion of the depth of popular folly, you thereby know at least some negative propositions about the man himself. You can say with confidence what are the characteristics which were thoroughly antipathetic to him, even though it may be difficult to describe accurately the characteristics which he positively embodied.
Another point is, it would seem, too plain to need much emphasis. The author of Romeo and Juliet was, I suppose, capable of Romeo's passion. We may 'doubt that the sun is fire' but can hardly doubt that Shakespeare could love. In this case, it seems to me, the power of intuition is identical with the emotional power. A man would surely have been unable to find the most memorable utterance in literature of passions of which he was not himself abnormally susceptible. It may be right to describe a poet's power as marvellous, but why should we hold it to be miraculous? I agree with Pope's common-sense remark about Heloisa's 'well-sung woes'; 'he best can paint 'em who can feel 'em most.' Surely that is the obvious explanation, and I am unable to see why there should be any difficulty in receiving it. When the blind poet, Blacklock, described scenery which he had never seen, wise critics puzzled over the phenomenon. It was explained by the obvious remark that he was simply appropriating the conventional phrases of other poets. But when a poet gives originality to the most commonplace of all themes, I infer that he has had the eyesight or felt the emotions required for the feat. We must, no doubt, be careful as to further differences. If I had read the poems of Burns or Byron without any knowledge of their lives, I should be justified, I think, in modestly inferring that they were men of strong passions. I could not suppose that they were merely vamping up old material. No inference from conduct could be made more conclusive than the inference from the fire and force of their poetry. But it is, of course, doubtful what effect might be produced on their lives. Byron, brought up under judicious and firm management, might conceivably have become an affectionate husband and a respectable nobleman. Some men have greater powers of self-command than others, or may be prevented by other qualities of character from obeying in practice the impulses which govern their imaginations. It has been said that Moore, who in early days shocked his contemporaries by immoral poetry, lived the most domestic and well-regulated of lives; whereas Rogers was the most respectable of poets and a striking contrast to Moore in conduct. The fact, if it be a fact, may warn us against hasty conclusions. A man may have very good reasons for keeping some of his feelings out of his books; or may, out of mere levity, affect vices which he does not put in practice. We can be sure that he has certain propensities; but, of course, we cannot tell how far circumstance and other propensities may not hold them in check. Much smaller men than Shakespeare are still very complex organisms. We may judge from this and that symptom that they react, as a chemist may say, in certain ways to a given stimulus; but to put all the indications together, to say which are the dominant instincts and how different impulses will modify each other in active life; to decide whether a feeling which shapes the ideal world will have a corresponding force when it comes into contact with realities, is a delicate investigation. When an adequate biography is obtainable the answer is virtually given. The facts of Shakespeare's life are as far as possible from adequate; but we may ask how far what is known can check or confirm inferences from the works.
This brings us to the biographical problem. Minute students of Shakespeare have done one great service at least. They have established approximately the order of his works. The plays, when placed in a chronological series, show probably the most remarkable intellectual development on record. There is, I suppose, no great writer who shows so distinctly the growth and varying direction of his poetical faculty. We watch Shakespeare from the start; beginning as a cobbler and adapter of other men's works; making a fresh start as a follower of Marlowe, and then improving upon his model in the great historical dramas. We can compare the gaiety and the ridicule of affectations in the early comedies with the more serious and penetrative portraits of life in the later works; or trace the development of his full powers in the great tragedies, and the mellower tone of the later romantic dramas. If some knowledge of Shakespeare is implied in a comparison between him and his contemporaries, there is still more significance in the comparison with himself. A century ago a critic put the Two Gentlemen of Verona at the end and the Winter's Tale at the beginning of his career. Such an inversion, we now perceive, would make the whole history of his mental development chaotic and contradictory. That Shakespeare, whom we know to have been a marvellously keen observer of life and character, and who lived, as literary historians so elaborately demonstrate, under the most stimulating intellectual and social conditions, must have had his reflections and learnt some lessons about human life is self-evident. To show how, for example, Richard II., in which he followed Marlowe, differed from the Henry IV., in which he has found his own characteristic breadth and strength, is to show what some of those lessons were, and therefore to throw light upon the man who learnt them so quickly. We see how certain veins of reflection become more prominent, how, for example, humour checks the bombastic tendency, and the broader and deeper view of life 'begets a temperance' which restrains the 'whirlwind' of ungovernable passions. The critic who can exhibit the growth of a man's power implicitly exhibits also the character which is developed; and, in fact, I think that by taking such considerations into account a clearer perception of the man has been gradually worked out. The task, no doubt, would be easier if we could strengthen our case by some definite biographical data; and the misfortune is that we are tempted to construct the required data by the help of audacious conjectures. The natural failure of such enterprises has unduly discredited the value of mere modest inferences.
The hope of unveiling the man has in particular led to the controversy over the sonnets. They are supposed to show that Shakespeare went through a spiritual crisis, which is indicated by the bitterness of some of the plays written at the time; and certain inferences would be applicable if we could safely identify the dark lady with Mistress Fitton and 'W. H.' with the Earl of Pembroke. I humbly accept Mr. Lee's chief conclusions. He has insisted upon the fact that Shakespeare was falling in with a temporary fashion, or infected by a curious mania which led poets just at that period to pour out sonnets by the hundred. The inference that the sonnets necessarily imply some personal catastrophe is thus deprived of its force. If half the early Victorian poets had been writing 'In Memoriams,' we might believe that Tennyson had no special friendship for Arthur Hallam, and had merely made a pretext of a commonplace attachment. It is possible, or rather it is highly probable, that Shakespeare took some real bit of personal history for a text, though many of the sonnets are simply variations upon established poetical themes. But we cannot say that his emotion must have been caused by some thrilling events when it is at least equally likely that he merely took a trifling event as a pretext for expressing his emotions. Shakespeare was certainly dramatist enough to discover a motive for poetry in a commonplace experience. The attempted identifications do little more than illustrate a common fallacy. The impossibility of proving a negative is confounded with the conclusive proof of the positive. 'It is just possible' becomes 'it is certainly true.' The whole Pembroke-Fitton hypothesis rests (as Mr. Lee seems to show) upon the interpretation of the famous initials. The fact that a nobleman had an intrigue with a lady about the time when the sonnets, or some of them, may have been written, cannot prove that they refer to the intrigue. Shakespeare could hardly have managed to write at a period when some intrigue was not going on. If, then, 'W. H.' did not mean William Herbert, the peg on which the whole argument hangs is struck out. Now 'Mr. W. H.' could not possibly suggest the Earl to any contemporary, and, in fact, did not suggest him to any one for more than two centuries. That, Professor Brandes seems to think, strengthens the case, because the dedication would naturally be reticent. The argument recalls the old retort—
My wound is great, because it is so small:
Then it were greater were it none at all!
If there had been no dedication, the proof apparently would have been conclusive, because the reticence would have been absolute. The true argument is surely simple. If there were otherwise very strong reasons for believing in the Pembroke theory, it might be a plausible conjecture that the initials were suggested by association, though it would still be odd that reticence pushed so far did not go a step further. In the absence of such reasons, the obscurity cannot of itself be any ground for conviction. People forget how frequent are much closer and yet purely accidental coincidences; but when there is a chance of the glory of a discovery of such a bit of personal history, 'trifles light as air' become demonstrative to enthusiastic worshippers.
There is a more fundamental objection to the whole theory. Were it proved that the sonnets refer to the conjectured history, the fact would be interesting, but would hardly throw much light upon our problem. It is supposed to suggest a cause for Shakespeare's supposed pessimistic mood. To take a parallel case: we may find an explanation of Swift's misanthropy in his long ordeal of disappointed ambition. There is no doubt whatever that Swift's writings express a misanthropy as savage as that of Timon or Thersites; and on the other side, there is no doubt that his career was calculated to sour his nature. Putting the history of the man and his works together, both become the more intelligible. The fierce indignation shown by the author is explained and palliated by the life of the man. If Shakespeare had suddenly retired from the stage and taken to writing pamphlets like the Drapier's Letters or the Martin Marprelate Tracts, we might admit the probability of some events which embittered his life. But then the conspicuous fact is that his life ran on, as far as we can tell, with perfect smoothness. Nobody can prove that he did not love Mistress Fitton; but it is quite clear that, if he did, it did not prevent him from making money, buying New Place, setting up as a gentleman, and continuing a thoroughly prosperous career. The passion clearly did not dislocate his career. Even if the alleged fact be true, it had no permanent bearing on his life. On the other side, there is no proof of anything in the works to require explanation. Critics have indeed shown that at one period pessimistic sentiments (to speak roughly) become more prominent than before or afterwards. But we must, in the first place, make the proper allowance for the dramatic condition. He may have continued the 'Thersites' or 'Timon' vein because it was popular or because it suited the acting of one of his 'fellows.' And in the next place the whole argument that a man must be gloomy because he writes of horrors or indulges in misanthropical tirades is questionable. Sometimes the opposite theory is more plausible. When we are young and our nerves strong, we can bear excitement which becomes painful as our spirits fail; and in old age we like happy conclusions and soothing imagery, precisely because we are less cheerful. In any case, the works admittedly lose the pessimistic tone in the later years; and the presumption is that if Shakespeare suffered from any moral convulsion, he was fortunate enough to be thoroughly cured. The conjectured story, if so, is required, if at all, by the sonnets alone. When we make proper allowance for the degree in which they were suggested by the contemporary fashion and were imitations of other poets or simple variations of commonplace themes, the necessity for believing in any romance at all vanishes. Thus there are not two histories, literary and personal, which explain each other, but two histories, both of which rest upon conjecture. Even if the conjecture be accepted in either case, the one thing that is clear is that the results were transitory. I can therefore accept Mr. Lee's opinion that the story may be put out of account altogether when we are trying to understand the man in his works.
The more modest inference, however, remains. If we can infer from his poetry that Shakespeare could be in love, we can surely infer with equal confidence that he could feel the emotions which embody themselves in pessimism. He had, one cannot doubt, satisfied the familiar condition of acquaintance with the heavenly powers. He knew what it was to eat his bread with sorrow and pass his nights in weeping. No one, I suppose, ever read the famous catalogue of the evils which made him pine for restful death, or the reference to the degrading influences of his profession, without feeling that a real man is speaking to us from his own experience. The poetical 'intuition,' as I must again hold, does not supersede the necessity for assuming the intense sensibility of which it is surely a product. When Thackeray, in the little poem 'Vanitas Vanitatum,' almost repeats Shakespeare's catalogue as a comment upon the saying of the 'Weary King Ecclesiast,' I know from his biography that he had gone through corresponding trials. I infer that Shakespeare had felt the emotions which he infused with unequalled intensity. When we recall the main facts of his career, the society in which he had lived, the events of which he had been a close spectator, and admit, to put it gently, that he was a man of more than average powers of mind and feeling, the a priori probability that he had gone through trying experiences is pretty strong; and though we know none of the details we can hardly suppose that he got through life without abundant opportunities for putting Hamlet's question as to the value of life. This, indeed, suggests that the argument may be inverted. The life, so far from explaining the genius, makes it, as some people have thought, a puzzle. 'I cannot,' says Emerson, 'marry this fact' (the fact that Shakespeare was a jovial actor and manager) 'to his verse.' The best of the world's poets led an 'obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement.' 'Obscure' and 'profane' are perhaps rather harsh epithets; but they suggest the problem: Is there any real incompatibility between Shakespeare's conduct and the theory of life implied by his writings?
I leave a full answer to the accomplished critic whom I desiderate but do not try to anticipate. Yet, keeping to the region of tolerably safe commonplaces, I fancy that this supposed antithesis really admits of, or rather suggests, a natural mode of conciliation. Emerson laments, what we all admit, that Shakespeare was not a preacher with a mission. He had no definite ethical system to inculcate; and, moreover, so far as we can define his morality, it was not such as would satisfy the ideal saint. If he clearly did not agree with John Knox, we may doubt whether he would have appreciated St. Francis. Martyrs and ascetics would have been out of place in his world. The exalted idealist despises fact: he is impressive precisely because his doctrine is impracticable: the ideal may stimulate what is best in us, but it is too refined and exalted to be accepted by the mass. But Shakespeare does not idealise in the sense of neglecting the actual. He is intensely interested in the world as it is, moved by the great forces of love, hate, jealousy, ambition, pride and patriotism. He 'idealises' so far as he has a keener insight than any one into the corresponding types of character, but he does not care, so far as we can see, for the religious enthusiast who retires to a hermitage or scornfully renounces the world, the flesh, and the devil. The men in whom he takes an interest have forgotten that they ever renounced these powers; they are soldiers, courtiers, and statesmen, who give us the secret of the actual Raleighs and Essexes and Burleighs of his own day. The virtues of purity or self-devotion are left chiefly to the women who are the more charming by contrast with the world of force and passion in which they move; though now and then, a Cleopatra or a Lady Macbeth shows that a woman, as Mary Stuart had sufficiently shown, can be interesting by force of human passion. This, of course, is to say that Shakespeare is able to interpret in the most vivid way the characteristics of a period of extraordinary intellectual and social convulsion. But his interpretation shows also individual peculiarities which distinguish him from others who experience a similar external influence. There is, I think, one distinct moral doctrine even in Shakespeare, and one which is a corollary from this position. Hamlet states it in explaining his regard for Horatio, the man
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
That they are not a pipe for fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please: Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.
In a world so full of passion and violence, the essential condition of happiness is the power of keeping your head. They, as he says in a remarkable sonnet, 'who moving others are themselves as stone,' are the right inheritors of 'Heaven's graces.' The one character who, as commentators agree, represents a personal enthusiasm is Henry V., and Henry V.'s special peculiarity is his superlative self-command. It is emphasised even at some cost of dramatic propriety. Critics at least have complained of the soliloquy—
I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness,
in which the prince expresses a deliberate intention of throwing off his wild companions. He is talking to the audience, it is suggested, and should not have so clear a theory of motives which he would scarcely avow to himself. I fancy indeed that many young gentlemen have indulged in similar excuses for the process of sowing their wild oats, and the main peculiarity of Henry V. is that he really means them and keeps to his resolution. Shakespeare obviously expects us to approve the exile of Falstaff, and rather scandalises readers who have fallen in love with that disreputable person. A similar moral is implied in others of the most characteristic plays. Shakespeare, for example, sympathises most heartily and unmistakably with the pride of Coriolanus and the passionate energy of Mark Antony. They are admirable and attractive because they have such hot blood in their veins; but come to grief because the blood is not 'commingled' with judgment. The really enviable thing, he seems to say, would be to unite the two characteristics; to be full of energy which shall yet be always well in hand; to have unbounded strength of passion and yet never to be the slave of passion.
If this be a characteristic impression, it is an obvious suggestion that it is illustrated by Shakespeare's life. The young lad from the country had the same temptations as Robert Greene and Christopher Marlowe. He did not escape them by any coldness of temperament or inability to appreciate the pleasures of the town. He may, as two or three stories suggest, have given way to weaknesses, which would account for some of the expressions of remorse in the sonnets. Anyhow, he had retained enough prudence and self-command to avoid the fate of a Pistol or a Falstaff. He became a highly respectable man as well as a world-poet. If he caught some stains from bad company, they were, as I may leave the critics to demonstrate, superficial. The appreciation of pure and lofty qualities develops instead of declines as years go on. It surely cannot be said that an eye for the main chance is inconsistent with the poetical character. The conventional poet, of course, lives in dreamland, and is an incapable man of business. But then it is the speciality of Shakespeare, that if he could dream, he must have been most keenly awake to a living world of men. Interest in and insight into our fellow-creatures is surely a good qualification for business. Voltaire was a superlative man of business. Goethe knew the value of a good social position. Pope was a keen and successful moneymaker. Dickens showed a similar capacity. Such cases may show that men can reconcile literary genius with business aptitudes. In one respect they may fall short of the case. They do not imply the actual preference of 'gain' to 'glory' attributed to Shakespeare. The closer parallel is, of course, Scott. If Scott's enjoyment of Abbotsford led to his ruin, while Shakespeare's more modest ambition was satisfied by New Place, the difference may have been that in the earlier period the arts of manufacturing paper credit were not so well understood. Still, Scott's estimate of the really valuable element of life naturally suggests Shakespeare. He held that the man of action was superior to the man of letters. He wondered that the Duke of Wellington should condescend to an interest in the author of a few 'bits of novels.' He meant frankly to make money by providing harmless amusement; but he did not fancy that the achievements of a novelist were comparable to the winning of battles or the making of laws. Shakespeare, we may guess, would have agreed. Like Scott, he held aloof from literary squabbles, whether from good-nature or from worldly wisdom, or from a sense of the pettiness of such contentions. He had his literary vanity, but it was to be satisfied by the poems and by the circulation of the sonnets in manuscript. The plays were in the first instance pot-boilers. He could not help putting his power into them when the situation laid hold of his imagination; but the haste, the frequent flagging of interest, the curious readiness with which he sometimes forgives a character or accepts an unsatisfactory catastrophe, tends to show a singular indifference. In the greatest plays the inspiration lasts throughout; but in most he does not take the trouble to keep up to the highest level.
I need not ask whether the opinions attributed to Scott and Shakespeare are defensible. Some people, I know, consider that 'devotion to art' is the cardinal virtue, and that it is better to turn out a good poem and starve than to write down to the public and pay your bills. That is an old controversy; but, at any rate, Shakespeare's view is in character. He was never blind to the humorist's point of view, and humour has its questionable ethical quality. It helps some people to see the charm of the 'simple faith miscalled simplicity,' and Shakespeare's cordial appreciation of a fool shows one side of an amiable disposition. But a saint can hardly be a humorist. It is his nature to take things seriously, and to believe (bold as it appears) in the power of sermons. The humorist sees with painful distinctness the folly of the wise and the weakness of the hero and the general perversity of fortune. He may be capable of enthusiasm, or, at least, sympathy with the enthusiastic; but he feels that there is always a lurking irony in the general order of things. He is specially conscious of the vanity of his own ambition, and aware that his highest success makes a very small ripple on the great ocean of existence. Shakespeare had the good (though not rare) fortune of living before his commentators. His head, therefore, was not turned, and he held, we may suppose, that to defeat the Armada was a more important bit of work than to amuse the audience at the Globe. He could feel, indeed, the irony with which fate treats the great men of action. Masterful ambitions lead to catastrophes, and in the political world, where order and subordination are the essentials, even the ideal hero who can be calm in the storm, and hold his own amidst the struggling elements, is not much the better for it personally. Henry V. is still but a man made to bear the blame of all mishap, and 'subject to the breath of every fool.' He has nothing to show for it, 'save ceremony,' and cannot sleep so soundly as the vacant-minded slave. So the Spanish minister is said to have told the king: 'Your Majesty is but a ceremony,' an essential part, indeed, of the framework of the State, but not superior in personal happiness to the ordinary human being.
That, it seems to me, points to the most obvious solution of the supposed contrast between the man and the author. Nobody was more keenly alive to every variety of enjoyment, or more capable of sympathising with the passions and ambitions of all the amazingly vigorous life that was going on around him. He can be poet and lover and sportsman, a boon companion, and watch the great game that is played in the court or in the wars. He can act as they come every part in Jaques' famous speech, always with an eye to the end of the strange, eventful history; take everything as it comes, and yet ask, 'What is it worth?' Never forget, he seems to have replied, that life is very short, and man very small, and the pleasure of each stage in it always has drawbacks, and will disappear altogether as the powers decline. And by the time you are fifty it will be well to have a comfortable little place of your own in the quiet country town endeared by youthful memories.
If everything that I have said should be granted, there would be great gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare. We could only fill them by the help of data no longer ascertainable. We do not know what scrapes he may have got into; only that he must have got out of them: nor how much he cared for his wife and children, or how he behaved in business transactions, or whether he was too obsequious to his patrons. If such questions could be answered we might know a great deal more of him. Yet I think also that some very distinct personal qualities are sufficiently implied. Shakespeare's life suggests a problem. We have, on the one hand, a man abnormally sensitive to all manner of emotions, and having an unrivalled power of sympathy with every passion of human nature. On the other hand, though exposed to all the temptations of a most exciting 'environment,' he accomplishes a prosperous and outwardly commonplace career. He could emerge from the grosser element, no doubt, because his powers of intellect and imagination raised him above the level of the sensualist whose tastes he sometimes condescended to gratify. But he could not be a Puritan, because their stern morality was radically opposed to the æsthetic enjoyment to which he was most sensitive. He cared little for the æstheticism of a different and more sentimental type, which condemns as worldly the great passions and emotions which are the really moving forces of the world. He sympathises far too heartily with human loves and hatreds and political ambitions. But then he cannot, like Marlowe or Chapman, sympathise unequivocally with the heroic when it becomes excessive and over-strained. The power of humour keeps him from the bombastic and the affected, and he sees the facts of life too clearly not to be aware of the vanity of human wishes, the disappointments of successful ambition and the emptiness of its supposed rewards. He is profoundly conscious of the pettiness of human life and of the irony of fate—of which, indeed, he had plenty of instances before him. This, I fancy, implies personal characteristics which fall in very well, so far as they can be grasped, with what we know of the life. Be a Romeo while you can; love is delightful when you are young; only, think twice before you buy your dram of poison. As you grow older be a soldier, a hero, or a statesman, or, if you can be nothing better, be a playwright, so long as the inspiration comes with spontaneous and overpowering force. But always remember to keep your passions in check, and don't forget that the prize, even if you win it, may turn to ashes in your mouth. Fate is always playing ugly tricks, punishing the reckless, and exposing illusions. The struggle is fascinating while it lasts because it rouses the energies; but when the energies decay the position which it has won loses its charm. Literary glory, though one may talk about it in sonnets, is a trifle. Your rivals are many of them very good fellows, and make excellent society; it is both pleasant and prudent to be on good terms with them, and nothing is so contemptible as the rivalry of authors. But, after all, success only means a position among jealous dependants of great men, who themselves are very apt to get into the Tower and even to the scaffold. When youthful passions have grown feeble, and the delight of being applauded by the mob has rather palled upon one, the best thing will be to break one's magical wand and sit down with, we will hope, 'good Mistress Hall' for a satisfactory Miranda, at Stratford-upon-Avon. Though we can no longer write ballads to our mistress' eyebrow, we can heartily appreciate gentle, pure and obedient womanhood, and may hope that some specimens may be found, while we still enjoy a chat and a convivial meeting with an old theatrical friend. This view of life suggests, I think, a very real person, and does not go beyond what is substantially admitted by literary critics.