Abbildungen der Seite

Such phrases sum up Shakespeare's habitual bearing to formal philosophy. The consideration of causes, first principles, abstract truths never, in the dramatist's opinion, cured a human ill. The futility of formal philosophy stands, from this point of view, in no further need of demonstration.


But it is permissible to use the words philosopher and philosophy, without scientific precision or significance, in the popular inaccurate senses of shrewd observer and observation of life. By philosophy we may understand common-sense wisdom about one's fellow-men, their aspirations, their failures and successes. As soon as we employ the word in that significance, we must allow that few men were better philosophers than Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is what Touchstone calls the shepherd in As You Like It—"a natural philosopher” -an observer by light of nature, an acute expositor of phases of human life and feeling. Character, thought, passion, emotion, form the raw material of which ethical or metaphysical systems are made. The poet's contempt for formal ethical or metaphysical theory co-existed with a searching knowledge of the ultimate foundations of all systematised philosophic structures. The range of fact or knowledge within which the formal theorist speculates in the fields of ethics, logic, metaphysics, or psychology, is, indeed, very circumscribed when it is compared with the region of observation and experience, over which Shakespeare exerted complete mastery.

Almost every aspect of life Shakespeare portrays



with singular evenness of insight. He saw life whole. The web of life always presented itself to him as a mingled yarn, good and ill together. He did not stay to reconcile its contradictions. He adduces a wealth of evidence touching ethical experience. It may be that the patient scrutiny of formal philosophers can alone reveal the full significance of his harvest. But the dramatist's exposition of the workings of virtue or vice have no recondite intention. Shakespeare was no patient scholar, who deliberately sought to extend the limits of human knowledge. With unrivalled ease and celerity he digested, in the recesses of his consciousness, the fruit of personal observation and reading. His aim was to depict only conscious human conduct and human thought. He interpreted them unconsciously, by virtue of an involuntary intuition.

Shakespeare's intuition pierces life at the lowest as well as at the highest level of experience. It is coloured by delicate imaginative genius as well as by robust and practical worldliness. Not his writings only, but the facts of his private life-his mode of managing his private property, for example attest his alert knowledge of the material and practical affairs of human existence. Idealism and realism in perfect development were interwoven with the texture of his mind.

Shakespeare was qualified by mental endowment for success in any career. He was by election a dramatist and, necessarily, one of unmatched versatility. His intuitive faculty enabled him, after regarding life from any point of view that he willed, to depict through the mouths of his characters the chosen phase of life in convincing, harmonious accord with his characters' individual circumstances and experiences. No obvious trace of his own personal circumstance or experience was suffered to emerge in the utterances of his characters, who lived for the moment in his brain. It is a commonplace to credit Shakespeare with supreme dramatic instinct. It is difficult fully to realise the significance of that attribute. It means that he could contract or expand at will and momentarily his own personality, so that it coincided exactly, now with a self-indulgent humorist like Falstaff, now with an introspective student like Hamlet, now with a cynical criminal like Iago, now with a high-spirited girl like Rosalind, now with an ambitious woman like Lady Macbeth, and then with a hundred more characters hardly less distinctive than these. It means that he could contrive the coincidence so absolutely as to leave no loophole for the introduction, into the several dramatic utterances, of any sentiment that should not be on the face of it adapted by right of nature to the speaker's idiosyncrasies. That was Shakespeare's power. It is a power of which the effects are far easier to recognise than the causes or secret of operation.

In the present connection it is happily only necessary to dwell on Shakespeare's dramatic instinct in order to guard against the peril of dogmatising from his works about his private opinions. So various and conflicting are Shakespeare's dramatic pronouncements on phases of experience that it is difficult and dangerous to affirm which pronouncements, if any, present most closely his personal sentiment. He fitted the lips of his dramatis personce with speeches and sentiments so peculiarly



adapted to them as to show no one quite undisputed sign of their creator's personality.

Yet there are occasions when, without detracting from the omnipotence of Shakespeare's dramatic instinct, one may tentatively infer that Shakespeare gave voice through his created personages to sentiments which were his own. The Shakespearean drama must incorporate somewhere within its vast limits the personal thoughts and passions of its creator, even although they are for the most part absorbed past recognition in the mighty mass, and no critical chemistry can with confidence disentangle them. At any rate, there are in the plays many utterances-ethical utterances, or observations conceived in the spirit of "a natural philosopher”— which are repeated to much the same effect at different periods of the poet's career. These reiterated opinions frequently touch the conditions of wellbeing or calamity in civilised society; they often deal with man in civic or social relation with his neighbour; they define the capabilities of his will. It is unlikely that observations of this nature would be repeated if the sentiments they embody were out of harmony with the author's private conviction. Often we shall not strain a point or do our critical sense much violence if we assume that these recurring thoughts are Shakespeare's own. I purpose to call attention to a few of those which bear on large questions of government and citizenship and human volition. Involuntarily, they form the framework of a political and moral philosophy, which for cleareyed sanity is without rival.

III Shakespeare's political philosophy is instinct with the loftiest moral sense. Directly or indirectly, he defines many times the essential virtues and the inevitable temptations which attach to persons exercising legalised authority over their fellow-men. The topic always seems to stir in Shakespeare his most serious tone of thought and word. No one, in fact, has conceived a higher standard of public virtue and public duty than Shakespeare. His intuition rendered him tolerant of human imperfection. He is always in kindly sympathy with failure, with suffering, with the oppressed. Consequently he brings at the outset into clearer relief than professed political philosophers, the saving quality of mercy in rulers of men. Twice Shakespeare pleads in almost identical terms, through the mouths of created characters, for generosity on the part of governors of states towards those who sin against law. In both cases he places his argument, with significant delicacy, on the lips of women. comparatively early period in his career as dramatist, in The Merchant of Venice, Portia first gave voice to the political virtue of compassion. At a much later period Shakespeare set the same plea in the mouth of Isabella in Measure for Measure. The passages are too familiar to justify quotation. Very brief extracts will bring out clearly the identity of sentiment which finds definition in the two passages.

These are Portia's views of mercy on the throne (Merchant of Venice, IV., i., 188 seq.) :

'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown;

At a

[ocr errors]
« ZurückWeiter »