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SHAKESPEARE AND ARISTOTLE
political philosophy he means the ethics of civil society, which are hardly distinguishable from what is commonly called "morals." The maxim, in the slightly irregular shape which Shakespeare adopted, enjoyed proverbial currency before the dramatist was born. Erasmus introduced it in this form into his far-famed Colloquies. In France and Italy the warning against instructing youth in moral philosophy was popularly accepted as an Aristotelian injunction. Sceptics about the obvious Shakespearean tradition have made much of the circumstance that Bacon, who cited the aphorism from Aristotle in his Advancement of Learning, substituted, like Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida, the epithet "moral" for "political." The proverbial currency of the emendation deprives the coincidence of point.
The repetition of a proverbial phrase, indirectly drawn from Aristotle, combined with the absence of other references to the Greek philosopher, renders improbable Shakespeare's personal acquaintance with his work. In any case, the bare mention of the name of Aristotle implies nothing in this connection. It was a popular synonym for ancient learning. It was as often on the lips of Elizabethans as Bacon's name is on the lips of men and women of to-day, and it would be rash to infer that those who carelessly and casually mentioned Bacon's name today knew Bacon's writings or philosophic theories at first hand.
No evidence is forthcoming that Shakespeare knew in any solid sense aught of philosophy of the formal scientific kind. On scientific philosophy, and on natural science, Shakespeare probably looked with suspicion. He expressed no high opinion of
astronomers, who pursue the most imposing of all branches of scientific speculation.
Small have continual plodders ever won,
This is a characteristically poetic attitude; it is the antithesis of the scientific attitude. Formal logic excited Shakespeare's disdain even more conspicuously. In the mouths of his professional fools he places many reductions to absurdity of what he calls the "simple syllogism." He invests the term "chop-logic" with the significance of foolery in excelsis.1 Again, metaphysics, in any formal sense, were clearly not of Shakespeare's world. On one occasion he wrote of the topic round which most metaphysical speculation revolves:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
-The Tempest, IV., i., 156-8.
1 The speeches of the clown in Twelfth Night are particularly worthy of study for the satiric adroitness with which they expose the quibbling futility of syllogistic logic. Cf. Act I., Scene V., 11. 43-57:
Olivia. Go to, you're a dry fool; I'll no more of you: besides you grow dishonest.
Clown. Two faults, Madonna, that drink and good counsel will amend: for give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry: bid the dishonest man mend himself; if he mend, he is no longer dishonest; if he cannot, let the botcher mend him. Anything that's mended is but patched: virtue that transgresses is but patched with sin; and sin that amends is but patched with virtue. If that this simple syllogism will serve, so; if it will not, what remedy?
SHAKESPEARE AND METAPHYSICS
Such a theory of human life is first-rate poetry; it is an illuminating figure of poetic speech. But the simplicity with which the theme is presented, to the exclusion of many material issues, puts the statement out of the plane of metaphysical disquisition, which involves subtle conflict of argument and measured resolution of doubt, rather than imaginative certainty or unconditional assertion. Nor is Hamlet's famous soliloquy on the merits and demerits of suicide conceived in the spirit of the metaphysician. It is a dramatic description of a familiar phase of emotional depression; it explains nothing; it propounds no theory. It reflects a state of feeling; it breathes that torturing spirit of despondency which kills all hope of mitigating either the known ills of life or the imagined terrors of death.
The faint, shadowy glimpses which Shakespeare had of scientific philosophy gave him small respect for it. Like the typical hard-headed Englishman, he doubted its practical efficacy. Shakespeare viewed all formal philosophy much as Dr Johnson's Rasselas, whose faith in it dwindled, when he perceived that the professional philosopher, who preached superiority to all human frailties and weaknesses, succumbed to them at the first provocation.
There are more things in heaven and earth
For there was never yet philosopher
1 Hamlet, I., v., 166-7.
2 Much Ado About Nothing, V., i., 35-6.
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
SHAKESPEARE'S INTUITIVE FACULTY
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