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SHAKESPEARE'S MORAL SENSE
of his age to speak more plainly of many topics about which polite lips are nowadays silent. But Shakespeare's coarsenesses do no injury to the healthyminded. They do not encourage evil propensities. Wickedness is always wickedness in Shakespeare, and never deludes the spectator by masquerading as something else. His plays never present problems as to whether vice is not after all in certain conditions the sister of virtue. Shakespeare never shows vice in the twilight, nor leaves the spectator or reader in doubt as to what its features precisely are. Vice injures him who practises it in the Shakespearean world, and ultimately proves his ruin. One cannot play with vice with impunity.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
It is not because Shakespeare is a conscious moralist, that the wheel comes full circle in his dramatic world. It is because his sense of art is involuntarily coloured by a profound conviction of the ultimate justice which governs the operations of human nature and society.
Shakespeare argues, in effect, that a man reaps as he sows. It may be contended that Nature does not always work in strict accord with this Shakespearean canon, and that Shakespeare thereby shows himself more of a deliberate moralist than Nature herself. But the dramatist idealises or generalises human experience; he does not reproduce it literally. There is nothing in the 'Shakespearean canon that runs directly counter to the idealised or generalised experience of the outer world. The wicked and the foolish, the intemperate and the over-passionate, reach in Shakespeare's world that disastrous goal,
which nature at large keeps in reserve for them and only by rare accident suffers them to evade. The father who brings up his children badly and yet expects every dutiful consideration from them is only in rare conditions spared the rude awakening which overwhelms King Lear. The jealous husband who wrongly suspects his wife of infidelity commonly suffers the fate either of Othello or of Leontes.
Shakespeare regards it as the noblest ambition in man to master his own destiny. There are numerous passages in which the dramatist figures as an absolute and uncompromising champion of the freedom of the will. ""Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus," says one of his characters, Iago; "Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners." Edmond says much the same in King Lear when he condemns as "the excellent foppery of the world" the ascription to external influences of all our faults and misfortunes, whereas they proceed from our wilful, deliberate choice of the worser way. Repeatedly does Shakespeare assert that we are useful or useless members of society according as we will it ourselves.
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie
Which we ascribe to heaven; the fated sky
says Helena in All's Well (I., i., 231–3).
Men at some time are masters of their fates,
says Cassius in Julius Cæsar (I., ii., 139–41);
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves that we are underlings.
THE FREEDOM OF THE WILL
Hereditary predispositions, the accidents of environment, are not insuperable; they can be neutralised by force of will, by character. Character is omnipotent.
The self-sufficing, imperturbable will is the ideal possession, beside which all else in the world is valueless. But the quest of it is difficult, and success in the pursuit is rare. Mastery of the will is the result of a rare conjunction-a perfect commingling of blood and judgment. Without such harmonious union man is "a pipe"-a musical instrument-"for Fortune's finger to sound what stop she pleases." Man can only work out his own salvation when he can control his passions and can take with equal thanks Fortune's buffets or rewards.
The best of men is
Spare in diet
Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger,
Whom passion could not shake-whose solid virtue
-Othello, IV., i., 176–9.
Stability of temperament is the finest fruit of the free exercise of the will; it is the noblest of masculine excellences.
Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In spite of his many beautiful portrayals of the charms and tenderness and innocence of womanhood, Shakespeare had less hope in the ultimate capacity, of women to control their destiny than in the ultimate capacity of men. The greatest of his female crea
tions, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, stand in a category of their own. They do not lack high power of will, even if they are unable so to commingle blood and judgment as to master fate.
Elsewhere, the dramatist seems to betray private suspicion of the normal woman's volitional capacity by applying to her heart and mind the specific epithet "waxen." The feminine mind takes the impress of its environment as easily as wax takes the impress of a seal. In two passages where this simile is employed,1 the deduction from it is pressed to the furthest limit, and free-will is denied women altogether. Feminine susceptibility is pronounced to be incurable; wavering, impressionable emotion is a main constituent of woman's being; women are not responsible for the sins they commit nor the wrongs they endure.
This is reactionary doctrine, and one of the few points in Shakespeare's "natural" philosophy which invites dissent. But he makes generous amends by ascribing to women a plentiful supply of humour. No writer has proclaimed more effectively his faith in woman's brilliance of wit nor in her quickness of apprehension.
1 For men have marble, women waxen minds,
How easy it is for the proper-false
-Twelfth Night, II., ii., 31.
Despite the solemnity which attaches to Shakespeare's philosophic reflections, he is at heart an optimist and a humorist. He combines with his serious thought a thorough joy in life, an irremovable preference for the bright over the dismal side of things. The creator of Falstaff and Mercutio, of Beatrice and the Princess in Love's Labour's Lost, could hardly fail to set store by that gaiety of spirit which is the antidote to unreasoning discontent, and keeps society in good savour.
Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous,
is the voice of Shakespeare as well as of Sir Toby Belch. The dramatist was at one with Rosalind, his offspring, when she told Jaques:—
I had rather have a fool to make me merry,
Than experience to make me sad.
The same sanguine optimistic temper constantly strikes a more impressive note.
There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
is a comprehensive maxim, which sounds as if it came straight from Shakespeare's lips. This battlecry of invincible optimism is uttered in the play by Shakespeare's favourite hero, Henry V. It is hard to quarrel with the inference that these words convey the ultimate verdict of the dramatist on human affairs.