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The Porter does not make me smile: the moment is too terrific. He is grotesque; no doubt the contrast he affords is humorous as well as ghastly; I dare say the groundlings roared with laughter at his coarsest remarks. But they are not comic enough to allow one to forget for a moment what has preceded and what must follow. And I am far from complaining of this. I believe that it is what Shakespeare intended, and that he despised the groundlings if they laughed. Of course he could have written without the least difficulty speeches five times as humorous; but he knew better. The Grave-diggers make us laugh: the old Countryman who brings the asps to Cleopatra makes us smile at least. But the Grave-digger scene does not come at a moment of extreme tension; and it is long. Our distress for Ophelia is not so absorbing that we refuse to be interested in the man who digs her grave, or even continue throughout the long conversation to remember always with pain that the grave is hers. It is fitting, therefore, that he should be made decidedly humorous. The passage in Antony and Cleopatra is much nearer to the passage in Macbeth, and seems to have been forgotten by those who say that there is nothing in Shakespeare resembling that passage. The old Countryman comes at a moment of tragic exaltation, and the dialogue is appropriately brief. But the moment, though tragic, is emphatically one of exaltation. We have not been feeling horror, nor are we feeling a dreadful suspense. We are going to see Cleopatra die, but she is to die gloriously and to triumph over Octavius. And therefore our amusement at the old Countryman and the contrast he affords to these high passions, is untroubled, and it was right to make him really comic. But the Porter's case is quite different. We cannot forget how the knocking that makes him grumble sounded to Macbeth, or that within a few minutes of his opening the gate Duncan will be discovered in his blood; nor can we help feeling that in pretending to be porter of hell-gate he is terribly near the truth. To give him language so humorous that it would ask us almost to lose the sense of these things would have been a fatal mistake,--the kind of mistake that means want of dramatic imagination. And that was not the sort of error into which Shakespeare fell.
To doubt the genuineness of the passage, then, on the ground that it is not humorous enough for Shakespeare, seems to me to show this want. It is to judge the passage as though it were a separate composition, instead of conceiving it in the fulness of its relations to its surroundings in a stage-play. Taken by itself, I admit, it would bear no indubitable mark of Shakespeare's authorship, not even in the phrase 'the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire,' which Coleridge thought Shakespeare might have added to an interpolation of 'the players.' And if there were reason (as in my judgment there is not) to suppose that Shakespeare thus permitted an interpolation, or that he collaborated with another author, I could believe that he left 'the players' or his collaborator to write the words of the passage. But that anyone except the author of the scene of Duncan's murder conceived the passage, is incredible.
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The speeches of the Porter, a low comic character, are in prose. So is the letter of Macbeth to his wife. In both these cases Shakespeare follows his general rule or custom. The only other prose-speeches occur in the sleep-walking scene, and here the use of prose may seem strange. For in great tragic scenes we expect the more poetic medium of expression, and this is one of the most famous of such scenes. Besides, unless I mistake, Lady Macbeth is the only one of Shakespeare's great tragic characters who on a last appearance is denied the dignity of verse.
Yet in this scene also he adheres to his custom. Somnambulism is an abnormal condition, and it is his general rule to assign prose to persons whose state of mind is abnormal. Thus, to illustrate from these four plays, Hamlet when playing the madman speaks prose, but in soliloquy, in talking with Horatio, and in pleading with his mother, he speaks verse. Ophelia in her madness either sings snatches of songs or speaks prose. Almost all Lear's speeches, after he has become definitely insane, are in prose: where he wakes from sleep recovered, the verse returns. The prose enters with that speech which closes with his trying to tear off his clothes; but he speaks in verse--some of it very irregular--in the Timon-like speeches where his intellect suddenly in his madness seems to regain the force of his best days (IV. vi.). Othello, in IV. i., speaks in verse till the moment when Iago tells him that Cassio has confessed. There follow ten lines of prose--exclamations and mutterings of bewildered horror--and he falls to the ground unconscious.
The idea underlying this custom of Shakespeare's evidently is that the regular rhythm of verse would be inappropriate where the mind is supposed to have lost its balance and to be at the mercy of chance impressions coming from without (as sometimes with Lear), or of ideas emerging from its unconscious depths and pursuing one another across its passive surface. The somnambulism of Lady Macbeth is such a condition. There is no rational connection in the sequence of images and ideas. The sight of blood on her hand, the sound of the clock striking the hour for Duncan's murder, the hesitation of her husband before that hour came, the vision of the old man in his blood, the idea of the murdered wife of Macduff, the sight of the hand again, Macbeth's 'flaws and starts' at the sight of Banquo's ghost, the smell on her hand, the washing of hands after Duncan's murder again, her husband's fear of the buried Banquo, the sound of the knocking at the gate--these possess her, one after another, in this chance order. It is not much less accidental than the order of Ophelia's ideas; the great difference is that with Ophelia total insanity has effaced or greatly weakened the emotional force of the ideas, whereas to Lady Macbeth each new image or perception comes laden with anguish. There is, again, scarcely a sign of the exaltation of disordered imagination; we are conscious rather of an intense suffering which forces its way into light against resistance, and speaks a language for the most part strikingly bare in its diction and simple in its construction. This language stands in strong contrast with that of Macbeth in the surrounding scenes, full of a feverish and almost furious excitement, and seems to express a far more desolating misery.
The effect is extraordinarily impressive. The soaring pride and power of Lady Macbeth's first speeches return on our memory, and the change is felt with a breathless awe. Any attempt, even by Shakespeare, to draw out the moral enfolded in this awe, would but weaken it. For the moment, too, all the language of poetry--even of Macbeth's poetry--seems to be touched with unreality, and these brief toneless sentences seem the only voice of truth.
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