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This book has grown out of a series of articles contributed to "The Saturday Review" some ten or twelve years ago. As they appeared they were talked of and criticized in the usual way; a minority of readers thought "the stuff" interesting; many held that my view of Shakespeare was purely arbitrary; others said I had used a concordance to such purpose that out of the mass of words I had managed, by virtue of some unknown formula, to re-create the character of the man.

The truth is much simpler: I read Shakespeare's plays in boyhood, chiefly for the stories; every few years later I was fain to re-read them; for as I grew I always found new beauties in them which I had formerly missed, and again and again I was lured back by tantalizing hints and suggestions of a certain unity underlying the diversity of characters. These suggestions gradually became more definite till at length, out of the myriad voices in the plays, I began to hear more and more insistent the accents of one voice, and out of the crowd of faces, began to distinguish more and more clearly the features of the writer; for all the world like some lovelorn girl, who, gazing with her soul in her eyes, finds in the witch's cauldron the face of the belovèd.

I have tried in this book to trace the way I followed, step by step; for I found it effective to rough in the chief features of the man first, and afterwards, taking the plays in succession, to show how Shakespeare painted himself at full-length not once, but twenty times, at as many different periods of his life. This is one reason why he is more interesting to us than the greatest men of the past, than Dante even, or Homer; for Dante and Homer worked only at their best in the flower of manhood. Shakespeare, on the other hand, has painted himself for us in his green youth with hardly any knowledge of life or art, and then in his eventful maturity, with growing experience and new powers, in masterpiece after masterpiece; and at length in his decline with weakened grasp and fading colours, so that in him we can study the growth and fruiting and decay of the finest spirit that has yet been born among men. This tragedy of tragedies, in which "Lear" is only one scene--this rise to intensest life and widest vision and fall through abysms of despair and madness to exhaustion and death--can be followed experience by experience, from Stratford to London and its thirty years of passionate living, and then from London to village Stratford again, and the eternal shrouding silence.

As soon as this astonishing drama discovered itself to me in its tragic completeness I jumped to the conclusion that it must have been set forth long ago in detail by Shakespeare's commentators, and so, for the first time, I turned to their works. I do not wish to rail at my forerunners as Carlyle railed at the historians of Cromwell, or I should talk, as he talked, about "libraries of inanities...conceited dilettantism and pedantry...prurient stupidity," and so forth. The fact is, I found all this, and worse; I waded through tons of talk to no result. Without a single exception the commentators have all missed the man and the story; they have turned the poet into a tradesman, and the unimaginable tragedy of his life into the commonplace record of a successful tradesman's career. Even to explain this astounding misadventure of the host of critics is a little difficult. The mistake, of course, arose from the fact that his contemporaries told very little about Shakespeare; they left his appearance and even the incidents of his life rather vague. Being without a guide, and having no clear idea of Shakespeare's character, the critics created him in their own image, and, whenever they were in doubt, idealized him according to the national type.

Still, there was at least one exception. Some Frenchman, I think it is Joubert, says that no great man is born into the world without another man being born about the same time, who understands and can interpret him, and Shakespeare was of necessity singularly fortunate in his interpreter. Ben Jonson was big enough to see him fairly, and to give excellent-true testimony concerning him. Jonson's view of Shakespeare is astonishingly accurate and trustworthy so far as it goes; even his attitude of superiority to Shakespeare is fraught with meaning. Two hundred years later, the rising tide of international criticism produced two men, Goethe and Coleridge, who also saw Shakespeare, if only by glimpses, or rather by divination of kindred genius, recognizing certain indubitable traits. Goethe's criticism of "Hamlet" has been vastly over-praised; but now and then he used words about Shakespeare which, in due course, we shall see were illuminating words, the words of one who guessed something of the truth. Coleridge, too, with his curious, complex endowment of philosopher and poet, resembled Shakespeare, saw him, therefore, by flashes, and might have written greatly about him; but, alas, Coleridge, a Puritan born, was brought up in epicene hypocrisies, and determined to see Shakespeare--that child of the Renascence--as a Puritan, too, and consequently mis-saw him far oftener than he saw him; misjudged him hideously, and had no inkling of his tragic history.

There is a famous passage in Coleridge's "Essays on Shakespeare" which illustrates what I mean. It begins: "In Shakespeare all the elements of womanhood are holy"; and goes on to eulogize the instinct of chastity which all his women possess, and this in spite of Doll Tearsheet, Tamora, Cressida, Goneril, Regan, Cleopatra, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, and many other frail and fascinating figures. Yet whatever gleam of light has fallen on Shakespeare since Coleridge's day has come chiefly from that dark lantern which he now and then flashed upon the master.

In one solitary respect, our latter-day criticism has been successful; it has established with very considerable accuracy the chronology of the plays, and so the life-story of the poet is set forth in due order for those to read who can.

This then is what I found--a host of commentators who saw men as trees walking, and mistook plain facts, and among them one authentic witness, Jonson, and two interesting though not trustworthy witnesses, Goethe and Coleridge--and nothing more in three centuries. The mere fact may well give us pause, pointing as it does to a truth which is still insufficiently understood. It is the puzzle of criticism, at once the despair and wonder of readers, that the greatest men of letters usually pass through life without being remarked or understood by their contemporaries. The men of Elizabeth's time were more interested in Jonson than in Shakespeare, and have told us much more about the younger than the greater master; just as Spaniards of the same age were more interested in Lope de Vega than in Cervantes, and have left a better picture of the second-rate playwright than of the world-poet. Attempting to solve this problem Emerson coolly assumed that the men of the Elizabethan age were so great that Shakespeare himself walked about among them unnoticed as a giant among giants. This reading of the riddle is purely transcendental. We know that Shakespeare's worst plays were far oftener acted than his best; that "Titus Andronicus" by popular favour was more esteemed than "Hamlet." The majority of contemporary poets and critics regarded Shakespeare rather as a singer of "sugred" verses than as a dramatist. The truth is that Shakespeare passed through life unnoticed because he was so much greater than his contemporaries that they could not see him at all in his true proportions. It was Jonson, the nearest to him in greatness, who alone saw him at all fairly and appreciated his astonishing genius.

Nothing illustrates more perfectly the unconscious wisdom of the English race than the old saying that "a man must be judged by his peers." One's peers, in fact, are the only persons capable of judging one, and the truth seems to be that three centuries have only produced three men at all capable of judging Shakespeare. The jury is still being collected. But from the quality of the first three, and of their praise, it is already plain that his place will be among the highest. From various indications, too, it looks as if the time for judging him had come: "Hamlet" is perhaps his most characteristic creation, and Hamlet, in his intellectual unrest, morbid brooding, cynical self-analysis and dislike of bloodshed, is much more typical of the nineteenth or twentieth century than of the sixteenth. Evidently the time for classifying the creator of Hamlet is at hand.

And this work of description and classification should be done as a scientist would do it: for criticism itself has at length bent to the Time-spirit and become scientific. And just as in science, analysis for the moment has yielded pride of place to synthesis, so the critical movement in literature has in our time become creative. The chemist, who resolves any substance into its elements, is not satisfied till by synthesis he can re-create the substance out of its elements: this is the final proof that his knowledge is complete. And so we care little or nothing to-day for critical analyses or appreciations which are not creative presentments of the person. "Paint him for us," we say, "in his habit as he lived, and we will take it that you know something about him."

One of the chief attempts at creative criticism in English literature, or, perhaps it would be fairer to say, the only memorable attempt, is Carlyle's Cromwell. He has managed to build up the man for us quite credibly out of Cromwell's letters and speeches, showing us the underlying sincerity and passionate resolution of the great Puritan once for all. But unfortunately Carlyle was too romantic an artist, too persuaded in his hero-worship to discover for us Cromwell's faults and failings. In his book we find nothing of the fanatic who ordered the Irish massacres, nothing of the neuropath who lived in hourly dread of assassination. Carlyle has painted his subject all in lights, so to speak; the shadows are not even indicated, and yet he ought to have known that in proportion to the brilliancy of the light the shadows must of necessity be dark. It is not for me to point out that this romantic painting of great men, like all other make-believes and hypocrisies, has its drawbacks and shortcomings: it is enough that it has had its day and produced its pictures of giant-heroes and their worshippers for those who love such childish toys.

The wonderful age in which we live--this twentieth century with its X-rays that enable us to see through the skin and flesh of men, and to study the working of their organs and muscles and nerves--has brought a new spirit into the world, a spirit of fidelity to fact, and with it a new and higher ideal of life and of art, which must of necessity change and transform all the conditions of existence, and in time modify the almost immutable nature of man. For this new spirit, this love of the fact and of truth, this passion for reality will do away with the foolish fears and futile hopes which have fretted the childhood of our race, and will slowly but surely establish on broad foundations the Kingdom of Man upon Earth. For that is the meaning and purpose of the change which is now coming over the world. The faiths and convictions of twenty centuries are passing away and the forms and institutions of a hundred generations of men are dissolving before us like the baseless fabric of a dream. A new morality is already shaping itself in the spirit; a morality based not on guess-work and on fancies; but on ascertained laws of moral health; a scientific morality belonging not to statics, like the morality of the Jews, but to dynamics, and so fitting the nature of each individual person. Even now conscience with its prohibitions is fading out of life, evolving into a more profound consciousness of ourselves and others, with multiplied incitements to wise giving. The old religious asceticism with its hatred of the body is dead; the servile acceptance of conditions of life and even of natural laws is seen to be vicious; it is of the nobility of man to be insatiate in desire and to rebel against limiting conditions; it is the property of his intelligence to constrain even the laws of nature to the attainment of his ideal.

Already we are proud of being students, investigators, servants of truth, and we leave the great names of demi-gods and heroes a little contemptuously to the men of bygone times. As student-artists we are no longer content with the outward presentment and form of men: we want to discover the protean vanities, greeds and aspirations of men, and to lay bare, as with a scalpel, the hidden motives and springs of action. We dream of an art that shall take into account the natural daily decay and up-building of cell-life; the wars that go on in the blood; the fevers of the brain; the creeping paralysis of nerve-exhaustion; above all, we must be able even now from a few bare facts, to re-create a man and make him live and love again for the reader, just as the biologist from a few scattered bones can reconstruct some prehistoric bird or fish or mammal.

And we student-artists have no desire to paint our subject as better or nobler or smaller or meaner than he was in reality; we study his limitations as we study his gifts, his virtues with as keen an interest as his vices; for it is in some excess of desire, or in some extravagance of mentality, that we look for the secret of his achievement, just as we begin to wonder when we see hands constantly outstretched in pious supplication, whether a foot is not thrust out behind in some secret shame, for the biped, man, must keep a balance.

I intend first of all to prove from Shakespeare's works that he has painted himself twenty times from youth till age at full length: I shall consider and compare these portraits till the outlines of his character are clear and certain; afterwards I shall show how his little vanities and shames idealized the picture, and so present him as he really was, with his imperial intellect and small snobberies; his giant vices and paltry self-deceptions; his sweet gentleness and long martyrdom. I cannot but think that his portrait will thus gain more in truth than it can lose in ideal beauty. Or let me come nearer to my purpose by means of a simile. Talking with Sir David Gill one evening on shipboard about the fixed stars, he pointed one out which is so distant that we cannot measure how far it is away from us and can form no idea of its magnitude. "But surely," I exclaimed, "the great modern telescopes must bring the star nearer and magnify it?" "No," he replied, "no; the best instruments make the star clearer to us, but certainly not larger." This is what I wish to do in regard to Shakespeare; make him clearer to men, even if I do not make him larger.

And if I were asked why I do this, why I take the trouble to re-create a man now three centuries dead, it is first of all, of course, because he is worth it--the most complex and passionate personality in the world, whether of life or letters--because, too, there are certain lessons which the English will learn from Shakespeare more quickly and easily than from any living man, and a little because I want to get rid of Shakespeare by assimilating all that was fine in him, while giving all that was common and vicious in him as spoil to oblivion. He is like the Old-Man-of-the-Sea on the shoulders of our youth; he has become an obsession to the critic, a weapon to the pedant, a nuisance to the man of genius. True, he has painted great pictures in a superb, romantic fashion; he is the Titian of dramatic art: but is there to be no Rembrandt, no Balzac, no greater Tolstoi in English letters? I want to liberate Englishmen so far as I can from the tyranny of Shakespeare's greatness. For the new time is upon us, with its new knowledge and new claims, and we English are all too willing to live in the past, and so lose our inherited place as leader of the nations.

The French have profited by their glorious Revolution: they trusted reason and have had their reward; no such leap forward has ever been made as France made in that one decade, and the effects are still potent. In the last hundred years the language of Molière has grown fourfold; the slang of the studios and the gutter and the laboratory, of the engineering school and the dissecting table, has been ransacked for special terms to enrich and strengthen the language in order that it may deal easily with the new thoughts. French is now a superb instrument, while English is positively poorer than it was in the time of Shakespeare, thanks to the prudery of our illiterate middle class. Divorced from reality, with its activities all fettered in baby-linen, our literature has atrophied and dwindled into a babble of nursery rhymes, tragedies of Little Marys, tales of Babes in a Wood. The example of Shakespeare may yet teach us the value of free speech; he could say what he liked as he liked: he was not afraid of the naked truth and the naked word, and through his greatness a Low Dutch dialect has become the chiefest instrument of civilization, the world-speech of humanity at large.

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     Shakespeare's Plays and Other Works - The Tragedies - The Comedies - The Histories - The Sonnets - The Life of Shakespeare - The Times of William Shakespeare - The Characters from Shakespeare - Stories and Plots - Quotes from Shakespeare - Doubtful Works
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