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Shakespeare's portraits of himself are not to be mistaken; the changes in him caused by age bring into clearer light the indestructible individuality, and no difference of circumstance or position has any effect upon this distinctive character: whether he is the lover, Romeo; the murderer, Macbeth; the courtier, Hamlet; or the warrior, Posthumus; he is always the same--a gentle yet impulsive nature, sensuous at once and meditative; half poet, half philosopher, preferring nature and his own reveries to action and the life of courts; a man physically fastidious to disgust, as is a delicate woman, with dirt and smells and common things; an idealist daintily sensitive to all courtesies, chivalries, and distinctions. The portrait is not yet complete--far from it, indeed; but already it is manifest that Shakespeare's nature was so complex, so tremulously poised between world-wide poles of poetry and philosophy, of what is individual and concrete on the one hand and what is abstract and general on the other, that the task of revealing himself was singularly difficult. It is not easy even to describe him as he painted himself: it may be that, wishing to avoid a mere catalogue of disparate qualities, I have brought into too great prominence the gentle passionate side of Shakespeare's nature; though that would be difficult and in any case no bad fault; for this is the side which has hitherto been neglected or rather overlooked by the critics.

My view of Shakespeare can be made clearer by examples. I began by taking Hamlet the philosopher as Shakespeare's most profound and complex study, and went on to prove that Hamlet is the most complete portrait which Shakespeare has given of himself, other portraits being as it were sides of Hamlet or less successful <i>replicas</i> of him; and finally I tried to complete the Hamlet by uniting him with Duke Orsino, Orsino the poet-lover being, so to speak, Shakespeare's easiest and most natural portrait. In Hamlet, if one may dare to say so, Shakespeare has discovered too much of himself: Hamlet is at one and the same time philosopher and poet, critic and courtier, lover and cynic--the extremes that Shakespeare's intellect could cover--and he fills every part so easily that he might almost be a bookish Admirable Crichton, a type of perfection rather than an individual man, were it not for his feminine gentleness and forgivingness of nature, and particularly for the brooding melancholy and disbelief which darkened Shakespeare's outlook at the time. But though the melancholy scepticism was an abiding characteristic of Shakespeare, to be found in his Richard II. as in his Prospero, it did not overshadow all his being as it does Hamlet's. There was a summer-time, too, in Shakespeare's life, and in his nature a capacity for sunny gaiety and a delight in life and love which came to full expression in the golden comedies, "Much Ado," "As You Like It" and "Twelfth Night." The complement to Hamlet the sad philosopher-sceptic is the sensuous happy poet-lover Orsino, and when we take these seeming antitheses and unite them we have a good portrait of Shakespeare. But these two, Hamlet and Orsino, are in reality one; every quality of Orsino is to be found or divined in Hamlet, and therefore the easiest and surest way to get at Shakespeare is to take Hamlet and deepen those peculiarities in him which we find in Orsino.

Some critics are sure to say that I have now given a portrait of Coleridge rather than a portrait of Shakespeare. This is not altogether the fact, though I for one see no shame in acknowledging the likeness. Coleridge had a "smack of Hamlet" in him, as he himself saw; indeed, in his rich endowment as poet and philosopher, and in his gentleness and sweetness of disposition, he was more like Shakespeare than any other Englishman whom I can think of; but in Coleridge the poet soon disappeared, and a little later the philosopher in him faded into the visionary and sophist; he became an upholder of the English Church and found reasons in the immutable constitution of the universe for aprons and shovel-hats. Shakespeare, on the other hand, though similarly endowed, was far more richly endowed: he had stronger passions and greater depth of feeling; the sensuousness of Keats was in him; and this richness of nature not only made him a greater lyric poet than Coleridge and a far saner thinker, but carried him in spite of a constitutional dislike of resolve and action to his astounding achievement.

But even when we thus compare Shakespeare with Coleridge, as we compare trees of the same species, showing that as the roots of the one go deeper and take a firmer hold of earth, so in exact measure the crest rises into higher air, still there is something lacking to our comparison. Even when we hold Hamlet-Orsino before us as the best likeness of the master-poet, our impression of him is still incomplete.

There remains a host of creations from Launce to Autolycus, and from Dame Quickly to Maria, which proves that Shakespeare was something more than the gentle lover-thinker-poet whom we have shown. It is Shakespeare's humour that differentiates him not only from Coleridge and Keats, but also from the world-poets, Goethe, Dante, and Homer. It is this unique endowment that brings him into vital touch with reality and common life, and hinders us from feeling his all-pervading ideality as disproportioned or one-sided. Strip him of his humour and he would have been seen long ago in his true proportions. His sympathies are not more broad and generous than Balzac's; his nature is too delicate, too sensitive, too sensuous; but his humour blinds us to the truth. Of course his comic characters, like his captains and men of action, are due originally to his faculty of observation; but while his observation of the fighting men is always superficial and at times indifferent, his humorous observation is so intensely interested and sympathetic that its creations are only inferior in artistic value to his portraits of the poet-philosopher-lover.

The intellect in him had little or nothing to go upon in the case of the man of action; he never loved the Captain or watched him at work; it is his mind and second-hand knowledge that made Henry V. and Richard III.; and how slight and shallow are these portraits in comparison with the portrait of a Parolles or a Sir Toby Belch, or the ever-famous Nurse, where the same intellect has played about the humorous trait and heightened the effect of loving observation. The critics who have ignorantly praised his Hotspur and Bastard as if he had been a man of deeds as well as a man of words have only obscured the truth that Shakespeare the poet-philosopher, the lover <i>quand même</i>, only reached a sane balance of nature through his overflowing humour. He whose intellect and sensibilities inspired him with nothing but contempt and loathing for the mass of mankind, the aristocrat who in a dozen plays sneers at the greasy caps and foul breaths of the multitude, fell in love with Dogberry, and Bottom, Quickly and Tearsheet, clod and clown, pimp and prostitute, for the laughter they afforded. His humour is rarely sardonic; it is almost purged of contempt; a product not of hate but of love; full of sympathy; summer-lightning humour, harmless and beautiful.

Sometimes the sympathy fails and the laughter grows grim, and these lapses are characteristic. He hates false friends and timeservers, the whole tribe of the ungrateful, the lords of Timon's acquaintance and his artists; he loathes Shylock, whose god is greed and who battens on others' misfortunes; he laughs at the self-righteous Malvolio and not with him, and takes pleasure in unmasking the pretended ascetic and Puritan Angelo; but for the frailties of the flesh he has an ever-ready forgiveness. Like the greatest of ethical teachers, he can take the publican and the sinner to his heart, but not the hypocrite or the Pharisee or the money-lender.

It does not come within the scope of this essay to attempt a detailed criticism of Shakespeare's comic characters; it will be enough for my purpose to show that even in his masterpiece of humour, the incomparable Falstaff, he betrays himself more than once: more than once we shall find Shakespeare, the poet, or Shakespeare, the thinker, speaking through Falstaff's mouth. Yet to criticize Falstaff is difficult, and if easy, it would still be an offence to those capable of gratitude. I would as soon find fault with Ariel's most exquisite lyric, or the impeccable loveliness of the "Dove Sono," as weigh the rich words of the Lord of Comedy in small balances of reason. But such considerations must not divert me from my purpose; I have undertaken to discover the very soul of Shakespeare, and I must, therefore, trace him in Falstaff as in Hamlet.

Falstaff enters and asks the Prince the time. The Prince answers that unless "hours were cups of sack and so forth, he can't understand why Falstaff should care about anything so superfluous as time." Falstaff replies: "Indeed you come near me now, Hal; for we that take purses go by the moon and the seven stars and not by Phoebus, he, 'that wandering knight so fair.'" Here we have a sort of lyrical strain in Falstaff and then a tag of poetry which gives food for thought; but his next speech is unmistakable:

"Let us be Diana's foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon; and let men say we be men of good government, being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress, the moon, under whose countenance we--steal."

This is Shakespeare speaking, and Shakespeare alone: the phrases sing to us in the unmistakable music of the master-poet, though the fall at the last to "--steal," seems to be an attempt to get into the character of Falstaff. It is, of course, difficult to make the first words of a person sharply characteristic; a writer is apt to work himself into a new character gradually; it is only the sensitive self-consciousness of our time that demands an absolute fidelity in characterization from the first word to the last. Yet this scene is so excellent and natural, that the uncertainty in the painting of Falstaff strikes me as peculiar. But this first speech is not the only speech of Falstaff in which Shakespeare betrays himself; again and again we catch the very accent of the poet. It is not Falstaff but Shakespeare who says that "the poor abuses of the time want countenance"; and later in the play, when the character of Falstaff is fully developed, it is Shakespeare, the thinker, who calls Falstaff's ragged regiment "the cankers of a calm world and a long peace." In just the same way Hamlet speaks of the expedition of Fortinbras:

"This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace, That inward breaks."

But though the belief that Shakespeare sometimes falls out of the character and slips phrases of his own into Falstaff's mouth is well-founded, it should nevertheless be put aside as a heresy, for the true faith is that the white-bearded old footpad who cheered on his fellow-ruffians with

"Strike.... Bacon-fed knaves! they hate us youth: down with them! fleece them!"

and again:

"On, bacons, on! What, ye knaves! young men must live!"

is the most splendid piece of humorous portraiture in the world's fiction.

Who but Falstaff would have found his self-justification in his youth?--<i>splendide mendax</i>! and yet the excuse is as true to his sack-heated blood when he uses it on Gadshill as it was true also to fact when he first used it forty years before. And who but Falstaff would have had the words of repentance always on his lips and never in his heart? I ascribe these illuminating flashes to Falstaff, and not to Shakespeare, for no imagination in the world has yet accomplished such a miracle; as a miracle of representment Falstaff is astonishing enough, as a miracle of creation he is simply unthinkable. I would almost as soon believe that Falstaff made Shakespeare as that Shakespeare made Falstaff without a living model. All hail to thee, inimitable, incomparable Jack! Never before or since has poet been blessed with such a teacher, as rich and laughterful, as mendacious and corrupting as life itself.

I must not be taken to mean that the living original of Falstaff was as richly humorous, as inexhaustibly diverting as the dramatic counterfeit who is now a citizen and chief personage in that world of literature which outlasts all the fleeting shows of the so-called real world. It seems to me to be possible for a good reader to notice not only Shakespeare's lapses and faults in the drawing of this character, but also to make a very fair guess at his heightening touches, and so arrive at last at the humorous old lewdster who furnished the living model for the inimitable portrait. The first scene in which Falstaff appears talking with Prince Henry will supply examples to illustrate my meaning.

Falstaff's very first speech after he asks Hal the time of day gives us the key; he ends it with:

"And I pr'ythee, sweet wag, when thou art king,--as, God save thy grace--majesty, I should say, for grace thou wilt have none,--"

Here he is interrupted and breaks off, but a minute or two later he comes back again to his argument, and curiously enough uses exactly the same words:

"But, I pr'ythee, sweet wag, shall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king? and resolution thus fobbed as it is with the rusty curb of old father Antick, the law?"

Now, this question and the hope it expresses that justice would be put to shame in England on Prince Henry's accession to the throne is taken from a speech of the Prince in the old play, "The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth." Shakespeare would have done better to leave it out, for Falstaff has far too good brains to imagine that all thieves could ever have his licence and far too much conceit ever to desire so unholy a consummation. And Shakespeare must have felt that the borrowed words were too shallow-common, for he immediately falls back on his own brains for the next phrase and gives us of his hoarded best. The second part of the question, "resolution thus fobbed," and so forth, is only another statement of the famous couplet in "Richard III.":

"Conscience is but a word that cowards use, Devised at first to keep the strong in awe."

These faults show that Shakespeare is at first unsure of his personage; he fumbles a little; yet the vivacity, the roaring life, is certainly a quality of the original Falstaff, for it attends him as constantly as his shadow; the pun, too, is his, and the phrase "sweet wag" is probably taken from his mouth, for he repeats it again, "sweet wag," and again "mad wag." The shamelessness, too, and the lechery are marks of him, and the love of witty word-warfare, and, above all, the pretended repentance:

"O, thou hast damnable iteration, and art, indeed, able to corrupt a saint. Thou hast done much harm upon me, Hal,--God forgive thee for it. Before I knew thee, Hal, I knew nothing; and now am I, if a man should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked. I must give over this life, and I will give it over; by the Lord, an I do not, I am a villain; I'll be damned for never a king's son in Christendom."

In this first scene between Falstaff and Prince Henry, Shakespeare is feeling his way, so to speak, blindfold to Falstaff, with gropings of memory and dashes of poetry that lead him past the mark. In this first scene, as we noticed, he puts fine lyric phrases in Falstaff's mouth; but he never repeats the experiment; Falstaff and high poetry are anti-podes--all of which merely proves that at first Shakespeare had not got into the skin of his personage. But the real Falstaff had probably tags of verse in memory and lilts of song, for Shakespeare repeats this trait. Here we reach the test: Whenever a feature is accentuated by repetition, we may guess that it belongs to the living model. There was assuredly a strong dash of Puritanism in the real Falstaff, for when Shakespeare comes to render this, he multiplies the brush-strokes with perfect confidence; Falstaff is perpetually repenting.

After the first scene Shakespeare seems to have made up his mind to keep closely to his model and only to permit himself heightening touches.

In order to come closer to the original, I will now take another passage later in the play, when Shakespeare is drawing Falstaff with a sure hand:

"<i>Fal</i>. A plague of all cowards, I say, and a vengeance too! marry and amen!--Give me a cup of sack, boy.-- Ere I lead this life long, I'll sew netherstocks, and mend them, and foot them, too. A plague of all cowards!-- give me a cup of sack, rogue.--Is there no virtue extant?


Here is surely the true Falstaff; he will not lead this life long; this is the soul of him; but the exquisite heightening phrase, "Is there no virtue extant?" is pure Shakespeare, Shakespeare generalizing as we saw him generalizing in just the same way in the scene where Cade is talked of in the Second Part of "King Henry VI." The form too is Shakespeare's. Who does not remember the magic line in "The Two Noble Kinsmen "?

"She is all the beauty extant."

And the next speech of Falstaff is just as illuminating:

"<i>Fal</i>. You rogue, here's lime in this sack, too; there is nothing but roguery to be found in villainous man: yet a coward is worse than a cup of sack with lime in it--a villainous coward.--Go thy ways, old Jack; die when thou wilt, if manhood, good manhood, be not forgot upon the face of the earth, then am I a shotten herring. There live not three good men unhanged in England, and one of them is fat and grows old: God help the while! A bad world I say----"

At the beginning the concrete fact, then generalization, and then merely a repetition of the traits marked in the first scene, with the addition of bragging. Evidently Shakespeare has the model in memory as he writes. I say "evidently," for Falstaff is the only character in Shakespeare that repeats the same words with damnable iteration, and in whom the same traits are shown again and again and again. When Shakespeare is painting himself in Richard II. he depicts irresolution again and again as he depicts it also in Hamlet; but neither Hamlet nor Richard repeats the same words, nor is any trait in either of them accentuated so grossly as are the principal traits of Falstaff's character. The features in Falstaff which are so harped upon, are to me the features of the original model. Shakespeare did not know Falstaff quite as well as he knew himself; so he has to confine himself to certain qualities which he had observed, and stick, besides, to certain tags of speech, which were probably favourites with the living man.

In another important particular, too, Falstaff is unlike any other comic character in Shakespeare: he tells the truth about himself in a magical way. The passage I allude to is the first speech made by Falstaff in the Second Part of "Henry IV."; it shows us Shakespeare getting into the character again--after a certain lapse of time:

"<i>Fal</i>. Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me; the brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not able to invent anything that tends to laughter, more than I invent or is invented on me: I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men--"

Just as in the first act Shakespeare introducing Falstaff makes him talk poetically, so here there is a certain exaltation and lyrical swing which betrays the poet-creator. "Foolish-compounded," too, shows Shakespeare's hand, but the boast, I feel sure, was a boast often made by the original, and thus brings Shakespeare into intimate union with the character; for after this introduction Falstaff goes on to talk pure Falstaff, unmixed with any slightest dash of poetry.

Who was the original of Falstaff? Is a guess possible? It seems to me it must have been some lover of poetry--perhaps Chettle, the Chettle who years before had published Greene's attack upon Shakespeare and who afterwards made amends for it. In Dekker's tract, "A Knight's Conjuring," Chettle figures among the poets in Elysium: "In comes Chettle sweating and blowing by reason of his fatnes; to welcome whom, because hee was of olde acquaintance, all rose up, and fell presentlie on their knees, to drinck a health to all the louers of Hellicon." Here we have a fat man greeted with laughter and mock reverence by the poets--just such a model as Shakespeare needed, but the guess is mere conjecture: we don't know enough about Chettle to be at all sure. Yet Chettle was by way of being a poet, and Falstaff uses tags of verse--still, as I say, it is all pure guesswork. The only reason I put his name forward is that some have talked of Ben Jonson as Falstaff's original merely because he was fat. I cannot believe that gentle Shakespeare would ever have treated Jonson with such contempt; but Chettle seems to have been a butt by nature.

That Falstaff was taken from one model is to me certain. Shakespeare very seldom tells us what his characters look like; whenever he gives us a photograph, so to speak, of a person, it is always taken from life and extraordinarily significant. We have several portraits of Falstaff: the Prince gives a picture of the "old fat man,..." that trunk of humours "... that old white-bearded Satan"; the Chief Justice gives us another of his "moist eye, white beard, increasing belly and double chin." Falstaff himself has another: "a goodly portly man, i' faith and a corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage." Such physical portraiture alone would convince me that there was a living model for Falstaff. But there are more obvious arguments: the other humorous characters of Shakespeare are infinitely inferior to Falstaff, and the best of them are merely sides of Falstaff or poor reflections of him. Autolycus and Parolles have many of his traits, but they are not old, and taken together, they are only a faint <i>replica</i> of the immortal footpad.

Listening with my heart in my ears, I catch a living voice, a round, fat voice with tags of "pr'ythee," "wag," and "marry," and behind the inimitable dramatic counterfeit I see a big man with a white head and round belly who loved wine and women and jovial nights, a Triton among the minnows of boon companions, whose shameless effrontery was backed by cunning, whose wit though common was abundant and effective through long practice--a sort of licensed tavern-king, whose mere entrance into a room set the table in a roar. Shakespeare was attracted by the many-sided racy ruffian, delighted perhaps most by his easy mastery of life and men; he studied him with infinite zest, absorbed him wholly, and afterwards reproduced him with such richness of sympathy, such magic of enlarging invention that he has become, so to speak, the symbol of laughter throughout the world, for men of all races the true Comic Muse.

In any case I may be allowed one last argument. The Falstaff of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" is not the Falstaff of the two parts of "King Henry IV."; it is but a shadow of the great knight that we see, an echo of him that we hear in the later comedy. Falstaff would never have written the same letter to Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page; there was too much fancy in him, too much fertility, too much delight in his own mind- and word-wealth ever to show himself so painfully stinted and barren. Nor is it credible that Falstaff would ever have fallen three times running into the same trap; Falstaff made traps; he did not fall into them. We know, too, that Falstaff would not fight "longer than he saw reason"; his instinct of self-preservation was largely developed; but he could face a sword; he drew on Pistol and chased him from the room; he was not such a pitiful coward as to take Ford's cudgelling. Finally, the Falstaff whom we all know could never have been befooled by the Welshman and his child-fairies. And this objection Shakespeare himself felt, for he meets it by making Falstaff explain how near he came to discovering the fraud, and how wit is made "a Jack-a-Lent when 'tis upon ill employment." But the fact that some explanation is necessary is an admission of the fault. Falstaff must indeed have laid his brains in the sun before he could have been taken in by foppery so gross and palpable. This is not the same man who at once recognized the Prince and Poins through their disguise as drawers. Yet there are moments when the Falstaff of "The Merry Wives" resumes his old nature. For example, when he is accused by Pistol of sharing in the proceeds of the theft, he answers with all the old shameless wit:

"Reason, you rogue, reason; think'st thou I'll endanger my soul gratis?"

and, again, when he has been cozened and beaten, he speaks almost in the old way:

"I never prospered since I forswore myself at primero. Well, if my wind were but long enough to say my prayers, I would repent."

But on the whole the Falstaff of "The Merry Wives" is but a poor thin shadow of the Falstaff of the two parts of "Henry IV."

Had "The Merry Wives" been produced under ordinary conditions, one would have had to rack one's brains to account for its feebleness. Not only is the genial Lord of Humour degraded in it into a buffoon, but the amusement of it is chiefly in situation; it is almost as much a farce as a comedy. For these and other reasons I believe in the truth of the tradition that Elizabeth was so pleased with the character of Falstaff that she ordered Shakespeare to write another play showing the fat knight in love, and that in obedience to this command Shakespeare wrote "The Merry Wives" in a fortnight. For what does a dramatist do when he is in a hurry to strike while the iron is hot and to catch a Queen's fancy before it changes? Naturally he goes to his memory for his characters, to that vivid memory of youth which makes up by precision of portraiture for what it lacks in depth of comprehension. And this is the distinguishing characteristic of "The Merry Wives," particularly in the beginning. Even without "the dozen white luces" in his coat, one would swear that this Justice Shallow, with his pompous pride of birth and his stilted stupidity, is a portrait from life, some Sir Thomas Lucy or other, and Justice Shallow is not so deeply etched in as his cousin, Master Slender--"a little wee face, with a little yellow beard,--a cane-coloured beard." Such physical portraiture, as I have said, is very rare and very significant in Shakespeare. This photograph is slightly malevolent, too, as of one whose malice is protected by a Queen's commission. Those who do not believe traditions when thus circumstantially supported would not believe though one rose from the dead to witness to them. "The Merry Wives" is worthful to me as the only piece of Shakespeare's journalism that we possess; here we find him doing task-work, and doing it at utmost speed. Those who wish to measure the difference between the conscious, deliberate work of the artist and the hurried slap-dash performance of the journalist, have only to compare the Falstaff of "The Merry Wives" with the Falstaff of the two parts of "Henry IV." But if we take it for granted that "The Merry Wives" was done in haste and to order, can any inference be fairly drawn from the feebleness of Falstaff and the unreality of his love-making? I think so; it seems to me that, if Falstaff had been a creation, Shakespeare must have reproduced him more effectively. His love-making in the second part of "Henry IV." is real enough. But just because Falstaff was taken from life, and studied from the outside, Shakespeare having painted him once could not paint him again, he had exhausted his model and could only echo him.

The heart of the matter is that, whereas Shakespeare's men of action, when he is not helped by history or tradition, are thinly conceived and poorly painted, his comic characters--Falstaff, Sir Toby Belch, and Dogberry; Maria, Dame Quickly, and the Nurse, creatures of observation though they be, are only inferior as works of art to the portraits of himself which he has given us in Romeo, Hamlet, Macbeth, Orsino, and Posthumus. It is his humour which makes Shakespeare the greatest of dramatists, the most complete of men.

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