UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto
you." This work of Paul--the discovery and proclaiming of an unknown
god--is in every age the main function of the critic.
An unknown god this Shakespeare of ours, whom all are agreed it would be
well to know, if in any way possible. As to the possibility, however,
the authorities are at loggerheads. Hallam, "the judicious," declared
that it was impossible to learn anything certain about "the man,
Shakespeare." Wordsworth, on the other hand (without a nickname to show
a close connection with the common), held that Shakespeare unlocked his
heart with the sonnets for key. Browning jeered at this belief, to be in
turn contradicted by Swinburne. Matthew Arnold gave us in a sonnet "the
best opinion of his time":
"Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask--Thou smilest and art still,
But alas! the best opinion of one generation is in these matters often
flat unreason to the next, and it may be that in this instance neither
the opinion of Hallam nor Browning nor Arnold will be allowed to count.
As it is the object of a general to win battles so it is the life-work
of the artist to show himself to us, and the completeness with which he
reveals his own individuality is perhaps the best measure of his genius.
One does this like Montaigne, simply, garrulously, telling us his height
and make, his tastes and distastes, his loves and fears and habits, till
gradually the seeming-artless talk brings the man before us, a
sun-warmed fruit of humanity, with uncouth rind of stiff manners and
sweet kindly juices, not perfect in any way, shrivelled on this side by
early frost-bite, and on that softened to corruption through too much
heat, marred here by the bitter-black cicatrice of an ancient injury and
there fortune-spotted, but on the whole healthy, grateful, of a most
pleasant ripeness. Another, like Shakespeare, with passionate
conflicting sympathies and curious impartial intellect cannot discover
himself so simply; needs, like the diamond, many facets to show all the
light in him, and so proceeds to cut them one after the other as
Falstaff or Hamlet, to the dazzling of the purblind.
Yet Shakespeare's purpose is surely the same as Montaigne's, to reveal
himself to us, and it would be hasty to decide that his skill is
inferior. For while Montaigne had nothing but prose at his command, and
not too rich a prose, as he himself complains, Shakespeare in magic of
expression has had no equal in recorded time, and he used the lyric as
well as the dramatic form, poetry as well as prose, to give his soul
We are doing Shakespeare wrong by trying to believe that he hides
himself behind his work; the suspicion is as unworthy as the old
suspicion dissipated by Carlyle that Cromwell was an ambitious
hypocrite. Sincerity is the birthmark of genius, and we can be sure that
Shakespeare has depicted himself for us with singular fidelity; we can
see him in his works, if we will take the trouble, "in his habit as he
We are doing ourselves wrong, too, by pretending that Shakespeare
"out-tops knowledge." He did not fill the world even in his own time:
there was room beside him in the days of Elizabeth for Marlowe and
Spenser, Ben Jonson and Bacon, and since then the spiritual outlook,
like the material outlook, has widened to infinity. There is space in
life now for a dozen ideals undreamed-of in the sixteenth century. Let
us have done with this pretence of doglike humility; we, too, are men,
and there is on earth no higher title, and in the universe nothing
beyond our comprehending. It will be well for us to know Shakespeare and
all his high qualities and do him reverence; it will be well for us,
too, to see his limitations and his faults, for after all it is the
human frailties in a man that call forth our sympathy and endear him to
us, and without love there is no virtue in worship, no attraction in
The doubt as to the personality of Shakespeare, and the subsequent
confusion and contradictions are in the main, I think, due to Coleridge.
He was the first modern critic to have glimpses of the real Shakespeare,
and the vision lent his words a singular authority. But Coleridge was a
hero-worshipper by nature and carried reverence to lyric heights. He
used all his powers to persuade men that Shakespeare was [Greek:
<i>myrionous anaer</i>]--"the myriad-minded man"; a sort of demi-god who
was every one and no one, a Proteus without individuality of his own.
The theory has held the field for nearly a century, probably because it
flatters our national vanity; for in itself it is fantastically absurd
and leads to most ridiculous conclusions. For instance, when Coleridge
had to deal with the fact that Shakespeare never drew a miser, instead
of accepting the omission as characteristic, for it is confirmed by Ben
Jonson's testimony that he was "of an open and free nature," Coleridge
proceeded to argue that avarice is not a permanent passion in humanity,
and that Shakespeare probably for that reason chose to leave it
undescribed. This is an example of the ecstasy of hero-worship; it is
begging the question to assume that whatever Shakespeare did was
perfect; humanity cannot be penned up even in Shakespeare's brain. Like
every other man of genius Shakespeare must have shown himself in his
qualities and defects, in his preferences and prejudices; "a fallible
being," as stout old Dr. Johnson knew, "will fail somewhere."
Even had Shakespeare tried to hide himself in his work, he could not
have succeeded. Now that the print of a man's hand or foot or ear is
enough to distinguish him from all other men, it is impossible to
believe that the mask of his mind, the very imprint, form and pressure
of his soul should be less distinctive. Just as Monsieur Bertillon's
whorl-pictures of a thumb afford overwhelming proofs of a man's
identity, so it is possible from Shakespeare's writings to establish
beyond doubt the main features of his character and the chief incidents
of his life. The time for random assertion about Shakespeare and
unlimited eulogy of him has passed away for ever: the object of this
inquiry is to show him as he lived and loved and suffered, and the
proofs of this and of that trait shall be so heaped up as to stifle
doubt and reach absolute conviction. For not only is the circumstantial
evidence overwhelming and conclusive, but we have also the testimony of
eye-witnesses with which to confirm it, and one of these witnesses, Ben
Jonson, is of rare credibility and singularly well equipped.
Let us begin, then, by treating Shakespeare as we would treat any other
writer, and ask simply how a dramatic author is most apt to reveal
himself. A great dramatist may not paint himself for us at any time in
his career with all his faults and vices; but when he goes deepest into
human nature, we may be sure that self-knowledge is his guide; as Hamlet
said, "To know a man well, were to know himself" (oneself), so far
justifying the paradox that dramatic writing is merely a form of
autobiography. We may take then as a guide this first criterion that, in
his masterpiece of psychology, the dramatist will reveal most of his own
If a dozen lovers of Shakespeare were asked to name the most profound
and most complex character in all his dramas it is probable that every
one without hesitation would answer Hamlet. The current of cultivated
opinion has long set in this direction. With the intuition of a kindred
genius, Goethe was the first to put Hamlet on a pedestal: "the
incomparable," he called him, and devoted pages to an analysis of the
character. Coleridge followed with the confession whose truth we
shall see later: "I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so." But
even if it be admitted that Hamlet is the most complex and profound of
Shakespeare's creations, and therefore probably the character in which
Shakespeare revealed most of himself, the question of degree still
remains to be determined. Is it possible to show certainly that even the
broad outlines of Hamlet's character are those of the master-poet?
There are various ways in which this might be proved. For instance, if
one could show that whenever Shakespeare fell out of a character he was
drawing, he unconsciously dropped into the Hamlet vein, one's suspicion
as to the identity of Hamlet and the poet would be enormously
strengthened. There is another piece of evidence still more convincing.
Suppose that Shakespeare in painting another character did nothing but
paint Hamlet over again trait by trait--virtue by virtue, fault by
fault--our assurance would be almost complete; for a dramatist only
makes this mistake when he is speaking unconsciously in his proper
person. But if both these kinds of proof were forthcoming, and not once
but a dozen times, then surely our conviction as to the essential
identity of Hamlet and Shakespeare would amount to practical certitude.
Of course it would be foolish, even in this event, to pretend that
Hamlet exhausts Shakespeare; art does little more than embroider the
fringe of the garment of life, and the most complex character in drama
or even in fiction is simple indeed when compared with even the simplest
of living men or women. Shakespeare included in himself Falstaff and
Cleopatra, beside the author of the sonnets, and knowledge drawn from
all these must be used to fill out and perhaps to modify the outlines
given in Hamlet before one can feel sure that the portrait is a
re-presentment of reality. But when this study is completed, it will be
seen that with many necessary limitations, Hamlet is indeed a revelation
of some of the most characteristic traits of Shakespeare.
To come to the point quickly, I will take Hamlet's character as analyzed
by Coleridge and Professor Dowden.
Coleridge says: "Hamlet's character is the prevalence of the abstracting
and generalizing habit over the practical. He does not want courage,
skill, will or opportunity; but every incident sets him thinking: and it
is curious, and at the same time strictly natural, that Hamlet, who all
the play seems reason itself, should be impelled at last by mere
accident to effect his object." Again he says: "in Hamlet we see a
great, an almost enormous intellectual activity and a proportionate
aversion to real action consequent upon it."
Professor Dowden's analysis is more careful but hardly as complete. He
calls Hamlet "the meditative son" of a strong-willed father, and adds,
"he has slipped on into years of full manhood still a haunter of the
university, a student of philosophies, an amateur in art, a ponderer on
the things of life and death who has never formed a resolution or
executed a deed. This long course of thinking apart from action has
destroyed Hamlet's very capacity for belief.... In presence of the
spirit he is himself 'a spirit,' and believes in the immortality of the
soul. When left to his private thoughts he wavers uncertainly to and
fro; death is a sleep; a sleep, it may be, troubled with dreams.... He
is incapable of certitude.... After his fashion (that of one who
relieves himself by speech rather than by deeds) he unpacks his heart in
Now what other personage is there in Shakespeare who shows these traits
or some of them? He should be bookish and irresolute, a lover of thought
and not of action, of melancholy temper too, and prone to unpack his
heart with words. Almost every one who has followed the argument thus
far will be inclined to think of Romeo. Hazlitt declared that "Romeo is
Hamlet in love. There is the same rich exuberance of passion and
sentiment in the one, that there is of thought and sentiment in the
other. Both are absent and self-involved; both live out of themselves in
a world of imagination." Much of this is true and affords a noteworthy
example of Hazlitt's occasional insight into character, yet for reasons
that will appear later it is not possible to insist, as Hazlitt does,
upon the identity of Romeo and Hamlet. The most that can be said is that
Romeo is a younger brother of Hamlet, whose character is much less
mature and less complex than that of the student-prince. Moreover, the
characterization in Romeo--the mere drawing and painting--is very
inferior to that put to use in Hamlet. Romeo is half hidden from us in
the rose-mist of passion, and after he is banished from Juliet's arms we
only see him for a moment as he rushes madly by into never-ending night,
and all the while Shakespeare is thinking more of the poetry of the
theme than of his hero's character. Romeo is crude and immature when
compared with a profound psychological study like Hamlet. In "Hamlet"
the action often stands still while incidents are invented for the
mere purpose of displaying the peculiarities of the protagonist. "Hamlet,"
too, is the longest of Shakespeare's plays with the exception of "Antony
and Cleopatra," and "the total length of Hamlet's speeches," says
Dryasdust, "far exceeds that of those allotted by Shakespeare to any
other of his characters." The important point, however, is that Romeo
has a more than family likeness to Hamlet. Even in the heat and heyday
of his passion Romeo plays thinker; Juliet says, "Good-night" and
disappears, but he finds time to give us the abstract truth:
"Love goes towards love, as schoolboys from their books,
But love from love, toward school with heavy looks."
Juliet appears again unexpectedly, and again Hamlet's generalizing habit
asserts itself in Romeo:
"How silver-sweet sound lovers' tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears."
We may be certain that Juliet would have preferred more pointed praise.
He is indeed so lost in his ill-timed reverie that Juliet has to call
him again and again by name before he attends to her.
Romeo has Hamlet's peculiar habit of talking to himself. He falls into a
soliloquy on his way to Juliet in Capulet's orchard, when his heart must
have been beating so loudly that it would have prevented him from
hearing himself talk, and into another when hurrying to the apothecary.
In this latter monologue, too, when all his thoughts must have been of
Juliet and their star-crossed fates, and love-devouring Death, he is
able to picture for us the apothecary and his shop with a wealth of
detail that says more for Shakespeare's painstaking and memory than for
his insight into character. The fault, however, is not so grave as it
would be if Romeo were a different kind of man; but like Hamlet he is
always ready to unpack his heart with words, and if they are not the
best words sometimes, sometimes even very inappropriate words, it only
shows that in his first tragedy Shakespeare was not the master of his
art that he afterwards became.
In the churchyard scene of the fifth act Romeo's likeness to Hamlet
comes into clearest light.
Hamlet says to Laertes:
"I pr'ythee, take thy fingers from my throat;
For though I am not splenitive and rash
Yet have I something in me dangerous
Which let thy wisdom fear."
In precisely the same temper, Romeo says to Paris:
"Good, gentle youth, tempt not a desperate man;
Fly hence and leave me; think upon these gone,
Let them affright thee."
This magnanimity is so rare that its existence would almost of itself be
sufficient to establish a close relationship between Romeo and Hamlet.
Romeo's last speech, too, is characteristic of Hamlet: on the very
threshold of death he generalizes:
"How oft when men are at the point of death,
Have they been merry? which their keepers call
A lightening before death."
There is in Romeo, too, that peculiar mixture of pensive sadness and
loving sympathy which is the very vesture of Hamlet's soul; he says to
"Noble County Paris":
"O, give me thy hand,
One writ with me in sour misfortune's book."
And finally Shakespeare's supreme lyrical gift is used by Romeo as
unconstrainedly as by Hamlet himself. The beauty in the last soliloquy
is of passion rather than of intellect, but in sheer triumphant beauty
some lines of it have never been surpassed:
"Here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chambermaids; O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh."
The whole soliloquy and especially the superb epithet "world-wearied"
are at least as suitable to Hamlet as to Romeo. Passion, it is true, is
more accentuated in Romeo, just as there is greater irresolution
combined with intenser self-consciousness in Hamlet, yet all the
qualities of the youthful lover are to be found in the student-prince.
Hamlet is evidently the later finished picture of which Romeo was merely
the charming sketch. Hamlet says he is revengeful and ambitious,
although he is nothing of the kind, and in much the same way Romeo says:
"I'll be a candle-holder and look on,"
whereas he plays the chief part and a very active part in the drama. If
he were more of a "candle-holder" and onlooker, he would more resemble
Hamlet. Then too, though he generalizes, he does not search the darkness
with aching eyeballs as Hamlet does; the problems of life do not as yet
lie heavy on his soul; he is too young to have felt their mystery and
terror; he is only just within the shadow of that melancholy which to
Hamlet discolours the world.
Seven or eight years after writing "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare
growing conscious of these changes in his own temperament embodied them
in another character, the melancholy "Jaques" in "As You Like It." Every
one knows that Jaques is Shakespeare's creation; he is not to be found
in Lodge's "Rosalynde," whence Shakespeare took the story and most of
the characters of his play. Jaques is only sketched in with light
strokes, but all his traits are peculiarly Hamlet's traits. For Jaques
is a melancholy student of life as Hamlet is, with lightning-quick
intelligence and heavy heart, and these are the Hamlet qualities which
were not brought into prominence in the youthful Romeo. Passages taken
at haphazard will suffice to establish my contention. "Motley's the only
wear," says Jaques, as if longing to assume the cap and bells, and
Hamlet plays the fool's part with little better reason. Jaques exclaims:
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of the infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine."
And Hamlet cries:
"The Time is out of joint; O cursèd spite
That ever I was born to set it right."
The famous speech of Jaques, "All the world's a stage," might have been
said by Hamlet, indeed belongs of right to the person who gave the
exquisite counsel to the players. Jaques' confession of melancholy, too,
both in manner and matter is characteristic of Hamlet. How often
Shakespeare must have thought it over before he was able to bring the
peculiar nature of his own malady into such relief:
"I have neither the scholar's melancholy, which is emulation; nor the
musician's, which is fantastical; nor the courtier's, which is proud;
nor the soldier's, which is ambitious; nor the lawyer's, which is
politic; nor the lady's, which is nice; nor the lover's, which is all
these; but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples,
extracted from many objects, and, indeed, the sundry contemplation of my
travels; which, by often rumination, wraps me in, a most humourous
This "humourous sadness," the child of contemplation, was indeed
Shakespeare's most constant mood. Jaques, too, loves solitude and the
country as Hamlet loved them--and above all the last trait recorded of
Jaques, his eagerness to see the reformed Duke and learn from the
convert, is a perfect example of that intellectual curiosity which is
one of Hamlet's most attaching characteristics. Yet another trait is
attributed to Jaques, which we must on no account forget. The Duke
accuses him of lewdness though lewdness seems out of place in Jaques's
character, and is certainly not shown in the course of the action. If we
combine the characters of Romeo, the poet-lover, and Jaques, the
pensive-sad philosopher, we have almost the complete Hamlet.
It is conceivable that even a fair-minded reader of the plays will admit
all I have urged about the likeness of Romeo and Jaques to Hamlet
without concluding that these preliminary studies, so to speak, for the
great portrait render it at all certain that the masterpiece of
portraiture is a likeness of Shakespeare himself. The impartial critic
will probably say, "You have raised a suspicion in my mind; a strong
suspicion it may be, but still a suspicion that is far from certitude."
Fortunately the evidence still to be offered is a thousand times more
convincing than any inferences that can properly be drawn from Romeo or
from Jaques, or even from both together.