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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, Out-topping knowledge."

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 utterance.

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 lived."

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 example.

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 nature.

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 words."

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:

  "Give me leave

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 sadness."

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.

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