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“They stood around
The throne of Shakspeare, sturdy, but unclean."* Their productions were numerous: one of them, Heywood, speaks of having had a share in the authorship of two hundred and twenty plays, of which only twenty-five have been preserved. They often worked, too, in fellowship, such as linked the names of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher forever together-a beautiful literary companionship, the secret of which seems to be lost in the more calculating selfishness of later times.
It is scarce possible, it seems to me, to mistake that this abundant development of dramatic poetry was characteristic of times distinguished by the admirable union of action and contemplation in many of the illustrious men who flourished then; for instance, Sir Philip Sydney devoting himself to the effort of raising English poetry to its true estate, kindling his heart with the old ballads, or drawing the gentle Spenser forth from the hermitage of his modesty; at the same time sharing in affairs of state, in knights? deeds of arms, and on the field of battle meeting an early death, memorable with its last deed of charity, when, putting away
cup of water from his own lips burning with the thirst of a bleeding death, he gave it to a wounded soldier with the words, “Thy necessity is yet greater than mine :" or Raleigh preserving his love of letters throughout his whole varied career, at court, in camp, or tempest-tost in his adventures on the ocean. It seems to me that an age thus characterized by the combination of thought and deed in its representative men, had its most congenial literature in the drama—that form of poetry which Lord Bacon has described as“history made visible.”
* Walter Savage Landor.
I have said little of the greatest name that adorns the literature of the age of Elizabeth and the few succeeding years, and have now left myself no space to speak of what demands such ample room as comment on Shakspeare. It is a field that has been of late very much travelled
Its interest, if truly sought, can never be exhausted. There is a mere chance that I may be pointing your attention to what has not attracted it before, when I ask whether you have ever noticed the power of Shakspeare peculiarly as a writer of English prose. Of its kind, it is as admirable as his poetic language. It is interspersed through his plays, never introduced probably without some exquisite art in the transition from verse to prose, from metrical to unmetrical diction. Let us for a few minutes look at this subject, and I will place side by side two passages, counterpart in some measure in subject; first, of verse, that familiar passage on the music of the spheres, which Hallam's calm judgment pronounced "perhaps the most sublime in Shakspeare:"*
* Hallam's Literature of Europe, chap. iii. & 11, vol. iii. p. 147. It is difficult to refrain from quoting, hackneyed as they are, the lines which immediately precede those in the text, the playful dialogue of the Venetian lovers, ending with the solemn, reverential outburst of Lorenzo, as, turning from the bright, mortal eyes of his mistress, he looks up to the stars of heaven. There are some lines of Shelly, on Night, which do not suffer in comparison with any thing since the Merchant of Venice :
“How beautiful this Night! the balmiest sigh
Which vernal zephyr's breathe in morning's ear,
“Look, how the floor of heaven
harmony is in immortal sou
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.” Whose prose but Shakspeare's could stand by the side of such verse ? I turn to an equally familiar passage in Hamlet: "I have of late (but wherefore, I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise : and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory: this most excellent canopy, the air, look
this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite
That wraps this moveless scene. Heaven's ebon arch,
in faculties ! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god ! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me, nor woman neither, though, by your smiling, you seem to say so.'
Now let me exemplify a quick transition from prose to verse : when Coriolanus is soliciting the plebeian votes, citizens tell him he has not loved the common people: the irony of his answer is prose :-"You should account me the more virtuous, that I have not been common in my love. I will, sir, flatter my sworn brother, the people, to earn a dearer estimation of them; 'tis a condition they account gentle; and since the wisdom of their choice is rather to have my hat than my heart, I will practise the insinuating nod, and be off to them most counterfeitly; that is, sir, I will counterfeit the bewitchment of some popular man, and give it bountifully to the desirers. Therefore, beseech
may be consul.” The bitterness of the soliloquy that follows is verse :
“Better it is to die, better to starve,
To one that would do thus."
as if they came merely from the lips. Observe how this occurs in the speeches of Goneril and Regan as contrasted with Cordelia's words : or the contrast between the utter hollowness of the king's request to Hamlet, and the reality that there is in his mother's language. The king's is thus :
“For your intent
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.”
“Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet,
I pray thee, stay with us, go not to Wittenberg." I
my next lecture to pass to the literature of the seventeenth century, and to connect with it some thoughts on the subject of Sunday reading.