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rous class ; many persons, very many, there are, who affect the enthusiasm which Coleridge really felt; and who imagine, as it would seem, that by ascribing to Shakspeare a genius, such as no man has possessed, they will themselves obtain credit for a portion of it.
Hallam says truly,* that we contemplate Shakspeare with Idolatry; the term is fully justified by Coleridge's professed belief that “ Shakspeare's genius was super-human,”+language, I presume to say, equally absurd and blasphemous.
I have already, in speaking of Wolsey,expressed my suspicion that Shakspeare did not take the trouble to choose, in his own mind, between the different characters which are assigned to one man ; he was content that the dramatic character should remain, as historical characters necessarily must, a matter of doubt and ques. tion.
If any critic should suggest that herein Shakspeare evinced his knowledge of mankind, for in truth there is not in human minds that absorbing passion and intensity of motive which are thought essential to dramatic excellence, I shall assuredly not quarrel with the criticism. If it
were shown to be by design and not through carelessness, from observation and not from idleness, that our poet sometimes left his heroes with characters that puzzle us, I should readily acquiesce in a suggestion so consistent with a knowledge of the world as it is. And I gladly quote from Coleride himself some remarks to this effect :
“ The characters of the dramatis personæ, like those in real life, are to be inferred by the readerthey are not told to him. And it is well worth remarking, that Shakspeare's characters, like those of real life, are very commonly misunderstood, and almost understood by different persons in different ways. The causes are the same in either case. If you take only what the friends of the character say, you may be deceived, and still more so, if that which his enemies say ; nay, even the character himself sees himself through the medium of his character, and not exactly as he is. Take all together, not omitting a shrewd hint from the clown or the fool, and perhaps your impression may be right, and you may know whether you have, in fact, discovered the poet's own idea, by all the speeches receiving a light from it, and attesting its reality by reflecting it. Lastly, in Shakspeare the heterogeneous is united as in nature.”* There is still, I admit, a material difference
* Lit. Rem. ii. 82.
between Coleridge and me; I doubt whether this poet's own idea existed. I suspect that Shakspeare made the persons of this drama act heterogeneously, as he saw his neighbours act, and that he did not, in the one case more than in the other, draw the whole character in his mind.
Coleridge imputes, in one instance, inconsistency to Shakspeare's Brutus.* In that instance I think Coleridge wrong, but his enthusiasm would not permit him to seek the true solution of his difficulty.
On the female characters, Coleridge remarks :
“ In all the Shaksperian women there is essentially the same foundation and principle ; the distinct individuality and variety are merely the result of the modification of circumstances, whether in Miranda, the maiden ; in Imogen, the wife ; or, in Catherine, the queen.”ť
What is this but to affirm, that the female sex has a character of its own, which appears in every form and condition of woman ?
Male or female, Shakspeare's characters are natural ; and exhibit a very accurate and philosophical knowledge of the human mind. I am satisfied that he would have held those in contempt who ascribe to him the exclusive power of discriminating and painting human caprices. * See p. 262.
Lit. Rem. 97.
In this power, or rather in the opportunity of using it, the novelist has a great advantage over the dramatist, and since persons of great knowledge of the world have applied their minds to the invention of stories in which every sort of
many more complete delineations have been produced. The dramatist has not time or space for the multifarious and minute illustrations of character which the novelist can furnish, and of which our own day and country have afforded numerous examples ; it is, indeed, only because such specimens are no longer rare that we hesitate to place the characters of Austin and Scott by the side of those of Shakspeare, Cervantes, and Le Sage. I mention here the Spanish and the French novelists, because to them also, and from a similar cause, we habitually ascribe an undeserved superiority over the masterly productions of our own day.
Be it noted, that I am speaking of the delineation and illustration of character, and of that only. I pretend not to name a modern author, in whom a just and striking portraiture of character is connected with so much of splendid versification, so much of lofty and affecting poetry, by turns didactic, descriptive, affecting, tremendous, so many acute and ingenious reflections and precepts, and so much, withal, of dramatic excellence, as in Shakspeare. But I still claim for the novelists a superiority, not only in the interest of the story, but in the accurate, varied, contrasted, and curiously-shaded discrimination of human character. And this not only in the characters called purely natural, in which we recognize what we see daily, but in those upon which the art of the poet has been exercised; not so as to make them altogether unnatural, or beyond that which we can easily conceive, but characters that tremble between truth and fiction, and participate in the beauties of both.
It is curious to observe the different selection of topics for praise, made by those who speak of Shakspeare's characters. Johnson, we have seen,* says that each character is a species. Pope says,t that “every single character is as much an individual as those in life itself.” There is no real inconsistency between the two critics. Johnson means that each character is justified by a numer rous class in real life; Pope, that each dramatic character may clearly be distinguished from the others.
* P. 282.
+ Bosw., i. 4. See Schlegel, Lit. Dram., ii. 376. He is not very clear.