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Fifteen plays of Shakespeare may be properly classified as comedies. What is the thought common to them all and linking them together under a single name? Undoubtedly a mediatorial principle now enters the Shakespearian world in distinction from the principle of Tragedy. But under both Tragedy and Comedy lies the Deed, which is the first thing to be considered.
Shakespeare stands nearer to the human Deed than any other recorded mortal. This is the prime fact concerning him; he, the man of imaginative vision looking upon the busy world, sees action more clearly than the mightiest man of action; thus he is supremely the poet of the Deed, the dramatic poet. The drama is his inherent form of thought and expression; he beholds all truth in this way, and so he writes in this way. Not the philosophic form is ultimate with him, though he has the deepest philosophy; not the moral, though his whole work rests upon the ethical order of the world; his vision is the Deed in the form of the Deed.
Yet not every Deed the Poet takes; many must be thrown away in the sweep and hurry of the action. The essence of a long, rich and varied career he must compress into his dramatic limits and leave out nothing of worth. Often he has to concentrate a life into a few minutes, and yet cast a true and vivid image of the whole life. In his hands a character which has unfolded and expanded through years, shrinks to a spiritpicture, upon which we look and sce all. Take Lear: bis development is that of a long period which, in the drama, we live through in an hour. The grand excellence of the poet is this ability to select the pivotal Deed of a character and make it turn upon that a Deed which shows to the bottom the spiritual nature of the man. Other writers may give us action and be full of movement and variety; but the question is, What kind of action do they give us? To seize upon and portray the essential soul-revealing Deed is Shakespeare's supreme dramatic instinct. Yet not the Deed of a single character merely; the poet at the same time grasps and unfolds in his characters the central fact of a society, of an age.
The Shakespearian world, accordingly, when it incorporates itself in Art, becomes, through its own deepest necessity, drainatic. That is, it seizes the soul just when it utters itself in performance; the Drama shows man in action; it portrays this act of the individual, not in marble,
color, sound, or by means of description, but in the immediate form of the act itself, voiced, to be sure, by human speech. The Drama is the Deed imaged by the Deed as its adequate artistic embodiment. It is probably for this reason that Shakespeare is the most acceptable of all literary books to the active man, especially to the practical Anglo-Saxon; in it he beholds the clearest reflection of his daily life, which is continued action, he sees all that he does, with its hidden springs in the human heart, revealed in the
very form of doing
The Drama, moreover, unfolds what is contained in the Deed, the total cycle of it, in all its consequences, showing the world built by the individual day by day, built of his conduct, the world which he must live in. This is the lasting value of Shakespeare, no writer has so completely portrayed man in the eternal presence of his Deed. It is, in fact, his very soul-form, this dramatic form, whose depths he has sounded more adequately than any other poet. Everywhere in Shakespeare one may find the substrate of freedom and responsibility ; man makes his own world and must dwell in it, be it Heaven or Hell. Deed after Deed he piles up like so many stones in the temple of life; he cannot escape from his Deed which is the outer living reality of bimself, his own personality made into his spiritual dwelling-place. He must live in his own
world, not in that of anybody else; if he perishes in it or through it, his death is his own act, or the fruit thereof. In tragic seriousness, in comic sportfulness there is the same fundamental trait of Shakespeare: man summoned to the presence of his Deed and judged by it, with reward, punishment, or forgiveness. Here and now the individual is held up to his act, and not in the future; the Last Judgment is every day and not the last day; the Judge is always sitting, and voices the everlasting law, which is the law of the Deed. Shakespeare, therefore, asserts supremely the freedom of man, giving to him his own world, which he makes by his Deed.
And now having seen one side of Shakespeare's work — that of individual character in its freedom acting the Deed — we must turn to the other side, the side that reveals the pre-established necessary realm in which his personages are forever moving. Already it has been declared that man must live in the world which he constructs by his conduct. But this statement does not mean that there is no universal order over him, that there is nothing but individual will in the universe. On the contrary, there is always in the Poet an universal order, and just this is its nature — to permit man to have his own Deed, nay, to bring it back to him, in case of necessity. Such is the supreme system in which man lives and acts; freedom he has, yet he also dwells in a