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speare's divine gallery of Womanhood. Helena, Portia of Belmont, Rosalind, Viola, Portia of Rome, Isabella, Ophelia, Cordelia, Miranda, Hermione, Perdita, Desdemona, Imogen, Catharine of Arragon, — what a wealth and assemblage of moral beauty have we here! All the other poetry and art of the world put together cannot show such a varied and surpassing treasure of womanly excellence. And how perfectly free their goodness is from any thing like stress! How true it is in respect of their virtues, that “ love is an unerring light, and joy its own security!” They are wise, witty, playful, humorous, grave, earnest, impassioned, practical, imaginative; the most profound and beautiful thoughts drop from them as things too common and familiar to be spoken with the least emphasis : they are strong, tender, and sweet, yet never without a sufficient infusion of brisk natural acid and piquancy to keep their sweetness from palling on the taste: they are full of fresh, healthy sentiment, but never at all touched with sentimentality: the soul of romance works mightily within them, yet never betrays them into any lapses from good sense, or any substitutions of feeling for duty.
Then too how nobly and serenely indifferent the glorious creatures are to the fashions and opinions and criticisms of the world! How composedly some of them walk amidst the sharpest perils and adversities, as having the spirit to do any thing that is not foul in the truth of their spirit.” Full of bitterness their cup sometimes is indeed; yet they do not mind it, — not they ! save as the welfare and happiness of others are involved in what pinches them. Several of them are represented passing through the most ticklish and trying situations in which it is possible for female modesty to be placed, - disguised in male attire and sharing as men in the conversations of men; yet so unassailable is their modesty, that they give themselves, apparently, no trouble about it. And, framed as they are, all this may well be so : for indeed such is their fear of God, or, which comes to the same thing, their fear of doing wrong, that it
casts out all other fears; and so their “ virtue gives herself light through darkness for to wade.” Nor do we wonder that, timid maidens as they are, they should “put such boldness on ” ; for we see that with them
“Mighty are the soul's commandments
To support, restrain, or raise :
But nothing from their inward selves have they to fear.” It is very noteworthy, withal, how some of them are so secure in the spirit and substance of the moral law, that they do not scruple, in certain circumstances, to overrule its letter and form. Thus Isabella feigns to practise sin; and she does so as a simple act of self-sacrifice, and because she sees that in this way a good and pious deed may be done in aid of others : she shrinks not from the social imputation of wrong in that case, so her conscience be clear; and she can better brave the external finger of shame than the inward sense of leaving a substantial good undone. Helena, also, puts herself through a course of literal dishonours, and this too, with a perfect understanding of what she is about; yet she yields to no misgivings; not indeed on the ground that the end justifies the means, but because she knows that the soul of a just and honorable purpose, hers, will have power to redeem and even to sanctify the formal dishonours of its body. Much the same principle holds, again, in the case of Desdemona's falsehood, when, Emilia rushing into the room, and finding her dying, and asking, “Who has done this?” she sighs out, “Nobody – I myself: commend me to my kind lord.” I believe no natural heart can help thinking the better of Desdemona for this brave and tender untruth, for it is plainly the unaffected utterance of a deeper truth; and one must be blind indeed not to see that the dying woman's purpose is to shield her husband, so far as she can, from the retribution which she apprehends will befall him, and the thought of which wrings her pure breast more sharply than the pangs of death.
These are plain cases of virtue tried and purified in the
straits of self-humiliation, virtue strained, as it were, through a close-knit fabric of difficulties and hardships, and triumphing over the wrongs that threaten its total defacement, and even turning its obstructions into a substance glorious as its own; that is, they are exceptional instances of a conscious departure from the letter and form of moral beauty for the fuller and clearer manifestation of its spirit and soul.
Nor are the virtues of Shakespeare's men and women the mere result of a certain felicity and harmony of nature, or the spontaneous movements of a happy instinct so strong in them that they do what is right without knowing or meaning it. No; his Henry the Fifth, and Horatio, and Kent, and Edgar, and Posthumus, his Helena, and Isabella, and Cordelia, and Hermione, and Imogen, and Catharine, are most truly “beings breathing thoughtful breath.” Virtue is with them a discipline as well as a joy; a strong upright will is the backbone of it, and a healthy conscience is its keeper. They all have conscious reasons for what they do, and can state them with piercing eloquence, if occasion bids. For so the Poet, much as he delights in that fineness of nature or that innate grace which goes right of its own accord, evidently prefers, even in women, the goodness that has passed through struggles and temptations, and has its chief seat, not in impulse, but in principle, a virtue tested, and not merely instinctive: rather say, he delights most in the virtue that proceeds by a happy consent and marriage of the two. He therefore does not place his highest characters, whether men or women, in an atmosphere so pure that average mortals cannot breathe in it: he depicts their moral nature in conflict, with the powers of good and evil striving in them for the mastery; and when the former prevail, it is because they have “a strong siding champion, Conscience,” to support them. Thus through their weakness the come near enough to get hold of us, while at the same time in their strength they are enough higher than we to lift us upwards.
But Shakespeare's main peculiarity as a teacher of goodness lies in this, that he keeps our moral sympathies in the right place without discovering his own. With the one exception of Henry the Fifth, we cannot perceive, from the delineation itself, whether he takes part with the good character or the bad ; nevertheless he somehow so puts the matter that we cannot help taking part with the good. For I run no risk in saying there is not a single instance in his plays where the feelings of any natural-hearted reader fail to go along with those who are, at least relatively, the best. And as he does not make nor even let us which side he is on, so of course we are led to take the right side, not because he does, but simply because it is the right side. Thus his moral lessons and inspirations affect us as coming, not from him, but from Nature herself; and so the authority they carry is not his, good as that may be, but hers, which is infinitely better. Thus he is ever appealing directly to the tribunal of our own inward moral forces, and at the same time speaking health and light into that tribunal. There need be, there can be, no higher proof of the perfect moral sanity of his genius than this. And for right moral effect it is just the best thing we can have, and is worth a thousand times more than all the ethical arguing and voting in the world. If it be a marvel how the Poet can keep his own hand so utterly unmoved by the passion he is representing, it is surely not less admirable that he should thus, without showing any compassion himself, move our compassion in just the degree, and draw it to just the place, which the laws of moral beauty and proportion require.
Herein even Milton, great and good as he unquestionably is, falls far below Shakespeare as a moral poet. Take the delineation of Satan in Paradise Lost. Now Milton does not leave us at all in doubt as to where his own moral sympathies go in that delineation: they are altogether on the side of God and the good Angels. And he tells us again and again, or as good as tells us, that ours ought to be there; so that there is no possibility of mistake in the matter. Notwithstanding I suspect he does not quite succeed in keeping the reader's moral sympathies there. He does indeed with me: my own feelings have somehow been so steeped in the foolish old doctrine or faith which holds obedience to be a cardinal virtue, that they have never sided with Satan in that controversy. But I believe a majority of readers do find their moral feelings rather drawing to the rebel side; this too, notwithstanding their moral judgment may speak the other way: and when the feelings and the judgment are thus put at odds, the former are pretty sure, in effect, to carry the day.
Now Milton's Satan, I think, may be not unfitly de scribed as a highly magnified realistic freethinker. Iago and Edmund are also realistic freethinkers, the former slightly magnified, the latter unmagnified, though both may be somewhat idealized. And both of them speak and act strictly in that character. Accordingly all religion is in their account mere superstition; and they take pride in never acknowledging their Maker but to brave Him. Both exult above all things in their intellectuality; and what they have the intellect to do, that is with them the only limit to intellectual action; that is, their own will is to them the highest law: hence to ruin another by outwitting and circumventing him is their characteristic pastime; and if they can do this through his virtues, all the better. Iago's moral creed may be summed up in two of his aphoristic sayings, — “ Virtue! a fig! 'tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus”; and, “Put money in thy purse”; while Edmund wants no other reason for his exploiting than that his brother is one
“Whose nature is so far from doing harms,
That he suspects none ; on whose foolish honesty
My practices ride easy.” The characters of the two freethinking heroes are delineated consistently throughout, in keeping with these ideas. And no one can say, no one has ever said, that the Poet dis