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covers any the least prejudice against them, or any leanings of moral or personal sympathy towards their victims. Nothing comes from him that can be fairly construed as a hint to us against warming up to them. Nor has any one a right to say that he overdoes or overstresses their wickedness a jot: he merely shows it, or rather lets them show it, just as it is. He lends them the whole benefit of his genius for the best possible airing of their intellectual gifts and graces; all this too without swerving a hair from the line of cold, calm, even-handed justice: yet how do our feelings, how do our moral sympathies, run in these cases? I need not say they run wholly and unreservedly with the chivalrous but infirm Cassio, the honest and honour-loving Othello, the innocent though not faultless Desdemona; with the pious and unsuspecting Edgar, the erring indeed but still upright and sound-hearted Gloster. Nay, more; we would rather be in the place of the victims than of the victors: virtue wronged, betrayed, crushed, seems to us a more eligible lot than crime triumphant, prosperous, happy. Such is the moral spirit of these great delineations.
I could easily go through all the Poet's instances of virtue and innocence in conflict or in contrast with villainy and guilt, and show that he never fails thus to keep our moral sympathies in the right place without discovering his own; that he is just as far from overdoing or overstressing the villainy of the bad as the virtue of the good; both of which fall alike under the censure of moral demonstrativeness, while, as in the two cases specified, his moral teachings, even because they thus come from Nature, not from him, therefore bring in their right hand sanctions which we cannot appeal from if we would, and would not if we could.
There is one more point on which it may be needful to say a few words. -Johnson and others have complained that Shakespeare seems to write without any moral purpose; and that he does not make a just distribution of good and evil. Both charges are strictly true; at least, so
I hope, and so I believe. As regards his seeming to write without any moral purpose, on the same principle he seems to write without any art. But who does not know that the very triumph of art lies in concealing art; that is, in seeming to write without it? And so, if the Poet writes without discovering any moral purpose, that very fact is just the highest triumph of art in the moral direction. For no one has alleged that he seems to write with an immoral purpose. Here, then, I have but to say that, with so consummate an artist as Shakespeare, if the charge is not true, it ought to be. Redundancy of conscience is indeed fatal. to art; but then it is also, if not fatal, at least highly damaging to morality; "for goodness, growing to a plurisy, dies in its own too much." Verily, a moral teacher's first business is to clear his mind of cant. And so much the wise and good Dr. Johnson himself will tell us.
If, again, Shakespeare fails to make a just distribution of good and evil, so also does Providence. If, in his representations, virtue is not always crowned with visible success, nor crime with apparent defeat; if the good are often cast down, the evil often lifted up, and sometimes both cast down together; the workings of Providence in the actual treatment of men are equally at fault in that matter. Or if he makes the sun of his genius to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends the rain of his genius on the just and on the unjust, why should this be thought wrong in him, when Providence manifestly does the same?
For, explain the fact as we may, it is certain that the consummations of justice are not always experienced here. The world is full of beginnings that are to be finished elsewhere, if finished at all. Virtue often meets with very rough usage in the present order of things: poverty and want, hardship, suffering, and reproach, are often the lot of the good; while men of the opposite character have their portion carved to them out of the best that the world has to bestow. Nay, it sometimes happens that the truest, the kindest, and most upright souls are the most exposed to
injuries and wrongs; their virtues being to them a kind of "sanctified and holy traitors," and the heaven within them serving to disable them from winning the prizes of earth: whereas the very unscrupulousness of the bad, their hardness of heart and unbashfulness of front build or open for them the palaces of wealth and splendour and greatness; their want of principle seems to strengthen their hands; they rise the higher, that they care not whose ruins they rise upon, and command the larger success for being reckless how they succeed.
And is a poet, who professedly aims at nothing better than a just reflection of human life and character as he finds them, is he to be blamed for faithfully holding the mirror up to facts as they are in this respect? That our Shakespeare, the mighty and the lovely, sometimes permits the good to suffer while their wrongers prosper, I thence infer, not indeed that he regarded them indifferently, but that he had a right Christian faith in a further stage of being where the present disorder of things in this point is to be rectified, and the moral discriminations of Providence consummated. His judgment clearly was, that suffering and death are not the worst things that can happen to a man here. He reverences virtue, he does not patronize it. And the virtue he has in reverence is not a hanger-on at the counters of worldly thrift. He knew right well that “the fineness of such metal is not found in Fortune's love," but rather "in the wind and tempest of her frown"; and so he paints it as a thing "that Fortune's buffets and rewards doth take with equal thanks." And, surely, what we need here is a deeper faith, a firmer trust in the government of a Being "in whose pure sight all virtue doth succeed"; yea, and perhaps succeeds most highly in those very cases where the course of things in this world fails to recognize its claims.
For so in fact it seems pretty clear that the forces of Nature have little sense or discernment of right and wrong: the sunshine and the rain are rather blindly given to favour
ing the good and the evil indiscriminately; the plague and the thunderbolt are strangely indifferent to moral distinctions where they strike. What of that? these things are but the under-agents of Providence in the government of the world: whereas the inward conscience of truth and right is the immediate smile of God himself; and that is the Paradise of the truly good man's soul, the very life of his life; he can live without happiness, but he cannot live without that. Shakespeare's delineations reflect, none so well, none so well as his, this great, this most refreshing article of truth; and I heartily thank him for it; yes, heartily!
So then, what though the divine Cordelia and the noble Kent die, and this too in the very sweetness and fragrance of their beauty? is it not, do we not feel that it is, better to die with them than to live with those who have caused their death? Their goodness was not acted for the sake of life, but purely for its own sake: virtue such as theirs does not make suit to Fortune's favours, nor build her trust in them; pays not her vows to time, nor is time's thrall; no! her thoughts are higher-reared; she were not herself, could she not "look on tempests, and be never shaken." And such characters as these, befall them what may, have their exceeding great reward" in the very virtue that draws suffering and death upon them: they need nothing more, and it is their glory and immortality not to ask any thing And shall we pity them, or shall we blame the Poet, that their virtue is not crowned with Fortune's smiles? Nay, rather let us both pity and blame ourselves for being of so mean and miserable a spirit.
As for those poets, and those critics of poetry, who insist that in the Drama, which ought to be a just image of life as it is, there shall always be an exact fitting of rewards and punishments to moral desert; or that the innocent and the guilty, the just and the unjust, shall be perfectly discriminated in what befalls them; as for such poets and critics, I simply do not believe in them at all: their workmanship is radically both unchristian and immoral; and its
moral effect, if it have any, can hardly be other than to "pamper the coward heart with feelings all too delicate for use."
Wherefore, if any students of Shakespeare are still troubled with such criticisms as the one in question, I recommend them to make a thorough study of the Book of Job, and not to leave it till they shall have mastered the argument of that wonderful and divine poem. They will there find that, when the good man was prosperous, the Accuser brought against him the charge, that his serving God so well was from his being sure of good pay; and that therefore he would presently give over or slack his service, if the pay should be withheld: they will also find that, when he was in affliction, his comforters sought to comfort him with the cruel reproach of having been all the while secretly a bad man, and with arguments no less cruel, that his afflictions were sent upon him as a judgment for his secret sins: and, further, they will find that, when his wife urged him to curse God and die," her counsel proceeded upon the principle, that the evils which fall upon the upright prove the government of the world to be in the hands of a being who has no respect for the moral character of his subjects; or, in other words, the sufferings of good men are taken by her as evidence that goodness is not the law of the Divine administration.
Now, it was from such teachers as Nature and Job, and not from such as Job's Accuser and comforters and wife, that Shakespeare learnt his morality.