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Authority on everything
tom's metamorphosis is the most potent drawer-out of his
Schlegel happily remarks, that "the droll wonder of Bottom's metamorphosis is merely the translation of a metaphor in its literal sense." The turning of a figure of speech thus into visible form is a thing only to be thought of or imagined; so that probably no attempt to paint or represent it to the senses can ever succeed. We can bear
at least we often have to bear- - that a man should seem an ass to the mind's eye; but that he should seem such to the eye of the body is rather too much, save as it is done in those fable-pictures which have long been among the playthings of the nursery. So a child, for instance, takes great pleasure in fancying the stick he is riding to be a horse, when he would be frightened out of his wits, were the stick to quicken and expand into an actual horse. In like manner we often delight in indulging fancies and giving names, when we should be shocked were our fancies to harden into facts: we enjoy visions in our sleep, that would only disgust or terrify us, should we awake and find them solidified into things. The effect of Bottom's transformation can hardly be much otherwise, if set forth in visible, animated shape. Delightful to think of, it is scarce tolerable to look upon: exquisitely true in idea, it has no truth, or even verisimilitude, when reduced to fact; so that, how
ever gladly imagination receives it, sense and understand- i ing revolt at it.
Partly for reasons already stated, and partly for others that I scarce know how to state, A Midsummer-Night's
Dream is a most effectual poser to criticism. Besides that its very essence is irregularity, so that it cannot be fairly brought to the test of rules, the play forms properly a class by itself: literature has nothing else really like it; nothing therefore with which it may be compared, and its merits adjusted. For so the Poet has here exercised powers apparently differing even in kind, not only from those of any other writer, but from those displayed in any other of his own writings. Elsewhere, if his characters are penetrated with the ideal, their whereabout lies in the actual, and the work
may in some measure be judged by that life which it claims to represent: here the whereabout is as ideal as the characters; all is in the land of dreams, - a place for dreamers, not for critics. For who can tell what a dream ought or ought not to be, or when the natural conditions of dream-life are or are not rightly observed ? How can the laws of time and space, as involved in the transpiration of human character, - how can these be applied in a place where the mind is thus absolved from their proper jurisdiction ? Besides, the whole thing swarms with enchantment: all the sweet witchery of Shakespeare's sweet genius is concentrated in it, yet disposed with so subtle and cunning a hand, that we can as little grasp it as get away from it: its charms, like those of a summer evening, are such as we may see and feel, but cannot locate or define; cannot say they are here, or they are there : the moment we yield ourselves up to them, they seem to be everywhere; the moment we go to master them, they seem to be nowhere.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE was registered at the Stationers' in July, 1598, but with a special proviso, “that it be not printed without license first had from the Right Honourable the Lord Chamberlain.” The theatrical company to which Shakespeare belonged were then known as “ The Lord Chamberlain's Servants"; and the purpose of the proviso was to keep the play out of print till the company's permission were given through their patron. The play was entered again at the same place in October, 1600, his lordship's license having probably been obtained by that time. Accordingly two distinct editions of it were published in the course of that year. The play was never issued again, that we know of, till in the folio of 1623, where the repetition of various misprints shows it to have been reprinted from one of the quarto copies.
The Merchant of Venice also makes one in the list of Shakespeare's plays given by Francis Meres in 1598. How long before that time it was written we have no means of knowing; but, judging from the style, we cannot well assign the writing to a much earlier date; though there is some reason for thinking it may have been on the stage four years earlier; as Henslowe's Diary records The Venetian Comedy as having been originally acted in August, 1594. It is by no means certain, however, that this refers to Shakespeare's play; while the workmanship here shows such maturity and variety of power as argue against that supposal. It evinces, in a considerable degree, the easy, unlabouring freedom of conscious mastery; the persons being so entirely under the author's control, and subdued to his hand, that he seems to let them talk and act just as they have a mind to. Therewithal the style, throughout, is so even and sustained; the word and the character are so fitted to each other; the laws of dramatic proportion are so well observed ; and the work is so free from any jarring or falling-out from the due course and order of art; as to justify the belief that the whole was written in the same stage of intellectual growth and furnishing.
In the composition of this play the Poet drew largely from preceding writers. Novelty of plot or story there is almost none. Nevertheless, in conception and development of character, in poetical texture and grain, in sap and flavour of wit and humour, and in all that touches the real life and
virtue of the work, it is one of the most original productions that ever came from the human mind. Of the materials here used, some were so much the common stock of European literature before the Poet's time, and had been run into so many variations, that it is not easy to say what sources he was most indebted to for them. The incidents of the bond and the caskets are found separately in the Gesta Romanorum, an ancient and curious collection of tales. There was also an Italian novel, by Giovanni Fiorentino, written as early as 1378, but not printed till 1550, to which the Poet is clearly traceable. As nothing is known of any English translation of the novel dating as far back as his time, it seems not unlikely that he may have been acquainted with it in the original.
Such are the principal tributaries to the fund of this play. I cannot, nor need I, stay to specify the other sources to which some parts of the workmanship have been traced.
The praise of this drama is in the mouth of nearly all the critics. That the praise is well deserved appears in that, from the reopening of the theatres at the Restoration till the present day, the play has kept its place on the stage; while it is also among the first of the Poet's works to be read, and the last to be forgotten, its interest being as durable in the closet as on the boards. Well do I remember it as the very beginning of my acquaintance with Shakespeare; one of the dearest acquaintances I have ever made, and which has been to me a source of more pleasure and profit than I should dare undertake to tell. Critics have too often entertained themselves with
speculations as to the Poet's specific moral purpose in this play or that. Wherein their great mistake is the not duly bearing in mind, that the special proposing of this or that moral lesson is quite from or beside the purpose of Art. Nevertheless, a work of art, to be really deserving the name, must needs be moral, because it must be proportionable and true to Nature; thus attuning our inward forces to the voice of external order and law : otherwise it is at strife with the compact of things; a piece of dissonance; a jarring, unbalanced, crazy thing, that will die of its own internal disorder. If, then, a work be morally bad, this proves the author more a bungler than anything else. And if any one admire it or take pleasure in it, he does so, not from reason, but from something within him which his reason, in so far as he has any, necessarily disapproves: so that he is rather to be laughed at as a dunce than preached to as a sinner; though perhaps this latter should be done also.
As to the moral temper of The Merchant of Venice, critics have differed widely, some regarding the play as teaching the most comprehensive humanity, others as caressing the narrowest bigotries of the age. This difference may be fairly taken as an argument of the Poet's candour and evenhandedness. A special-pleader is not apt to leave the hearers in doubt on which side of the question he stands. In this play, as in others, the Poet, I think, ordered things mainly with a view to dramatic effect; though to such effect in the largest and noblest sense.
And the highest praise compatible with the nature of the work is justly his, inasmuch as he did not allow himself to be swayed either way from the right measures and proportions of art. For Art is, from its very nature, obliged to be “ without respect of persons." Impartiality is its essential law, the constituent of its being. And of Shakespeare it could least of all be said,
“he narrow'd his mind, And to party gave up what was meant for mankind.” He represented men as he had seen them. And he could neither repeal nor ignore the old law of human nature, in virtue of which the wisest and kindest men are more or less warped by social customs and prejudices, so that they come to do, and even to make a merit of doing, some things that are very unwise and unkind; while the wrongs