Characteristics of Women - Moral, Poetical, and Historical
by Anna Jameson
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There is nothing so improbable in the story of Romeo and Juliet as to make us doubt the tradition that it is a real fact. "The Veronese," says Lord Byron, in one of his letters from Verona, "are tenacious to a degree of the truth of Juliet's story, insisting on the fact, giving the date 1303, and showing a tomb. It is a plain, open, and partly decayed sarcophagus, with withered leaves in it, in a wild and desolate conventual garden—once a cemetery, now ruined, to the very graves! The situation struck me as very appropriate to the legend, being blighted as their love." He might have added, that when Verona itself, with its amphitheatre and its Paladian structures, lies level with the earth, the very spot on which it stood will be consecrated by the memory of Juliet.

When in Italy, I met a gentleman, who being then "dans le genre romantique," wore a fragment of Juliet's tomb set in a ring.

[30] Foster's Essays

[31] I have read somewhere that the play of which Helena is the heroine, (All's Well that Ends Well,) was at first entitled by Shakspeare "Love's Labor Won." Why the title was altered or by whom I cannot discover.

[32] i. e. I care as much for as I do for heaven.

[33] New Monthly Magazine, vol. iv.

[34] Percy's Reliques.

[35] i. e. canzons, songs

[36] Percy's Reliques, vol. iii.—see the ballad of the "Lady turning Serving Man."

[37] By this word, as used here, I would be understood to mean that inexpressible something within the soul, which tends to the good, the beautiful, the true, and is the antipodes to the vulgar, the violent, and the false;—that which we see diffused externally over the form and movements, where there is perfect innocence and unconsciousness, as in children.

[38] i. e. In the story of the drama; for in the original "History of Amleth the Dane," from which Shakspeare drew his materials, there is a woman introduced who is employed as an instrument to seduce Amleth, but not even the germ of the character of Ophelia.

[39] In the Oedipus Coloneus

[40] "And recks not his own read," i. e. heeds not his own lesson.

[41] Blackwood's Magazine, vol. 11.

[42] Act iii. scene 1.

[43] Goethe. See the analysis of Hamlet in Wilhelm Meister

[44] The Iphigenia in Aulis of Euripides.

[45] Goethe

[46] Such as Cornelius Agrippa, Michael Scott, Dr. Dee. The last was the contemporary of Shakspeare.

[47] In 1609, about three years before Shakspeare produced the Tempest, which, though placed first in all the editions of his works, was one of the last of his dramas.



Characters in which the affections and the moral qualities predominate over fancy and all that bears the name of passion, are not, when we meet with them in real life, the most striking and interesting, nor the easiest to be understood and appreciated; but they are those on which, in the long run, we repose with increasing confidence and ever-new delight. Such characters are not easily exhibited in the colors of poetry, and when we meet with them there, we are reminded of the effect of Raffaelle's pictures. Sir Joshua Reynolds assures us, that it took him three weeks to discover the beauty of the frescos in the Vatican; and many, if they spoke the truth, would prefer one of Titian's or Murillo's Virgins to one of Raffaelle's heavenly Madonnas. The less there is of marked expression or vivid color in a countenance or character, the more difficult to delineate it in such a manner as to captivate and interest us: but when this is done, and done to perfection, it is the miracle of poetry in painting, and of painting in poetry. Only Raffaelle and Correggio have achieved it in one case, and only Shakspeare in the other.

When, by the presence or the agency of some predominant and exciting power, the feelings and affections are upturned from the depths of the heart, and flung to the surface, the painter or the poet has but to watch the workings of the passions, thus in a manner made visible, and transfer them to his page or his canvas, in colors more or less vigorous: but where all is calm without and around, to dive into the profoundest abysses of character, trace the affections where they lie hidden like the ocean springs, wind into the most intricate involutions of the heart, patiently unravel its most delicate fibres, and in a few graceful touches place before us the distinct and visible result,—to do this demanded power of another and a rarer kind.

There are several of Shakspeare's characters which are especially distinguished by this profound feeling in the conception, and subdued harmony of tone in the delineation. To them may be particularly applied the ingenious simile which Goethe has used to illustrate generally all Shakspeare's characters, when he compares them to the old-fashioned batches in glass cases, which not only showed the index pointing to the hour, but the wheels and springs within, which set that index in motion.

Imogen, Desdemona, and Hermione, are three women placed in situations nearly similar, and equally endowed with all the qualities which can render that situation striking and interesting. They are all gentle, beautiful, and innocent; all are models of conjugal submission, truth, and tenderness, and all are victims of the unfounded jealousy of their husbands. So far the parallel is close, but here the resemblance ceases; the circumstances of each situation are varied with wonderful skill, and the characters, which are as different as it is possible to imagine, conceived and discriminated with a power of truth and a delicacy of feeling yet more astonishing.

Critically speaking, the character of Hermione is the most simple in point of dramatic effect, that of Imogen is the most varied and complex. Hermione is most distinguished by her magnanimity and her fortitude, Desdemona by her gentleness and refined grace, while Imogen combines all the best qualities of both, with others which they do not possess; consequently she is, as a character, superior to either; but considered as women, I suppose the preference would depend on individual taste.

Hermione is the heroine of the first three acts of the Winter's Tale. She is the wife of Leontes, king of Sicilia, and though in the prime of beauty and womanhood, is not represented in the first bloom of youth. Her husband on slight grounds suspects her of infidelity with his friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia; the suspicion once admitted, and working on a jealous, passionate, and vindictive mind, becomes a settled and confirmed opinion. Hermione is thrown into a dungeon; her new-born infant is taken from her, and by the order of her husband, frantic with jealousy, exposed to death on a desert shore; she is herself brought to a public trial for treason and incontinency, defends herself nobly, and is pronounced innocent by the oracle. But at the very moment that she is acquitted, she learns the death of the prince her son, who

Conceiving the dishonor of his mother, Had straight declined, drooped, took it deeply, Fastened and fixed the shame on't in himself, Threw off his spirit, appetite, and sleep, And downright languished.

She swoons away with grief, and her supposed death concludes the third act. The last two acts are occupied with the adventures of her daughter Perdita; and with the restoration of Perdita to the arms of her mother, and the reconciliation of Hermione and Leontes, the piece concludes.

Such, in few words, is the dramatic situation. The character of Hermione exhibits what is never found in the other sex, but rarely in our own—yet sometimes;—dignity without pride, love without passion, and tenderness without weakness. To conceive a character in which there enters so much of the negative, required perhaps no rare and astonishing effort of genius, such as created a Juliet, a Miranda, or a Lady Macbeth; but to delineate such a character in the poetical form, to develop it through the medium of action and dialogue, without the aid of description: to preserve its tranquil, mild, and serious beauty, its unimpassioned dignity, and at the same time keep the strongest hold upon our sympathy and our imagination; and out of this exterior calm, produce the most profound pathos, the most vivid impression of life and internal power:—it is this which renders the character of Hermione one of Shakspeare's masterpieces.

Hermione is a queen, a matron, and a mother: she is good and beautiful, and royally descended. A majestic sweetness, a grand and gracious simplicity, an easy, unforced, yet dignified self-possession, are in all her deportment, and in every word she utters. She is one of those characters, of whom it has been said proverbially, that "still waters run deep." Her passions are not vehement, but in her settled mind the sources of pain or pleasure, love or resentment, are like the springs that feed the mountain lakes, impenetrable, unfathomable, and inexhaustible.

Shakspeare has conveyed (as is his custom) a part of the character of Hermione in scattered touches and through the impressions which she produces on all around her. Her surpassing beauty is alluded to in few but strong terms:—

This jealousy Is for a precious creature; as she is rare Must it be great. Praise her but for this her out-door form, 'Which, on my faith, deserves high speech—'

If one by one you wedded all the world, Or from the all that are, took something good To make a perfect woman; she you killed Would be unparalleled.

I might have looked upon my queen's full eyes, Have taken treasure from her lips— —and left them More rich for what they yielded.

The expressions "most sacred lady," "dread mistress," "sovereign," with which she is addressed or alluded to, the boundless devotion and respect of those around her, and their confidence in her goodness and innocence, are so many additional strokes in the portrait.

For her, my lord, I dare my life lay down, and will do't, sir, Please you t' accept it, that the queen is spotless I' the eyes of heaven, and to you.

Every inch of woman in the world, Ay, every dram of woman's flesh is false, If she be so. I would not be a stander-by to hear My sovereign mistress clouded so, without My present vengeance taken!

The mixture of playful courtesy, queenly dignity, and lady-like sweetness, with which she prevails on Polixenes to prolong his visit, is charming.


You'll stay!


No, madam.


Nay, but you will.


I may not, verily.


Verily! You put me off with limber vows; but I, Tho' you would seek t' unsphere the stars with oaths Should still say, "Sir, no going!" Verily, You shall not go! A lady's verily is As potent as a lord's. Will you go yet? Force me to keep you as a prisoner, Not like a guest?

And though the situation of Hermione admits but of few general reflections, one little speech, inimitably beautiful and characteristic, has become almost proverbial from its truth. She says:—

One good deed, dying tongueless, Slaughters a thousand, waiting upon that. Our praises are our wages; you may ride us With one soft kiss a thousand furlongs, ere With spur we heat an acre.

She receives the first intimation of her husband's jealous suspicions with incredulous astonishment. It is not that, like Desdemona, she does not or cannot understand; but she will not. When he accuses her more plainly, she replies with a calm dignity:—

Should a villain say so— The most replenished villain in the world— He were as much more villain: you, my lord, Do but mistake.

This characteristic composure of temper never forsakes her; and yet it is so delineated that the impression is that of grandeur, and never borders upon pride or coldness: it is the fortitude of a gentle but a strong mind, conscious of its own innocence. Nothing can be more affecting than her calm reply to Leontes, who, in his jealous rage, heaps insult upon insult, and accuses her before her own attendants, as no better "than one of those to whom the vulgar give bold titles."

How will this grieve you, When you shall come to clearer knowledge, that You have thus published me! Gentle my lord, You scarce can right me thoroughly then, to say You did mistake.

Her mild dignity and saint-like patience, combined as they are with the strongest sense of the cruel injustice of her husband, thrill us with admiration as well as pity; and we cannot but see and feel, that for Hermione to give way to tears and feminine complaints under such a blow, would be quite incompatible with the character. Thus she says of herself, as she is led to prison:—

There's some ill planet reigns: I must be patient till the heavens look With an aspect more favorable. Good my lords, I am not prone to weeping, as our sex Commonly are; the want of which vain dew Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have That honorable grief lodged here, that burns Worse than tears drown. Beseech you all, my lords With thought so qualified as your charities Shall best instruct you, measure me; and so The king's will be performed.

When she is brought to trial for supposed crimes, called on to defend herself, "standing to prate and talk for life and honor, before who please to come and hear," the sense of her ignominious situation—all its shame and all its horror press upon her, and would apparently crush even her magnanimous spirit, but for the consciousness of her own worth and innocence, and the necessity that exists for asserting and defending both.

If powers divine Behold our human actions, (as they do), I doubt not, then, but innocence shall make False accusation blush, and tyranny Tremble at patience.

* * * *

For life, I prize it As I weigh grief, which I would spare. For honor— 'Tis a derivative from me to mine, And only that I stand for.

Her earnest, eloquent justification of herself, and her lofty sense of female honor, are rendered more affecting and impressive by that chilling despair that contempt for a life which has been made bitter to her through unkindness, which is betrayed in every word of her speech, though so calmly characteristic. When she enumerates the unmerited insults which have been heaped upon her, it is without asperity or reproach, yet in a tone which shows how completely the iron has entered her soul. Thus, when Leontes threatens her with death:—

Sir, spare your threats; The bug which you would fright me with, I seek. To me can life be no commodity; The crown and comfort of my life, your favor, I do give lost; for I do feel it gone, But know not how it went. My second joy, The first-fruits of my body, from his presence I am barr'd, like one infectious. My third comfort— Starr'd most unluckily!—is from my breast, The innocent milk in its most innocent mouth, Haled out to murder. Myself on every post Proclaimed a strumpet; with immodest hatred, The childbed privilege denied, which 'longs To women of all fashion. Lastly, hurried Here to this place, i' the open air, before I have got strength of limit. Now, my liege, Tell me what blessings I have here alive, That I should fear to die. Therefore, proceed, But yet hear this; mistake me not. No! life, I prize it not a straw:—but for mine honor. (Which I would free,) if I shall be condemned Upon surmises; all proof sleeping else, But what your jealousies awake; I tell you, 'Tis rigor and not law.

The character of Hermione is considered open to criticism on one point. I have heard it remarked that when she secludes herself from the world for sixteen years, during which time she is mourned as dead by her repentant husband, and is not won to relent from her resolve by his sorrow, his remorse, his constancy to her memory; such conduct, argues the critic, is unfeeling as it is inconceivable in a tender and virtuous woman. Would Imogen have done so, who is so generously ready to grant a pardon before it be asked? or Desdemona, who does not forgive because she cannot even resent? No, assuredly; but this is only another proof of the wonderful delicacy and consistency with which Shakspeare has discriminated the characters of all three. The incident of Hermione's supposed death and concealment for sixteen years, is not indeed very probable in itself, nor very likely to occur in every-day life. But besides all the probability necessary for the purposes of poetry, it has all the likelihood it can derive from the peculiar character of Hermione, who is precisely the woman who could and would have acted in this manner. In such a mind as hers, the sense of a cruel injury, inflicted by one she had loved and trusted, without awakening any violent anger or any desire of vengeance, would sink deep—almost incurably and lastingly deep. So far she is most unlike either Imogen or Desdemona, who are portrayed as much more flexible in temper; but then the circumstances under which she is wronged are very different, and far more unpardonable. The self-created, frantic jealousy of Leontes is very distinct from that of Othello, writhing under the arts of Iago: or that of Posthumus, whose understanding has been cheated by the most damning evidence of his wife's infidelity. The jealousy which in Othello and Posthumus is an error of judgment, in Leontes is a vice of the blood; he suspects without cause, condemns without proof; he is without excuse—unless the mixture of pride, passion, and imagination, and the predisposition to jealousy with which Shakspeare has portrayed him, be considered as an excuse. Hermione has been openly insulted: he to whom she gave herself, her heart, her soul, has stooped to the weakness and baseness of suspicion; has doubted her truth, has wronged her love, has sunk in her esteem, and forfeited her confidence. She has been branded with vile names; her son, her eldest hope, is dead—dead through the false accusation which has stuck infamy on his mother's name; and her innocent babe, stained with illegitimacy, disowned and rejected, has been exposed to a cruel death. Can we believe that the mere tardy acknowledgment of her innocence could make amends for wrongs and agonies such as these? or heal a heart which must have bled inwardly, consumed by that untold grief, "which burns worse than tears drown?" Keeping in view the peculiar character of Hermione, such as she is delineated, is she one either to forgive hastily or forget quickly? and though she might, in her solitude, mourn over her repentant husband, would his repentance suffice to restore him at once to his place in her heart: to efface from her strong and reflecting mind the recollection of his miserable weakness? or can we fancy this high-souled woman—left childless through the injury which has been inflicted on her, widowed in heart by the unworthness of him she loved, a spectacle of grief to all—to her husband a continual reproach and humiliation—walking through the parade of royalty in the court which had witnessed her anguish, her shame, her degradation, and her despair? Methinks that the want of feeling, nature, delicacy, and consistency, would lie in such an exhibition as this. In a mind like Hermione's, where the strength of feeling is founded in the power of thought, and where there is little of impulse or imagination,—"the depth, but not the tumult of the soul,"[48]—there are but two influences which predominate over the will,—time and religion. And what then remained, but that, wounded in heart and spirit, she should retire from the world?—not to brood over her wrongs, but to study forgiveness, and wait the fulfilment of the oracle which had promised the termination of her sorrows. Thus a premature reconciliation would not only have been painfully inconsistent with the character; it would also have deprived us of that most beautiful scene, in which Hermione is discovered to her husband as the statue or image of herself. And here we have another instance of that admirable art, with which the dramatic character is fitted to the circumstances in which it is placed: that perfect command over her own feelings, that complete self-possession necessary to this extraordinary situation, is consistent with all that we imagine of Hermione: in any other woman it would be so incredible as to shock all our ideas of probability.

This scene, then, is not only one of the most picturesque and striking instances of stage effect to be found in the ancient or modern drama, but by the skilful manner in which it is prepared, it has, wonderful as it appears, all the merit of consistency and truth. The grief, the love, the remorse and impatience of Leontes, are finely contrasted with the astonishment and admiration of Perdita, who, gazing on the figure of her mother like one entranced, looks as if she were also turned to marble. There is here one little instance of tender remembrance in Leontes, which adds to the charming impression of Hermione's character.

Chide me, dear stone! that I may say indeed Thou art Hermione; or rather thou art she In thy not chiding, for she was as tender As infancy and grace.

Thus she stood, Even with such life of majesty—warm life— As now it coldly stands—when first I woo'd her!

The effect produced on the different persons of the drama by this living statue—an effect which at the same moment is, and is not illusion—the manner in which the feelings of the spectators become entangled between the conviction of death and the impression of life, the idea of a deception and the feeling of a reality; and the exquisite coloring of poetry and touches of natural feeling with which the whole is wrought up, till wonder, expectation, and intense pleasure, hold our pulse and breath suspended on the event,—are quite inimitable.

The expressions used here by Leontes,—

Thus she stood, Even with such life of majesty—warm life. The fixture of her eye has motion in't. And we are mock'd by art!

And by Polixines,—

The very life seems warm upon her lip,

appear strangely applied to a statue, such as we usually imagine it—of the cold colorless marble; but it is evident that in this scene Hermione personates one of those images or effigies, such as we may see in the old gothic cathedrals, in which the stone, or marble, was colored after nature. I remember coming suddenly upon one of these effigies, either at Basle or at Fribourg, which made me start: the figure was large as life; the drapery of crimson, powdered with stars of gold; the face and eyes, and hair, tinted after nature, though faded by time: it stood in a gothic niche, over a tomb, as I think, and in a kind of dim uncertain light. It would have been very easy for a living person to represent such an effigy, particularly if it had been painted by that "rare Italian master, Julio Romano,"[49] who, as we are informed, was the reputed author of this wonderful statue.

The moment when Hermione descends from her pedestal, to the sound of soft music, and throws herself without speaking into her husband's arms, is one of inexpressible interest. It appears to me that her silence during the whole of this scene (except where she invokes a blessing on her daughter's head) is in the finest taste as a poetical beauty, besides being an admirable trait of character. The misfortunes of Hermione, her long religious seclusion, the wonderful and almost supernatural part she has just enacted, have invested her with such a sacred and awful charm, that any words put into her mouth, must, I think, have injured the solemn and profound pathos of the situation.

There are several among Shakspeare's characters which exercise a far stronger power over our feelings, our fancy, our understanding, than that of Hermione; but not one,—unless perhaps Cordelia,—constructed upon so high and pure a principle. It is the union of gentleness with power which constitutes the perfection of mental grace. Thus among the ancients, with whom the graces were also the charities, (to show, perhaps, that while form alone may constitute beauty, sentiment is necessary to grace,) one and the same word signified equally strength and virtue. This feeling, carried into the fine arts, was the secret of the antique grace—the grace of repose. The same eternal nature—the same sense of immutable truth and beauty, which revealed this sublime principle of art to the ancient Greeks, revealed it to the genius of Shakspeare; and the character of Hermione, in which we have the same largeness of conception and delicacy of execution,—the same effect of suffering without passion, and grandeur without effort, is an instance, I think, that he felt within himself, and by intuition, what we study all our lives in the remains of ancient art. The calm, regular, classical beauty of Hermione's character is the more impressive from the wild and gothic accompaniments of her story, and the beautiful relief afforded by the pastoral and romantic grace which is thrown around her daughter Perdita.

The character of Paulina, in the Winter's Tale, though it has obtained but little notice, and no critical remark, (that I have seen,) is yet one of the striking beauties of the play: and it has its moral too. As we see running through the whole universe that principle of contrast which may be called the life of nature, so we behold it every where illustrated in Shakspeare: upon this principle he has placed Emilia beside Desdemona, the nurse beside Juliet; the clowns and dairy-maids, and the merry peddler thief Autolycus round Florizel and Perdita;—and made Paulina the friend of Hermione.

Paulina does not fill any ostensible office near the person of the queen, but is a lady of high rank in the court—the wife of the Lord Antigones. She is a character strongly drawn from real and common life—a clever, generous, strong-minded, warmhearted woman, fearless in asserting the truth, firm in her sense of right, enthusiastic in all her affections: quick in thought, resolute in word, and energetic in action; but heedless, hot-tempered, impatient, loud, bold, voluble, and turbulent of tongue; regardless of the feelings of those for whom she would sacrifice her life, and injuring from excess of zeal those whom she most wishes to serve. How many such are there in the world! But Paulina, though a very termagant, is yet a poetical termagant in her way; and the manner in which all the evil and dangerous tendencies of such a temper are placed before us, even while the individual character preserves the strongest hold upon our respect and admiration, forms an impressive lesson, as well as a natural and delightful portrait.

In the scene, for instance, where she brings the infant before Leontes, with the hope of softening him to a sense of his injustice—"an office which," as she observes, "becomes a woman best"—her want of self-government, her bitter, inconsiderate reproaches, only add, as we might easily suppose, to his fury.


I say I come From your good queen!


Good queen!


Good queen, my lord, good queen: I say good queen; And would by combat make her good, so were I A man, the worst about you.


Force her hence.


Let him that makes but trifles of his eyes, First hand me: on mine own accord I'll off; But first I'll do mine errand. The good queen (For she is good) hath brought you forth a daughter— Here 'tis; commends it to your blessing.


Traitors! Will you not push her out! Give her the bastard.


Forever Unvenerable be thy hands, if thou Tak'st up the princess by that forced baseness Which he has put upon't!


He dreads his wife.


So, I would you did; then 'twere past all doubt You'd call your children your's.


A callat, Of boundless tongue, who late hath beat her husband, And now baits me!—this brat is none of mine.


It is yours, And might we lay the old proverb to your charge, So like you, 'tis the worse.

* * * *


A gross hag! And lozel, thou art worthy to be hang'd, That wilt not stay her tongue.


Hang all the husbands That cannot do that feat, you'll leave yourself Hardly one subject.


Once more, take her hence.


A most unworthy and unnatural lord Can do no more.


I'll have thee burn'd.


I care not: It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in't.

Here, while we honor her courage and her affection, we cannot help regretting her violence. We see, too, in Paulina, what we so often see in real life, that it is not those who are most susceptible in their own temper and feelings, who are most delicate and forbearing towards the feelings of others. She does not comprehend, or will not allow for the sensitive weakness of a mind less firmly tempered than her own. There is a reply of Leontes to one of her cutting speeches, which is full of feeling, and a lesson to those, who, with the best intentions in the world, force the painful truth, like a knife, into the already lacerated heart.


If, one by one, you wedded all the world, Or, from the all that are, took something good To make a perfect woman, she you kill'd Would be unparallel'd.


I think so. Kill'd! She I kill'd? I did so: but thou strik'st me Sorely, to say I did; it is as bitter Upon thy tongue, as in my thought. Now, good now, Say so but seldom.


Not at all, good lady: You might have spoken a thousand things that would Have done the time more benefit, and grac'd Your kindness better.

We can only excuse Paulina by recollecting that it is a part of her purpose to keep alive in the heart of Leontes the remembrance of his queen's perfections, and of his own cruel injustice. It is admirable, too, that Hermione and Paulina, while sufficiently approximated to afford all the pleasure of contrast, are never brought too nearly in contact on the scene or in the dialogue;[50] for this would have been a fault in taste, and have necessarily weakened the effect of both characters:—either the serene grandeur of Hermione would have subdued and overawed the fiery spirit of Paulina, or the impetuous temper of the latter must have disturbed in some respect our impression of the calm, majestic, and somewhat melancholy beauty of Hermione.


The character of Hermione is addressed more to the imagination; that of Desdemona to the feelings. All that can render sorrow majestic is gathered round Hermione; all that can render misery heart-breaking is assembled round Desdemona. The wronged but self-sustained virtue of Hermione commands our veneration; the injured and defenceless innocence of Desdemona so wrings the soul, "that all for pity we could die."

Desdemona, as a character, comes nearest to Miranda, both in herself as a woman, and in the perfect simplicity and unity of the delineation; the figures are differently draped—the proportions are the same. There is the same modesty, tenderness, and grace; the same artless devotion in the affections, the same predisposition to wonder, to pity, to admire; the same almost ethereal refinement and delicacy; but all is pure poetic nature within Miranda and around her: Desdemona is more associated with the palpable realities of every-day existence, and we see the forms and habits of society tinting her language and deportment; no two beings can be more alike in character—nor more distinct as individuals.

The love of Desdemona for Othello appears at first such a violation of all probabilities, that her father at once imputes it to magic, "to spells and mixtures powerful o'er the blood."

She, in spite of nature, Of years, of country, credit, every thing, To fall in love with what she feared to look on!

And the devilish malignity of Iago, whose coarse mind cannot conceive an affection founded purely in sentiment, derives from her love itself a strong argument against her.

Ay, there's the point, as to be bold with you, Not to affect any proposed matches Of her own clime, complexion, and degree, Whereto, we see, in all things nature tends,[51] &c.

Notwithstanding this disparity of age, character, country, complexion, we, who are admitted into the secret, see her love rise naturally and necessarily out of the leading propensities of her nature.

At the period of the story a spirit of wild adventure had seized all Europe. The discovery of both Indies was yet recent; over the shores of the western hemisphere still fable and mystery hung, with all their dim enchantments, visionary terrors, and golden promises! perilous expeditions and distant voyages were every day undertaken from hope of plunder, or mere love of enterprise; and from these the adventurers returned with tales of "Antres vast and desarts wild—of cannibals that did each other eat—of Anthropophagi, and men whose heads did grow beneath their shoulders." With just such stories did Raleigh and Clifford, and their followers return from the New World: and thus by their splendid or fearful exaggerations, which the imperfect knowledge of those times could not refute, was the passion for the romantic and marvellous nourished at home, particularly among the women. A cavalier of those days had no nearer no surer way to his mistress's heart, than by entertaining her with these wondrous narratives. What was a general feature of his time, Shakspeare seized and adapted to his purpose with the most exquisite felicity of effect. Desdemona, leaving her household cares in haste, to hang breathless on Othello's tales, was doubtless a picture from the life; and her inexperience and her quick imagination lend it an added propriety: then her compassionate disposition is interested by all the disastrous chances, hair-breadth 'scapes, and moving accidents by flood and field, of which he has to tell; and her exceeding gentleness and timidity, and her domestic turn of mind, render her more easily captivated by the military renown, the valor, and lofty bearing of the noble Moor—

And to his honors and his valiant parts Does she her soul and fortunes consecrate.

The confession and the excuse for her love is well placed in the mouth of Desdemona, while the history of the rise of that love, and of his course of wooing, is, with the most graceful propriety, as far as she is concerned, spoken by Othello, and in her absence. The last two lines summing up the whole—

She loved me for the dangers I had passed, And I loved her that she did pity them—

comprise whole volumes of sentiment and metaphysics.

Desdemona displays at times a transient energy, arising from the power of affection, but gentleness gives the prevailing tone to the character—gentleness in its excess—gentleness verging on passiveness—gentleness, which not only cannot resent,—but cannot resist.


Then of so gentle a condition!


Ay! too gentle.


Nay, that's certain

Here the exceeding softness of Desdemona's temper is turned against her by Iago, so that it suddenly strikes Othello in a new point of view, as the inability to resist temptation; but to us who perceive the character as a whole, this extreme gentleness of nature is yet delineated with such exceeding refinement, that the effect never approaches to feebleness. It is true that once her extreme timidity leads her in a moment of confusion and terror to prevaricate about the fatal handkerchief. This handkerchief, in the original story of Cinthio, is merely one of those embroidered handkerchiefs which were as fashionable in Shakspeare's time as in our own; but the minute description of it as "lavorato alla morisco sottilissimamente,"[52] suggested to the poetical fancy of Shakspeare one of the most exquisite and characteristic passages in the whole play. Othello makes poor Desdemona believe that the handkerchief was a talisman.

There's magic in the web of it. A sibyl, that had numbered in the world The sun to make two hundred compasses, In her prophetic fury sew'd the work: The worms were hallowed that did breed the silk, And it was dyed in mummy, which the skilful Conserv'd of maidens' hearts.


Indeed! is't true?


Most veritable, therefore look to't well.


Then would to heaven that I had never seen it!


Ha! wherefore!


Why do you speak so startingly and rash?


Is't lost,—Is't gone? Speak, is it out of the way?


Heavens bless us!


Say you?


It is not lost—but what an' if it were?




I say it is not lost.


Fetch it, let me see it.


Why so I can, sir, but I will not now, &c.

Desdemona, whose soft credulity, whose turn for the marvellous, whose susceptible imagination had first directed her thoughts and affections to Othello, is precisely the woman to be frightened out of her senses by such a tale as this, and betrayed by her fears into a momentary tergiversation. It is most natural in such a being, and shows us that even in the sweetest natures there can be no completeness and consistency without moral energy.[53]

With the most perfect artlessness, she has something of the instinctive, unconscious address of her sex; as when she appeals to her father—

So much duty as my mother show'd To you, preferring you before her father, So much I challenge, that I may profess Due to the Moor, my lord.

And when she is pleading for Cassio—

What! Michael Cassio! That came a wooing with you; and many a time. When I have spoken of you disparagingly, Hath ta'en your part?

In persons who unite great sensibility and lively fancy, I have often observed this particular species of address, which is always unconscious of itself, and consists in the power of placing ourselves in the position of another, and imagining, rather than perceiving, what is in their hearts. We women have this address (if so it can be called) naturally, but I have seldom met with it in men. It is not inconsistent with extreme simplicity of character, and quite distinct from that kind of art which is the result of natural acuteness and habits of observation—quick to perceive the foibles of others, and as quick to turn them to its own purposes; which is always conscious of itself, and, if united with strong intellect, seldom perceptible to others. In the mention of her mother, and the appeal to Othello's self-love, Desdemona has no design formed on conclusions previously drawn; but her intuitive quickness of feeling, added to her imagination, lead her more safely to the same results, and the distinction is as truly as it is delicately drawn.

When Othello first outrages her in a manner which appears inexplicable, she seeks and finds excuses for him. She is so innocent that not only she cannot believe herself suspected, but she cannot conceive the existence of guilt in others.

Something, sure, of state, Either from Venice, or some unhatch'd practice Made demonstrable here in Cyprus to him, Hath puddled his clear spirit. 'Tis even so— Nay, we must think, men are not gods, Nor of them look for such observances As fit the bridal.

And when the direct accusation of crime is flung on her in the vilest terms, it does not anger but stun her, as if it transfixed her whole being; she attempts no reply, no defence; and reproach or resistance never enters her thought.

Good friend, go to him—for by this light of heaven I know not how I lost him: here I kneel:— If e'er my will did trespass 'gainst his love, Either in discourse of thought or actual deed; Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense, Delighted them in any other form; Or that I do not yet, and ever did, And ever will, though he do shake me off To beggarly divorcement, love him dearly, Comfort forswear me! Unkindness may do much, And his unkindness may defeat my life, But never taint my love.

And there is one stroke of consummate delicacy surprising, when we remember the latitude of expression prevailing in Shakspeare's time, and which he allowed to his other women generally: she says, on recovering from her stupefaction—

Am I that name, Iago?


What name, sweet lady?


That which she says my lord did say I was.

So completely did Shakspeare enter into the angelic refinement of the character.

Endued with that temper which is the origin of superstition in love as in religion,—which, in fact makes love itself a religion,—she not only does not utter an upbraiding, but nothing that Othello does or says, no outrage, no injustice, can tear away the charm with which her imagination had invested him, or impair her faith in his honor; "Would you had never seen him!" exclaims Emilia.


So would not I!—my love doth so approve him, That even his stubbornness, his checks and frowns Have grace and favor in them.

There is another peculiarity, which, in reading the play of Othello, we rather feel than perceive: through the whole of the dialogue appropriated to Desdemona, there is not one general observation. Words are with her the vehicle of sentiment, and never of reflection; so that I cannot find throughout a sentence of general application. The same remark applies to Miranda: and to no other female character of any importance or interest; not even to Ophelia.

The rest of what I wished to say of Desdemona, has been anticipated by an anonymous critic, and so beautifully, so justly, so eloquently expressed, that I with pleasure erase my own page, to make room for his.

"Othello," observes this writer, "is no love story; all that is below tragedy in the passion of love, is taken away at once, by the awful character of Othello; for such he seems to us to be designed to be. He appears never as a lover, but at once as a husband: and the relation of his love made dignified, as it is a husband's justification of his marriage, is also dignified, as it is a soldier's relation of his stern and perilous life. His love itself, as long as it is happy, is perfectly calm and serene—the protecting tenderness of a husband. It is not till it is disordered, that it appears as a passion: then is shown a power in contention with itself—a mighty being struck with death, and bringing up from all the depths of life convulsions and agonies. It is no exhibition of the power of the passion of love, but of the passion of life, vitally wounded, and self over-mastering. If Desdemona had been really guilty, the greatness would have been destroyed, because his love would have been unworthy, false. But she is good, and his love is most perfect, just, and good. That a man should place his perfect love on a wretched thing, is miserably debasing, and shocking to thought; but that loving perfectly and well, he should by hellish human circumvention be brought to distrust and dread, and abjure his own perfect love, is most mournful indeed—it is the infirmity of our good nature wrestling in vain with the strong powers of evil. Moreover, he would, had Desdemona been false, have been the mere victim of fate; whereas he is now in a manner his own victim. His happy love was heroic tenderness; his injured love is terrible passion, and disordered power, engendered within itself to its own destruction, is the height of all tragedy.

"The character of Othello is perhaps the most greatly drawn, the most heroic of any of Shakspeare's actors; but it is, perhaps, that one also of which his reader last acquires the intelligence. The intellectual and warlike energy of his mind—his tenderness of affection—his loftiness of spirit—his frank, generous magnanimity—impetuosity like a thunderbolt—and that dark, fierce flood of boiling passion, polluting even his imagination,—compose a character entirely original, most difficult to delineate, but perfectly delineated."

Emilia in this play is a perfect portrait from common life, a masterpiece in the Flemish style: and though not necessary as a contrast, it cannot be but that the thorough vulgarity, the loose principles of this plebeian woman, united to a high degree of spirit, energetic feeling, strong sense and low cunning, serve to place in brighter relief the exquisite refinement, the moral grace, the unblemished truth, and the soft submission of Desdemona.

On the other perfections of this tragedy, considered as a production of genius—on the wonderful characters of Othello and Iago—on the skill with which the plot is conducted, and its simplicity which a word unravels,[54] and on the overpowering horror of the catastrophe—eloquence and analytical criticism have been exhausted; I will only add, that the source of the pathos throughout—of that pathos which at once softens and deepens the tragic effect—lies in the character of Desdemona. No woman differently constituted could have excited the same intense and painful compassion, without losing something of that exalted charm, which invests her from beginning to end, which we are apt to impute to the interest of the situation, and to the poetical coloring, but which lies, in fact, in the very essence of the character. Desdemona, with all her timid flexibility and soft acquiescence, is not weak; for the negative alone is weak; and the mere presence of goodness and affection implies in itself a species of power; power without consciousness, power without effort, power with repose—that soul of grace!

I know a Desdemona in real life, one in whom the absence of intellectual power is never felt as a deficiency, nor the absence of energy of will as impairing the dignity, nor the most imperturbable serenity, as a want of feeling: one in whom thoughts appear mere instincts, the sentiment of rectitude supplies the principle, and virtue itself seems rather a necessary state of being, than an imposed law. No shade of sin or vanity has yet stolen over that bright innocence. No discord within has marred the loveliness without—no strife of the factitious world without has disturbed the harmony within. The comprehension of evil appears forever shut out, as if goodness had converted all things to itself; and all to the pure in heart must necessarily be pure. The impression produced is exactly that of the character of Desdemona; genius is a rare thing, but abstract goodness is rarer. In Desdemona, we cannot but feel that the slightest manifestation of intellectual power or active will would have injured the dramatic effect. She is a victim consecrated from the first,—"an offering without blemish," alone worthy of the grand final sacrifice; all harmony, all grace, all purity, all tenderness, all truth! But, alas! to see her fluttering like a cherub in the talons of a fiend!—to see her—O poor Desdemona!


We come to Imogen. Others of Shakspeare's characters are, as dramatic and poetical conceptions, more striking, more brilliant, more powerful; but of all his women, considered as individuals rather than as heroines, Imogen is the most perfect. Portia and Juliet are pictured to the fancy with more force of contrast, more depth of light and shade; Viola and Miranda, with more aerial delicacy of outline; but there is no female portrait that can be compared to Imogen as a woman—none in which so great a variety of tints are mingled together into such perfect harmony. In her, we have all the fervor of youthful tenderness, all the romance of youthful fancy, all the enchantment of ideal grace,—the bloom of beauty, the brightness of intellect and the dignity of rank, taking a peculiar hue from the conjugal character which is shed over all, like a consecration and a holy charm. In Othello and the Winter's Tale, the interest excited for Desdemona and Hermione is divided with others: but in Cymbeline, Imogen is the angel of light, whose lovely presence pervades and animates the whole piece. The character altogether may be pronounced finer, more complex in its elements, and more fully developed in all its parts, than those of Hermione and Desdemona; but the position in which she is placed is not, I think, so fine—at least, not so effective, as a tragic situation.

Shakspeare has borrowed the chief circumstances of Imogen's story from one of Boccaccio's tales.[55]

A company of Italian merchants who are assembled in a tavern at Paris, are represented as conversing on the subject of their wives: all of them express themselves with levity, or skepticism, or scorn, on the virtue of women, except a young Genoese merchant named Bernabo, who maintains, that by the especial favor of Heaven he possesses a wife no less chaste than beautiful. Heated by the wine, and excited by the arguments and the coarse raillery of another young merchant, Ambrogiolo, Bernabo proceeds to enumerate the various perfections and accomplishments of his Zinevra. He praises her loveliness, her submission, and her discretion—her skill in embroidery, her graceful service, in which the best trained page of the court could not exceed her; and he adds, as rarer accomplishments, that she could mount a horse, fly a hawk, write and read, and cast up accounts, as well as any merchant of them all. His enthusiasm only excites the laughter and mockery of his companions, particularly of Ambrogiolo, who, by the most artful mixture of contradiction and argument, rouses the anger of Bernabo, and he at length exclaims, that he would willingly stake his life, his head, on the virtue of his wife. This leads to the wager which forms so important an incident in the drama. Ambrogiolo bets one thousand florins of gold against five thousand, that Zinevra, like the rest of her sex, is accessible to temptation—that in less than three months he will undermine her virtue, and bring her husband the most undeniable proofs of her falsehood. He sets off for Genoa, in order to accomplish his purpose; but on his arrival, all that he learns, and all that he beholds with his own eyes, of the discreet and noble character of the lady, make him despair of success by fair means; he therefore has recourse to the basest treachery. By bribing an old woman in the service of Zinevra, he is conveyed to her sleeping apartment, concealed in a trunk, from which he issues in the dead of the night; he takes note of the furniture of the chamber, makes himself master of her purse, her morning robe, or cymar, and her girdle, and of a certain mark on her person. He repeats these observations for two nights, and, furnished with these evidences of Zinevra's guilt, he returns to Paris, and lays them before the wretched husband. Bernabo rejects every proof of his wife's infidelity except that which finally convinces Posthumus. When Ambrogiolo mentions the "mole, cinque-spotted," he stands like one who has received a poniard in his heart; without further dispute he pays down the forfeit, and filled with rage and despair both at the loss of his money and the falsehood of his wife, he returns towards Genoa; he retires to his country house, and sends a messenger to the city with letters to Zinevra, desiring that she would come and meet him, but with secret orders to the man to despatch her by the way. The servant prepares to execute his master's command, but overcome by her entreaties for mercy, and his own remorse, he spares her life, on condition that she will fly from the country forever. He then disguises her in his own cloak and cap, and brings back to her husband the assurance that she is killed, and that her body has been devoured by the wolves. In the disguise of a mariner, Zinevra then embarks on board a vessel bound to the Levant, and on arriving at Alexandria, she is taken into the service of the Sultan of Egypt, under the name of Sicurano; she gains the confidence of her master, who, not suspecting her sex, sends her as captain of the guard which was appointed for the protection of the merchants at the fair of Acre. Here she accidentally meets Ambrogiolo, and sees in his possession the purse and girdle, which she immediately recognizes as her own. In reply to her inquiries, he relates with fiendish exultation the manner in which he had obtained possession of them, and she persuades him to go back with her to Alexandria. She then sends a messenger to Genoa in the name of the Sultan, and induces her husband to come and settle in Alexandria. At a proper opportunity, she summons both to the presence of the Sultan, obliges Ambrogiolo to make a full confession of his treachery, and wrings from her husband the avowal of his supposed murder of herself: then falling at the feet of the Sultan discovers her real name and sex, to the great amazement of all. Bernabo is pardoned at the prayer of his wife, and Ambrogiolo is condemned to be fastened to a stake, smeared with honey, and left to be devoured by the flies and locusts. This horrible sentence is executed; while Zinevra, enriched by the presents of the Sultan, and the forfeit wealth of Ambrogiolo, returns with her husband to Genoa, where she lives in great honor and happiness, and maintains her reputation of virtue to the end of her life.

These are the materials from which Shakspeare has drawn the dramatic situation of Imogen. He has also endowed her with several of the qualities which are attributed to Zinevra; but for the essential truth and beauty of the individual character, for the sweet coloring of pathos, and sentiment, and poetry interfused through the whole, he is indebted only to nature and himself.

It would be a waste of words to refute certain critics who have accused Shakspeare of a want of judgment in the adoption of the story; of having transferred the manners of a set of intoxicated merchants and a merchant's wife to heroes and princesses, and of having entirely destroyed the interest of the catastrophe.[56] The truth is, that Shakspeare has wrought out the materials before him with the most luxuriant fancy and the most wonderful skill. As for the various anachronisms, and the confusion of names, dates, and manners, over which Dr. Johnson exults in no measured terms, the confusion is nowhere but in his own heavy obtuseness of sentiment and perception, and his want of poetical faith. Look into the old Italian poets, whom we read continually with still increasing pleasure; does any one think of sitting down to disprove the existence of Ariodante, king of Scotland? or to prove that the mention of Proteus and Pluto, baptism and the Virgin Mary, in a breath, amounts to an anachronism? Shakspeare, by throwing his story far back into a remote and uncertain age, has blended, by his "own omnipotent will," the marvellous, the heroic, the ideal, and the classical,—the extreme of refinement and the extreme of simplicity,—into one of the loveliest fictions of romantic poetry; and, to use Schlegel's expression, "has made the social manners of the latest times harmonize with heroic deeds, and even with the appearances of the gods."[57]

But, admirable as is the conduct of the whole play, rich in variety of character and in picturesque incident, its chief beauty and interest is derived from Imogen.

When Ferdinand tells Miranda that she was "created of every creature's best," he speaks like a lover, or refers only to her personal charms: the same expression might be applied critically to the character of Imogen; for, as the portrait of Miranda is produced by resolving the female character into its original elements, so that of Imogen unites the greatest number of those qualities which we imagine to constitute excellency in woman.

Imogen, like Juliet, conveys to our mind the impression of extreme simplicity in the midst of the most wonderful complexity. To conceive her aright, we must take some peculiar tint from many characters, and so mingle them, that, like the combination of hues in a sunbeam, the effect shall be as one to the eye. We must imagine something of the romantic enthusiasm of Juliet, of the truth and constancy of Helen, of the dignified purity of Isabel, of the tender sweetness of Viola, of the self-possession and intellect of Portia—combined together so equally and so harmoniously, that we can scarcely say that one quality predominates over the other. But Imogen is less imaginative than Juliet, less spirited and intellectual than Portia, less serious than Helen and Isabel; her dignity is not so imposing as that of Hermione, it stands more on the defensive; her submission, though unbounded, is not so passive as that of Desdemona; and thus while she resembles each of these characters individually, she stands wholly distinct from all.

It is true, that the conjugal tenderness of Imogen is at once the chief subject of the drama, and the pervading charm of her character; but it is not true, I think, that she is merely interesting from her tenderness and constancy to her husband. We are so completely let into the essence of Imogen's nature, that we feel as if we had known and loved her before she was married to Posthumus, and that her conjugal virtues are a charm superadded, like the color laid upon a beautiful groundwork. Neither does it appear to me, that Posthumus is unworthy of Imogen, or only interesting on Imogen's account. His character, like those of all the other persons of the drama, is kept subordinate to hers: but this could not be otherwise, for she is the proper subject—the heroine of the poem. Every thing is done to ennoble Posthumus, and justify her love for him; and though we certainly approve him more for her sake than for his own, we are early prepared to view him with Imogen's eyes; and not only excuse, but sympathize in her admiration of one

Who sat 'mongst men like a descended god.

* * * *

Who lived in court, which it is rare to do, Most praised, most loved: A sample to the youngest; to the more mature, A glass that feated them.

And with what beauty and delicacy is her conjugal and matronly character discriminated! Her love for her husband is as deep as Juliet's for her lover, but without any of that headlong vehemence, that fluttering amid hope, fear, and transport—that giddy intoxication of heart and sense, which belongs to the novelty of passion, which we feel once, and but once, in our lives. We see her love for Posthumus acting upon her mind with the force of an habitual feeling, heightened by enthusiastic passion, and hallowed by the sense of duty. She asserts and justifies her affection with energy indeed, but with a calm and wife-like dignity:—


Thou took'st a beggar, would'st have made my throne A seat for baseness.


No, I rather added a lustre to it


O thou vile one!


Sir, It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus; You bred him as my playfellow, and he is A man worth any woman; overbuys me, Almost the sum he pays.

Compare also, as examples of the most delicate discrimination of character and feeling, the parting scene between Imogen and Posthumus, that between Romeo and Juliet, and that between Troilus and Cressida: compare the confiding matronly tenderness, the deep but resigned sorrow of Imogen, with the despairing agony of Juliet, and the petulant grief of Cressida.

When Posthumus is driven into exile, he comes to take a last farewell of his wife:—


My dearest husband, I something fear my father's wrath, but nothing (Always reserved my holy duty) what His rage can do on me. You must be gone, And I shall here abide the hourly shot Of angry eyes: not comforted to live, But that there is this jewel in the world That I may see again.


My queen! my mistress! O, lady, weep no more! lest I give cause To be suspected of more tenderness Than doth become a man. I will remain The loyal'st husband that did e'er plight troth

* * * *

Should we be taking leave As long a term as yet we have to live, The loathness to depart would grow—Adieu!


Nay, stay a little: Were you but riding forth to air yourself, Such parting were too petty. Look here, love, This diamond was my mother's; take it, heart But keep it till you woo another wife, When Imogen is dead!

Imogen, in whose tenderness there is nothing jealous or fantastic, does not seriously apprehend that her husband will woo another wife when she is dead. It is one of those fond fancies which women are apt to express in moments of feeling, merely for the pleasure of hearing a protestation to the contrary. When Posthumus leaves her, she does not burst forth in eloquent lamentation; but that silent, stunning, overwhelming sorrow, which renders the mind insensible to all things else, is represented with equal force and simplicity.


There cannot be a pinch in death More sharp than this is.


O disloyal thing, That should'st repair my youth; thou heapeat A year's age on me!


I beseech you, sir, Harm not yourself with your vexation; I Am senseless of your wrath; a touch more rare[58] Subdues all pangs, all fears.


Past grace? obedience?


Past hope and in despair—that way past grace.

In the same circumstances, the impetuous excited feelings of Juliet, and her vivid imagination, lend something far more wildly agitated, more intensely poetical and passionate to her grief.


Art thou gone so? My love, my lord, my friend! I must hear from thee every day i' the hour, For in a minute there are many days— O by this count I shall be much in years, Ere I again behold my Romeo!


Farewell! I will omit no opportunity That may convey my greetings, love, to thee.


O! think'st thou we shall ever meet again?


I doubt it not; and all these woes shall serve For sweet discourses in our time to come.


O God! I have an ill-divining soul: Methinks I see thee, now thou art below, As one dead in the bottom of a tomb: Either my eye-sight fails, or thou look'st pale.

We have no sympathy with the pouting disappointment of Cressida, which is just like that of a spoilt child which has lost its sugar-plum, without tenderness, passions, or poetry: and, in short, perfectly characteristic of that vain, fickle, dissolute, heartless woman,—"unstable as water."


And is it true that I must go from Troy?


A hateful truth.


What, and from Troilus too?


From Troy and Troilus.


Is it possible?


And suddenly.


I must then to the Greeks?


No remedy.


A woeful Cressid 'mongst the merry Greeks! When shall we see again?


Hear me, my love. Be thou but true of heart—


I true! How now? what wicked deem is this?


Nay, we must use expostulation kindly, For it is parting from us; I speak not, be thou true, as fearing thee; For I will throw my glove to Death himself That there's no maculation in thy heart: But be thou true, say I, to fashion in My sequent protestation. Be thou true, And I will see thee.


O heavens! be true again— O heavens! you love me not.


Die I a villain, then! In this I do not call your faith in question, So mainly as my merit— —But be not tempted.


Do you think I will?

* * * * *

In the eagerness of Imogen to meet her husband there is all a wife's fondness, mixed up with the breathless hurry arising from a sudden and joyful surprise; but nothing of the picturesque eloquence, the ardent, exuberant, Italian imagination of Juliet, who, to gratify her impatience, would have her heralds thoughts;—press into her service the nimble pinioned doves, and wind-swift Cupids,—change the course of nature, and lash the steeds of Phoebus to the west. Imogen only thinks "one score of miles, 'twixt sun and sun," slow travelling for a lover, and wishes for a horse with wings—

O for a horse with wings! Hear'st thou, Pisanio? He is at Milford Haven. Read, and tell me How far 'tis thither. If one of mean affairs May plod it in a week, why may not I Glide thither in a day? Then, true Pisanio, (Who long'st like me, to see thy lord—who long'st— O let me bate, but not like me—yet long'st, But in a fainter kind—O not like me, For mine's beyond beyond,) say, and speak thick— (Love's counsellor should fill the bores of hearing To the smothering of the sense)—how far is it To this same blessed Milford? And by the way, Tell me how Wales was made so happy, as To inherit such a haven. But, first of all, How we may steal from hence; and for the gap That we shall make in time, from our hence going And our return, to excuse. But first, how get hence. Why should excuse be born, or e'er begot? We'll talk of that hereafter. Pr'ythee speak, How many score of miles may we well ride 'Twixt hour and hour?


One score, 'twixt sun and sun, Madam, 's enough for you; and too much too.


Why, one that rode to his execution, man, Could never go so slow!

There are two or three other passages bearing on the conjugal tenderness of Imogen, which must be noticed for the extreme intensity of the feeling, and the unadorned elegance of the expression.

I would thou grew'st unto the shores o' the haven And question'dst every sail: if he should write, And I not have it, 'twere a paper lost As offer'd mercy is. What was the last That he spake to thee?


'Twas, His queen! his queen!


Then wav'd his hankerchief?


And kiss'd it, madam.


Senseless linen! happier therein than I!— And that was all?


No, madam; for so long As he could make me with this eye or ear Distinguish him from others, he did keep The deck, with glove, or hat, or handkerchief Still waving, as the fits and stirs of his mind Could best express how slow his soul sail'd on, How swift his ship.


Thou should'st have made him As little as a crow, or less, ere left To after-eye him.


Madam, so I did.


I would have broke my eye-strings; cracked them, but To look upon him; till the diminution Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle; Nay, followed him, till he had melted from The smallness of a gnat to air; and then Have turn'd mine eye, and wept.

Two little incidents, which are introduced with the most unobtrusive simplicity, convey the strongest impression of her tenderness for her husband, and with that perfect unconsciousness on her part, which adds to the effect. Thus when she has lost her bracelet—

Go, bid my woman Search for a jewel, that too casually, Hath left my arm. It was thy master's: 'shrew me, If I would lose it for a revenue Of any king in Europe. I do think I saw't this morning; confident I am, Last night 'twas on mine arm—I kiss'd it. I hope it has not gone to tell my lord That I kiss aught but he.

It has been well observed, that our consciousness that the bracelet is really gone to bear false witness against her, adds an inexpressibly touching effect to the simplicity and tenderness of the sentiment.

And again, when she opens her bosom to meet the death to which her husband has doomed her, she finds his letters preserved next her heart

What's here! The letters of the loyal Leonatus?— Soft, we'll no defence.

The scene in which Posthumus stakes his ring on the virtue of his wife, and gives Iachimo permission to tempt her, is taken from the story. The baseness and folly of such conduct have been justly censured; but Shakspeare, feeling that Posthumus needed every excuse, has managed the quarrelling scene between him and Iachimo with the most admirable skill. The manner in which his high spirit is gradually worked up by the taunts of this Italian fiend, is contrived with far more probability, and much less coarseness, than in the original tale. In the end he is not the challenger, but the challenged; and could hardly (except on a moral principle, much too refined for those rude times) have declined the wager without compromising his own courage and his faith in the honor of Imogen.


I durst attempt it against any lady in the world.


You are a great deal abused in too bold a persuasion; and I doubt not you sustain what you're worthy of, by your attempt.


What's that?


A repulse: though your attempt, as you call it, deserve more—a punishment too.


Gentlemen, enough of this. It came in too suddenly; let it die as it was born, and I pray you be better acquainted.


Would I had put my estate and my neighbor's on the approbation of what I have said!


What lady would you choose to assail?


Yours, whom in constancy you think stands so safe

In the interview between Imogen and Iachimo, he does not begin his attack on her virtue by a direct accusation against Posthumus; but by dark hints and half-uttered insinuations, such as Iago uses to madden Othello, he intimates that her husband, in his absence from her, has betrayed her love and truth, and forgotten her in the arms of another. All that Imogen says in this scene is comprised in a few lines—a brief question, or a more brief remark. The proud and delicate reserve with which she veils the anguish she suffers, is inimitably beautiful. The strongest expression of reproach he can draw from her, is only, "My lord, I fear, has forgot Britain." When he continues in the same strain, she exclaims in an agony, "Let me hear no more." When he urges her to revenge, she asks, with all the simplicity of virtue, "How should I be revenged?" And when he explains to her how she is to be avenged, her sudden burst of indignation, and her immediate perception of his treachery, and the motive for it, are powerfully fine: it is not only the anger of a woman whose delicacy has been shocked, but the spirit of a princess insulted in her court.

Away! I do condemn mine ears, that have So long attended thee. If thou wert honorable, Thou would'st have told this tale for virtue not For such an end thou seek'st, as base as strange Thou wrong'st a gentleman, who is as far From thy report as thou from honor; and Solicit'st here a lady that disdains Thee and the devil alike.

It has been remarked, that "her readiness to pardon Iachimo's false imputation, and his designs against herself, is a good lesson to prudes, and may show that where there is a real attachment to virtue, there is no need of an outrageous antipathy to vice."[59]

This is true; but can we fail to perceive that the instant and ready forgiveness of Imogen is accounted for, and rendered more graceful and characteristic by the very means which Iachimo employs to win it? He pours forth the most enthusiastic praises of her husband, professes that he merely made this trial of her out of his exceeding love for Posthumus, and she is pacified at once; but, with exceeding delicacy of feeling, she is represented as maintaining her dignified reserve and her brevity of speech to the end of the scene.[60]

We must also observe how beautifully the character of Imogen is distinguished from those of Desdemona and Hermione. When she is made acquainted with her husband's cruel suspicions, we see in her deportment neither the meek submission of the former, nor the calm resolute dignity of the latter. The first effect produced on her by her husband's letter is conveyed to the fancy by the exclamation of Pisanio, who is gazing on her as she reads.—

What shall I need to draw my sword? The paper Has cut her throat already! No, 'tis slander, Whose edge is sharper than the sword!

And in her first exclamations we trace, besides astonishment and anguish, and the acute sense of the injustice inflicted on her, a flash of indignant spirit, which we do not find in Desdemona or Hermione

False to his bed!—What is it to be false? To lie in watch there, and to think of him? To weep 'twixt clock and clock? If sleep charge nature, To break it with a fearful dream of him, And cry myself awake?—that's false to his bed, Is it?

This is followed by that affecting lamentation over the falsehood and injustice of her husband, in which she betrays no atom of jealousy or wounded self-love, but observes in the extremity of her anguish, that after his lapse from truth, "all good seeming would be discredited," and she then resigns herself to his will with the most entire submission.

In the original story, Zinevra prevails on the servant to spare her, by her exclamations and entreaties for mercy. "The lady, seeing the poniard, and hearing those words, exclaimed in terror, 'Alas! have pity on me for the love of Heaven! do not become the slayer of one who never offended thee, only to pleasure another. God, who knows all things, knows that I have never done that which could merit such a reward from my husband's hand.'"

Now let us turn to Shakspeare. Imogen says,—

Come, fellow, be thou honest; Do thou thy master's bidding: when thou seest him, A little witness my obedience. Look! I draw the sword myself; take it, and hit The innocent mansion of my love, my heart. Fear not; 'tis empty of all things but grief: Thy master is not there, who was, indeed, The riches of it. Do his bidding; strike!

The devoted attachment of Pisanio to his royal mistress, all through the piece, is one of those side touches by which Shakspeare knew how to give additional effect to his characters.

Cloten is odious;[61] but we must not overlook the peculiar fitness and propriety of his character, in connection with that of Imogen. He is precisely the kind of man who would be most intolerable to such a woman. He is a fool,—so is Slender, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek: but the folly of Cloten is not only ridiculous, but hateful; it arises not so much from a want of understanding as a total want of heart; it is the perversion of sentiment, rather than the deficiency of intellect; he has occasional gleams of sense, but never a touch of feeling. Imogen describes herself not only as "sprighted with a fool," but as "frighted and anger'd worse." No other fool but Cloten—a compound of the booby and the villain—could excite in such a mind as Imogen's the same mixture of terror, contempt, and abhorrence. The stupid, obstinate malignity of Cloten, and the wicked machinations of the queen—

A father cruel, and a step-dame false, A foolish suitor to a wedded lady—

justify whatever might need excuse in the conduct of Imogen—as her concealed marriage and her flight from her father's court—and serve to call out several of the most beautiful and striking parts of her character: particularly that decision and vivacity of temper, which in her harmonize so beautifully with exceeding delicacy, sweetness, and submission.

In the scene with her detested suitor, there is at first a careless majesty of disdain, which is admirable.

I am much sorry, sir, You put me to forget a lady's manners, By being so verbal;[62] and learn now, for all, That I, which know my heart, do here pronounce, By the very truth of it, I care not for you, And am so near the lack of charity, (T' accuse myself,) I hate you; which I had rather You felt, than make 't my boast.

But when he dares to provoke her, by reviling the absent Posthumus, her indignation heightens her scorn, and her scorn sets a keener edge on her indignation.


For the contract you pretend with that base wretch, One bred of alms, and fostered with cold dishes, With scraps o' the court; it is no contract, none.


Profane fellow! Wert thou the son of Jupiter, and no more, But what thou art, besides, thou wert too base To be his groom; thou wert dignified enough, Even to the point of envy, if 'twere made Comparative for your virtues, to be styl'd The under hangman of his kingdom; and hated For being preferr'd so well.

He never can meet more mischance than come To be but nam'd of thee. His meanest garment That ever hath but clipp'd his body, is dearer In my respect, than all the hairs above thee. Were they all made such men.

One thing more must be particularly remarked because it serves to individualize the character from the beginning to the end of the poem. We are constantly sensible that Imogen, besides being a tender and devoted woman, is a princess and a beauty, at the same time that she is ever superior to her position and her external charms. There is, for instance, a certain airy majesty of deportment—a spirit of accustomed command breaking out every now and then—the dignity, without the assumption of rank and royal birth, which is apparent in the scene with Cloten and elsewhere; and we have not only a general impression that Imogen, like other heroines, is beautiful, but the peculiar style and character of her beauty is placed before us: we have an image of the most luxuriant loveliness, combined with exceeding delicacy, and even fragility of person: of the most refined elegance, and the most exquisite modesty, set forth in one or two passages of description; as when Iachimo is contemplating her asleep:—

Cytherea, How bravely thou becom'st thy bed! fresh lily. And whiter than the sheets.

'Tis her breathing that Perfumes the chamber thus. The flame o' the taper Bows toward her; and would underpeep her lids To see the enclos'd lights, now canopied Under those windows, white and azure, lac'd With blue of heaven's own tinct!

The preservation of her feminine character under her masculine attire; her delicacy, her modesty, and her timidity, are managed with the same perfect consistency and unconscious grace as in Viola. And we must not forget that her "neat cookery," which is so prettily eulogized by Guiderius:—

He cuts out roots in characters, And sauc'd our broths, as Juno had been sick, And he her dieter,

formed part of the education of a princess in those remote times.

Few reflections of a general nature are put into the mouth of Imogen; and what she says is more remarkable for sense, truth, and tender feeling, than for wit, or wisdom, or power of imagination. The following little touch of poetry reminds us of Juliet:—

Ere I could Give him that parting kiss, which I had set Between two charming words, comes in my father; And, like the tyrannous breathing of the north, Shakes all our buds from growing.

Her exclamation on opening her husband's letter reminds us of the profound and thoughtful tenderness of Helen:—

O learned indeed were that astronomer That knew the stars, as I his characters! He'd lay the future open.

The following are more in the manner of Isabel:—

Most miserable Is the desire that's glorious: bless'd be those, How mean soe'er, that have their honest wills, That seasons comfort, Against self-slaughter There is a prohibition so divine That cravens my weak hand.

Thus may poor fools Believe false teachers; though those that are betray'd Do feel the reason sharply, yet the traitor Stands in worse case of woe, Are we not brothers?

So man and man should be; But clay and clay differs in dignity, Whose dust is both alike.

Will poor folks lie That have afflictions on them, knowing 'tis A punishment or trial? Yes: no wonder, When rich ones scarce tell true: to lapse in fulness Is sorer than to lie for need; and falsehood Is worse in kings than beggars.

The sentence which follows, and which I believe has become proverbial, has much of the manner of Portia, both in the thought and the expression:—

Hath Britain all the sun that shines? Day, night, Are they not but in Britain? I' the world's volume Our Britain seems as of it, but not in it; In a great pool, a swan's nest; pr'ythee, think There's livers out of Britain.

* * * * *

The catastrophe of this play has been much admired for the peculiar skill with which all the various threads of interest are gathered together at last, and entwined with the destiny of Imogen. It may be added, that one of its chief beauties is the manner in which the character of Imogen is not only preserved, but rises upon us to the conclusion with added grace: her instantaneous forgiveness of her husband before he even asks it, when she flings herself at once into his arms—

Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?

and her magnanimous reply to her father, when he tells her, that by the discovery of her two brothers she has lost a kingdom—

No—I have gain'd two worlds by it—

clothing a noble sentiment in a noble image, give the finishing touches of excellence to this most enchanting portrait.

On the whole, Imogen is a lovely compound of goodness, truth, and affection, with just so much of passion and intellect and poetry, as serve to lend to the picture that power and glowing richness of effect which it would otherwise have wanted; and of her it might be said, if we could condescend to quote from any other poet with Shakespeare open before us, that "her person was a paradise, and her soul the cherub to guard it."[63]


There is in the beauty of Cordelia's character an effect too sacred for words, and almost too deep for tears; within her heart is a fathomless well of purest affection, but its waters sleep in silence and obscurity,—never failing in their depth and never overflowing in their fulness. Every thing in her seems to lie beyond our view, and affects us in a manner which we feel rather than perceive. The character appears to have no surface, no salient points upon which the fancy can readily seize: there is little external development of intellect, less of passion, and still less of imagination. It is completely made out in the course of a few scenes, and we are surprised to find that in those few scenes there is matter for a life of reflection, and materials enough for twenty heroines. If Lear be the grandest of Shakspeare's tragedies, Cordelia in herself, as a human being, governed by the purest and holiest impulses and motives, the most refined from all dross of selfishness and passion, approaches near to perfection; and in her adaptation, as a dramatic personage, to a determinate plan of action, may be pronounced altogether perfect. The character, to speak of it critically as a poetical conception, is not, however, to be comprehended at once, or easily; and in the same manner Cordelia, as a woman, is one whom we must have loved before we could have known her, and known her long before we could have known her truly.

Most people, I believe, have heard the story of the young German artist Mueller, who, while employed in copying and engraving Raffaelle's Madonna del Sisto, was so penetrated by its celestial beauty, so distrusted his own power to do justice to it, that between admiration and despair he fell into a sadness; thence through the usual gradations, into a melancholy, thence into madness; and died just as he had put the finishing stroke to his own matchless work, which had occupied him for eight years. With some slight tinge of this concentrated kind of enthusiasm I have learned to contemplate the character of Cordelia; I have looked into it till the revelation of its hidden beauty, and an intense feeling of the wonderful genius which created it, have filled me at once with delight and despair. Like poor Mueller, but with more reason, I do despair of ever conveying, through a different and inferior medium, the impression made on my own mind to the mind of another.

Schlegel, the most eloquent of critics, concludes his remarks on King Lear with these words: "Of the heavenly beauty of soul of Cordelia, I will not venture to speak." Now if I attempt what Schlegel and others have left undone, it is because I feel that this general acknowledgment of her excellence can neither satisfy those who have studied the character, nor convey a just conception of it to the mere reader. Amid the awful, the overpowering interest of the story, amid the terrible convulsions of passion and suffering, and pictures of moral and physical wretchedness which harrow up the soul, the tender influence of Cordelia, like that of a celestial visitant, is felt and acknowledged without being quite understood. Like a soft star that shines for a moment from behind a stormy cloud and the next is swallowed up in tempest and darkness, the impression it leaves is beautiful and deep,—but vague. Speak of Cordelia to a critic or to a general reader, all agree in the beauty of the portrait, for all must feel it; but when we come to details, I have heard more various and opposite opinions relative to her than any other of Shakspeare's characters—a proof of what I have advanced in the first instance, that from the simplicity with which the character is dramatically treated, and the small space it occupies, few are aware of its internal power, or its wonderful depth of purpose.

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