Whoever reads the scene carefully in "Much Ado About Nothing," cannot avoid seeing that Shakespeare at his best not only does not minimize his friend's offence, but condemns it absolutely:
"The transgression is in the stealer."
And in the sonnets, too, in spite of himself, the same true feeling pierces through the snobbish and affected excuses.
"Ay me! but yet them might'st my seat forbear, And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth, Who lead thee in their riot even there Where thou art forced to break a twofold truth, Hers, by thy beauty tempting her to thee, Thine, by thy beauty being false to me."
Shakespeare was a sycophant, a flunkey if you will, but nothing worse.
Further arguments suggest themselves. Shakespeare lived, as it were, in a glass house with a score of curious eyes watching everything he did and with as many ears pricked for every word he said; but this foul accusation was never even suggested by any of his rivals. In especial Ben Jonson was always girding at Shakespeare, now satirically, now good-humouredly. Is it not manifest that if any such sin had ever been attributed to him, Ben Jonson would have given the suspicion utterance? There is a passage in his "Bartholomew Fair" which I feel sure is meant as a skit upon the relations we find in the Sonnets. In Act V, scene iii, there is a puppet-show setting forth "the ancient modern history of Hero and Leander, otherwise called the Touchstone of true Love, with as true a trial of Friendship between Damon and Pythias, two faithful friends o' the Bankside." Hero is a "wench o' the Bankside," and Leander swims across the Thames to her. Damon and Pythias meet at her lodgings, and abuse each other violently, only to finish as perfect good friends.
"Damon. Whore-master in thy face; Thou hast lain with her thyself, I'll prove it in this place.
Leatherhead. They are whore-masters both, sir, that's a plain case.
Pythias. Thou lie like a rogue.
Leatherhead. Do I lie like a rogue?
Pythias. A pimp and a scab.
Leatherhead. A pimp and a scab! I say, between you you have both but one drab.
Pythias and Damon. Come, now we'll go together to breakfast to Hero.
Leatherhead. Thus, gentles, you perceive without any denial 'Twixt Damon and Pythias here friendship's true trial."
Rare Ben Jonson would have been delighted to set forth the viler charge if it had ever been whispered.
Then again, it seems to me certain that if Shakespeare had been the sort of man his accusers say he was, he would have betrayed himself in his plays. Consider merely the fact that young boys then played the girls' parts on the stage. Surely if Shakespeare had had any leaning that way, we should have found again and again ambiguous or suggestive expressions given to some of these boys when aping girls; but not one. The temptation was there; the provocation was there, incessant and prolonged for twenty-five years, and yet, to my knowledge, Shakespeare has never used one word that malice could misconstrue. Yet he loved suggestive and lewd speech.
Luckily, however, there is stronger proof of Shakespeare's innocence than even his condemnation of his false friend, proof so strong, that if all the arguments for his guilt were tenfold stronger than they are, this proof would outweigh them all and bring them to nought. Nor should it be supposed, because I have only mentioned the chief arguments for and against, that I do not know all those that can be urged on either side. I have confined myself to the chief ones simply because by merely stating them, their utter weakness must be admitted by every one who can read Shakespeare, by every one who understands his impulsive sensitiveness, and the facility with which affectionate expressions came to his lips. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that while the sonnets were being written he was in rivalry with Chapman for this very patron's favour, and this rivalry alone would explain a good deal of the fervour, or, should I say, the affected fervour he put into the first series of sonnets; but now for the decisive and convincing argument for Shakespeare's innocence.
Let us first ask ourselves how it is that real passion betrays itself and proves its force. Surely it is by its continuance; by its effect upon the life later. I have assumed, or inferred, as my readers may decide, that Shakespeare's liking for Herbert was chiefly snobbish, and was deepened by the selfish hope that he would find in him a patron even more powerful and more liberally disposed than Lord Southampton. He probably felt that young Herbert owed him a great deal for his companionship and poetical advice; for Herbert was by way of being a poet himself. If my view is correct, after Shakespeare lost Lord Herbert's affection, we should expect to hear him talking of man's forgetfulness and ingratitude, and that is just what Lord Herbert left in him, bitterness and contempt. Never one word in all his works to show that the loss of this youth's affection touched him more nearly. As we have seen, he cannot keep the incident out of his plays. Again and again he drags it in; but in none of these dramas is there any lingering kindness towards the betrayer. And as soon as the incident was past and done with, as soon as the three or four years' companionship with Lord Herbert was at an end, not one word more do we catch expressive of affection. Again and again Shakespeare rails at man's ingratitude, but nothing more. Think of it. Pembroke, under James, came to great power; was, indeed, made Lord Chamberlain, and set above all the players, so that he could have advanced Shakespeare as he pleased with a word: with a word could have made him Master of the Revels, or given him a higher post. He did not help him in any way. He gave books every Christmas to Ben Jonson, but we hear of no gift to Shakespeare, though evidently from the dedication to him of the first folio, he remained on terms of careless acquaintance with Shakespeare. Ingratitude is what Shakespeare found in Lord Pembroke; ingratitude is what he complains of in him. What a different effect the loss of Mary Fitton had upon Shakespeare. Just consider what the plays teach us when the sonnet-story is finished. The youth vanishes; no reader can find a trace of him, or even an allusion to him. But the woman comes to be the centre, as we shall see, of tragedy after tragedy. She flames through Shakespeare's life, a fiery symbol, till at length she inspires perhaps his greatest drama, "Antony and Cleopatra," filling it with the disgrace of him who is "a strumpet's fool," the shame of him who has become "the bellows and the fan to cool a harlot's lust."
The passion for Mary Fitton was the passion of Shakespeare's whole life. The adoration of her, and the insane desire of her, can be seen in every play he wrote from 1597 to 1608. After he lost her, he went back to her; but the wound of her frailty cankered and took on proud flesh in him, and tortured him to nervous breakdown and to madness. When at length he won to peace, after ten years, it was the peace of exhaustion. His love for his "gipsy-wanton" burned him out, as one is burnt to ashes at the stake, and his passion only ended with his life.
There is no room for doubt in my mind, no faintest suspicion. Hallam and Heine, and all the cry of critics, are mistaken in this matter. Shakespeare admired Lord Herbert's youth and boldness and beauty, hoped great things from his favour and patronage; but after the betrayal, he judged him inexorably as a mean traitor, "a stealer" who had betrayed "a twofold trust"; and later, cursed him for his ingratitude, and went about with wild thoughts of bloody revenge, as we shall soon see in "Hamlet" and "Othello," and then dropped him into oblivion without a pang.
It is bad enough to know that Shakespeare, the sweetest spirit and finest mind in all literature, should have degraded himself to pretend such an affection for the profligate Herbert as has given occasion for misconstruction. It is bad enough, I say, to know that Shakespeare could play flunkey to this extent; but after all, that is the worst that can be urged against him, and it is so much better than men have been led to believe that there may be a certain relief in the knowledge.
THE FIRST-FRUIT OF THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE: BRUTUS
The play of "Julius Caesar" was written about 1600 or 1601. As "Twelfth Night" was the last of the golden comedies, so "Julius Caesar" is the first of the great tragedies, and bears melancholy witness to us that the poet's young-eyed confidence in life and joy in living are dying, if not dead. "Julius Caesar" is the first outcome of disillusion. Before it was written Shakespeare had been deceived by his mistress, betrayed by his friend; his eyes had been opened to the fraud and falsehood of life; but, like one who has just been operated on for cataract, he still sees realities as through a mist, dimly. He meets the shock of traitorous betrayal as we should have expected Valentine or Antonio or Orsino to meet it—with pitying forgiveness. Suffering, instead of steeling his heart and drying up his sympathies, as it does with most men, softened him, induced him to give himself wholly to that "angel, Pity." He will not believe that his bitter experience is universal; in spite of Herbert's betrayal, he still has the courage to declare his belief in the existence of the ideal. At the very last his defeated Brutus cries:
"My heart doth joy that yet in all my life I found no man but he was true to me."
The pathos of this attempt still to believe in man and man's truth is over the whole play. But the belief was fated to disappear. No man who lives in the world can boast of loyalty as Brutus did; even Jesus had a Judas among the Twelve. But when Shakespeare wrote "Julius Caesar" he still tried to believe, and this gives the play an important place in his life's story.
Before I begin to consider the character of Brutus I should like to draw attention to three passages which place Brutus between the melancholy Jaques of "As You Like It," whose melancholy is merely temperamental, and the almost despairing Hamlet. Jaques says:
"Invest me in my motley; give me leave To speak my mind, and I will through and through Cleanse the foul body of the infected world, If they will patiently receive my medicine."
This is the view of early manhood which does not doubt its power to cure all the evils which afflict mortality. Then comes the later, more hopeless view, to which Brutus gives expression:
"Till then, my noble friend, chew upon this; Brutus had rather be a villager Than to repute himself a son of Rome Under these hard conditions as this time Is like to lay upon us."
And later still, and still more bitter, Hamlet's:
"The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!"
But Shakespeare is a meliorist even in Hamlet, and believes that the ailments of man can all be set right.
The likenesses between Brutus and Hamlet are so marked that even the commentators have noticed them. Professor Dowden exaggerates the similarities. "Both (dramas)," he writes, "are tragedies of thought rather than of passion; both present in their chief characters the spectacle of noble natures which fail through some weakness or deficiency rather than through crime; upon Brutus as upon Hamlet a burden is laid which he is not able to bear; neither Brutus nor Hamlet is fitted for action, yet both are called to act in dangerous and difficult affairs." Much of this is Professor Dowden's view and not Shakespeare's. When Shakespeare wrote "Julius Caesar" he had not reached that stage in self-understanding when he became conscious that he was a man of thought rather than of action, and that the two ideals tend to exclude each other. In the contest at Philippi Brutus and his wing win the day; it is the defeat of Cassius which brings about the ruin; Shakespeare evidently intended to depict Brutus as well "fitted for action."
Some critics find it disconcerting that Shakespeare identified himself with Brutus, who failed, rather than with Caesar, who succeeded. But even before he himself came to grief in his love and trust, Shakespeare had always treated the failures with peculiar sympathy. He preferred Arthur to the Bastard, and King Henry VI. to Richard III., and Richard II. to proud Bolingbroke. And after his agony of disillusion, all his heroes are failures for years and years: Brutus, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Troilus, Antony, and Timon—all fail as he himself had failed.
There is some matter for surprise in the fact that Brutus is an ideal portrait of Shakespeare. Disillusion usually brings a certain bitter sincerity, a measure of realism, into artistic work; but its first effect on Shakespeare was to draw out all the kindliness in him; Brutus is Shakespeare at his sweetest and best. Yet the soul-suffering of the man has assuredly improved his art: Brutus is a better portrait of him than Biron, Valentine, Romeo, or Antonio, a more serious and bolder piece of self-revealing even than Orsino. Shakespeare is not afraid now to depict the deep underlying kindness of his nature, his essential goodness of heart. A little earlier, and occupied chiefly with his own complex growth, he could only paint sides of himself; a little later, and the personal interest absorbed all others, so that his dramas became lyrics of anguish and despair. Brutus belongs to the best time, artistically speaking, to the time when passion and pain had tried the character without benumbing the will or distracting the mind: it is a masterpiece of portraiture, and stands in even closer relation to Hamlet than Romeo stands to Orsino. As Shakespeare appears to us in Brutus at thirty-seven, so he was when they bore him to his grave at fifty-two—the heart does not alter greatly.
Let no one say or think that in all this I am drawing on my imagination; what I have said is justified by all that Brutus says and does from one end of the play to the other. According to his custom, Shakespeare has said it all of himself very plainly, and has put his confession into the mouth of Brutus on his very first appearance (Act i. sc. 2):
"Cassius Be not deceived: if I have veiled my look I turn the trouble of my countenance Merely upon myself. Vexed I am Of late with passions of some difference, Conceptions only proper to myself, Which gives some soil, perhaps, to my behaviours, But let not therefore my good friends be grieved,— Among which number, Cassius, be you one,— Nor construe any further in neglect, Than that poor Brutus, with himself at war, Forgets the shows of love to other men."
What were these "different passions," complex personal passions, too, which had vexed Brutus and changed his manners even to his friends? There is no hint of them in Plutarch, no word about them in the play. It was not "poor Brutus," but poor Shakespeare, racked by love and jealousy, tortured by betrayal, who was now "at war with himself."
I assume the identity of Brutus with Shakespeare before I have absolutely proved it because it furnishes the solution to the difficulties of the play. As usual, Coleridge has given proof of his insight by seeing and stating the chief difficulty, without, however, being able to explain it, and as usual, also, the later critics have followed him as far as they can, and in this case have elected to pass over the difficulty in silence. Coleridge quotes some of the words of Brutus when he first thinks of killing Caesar, and calls the passage a speech of Brutus, but it is in reality a soliloquy of Brutus, and must be considered in its entirety. Brutus says:
"It must be by his death: and for my part, I know no personal cause to spurn at him But for the general. He would be crowned:— How that might change his nature, there's the question? It is the bright day that brings forth the adder, And that craves wary walking. Crown him?—that; And then, I grant, we put a sting in him That at his will he may do danger with. The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins Remorse from power: and to speak truth of Caesar, I have known his affections swayed More than his reason. But 'tis a common proof, That lowliness is young ambition's ladder, Whereto the climber-upwards turns his face; But when he once attains the topmost round, He then unto the ladder turns his back, Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees By which he did ascend. So Caesar may: Then, lest he may, prevent. And since the quarrel Will bear no colour for the thing he is, Fashion it thus: that, what he is, augmented, Would run to these and these extremities: And therefore think him as a serpent's egg, Which, hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous; And kill him in the shell."
Coleridge's comment on this deserves notice. He wrote: "This speech is singular; at least, I do not at present see into Shakespeare's motive, his rationale, or in what point of view he meant Brutus' character to appear. For surely ... nothing can seem more discordant with our historical preconceptions of Brutus, or more lowering to the intellect of the Stoico-Platonic tyrannicide, than the tenets here attributed to him—to him, the stern Roman republican; namely, that he would have no objection to a king, or to Caesar, a monarch in Rome, would Caesar but be as good a monarch as he now seems disposed to be! How, too, could Brutus say that he found no personal cause—none in Caesar's past conduct as a man? Had he not passed the Rubicon? Had he not entered Rome as a conqueror? Had he not placed his Gauls in the Senate? Shakespeare, it may be said, has not brought these things forward. True;—and this is just the ground of my perplexity. What character did Shakespeare mean his Brutus to be?"
All this is sound criticism, and can only be answered by the truth that Shakespeare from the beginning of the play identified himself with Brutus, and paid but little attention to the historic Brutus whom he had met in Plutarch. Let us push criticism a little further, and we shall see that this is the only possible way to read the riddle. We all know why Plutarch's Brutus killed Caesar; but why does Shakespeare's Brutus kill the man he so esteems? Because Caesar may change his nature when king; because like the serpent's egg he may "grow mischievous"? But when he speaks "truth" of Caesar he has to admit Caesar's goodness. The "serpent's egg" reason then is inapplicable. Besides, when speaking of himself on the plains of Philippi, Shakespeare's Brutus explicitly contradicts this false reasoning:
"I know not how But I do find it cowardly and vile, For fear of what might fall, so to prevent The term of life."
It would seem, therefore, that Brutus did not kill Caesar, as one crushes a serpent's egg, to prevent evil consequences. It is equally manifest that he did not do it for "the general," for if ever "the general" were shown to be despicable and worthless it is in this very play, where the citizens murder Cinna the poet because he has the same name as Cinna the conspirator, and the lower classes are despised as the "rabblement," "the common herd," with "chapped hands," "sweaty night-caps," and "stinking breath."
It is Dr. Brandes' idea and not Shakespeare's that Brutus is a "man of uncompromising character and principle." That is the Brutus of Plutarch, who finds in his stern republican love of the common good an ethical motive for killing the ambitious Caesar. But Shakespeare had no understanding of the republican ideal, and no sympathy with the public; accordingly, his Brutus has no adequate reason for contriving Caesar's death. Shakespeare followed Plutarch in freeing Brutus from the suspicion of personal or interested motive, but he didn't see that by doing this he made his Brutus a conspirator without a cause, a murderer without a motive. The truth is our gentle poet could never find a convincing ground for cold-blooded murder. It will be remembered that Macbeth only murders, as the deer murders, out of fear, and the fact that his Brutus can find no justification of any sort for killing Caesar, confirms our view of Shakespeare's gentle kindness. The "uncompromising character and principle" of the severe republican we find in Plutarch, sit uneasily on Shakespeare's Brutus; it is apparent that the poet had no conception of what we call a fanatic. His difficulties arise from this limitation of insight. He begins to write the play by making Brutus an idealized portrait of himself; he, therefore, dwells on Brutus' perfect nobility, sincerity, and unselfishness, but does not realize that the more perfect he makes Brutus, the more clear and cogent Brutus' motive must be for undertaking Caesar's assassination.
In this confusion Shakespeare's usually fine instinct is at fault, and he blunders from mistake to mistake. His idealizing tendency makes him present Brutus as perfect, and at the same time he uses the historical incident of the anonymous letters, which goes to show Brutus as conceited and vain. If these letters influenced Brutus—and they must be taken to have done so, or else why were they introduced?—we have a noble and unselfish man murdering out of paltry vanity. In Plutarch, where Brutus is depicted as an austere republican, the incident of the letters only throws a natural shade of doubt on the rigid principles by which alone he is supposed to be guided. We all feel that rigid principles rest on pride, and may best be led astray through pride. But Shakespeare's Brutus is pure human sweetness, and the letters are worse than out of place when addressed to him. Shakespeare should never have used this incident; it is a blot on his conception.
All through the first acts of the play Brutus is incredible, for he is in an impossible position. Shakespeare simply could not find any valid reason why his alter ego, Brutus, should kill Caesar. But from the moment the murder is committed to the end of the play Brutus- Shakespeare is at peace with himself. And as soon as the dramatist lets himself go and paints Brutus with entire freedom and frankness, he rises to the height of tragic pathos, and we can all recognize the original of the portrait. At first Brutus is merely ideal; his perfect unsuspiciousness—he trusts even Antony; his transparent honesty—he will have no other oath among the conspirators
"Than honesty to honesty engaged";
his hatred of bloodshed—he opposes Cassius, who proposes to murder Antony; all these noble qualities may be contrasted with the subtler shortcomings which make of Hamlet so vital a creation. Hamlet is suspicious even of Ophelia; Hamlet is only "indifferent honest"; Hamlet makes his friends swear to keep the ghost's appearance a profound secret; Hamlet lives from the beginning, while Brutus at first is a mere bundle of perfections individualized only by that personal intimate confession which I have already quoted, which, however, has nothing to do with the play. But later in the drama Shakespeare begins to lend Brutus his own weaknesses, and forthwith Brutus lives. His insomnia is pure Shakespeare:
"Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar, I have not slept."
The character of Brutus is superbly portrayed in that wonderful scene with Cassius in the fourth act. With all the superiority of conscious genius he treats his confederate as a child or madman, much as Hamlet treats Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
"Shall I be frighted when a madman stares?"
Cassius is mean, too, whereas Brutus is kindly and generous to a degree:
"For I can raise no money by vile means: By heaven, I had rather coin my heart, And drop my blood for drachmas, than to wring From the hard hands of peasants their vile trash By any indirection.... * * * * * When Marcus Brutus grows so covetous, To lock such rascal counters from his friends, Be ready, gods, with all your thunderbolts, Dash him to pieces."
And, above all, as soon as Cassius appeals to his affection, Brutus is disarmed:
"O Cassius, you are yoked with a lamb That carries anger, as the flint bears fire; Who, much enforced, shows a hasty spark, And straight is cold again."
This is the best expression of Shakespeare's temper; the "hasty spark" is Hamlet's temper, as we have seen, and Macbeth's, and Romeo's.
And now everything that Brutus does or says is Shakespeare's best. In a bowl of wine he buries "all unkindness." His affection for Cassius is not a virtue to one in especial. The scene in the fourth act, in which he begs the pardon of his boy Lucius, should be learned by heart by those who wish to understand our loving and lovable Shakespeare. This scene, be it remarked, is not in Plutarch, but is Shakespeare's own invention. His care for the lad's comfort, at a time when his own life is striking the supreme hour, is exquisitely pathetic. Then come his farewell to Cassius and his lament over Cassius' body; then the second fight and the nobly generous words that hold in them, as flowers their perfume, all Shakespeare's sweetness of nature:
"My heart doth joy, that yet in all my life I found no man, but he was true to me."
And then night hangs upon the weary, sleepless eyes, and we are all ready to echo Antony's marvellous valediction:
"This was the noblest Roman of them all; * * * * * * His life was gentle; and the elements So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up And say to all the world, 'This was a man!'"
But this Brutus was no murderer, no conspirator, no narrow republican fanatic, but simply gentle Shakespeare discovering to us his own sad heart and the sweetness which suffering had called forth in him.
DRAMAS OF REVENGE AND JEALOUSY: HAMLET.
"A beautiful, pure and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which makes the hero, sinks beneath a burden which it can neither bear nor throw off; every duty is holy to him,—this too hard. The impossible is required of him,—not the impossible in itself, but the impossible to him. How he winds, turns, agonizes, advances and recoils, ever reminded, ever reminding himself, and at last almost loses his purpose from his thoughts, without ever again recovering his peace of mind...."—"Hamlet" by Goethe.
Goethe's criticism of Hamlet is so much finer than any English criticism that I am glad to quote it. It will serve, I think, as a standard to distinguish the best criticism of the past from what I shall set forth in the course of this analysis. In this chapter I shall try to show what new light our knowledge of Shakespeare throws on the play, and conversely what new light the play throws on its maker.
The first moment of disillusion brought out, as we have seen in Brutus, all the kindness in Shakespeare's nature. He will believe in men in spite of experience; but the idealistic pose could not be kept up: sooner or later Shakespeare had to face the fact that he had been befooled and scorned by friend and mistress—how did he meet it? Hamlet is the answer: Shakespeare went about nursing dreams of revenge and murder. Disillusion had deeper consequences; forced to see other men as they were, he tried for a moment to see himself as he was. The outcome of that objective vision was Hamlet—a masterpiece of self-revealing.
Yet, when he wrote "Hamlet," nothing was clear to him; the significance of the catastrophe had only dawned upon him; he had no notion how complete his soul-shipwreck was, still less did he dream of painting himself realistically in all his obsequious flunkeyism and ungovernable sensuality. He saw himself less idealistically than heretofore, and, trying to look at himself fairly, honestly, he could not but accuse himself of irresolution at the very least; he had hung on with Herbert, as the sonnets tell us, hoping to build again the confidence which had been ruined by betrayal, hoping he knew not what of gain or place, to the injury of his own self-respect; while brooding all the time on quite impossible plans of revenge, impossible, for action had been "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." Hamlet could not screw his courage to the sticking point, and so became a type for ever of the philosopher or man of letters who, by thinking, has lost the capacity for action.
Putting ourselves in Shakespeare's place for the moment we see at once why he selected this story for treatment at this time. He knew, none better, that no young aristocrat would have submitted patiently to the wrong he had suffered from Lord Herbert; he created Laertes to show how instant and determined such a man would be in taking murderous revenge; but he still felt that what others would regard as faults, his irresolution and shrinking from bloodshed were in themselves nobler, and so, whilst half excusing, half realizing himself, he brought forth a masterpiece. This brooding on revenge, which is the heart and explanation of his great play, shows us how little Shakespeare cared for Herbert, how completely he had condemned him. The soliloquy on this point in "Hamlet" is the most characteristic thing in the drama:
"This is most brave, That I, the son of a dear father murder'd Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words, And fall a-cursing like a very drab."
Shakespeare is thinking of Herbert's betrayal; "here I am," he says, "prompted to revenge by reason and custom, yet instead of acting I fall a-cursing like a drab." But behind his irresolution is his hatred of bloodshed: he could whip out his sword and on a sudden kill Polonius, mistaking him for the king (Herbert), but he could not, in cold blood, make up his mind to kill and proceed to execution. Like his own Hubert, Shakespeare had to confess:
"Within this bosom never enter'd yet The dreadful motion of a murderous thought."
He had none of the direct, passionate, conscienceless resolution of Laertes. He whips himself to anger against the king by thinking of Herbert in the king's place; but lackey-like has to admit that mere regard for position and power gives him pause: Lord Herbert was too far above him:
"There's such divinity doth hedge a king, That treason can but peep to what it would."
Shakespeare's personal feeling dominates and inspires the whole play. One crucial instance will prove this. Why did Hamlet hate his mother's lechery? Most men would hardly have condemned it, certainly would not have suffered their thoughts to dwell on it beyond the moment; but to Hamlet his mother's faithlessness was horrible, shameful, degrading, simply because Hamlet-Shakespeare had identified her with Miss Fitton, and it was Miss Fitton's faithlessness, it was her deception he was condemning in the bitterest words he could find. He thus gets into a somewhat unreal tragedy, a passionate intensity which is otherwise wholly inexplicable. This is how he talks to his mother:
"Have you eyes? Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed, And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes ... ... ... ... What devil was't That thus cozen'd you at hoodman-blind? Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight, Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all, Or but a sickly part of one true sense Could not so mope. O, shame! where is thy blush?"
If anyone can imagine that this is the way a son thinks of a mother's slip he is past my persuading. In all this Shakespeare is thinking of himself in comparison with Herbert; and his advice to his mother is almost as self-revealing, showing, as it does, what he would wish to say to Miss Fitton:
"Repent what's past; avoid what is to come; And do not spread the compost on the weeds To make them ranker.... Assume a virtue if you have it not...."
In his description of the king and queen we get Shakespeare's view of Lord Herbert and Miss Fitton: the king (Herbert) is "mildew'd" and foul in comparison with his modest poet-rival—"A satyr to Hyperion."
Hamlet's view of his mother (Miss Fitton), though bitterer still, is yet the bitterness of disappointed love: he will have her repent, refrain from the adultery, and be pure and good again. When the Queen asks:
"What shall I do?"
"Not this, by no means, that I bid you do: Let the king tempt you again to bed; Pinch wanton on your cheek; call you his mouse; And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses, Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers...."
Maddened with jealousy he sees the act, scourges himself with his own lewd imagining as Posthumus scourges himself. No one ever felt this intensity of jealous rage about a mother or a sister. The mere idea is absurd; it is one's own passion-torture that speaks in such words as I have here quoted.
Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia, too, and his advice to her are all the outcome of Shakespeare's own disappointment:
"Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?"
We all expect from Hamlet some outburst of divine tenderness to Ophelia; but the scenes with the pure and devoted girl whom he is supposed to love are not half realized, are nothing like so intense as the scenes with the guilty mother. It is jealousy that is blazing in Shakespeare at this time, and not love; when Hamlet speaks to the Queen we hear Shakespeare speaking to his own faithless, guilty love. Besides, Ophelia is not even realized; she is submissive affection, an abstraction, and not a character. Shakespeare did not take interest enough in her to give her flesh and blood.
Shakespeare's jealousy and excessive sensuality come to full light in the scene between Hamlet and Ophelia, when they are about to witness the play before the king: he persists in talking smut to her, which she pretends not to understand. The lewdness, we all feel, is out of place in "Hamlet," horribly out of place when Hamlet is talking to Ophelia, but Shakespeare's sensuality has been stung to ecstasy by Miss Fitton's frailty, and he cannot but give it voice. As soon as Ophelia goes out of her mind she, too, becomes coarse—all of which is but a witness to Shakespeare's tortured animality. Yet Goethe can talk of Hamlet's "pure and most moral nature." A goat is hardly less pure, though Hamlet was moral enough in the high sense of the word.
There are one or two minor questions still to be considered, and the chief of these is how far, even in this moment of disillusion, did our Shakespeare see himself as he was? Hamlet says:
"I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us."
All this is mere rhetoric, and full of clever self-excusing. Hamlet is not very revengeful or very ambitious; he is weakly-irresolute, and excessively sensual, with all the faults that accompany these frailties. Even at this moment, when he must know that he is not very revengeful, that forgiveness were easier to him, Shakespeare will pose to himself, and call himself revengeful: he is such an idealist that he absolutely refuses to see himself as he is. In later dramas we shall find that he grows to deeper self-knowledge. Hamlet is but the half-way house to complete understanding.
Fortunately we have each of us an infallible touchstone by which we can judge of our love of truth. Any of us, man or woman, would rather be accused of a mental than a physical shortcoming. Do we see our bodily imperfections as they are? Can we describe ourselves pitilessly with snub nose, or coarse beak, bandy legs or thin shanks; gross paunch or sedgy beard? Shakespeare in Hamlet can hardly bear even to suggest his physical imperfections. Hamlet lets out inadvertently that he was fat, but he will not say so openly. His mother says to Hamlet:
"You are fat and scant of breath."
Many people, especially actors, have been so determined to see Hamlet as slight and student-like, that they have tried to criticize this phrase, and one of them, Mr. Beerbohm Tree, even in our day, went so far as to degrade the text to "faint and scant of breath." But the fatness is there, and comes to view again in another phrase of Hamlet:
"O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew."
No thin man ever spoke of his flesh in that way. Shakespeare was probably small, too. We know that he used to play Adam in "As You Like it," and in the play Orlando has to take Adam up and carry him off the stage, a thing no actor would attempt if the Adam had been a big man. Shakespeare was probably of middle height, or below it, and podgy. I always picture him to myself as very like Swinburne. Yet even in Hamlet he would make himself out to be a devil of a fellow: "valiant Hamlet," a swordsman of the finest, a superb duellist, who can touch Laertes again and again, though lacking practice. At the last push of fate Shakespeare will pose and deceive himself.
It is curiously characteristic of Shakespeare that when Hamlet broods on retaliation he does not brood like a brave man, who gloats on challenging his enemy to a fair fight, and killing him by sheer force or resolution; his passion, his revenge, is almost that of an Italian bravo. Not once does Hamlet think of forcing the king (Herbert) to a duel; he goes about with ideas of assassination, and not of combat.
"Now might I do it pat"
he cries as he sees the king praying; and he does not do it because he would thus send the king's soul to Heaven—shrill wordy intensity to excuse want of nerve. Whenever we get under the skin, it is Shakespeare's femininity which startles us.
One cannot leave this great picture of Hamlet-Shakespeare without noticing one curious fact, which throws a flood of light on the relations of literary art to life. Shakespeare, as we have seen, is boiling with jealous passion, brooding continually on murderous revenge, and so becomes conscious of his own irresolution. He dwells on this, and makes this irresolution the chief feature of Hamlet's character, and yet because he is writing about himself he manages to suggest so many other qualities, and such amiable and noble ones, that we are all in love with Hamlet, in spite of his irresolution, erotic mania and bloody thoughts.
In later dramas Shakespeare went on to deal with the deeper and more elemental things in his nature, with jealousy in "Othello," and passionate desire in "Antony and Cleopatra"; but he never, perhaps, did much better work than in this drama where he chooses to magnify a secondary and ancillary weakness into the chief defect of his whole being. The pathos of the drama is to be found in the fact that Shakespeare realizes he is unable to take personal vengeance on Herbert. "Hamlet" is a drama of pathetic weakness, strengthened by a drama of revenge and jealousy. In these last respects it is a preparatory study for "Othello."
In "Hamlet" Shakespeare let out some of the foul matter which Herbert's mean betrayal had bred in him. Even in "Hamlet," however, his passion for Mary Fitton, and his jealousy of her, constitute the real theme. We shall soon see how this passion coloured all the rest of his life and art, and at length brought about his ruin.
DRAMAS OF REVENGE AND JEALOUSY: PART II "OTHELLO"
There is perhaps no single drama which throws such light on Shakespeare and his method of work as "Othello": it is a long conflict between the artist in him and the man, and, in the struggle, both his artistic ideals and his passionate soul come to clearest view. From it we see that Shakespeare's nature gave itself gradually to jealousy and revenge. The fire of his passion burned more and more fiercely for years; was infinitely hotter in 1604, when "Othello" was written, than it had been when "Julius Caesar" was written in 1600. This proves to me that Shakespeare's connection with Mary Fitton did not come to an end when he first discovered her unfaithfulness. The intimacy continued for a dozen years. In Sonnet 136 he prays her to allow him to be one of her lovers. That she was liberal enough to consent appears clearly from the growth of passion in his plays. It is certain, too, that she went on deceiving him with other lovers, or his jealousy would have waned away, ebbing with fulfilled desire. But his passion increases in intensity from 1597 to 1604, whipped no doubt to ecstasy by continual deception and wild jealousy. Both lust and jealousy swing to madness in "Othello," But Shakespeare was so great an artist that, when he took the story from Cinthio, he tried to realize it without bringing in his own personality: hence a conflict between his art and his passion.
At first sight "Othello" reminds one of a picture by Titian or Veronese; it is a romantic conception; the personages are all in gala dress; the struggle between Iago and the Moor is melodramatic; the whole picture aglow with a superb richness of colour. It is Shakespeare's finest play, his supreme achievement as a playwright. It is impossible to read "Othello" without admiring the art of it. The beginning is so easy: the introduction of the chief characters so measured and impressive that when the action really begins, it develops and increases in speed as by its own weight to the inevitable end; inevitable—for the end in this case is merely the resultant of the shock of these various personalities. But if the action itself is superbly ordered, the painting of character leaves much to be desired, as we shall see. There is one notable difference between "Othello" and those dramas, "Hamlet," "Macbeth," and "Cymbeline," wherein Shakespeare has depicted himself as the protagonist. In the self-revealing dramas not only does Shakespeare give his hero licence to talk, in and out of season, and thus hinder the development of the story, but he also allows him to occupy the whole stage without a competitor. The explanation is obvious enough. Dramatic art is to be congratulated on the fact that now and then Shakespeare left himself for a little out of the play, for then not only does the construction of the play improve, but the play grows in interest through the encounter of evenly-matched antagonists. The first thing we notice in "Othello" is that Iago is at least as important a character as the hero himself. "Hamlet," on the other hand, is almost a lyric; there is no counterpoise to the student-prince.
Now let us get to the play itself. Othello's first appearance in converse with Iago in the second scene of the first act does not seem to me to deserve the praise that has been lavished on it. Though Othello knows that "boasting is (not) an honour," he nevertheless boasts himself of royal blood. We have noticed already Shakespeare's love of good blood, and belief in its wondrous efficacy; it is one of his permanent and most characteristic traits. The passage about royal descent might be left out with advantage; if these three lines are omitted, Othello's pride in his own nature—his "parts and perfect soul"—is far more strongly felt. But such trivial flaws are forgotten when Brabantio enters and swords are drawn.
"Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them."
is excellent in its contemptuous irony. A little later, however, Othello finds an expression which is intensely characteristic of a great man of action:
"Hold your hands, Both you of my inclining, and the rest; Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it Without a prompter."
This last line and a half is addressed especially to Iago who is bent on provoking a fight, and is, I think, the best piece of character-painting in all "Othello"; the born general knows instinctively the moment to attack just as the trained boxer's hand strikes before he consciously sees the opening. When Othello speaks before the Duke, too, he reveals himself with admirable clearness and truth to nature. His pride is so deep-rooted, his self-respect so great, that he respects all other dignitaries: the Senators are his "very noble and approved good masters." Every word weighed and effectual. Admirable, too, is the expression "round unvarnished tale."
But pride and respect for others' greatness are not qualities peculiar to the man of action; they belong to all men of ability. As soon as Othello begins to tell how he won Desdemona, he falls out of his character. Feeling certain that he has placed his hero before us in strong outlines, Shakespeare lets himself go, and at once we catch him speaking and not Othello. In "antres vast and deserts idle" I hear the poet, and when the verse swings to—
".... men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders,"
it is plain that Othello, the lord and lover of realities, has deserted the firm ground of fact. But Shakespeare pulls himself in almost before he has yielded to the charm of his own words, and again Othello speaks:
"This to hear Would Desdemona seriously incline, But still the house-affairs would draw her thence,
and so forth.
The temptation, however, was overpowering, and again Shakespeare yields to it:
"And often did beguile her of her tears When I did speak of some distressful stroke That my youth suffered."
It is a characteristic of the man of action that he thinks lightly of reverses; he loves hard buffets as a swimmer high waves, and when he tells his life-story he does not talk of his "distress." This "distressful stroke that my youth suffered" is manifestly pure Shakespeare—tender-hearted Shakespeare, who pitied himself and the distressful strokes his youth suffered very profoundly. The characterization of Othello in the rest of this scene is anything but happy. He talks too much; I miss the short sharp words which would show the man used to command, and not only does he talk too much, but he talks in images like a poet, and exaggerates:
"The tyrant Custom, most grave senators, Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war My thrice-driven bed of down."
Even the matter here is insincere; this is the poet's explanation of the Captain's preference for a hard bed and hard living: "has been accustomed to it," says Shakespeare, not understanding that there are born hunter and soldier natures who absolutely prefer hardships to effeminate luxury. Othello's next speech is just as bad; he talks too much of things particular and private, and the farther he goes, the worse he gets, till we again hear the poet speaking, or rather mouthing:
"No, when light-winged toys Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness My speculative and officed instruments, That my disports corrupt and taint my business, Let housewives make a skillet of my helm, And all indign and base adversities Make head against my estimation."
Again when he says—
"Come, Desdemona: I have but an hour Of love, of worldly matters and direction To spend with thee; we must obey the time,"
I find no sharp impatience to get to work such as Hotspur felt, but a certain reluctance to leave his love—a natural touch which indicates that the poet was thinking of himself and not of his puppet.
The first scene of the second act shows us how Shakespeare, the dramatist, worked. Cassio is plainly Shakespeare the poet; any of his speeches taken at haphazard proves it. When he hears that Iago has arrived he breaks out:
"He has had most favourable and happy speed; Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds, The guttered rocks and congregated sands— Traitors ensteeped to clog the guiltless keel— As having sense of beauty, do omit Their mortal natures, letting go safely by The divine Desdemona."
And when Desdemona lands, Cassio's first exclamation is sufficient to establish the fact that he is merely the poet's mask:
"O, behold, The riches of the ship is come on shore!"
And just as clearly as Cassio is Shakespeare, the lyric poet, so is Iago, at first, the embodiment of Shakespeare's intelligence. Iago has been described as immoral; he does not seem to me to be immoral, but amoral, as the intellect always is. He says to the women:
"Come on, come on; you're pictures out of doors, Bells in your parlours, wild cats in your kitchens, Saints in your injuries, devils being offended, Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds."
Iago sees things as they are, fairly and not maliciously; he is "nothing if not critical," but his criticism has a touch of Shakespeare's erotic mania in it. Think of that "housewives in your beds"! He will not deceive himself, however; in spite of Cassio's admiration of Desdemona Iago does not imagine that Cassio is in love with her; "well kissed," he says, "an excellent courtesy," finding at once the true explanation. [Footnote: At the end of this scene Iago says:
"That Cassio loves her I do well believe it,"
but that is merely one of the many inconsistencies in Shakespeare's drawing of Iago. There are others; at one time he talks of Cassio as a mere book soldier, at another equals him with Caesar. Had Coleridge noted these contradictions he would have declared them to be a higher perfection than logical unity, and there is something to be said for the argument, though in these instances I think the contradictions are due to Shakespeare's carelessness rather than to his deeper insight.]
But having taken up this intellectual attitude in order to create Iago, Shakespeare tries next to make his puppet concrete and individual by giving him revenge for a soul, but in this he does not succeed, for intellect is not maleficent. At moments Iago lives for us; "drown cats and blind puppies ... put money in your purse"—his brains delight us; but when he pursues Desdemona to her end, we revolt; such malignity is inhuman. Shakespeare was so little inclined to evil, knew so little of hate and revenge that his villain is unreal in his cruelty. Again and again the reader asks himself why Iago is so venomous. He hates Othello because Othello has passed him over and preferred Cassio; because he thinks he has had reason to be jealous of Othello, because——-but every one feels that these are reasons supplied by Shakespeare to explain the inexplicable; taken all together they are inadequate, and we are apt to throw them aside with Coleridge as the "motive hunting of motiveless malignity." But such a thing as "motiveless malignity" is not in nature, Iago's villainy is too cruel, too steadfast to be human; perfect pitiless malignity is as impossible to man as perfect innate goodness.
Though Iago and Othello hold the stage for nine-tenths of the play Shakespeare does not realize them so completely as he realizes Cassio, an altogether subordinate character. The drinking episode of Cassio was not found by Shakespeare in Cinthio, and is, I think, clearly the confession of Shakespeare himself, for though aptly invented to explain Cassio's dismissal it is unduly prolonged, and thus constitutes perhaps the most important fault in the construction of the play. Consider, too, how the moral is applied by Iago to England in especial, with which country neither Iago nor the story has anything whatever to do.
Othello's appearance stilling the riot, his words to Iago and his dismissal of Cassio are alike honest work. The subsequent talk between Cassio and Iago about "reputation" is scarcely more than a repetition of what Falstaff said of "honour."
Coleridge has made a great deal of the notion that Othello was justified in describing himself as "not easily jealous"; but poor Coleridge's perverse ingenuity never led him further astray. The exact contrary must, I think, be admitted; Othello was surely very quick to suspect Desdemona; he remembers Iago's first suspicious phrase, ponders it and asks its meaning; he is as quick as Posthumus was to believe the worst of Imogen, as quick as Richard II. to suspect his friends Bagot and Green of traitorism, and this proneness to suspicion is the soul of jealousy. And Othello is not only quick to suspect but easy to convince—impulsive at once and credulous. His quick wits jump to the conclusion that Iago, "this honest creature!" doubtless
"Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds."
On hinted imputation he is already half persuaded, and persuaded as only a sensualist would be that it is lust which has led Desdemona astray:
"O curse of marriage! That we can call these delicate creatures ours, And not their appetites."
He is, indeed, so disposed to catch the foul infection that Iago cries:
"Trifles light as air Are to the jealous confirmations strong As proofs of holy writ."
And well he may, for before he uses the handkerchief or any evidence, on mere suspicion Othello is already racked with doubt, distraught with jealousy, maddened with passion; "his occupation's gone"; he rages against Iago and demands proof, Iago answers:
"I do not like the office; But, sith I am entered in this cause so far * * * * * * I will go on."
This is the same paltry reason Richard III. and Macbeth adduced for adding to the number of their crimes, the truth being that Shakespeare could find no reason in his own nature for effective hatred.
Othello gives immediate credence to Iago's dream, thinks it "a shrewd doubt"; he is a "credulous fool," as Iago calls him, and it is only our sense of Iago's devilish cleverness that allows us to excuse Othello's folly. The strawberry-spotted handkerchief is not needed: the magic in its web is so strong that the mere mention of it blows his love away and condemns both Cassio and Desdemona to death. If this Othello is not easily jealous then no man is prone to doubt and quick to turn from love to loathing.
The truth of the matter is that in the beginning of the play Othello is a marionette fairly well shaped and exceedingly picturesque; but as soon as jealousy is touched upon, the mask is thrown aside; Othello, the self-contained captain, disappears, the poet takes his place and at once shows himself to be the aptest subject for the green fever. The emotions then put into Othello's mouth are intensely realized; his jealousy is indeed Shakespeare's own confession, and it would be impossible to find in all literature pages of more sincere and terrible self-revealing. Shakespeare is not more at home in showing us the passion of Romeo and Juliet or the irresolution of Richard II. or the scepticism of Hamlet than in depicting the growth and paroxysms of jealousy; his overpowering sensuality, the sensuality of Romeo and of Orsino, has sounded every note of love's mortal sickness:
"Oth. I had been happy if the general camp, Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, So I had nothing known. * * * * * Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her!"
We have here the proof that the jealousy of Othello was Shakespeare's jealousy; it is all compounded of sensuality. But, and this is the immediate point of my argument, the captain, Othello, is not presented to us as a sensualist to whom such a suspicion would be, of course, the nearest thought. On the contrary, Othello is depicted as sober [Footnote: Shakespeare makes Lodovico speak of Othello's "solid virtue"—"the nature whom passion could not shake." Even Iago finds Othello's anger ominous because of its rarity:
"There's matter in't, indeed, if he be angry."] and solid, slow to anger, and master of himself and his desires; he expressly tells the lords of Venice that he does not wish Desdemona to accompany him:
"To please the palate of my appetite Nor to comply with heat—the young affects, In me defunct—and proper satisfaction."
Shakespeare goes out of his way to put this unnecessary explanation in Othello's mouth; he will not have us think of him as passion's fool, but as passion's master; Othello is not to be even suspicious; he tells Iago:
"'Tis not to make me jealous To say—my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company, Is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well; Where virtue is, these are more virtuous: Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt; For she had eyes and chose me."
It was all this, no doubt, that misled Coleridge. He did not realize that this Othello suddenly changes his nature; the sober lord of himself becomes in an instant very quick to suspect, and being jealous, is nothing if not sensual; he can think of no reason for Desdemona's fall but her appetite; the imagination of the sensual act throws him into a fit; it is this picture which gives life to his hate. The conclusion is not to be avoided; as soon as Othello becomes jealous he is transformed by Shakespeare's own passion. For this is the way Shakespeare conceived jealousy and the only way. The jealousy of Leontes in "The Winter's Tale" is precisely the same; Hermione gives her hand to Polixenes, and at once Leontes suspects and hates, and his rage is all of "paddling palms  and pinching fingers." The jealousy of Posthumus, too, is of the same kind:
"Never talk on 't; She hath been colted by him."
[Footnote 1: Iago's expression, too; cf. "Othello," II. 1, and "Hamlet," III. 4.]
It is the imagining of the sensual act that drives him to incoherence and the verge of madness, as it drove Othello. In all these characters Shakespeare is only recalling the stages of the passion that desolated his life.
The part that imagination usually plays in tormenting the jealous man with obscene pictures is now played by Iago; the first scene of the fourth act is this erotic self-torture put in Iago's mouth. As Othello's passion rises to madness, as the self-analysis becomes more and more intimate and personal, we have Shakespeare's re-lived agony clothing itself in his favourite terms of expression:
"O! it comes o'er my memory, As doth the raven o'er the infected house, Boding to all,—he had my handkerchief."
The interest swings still higher; the scene in which Iago uses Cassio's conceit and laughter to exasperate further the already mad Othello is one of the notable triumphs of dramatic art. But just as the quick growth of his jealousy, and its terrible sensuality, have shown us that Othello is not the self-contained master of his passions that he pretends to be and that Shakespeare wishes us to believe, so this scene, in which the listening Othello rages in savagery, reveals to us an intense femininity of nature. For generally the man concentrates his hatred upon the woman who deceives him, and is only disdainful of his rival, whereas the woman for various reasons gives herself to hatred of her rival, and feels only angry contempt for her lover's traitorism. But Othello—or shall we not say Shakespeare?—discovers in the sincerest ecstasy of this passion as much of the woman's nature as of the man's. After seeing his handkerchief in Bianca's hands he asks:
"How shall I murder him, Iago?"
Manifestly, Shakespeare is thinking of Herbert and his base betrayal. Othello would have Cassio thrown to the dogs, would have him "nine years a-killing"; and though he adds that Desdemona shall "rot and perish and be damned to-night," immediately afterwards we see what an infinite affection for her underlies his anger:
"O, the world hath not a sweeter creature: she might lie by an emperor's side and command him tasks."
And then Shakespeare uses his brains objectively, so to speak, to excuse his persistent tenderness, and at once he reveals himself and proves to us that he is thinking of Mary Fitton, and not of poor Desdemona:
"Hang her! I do but say what she is.—So delicate with her needle!—An admirable musician! O, she will sing the savageness out of a bear.—Of so high and plenteous wit and invention."
Shakespeare himself speaks in this passage. For when has Desdemona shown high and plenteous wit or invention? She is hardly more than a symbol of constancy. It is Mary Fitton who has "wit and invention," and is "an admirable musician."
The feminine tenderness in Shakespeare comes to perfect expression in the next lines; no woman has a more enduring affection:
"Iago. She's the worse for all this.
Oth. O! a thousand, a thousand times. And, then of so gentle a condition!
Iago. Ay, too gentle.
Oth. Nay, that's certain:—but yet the pity of it, Iago!—O, Iago, the pity of it, Iago!"
The tenderness shrills to such exquisite poignancy that it becomes a universal cry, the soul's lament for traitorism: "The pity of it, Iago! O, Iago, the pity of it!" Othello's jealous passion is at its height in the scene with Desdemona when he gives his accusations precise words, and flings money to Emilia as the guilty confidante. And yet even here, where he delights to soil his love, his tenderness reaches its most passionate expression:
"O thou weed, Who art so lovely fair, and smell'st so sweet, That the sense aches at thee—would thou hadst ne'er been born!"
As soon as jealousy reaches its end, and passes into revenge, Shakespeare tries to get back into Othello the captain again. Othello's first speech in the bedchamber is clear enough in all conscience, but it has been so mangled by unintelligent actors such as Salvini that it cries for explanation. Every one will remember how Salvini and others playing this part stole into the room like murderers, and then bellowed so that they would have waked the dead. And when the foolish mummers were criticised for thus misreading the character, they answered boldly that Othello was a Moor, that his passion was Southern, and I know not what besides. It is clear that Shakespeare's Othello enters the room quietly as a justicer with a duty to perform: he keeps his resolution to the sticking-point by thinking of the offence; he says solemnly:
"It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul—"
and, Englishman-like, finds a moral reason for his intended action:
"Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men."
But the reason fades and the resolution wavers in the passion for her "body and beauty," and the tenderness of the lover comes to hearing again:
"[Kissing her."] O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade Justice to break her sword!—one more, one more.— Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee, And love thee after.—One more, and this the last. So sweet was ne'er so fatal. I must weep, But they are cruel tears; this sorrow's heavenly; It strikes where it doth love.—She wakes."
So gentle a murderer was never seen save Macbeth, and the "heavenly sorrow" that strikes where it doth love is one of the best examples in literature of the Englishman's capacity for hypocritical self-deception. The subsequent dialogue shows us in Othello the short, plain phrases of immitigable resolution; in this scene Shakespeare comes nearer to realizing strength than anywhere else in all his work. But even here his nature shows itself; Othello has to be misled by Desdemona's weeping, which he takes to be sorrow for Cassio's death, before he can pass to action, and as soon as the murder is accomplished, he regrets:
"O, insupportable! O heavy hour!"
His frank avowal, however, is excellently characteristic of the soldier Othello:
"'Twas I that killed her."
A moment later there is a perfect poetic expression of his love:
"Nay, had she been true If Heaven would make me such another world Of one entire and perfect chrysolite, I'd not have sold her for it."
Then comes a revelation of sensuality and physical fastidiousness so peculiar that by itself it proves much of what I have said of Shakespeare:
"Oth. ... Ay 'twas he that told me first; An honest man he is, and hates the slime That sticks on filthy deeds."
For a breathing-space now before he is convinced of his fatal error, Othello speaks as the soldier, but in spite of the fact that he has fulfilled his revenge, and should be at his sincerest, we have no word of profound self-revealing. But as soon as he realizes his mistake, his regret becomes as passionate as a woman's and magical in expression:
"Cold, cold, my girl! Even like thy chastity."
Another proof that Shakespeare discards the captain, Othello, in order to give utterance to his own jealousy and love, is to be found in the similarity between this speech of Othello and the corresponding speech of Posthumus in "Cymbeline." As soon as Posthumus is convinced of his mistake, he calls Iachimo "Italian fiend" and himself "most credulous fool," "egregious murderer," and so forth. He asks for "some upright justicer" to punish him as he deserves with "cord or knife or poison," nay, he will have "torturers ingenious." He then praises Imogen as "the temple of virtue," and again shouts curses at himself and finally calls upon his love:
"O Imogen! My queen, my life, my wife! O Imogen, Imogen, Imogen!"
Othello behaves in precisely the same manner; he calls Iago that "demi-devil," and himself "an honourable murderer"; and Iago calls him a "credulous fool." Othello, too, cries for punishment; instead of "torturers ingenious," he will have "devils" to "whip" him, and "roast him in sulphur." He praises Desdemona as chaste, "ill-starred wench," "my girl," and so forth; then curses himself lustily and ends his lament with the words:
"O Desdemon! dead, Desdemon! dead! O!"
The same changes in mood, the same words even—the likeness is so close that it can only be explained as I have explained it; from beginning to end of "Cymbeline" Posthumus is Shakespeare, and as soon as jealousy, pity, remorse, or any tender emotion seizes Othello he becomes Shakespeare too, and speaks with Shakespeare's voice.
From here on, it is all good work if not great work to Othello's last speech, which merits particular consideration. He begins as the captain, but soon passes into the poet; and then towards the end talks again in quick measure as the man of action. I quote the whole speech, [Footnote: This speech is curiously like the long speech of Richard II. which I have already noticed; at the beginning Shakespeare speaks as a king for a few lines, then naturally as a poet, and at the end pulls himself up and tries to resume the character.] putting into italics the phrases in which the poet betrays himself:
"Oth. Soft you; a word or two, before you go. I have done the State some service, and they know it; No more of that.—I pray you in your letters, When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, Nor set down aught in malice; then must you speak Of one that loved not wisely, but too well; Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes, Albeit unused to the melting mood, Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees Their medicinal gum. Set you down this; And say, besides, that in Aleppo once, When a malignant and a turban'd Turk Beat a Venetian, and traduced the State, I took by the throat the circumcized dog And smote him—thus."
All the memorable words here are the words of the gentle poet revealing his own nature ingenuously. The relief given by tears is exquisitely expressed, but the relief itself is a feminine experience; men usually find that tears humiliate them, and take refuge from their scalding shame in anger. The deathless phrases of the poet's grief must be contrasted with the braggart mouthings of the captain at the end in order to realize how impossible it was for Shakespeare to depict a man of deeds.
In the first two acts Shakespeare has tried to present Othello with some sincerity and truth to the dramatic fiction. But as soon as jealousy touches Othello, he becomes the transparent vessel of Shakespeare's own emotion, and is filled with it as with his heart's blood. All the magical phrases in the play are phrases of jealousy, passion, and pity. The character of the captain in Othello is never deeply realized. It is a brave sketch, but, after all, only the merest sketch when compared with Hamlet or Macbeth. We know what they thought of life and death, and of all things in the world and over it; but what do we know of Othello's thoughts upon the deepest matters that concern man? Did he believe even in his stories to Desdemona?—in the men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders? in his magic handkerchief? in what Iago calls his "fantastical lies"? This, I submit, is another important indication that Shakespeare drew Othello, the captain, from the outside; the jealous, tender heart of him is Shakespeare's, but take that away and we scarcely know more of him than the colour of his skin. What interests us in Othello is not his strength, but his weakness, Shakespeare's weakness—his passion and pity, his torture, rage, jealousy and remorse, the successive stages of his soul's Calvary!
DRAMAS OF LUST: PART I
Troilus and Cressida
"He probed from hell to hell Of human passions, but of love deflowered His wisdom was not...." —Meredith's Sonnet on Shakespeare.
With "Hamlet" and his dreams of an impossible revenge Shakespeare got rid of some of the perilous stuff which his friend's traitorism had bred in him. In "Othello" he gave deathless expression to the madness of his jealous rage and so cleared his soul, to some extent, of that poisonous infection. But passion in Shakespeare survived hatred of the betrayer and jealousy of him; he had quickly finished with Herbert; but Mary Fitton lived still for him and tempted him perpetually—the lust of the flesh, the desire of the eye, insatiable, cruel as the grave. He will now portray his mistress for us dramatically—unveil her very soul, show the gipsy-wanton as she is. He who has always painted in high lights is now going to paint French fashion, in blackest shadows, for with the years his passion and his bitterness have grown in intensity. Mary Fitton is now "false Cressid." Pandarus says of her in the first scene of the first act:
"An her hair were not somewhat darker than Helen's—well, go to—there were no more comparison between the women."
Mary Fitton's hair, we know, was raven-black, but the evidence connecting Shakespeare's mistress with "false Cressid" is stronger, as we shall see, than any particular line or expression.
"Troilus and Cressida" is a wretched, invertebrate play without even a main current of interest. Of course there are fine phrases in it, as in most of the productions of Shakespeare's maturity; but the characterization is worse than careless, and at first one wonders why Shakespeare wrote the tedious, foolish stuff except to get rid of his own bitterness in the railing of Thersites, and in the depicting of Cressida's shameless wantonness. It is impossible to doubt that "false Cressid" was meant for Mary Fitton. The moment she appears the play begins to live; personal bitterness turns her portrait into a caricature; every fault is exaggerated and lashed with rage; it is not so much a drama as a scene where Shakespeare insults his mistress.
Let us look at this phase of his passion in perspective. Almost as soon as he became acquainted with Miss Fitton, about Christmas 1597, Shakespeare wrote of her as a wanton; yet so long as she gave herself to him he appears to have been able to take refuge in his tenderness and endure her strayings. But passion in him grew with what it fed on, and after she faulted with Lord Herbert, we find him in a sonnet threatening her that his "pity-wanting pain" may induce him to write of her as she was. No doubt her pride and scornful strength revolted under this treatment and she drew away from him. Tortured by desire he would then praise her with some astonishing phrases; call her "the heart's blood of beauty, love's invisible soul," and after some hesitation she would yield again. No sooner was the "ruined love" rebuilt than she would offend again, and again he would curse and threaten, and so the wretched, half-miserable, half-ecstatic life of passion stormed along, one moment in Heaven, the next in Hell.
All the while Shakespeare was longing, or thought he was longing for truth and constancy, and at length he gave form and name to his desire for winnowed purity of love and perfect constancy, and this consoling but impalpable ideal he called Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia. But again and again Miss Fitton reconquered him and at length his accumulated bitterness compelled him to depict his mistress realistically. Cressida is his first attempt, the first dramatic portrait of the mistress who got into Shakespeare's blood and infected the current of his being, and the portrait is spoiled by the poet's hatred and contempt just as the whole drama is spoiled by a passion of bitterness that is surely the sign of intense personal suffering. Cressida is depicted as a vile wanton, a drab by nature; but it is no part even of this conception to make her soulless and devilish. On the contrary, an artist of Shakespeare's imaginative sympathy loves to put in high relief the grain of good in things evil and the taint of evil in things good that give humanity its curious complexity. Shakespeare observed this rule of dramatic presentation more consistently than any of his predecessors or contemporaries—more consistently, more finely far than Homer or Sophocles, whose heroes had only such faults as their creators thought virtues; why then did he forget nature so far as to picture "false Cressida" without a redeeming quality? He first shows her coquetting with Troilus, and her coquetry even is unattractive, shallow, and obvious; then she gives herself to Troilus out of passionate desire; but Shakespeare omits to tell us why she takes up with Diomedes immediately afterwards. We are to understand merely that she is what Ulysses calls a "sluttish spoil of opportunity," and "daughter of the game." But as passionate desire is not of necessity faithless we are distressed and puzzled by her soulless wantonness. And when she goes on to present Diomedes with the scarf that Troilus gave her, we revolt; the woman is too full of blood to be so entirely heartless. Here is the scene embittered by the fact that Troilus witnesses Cressida's betrayal:
"Diomedes. I had your heart before, this follows it.
Troilus. [Aside.] I did swear patience.
Cressida. You shall not have it, Diomed, faith you shall not; I'll give you something else.
Diomedes. I will have this: whose was it?
Cressida. It is no matter.
Diomedes. Come, tell me whose it was?
Cressida. 'Twas one that loved me better than you will, But, now you have it, take it."
The scene is a splendid dramatic scene, a piece torn from life, so realistic that it convinces, and yet we revolt; we feel that we have not got to the heart of the mystery. There is so much evil in Cressida that we want to see the spark of goodness in her, however fleeting and ineffective the spark may be. But Shakespeare makes her attempt at justification a confession of absolute faithlessness:
"Troilus, farewell! one eye yet looks on thee, But with my heart the other eye doth see. Ah! poor our sex! This fault in us I find, The error of our eye directs our mind."
This is plainly Shakespeare's reflection and not Cressida's apology, and if we contrast this speech with the dialogue given above, it becomes plain, I think, that the terrible scene with Diomedes is taken from life, or is at least Shakespeare's vision of the way Mary Fitton behaved. There's a magic in those devilish words of Cressida that outdoes imagination:
"'Twas one that loved me better than you will, But, now you have it, take it."
"Sweet, honey Greek, tempt me no more to folly:"
The very power of the characterization makes the traitress hateful. If Mary Fitton ever gave any gift of Shakespeare to Lord Herbert, the dramatist should have known that she no longer loved him, had in reality already forgotten him in her new passion; but to paint a woman as remembering a lover, indeed as still loving him, and yet as giving his gift to another, is an offence in art though it may be true to nature. It is a fault in art because it is impossible to motive it in a few lines. The fact of the gift is bad enough; without explanation it is horrible. For this and other reasons I infer that Shakespeare took the fact from his own experience: he had suffered, it seems to me, from some such traitorism on the part of his mistress, or he ascribed to Mary Fitton some traitorism of his own.
In sonnet 122 he finds weighty excuse for having given away the table-book which his friend had given to him. His own confessed shortcoming might have taught him to exercise more lenient judgment towards his frail love.
But when Shakespeare wrote "Troilus and Cressida" a passion of bitterness possessed him; he not only vilified Cressida but all the world, Agamemnon, Nestor, Achilles, Ajax; he seems indeed to have taken more pleasure in the railing of Thersites than in any other part of the work except the scourging of Cressida. He shocks us by the picture of Achilles and his myrmidons murdering Hector when they come upon him unarmed.
One or two incidental difficulties must be settled before we pass to a greater play.
"Troilus and Cressida" has always been regarded as a sort of enigma. Professor Dowden asks: "With what intention and in what spirit did Shakespeare write this strange comedy? All the Greek heroes who fought against Troy are pitilessly exposed to ridicule?" And from this fact and the bitterness of "Timon" some German critics have drawn the inference that Shakespeare was incapable of comprehending Greek life, and that indeed he only realized his Romans so perfectly because the Roman was very like the Briton in his mastery of practical affairs, of the details of administration and of government. This is an excellent instance of German prejudice. No one could have been better fitted than Shakespeare to understand Greek civilization and Greek art with its supreme love of plastic beauty, but his master Plutarch gave him far better pictures of Roman life than of Greek life, partly because Plutarch lived in the time of Roman domination and partly because he was in far closer sympathy with the masters of practical affairs than with artists in stone like Phidias or artists in thought like Plato. The true explanation of Shakespeare's caricatures of Greek life, whether Homeric or Athenian, is to be found in the fact that he was not only entirely ignorant of it but prejudiced against it. And this prejudice in him had an obvious root. Chapman had just translated and published the first books of his Iliad, and Chapman was the poet whom Shakespeare speaks of as his rival in Sonnets 78-86. He cannot help smiling at the "strained touches" of Chapman's rhetoric and his heavy learning. Those who care to remember the first scene of "Love's Labour's Lost" will recall how Shakespeare in that early work mocked at learning and derided study. When he first reached London he was no doubt despised for his ignorance of Greek and Latin; he had had to bear the sneers and flouts of the many who appraised learning, an university training and gentility above genius. He took the first opportunity of answering his critics:
"Small have continual plodders ever won, Save bare authority from others' books."
But the taunts rankled, and when the bitter days came of disappointment and disillusion he took up that Greek life which his rival had tried to depict in its fairest colours, and showed what he thought was the seamy side of it. But had he known anything of Greek life and Greek art it would have been his pleasure to outdo his rival by giving at once a truer and a fairer presentation of Greece than Chapman could conceive. It is the rivalry of Chapman that irritates Shakespeare into pouring contempt on Greek life in "Troilus and Cressida." As Chapman was for the Greeks, Shakespeare took sides with the Trojans.
But why do I assume that "Troilus and Cressida" is earlier than "Antony and Cleopatra?" Some critics, and among them Dr. Brandes, place it later, and they have some reason for their belief. The bitterness in "Troilus and Cressida," they say rightly, is more intense; and as Shakespeare's disappointment with men and things appears to have increased from "Hamlet" to "Timon," or from 1602 to 1607-8, they put the bitterer play later. Cogent as is this reasoning, I cannot believe that Shakespeare could have painted Cressida after having painted Cleopatra. The same model has evidently served for both women; but while Cleopatra is perhaps the most superb portrait of a courtesan in all literature, Cressida is a crude and harsh sketch such as a Dumas or a Pinero might have conceived.
It is more than probable, I think, that "Troilus and Cressida" was planned and the love-story at least written about 1603, while Shakespeare's memory of one of his mistress's betrayals was still vivid and sharp. The play was taken up again four or five years later and the character of Ulysses deepened and strengthened. In this later revision the outlook is so piercing-sad, the phrases of such pregnancy, that the work must belong to Shakespeare's ripest maturity. Moreover, he has grown comparatively careless of characterization as in all his later work; he gives his wise sayings almost as freely to Achilles as to Ulysses.
"Troilus and Cressida" is interesting because it establishes the opinion that Chapman was indeed the rival poet whom Shakespeare referred to in the sonnets, and especially because it shows us the poet's mistress painted in a rage of erotic passion so violent that it defeats itself, and the portrait becomes an incredible caricature—that way madness lies. "Troilus and Cressida" points to "Lear" and "Timon."
DRAMAS OF LUST: PART II
Antony and Cleopatra
We now come to the finest work of Shakespeare's maturity, to the drama in which his passion for Mary Fitton finds supreme expression.
"Antony and Cleopatra" is an astonishing production not yet fairly appreciated even in England, and perhaps not likely to be appreciated anywhere at its full worth for many a year to come. But when we English have finally left that dark prison of Puritanism and lived for some time in the sun-light where the wayside crosses are hidden under climbing roses, we shall probably couple "Antony and Cleopatra" with "Hamlet" in our love as Shakespeare's supremest works. It was fitting that the same man who wrote "Romeo and Juliet," the incomparable symphony of first love, should also write "Antony and Cleopatra," the far more wonderful and more terrible tragedy of mature passion.
Let us begin with the least interesting part of the play, and we shall see that all the difficulties in it resolve themselves as soon as we think of it as Shakespeare's own confession. Wherever he leaves Plutarch, it is to tell his own story.
Some critics have reproached Shakespeare with the sensualism of "Romeo and Juliet"; no one, so far as I can remember, has blamed the Sapphic intensity of "Antony and Cleopatra," where the lust of the flesh and desire of the eye reign triumphant. Professor Dowden indeed says: "The spirit of the play, though superficially it appear voluptuous, is essentially severe. That is to say, Shakespeare is faithful to the fact." Antony and Cleopatra kill themselves, forsooth, and thus conventional virtue is justified by self-murder. So superficial and false a judgement is a quaint example of mid-Victorian taste: it reminds me of the horsehair sofa and the antimacassar. Would Professor Dowden have had Shakespeare alter the historical facts, making Antony conquer Caesar and Cleopatra triumph over death? Would this have been sufficient to prove to the professor that Shakespeare's morals are not his, and that the play is certainly the most voluptuous in modern literature? Well, this is just what Shakespeare has done. Throughout the play Caesar is a subordinate figure while Antony is the protagonist and engages all our sympathies; whenever they meet Antony shows as the larger, richer, more generous nature. In every act he conquers Caesar; leaving on us the gorgeous ineffaceable impression of a great personality whose superb temperament moves everyone to admiration and love; Caesar, on the other hand, affects one as a calculating machine.
But Shakespeare's fidelity to the fact is so extraordinary that he gives Caesar one speech which shows his moral superiority to Antony. When his sister weeps on hearing that Antony has gone back to Cleopatra, Caesar bids her dry her tears,
... But let determined things to destiny Hold unbewailed their way ..."
This line alone suffices to show why Antony was defeated; the force of imperial Rome is in the great phrase; but Shakespeare will not admit his favourite's inferiority, and in order to explain Antony's defeat Shakespeare represents luck as being against him, luck or fate, and this is not the only or even the chief proof of the poet's partiality. Pompey, who scarcely notices Caesar when Antony is by, says of Antony:
"his soldiership Is twice the other twain."
And, indeed, Antony in the play appears to be able to beat Caesar whenever he chooses or whenever he is not betrayed.
All the personages of the play praise Antony, and when he dies the most magnificent eulogy of him is pronounced by Agrippa, Caesar's friend:
"A rarer spirit never Did steer humanity; but you, Gods, will give us Some faults to make us men."
Antony is even permitted at the last to console himself; he declares exultantly that in the other world the ghosts shall come to gaze at him and Cleopatra, and:
"Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops."
Shakespeare makes conquering Caesar admit the truth of this boast:
"No grave upon the earth shall clip in it A pair so famous."
To win in life universal admiration and love, and in death imperishable renown, is to succeed in spite of failure and suicide, and this is the lesson which Shakespeare read into Plutarch's story. Even Enobarbus is conquered at the last by Antony's noble magnanimity. But why does Shakespeare show this extraordinary, this extravagant liking for him who was "the bellows and the fan to cool a gipsy's lust," for that Marc Antony who might have been the master of the world, and who threw away empire, life, and honour to be "a strumpet's fool?" There is only one possible explanation: Shakespeare felt the most intense, the most intimate sympathy with Antony because he, too, was passion's slave, and had himself experienced with his dark mistress, Mary Fitton, the ultimate degradation of lust. For this reason he took Plutarch's portrait of Antony, and, by emphasizing the kingly traits, transformed it. In the play, as Dr. Brandes sees, Antony takes on something of the "artist-nature." It is Antony's greatness and weakness; the spectacle of a high intellect struggling with an overpowering sensuality; of a noble nature at odds with passionate human frailty, that endeared him to Shakespeare. The pomp of Antony's position, too, and his kingly personality pleased our poet. As soon as Shakespeare reached maturity, he began to depict himself as a monarch; from "Twelfth Night" on he assumed royal state in his plays, and surely in this figure of Antony he must for the moment have satisfied his longing for regal magnificence and domination. From the first scene to the last Antony is a king of men by right divine of nature.
It is, however, plain that Antony's pride, his superb mastery of life, the touch of imperious brutality in him, are all traits taken from Plutarch, and are indeed wholly inconsistent with Shakespeare's own character. Had Shakespeare possessed these qualities his portraits of men of action would have been infinitely better than they are, while his portraits of the gentle thinker and lover of the arts, his Hamlets and his Dukes, would have been to seek.