AFTER this review of Shakspeare’s life, it becomes our duty to take a
summary survey of his works, of his intellectual powers, and of his
station in literature,- a station which is now irrevocably settled,
not so much (which happens in other cases) by a vast overbalance of
favourable suffrages, as by acclamation; not so much by the voices
of those who admire him up to the verge of idolatry, as by the acts
of those who everywhere seek for his works among the primal necessities
of life, demand them, and crave them as they do their daily bread; not
so much by eulogy openly proclaiming itself, as by the silent homage
recorded in the endless multiplication of what he has bequeathed us;
not so much by his own compatriots, who, with regard to almost every
other author, *002 compose the total amount of his effective
audience, as by the unanimous ‘All hail!’ of intellectual Christendom;
finally, not by the hasty partisanship of his own generation, nor by
the biassed judgment of an age trained in the same modes of feeling and
of thinking with himself, but by the solemn award of generation
succeeding to generation, of one age correcting the obliquities or
peculiarities of another; by the verdict of two hundred and thirty
years, which have now elapsed since the very latest of his creations,
or of two hundred and forty-seven years if we date from the earliest;
a verdict which has been continually revived and re-opened, probed,
searched, vexed, by criticism in every spirit, from the most genial
and intelligent, down to the most malignant and scurrilously hostile
which feeble heads and great ignorance could suggest when co-operating
with impure hearts and narrow sensibilities; a verdict, in short,
sustained and countersigned by a longer series of writers, many of
them eminent for wit or learning, than were ever before congregated
upon any inquest relating to any author, be he who he might, ancient
*003 or modern, Pagan or Christian. It was a most witty saying with
respect to a piratical and knavish publisher, who made a trade of
insulting the memories of deceased authors by forged writings, that he
was ‘among the new terrors of death.’ But in the gravest sense it may
be affirmed of Shakspeare that he is among the modern luxuries of life;
that life, in fact, is a new thing, and one more to be coveted, since
Shakspeare has extended the domains of human consciousness, and
pushed its dark frontiers into regions not so much as dimly descried
or even suspected before his time, far less illuminated (as now they
are) by beauty and tropical luxuriance of life. For instance,- a single
instance, indeed one which in itself is a world of new revelation,- the
possible beauty of the female character had not been seen as in a dream
before Shakspeare called into perfect life the radiant shapes of
Desdemona, of Imogen, of Hermione, of Perdita, of Ophelia, of Miranda,
and many others. The Una of Spenser, earlier by ten or fifteen years
than most of these, was an idealised portrait of female innocence and
virgin purity, but too shadowy and unreal for a dramatic reality. And
as to the Grecian classics, let not the reader imagine for an instant
that any prototype in this field of Shakspearian power can be looked
for there. The Antigone and the Electra of the tragic poets are the
two leading female characters that classical antiquity offers to our
respect, but assuredly not to our impassioned love, as disciplined and
exalted in the school of Shakspeare. They challenge our admiration,
severe and even stern, as impersonations of filial duty, cleaving to
the steps of a desolate and afflicted old man; or of sisterly
affection, maintaining the rights of a brother under circumstances of
peril, of desertion, and consequently of perfect self-reliance.
Iphigenia, again, though not dramatically coming before us in her own
person, but according to the beautiful report of a spectator, presents
us with a fine statuesque model of heroic fortitude, and of one whose
young heart, even in the very agonies of her cruel immolation, refused
to forget, by a single indecorous gesture, or so much as a moment’s
neglect of her own princely descent, that she herself was ‘a lady in
the land.’ These are fine marble groups, but they are not the warm
breathing realities of Shakspeare; there is ‘no speculation’ in their
cold marble eyes; the breath of life is not in their nostrils; the fine
pulses of womanly sensibilities are not throbbing in their bosoms.
And besides this immeasurable difference between the cold moony
reflexes of life, as exhibited by the power of Grecian art, and the
true sunny life of Shakspeare, it must be observed that the Antigones,
&c., of the antique put forward but one single trait of character,
like the aloe with its single blossom: this solitary feature is
presented to us as an abstraction, and as an insulated quality; whereas
in Shakspeare all is presented in the concrete; that is to say, not
brought forward in relief, as by some effort of an anatomical artist;
but embodied and imbedded, so to speak, as by the force of a creative
nature, in the complex system of a human life; a life in which all the
elements move and play simultaneously, and with something more than
mere simultaneity or co-existence, acting and re-acting each upon the
other- nay, even acting by each other and through each other. In
Shakspeare’s characters is felt for ever a real organic life, where
each is for the whole and in the whole, and where the whole is for each
and in each. They only are real incarnations.

The Greek poets could not exhibit any approximations to female
character, without violating the truth of Grecian life, and shocking
the feelings of the audience. The drama with the Greeks, as with us,
though much less than with us, was a picture of human life; and that
which could not occur in life could not wisely be exhibited on the
stage. Now, in ancient Greece, women were secluded from the society of
men. The conventual sequestration of the gunaikonitis, or female
apartment *004 of the house, and the Mahommedan consecration of its
threshold against the ingress of males, had been transplanted from Asia
into Greece thousands of years perhaps before either convents or
Mahommed existed. Thus barred from all open social intercourse,
women could not develop or express any character by word or action.
Even to have a character, violated, to a Grecian mind, the ideal
portrait of feminine excellence; whence, perhaps, partly the too
generic, too little individualized, style of Grecian beauty. But
prominently to express a character was impossible under the common
tenor of Grecian life, unless when high tragical catastrophes
transcended the decorums, of that tenor, or for a brief interval raised
the curtain which veiled it. Hence the subordinate part which women
play upon the Greek stage in all but some half dozen cases. In the
paramount tragedy on that stage, the model tragedy, the Oedipus
Tyrannus of Sophocles, there is virtually no woman at all; for
Jocasta is a party to the story merely as the dead Laius or the self-
murdered Sphinx was a party,- viz. by her contributions to the fatalities
of the event, not by anything she does or says spontaneously. In fact,
the Greek poet, if a wise poet, could not address himself genially to
a task in which he must begin by shocking the sensibilities of his
countrymen. And hence followed, not only the dearth of female
characters in the Grecian drama, but also a second result still more
favourable to the sense of a new power evolved by Shakspeare.
Whenever the common law of Grecian life did give way, it was, as we
have observed, to the suspending force of some great convulsion or
tragical catastrophe. This for a moment (like an earthquake in a
nunnery) would set at liberty even the timid, fluttering Grecian women,
those doves of the dove-cot, and would call some of them into action.
But which? Precisely those of energetic and masculine minds; the timid
and feminine would but shrink the more from public gaze and from
tumult. Thus it happened, that such female characters as were
exhibited in Greece, could not but be the harsh and the severe. If a
gentle Ismene appeared for a moment in contest with some energetic
sister Antigone (and chiefly, perhaps, by way of drawing out the
fiercer character of that sister), she was soon dismissed as unfit for
scenical effect. So that not only were female characters few, but,
moreover, of these few the majority were but repetitions of masculine
qualities in female persons. Female agency being seldom summoned on
the stage except when it had received a sort of special dispensation
from its sexual character, by some terrific convulsions of the house
or the city, naturally it assumed the style of action suited to these
circumstances. And hence it arose, that not woman as she differed from
man, but woman as she resembled man- woman, in short, seen under
circumstances so dreadful as to abolish the effect of sexual
distinction, was the woman of the Greek tragedy. *005 And hence
generally arose for Shakspeare the wider field, and the more
astonishing by its perfect novelty, when the he first introduced female
characters, not as mere varieties or echoes of masculine characters, a
Medea or Clytemnestra, or a vindictive Hecuba, the mere tigress of the
tragic tiger, but female characters that had the appropriate beauty of
female nature; woman no longer grand, terrific, and repulsive, but
woman ‘after her kind’- the other hemisphere of the dramatic world;
woman running through the vast gamut of womanly loveliness; woman
as emancipated, exalted, ennobled, under a new law of christian
morality; woman the sister and co-equal of man, no longer his slave,
his prisoner, and sometimes his rebel. ‘It is a far cry to Loch Awe;’
and from the Athenian stage to the stage of Shakspeare, it may be said,
is a prodigious interval. True; but prodigious as it is, there is
really nothing between them. The Roman stage, at least the tragic
stage, as is well known, was put out, as by an extinguisher, by the
cruel amphitheatre, just as a candle is made pale and ridiculous by
daylight. Those who were fresh from the real murders of the bloody
amphitheatre regarded with contempt the mimic murders of the stage.
Stimulation too coarse and too intense had its usual effect in making
the sensibilities callous. Christian emperors arose at length, who
abolished the amphitheatre in its bloodier features. But by that time
the genius of the tragic muse had long slept the sleep of death. And
that muse had no resurrection until the age of Shakspeare. So that,
notwithstanding a gulf of nineteen centuries and upwards separates
Shakspeare from Euripides, the last of the surviving Greek tragedians,
the one is still the nearest successor of the other, just as Connaught
and the islands in Clew Bay are next neighbours to America, although
three thousand watery columns, each of a cubic mile in dimensions,
divide them from each other.

A second reason, which lends an emphasis of novelty and effective
power to Shakspeare’s female world, is a peculiar fact of contrast
which exists between that and his corresponding world of men. Let us
explain. The purpose and the intention of the Grecian stage was not
primarily to develop human character, whether in men or in women;
human fates were its object; great tragic situations under the mighty
control of a vast cloudy destiny, dimly descried at intervals, and
brooding over human life by mysterious agencies, and for mysterious
ends. Man, no longer the representative of an august will,- man, the
passion-puppet of fate, could not with any effect display what we call
a character, which is a distinction between man and man, emanating
originally from the will, and expressing its determinations, moving
under the large variety of human impulses. The will is the central
pivot of character; and this was obliterated, thwarted, cancelled, by
the dark fatalism which brooded over the Grecian stage. That
explanation will sufficiently clear up the reason why marked or
complex variety of character was slighted by the great principles of
the Greek tragedy. And every scholar who has studied that grand drama
of Greece with feeling,- that drama, so magnificent, so regal, so
stately,- and who has thoughtfully investigated its principles, and its
differences from the English drama, will acknowledge that powerful and
elaborate character,- character, for instance, that could employ
fiftieth part of that profound analysis which has been applied to Hamlet,
to Falstaff, to Lear, to Othello, and applied by Mrs. Jameson so
admirably to the full development of the Shakspearian heroines, would
have been as much wasted, nay, would have been defeated, and
interrupted the blind agencies of fate, just in the same way as it
would injure the shadowy grandeur of a ghost to individualize it too
much. Milton’s angels are slightly touched, superficially touched, with
differences of character; but they are such differences, so simple and
general, as are just sufficient to rescue them from the reproach
applied to Virgil’s ‘fortemque Gyan, fortemque Cloanthem;’ just
sufficient to make them knowable apart. Pliny speaks of painters who
painted in one or two colours; and, as respects the angelic characters,
Milton does so; he is monochromatic. So, and for reasons resting upon
the same ultimate philosophy, were the mighty architects of the Greek
tragedy. They also were monochromatic; they also, as to the characters
of their persons, painted in one colour. And so far there might have
been the same novelty in Shakspeare’s men as in his women. There
might have been; but the reason why there is not, must be sought
in the fact, that History, the muse of History, had there even been no
such muse as Melpomene, would have forced us into an acquaintance
with human character. History, as the representative of actual life, of
real man, gives us powerful delineations of character in its chief
agents, that is, in men; and therefore it is that Shakspeare, the
absolute creator of female character, was but the mightiest of all
painters with regard to male character. Take a single instance. The
Antony of Shakspeare, immortal for its execution, is found, after all,
as regards the primary conception, in history: Shakspeare’s delineation
is but the expansion of the germ already pre-existing, by way of
scattered fragments, in Cicero’s Philippics, in Cicero’s Letters, in
Appian, &c. But Cleopatra, equally fine, is a pure creation of art: the
situation and the scenic circumstances belong to history, but the
character belongs to Shakspeare.

In the great world therefore of woman, as the interpreter of the
shifting phases and the lunar varieties of that mighty changeable
planet, that lovely satellite of man, Shakspeare stands not the first
only, not the original only, but is yet the sole authentic oracle of
truth. Woman, therefore, the beauty of the female mind, this is one
great field of his power. The supernatural world, the world of
apparitions, that is another: for reasons which it would be easy to
give, reasons emanating from the gross mythology of the ancients, no
Grecian, *006 no Roman, could have conceived a ghost. That shadowy
conception, the protesting apparition, the awful projection of the
human conscience, belongs to the Christian mind: and in all
Christendom, who, let us ask, who, but Shakspeare, has found the power
for effectually working this mysterious mode of being? In summoning
back to earth ‘the majesty of buried Denmark,’ how like an awful
necromancer does Shakspeare appear! All the pomps and grandeurs
which religion, which the grave, which the popular superstition had
gathered about the subject of apparitions, are here converted to his
purpose, and bend to one awful effect. The wormy grave brought into
antagonism with the scenting of the early dawn; the trumpet of
resurrection suggested, and again as an antagonist idea to the crowing
of the cock (a bird ennobled in the Christian mythus by the part he is
made to play at the Crucifixion); its starting ‘as a guilty thing’
placed in opposition to its majestic expression of offended dignity
when struck at by the partisans of the sentinels; its awful allusions
to the secrets of its prison-house; its ubiquity, contrasted with its
local presence; its aerial substance, yet clothed in palpable armour;
the heart-shaking solemnity of its language, and the appropriate
scenery of its haunt, viz. the ramparts of a capital fortress, with
no witnesses but a few gentlemen mounting guard at the dead of
night,- what a mist, what a mirage of vapour, is here
accumulated, through which the dreadful being in the centre looms upon
us in far larger proportions than could have happened had it been
insulated aud left naked of this circumstantial pomp! In the Tempest,
again, what new modes of life, preternatural, yet far as the poles from
the spiritualities of religion. Ariel in antithesis to Caliban! *007
What is most ethereal to what is most animal! A phantom of air, an
abstraction of the dawn and of vesper sun-lights, a bodiless sylph on
the one hand; on the other a gross carnal monster, like the Miltonic
Asmodai, ‘the fleshliest incubus’ among the fiends, and yet so far
ennobled into interest by his intellectual power, and by the grandeur
of misanthropy! In the Midsummer-Night’s Dream, again, we have
the old traditional fairy, a lovely mode of preternatural life,
remodified by Shakspeare’s eternal talisman. Oberon and Titania remind
us at first glance of Ariel; they approach, but how far they recede:
they are like- ‘like, but oh, how different!’ And in no other
exhibition of this dreamy population of the moonlight forests and
forest-lawns are the circumstantial proprieties of fairy life so
exquisitely imagined, sustained, or expressed. The dialogue between
Oberon and Titania is, of itself and taken separately from its
connection, one of the most delightful poetic scenes that literature
affords. The witches in Macbeth are another variety of supernatural
life, in which Shakspeare’s power to enchant and to disenchant are
alike portentous. The circumstances of the blasted heath, the army at
a distance, the withered attire of the mysterious hags, and the choral
litanies of their fiendish Sabbath, are as finely imagined in their
kind as those which herald and which surround the ghost in Hamlet.
There we see the positive of Shakspeare’s superior power. But now
turn and look to the negative. At a time when the trials of witches,
the royal book on demonology, and popular superstition (all so far
useful, as they prepared a basis of undoubting faith for the poet’s
serious use of such agencies) had degraded and polluted the ideas of
these mysterious beings by many mean associations, Shakspeare does not
fear to employ them in high tragedy (a tragedy moreover which, though
not the very greatest of his efforts as an intellectual whole, nor as a
struggle of passion, is among the greatest in any view, and
positively the greatest for scenical grandeur, and in that respect
makes the nearest approach of all English tragedies to the Grecian
model); he does not fear to introduce, for the same appalling effect as
that for which Aeschylus introduced the Eumenides, a triad of old
women, concerning whom an English wit has remarked this grotesque
peculiarity in the popular creed of that day,- that although potent
over winds and storms, in league with powers of darkness, they yet
stood in awe of the constable,- yet relying on his own supreme power
to disenchant as well as to enchant, to create and to uncreate, he mixes
these women and their dark machineries with the power of armies, with
the agencies of kings, and the fortunes of martial kingdoms. Such was
the sovereignty of this poet, so mighty its compass!

A third fund of Shakspeare’s peculiar power lies in his teeming
fertility of fine thoughts and sentiments. From his works alone might
be gathered a golden bead-roll of thoughts the deepest, subtlest, most
pathetic, and yet most catholic and universally intelligible; the most
characteristic, also, and appropriate to the particular person, the
situation, and the case, yet, at the same time, applicable to the
circumstances of every human being, under all the accidents of life,
and all vicissitudes of fortune. But this subject offers so vast a
field of observation, it being so eminently the prerogative of
Shakspeare to have thought more finely and more extensively than all
other poets combined, that we cannot wrong the dignity of such a theme
by doing more, in our narrow limits, than simply noticing it as one of
the emblazonries upon Shakspeare’s shield.

Fourthly, we shall indicate (and, as in the last case, barely
indicate, without attempting in so vast a field to offer any inadequate
illustrations) one mode of Shakspeare’s dramatic excellence which
hitherto has not attracted any special or separate notice. We allude
to the forms of life, and natural human passion, as apparent in the
structure of his dialogue. Among the many defects and infirmities of
the French and of the Italian drama, indeed we may say of the Greek,
the dialogue proceeds always by independent speeches, replying indeed
to each other, but never modified in its several openings by the
momentary effect of its several terminal forms immediately preceding.
Now, in Shakspeare, who first set an example of that most important
innovation, in all his impassioned dialogues, each reply or rejoinder
seems the mere rebound of the previous speech. Every form of natural
interruption, breaking through the restraints of ceremony under the
impulses of tempestuous passion; every form of hasty interrogative,
ardent reiteration when a question has been evaded; every form of
scornful repetition of the hostile words; every impatient continuation
of the hostile statement; in short, all modes and formulae by which
anger, hurry, fretfulness, scorn, impatience, or excitement under any
movement whatever, can disturb or modify or dislocate the formal
bookish style of commencement,- these are as rife in Shakspeare’s
dialogue as in life itself; and how much vivacity, how profound a
verisimilitude, they add to the scenic effect as an imitation of human
passion and real life, we need not say. A volume might be written
illustrating the vast varieties of Shakspeare’s art and power in this
one field of improvement; another volume might be dedicated to the
exposure of the lifeless and unnatural result from the opposite
practice in the foreign stages of France and Italy. And we may truly
say, that were Shakspeare distinguished from them by this single
feature of nature and propriety, he would on that account alone have
merited a great immortality.



*001 This is the conclusion of the article on Shakespeare contributed
in 1838 to the seventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
*002 An exception ought perhaps to be made for Sir Walter Scott and
for Cervantes; but with regard to all other writers, Dante, suppose, or
Ariosto amongst Italians, Camoens amongst those of Portugal, Schiller
amongst Germans, however ably they may have been naturalised in
foreign languages, as all of those here mentioned (excepting only
Ariosto) have in one part of their works been most powerfully
naturalised in English, it still remains true (and the very sale of the
books is proof sufficient) that an alien author never does take root
in the general sympathies out of his own country; he takes his station
in libraries, he is read by the man of learned leisure, he is known and
valued by the refined and the elegant, but he is not (what Shakspeare
is for Germany and America) in any proper sense a popular favourite.
*003 It will occur to many readers that perhaps Homer may furnish
the sole exception to this sweeping assertion.
*004 Apartment is here used, as the reader will observe, in its
true and continental acceptation, as a division or compartment of a
house including many rooms; a suite of chambers, but a suite which is
partitioned off (as in palaces), not a single chamber; a sense so
commonly and so erroneously given to this word in England.
*005 And hence, by parity of reason, under the opposite
circumstances, under the circumstances which, instead of abolishing,
most emphatically drew forth the sexual distinctions, viz. in the
comic aspects of social intercourse, the reason that we see no women
on the Greek stage; the Greek comedy, unless when it affects the
extravagant fun of farce, rejects women.
*006 It may be thought, however, by some readers, that Aeschylus, in
his fine phantom of Darius, has approached the English ghost. As a
foreign ghost, we would wish (and we are sure that our excellent
readers would wish) to show every courtesy and attention to this
apparition of Darius. It has the advantage of being royal, an advantage
which it shares with the ghost of the royal Dane. Yet how different,
how removed by a total world, from that or any of Shakspeare’s ghosts!
Take that of Banquo, for instance: how shadowy, how unreal, yet how
real! Darius is a mere state ghost- a diplomatic ghost. But Banquo- he
exists only for Macbeth: the guests do not see him, yet how solemn, how
real, how heart-searching he is!
*007 Caliban has not yet been thoroughly fathomed. For all
Shakspeare’s great creations are like works of nature, subjects of
unexhaustible study. It was this character of whom Charles I and some
of his ministers expressed such fervent admiration; and, among other
circumstances, most justly they admired the new language almost with
which he is endowed, for the purpose of expressing his fiendish and yet
carnal thoughts of hatred to his master. Caliban is evidently not meant
for scorn, but for abomination mixed with fear and partial respect. He
is purposely brought into contrast with the drunken Trinculo and
Stephano, with an advantageous result. He is much more intellectual
than either, uses a more elevated language, not disfigured by
vulgarisms, and is not liable to the low passion for plunder as they
are. He is mortal, doubtless, as his ‘dam’ (for Shakspeare will not
call her mother) Sycorax. But he inherits from her such qualities of
power as a witch could be supposed to bequeath. He trembles indeed
before Prospero; but that is, as we are to understand, through the
moral superiority of Prospero in Christian wisdom; for when he finds
himself in the presence of dissolute and unprincipled men, he rises at
once into the dignity of intellectual power.