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and lengthen, the snows of winter will yield to the breath of spring, the blossoms will ripen to summer fruit, the fruit will be tinged with autumnal mellowness, the leaves will fall from the trees, centuries will glide on, and generations be gathered to their fathers as though this individual had never been.
Men perish, but their works remain. The seed that is sown, the work that is done, for evil or for good, continue to bear fruit through all time and all eternity. Natural philosophy teaches us that there is not an atom now existing that has not existed from the time when the great Author of Nature looked and saw that the work was good,
and the evening and the morning were the first day. We are taught that the paper which we put into the fire, and which seems to be lost for ever, still exists and may become sensible. We learn that nothing can be annihilated. It is the same in the moral world. Nothing is ever extinguished, nothing ever perishes. The thoughts of the Egyptian philosophers, like the paper, seem to be lost. But we know that the Egyptian philosophers were the instructors of the philosophers who now instruct us; and, therefore, their works cannot be said to have perished. Indirectly they continue to exist. If all the literature, science, and civilization of the elder world, were by some means or other to be entombed, yet while they had nourished the minds that would perpetuate them on the American continent, they could not be said to be entirely lost. This law may everywhere be seen in operation. It may be considered one of the most powerful stimulants to exertion; for it is by their works alone that men will ultimately be judged.
The science of criticism cannot as yet be considered one of the exact sciences. Its laws are unfixed. If we were to judge from the critiques which, during the last two hundred years have been written on Shakspeare, the science of criticism seems more unstable than the sands on the sea shore. Each critic, full of his own theory, has praised or blamed Shakspeare, as the plays happened to agree or disagree with his own ideas.
Each critic has applied his little compasses and
seg. ment to this great production of nature, in a vain attempt to measure the immeasureable. In this respect, our modern critics resemble children who believe that the world extends no further than their own little horizon.
It would be amusing, and not altogether uninstructive, to write a history of Shakspeare's critics. Every writer who undertook to edit Shakspeare, and to criticise his works, commenced his task quite convinced that he was the only man who understood the dramatist. He despised the labours of all his prede
Like other great revolutionists, his first labour was to destroy the constitution which he found existing. And like other great revolutionists, he was destined to see his new constitution in its turn subverted by equally ardent reformers. Whenever he was dissatisfied with Shakspeare, he had not the least doubt that he himself was in the right, and that Shakspeare was in the wrong. Thus, critic after critic published edition after edition of the plays, and not only with what Shakspeare had really written, but with the critic's own ideas of what Shakspeare ought to have written. And now, after all these editors have done, and their laborious volumes have quietly followed them to the grave, what have all these critics and editors done for Shakspeare ? of his private history have they discovered ? What facts have they collected? What obscurities have they illustrated ? It is painful to make the admission that all their commentations, emendations, notes, glossaries, and elucidations, have done very little for Shakspeare.
His private history remains, and will for ever remain, covered over with the mantle of oblivion. His noble plays remain, and will for ever remain, the delight of all classes and nations of men. And were we ever so well acquainted with his life, his plays would be much the same as they now are. He was once, like us, a living and breathing man. He was once a little child, a boy, a youth, a lover, a man of mature years. He
was once in the auroral freshness of youth, full of hope and confidence; and the world had once to him the delightful bloom of a May morning, glittering under the rays of the rising sun. But soon the clouds of misfortune gathered above his head, and this lovely landscape was darkened. He soon experienced misery and sorrow; saw sights that made his tears flow, and felt wounds that made his heart bleed. And he became old, and his hair became grey, and his days fell into the yellow leaf, and he died. These changes we know that he must have experienced; for they are common to all the children of men. And his thoughts are here. They are lying before us. Here is the monument that he has raised to his memory;
and it is a monument somewhat different, both in its character and duration, from the pyramids of Cheops. It will remain when grass will be growing where the pyramids are now standing. It is his part to the solution of the great problem of existence. He has done what he was sent to do, and he has gone his way.
The critics have become respectful. Instead of trying to guide, they are now content humbly to follow the triumphal chariot of the great poet. And this is their proper place. By the acknowledgment of the noblest minds in all countries, Shakspeare is admitted to have been the greatest of all philosophers, the greatest of all poets, the greatest of all dramatists. He stands supreme in English literature. He is first, and he has no second.
To him the highest of mankind do willing homage. Milton, Burke, Scott, Wordsworth, Schiller, Goethe, are proud to march under his banner. Instead of attempting to prescribe laws, and then blaming Shakspeare for not having conformed to them, they are content, by patient meditation and humble reverence, to seek out in his writings the laws which the great world-poet has left.
Every year his fame increases. At first he was only reverenced in England. At first even England did not seem fully to appreciate the treasure which she possessed. Since Shakspeare died, two centuries and a
half have gone; and a slight sketch of the progress of opinion on his works will conclude these introductory remarks to the historical plays.
During the troubled times that immediately followed his death, men had little leisure to think of Shakspeare. Civil war spread its desolating influence around. The swords of Englishmen were stained in each other's blood. An English monarch laid his head upon the block. Sect raged against sect. Fanaticism triumphed. A military despotism was proclaimed. The theatres were shut up. Poetry and the fine arts were proscribed. Then came the re-action. The great usurper died. The restoration came; and with the restoration an unhappy period of wild licentiousness. It is not strange that in these times we do not hear much of the author of the historical plays; but we know that they were acted during all this period, except during the rule of the Puritans. To the warlike saints, the play of Henry the Fourth, with its Prince Hal, Falstaff, Poins, Bardolph, and Mrs. Quickly, would be considered as only worthy of perusal by the profane cavaliers, and they would certainly rank its author among the sons of Belial. Milton, indeed, with his lofty and serene intellect, which raised him so far above the men with whom he was associated, bore enthusiastic testimony to the merits of the great dramatist. And Dryden, in the time of Charles II., spoke of the plays in the highest language of panegyric.
But Dryden could scarcely have been sincere in his praise: for he had so little respect for some of the noblest of the dramas, as to alter them to suit the vicious taste of the age, and he polluted the beautiful scenes in the Tempest with the most loathsome obscenity.
The revolution followed. Louis XIV. reigned in France. A group of poets were ready to flatter him as much as ever Virgil and Horace flattered Augustus. This is the most dazzling period of French history. It had been preceded by many stormy centuries, and many stormy centuries were destined to follow. France appeared to have reached the highest pinnacle of glory But it was a deceitful appearance. Her countenance had a florid hue; but in her vitals decay and death were lurking. French influence became predominant. French orators, French poets, French critics, gave the law to all Europe. Our literature then seemed to lose its national character; our poets, dramatists, and prose writers became imitators of the French; our language was corrupted by French idioms, and our common speech was full of French words. Pope imitated Boileau. Addison imitated Racine. Originality and vigour were now sacrificed to harmony and correctness. Englishmen became ashamed of the unpolished verses of their ancestors, because they were not so smooth as those of Boileau; and of the plays of Shakespeare, because they did not keep the unities of place and time like those of Racine. The multitude still stoutly contended for the author of Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth'; but all who affected the reputation of wits and fine gentlemen, suddenly became disgusted with Shakspeare's barbarisms.
The historical plays were particularly despised. They had no plot, no unity of plan or action. Shakspeare was then considered a kind of monster; a very extraordinary monster indeed; but still a monster.
This flimsy kind of criticism continued for more than half a century. And it is amusing to see who were the men that least understood Shakspeare, and whose minds were most imbued with the narrow prejudices of their generation. They were two men who prided themselves in being emancipated from the shackles of all vulgar prejudices—men who rejected with disdain the religious belief of their fathers—men who continually ridiculed the monkish superstitions of the dark ages. These two men were Voltaire and Hume. Voltaire resided long in England. He was not unacquainted with English literature. He had great influence in extending the study of Locke and Newton on the continent. He often spoke with admiration of the English government, and of the English people. But of the greatest of Englishmen, and of his noble dramas, the