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S I passed by I found an altar with this
inscription, To THE UNKNOWN God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.” This work of Paul—the discovery and proclaiming of an unknown god-is in every age the main function of the critic.
An unknown god this Shakespeare of ours, whom all are agreed it would be well to know, if in any way possible. As to the possibility, however, the authorities are at loggerheads. Hallam, “ the judi
. cious," declared that it was impossible to learn anything certain about “ the man, Shakespeare.” Wordsworth, on the other hand (without a nickname to show a close connection with the common), held that Shakespeare unlocked his heart with the sonnets for key. Browning jeered at this belief, to be in turn contradicted by Swinburne. Matthew Arnold gave us in a sonnet “ the best opinion of his time":
Others abide our question. Thou art free.
But alas! the best opinion of one generation is in these matters often flat unreason to the next, and it may be that in this instance neither the opinion of Hallam nor Browning nor Arnold will be allowed to count.
As it is the object of a general to win battles, so it is the life-work of the artist to show himself to us, and the completeness with which he reveals his own individuality is perhaps the best measure of his genius. One does this like Montaigne, simply, garrulously, telling us his height and make, his tastes and distastes, his loves and fears and habits, till gradually the seeming-artless talk brings the man before us, a sun-warmed fruit of humanity, with uncouth rind of stiff manners and sweet kindly juices, not perfect in any way, shrivelled on this side by early frost-bite, and on that softened to corruption through too much heat, marred here by the bitter-black cicatrice of an ancient injury and there fortune-spotted, but on the whole healthy, grateful, of a most pleasant ripeness. Another, like Shakespeare, with passionate conflicting sympathies and curious impartial intellect cannot discover himself so simply; needs, like the diamond, many facets to show all the light in him, and so proceeds to cut them one after the other as Falstaff or Hamlet, to the dazzling of the purblind.
Yet Shakespeare's purpose is surely the same as Montaigne's, to reveal himself to us, and it would be hasty to decide that his skill is inferior. For while Montaigne had nothing but prose at his command, and not too rich a prose, as he himself complains, Shakespeare in magic of expression has had no equal in recorded time, and he used the lyric as well as the dramatic form, poetry as well as prose, to give his soul utterance.
We are doing Shakespeare wrong by trying to believe that he hides himself behind his work; the suspicion is as unworthy as the old suspicion dissipated by Carlyle that Cromwell was bitious hypocrite. Sincerity is the birthmark of
genius, and we can be sure that Shakespeare has depicted himself for us with singular fidelity; we can see him in his works, if we will take the trouble, “ in his habit as he lived.”
We are doing ourselves wrong, too, by pretending that Shakespeare “out-tops knowledge.” He did not fill the world even in his own time: there was room beside him in the days of Elizabeth for Marlowe and Spenser, Ben Jonson and Bacon, and since then the spiritual outlook, like the material outlook, has widened to infinity. There is space in life now for a dozen ideals undreamed-of in the sixteenth century. Let us have done with this pretence of doglike humility; we, too, are men, and there is on earth no higher title, and in the universe nothing beyond our comprehending. It will be well for us to know Shakespeare and all his high qualities and do him reverence; it will be well for us, too, to see his limitations and his faults, for after all it is the human frailties in a man that call forth our sympathy and endear him to us, and without love there is no virtue in worship, no attraction in example.
The doubt as to the personality of Shakespeare, and the subsequent confusion and contradictions are in the main, I think, due to Coleridge. He was the first modern critic to have glimpses of the real Shakespeare, and the vision lent his words a singular authority. But Coleridge was a hero-worshipper by nature and carried reverence to lyric heights. He used all his powers to persuade men that Shakespeare was pvpróvous imp—“the myriadminded man”; a sort of demi-god who was every one and no one, a Proteus without individuality of
The theory has held the field for nearly a century, probably because it flatters our national