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It is worth while here to notice his perfect comprehension of the powers and limits of the different forms of his art. Just as he has used the sonnets in order to portray certain intimate weaknesses and maladies of his own nature that he could not present dramatically without making his hero ridiculously effeminate, so also he used the sonnets to convey to us the domineering will and strength of his mistress -qualities which if presented dramatically would have seemed masculine-monstrous.
By taking the sonnets and the play together wel get an excellent portrait of Shakespeare's mistress. In person she was probably tall and vain of her height, as Cleopatra is vain of her superiority in this respect to Octavia, with dark complexion, black eyebrows and hair, and pitch-black eyes that mirrored emotion as the lakelet mirrors the ever-changing skies; her cheeks are “ damask'd white”; her breath fragrant with health, her voice melodious, her movements full of dignity-a superb gipsy to whom beauty may be denied but not distinction.
If we have a very good idea of her person we have a still better idea of her mind and soul. I must begin by stating that I do not accept implicitly Shakespeare's angry declarations that his mistress was a mere strumpet. A nature of great strength and pride is seldom merely wanton ; but the
; fact stands that Shakespeare makes a definite charge of faithlessness against his mistress; she is, he tells
“ the bay where all men ride”; no “ several plot,” but “ the wide world's common place.” The accusation is most explicit. But if it were well founded why should he devote two sonnets (135 and 136) to imploring her to be as liberal as the sea and to receive his love-offering as well as the tributes of others ?
Among a number one is reckon'd none
It is plain that Mistress Fitton drew away from Shakespeare after she had given herself to his friend, and this fact throws some doubt upon his accusations of utter wantonness. A true “ daughter
. of the game,” as he says in “ Troilus and Cressida,” is nothing but “a sluttish spoil of opportunity ” who falls to Troilus or to Diomedes in turn, knowing no reserve. It must be reckoned to the credit of Mary Fitton, or to her pride, that she appears to have been faithful to her lover for the time being, and able to resist even the solicitings of Shakespeare. But her desires seem to have been her sole restraint, and therefore we must add an extraordinary lewdness to that strength, pride, and passionate temper which Shakespeare again and again attributes to her. Her boldness is so reckless that she shows her love for his friend even before Shakespeare's face; she knows no pity in her passion, and always defends herself by attacking her accuser. But she is cunning in love's ways and dulls Shakespeare's resentment with “I don't hate you.” Unwilling, perhaps, to lose her empire over him and to forego the sweetness of his honeyed flatteries, she blinded him to her faults by occasional caresses.
Yet this creature, with the soul of a strumpet, the tongue of a fishwife and the “proud heart” of a queen, was the crown and flower of womanhood to Shakespeare, his counterpart and ideal. Hamlet in love with Cleopatra, the poet lost in desire of the wanton—that is the tragedy of Shakespeare's life.
In this wonderful world of ours dramatic writers are sure to live dramatic lives. Again and again in his disgrace Antony cries:
“ Whither hast thou led me, Egypt?'
Shakespeare's passion for Mary Fitton led him to shame and madness and despair; his strength broke down under the strain and he never back again to health. He paid the price of passion with his very blood. It is Shakespeare and not Antony who groans:
“O this false soul of Egypt! this grave charm,
Like a right gipsy, hath, at fast and loose,
Shakespeare's love for Mary Fitton is to me one of the typical tragedies of life-a symbol for ever. In its progress through the world genius is inevitably scourged and crowned with thorns and done to death; inevitably, I say, for the vast majority of men hate and despise what is superior to them: Don Quixote, too, was trodden into the mire by the swine. But the worst of it is that genius suffers also through its own excess; is bound, so to speak, to the stake of its own passionate sensibilities, and consumed, as with fire.
VER since Lessing and Goethe it has been
the fashion to praise Shakespeare as a demigod; whatever he wrote is taken to be the rose of perfection. This senseless hero-worship, which reached idolatry in the superlatives of the “Encyclopædia Britannica'” and elsewhere in England, was certain to provoke reaction, and the reaction has come to vigorous expression in Tolstoi, who finds nothing to praise in any of Shakespeare's works, and everything to blame in most of them, especially in “ Lear." Lamb and Coleridge, on the other hand, have praised “ Lear as a world's terpiece. Lamb says of it:
While we read it, we see not Lear; but we are Lear, -we are in his mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms; in the aberrations of his reason we discover a mighty irregular power of reasoning, immethodised from the ordinary purposes of life, but exerting its powers, as the wind bloweth where it listeth, at will upon the corruptions and abuses of mankind.”
Coleridge calls “Lear," “ the open and ample playground of Nature's passions.”
These dithyrambs show rather the lyrical power of the writers than the thing described. Tolstoi, on the other hand, keeps his eyes on the object, and sets himself to describe the story of
Lear as impartially as possible.” He says of the first scene:
“ Not to mention the pompous, characterless language of King Lear, the same in which all Shakespeare's kings speak, the reader or spectator cannot conceive that a king, however old and stupid he may be, could believe the words of the vicious daughters with whom he had passed his whole life, and not believe his favourite daughter, but curse and banish her; and therefore, the spectator or reader cannot share the feelings of the persons participating in this unnatural scene.
to condemn the scene between Gloucester and his sons in the same way.
The second act he describes as “ absurdly foolish.” The third act is “ spoiled, by the characteristic Shakespearean language.” The fourth act is “marred in the making,” and of the fifth act, he says: “ Again begin Lear's awful ravings, at which one feels ashamed, as at unsuccessful jokes." He sums up in these words:
Such is this celebrated drama. However absurd it may appear in my rendering (which I have endeavoured to make as impartial as possible), I may confidently say that in the original it is yet more absurd. For any man of our time-if he were not under the hypnotic suggestion that this drama is the height of perfection—it would be enough to read it to its end (were he to have sufficient patience for this) in order to be convinced that, far from being the height of perfection, it is a very bad, carelessly-composed production, which, if it could have been of interest to a certain public at a certain time, cannot evoke amongst us anything but aversion and weariness. Every reader