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“Hamlet,” towards the end of 1603, while “
Cymbeline” belongs to the last period of the poet's activity, and could hardly have been completed before 1610 or 1611. The dissimilarity of the plays only accentuates the likeness of the two protagonists.
Measure for Measure is one of the best examples of Shakespeare's contempt for stagecraft. Not only is the mechanism of the play, as we shall see later, astonishingly slipshod, but the ostensible purpose of the play, which is to make the laws respected in Vienna, is not only not attained, but seems at the end to be rather despised than forgotten. This indifference to logical consistency is characteristic of Shakespeare; Hamlet speaks of “the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns" just after he has been talking with his dead father; the poetic dreamer cannot take the trouble to tie up the loose ends of a story. The real purpose of “ Measure for Measure,” which is the confusion of the pretended ascetic Angelo, is fulfilled, and that is sufficient for the thinker, who has thus shown what 6 our seemers be.” It is no less characteristic of Shakespeare that Duke Vincentio, his alter ego, should order another to punish loose livers—a task which his kindly nature found too disagreeable. But, leaving these general considerations, let us come to the first scene of the first act: the second long speech of the Duke should have awakened the suspicion that Vincentio is but another mask for Shakespeare. The whole speech proclaims the poet; the Duke begins :
Hamlet says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in what is supposed to be prose:
There is a kind of confession in your looks."
is so characteristic of Hamlet-Shakespeare that it should have put every reader on the track.
The speeches of the Duke in the fourth scene of the first act are also characteristic of Shakespeare. But the four lines,
“My holy sir, none better knows than you
How I have ever loved the life removed,
are to me an intimate, personal confession; a fuller rendering indeed of Hamlet's “Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither.” In any case it will be admitted that a dislike of assemblies and cost and witless bravery is peculiar in a reigning monarch, so peculiar indeed that it reminds me of the exiled Duke in “ As You Like It," or of Duke Prospero in “ The Tempest ” (two other incarnations of Shakespeare), rather than of any one in real life. A love of solitude; a keen contempt for shows and the “ witless bravery” of court-life were, as we shall see, characteristics of Shakespeare from youth to old age.
In the first scene of the third act the Duke as a friar speaks to the condemned Claudio. He argues as Hamlet would argue, but with, I think, a more convinced hopelessness. The deepening scepticism would of itself force us to place “ Measure for Measure a little later than “ Hamlet":
“ Reason thus with life:If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing That none but fools would keep; a breath thou art,
The best of rest is sleep, And that thou oft provok'st, yet grossly fear'st Thy death which is no more. Thou’rt not thyself; For thou exist'st on many a thousand grains That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not; For what thou hast not, still thou striv'st to get, And what thou hast, forgett'st.
What's in this, That bears the name of life? Yet in this life Lie hid more thousand deaths; yet death we fear, That makes these odds all even.”
That this scepticism of Vincentio is Shakespeare's scepticism appears from the fact that the whole speech is worse than out of place when addressed to a person under sentence of death. Were we to take it seriously, it would show the Duke to be curiously callous to the sufferings of the condemned Claudio; but callous the Duke is not, he is merely a pensive poet-philosopher talking in order to lighten his own heart. Claudio makes unconscious fun of the Duke's argument:
To sue to live, I find I seek to die,
This scepticism of Shakespeare which shows itself out of place in Angelo and again most naturally in Claudio's famous speech, is one of the salient traits of his character which is altogether over-emphasized in this play. It is a trait, moreover, which finds expression in almost everything he wrote. Like nearly all the great spirits of the Renaissance, Shakespeare was perpetually occupied with the heavy problems of man's life and man's destiny. Was there any meaning or purpose in life, any result of the striving? was Death to be feared or a Hereafter to be desired?-incessantly he beat straining wings in the void. But even in early manhood he never sought to deceive himself. His Richard II. had sounded the shallow vanity of man's desires, the futility of man's hopes; he knew that man
“With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing."
And this sad knowledge darkened all Shakespeare's later thinking. Naturally, when youth passed from him and disillusionment put an end to dreaming, his melancholy deepened, his sadness became despairing; we can see the shadows thickening round him into night. Brutus takes an “everlasting farewell” of his friend, and goes willingly to his rest. Hamlet dreads “the undiscovered country”; but unsentient death is to him “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” Vincentio's mood is half-contemptuous, but the melancholy persists; death is no “more than sleep," he says, and life a series of deceptions; while Claudio in this same play shudders away from death as from annihilation, or worse, in words which one cannot help regarding as Shakespeare's:
“ Claud. Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot. .
A little later and Macbeth's soul cries to us from the outer darkness: “ there's nothing serious in mortality"; life's
"a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing."
save that “
And from this despairing gloom come Lear's shrieks of pain and pitiful ravings, and in the heavy intervals the gibberings of the fool. Even when the calmer mood of age came upon Shakespeare and took away the bitterness, he never recanted; Posthumus speaks of life and death in almost the words used by Vincentio, and Prospero has nothing to add
our little life is rounded with a sleep." It is noteworthy that Shakespeare always gives these philosophic questionings to those characters whom I regard as his impersonations, and when he breaks this rule, he breaks it in favour of some Claudio who is not a character at all, but the mere mouthpiece of one of his moods.
I now come to a point in the drama which at once demands and defies explanation. In the first scene of the third act the Duke, after listening to the terrible discussion between Isabella and Claudio, first of all tells Claudio that “ Angelo had never the purpose to corrupt ” Isabella, and then assures Claudio
1 One of my correspondents, Mr. Theodore Watts-Dunton, has been kind enough to send me an article contributed to “ Colbourn's Magazine” in 1873, in which he declares that
Shakespeare seems to have kept a sort of Hamlet notebook, full of Hamlet thoughts, of which “To be or not to be may be taken as the type. These he was burdened with. These did he cram into Hamlet as far as he could, and then he tossed the others indiscriminately into other plays, tragedies and histories, perfectly regardless of the character who uttered them.” Though Mr. Watts-Dunton sees that some of these “Hamlet thoughts are to be found in Macbeth and Prospero and Claudio, he evidently lacks the key to Shakespeare's personality, or he would never have said that Shakespeare tossed these reflections indiscriminately into other plays.” Nevertheless the statement itself is interesting, and deserves more notice than has been accorded to it.