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feats of

an atrophied conscience. The wrongdoer, indeed, loses what is best in himself; but (so runs the Platonic argument) he is unaware of his loss. (Shakespeare's insight pierces deeper. Macbeth follows the steps of the perfectly unjust man, but they do not lead him to the calm of a seared conscience. He has the exquisite agony of learning more and more of what happiness and virtue are, in the very

measure in which he loses them irrecoverably Shake

A great structure of inference as to Shakespeare's speare's

biography has been raised by many students upon sympathetic his picture of guilty love and betrayal in the Sonimagina

nets. One is therefore tempted to ask whether, tion.

from the terrific vividness with which he realizes the experience of Macbeth's soul under the stress of the impulse to murder, and under the horror generated by the guilty deed, it must be inferred that Shakespeare in his time had slain his man, and awoke to find himself in such a hell. Or, if it be admitted that without direct experience, but through the force of sympathetic imagination, he could so limn the psychology of guilt in regard to murder, why, one is moved to ask, could he not equally have lived imaginatively through the experiences depicted in the Sonnets? In view of his power of conceiving and conveying the feelings of men and women in situations entirely alien to his own experience, we are tempted to look with deep suspicion upon the theories which make of the Sonnets an autobiography.

CHAPTER VII

KING LEAR”: THE TRAGEDY OF FOLLY AND FATE UNLESS one have in mind some special dra- Shake matic or poetic quality, it is idle, as we have speare's best

play? said elsewhere, to ask which is the greatest of Shakespeare's plays. One may attempt to determine which of his tragedies is most tragical, or which of his comedies is most truly comic; one may seek to decide which of his plays manifests any specific kind of poetry in the most perfect form. If the question is taken to mean, Which of Shakespeare's works has appealed most universally to the human heart? we pass into a different field of inquiry. But if the problem is raised irrespective of any particular characteristic, the answers to it can only be arbitrary.

In the case of King Lear, we find this illustrated Hazlitt's by the surprising verdict of Hazlitt, who declares reason for

thinking it this tragedy to be “the best of all Shakespeare's so. plays, for it is the one in which he was the most in earnest.” It would be difficult indeed to determine what this judgment is based upon. Does the critic mean that Shakespeare is here most earnestly answering the question as to the worth of life? or that he is more earnest in depicting in Lear the results of ingratitude than in showing the outcome of jealousy in Othello or of ambition in Macbeth Or is the earnestness exhibited in the condemnation

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of Lear's incredible folly? Assuming that King Lear is intended as one picture of human life and The Winter's Tale as another, are we to suppose that Shakespeare believed the former to be a truer

picture than the latter? The unity These questions, being unanswerable, are unof Shake

profitable. We cannot determine Shakespeare's speare's work. subjective judgment of the issue. It is scarcely

wise to ask whether a heaven-splitting hurricane is more magnificent than a peaceful sunset: the two things are incommensurable. Life includes both, and must be interpreted not exclusively in terms of either, but in terms of a philosophy that takes account of both. Nor is it wise to assume that Shakespeare's verdict upon existence can be inferred from anything less than his work as a whole. We find it convenient to divide his product into three periods, by means of various tests of craftsmanship and degrees of skill and perfection. The man himself would not have so divided it; and if a contemporary had undertaken to formulate his general philosophy or religion from an examination of the work of any one of these periods, he would justly have protested that the formulation was inadequate.

His life was a unity; and so, in the strict sense, is He is nei

his work. To write him down as a gigantic pessither an opti- mist on the strength of an examination, say, of mist nor a pessimist. Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Antony and

Cleopatra, Timon, and Troilus and Cressida, is really as arbitrary as it would be to declare him a headlong optimist on the strength of a survey of Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

It cannot be too strongly insisted that the moral

order of the universe, as Shakespeare intuitively apprehended it, includes both "tragic" and “comic” aspects. The world we live in is one in which such folly as Lear's may lead to such a fate as Lear's; but it is also a world in which the analogous folly of Leontes may be atoned for, and the man's soul redeemed. Macbeth's crimes hurl him to destruction; but those of Sebastian and Antonio are forgiven. It is a world in which an accident, like the dropping of Desdemona's handkerchief, may lead to irretrievable horror and disaster; and, again, it is a world wherein the chance resemblance of the twins of Syracuse and Ephesus may give rise only to laughter and to happiness at the last. The critic who judges Shakespeare by either aspect alone, inevitably misunderstands him. And (may we not add?) the man who judges life by either aspect alone becomes a sectarian -a mere optimist or pessimist: the exponent of a view wholly inadequate to the subtlety of God.

Hazlitt may of course be right as to Shakespeare's earnestness, though he draws a wrong conclusion from it. Let us try to see for ourselves.

As regards the materials of King Lear, and the Barbarism initial demand that it makes upon the credulity of

in King

Lear. the reader, there is obviously as generous a concession to the taste of the “groundlings” as in any of the other works. Shakespeare, here as elsewhere, has simply snatched up a tale which was popular in literary form, and had already been successfully exploited upon the stage. Of these materials, he has woven a tragedy that cannot be spoken of save with bated breath. Yet into it he has inserted one episode which grossly outrages every conceivable standard of propriety and good taste.

That he

The blinding of Gloucester.

King John
IV i.

should cause the eyes of Gloucester to be hacked out on the stage, rather than have the incident reported, as he might with perfect ease have done, is a bewildering proof of the lengths to which he was willing to go in pleasing the populace. This is perhaps the most horrible incident in the entire range of Shakespeare's authentic work. How such a situation might have been handled without violating good taste is exquisitely shown in the scene between Hubert and Arthur in King John, where the threat, with all that it entrains of sympathetic dread, is carried to the edge of fulfilment and then repented of. In the case of Gloucester, some such treatment might have been given, without the repentance. Then the actual crime could have been pretended behind the scenes, and for the remainder of the play the groping victim could have been introduced precisely as he is. Were it but for this one incident, I could not find it in my heart to endorse Hazlitt's verdict. Nothing is added to the tragic power of the play by this episode; rather, its excess detracts from the general effect, just as the mutilations in Titus Andronicus nauseate us without awakening the genuine emotion of tragedy. “Men are as the time is," to be sure; and Shakespeare could not well make Lear's generation models of Christian courtesy and heroism. But, without a trace of violence to his conception of his characters, he could have spared us this outrage.

In other concessions to the tastes of the mob Shakespeare finds the opportunity for some of those miracles which he alone could work. The use of the Fool, and the device of disguising Edgar as Tom o' Bedlam, are two most daring experiments, which are overwhelmingly justified by their success.

Daring use of "folly" and assumed madness.

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