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intended for Everyman must not venture beyond the linguistic range of an eighth-grade schoolboy. Matthew Arnold was led by his work as an educational official in England to declare that “the typical mental defect of our school children is their almost incredible scantiness of vocabulary.” This defect is more general to-day in America than in England, among adults as well as children.
Now, this drift in the direction of what has been called “the extirpation of culture" is no inevitable adjunct of democracy. If it were, democracy would be intolerable and would have to go. Socrates, who in antiquity ridiculed the rule of the mob, and M. Faguet, who in our own day asserts that democracy means dread of responsibility and the worship of incompetence, have stigmatized an accidental accompaniment of this form of government,—one, moreover, which in practice is often enough found associated with other forms as well. But the criticism of what is wrong should challenge those who believe in democracy to prove that its actual defects are not inherent, and to show that they can be remedied without abandoning its organic principle. The doctrine that kings should be philosophers is no less true where all are kings than where only one in a nation rules. The harmonious development of all one's native powers is the right as well as the duty of all; and democracy ought to mean the best and most efficient means of securing it. To-day it often means a lazy abandonment of everything that requires effort, or brings into view the natural and inevitable inequalities of men as regards intellectual power and gifts of genius or skill.
The appreciation of Shakespeare certainly does
not require, to begin with, any rare or peculiar gift for the understanding and enjoyment of masterpieces. It is possible to every child who can be made happy by Treasure Island or Alice in Wonderland or the Leatherstocking Tales. We persistently forget that Shakespeare's audience consisted largely of the shopkeepers and grocers' boys of London, — the kind of people portrayed so humorously in The Knight of the Burning Pestle — and that Shakespeare, as a good man of business, catered zealously to the wants of such people. To be sure, in giving the public what it wanted, he also gave what he wished to give. Out of the often crude materials of romance and adventure, history and fiction, that appeal universally to the healthy instinctive cravings of average humanity, he wrought achievements before which the greatest minds stand bowed in awe. But those very plays which are full of inexhaustible significance for an Emerson, a Carlyle, or a Goethe, are, at the same time, built up around the commonest framework of melodrama. It would be interesting indeed if we could have a critique of Hamlet or Macbeth written by a grocer's boy in the pit, who saw it on the night of its first public production. Indeed, for such an interpretation it would be worth while to sacrifice a vast quantity of the dry-as-dust commentary of pedantic criticism. The boy's account would remind us of the fact that Shakespeare's primary business was to amuse and entertain people who were almost illiterate; and that, whatever else he did, he never failed to aim at, and to achieve, this object. The man who was “not for an age, but for all time," was also not for a class, but for everybody. His work is in so far like the
Christian evangel, that it involves the deepest mysteries of the soul and the universe, and yet is addressed to every child of man. Its “truth embodied in a tale may enter in at lowly doors.” If the lowly doors are closed against Christ's message, or if the impression obtains that unless you become as Plato and Socrates you cannot enter into his kingdom of God, then a grievous injustice has been done both to the evangel and to those who are excluded. Exactly so is it with the man Shakespeare and his magic realm.
It was a sound instinct, as well as a principle of economy, which led Shakespeare to choose for his themes legends and stories which had already won their way into the common heart and mind. Seeing that he did this deliberately, in order to attract the very "mob" which he is supposed to have held in contempt, one cannot go far astray in insisting that his is pre-eminently a work that ought to be known and spontaneously loved by everybody who is capable of appreciating folklore. He is as full of battle and murder and sudden death, of ghosts and poisoned swords, of the love of man and woman, of masks and disguises and midnight intrigues, as are the surreptitiously devoured dime novels of boyhood. Mr. Chesterton's defence of the penny dreadful” has reminded us that that much-maligned literature is the authentic successor of Homer and Malory, of the Kalevala and the Mabinogion, and of all the myths and legends that classical scholars spend their lives in destroying with analysis and interring under mountains of commentary.
Hence it is natural and right that the appreciation of Shakespeare should begin from the point of view of the schoolboy, or even the street-urchin,
dreaming on impossible things to come. The child ought to start by loving Hamlet for the sake of the Ghost, the poisoning, the usurpation, the entrapping of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the fencingmatch, the poisoned rapiers, and the envenomed wine-cup. It is fit and proper that the inexhaustible riches of Macbeth should at first commend themselves to minds that can appreciate only the fantastic appearance of the Witches, the thrill of the midnight assassinations of Duncan and Banquo, and the glorious stand-up fight at the close, in which the transcendent villain first slays Young Siward, and then is slain himself, crying, in the most approved Wild-Western fashion (and even with the grammatical licence of the penny dreadful), "Lay on, MacDuff; and damned be him who first cries ‘Hold, enough!'”. If we begin by liking the Merchant of Venice on account of the mad bond accepted by Antonio, the preposterous gamble of the caskets, the Gilbertian law by which Shylock is swindled, and the wholly unmerited success attained by that rakish and rather unprincipled scamp Bassanio, we begin with the very points that were seized upon by Shakespeare because they contained the promise of a box-office success.
For myself, at all events, I can only plead that my own ever-deepening delight in the magical pages of Shakespeare began in precisely this fashion. I had the rare advantage that my education was interrupted by very little schooling. One of the supreme memories of my childhood is the discovery of a complete edition of the works of Shakespeare, unaccompanied by notes or other hindrances, printed in worn nonpareil type on the shabbiest kind of paper, illustrated with elderly woodcuts that were
funny without being vulgar, and published at ninepence net, by a philanthropist called John Dicks, Strand, London. Years before I realized that books have human authors, or had ever heard of Bacon, or of the dreary business which some grim pedant has called “Shakespearology," I knew, as intimately as a boy may, the majority of Shakespeare's plays.
Now, any child who has had this good fortune imbibes unconsciously a literary taste that opens to him a boundless realm of appreciation and enjoyment. He gains access to the best of all solaces in sorrow, the truest of consolations against the disappointments and disillusionments of life. He becomes like the man described with unbeseeming irony in one of Mr. Shaw's plays, as “entirely contented with the best of everything." Nobody ought to be contented with anything else,— least of all in art and literature.
But if, instead of going straight to the fountainhead, a boy is coerced into studying a mass of pedantic footnotes and comments, or the grammatical structure of Shakespeare's sentences (a thing to which Shakespeare himself was frequently quite indifferent), the chances are that he will never be able to overcome the repugnance thus malevolently instilled into him. You might as well force him to learn the chemical constituents of every dish on the table before permitting him to eat his dinner. Let him enjoy the meal first; then perhaps his scientific curiosity may lead him to study the chemical composition of his food; but, if not, it doesn't matter. So if he learns freely to love his Shakespeare, he may or may not subsequently study with delight Abbott's Shakespearean Grammar or von Dam's