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The first paper of the following series will be found to explain sufficiently the nature of the critical views which led its author into these first public essays on a subject which had long engaged his attention as a desultory student. However, as he advanced towards a more systematic examination of this richest and profoundest field of poetic and dramatic art, new considerations have naturally opened before him, affecting the very essence of Shakespearian criticism.
Of these, he finds it incumbent on him to state the principal one emphatically at the opening of this collective volume. It is, the indispensability of intelligently cultivated acting, by performers of high genius and refinement, to bring home, not only the peculiarly dramatic, but even the most exquisitely poetic charm of Shakespeare, with any adequate completeness, to the feelings of his countrymen.
That the poet, in Shakespeare, was antecedent to the dramatist, is, indeed, most certain. Nor is it less so, that in composing his dramas he gave the most unlimited scope to his poetic invention,-indulging the fullest, the boldest, and most delicate play of his fancy, without any regard to such restrictions as mere theatrical necessities or deficiencies, as to scene or as to acting, would impose. But it is a great critical mistake or confusion—though frequently committed—to suppose that our poet, while disdaining all merely theatrical fetters in the composition of his plays, had not ever the strictest regard to all the conditions of the dramatic form abstractedly considered. The modern student of his works cannot be too often reminded that they were not composed with any primary view whatever to their being read in the closet, but immediately and expressly to be seen and heard upon the stage. The business of Shakespeare, through all the active portion of his life—the business by which he gained his livelihood, and realized a competent income—was that of a dramatic artist in the strictest and fullest sense of the term. Now, Shakespeare—though the fact seems to have been too little recognized in latter times —was transcendently a man of business-a man of action-a man promptly and effectively framing the means to the end. The greatest
poetic genius of the modern world was impelled by the very exigencies of his fortune, to exert his gigantic force of will in moulding the boundless stores of his imagination into the most concentrated of all poetic forms—the form which, in its very nature, is yet more indicative and suggestive than it is expressive—the form which not merely admits, but which demands living impersonation.
Can we, then, wonder, that the need of actual embodiment which is felt more or less by the silent reader of any true dramatic poetry, should be intensely experienced by the literary student of Shakespeare—that he should feel the want of a living voice and look, informing every “Delphic line,” illumining each pregnant phrase, which, for mere silent interpretation, has literally “too much conceiving." With earnest eloquence we find this want breathed out by the most thoughtful of his English expositors :
“What would appear mad or ludicrous in a book,” says Coleridge,“ when presented to the senses under the form of reality, and with the truth of nature, supplies a species of actual experience. This is indeed the special privilege of a great actor over a great poet. No part was ever played in perfection, but Nature justified herself in the hearts of all her children, in what state soever they were, short of abso
lute moral exhaustion or downright stupidity. There is no time given to ask questions or to pass judgments; we are taken by storm; and though, in the histrionic art, many a clumsy counterfeit, by caricature of one or two features, may gain applause as a fine likeness, yet never was the very thing rejected as a counterfeit.
“ O! when I think of the inexhaustible mine of virgin treasure in our Shakspeare,that I have been almost daily reading him since I was ten years old,—that the thirty intervening years have been unintermittingly and not fruitlessly employed in the study of the Greek, Latin, English, Italian, Spanish, and German belle-lettrists,—and the last fifteen years, in addition, far more intensely in the analysis of the laws of life and reason as they exist in man,—and that upon every step I have made forward in taste, in acquisition of facts from history or my own observation, and in knowledge of the different laws of being and their apparent exceptions, from accidental collision of disturbing forces,—that at every new accession of information, -after every successful exercise of meditation, and every fresh presentation of experience, I have unfailingly discovered a proportionate increase of wisdom and intuition in Shakspeare;—when I know this, and know too, that by a conceivable and possible, though hardly to be expected, arrangement of the British theatres, not all indeed, but a large, a very large, proportion of this indefinite all—(round which no comprehension has yet drawn the line of circumscription, so as to say to itself, “I have seen the whole')-might be sent into the heads and hearts-into the very souls of the mass of mankind, to whom, except by this living comment and interpretation, it must remain for ever a sealed volume, a deep well without a wheel or a windlass ;it seems to me a pardonable enthusiasm, to steal away from sober likelihood, and share in so rich a feast in the faery world of possibility! Yet even in the grave cheerfulness of a circumspect hope, much, very much, might be done ; enough, assuredly, to furnish a kind and strenuous nature with ample motives for the attempt to effect what may be effected."*
Here is a standing protest, which comes now with the solemnity of a voice from the tomb, against the doctrine maintained by one class of critics in the present day, that the time is gone by when the study of Shakespeare could demand or even admit of histrionic aid, and that such is peculiarly the case with his more ideal creations. On the contrary, as is especially exemplified in that elaborate examination of the character of Imogen, which forms one portion of the
* 'Literary Remains,' vol. ii. pp. 51-3.