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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Shakespeare’s Historical Plays

By William Torrey Harris (1835–1909)

[The Western. 1874.]

I HAVE often thought on a saying quoted from Pitt, to the effect that he learned what he knew of English history from Shakespeare. A statesman so wise as Pitt—one who looked quite through the shifting surfaces of human affairs, and intuitively grasped the weak and the strong sides of his nation’s character—must have had some truly vital knowledge of human history, and especially of British history.

Whenever I have read one of Shakespeare’s historical plays in latter years, I have strained my attention to catch the secret of Pitt’s remark. A poet so careless of the externals of history, violating geography and chronology with evident contempt for the same—how could he convey a true knowledge of history? To make Ulysses quote Aristotle—is not that to render impossible any true national soul-painting in his sketch of heroic times as given in “Troilus and Cressida”? What sort of Dane could Hamlet be if he is taken so far out of his epoch as to attend the University of Wittenberg?

It appeared that Shakespeare played with the forms of time and space, as Prospero did before he buried his magic wand, and that historical verity to him was of the least account. Hence, he would seem at first to be the most misleading of all guides in history.

Such thoughts prevailed until one day when I re-read “King John”; then came to me a new insight into Shakespeare’s art. For, not being able to find distinct utterance of philosophy or science in his works before, it had been doubtful whether the high place accorded to him by modern Germans, and by such critics as Carlyle and Coleridge, was not extravagant.

I now saw that Shakespeare transcended other poets in the completeness of his pictures. Exhaustiveness of expression was his forte; and by this I mean that he let every other circumstance that had a determining effect on the deed which formed the nucleus of his drama express itself—make itself apparent. While other authors portrayed their themes with only such accessories as were directly necessary to develop the plot, Shakespeare had probed to the bottom of human experience, and discovered, one by one, all of the presuppositions of the deed and collected them for the spectator. In order to present truth he found it necessary to present all the presuppositions of a deed. Inasmuch as there is no isolated man, but each one is a member of society, it is requisite to portray the status of society in explaining the particular deed of the individual. The common man acts in accordance with use and wont, and follows without deviation the beaten track marked out for him by his fellows—his immediate kinsmen and neighbors. The heroic character, with an eccentric orbit, collides with society and makes a theme for tragedy. While it satisfies the ordinary story-teller to relate the direct particulars of the collisions of his hero, nothing will do for Shakespeare but a complete presentation of all the accessories. Given to Shakespeare a “beggarly scrap of history” from some Geoffrey of Monmouth, or from Saxo-Grammaticus, and forthwith he penetrates into a world of presuppositions that are demanded to make that scrap a living reality. Given the small arc, and he computes the total circle; given the abstract statement of Macbeth’s deed, and forthwith he conjures up all the concrete relations, the family, society, and State; the moral tone of the individual, and his ethical interaction with the social condition in which he lives, and the subtle casuistry by which he justifies his course. Anachronism will be found to be superficial and seeming. Nay, more than this, it will be discovered to be a conscious ruse on the part of Shakespeare, in order to bring more closely to his audience the essential threads of his drama. It has been pointed out that the Wittenberg University suggested Luther to the English: Cranmer’s important connection with Luther, and with the Church of England, had made Wittenberg familiar. Through the anachronism he made the portrayal of Hamlet truer to the English people—connecting Hamlet with that locality where independent thinking was done.

In short the discovery of Shakespeare’s method—his manner of portrayal—led me to see his eminent merit as a historian, and to realize the statement of Aristotle, that poetry is more philosophical and more important than history. Here was a man who clothed in flesh and blood the skeletons of the past. He read Plutarch, and saw the masterly outlines there given, enough to enable him to construct the living reality. No deed is isolated, all things are interdependent; only the totality of conditions enables us to comprehend the puniest act. See the part in the whole, and then you are able to see the reflection of the whole in the part.

Of course the true poet must portray a deed in its relations in order to exhibit this reflection. The fewer relations, the less reflection and the less truth. The more relations, the more reflection and the more truth. Shakespeare excels all poets in the portrayal of this reflection of the deed upon the doer.

If any one at this point should be inclined to accuse me of forcing my own ideas upon Shakespeare and attributing to him something which he did not consciously do, I would say that conscious intention is not expected of a poet. It is the instinct of his art that we expect. It will lead him to adopt a method of some sort. Shakespeare instinctively adopted the method of exhaustive portrayal, and felt that this or that accessory must be uttered or expressed, because it stood out in his creative imagination as essentially belonging to the representation of the deed.