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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

The Shakespearian World

By Edwin Percy Whipple (1819–1886)

[Born in Gloucester, Mass., 1819. Died in Boston, Mass., 1886. From The Literature of the Age of Elizabeth. 1869.]

IN his deep, wide, and searching observation of mankind, Shakespeare detects bodies of men who agree in the general tendencies of their characters, who strive after a common ideal of good or evil, and who all fail to reach it. Through these indications and hints he seizes, by his philosophical genius, the law of the class; by his dramatic genius, he gathers up in one conception the whole multitude of individuals comprehended in the law, and embodies it in a character; and by his poetical genius he lifts this character into an ideal region of life, where all hindrances to the free and full development of its nature are removed. The character seems all the more natural because it is perfect of its kind, whereas the actual persons included in the conception are imperfect of their kind. Thus there are many men of the type of Falstaff, but Shakespeare’s Falstaff is not an actual Falstaff. Falstaff is the ideal head of the family, the possibility which they dimly strive to realize, the person they would be if they could. Again, there are many Iagoish men, but only one Iago, the ideal type of them all; and by studying him we learn what they would all become if circumstances were propitious, and their loose malignant tendencies were firmly knit together in positive will and diabolically alert intelligence. And it is the same with the rest of Shakespeare’s great creations. The immense domain of human nature they cover is due to the fact, not merely that they are not repetitions of individuals, but that they are not repetitions of the same types or classes of individuals. The moment we analyze them, the moment we break them up into their constituent elements, we are amazed at the wealth of wisdom and knowledge which formed the materials of each individual embodiment, and the inexhaustible interest and fulness of meaning and application revealed in the analytic scrutiny of each. Compare, for example, Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens—by no means one of Shakespeare’s mightiest efforts of characterization—with Lord Byron, both as man and poet, and we shall find that Timon is the highest logical result of the Byronic tendency, and that in him, rather than in Byron, the essential misanthrope is impersonated. The number of poems which Byron wrote does not affect the matter at all, because the poems are all expansions and variations of one view of life, from which Byron could not escape. Shakespeare, had he pleased, might have filled volumes with Timon’s poetic misanthropy; but, being a condenser, he was contented with concentrating the idea of the whole class in one grand character, and of putting into his mouth the truest, most splendid, most terrible things which have ever been uttered from the misanthropic point of view; and then, victoriously freeing himself from the dreadful mood of mind he had imaginatively realized, he passed on to occupy other and different natures. Shakespeare is superior to Byron on Byron’s own ground, because Shakespeare grasped misanthropy from its first faint beginnings in the soul to its final result on character,—clutched its inmost essence,—discerned it as one out of a hundred subjective conditions of mind,—tried it thoroughly, and found it was too weak and narrow to hold him. Byron was in it, could not escape from it, and never, therefore, thoroughly mastered the philosophy of it. Here, then, in one corner of Shakespeare’s mind, we find more than ample space for so great a poet as Byron to house himself.

But Shakespeare not only in one conception thus individualizes a whole class of men, but he communicates to each character, be it little or colossal, good or evil, that peculiar Shakespearian quality which distinguishes it as his creation. This he does by being and living for the time the person he conceives. What Macaulay says of Bacon is more applicable to Shakespeare, namely, that his mind resembles the tent which the fairy gave to Prince Ahmed. “Fold it, and it seemed a toy for the hand of a lady. Spread it, and the armies of powerful sultans might repose beneath its shade.” Shakespeare could run his sentiment, passion, reason, imagination, into any mould of personality he was capable of shaping, and think and speak from that. The result is that every character is a denizen of the Shakespearian World; every character, from Master Slender to Ariel, is in some sense a poet, that is, is gifted with imagination to express his whole nature, and make himself inwardly known; yet we feel throughout that the “thousand-souled” Shakespeare is still but one soul, capable of shifting into a thousand forms, but leaving its peculiar birth-mark on every individual it informs.