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Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Prose Works. 1892.

V. November Boughs

5. What Lurks Behind Shakspere’s Historical Plays?

WE all know how much mythus there is in the Shakspere question as it stands to-day. Beneath a few foundations of proved facts are certainly engulf’d far more dim and elusive ones, of deepest importance—tantalizing and half suspected—suggesting explanations that one dare not put in plain statement. But coming at once to the point, the English historical plays are to me not only the most eminent as dramatic performances (my maturest judgment confirming the impressions of my early years, that the distinctiveness and glory of the Poet reside not in his vaunted dramas of the passions, but those founded on the contests of English dynasties, and the French wars,) but form, as we get it all, the chief in a complexity of puzzles. Conceiv’d out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism—personifying in unparallel’d ways the mediæval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation)—only one of the “wolfish earls” so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works—works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

The start and germ-stock of the pieces on which the present speculation is founded are undoubtedly (with, at the outset, no small amount of bungling work) in “Henry VI.” It is plain to me that as profound and forecasting a brain and pen as ever appear’d in literature, after floundering somewhat in the first part of that trilogy—or perhaps draughting it more or less experimentally or by accident—afterward developed and defined his plan in the Second and Third Parts, and from time to time, thenceforward, systematically enlarged it to majestic and mature proportions in “Richard II,” “Richard III,” “King John,” “Henry IV,” “Henry V,” and even in “Macbeth,” “Coriolanus” and “Lear.” For it is impossible to grasp the whole cluster of those plays, however wide the intervals and different circumstances of their composition, without thinking of them as, in a free sense, the result of an essentially controling plan. What was that plan? Or, rather, what was veil’d behind it?—for to me there was certainly something so veil’d. Even the episodes of Cade, Joan of Arc, and the like (which sometimes seem to me like interpolations allow’d,) may be meant to foil the possible sleuth, and throw any too ’cute pursuer off the scent. In the whole matter I should specially dwell on, and make much of, that inexplicable element of every highest poetic nature which causes it to cover up and involve its real purpose and meanings in folded removes and far recesses. Of this trait—hiding the nest where common seekers may never find it—the Shaksperean works afford the most numerous and mark’d illustrations known to me. I would even call that trait the leading one through the whole of those works.

All the foregoing to premise a brief statement of how and where I get my new light on Shakspere. Speaking of the special English plays, my friend William O’Connor says:

  • They seem simply and rudely historical in their motive, as aiming to give in the rough a tableau of warring dynasties,—and carry to me a lurking sense of being in aid of some ulterior design, probably well enough understood in that age, which perhaps time and criticism will reveal..… Their atmosphere is one of barbarous and tumultuous gloom,—they do not make us love the times they limn,.… and it is impossible to believe that the greatest of the Elizabethan men could have sought to indoctrinate the age with the love of feudalism which his own drama in its entirety, if the view taken of it herein be true, certainly the subtly saps and mines.
  • Reading the just-specified play in the light of Mr. O’Connor’s suggestion, I defy any one to escape such new and deep utterance-meanings, like magic ink, warm’d by the fire, and previously invisible. Will it not indeed be strange if the author of “Othello” and “Hamlet” is destin’d to live in America, in a generation or two, less as the cunning draughtsman of the passions, and more as putting on record the first full exposé—and by far the most vivid one, immeasurably ahead of doctrinaires and economists—of the political theory and results, or the reason-why and necessity for them which America has come on earth to abnegate and replace?

    The summary of my suggestion would be, therefore, that while the more the rich and tangled jungle of the Shaksperean area is travers’d and studied, and the more baffled and mix’d, as so far appears, becomes the exploring student (who at last surmises everything, and remains certain of nothing,) it is possible a future age of criticism, diving deeper, mapping the land and lines freer, completer than hitherto, may discover in the plays named the scientific (Baconian?) inauguration of modern Democracy—furnishing realistic and first-class artistic portraitures of the mediæval world, the feudal personalties, institutes, in their morbid accumulations, deposits, upon politics and sociology,—may penetrate to that hard-pan, far down and back of the ostent of to-day, on which (and on which only) the progressism of the last two centuries has built this Democracy which now holds secure lodgment over the whole civilized world.

    Whether such was the unconscious, or (as I think likely) the more or less conscious, purpose of him who fashion’d those marvellous architectonics, is a secondary question.