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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VIII. Shakespeare: Life and Plays

§ 19. His special gifts: poetic phrasing, dramatic construction and character-drawing

Except from the historical side, however, it is unnecessary to dwell on this part of the matter. What establishes the greatness of Shakespeare is the substance of Shakespeare’s work. “Take and read” is the very best advice that can be given in reference to him. It is not necessary, nor at all desirable, to disparage at least part of the enormous labour that has been spent upon him by others. But it is quite certain that anyone who, with fair education and competent wits, gives his days and nights to the reading of the actual plays will be a far better judge than anyone who allows himself to be distracted by comment and controversy. The important thing is to get the Shakespearean atmosphere, to feel the breath of the Shakespearean spirit. And it is doubtful whether it is not much safer to get this first, and at first hand, than to run the risk of not getting it while investigating the exact meaning of every allusion and the possible date of every item. The more thoroughly and impartially this spirit is observed and extracted, the more will it be found to consist in the subjection of all things to what may be called the romantic process of presenting them in an atmosphere of poetical suggestion rather than as sharply defined and logically stated. But this romantic process is itself characterised and pervaded by a philosophical depth and width of conception of life which is not usually associated with romance. And it is enlivened and made actual by the dramatic form which, whether by separable or inseparable accident, the writer has adopted. Thus, Shakespeare—as no one had done before him, and as people have done since far more often in imitation of him than independently—unites the powers and advantages of three great forms: the romance (in verse or prose), pure poetry and the drama. The first gives him variety, elasticity, freedom from constraint and limit. The second enables him to transport. The third at once preserves his presentations from the excessive vagueness and vastness which non-dramatic romance invites, and helps him to communicate actuality and vividness.

It is in the examination of his treatment, now of individual incidents and personages, now of complicated stories, by the aid of these combined instruments, that the most profitable, as well as the most delightful, study of Shakespeare consists. But there is no doubt that, as a result of this study, two things emerge as his special gifts. The first is the coinage of separate poetic phrases; the second is the construction and getting into operation of individual and combined character. In a third point—the telling of a story or the construction of a drama—he is far greater than is often allowed. After his earliest period, there is very little in any play that does not directly bear upon the main plot in his sense of that word. Even in so very long, so very complicated, a piece as Hamlet, it is almost impossible to “cut” without loss—to the intelligent and unhasting reader, at any rate, if not to the eager or restless spectator. But plot, in his sense, means, mainly—not entirely—the evolution of character; and so we may return to that point.

Two features strike us in Shakespearean character drawing which are not so prominent in any other. The one is its astonishing prodigality, the other its equally astonishing thoroughness, regard being had to the purpose of the presentation. On this latter head, reference may be made to the examination of the character of Claudius above given; but it would be perfectly easy to supplement this by scores, nay, literally, by hundreds, of others, were there space for it. Shakespeare never throws away a character; but, at the same time, he never scamps one that is in any way necessary or helpful to his scheme. But this thoroughness, of course, shows itself more fully still in his great personages. It has been almost a stumbling-block—the bounty of the describing detail being so great that interpreters have positively lost themselves in it. Nor was this probably unintended; for Shakespeare knew human nature too well to present the narrow unmistakable type character which belongs to a different school of drama. His methods of drawing character are numerous. The most obvious of them is the soliloquy. This has been found fault with as unnatural—but only by those who do not know nature. The fact is that the soliloquy is so universal that it escapes observers who are not acute and active. Everybody, except persons of quite abnormal hebetude, “talks to himself as he walks by himself, and thus to himself says he.” According to temperament and intellect, he is more or less frank with himself; but his very attempts to deceive himself are more indicative of character than his bare actions. The ingenious idea of the “palace of truth” owes all its ingenuity and force to this fact. Now, Shakespeare has constituted his work, in its soliloquies, as a vast palace of truth, in which those characters who are important enough are compelled thus to reveal themselves. Nothing contributes quite so much to the solidity and completeness of his system of developing plot by the development of character; nor does anything display more fully the extraordinary power and range, the “largeness and universality,” of his own soul. For the soliloquy, like all weapons or instruments which unite sharpness and weight, is an exceedingly difficult and dangerous one to wield. It may very easily be overdone in the novel (where there are not the positive checks on it which the drama provides) even more than in the drama itself. It is very difficult to do well. And there is a further danger even for those who can do it well and restrain themselves from overdoing it: that the soliloquies will represent not the character but the author; that they will assist in building up for us, if we desire it, the nature of Brown or Jones, but will not do very much for the construction or revelation of that of Brown’s or Jones’s heroes and heroines. Shakespeare has avoided or overcome all these points. His soliloquies, or set speeches of a soliloquial character, are never, in the mature plays, overdone; they are never futile or unnatural; and, above all, they are so variously adapted to the idiosyncrasies of the speakers that, while many people have tried to distil an essence of Shakespeare out of them, nobody has succeeded. From Thackeray’s famous parabases (even when they are put in the mouths of his characters as they sometimes are) we learn very little more about these characters than he has told us or will tell us in another way; but we learn to know himself almost infallibly. From Shakespeare’s soliloquies we hardly see him even in a glass darkly; but we see the characters who are made to utter them as plain as the handwriting upon the wall.

It remains, before concluding with a skeleton table of dates and facts which may serve to vertebrate this chapter, to consider three points of great, though varying, importance—Shakespeare’s morality in the wide sense, his versification and his style.