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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

§ 20. His justice and tolerance

In dealing with the first, there is no necessity to dwell much on the presence in his work of “broad” language and “loose” scenes. That he exceeds in this way far less than most of his contemporaries will only be denied by those who do not really know the Elizabethan drama. Of the excess itself, it seems rather idle to say much. The horror which it excities in some cases is, perhaps, as much a matter of fashion as the original delinquency. But this is only a miserable specialisation and belittlement of the word “morality.” In the larger sense, Shakespeare’s morals are distinguished and conditioned almost equally by sanity, by justice and by tolerance. He is not in the least squeamish—as has been said, he shocks many as not being squeamish enough—but he never, except in All’s Well that End’s Well, and, perhaps, Measure for Measure, has an unhealthy plot or even an unhealthy situation. His justice is of the so-called “poetical” kind, but not in the least of the variety often so misnamed. In fact, as a rule, he is rather severe—in some cases, decidedly so—and, though too much of an artist to court the easy tragedy of the unhappy ending, is, except in his last three plays, equally proof against the seductions of the happy sort. But this severity is tempered by, and throws into relief, the third quality of tolerance in which he excels every other author. This tolerance is not complaisance: justice prevents that, and sanity too. Shakespeare never winks at anything. But, as he understands everything, so, without exactly pardoning it (“that’s when he’s tried above”), he invariably adopts a strictly impartial attitude towards everything and everybody. In this, he stands in marked contrast to Dante, who, with almost equal sanity and fully equal justice, is not merely unnecessarily inexorable, but distinctly partisan—not merely a hanging judge, but a hanging judge doubled with an unsparing public prosecutor. It was once observed as an obiter dictum by a Dante scholar of unsurpassed competence that “Dante knows he is unfair.” It might be said that the extraordinary serenity and clarity of Shakespeare’s mind and temper make it unnecessary for him to think whether he is fair or not. He gives the character as it is—the other characters—and the reader may make what they can of it. He allows Malcolm to call Macbeth a “dead butcher” and Lady Macbeth a “fiendlike queen,” because it is what Malcolm would have done. But he does not attach these tickets to them; and you will accept the said tickets at your own risk. Another contrast which is useful is, again, that of Thackeray. The author of Vanity Fair and The Newcomes has a power of vivifying character not much inferior to Shakespeare’s. But, when he has vivified his characters, he descends too much into the same arena with them; and he likes or dislikes them, as one likes or dislikes fellow creatures, not as the creator should be affected towards creations. Becky Sharp is a very fallible human creature, and Barnes Newcome is a detestable person. But Thackeray is hard on Becky; and, though he tries not to be hard on Barnes, he is. Shakespeare is never hard on any of his characters—not merely in the cases of Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, where there is no difficulty; but in those of Iago and Edmund, of Richard and of John, where there is. The difficulty does not exist for him. And yet he has no sneaking kindness for the bad, great person as Milton has. The potter has made the pot as the pot ought to be and could not but be; he does not think it necessary to label it “caution” or “this is a bad pot,” much less to kick it into potsherds. If it breaks itself, it must; in the sherds into which it breaks itself, in those it will lie; and “there is namore to seyn.”