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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

§ 21. Universality of his style

Equally matter subject to opinion, but matter much more difficult to pronounce upon with even tolerable distinctness and trenchancy, is the feature of style. It is, perhaps, in this point that Shakespeare is most distinguished from the other greatest writers. He has mannerisms; but they are mostly worn as clothes—adopted or discarded for fashion’s or season’s sake. He has no mannerism in the sense of natural or naturalised gesture which is recognisable at once. When we say that a phrase is Shakespearean, it is rather because of some supreme and curiously simple felicity than because of any special “hall-mark,” such as exists in Milton and even in Dante. Even Homer has more mannerism than Shakespeare, whose greatest utterances—Prospero’s epilogue to the masque, Cleopatra’s death words, the crispest sayings of Beatrice and Touchstone, the passion of Lear, the reveries of Hamlet, others too many even to catalogue—bear no relation to each other in mere expression, except that each is the most appropriate expression for the thought. Euphuism and word play, of course, are very frequent—shockingly frequent, to some people, it would seem. But they are merely things that the poet plays at—whether for his own amusement or his readers’, or both, is a question, perhaps of some curiosity, but of no real importance. The well ascertained and extraordinary copiousness of his vocabulary is closely connected with this peculiar absence of peculiarity in his style. The writer given to mannerism necessarily repeats, if not particular words, particular forms of phrases—notoriously, in some cases, particular words also. The man who, in all cases, is to suit his phrase to his meaning, not his meaning to his phrase, cannot do this. Further, Shakespeare, like almost all good English writers, though to the persistent displeasure of some good English critics, coins words with the utmost freedom, merely observing sound analogy. He shows no preference for “English” over “Latin” vocabulary nor any the other way. But, no doubt, he appreciates, and he certainly employs, the advantages offered by their contrast, as in the capital instance of

  • The multitudinous seas incarnadine
  • Making the green one red,
  • where all but the whole of the first line is Aristotle’s xenon and the whole of the next clause his kyrion. In fact, it is possible to talk about Shakespeare’s style for ever, but impossible in any way to define it. It is practically “allstyle,” as a certain condiment is called “allspice”; and its universality justifies the Buffonian definition—even better, perhaps, that earlier one of Shakespeare’s obscure Spanish contemporary Alfonso Garcia Matamoros as habitus orationis a cujusque natura fluens.