Shakespeare: His Life, Art, And Characters: Part 29

"Good Queen, my lord, good Queen; I say, good Queen, And would by combat make her good, so were I A man, the worst about you."

"For ever Unvenerable be thy hands, if thou Tak'st up the Princess by that forced baseness Which he has put upon 't."

Such are some of the words that boil over from the stout heart of Paulina,--the n.o.blest and most amiable termagant we shall anywhere find,--when, with the new-born babe in charge, she confronts the furious King. He threatens to have her burnt, and she replies instantly,--

"I care not: It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in 't."

If her faults were a thousand times greater than they are, I could pardon them all for this one little speech; which proves that Shakespeare was, I will not say a Protestant, but a true Christian, intellectually at least, and far deeper in the spirit of his religion than a large majority of the Church's official organs were in his day, or, let me add, have been any day since. And this was written, be it observed, at a time when the embers of the old ecclesiastical fires were not yet wholly extinct, and when many a priestly bigot was deploring the lay ascendency which kept them from being rekindled.

Paulina makes a superb counterpart to Hermione, heightening the effect of her character by the most emphatic contrast, and at the same time reflecting it by her intense and outspoken sympathy. Without any of the Queen's dignified calmness and reserve, she is alive to all her inward beauty and greatness: with a head to understand and a heart to reverence such a woman, she unites a temper to fight, a generosity to die for her. But no language but her own can fitly measure the ardour with which she loves and admires and even adores her "dearest, sweetest mistress," whose power has indeed gone all through her, so that every part of her nature cannot choose but speak it, when the occasion kindles her. Loud, voluble, violent, and viraginous, with a tongue sharper than a sword, and an eloquence that fairly blisters where it hits, she has, therewithal, too much honour and magnanimity and kind feeling either to use them without good cause, or to forbear using them at all hazards when she has such cause. Mrs. Jameson cla.s.ses her, and justly, no doubt, among those women--and she a.s.sures us there are many such--who seem regardless of the feelings of those for whom they would sacrifice their life.

"I thought she had some great matter there in hand; for she hath privately, twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited that removed house." Such is the speech of one gentleman to another, as the royal party and all the Court are going to Paulina's house to see the mysterious workmanship of Julio Romano. Nothing could better suggest the history of that quiet, placid intercourse, with its long record of patient, self-rewarding service; a fellowship in which little needed to be said, for each knew what was in the other's mind by a better language than words. It is such an idea of friendship as it does the heart good to rest upon. Just think of those two great manly souls, enshrined in womanly tenderness, thus communing together in secret for sixteen long years! And what a powerful charm of love and loyalty must have been cast upon Paulina's impulsive tongue, that she should keep so reticent of her dear cause through all that time!

To play the woman after that fashion would not hurt any of us.

During the first three Acts the interest of this play is mainly tragic; the scene is densely crowded with incidents; the action hurried, abrupt, almost spasmodic; the style quick and sharp, flashing off point after point in brief, sinewy strokes; and all is rapidity and despatch: what with the insane fury of the King, the n.o.ble agony of the Queen, the enthusiasm of the Court in her behalf, and the King's violence towards both them and her, the mind is kept on the jump: all which, if continued to the end, would generate rather a tumult and hubbub in the thoughts, than that inward music which the t.i.tle of the play promises; not to say, that such a prolonged hurry of movement would at length become monotonous and wearisome. Far otherwise the latter half of the play. Here the antic.i.p.ations proper to a long, leisurely winter evening are fully met; the general effect is soothing and composing; the tones, dipped in sweetness, fall gently on the ear, disposing the mind to be still and listen and contemplate; thus making the play, as Coleridge describes it, "exquisitely respondent to the t.i.tle." It would seem, indeed, that in these scenes the Poet had specially endeavoured how much of silent effect he could produce, without diverging from the dramatic form. To this end, he provides resting-places for thought; suspending or r.e.t.a.r.ding the action by musical pauses and periods of lyrical movement, and breathing in the mellowest strains of poetical harmony, till the eye is "made quiet by the power of beauty," and all tumult of mind is hushed in the very intensity of feeling.

In the last two Acts we have a most artful interchange and blending of romantic beauty and comic drollery. The lost Princess and the heir-apparent of Bohemia, two of the n.o.blest and loveliest beings that ever fancy conceived, occupy the centre of the picture, while around them are cl.u.s.tered rustic shepherds and shepherdesses amid their pastimes and pursuits, the whole being enlivened by the tricks and humours of a merry pedler and pickpocket. For simple purity and sweetness, the scene which unfolds the loves and characters of the Prince and Princess is not surpa.s.sed by any thing in Shakespeare.

Whatsoever is enchanting in romance, lovely in innocence, elevated in feeling, and sacred in faith, is here concentrated; forming, all together, one of those things which we always welcome as we do the return of Spring, and over which our feelings may renew their youth for ever. So long as flowers bloom and hearts love, they will do it in the spirit of this scene.

It is a pastoral frolic, where free thoughts and guileless hearts rule the hour, all as true and as pure as the tints and fragrances with which field and forest and garden have beautified the occasion. The neighbouring swains and la.s.ses have gathered in, to share and enhance the sport. The old Shepherd is present, but only as a looker-on, having for the nonce resigned the command to his reputed daughter.

Under their mutual inspiration, the Prince and Princess are each in the finest rapture of fancy, while the surrounding influences of the rustic festival are just enough to enfranchise their inward music into modest and delicate utterance. He has tastefully decked her person with flowers, till no traces of the shepherdess can be seen, and she seems herself a mult.i.tudinous flower; having also attired himself "with a swain's wearing," so that the prince is equally obscured.

"These your unusual weeds to each part of you Do give a life: no shepherdess; but Flora, Peering in April's front. This your sheep-shearing Is as a meeting of the petty G.o.ds, And you the queen on't."

Thus he opens the play. And when she repeats her fears of the event:

"Thou dearest Perdita, With these forc'd thoughts, I pr'ythee, darken not The mirth o' the feast: or I'll be thine, my fair, Or not my father's; for I cannot be Mine own, nor any thing to any, if I be not thine: to this I am most constant, Though destiny say no."

The King and Camilla steal upon them in disguise, and while they are present we have this:

"_Perdita_. Come, take your flowers: Methinks I play as I have seen them do In Whitsun pastorals: sure, this robe of mine Does change my disposition.

_Florizel_. What you do Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet, I'd have you do it ever: when you sing, I'd have you buy and sell so; so give alms; Pray so; and, for the ordering your affairs, To sing them too: when you do dance I wish you A wave o' the sea, that you might ever do Nothing but that; move still, still so, and own No other function. Each your doing is So singular in each particular, Crowning what you have done i' the present deed, That all your acts are queens.

_Perdita_. O Doricles!

Your praises are too large: but that your youth, And the true blood that peeps so fairly through 't, Do plainly give you out an unstain'd shepherd, With wisdom I might fear, my Doricles, You woo'd me the false way.

_Florizel_. I think you have As little skill to fear as I have purpose To put you to 't. But come; our dance, I pray.

_Polix_. This is the prettiest low-born la.s.s that ever Ran on the green-sward: nothing she does or seems But smacks of something greater than herself,-- Too n.o.ble for this place.

_Camil_. He tells her something That makes her blood look out: Good sooth, she is The queen of curds and cream.

_Polix_. 'Pray you, good shepherd, what fair swain is this Which dances with your daughter?

_Shep_. They call him Doricles; and boasts himself To have a worthy feeding: I but have it Upon his own report, and I believe it; He looks like sooth. He says he loves my daughter: I think so too; for never gaz'd the Moon Upon the water, as he'll stand, and read, As 't were, my daughter's eyes: and, to be plain, I think there is not half a kiss to choose Who loves another best.

_Polix_. She dances featly.

_Shep_. So she does any thing, though I report it, That should be silent."

Perdita, notwithstanding she occupies so little room in the play, fills a large s.p.a.ce in the reader's thoughts, almost disputing precedence with the Queen. And her mother's best native qualities reappear in her, sweetly modified by pastoral a.s.sociations; her nature being really much the same, only it has been developed and seasoned in a different atmosphere; a nature too strong indeed to be displaced by any power of circ.u.mstances or supervenings of art, but at the same time too delicate and susceptive not to take a lively and lasting impress of them. So that, while she has thoroughly a.s.similated, she nevertheless clearly indicates, the food of place and climate, insomuch that the dignities of the princely and the simplicities of the pastoral character seem striving which shall express her goodliest. We can hardly call her a poetical being; she is rather poetry itself, and every thing lends and borrows beauty at her touch.

A playmate of the flowers, when we see her with them, we are at a loss whether they take more inspiration from her or she from them; and while she is the sweetest of poets in making nosegays, the nosegays become in her hands the richest of crowns. If, as Schlegel somewhere remarks, the Poet is "particularly fond of showing the superiority of the innate over the acquired," he has surely nowhere done it with finer effect than in this unfledged angel.

There is much to suggest a comparison of Perdita and Miranda; yet how shall I compare them? Perfectly distinct indeed as individuals, still their characters are strikingly similar; only Perdita has perhaps a sweeter gracefulness, the freedom, simplicity, and playfulness of nature being in her case less checked by external restraints; while Miranda carries more of a magical and mysterious charm woven into her character from the supernatural influences of her whereabout. So like, yet so different, it is hard saying which is the better of the two, or rather one can hardly help liking her best with whom he last conversed. It is an interesting fact also, for such it seems to be, that these two glorious delineations were produced very near together, perhaps both the same year; and this too when Shakespeare was in his highest maturity of poetry and wisdom; from which it has been not unjustly argued that his experience both in social and domestic life must have been favourable to exalted conceptions of womanhood. The Poet, though in no sort a bigot, was evidently full of loyal and patriotic sentiment; and I have sometimes thought that the government of Elizabeth, with the grand national enthusiasm which cl.u.s.tered round her throne and person, may have had a good deal to do in shaping and inspiring this part of his workmanship. Be that as it may, with but one great exception, I think the world now finds its best ideas of moral beauty in Shakespeare's women.

Florizel's character is in exquisite harmony with that of the Princess. To be sure, it may be said that if he is worthy of her, it is mainly her influence that makes him so. But then it is to be observed, on the other hand, that as in such cases men find only what they bring the faculties for finding, so the meeting with her would not have elicited such music from him, had not his nature been originally responsive to hers. For he is manifestly drawn and held to her by a powerful instinct of congeniality. And none but a living abstract and sum-total of all that is manly could have so felt the perfections of such a woman. The difference between them is, that she was herself before she saw him, and would have been the same without him; whereas he was not and could not be himself, as we see him, till he caught inspiration from her; so that he is but right in saying,--

"I bless the time When my good falcon made her flight across Thy father's ground."

Nevertheless it is a clear instance of the pre-established harmony of souls: but that his spirit were akin to hers, he could not have recognized his peer through such a disguise of circ.u.mstances. For any one to be untouched and unsweetened by the heavenly purity of their courtship, were indeed a sin almost too great to be forgiven.

Shakespeare knew,--none better,--that in order to be a lover in any right sense of the term, one must first be a man. He therefore does not leave the Prince without an opportunity to show that he is such.

And it is not till after the King has revealed himself, and blown up the mirth of the feast by his explosion of wrath, that the Prince displays his proper character in this respect. I need not stay to remark how well the Poet orders the action for that purpose; suffice it to say that the Prince then fully makes good his previous declaration:

"Were I crown'd the most imperial monarch, Thereof most worthy; were I the fairest youth That ever made eye swerve; had force and knowledge More than was ever man's; I would not prize them, Without her love; for her employ them all; Commend them or condemn them to her service, Or to their own perdition."

The minor characters of this play are both well conceived and skilfully disposed, the one giving them a fair personal, the other a fair dramatic interest. The old Shepherd and his clown of a son are near, if not in, the Poet's happiest comic vein. Autolycus, the "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles," is the most amiable and ingenious rogue we should desire to see; who cheats almost as divinely as those about him love, and whose thieving tricks the very G.o.ds seem to crown with thrift in reward of his wit. His self-raillery and droll soliloquizing give us the feeling that his sins are committed not so much for lucre as for fun.--The Poet was perhaps a little too fond of placing his characters in situations where they have to be false in order to be the truer; which no doubt sometimes happens; yet, surely, in so delicate a point of morality, some care is needful, lest the exceptions become too much for the rule. And something too much of this there may be in the honest, upright, yet deceiving old lord, Camillo. I speak this under correction; for I know it is not safe to fault Shakespeare's morals; and that they who affect a better morality than his are very apt to turn out either hypocrites or moral c.o.xcombs.

As for the rest, this Camillo, though little more than a staff in the drama, is nevertheless a pillar of State; his integrity and wisdom making him a light to the counsels and a guide to the footsteps of the greatest around him. Fit to be the stay of princes, he is one of those venerable relics of the past which show us how beautiful age can be, and which, linking together different generations, format once the salt of society and the strength of government.

I have never seen this play on the stage; but I can well understand how the scene with the painted statue, if fairly delivered, might be surpa.s.singly effective. The illusion is all on the understandings of the spectators; and they seem to feel the _power_ without the _fact_ of animation, or to have a _sense_ of mobility in a _vision_ of fixedness. And such is the magic of the scene, that we almost fancy them turning into marble, as they fancy the marble turning into flesh.

END OF VOL. I.

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