« PreviousContinue »
WHEN I first proposed to myself the undertaking of a Course
a of Lectures upon the Genius of Shakespeare, my first feeling was, that I could scarcely hope to originate any new theory upon the principal characters in his dramas ; for they have been subjected to and have passed the ordeal of the most acute critical intellects of the most civilised nations of the world during more than a century past; and therefore for a while I suspended my intention. But then it occurred to me that the secondary movements, the "subordinate characters" in his plots, have, to a considerable extent, been neglected, the satellites of the several systems have been merged in the rays of their presiding and controlling suns. Of these “subordinate characters” it became my “hint to speak,” according to my homely wit; and I hoped to show passages of beauty that have been either too superficially, even thoughtlessly read, mayhap altogether overlooked, and some delicate points of character that have been undeservedly neglected. I did not, therefore, take up this subject because the principal points in the plays have been treated to repletion, but to make manifest that the secondary ones are rich in nature and dramatic effect; and, in consequence, upon addressing myself to my task, I was constantly impressed with one feature in Shakespeare's intellectual organisation, and that is the pervading harmony of his inferior characters with the great and single end he had in view towards the developing and maturing of his plan. I do not mean, in using the word
I harmony,” that his subordinate characters are as consistent with themselves as are the heroes and heroines of his plots ;that would indeed be a gratuitous remark, of which it would require no ghost to come and inform us; although, in many of the inferior dramatists, this discrepancy in characteristic development might be quoted to a considerable extent ;but what I mean by the pervading harmony in his secondary characters is, that they are both consistent in themselves, and consistent in fulfilling the designs of the poet or creator : -in short, that, like contrary movements in a grand musical composition, their intention and action combine in imparting unity and continuity to its design and progression. Shakespeare had doubtless an instinctive perception of propriety in “ keeping,” (as the painters term it,) and his range of mind would simultaneously grasp the combinations of qualities requisite to conceive. and perfect two such beings as Othello and lago; but it comes not within the range of human accomplishment that all those profound, heart-shaking bursts of passion and indefinable subtleties of character, like the minute threads in our nervous system, all combining to produce the one grand result of sensation,—that all that Creator-like harmony of design (I speak not irreverently ; for, with his divine faith in “goodness in things evil,” and his toleration of the infirmities of his species, Shakespeare was an emanation of the Author of all Good,) — that all his wonderful harmony of design, I say, should have cost him no more brain-effort than to write the poems of the Venus and Adonis, and Tarquin and Lucrece, exquisite as those compositions are, it were childish for an instant to conclude.
I do not say that there is manifestation of effort in anything that Shakespeare wrote, but there is prodigious contrivance, and a felicitous consummation of cause and effect; and all this harmonious arrangement, I assume, did not come to him
I with the facility of hooting to an owl.
In this very play of Macbeth, for instance, not a scene, not a character in the dramatis persona occurs, which does not tend, with undeviating current, to carry us on towards the catastrophe, and magnify its qualities; while the inferior agents are individualised with a minuteness of surpassing truth to nature.
And before entering upon a discussion on these minor characters, I will commence by as brief a summary as I am able of the ruling qualities in the two master-springs in the structure- Macbeth and his wife.
Macbeth, from circumstance, has become wholly engrossed and swayed by ambition ; but it is to be noted, that his is essentially the ambition of opportunity. The accident of his birth, which places him within as approximate a claim to the crown of Scotland as the reigning monarch, first excites it. Then the predictions of the weird sisters - or, in other words, the suggestions of his own imagination tampering with possible chances-are the next incitement. Then comes the tempting occasion of the king's housing with him at his own castle. And to crown all, his wife's representation of the ease with which the deed of the murder may be perpetrated. In perusing his character, we become conscious that Macbeth is an irresolute being; he perpetually seeks support and confirmation from his accomplices. In almost every point he is the very antipodes of Richard III., with whom he has been compared, (the single motive of ambition being excepted ;) and how finely has the poet individualised and made historical the royal murderers! So far from “ seeking support,” (like Macbeth,) Richard relies solely on himself,
using others merely as his agents—his tools. He has an unmisgiving confidence in his own powers, and an insolent scorn for those who stand as obstacles in the
of accomplishing his purposes.
Macbeth admits the excellences of Duncan even while meditating his assassination, and almost allows the circumstances of their mutual position to sway him from his intent. Richard treats his implements of crime with business-like order and despatch. The scene wherein he sends the two murderers to kill his brother Clarence is almost gay, in its bold, blunt, resolved tone.
How different from Macbeth's conference with the men he employs to waylay Banquo! In every point it is suggestive of the man who feels his way to the matter in hand, and who tries the dispositions of the men he would make the instruments of his deed. There is positively a strong infusion of the national quality of caution imparted to his nature and course of action. He begins by an indication of his own distrust in them. He bids his attendant “go to the door” during their stay, and “wait there till called.” He next shows that he has previously had an interview with these men, in which he has sought to stir their resentment against Banquo by representations of ill offices on his part towards them. He urges this again, and goads them. He goes on enlisting their interest of hatred to strengthen them into fit instruments of serving his own. While Richard commands and commends the diligence of his ruffians, Macbeth lures and almost courts these fellows into being villains enough for the secure execution of his purpose. It is the wary dealing of the self-misgiving man, who seeks to confirm his own resolution at the same time that he desires to make sure of theirs.
A singular touch occurs in the next scene, confirmatory of this uncertainty and mistrust that pervades Macbeth's actions. It is at the place appointed for the men to lie in wait for Banquo and Fleance; and it begins thus :
“ Enter THREE MURDERERS.
“ Ist Murd. But who did bid thee join with us?
It is precisely this feature of indecision—the indecision of a soul unhardened in guilt—which accompanies Macbeth throughout in his pursuit of the objects of his ambition, (so accurately in tune with the character given of him by his wife,) which individualises that ambition, and renders it a quite different passion from that which actuates Richard. Richard's ambition renders him inflexible, reckless, insolent; Macbeth's allows him to be full of hesitation and compunction. Macbeth's ambition is scarce sufficiently potent to hold him to his purpose. He himself feels it to be thus inadequate ; he owns, by one little sentence in soliloquy, that it requires urging and stimulating. He says :
“ I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
“ Only vaulting ambition!” In that moment he confesses it to be insufficient to furnish him with arguments against those he had just admitted to be of force in withholding him from the act which should secure him the object of his ambition. It is this very betrayal of something imperfect in Macbeth's ambition, something which permits it to be touched and swayed by the workings of his feelings, that causes the character of Macbeth to take that strong hold upon our sympathies. It is because we behold in him a mirror of human frailty that it possesses so powerful, an interest with us, and that we cannot find it in our hearts utterly to cast him out