Page images
PDF
EPUB

Boy! false hound!

If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there
That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I
Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioli;
Alone, I did it. Boy!

And in a moment the swords of the conspirators have pierced him. A Volscian lord, reverent for fallen greatness, protects the body:

Tread not upon him. Masters all, be quiet;
Put up your swords.

So suddenly has he passed from towering passion to the helplessness of death; the victim of his own violent egoism, and uncontrollable self-will. We remain with the sense that a great gap in the world has been made; that a sea-mark "standing every flaw" has for all time disappeared. We see the lives of smaller men still going on; we repress all violence of lamentation, and bear about with us a memory in which pride and pity are blended.

CHAPTER VII.

THE HUMOUR OF SHAKSPERE.

A STUDY of Shakspere which fails to take account of Shakspere's humour must remain essentially incomplete. The character and spiritual history of a man who is endowed with a capacity for humorous appreciation of the world must differ throughout and in every particular from that of the man whose moral nature has never rippled over with genial laughter. At whatever final issue Shakspere arrived after long spiritual travail as to the attainment of his life, that precise issue rather than another was arrived at in part by virtue of the fact of Shakspere's humour. In the composition of forces which determined the orbit traversed by the mind of the poet this must be allowed for as a force among others, in importance not the least, and efficient at all times, even when little apparent. A man whose visage "holds one stern intent" from day to day, and whose joy becomes at times almost a supernatural rapture, may descend through circles of hell to the narrowest and the lowest; he may mount from sphere to sphere of Paradise until he stands within the light of the divine majesty; but he will hardly succeed in presenting us with an adequate image of life as it is on this earth of ours in its oceanic amplitude and variety. A few men of genius there have been, who, with vision

Y

penetrative as lightning, have gazed as it were through life, at some eternal significances of which life is the symbol. Intent upon its sacred meaning they have had no eye to note the forms of the grotesque hieroglyph of human existence. Such men are not framed for laughter. To this little group the creator of Falstaff, of Bottom, and of Touchstone does not belong.

Shakspere, who saw life more widely and wisely than any other of the seers, could laugh. That is a comfortable fact to bear in mind; a fact which serves to rescue us from the domination of intense and narrow natures, who claim authority by virtue of their grasp of one half of the realities of our existence and their denial of the rest. Shakspere could laugh. But we must go on to ask "What did he laugh at? and what was the manner of his laughter?" There are as many modes of laughter as there are facets of the common soul of humanity to reflect the humorous appearances of the world. Hogarth in one of his pieces of coarse, yet subtile engraving, has presented a group of occupants of the pit of a theatre sketched during the performance of some broad comedy or farce. What proceeds upon the stage is invisible and undiscoverable save as we catch its reflection on the faces of the spectators, in the same way that we infer a sunset from the evening flame upon windows that front the west. Each laughing face in Hogarth's print exhibits a different mode or a different stage of the risible paroxysm. There is the habitual enjoyer of the broad comic abandoned to his mirth which is open and unashamed, mirth which he is evidently a match for, and able to sustain. By his side is a com

panion female portrait, a woman with head thrown back to ease the violence of the guffaw; all her loose redundant flesh is tickled into an orgasm of merriment; she is fairly overcome. On the other side sits the spectator who has passed the climax of his laughter; he wipes the tears from his eyes, and is on the way to regain an insecure and temporary composure. Below appears a girl of eighteen or twenty, whose vacancy of intellect is captured and occupied by the innocuous folly still in progress; she gazes on expectantly, assured that a new blossom of the wonder of absurdity is about to display itself. Her father, a man who does not often surrender himself to an indecent convulsion, leans his face upon his hand, and with the other steadies himself by grasping one of the iron spikes that enclose the orchestra. In the right corner sits the humourist, whose eyes, around which the wrinkles gather, are half-closed, while he already goes over the jest a second time in his imagination. At the opposite side an elderly woman is seen, past the period when animal violences are possible, laughing because she knows there is something to laugh at, though she is too dull-witted to know precisely what. One spectator, as we guess from his introverted air, is laughing to think what somebody else would think of this. Finally, the thin-lipped, perk-nosed person of refinement looks aside, and by his critical indifference condemns the broad, injudicious mirth of the company.

All these laughers of Hogarth are very commonplace, and some are very vulgar persons; one trivial, ludicrous spectacle is the occasion of their mirth. When from such laughter as this we turn to the laughter of men of

genius, who gaze at the total play of the world's life, and when we listen to this, as with the ages it goes on gathering and swelling, our sense of hearing is enveloped and almost annihilated by the chorus of mock and jest, of antic and buffoonery, of tender mirth and indignant satire, of monstrous burlesque and sly absurdity, of desperate misanthropic derision, and genial, affectionate caressing of human imperfection and human folly. We hear from behind the mask the enormous laughter of Aristophanes, ascending peal above peal, until it passes into jubilant ecstasy or from the uproar springs some exquisite lyric strain. We hear laughter of passionate indignation from Juvenal, the indignation of "the ancient and free soul of the dead republics."* And there is Rabelais, with his huge buffoonery, and the earnest eyes intent on freedom which look out at us in the midst of the zany's tumblings and indecencies. And Cervantes, with his refined Castilian air, and deep melancholy mirth at odds with the enthusiasm which is dearest to his soul. And Molière, with his laughter of unerring good sense, undeluded by fashion, or vanity, or folly, or hypocrisy, and brightly mocking these into modesty. And Milton, with his fierce objurgatory laughter, Elijah-like insult against the enemies of freedom and of England. And Voltaire, with his quick intellectual scorn, and eager malice of the brain. And there is the urbane and amiable play of Addison's invention, not capable of large achievement, but stirring the corners of the mouth with

* "Juvénal, c'est la vieille âme libre des républiques mortes; il a en lui une Rome dans l'airain de laquelle sont fondues Athènes et Sparte." Victor Hugo. William Shakespeare, p. 45. (ed. 1869.)

« PreviousContinue »