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The Man Shakespeare

attitude of superiority to Shakespeare is fraught with meaning. Two
hundred years later, the rising tide of international criticism produced
two men, Goethe and Coleridge, who also saw Shakespeare, if only by
glimpses, or rat her by divination of kindred genius, recognizing certain
indubitable traits. Goethe’s criticism of ”Hamlet” has been vastly
over-praised; but now and then he used words about Shakespeare which, in
due course, we shall see were illuminating words, the words of one who
guessed something of the truth. Coleridge, too, with his curious,
complex endowment of philosopher and poet, resembled Shakespeare, saw
him, therefore, by flashes, and might have written greatly about him;
but, alas, Coleridge, a Puritan born, was brought up in epicene
hypocrisies, and determined to see Shakes peare–that child of the
Renascence–as a Puritan, too, and consequently mis-saw him far oftener
than he saw him; misjudged him hideously, and had no inkling of his
tragic history.
There is a famous passage in Coleridge’s ”Essays on Shakespeare” which
illustrates what I mean. It begins: ”In Shakespeare all the elements of
womanhood are holy”; and goes on to eulogize the instinct of chastity
which all his women possess, and this in spite of Doll Tearsheet,
Tamora, Cressida, Goneril, Regan, Cleopatra, the Dark Lady of the
Sonnets, and many other frail and fascinating figures. Yet whatever
gleam of light has fallen on Shakespeare since Coleridge’s day has come
chiefly from that dark lantern which he now and then flashed upon the
In one solitary respect, our latter-day criticism has been successful;
it has established wit h very considerable accuracy the chronology of the
plays, and so the life-story of the poet is set forth in due order for
those to read who can.
This then is what I found–a host of commentators who saw men as trees
walking, and mistook plain facts, and among them one authentic witness,
Jonson, and two interesting though not trustworthy wit nesses, Goethe and
Coleridge–and nothing more in three centuries. The mere fact may well
give us pause, pointing as it does to a truth which is still
insuciently understood. It is the puzzle of criticism, at once the
despair and wonder of readers, that the greatest men of letters usually
pass through life without being remarked or understood by their
contemporaries. The men of Elizabeth’s time were more interested in
Jonson than in Shakespeare, and have told us much more about the younger
than the greater master; just as Spaniards of the same age were more
interested in Lope de Vega than in Cervantes, and have left a better
picture of the second-rate playwright than of the world -poet. Attempting
to solve this problem Emerson coolly assumed that the men of the
Elizabethan age were so great that Shakespeare himself walked about
among them unnoticed as a giant among giants. This reading of the riddl e
is purely transcendental. We know that Shakespeare’s worst plays were
far oftener acted than his best; that ”Titus Andronicus” by popular
favour was more esteemed than ”Hamlet.” The ma jority of contemporary
poets and critics regarded S hakespeare rather as a singer of ”sugred”
verses than as a dramatist. The truth is that Shakespeare passed through
life unnoticed because he was so much greater than his contemporaries
that they could not see him at all in his true proportions. It was
Jonson, the nearest to him in greatness, who alone saw him at all fairly
and appreciated his astonishing genius.
Nothing illustrates more perfectly the unconscious wisdom of the English
race than the old saying that ”a man must be judged by his peers.” One’s