The Man Shakespeare HTML version

The truth is much simpler: I read Shakespeare’s plays in boyhood,
chiefly for the stories; every few years later I was fain to re-read
them; for as I grew I always found new beauties in them which I had
formerly missed, and again and again I was lured back by tantalizing
hints and suggestions of a certain unity underlying the diversity of
characters. These suggestions gradually became more definite till at
length, out of the myriad voices in the plays, I began to hear more and
more insistent the accents of one voice, and out of the crowd of faces,
began to distinguish more and more clearly the features of the writer;
for all the world like some lovelorn girl, who, gazing with her soul in
her eyes, finds in the witch’s cauldron the face of the belov`ed.
I have tried in this book to trace the way I followed, step by step; for
I found it eective to rough in the chief features of the man first,
and afterwards, taking the plays in succession, to show how Shakespeare
painted himself at full -length not once, but twenty times, at as many
dierent periods of his life. This is one reason why he is more
interesting to us than the great est men of the past, than Dante even, or
Homer; for Dante and Homer worked only at their best in the flower of
manhood. Shakespeare, on the other hand, has paint ed himself for us in
his green youth with hardly any knowledge of life or art, and then in
his eventful maturity, with growing experience and new powers, in
masterpiece aft er masterpiece; and at length in his decline with
weak ened grasp and fading colours, so that in him we can study the
growth and fruiting and decay of the finest spirit that has yet been
born among men. This tragedy of tragedies, in which ”Lear” is only one
scene–this rise to intens est life and widest vision and fall through
abysms of despair and madness to exhaustion and death–can be followed
experience by experience, from Strat ford to London and its thirty years
of passionate living, and then from London to village Stratford again,
and the eternal shrouding silenc e.
As soon as this astonishing drama discovered itself to me in its tragic
completeness I jumped to the conclusion that it must have been set forth
long ago in detail by Shakespeare’s commentators, and so, for the first
time, I turned to their works. I do not wish to rail at my forerunners
as Carlyle railed at the historians of Cromwell, or I should talk, as he
talked, about ”libraries of inanities...conceited dilettantism and
pedantry...prurient stupidity,” and so forth. The fact is, I found all
this, and worse; I waded through tons of talk to no result. Without a
single exception the commentators have all missed the man and the story;
they have turned the poet into a tradesman, and the unimaginable tragedy
of his life into the commonplace record of a successful tradesman’s
career. E ven to explain this astounding misadventure of the host of
critics is a little dicult. The mistake, of course, arose from the
fact that his contemporaries told very little about Shakespeare; they
left his appearance and even the incidents of his life rather vague.
Being without a guide, and having no clear idea of Shakespeare’s
character, the critics created him in their own image, and, whenever
they were in doubt, idealized him according to the national type.
Still, there was at least one exception. Some Frenchman, I think it is
Joubert, says that no great man is born int o the world without another
man being born about the same time, who understands and can interpret
him, and Shakespeare was of necessity singularly fort unate in his
interpreter. Ben Jonson was big enough to see him fairly, and to give
excellent-true testimony concerning him. Jonson’s view of Shakespeare is
astonishingly accurate and trustworthy so far as it goes; even his