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THERE are men whose names are written on the
page of history, as it were, in large type, who nevertheless in their own day were not perceived to be of more than ordinary size. We contemplate them in the glass of time, which in such cases has a magnifying power, and operates on its objects like the microscope on the minute shapes of creation. The medium does not deceive us; it merely increases the force of vision, and thereby enlarges, or brings nearer to the eye,
the forms that we would investigate. Thus we are enabled to take a fuller and truer view of the merits of the heroes of the past than was possible to their contemporaries; because we can contemplate the former in their entire proportions, and see more of them than could be witnessed by the latter. Their life and their works from birth to death are before us, and not merely a portion of either; so, knowing all (or all that can be known), we have the advantage even of wiser men who could only know a part. Of such typical or representative men was WILLIAM SHAKSPERE ; a man who, though greatly respected, was
evidently not appreciated according to the plenitude of his merits, in his lifetime; but who occupies a wider and a wider space in critical esteem, as the successive ages empower his fellow-men to estimate him and his times with increased capacity of vision and judgment. As the generations develope in intelligence and morals, so his fame, and that of other mighty spirits like him, necessarily receive augmentation. The contemplative mind grows
from century to century; and observation, with practice, and by means of facilities which increased experience continually supplies, acquires an instrumentality and a habit, by aid of which what was once secret or neglected is brought into light, and added to the stock of former knowledge. And by this process old fames are benefited, and what had already grown into giant stature, finally becomes even titanic. As nebulæ are dissolved into stars by artificial aid, so the dark places of character or circumstance gradually clear themselves of obscurity, as the accumulated science and wisdom of ages improve the perception of the reverential inquirer. The capacity of the average mind becomes recipient of the greatness of particular great minds in the distant and more distant past, and measures it according to the measure of an improved judgment and by means of rules that repeated application renders easier of employment. Thus apparently the men of old grow into heroes and demi-gods ;—but, if we reflect a little, we shall find that it is the observers of the present day who have really advanced in power and importance; and who, in acknowledg
ing the greatness of the world's earliest teachers, only prove how great they have themselves become, by means of the mysterious influence which, like a disembodied spirit, has survived the first immediate teaching, and acted ever since as an inspiration on the minds of successive races.
In the mean while the object, that has thus apparently enlarged, remains the same in itself. It was as great essentially in the beginning, as it is now;but the power of appreciation in the many was less, and they saw less than we now see of that excellence, the magnitude of which they had not acquired the ability to apprehend. Only minds like Jonson's, that stood nearly on the same level with his own, properly understood the merits of Shakspere. And the terms in which this recognition is expressed are as wonderful as the fact:
“ Triumph, my Britain! thou hast one to show,
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe:
Marvellous was the greatness of Jonson, that could so sympathise with the greatness of a contemporary. It is observable also, that he gives Shakspere credit for Art as well as Nature,-a truth not perceived until the nineteenth century, and then insisted on by another great mind, that of Coleridge. It marks a certain inferiority in Milton that he did not perceive this truth; but contrasted the flow of Shakspere's “ easy numbers” with those produced by “slow-endeavouring art.” If, however, we are to believe Jonson, this same “slow-endeavouring art” was practised by Shakspere. “He," says the sturdy and rightthinking Ben,
“ Who casts to write a living line, must sweat
(Such as thine are), and strike the second heat
It is true that this statement somewhat militates against that made in the Players' Preface to the first folio edition of Shakspere's works,—which preface is supposed to have been written by Jonson, — and records that Shakspere, “ as he was a happy imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it.
His mind and hand went together; and what he thought he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.” The fact is no doubt truly stated; but it is probable that those “papers" were fair copies, not the original draughts; such copies, in fact, as are now made for theatres of new plays, in order to their performance. The original draughts are scarcely fit for such an office, and would certainly never be used. Such copies, too, are liable to inaccuracies; and, so far as the eldest folio was printed from such, we may account in this way for many
of the manifest errors in it. That it was not altogether printed from them, we know, notwithstanding the boast to the contrary made in the preface; for in many of the plays the errors are continued which originated with the “divers stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and
stealths of injurious impostors,” which the preface affects to condemn. That preface, in fact, is a mere publisher's advertisement, affixed to the folio in order to promote its sale, albeit it was signed by the players, and probably written by Jonson.
These few remarks may serve to symbolise the amount of uncertainty and misrepresentation, both of friends and foes, against which the fame of Shakspere has had to struggle. We do not, indeed, yet directly know what works are his and what are not; nor is there any recognised external testimony which can satisfy a logical mind. The reflective reader, therefore, is fain to procure, from a careful perusal of the various works attributed to the poet, such internal evidence as may enable him to fix approximately the value of external proof, and to correct the errors of historians and biographers. The result of such a process is, of course, dependent in a great degree on the mind of the inquirer. Its predilections, associations, à priori conditions, extent of knowledge, and state of opinion (to say nothing of its genius or its taste), are all elements that enter into the argument, mingle with the premises, and affect the conclusions derived from it and them. Coleridge, Ulrici, Gervinus, and others, * have attempted this task for themselves, and as a needful portion of it, have endeavoured not only to decide what plays are Shakspere's, but the chronological order of their
• Victor Hugo has also given a classification in his book entitled William Shakespeare ; but his classification is altogether so wild and disorderly that it defies analysis. That work, indeed, is a magnificent rhapsody, but neither critical nor accurate in its statements