A SUMMARY SURVEY
by Thomas De Quincey
A Summary Survey
AFTER this review of Shakspeare's lifeit becomes our duty to take a summarysurvey of his worksof his intellectual powersand of his station inliterature- a station which is now irrevocably settlednot so much (whichhappens in other cases) by a vast overbalance of favourable suffragesas byacclamation; not so much by the voices of those who admire him up to the vergeof idolatryas by the acts of those who everywhere seek for his works among theprimal necessities of lifedemand themand crave them as they do their dailybread; not so much by eulogy openly proclaiming itselfas by the silent homagerecorded in the endless multiplication of what he has bequeathed us; not so muchby his own compatriotswhowith regard to almost every other author*002compose the total amount of his effective audienceas by the unanimous 'Allhail!' of intellectual Christendom; finallynot by the hasty partisanship ofhis own generationnor by the biassed judgment of an age trained in the samemodes of feeling and of thinking with himselfbut by the solemn award ofgeneration succeeding to generationof one age correcting the obliquities orpeculiarities of another; by the verdict of two hundred and thirty yearswhichhave now elapsed since the very latest of his creationsor of two hundred andforty-seven years if we date from the earliest; a verdict which has beencontinually revived and re-openedprobedsearchedvexedby criticism inevery spiritfrom the most genial and intelligentdown to the most malignantand scurrilously hostile which feeble heads and great ignorance could suggestwhen co-operating with impure hearts and narrow sensibilities; a verdictinshortsustained and countersigned by a longer series of writersmany of thememinent for wit or learningthan were ever before congregated upon any inquestrelating to any authorbe he who he mightancient *003 or modernPagan orChristian. It was a most witty saying with respect to a piratical and knavishpublisherwho made a trade of insulting the memories of deceased authors byforged writingsthat he was 'among the new terrors of death.' But in thegravest sense it may be affirmed of Shakspeare that he is among the modernluxuries of life; that lifein factis a new thingand one more to be covetedsince Shakspeare has extended the domains of human consciousnessand pushed itsdark frontiers into regions not so much as dimly descried or even suspectedbefore his timefar less illuminated (as now they are) by beauty and tropicalluxuriance of life. For instance- a single instanceindeed one which in itselfis a world of new revelation- the possible beauty of the female character hadnot been seen as in a dream before Shakspeare called into perfect life theradiant shapes of Desdemonaof Imogenof Hermioneof Perditaof OpheliaofMirandaand many others. The Una of Spenserearlier by ten or fifteen yearsthan most of thesewas an idealised portrait of female innocence and virginpuritybut too shadowy and unreal for a dramatic reality. And as to the Grecianclassicslet not the reader imagine for an instant that any prototype in thisfield of Shakspearian power can be looked for there. The Antigone and theElectra of the tragic poets are the two leading female characters that classicalantiquity offers to our respectbut assuredly not to our impassioned loveasdisciplined and exalted in the school of Shakspeare. They challenge ouradmirationsevere and even sternas impersonations of filial dutycleaving tothe steps of a desolate and afflicted old man; or of sisterly affectionmaintaining the rights of a brother under circumstances of perilof desertionand consequently of perfect self-reliance. Iphigeniaagainthough notdramatically coming before us in her own personbut according to the beautifulreport of a spectatorpresents us with a fine statuesque model of heroicfortitudeand of one whose young hearteven in the very agonies of her cruelimmolationrefused to forgetby a single indecorous gestureor so much as amoment's neglect of her own princely descentthat she herself was 'a lady inthe land.' These are fine marble groupsbut they are not the warm breathingrealities of Shakspeare; there is 'no speculation' in their cold marble eyes;the breath of life is not in their nostrils; the fine pulses of womanlysensibilities are not throbbing in their bosoms. And besides this immeasurabledifference between the cold moony reflexes of lifeas exhibited by the power ofGrecian artand the true sunny life of Shakspeareit must be observed that theAntigones&c.of the antique put forward but one single trait of characterlike the aloe with its single blossom: this solitary feature is presented to usas an abstractionand as an insulated quality; whereas in Shakspeare all ispresented in the concrete ; that is to saynot brought forward in reliefas bysome effort of an anatomical artist; but embodied and imbeddedso to speakasby the force of a creative naturein the complex system of a human life; a lifein which all the elements move and play simultaneouslyand with something morethan mere simultaneity or co-existenceacting and re-acting each upon theother- nayeven acting by each other and through each other. In Shakspeare'scharacters is felt for ever a real organic lifewhere each is for the whole andin the wholeand where the whole is for each and in each. They only are realincarnations.
The Greek poets could not exhibit any approximations to female characterwithout violating the truth of Grecian lifeand shocking the feelings of theaudience. The drama with the Greeksas with usthough much less than with uswas a picture of human life; and that which could not occur in life could notwisely be exhibited on the stage. Nowin ancient Greecewomen were secludedfrom the society of men. The conventual sequestration of the gunaikonitisorfemale apartment *004 of the houseand the Mahommedan consecration of itsthreshold against the ingress of maleshad been transplanted from Asia intoGreece thousands of years perhaps before either convents or Mahommed existed.Thus barred from all open social intercoursewomen could not develop or expressany character by word or action. Even to have a characterviolatedto aGrecian mindthe ideal portrait of feminine excellence; whenceperhapspartlythe too generictoo little individualizedstyle of Grecian beauty. Butprominently to express a character was impossible under the common tenor ofGrecian lifeunless when high tragical catastrophes transcended the decorumsof that tenoror for a brief interval raised the curtain which veiled it. Hencethe subordinate part which women play upon the Greek stage in all but some halfdozen cases. In the paramount tragedy on that stagethe model tragedytheOedipus Tyrannus of Sophoclesthere is virtually no woman at all; for Jocastais a party to the story merely as the dead Laius or the self- murdered Sphinxwas a party- viz. by her contributions to the fatalities of the eventnot byanything she does or says spontaneously. In factthe Greek poetif a wise poetcould not address himself genially to a task in which he must begin by shockingthe sensibilities of his countrymen. And hence followednot only the dearth offemale characters in the Grecian dramabut also a second result still morefavourable to the sense of a new power evolved by Shakspeare. Whenever thecommon law of Grecian life did give wayit wasas we have observedto thesuspending force of some great convulsion or tragical catastrophe. This for amoment (like an earthquake in a nunnery) would set at liberty even the timidfluttering Grecian womenthose doves of the dove-cotand would call some ofthem into action. But which? Precisely those of energetic and masculine minds;the timid and feminine would but shrink the more from public gaze and fromtumult. Thus it happenedthat such female characters as were exhibited inGreececould not but be the harsh and the severe. If a gentle Ismene appearedfor a moment in contest with some energetic sister Antigone (and chieflyperhapsby way of drawing out the fiercer character of that sister)she wassoon dismissed as unfit for scenical effect. So that not only were femalecharacters fewbutmoreoverof these few the majority were but repetitions ofmasculine qualities in female persons. Female agency being seldom summoned onthe stage except when it had received a sort of special dispensation from itssexual characterby some terrific convulsions of the house or the citynaturally it assumed the style of action suited to these circumstances. Andhence it arosethat not woman as she differed from manbut woman as sheresembled man- womanin shortseen under circumstances so dreadful as toabolish the effect of sexual distinctionwas the woman of the Greek tragedy.*005 And hence generally arose for Shakspeare the wider fieldand the moreastonishing by its perfect noveltywhen the he first introduced femalecharactersnot as mere varieties or echoes of masculine charactersa Medea orClytemnestraor a vindictive Hecubathe mere tigress of the tragic tigerbutfemale characters that had the appropriate beauty of female nature; woman nolonger grandterrificand repulsivebut woman 'after her kind'- the otherhemisphere of the dramatic world; woman running through the vast gamut ofwomanly loveliness; woman as emancipatedexaltedennobledunder a new law ofchristian morality; woman the sister and co-equal of manno longer his slavehis prisonerand sometimes his rebel. 'It is a far cry to Loch Awe;' and fromthe Athenian stage to the stage of Shakspeareit may be saidis a prodigiousinterval. True; but prodigious as it isthere is really nothing between them.The Roman stageat least the tragic stageas is well knownwas put outas byan extinguisherby the cruel amphitheatrejust as a candle is made pale andridiculous by daylight. Those who were fresh from the real murders of the bloodyamphitheatre regarded with contempt the mimic murders of the stage. Stimulationtoo coarse and too intense had its usual effect in making the sensibilitiescallous. Christian emperors arose at lengthwho abolished the amphitheatre inits bloodier features. But by that time the genius of the tragic muse had longslept the sleep of death. And that muse had no resurrection until the age ofShakspeare. So thatnotwithstanding a gulf of nineteen centuries and upwardsseparates Shakspeare from Euripidesthe last of the surviving Greek tragediansthe one is still the nearest successor of the otherjust as Connaught and theislands in Clew Bay are next neighbours to Americaalthough three thousandwatery columnseach of a cubic mile in dimensionsdivide them from each other.
A second reasonwhich lends an emphasis of novelty and effective power toShakspeare's female worldis a peculiar fact of contrast which exists betweenthat and his corresponding world of men. Let us explain. The purpose and theintention of the Grecian stage was not primarily to develop human characterwhether in men or in women; human fates were its object; great tragic situationsunder the mighty control of a vast cloudy destinydimly descried at intervalsand brooding over human life by mysterious agenciesand for mysterious ends.Manno longer the representative of an august will- manthe passion-puppetof fatecould not with any effect display what we call a characterwhich is adistinction between man and manemanating originally from the willandexpressing its determinationsmoving under the large variety of human impulses.The will is the central pivot of character; and this was obliteratedthwartedcancelledby the dark fatalism which brooded over the Grecian stage. Thatexplanation will sufficiently clear up the reason why marked or complex varietyof character was slighted by the great principles of the Greek tragedy. Andevery scholar who has studied that grand drama of Greece with feeling- thatdramaso magnificentso regalso stately- and who has thoughtfullyinvestigated its principlesand its differences from the English dramawillacknowledge that powerful and elaborate character- characterfor instancethat could employ fiftieth part of that profound analysis which has been appliedto Hamletto Falstaffto Learto Othelloand applied by Mrs. Jameson soadmirably to the full development of the Shakspearian heroineswould have beenas much wastednaywould have been defeatedand interrupted the blindagencies of fatejust in the same way as it would injure the shadowy grandeurof a ghost to individualize it too much. Milton's angels are slightly touchedsuperficially touchedwith differences of character; but they are suchdifferencesso simple and generalas are just sufficient to rescue them fromthe reproach applied to Virgil's 'fortemque Gyanfortemque Cloanthem;' justsufficient to make them knowable apart. Pliny speaks of painters who painted inone or two colours; andas respects the angelic charactersMilton does so; heis monochromatic. Soand for reasons resting upon the same ultimate philosophywere the mighty architects of the Greek tragedy. They also were monochromatic;they alsoas to the characters of their personspainted in one colour. And sofar there might have been the same novelty in Shakspeare's men as in his women.There
might have been; but the reason why there is notmust be sought in the factthat Historythe muse of Historyhad there even been no such muse as Melpomenewould have forced us into an acquaintance with human character. Historyas therepresentative of actual lifeof real mangives us powerful delineations ofcharacter in its chief agentsthat isin men; and therefore it is thatShakspearethe absolute creator of female characterwas but the mightiest ofall painters with regard to male character. Take a single instance. The Antonyof Shakspeareimmortal for its executionis foundafter allas regards theprimary conceptionin history: Shakspeare's delineation is but the expansion ofthe germ already pre-existingby way of scattered fragmentsin Cicero'sPhilippicsin Cicero's Lettersin Appian&c. But Cleopatraequally fineis a pure creation of art: the situation and the scenic circumstances belong tohistorybut the character belongs to Shakspeare.
In the great world therefore of womanas the interpreter of the shiftingphases and the lunar varieties of that mighty changeable planetthat lovelysatellite of manShakspeare stands not the first onlynot the original onlybut is yet the sole authentic oracle of truth. Womanthereforethe beauty ofthe female mindthis is one great field of his power. The supernatural worldthe world of apparitionsthat is another: for reasons which it would be easy togivereasons emanating from the gross mythology of the ancientsno Grecian*006 no Romancould have conceived a ghost. That shadowy conceptiontheprotesting apparitionthe awful projection of the human consciencebelongs tothe Christian mind: and in all Christendomwholet us askwhobut Shakspearehas found the power for effectually working this mysterious mode of being? Insummoning back to earth 'the majesty of buried Denmark' how like an awfulnecromancer does Shakspeare appear! All the pomps and grandeurs which religionwhich the gravewhich the popular superstition had gathered about the subjectof apparitionsare here converted to his purposeand bend to one awful effect.The wormy grave brought into antagonism with the scenting of the early dawn; thetrumpet of resurrection suggestedand again as an antagonist idea to thecrowing of the cock (a bird ennobled in the Christian mythus by the part he ismade to play at the Crucifixion); its starting 'as a guilty thing' placed inopposition to its majestic expression of offended dignity when struck at by thepartisans of the sentinels; its awful allusions to the secrets of itsprison-house; its ubiquitycontrasted with its local presence; its aerialsubstanceyet clothed in palpable armour; the heart-shaking solemnity of itslanguageand the appropriate scenery of its hauntviz. the ramparts of acapital fortresswith no witnesses but a few gentlemen mounting guard at thedead of night- what a mistwhat a mirage of vapouris here accumulatedthrough which the dreadful being in the centre looms upon us in far largerproportions than could have happened had it been insulated aud left naked ofthis circumstantial pomp! In the Tempestagainwhat new modes of lifepreternaturalyet far as the poles from the spiritualities of religion. Arielin antithesis to Caliban! *007 What is most ethereal to what is most animal! Aphantom of airan abstraction of the dawn and of vesper sun-lightsa bodilesssylph on the one hand; on the other a gross carnal monsterlike the MiltonicAsmodai'the fleshliest incubus' among the fiendsand yet so far ennobled intointerest by his intellectual powerand by the grandeur of misanthropy! In theMidsummer-Night's Dreamagainwe have the old traditional fairya lovely modeof preternatural liferemodified by Shakspeare's eternal talisman. Oberon andTitania remind us at first glance of Ariel; they approachbut how far theyrecede: they are like- 'likebut ohhow different!' And in no other exhibitionof this dreamy population of the moonlight forests and forest-lawns are thecircumstantial proprieties of fairy life so exquisitely imaginedsustainedorexpressed. The dialogue between Oberon and Titania isof itself and takenseparately from its connectionone of the most delightful poetic scenes thatliterature affords. The witches in Macbeth are another variety of supernaturallifein which Shakspeare's power to enchant and to disenchant are alikeportentous. The circumstances of the blasted heaththe army at a distancethewithered attire of the mysterious hagsand the choral litanies of theirfiendish Sabbathare as finely imagined in their kind as those which herald andwhich surround the ghost in Hamlet. There we see the positive of Shakspeare'ssuperior power. But now turn and look to the negative. At a time when the trialsof witchesthe royal book on demonologyand popular superstition (all so farusefulas they prepared a basis of undoubting faith for the poet's serious useof such agencies) had degraded and polluted the ideas of these mysterious beingsby many mean associationsShakspeare does not fear to employ them in hightragedy (a tragedy moreover whichthough not the very greatest of his effortsas an intellectual wholenor as a struggle of passionis among the greatest inany viewand positively the greatest for scenical grandeurand in that respectmakes the nearest approach of all English tragedies to the Grecian model); hedoes not fear to introducefor the same appalling effect as that for whichAeschylus introduced the Eumenidesa triad of old womenconcerning whom anEnglish wit has remarked this grotesque peculiarity in the popular creed of thatday- that although potent over winds and stormsin league with powers ofdarknessthey yet stood in awe of the constable- yet relying on his ownsupreme power to disenchant as well as to enchantto create and to uncreatehemixes these women and their dark machineries with the power of armieswith theagencies of kingsand the fortunes of martial kingdoms. Such was thesovereignty of this poetso mighty its compass!
A third fund of Shakspeare's peculiar power lies in his teeming fertility offine thoughts and sentiments. From his works alone might be gathered a goldenbead-roll of thoughts the deepestsubtlestmost patheticand yet mostcatholic and universally intelligible; the most characteristicalsoandappropriate to the particular personthe situationand the caseyetat thesame timeapplicable to the circumstances of every human beingunder all theaccidents of lifeand all vicissitudes of fortune. But this subject offers sovast a field of observationit being so eminently the prerogative of Shakspeareto have thought more finely and more extensively than all other poets combinedthat we cannot wrong the dignity of such a theme by doing morein our narrowlimitsthan simply noticing it as one of the emblazonries upon Shakspeare'sshield.
Fourthlywe shall indicate (andas in the last casebarely indicatewithout attempting in so vast a field to offer any inadequate illustrations) onemode of Shakspeare's dramatic excellence which hitherto has not attracted anyspecial or separate notice. We allude to the forms of lifeand natural humanpassionas apparent in the structure of his dialogue. Among the many defectsand infirmities of the French and of the Italian dramaindeed we may say of theGreekthe dialogue proceeds always by independent speechesreplying indeed toeach otherbut never modified in its several openings by the momentary effectof its several terminal forms immediately preceding. Nowin Shakspearewhofirst set an example of that most important innovationin all his impassioneddialogueseach reply or rejoinder seems the mere rebound of the previous speech.Every form of natural interruptionbreaking through the restraints of ceremonyunder the impulses of tempestuous passion; every form of hasty interrogativeardent reiteration when a question has been evaded; every form of scornfulrepetition of the hostile words; every impatient continuation of the hostilestatement; in shortall modes and formulae by which angerhurryfretfulnessscornimpatienceor excitement under any movement whatevercan disturb ormodify or dislocate the formal bookish style of commencement- these are as rifein Shakspeare's dialogue as in life itself; and how much vivacityhow profounda verisimilitudethey add to the scenic effect as an imitation of human passionand real lifewe need not say. A volume might be written illustrating the vastvarieties of Shakspeare's art and power in this one field of improvement;another volume might be dedicated to the exposure of the lifeless and unnaturalresult from the opposite practice in the foreign stages of France and Italy. Andwe may truly saythat were Shakspeare distinguished from them by this singlefeature of nature and proprietyhe would on that account alone have merited agreat immortality.