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In an article which appeared not long ago in a Periodical, the following passage with reference to Shakspere caught my attention :—“ That all our Poet's serious Plays abound in profound observations, and maxims of the soundest wisdom, is a fact that cannot escape any but the most careless readers,”—(and further on,)—The Beauties of Shakspere have been collected ; the Philosophy of Shakspere might make up a most interesting volume."
That the writer's notions in this respect entirely coincided with my own, “ Ecce signum !”
The world is only now just beginning to appreciate Shakspere. His poetical beauties, indeed, have been widely and justly lauded by the literary, and certainly the people have (often without knowing it) been indebted to him for many “ household words,” “ wise saws and modern in. stances :" but it is an undoubted truth, that, until very lately, until some splendid editions of his works have drawn a more than ordinary attention to them, his greater and more numerous merits have been almost a sealed book to the multitude—especially the female multitude.
One unfortunate blemish—an offence against the advanced refinement and delicacy of the times—the introduction of topics and phrases now excluded from polite society, has operated most lamentably against his reputation: and, amongst the ignorant and narrow-minded, (who, of necessity, form no small portion of all communities) has obtained for him (however preposterous the fact may seem) the character of an immoral writer. Nay, some reverend writers, more zealous than wise, have even gone so far as to affirm that Shakspere was destitute of religious feeling and reverence for God. The true friends of religion and morality must regret that their adrocates, in making such a charge, have grossly departed from truth. The fact is, that the profane passages occurring in our Author's Plays, are either uttered by personages whom Shakspere intends to hold up to reprobation, and in whom piety would destroy consistency of character ; or, he manages to show in the context, that he himself approves them not. As to his religious feeling and reverence for God, it is sufficient for me to refer to the following pages for undeniable testimony in his favour.
I have no wish or intention to deny or apologize for the besetting sin of our great Poet, the sin against propriety : but admit and much regret its existence. Yet the faults of Shakspere were the faults of his times ;* his beauties are beauties of eternity! And, in spite of the frequent occurrence of the objectionable passages alluded to, it may still be safely affirmed, that the tendency of his works is universally of the highest moral character, and that they abound with the highest possible wisdom, viz. Christian Philosophy.
* It is well known, for instance, that Ariosto recited his “Orlando " for the amusement of Lucretia Borgia, and the ladies of her court. Now, in all probability, the wife of a beggar, in our times, would feel insulted by having certain portions of that poem read in her presence.
It has been my deeply interesting task to select such passages of moral wisdom and relating to the science of the mind, as could be detached from the context without being damaged, or rendered obscure, by the separation : and the mass of Philosophy contained in the following extracts, is the result of my labours. If my readers be not amazed at the enormous quantity of wisdom and goodness proceeding from the pen of that one man Shakspere—if the Solomon of old fall not into insignificance in their minds, as they peruse these pages—their sentiments must indeed be different from mine.
I have had some difficulties to contend with in this task of extracting. In the first place, it will be remembered that the work is not the beauties” of Shakspere, but “ the Philosophy ” of Shakspere ; I have accordingly been compelled to restrict myself to certain bounds; and, not unfrequently, to break off in the middle of an exquisite passage merely because, though the beauty might continue, the philosophy happened to cease there. It has, further, been my desire to insert only such philosophy as it was evident that the Author himself approved of; his approval being generally inferred from the context, or other circumstantial evidence. I should also explain that on the other hand (but in a very few cases) I have ventured to omit inserting extracts, containing in my opinion false philosophy, although the Poet might seem to favour it. One of these rare cases may be mentioned as an exanple. It is the hacknied passage of which spouters and quoters have long been enamoured, but the wisdom of which appears to me to vanish on examination :- 6 There is a tide in the
affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune," &c. &c. Now, it is my belief that there is, in fact, no one particular moment of a man's life possessing the peculiar magic to elevate him to prosperity ; but that man's fortunes may ebb and flow a thousand times during his existence—that they may be lost and retrieved times without number. But, as I have before observed, the passages omitted for the reason last stated, are so few and insignificant as scarcely to deserve being mentioned ; and I would fain hope that I have been, on the whole, successful in collecting from Shakspere's Plays, all the good Philosophy that could be detached without injuring the
It may be noticed that I have not culled a single extract from “ Titus Andronicus.” The reason is shortly stated. I could not discover one single fine passage of original Philosophy in the whole play. This circumstance alone would be convincing proof to my mind, that Shakspere never wrote it. Thanks to those critics who have maintained that the play is not Shakspere's! I do trust, at all events, that no future edition of his works will be disgraced by containing it.
Lastly, for my own remarks, I must entreat my Readers' indulgence. If they should prove unpalatable, or be considered trifling, or deficient in originality, the remedy is near-shut the eyes upon them, and turn to the great wise man himself, over the leaf !