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VI. General idea of Shakespeare—The fundamental idea in Shakespeare
- Conditions of human reason-Shakespeare's master faculty-
The historian night place himself for a given period, say a series of ages, or
in the hu nan soul, or with some particular people; he might study, describe, relate, all the events, all the transformations, all the revolutions which had been accomplished in the internal man; and when he had finished his work, he would have a history of civilization amongst the people and in the period he had selected. —Guizot, Civilization in Europe, p. 25.
HISTORY has been transformed, within a hundred years in Germany, within sixty years in France, and that by the study of their literatures.
It was perceived that a literary work is not a mere individual play of imagination, the isolated caprice of an excited brain, but a transcript of contemporary. manners, a manifestation of a certain kind of mind. It was concluded that we might recover, from the monuments of literature, a knowledge of the manner in which men thought and felt centuries ago. The attempt was made, and it succeeded.
Pondering on these modes of feeling and thought, men decided that they were facts of the highest kind. They saw that these facts bore reference to the most important occurrences, that they explained and were explained by them, that it was necessary thenceforth to give them a rank, and a most important rank, in history. This rank they have received, and from that moment history has undergone a complete change : in its subjectmatter, its system, its machinery, the appreciation of laws and of causes. It is this change, such as it is and must be, that we shall here endeavor to exhibit.
I. What is your first remark on turning over the great, stiff leaves of a folio, the yellow sheets of a manuscript,-a poem, a code of laws, a confession of faith? This, you say, did not come into existence all alone. It is but a mould, like a fossil
shell, an imprint, like one of those shapes embossed in stone by an animal which lived and perished. Under the shell there was an animal, and behind the document there was a man. Why do you study the shell, except to bring before you the animal ? So you study the document only to know the man. The shell and the document are lifeless wrecks, valuable only as a clue to the entire and living existence. We must get hold of this existence, endeavor to re-create it. It is a mistake to study the document, as if it were isolated. This were to treat things like a simple scholar, to fall into the error of the bibliomaniac. Neither mythology nor languages exist in themselves; but only men, who arrange words and imagery according to the necessities of their organs and the original bent of their intellects. A dogma is nothing in itself; look at the people who have made it,-a portrait, for instance, of the sixteenth century, say the stern powerful face of an English archbishop or martyr. Nothing exists except through some individual man; it is this individual with whom we must become acquainted. When we have established the parentage of dogmas, or the classification of poems, or the progress of constitutions, or the transformation of idioms, we have only cleared the soil: genuine history is brought into existence only when the historian begins to unravel, across the lapse of time, the living man, toiling, impassioned, entrenched in his customs, with his voice and features, his gestures and his dress, distinct and complete as he from whom we have just parted in the street. Let us endeavor, then, to annihilate as far as possible this great interval of time, which prevents us from seeing man with our eyes, with the eyes of our head. What have we under the fair glazed pages of a modern poem ? A modern poet, who has studied and traveled, a man like Alfred de Musset, Victor Hugo, Lamartine, or Heine, in a black coat and gloves, welcomed by the ladies, and making every evening his fifty bows and his score of bon-mots in society, reading the papers in the morning, lodging as a rule on a second floor; not over gay, because he has nerves, and especially because, in this dense democracy where we choke one another, the discredit of the dignities of office has exaggerated his pretensions while increasing his importance, and because the keenness of his feelings in general disposes him somewhat to believe himself a deity. This is what we take note of under modern Meditations or Son
nets. Even so, under a tragedy of the seventeenth century we have a poet, like Racine for instance, elegant, staid, a courtier, a fine talker, with a majestic wig and ribboned shoes, at heart a royalist and a Christian, who says, “God has been so gracious to me, that in whatever company I find myself I never have occasion to blush for the gospel or the king;"1 clever at entertaining the prince, and rendering for him into good French the “old French of Amyot;" very respectful to the great, always "knowing his place;” as assiduous and reserved at Marly as at Versailles, amidst the regular pleasures of polished and ornate nature, amidst the salutations, graces, airs, and fopperies of the braided lords, who rose early in the morning to obtain the promise of being appointed to some office in case of the death of the present holder, and amongst charming ladies who count their genealogies on their fingers in order to obtain the right of sitting down in the presence of the King or Queen. On that head consult St. Simon and the engravings of Pérelle, as for the present age you have consulted Balzac and the water-colors of Eugène Lami. Similarly, when we read a Greek tragedy, our first care should be to: realize to ourselves the Greeks, that is, the men who live half naked, in the gymnasia, or in the public squares, under a glowing sky, face to face with the most beautiful and the most noble landscapes, bent on making their bodies lithe and strong, on conversing, discussing, voting, carrying on patriotic piracies, nevertheless lazy and temperate, with three urns for their furniture, two anchovies in a jar of oil for their food, waited on by slaves, so as to give them leisure to cultivate their understanding and exercise their limbs, with no desire beyond that of having the most beautiful town, the most beautiful processions, the most beautiful ideas, the most beautiful men. On this subject, a statue such as the Meleager or the Theseus of the Parthenon, or still more, the sight of the Mediterranean, blue and lustrous as a silken tunic, and the islands that stud it with their massive marble outlines: add to these twenty select phrases from Plato and Aristophanes, and they will teach you much more than a multitude of dissertations and commentaries. And so again, in order to understand an Indian Purāna, begin by imagining to yourself
1 Mary Wollstonecraft, in her Historical and Moral Vicw of the French Revolution, p. 25, says, in quoting this passage, “What could be expected from the courtier who could write in these terms to Madame de Maintenon."-TR.