Character and Motive in Shakespeare: Some Recent Appraisals Examined

Character and Motive in Shakespeare: Some Recent Appraisals Examined

Character and Motive in Shakespeare: Some Recent Appraisals Examined

Character and Motive in Shakespeare: Some Recent Appraisals Examined

Excerpt

Will all great Neptunes Ocean wash this blood Cleane from my Hand? no: this my Hand will rather The multitudinous Seas incarnadine, Making the Greene one Red.

For Alexander Pope this of Macbeth's is stuff too sorry even for an unlettered dramatist in a rude age; only interpolation by players yet more unlettered can explain it; and if we want to arrive at approximately what Shakespeare wrote we shall print

No, this my hand will rather Make the green ocean red.

And to Johnson, as to Dryden before him, the Elizabethan age was at only one remove from an infancy of language, and offered therefore a climate essentially ungenial to any mature poetic art: the public for which Shakespeare wrote, Johnson declares, had more skill in pomps or processions than in poetical language. But in these judgments there are almost certainly operative the prejudices of the period. In maintaining that Shakespeare's poetry--and the poetry of the later Elizabethan and the Jacobean drama in general--was crude and limited in comparison with its own the eighteenth century had hold of the wrong end of the stick. For the Elizabethan verbal sensibility was more subtle than the Augustan, and in rejecting Shakespearian rhetoric the contemporaries of Johnson were turning down an instrument too complex for their understanding.

There is a lesson in this. It is unwise to maintain absolutely that this or that aspect of Shakespeare's art is crude--or, indeed, that the materials upon which he refined were altogether so. To-day some critics vary Johnson's dictum by declaring that the public for whom Shakespeare wrote had more skill in poetical language than in human nature; and they maintain that Shakespeare was concerned less with the well-springs of human action . . .

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