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Title: Shakespearean Tragedy - Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth
Author: Bradley, A. C. (Andrew Cecil), 1851-1935
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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First Edition 1904.

Second Edition March 1905.

Reprinted August 1905, 1906, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1912, 1914, 1915, 1916,
1918, 1919.




These lectures are based on a selection from materials used in teaching
at Liverpool, Glasgow, and Oxford; and I have for the most part
preserved the lecture form. The point of view taken in them is explained
in the Introduction. I should, of course, wish them to be read in their
order, and a knowledge of the first two is assumed in the remainder; but
readers who may prefer to enter at once on the discussion of the several
plays can do so by beginning at page 89.

Any one who writes on Shakespeare must owe much to his predecessors.
Where I was conscious of a particular obligation, I have acknowledged
it; but most of my reading of Shakespearean criticism was done many
years ago, and I can only hope that I have not often reproduced as my
own what belongs to another.

Many of the Notes will be of interest only to scholars, who may find, I
hope, something new in them.

I have quoted, as a rule, from the Globe edition, and have referred
always to its numeration of acts, scenes, and lines.

_November, 1904._

       *       *       *       *       *


In these impressions I have confined myself to making some formal
improvements, correcting indubitable mistakes, and indicating here and
there my desire to modify or develop at some future time statements
which seem to me doubtful or open to misunderstanding. The changes,
where it seemed desirable, are shown by the inclusion of sentences in
square brackets.


INTRODUCTION                                                    1






SHAKESPEARE'S TRAGIC PERIOD--HAMLET                            79


HAMLET                                                        129


OTHELLO                                                       175


OTHELLO                                                       207


KING LEAR                                                     243


KING LEAR                                                     280


MACBETH                                                       331


MACBETH                                                       366

NOTE A. Events before the opening of the action in _Hamlet_   401

NOTE B. Where was Hamlet at the time of his father's death?   403

NOTE C. Hamlet's age                                          407

NOTE D. 'My tables--meet it is I set it down'                 409

NOTE E. The Ghost in the cellarage                            412

NOTE F. The Player's speech in _Hamlet_                       413

NOTE G. Hamlet's apology to Laertes                           420

NOTE H. The exchange of rapiers                               422

NOTE I. The duration of the action in
  _Othello_                                                   423

NOTE J. The 'additions' in the Folio text of _Othello_. The
  Pontic sea                                                  429

NOTE K. Othello's courtship                                   432

NOTE L. Othello in the Temptation scene                       434

NOTE M. Questions as to _Othello_, IV. i.                     435

NOTE N. Two passages in the last scene of _Othello_           437

NOTE O. Othello on Desdemona's last words                     438

NOTE P. Did Emilia suspect Iago?                              439

NOTE Q. Iago's suspicion regarding Cassio and Emilia          441

NOTE R. Reminiscences of _Othello_ in _King Lear_             441

NOTE S. _King Lear_ and _Timon of Athens_                     443

NOTE T. Did Shakespeare shorten _King Lear_?                  445

NOTE U. Movements of the _dramatis personæ_ in _King
  Lear_, II                                                   448

NOTE V. Suspected interpolations in _King Lear_               450

NOTE W. The staging of the scene of Lear's reunion with
  Cordelia                                                    453

NOTE X. The Battle in _King Lear_                             456

NOTE Y. Some difficult passages in _King Lear_                458

NOTE Z. Suspected interpolations in _Macbeth_                 466

NOTE AA. Has _Macbeth_ been abridged?                         467

NOTE BB. The date of _Macbeth_. Metrical Tests                470

NOTE CC. When was the murder of Duncan first plotted?         480

NOTE DD. Did Lady Macbeth really faint?                       484

NOTE EE. Duration of the action in _Macbeth_. Macbeth's age.
  'He has no children'                                        486

NOTE FF. The Ghost of Banquo                                  492

INDEX                                                         494


In these lectures I propose to consider the four principal tragedies of
Shakespeare from a single point of view. Nothing will be said of
Shakespeare's place in the history either of English literature or of
the drama in general. No attempt will be made to compare him with other
writers. I shall leave untouched, or merely glanced at, questions
regarding his life and character, the development of his genius and art,
the genuineness, sources, texts, inter-relations of his various works.
Even what may be called, in a restricted sense, the 'poetry' of the four
tragedies--the beauties of style, diction, versification--I shall pass
by in silence. Our one object will be what, again in a restricted sense,
may be called dramatic appreciation; to increase our understanding and
enjoyment of these works as dramas; to learn to apprehend the action and
some of the personages of each with a somewhat greater truth and
intensity, so that they may assume in our imaginations a shape a little
less unlike the shape they wore in the imagination of their creator. For
this end all those studies that were mentioned just now, of literary
history and the like, are useful and even in various degrees necessary.
But an overt pursuit of them is not necessary here, nor is any one of
them so indispensable to our object as that close familiarity with the
plays, that native strength and justice of perception, and that habit of
reading with an eager mind, which make many an unscholarly lover of
Shakespeare a far better critic than many a Shakespeare scholar.

Such lovers read a play more or less as if they were actors who had to
study all the parts. They do not need, of course, to imagine whereabouts
the persons are to stand, or what gestures they ought to use; but they
want to realise fully and exactly the inner movements which produced
these words and no other, these deeds and no other, at each particular
moment. This, carried through a drama, is the right way to read the
dramatist Shakespeare; and the prime requisite here is therefore a vivid
and intent imagination. But this alone will hardly suffice. It is
necessary also, especially to a true conception of the whole, to
compare, to analyse, to dissect. And such readers often shrink from this
task, which seems to them prosaic or even a desecration. They
misunderstand, I believe. They would not shrink if they remembered two
things. In the first place, in this process of comparison and analysis,
it is not requisite, it is on the contrary ruinous, to set imagination
aside and to substitute some supposed 'cold reason'; and it is only want
of practice that makes the concurrent use of analysis and of poetic
perception difficult or irksome. And, in the second place, these
dissecting processes, though they are also imaginative, are still, and
are meant to be, nothing but means to an end. When they have finished
their work (it can only be finished for the time) they give place to the
end, which is that same imaginative reading or re-creation of the drama
from which they set out, but a reading now enriched by the products of
analysis, and therefore far more adequate and enjoyable.

This, at any rate, is the faith in the strength of which I venture, with
merely personal misgivings, on the path of analytic interpretation. And
so, before coming to the first of the four tragedies, I propose to
discuss some preliminary matters which concern them all. Though each is
individual through and through, they have, in a sense, one and the same
substance; for in all of them Shakespeare represents the tragic aspect
of life, the tragic fact. They have, again, up to a certain point, a
common form or structure. This substance and this structure, which would
be found to distinguish them, for example, from Greek tragedies, may, to
diminish repetition, be considered once for all; and in considering them
we shall also be able to observe characteristic differences among the
four plays. And to this may be added the little that it seems necessary
to premise on the position of these dramas in Shakespeare's literary

Much that is said on our main preliminary subjects will naturally hold
good, within certain limits, of other dramas of Shakespeare beside
_Hamlet_, _Othello_, _King Lear_, and _Macbeth_. But it will often apply
to these other works only in part, and to some of them more fully than
to others. _Romeo and Juliet_, for instance, is a pure tragedy, but it
is an early work, and in some respects an immature one. _Richard III._
and _Richard II._, _Julius Caesar_, _Antony and Cleopatra_, and
_Coriolanus_ are tragic histories or historical tragedies, in which
Shakespeare acknowledged in practice a certain obligation to follow his
authority, even when that authority offered him an undramatic material.
Probably he himself would have met some criticisms to which these plays
are open by appealing to their historical character, and by denying that
such works are to be judged by the standard of pure tragedy. In any
case, most of these plays, perhaps all, do show, as a matter of fact,
considerable deviations from that standard; and, therefore, what is said
of the pure tragedies must be applied to them with qualifications which
I shall often take for granted without mention. There remain _Titus
Andronicus_ and _Timon of Athens_. The former I shall leave out of
account, because, even if Shakespeare wrote the whole of it, he did so
before he had either a style of his own or any characteristic tragic
conception. _Timon_ stands on a different footing. Parts of it are
unquestionably Shakespeare's, and they will be referred to in one of the
later lectures. But much of the writing is evidently not his, and as it
seems probable that the conception and construction of the whole tragedy
should also be attributed to some other writer, I shall omit this work
too from our preliminary discussions.



The question we are to consider in this lecture may be stated in a
variety of ways. We may put it thus: What is the substance of a
Shakespearean tragedy, taken in abstraction both from its form and from
the differences in point of substance between one tragedy and another?
Or thus: What is the nature of the tragic aspect of life as represented
by Shakespeare? What is the general fact shown now in this tragedy and
now in that? And we are putting the same question when we ask: What is
Shakespeare's tragic conception, or conception of tragedy?

These expressions, it should be observed, do not imply that Shakespeare
himself ever asked or answered such a question; that he set himself to
reflect on the tragic aspects of life, that he framed a tragic
conception, and still less that, like Aristotle or Corneille, he had a
theory of the kind of poetry called tragedy. These things are all
possible; how far any one of them is probable we need not discuss; but
none of them is presupposed by the question we are going to consider.
This question implies only that, as a matter of fact, Shakespeare in
writing tragedy did represent a certain aspect of life in a certain way,
and that through examination of his writings we ought to be able, to
some extent, to describe this aspect and way in terms addressed to the
understanding. Such a description, so far as it is true and adequate,
may, after these explanations, be called indifferently an account of the
substance of Shakespearean tragedy, or an account of Shakespeare's
conception of tragedy or view of the tragic fact.

Two further warnings may be required. In the first place, we must
remember that the tragic aspect of life is only one aspect. We cannot
arrive at Shakespeare's whole dramatic way of looking at the world from
his tragedies alone, as we can arrive at Milton's way of regarding
things, or at Wordsworth's or at Shelley's, by examining almost any one
of their important works. Speaking very broadly, one may say that these
poets at their best always look at things in one light; but _Hamlet_ and
_Henry IV._ and _Cymbeline_ reflect things from quite distinct
positions, and Shakespeare's whole dramatic view is not to be identified
with any one of these reflections. And, in the second place, I may
repeat that in these lectures, at any rate for the most part, we are to
be content with his _dramatic_ view, and are not to ask whether it
corresponded exactly with his opinions or creed outside his poetry--the
opinions or creed of the being whom we sometimes oddly call 'Shakespeare
the man.' It does not seem likely that outside his poetry he was a very
simple-minded Catholic or Protestant or Atheist, as some have
maintained; but we cannot be sure, as with those other poets we can,
that in his works he expressed his deepest and most cherished
convictions on ultimate questions, or even that he had any. And in his
dramatic conceptions there is enough to occupy us.


In approaching our subject it will be best, without attempting to
shorten the path by referring to famous theories of the drama, to start
directly from the facts, and to collect from them gradually an idea of
Shakespearean Tragedy. And first, to begin from the outside, such a
tragedy brings before us a considerable number of persons (many more
than the persons in a Greek play, unless the members of the Chorus are
reckoned among them); but it is pre-eminently the story of one person,
the 'hero,'[1] or at most of two, the 'hero' and 'heroine.' Moreover, it
is only in the love-tragedies, _Romeo and Juliet_ and _Antony and
Cleopatra_, that the heroine is as much the centre of the action as the
hero. The rest, including _Macbeth_, are single stars. So that, having
noticed the peculiarity of these two dramas, we may henceforth, for the
sake of brevity, ignore it, and may speak of the tragic story as being
concerned primarily with one person.

The story, next, leads up to, and includes, the _death_ of the hero. On
the one hand (whatever may be true of tragedy elsewhere), no play at the
end of which the hero remains alive is, in the full Shakespearean sense,
a tragedy; and we no longer class _Troilus and Cressida_ or _Cymbeline_
as such, as did the editors of the Folio. On the other hand, the story
depicts also the troubled part of the hero's life which precedes and
leads up to his death; and an instantaneous death occurring by
'accident' in the midst of prosperity would not suffice for it. It is,
in fact, essentially a tale of suffering and calamity conducting to

The suffering and calamity are, moreover, exceptional. They befall a
conspicuous person. They are themselves of some striking kind. They are
also, as a rule, unexpected, and contrasted with previous happiness or
glory. A tale, for example, of a man slowly worn to death by disease,
poverty, little cares, sordid vices, petty persecutions, however piteous
or dreadful it might be, would not be tragic in the Shakespearean sense.

Such exceptional suffering and calamity, then, affecting the hero,
and--we must now add--generally extending far and wide beyond him, so as
to make the whole scene a scene of woe, are an essential ingredient in
tragedy and a chief source of the tragic emotions, and especially of
pity. But the proportions of this ingredient, and the direction taken by
tragic pity, will naturally vary greatly. Pity, for example, has a much
larger part in _King Lear_ than in _Macbeth_, and is directed in the one
case chiefly to the hero, in the other chiefly to minor characters.

Let us now pause for a moment on the ideas we have so far reached. They
would more than suffice to describe the whole tragic fact as it
presented itself to the mediaeval mind. To the mediaeval mind a tragedy
meant a narrative rather than a play, and its notion of the matter of
this narrative may readily be gathered from Dante or, still better, from
Chaucer. Chaucer's _Monk's Tale_ is a series of what he calls
'tragedies'; and this means in fact a series of tales _de Casibus
Illustrium Virorum_,--stories of the Falls of Illustrious Men, such as
Lucifer, Adam, Hercules and Nebuchadnezzar. And the Monk ends the tale
of Croesus thus:

     Anhanged was Cresus, the proudè kyng;
     His roial tronè myghte hym nat availle.
     Tragédie is noon oother maner thyng,
     Ne kan in syngyng criè ne biwaille
     But for that Fortune alwey wole assaile
     With unwar strook the regnès that been proude;
     For whan men trusteth hire, thanne wol she faille,
     And covere hire brighte facè with a clowde.

A total reverse of fortune, coming unawares upon a man who 'stood in
high degree,' happy and apparently secure,--such was the tragic fact to
the mediaeval mind. It appealed strongly to common human sympathy and
pity; it startled also another feeling, that of fear. It frightened men
and awed them. It made them feel that man is blind and helpless, the
plaything of an inscrutable power, called by the name of Fortune or some
other name,--a power which appears to smile on him for a little, and
then on a sudden strikes him down in his pride.

Shakespeare's idea of the tragic fact is larger than this idea and goes
beyond it; but it includes it, and it is worth while to observe the
identity of the two in a certain point which is often ignored. Tragedy
with Shakespeare is concerned always with persons of 'high degree';
often with kings or princes; if not, with leaders in the state like
Coriolanus, Brutus, Antony; at the least, as in _Romeo and Juliet_, with
members of great houses, whose quarrels are of public moment. There is a
decided difference here between _Othello_ and our three other tragedies,
but it is not a difference of kind. Othello himself is no mere private
person; he is the General of the Republic. At the beginning we see him
in the Council-Chamber of the Senate. The consciousness of his high
position never leaves him. At the end, when he is determined to live no
longer, he is as anxious as Hamlet not to be misjudged by the great
world, and his last speech begins,

     Soft you; a word or two before you go.
     I have done the state some service, and they know it.[2]

And this characteristic of Shakespeare's tragedies, though not the most
vital, is neither external nor unimportant. The saying that every
death-bed is the scene of the fifth act of a tragedy has its meaning,
but it would not be true if the word 'tragedy' bore its dramatic sense.
The pangs of despised love and the anguish of remorse, we say, are the
same in a peasant and a prince; but, not to insist that they cannot be
so when the prince is really a prince, the story of the prince, the
triumvir, or the general, has a greatness and dignity of its own. His
fate affects the welfare of a whole nation or empire; and when he falls
suddenly from the height of earthly greatness to the dust, his fall
produces a sense of contrast, of the powerlessness of man, and of the
omnipotence--perhaps the caprice--of Fortune or Fate, which no tale of
private life can possibly rival.

Such feelings are constantly evoked by Shakespeare's tragedies,--again
in varying degrees. Perhaps they are the very strongest of the emotions
awakened by the early tragedy of _Richard II._, where they receive a
concentrated expression in Richard's famous speech about the antic
Death, who sits in the hollow crown

     That rounds the mortal temples of a king,

grinning at his pomp, watching till his vanity and his fancied security
have wholly encased him round, and then coming and boring with a little
pin through his castle wall. And these feelings, though their
predominance is subdued in the mightiest tragedies, remain powerful
there. In the figure of the maddened Lear we see

     A sight most pitiful in the meanest wretch,
     Past speaking of in a king;

and if we would realise the truth in this matter we cannot do better
than compare with the effect of _King Lear_ the effect of Tourgénief's
parallel and remarkable tale of peasant life, _A King Lear of the


A Shakespearean tragedy as so far considered may be called a story of
exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man in high estate. But
it is clearly much more than this, and we have now to regard it from
another side. No amount of calamity which merely befell a man,
descending from the clouds like lightning, or stealing from the darkness
like pestilence, could alone provide the substance of its story. Job was
the greatest of all the children of the east, and his afflictions were
well-nigh more than he could bear; but even if we imagined them wearing
him to death, that would not make his story tragic. Nor yet would it
become so, in the Shakespearean sense, if the fire, and the great wind
from the wilderness, and the torments of his flesh were conceived as
sent by a supernatural power, whether just or malignant. The calamities
of tragedy do not simply happen, nor are they sent; they proceed mainly
from actions, and those the actions of men.

We see a number of human beings placed in certain circumstances; and we
see, arising from the co-operation of their characters in these
circumstances, certain actions. These actions beget others, and these
others beget others again, until this series of inter-connected deeds
leads by an apparently inevitable sequence to a catastrophe. The effect
of such a series on imagination is to make us regard the sufferings
which accompany it, and the catastrophe in which it ends, not only or
chiefly as something which happens to the persons concerned, but equally
as something which is caused by them. This at least may be said of the
principal persons, and, among them, of the hero, who always contributes
in some measure to the disaster in which he perishes.

This second aspect of tragedy evidently differs greatly from the first.
Men, from this point of view, appear to us primarily as agents,
'themselves the authors of their proper woe'; and our fear and pity,
though they will not cease or diminish, will be modified accordingly. We
are now to consider this second aspect, remembering that it too is only
one aspect, and additional to the first, not a substitute for it.

The 'story' or 'action' of a Shakespearean tragedy does not consist, of
course, solely of human actions or deeds; but the deeds are the
predominant factor. And these deeds are, for the most part, actions in
the full sense of the word; not things done ''tween asleep and wake,'
but acts or omissions thoroughly expressive of the doer,--characteristic
deeds. The centre of the tragedy, therefore, may be said with equal
truth to lie in action issuing from character, or in character issuing
in action.

Shakespeare's main interest lay here. To say that it lay in _mere_
character, or was a psychological interest, would be a great mistake,
for he was dramatic to the tips of his fingers. It is possible to find
places where he has given a certain indulgence to his love of poetry,
and even to his turn for general reflections; but it would be very
difficult, and in his later tragedies perhaps impossible, to detect
passages where he has allowed such freedom to the interest in character
apart from action. But for the opposite extreme, for the abstraction of
mere 'plot' (which is a very different thing from the tragic 'action'),
for the kind of interest which predominates in a novel like _The Woman
in White_, it is clear that he cared even less. I do not mean that this
interest is absent from his dramas; but it is subordinate to others, and
is so interwoven with them that we are rarely conscious of it apart, and
rarely feel in any great strength the half-intellectual, half-nervous
excitement of following an ingenious complication. What we do feel
strongly, as a tragedy advances to its close, is that the calamities and
catastrophe follow inevitably from the deeds of men, and that the main
source of these deeds is character. The dictum that, with Shakespeare,
'character is destiny' is no doubt an exaggeration, and one that may
mislead (for many of his tragic personages, if they had not met with
peculiar circumstances, would have escaped a tragic end, and might even
have lived fairly untroubled lives); but it is the exaggeration of a
vital truth.

This truth, with some of its qualifications, will appear more clearly if
we now go on to ask what elements are to be found in the 'story' or
'action,' occasionally or frequently, beside the characteristic deeds,
and the sufferings and circumstances, of the persons. I will refer to
three of these additional factors.

(_a_) Shakespeare, occasionally and for reasons which need not be
discussed here, represents abnormal conditions of mind; insanity, for
example, somnambulism, hallucinations. And deeds issuing from these are
certainly not what we called deeds in the fullest sense, deeds
expressive of character. No; but these abnormal conditions are never
introduced as the origin of deeds of any dramatic moment. Lady Macbeth's
sleep-walking has no influence whatever on the events that follow it.
Macbeth did not murder Duncan because he saw a dagger in the air: he saw
the dagger because he was about to murder Duncan. Lear's insanity is not
the cause of a tragic conflict any more than Ophelia's; it is, like
Ophelia's, the result of a conflict; and in both cases the effect is
mainly pathetic. If Lear were really mad when he divided his kingdom, if
Hamlet were really mad at any time in the story, they would cease to be
tragic characters.

(_b_) Shakespeare also introduces the supernatural into some of his
tragedies; he introduces ghosts, and witches who have supernatural
knowledge. This supernatural element certainly cannot in most cases, if
in any, be explained away as an illusion in the mind of one of the
characters. And further, it does contribute to the action, and is in
more than one instance an indispensable part of it: so that to describe
human character, with circumstances, as always the _sole_ motive force
in this action would be a serious error. But the supernatural is always
placed in the closest relation with character. It gives a confirmation
and a distinct form to inward movements already present and exerting an
influence; to the sense of failure in Brutus, to the stifled workings of
conscience in Richard, to the half-formed thought or the horrified
memory of guilt in Macbeth, to suspicion in Hamlet. Moreover, its
influence is never of a compulsive kind. It forms no more than an
element, however important, in the problem which the hero has to face;
and we are never allowed to feel that it has removed his capacity or
responsibility for dealing with this problem. So far indeed are we from
feeling this, that many readers run to the opposite extreme, and openly
or privately regard the supernatural as having nothing to do with the
real interest of the play.

(_c_) Shakespeare, lastly, in most of his tragedies allows to 'chance'
or 'accident' an appreciable influence at some point in the action.
Chance or accident here will be found, I think, to mean any occurrence
(not supernatural, of course) which enters the dramatic sequence neither
from the agency of a character, nor from the obvious surrounding
circumstances.[3] It may be called an accident, in this sense, that
Romeo never got the Friar's message about the potion, and that Juliet
did not awake from her long sleep a minute sooner; an accident that
Edgar arrived at the prison just too late to save Cordelia's life; an
accident that Desdemona dropped her handkerchief at the most fatal of
moments; an accident that the pirate ship attacked Hamlet's ship, so
that he was able to return forthwith to Denmark. Now this operation of
accident is a fact, and a prominent fact, of human life. To exclude it
_wholly_ from tragedy, therefore, would be, we may say, to fail in
truth. And, besides, it is not merely a fact. That men may start a
course of events but can neither calculate nor control it, is a _tragic_
fact. The dramatist may use accident so as to make us feel this; and
there are also other dramatic uses to which it may be put. Shakespeare
accordingly admits it. On the other hand, any _large_ admission of
chance into the tragic sequence[4] would certainly weaken, and might
destroy, the sense of the causal connection of character, deed, and
catastrophe. And Shakespeare really uses it very sparingly. We seldom
find ourselves exclaiming, 'What an unlucky accident!' I believe most
readers would have to search painfully for instances. It is, further,
frequently easy to see the dramatic intention of an accident; and some
things which look like accidents have really a connection with
character, and are therefore not in the full sense accidents. Finally, I
believe it will be found that almost all the prominent accidents occur
when the action is well advanced and the impression of the causal
sequence is too firmly fixed to be impaired.

Thus it appears that these three elements in the 'action' are
subordinate, while the dominant factor consists in deeds which issue
from character. So that, by way of summary, we may now alter our first
statement, 'A tragedy is a story of exceptional calamity leading to the
death of a man in high estate,' and we may say instead (what in its turn
is one-sided, though less so), that the story is one of human actions
producing exceptional calamity and ending in the death of such a man.[5]

       *       *       *       *       *

Before we leave the 'action,' however, there is another question that
may usefully be asked. Can we define this 'action' further by describing
it as a conflict?

The frequent use of this idea in discussions on tragedy is ultimately
due, I suppose, to the influence of Hegel's theory on the subject,
certainly the most important theory since Aristotle's. But Hegel's view
of the tragic conflict is not only unfamiliar to English readers and
difficult to expound shortly, but it had its origin in reflections on
Greek tragedy and, as Hegel was well aware, applies only imperfectly to
the works of Shakespeare.[6] I shall, therefore, confine myself to the
idea of conflict in its more general form. In this form it is obviously
suitable to Shakespearean tragedy; but it is vague, and I will try to
make it more precise by putting the question, Who are the combatants in
this conflict?

Not seldom the conflict may quite naturally be conceived as lying
between two persons, of whom the hero is one; or, more fully, as lying
between two parties or groups, in one of which the hero is the leading
figure. Or if we prefer to speak (as we may quite well do if we know
what we are about) of the passions, tendencies, ideas, principles,
forces, which animate these persons or groups, we may say that two of
such passions or ideas, regarded as animating two persons or groups, are
the combatants. The love of Romeo and Juliet is in conflict with the
hatred of their houses, represented by various other characters. The
cause of Brutus and Cassius struggles with that of Julius, Octavius and
Antony. In _Richard II._ the King stands on one side, Bolingbroke and
his party on the other. In _Macbeth_ the hero and heroine are opposed to
the representatives of Duncan. In all these cases the great majority of
the _dramatis personae_ fall without difficulty into antagonistic
groups, and the conflict between these groups ends with the defeat of
the hero.

Yet one cannot help feeling that in at least one of these cases,
_Macbeth_, there is something a little external in this way of looking
at the action. And when we come to some other plays this feeling
increases. No doubt most of the characters in _Hamlet_, _King Lear_,
_Othello_, or _Antony and Cleopatra_ can be arranged in opposed
groups;[7] and no doubt there is a conflict; and yet it seems misleading
to describe this conflict as one _between these groups_. It cannot be
simply this. For though Hamlet and the King are mortal foes, yet that
which engrosses our interest and dwells in our memory at least as much
as the conflict between them, is the conflict _within_ one of them. And
so it is, though not in the same degree, with _Antony and Cleopatra_ and
even with _Othello_; and, in fact, in a certain measure, it is so with
nearly all the tragedies. There is an outward conflict of persons and
groups, there is also a conflict of forces in the hero's soul; and even
in _Julius Caesar_ and _Macbeth_ the interest of the former can hardly
be said to exceed that of the latter.

The truth is, that the type of tragedy in which the hero opposes to a
hostile force an undivided soul, is not the Shakespearean type. The
souls of those who contend with the hero may be thus undivided; they
generally are; but, as a rule, the hero, though he pursues his fated
way, is, at least at some point in the action, and sometimes at many,
torn by an inward struggle; and it is frequently at such points that
Shakespeare shows his most extraordinary power. If further we compare
the earlier tragedies with the later, we find that it is in the latter,
the maturest works, that this inward struggle is most emphasised. In the
last of them, _Coriolanus_, its interest completely eclipses towards the
close of the play that of the outward conflict. _Romeo and Juliet_,
_Richard III._, _Richard II._, where the hero contends with an outward
force, but comparatively little with himself, are all early plays.

If we are to include the outer and the inner struggle in a conception
more definite than that of conflict in general, we must employ some such
phrase as 'spiritual force.' This will mean whatever forces act in the
human spirit, whether good or evil, whether personal passion or
impersonal principle; doubts, desires, scruples, ideas--whatever can
animate, shake, possess, and drive a man's soul. In a Shakespearean
tragedy some such forces are shown in conflict. They are shown acting in
men and generating strife between them. They are also shown, less
universally, but quite as characteristically, generating disturbance and
even conflict in the soul of the hero. Treasonous ambition in Macbeth
collides with loyalty and patriotism in Macduff and Malcolm: here is the
outward conflict. But these powers or principles equally collide in the
soul of Macbeth himself: here is the inner. And neither by itself could
make the tragedy.[8]

We shall see later the importance of this idea. Here we need only
observe that the notion of tragedy as a conflict emphasises the fact
that action is the centre of the story, while the concentration of
interest, in the greater plays, on the inward struggle emphasises the
fact that this action is essentially the expression of character.


Let us turn now from the 'action' to the central figure in it; and,
ignoring the characteristics which distinguish the heroes from one
another, let us ask whether they have any common qualities which appear
to be essential to the tragic effect.

One they certainly have. They are exceptional beings. We have seen
already that the hero, with Shakespeare, is a person of high degree or
of public importance, and that his actions or sufferings are of an
unusual kind. But this is not all. His nature also is exceptional, and
generally raises him in some respect much above the average level of
humanity. This does not mean that he is an eccentric or a paragon.
Shakespeare never drew monstrosities of virtue; some of his heroes are
far from being 'good'; and if he drew eccentrics he gave them a
subordinate position in the plot. His tragic characters are made of the
stuff we find within ourselves and within the persons who surround them.
But, by an intensification of the life which they share with others,
they are raised above them; and the greatest are raised so far that, if
we fully realise all that is implied in their words and actions, we
become conscious that in real life we have known scarcely any one
resembling them. Some, like Hamlet and Cleopatra, have genius. Others,
like Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus, are built on the grand scale;
and desire, passion, or will attains in them a terrible force. In almost
all we observe a marked one-sidedness, a predisposition in some
particular direction; a total incapacity, in certain circumstances, of
resisting the force which draws in this direction; a fatal tendency to
identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion, or habit of
mind. This, it would seem, is, for Shakespeare, the fundamental tragic
trait. It is present in his early heroes, Romeo and Richard II.,
infatuated men, who otherwise rise comparatively little above the
ordinary level. It is a fatal gift, but it carries with it a touch of
greatness; and when there is joined to it nobility of mind, or genius,
or immense force, we realise the full power and reach of the soul, and
the conflict in which it engages acquires that magnitude which stirs not
only sympathy and pity, but admiration, terror, and awe.

The easiest way to bring home to oneself the nature of the tragic
character is to compare it with a character of another kind. Dramas like
_Cymbeline_ and the _Winter's Tale_, which might seem destined to end
tragically, but actually end otherwise, owe their happy ending largely
to the fact that the principal characters fail to reach tragic
dimensions. And, conversely, if these persons were put in the place of
the tragic heroes, the dramas in which they appeared would cease to be
tragedies. Posthumus would never have acted as Othello did; Othello, on
his side, would have met Iachimo's challenge with something more than
words. If, like Posthumus, he had remained convinced of his wife's
infidelity, he would not have repented her execution; if, like Leontes,
he had come to believe that by an unjust accusation he had caused her
death, he would never have lived on, like Leontes. In the same way the
villain Iachimo has no touch of tragic greatness. But Iago comes nearer
to it, and if Iago had slandered Imogen and had supposed his slanders to
have led to her death, he certainly would not have turned melancholy and
wished to die. One reason why the end of the _Merchant of Venice_ fails
to satisfy us is that Shylock is a tragic character, and that we cannot
believe in his accepting his defeat and the conditions imposed on him.
This was a case where Shakespeare's imagination ran away with him, so
that he drew a figure with which the destined pleasant ending would not

In the circumstances where we see the hero placed, his tragic trait,
which is also his greatness, is fatal to him. To meet these
circumstances something is required which a smaller man might have
given, but which the hero cannot give. He errs, by action or omission;
and his error, joining with other causes, brings on him ruin. This is
always so with Shakespeare. As we have seen, the idea of the tragic hero
as a being destroyed simply and solely by external forces is quite alien
to him; and not less so is the idea of the hero as contributing to his
destruction only by acts in which we see no flaw. But the fatal
imperfection or error, which is never absent, is of different kinds and
degrees. At one extreme stands the excess and precipitancy of Romeo,
which scarcely, if at all, diminish our regard for him; at the other the
murderous ambition of Richard III. In most cases the tragic error
involves no conscious breach of right; in some (_e.g._ that of Brutus or
Othello) it is accompanied by a full conviction of right. In Hamlet
there is a painful consciousness that duty is being neglected; in Antony
a clear knowledge that the worse of two courses is being pursued; but
Richard and Macbeth are the only heroes who do what they themselves
recognise to be villainous. It is important to observe that Shakespeare
does admit such heroes,[9] and also that he appears to feel, and exerts
himself to meet, the difficulty that arises from their admission. The
difficulty is that the spectator must desire their defeat and even their
destruction; and yet this desire, and the satisfaction of it, are not
tragic feelings. Shakespeare gives to Richard therefore a power which
excites astonishment, and a courage which extorts admiration. He gives
to Macbeth a similar, though less extraordinary, greatness, and adds to
it a conscience so terrifying in its warnings and so maddening in its
reproaches that the spectacle of inward torment compels a horrified
sympathy and awe which balance, at the least, the desire for the hero's

The tragic hero with Shakespeare, then, need not be 'good,' though
generally he is 'good' and therefore at once wins sympathy in his error.
But it is necessary that he should have so much of greatness that in his
error and fall we may be vividly conscious of the possibilities of human
nature.[10] Hence, in the first place, a Shakespearean tragedy is never,
like some miscalled tragedies, depressing. No one ever closes the book
with the feeling that man is a poor mean creature. He may be wretched
and he may be awful, but he is not small. His lot may be heart-rending
and mysterious, but it is not contemptible. The most confirmed of cynics
ceases to be a cynic while he reads these plays. And with this greatness
of the tragic hero (which is not always confined to him) is connected,
secondly, what I venture to describe as the centre of the tragic
impression. This central feeling is the impression of waste. With
Shakespeare, at any rate, the pity and fear which are stirred by the
tragic story seem to unite with, and even to merge in, a profound sense
of sadness and mystery, which is due to this impression of waste. 'What
a piece of work is man,' we cry; 'so much more beautiful and so much
more terrible than we knew! Why should he be so if this beauty and
greatness only tortures itself and throws itself away?' We seem to have
before us a type of the mystery of the whole world, the tragic fact
which extends far beyond the limits of tragedy. Everywhere, from the
crushed rocks beneath our feet to the soul of man, we see power,
intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our
worship. And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and
destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came
into being for no other end. Tragedy is the typical form of this
mystery, because that greatness of soul which it exhibits oppressed,
conflicting and destroyed, is the highest existence in our view. It
forces the mystery upon us, and it makes us realise so vividly the worth
of that which is wasted that we cannot possibly seek comfort in the
reflection that all is vanity.


In this tragic world, then, where individuals, however great they may be
and however decisive their actions may appear, are so evidently not the
ultimate power, what is this power? What account can we give of it which
will correspond with the imaginative impressions we receive? This will
be our final question.

The variety of the answers given to this question shows how difficult it
is. And the difficulty has many sources. Most people, even among those
who know Shakespeare well and come into real contact with his mind, are
inclined to isolate and exaggerate some one aspect of the tragic fact.
Some are so much influenced by their own habitual beliefs that they
import them more or less into their interpretation of every author who
is 'sympathetic' to them. And even where neither of these causes of
error appears to operate, another is present from which it is probably
impossible wholly to escape. What I mean is this. Any answer we give to
the question proposed ought to correspond with, or to represent in terms
of the understanding, our imaginative and emotional experience in
reading the tragedies. We have, of course, to do our best by study and
effort to make this experience true to Shakespeare; but, that done to
the best of our ability, the experience is the matter to be interpreted,
and the test by which the interpretation must be tried. But it is
extremely hard to make out exactly what this experience is, because, in
the very effort to make it out, our reflecting mind, full of everyday
ideas, is always tending to transform it by the application of these
ideas, and so to elicit a result which, instead of representing the
fact, conventionalises it. And the consequence is not only mistaken
theories; it is that many a man will declare that he feels in reading a
tragedy what he never really felt, while he fails to recognise what he
actually did feel. It is not likely that we shall escape all these
dangers in our effort to find an answer to the question regarding the
tragic world and the ultimate power in it.

It will be agreed, however, first, that this question must not be
answered in 'religious' language. For although this or that _dramatis
persona_ may speak of gods or of God, of evil spirits or of Satan, of
heaven and of hell, and although the poet may show us ghosts from
another world, these ideas do not materially influence his
representation of life, nor are they used to throw light on the mystery
of its tragedy. The Elizabethan drama was almost wholly secular; and
while Shakespeare was writing he practically confined his view to the
world of non-theological observation and thought, so that he represents
it substantially in one and the same way whether the period of the story
is pre-Christian or Christian.[11] He looked at this 'secular' world
most intently and seriously; and he painted it, we cannot but conclude,
with entire fidelity, without the wish to enforce an opinion of his own,
and, in essentials, without regard to anyone's hopes, fears, or beliefs.
His greatness is largely due to this fidelity in a mind of extraordinary
power; and if, as a private person, he had a religious faith, his tragic
view can hardly have been in contradiction with this faith, but must
have been included in it, and supplemented, not abolished, by additional

Two statements, next, may at once be made regarding the tragic fact as
he represents it: one, that it is and remains to us something piteous,
fearful and mysterious; the other, that the representation of it does
not leave us crushed, rebellious or desperate. These statements will be
accepted, I believe, by any reader who is in touch with Shakespeare's
mind and can observe his own. Indeed such a reader is rather likely to
complain that they are painfully obvious. But if they are true as well
as obvious, something follows from them in regard to our present

From the first it follows that the ultimate power in the tragic world is
not adequately described as a law or order which we can see to be just
and benevolent,--as, in that sense, a 'moral order': for in that case
the spectacle of suffering and waste could not seem to us so fearful and
mysterious as it does. And from the second it follows that this ultimate
power is not adequately described as a fate, whether malicious and
cruel, or blind and indifferent to human happiness and goodness: for in
that case the spectacle would leave us desperate or rebellious. Yet one
or other of these two ideas will be found to govern most accounts of
Shakespeare's tragic view or world. These accounts isolate and
exaggerate single aspects, either the aspect of action or that of
suffering; either the close and unbroken connection of character, will,
deed and catastrophe, which, taken alone, shows the individual simply as
sinning against, or failing to conform to, the moral order and drawing
his just doom on his own head; or else that pressure of outward forces,
that sway of accident, and those blind and agonised struggles, which,
taken alone, show him as the mere victim of some power which cares
neither for his sins nor for his pain. Such views contradict one
another, and no third view can unite them; but the several aspects from
whose isolation and exaggeration they spring are both present in the
fact, and a view which would be true to the fact and to the whole of our
imaginative experience must in some way combine these aspects.

Let us begin, then, with the idea of fatality and glance at some of the
impressions which give rise to it, without asking at present whether
this idea is their natural or fitting expression. There can be no doubt
that they do arise and that they ought to arise. If we do not feel at
times that the hero is, in some sense, a doomed man; that he and others
drift struggling to destruction like helpless creatures borne on an
irresistible flood towards a cataract; that, faulty as they may be,
their fault is far from being the sole or sufficient cause of all they
suffer; and that the power from which they cannot escape is relentless
and immovable, we have failed to receive an essential part of the full
tragic effect.

The sources of these impressions are various, and I will refer only to a
few. One of them is put into words by Shakespeare himself when he makes
the player-king in _Hamlet_ say:

     Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own;

'their ends' are the issues or outcomes of our thoughts, and these, says
the speaker, are not our own. The tragic world is a world of action, and
action is the translation of thought into reality. We see men and women
confidently attempting it. They strike into the existing order of things
in pursuance of their ideas. But what they achieve is not what they
intended; it is terribly unlike it. They understand nothing, we say to
ourselves, of the world on which they operate. They fight blindly in the
dark, and the power that works through them makes them the instrument of
a design which is not theirs. They act freely, and yet their action
binds them hand and foot. And it makes no difference whether they meant
well or ill. No one could mean better than Brutus, but he contrives
misery for his country and death for himself. No one could mean worse
than Iago, and he too is caught in the web he spins for others. Hamlet,
recoiling from the rough duty of revenge, is pushed into
blood-guiltiness he never dreamed of, and forced at last on the revenge
he could not will. His adversary's murders, and no less his adversary's
remorse, bring about the opposite of what they sought. Lear follows an
old man's whim, half generous, half selfish; and in a moment it looses
all the powers of darkness upon him. Othello agonises over an empty
fiction, and, meaning to execute solemn justice, butchers innocence and
strangles love. They understand themselves no better than the world
about them. Coriolanus thinks that his heart is iron, and it melts like
snow before a fire. Lady Macbeth, who thought she could dash out her own
child's brains, finds herself hounded to death by the smell of a
stranger's blood. Her husband thinks that to gain a crown he would jump
the life to come, and finds that the crown has brought him all the
horrors of that life. Everywhere, in this tragic world, man's thought,
translated into act, is transformed into the opposite of itself. His
act, the movement of a few ounces of matter in a moment of time, becomes
a monstrous flood which spreads over a kingdom. And whatsoever he dreams
of doing, he achieves that which he least dreamed of, his own

All this makes us feel the blindness and helplessness of man. Yet by
itself it would hardly suggest the idea of fate, because it shows man as
in some degree, however slight, the cause of his own undoing. But other
impressions come to aid it. It is aided by everything which makes us
feel that a man is, as we say, terribly unlucky; and of this there is,
even in Shakespeare, not a little. Here come in some of the accidents
already considered, Juliet's waking from her trance a minute too late,
Desdemona's loss of her handkerchief at the only moment when the loss
would have mattered, that insignificant delay which cost Cordelia's
life. Again, men act, no doubt, in accordance with their characters; but
what is it that brings them just the one problem which is fatal to them
and would be easy to another, and sometimes brings it to them just when
they are least fitted to face it? How is it that Othello comes to be the
companion of the one man in the world who is at once able enough, brave
enough, and vile enough to ensnare him? By what strange fatality does it
happen that Lear has such daughters and Cordelia such sisters? Even
character itself contributes to these feelings of fatality. How could
men escape, we cry, such vehement propensities as drive Romeo, Antony,
Coriolanus, to their doom? And why is it that a man's virtues help to
destroy him, and that his weakness or defect is so intertwined with
everything that is admirable in him that we can hardly separate them
even in imagination?

If we find in Shakespeare's tragedies the source of impressions like
these, it is important, on the other hand, to notice what we do _not_
find there. We find practically no trace of fatalism in its more
primitive, crude and obvious forms. Nothing, again, makes us think of
the actions and sufferings of the persons as somehow arbitrarily fixed
beforehand without regard to their feelings, thoughts and resolutions.
Nor, I believe, are the facts ever so presented that it seems to us as
if the supreme power, whatever it may be, had a special spite against a
family or an individual. Neither, lastly, do we receive the impression
(which, it must be observed, is not purely fatalistic) that a family,
owing to some hideous crime or impiety in early days, is doomed in later
days to continue a career of portentous calamities and sins.
Shakespeare, indeed, does not appear to have taken much interest in
heredity, or to have attached much importance to it. (See, however,
'heredity' in the Index.)

What, then, is this 'fate' which the impressions already considered lead
us to describe as the ultimate power in the tragic world? It appears to
be a mythological expression for the whole system or order, of which the
individual characters form an inconsiderable and feeble part; which
seems to determine, far more than they, their native dispositions and
their circumstances, and, through these, their action; which is so vast
and complex that they can scarcely at all understand it or control its
workings; and which has a nature so definite and fixed that whatever
changes take place in it produce other changes inevitably and without
regard to men's desires and regrets. And whether this system or order is
best called by the name of fate or no,[12] it can hardly be denied that
it does appear as the ultimate power in the tragic world, and that it
has such characteristics as these. But the name 'fate' may be intended
to imply something more--to imply that this order is a blank necessity,
totally regardless alike of human weal and of the difference between
good and evil or right and wrong. And such an implication many readers
would at once reject. They would maintain, on the contrary, that this
order shows characteristics of quite another kind from those which made
us give it the name of fate, characteristics which certainly should not
induce us to forget those others, but which would lead us to describe it
as a moral order and its necessity as a moral necessity.


Let us turn, then, to this idea. It brings into the light those aspects
of the tragic fact which the idea of fate throws into the shade. And the
argument which leads to it in its simplest form may be stated briefly
thus: 'Whatever may be said of accidents, circumstances and the like,
human action is, after all, presented to us as the central fact in
tragedy, and also as the main cause of the catastrophe. That necessity
which so much impresses us is, after all, chiefly the necessary
connection of actions and consequences. For these actions we, without
even raising a question on the subject, hold the agents responsible; and
the tragedy would disappear for us if we did not. The critical action
is, in greater or less degree, wrong or bad. The catastrophe is, in the
main, the return of this action on the head of the agent. It is an
example of justice; and that order which, present alike within the
agents and outside them, infallibly brings it about, is therefore just.
The rigour of its justice is terrible, no doubt, for a tragedy is a
terrible story; but, in spite of fear and pity, we acquiesce, because
our sense of justice is satisfied.'

Now, if this view is to hold good, the 'justice' of which it speaks must
be at once distinguished from what is called 'poetic justice.' 'Poetic
justice' means that prosperity and adversity are distributed in
proportion to the merits of the agents. Such 'poetic justice' is in
flagrant contradiction with the facts of life, and it is absent from
Shakespeare's tragic picture of life; indeed, this very absence is a
ground of constant complaint on the part of Dr. Johnson. [Greek:
Drasanti pathein], 'the doer must suffer'--this we find in Shakespeare.
We also find that villainy never remains victorious and prosperous at
the last. But an assignment of amounts of happiness and misery, an
assignment even of life and death, in proportion to merit, we do not
find. No one who thinks of Desdemona and Cordelia; or who remembers that
one end awaits Richard III. and Brutus, Macbeth and Hamlet; or who asks
himself which suffered most, Othello or Iago; will ever accuse
Shakespeare of representing the ultimate power as 'poetically' just.

And we must go further. I venture to say that it is a mistake to use at
all these terms of justice and merit or desert. And this for two
reasons. In the first place, essential as it is to recognise the
connection between act and consequence, and natural as it may seem in
some cases (_e.g._ Macbeth's) to say that the doer only gets what he
deserves, yet in very many cases to say this would be quite unnatural.
We might not object to the statement that Lear deserved to suffer for
his folly, selfishness and tyranny; but to assert that he deserved to
suffer what he did suffer is to do violence not merely to language but
to any healthy moral sense. It is, moreover, to obscure the tragic fact
that the consequences of action cannot be limited to that which would
appear to us to follow 'justly' from them. And, this being so, when we
call the order of the tragic world just, we are either using the word in
some vague and unexplained sense, or we are going beyond what is shown
us of this order, and are appealing to faith.

But, in the second place, the ideas of justice and desert are, it seems
to me, in _all_ cases--even those of Richard III. and of Macbeth and
Lady Macbeth--untrue to our imaginative experience. When we are immersed
in a tragedy, we feel towards dispositions, actions, and persons such
emotions as attraction and repulsion, pity, wonder, fear, horror,
perhaps hatred; but we do not _judge_. This is a point of view which
emerges only when, in reading a play, we slip, by our own fault or the
dramatist's, from the tragic position, or when, in thinking about the
play afterwards, we fall back on our everyday legal and moral notions.
But tragedy does not belong, any more than religion belongs, to the
sphere of these notions; neither does the imaginative attitude in
presence of it. While we are in its world we watch what is, seeing that
so it happened and must have happened, feeling that it is piteous,
dreadful, awful, mysterious, but neither passing sentence on the agents,
nor asking whether the behaviour of the ultimate power towards them is
just. And, therefore, the use of such language in attempts to render our
imaginative experience in terms of the understanding is, to say the
least, full of danger.[13]

Let us attempt then to re-state the idea that the ultimate power in the
tragic world is a moral order. Let us put aside the ideas of justice and
merit, and speak simply of good and evil. Let us understand by these
words, primarily, moral good and evil, but also everything else in human
beings which we take to be excellent or the reverse. Let us understand
the statement that the ultimate power or order is 'moral' to mean that
it does not show itself indifferent to good and evil, or equally
favourable or unfavourable to both, but shows itself akin to good and
alien from evil. And, understanding the statement thus, let us ask what
grounds it has in the tragic fact as presented by Shakespeare.

Here, as in dealing with the grounds on which the idea of fate rests, I
choose only two or three out of many. And the most important is this. In
Shakespearean tragedy the main source of the convulsion which produces
suffering and death is never good: good contributes to this convulsion
only from its tragic implication with its opposite in one and the same
character. The main source, on the contrary, is in every case evil; and,
what is more (though this seems to have been little noticed), it is in
almost every case evil in the fullest sense, not mere imperfection but
plain moral evil. The love of Romeo and Juliet conducts them to death
only because of the senseless hatred of their houses. Guilty ambition,
seconded by diabolic malice and issuing in murder, opens the action in
_Macbeth_. Iago is the main source of the convulsion in _Othello_;
Goneril, Regan and Edmund in _King Lear_. Even when this plain moral
evil is not the obviously prime source within the play, it lies behind
it: the situation with which Hamlet has to deal has been formed by
adultery and murder. _Julius Caesar_ is the only tragedy in which one is
even tempted to find an exception to this rule. And the inference is
obvious. If it is chiefly evil that violently disturbs the order of the
world, this order cannot be friendly to evil or indifferent between evil
and good, any more than a body which is convulsed by poison is friendly
to it or indifferent to the distinction between poison and food.

Again, if we confine our attention to the hero, and to those cases where
the gross and palpable evil is not in him but elsewhere, we find that
the comparatively innocent hero still shows some marked imperfection or
defect,--irresolution, precipitancy, pride, credulousness, excessive
simplicity, excessive susceptibility to sexual emotions, and the like.
These defects or imperfections are certainly, in the wide sense of the
word, evil, and they contribute decisively to the conflict and
catastrophe. And the inference is again obvious. The ultimate power
which shows itself disturbed by this evil and reacts against it, must
have a nature alien to it. Indeed its reaction is so vehement and
'relentless' that it would seem to be bent on nothing short of good in
perfection, and to be ruthless in its demand for it.

To this must be added another fact, or another aspect of the same fact.
Evil exhibits itself everywhere as something negative, barren,
weakening, destructive, a principle of death. It isolates, disunites,
and tends to annihilate not only its opposite but itself. That which
keeps the evil man[14] prosperous, makes him succeed, even permits him
to exist, is the good in him (I do not mean only the obviously 'moral'
good). When the evil in him masters the good and has its way, it
destroys other people through him, but it also destroys _him_. At the
close of the struggle he has vanished, and has left behind him nothing
that can stand. What remains is a family, a city, a country, exhausted,
pale and feeble, but alive through the principle of good which animates
it; and, within it, individuals who, if they have not the brilliance or
greatness of the tragic character, still have won our respect and
confidence. And the inference would seem clear. If existence in an order
depends on good, and if the presence of evil is hostile to such
existence, the inner being or soul of this order must be akin to good.

These are aspects of the tragic world at least as clearly marked as
those which, taken alone, suggest the idea of fate. And the idea which
they in their turn, when taken alone, may suggest, is that of an order
which does not indeed award 'poetic justice,' but which reacts through
the necessity of its own 'moral' nature both against attacks made upon
it and against failure to conform to it. Tragedy, on this view, is the
exhibition of that convulsive reaction; and the fact that the spectacle
does not leave us rebellious or desperate is due to a more or less
distinct perception that the tragic suffering and death arise from
collision, not with a fate or blank power, but with a moral power, a
power akin to all that we admire and revere in the characters
themselves. This perception produces something like a feeling of
acquiescence in the catastrophe, though it neither leads us to pass
judgment on the characters nor diminishes the pity, the fear, and the
sense of waste, which their struggle, suffering and fall evoke. And,
finally, this view seems quite able to do justice to those aspects of
the tragic fact which give rise to the idea of fate. They would appear
as various expressions of the fact that the moral order acts not
capriciously or like a human being, but from the necessity of its
nature, or, if we prefer the phrase, by general laws,--a necessity or
law which of course knows no exception and is as 'ruthless' as fate.

It is impossible to deny to this view a large measure of truth. And yet
without some amendment it can hardly satisfy. For it does not include
the whole of the facts, and therefore does not wholly correspond with
the impressions they produce. Let it be granted that the system or order
which shows itself omnipotent against individuals is, in the sense
explained, moral. Still--at any rate for the eye of sight--the evil
against which it asserts itself, and the persons whom this evil
inhabits, are not really something outside the order, so that they can
attack it or fail to conform to it; they are within it and a part of it.
It itself produces them,--produces Iago as well as Desdemona, Iago's
cruelty as well as Iago's courage. It is not poisoned, it poisons
itself. Doubtless it shows by its violent reaction that the poison _is_
poison, and that its health lies in good. But one significant fact
cannot remove another, and the spectacle we witness scarcely warrants
the assertion that the order is responsible for the good in Desdemona,
but Iago for the evil in Iago. If we make this assertion we make it on
grounds other than the facts as presented in Shakespeare's tragedies.

Nor does the idea of a moral order asserting itself against attack or
want of conformity answer in full to our feelings regarding the tragic
character. We do not think of Hamlet merely as failing to meet its
demand, of Antony as merely sinning against it, or even of Macbeth as
simply attacking it. What we feel corresponds quite as much to the idea
that they are _its_ parts, expressions, products; that in their defect
or evil _it_ is untrue to its soul of goodness, and falls into conflict
and collision with itself; that, in making them suffer and waste
themselves, _it_ suffers and wastes itself; and that when, to save its
life and regain peace from this intestinal struggle, it casts them out,
it has lost a part of its own substance,--a part more dangerous and
unquiet, but far more valuable and nearer to its heart, than that which
remains,--a Fortinbras, a Malcolm, an Octavius. There is no tragedy in
its expulsion of evil: the tragedy is that this involves the waste of

Thus we are left at last with an idea showing two sides or aspects which
we can neither separate nor reconcile. The whole or order against which
the individual part shows itself powerless seems to be animated by a
passion for perfection: we cannot otherwise explain its behaviour
towards evil. Yet it appears to engender this evil within itself, and in
its effort to overcome and expel it it is agonised with pain, and driven
to mutilate its own substance and to lose not only evil but priceless
good. That this idea, though very different from the idea of a blank
fate, is no solution of the riddle of life is obvious; but why should we
expect it to be such a solution? Shakespeare was not attempting to
justify the ways of God to men, or to show the universe as a Divine
Comedy. He was writing tragedy, and tragedy would not be tragedy if it
were not a painful mystery. Nor can he be said even to point distinctly,
like some writers of tragedy, in any direction where a solution might
lie. We find a few references to gods or God, to the influence of the
stars, to another life: some of them certainly, all of them perhaps,
merely dramatic--appropriate to the person from whose lips they fall. A
ghost comes from Purgatory to impart a secret out of the reach of its
hearer--who presently meditates on the question whether the sleep of
death is dreamless. Accidents once or twice remind us strangely of the
words, 'There's a divinity that shapes our ends.' More important are
other impressions. Sometimes from the very furnace of affliction a
conviction seems borne to us that somehow, if we could see it, this
agony counts as nothing against the heroism and love which appear in it
and thrill our hearts. Sometimes we are driven to cry out that these
mighty or heavenly spirits who perish are too great for the little space
in which they move, and that they vanish not into nothingness but into
freedom. Sometimes from these sources and from others comes a
presentiment, formless but haunting and even profound, that all the fury
of conflict, with its waste and woe, is less than half the truth, even
an illusion, 'such stuff as dreams are made on.' But these faint and
scattered intimations that the tragic world, being but a fragment of a
whole beyond our vision, must needs be a contradiction and no ultimate
truth, avail nothing to interpret the mystery. We remain confronted with
the inexplicable fact, or the no less inexplicable appearance, of a
world travailing for perfection, but bringing to birth, together with
glorious good, an evil which it is able to overcome only by self-torture
and self-waste. And this fact or appearance is tragedy.[15]


[Footnote 1: _Julius Caesar_ is not an exception to this rule. Caesar,
whose murder comes in the Third Act, is in a sense the dominating figure
in the story, but Brutus is the 'hero.']

[Footnote 2: _Timon of Athens_, we have seen, was probably not designed
by Shakespeare, but even _Timon_ is no exception to the rule. The
sub-plot is concerned with Alcibiades and his army, and Timon himself is
treated by the Senate as a man of great importance. _Arden of Feversham_
and _A Yorkshire Tragedy_ would certainly be exceptions to the rule; but
I assume that neither of them is Shakespeare's; and if either is, it
belongs to a different species from his admitted tragedies. See, on this
species, Symonds, _Shakspere's Predecessors_, ch. xi.]

[Footnote 3: Even a deed would, I think, be counted an 'accident,' if it
were the deed of a very minor person whose character had not been
indicated; because such a deed would not issue from the little world to
which the dramatist had confined our attention.]

[Footnote 4: Comedy stands in a different position. The tricks played by
chance often form a principal part of the comic action.]

[Footnote 5: It may be observed that the influence of the three elements
just considered is to strengthen the tendency, produced by the
sufferings considered first, to regard the tragic persons as passive
rather than as agents.]

[Footnote 6: An account of Hegel's view may be found in _Oxford Lectures
on Poetry_.]

[Footnote 7: The reader, however, will find considerable difficulty in
placing some very important characters in these and other plays. I will
give only two or three illustrations. Edgar is clearly not on the same
side as Edmund, and yet it seems awkward to range him on Gloster's side
when Gloster wishes to put him to death. Ophelia is in love with Hamlet,
but how can she be said to be of Hamlet's party against the King and
Polonius, or of their party against Hamlet? Desdemona worships Othello,
yet it sounds odd to say that Othello is on the same side with a person
whom he insults, strikes and murders.]

[Footnote 8: I have given names to the 'spiritual forces' in _Macbeth_
merely to illustrate the idea, and without any pretension to adequacy.
Perhaps, in view of some interpretations of Shakespeare's plays, it will
be as well to add that I do not dream of suggesting that in any of his
dramas Shakespeare imagined two abstract principles or passions
conflicting, and incorporated them in persons; or that there is any
necessity for a reader to define for himself the particular forces which
conflict in a given case.]

[Footnote 9: Aristotle apparently would exclude them.]

[Footnote 10: Richard II. is perhaps an exception, and I must confess
that to me he is scarcely a tragic character, and that, if he is
nevertheless a tragic figure, he is so only because his fall from
prosperity to adversity is so great.]

[Footnote 11: I say substantially; but the concluding remarks on
_Hamlet_ will modify a little the statements above.]

[Footnote 12: I have raised no objection to the use of the idea of fate,
because it occurs so often both in conversation and in books about
Shakespeare's tragedies that I must suppose it to be natural to many
readers. Yet I doubt whether it would be so if Greek tragedy had never
been written; and I must in candour confess that to me it does not often
occur while I am reading, or when I have just read, a tragedy of
Shakespeare. Wordsworth's lines, for example, about

         poor humanity's afflicted will
     Struggling in vain with ruthless destiny

do not represent the impression I receive; much less do images which
compare man to a puny creature helpless in the claws of a bird of prey.
The reader should examine himself closely on this matter.]

[Footnote 13: It is dangerous, I think, in reference to all really good
tragedies, but I am dealing here only with Shakespeare's. In not a few
Greek tragedies it is almost inevitable that we should think of justice
and retribution, not only because the _dramatis personae_ often speak of
them, but also because there is something casuistical about the tragic
problem itself. The poet treats the story in such a way that the
question, Is the hero doing right or wrong? is almost forced upon us.
But this is not so with Shakespeare. _Julius Caesar_ is probably the
only one of his tragedies in which the question suggests itself to us,
and this is one of the reasons why that play has something of a classic
air. Even here, if we ask the question, we have no doubt at all about
the answer.]

[Footnote 14: It is most essential to remember that an evil man is much
more than the evil in him. I may add that in this paragraph I have, for
the sake of clearness, considered evil in its most pronounced form; but
what is said would apply, _mutatis mutandis_, to evil as imperfection,

[Footnote 15: Partly in order not to anticipate later passages, I
abstained from treating fully here the question why we feel, at the
death of the tragic hero, not only pain but also reconciliation and
sometimes even exultation. As I cannot at present make good this defect,
I would ask the reader to refer to the word _Reconciliation_ in the
Index. See also, in _Oxford Lectures on Poetry_, _Hegel's Theory of
Tragedy_, especially pp. 90, 91.]



Having discussed the substance of a Shakespearean tragedy, we should
naturally go on to examine the form. And under this head many things
might be included; for example, Shakespeare's methods of
characterisation, his language, his versification, the construction of
his plots. I intend, however, to speak only of the last of these
subjects, which has been somewhat neglected;[16] and, as construction is
a more or less technical matter, I shall add some general remarks on
Shakespeare as an artist.


As a Shakespearean tragedy represents a conflict which terminates in a
catastrophe, any such tragedy may roughly be divided into three parts.
The first of these sets forth or expounds the situation,[17] or state of
affairs, out of which the conflict arises; and it may, therefore, be
called the Exposition. The second deals with the definite beginning, the
growth and the vicissitudes of the conflict. It forms accordingly the
bulk of the play, comprising the Second, Third and Fourth Acts, and
usually a part of the First and a part of the Fifth. The final section
of the tragedy shows the issue of the conflict in a catastrophe.[18]

The application of this scheme of division is naturally more or less
arbitrary. The first part glides into the second, and the second into
the third, and there may often be difficulty in drawing the lines
between them. But it is still harder to divide spring from summer, and
summer from autumn; and yet spring is spring, and summer summer.

The main business of the Exposition, which we will consider first, is to
introduce us into a little world of persons; to show us their positions
in life, their circumstances, their relations to one another, and
perhaps something of their characters; and to leave us keenly interested
in the question what will come out of this condition of things. We are
left thus expectant, not merely because some of the persons interest us
at once, but also because their situation in regard to one another
points to difficulties in the future. This situation is not one of
conflict,[19] but it threatens conflict. For example, we see first the
hatred of the Montagues and Capulets; and then we see Romeo ready to
fall violently in love; and then we hear talk of a marriage between
Juliet and Paris; but the exposition is not complete, and the conflict
has not definitely begun to arise, till, in the last scene of the First
Act, Romeo the Montague sees Juliet the Capulet and becomes her slave.

The dramatist's chief difficulty in the exposition is obvious, and it is
illustrated clearly enough in the plays of unpractised writers; for
example, in _Remorse_, and even in _The Cenci_. He has to impart to the
audience a quantity of information about matters of which they generally
know nothing and never know all that is necessary for his purpose.[20]
But the process of merely acquiring information is unpleasant, and the
direct imparting of it is undramatic. Unless he uses a prologue,
therefore, he must conceal from his auditors the fact that they are
being informed, and must tell them what he wants them to know by means
which are interesting on their own account. These means, with
Shakespeare, are not only speeches but actions and events. From the very
beginning of the play, though the conflict has not arisen, things are
happening and being done which in some degree arrest, startle, and
excite; and in a few scenes we have mastered the situation of affairs
without perceiving the dramatist's designs upon us. Not that this is
always so with Shakespeare. In the opening scene of his early _Comedy of
Errors_, and in the opening speech of _Richard III._, we feel that the
speakers are addressing us; and in the second scene of the _Tempest_
(for Shakespeare grew at last rather negligent of technique) the purpose
of Prospero's long explanation to Miranda is palpable. But in general
Shakespeare's expositions are masterpieces.[21]

His usual plan in tragedy is to begin with a short scene, or part of a
scene, either full of life and stir, or in some other way arresting.
Then, having secured a hearing, he proceeds to conversations at a lower
pitch, accompanied by little action but conveying much information. For
example, _Romeo and Juliet_ opens with a street-fight, _Julius Caesar_
and _Coriolanus_ with a crowd in commotion; and when this excitement has
had its effect on the audience, there follow quiet speeches, in which
the cause of the excitement, and so a great part of the situation, are
disclosed. In _Hamlet_ and _Macbeth_ this scheme is employed with great
boldness. In _Hamlet_ the first appearance of the Ghost occurs at the
fortieth line, and with such effect that Shakespeare can afford to
introduce at once a conversation which explains part of the state of
affairs at Elsinore; and the second appearance, having again increased
the tension, is followed by a long scene, which contains no action but
introduces almost all the _dramatis personae_ and adds the information
left wanting. The opening of _Macbeth_ is even more remarkable, for
there is probably no parallel to its first scene, where the senses and
imagination are assaulted by a storm of thunder and supernatural alarm.
This scene is only eleven lines long, but its influence is so great that
the next can safely be occupied with a mere report of Macbeth's
battles,--a narrative which would have won much less attention if it had
opened the play.

When Shakespeare begins his exposition thus he generally at first makes
people talk about the hero, but keeps the hero himself for some time out
of sight, so that we await his entrance with curiosity, and sometimes
with anxiety. On the other hand, if the play opens with a quiet
conversation, this is usually brief, and then at once the hero enters
and takes action of some decided kind. Nothing, for example, can be less
like the beginning of _Macbeth_ than that of _King Lear_. The tone is
pitched so low that the conversation between Kent, Gloster, and Edmund
is written in prose. But at the thirty-fourth line it is broken off by
the entrance of Lear and his court, and without delay the King proceeds
to his fatal division of the kingdom.

This tragedy illustrates another practice of Shakespeare's. _King Lear_
has a secondary plot, that which concerns Gloster and his two sons. To
make the beginning of this plot quite clear, and to mark it off from the
main action, Shakespeare gives it a separate exposition. The great scene
of the division of Britain and the rejection of Cordelia and Kent is
followed by the second scene, in which Gloster and his two sons appear
alone, and the beginning of Edmund's design is disclosed. In _Hamlet_,
though the plot is single, there is a little group of characters
possessing a certain independent interest,--Polonius, his son, and his
daughter; and so the third scene is devoted wholly to them. And again,
in _Othello_, since Roderigo is to occupy a peculiar position almost
throughout the action, he is introduced at once, alone with Iago, and
his position is explained before the other characters are allowed to

But why should Iago open the play? Or, if this seems too presumptuous a
question, let us put it in the form, What is the effect of his opening
the play? It is that we receive at the very outset a strong impression
of the force which is to prove fatal to the hero's happiness, so that,
when we see the hero himself, the shadow of fate already rests upon him.
And an effect of this kind is to be noticed in other tragedies. We are
made conscious at once of some power which is to influence the whole
action to the hero's undoing. In _Macbeth_ we see and hear the Witches,
in _Hamlet_ the Ghost. In the first scene of _Julius Caesar_ and of
_Coriolanus_ those qualities of the crowd are vividly shown which render
hopeless the enterprise of the one hero and wreck the ambition of the
other. It is the same with the hatred between the rival houses in _Romeo
and Juliet_, and with Antony's infatuated passion. We realise them at
the end of the first page, and are almost ready to regard the hero as
doomed. Often, again, at one or more points during the exposition this
feeling is reinforced by some expression that has an ominous effect. The
first words we hear from Macbeth, 'So foul and fair a day I have not
seen,' echo, though he knows it not, the last words we heard from the
Witches, 'Fair is foul, and foul is fair.' Romeo, on his way with his
friends to the banquet, where he is to see Juliet for the first time,
tells Mercutio that he has had a dream. What the dream was we never
learn, for Mercutio does not care to know, and breaks into his speech
about Queen Mab; but we can guess its nature from Romeo's last speech in
the scene:

                          My mind misgives
     Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
     Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
     With this night's revels.

When Brabantio, forced to acquiesce in his daughter's stolen marriage,
turns, as he leaves the council-chamber, to Othello, with the warning,

     Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see;
     She has deceived her father, and may thee,

this warning, and no less Othello's answer, 'My life upon her faith,'
make our hearts sink. The whole of the coming story seems to be
prefigured in Antony's muttered words (I. ii. 120):

     These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,
     Or lose myself in dotage;

and, again, in Hamlet's weary sigh, following so soon on the passionate
resolution stirred by the message of the Ghost:

     The time is out of joint. Oh cursed spite,
     That ever I was born to set it right.

These words occur at a point (the end of the First Act) which may be
held to fall either within the exposition or beyond it. I should take
the former view, though such questions, as we saw at starting, can
hardly be decided with certainty. The dimensions of this first section
of a tragedy depend on a variety of causes, of which the chief seems to
be the comparative simplicity or complexity of the situation from which
the conflict arises. Where this is simple the exposition is short, as in
_Julius Caesar_ and _Macbeth_. Where it is complicated the exposition
requires more space, as in _Romeo and Juliet_, _Hamlet_, and _King
Lear_. Its completion is generally marked in the mind of the reader by a
feeling that the action it contains is for the moment complete but has
left a problem. The lovers have met, but their families are at deadly
enmity; the hero seems at the height of success, but has admitted the
thought of murdering his sovereign; the old king has divided his kingdom
between two hypocritical daughters, and has rejected his true child; the
hero has acknowledged a sacred duty of revenge, but is weary of life:
and we ask, What will come of this? Sometimes, I may add, a certain time
is supposed to elapse before the events which answer our question make
their appearance and the conflict begins; in _King Lear_, for instance,
about a fortnight; in _Hamlet_ about two months.


We come now to the conflict itself. And here one or two preliminary
remarks are necessary. In the first place, it must be remembered that
our point of view in examining the construction of a play will not
always coincide with that which we occupy in thinking of its whole
dramatic effect. For example, that struggle in the hero's soul which
sometimes accompanies the outward struggle is of the highest importance
for the total effect of a tragedy; but it is not always necessary or
desirable to consider it when the question is merely one of
construction. And this is natural. The play is meant primarily for the
theatre; and theatrically the outward conflict, with its influence on
the fortunes of the hero, is the aspect which first catches, if it does
not engross, attention. For the average play-goer of every period the
main interest of _Hamlet_ has probably lain in the vicissitudes of his
long duel with the King; and the question, one may almost say, has been
which will first kill the other. And so, from the point of view of
construction, the fact that Hamlet spares the King when he finds him
praying, is, from its effect on the hero's fortunes, of great moment;
but the cause of the fact, which lies within Hamlet's character, is not

In the second place we must be prepared to find that, as the plays vary
so much, no single way of regarding the conflict will answer precisely
to the construction of all; that it sometimes appears possible to look
at the construction of a tragedy in two quite different ways, and that
it is material to find the best of the two; and that thus, in any given
instance, it is necessary first to define the opposing sides in the
conflict. I will give one or two examples. In some tragedies, as we saw
in our first lecture, the opposing forces can, for practical purposes,
be identified with opposing persons or groups. So it is in _Romeo and
Juliet_ and _Macbeth_. But it is not always so. The love of Othello may
be said to contend with another force, as the love of Romeo does; but
Othello cannot be said to contend with Iago as Romeo contends with the
representatives of the hatred of the houses, or as Macbeth contends with
Malcolm and Macduff. Again, in _Macbeth_ the hero, however much
influenced by others, supplies the main driving power of the action; but
in _King Lear_ he does not. Possibly, therefore, the conflict, and with
it the construction, may best be regarded from different points of view
in these two plays, in spite of the fact that the hero is the central
figure in each. But if we do not observe this we shall attempt to find
the same scheme in both, and shall either be driven to some unnatural
view or to a sceptical despair of perceiving any principle of
construction at all.

With these warnings, I turn to the question whether we can trace any
distinct method or methods by which Shakespeare represents the rise and
development of the conflict.

(1) One at least is obvious, and indeed it is followed not merely during
the conflict but from beginning to end of the play. There are, of
course, in the action certain places where the tension in the minds of
the audience becomes extreme. We shall consider these presently. But, in
addition, there is, all through the tragedy, a constant alternation of
rises and falls in this tension or in the emotional pitch of the work, a
regular sequence of more exciting and less exciting sections. Some kind
of variation of pitch is to be found, of course, in all drama, for it
rests on the elementary facts that relief must be given after emotional
strain, and that contrast is required to bring out the full force of an
effect. But a good drama of our own time shows nothing approaching to
the _regularity_ with which in the plays of Shakespeare and of his
contemporaries the principle is applied. And the main cause of this
difference lies simply in a change of theatrical arrangements. In
Shakespeare's theatre, as there was no scenery, scene followed scene
with scarcely any pause; and so the readiest, though not the only, way
to vary the emotional pitch was to interpose a whole scene where the
tension was low between scenes where it was high. In our theatres there
is a great deal of scenery, which takes a long time to set and change;
and therefore the number of scenes is small, and the variations of
tension have to be provided within the scenes, and still more by the
pauses between them. With Shakespeare there are, of course, in any long
scene variations of tension, but the scenes are numerous and, compared
with ours, usually short, and variety is given principally by their
difference in pitch.

It may further be observed that, in a portion of the play which is
relatively unexciting, the scenes of lower tension may be as long as
those of higher; while in a portion of the play which is specially
exciting the scenes of low tension are shorter, often much shorter, than
the others. The reader may verify this statement by comparing the First
or the Fourth Act in most of the tragedies with the Third; for, speaking
very roughly, we may say that the First and Fourth are relatively quiet
acts, the Third highly critical. A good example is the Third Act of
_King Lear_, where the scenes of high tension (ii., iv., vi.) are
respectively 95, 186 and 122 lines in length, while those of low tension
(i., iii., v.) are respectively 55, 26 and 26 lines long. Scene vii.,
the last of the Act, is, I may add, a very exciting scene, though it
follows scene vi., and therefore the tone of scene vi. is greatly
lowered during its final thirty lines.

(2) If we turn now from the differences of tension to the sequence of
events within the conflict, we shall find the principle of alternation
at work again in another and a quite independent way. Let us for the
sake of brevity call the two sides in the conflict A and B. Now,
usually, as we shall see presently, through a considerable part of the
play, perhaps the first half, the cause of A is, on the whole,
advancing; and through the remaining part it is retiring, while that of
B advances in turn. But, underlying this broad movement, all through the
conflict we shall find a regular alternation of smaller advances and
retirals; first A seeming to win some ground, and then the
counter-action of B being shown. And since we always more or less
decidedly prefer A to B or B to A, the result of this oscillating
movement is a constant alternation of hope and fear, or rather of a
mixed state predominantly hopeful and a mixed state predominantly
apprehensive. An example will make the point clear. In _Hamlet_ the
conflict begins with the hero's feigning to be insane from
disappointment in love, and we are shown his immediate success in
convincing Polonius. Let us call this an advance of A. The next scene
shows the King's great uneasiness about Hamlet's melancholy, and his
scepticism as to Polonius's explanation of its cause: advance of B.
Hamlet completely baffles Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have been
sent to discover his secret, and he arranges for the test of the
play-scene: advance of A. But immediately before the play-scene his
soliloquy on suicide fills us with misgiving; and his words to Ophelia,
overheard, so convince the King that love is _not_ the cause of his
nephew's strange behaviour, that he determines to get rid of him by
sending him to England: advance of B. The play-scene proves a complete
success: decided advance of A. Directly after it Hamlet spares the King
at prayer, and in an interview with his mother unwittingly kills
Polonius, and so gives his enemy a perfect excuse for sending him away
(to be executed): decided advance of B. I need not pursue the
illustration further. This oscillating movement can be traced without
difficulty in any of the tragedies, though less distinctly in one or two
of the earliest.

(3) Though this movement continues right up to the catastrophe, its
effect does not disguise that much broader effect to which I have
already alluded, and which we have now to study. In all the tragedies,
though more clearly in some than in others, one side is distinctly felt
to be on the whole advancing up to a certain point in the conflict, and
then to be on the whole declining before the reaction of the other.
There is therefore felt to be a critical point in the action, which
proves also to be a turning point. It is critical sometimes in the sense
that, until it is reached, the conflict is not, so to speak, clenched;
one of the two sets of forces might subside, or a reconciliation might
somehow be effected; while, as soon as it is reached, we feel this can
no longer be. It is critical also because the advancing force has
apparently asserted itself victoriously, gaining, if not all it could
wish, still a very substantial advantage; whereas really it is on the
point of turning downward towards its fall. This Crisis, as a rule,
comes somewhere near the middle of the play; and where it is well marked
it has the effect, as to construction, of dividing the play into five
parts instead of three; these parts showing (1) a situation not yet one
of conflict, (2) the rise and development of the conflict, in which A or
B advances on the whole till it reaches (3) the Crisis, on which follows
(4) the decline of A or B towards (5) the Catastrophe. And it will be
seen that the fourth and fifth parts repeat, though with a reversal of
direction as regards A or B, the movement of the second and third,
working towards the catastrophe as the second and third worked towards
the crisis.

In developing, illustrating and qualifying this statement, it will be
best to begin with the tragedies in which the movement is most clear and
simple. These are _Julius Caesar_ and _Macbeth_. In the former the
fortunes of the conspiracy rise with vicissitudes up to the crisis of
the assassination (III. i.); they then sink with vicissitudes to the
catastrophe, where Brutus and Cassius perish. In the latter, Macbeth,
hurrying, in spite of much inward resistance, to the murder of Duncan,
attains the crown, the upward movement being extraordinarily rapid, and
the crisis arriving early: his cause then turns slowly downward, and
soon hastens to ruin. In both these tragedies the simplicity of the
constructional effect, it should be noticed, depends in part on the fact
that the contending forces may quite naturally be identified with
certain persons, and partly again on the fact that the defeat of one
side is the victory of the other. Octavius and Antony, Malcolm and
Macduff, are left standing over the bodies of their foes.

This is not so in _Romeo and Juliet_ and _Hamlet_, because here,
although the hero perishes, the side opposed to him, being the more
faulty or evil, cannot be allowed to triumph when he falls. Otherwise
the type of construction is the same. The fortunes of Romeo and Juliet
rise and culminate in their marriage (II. vi.), and then begin to
decline before the opposition of their houses, which, aided by
accidents, produces a catastrophe, but is thereupon converted into a
remorseful reconciliation. Hamlet's cause reaches its zenith in the
success of the play-scene (III. ii.). Thereafter the reaction makes way,
and he perishes through the plot of the King and Laertes. But they are
not allowed to survive their success.

The construction in the remaining Roman plays follows the same plan, but
in both plays (as in _Richard II._ and _Richard III._) it suffers from
the intractable nature of the historical material, and is also
influenced by other causes. In _Coriolanus_ the hero reaches the topmost
point of success when he is named consul (II. iii.), and the rest of the
play shows his decline and fall; but in this decline he attains again
for a time extraordinary power, and triumphs, in a sense, over his
original adversary, though he succumbs to another. In _Antony and
Cleopatra_ the advance of the hero's cause depends on his freeing
himself from the heroine, and he appears to have succeeded when he
becomes reconciled to Octavius and marries Octavia (III. ii.); but he
returns to Egypt and is gradually driven to his death, which involves
that of the heroine.

There remain two of the greatest of the tragedies, and in both of them a
certain difficulty will be felt. _King Lear_ alone among these plays has
a distinct double action. Besides this, it is impossible, I think, from
the point of view of construction, to regard the hero as the leading
figure. If we attempt to do so, we must either find the crisis in the
First Act (for after it Lear's course is downward), and this is absurd;
or else we must say that the usual movement is present but its direction
is reversed, the hero's cause first sinking to the lowest point (in the
Storm-scenes) and then rising again. But this also will not do; for
though his fortunes may be said to rise again for a time, they rise only
to fall once more to a catastrophe. The truth is, that after the First
Act, which is really filled by the exposition, Lear suffers but hardly
initiates action at all; and the right way to look at the matter, _from
the point of view of construction_, is to regard Goneril, Regan and
Edmund as the leading characters. It is they who, in the conflict,
initiate action. Their fortune mounts to the crisis, where the old King
is driven out into the storm and loses his reason, and where Gloster is
blinded and expelled from his home (III. vi. and vii.). Then the
counter-action begins to gather force, and their cause to decline; and,
although they win the battle, they are involved in the catastrophe which
they bring on Cordelia and Lear. Thus we may still find in _King Lear_
the usual scheme of an ascending and a descending movement of one side
in the conflict.

The case of _Othello_ is more peculiar. In its whole constructional
effect _Othello_ differs from the other tragedies, and the cause of this
difference is not hard to find, and will be mentioned presently. But
how, after it is found, are we to define the principle of the
construction? On the one hand the usual method seems to show itself.
Othello's fortune certainly advances in the early part of the play, and
it may be considered to reach its topmost point in the exquisite joy of
his reunion with Desdemona in Cyprus; while soon afterwards it begins to
turn, and then falls to the catastrophe. But the topmost point thus
comes very early (II. i.), and, moreover, is but faintly marked; indeed,
it is scarcely felt as a crisis at all. And, what is still more
significant, though reached by conflict, it is not reached by conflict
with the force which afterwards destroys it. Iago, in the early scenes,
is indeed shown to cherish a design against Othello, but it is not Iago
against whom he has at first to assert himself, but Brabantio; and Iago
does not even begin to poison his mind until the third scene of the
Third Act.

Can we then, on the other hand, following the precedent of _King Lear_,
and remembering the probable chronological juxtaposition of the two
plays, regard Iago as the leading figure from the point of view of
construction? This might at first seem the right view; for it is the
case that _Othello_ resembles _King Lear_ in having a hero more acted
upon than acting, or rather a hero driven to act by being acted upon.
But then, if Iago is taken as the leading figure, the usual mode of
construction is plainly abandoned, for there will nowhere be a crisis
followed by a descending movement. Iago's cause advances, at first
slowly and quietly, then rapidly, but it does nothing but advance until
the catastrophe swallows his dupe and him together. And this way of
regarding the action does positive violence, I think, to our natural
impressions of the earlier part of the play.

I think, therefore, that the usual scheme is so far followed that the
drama represents first the rise of the hero, and then his fall. But,
however this question may be decided, one striking peculiarity remains,
and is the cause of the unique effect of _Othello_. In the first half of
the play the main conflict is merely incubating; then it bursts into
life, and goes storming, without intermission or change of direction, to
its close. Now, in this peculiarity _Othello_ is quite unlike the other
tragedies; and in the consequent effect, which is that the second half
of the drama is immeasurably more exciting than the first, it is
approached only by _Antony and Cleopatra_. I shall therefore reserve it
for separate consideration, though in proceeding to speak further of
Shakespeare's treatment of the tragic conflict I shall have to mention
some devices which are used in _Othello_ as well as in the other


Shakespeare's general plan, we have seen, is to show one set of forces
advancing, in secret or open opposition to the other, to some decisive
success, and then driven downward to defeat by the reaction it provokes.
And the advantages of this plan, as seen in such a typical instance as
_Julius Caesar_, are manifest. It conveys the movement of the conflict
to the mind with great clearness and force. It helps to produce the
impression that in his decline and fall the doer's act is returning on
his own head. And, finally, as used by Shakespeare, it makes the first
half of the play intensely interesting and dramatic. Action which
effects a striking change in an existing situation is naturally watched
with keen interest; and this we find in some of these tragedies. And the
spectacle, which others exhibit, of a purpose forming itself and, in
spite of outward obstacles and often of inward resistance, forcing its
way onward to a happy consummation or a terrible deed, not only gives
scope to that psychological subtlety in which Shakespeare is scarcely
rivalled, but is also dramatic in the highest degree.

But when the crisis has been reached there come difficulties and
dangers, which, if we put Shakespeare for the moment out of mind, are
easily seen. An immediate and crushing counter-action would, no doubt,
sustain the interest, but it would precipitate the catastrophe, and
leave a feeling that there has been too long a preparation for a final
effect so brief. What seems necessary is a momentary pause, followed by
a counter-action which mounts at first slowly, and afterwards, as it
gathers force, with quickening speed. And yet the result of this
arrangement, it would seem, must be, for a time, a decided slackening of
tension. Nor is this the only difficulty. The persons who represent the
counter-action and now take the lead, are likely to be comparatively
unfamiliar, and therefore unwelcome, to the audience; and, even if
familiar, they are almost sure to be at first, if not permanently, less
interesting than those who figured in the ascending movement, and on
whom attention has been fixed. Possibly, too, their necessary prominence
may crowd the hero into the back-ground. Hence the point of danger in
this method of construction seems to lie in that section of the play
which follows the crisis and has not yet approached the catastrophe. And
this section will usually comprise the Fourth Act, together, in some
cases, with a part of the Third and a part of the Fifth.

Shakespeare was so masterly a playwright, and had so wonderful a power
of giving life to unpromising subjects, that to a large extent he was
able to surmount this difficulty. But illustrations of it are easily to
be found in his tragedies, and it is not always surmounted. In almost
all of them we are conscious of that momentary pause in the action,
though, as we shall see, it does not generally occur _immediately_ after
the crisis. Sometimes he allows himself to be driven to keep the hero
off the stage for a long time while the counter-action is rising;
Macbeth, Hamlet and Coriolanus during about 450 lines, Lear for nearly
500, Romeo for about 550 (it matters less here, because Juliet is quite
as important as Romeo). How can a drama in which this happens compete,
in its latter part, with _Othello_? And again, how can deliberations
between Octavius, Antony and Lepidus, between Malcolm and Macduff,
between the Capulets, between Laertes and the King, keep us at the
pitch, I do not say of the crisis, but even of the action which led up
to it? Good critics--writers who have criticised Shakespeare's dramas
from within, instead of applying to them some standard ready-made by
themselves or derived from dramas and a theatre of quite other kinds
than his--have held that some of his greatest tragedies fall off in the
Fourth Act, and that one or two never wholly recover themselves. And I
believe most readers would find, if they examined their impressions,
that to their minds _Julius Caesar_, _Hamlet_, _King Lear_ and _Macbeth_
have all a tendency to 'drag' in this section of the play, and that the
first and perhaps also the last of these four fail even in the
catastrophe to reach the height of the greatest scenes that have
preceded the Fourth Act. I will not ask how far these impressions are
justified. The difficulties in question will become clearer and will
gain in interest if we look rather at the means which have been employed
to meet them, and which certainly have in part, at least, overcome them.

(_a_) The first of these is always strikingly effective, sometimes
marvellously so. The crisis in which the ascending force reaches its
zenith is followed quickly, or even without the slightest pause, by a
reverse or counter-blow not less emphatic and in some cases even more
exciting. And the effect is to make us feel a sudden and tragic change
in the direction of the movement, which, after ascending more or less
gradually, now turns sharply downward. To the assassination of Caesar
(III. i.) succeeds the scene in the Forum (III. ii.), where Antony
carries the people away in a storm of sympathy with the dead man and of
fury against the conspirators. We have hardly realised their victory
before we are forced to anticipate their ultimate defeat and to take the
liveliest interest in their chief antagonist. In _Hamlet_ the thrilling
success of the play-scene (III. ii.) is met and undone at once by the
counter-stroke of Hamlet's failure to take vengeance (III. iii.) and his
misfortune in killing Polonius (III. iv.). Coriolanus has no sooner
gained the consulship than he is excited to frenzy by the tribunes and
driven into exile. On the marriage of Romeo follows immediately the
brawl which leads to Mercutio's death and the banishment of the hero
(II. vi. and III. i.). In all of these instances excepting that of
_Hamlet_ the scene of the counter-stroke is at least as exciting as that
of the crisis, perhaps more so. Most people, if asked to mention the
scene that occupies the _centre_ of the action in _Julius Caesar_ and in
_Coriolanus_, would mention the scenes of Antony's speech and
Coriolanus' banishment. Thus that apparently necessary pause in the
action does not, in any of these dramas, come directly after the crisis.
It is deferred; and in several cases it is by various devices deferred
for some little time; _e.g._ in _Romeo and Juliet_ till the hero has
left Verona, and Juliet is told that her marriage with Paris is to take
place 'next Thursday morn' (end of Act III.); in _Macbeth_ till the
murder of Duncan has been followed by that of Banquo, and this by the
banquet-scene. Hence the point where this pause occurs is very rarely
reached before the end of the Third Act.

(_b_) Either at this point, or in the scene of the counter-stroke which
precedes it, we sometimes find a peculiar effect. We are reminded of the
state of affairs in which the conflict began. The opening of _Julius
Caesar_ warned us that, among a people so unstable and so easily led
this way or that, the enterprise of Brutus is hopeless; the days of the
Republic are done. In the scene of Antony's speech we see this same
people again. At the beginning of _Antony and Cleopatra_ the hero is
about to leave Cleopatra for Rome. Where the play takes, as it were, a
fresh start after the crisis, he leaves Octavia for Egypt. In _Hamlet_,
when the counter-stroke succeeds to the crisis, the Ghost, who had
appeared in the opening scenes, reappears. Macbeth's action in the first
part of the tragedy followed on the prediction of the Witches who
promised him the throne. When the action moves forward again after the
banquet-scene the Witches appear once more, and make those fresh
promises which again drive him forward. This repetition of a first
effect produces a fateful feeling. It generally also stimulates
expectation as to the new movement about to begin. In _Macbeth_ the
scene is, in addition, of the greatest consequence from the purely
theatrical point of view.

(_c_) It has yet another function. It shows, in Macbeth's furious
irritability and purposeless savagery, the internal reaction which
accompanies the outward decline of his fortunes. And in other plays also
the exhibition of such inner changes forms a means by which interest is
sustained in this difficult section of a tragedy. There is no point in
_Hamlet_ where we feel more hopeless than that where the hero, having
missed his chance, moralises over his irresolution and determines to
cherish now only thoughts of blood, and then departs without an effort
for England. One purpose, again, of the quarrel-scene between Brutus and
Cassius (IV. iii), as also of the appearance of Caesar's ghost just
afterwards, is to indicate the inward changes. Otherwise the
introduction of this famous and wonderful scene can hardly be defended
on strictly dramatic grounds. No one would consent to part with it, and
it is invaluable in sustaining interest during the progress of the
reaction, but it is an episode, the removal of which would not affect
the actual sequence of events (unless we may hold that, but for the
emotion caused by the quarrel and reconciliation, Cassius would not have
allowed Brutus to overcome his objection to the fatal policy of offering
battle at Philippi).

(_d_) The quarrel-scene illustrates yet another favourite expedient. In
this section of a tragedy Shakespeare often appeals to an emotion
different from any of those excited in the first half of the play, and
so provides novelty and generally also relief. As a rule this new
emotion is pathetic; and the pathos is not terrible or lacerating, but,
even if painful, is accompanied by the sense of beauty and by an outflow
of admiration or affection, which come with an inexpressible sweetness
after the tension of the crisis and the first counter-stroke. So it is
with the reconciliation of Brutus and Cassius, and the arrival of the
news of Portia's death. The most famous instance of this effect is the
scene (IV. vii.) where Lear wakes from sleep and finds Cordelia bending
over him, perhaps the most tear-compelling passage in literature.
Another is the short scene (IV. ii.) in which the talk of Lady Macduff
and her little boy is interrupted by the entrance of the murderers, a
passage of touching beauty and heroism. Another is the introduction of
Ophelia in her madness (twice in different parts of IV. v.), where the
effect, though intensely pathetic, is beautiful and moving rather than
harrowing; and this effect is repeated in a softer tone in the
description of Ophelia's death (end of Act IV.). And in _Othello_ the
passage where pathos of _this_ kind reaches its height is certainly that
where Desdemona and Emilia converse, and the willow-song is sung, on the
eve of the catastrophe (IV. iii.).

(_e_) Sometimes, again, in this section of a tragedy we find humorous or
semi-humorous passages. On the whole such passages occur most frequently
in the early or middle part of the play, which naturally grows more
sombre as it nears the close; but their occasional introduction in the
Fourth Act, and even later, affords variety and relief, and also
heightens by contrast the tragic feelings. For example, there is a touch
of comedy in the conversation of Lady Macduff with her little boy.
Purely and delightfully humorous are the talk and behaviour of the
servants in that admirable scene where Coriolanus comes disguised in
mean apparel to the house of Aufidius (IV. v.); of a more mingled kind
is the effect of the discussion between Menenius and the sentinels in V.
ii.; and in the very middle of the supreme scene between the hero,
Volumnia and Virgilia, little Marcius makes us burst out laughing (V.
iii.) A little before the catastrophe in _Hamlet_ comes the grave-digger
passage, a passage ever welcome, but of a length which could hardly be
defended on purely dramatic grounds; and still later, occupying some
hundred and twenty lines of the very last scene, we have the chatter of
Osric with Hamlet's mockery of it. But the acme of audacity is reached
in _Antony and Cleopatra_, where, quite close to the end, the old
countryman who brings the asps to Cleopatra discourses on the virtues
and vices of the worm, and where his last words, 'Yes, forsooth: I wish
you joy o' the worm,' are followed, without the intervention of a line,
by the glorious speech,

     Give me my robe; put on my crown; I have
     Immortal longings in me....

In some of the instances of pathos or humour just mentioned we have been
brought to that part of the play which immediately precedes, or even
contains, the catastrophe. And I will add at once three remarks which
refer specially to this final section of a tragedy.

(_f_) In several plays Shakespeare makes here an appeal which in his own
time was evidently powerful: he introduces scenes of battle. This is the
case in _Richard III._, _Julius Caesar_, _King Lear_, _Macbeth_ and
_Antony and Cleopatra_. Richard, Brutus and Cassius, and Macbeth die on
the battlefield. Even if his use of this expedient were not enough to
show that battle-scenes were extremely popular in the Elizabethan
theatre, we know it from other sources. It is a curious comment on the
futility of our spectacular effects that in our theatre these scenes, in
which we strive after an 'illusion' of which the Elizabethans never
dreamt, produce comparatively little excitement, and to many spectators
are even somewhat distasteful.[22] And although some of them thrill the
imagination of the reader, they rarely, I think, quite satisfy the
_dramatic_ sense. Perhaps this is partly because a battle is not the
most favourable place for the exhibition of tragic character; and it is
worth notice that Brutus, Cassius and Antony do not die fighting, but
commit suicide after defeat. The actual battle, however, does make us
feel the greatness of Antony, and still more does it help us to regard
Richard and Macbeth in their day of doom as heroes, and to mingle
sympathy and enthusiastic admiration with desire for their defeat.

(_g_) In some of the tragedies, again, an expedient is used, which
Freytag has pointed out (though he sometimes finds it, I think, where it
is not really employed). Shakespeare very rarely makes the least attempt
to surprise by his catastrophes. They are felt to be inevitable, though
the precise way in which they will be brought about is not, of course,
foreseen. Occasionally, however, where we dread the catastrophe because
we love the hero, a moment occurs, just before it, in which a gleam of
false hope lights up the darkening scene; and, though we know it is
false, it affects us. Far the most remarkable example is to be found in
the final Act of _King Lear_. Here the victory of Edgar and the deaths
of Edmund and the two sisters have almost made us forget the design on
the lives of Lear and Cordelia. Even when we are reminded of it there is
still room for hope that Edgar, who rushes away to the prison, will be
in time to save them; and, however familiar we are with the play, the
sudden entrance of Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms, comes on us
with a shock. Much slighter, but quite perceptible, is the effect of
Antony's victory on land, and of the last outburst of pride and joy as
he and Cleopatra meet (IV. viii.). The frank apology of Hamlet to
Laertes, their reconciliation, and a delusive appearance of quiet and
even confident firmness in the tone of the hero's conversation with
Horatio, almost blind us to our better knowledge, and give to the
catastrophe an added pain. Those in the audience who are ignorant of
_Macbeth_, and who take more simply than most readers now can do the
mysterious prophecies concerning Birnam Wood and the man not born of
woman, feel, I imagine, just before the catastrophe, a false fear that
the hero may yet escape.

(_h_) I will mention only one point more. In some cases Shakespeare
spreads the catastrophe out, so to speak, over a considerable space, and
thus shortens that difficult section which has to show the development
of the counter-action. This is possible only where there is, besides the
hero, some character who engages our interest in the highest degree, and
with whose fate his own is bound up. Thus the murder of Desdemona is
separated by some distance from the death of Othello. The most
impressive scene in _Macbeth_, after that of Duncan's murder, is the
sleep-walking scene; and it may truly, if not literally, be said to show
the catastrophe of Lady Macbeth. Yet it is the opening scene of the
Fifth Act, and a number of scenes in which Macbeth's fate is still
approaching intervene before the close. Finally, in _Antony and
Cleopatra_ the heroine equals the hero in importance, and here the death
of Antony actually occurs in the Fourth Act, and the whole of the Fifth
is devoted to Cleopatra.

       *       *       *       *       *

Let us now turn to _Othello_ and consider briefly its exceptional scheme
of construction. The advantage of this scheme is obvious. In the second
half of the tragedy there is no danger of 'dragging,' of any awkward
pause, any undue lowering of pitch, any need of scenes which, however
fine, are more or less episodic. The tension is extreme, and it is
relaxed only for brief intervals to permit of some slight relief. From
the moment when Iago begins to poison Othello's mind we hold our breath.
_Othello_ from this point onwards is certainly the most exciting of
Shakespeare's plays, unless possibly _Macbeth_ in its first part may be
held to rival it. And _Othello_ is such a masterpiece that we are
scarcely conscious of any disadvantage attending its method of
construction, and may even wonder why Shakespeare employed this
method--at any rate in its purity--in this tragedy alone. Nor is it any
answer to say that it would not elsewhere have suited his material. Even
if this be granted, how was it that he only once chose a story to which
this method was appropriate? To his eyes, or for his instinct, there
must have been some disadvantage in it. And dangers in it are in fact
not hard to see.

In the first place, where the conflict develops very slowly, or, as in
_Othello_, remains in a state of incubation during the first part of a
tragedy, that part cannot produce the tension proper to the
corresponding part of a tragedy like _Macbeth_, and may even run the
risk of being somewhat flat. This seems obvious, and it is none the less
true because in _Othello_ the difficulty is overcome. We may even see
that in _Othello_ a difficulty was felt. The First Act is full of stir,
but it is so because Shakespeare has filled it with a kind of
preliminary conflict between the hero and Brabantio,--a personage who
then vanishes from the stage. The long first scene of the Second Act is
largely occupied with mere conversations, artfully drawn out to
dimensions which can scarcely be considered essential to the plot. These
expedients are fully justified by their success, and nothing more
consummate in their way is to be found in Shakespeare than Othello's
speech to the Senate and Iago's two talks with Roderigo. But the fact
that Shakespeare can make a plan succeed does not show that the plan is,
abstractedly considered, a good plan; and if the scheme of construction
in _Othello_ were placed, in the shape of a mere outline, before a
play-wright ignorant of the actual drama, he would certainly, I believe,
feel grave misgivings about the first half of the play.

There is a second difficulty in the scheme. When the middle of the
tragedy is reached, the audience is not what it was at the beginning. It
has been attending for some time, and has been through a certain amount
of agitation. The extreme tension which now arises may therefore easily
tire and displease it, all the more if the matter which produces the
tension is very painful, if the catastrophe is not less so, and if the
limits of the remainder of the play (not to speak of any other
consideration) permit of very little relief. It is one thing to watch
the scene of Duncan's assassination at the beginning of the Second Act,
and another thing to watch the murder of Desdemona at the beginning of
the Fifth. If Shakespeare has wholly avoided this difficulty in
_Othello_, it is by treating the first part of the play in such a manner
that the sympathies excited are predominantly pleasant and therefore not
exhausting. The scene in the Council Chamber, and the scene of the
reunion at Cyprus, give almost unmixed happiness to the audience;
however repulsive Iago may be, the humour of his gulling of Roderigo is
agreeable; even the scene of Cassio's intoxication is not, on the whole,
painful. Hence we come to the great temptation-scene, where the conflict
emerges into life (III. iii.), with nerves unshaken and feelings much
fresher than those with which we greet the banquet-scene in _Macbeth_
(III. iv.), or the first of the storm-scenes in _King Lear_ (III. i.).
The same skill may be observed in _Antony and Cleopatra_, where, as we
saw, the second half of the tragedy is the more exciting. But, again,
the success due to Shakespeare's skill does not show that the scheme of
construction is free from a characteristic danger; and on the whole it
would appear to be best fitted for a plot which, though it may cause
painful agitation as it nears the end, actually ends with a solution
instead of a catastrophe.

But for Shakespeare's scanty use of this method there may have been a
deeper, though probably an unconscious, reason. The method suits a plot
based on intrigue. It may produce intense suspense. It may stir most
powerfully the tragic feelings of pity and fear. And it throws into
relief that aspect of tragedy in which great or beautiful lives seem
caught in the net of fate. But it is apt to be less favourable to the
exhibition of character, to show less clearly how an act returns upon
the agent, and to produce less strongly the impression of an inexorable
order working in the passions and actions of men, and labouring through
their agony and waste towards good. Now, it seems clear from his
tragedies that what appealed most to Shakespeare was this latter class
of effects. I do not ask here whether _Othello_ fails to produce, in the
same degree as the other tragedies, these impressions; but Shakespeare's
preference for them may have been one reason why he habitually chose a
scheme of construction which produces in the final Acts but little of
strained suspense, and presents the catastrophe as a thing foreseen and
following with a psychological and moral necessity on the action
exhibited in the first part of the tragedy.


The more minute details of construction cannot well be examined here,
and I will not pursue the subject further. But its discussion suggests a
question which will have occurred to some of my hearers. They may have
asked themselves whether I have not used the words 'art' and 'device'
and 'expedient' and 'method' too boldly, as though Shakespeare were a
conscious artist, and not rather a writer who constructed in obedience
to an extraordinary dramatic instinct, as he composed mainly by
inspiration. And a brief explanation on this head will enable me to
allude to a few more points, chiefly of construction, which are not too
technical for a lecture.

In speaking, for convenience, of devices and expedients, I did not
intend to imply that Shakespeare always deliberately aimed at the
effects which he produced. But _no_ artist always does this, and I see
no reason to doubt that Shakespeare often did it, or to suppose that his
method of constructing and composing differed, except in degree, from
that of the most 'conscious' of artists. The antithesis of art and
inspiration, though not meaningless, is often most misleading.
Inspiration is surely not incompatible with considerate workmanship. The
two may be severed, but they need not be so, and where a genuinely
poetic result is being produced they cannot be so. The glow of a first
conception must in some measure survive or rekindle itself in the work
of planning and executing; and what is called a technical expedient may
'come' to a man with as sudden a glory as a splendid image. Verse may be
easy and unpremeditated, as Milton says his was, and yet many a word in
it may be changed many a time, and the last change be more 'inspired'
than the original. The difference between poets in these matters is no
doubt considerable, and sometimes important, but it can only be a
difference of less and more. It is probable that Shakespeare often wrote
fluently, for Jonson (a better authority than Heminge and Condell) says
so; and for anything we can tell he may also have constructed with
unusual readiness. But we know that he revised and re-wrote (for
instance in _Love's Labour's Lost_ and _Romeo and Juliet_ and _Hamlet_);
it is almost impossible that he can have worked out the plots of his
best plays without much reflection and many experiments; and it appears
to me scarcely more possible to mistake the signs of deliberate care in
some of his famous speeches. If a 'conscious artist' means one who holds
his work away from him, scrutinises and judges it, and, if need be,
alters it and alters it till it comes as near satisfying him as he can
make it, I am sure that Shakespeare frequently employed such conscious
art. If it means, again, an artist who consciously aims at the effects
he produces, what ground have we for doubting that he frequently
employed such art, though probably less frequently than a good many
other poets?

But perhaps the notion of a 'conscious artist' in drama is that of one
who studies the theory of the art, and even writes with an eye to its
'rules.' And we know it was long a favourite idea that Shakespeare was
totally ignorant of the 'rules.' Yet this is quite incredible. The
rules referred to, such as they were, were not buried in Aristotle's
Greek nor even hidden away in Italian treatises. He could find pretty
well all of them in a book so current and famous as Sidney's _Defence
of Poetry_. Even if we suppose that he refused to open this book
(which is most unlikely), how could he possibly remain ignorant of the
rules in a society of actors and dramatists and amateurs who must have
been incessantly talking about plays and play-writing, and some of
whom were ardent champions of the rules and full of contempt for the
lawlessness of the popular drama? Who can doubt that at the Mermaid
Shakespeare heard from Jonson's lips much more censure of his offences
against 'art' than Jonson ever confided to Drummond or to paper? And
is it not most probable that those battles between the two which
Fuller imagines, were waged often on the field of dramatic criticism?
If Shakespeare, then, broke some of the 'rules,' it was not from
ignorance. Probably he refused, on grounds of art itself, to trouble
himself with rules derived from forms of drama long extinct. And it is
not unlikely that he was little interested in theory as such, and more
than likely that he was impatient of pedantic distinctions between
'pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical,
tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem
unlimited.' But that would not prove that he never reflected on his
art, or could not explain, if he cared to, what _he_ thought would be
good general rules for the drama of his own time. He could give advice
about play-acting. Why should we suppose that he could not give advice
about play-making?

Still Shakespeare, though in some considerable degree a 'conscious'
artist, frequently sins against art; and if his sins were not due to
ignorance or inspiration, they must be accounted for otherwise. Neither
can there be much doubt about their causes (for they have more than one
cause), as we shall see if we take some illustrations of the defects

Among these are not to be reckoned certain things which in dramas
written at the present time would rightly be counted defects. There are,
for example, in most Elizabethan plays peculiarities of construction
which would injure a play written for our stage but were perfectly
well-fitted for that very different stage,--a stage on which again some
of the best-constructed plays of our time would appear absurdly faulty.
Or take the charge of improbability. Shakespeare certainly has
improbabilities which are defects. They are most frequent in the winding
up of his comedies (and how many comedies are there in the world which
end satisfactorily?). But his improbabilities are rarely psychological,
and in some of his plays there occurs one kind of improbability which is
no defect, but simply a characteristic which has lost in our day much of
its former attraction. I mean that the story, in most of the comedies
and many of the tragedies of the Elizabethans, was _intended_ to be
strange and wonderful. These plays were tales of romance dramatised, and
they were meant in part to satisfy the same love of wonder to which the
romances appealed. It is no defect in the Arthurian legends, or the old
French romances, or many of the stories in the _Decameron_, that they
are improbable: it is a virtue. To criticise them as though they were of
the same species as a realistic novel, is, we should all say, merely
stupid. Is it anything else to criticise in the same way _Twelfth Night_
or _As You Like It_? And so, even when the difference between comedy and
tragedy is allowed for, the improbability of the opening of _King Lear_,
so often censured, is no defect. It is not out of character, it is only
extremely unusual and strange. But it was meant to be so; like the
marriage of the black Othello with Desdemona, the Venetian senator's

To come then to real defects, (_a_) one may be found in places where
Shakespeare strings together a number of scenes, some very short, in
which the _dramatis personae_ are frequently changed; as though a
novelist were to tell his story in a succession of short chapters, in
which he flitted from one group of his characters to another. This
method shows itself here and there in the pure tragedies (_e.g._ in the
last Act of _Macbeth_), but it appears most decidedly where the
historical material was undramatic, as in the middle part of _Antony and
Cleopatra_. It was made possible by the absence of scenery, and
doubtless Shakespeare used it because it was the easiest way out of a
difficulty. But, considered abstractedly, it is a defective method, and,
even as used by Shakespeare, it sometimes reminds us of the merely
narrative arrangement common in plays before his time.

(_b_) We may take next the introduction or excessive development of
matter neither required by the plot nor essential to the exhibition of
character: _e.g._ the references in _Hamlet_ to theatre-quarrels of the
day, and the length of the player's speech and also of Hamlet's
directions to him respecting the delivery of the lines to be inserted in
the 'Murder of Gonzago.' All this was probably of great interest at the
time when _Hamlet_ was first presented; most of it we should be very
sorry to miss; some of it seems to bring us close to Shakespeare
himself; but who can defend it from the point of view of constructive

(_c_) Again, we may look at Shakespeare's soliloquies. It will be agreed
that in listening to a soliloquy we ought never to feel that we are
being addressed. And in this respect, as in others, many of the
soliloquies are master-pieces. But certainly in some the purpose of
giving information lies bare, and in one or two the actor openly speaks
to the audience. Such faults are found chiefly in the early plays,
though there is a glaring instance at the end of Belarius's speech in
_Cymbeline_ (III. iii. 99 ff.), and even in the mature tragedies
something of this kind may be traced. Let anyone compare, for example,
Edmund's soliloquy in _King Lear_, I. ii., 'This is the excellent
foppery of the world,' with Edgar's in II. iii., and he will be
conscious that in the latter the purpose of giving information is
imperfectly disguised.[23]

(_d_) It cannot be denied, further, that in many of Shakespeare's plays,
if not in all, there are inconsistencies and contradictions, and also
that questions are suggested to the reader which it is impossible for
him to answer with certainty. For instance, some of the indications of
the lapse of time between Othello's marriage and the events of the later
Acts flatly contradict one another; and it is impossible to make out
whether Hamlet was at Court or at the University when his father was
murdered. But it should be noticed that often what seems a defect of
this latter kind is not really a defect. For instance, the difficulty
about Hamlet's age (even if it cannot be resolved by the text alone) did
not exist for Shakespeare's audience. The moment Burbage entered it must
have been clear whether the hero was twenty or thirty. And in like
manner many questions of dramatic interpretation which trouble us could
never have arisen when the plays were first produced, for the actor
would be instructed by the author how to render any critical and
possibly ambiguous passage. (I have heard it remarked, and the remark I
believe is just, that Shakespeare seems to have relied on such
instructions less than most of his contemporaries; one fact out of
several which might be adduced to prove that he did not regard his plays
as mere stage-dramas of the moment.)

(_e_) To turn to another field, the early critics were no doubt often
provokingly wrong when they censured the language of particular passages
in Shakespeare as obscure, inflated, tasteless, or 'pestered with
metaphors'; but they were surely right in the general statement that his
language often shows these faults. And this is a subject which later
criticism has never fairly faced and examined.

(_f_) Once more, to say that Shakespeare makes all his serious
characters talk alike,[24] and that he constantly speaks through the
mouths of his _dramatis personae_ without regard to their individual
natures, would be to exaggerate absurdly; but it is true that in his
earlier plays these faults are traceable in some degree, and even in
_Hamlet_ there are striking passages where dramatic appropriateness is
sacrificed to some other object. When Laertes speaks the lines

     For nature, crescent, does not grow alone
     In thews and bulk,

who can help feeling that Shakespeare is speaking rather than Laertes?
Or when the player-king discourses for more than twenty lines on the
instability of human purpose, and when King Claudius afterwards insists
to Laertes on the same subject at almost equal length, who does not see
that Shakespeare, thinking but little of dramatic fitness, wishes in
part simply to write poetry, and partly to impress on the audience
thoughts which will help them to understand, not the player-king nor yet
King Claudius, but Hamlet himself, who, on his side,--and here quite in
character--has already enlarged on the same topic in the most famous of
his soliloquies?

(_g_) Lastly, like nearly all the dramatists of his day and of times
much earlier, Shakespeare was fond of 'gnomic' passages, and introduces
them probably not more freely than his readers like, but more freely
than, I suppose, a good play-wright now would care to do. These
passages, it may be observed, are frequently rhymed (_e.g._ _Othello_,
I. iii. 201 ff., II. i. 149 ff.). Sometimes they were printed in early
editions with inverted commas round them, as are in the First Quarto
Polonius's 'few precepts' to Laertes.

If now we ask whence defects like these arose, we shall observe that
some of them are shared by the majority of Shakespeare's contemporaries,
and abound in the dramas immediately preceding his time. They are
characteristics of an art still undeveloped, and, no doubt, were not
perceived to be defects. But though it is quite probable that in regard
to one or two kinds of imperfection (such as the superabundance of
'gnomic' passages) Shakespeare himself erred thus ignorantly, it is very
unlikely that in most cases he did so, unless in the first years of his
career of authorship. And certainly he never can have thought it
artistic to leave inconsistencies, obscurities, or passages of bombast
in his work. Most of the defects in his writings must be due to
indifference or want of care.

I do not say that all were so. In regard, for example, to his occasional
bombast and other errors of diction, it seems hardly doubtful that his
perception was sometimes at fault, and that, though he used the English
language like no one else, he had not that _sureness_ of taste in words
which has been shown by some much smaller writers. And it seems not
unlikely that here he suffered from his comparative want of
'learning,'--that is, of familiarity with the great writers of
antiquity. But nine-tenths of his defects are not, I believe, the errors
of an inspired genius, ignorant of art, but the sins of a great but
negligent artist. He was often, no doubt, over-worked and pressed for
time. He knew that the immense majority of his audience were incapable
of distinguishing between rough and finished work. He often felt the
degradation of having to live by pleasing them. Probably in hours of
depression he was quite indifferent to fame, and perhaps in another mood
the whole business of play-writing seemed to him a little thing. None of
these thoughts and feelings influenced him when his subject had caught
hold of him. To imagine that _then_ he 'winged his roving flight' for
'gain' or 'glory,' or wrote from any cause on earth but the necessity of
expression, with all its pains and raptures, is mere folly. He was
possessed: his mind must have been in a white heat: he worked, no doubt,
with the _furia_ of Michael Angelo. And if he did not succeed at
once--and how can even he have always done so?--he returned to the
matter again and again. Such things as the scenes of Duncan's murder or
Othello's temptation, such speeches as those of the Duke to Claudio and
of Claudio to his sister about death, were not composed in an hour and
tossed aside; and if they have defects, they have not what Shakespeare
thought defects. Nor is it possible that his astonishingly individual
conceptions of character can have been struck out at a heat: prolonged
and repeated thought must have gone to them. But of small
inconsistencies in the plot he was often quite careless. He seems to
have finished off some of his comedies with a hasty and even
contemptuous indifference, as if it mattered nothing how the people got
married, or even who married whom, so long as enough were married
somehow. And often, when he came to parts of his scheme that were
necessary but not interesting to him, he wrote with a slack hand, like a
craftsman of genius who knows that his natural gift and acquired skill
will turn out something more than good enough for his audience: wrote
probably fluently but certainly negligently, sometimes only half saying
what he meant, and sometimes saying the opposite, and now and then, when
passion was required, lapsing into bombast because he knew he must
heighten his style but would not take the trouble to inflame his
imagination. It may truly be said that what injures such passages is not
inspiration, but the want of it. But, as they are mostly passages where
no poet could expect to be inspired, it is even more true to say that
here Shakespeare lacked the conscience of the artist who is determined
to make everything as good as he can. Such poets as Milton, Pope,
Tennyson, habitually show this conscience. They left probably scarcely
anything that they felt they could improve. No one could dream of saying
that of Shakespeare.

Hence comes what is perhaps the chief difficulty in interpreting his
works. Where his power or art is fully exerted it really does resemble
that of nature. It organises and vitalises its product from the centre
outward to the minutest markings on the surface, so that when you turn
upon it the most searching light you can command, when you dissect it
and apply to it the test of a microscope, still you find in it nothing
formless, general or vague, but everywhere structure, character,
individuality. In this his great things, which seem to come whenever
they are wanted, have no companions in literature except the few
greatest things in Dante; and it is a fatal error to allow his
carelessness elsewhere to make one doubt whether here one is not seeking
more than can be found. It is very possible to look for subtlety in the
wrong places in Shakespeare, but in the right places it is not possible
to find too much. But then this characteristic, which is one source of
his endless attraction, is also a source of perplexity. For in those
parts of his plays which show him neither in his most intense nor in his
most negligent mood, we are often unable to decide whether something
that seems inconsistent, indistinct, feeble, exaggerated, is really so,
or whether it was definitely meant to be as it is, and has an intention
which we ought to be able to divine; whether, for example, we have
before us some unusual trait in character, some abnormal movement of
mind, only surprising to us because we understand so very much less of
human nature than Shakespeare did, or whether he wanted to get his work
done and made a slip, or in using an old play adopted hastily something
that would not square with his own conception, or even refused to
trouble himself with minutiae which we notice only because we study him,
but which nobody ever notices in a stage performance. We know well
enough what Shakespeare is doing when at the end of _Measure for
Measure_ he marries Isabella to the Duke--and a scandalous proceeding it
is; but who can ever feel sure that the doubts which vex him as to some
not unimportant points in _Hamlet_ are due to his own want of eyesight
or to Shakespeare's want of care?


[Footnote 16: The famous critics of the Romantic Revival seem to have
paid very little attention to this subject. Mr. R.G. Moulton has written
an interesting book on _Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist_ (1885). In
parts of my analysis I am much indebted to Gustav Freytag's _Technik des
Dramas_, a book which deserves to be much better known than it appears
to be to Englishmen interested in the drama. I may add, for the benefit
of classical scholars, that Freytag has a chapter on Sophocles. The
reader of his book will easily distinguish, if he cares to, the places
where I follow Freytag, those where I differ from him, and those where I
write in independence of him. I may add that in speaking of construction
I have thought it best to assume in my hearers no previous knowledge of
the subject; that I have not attempted to discuss how much of what is
said of Shakespeare would apply also to other dramatists; and that I
have illustrated from the tragedies generally, not only from the chosen

[Footnote 17: This word throughout the lecture bears the sense it has
here, which, of course, is not its usual dramatic sense.]

[Footnote 18: In the same way a comedy will consist of three parts,
showing the 'situation,' the 'complication' or 'entanglement,' and the
_dénouement_ or 'solution.']

[Footnote 19: It is possible, of course, to open the tragedy with the
conflict already begun, but Shakespeare never does so.]

[Footnote 20: When the subject comes from English history, and
especially when the play forms one of a series, some knowledge may be
assumed. So in _Richard III._ Even in _Richard II._ not a little
knowledge seems to be assumed, and this fact points to the existence of
a popular play on the earlier part of Richard's reign. Such a play
exists, though it is not clear that it is a genuine Elizabethan work.
See the _Jahrbuch d. deutschen Sh.-gesellschaft_ for 1899.]

[Footnote 21: This is one of several reasons why many people enjoy
reading him, who, on the whole, dislike reading plays. A main cause of
this very general dislike is that the reader has not a lively enough
imagination to carry him with pleasure through the exposition, though in
the theatre, where his imagination is helped, he would experience little

[Footnote 22: The end of _Richard III._ is perhaps an exception.]

[Footnote 23: I do not discuss the general question of the justification
of soliloquy, for it concerns not Shakespeare only, but practically all
dramatists down to quite recent times. I will only remark that neither
soliloquy nor the use of verse can be condemned on the mere ground that
they are 'unnatural.' No dramatic language is 'natural'; _all_ dramatic
language is idealised. So that the question as to soliloquy must be one
as to the degree of idealisation and the balance of advantages and
disadvantages. (Since this lecture was written I have read some remarks
on Shakespeare's soliloquies to much the same effect by E. Kilian in the
_Jahrbuch d. deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft_ for 1903.)]

[Footnote 24: If by this we mean that these characters all speak what is
recognisably Shakespeare's style, of course it is true; but it is no
accusation. Nor does it follow that they all speak alike; and in fact
they are far from doing so.]




Before we come to-day to _Hamlet_, the first of our four tragedies, a
few remarks must be made on their probable place in Shakespeare's
literary career. But I shall say no more than seems necessary for our
restricted purpose, and, therefore, for the most part shall merely be
stating widely accepted results of investigation, without going into the
evidence on which they rest.[25]

Shakespeare's tragedies fall into two distinct groups, and these groups
are separated by a considerable interval. He wrote tragedy--pure, like
_Romeo and Juliet_; historical, like _Richard III._--in the early years
of his career of authorship, when he was also writing such comedies as
_Love's Labour's Lost_ and the _Midsummer-Night's Dream_. Then came a
time, lasting some half-dozen years, during which he composed the most
mature and humorous of his English History plays (the plays with
Falstaff in them), and the best of his romantic comedies (the plays with
Beatrice and Jaques and Viola in them). There are no tragedies belonging
to these half-dozen years, nor any dramas approaching tragedy. But now,
from about 1601 to about 1608, comes tragedy after tragedy--_Julius
Caesar_, _Hamlet_, _Othello_, _King Lear_, _Timon of Athens_, _Macbeth_,
_Antony and Cleopatra_ and _Coriolanus_; and their companions are plays
which cannot indeed be called tragedies, but certainly are not comedies
in the same sense as _As You Like It_ or the _Tempest_. These seven
years, accordingly, might, without much risk of misunderstanding, be
called Shakespeare's tragic period.[26] And after it he wrote no more
tragedies, but chiefly romances more serious and less sunny than _As You
Like It_, but not much less serene.

The existence of this distinct tragic period, of a time when the
dramatist seems to have been occupied almost exclusively with deep and
painful problems, has naturally helped to suggest the idea that the
'man' also, in these years of middle age, from thirty-seven to
forty-four, was heavily burdened in spirit; that Shakespeare turned to
tragedy not merely for change, or because he felt it to be the greatest
form of drama and felt himself equal to it, but also because the world
had come to look dark and terrible to him; and even that the railings of
Thersites and the maledictions of Timon express his own contempt and
hatred for mankind. Discussion of this large and difficult subject,
however, is not necessary to the dramatic appreciation of any of his
works, and I shall say nothing of it here, but shall pass on at once to
draw attention to certain stages and changes which may be observed
within the tragic period. For this purpose too it is needless to raise
any question as to the respective chronological positions of _Othello_,
_King Lear_ and _Macbeth_. What is important is also generally admitted:
that _Julius Caesar_ and _Hamlet_ precede these plays, and that _Antony
and Cleopatra_ and _Coriolanus_ follow them.[27]

If we consider the tragedies first on the side of their substance, we
find at once an obvious difference between the first two and the
remainder. Both Brutus and Hamlet are highly intellectual by nature and
reflective by habit. Both may even be called, in a popular sense,
philosophic; Brutus may be called so in a stricter sense. Each, being
also a 'good' man, shows accordingly, when placed in critical
circumstances, a sensitive and almost painful anxiety to do right. And
though they fail--of course in quite different ways--to deal
successfully with these circumstances, the failure in each case is
connected rather with their intellectual nature and reflective habit
than with any yielding to passion. Hence the name 'tragedy of thought,'
which Schlegel gave to _Hamlet_, may be given also, as in effect it has
been by Professor Dowden, to _Julius Caesar_. The later heroes, on the
other hand, Othello, Lear, Timon, Macbeth, Antony, Coriolanus, have, one
and all, passionate natures, and, speaking roughly, we may attribute the
tragic failure in each of these cases to passion. Partly for this
reason, the later plays are wilder and stormier than the first two. We
see a greater mass of human nature in commotion, and we see
Shakespeare's own powers exhibited on a larger scale. Finally,
examination would show that, in all these respects, the first tragedy,
_Julius Caesar_, is further removed from the later type than is the
second, _Hamlet_.

These two earlier works are both distinguished from most of the
succeeding tragedies in another though a kindred respect. Moral evil is
not so intently scrutinised or so fully displayed in them. In _Julius
Caesar_, we may almost say, everybody means well. In _Hamlet_, though we
have a villain, he is a small one. The murder which gives rise to the
action lies outside the play, and the centre of attention within the
play lies in the hero's efforts to do his duty. It seems clear that
Shakespeare's interest, since the early days when under Marlowe's
influence he wrote _Richard III._, has not been directed to the more
extreme or terrible forms of evil. But in the tragedies that follow
_Hamlet_ the presence of this interest is equally clear. In Iago, in the
'bad' people of _King Lear_, even in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, human
nature assumes shapes which inspire not mere sadness or repulsion but
horror and dismay. If in _Timon_ no monstrous cruelty is done, we still
watch ingratitude and selfishness so blank that they provoke a loathing
we never felt for Claudius; and in this play and _King Lear_ we can
fancy that we hear at times the _saeva indignatio_, if not the despair,
of Swift. This prevalence of abnormal or appalling forms of evil, side
by side with vehement passion, is another reason why the convulsion
depicted in these tragedies seems to come from a deeper source, and to
be vaster in extent, than the conflict in the two earlier plays. And
here again _Julius Caesar_ is further removed than _Hamlet_ from
_Othello_, _King Lear_, and _Macbeth_.

But in regard to this second point of difference a reservation must be
made, on which I will speak a little more fully, because, unlike the
matter hitherto touched on, its necessity seems hardly to have been
recognised. _All_ of the later tragedies may be called tragedies of
passion, but not all of them display these extreme forms of evil.
Neither of the last two does so. Antony and Coriolanus are, from one
point of view, victims of passion; but the passion that ruins Antony
also exalts him, he touches the infinite in it; and the pride and
self-will of Coriolanus, though terrible in bulk, are scarcely so in
quality; there is nothing base in them, and the huge creature whom they
destroy is a noble, even a lovable, being. Nor does either of these
dramas, though the earlier depicts a corrupt civilisation, include even
among the minor characters anyone who can be called villainous or
horrible. Consider, finally, the impression left on us at the close of
each. It is remarkable that this impression, though very strong, can
scarcely be called purely tragic; or, if we call it so, at least the
feeling of reconciliation which mingles with the obviously tragic
emotions is here exceptionally well-marked. The death of Antony, it will
be remembered, comes before the opening of the Fifth Act. The death of
Cleopatra, which closes the play, is greeted by the reader with sympathy
and admiration, even with exultation at the thought that she has foiled
Octavius; and these feelings are heightened by the deaths of Charmian
and Iras, heroically faithful to their mistress, as Emilia was to hers.
In _Coriolanus_ the feeling of reconciliation is even stronger. The
whole interest towards the close has been concentrated on the question
whether the hero will persist in his revengeful design of storming and
burning his native city, or whether better feelings will at last
overpower his resentment and pride. He stands on the edge of a crime
beside which, at least in outward dreadfulness, the slaughter of an
individual looks insignificant. And when, at the sound of his mother's
voice and the sight of his wife and child, nature asserts itself and he
gives way, although we know he will lose his life, we care little for
that: he has saved his soul. Our relief, and our exultation in the power
of goodness, are so great that the actual catastrophe which follows and
mingles sadness with these feelings leaves them but little diminished,
and as we close the book we feel, it seems to me, more as we do at the
close of _Cymbeline_ than as we do at the close of _Othello_. In saying
this I do not in the least mean to criticise _Coriolanus_. It is a much
nobler play as it stands than it would have been if Shakespeare had made
the hero persist, and we had seen him amid the flaming ruins of Rome,
awaking suddenly to the enormity of his deed and taking vengeance on
himself; but that would surely have been an ending more strictly tragic
than the close of Shakespeare's play. Whether this close was simply due
to his unwillingness to contradict his historical authority on a point
of such magnitude we need not ask. In any case _Coriolanus_ is, in more
than an outward sense, the end of his tragic period. It marks the
transition to his latest works, in which the powers of repentance and
forgiveness charm to rest the tempest raised by error and guilt.

If we turn now from the substance of the tragedies to their style and
versification, we find on the whole a corresponding difference between
the earlier and the later. The usual assignment of _Julius Caesar_, and
even of _Hamlet_, to the end of Shakespeare's Second Period--the period
of _Henry V._--is based mainly, we saw, on considerations of form. The
general style of the serious parts of the last plays from English
history is one of full, noble and comparatively equable eloquence. The
'honey-tongued' sweetness and beauty of Shakespeare's early writing, as
seen in _Romeo and Juliet_ or the _Midsummer-Night's Dream_, remain; the
ease and lucidity remain; but there is an accession of force and weight.
We find no great change from this style when we come to _Julius
Caesar_,[28] which may be taken to mark its culmination. At this point
in Shakespeare's literary development he reaches, if the phrase may be
pardoned, a limited perfection. Neither thought on the one side, nor
expression on the other, seems to have any tendency to outrun or contend
with its fellow. We receive an impression of easy mastery and complete
harmony, but not so strong an impression of inner power bursting into
outer life. Shakespeare's style is perhaps nowhere else so free from
defects, and yet almost every one of his subsequent plays contains
writing which is greater. To speak familiarly, we feel in _Julius
Caesar_ that, although not even Shakespeare could better the style he
has chosen, he has not let himself go.

In reading _Hamlet_ we have no such feeling, and in many parts (for
there is in the writing of _Hamlet_ an unusual variety[29]) we are
conscious of a decided change. The style in these parts is more rapid
and vehement, less equable and less simple; and there is a change of the
same kind in the versification. But on the whole the _type_ is the same
as in _Julius Caesar_, and the resemblance of the two plays is decidedly
more marked than the difference. If Hamlet's soliloquies, considered
simply as compositions, show a great change from Jaques's speech, 'All
the world's a stage,' and even from the soliloquies of Brutus, yet
_Hamlet_ (for instance in the hero's interview with his mother) is like
_Julius Caesar_, and unlike the later tragedies, in the fulness of its
eloquence, and passages like the following belong quite definitely to
the style of the Second Period:

     _Mar._ It faded on the crowing of the cock.
     Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
     Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
     The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
     And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
     The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
     No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
     So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

     _Hor._ So have I heard and do in part believe it.
     But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
     Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill.

This bewitching music is heard again in Hamlet's farewell to Horatio:

     If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
     Absent thee from felicity awhile,
     And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
     To tell my story.

But after _Hamlet_ this music is heard no more. It is followed by a
music vaster and deeper, but not the same.

The changes observable in _Hamlet_ are afterwards, and gradually, so
greatly developed that Shakespeare's style and versification at last
become almost new things. It is extremely difficult to illustrate this
briefly in a manner to which no just exception can be taken, for it is
almost impossible to find in two plays passages bearing a sufficiently
close resemblance to one another in occasion and sentiment. But I will
venture to put by the first of those quotations from _Hamlet_ this from

     _Dun._ This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
     Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
     Unto our gentle senses.

     _Ban._                 This guest of summer,
     The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
     By his loved mansionry, that the heaven's breath
     Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
     Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
     Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle;
     Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,
     The air is delicate;

and by the second quotation from _Hamlet_ this from _Antony and

     The miserable change now at my end
     Lament nor sorrow at; but please your thoughts
     In feeding them with those my former fortunes
     Wherein I lived, the greatest prince o' the world,
     The noblest; and do now not basely die,
     Not cowardly put off my helmet to
     My countryman,--a Roman by a Roman
     Valiantly vanquish'd. Now my spirit is going;
     I can no more.

It would be almost an impertinence to point out in detail how greatly
these two passages, and especially the second, differ in effect from
those in _Hamlet_, written perhaps five or six years earlier. The
versification, by the time we reach _Antony and Cleopatra_, has assumed
a new type; and although this change would appear comparatively slight
in a typical passage from _Othello_ or even from _King Lear_, its
approach through these plays to _Timon_ and _Macbeth_ can easily be
traced. It is accompanied by a similar change in diction and
construction. After _Hamlet_ the style, in the more emotional passages,
is heightened. It becomes grander, sometimes wilder, sometimes more
swelling, even tumid. It is also more concentrated, rapid, varied, and,
in construction, less regular, not seldom twisted or elliptical. It is,
therefore, not so easy and lucid, and in the more ordinary dialogue it
is sometimes involved and obscure, and from these and other causes
deficient in charm.[30] On the other hand, it is always full of life and
movement, and in great passages produces sudden, strange, electrifying
effects which are rarely found in earlier plays, and not so often even
in _Hamlet_. The more pervading effect of beauty gives place to what may
almost be called explosions of sublimity or pathos.

There is room for differences of taste and preference as regards the
style and versification of the end of Shakespeare's Second Period, and
those of the later tragedies and last romances. But readers who miss in
the latter the peculiar enchantment of the earlier will not deny that
the changes in form are in entire harmony with the inward changes. If
they object to passages where, to exaggerate a little, the sense has
rather to be discerned beyond the words than found in them, and if they
do not wholly enjoy the movement of so typical a speech as this,

     Yes, like enough, high-battled Caesar will
     Unstate his happiness, and be staged to the show,
     Against a sworder! I see men's judgements are
     A parcel of their fortunes; and things outward
     Do draw the inward quality after them,
     To suffer all alike. That he should dream,
     Knowing all measures, the full Caesar will
     Answer his emptiness! Caesar, thou hast subdued
     His judgement too,

they will admit that, in traversing the impatient throng of thoughts not
always completely embodied, their minds move through an astonishing
variety of ideas and experiences, and that a style less generally poetic
than that of _Hamlet_ is also a style more invariably dramatic. It may
be that, for the purposes of tragedy, the highest point was reached
during the progress of these changes, in the most critical passages of
_Othello_, _King Lear_ and _Macbeth_.[31]


Suppose you were to describe the plot of _Hamlet_ to a person quite
ignorant of the play, and suppose you were careful to tell your hearer
nothing about Hamlet's character, what impression would your sketch make
on him? Would he not exclaim: 'What a sensational story! Why, here are
some eight violent deaths, not to speak of adultery, a ghost, a mad
woman, and a fight in a grave! If I did not know that the play was
Shakespeare's, I should have thought it must have been one of those
early tragedies of blood and horror from which he is said to have
redeemed the stage'? And would he not then go on to ask: 'But why in the
world did not Hamlet obey the Ghost at once, and so save seven of those
eight lives?'

This exclamation and this question both show the same thing, that the
whole story turns upon the peculiar character of the hero. For without
this character the story would appear sensational and horrible; and yet
the actual _Hamlet_ is very far from being so, and even has a less
terrible effect than _Othello_, _King Lear_ or _Macbeth_. And again, if
we had no knowledge of this character, the story would hardly be
intelligible; it would at any rate at once suggest that wondering
question about the conduct of the hero; while the story of any of the
other three tragedies would sound plain enough and would raise no such
question. It is further very probable that the main change made by
Shakespeare in the story as already represented on the stage, lay in a
new conception of Hamlet's character and so of the cause of his delay.
And, lastly, when we examine the tragedy, we observe two things which
illustrate the same point. First, we find by the side of the hero no
other figure of tragic proportions, no one like Lady Macbeth or Iago, no
one even like Cordelia or Desdemona; so that, in Hamlet's absence, the
remaining characters could not yield a Shakespearean tragedy at all.
And, secondly, we find among them two, Laertes and Fortinbras, who are
evidently designed to throw the character of the hero into relief. Even
in the situations there is a curious parallelism; for Fortinbras, like
Hamlet, is the son of a king, lately dead, and succeeded by his brother;
and Laertes, like Hamlet, has a father slain, and feels bound to avenge
him. And with this parallelism in situation there is a strong contrast
in character; for both Fortinbras and Laertes possess in abundance the
very quality which the hero seems to lack, so that, as we read, we are
tempted to exclaim that either of them would have accomplished Hamlet's
task in a day. Naturally, then, the tragedy of _Hamlet_ with Hamlet left
out has become the symbol of extreme absurdity; while the character
itself has probably exerted a greater fascination, and certainly has
been the subject of more discussion, than any other in the whole
literature of the world.

Before, however, we approach the task of examining it, it is as well to
remind ourselves that the virtue of the play by no means wholly depends
on this most subtle creation. We are all aware of this, and if we were
not so the history of _Hamlet_, as a stage-play, might bring the fact
home to us. It is to-day the most popular of Shakespeare's tragedies on
our stage; and yet a large number, perhaps even the majority of the
spectators, though they may feel some mysterious attraction in the hero,
certainly do not question themselves about his character or the cause of
his delay, and would still find the play exceptionally effective, even
if he were an ordinary brave young man and the obstacles in his path
were purely external. And this has probably always been the case.
_Hamlet_ seems from the first to have been a favourite play; but until
late in the eighteenth century, I believe, scarcely a critic showed that
he perceived anything specially interesting in the character. Hanmer, in
1730, to be sure, remarks that 'there appears no reason at all in nature
why this young prince did not put the usurper to death as soon as
possible'; but it does not even cross his mind that this apparent
'absurdity' is odd and might possibly be due to some design on the part
of the poet. He simply explains the absurdity by observing that, if
Shakespeare had made the young man go 'naturally to work,' the play
would have come to an end at once! Johnson, in like manner, notices that
'Hamlet is, through the whole piece, rather an instrument than an
agent,' but it does not occur to him that this peculiar circumstance can
be anything but a defect in Shakespeare's management of the plot.
Seeing, they saw not. Henry Mackenzie, the author of _The Man of
Feeling_, was, it would seem, the first of our critics to feel the
'indescribable charm' of Hamlet, and to divine something of
Shakespeare's intention. 'We see a man,' he writes, 'who in other
circumstances would have exercised all the moral and social virtues,
placed in a situation in which even the amiable qualities of his mind
serve but to aggravate his distress and to perplex his conduct.'[32] How
significant is the fact (if it be the fact) that it was only when the
slowly rising sun of Romance began to flush the sky that the wonder,
beauty and pathos of this most marvellous of Shakespeare's creations
began to be visible! We do not know that they were perceived even in his
own day, and perhaps those are not wholly wrong who declare that this
creation, so far from being a characteristic product of the time, was a
vision of

                  the prophetic soul
     Of the wide world dreaming on things to come.

But the dramatic splendour of the whole tragedy is another matter, and
must have been manifest not only in Shakespeare's day but even in

It is indeed so obvious that I pass it by, and proceed at once to the
central question of Hamlet's character. And I believe time will be
saved, and a good deal of positive interpretation may be introduced, if,
without examining in detail any one theory, we first distinguish classes
or types of theory which appear to be in various ways and degrees
insufficient or mistaken. And we will confine our attention to sane
theories;--for on this subject, as on all questions relating to
Shakespeare, there are plenty of merely lunatic views: the view, for
example, that Hamlet, being a disguised woman in love with Horatio,
could hardly help seeming unkind to Ophelia; or the view that, being a
very clever and wicked young man who wanted to oust his innocent uncle
from the throne, he 'faked' the Ghost with this intent.

But, before we come to our types of theory, it is necessary to touch on
an idea, not unfrequently met with, which would make it vain labour to
discuss or propose any theory at all. It is sometimes said that Hamlet's
character is not only intricate but unintelligible. Now this statement
might mean something quite unobjectionable and even perhaps true and
important. It might mean that the character cannot be _wholly_
understood. As we saw, there may be questions which we cannot answer
with certainty now, because we have nothing but the text to guide us,
but which never arose for the spectators who saw _Hamlet_ acted in
Shakespeare's day; and we shall have to refer to such questions in these
lectures. Again, it may be held without any improbability that, from
carelessness or because he was engaged on this play for several years,
Shakespeare left inconsistencies in his exhibition of the character
which must prevent us from being certain of his ultimate meaning. Or,
possibly, we may be baffled because he has illustrated in it certain
strange facts of human nature, which he had noticed but of which we are
ignorant. But then all this would apply in some measure to other
characters in Shakespeare, and it is not this that is meant by the
statement that Hamlet is unintelligible. What is meant is that
Shakespeare _intended_ him to be so, because he himself was feeling
strongly, and wished his audience to feel strongly, what a mystery life
is, and how impossible it is for us to understand it. Now here, surely,
we have mere confusion of mind. The mysteriousness of life is one thing,
the psychological unintelligibility of a dramatic character is quite
another; and the second does not show the first, it shows only the
incapacity or folly of the dramatist. If it did show the first, it would
be very easy to surpass Shakespeare in producing a sense of mystery: we
should simply have to portray an absolutely nonsensical character. Of
course _Hamlet_ appeals powerfully to our sense of the mystery of life,
but so does _every_ good tragedy; and it does so not because the hero is
an enigma to us, but because, having a fair understanding of him, we
feel how strange it is that strength and weakness should be so mingled
in one soul, and that this soul should be doomed to such misery and
apparent failure.

(1) To come, then, to our typical views, we may lay it down, first, that
no theory will hold water which finds the cause of Hamlet's delay
merely, or mainly, or even to any considerable extent, in external
difficulties. Nothing is easier than to spin a plausible theory of this
kind. What, it may be asked,[33] was Hamlet to do when the Ghost had
left him with its commission of vengeance? The King was surrounded not
merely by courtiers but by a Swiss body-guard: how was Hamlet to get at
him? Was he then to accuse him publicly of the murder? If he did, what
would happen? How would he prove the charge? All that he had to offer in
proof was--a ghost-story! Others, to be sure, had seen the Ghost, but no
one else had heard its revelations. Obviously, then, even if the court
had been honest, instead of subservient and corrupt, it would have voted
Hamlet mad, or worse, and would have shut him up out of harm's way. He
could not see what to do, therefore, and so he waited. Then came the
actors, and at once with admirable promptness he arranged for the
play-scene, hoping that the King would betray his guilt to the whole
court. Unfortunately the King did not. It is true that immediately
afterwards Hamlet got his chance; for he found the King defenceless on
his knees. But what Hamlet wanted was not a private revenge, to be
followed by his own imprisonment or execution; it was public justice. So
he spared the King; and, as he unluckily killed Polonius just
afterwards, he had to consent to be despatched to England. But, on the
voyage there, he discovered the King's commission, ordering the King of
England to put him immediately to death; and, with this in his pocket,
he made his way back to Denmark. For now, he saw, the proof of the
King's attempt to murder him would procure belief also for the story of
the murder of his father. His enemy, however, was too quick for him, and
his public arraignment of that enemy was prevented by his own death.

A theory like this sounds very plausible--so long as you do not remember
the text. But no unsophisticated mind, fresh from the reading of
_Hamlet_, will accept it; and, as soon as we begin to probe it, fatal
objections arise in such numbers that I choose but a few, and indeed I
think the first of them is enough.

(_a_) From beginning to end of the play, Hamlet never makes the
slightest reference to any external difficulty. How is it possible to
explain this fact in conformity with the theory? For what conceivable
reason should Shakespeare conceal from us so carefully the key to the

(_b_) Not only does Hamlet fail to allude to such difficulties, but he
always assumes that he _can_ obey the Ghost,[34] and he once asserts
this in so many words ('Sith I have cause and will and strength and
means To do't,' IV. iv. 45).

(_c_) Again, why does Shakespeare exhibit Laertes quite easily raising
the people against the King? Why but to show how much more easily
Hamlet, whom the people loved, could have done the same thing, if that
was the plan he preferred?

(_d_) Again, Hamlet did _not_ plan the play-scene in the hope that the
King would betray his guilt to the court. He planned it, according to
his own account, in order to convince _himself_ by the King's agitation
that the Ghost had spoken the truth. This is perfectly clear from II.
ii. 625 ff. and from III. ii. 80 ff. Some readers are misled by the
words in the latter passage:

                     if his occulted guilt
     Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
     It is a damned ghost that we have seen.

The meaning obviously is, as the context shows, 'if his hidden guilt do
not betray itself _on occasion of_ one speech,' viz., the 'dozen or
sixteen lines' with which Hamlet has furnished the player, and of which
only six are delivered, because the King does not merely show his guilt
in his face (which was all Hamlet had hoped, III. ii. 90) but
rushes from the room.

It may be as well to add that, although Hamlet's own account of his
reason for arranging the play-scene may be questioned, it is impossible
to suppose that, if his real design had been to provoke an open
confession of guilt, he could have been unconscious of this design.

(_e_) Again, Hamlet never once talks, or shows a sign of thinking, of
the plan of bringing the King to public justice; he always talks of
using his 'sword' or his 'arm.' And this is so just as much after he has
returned to Denmark with the commission in his pocket as it was before
this event. When he has told Horatio the story of the voyage, he does
not say, 'Now I can convict him': he says, 'Now am I not justified in
using this arm?'

This class of theory, then, we must simply reject. But it suggests two
remarks. It is of course quite probable that, when Hamlet was 'thinking
too precisely on the event,' he was considering, among other things, the
question how he could avenge his father without sacrificing his own life
or freedom. And assuredly, also, he was anxious that his act of
vengeance should not be misconstrued, and would never have been content
to leave a 'wounded name' behind him. His dying words prove that.

(2) Assuming, now, that Hamlet's main difficulty--almost the whole of
his difficulty--was internal, I pass to views which, acknowledging this,
are still unsatisfactory because they isolate one element in his
character and situation and treat it as the whole.

According to the first of these typical views, Hamlet was restrained by
conscience or a moral scruple; he could not satisfy himself that it was
right to avenge his father.

This idea, like the first, can easily be made to look very plausible if
we vaguely imagine the circumstances without attending to the text. But
attention to the text is fatal to it. For, on the one hand, scarcely
anything can be produced in support of it, and, on the other hand, a
great deal can be produced in its disproof. To take the latter point
first, Hamlet, it is impossible to deny, habitually assumes, without any
questioning, that he _ought_ to avenge his father. Even when he doubts,
or thinks that he doubts, the honesty of the Ghost, he expresses no
doubt as to what his duty will be if the Ghost turns out honest: 'If he
but blench I know my course.' In the two soliloquies where he reviews
his position (II. ii., 'O what a rogue and peasant slave am I,'
and IV. iv., 'How all occasions do inform against me') he
reproaches himself bitterly for the neglect of his duty. When he
reflects on the possible causes of this neglect he never mentions among
them a moral scruple. When the Ghost appears in the Queen's chamber he
confesses, conscience-stricken, that, lapsed in time and passion, he has
let go by the acting of its command; but he does not plead that his
conscience stood in his way. The Ghost itself says that it comes to whet
his 'almost blunted purpose'; and conscience may unsettle a purpose but
does not blunt it. What natural explanation of all this can be given on
the conscience theory?

And now what can be set against this evidence? One solitary passage.[35]
Quite late, after Hamlet has narrated to Horatio the events of his
voyage, he asks him (V. ii. 63):

     Does it not, thinks't thee, stand me now upon--
     He that hath kill'd my king and whored my mother,
     Popp'd in between the election and my hopes,
     Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
     And with such cozenage--is't not perfect conscience
     To quit him with this arm? and is't not to be damn'd
     To let this canker of our nature come
     In further evil?

Here, certainly, is a question of conscience in the usual present sense
of the word; and, it may be said, does not this show that all along
Hamlet really has been deterred by moral scruples? But I ask first how,
in that case, the facts just adduced are to be explained: for they must
be explained, not ignored. Next, let the reader observe that even if
this passage did show that _one_ hindrance to Hamlet's action was his
conscience, it by no means follows that this was the sole or the chief
hindrance. And, thirdly, let him observe, and let him ask himself
whether the coincidence is a mere accident, that Hamlet is here almost
repeating the words he used in vain self-reproach some time before
(IV. iv. 56):

                             How stand I then,
     That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd,
     Excitements of my reason and my blood,
     And let all sleep?

Is it not clear that he is speculating just as vainly now, and that this
question of conscience is but one of his many unconscious excuses for
delay? And, lastly, is it not so that Horatio takes it? He declines to
discuss that unreal question, and answers simply,

     It must be shortly known to him from England
     What is the issue of the business there.

In other words, 'Enough of this endless procrastination. What is wanted
is not reasons for the deed, but the deed itself.' What can be more

Perhaps, however, it may be answered: 'Your explanation of this passage
may be correct, and the facts you have mentioned do seem to be fatal to
the theory of conscience in its usual form. But there is another and
subtler theory of conscience. According to it, Hamlet, so far as his
explicit consciousness went, was sure that he ought to obey the Ghost;
but in the depths of his nature, and unknown to himself, there was a
moral repulsion to the deed. The conventional moral ideas of his time,
which he shared with the Ghost, told him plainly that he ought to avenge
his father; but a deeper conscience in him, which was in advance of his
time, contended with these explicit conventional ideas. It is because
this deeper conscience remains below the surface that he fails to
recognise it, and fancies he is hindered by cowardice or sloth or
passion or what not; but it emerges into light in that speech to
Horatio. And it is just because he has this nobler moral nature in him
that we admire and love him.'

Now I at once admit not only that this view is much more attractive and
more truly tragic than the ordinary conscience theory, but that it has
more verisimilitude. But I feel no doubt that it does not answer to
Shakespeare's meaning, and I will simply mention, out of many objections
to it, three which seem to be fatal. (_a_) If it answers to
Shakespeare's meaning, why in the world did he conceal that meaning
until the last Act? The facts adduced above seem to show beyond question
that, on the hypothesis, he did so. That he did so is surely next door
to incredible. In any case, it certainly requires an explanation, and
certainly has not received one. (_b_) Let us test the theory by
reference to a single important passage, that where Hamlet finds the
King at prayer and spares him. The reason Hamlet gives himself for
sparing the King is that, if he kills him now, he will send him to
heaven, whereas he desires to send him to hell. Now, this reason may be
an unconscious excuse, but is it believable that, if the real reason had
been the stirrings of his deeper conscience, _that_ could have masked
itself in the form of a desire to send his enemy's soul to hell? Is not
the idea quite ludicrous? (_c_) The theory requires us to suppose that,
when the Ghost enjoins Hamlet to avenge the murder of his father, it is
laying on him a duty which _we_ are to understand to be no duty but the
very reverse. And is not that supposition wholly contrary to the natural
impression which we all receive in reading the play? Surely it is clear
that, whatever we in the twentieth century may think about Hamlet's
duty, we are meant in the play to assume that he _ought_ to have obeyed
the Ghost.

The conscience theory, then, in either of its forms we must reject. But
it may remind us of points worth noting. In the first place, it is
certainly true that Hamlet, in spite of some appearances to the
contrary, was, as Goethe said, of a most moral nature, and had a great
anxiety to do right. In this anxiety he resembles Brutus, and it is
stronger in him than in any of the later heroes. And, secondly, it is
highly probable that in his interminable broodings the kind of paralysis
with which he was stricken masked itself in the shape of conscientious
scruples as well as in many other shapes. And, finally, in his shrinking
from the deed there was probably, together with much else, something
which may be called a moral, though not a conscientious, repulsion: I
mean a repugnance to the idea of falling suddenly on a man who could not
defend himself. This, so far as we can see, was the only plan that
Hamlet ever contemplated. There is no positive evidence in the play that
he regarded it with the aversion that any brave and honourable man, one
must suppose, would feel for it; but, as Hamlet certainly was brave and
honourable, we may presume that he did so.

(3) We come next to what may be called the sentimental view of Hamlet, a
view common both among his worshippers and among his defamers. Its germ
may perhaps be found in an unfortunate phrase of Goethe's (who of course
is not responsible for the whole view): 'a lovely, pure and most moral
nature, _without the strength of nerve which forms a hero_, sinks
beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away.' When this
idea is isolated, developed and popularised, we get the picture of a
graceful youth, sweet and sensitive, full of delicate sympathies and
yearning aspirations, shrinking from the touch of everything gross and
earthly; but frail and weak, a kind of Werther, with a face like
Shelley's and a voice like Mr. Tree's. And then we ask in tender pity,
how could such a man perform the terrible duty laid on him?

How, indeed! And what a foolish Ghost even to suggest such a duty! But
this conception, though not without its basis in certain beautiful
traits of Hamlet's nature, is utterly untrue. It is too kind to Hamlet
on one side, and it is quite unjust to him on another. The 'conscience'
theory at any rate leaves Hamlet a great nature which you can admire and
even revere. But for the 'sentimental' Hamlet you can feel only pity not
unmingled with contempt. Whatever else he is, he is no _hero_.

But consider the text. This shrinking, flower-like youth--how could he
possibly have done what we _see_ Hamlet do? What likeness to him is
there in the Hamlet who, summoned by the Ghost, bursts from his
terrified friends with the cry:

                          Unhand me, gentlemen!
     By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me;

the Hamlet who scarcely once speaks to the King without an insult, or to
Polonius without a gibe; the Hamlet who storms at Ophelia and speaks
daggers to his mother; the Hamlet who, hearing a cry behind the arras,
whips out his sword in an instant and runs the eavesdropper through; the
Hamlet who sends his 'school-fellows' to their death and never troubles
his head about them more; the Hamlet who is the first man to board a
pirate ship, and who fights with Laertes in the grave; the Hamlet of the
catastrophe, an omnipotent fate, before whom all the court stands
helpless, who, as the truth breaks upon him, rushes on the King, drives
his foil right through his body,[36] then seizes the poisoned cup and
forces it violently between the wretched man's lips, and in the throes
of death has force and fire enough to wrest the cup from Horatio's hand
('By heaven, I'll have it!') lest he should drink and die? This man, the
Hamlet of the play, is a heroic, terrible figure. He would have been
formidable to Othello or Macbeth. If the sentimental Hamlet had crossed
him, he would have hurled him from his path with one sweep of his arm.

This view, then, or any view that approaches it, is grossly unjust to
Hamlet, and turns tragedy into mere pathos. But, on the other side, it
is too kind to him. It ignores the hardness and cynicism which were
indeed no part of his nature, but yet, in this crisis of his life, are
indubitably present and painfully marked. His sternness, itself left out
of sight by this theory, is no defect; but he is much more than stern.
Polonius possibly deserved nothing better than the words addressed to
his corpse:

     Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
     I took thee for thy better: take thy fortune:
     Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger;

yet this was Ophelia's father, and, whatever he deserved, it pains us,
for Hamlet's own sake, to hear the words:

     This man shall set me packing:
     I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room.

There is the same insensibility in Hamlet's language about the fate of
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and, observe, their deaths were not in the
least required by his purpose. Grant, again, that his cruelty to Ophelia
was partly due to misunderstanding, partly forced on him, partly
feigned; still one surely cannot altogether so account for it, and still
less can one so account for the disgusting and insulting grossness of
his language to her in the play-scene. I know this is said to be merely
an example of the custom of Shakespeare's time. But it is not so. It is
such language as you will find addressed to a woman by no other hero of
Shakespeare's, not even in that dreadful scene where Othello accuses
Desdemona. It is a great mistake to ignore these things, or to try to
soften the impression which they naturally make on one. That this
embitterment, callousness, grossness, brutality, should be induced on a
soul so pure and noble is profoundly tragic; and Shakespeare's business
was to show this tragedy, not to paint an ideally beautiful soul
unstained and undisturbed by the evil of the world and the anguish of
conscious failure.[37]

(4) There remains, finally, that class of view which may be named after
Schlegel and Coleridge. According to this, _Hamlet_ is the tragedy of
reflection. The cause of the hero's delay is irresolution; and the cause
of this irresolution is excess of the reflective or speculative habit of
mind. He has a general intention to obey the Ghost, but 'the native hue
of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.' He is
'thought-sick.' 'The whole,' says Schlegel, 'is intended to show how a
calculating consideration which aims at exhausting, so far as human
foresight can, all the relations and possible consequences of a deed,
cripples[38] the power of acting.... Hamlet is a hypocrite towards
himself; his far-fetched scruples are often mere pretexts to cover his
want of determination.... He has no firm belief in himself or in
anything else.... He loses himself in labyrinths of thought.' So
Coleridge finds in Hamlet 'an almost enormous intellectual activity and
a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it' (the
aversion, that is to say, is consequent on the activity). Professor
Dowden objects to this view, very justly, that it neglects the emotional
side of Hamlet's character, 'which is quite as important as the
intellectual'; but, with this supplement, he appears on the whole to
adopt it. Hamlet, he says, 'loses a sense of fact because with him each
object and event transforms and expands itself into an idea.... He
cannot steadily keep alive within himself a sense of the importance of
any positive, limited thing,--a deed, for example.' And Professor Dowden
explains this condition by reference to Hamlet's life. 'When the play
opens he has reached the age of thirty years ... and he has received
culture of every kind except the culture of active life. During the
reign of the strong-willed elder Hamlet there was no call to action for
his meditative son. He has slipped on into years of full manhood still a
haunter of the university, a student of philosophies, an amateur in art,
a ponderer on the things of life and death, who has never formed a
resolution or executed a deed' (_Shakspere, his Mind and Art_, 4th ed.,
pp. 132, 133).

On the whole, the Schlegel-Coleridge theory (with or without Professor
Dowden's modification and amplification) is the most widely received
view of Hamlet's character. And with it we come at last into close
contact with the text of the play. It not only answers, in some
fundamental respects, to the general impression produced by the drama,
but it can be supported by Hamlet's own words in his soliloquies--such
words, for example, as those about the native hue of resolution, or
those about the craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event.
It is confirmed, also, by the contrast between Hamlet on the one side
and Laertes and Fortinbras on the other; and, further, by the occurrence
of those words of the King to Laertes (IV. vii. 119 f.), which,
if they are not in character, are all the more important as showing what
was in Shakespeare's mind at the time:

                     that we would do
     We should do when we would; for this 'would' changes,
     And hath abatements and delays as many
     As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents;
     And then this 'should' is like a spendthrift sigh
     That hurts by easing.

And, lastly, even if the view itself does not suffice, the _description_
given by its adherents of Hamlet's state of mind, as we see him in the
last four Acts, is, on the whole and so far as it goes, a true
description. The energy of resolve is dissipated in an endless brooding
on the deed required. When he acts, his action does not proceed from
this deliberation and analysis, but is sudden and impulsive, evoked by
an emergency in which he has no time to think. And most of the reasons
he assigns for his procrastination are evidently not the true reasons,
but unconscious excuses.

Nevertheless this theory fails to satisfy. And it fails not merely in
this or that detail, but as a whole. We feel that its Hamlet does not
fully answer to our imaginative impression. He is not nearly so
inadequate to this impression as the sentimental Hamlet, but still we
feel he is inferior to Shakespeare's man and does him wrong. And when we
come to examine the theory we find that it is partial and leaves much
unexplained. I pass that by for the present, for we shall see, I
believe, that the theory is also positively misleading, and that in a
most important way. And of this I proceed to speak.

Hamlet's irresolution, or his aversion to real action, is, according to
the theory, the _direct_ result of 'an almost enormous intellectual
activity' in the way of 'a calculating consideration which attempts to
exhaust all the relations and possible consequences of a deed.' And this
again proceeds from an original one-sidedness of nature, strengthened by
habit, and, perhaps, by years of speculative inaction. The theory
describes, therefore, a man in certain respects like Coleridge himself,
on one side a man of genius, on the other side, the side of will,
deplorably weak, always procrastinating and avoiding unpleasant duties,
and often reproaching himself in vain; a man, observe, who at _any_ time
and in _any_ circumstances would be unequal to the task assigned to
Hamlet. And thus, I must maintain, it degrades Hamlet and travesties the
play. For Hamlet, according to all the indications in the text, was not
naturally or normally such a man, but rather, I venture to affirm, a man
who at any _other_ time and in any _other_ circumstances than those
presented would have been perfectly equal to his task; and it is, in
fact, the very cruelty of his fate that the crisis of his life comes on
him at the one moment when he cannot meet it, and when his highest
gifts, instead of helping him, conspire to paralyse him. This aspect of
the tragedy the theory quite misses; and it does so because it
misconceives the cause of that irresolution which, on the whole, it
truly describes. For the cause was not directly or mainly an habitual
excess of reflectiveness. The direct cause was a state of mind quite
abnormal and induced by special circumstances,--a state of profound
melancholy. Now, Hamlet's reflectiveness doubtless played a certain part
in the _production_ of that melancholy, and was thus one indirect
contributory cause of his irresolution. And, again, the melancholy, once
established, displayed, as one of its _symptoms_, an excessive
reflection on the required deed. But excess of reflection was not, as
the theory makes it, the _direct_ cause of the irresolution at all; nor
was it the _only_ indirect cause; and in the Hamlet of the last four
Acts it is to be considered rather a symptom of his state than a cause
of it.

These assertions may be too brief to be at once clear, but I hope they
will presently become so.


Let us first ask ourselves what we can gather from the play, immediately
or by inference, concerning Hamlet as he was just before his father's
death. And I begin by observing that the text does not bear out the idea
that he was one-sidedly reflective and indisposed to action. Nobody who
knew him seems to have noticed this weakness. Nobody regards him as a
mere scholar who has 'never formed a resolution or executed a deed.' In
a court which certainly would not much admire such a person he is the
observed of all observers. Though he has been disappointed of the throne
everyone shows him respect; and he is the favourite of the people, who
are not given to worship philosophers. Fortinbras, a sufficiently
practical man, considered that he was likely, had he been put on, to
have proved most royally. He has Hamlet borne by four captains 'like a
soldier' to his grave; and Ophelia says that Hamlet _was_ a soldier. If
he was fond of acting, an aesthetic pursuit, he was equally fond of
fencing, an athletic one: he practised it assiduously even in his worst
days.[39] So far as we can conjecture from what we see of him in those
bad days, he must normally have been charmingly frank, courteous and
kindly to everyone, of whatever rank, whom he liked or respected, but by
no means timid or deferential to others; indeed, one would gather that
he was rather the reverse, and also that he was apt to be decided and
even imperious if thwarted or interfered with. He must always have been
fearless,--in the play he appears insensible to fear of any ordinary
kind. And, finally, he must have been quick and impetuous in action; for
it is downright impossible that the man we see rushing after the Ghost,
killing Polonius, dealing with the King's commission on the ship,
boarding the pirate, leaping into the grave, executing his final
vengeance, could _ever_ have been shrinking or slow in an emergency.
Imagine Coleridge doing any of these things!

If we consider all this, how can we accept the notion that Hamlet's was
a weak and one-sided character? 'Oh, but he spent ten or twelve years at
a University!' Well, even if he did, it is possible to do that without
becoming the victim of excessive thought. But the statement that he did
rests upon a most insecure foundation.[40]

Where then are we to look for the seeds of danger?

(1) Trying to reconstruct from the Hamlet of the play, one would not
judge that his temperament was melancholy in the present sense of the
word; there seems nothing to show that; but one would judge that by
temperament he was inclined to nervous instability, to rapid and
perhaps extreme changes of feeling and mood, and that he was disposed to
be, for the time, absorbed in the feeling or mood that possessed him,
whether it were joyous or depressed. This temperament the Elizabethans
would have called melancholic; and Hamlet seems to be an example of it,
as Lear is of a temperament mixedly choleric and sanguine. And the
doctrine of temperaments was so familiar in Shakespeare's time--as
Burton, and earlier prose-writers, and many of the dramatists show--that
Shakespeare may quite well have given this temperament to Hamlet
consciously and deliberately. Of melancholy in its developed form, a
habit, not a mere temperament, he often speaks. He more than once laughs
at the passing and half-fictitious melancholy of youth and love; in Don
John in _Much Ado_ he had sketched the sour and surly melancholy of
discontent; in Jaques a whimsical self-pleasing melancholy; in Antonio
in the _Merchant of Venice_ a quiet but deep melancholy, for which
neither the victim nor his friends can assign any cause.[41] He gives to
Hamlet a temperament which would not develop into melancholy unless
under some exceptional strain, but which still involved a danger. In the
play we see the danger realised, and find a melancholy quite unlike any
that Shakespeare had as yet depicted, because the temperament of Hamlet
is quite different.

(2) Next, we cannot be mistaken in attributing to the Hamlet of earlier
days an exquisite sensibility, to which we may give the name 'moral,' if
that word is taken in the wide meaning it ought to bear. This, though
it suffers cruelly in later days, as we saw in criticising the
sentimental view of Hamlet, never deserts him; it makes all his
cynicism, grossness and hardness appear to us morbidities, and has an
inexpressibly attractive and pathetic effect. He had the soul of the
youthful poet as Shelley and Tennyson have described it, an unbounded
delight and faith in everything good and beautiful. We know this from
himself. The world for him was _herrlich wie am ersten Tag_--'this
goodly frame the earth, this most excellent canopy the air, this brave
o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire.'
And not nature only: 'What a piece of work is a man! how noble in
reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and
admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!'
This is no commonplace to Hamlet; it is the language of a heart thrilled
with wonder and swelling into ecstasy.

Doubtless it was with the same eager enthusiasm he turned to those
around him. Where else in Shakespeare is there anything like Hamlet's
adoration of his father? The words melt into music whenever he speaks of
him. And, if there are no signs of any such feeling towards his mother,
though many signs of love, it is characteristic that he evidently never
entertained a suspicion of anything unworthy in her,--characteristic,
and significant of his tendency to see only what is good unless he is
forced to see the reverse. For we find this tendency elsewhere, and find
it going so far that we must call it a disposition to idealise, to see
something better than what is there, or at least to ignore deficiencies.
He says to Laertes, 'I loved you ever,' and he describes Laertes as a
'very noble youth,' which he was far from being. In his first greeting
of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, where his old self revives, we trace
the same affectionateness and readiness to take men at their best. His
love for Ophelia, too, which seems strange to some, is surely the most
natural thing in the world. He saw her innocence, simplicity and
sweetness, and it was like him to ask no more; and it is noticeable that
Horatio, though entirely worthy of his friendship, is, like Ophelia,
intellectually not remarkable. To the very end, however clouded, this
generous disposition, this 'free and open nature,' this unsuspiciousness
survive. They cost him his life; for the King knew them, and was sure
that he was too 'generous and free from all contriving' to 'peruse the
foils.' To the very end, his soul, however sick and tortured it may be,
answers instantaneously when good and evil are presented to it, loving
the one and hating the other. He is called a sceptic who has no firm
belief in anything, but he is never sceptical about _them_.

And the negative side of his idealism, the aversion to evil, is perhaps
even more developed in the hero of the tragedy than in the Hamlet of
earlier days. It is intensely characteristic. Nothing, I believe, is to
be found elsewhere in Shakespeare (unless in the rage of the
disillusioned idealist Timon) of quite the same kind as Hamlet's disgust
at his uncle's drunkenness, his loathing of his mother's sensuality, his
astonishment and horror at her shallowness, his contempt for everything
pretentious or false, his indifference to everything merely external.
This last characteristic appears in his choice of the friend of his
heart, and in a certain impatience of distinctions of rank or wealth.
When Horatio calls his father 'a goodly king,' he answers, surely with
an emphasis on 'man,'

     He was a man, take him for all in all,
     I shall not look upon his like again.

He will not listen to talk of Horatio being his 'servant.' When the
others speak of their 'duty' to him, he answers, 'Your love, as mine to
you.' He speaks to the actor precisely as he does to an honest courtier.
He is not in the least a revolutionary, but still, in effect, a king and
a beggar are all one to him. He cares for nothing but human worth, and
his pitilessness towards Polonius and Osric and his 'school-fellows' is
not wholly due to morbidity, but belongs in part to his original

Now, in Hamlet's moral sensibility there undoubtedly lay a danger. Any
great shock that life might inflict on it would be felt with extreme
intensity. Such a shock might even produce tragic results. And, in fact,
_Hamlet_ deserves the title 'tragedy of moral idealism' quite as much as
the title 'tragedy of reflection.'

(3) With this temperament and this sensibility we find, lastly, in the
Hamlet of earlier days, as of later, intellectual genius. It is chiefly
this that makes him so different from all those about him, good and bad
alike, and hardly less different from most of Shakespeare's other
heroes. And this, though on the whole the most important trait in his
nature, is also so obvious and so famous that I need not dwell on it at
length. But against one prevalent misconception I must say a word of
warning. Hamlet's intellectual power is not a specific gift, like a
genius for music or mathematics or philosophy. It shows itself,
fitfully, in the affairs of life as unusual quickness of perception,
great agility in shifting the mental attitude, a striking rapidity and
fertility in resource; so that, when his natural belief in others does
not make him unwary, Hamlet easily sees through them and masters them,
and no one can be much less like the typical helpless dreamer. It shows
itself in conversation chiefly in the form of wit or humour; and, alike
in conversation and in soliloquy, it shows itself in the form of
imagination quite as much as in that of thought in the stricter sense.
Further, where it takes the latter shape, as it very often does, it is
not philosophic in the technical meaning of the word. There is really
nothing in the play to show that Hamlet ever was 'a student of
philosophies,' unless it be the famous lines which, comically enough,
exhibit this supposed victim of philosophy as its critic:

     There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
     Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.[42]

His philosophy, if the word is to be used, was, like Shakespeare's own,
the immediate product of the wondering and meditating mind; and such
thoughts as that celebrated one, 'There is nothing either good or bad
but thinking makes it so,' surely needed no special training to produce
them. Or does Portia's remark, 'Nothing is good without respect,'
_i.e._, out of relation, prove that she had studied metaphysics?

Still Hamlet had speculative genius without being a philosopher, just as
he had imaginative genius without being a poet. Doubtless in happier
days he was a close and constant observer of men and manners, noting his
results in those tables which he afterwards snatched from his breast to
make in wild irony his last note of all, that one may smile and smile
and be a villain. Again and again we remark that passion for
generalisation which so occupied him, for instance, in reflections
suggested by the King's drunkenness that he quite forgot what it was he
was waiting to meet upon the battlements. Doubtless, too, he was always
considering things, as Horatio thought, too curiously. There was a
necessity in his soul driving him to penetrate below the surface and to
question what others took for granted. That fixed habitual look which
the world wears for most men did not exist for him. He was for ever
unmaking his world and rebuilding it in thought, dissolving what to
others were solid facts, and discovering what to others were old truths.
There were no old truths for Hamlet. It is for Horatio a thing of course
that there's a divinity that shapes our ends, but for Hamlet it is a
discovery hardly won. And throughout this kingdom of the mind, where he
felt that man, who in action is only like an angel, is in apprehension
like a god, he moved (we must imagine) more than content, so that even
in his dark days he declares he could be bounded in a nutshell and yet
count himself a king of infinite space, were it not that he had bad

If now we ask whether any special danger lurked _here_, how shall we
answer? We must answer, it seems to me, 'Some danger, no doubt, but,
granted the ordinary chances of life, not much.' For, in the first
place, that idea which so many critics quietly take for granted--the
idea that the gift and the habit of meditative and speculative thought
tend to produce irresolution in the affairs of life--would be found by
no means easy to verify. Can you verify it, for example, in the lives of
the philosophers, or again in the lives of men whom you have personally
known to be addicted to such speculation? I cannot. Of course,
individual peculiarities being set apart, absorption in _any_
intellectual interest, together with withdrawal from affairs, may make a
man slow and unskilful in affairs; and doubtless, individual
peculiarities being again set apart, a mere student is likely to be more
at a loss in a sudden and great practical emergency than a soldier or a
lawyer. But in all this there is no difference between a physicist, a
historian, and a philosopher; and again, slowness, want of skill, and
even helplessness are something totally different from the peculiar kind
of irresolution that Hamlet shows. The notion that speculative thinking
specially tends to produce _this_ is really a mere illusion.

In the second place, even if this notion were true, it has appeared that
Hamlet did _not_ live the life of a mere student, much less of a mere
dreamer, and that his nature was by no means simply or even one-sidedly
intellectual, but was healthily active. Hence, granted the ordinary
chances of life, there would seem to be no great danger in his
intellectual tendency and his habit of speculation; and I would go
further and say that there was nothing in them, taken alone, to unfit
him even for the extraordinary call that was made upon him. In fact, if
the message of the Ghost had come to him within a week of his father's
death, I see no reason to doubt that he would have acted on it as
decisively as Othello himself, though probably after a longer and more
anxious deliberation. And therefore the Schlegel-Coleridge view (apart
from its descriptive value) seems to me fatally untrue, for it implies
that Hamlet's procrastination was the normal response of an
over-speculative nature confronted with a difficult practical problem.

On the other hand, under conditions of a peculiar kind, Hamlet's
reflectiveness certainly might prove dangerous to him, and his genius
might even (to exaggerate a little) become his doom. Suppose that
violent shock to his moral being of which I spoke; and suppose that
under this shock, any possible action being denied to him, he began to
sink into melancholy; then, no doubt, his imaginative and generalising
habit of mind might extend the effects of this shock through his whole
being and mental world. And if, the state of melancholy being thus
deepened and fixed, a sudden demand for difficult and decisive action in
a matter connected with the melancholy arose, this state might well have
for one of its symptoms an endless and futile mental dissection of the
required deed. And, finally, the futility of this process, and the shame
of his delay, would further weaken him and enslave him to his melancholy
still more. Thus the speculative habit would be _one_ indirect cause of
the morbid state which hindered action; and it would also reappear in a
degenerate form as one of the _symptoms_ of this morbid state.

       *       *       *       *       *

Now this is what actually happens in the play. Turn to the first words
Hamlet utters when he is alone; turn, that is to say, to the place where
the author is likely to indicate his meaning most plainly. What do you

     O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
     Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
     Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
     His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
     How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
     Seem to me all the uses of this world!
     Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
     That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
     Possess it merely.

Here are a sickness of life, and even a longing for death, so intense
that nothing stands between Hamlet and suicide except religious awe. And
what has caused them? The rest of the soliloquy so thrusts the answer
upon us that it might seem impossible to miss it. It was not his
father's death; that doubtless brought deep grief, but mere grief for
some one loved and lost does not make a noble spirit loathe the world as
a place full only of things rank and gross. It was not the vague
suspicion that we know Hamlet felt. Still less was it the loss of the
crown; for though the subserviency of the electors might well disgust
him, there is not a reference to the subject in the soliloquy, nor any
sign elsewhere that it greatly occupied his mind. It was the moral shock
of the sudden ghastly disclosure of his mother's true nature, falling on
him when his heart was aching with love, and his body doubtless was
weakened by sorrow. And it is essential, however disagreeable, to
realise the nature of this shock. It matters little here whether
Hamlet's age was twenty or thirty: in either case his mother was a
matron of mature years. All his life he had believed in her, we may be
sure, as such a son would. He had seen her not merely devoted to his
father, but hanging on him like a newly-wedded bride, hanging on him

     As if increase of appetite had grown
     By what it fed on.

He had seen her following his body 'like Niobe, all tears.' And then
within a month--'O God! a beast would have mourned longer'--she married
again, and married Hamlet's uncle, a man utterly contemptible and
loathsome in his eyes; married him in what to Hamlet was incestuous
wedlock;[43] married him not for any reason of state, nor even out of
old family affection, but in such a way that her son was forced to see
in her action not only an astounding shallowness of feeling but an
eruption of coarse sensuality, 'rank and gross,'[44] speeding post-haste
to its horrible delight. Is it possible to conceive an experience more
desolating to a man such as we have seen Hamlet to be; and is its result
anything but perfectly natural? It brings bewildered horror, then
loathing, then despair of human nature. His whole mind is poisoned. He
can never see Ophelia in the same light again: she is a woman, and his
mother is a woman: if she mentions the word 'brief' to him, the answer
drops from his lips like venom, 'as woman's love.' The last words of the
soliloquy, which is _wholly_ concerned with this subject, are,

     But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue!

He can do nothing. He must lock in his heart, not any suspicion of his
uncle that moves obscurely there, but that horror and loathing; and if
his heart ever found relief, it was when those feelings, mingled with
the love that never died out in him, poured themselves forth in a flood
as he stood in his mother's chamber beside his father's

If we still wonder, and ask why the effect of this shock should be so
tremendous, let us observe that _now_ the conditions have arisen under
which Hamlet's highest endowments, his moral sensibility and his genius,
become his enemies. A nature morally blunter would have felt even so
dreadful a revelation less keenly. A slower and more limited and
positive mind might not have extended so widely through its world the
disgust and disbelief that have entered it. But Hamlet has the
imagination which, for evil as well as good, feels and sees all things
in one. Thought is the element of his life, and his thought is
infected. He cannot prevent himself from probing and lacerating the
wound in his soul. One idea, full of peril, holds him fast, and he cries
out in agony at it, but is impotent to free himself ('Must I remember?'
'Let me not think on't'). And when, with the fading of his passion, the
vividness of this idea abates, it does so only to leave behind a
boundless weariness and a sick longing for death.

And this is the time which his fate chooses. In this hour of uttermost
weakness, this sinking of his whole being towards annihilation, there
comes on him, bursting the bounds of the natural world with a shock of
astonishment and terror, the revelation of his mother's adultery and his
father's murder, and, with this, the demand on him, in the name of
everything dearest and most sacred, to arise and act. And for a moment,
though his brain reels and totters,[46] his soul leaps up in passion to
answer this demand. But it comes too late. It does but strike home the
last rivet in the melancholy which holds him bound.

     The time is out of joint! O cursed spite
     That ever I was born to set it right,--

so he mutters within an hour of the moment when he vowed to give his
life to the duty of revenge; and the rest of the story exhibits his vain
efforts to fulfil this duty, his unconscious self-excuses and unavailing
self-reproaches, and the tragic results of his delay.


'Melancholy,' I said, not dejection, nor yet insanity. That Hamlet was
not far from insanity is very probable. His adoption of the pretence of
madness may well have been due in part to fear of the reality; to an
instinct of self-preservation, a fore-feeling that the pretence would
enable him to give some utterance to the load that pressed on his heart
and brain, and a fear that he would be unable altogether to repress such
utterance. And if the pathologist calls his state melancholia, and even
proceeds to determine its species, I see nothing to object to in that; I
am grateful to him for emphasising the fact that Hamlet's melancholy was
no mere common depression of spirits; and I have no doubt that many
readers of the play would understand it better if they read an account
of melancholia in a work on mental diseases. If we like to use the word
'disease' loosely, Hamlet's condition may truly be called diseased. No
exertion of will could have dispelled it. Even if he had been able at
once to do the bidding of the Ghost he would doubtless have still
remained for some time under the cloud. It would be absurdly unjust to
call _Hamlet_ a study of melancholy, but it contains such a study.

But this melancholy is something very different from insanity, in
anything like the usual meaning of that word. No doubt it might develop
into insanity. The longing for death might become an irresistible
impulse to self-destruction; the disorder of feeling and will might
extend to sense and intellect; delusions might arise; and the man might
become, as we say, incapable and irresponsible. But Hamlet's melancholy
is some way from this condition. It is a totally different thing from
the madness which he feigns; and he never, when alone or in company with
Horatio alone, exhibits the signs of that madness. Nor is the dramatic
use of this melancholy, again, open to the objections which would justly
be made to the portrayal of an insanity which brought the hero to a
tragic end. The man who suffers as Hamlet suffers--and thousands go
about their business suffering thus in greater or less degree--is
considered irresponsible neither by other people nor by himself: he is
only too keenly conscious of his responsibility. He is therefore, so
far, quite capable of being a tragic agent, which an insane person, at
any rate according to Shakespeare's practice, is not.[47] And, finally,
Hamlet's state is not one which a healthy mind is unable sufficiently to
imagine. It is probably not further from average experience, nor more
difficult to realise, than the great tragic passions of Othello, Antony
or Macbeth.

Let me try to show now, briefly, how much this melancholy accounts for.

It accounts for the main fact, Hamlet's inaction. For the _immediate_
cause of that is simply that his habitual feeling is one of disgust at
life and everything in it, himself included,--a disgust which varies in
intensity, rising at times into a longing for death, sinking often into
weary apathy, but is never dispelled for more than brief intervals. Such
a state of feeling is inevitably adverse to _any_ kind of decided
action; the body is inert, the mind indifferent or worse; its response
is, 'it does not matter,' 'it is not worth while,' 'it is no good.' And
the action required of Hamlet is very exceptional. It is violent,
dangerous, difficult to accomplish perfectly, on one side repulsive to a
man of honour and sensitive feeling, on another side involved in a
certain mystery (here come in thus, in their subordinate place, various
causes of inaction assigned by various theories). These obstacles would
not suffice to prevent Hamlet from acting, if his state were normal; and
against them there operate, even in his morbid state, healthy and
positive feelings, love of his father, loathing of his uncle, desire of
revenge, desire to do duty. But the retarding motives acquire an
unnatural strength because they have an ally in something far stronger
than themselves, the melancholic disgust and apathy; while the healthy
motives, emerging with difficulty from the central mass of diseased
feeling, rapidly sink back into it and 'lose the name of action.' We
_see_ them doing so; and sometimes the process is quite simple, no
analytical reflection on the deed intervening between the outburst of
passion and the relapse into melancholy.[48] But this melancholy is
perfectly consistent also with that incessant dissection of the task
assigned, of which the Schlegel-Coleridge theory makes so much. For
those endless questions (as we may imagine them), 'Was I deceived by the
Ghost? How am I to do the deed? When? Where? What will be the
consequence of attempting it--success, my death, utter misunderstanding,
mere mischief to the State? Can it be right to do it, or noble to kill a
defenceless man? What is the good of doing it in such a world as
this?'--all this, and whatever else passed in a sickening round through
Hamlet's mind, was not the healthy and right deliberation of a man with
such a task, but otiose thinking hardly deserving the name of thought,
an unconscious weaving of pretexts for inaction, aimless tossings on a
sick bed, symptoms of melancholy which only increased it by deepening

Again, (_a_) this state accounts for Hamlet's energy as well as for his
lassitude, those quick decided actions of his being the outcome of a
nature normally far from passive, now suddenly stimulated, and producing
healthy impulses which work themselves out before they have time to
subside. (_b_) It accounts for the evidently keen satisfaction which
some of these actions give to him. He arranges the play-scene with
lively interest, and exults in its success, not really because it brings
him nearer to his goal, but partly because it has hurt his enemy and
partly because it has demonstrated his own skill (III. ii.
286-304). He looks forward almost with glee to countermining the King's
designs in sending him away (III. iv. 209), and looks back with
obvious satisfaction, even with pride, to the address and vigour he
displayed on the voyage (V. ii. 1-55). These were not _the_
action on which his morbid self-feeling had centred; he feels in them
his old force, and escapes in them from his disgust. (_c_) It accounts
for the pleasure with which he meets old acquaintances, like his
'school-fellows' or the actors. The former observed (and we can observe)
in him a 'kind of joy' at first, though it is followed by 'much forcing
of his disposition' as he attempts to keep this joy and his courtesy
alive in spite of the misery which so soon returns upon him and the
suspicion he is forced to feel. (_d_) It accounts no less for the
painful features of his character as seen in the play, his almost savage
irritability on the one hand, and on the other his self-absorption, his
callousness, his insensibility to the fates of those whom he despises,
and to the feelings even of those whom he loves. These are frequent
symptoms of such melancholy, and (_e_) they sometimes alternate, as they
do in Hamlet, with bursts of transitory, almost hysterical, and quite
fruitless emotion. It is to these last (of which a part of the
soliloquy, 'O what a rogue,' gives a good example) that Hamlet alludes
when, to the Ghost, he speaks of himself as 'lapsed in _passion_,' and
it is doubtless partly his conscious weakness in regard to them that
inspires his praise of Horatio as a man who is not 'passion's

Finally, Hamlet's melancholy accounts for two things which seem to be
explained by nothing else. The first of these is his apathy or
'lethargy.' We are bound to consider the evidence which the text
supplies of this, though it is usual to ignore it. When Hamlet mentions,
as one possible cause of his inaction, his 'thinking too precisely on
the event,' he mentions another, 'bestial oblivion'; and the thing
against which he inveighs in the greater part of that soliloquy
(IV. iv.) is not the excess or the misuse of reason (which for
him here and always is god-like), but this _bestial_ oblivion or
'_dullness_,' this 'letting all _sleep_,' this allowing of heaven-sent
reason to 'fust unused':

                            What is a man,
     If his chief good and market of his time
     Be but to _sleep_ and feed? a _beast_, no more.[50]

So, in the soliloquy in II. ii. he accuses himself of being 'a
_dull_ and muddy-mettled rascal,' who 'peaks [mopes] like John-a-dreams,
unpregnant of his cause,' dully indifferent to his cause.[51] So, when
the Ghost appears to him the second time, he accuses himself of being
tardy and lapsed in _time_; and the Ghost speaks of his purpose being
almost _blunted_, and bids him not to _forget_ (cf. 'oblivion'). And so,
what is emphasised in those undramatic but significant speeches of the
player-king and of Claudius is the mere dying away of purpose or of
love.[52] Surely what all this points to is not a condition of excessive
but useless mental activity (indeed there is, in reality, curiously
little about that in the text), but rather one of dull, apathetic,
brooding gloom, in which Hamlet, so far from analysing his duty, is not
thinking of it at all, but for the time literally _forgets_ it. It seems
to me we are driven to think of Hamlet _chiefly_ thus during the long
time which elapsed between the appearance of the Ghost and the events
presented in the Second Act. The Ghost, in fact, had more reason than we
suppose at first for leaving with Hamlet as his parting injunction the
command, 'Remember me,' and for greeting him, on re-appearing, with the
command, 'Do not forget.'[53] These little things in Shakespeare are not

The second trait which is fully explained only by Hamlet's melancholy is
his own inability to understand why he delays. This emerges in a marked
degree when an occasion like the player's emotion or the sight of
Fortinbras's army stings Hamlet into shame at his inaction. '_Why_,' he
asks himself in genuine bewilderment, 'do I linger? Can the cause be
cowardice? Can it be sloth? Can it be thinking too precisely of the
event? And does _that_ again mean cowardice? What is it that makes me
sit idle when I feel it is shameful to do so, and when I have _cause,
and will, and strength, and means_, to act?' A man irresolute merely
because he was considering a proposed action too minutely would not feel
this bewilderment. A man might feel it whose conscience secretly
condemned the act which his explicit consciousness approved; but we have
seen that there is no sufficient evidence to justify us in conceiving
Hamlet thus. These are the questions of a man stimulated for the moment
to shake off the weight of his melancholy, and, because for the moment
he is free from it, unable to understand the paralysing pressure which
it exerts at other times.

I have dwelt thus at length on Hamlet's melancholy because, from the
psychological point of view, it is the centre of the tragedy, and to
omit it from consideration or to underrate its intensity is to make
Shakespeare's story unintelligible. But the psychological point of view
is not equivalent to the tragic; and, having once given its due weight
to the fact of Hamlet's melancholy, we may freely admit, or rather may
be anxious to insist, that this pathological condition would excite but
little, if any, tragic interest if it were not the condition of a nature
distinguished by that speculative genius on which the Schlegel-Coleridge
type of theory lays stress. Such theories misinterpret the connection
between that genius and Hamlet's failure, but still it is this
connection which gives to his story its peculiar fascination and makes
it appear (if the phrase may be allowed) as the symbol of a tragic
mystery inherent in human nature. Wherever this mystery touches us,
wherever we are forced to feel the wonder and awe of man's godlike
'apprehension' and his 'thoughts that wander through eternity,' and at
the same time are forced to see him powerless in his petty sphere of
action, and powerless (it would appear) from the very divinity of his
thought, we remember Hamlet. And this is the reason why, in the great
ideal movement which began towards the close of the eighteenth century,
this tragedy acquired a position unique among Shakespeare's dramas, and
shared only by Goethe's _Faust_. It was not that _Hamlet_ is
Shakespeare's greatest tragedy or most perfect work of art; it was that
_Hamlet_ most brings home to us at once the sense of the soul's
infinity, and the sense of the doom which not only circumscribes that
infinity but appears to be its offspring.


[Footnote 25: It may be convenient to some readers for the purposes of
this book to have by them a list of Shakespeare's plays, arranged in
periods. No such list, of course, can command general assent, but the
following (which does not throughout represent my own views) would
perhaps meet with as little objection from scholars as any other. For
some purposes the Third and Fourth Periods are better considered to be
one. Within each period the so-called Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies
are respectively grouped together; and for this reason, as well as for
others, the order within each period does not profess to be
chronological (_e.g._ it is not implied that the _Comedy of Errors_
preceded _1 Henry VI._ or _Titus Andronicus_). Where Shakespeare's
authorship of any considerable part of a play is questioned, widely or
by specially good authority, the name of the play is printed in italics.

_First Period_ (to 1595?).--Comedy of Errors, Love's Labour's Lost, Two
Gentlemen of Verona, Midsummer-Night's Dream; _1 Henry VI._, _2 Henry
VI._, _3 Henry VI._, Richard III., Richard II.; _Titus Andronicus_,
Romeo and Juliet.

_Second Period_ (to 1602?).--Merchant of Venice, All's Well (better in
Third Period?), _Taming of the Shrew_, Much Ado, As You Like it, Merry
Wives, Twelfth Night; King John, 1 Henry IV., 2 Henry IV., Henry V.;
Julius Caesar, Hamlet.

_Third Period_ (to 1608?).--Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure;
Othello, King Lear, _Timon of Athens_, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra,

_Fourth Period._--_Pericles_, Cymbeline, Winter's Tale, Tempest, _Two
Noble Kinsmen_, _Henry VIII._]

[Footnote 26: The reader will observe that this 'tragic period' would
not exactly coincide with the 'Third Period' of the division given in
the last note. For _Julius Caesar_ and _Hamlet_ fall in the Second
Period, not the Third; and I may add that, as _Pericles_ was entered at
Stationers' Hall in 1608 and published in 1609, it ought strictly to be
put in the Third Period--not the Fourth. The truth is that _Julius
Caesar_ and _Hamlet_ are given to the Second Period mainly on the ground
of style; while a Fourth Period is admitted, not mainly on that ground
(for there is no great difference here between _Antony_ and _Coriolanus_
on the one side and _Cymbeline_ and the _Tempest_ on the other), but
because of a difference in substance and spirit. If a Fourth Period were
admitted on grounds of form, it ought to begin with _Antony and

[Footnote 27: I should go perhaps too far if I said that it is generally
admitted that _Timon of Athens_ also precedes the two Roman tragedies;
but its precedence seems to me so nearly certain that I assume it in
what follows.]

[Footnote 28: That play, however, is distinguished, I think, by a
deliberate endeavour after a dignified and unadorned simplicity,--a
Roman simplicity perhaps.]

[Footnote 29: It is quite probable that this may arise in part from the
fact, which seems hardly doubtful, that the tragedy was revised, and in
places re-written, some little time after its first composition.]

[Footnote 30: This, if we confine ourselves to the tragedies, is, I
think, especially the case in _King Lear_ and _Timon_.]

[Footnote 31: The first, at any rate, of these three plays is, of
course, much nearer to _Hamlet_, especially in versification, than to
_Antony and Cleopatra_, in which Shakespeare's final style first shows
itself practically complete. It has been impossible, in the brief
treatment of this subject, to say what is required of the individual

[Footnote 32: _The Mirror_, 18th April, 1780, quoted by Furness,
_Variorum Hamlet_, ii. 148. In the above remarks I have relied mainly on
Furness's collection of extracts from early critics.]

[Footnote 33: I do not profess to reproduce any one theory, and, still
less, to do justice to the ablest exponent of this kind of view, Werder
(_Vorlesungen über Hamlet_, 1875), who by no means regards Hamlet's
difficulties as _merely_ external.]

[Footnote 34: I give one instance. When he spares the King, he speaks of
killing him when he is drunk asleep, when he is in his rage, when he is
awake in bed, when he is gaming, as if there were in none of these cases
the least obstacle (III. iii. 89 ff.).]

[Footnote 35: It is surprising to find quoted, in support of the
conscience view, the line 'Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,'
and to observe the total misinterpretation of the soliloquy _To be or
not to be_, from which the line comes. In this soliloquy Hamlet is not
thinking of the duty laid upon him at all. He is debating the question
of suicide. No one oppressed by the ills of life, he says, would
continue to bear them if it were not for speculation about his possible
fortune in another life. And then, generalising, he says (what applies
to himself, no doubt, though he shows no consciousness of the fact) that
such speculation or reflection makes men hesitate and shrink like
cowards from great actions and enterprises. 'Conscience' does not mean
moral sense or scrupulosity, but this reflection on the _consequences_
of action. It is the same thing as the 'craven scruple of thinking too
precisely on the event' of the speech in IV. iv. As to this use
of 'conscience,' see Schmidt, _s.v._ and the parallels there given. The
_Oxford Dictionary_ also gives many examples of similar uses of
'conscience,' though it unfortunately lends its authority to the
misinterpretation criticised.]

[Footnote 36: The King does not die of the _poison_ on the foil, like
Laertes and Hamlet. They were wounded before he was, but they die after

[Footnote 37: I may add here a word on one small matter. It is
constantly asserted that Hamlet wept over the body of Polonius. Now, if
he did, it would make no difference to my point in the paragraph above;
but there is no warrant in the text for the assertion. It is based on
some words of the Queen (IV. i. 24), in answer to the King's
question, 'Where is he gone?':

     To draw apart the body he hath killed:
     O'er whom his very madness, like some ore
     Among a mineral of metals base,
     Shows itself pure; he weeps for what is done.

But the Queen, as was pointed out by Doering, is trying to screen her
son. She has already made the false statement that when Hamlet, crying,
'A rat! a rat!', ran his rapier through the arras, it was because he
heard _something stir_ there, whereas we know that what he heard was a
man's voice crying, 'What ho! help, help, help!' And in this scene she
has come straight from the interview with her son, terribly agitated,
shaken with 'sighs' and 'profound heaves,' in the night (line 30). Now
we know what Hamlet said to the body, and of the body, in that
interview; and there is assuredly no sound of tears in the voice that
said those things and others. The only sign of relenting is in the words
(III. iv. 171):

                         For this same lord,
     I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
     To punish me with this and this with me,
     That I must be their scourge and minister.

His mother's statement, therefore, is almost certainly untrue, though it
may be to her credit. (It is just conceivable that Hamlet wept at
III. iv. 130, and that the Queen supposed he was weeping for

Perhaps, however, he may have wept over Polonius's body afterwards?
Well, in the _next_ scene (IV. ii.) we see him _alone_ with the
body, and are therefore likely to witness his genuine feelings. And his
first words are, 'Safely stowed'!]

[Footnote 38: Not 'must cripple,' as the English translation has it.]

[Footnote 39: He says so to Horatio, whom he has no motive for deceiving
(V. ii. 218). His contrary statement (II. ii. 308) is made to
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.]

[Footnote 40: See Note B.]

[Footnote 41: The critics have laboured to find a cause, but it seems to
me Shakespeare simply meant to portray a pathological condition; and a
very touching picture he draws. Antonio's sadness, which he describes in
the opening lines of the play, would never drive him to suicide, but it
makes him indifferent to the issue of the trial, as all his speeches in
the trial-scene show.]

[Footnote 42: Of course 'your' does not mean Horatio's philosophy in
particular. 'Your' is used as the Gravedigger uses it when he says that
'your water is a sore decayer of your ... dead body.']

[Footnote 43: This aspect of the matter leaves _us_ comparatively
unaffected, but Shakespeare evidently means it to be of importance. The
Ghost speaks of it twice, and Hamlet thrice (once in his last furious
words to the King). If, as we must suppose, the marriage was universally
admitted to be incestuous, the corrupt acquiescence of the court and the
electors to the crown would naturally have a strong effect on Hamlet's

[Footnote 44: It is most significant that the metaphor of this soliloquy
reappears in Hamlet's adjuration to his mother (III. iv. 150):

     Repent what's past; avoid what is to come;
     And do not spread the compost on the weeds
     To make them ranker.]

[Footnote 45: If the reader will now look at the only speech of Hamlet's
that precedes the soliloquy, and is more than one line in length--the
speech beginning 'Seems, madam! nay, it _is_'--he will understand what,
surely, when first we come to it, sounds very strange and almost
boastful. It is not, in effect, about Hamlet himself at all; it is about
his mother (I do not mean that it is intentionally and consciously so;
and still less that she understood it so).]

[Footnote 46: See Note D.]

[Footnote 47: See p. 13.]

[Footnote 48: _E.g._ in the transition, referred to above, from
desire for vengeance into the wish never to have been born; in
the soliloquy, 'O what a rogue'; in the scene at Ophelia's grave.
The Schlegel-Coleridge theory does not account for the psychological
movement in these passages.]

[Footnote 49: Hamlet's violence at Ophelia's grave, though probably
intentionally exaggerated, is another example of this want of
self-control. The Queen's description of him (V. i. 307),

               This is mere madness;
     And thus awhile the fit will work on him;
     Anon, as patient as the female dove,
     When that her golden couplets are disclosed,
     His silence will sit drooping.

may be true to life, though it is evidently prompted by anxiety to
excuse his violence on the ground of his insanity. On this passage see
further Note G.]

[Footnote 50: Throughout, I italicise to show the connection of ideas.]

[Footnote 51: Cf. _Measure for Measure_, IV. iv. 23, 'This deed
 ... makes me unpregnant and dull to all proceedings.']

[Footnote 52: III. ii. 196 ff., IV. vii. 111 ff.:

     Purpose is but the slave to _memory_,
     Of violent birth but poor validity.]

[Footnote 53: So, before, he had said to him:

     And duller should'st thou be than the fat weed
     That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
     Would'st thou not stir in this.

On Hamlet's soliloquy after the Ghost's disappearance see Note D.]



The only way, if there is any way, in which a conception of Hamlet's
character could be proved true, would be to show that it, and it alone,
explains all the relevant facts presented by the text of the drama. To
attempt such a demonstration here would obviously be impossible, even if
I felt certain of the interpretation of all the facts. But I propose now
to follow rapidly the course of the action in so far as it specially
illustrates the character, reserving for separate consideration one
important but particularly doubtful point.


We left Hamlet, at the close of the First Act, when he had just received
his charge from the spirit of his father; and his condition was vividly
depicted in the fact that, within an hour of receiving this charge, he
had relapsed into that weariness of life or longing for death which is
the immediate cause of his later inaction. When next we meet him, at the
opening of the Second Act, a considerable time has elapsed, apparently
as much as two months.[54] The ambassadors sent to the King of Norway
(I. ii. 27) are just returning. Laertes, whom we saw leaving Elsinore
(I. iii.), has been in Paris long enough to be in want of fresh
supplies. Ophelia has obeyed her father's command (given in I. iii.),
and has refused to receive Hamlet's visits or letters. What has Hamlet
done? He has put on an 'antic disposition' and established a reputation
for lunacy, with the result that his mother has become deeply anxious
about him, and with the further result that the King, who was formerly
so entirely at ease regarding him that he wished him to stay on at
Court, is now extremely uneasy and very desirous to discover the cause
of his 'transformation.' Hence Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been
sent for, to cheer him by their company and to worm his secret out of
him; and they are just about to arrive. Beyond exciting thus the
apprehensions of his enemy Hamlet has done absolutely nothing; and, as
we have seen, we must imagine him during this long period sunk for the
most part in 'bestial oblivion' or fruitless broodings, and falling
deeper and deeper into the slough of despond.

Now he takes a further step. He suddenly appears unannounced in
Ophelia's chamber; and his appearance and behaviour are such as to
suggest both to Ophelia and to her father that his brain is turned by
disappointment in love. How far this step was due to the design of
creating a false impression as to the origin of his lunacy, how far to
other causes, is a difficult question; but such a design seems certainly
present. It succeeds, however, only in part; for, although Polonius is
fully convinced, the King is not so, and it is therefore arranged that
the two shall secretly witness a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet.
Meanwhile Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, and at the King's request
begin their attempts, easily foiled by Hamlet, to pluck out the heart of
his mystery. Then the players come to Court, and for a little while one
of Hamlet's old interests revives, and he is almost happy. But only for
a little while. The emotion shown by the player in reciting the speech
which tells of Hecuba's grief for her slaughtered husband awakes into
burning life the slumbering sense of duty and shame. He must act. With
the extreme rapidity which always distinguishes him in his healthier
moments, he conceives and arranges the plan of having the 'Murder of
Gonzago' played before the King and Queen, with the addition of a speech
written by himself for the occasion. Then, longing to be alone, he
abruptly dismisses his guests, and pours out a passion of self-reproach
for his delay, asks himself in bewilderment what can be its cause,
lashes himself into a fury of hatred against his foe, checks himself in
disgust at his futile emotion, and quiets his conscience for the moment
by trying to convince himself that he has doubts about the Ghost, and by
assuring himself that, if the King's behaviour at the play-scene shows
but a sign of guilt, he 'knows his course.'

Nothing, surely, can be clearer than the meaning of this famous
soliloquy. The doubt which appears at its close, instead of being the
natural conclusion of the preceding thoughts, is totally inconsistent
with them. For Hamlet's self-reproaches, his curses on his enemy, and
his perplexity about his own inaction, one and all imply his faith in
the identity and truthfulness of the Ghost. Evidently this sudden doubt,
of which there has not been the slightest trace before, is no genuine
doubt; it is an unconscious fiction, an excuse for his delay--and for
its continuance.

A night passes, and the day that follows it brings the crisis. First
takes place that interview from which the King is to learn whether
disappointed love is really the cause of his nephew's lunacy. Hamlet is
sent for; poor Ophelia is told to walk up and down, reading her
prayer-book; Polonius and the King conceal themselves behind the arras.
And Hamlet enters, so deeply absorbed in thought that for some time he
supposes himself to be alone. What is he thinking of? 'The Murder of
Gonzago,' which is to be played in a few hours, and on which everything
depends? Not at all. He is meditating on suicide; and he finds that what
stands in the way of it, and counterbalances its infinite attraction, is
not any thought of a sacred unaccomplished duty, but the doubt, quite
irrelevant to that issue, whether it is not ignoble in the mind to end
its misery, and, still more, whether death _would_ end it. Hamlet, that
is to say, is here, in effect, precisely where he was at the time of his
first soliloquy ('O that this too too solid flesh would melt') two
months ago, before ever he heard of his father's murder.[55] His
reflections have no reference to this particular moment; they represent
that habitual weariness of life with which his passing outbursts of
emotion or energy are contrasted. What can be more significant than the
fact that he is sunk in these reflections on the very day which is to
determine for him the truthfulness of the Ghost? And how is it possible
for us to hope that, if that truthfulness should be established, Hamlet
will be any nearer to his revenge?[56]

His interview with Ophelia follows; and its result shows that his delay
is becoming most dangerous to himself. The King is satisfied that,
whatever else may be the hidden cause of Hamlet's madness, it is not
love. He is by no means certain even that Hamlet is mad at all. He has
heard that infuriated threat, 'I say, we will have no more marriages;
those that are married, all but one, shall live; the rest shall keep as
they are.' He is thoroughly alarmed. He at any rate will not delay. On
the spot he determines to send Hamlet to England. But, as Polonius is
present, we do not learn at once the meaning of this purpose.

Evening comes. The approach of the play-scene raises Hamlet's spirits.
He is in his element. He feels that he is doing _something_ towards his
end, striking a stroke, but a stroke of intellect. In his instructions
to the actor on the delivery of the inserted speech, and again in his
conversation with Horatio just before the entry of the Court, we see the
true Hamlet, the Hamlet of the days before his father's death. But how
characteristic it is that he appears quite as anxious that his speech
should not be ranted as that Horatio should observe its effect upon the
King! This trait appears again even at that thrilling moment when the
actor is just going to deliver the speech. Hamlet sees him beginning to
frown and glare like the conventional stage-murderer, and calls to him
impatiently, 'Leave thy damnable faces and begin!'[57]

Hamlet's device proves a triumph far more complete than he had dared to
expect. He had thought the King might 'blench,' but he does much more.
When only six of the 'dozen or sixteen lines' have been spoken he starts
to his feet and rushes from the hall, followed by the whole dismayed
Court. In the elation of success--an elation at first almost
hysterical--Hamlet treats Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are sent to
him, with undisguised contempt. Left to himself, he declares that now he

                   drink hot blood,
     And do such bitter business as the day
     Would quake to look on.

He has been sent for by his mother, and is going to her chamber; and so
vehement and revengeful is his mood that he actually fancies himself in
danger of using daggers to her as well as speaking them.[58]

In this mood, on his way to his mother's chamber, he comes upon the
King, alone, kneeling, conscience-stricken and attempting to pray. His
enemy is delivered into his hands.

     Now might I do it pat, now he is praying:
     And now I'll do it: and so he goes to heaven:
     And so am I revenged.[59] That would be scanned.

He scans it; and the sword that he drew at the words, 'And now I'll do
it,' is thrust back into its sheath. If he killed the villain now he
would send his soul to heaven; and he would fain kill soul as well as

That this again is an unconscious excuse for delay is now pretty
generally agreed, and it is needless to describe again the state of mind
which, on the view explained in our last lecture, is the real cause of
Hamlet's failure here. The first five words he utters, 'Now might I do
it,' show that he has no effective _desire_ to 'do it'; and in the
little sentences that follow, and the long pauses between them, the
endeavour at a resolution, and the sickening return of melancholic
paralysis, however difficult a task they set to the actor, are plain
enough to a reader. And any reader who may retain a doubt should observe
the fact that, when the Ghost reappears, Hamlet does not think of
justifying his delay by the plea that he was waiting for a more perfect
vengeance. But in one point the great majority of critics, I think, go
astray. The feeling of intense hatred which Hamlet expresses is not the
cause of his sparing the King, and in his heart he knows this; but it
does not at all follow that this feeling is unreal. All the evidence
afforded by the play goes to show that it is perfectly genuine, and I
see no reason whatever to doubt that Hamlet would have been very sorry
to send his father's murderer to heaven, nor much to doubt that he would
have been glad to send him to perdition. The reason for refusing to
accept his own version of his motive in sparing Claudius is not that his
sentiments are horrible, but that elsewhere, and also in the opening of
his speech here, we can see that his reluctance to act is due to other

The incident of the sparing of the King is contrived with extraordinary
dramatic insight. On the one side we feel that the opportunity was
perfect. Hamlet could not possibly any longer tell himself that he had
no certainty as to his uncle's guilt. And the external conditions were
most favourable; for the King's remarkable behaviour at the play-scene
would have supplied a damning confirmation of the story Hamlet had to
tell about the Ghost. Even now, probably, in a Court so corrupt as that
of Elsinore, he could not with perfect security have begun by charging
the King with the murder; but he could quite safely have killed him
first and given his justification afterwards, especially as he would
certainly have had on his side the people, who loved him and despised
Claudius. On the other hand, Shakespeare has taken care to give this
perfect opportunity so repulsive a character that we can hardly bring
ourselves to wish that the hero should accept it. One of his minor
difficulties, we have seen, probably was that he seemed to be required
to attack a defenceless man; and here this difficulty is at its maximum.

This incident is, again, the turning-point of the tragedy. So far,
Hamlet's delay, though it is endangering his freedom and his life, has
done no irreparable harm; but his failure here is the cause of all the
disasters that follow. In sparing the King, he sacrifices Polonius,
Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, the Queen and himself.
This central significance of the passage is dramatically indicated in
the following scene by the reappearance of the Ghost and the repetition
of its charge.

Polonius is the first to fall. The old courtier, whose vanity would not
allow him to confess that his diagnosis of Hamlet's lunacy was mistaken,
had suggested that, after the theatricals, the Queen should endeavour in
a private interview with her son to penetrate the mystery, while he
himself would repeat his favourite part of eaves-dropper (III. i. 184
ff.). It has now become quite imperative that the Prince should be
brought to disclose his secret; for his choice of the 'Murder of
Gonzago,' and perhaps his conduct during the performance, have shown a
spirit of exaggerated hostility against the King which has excited
general alarm. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discourse to Claudius on the
extreme importance of his preserving his invaluable life, as though
Hamlet's insanity had now clearly shown itself to be homicidal.[60]
When, then, at the opening of the interview between Hamlet and his
mother, the son, instead of listening to her remonstrances, roughly
assumes the offensive, she becomes alarmed; and when, on her attempting
to leave the room, he takes her by the arm and forces her to sit down,
she is terrified, cries out, 'Thou wilt not murder me?' and screams for
help. Polonius, behind the arras, echoes her call; and in a moment
Hamlet, hoping the concealed person is the King, runs the old man
through the body.

Evidently this act is intended to stand in sharp contrast with Hamlet's
sparing of his enemy. The King would have been just as defenceless
behind the arras as he had been on his knees; but here Hamlet is already
excited and in action, and the chance comes to him so suddenly that he
has no time to 'scan' it. It is a minor consideration, but still for the
dramatist not unimportant, that the audience would wholly sympathise
with Hamlet's attempt here, as directed against an enemy who is lurking
to entrap him, instead of being engaged in a business which perhaps to
the bulk of the audience then, as now, seemed to have a 'relish of
salvation in't.'

We notice in Hamlet, at the opening of this interview, something of the
excited levity which followed the _dénouement_ of the play-scene. The
death of Polonius sobers him; and in the remainder of the interview he
shows, together with some traces of his morbid state, the peculiar
beauty and nobility of his nature. His chief desire is not by any means
to ensure his mother's silent acquiescence in his design of revenge; it
is to save her soul. And while the rough work of vengeance is repugnant
to him, he is at home in this higher work. Here that fatal feeling, 'it
is no matter,' never shows itself. No father-confessor could be more
selflessly set upon his end of redeeming a fellow-creature from
degradation, more stern or pitiless in denouncing the sin, or more eager
to welcome the first token of repentance. There is something infinitely
beautiful in that sudden sunshine of faith and love which breaks out
when, at the Queen's surrender,

     O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain,

he answers,

     O throw away the worser part of it,
     And live the purer with the other half.

The truth is that, though Hamlet hates his uncle and acknowledges the
duty of vengeance, his whole heart is never in this feeling or this
task; but his whole heart is in his horror at his mother's fall and in
his longing to raise her. The former of these feelings was the
inspiration of his first soliloquy; it combines with the second to form
the inspiration of his eloquence here. And Shakespeare never wrote more
eloquently than here.

I have already alluded to the significance of the reappearance of the
Ghost in this scene; but why does Shakespeare choose for the particular
moment of its reappearance the middle of a speech in which Hamlet is
raving against his uncle? There seems to be more than one reason. In the
first place, Hamlet has already attained his object of stirring shame
and contrition in his mother's breast, and is now yielding to the old
temptation of unpacking his heart with words, and exhausting in useless
emotion the force which should be stored up in his will. And, next, in
doing this he is agonising his mother to no purpose, and in despite of
her piteous and repeated appeals for mercy. But the Ghost, when it gave
him his charge, had expressly warned him to spare her; and here again
the dead husband shows the same tender regard for his weak unfaithful
wife. The object of his return is to repeat his charge:

     Do not forget: this visitation
     Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose;

but, having uttered this reminder, he immediately bids the son to help
the mother and 'step between her and her fighting soul.'

And, whether intentionally or not, another purpose is served by
Shakespeare's choice of this particular moment. It is a moment when the
state of Hamlet's mind is such that we cannot suppose the Ghost to be
meant for an hallucination; and it is of great importance here that the
spectator or reader should not suppose any such thing. He is further
guarded by the fact that the Ghost proves, so to speak, his identity by
showing the same traits as were visible on his first appearance--the
same insistence on the duty of remembering, and the same concern for the
Queen. And the result is that we construe the Ghost's interpretation of
Hamlet's delay ('almost blunted purpose') as the truth, the dramatist's
own interpretation. Let me add that probably no one in Shakespeare's
audience had any doubt of his meaning here. The idea of later critics
and readers that the Ghost is an hallucination is due partly to failure
to follow the indications just noticed, but partly also to two mistakes,
the substitution of our present intellectual atmosphere for the
Elizabethan, and the notion that, because the Queen does not see and
hear the Ghost, it is meant to be unreal. But a ghost, in Shakespeare's
day, was able for any sufficient reason to confine its manifestation to
a single person in a company; and here the sufficient reason, that of
sparing the Queen, is obvious.[61]

At the close of this scene it appears that Hamlet has somehow learned of
the King's design of sending him to England in charge of his two
'school-fellows.' He has no doubt that this design covers some
villainous plot against himself, but neither does he doubt that he will
succeed in defeating it; and, as we saw, he looks forward with pleasure
to this conflict of wits. The idea of refusing to go appears not to
occur to him. Perhaps (for here we are left to conjecture) he feels that
he could not refuse unless at the same time he openly accused the King
of his father's murder (a course which he seems at no time to
contemplate); for by the slaughter of Polonius he has supplied his enemy
with the best possible excuse for getting him out of the country.
Besides, he has so effectually warned this enemy that, after the death
of Polonius is discovered, he is kept under guard (IV. iii. 14). He
consents, then, to go. But on his way to the shore he meets the army of
Fortinbras on its march to Poland; and the sight of these men going
cheerfully to risk death 'for an egg-shell,' and 'making mouths at the
invisible event,' strikes him with shame as he remembers how he, with so
much greater cause for action, 'lets all sleep;' and he breaks out into
the soliloquy, 'How all occasions do inform against me!'

This great speech, in itself not inferior to the famous 'To be or not to
be,' is absent not only from the First Quarto but from the Folio. It is
therefore probable that, at any rate by the time when the Folio appeared
(1623), it had become customary to omit it in theatrical representation;
and this is still the custom. But, while no doubt it is dramatically the
least indispensable of the soliloquies, it has a direct dramatic value,
and a great value for the interpretation of Hamlet's character. It shows
that Hamlet, though he is leaving Denmark, has not relinquished the idea
of obeying the Ghost. It exhibits very strikingly his inability to
understand why he has delayed so long. It contains that assertion which
so many critics forget, that he has 'cause and will and strength and
means to do it.' On the other hand--and this was perhaps the principal
purpose of the speech--it convinces us that he has learnt little or
nothing from his delay, or from his failure to seize the opportunity
presented to him after the play-scene. For, we find, both the motive and
the gist of the speech are precisely the same as those of the soliloquy
at the end of the Second Act ('O what a rogue'). There too he was
stirred to shame when he saw a passionate emotion awakened by a cause
which, compared with his, was a mere egg-shell. There too he stood
bewildered at the sight of his own dulness, and was almost ready to
believe--what was justly incredible to him--that it was the mask of mere
cowardice. There too he determined to delay no longer: if the King
should but blench, he knew his course. Yet this determination led to
nothing then; and why, we ask ourselves in despair, should the bloody
thoughts he now resolves to cherish ever pass beyond the realm of

Between this scene (IV. iv.) and the remainder of the play we must again
suppose an interval, though not a very long one. When the action
recommences, the death of Polonius has led to the insanity of Ophelia
and the secret return of Laertes from France. The young man comes back
breathing slaughter. For the King, afraid to put Hamlet on his trial (a
course likely to raise the question of his own behaviour at the play,
and perhaps to provoke an open accusation),[62] has attempted to hush up
the circumstances of Polonius's death, and has given him a hurried and
inglorious burial. The fury of Laertes, therefore, is directed in the
first instance against the King: and the ease with which he raises the
people, like the King's fear of a judicial enquiry, shows us how purely
internal were the obstacles which the hero had to overcome. This
impression is intensified by the broad contrast between Hamlet and
Laertes, who rushes headlong to his revenge, and is determined to have
it though allegiance, conscience, grace and damnation stand in his way
(IV. v. 130). But the King, though he has been hard put to it, is now in
his element and feels safe. Knowing that he will very soon hear of
Hamlet's execution in England, he tells Laertes that his father died by
Hamlet's hand, and expresses his willingness to let the friends of
Laertes judge whether he himself has any responsibility for the deed.
And when, to his astonishment and dismay, news comes that Hamlet has
returned to Denmark, he acts with admirable promptitude and address,
turns Laertes round his finger, and arranges with him for the murder of
their common enemy. If there were any risk of the young man's resolution
faltering, it is removed by the death of Ophelia. And now the King has
but one anxiety,--to prevent the young men from meeting before the
fencing-match. For who can tell what Hamlet might say in his defence, or
how enchanting his tongue might prove?[63]

Hamlet's return to Denmark is due partly to his own action, partly to
accident. On the voyage he secretly possesses himself of the royal
commission, and substitutes for it another, which he himself writes and
seals, and in which the King of England is ordered to put to death, not
Hamlet, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Then the ship is attacked by a
pirate, which, apparently, finds its intended prize too strong for it,
and makes off. But as Hamlet 'in the grapple,' eager for fighting, has
boarded the assailant, he is carried off in it, and by promises induces
the pirates to put him ashore in Denmark.

In what spirit does he return? Unquestionably, I think, we can observe a
certain change, though it is not great. First, we notice here and there
what seems to be a consciousness of power, due probably to his success
in counter-mining Claudius and blowing the courtiers to the moon, and to
his vigorous action in the sea-fight. But I doubt if this sense of power
is more marked than it was in the scenes following the success of the
'Murder of Gonzago.' Secondly, we nowhere find any direct expression of
that weariness of life and that longing for death which were so marked
in the first soliloquy and in the speech 'To be or not to be.' This may
be a mere accident, and it must be remembered that in the Fifth Act we
have no soliloquy. But in the earlier Acts the feelings referred to do
not appear _merely_ in soliloquy, and I incline to think that
Shakespeare means to show in the Hamlet of the Fifth Act a slight
thinning of the dark cloud of melancholy, and means us to feel it tragic
that this change comes too late. And, in the third place, there is a
trait about which doubt is impossible,--a sense in Hamlet that he is in
the hands of Providence. This had, indeed, already shown itself at the
death of Polonius,[64] and perhaps at Hamlet's farewell to the King,[65]
but the idea seems now to be constantly present in his mind. 'There's a
divinity that shapes our ends,' he declares to Horatio in speaking of
the fighting in his heart that would not let him sleep, and of his
rashness in groping his way to the courtiers to find their commission.
How was he able, Horatio asks, to seal the substituted commission?

     Why, even in that was heaven ordinant,

Hamlet answers; he had his father's signet in his purse. And though he
has a presentiment of evil about the fencing-match he refuses to yield
to it: 'we defy augury: there is special providence in the fall of a
sparrow ... the readiness is all.'

Though these passages strike us more when put together thus than when
they come upon us at intervals in reading the play, they have a marked
effect on our feeling about Hamlet's character and still more about the
events of the action. But I find it impossible to believe, with some
critics, that they indicate any material change in his general
condition, or the formation of any effective resolution to fulfil the
appointed duty. On the contrary, they seem to express that kind of
religious resignation which, however beautiful in one aspect, really
deserves the name of fatalism rather than that of faith in Providence,
because it is not united to any determination to do what is believed to
be the will of Providence. In place of this determination, the Hamlet of
the Fifth Act shows a kind of sad or indifferent self-abandonment, as if
he secretly despaired of forcing himself to action, and were ready to
leave his duty to some other power than his own. _This_ is really the
main change which appears in him after his return to Denmark, and which
had begun to show itself before he went,--this, and not a determination
to act, nor even an anxiety to do so.

For when he returns he stands in a most perilous position. On one side
of him is the King, whose safety depends on his death, and who has done
his best to murder him; on the other, Laertes, whose father and sister
he has sent to their graves, and of whose behaviour and probable
attitude he must surely be informed by Horatio. What is required of him,
therefore, if he is not to perish with his duty undone, is the utmost
wariness and the swiftest resolution. Yet it is not too much to say
that, except when Horatio forces the matter on his attention, he shows
no consciousness of this position. He muses in the graveyard on the
nothingness of life and fame, and the base uses to which our dust
returns, whether it be a court-jester's or a world-conqueror's. He
learns that the open grave over which he muses has been dug for the
woman he loved; and he suffers one terrible pang, from which he gains
relief in frenzied words and frenzied action,--action which must needs
intensify, if that were possible, the fury of the man whom he has,
however unwittingly, so cruelly injured. Yet he appears absolutely
unconscious that he has injured Laertes at all, and asks him:

     What is the reason that you use me thus?

And as the sharpness of the first pang passes, the old weary misery
returns, and he might almost say to Ophelia, as he does to her brother:

     I loved you ever: but it is no matter.

'It is no matter': _nothing_ matters.

The last scene opens. He narrates to Horatio the events of the voyage
and his uncle's attempt to murder him. But the conclusion of the story
is no plan of action, but the old fatal question, 'Ought I not to
act?'[66] And, while he asks it, his enemies have acted. Osric enters
with an invitation to him to take part in a fencing-match with Laertes.
This match--he is expressly told so--has been arranged by his deadly
enemy the King; and his antagonist is a man whose hands but a few hours
ago were at his throat, and whose voice he had heard shouting 'The devil
take thy soul!' But he does not think of that. To fence is to show a
courtesy, and to himself it is a relief,--action, and not the one
hateful action. There is something noble in his carelessness, and also
in his refusal to attend to the presentiment which he suddenly feels
(and of which he says, not only 'the readiness is all,' but also 'it is
no matter'). Something noble; and yet, when a sacred duty is still
undone, ought one to be so ready to die? With the same carelessness, and
with that trustfulness which makes us love him, but which is here so
fatally misplaced, he picks up the first foil that comes to his hand,
asks indifferently, 'These foils have all a length?' and begins. And
Fate descends upon his enemies, and his mother, and himself.

But he is not left in utter defeat. Not only is his task at last
accomplished, but Shakespeare seems to have determined that his hero
should exhibit in his latest hour all the glorious power and all the
nobility and sweetness of his nature. Of the first, the power, I spoke
before,[67] but there is a wonderful beauty in the revelation of the
second. His body already labouring in the pangs of death, his mind soars
above them. He forgives Laertes; he remembers his wretched mother and
bids her adieu, ignorant that she has preceded him. We hear now no word
of lamentation or self-reproach. He has will, and just time, to think,
not of the past or of what might have been, but of the future; to forbid
his friend's death in words more pathetic in their sadness than even his
agony of spirit had been; and to take care, so far as in him lies, for
the welfare of the State which he himself should have guided. Then in
spite of shipwreck he reaches the haven of silence where he would be.
What else could his world-wearied flesh desire?

But _we_ desire more; and we receive it. As those mysterious words, 'The
rest is silence,' die upon Hamlet's lips, Horatio answers:

     Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
     And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Why did Shakespeare here, so much against his custom, introduce this
reference to another life? Did he remember that Hamlet is the only one
of his tragic heroes whom he has not allowed us to see in the days when
this life smiled on him? Did he feel that, while for the others we might
be content to imagine after life's fitful fever nothing more than
release and silence, we must ask more for one whose 'godlike reason' and
passionate love of goodness have only gleamed upon us through the heavy
clouds of melancholy, and yet have left us murmuring, as we bow our
heads, 'This was the noblest spirit of them all'?


How many things still remain to say of Hamlet! Before I touch on his
relation to Ophelia, I will choose but two. Neither of them, compared
with the matters so far considered, is of great consequence, but both
are interesting, and the first seems to have quite escaped observation.

(1) Most people have, beside their more essential traits of character,
little peculiarities which, for their intimates, form an indissoluble
part of their personality. In comedy, and in other humorous works of
fiction, such peculiarities often figure prominently, but they rarely do
so, I think, in tragedy. Shakespeare, however, seems to have given one
such idiosyncrasy to Hamlet.

It is a trick of speech, a habit of repetition. And these are simple
examples of it from the first soliloquy:

                            O _God! God!_
     How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
     Seem to me all the uses of this world!
     _Fie_ on't! ah _fie!_

Now I ask your patience. You will say: 'There is nothing individual
here. Everybody repeats words thus. And the tendency, in particular, to
use such repetitions in moments of great emotion is well-known, and
frequently illustrated in literature--for example, in David's cry of
lament for Absalom.'

This is perfectly true, and plenty of examples could be drawn from
Shakespeare himself. But what we find in Hamlet's case is, I believe,
_not_ common. In the first place, this repetition is a _habit_ with him.
Here are some more instances: 'Thrift, thrift, Horatio'; 'Indeed,
indeed, sirs, but this troubles me'; 'Come, deal justly with me: come,
come'; 'Wormwood, wormwood!' I do not profess to have made an exhaustive
search, but I am much mistaken if this _habit_ is to be found in any
other serious character of Shakespeare.[68]

And, in the second place--and here I appeal with confidence to lovers of
Hamlet--some of these repetitions strike us as intensely characteristic.
Some even of those already quoted strike one thus, and still more do the

     (_a_)  _Horatio._   It would have much amazed you.
            _Hamlet._    Very like, very like. Stay'd it long?

     (_b_)  _Polonius._  What do you read, my lord?
            _Hamlet._    Words, words, words.

     (_c_)  _Polonius._  My honourable lord, I will most humbly take
                           my leave of you.
            _Hamlet._    You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I
                           will more willingly part withal: except my
                           life, except my life, except my life.

     (_d_)  _Ophelia._                  Good my lord,
                         How does your honour for this many a day?
            _Hamlet._    I humbly thank you, well, well, well.

Is there anything that Hamlet says or does in the whole play more
unmistakably individual than these replies?[69]

(2) Hamlet, everyone has noticed, is fond of quibbles and word-play, and
of 'conceits' and turns of thought such as are common in the poets whom
Johnson called Metaphysical. Sometimes, no doubt, he plays with words
and ideas chiefly in order to mystify, thwart and annoy. To some extent,
again, as we may see from the conversation where Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern first present themselves (II. ii. 227), he is merely
following the fashion of the young courtiers about him, just as in his
love-letter to Ophelia[70] he uses for the most part the fantastic
language of Court Euphuism. Nevertheless in this trait there is
something very characteristic. We should be greatly surprised to find it
marked in Othello or Lear or Timon, in Macbeth or Antony or Coriolanus;
and, in fact, we find it in them hardly at all. One reason of this may
perhaps be that these characters are all later creations than Hamlet,
and that Shakespeare's own fondness for this kind of play, like the
fondness of the theatrical audience for it, diminished with time. But
the main reason is surely that this tendency, as we see it in Hamlet,
betokens a nimbleness and flexibility of mind which is characteristic of
him and not of the later less many-sided heroes. Macbeth, for instance,
has an imagination quite as sensitive as Hamlet's to certain
impressions, but he has none of Hamlet's delight in freaks and twists of
thought, or of his tendency to perceive and play with resemblances in
the most diverse objects and ideas. Though Romeo shows this tendency,
the only tragic hero who approaches Hamlet here is Richard II., who
indeed in several ways recalls the emasculated Hamlet of some critics,
and may, like the real Hamlet, have owed his existence in part to
Shakespeare's personal familiarity with the weaknesses and dangers of an
imaginative temperament.

That Shakespeare meant this trait to be characteristic of Hamlet is
beyond question. The very first line the hero speaks contains a play on

     A little more than kin and less than kind.

The fact is significant, though the pun itself is not specially
characteristic. Much more so, and indeed absolutely individual, are the
uses of word-play in moments of extreme excitement. Remember the awe and
terror of the scene where the Ghost beckons Hamlet to leave his friends
and follow him into the darkness, and then consider this dialogue:

     _Hamlet._                    It waves me still.
                   Go on; I'll follow thee.

     _Marcellus._  You shall not go, my lord.

     _Hamlet._                    Hold off your hands.

     _Horatio._    Be ruled; you shall not go.

     _Hamlet._                    My fate cries out,
                   And makes each petty artery in this body
                   As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve.
                   Still am I called. Unhand me, gentlemen.
                   _By heaven I'll make a ghost of him that lets me._

Would any other character in Shakespeare have used those words? And,
again, where is Hamlet more Hamlet than when he accompanies with a pun
the furious action by which he compels his enemy to drink the 'poison
tempered by himself'?

     Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damn'd Dane,
     Drink off this potion. Is thy union here?
     Follow my mother.

The 'union' was the pearl which Claudius professed to throw into the
cup, and in place of which (as Hamlet supposes) he dropped poison in.
But the 'union' is also that incestuous marriage which must not be
broken by his remaining alive now that his partner is dead. What rage
there is in the words, and what a strange lightning of the mind!

Much of Hamlet's play with words and ideas is imaginatively humorous.
That of Richard II. is fanciful, but rarely, if ever, humorous. Antony
has touches of humour, and Richard III. has more; but Hamlet, we may
safely assert, is the only one of the tragic heroes who can be called a
humorist, his humour being first cousin to that speculative tendency
which keeps his mental world in perpetual movement. Some of his quips
are, of course, poor enough, and many are not distinctive. Those of his
retorts which strike one as perfectly individual do so, I think, chiefly
because they suddenly reveal the misery and bitterness below the
surface; as when, to Rosencrantz's message from his mother, 'She desires
to speak with you in her closet, ere you go to bed,' he answers, 'We
shall obey, were she ten times our mother'; or as when he replies to
Polonius's invitation, 'Will you walk out of the air, my lord?' with
words that suddenly turn one cold, 'Into my grave.' Otherwise, what we
justly call Hamlet's characteristic humour is not his exclusive
property, but appears in passages spoken by persons as different as
Mercutio, Falstaff and Rosalind. The truth probably is that it was the
kind of humour most natural to Shakespeare himself, and that here, as in
some other traits of the poet's greatest creation, we come into close
contact with Shakespeare the man.


The actor who plays the part of Hamlet must make up his mind as to the
interpretation of every word and deed of the character. Even if at some
point he feels no certainty as to which of two interpretations is right,
he must still choose one or the other. The mere critic is not obliged to
do this. Where he remains in doubt he may say so, and, if the matter is
of importance, he ought to say so.

This is the position in which I find myself in regard to Hamlet's love
for Ophelia. I am unable to arrive at a conviction as to the meaning of
some of his words and deeds, and I question whether from the mere text
of the play a sure interpretation of them can be drawn. For this reason
I have reserved the subject for separate treatment, and have, so far as
possible, kept it out of the general discussion of Hamlet's character.

On two points no reasonable doubt can, I think, be felt. (1) Hamlet was
at one time sincerely and ardently in love with Ophelia. For she herself
says that he had importuned her with love in honourable fashion, and had
given countenance to his speech with almost all the holy vows of heaven
(I. iii. 110 f.). (2) When, at Ophelia's grave, he declared,

     I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers
     Could not, with all their quantity of love,
     Make up my sum,

he must have spoken sincerely; and, further, we may take it for granted
that he used the past tense, 'loved,' merely because Ophelia was dead,
and not to imply that he had once loved her but no longer did so.

So much being assumed, we come to what is doubtful, and I will begin by
stating what is probably the most popular view. According to this view,
Hamlet's love for Ophelia never changed. On the revelation made by the
Ghost, however, he felt that he must put aside all thoughts of it; and
it also seemed to him necessary to convince Ophelia, as well as others,
that he was insane, and so to destroy her hopes of any happy issue to
their love. This was the purpose of his appearance in her chamber,
though he was probably influenced also by a longing to see her and bid
her a silent farewell, and possibly by a faint hope that he might safely
entrust his secret to her. If he entertained any such hope his study of
her face dispelled it; and thereafter, as in the Nunnery-scene (III. i.)
and again at the play-scene, he not only feigned madness, but, to
convince her that he had quite lost his love for her, he also addressed
her in bitter and insulting language. In all this he was acting a part
intensely painful to himself; the very violence of his language in the
Nunnery-scene arose from this pain; and so the actor should make him
show, in that scene, occasional signs of a tenderness which with all his
efforts he cannot wholly conceal. Finally, over her grave the truth
bursts from him in the declaration quoted just now, though it is still
impossible for him to explain to others why he who loved her so
profoundly was forced to wring her heart.

Now this theory, if the view of Hamlet's character which I have taken is
anywhere near the truth, is certainly wrong at one point, viz., in so
far as it supposes that Hamlet's bitterness to Ophelia was a _mere_
pretence forced on him by his design of feigning to be insane; and I
proceed to call attention to certain facts and considerations, of which
the theory seems to take no account.

1. How is it that in his first soliloquy Hamlet makes no reference
whatever to Ophelia?

2. How is it that in his second soliloquy, on the departure of the
Ghost, he again says nothing about her? When the lover is feeling that
he must make a complete break with his past, why does it not occur to
him at once that he must give up his hopes of happiness in love?

3. Hamlet does not, as the popular theory supposes, break with Ophelia
directly after the Ghost appears to him; on the contrary, he tries to
see her and sends letters to her (II. i. 109). What really happens is
that Ophelia suddenly repels his visits and letters. Now, _we_ know that
she is simply obeying her father's order; but how would her action
appear to Hamlet, already sick at heart because of his mother's
frailty,[71] and now finding that, the moment fortune has turned against
him, the woman who had welcomed his love turns against him too? Even if
he divined (as his insults to Polonius suggest) that her father was
concerned in this change, would he not still, in that morbid condition
of mind, certainly suspect her of being less simple than she had
appeared to him?[72] Even if he remained free from _this_ suspicion, and
merely thought her deplorably weak, would he not probably feel anger
against _her_, an anger like that of the hero of _Locksley Hall_ against
his Amy?

4. When Hamlet made his way into Ophelia's room, why did he go in the
garb, the conventionally recognised garb, of the distracted _lover_? If
it was necessary to convince Ophelia of his insanity, how was it
necessary to convince her that disappointment in _love_ was the cause of
his insanity? His _main_ object in the visit appears to have been to
convince _others_, through her, that his insanity was not due to any
mysterious unknown cause, but to this disappointment, and so to allay
the suspicions of the King. But if his feeling for her had been simply
that of love, however unhappy, and had not been in any degree that of
suspicion or resentment, would he have adopted a plan which must involve
her in so much suffering?[73]

5. In what way are Hamlet's insults to Ophelia at the play-scene
necessary either to his purpose of convincing her of his insanity or to
his purpose of revenge? And, even if he did regard them as somehow means
to these ends, is it conceivable that he would have uttered them, if his
feeling for her were one of hopeless but unmingled love?

6. How is it that neither when he kills Polonius, nor afterwards, does
he appear to reflect that he has killed Ophelia's father, or what the
effect on Ophelia is likely to be?

7. We have seen that there is no reference to Ophelia in the soliloquies
of the First Act. Neither is there the faintest allusion to her in any
one of the soliloquies of the subsequent Acts, unless possibly in the
words (III. i. 72) 'the pangs of despised love.'[74] If the popular
theory is true, is not this an astounding fact?

8. Considering this fact, is there no significance in the further fact
(which, by itself, would present no difficulty) that in speaking to
Horatio Hamlet never alludes to Ophelia, and that at his death he says
nothing of her?

9. If the popular theory is true, how is it that neither in the
Nunnery-scene nor at the play-scene does Shakespeare insert anything to
make the truth plain? Four words like Othello's 'O hardness to
dissemble' would have sufficed.

These considerations, coupled with others as to Hamlet's state of mind,
seem to point to two conclusions. They suggest, first, that Hamlet's
love, though never lost, was, after Ophelia's apparent rejection of him,
mingled with suspicion and resentment, and that his treatment of her was
due in part to this cause. And I find it impossible to resist this
conclusion. But the question how much of his harshness is meant to be
real, and how much assumed, seems to me impossible in some places to
answer. For example, his behaviour at the play-scene seems to me to show
an intention to hurt and insult; but in the Nunnery-scene (which cannot
be discussed briefly) he is evidently acting a part and suffering
acutely, while at the same time his invective, however exaggerated,
seems to spring from real feelings; and what is pretence, and what
sincerity, appears to me an insoluble problem. Something depends here on
the further question whether or no Hamlet suspects or detects the
presence of listeners; but, in the absence of an authentic stage
tradition, this question too seems to be unanswerable.

But something further seems to follow from the considerations adduced.
Hamlet's love, they seem to show, was not only mingled with bitterness,
it was also, like all his healthy feelings, weakened and deadened by his
melancholy.[75] It was far from being extinguished; probably it was
_one_ of the causes which drove him to force his way to Ophelia;
whenever he saw Ophelia, it awoke and, the circumstances being what they
were, tormented him. But it was not an absorbing passion; it did not
habitually occupy his thoughts; and when he declared that it was such a
love as forty thousand brothers could not equal, he spoke sincerely
indeed but not truly. What he said was true, if I may put it thus, of
the inner healthy self which doubtless in time would have fully
reasserted itself; but it was only partly true of the Hamlet whom we see
in the play. And the morbid influence of his melancholy on his love is
the cause of those strange facts, that he never alludes to her in his
soliloquies, and that he appears not to realise how the death of her
father must affect her.

The facts seem almost to force this idea on us. That it is less
'romantic' than the popular view is no argument against it. And
psychologically it is quite sound, for a frequent symptom of such
melancholy as Hamlet's is a more or less complete paralysis, or even
perversion, of the emotion of love. And yet, while feeling no doubt that
up to a certain point it is true, I confess I am not satisfied that the
explanation of Hamlet's silence regarding Ophelia lies in it. And the
reason of this uncertainty is that scarcely any spectators or readers of
_Hamlet_ notice this silence at all; that I never noticed it myself till
I began to try to solve the problem of Hamlet's relation to Ophelia; and
that even now, when I read the play through without pausing to consider
particular questions, it scarcely strikes me. Now Shakespeare wrote
primarily for the theatre and not for students, and therefore great
weight should be attached to the immediate impressions made by his
works. And so it seems at least possible that the explanation of
Hamlet's silence may be that Shakespeare, having already a very
difficult task to perform in the soliloquies--that of showing the state
of mind which caused Hamlet to delay his vengeance--did not choose to
make his task more difficult by introducing matter which would not only
add to the complexity of the subject but might, from its 'sentimental'
interest, distract attention from the main point; while, from his
theatrical experience, he knew that the audience would not observe how
unnatural it was that a man deeply in love, and forced not only to
renounce but to wound the woman he loved, should not think of her when
he was alone. But, as this explanation is no more completely convincing
to me than the other, I am driven to suspend judgment, and also to
suspect that the text admits of no sure interpretation. [This paragraph
states my view imperfectly.]

This result may seem to imply a serious accusation against Shakespeare.
But it must be remembered that if we could see a contemporary
representation of _Hamlet_, our doubts would probably disappear. The
actor, instructed by the author, would make it clear to us by looks,
tones, gestures, and by-play how far Hamlet's feigned harshness to
Ophelia was mingled with real bitterness, and again how far his
melancholy had deadened his love.


As we have seen, all the persons in _Hamlet_ except the hero are minor
characters, who fail to rise to the tragic level. They are not less
interesting on that account, but the hero has occupied us so long that I
shall refer only to those in regard to whom Shakespeare's intention
appears to be not seldom misunderstood or overlooked.

It may seem strange that Ophelia should be one of these; and yet
Shakespearean literature and the experience of teachers show that there
is much difference of opinion regarding her, and in particular that a
large number of readers feel a kind of personal irritation against her.
They seem unable to forgive her for not having been a heroine, and they
fancy her much weaker than she was. They think she ought to have been
able to help Hamlet to fulfil his task. And they betray, it appears to
me, the strangest misconceptions as to what she actually did.

Now it was essential to Shakespeare's purpose that too great an interest
should not be aroused in the love-story; essential, therefore, that
Ophelia should be merely one of the subordinate characters; and
necessary, accordingly, that she should not be the equal, in spirit,
power or intelligence, of his famous heroines. If she had been an
Imogen, a Cordelia, even a Portia or a Juliet, the story must have taken
another shape. Hamlet would either have been stimulated to do his duty,
or (which is more likely) he would have gone mad, or (which is
likeliest) he would have killed himself in despair. Ophelia, therefore,
was made a character who could not help Hamlet, and for whom on the
other hand he would not naturally feel a passion so vehement or profound
as to interfere with the main motive of the play.[76] And in the love
and the fate of Ophelia herself there was introduced an element, not of
deep tragedy but of pathetic beauty, which makes the analysis of her
character seem almost a desecration.

Ophelia is plainly quite young and inexperienced. She has lost her
mother, and has only a father and a brother, affectionate but worldly,
to take care of her. Everyone in the drama who has any heart is drawn to
her. To the persons in the play, as to the readers of it, she brings the
thought of flowers. 'Rose of May' Laertes names her.

             Lay her in the earth,
     And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
     May violets spring!

--so he prays at her burial. 'Sweets to the sweet' the Queen murmurs, as
she scatters flowers on the grave; and the flowers which Ophelia herself
gathered--those which she gave to others, and those which floated about
her in the brook--glimmer in the picture of the mind. Her affection for
her brother is shown in two or three delicate strokes. Her love for her
father is deep, though mingled with fear. For Hamlet she has, some say,
no deep love--and perhaps she is so near childhood that old affections
have still the strongest hold; but certainly she has given to Hamlet all
the love of which her nature is as yet capable. Beyond these three
beloved ones she seems to have eyes and ears for no one. The Queen is
fond of her, but there is no sign of her returning the Queen's
affection. Her existence is wrapped up in these three.

On this childlike nature and on Ophelia's inexperience everything
depends. The knowledge that 'there's tricks in the world' has reached
her only as a vague report. Her father and brother are jealously anxious
for her because of her ignorance and innocence; and we resent their
anxiety chiefly because we know Hamlet better than they. Her whole
character is that of simple unselfish affection. Naturally she is
incapable of understanding Hamlet's mind, though she can feel its
beauty. Naturally, too, she obeys her father when she is forbidden to
receive Hamlet's visits and letters. If we remember not what _we_ know
but what _she_ knows of her lover and her father; if we remember that
she had not, like Juliet, confessed her love; and if we remember that
she was much below her suitor in station, her compliance surely must
seem perfectly natural, apart from the fact that the standard of
obedience to a father was in Shakespeare's day higher than in ours.

'But she does more than obey,' we are told; 'she runs off frightened to
report to her father Hamlet's strange visit and behaviour; she shows to
her father one of Hamlet's letters, and tells him[77] the whole story of
the courtship; and she joins in a plot to win Hamlet's secret from him.'
One must remember, however, that she had never read the tragedy.
Consider for a moment how matters looked to _her_. She knows nothing
about the Ghost and its disclosures. She has undergone for some time the
pain of repelling her lover and appearing to have turned against him.
She sees him, or hears of him, sinking daily into deeper gloom, and so
transformed from what he was that he is considered to be out of his
mind. She hears the question constantly discussed what the cause of this
sad change can be; and her heart tells her--how can it fail to tell
her?--that her unkindness is the chief cause. Suddenly Hamlet forces his
way into her chamber; and his appearance and his behaviour are those of
a man crazed with love. She is frightened--why not? She is not Lady
Macbeth. Rosalind would have been frightened. Which of her censors would
be wholly unmoved if his room were invaded by a lunatic? She is
frightened, then; frightened, if you will, like a child. Yes, but,
observe, her one idea is to help Hamlet. She goes, therefore, at once to
her father. To whom else should she go? Her brother is away. Her father,
whom she saw with her own eyes and not with Shakespeare's, is kind, and
the wisest of men, and concerned about Hamlet's state. Her father finds,
in her report, the solution of the mystery: Hamlet is mad because she
has repulsed him. Why should she not tell her father the whole story and
give him an old letter which may help to convince the King and the
Queen? Nay, why should she not allow herself to be used as a 'decoy' to
settle the question why Hamlet is mad? It is all-important that it
should be settled, in order that he may be cured; all her seniors are
simply and solely anxious for his welfare; and, if her unkindness _is_
the cause of his sad state, they will permit her to restore him by
kindness (III. i. 40). Was she to refuse to play a part just because it
would be painful to her to do so? I find in her joining the 'plot' (as
it is absurdly called) a sign not of weakness, but of unselfishness and

'But she practised deception; she even told a lie. Hamlet asked her
where her father was, and she said he was at home, when he was really
listening behind a curtain.' Poor Ophelia! It is considered angelic in
Desdemona to say untruly that she killed herself, but most immoral or
pusillanimous in Ophelia to tell _her_ lie. I will not discuss these
casuistical problems; but, if ever an angry lunatic asks me a question
which I cannot answer truly without great danger to him and to one of my
relations, I hope that grace may be given me to imitate Ophelia.
Seriously, at such a terrible moment was it weak, was it not rather
heroic, in a simple girl not to lose her presence of mind and not to
flinch, but to go through her task for Hamlet's sake and her father's?
And, finally, is it really a thing to be taken as matter of course, and
no matter for admiration, in this girl that, from beginning to end, and
after a storm of utterly unjust reproach, not a thought of resentment
should even cross her mind?

Still, we are told, it was ridiculously weak in her to lose her reason.
And here again her critics seem hardly to realise the situation, hardly
to put themselves in the place of a girl whose lover, estranged from
her, goes mad and kills her father. They seem to forget also that
Ophelia must have believed that these frightful calamities were not mere
calamities, but followed from _her_ action in repelling her lover. Nor
do they realise the utter loneliness that must have fallen on her. Of
the three persons who were all the world to her, her father has been
killed, Hamlet has been sent out of the country insane, and her brother
is abroad. Horatio, when her mind gives way, tries to befriend her, but
there is no sign of any previous relation between them, or of Hamlet's
having commended her to his friend's care. What support she can gain
from the Queen we can guess from the Queen's character, and from the
fact that, when Ophelia is most helpless, the Queen shrinks from the
very sight of her (IV. v. 1). She was left, thus, absolutely alone, and
if she looked for her brother's return (as she did, IV. v. 70), she
might reflect that it would mean danger to Hamlet.

Whether this idea occurred to her we cannot tell. In any case it was
well for her that her mind gave way before Laertes reached Elsinore; and
pathetic as Ophelia's madness is, it is also, we feel, the kindest
stroke that now could fall on her. It is evident, I think, that this was
the effect Shakespeare intended to produce. In her madness Ophelia
continues sweet and lovable.

     Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,
     She turns to favour and to prettiness.

In her wanderings we hear from time to time an undertone of the deepest
sorrow, but never the agonised cry of fear or horror which makes madness
dreadful or shocking.[78] And the picture of her death, if our eyes grow
dim in watching it, is still purely beautiful. Coleridge was true to
Shakespeare when he wrote of 'the affecting death of Ophelia,--who in
the beginning lay like a little projection of land into a lake or
stream, covered with spray-flowers quietly reflected in the quiet
waters, but at length is undermined or loosened, and becomes a fairy
isle, and after a brief vagrancy sinks almost without an eddy.'[79]


I reluctantly pass by Polonius, Laertes and the beautiful character of
Horatio, to say something in conclusion of the Queen and the King.

The answers to two questions asked about the Queen are, it seems to me,
practically certain, (1) She did not merely marry a second time with
indecent haste; she was false to her husband while he lived. This is
surely the most natural interpretation of the words of the Ghost (I. v.
41 f.), coming, as they do, before his account of the murder. And
against this testimony what force has the objection that the queen in
the 'Murder of Gonzago' is not represented as an adulteress? Hamlet's
mark in arranging the play-scene was not his mother, whom besides he had
been expressly ordered to spare (I. v. 84 f.).

(2) On the other hand, she was _not_ privy to the murder of her husband,
either before the deed or after it. There is no sign of her being so,
and there are clear signs that she was not. The representation of the
murder in the play-scene does not move her; and when her husband starts
from his throne, she innocently asks him, 'How fares my lord?' In the
interview with Hamlet, when her son says of his slaughter of Polonius,

     'A bloody deed!' Almost as bad, good mother,
     As kill a king and marry with his brother,

the astonishment of her repetition 'As kill a king!' is evidently
genuine; and, if it had not been so, she would never have had the
hardihood to exclaim:

     What have I done, that thou darest wag thy tongue
     In noise so rude against me?

Further, it is most significant that when she and the King speak
together alone, nothing that is said by her or to her implies her
knowledge of the secret.

The Queen was not a bad-hearted woman, not at all the woman to think
little of murder. But she had a soft animal nature, and was very dull
and very shallow. She loved to be happy, like a sheep in the sun; and,
to do her justice, it pleased her to see others happy, like more sheep
in the sun. She never saw that drunkenness is disgusting till Hamlet
told her so; and, though she knew that he considered her marriage
'o'er-hasty' (II. ii. 57), she was untroubled by any shame at the
feelings which had led to it. It was pleasant to sit upon her throne and
see smiling faces round her, and foolish and unkind in Hamlet to persist
in grieving for his father instead of marrying Ophelia and making
everything comfortable. She was fond of Ophelia and genuinely attached
to her son (though willing to see her lover exclude him from the
throne); and, no doubt, she considered equality of rank a mere trifle
compared with the claims of love. The belief at the bottom of her heart
was that the world is a place constructed simply that people may be
happy in it in a good-humoured sensual fashion.

Her only chance was to be made unhappy. When affliction comes to her,
the good in her nature struggles to the surface through the heavy mass
of sloth. Like other faulty characters in Shakespeare's tragedies, she
dies a better woman than she had lived. When Hamlet shows her what she
has done she feels genuine remorse. It is true, Hamlet fears it will not
last, and so at the end of the interview (III. iv. 180 ff.) he adds a
warning that, if she betrays him, she will ruin herself as well.[80] It
is true too that there is no sign of her obeying Hamlet in breaking off
her most intimate connection with the King. Still she does feel remorse;
and she loves her son, and does not betray him. She gives her husband a
false account of Polonius's death, and is silent about the appearance of
the Ghost. She becomes miserable;

     To her sick soul, as sin's true nature is,
     Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss.

She shows spirit when Laertes raises the mob, and one respects her for
standing up for her husband when she can do nothing to help her son. If
she had sense to realise Hamlet's purpose, or the probability of the
King's taking some desperate step to foil it, she must have suffered
torture in those days. But perhaps she was too dull.

The last we see of her, at the fencing-match, is most characteristic.
She is perfectly serene. Things have slipped back into their groove, and
she has no apprehensions. She is, however, disturbed and full of
sympathy for her son, who is out of condition and pants and perspires.
These are afflictions she can thoroughly feel for, though they are even
more common than the death of a father. But then she meets her death
because she cannot resist the wish to please her son by drinking to his
success. And more: when she falls dying, and the King tries to make out
that she is merely swooning at the sight of blood, she collects her
energies to deny it and to warn Hamlet:

     No, no, the drink, the drink,--O my dear Hamlet,--
     The drink, the drink! I am poison'd.                [_Dies._

Was ever any other writer at once so pitiless and so just as
Shakespeare? Did ever any other mingle the grotesque and the pathetic
with a realism so daring and yet so true to 'the modesty of nature'?

       *       *       *       *       *

King Claudius rarely gets from the reader the attention he deserves. But
he is very interesting, both psychologically and dramatically. On the
one hand, he is not without respectable qualities. As a king he is
courteous and never undignified; he performs his ceremonial duties
efficiently; and he takes good care of the national interests. He
nowhere shows cowardice, and when Laertes and the mob force their way
into the palace, he confronts a dangerous situation with coolness and
address. His love for his ill-gotten wife seems to be quite genuine, and
there is no ground for suspecting him of having used her as a mere means
to the crown.[81] His conscience, though ineffective, is far from being
dead. In spite of its reproaches he plots new crimes to ensure the prize
of the old one; but still it makes him unhappy (III. i. 49 f., III. iii.
35 f.). Nor is he cruel or malevolent.

On the other hand, he is no tragic character. He had a small nature. If
Hamlet may be trusted, he was a man of mean appearance--a mildewed ear,
a toad, a bat; and he was also bloated by excess in drinking. People
made mouths at him in contempt while his brother lived; and though, when
he came to the throne, they spent large sums in buying his portrait, he
evidently put little reliance on their loyalty. He was no villain of
force, who thought of winning his brother's crown by a bold and open
stroke, but a cut-purse who stole the diadem from a shelf and put it in
his pocket. He had the inclination of natures physically weak and
morally small towards intrigue and crooked dealing. His instinctive
predilection was for poison: this was the means he used in his first
murder, and he at once recurred to it when he had failed to get Hamlet
executed by deputy. Though in danger he showed no cowardice, his first
thought was always for himself.

     I like him not, nor stands it safe with _us_
     To let his madness range,

--these are the first words we hear him speak after the play-scene. His
first comment on the death of Polonius is,

     It had been so with _us_ had we been there;

and his second is,

     Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answered?
     It will be laid to _us_.

He was not, however, stupid, but rather quick-witted and adroit. He won
the Queen partly indeed by presents (how pitifully characteristic of
her!), but also by 'witch-craft of his wit' or intellect. He seems to
have been soft-spoken, ingratiating in manner, and given to smiling on
the person he addressed ('that one may smile, and smile, and be a
villain'). We see this in his speech to Laertes about the young man's
desire to return to Paris (I. ii. 42 f.). Hamlet scarcely ever speaks to
him without an insult, but he never shows resentment, hardly even
annoyance. He makes use of Laertes with great dexterity. He had
evidently found that a clear head, a general complaisance, a willingness
to bend and oblige where he could not overawe, would lead him to his
objects,--that he could trick men and manage them. Unfortunately he
imagined he could trick something more than men.

This error, together with a decided trait of temperament, leads him to
his ruin. He has a sanguine disposition. When first we see him, all has
fallen out to his wishes, and he confidently looks forward to a happy
life. He believes his secret to be absolutely safe, and he is quite
ready to be kind to Hamlet, in whose melancholy he sees only excess of
grief. He has no desire to see him leave the court; he promises him his
voice for the succession (I. ii. 108, III. ii. 355); he will be a father
to him. Before long, indeed, he becomes very uneasy, and then more and
more alarmed; but when, much later, he has contrived Hamlet's death in
England, he has still no suspicion that he need not hope for happiness:

                       till I know 'tis done,
     Howe'er my haps, my _joys_ were ne'er begun.

Nay, his very last words show that he goes to death unchanged:

     Oh yet defend me, friends, I am but hurt [=wounded],

he cries, although in half a minute he is dead. That his crime has
failed, and that it could do nothing else, never once comes home to him.
He thinks he can over-reach Heaven. When he is praying for pardon, he is
all the while perfectly determined to keep his crown; and he knows it.
More--it is one of the grimmest things in Shakespeare, but he puts such
things so quietly that we are apt to miss them--when the King is praying
for pardon for his first murder he has just made his final arrangements
for a second, the murder of Hamlet. But he does not allude to that fact
in his prayer. If Hamlet had really wished to kill him at a moment that
had no relish of salvation in it, he had no need to wait.[82] So we are
inclined to say; and yet it was not so. For this was the crisis for
Claudius as well as Hamlet. He had better have died at once, before he
had added to his guilt a share in the responsibility for all the woe and
death that followed. And so, we may allow ourselves to say, here also
Hamlet's indiscretion served him well. The power that shaped his end
shaped the King's no less.

For--to return in conclusion to the action of the play--in all that
happens or is done we seem to apprehend some vaster power. We do not
define it, or even name it, or perhaps even say to ourselves that it is
there; but our imagination is haunted by the sense of it, as it works
its way through the deeds or the delays of men to its inevitable end.
And most of all do we feel this in regard to Hamlet and the King. For
these two, the one by his shrinking from his appointed task, and the
other by efforts growing ever more feverish to rid himself of his enemy,
seem to be bent on avoiding each other. But they cannot. Through devious
paths, the very paths they take in order to escape, something is pushing
them silently step by step towards one another, until they meet and it
puts the sword into Hamlet's hand. He himself must die, for he needed
this compulsion before he could fulfil the demand of destiny; but he
_must_ fulfil it. And the King too, turn and twist as he may, must reach
the appointed goal, and is only hastening to it by the windings which
seem to lead elsewhere. Concentration on the character of the hero is
apt to withdraw our attention from this aspect of the drama; but in no
other tragedy of Shakespeare's, not even in _Macbeth_, is this aspect so

I mention _Macbeth_ for a further reason. In _Macbeth_ and _Hamlet_ not
only is the feeling of a supreme power or destiny peculiarly marked, but
it has also at times a peculiar tone, which may be called, in a sense,
religious. I cannot make my meaning clear without using language too
definite to describe truly the imaginative impression produced; but it
is roughly true that, while we do not imagine the supreme power as a
divine being who avenges crime, or as a providence which supernaturally
interferes, our sense of it is influenced by the fact that Shakespeare
uses current religious ideas here much more decidedly than in _Othello_
or _King Lear_. The horror in Macbeth's soul is more than once
represented as desperation at the thought that he is eternally 'lost';
the same idea appears in the attempt of Claudius at repentance; and as
_Hamlet_ nears its close the 'religious' tone of the tragedy is deepened
in two ways. In the first place, 'accident' is introduced into the plot
in its barest and least dramatic form, when Hamlet is brought back to
Denmark by the chance of the meeting with the pirate ship. This incident
has been therefore severely criticised as a lame expedient,[84] but it
appears probable that the 'accident' is meant to impress the imagination
as the very reverse of accidental, and with many readers it certainly
does so. And that this was the intention is made the more likely by a
second fact, the fact that in connection with the events of the voyage
Shakespeare introduces that feeling, on Hamlet's part, of his being in
the hands of Providence. The repeated expressions of this feeling are
not, I have maintained, a sign that Hamlet has now formed a fixed
resolution to do his duty forthwith; but their effect is to strengthen
in the spectator the feeling that, whatever may become of Hamlet, and
whether he wills it or not, his task will surely be accomplished,
because it is the purpose of a power against which both he and his enemy
are impotent, and which makes of them the instruments of its own will.

Observing this, we may remember another significant point of resemblance
between _Hamlet_ and _Macbeth_, the appearance in each play of a
Ghost,--a figure which seems quite in place in either, whereas it would
seem utterly out of place in _Othello_ or _King Lear_. Much might be
said of the Ghost in _Hamlet_, but I confine myself to the matter which
we are now considering. What is the effect of the appearance of the
Ghost? And, in particular, why does Shakespeare make this Ghost so
_majestical_ a phantom, giving it that measured and solemn utterance,
and that air of impersonal abstraction which forbids, for example, all
expression of affection for Hamlet and checks in Hamlet the outburst of
pity for his father? Whatever the intention may have been, the result is
that the Ghost affects imagination not simply as the apparition of a
dead king who desires the accomplishment of _his_ purposes, but also as
the representative of that hidden ultimate power, the messenger of
divine justice set upon the expiation of offences which it appeared
impossible for man to discover and avenge, a reminder or a symbol of the
connexion of the limited world of ordinary experience with the vaster
life of which it is but a partial appearance. And as, at the beginning
of the play, we have this intimation, conveyed through the medium of the
received religious idea of a soul come from purgatory, so at the end,
conveyed through the similar idea of a soul carried by angels to its
rest, we have an intimation of the same character, and a reminder that
the apparent failure of Hamlet's life is not the ultimate truth
concerning him.

If these various peculiarities of the tragedy are considered, it will be
agreed that, while _Hamlet_ certainly cannot be called in the specific
sense a 'religious drama,' there is in it nevertheless both a freer use
of popular religious ideas, and a more decided, though always
imaginative, intimation of a supreme power concerned in human evil and
good, than can be found in any other of Shakespeare's tragedies. And
this is probably one of the causes of the special popularity of this
play, just as _Macbeth_, the tragedy which in these respects most nearly
approaches it, has also the place next to it in general esteem.


[Footnote 54: In the First Act (I. ii. 138) Hamlet says that his father
has been dead not quite two months. In the Third Act (III. ii. 135)
Ophelia says King Hamlet has been dead 'twice two months.' The events of
the Third Act are separated from those of the Second by one night (II.
ii. 565).]

[Footnote 55: The only difference is that in the 'To be or not to be'
soliloquy there is no reference to the idea that suicide is forbidden by
'the Everlasting.' Even this, however, seems to have been present in the
original form of the speech, for the version in the First Quarto has a
line about our being 'borne before an everlasting Judge.']

[Footnote 56: The present position of the 'To be or not to be'
soliloquy, and of the interview with Ophelia, appears to have been due
to an after-thought of Shakespeare's; for in the First Quarto they
precede, instead of following, the arrival of the players, and
consequently the arrangement for the play-scene. This is a notable
instance of the truth that 'inspiration' is by no means confined to a
poet's first conceptions.]

[Footnote 57: Cf. again the scene at Ophelia's grave, where a strong
strain of aesthetic disgust is traceable in Hamlet's 'towering passion'
with Laertes: 'Nay, an thou'lt mouth, I'll rant as well as thou' (V. i.

[Footnote 58:

     O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
     The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom:

Nero, who put to death his mother who had poisoned her husband. This
passage is surely remarkable. And so are the later words (III. iv. 28):

     A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
     As kill a king, and marry with his brother.

Are we to understand that at this time he really suspected her of
complicity in the murder? We must remember that the Ghost had not told
him she was innocent of that.]

[Footnote 59: I am inclined to think that the note of interrogation put
after 'revenged' in a late Quarto is right.]

[Footnote 60: III. iii. 1-26. The state of affairs at Court at this
time, though I have not seen it noticed by critics, seems to me
puzzling. It is quite clear from III. ii. 310 ff., from the passage just
cited, and from IV. vii. 1-5 and 30 ff., that everyone sees in the
play-scene a gross and menacing insult to the King. Yet no one shows any
sign of perceiving in it also an accusation of murder. Surely that is
strange. Are we perhaps meant to understand that they do perceive this,
but out of subservience choose to ignore the fact? If that were
Shakespeare's meaning, the actors could easily indicate it by their
looks. And if it were so, any sympathy we may feel for Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern in their fate would be much diminished. But the mere text
does not suffice to decide either this question or the question whether
the two courtiers were aware of the contents of the commission they bore
to England.]

[Footnote 61: This passage in _Hamlet_ seems to have been in Heywood's
mind when, in _The Second Part of the Iron Age_ (Pearson's reprint, vol.
iii., p. 423), he makes the Ghost of Agamemnon appear in order to
satisfy the doubts of Orestes as to his mother's guilt. No reader could
possibly think that this Ghost was meant to be an hallucination; yet
Clytemnestra cannot see it. The Ghost of King Hamlet, I may add, goes
further than that of Agamemnon, for he is audible, as well as visible,
to the privileged person.]

[Footnote 62: I think it is clear that it is this fear which stands in
the way of the obvious plan of bringing Hamlet to trial and getting him
shut up or executed. It is much safer to hurry him off to his doom in
England before he can say anything about the murder which he has somehow
discovered. Perhaps the Queen's resistance, and probably Hamlet's great
popularity with the people, are additional reasons. (It should be
observed that as early as III. i. 194 we hear of the idea of 'confining'
Hamlet as an alternative to sending him to England.)]

[Footnote 63: I am inferring from IV. vii., 129, 130, and the last words
of the scene.]

[Footnote 64: III. iv. 172:

                         For this same lord,
     I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
     To punish me with this and this with me,
     That I must be their scourge and minister:

_i.e._ the scourge and minister of 'heaven,' which has a plural sense
elsewhere also in Shakespeare.]

[Footnote 65: IV. iii. 48:

     _Ham._   For England!

     _King._               Ay, Hamlet.

     _Ham._                            Good.

     _King._  So is it, if thou knew'st our purposes.

     _Ham._   I see a cherub that sees them.]

[Footnote 66: On this passage see p. 98. Hamlet's reply to Horatio's
warning sounds, no doubt, determined; but so did 'I know my course.' And
is it not significant that, having given it, he abruptly changes the

[Footnote 67: P. 102.]

[Footnote 68: It should be observed also that many of Hamlet's
repetitions can hardly be said to occur at moments of great emotion,
like Cordelia's 'And so I am, I am,' and 'No cause, no cause.'

Of course, a habit of repetition quite as marked as Hamlet's may be
found in comic persons, _e.g._ Justice Shallow in _2 Henry IV._]

[Footnote 69: Perhaps it is from noticing this trait that I find
something characteristic too in this coincidence of phrase: 'Alas, poor
ghost!' (I. v. 4), 'Alas, poor Yorick!' (V. i. 202).]

[Footnote 70: This letter, of course, was written before the time when
the action of the drama begins, for we know that Ophelia, after her
father's commands in I. iii., received no more letters (II. i. 109).]

[Footnote 71: 'Frailty, thy name is woman!' he had exclaimed in the
first soliloquy. Cf. what he says of his mother's act (III. iv. 40):

                               Such an act
     That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
     Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
     From the fair forehead of an innocent love
     And sets a blister there.]

[Footnote 72: There are signs that Hamlet was haunted by the horrible
idea that he had been deceived in Ophelia as he had been in his mother;
that she was shallow and artificial, and even that what had seemed
simple and affectionate love might really have been something very
different. The grossness of his language at the play-scene, and some
lines in the Nunnery-scene, suggest this; and, considering the state of
his mind, there is nothing unnatural in his suffering from such a
suspicion. I do not suggest that he _believed_ in it, and in the
Nunnery-scene it is clear that his healthy perception of her innocence
is in conflict with it.

He seems to have divined that Polonius suspected him of dishonourable
intentions towards Ophelia; and there are also traces of the idea that
Polonius had been quite ready to let his daughter run the risk as long
as Hamlet was prosperous. But it is dangerous, of course, to lay stress
on inferences drawn from his conversations with Polonius.]

[Footnote 73: Many readers and critics imagine that Hamlet went straight
to Ophelia's room after his interview with the Ghost. But we have just
seen that on the contrary he tried to visit her and was repelled, and it
is absolutely certain that a long interval separates the events of I. v.
and II. i. They think also, of course, that Hamlet's visit to Ophelia
was the first announcement of his madness. But the text flatly
contradicts that idea also. Hamlet has for some time appeared totally
changed (II. ii. 1-10); the King is very uneasy at his 'transformation,'
and has sent for his school-fellows in order to discover its cause.
Polonius now, after Ophelia has told him of the interview, comes to
announce his discovery, not of Hamlet's madness, but of its cause (II.
ii. 49). That, it would seem, was the effect Hamlet aimed at in his
interview. I may add that Ophelia's description of his intent
examination of her face suggests doubt rather as to her 'honesty' or
sincerity than as to her strength of mind. I cannot believe that he ever
dreamed of confiding his secret to her.]

[Footnote 74: If this _is_ an allusion to his own love, the adjective
'despised' is significant. But I doubt the allusion. The other
calamities mentioned by Hamlet, 'the oppressor's wrong, the proud man's
contumely, the law's delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that
patient merit of the unworthy takes,' are not at all specially his own.]

[Footnote 75: It should be noticed that it was not apparently of long
standing. See the words 'of late' in I. iii. 91, 99.]

[Footnote 76: This, I think, may be said on almost any sane view of
Hamlet's love.]

[Footnote 77: Polonius says so, and it _may_ be true.]

[Footnote 78: I have heard an actress in this part utter such a cry as
is described above, but there is absolutely nothing in the text to
justify her rendering. Even the exclamation 'O, ho!' found in the
Quartos at IV. v. 33, but omitted in the Folios and by almost all modern
editors, coming as it does after the stanza, 'He is dead and gone,
lady,' evidently expresses grief, not terror.]

[Footnote 79: In the remarks above I have not attempted, of course, a
complete view of the character, which has often been well described; but
I cannot forbear a reference to one point which I do not remember to
have seen noticed. In the Nunnery-scene Ophelia's first words
pathetically betray her own feeling:

                       Good my lord,
     How does your honour _for this many a day_?

She then offers to return Hamlet's presents. This has not been suggested
to her by her father: it is her own thought. And the next lines, in
which she refers to the sweet words which accompanied those gifts, and
to the unkindness which has succeeded that kindness, imply a reproach.
So again do those most touching little speeches:

     _Hamlet._    ... I did love you once.

     _Ophelia._  Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.

     _Hamlet._   You should not have believed me ... I loved you not.

     _Ophelia._  I was the more deceived.

Now the obvious surface fact was not that Hamlet had forsaken her, but
that _she_ had repulsed _him_; and here, with his usual unobtrusive
subtlety, Shakespeare shows how Ophelia, even though she may have
accepted from her elders the theory that her unkindness has driven
Hamlet mad, knows within herself that she is forsaken, and cannot
repress the timid attempt to win her lover back by showing that her own
heart is unchanged.

I will add one note. There are critics who, after all the help given
them in different ways by Goethe and Coleridge and Mrs. Jameson, still
shake their heads over Ophelia's song, 'To-morrow is Saint Valentine's
day.' Probably they are incurable, but they may be asked to consider
that Shakespeare makes Desdemona, 'as chaste as ice, as pure as snow,'
sing an old song containing the line,

     If I court moe women, you'll couch with moe men.]

[Footnote 80: _I.e._ the King will kill _her_ to make all sure.]

[Footnote 81: I do not rely so much on his own statement to Laertes (IV.
vii. 12 f.) as on the absence of contrary indications, on his tone in
speaking to her, and on such signs as his mention of her in soliloquy
(III. iii. 55).]

[Footnote 82: This also is quietly indicated. Hamlet spares the King, he
says, because if the King is killed praying he will _go to heaven_. On
Hamlet's departure, the King rises from his knees, and mutters:

     My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
     Words without thoughts _never to heaven go_.]

[Footnote 83: I am indebted to Werder in this paragraph.]

[Footnote 84: The attempt to explain this meeting as pre-arranged by
Hamlet is scarcely worth mention.]



There is practically no doubt that _Othello_ was the tragedy written
next after _Hamlet_. Such external evidence as we possess points to this
conclusion, and it is confirmed by similarities of style, diction and
versification, and also by the fact that ideas and phrases of the
earlier play are echoed in the later.[85] There is, further (not to
speak of one curious point, to be considered when we come to Iago), a
certain resemblance in the subjects. The heroes of the two plays are
doubtless extremely unlike, so unlike that each could have dealt without
much difficulty with the situation which proved fatal to the other; but
still each is a man exceptionally noble and trustful, and each endures
the shock of a terrible disillusionment. This theme is treated by
Shakespeare for the first time in _Hamlet_, for the second in _Othello_.
It recurs with modifications in _King Lear_, and it probably formed the
attraction which drew Shakespeare to refashion in part another writer's
tragedy of _Timon_. These four dramas may so far be grouped together in
distinction from the remaining tragedies.

But in point of substance, and, in certain respects, in point of style,
the unlikeness of _Othello_ to _Hamlet_ is much greater than the
likeness, and the later play belongs decidedly to one group with its
successors. We have seen that, like them, it is a tragedy of passion, a
description inapplicable to _Julius Caesar_ or _Hamlet_. And with this
change goes another, an enlargement in the stature of the hero. There is
in most of the later heroes something colossal, something which reminds
us of Michael Angelo's figures. They are not merely exceptional men,
they are huge men; as it were, survivors of the heroic age living in a
later and smaller world. We do not receive this impression from Romeo or
Brutus or Hamlet, nor did it lie in Shakespeare's design to allow more
than touches of this trait to Julius Caesar himself; but it is strongly
marked in Lear and Coriolanus, and quite distinct in Macbeth and even in
Antony. Othello is the first of these men, a being essentially large and
grand, towering above his fellows, holding a volume of force which in
repose ensures preeminence without an effort, and in commotion reminds
us rather of the fury of the elements than of the tumult of common human


What is the peculiarity of _Othello_? What is the distinctive impression
that it leaves? Of all Shakespeare's tragedies, I would answer, not even
excepting _King Lear_, _Othello_ is the most painfully exciting and the
most terrible. From the moment when the temptation of the hero begins,
the reader's heart and mind are held in a vice, experiencing the
extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and
dreadful expectation. Evil is displayed before him, not indeed with the
profusion found in _King Lear_, but forming, as it were, the soul of a
single character, and united with an intellectual superiority so great
that he watches its advance fascinated and appalled. He sees it, in
itself almost irresistible, aided at every step by fortunate accidents
and the innocent mistakes of its victims. He seems to breathe an
atmosphere as fateful as that of _King Lear_, but more confined and
oppressive, the darkness not of night but of a close-shut murderous
room. His imagination is excited to intense activity, but it is the
activity of concentration rather than dilation.

I will not dwell now on aspects of the play which modify this
impression, and I reserve for later discussion one of its principal
sources, the character of Iago. But if we glance at some of its other
sources, we shall find at the same time certain distinguishing
characteristics of _Othello_.

(1) One of these has been already mentioned in our discussion of
Shakespeare's technique. _Othello_ is not only the most masterly of the
tragedies in point of construction, but its method of construction is
unusual. And this method, by which the conflict begins late, and
advances without appreciable pause and with accelerating speed to the
catastrophe, is a main cause of the painful tension just described. To
this may be added that, after the conflict has begun, there is very
little relief by way of the ridiculous. Henceforward at any rate Iago's
humour never raises a smile. The clown is a poor one; we hardly attend
to him and quickly forget him; I believe most readers of Shakespeare, if
asked whether there is a clown in _Othello_, would answer No.

(2) In the second place, there is no subject more exciting than sexual
jealousy rising to the pitch of passion; and there can hardly be any
spectacle at once so engrossing and so painful as that of a great nature
suffering the torment of this passion, and driven by it to a crime which
is also a hideous blunder. Such a passion as ambition, however terrible
its results, is not itself ignoble; if we separate it in thought from
the conditions which make it guilty, it does not appear despicable; it
is not a kind of suffering, its nature is active; and therefore we can
watch its course without shrinking. But jealousy, and especially sexual
jealousy, brings with it a sense of shame and humiliation. For this
reason it is generally hidden; if we perceive it we ourselves are
ashamed and turn our eyes away; and when it is not hidden it commonly
stirs contempt as well as pity. Nor is this all. Such jealousy as
Othello's converts human nature into chaos, and liberates the beast in
man; and it does this in relation to one of the most intense and also
the most ideal of human feelings. What spectacle can be more painful
than that of this feeling turned into a tortured mixture of longing and
loathing, the 'golden purity' of passion split by poison into fragments,
the animal in man forcing itself into his consciousness in naked
grossness, and he writhing before it but powerless to deny it entrance,
gasping inarticulate images of pollution, and finding relief only in a
bestial thirst for blood? This is what we have to witness in one who was
indeed 'great of heart' and no less pure and tender than he was great.
And this, with what it leads to, the blow to Desdemona, and the scene
where she is treated as the inmate of a brothel, a scene far more
painful than the murder scene, is another cause of the special effect of
this tragedy.[86]

(3) The mere mention of these scenes will remind us painfully of a third
cause; and perhaps it is the most potent of all. I mean the suffering of
Desdemona. This is, unless I mistake, the most nearly intolerable
spectacle that Shakespeare offers us. For one thing, it is _mere_
suffering; and, _ceteris paribus_, that is much worse to witness than
suffering that issues in action. Desdemona is helplessly passive. She
can do nothing whatever. She cannot retaliate even in speech; no, not
even in silent feeling. And the chief reason of her helplessness only
makes the sight of her suffering more exquisitely painful. She is
helpless because her nature is infinitely sweet and her love absolute. I
would not challenge Mr. Swinburne's statement that we _pity_ Othello
even more than Desdemona; but we watch Desdemona with more unmitigated
distress. We are never wholly uninfluenced by the feeling that Othello
is a man contending with another man; but Desdemona's suffering is like
that of the most loving of dumb creatures tortured without cause by the
being he adores.

(4) Turning from the hero and heroine to the third principal character,
we observe (what has often been pointed out) that the action and
catastrophe of _Othello_ depend largely on intrigue. We must not say
more than this. We must not call the play a tragedy of intrigue as
distinguished from a tragedy of character. Iago's plot is Iago's
character in action; and it is built on his knowledge of Othello's
character, and could not otherwise have succeeded. Still it remains true
that an elaborate plot was necessary to elicit the catastrophe; for
Othello was no Leontes, and his was the last nature to engender such
jealousy from itself. Accordingly Iago's intrigue occupies a position in
the drama for which no parallel can be found in the other tragedies; the
only approach, and that a distant one, being the intrigue of Edmund in
the secondary plot of _King Lear_. Now in any novel or play, even if the
persons rouse little interest and are never in serious danger, a
skilfully-worked intrigue will excite eager attention and suspense. And
where, as in _Othello_, the persons inspire the keenest sympathy and
antipathy, and life and death depend on the intrigue, it becomes the
source of a tension in which pain almost overpowers pleasure. Nowhere
else in Shakespeare do we hold our breath in such anxiety and for so
long a time as in the later Acts of _Othello_.

(5) One result of the prominence of the element of intrigue is that
_Othello_ is less unlike a story of private life than any other of the
great tragedies. And this impression is strengthened in further ways. In
the other great tragedies the action is placed in a distant period, so
that its general significance is perceived through a thin veil which
separates the persons from ourselves and our own world. But _Othello_ is
a drama of modern life; when it first appeared it was a drama almost of
contemporary life, for the date of the Turkish attack on Cyprus is 1570.
The characters come close to us, and the application of the drama to
ourselves (if the phrase may be pardoned) is more immediate than it can
be in _Hamlet_ or _Lear_. Besides this, their fortunes affect us as
those of private individuals more than is possible in any of the later
tragedies with the exception of _Timon_. I have not forgotten the
Senate, nor Othello's position, nor his service to the State;[87] but
his deed and his death have not that influence on the interests of a
nation or an empire which serves to idealise, and to remove far from our
own sphere, the stories of Hamlet and Macbeth, of Coriolanus and Antony.
Indeed he is already superseded at Cyprus when his fate is consummated,
and as we leave him no vision rises on us, as in other tragedies, of
peace descending on a distracted land.

(6) The peculiarities so far considered combine with others to produce
those feelings of oppression, of confinement to a comparatively narrow
world, and of dark fatality, which haunt us in reading _Othello_. In
_Macbeth_ the fate which works itself out alike in the external conflict
and in the hero's soul, is obviously hostile to evil; and the
imagination is dilated both by the consciousness of its presence and by
the appearance of supernatural agencies. These, as we have seen, produce
in _Hamlet_ a somewhat similar effect, which is increased by the hero's
acceptance of the accidents as a providential shaping of his end. _King
Lear_ is undoubtedly the tragedy which comes nearest to _Othello_ in the
impression of darkness and fatefulness, and in the absence of direct
indications of any guiding power.[88] But in _King Lear_, apart from
other differences to be considered later, the conflict assumes
proportions so vast that the imagination seems, as in _Paradise Lost_,
to traverse spaces wider than the earth. In reading _Othello_ the mind
is not thus distended. It is more bound down to the spectacle of noble
beings caught in toils from which there is no escape; while the
prominence of the intrigue diminishes the sense of the dependence of the
catastrophe on character, and the part played by accident[89] in this
catastrophe accentuates the feeling of fate. This influence of accident
is keenly felt in _King Lear_ only once, and at the very end of the
play. In _Othello_, after the temptation has begun, it is incessant and
terrible. The skill of Iago was extraordinary, but so was his good
fortune. Again and again a chance word from Desdemona, a chance meeting
of Othello and Cassio, a question which starts to our lips and which
anyone but Othello would have asked, would have destroyed Iago's plot
and ended his life. In their stead, Desdemona drops her handkerchief at
the moment most favourable to him,[90] Cassio blunders into the presence
of Othello only to find him in a swoon, Bianca arrives precisely when
she is wanted to complete Othello's deception and incense his anger into
fury. All this and much more seems to us quite natural, so potent is the
art of the dramatist; but it confounds us with a feeling, such as we
experience in the _Oedipus Tyrannus_, that for these star-crossed
mortals--both [Greek: dysdaimones]--there is no escape from fate, and
even with a feeling, absent from that play, that fate has taken sides
with villainy.[91] It is not surprising, therefore, that _Othello_
should affect us as _Hamlet_ and _Macbeth_ never do, and as _King Lear_
does only in slighter measure. On the contrary, it is marvellous that,
before the tragedy is over, Shakespeare should have succeeded in toning
down this impression into harmony with others more solemn and serene.

But has he wholly succeeded? Or is there a justification for the fact--a
fact it certainly is--that some readers, while acknowledging, of course,
the immense power of _Othello_, and even admitting that it is
dramatically perhaps Shakespeare's greatest triumph, still regard it
with a certain distaste, or, at any rate, hardly allow it a place in
their minds beside _Hamlet_, _King Lear_ and _Macbeth_?

The distaste to which I refer is due chiefly to two causes. First, to
many readers in our time, men as well as women, the subject of sexual
jealousy, treated with Elizabethan fulness and frankness, is not merely
painful but so repulsive that not even the intense tragic emotions which
the story generates can overcome this repulsion. But, while it is easy
to understand a dislike of _Othello_ thus caused, it does not seem
necessary to discuss it, for it may fairly be called personal or
subjective. It would become more than this, and would amount to a
criticism of the play, only if those who feel it maintained that the
fulness and frankness which are disagreeable to them are also needless
from a dramatic point of view, or betray a design of appealing to
unpoetic feelings in the audience. But I do not think that this is
maintained, or that such a view would be plausible.

To some readers, again, parts of _Othello_ appear shocking or even
horrible. They think--if I may formulate their objection--that in these
parts Shakespeare has sinned against the canons of art, by representing
on the stage a violence or brutality the effect of which is
unnecessarily painful and rather sensational than tragic. The passages
which thus give offence are probably those already referred to,--that
where Othello strikes Desdemona (IV. i. 251), that where he affects to
treat her as an inmate of a house of ill-fame (IV. ii.), and finally the
scene of her death.

The issues thus raised ought not to be ignored or impatiently dismissed,
but they cannot be decided, it seems to me, by argument. All we can
profitably do is to consider narrowly our experience, and to ask
ourselves this question: If we feel these objections, do we feel them
when we are reading the play with all our force, or only when we are
reading it in a half-hearted manner? For, however matters may stand in
the former case, in the latter case evidently the fault is ours and not
Shakespeare's. And if we try the question thus, I believe we shall find
that on the whole the fault is ours. The first, and least important, of
the three passages--that of the blow--seems to me the most doubtful. I
confess that, do what I will, I cannot reconcile myself with it. It
seems certain that the blow is by no means a tap on the shoulder with a
roll of paper, as some actors, feeling the repulsiveness of the passage,
have made it. It must occur, too, on the open stage. And there is not, I
think, a sufficiently overwhelming tragic feeling in the passage to make
it bearable. But in the other two scenes the case is different. There,
it seems to me, if we fully imagine the inward tragedy in the souls of
the persons as we read, the more obvious and almost physical sensations
of pain or horror do not appear in their own likeness, and only serve to
intensify the tragic feelings in which they are absorbed. Whether this
would be so in the murder-scene if Desdemona had to be imagined as
dragged about the open stage (as in some modern performances) may be
doubtful; but there is absolutely no warrant in the text for imagining
this, and it is also quite clear that the bed where she is stifled was
within the curtains,[92] and so, presumably, in part concealed.

Here, then, _Othello_ does not appear to be, unless perhaps at one
point,[93] open to criticism, though it has more passages than the other
three tragedies where, if imagination is not fully exerted, it is
shocked or else sensationally excited. If nevertheless we feel it to
occupy a place in our minds a little lower than the other three (and I
believe this feeling, though not general, is not rare), the reason lies
not here but in another characteristic, to which I have already
referred,--the comparative confinement of the imaginative atmosphere.
_Othello_ has not equally with the other three the power of dilating the
imagination by vague suggestions of huge universal powers working in the
world of individual fate and passion. It is, in a sense, less
'symbolic.' We seem to be aware in it of a certain limitation, a partial
suppression of that element in Shakespeare's mind which unites him with
the mystical poets and with the great musicians and philosophers. In one
or two of his plays, notably in _Troilus and Cressida_, we are almost
painfully conscious of this suppression; we feel an intense intellectual
activity, but at the same time a certain coldness and hardness, as
though some power in his soul, at once the highest and the sweetest,
were for a time in abeyance. In other plays, notably in the _Tempest_,
we are constantly aware of the presence of this power; and in such cases
we seem to be peculiarly near to Shakespeare himself. Now this is so in
_Hamlet_ and _King Lear_, and, in a slighter degree, in _Macbeth_; but
it is much less so in _Othello_. I do not mean that in _Othello_ the
suppression is marked, or that, as in _Troilus and Cressida_, it strikes
us as due to some unpleasant mood; it seems rather to follow simply from
the design of a play on a contemporary and wholly mundane subject. Still
it makes a difference of the kind I have attempted to indicate, and it
leaves an impression that in _Othello_ we are not in contact with the
whole of Shakespeare. And it is perhaps significant in this respect that
the hero himself strikes us as having, probably, less of the poet's
personality in him than many characters far inferior both as dramatic
creations and as men.


The character of Othello is comparatively simple, but, as I have dwelt
on the prominence of intrigue and accident in the play, it is desirable
to show how essentially the success of Iago's plot is connected with
this character. Othello's description of himself as

              one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
     Perplexed in the extreme,

is perfectly just. His tragedy lies in this--that his whole nature was
indisposed to jealousy, and yet was such that he was unusually open to
deception, and, if once wrought to passion, likely to act with little
reflection, with no delay, and in the most decisive manner conceivable.

Let me first set aside a mistaken view. I do not mean the ridiculous
notion that Othello was jealous by temperament, but the idea, which has
some little plausibility, that the play is primarily a study of a noble
barbarian, who has become a Christian and has imbibed some of the
civilisation of his employers, but who retains beneath the surface the
savage passions of his Moorish blood and also the suspiciousness
regarding female chastity common among Oriental peoples, and that the
last three Acts depict the outburst of these original feelings through
the thin crust of Venetian culture. It would take too long to discuss
this idea,[94] and it would perhaps be useless to do so, for all
arguments against it must end in an appeal to the reader's understanding
of Shakespeare. If he thinks it is like Shakespeare to look at things in
this manner; that he had a historical mind and occupied himself with
problems of 'Culturgeschichte'; that he laboured to make his Romans
perfectly Roman, to give a correct view of the Britons in the days of
Lear or Cymbeline, to portray in Hamlet a stage of the moral
consciousness not yet reached by the people around him, the reader will
also think this interpretation of _Othello_ probable. To me it appears
hopelessly un-Shakespearean. I could as easily believe that Chaucer
meant the Wife of Bath for a study of the peculiarities of
Somersetshire. I do not mean that Othello's race is a matter of no
account. It has, as we shall presently see, its importance in the play.
It makes a difference to our idea of him; it makes a difference to the
action and catastrophe. But in regard to the essentials of his character
it is not important; and if anyone had told Shakespeare that no
Englishman would have acted like the Moor, and had congratulated him on
the accuracy of his racial psychology, I am sure he would have laughed.

Othello is, in one sense of the word, by far the most romantic figure
among Shakespeare's heroes; and he is so partly from the strange life of
war and adventure which he has lived from childhood. He does not belong
to our world, and he seems to enter it we know not whence--almost as if
from wonderland. There is something mysterious in his descent from men
of royal siege; in his wanderings in vast deserts and among marvellous
peoples; in his tales of magic handkerchiefs and prophetic Sibyls; in
the sudden vague glimpses we get of numberless battles and sieges in
which he has played the hero and has borne a charmed life; even in
chance references to his baptism, his being sold to slavery, his sojourn
in Aleppo.

And he is not merely a romantic figure; his own nature is romantic. He
has not, indeed, the meditative or speculative imagination of Hamlet;
but in the strictest sense of the word he is more poetic than Hamlet.
Indeed, if one recalls Othello's most famous speeches--those that begin,
'Her father loved me,' 'O now for ever,' 'Never, Iago,' 'Had it pleased
Heaven,' 'It is the cause,' 'Behold, I have a weapon,' 'Soft you, a word
or two before you go'--and if one places side by side with these
speeches an equal number by any other hero, one will not doubt that
Othello is the greatest poet of them all. There is the same poetry in
his casual phrases--like 'These nine moons wasted,' 'Keep up your bright
swords, for the dew will rust them,' 'You chaste stars,' 'It is a sword
of Spain, the ice-brook's temper,' 'It is the very error of the
moon'--and in those brief expressions of intense feeling which ever
since have been taken as the absolute expression, like

                      If it were now to die,
     'Twere now to be most happy; for, I fear,
     My soul hath her content so absolute
     That not another comfort like to this
     Succeeds in unknown fate,


     If she be false, O then Heaven mocks itself.
     I'll not believe it;


     No, my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand,


     But yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!


                                 O thou weed,
     Who art so lovely fair and smell'st so sweet
     That the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst ne'er been born.

And this imagination, we feel, has accompanied his whole life. He has
watched with a poet's eye the Arabian trees dropping their med'cinable
gum, and the Indian throwing away his chance-found pearl; and has gazed
in a fascinated dream at the Pontic sea rushing, never to return, to the
Propontic and the Hellespont; and has felt as no other man ever felt
(for he speaks of it as none other ever did) the poetry of the pride,
pomp, and circumstance of glorious war.

So he comes before us, dark and grand, with a light upon him from the
sun where he was born; but no longer young, and now grave,
self-controlled, steeled by the experience of countless perils,
hardships and vicissitudes, at once simple and stately in bearing and in
speech, a great man naturally modest but fully conscious of his worth,
proud of his services to the state, unawed by dignitaries and unelated
by honours, secure, it would seem, against all dangers from without and
all rebellion from within. And he comes to have his life crowned with
the final glory of love, a love as strange, adventurous and romantic as
any passage of his eventful history, filling his heart with tenderness
and his imagination with ecstasy. For there is no love, not that of
Romeo in his youth, more steeped in imagination than Othello's.

The sources of danger in this character are revealed but too clearly by
the story. In the first place, Othello's mind, for all its poetry, is
very simple. He is not observant. His nature tends outward. He is quite
free from introspection, and is not given to reflection. Emotion excites
his imagination, but it confuses and dulls his intellect. On this side
he is the very opposite of Hamlet, with whom, however, he shares a great
openness and trustfulness of nature. In addition, he has little
experience of the corrupt products of civilised life, and is ignorant of
European women.

In the second place, for all his dignity and massive calm (and he has
greater dignity than any other of Shakespeare's men), he is by nature
full of the most vehement passion. Shakespeare emphasises his
self-control, not only by the wonderful pictures of the First Act, but
by references to the past. Lodovico, amazed at his violence, exclaims:

     Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate
     Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
     Whom passion could not shake? whose solid virtue
     The shot of accident nor dart of chance
     Could neither graze nor pierce?

Iago, who has here no motive for lying, asks:

     Can he be angry? I have seen the cannon
     When it hath blown his ranks into the air,
     And, like the devil, from his very arm
     Puffed his own brother--and can he be angry?[95]

This, and other aspects of his character, are best exhibited by a single
line--one of Shakespeare's miracles--the words by which Othello silences
in a moment the night-brawl between his attendants and those of

     Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.

And the same self-control is strikingly shown where Othello endeavours
to elicit some explanation of the fight between Cassio and Montano.
Here, however, there occur ominous words, which make us feel how
necessary was this self-control, and make us admire it the more:

                          Now, by heaven,
     My blood begins my safer guides to rule,
     And passion, having my best judgment collied,
     Assays to lead the way.

We remember these words later, when the sun of reason is 'collied,'
blackened and blotted out in total eclipse.

Lastly, Othello's nature is all of one piece. His trust, where he
trusts, is absolute. Hesitation is almost impossible to him. He is
extremely self-reliant, and decides and acts instantaneously. If stirred
to indignation, as 'in Aleppo once,' he answers with one lightning
stroke. Love, if he loves, must be to him the heaven where either he
must live or bear no life. If such a passion as jealousy seizes him, it
will swell into a well-nigh incontrollable flood. He will press for
immediate conviction or immediate relief. Convinced, he will act with
the authority of a judge and the swiftness of a man in mortal pain.
Undeceived, he will do like execution on himself.

This character is so noble, Othello's feelings and actions follow so
inevitably from it and from the forces brought to bear on it, and his
sufferings are so heart-rending, that he stirs, I believe, in most
readers a passion of mingled love and pity which they feel for no other
hero in Shakespeare, and to which not even Mr. Swinburne can do more
than justice. Yet there are some critics and not a few readers who
cherish a grudge against him. They do not merely think that in the later
stages of his temptation he showed a certain obtuseness, and that, to
speak pedantically, he acted with unjustifiable precipitance and
violence; no one, I suppose, denies that. But, even when they admit that
he was not of a jealous temper, they consider that he _was_ 'easily
jealous'; they seem to think that it was inexcusable in him to feel any
suspicion of his wife at all; and they blame him for never suspecting
Iago or asking him for evidence. I refer to this attitude of mind
chiefly in order to draw attention to certain points in the story. It
comes partly from mere inattention (for Othello did suspect Iago and did
ask him for evidence); partly from a misconstruction of the text which
makes Othello appear jealous long before he really is so;[96] and partly
from failure to realise certain essential facts. I will begin with

(1) Othello, we have seen, was trustful, and thorough in his trust. He
put entire confidence in the honesty of Iago, who had not only been his
companion in arms, but, as he believed, had just proved his faithfulness
in the matter of the marriage. This confidence was misplaced, and we
happen to know it; but it was no sign of stupidity in Othello. For his
opinion of Iago was the opinion of practically everyone who knew him:
and that opinion was that Iago was before all things 'honest,' his very
faults being those of excess in honesty. This being so, even if Othello
had not been trustful and simple, it would have been quite unnatural in
him to be unmoved by the warnings of so honest a friend, warnings
offered with extreme reluctance and manifestly from a sense of a
friend's duty.[97] _Any_ husband would have been troubled by them.

(2) Iago does not bring these warnings to a husband who had lived with a
wife for months and years and knew her like his sister or his
bosom-friend. Nor is there any ground in Othello's character for
supposing that, if he had been such a man, he would have felt and acted
as he does in the play. But he was newly married; in the circumstances
he cannot have known much of Desdemona before his marriage; and further
he was conscious of being under the spell of a feeling which can give
glory to the truth but can also give it to a dream.

(3) This consciousness in any imaginative man is enough, in such
circumstances, to destroy his confidence in his powers of perception. In
Othello's case, after a long and most artful preparation, there now
comes, to reinforce its effect, the suggestions that he is not an
Italian, not even a European; that he is totally ignorant of the
thoughts and the customary morality of Venetian women;[98] that he had
himself seen in Desdemona's deception of her father how perfect an
actress she could be. As he listens in horror, for a moment at least the
past is revealed to him in a new and dreadful light, and the ground
seems to sink under his feet. These suggestions are followed by a
tentative but hideous and humiliating insinuation of what his honest and
much-experienced friend fears may be the true explanation of Desdemona's
rejection of acceptable suitors, and of her strange, and naturally
temporary, preference for a black man. Here Iago goes too far. He sees
something in Othello's face that frightens him, and he breaks off. Nor
does this idea take any hold of Othello's mind. But it is not surprising
that his utter powerlessness to repel it on the ground of knowledge of
his wife, or even of that instinctive interpretation of character which
is possible between persons of the same race,[99] should complete his
misery, so that he feels he can bear no more, and abruptly dismisses his
friend (III. iii. 238).

Now I repeat that _any_ man situated as Othello was would have been
disturbed by Iago's communications, and I add that many men would have
been made wildly jealous. But up to this point, where Iago is dismissed,
Othello, I must maintain, does not show jealousy. His confidence is
shaken, he is confused and deeply troubled, he feels even horror; but he
is not yet jealous in the proper sense of that word. In his soliloquy
(III. iii. 258 ff.) the beginning of this passion may be traced; but it
is only after an interval of solitude, when he has had time to dwell on
the idea presented to him, and especially after statements of fact, not
mere general grounds of suspicion, are offered, that the passion lays
hold of him. Even then, however, and indeed to the very end, he is quite
unlike the essentially jealous man, quite unlike Leontes. No doubt the
thought of another man's possessing the woman he loves is intolerable to
him; no doubt the sense of insult and the impulse of revenge are at
times most violent; and these are the feelings of jealousy proper. But
these are not the chief or the deepest source of Othello's suffering. It
is the wreck of his faith and his love. It is the feeling,

     If she be false, oh then Heaven mocks itself;

the feeling,

     O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!

the feeling,

     But there where I have garner'd up my heart,
     Where either I must live, or bear no life;
     The fountain from the which my current runs,
     Or else dries up--to be discarded thence....

You will find nothing like this in Leontes.

Up to this point, it appears to me, there is not a syllable to be said
against Othello. But the play is a tragedy, and from this point we may
abandon the ungrateful and undramatic task of awarding praise and blame.
When Othello, after a brief interval, re-enters (III. iii. 330), we see
at once that the poison has been at work and 'burns like the mines of

     Look where he comes! Not poppy, nor mandragora,
     Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
     Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
     Which thou owedst yesterday.

He is 'on the rack,' in an agony so unbearable that he cannot endure the
sight of Iago. Anticipating the probability that Iago has spared him the
whole truth, he feels that in that case his life is over and his
'occupation gone' with all its glories. But he has not abandoned hope.
The bare possibility that his friend is deliberately deceiving
him--though such a deception would be a thing so monstrously wicked that
he can hardly conceive it credible--is a kind of hope. He furiously
demands proof, ocular proof. And when he is compelled to see that he is
demanding an impossibility he still demands evidence. He forces it from
the unwilling witness, and hears the maddening tale of Cassio's dream.
It is enough. And if it were not enough, has he not sometimes seen a
handkerchief spotted with strawberries in his wife's hand? Yes, it was
his first gift to her.

     I know not that; but such a handkerchief--
     I am sure it was your wife's--did I to-day
     See Cassio wipe his beard with.

'If it be that,' he answers--but what need to test the fact? The
'madness of revenge' is in his blood, and hesitation is a thing he never
knew. He passes judgment, and controls himself only to make his sentence
a solemn vow.

The Othello of the Fourth Act is Othello in his fall. His fall is never
complete, but he is much changed. Towards the close of the
Temptation-scene he becomes at times most terrible, but his grandeur
remains almost undiminished. Even in the following scene (III. iv.),
where he goes to test Desdemona in the matter of the handkerchief, and
receives a fatal confirmation of her guilt, our sympathy with him is
hardly touched by any feeling of humiliation. But in the Fourth Act
'Chaos has come.' A slight interval of time may be admitted here. It is
but slight; for it was necessary for Iago to hurry on, and terribly
dangerous to leave a chance for a meeting of Cassio with Othello; and
his insight into Othello's nature taught him that his plan was to
deliver blow on blow, and never to allow his victim to recover from the
confusion of the first shock. Still there is a slight interval; and when
Othello reappears we see at a glance that he is a changed man. He is
physically exhausted, and his mind is dazed.[100] He sees everything
blurred through a mist of blood and tears. He has actually forgotten the
incident of the handkerchief, and has to be reminded of it. When Iago,
perceiving that he can now risk almost any lie, tells him that Cassio
has confessed his guilt, Othello, the hero who has seemed to us only
second to Coriolanus in physical power, trembles all over; he mutters
disjointed words; a blackness suddenly intervenes between his eyes and
the world; he takes it for the shuddering testimony of nature to the
horror he has just heard,[101] and he falls senseless to the ground.
When he recovers it is to watch Cassio, as he imagines, laughing over
his shame. It is an imposition so gross, and should have been one so
perilous, that Iago would never have ventured it before. But he is safe
now. The sight only adds to the confusion of intellect the madness of
rage; and a ravenous thirst for revenge, contending with motions of
infinite longing and regret, conquers them. The delay till night-fall is
torture to him. His self-control has wholly deserted him, and he strikes
his wife in the presence of the Venetian envoy. He is so lost to all
sense of reality that he never asks himself what will follow the deaths
of Cassio and his wife. An ineradicable instinct of justice, rather than
any last quiver of hope, leads him to question Emilia; but nothing could
convince him now, and there follows the dreadful scene of accusation;
and then, to allow us the relief of burning hatred and burning tears,
the interview of Desdemona with Iago, and that last talk of hers with
Emilia, and her last song.

But before the end there is again a change. The supposed death of Cassio
(V. i.) satiates the thirst for vengeance. The Othello who enters the
bed-chamber with the words,

     It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,

is not the man of the Fourth Act. The deed he is bound to do is no
murder, but a sacrifice. He is to save Desdemona from herself, not in
hate but in honour; in honour, and also in love. His anger has passed; a
boundless sorrow has taken its place; and

                  this sorrow's heavenly:
     It strikes where it doth love.

Even when, at the sight of her apparent obduracy, and at the hearing of
words which by a crowning fatality can only reconvince him of her guilt,
these feelings give way to others, it is to righteous indignation they
give way, not to rage; and, terribly painful as this scene is, there is
almost nothing here to diminish the admiration and love which heighten
pity.[102] And pity itself vanishes, and love and admiration alone
remain, in the majestic dignity and sovereign ascendancy of the close.
Chaos has come and gone; and the Othello of the Council-chamber and the
quay of Cyprus has returned, or a greater and nobler Othello still. As
he speaks those final words in which all the glory and agony of his
life--long ago in India and Arabia and Aleppo, and afterwards in Venice,
and now in Cyprus--seem to pass before us, like the pictures that flash
before the eyes of a drowning man, a triumphant scorn for the fetters of
the flesh and the littleness of all the lives that must survive him
sweeps our grief away, and when he dies upon a kiss the most painful of
all tragedies leaves us for the moment free from pain, and exulting in
the power of 'love and man's unconquerable mind.'


The words just quoted come from Wordsworth's sonnet to Toussaint
l'Ouverture. Toussaint was a Negro; and there is a question, which,
though of little consequence, is not without dramatic interest, whether
Shakespeare imagined Othello as a Negro or as a Moor. Now I will not say
that Shakespeare imagined him as a Negro and not as a Moor, for that
might imply that he distinguished Negroes and Moors precisely as we do;
but what appears to me nearly certain is that he imagined Othello as a
black man, and not as a light-brown one.

In the first place, we must remember that the brown or bronze to which
we are now accustomed in the Othellos of our theatres is a recent
innovation. Down to Edmund Kean's time, so far as is known, Othello was
always quite black. This stage-tradition goes back to the Restoration,
and it almost settles our question. For it is impossible that the colour
of the original Othello should have been forgotten so soon after
Shakespeare's time, and most improbable that it should have been changed
from brown to black.

If we turn to the play itself, we find many references to Othello's
colour and appearance. Most of these are indecisive; for the word
'black' was of course used then where we should speak of a 'dark'
complexion now; and even the nickname 'thick-lips,' appealed to as proof
that Othello was a Negro, might have been applied by an enemy to what we
call a Moor. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that, if Othello
had been light-brown, Brabantio would have taunted him with having a
'sooty bosom,' or that (as Mr. Furness observes) he himself would have
used the words,

                    her name, that was as fresh
     As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black
     As mine own face.

These arguments cannot be met by pointing out that Othello was of royal
blood, is not called an Ethiopian, is called a Barbary horse, and is
said to be going to Mauritania. All this would be of importance if we
had reason to believe that Shakespeare shared our ideas, knowledge and
terms. Otherwise it proves nothing. And we know that sixteenth-century
writers called any dark North-African a Moor, or a black Moor, or a
blackamoor. Sir Thomas Elyot, according to Hunter,[103] calls Ethiopians
Moors; and the following are the first two illustrations of 'Blackamoor'
in the Oxford _English Dictionary_: 1547, 'I am a blake More borne in
Barbary'; 1548, '_Ethiopo_, a blake More, or a man of Ethiope.' Thus
geographical names can tell us nothing about the question how
Shakespeare imagined Othello. He may have known that a Mauritanian is
not a Negro nor black, but we cannot assume that he did. He may have
known, again, that the Prince of Morocco, who is described in the
_Merchant of Venice_ as having, like Othello, the complexion of a devil,
was no Negro. But we cannot tell: nor is there any reason why he should
not have imagined the Prince as a brown Moor and Othello as a

_Titus Andronicus_ appeared in the Folio among Shakespeare's works. It
is believed by some good critics to be his: hardly anyone doubts that he
had a hand in it: it is certain that he knew it, for reminiscences of it
are scattered through his plays. Now no one who reads _Titus Andronicus_
with an open mind can doubt that Aaron was, in our sense, black; and he
appears to have been a Negro. To mention nothing else, he is twice
called 'coal-black'; his colour is compared with that of a raven and a
swan's legs; his child is coal-black and thick-lipped; he himself has a
'fleece of woolly hair.' Yet he is 'Aaron the Moor,' just as Othello is
'Othello the Moor.' In the _Battle of Alcazar_ (Dyce's _Peele_, p. 421)
Muly the Moor is called 'the negro'; and Shakespeare himself in a single
line uses 'negro' and 'Moor' of the same person (_Merchant of Venice_,
III. v. 42).

The horror of most American critics (Mr. Furness is a bright exception)
at the idea of a black Othello is very amusing, and their arguments are
highly instructive. But they were anticipated, I regret to say, by
Coleridge, and we will hear him. 'No doubt Desdemona saw Othello's
visage in his mind; yet, as we are constituted, and most surely as an
English audience was disposed in the beginning of the seventeenth
century, it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful
Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro. It would argue a
disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare
does not appear to have in the least contemplated.'[104] Could any
argument be more self-destructive? It actually _did_ appear to Brabantio
'something monstrous to conceive' his daughter falling in love with
Othello,--so monstrous that he could account for her love only by drugs
and foul charms. And the suggestion that such love would argue
'disproportionateness' is precisely the suggestion that Iago _did_ make
in Desdemona's case:

     Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,
     Foul _disproportion_, thoughts unnatural.

In fact he spoke of the marriage exactly as a filthy-minded cynic now
might speak of the marriage of an English lady to a negro like
Toussaint. Thus the argument of Coleridge and others points straight to
the conclusion against which they argue.

But this is not all. The question whether to Shakespeare Othello was
black or brown is not a mere question of isolated fact or historical
curiosity; it concerns the character of Desdemona. Coleridge, and still
more the American writers, regard her love, in effect, as Brabantio
regarded it, and not as Shakespeare conceived it. They are simply
blurring this glorious conception when they try to lessen the distance
between her and Othello, and to smooth away the obstacle which his
'visage' offered to her romantic passion for a hero. Desdemona, the
'eternal womanly' in its most lovely and adorable form, simple and
innocent as a child, ardent with the courage and idealism of a saint,
radiant with that heavenly purity of heart which men worship the more
because nature so rarely permits it to themselves, had no theories about
universal brotherhood, and no phrases about 'one blood in all the
nations of the earth' or 'barbarian, Scythian, bond and free'; but when
her soul came in sight of the noblest soul on earth, she made nothing of
the shrinking of her senses, but followed her soul until her senses took
part with it, and 'loved him with the love which was her doom.' It was
not prudent. It even turned out tragically. She met in life with the
reward of those who rise too far above our common level; and we continue
to allot her the same reward when we consent to forgive her for loving a
brown man, but find it monstrous that she should love a black one.[105]

There is perhaps a certain excuse for our failure to rise to
Shakespeare's meaning, and to realise how extraordinary and splendid a
thing it was in a gentle Venetian girl to love Othello, and to assail
fortune with such a 'downright violence and storm' as is expected only
in a hero. It is that when first we hear of her marriage we have not yet
seen the Desdemona of the later Acts; and therefore we do not perceive
how astonishing this love and boldness must have been in a maiden so
quiet and submissive. And when we watch her in her suffering and death
we are so penetrated by the sense of her heavenly sweetness and
self-surrender that we almost forget that she had shown herself quite as
exceptional in the active assertion of her own soul and will. She tends
to become to us predominantly pathetic, the sweetest and most pathetic
of Shakespeare's women, as innocent as Miranda and as loving as Viola,
yet suffering more deeply than Cordelia or Imogen. And she seems to lack
that independence and strength of spirit which Cordelia and Imogen
possess, and which in a manner raises them above suffering. She appears
passive and defenceless, and can oppose to wrong nothing but the
infinite endurance and forgiveness of a love that knows not how to
resist or resent. She thus becomes at once the most beautiful example of
this love, and the most pathetic heroine in Shakespeare's world. If her
part were acted by an artist equal to Salvini, and with a Salvini for
Othello, I doubt if the spectacle of the last two Acts would not be
pronounced intolerable.

Of course this later impression of Desdemona is perfectly right, but it
must be carried back and united with the earlier before we can see what
Shakespeare imagined. Evidently, we are to understand, innocence,
gentleness, sweetness, lovingness were the salient and, in a sense, the
principal traits in Desdemona's character. She was, as her father
supposed her to be,

                         a maiden never bold,
     Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
     Blushed at herself.

But suddenly there appeared something quite different--something which
could never have appeared, for example, in Ophelia--a love not only full
of romance but showing a strange freedom and energy of spirit, and
leading to a most unusual boldness of action; and this action was
carried through with a confidence and decision worthy of Juliet or
Cordelia. Desdemona does not shrink before the Senate; and her language
to her father, though deeply respectful, is firm enough to stir in us
some sympathy with the old man who could not survive his daughter's
loss. This then, we must understand, was the emergence in Desdemona, as
she passed from girlhood to womanhood, of an individuality and strength
which, if she had lived, would have been gradually fused with her more
obvious qualities and have issued in a thousand actions, sweet and good,
but surprising to her conventional or timid neighbours. And, indeed, we
have already a slight example in her overflowing kindness, her boldness
and her ill-fated persistence in pleading Cassio's cause. But the full
ripening of her lovely and noble nature was not to be. In her brief
wedded life she appeared again chiefly as the sweet and submissive being
of her girlhood; and the strength of her soul, first evoked by love,
found scope to show itself only in a love which, when harshly repulsed,
blamed only its own pain; when bruised, only gave forth a more exquisite
fragrance; and, when rewarded with death, summoned its last labouring
breath to save its murderer.

Many traits in Desdemona's character have been described with
sympathetic insight by Mrs. Jameson, and I will pass them by and add but
a few words on the connection between this character and the catastrophe
of _Othello_. Desdemona, as Mrs. Jameson remarks, shows less quickness
of intellect and less tendency to reflection than most of Shakespeare's
heroines; but I question whether the critic is right in adding that she
shows much of the 'unconscious address common in women.' She seems to me
deficient in this address, having in its place a frank childlike
boldness and persistency, which are full of charm but are unhappily
united with a certain want of perception. And these graces and this
deficiency appear to be inextricably intertwined, and in the
circumstances conspire tragically against her. They, with her innocence,
hinder her from understanding Othello's state of mind, and lead her to
the most unlucky acts and words; and unkindness or anger subdues her so
completely that she becomes passive and seems to drift helplessly
towards the cataract in front.

In Desdemona's incapacity to resist there is also, in addition to her
perfect love, something which is very characteristic. She is, in a
sense, a child of nature. That deep inward division which leads to clear
and conscious oppositions of right and wrong, duty and inclination,
justice and injustice, is alien to her beautiful soul. She is not good,
kind and true in spite of a temptation to be otherwise, any more than
she is charming in spite of a temptation to be otherwise. She seems to
know evil only by name, and, her inclinations being good, she acts on
inclination. This trait, with its results, may be seen if we compare
her, at the crises of the story, with Cordelia. In Desdemona's place,
Cordelia, however frightened at Othello's anger about the lost
handkerchief, would not have denied its loss. Painful experience had
produced in her a conscious principle of rectitude and a proud hatred of
falseness, which would have made a lie, even one wholly innocent in
spirit, impossible to her; and the clear sense of justice and right
would have led her, instead, to require an explanation of Othello's
agitation which would have broken Iago's plot to pieces. In the same
way, at the final crisis, no instinctive terror of death would have
compelled Cordelia suddenly to relinquish her demand for justice and to
plead for life. But these moments are fatal to Desdemona, who acts
precisely as if she were guilty; and they are fatal because they ask for
something which, it seems to us, could hardly be united with the
peculiar beauty of her nature.

This beauty is all her own. Something as beautiful may be found in
Cordelia, but not the same beauty. Desdemona, confronted with Lear's
foolish but pathetic demand for a profession of love, could have done, I
think, what Cordelia could not do--could have refused to compete with
her sisters, and yet have made her father feel that she loved him well.
And I doubt if Cordelia, 'falsely murdered,' would have been capable of
those last words of Desdemona--her answer to Emilia's 'O, who hath done
this deed?'

               Nobody: I myself. Farewell.
     Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell!

Were we intended to remember, as we hear this last 'falsehood,' that
other falsehood, 'It is not lost,' and to feel that, alike in the
momentary child's fear and the deathless woman's love, Desdemona is
herself and herself alone?[106]


[Footnote 85: One instance is worth pointing out, because the passage in
_Othello_ has, oddly enough, given trouble. Desdemona says of the maid
Barbara: 'She was in love, and he she loved proved mad And did forsake
her.' Theobald changed 'mad' to 'bad.' Warburton read 'and he she loved
forsook her, And she proved mad'! Johnson said 'mad' meant only 'wild,
frantic, uncertain.' But what Desdemona says of Barbara is just what
Ophelia might have said of herself.]

[Footnote 86: The whole force of the passages referred to can be felt
only by a reader. The Othello of our stage can never be Shakespeare's
Othello, any more than the Cleopatra of our stage can be his Cleopatra.]

[Footnote 87: See p. 9.]

[Footnote 88: Even here, however, there is a great difference; for
although the idea of such a power is not suggested by _King Lear_ as it
is by _Hamlet_ and _Macbeth_, it is repeatedly expressed by persons _in_
the drama. Of such references there are very few in _Othello_. But for
somewhat frequent allusions to hell and the devil the view of the
characters is almost strictly secular. Desdemona's sweetness and
forgivingness are not based on religion, and her only way of accounting
for her undeserved suffering is by an appeal to Fortune: 'It is my
wretched fortune' (IV. ii. 128). In like manner Othello can only appeal
to Fate (V. ii. 264):

           but, oh vain boast!
     Who can control his fate?]

[Footnote 89: Ulrici has good remarks, though he exaggerates, on this
point and the element of intrigue.]

[Footnote 90: And neither she nor Othello observes what handkerchief it
is. Else she would have remembered how she came to lose it, and would
have told Othello; and Othello, too, would at once have detected Iago's
lie (III. iii. 438) that he had seen Cassio wipe his beard with the
handkerchief 'to-day.' For in fact the handkerchief had been lost _not
an hour_ before Iago told that lie (line 288 of the _same scene_), and
it was at that moment in his pocket. He lied therefore most rashly, but
with his usual luck.]

[Footnote 91: For those who know the end of the story there is a
terrible irony in the enthusiasm with which Cassio greets the arrival of
Desdemona in Cyprus. Her ship (which is also Iago's) sets out from
Venice a week later than the others, but reaches Cyprus on the same day
with them:

     Tempests themselves, high seas and howling winds,
     The gutter'd rocks and congregated sands--
     Traitors ensteep'd to clog the guiltless keel--
     As having sense of beauty, do omit
     Their mortal natures, letting go safely by
     The divine Desdemona.

So swiftly does Fate conduct her to her doom.]

[Footnote 92: The dead bodies are not carried out at the end, as they
must have been if the bed had been on the main stage (for this had no
front curtain). The curtains within which the bed stood were drawn
together at the words, 'Let it be hid' (V. ii. 365).]

[Footnote 93: Against which may be set the scene of the blinding of
Gloster in _King Lear_.]

[Footnote 94: The reader who is tempted by it should, however, first ask
himself whether Othello does act like a barbarian, or like a man who,
though wrought almost to madness, does 'all in honour.']

[Footnote 95: For the actor, then, to represent him as violently angry
when he cashiers Cassio is an utter mistake.]

[Footnote 96: I cannot deal fully with this point in the lecture. See
Note L.]

[Footnote 97: It is important to observe that, in his attempt to arrive
at the facts about Cassio's drunken misdemeanour, Othello had just had
an example of Iago's unwillingness to tell the whole truth where it must
injure a friend. No wonder he feels in the Temptation-scene that 'this
honest creature doubtless Sees and knows more, much more, than he

[Footnote 98: To represent that Venetian women do not regard adultery so
seriously as Othello does, and again that Othello would be wise to
accept the situation like an Italian husband, is one of Iago's most
artful and most maddening devices.]

[Footnote 99: If the reader has ever chanced to see an African violently
excited, he may have been startled to observe how completely at a loss
he was to interpret those bodily expressions of passion which in a
fellow-countryman he understands at once, and in a European foreigner
with somewhat less certainty. The effect of difference in blood in
increasing Othello's bewilderment regarding his wife is not sufficiently
realised. The same effect has to be remembered in regard to Desdemona's
mistakes in dealing with Othello in his anger.]

[Footnote 100: See Note M.]

[Footnote 101: Cf. _Winter's Tale_, I. ii. 137 ff.:

              Can thy dam?--may't be?--
     Affection! thy intention stabs the centre:
     Thou dost make possible things not so held,
     Communicatest with dreams;--how can this be?
     With what's unreal thou coactive art,
     And fellow'st nothing: then 'tis very credent
     Thou may'st cojoin with something; and thou dost,
     And that beyond commission, and I find it,
     And that to the infection of my brains
     And hardening of my brows.]

[Footnote 102: See Note O.]

[Footnote 103: New Illustrations, ii. 281.]

[Footnote 104: _Lectures on Shakespeare_, ed. Ashe, p. 386.]

[Footnote 105: I will not discuss the further question whether, granted
that to Shakespeare Othello was a black, he should be represented as a
black in our theatres now. I dare say not. We do not like the real
Shakespeare. We like to have his language pruned and his conceptions
flattened into something that suits our mouths and minds. And even if we
were prepared to make an effort, still, as Lamb observes, to imagine is
one thing and to see is another. Perhaps if we saw Othello coal-black
with the bodily eye, the aversion of our blood, an aversion which comes
as near to being merely physical as anything human can, would overpower
our imagination and sink us below not Shakespeare only but the audiences
of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

As I have mentioned Lamb, I may observe that he differed from Coleridge
as to Othello's colour, but, I am sorry to add, thought Desdemona to
stand in need of excuse. 'This noble lady, with a singularity rather to
be wondered at than imitated, had chosen for the object of her
affections a Moor, a black.... Neither is Desdemona to be altogether
condemned for the unsuitableness of the person whom she selected for her
lover' (_Tales from Shakespeare_). Others, of course, have gone much
further and have treated all the calamities of the tragedy as a sort of
judgment on Desdemona's rashness, wilfulness and undutifulness. There is
no arguing with opinions like this; but I cannot believe that even Lamb
is true to Shakespeare in implying that Desdemona is in some degree to
be condemned. What is there in the play to show that Shakespeare
regarded her marriage differently from Imogen's?]

[Footnote 106: When Desdemona spoke her last words, perhaps that line of
the ballad which she sang an hour before her death was still busy in her

     Let nobody blame him: his scorn I approve.

Nature plays such strange tricks, and Shakespeare almost alone among
poets seems to create in somewhat the same manner as Nature. In the same
way, as Malone pointed out, Othello's exclamation, 'Goats and monkeys!'
(IV. i. 274) is an unconscious reminiscence of Iago's words at III. iii.




Evil has nowhere else been portrayed with such mastery as in the
character of Iago. Richard III., for example, beside being less subtly
conceived, is a far greater figure and a less repellent. His physical
deformity, separating him from other men, seems to offer some excuse for
his egoism. In spite of his egoism, too, he appears to us more than a
mere individual: he is the representative of his family, the Fury of the
House of York. Nor is he so negative as Iago: he has strong passions, he
has admirations, and his conscience disturbs him. There is the glory of
power about him. Though an excellent actor, he prefers force to fraud,
and in his world there is no general illusion as to his true nature.
Again, to compare Iago with the Satan of _Paradise Lost_ seems almost
absurd, so immensely does Shakespeare's man exceed Milton's Fiend in
evil. That mighty Spirit, whose

                   form had yet not lost
     All her original brightness, nor appeared
     Less than archangel ruined and the excess
     Of glory obscured;

who knew loyalty to comrades and pity for victims; who

               felt how awful goodness is, and saw
     Virtue in her shape how lovely; saw, and pined
     His loss;

who could still weep--how much further distant is he than Iago from
spiritual death, even when, in procuring the fall of Man, he completes
his own fall! It is only in Goethe's Mephistopheles that a fit companion
for Iago can be found. Here there is something of the same deadly
coldness, the same gaiety in destruction. But then Mephistopheles, like
so many scores of literary villains, has Iago for his father. And
Mephistopheles, besides, is not, in the strict sense, a character. He is
half person, half symbol. A metaphysical idea speaks through him. He is
earthy, but could never live upon the earth.

Of Shakespeare's characters Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, and Cleopatra (I
name them in the order of their births) are probably the most wonderful.
Of these, again, Hamlet and Iago, whose births come nearest together,
are perhaps the most subtle. And if Iago had been a person as attractive
as Hamlet, as many thousands of pages might have been written about him,
containing as much criticism good and bad. As it is, the majority of
interpretations of his character are inadequate not only to
Shakespeare's conception, but, I believe, to the impressions of most
readers of taste who are unbewildered by analysis. These false
interpretations, if we set aside the usual lunacies,[107] fall into two
groups. The first contains views which reduce Shakespeare to
commonplace. In different ways and degrees they convert his Iago into
an ordinary villain. Their Iago is simply a man who has been slighted
and revenges himself; or a husband who believes he has been wronged, and
will make his enemy suffer a jealousy worse than his own; or an
ambitious man determined to ruin his successful rival--one of these, or
a combination of these, endowed with unusual ability and cruelty. These
are the more popular views. The second group of false interpretations is
much smaller, but it contains much weightier matter than the first. Here
Iago is a being who hates good simply because it is good, and loves evil
purely for itself. His action is not prompted by any plain motive like
revenge, jealousy or ambition. It springs from a 'motiveless malignity,'
or a disinterested delight in the pain of others; and Othello, Cassio
and Desdemona are scarcely more than the material requisite for the full
attainment of this delight. This second Iago, evidently, is no
conventional villain, and he is much nearer to Shakespeare's Iago than
the first. Only he is, if not a psychological impossibility, at any rate
not a _human_ being. He might be in place, therefore, in a symbolical
poem like _Faust_, but in a purely human drama like _Othello_ he would
be a ruinous blunder. Moreover, he is not in _Othello_: he is a product
of imperfect observation and analysis.

Coleridge, the author of that misleading phrase 'motiveless malignity,'
has some fine remarks on Iago; and the essence of the character has been
described, first in some of the best lines Hazlitt ever wrote, and then
rather more fully by Mr. Swinburne,--so admirably described that I am
tempted merely to read and illustrate these two criticisms. This plan,
however, would make it difficult to introduce all that I wish to say. I
propose, therefore, to approach the subject directly, and, first, to
consider how Iago appeared to those who knew him, and what inferences
may be drawn from their illusions; and then to ask what, if we judge
from the play, his character really was. And I will indicate the points
where I am directly indebted to the criticisms just mentioned.

But two warnings are first required. One of these concerns Iago's
nationality. It has been held that he is a study of that peculiarly
Italian form of villainy which is considered both too clever and too
diabolical for an Englishman. I doubt if there is much more to be said
for this idea than for the notion that Othello is a study of Moorish
character. No doubt the belief in that Italian villainy was prevalent in
Shakespeare's time, and it may perhaps have influenced him in some
slight degree both here and in drawing the character of Iachimo in
_Cymbeline_. But even this slight influence seems to me doubtful. If Don
John in _Much Ado_ had been an Englishman, critics would have admired
Shakespeare's discernment in making his English villain sulky and
stupid. If Edmund's father had been Duke of Ferrara instead of Earl of
Gloster, they would have said that Edmund could have been nothing but an
Italian. Change the name and country of Richard III., and he would be
called a typical despot of the Italian Renaissance. Change those of
Juliet, and we should find her wholesome English nature contrasted with
the southern dreaminess of Romeo. But this way of interpreting
Shakespeare is not Shakespearean. With him the differences of period,
race, nationality and locality have little bearing on the inward
character, though they sometimes have a good deal on the total
imaginative effect, of his figures. When he does lay stress on such
differences his intention is at once obvious, as in characters like
Fluellen or Sir Hugh Evans, or in the talk of the French princes before
the battle of Agincourt. I may add that Iago certainly cannot be taken
to exemplify the popular Elizabethan idea of a disciple of Macchiavelli.
There is no sign that he is in theory an atheist or even an unbeliever
in the received religion. On the contrary, he uses its language, and
says nothing resembling the words of the prologue to the _Jew of Malta_:

     I count religion but a childish toy,
     And hold there is no sin but ignorance.

Aaron in _Titus Andronicus_ might have said this (and is not more likely
to be Shakespeare's creation on that account), but not Iago.

I come to a second warning. One must constantly remember not to believe
a syllable that Iago utters on any subject, including himself, until one
has tested his statement by comparing it with known facts and with other
statements of his own or of other people, and by considering whether he
had in the particular circumstances any reason for telling a lie or for
telling the truth. The implicit confidence which his acquaintances
placed in his integrity has descended to most of his critics; and this,
reinforcing the comical habit of quoting as Shakespeare's own statement
everything said by his characters, has been a fruitful source of
misinterpretation. I will take as an instance the very first assertions
made by Iago. In the opening scene he tells his dupe Roderigo that three
great men of Venice went to Othello and begged him to make Iago his
lieutenant; that Othello, out of pride and obstinacy, refused; that in
refusing he talked a deal of military rigmarole, and ended by declaring
(falsely, we are to understand) that he had already filled up the
vacancy; that Cassio, whom he chose, had absolutely no practical
knowledge of war, nothing but bookish theoric, mere prattle, arithmetic,
whereas Iago himself had often fought by Othello's side, and by 'old
gradation' too ought to have been preferred. Most or all of this is
repeated by some critics as though it were information given by
Shakespeare, and the conclusion is quite naturally drawn that Iago had
some reason to feel aggrieved. But if we ask ourselves how much of all
this is true we shall answer, I believe, as follows. It is absolutely
certain that Othello appointed Cassio his lieutenant, and _nothing_ else
is absolutely certain. But there is no reason to doubt the statement
that Iago had seen service with him, nor is there anything inherently
improbable in the statement that he was solicited by three great
personages on Iago's behalf. On the other hand, the suggestions that he
refused out of pride and obstinacy, and that he lied in saying he had
already chosen his officer, have no verisimilitude; and if there is any
fact at all (as there probably is) behind Iago's account of the
conversation, it doubtless is the fact that Iago himself was ignorant of
military science, while Cassio was an expert, and that Othello explained
this to the great personages. That Cassio, again, was an interloper and
a mere closet-student without experience of war is incredible,
considering first that Othello chose him for lieutenant, and secondly
that the senate appointed him to succeed Othello in command at Cyprus;
and we have direct evidence that part of Iago's statement is a lie, for
Desdemona happens to mention that Cassio was a man who 'all his time had
founded his good fortunes' on Othello's love and had 'shared dangers'
with him (III. iv. 93). There remains only the implied assertion that,
if promotion had gone by old gradation, Iago, as the senior, would have
been preferred. It may be true: Othello was not the man to hesitate to
promote a junior for good reasons. But it is just as likely to be a pure
invention; and, though Cassio was young, there is nothing to show that
he was younger, in years or in service, than Iago. Iago, for instance,
never calls him 'young,' as he does Roderigo; and a mere youth would not
have been made Governor of Cyprus. What is certain, finally, in the
whole business is that Othello's mind was perfectly at ease about the
appointment, and that he never dreamed of Iago's being discontented at
it, not even when the intrigue was disclosed and he asked himself how he
had offended Iago.


It is necessary to examine in this manner every statement made by Iago.
But it is not necessary to do so in public, and I proceed to the
question what impression he made on his friends and acquaintances. In
the main there is here no room for doubt. Nothing could be less like
Iago than the melodramatic villain so often substituted for him on the
stage, a person whom everyone in the theatre knows for a scoundrel at
the first glance. Iago, we gather, was a Venetian[108] soldier,
eight-and-twenty years of age, who had seen a good deal of service and
had a high reputation for courage. Of his origin we are ignorant, but,
unless I am mistaken, he was not of gentle birth or breeding.[109] He
does not strike one as a degraded man of culture: for all his great
powers, he is vulgar, and his probable want of military science may well
be significant. He was married to a wife who evidently lacked
refinement, and who appears in the drama almost in the relation of a
servant to Desdemona. His manner was that of a blunt, bluff soldier, who
spoke his mind freely and plainly. He was often hearty, and could be
thoroughly jovial; but he was not seldom rather rough and caustic of
speech, and he was given to making remarks somewhat disparaging to human
nature. He was aware of this trait in himself, and frankly admitted that
he was nothing if not critical, and that it was his nature to spy into
abuses. In these admissions he characteristically exaggerated his fault,
as plain-dealers are apt to do; and he was liked none the less for it,
seeing that his satire was humorous, that on serious matters he did not
speak lightly (III. iii. 119), and that the one thing perfectly obvious
about him was his honesty. 'Honest' is the word that springs to the lips
of everyone who speaks of him. It is applied to him some fifteen times
in the play, not to mention some half-dozen where he employs it, in
derision, of himself. In fact he was one of those sterling men who, in
disgust at gush, say cynical things which they do not believe, and then,
the moment you are in trouble, put in practice the very sentiment they
had laughed at. On such occasions he showed the kindliest sympathy and
the most eager desire to help. When Cassio misbehaved so dreadfully and
was found fighting with Montano, did not Othello see that 'honest Iago
looked dead with grieving'? With what difficulty was he induced, nay,
compelled, to speak the truth against the lieutenant! Another man might
have felt a touch of satisfaction at the thought that the post he had
coveted was now vacant; but Iago not only comforted Cassio, talking to
him cynically about reputation, just to help him over his shame, but he
set his wits to work and at once perceived that the right plan for
Cassio to get his post again was to ask Desdemona to intercede. So
troubled was he at his friend's disgrace that his own wife was sure 'it
grieved her husband as if the case was his.' What wonder that anyone in
sore trouble, like Desdemona, should send at once for Iago (IV. ii.
106)? If this rough diamond had any flaw, it was that Iago's warm loyal
heart incited him to too impulsive action. If he merely heard a friend
like Othello calumniated, his hand flew to his sword; and though he
restrained himself he almost regretted his own virtue (I. ii. 1-10).

Such seemed Iago to the people about him, even to those who, like
Othello, had known him for some time. And it is a fact too little
noticed but most remarkable, that he presented an appearance not very
different to his wife. There is no sign either that Emilia's marriage
was downright unhappy, or that she suspected the true nature of her
husband.[110] No doubt she knew rather more of him than others. Thus we
gather that he was given to chiding and sometimes spoke shortly and
sharply to her (III. iii. 300 f.); and it is quite likely that she gave
him a good deal of her tongue in exchange (II. i. 101 f.). He was also
unreasonably jealous; for his own statement that he was jealous of
Othello is confirmed by Emilia herself, and must therefore be believed
(IV. ii. 145).[111] But it seems clear that these defects of his had not
seriously impaired Emilia's confidence in her husband or her affection
for him. She knew in addition that he was not quite so honest as he
seemed, for he had often begged her to steal Desdemona's handkerchief.
But Emilia's nature was not very delicate or scrupulous about trifles.
She thought her husband odd and 'wayward,' and looked on his fancy for
the handkerchief as an instance of this (III. iii. 292); but she never
dreamed he was a villain, and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity
of her belief that he was heartily sorry for Cassio's disgrace. Her
failure, on seeing Othello's agitation about the handkerchief, to form
any suspicion of an intrigue, shows how little she doubted her husband.
Even when, later, the idea strikes her that some scoundrel has poisoned
Othello's mind, the tone of all her speeches, and her mention of the
rogue who (she believes) had stirred up Iago's jealousy of her, prove
beyond doubt that the thought of Iago's being the scoundrel has not
crossed her mind (IV. ii. 115-147). And if any hesitation on the subject
could remain, surely it must be dispelled by the thrice-repeated cry of
astonishment and horror, 'My husband!', which follows Othello's words,
'Thy husband knew it all'; and by the choking indignation and desperate
hope which we hear in her appeal when Iago comes in:

     Disprove this villain if thou be'st a man:
     He says thou told'st him that his wife was false:
     I know thou did'st not, thou'rt not such a villain:
     Speak, for my heart is full.

Even if Iago _had_ betrayed much more of his true self to his wife than
to others, it would make no difference to the contrast between his true
self and the self he presented to the world in general. But he never did
so. Only the feeble eyes of the poor gull Roderigo were allowed a
glimpse into that pit.

The bearing of this contrast upon the apparently excessive credulity of
Othello has been already pointed out. What further conclusions can be
drawn from it? Obviously, to begin with, the inference, which is
accompanied by a thrill of admiration, that Iago's powers of
dissimulation and of self-control must have been prodigious: for he was
not a youth, like Edmund, but had worn this mask for years, and he had
apparently never enjoyed, like Richard, occasional explosions of the
reality within him. In fact so prodigious does his self-control appear
that a reader might be excused for feeling a doubt of its possibility.
But there are certain observations and further inferences which, apart
from confidence in Shakespeare, would remove this doubt. It is to be
observed, first, that Iago was able to find a certain relief from the
discomfort of hypocrisy in those caustic or cynical speeches which,
being misinterpreted, only heightened confidence in his honesty. They
acted as a safety-valve, very much as Hamlet's pretended insanity did.
Next, I would infer from the entire success of his hypocrisy--what may
also be inferred on other grounds, and is of great importance--that he
was by no means a man of strong feelings and passions, like Richard, but
decidedly cold by temperament. Even so, his self-control was wonderful,
but there never was in him any violent storm to be controlled. Thirdly,
I would suggest that Iago, though thoroughly selfish and unfeeling, was
not by nature malignant, nor even morose, but that, on the contrary, he
had a superficial good-nature, the kind of good-nature that wins
popularity and is often taken as the sign, not of a good digestion, but
of a good heart. And lastly, it may be inferred that, before the giant
crime which we witness, Iago had never been detected in any serious
offence and may even never have been guilty of one, but had pursued a
selfish but outwardly decent life, enjoying the excitement of war and of
casual pleasures, but never yet meeting with any sufficient temptation
to risk his position and advancement by a dangerous crime. So that, in
fact, the tragedy of _Othello_ is in a sense his tragedy too. It shows
us not a violent man, like Richard, who spends his life in murder, but a
thoroughly bad, _cold_ man, who is at last tempted to let loose the
forces within him, and is at once destroyed.


In order to see how this tragedy arises let us now look more closely
into Iago's inner man. We find here, in the first place, as has been
implied in part, very remarkable powers both of intellect and of will.
Iago's insight, within certain limits, into human nature; his ingenuity
and address in working upon it; his quickness and versatility in dealing
with sudden difficulties and unforeseen opportunities, have probably no
parallel among dramatic characters. Equally remarkable is his strength
of will. Not Socrates himself, not the ideal sage of the Stoics, was
more lord of himself than Iago appears to be. It is not merely that he
never betrays his true nature; he seems to be master of _all_ the
motions that might affect his will. In the most dangerous moments of his
plot, when the least slip or accident would be fatal, he never shows a
trace of nervousness. When Othello takes him by the throat he merely
shifts his part with his usual instantaneous adroitness. When he is
attacked and wounded at the end he is perfectly unmoved. As Mr.
Swinburne says, you cannot believe for a moment that the pain of torture
will ever open Iago's lips. He is equally unassailable by the
temptations of indolence or of sensuality. It is difficult to imagine
him inactive; and though he has an obscene mind, and doubtless took his
pleasures when and how he chose, he certainly took them by choice and
not from weakness, and if pleasure interfered with his purposes the
holiest of ascetics would not put it more resolutely by. 'What should I
do?' Roderigo whimpers to him; 'I confess it is my shame to be so fond;
but it is not in my virtue to amend it.' He answers: 'Virtue! a fig!
'tis in ourselves that we are thus and thus. It all depends on our will.
Love is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will. Come,
be a man.... Ere I would say I would drown myself for the love of a
guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon.' Forget for a
moment that love is for Iago the appetite of a baboon; forget that he is
as little assailable by pity as by fear or pleasure; and you will
acknowledge that this lordship of the will, which is his practice as
well as his doctrine, is great, almost sublime. Indeed, in intellect
(always within certain limits) and in will (considered as a mere power,
and without regard to its objects) Iago _is_ great.

To what end does he use these great powers? His creed--for he is no
sceptic, he has a definite creed--is that absolute egoism is the only
rational and proper attitude, and that conscience or honour or any kind
of regard for others is an absurdity. He does not deny that this
absurdity exists. He does not suppose that most people secretly share
his creed, while pretending to hold and practise another. On the
contrary, he regards most people as honest fools. He declares that he
has never yet met a man who knew how to love himself; and his one
expression of admiration in the play is for servants

     Who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty,
     Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves.

'These fellows,' he says, 'have some soul.' He professes to stand, and
he, attempts to stand, wholly outside the world of morality.

The existence of Iago's creed and of his corresponding practice is
evidently connected with a characteristic in which he surpasses nearly
all the other inhabitants of Shakespeare's world. Whatever he may once
have been, he appears, when we meet him, to be almost destitute of
humanity, of sympathetic or social feeling. He shows no trace of
affection, and in presence of the most terrible suffering he shows
either pleasure or an indifference which, if not complete, is nearly so.
Here, however, we must be careful. It is important to realise, and few
readers are in danger of ignoring, this extraordinary deadness of
feeling, but it is also important not to confuse it with a general
positive ill-will. When Iago has no dislike or hostility to a person he
does _not_ show pleasure in the suffering of that person: he shows at
most the absence of pain. There is, for instance, not the least sign of
his enjoying the distress of Desdemona. But his sympathetic feelings are
so abnormally feeble and cold that, when his dislike is roused, or when
an indifferent person comes in the way of his purpose, there is scarcely
anything within him to prevent his applying the torture.

What is it that provokes his dislike or hostility? Here again we must
look closely. Iago has been represented as an incarnation of envy, as a
man who, being determined to get on in the world, regards everyone else
with enmity as his rival. But this idea, though containing truth, seems
much exaggerated. Certainly he is devoted to himself; but if he were an
eagerly ambitious man, surely we should see much more positive signs of
this ambition; and surely too, with his great powers, he would already
have risen high, instead of being a mere ensign, short of money, and
playing Captain Rook to Roderigo's Mr. Pigeon. Taking all the facts, one
must conclude that his desires were comparatively moderate and his
ambition weak; that he probably enjoyed war keenly, but, if he had money
enough, did not exert himself greatly to acquire reputation or position;
and, therefore, that he was not habitually burning with envy and
actively hostile to other men as possible competitors.

But what is clear is that Iago is keenly sensitive to anything that
touches his pride or self-esteem. It would be most unjust to call him
vain, but he has a high opinion of himself and a great contempt for
others. He is quite aware of his superiority to them in certain
respects; and he either disbelieves in or despises the qualities in
which they are superior to him. Whatever disturbs or wounds his sense of
superiority irritates him at once; and in _that_ sense he is highly
competitive. This is why the appointment of Cassio provokes him. This is
why Cassio's scientific attainments provoke him. This is the reason of
his jealousy of Emilia. He does not care for his wife; but the fear of
another man's getting the better of him, and exposing him to pity or
derision as an unfortunate husband, is wormwood to him; and as he is
sure that no woman is virtuous at heart, this fear is ever with him. For
much the same reason he has a spite against goodness in men (for it is
characteristic that he is less blind to its existence in men, the
stronger, than in women, the weaker). He has a spite against it, not
from any love of evil for evil's sake, but partly because it annoys his
intellect as a stupidity; partly (though he hardly knows this) because
it weakens his satisfaction with himself, and disturbs his faith that
egoism is the right and proper thing; partly because, the world being
such a fool, goodness is popular and prospers. But he, a man ten times
as able as Cassio or even Othello, does not greatly prosper. Somehow,
for all the stupidity of these open and generous people, they get on
better than the 'fellow of some soul' And this, though he is not
particularly eager to get on, wounds his pride. Goodness therefore
annoys him. He is always ready to scoff at it, and would like to strike
at it. In ordinary circumstances these feelings of irritation are not
vivid in Iago--_no_ feeling is so--but they are constantly present.


Our task of analysis is not finished; but we are now in a position to
consider the rise of Iago's tragedy. Why did he act as we see him acting
in the play? What is the answer to that appeal of Othello's:

     Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
     Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?

This question Why? is _the_ question about Iago, just as the question
Why did Hamlet delay? is _the_ question about Hamlet. Iago refused to
answer it; but I will venture to say that he _could_ not have answered
it, any more than Hamlet could tell why he delayed. But Shakespeare knew
the answer, and if these characters are great creations and not blunders
we ought to be able to find it too.

Is it possible to elicit it from Iago himself against his will? He makes
various statements to Roderigo, and he has several soliloquies. From
these sources, and especially from the latter, we should learn
something. For with Shakespeare soliloquy generally gives information
regarding the secret springs as well as the outward course of the plot;
and, moreover, it is a curious point of technique with him that the
soliloquies of his villains sometimes read almost like explanations
offered to the audience.[112] Now, Iago repeatedly offers explanations
either to Roderigo or to himself. In the first place, he says more than
once that he 'hates' Othello. He gives two reasons for his hatred.
Othello has made Cassio lieutenant; and he suspects, and has heard it
reported, that Othello has an intrigue with Emilia. Next there is
Cassio. He never says he hates Cassio, but he finds in him three causes
of offence: Cassio has been preferred to him; he suspects _him_ too of
an intrigue with Emilia; and, lastly, Cassio has a daily beauty in his
life which makes Iago ugly. In addition to these annoyances he wants
Cassio's place. As for Roderigo, he calls him a snipe, and who can hate
a snipe? But Roderigo knows too much; and he is becoming a nuisance,
getting angry, and asking for the gold and jewels he handed to Iago to
give to Desdemona. So Iago kills Roderigo. Then for Desdemona: a
fig's-end for her virtue! but he has no ill-will to her. In fact he
'loves' her, though he is good enough to explain, varying the word, that
his 'lust' is mixed with a desire to pay Othello in his own coin. To be
sure she must die, and so must Emilia, and so would Bianca if only the
authorities saw things in their true light; but he did not set out with
any hostile design against these persons.

Is the account which Iago gives of the causes of his action the true
account? The answer of the most popular view will be, 'Yes. Iago was, as
he says, chiefly incited by two things, the desire of advancement, and a
hatred of Othello due principally to the affair of the lieutenancy.
These are perfectly intelligible causes; we have only to add to them
unusual ability and cruelty, and all is explained. Why should Coleridge
and Hazlitt and Swinburne go further afield?' To which last question I
will at once oppose these: If your view is correct, why should Iago be
considered an extraordinary creation; and is it not odd that the people
who reject it are the people who elsewhere show an exceptional
understanding of Shakespeare?

The difficulty about this popular view is, in the first place, that it
attributes to Iago what cannot be found in the Iago of the play. Its
Iago is impelled by _passions_, a passion of ambition and a passion of
hatred; for no ambition or hatred short of passion could drive a man who
is evidently so clear-sighted, and who must hitherto have been so
prudent, into a plot so extremely hazardous. Why, then, in the Iago of
the play do we find no sign of these passions or of anything approaching
to them? Why, if Shakespeare meant that Iago was impelled by them, does
he suppress the signs of them? Surely not from want of ability to
display them. The poet who painted Macbeth and Shylock understood his
business. Who ever doubted Macbeth's ambition or Shylock's hate? And
what resemblance is there between these passions and any feeling that we
can trace in Iago? The resemblance between a volcano in eruption and a
flameless fire of coke; the resemblance between a consuming desire to
hack and hew your enemy's flesh, and the resentful wish, only too
familiar in common life, to inflict pain in return for a slight.
Passion, in Shakespeare's plays, is perfectly easy to recognise. What
vestige of it, of passion unsatisfied or of passion gratified, is
visible in Iago? None: that is the very horror of him. He has _less_
passion than an ordinary man, and yet he does these frightful things.
The only ground for attributing to him, I do not say a passionate
hatred, but anything deserving the name of hatred at all, is his own
statement, 'I hate Othello'; and we know what his statements are worth.

But the popular view, beside attributing to Iago what he does not show,
ignores what he does show. It selects from his own account of his
motives one or two, and drops the rest; and so it makes everything
natural. But it fails to perceive how unnatural, how strange and
suspicious, his own account is. Certainly he assigns motives enough; the
difficulty is that he assigns so many. A man moved by simple passions
due to simple causes does not stand fingering his feelings,
industriously enumerating their sources, and groping about for new ones.
But this is what Iago does. And this is not all. These motives appear
and disappear in the most extraordinary manner. Resentment at Cassio's
appointment is expressed in the first conversation with Roderigo, and
from that moment is never once mentioned again in the whole play. Hatred
of Othello is expressed in the First Act alone. Desire to get Cassio's
place scarcely appears after the first soliloquy, and when it is
gratified Iago does not refer to it by a single word. The suspicion of
Cassio's intrigue with Emilia emerges suddenly, as an after-thought, not
in the first soliloquy but the second, and then disappears for
ever.[113] Iago's 'love' of Desdemona is alluded to in the second
soliloquy; there is not the faintest trace of it in word or deed either
before or after. The mention of jealousy of Othello is followed by
declarations that Othello is infatuated about Desdemona and is of a
constant nature, and during Othello's sufferings Iago never shows a sign
of the idea that he is now paying his rival in his own coin. In the
second soliloquy he declares that he quite believes Cassio to be in love
with Desdemona; it is obvious that he believes no such thing, for he
never alludes to the idea again, and within a few hours describes Cassio
in soliloquy as an honest fool. His final reason for ill-will to Cassio
never appears till the Fifth Act.

What is the meaning of all this? Unless Shakespeare was out of his mind,
it must have a meaning. And certainly this meaning is not contained in
any of the popular accounts of Iago.

Is it contained then in Coleridge's word 'motive-hunting'? Yes,
'motive-hunting' exactly answers to the impression that Iago's
soliloquies produce. He is pondering his design, and unconsciously
trying to justify it to himself. He speaks of one or two real feelings,
such as resentment against Othello, and he mentions one or two real
causes of these feelings. But these are not enough for him. Along with
them, or alone, there come into his head, only to leave it again, ideas
and suspicions, the creations of his own baseness or uneasiness, some
old, some new, caressed for a moment to feed his purpose and give it a
reasonable look, but never really believed in, and never the main forces
which are determining his action. In fact, I would venture to describe
Iago in these soliloquies as a man setting out on a project which
strongly attracts his desire, but at the same time conscious of a
resistance to the desire, and unconsciously trying to argue the
resistance away by assigning reasons for the project. He is the
counterpart of Hamlet, who tries to find reasons for his delay in
pursuing a design which excites his aversion. And most of Iago's reasons
for action are no more the real ones than Hamlet's reasons for delay
were the real ones. Each is moved by forces which he does not
understand; and it is probably no accident that these two studies of
states psychologically so similar were produced at about the same

What then were the real moving forces of Iago's action? Are we to fall
back on the idea of a 'motiveless malignity;'[114] that is to say, a
disinterested love of evil, or a delight in the pain of others as simple
and direct as the delight in one's own pleasure? Surely not. I will not
insist that this thing or these things are inconceivable, mere phrases,
not ideas; for, even so, it would remain possible that Shakespeare had
tried to represent an inconceivability. But there is not the slightest
reason to suppose that he did so. Iago's action is intelligible; and
indeed the popular view contains enough truth to refute this desperate
theory. It greatly exaggerates his desire for advancement, and the
ill-will caused by his disappointment, and it ignores other forces more
important than these; but it is right in insisting on the presence of
this desire and this ill-will, and their presence is enough to destroy
Iago's claims to be more than a demi-devil. For love of the evil that
advances my interest and hurts a person I dislike, is a very different
thing from love of evil simply as evil; and pleasure in the pain of a
person disliked or regarded as a competitor is quite distinct from
pleasure in the pain of others simply as others. The first is
intelligible, and we find it in Iago. The second, even if it were
intelligible, we do not find in Iago.

Still, desire of advancement and resentment about the lieutenancy,
though factors and indispensable factors in the cause of Iago's action,
are neither the principal nor the most characteristic factors. To find
these, let us return to our half-completed analysis of the character.
Let us remember especially the keen sense of superiority, the contempt
of others, the sensitiveness to everything which wounds these feelings,
the spite against goodness in men as a thing not only stupid but, both
in its nature and by its success, contrary to Iago's nature and
irritating to his pride. Let us remember in addition the annoyance of
having always to play a part, the consciousness of exceptional but
unused ingenuity and address, the enjoyment of action, and the absence
of fear. And let us ask what would be the greatest pleasure of such a
man, and what the situation which might tempt him to abandon his
habitual prudence and pursue this pleasure. Hazlitt and Mr. Swinburne do
not put this question, but the answer I proceed to give to it is in
principle theirs.[115]

The most delightful thing to such a man would be something that gave an
extreme satisfaction to his sense of power and superiority; and if it
involved, secondly, the triumphant exertion of his abilities, and,
thirdly, the excitement of danger, his delight would be consummated. And
the moment most dangerous to such a man would be one when his sense of
superiority had met with an affront, so that its habitual craving was
reinforced by resentment, while at the same time he saw an opportunity
of satisfying it by subjecting to his will the very persons who had
affronted it. Now, this is the temptation that comes to Iago. Othello's
eminence, Othello's goodness, and his own dependence on Othello, must
have been a perpetual annoyance to him. At _any_ time he would have
enjoyed befooling and tormenting Othello. Under ordinary circumstances
he was restrained, chiefly by self-interest, in some slight degree
perhaps by the faint pulsations of conscience or humanity. But
disappointment at the loss of the lieutenancy supplied the touch of
lively resentment that was required to overcome these obstacles; and the
prospect of satisfying the sense of power by mastering Othello through
an intricate and hazardous intrigue now became irresistible. Iago did
not clearly understand what was moving his desire; though he tried to
give himself reasons for his action, even those that had some reality
made but a small part of the motive force; one may almost say they were
no more than the turning of the handle which admits the driving power
into the machine. Only once does he appear to see something of the
truth. It is when he uses the phrase '_to plume up my will_ in double

To 'plume up the will,' to heighten the sense of power or
superiority--this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of
cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which
therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that
makes a man bully the wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who
torments another boy, as we say, 'for no reason,' or who without any
hatred for frogs tortures a frog, is pleased with his victim's pain, not
from any disinterested love of evil or pleasure in pain, but mainly
because this pain is the unmistakable proof of his own power over his
victim. So it is with Iago. His thwarted sense of superiority wants
satisfaction. What fuller satisfaction could it find than the
consciousness that he is the master of the General who has undervalued
him and of the rival who has been preferred to him; that these worthy
people, who are so successful and popular and stupid, are mere puppets
in his hands, but living puppets, who at the motion of his finger must
contort themselves in agony, while all the time they believe that he is
their one true friend and comforter? It must have been an ecstasy of
bliss to him. And this, granted a most abnormal deadness of human
feeling, is, however horrible, perfectly intelligible. There is no
mystery in the psychology of Iago; the mystery lies in a further
question, which the drama has not to answer, the question why such a
being should exist.

Iago's longing to satisfy the sense of power is, I think, the strongest
of the forces that drive him on. But there are two others to be noticed.
One is the pleasure in an action very difficult and perilous and,
therefore, intensely exciting. This action sets all his powers on the
strain. He feels the delight of one who executes successfully a feat
thoroughly congenial to his special aptitude, and only just within his
compass; and, as he is fearless by nature, the fact that a single slip
will cost him his life only increases his pleasure. His exhilaration
breaks out in the ghastly words with which he greets the sunrise after
the night of the drunken tumult which has led to Cassio's disgrace: 'By
the mass, 'tis morning. Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.'
Here, however, the joy in exciting action is quickened by other
feelings. It appears more simply elsewhere in such a way as to suggest
that nothing but such actions gave him happiness, and that his happiness
was greater if the action was destructive as well as exciting. We find
it, for instance, in his gleeful cry to Roderigo, who proposes to shout
to Brabantio in order to wake him and tell him of his daughter's flight:

     Do, with like timorous[116] accent and dire yell
     As when, by night and negligence, the fire
     Is spied in populous cities.

All through that scene; again, in the scene where Cassio is attacked and
Roderigo murdered; everywhere where Iago is in physical action, we catch
this sound of almost feverish enjoyment. His blood, usually so cold and
slow, is racing through his veins.

But Iago, finally, is not simply a man of action; he is an artist. His
action is a plot, the intricate plot of a drama, and in the conception
and execution of it he experiences the tension and the joy of artistic
creation. 'He is,' says Hazlitt, 'an amateur of tragedy in real life;
and, instead of employing his invention on imaginary characters or
long-forgotten incidents, he takes the bolder and more dangerous course
of getting up his plot at home, casts the principal parts among his
newest friends and connections, and rehearses it in downright earnest,
with steady nerves and unabated resolution.' Mr. Swinburne lays even
greater stress on this aspect of Iago's character, and even declares
that 'the very subtlest and strongest component of his complex nature'
is 'the instinct of what Mr. Carlyle would call an inarticulate poet.'
And those to whom this idea is unfamiliar, and who may suspect it at
first sight of being fanciful, will find, if they examine the play in
the light of Mr. Swinburne's exposition, that it rests on a true and
deep perception, will stand scrutiny, and might easily be illustrated.
They may observe, to take only one point, the curious analogy between
the early stages of dramatic composition and those soliloquies in which
Iago broods over his plot, drawing at first only an outline, puzzled how
to fix more than the main idea, and gradually seeing it develop and
clarify as he works upon it or lets it work. Here at any rate
Shakespeare put a good deal of himself into Iago. But the tragedian in
real life was not the equal of the tragic poet. His psychology, as we
shall see, was at fault at a critical point, as Shakespeare's never was.
And so his catastrophe came out wrong, and his piece was ruined.

Such, then, seem to be the chief ingredients of the force which,
liberated by his resentment at Cassio's promotion, drives Iago from
inactivity into action, and sustains him through it. And, to pass to a
new point, this force completely possesses him; it is his fate. It is
like the passion with which a tragic hero wholly identifies himself, and
which bears him on to his doom. It is true that, once embarked on his
course, Iago _could_ not turn back, even if this passion did abate; and
it is also true that he is compelled, by his success in convincing
Othello, to advance to conclusions of which at the outset he did not
dream. He is thus caught in his own web, and could not liberate himself
if he would. But, in fact, he never shows a trace of wishing to do so,
not a trace of hesitation, of looking back, or of fear, any more than of
remorse; there is no ebb in the tide. As the crisis approaches there
passes through his mind a fleeting doubt whether the deaths of Cassio
and Roderigo are indispensable; but that uncertainty, which does not
concern the main issue, is dismissed, and he goes forward with
undiminished zest. Not even in his sleep--as in Richard's before his
final battle--does any rebellion of outraged conscience or pity, or any
foreboding of despair, force itself into clear consciousness. His
fate--which is himself--has completely mastered him: so that, in the
later scenes, where the improbability of the entire success of a design
built on so many different falsehoods forces itself on the reader, Iago
appears for moments not as a consummate schemer, but as a man absolutely
infatuated and delivered over to certain destruction.


Iago stands supreme among Shakespeare's evil characters because the
greatest intensity and subtlety of imagination have gone to his making,
and because he illustrates in the most perfect combination the two facts
concerning evil which seem to have impressed Shakespeare most. The first
of these is the fact that perfectly sane people exist in whom
fellow-feeling of any kind is so weak that an almost absolute egoism
becomes possible to them, and with it those hard vices--such as
ingratitude and cruelty--which to Shakespeare were far the worst. The
second is that such evil is compatible, and even appears to ally itself
easily, with exceptional powers of will and intellect. In the latter
respect Iago is nearly or quite the equal of Richard, in egoism he is
the superior, and his inferiority in passion and massive force only
makes him more repulsive. How is it then that we can bear to contemplate
him; nay, that, if we really imagine him, we feel admiration and some
kind of sympathy? Henry the Fifth tells us:

     There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
     Would men observingly distil it out;

but here, it may be said, we are shown a thing absolutely evil,
and--what is more dreadful still--this absolute evil is united with
supreme intellectual power. Why is the representation tolerable, and why
do we not accuse its author either of untruth or of a desperate

To these questions it might at once be replied: Iago does not stand
alone; he is a factor in a whole; and we perceive him there and not in
isolation, acted upon as well as acting, destroyed as well as
destroying.[117] But, although this is true and important, I pass it by
and, continuing to regard him by himself, I would make three remarks in
answer to the questions.

In the first place, Iago is not merely negative or evil--far from it.
Those very forces that moved him and made his fate--sense of power,
delight in performing a difficult and dangerous action, delight in the
exercise of artistic skill--are not at all evil things. We sympathise
with one or other of them almost every day of our lives. And,
accordingly, though in Iago they are combined with something detestable
and so contribute to evil, our perception of them is accompanied with
sympathy. In the same way, Iago's insight, dexterity, quickness,
address, and the like, are in themselves admirable things; the perfect
man would possess them. And certainly he would possess also Iago's
courage and self-control, and, like Iago, would stand above the impulses
of mere feeling, lord of his inner world. All this goes to evil ends in
Iago, but in itself it has a great worth; and, although in reading, of
course, we do not sift it out and regard it separately, it inevitably
affects us and mingles admiration with our hatred or horror.

All this, however, might apparently co-exist with absolute egoism and
total want of humanity. But, in the second place, it is not true that in
Iago this egoism and this want are absolute, and that in this sense he
is a thing of mere evil. They are frightful, but if they were absolute
Iago would be a monster, not a man. The fact is, he _tries_ to make them
absolute and cannot succeed; and the traces of conscience, shame and
humanity, though faint, are discernible. If his egoism were absolute he
would be perfectly indifferent to the opinion of others; and he clearly
is not so. His very irritation at goodness, again, is a sign that his
faith in his creed is not entirely firm; and it is not entirely firm
because he himself has a perception, however dim, of the goodness of
goodness. What is the meaning of the last reason he gives himself for
killing Cassio:

     He hath a daily beauty in his life
     That makes me ugly?

Does he mean that he is ugly to others? Then he is not an absolute
egoist. Does he mean that he is ugly to himself? Then he makes an open
confession of moral sense. And, once more, if he really possessed no
moral sense, we should never have heard those soliloquies which so
clearly betray his uneasiness and his unconscious desire to persuade
himself that he has some excuse for the villainy he contemplates. These
seem to be indubitable proofs that, against his will, Iago is a little
better than his creed, and has failed to withdraw himself wholly from
the human atmosphere about him. And to these proofs I would add, though
with less confidence, two others. Iago's momentary doubt towards the end
whether Roderigo and Cassio must be killed has always surprised me. As a
mere matter of calculation it is perfectly obvious that they must; and I
believe his hesitation is not merely intellectual, it is another symptom
of the obscure working of conscience or humanity. Lastly, is it not
significant that, when once his plot has begun to develop, Iago never
seeks the presence of Desdemona; that he seems to leave her as quickly
as he can (III. iv. 138); and that, when he is fetched by
Emilia to see her in her distress (IV. ii. 110 ff.), we fail to
catch in his words any sign of the pleasure he shows in Othello's
misery, and seem rather to perceive a certain discomfort, and, if one
dare say it, a faint touch of shame or remorse? This interpretation of
the passage, I admit, is not inevitable, but to my mind (quite apart
from any theorising about Iago) it seems the natural one.[118] And if it
is right, Iago's discomfort is easily understood; for Desdemona is the
one person concerned against whom it is impossible for him even to
imagine a ground of resentment, and so an excuse for cruelty.[119]

There remains, thirdly, the idea that Iago is a man of supreme
intellect who is at the same time supremely wicked. That he is supremely
wicked nobody will doubt; and I have claimed for him nothing that will
interfere with his right to that title. But to say that his intellectual
power is supreme is to make a great mistake. Within certain limits he
has indeed extraordinary penetration, quickness, inventiveness,
adaptiveness; but the limits are defined with the hardest of lines, and
they are narrow limits. It would scarcely be unjust to call him simply
astonishingly clever, or simply a consummate master of intrigue. But
compare him with one who may perhaps be roughly called a bad man of
supreme intellectual power, Napoleon, and you see how small and negative
Iago's mind is, incapable of Napoleon's military achievements, and much
more incapable of his political constructions. Or, to keep within the
Shakespearean world, compare him with Hamlet, and you perceive how
miserably close is his intellectual horizon; that such a thing as a
thought beyond the reaches of his soul has never come near him; that he
is prosaic through and through, deaf and blind to all but a tiny
fragment of the meaning of things. Is it not quite absurd, then, to call
him a man of supreme intellect?

And observe, lastly, that his failure in perception is closely connected
with his badness. He was destroyed by the power that he attacked, the
power of love; and he was destroyed by it because he could not
understand it; and he could not understand it because it was not in him.
Iago never meant his plot to be so dangerous to himself. He knew that
jealousy is painful, but the jealousy of a love like Othello's he could
not imagine, and he found himself involved in murders which were no part
of his original design. That difficulty he surmounted, and his changed
plot still seemed to prosper. Roderigo and Cassio and Desdemona once
dead, all will be well. Nay, when he fails to kill Cassio, all may still
be well. He will avow that he told Othello of the adultery, and persist
that he told the truth, and Cassio will deny it in vain. And then, in a
moment, his plot is shattered by a blow from a quarter where he never
dreamt of danger. He knows his wife, he thinks. She is not
over-scrupulous, she will do anything to please him, and she has learnt
obedience. But one thing in her he does not know--that she _loves_ her
mistress and would face a hundred deaths sooner than see her fair fame
darkened. There is genuine astonishment in his outburst 'What! Are you
mad?' as it dawns upon him that she means to speak the truth about the
handkerchief. But he might well have applied to himself the words she
flings at Othello,

                          O gull! O dolt!
     As ignorant as dirt!

The foulness of his own soul made him so ignorant that he built into the
marvellous structure of his plot a piece of crass stupidity.

To the thinking mind the divorce of unusual intellect from goodness is a
thing to startle; and Shakespeare clearly felt it so. The combination of
unusual intellect with extreme evil is more than startling, it is
frightful. It is rare, but it exists; and Shakespeare represented it in
Iago. But the alliance of evil like Iago's with _supreme_ intellect is
an impossible fiction; and Shakespeare's fictions were truth.


The characters of Cassio and Emilia hardly require analysis, and I will
touch on them only from a single point of view. In their combination of
excellences and defects they are good examples of that truth to nature
which in dramatic art is the one unfailing source of moral instruction.

Cassio is a handsome, light-hearted, good-natured young fellow, who
takes life gaily, and is evidently very attractive and popular. Othello,
who calls him by his Christian name, is fond of him; Desdemona likes him
much; Emilia at once interests herself on his behalf. He has warm
generous feelings, an enthusiastic admiration for the General, and a
chivalrous adoration for his peerless wife. But he is too easy-going. He
finds it hard to say No; and accordingly, although he is aware that he
has a very weak head, and that the occasion is one on which he is bound
to run no risk, he gets drunk--not disgustingly so, but ludicrously
so.[120] And, besides, he amuses himself without any scruple by
frequenting the company of a woman of more than doubtful reputation, who
has fallen in love with his good looks. Moralising critics point out
that he pays for the first offence by losing his post, and for the
second by nearly losing his life. They are quite entitled to do so,
though the careful reader will not forget Iago's part in these
transactions. But they ought also to point out that Cassio's looseness
does not in the least disturb our confidence in him in his relations
with Desdemona and Othello. He is loose, and we are sorry for it; but we
never doubt that there was 'a daily beauty in his life,' or that his
rapturous admiration of Desdemona was as wholly beautiful a thing as it
appears, or that Othello was perfectly safe when in his courtship he
employed Cassio to 'go between' Desdemona and himself. It is fortunately
a fact in human nature that these aspects of Cassio's character are
quite compatible. Shakespeare simply sets it down; and it is just
because he is truthful in these smaller things that in greater things we
trust him absolutely never to pervert the truth for the sake of some
doctrine or purpose of his own.

There is something very lovable about Cassio, with his fresh eager
feelings; his distress at his disgrace and still more at having lost
Othello's trust; his hero-worship; and at the end his sorrow and pity,
which are at first too acute for words. He is carried in, wounded, on a
chair. He looks at Othello and cannot speak. His first words come later
when, to Lodovico's question, 'Did you and he consent in Cassio's
death?' Othello answers 'Ay.' Then he falters out, 'Dear General, I
never gave you cause.' One is sure he had never used that adjective
before. The love in it makes it beautiful, but there is something else
in it, unknown to Cassio, which goes to one's heart. It tells us that
his hero is no longer unapproachably above him.

Few of Shakespeare's minor characters are more distinct than Emilia, and
towards few do our feelings change so much within the course of a play.
Till close to the end she frequently sets one's teeth on edge; and at
the end one is ready to worship her. She nowhere shows any sign of
having a bad heart; but she is common, sometimes vulgar, in minor
matters far from scrupulous, blunt in perception and feeling, and quite
destitute of imagination. She let Iago take the handkerchief though she
knew how much its loss would distress Desdemona; and she said nothing
about it though she saw that Othello was jealous. We rightly resent her
unkindness in permitting the theft, but--it is an important point--we
are apt to misconstrue her subsequent silence, because we know that
Othello's jealousy was intimately connected with the loss of the
handkerchief. Emilia, however, certainly failed to perceive this; for
otherwise, when Othello's anger showed itself violently and she was
really distressed for her mistress, she could not have failed to think
of the handkerchief, and would, I believe, undoubtedly have told the
truth about it. But, in fact, she never thought of it, although she
guessed that Othello was being deceived by some scoundrel. Even after
Desdemona's death, nay, even when she knew that Iago had brought it
about, she still did not remember the handkerchief; and when Othello at
last mentions, as a proof of his wife's guilt, that he had seen the
handkerchief in Cassio's hand, the truth falls on Emilia like a
thunder-bolt. 'O God!' she bursts out, 'O heavenly God!'[121] Her
stupidity in this matter is gross, but it is stupidity and nothing

But along with it goes a certain coarseness of nature. The contrast
between Emilia and Desdemona in their conversation about the infidelity
of wives (IV. iii.) is too famous to need a word,--unless it be a word
of warning against critics who take her light talk too seriously. But
the contrast in the preceding scene is hardly less remarkable. Othello,
affecting to treat Emilia as the keeper of a brothel, sends her away,
bidding her shut the door behind her; and then he proceeds to torture
himself as well as Desdemona by accusations of adultery. But, as a
critic has pointed out, Emilia listens at the door, for we find, as soon
as Othello is gone and Iago has been summoned, that she knows what
Othello has said to Desdemona. And what could better illustrate those
defects of hers which make one wince, than her repeating again and again
in Desdemona's presence the word Desdemona could not repeat; than her
talking before Desdemona of Iago's suspicions regarding Othello and
herself; than her speaking to Desdemona of husbands who strike their
wives; than the expression of her honest indignation in the words,

     Has she forsook so many noble matches,
     Her father and her country and her friends,
     To be called whore?

If one were capable of laughing or even of smiling when this point in
the play is reached, the difference between Desdemona's anguish at the
loss of Othello's love, and Emilia's recollection of the noble matches
she might have secured, would be irresistibly ludicrous.

And yet how all this, and all her defects, vanish into nothingness when
we see her face to face with that which she can understand and feel!
From the moment of her appearance after the murder to the moment of her
death she is transfigured; and yet she remains perfectly true to
herself, and we would not have her one atom less herself. She is the
only person who utters for us the violent common emotions which we feel,
together with those more tragic emotions which she does not comprehend.
She has done this once already, to our great comfort. When she suggests
that some villain has poisoned Othello's mind, and Iago answers,

     Fie, there is no such man; it is impossible;

and Desdemona answers,

     If any such there be, Heaven pardon him;

Emilia's retort,

     A halter pardon him, and Hell gnaw his bones,

says what we long to say, and helps us. And who has not felt in the last
scene how her glorious carelessness of her own life, and her outbursts
against Othello--even that most characteristic one,

     She was too fond of her most filthy bargain--

lift the overwhelming weight of calamity that oppresses us, and bring us
an extraordinary lightening of the heart? Terror and pity are here too
much to bear; we long to be allowed to feel also indignation, if not
rage; and Emilia lets us feel them and gives them words. She brings us
too the relief of joy and admiration,--a joy that is not lessened by her
death. Why should she live? If she lived for ever she never could soar a
higher pitch, and nothing in her life became her like the losing


[Footnote 107: It has been held, for example, that Othello treated Iago
abominably in preferring Cassio to him; that he _did_ seduce Emilia;
that he and Desdemona were too familiar before marriage; and that in any
case his fate was a moral judgment on his sins, and Iago a righteous, if
sharp, instrument of Providence.]

[Footnote 108: See III. iii. 201, V. i. 89 f. The statements are his
own, but he has no particular reason for lying. One reason of his
disgust at Cassio's appointment was that Cassio was a Florentine (I. i.
20). When Cassio says (III. i. 42) 'I never knew a Florentine more kind
and honest,' of course he means, not that Iago is a Florentine, but that
he could not be kinder and honester if he were one.]

[Footnote 109: I am here merely recording a general impression. There is
no specific evidence, unless we take Cassio's language in his drink (II.
ii. 105 f.) to imply that Iago was not a 'man of quality' like himself.
I do not know if it has been observed that Iago uses more nautical
phrases and metaphors than is at all usual with Shakespeare's
characters. This might naturally be explained by his roving military
life, but it is curious that almost all the examples occur in the
earlier scenes (see _e.g._ I. i. 30, 153, 157; I. ii. 17, 50; I. iii.
343; II. iii. 65), so that the use of these phrases and metaphors may
not be characteristic of Iago but symptomatic of a particular state of
Shakespeare's mind.]

[Footnote 110: See further Note P.]

[Footnote 111: But it by no means follows that we are to believe his
statement that there was a report abroad about an intrigue between his
wife and Othello (I. iii. 393), or his statement (which may be divined
from IV. ii. 145) that someone had spoken to him on the subject.]

[Footnote 112: See, for instance, Aaron in _Titus Andronicus_, II. iii.;
Richard in _3 Henry VI._, III. ii. and V. vi., and in _Richard III._, I.
i. (twice), I. ii.; Edmund in _King Lear_, I. ii. (twice), III. iii. and
v., V. i.]

[Footnote 113: See, further, Note Q.]

[Footnote 114: On the meaning which this phrase had for its author,
Coleridge, see note on p. 228.][Transcriber's note: Reference is to
Footnote 115.]

[Footnote 115: Coleridge's view is not materially different, though less
complete. When he speaks of 'the motive-hunting of a motiveless
malignity,' he does not mean by the last two words that 'disinterested
love of evil' or 'love of evil for evil's sake' of which I spoke just
now, and which other critics attribute to Iago. He means really that
Iago's malignity does not spring from the causes to which Iago himself
refers it, nor from any 'motive' in the sense of an idea present to
consciousness. But unfortunately his phrase suggests the theory which
has been criticised above. On the question whether there is such a thing
as this supposed pure malignity, the reader may refer to a discussion
between Professor Bain and F.H. Bradley in _Mind_, vol. viii.]

[Footnote 116: _I.e._ terrifying.]

[Footnote 117: Cf. note at end of lecture.][Transcriber's note: Refers
to Footnote 122.]

[Footnote 118: It was suggested to me by a Glasgow student.]

[Footnote 119: A curious proof of Iago's inability to hold by his creed
that absolute egoism is the only proper attitude, and that loyalty and
affection are mere stupidity or want of spirit, may be found in his one
moment of real passion, where he rushes at Emilia with the cry,
'Villainous whore!' (V. ii. 229). There is more than fury in his cry,
there is indignation. She has been false to him, she has betrayed him.
Well, but why should she not, if his creed is true? And what a
melancholy exhibition of human inconsistency it is that he should use as
terms of reproach words which, according to him, should be quite
neutral, if not complimentary!]

[Footnote 120: Cassio's invective against drink may be compared with
Hamlet's expressions of disgust at his uncle's drunkenness. Possibly the
subject may for some reason have been prominent in Shakespeare's mind
about this time.]

[Footnote 121: So the Quarto, and certainly rightly, though modern
editors reprint the feeble alteration of the Folio, due to fear of the
Censor, 'O heaven! O heavenly Powers!']

[Footnote 122: The feelings evoked by Emilia are one of the causes which
mitigate the excess of tragic pain at the conclusion. Others are the
downfall of Iago, and the fact, already alluded to, that both Desdemona
and Othello show themselves at their noblest just before death.]



_King Lear_ has again and again been described as Shakespeare's greatest
work, the best of his plays, the tragedy in which he exhibits most fully
his multitudinous powers; and if we were doomed to lose all his dramas
except one, probably the majority of those who know and appreciate him
best would pronounce for keeping _King Lear_.

Yet this tragedy is certainly the least popular of the famous four. The
'general reader' reads it less often than the others, and, though he
acknowledges its greatness, he will sometimes speak of it with a certain
distaste. It is also the least often presented on the stage, and the
least successful there. And when we look back on its history we find a
curious fact. Some twenty years after the Restoration, Nahum Tate
altered _King Lear_ for the stage, giving it a happy ending, and putting
Edgar in the place of the King of France as Cordelia's lover. From that
time Shakespeare's tragedy in its original form was never seen on the
stage for a century and a half. Betterton acted Tate's version; Garrick
acted it and Dr. Johnson approved it. Kemble acted it, Kean acted it. In
1823 Kean, 'stimulated by Hazlitt's remonstrances and Charles Lamb's
essays,' restored the original tragic ending. At last, in 1838, Macready
returned to Shakespeare's text throughout.

What is the meaning of these opposite sets of facts? Are the lovers of
Shakespeare wholly in the right; and is the general reader and
play-goer, were even Tate and Dr. Johnson, altogether in the wrong? I
venture to doubt it. When I read _King Lear_ two impressions are left on
my mind, which seem to answer roughly to the two sets of facts. _King
Lear_ seems to me Shakespeare's greatest achievement, but it seems to me
_not_ his best play. And I find that I tend to consider it from two
rather different points of view. When I regard it strictly as a drama,
it appears to me, though in certain parts overwhelming, decidedly
inferior as a whole to _Hamlet_, _Othello_ and _Macbeth_. When I am
feeling that it is greater than any of these, and the fullest revelation
of Shakespeare's power, I find I am not regarding it simply as a drama,
but am grouping it in my mind with works like the _Prometheus Vinctus_
and the _Divine Comedy_, and even with the greatest symphonies of
Beethoven and the statues in the Medici Chapel.

This two-fold character of the play is to some extent illustrated by the
affinities and the probable chronological position of _King Lear_. It is
allied with two tragedies, _Othello_ and _Timon of Athens_; and these
two tragedies are utterly unlike.[123] _Othello_ was probably composed
about 1604, and _King Lear_ about 1605; and though there is a somewhat
marked change in style and versification, there are obvious resemblances
between the two. The most important have been touched on already: these
are the most painful and the most pathetic of the four tragedies, those
in which evil appears in its coldest and most inhuman forms, and those
which exclude the supernatural from the action. But there is also in
_King Lear_ a good deal which sounds like an echo of _Othello_,--a fact
which should not surprise us, since there are other instances where the
matter of a play seems to go on working in Shakespeare's mind and
re-appears, generally in a weaker form, in his next play. So, in _King
Lear_, the conception of Edmund is not so fresh as that of Goneril.
Goneril has no predecessor; but Edmund, though of course essentially
distinguished from Iago, often reminds us of him, and the soliloquy,
'This is the excellent foppery of the world,' is in the very tone of
Iago's discourse on the sovereignty of the will. The gulling of Gloster,
again, recalls the gulling of Othello. Even Edmund's idea (not carried
out) of making his father witness, without over-hearing, his
conversation with Edgar, reproduces the idea of the passage where
Othello watches Iago and Cassio talking about Bianca; and the conclusion
of the temptation, where Gloster says to Edmund:

                              and of my land,
     Loyal and natural boy, I'll work the means
     To make thee capable,

reminds us of Othello's last words in the scene of temptation, 'Now art
thou my lieutenant.' This list might be extended; and the appearance of
certain unusual words and phrases in both the plays increases the
likelihood that the composition of the one followed at no great distance
on that of the other.[124]

When we turn from _Othello_ to _Timon of Athens_ we find a play of quite
another kind. _Othello_ is dramatically the most perfect of the
tragedies. _Timon_, on the contrary, is weak, ill-constructed and
confused; and, though care might have made it clear, no mere care could
make it really dramatic. Yet it is undoubtedly Shakespearean in part,
probably in great part; and it immediately reminds us of _King Lear_.
Both plays deal with the tragic effects of ingratitude. In both the
victim is exceptionally unsuspicious, soft-hearted and vehement. In both
he is completely overwhelmed, passing through fury to madness in the one
case, to suicide in the other. Famous passages in both plays are curses.
The misanthropy of Timon pours itself out in a torrent of maledictions
on the whole race of man; and these at once recall, alike by their form
and their substance, the most powerful speeches uttered by Lear in his
madness. In both plays occur repeated comparisons between man and the
beasts; the idea that 'the strain of man's bred out into baboon,' wolf,
tiger, fox; the idea that this bestial degradation will end in a furious
struggle of all with all, in which the race will perish. The
'pessimistic' strain in _Timon_ suggests to many readers, even more
imperatively than _King Lear_, the notion that Shakespeare was giving
vent to some personal feeling, whether present or past; for the signs of
his hand appear most unmistakably when the hero begins to pour the vials
of his wrath upon mankind. _Timon_, lastly, in some of the
unquestionably Shakespearean parts, bears (as it appears to me) so
strong a resemblance to _King Lear_ in style and in versification that
it is hard to understand how competent judges can suppose that it
belongs to a time at all near that of the final romances, or even that
it was written so late as the last Roman plays. It is more likely to
have been composed immediately after _King Lear_ and before

Drawing these comparisons together, we may say that, while as a work of
art and in tragic power _King Lear_ is infinitely nearer to _Othello_
than to _Timon_, in its spirit and substance its affinity with _Timon_
is a good deal the stronger. And, returning to the point from which
these comparisons began, I would now add that there is in _King Lear_ a
reflection or anticipation, however faint, of the structural weakness of
_Timon_. This weakness in _King Lear_ is not due, however, to anything
intrinsically undramatic in the story, but to characteristics which were
necessary to an effect not wholly dramatic. The stage is the test of
strictly dramatic quality, and _King Lear_ is too huge for the stage. Of
course, I am not denying that it is a great stage-play. It has scenes
immensely effective in the theatre; three of them--the two between Lear
and Goneril and between Lear, Goneril and Regan, and the ineffably
beautiful scene in the Fourth Act between Lear and Cordelia--lose in the
theatre very little of the spell they have for imagination; and the
gradual interweaving of the two plots is almost as masterly as in _Much
Ado_. But (not to speak of defects due to mere carelessness) that which
makes the _peculiar_ greatness of King Lear,--the immense scope of the
work; the mass and variety of intense experience which it contains; the
interpenetration of sublime imagination, piercing pathos, and humour
almost as moving as the pathos; the vastness of the convulsion both of
nature and of human passion; the vagueness of the scene where the action
takes place, and of the movements of the figures which cross this scene;
the strange atmosphere, cold and dark, which strikes on us as we enter
this scene, enfolding these figures and magnifying their dim outlines
like a winter mist; the half-realised suggestions of vast universal
powers working in the world of individual fates and passions,--all this
interferes with dramatic clearness even when the play is read, and in
the theatre not only refuses to reveal itself fully through the senses
but seems to be almost in contradiction with their reports. This is not
so with the other great tragedies. No doubt, as Lamb declared,
theatrical representation gives only a part of what we imagine when we
read them; but there is no _conflict_ between the representation and the
imagination, because these tragedies are, in essentials, perfectly
dramatic. But _King Lear_, as a whole, is imperfectly dramatic, and
there is something in its very essence which is at war with the senses,
and demands a purely imaginative realisation. It is therefore
Shakespeare's greatest work, but it is not what Hazlitt called it, the
best of his plays; and its comparative unpopularity is due, not merely
to the extreme painfulness of the catastrophe, but in part to its
dramatic defects, and in part to a failure in many readers to catch the
peculiar effects to which I have referred,--a failure which is natural
because the appeal is made not so much to dramatic perception as to a
rarer and more strictly poetic kind of imagination. For this reason,
too, even the best attempts at exposition of _King Lear_ are
disappointing; they remind us of attempts to reduce to prose the
impalpable spirit of the _Tempest_.

I propose to develop some of these ideas by considering, first, the
dramatic defects of the play, and then some of the causes of its
extraordinary imaginative effect.


We may begin, however, by referring to two passages which have often
been criticised with injustice. The first is that where the blinded
Gloster, believing that he is going to leap down Dover cliff, does in
fact fall flat on the ground at his feet, and then is persuaded that he
_has_ leaped down Dover cliff but has been miraculously preserved.
Imagine this incident transferred to _Othello_, and you realise how
completely the two tragedies differ in dramatic atmosphere. In _Othello_
it would be a shocking or a ludicrous dissonance, but it is in harmony
with the spirit of _King Lear_. And not only is this so, but, contrary
to expectation, it is not, if properly acted, in the least absurd on the
stage. The imagination and the feelings have been worked upon with such
effect by the description of the cliff, and by the portrayal of the old
man's despair and his son's courageous and loving wisdom, that we are
unconscious of the grotesqueness of the incident for common sense.

The second passage is more important, for it deals with the origin of
the whole conflict. The oft-repeated judgment that the first scene of
_King Lear_ is absurdly improbable, and that no sane man would think of
dividing his kingdom among his daughters in proportion to the strength
of their several protestations of love, is much too harsh and is based
upon a strange misunderstanding. This scene acts effectively, and to
imagination the story is not at all incredible. It is merely strange,
like so many of the stories on which our romantic dramas are based.
Shakespeare, besides, has done a good deal to soften the improbability
of the legend, and he has done much more than the casual reader
perceives. The very first words of the drama, as Coleridge pointed out,
tell us that the division of the kingdom is already settled in all its
details, so that only the public announcement of it remains.[126] Later
we find that the lines of division have already been drawn on the map of
Britain (l. 38), and again that Cordelia's share, which is her dowry, is
perfectly well known to Burgundy, if not to France (ll. 197, 245). That
then which is censured as absurd, the dependence of the division on the
speeches of the daughters, was in Lear's intention a mere form, devised
as a childish scheme to gratify his love of absolute power and his
hunger for assurances of devotion. And this scheme is perfectly in
character. We may even say that the main cause of its failure was not
that Goneril and Regan were exceptionally hypocritical, but that
Cordelia was exceptionally sincere and unbending. And it is essential to
observe that its failure, and the consequent necessity of publicly
reversing his whole well-known intention, is one source of Lear's
extreme anger. He loved Cordelia most and knew that she loved him best,
and the supreme moment to which he looked forward was that in which she
should outdo her sisters in expressions of affection, and should be
rewarded by that 'third' of the kingdom which was the most 'opulent.'
And then--so it naturally seemed to him--she put him to open shame.

There is a further point, which seems to have escaped the attention of
Coleridge and others. Part of the absurdity of Lear's plan is taken to
be his idea of living with his three daughters in turn. But he never
meant to do this. He meant to live with Cordelia, and with her
alone.[127] The scheme of his alternate monthly stay with Goneril and
Regan is forced on him at the moment by what he thinks the undutifulness
of his favourite child. In fact his whole original plan, though foolish
and rash, was not a 'hideous rashness'[128] or incredible folly. If
carried out it would have had no such consequences as followed its
alteration. It would probably have led quickly to war,[129] but not to
the agony which culminated in the storm upon the heath. The first scene,
therefore, is not absurd, though it must be pronounced dramatically
faulty in so far as it discloses the true position of affairs only to an
attention more alert than can be expected in a theatrical audience or
has been found in many critics of the play.

Let us turn next to two passages of another kind, the two which are
mainly responsible for the accusation of excessive painfulness, and so
for the distaste of many readers and the long theatrical eclipse of
_King Lear_. The first of these is much the less important; it is the
scene of the blinding of Gloster. The blinding of Gloster on the stage
has been condemned almost universally; and surely with justice, because
the mere physical horror of such a spectacle would in the theatre be a
sensation so violent as to overpower the purely tragic emotions, and
therefore the spectacle would seem revolting or shocking. But it is
otherwise in reading. For mere imagination the physical horror, though
not lost, is so far deadened that it can do its duty as a stimulus to
pity, and to that appalled dismay at the extremity of human cruelty
which it is of the essence of the tragedy to excite. Thus the blinding
of Gloster belongs rightly to _King Lear_ in its proper world of
imagination; it is a blot upon _King Lear_ as a stage-play.

But what are we to say of the second and far more important passage, the
conclusion of the tragedy, the 'unhappy ending,' as it is called, though
the word 'unhappy' sounds almost ironical in its weakness? Is this too a
blot upon _King Lear_ as a stage-play? The question is not so easily
answered as might appear. Doubtless we are right when we turn with
disgust from Tate's sentimental alterations, from his marriage of Edgar
and Cordelia, and from that cheap moral which every one of Shakespeare's
tragedies contradicts, 'that Truth and Virtue shall at last succeed.'
But are we so sure that we are right when we unreservedly condemn the
feeling which prompted these alterations, or at all events the feeling
which beyond question comes naturally to many readers of _King Lear_ who
would like Tate as little as we? What they wish, though they have not
always the courage to confess it even to themselves, is that the deaths
of Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Gloster should be followed by the escape
of Lear and Cordelia from death, and that we should be allowed to
imagine the poor old King passing quietly in the home of his beloved
child to the end which cannot be far off. Now, I do not dream of saying
that we ought to wish this, so long as we regard _King Lear_ simply as a
work of poetic imagination. But if _King Lear_ is to be considered
strictly as a drama, or simply as we consider _Othello_, it is not so
clear that the wish is unjustified. In fact I will take my courage in
both hands and say boldly that I share it, and also that I believe
Shakespeare would have ended his play thus had he taken the subject in
hand a few years later, in the days of _Cymbeline_ and the _Winter's
Tale_. If I read _King Lear_ simply as a drama, I find that my feelings
call for this 'happy ending.' I do not mean the human, the
philanthropic, feelings, but the dramatic sense. The former wish Hamlet
and Othello to escape their doom; the latter does not; but it does wish
Lear and Cordelia to be saved. Surely, it says, the tragic emotions have
been sufficiently stirred already. Surely the tragic outcome of Lear's
error and his daughters' ingratitude has been made clear enough and
moving enough. And, still more surely, such a tragic catastrophe as this
should seem _inevitable_. But this catastrophe, unlike those of all the
other mature tragedies, does not seem at all inevitable. It is not even
satisfactorily motived.[130] In fact it seems expressly designed to fall
suddenly like a bolt from a sky cleared by the vanished storm. And
although from a wider point of view one may fully recognise the value of
this effect, and may even reject with horror the wish for a 'happy
ending,' this wider point of view, I must maintain, is not strictly
dramatic or tragic.

Of course this is a heresy and all the best authority is against it. But
then the best authority, it seems to me, is either influenced
unconsciously by disgust at Tate's sentimentalism or unconsciously takes
that wider point of view. When Lamb--there is no higher
authority--writes, 'A happy ending!--as if the living martyrdom that
Lear had gone through, the flaying of his feelings alive, did not make a
fair dismissal from the stage of life the only decorous thing for him,'
I answer, first, that it is precisely this _fair_ dismissal which we
desire for him instead of renewed anguish; and, secondly, that what we
desire for him during the brief remainder of his days is not 'the
childish pleasure of getting his gilt robes and sceptre again,' not what
Tate gives him, but what Shakespeare himself might have given him--peace
and happiness by Cordelia's fireside. And if I am told that he has
suffered too much for this, how can I possibly believe it with these
words ringing in my ears:

                      Come, let's away to prison:
     We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage.
     When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
     And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
     And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
     At gilded butterflies?

And again when Schlegel declares that, if Lear were saved, 'the whole'
would 'lose its significance,' because it would no longer show us that
the belief in Providence 'requires a wider range than the dark
pilgrimage on earth to be established in its whole extent,' I answer
that, if the drama does show us that, it takes us beyond the strictly
tragic point of view.[131]

A dramatic mistake in regard to the catastrophe, however, even supposing
it to exist, would not seriously affect the whole play. The principal
structural weakness of _King Lear_ lies elsewhere. It is felt to some
extent in the earlier Acts, but still more (as from our study of
Shakespeare's technique we have learnt to expect) in the Fourth and the
first part of the Fifth. And it arises chiefly from the double action,
which is a peculiarity of _King Lear_ among the tragedies. By the side
of Lear, his daughters, Kent, and the Fool, who are the principal
figures in the main plot, stand Gloster and his two sons, the chief
persons of the secondary plot. Now by means of this double action
Shakespeare secured certain results highly advantageous even from the
strictly dramatic point of view, and easy to perceive. But the
disadvantages were dramatically greater. The number of essential
characters is so large, their actions and movements are so complicated,
and events towards the close crowd on one another so thickly, that the
reader's attention,[132] rapidly transferred from one centre of interest
to another, is overstrained. He becomes, if not intellectually confused,
at least emotionally fatigued. The battle, on which everything turns,
scarcely affects him. The deaths of Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Gloster
seem 'but trifles here'; and anything short of the incomparable pathos
of the close would leave him cold. There is something almost ludicrous
in the insignificance of this battle, when it is compared with the
corresponding battles in _Julius Caesar_ and _Macbeth_; and though there
may have been further reasons for its insignificance, the main one is
simply that there was no room to give it its due effect among such a
host of competing interests.[133]

A comparison of the last two Acts of _Othello_ with the last two Acts of
_King Lear_ would show how unfavourable to dramatic clearness is a
multiplicity of figures. But that this multiplicity is not in itself a
fatal obstacle is evident from the last two Acts of _Hamlet_, and
especially from the final scene. This is in all respects one of
Shakespeare's triumphs, yet the stage is crowded with characters. Only
they are not _leading_ characters. The plot is single; Hamlet and the
King are the 'mighty opposites'; and Ophelia, the only other person in
whom we are obliged to take a vivid interest, has already disappeared.
It is therefore natural and right that the deaths of Laertes and the
Queen should affect us comparatively little. But in _King Lear_, because
the plot is double, we have present in the last scene no less than five
persons who are technically of the first importance--Lear, his three
daughters and Edmund; not to speak of Kent and Edgar, of whom the latter
at any rate is technically quite as important as Laertes. And again,
owing to the pressure of persons and events, and owing to the
concentration of our anxiety on Lear and Cordelia, the combat of Edgar
and Edmund, which occupies so considerable a space, fails to excite a
tithe of the interest of the fencing-match in _Hamlet_. The truth is
that all through these Acts Shakespeare has too vast a material to use
with complete dramatic effectiveness, however essential this very
vastness was for effects of another kind.

Added to these defects there are others, which suggest that in _King
Lear_ Shakespeare was less concerned than usual with dramatic fitness:
improbabilities, inconsistencies, sayings and doings which suggest
questions only to be answered by conjecture. The improbabilities in
_King Lear_ surely far surpass those of the other great tragedies in
number and in grossness. And they are particularly noticeable in the
secondary plot. For example, no sort of reason is given why Edgar, who
lives in the same house with Edmund, should write a letter to him
instead of speaking; and this is a letter absolutely damning to his
character. Gloster was very foolish, but surely not so foolish as to
pass unnoticed this improbability; or, if so foolish, what need for
Edmund to forge a letter rather than a conversation, especially as
Gloster appears to be unacquainted with his son's handwriting?[134] Is
it in character that Edgar should be persuaded without the slightest
demur to avoid his father instead of confronting him and asking him the
cause of his anger? Why in the world should Gloster, when expelled from
his castle, wander painfully all the way to Dover simply in order to
destroy himself (IV. i. 80)? And is it not extraordinary that, after
Gloster's attempted suicide, Edgar should first talk to him in the
language of a gentleman, then to Oswald in his presence in broad peasant
dialect, then again to Gloster in gentle language, and yet that Gloster
should not manifest the least surprise?

Again, to take three instances of another kind; (_a_) only a fortnight
seems to have elapsed between the first scene and the breach with
Goneril; yet already there are rumours not only of war between Goneril
and Regan but of the coming of a French army; and this, Kent says, is
perhaps connected with the harshness of _both_ the sisters to their
father, although Regan has apparently had no opportunity of showing any
harshness till the day before. (_b_) In the quarrel with Goneril Lear
speaks of his having to dismiss fifty of his followers at a clap, yet
she has neither mentioned any number nor had any opportunity of
mentioning it off the stage. (_c_) Lear and Goneril, intending to hurry
to Regan, both send off messengers to her, and both tell the messengers
to bring back an answer. But it does not appear either how the
messengers _could_ return or what answer could be required, as their
superiors are following them with the greatest speed.

Once more, (_a_) why does Edgar not reveal himself to his blind father,
as he truly says he ought to have done? The answer is left to mere
conjecture. (_b_) Why does Kent so carefully preserve his incognito till
the last scene? He says he does it for an important purpose, but what
the purpose is we have to guess. (_c_) Why Burgundy rather than France
should have first choice of Cordelia's hand is a question we cannot help
asking, but there is no hint of any answer.[135] (_d_) I have referred
already to the strange obscurity regarding Edmund's delay in trying to
save his victims, and I will not extend this list of examples. No one of
such defects is surprising when considered by itself, but their number
is surely significant. Taken in conjunction with other symptoms it means
that Shakespeare, set upon the dramatic effect of the great scenes and
upon certain effects not wholly dramatic, was exceptionally careless of
probability, clearness and consistency in smaller matters, introducing
what was convenient or striking for a momentary purpose without
troubling himself about anything more than the moment. In presence of
these signs it seems doubtful whether his failure to give information
about the fate of the Fool was due to anything more than carelessness or
an impatient desire to reduce his overloaded material.[136]

Before I turn to the other side of the subject I will refer to one more
characteristic of this play which is dramatically disadvantageous. In
Shakespeare's dramas, owing to the absence of scenery from the
Elizabethan stage, the question, so vexatious to editors, of the exact
locality of a particular scene is usually unimportant and often
unanswerable; but, as a rule, we know, broadly speaking, where the
persons live and what their journeys are. The text makes this plain, for
example, almost throughout _Hamlet_, _Othello_ and _Macbeth_; and the
imagination is therefore untroubled. But in _King Lear_ the indications
are so scanty that the reader's mind is left not seldom both vague and
bewildered. Nothing enables us to imagine whereabouts in Britain Lear's
palace lies, or where the Duke of Albany lives. In referring to the
dividing-lines on the map, Lear tells us of shadowy forests and
plenteous rivers, but, unlike Hotspur and his companions, he studiously
avoids proper names. The Duke of Cornwall, we presume in the absence of
information, is likely to live in Cornwall; but we suddenly find, from
the introduction of a place-name which all readers take at first for a
surname, that he lives at Gloster (I. v. 1).[137] This seems likely to
be also the home of the Earl of Gloster, to whom Cornwall is patron. But
no: it is a night's journey from Cornwall's 'house' to Gloster's, and
Gloster's is in the middle of an uninhabited heath.[138] Here, for the
purpose of the crisis, nearly all the persons assemble, but they do so
in a manner which no casual spectator or reader could follow. Afterwards
they all drift towards Dover for the purpose of the catastrophe; but
again the localities and movements are unusually indefinite. And this
indefiniteness is found in smaller matters. One cannot help asking, for
example, and yet one feels one had better not ask, where that 'lodging'
of Edmund's can be, in which he hides Edgar from his father, and whether
Edgar is mad that he should return from his hollow tree (in a district
where 'for many miles about there's scarce a bush') to his father's
castle in order to soliloquise (II. iii.):--for the favourite
stage-direction, 'a wood' (which is more than 'a bush'), however
convenient to imagination, is scarcely compatible with the presence of
Kent asleep in the stocks.[139] Something of the confusion which
bewilders the reader's mind in _King Lear_ recurs in _Antony and
Cleopatra_, the most faultily constructed of all the tragedies; but
there it is due not so much to the absence or vagueness of the
indications as to the necessity of taking frequent and fatiguing
journeys over thousands of miles. Shakespeare could not help himself in
the Roman play: in _King Lear_ he did not choose to help himself,
perhaps deliberately chose to be vague.

From these defects, or from some of them, follows one result which must
be familiar to many readers of _King Lear_. It is far more difficult to
retrace in memory the steps of the action in this tragedy than in
_Hamlet_, _Othello_, or _Macbeth_. The outline is of course quite clear;
anyone could write an 'argument' of the play. But when an attempt is
made to fill in the detail, it issues sooner or later in confusion even
with readers whose dramatic memory is unusually strong.[140]


How is it, now, that this defective drama so overpowers us that we are
either unconscious of its blemishes or regard them as almost irrelevant?
As soon as we turn to this question we recognise, not merely that _King
Lear_ possesses purely dramatic qualities which far outweigh its
defects, but that its greatness consists partly in imaginative effects
of a wider kind. And, looking for the sources of these effects, we find
among them some of those very things which appeared to us dramatically
faulty or injurious. Thus, to take at once two of the simplest examples
of this, that very vagueness in the sense of locality which we have just
considered, and again that excess in the bulk of the material and the
number of figures, events and movements, while they interfere with the
clearness of vision, have at the same time a positive value for
imagination. They give the feeling of vastness, the feeling not of a
scene or particular place, but of a world; or, to speak more accurately,
of a particular place which is also a world. This world is dim to us,
partly from its immensity, and partly because it is filled with gloom;
and in the gloom shapes approach and recede, whose half-seen faces and
motions touch us with dread, horror, or the most painful
pity,--sympathies and antipathies which we seem to be feeling not only
for them but for the whole race. This world, we are told, is called
Britain; but we should no more look for it in an atlas than for the
place, called Caucasus, where Prometheus was chained by Strength and
Force and comforted by the daughters of Ocean, or the place where
Farinata stands erect in his glowing tomb, 'Come avesse lo Inferno in
gran dispitto.'

Consider next the double action. It has certain strictly dramatic
advantages, and may well have had its origin in purely dramatic
considerations. To go no further, the secondary plot fills out a story
which would by itself have been somewhat thin, and it provides a most
effective contrast between its personages and those of the main plot,
the tragic strength and stature of the latter being heightened by
comparison with the slighter build of the former. But its chief value
lies elsewhere, and is not merely dramatic. It lies in the fact--in
Shakespeare without a parallel--that the sub-plot simply repeats the
theme of the main story. Here, as there, we see an old man 'with a white
beard.' He, like Lear, is affectionate, unsuspicious, foolish, and
self-willed. He, too, wrongs deeply a child who loves him not less for
the wrong. He, too, meets with monstrous ingratitude from the child whom
he favours, and is tortured and driven to death. This repetition does
not simply double the pain with which the tragedy is witnessed: it
startles and terrifies by suggesting that the folly of Lear and the
ingratitude of his daughters are no accidents or merely individual
aberrations, but that in that dark cold world some fateful malignant
influence is abroad, turning the hearts of the fathers against their
children and of the children against their fathers, smiting the earth
with a curse, so that the brother gives the brother to death and the
father the son, blinding the eyes, maddening the brain, freezing the
springs of pity, numbing all powers except the nerves of anguish and the
dull lust of life.[141]

Hence too, as well as from other sources, comes that feeling which
haunts us in _King Lear_, as though we were witnessing something
universal,--a conflict not so much of particular persons as of the
powers of good and evil in the world. And the treatment of many of the
characters confirms this feeling. Considered simply as psychological
studies few of them, surely, are of the highest interest. Fine and
subtle touches could not be absent from a work of Shakespeare's
maturity; but, with the possible exception of Lear himself, no one of
the characters strikes us as psychologically a _wonderful_ creation,
like Hamlet or Iago or even Macbeth; one or two seem even to be somewhat
faint and thin. And, what is more significant, it is not quite natural
to us to regard them from this point of view at all. Rather we observe a
most unusual circumstance. If Lear, Gloster and Albany are set apart,
the rest fall into two distinct groups, which are strongly, even
violently, contrasted: Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, the Fool on one side,
Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Cornwall, Oswald on the other. These characters
are in various degrees individualised, most of them completely so; but
still in each group there is a quality common to all the members, or one
spirit breathing through them all. Here we have unselfish and devoted
love, there hard self-seeking. On both sides, further, the common
quality takes an extreme form; the love is incapable of being chilled by
injury, the selfishness of being softened by pity; and, it may be added,
this tendency to extremes is found again in the characters of Lear and
Gloster, and is the main source of the accusations of improbability
directed against their conduct at certain points. Hence the members of
each group tend to appear, at least in part, as varieties of one
species; the radical differences of the two species are emphasized in
broad hard strokes; and the two are set in conflict, almost as if
Shakespeare, like Empedocles, were regarding Love and Hate as the two
ultimate forces of the universe.

The presence in _King Lear_ of so large a number of characters in whom
love or self-seeking is so extreme, has another effect. They do not
merely inspire in us emotions of unusual strength, but they also stir
the intellect to wonder and speculation. How can there be such men and
women? we ask ourselves. How comes it that humanity can take such
absolutely opposite forms? And, in particular, to what omission of
elements which should be present in human nature, or, if there is no
omission, to what distortion of these elements is it due that such
beings as some of these come to exist? This is a question which Iago
(and perhaps no previous creation of Shakespeare's) forces us to ask,
but in _King Lear_ it is provoked again and again. And more, it seems to
us that the author himself is asking this question. 'Then let them
anatomise Regan, see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in
nature that makes these hard hearts?'--the strain of thought which
appears here seems to be present in some degree throughout the play. We
seem to trace the tendency which, a few years later, produced Ariel and
Caliban, the tendency of imagination to analyse and abstract, to
decompose human nature into its constituent factors, and then to
construct beings in whom one or more of these factors is absent or
atrophied or only incipient. This, of course, is a tendency which
produces symbols, allegories, personifications of qualities and abstract
ideas; and we are accustomed to think it quite foreign to Shakespeare's
genius, which was in the highest degree concrete. No doubt in the main
we are right here; but it is hazardous to set limits to that genius. The
Sonnets, if nothing else, may show us how easy it was to Shakespeare's
mind to move in a world of 'Platonic' ideas;[142] and, while it would be
going too far to suggest that he was employing conscious symbolism or
allegory in _King Lear_, it does appear to disclose a mode of
imagination not so very far removed from the mode with which, we must
remember, Shakespeare was perfectly familiar in Morality plays and in
the _Fairy Queen_.

This same tendency shows itself in _King Lear_ in other forms. To it is
due the idea of monstrosity--of beings, actions, states of mind, which
appear not only abnormal but absolutely contrary to nature; an idea,
which, of course, is common enough in Shakespeare, but appears with
unusual frequency in _King Lear_, for instance in the lines:

     Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,
     More hideous when thou show'st thee in a child
     Than the sea-monster!

or in the exclamation,

                               Filial ingratitude!
     Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
     For lifting food to't?

It appears in another shape in that most vivid passage where Albany, as
he looks at the face which had bewitched him, now distorted with
dreadful passions, suddenly sees it in a new light and exclaims in

     Thou changed and self-cover'd thing, for shame.
     Be-monster not thy feature. Were't my fitness
     To let these hands obey my blood,
     They are apt enough to dislocate and tear
     Thy flesh and bones: howe'er thou art a fiend,
     A woman's shape doth shield thee.[143]

It appears once more in that exclamation of Kent's, as he listens to
the description of Cordelia's grief:

                             It is the stars,
     The stars above us, govern our conditions;
     Else one self mate and mate could not beget
     Such different issues.

(This is not the only sign that Shakespeare had been musing over
heredity, and wondering how it comes about that the composition of two
strains of blood or two parent souls can produce such astonishingly
different products.)

This mode of thought is responsible, lastly, for a very striking
characteristic of _King Lear_--one in which it has no parallel except
_Timon_--the incessant references to the lower animals[144] and man's
likeness to them. These references are scattered broadcast through the
whole play, as though Shakespeare's mind were so busy with the subject
that he could hardly write a page without some allusion to it. The dog,
the horse, the cow, the sheep, the hog, the lion, the bear, the wolf,
the fox, the monkey, the pole-cat, the civet-cat, the pelican, the owl,
the crow, the chough, the wren, the fly, the butterfly, the rat, the
mouse, the frog, the tadpole, the wall-newt, the water-newt, the worm--I
am sure I cannot have completed the list, and some of them are mentioned
again and again. Often, of course, and especially in the talk of Edgar
as the Bedlam, they have no symbolical meaning; but not seldom, even in
his talk, they are expressly referred to for their typical
qualities--'hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in
madness, lion in prey,' 'The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to't With
a more riotous appetite.' Sometimes a person in the drama is compared,
openly or implicitly, with one of them. Goneril is a kite: her
ingratitude has a serpent's tooth: she has struck her father most
serpent-like upon the very heart: her visage is wolvish: she has tied
sharp-toothed unkindness like a vulture on her father's breast: for her
husband she is a gilded serpent: to Gloster her cruelty seems to have
the fangs of a boar. She and Regan are dog-hearted: they are tigers, not
daughters: each is an adder to the other: the flesh of each is covered
with the fell of a beast. Oswald is a mongrel, and the son and heir of a
mongrel: ducking to everyone in power, he is a wag-tail: white with
fear, he is a goose. Gloster, for Regan, is an ingrateful fox: Albany,
for his wife, has a cowish spirit and is milk-liver'd: when Edgar as the
Bedlam first appeared to Lear he made him think a man a worm. As we
read, the souls of all the beasts in turn seem to us to have entered the
bodies of these mortals; horrible in their venom, savagery, lust,
deceitfulness, sloth, cruelty, filthiness; miserable in their
feebleness, nakedness, defencelessness, blindness; and man, 'consider
him well,' is even what they are. Shakespeare, to whom the idea of the
transmigration of souls was familiar and had once been material for
jest,[145] seems to have been brooding on humanity in the light of it.
It is remarkable, and somewhat sad, that he seems to find none of man's
better qualities in the world of the brutes (though he might well have
found the prototype of the self-less love of Kent and Cordelia in the
dog whom he so habitually maligns);[146] but he seems to have been
asking himself whether that which he loathes in man may not be due to
some strange wrenching of this frame of things, through which the lower
animal souls have found a lodgment in human forms, and there found--to
the horror and confusion of the thinking mind--brains to forge, tongues
to speak, and hands to act, enormities which no mere brute can conceive
or execute. He shows us in _King Lear_ these terrible forces bursting
into monstrous life and flinging themselves upon those human beings who
are weak and defenceless, partly from old age, but partly because they
_are_ human and lack the dreadful undivided energy of the beast. And the
only comfort he might seem to hold out to us is the prospect that at
least this bestial race, strong only where it is vile, cannot endure:
though stars and gods are powerless, or careless, or empty dreams, yet
there must be an end of this horrible world:

     It will come;
     Humanity must perforce prey on itself
     Like monsters of the deep.[147]

The influence of all this on imagination as we read _King Lear_ is very
great; and it combines with other influences to convey to us, not in the
form of distinct ideas but in the manner proper to poetry, the wider or
universal significance of the spectacle presented to the inward eye. But
the effect of theatrical exhibition is precisely the reverse. There the
poetic atmosphere is dissipated; the meaning of the very words which
create it passes half-realised; in obedience to the tyranny of the eye
we conceive the characters as mere particular men and women; and all
that mass of vague suggestion, if it enters the mind at all, appears in
the shape of an allegory which we immediately reject. A similar conflict
between imagination and sense will be found if we consider the dramatic
centre of the whole tragedy, the Storm-scenes. The temptation of Othello
and the scene of Duncan's murder may lose upon the stage, but they do
not lose their essence, and they gain as well as lose. The Storm-scenes
in _King Lear_ gain nothing and their very essence is destroyed. It is
comparatively a small thing that the theatrical storm, not to drown the
dialogue, must be silent whenever a human being wishes to speak, and is
wretchedly inferior to many a storm we have witnessed. Nor is it simply
that, as Lamb observed, the corporal presence of Lear, 'an old man
tottering about the stage with a walking-stick,' disturbs and depresses
that sense of the greatness of his mind which fills the imagination.
There is a further reason, which is not expressed, but still emerges, in
these words of Lamb's: 'the explosions of his passion are terrible as a
volcano: they are storms turning up and disclosing to the bottom that
sea, his mind, with all its vast riches.' Yes, 'they are _storms_.' For
imagination, that is to say, the explosions of Lear's passion, and the
bursts of rain and thunder, are not, what for the senses they must be,
two things, but manifestations of one thing. It is the powers of the
tormented soul that we hear and see in the 'groans of roaring wind and
rain' and the 'sheets of fire'; and they that, at intervals almost more
overwhelming, sink back into darkness and silence. Nor yet is even this
all; but, as those incessant references to wolf and tiger made us see
humanity 'reeling back into the beast' and ravening against itself, so
in the storm we seem to see Nature herself convulsed by the same
horrible passions; the 'common mother,'

     Whose womb immeasurable and infinite breast
     Teems and feeds all,

turning on her children, to complete the ruin they have wrought upon
themselves. Surely something not less, but much more, than these
helpless words convey, is what comes to us in these astounding scenes;
and if, translated thus into the language of prose, it becomes confused
and inconsistent, the reason is simply that it itself is poetry, and
such poetry as cannot be transferred to the space behind the
foot-lights, but has its being only in imagination. Here then is
Shakespeare at his very greatest, but not the mere dramatist

And now we may say this also of the catastrophe, which we found
questionable from the strictly dramatic point of view. Its purpose is
not merely dramatic. This sudden blow out of the darkness, which seems
so far from inevitable, and which strikes down our reviving hopes for
the victims of so much cruelty, seems now only what we might have
expected in a world so wild and monstrous. It is as if Shakespeare said
to us: 'Did you think weakness and innocence have any chance here? Were
you beginning to dream that? I will show you it is not so.'

I come to a last point. As we contemplate this world, the question
presses on us, What can be the ultimate power that moves it, that
excites this gigantic war and waste, or, perhaps, that suffers them and
overrules them? And in _King Lear_ this question is not left to us to
ask, it is raised by the characters themselves. References to religious
or irreligious beliefs and feelings are more frequent than is usual in
Shakespeare's tragedies, as frequent perhaps as in his final plays. He
introduces characteristic differences in the language of the different
persons about fortune or the stars or the gods, and shows how the
question What rules the world? is forced upon their minds. They answer
it in their turn: Kent, for instance:

                           It is the stars,
     The stars above us, govern our condition:


     Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
     My services are bound:

and again,

     This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are
     sick in fortune--often the surfeit of our own behaviour--we
     make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and the stars;
     as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly
     compulsion, ... and all that we are evil in by a divine
     thrusting on:


     As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
     They kill us for their sport;


     Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours
     Of men's impossibilities, have preserved thee.

Here we have four distinct theories of the nature of the ruling power.
And besides this, in such of the characters as have any belief in gods
who love good and hate evil, the spectacle of triumphant injustice or
cruelty provokes questionings like those of Job, or else the thought,
often repeated, of divine retribution. To Lear at one moment the storm
seems the messenger of heaven:

                         Let the great gods,
     That keep this dreadful pother o'er our heads,
     Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
     That hast within thee undivulged crimes....

At another moment those habitual miseries of the poor, of which he has
taken too little account, seem to him to accuse the gods of injustice:

                Take physic, pomp;
     Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
     That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
     And show the heavens more just;

and Gloster has almost the same thought (IV. i. 67 ff.). Gloster again,
thinking of the cruelty of Lear's daughters, breaks out,

                       but I shall see
     The winged vengeance overtake such children.

The servants who have witnessed the blinding of Gloster by Cornwall and
Regan, cannot believe that cruelty so atrocious will pass unpunished.
One cries,

     I'll never care what wickedness I do,
     If this man come to good;

and another,

                       if she live long,
     And in the end meet the old course of death,
     Women will all turn monsters.

Albany greets the news of Cornwall's death with the exclamation,

              This shows you are above,
     You justicers, that these our nether crimes
     So speedily can venge;

and the news of the deaths of the sisters with the words,

     This judgment[149] of the heavens, that makes us tremble,
     Touches us not with pity.

Edgar, speaking to Edmund of their father, declares

     The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
     Make instruments to plague us,

and Edmund himself assents. Almost throughout the latter half of the
drama we note in most of the better characters a pre-occupation with the
question of the ultimate power, and a passionate need to explain by
reference to it what otherwise would drive them to despair. And the
influence of this pre-occupation and need joins with other influences in
affecting the imagination, and in causing it to receive from _King Lear_
an impression which is at least as near of kin to the _Divine Comedy_ as
to _Othello_.


For Dante that which is recorded in the _Divine Comedy_ was the justice
and love of God. What did _King Lear_ record for Shakespeare? Something,
it would seem, very different. This is certainly the most terrible
picture that Shakespeare painted of the world. In no other of his
tragedies does humanity appear more pitiably infirm or more hopelessly
bad. What is Iago's malignity against an envied stranger compared with
the cruelty of the son of Gloster and the daughters of Lear? What are
the sufferings of a strong man like Othello to those of helpless age?
Much too that we have already observed--the repetition of the main theme
in that of the under-plot, the comparisons of man with the most wretched
and the most horrible of the beasts, the impression of Nature's
hostility to him, the irony of the unexpected catastrophe--these, with
much else, seem even to indicate an intention to show things at their
worst, and to return the sternest of replies to that question of the
ultimate power and those appeals for retribution. Is it an accident, for
example, that Lear's first appeal to something beyond the earth,

                      O heavens,
     If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
     Allow[150] obedience, if yourselves are old,
     Make it your cause:

is immediately answered by the iron voices of his daughters, raising by
turns the conditions on which they will give him a humiliating
harbourage; or that his second appeal, heart-rending in its piteousness,

     You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
     As full of grief as age; wretched in both:

is immediately answered from the heavens by the sounds of the breaking
storm?[151] Albany and Edgar may moralise on the divine justice as they
will, but how, in face of all that we see, shall we believe that they
speak Shakespeare's mind? Is not his mind rather expressed in the bitter
contrast between their faith and the events we witness, or in the
scornful rebuke of those who take upon them the mystery of things as if
they were God's spies?[152] Is it not Shakespeare's judgment on his kind
that we hear in Lear's appeal,

                   And thou, all-shaking thunder,
     Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
     Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once,
     That make ingrateful man!

and Shakespeare's judgment on the worth of existence that we hear in
Lear's agonised cry, 'No, no, no life!'?

Beyond doubt, I think, some such feelings as these possess us, and, if
we follow Shakespeare, ought to possess us, from time to time as we read
_King Lear_. And some readers will go further and maintain that this is
also the ultimate and total impression left by the tragedy. _King Lear_
has been held to be profoundly 'pessimistic' in the full meaning of that
word,--the record of a time when contempt and loathing for his kind had
overmastered the poet's soul, and in despair he pronounced man's life to
be simply hateful and hideous. And if we exclude the biographical part
of this view,[153] the rest may claim some support even from the
greatest of Shakespearean critics since the days of Coleridge, Hazlitt
and Lamb. Mr. Swinburne, after observing that _King Lear_ is 'by far the
most Aeschylean' of Shakespeare's works, proceeds thus:

'But in one main point it differs radically from the work and the spirit
of Aeschylus. Its fatalism is of a darker and harder nature. To
Prometheus the fetters of the lord and enemy of mankind were bitter;
upon Orestes the hand of heaven was laid too heavily to bear; yet in the
not utterly infinite or everlasting distance we see beyond them the
promise of the morning on which mystery and justice shall be made one;
when righteousness and omnipotence at last shall kiss each other. But on
the horizon of Shakespeare's tragic fatalism we see no such twilight of
atonement, such pledge of reconciliation as this. Requital, redemption,
amends, equity, explanation, pity and mercy, are words without a meaning

     As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
     They kill us for their sport.

Here is no need of the Eumenides, children of Night everlasting; for
here is very Night herself.

'The words just cited are not casual or episodical; they strike the
keynote of the whole poem, lay the keystone of the whole arch of
thought. There is no contest of conflicting forces, no judgment so much
as by casting of lots: far less is there any light of heavenly harmony
or of heavenly wisdom, of Apollo or Athene from above. We have heard
much and often from theologians of the light of revelation: and some
such thing indeed we find in Aeschylus; but the darkness of revelation
is here.'[154]

It is hard to refuse assent to these eloquent words, for they express in
the language of a poet what we feel at times in reading _King Lear_ but
cannot express. But do they represent the total and final impression
produced by the play? If they do, this impression, so far as the
substance of the drama is concerned (and nothing else is in question
here), must, it would seem, be one composed almost wholly of painful
feelings,--utter depression, or indignant rebellion, or appalled
despair. And that would surely be strange. For _King Lear_ is admittedly
one of the world's greatest poems, and yet there is surely no other of
these poems which produces on the whole this effect, and we regard it as
a very serious flaw in any considerable work of art that this should be
its ultimate effect.[155] So that Mr. Swinburne's description, if taken
as final, and any description of King Lear as 'pessimistic' in the
proper sense of that word, would imply a criticism which is not
intended, and which would make it difficult to leave the work in the
position almost universally assigned to it.

But in fact these descriptions, like most of the remarks made on _King
Lear_ in the present lecture, emphasise only certain aspects of the play
and certain elements in the total impression; and in that impression the
effect of these aspects, though far from being lost, is modified by that
of others. I do not mean that the final effect resembles that of the
_Divine Comedy_ or the _Oresteia_: how should it, when the first of
these can be called by its author a 'Comedy,' and when the second,
ending (as doubtless the _Prometheus_ trilogy also ended) with a
solution, is not in the Shakespearean sense a tragedy at all?[156] Nor
do I mean that _King Lear_ contains a revelation of righteous
omnipotence or heavenly harmony, or even a promise of the reconciliation
of mystery and justice. But then, as we saw, neither do Shakespeare's
other tragedies contain these things. Any theological interpretation of
the world on the author's part is excluded from them, and their effect
would be disordered or destroyed equally by the ideas of righteous or of
unrighteous omnipotence. Nor, in reading them, do we think of 'justice'
or 'equity' in the sense of a strict requital or such an adjustment of
merit and prosperity as our moral sense is said to demand; and there
never was vainer labour than that of critics who try to make out that
the persons in these dramas meet with 'justice' or their 'deserts.'[157]
But, on the other hand, man is not represented in these tragedies as the
mere plaything of a blind or capricious power, suffering woes which have
no relation to his character and actions; nor is the world represented
as given over to darkness. And in these respects _King Lear_, though the
most terrible of these works, does not differ in essence from the rest.
Its keynote is surely to be heard neither in the words wrung from
Gloster in his anguish, nor in Edgar's words 'the gods are just.' Its
final and total result is one in which pity and terror, carried perhaps
to the extreme limits of art, are so blended with a sense of law and
beauty that we feel at last, not depression and much less despair, but a
consciousness of greatness in pain, and of solemnity in the mystery we
cannot fathom.


[Footnote 123: I leave undiscussed the position of _King Lear_ in
relation to the 'comedies' of _Measure for Measure_, _Troilus and
Cressida_ and _All's Well_.]

[Footnote 124: See Note R.]

[Footnote 125: On some of the points mentioned in this paragraph see
Note S.]

[Footnote 126:

     '_Kent._ I thought the king had more affected the Duke of
                Albany than Cornwall.

      _Glos._ It did always seem so to us: but now, in the division
                of the kingdom, it appears not which of the dukes
                he values most.'

For (Gloster goes on to say) their shares are exactly equal in value.
And if the shares of the two elder daughters are fixed, obviously that
of the third is so too.]

[Footnote 127:

     I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
     On her kind nursery.]

[Footnote 128: It is to Lear's altered plan that Kent applies these

[Footnote 129: There is talk of a war between Goneril and Regan within a
fortnight of the division of the kingdom (II. i. 11 f.).]

[Footnote 130: I mean that no sufficiently clear reason is supplied for
Edmund's delay in attempting to save Cordelia and Lear. The matter
stands thus. Edmund, after the defeat of the opposing army, sends Lear
and Cordelia to prison. Then, in accordance with a plan agreed on
between himself and Goneril, he despatches a captain with secret orders
to put them both to death _instantly_ (V. iii. 26-37, 244, 252). He then
has to fight with the disguised Edgar. He is mortally wounded, and, as
he lies dying, he says to Edgar (at line 162, _more than a hundred
lines_ after he gave that commission to the captain):

     What you have charged me with, that have I done;
     And more, much more; the time will bring it out;
     'Tis past, and so am I.

In 'more, much more' he seems to be thinking of the order for the deaths
of Lear and Cordelia (what else remained undisclosed?); yet he says
nothing about it. A few lines later he recognises the justice of his
fate, yet still says nothing. Then he hears the story of his father's
death, says it has moved him and 'shall perchance do good' (What good
except saving his victims?); yet he still says nothing. Even when he
hears that Goneril is dead and Regan poisoned, he _still_ says nothing.
It is only when directly questioned about Lear and Cordelia that he
tries to save the victims who were to be killed 'instantly' (242). How
can we explain his delay? Perhaps, thinking the deaths of Lear and
Cordelia would be of use to Goneril and Regan, he will not speak till he
is sure that both the sisters are dead. Or perhaps, though he can
recognise the justice of his fate and can be touched by the account of
his father's death, he is still too self-absorbed to rise to the active
effort to 'do some good, despite of his own nature.' But, while either
of these conjectures is possible, it is surely far from satisfactory
that we should be left to mere conjecture as to the cause of the delay
which permits the catastrophe to take place. The _real_ cause lies
outside the dramatic _nexus_. It is Shakespeare's wish to deliver a
sudden and crushing blow to the hopes which he has excited.]

[Footnote 131: Everything in these paragraphs must, of course, be taken
in connection with later remarks.]

[Footnote 132: I say 'the reader's,' because on the stage, whenever I
have seen _King Lear_, the 'cuts' necessitated by modern scenery would
have made this part of the play absolutely unintelligible to me if I had
not been familiar with it. It is significant that Lamb in his _Tale of
King Lear_ almost omits the sub-plot.]

[Footnote 133: Even if Cordelia had won the battle, Shakespeare would
probably have hesitated to concentrate interest on it, for her victory
would have been a British defeat. On Spedding's view, that he did mean
to make the battle more interesting, and that his purpose has been
defeated by our wrong division of Acts IV. and V., see Note X.]

[Footnote 134: It is vain to suggest that Edmund has only just come
home, and that the letter is supposed to have been sent to him when he
was 'out' See I. ii. 38-40, 65 f.]

[Footnote 135: The idea in scene i., perhaps, is that Cordelia's
marriage, like the division of the kingdom, has really been
pre-arranged, and that the ceremony of choosing between France and
Burgundy (I. i. 46 f.) is a mere fiction. Burgundy is to be her husband,
and that is why, when Lear has cast her off, he offers her to Burgundy
first (l. 192 ff.). It might seem from 211 ff. that Lear's reason for
doing so is that he prefers France, or thinks him the greater man, and
therefore will not offer him first what is worthless: but the language
of France (240 ff.) seems to show that he recognises a prior right in

[Footnote 136: See Note T. and p. 315.]

[Footnote 137: See Note U.]

[Footnote 138: The word 'heath' in the stage-directions of the
storm-scenes is, I may remark, Rowe's, not Shakespeare's, who never used
the word till he wrote _Macbeth_.]

[Footnote 139: It is pointed out in Note V. that what modern editors
call Scenes ii., iii., iv. of Act II. are really one scene, for Kent is
on the stage through them all.]

[Footnote 140: [On the locality of Act I., Sc. ii., see _Modern Language
Review_ for Oct., 1908, and Jan., 1909.]]

[Footnote 141: This effect of the double action seems to have been
pointed out first by Schlegel.]

[Footnote 142: How prevalent these are is not recognised by readers
familiar only with English poetry. See Simpson's _Introduction to the
Philosophy of Shakespeare's Sonnets_ (1868) and Mr. Wyndham's edition of
Shakespeare's Poems. Perhaps both writers overstate, and Simpson's
interpretations are often forced or arbitrary, but his book is valuable
and ought not to remain out of print.]

[Footnote 143: The monstrosity here is a being with a woman's body and a
fiend's soul. For the interpretation of the lines see Note Y.]

[Footnote 144: Since this paragraph was written I have found that the
abundance of these references has been pointed out and commented on by
J. Kirkman, _New Shaks. Soc. Trans._, 1877.]

[Footnote 145: _E.g._ in _As You Like It_, III. ii. 187, 'I was never so
berhymed since Pythagoras' time, that I was an Irish rat, which I can
hardly remember'; _Twelfth Night_, IV. ii. 55, '_Clown._ What is the
opinion of Pythagoras concerning wild fowl? _Mal._ That the soul of our
grandam might haply inhabit a bird. _Clown._ What thinkest thou of his
opinion? _Mal._ I think nobly of the soul, and no way approve his
opinion,' etc. But earlier comes a passage which reminds us of _King
Lear_, _Merchant of Venice_, IV. i. 128:

     O be thou damn'd, inexecrable dog!
     And for thy life let justice be accused.
     Thou almost makest me waver in my faith
     To hold opinion with Pythagoras,
     That souls of animals infuse themselves
     Into the trunks of men: thy currish spirit
     Govern'd a wolf, who, hang'd for human slaughter,
     Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
     And, whilst thou lay'st in thy unhallow'd dam,
     Infused itself in thee; for thy desires
     Are wolvish, bloody, starved and ravenous.]

[Footnote 146: I fear it is not possible, however, to refute, on the
whole, one charge,--that the dog is a snob, in the sense that he
respects power and prosperity, and objects to the poor and despised. It
is curious that Shakespeare refers to this trait three times in _King
Lear_, as if he were feeling a peculiar disgust at it. See III. vi. 65,
'The little dogs and all,' etc.: IV. vi. 159, 'Thou hast seen a farmer's
dog bark at a beggar ... and the creature run from the cur? There thou
mightst behold the great image of authority': V. iii. 186, 'taught me to
shift Into a madman's rags; to assume a semblance That very dogs
disdain'd.' Cf. _Oxford Lectures_, p. 341.]

[Footnote 147: With this compare the following lines in the great speech
on 'degree' in _Troilus and Cressida_, I. iii.:

     Take but degree away, untune that string,
     And, hark, what discord follows! Each thing meets
     In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
     Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
     And make a sop of all this solid globe:
     Strength should be lord of imbecility,
     And the rude son should strike his father dead:
     Force should be right; or, rather, right and wrong,
     Between whose endless jar justice resides,
     Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
     Then everything includes itself in power,
     Power into will, will into appetite;
     And appetite, an universal wolf,
     So doubly seconded with will and power,
     Must make perforce an universal prey,
     And last eat up himself.]

[Footnote 148: Nor is it believable that Shakespeare, whose means of
imitating a storm were so greatly inferior even to ours, had the
stage-performance only or chiefly in view in composing these scenes. He
may not have thought of readers (or he may), but he must in any case
have written to satisfy his own imagination. I have taken no notice of
the part played in these scenes by anyone except Lear. The matter is too
huge, and too strictly poetic, for analysis. I may observe that in our
present theatres, owing to the use of elaborate scenery, the three
Storm-scenes are usually combined, with disastrous effect. Shakespeare,
as we saw (p. 49), interposed between them short scenes of much lower

[Footnote 149: 'justice,' Qq.]

[Footnote 150: =approve.]

[Footnote 151: The direction 'Storm and tempest' at the end of this
speech is not modern, it is in the Folio.]

[Footnote 152: The gods are mentioned many times in _King Lear_, but
'God' only here (V. ii. 16).]

[Footnote 153: The whole question how far Shakespeare's works represent
his personal feelings and attitude, and the changes in them, would carry
us so far beyond the bounds of the four tragedies, is so needless for
the understanding of them, and is so little capable of decision, that I
have excluded it from these lectures; and I will add here a note on it
only as it concerns the 'tragic period.'

There are here two distinct sets of facts, equally important, (1) On the
one side there is the fact that, so far as we can make out, after
_Twelfth Night_ Shakespeare wrote, for seven or eight years, no play
which, like many of his earlier works, can be called happy, much less
merry or sunny. He wrote tragedies; and if the chronological order
_Hamlet_, _Othello_, _King Lear_, _Timon_, _Macbeth_, is correct, these
tragedies show for some time a deepening darkness, and _King Lear_ and
_Timon_ lie at the nadir. He wrote also in these years (probably in the
earlier of them) certain 'comedies,' _Measure for Measure_ and _Troilus
and Cressida_, and perhaps _All's Well_. But about these comedies there
is a peculiar air of coldness; there is humour, of course, but little
mirth; in _Measure for Measure_ perhaps, certainly in _Troilus and
Cressida_, a spirit of bitterness and contempt seems to pervade an
intellectual atmosphere of an intense but hard clearness. With _Macbeth_
perhaps, and more decidedly in the two Roman tragedies which followed,
the gloom seems to lift; and the final romances show a mellow serenity
which sometimes warms into radiant sympathy, and even into a mirth
almost as light-hearted as that of younger days. When we consider these
facts, not as barely stated thus but as they affect us in reading the
plays, it is, to my mind, very hard to believe that their origin was
simply and solely a change in dramatic methods or choice of subjects, or
even merely such inward changes as may be expected to accompany the
arrival and progress of middle age.

(2) On the other side, and over against these facts, we have to set the
multitudinousness of Shakespeare's genius, and his almost unlimited
power of conceiving and expressing human experience of all kinds. And we
have to set more. Apparently during this period of years he never ceased
to write busily, or to exhibit in his writings the greatest mental
activity. He wrote also either nothing or very little (_Troilus and
Cressida_ and his part of _Timon_ are the possible exceptions) in which
there is any appearance of personal feeling overcoming or seriously
endangering the self-control or 'objectivity' of the artist. And finally
it is not possible to make out any continuously deepening _personal_
note: for although _Othello_ is darker than _Hamlet_ it surely strikes
one as about as impersonal as a play can be; and, on grounds of style
and versification, it appears (to me, at least) impossible to bring
_Troilus and Cressida_ chronologically close to _King Lear_ and _Timon_;
even if parts of it are later than others, the late parts must be
decidedly earlier than those plays.

The conclusion we may very tentatively draw from these sets of facts
would seem to be as follows. Shakespeare during these years was probably
not a happy man, and it is quite likely that he felt at times even an
intense melancholy, bitterness, contempt, anger, possibly even loathing
and despair. It is quite likely too that he used these experiences of
his in writing such plays as _Hamlet_, _Troilus and Cressida_, _King
Lear_, _Timon_. But it is evident that he cannot have been for any
considerable time, if, ever, overwhelmed by such feelings, and there is
no appearance of their having issued in any settled 'pessimistic'
conviction which coloured his whole imagination and expressed itself in
his works. The choice of the subject of ingratitude, for instance, in
_King Lear_ and _Timon_, and the method of handling it, may have been
due in part to personal feeling; but it does not follow that this
feeling was particularly acute at this particular time, and, even if it
was, it certainly was not so absorbing as to hinder Shakespeare from
representing in the most sympathetic manner aspects of life the very
reverse of pessimistic. Whether the total impression of _King Lear_ can
be called pessimistic is a further question, which is considered in the

[Footnote 154: _A Study of Shakespeare_, pp. 171, 172.]

[Footnote 155: A flaw, I mean, in a work of art considered not as a
moral or theological document but as a work of art,--an aesthetic flaw.
I add the word 'considerable' because we do not regard the effect in
question as a flaw in a work like a lyric or a short piece of music,
which may naturally be taken as expressions merely of a mood or a
subordinate aspect of things.]

[Footnote 156: Caution is very necessary in making comparisons between
Shakespeare and the Greek dramatists. A tragedy like the _Antigone_
stands, in spite of differences, on the same ground as a Shakespearean
tragedy; it is a self-contained whole with a catastrophe. A drama like
the _Philoctetes_ is a self-contained whole, but, ending with a
solution, it corresponds not with a Shakespearean tragedy but with a
play like _Cymbeline_. A drama like the _Agamemnon_ or the _Prometheus
Vinctus_ answers to no Shakespearean form of play. It is not a
self-contained whole, but a part of a trilogy. If the trilogy is
considered as a unit, it answers not to _Hamlet_ but to _Cymbeline_. If
the part is considered as a whole, it answers to _Hamlet_, but may then
be open to serious criticism. Shakespeare never made a tragedy end with
the complete triumph of the worse side: the _Agamemnon_ and
_Prometheus_, if wrongly taken as wholes, would do this, and would so
far, I must think, be bad tragedies. [It can scarcely be necessary to
remind the reader that, in point of 'self-containedness,' there is a
difference of degree between the pure tragedies of Shakespeare and some
of the historical.]]

[Footnote 157: I leave it to better authorities to say how far these
remarks apply also to Greek Tragedy, however much the language of
'justice' may be used there.]



We have now to look at the characters in _King Lear_; and I propose to
consider them to some extent from the point of view indicated at the
close of the last lecture, partly because we have so far been regarding
the tragedy mainly from an opposite point of view, and partly because
these characters are so numerous that it would not be possible within
our limits to examine them fully.


The position of the hero in this tragedy is in one important respect
peculiar. The reader of _Hamlet_, _Othello_, or _Macbeth_, is in no
danger of forgetting, when the catastrophe is reached, the part played
by the hero in bringing it on. His fatal weakness, error, wrong-doing,
continues almost to the end. It is otherwise with _King Lear_. When the
conclusion arrives, the old King has for a long while been passive. We
have long regarded him not only as 'a man more sinned against than
sinning,' but almost wholly as a sufferer, hardly at all as an agent.
His sufferings too have been so cruel, and our indignation against those
who inflicted them has been so intense, that recollection of the wrong
he did to Cordelia, to Kent, and to his realm, has been well-nigh
effaced. Lastly, for nearly four Acts he has inspired in us, together
with this pity, much admiration and affection. The force of his passion
has made us feel that his nature was great; and his frankness and
generosity, his heroic efforts to be patient, the depth of his shame and
repentance, and the ecstasy of his re-union with Cordelia, have melted
our very hearts. Naturally, therefore, at the close we are in some
danger of forgetting that the storm which has overwhelmed him was
liberated by his own deed.

Yet it is essential that Lear's contribution to the action of the drama
should be remembered; not at all in order that we may feel that he
'deserved' what he suffered, but because otherwise his fate would appear
to us at best pathetic, at worst shocking, but certainly not tragic. And
when we were reading the earlier scenes of the play we recognised this
contribution clearly enough. At the very beginning, it is true, we are
inclined to feel merely pity and misgivings. The first lines tell us
that Lear's mind is beginning to fail with age.[158] Formerly he had
perceived how different were the characters of Albany and Cornwall, but
now he seems either to have lost this perception or to be unwisely
ignoring it. The rashness of his division of the kingdom troubles us,
and we cannot but see with concern that its motive is mainly selfish.
The absurdity of the pretence of making the division depend on
protestations of love from his daughters, his complete blindness to the
hypocrisy which is patent to us at a glance, his piteous delight in
these protestations, the openness of his expressions of preference for
his youngest daughter--all make us smile, but all pain us. But pity
begins to give way to another feeling when we witness the precipitance,
the despotism, the uncontrolled anger of his injustice to Cordelia and
Kent, and the 'hideous rashness' of his persistence in dividing the
kingdom after the rejection of his one dutiful child. We feel now the
presence of force, as well as weakness, but we feel also the presence of
the tragic [Greek: hubris]. Lear, we see, is generous and unsuspicious,
of an open and free nature, like Hamlet and Othello and indeed most of
Shakespeare's heroes, who in this, according to Ben Jonson, resemble the
poet who made them. Lear, we see, is also choleric by temperament--the
first of Shakespeare's heroes who is so. And a long life of absolute
power, in which he has been flattered to the top of his bent, has
produced in him that blindness to human limitations, and that
presumptuous self-will, which in Greek tragedy we have so often seen
stumbling against the altar of Nemesis. Our consciousness that the decay
of old age contributes to this condition deepens our pity and our sense
of human infirmity, but certainly does not lead us to regard the old
King as irresponsible, and so to sever the tragic _nexus_ which binds
together his error and his calamities.

The magnitude of this first error is generally fully recognised by the
reader owing to his sympathy with Cordelia, though, as we have seen, he
often loses the memory of it as the play advances. But this is not so, I
think, with the repetition of this error, in the quarrel with Goneril.
Here the daughter excites so much detestation, and the father so much
sympathy, that we often fail to receive the due impression of his
violence. There is not here, of course, the _injustice_ of his rejection
of Cordelia, but there is precisely the same [Greek: hubris]. This had
been shown most strikingly in the first scene when, _immediately_ upon
the apparently cold words of Cordelia, 'So young, my lord, and true,'
there comes this dreadful answer:

     Let it be so; thy truth then be thy dower.
     For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
     The mysteries of Hecate and the night;
     By all the operation of the orbs
     From whom we do exist and cease to be;
     Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
     Propinquity and property of blood,
     And as a stranger to my heart and me
     Hold thee from this for ever. The barbarous Scythian,
     Or he that makes his generation messes
     To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
     Be as well neighbour'd, pitied and relieved,
     As thou my sometime daughter.

Now the dramatic effect of this passage is exactly, and doubtless
intentionally, repeated in the curse pronounced against Goneril. This
does not come after the daughters have openly and wholly turned against
their father. Up to the moment of its utterance Goneril has done no more
than to require him 'a little to disquantity' and reform his train of
knights. Certainly her manner and spirit in making this demand are
hateful, and probably her accusations against the knights are false; and
we should expect from any father in Lear's position passionate distress
and indignation. But surely the famous words which form Lear's immediate
reply were meant to be nothing short of frightful:

     Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!
     Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
     To make this creature fruitful!
     Into her womb convey sterility!
     Dry up in her the organs of increase;
     And from her derogate body never spring
     A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
     Create her child of spleen; that it may live,
     And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!
     Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
     With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
     Turn all her mother's pains and benefits
     To laughter and contempt; that she may feel
     How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
     To have a thankless child!

The question is not whether Goneril deserves these appalling
imprecations, but what they tell us about Lear. They show that, although
he has already recognised his injustice towards Cordelia, is secretly
blaming himself, and is endeavouring to do better, the disposition from
which his first error sprang is still unchanged. And it is precisely the
disposition to give rise, in evil surroundings, to calamities dreadful
but at the same time tragic, because due in some measure to the person
who endures them.

The perception of this connection, if it is not lost as the play
advances, does not at all diminish our pity for Lear, but it makes it
impossible for us permanently to regard the world displayed in this
tragedy as subject to a mere arbitrary or malicious power. It makes us
feel that this world is so far at least a rational and a moral order,
that there holds in it the law, not of proportionate requital, but of
strict connection between act and consequence. It is, so far, the world
of all Shakespeare's tragedies.

But there is another aspect of Lear's story, the influence of which
modifies, in a way quite different and more peculiar to this tragedy,
the impressions called pessimistic and even this impression of law.
There is nothing more noble and beautiful in literature than
Shakespeare's exposition of the effect of suffering in reviving the
greatness and eliciting the sweetness of Lear's nature. The occasional
recurrence, during his madness, of autocratic impatience or of desire
for revenge serves only to heighten this effect, and the moments when
his insanity becomes merely infinitely piteous do not weaken it. The old
King who in pleading with his daughters feels so intensely his own
humiliation and their horrible ingratitude, and who yet, at fourscore
and upward, constrains himself to practise a self-control and patience
so many years disused; who out of old affection for his Fool, and in
repentance for his injustice to the Fool's beloved mistress, tolerates
incessant and cutting reminders of his own folly and wrong; in whom the
rage of the storm awakes a power and a poetic grandeur surpassing even
that of Othello's anguish; who comes in his affliction to think of
others first, and to seek, in tender solicitude for his poor boy, the
shelter he scorns for his own bare head; who learns to feel and to pray
for the miserable and houseless poor, to discern the falseness of
flattery and the brutality of authority, and to pierce below the
differences of rank and raiment to the common humanity beneath; whose
sight is so purged by scalding tears that it sees at last how power and
place and all things in the world are vanity except love; who tastes in
his last hours the extremes both of love's rapture and of its agony, but
could never, if he lived on or lived again, care a jot for aught
beside--there is no figure, surely, in the world of poetry at once so
grand, so pathetic, and so beautiful as his. Well, but Lear owes the
whole of this to those sufferings which made us doubt whether life were
not simply evil, and men like the flies which wanton boys torture for
their sport. Should we not be at least as near the truth if we called
this poem _The Redemption of King Lear_, and declared that the business
of 'the gods' with him was neither to torment him, nor to teach him a
'noble anger,' but to lead him to attain through apparently hopeless
failure the very end and aim of life? One can believe that Shakespeare
had been tempted at times to feel misanthropy and despair, but it is
quite impossible that he can have been mastered by such feelings at the
time when he produced this conception.

To dwell on the stages of this process of purification (the word is
Professor Dowden's) is impossible here; and there are scenes, such as
that of the meeting of Lear and Cordelia, which it seems almost a
profanity to touch.[159] But I will refer to two scenes which may remind
us more in detail of some of the points just mentioned. The third and
fourth scenes of Act III. present one of those contrasts which speak as
eloquently even as Shakespeare's words, and which were made possible in
his theatre by the absence of scenery and the consequent absence of
intervals between the scenes. First, in a scene of twenty-three lines,
mostly in prose, Gloster is shown, telling his son Edmund how Goneril
and Regan have forbidden him on pain of death to succour the houseless
King; how a secret letter has reached him, announcing the arrival of a
French force; and how, whatever the consequences may be, he is
determined to relieve his old master. Edmund, left alone, soliloquises
in words which seem to freeze one's blood:

     This courtesy, forbid thee, shall the duke
     Instantly know; and of that letter too:
     This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me
     That which my father loses; no less than all:
     The younger rises when the old doth fall.

He goes out; and the next moment, as the fourth scene opens, we find
ourselves in the icy storm with Lear, Kent and the Fool, and yet in the
inmost shrine of love. I am not speaking of the devotion of the others
to Lear, but of Lear himself. He had consented, merely for the Fool's
sake, to seek shelter in the hovel:

                               Come, your hovel.
     Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
     That's sorry yet for thee.

But on the way he has broken down and has been weeping (III. iv. 17),
and now he resists Kent's efforts to persuade him to enter. He does not
feel the storm:

                               when the mind's free
     The body's delicate: the tempest in my mind
     Doth from my senses take all feeling else
     Save what beats there:

and the thoughts that will drive him mad are burning in his brain:

                               Filial ingratitude!
     Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
     For lifting food to't? But I will punish home.
     No, I will weep no more. In such a night
     To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure.
     In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril!
     Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all,--
     O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
     No more of that.

And then suddenly, as he controls himself, the blessed spirit of
kindness breathes on him 'like a meadow gale of spring,' and he turns
gently to Kent:

     Prithee, go in thyself; seek thine own ease:
     This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
     On things would hurt me more. But I'll go in.
     In, boy; go first. You houseless poverty--
     Nay, get thee in. I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.

But his prayer is not for himself.

     Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,

it begins, and I need not quote more. This is one of those passages
which make one worship Shakespeare.[160]

Much has been written on the representation of insanity in _King Lear_,
and I will confine myself to one or two points which may have escaped
notice. The most obvious symptom of Lear's insanity, especially in its
first stages, is of course the domination of a fixed idea. Whatever
presents itself to his senses, is seized on by this idea and compelled
to express it; as for example in those words, already quoted, which
first show that his mind has actually given way:

                            Hast thou given all
     To thy two daughters? And art thou come to this?[161]

But it is remarkable that what we have here is only, in an exaggerated
and perverted form, the very same action of imagination that, just
before the breakdown of reason, produced those sublime appeals:

                         O heavens,
     If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
     Allow obedience, if yourselves are old,
     Make it your cause;


     Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
     Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
     I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
     I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,
     You owe me no subscription: then let fall
     Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
     A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
     But yet I call you servile ministers,
     That have with two pernicious daughters join'd
     Your high engender'd battles 'gainst a head
     So old and white as this. O! O! 'tis foul!

Shakespeare, long before this, in the _Midsummer Night's Dream_, had
noticed the resemblance between the lunatic, the lover, and the poet;
and the partial truth that genius is allied to insanity was quite
familiar to him. But he presents here the supplementary half-truth that
insanity is allied to genius.

He does not, however, put into the mouth of the insane Lear any such
sublime passages as those just quoted. Lear's insanity, which destroys
the coherence, also reduces the poetry of his imagination. What it
stimulates is that power of moral perception and reflection which had
already been quickened by his sufferings. This, however partial and
however disconnectedly used, first appears, quite soon after the
insanity has declared itself, in the idea that the naked beggar
represents truth and reality, in contrast with those conventions,
flatteries, and corruptions of the great world, by which Lear has so
long been deceived and will never be deceived again:

     Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the
     worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no
     perfume. Ha! here's three on's are sophisticated: thou art the
     thing itself.

Lear regards the beggar therefore with reverence and delight, as a
person who is in the secret of things, and he longs to question him
about their causes. It is this same strain of thought which much later
(IV. vi.), gaining far greater force, though the insanity has otherwise
advanced, issues in those famous Timon-like speeches which make us
realise the original strength of the old King's mind. And when this
strain, on his recovery, unites with the streams of repentance and love,
it produces that serene renunciation of the world, with its power and
glory and resentments and revenges, which is expressed in the speech (V.

     No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison:
     We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
     When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
     And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
     And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
     At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
     Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
     Who loses, and who wins; who's in, who's out;
     And take upon's the mystery of things,
     As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
     In a wall'd prison, packs and sets of great ones,
     That ebb and flow by the moon.

This is that renunciation which is at the same time a sacrifice offered
to the gods, and on which the gods themselves throw incense; and, it may
be, it would never have been offered but for the knowledge that came to
Lear in his madness.

I spoke of Lear's 'recovery,' but the word is too strong. The Lear of
the Fifth Act is not indeed insane, but his mind is greatly enfeebled.
The speech just quoted is followed by a sudden flash of the old
passionate nature, reminding us most pathetically of Lear's efforts,
just before his madness, to restrain his tears:

                           Wipe thine eyes:
     The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell,
     Ere they shall make us weep: we'll see 'em starve first.

And this weakness is still more pathetically shown in the blindness of
the old King to his position now that he and Cordelia are made
prisoners. It is evident that Cordelia knows well what mercy her father
is likely to receive from her sisters; that is the reason of her
weeping. But he does not understand her tears; it never crosses his mind
that they have anything more than imprisonment to fear. And what is that
to them? They have made that sacrifice, and all is well:

                          Have I caught thee?
     He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven,
     And fire us hence like foxes.

This blindness is most affecting to us, who know in what manner they
will be parted; but it is also comforting. And we find the same mingling
of effects in the overwhelming conclusion of the story. If to the
reader, as to the bystanders, that scene brings one unbroken pain, it is
not so with Lear himself. His shattered mind passes from the first
transports of hope and despair, as he bends over Cordelia's body and
holds the feather to her lips, into an absolute forgetfulness of the
cause of these transports. This continues so long as he can converse
with Kent; becomes an almost complete vacancy; and is disturbed only to
yield, as his eyes suddenly fall again on his child's corpse, to an
agony which at once breaks his heart. And, finally, though he is killed
by an agony of pain, the agony in which he actually dies is one not of
pain but of ecstasy. Suddenly, with a cry represented in the oldest text
by a four-times repeated 'O,' he exclaims:

     Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
     Look there, look there!

These are the last words of Lear. He is sure, at last, that she _lives_:
and what had he said when he was still in doubt?

                     She lives! if it be so,
     It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
     That ever I have felt!

To us, perhaps, the knowledge that he is deceived may bring a
culmination of pain: but, if it brings _only_ that, I believe we are
false to Shakespeare, and it seems almost beyond question that any actor
is false to the text who does not attempt to express, in Lear's last
accents and gestures and look, an unbearable _joy_.[162]

To dwell on the pathos of Lear's last speech would be an impertinence,
but I may add a remark on the speech from the literary point of view. In
the simplicity of its language, which consists almost wholly of
monosyllables of native origin, composed in very brief sentences of the
plainest structure, it presents an extraordinary contrast to the dying
speech of Hamlet and the last words of Othello to the by-standers. The
fact that Lear speaks in passion is one cause of the difference, but not
the sole cause. The language is more than simple, it is familiar. And
this familiarity is characteristic of Lear (except at certain moments,
already referred to) from the time of his madness onwards, and is the
source of the peculiarly poignant effect of some of his sentences (such
as 'The little dogs and all....'). We feel in them the loss of power to
sustain his royal dignity; we feel also that everything external has
become nothingness to him, and that what remains is 'the thing itself,'
the soul in its bare greatness. Hence also it is that two lines in this
last speech show, better perhaps than any other passage of poetry, one
of the qualities we have in mind when we distinguish poetry as
'romantic.' Nothing like Hamlet's mysterious sigh 'The rest is silence,'
nothing like Othello's memories of his life of marvel and achievement,
was possible to Lear. Those last thoughts are romantic in their
strangeness: Lear's five-times repeated 'Never,' in which the simplest
and most unanswerable cry of anguish rises note by note till the heart
breaks, is romantic in its naturalism; and to make a verse out of this
one word required the boldness as well as the inspiration which came
infallibly to Shakespeare at the greatest moments. But the familiarity,
boldness and inspiration are surpassed (if that can be) by the next
line, which shows the bodily oppression asking for bodily relief. The
imagination that produced Lear's curse or his defiance of the storm may
be paralleled in its kind, but where else are we to seek the imagination
that could venture to follow that cry of 'Never' with such a phrase as
'undo this button,' and yet could leave us on the topmost peaks of


Gloster and Albany are the two neutral characters of the tragedy. The
parallel between Lear and Gloster, already noticed, is, up to a certain
point, so marked that it cannot possibly be accidental. Both are old
white-haired men (III. vii. 37); both, it would seem, widowers, with
children comparatively young. Like Lear, Gloster is tormented, and his
life is sought, by the child whom he favours; he is tended and healed by
the child whom he has wronged. His sufferings, like Lear's, are partly
traceable to his own extreme folly and injustice, and, it may be added,
to a selfish pursuit of his own pleasure.[164] His sufferings, again,
like Lear's, purify and enlighten him: he dies a better and wiser man
than he showed himself at first. They even learn the same lesson, and
Gloster's repetition (noticed and blamed by Johnson) of the thought in a
famous speech of Lear's is surely intentional.[165] And, finally,
Gloster dies almost as Lear dies. Edgar reveals himself to him and asks
his blessing (as Cordelia asks Lear's):

                       but his flaw'd heart--
     Alack, too weak the conflict to support--
     'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
     Burst smilingly.

So far, the resemblance of the two stories, and also of the ways in
which their painful effect is modified, is curiously close. And in
character too Gloster is, like his master, affectionate,[166] credulous
and hasty. But otherwise he is sharply contrasted with the tragic Lear,
who is a towering figure, every inch a king,[167] while Gloster is built
on a much smaller scale, and has infinitely less force and fire. He is,
indeed, a decidedly weak though good-hearted man; and, failing wholly to
support Kent in resisting Lear's original folly and injustice,[168] he
only gradually takes the better part. Nor is his character either very
interesting or very distinct. He often gives one the impression of being
wanted mainly to fill a place in the scheme of the play; and, though it
would be easy to give a long list of his characteristics, they scarcely,
it seems to me, compose an individual, a person whom we are sure we
should recognise at once. If this is so, the fact is curious,
considering how much we see and hear of him.

I will add a single note. Gloster is the superstitious character of the
drama,--the only one. He thinks much of 'these late eclipses in the sun
and moon.' His two sons, from opposite points of view, make nothing of
them. His easy acceptance of the calumny against Edgar is partly due to
this weakness, and Edmund builds upon it, for an evil purpose, when he
describes Edgar thus:

     Here stood he in the dark, his sharp sword out,
     Mumbling of wicked charms, conjuring the moon,
     To prove's auspicious mistress.

Edgar in turn builds upon it, for a good purpose, when he persuades his
blind father that he was led to jump down Dover cliff by the temptation
of a fiend in the form of a beggar, and was saved by a miracle:

     As I stood here below, methought his eyes
     Were two full moons; he had a thousand noses,
     Horns whelk'd and waved like the enridged sea:
     It was some fiend; therefore, thou happy father,
     Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours
     Of men's impossibilities, have preserved thee.

This passage is odd in its collocation of the thousand noses and the
clearest gods, of grotesque absurdity and extreme seriousness. Edgar
knew that the 'fiend' was really Gloster's 'worser spirit,' and that
'the gods' were himself. Doubtless, however--for he is the most
religious person in the play--he thought that it _was_ the gods who,
through him, had preserved his father; but he knew that the truth could
only enter this superstitious mind in a superstitious form.

The combination of parallelism and contrast that we observe in Lear and
Gloster, and again in the attitude of the two brothers to their father's
superstition, is one of many indications that in _King Lear_ Shakespeare
was working more than usual on a basis of conscious and reflective
ideas. Perhaps it is not by accident, then, that he makes Edgar and Lear
preach to Gloster in precisely the same strain. Lear says to him:

     If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes.
     I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloster:
     Thou must be patient; we came crying hither:
     Thou know'st, the first time that we smell the air,
     We wawl and cry. I will preach to thee: mark.

Edgar's last words to him are:

     What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
     Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
     Ripeness is all.

Albany is merely sketched, and he is so generally neglected that a few
words about him may be in place. He too ends a better and wiser man than
he began. When the play opens he is, of course, only just married to
Goneril; and the idea is, I think, that he has been bewitched by her
fiery beauty not less than by her dowry. He is an inoffensive
peace-loving man, and is overborne at first by his 'great love' for his
wife and by her imperious will. He is not free from responsibility for
the treatment which the King receives in his house; the Knight says to
Lear, 'there's a great abatement of kindness appears as well in the
general dependants as in _the duke himself also_ and your daughter.' But
he takes no part in the quarrel, and doubtless speaks truly when he
protests that he is as guiltless as ignorant of the cause of Lear's
violent passion. When the King departs, he begins to remonstrate with
Goneril, but shrinks in a cowardly manner, which is a trifle comical,
from contest with her. She leaves him behind when she goes to join
Regan, and he is not further responsible for what follows. When he hears
of it, he is struck with horror: the scales drop from his eyes, Goneril
becomes hateful to him, he determines to revenge Gloster's eyes. His
position is however very difficult, as he is willing to fight against
Cordelia in so far as her army is French, and unwilling in so far as she
represents her father. This difficulty, and his natural inferiority to
Edmund in force and ability, pushes him into the background; the battle
is not won by him but by Edmund; and but for Edgar he would certainly
have fallen a victim to the murderous plot against him. When it is
discovered, however, he is fearless and resolute enough, beside being
full of kind feeling towards Kent and Edgar, and of sympathetic distress
at Gloster's death. And one would be sure that he is meant to retain
this strength till the end, but for his last words. He has announced his
intention of resigning, during Lear's life, the 'absolute power' which
has come to him; and that may be right. But after Lear's death he says
to Kent and Edgar:

                         Friends of my soul, you twain
     Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain.

If this means that he wishes to hand over his absolute power to them,
Shakespeare's intention is certainly to mark the feebleness of a
well-meaning but weak man. But possibly he means by 'this realm' only
that half of Britain which had belonged to Cornwall and Regan.


I turn now to those two strongly contrasted groups of good and evil
beings; and to the evil first. The members of this group are by no means
on a level. Far the most contemptible of them is Oswald, and Kent has
fortunately expressed our feelings towards him. Yet twice we are able to
feel sympathy with him. Regan cannot tempt him to let her open Goneril's
letter to Edmund; and his last thought as he dies is given to the
fulfilment of his trust. It is to a monster that he is faithful, and he
is faithful to her in a monstrous design. Still faithfulness is
faithfulness, and he is not wholly worthless. Dr. Johnson says: 'I know
not well why Shakespeare gives to Oswald, who is a mere factor of
wickedness, so much fidelity'; but in any other tragedy this touch, so
true to human nature, is only what we should expect. If it surprises us
in _King Lear_, the reason is that Shakespeare, in dealing with the
other members of the group, seems to have been less concerned than usual
with such mingling of light with darkness, and intent rather on making
the shadows as utterly black as a regard for truth would permit.

Cornwall seems to have been a fit mate for Regan; and what worse can be
said of him? It is a great satisfaction to think that he endured what to
him must have seemed the dreadful disgrace of being killed by a servant.
He shows, I believe, no redeeming trait, and he is a coward, as may be
seen from the sudden rise in his courage when Goneril arrives at the
castle and supports him and Regan against Lear (II. iv. 202). But as his
cruelties are not aimed at a blood-relation, he is not, in this sense, a
'monster,' like the remaining three.

Which of these three is the least and which the most detestable there
can surely be no question. For Edmund, not to mention other
alleviations, is at any rate not a woman. And the differences between
the sisters, which are distinctly marked and need not be exhibited once
more in full, are all in favour of 'the elder and more terrible.' That
Regan did not commit adultery, did not murder her sister or plot to
murder her husband, did not join her name with Edmund's on the order for
the deaths of Cordelia and Lear, and in other respects failed to take
quite so active a part as Goneril in atrocious wickedness, is quite true
but not in the least to her credit. It only means that she had much less
force, courage and initiative than her sister, and for that reason is
less formidable and more loathsome. Edmund judged right when, caring for
neither sister but aiming at the crown, he preferred Goneril, for he
could trust her to remove the living impediments to her desires. The
scornful and fearless exclamation, 'An interlude!' with which she greets
the exposure of her design, was quite beyond Regan. Her unhesitating
suicide was perhaps no less so. She would not have condescended to the
lie which Regan so needlessly tells to Oswald:

     It was great ignorance, Gloster's eyes being out,
     To let him live: where he arrives he moves
     All hearts against us: Edmund, I think, is gone,
     _In pity of his misery_, to dispatch
     His nighted life.

Her father's curse is nothing to her. She scorns even to mention the
gods.[169] Horrible as she is, she is almost awful. But, to set against
Regan's inferiority in power, there is nothing: she is superior only in
a venomous meanness which is almost as hateful as her cruelty. She is
the most hideous human being (if she is one) that Shakespeare ever drew.

I have already noticed the resemblance between Edmund and Iago in one
point; and Edmund recalls his greater forerunner also in courage,
strength of will, address, egoism, an abnormal want of feeling, and the
possession of a sense of humour. But here the likeness ends. Indeed a
decided difference is observable even in the humour. Edmund is
apparently a good deal younger than Iago. He has a lighter and more
superficial nature, and there is a certain genuine gaiety in him which
makes one smile not unsympathetically as one listens to his first
soliloquy, with its cheery conclusion, so unlike Iago's references to
the powers of darkness,

     Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

Even after we have witnessed his dreadful deeds, a touch of this
sympathy is felt again when we hear his nonchalant reflections before
the battle:

     To both these sisters have I sworn my love:
     Each jealous of the other, as the stung
     Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?
     Both? one? or neither?

Besides, there is nothing in Edmund of Iago's motive-hunting, and very
little of any of the secret forces which impelled Iago. He is
comparatively a straightforward character, as straightforward as the
Iago of some critics. He moves wonder and horror merely because the fact
that a man so young can have a nature so bad is a dark mystery.

Edmund is an adventurer pure and simple. He acts in pursuance of a
purpose, and, if he has any affections or dislikes, ignores them. He is
determined to make his way, first to his brother's lands, then--as the
prospect widens--to the crown; and he regards men and women, with their
virtues and vices, together with the bonds of kinship, friendship, or
allegiance, merely as hindrances or helps to his end. They are for him
divested of all quality except their relation to this end; as
indifferent as mathematical quantities or mere physical agents.

     A credulous father and a brother noble,
      ... I see the business,

he says, as if he were talking of _x_ and _y_.

     This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me
     That which my father loses; no less than all:
     The younger rises when the old doth fall:

he meditates, as if he were considering a problem in mechanics. He
preserves this attitude with perfect consistency until the possibility
of attaining his end is snatched from him by death.

Like the deformity of Richard, Edmund's illegitimacy furnishes, of
course, no excuse for his villainy, but it somewhat influences our
feelings. It is no fault of his, and yet it separates him from other
men. He is the product of Nature--of a natural appetite asserting itself
against the social order; and he has no recognised place within this
order. So he devotes himself to Nature, whose law is that of the
stronger, and who does not recognise those moral obligations which exist
only by convention,--by 'custom' or 'the curiosity of nations.'[170]
Practically, his attitude is that of a professional criminal. 'You tell
me I do not belong to you,' he seems to say to society: 'very well: I
will make my way into your treasure-house if I can. And if I have to
take life in doing so, that is your affair.' How far he is serious in
this attitude, and really indignant at the brand of bastardy, how far
his indignation is a half-conscious self-excuse for his meditated
villainy, it is hard to say; but the end shows that he is not entirely
in earnest.

As he is an adventurer, with no more ill-will to anyone than good-will,
it is natural that, when he has lost the game, he should accept his
failure without showing personal animosity. But he does more. He admits
the truth of Edgar's words about the justice of the gods, and applies
them to his own case (though the fact that he himself refers to
fortune's wheel rather than to the gods may be significant). He shows
too that he is not destitute of feeling; for he is touched by the story
of his father's death, and at last 'pants for life' in the effort to do
'some good' by saving Lear and Cordelia. There is something pathetic
here which tempts one to dream that, if Edmund had been whole brother to
Edgar, and had been at home during those 'nine years' when he was 'out,'
he might have been a very different man. But perhaps his words,

                   Some good I mean to do,
     _Despite of mine own nature_,

suggest rather that Shakespeare is emphasising the mysterious fact,
commented on by Kent in the case of the three daughters of Lear, of an
immense original difference between children of one father. Stranger
than this emergence of better feelings, and curiously pathetic, is the
pleasure of the dying man in the thought that he was loved by both the
women whose corpses are almost the last sight he is to see. Perhaps, as
we conjectured, the cause of his delay in saving Lear and Cordelia even
after he hears of the deaths of the sisters is that he is sunk in dreamy
reflections on his past. When he murmurs, 'Yet Edmund was beloved,' one
is almost in danger of forgetting that he had done much more than reject
the love of his father and half-brother. The passage is one of several
in Shakespeare's plays where it strikes us that he is recording some
fact about human nature with which he had actually met, and which had
seemed to him peculiarly strange.

What are we to say of the world which contains these five beings,
Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Cornwall, Oswald? I have tried to answer this
question in our first lecture; for in its representation of evil _King
Lear_ differs from the other tragedies only in degree and manner. It is
the tragedy in which evil is shown in the greatest abundance; and the
evil characters are peculiarly repellent from their hard savagery, and
because so little good is mingled with their evil. The effect is
therefore more startling than elsewhere; it is even appalling. But in
substance it is the same as elsewhere; and accordingly, although it may
be useful to recall here our previous discussion, I will do so only by
the briefest statement.

On the one hand we see a world which generates terrible evil in
profusion. Further, the beings in whom this evil appears at its
strongest are able, to a certain extent, to thrive. They are not
unhappy, and they have power to spread misery and destruction around
them. All this is undeniable fact.

On the other hand this evil is _merely_ destructive: it founds nothing,
and seems capable of existing only on foundations laid by its opposite.
It is also self-destructive: it sets these beings at enmity; they can
scarcely unite against a common and pressing danger; if it were averted
they would be at each other's throats in a moment; the sisters do not
even wait till it is past. Finally, these beings, all five of them, are
dead a few weeks after we see them first; three at least die young; the
outburst of their evil is fatal to them. These also are undeniable
facts; and, in face of them, it seems odd to describe _King Lear_ as 'a
play in which the wicked prosper' (Johnson).

Thus the world in which evil appears seems to be at heart unfriendly to
it. And this impression is confirmed by the fact that the convulsion of
this world is due to evil, mainly in the worst forms here considered,
partly in the milder forms which we call the errors or defects of the
better characters. Good, in the widest sense, seems thus to be the
principle of life and health in the world; evil, at least in these worst
forms, to be a poison. The world reacts against it violently, and, in
the struggle to expel it, is driven to devastate itself.

If we ask why the world should generate that which convulses and wastes
it, the tragedy gives no answer, and we are trying to go beyond tragedy
in seeking one. But the world, in this tragic picture, is convulsed by
evil, and rejects it.


And if here there is 'very Night herself,' she comes 'with stars in her
raiment.' Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, the Fool--these form a group not less
remarkable than that which we have just left. There is in the world of
_King Lear_ the same abundance of extreme good as of extreme evil. It
generates in profusion self-less devotion and unconquerable love. And
the strange thing is that neither Shakespeare nor we are surprised. We
approve these characters, admire them, love them; but we feel no
mystery. We do not ask in bewilderment, Is there any cause in nature
that makes these kind hearts? Such hardened optimists are we, and
Shakespeare,--and those who find the darkness of revelation in a tragedy
which reveals Cordelia. Yet surely, if we condemn the universe for
Cordelia's death, we ought also to remember that it gave her birth. The
fact that Socrates was executed does not remove the fact that he lived,
and the inference thence to be drawn about the world that produced him.

Of these four characters Edgar excites the least enthusiasm, but he is
the one whose development is the most marked. His behaviour in the early
part of the play, granted that it is not too improbable, is so foolish
as to provoke one. But he learns by experience, and becomes the most
capable person in the story, without losing any of his purity and
nobility of mind. There remain in him, however, touches which a little
chill one's feeling for him.

     The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
     Make instruments to plague us:
     The dark and vicious place where thee he got
     Cost him his eyes:

--one wishes he had not said to his dying brother those words about
their dead father. 'The gods are just' would have been enough.[171] It
may be suggested that Shakespeare merely wished to introduce this moral
somehow, and did not mean the speech to be characteristic of the
speaker. But I doubt this: he might well have delivered it through
Albany, if he was determined to deliver it. This trait in Edgar _is_
characteristic. It seems to be connected with his pronounced and
conscious religiousness. He interprets everything religiously, and is
speaking here from an intense conviction which overrides personal
feelings. With this religiousness, on the other side, is connected his
cheerful and confident endurance, and his practical helpfulness and
resource. He never thinks of despairing; in the worst circumstances he
is sure there is something to be done to make things better. And he is
sure of this, not only from temperament, but from faith in 'the clearest
gods.' He is the man on whom we are to rely at the end for the recovery
and welfare of the state: and we do rely on him.

I spoke of his temperament. There is in Edgar, with much else that is
fine, something of that buoyancy of spirit which charms us in Imogen.
Nothing can subdue in him the feeling that life is sweet and must be
cherished. At his worst, misconstrued, contemned, exiled, under sentence
of death, 'the lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,' he keeps his
head erect. The inextinguishable spirit of youth and delight is in him;
he _embraces_ the unsubstantial air which has blown him to the worst;
for him 'the worst returns to laughter.'[172] 'Bear free and patient
thoughts,' he says to his father. His own thoughts are more than
patient, they are 'free,' even joyous, in spite of the tender sympathies
which strive in vain to overwhelm him. This ability to feel and offer
great sympathy with distress, without losing through the sympathy any
elasticity or strength, is a noble quality, sometimes found in souls
like Edgar's, naturally buoyant and also religious. It may even be
characteristic of him that, when Lear is sinking down in death, he tries
to rouse him and bring him back to life. 'Look up, my lord!' he cries.
It is Kent who feels that

                       he hates him,
     That would upon the rack of this tough world
     Stretch him out longer.

Kent is one of the best-loved characters in Shakespeare. He is beloved
for his own sake, and also for the sake of Cordelia and of Lear. We are
grateful to him because he stands up for Cordelia, and because, when she
is out of sight, he constantly keeps her in our minds. And how well
these two love each other we see when they meet. Yet it is not Cordelia
who is dearest to Kent. His love for Lear is the passion of his life: it
_is_ his life. At the beginning he braves Lear's wrath even more for
Lear's sake than Cordelia's.[173] At the end he seems to realise
Cordelia's death only as it is reflected in Lear's agony. Nor does he
merely love his master passionately, as Cordelia loves her father. That
word 'master,' and Kent's appeal to the 'authority' he saw in the old
King's face, are significant. He belongs to Lear, body and soul, as a
dog does to his master and god. The King is not to him old, wayward,
unreasonable, piteous: he is still terrible, grand, the king of men.
Through his eyes we see the Lear of Lear's prime, whom Cordelia never
saw. Kent never forgets this Lear. In the Storm-scenes, even after the
King becomes insane, Kent never addresses him without the old terms of
respect, 'your grace,' 'my lord,' 'sir.' How characteristic it is that
in the scene of Lear's recovery Kent speaks to him but once: it is when
the King asks 'Am I in France?' and he answers 'In your own kingdom,

In acting the part of a blunt and eccentric serving-man Kent retains
much of his natural character. The eccentricity seems to be put on, but
the plainness which gets him set in the stocks is but an exaggeration of
his plainness in the opening scene, and Shakespeare certainly meant him
for one of those characters whom we love none the less for their
defects. He is hot and rash; noble but far from skilful in his
resistance to the King; he might well have chosen wiser words to gain
his point. But, as he himself says, he has more man than wit about him.
He shows this again when he rejoins Lear as a servant, for he at once
brings the quarrel with Goneril to a head; and, later, by falling upon
Oswald, whom he so detests that he cannot keep his hands off him, he
provides Regan and Cornwall with a pretext for their inhospitality. One
has not the heart to wish him different, but he illustrates the truth
that to run one's head unselfishly against a wall is not the best way to
help one's friends.

One fact about Kent is often overlooked. He is an old man. He tells Lear
that he is eight and forty, but it is clear that he is much older; not
so old as his master, who was 'four-score and upward' and whom he 'loved
as his father,' but, one may suppose, three-score and upward. From the
first scene we get this impression, and in the scene with Oswald it is
repeatedly confirmed. His beard is grey. 'Ancient ruffian,' 'old
fellow,' 'you stubborn ancient knave, you reverent braggart'--these are
some of the expressions applied to him. 'Sir,' he says to Cornwall, 'I
am too old to learn.' If his age is not remembered, we fail to realise
the full beauty of his thoughtlessness of himself, his incessant care of
the King, his light-hearted indifference to fortune or fate.[174] We
lose also some of the naturalness and pathos of his feeling that his
task is nearly done. Even at the end of the Fourth Act we find him

     My point and period will be throughly wrought
     Or well or ill, as this day's battle's fought.

His heart is ready to break when he falls with his strong arms about
Edgar's neck; bellows out as he'd burst heaven (how like him!);

                     threw him on my father,
     Told the most piteous tale of Lear and him
     That ever ear received; which in recounting
     His grief grew puissant, and the strings of life
     Began to crack. Twice then the trumpet sounded,
     And there I left him tranced;

and a little after, when he enters, we hear the sound of death in his

                         I am come
     To bid my king and master aye goodnight.

This desire possesses him wholly. When the bodies of Goneril and Regan
are brought in he asks merely, 'Alack, why thus?' How can he care? He is
waiting for one thing alone. He cannot but yearn for recognition, cannot
but beg for it even when Lear is bending over the body of Cordelia; and
even in that scene of unmatched pathos we feel a sharp pang at his
failure to receive it. It is of himself he is speaking, perhaps, when he
murmurs, as his master dies, 'Break, heart, I prithee, break!' He puts
aside Albany's invitation to take part in the government; his task is

     I have a journey, sir, shortly to go:
     My master calls me; I must not say no.

Kent in his devotion, his self-effacement, his cheerful stoicism, his
desire to follow his dead lord, has been well likened to Horatio. But
Horatio is not old; nor is he hot-headed; and though he is stoical he is
also religious. Kent, as compared with him and with Edgar, is not so. He
has not Edgar's ever-present faith in the 'clearest gods.' He refers to
them, in fact, less often than to fortune or the stars. He lives mainly
by the love in his own heart.[175]

       *       *       *       *       *

The theatrical fool or clown (we need not distinguish them here) was a
sore trial to the cultured poet and spectator in Shakespeare's day. He
came down from the Morality plays, and was beloved of the groundlings.
His antics, his songs, his dances, his jests, too often unclean,
delighted them, and did something to make the drama, what the vulgar,
poor or rich, like it to be, a variety entertainment. Even if he
confined himself to what was set down for him, he often disturbed the
dramatic unity of the piece; and the temptation to 'gag' was too strong
for him to resist. Shakespeare makes Hamlet object to it in emphatic
terms. The more learned critics and poets went further and would have
abolished the fool altogether. His part declines as the drama advances,
diminishing markedly at the end of the sixteenth century. Jonson and
Massinger exclude him. Shakespeare used him--we know to what effect--as
he used all the other popular elements of the drama; but he abstained
from introducing him into the Roman plays,[176] and there is no fool in
the last of the pure tragedies, _Macbeth_.

But the Fool is one of Shakespeare's triumphs in _King Lear_. Imagine
the tragedy without him, and you hardly know it. To remove him would
spoil its harmony, as the harmony of a picture would be spoiled if one
of the colours were extracted. One can almost imagine that Shakespeare,
going home from an evening at the Mermaid, where he had listened to
Jonson fulminating against fools in general and perhaps criticising the
Clown in _Twelfth Night_ in particular, had said to himself: 'Come, my
friends, I will show you once for all that the mischief is in you, and
not in the fool or the audience. I will have a fool in the most tragic
of my tragedies. He shall not play a little part. He shall keep from
first to last the company in which you most object to see him, the
company of a king. Instead of amusing the king's idle hours, he shall
stand by him in the very tempest and whirlwind of passion. Before I have
done you shall confess, between laughter and tears, that he is of the
very essence of life, that you have known him all your days though you
never recognised him till now, and that you would as soon go without
Hamlet as miss him.'

The Fool in _King Lear_ has been so favourite a subject with good
critics that I will confine myself to one or two points on which a
difference of opinion is possible. To suppose that the Fool is, like
many a domestic fool at that time, a perfectly sane man pretending to be
half-witted, is surely a most prosaic blunder. There is no difficulty in
imagining that, being slightly touched in the brain, and holding the
office of fool, he performs the duties of his office intentionally as
well as involuntarily: it is evident that he does so. But unless we
suppose that he _is_ touched in the brain we lose half the effect of
his appearance in the Storm-scenes. The effect of those scenes (to state
the matter as plainly as possible) depends largely on the presence of
three characters, and on the affinities and contrasts between them; on
our perception that the differences of station in King, Fool, and
beggar-noble, are levelled by one blast of calamity; but also on our
perception of the differences between these three in one respect,--viz.
in regard to the peculiar affliction of insanity. The insanity of the
King differs widely in its nature from that of the Fool, and that of the
Fool from that of the beggar. But the insanity of the King differs from
that of the beggar not only in its nature, but also in the fact that one
is real and the other simply a pretence. Are we to suppose then that the
insanity of the third character, the Fool, is, in this respect, a mere
repetition of that of the second, the beggar,--that it too is _mere_
pretence? To suppose this is not only to impoverish miserably the
impression made by the trio as a whole, it is also to diminish the
heroic and pathetic effect of the character of the Fool. For his heroism
consists largely in this, that his efforts to outjest his master's
injuries are the efforts of a being to whom a responsible and consistent
course of action, nay even a responsible use of language, is at the best
of times difficult, and from whom it is never at the best of times
expected. It is a heroism something like that of Lear himself in his
endeavour to learn patience at the age of eighty. But arguments against
the idea that the Fool is wholly sane are either needless or futile; for
in the end they are appeals to the perception that this idea almost
destroys the poetry of the character.

This is not the case with another question, the question whether the
Fool is a man or a boy. Here the evidence and the grounds for discussion
are more tangible. He is frequently addressed as 'boy.' This is not
decisive; but Lear's first words to him, 'How now, my pretty knave, how
dost thou?' are difficult to reconcile with the idea of his being a man,
and the use of this phrase on his first entrance may show Shakespeare's
desire to prevent any mistake on the point. As a boy, too, he would be
more strongly contrasted in the Storm-scenes with Edgar as well as with
Lear; his faithfulness and courage would be even more heroic and
touching; his devotion to Cordelia, and the consequent bitterness of
some of his speeches to Lear, would be even more natural. Nor does he
seem to show a knowledge of the world impossible to a quick-witted
though not whole-witted lad who had lived at Court. The only serious
obstacle to this view, I think, is the fact that he is not known to have
been represented as a boy or youth till Macready produced _King

But even if this obstacle were serious and the Fool were imagined as a
grown man, we may still insist that he must also be imagined as a timid,
delicate and frail being, who on that account and from the expression of
his face has a boyish look.[178] He pines away when Cordelia goes to
France. Though he takes great liberties with his master he is frightened
by Goneril, and becomes quite silent when the quarrel rises high. In the
terrible scene between Lear and his two daughters and Cornwall
(II. iv. 129-289), he says not a word; we have almost forgotten
his presence when, at the topmost pitch of passion, Lear suddenly turns
to him from the hateful faces that encompass him:

                        You think I'll weep;
     No, I'll not weep:
     I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
     Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
     Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad.

From the beginning of the Storm-scenes, though he thinks of his master
alone, we perceive from his words that the cold and rain are almost more
than he can bear. His childishness comes home to us when he runs out of
the hovel, terrified by the madman and crying out to the King 'Help me,
help me,' and the good Kent takes him by the hand and draws him to his
side. A little later he exclaims, 'This cold night will turn us all to
fools and madmen'; and almost from that point he leaves the King to
Edgar, speaking only once again in the remaining hundred lines of the
scene. In the shelter of the 'farm-house' (III. vi.) he revives, and
resumes his office of love; but I think that critic is right who
considers his last words significant. 'We'll go to supper i' the
morning,' says Lear; and the Fool answers 'And I'll go to bed at noon,'
as though he felt he had taken his death. When, a little later, the King
is being carried away on a litter, the Fool sits idle. He is so benumbed
and worn out that he scarcely notices what is going on. Kent has to
rouse him with the words,

              Come, help to bear thy master,
     Thou must not stay behind.

We know no more. For the famous exclamation 'And my poor fool is hanged'
unquestionably refers to Cordelia; and even if it is intended to show a
confused association in Lear's mind between his child and the Fool who
so loved her (as a very old man may confuse two of his children), still
it tells us nothing of the Fool's fate. It seems strange indeed that
Shakespeare should have left us thus in ignorance. But we have seen that
there are many marks of haste and carelessness in _King Lear_; and it
may also be observed that, if the poet imagined the Fool dying on the
way to Dover of the effects of that night upon the heath, he could
perhaps convey this idea to the audience by instructing the actor who
took the part to show, as he left the stage for the last time, the
recognised tokens of approaching death.[179]

Something has now been said of the four characters, Lear, Edgar, Kent
and the Fool, who are together in the storm upon the heath. I have made
no attempt to analyse the whole effect of these scenes, but one remark
may be added. These scenes, as we observed, suggest the idea of a
convulsion in which Nature herself joins with the forces of evil in man
to overpower the weak; and they are thus one of the main sources of the
more terrible impressions produced by _King Lear_. But they have at the
same time an effect of a totally different kind, because in them are
exhibited also the strength and the beauty of Lear's nature, and, in
Kent and the Fool and Edgar, the ideal of faithful devoted love. Hence
from the beginning to the end of these scenes we have, mingled with pain
and awe and a sense of man's infirmity, an equally strong feeling of his
greatness; and this becomes at times even an exulting sense of the
powerlessness of outward calamity or the malice of others against his
soul. And this is one reason why imagination and emotion are never here
pressed painfully inward, as in the scenes between Lear and his
daughters, but are liberated and dilated.


The character of Cordelia is not a masterpiece of invention or subtlety
like that of Cleopatra; yet in its own way it is a creation as
wonderful. Cordelia appears in only four of the twenty-six scenes of
_King Lear_; she speaks--it is hard to believe it--scarcely more than a
hundred lines; and yet no character in Shakespeare is more absolutely
individual or more ineffaceably stamped on the memory of his readers.
There is a harmony, strange but perhaps the result of intention, between
the character itself and this reserved or parsimonious method of
depicting it. An expressiveness almost inexhaustible gained through
paucity of expression; the suggestion of infinite wealth and beauty
conveyed by the very refusal to reveal this beauty in expansive
speech--this is at once the nature of Cordelia herself and the chief
characteristic of Shakespeare's art in representing it. Perhaps it is
not fanciful to find a parallel in his drawing of a person very
different, Hamlet. It was natural to Hamlet to examine himself minutely,
to discuss himself at large, and yet to remain a mystery to himself; and
Shakespeare's method of drawing the character answers to it; it is
extremely detailed and searching, and yet its effect is to enhance the
sense of mystery. The results in the two cases differ correspondingly.
No one hesitates to enlarge upon Hamlet, who speaks of himself so much;
but to use many words about Cordelia seems to be a kind of impiety.

I am obliged to speak of her chiefly because the devotion she inspires
almost inevitably obscures her part in the tragedy. This devotion is
composed, so to speak, of two contrary elements, reverence and pity. The
first, because Cordelia's is a higher nature than that of most even of
Shakespeare's heroines. With the tenderness of Viola or Desdemona she
unites something of the resolution, power, and dignity of Hermione, and
reminds us sometimes of Helena, sometimes of Isabella, though she has
none of the traits which prevent Isabella from winning our hearts. Her
assertion of truth and right, her allegiance to them, even the touch of
severity that accompanies it, instead of compelling mere respect or
admiration, become adorable in a nature so loving as Cordelia's. She is
a thing enskyed and sainted, and yet we feel no incongruity in the love
of the King of France for her, as we do in the love of the Duke for

But with this reverence or worship is combined in the reader's mind a
passion of championship, of pity, even of protecting pity. She is so
deeply wronged, and she appears, for all her strength, so defenceless.
We think of her as unable to speak for herself. We think of her as quite
young, and as slight and small.[180] 'Her voice was ever soft, gentle,
and low'; ever so, whether the tone was that of resolution, or rebuke,
or love.[181] Of all Shakespeare's heroines she knew least of joy. She
grew up with Goneril and Regan for sisters. Even her love for her father
must have been mingled with pain and anxiety. She must early have
learned to school and repress emotion. She never knew the bliss of young
love: there is no trace of such love for the King of France. She had
knowingly to wound most deeply the being dearest to her. He cast her
off; and, after suffering an agony for him, and before she could see him
safe in death, she was brutally murdered. We have to thank the poet for
passing lightly over the circumstances of her death. We do not think of
them. Her image comes before us calm and bright and still.

The memory of Cordelia thus becomes detached in a manner from the action
of the drama. The reader refuses to admit into it any idea of
imperfection, and is outraged when any share in her father's sufferings
is attributed to the part she plays in the opening scene. Because she
was deeply wronged he is ready to insist that she was wholly right. He
refuses, that is, to take the tragic point of view, and, when it is
taken, he imagines that Cordelia is being attacked, or is being declared
to have 'deserved' all that befell her. But Shakespeare's was the tragic
point of view. He exhibits in the opening scene a situation tragic for
Cordelia as well as for Lear. At a moment where terrible issues join,
Fate makes on her the one demand which she is unable to meet. As I have
already remarked in speaking of Desdemona, it was a demand which other
heroines of Shakespeare could have met. Without loss of self-respect,
and refusing even to appear to compete for a reward, they could have
made the unreasonable old King feel that he was fondly loved. Cordelia
cannot, because she is Cordelia. And so she is not merely rejected and
banished, but her father is left to the mercies of her sisters. And the
cause of her failure--a failure a thousand-fold redeemed--is a compound
in which imperfection appears so intimately mingled with the noblest
qualities that--if we are true to Shakespeare--we do not think either of
justifying her or of blaming her: we feel simply the tragic emotions of
fear and pity.

In this failure a large part is played by that obvious characteristic to
which I have already referred. Cordelia is not, indeed, always
tongue-tied, as several passages in the drama, and even in this scene,
clearly show. But tender emotion, and especially a tender love for the
person to whom she has to speak, makes her dumb. Her love, as she says,
is more ponderous than her tongue:[182]

                   Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
     My heart into my mouth.

This expressive word 'heave' is repeated in the passage which describes
her reception of Kent's letter:

     Faith, once or twice she heaved the name of 'Father'
     Pantingly forth, as if it press'd her heart:

two or three broken ejaculations escape her lips, and she 'starts' away
'to deal with grief alone.' The same trait reappears with an ineffable
beauty in the stifled repetitions with which she attempts to answer her
father in the moment of his restoration:

     _Lear._                 Do not laugh at me;
              For, as I am a man, I think this lady
              To be my child Cordelia.

     _Cor._                             And so I am, I am.

     _Lear._  Be your tears wet? yes, faith. I pray, weep not;
              If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
              I know you do not love me; for your sisters
              Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
              You have some cause, they have not.

     _Cor._                             No cause, no cause.

We see this trait for the last time, marked by Shakespeare with a
decision clearly intentional, in her inability to answer one syllable to
the last words we hear her father speak to her:

     No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison:
     We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
     When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
     And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
     And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
     At gilded butterflies....

She stands and weeps, and goes out with him silent. And we see her alive
no more.

But (I am forced to dwell on the point, because I am sure to slur it
over is to be false to Shakespeare) this dumbness of love was not the
sole source of misunderstanding. If this had been all, even Lear could
have seen the love in Cordelia's eyes when, to his question 'What can
you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?' she answered
'Nothing.' But it did not shine there. She is not merely silent, nor
does she merely answer 'Nothing.' She tells him that she loves him
'according to her bond, nor more nor less'; and his answer,

     How now, Cordelia! mend your speech a little,
     Lest it may mar your fortunes,

so intensifies her horror at the hypocrisy of her sisters that she

                             Good my Lord,
     You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
     Return those duties back as are right fit,
     Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
     Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
     They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
     That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
     Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
     Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
     To love my father all.

What words for the ear of an old father, unreasonable, despotic, but
fondly loving, indecent in his own expressions of preference, and blind
to the indecency of his appeal for protestations of fondness! Blank
astonishment, anger, wounded love, contend within him; but for the
moment he restrains himself and asks,

     But goes thy heart with this?

Imagine Imogen's reply! But Cordelia answers,

                       Ay, good my lord.

     _Lear._  So young, and so untender?

     _Cor._   So young, my lord, and true.

Yes, 'heavenly true.' But truth is not the only good in the world, nor
is the obligation to tell truth the only obligation. The matter here was
to keep it inviolate, but also to preserve a father. And even if truth
_were_ the one and only obligation, to tell much less than truth is not
to tell it. And Cordelia's speech not only tells much less than truth
about her love, it actually perverts the truth when it implies that to
give love to a husband is to take it from a father. There surely never
was a more unhappy speech.

When Isabella goes to plead with Angelo for her brother's life, her
horror of her brother's sin is so intense, and her perception of the
justice of Angelo's reasons for refusing her is so clear and keen, that
she is ready to abandon her appeal before it is well begun; she would
actually do so but that the warm-hearted profligate Lucio reproaches her
for her coldness and urges her on. Cordelia's hatred of hypocrisy and of
the faintest appearance of mercenary professions reminds us of
Isabella's hatred of impurity; but Cordelia's position is infinitely
more difficult, and on the other hand there is mingled with her hatred a
touch of personal antagonism and of pride. Lear's words,

     Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her![183]

are monstrously unjust, but they contain one grain of truth; and indeed
it was scarcely possible that a nature so strong as Cordelia's, and with
so keen a sense of dignity, should feel here nothing whatever of pride
and resentment. This side of her character is emphatically shown in her
language to her sisters in the first scene--language perfectly just, but
little adapted to soften their hearts towards their father--and again in
the very last words we hear her speak. She and her father are brought
in, prisoners, to the enemy's camp; but she sees only Edmund, not those
'greater' ones on whose pleasure hangs her father's fate and her own.
For her own she is little concerned; she knows how to meet adversity:

     For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
     Myself could else out-frown false fortune's frown.

Yes, that is how she would meet fortune, frowning it down, even as
Goneril would have met it; nor, if her father had been already dead,
would there have been any great improbability in the false story that
was to be told of her death, that, like Goneril, she 'fordid herself.'
Then, after those austere words about fortune, she suddenly asks,

     Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?

Strange last words for us to hear from a being so worshipped and
beloved; but how characteristic! Their tone is unmistakable. I doubt if
she could have brought herself to plead with her sisters for her
father's life; and if she had attempted the task, she would have
performed it but ill. Nor is our feeling towards her altered one whit by
that. But what is true of Kent and the Fool[184] is, in its measure,
true of her. Any one of them would gladly have died a hundred deaths to
help King Lear; and they do help his soul; but they harm his cause. They
are all involved in tragedy.

       *       *       *       *       *

Why does Cordelia die? I suppose no reader ever failed to ask that
question, and to ask it with something more than pain,--to ask it, if
only for a moment, in bewilderment or dismay, and even perhaps in tones
of protest. These feelings are probably evoked more strongly here than
at the death of any other notable character in Shakespeare; and it may
sound a wilful paradox to assert that the slightest element of
reconciliation is mingled with them or succeeds them. Yet it seems to me
indubitable that such an element is present, though difficult to make
out with certainty what it is or whence it proceeds. And I will try to
make this out, and to state it methodically.

(_a_) It is not due in any perceptible degree to the fact, which we have
just been examining, that Cordelia through her tragic imperfection
contributes something to the conflict and catastrophe; and I drew
attention to that imperfection without any view to our present problem.
The critics who emphasise it at this point in the drama are surely
untrue to Shakespeare's mind; and still more completely astray are those
who lay stress on the idea that Cordelia, in bringing a foreign army to
help her father, was guilty of treason to her country. When she dies we
regard her, practically speaking, simply as we regard Ophelia or
Desdemona, as an innocent victim swept away in the convulsion caused by
the error or guilt of others.

(_b_) Now this destruction of the good through the evil of others is one
of the tragic facts of life, and no one can object to the use of it,
within certain limits, in tragic art. And, further, those who because of
it declaim against the nature of things, declaim without thinking. It is
obviously the other side of the fact that the effects of good spread far
and wide beyond the doer of good; and we should ask ourselves whether we
really could wish (supposing it conceivable) to see this double-sided
fact abolished. Nevertheless the touch of reconciliation that we feel in
contemplating the death of Cordelia is not due, or is due only in some
slight degree, to a perception that the event is true to life,
admissible in tragedy, and a case of a law which we cannot seriously
desire to see abrogated.

(_c_) What then is this feeling, and whence does it come? I believe we
shall find that it is a feeling not confined to _King Lear_, but present
at the close of other tragedies; and that the reason why it has an
exceptional tone or force at the close of _King Lear_, lies in that very
peculiarity of the close which also--at least for the moment--excites
bewilderment, dismay, or protest. The feeling I mean is the impression
that the heroic being, though in one sense and outwardly he has failed,
is yet in another sense superior to the world in which he appears; is,
in some way which we do not seek to define, untouched by the doom that
overtakes him; and is rather set free from life than deprived of it.
Some such feeling as this--some feeling which, from this description of
it, may be recognised as their own even by those who would dissent from
the description--we surely have in various degrees at the deaths of
Hamlet and Othello and Lear, and of Antony and Cleopatra and
Coriolanus.[185] It accompanies the more prominent tragic impressions,
and, regarded alone, could hardly be called tragic. For it seems to
imply (though we are probably quite unconscious of the implication) an
idea which, if developed, would transform the tragic view of things. It
implies that the tragic world, if taken as it is presented, with all its
error, guilt, failure, woe and waste, is no final reality, but only a
part of reality taken for the whole, and, when so taken, illusive; and
that if we could see the whole, and the tragic facts in their true place
in it, we should find them, not abolished, of course, but so transmuted
that they had ceased to be strictly tragic,--find, perhaps, the
suffering and death counting for little or nothing, the greatness of the
soul for much or all, and the heroic spirit, in spite of failure, nearer
to the heart of things than the smaller, more circumspect, and perhaps
even 'better' beings who survived the catastrophe. The feeling which I
have tried to describe, as accompanying the more obvious tragic emotions
at the deaths of heroes, corresponds with some such idea as this.[186]

Now this feeling is evoked with a quite exceptional strength by the
death of Cordelia.[187] It is not due to the perception that she, like
Lear, has attained through suffering; we know that she had suffered and
attained in his days of prosperity. It is simply the feeling that what
happens to such a being does not matter; all that matters is what she
is. How this can be when, for anything the tragedy tells us, she has
ceased to exist, we do not ask; but the tragedy itself makes us feel
that somehow it is so. And the force with which this impression is
conveyed depends largely on the very fact which excites our bewilderment
and protest, that her death, following on the deaths of all the evil
characters, and brought about by an unexplained delay in Edmund's effort
to save her, comes on us, not as an inevitable conclusion to the
sequence of events, but as the sudden stroke of mere fate or chance. The
force of the impression, that is to say, depends on the very violence of
the contrast between the outward and the inward, Cordelia's death and
Cordelia's soul. The more unmotived, unmerited, senseless, monstrous,
her fate, the more do we feel that it does not concern her. The
extremity of the disproportion between prosperity and goodness first
shocks us, and then flashes on us the conviction that our whole attitude
in asking or expecting that goodness should be prosperous is wrong;
that, if only we could see things as they are, we should see that the
outward is nothing and the inward is all.

And some such thought as this (which, to bring it clearly out, I have
stated, and still state, in a form both exaggerated and much too
explicit) is really present through the whole play. Whether Shakespeare
knew it or not, it is present. I might almost say that the 'moral' of
_King Lear_ is presented in the irony of this collocation:

           _Albany._ The gods defend her!
     _Enter Lear with Cordelia dead in his arms._

The 'gods,' it seems, do _not_ show their approval by 'defending' their
own from adversity or death, or by giving them power and prosperity.
These, on the contrary, are worthless, or worse; it is not on them, but
on the renunciation of them, that the gods throw incense. They breed
lust, pride, hardness of heart, the insolence of office, cruelty, scorn,
hypocrisy, contention, war, murder, self-destruction. The whole story
beats this indictment of prosperity into the brain. Lear's great
speeches in his madness proclaim it like the curses of Timon on life and
man. But here, as in _Timon_, the poor and humble are, almost without
exception, sound and sweet at heart, faithful and pitiful.[188] And here
adversity, to the blessed in spirit, is blessed. It wins fragrance from
the crushed flower. It melts in aged hearts sympathies which prosperity
had frozen. It purges the soul's sight by blinding that of the
eyes.[189] Throughout that stupendous Third Act the good are seen
growing better through suffering, and the bad worse through success. The
warm castle is a room in hell, the storm-swept heath a sanctuary. The
judgment of this world is a lie; its goods, which we covet, corrupt us;
its ills, which break our bodies, set our souls free;

     Our means secure us,[190] and our mere defects
     Prove our commodities.

Let us renounce the world, hate it, and lose it gladly. The only real
thing in it is the soul, with its courage, patience, devotion. And
nothing outward can touch that.

This, if we like to use the word, is Shakespeare's 'pessimism' in _King
Lear_. As we have seen, it is not by any means the whole spirit of the
tragedy, which presents the world as a place where heavenly good grows
side by side with evil, where extreme evil cannot long endure, and where
all that survives the storm is good, if not great. But still this strain
of thought, to which the world appears as the kingdom of evil and
therefore worthless, is in the tragedy, and may well be the record of
many hours of exasperated feeling and troubled brooding. Pursued further
and allowed to dominate, it would destroy the tragedy; for it is
necessary to tragedy that we should feel that suffering and death do
matter greatly, and that happiness and life are not to be renounced as
worthless. Pursued further, again, it leads to the idea that the world,
in that obvious appearance of it which tragedy cannot dissolve without
dissolving itself, is illusive. And its tendency towards this idea is
traceable in _King Lear_, in the shape of the notion that this 'great
world' is transitory, or 'will wear out to nought' like the little world
called 'man' (IV. vi. 137), or that humanity will destroy itself.[191]
In later days, in the drama that was probably Shakespeare's last
complete work, the _Tempest_, this notion of the transitoriness of
things appears, side by side with the simpler feeling that man's life is
an illusion or dream, in some of the most famous lines he ever wrote:

     Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
     As I foretold you, were all spirits and
     Are melted into air, into thin air:
     And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
     The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
     The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
     Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
     And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
     Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
     As dreams are made on, and our little life
     Is rounded with a sleep.

These lines, detached from their context, are familiar to everyone; but,
in the _Tempest_, they are dramatic as well as poetical. The sudden
emergence of the thought expressed in them has a specific and most
significant cause; and as I have not seen it remarked I will point it

Prospero, by means of his spirits, has been exhibiting to Ferdinand and
Miranda a masque in which goddesses appear, and which is so majestic and
harmonious that to the young man, standing beside such a father and such
a wife, the place seems Paradise,--as perhaps the world once seemed to
Shakespeare. Then, at the bidding of Iris, there begins a dance of
Nymphs with Reapers, sunburnt, weary of their August labour, but now in
their holiday garb. But, as this is nearing its end, Prospero 'starts
suddenly, and speaks'; and the visions vanish. And what he 'speaks' is
shown in these lines, which introduce the famous passage just quoted:

     _Pros._ [_Aside_] I had forgot that foul conspiracy
     Of the beast Caliban and his confederates
     Against my life: the minute of their plot
     Is almost come. [_To the Spirits._] Well done! avoid; no more.

     _Fer._ This is strange; your father's in some passion
     That works him strongly.

     _Mir._                    Never till this day
     Saw I him touch'd with anger so distemper'd.

     _Pros._ You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
     As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful, sir.
     Our revels....

And then, after the famous lines, follow these:

                                Sir, I am vex'd:
     Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled;
     Be not disturb'd with my infirmity;
     If you be pleased, retire into my cell
     And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk,
     To still my beating mind.

We seem to see here the whole mind of Shakespeare in his last years.
That which provokes in Prospero first a 'passion' of anger, and, a
moment later, that melancholy and mystical thought that the great world
must perish utterly and that man is but a dream, is the sudden
recollection of gross and apparently incurable evil in the 'monster'
whom he had tried in vain to raise and soften, and in the monster's
human confederates. It is this, which is but the repetition of his
earlier experience of treachery and ingratitude, that troubles his old
brain, makes his mind 'beat,'[192] and forces on him the sense of
unreality and evanescence in the world and the life that are haunted by
such evil. Nor, though Prospero can spare and forgive, is there any sign
to the end that he believes the evil curable either in the monster, the
'born devil,' or in the more monstrous villains, the 'worse than
devils,' whom he so sternly dismisses. But he has learned patience, has
come to regard his anger and loathing as a weakness or infirmity, and
would not have it disturb the young and innocent. And so, in the days of
_King Lear_, it was chiefly the power of 'monstrous' and apparently
cureless evil in the 'great world' that filled Shakespeare's soul with
horror, and perhaps forced him sometimes to yield to the infirmity of
misanthropy and despair, to cry 'No, no, no life,' and to take refuge in
the thought that this fitful fever is a dream that must soon fade into a
dreamless sleep; until, to free himself from the perilous stuff that
weighed upon his heart, he summoned to his aid his 'so potent art,' and
wrought this stuff into the stormy music of his greatest poem, which
seems to cry,

     You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need,

and, like the _Tempest_, seems to preach to us from end to end, 'Thou
must be patient,' 'Bear free and patient thoughts.'[193]


[Footnote 158: Of course I do not mean that he is beginning to be
insane, and still less that he _is_ insane (as some medical critics

[Footnote 159: I must however point out that the modern stage-directions
are most unfortunate in concealing the fact that here Cordelia sees her
father again _for the first time_. See Note W.]

[Footnote 160: What immediately follows is as striking an illustration
of quite another quality, and of the effects which make us think of Lear
as pursued by a relentless fate. If he could go in and sleep after his
prayer, as he intends, his mind, one feels, might be saved: so far there
has been only the menace of madness. But from within the hovel
Edgar--the last man who would willingly have injured Lear--cries,
'Fathom and half, fathom and half! Poor Tom!'; the Fool runs out
terrified; Edgar, summoned by Kent, follows him; and, at sight of Edgar,
in a moment something gives way in Lear's brain, and he exclaims:

                          Hast thou given all
     To thy two daughters? And art thou come to this?

Henceforth he is mad. And they remain out in the storm.

I have not seen it noticed that this stroke of fate is repeated--surely
intentionally--in the sixth scene. Gloster has succeeded in persuading
Lear to come into the 'house'; he then leaves, and Kent after much
difficulty induces Lear to lie down and rest upon the cushions. Sleep
begins to come to him again, and he murmurs,

     'Make no noise, make no noise; draw the curtains; so, so, so.
     We'll go to supper i' the morning. So, so, so.'

At that moment Gloster enters with the news that he has discovered a
plot to kill the King; the rest that 'might yet have balm'd his broken
senses' is again interrupted; and he is hurried away on a litter towards
Dover. (His recovery, it will be remembered, is due to a long sleep
artificially induced.)]

[Footnote 161: III. iv. 49. This is printed as prose in the Globe
edition, but is surely verse. Lear has not yet spoken prose in this
scene, and his next three speeches are in verse. The next is in prose,
and, ending, in his tearing off his clothes, shows the advance of

[Footnote 162: [Lear's death is thus, I am reminded, like _père_
Goriot's.] This interpretation may be condemned as fantastic, but the
text, it appears to me, will bear no other. This is the whole speech (in
the Globe text):

     And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!
     Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
     And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
     Never, never, never, never, never!
     Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
     Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
     Look there, look there!

The transition at 'Do you see this?' from despair to something more than
hope is exactly the same as in the preceding passage at the word 'Ha!':

     A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
     I might have saved her; now she's gone for ever!
     Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little.
     What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft,
     Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.

As to my other remarks, I will ask the reader to notice that the passage
from Lear's entrance with the body of Cordelia to the stage-direction
_He dies_ (which probably comes a few lines too soon) is 54 lines in
length, and that 30 of them represent the interval during which he has
absolutely forgotten Cordelia. (It begins when he looks up at the
Captain's words, line 275.) To make Lear during this interval turn
continually in anguish to the corpse, is to act the passage in a manner
irreconcilable with the text, and insufferable in its effect. I speak
from experience. I have seen the passage acted thus, and my sympathies
were so exhausted long before Lear's death that his last speech, the
most pathetic speech ever written, left me disappointed and weary.]

[Footnote 163: The Quartos give the 'Never' only thrice (surely
wrongly), and all the actors I have heard have preferred this easier
task. I ought perhaps to add that the Quartos give the words 'Break,
heart; I prithee, break!' to Lear, not Kent. They and the Folio are at
odds throughout the last sixty lines of King Lear, and all good modern
texts are eclectic.]

[Footnote 164: The connection of these sufferings with the sin of
earlier days (not, it should be noticed, of youth) is almost thrust upon
our notice by the levity of Gloster's own reference to the subject in
the first scene, and by Edgar's often quoted words 'The gods are just,'
etc. The following collocation, also, may be intentional (III. iv. 116):

     _Fool_. Now a little fire in a wild field were like an old
     lecher's heart; a small spark, all the rest on's body cold.
     Look, here comes a walking fire. [_Enter_ GLOSTER with a

Pope destroyed the collocation by transferring the stage-direction to a
point some dozen lines later.]

[Footnote 165: The passages are here printed together (III. iv. 28 ff.
and IV. i. 67 ff.):

     _Lear._ Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
     That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
     How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
     Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
     From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
     Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
     Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
     That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
     And show the heavens just.

     _Glo._ Here, take this purse, thou whom the heavens' plagues
     Have humbled to all strokes: that I am wretched
     Makes thee the happier: heavens, deal so still!
     Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
     That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
     Because he doth not feel, feel your power quickly;
     So distribution should undo excess,
     And each man have enough.]

[Footnote 166: Schmidt's idea--based partly on the omission from the
Folios at I. ii. 103 (see Furness' Variorum) of the words 'To his father
that so tenderly and entirely loves him'--that Gloster loved neither of
his sons, is surely an entire mistake. See, not to speak of general
impressions, III. iv. 171 ff.]

[Footnote 167: Imagination demands for Lear, even more than for Othello,
majesty of stature and mien. Tourgénief felt this and made his 'Lear of
the Steppes' a _gigantic_ peasant. If Shakespeare's texts give no
express authority for ideas like these, the reason probably is that he
wrote primarily for the theatre, where the principal actor might not be
a large man.]

[Footnote 168: He is not present, of course, till France and Burgundy
enter; but while he is present he says not a word beyond 'Here's France
and Burgundy, my noble lord.' For some remarks on the possibility that
Shakespeare imagined him as having encouraged Lear in his idea of
dividing the kingdom see Note T. It must be remembered that Cornwall was
Gloster's 'arch and patron.']

[Footnote 169: In this she stands alone among the more notable
characters of the play. Doubtless Regan's exclamation 'O the blest gods'
means nothing, but the fact that it is given to her means something. For
some further remarks on Goneril see Note T. I may add that touches of
Goneril reappear in the heroine of the next tragedy, _Macbeth_; and that
we are sometimes reminded of her again by the character of the Queen in
_Cymbeline_, who bewitched the feeble King by her beauty, and married
him for greatness while she abhorred his person (_Cymbeline_, V. v. 62
f., 31 f.); who tried to poison her step-daughter and intended to poison
her husband; who died despairing because she could not execute all the
evil she purposed; and who inspirited her husband to defy the Romans by
words that still stir the blood (_Cymbeline_, III. i. 14 f. Cf. _King
Lear_, IV. ii. 50 f.).]

[Footnote 170: I. ii. 1 f. Shakespeare seems to have in mind the idea
expressed in the speech of Ulysses about the dependence of the world on
degree, order, system, custom, and about the chaos which would result
from the free action of appetite, the 'universal wolf' (_Troilus and
Cr._ I. iii. 83 f.). Cf. the contrast between 'particular will' and 'the
moral laws of nature and of nations,' II. ii. 53, 185 ('nature' here of
course is the opposite of the 'nature' of Edmund's speech).]

[Footnote 171: The line last quoted is continued by Edmund in the Folios
thus: 'Th' hast spoken right; 'tis true,' but in the Quartos thus: 'Thou
hast spoken truth,' which leaves the line imperfect. This, and the
imperfect line 'Make instruments to plague us,' suggest that Shakespeare
wrote at first simply,

                  Make instruments to plague us.

     _Edm._                           Th' hast spoken truth.

The Quartos show other variations which seem to point to the fact that
the MS. was here difficult to make out.]

[Footnote 172: IV. i. 1-9. I am indebted here to Koppel,
_Verbesserungsvorschläge zu den Erläuterungen und der Textlesung des
Lear_ (1899).]

[Footnote 173: See I. i. 142 ff. Kent speaks, not of the _injustice_ of
Lear's action, but of its 'folly,' its 'hideous rashness.' When the King
exclaims 'Kent, on thy life, no more,' he answers:

     My life I never held but as a pawn
     To wage against thy enemies; nor fear to lose it,
     _Thy safety being the motive_.

(The first Folio omits 'a,' and in the next line reads 'nere' for 'nor.'
Perhaps the first line should read 'My life I ne'er held but as pawn to

[Footnote 174: See II. ii. 162 to end. The light-heartedness disappears,
of course, as Lear's misfortunes thicken.]

[Footnote 175: This difference, however, must not be pressed too far;
nor must we take Kent's retort,

                Now by Apollo, king,
     Thou swear'st thy gods in vain,

for a sign of disbelief. He twice speaks of the gods in another manner
(I. i. 185, III. vi. 5), and he was accustomed to think of Lear in his
'prayers' (I. i. 144).]

[Footnote 176: The 'clown' in _Antony and Cleopatra_ is merely an old
peasant. There is a fool in _Timon of Athens_, however, and he appears
in a scene (II. ii.) generally attributed to Shakespeare. His talk
sometimes reminds one of Lear's fool; and Kent's remark, 'This is not
altogether fool, my lord,' is repeated in _Timon_, II. ii. 122, 'Thou
art not altogether a fool.']

[Footnote 177: [This is no obstacle. There could hardly be a stage
tradition hostile to his youth, since he does not appear in Tate's
version, which alone was acted during the century and a half before
Macready's production. I had forgotten this; and my memory must also
have been at fault regarding an engraving to which I referred in the
first edition. Both mistakes were pointed out by Mr. Archer.]]

[Footnote 178: In parts of what follows I am indebted to remarks by
Cowden Clarke, quoted by Furness on I. iv. 91.]

[Footnote 179: See also Note T.]

[Footnote 180: 'Our last and least' (according to the Folio reading).
Lear speaks again of 'this little seeming substance.' He can carry her
dead body in his arms.]

[Footnote 181: Perhaps then the 'low sound' is not merely metaphorical
in Kent's speech in I. i. 153 f.:

                        answer my life my judgment,
     Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least;
     Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
     Reverbs no hollowness.]

[Footnote 182: I. i. 80. 'More ponderous' is the reading of the Folios,
'more richer' that of the Quartos. The latter is usually preferred, and
Mr. Aldis Wright says 'more ponderous' has the appearance of being a
player's correction to avoid a piece of imaginary bad grammar. Does it
not sound more like the author's improvement of a phrase that he thought
a little flat? And, apart from that, is it not significant that it
expresses the same idea of weight that appears in the phrase 'I cannot
heave my heart into my mouth'?]

[Footnote 183: Cf. Cornwall's satirical remarks on Kent's 'plainness' in
II. ii. 101 ff.,--a plainness which did no service to Kent's master. (As
a matter of fact, Cordelia had said nothing about 'plainness.')]

[Footnote 184: Who, like Kent, hastens on the quarrel with Goneril.]

[Footnote 185: I do not wish to complicate the discussion by examining
the differences, in degree or otherwise, in the various cases, or by
introducing numerous qualifications; and therefore I do not add the
names of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.]

[Footnote 186: It follows from the above that, if this idea were made
explicit and accompanied our reading of a tragedy throughout, it would
confuse or even destroy the tragic impression. So would the constant
presence of Christian beliefs. The reader most attached to these beliefs
holds them in temporary suspension while he is immersed in a
Shakespearean tragedy. Such tragedy assumes that the world, as it is
presented, is the truth, though it also provokes feelings which imply
that this world is not the whole truth, and therefore not the truth.]

[Footnote 187: Though Cordelia, of course, does not occupy the position
of the hero.]

[Footnote 188: _E.g._ in _King Lear_ the servants, and the old man who
succours Gloster and brings to the naked beggar 'the best 'parel that he
has, come on't what will,' _i.e._ whatever vengeance Regan can inflict.
Cf. the Steward and the Servants in _Timon_. Cf. there also (V. i. 23),
'Promising is the very air o' the time ... performance is ever the
duller for his act; and, _but in the plainer and simpler kind of
people_, the deed of saying [performance of promises] is quite out of
use.' Shakespeare's feeling on this subject, though apparently specially
keen at this time of his life, is much the same throughout (cf. Adam in
_As You Like It_). He has no respect for the plainer and simpler kind of
people as politicians, but a great respect and regard for their hearts.]

[Footnote 189: 'I stumbled when I saw,' says Gloster.]

[Footnote 190: Our advantages give us a blind confidence in our
security. Cf. _Timon_, IV. iii. 76,

     _Alc._ I have heard in some sort of thy miseries.

     _Tim._ Thou saw'st them when I had prosperity.]

[Footnote 191: Biblical ideas seem to have been floating in
Shakespeare's mind. Cf. the words of Kent, when Lear enters with
Cordelia's body, 'Is this the promised end?' and Edgar's answer, 'Or
image of that horror?' The 'promised end' is certainly the end of the
world (cf. with 'image' 'the great doom's image,' _Macbeth_, II. iii.
83); and the next words, Albany's 'Fall and cease,' _may_ be addressed
to the heavens or stars, not to Lear. It seems probable that in writing
Gloster's speech about the predicted horrors to follow 'these late
eclipses' Shakespeare had a vague recollection of the passage in
_Matthew_ xxiv., or of that in _Mark_ xiii., about the tribulations
which were to be the sign of 'the end of the world.' (I do not mean, of
course, that the 'prediction' of I. ii. 119 is the prediction to be
found in one of these passages.)]

[Footnote 192: Cf. _Hamlet_, III. i. 181:

     This something-settled matter in his heart,
     Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus
     From fashion of himself.]

[Footnote 193: I believe the criticism of _King Lear_ which has
influenced me most is that in Prof. Dowden's _Shakspere, his Mind and
Art_ (though, when I wrote my lectures, I had not read that criticism
for many years); and I am glad that this acknowledgment gives me the
opportunity of repeating in print an opinion which I have often
expressed to students, that anyone entering on the study of Shakespeare,
and unable or unwilling to read much criticism, would do best to take
Prof. Dowden for his guide.]



_Macbeth_, it is probable, was the last-written of the four great
tragedies, and immediately preceded _Antony and Cleopatra_.[194] In that
play Shakespeare's final style appears for the first time completely
formed, and the transition to this style is much more decidedly visible
in _Macbeth_ than in _King Lear_. Yet in certain respects _Macbeth_
recalls _Hamlet_ rather than _Othello_ or _King Lear_. In the heroes of
both plays the passage from thought to a critical resolution and action
is difficult, and excites the keenest interest. In neither play, as in
_Othello_ and _King Lear_, is painful pathos one of the main effects.
Evil, again, though it shows in _Macbeth_ a prodigious energy, is not
the icy or stony inhumanity of Iago or Goneril; and, as in _Hamlet_, it
is pursued by remorse. Finally, Shakespeare no longer restricts the
action to purely human agencies, as in the two preceding tragedies;
portents once more fill the heavens, ghosts rise from their graves, an
unearthly light flickers about the head of the doomed man. The special
popularity of _Hamlet_ and _Macbeth_ is due in part to some of these
common characteristics, notably to the fascination of the supernatural,
the absence of the spectacle of extreme undeserved suffering, the
absence of characters which horrify and repel and yet are destitute of
grandeur. The reader who looks unwillingly at Iago gazes at Lady Macbeth
in awe, because though she is dreadful she is also sublime. The whole
tragedy is sublime.

In this, however, and in other respects, _Macbeth_ makes an impression
quite different from that of _Hamlet_. The dimensions of the principal
characters, the rate of movement in the action, the supernatural effect,
the style, the versification, are all changed; and they are all changed
in much the same manner. In many parts of _Macbeth_ there is in the
language a peculiar compression, pregnancy, energy, even violence; the
harmonious grace and even flow, often conspicuous in _Hamlet_, have
almost disappeared. The cruel characters, built on a scale at least as
large as that of _Othello_, seem to attain at times an almost superhuman
stature. The diction has in places a huge and rugged grandeur, which
degenerates here and there into tumidity. The solemn majesty of the
royal Ghost in _Hamlet_, appearing in armour and standing silent in the
moonlight, is exchanged for shapes of horror, dimly seen in the murky
air or revealed by the glare of the caldron fire in a dark cavern, or
for the ghastly face of Banquo badged with blood and staring with blank
eyes. The other three tragedies all open with conversations which lead
into the action: here the action bursts into wild life amidst the sounds
of a thunder-storm and the echoes of a distant battle. It hurries
through seven very brief scenes of mounting suspense to a terrible
crisis, which is reached, in the murder of Duncan, at the beginning of
the Second Act. Pausing a moment and changing its shape, it hastes again
with scarcely diminished speed to fresh horrors. And even when the speed
of the outward action is slackened, the same effect is continued in
another form: we are shown a soul tortured by an agony which admits not
a moment's repose, and rushing in frenzy towards its doom. _Macbeth_ is
very much shorter than the other three tragedies, but our experience in
traversing it is so crowded and intense that it leaves an impression not
of brevity but of speed. It is the most vehement, the most concentrated,
perhaps we may say the most tremendous, of the tragedies.


A Shakespearean tragedy, as a rule, has a special tone or atmosphere of
its own, quite perceptible, however difficult to describe. The effect of
this atmosphere is marked with unusual strength in _Macbeth_. It is due
to a variety of influences which combine with those just noticed, so
that, acting and reacting, they form a whole; and the desolation of the
blasted heath, the design of the Witches, the guilt in the hero's soul,
the darkness of the night, seem to emanate from one and the same source.
This effect is strengthened by a multitude of small touches, which at
the moment may be little noticed but still leave their mark on the
imagination. We may approach the consideration of the characters and the
action by distinguishing some of the ingredients of this general effect.

Darkness, we may even say blackness, broods over this tragedy. It is
remarkable that almost all the scenes which at once recur to memory take
place either at night or in some dark spot. The vision of the dagger,
the murder of Duncan, the murder of Banquo, the sleep-walking of Lady
Macbeth, all come in night-scenes. The Witches dance in the thick air of
a storm, or, 'black and midnight hags,' receive Macbeth in a cavern. The
blackness of night is to the hero a thing of fear, even of horror; and
that which he feels becomes the spirit of the play. The faint
glimmerings of the western sky at twilight are here menacing: it is the
hour when the traveller hastens to reach safety in his inn, and when
Banquo rides homeward to meet his assassins; the hour when 'light
thickens,' when 'night's black agents to their prey do rouse,' when the
wolf begins to howl, and the owl to scream, and withered murder steals
forth to his work. Macbeth bids the stars hide their fires that his
'black' desires may be concealed; Lady Macbeth calls on thick night to
come, palled in the dunnest smoke of hell. The moon is down and no stars
shine when Banquo, dreading the dreams of the coming night, goes
unwillingly to bed, and leaves Macbeth to wait for the summons of the
little bell. When the next day should dawn, its light is 'strangled,'
and 'darkness does the face of earth entomb.' In the whole drama the sun
seems to shine only twice: first, in the beautiful but ironical passage
where Duncan sees the swallows flitting round the castle of death; and,
afterwards, when at the close the avenging army gathers to rid the earth
of its shame. Of the many slighter touches which deepen this effect I
notice only one. The failure of nature in Lady Macbeth is marked by her
fear of darkness; 'she has light by her continually.' And in the one
phrase of fear that escapes her lips even in sleep, it is of the
darkness of the place of torment that she speaks.[195]

The atmosphere of _Macbeth_, however, is not that of unrelieved
blackness. On the contrary, as compared with _King Lear_ and its cold
dim gloom, _Macbeth_ leaves a decided impression of colour; it is really
the impression of a black night broken by flashes of light and colour,
sometimes vivid and even glaring. They are the lights and colours of the
thunder-storm in the first scene; of the dagger hanging before Macbeth's
eyes and glittering alone in the midnight air; of the torch borne by the
servant when he and his lord come upon Banquo crossing the castle-court
to his room; of the torch, again, which Fleance carried to light his
father to death, and which was dashed out by one of the murderers; of
the torches that flared in the hall on the face of the Ghost and the
blanched cheeks of Macbeth; of the flames beneath the boiling caldron
from which the apparitions in the cavern rose; of the taper which showed
to the Doctor and Gentlewoman the wasted face and blank eyes of Lady
Macbeth. And, above all, the colour is the colour of blood. It cannot be
an accident that the image of blood is forced upon us continually, not
merely by the events themselves, but by full descriptions, and even by
reiteration of the word in unlikely parts of the dialogue. The Witches,
after their first wild appearance, have hardly quitted the stage when
there staggers onto it a 'bloody man,' gashed with wounds. His tale is
of a hero whose 'brandished steel smoked with bloody execution,' 'carved
out a passage' to his enemy, and 'unseam'd him from the nave to the
chaps.' And then he tells of a second battle so bloody that the
combatants seemed as if they 'meant to bathe in reeking wounds.' What
metaphors! What a dreadful image is that with which Lady Macbeth greets
us almost as she enters, when she prays the spirits of cruelty so to
thicken her blood that pity cannot flow along her veins! What pictures
are those of the murderer appearing at the door of the banquet-room with
Banquo's 'blood upon his face'; of Banquo himself 'with twenty trenched
gashes on his head,' or 'blood-bolter'd' and smiling in derision at his
murderer; of Macbeth, gazing at his hand, and watching it dye the whole
green ocean red; of Lady Macbeth, gazing at hers, and stretching it away
from her face to escape the smell of blood that all the perfumes of
Arabia will not subdue! The most horrible lines in the whole tragedy are
those of her shuddering cry, 'Yet who would have thought the old man to
have had so much blood in him?' And it is not only at such moments that
these images occur. Even in the quiet conversation of Malcolm and
Macduff, Macbeth is imagined as holding a bloody sceptre, and Scotland
as a country bleeding and receiving every day a new gash added to her
wounds. It is as if the poet saw the whole story through an ensanguined
mist, and as if it stained the very blackness of the night. When
Macbeth, before Banquo's murder, invokes night to scarf up the tender
eye of pitiful day, and to tear in pieces the great bond that keeps him
pale, even the invisible hand that is to tear the bond is imagined as
covered with blood.

Let us observe another point. The vividness, magnitude, and violence of
the imagery in some of these passages are characteristic of _Macbeth_
almost throughout; and their influence contributes to form its
atmosphere. Images like those of the babe torn smiling from the breast
and dashed to death; of pouring the sweet milk of concord into hell; of
the earth shaking in fever; of the frame of things disjointed; of
sorrows striking heaven on the face, so that it resounds and yells out
like syllables of dolour; of the mind lying in restless ecstasy on a
rack; of the mind full of scorpions; of the tale told by an idiot, full
of sound and fury;--all keep the imagination moving on a 'wild and
violent sea,' while it is scarcely for a moment permitted to dwell on
thoughts of peace and beauty. In its language, as in its action, the
drama is full of tumult and storm. Whenever the Witches are present we
see and hear a thunder-storm: when they are absent we hear of
ship-wrecking storms and direful thunders; of tempests that blow down
trees and churches, castles, palaces and pyramids; of the frightful
hurricane of the night when Duncan was murdered; of the blast on which
pity rides like a new-born babe, or on which Heaven's cherubim are
horsed. There is thus something magnificently appropriate in the cry
'Blow, wind! Come, wrack!' with which Macbeth, turning from the sight of
the moving wood of Birnam, bursts from his castle. He was borne to his
throne on a whirlwind, and the fate he goes to meet comes on the wings
of storm.

Now all these agencies--darkness, the lights and colours that illuminate
it, the storm that rushes through it, the violent and gigantic
images--conspire with the appearances of the Witches and the Ghost to
awaken horror, and in some degree also a supernatural dread. And to this
effect other influences contribute. The pictures called up by the mere
words of the Witches stir the same feelings,--those, for example, of the
spell-bound sailor driven tempest-tost for nine times nine weary weeks,
and never visited by sleep night or day; of the drop of poisonous foam
that forms on the moon, and, falling to earth, is collected for
pernicious ends; of the sweltering venom of the toad, the finger of the
babe killed at its birth by its own mother, the tricklings from the
murderer's gibbet. In Nature, again, something is felt to be at work,
sympathetic with human guilt and supernatural malice. She labours with

     Lamentings heard in the air, strange screams of death,
     And prophesying with accents terrible,

burst from her. The owl clamours all through the night; Duncan's horses
devour each other in frenzy; the dawn comes, but no light with it.
Common sights and sounds, the crying of crickets, the croak of the
raven, the light thickening after sunset, the home-coming of the rooks,
are all ominous. Then, as if to deepen these impressions, Shakespeare
has concentrated attention on the obscurer regions of man's being, on
phenomena which make it seem that he is in the power of secret forces
lurking below, and independent of his consciousness and will: such as
the relapse of Macbeth from conversation into a reverie, during which he
gazes fascinated at the image of murder drawing closer and closer; the
writing on his face of strange things he never meant to show; the
pressure of imagination heightening into illusion, like the vision of a
dagger in the air, at first bright, then suddenly splashed with blood,
or the sound of a voice that cried 'Sleep no more' and would not be
silenced.[196] To these are added other, and constant, allusions to
sleep, man's strange half-conscious life; to the misery of its
withholding; to the terrible dreams of remorse; to the cursed thoughts
from which Banquo is free by day, but which tempt him in his sleep: and
again to abnormal disturbances of sleep; in the two men, of whom one
during the murder of Duncan laughed in his sleep, and the other raised a
cry of murder; and in Lady Macbeth, who rises to re-enact in
somnambulism those scenes the memory of which is pushing her on to
madness or suicide. All this has one effect, to excite supernatural
alarm and, even more, a dread of the presence of evil not only in its
recognised seat but all through and around our mysterious nature.
Perhaps there is no other work equal to _Macbeth_ in the production of
this effect.[197]

It is enhanced--to take a last point--by the use of a literary
expedient. Not even in _Richard III._, which in this, as in other
respects, has resemblances to _Macbeth_, is there so much of Irony. I do
not refer to irony in the ordinary sense; to speeches, for example,
where the speaker is intentionally ironical, like that of Lennox in III.
vi. I refer to irony on the part of the author himself, to ironical
juxtapositions of persons and events, and especially to the 'Sophoclean
irony' by which a speaker is made to use words bearing to the audience,
in addition to his own meaning, a further and ominous sense, hidden from
himself and, usually, from the other persons on the stage. The very
first words uttered by Macbeth,

     So foul and fair a day I have not seen,

are an example to which attention has often been drawn; for they startle
the reader by recalling the words of the Witches in the first scene,

     Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

When Macbeth, emerging from his murderous reverie, turns to the nobles
saying, 'Let us toward the King,' his words are innocent, but to the
reader have a double meaning. Duncan's comment on the treachery of

                       There's no art
     To find the mind's construction in the face:
     He was a gentleman on whom I built
     An absolute trust,

is interrupted[198] by the entrance of the traitor Macbeth, who is
greeted with effusive gratitude and a like 'absolute trust.' I have
already referred to the ironical effect of the beautiful lines in which
Duncan and Banquo describe the castle they are about to enter. To the
reader Lady Macbeth's light words,

     A little water clears us of this deed:
     How easy is it then,

summon up the picture of the sleep-walking scene. The idea of the
Porter's speech, in which he imagines himself the keeper of hell-gate,
shows the same irony. So does the contrast between the obvious and the
hidden meanings of the apparitions of the armed head, the bloody child,
and the child with the tree in his hand. It would be easy to add further
examples. Perhaps the most striking is the answer which Banquo, as he
rides away, never to return alive, gives to Macbeth's reminder, 'Fail
not our feast.' 'My lord, I will not,' he replies, and he keeps his
promise. It cannot be by accident that Shakespeare so frequently in this
play uses a device which contributes to excite the vague fear of hidden
forces operating on minds unconscious of their influence.[199]


But of course he had for this purpose an agency more potent than any yet
considered. It would be almost an impertinence to attempt to describe
anew the influence of the Witch-scenes on the imagination of the
reader.[200] Nor do I believe that among different readers this
influence differs greatly except in degree. But when critics begin to
analyse the imaginative effect, and still more when, going behind it,
they try to determine the truth which lay for Shakespeare or lies for us
in these creations, they too often offer us results which, either
through perversion or through inadequacy, fail to correspond with that
effect. This happens in opposite ways. On the one hand the Witches,
whose contribution to the 'atmosphere' of Macbeth can hardly be
exaggerated, are credited with far too great an influence upon the
action; sometimes they are described as goddesses, or even as fates,
whom Macbeth is powerless to resist. And this is perversion. On the
other hand, we are told that, great as is their influence on the action,
it is so because they are merely symbolic representations of the
unconscious or half-conscious guilt in Macbeth himself. And this is
inadequate. The few remarks I have to make may take the form of a
criticism on these views.

(1) As to the former, Shakespeare took, as material for his purposes,
the ideas about witch-craft that he found existing in people around him
and in books like Reginald Scot's _Discovery_ (1584). And he used these
ideas without changing their substance at all. He selected and improved,
avoiding the merely ridiculous, dismissing (unlike Middleton) the
sexually loathsome or stimulating, rehandling and heightening whatever
could touch the imagination with fear, horror, and mysterious
attraction. The Witches, that is to say, are not goddesses, or fates,
or, in any way whatever, supernatural beings. They are old women, poor
and ragged, skinny and hideous, full of vulgar spite, occupied in
killing their neighbours' swine or revenging themselves on sailors'
wives who have refused them chestnuts. If Banquo considers their beards
a proof that they are not women, that only shows his ignorance: Sir Hugh
Evans would have known better.[201] There is not a syllable in _Macbeth_
to imply that they are anything but women. But, again in accordance with
the popular ideas, they have received from evil spirits certain
supernatural powers. They can 'raise haile, tempests, and hurtfull
weather; as lightening, thunder etc.' They can 'passe from place to
place in the aire invisible.' They can 'keepe divels and spirits in the
likenesse of todes and cats,' Paddock or Graymalkin. They can
'transferre corne in the blade from one place to another.' They can
'manifest unto others things hidden and lost, and foreshew things to
come, and see them as though they were present.' The reader will apply
these phrases and sentences at once to passages in _Macbeth_. They are
all taken from Scot's first chapter, where he is retailing the current
superstitions of his time; and, in regard to the Witches, Shakespeare
mentions scarcely anything, if anything, that was not to be found, of
course in a more prosaic shape, either in Scot or in some other easily
accessible authority.[202] He read, to be sure, in Holinshed, his main
source for the story of Macbeth, that, according to the common opinion,
the 'women' who met Macbeth 'were eyther the weird sisters, that is (as
ye would say) ye Goddesses of destinee, or els some Nimphes or Feiries.'
But what does that matter? What he read in his authority was absolutely
nothing to his audience, and remains nothing to us, unless he _used_
what he read. And he did not use this idea. He used nothing but the
phrase 'weird sisters,'[203] which certainly no more suggested to a
London audience the Parcae of one mythology or the Norns of another than
it does to-day. His Witches owe all their power to the spirits; they are
'_instruments_ of darkness'; the spirits are their 'masters' (IV. i.
63). Fancy the fates having masters! Even if the passages where Hecate
appears are Shakespeare's,[204] that will not help the Witches; for they
are subject to Hecate, who is herself a goddess or superior devil, not a

Next, while the influence of the Witches' prophecies on Macbeth is very
great, it is quite clearly shown to be an influence and nothing more.
There is no sign whatever in the play that Shakespeare meant the actions
of Macbeth to be forced on him by an external power, whether that of the
Witches, or of their 'masters,' or of Hecate. It is needless therefore
to insist that such a conception would be in contradiction with his
whole tragic practice. The prophecies of the Witches are presented
simply as dangerous circumstances with which Macbeth has to deal: they
are dramatically on the same level as the story of the Ghost in
_Hamlet_, or the falsehoods told by Iago to Othello. Macbeth is, in the
ordinary sense, perfectly free in regard to them: and if we speak of
degrees of freedom, he is even more free than Hamlet, who was crippled
by melancholy when the Ghost appeared to him. That the influence of the
first prophecies upon him came as much from himself as from them, is
made abundantly clear by the obviously intentional contrast between him
and Banquo. Banquo, ambitious but perfectly honest, is scarcely even
startled by them, and he remains throughout the scene indifferent to
them. But when Macbeth heard them he was not an innocent man. Precisely
how far his mind was guilty may be a question; but no innocent man would
have started, as he did, with a start of _fear_ at the mere prophecy of
a crown, or have conceived thereupon _immediately_ the thought of
murder. Either this thought was not new to him,[206] or he had cherished
at least some vaguer dishonourable dream, the instantaneous recurrence
of which, at the moment of his hearing the prophecy, revealed to him an
inward and terrifying guilt. In either case not only was he free to
accept or resist the temptation, but the temptation was already within
him. We are admitting too much, therefore, when we compare him with
Othello, for Othello's mind was perfectly free from suspicion when his
temptation came to him. And we are admitting, again, too much when we
use the word 'temptation' in reference to the first prophecies of the
Witches. Speaking strictly we must affirm that he was tempted only by
himself. _He_ speaks indeed of their 'supernatural soliciting'; but in
fact they did not solicit. They merely announced events: they hailed him
as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King hereafter. No connection
of these announcements with any action of his was even hinted by them.
For all that appears, the natural death of an old man might have
fulfilled the prophecy any day.[207] In any case, the idea of fulfilling
it by murder was entirely his own.[208]

When Macbeth sees the Witches again, after the murders of Duncan and
Banquo, we observe, however, a striking change. They no longer need to
go and meet him; he seeks them out. He has committed himself to his
course of evil. Now accordingly they do 'solicit.' They prophesy, but
they also give advice: they bid him be bloody, bold, and secure. We have
no hope that he will reject their advice; but so far are they from
having, even now, any power to compel him to accept it, that they make
careful preparations to deceive him into doing so. And, almost as though
to intimate how entirely the responsibility for his deeds still lies
with Macbeth, Shakespeare makes his first act after this interview one
for which his tempters gave him not a hint--the slaughter of Macduff's
wife and children.

To all this we must add that Macbeth himself nowhere betrays a suspicion
that his action is, or has been, thrust on him by an external power. He
curses the Witches for deceiving him, but he never attempts to shift to
them the burden of his guilt. Neither has Shakespeare placed in the
mouth of any other character in this play such fatalistic expressions as
may be found in _King Lear_ and occasionally elsewhere. He appears
actually to have taken pains to make the natural psychological genesis
of Macbeth's crimes perfectly clear, and it was a most unfortunate
notion of Schlegel's that the Witches were required because natural
agencies would have seemed too weak to drive such a man as Macbeth to
his first murder.

'Still,' it may be said, 'the Witches did foreknow Macbeth's future; and
what is foreknown is fixed; and how can a man be responsible when his
future is fixed?' With this question, as a speculative one, we have no
concern here; but, in so far as it relates to the play, I answer, first,
that not one of the things foreknown is an action. This is just as true
of the later prophecies as of the first. That Macbeth will be harmed by
none of woman born, and will never be vanquished till Birnam Wood shall
come against him, involves (so far as we are informed) no action of his.
It may be doubted, indeed, whether Shakespeare would have introduced
prophecies of Macbeth's deeds, even if it had been convenient to do so;
he would probably have felt that to do so would interfere with the
interest of the inward struggle and suffering. And, in the second place,
_Macbeth_ was not written for students of metaphysics or theology, but
for people at large; and, however it may be with prophecies of actions,
prophecies of mere events do not suggest to people at large any sort of
difficulty about responsibility. Many people, perhaps most, habitually
think of their 'future' as something fixed, and of themselves as 'free.'
The Witches nowadays take a room in Bond Street and charge a guinea; and
when the victim enters they hail him the possessor of £1000 a year, or
prophesy to him of journeys, wives, and children. But though he is
struck dumb by their prescience, it does not even cross his mind that he
is going to lose his glorious 'freedom'--not though journeys and
marriages imply much more agency on his part than anything foretold to
Macbeth. This whole difficulty is undramatic; and I may add that
Shakespeare nowhere shows, like Chaucer, any interest in speculative
problems concerning foreknowledge, predestination and freedom.

(2) We may deal more briefly with the opposite interpretation. According
to it the Witches and their prophecies are to be taken merely as
symbolical representations of thoughts and desires which have slumbered
in Macbeth's breast and now rise into consciousness and confront him.
With this idea, which springs from the wish to get rid of a mere
external supernaturalism, and to find a psychological and spiritual
meaning in that which the groundlings probably received as hard facts,
one may feel sympathy. But it is evident that it is rather a
'philosophy' of the Witches than an immediate dramatic apprehension of
them; and even so it will be found both incomplete and, in other
respects, inadequate.

It is incomplete because it cannot possibly be applied to all the facts.
Let us grant that it will apply to the most important prophecy, that of
the crown; and that the later warning which Macbeth receives, to beware
of Macduff, also answers to something in his own breast and 'harps his
fear aright' But there we have to stop. Macbeth had evidently no
suspicion of that treachery in Cawdor through which he himself became
Thane; and who will suggest that he had any idea, however subconscious,
about Birnam Wood or the man not born of woman? It may be held--and
rightly, I think--that the prophecies which answer to nothing inward,
the prophecies which are merely supernatural, produce, now at any rate,
much less imaginative effect than the others,--even that they are in
_Macbeth_ an element which was of an age and not for all time; but still
they are there, and they are essential to the plot.[209] And as the
theory under consideration will not apply to them at all, it is not
likely that it gives an adequate account even of those prophecies to
which it can in some measure be applied.

It is inadequate here chiefly because it is much too narrow. The Witches
and their prophecies, if they are to be rationalised or taken
symbolically, must represent not only the evil slumbering in the hero's
soul, but all those obscurer influences of the evil around him in the
world which aid his own ambition and the incitements of his wife. Such
influences, even if we put aside all belief in evil 'spirits,' are as
certain, momentous, and terrifying facts as the presence of inchoate
evil in the soul itself; and if we exclude all reference to these facts
from our idea of the Witches, it will be greatly impoverished and will
certainly fail to correspond with the imaginative effect. The union of
the outward and inward here may be compared with something of the same
kind in Greek poetry.[210] In the first Book of the _Iliad_ we are told
that, when Agamemnon threatened to take Briseis from Achilles, 'grief
came upon Peleus' son, and his heart within his shaggy breast was
divided in counsel, whether to draw his keen blade from his thigh and
set the company aside and so slay Atreides, or to assuage his anger and
curb his soul. While yet he doubted thereof in heart and soul, and was
drawing his great sword from his sheath, Athene came to him from heaven,
sent forth of the white-armed goddess Hera, whose heart loved both alike
and had care for them. She stood behind Peleus' son and caught him by
his golden hair, to him only visible, and of the rest no man beheld
her.' And at her bidding he mastered his wrath, 'and stayed his heavy
hand on the silver hilt, and thrust the great sword back into the
sheath, and was not disobedient to the saying of Athene.'[211] The
succour of the goddess here only strengthens an inward movement in the
mind of Achilles, but we should lose something besides a poetic effect
if for that reason we struck her out of the account. We should lose the
idea that the inward powers of the soul answer in their essence to
vaster powers without, which support them and assure the effect of their
exertion. So it is in _Macbeth_.[212] The words of the Witches are fatal
to the hero only because there is in him something which leaps into
light at the sound of them; but they are at the same time the witness of
forces which never cease to work in the world around him, and, on the
instant of his surrender to them, entangle him inextricably in the web
of Fate. If the inward connection is once realised (and Shakespeare has
left us no excuse for missing it), we need not fear, and indeed shall
scarcely be able, to exaggerate the effect of the Witch-scenes in
heightening and deepening the sense of fear, horror, and mystery which
pervades the atmosphere of the tragedy.


From this murky background stand out the two great terrible figures, who
dwarf all the remaining characters of the drama. Both are sublime, and
both inspire, far more than the other tragic heroes, the feeling of awe.
They are never detached in imagination from the atmosphere which
surrounds them and adds to their grandeur and terror. It is, as it were,
continued into their souls. For within them is all that we felt
without--the darkness of night, lit with the flame of tempest and the
hues of blood, and haunted by wild and direful shapes, 'murdering
ministers,' spirits of remorse, and maddening visions of peace lost and
judgment to come. The way to be untrue to Shakespeare here, as always,
is to relax the tension of imagination, to conventionalise, to conceive
Macbeth, for example, as a half-hearted cowardly criminal, and Lady
Macbeth as a whole-hearted fiend.

These two characters are fired by one and the same passion of ambition;
and to a considerable extent they are alike. The disposition of each is
high, proud, and commanding. They are born to rule, if not to reign.
They are peremptory or contemptuous to their inferiors. They are not
children of light, like Brutus and Hamlet; they are of the world. We
observe in them no love of country, and no interest in the welfare of
anyone outside their family. Their habitual thoughts and aims are, and,
we imagine, long have been, all of station and power. And though in both
there is something, and in one much, of what is higher--honour,
conscience, humanity--they do not live consciously in the light of these
things or speak their language. Not that they are egoists, like Iago;
or, if they are egoists, theirs is an _egoïsme à deux_. They have no
separate ambitions.[213] They support and love one another. They suffer
together. And if, as time goes on, they drift a little apart, they are
not vulgar souls, to be alienated and recriminate when they experience
the fruitlessness of their ambition. They remain to the end tragic, even

So far there is much likeness between them. Otherwise they are
contrasted, and the action is built upon this contrast. Their attitudes
towards the projected murder of Duncan are quite different; and it
produces in them equally different effects. In consequence, they appear
in the earlier part of the play as of equal importance, if indeed Lady
Macbeth does not overshadow her husband; but afterwards she retires more
and more into the background, and he becomes unmistakably the leading
figure. His is indeed far the more complex character: and I will speak
of it first.

Macbeth, the cousin of a King mild, just, and beloved, but now too old
to lead his army, is introduced to us as a general of extraordinary
prowess, who has covered himself with glory in putting down a rebellion
and repelling the invasion of a foreign army. In these conflicts he
showed great personal courage, a quality which he continues to display
throughout the drama in regard to all plain dangers. It is difficult to
be sure of his customary demeanour, for in the play we see him either in
what appears to be an exceptional relation to his wife, or else in the
throes of remorse and desperation; but from his behaviour during his
journey home after the war, from his _later_ conversations with Lady
Macbeth, and from his language to the murderers of Banquo and to others,
we imagine him as a great warrior, somewhat masterful, rough, and
abrupt, a man to inspire some fear and much admiration. He was thought
'honest,' or honourable; he was trusted, apparently, by everyone;
Macduff, a man of the highest integrity, 'loved him well.' And there
was, in fact, much good in him. We have no warrant, I think, for
describing him, with many writers, as of a 'noble' nature, like Hamlet
or Othello;[214] but he had a keen sense both of honour and of the worth
of a good name. The phrase, again, 'too much of the milk of human
kindness,' is applied to him in impatience by his wife, who did not
fully understand him; but certainly he was far from devoid of humanity
and pity.

At the same time he was exceedingly ambitious. He must have been so by
temper. The tendency must have been greatly strengthened by his
marriage. When we see him, it has been further stimulated by his
remarkable success and by the consciousness of exceptional powers and
merit. It becomes a passion. The course of action suggested by it is
extremely perilous: it sets his good name, his position, and even his
life on the hazard. It is also abhorrent to his better feelings. Their
defeat in the struggle with ambition leaves him utterly wretched, and
would have kept him so, however complete had been his outward success
and security. On the other hand, his passion for power and his instinct
of self-assertion are so vehement that no inward misery could persuade
him to relinquish the fruits of crime, or to advance from remorse to

In the character as so far sketched there is nothing very peculiar,
though the strength of the forces contending in it is unusual. But there
is in Macbeth one marked peculiarity, the true apprehension of which is
the key to Shakespeare's conception.[215] This bold ambitious man of
action has, within certain limits, the imagination of a poet,--an
imagination on the one hand extremely sensitive to impressions of a
certain kind, and, on the other, productive of violent disturbance both
of mind and body. Through it he is kept in contact with supernatural
impressions and is liable to supernatural fears. And through it,
especially, come to him the intimations of conscience and honour.
Macbeth's better nature--to put the matter for clearness' sake too
broadly--instead of speaking to him in the overt language of moral
ideas, commands, and prohibitions, incorporates itself in images which
alarm and horrify. His imagination is thus the best of him, something
usually deeper and higher than his conscious thoughts; and if he had
obeyed it he would have been safe. But his wife quite misunderstands it,
and he himself understands it only in part. The terrifying images which
deter him from crime and follow its commission, and which are really the
protest of his deepest self, seem to his wife the creations of mere
nervous fear, and are sometimes referred by himself to the dread of
vengeance or the restlessness of insecurity.[216] His conscious or
reflective mind, that is, moves chiefly among considerations of outward
success and failure, while his inner being is convulsed by conscience.
And his inability to understand himself is repeated and exaggerated in
the interpretations of actors and critics, who represent him as a
coward, cold-blooded, calculating, and pitiless, who shrinks from crime
simply because it is dangerous, and suffers afterwards simply because he
is not safe. In reality his courage is frightful. He strides from crime
to crime, though his soul never ceases to bar his advance with shapes of
terror, or to clamour in his ears that he is murdering his peace and
casting away his 'eternal jewel.'

It is of the first importance to realise the strength, and also (what
has not been so clearly recognised) the limits, of Macbeth's
imagination. It is not the universal meditative imagination of Hamlet.
He came to see in man, as Hamlet sometimes did, the 'quintessence of
dust'; but he must always have been incapable of Hamlet's reflections on
man's noble reason and infinite faculty, or of seeing with Hamlet's eyes
'this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with
golden fire.' Nor could he feel, like Othello, the romance of war or the
infinity of love. He shows no sign of any unusual sensitiveness to the
glory or beauty in the world or the soul; and it is partly for this
reason that we have no inclination to love him, and that we regard him
with more of awe than of pity. His imagination is excitable and intense,
but narrow. That which stimulates it is, almost solely, that which
thrills with sudden, startling, and often supernatural fear.[217] There
is a famous passage late in the play (V. v. 10) which is here very
significant, because it refers to a time before his conscience was
burdened, and so shows his native disposition:

     The time has been, my senses would have cool'd
     To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
     Would at a dismal treatise rise and stir
     As life were in't.

This 'time' must have been in his youth, or at least before we see him.
And, in the drama, everything which terrifies him is of this character,
only it has now a deeper and a moral significance. Palpable dangers
leave him unmoved or fill him with fire. He does himself mere justice
when he asserts he 'dare do all that may become a man,' or when he
exclaims to Banquo's ghost,

                        What man dare, I dare:
     Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
     The arm'd rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger;
     Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
     Shall never tremble.

What appals him is always the image of his own guilty heart or bloody
deed, or some image which derives from them its terror or gloom. These,
when they arise, hold him spell-bound and possess him wholly, like a
hypnotic trance which is at the same time the ecstasy of a poet. As the
first 'horrid image' of Duncan's murder--of himself murdering
Duncan--rises from unconsciousness and confronts him, his hair stands on
end and the outward scene vanishes from his eyes. Why? For fear of
'consequences'? The idea is ridiculous. Or because the deed is bloody?
The man who with his 'smoking' steel 'carved out his passage' to the
rebel leader, and 'unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps,' would
hardly be frightened by blood. How could fear of consequences make the
dagger he is to use hang suddenly glittering before him in the air, and
then as suddenly dash it with gouts of blood? Even when he _talks_ of
consequences, and declares that if he were safe against them he would
'jump the life to come,' his imagination bears witness against him, and
shows us that what really holds him back is the hideous vileness of the

                            He's here in double trust;
     First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
     Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
     Who should against his murderer shut the door,
     Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
     Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
     So clear in his great office, that his virtues
     Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
     The deep damnation of his taking-off;
     And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
     Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed
     Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
     Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
     That tears shall drown the wind.

It may be said that he is here thinking of the horror that others will
feel at the deed--thinking therefore of consequences. Yes, but could he
realise thus how horrible the deed would look to others if it were not
equally horrible to himself?

It is the same when the murder is done. He is well-nigh mad with horror,
but it is not the horror of detection. It is not he who thinks of
washing his hands or getting his nightgown on. He has brought away the
daggers he should have left on the pillows of the grooms, but what does
he care for that? What _he_ thinks of is that, when he heard one of the
men awaked from sleep say 'God bless us,' he could not say 'Amen'; for
his imagination presents to him the parching of his throat as an
immediate judgment from heaven. His wife heard the owl scream and the
crickets cry; but what _he_ heard was the voice that first cried
'Macbeth doth murder sleep,' and then, a minute later, with a change of
tense, denounced on him, as if his three names gave him three
personalities to suffer in, the doom of sleeplessness:

     Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor
     Shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more.

There comes a sound of knocking. It should be perfectly familiar to him;
but he knows not whence, or from what world, it comes. He looks down at
his hands, and starts violently: 'What hands are here?' For they seem
alive, they move, they mean to pluck out his eyes. He looks at one of
them again; it does not move; but the blood upon it is enough to dye the
whole ocean red. What has all this to do with fear of 'consequences'? It
is his soul speaking in the only shape in which it can speak freely,
that of imagination.

So long as Macbeth's imagination is active, we watch him fascinated; we
feel suspense, horror, awe; in which are latent, also, admiration and
sympathy. But so soon as it is quiescent these feelings vanish. He is no
longer 'infirm of purpose': he becomes domineering, even brutal, or he
becomes a cool pitiless hypocrite. He is generally said to be a very bad
actor, but this is not wholly true. Whenever his imagination stirs, he
acts badly. It so possesses him, and is so much stronger than his
reason, that his face betrays him, and his voice utters the most
improbable untruths[218] or the most artificial rhetoric[219] But when
it is asleep he is firm, self-controlled and practical, as in the
conversation where he skilfully elicits from Banquo that information
about his movements which is required for the successful arrangement of
his murder.[220] Here he is hateful; and so he is in the conversation
with the murderers, who are not professional cut-throats but old
soldiers, and whom, without a vestige of remorse, he beguiles with
calumnies against Banquo and with such appeals as his wife had used to
him.[221] On the other hand, we feel much pity as well as anxiety in the
scene (I. vii.) where she overcomes his opposition to the murder; and we
feel it (though his imagination is not specially active) because this
scene shows us how little he understands himself. This is his great
misfortune here. Not that he fails to realise in reflection the baseness
of the deed (the soliloquy with which the scene opens shows that he does
not). But he has never, to put it pedantically, accepted as the
principle of his conduct the morality which takes shape in his
imaginative fears. Had he done so, and said plainly to his wife, 'The
thing is vile, and, however much I have sworn to do it, I will not,' she
would have been helpless; for all her arguments proceed on the
assumption that there is for them no such point of view. Macbeth does
approach this position once, when, resenting the accusation of
cowardice, he answers,

     I dare do all that may become a man;
     Who dares do more is none.

She feels in an instant that everything is at stake, and, ignoring the
point, overwhelms him with indignant and contemptuous personal reproach.
But he yields to it because he is himself half-ashamed of that answer of
his, and because, for want of habit, the simple idea which it expresses
has no hold on him comparable to the force it acquires when it becomes
incarnate in visionary fears and warnings.

Yet these were so insistent, and they offered to his ambition a
resistance so strong, that it is impossible to regard him as falling
through the blindness or delusion of passion. On the contrary, he
himself feels with such intensity the enormity of his purpose that, it
seems clear, neither his ambition nor yet the prophecy of the Witches
would ever without the aid of Lady Macbeth have overcome this feeling.
As it is, the deed is done in horror and without the faintest desire or
sense of glory,--done, one may almost say, as if it were an appalling
duty; and, the instant it is finished, its futility is revealed to
Macbeth as clearly as its vileness had been revealed beforehand. As he
staggers from the scene he mutters in despair,

     Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou could'st.

When, half an hour later, he returns with Lennox from the room of the
murder, he breaks out:

     Had I but died an hour before this chance,
     I had lived a blessed time; for from this instant
     There's nothing serious in mortality:
     All is but toys: renown and grace is dead;
     The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
     Is left this vault to brag of.

This is no mere acting. The language here has none of the false
rhetoric of his merely hypocritical speeches. It is meant to deceive,
but it utters at the same time his profoundest feeling. And this he can
henceforth never hide from himself for long. However he may try to drown
it in further enormities, he hears it murmuring,

                        Duncan is in his grave:
     After life's fitful fever he sleeps well:


     better be with the dead:


     I have lived long enough:

and it speaks its last words on the last day of his life:

                     Out, out, brief candle!
     Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
     That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
     And then is heard no more: it is a tale
     Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
     Signifying nothing.

How strange that this judgment on life, the despair of a man who had
knowingly made mortal war on his own soul, should be frequently quoted
as Shakespeare's own judgment, and should even be adduced, in serious
criticism, as a proof of his pessimism!

It remains to look a little more fully at the history of Macbeth after
the murder of Duncan. Unlike his first struggle this history excites
little suspense or anxiety on his account: we have now no hope for him.
But it is an engrossing spectacle, and psychologically it is perhaps the
most remarkable exhibition of the _development_ of a character to be
found in Shakespeare's tragedies.

That heart-sickness which comes from Macbeth's perception of the
futility of his crime, and which never leaves him for long, is not,
however, his habitual state. It could not be so, for two reasons. In the
first place the consciousness of guilt is stronger in him than the
consciousness of failure; and it keeps him in a perpetual agony of
restlessness, and forbids him simply to droop and pine. His mind is
'full of scorpions.' He cannot sleep. He 'keeps alone,' moody and
savage. 'All that is within him does condemn itself for being there.'
There is a fever in his blood which urges him to ceaseless action in the
search for oblivion. And, in the second place, ambition, the love of
power, the instinct of self-assertion, are much too potent in Macbeth to
permit him to resign, even in spirit, the prize for which he has put
rancours in the vessel of his peace. The 'will to live' is mighty in
him. The forces which impelled him to aim at the crown re-assert
themselves. He faces the world, and his own conscience, desperate, but
never dreaming of acknowledging defeat. He will see 'the frame of things
disjoint' first. He challenges fate into the lists.

The result is frightful. He speaks no more, as before Duncan's murder,
of honour or pity. That sleepless torture, he tells himself, is nothing
but the sense of insecurity and the fear of retaliation. If only he were
safe, it would vanish. And he looks about for the cause of his fear; and
his eye falls on Banquo. Banquo, who cannot fail to suspect him, has not
fled or turned against him: Banquo has become his chief counsellor. Why?
Because, he answers, the kingdom was promised to Banquo's children.
Banquo, then, is waiting to attack him, to make a way for them. The
'bloody instructions' he himself taught when he murdered Duncan, are
about to return, as he said they would, to plague the inventor. _This_
then, he tells himself, is the fear that will not let him sleep; and it
will die with Banquo. There is no hesitation now, and no remorse: he has
nearly learned his lesson. He hastens feverishly, not to murder Banquo,
but to procure his murder: some strange idea is in his mind that the
thought of the dead man will not haunt him, like the memory of Duncan,
if the deed is done by other hands.[222] The deed is done: but, instead
of peace descending on him, from the depths of his nature his
half-murdered conscience rises; his deed confronts him in the apparition
of Banquo's Ghost, and the horror of the night of his first murder
returns. But, alas, _it_ has less power, and _he_ has more will.
Agonised and trembling, he still faces this rebel image, and it yields:

                       Why, so: being gone,
     I am a man again.

Yes, but his secret is in the hands of the assembled lords. And, worse,
this deed is as futile as the first. For, though Banquo is dead and even
his Ghost is conquered, that inner torture is unassuaged. But he will
not bear it. His guests have hardly left him when he turns roughly to
his wife:

     How say'st thou, that Macduff denies his person
     At our great bidding?

Macduff it is that spoils his sleep. He shall perish,--he and aught else
that bars the road to peace.

                              For mine own good
     All causes shall give way: I am in blood
     Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
     Returning were as tedious as go o'er:
     Strange things I have in head that will to hand,
     Which must be acted ere they may be scann'd.

She answers, sick at heart,

     You lack the season of all natures, sleep.

No doubt: but he has found the way to it now:

     Come, we'll to sleep. My strange and self abuse
     Is the initiate fear that wants hard use;
     We are yet but young in deed.

What a change from the man who thought of Duncan's virtues, and of pity
like a naked new-born babe! What a frightful clearness of
self-consciousness in this descent to hell, and yet what a furious force
in the instinct of life and self-assertion that drives him on!

He goes to seek the Witches. He will know, by the worst means, the
worst. He has no longer any awe of them.

     How now, you secret, black and midnight hags!

--so he greets them, and at once he demands and threatens. They tell him
he is right to fear Macduff. They tell him to fear nothing, for none of
woman born can harm him. He feels that the two statements are at
variance; infatuated, suspects no double meaning; but, that he may
'sleep in spite of thunder,' determines not to spare Macduff. But his
heart throbs to know one thing, and he forces from the Witches the
vision of Banquo's children crowned. The old intolerable thought
returns, 'for Banquo's issue have I filed my mind'; and with it, for all
the absolute security apparently promised him, there returns that inward
fever. Will nothing quiet it? Nothing but destruction. Macduff, one
comes to tell him, has escaped him; but that does not matter: he can
still destroy:[223]

                                And even now,
     To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done:
     The castle of Macduff I will surprise;
     Seize upon Fife; give to the edge o' the sword
     His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
     That trace him in's line. No boasting like a fool;
     This deed I'll do before this purpose cool.
     But no more sights!

No, he need fear no more 'sights.' The Witches have done their work,
and after this purposeless butchery his own imagination will trouble him
no more.[224] He has dealt his last blow at the conscience and pity
which spoke through it.

The whole flood of evil in his nature is now let loose. He becomes an
open tyrant, dreaded by everyone about him, and a terror to his country.
She 'sinks beneath the yoke.'

                             Each new morn
     New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
     Strike heaven on the face.

She weeps, she bleeds, 'and each new day a gash is added to her wounds.'
She is not the mother of her children, but their grave;

                               where nothing,
     But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile:
     Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
     Are made, not mark'd.

For this wild rage and furious cruelty we are prepared; but vices of
another kind start up as he plunges on his downward way.

                            I grant him bloody,
     Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful,
     Sudden, malicious,

says Malcolm; and two of these epithets surprise us. Who would have
expected avarice or lechery[225] in Macbeth? His ruin seems complete.

Yet it is never complete. To the end he never totally loses our
sympathy; we never feel towards him as we do to those who appear the
born children of darkness. There remains something sublime in the
defiance with which, even when cheated of his last hope, he faces earth
and hell and heaven. Nor would any soul to whom evil was congenial be
capable of that heart-sickness which overcomes him when he thinks of the
'honour, love, obedience, troops of friends' which 'he must not look to
have' (and which Iago would never have cared to have), and contrasts
with them

     Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
     Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not,

(and which Iago would have accepted with indifference). Neither can I
agree with those who find in his reception of the news of his wife's
death proof of alienation or utter carelessness. There is no proof of
these in the words,

                     She should have died hereafter;
     There would have been a time for such a word,

spoken as they are by a man already in some measure prepared for such
news, and now transported by the frenzy of his last fight for life. He
has no time now to feel.[226] Only, as he thinks of the morrow when time
to feel will come--if anything comes, the vanity of all hopes and
forward-lookings sinks deep into his soul with an infinite weariness,
and he murmurs,

     To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
     Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
     To the last syllable of recorded time,
     And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
     The way to dusty death.

In the very depths a gleam of his native love of goodness, and with it a
touch of tragic grandeur, rests upon him. The evil he has desperately
embraced continues to madden or to wither his inmost heart. No
experience in the world could bring him to glory in it or make his peace
with it, or to forget what he once was and Iago and Goneril never were.


[Footnote 194: See note BB.]

[Footnote 195: 'Hell is murky' (V. i. 35). This, surely, is not meant
for a scornful repetition of something said long ago by Macbeth. He
would hardly in those days have used an argument or expressed a fear
that could provoke nothing but contempt.]

[Footnote 196: Whether Banquo's ghost is a mere illusion, like the
dagger, is discussed in Note FF.]

[Footnote 197: In parts of this paragraph I am indebted to Hunter's
_Illustrations of Shakespeare_.]

[Footnote 198: The line is a foot short.]

[Footnote 199: It should be observed that in some cases the irony would
escape an audience ignorant of the story and watching the play for the
first time,--another indication that Shakespeare did not write solely
for immediate stage purposes.]

[Footnote 200: Their influence on spectators is, I believe, very
inferior. These scenes, like the Storm-scenes in _King Lear_, belong
properly to the world of imagination.]

[Footnote 201: 'By yea and no, I think the 'oman is a witch indeed: I
like not when a 'oman has a great peard' (_Merry Wives_, IV. ii. 202).]

[Footnote 202: Even the metaphor in the lines (II. iii. 127),

     What should be spoken here, where our fate,
     Hid in an auger-hole, may rush and seize us?

was probably suggested by the words in Scot's first chapter, 'They can
go in and out at awger-holes.']

[Footnote 203: Once, 'weird women.' Whether Shakespeare knew that
'weird' signified 'fate' we cannot tell, but it is probable that he did.
The word occurs six times in _Macbeth_ (it does not occur elsewhere in
Shakespeare). The first three times it is spelt in the Folio _weyward_,
the last three _weyard_. This may suggest a miswriting or misprinting of
_wayward_; but, as that word is always spelt in the Folio either rightly
or _waiward_, it is more likely that the _weyward_ and _weyard_ of
_Macbeth_ are the copyist's or printer's misreading of Shakespeare's
_weird_ or _weyrd_.]

[Footnote 204: The doubt as to these passages (see Note Z) does not
arise from the mere appearance of this figure. The idea of Hecate's
connection with witches appears also at II. i. 52, and she is mentioned
again at III. ii. 41 (cf. _Mid. Night's Dream_, V. i. 391, for her
connection with fairies). It is part of the common traditional notion of
the heathen gods being now devils. Scot refers to it several times. See
the notes in the Clarendon Press edition on III. v. 1, or those in
Furness's Variorum.

Of course in the popular notion the witch's spirits are devils or
servants of Satan. If Shakespeare openly introduces this idea only in
such phrases as 'the instruments of darkness' and 'what! can the devil
speak true?' the reason is probably his unwillingness to give too much
prominence to distinctively religious ideas.]

[Footnote 205: If this paragraph is true, some of the statements even of
Lamb and of Coleridge about the Witches are, taken literally, incorrect.
What these critics, and notably the former, describe so well is the
poetic aspect abstracted from the remainder; and in describing this they
attribute to the Witches themselves what belongs really to the complex
of Witches, Spirits, and Hecate. For the purposes of imagination, no
doubt, this inaccuracy is of small consequence; and it is these purposes
that matter. [I have not attempted to fulfil them.]]

[Footnote 206: See Note CC.]

[Footnote 207: The proclamation of Malcolm as Duncan's successor (I.
iv.) changes the position, but the design of murder is prior to this.]

[Footnote 208: Schlegel's assertion that the first thought of the murder
comes from the Witches is thus in flat contradiction with the text. (The
sentence in which he asserts this is, I may observe, badly mistranslated
in the English version, which, wherever I have consulted the original,
shows itself untrustworthy. It ought to be revised, for Schlegel is well
worth reading.)]

[Footnote 209: It is noticeable that Dr. Forman, who saw the play in
1610 and wrote a sketch of it in his journal, says nothing about the
later prophecies. Perhaps he despised them as mere stuff for the
groundlings. The reader will find, I think, that the great poetic effect
of Act IV. Sc. i. depends much more on the 'charm' which precedes
Macbeth's entrance, and on Macbeth himself, than on the predictions.]

[Footnote 210: This comparison was suggested by a passage in Hegel's
_Aesthetik_, i. 291 ff.]

[Footnote 211: _Il._ i. 188 ff. (Leaf's translation).]

[Footnote 212: The supernaturalism of the modern poet, indeed, is more
'external' than that of the ancient. We have already had evidence of
this, and shall find more when we come to the character of Banquo.]

[Footnote 213: The assertion that Lady Macbeth sought a crown for
herself, or sought anything for herself, apart from her husband, is
absolutely unjustified by anything in the play. It is based on a
sentence of Holinshed's which Shakespeare did _not_ use.]

[Footnote 214: The word is used of him (I. ii. 67), but not in a way
that decides this question or even bears on it.]

[Footnote 215: This view, thus generally stated, is not original, but I
cannot say who first stated it.]

[Footnote 216: The latter, and more important, point was put quite
clearly by Coleridge.]

[Footnote 217: It is the consequent insistence on the idea of fear, and
the frequent repetition of the word, that have principally led to

[Footnote 218: _E.g._ I. iii. 149, where he excuses his abstraction by
saying that his 'dull brain was wrought with things forgotten,' when
nothing could be more natural than that he should be thinking of his new

[Footnote 219: _E.g._ in I. iv. This is so also in II. iii. 114 ff.,
though here there is some real imaginative excitement mingled with the
rhetorical antitheses and balanced clauses and forced bombast.]

[Footnote 220: III. i. Lady Macbeth herself could not more naturally
have introduced at intervals the questions 'Ride you this afternoon?'
(l. 19), 'Is't far you ride?' (l. 24), 'Goes Fleance with you?' (l.

[Footnote 221: We feel here, however, an underlying subdued frenzy which
awakes some sympathy. There is an almost unendurable impatience
expressed even in the rhythm of many of the lines; _e.g._:

                                        Well then, now
     Have you consider'd of my speeches? Know
     That it was he in the times past which held you
     So under fortune, which you thought had been
     Our innocent self: this I made good to you
     In our last conference, pass'd in probation with you,
     How you were borne in hand, how cross'd, the instruments,
     Who wrought with them, and all things else that might
     To half a soul and to a notion crazed
     Say, 'Thus did Banquo.'

This effect is heard to the end of the play in Macbeth's less poetic
speeches, and leaves the same impression of burning energy, though not
of imaginative exaltation, as his great speeches. In these we find
either violent, huge, sublime imagery, or a torrent of figurative
expressions (as in the famous lines about 'the innocent sleep'). Our
impressions as to the diction of the play are largely derived from these
speeches of the hero, but not wholly so. The writing almost throughout
leaves an impression of intense, almost feverish, activity.]

[Footnote 222: See his first words to the Ghost: 'Thou canst not say I
did it.']

[Footnote 223:

     For only in destroying I find ease
     To my relentless thoughts.--_Paradise Lost_, ix. 129.

Milton's portrait of Satan's misery here, and at the beginning of Book
IV., might well have been suggested by _Macbeth_. Coleridge, after
quoting Duncan's speech, I. iv. 35 ff., says: 'It is a fancy; but I can
never read this, and the following speeches of Macbeth, without
involuntarily thinking of the Miltonic Messiah and Satan.' I doubt if it
was a mere fancy. (It will be remembered that Milton thought at one time
of writing a tragedy on Macbeth.)]

[Footnote 224: The immediate reference in 'But no more sights' is
doubtless to the visions called up by the Witches; but one of these, the
'blood-bolter'd Banquo,' recalls to him the vision of the preceding
night, of which he had said,

                        You make me strange
     Even to the disposition that I owe,
     When now I think you can behold such _sights_,
     And keep the natural ruby of your cheeks,
     When mine is blanch'd with fear.]

[Footnote 225: 'Luxurious' and 'luxury' are used by Shakespeare only in
this older sense. It must be remembered that these lines are spoken by
Malcolm, but it seems likely that they are meant to be taken as true

[Footnote 226: I do not at all suggest that his love for his wife
remains what it was when he greeted her with the words 'My dearest love,
Duncan comes here to-night.' He has greatly changed; she has ceased to
help him, sunk in her own despair; and there is no intensity of anxiety
in the questions he puts to the doctor about her. But his love for her
was probably never unselfish, never the love of Brutus, who, in somewhat
similar circumstances, uses, on the death of Cassius, words which remind
us of Macbeth's:

     I shall find time, Cassius, I shall find time.

For the opposite strain of feeling cf. Sonnet 90:

     Then hate me if thou wilt; if ever, now,
     Now while the world is bent my deeds to cross.]




To regard _Macbeth_ as a play, like the love-tragedies _Romeo and
Juliet_ and _Antony and Cleopatra_, in which there are two central
characters of equal importance, is certainly a mistake. But Shakespeare
himself is in a measure responsible for it, because the first half of
_Macbeth_ is greater than the second, and in the first half Lady Macbeth
not only appears more than in the second but exerts the ultimate
deciding influence on the action. And, in the opening Act at least, Lady
Macbeth is the most commanding and perhaps the most awe-inspiring figure
that Shakespeare drew. Sharing, as we have seen, certain traits with her
husband, she is at once clearly distinguished from him by an
inflexibility of will, which appears to hold imagination, feeling, and
conscience completely in check. To her the prophecy of things that will
be becomes instantaneously the determination that they shall be:

     Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
     That thou art promised.

She knows her husband's weakness, how he scruples 'to catch the nearest
way' to the object he desires; and she sets herself without a trace of
doubt or conflict to counteract this weakness. To her there is no
separation between will and deed; and, as the deed falls in part to her,
she is sure it will be done:

                   The raven himself is hoarse
     That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
     Under my battlements.

On the moment of Macbeth's rejoining her, after braving infinite dangers
and winning infinite praise, without a syllable on these subjects or a
word of affection, she goes straight to her purpose and permits him to
speak of nothing else. She takes the superior position and assumes the
direction of affairs,--appears to assume it even more than she really
can, that she may spur him on. She animates him by picturing the deed as
heroic, 'this night's _great_ business,' or 'our _great_ quell,' while
she ignores its cruelty and faithlessness. She bears down his faint
resistance by presenting him with a prepared scheme which may remove
from him the terror and danger of deliberation. She rouses him with a
taunt no man can bear, and least of all a soldier,--the word 'coward.'
She appeals even to his love for her:

                 from this time
     Such I account thy love;

--such, that is, as the protestations of a drunkard. Her reasonings are
mere sophisms; they could persuade no man. It is not by them, it is by
personal appeals, through the admiration she extorts from him, and
through sheer force of will, that she impels him to the deed. Her eyes
are fixed upon the crown and the means to it; she does not attend to the
consequences. Her plan of laying the guilt upon the chamberlains is
invented on the spur of the moment, and simply to satisfy her husband.
Her true mind is heard in the ringing cry with which she answers his
question, 'Will it not be received ... that they have done it?'

     Who _dares_ receive it other?

And this is repeated in the sleep-walking scene: 'What need we fear who
knows it, when none can call our power to account?' Her passionate
courage sweeps him off his feet. His decision is taken in a moment of

               Bring forth men-children only;
     For thy undaunted mettle should compose
     Nothing but males.

And even when passion has quite died away her will remains supreme. In
presence of overwhelming horror and danger, in the murder scene and the
banquet scene, her self-control is perfect. When the truth of what she
has done dawns on her, no word of complaint, scarcely a word of her own
suffering, not a single word of her own as apart from his, escapes her
when others are by. She helps him, but never asks his help. She leans on
nothing but herself. And from the beginning to the end--though she makes
once or twice a slip in acting her part--her will never fails her. Its
grasp upon her nature may destroy her, but it is never relaxed. We are
sure that she never betrayed her husband or herself by a word or even a
look, save in sleep. However appalling she may be, she is sublime.

In the earlier scenes of the play this aspect of Lady Macbeth's
character is far the most prominent. And if she seems invincible she
seems also inhuman. We find no trace of pity for the kind old king; no
consciousness of the treachery and baseness of the murder; no sense of
the value of the lives of the wretched men on whom the guilt is to be
laid; no shrinking even from the condemnation or hatred of the world.
Yet if the Lady Macbeth of these scenes were really utterly inhuman, or
a 'fiend-like queen,' as Malcolm calls her, the Lady Macbeth of the
sleep-walking scene would be an impossibility. The one woman could never
become the other. And in fact, if we look below the surface, there is
evidence enough in the earlier scenes of preparation for the later. I do
not mean that Lady Macbeth was naturally humane. There is nothing in the
play to show this, and several passages subsequent to the murder-scene
supply proof to the contrary. One is that where she exclaims, on being
informed of Duncan's murder,

                  Woe, alas!
     What, in our house?

This mistake in acting shows that she does not even know what the
natural feeling in such circumstances would be; and Banquo's curt
answer, 'Too cruel anywhere,' is almost a reproof of her insensibility.
But, admitting this, we have in the first place to remember, in
imagining the opening scenes, that she is deliberately bent on
counteracting the 'human kindness' of her husband, and also that she is
evidently not merely inflexibly determined but in a condition of
abnormal excitability. That exaltation in the project which is so
entirely lacking in Macbeth is strongly marked in her. When she tries to
help him by representing their enterprise as heroic, she is deceiving
herself as much as him. Their attainment of the crown presents itself to
her, perhaps has long presented itself, as something so glorious, and
she has fixed her will upon it so completely, that for the time she sees
the enterprise in no other light than that of its greatness. When she

                               Yet do I fear thy nature:
     It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
     To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
     Art not without ambition, but without
     The illness should attend it; what thou wouldst highly,
     That wouldst thou holily,

one sees that 'ambition' and 'great' and 'highly' and even 'illness' are
to her simply terms of praise, and 'holily' and 'human kindness' simply
terms of blame. Moral distinctions do not in this exaltation exist for
her; or rather they are inverted: 'good' means to her the crown and
whatever is required to obtain it, 'evil' whatever stands in the way of
its attainment. This attitude of mind is evident even when she is alone,
though it becomes still more pronounced when she has to work upon her
husband. And it persists until her end is attained. But, without being
exactly forced, it betrays a strain which could not long endure.

Besides this, in these earlier scenes the traces of feminine weakness
and human feeling, which account for her later failure, are not absent.
Her will, it is clear, was exerted to overpower not only her husband's
resistance but some resistance in herself. Imagine Goneril uttering the
famous words,

                 Had he not resembled
     My father as he slept, I had done 't.

They are spoken, I think, without any sentiment--impatiently, as though
she regretted her weakness: but it was there. And in reality, quite
apart from this recollection of her father, she could never have done
the murder if her husband had failed. She had to nerve herself with wine
to give her 'boldness' enough to go through her minor part. That
appalling invocation to the spirits of evil, to unsex her and fill her
from the crown to the toe topfull of direst cruelty, tells the same tale
of determination to crush the inward protest. Goneril had no need of
such a prayer. In the utterance of the frightful lines,

                I have given suck, and know
     How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
     I would, while it was smiling in my face,
     Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
     And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
     Have done to this,

her voice should doubtless rise until it reaches, in 'dash'd the brains
out,' an almost hysterical scream.[227] These lines show unmistakably
that strained exaltation which, as soon as the end is reached, vanishes,
never to return.

The greatness of Lady Macbeth lies almost wholly in courage and force of
will. It is an error to regard her as remarkable on the intellectual
side. In acting a part she shows immense self-control, but not much
skill. Whatever may be thought of the plan of attributing the murder of
Duncan to the chamberlains, to lay their bloody daggers on their
pillows, as if they were determined to advertise their guilt, was a
mistake which can be accounted for only by the excitement of the moment.
But the limitations of her mind appear most in the point where she is
most strongly contrasted with Macbeth,--in her comparative dulness of
imagination. I say 'comparative,' for she sometimes uses highly poetic
language, as indeed does everyone in Shakespeare who has any greatness
of soul. Nor is she perhaps less imaginative than the majority of his
heroines. But as compared with her husband she has little imagination.
It is not _simply_ that she suppresses what she has. To her, things
remain at the most terrible moment precisely what they were at the
calmest, plain facts which stand in a given relation to a certain deed,
not visions which tremble and flicker in the light of other worlds. The
probability that the old king will sleep soundly after his long journey
to Inverness is to her simply a fortunate circumstance; but one can
fancy the shoot of horror across Macbeth's face as she mentions it. She
uses familiar and prosaic illustrations, like

     Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,'
     Like the poor cat i' the adage,

(the cat who wanted fish but did not like to wet her feet); or,

                                      We fail?
     But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
     And we'll not fail;[228]


                           Was the hope drunk
     Wherein you dress'd yourself? hath it slept since?
     And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
     At what it did so freely?

The Witches are practically nothing to her. She feels no sympathy in
Nature with her guilty purpose, and would never bid the earth not hear
her steps, which way they walk. The noises before the murder, and during
it, are heard by her as simple facts, and are referred to their true
sources. The knocking has no mystery for her: it comes from 'the south
entry.' She calculates on the drunkenness of the grooms, compares the
different effects of wine on herself and on them, and listens to their
snoring. To her the blood upon her husband's hands suggests only the

     My hands are of your colour, but I shame
     To wear a heart so white;

and the blood to her is merely 'this filthy witness,'--words impossible
to her husband, to whom it suggested something quite other than sensuous
disgust or practical danger. The literalism of her mind appears fully in
two contemptuous speeches where she dismisses his imaginings; in the
murder scene:

                           Infirm of purpose!
     Give me the daggers! The sleeping and the dead
     Are but as pictures: 'tis the eye of childhood
     That fears a painted devil;

and in the banquet scene:

                         O these flaws and starts,
     Impostors to true fear, would well become
     A woman's story at a winter's fire,
     Authorised by her grandam. Shame itself!
     Why do you make such faces? When all's done,
     You look but on a stool.

Even in the awful scene where her imagination breaks loose in sleep she
uses no such images as Macbeth's. It is the direct appeal of the facts
to sense that has fastened on her memory. The ghastly realism of 'Yet
who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?' or
'Here's the smell of the blood still,' is wholly unlike him. Her most
poetical words, 'All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand,' are equally unlike his words about great Neptune's ocean. Hers,
like some of her other speeches, are the more moving, from their greater
simplicity and because they seem to tell of that self-restraint in
suffering which is so totally lacking in him; but there is in them
comparatively little of imagination. If we consider most of the passages
to which I have referred, we shall find that the quality which moves our
admiration is courage or force of will.

This want of imagination, though it helps to make Lady Macbeth strong
for immediate action, is fatal to her. If she does not feel beforehand
the cruelty of Duncan's murder, this is mainly because she hardly
imagines the act, or at most imagines its outward show, 'the motion of a
muscle this way or that.' Nor does she in the least foresee those inward
consequences which reveal themselves immediately in her husband, and
less quickly in herself. It is often said that she understands him well.
Had she done so, she never would have urged him on. She knows that he is
given to strange fancies; but, not realising what they spring from, she
has no idea either that they may gain such power as to ruin the scheme,
or that, while they mean present weakness, they mean also perception of
the future. At one point in the murder scene the force of his
imagination impresses her, and for a moment she is startled; a light
threatens to break on her:

                  These deeds must not be thought
     After these ways: so, it will make us mad,

she says, with a sudden and great seriousness. And when he goes panting
on, 'Methought I heard a voice cry, "Sleep no more,"' ... she breaks in,
'What do you mean?' half-doubting whether this was not a real voice that
he heard. Then, almost directly, she recovers herself, convinced of the
vanity of his fancy. Nor does she understand herself any better than
him. She never suspects that these deeds _must_ be thought after these
ways; that her facile realism,

     A little water clears us of this deed,

will one day be answered by herself, 'Will these hands ne'er be clean?'
or that the fatal commonplace, 'What's done is done,' will make way for
her last despairing sentence, 'What's done cannot be undone.'

Hence the development of her character--perhaps it would be more
strictly accurate to say, the change in her state of mind--is both
inevitable, and the opposite of the development we traced in Macbeth.
When the murder has been done, the discovery of its hideousness, first
reflected in the faces of her guests, comes to Lady Macbeth with the
shock of a sudden disclosure, and at once her nature begins to sink. The
first intimation of the change is given when, in the scene of the
discovery, she faints.[229] When next we see her, Queen of Scotland, the
glory of her dream has faded. She enters, disillusioned, and weary with
want of sleep: she has thrown away everything and gained nothing:

               Nought's had, all's spent,
     Where our desire is got without content:
     'Tis safer to be that which we destroy
     Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

Henceforth she has no initiative: the stem of her being seems to be cut
through. Her husband, physically the stronger, maddened by pangs he had
foreseen, but still flaming with life, comes into the foreground, and
she retires. Her will remains, and she does her best to help him; but he
rarely needs her help. Her chief anxiety appears to be that he should
not betray his misery. He plans the murder of Banquo without her
knowledge (not in order to spare her, I think, for he never shows love
of this quality, but merely because he does not need her now); and even
when she is told vaguely of his intention she appears but little
interested. In the sudden emergency of the banquet scene she makes a
prodigious and magnificent effort; her strength, and with it her
ascendancy, returns, and she saves her husband at least from an open
disclosure. But after this she takes no part whatever in the action. We
only know from her shuddering words in the sleep-walking scene, 'The
Thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?' that she has even learned
of her husband's worst crime; and in all the horrors of his tyranny over
Scotland she has, so far as we hear, no part. Disillusionment and
despair prey upon her more and more. That she should seek any relief in
speech, or should ask for sympathy, would seem to her mere weakness, and
would be to Macbeth's defiant fury an irritation. Thinking of the change
in him, we imagine the bond between them slackened, and Lady Macbeth
left much alone. She sinks slowly downward. She cannot bear darkness,
and has light by her continually: 'tis her command. At last her nature,
not her will, gives way. The secrets of the past find vent in a disorder
of sleep, the beginning perhaps of madness. What the doctor fears is
clear. He reports to her husband no great physical mischief, but bids
her attendant to remove from her all means by which she could harm
herself, and to keep eyes on her constantly. It is in vain. Her death is
announced by a cry from her women so sudden and direful that it would
thrill her husband with horror if he were any longer capable of fear. In
the last words of the play Malcolm tells us it is believed in the
hostile army that she died by her own hand. And (not to speak of the
indications just referred to) it is in accordance with her character
that even in her weakest hour she should cut short by one determined
stroke the agony of her life.

The sinking of Lady Macbeth's nature, and the marked change in her
demeanour to her husband, are most strikingly shown in the conclusion of
the banquet scene; and from this point pathos is mingled with awe. The
guests are gone. She is completely exhausted, and answers Macbeth in
listless, submissive words which seem to come with difficulty. How
strange sounds the reply 'Did you send to him, sir?' to his imperious
question about Macduff! And when he goes on, 'waxing desperate in
imagination,' to speak of new deeds of blood, she seems to sicken at the
thought, and there is a deep pathos in that answer which tells at once
of her care for him and of the misery she herself has silently endured,

     You lack the season of all natures, sleep.

We begin to think of her now less as the awful instigator of murder than
as a woman with much that is grand in her, and much that is piteous.
Strange and almost ludicrous as the statement may sound,[230] she is, up
to her light, a perfect wife. She gives her husband the best she has;
and the fact that she never uses to him the terms of affection which, up
to this point in the play, he employs to her, is certainly no indication
of want of love. She urges, appeals, reproaches, for a practical end,
but she never recriminates. The harshness of her taunts is free from
mere personal feeling, and also from any deep or more than momentary
contempt. She despises what she thinks the weakness which stands in the
way of her husband's ambition; but she does not despise _him_. She
evidently admires him and thinks him a great man, for whom the throne is
the proper place. Her commanding attitude in the moments of his
hesitation or fear is probably confined to them. If we consider the
peculiar circumstances of the earlier scenes and the banquet scene, and
if we examine the language of the wife and husband at other times, we
shall come, I think, to the conclusion that their habitual relations are
better represented by the later scenes than by the earlier, though
naturally they are not truly represented by either. Her ambition for her
husband and herself (there was no distinction to her mind) proved fatal
to him, far more so than the prophecies of the Witches; but even when
she pushed him into murder she believed she was helping him to do what
he merely lacked the nerve to attempt; and her part in the crime was so
much less open-eyed than his, that, if the impossible and undramatic
task of estimating degrees of culpability were forced on us, we should
surely have to assign the larger share to Macbeth.

'Lady Macbeth,' says Dr. Johnson, 'is merely detested'; and for a long
time critics generally spoke of her as though she were Malcolm's
'fiend-like queen.' In natural reaction we tend to insist, as I have
been doing, on the other and less obvious side; and in the criticism of
the last century there is even a tendency to sentimentalise the
character. But it can hardly be doubted that Shakespeare meant the
predominant impression to be one of awe, grandeur, and horror, and that
he never meant this impression to be lost, however it might be modified,
as Lady Macbeth's activity diminishes and her misery increases. I cannot
believe that, when she said of Banquo and Fleance,

     But in them nature's copy's not eterne,

she meant only that they would some day die; or that she felt any
surprise when Macbeth replied,

     There's comfort yet: they are assailable;

though I am sure no light came into her eyes when he added those
dreadful words, 'Then be thou jocund.' She was listless. She herself
would not have moved a finger against Banquo. But she thought his death,
and his son's death, might ease her husband's mind, and she suggested
the murders indifferently and without remorse. The sleep-walking scene,
again, inspires pity, but its main effect is one of awe. There is great
horror in the references to blood, but it cannot be said that there is
more than horror; and Campbell was surely right when, in alluding to
Mrs. Jameson's analysis, he insisted that in Lady Macbeth's misery there
is no trace of contrition.[231] Doubtless she would have given the world
to undo what she had done; and the thought of it killed her; but,
regarding her from the tragic point of view, we may truly say she was
too great to repent.[232]


The main interest of the character of Banquo arises from the changes
that take place in him, and from the influence of the Witches upon him.
And it is curious that Shakespeare's intention here is so frequently
missed. Banquo being at first strongly contrasted with Macbeth, as an
innocent man with a guilty, it seems to be supposed that this contrast
must be continued to his death; while, in reality, though it is never
removed, it is gradually diminished. Banquo in fact may be described
much more truly than Macbeth as the victim of the Witches. If we follow
his story this will be evident.

He bore a part only less distinguished than Macbeth's in the battles
against Sweno and Macdonwald. He and Macbeth are called 'our captains,'
and when they meet the Witches they are traversing the 'blasted
heath'[233] alone together. Banquo accosts the strange shapes without
the slightest fear. They lay their fingers on their lips, as if to
signify that they will not, or must not, speak to _him_. To Macbeth's
brief appeal, 'Speak, if you can: what are you?' they at once reply, not
by saying what they are, but by hailing him Thane of Glamis, Thane of
Cawdor, and King hereafter. Banquo is greatly surprised that his partner
should start as if in fear, and observes that he is at once 'rapt'; and
he bids the Witches, if they know the future, to prophesy to _him_, who
neither begs their favour nor fears their hate. Macbeth, looking back at
a later time, remembers Banquo's daring, and how

                       he chid the sisters,
     When first they put the name of king upon me,
     And bade them speak to him.

'Chid' is an exaggeration; but Banquo is evidently a bold man, probably
an ambitious one, and certainly has no lurking guilt in his ambition. On
hearing the predictions concerning himself and his descendants he makes
no answer, and when the Witches are about to vanish he shows none of
Macbeth's feverish anxiety to know more. On their vanishing he is simply
amazed, wonders if they were anything but hallucinations, makes no
reference to the predictions till Macbeth mentions them, and then
answers lightly.

When Ross and Angus, entering, announce to Macbeth that he has been made
Thane of Cawdor, Banquo exclaims, aside, to himself or Macbeth, 'What!
can the devil speak true?' He now believes that the Witches were real
beings and the 'instruments of darkness.' When Macbeth, turning to him,

     Do you not hope your children shall be kings,
     When those that gave the Thane of Cawdor to me
     Promised no less to them?

he draws with the boldness of innocence the inference which is really
occupying Macbeth, and answers,

                             That, trusted home,
     Might yet enkindle you unto the crown
     Besides the thane of Cawdor.

Here he still speaks, I think, in a free, off-hand, even jesting,[234]
manner ('enkindle' meaning merely 'excite you to _hope_ for'). But then,
possibly from noticing something in Macbeth's face, he becomes graver,
and goes on, with a significant 'but,'

                          But 'tis strange:
     And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
     The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
     Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
     In deepest consequence.

He afterwards observes for the second time that his partner is 'rapt';
but he explains his abstraction naturally and sincerely by referring to
the surprise of his new honours; and at the close of the scene, when
Macbeth proposes that they shall discuss the predictions together at
some later time, he answers in the cheerful, rather bluff manner, which
he has used almost throughout, 'Very gladly.' Nor was there any reason
why Macbeth's rejoinder, 'Till then, enough,' should excite misgivings
in him, though it implied a request for silence, and though the whole
behaviour of his partner during the scene must have looked very
suspicious to him when the prediction of the crown was made good through
the murder of Duncan.

In the next scene Macbeth and Banquo join the King, who welcomes them
both with the kindest expressions of gratitude and with promises of
favours to come. Macbeth has indeed already received a noble reward.
Banquo, who is said by the King to have 'no less deserved,' receives as
yet mere thanks. His brief and frank acknowledgment is contrasted with
Macbeth's laboured rhetoric; and, as Macbeth goes out, Banquo turns with
hearty praises of him to the King.

And when next we see him, approaching Macbeth's castle in company with
Duncan, there is still no sign of change. Indeed he gains on us. It is
he who speaks the beautiful lines,

                        This guest of summer,
     The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
     By his loved mansionry, that the heaven's breath
     Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
     Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
     Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle:
     Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,
     The air is delicate;

--lines which tell of that freedom of heart, and that sympathetic sense
of peace and beauty, which the Macbeth of the tragedy could never feel.

But now Banquo's sky begins to darken. At the opening of the Second Act
we see him with Fleance crossing the court of the castle on his way to
bed. The blackness of the moonless, starless night seems to oppress him.
And he is oppressed by something else.

     A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,
     And yet I would not sleep: merciful powers,
     Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
     Gives way to in repose!

On Macbeth's entrance we know what Banquo means: he says to
Macbeth--and it is the first time he refers to the subject unprovoked,

     I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters.

His will is still untouched: he would repel the 'cursed thoughts'; and
they are mere thoughts, not intentions. But still they are 'thoughts,'
something more, probably, than mere recollections; and they bring with
them an undefined sense of guilt. The poison has begun to work.

The passage that follows Banquo's words to Macbeth is difficult to

     I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters:
     To you they have show'd some truth.

     _Macb._                          I think not of them:
     Yet, when we can entreat an hour to serve,
     We would spend it in some words upon that business,
     If you would grant the time.

     _Ban._                       At your kind'st leisure.

     _Macb._ If you shall cleave to my consent, when 'tis,
     It shall make honour for you.

     _Ban._                         So I lose none
     In seeking to augment it, but still keep
     My bosom franchised and allegiance clear,
     I shall be counsell'd.

     _Macb._                Good repose the while!

     _Ban._ Thanks, sir: the like to you!

Macbeth's first idea is, apparently, simply to free himself from any
suspicion which the discovery of the murder might suggest, by showing
himself, just before it, quite indifferent to the predictions, and
merely looking forward to a conversation about them at some future time.
But why does he go on, 'If you shall cleave,' etc.? Perhaps he foresees
that, on the discovery, Banquo cannot fail to suspect him, and thinks it
safest to prepare the way at once for an understanding with him (in the
original story he makes Banquo his accomplice _before_ the murder).
Banquo's answer shows three things,--that he fears a treasonable
proposal, that he has no idea of accepting it, and that he has no fear
of Macbeth to restrain him from showing what is in his mind.

Duncan is murdered. In the scene of discovery Banquo of course appears,
and his behaviour is significant. When he enters, and Macduff cries out
to him,

                O Banquo, Banquo,
     Our royal master's murdered,

and Lady Macbeth, who has entered a moment before, exclaims,

                  Woe, alas!
     What, in our house?

his answer,

     Too cruel anywhere,

shows, as I have pointed out, repulsion, and we may be pretty sure that
he suspects the truth at once. After a few words to Macduff he remains
absolutely silent while the scene is continued for nearly forty lines.
He is watching Macbeth and listening as he tells how he put the
chamberlains to death in a frenzy of loyal rage. At last Banquo appears
to have made up his mind. On Lady Macbeth's fainting he proposes that
they shall all retire, and that they shall afterwards meet,

     And question this most bloody piece of work
     To know it further. Fears and scruples[235] shake us:
     In the great hand of God I stand, and thence
     Against the undivulged pretence[236] I fight
     Of treasonous malice.

His solemn language here reminds us of his grave words about 'the
instruments of darkness,' and of his later prayer to the 'merciful
powers.' He is profoundly shocked, full of indignation, and determined
to play the part of a brave and honest man.

But he plays no such part. When next we see him, on the last day of his
life, we find that he has yielded to evil. The Witches and his own
ambition have conquered him. He alone of the lords knew of the
prophecies, but he has said nothing of them. He has acquiesced in
Macbeth's accession, and in the official theory that Duncan's sons had
suborned the chamberlains to murder him. Doubtless, unlike Macduff, he
was present at Scone to see the new king invested. He has, not formally
but in effect, 'cloven to' Macbeth's 'consent'; he is knit to him by 'a
most indissoluble tie'; his advice in council has been 'most grave and
prosperous'; he is to be the 'chief guest' at that night's supper. And
his soliloquy tells us why:

     Thou hast it now: king, Cawdor, Glamis, all,
     As the weird women promised, and, I fear,
     Thou play'dst most foully for't: yet it was said
     It should not stand in thy posterity,
     But that myself should be the root and father
     Of many kings. If there come truth from them--
     As upon thee, Macbeth, their speeches shine--
     Why, by the verities on thee made good,
     May they not be my oracles as well,
     And set me up in hope? But hush! no more.

This 'hush! no more' is not the dismissal of 'cursed thoughts': it only
means that he hears the trumpets announcing the entrance of the King and

His punishment comes swiftly, much more swiftly than Macbeth's, and
saves him from any further fall. He is a very fearless man, and still so
far honourable that he has no thought of acting to bring about the
fulfilment of the prophecy which has beguiled him. And therefore he has
no fear of Macbeth. But he little understands him. To Macbeth's
tormented mind Banquo's conduct appears highly suspicious. _Why_ has
this bold and circumspect[237] man kept his secret and become his chief
adviser? In order to make good _his_ part of the predictions after
Macbeth's own precedent. Banquo, he is sure, will suddenly and secretly
attack him. It is not the far-off accession of Banquo's descendants that
he fears; it is (so he tells himself) swift murder; not that the 'barren
sceptre' will some day droop from his dying hand, but that it will be
'wrenched' away now (III. i. 62).[238] So he kills Banquo. But the
Banquo he kills is not the innocent soldier who met the Witches and
daffed their prophecies aside, nor the man who prayed to be delivered
from the temptation of his dreams.

_Macbeth_ leaves on most readers a profound impression of the misery of
a guilty conscience and the retribution of crime. And the strength of
this impression is one of the reasons why the tragedy is admired by
readers who shrink from _Othello_ and are made unhappy by _Lear_. But
what Shakespeare perhaps felt even more deeply, when he wrote this play,
was the _incalculability_ of evil,--that in meddling with it human
beings do they know not what. The soul, he seems to feel, is a thing of
such inconceivable depth, complexity, and delicacy, that when you
introduce into it, or suffer to develop in it, any change, and
particularly the change called evil, you can form only the vaguest idea
of the reaction you will provoke. All you can be sure of is that it will
not be what you expected, and that you cannot possibly escape it.
Banquo's story, if truly apprehended, produces this impression quite as
strongly as the more terrific stories of the chief characters, and
perhaps even more clearly, inasmuch as he is nearer to average human
nature, has obviously at first a quiet conscience, and uses with evident
sincerity the language of religion.


Apart from his story Banquo's character is not very interesting, nor is
it, I think, perfectly individual. And this holds good of the rest of
the minor characters. They are sketched lightly, and are seldom
developed further than the strict purposes of the action required. From
this point of view they are inferior to several of the less important
figures in each of the other three tragedies. The scene in which Lady
Macduff and her child appear, and the passage where their slaughter is
reported to Macduff, have much dramatic value, but in neither case is
the effect due to any great extent to the special characters of the
persons concerned. Neither they, nor Duncan, nor Malcolm, nor even
Banquo himself, have been imagined intensely, and therefore they do not
produce that sense of unique personality which Shakespeare could convey
in a much smaller number of lines than he gives to most of them.[239]
And this is of course even more the case with persons like Ross, Angus,
and Lennox, though each of these has distinguishable features. I doubt
if any other great play of Shakespeare's contains so many speeches which
a student of the play, if they were quoted to him, would be puzzled to
assign to the speakers. Let the reader turn, for instance, to the second
scene of the Fifth Act, and ask himself why the names of the persons
should not be interchanged in all the ways mathematically possible. Can
he find, again, any signs of character by which to distinguish the
speeches of Ross and Angus in Act I. scenes ii. and iii., or to
determine that Malcolm must have spoken I. iv. 2-11? Most of this
writing, we may almost say, is simply Shakespeare's writing, not that of
Shakespeare become another person. And can anything like the same
proportion of such writing be found in _Hamlet_, _Othello_, or _King

Is it possible to guess the reason of this characteristic of _Macbeth_?
I cannot believe it is due to the presence of a second hand. The
writing, mangled by the printer and perhaps by 'the players,' seems to
be sometimes obviously Shakespeare's, sometimes sufficiently
Shakespearean to repel any attack not based on external evidence. It may
be, as the shortness of the play has suggested to some, that Shakespeare
was hurried, and, throwing all his weight on the principal characters,
did not exert himself in dealing with the rest. But there is another
possibility which may be worth considering. _Macbeth_ is distinguished
by its simplicity,--by grandeur in simplicity, no doubt, but still by
simplicity. The two great figures indeed can hardly be called simple,
except in comparison with such characters as Hamlet and Iago; but in
almost every other respect the tragedy has this quality. Its plot is
quite plain. It has very little intermixture of humour. It has little
pathos except of the sternest kind. The style, for Shakespeare, has not
much variety, being generally kept at a higher pitch than in the other
three tragedies; and there is much less than usual of the interchange of
verse and prose.[240] All this makes for simplicity of effect. And, this
being so, is it not possible that Shakespeare instinctively felt, or
consciously feared, that to give much individuality or attraction to the
subordinate figures would diminish this effect, and so, like a good
artist, sacrificed a part to the whole? And was he wrong? He has
certainly avoided the overloading which distresses us in _King Lear_,
and has produced a tragedy utterly unlike it, not much less great as a
dramatic poem, and as a drama superior.

I would add, though without much confidence, another suggestion. The
simplicity of _Macbeth_ is one of the reasons why many readers feel
that, in spite of its being intensely 'romantic,' it is less unlike a
classical tragedy than _Hamlet_ or _Othello_ or _King Lear_. And it is
possible that this effect is, in a sense, the result of design. I do not
mean that Shakespeare intended to imitate a classical tragedy; I mean
only that he may have seen in the bloody story of Macbeth a subject
suitable for treatment in a manner somewhat nearer to that of Seneca, or
of the English Senecan plays familiar to him in his youth, than was the
manner of his own mature tragedies. The Witches doubtless are
'romantic,' but so is the witch-craft in Seneca's _Medea_ and _Hercules
Oetaeus_; indeed it is difficult to read the account of Medea's
preparations (670-739) without being reminded of the incantations in
_Macbeth_. Banquo's Ghost again is 'romantic,' but so are Seneca's
ghosts. For the swelling of the style in some of the great
passages--however immeasurably superior these may be to anything in
Seneca--and certainly for the turgid bombast which occasionally appears
in _Macbeth_, and which seems to have horrified Jonson, Shakespeare
might easily have found a model in Seneca. Did he not think that this
was the high Roman manner? Does not the Sergeant's speech, as Coleridge
observed, recall the style of the 'passionate speech' of the Player in
_Hamlet_,--a speech, be it observed, on a Roman subject?[241] And is it
entirely an accident that parallels between Seneca and Shakespeare seem
to be more frequent in _Macbeth_ than in any other of his undoubtedly
genuine works except perhaps _Richard III._, a tragedy unquestionably
influenced either by Seneca or by English Senecan plays?[242] If there
is anything in these suggestions, and if we suppose that Shakespeare
meant to give to his play a certain classical tinge, he might naturally
carry out this idea in respect to the characters, as well as in other
respects, by concentrating almost the whole interest on the important
figures and leaving the others comparatively shadowy.


_Macbeth_ being more simple than the other tragedies, and broader and
more massive in effect, three passages in it are of great importance as
securing variety in tone, and also as affording relief from the feelings
excited by the Witch-scenes and the principal characters. They are the
passage where the Porter appears, the conversation between Lady Macduff
and her little boy, and the passage where Macduff receives the news of
the slaughter of his wife and babes. Yet the first of these, we are told
even by Coleridge, is unworthy of Shakespeare and is not his; and the
second, with the rest of the scene which contains it, appears to be
usually omitted in stage representations of _Macbeth_.

I question if either this scene or the exhibition of Macduff's grief is
required to heighten our abhorrence of Macbeth's cruelty. They have a
technical value in helping to give the last stage of the action the form
of a conflict between Macbeth and Macduff. But their chief function is
of another kind. It is to touch the heart with a sense of beauty and
pathos, to open the springs of love and of tears. Shakespeare is loved
for the sweetness of his humanity, and because he makes this kind of
appeal with such irresistible persuasion; and the reason why _Macbeth_,
though admired as much as any work of his, is scarcely loved, is that
the characters who predominate cannot make this kind of appeal, and at
no point are able to inspire unmingled sympathy. The two passages in
question supply this want in such measure as Shakespeare thought
advisable in _Macbeth_, and the play would suffer greatly from their
excision. The second, on the stage, is extremely moving, and Macbeth's
reception of the news of his wife's death may be intended to recall it
by way of contrast. The first brings a relief even greater, because here
the element of beauty is more marked, and because humour is mingled with
pathos. In both we escape from the oppression of huge sins and
sufferings into the presence of the wholesome affections of unambitious
hearts; and, though both scenes are painful and one dreadful, our
sympathies can flow unchecked.[243]

Lady Macduff is a simple wife and mother, who has no thought for
anything beyond her home. Her love for her children shows her at once
that her husband's flight exposes them to terrible danger. She is in an
agony of fear for them, and full of indignation against him. It does not
even occur to her that he has acted from public spirit, or that there is
such a thing.

     What had he done to make him fly the land?

He must have been mad to do it. He fled for fear. He does not love his
wife and children. He is a traitor. The poor soul is almost beside
herself--and with too good reason. But when the murderer bursts in with
the question 'Where is your husband?' she becomes in a moment the wife,
and the great noble's wife:

     I hope, in no place so unsanctified
     Where such as thou may'st find him.

What did Shakespeare mean us to think of Macduff's flight, for which
Macduff has been much blamed by others beside his wife? Certainly not
that fear for himself, or want of love for his family, had anything to
do with it. His love for his country, so strongly marked in the scene
with Malcolm, is evidently his one motive.

     He is noble, wise, judicious, and best knows
     The fits o' the season,

says Ross. That his flight was 'noble' is beyond doubt. That it was not
wise or judicious in the interest of his family is no less clear. But
that does not show that it was wrong; and, even if it were, to represent
its consequences as a judgment on him for his want of due consideration
is equally monstrous and ludicrous.[244] The further question whether he
did fail in due consideration, or whether for his country's sake he
deliberately risked a danger which he fully realised, would in
Shakespeare's theatre have been answered at once by Macduff's expression
and demeanour on hearing Malcolm's words,

     Why in that rawness left you wife and child,
     Those precious motives, those strong knots of love,
     Without leave-taking?

It cannot be decided with certainty from the mere text; but, without
going into the considerations on each side, I may express the opinion
that Macduff knew well what he was doing, and that he fled without
leave-taking for fear his purpose should give way. Perhaps he said to
himself, with Coriolanus,

     Not of a woman's tenderness to be,
     Requires nor child nor woman's face to see.

Little Macduff suggests a few words on Shakespeare's boys (there are
scarcely any little girls). It is somewhat curious that nearly all of
them appear in tragic or semi-tragic dramas. I remember but two
exceptions: little William Page, who said his _Hic, haec, hoc_ to Sir
Hugh Evans; and the page before whom Falstaff walked like a sow that
hath overwhelmed all her litter but one; and it is to be feared that
even this page, if he is the Boy of _Henry V._, came to an ill end,
being killed with the luggage.

     So wise so young, they say, do ne'er live long,

as Richard observed of the little Prince of Wales. Of too many of these
children (some of the 'boys,' _e.g._ those in _Cymbeline_, are lads, not
children) the saying comes true. They are pathetic figures, the more so
because they so often appear in company with their unhappy mothers, and
can never be thought of apart from them. Perhaps Arthur is even the
first creation in which Shakespeare's power of pathos showed itself
mature;[245] and the last of his children, Mamillius, assuredly proves
that it never decayed. They are almost all of them noble figures,
too,--affectionate, frank, brave, high-spirited, 'of an open and free
nature' like Shakespeare's best men. And almost all of them, again, are
amusing and charming as well as pathetic; comical in their mingled
acuteness and _naïveté_, charming in their confidence in themselves and
the world, and in the seriousness with which they receive the jocosity
of their elders, who commonly address them as strong men, great
warriors, or profound politicians.

Little Macduff exemplifies most of these remarks. There is nothing in
the scene of a transcendent kind, like the passage about Mamillius'
never-finished 'Winter's Tale' of the man who dwelt by a churchyard, or
the passage about his death, or that about little Marcius and the
butterfly, or the audacity which introduces him, at the supreme moment
of the tragedy, outdoing the appeals of Volumnia and Virgilia by the

                           'A shall not tread on me:
     I'll run away till I'm bigger, but then I'll fight.

Still one does not easily forget little Macduff's delightful and
well-justified confidence in his ability to defeat his mother in
argument; or the deep impression she made on him when she spoke of his
father as a 'traitor'; or his immediate response when he heard the
murderer call his father by the same name,--

     Thou liest, thou shag-haired villain.

Nor am I sure that, if the son of Coriolanus had been murdered, his last
words to his mother would have been, 'Run away, I pray you.'

I may add two remarks. The presence of this child is one of the things
in which _Macbeth_ reminds us of _Richard III._ And he is perhaps the
only person in the tragedy who provokes a smile. I say 'perhaps,' for
though the anxiety of the Doctor to escape from the company of his
patient's husband makes one smile, I am not sure that it was meant to.


The Porter does not make me smile: the moment is too terrific. He is
grotesque; no doubt the contrast he affords is humorous as well as
ghastly; I dare say the groundlings roared with laughter at his coarsest
remarks. But they are not comic enough to allow one to forget for a
moment what has preceded and what must follow. And I am far from
complaining of this. I believe that it is what Shakespeare intended, and
that he despised the groundlings if they laughed. Of course he could
have written without the least difficulty speeches five times as
humorous; but he knew better. The Grave-diggers make us laugh: the old
Countryman who brings the asps to Cleopatra makes us smile at least. But
the Grave-digger scene does not come at a moment of extreme tension; and
it is long. Our distress for Ophelia is not so absorbing that we refuse
to be interested in the man who digs her grave, or even continue
throughout the long conversation to remember always with pain that the
grave is hers. It is fitting, therefore, that he should be made
decidedly humorous. The passage in _Antony and Cleopatra_ is much nearer
to the passage in _Macbeth_, and seems to have been forgotten by those
who say that there is nothing in Shakespeare resembling that
passage.[246] The old Countryman comes at a moment of tragic exaltation,
and the dialogue is appropriately brief. But the moment, though tragic,
is emphatically one of exaltation. We have not been feeling horror, nor
are we feeling a dreadful suspense. We are going to see Cleopatra die,
but she is to die gloriously and to triumph over Octavius. And therefore
our amusement at the old Countryman and the contrast he affords to these
high passions, is untroubled, and it was right to make him really comic.
But the Porter's case is quite different. We cannot forget how the
knocking that makes him grumble sounded to Macbeth, or that within a few
minutes of his opening the gate Duncan will be discovered in his blood;
nor can we help feeling that in pretending to be porter of hell-gate he
is terribly near the truth. To give him language so humorous that it
would ask us almost to lose the sense of these things would have been a
fatal mistake,--the kind of mistake that means want of dramatic
imagination. And that was not the sort of error into which Shakespeare

To doubt the genuineness of the passage, then, on the ground that it is
not humorous enough for Shakespeare, seems to me to show this want. It
is to judge the passage as though it were a separate composition,
instead of conceiving it in the fulness of its relations to its
surroundings in a stage-play. Taken by itself, I admit, it would bear no
indubitable mark of Shakespeare's authorship, not even in the phrase
'the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire,' which Coleridge thought
Shakespeare might have added to an interpolation of 'the players.' And
if there were reason (as in my judgment there is not) to suppose that
Shakespeare thus permitted an interpolation, or that he collaborated
with another author, I could believe that he left 'the players' or his
collaborator to write the words of the passage. But that anyone except
the author of the scene of Duncan's murder _conceived_ the passage, is

       *       *       *       *       *

The speeches of the Porter, a low comic character, are in prose. So is
the letter of Macbeth to his wife. In both these cases Shakespeare
follows his general rule or custom. The only other prose-speeches occur
in the sleep-walking scene, and here the use of prose may seem strange.
For in great tragic scenes we expect the more poetic medium of
expression, and this is one of the most famous of such scenes. Besides,
unless I mistake, Lady Macbeth is the only one of Shakespeare's great
tragic characters who on a last appearance is denied the dignity of

Yet in this scene also he adheres to his custom. Somnambulism is an
abnormal condition, and it is his general rule to assign prose to
persons whose state of mind is abnormal. Thus, to illustrate from these
four plays, Hamlet when playing the madman speaks prose, but in
soliloquy, in talking with Horatio, and in pleading with his mother, he
speaks verse.[248] Ophelia in her madness either sings snatches of songs
or speaks prose. Almost all Lear's speeches, after he has become
definitely insane, are in prose: where he wakes from sleep recovered,
the verse returns. The prose enters with that speech which closes with
his trying to tear off his clothes; but he speaks in verse--some of it
very irregular--in the Timon-like speeches where his intellect suddenly
in his madness seems to regain the force of his best days (IV. vi.).
Othello, in IV. i., speaks in verse till the moment when Iago tells him
that Cassio has confessed. There follow ten lines of prose--exclamations
and mutterings of bewildered horror--and he falls to the ground

The idea underlying this custom of Shakespeare's evidently is that the
regular rhythm of verse would be inappropriate where the mind is
supposed to have lost its balance and to be at the mercy of chance
impressions coming from without (as sometimes with Lear), or of ideas
emerging from its unconscious depths and pursuing one another across its
passive surface. The somnambulism of Lady Macbeth is such a condition.
There is no rational connection in the sequence of images and ideas. The
sight of blood on her hand, the sound of the clock striking the hour for
Duncan's murder, the hesitation of her husband before that hour came,
the vision of the old man in his blood, the idea of the murdered wife of
Macduff, the sight of the hand again, Macbeth's 'flaws and starts' at
the sight of Banquo's ghost, the smell on her hand, the washing of hands
after Duncan's murder again, her husband's fear of the buried Banquo,
the sound of the knocking at the gate--these possess her, one after
another, in this chance order. It is not much less accidental than the
order of Ophelia's ideas; the great difference is that with Ophelia
total insanity has effaced or greatly weakened the emotional force of
the ideas, whereas to Lady Macbeth each new image or perception comes
laden with anguish. There is, again, scarcely a sign of the exaltation
of disordered imagination; we are conscious rather of an intense
suffering which forces its way into light against resistance, and speaks
a language for the most part strikingly bare in its diction and simple
in its construction. This language stands in strong contrast with that
of Macbeth in the surrounding scenes, full of a feverish and almost
furious excitement, and seems to express a far more desolating misery.

The effect is extraordinarily impressive. The soaring pride and power of
Lady Macbeth's first speeches return on our memory, and the change is
felt with a breathless awe. Any attempt, even by Shakespeare, to draw
out the moral enfolded in this awe, would but weaken it. For the moment,
too, all the language of poetry--even of Macbeth's poetry--seems to be
touched with unreality, and these brief toneless sentences seem the only
voice of truth.[249]


[Footnote 227: So Mrs. Siddons is said to have given the passage.]

[Footnote 228: Surely the usual interpretation of 'We fail?' as a
question of contemptuous astonishment, is right. 'We fail!' gives
practically the same sense, but alters the punctuation of the first two
Folios. In either case, 'But,' I think, means 'Only.' On the other hand
the proposal to read 'We fail.' with a full stop, as expressive of
sublime acceptance of the possibility, seems to me, however attractive
at first sight, quite out of harmony with Lady Macbeth's mood throughout
these scenes.]

[Footnote 229: See Note DD.]

[Footnote 230: It is not new.]

[Footnote 231: The words about Lady Macduff are of course significant of
natural human feeling, and may have been introduced expressly to mark
it, but they do not, I think, show any fundamental change in Lady
Macbeth, for at no time would she have suggested or approved a
_purposeless_ atrocity. It is perhaps characteristic that this human
feeling should show itself most clearly in reference to an act for which
she was not directly responsible, and in regard to which therefore she
does not feel the instinct of self-assertion.]

[Footnote 232: The tendency to sentimentalise Lady Macbeth is partly due
to Mrs. Siddons's fancy that she was a small, fair, blue-eyed woman,
'perhaps even fragile.' Dr. Bucknill, who was unaquainted with this
fancy, independently determined that she was 'beautiful and delicate,'
'unoppressed by weight of flesh,' 'probably small,' but 'a tawny or
brown blonde,' with grey eyes: and Brandes affirms that she was lean,
slight, and hard. They know much more than Shakespeare, who tells us
absolutely nothing on these subjects. That Lady Macbeth, after taking
part in a murder, was so exhausted as to faint, will hardly demonstrate
her fragility. That she must have been blue-eyed, fair, or red-haired,
because she was a Celt, is a bold inference, and it is an idle dream
that Shakespeare had any idea of making her or her husband
characteristically Celtic. The only evidence ever offered to prove that
she was small is the sentence, 'All the perfumes of Arabia will not
sweeten this little hand'; and Goliath might have called his hand
'little' in contrast with all the perfumes of Arabia. One might as well
propose to prove that Othello was a small man by quoting,

                            I have seen the day,
     That, with this little arm and this good sword,
     I have made my way through more impediments
     Than twenty times your stop.

The reader is at liberty to imagine Lady Macbeth's person in the way
that pleases him best, or to leave it, as Shakespeare very likely did,

Perhaps it may be well to add that there is not the faintest trace in
the play of the idea occasionally met with, and to some extent embodied
in Madame Bernhardt's impersonation of Lady Macbeth, that her hold upon
her husband lay in seductive attractions deliberately exercised.
Shakespeare was not unskilled or squeamish in indicating such ideas.]

[Footnote 233: That it is Macbeth who feels the harmony between the
desolation of the heath and the figures who appear on it is a
characteristic touch.]

[Footnote 234: So, in Holinshed, 'Banquho jested with him and sayde, now
Makbeth thou haste obtayned those things which the twoo former sisters
prophesied, there remayneth onely for thee to purchase that which the
third sayd should come to passe.']

[Footnote 235: =doubts.]

[Footnote 236: =design.]

[Footnote 237:

                           'tis much he dares,
     And, to that dauntless temper of his mind,
     He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour
     To act in safety.]

[Footnote 238: So when he hears that Fleance has escaped he is not much
troubled (III. iv. 29):

                         the worm that's fled
     Hath nature that in time will venom breed,
     No teeth for the present.

I have repeated above what I have said before, because the meaning of
Macbeth's soliloquy is frequently misconceived.]

[Footnote 239: Virgilia in _Coriolanus_ is a famous example. She speaks
about thirty-five lines.]

[Footnote 240: The percentage of prose is, roughly, in _Hamlet_ 30-2/3,
in _Othello_ 16-1/3, in _King Lear_ 27-1/2, in _Macbeth_ 8-1/2.]

[Footnote 241: Cf. Note F. There are also in _Macbeth_ several shorter
passages which recall the Player's speech. Cf. 'Fortune ... showed like
a rebel's whore' (I. ii. 14) with 'Out! out! thou strumpet Fortune!' The
form 'eterne' occurs in Shakespeare only in _Macbeth_, III. ii. 38, and
in the 'proof eterne' of the Player's speech. Cf. 'So, as a painted
tyrant, Pyrrhus stood,' with _Macbeth_, V. viii. 26; 'the rugged
Pyrrhus, like the Hyrcanian beast,' with 'the rugged Russian bear ... or
the Hyrcan tiger' (_Macbeth_, III. iv. 100); 'like a neutral to his will
and matter' with _Macbeth_, I. v. 47. The words 'Till he unseam'd him
from the nave to the chaps,' in the Serjeant's speech, recall the words
'Then from the navel to the throat at once He ript old Priam,' in _Dido
Queen of Carthage_, where these words follow those others, about Priam
falling with the mere wind of Pyrrhus' sword, which seem to have
suggested 'the whiff and wind of his fell sword' in the Player's

[Footnote 242: See Cunliffe, _The Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan
Tragedy_. The most famous of these parallels is that between 'Will all
great Neptune's Ocean,' etc., and the following passages:

     Quis eluet me Tanais? aut quae barbaris
     Maeotis undis Pontico incumbens mari?
     Non ipse toto magnus Oceano pater
     Tantum expiarit sceleris. (_Hipp._ 715.)

     Quis Tanais, aut quis Nilus, aut quis Persica
     Violentus unda Tigris, aut Rhenus ferox,
     Tagusve Ibera turbidus gaza fluens,
     Abluere dextram poterit? Arctoum licet
     Maeotis in me gelida transfundat mare,
     Et tota Tethys per meas currat manus,
     Haerebit altum facinus. (_Herc. Furens_, 1323.)

(The reader will remember Othello's 'Pontic sea' with its 'violent
pace.') Medea's incantation in Ovid's _Metamorphoses_, vii. 197 ff.,
which certainly suggested Prospero's speech, _Tempest_, V. i. 33 ff.,
should be compared with Seneca, _Herc. Oet._, 452 ff., 'Artibus
magicis,' etc. It is of course highly probable that Shakespeare read
some Seneca at school. I may add that in the _Hippolytus_, beside the
passage quoted above, there are others which might have furnished him
with suggestions. Cf. for instance _Hipp._, 30 ff., with the lines about
the Spartan hounds in _Mids. Night's Dream_, IV. i. 117 ff., and
Hippolytus' speech, beginning 483, with the Duke's speech in _As You
Like It_, II. i.]

[Footnote 243: Cf. Coleridge's note on the Lady Macduff scene.]

[Footnote 244: It is nothing to the purpose that Macduff himself says,

                                  Sinful Macduff,
     They were all struck for thee! naught that I am,
     Not for their own demerits, but for mine,
     Fell slaughter on their souls.

There is no reason to suppose that the sin and demerit he speaks of is
that of leaving his home. And even if it were, it is Macduff that
speaks, not Shakespeare, any more than Shakespeare speaks in the
preceding sentence,

                                 Did heaven look on,
     And would not take their part?

And yet Brandes (ii. 104) hears in these words 'the voice of revolt ...
that sounds later through the despairing philosophy of _King Lear_.' It
sounds a good deal earlier too; _e.g._ in _Tit. And._, IV. i. 81, and _2
Henry VI._, II. i. 154. The idea is a commonplace of Elizabethan

[Footnote 245: And the idea that it was the death of his son Hamnet,
aged eleven, that brought this power to maturity is one of the more
plausible attempts to find in his dramas a reflection of his private
history. It implies however as late a date as 1596 for _King John_.]

[Footnote 246: Even if this were true, the retort is obvious that
neither is there anything resembling the murder-scene in _Macbeth_.]

[Footnote 247: I have confined myself to the single aspect of this
question on which I had what seemed something new to say. Professor
Hales's defence of the passage on fuller grounds, in the admirable paper
reprinted in his _Notes and Essays on Shakespeare_, seems to me quite
conclusive. I may add two notes. (1) The references in the Porter's
speeches to 'equivocation,' which have naturally, and probably rightly,
been taken as allusions to the Jesuit Garnet's appeal to the doctrine of
equivocation in defence of his perjury when, on trial for participation
in the Gunpowder Plot, do not stand alone in _Macbeth_. The later
prophecies of the Witches Macbeth calls 'the equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth' (V. v. 43); and the Porter's remarks about the
equivocator who 'could swear in both the scales against either scale,
who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to
heaven,' may be compared with the following dialogue (IV. ii. 45):

     _Son._           What is a traitor?

     _Lady Macduff._  Why, one that swears and lies.

     _Son._           And be all traitors that do so?

     _Lady Macduff._  Everyone that does so is a traitor, and must
                        be hanged.

Garnet, as a matter of fact, _was_ hanged in May, 1606; and it is to be
feared that the audience applauded this passage.

(2) The Porter's soliloquy on the different applicants for admittance
has, in idea and manner, a marked resemblance to Pompey's soliloquy on
the inhabitants of the prison, in _Measure for Measure_, IV. iii. 1 ff.;
and the dialogue between him and Abhorson on the 'mystery' of hanging
(IV. ii. 22 ff.) is of just the same kind as the Porter's dialogue with
Macduff about drink.]

[Footnote 248: In the last Act, however, he speaks in verse even in the
quarrel with Laertes at Ophelia's grave. It would be plausible to
explain this either from his imitating what he thinks the rant of
Laertes, or by supposing that his 'towering passion' made him forget to
act the madman. But in the final scene also he speaks in verse in the
presence of all. This again might be accounted for by saying that he is
supposed to be in a lucid interval, as indeed his own language at 239
ff. implies. But the probability is that Shakespeare's real reason for
breaking his rule here was simply that he did not choose to deprive
Hamlet of verse on his last appearance. I wonder the disuse of prose in
these two scenes has not been observed, and used as an argument, by
those who think that Hamlet, with the commission in his pocket, is now

[Footnote 249: The verse-speech of the Doctor, which closes this scene,
lowers the tension towards that of the next scene. His introductory
conversation with the Gentlewoman is written in prose (sometimes very
near verse), partly, perhaps, from its familiar character, but chiefly
because Lady Macbeth is to speak in prose.]



In Hamlet's first soliloquy he speaks of his father as being 'but two
months dead,--nay, not so much, not two.' He goes on to refer to the
love between his father and mother, and then says (I. ii. 145):

                          and yet, within a month--
     Let me not think on't--Frailty, thy name is woman!--
     A little month, or ere those shoes were old
     With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
     Like Niobe, all tears, why she, even she--
     O God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
     Would have mourn'd longer--married with my uncle.

It seems hence to be usually assumed that at this time--the time when
the action begins--Hamlet's mother has been married a little less than a

On this assumption difficulties, however, arise, though I have not found
them referred to. Why has the Ghost waited nearly a month since the
marriage before showing itself? Why has the King waited nearly a month
before appearing in public for the first time, as he evidently does in
this scene? And why has Laertes waited nearly a month since the
coronation before asking leave to return to France (I. ii. 53)?

To this it might be replied that the marriage and the coronation were
separated by some weeks; that, while the former occurred nearly a month
before the time of this scene, the latter has only just taken place; and
that what the Ghost cannot bear is, not the mere marriage, but the
accession of an incestuous murderer to the throne. But anyone who will
read the King's speech at the opening of the scene will certainly
conclude that the marriage has only just been celebrated, and also that
it is conceived as involving the accession of Claudius to the throne.
Gertrude is described as the 'imperial jointress' of the State, and the
King says that the lords consented to the marriage, but makes no
separate mention of his election.

The solution of the difficulty is to be found in the lines quoted above.
The marriage followed, within a month, not the _death_ of Hamlet's
father, but the _funeral_. And this makes all clear. The death happened
nearly two months ago. The funeral did not succeed it immediately, but
(say) in a fortnight or three weeks. And the marriage and coronation,
coming rather less than a month after the funeral, have just taken
place. So that the Ghost has not waited at all; nor has the King, nor

On this hypothesis it follows that Hamlet's agonised soliloquy is not
uttered nearly a month after the marriage which has so horrified him,
but quite soon after it (though presumably he would know rather earlier
what was coming). And from this hypothesis we get also a partial
explanation of two other difficulties, (_a_) When Horatio, at the end of
the soliloquy, enters and greets Hamlet, it is evident that he and
Hamlet have not recently met at Elsinore. Yet Horatio came to Elsinore
for the funeral (I. ii. 176). Now even if the funeral took place some
three weeks ago, it seems rather strange that Hamlet, however absorbed
in grief and however withdrawn from the Court, has not met Horatio; but
if the funeral took place some seven weeks ago, the difficulty is
considerably greater. (_b_) We are twice told that Hamlet has '_of
late_' been seeking the society of Ophelia and protesting his love for
her (I. iii. 91, 99). It always seemed to me, on the usual view of the
chronology, rather difficult (though not, of course, impossible) to
understand this, considering the state of feeling produced in him by his
mother's marriage, and in particular the shock it appears to have given
to his faith in woman. But if the marriage has only just been celebrated
the words 'of late' would naturally refer to a time before it. This time
presumably would be subsequent to the death of Hamlet's father, but it
is not so hard to fancy that Hamlet may have sought relief from mere
_grief_ in his love for Ophelia.

But here another question arises; May not the words 'of late' include,
or even wholly refer to,[250] a time prior to the death of Hamlet's
father? And this question would be answered universally, I suppose, in
the negative, on the ground that Hamlet was not at Court but at
Wittenberg when his father died. I will deal with this idea in a
separate note, and will only add here that, though it is quite possible
that Shakespeare never imagined any of these matters clearly, and so
produced these unimportant difficulties, we ought not to assume this
without examination.


[Footnote 250: This is intrinsically not probable, and is the more
improbable because in Q1 Hamlet's letter to Ophelia (which must have
been written before the action of the play begins) is signed 'Thine ever
the most unhappy Prince _Hamlet_.' 'Unhappy' _might_ be meant to
describe an unsuccessful lover, but it probably shows that the letter
was written after his father's death.]



The answer will at once be given: 'At the University of Wittenberg. For
the king says to him (I. ii. 112):

                         For your intent
     In going back to school in Wittenberg,
     It is most retrograde to our desire.

The Queen also prays him not to go to Wittenberg: and he consents to

Now I quite agree that the obvious interpretation of this passage is
that universally accepted, that Hamlet, like Horatio, was at Wittenberg
when his father died; and I do not say that it is wrong. But it involves
difficulties, and ought not to be regarded as certain.

(1) One of these difficulties has long been recognised. Hamlet,
according to the evidence of Act V., Scene i., is thirty years of age;
and that is a very late age for a university student. One solution is
found (by those who admit that Hamlet _was_ thirty) in a passage in
Nash's _Pierce Penniless_: 'For fashion sake some [Danes] will put their
children to schoole, but they set them not to it till they are fourteene
years old, so that you shall see a great boy with a beard learne his
A.B.C. and sit weeping under the rod when he is thirty years old.'
Another solution, as we saw (p. 105), is found in Hamlet's character. He
is a philosopher who lingers on at the University from love of his
studies there.

(2) But there is a more formidable difficulty, which seems to have
escaped notice. Horatio certainly came from Wittenberg to the funeral.
And observe how he and Hamlet meet (I. ii. 160).

     _Hor._  Hail to your lordship!

     _Ham._                    I am glad to see you well:
             Horatio,--or I do forget myself.

     _Hor._  The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever.

     _Ham._  Sir, my good friend; I'll change that name with you:
             And what make you from Wittenberg, Horatio?

     _Mar._             My good lord--

     _Ham._  I am very glad to see you. Good even, sir.[251]
             But what, in faith, make you from Wittenberg?

     _Hor._  A truant disposition, good my lord.

     _Ham._  I would not hear your enemy say so,
             Nor shall you do my ear that violence,
             To make it truster of your own report
             Against yourself: I know you are no truant.
             But what is your affair in Elsinore?
             We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart.

     _Hor._  My lord, I came to see your father's funeral.

     _Ham._  I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student;
             I think it was to see my mother's wedding.

Is not this passing strange? Hamlet and Horatio are supposed to be
fellow-students at Wittenberg, and to have left it for Elsinore less
than two months ago. Yet Hamlet hardly recognises Horatio at first, and
speaks as if he himself lived at Elsinore (I refer to his bitter jest,
'We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart'). Who would dream that
Hamlet had himself just come from Wittenberg, if it were not for the
previous words about his going back there?

How can this be explained on the usual view? Only, I presume, by
supposing that Hamlet is so sunk in melancholy that he really does
almost 'forget himself'[252] and forget everything else, so that he
actually is in doubt who Horatio is. And this, though not impossible, is
hard to believe.

'Oh no,' it may be answered, 'for he is doubtful about Marcellus too;
and yet, if he were living at Elsinore, he must have seen Marcellus
often.' But he is _not_ doubtful about Marcellus. That note of
interrogation after 'Marcellus' is Capell's conjecture: it is not in any
Quarto or any Folio. The fact is that he knows perfectly well the man
who lives at Elsinore, but is confused by the appearance of the friend
who comes from Wittenberg.

(3) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent for, to wean Hamlet from his
melancholy and to worm his secret out of him, because he has known them
from his youth and is fond of them (II. ii. 1 ff.). They come _to_
Denmark (II. ii. 247 f.): they come therefore _from_ some other country.
Where do they come from? They are, we hear, Hamlet's 'school-fellows'
(III. iv. 202). And in the first Quarto we are directly told that they
were with him at Wittenberg:

     _Ham._  What, Gilderstone, and Rossencraft,
             Welcome, kind school-fellows, to Elsanore.

     _Gil._  We thank your grace, and would be very glad
             You were as when we were at Wittenberg.

Now let the reader look at Hamlet's first greeting of them in the
received text, and let him ask himself whether it is the greeting of a
man to fellow-students whom he left two months ago: whether it is not
rather, like his greeting of Horatio, the welcome of an old
fellow-student who has not seen his visitors for a considerable time
(II. ii. 226 f.).

(4) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet of the players who are
coming. He asks what players they are, and is told, 'Even those you were
wont to take such delight in, the tragedians of the city.' He asks, 'Do
they hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city?'
Evidently he has not been in the city for some time. And this is still
more evident when the players come in, and he talks of one having grown
a beard, and another having perhaps cracked his voice, since they last
met. What then is this city, where he has not been for some time, but
where (it would appear) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern live? It is not in
Denmark ('Comest thou to beard me in Denmark?'). It would seem to be

All these passages, it should be observed, are consistent with one
another. And the conclusion they point to is that Hamlet has left the
University for some years and has been living at Court. This again is
consistent with his being thirty years of age, and with his being
mentioned as a soldier and a courtier as well as a scholar (III. i.
159). And it is inconsistent, I believe, with nothing in the play,
unless with the mention of his 'going back to school in Wittenberg.' But
it is not really inconsistent with that. The idea may quite well be that
Hamlet, feeling it impossible to continue at Court after his mother's
marriage and Claudius' accession, thinks of the University where, years
ago, he was so happy, and contemplates a return to it. If this were
Shakespeare's meaning he might easily fail to notice that the expression
'going back to school in Wittenberg' would naturally suggest that Hamlet
had only just left 'school.'

I do not see how to account for these passages except on this
hypothesis. But it in its turn involves a certain difficulty. Horatio,
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to be of about the same age as Hamlet.
How then do _they_ come to be at Wittenberg? I had thought that this
question might be answered in the following way. If 'the city' is
Wittenberg, Shakespeare would regard it as a place like London, and we
might suppose that Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were living
there, though they had ceased to be students. But this can hardly be
true of Horatio, who, when he (to spare Hamlet's feelings) talks of
being 'a truant,' must mean a truant from his University. The only
solution I can suggest is that, in the story or play which Shakespeare
used, Hamlet and the others were all at the time of the murder young
students at Wittenberg, and that when he determined to make them older
men (or to make Hamlet, at any rate, older), he did not take trouble
enough to carry this idea through all the necessary detail, and so left
some inconsistencies. But in any case the difficulty in the view which I
suggest seems to me not nearly so great as those which the usual view
has to meet.[254]


[Footnote 251: These three words are evidently addressed to Bernardo.]

[Footnote 252: Cf. Antonio in his melancholy (_Merchant of Venice_, I.
i. 6),

     And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
     That I have much ado to know myself.]

[Footnote 253: In _Der Bestrafte Brudermord_ it _is_ Wittenberg. Hamlet
says to the actors: 'Were you not, a few years ago, at the University of
Wittenberg? I think I saw you act there': Furness's _Variorum_, ii. 129.
But it is very doubtful whether this play is anything but an adaptation
and enlargement of _Hamlet_ as it existed in the stage represented by

[Footnote 254: It is perhaps worth while to note that in _Der Bestrafte
Brudermord_ Hamlet is said to have been 'in Germany' at the time of his
father's murder.]



The chief arguments on this question may be found in Furness's _Variorum
Hamlet_, vol. i., pp. 391 ff. I will merely explain my position briefly.

Even if the general impression I received from the play were that Hamlet
was a youth of eighteen or twenty, I should feel quite unable to set it
against the evidence of the statements in V. i. which show him to be
exactly thirty, unless these statements seemed to be casual. But they
have to my mind, on the contrary, the appearance of being expressly
inserted in order to fix Hamlet's age; and the fact that they differ
decidedly from the statements in Q1 confirms that idea. So does the fact
that the Player King speaks of having been married thirty years (III.
ii. 165), where again the number differs from that in Q1.

If V. i. did not contain those decisive statements, I believe my
impression as to Hamlet's age would be uncertain. His being several
times called 'young' would not influence me much (nor at all when he is
called 'young' simply to distinguish him from his father, _as he is in
the very passage which shows him to be thirty_). But I think we
naturally take him to be about as old as Laertes, Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern, and take them to be less than thirty. Further, the
language used by Laertes and Polonius to Ophelia in I. iii. would
certainly, by itself, lead one to imagine Hamlet as a good deal less
than thirty; and the impression it makes is not, to me, altogether
effaced by the fact that Henry V. at his accession is said to be in 'the
very May-morn of his youth,'--an expression which corresponds closely
with those used by Laertes to Ophelia. In some passages, again, there is
an air of boyish petulance. On the other side, however, we should have
to set (1) the maturity of Hamlet's thought; (2) his manner, on the
whole, to other men and to his mother, which, I think, is far from
suggesting the idea of a mere youth; (3) such a passage as his words to
Horatio at III. ii. 59 ff., which imply that both he and Horatio have
seen a good deal of life (this passage has in Q1 nothing corresponding
to the most significant lines). I have shown in Note B that it is very
unsafe to argue to Hamlet's youth from the words about his going back to

On the whole I agree with Prof. Dowden that, apart from the statements
in V. i., one would naturally take Hamlet to be a man of about five and

It has been suggested that in the old play Hamlet was a mere lad; that
Shakespeare, when he began to work on it,[255] had not determined to
make Hamlet older; that, as he went on, he did so determine; and that
this is the reason why the earlier part of the play makes (if it does
so) a different impression from the later. I see nothing very improbable
in this idea, but I must point out that it is a mistake to appeal in
support of it to the passage in V. i. as found in Q1; for that passage
does not in the least show that the author (if correctly reported)
imagined Hamlet as a lad. I set out the statements in Q2 and Q1.

Q2 says:

     (1) The grave-digger came to his business on the day when old
     Hamlet defeated Fortinbras:

     (2) On that day young Hamlet was born:

     (3) The grave-digger has, at the time of speaking, been sexton
     for thirty years:

     (4) Yorick's skull has been in the earth twenty-three years:

     (5) Yorick used to carry young Hamlet on his back.

This is all explicit and connected, and yields the result that Hamlet is
now thirty.

Q1 says:

     (1) Yorick's skull has been in the ground a dozen years:

     (2) It has been in the ground ever since old Hamlet overcame

     (3) Yorick used to carry young Hamlet on his back.

From this nothing whatever follows as to Hamlet's age, except that he is
more than twelve![256] Evidently the writer (if correctly reported) has
no intention of telling us how old Hamlet is. That he did not imagine
him as very young appears from his making him say that he has noted
'this seven year' (in Q2 'three years') that the toe of the peasant
comes near the heel of the courtier. The fact that the Player-King in Q1
speaks of having been married forty years shows that here too the writer
has not any reference to Hamlet's age in his mind.[257]


[Footnote 255: Of course we do not know that he did work on it.]

[Footnote 256: I find that I have been anticipated in this remark by H.
Türck (_Jahrbuch_ for 1900, p. 267 ff.)]

[Footnote 257: I do not know if it has been observed that in the opening
of the Player-King's speech, as given in Q2 and the Folio (it is quite
different in Q1), there seems to be a reminiscence of Greene's
_Alphonsus King of Arragon_, Act IV., lines 33 ff. (Dyce's _Greene and
Peele_, p. 239):

     Thrice ten times Phoebus with his golden beams
     Hath compassed the circle of the sky,
     Thrice ten times Ceres hath her workmen hir'd,
     And fill'd her barns with fruitful crops of corn,
     Since first in priesthood I did lead my life.]



This passage has occasioned much difficulty, and to many readers seems
even absurd. And it has been suggested that it, with much that
immediately follows it, was adopted by Shakespeare, with very little
change, from the old play.

It is surely in the highest degree improbable that, at such a critical
point, when he had to show the first effect on Hamlet of the disclosures
made by the Ghost, Shakespeare would write slackly or be content with
anything that did not satisfy his own imagination. But it is not
surprising that we should find some difficulty in following his
imagination at such a point.

Let us look at the whole speech. The Ghost leaves Hamlet with the words,
'Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me'; and he breaks out:

     O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
     And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart;
     And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
     But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee!
     Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
     In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
     Yea, from the table of my memory
     I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
     All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
     That youth and observation copied there;
     And thy commandment all alone shall live
     Within the book and volume of my brain,
     Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven!
     O most pernicious woman!
     O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
     My tables--meet it is I set it down,
     That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
     At least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark:      [_Writing_
     So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word;
     It is 'Adieu, adieu! remember me.'
     I have sworn 't.

The man who speaks thus was, we must remember, already well-nigh
overwhelmed with sorrow and disgust when the Ghost appeared to him. He
has now suffered a tremendous shock. He has learned that his mother was
not merely what he supposed but an adulteress, and that his father was
murdered by her paramour. This knowledge too has come to him in such a
way as, quite apart from the _matter_ of the communication, might make
any human reason totter. And, finally, a terrible charge has been laid
upon him. Is it strange, then, that he should say what is strange? Why,
there would be nothing to wonder at if his mind collapsed on the spot.

Now it is just this that he himself fears. In the midst of the first
tremendous outburst, he checks himself suddenly with the exclamation 'O,
fie!' (cf. the precisely similar use of this interjection, II. ii. 617).
He must not let himself feel: he has to live. He must not let his heart
break in pieces ('hold' means 'hold together'), his muscles turn into
those of a trembling old man, his brain dissolve--as they threaten in an
instant to do. For, if they do, how can he--_remember_? He goes on
reiterating this 'remember' (the 'word' of the Ghost). He is, literally,
afraid that he will _forget_--that his mind will lose the message
entrusted to it. Instinctively, then, he feels that, if he _is_ to
remember, he must wipe from his memory everything it already contains;
and the image of his past life rises before him, of all his joy in
thought and observation and the stores they have accumulated in his
memory. All that is done with for ever: nothing is to remain for him on
the 'table' but the command, 'remember me.' He swears it; 'yes, by
heaven!' That done, suddenly the repressed passion breaks out, and, most
characteristically, he thinks _first_ of his mother; then of his uncle,
the smooth-spoken scoundrel who has just been smiling on him and calling
him 'son.' And in bitter desperate irony he snatches his tables from his
breast (they are suggested to him by the phrases he has just used,
'table of my memory,' 'book and volume'). After all, he _will_ use them
once again; and, perhaps with a wild laugh, he writes with trembling
fingers his last observation: 'One may smile, and smile, and be a

But that, I believe, is not merely a desperate jest. It springs from
that _fear of forgetting_. A time will come, he feels, when all this
appalling experience of the last half-hour will be incredible to him,
will seem a mere nightmare, will even, conceivably, quite vanish from
his mind. Let him have something in black and white that will bring it
back and _force_ him to remember and believe. What is there so unnatural
in this, if you substitute a note-book or diary for the 'tables'?[258]

But why should he write that particular note, and not rather his 'word,'
'Adieu, adieu! remember me'? I should answer, first, that a grotesque
jest at such a moment is thoroughly characteristic of Hamlet (see p.
151), and that the jocose 'So, uncle, there you are!' shows his state of
mind; and, secondly, that loathing of his uncle is vehement in his
thought at this moment. Possibly, too, he might remember that 'tables'
are stealable, and that if the appearance of the Ghost should be
reported, a mere observation on the smiling of villains could not betray
anything of his communication with the Ghost. What follows shows that
the instinct of secrecy is strong in him.

It seems likely, I may add, that Shakespeare here was influenced,
consciously or unconsciously, by recollection of a place in _Titus
Andronicus_ (IV. i.). In that horrible play Chiron and Demetrius, after
outraging Lavinia, cut out her tongue and cut off her hands, in order
that she may be unable to reveal the outrage. She reveals it, however,
by taking a staff in her mouth, guiding it with her arms, and writing in
the sand, 'Stuprum. Chiron. Demetrius.' Titus soon afterwards says:

                    I will go get a leaf of brass,
     And with a gad of steel will write these words,
     And lay it by. The angry northern wind
     Will blow these sands, like Sibyl's leaves, abroad,
     And where's your lesson then?

Perhaps in the old _Hamlet_, which may have been a play something like
_Titus Andronicus_, Hamlet at this point did write something of the
Ghost's message in his tables. In any case Shakespeare, whether he wrote
_Titus Andronicus_ or only revised an older play on the subject, might
well recall this incident, as he frequently reproduces other things in
that drama.


[Footnote 258: The reader will observe that this suggestion of a
_further_ reason for his making the note may be rejected without the
rest of the interpretation being affected.]



     It has been thought that the whole of the last part of I. v.,
     from the entrance of Horatio and Marcellus, follows the old
     play closely, and that Shakespeare is condescending to the

     Here again, whether or no he took a suggestion from the old
     play, I see no reason to think that he wrote down to his
     public. So far as Hamlet's state of mind is concerned, there
     is not a trace of this. Anyone who has a difficulty in
     understanding it should read Coleridge's note. What appears
     grotesque is the part taken by the Ghost, and Hamlet's
     consequent removal from one part of the stage to another. But,
     as to the former, should we feel anything grotesque in the
     four injunctions 'Swear!' if it were not that they come from
     under the stage--a fact which to an Elizabethan audience,
     perfectly indifferent to what is absurdly called stage
     illusion, was probably not in the least grotesque? And as to
     the latter, if we knew the Ghost-lore of the time better than
     we do, perhaps we should see nothing odd in Hamlet's insisting
     on moving away and proposing the oath afresh when the Ghost

     But, further, it is to be observed that he does not merely
     propose the oath afresh. He first makes Horatio and Marcellus
     swear never to make known what they have _seen_. Then, on
     shifting his ground, he makes them swear never to speak of
     what they have _heard_. Then, moving again, he makes them
     swear that, if he should think fit to play the antic, they
     will give no sign of knowing aught of him. The oath is now
     complete; and, when the Ghost commands them to swear the last
     time, Hamlet suddenly becomes perfectly serious and bids it
     rest. [In Fletcher's _Woman's Prize_, V. iii., a passage
     pointed out to me by Mr. C.J. Wilkinson, a man taking an oath
     shifts his ground.]

     NOTE F.


     There are two extreme views about this speech. According to
     one, Shakespeare quoted it from some play, or composed it for
     the occasion, simply and solely in order to ridicule, through
     it, the bombastic style of dramatists contemporary with
     himself or slightly older; just as he ridicules in _2 Henry
     IV._ Tamburlaine's rant about the kings who draw his chariot,
     or puts fragments of similar bombast into the mouth of Pistol.
     According to Coleridge, on the other hand, this idea is 'below
     criticism.' No sort of ridicule was intended. 'The lines, as
     epic narrative, are superb.' It is true that the language is
     'too poetical--the language of lyric vehemence and epic pomp,
     and not of the drama'; but this is due to the fact that
     Shakespeare had to distinguish the style of the speech from
     that of his own dramatic dialogue.

     In essentials I think that what Coleridge says[259] is true.
     He goes too far, it seems to me, when he describes the
     language of the speech as merely 'too poetical'; for with much
     that is fine there is intermingled a good deal that, in epic
     as in drama, must be called bombast. But I do not believe
     Shakespeare meant it for bombast.

     I will briefly put the arguments which point to this
     conclusion. Warburton long ago stated some of them fully and
     cogently, but he misinterpreted here and there, and some
     arguments have to be added to his.

     1. If the speech was meant to be ridiculous, it follows either
     that Hamlet in praising it spoke ironically, or that
     Shakespeare, in making Hamlet praise it sincerely, himself
     wrote ironically. And both these consequences are almost

     Let us see what Hamlet says. He asks the player to recite 'a
     passionate speech'; and, being requested to choose one, he
     refers to a speech he once heard the player declaim. This
     speech, he says, was never 'acted' or was acted only once; for
     the play pleased not the million. But he, and others whose
     opinion was of more importance than his, thought it an
     excellent play, well constructed, and composed with equal
     skill and temperance. One of these other judges commended it
     because it contained neither piquant indecencies nor
     affectations of phrase, but showed 'an honest method, as
     wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than
     fine.'[260] In this play Hamlet 'chiefly loved' one speech;
     and he asks for a part of it.

     Let the reader now refer to the passage I have just
     summarised; let him consider its tone and manner; and let him
     ask himself if Hamlet can possibly be speaking ironically. I
     am sure he will answer No. And then let him observe what
     follows. The speech is declaimed. Polonius interrupting it
     with an objection to its length, Hamlet snubs him, bids the
     player proceed, and adds, 'He's for a jig or a tale of bawdry:
     or he sleeps.' 'He,' that is, 'shares the taste of the million
     for sallets in the lines to make the matter savoury, and is
     wearied by an honest method.'[261] Polonius later interrupts
     again, for he thinks the emotion of the player too absurd; but
     Hamlet respects it; and afterwards, when he is alone (and
     therefore can hardly be ironical), in contrasting this emotion
     with his own insensibility, he betrays no consciousness that
     there was anything unfitting in the speech that caused it.

     So far I have chiefly followed Warburton, but there is an
     important point which seems not to have been observed. All
     Hamlet's praise of the speech is in the closest agreement with
     his conduct and words elsewhere. His later advice to the
     player (III. ii.) is on precisely the same lines. He is to
     play to the judicious, not to the crowd, whose opinion is
     worthless. He is to observe, like the author of Aeneas'
     speech, the 'modesty' of nature. He must not tear a 'passion'
     to tatters, to split the ears of the incompetent, but in the
     very tempest of passion is to keep a temperance and
     smoothness. The million, we gather from the first passage,
     cares nothing for construction; and so, we learn in the second
     passage, the barren spectators want to laugh at the clown
     instead of attending to some necessary question of the play.
     Hamlet's hatred of exaggeration is marked in both passages.
     And so (as already pointed out, p. 133) in the play-scene,
     when his own lines are going to be delivered, he impatiently
     calls out to the actor to leave his damnable faces and begin;
     and at the grave of Ophelia he is furious with what he thinks
     the exaggeration of Laertes, burlesques his language, and
     breaks off with the words,

                  Nay, an thou'lt mouth,
     I'll rant as well as thou.

Now if Hamlet's praise of the Aeneas and Dido play and speech is
ironical, his later advice to the player must surely be ironical too:
and who will maintain that? And if in the one passage Hamlet is serious
but Shakespeare ironical, then in the other passage all those famous
remarks about drama and acting, which have been cherished as
Shakespeare's by all the world, express the opposite of Shakespeare's
opinion: and who will maintain that? And if Hamlet and Shakespeare are
both serious--and nothing else is credible--then, to Hamlet and
Shakespeare, the speeches of Laertes and Hamlet at Ophelia's grave are
rant, but the speech of Aeneas to Dido is not rant. Is it not evident
that he meant it for an exalted narrative speech of 'passion,' in a
style which, though he may not have adopted it, he still approved and
despised the million for not approving,--a speech to be delivered with
temperance or modesty, but not too tamely neither? Is he not aiming here
to do precisely what Marlowe aimed to do when he proposed to lead the

     From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits,
     And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,

to 'stately' themes which beget 'high astounding terms'? And is it
strange that, like Marlowe in _Tamburlaine_, he adopted a style marred
in places by that which _we_ think bombast, but which the author meant
to be more 'handsome than fine'?

2. If this is so, we can easily understand how it comes about that the
speech of Aeneas contains lines which are unquestionably grand and free
from any suspicion of bombast, and others which, though not free from
that suspicion, are nevertheless highly poetic. To the first class
certainly belongs the passage beginning, 'But as we often see.' To the
second belongs the description of Pyrrhus, covered with blood that was

     Baked and impasted with the parching streets,
     That lend a tyrannous and damned light
     To their lord's murder;

and again the picture of Pyrrhus standing like a tyrant in a picture,
with his uplifted arm arrested in act to strike by the crash of the
falling towers of Ilium. It is surely impossible to say that these lines
are _merely_ absurd and not in the least grand; and with them I should
join the passage about Fortune's wheel, and the concluding lines.

But how can the insertion of these passages possibly be explained on the
hypothesis that Shakespeare meant the speech to be ridiculous?

3. 'Still,' it may be answered, 'Shakespeare _must_ have been conscious
of the bombast in some of these passages. How could he help seeing it?
And, if he saw it, he cannot have meant seriously to praise the speech.'
But why must he have seen it? Did Marlowe know when he wrote
bombastically? Or Marston? Or Heywood? Does not Shakespeare elsewhere
write bombast? The truth is that the two defects of style in the speech
are the very defects we do find in his writings. When he wished to make
his style exceptionally high and passionate he always ran some risk of
bombast. And he was even more prone to the fault which in this speech
seems to me the more marked, a use of metaphors which sound to our ears
'conceited' or grotesque. To me at any rate the metaphors in 'now is he
total gules' and 'mincing with his sword her husband's limbs' are more
disturbing than any of the bombast. But, as regards this second defect,
there are many places in Shakespeare worse than the speech of Aeneas;
and, as regards the first, though in his undoubtedly genuine works there
is no passage so faulty, there is also no passage of quite the same
species (for his narrative poems do not aim at epic grandeur), and there
are many passages where bombast of the same kind, though not of the same
degree, occurs.

Let the reader ask himself, for instance, how the following lines would
strike him if he came on them for the first time out of their context:

                     Whip me, ye devils,
     From the possession of this heavenly sight!
     Blow me about in winds! Roast me in sulphur!
     Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!

Are Pyrrhus's 'total gules' any worse than Duncan's 'silver skin laced
with his golden blood,' or so bad as the chamberlains' daggers
'unmannerly breech'd with gore'?[262] If 'to bathe in reeking wounds,'
and 'spongy officers,' and even 'alarum'd by his sentinel the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch,' and other such phrases in _Macbeth_, had
occurred in the speech of Aeneas, we should certainly have been told
that they were meant for burlesque. I open _Troilus and Cressida_
(because, like the speech of Aeneas, it has to do with the story of
Troy), and I read, in a perfectly serious context (IV. v. 6 f.):

                Thou, trumpet, there's thy purse.
     Now crack thy lungs, and split thy brazen pipe:
     Blow, villain, till thy sphered bias cheek
     Outswell the colic of puff'd Aquilon:
     Come, stretch thy chest, and let thy eyes spout blood;
     Thou blow'st for Hector.

'Splendid!' one cries. Yes, but if you are told it is also bombastic,
can you deny it? I read again (V. v. 7):

                    bastard Margarelon
     Hath Doreus prisoner,
     And stands colossus-wise, waving his beam,
     Upon the pashed corses of the kings.

Or, to turn to earlier but still undoubted works, Shakespeare wrote in
_Romeo and Juliet_,

                  here will I remain
     With worms that are thy chamber-maids;

and in _King John_,

     And pick strong matter of revolt and wrath
     Out of the bloody finger-ends of John;

and in _Lucrece_,

     And, bubbling from her breast, it doth divide
     In two slow rivers, that the crimson blood
     Circles her body in on every side,
     Who, like a late-sack'd island, vastly stood
     Bare and unpeopled in this fearful flood.
       Some of her blood still pure and red remain'd,
       And some look'd black, and that false Tarquin stain'd.

Is it so very unlikely that the poet who wrote thus might, aiming at a
peculiarly heightened and passionate style, write the speech of Aeneas?

4. But, pursuing this line of argument, we must go further. There is
really scarcely one idea, and there is but little phraseology, in the
speech that cannot be paralleled from Shakespeare's own works. He merely
exaggerates a little here what he has done elsewhere. I will conclude
this Note by showing that this is so as regards almost all the passages
most objected to, as well as some others. (1) 'The Hyrcanian beast' is
Macbeth's 'Hyrcan tiger' (III. iv. 101), who also occurs in _3 Hen. VI._
I. iv. 155. (2) With 'total gules' Steevens compared _Timon_ IV. iii. 59
(an undoubtedly Shakespearean passage),

     With man's blood paint the ground, gules, gules.

(3) With 'baked and impasted' cf. _John_ III. iii. 42, 'If that surly
spirit melancholy Had baked thy blood.' In the questionable _Tit. And._
V. ii. 201 we have, 'in that paste let their vile heads be baked' (a
paste made of blood and bones, _ib._ 188), and in the undoubted _Richard
II._ III. ii. 154 (quoted by Caldecott) Richard refers to the ground

     Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.

(4) 'O'er-sized with coagulate gore' finds an exact parallel in the
'blood-siz'd field' of the _Two Noble Kinsmen_, I. i. 99, a scene which,
whether written by Shakespeare (as I fully believe) or by another poet,
was certainly written in all seriousness. (5) 'With eyes like
carbuncles' has been much ridiculed, but Milton (_P.L._ ix. 500) gives
'carbuncle eyes' to Satan turned into a serpent (Steevens), and why are
they more outrageous than ruby lips and cheeks (_J.C._ III. i. 260,
_Macb._ III. iv. 115, _Cym._ II. ii. 17)? (6) Priam falling with the
mere wind of Pyrrhus's sword is paralleled, not only in _Dido Queen of
Carthage_, but in _Tr. and Cr._ V. iii. 40 (Warburton). (7) With Pyrrhus
standing like a painted tyrant cf. _Macb._ V. viii. 25 (Delius). (8) The
forging of Mars's armour occurs again in _Tr. and Cr._ IV. v. 255, where
Hector swears by the forge that stithied Mars his helm, just as Hamlet
himself alludes to Vulcan's stithy (III. ii. 89). (9) The idea of
'strumpet Fortune' is common: _e.g._ _Macb._ I. ii. 15, 'Fortune ...
show'd like a rebel's whore.' (10) With the 'rant' about her wheel
Warburton compares _Ant. and Cl._ IV. xv. 43, where Cleopatra would

                                  rail so high
     That the false huswife Fortune break her wheel.

(11.) Pyrrhus minces with his sword Priam's limbs, and Timon (IV. iii.
122) bids Alcibiades 'mince' the babe without remorse.'[263]


[Footnote 259: It is impossible to tell whether Coleridge formed his
view independently, or adopted it from Schlegel. For there is no record
of his having expressed his opinion prior to the time of his reading
Schlegel's _Lectures_; and, whatever he said to the contrary, his
borrowings from Schlegel are demonstrable.]

[Footnote 260: Clark and Wright well compare Polonius' antithesis of
'rich, not gaudy': though I doubt if 'handsome' implies richness.]

[Footnote 261: Is it not possible that 'mobled queen,' to which Hamlet
seems to object, and which Polonius praises, is meant for an example of
the second fault of affected phraseology, from which the play was said
to be free, and an instance of which therefore surprises Hamlet?]

[Footnote 262: The extravagance of these phrases is doubtless
intentional (for Macbeth in using them is trying to act a part), but the
_absurdity_ of the second can hardly be so.]

[Footnote 263: Steevens observes that Heywood uses the phrase 'guled
with slaughter,' and I find in his _Iron Age_ various passages
indicating that he knew the speech of Aeneas (cf. p. 140 for another
sign that he knew _Hamlet_). The two parts of the _Iron Age_ were
published in 1632, but are said, in the preface to the Second, to have
'been long since writ.' I refer to the pages of vol. 3 of Pearson's
_Heywood_ (1874). (1) p. 329, Troilus 'lyeth imbak'd In his cold blood.'
(2) p. 341, of Achilles' armour:

     _Vulcan_ that wrought it out of gadds of Steele
     With his _Ciclopian_ hammers, never made
     Such noise upon his Anvile forging it,
     Than these my arm'd fists in _Ulisses_ wracke.

(3) p. 357, 'till _Hecub's_ reverent lockes Be gul'd in slaughter.' (4)
p. 357, '_Scamander_ plaines Ore-spread with intrailes bak'd in blood
and dust.' (5) p. 378, 'We'll rost them at the scorching flames of
_Troy_.' (6) p. 379, 'tragicke slaughter, clad in gules and sables'
(cf.'sable arms' in the speech in _Hamlet_). (7) p. 384, 'these lockes,
now knotted all, As bak't in blood.' Of these, all but (1) and (2) are
in Part II. Part I. has many passages which recall _Troilus and
Cressida_. Mr. Fleay's speculation as to its date will be found in his
_Chronicle History of the English Drama_, i. p. 285.

For the same writer's ingenious theory (which is of course incapable of
proof) regarding the relation of the player's speech in _Hamlet_ to
Marlowe and Nash's _Dido_, see Furness's Variorum _Hamlet_.]



Johnson, in commenting on the passage (V. ii. 237-255), says: 'I wish
Hamlet had made some other defence; it is unsuitable to the character of
a good or a brave man to shelter himself in falsehood.' And Seymour
(according to Furness) thought the falsehood so ignoble that he rejected
lines 239-250 as an interpolation!

I wish first to remark that we are mistaken when we suppose that Hamlet
is here apologising specially for his behaviour to Laertes at Ophelia's
grave. We naturally suppose this because he has told Horatio that he is
sorry he 'forgot himself' on that occasion, and that he will court
Laertes' favours (V. ii. 75 ff.). But what he says in that very passage
shows that he is thinking chiefly of the greater wrong he has done
Laertes by depriving him of his father:

     For, by the image of my cause, I see
     The portraiture of his.

And it is also evident in the last words of the apology itself that he
is referring in it to the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia:

     Sir, in this audience,
     Let my disclaiming from a purposed evil
     Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
     _That I have shot mine arrow o'er the house,
     And hurt my brother._

But now, as to the falsehood. The charge is not to be set aside lightly;
and, for my part, I confess that, while rejecting of course Johnson's
notion that Shakespeare wanted to paint 'a good man,' I have momentarily
shared Johnson's wish that Hamlet had made 'some other defence' than
that of madness. But I think the wish proceeds from failure to imagine
the situation.

In the first place, _what_ other defence can we wish Hamlet to have
made? I can think of none. He cannot tell the truth. He cannot say to
Laertes, 'I meant to stab the King, not your father.' He cannot explain
why he was unkind to Ophelia. Even on the false supposition that he is
referring simply to his behaviour at the grave, he can hardly say, I
suppose, 'You ranted so abominably that you put me into a towering
passion.' _Whatever_ he said, it would have to be more or less untrue.

Next, what moral difference is there between feigning insanity and
asserting it? If we are to blame Hamlet for the second, why not equally
for the first?

And, finally, even if he were referring simply to his behaviour at the
grave, his excuse, besides falling in with his whole plan of feigning
insanity, would be as near the truth as any he could devise. For we are
not to take the account he gives to Horatio, that he was put in a
passion by the bravery of Laertes' grief, as the whole truth. His raving
over the grave is not _mere_ acting. On the contrary, that passage is
the best card that the believers in Hamlet's madness have to play. He is
really almost beside himself with grief as well as anger, half-maddened
by the impossibility of explaining to Laertes how he has come to do what
he has done, full of wild rage and then of sick despair at this wretched
world which drives him to such deeds and such misery. It is the same
rage and despair that mingle with other feelings in his outbreak to
Ophelia in the Nunnery-scene. But of all this, even if he were clearly
conscious of it, he cannot speak to Horatio; for his love to Ophelia is
a subject on which he has never opened his lips to his friend.

If we realise the situation, then, we shall, I think, repress the wish
that Hamlet had 'made some other defence' than that of madness. We shall
feel only tragic sympathy.

       *       *       *       *       *

As I have referred to Hamlet's apology, I will add a remark on it from a
different point of view. It forms another refutation of the theory that
Hamlet has delayed his vengeance till he could publicly convict the
King, and that he has come back to Denmark because now, with the
evidence of the commission in his pocket, he can safely accuse him. If
that were so, what better opportunity could he possibly find than this
occasion, where he has to express his sorrow to Laertes for the grievous
wrongs which he has unintentionally inflicted on him?



I am not going to discuss the question how this exchange ought to be
managed. I wish merely to point out that the stage-direction fails to
show the sequence of speeches and events. The passage is as follows
(Globe text):

     _Ham._  Come, for the third, Laertes: you but dally;
             I pray you, pass with your best violence;
             I am afeard you make a wanton of me.

     _Laer._ Say you so? come on.                 [_They play._

     _Osr._  Nothing, neither way.

     _Laer._ Have at you now!

                [_Laertes wounds Hamlet; then, in scuffling, they
                   change rapiers, and Hamlet wounds Laertes._[264]

     _King._  Part them; they are incensed.

     _Ham._   Nay, come, again.             _The Queen falls._[265]

     _Osr._                    Look to the Queen there, ho!

     _Hor._   They bleed on both sides. How is it, my lord?

     _Osr._   How is't, Laertes?

The words 'and Hamlet wounds Laertes' in Rowe's stage-direction destroy
the point of the words given to the King in the text. If Laertes is
already wounded, why should the King care whether the fencers are parted
or not? What makes him cry out is that, while he sees his purpose
effected as regards Hamlet, he also sees Laertes in danger through the
exchange of foils in the scuffle. Now it is not to be supposed that
Laertes is particularly dear to him; but he sees instantaneously that,
if Laertes escapes the poisoned foil, he will certainly hold his tongue
about the plot against Hamlet, while, if he is wounded, he may confess
the truth; for it is no doubt quite evident to the King that Laertes has
fenced tamely because his conscience is greatly troubled by the
treachery he is about to practise. The King therefore, as soon as he
sees the exchange of foils, cries out, 'Part them; they are incensed.'
But Hamlet's blood is up. 'Nay, come, again,' he calls to Laertes, who
cannot refuse to play, and _now_ is wounded by Hamlet. At the very same
moment the Queen falls to the ground; and ruin rushes on the King from
the right hand and the left.

The passage, therefore, should be printed thus:

     _Laer._ Have at you now!

                     [_Laertes wounds Hamlet; then, in scuffling,
                                            they change rapiers._

     _King._ Part them; they are incensed.

     _Ham._  Nay, come, again.

       [_They play, and Hamlet wounds Laertes. The Queen falls._


[Footnote 264: So Rowe. The direction in Q1 is negligible, the text
being different. Q2 etc. have nothing, Ff. simply 'In scuffling they
change rapiers.']

[Footnote 265: Capell. The Quartos and Folios have no directions.]



The quite unusual difficulties regarding this subject have led to much
discussion, a synopsis of which may be found in Furness's Variorum
edition, pp. 358-72. Without detailing the facts I will briefly set out
the main difficulty, which is that, according to one set of indications
(which I will call A), Desdemona was murdered within a day or two of her
arrival in Cyprus, while, according to another set (which I will call
B), some time elapsed between her arrival and the catastrophe. Let us
take A first, and run through the play.

(A) Act I. opens on the night of Othello's marriage. On that night he is
despatched to Cyprus, leaving Desdemona to follow him.

In Act II. Sc. i., there arrive at Cyprus, first, in one ship, Cassio;
then, in another, Desdemona, Iago, and Emilia; then, in another, Othello
(Othello, Cassio, and Desdemona being in three different ships, it does
not matter, for our purpose, how long the voyage lasted). On the night
following these arrivals in Cyprus the marriage is consummated (II. iii.
9), Cassio is cashiered, and, on Iago's advice, he resolves to ask
Desdemona's intercession 'betimes in the morning' (II. iii. 335).

In Act III. Sc. iii. (the Temptation scene), he does so: Desdemona does
intercede: Iago begins to poison Othello's mind: the handkerchief is
lost, found by Emilia, and given to Iago: he determines to leave it in
Cassio's room, and, renewing his attack on Othello, asserts that he has
seen the handkerchief in Cassio's hand: Othello bids him kill Cassio
within three days, and resolves to kill Desdemona himself. All this
occurs in one unbroken scene, and evidently on the day after the arrival
in Cyprus (see III. i. 33).

In the scene (iv.) following the Temptation scene Desdemona sends to bid
Cassio come, as she has interceded for him: Othello enters, tests her
about the handkerchief, and departs in anger: Cassio, arriving, is told
of the change in Othello, and, being left _solus_, is accosted by
Bianca, whom he requests to copy the work on the handkerchief which he
has just found in his room (ll. 188 f.). All this is naturally taken to
happen in the later part of the day on which the events of III. i.-iii.
took place, _i.e._ the day after the arrival in Cyprus: but I shall
return to this point.

In IV. i. Iago tells Othello that Cassio has confessed, and, placing
Othello where he can watch, he proceeds on Cassio's entrance to rally
him about Bianca; and Othello, not being near enough to hear what is
said, believes that Cassio is laughing at his conquest of Desdemona.
Cassio here says that Bianca haunts him and 'was here _even now_'; and
Bianca herself, coming in, reproaches him about the handkerchief 'you
gave me _even now_.' There is therefore no appreciable time between III.
iv. and IV. i. In this same scene Bianca bids Cassio come to supper
_to-night_; and Lodovico, arriving, is asked to sup with Othello
_to-night_. In IV. ii. Iago persuades Roderigo to kill Cassio _that
night_ as he comes from Bianca's. In IV. iii. Lodovico, after supper,
takes his leave, and Othello bids Desdemona go to bed on the instant and
dismiss her attendant.

In Act V., _that night_, the attempted assassination of Cassio, and the
murder of Desdemona, take place.

From all this, then, it seems clear that the time between the arrival in
Cyprus and the catastrophe is certainly not more than a few days, and
most probably only about a day and a half: or, to put it otherwise, that
most probably Othello kills his wife about twenty-four hours after the
consummation of their marriage!

The only _possible_ place, it will be seen, where time can elapse is
between III. iii. and III. iv. And here Mr. Fleay would imagine a gap of
at least a week. The reader will find that this supposition involves the
following results, (_a_) Desdemona has allowed at least a week to elapse
without telling Cassio that she has interceded for him. (_b_) Othello,
after being convinced of her guilt, after resolving to kill her, and
after ordering Iago to kill Cassio within three days, has allowed at
least a week to elapse without even questioning her about the
handkerchief, and has so behaved during all this time that she is
totally unconscious of any change in his feelings. (_c_) Desdemona, who
reserves the handkerchief evermore about her to kiss and talk to (III.
iii. 295), has lost it for at least a week before she is conscious of
the loss. (_d_) Iago has waited at least a week to leave the
handkerchief in Cassio's chamber; for Cassio has evidently only just
found it, and wants the work on it copied before the owner makes
inquiries for it. These are all gross absurdities. It is certain that
only a short time, most probable that not even a night, elapses between
III. iii. and III. iv.

(B) Now this idea that Othello killed his wife, probably within
twenty-four hours, certainly within a few days, of the consummation of
his marriage, contradicts the impression produced by the play on all
uncritical readers and spectators. It is also in flat contradiction with
a large number of time-indications in the play itself. It is needless to
mention more than a few. (_a_) Bianca complains that Cassio has kept
away from her for a week (III. iv. 173). Cassio and the rest have
therefore been more than a week in Cyprus, and, we should naturally
infer, considerably more. (_b_) The ground on which Iago builds
throughout is the probability of Desdemona's having got tired of the
Moor; she is accused of having repeatedly committed adultery with Cassio
(_e.g._ V. ii. 210); these facts and a great many others, such as
Othello's language in III. iii. 338 ff., are utterly absurd on the
supposition that he murders his wife within a day or two of the night
when he consummated his marriage. (_c_) Iago's account of Cassio's dream
implies (and indeed states) that he had been sleeping with Cassio
'lately,' _i.e._ after arriving at Cyprus: yet, according to A, he had
only spent one night in Cyprus, and we are expressly told that Cassio
never went to bed on that night. Iago doubtless was a liar, but Othello
was not an absolute idiot.

       *       *       *       *       *

Thus (1) one set of time-indications clearly shows that Othello murdered
his wife within a few days, probably a day and a half, of his arrival in
Cyprus and the consummation of his marriage; (2) another set of
time-indications implies quite as clearly that some little time must
have elapsed, probably a few weeks; and this last is certainly the
impression of a reader who has not closely examined the play.

It is impossible to escape this result. The suggestion that the imputed
intrigue of Cassio and Desdemona took place at Venice before the
marriage, not at Cyprus after it, is quite futile. There is no positive
evidence whatever for it; if the reader will merely refer to the
difficulties mentioned under B above, he will see that it leaves almost
all of them absolutely untouched; and Iago's accusation is uniformly one
of adultery.

How then is this extraordinary contradiction to be explained? It can
hardly be one of the casual inconsistencies, due to forgetfulness, which
are found in Shakespeare's other tragedies; for the scheme of time
indicated under A seems deliberate and self-consistent, and the scheme
indicated under B seems, if less deliberate, equally self-consistent.
This does not look as if a single scheme had been so vaguely imagined
that inconsistencies arose in working it out; it points to some other
source of contradiction.

'Christopher North,' who dealt very fully with the question, elaborated
a doctrine of Double Time, Short and Long. To do justice to this theory
in a few words is impossible, but its essence is the notion that
Shakespeare, consciously or unconsciously, wanted to produce on the
spectator (for he did not aim at readers) two impressions. He wanted the
spectator to feel a passionate and vehement haste in the action; but he
also wanted him to feel that the action was fairly probable. Consciously
or unconsciously he used Short Time (the scheme of A) for the first
purpose, and Long Time (the scheme of B) for the second. The spectator
is affected in the required manner by both, though without distinctly
noticing the indications of the two schemes.

The notion underlying this theory is probably true, but the theory
itself can hardly stand. Passing minor matters by, I would ask the
reader to consider the following remarks. (_a_) If, as seems to be
maintained, the spectator does not notice the indications of 'Short
Time' at all, how can they possibly affect him? The passion, vehemence
and haste of Othello affect him, because he perceives them; but if he
does not perceive the hints which show the duration of the action from
the arrival in Cyprus to the murder, these hints have simply no
existence for him and are perfectly useless. The theory, therefore, does
not explain the existence of 'Short Time.' (_b_) It is not the case that
'Short Time' is wanted only to produce an impression of vehemence and
haste, and 'Long Time' for probability. The 'Short Time' is equally
wanted for probability: for it is grossly improbable that Iago's
intrigue should not break down if Othello spends a week or weeks between
the successful temptation and his execution of justice. (_c_) And this
brings me to the most important point, which appears to have escaped
notice. The place where 'Long Time' is wanted is not _within_ Iago's
intrigue. 'Long Time' is required simply and solely because the intrigue
and its circumstances presuppose a marriage consummated, and an adultery
possible, for (let us say) some weeks. But, granted that lapse between
the marriage and the temptation, there is no reason whatever why more
than a few days or even one day should elapse between this temptation
and the murder. The whole trouble arises because the temptation begins
on the morning after the consummated marriage. Let some three weeks
elapse between the first night at Cyprus and the temptation; let the
brawl which ends in the disgrace of Cassio occur not on that night but
three weeks later; or again let it occur that night, but let three weeks
elapse before the intercession of Desdemona and the temptation of Iago
begin. All will then be clear. Cassio has time to make acquaintance with
Bianca, and to neglect her: the Senate has time to hear of the perdition
of the Turkish fleet and to recall Othello: the accusations of Iago
cease to be ridiculous; and the headlong speed of the action after the
temptation has begun is quite in place. Now, too, there is no reason why
we should not be affected by the hints of time ('to-day,' 'to-night,'
'even now'), which we _do_ perceive (though we do not calculate them
out). And, lastly, this supposition corresponds with our natural
impression, which is that the temptation and what follows it take place
some little while after the marriage, but occupy, themselves, a very
short time.

Now, of course, the supposition just described is no fact. As the play
stands, it is quite certain that there is no space of three weeks, or
anything like it, either between the arrival in Cyprus and the brawl, or
between the brawl and the temptation. And I draw attention to the
supposition chiefly to show that quite a small change would remove the
difficulties, and to insist that there is nothing wrong at all in regard
to the time from the temptation onward. How to account for the existing
contradictions I do not at all profess to know, and I will merely
mention two possibilities.

Possibly, as Mr. Daniel observes, the play has been tampered with. We
have no text earlier than 1622, six years after Shakespeare's death. It
may be suggested, then, that in the play, as Shakespeare wrote it, there
was a gap of some weeks between the arrival in Cyprus and Cassio's
brawl, or (less probably) between the brawl and the temptation. Perhaps
there was a scene indicating the lapse of time. Perhaps it was dull, or
the play was a little too long, or devotees of the unity of time made
sport of a second breach of that unity coming just after the breach
caused by the voyage. Perhaps accordingly the owners of the play
altered, or hired a dramatist to alter, the arrangement at this point,
and this was unwittingly done in such a way as to produce the
contradictions we are engaged on. There is nothing intrinsically
unlikely in this idea; and certainly, I think, the amount of such
corruption of Shakespeare's texts by the players is usually rather
underrated than otherwise. But I cannot say I see any signs of foreign
alteration in the text, though it is somewhat odd that Roderigo, who
makes no complaint on the day of the arrival in Cyprus when he is being
persuaded to draw Cassio into a quarrel that night, should, directly
after the quarrel (II. iii. 370), complain that he is making no advance
in his pursuit of Desdemona, and should speak as though he had been in
Cyprus long enough to have spent nearly all the money he brought from

Or, possibly, Shakespeare's original plan was to allow some time to
elapse after the arrival at Cyprus, but when he reached the point he
found it troublesome to indicate this lapse in an interesting way, and
convenient to produce Cassio's fall by means of the rejoicings on the
night of the arrival, and then almost necessary to let the request for
intercession, and the temptation, follow on the next day. And perhaps he
said to himself, No one in the theatre will notice that all this makes
an impossible position: and I can make all safe by using language that
implies that Othello has after all been married for some time. If so,
probably he was right. I do not think anyone does notice the
impossibilities either in the theatre or in a casual reading of the

Either of these suppositions is possible: neither is, to me, probable.
The first seems the less unlikely. If the second is true, Shakespeare
did in _Othello_ what he seems to do in no other play. I can believe
that he may have done so; but I find it very hard to believe that he
produced this impossible situation without knowing it. It is one thing
to read a drama or see it, quite another to construct and compose it,
and he appears to have imagined the action in _Othello_ with even more
than his usual intensity.



The first printed _Othello_ is the first Quarto (Q1), 1622; the second
is the first Folio (F1), 1623. These two texts are two distinct versions
of the play. Q1 contains many oaths and expletives where less
'objectionable' expressions occur in F1. Partly for this reason it is
believed to represent the _earlier_ text, perhaps the text as it stood
before the Act of 1605 against profanity on the stage. Its readings are
frequently superior to those of F1, but it wants many lines that appear
in F1, which probably represents the acting version in 1623. I give a
list of the longer passages absent from Q1:

     (_a_) I. i. 122-138. 'If't' ... 'yourself:'

     (_b_) I. ii 72-77. 'Judge' ... 'thee'

     (_c_) I. iii. 24-30. 'For' ... 'profitless.'

     (_d_) III. iii. 383-390. '_Oth._ By' ... 'satisfied! _Iago._'

     (_e_) III. iii. 453-460. 'Iago.' ... 'heaven,'

     (_f_) IV. i. 38-44. 'To confess' ... 'devil!'

     (_g_) IV. ii. 73-76, 'Committed!' ... 'committed!'

     (_h_) IV. ii. 151-164. 'Here' ... 'make me.'

     (_i_) IV. iii. 31-53. 'I have' ... 'not next'
                and 55-57. '_Des._ [_Singing_]' ... 'men.'

     (_j_) IV. iii. 60-63. 'I have' ... 'question.'

     (_k_) IV. iii. 87-104. 'But I' ... 'us so.'

     (_l_) V. ii. 151-154. 'O mistress' ... 'Iago.'

     (_m_) V. ii. 185-193. 'My mistress' ... 'villany!'

     (_n_) V. ii. 266-272. 'Be not' ... 'wench!'

Were these passages after-thoughts, composed after the version
represented by Q1 was written? Or were they in the version represented
by Q1, and only omitted in printing, whether accidentally or because
they were also omitted in the theatre? Or were some of them
after-thoughts, and others in the original version?

I will take them in order. (_a_) can hardly be an after-thought. Up to
that point Roderigo had hardly said anything, for Iago had always
interposed; and it is very unlikely that Roderigo would now deliver but
four lines, and speak at once of 'she' instead of 'your daughter.'
Probably this 'omission' represents a 'cut' in stage performance. (_b_)
This may also be the case here. In our texts the omission of the passage
would make nonsense, but in Q1 the 'cut' (if a cut) has been mended,
awkwardly enough, by the substitution of 'Such' for 'For' in line 78. In
any case, the lines cannot be an addition. (_c_) cannot be an
after-thought, for the sentence is unfinished without it; and that it
was not meant to be interrupted is clear, because in Q1 line 31 begins
'And,' not 'Nay'; the Duke might say 'Nay' if he were cutting the
previous speaker short, but not 'And.' (_d_) is surely no addition. If
the lines are cut out, not only is the metre spoilt, but the obvious
reason for Iago's words, 'I see, Sir, you are eaten up with passion,'
disappears, and so does the reference of his word 'satisfied' in 393 to
Othello's 'satisfied' in 390. (_e_) is the famous passage about the
Pontic Sea, and I reserve it for the present. (_f_) As Pope observes,
'no hint of this trash in the first edition,' the 'trash' including the
words 'Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without
some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus'! There is nothing
to prove these lines to be original or an after-thought. The omission of
(_g_) is clearly a printer's error, due to the fact that lines 72 and 76
both end with the word 'committed.' No conclusion can be formed as to
(_h_), nor perhaps (_i_), which includes the whole of Desdemona's song;
but if (_j_) is removed the reference in 'such a deed' in 64 is
destroyed. (_k_) is Emilia's long speech about husbands. It cannot well
be an after-thought, for 105-6 evidently refer to 103-4 (even the word
'uses' in 105 refers to 'use' in 103). (_l_) is no after-thought, for
'if he says so' in 155 must point back to 'my husband say that she was
false!' in 152. (_m_) might be an after-thought, but, if so, in the
first version the ending 'to speak' occurred twice within three lines,
and the reason for Iago's sudden alarm in 193 is much less obvious. If
(_n_) is an addition the original collocation was:

                          but O vain boast!
     Who can control his fate? 'Tis not so now.
     Pale as thy smock!

which does not sound probable.

Thus, as it seems to me, in the great majority of cases there is more or
less reason to think that the passages wanting in Q1 were nevertheless
parts of the original play, and I cannot in any one case see any
positive ground for supposing a subsequent addition. I think that most
of the gaps in Q1 were accidents of printing (like many other smaller
gaps in Q1), but that probably one or two were 'cuts'--_e.g._ Emilia's
long speech (_k_). The omission of (_i_) might be due to the state of
the MS.: the words of the song may have been left out of the dialogue,
as appearing on a separate page with the musical notes, or may have been
inserted in such an illegible way as to baffle the printer.

I come now to (_e_), the famous passage about the Pontic Sea. Pope
supposed that it formed part of the original version, but approved of
its omission, as he considered it 'an unnatural excursion in this
place.' Mr. Swinburne thinks it an after-thought, but defends it. 'In
other lips indeed than Othello's, at the crowning minute of culminant
agony, the rush of imaginative reminiscence which brings back upon his
eyes and ears the lightning foam and tideless thunder of the Pontic Sea
might seem a thing less natural than sublime. But Othello has the
passion of a poet closed in as it were and shut up behind the passion of
a hero' (_Study of Shakespeare_, p. 184). I quote these words all the
more gladly because they will remind the reader of my lectures of my
debt to Mr. Swinburne here; and I will only add that the reminiscence
here is of _precisely the same character_ as the reminiscences of the
Arabian trees and the base Indian in Othello's final speech. But I find
it almost impossible to believe that Shakespeare _ever_ wrote the
passage without the words about the Pontic Sea. It seems to me almost an
imperative demand of imagination that Iago's set speech, if I may use
the phrase, should be preceded by a speech of somewhat the same
dimensions, the contrast of which should heighten the horror of its
hypocrisy; it seems to me that Shakespeare must have felt this; and it
is difficult to me to think that he ever made the lines,

     In the due reverence of a sacred vow
     I here engage my words,

follow directly on the one word 'Never' (however impressive that word in
its isolation might be). And as I can find no _other_ 'omission' in Q1
which appears to point to a subsequent addition, I conclude that this
'omission' _was_ an omission, probably accidental, conceivably due to a
stupid 'cut.' Indeed it is nothing but Mr. Swinburne's opinion that
prevents my feeling certainty on the point.

Finally, I may draw attention to certain facts which may be mere
accidents, but may possibly be significant. Passages (_b_) and (_c_)
consist respectively of six and seven lines; that is, they are almost of
the same length, and in a MS. might well fill exactly the same amount of
space. Passage (_d_) is eight lines long; so is passage (_e_). Now,
taking at random two editions of Shakespeare, the Globe and that of
Delius, I find that (_b_) and (_c_) are 6-1/4 inches apart in the Globe,
8 in Delius; and that (_d_) and (_e_) are separated by 7-3/8 inches in
the Globe, by 8-3/4 in Delius. In other words, there is about the same
distance in each case between two passages of about equal dimensions.

The idea suggested by these facts is that the MS. from which Q1 was
printed was mutilated in various places; that (_b_) and (_c_) occupied
the bottom inches of two successive pages, and that these inches were
torn away; and that this was also the case with (_d_) and (_e_).

This speculation has amused me and may amuse some reader. I do not know
enough of Elizabethan manuscripts to judge of its plausibility.



It is curious that in the First Act two impressions are produced which
have afterwards to be corrected.

1. We must not suppose that Othello's account of his courtship in his
famous speech before the Senate is intended to be exhaustive. He is
accused of having used drugs or charms in order to win Desdemona; and
therefore his purpose in his defence is merely to show that his
witchcraft was the story of his life. It is no part of his business to
trouble the Senators with the details of his courtship, and he so
condenses his narrative of it that it almost appears as though there was
no courtship at all, and as though Desdemona never imagined that he was
in love with her until she had practically confessed her love for him.
Hence she has been praised by some for her courage, and blamed by others
for her forwardness.

But at III. iii. 70 f. matters are presented in quite a new light. There
we find the following words of hers:

                             What! Michael Cassio,
     That came a-wooing with you, and so many a time,
     When I have spoke of you dispraisingly,
     Hath ta'en your part.

It seems, then, she understood why Othello came so often to her father's
house, and was perfectly secure of his love before she gave him that
very broad 'hint to speak.' I may add that those who find fault with her
forget that it was necessary for her to take the first open step. She
was the daughter of a Venetian grandee, and Othello was a black soldier
of fortune.

2. We learn from the lines just quoted that Cassio used to accompany
Othello in his visits to the house; and from III. iii. 93 f. we learn
that he knew of Othello's love from first to last and 'went between' the
lovers 'very oft.' Yet in Act I. it appears that, while Iago on the
night of the marriage knows about it and knows where to find Othello (I.
i. 158 f.), Cassio, even if he knows where to find Othello (which is
doubtful: see I. ii. 44), seems to know nothing about the marriage. See
I. ii. 49:

     _Cas._   Ancient, what makes he here?

     _Iago._  'Faith, he to-night hath boarded a land carack:
              If it prove lawful prize, he's made for ever.

     _Cas._   I do not understand.

     _Iago._                   He's married.

     _Cas._                               To who?

It is possible that Cassio does know, and only pretends ignorance
because he has not been informed by Othello that Iago also knows. And
this idea is consistent with Iago's apparent ignorance of Cassio's part
in the courtship (III. iii. 93). And of course, if this were so, a word
from Shakespeare to the actor who played Cassio would enable him to make
all clear to the audience. The alternative, and perhaps more probable,
explanation would be that, in writing Act I., Shakespeare had not yet
thought of making Cassio Othello's confidant, and that, after writing
Act III., he neglected to alter the passage in Act I. In that case the
further information which Act III. gives regarding Othello's courtship
would probably also be an after-thought.



One reason why some readers think Othello 'easily jealous' is that they
completely misinterpret him in the early part of this scene. They fancy
that he is alarmed and suspicious the moment he hears Iago mutter 'Ha! I
like not that,' as he sees Cassio leaving Desdemona (III. iii. 35). But,
in fact, it takes a long time for Iago to excite surprise, curiosity,
and then grave concern--by no means yet jealousy--even about Cassio; and
it is still longer before Othello understands that Iago is suggesting
doubts about Desdemona too. ('Wronged' in 143 certainly does not refer
to her, as 154 and 162 show.) Nor, even at 171, is the exclamation 'O
misery' meant for an expression of Othello's own present feelings; as
his next speech clearly shows, it expresses an _imagined_ feeling, as
also the speech which elicits it professes to do (for Iago would not
have dared here to apply the term 'cuckold' to Othello). In fact it is
not until Iago hints that Othello, as a foreigner, might easily be
deceived, that he is seriously disturbed about Desdemona.

Salvini played this passage, as might be expected, with entire
understanding. Nor have I ever seen it seriously misinterpreted on the
stage. I gather from the Furness Variorum that Fechter and Edwin Booth
took the same view as Salvini. Actors have to ask themselves what was
the precise state of mind expressed by the words they have to repeat.
But many readers never think of asking such a question.

The lines which probably do most to lead hasty or unimaginative readers
astray are those at 90, where, on Desdemona's departure, Othello
exclaims to himself:

     Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul
     But I do love thee! and when I love thee not,
     Chaos is come again.

He is supposed to mean by the last words that his love is _now_
suspended by suspicion, whereas in fact, in his bliss, he has so totally
forgotten Iago's 'Ha! I like not that,' that the tempter has to begin
all over again. The meaning is, 'If ever I love thee not, Chaos will
have come again.' The feeling of insecurity is due to the excess of
_joy_, as in the wonderful words after he rejoins Desdemona at Cyprus
(II. i. 191):

                     If it were now to die,
     'Twere now to be most happy: for, I fear
     My soul hath her content so absolute
     That not another comfort like to this
     Succeeds in unknown fate.

If any reader boggles at the use of the present in 'Chaos _is_ come
again,' let him observe 'succeeds' in the lines just quoted, or let him
look at the parallel passage in _Venus and Adonis_, 1019:

     For, he being dead, with him is beauty slain;
     And, beauty dead, black Chaos comes again.

Venus does not know that Adonis is dead when she speaks thus.



(1) The first part of the scene is hard to understand, and the
commentators give little help. I take the idea to be as follows. Iago
sees that he must renew his attack on Othello; for, on the one hand,
Othello, in spite of the resolution he had arrived at to put Desdemona
to death, has taken the step, without consulting Iago, of testing her in
the matter of Iago's report about the handkerchief; and, on the other
hand, he now seems to have fallen into a dazed lethargic state, and must
be stimulated to action. Iago's plan seems to be to remind Othello of
everything that would madden him again, but to do so by professing to
make light of the whole affair, and by urging Othello to put the best
construction on the facts, or at any rate to acquiesce. So he says, in
effect: 'After all, if she did kiss Cassio, that might mean little. Nay,
she might even go much further without meaning any harm.[266] Of course
there is the handkerchief (10); but then why should she _not_ give it
away?' Then, affecting to renounce this hopeless attempt to disguise his
true opinion, he goes on: 'However, _I_ cannot, as your friend, pretend
that I really regard her as innocent: the fact is, Cassio boasted to me
in so many words of his conquest. [Here he is interrupted by Othello's
swoon.] But, after all, why make such a fuss? You share the fate of most
married men, and you have the advantage of not being deceived in the
matter.' It must have been a great pleasure to Iago to express his real
cynicism thus, with the certainty that he would not be taken seriously
and would advance his plot by it. At 208-210 he recurs to the same plan
of maddening Othello by suggesting that, if he is so fond of Desdemona,
he had better let the matter be, for it concerns no one but him. This
speech follows Othello's exclamation 'O Iago, the pity of it,' and this
is perhaps the moment when we most of all long to destroy Iago.

(2) At 216 Othello tells Iago to get him some poison, that he may kill
Desdemona that night. Iago objects: 'Do it not with poison: strangle her
in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated?' Why does he object to
poison? Because through the sale of the poison he himself would be
involved? Possibly. Perhaps his idea was that, Desdemona being killed by
Othello, and Cassio killed by Roderigo, he would then admit that he had
informed Othello of the adultery, and perhaps even that he had
undertaken Cassio's death; but he would declare that he never meant to
fulfil his promise as to Cassio, and that he had nothing to do with
Desdemona's death (he seems to be preparing for this at 285). His buying
poison might wreck this plan. But it may be that his objection to poison
springs merely from contempt for Othello's intellect. He can trust him
to use violence, but thinks he may bungle anything that requires

(3) When the conversation breaks off here (225) Iago has brought Othello
back to the position reached at the end of the Temptation scene (III.
iii.). Cassio and Desdemona are to be killed; and, in addition, the time
is hastened; it is to be 'to-night,' not 'within three days.'

The constructional idea clearly is that, after the Temptation scene,
Othello tends to relapse and wait, which is terribly dangerous to Iago,
who therefore in this scene quickens his purpose. Yet Othello relapses
again. He has declared that he will not expostulate with her (IV. i.
217). But he cannot keep his word, and there follows the scene of
accusation. Its _dramatic_ purposes are obvious, but Othello seems to
have no purpose in it. He asks no questions, or, rather, none that shows
the least glimpse of doubt or hope. He is merely torturing himself.


[Footnote 266: The reader who is puzzled by this passage should refer to
the conversation at the end of the thirtieth tale in the _Heptameron_.]



(1) V. ii. 71 f. Desdemona demands that Cassio be sent for to 'confess'
the truth that she never gave him the handkerchief. Othello answers that
Cassio _has_ confessed the truth--has confessed the adultery. The
dialogue goes on:

     _Des._  He will not say so.

     _Oth._                    No, his mouth is stopp'd:
             Honest Iago hath ta'en order for 't.

     _Des._  O! my fear interprets: what, is he dead?

     _Oth._  Had all his hairs been lives, my great revenge
             Had stomach for them all.

     _Des._  Alas! he is _betray'd_ and _I_ undone.

It is a ghastly idea, but I believe Shakespeare means that, at the
mention of Iago's name, Desdemona suddenly sees that _he_ is the villain
whose existence he had declared to be impossible when, an hour before,
Emilia had suggested that someone had poisoned Othello's mind. But her
words rouse Othello to such furious indignation ('Out, strumpet! Weep'st
thou for him to my face?') that 'it is too late.'

(2) V. ii. 286 f.

     _Oth._  I look down towards his feet; but that's a fable.
             If that thou be'st a devil, I cannot kill thee.
                                           [_Wounds Iago._

     _Lod._  Wrench his sword from him.

     _Iago._                      I bleed, sir, but not killed.

Are Iago's strange words meant to show his absorption of interest in
himself amidst so much anguish? I think rather he is meant to be
alluding to Othello's words, and saying, with a cold contemptuous smile,
'You see he is right; I _am_ a devil.'



I have said that the last scene of _Othello_, though terribly painful,
contains almost nothing to diminish the admiration and love which
heighten our pity for the hero (p. 198). I said 'almost' in view of the
following passage (V. ii. 123 ff.):

     _Emil._ O, who hath done this deed?

     _Des._  Nobody; I myself. Farewell:
             Commend  me to my kind lord: O, farewell!    [_Dies._

     _Oth._  Why, how should she be murdered?[267]

     _Emil._                                Alas, who knows?

     _Oth._  You heard her say herself, it was not I.

     _Emil._ She said so: I must needs report the truth.

     _Oth._  She's, like a liar, gone to burning hell:
             'Twas I that kill'd her.

     _Emil._                         O, the more angel she,
             And you the blacker devil!

     _Oth._  She turn'd to folly, and she was a whore.

This is a strange passage. What did Shakespeare mean us to feel? One is
astonished that Othello should not be startled, nay thunder-struck, when
he hears such dying words coming from the lips of an obdurate
adulteress. One is shocked by the moral blindness or obliquity which
takes them only as a further sign of her worthlessness. Here alone, I
think, in the scene sympathy with Othello quite disappears. Did
Shakespeare mean us to feel thus, and to realise how completely confused
and perverted Othello's mind has become? I suppose so: and yet Othello's
words continue to strike me as very strange, and also as not _like_
Othello,--especially as at this point he was not in anger, much less
enraged. It has sometimes occurred to me that there is a touch of
personal animus in the passage. One remembers the place in _Hamlet_
(written but a little while before) where Hamlet thinks he is unwilling
to kill the King at his prayers, for fear they may take him to heaven;
and one remembers Shakespeare's irony, how he shows that those prayers
do _not_ go to heaven, and that the soul of this praying murderer is at
that moment as murderous as ever (see p. 171), just as here the soul of
the lying Desdemona is angelic _in_ its lie. Is it conceivable that in
both passages he was intentionally striking at conventional 'religious'
ideas; and, in particular, that the belief that a man's everlasting fate
is decided by the occupation of his last moment excited in him
indignation as well as contempt? I admit that this fancy seems
un-Shakespearean, and yet it comes back on me whenever I read this
passage. [The words 'I suppose so' (l. 3 above) gave my conclusion; but
I wish to withdraw the whole Note]


[Footnote 267: He alludes to her cry, 'O falsely, falsely murder'd!']



I have answered No (p. 216), and have no doubt about the matter; but at
one time I was puzzled, as perhaps others have been, by a single phrase
of Emilia's. It occurs in the conversation between her and Iago and
Desdemona (IV. ii. 130 f.):

     I will be hang'd if some eternal villain,
     Some busy and insinuating rogue,
     Some cogging, cozening slave, _to get some office_,
     Have not devised this slander; I'll be hang'd else.

Emilia, it may be said, knew that Cassio was the suspected man, so that
she must be thinking of _his_ office, and must mean that Iago has
poisoned Othello's mind in order to prevent his reinstatement and to get
the lieutenancy for himself. And, it may be said, she speaks
indefinitely so that Iago alone may understand her (for Desdemona does
not know that Cassio is the suspected man). Hence too, it may be said,
when, at V. ii. 190, she exclaims,

                  Villany, villany, villany!
     I think upon't, I think: I smell't: O villany!
     _I thought so then:_--I'll kill myself for grief;

she refers in the words italicised to the occasion of the passage in IV.
ii., and is reproaching herself for not having taken steps on her
suspicion of Iago.

I have explained in the text why I think it impossible to suppose that
Emilia suspected her husband; and I do not think anyone who follows her
speeches in V. ii., and who realises that, if she did suspect him, she
must have been simply _pretending_ surprise when Othello told her that
Iago was his informant, will feel any doubt. Her idea in the lines at
IV. ii. 130 is, I believe, merely that someone is trying to establish a
ground for asking a favour from Othello in return for information which
nearly concerns him. It does not follow that, because she knew Cassio
was suspected, she must have been referring to Cassio's office. She was
a stupid woman, and, even if she had not been, she would not put two and
two together so easily as the reader of the play.

In the line,

     I thought so then: I'll kill myself for grief,

I think she certainly refers to IV. ii. 130 f. and also IV. ii. 15
(Steevens's idea that she is thinking of the time when she let Iago take
the handkerchief is absurd). If 'I'll kill myself for grief' is to be
taken in close connection with the preceding words (which is not
certain), she may mean that she reproaches herself for not having acted
on her general suspicion, or (less probably) that she reproaches herself
for not having suspected that Iago was the rogue.

With regard to my view that she failed to think of the handkerchief when
she saw how angry Othello was, those who believe that she did think of
it will of course also believe that she suspected Iago. But in addition
to other difficulties, they will have to suppose that her astonishment,
when Othello at last mentioned the handkerchief, was mere acting. And
anyone who can believe this seems to me beyond argument. [I regret that
I cannot now discuss some suggestions made to me in regard to the
subjects of Notes O and P.]



The one expression of this suspicion appears in a very curious manner.
Iago, soliloquising, says (II. i. 311):

                          Which thing to do,
     If this poor trash of Venice, whom I trash
     For his quick hunting, stand the putting on,
     I'll have our Michael Cassio on the hip,
     Abuse him to the Moor in the rank [F. right] garb--
     For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too--
     Make the Moor thank me, etc.

Why '_For_ I fear Cassio,' etc.? He can hardly be giving himself an
additional reason for involving Cassio; the parenthesis must be
explanatory of the preceding line or some part of it. I think it
explains 'rank garb' or 'right garb,' and the meaning is, 'For Cassio
_is_ what I shall accuse him of being, a seducer of wives.' He is
returning to the thought with which the soliloquy begins, 'That Cassio
loves her, I do well believe it.' In saying this he is unconsciously
trying to believe that Cassio would at any rate _like_ to be an
adulterer, so that it is not so very abominable to say that he _is_ one.
And the idea 'I suspect him with Emilia' is a second and stronger
attempt of the same kind. The idea probably was born and died in one
moment. It is a curious example of Iago's secret subjection to morality.



The following is a list, made without any special search, and doubtless
incomplete, of words and phrases in _King Lear_ which recall words and
phrases in _Othello_, and many of which occur only in these two plays:

     'waterish,' I. i. 261, appears only here and in _O._
     III. iii. 15.

     'fortune's alms,' I. i. 281, appears only here and in
     _O._ III. iv. 122.

     'decline' seems to be used of the advance of age only in
     I. ii. 78 and _O._ III. iii. 265.

     'slack' in 'if when they chanced to slack you,' II.
     iv. 248, has no exact parallel in Shakespeare, but recalls
     'they slack their duties,' _O._ IV. iii. 88.

     'allowance' (=authorisation), I. iv. 228, is used
     thus only in _K.L._, _O._ I. i. 128, and two places
     in _Hamlet_ and _Hen. VIII._

     'besort,' vb., I. iv. 272, does not occur elsewhere,
     but 'besort,' sb., occurs in _O._ I. iii. 239 and
     nowhere else.

     Edmund's 'Look, sir, I bleed,' II. i. 43, sounds like
     an echo of Iago's 'I bleed, sir, but not killed,' _O._
     V. ii. 288.

     'potential,' II. i. 78, appears only here, in _O._
     I. ii. 13, and in the _Lover's Complaint_ (which, I
     think, is certainly not an early poem).

     'poise' in 'occasions of some poise,' II. i. 122, is
     exactly like 'poise' in 'full of poise and difficult weight,'
     _O._ III. iii. 82, and not exactly like 'poise' in
     the three other places where it occurs.

     'conjunct,' used only in II. ii. 125 (Q), V.
     i. 12, recalls 'conjunctive,' used only in _H_. IV.
     vii. 14, _O._ I. iii. 374 (F).

     'grime,' vb., used only in II. iii. 9, recalls
     'begrime,' used only in _O._ III. iii. 387 and

     'unbonneted,' III. i. 14, appears only here and in
     _O._ I. ii. 23.

     'delicate,' III. iv. 12, IV. iii. 15,
     IV. vi. 188, is not a rare word with Shakespeare; he
     uses it about thirty times in his plays. But it is worth
     notice that it occurs six times in _O._

     'commit,' used intr. for 'commit adultery,' appears only in
     III. iv. 83, but cf. the famous iteration in _O._
     IV. ii. 72 f.

     'stand in hard cure,' III. vi. 107, seems to have no
     parallel except _O._ II. i. 51, 'stand in bold cure.'

     'secure'=make careless, IV. i. 22, appears only here
     and in _O._ I. iii. 10 and (not quite the same sense)
     _Tim._ II. ii. 185.

     Albany's 'perforce must wither,' IV. ii. 35, recalls
     Othello's 'It must needs wither,' V. ii. 15.

     'deficient,' IV. vi. 23, occurs only here and in _O._
     I. iii. 63.

     'the safer sense,' IV. vi. 81, recalls 'my blood
     begins my safer guides to rules,' _O._ II. iii. 205.

     'fitchew,' IV. vi. 124, is used only here, in _O._
     IV. i. 150, and in _T.C._ V. i. 67 (where it
     has not the same significance).

     Lear's 'I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion I
     would have made them skip,' V. iii. 276, recalls
     Othello's 'I have seen the day, That with this little arm and
     this good sword,' etc., V. ii. 261.

The fact that more than half of the above occur in the first two Acts of
_King Lear_ may possibly be significant: for the farther removed
Shakespeare was from the time of the composition of _Othello_, the less
likely would be the recurrence of ideas or words used in that play.



That these two plays are near akin in character, and probably in date,
is recognised by many critics now; and I will merely add here a few
references to the points of resemblance mentioned in the text (p. 246),
and a few notes on other points.

(1) The likeness between Timon's curses and some of the speeches of Lear
in his madness is, in one respect, curious. It is natural that Timon,
speaking to Alcibiades and two courtezans, should inveigh in particular
against sexual vices and corruption, as he does in the terrific passage
IV. iii. 82-166; but why should Lear refer at length, and with the same
loathing, to this particular subject (IV. vi. 112-132)? It almost looks
as if Shakespeare were expressing feelings which oppressed him at this
period of his life.

The idea may be a mere fancy, but it has seemed to me that this
pre-occupation, and sometimes this oppression, are traceable in other
plays of the period from about 1602 to 1605 (_Hamlet_, _Measure for
Measure_, _Troilus and Cressida_, _All's Well_, _Othello_); while in
earlier plays the subject is handled less, and without disgust, and in
later plays (e.g. _Antony and Cleopatra_, _The Winter's Tale_,
_Cymbeline_) it is also handled, however freely, without this air of
repulsion (I omit _Pericles_ because the authorship of the
brothel-scenes is doubtful).

(2) For references to the lower animals, similar to those in _King
Lear_, see especially _Timon_, I. i. 259; II. ii. 180; III. vi. 103 f.;
IV. i. 2, 36; IV. iii. 49 f., 177 ff., 325 ff. (surely a passage written
or, at the least, rewritten by Shakespeare), 392, 426 f. I ignore the
constant abuse of the dog in the conversations where Apemantus appears.

(3) Further points of resemblance are noted in the text at pp. 246, 247,
310, 326, 327, and many likenesses in word, phrase and idea might be
added, of the type of the parallel 'Thine Do comfort and not burn,'
_Lear_, II. iv. 176, and 'Thou sun, that comfort'st, burn!' _Timon_, V.
i. 134.

(4) The likeness in style and versification (so far as the purely
Shakespearean parts of _Timon_ are concerned) is surely unmistakable,
but some readers may like to see an example. Lear speaks here (IV. vi.
164 ff.):

     Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
     Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
     Thou hotly lust'st to use her in that kind
     For which thou whipp'st her. The usurer hangs the cozener.
     Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
     Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
     And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
     Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.
     None does offend, none, I say, none; I'll able 'em:
     Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
     To seal the accuser's lips. Get thee glass eyes;
     And, like a scurvy politician, seem
     To see the things thou dost not.

And Timon speaks here (IV. iii. 1 ff.):

     O blessed breeding sun, draw from the earth
     Rotten humidity; below thy sister's orb
     Infect the air! Twinn'd brothers of one womb,
     Whose procreation, residence, and birth,
     Scarce is dividant, touch them with several fortunes,
     The greater scorns the lesser: not nature,
     To whom all sores lay siege, can bear great fortune,
     But by contempt of nature.
     Raise me this beggar, and deny't that lord:
     The senator shall bear contempt hereditary,
     The beggar native honour.
     It is the pasture lards the rother's sides,
     The want that makes him lean. Who dares, who dares.
     In purity of manhood stand upright
     And say 'This man's a flatterer'? if one be,
     So are they all: for every grise of fortune
     Is smooth'd by that below: the learned pate
     Ducks to the golden fool: all is oblique;
     There's nothing level in our cursed natures,
     But direct villany.

The reader may wish to know whether metrical tests throw any light on
the chronological position of _Timon_; and he will find such information
as I can give in Note BB. But he will bear in mind that results arrived
at by applying these tests to the whole play can have little value,
since it is practically certain that Shakespeare did not write the whole
play. It seems to consist (1) of parts that are purely Shakespearean
(the text, however, being here, as elsewhere, very corrupt); (2) of
parts untouched or very slightly touched by him; (3) of parts where a
good deal is Shakespeare's but not all (_e.g._, in my opinion, III. v.,
which I cannot believe, with Mr. Fleay, to be wholly, or almost wholly,
by another writer). The tests ought to be applied not only to the whole
play but separately to (1), about which there is little difference of
opinion. This has not been done: but Dr. Ingram has applied one test,
and I have applied another, to the parts assigned by Mr. Fleay to
Shakespeare (see Note BB.).[268] The result is to place _Timon_ between
_King Lear_ and _Macbeth_ (a result which happens to coincide with that
of the application of the main tests to the whole play): and this result
corresponds, I believe, with the general impression which we derive from
the three dramas in regard to versification.


[Footnote 268: These are I. i.; II. i.; II. ii., except 194-204; in III.
vi. Timon's verse speech; IV. i.; IV. ii. 1-28; IV. iii., except
292-362, 399-413, 454-543; V. i., except 1-50; V. ii.; V. iv. I am not
to be taken as accepting this division throughout.]



I have remarked in the text (pp. 256 ff.) on the unusual number of
improbabilities, inconsistencies, etc., in _King Lear_. The list of
examples given might easily be lengthened. Thus (_a_) in IV. iii. Kent
refers to a letter which he confided to the Gentleman for Cordelia; but
in III. i. he had given to the Gentleman not a letter but a message.
(_b_) In III. i. again he says Cordelia will inform the Gentleman who
the sender of the message was; but from IV. iii. it is evident that she
has done no such thing, nor does the Gentleman show any curiosity on the
subject. (_c_) In the same scene (III. i.) Kent and the Gentleman
arrange that whichever finds the King first shall halloo to the other;
but when Kent finds the King he does not halloo. These are all examples
of mere carelessness as to matters which would escape attention in the
theatre,--matters introduced not because they are essential to the plot,
but in order to give an air of verisimilitude to the conversation. And
here is perhaps another instance. When Lear determines to leave Goneril
and go to Regan he says, 'call my train together' (I. iv. 275). When he
arrives at Gloster's house Kent asks why he comes with so small a train,
and the Fool gives a reply which intimates that the rest have deserted
him (II. iv. 63 ff.). He and his daughters, however, seem unaware of any
diminution; and, when Lear 'calls to horse' and leaves Gloster's house,
the doors are shut against him partly on the excuse that he is 'attended
with a desperate train' (308). Nevertheless in the storm he has no
knights with him, and in III. vii. 15 ff. we hear that 'some five or six
and thirty of his knights'[269] are 'hot questrists after him,' as
though the real reason of his leaving Goneril with so small a train was
that he had hurried away so quickly that many of his knights were
unaware of his departure.

This prevalence of vagueness or inconsistency is probably due to
carelessness; but it may possibly be due to another cause. There are, it
has sometimes struck me, slight indications that the details of the plot
were originally more full and more clearly imagined than one would
suppose from the play as we have it; and some of the defects to which I
have drawn attention might have arisen if Shakespeare, finding his
matter too bulky, had (_a_) omitted to write some things originally
intended, and (_b_), after finishing his play, had reduced it by
excision, and had not, in these omissions and excisions, taken
sufficient pains to remove the obscurities and inconsistencies
occasioned by them.

Thus, to take examples of (_b_), Lear's 'What, fifty of my followers at
a clap!' (I. iv. 315) is very easily explained if we suppose that in the
preceding conversation, as originally written, Goneril had mentioned the
number. Again the curious absence of any indication why Burgundy should
have the first choice of Cordelia's hand might easily be due to the same
cause. So might the ignorance in which we are left as to the fate of the
Fool, and several more of the defects noticed in the text.

To illustrate the other point (_a_), that Shakespeare may have omitted
to write some things which he had originally intended, the play would
obviously gain something if it appeared that, at a time shortly before
that of the action, Gloster had encouraged the King in his idea of
dividing the kingdom, while Kent had tried to dissuade him. And there
are one or two passages which suggest that this is what Shakespeare
imagined. If it were so, there would be additional point in the Fool's
reference to the lord who counselled Lear to give away his land (I. iv.
154), and in Gloster's reflection (III. iv. 168),

     His daughters seek his death: ah, that good Kent!
     He said it would be thus:

('said,' of course, not to the King but to Gloster and perhaps others of
the council). Thus too the plots would be still more closely joined.
Then also we should at once understand the opening of the play. To
Kent's words, 'I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany
than Cornwall,' Gloster answers, 'It did always seem so to us.' Who are
the 'us' from whom Kent is excluded? I do not know, for there is no sign
that Kent has been absent. But if Kent, in consequence of his
opposition, had fallen out of favour and absented himself from the
council, it would be clear. So, besides, would be the strange suddenness
with which, after Gloster's answer, Kent changes the subject; he would
be avoiding, in presence of Gloster's son, any further reference to a
subject on which he and Gloster had differed. That Kent, I may add, had
already the strongest opinion about Goneril and Regan is clear from his
extremely bold words (I. i. 165),

     Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow
     Upon thy foul disease.

Did Lear remember this phrase when he called Goneril 'a disease that's
in my flesh' (II. iv. 225)?

Again, the observant reader may have noticed that Goneril is not only
represented as the fiercer and more determined of the two sisters but
also strikes one as the more sensual. And with this may be connected one
or two somewhat curious points: Kent's comparison of Goneril to the
figure of Vanity in the Morality plays (II. ii. 38); the Fool's
apparently quite irrelevant remark (though his remarks are scarcely ever
so), 'For there was never yet fair woman but she made mouths in a glass'
(III. ii. 35); Kent's reference to Oswald (long before there is any sign
of Goneril's intrigue with Edmund) as 'one that would be a bawd in way
of good service' (II. ii. 20); and Edgar's words to the corpse of Oswald
(IV. vi. 257), also spoken before he knew anything of the intrigue with

     I know thee well: a serviceable villain;
     As duteous to the vices of thy mistress
     As badness would desire.

Perhaps Shakespeare had conceived Goneril as a woman who before her
marriage had shown signs of sensual vice; but the distinct indications
of this idea were crowded out of his exposition when he came to write
it, or, being inserted, were afterwards excised. I will not go on to
hint that Edgar had Oswald in his mind when (III. iv. 87) he described
the serving-man who 'served the lust of his mistress' heart, and did the
act of darkness with her'; and still less that Lear can have had Goneril
in his mind in the declamation against lechery referred to in Note S.

I do not mean to imply, by writing this note, that I believe in the
hypotheses suggested in it. On the contrary I think it more probable
that the defects referred to arose from carelessness and other causes.
But this is not, to me, certain; and the reader who rejects the
hypotheses may be glad to have his attention called to the points which
suggested them.


[Footnote 269: It has been suggested that 'his' means 'Gloster's'; but
'him' all through the speech evidently means Lear.]



I have referred in the text to the obscurity of the play on this
subject, and I will set out the movements here.

When Lear is ill-treated by Goneril his first thought is to seek refuge
with Regan (I. iv. 274 f., 327 f.). Goneril, accordingly, who had
foreseen this, and, even before the quarrel, had determined to write to
Regan (I. iii. 25), now sends Oswald off to her, telling her not to
receive Lear and his hundred knights (I. iv. 354 f.). In consequence of
this letter Regan and Cornwall immediately leave their home and ride by
night to Gloster's house, sending word on that they are coming (II. i. 1
ff., 81, 120 ff.). Lear, on his part, just before leaving Goneril's
house, sends Kent with a letter to Regan, and tells him to be quick, or
Lear will be there before him. And we find that Kent reaches Regan and
delivers his letter before Oswald, Goneril's messenger. Both the
messengers are taken on by Cornwall and Regan to Gloster's house.

In II. iv. Lear arrives at Gloster's house, having, it would seem,
failed to find Regan at her own home. And, later, Goneril arrives at
Gloster's house, in accordance with an intimation which she had sent in
her letter to Regan (II. iv. 186 f.).

Thus all the principal persons except Cordelia and Albany are brought
together; and the crises of the double action--the expulsion of Lear and
the blinding and expulsion of Gloster--are reached in Act III. And this
is what was required.

But it needs the closest attention to follow these movements. And, apart
from this, difficulties remain.

1. Goneril, in despatching Oswald with the letter to Regan, tells him to
hasten his return (I. iv. 363). Lear again is surprised to find that
_his_ messenger has not been sent back (II. iv. 1 f., 36 f.). Yet
apparently both Goneril and Lear themselves start at once, so that their
messengers _could_ not return in time. It may be said that they expected
to meet them coming back, but there is no indication of this in the

2. Lear, in despatching Kent, says (I. v. 1):

     Go you before to Gloster with these letters. Acquaint my
     daughter no further with anything you know than comes from her
     demand out of the letter.

This would seem to imply that Lear knew that Regan and Cornwall were at
Gloster's house, and meant either to go there (so Koppel) or to summon
her back to her own home to receive him. Yet this is clearly not so, for
Kent goes straight to Regan's house (II. i. 124, II. iv. 1, 27 ff., 114

Hence it is generally supposed that by 'Gloster,' in the passage just
quoted, Lear means not the Earl but the _place_; that Regan's home was
there; and that Gloster's castle was somewhere not very far off. This is
to some extent confirmed by the fact that Cornwall is the 'arch' or
patron of Gloster (II. i. 60 f., 112 ff.). But Gloster's home or house
must not be imagined quite close to Cornwall's, for it takes a night to
ride from the one to the other, and Gloster's house is in the middle of
a solitary heath with scarce a bush for many miles about (II. iv. 304).

The plural 'these letters' in the passage quoted need give no trouble,
for the plural is often used by Shakespeare for a single letter; and the
natural conjecture that Lear sent one letter to Regan and another to
Gloster is not confirmed by anything in the text.

The only difficulty is that, as Koppel points out, 'Gloster' is nowhere
else used in the play for the place (except in the phrase 'Earl of
Gloster' or 'my lord of Gloster'); and--what is more important--that it
would unquestionably be taken by the audience to stand in this passage
for the Earl, especially as there has been no previous indication that
Cornwall lived at Gloster. One can only suppose that Shakespeare forgot
that he had given no such indication, and so wrote what was sure to be
misunderstood,--unless we suppose that 'Gloster' is a mere slip of the
pen, or even a misprint, for 'Regan.' But, apart from other
considerations, Lear would hardly have spoken to a servant of 'Regan,'
and, if he had, the next words would have run 'Acquaint her,' not
'Acquaint my daughter.'



There are three passages in _King Lear_ which have been held to be
additions made by 'the players.'

The first consists of the two lines of indecent doggerel spoken by the
Fool at the end of Act I.; the second, of the Fool's prophecy in rhyme
at the end of III. ii.; the third, of Edgar's soliloquy at the end of
III. vi.

It is suspicious (1) that all three passages occur at the ends of
scenes, the place where an addition is most easily made; and (2) that in
each case the speaker remains behind alone to utter the words after the
other persons have gone off.

I postpone discussion of the several passages until I have called
attention to the fact that, if these passages are genuine, the number of
scenes which end with a soliloquy is larger in _King Lear_ than in any
other undoubted tragedy. Thus, taking the tragedies in their probable
chronological order (and ignoring the very short scenes into which a
battle is sometimes divided),[270] I find that there are in _Romeo and
Juliet_ four such scenes, in _Julius Cæsar_ two, in _Hamlet_ six, in
_Othello_ four,[271] in _King Lear_ seven,[272] in _Macbeth_ two,[273]
in _Antony and Cleopatra_ three, in _Coriolanus_ one. The difference
between _King Lear_ and the plays that come nearest to it is really much
greater than it appears from this list, for in _Hamlet_ four of the six
soliloquies, and in _Othello_ three of the four, are long speeches,
while most of those in _King Lear_ are quite short.

Of course I do not attach any great importance to the fact just noticed,
but it should not be left entirely out of account in forming an opinion
as to the genuineness of the three doubted passages.

(_a_) The first of these, I. v. 54-5, I decidedly believe to be
spurious. (1) The scene ends quite in Shakespeare's manner without it.
(2) It does not seem likely that at the _end_ of the scene Shakespeare
would have introduced anything _violently_ incongruous with the
immediately preceding words,

     Oh let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!
     Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!

(3) Even if he had done so, it is very unlikely that the incongruous
words would have been grossly indecent. (4) Even if they had been,
surely they would not have been _irrelevantly_ indecent and evidently
addressed to the audience, two faults which are not in Shakespeare's
way. (5) The lines are doggerel. Doggerel is not uncommon in the
earliest plays; there are a few lines even in the _Merchant of Venice_,
a line and a half, perhaps, in _As You Like It_; but I do not think it
occurs later, not even where, in an early play, it would certainly have
been found, _e.g._ in the mouth of the Clown in _All's Well_. The best
that can be said for these lines is that they appear in the Quartos,
_i.e._ in reports, however vile, of the play as performed within two or
three years of its composition.

(_b_) I believe, almost as decidedly, that the second passage, III. ii.
79 ff., is spurious. (1) The scene ends characteristically without the
lines. (2) They are addressed directly to the audience. (3) They destroy
the pathetic and beautiful effect of the immediately preceding words of
the Fool, and also of Lear's solicitude for him. (4) They involve the
absurdity that the shivering timid Fool would allow his master and
protector, Lear and Kent, to go away into the storm and darkness,
leaving him alone. (5) It is also somewhat against them that they do not
appear in the Quartos. At the same time I do not think one would
hesitate to accept them if they occurred at any natural place _within_
the dialogue.

(_c_) On the other hand I see no sufficient reason for doubting the
genuineness of Edgar's soliloquy at the end of III. vi. (1) Those who
doubt it appear not to perceive that _some_ words of soliloquy are
wanted; for it is evidently intended that, when Kent and Gloster bear
the King away, they should leave the Bedlam behind. Naturally they do
so. He is only accidentally connected with the King; he was taken to
shelter with him merely to gratify his whim, and as the King is now
asleep there is no occasion to retain the Bedlam; Kent, we know, shrank
from him, 'shunn'd [his] abhorr'd society' (V. iii. 210). So he is left
to return to the hovel where he was first found. When the others depart,
then, he must be left behind, and surely would not go off without a
word. (2) If his speech is spurious, therefore, it has been substituted
for some genuine speech; and surely that is a supposition not to be
entertained except under compulsion. (3) There is no such compulsion in
the speech. It is not very good, no doubt; but the use of rhymed and
somewhat antithetic lines in a gnomic passage is quite in Shakespeare's
manner, _more_ in his manner than, for example, the rhymed passages in
I. i. 183-190, 257-269, 281-4, which nobody doubts; quite like many
places in _All's Well_, or the concluding lines of _King Lear_ itself.
(4) The lines are in spirit of one kind with Edgar's fine lines at the
beginning of Act IV. (5) Some of them, as Delius observes, emphasize the
parallelism between the stories of Lear and Gloster. (6) The fact that
the Folio omits the lines is, of course, nothing against them.


[Footnote 270: I ignore them partly because they are not significant for
the present purpose, but mainly because it is impossible to accept the
division of battle-scenes in our modern texts, while to depart from it
is to introduce intolerable inconvenience in reference. The only proper
plan in Elizabethan drama is to consider a scene ended as soon as no
person is left on the stage, and to pay no regard to the question of
locality,--a question theatrically insignificant and undetermined in
most scenes of an Elizabethan play, in consequence of the absence of
movable scenery. In dealing with battles the modern editors seem to have
gone on the principle (which they could not possibly apply generally)
that, so long as the place is not changed, you have only one scene.
Hence in _Macbeth_, Act V., they have included in their Scene vii. three
distinct scenes; yet in _Antony and Cleopatra_, Act III., following the
right division for a wrong reason, they have two scenes (viii. and ix.),
each less than four lines long.]

[Footnote 271: One of these (V. i.) is not marked as such, but it is
evident that the last line and a half form a soliloquy of one remaining
character, just as much as some of the soliloquies marked as such in
other plays.]

[Footnote 272: According to modern editions, eight, Act II., scene ii.,
being an instance. But it is quite ridiculous to reckon as three scenes
what are marked as scenes ii., iii., iv. Kent is on the lower stage the
whole time, Edgar in the so-called scene iii. being on the upper stage
or balcony. The editors were misled by their ignorance of the stage

[Footnote 273: Perhaps three, for V. iii. is perhaps an instance, though
not so marked.]



As Koppel has shown, the usual modern stage-directions[274] for this
scene (IV. vii.) are utterly wrong and do what they can to defeat the
poet's purpose.

It is evident from the text that the scene shows the _first_ meeting of
Cordelia and Kent, and _first_ meeting of Cordelia and Lear, since they
parted in I. i. Kent and Cordelia indeed are doubtless supposed to have
exchanged a few words before they come on the stage; but Cordelia has
not seen her father at all until the moment before she begins (line 26),
'O my dear father!' Hence the tone of the first part of the scene, that
between Cordelia and Kent, is kept low, in order that the latter part,
between Cordelia and Lear, may have its full effect.

The modern stage-direction at the beginning of the scene, as found, for
example, in the Cambridge and Globe editions, is as follows:

     'SCENE vii.--A tent in the French camp. LEAR
     on a bed asleep, soft music playing; _Gentleman_, and others

     Enter CORDELIA, KENT, and _Doctor_.'

At line 25, where the Doctor says 'Please you, draw near,' Cordelia is
supposed to approach the bed, which is imagined by some editors visible
throughout at the back of the stage, by others as behind a curtain at
the back, this curtain being drawn open at line 25.

Now, to pass by the fact that these arrangements are in flat
contradiction with the stage-directions of the Quartos and the Folio,
consider their effect upon the scene. In the first place, the reader at
once assumes that Cordelia has already seen her father; for otherwise it
is inconceivable that she would quietly talk with Kent while he was
within a few yards of her. The edge of the later passage where she
addresses him is therefore blunted. In the second place, through Lear's
presence the reader's interest in Lear and his meeting with Cordelia is
at once excited so strongly that he hardly attends at all to the
conversation of Cordelia and Kent; and so this effect is blunted too.
Thirdly, at line 57, where Cordelia says,

                      O, look upon me, sir,
     And hold your hands in benediction o'er me!
     No, sir, you must not kneel,

the poor old King must be supposed either to try to get out of bed, or
actually to do so, or to kneel, or to try to kneel, on the bed.
Fourthly, consider what happens at line 81.

     _Doctor._ Desire him to _go in_; trouble him no more
               Till further settling.

     _Cor._                  Will't please your highness _walk?_

     _Lear._   You must bear with me;
               Pray you now, forget and forgive; I am old and
                 foolish.    [_Exeunt all but Kent and Gentleman_.

If Lear is in a tent containing his bed, why in the world, when the
doctor thinks he can bear no more emotion, is he made to walk out of the
tent? A pretty doctor!

But turn now to the original texts. Of course they say nothing about the
place. The stage-direction at the beginning runs, in the Quartos, 'Enter
Cordelia, Kent, and Doctor;' in the Folio, 'Enter Cordelia, Kent, and
Gentleman.' They differ about the Gentleman and the Doctor, and the
Folio later wrongly gives to the Gentleman the Doctor's speeches as well
as his own. This is a minor matter. But they agree in _making no mention
of Lear_. He is not on the stage at all. Thus Cordelia, and the reader,
can give their whole attention to Kent.

Her conversation with Kent finished, she turns (line 12) to the Doctor
and asks 'How does the King?'[275] The Doctor tells her that Lear is
still asleep, and asks leave to wake him. Cordelia assents and asks if
he is 'arrayed,' which does not mean whether he has a night-gown on, but
whether they have taken away his crown of furrow-weeds, and tended him
duly after his mad wanderings in the fields. The Gentleman says that in
his sleep 'fresh garments' (not a night-gown) have been put on him. The
Doctor then asks Cordelia to be present when her father is waked. She
assents, and the Doctor says, 'Please you, draw near. Louder the music
there.' The next words are Cordelia's, 'O my dear father!'

What has happened? At the words 'is he arrayed?' according to the Folio,
'_Enter Lear in a chair carried by Servants._' The moment of this
entrance, as so often in the original editions, is doubtless too soon.
It should probably come at the words 'Please you, draw near,' which
_may_, as Koppel suggests, be addressed to the bearers. But that the
stage-direction is otherwise right there cannot be a doubt (and that the
Quartos omit it is no argument against it, seeing that, according to
their directions, Lear never enters at all).

This arrangement (1) allows Kent his proper place in the scene, (2)
makes it clear that Cordelia has not seen her father before, (3) makes
her first sight of him a theatrical crisis in the best sense, (4) makes
it quite natural that he should kneel, (5) makes it obvious why he
should leave the stage again when he shows signs of exhaustion, and (6)
is the only arrangement which has the slightest authority, for 'Lear on
a bed asleep' was never heard of till Capell proposed it. The ruinous
change of the staging was probably suggested by the version of that
unhappy Tate.

Of course the chair arrangement is primitive, but the Elizabethans did
not care about such things. What they cared for was dramatic effect.


[Footnote 274: There are exceptions: _e.g._, in the editions of Delius
and Mr. W.J. Craig.]

[Footnote 275: And it is possible that, as Koppel suggests, the Doctor
should properly enter at this point; for if Kent, as he says, wishes to
remain unknown, it seems strange that he and Cordelia should talk as
they do before a third person. This change however is not necessary, for
the Doctor might naturally stand out of hearing till he was addressed;
and it is better not to go against the stage-direction without



I found my impression of the extraordinary ineffectiveness of this
battle (p. 255) confirmed by a paper of James Spedding (_New Shakspere
Society Transactions_, 1877, or Furness's _King Lear_, p. 312 f.); but
his opinion that this is the one technical defect in _King Lear_ seems
certainly incorrect, and his view that this defect is not due to
Shakespeare himself will not, I think, bear scrutiny.

To make Spedding's view quite clear I may remind the reader that in the
preceding scene the two British armies, that of Edmund and Regan, and
that of Albany and Goneril, have entered with drum and colours, and have
departed. Scene ii. is as follows (Globe):

     SCENE II.--_A field between the two camps.

     Alarum within. Enter, with drum and colours_, LEAR, CORDELIA,
     _and_ Soldiers, _over the stage; and exeunt._ _Enter_ EDGAR
     _and_ GLOSTER.

     _Edg._  Here, father, take the shadow of this tree
             For your good host; pray that the right may thrive:
             If ever I return to you again,
             I'll bring you comfort.

     _Glo._                        Grace go with you, sir!

                                                    [_Exit_ Edgar

     _Alarum and retreat within._ _Re-enter_ EDGAR.

     _Edg._  Away, old man; give me thy hand; away!
             King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta'en:
             Give me thy hand; come on.

     _Glo._  No farther, sir; a man may rot even here.

     _Edg._  What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
             Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
             Ripeness is all: come on.

     _Glo._                        And that's true too. [_Exeunt_.

The battle, it will be seen, is represented only by military music
within the tiring-house, which formed the back of the stage. 'The
scene,' says Spedding, 'does not change; but 'alarums' are heard, and
afterwards a 'retreat,' and on the same field over which that great army
has this moment passed, fresh and full of hope, re-appears, with tidings
that all is lost, the same man who last left the stage to follow and
fight in it.[276] That Shakespeare meant the scene to stand thus, no one
who has the true faith will believe.'

Spedding's suggestion is that things are here run together which
Shakespeare meant to keep apart. Shakespeare, he thinks, continued Act
IV. to the '_exit_ Edgar' after l. 4 of the above passage. Thus, just
before the close of the Act, the two British armies and the French army
had passed across the stage, and the interest of the audience in the
battle about to be fought was raised to a high pitch. Then, after a
short interval, Act V. opened with the noise of battle in the distance,
followed by the entrance of Edgar to announce the defeat of Cordelia's
army. The battle, thus, though not fought on the stage, was shown and
felt to be an event of the greatest importance.

Apart from the main objection of the entire want of evidence of so great
a change having been made, there are other objections to this idea and
to the reasoning on which it is based. (1) The pause at the end of the
present Fourth Act is far from 'faulty,' as Spedding alleges it to be;
that Act ends with the most melting scene Shakespeare ever wrote; and a
pause after it, and before the business of the battle, was perfectly
right. (2) The Fourth Act is already much longer than the Fifth (about
fourteen columns of the Globe edition against about eight and a half),
and Spedding's change would give the Fourth nearly sixteen columns, and
the Fifth less than seven. (3) Spedding's proposal requires a much
greater alteration in the existing text than he supposed. It does not
simply shift the division of the two Acts, it requires the disappearance
and re-entrance of the blind Gloster. Gloster, as the text stands, is
alone on the stage while the battle is being fought at a distance, and
the reference to the tree shows that he was on the main or lower stage.
The main stage had no front curtain; and therefore, if Act IV. is to end
where Spedding wished it to end, Gloster must go off unaided at its
close, and come on again unaided for Act V. And this means that the
_whole_ arrangement of the present Act V. Sc. ii. must be changed. If
Spedding had been aware of this it is not likely that he would have
broached his theory.[277]

It is curious that he does not allude to the one circumstance which
throws some little suspicion on the existing text. I mean the
contradiction between Edgar's statement that, if ever he returns to his
father again, he will bring him comfort, and the fact that immediately
afterwards he returns to bring him discomfort. It is possible to explain
this psychologically, of course, but the passage is not one in which we
should expect psychological subtlety.


[Footnote 276: Where did Spedding find this? I find no trace of it, and
surely Edgar would not have risked his life in the battle, when he had,
in case of defeat, to appear and fight Edmund. He does not appear
'armed,' according to the Folio, till V. iii. 117.]

[Footnote 277: Spedding supposed that there was a front curtain, and
this idea, coming down from Malone and Collier, is still found in
English works of authority. But it may be stated without hesitation that
there is no positive evidence at all for the existence of such a
curtain, and abundant evidence against it.]



The following are notes on some passages where I have not been able to
accept any of the current interpretations, or on which I wish to express
an opinion or represent a little-known view.

1. _Kent's soliloquy at the end of_ II. ii.

(_a_) In this speech the application of the words 'Nothing, almost sees
miracles but misery' seems not to have been understood. The 'misery' is
surely not that of Kent but that of Lear, who has come 'out of heaven's
benediction to the warm sun,' _i.e._ to misery. This, says Kent, is just
the situation where something like miraculous help may be looked for;
and he finds the sign of it in the fact that a letter from Cordelia has
just reached him; for his course since his banishment has been so
obscured that it is only by the rarest good fortune (something like a
miracle) that Cordelia has got intelligence of it. We may suppose that
this intelligence came from one of Albany's or Cornwall's servants, some
of whom are, he says (III. i. 23),

             to France the spies and speculations
     Intelligent of our state.

(_b_) The words 'and shall find time,' etc., have been much discussed.
Some have thought that they are detached phrases from the letter which
Kent is reading: but Kent has just implied by his address to the sun
that he has no light to read the letter by.[278] It has also been
suggested that the anacoluthon is meant to represent Kent's sleepiness,
which prevents him from finishing the sentence, and induces him to
dismiss his thoughts and yield to his drowsiness. But I remember nothing
like this elsewhere in Shakespeare, and it seems much more probable that
the passage is corrupt, perhaps from the loss of a line containing words
like 'to rescue us' before 'From this enormous state' (with 'state' cf.
'our state' in the lines quoted above).

When we reach III. i. we find that Kent has now read the letter; he
knows that a force is coming from France and indeed has already 'secret
feet' in some of the harbours. So he sends the Gentleman to Dover.

2. _The Fool's Song in_ II. iv.

At II. iv. 62 Kent asks why the King comes with so small a train. The
Fool answers, in effect, that most of his followers have deserted him
because they see that his fortunes are sinking. He proceeds to advise
Kent ironically to follow their example, though he confesses he does not
intend to follow it himself. 'Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs
down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following it: but the great one
that goes up the hill, let him draw thee after. When a wise man gives
thee better counsel, give me mine again: I would have none but knaves
follow it, since a fool gives it.

     That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
       And follows but for form,
     Will pack when it begins to rain,
       And leave thee in the storm.
     But I will tarry; the fool will stay,
       And let the wise man fly:
     The knave turns fool that runs away;
       The fool no knave, perdy.

The last two lines have caused difficulty. Johnson wanted to read,

     The fool turns knave that runs away,
       The knave no fool, perdy;

_i.e._ if I ran away, I should prove myself to be a knave and a wise
man, but, being a fool, I stay, as no knave or wise man would. Those who
rightly defend the existing reading misunderstand it, I think.
Shakespeare is not pointing out, in 'The knave turns fool that runs
away,' that the wise knave who runs away is really a 'fool with a
circumbendibus,' 'moral miscalculator as well as moral coward.' The Fool
is referring to his own words, 'I would have none but knaves follow [my
advice to desert the King], since a fool gives it'; and the last two
lines of his song mean, 'The knave who runs away follows the advice
given by a fool; but I, the fool, shall not follow my own advice by
turning knave.'

For the ideas compare the striking passage in _Timon_, I. i. 64 ff.

3. '_Decline your head._'

At IV. ii. 18 Goneril, dismissing Edmund in the presence of Oswald,

                                  This trusty servant
     Shall pass between us: ere long you are like to hear,
     If you dare venture in your own behalf,
     A mistress's command. Wear this; spare speech;
     Decline your head: this kiss, if it durst speak,
     Would stretch thy spirits up into the air.

I copy Furness's note on 'Decline': 'STEEVENS thinks that Goneril bids
Edmund decline his head that she might, while giving him a kiss, appear
to Oswald merely to be whispering to him. But this, WRIGHT says, is
giving Goneril credit for too much delicacy, and Oswald was a
"serviceable villain." DELIUS suggests that perhaps she wishes to put a
chain around his neck.'

Surely 'Decline your head' is connected, not with 'Wear this' (whatever
'this' may be), but with 'this kiss,' etc. Edmund is a good deal taller
than Goneril, and must stoop to be kissed.

4. _Self-cover'd_.

At IV. ii. 59 Albany, horrified at the passions of anger, hate, and
contempt expressed in his wife's face, breaks out:

                               See thyself, devil!
             Proper deformity seems not in the fiend
             So horrid as in woman.

     _Gon._                          O vain fool!

     _Alb._  Thou changed and self-cover'd thing, for shame,
             Be-monster not thy feature. Were't my fitness
             To let these hands obey my blood,
             They are apt enough to dislocate and tear
             Thy flesh and bones: howe'er thou art a fiend,
             A woman's shape doth shield thee.

The passage has been much discussed, mainly because of the strange
expression 'self-cover'd,' for which of course emendations have been
proposed. The general meaning is clear. Albany tells his wife that she
is a devil in a woman's shape, and warns her not to cast off that shape
by be-monstering her feature (appearance), since it is this shape alone
that protects her from his wrath. Almost all commentators go astray
because they imagine that, in the words 'thou changed and self-cover'd
thing,' Albany is speaking to Goneril as a _woman_ who has been changed
into a fiend. Really he is addressing her as a fiend which has changed
its own shape and assumed that of a woman; and I suggest that
'self-cover'd' means either 'which hast covered or concealed thyself,'
or 'whose self is covered' [so Craig in Arden edition], not (what of
course it ought to mean) 'which hast been covered _by_ thyself.'

Possibly the last lines of this passage (which does not appear in the
Folios) should be arranged thus:

             To let these hands obey my blood, they're apt enough
             To dislocate and tear thy flesh and bones:
             Howe'er thou art a fiend, a woman's shape
             Doth shield thee.

     _Gon._                 Marry, your manhood now--

     _Alb._                                          What news?

5. _The stage-directions at_ V. i. 37, 39.

In V. i. there first enter Edmund, Regan, and their army or soldiers:
then, at line 18, Albany, Goneril, and their army or soldiers. Edmund
and Albany speak very stiffly to one another, and Goneril bids them
defer their private quarrels and attend to business. Then follows this
passage (according to the modern texts):

     _Alb._                    Let's then determine
             With the ancient of war on our proceedings.

     _Edm._  I shall attend you presently at your tent.

     _Reg._  Sister, you'll go with us?

     _Gon._  No.

     _Reg._  'Tis most convenient: pray you, go with us.

     _Gon._  [_Aside_] O, ho, I know the riddle.--I will go.

               _As they are going out, enter_ EDGAR _disguised._

     _Edg._  If e'er your grace had speech with man so poor,
             Hear me one word.

     _Alb._                   I'll overtake you. Speak.

                              [_Exeunt all but_ ALBANY _and_ EDGAR.

It would appear from this that all the leading persons are to go to a
Council of War with the ancient (plural) in Albany's tent; and they are
going out, followed by their armies, when Edgar comes in. Why in the
world, then, should Goneril propose (as she apparently does) to absent
herself from the Council; and why, still more, should Regan object to
her doing so? This is a question which always perplexed me, and I could
not believe in the only answers I ever found suggested, viz., that Regan
wanted to keep Edmund and Goneril together in order that she might
observe them (Moberly, quoted in Furness), or that she could not bear to
lose sight of Goneril, for fear Goneril should effect a meeting with
Edmund after the Council (Delius, if I understand him).

But I find in Koppel what seems to be the solution
(Verbesserungsvorschläge, p. 127 f.). He points out that the modern
stage-directions are wrong. For the modern direction 'As they are going
out, enter Edgar disguised,' the Ff. read, 'Exeunt both the armies.
Enter Edgar.' For 'Exeunt all but Albany and Edgar' the Ff. have
nothing, but Q1 has 'exeunt' after 'word.' For the first direction
Koppel would read, 'Exeunt Regan, Goneril, Gentlemen, and Soldiers': for
the second he would read, after 'overtake you,' 'Exit Edmund.'

This makes all clear. Albany proposes a Council of War. Edmund assents,
and says he will come at once to Albany's tent for that purpose. The
Council will consist of Albany, Edmund, and the ancient of war. Regan,
accordingly, is going away with her soldiers; but she observes that
Goneril shows no sign of moving with _her_ soldiers; and she at once
suspects that Goneril means to attend the Council in order to be with
Edmund. Full of jealousy, she invites Goneril to go with _her_. Goneril
refuses, but then, seeing Regan's motive, contemptuously and ironically
consents (I doubt if 'O ho, I know the riddle' should be 'aside,' as in
modern editions, following Capell). Accordingly the two sisters go out,
followed by their soldiers; and Edmund and Albany are just going out, in
a different direction, to Albany's tent when Edgar enters. His words
cause Albany to stay; Albany says to Edmund, as Edmund leaves, 'I'll
overtake you'; and then, turning to Edgar, bids him 'speak.'

6. V. iii. 151 ff.

When Edmund falls in combat with the disguised Edgar, Albany produces
the letter from Goneril to Edmund, which Edgar had found in Oswald's
pocket and had handed over to Albany. This letter suggested to Edmund
the murder of Albany. The passage in the Globe edition is as follows:

     _Gon._                  This is practice, Gloucester:
             By the law of arms thou wast not bound to answer
             An unknown opposite: thou art not vanquish'd,
             But cozen'd and beguiled.

     _Alb._                           Shut your mouth, dame,
             Or with this paper shall I stop it: Hold, sir;
             Thou worse than any name, read thy own evil:
             No tearing, lady; I perceive you know it.
                                   [_Gives the letter to Edmund._

     _Gon._  Say, if I do, the laws are mine, not thine:
             Who can arraign me for't?

     _Alb._                            Most monstrous! oh!
             Know'st thou this paper?

     _Gon._                       Ask me not what I know. [_Exit._

     _Alb._  Go after her: she's desperate: govern her.

     _Edm._  What you have charged me with, that have I done;
             And more, much more; the time will bring it out.
             'Tis past, and so am I. But what art thou
             That hast this fortune on me?

The first of the stage-directions is not in the Qq. or Ff.: it was
inserted by Johnson. The second ('Exit') is both in the Qq. and in the
Ff., but the latter place it after the words 'arraign me for't.' And
they give the words 'Ask me not what I know' to Edmund, not to Goneril,
as in the Qq. (followed by the Globe).

I will not go into the various views of these lines, but will simply say
what seems to me most probable. It does not matter much where precisely
Goneril's 'exit' comes; but I believe the Folios are right in giving the
words 'Ask me not what I know' to Edmund. It has been pointed out by
Knight that the question 'Know'st thou this paper?' cannot very well be
addressed to Goneril, for Albany has already said to her, 'I perceive
you know it.' It is possible to get over this difficulty by saying that
Albany wants her confession: but there is another fact which seems to
have passed unnoticed. When Albany is undoubtedly speaking to his wife,
he uses the plural pronoun, 'Shut _your_ mouth, dame,' 'No tearing,
lady; I perceive _you_ know it.' When then he asks 'Know'st _thou_ this
paper?' he is probably _not_ speaking to her.

I should take the passage thus. At 'Hold, sir,' [omitted in Qq.] Albany
holds the letter out towards Edmund for him to see, or possibly gives it
to him.[279] The next line, with its 'thou,' is addressed to Edmund,
whose 'reciprocal vows' are mentioned in the letter. Goneril snatches at
it to tear it up: and Albany, who does not know whether Edmund ever saw
the letter or not, says to her 'I perceive _you_ know it,' the 'you'
being emphatic (her very wish to tear it showed she knew what was in
it). She practically admits her knowledge, defies him, and goes out to
kill herself. He exclaims in horror at her, and, turning again to
Edmund, asks if _he_ knows it. Edmund, who of course does not know it,
refuses to answer (like Iago), not (like Iago) out of defiance, but from
chivalry towards Goneril; and, having refused to answer _this_ charge,
he goes on to admit the charges brought against himself previously by
Albany (82 f.) and Edgar (130 f.). I should explain the change from
'you' to 'thou' in his speech by supposing that at first he is speaking
to Albany and Edgar together.

7. V. iii. 278.

Lear, looking at Kent, asks,

                                        Who are you?
             Mine eyes are not o' the best: I'll tell you straight.

     _Kent._ If fortune brag of two she loved _and_ hated (Qq. _or_),
             One of them we behold.

Kent is not answering Lear, nor is he speaking of himself. He is
speaking of Lear. The best interpretation is probably that of Malone,
according to which Kent means, 'We see the man most hated by Fortune,
whoever may be the man she has loved best'; and perhaps it is supported
by the variation of the text in the Qq., though their texts are so bad
in this scene that their support is worth little. But it occurs to me as
possible that the meaning is rather: 'Did Fortune ever show the extremes
_both_ of her love _and_ of her hatred to any other man as she has shown
them to this man?'

8. _The last lines._

     _Alb._  Bear them from hence. Our present business
             Is general woe. [_To Kent and Edgar_] Friends of my
               soul, you twain
             Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain.

     _Kent._ I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
             My master calls me, I must not say no.

     _Alb._  The weight of this sad time we must obey;
             Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
             The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
             Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

So the Globe. The stage-direction (right, of course) is Johnson's. The
last four lines are given by the Ff. to Edgar, by the Qq. to Albany. The
Qq. read '_have_ borne most.'

To whom ought the last four lines to be given, and what do they mean? It
is proper that the principal person should speak last, and this is in
favour of Albany. But in this scene at any rate the Ff., which give the
speech to Edgar, have the better text (though Ff. 2, 3, 4, make Kent die
after his two lines!); Kent has answered Albany, but Edgar has not; and
the lines seem to be rather more appropriate to Edgar. For the 'gentle
reproof' of Kent's despondency (if this phrase of Halliwell's is right)
is like Edgar; and, although we have no reason to suppose that Albany
was not young, there is nothing to prove his youth.

As to the meaning of the last two lines (a poor conclusion to such a
play) I should suppose that 'the oldest' is not Lear, but 'the oldest of
us,' viz., Kent, the one survivor of the old generation: and this is the
more probable if there _is_ a reference to him in the preceding lines.
The last words seem to mean, 'We that are young shall never see so much
_and yet_ live so long'; _i.e._ if we suffer so much, we shall not bear
it as he has. If the Qq. 'have' is right, the reference is to Lear,
Gloster and Kent.


[Footnote 278: The 'beacon' which he bids approach is not the moon, as
Pope supposed. The moon was up and shining some time ago (II. ii. 35),
and lines 1 and 141-2 imply that not much of the night is left.]

[Footnote 279: 'Hold' can mean 'take'; but the word 'this' in line 160
('Know'st thou this paper?') favours the idea that the paper is still in
Albany's hand.]



I have assumed in the text that almost the whole of _Macbeth_ is
genuine; and, to avoid the repetition of arguments to be found in other
books,[280] I shall leave this opinion unsupported. But among the
passages that have been questioned or rejected there are two which seem
to me open to serious doubt. They are those in which Hecate appears:
viz. the whole of III. v.; and IV. i. 39-43.

These passages have been suspected (1) because they contain
stage-directions for two songs which have been found in Middleton's
_Witch_; (2) because they can be excised without leaving the least trace
of their excision; and (3) because they contain lines incongruous with
the spirit and atmosphere of the rest of the Witch-scenes: _e.g._ III.
v. 10 f.:

                     all you have done
     Hath been but for a wayward son,
     Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,
     Loves for his own ends, not for you;

and IV. i. 41, 2:

     And now about the cauldron sing,
     Like elves and fairies in a ring.

The idea of sexual relation in the first passage, and the trivial
daintiness of the second (with which cf. III. v. 34,

     Hark! I am call'd; my little spirit, see,
     Sits in a foggy cloud, and stays for me)

suit Middleton's Witches quite well, but Shakespeare's not at all; and
it is difficult to believe that, if Shakespeare had meant to introduce a
personage supreme over the Witches, he would have made her so
unimpressive as this Hecate. (It may be added that the original
stage-direction at IV. i. 39, 'Enter Hecat and the other three Witches,'
is suspicious.)

I doubt if the second and third of these arguments, taken alone, would
justify a very serious suspicion of interpolation; but the fact,
mentioned under (1), that the play has here been meddled with, trebles
their weight. And it gives some weight to the further fact that these
passages resemble one another, and differ from the bulk of the other
Witch passages, in being iambic in rhythm. (It must, however, be
remembered that, supposing Shakespeare _did_ mean to introduce Hecate,
he might naturally use a special rhythm for the parts where she

The same rhythm appears in a third passage which has been doubted: IV.
i. 125-132. But this is not _quite_ on a level with the other two; for
(1), though it is possible to suppose the Witches, as well as the
Apparitions, to vanish at 124, and Macbeth's speech to run straight on
to 133, the cut is not so clean as in the other cases; (2) it is not at
all clear that Hecate (the most suspicious element) is supposed to be
present. The original stage-direction at 133 is merely 'The Witches
Dance, and vanish'; and even if Hecate had been present before, she
might have vanished at 43, as Dyce makes her do.


[Footnote 280: _E.g._ Mr. Chambers's excellent little edition in the
Warwick series.]



_Macbeth_ is a very short play, the shortest of all Shakespeare's except
the _Comedy of Errors_. It contains only 1993 lines, while _King Lear_
contains 3298, _Othello_ 3324, and _Hamlet_ 3924. The next shortest of
the tragedies is _Julius Caesar_, which has 2440 lines. (The figures are
Mr. Fleay's. I may remark that for our present purpose we want the
number of the lines in the first Folio, not those in modern composite

Is there any reason to think that the play has been shortened? I will
briefly consider this question, so far as it can be considered apart
from the wider one whether Shakespeare's play was re-handled by
Middleton or some one else.

That the play, as we have it, is _slightly_ shorter than the play
Shakespeare wrote seems not improbable. (1) We have no Quarto of
_Macbeth_; and generally, where we have a Quarto or Quartos of a play,
we find them longer than the Folio text. (2) There are perhaps a few
signs of omission in our text (over and above the plentiful signs of
corruption). I will give one example (I. iv. 33-43). Macbeth and Banquo,
returning from their victories, enter the presence of Duncan (14), who
receives them with compliments and thanks, which they acknowledge. He
then speaks as follows:

                        My plenteous joys,
     Wanton in fulness, seek to hide themselves
     In drops of sorrow. Sons, kinsmen, thanes,
     And you whose places are the nearest, know,
     We will establish our estate upon
     Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter
     The Prince of Cumberland; which honour must
     Not unaccompanied invest him only,
     But signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine
     On all deservers. From hence to Inverness,
     And bind us further to you.

Here the transition to the naming of Malcolm, for which there has been
no preparation, is extremely sudden; and the matter, considering its
importance, is disposed of very briefly. But the abruptness and brevity
of the sentence in which Duncan invites himself to Macbeth's castle are
still more striking. For not a word has yet been said on the subject;
nor is it possible to suppose that Duncan had conveyed his intention by
message, for in that case Macbeth would of course have informed his wife
of it in his letter (written in the interval between scenes iii. and
iv.). It is difficult not to suspect some omission or curtailment here.
On the other hand Shakespeare may have determined to sacrifice
everything possible to the effect of rapidity in the First Act; and he
may also have wished, by the suddenness and brevity of Duncan's
self-invitation, to startle both Macbeth and the audience, and to make
the latter feel that Fate is hurrying the King and the murderer to their

And that any _extensive_ omissions have been made seems not likely. (1)
There is no internal evidence of the omission of anything essential to
the plot. (2) Forman, who saw the play in 1610, mentions nothing which
we do not find in our play; for his statement that Macbeth was made Duke
of Northumberland is obviously due to a confused recollection of
Malcolm's being made Duke of Cumberland. (3) Whereabouts could such
omissions occur? Only in the first part, for the rest is full enough.
And surely anyone who wanted to cut the play down would have operated,
say, on Macbeth's talk with Banquo's murderers, or on III. vi., or on
the very long dialogue of Malcolm and Macduff, instead of reducing the
most exciting part of the drama. We might indeed suppose that
Shakespeare himself originally wrote the first part more at length, and
made the murder of Duncan come in the Third Act, and then _himself_
reduced his matter so as to bring the murder back to its present place,
perceiving in a flash of genius the extraordinary effect that might thus
be produced. But, even if this idea suited those who believe in a
rehandling of the play, what probability is there in it?

Thus it seems most likely that the play always was an extremely short
one. Can we, then, at all account for its shortness? It is possible, in
the first place, that it was not composed originally for the public
stage, but for some private, perhaps royal, occasion, when time was
limited. And the presence of the passage about touching for the evil
(IV. iii. 140 ff.) supports this idea. We must remember, secondly, that
some of the scenes would take longer to perform than ordinary scenes of
mere dialogue and action; _e.g._ the Witch-scenes, and the Battle-scenes
in the last Act, for a broad-sword combat was an occasion for an
exhibition of skill.[281] And, lastly, Shakespeare may well have felt
that a play constructed and written like _Macbeth_, a play in which a
kind of fever-heat is felt almost from beginning to end, and which
offers very little relief by means of humorous or pathetic scenes, ought
to be short, and would be unbearable if it lasted so long as _Hamlet_ or
even _King Lear_. And in fact I do not think that, in reading, we _feel
Macbeth_ to be short: certainly we are astonished when we hear that it
is about half as long as _Hamlet_. Perhaps in the Shakespearean theatre
too it appeared to occupy a longer time than the clock recorded.


[Footnote 281: These two considerations should also be borne in mind in
regard to the exceptional shortness of the _Midsummer Night's Dream_ and
the _Tempest_. Both contain scenes which, even on the Elizabethan stage,
would take an unusual time to perform. And it has been supposed of each
that it was composed to grace some wedding.]



Dr. Forman saw _Macbeth_ performed at the Globe in 1610. The question is
how much earlier its composition or first appearance is to be put.

It is agreed that the date is not earlier than that of the accession of
James I. in 1603. The style and versification would make an earlier date
almost impossible. And we have the allusions to 'two-fold balls and
treble sceptres' and to the descent of Scottish kings from Banquo; the
undramatic description of touching for the King's Evil (James performed
this ceremony); and the dramatic use of witchcraft, a matter on which
James considered himself an authority.

Some of these references would have their fullest effect early in
James's reign. And on this ground, and on account both of resemblances
in the characters of Hamlet and Macbeth, and of the use of the
supernatural in the two plays, it has been held that _Macbeth_ was the
tragedy that came next after _Hamlet_, or, at any rate, next after

These arguments seem to me to have no force when set against those that
point to a later date (about 1606) and place _Macbeth_ after _King
Lear_.[282] And, as I have already observed, the probability is that it
also comes after Shakespeare's part of _Timon_, and immediately before
_Antony and Cleopatra_ and _Coriolanus_.

I will first refer briefly to some of the older arguments in favour of
this later date, and then more at length to those based on

(1) In II. iii. 4-5, 'Here's a farmer that hang'd himself on the
expectation of plenty,' Malone found a reference to the exceptionally
low price of wheat in 1606.

(2) In the reference in the same speech to the equivocator who could
swear in both scales and committed treason enough for God's sake, he
found an allusion to the trial of the Jesuit Garnet, in the spring of
1606, for complicity in the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. Garnet protested
on his soul and salvation that he had not held a certain conversation,
then was obliged to confess that he had, and thereupon 'fell into a
large discourse defending equivocation.' This argument, which I have
barely sketched, seems to me much weightier than the first; and its
weight is increased by the further references to perjury and treason
pointed out on p. 397.

(3) Halliwell observed what appears to be an allusion to _Macbeth_ in
the comedy of the _Puritan_, 4to, 1607: 'we'll ha' the ghost i' th'
white sheet sit at upper end o' th' table'; and Malone had referred to a
less striking parallel in _Caesar and Pompey_, also pub. 1607:

     Why, think you, lords, that 'tis _ambition's spur_
     That _pricketh_ Caesar to these high attempts?

He also found a significance in the references in _Macbeth_ to the
genius of Mark Antony being rebuked by Caesar, and to the insane root
that takes the reason prisoner, as showing that Shakespeare, while
writing _Macbeth_, was reading Plutarch's _Lives_, with a view to his
next play _Antony and Cleopatra_ (S.R. 1608).

(4) To these last arguments, which by themselves would be of little
weight, I may add another, of which the same may be said. Marston's
reminiscences of Shakespeare are only too obvious. In his _Dutch
Courtezan_, 1605, I have noticed passages which recall _Othello_ and
_King Lear_, but nothing that even faintly recalls _Macbeth_. But in
reading _Sophonisba_, 1606, I was several times reminded of _Macbeth_
(as well as, more decidedly, of _Othello_). I note the parallels for
what they are worth.

With _Sophonisba_, Act I. Sc. ii.:

     Upon whose tops the Roman eagles stretch'd
     Their large spread wings, which fann'd the evening aire
     To us cold breath,

cf. _Macbeth_ I. ii. 49:

     Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky
     And fan our people cold.

Cf. _Sophonisba_, a page later: 'yet doubtful stood the fight,' with
_Macbeth_, I. ii. 7, 'Doubtful it stood' ['Doubtful long it stood'?] In
the same scene of _Macbeth_ the hero in fight is compared to an eagle,
and his foes to sparrows; and in _Soph._ III. ii. Massinissa in fight is
compared to a falcon, and his foes to fowls and lesser birds. I should
not note this were it not that all these reminiscences (if they are
such) recall one and the same scene. In _Sophonisba_ also there is a
tremendous description of the witch Erictho (IV. i.), who says to the
person consulting her, 'I know thy thoughts,' as the Witch says to
Macbeth, of the Armed Head, 'He knows thy thought.'

(5) The resemblances between _Othello_ and _King Lear_ pointed out on
pp. 244-5 and in Note R. form, when taken in conjunction with other
indications, an argument of some strength in favour of the idea that
_King Lear_ followed directly on _Othello_.

(6) There remains the evidence of style and especially of metre. I will
not add to what has been said in the text concerning the former; but I
wish to refer more fully to the latter, in so far as it can be
represented by the application of metrical tests. It is impossible to
argue here the whole question of these tests. I will only say that,
while I am aware, and quite admit the force, of what can be said against
the independent, rash, or incompetent use of them, I am fully convinced
of their value when they are properly used.

Of these tests, that of rhyme and that of feminine endings, discreetly
employed, are of use in broadly distinguishing Shakespeare's plays into
two groups, earlier and later, and also in marking out the very latest
dramas; and the feminine-ending test is of service in distinguishing
Shakespeare's part in _Henry VIII._ and the _Two Noble Kinsmen_. But
neither of these tests has any power to separate plays composed within a
few years of one another. There is significance in the fact that the
_Winter's Tale_, the _Tempest_, _Henry VIII._, contain hardly any rhymed
five-foot lines; but none, probably, in the fact that _Macbeth_ shows a
higher percentage of such lines than _King Lear_, _Othello_, or
_Hamlet_. The percentages of feminine endings, again, in the four
tragedies, are almost conclusive against their being early plays, and
would tend to show that they were not among the latest; but the
differences in their respective percentages, which would place them in
the chronological order _Hamlet_, _Macbeth_, _Othello_, _King Lear_
(König), or _Macbeth_, _Hamlet_, _Othello_, _King Lear_ (Hertzberg), are
of scarcely any account.[283] Nearly all scholars, I think, would accept
these statements.

The really useful tests, in regard to plays which admittedly are not
widely separated, are three which concern the endings of speeches and
lines. It is practically certain that Shakespeare made his verse
progressively less formal, by making the speeches end more and more
often within a line and not at the close of it; by making the sense
overflow more and more often from one line into another; and, at last,
by sometimes placing at the end of a line a word on which scarcely any
stress can be laid. The corresponding tests may be called the
Speech-ending test, the Overflow test, and the Light and Weak Ending

I. The Speech-ending test has been used by König,[284] and I will first
give some of his results. But I regret to say that I am unable to
discover certainly the rule he has gone by. He omits speeches which are
rhymed throughout, or which end with a rhymed couplet. And he counts
only speeches which are 'mehrzeilig.' I suppose this means that he
counts any speech consisting of two lines or more, but omits not only
one-line speeches, but speeches containing more than one line but less
than two; but I am not sure.

In the plays admitted by everyone to be early the percentage of speeches
ending with an incomplete line is quite small. In the _Comedy of
Errors_, for example, it is only 0.6. It advances to 12.1 in _King
John_, 18.3 in _Henry V._, and 21.6 in _As You Like It_. It rises
quickly soon after, and in no play written (according to general belief)
after about 1600 or 1601 is it less than 30. In the admittedly latest
plays it rises much higher, the figures being as follows:--_Antony_
77.5, _Cor._ 79, _Temp._ 84.5, _Cym._ 85, _Win. Tale_ 87.6, _Henry
VIII._ (parts assigned to Shakespeare by Spedding) 89. Going back, now,
to the four tragedies, we find the following figures: _Othello_ 41.4,
_Hamlet_ 51.6, _Lear_ 60.9, _Macbeth_ 77.2. These figures place
_Macbeth_ decidedly last, with a percentage practically equal to that of
_Antony_, the first of the final group.

I will now give my own figures for these tragedies, as they differ
somewhat from König's, probably because my method differs. (1) I have
included speeches rhymed or ending with rhymes, mainly because I find
that Shakespeare will sometimes (in later plays) end a speech which is
partly rhymed with an incomplete line (_e.g. Ham._ III. ii. 187, and the
last words of the play: or _Macb._ V. i. 87, V. ii. 31). And if such
speeches are reckoned, as they surely must be (for they may be, and are,
highly significant), those speeches which end with complete rhymed lines
must also be reckoned. (2) I have counted any speech exceeding a line in
length, however little the excess may be; _e.g._

     I'll fight till from my bones my flesh be hacked.
     Give me my armour:

considering that the incomplete line here may be just as significant as
an incomplete line ending a longer speech. If a speech begins within a
line and ends brokenly, of course I have not counted it when it is
equivalent to a five-foot line; _e.g._

                       Wife, children, servants, all
     That could be found:

but I do count such a speech (they are very rare) as

                        My lord, I do not know:
     But truly I do fear it:

for the same reason that I count

                       You know not
     Whether it was his wisdom or his fear.

Of the speeches thus counted, those which end somewhere within the line
I find to be in _Othello_ about 54 per cent.; in _Hamlet_ about 57; in
_King Lear_ about 69; in _Macbeth_ about 75.[285] The order is the same
as König's, but the figures differ a good deal. I presume in the last
three cases this comes from the difference in method; but I think
König's figures for _Othello_ cannot be right, for I have tried several
methods and find that the result is in no case far from the result of my
own, and I am almost inclined to conjecture that König's 41.4 is really
the percentage of speeches ending with the close of a line, which would
give 58.6 for the percentage of the broken-ended speeches.[286]

We shall find that other tests also would put _Othello_ before _Hamlet_,
though close to it. This may be due to 'accident'--_i.e._ a cause or
causes unknown to us; but I have sometimes wondered whether the last
revision of _Hamlet_ may not have succeeded the composition of
_Othello_. In this connection the following fact may be worth notice. It
is well known that the differences of the Second Quarto of _Hamlet_ from
the First are much greater in the last three Acts than in the first
two--so much so that the editors of the Cambridge Shakespeare suggested
that Q1 represents an old play, of which Shakespeare's rehandling had
not then proceeded much beyond the Second Act, while Q2 represents his
later completed rehandling. If that were so, the composition of the last
three Acts would be a good deal later than that of the first two (though
of course the first two would be revised at the time of the composition
of the last three). Now I find that the percentage of speeches ending
with a broken line is about 50 for the first two Acts, but about 62 for
the last three. It is lowest in the first Act, and in the first two
scenes of it is less than 32. The percentage for the last two Acts is
about 65.

II. The Enjambement or Overflow test is also known as the End-stopped
and Run-on line test. A line may be called 'end-stopped' when the sense,
as well as the metre, would naturally make one pause at its close;
'run-on' when the mere sense would lead one to pass to the next line
without any pause.[287] This distinction is in a great majority of cases
quite easy to draw: in others it is difficult. The reader cannot judge
by rules of grammar, or by marks of punctuation (for there is a distinct
pause at the end of many a line where most editors print no stop): he
must trust his ear. And readers will differ, one making a distinct pause
where another does not. This, however, does not matter greatly, so long
as the reader is consistent; for the important point is not the precise
number of run-on lines in a play, but the difference in this matter
between one play and another. Thus one may disagree with König in his
estimate of many instances, but one can see that he is consistent.

In Shakespeare's early plays, 'overflows' are rare. In the _Comedy of
Errors_, for example, their percentage is 12.9 according to König[288]
(who excludes rhymed lines and some others). In the generally admitted
last plays they are comparatively frequent. Thus, according to König,
the percentage in the _Winter's Tale_ is 37.5, in the _Tempest_ 41.5, in
_Antony_ 43.3, in _Coriolanus_ 45.9, in _Cymbeline_ 46, in the parts of
_Henry VIII._ assigned by Spedding to Shakespeare 53.18. König's results
for the four tragedies are as follows: _Othello_, 19.5; _Hamlet_, 23.1;
_King Lear_, 29.3; _Macbeth_, 36.6; (_Timon_, the whole play, 32.5).
_Macbeth_ here again, therefore, stands decidedly last: indeed it stands
near the first of the latest plays.

And no one who has ever attended to the versification of _Macbeth_ will
be surprised at these figures. It is almost obvious, I should say, that
Shakespeare is passing from one system to another. Some passages show
little change, but in others the change is almost complete. If the
reader will compare two somewhat similar soliloquies, 'To be or not to
be' and 'If it were done when 'tis done,' he will recognise this at
once. Or let him search the previous plays, even _King Lear_, for twelve
consecutive lines like these:

     If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
     It were done quickly: if the assassination
     Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
     With his surcease success; that but this blow
     Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
     But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
     We 'ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
     We still have judgement here; that we but teach
     Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
     To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
     Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
     To our own lips.

Or let him try to parallel the following (III. vi. 37 f.):

                                     and this report
             Hath so exasperate the king that he
             Prepares for some attempt of war.

     _Len._                      Sent he to Macduff?

     _Lord._ He did: and with an absolute 'Sir, not I,'
             The cloudy messenger turns me his back
             And hums, as who should say 'You'll rue the time
             That clogs me with this answer.'

     _Len._                     And that well might
             Advise him to a caution, to hold what distance
             His wisdom can provide. Some holy angel
             Fly to the court of England, and unfold
             His message ere he come, that a swift blessing
             May soon return to this our suffering country
             Under a hand accurs'd!

or this (IV. iii. 118 f.):

                        Macduff, this noble passion,
     Child of integrity, hath from my soul
     Wiped the black scruples, reconciled my thoughts
     To thy good truth and honour. Devilish Macbeth
     By many of these trains hath sought to win me
     Into his power, and modest wisdom plucks me
     From over-credulous haste: but God above
     Deal between thee and me! for even now
     I put myself to thy direction, and
     Unspeak mine own detraction, here abjure
     The taints and blames I laid upon myself,
     For strangers to my nature.

I pass to another point. In the last illustration the reader will
observe not only that 'overflows' abound, but that they follow one
another in an unbroken series of nine lines. So long a series could not,
probably, be found outside _Macbeth_ and the last plays. A series of two
or three is not uncommon; but a series of more than three is rare in the
early plays, and far from common in the plays of the second period

I thought it might be useful for our present purpose, to count the
series of four and upwards in the four tragedies, in the parts of
_Timon_ attributed by Mr. Fleay to Shakespeare, and in _Coriolanus_, a
play of the last period. I have not excluded rhymed lines in the two
places where they occur, and perhaps I may say that my idea of an
'overflow' is more exacting than König's. The reader will understand the
following table at once if I say that, according to it, _Othello_
contains three passages where a series of four successive overflowing
lines occurs, and two passages where a series of five such lines occurs:

                 4    5    6    7    8    9   10   No. of Lines
Othello,         3    2   --   --   --   --   --     2,758
Hamlet,          7   --   --   --   --   --   --     2,571
Lear,            6    2   --   --   --   --   --     2,312
Timon,           7    2    1    1   --   --   --     1,031 (?)
Macbeth,         7    5    1    1   --    1   --     1,706
Coriolanus,     16   14    7    1    2   --    1     2,563

(The figures for _Macbeth_ and _Timon_ in the last column must be borne
in mind. I observed nothing in the non-Shakespeare part of _Timon_ that
would come into the table, but I did not make a careful search. I felt
some doubt as to two of the four series in _Othello_ and again in
_Hamlet_, and also whether the ten-series in _Coriolanus_ should not be
put in column 7).

III. _The light and weak ending test._

We have just seen that in some cases a doubt is felt whether there is an
'overflow' or not. The fact is that the 'overflow' has many degrees of
intensity. If we take, for example, the passage last quoted, and if with
König we consider the line

     The taints and blames I laid upon myself

to be run-on (as I do not), we shall at least consider the overflow to
be much less distinct than those in the lines

                               but God above
     Deal between thee and me! for even now
     I put myself to thy direction, and
     Unspeak my own detraction, here abjure

And of these four lines the third runs on into its successor at much the
greatest speed.

'Above,' 'now,' 'abjure,' are not light or weak endings: 'and' is a weak
ending. Prof. Ingram gave the name weak ending to certain words on which
it is scarcely possible to dwell at all, and which, therefore,
precipitate the line which they close into the following. Light endings
are certain words which have the same effect in a slighter degree. For
example, _and_, _from_, _in_, _of_, are weak endings; _am_, _are_, _I_,
_he_, are light endings.

The test founded on this distinction is, within its limits, the most
satisfactory of all, partly because the work of its author can be
absolutely trusted. The result of its application is briefly as follows.
Until quite a late date light and weak endings occur in Shakespeare's
works in such small numbers as hardly to be worth consideration.[289]
But in the well-defined group of last plays the numbers both of light
and of weak endings increase greatly, and, on the whole, the increase
apparently is progressive (I say apparently, because the order in which
the last plays are generally placed depends to some extent on the test
itself). I give Prof. Ingram's table of these plays, premising that in
_Pericles_, _Two Noble Kinsmen_, and _Henry VIII._ he uses only those
parts of the plays which are attributed by certain authorities to
Shakespeare (_New Shakspere Soc. Trans._, 1874).

               | Light  |      | Percentage  | Percentage  | Percentage
               |endings.| Weak.| of light in | of weak in  |     of
               |        |      | verse lines.| verse lines.|    both.
Antony &       |        |      |             |             |
  Cleopatra,   |   71   |  28  |   2.53      |   1.        |    3.53
Coriolanus,    |   60   |  44  |   2.34      |   1.71      |    4.05
Pericles,      |   20   |  10  |   2.78      |   1.39      |    4.17
Tempest,       |   42   |  25  |   2.88      |   1.71      |    4.59
Cymbeline,     |   78   |  52  |   2.90      |   1.93      |    4.83
Winter's Tale, |   57   |  43  |   3.12      |   2.36      |    5.48
Two Noble      |        |      |             |             |
  Kinsmen,     |   50   |  34  |   3.63      |   2.47      |    6.10
Henry VIII.,   |   45   |  37  |   3.93      |   3.23      |    7.16

Now, let us turn to our four tragedies (with _Timon_). Here again we
have one doubtful play, and I give the figures for the whole of _Timon_,
and again for the parts of _Timon_ assigned to Shakespeare by Mr. Fleay,
both as they appear in his amended text and as they appear in the Globe
(perhaps the better text).

                      |  Light. |  Weak.
Hamlet,               |    8    |    0
Othello,              |    2    |    0
Lear,                 |    5    |    1
Timon (whole),        |   16    |    5
      (Sh. in Fleay), |   14    |    7
      (Sh. in Globe), |   13    |    2
Macbeth,              |   21    |    2

Now here the figures for the first three plays tell us practically
nothing. The tendency to a freer use of these endings is not visible. As
to _Timon_, the number of weak endings, I think, tells us little, for
probably only two or three are Shakespeare's; but the rise in the number
of light endings is so marked as to be significant. And most significant
is this rise in the case of _Macbeth_, which, like Shakespeare's part of
_Timon_, is much shorter than the preceding plays. It strongly confirms
the impression that in _Macbeth_ we have the transition to Shakespeare's
last style, and that the play is the latest of the five tragedies.[290]


[Footnote 282: The fact that _King Lear_ was performed at Court on
December 26, 1606, is of course very far from showing that it had never
been performed before.]

[Footnote 283: I have not tried to discover the source of the difference
between these two reckonings.]

[Footnote 284: _Der Vers in Shakspere's Dramen_, 1888.]

[Footnote 285: In the parts of _Timon_ (Globe text) assigned by Mr.
Fleay to Shakespeare, I find the percentage to be about 74.5. König
gives 62.8 as the percentage in the whole of the play.]

[Footnote 286: I have noted also what must be a mistake in the case of
Pericles. König gives 17.1 as the percentage of the speeches with broken
ends. I was astounded to see the figure, considering the style in the
undoubtedly Shakespearean parts; and I find that, on my method, in Acts
III., IV., V. the percentage is about 71, in the first two Acts (which
show very slight, if any, traces of Shakespeare's hand) about 19. I
cannot imagine the origin of the mistake here.]

[Footnote 287: I put the matter thus, instead of saying that, with a
run-on line, one does pass to the next line without any pause, because,
in common with many others, I should not in any case whatever _wholly_
ignore the fact that one line ends and another begins.]

[Footnote 288: These overflows are what König calls 'schroffe
Enjambements,' which he considers to correspond with Furnivall's 'run-on

[Footnote 289: The number of light endings, however, in _Julius Caesar_
(10) and _All's Well_ (12) is worth notice.]

[Footnote 290: The Editors of the Cambridge Shakespeare might appeal in
support of their view, that parts of Act V. are not Shakespeare's, to
the fact that the last of the light endings occurs at IV. iii. 165.]



A good many readers probably think that, when Macbeth first met the
Witches, he was perfectly innocent; but a much larger number would say
that he had already harboured a vaguely guilty ambition, though he had
not faced the idea of murder. And I think there can be no doubt that
this is the obvious and natural interpretation of the scene. Only it is
almost necessary to go rather further, and to suppose that his guilty
ambition, whatever its precise form, was known to his wife and shared by
her. Otherwise, surely, she would not, on reading his letter, so
instantaneously assume that the King must be murdered in their castle;
nor would Macbeth, as soon as he meets her, be aware (as he evidently
is) that this thought is in her mind.

But there is a famous passage in _Macbeth_ which, closely considered,
seems to require us to go further still, and to suppose that, at some
time before the action of the play begins, the husband and wife had
explicitly discussed the idea of murdering Duncan at some favourable
opportunity, and had agreed to execute this idea. Attention seems to
have been first drawn to this passage by Koester in vol. I. of the
_Jahrbücher d. deutschen Shakespeare-gesellschaft_, and on it is based
the interpretation of the play in Werder's very able _Vorlesungen über

The passage occurs in I. vii., where Lady Macbeth is urging her husband
to the deed:

     _Macb._                                  Prithee, peace:
               I dare do all that may become a man;
               Who dares do more is none.

     _Lady M._                         What beast was't, then,
               That made you break this enterprise to me?
               When you durst do it, then you were a man;
               And, to be more than what you were, you would
               Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
               Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
               They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
               Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
               How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
               I would, while it was smiling in my face,
               Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
               And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
               Have done to this.

Here Lady Macbeth asserts (1) that Macbeth proposed the murder to her:
(2) that he did so at a time when there was no opportunity to attack
Duncan, no 'adherence' of 'time' and 'place': (3) that he declared he
wou'd _make_ an opportunity, and swore to carry out the murder.

Now it is possible that Macbeth's 'swearing' might have occurred in an
interview off the stage between scenes v. and vi., or scenes vi. and
vii.; and, if in that interview Lady Macbeth had with difficulty worked
her husband up to a resolution, her irritation at his relapse, in sc.
vii., would be very natural. But, as for Macbeth's first proposal of
murder, it certainly does not occur in our play, nor could it possibly
occur in any interview off the stage; for when Macbeth and his wife
first meet, 'time' and 'place' _do_ adhere; 'they have made themselves.'
The conclusion would seem to be, either that the proposal of the murder,
and probably the oath, occurred in a scene at the very beginning of the
play, which scene has been lost or cut out; or else that Macbeth
proposed, and swore to execute, the murder at some time prior to the
action of the play.[291] The first of these hypotheses is most
improbable, and we seem driven to adopt the second, unless we consent to
burden Shakespeare with a careless mistake in a very critical passage.

And, apart from unwillingness to do this, we can find a good deal to say
in favour of the idea of a plan formed at a past time. It would explain
Macbeth's start of fear at the prophecy of the kingdom. It would explain
why Lady Macbeth, on receiving his letter, immediately resolves on
action; and why, on their meeting, each knows that murder is in the mind
of the other. And it is in harmony with her remarks on his probable
shrinking from the act, to which, _ex hypothesi_, she had already
thought it necessary to make him pledge himself by an oath.

Yet I find it very difficult to believe in this interpretation. It is
not merely that the interest of Macbeth's struggle with himself and with
his wife would be seriously diminished if we felt he had been through
all this before. I think this would be so; but there are two more
important objections. In the first place the violent agitation described
in the words,

     If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
     Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
     And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,

would surely not be natural, even in Macbeth, if the idea of murder were
already quite familiar to him through conversation with his wife, and if
he had already done more than 'yield' to it. It is not as if the Witches
had told him that Duncan was coming to his house. In that case the
perception that the moment had come to execute a merely general design
might well appal him. But all that he hears is that he will one day be
King--a statement which, supposing this general design, would not point
to any immediate action.[292] And, in the second place, it is hard to
believe that, if Shakespeare really had imagined the murder planned and
sworn to before the action of the play, he would have written the first
six scenes in such a manner that practically all readers imagine quite
another state of affairs, and _continue to imagine it_ even after they
have read in scene vii. the passage which is troubling us. Is it likely,
to put it otherwise, that his idea was one which nobody seems to have
divined till late in the nineteenth century? And for what possible
reason could he refrain from making this idea clear to his audience, as
he might so easily have done in the third scene?[293] It seems very much
more likely that he himself imagined the matter as nearly all his
readers do.

But, in that case, what are we to say of this passage? I will answer
first by explaining the way in which I understood it before I was aware
that it had caused so much difficulty. I supposed that an interview had
taken place after scene v., a scene which shows Macbeth shrinking, and
in which his last words were 'we will speak further.' In this interview,
I supposed, his wife had so wrought upon him that he had at last yielded
and pledged himself by oath to do the murder. As for her statement that
he had 'broken the enterprise' to her, I took it to refer to his letter
to her,--a letter written when time and place did not adhere, for he did
not yet know that Duncan was coming to visit him. In the letter he does
not, of course, openly 'break the enterprise' to her, and it is not
likely that he would do such a thing in a letter; but if they had had
ambitious conversations, in which each felt that some half-formed guilty
idea was floating in the mind of the other, she might naturally take the
words of the letter as indicating much more than they said; and then in
her passionate contempt at his hesitation, and her passionate eagerness
to overcome it, she might easily accuse him, doubtless with
exaggeration, and probably with conscious exaggeration, of having
actually proposed the murder. And Macbeth, knowing that when he wrote
the letter he really had been thinking of murder, and indifferent to
anything except the question whether murder should be done, would easily
let her statement pass unchallenged.

This interpretation still seems to me not unnatural. The alternative
(unless we adopt the idea of an agreement prior to the action of the
play) is to suppose that Lady Macbeth refers throughout the passage to
some interview subsequent to her husband's return, and that, in making
her do so, Shakespeare simply forgot her speeches on welcoming Macbeth
home, and also forgot that at any such interview 'time' and 'place' did
'adhere.' It is easy to understand such forgetfulness in a spectator and
even in a reader; but it is less easy to imagine it in a poet whose
conception of the two characters throughout these scenes was evidently
so burningly vivid.


[Footnote 291: The 'swearing' _might_ of course, on this view, occur off
the stage within the play; but there is no occasion to suppose this if
we are obliged to put the proposal outside the play.]

[Footnote 292: To this it might be answered that the effect of the
prediction was to make him feel, 'Then I shall succeed if I carry out
the plan of murder,' and so make him yield to the idea over again. To
which I can only reply, anticipating the next argument, 'How is it that
Shakespeare wrote the speech in such a way that practically everybody
supposes the idea of murder to be occurring to Macbeth for the first

[Footnote 293: It might be answered here again that the actor,
instructed by Shakespeare, could act the start of fear so as to convey
quite clearly the idea of definite guilt. And this is true; but we ought
to do our best to interpret the text before we have recourse to this
kind of suggestion.]



In the scene of confusion where the murder of Duncan is discovered,
Macbeth and Lennox return from the royal chamber; Lennox describes the
grooms who, as it seemed, had done the deed:

             Their hands and faces were all badged with blood;
             So were their daggers, which unwiped we found
             Upon their pillows:
             They stared, and were distracted; no man's life
             Was to be trusted with them.

     _Macb._ O, yet I do repent me of my fury
             That I did kill them.

     _Macd._                       Wherefore did you so?

     _Macb._ Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,
             Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man:
             The expedition of my violent love
             Outrun the pauser, reason. Here lay Duncan,
             His silver skin laced with his golden blood;
             And his gash'd stabs look'd like a breach in nature
             For ruin's wasteful entrance: there, the murderers,
             Steep'd in the colours of their trade, their daggers
             Unmannerly breech'd with gore: who could refrain,
             That had a heart to love, and in that heart
             Courage to make's love known?

At this point Lady Macbeth exclaims, 'Help me hence, ho!' Her husband
takes no notice, but Macduff calls out 'Look to the lady.' This, after a
few words 'aside' between Malcolm and Donalbain, is repeated by Banquo,
and, very shortly after, all except Duncan's sons _exeunt_. (The
stage-direction 'Lady Macbeth is carried out,' after Banquo's
exclamation 'Look to the lady,' is not in the Ff. and was introduced by
Rowe. If the Ff. are right, she can hardly have fainted _away_. But the
point has no importance here.)

Does Lady Macbeth really turn faint, or does she pretend? The latter
seems to have been the general view, and Whately pointed out that
Macbeth's indifference betrays his consciousness that the faint was not
real. But to this it may be answered that, if he believed it to be real,
he would equally show indifference, in order to display his horror at
the murder. And Miss Helen Faucit and others have held that there was no

In favour of the pretence it may be said (1) that Lady Macbeth, who
herself took back the daggers, saw the old King in his blood, and
smeared the grooms, was not the woman to faint at a mere description;
(2) that she saw her husband over-acting his part, and saw the faces of
the lords, and wished to end the scene,--which she succeeded in doing.

But to the last argument it may be replied that she would not willingly
have run the risk of leaving her husband to act his part alone. And for
other reasons (indicated above, p. 373 f.) I decidedly believe that she
is meant really to faint. She was no Goneril. She knew that she could
not kill the King herself; and she never expected to have to carry back
the daggers, see the bloody corpse, and smear the faces and hands of the
grooms. But Macbeth's agony greatly alarmed her, and she was driven to
the scene of horror to complete his task; and what an impression it made
on her we know from that sentence uttered in her sleep, 'Yet who would
have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?' She had now,
further, gone through the ordeal of the discovery. Is it not quite
natural that the reaction should come, and that it should come just when
Macbeth's description recalls the scene which had cost her the greatest
effort? Is it not likely, besides, that the expression on the faces of
the lords would force her to realise, what before the murder she had
refused to consider, the horror and the suspicion it must excite? It is
noticeable, also, that she is far from carrying out her intention of
bearing a part in making their 'griefs and clamours roar upon his death'
(I. vii. 78). She has left it all to her husband, and, after uttering
but two sentences, the second of which is answered very curtly by
Banquo, for some time (an interval of 33 lines) she has said nothing. I
believe Shakespeare means this interval to be occupied in desperate
efforts on her part to prevent herself from giving way, as she sees for
the first time something of the truth to which she was formerly so
blind, and which will destroy her in the end.

It should be observed that at the close of the Banquet scene, where she
has gone through much less, she is evidently exhausted.

Shakespeare, of course, knew whether he meant the faint to be real: but
I am not aware if an actor of the part could show the audience whether
it was real or pretended. If he could, he would doubtless receive
instructions from the author.



1. The duration of the action cannot well be more than a few months. On
the day following the murder of Duncan his sons fly and Macbeth goes to
Scone to be invested (II. iv.). Between this scene and Act III. an
interval must be supposed, sufficient for news to arrive of Malcolm
being in England and Donalbain in Ireland, and for Banquo to have shown
himself a good counsellor. But the interval is evidently not long:
_e.g._ Banquo's first words are 'Thou hast it now' (III. i. 1). Banquo
is murdered on the day when he speaks these words. Macbeth's visit to
the Witches takes place the next day (III. iv. 132). At the end of this
visit (IV. i.) he hears of Macduff's flight to England, and determines
to have Macduff's wife and children slaughtered without delay; and this
is the subject of the next scene (IV. ii.). No great interval, then, can
be supposed between this scene and the next, where Macduff, arrived at
the English court, hears what has happened at his castle. At the end of
that scene (IV. iii. 237) Malcolm says that 'Macbeth is ripe for
shaking, and the powers above put on their instruments': and the events
of Act V. evidently follow with little delay, and occupy but a short
time. Holinshed's Macbeth appears to have reigned seventeen years:
Shakespeare's may perhaps be allowed as many weeks.

But, naturally, Shakespeare creates some difficulties through wishing to
produce different impressions in different parts of the play. The main
effect is that of fiery speed, and it would be impossible to imagine the
torment of Macbeth's mind lasting through a number of years, even if
Shakespeare had been willing to allow him years of outward success.
Hence the brevity of the action. On the other hand time is wanted for
the degeneration of his character hinted at in IV. iii. 57 f., for the
development of his tyranny, for his attempts to entrap Malcolm (_ib._
117 f.), and perhaps for the deepening of his feeling that his life had
passed into the sere and yellow leaf. Shakespeare, as we have seen,
scarcely provides time for all this, but at certain points he produces
an impression that a longer time has elapsed than he has provided for,
and he puts most of the indications of this longer time into a scene
(IV. iii.) which by its quietness contrasts strongly with almost all the
rest of the play.

2. There is no unmistakable indication of the ages of the two principal
characters; but the question, though of no great importance, has an
interest. I believe most readers imagine Macbeth as a man between forty
and fifty, and his wife as younger but not young. In many cases this
impression is doubtless due to the custom of the theatre (which, if it
can be shown to go back far, should have much weight), but it is shared
by readers who have never seen the play performed, and is then
presumably due to a number of slight influences probably incapable of
complete analysis. Such readers would say, 'The hero and heroine do not
speak like young people, nor like old ones'; but, though I think this is
so, it can hardly be demonstrated. Perhaps however the following small
indications, mostly of a different kind, tend to the same result.

(1) There is no positive sign of youth. (2) A young man would not be
likely to lead the army. (3) Macbeth is 'cousin' to an old man.[294] (4)
Macbeth calls Malcolm 'young,' and speaks of him scornfully as 'the boy
Malcolm.' He is probably therefore considerably his senior. But Malcolm
is evidently not really a boy (see I. ii. 3 f. as well as the later
Acts). (5) One gets the impression (possibly without reason) that
Macbeth and Banquo are of about the same age; and Banquo's son, the boy
Fleance, is evidently not a mere child. (On the other hand the children
of Macduff, who is clearly a good deal older than Malcolm, are all
young; and I do not think there is any sign that Macbeth is older than
Macduff.) (6) When Lady Macbeth, in the banquet scene, says,

     Sit, worthy friends: my lord is often thus,
     And hath been from his youth,

we naturally imagine him some way removed from his youth. (7) Lady
Macbeth saw a resemblance to her father in the aged king. (8) Macbeth

     I have lived long enough: my way[295] of life
     Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf:
     And that which should accompany old age,
     As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
     I may not look to have.

It is, surely, of the old age of the soul that he speaks in the second
line, but still the lines would hardly be spoken under any circumstances
by a man less than middle-aged.

On the other hand I suppose no one ever imagined Macbeth, or on
consideration could imagine him, as _more_ than middle-aged when the
action begins. And in addition the reader may observe, if he finds it
necessary, that Macbeth looks forward to having children (I. vii. 72),
and that his terms of endearment ('dearest love,' 'dearest chuck') and
his language in public ('sweet remembrancer') do not suggest that his
wife and he are old; they even suggest that she at least is scarcely
middle-aged. But this discussion tends to grow ludicrous.

For Shakespeare's audience these mysteries were revealed by a glance at
the actors, like the fact that Duncan was an old man, which the text, I
think, does not disclose till V. i. 44.

3. Whether Macbeth had children or (as seems usually to be supposed) had
none, is quite immaterial. But it is material that, if he had none, he
looked forward to having one; for otherwise there would be no point in
the following words in his soliloquy about Banquo (III. i. 58 f.):

                        Then prophet-like
     They hail'd him father to a line of kings:
     Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
     And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
     Thence to be wrench'd with an unlineal hand,
     No son of mine succeeding. If't be so,
     For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind.

And he is determined that it shall not 'be so':

     Rather than so, come, fate, into the list
     And champion me to the utterance!

Obviously he contemplates a son of his succeeding, if only he can get
rid of Banquo and Fleance. What he fears is that Banquo will kill him;
in which case, supposing he has a son, that son will not be allowed to
succeed him, and, supposing he has none, he will be unable to beget one.

I hope this is clear; and nothing else matters. Lady Macbeth's child (I.
vii. 54) may be alive or may be dead. It may even be, or have been, her
child by a former husband; though, if Shakespeare had followed history
in making Macbeth marry a widow (as some writers gravely assume) he
would probably have told us so. It may be that Macbeth had many children
or that he had none. We cannot say, and it does not concern the play.
But the interpretation of a statement on which some critics build, 'He
has no children,' has an interest of another kind, and I proceed to
consider it.

These words occur at IV. iii. 216. Malcolm and Macduff are talking at
the English Court, and Ross, arriving from Scotland, brings news to
Macduff of Macbeth's revenge on him. It is necessary to quote a good
many lines:

     _Ross._ Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes
             Savagely slaughter'd: to relate the manner,
             Were, on the quarry of these murder'd deer,
             To add the death of you.

     _Mal._                            Merciful heaven!
             What, man! ne'er pull your hat upon your brows;
             Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak
             Whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break.

     _Macd._ My children too?

     _Ross._                   Wife, children, servants, all
             That could be found.

     _Macd._                       And I must be from thence!
             My wife kill'd too?

     _Ross._                     I have said.

     _Mal._                                   Be comforted:
             Let's makes us medicines of our great revenge,
             To cure this deadly grief.

     _Macd._ He has no children. All my pretty ones?
             Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
             What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
             At one fell swoop?

     _Mal_.  Dispute it like a man.

     _Macd._                         I shall do so;
             But I must also feel it as a man:
             I cannot but remember such things were,
             That were most precious to me.--

Three interpretations have been offered of the words 'He has no

(_a_) They refer to Malcolm, who, if he had children of his own, would
not at such a moment suggest revenge, or talk of curing such a grief.
Cf. _King John_, III. iv. 91, where Pandulph says to Constance,

     You hold too heinous a respect of grief,

and Constance answers,

     He talks to me that never had a son.

(_b_) They refer to Macbeth, who has no children, and on whom therefore
Macduff cannot take an adequate revenge.

(_c_) They refer to Macbeth, who, if he himself had children, could
never have ordered the slaughter of children. Cf. _3 Henry VI._ V. v.
63, where Margaret says to the murderers of Prince Edward,

     You have no children, butchers! if you had,
     The thought of them would have stirred up remorse.

I cannot think interpretation (_b_) the most natural. The whole idea of
the passage is that Macduff must feel _grief_ first and before he can
feel anything else, _e.g._ the desire for vengeance. As he says directly
after, he cannot at once 'dispute' it like a man, but must 'feel' it as
a man; and it is not till ten lines later that he is able to pass to the
thought of revenge. Macduff is not the man to conceive at any time the
idea of killing children in retaliation; and that he contemplates it
_here_, even as a suggestion, I find it hard to believe.

For the same main reason interpretation (_a_) seems to me far more
probable than (_c_). What could be more consonant with the natural
course of the thought, as developed in the lines which follow, than that
Macduff, being told to think of revenge, not grief, should answer, 'No
one who was himself a father would ask that of me in the very first
moment of loss'? But the thought supposed by interpretation (_c_) has
not this natural connection.

It has been objected to interpretation (_a_) that, according to it,
Macduff would naturally say 'You have no children,' not 'He has no
children.' But what Macduff does is precisely what Constance does in the
line quoted from _King John_. And it should be noted that, all through
the passage down to this point, and indeed in the fifteen lines which
precede our quotation, Macduff listens only to Ross. His questions 'My
children too?' 'My wife killed too?' show that he cannot fully realise
what he is told. When Malcolm interrupts, therefore, he puts aside his
suggestion with four words spoken to himself, or (less probably) to Ross
(his relative, who knew his wife and children), and continues his
agonised questions and exclamations. Surely it is not likely that at
that moment the idea of (_c_), an idea which there is nothing to
suggest, would occur to him.

In favour of (_c_) as against (_a_) I see no argument except that the
words of Macduff almost repeat those of Margaret; and this fact does not
seem to me to have much weight. It shows only that Shakespeare might
easily use the words in the sense of (_c_) if that sense were suitable
to the occasion. It is not unlikely, again, I think, that the words came
to him here because he had used them many years before;[296] but it does
not follow that he knew he was repeating them; or that, if he did, he
remembered the sense they had previously borne; or that, if he did
remember it, he might not use them now in another sense.


[Footnote 294: So in Holinshed, as well as in the play, where however
'cousin' need not have its specific meaning.]

[Footnote 295: 'May,' Johnson conjectured, without necessity.]

[Footnote 296: As this point occurs here, I may observe that
Shakespeare's later tragedies contain many such reminiscences of the
tragic plays of his young days. For instance, cf. _Titus Andronicus_, I.
i. 150 f.:

     In peace and honour rest you here, my sons,

            *       *       *       *       *

     Secure from worldly chances and mishaps!
     Here lurks no treason, here no envy swells,
     Here grow no damned drugs: here are no storms,
     No noise, but silence and eternal sleep,

with _Macbeth_, III. ii. 22 f.:

                                Duncan is in his grave;
     After life's fitful fever he sleeps well;
     Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
     Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
     Can touch him further.

In writing IV. i. Shakespeare can hardly have failed to remember the
conjuring of the Spirit, and the ambiguous oracles, in _2 Henry VI._ I.
iv. The 'Hyrcan tiger' of _Macbeth_ III. iv. 101, which is also alluded
to in _Hamlet_, appears first in _3 Henry VI._ I. iv. 155. Cf. _Richard
III._ II. i. 92, 'Nearer in bloody thoughts, but not in blood,' with
_Macbeth_ II. iii. 146, 'the near in blood, the nearer bloody'; _Richard
III._ IV. ii. 64, 'But I am in So far in blood that sin will pluck on
sin,' with _Macbeth_ III. iv. 136, 'I am in blood stepp'd in so far,'
etc. These are but a few instances. (It makes no difference whether
Shakespeare was author or reviser of _Titus_ and _Henry VI._).]



I do not think the suggestions that the Ghost on its first appearance is
Banquo's, and on its second Duncan's, or _vice versâ_, are worth
discussion. But the question whether Shakespeare meant the Ghost to be
real or a mere hallucination, has some interest, and I have not seen it
fully examined.

The following reasons may be given for the hallucination view:

(1) We remember that Macbeth has already seen one hallucination, that of
the dagger; and if we failed to remember it Lady Macbeth would remind us
of it here:

     This is the very painting of your fear;
     This is the air-drawn dagger which, you said,
     Led you to Duncan.

(2) The Ghost seems to be created by Macbeth's imagination; for his

                     now they rise again
     With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,

describe it, and they echo what the murderer had said to him a little

                   Safe in a ditch he bides
     With twenty trenched gashes on his head.

(3) It vanishes the second time on his making a violent effort and
asserting its unreality:

                     Hence, horrible shadow!
     Unreal mockery, hence!

This is not quite so the first time, but then too its disappearance
follows on his defying it:

     Why what care I? If thou canst nod, speak too.

So, apparently, the dagger vanishes when he exclaims, 'There's no such

(4) At the end of the scene Macbeth himself seems to regard it as an

                        My strange and self-abuse
     Is the initiate fear that wants hard use.

(5) It does not speak, like the Ghost in _Hamlet_ even on its last
appearance, and like the Ghost in _Julius Caesar_.

(6) It is visible only to Macbeth.

I should attach no weight to (6) taken alone (see p. 140). Of (3) it may
be remarked that Brutus himself seems to attribute the vanishing of
Caesar's Ghost to his taking courage: 'now I have taken heart thou
vanishest:' yet he certainly holds it to be real. It may also be
remarked on (5) that Caesar's Ghost says nothing that Brutus' own
forebodings might not have conjured up. And further it may be asked why,
if the Ghost of Banquo was meant for an illusion, it was represented on
the stage, as the stage-directions and Forman's account show it to have

On the whole, and with some doubt, I think that Shakespeare (1) meant
the judicious to take the Ghost for an hallucination, but (2) knew that
the bulk of the audience would take it for a reality. And I am more sure
of (2) than of (1).


The titles of plays are in italics. So are the numbers of the pages
containing the main discussion of a character. The titles of the Notes
are not repeated in the Index.

Aaron, 200, 211.

Abnormal mental conditions, 13, 398.

Accident, in tragedy, 7, 14-16, 26, 28;
  in _Hamlet_, 143, 173;
  in _Othello_, 181-2;
  in _King Lear_, 253, 325.

Act, difficulty in Fourth, 57-8;
  the five Acts, 49.

Action, tragic, 11, 12, 31;
  and character, 12, 19;
  a conflict, 16-19.

Adversity and prosperity in _King Lear_, 326-7.

Albany, _297-8_.

Antonio, 110, 404.

_Antony and Cleopatra_, 3, 7, 45, 80;
  conflict, 17-8;
  crisis, 53, 55, 66;
  humour in catastrophe, 62, 395-6;
  battle-scenes, 62-3;
  extended catastrophe, 64;
  faulty construction, 71, 260;
  passion in, 82;
  evil in, 83-4;
  versification, 87, Note BB.

Antony, 22, 29, 63, 83-4.

_Arden of Feversham_, 9.

Ariel, 264.

Aristotle, 16, 22.

Art, Shakespeare's, conscious, 68-9;
  defects in, 71-78.

Arthur, 294.

_As You Like It_, 71, 267, 390.

Atmosphere in tragedy, 333.

Banquo, 343, _379-86_.

Barbara, the maid, 175.

Battle-scene, 62, 451, 469;
  in _King Lear_, 255, Note X.

Beast and man, in _King Lear_, 266-8;
  in _Timon_, 453.

Bernhardt, Mme., 379.

Biblical ideas, in _King Lear_, 328.

Bombast, 73, 75-6, 389, Note F.

Brandes, G., 379, 393.

Brutus, 7, 14, 22, 27, 32, 81-2, 101, 364.

Caliban, 264.

Cassio, 211-3, _238-9_, 433-4.

Catastrophe, humour before, 61-2;
  battle-scenes in, 62;
  false hope before, 63;
  extended, 62;
  in _Antony_ and _Coriolanus_, 83-4.
  See _Hamlet_, etc.

Character, and plot, 12;
  is destiny, 13;
  tragic, 19-23.

Chaucer, 8, 346.

Children, in the plays, 293-5.

Cleopatra, 7, 20, 84, 178, 208.

Coleridge, 104-5, 107, 109, 127, 165, 200, 201, 209, 223, 226, 228, 249,
  343, 353, 362, 389, 391, 392, 397, 412, 413.

Comedy, 15, 41.

Conflict, tragic, 16-9;
  originates in evil, 34;
  oscillating movement in, 50;
  crisis in, 51-5;
  descending movement of, 55-62.

Conscience. See Hamlet.

Cordelia, 29, 32, 203-6, 250, 290, 314, _315-26_, Note W.

_Coriolanus_, 3, 9, 43, 394-5;
  crisis, 53;
  hero off stage, 57;
  counter-stroke, 58;
  humour, 61;
  passion, 82;
  catastrophe, 83-4;
  versification, Note BB.

Coriolanus, 20, 29, 83-4, 196.

Cornwall, 298-9.

Crisis. See Conflict.

Curtain, no front, in Shakespeare's theatre, 185, 458.

_Cymbeline_, 7, 21, 72, 80, Note BB;
  Queen in, 300.

Desdemona, 32, 165, 179, 193, 197, _201-6_, 323, 433, 437-9.

Disillusionment, in tragedies, 175.

Dog, the, Shakespeare and, 268.

Don John, 110, 210.

Double action in _King Lear_, 255-6, 262.

Dowden, E., 82, 105, 330, 408.

Dragging, 57-8, 64.

Drunkenness, invective against, 238.

Edgar, _305-7_, 453, 465.

Edmund, 210, 245, 253, _300-3_, Notes P, Q.
  See Iago.

Emilia, 214-6, 237, _239-42_, Note P.

Emotional tension, variations of, 48-9.

Evil, origin of conflict, 34;
  negative, 35;
  in earlier and later tragedies, 82-3;
  poetic portrayal of, 207-8;
  aspects of, specially impressive to Shakespeare, 232-3;
  in _King Lear_, 298, 303-4, 327;
  in _Tempest_, 328-30;
  in _Macbeth_, 331, 386.

Exposition, 41-7.

Fate, Fatality, 10, 26-30, 45, 59, 177, 181, 287, 340-6.

Fleay, F.G., 419, 424, 445, 467, 479.

Fool in _King Lear_, the, 258, _311-5_, 322, 447, Note V.

Fools, Shakespeare's, 310.

Forman, Dr., 468, 493.

Fortinbras, 90.

Fortune, 9, 10.

Freytag, G., 40, 63.

Furness, H.H., 199, 200.

Garnet and equivocation, 397, 470-1.

Ghost, Banquo's, 332, 335, 338, 361, Note FF.

Ghost, Caesar's, Note FF.

Ghost in _Hamlet_, 97, 100, 118, 120, 125, 126, 134, 136, 138-40,

Ghosts, not hallucinations because appearing only to one in a company,

Gloster, 272, _293-6_, 447.

Gnomic speeches, 74, 453.

Goethe, 101, 127, 165, 208.

Goneril, 245, _299-300_, 331, 370, 447-8.

Greek tragedy, 7, 16, 30, 33, 182, 276-9, 282.

Greene, 409.

Hales, J.W., 397.

_Hamlet_, exposition, 43-7;
  conflict, 17, 47, 50-1;
  crisis and counter-stroke, 52, 58-60, 136-7;
  dragging, 57;
  humour, and false hope, before catastrophe, 61, 63;
  obscurities, 73;
  undramatic passages, 72, 74;
  place among tragedies, 80-8;
  position of hero, 89-92;
  not simply tragedy of thought, 82, 113, 127;
  in the Romantic Revival, 92, 127-8;
  lapse of time in, 129, 141;
  accident, 15, 143, 173;
  religious ideas, 144-5, 147-8, 172-4;
  player's speech, 389-90, Note F;
  grave-digger, 395-6;
  last scene, 256.
  See Notes A to H, and BB.

Hamlet, only tragic character in play, 90;
  contrasted with Laertes and Fortinbras, 90, 106;
  failure of early criticism of, 91;
  supposed unintelligible, 93-4;
  external view, 94-7;
  'conscience' view, 97-101;
  sentimental view, 101-4;
  Schlegel-Coleridge view, 104-8, 116, 123, 126-7;
  temperament, 109-10;
  moral idealism, 110-3;
  reflective genius, 113-5;
    connection of this with inaction, 115-7;
  origin of melancholy, 117-20;
    its nature and effects, 120-7, 103, 158;
    its diminution, 143-4;
  his 'insanity,' 121-2, 421;
  in Act II. 129-31, 155-6;
  in III. i. 131-3, 157, 421;
  in play-scene, 133-4;
  spares King, 134-6, 100, 439;
  with Queen, 136-8;
  kills Polonius, 136-7, 104;
  with Ghost, 138-40;
  leaving Denmark, 140-1;
  state after return, 143-5, 421;
  in grave-yard, 145-6, 153, 158, 421-2;
  in catastrophe, 102, 146-8, 151, 420-1;
  and Ophelia, 103, 112, 119, 145-6, 152-9, 402, 420-1;
  letter to Ophelia, 150, 403;
  trick of repetition, 148-9;
  word-play and humour, 149-52, 411;
  aesthetic feeling, 133, 415;
  and Iago, 208, 217, 222, 226;
  other references, 9, 14, 20, 22, 28, 316, 353, Notes A to H.

Hanmer, 91.

Hazlitt, 209, 223, 228, 231, 243, 248.

Hecate, 342, Note Z.

Hegel, 16, 348.

_2 Henry VI._, 492.

_3 Henry VI._, 222, 418, 490, 492.

_Henry VIII._, 80, 472, 479.

Heredity, 30, 266, 303.

Hero, tragic, 7;
  of 'high degree,' 9-11;
  contributes to catastrophe, 12;
  nature of, 19-23, 37;
  error of, 21, 34;
  unlucky, 28;
  place of, in construction, 53-55;
  absence of, from stage, 57;
  in earlier and later plays, 81-2, 176;
  in _King Lear_, 280;
  feeling at death of, 147-8, 174, 198, 324.

Heywood, 140, 419.

Historical tragedies, 3, 53, 71.

Homer, 348.

Horatio, 99, 112, 310, Notes A, B, C.

Humour, constructional use of, 61;
  Hamlet's, 149-52;
  in _Othello_, 177;
  in _Macbeth_, 395.

Hunter, J., 199, 338.

Iachimo, 21, 210.

Iago, and evil, 207, 232-3;
  false views of, 208-11, 223-7;
  danger of accepting his own evidence, 211-2, 222-5;
  how he appeared to others, 213-5;
    and to Emilia, 215-6, 439-40;
  inferences hence, 217-8;
  further analysis, 218-22;
  source of his action, 222-31;
  his tragedy, 218, 222, 232;
  not merely evil, 233-5;
  nor of supreme intellect, 236;
  cause of failure, 236-7;
  and Edmund, 245, 300-1, 464;
  and Hamlet, 208, 217, 222, 226;
  other references, 21, 28, 32, 192, 193, 196, 364, Notes L, M, P, Q.

Improbability, not always a defect, 69;
  in _King Lear_, 249, 256-7.

Inconsistencies, 73;
  real or supposed, in _Hamlet_, 408;
  in _Othello_, Note I;
  in _King Lear_, 256, Note T;
  in _Macbeth_, Notes CC, EE.

Ingram, Prof., 478.

Insanity in tragedy, 13;
  Ophelia's, 164-5, 399;
  Lear's, 288-90.

Intrigue in tragedy, 12, 67, 179.

Irony, 182, 338.

Isabella, 316, 317, 321.

Jameson, Mrs., 165, 204, 379.

Jealousy in Othello, 178, 194, Note L.

Job, 11.

Johnson, 31, 91, 294, 298, 304, 377, 420.

Jonson, 69, 282, 389.

Juliet, 7, 204, 210.

_Julius Caesar_, 3, 7, 9, 33, 34, 479;
  conflict, 17-8;
  exposition, 43-5;
  crisis, 52;
  dragging, 57;
  counter-stroke, 58;
  quarrel-scene, 60-1;
  battle-scenes, 62;
  and _Hamlet_, 80-2;
  style, 85-6.

Justice in tragedy, idea of, 31-33, 279, 318.

Kean, 99, 243-4.

Kent, _307-10_, 314, 321, 447, Note W.

King Claudius, 28, 102, 133, 137, 142, _168-72_, 402, 422.

_King John_, 394, 490-1.

_King Lear_, exposition, 44, 46-7;
  conflict, 17, 53-4;
  scenes of high and low tension, 49;
  dragging, 57;
  false hope before catastrophe, 63;
  battle-scene, 62, 456-8;
  soliloquy in, 72, 222;
  place among tragedies, 82, 88, see Tate;
  Tate's, 243-4;
  two-fold character, 244-6;
  not wholly dramatic, 247;
  opening scene, 71, 249-51, 258, 319-21, 447;
  blinding of Gloster, 185, 251;
  catastrophe, 250-4, 271, 290-3, 309, 322-6;
  structural defects, 254-6;
  improbabilities, etc., 256-8;
  vagueness of locality, 259-60;
  poetic value of defects, 261;
  double action, 262;
  characterisation, 263;
  tendency to symbolism, 264-5;
  idea of monstrosity, 265-6;
  beast and man, 266-8;
  storm-scenes, 269-70, 286-7, 315;
  question of government of world, in, 271-3;
  supposed pessimism, 273-9, 284-5, 303-4, 322-30;
  accident and fatality, 15, 250-4, 287-8;
  intrigue in, 179;
  evil in, 298, 303-4;
  preaching patience, 330;
  and _Othello_, 176-7, 179, 181, 244-5, 441-3;
  and _Timon_, 245-7, 310, 326-7, 443-5;
  other references, 8, 10, 61, 181, Notes R to Y, and BB.

König, G., Note BB.

Koppel, R., 306, 450, 453, 462.

Laertes, 90, 111, 142, 422.

Lamb, 202, 243, 248, 253, 255, 269, 343.

Language, Shakespeare's, defects of, 73, 75, 416.

Lear, 13, 14, 20, 28, 29, 32, 249-51, _280-93_, 293-5, Note W.

Leontes, 21, 194.

_Macbeth_, exposition, 43, 45-6;
  conflict, 17-9, 48, 52;
  crisis, 59, 60;
  pathos and humour, 61, 391, 395-7;
  battle-scenes, 62;
  extended catastrophe, 64;
  defects in construction, 57, 71;
  place among tragedies, 82, 87-8, Note BB;
  religious ideas, 172-4;
  atmosphere of, 333;
  effects of darkness, 333-4,
  colour, 334-6,
  storm, 336-7,
  supernatural, etc., 337-8,
  irony, 338-40;
  Witches, 340-9, 362, 379-86;
  imagery, 336, 357;
  minor characters, 387;
  simplicity, 388;
  Senecan effect, 389-90;
  bombast, 389, 417;
  prose, 388, 397-400;
  relief-scenes, 391;
  sleep-walking scene, 378, 398, 400;
  references to Gunpowder Plot, 397, 470-1;
  all genuine? 388, 391, 395-7, Note Z;
  and _Hamlet_, 331-2;
  and _Richard III._, 338, 390, 395, 492;
  other references, 7, 8, 386, and Notes Z to FF.

Macbeth, 13, 14, 20, 22, 28, 32, 63, 172, 343-5, _349-65_, 380, 383,
  386, Notes CC, EE.

Macbeth, Lady, 13, 28, 32, 349-50, 358, 364, _366-79_, 398-400, Notes
  CC, DD.

Macduff, 387, 391-2, 490-1.

Macduff, Lady, 61, 387, 391-2.

Macduff, little, 393-5.

Mackenzie, 91.

Marlowe, 211, 415-6.

Marston's possible reminiscences of Shakespeare's plays, 471-2.

_Measure for Measure_, 76, 78, 275, 397.

Mediaeval idea of tragedy, 8, 9.

Melancholy, Shakespeare's representations of, 110, 121.
  See Hamlet.

Mephistopheles, 208.

_Merchant of Venice_, 21, 200.

Metrical tests, Notes S, BB.

Middleton, 466.

_Midsummer Night's Dream_, 390, 469.

Milton, 207, 362, 418.

Monstrosity, idea of, in _King Lear_, 265-6.

Moral order in tragedy, idea of, 26, 31-9.

Moulton, R.G., 40.

Negro? Othello a, 198-202.

Opening scene in tragedy, 43-4.

Ophelia, 14, 61, 112, _160-5_, 204, 399.
  See Hamlet.

Oswald, 298, 448.

_Othello_, exposition, 44-5;
  conflict, 17, 18, 48;
  peculiar construction, 54-5, 64-7, 177;
  inconsistencies, 73;
  place among tragedies, 82, 83, 88;
  and _Hamlet_, 175-6;
  and _King Lear_, 176-7, 179, 181, 244-5, 441-3;
  distinctive effect, and its causes, 176-80;
  accident in, 15, 181-2;
  objections to, considered, 183-5;
  point of inferiority to other three tragedies, 185-6;
  elements of reconciliation in catastrophe, 198, 242;
  other references, 9, 61, Notes I to R, and BB.

Othello, 9, 20, 21, 22, 28, 29, 32, 176, 178, 179, _186-98_, 198-202,
  211, 212, Notes K to O.

Pathos, and tragedy, 14, 103, 160, 203, 281-2;
  constructional use of, 60-1.

Peele, 200.

_Pericles_, 474.

Period, Shakespeare's tragic, 79-89, 275-6.

Pessimism, supposed, in _King Lear_, 275-9, 327;
  in _Macbeth_, 359, 393.

Plays, Shakespeare's, list of, in periods, 79.

Plot, 12.
  See Action, Intrigue.

'Poetic justice,' 31-2.

Poor, goodness of the, in _King Lear_ and _Timon_, 326.

Posthumus, 21.

Problems, probably non-existent for original audience, 73, 157, 159,
  315, 393, 483, 486, 488.

Prose, in the tragedies, 388, 397-400.

Queen Gertrude, 104, 118, 134, 136-8, 161, 164, _166-8_.

Reconciliation, feeling of, in tragedy, 31, 36, 84, 147-8, 174, 198,
  242, 322-6.

Regan, _299-300_.

Religion, in Edgar, 306,
  Horatio, 310,
  Banquo, 387.

_Richard II._, 3, 10, 17, 18, 42.

Richard II., 20, 22, 150, 152.

_Richard III._, 3, 18, 42, 62, 82;
  and _Macbeth_, 338, 390, 395, 492.

Richard III., 14, 20, 22, 32, 63, 152, 207, 210, 217, 218, 233, 301.

_Romeo and Juliet_, 3, 7, 9, 15;
  conflict, 17, 18, 34;
  exposition, 41-5;
  crisis, 52;
  counter-stroke, 58.

Romeo, 22, 29, 150, 210.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, 137, 405-6.

Rules of drama, Shakespeare's supposed ignorance of, 69.

Salvini, 434.

Satan, Milton's, 207, 362.

Scenery, no, in Shakespeare's theatre, 49, 71, 451.

Scenes, their number, length, tone, 49;
  wrong divisions of, 451.

Schlegel, 82, 104, 105, 116, 123, 127, 254, 262, 344, 345, 413.

Scot on Witch-craft, 341.

Seneca, 389-90.

Shakespeare the man, 6, 81, 83, 185-6, 246, 275-6, 282, 285, 327-30,
  359, 393, 414-5.

Shylock, 21.

Siddons, Mrs., 371, 379.

Soliloquy, 72;
  of villains, 222;
  scenes ending with, 451.

Sonnets, Shakespeare's, 264, 364.

Spedding, J., 255, 476, Note X.

Stage-directions, wrong modern, 260, 285, 422, 453-6, 462.

Style in the tragedies, 85-9, 332, 336, 357.

Suffering, tragic, 7, 8, 11.

Supernatural, the, in tragedy, 14, 181, 295-6, 331-2.
  See Ghost, Witch.

Swinburne, A.C., 80, 179, 191, 209, 218, 223, 228, 231, 276-8, 431.

Symonds, J.A., 10.

Tate's version of _King Lear_, 243, 251-3, 313.

Temperament, 110, 282, 306.

_Tempest_, 42, 80, 185, 264, 328-30, 469; Note BB.

Theological ideas in tragedy, 25, 144, 147, 279;
  in _Hamlet_ and _Macbeth_, 171-4, 439;
  not in _Othello_, 181, 439;
  in _King Lear_, 271-3, 296.

Time, short and long, theory of, 426-7.

_Timon of Athens_, 4, 9, 81-3, 88, 245-7, 266, 270, 275, 310, 326-7,
  443-5, 460; Note BB.

Timon, 9, 82, 112.

_Titus Andronicus_, 4, 200, 211, 411, 491.

Tourgénief, 11, 295.

Toussaint, 198.

Tragedy, Shakespearean; parts, 41, 51;
  earlier and later, 18, 176;
  pure and historical, 3, 71.
  See Accident, Action, Hero, Period, Reconciliation, etc.

Transmigration of souls, 267.

_Troilus and Cressida_, 7, 185-6, 268, 275-6, 302, 417, 419.

_Twelfth Night_, 70, 267.

_Two Noble Kinsmen_, 418, 472, 479.

Ultimate power in tragedy, 24-39, 171-4, 271-9.
  See Fate, Moral Order, Reconciliation, Theological.

Undramatic speeches, 74, 106.

Versification. See Style and Metrical tests.

Virgilia, 387.

Waste, tragic, 23, 37.

Werder, K., 94, 172, 480.

_Winter's Tale_, 21, Note BB.

Witches, the, and Macbeth, _340-9_, 362;
  and Banquo, 379-87.

Wittenberg, Hamlet at, 403-6.

Wordsworth, 30, 198.

_Yorkshire Tragedy_, 10.


_8vo. 12s. 6d. net._

Oxford Lectures on Poetry


A.C. BRADLEY, LL.D., Litt.D.

_ATHENÆUM._--"A remarkable achievement.... It is probable that this
volume will attain a permanence for which critical literature generally
cannot hope. Very many of the things that are said here are finally
said; they exhaust their subject. Of one thing we are certain--that
there is no work in English devoted to the interpretation of poetic
experience which can claim the delicacy and sureness of Mr. Bradley's."

_SPECTATOR._--"In reviewing Professor Bradley's previous book on
_Shakespearean Tragedy_ we declared our opinion that it was probably the
best Shakespearean criticism since Coleridge. The new volume shows the
same complete sanity of judgment, the same subtlety, the same persuasive
and eloquent exposition."

_TIMES._--"Nothing higher need be said of the present volume than it is
not unworthy to be the sequel to _Shakespearean Tragedy_."

_DAILY TELEGRAPH._--"This is not a book to be written about in a hasty
review of a thousand words. It is one to be perused and appreciated at
leisure--to be returned to again and again, partly because of its
supreme interest, partly because it provokes, as all good books should
do, a certain antagonism, partly because it is itself the product of a
careful, scholarly mind, basing conclusions on a scrupulous perusal of
documents and authorities.... The whole book is so full of good things
that it is impossible to make any adequate selection. In an age which is
not supposed to be very much interested in literary criticism, a book
like Mr. Bradley's is of no little significance and importance."

_SATURDAY REVIEW._--"The writer of these admirable lectures may claim
what is rare even in this age of criticism--a note of his own. In type
he belongs to those critics of the best order, whose view of literature
is part and parcel of their view of life. His lectures on poetry are
therefore what they profess to be: not scraps of textual comment, nor
studies in the craft of verse-making, but broad considerations of poetry
as a mode of spiritual revelation. An accomplished style and signs of
careful reading we may justly demand from any professor who sets out to
lecture in literature. Mr. Bradley has them in full measure. But he has
also not a little of that priceless quality so seldom found in the
professional or professorial critic--the capacity of naïve vision and
admiration. Here he is in a line with the really stimulating essayists,
the artists in criticism."


_Second Edition. Crown 8vo. 5s. 6d. net._

A Commentary on Tennyson's 'In Memoriam'


A.C. BRADLEY, LL.D., Litt.D.

_THE SATURDAY REVIEW._--"Here we find a model of what a commentary on a
great work should be, every page instinct with thoughtfulness; complete
sympathy and appreciation; the most reverent care shown in the attempted
interpretation of passages whose meaning to a large degree evades, and
will always evade, readers of 'In Memoriam.' It is clear to us that Mr.
Bradley has devoted long time and thought to his work, and that he has
published the result of his labours simply to help those who, like
himself, have been and are in difficulties as to the drift of various
passages. He is not of course the first who has addressed himself to the
interpretation of 'In Memoriam'--in this spirit ... but Mr. Bradley's
commentary is sure to take rank as the most searching and scholarly of

_THE PILOT._--"In re-studying 'In Memoriam' with Dr. Bradley's aid, we
have found his interpretation helpful in numerous passages. The notes
are prefaced by a long introduction dealing with the origin,
composition, and structure of the poem, the ideas used in it, the metre
and the debt to other poems. All of these are good, but more interesting
than any of them is a section entitled, 'The Way of the Soul,' reviewing
the spiritual experience which 'In Memoriam' records. This is quite
admirable throughout, and proves conclusively that Dr. Bradley's keen
desire to fathom the exact meaning of every phrase has only quickened
his appreciation of the poem as a whole."


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