English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History eBook

Henry Coppée
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 540 pages of information about English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History.


The Grounds of his Fame.  Creation of Character.  Imagination and Fancy. 
Power of Expression.  His Faults.  Influence of Elizabeth.  Sonnets. 
Ireland and Collier.  Concordance.  Other Writers.


From what has been said, it is manifest that as to his plots and historical reproductions, Shakspeare has little merit but taste in selection; and indeed in most cases, had he invented the stories, his merit would not have been great:  what then is the true secret of his power and of his fame?  This question is not difficult to answer.

First, these are due to his wonderful insight into human nature, and the philosophy of human life:  he dissects the human mind in all its conditions, and by this vivisection he displays its workings as it lives and throbs; he divines the secret impulses of all ages and characters—­childhood, boyhood, manhood, girlhood, and womanhood; men of peace, and men of war; clowns, nobles, and kings.  His large heart was sympathetic with all, and even most so with the lowly and suffering; he shows us to ourselves, and enables us to use that knowledge for our profit.  All the virtues are held up to our imitation and praise, and all the vices are scourged and rendered odious in our sight.  To read Shakspeare aright is of the nature of honest self-examination, that most difficult and most necessary of duties.

CREATION OF CHARACTER.—­Second:  He stands supreme in the creation of character, which may be considered the distinguishing mark of the highest literary genius.  The men and women whom he has made are not stage-puppets moved by hidden strings; they are real.  We know them as intimately as the friends and acquaintances who visit us, or the people whom we accost in our daily walks.

And again, in this varied delineation of character, Shakspeare less than any other author either obtrudes or repeats himself.  Unlike Byron, he is nowhere his own hero:  unlike most modern novelists, he fashions men who, while they have the generic human resemblance, differ from each other like those of flesh and blood around us:  he has presented a hundred phases of love, passion, ambition, jealousy, revenge, treachery, and cruelty, and each distinct from the others of its kind; but lest any character should degenerate into an allegorical representation of a single virtue or vice, he has provided it with the other lineaments necessary to produce in it a rare human identity.

The stock company of most writers is limited, and does arduous duty in each new play or romance; so that we detect in the comic actor, who is now convulsing the pit with laughter, the same person who a little while ago died heroically to slow music in the tragedy.  Each character in Shakspeare plays but one part, and plays it skilfully and well.  And who has portrayed the character of woman like Shakspeare?—­the grand sorrow of the repudiated Catharine, the incorruptible chastity of Isabella, the cleverness of Portia, the loves of Jessica and of Juliet, the innocent curiosity of Miranda, the broken heart and crazed brain of the fair Ophelia.

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English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.