This essay is excerpted from Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Merrill’s English Texts, published in 1907.
Transcriber’s Note: Shakspeare is spelled as “Shakspeare” as well as “Shakespeare” in this book. The original spellings have been retained.
Shakespeare; or the Poet is one of seven essays on great men in various walks of life, published in 1850 under the title of Representative Men. These essays were first delivered as lectures in Boston in the winter of 1845, and were repeated two years later before English audiences. They must have been especially interesting to those Englishmen who had, seven years before, heard Emerson’s friend, Carlyle, deliver his six lectures on great men whom he selected as representative ones. These lectures were published under the title of Heroes and Hero-Worship. You should read the latter part of Carlyle’s lecture on The Hero as Poet and compare what he says about Shakespeare with Emerson’s words. Both Emerson and Carlyle reverenced the great English poet as “the master of mankind.” Even in serious New England, the plays of Shakespeare were found upon the bookshelf beside religious tracts and doctrinal treatises. There the boy Emerson found them and learned to love them, and the man Emerson loved them but the more. It was as a record of personal experiences that he wrote in his journal:
“Shakespeare fills us with wonder the first time we approach him. We go away, and work and think, for years, and come again,—he astonishes us anew. Then, having drank deeply and saturated us with his genius, we lose sight of him for another period of years. By and by we return, and there he stands immeasurable as at first. We have grown wiser, but only that we should see him wiser than ever. He resembles a high mountain which the traveler sees in the morning and thinks he shall quickly near it and pass it and leave it behind. But he journeys all day till noon, till night. There still is the dim mountain close by him, having scarce altered its bearings since the morning light.”
An illustration for the story Shakspeare; or The Poet by the author Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Great men are more distinguished by range and extent, than by originality. If we require the originality which consists in weaving, like a spider, their web from their own bowels; in finding clay, and making bricks, and building the house; no great men are original. Nor does valuable originality consist in unlikeness to other men. The hero is in the press of knights, and the thick of events; and, seeing what men want, and sharing their desire, he adds the needful length of sight and of arm, to come to the desired point. The greatest genius is the most indebted man. A poet is no rattlebrain, saying what comes uppermost and, because he says everything, saying, at last, something good; but a heart in unison with his time and country. There is nothing whimsical and fantastic in his production, but sweet and sad earnest, freighted with the weightiest convictions, and pointed with the most determined aim which any man or class knows of in his times.
- The Genius of our life is jealous of individuals and will not have any individual great, except through the general. There is no choice to genius. A great man does not wake up on some fine morning, and say, “I am full of life, I will go to sea, and find an Antarctic continent: to-day I will square the circle: I will ransack botany, and find a new food for man: I have a new architecture in my mind: I foresee a new mechanic power:” no, but he finds himself in the river of the thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries. He stands where all the eyes of men look one way, and their hands all point in the direction in which he should go. The church has reared him amidst rites and pomps, and he carries out the advice which her music gave him, and builds a cathedral needed by her chants and processions. He finds a war raging: it educates him, by trumpet, in barracks, and he betters the instruction. He finds two counties groping to bring coal, or flour, or fish, from the place of production to the place of consumption, and he hits on a railroad. Every master has found his materials collected, and his power lay in his sympathy with his people, and in his love of the materials he wrought in. What an economy of power! and what a compensation for the shortness of life! All is done to his hand. The world has brought him thus far on his way. The human race has gone out before him, sunk the hills, filled the hollows, and bridged the rivers. Men, nations, poets, artisans, women, all have worked for him, and he enters into their labors. Choose any other thing, out of the line of tendency, out of the national feeling and history, and he would have all to do for himself: his powers would be expended in the first preparations. Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.
- Shakspeare’s youth fell in a time when the English people were importunate for dramatic entertainments. The court took offense easily at political allusions, and attempted to suppress them. The Puritans, a growing and energetic party and the religious among the Anglican Church, would suppress them. But the people wanted them. Inn-yards, houses without roofs, and extemporaneous inclosures at country fairs, were the ready theaters of strolling players. The people had tasted this new joy; and, as we could not hope to suppress newspapers now,—no, not by the strongest party,—neither then could king, prelate, or puritan,—alone or united, suppress an organ, which was ballad, epic, newspaper, caucus, lecture, Punch, and library, at the same time. Probably king, prelate, and puritan, all found their own account in it. It had become, by all causes, a national interest,—by no means conspicuous, so that some great scholar would have thought of treating it in an English history,—but not a whit less considerable, because it was cheap, and of no account, like a baker’s shop. The best proof of its vitality is the crowd of writers which suddenly broke into this field; Kyd, Marlow, Greene, Jonson, Chapman, Dekker, Webster, Heywood, Middleton, Peele, Ford, Massinger, Beaumont, and Fletcher.
- The secure possession, by the stage, of the public mind, is of the first importance to the poet who works for it. He loses no time in idle experiments. Here is audience and expectation prepared. In the case of Shakspeare there is much more. At the time when he left Stratford, and went up to London, a great body of stage-plays, of all dates and writers, existed in manuscript, and were in turn produced on the boards. Here is the Tale of Troy, which the audience will bear hearing some part of, every week; the Death of Julius Cæsar, and other stories out of Plutarch, which they never tire of; a shelf full of English history, from the chronicles of Brut and Arthur, down to the royal Henries, which men hear eagerly; and a string of doleful tragedies, merry Italian tales, and Spanish voyages, which all the London prentices know. All the mass has been treated, with more or less skill, by every playwright, and the prompter has the soiled and tattered manuscripts. It is now no longer possible to say who wrote them first. They have been the property of the Theater so long, and so many rising geniuses have enlarged or altered them, inserting a speech, or a whole scene, or adding a song, that no man can any longer claim copyright in this work of numbers. Happily, no man wishes to. They are not yet desired in that way. We have few readers, many spectators and hearers. They had best lie where they are.
- Shakspeare, in common with his comrades, esteemed the mass of old plays, waste stock, in which any experiment could be freely tried. Had the prestige which hedges about a modern tragedy existed, nothing could have been done. The rude warm blood of the living England circulated in the play, as in street-ballads, and gave body which he wanted to his airy and majestic fancy. The poet needs a ground in popular tradition on which he may work, and which, again, may restrain his art within the due temperance. It holds him to the people, supplies a foundation for his edifice; and, in furnishing so much work done to his hand, leaves him at leisure, and in full strength for the audacities of his imagination. In short, the poet owes to his legend what sculpture owed to the temple. Sculpture in Egypt, and in Greece, grew up in subordination to architecture. It was the ornament of the temple wall: at first, a rude relief carved on pediments, then the relief became bolder, and a head or arm was projected from the wall, the groups being still arranged with reference to the building, which serves also as a frame to hold the figures; and when, at last, the greatest freedom of style and treatment was reached, the prevailing genius of architecture still enforced a certain calmness and continence in the statue. As soon as the statue was begun for itself, and with no reference to the temple or palace, the art began to decline: freak, extravagance, and exhibition, took the place of the old temperance. This balance-wheel, which the sculptor found in architecture, the perilous irritability of poetic talent found in the accumulated dramatic materials to which the people were already wonted, and which had a certain excellence which no single genius, however extraordinary, could hope to create.
- In point of fact, it appears that Shakspeare did owe debts in all directions, and was able to use whatever he found; and the amount of indebtedness may be inferred from Malone’s laborious computations in regard to the First, Second, and Third parts of Henry VI., in which, “out of 6043 lines, 1771 were written by some author preceding Shakspeare; 2373 by him, on the foundation laid by his predecessors; and 1899 were entirely his own.” And the proceeding investigation hardly leaves a single drama of his absolute invention. Malone’s sentence is an important piece of external history. In Henry VIII, I think I see plainly the cropping out of the original rock on which his own finer stratum was laid. The first play was written by a superior, thoughtful man, with a vicious ear. I can mark his lines, and know well their cadence. See Wolsey’s soliloquy, and the following scene from Cromwell, where,—instead of the meter of Shakspeare, whose secret is, that the thought constructs the tune, so that reading for the sense will best bring out the rhythm,—here the lines are constructed on a given tune, and the verse has even a trace of pulpit eloquence. But the play contains, through all its length, unmistakable traits of Shakspeare’s hand, and some passages, as the account of the coronation, are like autographs. What is odd, the compliment to Queen Elizabeth is in bad rhythm.
- Shakspeare knew that tradition supplies a better fable than any invention can. If he lost any credit of design, he augmented his resources; and, at that day, our petulant demand for originality was not so much pressed. There was no literature for the million. The universal reading, the cheap press, were unknown. A great poet, who appears in illiterate times, absorbs into his sphere all the light which is anywhere radiating. Every intellectual jewel, every flower of sentiment, it is his fine office to bring to his people; and he comes to value his memory equally with his invention. He is therefore little solicitous whence his thoughts have been derived; whether through translation, whether through tradition, whether by travel in distant countries, whether by inspiration; from whatever source, they are equally welcome to his uncritical audience. Nay, he borrows very near home. Other men say wise things as well as he; only they say a good many foolish things, and do not know when they have spoken wisely. He knows the sparkle of the true stone, and puts it in high place, wherever he finds it. Such is the happy position of Homer, perhaps; of Chaucer, of Saadi. They felt that all wit was their wit. And they are librarians and historiographers, as well as poets. Each romancer was heir and dispenser of all the hundred tales of the world,—
“Presenting Thebes' and Pelops’ line
And the tale of Troy divine.”
The influence of Chaucer is conspicuous in all our early literature; and, more recently, not only Pope and Dryden have been beholden to him, but, in the whole society of English writers, a large unacknowledged debt is easily traced. One is charmed with the opulence which feeds so many pensioners. But Chaucer is a huge borrower. Chaucer, it seems, drew continually, through Lydgat and Caxton, from Guido di Colonna, whose Latin romance of the Trojan war was in turn a compilation from Dares Phrygius, Ovid, and Statius. Then Petrarch, Boccaccio, and the Provençal poets, and his benefactors: the Romaunt of the Rose is only judicious translation from William of Lorris and John of Meung: Troilus and Creseide, from Lollius of Urbino: The Cock and the Fox, from the Lais of Marie: The House of Fame, from the French or Italian: and poor Gower he uses as if he were only a brick-kiln or stone-quarry, out of which to build his house. He steals by this apology,—that what he takes has no worth where he finds it, and the greatest where he leaves it. It has come to be practically a sort of rule in literature, that a man, having once shown himself capable of original writing, is entitled thenceforth to steal from the writings of others at discretion. Thought is the property of him who can entertain it; and of him who can adequately place it. A certain awkwardness marks the use of borrowed thoughts; but, as soon as we have learned what to do with them, they become our own.
- Thus, all originality is relative. Every thinker is retrospective. The learned member of the legislature, at Westminister, or at Washington, speaks and votes for thousands. Show us the constituency, and the now invisible channels by which the senator is made aware of their wishes, the crowd of practical and knowing men, who, by correspondence or conversation, are feeding him with evidence, anecdotes, and estimates, and it will bereave his fine attitude and resistance of something of their impressiveness. As Sir Robert Peel and Mr. Webster vote, so Locke and Rousseau think for thousands; and so there were foundations all around Homer, Menu, Saada, or Milton, from which they drew; friends, lovers, books, traditions, proverbs,—all perished,—which, if seen, would go to reduce the wonder. Did the bard speak with authority? Did he feel himself overmatched by any companion? The appeal is to the consciousness of the writer. Is there at last in his breast a Delphi whereof to ask concerning any thought or thing whether it be verily so, yea or nay? and to have answer, and rely on that? All the debts which such a man could contract to other wit, would never disturb his consciousness of originality: for the ministrations of books, and of other minds, are a whiff of smoke to that most private reality with which he has conversed.
- It is easy to see that what is best written or done by genius, in the world, was no man’s work, but came by wide social labor, when a thousand wrought like one, sharing the same impulse. Our English Bible is a wonderful specimen of the strength and music of the English language. But it was not made by one man, or at one time; but centuries and churches brought it to perfection. There never was a time when there was not some translation existing. The Liturgy, admired for its energy and pathos, is an anthology of the piety of ages and nations, a translation of the prayers and forms of the Catholic church,—these collected, too, in long periods, from the prayers and meditations of every saint and sacred writer all over the world. Grotius makes the like remark in respect to the Lord’s Prayer, that the single clauses of which it is composed were already in use, in the time of Christ, in the rabbinical forms. He picked out the grains of gold. The nervous language of the Common Law, the impressive forms of our courts, and the precision and substantial truth of the legal distinctions, are the contribution of all the sharp-sighted, strong-minded men who have lived in the countries where these laws govern. The translation of Plutarch gets its excellence by being translation on translation. There never was a time when there was none. All the truly idiomatic and national phrases are kept, and all others successively picked out, and thrown away. Something like the same process had gone on, long before, with the originals of these books. The world takes liberties with world-books. Vedas, Æsop’s Fables, Pilpay, Arabian Nights, Cid, Iliad, Robin Hood, Scottish Minstrelsy, are not the work of single men. In the composition of such works, the time thinks, the market thinks, the mason, the carpenter, the merchant, the farmer, the fop, all think for us. Every book supplies its time with one good word; every municipal law, every trade, every folly of the day, and the generic catholic genius who is not afraid or ashamed to owe his originality to the originality of all, stands with the next age as the recorder and embodiment of his own.
- We have to thank the researches of antiquaries, and the Shakspeare Society, for ascertaining the steps of the English drama, from the Mysteries celebrated in churches and by churchmen, and the final detachment from the church, and the completion of secular plays, from Ferrex and Porrex, and Gammer Gurton’s Needle, down to the possession of the stage by the very pieces which Shakspeare altered, remodelled, and finally made his own. Elated with success, and piqued by the growing interest of the problem, they have left no book-stall unsearched, no chest in a garret unopened, no file of old yellow accounts to decompose in damp and worms, so keen was the hope to discover whether the boy Shakspeare poached or not, whether he held horses at the theater-door, whether he kept school, and why he left in his will only his second-best bed to Ann Hathaway, his wife.
- There is somewhat touching in the madness with which the passing age mischooses the object on which all candles shine, and all eyes are turned; the care with which it registers every trifle touching Queen Elizabeth, and King James, and the Essexes, Leicesters, Burleighs, and Buckinghams; and lets pass without a single valuable note the founder of another dynasty, which alone will cause the Tudor dynasty to be remembered,—the man who carries the Saxon race in him by the inspiration which feeds him, and on whose thoughts the foremost people of the world are now for some ages to be nourished, and minds to receive this and not another bias. A popular player,—nobody suspected he was the poet of the human race; and the secret was kept as faithfully from poets and intellectual men, as from courtiers and frivolous people. Bacon, who took the inventory of the human understanding for his times, never mentioned his name. Ben Jonson, though we have strained his few words of regard and panegyric, had no suspicion of the elastic fame whose first vibrations he was attempting. He no doubt thought the praise he has conceded to him generous, and esteemed himself, out of all question, the better poet of the two.
- If it need wit to know wit, according to the proverb, Shakspeare’s time should be capable of recognizing it. Sir Henry Wotton was born four years after Shakspeare, and died twenty-three years after him; and I find, among his correspondents and acquaintances, the following persons: Theodore Beza, Isaac Casaubon, Sir Philip Sidney, Earl of Essex, Lord Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, John Milton, Sir Henry Vane, Isaac Walton, Dr. Donne, Abraham Cowley, Berlarmine, Charles Cotton, John Pym, John Hales, Kepler, Vieta, Albericus Gentilis, Paul Sarpi, Arminius; with all of whom exists some token of his having communicated, without enumerating many others, whom doubtless he saw,—Shakspeare, Spenser, Jonson, Beaumont, Massinger, two Herberts, Marlow, Chapman and the rest. Since the constellation of great men who appeared in Greece in the time of Pericles, there was never any such society;—yet their genius failed them to find out the best head in the universe. Our poet’s mask was impenetrable. You cannot see the mountain near. It took a century to make it suspected; and not until two centuries had passed, after his death, did any criticism which we think adequate begin to appear. It was not possible to write the history of Shakspeare till now; for he is the father of German literature: it was on the introduction of Shakspeare into German, by Lessing, and the translation of his works by Wieland and Schlegel, that the rapid burst of German literature was most intimately connected. It was not until the nineteenth century, whose speculative genius is a sort of living Hamlet, that the tragedy of Hamlet could find such wondering readers. Now, literature, philosophy, and thought, are Shakspearized. His mind is the horizon beyond which, at present, we do not see. Our ears are educated to music by his rhythm. Coleridge and Goethe are the only critics who have expressed our convictions with any adequate fidelity; but there is in all cultivated minds a silent appreciation of his superlative power and beauty, which, like Christianity, qualifies the period.
- But whatever scraps of information concerning his condition these researches may have rescued, they can shed no light upon that infinite invention which is the concealed magnet of his attraction for us. We are very clumsy writers of history. We tell the chronicle of parentage, birth, birth-place, schooling, schoolmates, earning of money, marriage, publication of books, celebrity, death; and when we have come to an end of this gossip no ray of relation appears between it and the goddess-born; and it seems as if, had we dipped at random into the “Modern Plutarch,” and read any other life there, it would have fitted the poems as well. It is the essence of poetry to spring, like the rainbow daughter of Wonder, from the invisible, to abolish the past, and refuse all history. Malone, Warburton, Dyce, and Collier, have wasted their oil. The famed theaters, Covent Garden, Drury Lane, the Park, and Tremont, have vainly assisted. Betterton, Garrick, Kemble, Kean, and Macready, dedicate their lives to this genius; him they crown, elucidate, obey, and express. The genius knows them not. The recitation begins; one golden word leaps out immortal from all this painted pedantry, and sweetly torments us with invitations to its own inaccessible homes. I remember, I went once to see the Hamlet of a famed performer, the pride of the English stage; and all I then heard, and all I now remember, of the tragedian, was that in which the tragedian had no part; simply, Hamlet’s question to the ghost,—
“What may this mean,That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon?”
That imagination which dilates the closet he writes in to the world’s dimension, crowds it with agents in rank and order, as quickly reduces the big reality to be the glimpses of the moon. These tricks of his magic spoil for us the illusions of the green-room. Can any biography shed light on the localities into which the Midsummer Night’s Dream admits me? Did Shakspeare confide to any notary or parish recorder, sacristan, or surrogate, in Stratford, the genesis of that delicate creation? The forest of Arden, the nimble air of Scone Castle, the moonlight of Portia’s villa, “the antres vast and desarts idle,” of Othello’s captivity,—where is the third cousin, or grand-nephew, the chancellor’s file of accounts, or private letter, that has kept one word of those transcendent secrets? In fine, in this drama, as in all great works of art,—in the Cyclopean architecture of Egypt and India; in the Phidian sculpture; the Gothic ministers; the Italian painting; the Ballads of Spain and Scotland,—the Genius draws up the ladder after him, when the creative age goes up to heaven, and gives way to a new, which sees the works, and ask in vain for a history.
- Shakspeare is the only biographer of Shakspeare; and even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakspeare in us; that is, to our most apprehensive and sympathetic hour. He cannot step from off his tripod, and give us anecdotes of his inspirations. Read the antique documents extricated, analyzed, and compared, by the assiduous Dyce and Collier; and now read one of those skyey sentences,—aerolites,—which seem to have fallen out of heaven, and which, not your experience, but the man within the breast, has accepted, as words of fate; and tell me if they match; if the former account in any manner for the latter; or, which gives the most historical insight into the man.
- Hence, though our external history is so meager, yet, with Shakspeare for biographer, instead of Aubrey and Rowe, we have really the information which is material, that which describes character and fortune, that which, if we were about to meet the man and deal with him, would most import us to know. We have his recorded convictions on those questions which knock for answer at every heart,—on life and death, on love, on wealth and poverty, on the prizes of life, and the ways whereby we come at them; on the characters of men, and the influences, occult and open, which affect their fortunes; and on those mysterious and demoniacal powers which defy our science, and which yet interweave their malice and their gift in our brightest hours. Who ever read the volume of the Sonnets, without finding that the poet had there revealed, under masks that are no masks to the intelligent, the lore of friendship and of love; the confusion of sentiments in the most susceptible, and, at the same time, the most intellectual of men? What trait of his private mind has he hidden in his dramas? One can discern, in his ample pictures of the gentleman and the king, what forms and humanities pleased him; his delight in troops of friends, in large hospitality, in cheerful giving. Let Timon, let Warwick, let Antonio the merchant, answer for his great heart. So far from Shakspeare’s being the least known, he is the one person, in all modern history, known to us. What point of morals, of manners, of economy, of philosophy, of religion, of taste, of the conduct of life, has he not settled? What mystery has he not signified his knowledge of? What office, or function, or district of man’s work, has he not remembered? What king has he not taught state, as Talma taught Napoleon? What maiden has not found him finer than her delicacy? What lover has he not out-loved? What sage has he not outseen? What gentleman has he not instructed in the rudeness of his behavior?
- Some able and appreciating critics think no criticism on Shakspeare valuable, that does not rest purely on the dramatic merit; that he is falsely judged as poet and philosopher. I think as highly as these critics of his dramatic merit, who still think it secondary. He was a full man, who liked to talk; a brain exhaling thoughts and images, which, seeking vent, found the drama next at hand. Had he been less, we should have had to consider how well he filled his place, how good a dramatist he was,—and he is the best in the world. But it turns out, that what he has to say is of that weight, as to withdraw some attention from the vehicle; and he is like some saint whose history is to be rendered into all languages, into verse and prose, into songs and pictures, and cut up into proverbs; so that the occasion which gave the saint’s meaning the form of a conversation, or of a prayer, or of a code of laws, is immaterial, compared with the universality of its application. So it fares with the wise Shakspeare and his book of life. He wrote the airs for all our modern music: he wrote the text of modern life; the text of manners: he drew the man of England and Europe; the father of the man in America: he drew the man, and described the day, and what is done in it: he read the hearts of men and women, their probity, and their second thought, and wiles; the wiles of innocence, and the transitions by which virtues and vices slide into their contraries: he could divide the mother’s part from the father’s part in the face of the child, or draw the fine demarcations of freedom and of fate: he knew the laws of repression which make the police of nature: and all the sweets and all the terrors of human lot lay in his mind as truly but as softly as the landscape lies on the eye. And the importance of this wisdom of life sinks the form, as of Drama or Epic, out of notice. ‘Tis like making a question concerning the paper on which a king’s message is written.
- Shakspeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors, as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato’s brain, and think from thence; but not into Shakspeare’s. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakspeare is unique. No man can imagine it better. He was the farthest reach of subtlety compatible with an individual self,—the subtilest of authors, and only just within the possibility of authorship. With this wisdom of life, is the equal endowment of imaginative and of lyric power. He clothed the creatures of his legend with form and sentiments, as if they were people who had lived under his roof; and few real men have left such distinct characters as these fictions. And they spoke in language as sweet as it was fit. Yet his talents never seduced him into an ostentation, nor did he harp on one string. An omnipresent humanity coördinates all his faculties. Give a man of talents a story to tell, and his partiality will presently appear. He has certain observations, opinions, topics, which have some accidental prominence, and which he disposes all to exhibit. He crams this part, and starves that other part, consulting not the fitness of the thing, but his fitness and strength. But Shakspeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given; no veins, no curiosities: no cow-painter, no bird-fancier, no mannerist is he: he has no discoverable egotism: the great he tells greatly; the small, subordinately. He is wise without emphasis or assertion; he is strong, as nature is strong, who lifts the land into mountain slopes without effort, and by the same rule as she floats a bubble in the air, and likes as well to do the one as the other. This makes that equality of power in farce, tragedy, narrative, and love-songs; a merit so incessant, that each reader is incredulous of the perception of other readers.
- This power of expression, or of transferring the inmost truth of things into music and verse, makes him the type of the poet, and has added a new problem to metaphysics. This is that which throws him into natural history, as a main production of the globe, and as announcing new eras and ameliorations. Things were mirrored in his poetry without loss or blur; he could paint the fine with precision, the great with compass: the tragic and the comic indifferently, and without any distortion or favor. He carried his powerful execution into minute details, to a hair point; finishes an eyelash or a dimple as firmly as he draws a mountain; and yet these, like nature’s, will bear the scrutiny of the solar microscope.
- In short, he is the chief example to prove that more or less of production, more or fewer pictures, is a thing indifferent. He had the power to make one picture. Daguerre learned how to let one flower etch its image on his plate of iodine; and then proceeds at leisure to etch a million. There are always objects; but there was never representation. Here is perfect representation, at last; and now let the world of figures sit for their portraits. No recipe can be given for the making of a Shakspeare; but the possibility of the translation of things into song is demonstrated.
- His lyric power lies in the genius of the piece. The sonnets, though their excellence is lost in the splendor of the dramas, are as inimitable as they: and it is not a merit of lines, but a total merit of the piece; like the tone of voice of some incomparable person, so is this a speech of poetic beings, and any clause as unproducible now as a whole poem.
- Though the speeches in the plays, and single lines, have a beauty which tempts the ear to pause on them for their euphuism, yet the sentence is so loaded with meaning, and so linked with its foregoers and followers, that the logician is satisfied. His means are as admirable as his ends; every subordinate invention, by which he helps himself to connect some irreconcilable opposites, is a poem too. He is not reduced to dismount and walk, because his horses are running off with him in some distant direction; he always rides.
- The finest poetry was first experienced: but the thought has suffered a transformation since it was an experience. Cultivated men often attain a good degree of skill in writing verses; but it is easy to read, through their poems, their personal history: any one acquainted with parties can name every figure: this is Andrew, and that is Rachael. The sense thus remains prosaic. It is a caterpillar with wings, and not yet a butterfly. In the poet’s mind, the fact has gone quite over into the new element of thought, and has lost all that is exuvial. This generosity bides with Shakspeare. We say, from the truth and closeness of his pictures, that he knows the lesson by heart. Yet there is not a trace of egotism.
- One more royal trait properly belongs to the poet. I mean his cheerfulness, without which no man can be a poet,—for beauty is his aim. He loves virtue, not for its obligation, but for its grace: he delights in the world, in man, in woman, for the lovely light that sparkles from them. Beauty, the spirit of joy and hilarity, he sheds over the universe. Epicurus relates, that poetry hath such charms that a lover might forsake his mistress to partake of them. And the true bards have been noted for their firm and cheerful temper. Homer lies in sunshine; Chaucer is glad and erect; and Saadi says, “It was rumored abroad that I was penitent; but what had I to do with repentance?” Not less sovereign and cheerful,—much more sovereign and cheerful, is the tone of Shakspeare. His name suggests joy and emancipation to the heart of men. If he should appear in any company of human souls, who would not march in his troop? He touches nothing that does not borrow health and longevity from his festal style.
- And now, how stands the account of man with this bard and benefactor, when in solitude, shutting our ears to the reverberations of his fame, we seek to strike the balance? Solitude has austere lessons; it can teach us to spare both heroes and poets; and it weighs Shakspeare also, and finds him to share the halfness and imperfection of humanity.
- Shakspeare, Homer, Dante, Chaucer, saw the splendor of meaning that plays over the visible world; knew that a tree had another use than for apples, and corn another than for meal, and the ball of the earth, than for tillage and roads: that these things bore a second and finer harvest to the mind, being emblems of its thoughts, and conveying in all their natural history a certain mute commentary on human life. Shakspeare employed them as colors to compose his picture. He rested in their beauty; and never took the step which seemed inevitable to such genius, namely, to explore the virtue which resides in these symbols, and imparts this power,—what is that which they themselves say? He converted the elements, which waited on his command, into entertainments. He was master of the revels to mankind. Is it not as if one should have, through majestic powers of science, the comets given into his hand, or the planets and their moons, and should draw them from their orbits to glare with the municipal fireworks on a holiday night, and advertise in all towns, “very superior pyrotechny this evening!” Are the agents of nature, and the power to understand them, worth no more than a street serenade, or the breath of a cigar? One remembers again the trumpet-text in the Koran,—”The heavens and the earth, and all that is between them, think ye we have created them in jest?” As long as the question is of talent and mental power, the world of men has not his equal to show. But when the question is to life, and its materials, and its auxiliaries, how does he profit me? What does it signify? It is but a Twelfth Night, or Midsummer Night’s Dream, or a Winter Evening’s Tale: what signifies another picture more or less? The Egyptian verdict of the Shakspeare Societies comes to mind, that he was a jovial actor and manager. I cannot marry this fact to his verse. Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought; but this man, in wide contrast. Had he been less, had he reached only the common measure of great authors, of Bacon, Milton, Tasso, Cervantes, we might leave the fact in the twilight of human fate: but, that this man of men, he who gave to the science of mind a new and larger subject than had ever existed, and planted the standard of humanity some furlongs forward into Chaos,—that he should not be wise for himself,—it must even go into the world’s history, that the best poet led an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement.
- Well, other men, priest and prophet, Israelite, German, and Swede, beheld the same objects: they also saw through them that which was contained. And to what purpose? The beauty straightway vanished; they read commandments, all-excluding mountainous duty; an obligation, a sadness, as of piled mountains, fell on them, and life became ghastly, joyless, a pilgrim’s progress, a probation, beleaguered round with doleful histories, of Adam’s fall and curse, behind us; with doomsdays and purgatorial and penal fires before us; and the heart of the seer and the heart of the listener sank in them.
- It must be conceded that these are half-views of half-men. The world still wants its poet-priest, a reconciler, who shall not trifle with Shakspeare the player, nor shall grope in graves with Swedenborg the mourner; but who shall see, speak, and act, with equal inspiration. For knowledge will brighten the sunshine; right is more beautiful than private affection; and love is compatible with universal wisdom.
NOTES Genius. Here instead of speaking as in Friendship, see note 286, of the genius or spirit supposed to preside over each man’s life, Emerson mentions the guardian spirit of human kind.  Shakespeare’s youth, etc. It is impossible to appreciate or enjoy this essay without having some clear general information about the condition of the English people and English literature in the glorious Elizabethan age in  which Shakespeare lived. Consult, for this information, some brief history of England and a comprehensive English literature.  Puritans. Strict Protestants who became so powerful in England that in the time of the Commonwealth they controlled the political and religious affairs of the country.  Anglican Church. The Established Church of England; the Episcopal church.  Punch. The chief character in a puppet show, hence the puppet show itself.  Kyd, Marlowe, Greene, etc. For an account of these dramatists consult a text book on English literature. The English drama seems to have begun in the Middle Ages with what were called Miracle plays, which were scenes from Bible history; about the same time were performed the Mystery plays, which dramatized the lives of saints. These were followed by the Moralities, plays in which were personified abstract virtues and vices. The first step in the creation of the regular drama was taken by Heywood, who composed some farcical plays called Interludes. The people of the sixteenth century were fond of pageants, shows in which classical personages were introduced, and Masques, which gradually developed from pageants into dramas accompanied with music. About the middle of the sixteenth century, rose the English drama,—comedy, tragedy, and historical plays. The chief among the group of dramatists who attained fame before Shakespeare began to write were Kyd, Marlowe, Greene, and Peele. Ben Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher rank next to Shakespeare among his contemporaries, and among the other dramatists of the period were Chapman, Dekker, Webster, Heywood, Middleton, Ford, and Massinger.  At the time when, etc. Probably about 1585.  Tale of Troy. Drama founded on the Trojan war. The subject of famous poems by Latin and Greek poets.  Death of Julius Cæsar. An account of the plots which ended in the assassination of the great Roman general.  Plutarch. See note on Heroism(264). Shakespeare, like the earlier dramatists, drew freely on Plutarch’s Lives for material.  Brut. A poetical version of the legendary history of Britain, by Layamon. Its hero is Brutus, a mythical King of Britain.  Arthur. A British King of the sixth century,  around whose life and deeds so many legends have grown up that some historians say he, too, was a myth. He is the center of the great cycle of romances told in prose in Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur and in poetry in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.  The royal Henries. Among the dramas popular in Shakespeare’s day which he retouched or rewrote are the historical plays. Henry IV., First and Second Parts; Henry V; Henry VI., First, Second, and Third Parts; and Henry VIII.  Italian tales. Italian literature was very popular in Shakespeare’s day, and authors drew freely from it for material, especially from the Decameron, a famous collection of a hundred tales, by Boccaccio, a poet of the fourteenth century.  Spanish voyages. In the sixteenth century, Spain was still a power upon the high seas, and the tales of her conquests and treasures in the New World were like tales of romance.  Prestige. Can you give an English equivalent for this French word?  Which no single genius, etc. In the same way, some critics assure us, the poems credited to the Greek poet, Homer, were built up by a number of poets.  Malone. An Irish critic and scholar of the eighteenth century, best known by his edition of Shakespeare’s plays.  Wolsey’s Soliloquy. See Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. iii, 2. Cardinal Wolsey was prime minister of England in the reign of Henry VIII.  Scene with Cromwell. See Henry VIII. iii, 2. Thomas Cromwell was the son of an English blacksmith; he rose to be lord high chamberlain of England in the reign of Henry VIII., but, incurring the King’s displeasure, was executed on a charge of treason.  Account of the coronation. See Henry VIII. iv, 1.  Compliment to Queen Elizabeth. See Henry VIII. v, 5.  Bad rhythm. Too much importance must not be attached to these matters in deciding authorship, as critics disagree about them.  Value his memory, etc. The Greeks, in appreciation of the value of memory to the poet, represented the  Muses as the daughters of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory.  Homer. A Greek poet to whom is assigned the authorship of the two greatest Greek poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey; he is said to have lived about a thousand years before Christ.  Chaucer. (See note 33.)  Saadi. A Persian poet, supposed to have lived in the thirteenth century. His best known poems are his odes.  Presenting Thebes, etc. This quotation is from Milton’s poem, Il Penseroso. Milton here names the three most popular subjects of Greek tragedy,—the story of [OE]dipus, the ill-fated King of Thebes who slew his father; the tale of the descendants of Pelops, King of Pisa, who seemed born to woe—Agamemnon was one of his grandsons; the third subject was the tale of Troy and the heroes of the Trojan war,—called “divine” because the Greeks represented even the gods as taking part in the contest.  Pope. (See note 88.)  Dryden. (See note 35.)  Chaucer is a huge borrower. Taine, the French critic, says on this subject: “Chaucer was capable of seeking out in the old common forest of the Middle Ages, stories and legends, to replant them in his own soil and make them send out new shoots…. He has the right and power of copying and translating because by dint of retouching he impresses … his original work. He recreates what he imitates.”  Lydgate. John Lydgate was an English poet who lived a generation later than Chaucer; in his Troy Book and other poems he probably borrowed from the sources used by Chaucer; he called himself “Chaucer’s disciple.”  Caxton. William Caxton, the English author, more famous as the first English printer, was not born until after Chaucer’s death. The work from which Emerson supposes the poet to have borrowed Caxton’s translation of Recueil des Histoires de Troye, the first printed English book, appeared about 1474.  Guido di Colonna. A Sicilian poet and historian of the thirteenth century. Chaucer in his House of Fame placed in his vision “on a pillar higher than the rest, Homer and Livy, Dares the Phrygian, Guido Colonna, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the other historians of the war of Troy.”  Dares Phrygius. A Latin account of the fall of  Troy, written about the fifth century, which pretends to be a translation of a lost work on the fall of Troy by Dares, a Trojan priest mentioned in Homer’s Iliad.  Ovid. A Roman poet who lived about the time of Christ, whose best-known work is the Metamorphoses, founded on classical legends.  Statius. A Roman poet of the first century after Christ.  Petrarch. An Italian poet of the fourteenth century.  Boccaccio. An Italian novelist and poet of the fourteenth century. See note on “Italian tales,” 539. It is supposed that the plan of the Decameron suggested the similar but far superior plan of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Provençal poets. The poets of Provençe, a province of the southeastern part of France. In the Middle Ages it was celebrated for its lyric poets, called troubadours.  Romaunt of the Rose, etc. Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose, written during the period of French influence, is an incomplete and abbreviated translation of a French poem of the thirteenth century, Roman de la Rose, the first part of which was written by William of Loris and the latter by John of Meung, or Jean de Meung.  Troilus and Creseide, etc. Chaucer ascribes the Italian poem which he followed in his Troilus and Creseide to an unknown “Lollius of Urbino”; the source of the poem, however, is Il Filostrato, by Boccaccio, the Italian poet already mentioned. Chaucer’s poem is far more than a translation; more than half is entirely original, and it is a powerful poem, showing profound knowledge of the Italian poets, whose influence with him superseded the French poets.  The Cock and the Fox. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales was an original treatment of the Roman de Renart, of Marie of France, a French poet of the twelfth century.  House of Fame, etc. The plan of the House of Fame, written during the period of Chaucer’s Italian influence, shows the influence of Dante; the general idea of the poem is from Ovid, the Roman poet.  Gower. John Gower was an English poet, Chaucer’s contemporary and friend; the two poets went to the same sources for poetic materials, but Chaucer made no such use of Gower’s works as we would infer from this passage. Emerson relied on his memory for facts, and hence made  mistakes, as here in the instances of Lydgate, Caxton, and Gower.  Westminster, Washington. What legislative body assembles at Westminster Palace, London? What at Washington?  Sir Robert Peel. An English statesman who died in 1850, not long after Representative Men was published.  Webster. Daniel Webster, an American statesman and orator who was living when this essay was written.  Locke. John Locke. (See note 18.)  Rousseau. Jean Jacques Rousseau, a French philosopher of the eighteenth century.  Homer. (See note 550.)  Menn. Menn, or Mann, was in Sanscrit one of fourteen legendary beings; the one referred to by Emerson, Mann Vaivasvata was supposed to be the author of the laws of Mann, a collection made about the second century.  Saadi or Sadi. (See note 552.)  Milton. Of this great English poet and prose writer of the seventeenth century, Emerson says: “No man can be named whose mind still acts on the cultivated intellect of England and America with an energy comparable to that of Milton. As a poet Shakespeare undoubtedly transcends and far surpasses him in his popularity with foreign nations: but Shakespeare is a voice merely: who and what he was that sang, that sings, we know not.”  Delphi. Here, source of prophecy. Delphi was a city in Greece, where was the oracle of Apollo, the most famous of the oracles of antiquity.  Our English Bible. The version made in the reign of King James I. by forty-seven learned divines is a monument of noble English.  Liturgy. An appointed form of worship used in a Christian church,—here, specifically, the service of the Episcopal church. Emerson’s mother had been brought up in that church, and though she attended her husband’s church, she always loved and read her Episcopal prayer book.  Grotius. Hugo Grotius was a Dutch jurist, statesman, theologian, and poet of the seventeenth century.  Rabbinical forms. The forms used by the rabbis, Jewish doctors or expounders of the law.  Common law. In a general sense, the system of law derived from England, in general use among English-speaking people.   Vedas. The sacred books of the Brahmins.  Æsop’s Fables. Fables ascribed to Æsop, a Greek slave who lived in the sixth century before Christ.  Pilpay, or Bidpai. Indian sage to whom were ascribed some fables. From an Arabic translation, these passed into European languages and were used by La Fontaine, the French fabulist.  Arabian Nights. The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment or A Thousand and One Nights is a collection of Oriental tales, the plan and name of which are very ancient.  Cid. The Romances of the Cid, the story of the Spanish national hero, mentioned in note on Heroism 139:5, was written about the thirteenth century by an unknown author; it supplied much of the material for two Spanish chronicles and Spanish and French tragedies written later on the same subject.  Iliad. The poem in which the Greek, poet, Homer, describes the siege and fall of Troy. Emerson here expresses the view adopted by many scholars that it was the work, not of one, but of many men.  Robin Hood. The ballads about Robin Hood, an English outlaw and popular hero of the twelfth century.  Scottish Minstrelsy. The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, a collection of original and collected poems, published by Sir Walter Scott in 1802.  Shakespeare Society. The Shakespeare Society, founded in 1841, was dissolved in 1853. In 1874 The New Shakespeare Society was founded.  Mysteries. See “Kyd, Marlowe, etc.” 531.  Ferrex and Porrex, or Gorboduc. The first regular English tragedy, by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, printed in 1565.  Gammer Gurtor’s Needle. One of the first English comedies, written by Bishop Still and printed in 1575.  Whether the boy Shakespeare poached, etc. For a fuller account of the facts of Shakespeare’s life, of which some traditions and facts are mentioned here, consult some good biography of the poet.  Queen Elizabeth. Dining her reign, 1558-1603, the English drama rose and attained its height, and there was produced a prose literature hardly inferior to the poetic.  King James. King James VI. of Scotland and I. of England who was Elizabeth’s kinsman and successor; he reigned in England from 1603 to 1625.   Essexes. Walter Devereux was a brave English gentleman whom Elizabeth made Earl of Essex in 1572. His son Robert, the second Earl of Essex, was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth’s.  Leicester. The Earl of Leicester, famous in Shakespeare’s time, was Robert Dudley, an English courtier, politician, and general, the favorite of Queen Elizabeth.  Burleighs or Burghleys: William Cecil, baron of Burghley, was an English statesman, who, for forty years, was Elizabeth’s chief minister.  Buckinghams. George Villiers, the first duke of Buckingham, was an English courtier and politician, a favorite of James I. and Charles I.  Tudor dynasty. The English dynasty of sovereigns descended on the male side from Owen Tudor. It began with Henry VII. and ended with Elizabeth.  Bacon. Consult English literature and history for an account of the great statesman and author, Francis Bacon, “the wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind.”  Ben Jonson, etc. In his Timber or Discoveries, Ben Jonson, a famous classical dramatist contemporary with Shakespeare, says: “I loved the man and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was indeed honest and of an open and free nature: had an excellent fancy; brave notions and gentle expressions: wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped…. His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so, too. Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter…. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.”  Sir Henry Wotton. An English diplomatist and author of wide culture.  The following persons, etc. The persons enumerated were all people of note of the seventeenth century. Sir Philip Sidney, Earl of Essex, Lord Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, John Milton, Sir Henry Vane, Isaac Walton, Dr. John Donne, Abraham Cowley, Charles Cotton, John Pym, and John Hales were Englishmen, scholars, statesmen, and authors. Theodore Beza was a French theologian; Isaac Casaubon was a French-Swiss scholar; Roberto Berlarmine was an Italian cardinal; Johann Kepler was a German astronomer; Francis Vieta was a French mathematician;  Albericus Gentilis was an Italian jurist; Paul Sarpi was an Italian historian; Arminius was a Dutch theologian.  Many others whom doubtless, etc. Emerson here enumerates some famous English authors of the same period, not mentioned in the preceeding list.  Pericles. See note on Heroism, 352.  Lessing. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a German critic and poet of the eighteenth century.  Wieland. Christopher Martin Wieland was a German contemporary of Lessing’s, who made a prose translation into German of Shakespeare’s plays.  Schlegel. August Wilhelm von Schlegel, a German critic and poet, who about the first of the nineteenth century translated some of Shakespeare’s plays into classical German.  Hamlet. The hero of Shakespeare’s play of the same name.  Coleridge. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English poet, author of critical lectures and notes on Shakespeare.  Goethe. (See note 85.)  Blackfriar’s Theater. A famous London theater in which nearly all the great dramas of the Elizabethan age were performed.  Stratford. Stratford-on-Avon, a little town in Warwickshire, England, where Shakespeare was born and where he spent his last years.  Macbeth. One of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, written about 1606.  Malone, Warburton, Dyce, and Collier. English scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who edited the works of Shakespeare.  Covent Garden, Drury Lane, the Park, and Tremont: The leading London theaters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Betterton, Garrick, Kemble, Kean, and Macready, famous British actors of the Shakespearian parts.  The Hamlet of a famed performer, etc. Macready. Emerson said to a friend: “I see you are one of the happy mortals who are capable of being carried away by an actor of Shakespeare. Now, whenever I visit the theater to witness the performance of one of his dramas, I am carried away by the poet.”  What may this mean, etc. Hamlet, I. 4.  Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of Shakespeare’s plays.   The forest of Arden. In which is laid, the scene of Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It.  The nimble air of Scone Castle. It was of the air of Inverness, not of Scone, that “the air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses.”—Macbeth, i. 6.  Portia’s villa. See the moonlight scene, Merchant of Venice, v. 1.  The antres vost, etc. See Othello, I. 3. “Antres” is an old word, meaning caves, caverns.  Cyclopean architecture. In Greek mythology, the Cyclops were a race of giants. The term ‘Cyclopean’ is applied here to the architecture of Egypt and India, because of the majestic size of the buildings, and the immense size of the stones used, as if it would require giants to perform such works.  Phidian sculpture. Phidias was a famous Greek sculptor who lived in the age of Pericles and beautified Athens with his works.  Gothic minsters. Churches or cathedrals, built in the Gothic, or pointed, style of architecture which prevailed during the Middle Ages; it owed nothing to the Goths, and this term was originally used in reproach, in the sense of “barbarous.”  The Italian painting. In Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries pictorial art was carried to a degree of perfection unknown in any other time or country.  Ballads of Spain and Scotland. The old ballads of these countries are noted for beauty and spirit.  Tripod. Define this word, and explain its appropriateness here.  Aubrey. John Aubrey, an English antiquarian of the seventeenth century.  Rowe. Nicholas Rowe, an English author of the seventeenth century, who wrote a biography of Shakespeare.  Timon. See note on Gifts, 466.  Warwick. An English politician and commander of the fifteenth century, called “the King Maker.” He appears in Shakespeare’s plays, Henry IV., V., and VI.  Antonio. The Venetian Merchant in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice.  Talma. François Joseph Talma was a French tragic actor, to whom Napoleon showed favor.  An omnipresent humanity, etc. See what Carlyle has to say on this subject in his Hero as Poet.   Daguerre. Louis Jacques Daguerre, a French painter, one of the inventors of the daguerreotype process, by means of which an image is fixed on a metal plate by the chemical action of light.  Euphuism. The word here has rather the force of euphemism, an entirely different word. Euphuism was an affected ornate style of expression, so called from Euphues, by John Lyly, a sixteenth century master of that style.  Epicurus. A Greek philosopher of the third century before Christ. He was the founder of the Epicurean school of philosophy which taught that pleasure should be man’s chief aim and that the highest pleasure is freedom.  Dante. (See note 258.)  Master of the revels, etc. Emerson always expressed thankfulness for “the spirit of joy which Shakespeare had shed over the universe.” See what Carlyle says in The Hero as Poet, about Shakespeare’s “mirthfulness and love of laughter.”  Koran. The Sacred book of the Mohammedans.  Twelfth Night, etc. The names of three bright, merry, or serene plays by Shakespeare.  Egyptian verdict. Emerson used Egyptian probably in the sense of “gipsy.” He compares such opinions to the fortunes told by the gipsies.  Tasso. An Italian poet of the sixteenth century.  Cervantes. A Spanish poet and romancer of the sixteenth century, the author of Don Quixote.  Israelite. Such Hebrew prophets as Isaiah and Jeremiah.  German. Such as Luther.  Swede. Such as Swedenborg, the mystic philosopher of the eighteenth century of whom Emerson had already written in Representative Men.  A pilgrim’s progress. As described by John Bunyan, the English writer, in his famous Pilgrim’s Progress.  Doleful histories of Adam’s fall, etc. The subject of Paradise Lost, the great poem by John Milton.  With doomsdays and purgatorial, etc. As described by Dante in his Divine Commedia, an epic about hell, purgatory, and paradise.