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ART. IV. SHAKESPEARE AND FRIENDSHIP.
By Win R. Alger
The Works of WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. The Plays edited from the Folio of MDCXXIII., with Various Readings from all the Editions and all the Commentators, Notes, Introductory Remarks, a Historical Sketch of the Text, an Account of the Rise and Progress of the English Drama, a Memoir of the Poet, and an Essay upon his Genius. By RICHARD GRANT WHITE. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co. 1861. 12 vols. Small 8vo.
WE place this descriptive title of Mr. White's edition of the works of the greatest poet of the world at the head of our article, not in order to describe its characteristics and eulogize its merits, but simply to serve as a text from which to start in treating the special theme indicated above. Thus much, however, we feel impelled to say that if we could own but one edition of the works of Shakespeare, and had our choice out of all the editions ever printed, we should select the one now-with the exception of the first volume, which is not yet published — offered to the public by Richard Grant White, from the press of Messrs. Little, Brown, & Co.
Shakespeare, in whose comprehensive genius the entire sphere of human experience lay mirrored, has scattered through his plays hundreds of graphic traits and sayings relating to friendship. Whoever reads his pages with a direct eye to this theme, will be surprised to find how thick the allusions to it are; how varied, delicate, and earnest they are; and what a collective sum of wisdom and emotion, of manifold passion, tenderness, and judgment, is in them. Such a perusal proves that Shakespeare's heart was as teeming and wonderful a treasury of love as his mind was of thought.
In the world of the good affections there is not a point, particle, or motion which was not well known to him, both by intuitive experience and by reflective consciousness. He was the most sensitive, loving, generous of men; - an organization "servile to all the skyey influences"; a heart no less fond and mobile than vast and tenacious; an intellect capable of taking accurate impressions of all phenomena, and rendering quick interpretations enriched by the commingling reactions of his
redundant genius. Though he enters and informs all sorts of characters, and meets all kinds of exigencies in wonderful accordance with the demands of dramatic truth, he seems most untrammelled and complete, most perfectly himself, when depicting or paying tribute to the noblest forms of human nature, breathing the gentlest sentiments. He condemns, scorns, loathes, hates, with a terrible emphasis indeed; but he approves, admires, pities, loves, with a pervasive unction and irresistible sincerity superior still. In the former, he seems comparatively mimetic; in the latter, organic. There he is a dramatist, filling a part with forms suited to his conceit; here he is himself, at one with the very spirit of nature and humanity: his words give an echo to the seat where love is throned. All the finest expressions of reverence and sympathy between persons which he puts into the mouths of his interlocutors bear the marks of the soul of Shakespeare, a mellow flavor of catholicity, a deep tinge of beauty, an unfathomable fondness, a poised and sad wisdom, ever and anon fringing itself with sportiveness. In this mood, every utterance of his, however adapted to the character and situation it is assigned to, carries the stamp of its sublime parentage, is redolent of the rich place it came from.
In addition to these precious incidental touches, Shakespeare has drawn no less than eight memorable pictures of friendship, designed portraitures. The first of these, in time and in interest, is that of the rapturous love subsisting between himself and the mysterious Nameless whose entrancing charms he has overlaid with the amber of his Sonnets, where the final generation of men may gaze on them with unspent astonishment.
"Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were filled with your most high deserts ?
So should my papers, yellowed with their age,
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue;
And your true rights be termed a poet's rage,
These matchless compositions mark the highest point in lit
erature ever attained by the sentiment of friendship in its richest and most inspired form. None but the finest, warmest souls should ever read them. Should? No others can. And when such a one, retreating to some secluded spot, with pensive, leisurely, and yearning heart, roams in these flushed and spicy precincts, like an enchanted sultan, he walks in meadows of roses, strolls beside rivers of milk and honey, wanders over the hills of frankincense, and pitches his tent on the mountains of myrrh.
The information these productions contain in relation to the personal character and experience of their wondrous author, possesses the very highest interest; for, as Wordsworth says, in naming the chief writers of sonnets, "With this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart." Though called Sonnets, they are not strictly such, but rather loosely-connected poems in sonnet stanza. The writer praises the beauty and goodness of his friend, and tries to persuade him to marry; complains of a severe wrong, but forgives him; complains also of coldness, and warns him that decay and death are swift; moved by fear of a rival, expostulates on inconstancy; reproves him for certain faults; excuses his own silence, and protests his undying truth. Such is the general argument, but infinitely varied and fulfilled, which he pours along his lines,
"too excellent For every vulgar paper to rehearse.”
It is astonishing how rich a treatment of friendship these poems give. Their wealth does not appear at once. They must be perused a great number of times, in favorable moods, with absolute attention. Such a study of them, really discerning all that is in them, will show that they touch with masterly stroke almost everything that belongs to the experience in its fullest and most diversified form. Of the large number of the Sonnets that it would be a delight to adorn these pages with, the three that follow must suffice.
"If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl, Death, my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor, rude lines of thy deceased lover,
Compare them with the bettering of the time;
To march in ranks of better equipage;
But since he died, and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I'll read, his for his love!"
How powerfully the spirit of sincerity reveals itself through the poetic exaggeration of the foregoing lines, and what a fine example they afford of the divine grace that waits on modesty !
The next piece depicts, with a marvellous power of tender delicacy, and truth to experience, the ideal sovereignty of the image of a dear friend in the mind.
"When to the sessions of sweet, silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
Who would not willingly suffer the pains of absence and suspicion, to receive such protestation as the poet here brings, in lines where every kind of skill and worth vies with another which shall be first?
Never believe, though in my nature reigned
We are the more resigned to leave the Sonnets with this painfully inadequate exposition, because we hope at a future time to devote a distinct article to a consideration of their autobiographic contents and value.
Probably the earliest portrayal of friendship in the plays of Shakespeare is that of the generous and constant Valentine and the false and fickle Proteus, in the "Two Gentlemen of Verona." ona." Valentine is about going abroad, against the arguments of his comrade:
"Cease to persuade, my loving Proteus;
"Wilt thou begone? Sweet Valentine, adieu !
In his absence Proteus betrays his friend, and plays a perjurer's part against him. The Duke of Milan asks Valentine
if he knows the son of Don Antonio. He answers:
"I know him as myself; for from our infancy
We have conversed, and spent our hours together;
To clothe mine age with angel-like perfection,
Afterwards, learning the base disservice done him by his trusted mate, he breaks out on him :
"Thou common friend, that's without faith or love,—
Thou hast beguiled my hopes; naught but mine eye
Could have persuaded me. Now I dare not say
I have one friend alive; thou wouldst disprove me.
I am sorry I must never trust thee more,