There can be little doubt that Shakespeare was the most universal genius that ever lived. ‘Either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem unlimited, he is the only man. Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light for him.’ He has not only the same absolute command over our laughter and our tears, all the resources of passion, of wit, of thought, of observation, but he has the most unbounded range of fanciful invention, whether terrible or playful, the same insight into the world of imagination that he has into the world of reality; and over all there presides the same truth of character and nature, and the same spirit of humanity. His ideal beings are as true and natural as his real characters; that is, as consistent with themselves, or if we suppose such beings to exist at all, they could not act, speak, or feel otherwise than as he makes them. He has invented for them a language, manners, and sentiments of their own, from the tremendous imprecations of the Witches in Macbeth, when they do ‘a deed without a name’, to the sylph-like expressions ‘of Ariel, who ‘does his spiriting gently’; the mischievous tricks and gossiping of Robin Goodfellow, or the uncouth gabbling and emphatic gesticulations of Caliban in this play.
The Tempest is one of the most original and perfect of Shakespeare’s productions, and he has shown in it all the variety of his powers. It is full of grace and grandeur. The human and imaginary characters, the dramatic and the grotesque, are blended together with the greatest art, and without any appearance of it. Though he has here given ‘to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’, yet that part which is only the fantastic creation of his mind, has the same palpable texture, and coheres ‘semblably’ with the rest. As the preternatural part has the air of reality, and almost haunts the imagination with a sense of truth, the real characters and events partake of the wildness of a dream. The stately magician, Prospero, driven from his dukedom, but around whom (so potent is his art) airy spirits throng numberless to do his bidding; his daughter Miranda (‘worthy of that name’) to whom all the power of his art points, and who seems the goddess of the isle; the princely Ferdinand, cast by fate upon the haven of his happiness in this idol of his love; the delicate Ariel; the savage Caliban, half brute, half demon; the drunken ship’s crew—are all connected parts of the story, and can hardly be spared from the place they fill. Even the local scenery is of a piece and character with the subject. Prospero’s enchanted island seems to have risen up out of the sea; the airy music, the tempest-tossed vessel, the turbulent waves, all have the effect of the landscape background of some fine picture. Shakespeare’s pencil is (to use an allusion of his own) ‘like the dyer’s hand, subdued to what it works in’. Everything in him, though it partakes of ‘the liberty of wit’, is also subjected to ‘the law’ of the understanding. For instance, even the drunken sailors, who are made reeling-ripe, share, in the disorder of their minds and bodies, in the tumult of the elements, and seem on shore to be as much at the mercy of chance as they were before at the mercy of the winds and waves. These fellows with their sea-wit are the least to our taste of any part of the play: but they are as like drunken sailors as they can be, and are an indirect foil to Caliban, whose figure acquires a classical dignity in the comparison.
The character of Caliban is generally thought (and justly so) to be one of the author’s masterpieces. It is not indeed pleasant to see this character on the stage any more than it is to see the God Pan personated there. But in itself it is one of the wildest and most abstracted of all Shakespeare’s characters, whose deformity whether of body or mind is redeemed by the power and truth of the imagination displayed in it. It is the essence of grossness, but there is not a particle of vulgarity in it. Shakespeare has described the brutal mind of Caliban in contact with the pure and original forms of nature; the character grows out of the soil where it is rooted uncontrolled, uncouth and wild, uncramped by any of the meannesses of custom. It is ‘of the earth, earthy’. It seems almost to have been dug out of the ground, with a soul instinctively superadded to it answering to its wants and origin. Vulgarity is not natural coarseness, but conventional coarseness, learnt from others, contrary to, or without an entire conformity of natural power and disposition; as fashion is the commonplace affectation of what is elegant and refined without any feeling of the essence of it. Schlegel, the admirable German critic on Shakespeare observes that Caliban is a poetical character, and ‘always speaks in blank verse’. He first comes in thus:
Caliban. As wicked dew as e’er my mother brush’d
With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen,
Drop on you both: a south-west blow on ye,
And blister you all o’er!
Prospero. For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps,
Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up; urchins
Shall for that vast of night that they may work,
All exercise on thee: thou shalt be pinch’d
As thick as honey-combs, each pinch more stinging
Than bees that made ’em.
Caliban. I must eat my dinner.
This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou camest first,
Thou strok’dst me, and mad’st much of me; would’st give me
Water with berries in ’t; and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less
That burn by day and night; and then I lov’d thee,
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:
Curs’d be I that I did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Who first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island.
And again, he promises Trinculo his services thus, if he will free him from his drudgery.
I’ll show thee the best springs; I’ll pluck thee berries,
I’ll fish for thee, and get thee wood enough.
I pr’ythee let me bring thee where crabs grow,
And I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts:
Show thee a jay’s nest, and instruct thee how
To snare the nimble marmozet: I’ll bring thee
To clust’ring filberds; and sometimes I’ll get thee
Young scamels from the rock.
In conducting Stephano and Trinculo to Prospero’s cell, Caliban shows the superiority of natural capacity over greater knowledge and greater folly; and in a former scene, when Ariel frightens them with his music, Caliban to encourage them accounts for it in the eloquent poetry of the senses:
Be not afraid, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Would make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me: when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.
This is not more beautiful than it is true. The poet here shows us the savage with the simplicity of a child, and makes the strange monster amiable. Shakespeare had to paint the human animal rude and without choice in its pleasures, but not without the sense of pleasure or some germ of the affections. Master Barnardine in Measure for Measure, the savage of civilized life, is an admirable philosophical counterpart to Caliban.
Shakespeare has, as it were by design, drawn off from Caliban the elements of whatever is ethereal and refined, to compound them in the unearthly mould of Ariel. Nothing was ever more finely conceived than this contrast between the material and the spiritual, the gross and delicate. Ariel is imaginary power, the swiftness of thought personified. When told to make good speed by Prospero, he says, ‘I drink the air before me.’ This is something like Puck’s boast on a similar occasion, ‘I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.’ But Ariel differs from Puck in having a fellow-feeling in the interests of those he is employed about. How exquisite is the following dialogue between him and Prospero!
Ariel. Your charm so strongly works ’em,
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
Prospero. Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ariel. Mine would, sir, were I human.
Prospero. And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion’d as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
It has been observed that there is a peculiar charm in the songs introduced in Shakespeare, which, without conveying any distinct images, seem to recall all the feelings connected with them, like snatches of half-forgotten music heard indistinctly and at intervals. There is this effect produced by Ariel’s songs, which (as we are told) seem to sound in the air, and as if the person playing them were invisible. We shall give one instance out of many of this general power.
Enter Ferdinend; and Ariel invisible, playing and singing.
Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands;
Curt’sied when you have, and kiss’d,
(The wild waves whist;)
Foot it featly here and there;
And sweet sprites the burden bear.
Hark, hark! bowgh-wowgh: the watch-dogs bark,
Ariel. Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Ferdinand. Where should this music be? in air or earth?
It sounds no more: and sure it waits upon
Some god o’ th’ island. Sitting on a bank
Weeping against the king my father’s wreck,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air; thence I have follow’d it,
Or it hath drawn me rather:—but ’tis gone.—
No, it begins again.
Full fathom Eve thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change,
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell—
Hark! I now I hear them, ding-dong bell.
Ferdinand. The ditty does remember my drown’d father.
This is no mortal business, nor no sound
That the earth owns: I hear it now above me.
The courtship between Ferdinand and Miranda is one of the chief beauties of this play. It is the very purity of love. The pretended interference of Prospero with it heightens its interest, and is in character with the magician, whose sense of preternatural power makes him arbitrary, tetchy, and impatient of opposition.
The Tempest is a finer play than the Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has sometimes been compared with it; but it is not so fine a poem. There are a greater number of beautiful passages in the latter. Two of the most striking in The Tempest are spoken by Prospero. The one is that admirable one when the vision which he has conjured up disappears, beginning, ‘The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,’ &c., which has so often been quoted that every schoolboy knows it by heart; the other is that which Prospero makes in abjuring his art:
Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets, that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew, by whose aid
(Weak masters tho’ ye be) I have bedimm’d
The noon-tide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ’twixt the green sea and the azur’d vault
Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I giv’n fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-bas’d promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have wak’d their sleepers; op’d, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure; and when I have requir’d
Some heav’nly music, which ev’n now I do,
(To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for) I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fadoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound,
I’ll drown my book.
We must not forget to mention among other things in this play, that Shakespeare has anticipated nearly all the arguments on the Utopian schemes of modern philosophy:
Gonzalo. Had I the plantation of this isle, my lord—
Antonio. He’d sow’t with nettle-seed.
Sebastian. Or docks or mallows.
Gonzalo. And ere the king on’t, what would I do?
Sebastian. ‘Scape being drunk, or want of wine.
Gonzalo. I’ th’ commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things: for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of agistrate;
Letters should not be known; wealth, poverty,
And use of ervice, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all,
And women too; but innocent and pure:
Sebastian. And yet he would be king on’t.
Antonio. The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.
Gonzalo. All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance
To feed my innocent people!
Sebastian. No marrying ‘mong his subjects?
Antonio. None, man; all idle; whores and knaves.
Gonzalo. I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T’ excel the golden age.
Sebastian. Save his majesty!