HotFreeBooks.com
Characteristics of Women - Moral, Poetical, and Historical
by Anna Jameson
1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

CHARACTERISTICS OF WOMEN

MORAL, POETICAL, AND HISTORICAL

BY

MRS. JAMESON

From the last London Edition



BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY The Riverside Press, Cambridge 1889



PREFACE

TO THE NEW EDITION.

In preparing for the press a new edition of this little work, the author has endeavored to render it more worthy of the approbation and kindly feeling with which it has been received; she cannot better express her sense of both than by justifying, as far as it is in her power, the cordial and flattering tone of all the public criticisms. It is to the great name of SHAKSPEARE, that bond of sympathy among all who speak his language, and to the subject of the work, not to its own merits, that she attributes the success it has met with,—success the more delightful, because, in truth, it was from the very first, so entirely unlooked for, as to be a matter of surprise as well as of pleasure and gratitude.

In this edition there are many corrections, and some additions which the author hopes may be deemed improvements. She has been induced to insert several quotations at length, which were formerly only referred to, from observing that however familiar they may be to the mind of the reader, they are always recognized with pleasure—like dear domestic faces; and if the memory fail at the moment to recall the lines or the sentiment to which the attention is directly required, few like to interrupt the course of thought, or undertake a journey from the sofa or garden-seat to the library, to hunt out the volume, the play, the passage, for themselves.

When the first edition was sent to press, the author contemplated writing the life of Mrs. Siddons, with a reference to her art; and deferred the complete development of the character of Lady Macbeth, till she should be able to illustrate it by the impersonation and commentary of that grand and gifted actress; but the task having fallen into other hands, the analysis of the character has been almost entirely rewritten, as at first conceived, or rather restored to its original form.

This little work, as it now stands, forms only part of a plan which the author hopes, if life be granted her, to accomplish;—at all events, life, while it is spared, shall be devoted to its fulfilment.



CONTENTS.

Page INTRODUCTION 8

CHARACTERS OF INTELLECT. Portia 53 Isabella 83 Beatrice 99 Rosalind 110

CHARACTERS OF PASSION AND IMAGINATION. Juliet 119 Helena 153 Perdita 172 Viola 181 Ophelia 187 Miranda 207

CHARACTERS OF THE AFFECTIONS. Hermione 219 Desdemona 240 Imogen 259 Cordelia 280

HISTORICAL CHARACTERS. Cleopatra 302 Octavia 341 Volumnia 345 Constance of Bretagne 357 Elinor of Guienne 387 Blanche of Castile 389 Margaret of Anjou 396 Katharine of Arragon 407 Lady Macbeth 437



CHARACTERISTICS OF WOMEN.

INTRODUCTION.

Scene—A Library.

ALDA.

You will not listen to me?

MEDON.

I do, with all the deference which befits a gentleman when a lady holds forth on the virtues of her own sex.

He is a parricide of his mother's name, And with an impious hand murders her fame, That wrongs the praise of women; that dares write Libels on saints, or with foul ink requite The milk they lent us. Yours was the nobler birth, For you from man were made—man but of earth— The son of dust!

ALDA.

What's this?

MEDON.

"Only a rhyme I learned from one I talked withal;" 'tis a quotation from some old poet that has fixed itself in my memory—from Randolph, I think.

ALDA.

'Tis very justly thought, and very politely quoted, and my best courtesy is due to him and to you:—but now will you listen to me?

MEDON.

With most profound humility.

ALDA.

Nay, then! I have done, unless you will lay aside these mock airs of gallantry, and listen to me for a moment! Is it fair to bring a second-hand accusation against me, and not attend to my defence?

MEDON.

Well, I will be serious.

ALDA.

Do so, and let us talk like reasonable beings.

MEDON.

Then tell me, (as a reasonable woman you will not be affronted with the question,) do you really expect that any one will read this little book of yours?

ALDA.

I might answer, that it has been a great source of amusement and interest to me for several months, and that so far I am content: but no one writes a book without a hope of finding readers, and I shall find a few. Accident first made me an authoress; and not now, nor ever, have I written to flatter any prevailing fashion of the day for the sake of profit, though this is done, I know, by many who have less excuse for thus coining their brains. This little book was undertaken without a thought of fame or money: out of the fulness of my own heart and soul have I written it. In the pleasure it has given me, in the new and various views of human nature it has opened to me, in the beautiful and soothing images it has placed before me, in the exercise and improvement of my own faculties, I have already been repaid: if praise or profit come beside, they come as a surplus. I should be gratified and grateful, but I have not sought for them, nor worked for them. Do you believe this?

MEDON.

I do: in this I cannot suspect you of affectation, for the profession of disinterestedness is uncalled for, and the contrary would be too far countenanced by the custom of the day to be matter of reserve or reproach. But how could you (saving the reverence due to a lady-authoress, and speaking as one reasonable being to another) choose such a threadbare subject?

ALDA.

What do you mean?

MEDON.

I presume you have written a book to maintain the superiority of your sex over ours; for so I judge by the names at the heads of some of your chapters; women fit indeed to inlay heaven with stars, but, pardon me, very unlike those who at present walk upon this earth.

ALDA.

Very unlike the fine ladies of your acquaintance, I grant you; but as to maintaining the superiority, or speculating on the rights of women—nonsense! why should you suspect me of such folly?—it is quite out of date. Why should there be competition or comparison?

MEDON.

Both are ill-judged and odious; but did you ever meet with a woman of the world, who did not abuse most heartily the whole race of men?

ALDA.

Did you ever talk with a man of the world, who did not speak with levity or contempt of the whole human race of women?

MEDON.

Perhaps I might answer like Voltaire—"Helas ils pourraient bien avoir raison tous deux." But do you thence infer that both are good for nothing?

ALDA.

Thence I infer that the men of the world and the women of the world are neither of them—good for much.

MEDON.

And you have written a book to make them better?

ALDA.

Heaven forbid! else I were only fit for the next lunatic asylum. Vanity run mad never conceived such an impossible idea.

MEDON.

Then, in a few words, what is the subject, and what the object, of your book?

ALDA.

I have endeavoured to illustrate the various modifications of which the female character is susceptible, with their causes and results. My life has been spent in observing and thinking; I have had, as you well know, more opportunities for the first, more leisure for the last, than have fallen to the lot of most people. What I have seen, felt, thought, suffered, has led me to form certain opinions. It appears to me that the condition of women in society, as at present constituted, is false in itself, and injurious to them,—that the education of women, as at present conducted, is founded in mistaken principles, and tends to increase fearfully the sum of misery and error in both sexes; but I do not choose presumptuously to fling these opinions in the face of the world, in the form of essays on morality, and treatises on education. I have rather chosen to illustrate certain positions by examples, and leave my readers to deduce the moral themselves, and draw their own inferences.

MEDON.

And why have you not chosen your examples from real life? you might easily have done so. You have not been a mere spectator, or a mere actor, but a lounger behind the scenes of existence—have even assisted in preparing the puppets for the stage: you might have given us an epitome of your experience, instead of dreaming over Shakspeare.

ALDA.

I might so, if I had chosen to become a female satirist, which I will never be.

MEDON.

You would, at least, stand a better chance of being read.

ALDA.

I am not sure of that. The vile taste for satire and personal gossip will not be eradicated, I suppose, while the elements of curiosity and malice remain in human nature; but as a fashion of literature, I think it is passing away;—at all events it is not my forte. Long experience of what is called "the world," of the folly, duplicity, shallowness, selfishness, which meet us at every turn, too soon unsettles our youthful creed. If it only led to the knowledge of good and evil, it were well; if it only taught us to despise the illusions and retire from the pleasures of the world, it would be better. But it destroys our belief—it dims our perception of all abstract truth, virtue, and happiness; it turns life into a jest, and a very dull one too. It makes us indifferent to beauty, and incredulous of goodness; it teaches us to consider self as the centre on which all actions turn, and to which all motives are to be referred.

MEDON.

But this being so, we must either revolve with these earthly natures, and round the same centre, or seek a sphere for ourselves, and dwell apart.

ALDA.

I trust it is not necessary to do either. While we are yet young, and the passions, powers, and feelings, in their full activity, create to us a world within, we cannot look fairly on the world without:—all things then are good. When first we throw ourselves forth, and meet burs and briars on every side, which stick in our very hearts;—and fair tempting fruits which turn to bitter ashes in the taste, then we exclaim with impatience, all things are evil. But at length comes the calm hour, when they who look beyond the superficies of things begin to discern their true bearings; when the perception of evil, or sorrow, or sin, brings also the perception of some opposite good, which awakens our indulgence, or the knowledge of the cause which excites our pity. Thus it is with me. I can smile,—nay, I can laugh still, to see folly, vanity, absurdity, meanness, exposed by scornful wit, and depicted by others in fictions light and brilliant. But these very things, when I encounter the reality, rather make me sad than merry, and take away all the inclination, if I had the power, to hold them up to derision.

MEDON.

Unless, by doing so, you might correct them.

ALDA.

Correct them! Show me that one human being who has been made essentially better by satire! O no, no! there is something in human nature which hardens itself against the lash—something in satire which excites only the lowest and worst of our propensities. That avowal in Pope—

I must be proud to see Men not afraid of God, afraid of me!

—has ever filled me with terror and pity—

MEDON.

From its truth perhaps?

ALDA.

From its arrogance,—for the truth is, that a vice never corrected a vice. Pope might be proud of the terror he inspired in those who feared no God in whom vanity was stronger than conscience: but that terror made no individual man better; and while he indulged his own besetting sin, he administered to the malignity of others. Your professed satirists always send me to think upon the opposite sentiment in Shakspeare, on "the mischievous foul sin of chiding sin." I remember once hearing a poem of Barry Cornwall's, (he read it to me,) about a strange winged creature that, having the lineaments of a man, yet preyed on a man, and afterwards coming to a stream to drink, and beholding his own face therein, and that he had made his prey of a creature like himself, pined away with repentance. So should those do, who having made themselves mischievous mirth out of the sins and sorrows of others, remembering their own humanity, and seeing within themselves the same lineaments—so should they grieve and pine away, self-punished.

MEDON.

'Tis an old allegory, and a sad one—and but too much to the purpose.

ALDA.

I abhor the spirit of ridicule—I dread it and I despise it. I abhor it because it is in direct contradiction to the mild and serious spirit of Christianity; I fear it, because we find that in every state of society in which it has prevailed as a fashion, and has given the tone to the manners and literature, it marked the moral degradation and approaching destruction of that society; and I despise it, because it is the usual resource of the shallow and the base mind, and, when wielded by the strongest hand with the purest intentions, an inefficient means of good. The spirit of satire reversing the spirit of mercy which is twice blessed, seems to me twice accursed;—evil in those who indulge it—evil to those who are the objects of it.

MEDON.

"Peut-etre fallait-il que la punition des imprudens et des faibles fut confiee a la malignite, car la pure vertu n'eut jamais ete assez cruelle."

ALDA.

That is a woman's sentiment.

MEDON.

True—it was; and I have pleasure in reminding you that a female satirist by profession is yet an anomaly in the history of our literature, as a female schismatic is yet unknown in the history of our religion. But to what do you attribute the number of satirical women we meet in society?

ALDA.

Not to our nature; but to a state of society in which the levelling spirit of persiflage has been long a fashion; to the perverse education which fosters it; to affections disappointed or unemployed, which embitter the temper; to faculties misdirected or wasted, which oppress and irritate the mind; to an utter ignorance of ourselves, and the common lot of humanity, combined with quick and refined perceptions and much superficial cultivation; to frivolous habits, which make serious thought a burden, and serious feeling a bane if suppressed, if betrayed, a ridicule. Women, generally speaking, are by nature too much subjected to suffering in many forms—have too much of fancy and sensibility, and too much of that faculty which some philosophers call veneration, to be naturally satirical. I have known but one woman eminently gifted in mind and person, who is also distinguished for powers of satire as bold as merciless; and she is such a compound of all that nature can give of good, and all that society can teach of evil—

MEDON.

That she reminds us of the dragon of old, which was generated between the sunbeams from heaven and the slime of earth.

ALDA.

No such thing. Rather of the powerful and beautiful fairy Melusina, who had every talent and every charm under heaven but once in so many hours was fated to become a serpent. No, I return to my first position. It is not by exposing folly and scorning fools, that we make other people wiser, or ourselves happier. But to soften the heart by images and examples of the kindly and generous affections—to show how the human soul is disciplined and perfected by suffering—to prove how much of possible good may exist in things evil and perverted—how much hope there is for those who despair—how much comfort for those whom a heartless world has taught to contemn both others and themselves, and so put barriers to the hard, cold, selfish, mocking, and levelling spirit of the day—O would I could do this!

MEDON.

On the same principle, I suppose, that they have changed the treatment of lunatics; and whereas they used to condemn poor distempered wretches to straw and darkness, stripes and a strait waistcoat, they now send them to sunshine and green fields, to wander in gardens among birds and flowers, and soothe them with soft music and kind flattering speech.

ALDA.

You laugh at me! perhaps I deserve it.

MEDON.

No, in truth; I am a little amused, but most honestly attentive: and perhaps wish I could think more like you. But to proceed: I allow that with this view of the case, you could not well have chosen your illustrations from real life; but why not from history?

ALDA.

As far as history could guide me, I have taken her with me in one or two recent publications, which all tend to the same object. Nor have I here lost sight of her; but I have entered on a land where she alone is not to be trusted, and may make a pleasant companion but a most fallacious guide. To drop metaphor: history informs us that such things have been done or have occurred; but when we come to inquire into motives and characters, it is the most false and partial and unsatisfactory authority we can refer to. Women are illustrious in history, not from what they have been in themselves, but generally in proportion to the mischief they have done or caused. Those characters best fitted to my purpose are precisely those of which history never heard, or disdains to speak; of those which have been handed down to us by many different authorities under different aspects we cannot judge without prejudice; in others there occur certain chasms which it is difficult to supply; and hence inconsistencies we have no means of reconciling, though doubtless they might be reconciled if we knew the whole, instead of a part.

MEDON.

But instance—instance!

ALDA.

Examples crowd upon me; but take the first that occurs. Do you remember that Duchesse de Longueville, whose beautiful picture we were looking at yesterday?—the heroine of the Fronde?—think of that woman—bold, intriguing, profligate, vain, ambitious, factious!—who made men rebels with a smile;—or if that were not enough, the lady was not scrupulous, apparently without principle as without shame, nothing was too much! And then think of the same woman protecting the virtuous philosopher Arnauld, when he was denounced and condemned; and from motives which her worst enemies could not malign, secreting him in her house, unknown even to her own servants—preparing his food herself, watching for his safety, and at length saving him. Her tenderness, her patience, her discretion, her disinterested benevolence, not only defied danger, (that were little to a woman of her temper,) but endured a lengthened trial, all the ennui caused by the necessity of keeping her house, continual self-control, and the thousand small daily sacrifices which, to a vain, dissipated, proud, impatient woman, must have been hard to bear. Now if Shakspeare had drawn the character of the Duchesse de Longueville, he would have shown us the same individual woman in both situations:—for the same being, with the same faculties, and passions, and powers, it surely was: whereas in history, we see in one case a fury of discord, a woman without modesty or pity; and in the other an angel of benevolence, and a worshipper of goodness; and nothing to connect the two extremes in our fancy.

MEDON.

But these are contradictions which we meet on every page of history, which make us giddy with doubt, or sick with belief, and are the proper subjects of inquiry for the moralist and the philosopher.

ALDA.

I cannot say that professed moralists and philosophers did much to help me out of the dilemma; but the riddle which history presented I found solved in the pages of Shakspeare. There the crooked appeared straight; the inaccessible, easy; the incomprehensible, plain. All I sought, I found there; his characters combine history and real life; they are complete individuals, whose hearts and souls are laid open before us: all may behold, and all judge for themselves.

MEDON.

But all will not judge alike.

ALDA.

No; and herein lies a part of their wonderful truth. We hear Shakspeare's men and women discussed, praised and dispraised, liked, disliked, as real human beings; and in forming our opinions of them, we are influenced by our own characters, habits of thought, prejudices, feelings, impulses, just as we are influenced with regard to our acquaintances and associates.

MEDON.

But we are then as likely to misconceive and misjudge them.

ALDA.

Yes, if we had only the same imperfect means of studying them. But we can do with them what we cannot do with real people: we can unfold the whole character before us, stripped of all pretensions of self-love, all disguises of manner. We can take leisure to examine, to analyze, to correct our own impressions, to watch the rise and progress of various passions—we can hate, love, approve, condemn, without offence to others, without pain to ourselves.

MEDON.

In this respect they may be compared to those exquisite anatomical preparations of wax, which those who could not without disgust and horror dissect a real specimen, may study, and learn the mysteries of our frame, and all the internal workings of the wondrous machine of life.

ALDA.

And it is the safer and the better way—for us at least. But look—that brilliant rain-drop trembling there in the sunshine suggests to me another illustration. Passion, when we contemplate it through the medium of imagination, is like a ray of light transmitted through a prism; we can calmly, and with undazzled eye, study its complicate nature, and analyze its variety of tints; but passion brought home to us in its reality, through our own feelings and experience, is like the same ray transmitted through a lens,—blinding, burning, consuming where it falls.

MEDON.

Your illustration is the most poetical, I allow; but not the most just. But tell me, is the ground you have taken sufficiently large?—is the foundation you have chosen strong enough to bear the moral superstructure you raise upon it? You know the prevalent idea is, that Shakspeare's women are inferior to his men. This assertion is constantly repeated, and has been but tamely refuted.

ALDA.

Professor Richardson?—

MEDON.

He is as dry as a stick, and his refutation not successful even as a piece of logic. Then it is not sufficient for critics to assert this inferiority and want of variety: they first assume the fallacy, then argue upon it. Cibber accounts for it from the circumstance that all the female parts in Shakspeare's time were acted by boys—there were no women on the stage; and Mackenzie, who ought to have known better, says that he was not so happy in his delineations of love and tenderness, as of the other passions; because, forsooth, the majesty of his genius could not stoop to the refinements of delicacy;—preposterous!

ALDA.

Stay! before we waste epithets of indignation, let us consider. If these people mean that Shakspeare's women are inferior in power to his men, I grant it at once; for in Shakspeare the male and female characters bear precisely the same relation to each other that they do in nature and in society—they are not equal in prominence or in power—they are subordinate throughout. Richardson remarks, that "if situation influences the mind, and if uniformity of conduct be frequently occasioned by uniformity of condition, there must be a greater diversity of male than of female characters,"—which is true; add to this our limited sphere of action, consequently of experience,—the habits of self-control rendering the outward distinctions of character and passion less striking and less strong—all this we see in Shakspeare as in nature: for instance, Juliet is the most impassioned of the female characters, but what are her passions compared to those which shake the soul of Othello?

"Even as the dew-drop on the myrtle-leaf To the vex'd sea."

Look at Constance, frantic for the loss of her son—then look at Lear, maddened by the ingratitude of his daughters: why it is the west wind bowing those aspen tops that wave before our window, compared to the tropic hurricane, when forests crash and burn, and mountains tremble to their bases!

MEDON.

True; and Lady Macbeth, with all her soaring ambition, her vigor of intellect, her subtlety, her courage, and her cruelty—what is she, compared to Richard III.?

ALDA.

I will tell you what she is—she is a woman. Place Lady Macbeth in comparison with Richard III., and you see at once the essential distinction between masculine and feminine ambition—though both in extreme, and overleaping all restraints of conscience or mercy. Richard says of himself, that he has "neither pity, love, nor fear:" Lady Macbeth is susceptible of all three. You smile! but that remains to be proved. The reason that Shakspeare's wicked women have such a singular hold upon our fancy, is from the consistent preservation of the feminine character, which renders them more terrible, because more credible and intelligible—not like those monstrous caricatures we meet with in history—

MEDON.

In history?—this is new!

ALDA.

Yes! I repeat, in history, where certain isolated facts and actions are recorded, without any relation to causes, or motives, or connecting feelings and pictures exhibited, from which the considerate mind turns in disgust, and the feeling heart has no relief but in positive, and I may add, reasonable incredulity. I have lately seen one of Correggio's finest pictures, in which the three Furies are represented, not as ghastly deformed hags, with talons and torches, and snaky hair, but as young women, with fine luxuriant forms and regular features, and a single serpent wreathing the tresses like a bandeau—but such countenances!—such a hideous expression of malice, cunning, and cruelty!—and the effect is beyond conception appalling. Leonardo da Vinci worked upon the same grand principle of art in his Medusa—

Where it is less the horror than the grace Which turns the gazer's spirit into stone—

* * * *

'Tis the melodious tints of beauty thrown Athwart the hue of guilt and glare of pain, That humanize and harmonize the strain.

And Shakspeare, who understood all truth, worked out his conceptions on the same principle, having said himself, that "proper deformity shows not in the fiend so horrid as in women." Hence it is that whether he portrayed the wickedness founded in perverted power, as in Lady Macbeth; or the wickedness founded in weakness, as in Gertrude, Lady Anne, or Cressida, he is the more fearfully impressive, because we cannot claim for ourselves an exemption from the same nature, before which, in its corrupted state, we tremble with horror or shrink with disgust.

MEDON.

Do you remember that some of the commentators of Shakspeare have thought it incumbent on their gallantry to express their utter contempt for the scene between Richard and Lady Anne, as a monstrous and incredible libel on your sex?

ALDA.

They might have spared themselves the trouble. Lady Anne is just one of those women whom we see walking in crowds through the drawing-rooms of the world—the puppets of habit, the fools of fortune, without any particular inclination for vice, or any steady principle of virtue; whose actions are inspired by vanity, not affection, and regulated by opinion, not by conscience: who are good while there is no temptation to be otherwise, and ready victims of the first soliciting to evil. In the case of Lady Anne, we are startled by the situation: not three months a widow, and following to the sepulchre the remains of a husband and a father, she is met and wooed and won by the very man who murdered them. In such a case it required perhaps either Richard or the arch-fiend himself to tempt her successfully; but in a less critical moment, a far less subtle and audacious seducer would have sufficed. Cressida is another modification of vanity, weakness, and falsehood, drawn in stronger colors. The world contains many Lady Annes and Cressidas, polished and refined externally, whom chance and vanity keep right, whom chance and vanity lead wrong, just as it may happen. When we read in history of the enormities of certain women, perfect scarecrows and ogresses, we can safely, like the Pharisee in Scripture, hug ourselves in our secure virtue, and thank God that we are not as others are—but the wicked women in Shakspeare are portrayed with such perfect consistency and truth, that they leave us no such resource—they frighten us into reflection—they make us believe and tremble. On the other hand, his amiable women are touched with such exquisite simplicity—they have so little external pretensions—and are so unlike the usual heroines of tragedy and romance, that they delight us more "than all the nonsense of the beau-ideal!" We are flattered by the perception of our own nature in the midst of so many charms and virtues: not only are they what we could wish to be, or ought to be, but what we persuade ourselves we might be, or would be, under a different and a happier state of things, and, perhaps, some time or other may be. They are not stuck up, like the cardinal virtues, all in a row, for us to admire and wonder at—they are not mere poetical abstractions—nor (as they have been termed) mere abstractions of the affections,—

But common clay ta'en from the common earth. Moulded by God, and tempered by the tears Of angels, to the perfect form of—woman.

MEDON.

Beautiful lines!—Where are they?

ALDA.

I quote from memory, and I am afraid inaccurately, from a poem of Alfred Tennyson's.

MEDON.

Well, between argument, and sentiment, and logic, and poetry, you are making out a very plausible case. I think with you that, in the instances you have mentioned, (as Lady Macbeth and Richard, Juliet, and Othello, and others,) the want of comparative power is only an additional excellence; but to go to an opposite extreme of delineation, we must allow that there is not one of Shakspeare's women that, as a dramatic character, can be compared to Falstaff.

ALDA.

No; because any thing like Falstaff in the form of woman—any such compound of wit, sensuality, and selfishness, unchecked by the moral sentiments and the affections, and touched with the same vigorous painting, would be a gross and monstrous caricature. If it could exist in nature, we might find it in Shakspeare; but a moment's reflection shows us that it would be essentially an impossible combination of faculties in a female.

MEDON.

It strikes me, however, that his humorous women are feebly drawn, in comparison with some of the female wits of other writers.

ALDA.

Because his women of wit and humor are not introduced for the sole purpose of saying brilliant things, and displaying the wit of the author; they are, as I will show you, real, natural women, in whom wit is only a particular and occasional modification of intellect. They are all, in the first place, affectionate, thinking beings, and moral agents; and then witty, as if by accident, or as the Duchesse de Chaulnes said of herself, "par la grace de Dieu." As to humor, it is carried as far as possible in Mrs. Quickly; in the termagant Catherine; in Maria, in "Twelfth Night;" in Juliet's nurse; in Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page. What can exceed in humorous naivete, Mrs. Quickly's upbraiding Falstaff, and her concluding appeal—"Didst thou not kiss me, and bid me fetch thee thirty shillings?" Is it not exquisite—irresistible? Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page are both "merry wives," but how perfectly discriminated! Mrs. Ford has the most good nature—Mrs. Page is the cleverer of the two, and has more sharpness in her tongue, more mischief in her mirth. In all these instances I allow that the humor is more or less vulgar; but a humorous woman, whether in high or low life has always a tinge of vulgarity.

MEDON.

I should like to see that word vulgar properly defined, and its meaning limited—at present it is the most arbitrary word in the language.

ALDA.

Yes, like the word romantic, it is a convenient "exploding word," and in its general application signifies nothing more than "see how much finer I am than other people!"[1] but in literature and character I shall adhere to the definition of Madame de Stael, who uses the word vulgar as the reverse of poetical. Vulgarity (as I wish to apply the word) is the negative in all things. In literature, it is the total absence of elevation and depth in the ideas, and of elegance and delicacy in the expression of them. In character, it is the absence of truth, sensibility, and reflection. The vulgar in manner, is the result of vulgarity of character; it is grossness, hardness, or affectation.—If you would see how Shakspeare has discriminated, not only different degrees, but different kinds of plebeian vulgarity in women, you have only to compare the nurse in Romeo and Juliet with Mrs. Quickly. On the whole, if there are people who, taking the strong and essential distinction of sex into consideration, still maintain that Shakspeare's female characters are not, in truth, in variety, in power, equal to his men, I think I shall prove the contrary.

MEDON.

I observe that you have divided your illustrations into classes; but shades of character so melt into each other, and the various faculties and powers are so blended and balanced, that all classification must be arbitrary. I am at a loss to conceive where you have drawn the line; here, at the head of your first chapter, I find "Characters of Intellect"—do you call Portia intellectual, and Hermione and Constance not so?

ALDA.

I know that Schlegel has said that it is impossible to arrange Shakspeare's characters in classes: yet some classification was necessary for my purpose. I have therefore divided them into characters in which intellect and wit predominate; characters in which fancy and passion predominate; and characters in which the moral sentiments and affections predominate. The historical characters I have considered apart, as requiring a different mode of illustration. Portia I regard as a perfect model of an intellectual woman, in whom wit is tempered by sensibility, and fancy regulated by strong reflection. It is objected to her, to Beatrice, and others of Shakspeare's women, that the display of intellect is tinged with a coarseness of manner belonging to the age in which he wrote. To remark that the conversation and letters of high-bred and virtuous women of that time were more bold and frank in expression than any part of the dialogue appropriated to Beatrice and Rosalind, may excuse it to our judgment, but does not reconcile it to our taste. Much has been said, and more might be said on this subject—but I would rather not discuss it. It is a mere difference of manner which is to be regretted, but has nothing to do with the essence of the character.

MEDON.

I think you have done well in avoiding the topic altogether; but between ourselves, do you really think that the refinement of manner, the censorious, hypocritical, verbal scrupulosity, which is carried so far in this "picked age" of ours, is a true sign of superior refinement of taste, and purity of morals? Is it not rather a whiting of the sepulchre? I will not even allude to individual instances whom we both know, but does it not remind you, on the whole, of the tone of French manners previous to the revolution—that "decence," which Horace Walpole so admired,[2] veiling the moral degradation, the inconceivable profligacy of the higher classes?—Stay—I have not yet done—not to you, but for you, I will add thus much;—our modern idea of delicacy apparently attaches more importance to words than to things—to manners than to morals. You will hear people inveigh against the improprieties of Shakspeare, with Don Juan, or one of those infernal French novels—I beg your pardon—lying on their toilet table. Lady Florence is shocked at the sallies of Beatrice, and Beatrice would certainly stand aghast to see Lady Florence dressed for Almack's; so you see that in both cases the fashion makes the indecorum. Let her ladyship new model her gowns!

ALDA.

Well, well, leave Lady Florence—I would rather hear you defend Shakspeare.

MEDON.

I think it is Coleridge who so finely observes that Shakspeare ever kept the high road of human life, whereon all travel, that he did not pick out by-paths of feeling and sentiment; in him we have no moral highwaymen, and sentimental thieves and rat-catchers, and interesting villains, and amiable, elegant adulteresses—a-la-mode Germanorum—no delicate entanglements of situation, in which the grossest images are presented to the mind disguised under the superficial attraction of style and sentiment. He flattered no bad passion, disguised no vice in the garb of virtue, trifled with with no just and generous principle. He can make us laugh at folly, and shudder at crime, yet still preserve our love for our fellow-beings, and our reverence for ourselves. He has a lofty and a fearless trust in his own powers, and in the beauty and excellence of virtue; and with his eye fixed on the lode-star of truth, steers us triumphantly among shoals and quicksands, where with any other pilot we had been wrecked:—for instance, who but himself would have dared to bring into close contact two such characters as Iago and Desdemona? Had the colors in which he has arrayed Desdemona been one atom less transparently bright and pure, the charm had been lost; she could not have borne the approximation: some shadow from the overpowering blackness of his character must have passed over the sun-bright purity of hers. For observe that Iago's disbelief in the virtue of Desdemona is not pretended, it is real. It arises from his total want of faith in all virtue; he is no more capable of conceiving goodness than she is capable of conceiving evil. To the brutish coarseness and fiendish malignity of this man, her gentleness appears only a contemptible weakness; her purity of affection, which saw "Othello's visage in his mind," only a perversion of taste; her bashful modesty, only a cloak for evil propensities; so he represents them with all the force of language and self-conviction, and we are obliged to listen to him. He rips her to pieces before us—he would have bedeviled an angel! yet such is the unrivalled, though passive delicacy of the delineation, that it can stand it unhurt, untouched! It is wonderful!—yet natural as it is wonderful! After all, there are people in the world, whose opinions and feelings are tainted by an habitual acquaintance with the evil side of society, though in action and intention they remain right; and who, without the real depravity of heart and malignity of intention of Iago, judge as he does of the character and productions of others.

ALDA.

Heaven bless me from such critics! yet if genius, youth, and innocence could not escape unslurred, can I hope to do so? I pity from my soul the persons you allude to—for to such minds there can exist few uncontaminated sources of pleasure either in nature or in art.

MEDON.

Ay—"the perfumes of Paradise were poison to the Dives, and made them melancholy."[3] You pity them, and they will sneer at you. But what have we here?—"Characters of Imagination—Juliet—Viola;" are these romantic young ladies the pillars which are to sustain your moral edifice? Are they to serve as examples or as warnings for the youth of this enlightened age?

ALDA.

As warnings, of course—what else?

MEDON.

Against the dangers of romance?—but where are they? "Vraiment," as B. Constant says, "je ne vois pas qu'en fait d'enthousiasme, le feu soit a la maison." Where are they—these disciples of poetry and romance, these victims of disinterested devotion and believing truth, these unblown roses—all conscience and tenderness—whom it is so necessary to guard against too much confidence in others, and too little in themselves—where are they?

ALDA.

Wandering in the Elysian fields, I presume, with the romantic young gentlemen who are too generous, too zealous in defence of innocence, too enthusiastic in their admiration of virtue, too violent in their hatred of vice, too sincere in friendship, too faithful in love, too active and disinterested in the cause of truth—

MEDON.

Very fair! But seriously, do you think it necessary to guard young people, in this selfish and calculating age, against an excess of sentiment and imagination? Do you allow no distinction between the romance of exaggerated sentiment, and the romance of elevated thought? Do you bring cold water to quench the smouldering ashes of enthusiasm? Methinks it is rather superfluous; and that another doctrine is needed to withstand the heartless system of expediency which is the favorite philosophy of the day. The warning you speak of may be gently hinted to the few who are in danger of being misled by an excess of the generous impulses of fancy and feeling; but need hardly, I think, be proclaimed by sound of trumpet amid the mocks of the world. No, no; there are young women in these days, but there is no such thing as youth—the bloom of existence is sacrificed to a fashionable education, and where we should find the rose-buds of the spring, we see only the fullblown, flaunting, precocious roses of the hot-bed.

ALDA.

Blame then that forcing system of education, the most pernicious, the most mistaken, the most far-reaching in its miserable and mischievous effects, that ever prevailed in this world. The custom which shut up women in convents till they were married, and then launched them innocent and ignorant on society, was bad enough; but not worse than a system of education which inundates us with hard, clever, sophisticated girls, trained by knowing mothers, and all-accomplished governesses, with whom vanity and expediency take place of conscience and affection—(in other words, of romance)—"frutto senile in sul giovenil fiore;" with feelings and passions suppressed or contracted, not governed by higher faculties and purer principles; with whom opinion—the same false honor which sends men out to fight duels—stands instead of the strength and the light of virtue within their own souls. Hence the strange anomalies of artificial society—girls of sixteen who are models of manner miracles of prudence, marvels of learning, who sneer at sentiment, and laugh at the Juliets and the Imogens; and matrons of forty, who, when the passions should be tame and wait upon the judgment, amaze the world and put us to confusion with their doings.

MEDON.

Or turn politicians to vary the excitement—How I hate political women!

ALDA.

Why do you hate them?

MEDON.

Because they are mischievous.

ALDA.

But why are they mischievous?

MEDON.

Why!—why are they mischievous? Nay, ask them, or ask the father of all mischief, who has not a more efficient instrument to further his designs in this world, than a woman run mad with politics. The number of political intriguing women of this time, whose boudoirs and drawing-rooms are the foyers of party-spirit, is another trait of resemblance between the state of society now, and that which existed at Paris before the revolution.

ALDA.

And do you think, like some interesting young lady in Miss Edgeworth's tales, that "women have nothing to do with politics?" Do you mean to say that women are not capable of comprehending the principles of legislation, or of feeling an interest in the government and welfare of their country, or of perceiving and sympathizing in the progress of great events?—That they cannot feel patriotism? Believe me, when we do feel it, our patriotism, like our courage and our love, has a purer source than with you; for a man's patriotism has always some tinge of egotism, while a woman's patriotism is generally a sentiment, and of the noblest kind.

MEDON.

I agree in all this; and all this does not mitigate my horror of political women in general, who are, I repeat it, both mischievous and absurd. If you could but hear the reasoning in these feminine coteries!—but you never talk politics.

ALDA.

Indeed I do, when I can get any one to listen to me; but I prefer listening. As for the evil you complain of, impute it to that imperfect education which at once cultivates and enslaves the intellect, and loads the memory, while it fetters the judgment. Women, however well read in history, never generalize in politics; never argue on any broad or general principle; never reason from a consideration of past events, their causes and consequences. But they are always political through their affections, their prejudices, their personal liaisons, their hopes, their fears.

MEDON.

If it were no worse, I could stand it; for that is at least feminine.

ALDA.

But most mischievous. For hence it is that we make such blind partisans, such violent party women, and such wretched politicians. I never heard a woman talk politics, as it is termed, that I could not discern at once the motive, the affection, the secret bias which swayed her opinions and inspired her arguments. If it appeared to the Grecian sage so "difficult for a man not to love himself, nor the things that belong to him, but justice only?"—how much more for woman!

MEDON.

Then you think that a better education, based on truer moral principles, would render women more reasonable politicians, or at least give them some right to meddle with politics?

ALDA.

It would cease in that case to be meddling, as you term it, for it would be legitimized. It is easy to sneer at political and mathematical ladies, and quote Lord Byron—but O leave those angry common-places to others!—they do not come well from you. Do not force me to remind you, that women have achieved enough to silence them forever,[4] and how often must that truism be repeated, that it is not a woman's attainments which make her amiable or unamiable, estimable or the contrary, but her qualities? A time is coming, perhaps, when the education of women will be considered, with a view to their future destination as the mothers and nurses of legislators and statesmen, and the cultivation of their powers of reflection and moral feelings supersede the exciting drudgery by which they are now crammed with knowledge and accomplishments.

MEDON.

Well—till that blessed period arrives, I wish you would leave us the province of politics to ourselves. I see here you have treated of a very different class of beings, "women in whom the affections and the moral sentiments predominate." Are there many such, think you, in the world?

ALDA.

Yes, many such; the development of affection and sentiment is more quiet and unobtrusive than that of passion and intellect, and less observed; it is more common, too, therefore less remarked; but in women it generally gives the prevailing tone to the character, except where vanity has been made the ruling motive.

MEDON.

Except! I admire your exception! You make in this case the rule the exception. Look round the world.

ALDA.

You are not one of those with whom that common phrase "the world" signifies the circle, whatever and wherever that may be, which limits our individual experience—as a child considers the visible horizon as the bounds which shut in the mighty universe. Believe me, it is a sorry, vulgar kind of wisdom, if it be wisdom—a shallow and confined philosophy, if it be philosophy—which resolves all human motives and impulses into egotism in one sex, and vanity in the other. Such may be the way of the world, as it is called—the result of a very artificial and corrupt state of society, but such is not general nature, nor female nature. Would you see the kindly, self-sacrificing affections developed under their most honest but least poetical guise—displayed without any mixture of vanity, and unchecked in the display by any fear of being thought vain?—you will see it, not among the prosperous, the high-born, the educated, "far, far removed from want, and grief, and fear," but among the poor, the miserable, the perverted—among those habitually exposed to all influences that harden and deprave.

MEDON.

I believe it—nay, I know it; but how should you know it, or anything of the strange places of refuge which truth and nature have found in the two extremes of society?

ALDA.

It is no matter what I have seen or known; and for the two extremes of society, I leave them to the author of Paul Clifford, and that most exquisite painter of living manners, Mrs. Gore. St. Giles's is no more nature than St. James's. I wanted character in its essential truth, not mortified by particular customs, by fashion, by situation. I wished to illustrate the manner in which the affections would naturally display themselves in women—whether combined with high intellect, regulated by reflection, and elevated by imagination, or existing with perverted dispositions, or purified by the moral sentiments. I found all these in Shakspeare; his delineations of women, in whom the virtuous and calm affections predominate, and triumph over shame, fear, pride, resentment, vanity, jealousy,—are particularly worthy of consideration, and perfect in their kind, because so quiet in their effect.

MEDON.

Several critics have remarked in general terms on those beautiful pictures of female friendship, and of the generous affection of women for each other, which we find in Shakspeare. Other writers, especially dramatic writers, have found ample food for wit and satiric delineation in the littleness of feminine spite and rivalry, in the mean spirit of competition, the petty jealousy of superior charms, the mutual slander and mistrust, the transient leagues of folly or selfishness miscalled friendship—the result of an education which makes vanity the ruling principle, and of a false position in society. Shakspeare, who looked upon women with the spirit of humanity, wisdom, and deep love, has done justice to their natural good tendencies and kindly sympathies. In the friendship of Beatrice and Hero, of Rosalind and Celia; in the description of the girlish attachment of Helena and Hermia, he has represented truth and generous affection rising superior to all the usual sources of female rivalry and jealousy; and with such force and simplicity, and obvious self-conviction, that he absolutely forces the same conviction on us.

ALDA.

Add to these the generous feeling of Viola for her rival Olivia; of Julia for her rival Sylvia; of Helena for Diana; of the old Countess for Helena, in the same play; and even the affection of the wicked queen in Hamlet for the gentle Ophelia, which prove that Shakspeare thought—(and when did he ever think other than the truth?)—that women have by nature "virtues that are merciful," and can be just, tender, and true to their sister women, whatever wits and worldlings, and satirists and fashionable poets, may say or sing of us to the contrary. There is another thing which he has most deeply felt and beautifully represented—the distinction between masculine and feminine courage. A man's courage is often a mere animal quality, and in its most elevated form a point of honor. But a woman's courage is always a virtue, because it is not required of us, it is not one of the means through which we seek admiration and applause; on the contrary, we are courageous through our affections and mental energies, not through our vanity or our strength. A woman's heroism is always the excess of sensibility. Do you remember Lady Fanshawe putting on a sailor's jacket, and his "blue thrum cap," and standing at her husband's side, unknown to him during a sea-fight? There she stood, all bathed in tears, but fixed to that spot. Her husband's exclamation when he turned and discovered her—"Good God, that love should make such a change as this!" is applicable to all the acts of courage which we read or hear of in women. This is the courage of Juliet, when, after summing up all the possible consequences of her own act, till she almost maddens herself with terror, she drinks the sleeping potion; and for that passive fortitude which is founded in piety and pure strength of affection, such as the heroism of Lady Russel and Gertrude de Wart, he has given us some of the noblest modifications of it in Hermione, in Cordelia, in Imogen, in Katherine of Arragon.

MEDON.

And what do you call the courage of Lady Macbeth?—

My hands are of your color, but I shame To wear a heart so white.

And again,

A little water clears us of this deed, How easy is it then!

If this is not mere masculine indifference to blood and death, mere firmness of nerve, what is it?

ALDA.

Not that, at least, which apparently you deem it; you will find, if you have patience to read me to the end, that I have judged Lady Macbeth very differently. Take these frightful passages with the context—take the whole situation, and you will see that it is no such thing. A friend of mine truly observed, that if Macbeth had been a ruffian without any qualms of conscience, Lady Macbeth would have been the one to shrink and tremble; but that which quenched him lent her fire. The absolute necessity for self-command, the strength of her reason, and her love for her husband, combine at this critical moment to conquer all fear but the fear of detection, leaving her the full possession of her faculties. Recollect that the same woman who speaks with such horrible indifference of a little water clearing the blood-stain from her hand, sees in imagination that hand forever reeking, forever polluted: and when reason is no longer awake and paramount over the violated feelings of nature and womanhood, we behold her making unconscious efforts to wash out that "damned spot," and sighing, heart-broken, over that little hand which all the perfumes of Arabia will never sweeten more.

MEDON.

I hope you have given her a place among the women in whom the tender affections and moral sentiments predominate.

ALDA.

You laugh; but, jesting apart, perhaps it would have been a more accurate classification than placing her among the historical characters.

MEDON.

Apropos to the historical characters, I hope you have refuted that insolent assumption, (shall I call it?) that Shakspeare tampered inexcusably with the truth of history. He is the truest of all historians. His anachronisms always remind me of those in the fine old Italian pictures; either they are insignificant, or, if properly considered, are really beauties; for instance, every one knows that Correggio's St. Jerome presenting his books to the Virgin, involves half-a-dozen anachronisms,—to say nothing of that heavenly figure of the Magdalen, in the same picture, kissing the feet of the infant Saviour. Some have ridiculed, some have excused this strange combination of inaccuracies but is it less one of the divinest pieces of sentiment and poetry that ever breathed and glowed from the canvas? You remember too the famous nativity by some Neapolitan painter, who has placed Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples in the background? In these and a hundred other instances, no one seems to feel that the apparent absurdity involves the highest truth, and that the sacred beings thus represented, if once allowed as objects of faith and worship, are eternal under every aspect, and independent of all time and all locality. So it is with Shakspeare and his anachronisms. The learned scorn of Johnson and some of his brotherhood of commentators, and the eloquent defence of Schlegel, seem in this case superfluous. If he chose to make the Delphic oracle and Julio Romano contemporary—what does it signify? he committed no anachronisms of character. He has not metamorphosed Cleopatra into a turtle-dove, nor Katherine of Arragon into a sentimental heroine. He is true to the spirit and even to the letter of history; where he deviates from the latter, the reason may be found in some higher beauty and more universal truth.

ALDA.

I have proved this, I think, by placing parallel with the dramatic character all the historic testimony I could collect relative to Constance, Cleopatra, Katherine of Arragon, &c.

MEDON.

Analyzing the character of Cleopatra must have been something like catching a meteor by the tail, and making it sit for its picture.

ALDA.

Something like it, in truth; but those of Miranda and Ophelia were more embarrassing, because they seemed to defy all analysis. It was like intercepting the dew-drop or the snow-flake ere it fell to earth, and subjecting it to a chemical process.

MEDON.

Some one said the other day that Shakspeare had never drawn a coquette. What is Cleopatra but the empress and type of all the coquettes that ever were—or are? She would put Lady —— herself to school. But now for the moral.

ALDA.

The moral!—of what?

MEDON.

Of your book. It has a moral, I suppose.

ALDA.

It has indeed a very deep one, which those who seek will find. If now I have answered all your considerations and objections, and sufficiently explained my own views, may I proceed?

MEDON.

If you please—I am prepared to listen in earnest.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] See Foster's Essay on the application of the word romanticEssays, vol. I

[2] Correspondence, vol. iii.

[3] An Oriental proverb

[4] In our own time, Madame de Stael, Mrs. Somerville, Harriet Martineau, Mrs. Marcet; we need not go back to the Rolands and Agnesi, nor even to our own Lucy Hutchinson.



CHARACTERS OF INTELLECT.

PORTIA.

We hear it asserted, not seldom by way of compliment to us women, that intellect is of no sex. If this mean that the same faculties of mind are common to men and women, it is true; in any other signification it appears to me false, and the reverse of a compliment. The intellect of woman bears the same relation to that of man as her physical organization;—it is inferior in power, and different in kind. That certain women have surpassed certain men in bodily strength or intellectual energy, does not contradict the general principle founded in nature. The essential and invariable distinction appears to me this: in men the intellectual faculties exist more self-poised and self-directed—more independent of the rest of the character, than we ever find them in women, with whom talent, however predominant, is in a much greater degree modified by the sympathies and moral qualities.

In thinking over all the distinguished women can at this moment call to mind, I recollect but one, who, in the exercise of a rare talent, belied her sex, but the moral qualities had been first perverted.[5] It is from not knowing, or not allowing this general principle, that men of genius have committed some signal mistakes. They have given us exquisite and just delineations of the more peculiar characteristics of women, as modesty, grace, tenderness; and when they have attempted to portray them with the powers common to both sexes, as wit, energy, intellect, they have blundered in some respect; they could form no conception of intellect which was not masculine, and therefore have either suppressed the feminine attributes altogether and drawn coarse caricatures, or they have made them completely artificial.[6] Women distinguished for wit may sometimes appear masculine and flippant, but the cause must be sought elsewhere than in nature, who disclaims all such. Hence the witty and intellectual ladies of our comedies and novels are all in the fashion of some particular time; they are like some old portraits which can still amuse and please by the beauty of the workmanship, in spite of the graceless costume or grotesque accompaniments, but from which we turn to worship with ever new delight the Floras and goddesses of Titian—the saints and the virgins of Raffaelle and Domenichino. So the Millamants and Belindas, the Lady Townleys and Lady Teazles are out of date, while Portia and Rosalind, in whom nature and the feminine character are paramount, remain bright and fresh to the fancy as when first created.

Portia, Isabella, Beatrice, and Rosalind, may be classed together, as characters of intellect, because, when compared with others, they are at once distinguished by their mental superiority. In Portia, it is intellect kindled into romance by a poetical imagination; in Isabel, it is intellect elevated by religious principle; in Beatrice, intellect animated by spirit; in Rosalind, intellect softened by sensibility. The wit which is lavished on each is profound, or pointed, or sparkling, or playful—but always feminine; like spirits distilled from flowers, it always reminds us of its origin; it is a volatile essence, sweet as powerful; and to pursue the comparison a step further the wit of Portia is like ottar of roses, rich and concentrated; that of Rosalind, like cotton dipped in aromatic vinegar; the wit of Beatrice is like sal volatile; and that of Isabel, like the incense wafted to heaven. Of these four exquisite characters, considered as dramatic and poetical conceptions, it is difficult to pronounce which is most perfect in its way, most admirably drawn, most highly finished. But if considered in another point of view, as women and individuals, as breathing realities, clothed in flesh and blood, I believe we must assign the first rank to Portia, as uniting in herself in a more eminent degree than the others, all the noblest and most lovable qualities that ever met together in woman; and presenting a complete personification of Petrarch's exquisite epitome of female perfection:—

Il vago spirito ardento, E'n alto intelletto, un puro core.

It is singular, that hitherto no critical justice has been done to the character of Portia; it is yet more wonderful, that one of the finest writers on the eternal subject of Shakspeare and his perfections, should accuse Portia of pedantry and affectation, and confess she is not a great favorite of his—a confession quite worthy of him, who avers his predilection for servant-maids, and his preference of the Fannys and the Pamelas over the Clementinas and Clarissas.[7] Schlegel, who has given several pages to a rapturous eulogy on the Merchant of Venice, simply designates Portia as a "rich, beautiful, clever heiress:"—whether the fault lie in the writer or translator, I do protest against the word clever.[8] Portia clever! what an epithet to apply to this heavenly compound of talent, feeling, wisdom, beauty, and gentleness! Now would it not be well, if this common and comprehensive word were more accurately defined, or at least more accurately used? It signifies properly, not so much the possession of high powers, as dexterity in the adaptation of certain faculties (not necessarily of a high order) to a certain end or aim—not always the worthiest. It implies something common-place, inasmuch as it speaks the presence of the active and perceptive, with a deficiency of the feeling and reflective powers; and applied to a woman, does it not almost invariably suggest the idea of something we should distrust or shrink from, if not allied to a higher nature? The profligate French women, who ruled the councils of Europe in the middle of the last century, were clever women; and that philosopheress Madame du Chatelet, who managed, at one and the same moment, the thread of an intrigue, her cards at piquet, and a calculation in algebra, was a very clever woman! If Portia had been created as a mere instrument to bring about a dramatic catastrophe—if she had merely detected the flaw in Antonio's bond, and used it as a means to baffle the Jew, she might have been pronounced a clever woman. But what Portia does, is forgotten in what she is. The rare and harmonious blending of energy, reflection, and feeling, in her fine character, make the epithet clever sound like a discord as applied to her, and place her infinitely beyond the slight praise of Richardson and Schlegel, neither of whom appear to have fully comprehended her.

These and other critics have been apparently so dazzled and engrossed by the amazing character of Shylock, that Portia has received less than justice at their hands; while the fact is, that Shylock is not a finer or more finished character in his way, than Portia is in hers. These two splendid figures are worthy of each other; worthy of being placed together within the same rich framework of enchanting poetry, and glorious and graceful forms. She hangs beside the terrible, inexorable Jew, the brilliant lights of her character set off by the shadowy power of his, like a magnificent beauty-breathing Titian by the side of a gorgeous Rembrandt.

Portia is endued with her own share of those delightful qualities, which Shakspeare has lavished on many of his female characters; but besides the dignity, the sweetness, and tenderness which should distinguish her sex generally, she is individualized by qualities peculiar to herself; by her high mental powers, her enthusiasm of temperament, her decision of purpose, and her buoyancy of spirit. These are innate; she has other distinguishing qualities more external, and which are the result of the circumstances in which she is placed. Thus she is the heiress of a princely name and countless wealth; a train of obedient pleasures have ever waited round her; and from infancy she has breathed an atmosphere redolent of perfume and blandishment Accordingly there is a commanding grace, a highbred, airy elegance, a spirit of magnificence in all that she does and says, as one to whom splendor had been familiar from her very birth. She treads as though her footsteps had been among marble palaces, beneath roofs of fretted gold, o'er cedar floors and pavements of jasper and porphyry—amid gardens full of statues, and flowers, and fountains, and haunting music. She is full of penetrative wisdom, and genuine tenderness, and lively wit; but as she has never known want, or grief, or fear, or disappointment, her wisdom is without a touch of the sombre or the sad; her affections are all mixed up with faith, hope and joy; and her wit has not a particle of malevolence or causticity.

It is well known that the Merchant of Venice is founded on two different tales; and in weaving together his double plot in so masterly a manner, Shakspeare has rejected altogether the character of the astutious Lady of Belmont with her magic potions, who figures in the Italian novel. With yet more refinement, he has thrown out all the licentious part of the story, which some of his contemporary dramatists would have seized on with avidity, and made the best or worst of it possible; and he has substituted the trial of the caskets from another source.[9] We are not told expressly where Belmont is situated; but as Bassanio takes ship to go thither from Venice, and as we find them afterwards ordering horses from Belmont to Padua, we will imagine Portia's hereditary palace as standing on some lovely promontory between Venice and Trieste, overlooking the blue Adriatic, with the Friuli mountains or the Euganean hills for its background, such as we often see in one of Claude's or Poussin's elysian landscapes. In a scene, in a home like this, Shakspeare, having first exorcised the original possessor, has placed his Portia; and so endowed her, that all the wild, strange, and moving circumstances of the story, become natural, probable, and necessary in connexion with her. That such a woman should be chosen by the solving of an enigma, is not surprising: herself and all around her, the scene, the country, the age in which she is placed, breathe of poetry, romance, and enchantment.

From the four quarters of the earth they come To kiss this shrine, this mortal breathing saint The Hyrcanian desert, and the vasty wilds Of wide Arabia, are as thoroughfares now, For princes to come view fair Portia; The watery kingdom, whose ambitious head Spits in the face of heaven is no bar To stop the foreign spirits; but they come As o'er a brook to see fair Portia.

The sudden plan which she forms for the release of her husband's friend, her disguise, and her deportment as the young and learned doctor, would appear forced and improbable in any other woman but in Portia are the simple and natural result of her character.[10] The quickness with which she perceives the legal advantage which may be taken of the circumstances; the spirit of adventure with which she engages in the masquerading, and the decision, firmness, and intelligence with which she executes her generous purpose, are all in perfect keeping, and nothing appears forced—nothing as introduced merely for theatrical effect.

But all the finest parts of Portia's character are brought to bear in the trial scene. There she shines forth all her divine self. Her intellectual powers, her elevated sense of religion, her high honorable principles, her best feelings as a woman, are all displayed. She maintains at first a calm self-command, as one sure of carrying her point in the end; yet the painful heart-thrilling uncertainty in which she keeps the whole court, until suspense verges upon agony, is not contrived for effect merely; it is necessary and inevitable. She has two objects in view; to deliver her husband's friend, and to maintain her husband's honor by the discharge of his just debt, though paid out of her own wealth ten times over. It is evident that she would rather owe the safety of Antonio to any thing rather than the legal quibble with which her cousin Bellario has armed her, and which she reserves as a last resource. Thus all the speeches addressed to Shylock in the first instance, are either direct or indirect experiments on his temper and feelings. She must be understood from the beginning to the end as examining, with intense anxiety, the effect of her own words on his mind and countenance; as watching for that relenting spirit, which she hopes to awaken either by reason or persuasion. She begins by an appeal to his mercy, in that matchless piece of eloquence, which, with an irresistible and solemn pathos, falls upon the heart like "gentle dew from heaven:"—but in vain; for that blessed dew drops not more fruitless and unfelt on the parched sand of the desert, than do these heavenly words upon the ear of Shylock. She next attacks his avarice:

Shylock, there's thrice thy money offered thee!

Then she appeals, in the same breath, both to his avarice and his pity:

Be merciful! Take thrice thy money. Bid me tear the bond.

All that she says afterwards—her strong expressions, which are calculated to strike a shuddering horror through the nerves—the reflections she interposes—her delays and circumlocution to give time for any latent feeling of commiseration to display itself—all, all are premeditated and tend in the same manner to the object she has in view. Thus—

You must prepare your bosom for his knife. Therefore lay bare your bosom!

These two speeches, though addressed apparently to Antonio, are spoken at Shylock, and are evidently intended to penetrate his bosom. In the same spirit she asks for the balance to weigh the pound of flesh; and entreats of Shylock to have a surgeon ready—

Have by some surgeon, Shylock, on your charge, To stop his wounds, lest he do bleed to death!

SHYLOCK.

Is it so nominated in the bond?

PORTIA.

It is not so expressed—but what of that? 'Twere good you do so much, for charity.

So unwilling is her sanguine and generous spirit to resign all hope, or to believe that humanity is absolutely extinct in the bosom of the Jew, that she calls on Antonio, as a last resource, to speak for himself. His gentle, yet manly resignation—the deep pathos of his farewell, and the affectionate allusion to herself in his last address to Bassanio—

Commend me to your honorable wife; Say how I lov'd you, speak me fair in death, &c.

are well calculated to swell that emotion, which through the whole scene must have been laboring suppressed within her heart.

At length the crisis arrives, for patience and womanhood can endure no longer; and when Shylock, carrying his savage bent "to the last hour of act," springs on his victim—"A sentence come, prepare!" then the smothered scorn, indignation, and disgust, burst forth with an impetuosity which interferes with the judicial solemnity she had at first affected;—particularly in the speech—

Therefore, prepare thee to cut off the flesh. Shed thou no blood; nor cut thou less, nor more, But just the pound of flesh; if thou tak'st more, Or less than a just pound,—be it but so much As makes it light, or heavy, in the substance, Or the division of the twentieth part Of one poor scruple; nay, if the scale do turn But in the estimation of a hair,— Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate.

But she afterwards recovers her propriety, and triumphs with a cooler scorn and a more self-possessed exultation.

It is clear that, to feel the full force and dramatic beauty of this marvellous scene, we must go along with Portia as well as with Shylock; we must understand her concealed purpose, keep in mind her noble motives, and pursue in our fancy the under current of feeling, working in her mind throughout. The terror and the power of Shylock's character,—his deadly and inexorable malice,—would be too oppressive; the pain and pity too intolerable, and the horror of the possible issue too overwhelming, but for the intellectual relief afforded by this double source of interest and contemplation.

I come now to that capacity for warm and generous affection, that tenderness of heart, which render Portia not less lovable as a woman, than admirable for her mental endowments. The affections are to the intellect, what the forge is to the metal; it is they which temper and shape it to all good purposes, and soften, strengthen, and purify it. What an exquisite stroke of judgment in the poet, to make the mutual passion of Portia and Bassanio, though unacknowledged to each other, anterior to the opening of the play! Bassanio's confession very properly comes first:—

BASSANIO.

In Belmont is a lady richly left, And she is fair, and fairer than that word, Of wond'rous virtues: sometimes from her eyes I did receive fair speechless messages;

* * * *

and prepares us for Portia's half betrayed, unconscious election of this most graceful and chivalrous admirer—

NERISSA.

Do you not remember, lady, in your father's time, a Venetian, a scholar, and a soldier, that came hither in company of the Marquis of Montferrat?

PORTIA.

Yes, yes, it was Bassanio; as I think, so he was called.

NERISSA.

True, madam; he of all the men that ever my foolish eyes looked upon, was the best deserving a fair lady.

PORTIA.

I remember him well; and I remember him worthy of thy praise.

Our interest is thus awakened for the lovers from the very first; and what shall be said of the casket-scene with Bassanio, where every line which Portia speaks is so worthy of herself, so full of sentiment and beauty, and poetry and passion? Too naturally frank for disguise, too modest to confess her depth of love while the issue of the trial remains in suspense, the conflict between love and fear, and maidenly dignity, cause the most delicious confusion that ever tinged a woman's cheek, or dropped in broken utterance from her lips.

I pray you, tarry, pause a day or two, Before you hazard; for in choosing wrong, I lose your company; therefore, forbear awhile; There's something tells me, (but it is not love,) I would not lose you; and you know yourself, Hate counsels not in such a quality: But lest you should not understand me well, (And yet a maiden hath no tongue but thought) I would detain you here some month or two Before you venture for me. I could teach you How to choose right,—but then I am forsworn;— So will I never be: so you may miss me;— But if you do, you'll make me wish a sin, That I had been forsworn. Beshrew your eyes, They have o'erlooked me, and divided me: One half of me is yours, the other half yours,— Mine own, I would say; but if mine, then yours, And so all yours!

The short dialogue between the lovers is exquisite.

BASSANIO.

Let me choose, For, as I am, I live upon the rack.

PORTIA.

Upon the rack, Bassanio? Then confess What treason there is mingled with your love.

BASSANIO.

None, but that ugly treason of mistrust, Which makes me fear the enjoying of my love. There may as well be amity and life 'Tween snow and fire, as treason and my love.

PORTIA.

Ay! but I fear you speak upon the rack, Where men enforced do speak any thing.

BASSANIO.

Promise me life, and I'll confess the truth.

PORTIA.

Well then, confess, and live.

BASSANIO.

Confess and love Had been the very sum of my confession! O happy torment, when my torturer Doth teach me answers for deliverance!

A prominent feature in Portia's character is that confiding, buoyant spirit, which mingles with all her thoughts and affections. And here let me observe, that I never yet met in real life, nor ever read in tale or history, of any woman, distinguished for intellect of the highest order, who was not also remarkable for this trusting spirit, this hopefulness and cheerfulness of temper, which is compatible with the most serious habits of thought, and the most profound sensibility. Lady Wortley Montagu was one instance; and Madame de Stael furnishes another much more memorable. In her Corinne, whom she drew from herself, this natural brightness of temper is a prominent part of the character. A disposition to doubt, to suspect, and to despond, in the young, argues, in general, some inherent weakness, moral or physical, or some miserable and radical error of education; in the old, it is one of the first symptoms of age; it speaks of the influence of sorrow and experience, and foreshows the decay of the stronger and more generous powers of the soul. Portia's strength of intellect takes a natural tinge from the flush and bloom of her young and prosperous existence, and from her fervent imagination. In the casket-scene, she fears indeed the issue of the trial; on which more than her life is hazarded but while she trembles, her hope is stronger than her fear. While Bassanio is contemplating the caskets, she suffers herself to dwell for one moment on the possibility of disappointment and misery.

Let music sound while he doth make his choice; Then if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, Fading in music: that the comparison May stand more proper, my eye shall be the stream And watery death-bed for him.

Then, immediately follows that revulsion of feeling, so beautifully characteristic of the hopeful, trusting, mounting spirit of this noble creature.

But he may win! And what is music then?—then music is Even as the flourish, when true subjects bow To a new-crowned monarch: such it is As are those dulcet sounds at break of day, That creep into the dreaming bridegroom's ear, And summon him to marriage. Now he goes With no less presence, but with much more love Than young Alcides, when he did redeem The virgin tribute paid by howling Troy To the sea monster. I stand here for sacrifice.

Here, not only the feeling itself, born of the elastic and sanguine spirit which had never been touched by grief, but the images in which it comes arrayed to her fancy,—the bridegroom waked by music on his wedding-morn,—the new-crowned monarch,—the comparison of Bassanio to the young Alcides, and of herself to the daughter of Laomedon,—are all precisely what would have suggested themselves to the fine poetical imagination of Portia in such a moment.

Her passionate exclamations of delight, when Bassanio has fixed on the right casket, are as strong as though she had despaired before. Fear and doubt she could repel; the native elasticity of her mind bore up against them; yet she makes us feel, that, as the sudden joy overpowers her almost to fainting, the disappointment would as certainly have killed her.

How all the other passions fleet to air, As doubtful thoughts, and rash-embraced despair, And shudd'ring fear, and green-eyed jealousy? O love! be moderate, allay thy ecstasy; In measure rain thy joy scant this excess; I feel too much thy blessing: make it less, For fear I surfeit!

Her subsequent surrender of herself in heart and soul, of her maiden freedom, and her vast possessions, can never be read without deep emotions; for not only all the tenderness and delicacy of a devoted woman, are here blended with all the dignity which becomes the princely heiress of Belmont, but the serious, measured self-possession of her address to her lover, when all suspense is over, and all concealment superfluous, is most beautifully consistent with the character. It is, in truth, an awful moment, that in which a gifted woman first discovers, that besides talents and powers, she has also passions and affections; when she first begins to suspect their vast importance in the sum of her existence; when she first confesses that her happiness is no longer in her own keeping, but is surrendered forever and forever into the dominion of another! The possession of uncommon powers of mind are so far from affording relief or resource in the first intoxicating surprise—I had almost said terror—of such a revolution, that they render it more intense. The sources of thought multiply beyond calculation the sources of feeling; and mingled, they rush together, a torrent deep as strong. Because Portia is endued with that enlarged comprehension which looks before and after, she does not feel the less, but the more: because from the height of her commanding intellect she can contemplate the force, the tendency, the consequences of her own sentiments—because she is fully sensible of her own situation, and the value of all she concedes—the concession is not made with less entireness and devotion of heart, less confidence in the truth and worth of her lover, than when Juliet, in a similar moment, but without any such intrusive reflections—any check but the instinctive delicacy of her sex, flings herself and her fortunes at the feet of her lover:

And all my fortunes at thy foot I'll lay, And follow thee, my lord, through all the world.[11]

In Portia's confession, which is not breathed from a moonlit balcony, but spoken openly in the presence of her attendants and vassals, there is nothing of the passionate self-abandonment of Juliet, nor of the artless simplicity of Miranda, but a consciousness and a tender seriousness, approaching to solemnity, which are not less touching.

You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand, Such as I am: though for myself alone, I would not be ambitious in my wish, To wish myself much better; yet, for you, I would be trebled twenty times myself; A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times More rich; that only to stand high in your account, I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends, Exceed account; but the full sum of me Is sum of something; which to term in gross, Is an unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractis'd, Happy in this, she is not yet so old But she may learn; and happier than this, She is not bred so dull but she can learn; Happiest of all is, that her gentle spirit Commits itself to yours to be directed, As from her lord, her governor, her king. Myself and what is mine, to you and yours Is now converted. But now, I was the lord, Of this fair mansion, master of my servants, Queen o'er myself; and even now, but now, This house, these servants, and this same myself, Are yours, my lord.

We must also remark that the sweetness, the solicitude, the subdued fondness which she afterwards displays, relative to the letter, are as true to the softness of her sex, as the generous self-denial with which she urges the departure of Bassanio, (having first given him a husband's right over herself and all her countless wealth,) is consistent with a reflecting mind, and a spirit at once tender, reasonable, and magnanimous.

It is not only in the trial scene that Portia's acuteness, eloquence, and lively intelligence are revealed to us; they are displayed in the first instance, and kept up consistently to the end. Her reflections, arising from the most usual aspects of nature, and from the commonest incidents of life are in such a poetical spirit, and are at the same time so pointed, so profound, that they have passed into familiar and daily application, with all the force of proverbs.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse