A fugitive writer wrote not long ago on the fugitive page of a magazine: “For our part, the drunken tinker [Christopher Sly] is the most real personage of the piece, and not without some hints of the pathos that is worked out more fully, though by different ways, in Bottom and Malvolio.” Has it indeed come to this? Have the Zeitgeist and the Weltschmerz or their yet later equivalents, compared with which “le spleen” of the French Byronic age was gay, done so much for us? Is there to be no laughter left in literature free from the preoccupation of a sham real-life? So it would seem. Even what the great master has not shown us in his work, that your critic convinced of pathos is resolved to see in it. By the penetration of his intrusive sympathy he will come at it. It is of little use now to explain Snug the joiner to the audience: why, it is precisely Snug who stirs their emotions so painfully. Not the lion; they can make shift to see through that: but the Snug within, the human Snug. And Master Shallow has the Weltschmerz in that latent form which is the more appealing; and discouraging questions arise as to the end of old Double; and Harpagon is the tragic figure of Monomania; and as to Argan, ah, what havoc in “les entrailles de Monsieur” must have been wrought by those prescriptions! Et patati, etpatata.
It may be only too true that the actual world is “with pathos delicately edged.” For Malvolio living we should have had living sympathies; so much aspiration, so ill-educated a love of refinement; so unarmed a credulity, noblest of weaknesses, betrayed for the laughter of a chambermaid. By an actual Bottom the weaver our pity might be reached for the sake of his single self-reliance, his fancy and resource condemned to burlesque and ignominy by the niggard doom of circumstance. But is not life one thing and is not art another? Is it not the privilege of literature to treat things singly, without the after-thoughts of life, without the troublous completeness of the many-sided world? Is not Shakespeare, for this reason, our refuge? Fortunately unreal is his world when he will have it so; and there we may laugh with open heart at a grotesque man: without misgiving, without remorse, without reluctance. If great creating Nature has not assumed for herself she has assuredly secured to the great creating poet the right of partiality, of limitation, of setting aside and leaving out, of taking one impression and one emotion as sufficient for the day. Art and Nature are complementary; in relation, not in confusion, with one another. And all this officious cleverness in seeing round the corner, as it were, of a thing presented by literary art in the flat—(the borrowing of similes from other arts is of evil tendency; but let this pass, as it is apt)—is but another sign of the general lack of a sense of the separation between Nature and her sentient mirror in the mind. In some of his persons, indeed, Shakespeare is as Nature herself, all-inclusive; but in others—and chiefly in comedy—he is partial, he is impressionary, he refuses to know what is not to his purpose, he is light-heartedly capricious. And in that gay, wilful world it is that he gives us—or used to give us, for even the word is obsolete—the pleasure ofoubliance.
Now this fugitive writer has not been so swift but that I have caught him a clout as he went. Yet he will do it again; and those like-minded will assuredly also continue to show how much more completely human, how much more sensitive, how much more responsible, is the art of the critic than the world has ever dreamt till now. And, superior in so much, they will still count their importunate sensibility as the choicest of their gifts. And Lepidus, who loves to wonder, can have no better subject for his admiration than the pathos of the time. It is bred now of your mud by the operation of your sun. ’Tis a strange serpent; and the tears of it are wet.