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Bonnie Shaljean BS: shakespeare (154* d) RE: BS: shakespeare 04 Feb 19

I've been reading Macaulay's essays, in pursuit of Fanny Burney through Napoleonic France, and happened upon the passage below. Sorry for another long quote (I typed it out myself from Victorian text, if that helps any...) but it perfectly expresses my reverence for Shakespeare's innate understanding of the complex blend of subliminal subtleties that go to make up a human psyche - what Keats called negative capability. (The world today is suffering from a woeful lack of this quality, and just look how that's played out across the globe.)

To define Shakespeare by a single political ideology and then judge him only through that lens is like assessing the paintings of Rembrandt or Turner by viewing them solely in a three-inch black-&-white snapshot.

Macaulay writes:

Highest among those who have exhibited human nature by means of dialogue stands Shakespeare. His variety is like the variety of nature, endless diversity, scarcely any monstrosity. The characters, of which he has given us an impression as vivid as that which we receive from... our own associates, are to be reckoned by scores. Yet in all these scores hardly one character is to be found which deviates widely from the common standard, and which we should call very eccentric if we met it in real life.

The silly notion that every man [or playwright - bs] has one ruling passion, and that this clue, once known, unravels all the mysteries of his conduct, finds no countenance in the plays of Shakespeare. There, man appears as he is, made up of a crowd of passions, which contend for the mastery over him, and govern him in turn... Take a single example - Shylock. Is he so eager for money as to be indifferent to revenge? Or so eager for revenge as to be indifferent to money? Or so bent on both together as to be indifferent to the honour of his nation and the law of Moses? All his propensities are mingled with each other; so that, in trying to apportion to each its proper part, we find the same difficulty which constantly meets us in real life. A superficial critic may say that hatred is Shylock's ruling passion. But how many passions have amalgamated to form that hatred? It is partly the result of wounded pride: Antonio has called him dog. It is partly the result of covetousness: Antonio has hindered him of half a million, and, when Antonio is gone, there will be no limit to the gains of usury. It is partly the result of national and religious feeling: Antonio has spit on the Jewish gabardine; and the oath of revenge has been sworn by the Jewish Sabbath.

We might go through all the characters which we have mentioned, and through fifty more in the same way; for it is the constant manner of Shakespeare to represent the human mind as lying not under the absolute dominion of one domestic propensity, but under a mixed government, in which a hundred powers balance each other. Admirable as he was in all parts of his art, we most admire him for this: that while he has left us a greater number of striking portraits than all the other dramatists put together, he has scarcely left us a single caricature. Shakespeare has had neither equal nor second.

- - -

Essays, Critical and Miscellaneous, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859)
Publ. Phillips, Sampson & Co., Boston USA, 1856

Free download from if anybody's interested. I can't get the EPub or Kindle links to work, but the PDF one does (though it takes awhile). The above excerpt is on digital page 605, printed page 589. There's some great stuff in there.

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