Who taught you this?
I learn’d it out of women’s faces.
Winter’s Tale, Act ii. scene 1.
One occasionally hears the remark, that the commentators upon Shakspere find far more in Shakspere than Shakspere ever intended to express. Taking this assertion as it stands, it may be freely granted, not only of Shakspere, but of every writer of genius. But if it be intended by it, that nothing can exist in any work of art beyond what the writer was conscious of while in the act of producing it, so much of its scope is false.
No artist can have such a claim to the high title of creator, as that he invents for himself the forms, by means of which he produces his new result; and all the forms of man and nature which he modifies and combines to make a new region in his world of art, have their own original life and meaning. The laws likewise of their various combinations are natural laws, harmonious with each other. While, therefore, the artist employs many or few of their original aspects for his immediate purpose, he does not and cannot thereby deprive them of the many more which are essential to their vitality, and the vitality likewise of his presentation of them, although they form only the background from which his peculiar use of them stands out. The objects presented must therefore fall, to the eye of the observant reader, into many different combinations and harmonies of operation and result, which are indubitably there, whether the writer saw them or not. These latent combinations and relations will be numerous and true, in proportion to the scope and the truth of the representation; and the greater the number of meanings, harmonious with each other, which any work of art presents, the greater claim it has to be considered a work of genius. It must, therefore, be granted, and that joyfully, that there may be meanings in Shakspere’s writings which Shakspere himself did not see, and to which therefore his art, as art, does not point.
But the probability, notwithstanding, must surely be allowed as well, that, in great artists, the amount of conscious art will bear some proportion to the amount of unconscious truth: the visible volcanic light will bear a true relation to the hidden fire of the globe; so that it will not seem likely that, in such a writer as Shakspere, we should find many indications of present and operative art, of which he was himself unaware. Some truths may be revealed through him, which he himself knew only potentially; but it is not likely that marks of work, bearing upon the results of the play, should be fortuitous, or that the work thus indicated should be unconscious work. A stroke of the mallet may be more effective than the sculptor had hoped; but it was intended. In the drama it is easier to discover individual marks of the chisel, than in the marble whence all signs of such are removed: in the drama the lines themselves fall into the general finish, without necessary obliteration as lines: Still, the reader cannot help being fearful, lest, not as regards truth only, but as regards art as well, he be sometimes clothing the idol of his intellect with the weavings of his fancy. My conviction is, that it is the very consummateness of Shakspere’s art, that exposes his work to the doubt that springs from loving anxiety for his honour; the dramatist, like the sculptor, avoiding every avoidable hint of the process, in order to render the result a vital whole. But, fortunately, we are not left to argue entirely from probabilities. He has himself given us a peep into his studio–let me call it workshop, as more comprehensive.
It is not, of course, in the shape of literary criticism, that we should expect to meet such a revelation; for to use art even consciously, and to regard it as an object of contemplation, or to theorize about it, are two very different mental operations. The productive and critical faculties are rarely found in equal combination; and even where they are, they cannot operate equally in regard to the same object. There is a perfect satisfaction in producing, which does not demand a re-presentation to the critical faculty. In other words, the criticism which a great writer brings to bear upon his own work, is from within, regarding it upon the hidden side, namely, in relation to his own idea; whereas criticism, commonly understood, has reference to the side turned to the public gaze. Neither could we expect one so prolific as Shakspere to find time for the criticism of the works of other men, except in such moments of relaxation as those in which the friends at the Mermaid Tavern sat silent beneath the flow of his wisdom and humour, or made the street ring with the overflow of their own enjoyment.