From Review of Hazlitt’s ’characters of Shakespear’s Plays’

Author: Francis Jeffrey  | Date: 1817

From Review of Hazlitt’s ’Characters of Shakespear’s Plays’

in ’The Edinburgh Review’ for August 1817 *001

by Francis Jeffrey

THE book, as we have already intimated, is written less to tell the reader what Mr. H.2knows 4 about Shakespeare or his writings, than to explain to them what he2feels 4 about them- and2why 4 he feels so- and thinks that all who profess to love poetry should feel so likewise. What we chiefly look for in such a work, accordingly, is a fine sense of the beauties of the author and an eloquent exposition of them; and all this, and more, we think, may be found in the volume before us. There is nothing niggardly in Mr. H.’s praises, and nothing affected in his raptures. He seems animated throughout with a full and hearty sympathy with the delight which his author should inspire, and pours himself gladly out in explanation of it, with a fluency and ardour, obviously much more akin to enthusiasm than affectation. He seems pretty generally, indeed, in a state of happy intoxication- and has borrowed from his great original, not indeed the force or brilliancy of his fancy, but something of its playfulness, and a large share of his apparent joyousness and self-indulgence in its exercise. It is evidently a great pleasure to him to be fully possessed with the beauties of his author, and to follow the impulse of his unrestrained eagerness to impress them upon his readers.

When we have said that his observations are generally right, we have said, in substance, that they are not generally original; for the beauties of Shakespeare are not of so dim or equivocal a nature as to be visible only to learned eyes- and undoubtedly his finest passages are those which please all classes of readers, and are admired for the same qualities by judges from every school of criticism. Even with regard to those passages, however, a skilful commentator will find something worth hearing to tell. Many persons are very sensible of the effect of fine poetry on their feelings, who do not well know how to refer these feelings to their causes; and it is always a delightful thing to be made to see clearly the sources from which our delight has proceeded- and to trace back the mingled stream that has flowed upon our hearts, to the remoter fountains from which it has been gathered. And when this is done with warmth as well as precision, and embodied in an eloquent description of the beauty which is explained, it forms one of the most attractive, and not the least instructive, of literary exercises. In all works of merit, however, and especially in all works of original genius, there are a thousand retiring and less obtrusive graces, which escape hasty and superficial observers, and only give out their beauties to fond and patient contemplation;- a thousand slight and harmonizing touches, the merit and the effect of which are equally imperceptible to vulgar eyes; and a thousand indications of the continual presence of that poetical spirit, which can only be recognised by those who are in some measure under its influence, or have prepared themselves to receive it, by worshipping meekly at the shrines which it inhabits.

In the exposition of these, there is room enough for originality,- and more room than Mr. H. has yet filled. In many points, however, he has acquitted himself excellently;- partly in the development of the principal characters with which Shakespeare has peopled the fancies of all English readers- but principally, we think, in the delicate sensibility with which he has traced, and the natural eloquence with which he has pointed out that fond familiarity with beautiful forms and images- that eternal recurrence to what is sweet or majestic in the simple aspects of nature- that indestructible love of flowers and odours, and dews and clear waters, and soft airs and sounds, and bright skies, and woodland solitudes, and moonlight bowers, which are the Material elements of Poetry- and that fine sense of their undefinable relation to mental emotion, which is its essence and vivifying Soul- and which, in the midst of Shakespeare’s most busy and atrocious scenes, falls like gleams of sunshine on rocks and ruins- contrasting with all that is rugged and repulsive, and reminding us of the existence of purer and brighter elements!- which HE ALONE has poured out from the richness of his own mind, without effort or restraint; and contrived to intermingle with the play of all the passions, and the vulgar course of this world’s affairs, without deserting for an instant the proper business of the scene, or appearing to pause or digress, from love of ornament or need of repose!- HE ALONE, who, when the object requires it, is always keen and worldly and practical- and who yet, without changing his hand, or stopping his course, scatters around him, as he goes, all sounds and shapes of sweetness- and conjures up landscapes of immortal fragrance and freshness, and peoples them with Spirits of glorious aspect and attractive grace- and is a thousand times more full of fancy and imagery, and splendour, than those who, in pursuit of such enchantments, have shrunk back from the delineation of character or passion, and declined the discussion of human duties and cares. More full of wisdom and ridicule and sagacity, than all the moralists and satirists that ever existed- he is more wild, airy, and inventive, and more pathetic and fantastic, than all the poets of all regions and ages of the world:- and has all those elements so happily mixed up in him, and bears his high faculties so temperately, that the most severe reader cannot complain of him for want of strength or of reason- nor the most sensitive for defect of ornament or ingenuity. Every thing in him is in unmeasured abundance, and unequalled perfection- but every thing so balanced and kept in subordination, as not to jostle or disturb or take the place of another. The most exquisite poetical conceptions, images, and descriptions, are given with such brevity, and introduced with such skill, as merely to adorn, without loading the sense they accompany. Although his sails are purple and perfumed, and his prow of beaten gold, they waft him on his voyage, not less, but more rapidly and directly than if they had been composed of baser materials. All his excellences, like those of Nature herself, are thrown out together; and instead of interfering with, support and recommend each other. His flowers are not tied up in garlands, nor his fruits crushed into baskets- but spring living from the soil, in all the dew and freshness of youth; with the graceful foliage in which they lurk, and the ample branches, the rough and vigorous stem, and the wide-spreading roots on which they depend, are present along with them, and share, in their places, the equal care of their Creator.

What other poet has put all the charm of a Moonlight landscape into a single line?- and that by an image so true to nature, and so simple, as to seem obvious to the most common observation?-

See how the Moonlight SLEEPS on yonder bank!

Who else has expressed, in three lines, all that is picturesque and lovely in a Summer’s Dawn?- first setting before our eyes, with magical precision, the visible appearances of the infant light, and then, by one graceful and glorious image, pouring on our souls all the freshness, cheerfulness, and sublimity of returning morning?-

See, love! what envious streaks

Do lace the severing clouds in yonder East!

Night’s candles *002 are burnt out,- and jocund Day

Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops!

Where shall we find sweet sounds and odours so luxuriously blended and illustrated, as in these few words of sweetness and melody, where the author says of soft music-

O it came o’er my ear like the sweet South

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour!

This is still finer, we think, than the noble speech on Music in the

$Merchant of Venice, 4 and only to be compared with the enchantments of Prospero’s island; where all the effects of sweet sounds are expressed in miraculous numbers, and traced in their operation on all the gradations of being, from the delicate Ariel to the brutish Caliban, who, savage as he is, is still touched with those supernatural harmonies; and thus exhorts his less poetical associates-

Be not afraid, the isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices,

That if I then had waked after long sleep,

Would make me sleep again.

Observe, too, that this and the other poetical speeches of this incarnate demon, are not mere ornaments of the poet’s fancy, but explain his character and describe his situation more briefly and effectually, than any other words could have done. In this play, indeed, and in the2Midsummer-Night’s Dream, 4 all Eden is unlocked before us, and the whole treasury of natural and supernatural beauty poured out profusely, to the delight of all our faculties. We dare not trust ourselves with quotations; but we refer to those plays generally- to the forest scenes in2As You Like It 4- the rustic parts of the2Winter’s Tale 4- several entire scenes in2Cymbeline, 4 and in2Romeo and Juliet 4- and many passages in all the other plays- as illustrating this love of nature and natural beauty of which we have been speaking- the power it had over the poet, and the power it imparted to him. Who else would have thought, on the very threshold of treason and midnight murder, of bringing in so sweet and rural an image as this, at the portal of that blood-stained castle of Macbeth?

This guest of summer,

The temple-haunting martlet, does approve

By his loved masonry that heaven’s breath

Smells wooingly here. No jutting frieze,

Buttress, nor coigne of vantage, but this bird

Has made his pendent bed, and procreant cradle.

Nor is this brought in for the sake of an elaborate contrast between the peaceful innocence of this exterior, and the guilt and horrors that are to be enacted within. There is no hint of any such suggestion- but it is set down from the pure love of nature and reality- because the kindled mind of the poet brought the whole scene before his eyes, and he painted all that he saw in his vision. The same taste predominates in that emphatic exhortation to evil, where Lady Macbeth says,

Look like the innocent flower,

But be the serpent under it.

And in that proud boast of the bloody Richard-

But I was2born 4 so high:

Our aery buildeth in the cedar’s top,

And dallies with the wind, and scorns the sun!

The same splendour of natural imagery, brought simple and directly to bear upon stern and repulsive passions, is to be found in the cynic rebukes of Apemantus to Timon.

Will these moist trees

That have out-liv’d the eagle, page thy heels,

And skip when thou point’st out? will the cold brook,

Candied with ice, caudle thy morning taste

To cure thine o’er-night’s surfeit?

No one but Shakespeare would have thought of putting this noble picture into the taunting address of a snappish misanthrope- any more than the following into the mouth of a mercenary murderer.

Their lips were four red roses on a stalk,

And2in their summer beauty 4 kissed each other!

Or this delicious description of concealed love, into that of a regretful and moralizing parent.

But he, his own affections’ Counsellor,

Is to himself so secret and so close,

As is the bud bit with an envious worm

Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air,

Or dedicate his beauty to the sun.

And yet all these are so far from being unnatural, that they are no sooner put where they are, than we feel at once their beauty and their effect; and acknowledge our obligations to that exuberant genius which alone could thus throw out graces and attractions where there seemed to be neither room nor call for them. In the same spirit of prodigality he puts this rapturous and passionate exaltation of the beauty of Imogen, into the mouth of one who is not even a lover.

-It is her breathing that

Perfumes the chamber thus! the flame o’ th’ taper

Bows towards her! and would under-peep her lids

To see th’ enclosed lights, now canopied

Under the windows, white and azure, laced

With blue of Heaven’s own tinct!- on her left breast

A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops

I’ the bottom of a cowslip!



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Chicago: Francis Jeffrey, "From Review of Hazlitt’s ’characters of Shakespear’s Plays’," From Review of Hazlitt’s ’characters of Shakespear’s Plays’ Original Sources, accessed December 7, 2022,

MLA: Jeffrey, Francis. "From Review of Hazlitt’s ’characters of Shakespear’s Plays’." From Review of Hazlitt’s ’characters of Shakespear’s Plays’, Original Sources. 7 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Jeffrey, F, 'From Review of Hazlitt’s ’characters of Shakespear’s Plays’' in From Review of Hazlitt’s ’characters of Shakespear’s Plays’. Original Sources, retrieved 7 December 2022, from