II

It was past twelve o’clock when I awoke, and the sun was streaming in through the curtains of my room in long dusty beams of tremulous gold. I told my servant that I would not be at home to any one, and after I had discussed a cup of chocolate and a petit-pain, I took out of the library my copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, [and Mr Tyler’s facsimile edition of the Quarto,] and began to go carefully through them. Each poem seemed to me to corroborate Cyril Graham’s theory. I felt as if I had my hand upon Shakespeare’s heart, and was counting each separate throb and pulse of passion. I thought of the wonderful boy- actor, and saw his face in every line.

[Previous to this, in my Lord Pembroke days, if I may so term them, I must admit that it had always seemed to me very difficult to understand how the creator of Hamlet and Lear and Othello could have addressed in such extravagant terms of praise and passion one who was merely an ordinary young nobleman of the day. Along with most students of Shakespeare, I had found myself compelled to set the Sonnets apart as things quite alien to Shakespeare’s development as a dramatist, as things possibly unworthy of the intellectual side of his nature. But now that I began to realise the truth of Cyril Graham’s theory, I saw that the moods and passions they mirrored were absolutely essential to Shakespeare’s perfection as an artist writing for the Elizabethan stage, and that it was in the curious theatre conditions of that stage that the poems themselves had their origin. I remember what joy I had in feeling that these wonderful Sonnets,

“Subtle as Sphinx; as sweet and musical

As bright Apollo’s lute, strung with his hair,”

were no longer isolated from the great aesthetic energies of Shakespeare’s life, but were an essential part of his dramatic activity, and revealed to us something of the secret of his method. To have discovered the true name of Mr W. H. was comparatively nothing: others might have done that,had perhaps done it: but to have discovered his profession was a revolution in criticism.]

Two sonnets I remember, struck me particularly<: they were the 53rd and the 67th>. In the first of these [(LIII)] Shakespeare, complimenting Willie Hughes on the versatility of his acting, on his wide range of parts, a range extending, as we know, from Rosalind to Juliet, and from Beatrice to Ophelia, says to him: —

What is your substance, whereof are you made.

That millions of strange shadows on you tend?

Since every one hath, every one, one shade.

And you, but one, can every shadow lend—

lines that would be unintelligible if they were not addressed to an actor, for the word “shadow” had in Shakespeare’s day a technical meaning connected with the stage. “The best in this kind are but shadows,” says Theseus of the actors in the “Midsummer Night’s Dream”;

[“Life’s but a walking shadow, and poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

cries Macbeth in the moment of his despair,] and there are many similar allusions in the literature of the day. <These sonnets> [This sonnet] evidently belonged to the series in which Shakespeare discusses the nature of the actor’s art, and of the strange and rare temperament that is essential to the perfect stage-player. “How is it,” says Shakespeare to Willie Hughes, “that you have so many personalities?” and then he goes on to point out that his beauty is such that it seems to realise every form and phase of fancy, to embody each dream of the creative imagination, — an idea that is still further expanded in the sonnet that immediately follows, where, beginning with the fine thought,

“O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem

By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!”

Shakespeare invites us to notice how the truth of acting, the truth of visible presentation on the stage, adds to the wonder of poetry, giving life to its loveliness, and actual reality to its ideal form. And yet, in <the 67th Sonnet> [Sonnet LXVII], Shakespeare calls upon Willie Hughes to abandon the stage with its artificiality, its <false mimic> [unreal] life of painted face and <unreal> [mimic] costume, its immoral influences and suggestions, its remoteness from the true world of noble action and sincere utterance.

Ah, wherefore with infection should he live,

And with his presence grace impiety,

That sin by him advantage should receive.

And lace itself with his society?

Why should false painting imitate his cheek,

And steal dead seeing of his living hue?

Why should poor beauty indirectly seek

Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?

It may seem strange that so great a dramatist as Shakespeare, who realised his own perfection as an artist and his full humanity as a man on the ideal plane of stage-writing and stage-playing, should have written in these terms about the theatre; but we must remember that in Sonnets CX and CXI, Shakespeare shows us that he too was wearied of the world of puppets, and full of shame at having made himself “a motley to the view.” Sonnet CXI is especially bitter: —

O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide.

The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds.

That did not better for my life provide

Than public means which public manners breeds.

Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,

And almost thence my nature is subdued

To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand:

Pity me, then, and wish I were renewed —”

and there are many signs of the same feeling elsewhere, signs familiar to all real students of Shakespeare.

One point puzzled me immensely as I read the Sonnets, and it was days before I struck on the true interpretation, which indeed Cyril Graham himself seemed to have missed. I could not understand how it was that Shakespeare set so high a value on his young friend marrying. He himself had married young and the result had been unhappiness, and it was not likely that he would have asked Willie Hughes to commit the same error. The boy-player of Rosalind had nothing to gain from marriage, or from the passions of real life. The early sonnets with their strange entreaties to love children seemed to be a jarring note.

The explanation of the mystery came on me quite suddenly and I found it in the curious dedication.

It will be remembered that this dedication was as follows: —

“TO . THE . ONLIE . BEGETTER . OF .

THESE . INSUING . SONNETS .

MR.W.H. ALL . HAPPINESSE .

AND . THAT . ETERNITIE .

PROMISED . BY .

OUR . EVER-LIVING . POET.

WISHETH .

THE . WELL-WISHING .

ADVENTURER . IN .

SETTING .

FORTH.

T. T .”

Some scholars have supposed that the word “begetter” here means simply the procurer of the Sonnets for Thomas Thorpe the publisher; but this view is now generally abandoned, and the highest authorities are quite agreed that it is to be taken in the sense of inspirer, the metaphor being drawn from the analogy of physical life. Now I saw that the same metaphor was used by Shakespeare himself all through the poems, and this set me on the right track. Finally I made my great discovery. The marriage that Shakespeare proposes for Willie Hughes is the “marriage with his Muse,”an expression which is definitely put forward in Sonnet LXXXII where, in the bitterness of his heart at the defection of the boy-actor for whom he had written his greatest parts, and whose beauty had indeed suggested them, he opens his complaint by saying —

I grant thou wert not married to my Muse.

The children he begs him to beget are no children of flesh and blood, but more immortal children of undying fame. The whole cycle of the early sonnets is simply Shakespeare’s invitation to Willie Hughes to go upon the stage and become a player. How barren and profitless a thing, he says, is this beauty of yours if it be not used:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow.

And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,

Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,

Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held:

Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,

Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,

To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,

Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.

You must create something in art: my verse “is thine and born of thee”; only listen to me, and I will

“bring forth eternal numbers to outlive long date,

and you shall people with forms of your own image the imaginary world of the stage. These children that you beget, he continues, will not wither away, as mortal children do, but you shall live in them and in my plays : do but —

Make thee another self, for love of me,

That beauty still may live in thine or thee!

[Be not afraid to surrender your personality, to give your “semblance to some other”:

To give away yourself keeps yourself still,

And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

I may not be learned in astrology, and yet, in those  “constant stars” your eyes,

I read such art

As truth and beauty shall together thrive,

If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert.

What does it matter about others?

Let those whom Nature hath not made for store,

Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish”

With you it is different, Nature —

carv’d thee for her seal, and meant thereby

Thou shouldst print more, nor let that copy die.

Remember, too, how soon Beauty forsakes itself. Its action is no stronger than a flower, and like a flower it lives and dies. Think of “the stormy gusts of winter’s day,” of the “barren edge of Death’s eternal cold,” and —

ere thou be distilled.

Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place

With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-killed.

Why, even flowers do not altogether die. When roses wither,

Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made:”

and you who are “my rose” should not pass away without leaving your form in Art. For Art has the very secret of joy.

Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,

If ten of thine ten times refigur’d thee.

You do not require the “bastard signs of fair,” the painted face, the fantastic disguises of other actors:

… the golden tresses of the dead.

The right of sepulchres,

need not be shorn away for you. In you —

. . those holy antique hours are seen,

Without all ornament, itself and true,

Making no summer of another s green.

All that is necessary is to “copy what in you is writ”; to place you on the stage as you are in actual life. All those ancient poets who have written of “ladies dead and lovely knights” have been dreaming of such a one as you, and —

All their praises are but prophecies

Of this our time, all you prefiguring.

For your beauty seems to belong to all ages and to all lands. Your shade comes to visit me at night, but, I want to look upon your “shadow” in the living day, I want to see you upon the stage. Mere description of you will not suffice:

If I could write the beauty of your eyes,

And in fresh numbers number all your graces.

The age to come would say, ‘This poet lies;

Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.

It is necessary that “some child of yours,” some artistic creation that embodies you, and to which your imagination gives life, shall present you to the world’s wondering eyes. Your own thoughts are your children, offspring of sense and spirit; give some expression to them, and you shall find —

Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain.

My thoughts, also, are my “children.” They are of your begetting and my brain is—

“the womb wherein they grew.”

For this great friendship of ours is indeed a marriage, it is the “marriage of true minds.”]

I collected together all the passages that seemed to me to corroborate this view, and they produced a strong impression on me, and showed me how complete Cyril Graham’s theory really was. I also saw that it was quite easy to separate those lines in which Shakespeare speaks of the Sonnets themselves, from those in which he speaks of his great dramatic work. This was a point that had been entirely overlooked by all critics up to Cyril Graham’s day. And yet it was one of the most important in the whole series of poems. To the Sonnets Shakespeare was more or less indifferent. He did not wish to rest his fame on them. They were to him his “slight Muse,” as he calls them, and intended, as Meres tells us, for private circulation only among a few, a very few, friends. Upon the other hand he was extremely conscious of the high artistic value of his plays, and shows a noble self-reliance upon his dramatic genius. When he says to Willie Hughes:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade.

When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see.

So long lives this and this gives life to thee; —”

the expression “eternal lines” clearly alludes to one of his plays that he was sending him at the time, just as the concluding couplet points to his confidence in the probability of his plays being always acted. In his address to the Dramatic Muse (Sonnets C and CI) we find the same feeling:

Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long

To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?

Spend’st thou thy fury on some worthless song.

Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?

he cries, and he then proceeds to reproach the mistress of Tragedy and Comedy for her “neglect of truth in beauty dyed,” and says —

Because he needs no praise, wilt thou be dumb?

Excuse not silence so; for ‘t lies in thee

To make him much outlive a gilded tomb.

And to be praised of ages yet to be.

Then do thy office, Muse, I teach thee how.

To make him seem long hence as he shows now.

It is, however, perhaps in Sonnet LV that Shakespeare gives to this idea its fullest expression. To imagine that the “powerful rhyme” of the second line refers to the sonnet itself was entirely to mistake Shakespeare’s meaning. It seemed to me that it was extremely likely, from the general character of the sonnet, that a particular play was meant, and that the play was none other but “Romeo and Juliet.”

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme;

But you shall shine more bright in these contents

Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.

When wasteful war shall statues overturn,

And broils root out the work of masonry,

Not Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn

The living record of your memory.

‘Gainst death and ail’oblivious enmity

Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room

Even in the eyes of all posterity

That wear this world out to the ending doom.

So, till the judgment that yourself arise.

You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

It was also very suggestive to note how here as elsewhere Shakespeare promised Willie Hughes immortality in a form that appealed to men’s eyes — that is to say, in a spectacular form, in a play that is to be looked at.

For two weeks I worked hard at the Sonnets, hardly ever going out, and refusing all invitations. Every day I seemed to be discovering something new, and Willie Hughes became to me a kind of spiritual presence, an ever-dominant personality. I could almost fancy that I saw him standing in the shadow of my room, so well had Shakespeare drawn him, with his golden hair, his tender flower-like grace, his dreamy deep-sunken eyes, his delicate mobile limbs, and his white lily hands. His very name fascinated me. Willie Hughes! Willie Hughes! How musically it sounded! Yes; who else but he could have been the master-mistress of Shakespeare’s passion, the lord of his love to whom he was bound in vassalage, the delicate minion of pleasure, the rose of the whole world, the herald of the spring, decked in the proud livery of youth, the lovely boy whom it was sweet music to hear, and whose beauty was the very raiment of Shakespeare’s heart, as it was the keystone of his dramatic power? How bitter now seemed the whole tragedy of his desertion and his shame! — shame that he made sweet and lovely by the mere magic of his personality, but that was none the less shame. Yet as Shakespeare forgave him, should not we forgive him also? I did not care to pry into the mystery of his sin [or of the sin, if such it was, of the great poet who had so dearly loved him. “I am that I am,” said Shakespeare in a sonnet of noble scorn, —

I am that I am, and they that level

At my abuses reckon up their own;

I may be straight, though they themselves be bevel;

By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown.”]

Willie Hughes’ abandonment of Shakespeare’s theatre was a different matter, and I investigated it at great length. Finally I came to the conclusion that Cyril Graham had been wrong in regarding the rival dramatist of Sonnet LXXX as Chapman. It was obviously Marlowe who was alluded to. At the time the Sonnets were written, which must have been between 1590 and 1595, such an expression as “the proud full sail of his great verse” could not possibly have been used of Chapman’s work, however applicable it might have been to the style of his later Jacobean plays. No; Marlowe was clearly the rival poet of whom Shakespeare spoke in such laudatory terms; the hymn he wrote in Willie Hughes’ honour was the unfinished “Hero and Leander,” and that

Affable familiar ghost

Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,

was the Mephistophilis of his Doctor Faustus. No doubt, Marlowe was fascinated by the beauty and grace of the boy-actor, and lured him away from the Blackfriars Theatre, that he might play the Gaveston of his “Edward II.” That Shakespeare had some legal right to retain Willie Hughes in his own company seems evident from Sonnet LXXXVII, where

he says: —

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing.

And like enough thou know’st thy estimate:

The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;

My bonds in thee are all determinate.

For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?

And for that riches where is my deserving?

The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,

And so my patent back again is swerving.

Thyself thou gav’st, thy own’ worth then not knowing,

Or me, to whom thou gav’st it, else mistaking;

So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,

Comes home again, on better judgment making.

Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,

In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

But him whom he could not hold by love, he would not hold by force. Willie Hughes became a member of Lord Pembroke’s company, and perhaps in the open yard of the Red Bull Tavern, played the part of King Edward’s delicate minion. On Marlowe’s death, he seems to have returned to Shakespeare, who, whatever his fellow-partners may have thought of the matter, was not slow to forgive the wilfulness and treachery of the young actor.

How well, too, had Shakespeare drawn the temperament of the stage-player! Willie Hughes was one of those —

That do not do the thing they most do show,

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone.

He could act love, but could not feel it, could mimic passion without realising it.

In many’s looks the false heart’s history

Is writ in moods and frowns and wrinkles strange,

but with Willie Hughes it was not so. “Heaven,” says Shakespeare, in a sonnet of mad idolatry —

Heaven in thy creation did decree

That in thy face sweet love should ever dwell;

Whatever thy thoughts or thy heart’s workings be.

Thy looks should nothing thence but sweetness tell.

In his “inconstant mind” and his “false heart” it was easy to recognise the insincerity that somehow seems inseparable from the artistic nature, as in his love of praise, that desire for immediate recognition that characterises all actors. And yet, more fortuate in this than other actors, Willie Hughes was to know something of immortality. Intimately connected with Shakespeare’s plays, he was to live in them, and by their production.

Your name from hence immortal life shall have.

Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:

The earth can yield me but a common grave.

When you entombed in men s eyes shall lie.

Your monument shall be my gentle verse.

Which eyes not yet created shall o’er ‘read.

And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,

When all the breathers of this world are dead.

<There were endless allusions, also, to Willie Hughes’s power over his audience – the “gazers” as Shakespeare calls them; but perhaps the most perfect description of his wonderful mastery over dramatic art was in A Lover’s Complaint, where Shakespeare says of him: —

“In him a plentitude of subtle matter,

Applied to cautels, all strange forms receives,>

Of burning blushes, or of weeping water,

Of swooning paleness; <and he takes and leaves,

In either’s atpness, as it best deceives,

To> blush at speeches rank, to weep at woes,

Or to turn white and swoon at tragic shows.

<……………………………………………………..

So on the tip of his subduing tongue,

All kinds of arguments and questions deep,

All replication prompt and reason strong,

For his advantage still did wake and sleep,

To make the weeper laugh, the laugher weep.

He had the dialect and the different skill,

Catching all passion in his craft of will.”

[Nash with his venomous tongue had railed against Shakespeare for “reposing eternity in the mouth of a player,” the reference being obviously to the Sonnets. But to Shakespeare, the actor was a deliberate and self-conscious fellow worker who gave form and substance to a poet’s fancy, and brought into Drama the elements of a noble realism. His silence could be as eloquent as words, and his gesture as expressive, and in those terrible moments of Titan agony or of god-like pain, when thought outstrips utterance, when the soul sick with excess of anguish stammers or is dumb, and the very raiment of speech is rent and torn by passion in its storm, then the actor could become, though it were but for a moment, a creative artist, and touch by his mere presence and personality those springs of terror and of pity to which tragedy appeals. This full recognition of the actor’s art, and of the actor’s power, was one of the things that distinguished the Romantic from the Classical Drama, and one of the things, consequently, that we owed to Shakespeare, who, fortunate in much, was fortunate also in this, that he was able to find Richard Burbage and to fashion Willie Hughes.

With what pleasure he dwelt upon Willie

Hughes’ influence over his audience — the “gazers” as he calls them; with what charm of fancy did he analyse the whole art! Even in the “Lover’s Complaint” he speaks of his acting, and tells us that he was of a nature so impressionable to the quality of dramatic situations that he could assume all “strange forms” —]

“Of burning blushes, or of weeping water.

Or swooning paleness:”

[explaining his meaning more fully later on where he tells us how Willie Hughes was able to deceive others by his wonderful power to —]

“Blush at speeches rank, to weep at woes,

Or to turn white and swoon at tragic shows.”

[It had never been pointed out before that the shepherd of this lovely pastoral, whose “youth in art and art in youth”* are described with such subtlety of phrase and passion, was none other than the Mr W. H. of the Sonnets. And yet there was no doubt that he was so. Not merely in personal appearance are the two lads the same, but their natures and temperaments are identical. When the false shepherd whispers to the fickle maid —

“All my offences that abroad you see

Are errors of the blood, none of the mind;

Love made them not:”

when he says of his lovers,

“Harm have I done to them, but ne’er was harmed;

Kept hearts in hveries, but mine own was free.

And reigned, commanding in his monarchy:”

when he tells us of the “deep-brained sonnets” that one of them had sent him, and cries out in boyish pride —

“The broken bosoms that to me belong

Have emptied all their fountains in my well:”

it is impossible not to feel that it is Willie Hughes who is speaking to us. “Deep-brained sonnets,” indeed, had Shakespeare brought him, “jewels” that to his careless eyes were but as “trifles,” though —

“each several stone,

With wit well blazoned, smiled or made some moan;”

and into the well of beauty he had emptied the sweet fountain of his song. That in both places it was an actor who was alluded to, was also clear. The betrayed nymph tells us of the “false fire” in her lover s cheek, of the “forced thunder of his sighs, and of his “borrowed motion”: of whom, indeed, but of an actor could it be said that to him “thought, characters, and words” were “merely Art,” or that —

“To make the weeper laugh, the laugher weep.

He had the dialect and different skill.

Catching all passions in his craft of will?”

The play on words in the last line is the same as that used in the punning sonnets, and is continued in the following stanza of the poem, where we are told of the youth who —

“did in the general bosom reign

Of young, of old; and sexes both enchanted”

that there were those who —

“. . dialogued for him what he would say,

Asked their own wills, and made their Wills obey.”

Yes: the “rose’cheeked Adonis” of the Venus poem, the false shepherd of the “Lover’s Complaint,” the “tender churl,” the “beauteous niggard” of the Sonnets, was none other but a young actor; and as I read through the various descriptions given of him, I saw that the love that Shakespeare bore him was as the love of a musician for some delicate instrument on which he delights to play, as a sculptor’s love for some rare and exquisite material that suggests a new form of plastic beauty, a new mode of plastic expression. For all Art has its medium, its material, be it that of rhythmical words, or of pleasurable colour, or of sweet and subtly-divided sound; and, as one of the most fascinating critics of our day has pointed out, it is to the qualities inherent in each material, and special to it, that we owe the sensuous element in Art, and with it all that in Art is essentially artistic. What then shall we say of the material that the Drama requires for its perfect presentation? What of the Actor, who is the medium through which alone the Drama can truly reveal itself? Surely, in that strange mimicry of life by the living which is the mode and method of Theatric art, there are sensuous elements of beauty that none of the other arts possess. Looked at from one point of view, the common players of the saffron-strewn stage are Art’s most complete, most satisfying instruments. There is no passion in bronze, nor motion in marble. The sculptor must surrender colour, and the painter fullness of form. The epos changes acts into words, and music changes words into tones. It is the Drama only that, to quote the fine saying of Gervinus, uses all means at once, and, appealing both to eye and ear, has at its disposal, and in its service, form and colour, tone, look, and word, the swiftness of motion, the intense realism of visible action.

It may be that in this very completeness of the instrument lies the secret of some weakness in the art. Those arts are happiest that employ a material remote from reality, and there is a danger in the absolute identity of medium and matter, the danger of ignoble realism and unimaginative imitation. Yet Shakespeare himself was a player, and wrote for players. He saw the possibilities that lay hidden in an art that up to his time had expressed itself but in bombast or in clowning. He has left us the most perfect rules for acting that have ever been written. He created parts that can be only truly revealed to us on the stage, wrote plays that need the theatre for their full realisation, and we cannot marvel that he so worshipped one who was the interpreter of his vision, as he was the incarnation of his dreams.

There was, however, more in this friendship than the mere delight of a dramatist in one who helps him to achieve his end. This was indeed a subtle element of pleasure, if not of passion, and a noble basis for an artistic comradeship. But it was not all that the Sonnets revealed to us. There was some thing beyond. There was the soul, as well as the language, of neo-Platonism.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” said the stern Hebrew prophet: “The beginning of wisdom is Love,” was the gracious message of the Greek. And the spirit of the Renaissance, which already touched Hellenism at so many points, catching the inner meaning of this phrase and divining its secret, sought to elevate friendship to the high dignity of the antique ideal, to make it a vital factor in the new culture, and a mode of self-conscious intellectual development. In 1492 appeared Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the “Symposium” of Plato, and this wonderful dialogue, of all the Platonic dialogues perhaps the most perfect, as it is the most poetical, began to exercise a strange influence over men, and to colour their words and thoughts, and manner of living. In its subtle suggestions of sex in soul, in the curious analogies it draws between intellectual enthusiasm and the physical passion of love, in its dream of the incarnation of the Idea in a beautiful and living form, and of a real spiritual conception with a travail and a bringing to birth, there was something that fascinated the poets and scholars of the sixteenth century. Shakespeare, certainly, was fascinated by it, and had read the dialogue, if not in Ficino’s translation, of which many copies found their way to England, perhaps in that French translation by Leroy to which Joachim du Bellay contributed so many graceful metrical versions. When he says to Willie Hughes,

he that calls on thee, let him bring forth

Eternal numbers to outlive long date,

he is thinking of Diotima’s theory that Beauty is the goddess who presides over birth, and draws into the light of day the dim conceptions of the soul: when he tells us of the “marriage of true minds,” and exhorts his friend to beget children that time cannot destroy, he is but repeating the words in which the prophetess tells us that “friends are married by a far nearer tie than those who beget mortal children, for fairer and more immortal are the children who are their common offspring.” So, also, Edward Blount in his dedication of “Hero and Leander” talks of Marlowe’s works as his “right children,” being the “issue of his brain”; and when Bacon claims that “the best works and of greatest merit for the public have proceeded from the unmarried and childless men, which both in affection and means have married and endowed the public,” he is paraphrasing a passage in the “Symposium.”

Friendship, indeed, could have desired no better warrant for its permanence or its ardours than the Platonic theory, or creed, as we might better call it, that the true world was the world of ideas, and that these ideas took visible form and became incarnate in man, and it is only when we realise the influence of neo-Platonism on the Renaissance that we can understand the true meaning of the amatory phrases and words with which friends were wont, at this time, to address each other. There was a kind of mystic transference of the expressions of the physical sphere to a sphere that was spiritual, that was removed from gross bodily appetite, and in which the soul was Lord. Love had, indeed, entered the olive garden of the new Academe, but he wore the same flame-coloured raiment, and had the same words of passion on his lips.

Michael Angelo, the “haughtiest spirit in Italy” as he has been called, addresses the young Tommaso Cavalieri in such fervent and passionate terms that some have thought that the sonnets in question must have been intended for that noble lady, the widow of the Marchese di Pescara, whose white hand, when she was dying, the great sculptor’s lips had stooped to kiss. But that it was to Cavalieri that they were written, and that the literal interpretation is the right one, is evident not merely from the fact that Michael Angelo plays with his name, as Shakespeare plays with the name of Willie Hughes, but from the direct evidence of Varchi, who was well acquainted with the young man, and who, indeed, tells us that he possessed “besides incomparable personal beauty, so much charm of nature, such excellent abilities, and such a graceful manner, that he deserved, and still deserves, to be the better loved the more he is known.” Strange as these sonnets may seem to us now, when rightly interpreted they merely serve to show with what intense and religious fervour Michael Angelo addressed himself to the worship of intellectual beauty, and how, to borrow a fine phrase from Mr Symonds, he pierced through the veil of flesh and sought the divine idea it imprisoned. In the sonnet written for Luigi del Riccio on the death of his friend, Cecchino Bracci, we can also trace, as Mr Symonds points out, the Platonic conception of love as nothing if not spiritual, and of beauty as a form that finds its immortality within the lover’s soul. Cecchino was a lad who died at the age of seventeen, and when Luigi asked Michael Angelo to make a portrait of him, Michael Angelo answered, “I can only do so by drawing you in whom he still lives.”

“If the beloved in the lover shine.

Since Art without him cannot work alone,

Thee must I carve, to tell the world of him.”

The same idea is also put forward in Montaigne’s noble essay on Friendship, a passion which he ranks higher than the love of brother for brother, or the love of man for woman. He tells us — I quote from Florio’s translation, one of the books with which Shakespeare was familiar— how “perfect amitie” is indivisible, how it “possesseth the soule, and swaies it in all soveraigntie,” and how “by the interposition of a spiritual beauty the desire of a spiritual conception is engendered in the beloved.” He writes of an “internall beauty, of difficile knowledge, and abstruse discovery” that is revealed unto friends, and unto friends only. He mourns for the dead Etienne de la Boetie, in accents of wild grief and inconsolable love. The learned Hubert Languet,the friend of Melanchthon and of the leaders of the  reformed church, tells the young Philip Sidney how he kept his portrait by him some hours to feast his eyes upon it, and how his appetite was “rather increased than diminished by the sight,” and Sidney writes to him, “the chief hope of my life, next to the everlasting blessedness of heaven, will always be the enjoyment of true friendship, and there you shall have the chiefest place.” Later on there came to Sidney’s house in London, one — some day to be burned at Rome, for the sin of seeing God in all things— Giordano Bruno, just fresh from his triumph before the University of Paris. “A filosofia e necessario amore” were the words ever upon his lips, and there was something in his strange ardent personality that made men feel that he had discovered the new secret of life. Ben Jonson writing to one of his friends subscribes himself “your true lover,” and dedicates his noble eulogy on Shakespeare “To the memory of my Beloved.” Richard Barnfield in his “Affectionate Shepherd” flutes on soft Virgilian reed the story of his attachment to some young Elizabethan of the day. Out of all the Eclogues, Abraham Fraunce selects the second for translation, and Fletcher’s lines to Master W. C. show what fascination was hidden in the mere name of Alexis. It was no wonder then that Shakespeare had been stirred by a spirit that so stirred his age. There had been critics, like Hallam, who had regretted that the Sonnets had ever been written, who had seen in them something dangerous, something unlawful even. To them it would have been sufficient to answer in Chapman’s noble words:

“There is no danger to a man that knows

What Life and Death is : there’s not any law

Exceeds his knowledge: neither is it lawful

That he should stoop to any other law.”

But it was evident that the Sonnets needed no such defence as this, and that those who had talked of “the folly of excessive and misplaced affection” had not been able to interpret either the language or the spirit of these great poems, so intimately con’nected with the philosophy and the art of their time. It is no doubt true that to be filled with an absorbing passion is to surrender the security of one’s lover life, and yet in such surrender there may be gain, certainly there was for Shakespeare. When Pico della Mirandola crossed the threshold of the villa of Careggi, and stood before Marsilio Ficino in all the grace and comeliness of his wonderful youth, the aged scholar seemed to see in him the realisation of the Greek ideal, and determined to devote his remaining years to the translation of Plotinus, that new Plato, in whom, as Mr Pater reminds us, “the mystical element in the Platonic philosophy had been worked out to the utmost limit of vision and ecstasy.” A romantic friendship with a young Roman of his day initiated Winckelmann into the secret of Greek art, taught him the mystery of its beauty and the meaning of its form. In Willie Hughes, Shakespeare found not merely a most delicate instrument for the presentation of his art, but the visible incarnation of his idea of beauty, and it is not too much to say that to this young actor, whose very name the dull writers of his age forgot to chronicle, the Romantic Movement of English Literature is largely indebted.]

Go to Section III

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