From Great Englishmen of the Sixteenth Century by Sir Sidney Lee. London: A. Constable.
Shakespeare’s power of imagination was as fertile as that of any man known to history, but he had another power which is rarely absent from great poets, the power of absorbing or assimilating the fruits of reading. Spenser, Milton, Burns, Keats, and Tennyson had the like power, but probably none had it in quite the same degree as Shakespeare. In his case, as in the case of the other poets, this power of assimilation strengthened, rendered more robust, the productive power of his imagination. This assimilating power is as well worth minute study and careful definition as any other of Shakespeare’s characteristics.
The investigation requires in the investigator a wide literary knowledge and a finely balanced judgment. Short-sighted critics, misapprehending the significance of his career, have sometimes credited Shakespeare with exceptional ignorance, even illiteracy. They have oracularly declared him to be a natural genius, owing nothing to the learning and literature that came before him, or were contemporary with him. That view is contradicted point-blank by the external facts of his education, and the internal facts of his work. A more modern type of critic has gone to the opposite extreme, and has credited Shakespeare with all the learning of an ideal professor of literature. This notion is as illusory as the other, and probably it has worked more mischief. This notion has led to the foolish belief that the facts of Shakespeare’s career are inconsistent with the facts of his achievement. It is a point of view that has been accepted without serious testing by those half-informed persons who argue that the plays of Shakespeare must have come from the pen of one far more highly educated than we know Shakespeare to have been.
The two views of Shakespeare’s equipment of learning were put very epigrammatically by critics writing a century and a half ago. One then said ‘the man who doubts the learning of Shakespeare has none of his own’; the other critic asserted that ‘he who allows Shakespeare had learning ought to be looked upon as a detractor from the glory of Great Britain.’
Each of these apophthegms contains a sparse grain of truth. The whole truth lies between the two. Shakespeare was obviously no scholar, but he was widely read in the literature that was at the disposal of cultivated men of his day. All that he read passed quickly into his mind, but did not long retain there the precise original form. It was at once assimilated, digested, transmuted by his always dominant imagination, and, when it came forth again in a recognisable shape, it bore, except in the rarest instances, the stamp of his great individuality, rather than the stamp of its source.
Shakespeare’s mind may best be likened to a highly sensitised photographic plate, which need only be exposed for the hundredth part of a second to anything in life or literature, in order to receive upon its surface the firm outline of a picture which could be developed and reproduced at will. If Shakespeare’s mind for the hundredth part of a second came in contact in an alehouse with a burly good-humoured toper, the conception of a Falstaff found instantaneous admission to his brain. The character had revealed itself to him in most of its involutions, as quickly as his eye caught sight of its external form, and his ear caught the sound of the voice.
Books offered Shakespeare the same opportunity of realising human life and experience. A hurried perusal of an Italian story of a Jew in Venice conveyed to him the mental picture of Shylock, with all his racial temperament in energetic action, and all the background of Venetian scenery and society accurately defined. A few hours spent over Plutarch’s Lives brought into being in Shakespeare’s brain the true aspects of Roman character and Roman aspiration. Whencesoever the external impressions came, whether from the world of books or the world of living; men, the same mental process was at work, the same visualising instinct which made the thing, which he saw or read of, a living and a lasting reality.