Fairies and Devils in Shakespeare


Fairies[This is taken from Thomas Alfred Spalding’s Elizabethan Demonology, originally published in 1880.]

111. Little attempt has hitherto been made, in the way of direct proof, to show that fairies are really only a class of devils who exercise their powers in a manner less terrible and revolting than that depicted by theologians; and for this reason chiefly—that the proposition is already more than half established when it has been shown that the attributes and functions possessed by both fairy and devil are similar in kind, although differing in degree. This has already been done to a great extent in the preceding pages, where the various actions of Puck and Ariel have been shown to differ in no essential respect from those of the devils of the time; but before commencing to study this phase of supernaturalism in Shakespeare’s works as a whole, and as indicative, to a certain extent, of the development of his thought upon the relation of man to the invisible world about and above him, it is necessary that this identity should be admitted without a shadow of a doubt.

112. It has been shown that fairies were probably the descendants of the lesser local deities, as devils were of the more important of the heathen gods that were overturned by the advancing wave of Christianity, although in the course of time this distinction was entirely obliterated and forgotten. It has also been shown, as before mentioned, that many of the powers exercised by fairies were in their essence similar to those exercised by devils, especially that of appearing in divers shapes. These parallels could be carried out to an almost unlimited extent; but a few proofs only need be cited to show this identity. In the mediaeval romance of “King Orfeo” fairyland has been substituted for the classical Hades.[1] King James, in his “Daemonologie,” adopts a fourfold classification of devils, one of which he names “Phairie,” and co-ordinates with the incubus.[2] The name of the devil supposed to preside at the witches’ sabbaths is sometimes given as Hecat, Diana, Sybilla; sometimes Queen of Elfame,[3] or Fairie.[4] Indeed, Shakespeare’s line in “The Comedy of Errors,” had it not been unnecessarily tampered with by the critics—

“A fiend, a fairy, pitiless and rough,”[5]

would have conclusively proved this identity of character.


[Footnote 1: Fairy Mythology of Shakespeare, Hazlitt, p. 83.]

[Footnote 2: Daemonologie, p. 69. An instance of a fairy incubus is given in the “Life of Robin Goodfellow,” Hazlitt’s Fairy Mythology, p.  176.]

[Footnote 3: Pitcairn, iii. p. 162.]

[Footnote 4: Ibid. i. p. 162, and many other places.]

[Footnote 5: Fairy has been altered to “fury,” but compare Peele, Battle of Alcazar: “Fiends, fairies, hags that fight in beds of steel.”]


113. The real distinction between these two classes of spirits depends on the condition of national thought upon the subject of supernaturalism in its largest sense. A belief which has little or no foundation upon indisputable phenomena must be continually passing through varying phases, and these phases will be regulated by the nature of the subjects upon which the attention of the mass of the people is most firmly concentrated. Hence, when a nation has but one religious creed, and one that has for centuries been accepted by them, almost without question or doubt, faith becomes stereotyped, and the mind assumes an attitude of passive receptivity, undisturbed by doubts or questionings. Under such conditions, a belief in evil spirits ever ready and watching to tempt a man into heresy of belief or sinful act, and thus to destroy both body and soul, although it may exist as a theoretic portion of the accepted creed, cannot possibly become a vital doctrine to be believed by the general public. It may exist as a subject for learned dispute to while away the leisure hours of divines, but cannot by any possibility obtain an influence over the thoughts and lives of their charges. Mental disturbance on questions of doctrinal importance being, for these reasons, out of the question, the attention of the people is almost entirely riveted upon questions of material ease and advantage. The little lets and hindrances of every-day life in agricultural and domestic matters are the tribulations that appeal most incessantly to the ineradicable sense of an invisible power adverse to the interests of mankind, and consequently the class of evil spirits believed in at such a time will be fairies rather than devils—malicious little spirits, who blight the growing corn; stop the butter from forming in the churn; pinch the sluttish housemaid black and blue; and whose worst act is the exchange of the baby from its cot for a fairy changeling;–beings of a nature most exasperating to thrifty housewife and hard-handed farmer, but nevertheless not irrevocably prejudiced against humanity, and easily to be pacified and reduced into a state of fawning friendship by such little attentions as could be rendered without difficulty by the poorest cotter. The whole fairy mythology is perfumed with an honest, healthy, careless joy in life, and a freedom from mental doubt. “I love true lovers, honest men, good fellowes, good huswives, good meate, good drinke, and all things that good is, but nothing that is ill,” declares Robin Goodfellow;[1] and this jovial materialism only reflects the state of mind of the folk who were not unwilling to believe that this lively little spirit might be seen of nights busying himself in their houses by the dying embers of the deserted fire.

[Footnote 1: Hazlitt, Fairy Mythology, p. 182.]

114. Such seems to have been the condition of England immediately before the period of the great Reformation. But with the progress of that revolution of thought the condition changes. The one true and eternal creed, as it had been deemed, is shattered for ever. Men who have hitherto accepted their religious convictions in much the same way as they had succeeded to their patrimonies are compelled by this tide of opposition to think and study for themselves. Each man finds himself left face to face with the great hereafter, and his relation to it.  Terrible doctrines are formulated, and press themselves with remorseless vigor upon his understanding—original sin, justification by faith, eternal damnation for even honest error of belief,–doctrines that throw an atmosphere of solemnity, if not gloom, about national thought, in which no fairy mythology can flourish. It is no longer questions of material ease and gain that are of the chief concern; and consequently the fairies and their doings, from their own triviality, fall far into the background, and their place is occupied by a countless horde of remorseless schemers, who are never ceasing in their efforts to drag both body and soul to perdition.

115. But it is in the towns, the centers of interchange of thought, of learning, and of controversy, that this revolution first gathers power; the sparsely populated country-sides are far more impervious to the new ideas, and the country people cling far longer and more tenaciously to the dying religion and its attendant beliefs. The rural districts were but little affected by the Reformation for years after it had triumphed in the towns, and consequently the beliefs of the inhabitants were hardly touched by the struggle that was going on within so short a distance. We find a Reginald Scot, indeed, complaining, half in joke, half in sarcasm, that Robin Goodfellow has long disappeared from the land;[1] but it is only from the towns that he has fled—towns in which the spirit of the Cartwrights and the Latimers, the Barnhams and the Delabers, is abroad. In the same Cambridge where Scot had been educated, a young student had hanged himself because the shadow of the doctrine of predestination was too terrible for him to live under;[2] and such a place was surely no home for Puck and his merry band. But in the country places, remote from the growl and trembling of this mental earthquake, he still loved to lurk; and even at the very moment when Scot was penning the denial of his existence, he was nestling amongst the woods and flowers of Avonside, and, invisible, whispering in the ear of a certain fair-haired youth there thoughts of no inconsiderable moment.  And long time after that—after the youth had become a man, and had coined those thoughts into words that glitter still; after his monument had been erected in the quiet Stratford churchyard—Puck reveled, harmless and undisturbed, along many a country-side; nay, even to the present day, in some old-world nooks, a faint whispering rumor of him may still be heard.

[Footnote 1: Scot, Introduction.]

[Footnote 2: Foxe, iv. p. 694.]

116. Now, perhaps one of the most distinctive marks of literary genius is a certain receptivity of mind; a capability of receiving impressions from all surrounding circumstance—of extracting from all sources, whether from nature or man, consciously or unconsciously, the material upon which it shall work. For this process to be perfectly accomplished, an entire and enthusiastic sympathy with man and the current ideas of the time is absolutely essential, and in proportion as this sympathy is contracted and partial, so will the work produced be stunted and untrue; and, on the other hand, the more universal and entire it is, the more perfect and vital will be the art. Bearing this in mind, and also the facts that Shakespeare’s early training was effected in a little country village; that upon the verge of manhood, he came to London, where he spent his prime in contact with the bustle and friction of busy town life; and that the later years of his life were passed in the quiet retirement of the home of his boyhood—there would be good ground for an argument, a priori, even were there none of a more conclusive nature, that his earlier works would be found impregnated with the country fairy-myths with which his youth would come in contact; that the result of the labors of his middle life would show that these earlier reminiscences had been gradually obliterated by the gloomier influence of ideas that were the result of the struggle of opposed theories that had not then ceased to rage in the towns, and that the diabolic element and questions relating thereto would predominate; and that, finally, his later works, written under the calmer influence of Stratford life, would show a certain return to the fairy-lore of his earlier years.

117. But fortunately we are not left to rely upon any such hypothetical evidence in this matter, however probable it may appear. Although the general reading public cannot be asked to accept as infallible any chronological order of Shakespeare’s plays that dogmatically asserts a particular sequence, or to investigate the somewhat dry and specialist arguments upon which the conclusions are founded, yet there are certain groupings into periods which are agreed upon as accurate by nearly all critics, and which, without the slightest danger of error, may be asserted to be correct. For instance, it is indisputable that “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” “The Comedy of Errors,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” are amongst Shakespeare’s earliest works; that the tragedies of “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” and “Lear” are the productions of his middle life, between 1600 and 1606; and that “A Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest” are amongst the latest plays which he wrote.[1] Here we have everything that is required to prove the question in hand. At the commencement and at the end of his writings—when a youth fresh from the influence of his country nurture and education, and when a mature man, settling down into the old life again after a long and victorious struggle with the world, with his accumulated store of experience—we find plays which are perfectly saturated with fairy-lore: “The Dream” and “The Tempest.” These are the poles of Shakespeare’s thought in this respect; and in the centre, imbedded as it were between two layers of material that do not bear any distinctive stamp of their own, but appear rather as a medium for uniting the diverse strata, lie the great tragedies, produced while he was in the very rush and swirl of town life, and reflecting accurately, as we have seen, many of the doubts and speculations that were agitating the minds of men who were ardently searching out truth. It is worth noting too, in passing, that directly Shakespeare steps out of his beaten path to depict, in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the happy country life and manners of his day, he at the same time returns to fairyland again, and brings out the Windsor children trooping to pinch and plague the town-bred, tainted Falstaff.

[Footnote 1: For an elaborate and masterly investigation of the question of the chronological order of the plays, which must be assumed here, see Mr. Furnivall’s Introduction to the Leopold Shakespeare.]

118. But this is not by any means all that this subject reveals to us about Shakespeare; if it were, the less said about it the better. To look upon “The Tempest” as in its essence merely a return to “The Dream”—the end as the beginning; to believe that his thoughts worked in a weary, unending circle—that the Valley of the Shadow of Death only leads back to the foot of the Hill Difficulty—is intolerable, and not more intolerable than false. Although based upon similar material, the ideas and tendencies of “The Tempest” upon supernaturalism are no more identical with those of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” than the thoughts of Berowne upon things in general are those of Hamlet, or Hamlet’s those of Prospero. But before it is possible to point out the nature of this difference, and to show that the change is a natural growth of thought, not a mere retrogression, a few explanatory remarks are necessary.

There is no more insufficient and misleading view of Shakespeare and his work than that which until recently obtained almost universal credence, and is even at the present time somewhat loudly asserted in some quarters; namely, that he was a man of considerable genius, who wrote and got acted some thirty plays more or less, simply for commercial purposes and nothing more; made money thereby, and died leaving a will; and that, beyond this, he and his works are, and must remain, an inexplicable mystery. The critic who holds this view, and finds it equally advantageous to commence a study of Shakespeare’s work by taking “The Tempest” or “Love’s Labour’s Lost” as his text, is about as judicious as the botanist who would enlarge upon the structure of the seed-pod without first explaining the preliminary stages of plant growth, or the architect who would dilate upon the most convenient arrangement of chimney-pots before he had discussed the laws of foundation. The plays may be studied separately, and studied so are found beautiful; but taken in an approximate chronological order, like a string of brilliant jewels, each one gains luster from those that precede and follow it.

119. For no man ever wrote sincerely and earnestly, or indeed ever did any one thing in such a spirit, without leaving some impress upon his work of his mental condition whilst he was doing it; and no such man ever continued his literary labors from the period of youth right through his manhood, without leaving behind him, in more or less legible character, a record of the ripening of his thought upon matters of eternal importance, although they may not be of necessity directly connected with the ostensible subject in hand. Insincere men may ape sentiments they do not really believe in; but in the end they will either be exposed and held up to ridicule, or their work will sink into obscurity. Sincerity in the expression of genuine thought and feeling alone can stand the test of time. And this is in reality no contradiction to what has just been said as to the necessity of a receptive condition of mind in the production of works of true genius.  This capacity of receiving the most delicate objective impressions is, indeed, one essential; but without the cognate power to assimilate this food, and evolve the result that these influences have produced subjectively, it is, worse than useless. The two must co-exist and act and react upon one another. Nor must we be induced to surrender these principles, in the present particular case, on account of the usual fine but vague talk about Shakespeare’s absolute self-annihilation in favor of the characters that he depicts.

It is said that Shakespeare so identifies himself with each person in his dramas, that it is impossible to detect the great master and his thoughts behind this cunningly devised screen.  If this means that Shakespeare has always a perfect comprehension of his characters, is competent to measure out to each absolute and unerring justice, and is capable of sympathy with even the most repulsive, it will not be disputed for an instant. It is so true, that it is dangerous to take a sentence out of the mouth of any one of his characters and say for certain, “This Shakespeare thought,” although there are many characters with whom every one must feel that Shakespeare identified himself for the time being rather than others. But if it is intended to assert that Shakespeare has so eliminated himself from his writings as to make it impossible to trace anywhere the tendencies of his own thought at the time when he was writing, it must be most emphatically denied for the reasons just stated. Freedom from prejudice must be carefully dissociated from lack of interest in the motive that underlies the construction of each play. There is a tone or key-note in each drama that indicates the author’s mental condition at the time when it was produced; and if several plays, following each other in brisk succession, all have the same predominant tone, it seems to be past question that Shakespeare is incidentally and indirectly uttering his own personal thought and experience.

120. If it be granted, then, that it is possible to follow thus the growth of Shakespeare’s thought through the medium of his successive works, there is only one small point to be glanced at before attempting to trace this growth in the matter of supernaturalism.

The natural history of the evolution of opinion upon matters which, for want of a more embracing and satisfactory word, we must be content to call “religious,” follows a uniform course in the minds of all men, except those “duller than the fat weed that roots itself at ease on Lethe’s wharf,” who never get beyond the primary stage. This course is separable into three periods. The first is that in which a man accepts unhesitatingly the doctrines which he has received from his spiritual teachers—customary not intellectual, belief. This sits lightly on him; entails no troublesome doubts and questionings; possesses, or appears to possess, formulae to meet all possible emergencies, and consequently brings with it a happiness that is genuine, though superficial.

But this customary belief rarely satisfies for long. Contact with the world brings to light other and opposed theories: introspection and independent investigation of the bases of the hereditary faith are commenced; many doctrines that have been hitherto accepted as eternally and indisputably true are found to rest upon but slight foundation, apart from their title to respect on account of age; doubts follow as to the claim to acceptance of the whole system that has been so easily and unhesitatingly swallowed; and the period of skepticism, or no-belief, with its attendant misery, commences—for although Dagon has been but little honored in the time of his strength, in his downfall he is much regretted. Then comes that long, weary groping after some firm, reliable basis of belief: but heaven and earth appear for the time to conspire against the seeker; an intellectual flood has drowned out the old order of things; not even a mountain peak appears in the wide waste of desolation as assurance of ultimate rest; and in the dark, overhanging firmament no arc of promise is to be seen. But this is a state of mind which, from its very nature, cannot continue for ever: no man could endure it. While it lasts the struggle must be continuous, but somewhere through the cloud lies the sunshine and the land of peace—the final period of intellectual belief.

Out of the chaos comes order; ideas that but recently appeared confused, incoherent, and meaningless assume their true perspective. It is found that all the strands of the old conventional faith have not been snapped in the turmoil; and these, re-knit and strengthened with the new and full knowledge of experience and investigation, form the cable that secures that strange holy confidence of belief that can only be gained by a preliminary warfare with doubt—a peace that truly passes all understanding to those who have never battled for it,–as to its foundation, diverse to a miracle in diverse minds, but still, a peace.

121. If this be a true history of the course of development of every mind that is capable of independent thought upon and investigation of such high matters, it follows that Shakespeare’s soul must have experienced a similar struggle—for he was a man of like passions with ourselves; indeed, to so acute and sensitive a mind the struggle would be, probably, more prolonged and more agonizing than to many; and it is these three mental conditions—first, of unthinking acceptance of generally received teaching; second, of profound and agitating skepticism; and, thirdly, of belief founded upon reason and experience—that may be naturally expected to be found impressed upon his early, middle, and later works.

Shakespeare folio122. It is impossible here to do more than indicate some of the evidence that this supposition is correct, for to attempt to investigate the question exhaustively would involve the minute consideration of a majority of the plays. The period of Shakespeare’s customary or conventional belief is illustrated in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and to a certain extent also in the “Comedy of Errors.” In the former play we find him loyally accepting certain phases of the hereditary Stratford belief in supernaturalism, throwing them into poetical form, and making them beautiful. It has often before been observed, and it is well worthy of observation, that of the three groups of characters in the play, the country folk—a class whose manner and appearance had most vividly reflected themselves upon the camera of Shakespeare’s mind—are by far the most lifelike and distinct; the fairies, who had been the companions of his childhood and youth in countless talks in the ingle and ballads in the lanes, come second in prominence and finish; whilst the ostensible heroes and heroines of the piece, the aristocrats of Athens, are colorless and uninteresting as a dumb-show—the real shadows of the play. This is exactly the ratio of impressionability that the three classes would have for the mind of the youthful dramatist. The first is a creation from life, the second from traditionary belief, the third from hearsay. And when it has been said that the fairies are a creation from traditionary belief, a full and accurate description of them has been afforded. They are an embodiment of a popular superstition, and nothing more. They do not conceal any thought of the poet who has created them, nor are they used for any deeper purpose with regard to the other persons of the drama than temporary and objectless annoyance.  Throughout the whole play runs a healthy, thoughtless, honest, almost riotous happiness; no note of difficulty, no shadow of coming doubt being perceptible. The pert and nimble spirit of mirth is fully awakened; the worst tricks of the intermeddling spirits are mischievous merely, and of only transitory influence, and “the summer still doth tend upon their state,” brightening this fairyland with its sunshine and flowers. Man has absolutely no power to govern these supernatural powers, and they have but unimportant influence over him. They can affect his comfort, but they cannot control his fate. But all this is merely an adapting and elaborating of ideas which had been handed down from father to son for many generations. Shakespeare’s Puck is only the Puck of a hundred ballads reproduced by the hand of a true poet; no original thought upon the connection of the visible with the invisible world is imported into the creation. All these facts tend to show that when Shakespeare wrote “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” that is, at the beginning of his career as a dramatic author, he had not broken away from the trammels of the beliefs in which he had been brought up, but accepted them unhesitatingly and joyously.

123. But there is a gradual toning down of this spirit of unbroken content as time wears on. Putting aside the historical plays, in which Shakespeare was much more bound down by his subject-matter than in any other species of drama, we find the comedies, in which his room for expression of individual feeling was practically unlimited, gradually losing their unalloyed hilarity, and deepening down into a sadness of thought and expression that sometimes leaves a doubt whether the plays should be classed as comedies at all. Shakespeare has been more and more in contact with the disputes and doubts of the educated men of his time, and seeds have been silently sowing themselves in his heart, which are soon to bring forth a plenteous harvest in the great tragedies of which these semi-comedies, such as “All’s Well that Ends Well” and “Measure for Measure,” are but the first-fruits.

124. Thus, when next we find Shakespeare dealing with questions relating to supernaturalism, the tone is quite different from that taken in his earlier work. He has reached the second period of his thought upon the subject, and this has cast its attendant gloom upon his writings. That he was actually battling with questions current in his time is demonstrated by the way in which, in three consecutive plays, derived from utterly diverse sources, the same question of ghost or devil is agitated, as has before been pointed out. But it is not merely a point of theological dogma which stamps these plays as the product of Shakespeare’s period of skepticism, but a theory of the influence of supernatural beings upon the whole course of human life. Man is still incapable of influencing these unseen forces, or bending them to his will; but they are now no longer harmless, or incapable of anything but temporary or trivial evil. Puck might lead night wanderers into mischance, and laugh mischievously at the bodily harm that he had caused them; but Puck has now disappeared, and in his stead is found a malignant spirit, who seeks to laugh his fiendish laughter over the soul he has deceived into destruction. Questions arise thick and fast that are easier put than answered. Can it be that evil influences have the upper hand in this world? that, be a man never so honest, never so pure, he may nevertheless become the sport of blind chance or ruthless wickedness? May a Hamlet, patiently struggling after truth and duty, be put upon and abused by the darker powers? May Macbeth, who would fain do right, were not evil so ever present with him, be juggled with and led to destruction by fiends? May an undistinguishing fate sweep away at once the good with the evil—Hamlet with Laertes; Desdemona with Iago; Cordelia with Edmund? And above the turmoil of this reign of terror, is there no word uttered of a Supreme Good guiding and controlling the unloosed ill—no word of encouragement, none of hope? If this be so indeed, that man is but the puppet of malignant spirits, away with this life. It is not worth the living; for what power has man against the fiends? But at this point arises a further question to demand solution: what shall be hereafter? If evil is supreme here, shall it not be so in that undiscovered country,–that life to come? The dreams that may come give him pause, and he either shuffles on, doubting, hesitating, and incapable of decision, or he hurls himself wildly against his fate. In either case his life becomes like to a tale

“Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying—nothing!”

125. It is strange to note, too, how the ebb of this wave of skepticism upon questions relating to the immaterial world is only recoil that adds force to a succeeding wave of cynicism with regard to the physical world around. “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” and “Othello” give place to “Lear,” “Troilus and Cressida,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” and “Timon.” So true is it that “unfaith in aught is want of faith in all,” that in these later plays it would seem that honor, honesty, and justice were virtues not possessed by man or woman; or, if possessed, were only a curse to bring down disgrace and destruction upon the possessor. Contrast the women of these plays with those of the comedies immediately preceding the Hamlet period. In the latter plays we find the heroines, by their sweet womanly guidance and gentle but firm control, triumphantly bringing good out of evil in spite of adverse circumstance. Beatrice, Rosalind, Viola, Helena, and Isabella are all, not without a tinge of knight-errantry that does not do the least violence to the conception of tender, delicate womanhood, the good geniuses of the little worlds in which their influence is made to be felt. Events must inevitably have gone tragically but for their intervention. But with the advent of the second period all this changes. At first the women, like Brutus’ Portia, Ophelia, Desdemona, however noble or sweet in character and well meaning in motive, are incapable of grasping the guiding threads of the events around them and controlling them for good. They have to give way to characters of another kind, who bear the form without the nature of women. Commencing with Lady Macbeth, the conception falls lower and lower, through Goneril and Regan, Cressida, Cleopatra, until in the climax of this utter despair, “Timon,” there is no character that it would not be a profanity to call by the name of woman.

126. And just as womanly purity and innocence quail before unwomanly self-assertion and voluptuousness, so manly loyalty and unselfishness give way before unmanly treachery and self-seeking. It is true that the bad men do not finally triumph, but they triumph over the good with whom they happen to come in contact. In “King Lear,” what man shows any virtue who does not receive punishment for the same? Not Gloucester, whose loyal devotion to his king obtains for him a punishment that is only merciful in that it prevents him from further suffering the sight of his beloved master’s misery; not Kent, who, faithful in his self-denying service through all manner of obloquy, is left at last with a prayer that he may be allowed to follow Lear to the grave; and beyond these two there is little good to be found. But “Lear” is not by any means the climax. The utter despair of good in man or woman rises higher in “Troilus and Cressida,” and reaches its culminating point in “Timon,” a fragment only of which is Shakespeare’s. The pen fell from the tired hand; the worn and distracted brain refused to fulfill the task of depicting the depth to which the poet’s estimate of mankind had fallen; and we hardly know whether to rejoice or to regret that the clumsy hand of an inferior writer has screened from our knowledge the full disclosure of the utter and contemptuous cynicism and want of faith with which, for the time being, Shakespeare was infected.

127. Before passing on to consider the plays of the third period as evidence of Shakespeare’s final thought, it will be well to pause and re-read with attention a summing-up of Shakespeare’s teaching as it has been presented to us by one of the greatest and most earnest teachers of morality of the present day. Every word that Mr. Ruskin writes is so evidently from the depth of his own good heart, and every doctrine that he enunciates so pure in theory and so true in practice, that a difference with him upon the final teaching of Shakespeare’s work cannot be too cautiously expressed. But the estimate of this which he has given in the third Lecture of “Sesame and Lilies”[1] is so painful, if regarded as Shakespeare’s latest and most mature opinion, that everybody, even Mr. Ruskin himself, would be glad to modify its gloom with a few rays of hope, if it were possible to do so. “What then,” says Mr.  Ruskin, “is the message to us of our own poet and searcher of hearts, after fifteen hundred years of Christian faith have been numbered over the graves of men? Are his words more cheerful than the heathen’s (Homer)? is his hope more near, his trust more sure, his reading of fate more happy? Ah no! He differs from the heathen poet chiefly in this, that he recognizes for deliverance no gods nigh at hand, and that, by petty chance, by momentary folly, by broken message, by fool’s tyranny, or traitor’s snare, the strongest and most righteous are brought to their ruin, and perish without word of hope. He, indeed, as part of his rendering of character, ascribes the power and modesty of habitual devotion to the gentle and the just. The death-bed of Katharine is bright with visions of angels; and the great soldier-king, standing by his few dead, acknowledges the presence of the hand that can save alike by many or by few. But observe that from those who with deepest spirit meditate, and with deepest passion mourn, there are no such words as these; nor in their hearts are any such consolations. Instead of the perpetual sense of the helpful presence of the Deity, which, through all heathen tradition, is the source of heroic strength, in battle, in exile, and in the valley of the shadow of death, we find only in the great Christian poet the consciousness of a moral law, through which ‘the gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to scourge us;’ and of the resolved arbitration of the destinies, that conclude into precision of doom what we feebly and blindly began; and force us, when our indiscretion serves us, and our deepest plots do pall, to the confession that ‘there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.’”[2]

[Footnote 1: 3rd edition, sec. 115.]

[Footnote 2: Mr. Ruskin has analyzed “The Tempest,” in “Munera Pulveris,” sec. 124, et seqq., but from another point of view.]

128. Now, it is perfectly clear that this criticism was written with two or three plays, all belonging to one period, very conspicuously before the mind. Of the illustrative exceptions that are made to the general rule, one is derived from a play which Shakespeare wrote at a very early date, and the other from a scene which he almost certainly never wrote at all; the whole of the rest of the passage quoted is founded upon “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Othello,” and “Lear”—that is, upon the earlier productions of what we must call Shakespeare’s skeptical period. But these plays represent an essentially transient state of thought. Shakespeare was to learn and to teach that those who most deeply meditate and most passionately mourn are not the men of noblest or most influential character—that such may command our sympathy, but hardly our respect or admiration. Still less did Shakespeare finally assert, although for a time he believed, that a blind destiny concludes into precision what we feebly and blindly begin. Far otherwise and nobler was his conception of man and his mission, and the unseen powers and their influences, in the third and final stage of his thought.

129. Had Shakespeare lived longer, he would doubtless have left us a series of plays filled with the bright and reassuring tenderness and confidence of this third period, as long and as brilliant in execution as those of the second period. But as it is we are in possession of quite enough material to enable us to form accurate conclusions upon the state of his final thought. It is upon “The Tempest” that we must in the main rely for an exposition of this; for though the other plays and fragments fully exhibit the restoration of his faith in man and woman, which was a necessary concurrence with his return from skepticism, yet it is in “The Tempest” that he brings himself as nearly face to face as dramatic possibilities would allow him with circumstances that admit of the indirect expression of such thought. It is fortunate, too, for the purpose of comparing Shakespeare’s earliest and latest opinions, that the characters of “The Tempest” are divisible into the same groups as those of “The Dream.” The gross canaille are represented, but now no longer the most accurate in color and most absorbing in interest of the characters of the play, or unessential to the evolution of the plot.  They have a distinct importance in the movement of the piece, and represent the unintelligent, material resistance to the work of regeneration that Prospero seeks to carry out, and which must be controlled by him, just as Sebastian and Antonio form the intelligent, designing resistance. The spirit world is there too, but they, like the former class, have no independent plot of their own, and no independent operation against mankind; they only represent the invisible forces over which Prospero must assert control if he would insure success for his schemes. Ariel is, perhaps, one of the most extraordinary of all Shakespeare’s creations. He is, indeed, formed upon a basis half fairy, half devil, because it was only through the current notions upon demonology that Shakespeare could speak his ideas. But he certainly is not a fairy in the sense that Puck is a fairy; and he is very far indeed from bearing even a slight resemblance to the familiars whom the magicians of the time professed to call from the vasty deep. He is indeed but air, as Prospero says—the embodiment of an idea, the representative of those invisible forces which operate as factors in the shaping of events which, ignored, may prove resistant or fatal, but, properly controlled and guided, work for good.[1] Lastly, there are the heroes and heroine of the play, now no longer shadows, but the centers of interest and admiration, and assuming their due position and prominence.

[Footnote 1: It is difficult to accept Mr. Ruskin’s view of Ariel as “the spirit of generous and free-hearted service” (Mun. Pul. sec. 124); he is throughout the play the more-than-half-unwilling agent of Prospero.]

130. It is probable, therefore, that it is not merely a student’s fancy that in Prospero’s storm-girt, spirit-haunted island can be seen Shakespeare’s final and matured image of the mighty world. If this be so, how far more bright and hopeful it is than the verdict which Mr. Ruskin finds Shakespeare to have returned. Man is no longer “a pipe for fortune’s fingers to sound what stop she please.” The evil elements still exist in the world, and are numerous and formidable; but man, by nobleness of life and word, by patience and self-mastery, can master them, bring them into subjection, and make them tend to eventual good. Caliban, the gross, sensual, earthly element—though somewhat raised—would run riot, and is therefore compelled to menial service. The brute force of Stephano and Trinculo is vanquished by mental superiority. Even the supermundane spirits, now no longer thirsting for the destruction of body and soul, are bound down to the work of carrying out the decrees of truth and justice. Man is no longer the plaything, but the master of his fate; and he, seeing now the possible triumph of good over evil, and his duty to do his best in aid of this triumph, has no more fear of the dreams—the something after death.

Our little life is still rounded by a sleep, but the thought which terrifies Hamlet has no power to affright Prospero. The hereafter is still a mystery, it is true; he has tried to see into it, and has found it impenetrable. But revelation has come like an angel, with peace upon its wings, in another and an unexpected way.  Duty lies here, in and around him in this world. Here he can right wrong, succor the weak, abase the proud, do something to make the world better than he found it; and in the performance of this he finds a holier calm than the vain strivings after the unknowable could ever afford. Let him work while it is day, for “the night cometh, when no man can work.”

131. It is not a piece of pure sentimentality that sees in Prospero a type of Shakespeare in his final stage of thought. It is a type altogether as it should be; and it is pleasing to think of him, in the full maturity of his manhood, wrapping his seer’s cloak about him, and, while waiting calmly the unfolding of the mystery which he has sought in vain to solve, watching with noble benevolence the gradual working out of truth, order, and justice. It is pleasing to think of him as speaking to the world the great Christian doctrine so universally overlooked by Christians, that the only remedy for sin demanded by eternal justice “is nothing but heart’s sorrow, and a clear life ensuing”—a speech which, though uttered by Ariel, is spoken by Prospero, who himself beautifully iterates part of the doctrine when he says—

“The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further.”

It is pleasant to dwell upon his sympathy with Ferdinand and Miranda—for the love of man and woman is pure and holy in this regenerate world: no more of Troilus and Cressida—upon his patient waiting for the evolution of his schemes; upon his faith in their ultimate success; and, above all, upon the majestic and unaffected reverence that appears indirectly in every line—“reverence,” to adapt the words of the great teacher whose opinion about Shakespeare has been perhaps too rashly questioned, “for what is pure and bright in youth; for what is true and tried in age; for all that is gracious among the living, great among the dead, and marvelous in the Powers that cannot die.”