Shakspeare Reviewed

This exercise in literary criticism was written by McGonagall in 1878. Note that the unconventional spelling of the Bard’s surname is McGonagall’s choice, not mine.

LOVERS of Shakspeare and patrons of the drama,—with regard to Shakspeare as a poet and dramatist in my opinion he stands unrivalled, because he was more fully acquainted with Nature than any other poet I know of; his mighty genius has been too large for this world; he has written about everything it contains so truly, so naturally, and so beautifully that he has left nothing untouched; he has exhausted it, and created new ones by his own mighty imagery that Nature so beautifully endowed him with. He has left behind him his writings as a legacy to the world, which the world’s wealth cannot repay him for. Who would not have wished to have been a disciple of Shakspeare, to have sat at his feet, for instance, during the live-long day, and read with admiration and delight his wise and beautiful saws and sentiments as they fell from his pen! How is this, or how is that, some one may ask? The reason is this: because his writings abound with wise saws and sentiments suitable for all subjects. Just for instance, with regard to the discovery of murder, when Hamlet imagines that he has discovered his uncle to be the murderer of his father, he exclaims:—

“Foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o’erwhelm them to men’s eyes!”

This is a wise sentiment, and very often happens to be true. For murder, though it hath no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ. Again there is another beautiful sentiment, when Hamlet has looked upon the skull of poor Yorick, the king’s jester, and laments his death beside his grave, and has made a contrast betwixt Yorick and Julius Caesar, he exclaims:—

“Imperial Caesar dead, and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away;
Oh! that the earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall to expel thewinter’s flaw.”

Admirers of Shakspeare, you can plainly see that in this sentiment the poet has fully proved that it is possible for the body of an emperor after death, and turned to clay, that a man, for instance, might with the clay of an emperor’s body stop a hole or patch a wall with it. Just the same as a poor man, he runs the same hazard. The poet means to say the all·wise Creator of the universe has no more respect for the rich man’s body than the poor man’s. They are all alike to him. Again, there is another wise and beautiful sentiment in his historical tragedy of Macbeth, concerning the murder of King Duncan. After Macbeth murders King Duncan at Inverness Castle, and he has been created King, and his mistress the Queen, they could find no real happiness in the imperial change they had made, no contentment in mind or body, no rest night nor day they never could find. The thought of the murdered king ran so much in their minds, that Lady Macbeth, owing to her tortured soul and the agonies of her troubled mind, exclaims:—

“Nought’s had, all is spent,
Where our desire is got without content,
’Tis better to be that which we destroy,
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.”

And Macbeth exclaims to Lady Macbeth, in the agonies of his tortured soul:— “Ere we will live to eat our meals in fear, and sleep in the affliction of these terrible dreams that shake us nightly, better be with the dead, whom we to gain our place have sent to peace, than on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave ; after life’s fitful fever he sleeps well. Treason has done its worst ; nor steel, nor poison, malice, domestic nor foreign levy can touch him farther.” Admirers of Shakspeare, the poet lets us see that it is better to be content with our condition in life—no matter how low it may be—rather than act dishonestly ; for by committing foul deeds, such as murder, or any foul deed, no matter what it is, thinking to ameliorate our condition in life by it, and to gain more happiness to ourselves, we are labouring, the poet lets us see, under a false delusion to imagine such a thing to be the case. Again, with regard to the quick, stealing pace of time, he says:—

“Come what, come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.”

Again he says, with regard to the shortness of life:—

“Out, out, brief candle,
Life’s but a walking shadow,
A poor player· that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more,
It is as a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”

With regard to man’s inhumanity to man, Shakspeare says:—

“Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.”

This is a wise sentiment from his beautiful play, “As You Like It.” Again, with regard to labour, although it be hard, Shakspeare says:—

“The labour we delight in physics pain.”

This is a true sentiment, and shows the great conception the poet had of Nature in saying so regarding labour. Again, with regard to the dead, he shows us the folly of weeping for any one after death in his tragedy of ” Richard III.” When Richard’s sister is mourning for the death of King Henry the Sixth, that the Duke of Gloster (afterwards King Richard III.) had killed, he says:—

“Sister, take comfort, ’tis true
We’ve all cause to mourn the dimming of our shining star;
But sorrow never could revive the dead,
And if it could, hope would prevent our tears,
So we must weep because we weep in vain.”

Again, with regard to hope—the hope of heaven—that is, believers in hoping to obtain heaven as their reward for serving God, the poet means to say they never tire with thinking. The thought of obtaining heaven hereafter makes kings imagine themselves to be gods, and act like gods ; it makes meaner creatures think they are kings. The passage I have alluded to regarding hope is in reference to Henry Earl of Richmond. Previous to the Battle of Bosworth Field, he seemed to inspire his soldiers in the belief that they were going to fight in a good cause, and to doubt not but heaven was on their side. He addresses his soldiers in the following beautiful passage:—

“True hope ne’er tires, but mounts with eagles’ wings,
Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.”

Again he says:—

“Thrice is he arm’d that hath his quarrel just,
And he’s but naked though locked up in steel,
Whose conscience with injustice is corrupted!”

Lovers of Shakspeare, I think by this time I have shown to you from the few passages I have extracted from his works that passages can be found almost suitable for any subject. His works are to be found in the majority of languages throughout the world : his language is spoken at the fireside in family circles, in the church, in the chapel, in the prison, in the school, at the bar in defence of the prisoner, in the weaving·shop ; he is read by the shepherd while tending his flocks upon the mountains to divert his melancholy thoughts; he is read by the mariner at sea, during the lonely midnight watch, to chase away the remembrance of his parents at home, and friends he loves so dear and longs to see; he is read on the battle-field by the soldier to his comrades, while seated around the watch-fire, to enliven their drooping spirits and to prevent them from only ruminating the morning’s danger. Lovers of Shakspeare, in one word, the great interpreter of the human heart, are universal. Every gentleman’s library is considered to be incomplete if it does not contain a volume of Shakspeare. He has drawn out his characters as natural as life ; he has depicted them according to the age they lived in. When barbarism was very rampant, the people were rather uncultivated and rude in their habits; therefore, if he has written anything that is considered to be foul by his opponents, he was justified looking to the age he lived in. He found the stage in a rude state—as coarse as brick—and he left it as marble. Comparatively speaking, he held as it were the mirror up to Nature, has shown vice and virtue their own feature, and the very age and body of the time its form and pressure. The reason why Shakspeare is not more appreciated is because the people are not thoroughly acquainted with the proper intonation of his language ; and until they come to understand how to read his works, they can neither derive any pleasure nor profit from them, because they cannot comprehend the meaning of the Bard. This is the reason why Shakspeare has got so many opponents. They think more of Jack and the Beanstalk or Jack the Giant-killer—than they care for Shakspeare—because it is easier to understand. I have read about Mr Samuel Phelps, the great tragedian. He says the first night he went to the theatre in London he was so much struck with the honied voices of the players he could not rest all night, nor for a long time after, and from that night he resolved to become an actor, and he did carry out his resolution, and turned out to be a great impersonator of Shakspearian characters. I once saw him play “Macbeth” in the old Theatre Royal, Dundee, when he was in the full zenith of the profession ; and with the little judgment I have pertaining to the histrionic art, I consider he played “Macbeth” surpassingly well. He had a very powerful, clear, distinct voice, that could be heard all over the house. I remember in Act V. Scene IV., where Macbeth addresses his army before the Castle of Dunsinane in the following passage:—”Hang out our banners on the outward walls; the cry is, still they come!”—the audience rose en masse and applauded him to the very end of the passage. Owing to the great amount of electricity that emitted from him, the audience could not refrain from cheering him. Shakspeare’s “Macbeth” in my opinion was truly delineated by Mr Phelps from the beginning until the end. His impersonation of “Macbeth” was similar to Mr Brooke’s, but not so powerful in declamation. I remember of seeing Mr Brooke playing “Macbeth” in the old Theatre Royal, Dundee. It was a masterpiece of acting from the beginning until the end. I remember the first sentence he spoke the audience rose with one general shout of applause, which was deafening to hear. I venture to say I shall never look upon such a great piece of acting again. ln fact, Shakspearian plays now-a-days will scarcely half-fill a theatre. The reason is because there is no one in the theatrical profession that is competent to represent them properly. Shakspeare is declining fast for want of proper talent—men such as G. V. Brooke, or S. Phelps, or Barry Sullivan, or Charles Kean are wanted to create a revival in the Shakspearian line of acting. If not, the works of Shakspeare will prove to be very profitless to theatrical managers.

PARTIES desirous of being taught Elocution may be waited on at their own Residences by WM. McGONAGALL.

Fees Moderate.


The illustrations on this page are from Michael Goodman’s Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Comments (2) »

  1. In the year 2017, on the 3rd day of August at 2:52 pm

    WTM might not do well on ‘Just a Minute’ with abundant repetition.

  2. In the year 2017, on the 27th day of November at 3:00 pm

    I have only recently become aware of the works of Mr. McGonagall, and until this only his poetry. I am pleasantly pleased, if not surprised, to learn that his abilities in poesy were quite matched, and reflected, by his prose.

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