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THE making of books about Shakespeare has long
outgrown the dimensions of an infant industry. Almost everybody has written one, and so a man need scarcely apologize for following the fashion and adding another to the accumulation. Especially in this year of the tercentenary of his death, it would seem almost an affectation not to join in the general chorus of praise.
The universality of Shakespeare's genius is admitted on all hands; even the Baconians, who revile the man, do lip-homage to his works. But the inference, that that which is universal should be appreciated and enjoyed by all, does not seem to be quite generally drawn. The piling up of learned studies and commentaries seems to have had an effect similar to that of the multiplication of scientific investigations of the Bible. The means for intelligent and discriminating study of the Old and New Testaments are now at every man's command; yet it is certain that the Bible is read far less than in the days when, though inevitably misunderstood, it was genuinely loved. Anyone can now readily obtain a knowledge of Shakespeare greater, perhaps, than most of his contemporaries enjoyed, and the interpretation of the works of his genius has been carried to infinite details of exact analysis and bewildering subtlety. The effect, however, has been to render Shakespeare a subject for specialists, and rather to inhibit that naïve and spontaneous enjoyment which certainly was experienced by the men of his own time, and which it was his business, as a thoroughly intelligent commercial playwright, to produce. The academic critic has laid his icy hand on Shakespeare and thrust him into cold storage.
The governing idea of the present volume is not to increase the amount of learning possible to the expert in Shakespearean criticism. My hope is rather to enable those who have thought of Shakespeare as a frigid classic to enter like little children into his kingdom. The sun and the sea are for everybody, and so is Shakespeare. Spontaneous delight should come first, and scientific knowledge afterwards — if at all.
It happens quite often that the methods pursued in our educational institutions destroy the taste for great literature instead of fostering it. There is unconsciously growing up in this country a convention that literary culture, in the sense defined by Matthew Arnold, is something reserved for the elect few,- to be tolerated in that few only upon condition that they conceal it like a vice. For the mass, there is the Sunday newspaper, with its coloured illustrations; there is the moving-picture theatre, with its mission of destroying the use and the appreciation of language; there is the cabaret, with its instrumental din to spare us the dreaded labour of conversation. The mass is there to be amused; and woe to that man who dares presume to offer it instruction!
Fiction we still must have, on account of the length of our railway-journeys; but that which is