Chapter VIII: A Discontented Shade
"It seems to me," said Shakespeare, wearily, one afternoon
at the club — "that this business of being immortal
is pretty dull. Didn't somebody once say he'd rather ride
fifty years on a trolley in Europe than on a bicycle in
"I never heard any such remark by any self-respecting
person," said Johnson.
"I said something like it," observed Tennyson.
Doctor Johnson looked around to see who it was that
"You?" he cried. "And who, pray, may you be?"
"My name is Tennyson," replied the poet.
"And a very good name it is," said Shakespeare.
"I am not aware that I ever heard the name before," said
Doctor Johnson. "Did you make it yourself?"
"I did," said the late laureate, proudly.
"In what pursuit?" asked Doctor Johnson.
"Poetry," said Tennyson. "I wrote 'Locksley Hall' and
'Come into the Garden, Maude.'"
"Humph!" said Doctor Johnson. "I never read 'em."
"Well, why should you have read them?" snarled Carlyle.
"They were written after you moved over here, and they
were good stuff. You needn't think because you quit, the
whole world put up its shutters and went out of business.
I did a few things myself which I fancy you never heard
"Oh, as for that," retorted Doctor Johnson, with a smile,
"I've heard of you; you are the man who wrote the life
of Frederick the Great in nine hundred and two volumes — "
"Seven!" snapped Carlyle.
"Well, seven then," returned Johnson. "I never saw the
work, but I heard Frederick speaking of it the other day.
Bonaparte asked him if he had read it, and Frederick said
no, he hadn't time. Bonaparte cried, 'Haven't time? Why,
my dear king, you've got all eternity.' 'I know it,' replied
Frederick, 'but that isn't enough. Read a page or two,
my dear Napoleon, and you'll see why.'"
"Frederick will have his joke," said Shakespeare, with
a wink at Tennyson and a smile for the two philosophers,
intended, no doubt, to put them in a more agreeable frame
of mind. "Why, he even asked me the other day why I never
wrote a tragedy about him, completely ignoring the fact
that he came along many years after I had departed. I
spoke of that, and he said, 'Oh, I was only joking.' I
apologized. 'I didn't know that,' said I. 'And why should
you?' said he. 'You're English.'"
"A very rude remark," said Johnson. "As if we English
were incapable of seeing a joke!"
"Exactly," put in Carlyle. "It strikes me as the absurdest
notion that the Englishman can't see a joke. To the mind
that is accustomed to snap judgments I have no doubt the
Englishman appears to be dull of apprehension, but the
philosophy of the whole matter is apparent to the mind
that takes the trouble to investigate. The Briton weighs
everything carefully before he commits himself, and even
though a certain point may strike him as funny, he isn't
going to laugh until he has fully made up his mind that
it is funny. I remember once riding down Piccadilly with
Froude in a hansom cab. Froude had a copy of Punch in
his hand, and he began to laugh immoderately over something.
I leaned over his shoulder to see what he was laughing
at. 'That isn't so funny,' said I, as I read the paragraph
on which his eye was resting. 'No,' said Froude. 'I wasn't
laughing at that. I was enjoying the joke that appeared
in the same relative position in last week's issue.' Now
that's the point — the whole point. The Englishman
always laughs over last week's Punch, not this week's,
and that is why you will find a file of that interesting
journal in the home of all well-to-do Britons. It is the
back number that amuses him — which merely proves
that he is a deliberative person who weighs even his humor
carefully before giving way to his emotions."
"What is the average weight of a copy of Punch?" drawled
Artemas Ward, who had strolled in during the latter part
of the conversation.
Shakespeare snickered quietly, but Carlyle and Johnson
looked upon the intruder severely.
"We will take that question into consideration," said
Carlyle. "Perhaps to-morrow we shall have a definite answer
ready for you."
"Never mind," returned the humorist. "You've proved your
point. Tennyson tells me you find life here dull, Shakespeare."
"Somewhat," said Shakespeare. "I don't know about the
rest of you fellows, but I was not cut out for an eternity
of ease. I must have occupation, and the stage isn't popular
here. The trouble about putting on a play here is that
our managers are afraid of libel suits. The chances are
that if I should write a play with Cassius as the hero,
Cassius would go to the first night's performance with
a dagger concealed in his toga, with which to punctuate
his objections to the lines put in his mouth. There is
nothing I'd like better than to manage a theatre in this
place, but think of the riots we'd have! Suppose, for
an instant, that I wrote a play about Bonaparte! He'd
have a box, and when the rest of you spooks called for
the author at the end of the third act, if he didn't happen
to like the play he'd greet me with a salvo of artillery
instead of applause."
"He wouldn't if you made him out a great conqueror from
start to finish," said Tennyson.
"No doubt," returned Shakespeare, sadly; "but in that
event Wellington would be in the other stage-box, and
I'd get the greeting from him."
"Why come out at all?" asked Johnson.
"Why come out at all?" echoed Shakespeare. "What fun
is there in writing a play if you can't come out and show
yourself at the first night? That's the author's reward.
If it wasn't for the first-night business, though, all
would be plain sailing."
"Then why don't you begin it the second night?" drawled
"How the deuce could you?" put in Carlyle.
"A most extraordinary proposition," sneered Johnson.
"Yes," said Ward; "but wait a week — you'll see
the point then."