صور الصفحة
النشر الإلكتروني

audience, with a salient and lively interest, issuing from the human heart, and enduring therefore through all time. Would he have succeeded better in his aim as a dramatist, had he read Aristotle and imitated Euripides? The question needs no answer. • Rare old Ben,' with all his ancient art,' failed to attract the crowd; and reproached the performers with their idolatry of his more successful rival. Leonard Digges tells us how people flocked to see Shakspeare:

• O how the audience
Were ravished! With what wonder they went thence!
When some new day they would not brook a line
Of tedious though well laboured Catiline.
Sejanus too was irksome: they prized more

Honest Iago or the jealous Moor.'
And he further says of Jonson's plays, -

Though these have shamed all th' ancients, and might raise
Their author's merit with a crown of bays,
Yet these sometimes, even at a friend's desire
Acted, have scarce defrayed the sea-coal fire

And door-keepers.' Is it not absurd then to talk of art' which, addressing itself to public taste, will not defray the sea-coal fire?' The art of keeping away the public is not an art of rare and difficult accomplishment. Warburton's assertion that Shakspeare's sublimity and wit supported him in his defiance of the rules, while Ben Jonson was obliged to make up for his inferiority by borrowing all he could from art, is a very suitable foundation for the inference that - here we see how a want of sufficient * natural genius accidentally contributed to the refinement of the English stage.'

The error we are combating is, however, a very natural error. In those days so blind was the reverence felt for the classic writers, that art was not understood to be the best means of attaining an end: it was understood to be the closest imitation of ancient models. I have thought our poetry of the last age,' said Rymer, one of the most learned men of his day, 'as rude as 'our architecture. One cause thereof might be that Aristotle's " Treatise of Poetry has been so little studied amongst us.' He would have been pronounced an ignoramus in that age, who should have ventured to dispute the necessity of following ancient models, where any thing more was to be attempted than 'splitting . the ears of the groundlings.' With respect to Shakspeare himself, few, indeed, denied that he was equal, if not superior, to the ancients in beauty of imagery, in depth of insight, in the portraiture of passion, in grace, tenderness, airiness, wit, and pathos; But the schools, nevertheless, repeated that he wanted i art!' In case his critics had been asked what art he wanted, they would unanimously have declared it was the art which they admired in the classics. Superior to the classics in the effect which he produced, he was supposed to be inferior in the means !

But unless the highest dramatic effects can be supposed to be the result of mere chance, they must have been the result of art. That 'fluent Shakspeare scarce effaced a line,' certainly was not true. To talk of nature and inspiration' is easy enough ; but whoever looks closely into these plays, noting their numerous failures and their numberless successes, will see at once that Shakspeare was a very careful, though perhaps not a theoretical artist. Instead of blinding himself over antique books, he closely watched the tempers of mankind; his rules were not drawn from ancient precedents, but from his own keen sense of the mode in which an audience was to be moved. What were the unities, what was the chorus, to him, who as manager, actor, and dramatist, felt the living pulse of the public from day to day? How well, how nicely he discriminated the beatings of that pulse, his unparalleled successes have proved. Let us add that much of what amused an audience in his days—conceits which clownage kept in pay'—and longpoetical descriptions, will not amuse them now; hence the heaviness of some of his scenes on the modern stage. This change modern critics and dramatists too frequently overlook. They fall into the very error which they applaud Shakspeare for having avoided. They treat him as a classic-as a model to be slavishly imitated; until his genius has ended by consecrating as beauties the very defects which a wiser homage would have admitted to be blemishes, --spots on the sun, it is true,

but still spots.

In his own day Shakspeare's triumph was complete. Even with his learned contemporaries, he had but one fault, - and that was a departure from classic models. From these models, Beaumont and Fletcher, who approached the nearest in popularity, departed as widely as himself. Then came the influence of French taste, which backed its pretensions not only by classic models, but by the masterpieces of Corneille and Racine. In spite of this taste, Shakspeare continued to hold undisputed sway over the hearts of Englishmen. No system of criticism could obscure the splendour of his genius. It was necessary, therefore, that an attempt of some kind should be made to reconcile the contradiction presented by a great poet, acknowledged to sur pass the most finished artists in his effects, yet supposed all the time totally ignorant of art.' The reconciliation was brought

about by means of the word “inspiration. In this attempt wo read the idolatry of Shakspeare's admirers. Homer, indeed, might occasionally nod; Æschylus be obscure; Euripides prosaic, and Virgil verbose and tautologous; for they were men. — But Shakspeare could have made mistakes only because he had not read certain classic authors: a tincture of learning would have infallibly guarded him from every error! If he wrote trash sometimes, it was to please the groundlings; while his false metaphors, disgusting images, and tedious speeches must have been • foisted

in by the players. Thus Pope, in his celebrated Preface, attributes the bombast and triviality to be found in Shakspeare, wholly to the necessity of addressing a vulgar audience. ` And with this judgment Warburton agrees ; - premising only that Shakspeare knew perfectly well what belonged to a true composition, and had once tried to reform the public taste (see Hamlet); but having failed, became the favourite of the people afterwards by complying with it!

We are afraid, however, that, from an infirmity of the human mind of which there are numerous examples, Shakspeare very sincerely admired those bombastic passages, and thought them truly grand ; and that he probably had the same affection for his buffoonery and conceits as inveterate punsters have for their puns. An ingenious article on Critical Induction' in the last number of the Classical Museum, exposes the rashness of emendations which proceed upon no better ground than the improbability of eminent authors writing anything bad. Faultlessness is one of the privileges of mediocrity. It is with great geniusses, Longinus says, as with great riches :- something always must be overlooked. Nor only overlooked: there will be even something in excess. We readily admit, therefore, that Shakspeare himself

, were he alive, would be exceedingly amused at our making any difficulty in acknowledging his inequalities, and at our being at so much trouble to account for them, where they cannot be explained away.

The criticism which reigned from Dryden to Morgann and Coleridge is too well known to need illustration here. It was essentially French in its principles — essentially false in its application. The correct'school would more properly be called the timid' school. Its writers piqued themselves on their sense ' and “propriety,' and were more solicitous not to offend, than to enchant. The level they sought, accordingly soon became a dead level. With respect to Shakspeare, the most remarkable criticism which that period produced was the Preface of Dr. Johnson. If we compare its dignified tone of generous admiration and honest blame, with the feeble and often contemptuous tone


of the Remarks affixed to the separate plays, we shall recognise at once the difference between the general effect of Shakspeare's genius, and the particular effect of perverted criticism. From Ben Jonson downwards - from Sejanus to Irene— men admired Shakspeare in spite of their critical axioms ; yet this admiration never led them to suspect the truth of the axioms !

Rightly to understand this question of dramatic art, agitated by so many critics, it is necessary that we should examine what foreigners have written upon Shakspeare: and we begin with Voltaire, who had the honour of introducing our great poet to his countrymen. •Every Englishman,' pertinently remarks Mr. C. Knight, from the period of Johnson, who has fancied himself • absolved from the guilt of not admiring and understanding Shakspeare, has taken up a stone to cast at Voltaire. Those who speak of Voltaire as an ignorant and tasteless calumniator of Shakspeare, forget that his hostility was based upon a system of art which he conceived, and rightly so, was opposed to the

system of Shakspeare.'* Voltaire's position was peculiar. He had been educated in a rigid system; and had grown up in the belief that Racine was the very consummation of dramatic art. Yet, as a writer, he felt the yoke of classic rules press so heavily upon him, that he secretly sighed for greater freedom. We cannot read his correspondence without being struck with his uneasiness at the strictness of Parisian taste,

a strictness which actually compelled him to abandon many of his favourite conceptions. Much as his taste was shocked by such an instance of unbounded license, nevertheless that this very license enabled the poet to produce most marvellous effects, was a fact which there was no disguising. In the first ardour of his admiration he expressed himself unguardedly; for which, in after years, he did more than sufficient penance. But to the last, although as a Frenchman he could not help being outraged at the unexampled want of goût, and the reckless disregard no less of les bienséances than of le style noble, -- on the other hand, as a man of genius, he could not help having a hearty sympathy with the genius of Shakspeare. The Englishman was a savage, no doubt; but he was an in

spired' savage. In an age when Frenchmen were as much convinced as ever were the Athenians, that all foreigners were barbarians, our philosophers and poets must have been a great embarrassment to Voltaire. Praise escapes from him in a mingled transport of admiration and astonishment: admiration at such excellence, and astonishment at finding it among barbarians. It is a great mistake to suppose that the praise was not genuine ; it was far more genuine, we are persuaded, than

[ocr errors][merged small]

the praise which he afterwards heaped upon Cato. He said indeed that Cato was a model, having des vers dignes de Virgile

et des sentiments dignes de Caton;' but he imitated Shakspeare - and no compliment approaches that of an imitation.

At the time Voltaire introduced the name of Shakspeare into France, the English language was almost as rare an accomplishment in Paris as Chinese is at present. The effect of his · Lettres sur les Anglais, joined to other concurrent influences indicative of the coming Anglomanie,' caused English to be studied; and, as a natural consequence, Shakspeare was translated. And then so great and general was the admiration, that Voltaire trembled for the cause of French tragedy and good taste. His apprehensions could not but be affected in some degree by his interests; for his own great reputation as a dramatic poet was implicated in the fate of the classic drama. He endeavoured, therefore, by ridicule and contempt to stem the torrent. But it was too late. Shakspeare's spell was upon all who had studied him; it was felt that the barbarian was a Titan. Voltaire was furious; alarmed at the movement he himself had originated, he retired into the recesses of ancient prejudices, from which he thundered against · les barbares' and les welches.'

We have taken the trouble to look out from among his criticisms and correspondence for the passages in which he mentions Shakspeare; and here are some of the most significant : • France,' he says, in a letter to the Abbé Desfontaines, dated November, 1735, is not the only country where tragedies are • written; and our taste, or rather our custom, of bringing * nothing on the stage but long conversations on love, does not • delight other nations. In general, our stage is devoid of action, 6 and deficient in subjects of exalted interest. The presence too of our petits maîtres crowding on the stage, interferes with the action; and exalted subjects are banished because our nation dares not think on them. Politics were attractive in

Corneille's time, on account of the Fronde ; but now-a-days ' no one goes to see his pieces. Had you but seen the piece of • Shakspeare (“ Julius Cæsar") played, as I have seen it, and

pretty nearly as I have translated it, our declarations of love and our confidantes would seem miserable in comparison. This sentence might have been written by the most échévelé of the romanticists. Voltaire, no doubt, is here pleading in favour of his own translation; but lest too much stress should be laid on that circumstance, we will quote two lines from a letter only a few days previous. Shakspeare is le Corneille de Londres, — grand fou d'ailleurs, et resemblant plus à Gilles qu’à Corneille; mais il a VOL. XC. NO. CLXXXI.


« السابقةمتابعة »