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THE DRAMAS OF SHAKSPEARE.
RHAPS no productions of the human too full and intense for the tongue's uttermind have exhausted so much criticism as
common language of commendathe plays of Shakspeare ; and however some tion being inadequate to express the promodern disciples of Aristarchus may have found admiration by which the enraptured detracted from the merits of these immor mind is engrossed. tal writings, yet the whole of them may be “ If ever author," says Mr. Pope, “ desaid to concur in the general opinion thatserved the name of original, it was Shakwith all their imperfections, these dramas speare. Homer himself drew not his art so are still the greatest of their kind, keeping immediately from the fountains of Nature; every work of a similar class, both ancient it proceeded through Egyptian strainers and modern, at a vast and unapproachable and channels, and came to him not without distance. The most extraordinary cha some tincture of the learning, or some cast racter of these masterly compositions is, of the models, of those before him. The that in each of them, with perhaps two or poetry of Shakspeare was inspiration indeed: three exceptions, there is a positive pleni- he is not so much an imitator as an instrutude of genius, which circulates, with an ment of nature, and it is not so just to say influence frequently more subtle than ob- that he speaks from her, as that she speaks vious, through the whole frame and con through him.” This is the praise of a texture of the piece, so as to escape par- poet who could appreciate the beauties of ticular detection; the reader's sense for it a far greater, and has recorded his opinion is an almost unconscious perception—of the in words that can never die. presiding power constantly pouring upon In briefly commenting upon some of the his mind in a flood of absorbing conviction, more prominent qualities of Shakspeare's and carrying him imperceptibly to the con plays, we shall first notice the general clusion, that the noblest fruits of the human structure of his dramas. These, in spite intellect have been displayed before him in of the fastidious objections of certain the page of that unrivalled man, to whom critics, who denounce the violation of those all the mysteries of humanity were un unities, maintained by the Greek tragefolded, and the treasures of human nature dians, as dramatic heresies, are for the unlocked ; who drew from those stores as most part constructed with great skill and he thought fit, and enhanced the riches with a singular adaptation to the characters there ready to his hand by amalgamating and events. Every action is either an them after his own productive fancy, and illustration or a commentary of something impressing upon them the assay marks of to succeed, or that has preceded it; and even his mighty mind.
the most trifling episode is so indispensable The immortal productions of our author's to the perfect development of the plot, to hand are not structures in which your the proper tinting of the characters, or the attention is engrossed by splendid blocks appropriate disposition of the groups, that of marble squared and polished with pro it could not be withdrawn without dedigious labour and consummate art, ex- priving the whole of a certain portion of quisite tracery, or beautiful gilding :-you vitality which would in a degree cripple it, look at nothing in detail, but at the stu or at least reduce its masculine vigour, prependous whole. You contemplate the cisely in proportion to the quantity of spirit broad masses and mighty dimensions, the draughted from it in the portion curtailed. towering strength and massive proportions, Let us take the play of Hamlet for an the picturesque outline and indestructible example, in which perhaps, upon the solidity of the temple. You observe no whole, Shakspeare's infraction of the drapetty beauties, no puny embellishments, matic canons are as strikingly manifest as to arrest attention and provoke applause; but the imagination is filled with the To our mind nothing can exceed the glorious creation of the master hand, and masterly skill in every particular exhibited lapses into silent reverence, because it is in this tragedy. It opens with a brief but
VOL. X.--NO. VI.-JUNE, 1837.
earnest dialogue between Horatio and two infliction; philosophising with a cool and officers of the watch, respecting some super- temperate exactness upon determinations natural appearance, by which expectation which he dares not execute; acting by is vividly kindled, and glows with a lively impulse, but deliberating with a just and fervour. The author plunges at once calculating precision; practically weak, into the subject of his story without pre but theoretically strong ;-all these reface, and raises the interest of the spectator markable variations of character -- nay, to the highest pitch. The events follow his minutest moral infirmities so singularly consequentially in rapid but just order, until evolved from the contingent movements the whole cause of the subsequent actions of the plot, give it an interest and a reality is developed in a gradual series of exciting which rivets the attention while it enlists and appropriate incidents, each heightening our deepest sympathies. Every thing goes the interest as it proceeds. There is no on progressively to the end, and when inhalting for the displays of stately elocution, terrupted it is only to strengthen the finely or to show the accomplishments of author woven tissue of dexterous combinations ship; and even the preternatural is so ori- which terminates in the catastrophe. ginally constructive, so essentially blended There is nothing in this drama, if we with the natural, and so accordant with except mere passages, which could be the superstitions of all times, that we cease omitted with advantage. The whole is to be shocked at the violation of physical unique in its kind, composed indeed, in possibility, but bring it, if not precisely to some particulars, of heterogeneous elements, a level with our belief, at least within the but brought into such original and harfar boundary-line of the probable, though monious combination as to leave an irrenot of the true.
sistible impression upon the reader, that The plot gradually rises in interest as it this play is one of the most perfect works advances—the villany of the king, and the of art which the mighty resources of literaobligation imposed upon Hamlet to revenge ture, under the influence of genius, have his father's murder, are placed in such supplied. The scene in which Hamlet skilful juxtaposition, that, however the holds dialogue with the grave -digger, mind may revolt from the contemplation though, upon a superficial view, it may of deliberate homicide, it seems to look for appear extraneous to the plot, is nevertheit, in the present case, at the hands of less an accessory which we could not miss Hamlet, as an act of justifiable retaliation. without losing one of those contingent aids Our natural repugnances at the destruction which, in the works of this great master, of human life are eliminated by the claims often more strongly contribute by indirect of judicial retribution, and we demand as appliance to sustain in complete concordit were in our own mind the consummation ancy the frame-work of the structure, with of the judgment of nature.
all its splendours of columnar grandeur, The peculiar character of the hero aids together with its gorgeous appendages of and protracts the process of the plot in a pinnacles and towers, than any direct and manner as consummate as it is original. mechanical contrivance, where the art is The lights and shadows of human emotion perceptible, and the necessity of its appliflit before us in an almost endless variety cation obvious. How beautifully does it of intangible forms, so apparently palpable throw out the features of Hamlet's chaand identic with our sympathies, that we racter, which had been before only partially seem to see our own hearts reflected in the seen through the brief flashes of his hasty object so exquisitely realised by the poet. impulses, or faintly reflected during the As the events proceed, the irresolution of rapid transitions of passion, where the the hero, his shrinking sensibility, the strong markings of his mind were rather almost convulsive struggles of a mind left to be inferred than positively indicated. anxious to avenge its own and parent's How naturally the acute but covert wiswrongs; his desperate resolutions swamped dom—the rugged and stern, the homely in the flood of his morbid and prevailing but just, philosophy of the witty gravesensibilities; vindicating to himself the digger elicits the moving reflections of the judicial propriety of revenge, and steeping prince, and draws out those beautiful symhis subtle intellect in that logic of social pathies, the subtler elements of subdued retaliation which justifies to itself the ex but lofty emotion, of which his heart, in treme of physical punishment, yet shrink- spite of the vexations that have seared it, ing, at the same moment, from the manual appears to be so strongly susceptible. It
gives the reader an interest in the hero, They follow in rapid succession, evolving which else had been overborne by the more new and appropriate aspects of character, affecting position of Laertes, who shortly as if the store-house of material from after appears as chief mourner at the grave which this marvellous drama was produced of a sister, who had evidently fallen a was inexhaustible. The equivocal hallusacrifice to the imputed unkindness of cinations of Hamlet, the capricious fatuity Hamlet. How admirably does it prepare and blended good sense of Polonius, the the mind for what is to follow, and it must positive madness of Ophelia, are beautiful be held as a proof of Shakspeare's unri gradations of light and shadow in the vast valled perception of the exactest propor- atmosphere of mind, only produced by tions of the true and proper in his delinea Shakspeare. They rise like northern tions of Nature, that nowhere in this lights, which gild with their radiant fires dialogue between the clown and Hamlet the distant circumference, upon the horizon does the wit of the former in the least de of his vast and excursive intellect, irratract from the solemnity of the scene, but diating with new glories all the objects rather adds to it by that direct contrast of which reflect their splendours. particulars which imparts equal strength The introduction of the ghost, being not to the contrasted objects, as beauty and inconsistent with popular belief, is managed deformity, when placed in immediate relief with equal adroitness and effect. The together, are mutually enhanced by the supernatural action has such an air of projuxtaposition. No one laughs at the sharp bable and circumstantial reality, that we retorts and loose gibes of the philosophic seem to feel it to be both natural and true. sexton. The grave deductions to which It helps to bring out the character of they so pointedly lead are only the more Hamlet as well as to disclose the secret rapidly conveyed to the mind, and the only known to himself and to the king, and more fixedly implanted there by the un which otherwise, except by the confession usual but impressive medium through of the latter, could not have been revealed. which it receives them. They are, more And what is remarkable, the traits of the over, an admirable set off to the sterner once living prototype are distinctly but inphilosophy of Hamlet, which seems to directly marked in the ghost, not by any receive an impetus from the racy but positive notation of identity, but by mere exuberant wit of his menial interlocutor. casual expressions arising adventitiously
This scene is a splendid indication of the out of the matter which the spirit of a transcendant, though occult powers, if I murdered sovereign and parent quits its may so say, with which our immortal dra- cold prison-house, the grave, to disclose. matist was endowed.
In spite of the solemnity with which the If we look at this play with a view to idea of supernatural agency is associated, ascertain how far it is a triumph of wit, we the terror is in a degree neutralized by the shall find that in this particular it is un- pathos, the lingering of human recollecrivalled, except by those equally eminent tions, the subsiding echoes, as it were, of productions of the same pen. Its variety human sympathies, which seem to invest is prodigious, whether we consider its plot, the dim outline of what had once the precharacters, language, or the incidents upon sence of a king, with a halo of bright but which the former is dependant, and the skill evanescent hues arising, like a pure mist with which all its complex elements are spangled by the morning sunbeam, from combined and harmonized is equal to its the inexhaustible fountain of human emovariety: The incidents are not only ex tions. ceedingly numerous, but all surprisingly The catastrophe is said by Dr. Johnson concur to realize the aim of the play, and not to be very happily produced ; “the impart to it a commanding power of in- change of weapons," says he, “ is rather an terest, as the numberless veins of the expedient of necessity than a stroke of art. human body minister to the vitality of the A scheme might easily be found to kill trunk, not only communicating beauty to Hamlet with the dagger and Laertes with its mechanism, but health and vigour to its the bowl.” But the fastidious critic seems whole frame. The diversity of these in to have kept his mind from the obvious cidents, occasionally relieved by comic fact, that according to his plan of destrucdialogue strictly germane both to the tion there would have been an abandonagents and to the action out of which it ment of poetical justice; the important arises, is never confused nor out of place. moral which is now to be drawn from the
66 The ne
fate of Laertes would not have been pro- really imagines himself at Alexandria, and duced. The death of Ophelia's brother believes that his walk to the theatre has by the poisoned foil, that very instrument been a voyage to Egypt, and that he lives by which he had treacherously sought to in the days of Antony and Cleopatra. effect the destruction of Hamlet, is not Surely he that imagines this may imagine only a just but most appropriate punish- more. He that can take the stage at one ment for his base and unmanly perfidy, time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may and affords more perfect satisfaction to the take it in half an hour for the promontory audience than perhaps any other death that of Actium. Delusion, if delusion be ad could have been devised. The change of mitted, has no certain limitation. If the foils was certainly a possible occurrence, spectator can be once persuaded that his and in the present instance it was sufficient vld acquaintance are Alexander and Cæsar, for Shakspeare to adopt an expedient that a room illuminated with candles is the within the limits of possibility to bring plain of Pharsalia or the banks of the about an event altogether out of the ordi- Granicus, he is in a state of elevation above nary course of things.
the reach of reason or of truth, and from The charge of Shakspeare's violation of the heights of empyrean poetry may despise the unities cannot be better answered than the circumscriptions of terrestrial nature, in the words of Dr. Johnson.
there is no reason why a mind thus wancessity of observing the unities of time and dering in ecetasy should count the clock, or place arises from the supposed necessity of why an hour should not be a century in making the drama credible. The critics that calenture of the brain that can make hold it impossible that an action of months the stage a field. or years can be possibly believed to pass “ The truth is, that the spectators are in three hours; or that the spectator can always in their senses, and know, from the suppose himself to sit in the theatre, while first act to the last, that the stage is only a ambassadors and return between distant stage, that the players are only players. kings, while armies are levied and towns They come to hear a certain number of besieged, while an exile wanders and re lines recited with just gesture and elegant turns. The mind revolts from evident modulation. The lines relate to some falsehood, and fiction loses its force when action, and the action must be in some it departs from the resemblance of reality. place; but the different actions that com
“ From the narrow limits of time neces- plete a story may be in places very remote sarily arises the contraction of place. The from each other : and where is the absurspectator, who knows that he saw the first dity of allowing that space to represent act at Alexandria, cannot suppose that he first Athens and then Sicily, which was sees the next at Rome. He knows with always known to be neither Sicily nor certainty that he has not changed his place, Athens, but a modern theatre ? and he knows that place cannot change By supposition, as a place is introitself; that what was a house cannot be- duced, time may be extended. The time come a plain, and that what was Thebes required by the fable elapses for the most can never be Persepolis.
part between the acts; for of so much of “ Such is the triumphant language with the action as is represented, the real and which a critic exults over the misery of an poetical duration is the same. If, in the irregular poet, and exults commonly with- first act, preparations for war against out resistance or reply. It is time there- Mithridates are represented to be made in fore to tell him by the authority of Shak- Rome, the event of the war may, without speare, that he assumes, as an unquestion- absurdity, be represented in the catastrophe able principle, a position, which, while his as happening at Pontus. We know that breath is forming it into words, his under there is neither war, nor preparations for standing pronounces to be false. It is false war; we know that we are neither in that any representation is mistaken for Rome nor Pontus--that neither Mithrireality, that any dramatic fable in its ma dates nor Lucullus are before us. The teriality was ever credible, or for a single drama exhibits successive imitations of sucmoment was ever credited.
cessive actions, and why may not the “ The objection arising from the impos- second imitation represent an action that sibility of passing the first hour at Alex- happened years after the first, if it be so andria and the next at Rome, supposes connected with it, that nothing but time that when the play opens, the spectator can be supposed to intervene. Time is, of
all modes of existence, most obsequious to have begun by chance. As nothing is the imagination ; a lapse of years is as essential to the fable but unity of action, easily conceived as a passage of hours. In and as the unities of time and place arise contemplation we easily contract the time evidently from false assumptions, and, by of real actions, and therefore willingly per- circunscribing the extent of the drama, mit it to be contracted when we only see lessen its variety, I cannot think it much their imitation.
to be lamented that they were not known by “ It will be asked how the drama moves him, or not observed : nor, if such another if it is not credited. It is credited poet could arise, should I very vehemently with all the credit due to a drama. It reproach him that his first act passed at is credited whenever it moves, as a just Venice, and his next at Cyprus. Such picture of a real original; as representing violations of rules merely positive, become to the auditor what he would himself feel, the comprehensive genius of Shakspeare, if he were to do or suffer what is there and such censures are suitable to the minute feigned to be suffered or to be done. The and slender criticisms of Voltaire.” reflection that strikes the heart is not that In addition to these just observations of the evils before us are real evils, but that Johnson, it may be remarked, that where they are evils to which we ourselves may all the unities are strictly observed the be exposed. The delight of tragedy pro- play should not be divided into acts, as ceeds from our consciousness of fiction : if this immediately breaks the continuity, we thought murders and treasons real, they and thus consequently destroys the illusion. would please no more.
A drama constructed upon the artificial “Imitations produce pain or pleasure, principles laid down by the ancient Greek not because they are mistaken for realities, dramatists, and rigidly adopted by the but because they bring realities to mind. modern French, ought in strictness of proWhen the imagination is recreated by a priety to have only one act, as any interpainted landscape, the trees are not sup- ruption of the action, by the falling of the posed capable to give us shade, or the foun- drop-scene, disturbs its unity, and thus of tains coolness; but we consider how we course weakens the effect where this is should be pleased with such fountains made to depend upon the literal observplaying beside us, and such woods waving ance of such unity. On the contrary, in
We are agitated in reading the the dramas of Shakspeare, where the unities history of Henry the Fifth, yet no man of time and place are not observed, the takes his book for the field of Agincourt. intervals caused by the divisions of the A dramatic exhibition is a book recited play into acts, are of great advantage in with concomitants that increase or diminish helping the imagination to fill up the the effect.
lapses of time supposed to intervene “ A play read affects the mind like a between the different periods of the general play acted *. It is therefore evident that action. While the drop-scene is down, the action is not supposed to be real; and the attention is utterly diverted from the it follows, that between the acts a longer matter of the draina, and the minds of the or shorter time may be allowed to pass, audience are engaged by the little details and that no more account of space or dura- of incident which take place, not on, but tion is to be taken by the auditor of a off, the stage; so that when the business drama, than by the reader of a narrative, of the play is renewed, whatever period before whom may pass in an hour the life may be supposed to have elapsed during of a hero or the revolutions of an empire. the suspended interval of the acted drama,
“Whether Shakspeare knew the unities, will be readily passed over in the imaginaand rejected them by design, or deviated tion, and the subsequent event taken up from them by happy ignorance, it is, I as a new epoch in which the concurring think, impossible to decide, and useless to
action goes on. inquire. We may reasonably suppose that, For instance, if, at the end of one act, an when he rose to notice, he did not want invasion was threatened to Carthage by the counsels and admonitions of scholars the Romans, we might see the sack of the and critics, and that he at last deliberately city in the opening of the next without persisted in a practice which he might being in the least conscious of its impos
sibility, all the intervening events being In a similar manner undoubtedly, but not in an
readily supposed to have taken place during equal degree.
the pause between the acts. It is true