صور الصفحة
PDF
النشر الإلكتروني

theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peopled by such characters as were never seen, converfing in a language which was never heard, upon topicks which will never arise in the commerce of mankind. But the dialogue of this authour is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much eale and fimplicity, that it seems scarcely co claim che meric of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common oc

currences.

Upon every other stage the universal agent is love, by whose power all good and evil is distributed, and every action quickened or retarded. To bring a lover, a lady and a rival into the fable; to entangle them in contradictory obligations, perplex them with oppositions of interest, and harrass them with violence of desires inconsistent with each other; to make them meet in rapture and part in agony ; to fill their mouths with hyperbolical joy and outrageous sorrow; to distress them as nothing human ever was distressed; to deliver them as nothing human ever was de: livered, is the business of a modern dramatist. For this probability is violated, life is misrepresented, and language is depraved. But love is only one of many passions, and as it has no great influence upon the sum of life, ic has little operation in the dramas of a poet, who caught his ideas from the living world, and exhibited only what he saw before him. He knew, that any other passion, as it was

regular

regular or exorbitant, was a cause of happiness or calamity.

Characters thus ample and general were not easily discriminated and preserved, yet perhaps no poet ever kept his personages more diflinct from each other. I will not say with Pope, that every speech may be assigned to the proper speaker, because many speeches there are which have nothing characteristical; but, perhaps, though some may be equally adapted to every person, it will be difficult to find, any that can be properly transferred from the present poffeffor to another claimant. The choice is right, when there is reason for choice.

Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous and unexampled excellence or depravity, as the writers of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a giant and a dwarf; and he that thould form his expectations of human affairs from the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion : Even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue is level with life: Other writers disguise the most natural passions and most frequent incidents; so that he who contemplates them in the book will not know them in the world : Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were

poffible,

possible, its effects would be probably such as he has assigned ; and it may be said, that he has not only shewn human nature as it acts in real exigences, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed.

This therefore is the praise of Shakespeare, that his draina is the mirrour of life; that he who has mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his deliricus extasies, by reading human sentiments in human language; by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confeffor predict the progress of the pasions.

His adherence to general nature has exposed him to the centure of criticks, who form their judgments upon narrower principles. Dennis and Rzymer think his Romans not sufficiently Roman; and Voltaire censures his kings as not completely royal. Dennis is offended, that Menenius, a senator of Rome, should play the buffoon; and Voltaire perhaps thinks decency violated when the Danish Usurper is represented as a drunkard. But Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preserves the effential character, is not very careful of distinctions fuperinduced and adventitious. His story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men. He, knew that Rome, like every other city, had men of all dispositions; and wanting a buffoon, he went into the fenate-house for that which the fenate-house would certainly have afforded him. He was inclined to thew

[merged small][ocr errors]

an usurper and a murderer. not only odious but despicable, he therefore added drunkenness to his other qualities, knowing that kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural power upon kings. These are the petty cavils of petty minds; a poet overlooks the casual distinction of country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.

The censure which he has incurred by mixing comick and tragick scenes, as it extends to all his works, deserves more consideration. Let the fact be first Itaced, and then examined.

Shakespeare's plays are not in the rigorous or cri. tical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compo . Gions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of lublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination, and expressing the course of the world, in which the lofs of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hafting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is somecimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.

Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and casualties the ancient poets, according to the laws which custom had prescribed, selected fome the crimes of men, and some their abfurdities; some the momentous viciffitudes of life, and sume the lighter occur

rencess

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors][ocr errors]

rences; some the terrours of diftress, and some the gayeties of prosperity. Thus rose the two modes of imitation, known by the names of tragedy and comedy, compositions intended to promote different ends by contrary means, and considered as so little allied, that I do not recollect among the Greeks or Romans a single writer who attempted both.

Sbakespeare has uniced the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind but in one composition. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the successive evolutions of the design, sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.

That this is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism will be readily allowed; but there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature. The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing. That the mingled drama may convey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied, because it includes both in its alterations of exhibition, and approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life, by shewing how great machinations and sender designs may promote or obviate one another, and the high and the low co-operate in the general system by unavoidable concatenation.

It is objected, that by this change of scenes the passions are interrupted in their progression, and that the principal event, being not advanced by a due gradation of preparatory incidents, wants at laft the

power

[ocr errors]
« السابقةمتابعة »