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incumbrance, and instead of lightening it by brevity, endeavoured to recommend it by dignity and splendour.
His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature ; when he endeavoured, like other tragic writers, to catch opportunitics of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.
It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it a while, and, if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it enveloped to be disentangled by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.
Not that always where the language is intricate the thought is subtle, or the image always great where the line is bulky; the equality of words to things is very often neglected, and trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by sonorous epithets and swelling figures.
But the admirers of this great poet have most reason to complain when he approaches nearest to his highest excellence, and seems fully resolved to sink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by tlic fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. What he does best, he soon ceases to do. He is not soft and pathetic without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself; and terror and pity, as
they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.
A quibble is to Shakspeare, what luminous vapors are to the traveller ; he follows it at all adventures ; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to ingulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety, and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.
It will be thought strange, that, in enumerating the defects of this writer, I have not yet mentioned his neglect of the unities ; his violation of those laws which have been instituted and established by the joint authority of poets and critics.
For his other deviations froin the art of writing, I resign him to critical justice, without making any other demand in his favour, than that which must be indulgeci to all human excellence ; that his virtues be rated with his failings; but, from the censure which this irregularity may bring upon him, I shall, with due rererence to that learning which I must oppose, adventure to try how I can defend him.
His histories, being neither tragedies nor comedies, are not subject to any of their laws ; nothing more is necessary to all the praise which they expect, than that the changes of action be so prepared as to be understcod; that the incidents be various and affecting, and the characters consistent, natural, and distinct. No other unity is intended, and therefore none is to be sought.
In his other works he has well enough preserved the unity of action. He has not, indeed, an intrigue regnlarly perplexed and regularly unravelled ; he does not endeavour to hide his design only to discover it, for this is seldom the order of real events, and Shaksficare is the poet of nature ; but his plan has commonly, what Aristotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end ; one event is concatenated with another, and the conclusion follows hy easy consequence. There are perhaps some incidents that might be spared, as in other poets there is much talks that only fills up time upon the stage ; but the general system makes gradual advances, and the end of the play is the end of expectation.
To the unities of time and place he has shown no l'e: gard ; and perhaps a nearer view of the principles on which they stand will diminish their value, and withdraw from them the veneration which, from the time of Corneille, they have very generally received, by discovering that they have given more trouble to the poet, than pleasure to the auditor.
The necessity of observing the unities of time and place arises from the supposed necessity of making the drama credible. The critics hold it impossible that an action of months or years can be possibly believed
to pass in three hours; or that the spectator can suppose himself to sit in the theatre, while ambassadors go and return between distant kings, while armies are levied and towns besieged, while an exile wanders and returns, or till he whom they saw courting his mistress, shall lament the untimely fall of his son. The mind revolts from evident falsehood, and fiction loses its force when it departs from the resemblance of reality.
From the narrow limitation of time necessarily arises the contraction of place. The spectator, who knows that he saw the first act at Alexandria, cannot suppose that he sees the next at Rome, at a distance to which not the dragons of Medea could, in so short a time, have transported him ; he knows with certainty that he has not changed his place; and he knows that place cannot change itself; that what was a house can not become a plain ; that what was Thebes can never be Persepolis.
Such is the triumphant language with which a critic exults over the misery of an irregular poet, and exults commonly without resistance or reply. It is time, therefore, to tell him by the authority of Shakspeare, that he assumes, as an unquestionable principle, a position, which, while his breath is forming it into words, his understanding pronounces to be false. It is false, that any representation is mistaken for reality ; that any dramatic fable in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a single moment, was ever credited.
The objection arising from the impossibility of passing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, supposes, that when the play opens, the spectator really imagines himself at Alexandria, and believes that his wa!
to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt, and that he lives in the days of Anthony and Cleopatra. Surely he that imagines this may imagine more. He that can take the stage at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Actium. Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation ;
if the spectator can be once persuaded, that his old acquaintance are Alexander and Cesar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharsalia, or the bank of Granicus, he is in a state of elevation above the reach of reason, or of truth, and from the heights of empyrean poetry, may despise the circumscriptions of terrestrial nature. There is no reason why a mind thus wandering in ecstasy should count the clock, or why an hour should not be a century in that calenture of the brain that can make the stage a field.
The truth is, that the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only play ers. They came to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation. The lines relate to some action, and an action must be in some place; but the different actions that complete a a story may be in places very remote from each other ; and where is the absurdity of allowing that space to represent first Athens, and then Sicily, which was always known to be neither Sicily nor Athens but a modern theatre ?
By supposition, as place is introduced, time may be extended; the time required by the fable elapses for the most part between the acts; for, of so much of the action