« AnteriorContinuar »
indeed do otherwise than admit that there must be distinct principles of character in every distinct individual : The manifest variety even in the minds of infants will oblige us to this. But what are these fivst principles of character ? Not the objects, I am persuaded, of the Understanding; and yet we take as strong Impressions of them as if we could compare and assort them in a syllogism. We often love or hate at first sight; and indeed, in general, dislike or approv; by some secret reference to these principles; and we judge even of conduct, not from any idea of abs ract good or evil in the nature of actions, but by :eferring those actions to a supposed original character in the man himself. I do not mean that we talk inus; we could not indeed, tinh if we would, explain ourselves in detail on this head ; ;'. we can neither account for Impressions and passions, nor communicate them to others by words : Tones and looks will sometimes convey the passion strangely, but the Impression is incommunicable. The same causes may produce it indeed at the same time in many, but it is the separate possession of each, and not in its nature transferable : It is an imperfect sort of instinct, and proportionably dumb.-We might indeed, if we chose it, candidly confess to one another that we are greatly swayed by these feelings, and are by no means so rational in all points as we could wish; but this would be a betraying of the interests of that high faculty, the Understanding, which we so value ourselves upon, and which we more peculiarly call our own. This, we think, must not be ; and so we huddle up the matter, concealing it as much as possible, both from ourselves and others. In Books indeed, wherein character, motive, and action, are all alike subjected to the Understanding, it is generally a very clear case; and we make decisions compounded of them all : And thus we are willing to approve of Candide, tho' he kills my Lord the Inquisitor, and runs thro' the body the Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh, the son of his patron, and the brother of his beloved Cunégonde :
But in real life, I believe, my Lords the Judges would be apt to inform the Gentlemen of the Fury that my Lord the Inquisitor was ill killed; as Candide did not proceed on the urgency čxf the moment, but on the speculation only of future evil. And indeed this clear perception, in Novels and Plays, of the union of character and action not seen in nature, is the principal defect of such compositions, and what renders them but ill pictures of human life, and wetched guides of conduct.
sopan But if there was on 'e man in the world who could make a more perfect draught of real nature, and steal such Impressions on his audience, without their special notice, as should keep their holü in spite of any error of their Understanding, and should thereupon venture to introduce an apparent incongruity of character and action, for ends which I shall presently endeavour to explain ; such an imitation would be worth our nicest curiosity and attention. But in such a case as this, the reader might expect that he should find us all talking the language of the Understanding only ; that is, censuring the action with very little conscientious investigation even of that; and transferring the censure, in every odious colour, to the actor himself; how much soever our hearts and affections might secretly revolt: For as to the Impression, we have already observed that it has no tongue ; nor is its operation and influence likely to be made the subject of conference and communication.
It is not to the Courage only of Falstaff that we think these observations will apply : No part whatever of his character seems to be fully settled in our minds; at least there is something strangely incongruous in our discourse and affections concerning him. We all like Old Jack; yet, by some strange perverse fate, we all abuse him, and deny him the possession of any one single good or respectable quality. There is something extraordinary in this : It must be a strange art in Shakespeare which can draw our liking and good will towards so offensive an object. He has wit, it will be said ; chearfulness and
humour of the most characteristic and captivating sort. And is this enough? Is the humour and gaiety of vice so very captivating? Is the wit, characteristic of baseness and every ill quality, capable of attaching the heart and winning the affections ? Or does not the apparency of such humour, and the flashes of such wit, by more strongly disclosing the deformity of character, but the more effectually excite our hatred and contempt of the man? And yet this is not our feeling of Falstaff's Obtes de character. When he has ceased to amuse us, we find new me?' no emotions of disgust; we can scarcely forgive the ingratitude of the Prince in the new-born virtue of the King, and we curse the severity of that poetic justice which consigns our old good-natured companion to the custody of the warden, and the dishonours of the Fleet.
I am willing, however, to admit that if a Dramatic writer will but preserve to any character the qualities of a strong mind, particularly Courage and ability, that it will be afterwards no very difficult task (as I may have occasion to explain) to discharge that disgust which arises from vicious manners; and even to attach us (if such character should contain any quality productive of chearfulness and laughter) to the cause and subject of our mirth with some degree of affection.
But the question which I am to consider is of a very different nature : It is a question of fact, and concerning a quality which forms the basis of every respectable character; a quality which is the very essence of a Military man; and which is held up to us, in almost every Comic incident of the Play, as the subject of our observation. It is strange then that it should now be a question, whether Falstaff is or is not a man of Courage; and whether we do in fact contemn him for the want, or respect him for the possession of that quality : And yet I believe the reader will find that he has by no means decided this question, even for himself.--If then it should turn out that this difficulty has arisen out of the Art of Shakespeare, who has contrived to make secret Impressions
upon us of Courage, and to preserve those Impressions in favour of a character which was to be held up for sport and laughter on account of actions of apparent Cowardice and dishonour, we shall have less occasion to wonder, as Shakespeare is a Name which contains All of Dramatic artifice and genius.
If in this place the reader shall peevishly and prematurely object that the observations and distinctions I have laboured to establish are wholly unapplicable; he being himself unconscious of ever having received any such Impression ; what can be done in so nice a case, but to refer him to the following pages ; by the number of which he may judge how very much I respect his objection, and by the variety of those proofs which I shall employ to induce him to part with it; and to recognize in its stead certain feelings, concealed and covered over perhaps, but not erazed, by time, reasoning, and authority ?
In the mean while, it may not perhaps be easy for him to resolve how it comes about, that, whilst we look upon Falstaff as a character of the like nature with that of Parolles or of Bobadil, we should preserve for him a great degree of respect and good-will, and yet feel the highest disdain and contempt of the others, tho' they are all involved in similar situations. The reader, I believe, would wonder extremely to find either Parolles or Bobadil possess himself in danger : What then can be the cause that we are not at all surprized at the gaiety and ease of Falstaff under the most trying circumstances ; and that we never think of charging Shakespeare with departing, on this account, from the truth and coherence of character ? Perhaps, after all, the real character of Falstaff may be different from his apparent one; and possibly this difference between reality and appearance, whilst it accounts at once for our liking and our censure, may be the true point of humour in the character, and the source of all our laughter and delight. We may chance to find, if we will but examine a little into the nature of those circumstances which have accidentally involved him, that he was intended to be drawn as a character of much Natural courage and resolution ; and be obliged thereupon to repeal those decisions which may have been made upon the credit of some general tho' unapplicable propositions; the common source of error in other and higher matters. A little reflection may perhaps bring us round again to the point of our departure, and unite our Understandings to our instinct.
-Let us then for a moment suspend at least our decisions, and candidly and coolly inquire if Sir John Falstaf be, indeed, what he has so often been called by critic and commentator, male and female, –a Constitutional Coward.
It will scarcely be possible to consider the Courage of Falstaff as wholly detached from his other qualities : But I write not professedly of any part of his character, but what is included under the term, Courage ; however, I may incidentally throw some lights on the whole.—The reader will not need to be told that this Inquiry will resolve itself of course into a Critique on the genius, the arts, and the conduct of Shakespeare : For what is Falstaff, what Lear, what Hamlet, or Othello, but different modifications of Shakespeare's thought? It is true that this Inquiry is narrowed almost to a single point : But general criticism is as uninstructive as it is easy : Shakespeare deserves to be considered in detail ;—a task hitherto unattempted.
It may be proper, in the first place, to take a short view of all the parts of Falstaf's Character, and then proceed to discover, if we can, what Impressions, as to Courage or Cowardice, he had made on the persons of the Drama : After which we will examine, in course, such evidence, either of persons or facts, as are relative to the matter; and account as we may for those appearances which seem to have led to the opinion of his Constitutional Cowardice.
The scene of the robbery, and the disgraces attending it, which stand first in the Play, and introduce us to the knowledge of Falstaff, I shall beg leave (as I think