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of the nature of Shakespeare's Dramatic characters ? ; by what arts they were formed, and wherein they differ from those of other writers; something likewise more professedly of Shakespeare himself, and of the peculiar character of his genius. After such a review we may
. 1 The reader must be sensible of something in the composition of Shakespeare's characters, which renders them essentially different from those drawn by other writers. The characters of every Drama must indeed be grouped ; but in the groupes of other poets the parts which are not seen do not in fact exist. But there is a certain roundness and integrity in the forms of Shakespeare, which give them an independence as well as a relation, insomuch that we often meet with passages which, tho' perfectly felt, cannot be sufficiently explained in words, without unfolding the whole character of the speaker : And this I may be obliged to do in respect to that of Lancaster, in order to account for some words spoken by him in censure of Falstaff.-Something which may be thought too heavy for the text, I shall add here, as a conjecture concerning the composition of Shakespeare's characters : Not that they were the effect, I believe, so much of a minute and laborious attention, as of a certain comprehensive energy of mind, involving within itself all the effects of system and of labour.
Bodies of all kinds, whether of metals, plants, or animals, are supposed to possess certain first principles of being, and to have an existence independent of the accidents which form their magnitude or growth : Those accidents are supposed to be drawn in from the surrounding elements, but not indiscriminately ; each plant and each animal imbibes those things only which are proper to its own distinct nature, and which have besides such a secret relation to each other as to be capable of forming a perfect union and coalescence : But so variously are the surrounding elements mingled and disposed, that each particular body, even of those under the same species, has yet some peculiar of its own. Shakespeare appears to have considered the being and growth of the human mind as analogous to this system : There are certain qualities and capacities which he seems to have considered as first principles ; the chief of which are certain energies of courage and activity, according to their degrees ; together with different degrees and sorts of sensibilities, and a capacity, varying likewise in degree, of discernment and intelligence. The rest of the composition is drawn in from an atmosphere of surrounding things ; that is, from the various influences of the different laws, religions and governments in the world ; and from those of the different ranks and inequalities in society ; and from the different professions of men, encouraging or repressing passions of particular sorts, and inducing different modes of thinking and habits of life ; and he seems to have known intuitively what those influences in particular were which this or that original constitution would most freely imbibe
not perhaps think any consideration arising out of the Play, or out of general nature, either as too minute or too extensive.
Shakespeare is, in truth, an author whose mimic creation agrees in general so perfectly with that of nature, that it is not only wonderful in the great, but opens another scene of amazement to the discoveries of the microscope. We have been charged indeed by a
and which would most easily associate and coalesce. But all these things being, in different situations, very differently disposed, and those differences exactly discerned by him, he found no difficulty in marking every individual, even among characters of the same sort, with something peculiar and distinct.—Climate and complexion demand their influence; “ Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee, and love thee after,” is a sentiment characteristic of, and fit only to be uttered by a Moor.
But it was not enough for Shakespeare to have formed his characters with the most perfect truth and coherence ; it was further necessary that he should possess a wonderful facility of compressing, as it were, his own spirit into these images, and of giving alternate animation to the forms. This was not to be done from without ; he must have felt every varied situation, and have spoken thro' the organ he had formed. Such an intuitive comprehension of things and such a facility must unite to produce a Shakespeare. The reader will not now be surprised if I affirm that those characters in Shakespeare, which are seen only in part, are yet capable of being unfolded and understood in the whole ; every part being in fact relative, and inferring all the rest. It is true that the point of action or sentiment, which we are most concerned in, is always held out for our special notice. But who does not perceive that there is a peculiarity about it, which conveys a relish of the whole? And very frequently, when no particular point presses, he boldly makes a character act and speak from those parts of the composition which are inferred only, and not distinctly shewn. This produces a wonderful effect; it seems to carry us beyond the poet to nature itself, and gives an integrity and truth to facts and character, which they could not otherwise obtain : And this is in reality that art in Shakespeare which, being withdrawn from our notice, we more emphatically call nature. A felt propriety and truth from
causes unseen, I take to be the highest point of Poetic composition..! • If the characters of Shakespeare are thus whole, and as it were original,
while those of almost all other writers are mere imitation, it may be fit to consider them rather as Historic than Dramatic beings ;P and, when occasion requires, to account for their conduct from the whole of character, from general principles, from latent motives, and from policies not avowed.
Foreign writer with an overmuch admiring of this Barbarian : Whether we have admired with knowledge, or have blindly followed those feelings of affection which we could not resist, I cannot tell ; but certain it is, that to the labours of his Editors he has not been overmuch obliged. They are however for the most part of the first rank in literary fame; but some of them had possessions of their own in Parnassus, of an extent too great and important to allow of a very diligent attention to the interests of others; and among those Critics more professionally so, the ablest and the best has unfortunately looked more to the praise of ingenious than of just conjecture. The character of his emendations are not so much that of right or wrong, as that, being in the extreme, they are always Warburtonian. Another has since undertaken the custody of our author, whom he seems to consider as a sort of wild Proteus or madman, and accordingly knocks him down with the butt-end of his critical staff, as often as he exceeds that line of sober discretion, which this learned Editor appears to have chalked out for him : Yet is this Editor notwithstanding “a man, take him for all in all,” very highly respectable for his genius and his learning. What however may be chiefly complained of in these gentlemen is, that having erected themselves into the condition, as it were, of guardians and trustees of Shakespeare, they have never undertaken to discharge the disgraceful incumbrances of some wretched productions which have long hung heavy on his fame. Besides the evidence of taste, which indeed is not communicable, there are yet other and more general proofs that these incumbrances were not incurred by Shakespeare: The Latin sentences dispersed thro’ the imputed trash is, I think, of itself a decisive one. Love's Labour lost contains a very conclusive one of another kind; tho' the very last Editor has, I believe, in his critical sagacity, suppressed the evidence, and withdrawn the record.
Yet whatever may be the neglect of some, or the
general pramunicable, therxuence of tastes ung heavy censure of others, there are those who firmly believe that this wild, this uncultivated Barbarian has not yet obtained one half of his fame ; and who trust that some new Stagyrite will arise, who instead of pecking at the surface of things will enter into the inward soul of his compositions, and expel, by the force of congenial feelings, those foreign impurities which have stained and disgraced his page. And as to those spots which will still remain, they may perhaps become invisible to those who shall seek them thro’ the medium of his beauties, instead of looking for those beauties, as is too frequently done, thro', the smoke of some real or imputed obscurity. When the hand of time shall have brushed off his present Editors and Commentators, and when the very name of Voltaire, and even the memory of the language in which he has written, shall be no more, the Apalachian mountains, the banks of the Ohio, and the plains of Sciota shall resound with the accents of this Barbarian : In his native tongue he shall roll the genuine passions of nature; nor shall the griefs of Lear be alleviated, or the charms and wit of Rosalind be abated by time. There is indeed nothing perishable about him, except that very learning which he is said so much to want. He had not, it is true, enough for the demands of the age in which he lived, but he had perhaps too much for the reach of his genius, and the interest of his fame. Milton and he will carry the decayed remnants and fripperies of antient mythology into more distant ages than they are by their own force intitled to extend ; and the Metamorphoses of Ovid, upheld by them, lay in a new claim to unmerited immortality.
Shakespeare is a name so interesting, that it is excusable to stop a moment, nay it would be indecent to pass him without the tribute of some admiration. He differs essentially from all other writers : Him we may profess rather to feel than to understand ; and it is safer to say, on many occasions, that we are possessed by him, than that we possess him. And no wonder ;-He scatters the
seeds of things, the principles of character and action, with so cunning a hand, yet with so careless an air, and, master of our feelings, submits himself so little to our judgment, that every thing seems superior. We discern not his course, we see no connection of cause and effect, we are rapt in ignorant admiration, and claim no kindred with his abilities. All the incidents, all the parts, look like chance, whilst we feel and are sensible that the whole is design. His Characters not only act and speak in strict conformity to nature, but in strict relation to us; just so much is shewn as is requisite, just so much is impressed; he commands every passage to our heads and to our hearts, and moulds us as he pleases, and that with so much ease, that he never betrays his own exertions. We see these Characters act from the mingled motives of passion, reason, interest, habit, and complection, in all their proportions, when they are supposed to know it not themselves; and we are made to acknowledge that their actions and sentiments are, from those motives, the necessary result. He at once blends and distinguishes every thing;—every thing is complicated, every thing is plain. I restrain the further expressions of my admiration lest they should not seem applicable to man; but it is really astonishing that a mere human being, a part of humanity only, should so perfectly comprehend the whole ; and that he should possess such exquisite art, that whilst every woman and every child shall feel the whole effect, his learned Editors and Commentators should yet so very frequently mistake or seem ignorant of the cause. A sceptre or a straw are in his hands of equal efficacy; he needs no selection; he converts every thing into excellence; nothing is too great, nothing is too base. Is a character efficient like Richard, it is every thing we can wish : Is it otherwise, like Hamlet, it is productive of equal admiration : Action produces one mode of excellence, and inaction another : The Chronicle, the Novel, or the Ballad ; the king, or the beggar, the hero, the madman, the sot, or the fool ; it is all one ;nothing is worse, nothing is better : The same genius