« AnteriorContinuar »
England, which, as the title shows, was a laboured exposition of the classical doctrines, Gildon had begun as an enemy of Rymer. In 1694 he had published Some Reflections on Mr. Rymer's Short View of Tragedy and an Attempt at a Vindication of Shakespeare. Therein he had spoken of “noble irregularity,” and censured the “graver pedants” of the age. By 1710 he is a grave pedant himself. In 1694 he had said that Rymer had scarce produced one criticism that was not borrowed from the French writers ; in 1710 the remark is now applicable to its author. Gildon's further descent as a critic is evident eight years later in his Complete Art of Poetry. He is now . a slave to the French doctrine of the rules. He confesses himself the less ready to pardon the “monstrous absurdities” of Shakespeare, as one or two plays, such as the Tempest, are “ very near a regularity." Yet he acknow-* ledges that Shakespeare abounds in beauties, and he makes some reparation by including a long list of his finer passages, Gildon was a man whose ideas took their colour from his surroundings. In the days of his acquaintanceship with Dryden he appreciated Shakespeare more heartily than when he was left to the friendship of Dennis or the favours of the Duke of Buckinghamshire. His Art of Poetry is a dishonest compilation, which owes what value it has to the sprinkling of contemporary allusions. It even incorporates, without any acknowledgment, long passages from Sidney's Apologie. We should be tempted to believe that Gildon merely put his name to a hack-work collection, were it not that there is a gradual deterioration in his criticism.
John Dennis also replied to Rymer's Short View, and was classed afterwards as one of Rymer's disciples. In his Impartial Critick (1693) he endeavoured to show that the methods of the ancient Greek tragedy, were not all suitable to the modern English theatre. To introduce a chorus, as Rymer had recommended, or to expel love from the stage, would, he argued, only ruin the English drama. But his belief in the classical rules
made him turn the Merry Wives into the Comical Gallant. As he found in the original three actions, each independent of the other, he had set himself to make the whole “depend on one common centre.” In the Dedication to the letters On the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare we read that Aristotle, “who may be calid the Legislator of Parnassus, wrote the laws of tragedy so exactly and so truly in reason and nature that succeeding criticks have writ justly and reasonably upon that art no farther than they have adhered to their great master's notions.” But at the very beginning of the letters themselves he says that “Shakespeare was one of the greatest geniuses that the world e'er saw.” Notwithstanding his pronounced classical taste, his sense of the greatness of Shakespeare is as strong as Rowe's, and much stronger than Gildon's. His writings prove him a man of competent scholarship, who had thought out his literary doctrines for himself, and could admire beauty in other than classical garb. The result is that at many points his opinions are at marked variance with those of Rymer, for whom, however, he had much respect. (Rymer, for instance, had said that Shakespeare's genius lay in comedy, but the main contention of Dennis's letters is that he had an unequalled gift for tragedy. As a critic Dennis is greatly superior to Rymer and his disciples. The ancients guided his taste without blinding him to modern excellence.
Even Lewis Theobald, whom some would consider Shakespeare's greatest friend in this century, believed in the rules. He complied with the taste of the town when he wrote pantomimes, but he was a sterner man when he posed as a critic. He would then speak of the “ general absurdities of Shakespeare," and the “ errors” in the structure of his plays. He passed this criticism both in his edition of Shakespeare and in the early articles in the Censor on King Lear, which are also of considerable historical interest as being the first essays devoted exclusively to an examination of a single Shakespearian play. His complacent. belief in the rules prompted him to correct Richard II.“ The many scattered beauties which I have long admired,” he says naïvely in the Preface, “induced me to think they would have stronger charms if they were interwoven in a regular Fable.” No less confident is a note on Love's Labour's Lost : “ Besides the exact regularity of the rules of art, which the author has happened to preserve in some few of his pieces, this is demonstration, I think, that though he has more frequently transgressed the unity of Time by cramming years into the compass of a play, yet he knew the absurdity of so doing, and was not unacquainted with the rule to the contrary.”ı (Theobald was a critic of the same type as Gildon. Each had profound respect for what he took to be the accredited doctrines. If on certain points Theobald's ideas were liable to change, the explanation is that he was amenable to the opinions of others. We do not find in Theobald's criticism the courage of originality.
There is little about the rules in Pope's Preface. That Pope respected them cannot be doubted, else he would not have spoken so well of Rymer, and in the critical notes added to his Homer we should not hear so much of Le Bossu's treatise on the Epic. But Pope was a discreet man, who knew when to be silent. He regarded it as a misfortune that Shakespeare was not so circum
i The note has reference to Biron's remark, towards the end of the last scene, that a “twelvemonth and a day” is “too long for a play” (ed. 1733, ii., p. 181). In Mr. Lounsbury's Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist, 1901—which I regret I did not see before the present Introduction was in type—it is urged as “demonstration ” of Theobald's sagacity that he had the insight to see that Shakespeare's disregard of the unities was owing not to ignorance but to intention. Theobald's note, however, has a suspicious similarity to what Gildon had said in his Art of Poetry, 1718, i., p. 99. It is, says Gildon, "plain from his (Shakespeare's own words he saw the absurdities of his own conduct. And I must confess that when I find that . . . he himself has written one or two plays very near a regularity, I am the less apt to pardon his errors that seem of choice, as agreeable to his lazyness and easie gain.”
2 Cf. the Dunciad, i. 69-72, where the inducements of satire make him adopt a decided attitude in favour of the dramatic rules.
stanced as to be able to write on the model of the ancients, but, unlike the pedant theorists, he refused to judge Shakespeare by the rules of a foreign drama. Much the same is to be said of Addison. His belief in the rules appears in his Cato. His over-rated criticism of Paradise Lost is little more than a laboured application of the system of Le Bossu. But in the Spectator he too urges that Shakespeare is not to be judged according to the rules. “Our critics do not seem sensible," he writes, “that there is more beauty in the works of a great genius who is ignorant of the rules of art than in those of a little genius who knows and observes them. Our inimitable Shakespeare is a stumbling-block to the whole tribe of these rigid critics. Who would not rather read one of his plays where there is not a single rule of the stage observed, than any production of a modern critic where there is not one of them violated ? The rigid critics continued to find fault with the structure of Shakespeare's plays. In the articles in the Adventurer on the Tempest and King Lear, Joseph Warton repeats the standard objection to tragi-comedy and underplots. In the Biographia Britannica we still find it stated that Shakespeare set himself to please the populace, and that the people "had no notion of the rules of writing, or the model of the Ancients." But one whose tastes were classical, both by nature and by training, had been thinking out the matter for himself. It was only after long reflection, and with much hesitation, that Johnson had disavowed what had almost come to be considered the very substance of the classical faith. In his Irene he had bowed to the rules ;' he had, however, begun to suspect them by the time he, wrote the Rambler, and in the Preface to his edition of Shakespeare suspicion has become conviction. His sturdy
1 No. 592. The quotation will prove the injustice of De Quincey's attitude to Addison in his Essay on Shakespeare. De Quincey even makes the strange statement that “by express examination, we ascertained the curious fact that Addison has never in one instance quoted or made any reference to Shakespeare” (Works, ed. Masson, iv., p. 24).
common sense and independence of judgment led him to anticipate much of what has been supposed to be the discovery of the romantic school. His Preface has received scant justice. There is no more convincing criticism of the neo-classical doctrines.
Henceforward we hear less about the rules. Johnson had performed a great service for that class of critics whose deference to learned opinion kept them from saying fully what they felt. The lesser men had not been at their ease when they referred to Shakespeare. We see their difficulty in the Latin lectures of Joseph Trapp, the first Professor of Poetry at Oxford, as well as in the Grub Street Essay upon English Tragedy (1747) by William Guthrie. They admire his genius, but they persist in regretting that his plays are not properly constructed. Little importance attaches to Mrs. Montagu's Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare (1769). It was only a well-meaning but shallow reply to Voltaire, and a reply was unnecessary. Johnson had already vindicated the national pride in Shakespeare. That his views soon became the commonplaces of those critics who strike the average of current opinion, is shown
1 It must be noted that some of Johnson's arguments had themselves been anticipated in Some Remarks on the Tragedy of Hamlet, 1736. The volume is anonymous, but has been ascribed to Sir Thomas Hanmer (see below, p. liii). It examines the play “according to the rules of reason and nature, without having any regard to those rules established by arbitrary dogmatising critics," and shows “the absurdity of such arbitrary rules” as the unities of time and place. It is a well-written, interesting book, and is greatly superior to the Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Hamlet, which appeared, likewise anonymously, in 1752.
For references to other works previous to Johnson's Preface which dispute the authority of the classical rules, see note on p. 126.
? Johnson's opinion of Mrs. Montagu's Essay has been recorded by Boswell (ed. Birkbeck Hill, ii., p. 88). But the book was well received. It went into a fourth edition in 1777, in which year it was translated into French. It is praised by such writers as Beattie and James Harris. Cf. Morgann, p. 270.
3 See Monsieur Jusserand's Shakespeare en France, 1898, and Mr. Lounsbury's Shakespeare and Voltaire, 1902.