Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

The Introduction has been planned to show the main lines in the development of Shakespeare's reputation, and to prove that the new criticism, which is said to begin with Coleridge, takes its rise as early as the third quarter of the eighteenth century. On the question of Theobald's qualifications as an editor, it would appear that we must subscribe to the deliberate verdict of Johnson. We require strong evidence before we may disregard contemporary opinion, and in Theobald's case there is abundant evidence to confirm Johnson's view. Johnson's own edition, on the other hand, has not received justice during the last century.

It is a pleasure to the Editor to record his obligations to Professor Raleigh, Mr. Gregory Smith, and Mr. J. H. Lobban.

Edinburgh, October, 1903.

INTRODUCTION

Shakespearian Criticism in the Eighteenth

Century

The early nineteenth century was too readily convinced by Coleridge and Hazlitt that they were the first to recognise and to explain the greatness of Shakespeare. If amends have recently been made to the literary ideals of Pope and Johnson, the reaction has not yet extended to Shakespearian criticism. Are we not still inclined to hold the verdicts of Hume and Chesterfield as representative of eighteenth-century opinion, and to find proof of a lack of appreciation in the editorial travesties of the playhouse? To this century, as much as to the nineteenth, Shakespeare was the glory of English letters. So Pope and Johnson had stated in unequivocal language, which should not have been forgotten. He is not so much an imitator as an instrument of Nature,” said Pope, “and 'tis not so just to say that he speaks from her as that she speaks through him , and Johnson declared that “the stream of time, which is continually washing the dissoluble fabrics of other poets, passes without injury by the adamant of Shakespeare.” But Pope and Johnson had ventured to point out, in the honesty of their criticism, that Shakespeare was not free from faults; and it was this which the nineteenth century chose to remark. Johnson's Preface in particular was remembered only to be despised. It is not rash to say that at the present time the majority of those who chance to speak of it pronounce it a discreditable performance.

This false attitude to the eighteenth century had its nemesis in the belief that we were awakened by foreigners to the greatness of Shakespeare. Even one so eminently sane as Hazlitt lent support to this opinion. “We will confess,” says the Preface to the Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, “ that some little jealousy of the character of the national understanding was not without its share in producing the following undertaking, for we were piqued that it should be reserved for a foreign critic to give reasons for the faith which we English have in Shakespeare”; and the whole Preface resolves itself, however reluctantly, into praise of Schlegel and censure of Johnson. When a thorough Englishman writes thus, it is not surprising that Germany should have claimed to be the first to give Shakespeare his true place. The heresy has been exposed ; but even the slightest investigation of eighteenth-century opinion, or the mere recollection of what Dryden had said, should have prevented its rise. Though Hazlitt took upon himself the defence of the national intelligence, he incorporated in his Preface a long passage from Schlegel, because, in his opinion, no English critic had shown like enthusiasm or philosophical acuteness. We cannot regret the delusion if we owe to it the Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, but his patriotic task would have been easier, and might even have appeared unnecessary, had he known that many of Schlegel's acute and enthusiastic observations had been anticipated at home.

Even those who are willing to give the eighteenth century'its due have not recognised how it appreciated Shakespeare, At no time in this century was he not popular. The author of Esmond tells us that Shakespeare was quite out of fashion until Steele brought him back into the mode. Theatrical records would alone

1 Esmond, ii, 10. Thackeray was probably recalling a passage in the eighth Tatler.

« AnteriorContinuar »