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Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for- realities, but because they bring realities to mind. When the imagination is recreated by a painted landscape, the trees are not supposed capable to give us shade, or the fountains coolness
; but we confider, how we should be pleased with such fountains playing beside us, and such woods waving?
We are agitated in reading the history of Henry the Fifth, yet no man takes his book for the field of Agencourt. A dramatick exhibition is a book recited with concomitants that encrease or diminish its effect. Familiar comedy is often more powerful on the theatre, than in the page ; imperial tragedy is always less. The humour of Petruchio may be heightened by grimace; but what voice or what gesture can hope to add dignity or force to the soliloquy of Cato.
A play read, affects the mind like a play acted. It is therefore evident, that the action is not supposed to be real, and it follows that between the acts a longer or shorter time may be allowed to pass, and that no more account of space or duration is to be taken by the auditor of a drama, than by the reader of a narrative, before-whom may pass in an hour the life of a hero, or the revolutions of an empire.
Whether Shakespeare knew the unities, and rejected them by design, or deviated from them by happy ignorance, it is, I think, impossible to decide; and useless to inquire. We may reasonably fuppose, that, when he rose to notice, he did not want the
counsels and admonitions of scholars and criticks, and that he at last deliberately persisted in a practice, which he might have begun by chance. As nothing is essential to the fable, but unity of action, and as the unities of time and place arise evidently from false assumptions, and, by circumscribing the extent of the drama, lessen its variety, I cannot think it much to be lamented, that they were not known by him, or not observed : Nor, if such another poet could arise, should I very vehemently reproach him, that his first act passed at Venice, and his next in Cyprus. Such violations of rules merely positive, become the comprehensive genius of Shakespeare, and such censures are suitable to the minute and sender criticism of Voltaire :
Non usque adeo permiscuit imis Longus summa dies, ut non, si voce Metelli Serventur leges, malint a Cæfare tolli.
Yet when I speak thus Nightly of dramatick rules, I cannot but recollect how much wit and learning may be produced against me ; before such authorities I am afraid to stand, not that I think the present question one of those that are to be decided by mere authority, but because it is to be suspected, that these precepts have not been so easily received but for better reasons than I have yet been able to find. The result of my enquiries, in which it would be ludicrous to boast of impartiality, is, that the unities of time and place are not essential to a just dra
ma, that though they may sometimes conduce to pleafure, they are always to be sacrificed to the nobler beauties of variety and instruction ; and that a play, written with nice observation of critical rules, is to be contemplated as an elaborate curiosity, as the product of superfluous and oftentatious art, by which is shewn rather what is possible, than what is neceffary,
He that, without diminution of any other excellence, shall preserve all the unities unbroken, deserves the like applause with the architect, who shall difplay all the orders of architecture in a citadel, without any
deduction from its strength ; but the principal beauty of a citadel is to exclude the enemy; and the greatest graces of a play, are to copy nature and inItruct life.
Perhaps, what I have here not dogmatically but deliberately written, may recal the principles of the drama to a new examination. I am almost frighted at my own temerity; and when I estimate the fame and the strength of those that maintain the contrary opinion, am ready to sink down in reverential filence; as Æneas withdrew from the defence of Troy, when he faw Neptune shaking the wall, and Juno heading the besiegers.
Those whom my arguments cannot persuade to give their approbation to the judgment of Shakespeare, will easily, if they consider the condition of his life, make some allowance for his ignorance.
Every man's performances, to be rightly estimated, must be compared with the state of the age in
which he lived, and with his own particular oppora tunities; and though to the reader a book be not worse or better for the circumstances of the authour, yet as there is always a silent reference of human works to human abilities, and as the enquiry, how far man may extend his designs, or how high he may rate his native force, is of far greater dignity than in what rank we shall place any particular performance, curiosity is always busy to discover the instruments, as well as to survey the workmanship, to know how much is to be ascribed to original powers, and how much to casual and adventitious help. The palaces of Peru or Mexico were certainly mean and incommodious habitations, if compared to the houses of European monarchs ; yet who could forbear to view them with astonishment, who remembered that they were built without the use of iron ?
The English nation, in the time of Shakespeare, was yet struggling to emerge from barbarity. The philology of Italy had been transplanted hither in the reign of Henry the Eighth; and the learned languages had been successfully cultivated by Lilly, Linacer, and More; by Pole, Cheke, and Gardiner; and afterwards by Smith, Clerk, Haddon, and Ascham. Greek was now taught to boys in the principal schools ; and those who united elegance with learning, read, with great diligence, the Italian and Spanish poets. But literature was yet confined to professed scholars, or to men and women of high rank. The publick was gross and dark; and to be able to read and write, was an accomplishment ftill valued for its rarity,
Nations, like individuals, have their infancy. A people newly awakened to literary curiosity, being yet unacquainted with the true state of things, knows not how to judge of that which is proposed as its resemblance. Whatever is remote from common appearances is always welcome to vulgar; as to childish credulity ; and of a country unenlightened by learning, the whole people is the vulgar. The study of those who then aspired to plebeian learning was laid out upon adventures, giants, dragons and enchantments. The death of Arthur was the favourite volume.
The mind, which has feasted on the luxurious wonders of fiction, has no taite of the insipidity of truth. A play which imitated only the common occurrences of the world; would, upon the admirers of Palmerin and Guy of Warwick, have made little impression; he that wrote for such an audience was under the neceflity of looking round for strange events and fabu. lous transactions, and that incredibility, by which maturer knowledge is offended, was the chief recoinmendation of writings, to unskilful curiosity:
Our authour's plots are generally borrowed from novels, and it is reasonable to suppose, that he chose the most popular, such as were read by many, and related by more; for his audience could not have followed him through the intricacies of the drama, had they not held the thread of the story in their hands.
The stories which we now find only in remoter authours, were in his time accessible and familiar. Vol. I.