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notwithstanding the person who speaks after it begins a new verse, without filling up the preceding one: nor with abrupt pauses and breakings off in the middle of a verse, when they humour any passion that is expressed by it.
Since I am upon this subject, I must observe that our English poets have succeeded much better in the style, than in the sentiments of their tragedies. Their language is very often noble and sonorous, but the sense either very trifling, or very common. On the contrary, in the ancient tragedies, and indeed in those of Corneille and Racine, though the expressions are very great, it is the thought that bears them up, and swells them. For my own part, I prefer a noble sentiment that is depressed with homely language, infinitely before a vulgar one that is blown up with all the sound and energy of expression. Whether this defect in our tragedies may arise from want of genius, knowledge, or experience in the writers, or from their compliance with the vicious taste of their readers, who are better judges of the language than of the senti ments, and consequently relish the one more than the other, I cannot determine. But I believe it might rectify the conduct both of the one and of the other, if the writer laid down the whole contexture of his dialogue in plain English, before he turned it into blank verse; and if the reader, after the perusal of a scene, would consider the naked thought of every speech in it, when divested of all its tragic ornaments. By these means, without being imposed upon by words, we may judge impartially of the thought, and consider whether it be natural or great enough for the person that utters it, whether it deserves to shine in such a blaze of eloquence, or show itself in such a variety of lights as are generally made use of by the writers of our English tragedy.
I must in the next place observe, that when our thoughts are great and just, they are often obscured
by the sounding phrases, hard metaphors, and forced expressions in which they are clothed. Shakspeare is often very faulty in this particular. There is a fine ob. servation in Aristotle to this purpose, which I have never seen quoted. "The expression," says he, "ought to be very much laboured in the unactive parts of the fable, as in descriptions, similitudes, narrations, and the like; in which the opinions, manners, and passions of men are not represented; for these (namely, the opinions, manners, and passions,) are apt to be obscured by pompous phrases and elaborate expressions." Horace, who copied most of his criticisms after Aristotle, seems to have had his eye on the fore. going rule, in the following verses:
Et tragicus plerumque dolet sermone pedestri :
"Tragedians too lay by their state to grieve:
Among our modern English poets, there is none who was better turned for tragedy than Lee; if instead of favouring the impetuosity of his genius, he had restrained it, and kept it within its proper bounds. His thoughts are wonderfully suited to tragedy, but frequently lost in such a cloud of words, that it is hard to see the beauty of them. There is an infinite fire in his works, but so involved in smoke, that it does not appear in half its lustre. He frequently succeeds in the passionate parts of the tragedy, but more particnlarly where he slackens his efforts, and eases the style of those epithets and metaphors, in which he so much
What can be more natural, more soft, or more passionate, than that line in Statira's speech, where she describes the charms of Alexander's conversation?
"Then he would talk-Good gods! how he would talk!"
That unexpected break in the line, and turning the description of his manner of talking into an adıniration of it, is inexpressibly beautiful, and wonderfully suited to the fond character of the person that speaks it. There is a simplicity in the words, that outshines the utmost pride of expression.
Otway has followed nature in the language of his tragedy, and therefore shines in the passionate parts, more than any of our English poets. As there is something familiar and domestic in the fable of his tragedy, more than in those of any other poet, he has little pomp, but great force in his expressions. For which reason, though he has admirably succeeded in the tender and melting part of his tragedies, he sometimes falls into too great a familiarity of phrase in those parts, which, by Aristotle's rule, ought to have been raised and supported by the dignity of expres
It has been observed by others, that this poet has founded his tragedy of Venice Preserved on so wrong a plot, that the greatest characters in it are those of rebels and traitors. Had the hero of his play discovered the same good qualities in the defence of his country, that he showed for its ruia and subversion, the audience could not enough pity and admire him: but as he is now represented, we can ouly say of him what the Roman historian says of Catiline, that his fall would have been glorious (si pro patria sic concidisset) had he so fallen in the service of his country.
The English writers of tragedy are possessed with a notion, that when they represent a virtuous or inno cent person in distress, they ought not to leave him till they have delivered him out of his troubles, or made him triumph over his enemies. This error they have been led into by a ridiculous doctrine in modern criticism, that they are obliged to an equal distribution of rewards and punishinents, and an impartial execution of poetical justice. Who were the first that esta blished this rule I know not; but I am sure it has no foundation in nature, in reason, or in the practice of the ancients. We find that good and evil happen alike to all men on this side the grave; and as the principal design of tragedy is to raise commiseration and terror in the minds of the audience, we shall defeat this great end, if we always make virtue and innocence happy and successful. Whatever crosses and disappointments a good man suffers in the body of the tragedy, they will make but small impression on our minds, when we know that in the last act he is to arrive at the end of his wishes and desires. When we see him engaged in the depth of his afflictions, we are apt to comfort ourselves, because we are sure he will find his way out of them; and that his grief, how great soever it may be at present, will soon terminate in gladFor this reason, the ancient writers of tragedy treated men in their plays, as they are dealt with in the world, by making virtue sometimes happy and sometimes miserable, as they found it in the fable which they made choice of, or as it might affect their audience in the most agreeable manner. Aristotle considers the tragedies that were written in either of these kinds, and observes, that those which ended unhappily had always pleased the people, and carried away the prize in the public disputes of the stage, from those that ended happily. Terror and commiseration leaye a pleasing anguish in the mind; and fix
the audience in such a serious composure of thought, as is much more lasting and delightful than any little transient starts of joy and satisfaction. Accordingly we find, that more of our English tragedies have succeeded, in which the favourites of the audience sink under their calamities, than those in which they recover themselves out of them. The best plays of this kind are, The Orphan, Venice Preserved, Alexander the Great, Theodosius, All for Love, Oedipus, Oroonoko, Othello, &c. King Lear is an admirable tragedy of the same kind, as Shakspeare wrote it; but as it is reformed according to the chimerical notion of poeti cal justice, in my humble opinion it has lost half its beauty. At the same time I must allow, that there are very noble tragedies, which have been framed upon the other plan, and have ended happily; as indeed most of the good tragedies which have been written since the starting of the above-mentioned criticism, have taken this turn: as The Mourning Bride, Tamerlane, Ulysses, Phædra and Hippolitus, with most of Mr. Dryden's. I must also allow, that many of Shakspeare's, and several of the celebrated tragedies of an. tiquity, are cast in the same form. I do not therefore dispute against this way of writing tragedies, but against the criticism that would establish this as the only method; and by that means would very much cramp the English tragedy, and perhaps give a wrong bent to the genius of our writers.
The tragi-comedy, which is the product of the English theatre, is one of the most monstrous inventions that ever entered into a poet's thoughts. An author might as well think of weaving the adventures of Eneas and Hudibras into one poem, as of writing such a motley piece of mirth and sorrow. But the absurdity of these performances is so very visible, that I shall not insist upon it.
The same objections which are made to tragi-comedy, may in some measure be applied to all tragedies that have a double plot in them which are like.