Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs in the receiving earth.
When Richard the Third utters the famous exclamation,—
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
it is no doubt inconsistent to see him both before and afterwards constantly fighting on foot. It is however better, perhaps, that the poet and player should by overpowering impressions dispose us to forget this, than by literal exactness to expose themselves to external interruptions. With all the disadvantages which I have mentioned, Shakspeare and several Spanish poets have contrived to derive such great beauties from the immediate representation of war, that I cannot bring myself to wish they had abstained from it. A theatrical manager of the present day will have a middle course to follow: his art must, in an especial manner, be directed to make what he shows us appear only as separate groups of an immense picture, which cannot be taken in at once by the eye; he must convince the spectators that the main action takes place behind the stage; and for this purpose he has easy means at his command in the nearer or more remote sound of warlike music and the din of arms.
However much Shakspeare celebrates the French conquest of Henry, still he has not omitted to hint, after his way, the secret springs of this undertaking. Henry was in want of foreign war to secure himself on the throne; the clergy also wished to keep him employed abroad, and made an offer of rich contributions to prevent the passing of a law which would have deprived them of the half of their revenues. His learned bishops consequently are as ready to prove to him his indisputable right to the crown of France, as he is to allow his conscience to be tranquillized by them. They prove that the Salic law is not, and never was, applicable to France; and the matter is treated in a more succinct and convincing manner than such subjects usually are in manifestoes. After his renowned battles, Henry wished to secure his conquests by marriage with a French princess; all that has reference to this is intended for irony in the play. The fruit of this union, from which two nations promised to themselves such happiness in future, was the weak and feeble Henry VI., under whom every thing was so miserably lost. It must not, therefore, be imagined that it was without the knowledge and will of the poet that a heroic drama turns out a comedy in his hands, and ends in the manner of Comedy with a marriage of convenience.
The three parts of Henry the Sixth, as I have already remarked, were composed much earlier than the preceding pieces. Shakspeare's choice fell first on this period of English history, so full of misery and horrors of every kind, because the pathetic is naturally more suitable than the characteristic to a young poet's mind. We do not yet find here the whole maturity of his genius, yet certainly its whole strength. Careless as to the apparent unconnectedness of contemporary events, he bestows little attention on preparation and development: all the figures follow in rapid succession, and announce themselves emphatically for what we ought to take them; from scenes where the effect is sufficiently agitating to form the catastrophe of a less extensive plan, the poet perpetually hurries us on to catastrophes still more dreadful. The First Part contains only the first forming of the parties of the White and Red Rose, under which blooming ensigns such bloody deeds were afterwards perpetrated; the varying results of the war in France principally fill the stage. The wonderful saviour of her country, Joan of Arc, is portrayed by Shakspeare with an Englishman's prejudices: yet he at first leaves it doubtful whether she has not in reality a heavenly mission; she appears in the pure glory of virgin heroism; by her supernatural eloquence (and this circumstance is of the poet's invention) she wins over the Duke of Burgundy to the French cause; afterwards, corrupted by vanity and luxury, she has recourse to hellish fiends, and comes to a miserable end. To her is opposed Talbot, a rough iron warrior, who moves us the more powerfully, as, in the moment when he is threatened with inevitable death, all his care is tenderly directed to save his son, who performs his first deeds of arms under his eye. After Talbot has in vain sacrificed himself, and the Maid of Orleans has fallen into the hands of the English, the French provinces are completely lost by an impolitic marriage; and with this the piece ends. The conversation between the aged Mortimer in prison, and Richard Plantagenet, afterwards Duke of York, contains an exposition of the claims of the latter to the throne: considered by itself it is a beautiful tragic elegy.
In the Second Part, the events more particularly prominent are the murder of the honest Protector, Gloster, and its consequences; the death of Cardinal Beaufort; the parting of the Queen from her favourite Suffolk, and his death by the hand of savage pirates; then the insurrection of Jack Cade under an assumed name, and at the instigation of the Duke of York. The short scene where Cardinal Beaufort, who is tormented by his conscience on account of the murder of Gloster, is visited on his death- bed by Henry VI. is sublime beyond all praise. Can any other poet be named who has drawn aside the curtain of eternity at the close of this life with such overpowering and awful effect? And yet it is not mere horror with which the mind is filled, but solemn emotion; a blessing and a curse stand side by side; the pious King is an image of the heavenly mercy which, even in the sinner's last moments, labours to enter into his soul. The adulterous passion of Queen Margaret and Suffolk is invested with tragical dignity and all low and ignoble ideas carefully kept out of sight. Without attempting to gloss over the crime of which both are guilty, without seeking to remove our disapprobation of this criminal love, he still, by the magic force of expression, contrives to excite in us a sympathy with their sorrow. In the insurrection of Cade he has delineated the conduct of a popular demagogue, the fearful ludicrousness of the anarchical tumult of the people, with such convincing truth, that one would believe he was an eye-witness of many of the events of our age, which, from ignorance of history, have been considered as without example.
The civil war only begins in the Second Part; in the Third it is unfolded in its full destructive fury. The picture becomes gloomier and gloomier; and seems at last to be painted rather with blood than with colours. With horror we behold fury giving birth to fury, vengeance to vengeance, and see that when all the bonds of human society are violently torn asunder, even noble matrons became hardened to cruelty. The most bitter contempt is the portion of the unfortunate; no one affords to his enemy that pity which he will himself shortly stand in need of. With all party is family, country, and religion, the only spring of action. As York, whose ambition is coupled with noble qualities, prematurely perishes, the object of the whole contest is now either to support an imbecile king, or to place on the throne a luxurious monarch, who shortens the dear-bought possession by the gratification of an insatiable voluptuousness. For this the celebrated and magnanimous Warwick spends his chivalrous life; Clifford revenges the death of his father with blood-thirsty filial love; and Richard, for the elevation of his brother, practises those dark deeds by which he is soon after to pave the way to his own greatness. In the midst of the general misery, of which he has been the innocent cause, King Henry appears like the powerless image of a saint, in whose wonder-working influence no man any longer believes: he can but sigh and weep over the enormities which he witnesses. In his simplicity, however, the gift of prophecy is lent to this pious king: in the moment of his death, at the close of this great tragedy, he prophesies a still more dreadful tragedy with which futurity is pregnant, as much distinguished for the poisonous wiles of cold-blooded wickedness as the former for deeds of savage fury.
The part of Richard III. has become highly celebrated in England from its having been filled by excellent performers, and this has naturally had an influence on the admiration of the piece itself, for many readers of Shakspeare stand in want of good interpreters of the poet to understand him properly. This admiration is certainly in every respect well founded, though I cannot help thinking there is an injustice in considering the three parts of Henry the Sixth as of little value compared with Richard the Third. These four plays were undoubtedly composed in succession, as is proved by the style and the spirit in the handling of the subject: the last is definitely announced in the one which precedes it, and is also full of references to it: the same views run through the series; in a word, the whole make together only one single work. Even the deep characterization of Richard is by no means the exclusive property of the piece which bears his name: his character is very distinctly drawn in the two last parts of Henry the Sixth; nay, even his first speeches lead us already to form the most unfavourable anticipations of his future conduct. He lowers obliquely like a dark thundercloud on the horizon, which gradually approaches nearer and nearer, and first pours out the devastating elements with which it is charged when it hangs over the heads of mortals. Two of Richard's most significant soliloquies which enable us to draw the most important conclusions with regard to his mental temperament, are to be found in The Last Part of Henry the Sixth. As to the value and the justice of the actions to which passion impels us, we may be blind, but wickedness cannot mistake its own nature; Richard, as well as Iago, is a villain with full consciousness. That they should say this in so many words, is not perhaps in human nature: but the poet has the right in soliloquies to lend a voice to the most hidden thoughts, otherwise the form of the monologue would, generally speaking, be censurable. [Footnote: What, however, happens in so many tragedies, where a person is made to avow himself a villain to his confidants, is most decidedly unnatural. He will, indeed, announce his way of thinking, not, however, under damning names, but as something that is understood of itself, and is equally approved of by others.] Richard's deformity is the expression of his internal malice, and perhaps in part the effect of it: for where is the ugliness that would not be softened by benevolence and openness? He, however, considers it as an iniquitous neglect of nature, which justifies him in taking his revenge on that human society from which it is the means of excluding him. Hence these sublime lines:
And this word love, which graybeards call divine. Be resident in men like one another, And not in me. I am myself alone.
Wickedness is nothing but selfishness designedly unconscientious; however it can never do altogether without the form at least of morality, as this is the law of all thinking beings,—it must seek to found its depraved way of acting on something like principles. Although Richard is thoroughly acquainted with the blackness of his mind and his hellish mission, he yet endeavours to justify this to himself by a sophism: the happiness of being beloved is denied to him; what then remains to him but the happiness of ruling? All that stands in the way of this must be removed. This envy of the enjoyment of love is so much the more natural in Richard, as his brother Edward, who besides preceded him in the possession of the crown, was distinguished by the nobleness and beauty of his figure, and was an almost irresistible conqueror of female hearts. Notwithstanding his pretended renunciation, Richard places his chief vanity in being able to please and win over the women, if not by his figure at least by his insinuating discourse. Shakspeare here shows us, with his accustomed acuteness of observation, that human nature, even when it is altogether decided in goodness or wickedness, is still subject to petty infirmities. Richard's favourite amusement is to ridicule others, and he possesses an eminent satirical wit. He entertains at bottom a contempt for all mankind: for he is confident of his ability to deceive them, whether as his instruments or his adversaries. In hypocrisy he is particularly fond of using religious forms, as if actuated by a desire of profaning in the service of hell the religion whose blessings he had inwardly abjured.
So much for the main features of Richard's character. The play named after him embraces also the latter part of the reign of Edward IV., in the whole a period of eight years. It exhibits all the machinations by which Richard obtained the throne, and the deeds which he perpetrated to secure himself in its possession, which lasted however but two years. Shakspeare intended that terror rather than compassion should prevail throughout this tragedy: he has rather avoided than sought the pathetic scenes which he had at command. Of all the sacrifices to Richard's lust of power, Clarence alone is put to death on the stage: his dream excites a deep horror, and proves the omnipotence of the poet's fancy: his conversation with the murderers is powerfully agitating; but the earlier crimes of Clarence merited death, although not from his brother's hand. The most innocent and unspotted sacrifices are the two princes: we see but little of them, and their murder is merely related. Anne disappears without our learning any thing farther respecting her: in marrying the murderer of her husband, she had shown a weakness almost incredible. The parts of Lord Rivers, and other friends of the queen, are of too secondary a nature to excite a powerful sympathy; Hastings, from his triumph at the fall of his friend, forfeits all title to compassion; Buckingham is the satellite of the tyrant, who is afterwards consigned by him to the axe of the executioner. In the background the widowed Queen Margaret appears as the fury of the past, who invokes a curse on the future: every calamity, which her enemies draw down on each other, is a cordial to her revengeful heart. Other female voices join, from time to time, in the lamentations and imprecations. But Richard is the soul or rather the daemon, of the whole tragedy. He fulfils the promise which he formerly made of leading the murderous Macchiavel to school. Notwithstanding the uniform aversion with which he inspires us, he still engages us in the greatest variety of ways by his profound skill in dissimulation, his wit, his prudence, his presence of mind, his quick activity, and his valour. He fights at last against Richmond like a desperado, and dies the honourable death of a hero on the field of battle. Shakspeare could not change this historical issue, and yet it is by no means satisfactory to our moral feelings, as Lessing, when speaking of a German play on the same subject, has very judiciously remarked. How has Shakspeare solved this difficulty? By a wonderful invention he opens a prospect into the other world, and shows us Richard in his last moments already branded with the stamp of reprobation. We see Richard and Richmond in the night before the battle sleeping in their tents; the spirits of the murdered victims of the tyrant ascend in succession, and pour out their curses against him, and their blessings on his adversary. These apparitions are properly but the dreams of the two generals represented visibly. It is no doubt contrary to probability that their tents should only be separated by so small a space; but Shakspeare could reckon on poetical spectators who were ready to take the breadth of the stage for the distance between two hostile camps, if for such indulgence they were to be recompensed by beauties of so sublime a nature as this series of spectres and Richard's awakening soliloquy. The catastrophe of Richard the Third is, in respect of the external events, very like that of Macbeth: we have only to compare the thorough difference of handling them to be convinced that Shakspeare has most accurately observed poetical justice in the genuine sense of the word, that is, as signifying the revelation of an invisible blessing or curse which hangs over human sentiments and actions.
Although the last four pieces of the historical series paint later events, yet the plays of Henry the Fourth and Fifth have, in tone and costume, a much more modern appearance. This is partly owing to the number of comic scenes; for the comic must always be founded not only in national, but also in contemporary manners. Shakspeare, however, seems also to have had the same design in the serious part. Bloody revolutions and devastations of civil war appear to posterity as a relapse into an earlier and more uncultivated condition of society, or they are in reality accompanied by such a relapse into unbridled savageness. If therefore the propensity of a young poetical mind to remove its object to a wonderful distance has had an influence on the style in which Henry the Sixth and Richard the Third are conceived, Shakspeare has been rightly guided by his instinct. As it is peculiar to the heroic poem to paint the races of men in times past as colossal in strength of body and resolution, so in these plays, the voices of a Talbot, a Warwick, a Clifford, and others, so ring on our ear that we imagine we hear the clanging trumpets of foreign or of civil war. The contest of the Houses of York and Lancaster was the last outbreak of feudal independence; it was the cause of the great and not of the people, who were only dragged into the struggle by the former. Afterwards the part was swallowed up in the whole, and no longer could any one be, like Warwick, a maker of kings. Shakspeare was as profound a historian as a poet; when we compare his Henry the Eighth with the preceding pieces, we see distinctly that the English nation during the long, peaceable, and economical reign of Henry VII., whether from the exhaustion which was the fruit of the civil wars, or from more general European influences, had made a sudden transition from the powerful confusion of the middle age, to the regular tameness of modern times. Henry the Eighth has, therefore, somewhat of a prosaic appearance; for Shakspeare, artist-like, adapted himself always to the quality of his materials. If others of his works, both in elevation of fancy and in energy of pathos and character, tower far above this, we have here on the other hand occasion to admire his nice powers of discrimination and his perfect knowledge of courts and the world. What tact was requisite to represent before the eyes of the queen [Footnote: It is quite clear that Henry the Eighth was written while Elizabeth was still alive. We know that Ben Jonson, in the reign of King James, brought the piece again on the stage with additional pomp, and took the liberty of making several changes and additions. Without doubt, the prophecy respecting James the First is due to Ben Jonson: it would only have displeased Elizabeth, and is so ill introduced that we at once recognize in it a foreign interpolation.] subjects of such a delicate nature, and in which she was personally so nearly concerned, without doing violence to the truth! He has unmasked the tyrannical king, and to the intelligent observer exhibited him such as he was actually: haughty and obstinate, voluptuous and unfeeling, extravagant in conferring favours, and revengeful under the pretext of justice; and yet the picture is so dexterously handled that a daughter might take it for favourable. The legitimacy of Elizabeth's birth depended on the invalidity of Henry's first marriage, and Shakspeare has placed the proceedings respecting his separation from Catharine of Arragon in a very doubtful light. We see clearly that Henry's scruples of conscience are no other than the beauty of Anne Boleyn. Catharine is, properly speaking, the heroine of the piece; she excites the warmest sympathy by her virtues, her defenceless misery, her mild but firm opposition, and her dignified resignation. After her, the fall of Cardinal Wolsey constitutes the principal part of the business. Henry's whole reign was not adapted for dramatic poetry. It would have merely been a repetition of the same scenes: the repudiation, or the execution of his wives, and the disgrace of his most estimable ministers, which was usually soon followed by death. Of all that distinguished Henry's life Shakspeare has given us sufficient specimens. But as, properly speaking, there is no division in the history where he breaks off, we must excuse him if he gives us a flattering compliment of the great Elizabeth for a fortunate catastrophe. The piece ends with the general joy at the birth of that princess, and with prophecies of the happiness which she was afterwards to enjoy or to diffuse. It was only by such a turn that the hazardous freedom of thought in the rest of the composition could have passed with impunity: Shakspeare was not certainly himself deceived respecting this theatrical delusion. The true conclusion is the death of Catharine, which under a feeling of this kind, he has placed earlier than was conformable to history. I have now gone through all the unquestionably genuine works of Shakspeare. I have carefully abstained from all indefinite eulogies, which merely serve to prove a disproportion betwixt the feeling and the capability of expressing it. To many the above observations will appear too diffuse for the object and plan of these Lectures; to others they will perhaps seem unsatisfactory. I shall be satisfied if they place those readers who are not yet familiar with the poet in the right point of view, and pave the way for a solid knowledge, and if they recall to the minds of intelligent critics some of those thoughts which have occurred to themselves.
Respecting the Pieces said to be falsely attributed to Shakspeare.
The commentators of Shakspeare, in their attempts to deprive him of parts of his works, or even of whole pieces, have for the most part displayed very little of a true critical spirit. Pope, as is well known, was strongly disposed to reject whole scenes as interpolations by the players; but his opinion was not much listened to. However, Steevens acceded to the opinion of Pope, as to the apparition of the ghosts and of Jupiter, in Cymbeline, while Posthumus is sleeping in the dungeon. But Posthumus finds on waking a tablet on his breast, with a prophecy on which the dnouement of the piece depends. Is it to be imagined that Shakspeare would require of his spectators the belief in a wonder without a visible cause? Can Posthumus have got this tablet with the prophecy by dreaming? But these gentlemen do not descend to this objection. The verses which the apparitions deliver do not appear to them good enough to be Shakspeare's. I imagine I can discover why the poet has not given them more of the splendour of diction. It is the aged parents and brothers of Posthumus, who, from concern for his fate, return from the world below: ought they not consequently to speak the language of a more simple olden time, and their voices, too, ought they not also to seem a feeble sound of wailing, when contrasted with the thundering oracular language of Jupiter? For this reason Shakspeare chose a syllabic measure which was very common before his time, but which was then going out of fashion, though it still continued to be frequently used, especially in translations of the classical poets. In some such manner might the shades express themselves in the then existing translations of Homer and Virgil. The speech of Jupiter is, on the other hand, majestic, and in form and style bears a complete resemblance to Shakspeare's sonnets. Nothing but incapacity to appreciate the views of the poet, and the perspective observed by him, could lead them to stumble at this passage.
Pope would willingly have declared the Winter's Tale spurious, one of the noblest creations of the equally bold and lovely fancy of Shakspeare. Why? I suppose on account of the ship coming to Bohemia, and of the chasm of sixteen years between the third and fourth acts, which Time as a prologue entreats us to overleap.
The Three Parts of Henry the Sixth are now at length admitted to be Shakspeare's. Theobald, Warburton, and lastly Farmer, affirmed that they were not Shakspeare's. In this case, we might well ask them to point out the other works of the unknown author, who was capable of inventing, among many others, the noble death-scenes of Talbot, Suffolk, Beaufort, and York. The assertion is so ridiculous, that in this case Richard the Third might also not be Shakspeare's, as it is linked in the most immediate manner to the three other pieces, both by the subject, and the spirit and style of handling.
All the editors, with the exception of Capell, are unanimous in rejecting Titus Andronicus as unworthy of Shakspeare, though they always allow it to be printed with the other pieces, as the scape-goat, as it were, of their abusive criticism. The correct method in such an investigation is first to examine into the external grounds, evidences, &c., and to weigh their value; and then to adduce the internal reasons derived from the quality of the work. The critics of Shakspeare follow a course directly the reverse of this; they set out with a preconceived opinion against a piece, and seek, in justification of this opinion, to render the historical ground suspicious, and to set them aside. Now Titus Andronicus is to be found in the first folio edition of Shakspeare's works, which it is known was published by Heminge and Condell, for many years his friends and fellow-managers of the same theatre. Is it possible to persuade ourselves that they would not have known if a piece in their repertory did or did not really belong to Shakspeare? And are we to lay to the charge of these honourable men an intentional fraud in this single case, when we know that they did not show themselves so very desirous of scraping everything together which went by the name of Shakspeare, but, as it appears, merely gave those plays of which they had manuscripts in hand? Yet the following circumstance is still stronger. George Meres, a contemporary and admirer of Shakspeare, in an enumeration of his works, mentions Titus Andronicus, in the year 1598. Meres was personally acquainted with the poet, and so very intimately, that the latter read over to him his sonnets before they were printed. I cannot conceive that all the critical scepticism in the world would ever be able to get over such a testimony.
This tragedy, it is true, is framed according to a false idea of the tragic, which by an accumulation of cruelties and enormities, degenerates into the horrible, and yet leaves no deep impression behind: the story of Tereus and Philomela is heightened and overcharged under other names, and mixed up with the repast of Atreus and Thyestes, and many other incidents. In detail there is no want of beautiful lines, bold images, nay, even features which betray the peculiar conception of Shakspeare. Among these we may reckon the joy of the treacherous Moor at the blackness and ugliness of his adulterous offspring; and in the compassion of Titus Andronicus, grown childish through grief, for a fly which had been struck dead, while his rage afterwards, when he imagines he discovers in it his black enemy, we recognize the future poet of Lear. Are the critics afraid that Shakspeare's fame would be injured, were it established that in his early youth he ushered into the world a feeble and immature work? Was Rome the less the conqueror of the world, because Remus could leap over its first walls? Let any one place himself in Shakspeare's situation at the commencement of his career. He found only a few indifferent models, and yet these met with the most favourable reception, because in the novelty of an art, men are never difficult to please, before their taste has been made fastidious by choice and abundance. Must not this situation have had its influence on him before he learned to make higher demands on himself, and by digging deeper in his own mind, discovered the rich veins of noble metal that ran there? It is even highly probable that he must have made several failures before he succeeded in getting into the right path. Genius is in a certain sense infallible, and has nothing to learn; but art is to be learned, and must be acquired by practice and experience. In Shakspeare's acknowledged works we find hardly any traces of his apprenticeship, and yet apprenticeship he certainly had. This every artist must have, and especially in a period where he has not before him the examples of a school already formed. I consider it as extremely probable that Shakspeare began to write for the theatre at a much earlier period than the one which is generally stated, namely, after the year 1590. It appears that, as early as the year 1584, when only twenty years of age, he had left his paternal home and repaired to London. Can we imagine that such an active head would remain idle for six whole years without making any attempt to emerge by his talents from an uncongenial situation? That in the dedication of the poem of Venus and Adonis he calls it "the first heir of his invention," proves nothing against the supposition. It was the first which he printed; he might have composed it at an earlier period; perhaps, also, in this term, "heirs of his invention," he did not indulge theatrical labours, especially as they then conferred but little to his literary dignity. The earlier Shakspeare began to compose for the theatre, the less are we enabled to consider the immaturity and imperfection of a work a proof of its spuriousness in opposition to historical evidence, if only we can discern in it prominent features of his mind. Several of the works rejected as spurious, may still have been produced in the period betwixt Titus Andronicus, and the earliest of the acknowledged pieces.
At last, in two supplementary volumes, Steevens published seven pieces ascribed to Shakspeare. It is to be remarked, that they all appeared in print in Shakspeare's life-time, with his name prefixed at full length. They are the following:—
1. Lochrine. The proofs of the genuineness of this piece are not altogether unambiguous; the grounds for doubt, on the other hand, are entitled to attention. However, this question is immediately connected with that respecting Titus Andronicus, and must with it be resolved in the affirmative or negative.
2. Pericles, Prince of Tyre. This piece was acknowledged by Dryden to be a work, but a youthful work of Shakspeare's. It is most undoubtedly his, and it has been admitted into several late editions of his works. The supposed imperfections originate in the circumstance, that Shakspeare here handled a childish and extravagant romance of the old poet Gower, and was unwilling to drag the subject out of its proper sphere. Hence he even introduces Gower himself, and makes him deliver a prologue in his own antiquated language and versification. This power of assuming so foreign a manner is at least no proof of helplessness.
3. The London Prodigal. If we are not mistaken, Lessing pronounced this piece to be Shakspeare's, and wished to bring it on the German stage.
4. The Puritan; or The Widow of Wailing Street. One of my literary friends, intimately acquainted with Shakspeare, was of opinion that the poet must have wished for once to write a play in the style of Ben Jonson, and that in this way we must account for the difference between the present piece and his usual manner. To follow out this idea, however, would lead to a long and very nice critical investigation.
5. Thomas Lord Cromwell.
6. Sir John Oldcastle.—First part.
7. A Yorkshire Tragedy.
The three last pieces are not only unquestionably Shakspeare's, but in my opinion they deserve to be classed among his best and maturest works. Steevens at last admits, in some degree, that they, as well as the rest, except Lochrine, are Shakspeare's, but he speaks of all of them with great contempt, as worthless productions. His condemnatory sentence is not, however, in the slightest degree convincing, nor is it supported by much critical acumen. I should like to see how such a critic would, of his own natural suggestion, have decided on Shakspeare's acknowledged master-pieces, and how much he would have thought of praising in them, had not the public opinion already imposed on him the duty of admiration. Thomas Lord Cromwell and Sir John Oldcastle are biographical dramas, and in this species they are models: the first, by its subject, attaches itself to Henry the Eighth, and the second to Henry the Fifth. The second part of Sir John Oldcastle is wanting; I know not whether a copy of the old edition has been discovered in England, or whether it is lost. The Yorkshire Tragedy is a tragedy in one act, a dramatised tale of murder: the tragical effect is overpowering, and it is extremely important to see how poetically Shakspeare could handle such a subject.
Still farther, there have been ascribed to him, 1st. The Merry Devil of Edmonton, a comedy in one act, printed in Dodsley's Collection of Old Plays. This has, certainly, some appearance in its favour. It contains a merry landlord, who bears great similarity to the one in The Merry Wives of Windsor. However, at all events, though a clever, it is but a hasty sketch. 2nd. The Arraignment of Paris. 3rd. The Birth of Merlin. 4th. Edward the Third. 5th. The Fair Em. (Emma). 6th. Mucedorus. 7th. Arden of Feversham. I have never seen any of these, and cannot therefore say anything respecting them. From the passages cited, I am led to conjecture that the subject of Mucedorus is the popular story of Valentine and Orson: a beautiful subject which Lope de Vega has also taken for a play. Arden of Feversham is said to be a tragedy on the story of a man from whom the poet descended by the mother's side. This circumstance, if the quality of the piece be not too directly at variance with its supposed authorship, would afford an additional probability in its favour. For such motives were not without their influence on Shakspeare: thus he treated with a manifest partiality, Henry VII., who had bestowed lands on his forefathers for services performed by them.
Of Shakspeare's share in The Two Noble Cousins, it will be the time to speak when I come to mention Fletcher's works.
It would be very instructive, if it could be proved that several earlier attempts of works, afterwards re-written, proceeded from himself, and not from an unknown author. We should thus be best enabled to trace his development as an artist. Of the older King John, in two parts, (printed by Steevens among six old plays,) this might probably be made out. That he sometimes returned to an old piece is certain. With respect to Hamlet, for instance, it is well known, that it was very gradually formed by him to its present perfect state.
Whoever takes from Shakspeare a play early ascribed to him, and confessedly belonging to his time, is certainly bound to answer, with some degree of probability, this question: who then wrote it? Shakspeare's competitors in the dramatic walk are pretty well known, and if those of them who have even acquired a considerable reputation, a Lilly, a Marlow, a Heywood, are still very far below him, we can hardly imagine that the author of a work, which rises so high beyond theirs, could have remained unknown.
Two periods of the English Theatre: the first the most important—The first conformation of the Stage, and its advantages—State of the Histrionic Art in Shakspeare's time—Antiquities of Dramatic Literature— Lilly, Marlow, Heywood—Ben Jonson—Criticism of his Works—Masques— Beaumont and Fletcher—General characterization of these Poets, and remarks on some of their Pieces—Massinger and other contemporaries of Charles the First.
The great master of whom we have spoken in the preceding Lecture, forms so singular an exception to the whole history of art, that we are compelled to assign a particular place to him. He owed hardly anything to his predecessors, and he has had the greatest influence on his successors: but no man has yet learned from him his secret. For two whole centuries, during which his countrymen have diligently employed themselves in the cultivation of every branch of science and art, according to their own confession, he has not only never yet been surpassed, but has left every dramatic poet at a great distance behind him.
In the sketch of a history of the English theatre which I am now to give, I shall be frequently obliged to return to Shakspeare. The dramatic literature of the English is very rich; they can boast of a large number of dramatic poets, who possessed in an eminent degree the talent of original characterization, and the knowledge of theatrical effect. Their hands were not shackled by prejudices, by arbitrary rules, and by the anxious observance of so-called proprieties. There has never been in England an academical court of taste; in art, as in life, every man there gives his voice for what best pleases him, or what is most suitable to his nature. Notwithstanding this liberty, their writers have not, however, been able to escape the influence either of varying modes, or of the spirit of different ages.
We shall here remain true to our principle of merely dwelling at length on what we consider as the highest efforts of poetry, and of taking brief views of all that occupies but the second or third place.
The antiquities of the English theatre have been sufficiently illustrated by the English writers, and especially by Malone. The earliest dramatic attempts were here as well as elsewhere Mysteries and Moralities. However it would seem that in these productions the English distinguished themselves at an earlier period than other nations. In the History of the Council of Constance it is recorded that the English prelates, in one of the intervals between the sittings, entertained their brethren with a spiritual play in Latin, such as the latter were either entirely unacquainted with, or at least in such perfection, (as perfection was understood by the simple ideas of art of those times). The beginning of a theatre, properly so called, cannot, however, be placed farther back than the reign of Elizabeth. John Heywood, the buffoon of Henry VIII. is considered as the oldest comic writer: the single Interlude under his name, published in Dodsley's collection, is in fact merely a dialogue, and not a drama. But Gammer Gurton's Needle, which was first acted about the year 1560, certainly deserves the name of a comedy. However antiquated in language and versification, it possesses unequivocal merit in the low comic. The whole plot turns on a lost needle, the search for which is pursued with the utmost assiduity: the poverty of the persons of the drama, which this supposes, and the whole of their domestic condition, is very amusingly portrayed, and the part of a cunning beggar especially is drawn with much humour. The coarse comic of this piece bears a resemblance to that of the Avocat Patelin; yet the English play has not, like the French, been honoured with a revival on the stage in a new shape.
The history of the English theatre divides itself naturally into two periods. The first begins nearly with the accession of Elizabeth, and extends to about the end of the reign of Charles I., when the Puritans gained the ascendency, and effected the prohibition of all plays whatsoever. The closing of the theatres lasted thirteen years; and they were not again opened till the restoration of Charles II. This interruption, the change which had taken place in the mean time on the general way of thinking and in manners, and lastly, the influence of the French literature which was then flourishing, gave quite a different character to the plays subsequently written. The works of the older school were indeed in part sought out, but the school itself was extinct. I apply the term of a "school" to the dramatical poets of the first aera, in the same sense as it is taken in art, for with all their personal differences we may still perceive on the whole a common character in their productions. Independently of the language or contemporary allusions, we should never be disposed to take a play of that school, though ignorant of its author, and the date of its production, for a work of the more modern period. The latter period admits of many subdivisions, but with these, however, we may dispense. The talents of the authors, and the taste of the public, have fluctuated in every possible way; foreign influence has gained more and more the ascendency, and (to express myself without circumlocution,) the English theatre has in its progress become more and more destitute of character and independence. For a critic, who everywhere seeks originality, troubling himself little about what has arisen from the following or the avoiding of imitation, the dramatic poets of the first period are by far the most important, although, with the exception of Shakspeare, they may be reproached with great defects and extravagances, and although many of the moderns are distinguished for a more careful polish.
There are times when the human mind all at once makes gigantic strides in an art previously almost unknown, as if during its long sleep it had been collecting strength for the effort. The age of Elizabeth was in England such an epoch for dramatic poetry. This queen, during her long reign, witnessed the first infantine attempts of the English theatre, and its most masterly productions. Shakspeare had a lively feeling of this general and rapid development of qualities not before called into exercise; in one of his sonnets he calls his age, these time-lettering days. The predilection for the theatre was so great, that in a period of sixty years, under this and the following reign, seventeen play-houses were built or fitted up in London, whereas the capital of the present day, with twice the population, [Footnote: The author might almost have said six times.—TRANS.] is satisfied with two. No doubt they did not act every day, and several of these theatres were very small, and probably not much better fitted up than Marionette booths. However, they served to call forth the fertility of those writers who possessed, or supposed that they possessed, dramatic talents; for every theatre must have had its peculiar repertory, as the pieces were either not printed at all, or at least not till long after their composition, and as a single theatrical company was in the exclusive possession of the manuscripts. However many of feeble and lame productions might have been called forth, still it was impossible that such an extensive competition should not have been advantageous. Of all the different species of poetry the dramatic is the only one in which experience is necessary: and the failure of others is, for the man of talents, an experiment at their expense. Moreover, the exercise of this art requires vigorous determination, to which the great artist is often the least inclined, as in the execution he finds the greatest difficulty in satisfying himself; while, on the other hand, his greatest enjoyment consists in embodying in his own mind the beloved creation of his imagination. It is therefore fortunate for him when the bolder forwardness of those who, with trifling means, venture on this difficult career stimulates him to put fresh hand to the work. Further, it is of importance to the dramatic poet to be connected immediately with the stage, that he may either himself guide it, or learn to accommodate himself to its wants; and the dramatic poets of that day were, for the most part, also players. The theatre still made small claims to literature, and it thus escaped the pedantry of scholastic learning. There were as yet no periodical writings which, as the instrument of cabal, could mislead opinion. Of jealousies, indeed, and bickerings among the authors there was no want: this, however, was more a source of amusement than of displeasure to the public, who decided without prejudice or partiality according to the amount of entertainment. The poets and players, as well as the spectators, possessed in general the most essential requisite of success: a true love for the business. This was the more unquestionable, as the theatrical art was not then surrounded with all those foreign ornaments and inventions of luxury which serve to distract the attention and corrupt the sense, but made its appearance in the most modest, and we may well say in the most humble shape. For the admirers of Shakspeare it must be an object of curiosity to know what was the appearance of the theatre in which his works were first performed. We have an engraving of the play-house of which he was manager, and which, from the symbol of a Hercules supplying the place of Atlas, was called the Globe: it is a massive structure destitute of architectural ornaments, and almost without windows in the outward walls. The pit was open to the sky, and the acting was by day-light; the scene had no other decoration than wrought tapestry, which hung at some distance from the walls, and left space for several entrances. In the back-ground of the stage there was a second stage raised above it, a sort of balcony, which served for various purposes, and according to circumstances signified all manner of things. The players appeared, excepting on a few rare occasions, in the dress of their time, or at most distinguished by higher feathers on their hats and roses on their shoes. The chief means of disguise were false hair and beards, and occasionally also masks. The female parts were played by boys so long as their voice allowed it. Two companies of actors in London consisted entirely of boys, namely, the choir of the Queen's Chapel and that of St. Paul's. Betwixt the acts it was not customary to have music, but in the pieces themselves marches, dances, solo songs, and the like, were introduced on fitting occasions, and trumpet flourishes at the entrance of great personages. In the more early time it was usual to represent the action before it was spoken, in silent pantomime (dumb show) between each act, allegorically or even without any disguise, to give a definite direction to the expectation. Shakspeare has observed this practice in the play in Hamlet.
By the present lavish appliance of every theatrical accessory;—of architecture, lighting, music, the illusion of decorations changing in a moment as if by enchantment, machinery and costume;—by all this, we are now so completely spoiled, that this earlier meagreness of stage decoration will in no wise satisfy us. Much, however, might be urged in favour of such a constitution of the theatre. Where the spectators are not allured by any splendid accessories, they will be the more difficult to please in the main thing, namely, the excellence of the dramatic composition, and its embodying by delivery and action. When perfection is not attainable in external decoration, the critic will rather altogether overlook it than be disturbed by its deficiencies and tastelessness. And how seldom has perfection been here attained! It is about a century and a half since attention began to be paid to the observance of costume on the European stage; what with this view has been accomplished has always appeared excellent to the multitude, and yet, to judge from the engravings which sometimes accompany the printed plays, and from every other evidence, it is plain that it was always characterized by puerility and mannerism, and that in none the endeavours to assume a foreign or antique appearance, could shake themselves free of the fashions of the time. A sort of hoop was long considered as an indispensable appendage of a hero; the long peruques and fontanges, or topknots, kept their ground in heroical tragedy as long as in real life; afterwards it would have been considered as barbarous to appear without powdered and frizzled hair; on this was placed a helmet with variegated feathers; a taffeta scarf fluttered over the gilt paper coat of mail; and the Achilles or Alexander was then completely mounted. We have now at last returned to a purer taste, and in some great theatres the costume is actually observed in a learned and severe style. We owe this principally to the antiquarian reform in the arts of design, and the approximation of the female dress to the Grecian; for the actresses were always the most inveterate in retaining on the stage those fashions by which they turned their charms to account in society. However, even yet there are very few players who know how to wear a Grecian purple mantle, or a toga, in a natural and becoming manner; and who, in moments of passion, do not seem to be unduly occupied with holding and tossing about their drapery.
Our system of decoration was properly invented for the opera, to which it is also in reality best adapted. It has several unavoidable defects; others which certainly may be, but seldom are avoided. Among the inevitable defects I reckon the breaking of the lines in the side scenes from every point of view except one; the disproportion between the size of the player when he appears in the background, and the objects as diminished in the perspective; the unfavourable lighting from below and behind; the contrast between the painted and the actual lights and shades; the impossibility of narrowing the stage at pleasure, so that the inside of a palace and a hut have the same length and breadth, &c. The errors which may be avoided are, want of simplicity and of great and reposing masses; overloading the scenery with superfluous and distracting objects, either from the painter being desirous of showing his strength in perspective, or not knowing how otherwise to fill up the space; an architecture full of mannerism, often altogether unconnected, nay, even at variance with possibility, coloured in a motley manner which resembles no species of stone in the world. Most scene-painters owe their success entirely to the spectator's ignorance of the arts of design; I have often seen a whole pit enchanted with a decoration from which the eye of skill must have turned away with disgust, and in whose place a plain green wall would have been infinitely better. A vitiated taste for splendour of decoration and magnificence of dress, has rendered the arrangement of the theatre a complicated and expensive business, whence it frequently happens that the main requisites, good pieces and good players, are considered as secondary matters; but this is an inconvenience which it is here unnecessary to mention.
Although the earlier English stage had properly no decorations, we must allow, however, that it was not altogether destitute of machinery: without it, it is almost impossible to conceive how several pieces, for instance, Macbeth, The Tempest, and others, could ever be represented. The celebrated architect, Inigo Jones, who lived in the reign of James the First, put in motion very complicated and artificial machines for the decoration of the Masques of Ben Jonson which were acted at court.
With the Spanish theatre at the time of its formation, it was the same as with the English, and when the stage had remained a moment empty, and other persons came in by another entrance, a change of scene was to be supposed though none was visible; and this circumstance had the most favourable influence on the form of the dramas. The poet was not obliged to consult the scene-painter to know what could or what could not be represented; nor to calculate whether the store of decorations on hand were sufficient, or new ones would be requisite: he was not driven to impose restraint on the action as to change of times and places, but represented it entirely as it would naturally have taken place: [Footnote: Capell, an intelligent commentator on Shakspeare, unjustly underrated by the others, has placed the advantages in this respect in the clearest light, in an observation on Antony and Cleopatra. It emboldened the poet, when the truth of the action required it, to plan scenes which the most skilful mechanist and scene-painter could scarcely exhibit to the eye; as for instance, in a Spanish play where sea-fights occur.] he left to the imagination to fill up the intervals agreeably to the speeches, and to conceive all the surrounding circumstances. This call on the fancy to supply the deficiencies supposes, indeed, not merely benevolent, but also intelligent spectators of a poetical tone of mind. That is the true illusion, when the spectators are so completely carried away by the impressions of the poetry and the acting, that they overlook the secondary matters, and forget the whole of the remaining objects around them. To lie morosely on the watch to detect every circumstance that may violate an apparent reality which, strictly speaking, can never be attained, is in fact a proof of inertness of imagination and an incapacity for mental illusion. This prosaical incredulity may be carried so far as to render it utterly impossible for the theatrical artists, who in every constitution of the theatre require many indulgences, to amuse the spectators by their productions; and thus they are, in the end, the enemies of their own enjoyment.
We now complain, and with justice, that in the acting of Shakspeare's pieces the too frequent change of scenes occasions an interruption. But the poet is here perfectly blameless. It ought to be known that the English plays of that time, as well as the Spanish, were printed without any mention of the scene and its changes. In Shakspeare the modern editors have inserted the scenical directions; and in doing so, they have proceeded with the most pedantic accuracy. Whoever has the management of the representation of a piece of Shakspeare's may, without any hesitation, strike out at once all such changes of scene as the following:-"Another room in the palace, another street, another part of the field of battle," &c. By these means alone, in most cases, the change of decorations will be reduced to a very moderate number.
Of the actor's art on a theatre which possessed so little external splendour as the old English, those who are in the habit of judging of the man from his dress will not be inclined to entertain a very favourable idea. I am induced, however, from this very circumstance, to draw quite a contrary conclusion: the want of attractions of an accessory nature renders it the more necessary to be careful in essentials. Several Englishmen [Footnote: See a Dialogue prefixed to the 11th volume of Dodsley's Old Plays.] have given it as their opinion, that the players of the first epoch were in all likelihood greatly superior to those of the second, at least with the exception of Garrick; and if we had no other proof, the quality of Shakspeare's pieces renders this extremely probable. That most of his principal characters require a great player is self-evident; the elevated and compressed style of his poetry cannot be understood without the most energetic and flexible delivery; besides, he often supposes between the speeches a mute action of great difficulty, for which he gives no directions. A poet who labours only and immediately for the stage will not rely for his main effect on traits which he must beforehand know will be lost in the representation from the unskilfulness of his interpreters. Shakspeare consequently would have been driven to lower the tone of his dramatic art, if he had not possessed excellent theatrical coadjutors. Of these, some have descended by name and fame even to our times. As for Shakspeare himself, since we are not fond of allowing any one man to possess two great talents in an equal degree, it has been assumed on very questionable grounds, that he was but an indifferent actor. [Footnote: No certain account has yet been obtained of any principal part played by Shakspeare in his own pieces. In Hamlet he played the Ghost; certainly a very important part, if we consider that from the failure in it, the whole piece runs a risk of appearing ridiculous. A writer of his time says in a satirical pamphlet, that the Ghost whined in a pitiful manner; and it has been concluded from this that Shakspeare was a bad player. What logic! On the restoration of the theatre under Charles II., a desire was felt of collecting traditions and information respecting the former period. Lowin, the original Hamlet, instructed Betterton as to the proper conception of the character. There was still alive a brother of Shakspeare, a decrepid old man, who had never had any literary cultivation, and whose memory was impaired by age. From him they could extract nothing, but that he had sometimes visited his brother in town, and once saw him play an old man with grey hair and beard. From the above description it was concluded that this must have been the faithful servant Adam in As You Like It, also a second- rate part. In most of Shakspeare's pieces we have not the slightest knowledge of the manner in which the parts were distributed. In two of Ben Jonson's pieces we see Shakspeare's name among the principal actors.] Hamlet's instructions, however, to the players prove at least that he was an excellent judge of acting. We know that correctness of conception and judgment are not always coupled with the power of execution; Shakspeare, however, possessed a very important and too frequently neglected requisite for serious acting, a beautiful and noble countenance. Neither is it probable that he could have been the manager of the most respectable theatre, had he not himself possessed the talent both of acting and guiding the histrionic talents of others. Ben Jonson, though a meritorious poet, could not even obtain the situation of a player, as he did not possess the requisite qualifications. From the passage cited from Hamlet, from the burlesque tragedy of the mechanics in the Midsummer Night's Dream, and many other passages, it is evident that there was then an inundation of bad players, who fell into all the aberrations from propriety which offend at the present day, but the public, it would appear, knew well how to distinguish good and bad acting, and would not be easily satisfied. [Footnote: In this respect, the following simile in Richard the Second is deserving of attention:— As in a theatre the eyes of men, After a well-graced actor leaves the stage, Are idly bent on him that enters next, Thinking his prattle to be tedious, &c.]
A thorough critical knowledge of the antiquities of the English theatre can only he obtained in England; the old editions of the pieces which belong to the earlier period are even there extremely rare, and in foreign libraries they are never to be met with; the modern collectors have merely been able to give a few specimens, and not the whole store. It would be highly important to see together all the plays which were undoubtedly in existence before Shakspeare entered on his career, that we might be able to decide with certainty how much of the dramatic art it was possible for him to learn from others. The year of the appearance of a piece on the stage is generally, however, difficult to ascertain, as it was often not printed till long afterwards. If in the labours of Shakspeare's contemporaries, even the older who continued to write at the same time with himself, we can discover resemblances to his style and traces of his art, still it will always remain doubtful whether we are to consider these as the feeble model, or the imperfect imitation. Shakspeare appears to have had all the flexibility of mind, and all the modesty of Raphael, who, also, without ever being an imitator and becoming unfaithful to his sublime and tranquil genius, applied to his own advantage all the improvements of his competitors.
A few feeble attempts to introduce the form of the antique tragedy with choruses, &c., were at an early period made, and praised, without producing any effect. They, like most of the attempts of the moderns in this way, serve to prove how strange were the spectacles through which the old poets were viewed; for it is hardly to be conceived how unlike they are to the Greek tragedies, not merely in merit (for that we may easily suppose), but even in those external circumstances which may be the most easily seized and imitated. Ferrex and Porrex, or the Tragedy of Gorboduc, is most frequently cited, which was the production of a nobleman [Footnote: Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, conjointly with Norton.—F.D.], in the first part of the reign of Elizabeth. Pope bestows high praise on this piece, on account of its regularity, and laments that the contemporary poets did not follow in the same track; for thus he thought a classical theatre might have been formed in England. This opinion only proves that Pope (who, however, passes for a perfect judge of poetry,) had not even an idea of the first elements of Dramatic Art. Nothing can be more spiritless and inanimate, nor more drawling and monotonous in the language and the versification, than this Ferrex and Porrex; and although the Unities of Place and Time are in no way observed, and a number of events are crowded into it, yet the scene is wholly destitute of movement: all that happens is previously announced by endless consultations, and afterwards stated in equally endless narratives. Mustapha, another unsuccessful work of a kindred description, and also by a great lord, [Footnote: Grevile, Lord Broke.] is a tedious web of all sorts of political subtleties; the choruses in particular are true treatises. However, of the innumerable maxims in rhyme, there are many which might well have a place in the later pieces of Corneille. Kyd, one of the predecessors of Ben Jonson, and mentioned by him in terms of praise, handled the Cornelia of Garnier. This may be called receiving an imitation of the ancients from the third or fourth hand.
The first serious piece calculated for popular effect is The Spanish Tragedy [by Thomas Kyd], so called from the scene of the story, and not from its being borrowed from a Spanish writer. It kept possession of the stage for a tolerable length of time, though it was often the subject of the ridicule and the parodies of succeeding poets. It usually happens that the public do not easily give up a predilection formed in their first warm susceptibility for the impressions of an art yet unknown to them, even after they have long been acquainted with better, nay, with excellent works. This piece is certainly full of puerilities; the author has ventured on the picture of violent situations and passions without suspecting his own want of power; the catastrophe, more especially, which in horror is intended to outstrip everything conceivable, is very sillily introduced, and produces merely a ludicrous effect. The whole is like the drawings of children, without the observance of proportion, and without steadiness of hand. With a great deal of bombast, the tone of the dialogue, however, has something natural, nay, even familiar, and in the change of scenes we perceive a light movement, which in some degree will account for the general applause received by this immature production.
Lilly and Marlow deserve to be noticed among the predecessors of Shakspeare. Lilly was a scholar, and laboured to introduce a stilted elegance into English prose, and in the tone of dialogue, with such success, that for a period he was the fashionable writer, and the court ladies even formed their conversation after the model of his Euphues. His comedy in prose, Campaspe, is a warning example of the impossibility of ever constructing, out of mere anecdotes and epigrammatic sallies, anything like a dramatic whole. The author was a learned witling, but in no respect a poet.
Marlow possessed more real talent, and was in a better way. He has handled the history of Edward the Second with very little of art, it is true, but with a certain truth and simplicity, so that in many scenes he does not fail to produce a pathetic effect. His verses are flowing, but without energy: how Ben Jonson could come to use the expression "Marlow's mighty line," is more than I can conceive. Shakspeare could neither learn nor derive anything from the luscious manner of Lilly: but in Marlow's Edward the Second I certainly imagine that I can discover the feebler model of the earliest historical pieces of Shakspeare.
Of the old comedies in Dodsley's collection, The Pinner of Wakefielde, and Grim, the Collier of Croydon, seem alone to belong to a period before Shakspeare. Both are not without merit, in the manner of Marionette pieces; in the first, a popular tradition, and in the second, a merry legend, is handled with hearty joviality.
I have dwelt longer on the beginnings of the English theatre, than from their internal worth they deserve, because it has been affirmed recently in England that Shakspeare shows more affinity to the works of his contemporaries now sunk in oblivion than people have hitherto been usually disposed to believe. We are as little to wonder at certain outward resemblances, as at the similarity of the dresses in portraits of the same period. In a more limited sense, however, we apply the word resemblance exclusively to the relation of those features which express the spirit and the mind. Moreover, such plays alone can be admitted to be a satisfactory proof of an assertion of this kind as are ascertained to have been written before the commencement of Shakspeare's career; for in the works of his younger contemporaries, a Decker, Marston, Webster, and others, something of a resemblance may be very naturally accounted for: distinct traces of imitation of Shakspeare are sufficiently abundant. Their imitation was, however, merely confined to external appearance and separate peculiarities; these writers, without the virtues of their model, possess in reality all the faults which senseless critics have falsely censured in Shakspeare.
A sentence somewhat more favourable is merited by Chapman, the translator of Homer, and Thomas Heywood, if we may judge of them from the single specimens of their works in Dodsley's collection. Chapman has handled the well-known story of the Ephesian matron, under the title of The Widow's Tears, not without comic talent. Heywood's Woman Killed with Kindness is a familiar tragedy: so early may we find examples of this species, which has been given out for new. It is the story of a wife tenderly beloved by her husband, and seduced by a man whom he had loaded with benefits; her sin is discovered, and the severest resolution which her husband can bring himself to form is to remove her from him, without proclaiming her dishonour; she repents, and grieves to death in bitter repentence. A due gradation is not observed in the seduction, but the last scenes are truly agitating. A distinct avowal of a moral aim is, perhaps, essential to the familiar tragedy; or rather, by means of such an aim, a picture of human destinies, whether afflicting kings or private families, is drawn from the ideal sphere into the prosaic world. But when once we admit the title of this subordinate species, we shall find that the demands of morality and the dramatic art coincide, and that the utmost severity of moral principles leads again to poetical elevation. The aspect of that false repentance which merely seeks exemption from punishment, is painful; repentance, as the pain arising from the irreparable forfeiture of innocence, is susceptible of a truly tragic portraiture. Let only the play in question receive a happy conclusion, such as in a well-known piece [Footnote: The author alludes to Kotzebue's play of Menschenhass und Reue—(The Stranger).—TRANS.] has, notwithstanding this painful feeling, been so generally applauded in the present day—viz., the reconciliation of the husband and wife, not on the death-bed of the repentant sinner, but in sound mind and body, and the renewal of the marriage; and it will then be found that it has not merely lost its moral, but also its poetical impression.
In other respects, this piece of Heywood is very inartistic, and carelessly finished: instead of duly developing the main action, the author distracts our attention by a second intrigue, which can hardly be said to have the slightest connection with the other. At this we need hardly be astonished, for Heywood was both a player and an excessively prolific author. Two hundred and twenty pieces were, he says, written entirely, or for the greatest part, by himself; and he was so careless respecting these productions, which were probably thrown off without any great labour, that he had lost the manuscript of the most of them, and only twenty-five remained for publication through the press.
All the above authors, and many others beside, whatever applause they obtained in their life-time, have been unsuccessful in transmitting a living memorial of their works to posterity. Of Shakspeare's younger contemporaries and competitors, few have attained this distinction; and of these Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Massinger, are the chief.
Ben Jonson found in Shakspeare a ready encourager of his talents. His first piece, imperfect in many respects, Every Man in his Humour, was by Shakspeare's intervention brought out on the stage; Sejanus was even retouched by him, and in both he undertook a principal character. This hospitable reception on the part of that great man, who was far above every thing like jealousy and petty rivalry, met with a very ungrateful return. Jonson assumed a superiority over Shakspeare on account of his school learning, the only point in which he really had an advantage; he introduced all sorts of biting allusions into his pieces and prologues, and reprobated more especially those magical flights of fancy, the peculiar heritage of Shakspeare, as contrary to genuine taste. In his excuse we must plead, that he was not born under a happy star: his pieces were either altogether unsuccessful, or, compared with the astonishing popularity of Shakspeare's, they obtained but a small share of applause; moreover, he was incessantly attacked, both on the stage and elsewhere, by his rivals, as a disgraceful pedant, who pretended to know every thing better than themselves, and with all manner of satires: all this rendered him extremely irritable and uneven of temper. He possessed in reality a very solid understanding; he was conscious that in the exercise of his art he displayed zeal and earnestness: that Nature had denied him grace, a quality which no labour can acquire, he could not indeed suspect. He thought every man may boast of his assiduity, as Lessing says on a similar occasion. After several failures on the stage, he formed the resolution to declare of his pieces in the outset that they were good, and that if they should not please, this could only proceed from the stupidity of the multitude. The epigraph on one of his unsuccessful pieces with which he committed it to the press, is highly amusing: "As it was never acted, but most negligently played by some, the King's servants, and more squeamishly beheld and censured by others, the King's subjects."
Jonson was a critical poet in the good and the bad sense of the word. He endeavoured to form an exact estimate of what he had on every occasion to perform; hence he succeeded best in that species of the drama which makes the principal demand on the understanding and with little call on the imagination and feeling,—the comedy of character. He introduced nothing into his works which critical dissection should not be able to extract again, as his confidence in it was such, that he conceived it exhausted every thing which pleases and charms us in poetry. He was not aware that, in the chemical retort of the critic, what is most valuable, the volatile living spirit of a poem, evaporates. His pieces are in general deficient in soul, in that nameless something which never ceases to attract and enchant us, even because it is indefinable. In the lyrical pieces, his Masques, we feel the want of a certain mental music of imagery and intonation, which the most accurate observation of difficult measures cannot give. He is everywhere deficient in those excellencies which, unsought, flow from the poet's pen, and which no artist, who purposely hunts for them, can ever hope to find. We must not quarrel with him, however, for entertaining a high opinion of his own works; since, whatever merits they have, he owed like acquired moral properties altogether to himself. The production of them was attended with labour, and unfortunately it is also a labour to read them. They resemble solid and regular, edifices, before which, however, the clumsy scaffolding still remains, to interrupt and prevent us from viewing the architecture with ease, and receiving from it a harmonious impression.
We have of Jonson two tragical attempts, and a number of comedies and masques.
He could have risen to the dignity of the tragic tone, but, for the pathetic, he had not the smallest turn. As he incessantly preaches up the imitation of the ancients, (and he had, we cannot deny, a learned acquaintance with their works,) it is astonishing to observe how much his two tragedies differ, both in substance and form, from the Greek tragedy. From this example we see the influence which the prevailing tone of an age, and the course already pursued in any art, necessarily have upon even the most independent minds. In the historical extent given by Jonson to his Sejanus and Cataline, unity of time and place were entirely out of the question; and both pieces are crowded with a multitude of secondary persons, such as are never to be found in a Greek tragedy. In Cataline, the prologue is spoken by the spirit of Sylla, and it bears a good deal of resemblance to that of Tantalus, in the Atreus and Thyestes of Seneca; to the end of each act an instructive moralizing chorus is appended, without being duly introduced or connected with the whole. This is the extent of the resemblance to the ancients; in other respects, the form of Shakspeare's historical dramas is adhered to, but without their romantic charm. We cannot with certainty say, whether or not Jonson had the Roman pieces of Shakspeare before him: it is probable that he had in Cataline at least; but, at all events, he has not learned from him the art of being true to history, and yet satisfying the demands of poetry. In Jonson's hands, the subject continues history, without becoming poetry; the political events which he has described have more the appearance of a business than an action. Cataline and Sejanus are solid dramatic studies after Sallust and Cicero, after Tacitus, Suetonius, Juvenal, and others; and that is the best which we can say of them. In Cataline, which upon the whole is preferable to Sejanus, he is also to be blamed for not having blended the dissimilarity of the masses. The first act possesses most elevation, though it disgusts us from its want of moderation: we see a secret assembly of conspirators, and nature appears to answer the furious inspiration of wickedness by dreadful signs. The second act, which paints the intrigues and loves of depraved women, by means of which the conspiracy was brought to light, treads closely on comedy; the last three acts contain a history in dialogue, developed with much good sense, but little poetical elevation. It is to be lamented that Jonson gave only his own text of Sejanus without communicating Shakspeare's alterations. We should have been curious to know the means by which he might have attempted to give animation to the monotony of the piece without changing its plan, and how far his genius could adapt itself to another's conceptions.
After these attempts, Jonson took his leave of the Tragic Muse, and in reality his talents were far better suited to Comedy, and that too merely the Comedy of Character. His characterization, however, is more marked with serious satire than playful ridicule: the later Roman satirists, rather than the comic authors, were his models. Nature had denied him that light and easy raillery which plays harmlessly round every thing, and which seems to be the mere effusion of gaiety, but which is so much the more philosophic, as it is not the vehicle of any definite doctrine, but merely the expression of a general irony. There is more of a spirit of observation than of fancy in the comic inventions of Jonson. From this cause his pieces are also defective in point of intrigue. He was a strong advocate for the purity of the species, was unwilling to make use of any romantic motives, and he never had recourse to a novel for the subject of his plots. But his contrivances for the entangling and disentangling his plot are often improbable and forced, without gaining over the imagination by their attractive boldness. Even where he had contrived a happy plot, he took so much room for the delineation of the characters, that we often lose sight of the intrigue altogether, and the action lags with heavy pace. Occasionally he reminds us of those over-accurate portrait painters, who, to insure a likeness, think they must copy every mark of the small- pox, every carbuncle or freckle. Frequently he has been suspected of having, in the delineation of particular characters, had real persons in his eye, while, at the same time, he has been reproached with making his characters mere personifications of general ideas; and, however inconsistent with each other these reproaches may appear, they are neither of them, however, without some foundation. He possessed a methodical head; consequently, where he had once conceived a character in its leading idea, he followed it out with the utmost rigour; whatever, having no reference to this leading idea, served merely to give individual animation, appeared to him in the light of a digression. Hence his names are, for the most part, expressive even to an unpleasant degree of distinctness: and, to add to our satiety, he not unfrequently tacks explanatory descriptions to the dramatis personae. On the other hand, he acted upon the principle, that the comic writer must exhibit real life, with a minute and petty accuracy. Generally he succeeded in seizing the manners of his own age and nation: in itself this was deserving of praise; but even here he confined himself too much to external peculiarities, to the singularities and affectations of the modish tone which were then called humours, and which from their nature are as transient as dresses. Hence a great part of his comic very soon became obsolete, and as early as the re-opening of the theatre under Charles II., no actors could be found who were capable of doing justice to such caricatures. Local colours like these can only be preserved from fading by the most complete seasoning with wit. This is what Shakspeare has effected. Compare, for instance, his Osric, in Hamlet, with Fastidius Brisk, in Jonson's Every Man out of his Humour: both are portraitures of the insipid affectation of a courtier of the day; but Osric, although he speaks his own peculiar language, will remain to the end of time an exact and intelligible image of foppish folly, whereas Fastidius is merely a portrait in a dress no longer in fashion, and nothing more. However, Jonson has not always fallen into this error; his Captain Bobadil, for example, in Every Man in his Humour, a beggarly and cowardly adventurer, who passes himself off with young and simple people for a Hector, is, it is true, far from being as amusing and original as Pistol; but he also, notwithstanding the change of manners, still remains a model in his way, and he has been imitated by English writers of comedy in after times.
In the piece I have just named, the first work of Jonson, the action is extremely feeble and insignificant. In the following, Every Man out of his Humour, he has gone still farther astray, in seeking the comic effect merely in caricatured traits, without any interest of situation: it is a rhapsody of ludicrous scenes without connexion and progress. The Bartholomew Fair, also, is nothing but a coarse Bambocciate, in which no more connexion is to be found than usually exists in the hubbub, the noise, the quarrelling, and thefts, which attend upon such amusements of the populace. Vulgar delight is too naturally portrayed; the part of the Puritan, however, is deserving of distinction: his casuistical consultation, whether he ought to eat a sucking-pig according to the custom of the fair, and his lecture afterwards against puppet-shows as a heathen idolatry, are inimitable, and full of the most biting salt of comedy. Ben Jonson did not then foresee that, before the lapse of one generation, the Puritans would be sufficiently powerful to take a very severe revenge on his art, on account of similar railleries.
In so far as plot is concerned, the greatest praise is merited by Volpone, The Alchemist, and Epicoene, or the Silent Woman. In Volpone Jonson for once has entered into Italian manners, without, however, taking an ideal view of them. The leading idea is admirable, and for the most part worked out with masterly skill. Towards the end, however, the whole turns too much on swindling and villany, which necessarily call for the interference of criminal justice, and the piece, from the punishment of the guilty, has everything but a merry conclusion. In the Alchemist, both the deceivers and deceived supply a fund of entertainment, only the author enters too deeply into the learning of alchemy. Of an unintelligible jargon very short specimens at most ought to be given in comedy, and it is best that they should also have a secondary signification, of which the person who uses the mysterious language should not himself be aware; when carried to too great a length, the use of them occasions as much weariness as the writings themselves which served as a model. In The Devil's an Ass the poet has failed to draw due advantage from a fanciful invention with which he opens, but which indeed was not his own; and our expectation, after being once deceived, causes us to remain dissatisfied with other scenes however excellently comic.
Of all Jonson's pieces there is hardly one which, as it stands, would please on the stage in the present day, even as most of them failed to please in his own time; extracts from them, however, could hardly fail to be successful. In general, much might be borrowed from him, and much might be learned both from his merits and defects. His characters are, for the most part, solidly and judiciously drawn; what he most fails in, is the art of setting them off by the contrast of situations. He has seldom planned his scenes so successfully in this respect as in Every Man in his Humour, where the jealous merchant is called off to an important business, when his wife is in expectation of a visit of which he is suspicious, and when he is anxious to station his servant as a sentinel, without however confiding his secret to him, because, above all things he dreads the discovery of his own jealousy. This scene is a master-piece, and if Jonson had always so composed, we must have been obliged to rank him among the first of comic writers.
Merely lest we should be charged with an omission do we mention The Masques: allegorical, occasional pieces, chiefly designed for court festivals, and decorated with machinery, masked dresses, dancing, and singing. This secondary species died again nearly with Jonson himself; the only subsequent production in this way of any fame is the Comus of Milton. When allegory is confined to mere personification, it must infallibly turn out very frigid in a play; the action itself must be allegorical, and in this respect there are many ingenious inventions, but the Spanish poets have almost alone furnished us with successful examples of it. The peculiarity of Jonson's Masques most deserving of remark seems to me to be the anti-masque, as they are called, which the poet himself sometimes attaches to his own invention, and generally allows to precede the serious act. As the ideal flatteries, for whose sake the gods have been brought down from Olympus, are but too apt to fall into mawkishness, this antidote on such occasions is certainly deserving of commendation.
Ben Jonson, who in all his pieces took a mechanical view of art, bore a farther resemblance to the master of a handicraft in taking an apprentice. He had a servant of the name of Broome, who formed himself as a theatrical writer from the conversation and instructions of his master, and brought comedies on the stage with applause.
Beaumont and Fletcher are always named together, as if they had been two inseparable poets, whose works were all planned and executed in common. This idea, however, is not altogether correct. We know, indeed, but little of the circumstances of their lives: this much however is known, that Beaumont died very young; and that Fletcher survived his younger friend ten years, and was so unremittingly active in his career as a dramatic poet, that several of his plays were first brought on the stage after his death, and some which he left unfinished were completed by another hand. The pieces collected under both names amount to upwards of fifty; and of this number it is probable that the half must be considered as the work of Fletcher alone. Beaumont and Fletcher's works did not make their appearance until a short time after the death of the latter; the publishers have not given themselves the trouble to distinguish critically the share which belonged to each, and still less to afford us any information respecting the diversity of their talents. Some of their contemporaries have attributed boldness of imagination to Fletcher, and a mature judgment to his friend: the former, according to their opinion, was the inventive genius; the latter, the directing and moderating critic. But this account rests on no foundation. It is now impossible to distinguish with certainty the hand of each; nor would the knowledge repay the labour. All the pieces ascribed to them, whether they proceed from one alone or from both, are composed in the same spirit and in the same manner. Hence it is probable that it was not so much the need of supplying the deficiencies of each other, as the great resemblance of their way of thinking, which induced them to continue so long and so inseparably united.