Legrand the actor, a contemporary of Regnard, was one of the first comic poets who gained celebrity for after-pieces in verse, a species of composition in which the French have since produced a number of elegant trifles. He has not, however, risen to any thing like the same height of posthumous fame as Regnard: La Harpe dismisses him with very little ceremony. Yet we should be disposed to rank him very high as an artist, even if he had composed nothing else than the King of Lubberland (Le Roi de Cocagne), a sprightly farce in the marvellous style, overflowing with what is very rare in France, a native fanciful wit, animated by the most lively mirth, which although carried the length of the most frolicsome giddiness, sports on and round all subjects with the utmost harmlessness. We might call it an elegant and ingenious piece of madness; an example of the manner in which the play of Aristophanes, or rather that of Eupolis, [Footnote: See page 167.] who had also dramatised the tale of Lubberland, might be brought on our stage without exciting disgust, and without personal satire. And yet Legrand was, certainly, unacquainted with the Old Comedy, and his own genius (we scruple not to use the expression) led him to the invention. The execution is as careful as in a regular comedy; but to this title in the French opinion it can have no pretensions, because of the wonderful world which it represents, of several of the decorations, and of the music here and there introduced. The French critics show themselves in general indifferent, or rather unjust towards every suggestion of genuine fancy. Before they can feel respect for a work it must present a certain appearance of labour and effort. Among a giddy and light-minded people, they have appropriated to themselves the post of honour of pedantry: they confound the levity of jocularity, which is quite compatible with profundity in art, with the levity of shallowness, which (as a natural gift or natural defect,) is so frequent among their countrymen.
The eighteenth century produced in France a number of comic writers of the second and third rank, but no distinguished genius capable of advancing the art a step farther; in consequence of which the belief in Molire's unapproachable excellence has become still more firmly riveted. As we have not space at present to go through all these separate productions, we shall premise a few observations on the general spirit of French Comedy before entering on the consideration of the writers whom we have not yet mentioned.
The want of easy progress, and over-lengthy disquisitions in stationary dialogue, have characterized more or less every writer since the time of Molire, on whose regular pieces also the conventional rules applicable to Tragedy have had an indisputable influence. French Comedy in verse has its tirades as well as Tragedy. Besides, there was another circumstance, the introduction of a certain degree of stiff etiquette. The Comedy of other nations has generally, from motives which we can be at no loss in understanding, descended into the circle of the lower classes: but the French Comedy is usually confined to the upper ranks of society. Here, then, we trace the influence of the court as the central point of the whole national vanity. Those spectators who in reality had no access to the great world, were flattered by being surrounded on the stage with marquises and chevaliers, and while the poet satirized the fashionable follies, they endeavoured to snatch something of that privileged tone which was so much the object of envy. Society rubs off the salient angles of character; its only amusement consists in the pursuit of the ridiculous, and on the other hand it trains us in the faculty of being upon our guard against the observations of others. The natural, cordial, and jovial comic of the inferior classes is thrown aside, and instead of it another description (the fruit of polished society, and bearing in its insipidity the stamp of so purposeless a way of living) is adopted. The object of these comedies is no longer life but society, that perpetual negotiation between conflicting vanities which never ends in a sincere treaty of peace: the embroidered dress, the hat under the arm, and the sword by the side, essentially belong to them, and the whole of their characterization is limited to painting the folly of the men and the coquetry of the women. The insipid uniformity of these pictures was unfortunately too often seasoned by the corruption of moral principles which, more especially after the age of Louis XIV., it became, under the Regency of Louis XV., the fashion openly to avow. In this period the favourite of the women, the homme bonnes fortunes, who in the tone of satiety boasts of the multitude of his conquests too easily won, was not a character invented by the comic writers, but a portrait accurately taken from real life, as is proved by the numerous memoirs of the last century, even down to those of a Besenval. We are disgusted with the unveiled sensuality of the love intrigues of the Greek Comedy: but the Greeks would have found much more disgusting the love intrigues of the French Comedy, entered into with married women, merely from giddy vanity. Limits have been fixed by nature herself to sensual excess; but when vanity assumes the part of a sensuality already deadened and enervated, it gives birth to the most hollow corruption. And even if, in the constant ridicule of marriage by the petit-matres, and in their moral scepticism especially with regard to female virtue, it was the intention of the poets to ridicule a prevailing depravity, the picture is not on that account the less immoral. The great or fashionable world, which in point of numbers is the little world, and yet considers itself alone of importance, can hardly be improved by it; and for the other classes the example is but too seductive, from the brilliancy with which the characters are surrounded. But in so far as Comedy is concerned, this deadening corruption is by no means invariably entertaining; and in many pieces, in which fools of quality give the tone, for example in the Chevalier la mode de Dancourt, the picture of complete moral dissoluteness which, although true, is nevertheless both unpoetical and unnatural, is productive not merely of ennui, but of the most decided repugnance and disgust.
From the number of writers to whom this charge chiefly applies, we must in justice except Destouches and Marivaux, fruitful or at least diligent comic writers, the former in verse and the latter in prose. They acquired considerable distinction among their contemporaries in the first half of the eighteenth century, but on the stage few of their works survived either of them. Destouches was a moderate, tame, and well-meaning author, who applied himself with all his powers to the composition of regular comedies, which were always drawn out to the length of five acts, and in which there is nothing laughable, with the exception of the vivacity displayed in virtue of their situation, by Lisette and her lover Frontin, or Pasquin. He was in no danger, from any excess of frolicsome petulance, of falling from the dignified tone of the supposed high comic into the familiarity of farce, which the French hold in such contempt. With moderate talents, without humour, and almost without vivacity, neither ingenious in invention, nor possessed of a deep insight into the human mind and human affairs, he has in some of his productions, Le Glorieux, Le Philosophe Mari, and especially L'Indcis, shewn with great credit to himself what true and unpretending diligence is by itself capable of effecting. Other pieces, for instance, L'Ingrat and L'Homme Singulier, are complete failures, and enable us to see that a poet who considers Tartuffe and The Misanthrope as the highest objects of imitation, (and with Destouches this was evidently the case,) has only another step to take to lose sight of the comic art altogether. These two works of Molire have not been friendly beacons to his followers, but false lights to their ruin. Whenever a comic poet in his preface worships The Misanthrope as a model, I can immediately foretell the result of his labours. He will sacrifice every thing like the gladsome inspiration of fun and all truly poetical amusement, for the dull and formal seriousness of prosaic life, and for prosaical applications stamped with the respectable name of morals.
That Marivaux is a mannerist is so universally acknowledged in France, that the peculiar term of marivaudage has been invented for his mannerism. But this is at least his own, and at first sight by no means unpleasing. Delicacy of mind cannot be denied to Marivaux, only it is coupled with a certain littleness. We have stated it to be the most refined species of the comic of observation, when a peculiarity or property shows itself most conspicuously at the very time its possessor has the least suspicion of it, or is most studious to conceal it. Marivaux has applied this to the passions; and navet in the involuntary disclosure of emotions certainly belongs to the domain of Comedy. But then this navet is prepared by him with too much art, appears too solicitous for our applause, and, we may almost say, seems too well pleased with it himself. It is like children in the game of hide and seek, they cannot stay quiet in their corner, but keep popping out their heads, if they are not immediately discovered; nay, sometimes, which is still worse, it is like the squinting over a fan held up from affected modesty. In Marivaux we always see his aim from the very beginning, and all our attention is directed to discovering the way by which he is to lead us to it. This would be a skilful mode of composing, if it did not degenerate into the insignificant and the superficial. Petty inclinations are strengthened by petty motives, exposed to petty probations, and brought by petty steps nearer and nearer to a petty conclusion. The whole generally turns on a declaration of love, and all sorts of clandestine means are tried to elicit it, or every kind of slight allusion is hazarded to hasten it. Marivaux has neither painted characters, nor contrived intrigues. The whole plot generally turns on an unpronounced word, which is always at the tongue's end, and which is frequently kept back in a pretty arbitrary manner. He is so uniform in the motives that he employs, that when we have read one of his pieces with a tolerable degree of attention we know all of them. However, we must still rank him above the herd of stiff imitators; something is to be learned even from him, for he possessed a peculiar though a very limited view of the essence of Comedy.
Two other single works are named as master-pieces in the regular Comedy in verse, belonging to two writers who here perhaps have taken more pains, but in other departments have given a freer scope to their natural talent: the Mtromanie of Piron and the Mchant of Gresset. The Mtromanie is not written without humorous inspiration. In the young man possessed with a passion for poetry, Piron intended in some measure to paint himself; but as we always go tenderly to work in the ridicule of ourselves, together with the amiable weakness in question, he endows his hero with talents, magnanimity, and a good heart. But this tender reserve is not peculiarly favourable for comic strength. As to the Mchant, it is one of those gloomy comedies which might be rapturously hailed by a Timon as serving to confirm his aversion to human society, but which, on social and cheerful minds, can only give rise to the most painful impression. Why paint a dark and odious disposition which, devoid of all human sympathy, feeds its vanity in a cold contempt and derision of everything, and solely occupies itself in aimless detraction? Why exhibit such a moral deformity, which could hardly be tolerated even in Tragedy, for the mere purpose of producing domestic discontent and petty embarrassments?
Yet, according to the decision of the French critics, these three comedies, the Glorieux, the Mtromanie, and the Mchant, are all that the eighteenth century can oppose to Molire. We should be disposed to rank the Le Vieux Bachelier of Collin d'Harleville much higher; but for judging this true picture of manners there is no scale afforded in the works of Molire, and it can only be compared with those of Terence. We have here the utmost refinement and accuracy of characterization, most felicitously combined with an able plot, which keeps on the stretch and rivets our attention, while a certain mildness of sentiment is diffused over the whole.
I purpose now to make a few observations on the secondary species of the Opera, Operettes, and Vaudevilles, and shall conclude with a view of the present condition of the French stage with reference to the histrionic art.
In the serious, heroic, or rather the ideal opera, if we may so express ourselves, we can only mention one poet of the age of Louis XIV., Quinault—who is now little read, but yet deserving of high praise. As a tragic poet, in the early period of his career, he was satirized by Boileau; but he was afterwards highly successful in another species, the musical drama. Mazarin had introduced into France a taste for the Italian opera; Louis was also desirous of rivalling or surpassing foreign countries in the external magnificence of the drama, in decoration, machinery, music, and dancing; these were all to be employed in the celebration of the court festivals; and accordingly Molire was employed to write gay, and Quinault serious operas, to the music of Lulli. I am not sufficiently versed in the earlier literature of the Italian opera to be able to speak with accuracy, but I suspect that here also Quinault laboured more after Spanish than Italian models; and more particularly, that he derived from the Fiestas of Calderon the general form of his operas, and their frequently allegorical preludes which are often to be found in them. It is true, poetical ornament is much more sparingly dealt out, as the whole is necessarily shortened for the sake of the music, and the very nature of the French language and versification is incompatible with the splendid magnificence, the luxurious fulness, displayed by Calderon. But the operas of Quinault are, in their easy progress, truly fanciful; and the serious opera cannot, in my opinion, be stripped of the charm of the marvellous without becoming at length wearisome. So far Quinault appears to me to have taken a much better road towards the true vocation of particular departments of art, than that on which Metastasio travelled long after him. The latter has admirably provided for the wants of a melodious music expressive solely of feeling; but where does he furnish the least food for the imagination? On the other hand, I am not so sure that Quinault is justly entitled to praise for sacrificing, in compliance with the taste of his countrymen, everything like comic intermixture. He has been censured for an occasional play on language in the expression of feeling. But is it just to exact the severity of the tragical cothurnus in light works of this description? Why should not Poetry also be allowed her arabesque? No person can be more an enemy to mannerism than I am; but to censure it aright, we ought first to understand the degree of nature and truth which we have a right to expect from each species, and what is alone compatible with it. The verses of Quinault have no other navet and simplicity than those of the madrigal; and though they occasionally fall into the luscious, at other times they express a languishing tenderness with gracefulness and a soft melody. The opera ought to resemble the enchanted gardens of Armida, of which Quinault says,
Dans ces lieux enchants la volupt prside.
We ought only to be awaked out of the voluptuous dreams of feeling to enjoy the magical illusions of fancy. When once we have come to imagine, instead of real men, beings whose only language is song, it is but a very short step to represent to ourselves creatures whose only occupation is love; that feeling which hovers between the sensible and intellectual world; and the first invention becomes natural again by means of the second.
Quinault has had no successors. How far below his, both in point of invention and of execution, are the French operas of the present day! The heroic and tragic have been required in a department where they cannot produce their proper effect. Instead of handling with fanciful freedom mythological materials or subjects taken from chivalrous or pastoral romances, they have after the manner of Tragedy chained themselves down to history, and by means of their heavy seriousness, and the pedantry of their rules, they have so managed matters, that Dulness with leaden sceptre presides over the opera. The deficiencies of their music, the unfitness of the French language for composition in a style anything higher than that of the most simple national melodies, the unaccented and arbitrary nature of their recitative, the bawling bravura of the singers, must be left to the animadversions of musical critics.
With pretensions far lower, the Comic Opera or Operette approaches much more nearly to perfection. With respect to the composition, it may and indeed ought to assume only a national tone. The transition from song to speech, without any musical accompaniment or heightening, which was censured by Rousseau as an unsuitable mixture of two distinct modes of composition, may be displeasing to the ear; but it has unquestionably produced an advantageous effect on the structure of the pieces. In the recitatives, which generally are not half understood, and seldom listened to with any degree of attention, a plot which is even moderately complicated cannot be developed with due clearness. Hence in the Italian opera buffa, the action is altogether neglected; and along with its grotesque caricatures, it is distinguished for uniform situations, which admit not of dramatic progress. But the comic opera of the French, although from the space occupied by the music it is unsusceptible of any very perfect dramatic development, is still calculated to produce a considerable stage effect, and speaks pleasingly to the imagination. The poets have not here been prevented by the constraint of rules from following out their theatrical views. Hence these fleeting productions are in no wise deficient in the rapidity, life, and amusement, which are frequently wanting in the more correct dramatic works of the French. The distinguished favour which the operettes of a Favart, a Sedaine and later poets, of whom some are still alive, always meet with in Germany, (where foreign literature has long lost its commanding influence, and where the national taste has pronounced so strongly against French Tragedy,) is by no means to be placed to the account of the music; it is in reality owing to their poetical merit. To cite only one example out of many, I do not hesitate to declare the whole series of scenes in Raoul Sire de Crquy, where the children of the drunken turnkey set the prisoner at liberty, a master-piece of theatrical painting. How much were it to be wished that the Tragedy of the French, and even their Comedy in court-dress, had but a little of this truth of circumstance, this vivid presence, and power of arresting the attention. In several operettes, for instance in a Richard Coeur de Lion and a Nina, the traces of the romantic spirit are not to be mistaken.
The vaudeville is but a variation of the comic opera. The essential difference is that it dispenses with composition, by which the comic opera forms a musical whole, as the songs are set to well-known popular airs. The incessant skipping from the song to the dialogue, often after a few scrapes of the violin and a few words, with the accumulation of airs mostly common, but frequently also in a style altogether different from the poetry, drives an ear accustomed to Italian music to despair. If we can once make up our minds to bear with this, we shall not unfrequently be richly recompensed in comic drollery; even in the choice of a melody, and the allusion to the common and well-known words, there is often a display of wit. In earlier times writers of higher pretensions, a Le Sage and a Piron have laboured in the department of the vaudeville, and even for marionettes. The wits who now dedicate themselves to this species are little known out of Paris, but this gives them no great concern. It not unfrequently happens that several of them join together, that the fruit of their common talents may be sooner brought to light. The parody of new theatrical pieces, the anecdotes of the day, which form the common talk among all the idlers of the capital, must furnish them with subjects in working up which little delay can be brooked. These vaudevilles are like the gnats that buzz about in a summer evening; they often sting, but they fly merrily about so long as the sun of opportunity shines upon them. A piece like the Despair of Jocrisse, which, after a lapse of years, may be still occasionally brought out, passes justly among the ephemeral productions for a classical work that has gained the crown of immortality. We must, however, see it acted by Brunet, whose face is almost a mask, and who is nearly as inexhaustible in the part of the simpleton as Puncinello is in his.
From a consideration of the sportive secondary species, formed out of a mixture of the comic with the affecting, in which authors and spectators give themselves up without reserve to their natural inclinations, it appears to me evident, that as comic wit with the Italians consists in grotesque mimicry or buffoonery, and with the English in humour, with the French it consists in good-natured gaiety. Among the lower orders especially this property is everywhere visible, where it has not been supplanted by the artifice of corruption.
With respect to the present condition of Dramatic Art in France, every thing depends on the endeavours to introduce the theatrical liberties of other countries, or mixed species of the drama. The hope of producing any thing truly new in the two species which are alone admitted to be regular, of excelling the works already produced, of filling up the old frames with richer pictures, becomes more and more distant every day. A new work seldom obtains a decided approbation; and, even at best, this approbation only lasts till it has been found out that the work is only a new preparation of their old classical productions.
We have passed over several things relating to these endeavours, that we may deliver together all the observations which we have to make on the subject. The attacks hitherto made against the French forms of art, first by De la Motte, and afterwards by Diderot and Mercier, have been like voices in the wilderness. It could not be otherwise, as the principles on which these writers proceeded were in reality destructive, not merely of the conventional forms, but of all poetical forms whatever, and as none of them showed themselves capable of suitably supporting their doctrine by their own example, even when they were in the right they contrived, nevertheless, by a false application, to be in the wrong.
The most remarkable among them is Diderot, whom Lessing calls the best critic of the French. In opposition to this opinion I should be disposed to affirm that he was no critic at all. I will not lay any stress on his mistaking the object of poetry and the fine arts, which he considered to be merely moral: a man may be a critic without being a theorist. But a man cannot be a critic without being thoroughly acquainted with the conditions, means, and styles of an art; and here the nature of Diderot's studies and acquirements renders his critical capabilities extremely questionable. This ingenious sophist deals out his blows with such boisterous haste in the province of criticism, that the half of them are thrown away. The true and the false, the old and the new, the essential and the unimportant, are so mixed up together, that the highest praise we can bestow upon him is, that he is worthy of the labour of disentangling them. What he wished to accomplish had either been accomplished, though not in France, or did not deserve to be accomplished, or was altogether impracticable. His attack on the formality and holiday primness of the dramatic probabilities, of the excessive symmetry of the French versification, declamation, and mode of acting, was just; but, at the same time, he objected to all theatrical elevation, and refused to allow to the characters anything like a perfect mode of communicating what was passing within them. He nowhere assigns the reason why he held versification as not suitable, or prose as more suitable, to familiar tragedy; this has been extended by others, and among the rest, unfortunately, by Lessing, to every species of the drama; but the ground for it evidently rests on nothing but the mistaken principles of illusion and nature, to which we have more than once adverted. [Footnote: I have stated and refuted them in a treatise On the Relation of the Fine Arts to Nature in the fifth number of the periodical work Prometheus, published by Leo von Seckendorf.] And if he gives an undue preference to the sentimental drama and the familiar tragedy, species valuable in themselves, and susceptible of a truly poetic treatment; was not this on account of the application? The main thing, according to him, is not character and situations, but ranks of life and family relations, that spectators in similar ranks and relations may lay the example to heart. But this would put an end to everything like true enjoyment in art. Diderot recommended that the composition should have this direction, with the very view which, in the case of a historical tragedy founded on the events of their own times, met with the disapprobation of the Athenians, and subjected its author Phrynichus to their displeasure [Footnote: See page 72.]. The view of a fire by night may, from the wonderful effect produced by the combination of flames and darkness, fill the unconcerned spectator with delight; but when our neighbour's house is burning,—jam oreximus ardet Ucalegon—we shall hardly be disposed to see the affair in such a picturesque light.
It is clear that Diderot was induced to take in his sail as he made way with his own dramatic attempts. He displayed the greatest boldness in an offensive publication of his youth, in which he wished to overturn the entire dramatic system of the French; he was less daring in the dialogues which accompany the Fils Naturel, and he showed the greatest moderation in the treatise appended to the Pre de Famille. He carried his hostility a great deal too far with respect to the forms and the objects of the dramatic art. But in other respects he has not gone far enough: in his view of the Unities of Place and Time, and the mixture of seriousness and mirth, he has shown himself infected with the prejudices of his nation.
The two pieces above mentioned, which obtained an unmerited reputation on their first appearance, have long since received their due appreciation. On the Fils Naturel Lessing has pronounced a severe sentence, without, however, censuring the scandalous plagiarism from Goldoni. But the Pre de Famille he calls an excellent piece, but has forgotten, however, to assign any grounds for his opinion. Its defective plot and want of connexion have been well exposed by La Harpe. The execution of both pieces exhibits the utmost mannerism: the characters, which are anything but natural, become from their frigid prating about virtue in the most hypocritical style, and the tears which they are perpetually shedding, altogether intolerable. We Germans may justly say, Hinc illae lacrymae! hence the unnecessary tears with which our stage has ever since been overflowed. The custom which has grown up of giving long and circumstantial directions respecting the action, and which we owe also to Diderot, has been of the greatest detriment to dramatic eloquence. In this way the poet gives, as it were, an order on the player, instead of paying out of his own purse. [Footnote: I remember to have read the following direction in a German drama, which is not worse than many others:—"He flashes lightning at him with his eyes (Er blitzt ihn mit den Augen an) and goes off."] All good dramatists have uniformly had the action in some degree present to their minds; but if the actor requires instruction on the subject, he will hardly possess the talent of following it up with the suitable gestures. The speeches should be so framed that an intelligent actor could hardly fail to give them the proper action.
It will he admitted, that long before Diderot there were serious family pictures, affecting dramas, and familial tragedies, much better than any which he was capable of executing. Voltaire, who could never rightly succeed in Comedy, gave in his Enfant Prodigue and Nanine a mixture of comic scenes and affecting situations, the latter of which are deserving of high praise. The affecting drama had been before attempted in France by La Chausse. All this was in verse: and why not? Of the familiar tragedy (with the very same moral direction for which Diderot contended) several examples have been produced on the English stage: and one of them, Beverley, or the Gamester, is translated into French. The period of sentimentality was of some use to the affecting or sentimental drama; but the familiar tragedy was never very successful in France, where they were too much attached to brilliancy and pomp. The Melanie of La Harpe (to whom the stage of the present day owes Philoctete, the most faithful imitation of a Grecian piece) abounds with those painful impressions which form the rock this species may be said to split upon. The piece may perhaps be well adapted to enlighten the conscience of a father who has determined to force his daughter to enter a cloister; but to other spectators it can only be painful.
Notwithstanding the opposition which Diderot experienced, he was however the founder of a sort of school of which the most distinguished names are Beaumarchais and Mercier. The former wrote only two pieces in the spirit of his predecessor—Eugenie, and La Mre Coupable; and they display the very same faults. His acquaintance with Spain and the Spanish theatre led him to bring something new on the stage in the way of the piece of intrigue, a species which had long been neglected. These works were more distinguished by witty sallies than by humour of character; but their greatest attraction consisted in the allusions to his own career as an author. The plot of the Barber of Seville is rather trite; the Marriage of Figaro is planned with much more art, but the manners which it portrays are loose; and it is also censurable in a poetical point of view, on account of the number of foreign excrescences with which it is loaded. In both French characters are exhibited under the disguise of a Spanish costume, which, however, is very ill observed [Footnote: The numerous sins of Beaumarchais against the Spanish manners and observances, are pointed out by De la Huerta in the introduction to his Teatro Espaol.]. The extraordinary applause which these pieces met with would lead to the conclusion, that the French public do not hold the comedy of intrigue in such low estimation as it is by the critics: but the means by which Beaumarchais pleased were certainly, in part it least, foreign to art.
The attempt of Ducis to make his countrymen acquainted with Shakspeare by modelling a few of his tragedies according to the French rules, cannot be accounted an enlargement of their theatre. We perceive here and there indeed the "torn members of the poet"—disjecta membra poetae; but the whole is so constrained, disfigured, and, from the simple fulness of the original, tortured and twisted into such miserable intricacy, that even when the language is retained word for word, it ceases to convey its genuine meaning. The crowd which these tragedies attracted, especially from their affording an unusual room to the inimitable Talma for the display of his art, must be looked upon as no slight symptom of the people's dissatisfaction with their old works, and the want of others more powerfully agitating.
As the Parisian theatres are at present tied down to certain kinds, and as poetry has here a point of contact with the police, the numerous mixed and new attempts are for the most part banished to the subordinate theatres. Of these new attempts the Melo-dramas constitute a principal part. A statistical writer of the theatre informs us, that for a number of years back the new productions in Tragedy and regular Comedy have been fewest, and that the melo-dramas have in number exceeded all the others put together. They do not mean by melo-drama, as we do, a drama in which the pauses are filled up by monologue with instrumental music, but where actions in any wise wonderful, adventurous, or even sensuous, are exhibited in emphatic prose with suitable decorations and dresses. Advantage might be taken of this prevailing inclination to furnish a better description of entertainment: since most of the melo-dramas are unfortunately rude even to insipidity, and resemble abortive attempts at the romantic.
In the sphere of dramatic literature the labours of a Le Mercier are undoubtedly deserving of the critic's attention. This able man endeavours to break through the prescribed limits in every possible way, and is so passionately fond of his art that nothing can deter him from it; although almost every new attempt which he makes converts the pit into a regular field of battle. [Footnote: Since these Lectures were held, such a tumult arose in the theatre at Paris on the representation of his Christopher Columbus, that several of the champions of Boileau came off with bruised heads and broken shins. They were in the right to fight like desperadoes; for if this piece had succeeded, it would have been all over with the consecrated Unities and good taste in the separation of the heroic and the low. The first act takes place in the house of Columbus, the second at the court of Isabella, the third and last on shipboard near the New World. The object of the poet was to show that the man in whom any grand idea originates is everywhere opposed and thwarted by the limited and common-place views of other men; but that the strength of his enthusiasm enables him to overcome all obstacles. In his own house, and among his acquaintances, Columbus is considered as insane; at court he obtains with difficulty a lukewarm support; in his own vessel a mutiny is on the point of breaking out, when the wished-for land is discovered, and the piece ends with the exclamation of "Land, land!" All this is conceived and planned very skilfully; but in the execution, however, there are numerous defects. In another piece not yet acted nor printed, called La Journe des Dupes, which I heard the author read, he has painted with historical truth, both in regard to circumstances and the spirit of the age, a well-known but unsuccessful court-cabal against Cardinal Richelieu. It is a political comedy, in which the rag-gatherer and the king express themselves in language suitable to their stations. The poet has, with the greatest ingenuity, shown the manner in which trivial causes assist or impede the execution of a great political design, the dissimulation practised by political personages towards others, and even towards themselves, and the different tones which they assume according to circumstances; in a word, he has exhibited the whole inward aspect of the game of politics.]
From all this we may infer, that the inclinations of the French public, when they forget the duties they have imbibed from Boileau's Art of Poetry, are not quite so hostile to the dramatic liberties of other nations as might be supposed, and that the old and narrow system is chiefly upheld by a superstitious attachment to traditional opinions.
The histrionic art, particularly in high comedy and tragedy, has been long carried in France to great perfection. In external dignity, quickness, correctness of memory, and in a wonderful degree of propriety and elegance in the delivery of verse, the best French actors are hardly to be surpassed. Their efforts to please are incredible: every moment they pass on the stage is a valuable opportunity, of which they must avail themselves. The extremely fastidious taste of a Paris pit, and the wholesome severity of the journalists, excite in them a spirit of incessant emulation; and the circumstance of acting a number of classical works, which for generations have been in the possession of the stage, contributes also greatly to their excellence in their art. As the spectators have these works nearly by heart, their whole attention may be directed to the acting, and every faulty syllable meets in this way with immediate detection and reprobation.
In high comedy the social refinement of the nation affords great advantages to their actors. But with respect to tragical composition, the art of the actor should also accommodate itself to the spirit of the poetry. I am inclined to doubt, however, whether this is the case with the French actors, and whether the authors of the tragedies, especially those of the age of Louis XIV. would altogether recognise themselves in the mode in which these compositions are at present represented.
The tragic imitation and recitation of the French oscillate between two opposite extremes, the first of which is occasioned by the prevailing tone of the piece, while the second seems rather to be at variance with it,— between measured formality and extravagant boisterousness. The first might formerly preponderate, but the balance is now on the other side.
Let us hear Voltaire's description of the manner in which, in the time of Louis XIV., Augustus delivered his discourse to Cinna and Maximus. Augustus entered with the step of a braggadocio, his head covered with a four-cornered peruque, which hung down to his girdle; the peruque was stuck full of laurel leaves, and above this he wore a large hat with a double row of red feathers. He seated himself on a huge fauteuil, two steps high, Cinna and Maximus on two low chairs; and the pompous declamation fully corresponded to the ostentatious manner in which he made his appearance. As at that time, and even long afterwards, tragedies were acted in a court-dress of the newest fashion, with large cravats, swords, and hats, no other movements were practicable but such as were allowable in an antechamber, or, at most, a slight waving of the hand; and it was even considered a bold theatrical attempt, when, in the last scene of Polyeucte, Severus entered with his hat on his head for the purpose of accusing Felix of treachery, and the latter listened to him with his hat under his arm.
However, there were even early examples of an extravagance of an opposite description. In the Mariamne of Mairet, an older poet than Corneille, the player who acted Herod, roared himself to death. This may, indeed, be called "out-heroding Herod!" When Voltaire was instructing an actress in some tragic part, she said to him, "Were I to play in this manner, sir, they would say the devil was in me."—"Very right," answered Voltaire, "an actress ought to have the devil in her." This expression proves, at least, no very keen sense for that dignity and sweetness which in an ideal composition, such as the French Tragedy pretends to be, ought never to be lost sight of, even in the wildest whirlwind of passion.
I found occasionally, even in the action of the very best players of the present day, sudden leaps from the measured solemnity in recitation and gesticulation which the general tone of the composition required, to a boisterousness of passion absolutely convulsive, without any due preparation or softening by intervening gradations. They are led to this by a sort of obscure feeling, that the conventional forms of poetry generally impede the movements of nature; when the poet any where leaves them at liberty, they then indemnify themselves for the former constraint, and load, as it were, this rare moment of abandonment with the whole amount of life and animation which had been kept back, and which ought to have been equally diffused over the whole. Hence their convulsive and obstreperous violence. In bravura they take care not to be deficient; but they frequently lose sight of the true spirit of the composition. In general, (with the single exception of the great Talma,) they consider their parts as a sort of mosaic work of brilliant passages, and they rather endeavour to make the most of each separate passage, independently of the rest, than to go back to the invisible central point of the character, and to consider every expression of it as an emanation from that point. They are always afraid of underdoing their parts; and hence they are worse qualified for reserved action, for eloquent silence, where, under an appearance of outward tranquillity, the most hidden emotions of the mind are betrayed. However, this is a part which is seldom imposed on them by their poets; and if the cause of such excessive violence in the expression of passion is not to be found in the works themselves, they at all events occasion the actor to lay greater stress on superficial brilliancy than on a profound knowledge of character [Footnote: See a treatise of M. Von Humboldt the elder, in Goethe's Propylen, on the French acting, equally distinguished for a refined and solid spirit of observation.].
Comparison of the English and Spanish Theatres—Spirit of the Romantic Drama—Shakspeare—His age and the circumstances of his Life.
In conformity with the plan which we laid down at the first, we shall now proceed to treat of the English and Spanish theatres. We have been, on various occasions, compelled in passing to allude cursorily, sometimes to the one and sometimes to the other, partly for the sake of placing, by means of contrast, many ideas in a clearer light, and partly on account of the influence which these stages have had on the theatres of other countries. Both the English and Spaniards possess a very rich dramatic literature, both have had a number of prolific and highly talented dramatists, among whom even the least admired and celebrated, considered as a whole, display uncommon aptitude for dramatic animation, and insight into the essence of theatrical effect. The history of their theatres has no connexion with that of the Italians and French, for they developed themselves wholly out of the abundance of their own intrinsic energy, without any foreign influence: the attempts to bring them back to an imitation of the ancients, or even of the French, have either been attended with no success, or not been made till a late period in the decay of the drama. The formation of these two stages, again, is equally independent of each other; the Spanish poets were altogether unacquainted with the English; and in the older and most important period of the English theatre I could discover no trace of any knowledge of Spanish plays, (though their novels and romances were certainly known,) and it was not till the time of Charles II. that translations from Calderon first made their appearance.
So many things among men have been handed down from century to century and from nation to nation, and the human mind is in general so slow to invent, that originality in any department of mental exertion is everywhere a rare phenomenon. We are desirous of seeing the result of the efforts of inventive geniuses when, regardless of what in the same line has elsewhere been carried to a high degree of perfection, they set to work in good earnest to invent altogether for themselves; when they lay the foundation of the new edifice on uncovered ground, and draw all the preparations, all the building materials, from their own resources. We participate, in some measure, in the joy of success, when we see them advance rapidly from their first helplessness and need to a finished mastery in their art. The history of the Grecian theatre would afford us this cheering prospect could we witness its rudest beginnings, which were not preserved, for they were not even committed to writing; but it is easy, when we compare together Aeschylus and Sophocles, to form some idea of the preceding period. The Greeks neither inherited nor borrowed their dramatic art from any other people; it was original and native, and for that very reason was it able to produce a living and powerful effect. But it ended with the period when Greeks imitated Greeks; namely, when the Alexandrian poets began learnedly and critically to compose dramas after the model of the great tragic writers. The reverse of this was the case with the Romans: they received the form and substance of their dramas from the Greeks; they never attempted to act according to their own discretion, and to express their own way of thinking; and hence they occupy so insignificant a place in the history of dramatic art. Among the nations of modern Europe, the English and Spaniards alone (for the German stage is but forming), possess as yet a theatre entirely original and national, which, in its own peculiar shape, has arrived at maturity.
Those critics who consider the authority of the ancients as models to be such, that in poetry, as in all the other arts, there can be no safety out of the pale of imitation, affirm, that as the nations in question have not followed this course, they have brought nothing but irregular works on the stage, which, though they may possess occasional passages of splendour and beauty, must yet, as a whole, be for ever reprobated as barbarous, and wanting in form. We have already, in the introductory part of these Lectures, stated our sentiments generally on this way of thinking; but we must now examine the subject somewhat more closely.
If the assertion be well founded, all that distinguishes the works of the greatest English and Spanish dramatists, a Shakspeare and a Calderon, must rank them far below the ancients; they could in no wise be of importance for theory, and would at most appear remarkable, on the assumption that the obstinacy of these nations in refusing to comply with the rules, may have afforded a more ample field to the poets, to display their native originality, though at the expense of art. But even this assumption, on a closer examination, appears extremely questionable. The poetic spirit requires to be limited, that it may move with a becoming liberty, within its proper precincts, as has been felt by all nations on the first invention of metre; it must act according to laws derivable from its own essence, otherwise its strength will evaporate in boundless vacuity.
The works of genius cannot therefore be permitted to be without form; but of this there is no danger. However, that we may answer this objection of want of form, we must understand the exact meaning of the term form, since most critics, and more especially those who insist on a stiff regularity, interpret it merely in a mechanical, and not in an organical sense. Form is mechanical when, through external force, it is imparted to any material merely as an accidental addition without reference to its quality; as, for example, when we give a particular shape to a soft mass that it may retain the same after its induration. Organical form, again, is innate; it unfolds itself from within, and acquires its determination contemporaneously with the perfect development of the germ. We everywhere discover such forms in nature throughout the whole range of living powers, from the crystallization of salts and minerals to plants and flowers, and from these again to the human body. In the fine arts, as well as in the domain of nature—the supreme artist, all genuine forms are organical, that is, determined by the quality of the work. In a word, the form is nothing but a significant exterior, the speaking physiognomy of each thing, which, as long as it is not disfigured by any destructive accident, gives a true evidence of its hidden essence.
Hence it is evident that the spirit of poetry, which, though imperishable, migrates, as it were, through different bodies, must, so often as it is newly born in the human race, mould to itself, out of the nutrimental substance of an altered age, a body of a different conformation. The forms vary with the direction taken by the poetical sense; and when we give to the new kinds of poetry the old names, and judge of them according to the ideas conveyed by these names, the application which we make of the authority of classical antiquity is altogether unjustifiable. No one should be tried before a tribunal to which he is not amenable. We may safely admit, that the most of the English and Spanish dramatic works are neither tragedies nor comedies in the sense of the ancients: they are romantic dramas. That the stage of a people who, in its foundation and formation, neither knew nor wished to know anything of foreign models, will possess many peculiarities; and not only deviate from, but even exhibit a striking contrast to, the theatres of other nations who had a common model for imitation before their eyes, is easily supposable, and we should only be astonished were it otherwise. But when in two nations, differing so widely as the English and Spanish, in physical, moral, political, and religious respects, the theatres (which, without being known to each other, arose about the same time,) possess, along with external and internal diversities, the most striking features of affinity, the attention even of the most thoughtless cannot but be turned to this phenomenon; and the conjecture will naturally occur, that the same, or, at least, a kindred principle must have prevailed in the development of both. This comparison, however, of the English and Spanish theatre, in their common contrast with every dramatic literature which has grown up out of an imitation of the ancients, has, so far as we know, never yet been attempted. Could we raise from the dead a countryman, contemporary, and intelligent admirer of Shakspeare, and another of Calderon, and introduce to their acquaintance the works of the poet to which in life they were strangers, they would both, without doubt, considering the subject rather from a national than a general point of view, enter with difficulty into the above idea, and have many objections to urge against it. But here a reconciling criticism [Footnote: This appropriate expression was, if we mistake not, first used by M. Adam Mller in his Lectures on German Science and Literature. If, however, he gives himself out for the inventor of the thing itself, he is, to use the softest word, in error. Long before him other Germans had endeavoured to reconcile the contrarieties of taste of different ages and nations, and to pay due homage to all genuine poetry and art. Between good and bad, it is true, no reconciliation is possible.] must step in; and this, perhaps, may be best exercised by a German, who is free from the national peculiarities of either Englishmen or Spaniards, yet by inclination friendly to both, and prevented by no jealousy from acknowledging the greatness which has been earlier exhibited in other countries than in his own.
The similarity of the English and Spanish theatres does not consist merely in the bold neglect of the Unities of Place and Time, and in the commixture of comic and tragic elements: that they were unwilling or unable to comply with the rules and with right reason, (in the meaning of certain critics these terms are equivalent,) may be considered as an evidence of merely negative properties. The ground of the resemblance lies far deeper, in the inmost substance of the fictions, and in the essential relations, through which every deviation of form, becomes a true requisite, which, together with its validity, has also its significance. What they have in common with each other is the spirit of the romantic poetry, giving utterance to itself in a dramatic shape. However, to explain ourselves with due precision, the Spanish theatre, in our opinion, down to its decline and fall in the commencement of the eighteenth century, is almost entirely romantic; the English is completely so in Shakspeare alone, its founder and greatest master: in later poets the romantic principle appears more or less degenerated, or is no longer perceivable, although the march of dramatic composition introduced by virtue of it has been, outwardly at least, pretty generally retained. The manner in which the different ways of thinking of the two nations, one a northern and the other a southern, have been expressed; the former endowed with a gloomy, the latter with a glowing imagination; the one nation possessed of a scrutinizing seriousness disposed to withdraw within themselves, the other impelled outwardly by the violence of passion; the mode in which all this has been accomplished will be most satisfactorily explained at the close of this section, when we come to institute a parallel between Shakspeare and Calderon, the only two poets who are entitled to be called great.
Of the origin and essence of the romantic I treated in my first Lecture, and I shall here, therefore, merely briefly mention the subject. The ancient art and poetry rigorously separate things which are dissimilar; the romantic delights in indissoluble mixtures; all contrarieties: nature and art, poetry and prose, seriousness and mirth, recollection and anticipation, spirituality and sensuality, terrestrial and celestial, life and death, are by it blended together in the most intimate combination. As the oldest lawgivers delivered their mandatory instructions and prescriptions in measured melodies; as this is fabulously ascribed to Orpheus, the first softener of the yet untamed race of mortals; in like manner the whole of the ancient poetry and art is, as it were, a rhythmical nomos (law), an harmonious promulgation of the permanently established legislation of a world submitted to a beautiful order, and reflecting in itself the eternal images of things. Romantic poetry, on the other hand, is the expression of the secret attraction to a chaos which lies concealed in the very bosom of the ordered universe, and is perpetually striving after new and marvellous births; the life-giving spirit of primal love broods here anew on the face of the waters. The former is more simple, clear, and like to nature in the self-existent perfection of her separate works; the latter, notwithstanding its fragmentary appearance, approaches more to the secret of the universe. For Conception can only comprise each object separately, but nothing in truth can ever exist separately and by itself; Feeling perceives all in all at one and the same time. Respecting the two species of poetry with which we are here principally occupied, we compared the ancient Tragedy to a group in sculpture: the figures corresponding to the characters, and their grouping to the action; and to these two in both productions of art is the consideration exclusively directed, as being all that is properly exhibited. But the romantic drama must be viewed as a large picture, where not merely figure and motion are exhibited in larger, richer groups, but where even all that surrounds the figures must also be portrayed; where we see not merely the nearest objects, but are indulged with the prospect of a considerable distance; and all this under a magical light, which assists in giving to the impression the particular character desired.
Such a picture must be bounded less perfectly and less distinctly, than the group; for it is like a fragment cut out of the optic scene of the world. However the painter, by the setting of his foreground, by throwing the whole of his light into the centre, and by other means of fixing the point of view, will learn that he must neither wander beyond the composition, nor omit any thing within it.
In the representation of figure, Painting cannot compete with Sculpture, since the former can only exhibit it by a deception and from a single point of view; but, on the other hand, it communicates more life to its imitations, by colours which in a picture are made to imitate the lightest shades of mental expression in the countenance. The look, which can be given only very imperfectly by Sculpture, enables us to read much deeper in the mind, and to perceive its lightest movements. Its peculiar charm, in short, consists in this, that it enables us to see in bodily objects what is least corporeal, namely, light and air.
The very same description of beauties are peculiar to the romantic drama. It does not (like the Old Tragedy) separate seriousness and the action, in a rigid manner, from among the whole ingredients of life; it embraces at once the whole of the chequered drama of life with all its circumstances; and while it seems only to represent subjects brought accidentally together, it satisfies the unconscious requisitions of fancy, buries us in reflections on the inexpressible signification of the objects which we view blended by order, nearness and distance, light and colour, into one harmonious whole; and thus lends, as it were, a soul to the prospect before us.
The change of time and of place, (supposing its influence on the mind to be included in the picture; and that it comes to the aid of the theatrical perspective, with reference to what is indicated in the distance, or half- concealed by intervening objects;) the contrast of sport and earnest (supposing that in degree and kind they bear a proportion to each other;) finally, the mixture of the dialogical and the lyrical elements, (by which the poet is enabled, more or less perfectly, to transform his personages into poetical beings:) these, in my opinion, are not mere licenses, but true beauties in the romantic drama. In all these points, and in many others also, the English and Spanish works, which are pre-eminently worthy of this title of Romantic, fully resemble each other, however different they may be in other respects.
Of the two we shall first notice the English theatre, because it arrived earlier at maturity than the Spanish. In both we must occupy ourselves almost exclusively with a single artist, with Shakspeare in the one and Calderon in the other; but not in the same order with each, for Shakspeare stands first and earliest among the English; any remarks we may have to make on earlier or contemporary antiquities of the English stage may be made in a review of his history. But Calderon had many predecessors; he is at once the summit and the close nearly of dramatic art in Spain.
The wish to speak with the brevity which the limits of my plan demand, of a poet to the study of whom I have devoted many years of my life, places me in no little embarrassment. I know not where to begin; for I should never be able to end, were I to say all that I have felt and thought on the perusal of his works. With the poet as with the man, a more than ordinary intimacy prevents us, perhaps, from putting ourselves in the place of those who are first forming an acquaintance with him: we are too familiar with his most striking peculiarities, to be able to pronounce upon the first impression which they are calculated to make on others. On the other hand, we ought to possess, and to have the power of communicating, more correct ideas of his mode of procedure, of his concealed or less obvious views, and of the meaning and import of his labours, than others whose acquaintance with him is more limited.
Shakspeare is the pride of his nation. A late poet has, with propriety, called him "the genius of the British isles." He was the idol of his contemporaries: during the interval indeed of puritanical fanaticism, which broke out in the next generation, and rigorously proscribed all liberal arts and literature, and during the reign of the Second Charles, when his works were either not acted at all, or if so, very much changed and disfigured, his fame was awhile obscured, only to shine forth again about the beginning of the last century with more than its original brightness; and since then it has but increased in lustre with the course of time; and for centuries to come, (I speak it with the greatest confidence,) it will, like an Alpine avalanche, continue to gather strength at every moment of its progress. Of the future extension of his fame, the enthusiasm with which he was naturalized in Germany, the moment that he was known, is a significant earnest. In the South of Europe, [Footnote: This difficulty extends also to France; for it must not be supposed that a literal translation can ever be a faithful one. Mrs. Montague has done enough to prove how wretchedly, even Voltaire, in his rhymeless Alexandrines, has translated a few passages from Hamlet and the first act of Julius Caesar.] his language, and the great difficulty of translating him with fidelity, will be, perhaps, an invincible obstacle to his general diffusion. In England, the greatest actors vie with each other in the impersonation of his characters; the printers in splendid editions of his works; and the painters in transferring his scenes to the canvas. Like Dante, Shakspeare has received the perhaps indispensable but still cumbersome honour of being treated like a classical author of antiquity. The oldest editions have been carefully collated, and where the readings seemed corrupt, many corrections have been suggested; and the whole literature of his age has been drawn forth from the oblivion to which it had been consigned, for the sole purpose of explaining the phrases, and illustrating the allusions of Shakspeare. Commentators have succeeded one another in such number, that their labours alone, with the critical controversies to which they have given rise, constitute of themselves no inconsiderable library. These labours deserve both our praise and gratitude; and more especially the historical investigations into the sources from which Shakspeare drew the materials of his plays, and also into the previous and contemporary state of the English stage, and other kindred subjects of inquiry. With respect, however, to their merely philological criticisms, I am frequently compelled to differ from the commentators; and where, too, considering him simply as a poet, they endeavour to enter into his views and to decide upon his merits, I must separate myself from them entirely. I have hardly ever found either truth or profundity in their remarks; and these critics seem to me to be but stammering interpreters of the general and almost idolatrous admiration of his countrymen. There may be people in England who entertain the same views of them with myself, at least it is a well- known fact that a satirical poet has represented Shakspeare, under the hands of his commentators, by Actaeon worried to death by his own dogs; and, following up the story of Ovid, designated a female writer on the great poet as the snarling Lycisca.
We shall endeavour, in the first place, to remove some of these false views, in order to clear the way for our own homage, that we may thereupon offer it the more freely without let or hindrance.
From all the accounts of Shakspeare which have come down to us, it is clear that his contemporaries knew well the treasure they possessed in him; and that they felt and understood him better than most of those who succeeded him. In those days a work was generally ushered into the world with Commendatory Verses; and one of these, prefixed to an early edition of Shakspeare, by an unknown author, contains some of the most beautiful and happy lines that ever were applied to any poet [Footnote: It begins with the words: A mind reflecting ages past, and is subscribed, I.M.S.]. An idea, however, soon became prevalent that Shakspeare was a rude and wild genius, who poured forth at random, and without aim or object, his unconnected compositions. Ben Jonson, a younger contemporary and rival of Shakspeare, who laboured in the sweat of his brow, but with no great success, to expel the romantic drama from the English stage, and to form it on the model of the ancients, gave it as his opinion that Shakspeare did not blot enough, and that as he did not possess much school-learning, he owed more to nature than to art. The learned, and sometimes rather pedantic Milton was also of this opinion, when he says,
Our sweetest Shakspeare, fancy's child, Warbles his native wood-notes wild.
Yet it is highly honourable to Milton, that the sweetness of Shakspeare, the quality which of all others has been least allowed, was felt and acknowledged by him. The modern editors, both in their prefaces, which may be considered as so many rhetorical exercises in praise of the poet, and in their remarks on separate passages, go still farther. Judging them by principles which are not applicable to them, not only do they admit the irregularity of his pieces, but on occasions they accuse him of bombast, of a confused, ungrammatical, and conceited mode of writing, and even of the most contemptible buffoonery. Pope asserts that he wrote both better and worse than any other man. All the scenes and passages which did not square with the littleness of his own taste, he wished to place to the account of interpolating players; and he was in the right road, had his opinion been taken, of giving us a miserable dole of a mangled Shakspeare. It is, therefore, not to be wondered at if foreigners, with the exception of the Germans latterly, have, in their ignorance of him, even improved upon these opinions. [Footnote: Lessing was the first to speak of Shakspeare in a becoming tone; but he said unfortunately a great deal too little of him, as in the time when he wrote the Dramaturgie this poet had not yet appeared on our stage. Since that time he has been more particularly noticed by Herder in the Bltter von deutscher Art und Kunst; Goethe, in Wilhelm Meister; and Tieck, in Letters on Shakspeare (Poetisches Journal, 1800), which break off, however, almost at the commencement.]. They speak in general of Shakspeare's plays as monstrous productions, which could only have been given to the world by a disordered imagination in a barbarous age; and Voltaire crowns the whole with more than usual assurance, when he observes that Hamlet, the profound master- piece of the philosophical poet, "seems the work of a drunken savage." That foreigners, and in particular Frenchmen, who ordinarily speak the most strange language of antiquity and the middle ages, as if cannibalism had only been put an end to in Europe by Louis XIV. should entertain this opinion of Shakspeare, might be pardonable; but that Englishmen should join in calumniating that glorious epoch of their history, [Footnote: The English work with which foreigners of every country are perhaps best acquainted is Hume's History; and there we have a most unjustifiable account both of Shakspeare and his age. "Born in a rude age, and educated in the lowest manner, without any instruction either from the world or from books." How could a man of Hume's acuteness suppose for a moment that a poet, whose characters display such an intimate acquaintance with life, who, as an actor and manager of a theatre, must have come in contact with all descriptions of individuals, had no instruction from the world? But this is not the worst; he goes even so far as to say, "a reasonable propriety of thought he cannot for any time uphold." This is nearly as offensive as Voltaire's "drunken savage."—TRANS.] which laid the foundation of their national greatness, is incomprehensible. Shakspeare flourished and wrote in the last half of the reign of Queen Elizabeth and first half of that of James I.; and, consequently, under monarchs who were learned themselves, and held literature in honour. The policy of modern Europe, by which the relations of its different states have been so variously interwoven with each other, commenced a century before. The cause of the Protestants was decided by the accession of Elizabeth to the throne; and the attachment to the ancient belief cannot therefore be urged as a proof of the prevailing darkness. Such was the zeal for the study of the ancients, that even court ladies, and the queen herself, were acquainted with Latin and Greek, and taught even to speak the former; a degree of knowledge which we should in vain seek for in the courts of Europe at the present day. The trade and navigation which the English carried on with all the four quarters of the world, made them acquainted with the customs and mental productions of other nations; and it would appear that they were then more indulgent to foreign manners than they are in the present day. Italy had already produced all nearly that still distinguishes her literature, and in England translations in verse were diligently, and even successfully, executed from the Italian. Spanish literature also was not unknown, for it is certain that Don Quixote was read in England soon after its first appearance. Bacon, the founder of modern experimental philosophy, and of whom it may be said, that he carried in his pocket all that even in this eighteenth century merits the name of philosophy, was a contemporary of Shakspeare. His fame, as a writer, did not, indeed, break forth into its glory till after his death; but what a number of ideas must have been in circulation before such an author could arise! Many branches of human knowledge have, since that time, been more extensively cultivated, but such branches as are totally unproductive to poetry: chemistry, mechanics, manufactures, and rural and political economy, will never enable a man to become a poet. I have elsewhere [Footnote: In my Lectures on the Spirit of the Age.] examined into the pretensions of modern enlightenment, as it is called, which looks with such contempt on all preceding ages; I have shown that at bottom it is all little, superficial, and unsubstantial. The pride of what has been called the existing maturity of human intensity, has come to a miserable end; and the structures erected by those pedagogues of the human race have fallen to pieces like the baby-houses of children.
With regard to the tone of society in Shakspeare's day, it is necessary to remark that there is a wide difference between true mental cultivation and what is called polish. That artificial polish which puts an end to every thing like free original communication, and subjects all intercourse to the insipid uniformity of certain rules, was undoubtedly wholly unknown to the age of Shakspeare, as in a great measure it still is at the present day in England. It possessed, on the other hand, a fulness of healthy vigour, which showed itself always with boldness, and sometimes also with petulance. The spirit of chivalry was not yet wholly extinct, and a queen, who was far more jealous in exacting homage to her sex than to her throne, and who, with her determination, wisdom, and magnanimity, was in fact, well qualified to inspire the minds of her subjects with an ardent enthusiasm, inflamed that spirit to the noblest love of glory and renown. The feudal independence also still survived in some measure; the nobility vied with each other in splendour of dress and number of retinue, and every great lord had a sort of small court of his own. The distinction of ranks was as yet strongly marked: a state of things ardently to be desired by the dramatic poet. In conversation they took pleasure in quick and unexpected answers; and the witty sally passed rapidly like a ball from mouth to mouth, till the merry game could no longer be kept up. This, and the abuse of the play on words, (of which King James was himself very fond, and we need not therefore wonder at the universality of the mode,) may, doubtless, be considered as instances of a bad taste; but to take them for symptoms of rudeness and barbarity, is not less absurd than to infer the poverty of a people from their luxurious extravagance. These strained repartees are frequently employed by Shakspeare, with the view of painting the actual tone of the society in his day; it does not, however, follow, that they met with his approbation; on the contrary, it clearly appears that he held them in derision. Hamlet says, in the scene with the Gravedigger, "By the Lord, Horatio, these three years I have taken note of it: the age is grown so picked, that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he galls his kibe." And Lorenzo, in the Merchant of Venice, alluding to Launcelot:
O dear discretion, how his words are suited! The fool hath planted in his memory An army of good words: and I do know A many fools, that stand in better place, Garnish'd like him, that for a tricksy word. Defy the matter.
Besides, Shakspeare, in a thousand places, lays great and marked stress on correct and refined tone of society, and lashes every deviation from it, whether of boorishness or affected foppery; not only does he give admirable discourses on it, but he represents it in all its shades and modifications by rank, age, or sex. What foundation is there, then, for the alleged barbarity of his age? Its offences against propriety? But if this is to be admitted as a test, then the ages of Pericles and Augustus must also be described as rude and uncultivated; for Aristophanes and Horace, who both were considered as models of urbanity, display, at times, the coarsest indelicacy. On this subject, the diversity in the moral feeling of ages depends on other causes. Shakspeare, it is true, sometimes introduces us to improper company; at others, he suffers ambiguous expressions to escape in the presence of women, and even from women themselves. This species of petulance was probably not then unusual. He certainly did not indulge in it merely to please the multitude, for in many of his pieces there is not the slightest trace of this sort to be found: and in what virgin purity are many of his female parts worked out! When we see the liberties taken by other dramatic poets in England in his time, and even much later, we must account him comparatively chaste and moral. Neither must we overlook certain circumstances in the existing state of the theatre. The female parts were not acted by women, but by boys; and no person of the fair sex appeared in the theatre without a mask. Under such a carnival disguise, much might be heard by them, and much might be ventured to be said in their presence, which in other circumstances would have been absolutely improper. It is certainly to be wished that decency should be observed on all public occasions, and consequently also on the stage. But even in this it is possible to go too far. That carping censoriousness which scents out impurity in every bold sally, is, at best, but an ambiguous criterion of purity of morals; and beneath this hypocritical guise there often lurks the consciousness of an impure imagination. The determination to tolerate nothing which has the least reference to the sensual relation between the sexes, may be carried to a pitch extremely oppressive to a dramatic poet, and highly prejudicial to the boldness and freedom of his compositions. If such considerations were to be attended to, many of the happiest parts of Shakspeare's plays, for example, in Measure for Measure, and All's Well that Ends Well, which, nevertheless, are handled with a due regard to decency, must be set aside as sinning against this would-be propriety.
Had no other monument of the age of Elizabeth come down to us than the works of Shakspeare, I should, from them alone, have formed the most favourable idea of its state of social culture and enlightenment. When those who look through such strange spectacles as to see nothing in them but rudeness and barbarity cannot deny what I have now historically proved, they are usually driven to this last resource, and demand, "What has Shakspeare to do with the mental culture of his age? He had no share in it. Born in an inferior rank, ignorant and uneducated, he passed his life in low society, and laboured to please a vulgar audience for his bread, without ever dreaming of fame or posterity."
In all this there is not a single word of truth, though it has been repeated a thousand times. It is true we know very little of the poet's life; and what we do know consists for the most part of raked-up and chiefly suspicious anecdotes, of such a description nearly as those which are told at inns to inquisitive strangers, who visit the birthplace or neighbourhood of a celebrated man. Within a very recent period some original documents have been brought to light, and among them his will, which give us a peep into his family concerns. It betrays more than ordinary deficiency of critical acumen in Shakspeare's commentators, that none of them, so far as we know, have ever thought of availing themselves of his sonnets for tracing the circumstances of his life. These sonnets paint most unequivocally the actual situation and sentiments of the poet; they make us acquainted with the passions of the man; they even contain remarkable confessions of his youthful errors. Shakspeare's father was a man of property, whose ancestors had held the office of alderman and bailiff in Stratford, and in a diploma from the Heralds' Office for the renewal or confirmation of his coat of arms, he is styled gentleman. Our poet, the oldest son but third child, could not, it is true, receive an academical education, as he married when hardly eighteen, probably from mere family considerations. This retired and unnoticed life he continued to lead but a few years; and he was either enticed to London from wearisomeness of his situation, or banished from home, as it is said, in consequence of his irregularities. There he assumed the profession of a player, which he considered at first as a degradation, principally, perhaps, because of the wild excesses [Footnote: In one of his sonnets he says: O, for my sake do you with fortune chide, The guilty goddess of my harmless deeds, That did not better for my life provide, Than public means which public manners breeds. And in the following:— Your love and pity doth the impression fill, Which vulgar scandal stamp'd upon my brow.] into which he was seduced by the example of his comrades. It is extremely probable, that the poetical fame which in the progress of his career he afterwards acquired, greatly contributed to ennoble the stage, and to bring the player's profession into better repute. Even at a very early age he endeavoured to distinguish himself as a poet in other walks than those of the stage, as is proved by his juvenile poems of Adonis and Lucrece. He quickly rose to be a sharer or joint proprietor, and also manager of the theatre for which he wrote. That he was not admitted to the society of persons of distinction is altogether incredible. Not to mention many others, he found a liberal friend and kind patron in the Earl of Southampton, the friend of the unfortunate Essex. His pieces were not only the delight of the great public, but also in great favour at court: the two monarchs under whose reigns he wrote were, according to the testimony of a contemporary, quite "taken" with him [Footnote: Ben Jonson:— And make those flights upon the banks of Thames, That so did take Eliza and our James!]. Many were acted at court; and Elizabeth appears herself to have commanded the writing of more than one to be acted at her court festivals. King James, it is well known, honoured Shakspeare so far as to write to him with his own hand. All this looks very unlike either contempt or banishment into the obscurity of a low circle. By his labours as a poet, player, and stage-manager, Shakspeare acquired a considerable property, which, in the last years of his too short life, he enjoyed in his native town in retirement and in the society of a beloved daughter. Immediately after his death a monument was erected over his grave, which may be considered sumptuous for those times.
In the midst of such brilliant success, and with such distinguished proofs of respect and honour from his contemporaries, it would be singular indeed if Shakspeare, notwithstanding the modesty of a great mind, which he certainly possessed in a peculiar degree, should never have dreamed of posthumous fame. As a profound thinker he had pretty accurately taken the measure of the circle of human capabilities, and he could say to himself with confidence, that many of his productions would not easily be surpassed. What foundation then is there for the contrary assertion, which would degrade the immortal artist to the situation of a daily labourer for a rude multitude?—Merely this, that he himself published no edition of his whole works. We do not reflect that a poet, always accustomed to labour immediately for the stage, who has often enjoyed the triumph of overpowering assembled crowds of spectators, and drawing from them the most tumultuous applause, who the while was not dependent on the caprice of crotchety stage directors, but left to his own discretion to select and determine the mode of theatrical representation, naturally cares much less for the closet of the solitary reader. During the first formation of a national theatre, more especially, we find frequent examples of such indifference. Of the almost innumerable pieces of Lope de Vega, many undoubtedly were never printed, and are consequently lost; and Cervantes did not print his earlier dramas, though he certainly boasts of them as meritorious works. As Shakspeare, on his retiring from the theatre, left his manuscripts behind with his fellow-managers, he may have relied on theatrical tradition for handing them down to posterity, which would indeed have been sufficient for that purpose if the closing of the theatres, under the tyrannical intolerance of the Puritans, had not interrupted the natural order of things. We know, besides, that the poets used then to sell the exclusive copyright of their pieces to the theatre [Footnote: This is perhaps not uncommon still in some countries. The Venetian Director Medebach, for whose company many of Goldoni's Comedies were composed, claimed an exclusive right to them.—TRANS.]: it is therefore not improbable that the right of property in his unprinted pieces was no longer vested in Shakspeare, or had not at least yet reverted to him. His fellow-managers entered on the publication seven years after his death (which probably cut short his own intention,) as it would appear on their own account and for their own advantage.
Ignorance or Learning of Shakspeare—Costume as observed by Shakspeare, and how far necessary, or may be dispensed with in the Drama—Shakspeare the greatest drawer of Character—Vindication of the genuineness of his pathos—Play on words—Moral delicacy—Irony—Mixture of the Tragic and Comic—The part of the Fool or Clown—Shakspeare's Language and Versification.
Our poet's want of scholarship has been the subject of endless controversy, and yet it is surely a very easy matter to decide. Shakspeare was poor in dead school-cram, but he possessed a rich treasury of living and intuitive knowledge. He knew a little Latin, and even something of Greek, though it may be not enough to read with ease the writers in the original. With modern languages also, the French and Italian, he had, perhaps, but a superficial acquaintance. The general direction of his mind was not to the collection of words but of facts. With English books, whether original or translated, he was extensively acquainted: we may safely affirm that he had read all that his native language and literature then contained that could be of any use to him in his poetical avocations. He was sufficiently intimate with mythology to employ it, in the only manner he could wish, in the way of symbolical ornament. He had formed a correct notion of the spirit of Ancient History, and more particularly of that of the Romans; and the history of his own country was familiar to him even in detail. Fortunately for him it had not as yet been treated in a diplomatic and pragmatic spirit, but merely in the chronicle-style; in other words, it had not yet assumed the appearance of dry investigations respecting the development of political relations, diplomatic negotiations, finances, &c., but exhibited a visible image of the life and movement of an age prolific of great deeds. Shakspeare, moreover, was a nice observer of nature; he knew the technical language of mechanics and artisans; he seems to have been well travelled in the interior of his own country, while of others he inquired diligently of travelled navigators respecting their peculiarity of climate and customs. He thus became accurately acquainted with all the popular usages, opinions, and traditions which could be of use in poetry.