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and addressing the audience, for that in fact he does when he soliloquizes (as it is improperly called), the illusion is immediately dissipated, and we no longer see the character, but the actor. How Shakspeare came to be guilty of this grand oversight I can scarcely divine. It must have been either from custom or indolence.
For the same reason a tragedy in rhyme can never interest, because it never can furnish any illusion, or make us for a moment forget the author and actors, and imagine it a reality. Our English blank verse approaches so near to prose, that, when well spoken, the difference' is imperceptible. Some of the best parts in Shakspeare are indeed in prose; and Lillo's natural and pathetic dramas entirely so. I have already said that the diction should be suited to the character; so it should be to the subject. A play on a modern or domestic topic should not be in blank verse.
Much nonsense has been advanced by the critics in the form of instructions for dramatic writers. Such as, that no actor should go off the stage more than five times; that the persons of the drama should not exceed a limited number; and that during the course of an act the stage should never be left vacant even for a single moment. All these pretended rules are bravely violated by our English writers; and really I never could see any just argument for them.
For dramatic writing we cannot revert further than the Greeks; for I do not concur with Bishop Lowth in regarding Job or the Canticles as dramatic pieces.
Of the Greek writers Eschylus is harsh and obscure; Sophocles more masterly, correct, and sublime; Euripides soft and tender. In the Greek tragedies, for the reason already assigned, the action was simple, and the incidents few. They are commonly founded on the history of their own nation, which should be an advantage to their descriptions. Hercules furnished six, and the Trojan war no less than seventeen subjects for tragedies. Their declamation (like that of the Italian opera), was set to musical notes; and their chorusses* changed from declamation to real song. Their actors
wore a long flowing robe, and were raised on high buskins, called cothurni; they also wore masks, which were something like helmets, and were made to represent the persons whose characters they sustained. These masks had large mouths, which, by means of horn or brass plates, the Abbe du Boss ingeniously conjectures, strengthened the voice, and caused them to be heard at a greater distance; but it may very reasonably be asked how would these masks represent the passions? We learn, however, that they had also an expedient for this purpose; the mask was painted so as to represent different passions on each side, and as the actors stood always in profile, they turned that side to the spectators which was most agreeable to their present passion! What a contemptible idea does this give us of the Greek theatre, and yet it is the drama of the Greeks that prejudiced pedants wish us to copy! What is still more extraordinary, we are told that sometimes one player spoke and another acted. We must remember, however, that the ancient theatres were much larger than the modern ones, consequently the masks were of advantage both to the sight and the hearing; and for the same reason, the spectators could not so easily discern the change of countenance in the actors, especially as they acted by day, and their stage was not so well illuminated as ours; and as the masks kept the lips from moving, so that it could scarcely be perceived who spoke, it would not appear so ridiculous to us to have two engaged in the same part as we may imagine.
In France, Corneille and Racine have somewhat improved, though not much, on the Greek drama. They have introduced many more incidents into their plays than were found in the ancient tragedies. Corneille is remarked by the French critics for his sublimity; Racine for describing the tender emotions; but the merit of both appears to me over-rated. Voltaire is more animated than Racine, and more interesting than either him or Corneille. Love always predominates in the French tragedies, and it is in general the love of a petit-maitre. The French are also fantastically delicate,
for they have banished all bloodshed from their stage; but this refinement, some of their own critics acknowledge they have carried too far, and, according to their own countryman Voltaire, they have quite enervated tragedy.
It may perhaps be affirmed that it is only on the English stage that a perfect tragedy is to be seen. It is there that we find the just representation of nature, an action exhibited, such as the historian might narrate. The events not forced or unnatural, nor crowded within too narrow a space. There we see characters such as are to be found in real life, such as serve to conduct the business of the plot in its natural course, and to a natural catastrophe; not stiffly and artificially contrasted, as in the French dramas, where every principal character must have his particular opponent, of different stature, differently habited, of opposite manners; made just to contradict each other, like the buffoons on the stage of the mountebank.
In this as well as in every other department of the drama, Shakspeare necessarily stands alone. His was the infancy of the art, and the whole field was open to him. The judicious Lowth observes, "That the passion of jealousy, its causes, circumstances, progress and effects, are more accurately, more copiously, more satisfactorily described in one drama of Shakspeare, than in all the disputations of philosophy."
Perhaps it may be allowed, in deference to Bishop Lowth's judgment, that the drama to which he refers, Othello, is the most perfect of all our author's productions; and consequently the most perfect tragedy in existence in all its parts. If unity of action is (as I think) an excellence, here every incident contributes to the main design. The characters are incomparably adapted to the action. The unsuspecting simplicity of Othello is well combined with the violence of passion by which he is agitated when he thinks himself abused. When I was a very young man, I used to think the Zanga of Dr. Young a better drawn character than Iago, and so it is according to the artificial rules, "for mak
ing tragedies," set forth by the tasteless followers of Aristotle, and the French critics; but more knowledge of the world has convinced of my error. Zanga starts up at once a complete villain....He has the whole plot, its circumstances and consequences at once in view. This is not natural: not to speak of the improbability of his treasuring up his revenge, unabated and unchanged, for so great a series of years. We read in Tacitus of one (Tiberius) whose character was "odium in longum jaciens," but this is not the odium of Zanga, stored up for so many years, uneffaced by reiterated kind
Iago, on the contrary, is a villain only by degrees. Malignant, envious, and fond of mischief, he enters upon his plan at first with only the vague and malevolent design of creating some uneasiness. In every progressive step he finds himself more deeply entangled, till at length in his own defence he is compelled to proceed. Even when the plot is considerably advanced, he sees not the end....
"Tis here but yet confus'd,
Knavery's plain face is never seen till used."
The villainy of Iago is also prompted from time to time by many circumstances; offence, jealousy and resentment at Othello, envy of Cassio, the having cheated, and continuing to cheat Roderigo, all serve to involve him deeper and deeper, and to promote the catastrophe.
The incidents are truly interesting; the theft of the handkerchief, and Othello seeing it in Cassio's hand, are incomparably wrought up. In short, whether in the tumultuous scene in the street, of rousing Brabantio, or in the scenes after the arrival at Cyprus, we can scarcely imagine that it is a fiction which is presented to
The poetry of the impassioned parts is of the highest kind, and I think in the concluding speech of Othello there are more beauties than are any where comprised in the same compass.
Such is this astonishing production of human intellect; and yet I feel it almost rashness to pronounce it the master-piece of our author. In Lear there is something still grander, and perhaps the fable is still more generally interesting. Granting that the plots were not his own, still it is the judgment, taste, and genius of Shakspeare that is displayed in selecting such stories as serve for the basis of the most magnificent display of all the great passions incidental to human nature. Who will compare the cold and inanimate declamation of Edipus, in the Greek tragedy, with the sublime burst of passion, when the old king resents the unfeeling ingratitude of his daughters? But even Œdipus in the hands of Shakspeare, would have been a different character.
One thing I must remark of this exquisite drama, because I have not seen it remarked by others, and that is, the perfect consistency, in the midst of seeming inconsistencies, with which the principal character is supported. Lear is introduced as a very choleric person; and, conscious of the error of his own disposition, and distrustful of himself, it is curious to observe how he doubts the reality of his daughter's ingratitude, and appears desirous of referring at first to his own frailty. Thus, when the unkindness of his eldest daughter is first hinted to him, he observes....
“Thou but rememberest me of mine own faint conception: I have perceived a most faint neglect of late; which I have rather blamed as mine own jealous curiosity."
The unity of action is perhaps not quite so well preserved as in Othello. The under plot of Gloster and Edgar presents, it is true, a kind of contrast to the other; but it is not necessary to the main action. All the characters are finely sustained; that of Kent is original, and the most interesting under character perhaps to be found in any drama. Some of the speeches of Lear are highly poetical, especially
"I tax not you, ye elements," &c.