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mouth of a clown, or a very low person, even vulgar language may be admitted ; but the style should in no case be too highly polished or refined, like the language of books. As the piece is a representation of life, so the language should be that of conversation; and any thing above it is only natural in the mouth of a pedant or very affected person, a Malvolio, a Vel. lum, or a Malaprop.
The first writers of comedy introduced living characters, and sometimes the most virtuous persons of the age, upon the stage, Socrates himself not excepted. This was, however, attended with great evils and disturbances, and at length they were prohibited by law from the exhibition of any living characters. Aristophanes is the principal author of this description now extant. The wit of these writers was, as I before hinted, of the lowest kind, and their discourses often obscene. What is called the middle comedy was an elusion of the laws, by introducing real characters under feigned names; but we have no author of this kind now remain. ing.
The new comedy consists in drawing pictures and characters, but not living ones.
Plautus and Terence were the most popular comic writers among the Romans. Plautus has more of the truly comic; his characters are drawn with strong features, his language is also strong, but coarse. Terence is a strict observer of rules, but fails in strength; and what detracts from his merit is, that he is a constant imitator of the Greeks.
A considerable difference is to be observed between the French and the English comedy. The French are more regular, perhaps more tame; the English are -irregular, but interesting and full of plot: I am afraid I must add, that the French are more decorous and chaste. If, indeed, I gave little praise to the French tragic writers, I cannot in justice be equally niggardly of applause to their comic drama. Moliere is himself an host: he abounds in character, wit and humour; his plots are ingeni.. ous, lively, and interesting ; and in his plays in general we find little to offend a modest ear, or throw ridicule upon virtue. It must be al. lowed, however, that some of Moliere's plays (the much admired Misanthrope, for instance), are heavy and spiritless. Indeed, the French plays have in general less varity than the E g-lish ; and perhaps this might in some measure: be accounted for from the nature of their despotic government, which had a tendency to spread a greater uniformity over their behaviour: but it is strange that the French, who are remarkable for their levity, and certainly not praise-worthy for their morals, should so far exceed the English in the decency and de. corum of their comedies.
Since the time of Moliere, the French have invented a new kind of comedy, called Lar. moyante. In this kind of writing, sentiment is more studied than plot or character ; the plots chiefly turn on the discovery of some person, a woman, for instance, in mean circumstances, found to be the daughter of some rich man; or a wife finds her husband, whom she imagined lost or dead. This style of writing has also been introduced in England, under the name of sentimental comedy; but the humour of Goldsmith, and the wit of Sheridan, have laughed it off the stage.
In taking a short view of the English comic writers, Shakspeare must occupy not only the first, but the highest place. His dramas, after a lapse of two centuries, are still gazed at with unabated ardour by the populace, are still read with admiration by the scholar. They interest the old and the young, the gallery and the pit, the people and the critic. At their representation appetite is never palled, expectation never disappointed. The changes of fashion have not cast him into shade, the variations of language have not rendered him obsolete.
His plots are lively, and command attention ; his characters are still 'new and striking, and his wit is fertile even to exuberance. Perhaps there never was a drama which so happily combined tender sentiment with comic force as As You Like it :" there is scarcely a character in it which fails to interest. Adam and Jacques are truly original ; and even the buffoonery of the clown is of a superior cast. In the Merchant of Venice the unity of action is somewhat violated by a double plot; but perhaps two plots were never so happily combined as in this play; and one rises so naturally out of the other, that not the smallest confusion is produced. The comic scenes pleasantly relieve the mind from the effect produced by the serious. The conclusion is unexpected, and the effect of the whole is truly happy. Gratiano appears to me a character which Shakspeare only could have penned; though, from the little interest which be bas in the plot, he is less noticed than he would have been for his sportive wit, had be been of more importance to the main action. What an effort of imagination is the Tempest! Magic, the tendency of which is naturally to excite horror and disgust, is converted into an instrument of gaiety and pleasure; and the au. thor can give diversity of character even to ideal beings, or rather seems as much conversant with the world of spirits as with the characters of men. Perhaps the Merry Wives of Windsor is one of the most regular of Shakspeare's comedies; and I scarcely know a play that comes more completely under that description. The principal character, Falstaff, is, however, scarcely so well depicted as in Henry the Fourth. In the scenes with the Prince, when debauchery and cheating are the themes, the old Knight seems
more in his
element than in his rencounter with ladies. It is remarkable that, so early as Shakspeare's time, the paltry stage trick of exciting a vulgar laugh at the broken dialect of a foreigner was in use ; a trick which has since been al!lost the sole support of a comedy, but which was utterly