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affectation. The revival of letters having commenced in Italy, the countries where they were afterwards introduced naturally imitated the Italian style. The people of the North were much sooner enfranchized than the French in this studied mode of writing; the traces of which perceived in some of the ancient English poets, as Waller, Cowley, and others. Civil wars and a spirit of philosophy have corrected this false taste; for misfortune, the impressions of which contain but too much variety, excludes all sentiments of affectation, and reason banishes all expressions that are deficient in justness.
Nevertheless, we find in Shakspeare a few of those studied turns connected even with the most energetic pictures of the passions. There are some imitations of the faults of Italian literature in “Romeo and Juliet ;” but how nobly the English poet rises from this miserable style!--how well does he know how to describe love, even in the true spirit of the North !
In “Othello,” love assumes a very different character from that which it bears in “Romeo and Juliet.” But how grand, how energetic it appears ! how beautifully Shakspeare has represented what forms the tie of the different sexes, courage and weakness! When Othello protests before the senate of Venice that the only art which he had employed to win the affection of Desdemona were the perils to which he had been exposed,* how every word he utters is felt by the female sex; their hearts acknowledge it all to be true. They know that it is not flattery in which consists the powerful art of men to make themselves beloved, but the kind protection which they may afford the timid object of their choice : the glory which they may reflect upon their feeble life, is their most irresistible charm.
* What charming verses are those which terminate the justification of Othello, and which La Harpe has so ably translated into truth!
The manners and customs of the English relating to the existence of women, were not yet settled in the time of Shakspeare; political troubles had been a great hindrance to social habits. The rank which women held in tragedy was then absolutely at the will of the author; therefore Shakspeare, in speaking of them, sometimes uses the most noble language that can be inspired by love, and at other times the lowest taste that was popular. This genius, given by passion, was inspired by it, as the priests were by their gods : they gave out oracles when they were agitated, but were no more than men when calm.
Those pieces taken from the English history, such as the two upon Henry IV., that upon Henry V., and the three upon Henry VI., have an unlimited success in England; nevertheless, I believe them to be much inferior in general to his tragedies of invention, King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “ Hamlet,” “ Romeo and Juliet,” &c. The irregularities of time and place are much more remarkable. In short, Shakspeare gives up to the popular taste in these more than in any other of his works. The discovery of the press necessarily diminished the condescension of authors to the national taste: they paid more respect to the general opinion of Europe; and though it was of the greatest importance that those pieces which were to be played should meet with success at the representation, since a means was found out of extending their fame to other nations, the writers took more pains to shun those illusions and pleasantries which could please only the people of their own nation. The English, however, were very backward in submitting to the general good taste : their liberty being founded more upon national pride than philosophical ideas, they rejected every thing that came from strangers, both in literature and politics.
She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd;
Before it would be possible to judge of the effects of an English tragedy which might be proper for the French stage, an examination remains to be made, which is, to distinguish in the pieces of Shakspeare that which was written to please the people; the real faults which he committed; and those spirited beauties which the severe rules of the French tragedies exclude from their stage.
The crowd of spectators in England require that comic scenes should succeed tragic effects. The contrast of what is noble with that which is not, as I have observed before, always produces a disagreeable impression upon men of taste. A noble style must have shades; but a too glaring opposition is nothing more than fantasticalness. That play upon words, those licentious equivocations, popular tales, and that string of proverbs which are handed down from generation to generation, and are, as one may say, the patrimonial ideas of the common people,-all these are applauded by the multitude, and censured by reason. These have no connection with the sublime effects which Shakspeare drew from simple words and common circumstances artfully arranged, which the French most absurdly would fear to bring upon their stage.
Shakspeare, when he wrote the parts of vulgar minds in his tragedies, sheltered himself from the judgment of taste by rendering himself the object of popular admiration : he then conducted himself like an able chief, but not like a good writer.
The people of the North existed, during many centuries, in a state that was at once both social and barbarous; which left, for a long time, the vestiges of the rude and ferocious. Traces of this recollection are to be found in many of Shakspeare's characters, which are painted in the style that was most admired in those ages, in which they only lived for combats, physical power, and military courage.
We may also perceive in Shakspeare some of the ignorance of his century with regard to the principles of literature; his powers are superior to the Greek tragedies for the philosophy of the passions, and the knowledge of mankind ; * but he was inferior to many with regard to the perfection of the art. Shakspeare may be reproached with incoherent images, prolixity, and useless repetitions; but the attention of the spectators in those days was too easily captivated, that the author should be very strict with himself. A dramatic poet, to attain all the perfection his talents will permit, must neither be judged by impaired age, nor by youth, who find the source of emotion within themselves.
The French have often condemned the scenes
Among the great number of philosophical traits which are remarked even in the least celebrated works of Shakspeare, there is one with wbich I was singularly struck. In that piece entitled Measure for Measure, Lucien, the friend of Claudius, and brother to Isabella, presses her to go and sue for his pardon to the Governor Angelo, who had condemned this brother to die. Isabella, young and timid, answers, that she fears it would be useless; that Angelo was too much irritated, and would be inflexible, &c. Lucien insists, and says to her,
Our doubts are traitors,
By fearing to attempt. Who can have lived in a revolution, and not be sensible of the truth of these words?