« PreviousContinue »
of horror represented by Shakspeare; not because they excited an emotion too strong, but because they sometimes destroyed the theatrical illusion. They certainly appear to me susceptible of criticism. In the first place, there are certain situations which are only frightful; and the bad imitators of Shakspeare wishing to represent them, produced nothing more than a disagreeable invention, without any of the pleasures which the tragedy ought to produce; and again, there are many situations really affecting in themselves, which nevertheless require stage effect to amuse the attention, and of course the interest.
When the governor of the tower, in which the young Arthur is confined, orders a red-hot iron to be brought, to put out his eyes; without speaking of the atrociousness of such a scene, there must pass upon the stage an action, the imitation of which is impossible; and the attention of the audience is so much taken up with the execution of it, that the moral effect is quite forgotten.
The character of Caliban, in the “ Tempest,” is singularly original; but the almost animal figure, which his dress must give him, turns the attention from all that is philosophical in the conception of
In reading “ Richard III.,” one of the beauties is what he himself says of his natural deformity. One can feel that the horror which he causes ought to act reciprocally upon his own mind, and
render it yet more atrocious.—Nevertheless, can there be any thing more difficult in an elevated style, or more nearly allied to ridicule, than the imitation of an ill-shaped man upon the stage ? Every thing in nature may interest the mind; but
upon the stage, the illusion of sight must be treated with the most scrupulous caution, or every serious effect will be irreparably destroyed.
Shakspeare also represented physical sufferings much too often. Philoctetes is the only example of
any theatrical effect being produced by it; and, in this instance, it was the heroic cause of his wounds that fixed the attention of the spectators. Physical sufferings may be related, but cannot be represented. It is not the author, but the actor, who cannot express himself with grandeur; it is not the ideas, but the senses, which refuse to lend their aid to this style of imitation.
In short, one of the greatest faults which Shakspeare can be accused of, is his want of simplicity in the intervals of his sublime passages. When he is not exalted, he is affected; he wanted the art of sustaining himself, that is to say, of being as natural in his scenes of transition, as he was in the grand movements of the soul.
Otway, Rowe, and some other English poets, Addison excepted, all wrote their tragedies in the style of Shakspeare ;' and Otway's “ Venice Preserved” almost equalled his model. But the two most truly tragical situations ever conceived by men, were first portrayed by Shakspeare :-madness caused by misfortune, and misfortune abandoned to solitude and itself.
v This is a great mistake; for assuredly neither Otway nor Rowe can be said, either as to manner or diction, to have apMADAME DE STAEL HOLSTEIN."
Ajax is furious; Orestes is pursued by the anger of the gods; Phedra is consumed by the fever of love; but Hamlet, Ophelia, and King Lear, with different situations and different characters, have all, nevertheless, the same marks of derangement, it is distress alone that speaks in them; every idea of common life disappears before this predominant one: they are alive to nothing but affection; and this affecting delirium of a suffering object seems to set it free from that timidity which forbids us to expose ourselves without reserve to the eyes of pity. The spectators would perhaps refuse their sympathy to voluntary complaints; but they readily yield to the emotion which arises from a grief that cannot answer for itself-Insanity, as portrayed by Shakspeare, is the finest picture of the shipwreck of moral nature, when the storm of life surpasses its strength.
proached the style of Shakspeare. Had they such an object in view, which I do not believe, they must be pronounced to have egregiously failed.
'Influence of Literature upon Society. Translated from the French of Madame De Stael Holstein. Second edition. In 2 vols. London: printed for Henry Colburn. Vol. 1. p. 288 to
ON SHAKSPEARE, AND ON THE CHARACTER
OF HIS COMEDIES.
AMONGST 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 Jaques 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 the one rises so naturally out of the other, that not the smallest confusion is pro
duced. 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 he has in the plot, he is less noticed than he would have been for his sportive wit, had he been of more importance to the main action. 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 proper element than in his rencounter with ladies. Much Ado About Nothing, though the subject in some measure justifies the title, is yet abundant in wit and pleasantry; and Measure for Measure and the Twelfth Night are truly interesting. The Winter's Tale is the most irregular of our author's comedies: there the unity of time is indeed violated beyond all bounds; yet it contains some exquisite strokes of nature and poetry, and many pleasant playful
Of the Midsummer-Night's Dream it is difficult to judge by any of the rules of criticism; it is in every point of view a most extraordinary piece, and I confess I should like to see it well performed. The scenes between Bottom, Quince,