Page images

and their company of players, are exquisitely humorous.


w Letters on Literature, Taste, and Composition, vol. 2. p. 252 et seq. It would be difficult to compress into a shorter compass a more eloquent and just description of the influence of the dramas of Shakspeare on all ranks and ages, than what the opening of this number affords us.




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; and after the interval of puritanical fanaticism which commenced in a succeeding age, and put an end to every thing like liberal knowledge; after the reign of Charles the Second, during which his works were either not acted, or very much disfigured, his fame began to revive with more than its original brightness towards the beginning of the last century; and since that period it has increased with the progress of time, and for centuries to come.--I speak with the greatest confidence,-it will continue to gather strength, like an Alpine avalanche, at every period of its descent. As an important earnest of the future extension of his fame, we may allude to the enthusiasm with which he was naturalised in Germany the moment that he was known. The language, and the impossibility of translating him with fidelity, will be for ever, perhaps, an invincible obstacle to his general diffusion in the South of Europe.* In

This impossibility extends also to France; for it must not be supposed that a literal translation can ever be a faithful one.

England, the greatest actors vie with each other in the characters of Shakspeare; the printers in splendid editions of his works; and the painters in transferring his scenes to the canvas. Like Dante, Shakspeare has received the indispensable but cumbersome honour of being treated like a classical author of antiquity.

The ignorance or learning of our poet has been the subject of endless controversy, and yet it is a matter of the easiest determination. Shakspeare was poor in dead learning, but he possessed a fulness of living and applicable knowledge. He knew Latin, and even something of Greek, though not, probably, enough to read the writers with ease in the original language. Of the modern languages, the French and Italian, he had also but a superficial acquaintance. The general direction of his inclination was not towards the collection of words but of facts. He had a very extensive acquaintance with English books, original and translated : we may safely affirm that he had read all that his language then contained which could be of any use to him in any of his poetical objects. He was sufficiently intimate with mythology to employ it in the only manner he wished, as a symbolical ornament. He had formed the most correct notions of the spirit of ancient history, and more particularly of that of the Romans; and the history Mrs. Montagu has sufficiently shown how wretchedly Voltaire translated some passages of Hamlet, and the first acts of Julius Cæsar, into rhymeless alexandrines.

of his own country was familiar to him even in detail. Fortunately for him, it had not yet been treated in a diplomatic and pragmatical, but merely in the chronicle style; that is, it had not yet assumed the appearance of dry investigations respecting the developement of political relations, diplomatical transactions, finances, &c. but exhibited a visible image of the living and moving of an age full of distinguished deeds. Shakspeare was an attentive observer of nature; he knew the technical language of mechanics and artisans; he seems to have been well travelled in the interior of England, and to have been a diligent inquirer of navigators respecting other countries; and he was most accurately acquainted with all the popular usages, opinions, and traditions, which could be of use in poetry.

The proofs of his ignorance, on which the greatest stress is laid, are a few geographical blunders and anachronisms. Because in a comedy founded on a tale, he makes ships land in Bohemia, he has been the subject of laughter. But I conceive that we should be very unjust towards him, were we to conclude that he did not, as well as ourselves, possess the valuable but by no means difficult knowledge that Bohemia is no where bounded by the sea. He could never, in that case, have looked into a map of Germany, whereas he describes the maps of both Indies with the discoveries of the latest navigators.* In such matters Shakspeare is

* Twelfth Night, or What You Will-Act 3. Sc. 2.

only faithful in the historical subjects of his own country. In the novels on which he worked, he avoided disturbing his audience to whom they were known, by the correction of errors in secondary things. The more wonderful the story, the more it ranged in a purely poetical region, which he transfers at will to an indefinite distance. These plays, whatever names they bear, take place in the true land of romance, and in the century of wonderful love stories. He knew well that in the forest of Ardennes there were neither the lions and serpents of the Torrid Zone, nor the shepherdesses of Arcadia ; but he transferred both to it, because the design and import of his picture required them. Here he considered himself entitled to the greatest liberties. He had not to do with a petty hypercritical age like ours, which is always seeking in poetry for something else than poetry; his audience entered the theatre, not to learn true chronology, geography, and natural history, but to witness a vivid exhibition. I undertake to prove that Shakspeare's anachronisms are, for the most part, committed purposely, and after great consideration. It was frequently of importance to him to bring the subject exhibited, from the back ground of time quite near to us. Hence, in Hamlet, though avowedly an old northern story, there prevails the tone of modish society, and in every respect the costume of the most recent period. Without those circumstantialities, it would not have been allowable to make a philosophical

« PreviousContinue »