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passions which are common to us all. How precisely is this the case with Justice Shallow! How completely are the starts and sallies of Hotspur, his repetitions, the torrent of his anger, his fiery temper, and his images drawn often from the most familiar and ordinary life,how completely are they the very man that the poet desired to present to us! Shakspeare does not describe, he does seem to imagine the personages of his scene; he waves his magic wand, and the personages themselves appear, and act over again, at his command, the passions, the impressions, and the sorrows of their former life. The past is present before us.
Life of Chancer, Vol. 4. p. 189. It has been justly observed by Mr. Godwin, that what comes nearest to the pre-eminence of Shakspeare in the natural style, is the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer, the Don Quixote of Cervantes, the Sir Roger de Coverley of Addison, the Lovelace of Richardson, the Parson Adams of Fielding, the Walter Shandy of Sterne, and the Hugh Strap of Smollet.
ON THE ART OF SHAKSPEARE.
To me Shakspeare appears a profound artist, and not a blind and wildly-luxuriant genius. I consider, generally speaking, all that has been said on this subject as a mere fabulous story, a blind and extravagant error. In other arts the assertion refutes itself; for in them acquired knowledge is an indispensable condition before any thing can be performed. But even in such poets, as are usually given out for careless pupils of nature, without any art or school discipline, I have always found, on a nearer consideration, when they have really produced works of excellence, a distinguished cultivation of the mental powers, practice in art, and views worthy in themselves and maturely considered. This applies to Homer as well as Dante. The activity of genius is, it is true, natural to it, and in a certain sense unconscious; and consequently the person who possesses it is not always at the moment able to render an account of the course which he may have pursued; but it by no means follows that the thinking power had not a great share in it. It is from the very rapidity and certainty of the mental process, from the utmost clearness of understanding, that thinking in a poet is not perceived as something abstracted, does not wear the appearance of meditation. That idea of poetical inspiration, which many lyrical poets have brought into circulation, as if they were not in their senses, and like Pythia, when possessed by the divinity, delivered oracles unintelligible to themselves (a mere lyrical invention), is least of all applicable to dramatic composition, one of the productions of the human mind which requires the greatest exercise of thought. It is admitted that Shakspeare has reflected, and deeply reflected, on character and passion, on the progress of events and human destinies, on the human constitution, on all the things and relations of the world ; this is an admission which must be made, for one alone of thousands of his maxims would be a sufficient refutation of whoever should attempt to deny it. So that it was only then respecting the structure of his own pieces that he had no thought to spare ? This he left to the dominion of chance, which blew together the atoms of Epicurus ? But supposing that he had, without the higher ambition of acquiring the approbation of judicious critics and posterity, without the love of art which endeavours at self-satisfaction in a perfect work, merely laboured to please the unlettered crowd; this very object alone, and the theatrical effect, would have led him to bestow attention to the conduct of his pieces. For does not the impression of a drama depend in an especial manner on the relation of the parts to each other? And however beautiful a scene may be in itself, will it not be at once re
probated by spectators merely possessed of plain sense, who give themselves up to nature, whenever it is at variance with what they are led to expect at that particular place, and destroys the interest which they have already begun to take? The comic intermixtures may be considered as a sort of interlude for the purpose of refreshing the spectators after the straining of their minds in following the more serious parts, if no better purpose can be found for them ; but in the progress of the
1 main action, in the concatenation of the events, the poet must, if possible, display even more superiority of understanding than in the composition of individual character and situations, otherwise he would be like the conductor of a puppet-show, who has confused the wires, so that the puppets, from their mechanism, undergo quite different movements from those which he actually intended.
The English critics are unanimous in their praise of the truth and uniform consistency of his characters, of his heart-rending pathos and his comic wit. Moreover, they extol the beauty and sublimity of his separate descriptions, images, and expressions. This last is the most superficial and cheap mode of criticising works of art. Johnson compares him, who should endeavour to recommend this poet by passages unconnectedly torn from his works, to the pedant in Hierocles, who exhibited a brick as a sample of his house. And yet he himself speaks so little, and so very unsatisfactorily, of the pieces considered as a whole ! Let any man, for instance, bring together the short characters which he gives at the close of each play, and see if the aggregate will amount to that sum of admiration which he himself, at his outset, has stated as the correct standard for the appreciation of the poet. It was, generally speaking, the prevailing tendency of the time which preceded our own, a tendency displayed also in physical science, to consider what is possessed of life as a mere accumulation of dead parts, to separate what exists only in connection, and cannot otherwise be conceived, instead of penetrating to the central point, and viewing all the parts as so many irradiations from it. Hence, nothing is so rare as a critic who can elevate himself to the contemplation of an extensive work of art. Shakspeare's compositions, from the very depth of purpose displayed in them, have been exposed to the misfortune of being misunderstood. Besides, this prosaical species of criticism applies always the poetical form to the details of execution; but in so far as the plan of the piece is concerned, it never looks for more than the logical connection of causes and effects, or some partial and trivial moral by way of application ; and all that cannot be reconciled to this is declared a superfluous, or even a detrimental, addition. On these principles we must equally strike out the most of the choral songs of the Greek tragedies, which also contribute nothing to the developement