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derangements of rhyme and rule.—Then he is the great dramatic poet, and perfectly resembles Shakspeare, who subjected himself to no rules but such as his own native genius, and judgment prescribed. To this auspicious liberty we chiefly owe the singular pleasure of reading his matchless works, and of seeing his wonderfully various and natural characters occasionally performed by excellent actors of both sexes.
It is extremely remarkable that a player never fails to acquire both fame and fortune by excelling in the proper and natural performance even of low parts in Shakspeare's capital plays, such as from Simple, the Grave-diggers, Launcelot, Dogberry, the Nurse in Romeo, Mrs. Quickley, Mine Host of the Garter, down to Doll Tear-sheet, Bardolph, and Pistol, because true pictures of nature must ever please.—The genius of a great painter is as much distinguished by an insect as a hero, by a simple cottage as by a gorgeous palace. In the course of reading Corneille's plays, I have been repeatedly struck with a pleasing recollection of similar beauties in Shakspeare. Of this I set down one example : after two of the three Horatii were killed, the surviving brother’s dexterous retreat was reported at Rome as an inglorious defeat and flight. Old Horatius pours forth his rage and maledictions against the degenerate boy in high strains of poetry, and in the true character of a heroic Roman father. A friend offers rational apologies for the young man, and concludes with
saying, “what could he do against such odds," the noble answer is, “He could have died." Voltaire tells us that this sublime passage is always received by the audience, at Paris, with bursts of applause,-much to their credit. I am sure the just admirers of Shakspeare may find similar beauties in his plays. One occurs to me; it is in one of his least esteemed pieces, Henry the Sixth, Part ii, Scene 2. Lord Somerset, in company with other leaders, finding their friend, the gallant Warwick, mortally wounded on the field of battle, exclaims,
O Warwick, Warwick, wert thou as we are,
Even now we heard the news.-0 couldst thou fly!
Why then I would not fly. Perhaps at the hazard of seeming tedious,--my real and hearty admiration for Shakspeare pushes me, irresistibly, into farther remarks on Voltaire's ill-conceived criticisms. He has partly translated Shakspeare's excellent play of Julius Cæsar, which he strangely proposes to his countrymen and all foreigners, as a proper and fair specimen upon which they may form a judgment of the original author's genius, and be fully enabled to compare him with Corneille.k In a note on the second page of this feeble translation, he says, “il faut savoir que Shakspeare avait eu peu d'éducation, qu'il avait le malheur d'être réduit à être comédien, qu'il fallait plaire au peuple, que le peuple plus riche en Angleterre qu' ailleurs fréquente les spectacles, et que Shakspeare le servait selon son goût.”-i. e.
k Of this translation his lordship elsewhere observes: “Voltaire invites his countrymen to judge of Shakspeare's merit by his morsel of literal translation, made, to use his own words, mot pour mot; and then he adds, with astonishing levity, these words, Je n'ai qu'un mot à ajouter, c'est que les vers blancs ne coûtent que la peine de les dicter, cela n'est pas plus diffcile qu'une lettre.-i. e. ' I have only a word to add, that is, that compositions in blank verse cost only the trouble of dictating them, which is as easy as a familiar letter.' No man of common sense can wonder that a literal translation, mot pour mot, and written, as Voltaire boasts, with the indolence and ease of a familiar epistle, should be totally inadequate to convey any just idea of original genius. Yet I own. I have been surprised to meet with some Frenchmen of reputation for taste and parts, who form their opinions on such a translation and such authority."
<< It must be remarked that Shakspeare had little benefit of education ; that he was unfortunately reduced to become a comedian ; that he found it necessary to please the populace, who in England are richer than in other countries, and frequent the theatres, and Shakspeare served them with entertainments to their taste.” In another place, he says that Shakspeare introduced low characters and scenes of buffoonery to please the people, and to get money. I venture to aver, on full conviction of my own mind, that these imputations are rash, and even grossly false and injurious. Shakspeare's low characters have so curious and so perfect a resemblance to nature, that they must always please, as I have observed, like masterpieces in painting; and, moreover, they never fail to illustrate and endear the great characters. Take away the odd, humorous, natural characters and scenes of Falstaff, Poins, Bardolph, Pistol, Mrs. Quickley, &c. in his two plays of Henry the IV., and particularly the common soldier, Williams, in his play of Henry the V., and I venture to affirm that you at once extinguish more than one half of our cordial esteem and admiration of that favourite hero. In the same manner, expunge from the play of Julius Cæsar the representation of a giddy, fickle, and degenerate Roman mob, and you diminish, in a very great degree, our estimation of the two noble republican characters -the honest, sincere, philosophical Brutus, and his brave, able, and ambitious friend Cassius. The just admirers and frequent readers of Shakspeare will, on their own reflection, and without farther explanation, find that these observations, though, as far as I know, they are new, are clearly applicable to every one of his plays in which low characters are introduced. Shakspeare was incapable of deviating from the truth of nature and character to please the great, or sooth the vulgar; and no dramatic writer ever treated the common people with so much contempt. His scenes in ridicule of them are as exquisite as they are various ; though Voltaire ignorantly says he courted their favour.
Of this the ludicrous characters and true comic drollery of Dogberry the constable, and his low associates, in the play of Much Ado About Nothing, is one proof; there is still a more precious scene, of the same kind, in that part of his play of Henry the VI., where Jack Cade and his gang
deliberate on a reformation of the state: this is a singular piece of comedy and ridicule of low life, applicable to all periods and all nations; it has that character of eternal nature which distinguishes Shakspeare.
1 Anderson's Bee, vol. iv. p. 291. I cannot dismiss this number without remarking that the observations on Shakspeare's characters in low life appear to me, from the judgment and ingenuity which they display, to be entitled to no slight consideration.