« PreviousContinue »
SHAKSPEARE AND VOLTAIRE COMPARED, AS TO THEIR USE AND MANAGEMENT OF PRETERNA
Is it never permitted now to admit a ghost on the scene? Is this source of the terrible, of the pitiable entirely exhausted ? By no means; that would be too great a loss to the poetic art. Cannot we produce many instances where genius confounds all our philosophy by rendering things terrible to the imagination, which to the cool reason would appear perfectly ridiculous? We must reason differently then; perhaps the first principle we argue from is not well founded. - We believe no longer in apparitions.” Who has said this? or rather, what does it mean when it is said ? Does it signify that we are so far enlightened as to be able to demonstrate their impossibility ? Are those incontestable truths which contradict the idea of such prodigies so universally spread, are they always so much in the minds of the people, that every thing that is repugnant to them must necessarily appear ridiculous and absurd ? That can never be the sense of the phrase. “We believe no longer in apparitions,” then can only mean this. On a subject on which different opinions may be supported, and which never has been and never can be decided, the prevailing opinion of the day occasions the balance to preponderate on the negative side : many individuals are convinced that there are no apparitions; a great many more pretend to be convinced; and these harangue on the subject, and give and support the fashionable doctrine. But the multitude are silent; they are indifferent on the subject; they sometimes take one side, and sometimes the other; they laugh at ghosts in broad day-light, and listen with trembling avidity at night to the terrible stories that are told of them.*
The disbelief of spectres in this sense neither can nor ought to prevent the use of them in dramatic poetry. We have all in us at least the seeds of this belief, and they will be found most in the minds of the people for whom the poet* principally composes. It depends on his art to make them vegetate, and on his address, in the rapidity of the moment to give force to the arguments in favor of the reality of these phantoms. If he suc
* “ I am too well convinced," says Mr. Pye,
" of the accuracy of M. Lessing's knowledge of human nature to doubt the truth of this account of German credulity. It would have better suited this country half a century ago than at present. But, even now, there are more people who will feel the truth of it than will own it, even in England."
Especially the dramatic poet. It is said of Moliere that he used to read all his comedies to an old female servant, and generally found her decisions confirmed by the public.- Pye.
ceeds, we may be at liberty in common life to believe as we please, but at the theatre he will be the arbiter of our faith.
Shakspeare knew this art, and he is almost the only one who ever did know it. At the
appearance of his ghost, in Hamlet, the hair stands an end, whether it cover the brain of incredulity or superstition. M. Voltaire was much in the wrong to appeal to this ghost, which makes both him and his apparition of Ninus ridiculous. The ghost of Shakspeare really comes from the other world, at least it appears so to our feelings; for it arrives in the solemn hour, in the dead silence of midnight, accompanied by all those gloomy and mysterious accessory ideas with which our nurses have taught us to expect the appearance of spectres; while that of Voltaire's is not fit even to terrify a child. It is merely an actor who neither says nor does any thing to persuade us he is what he pretends to be: on the contrary, all the circumstances with which it appears, destroy the illusion, and betray the hand of a cold poet, who wishes indeed to deceive and terrify us, but does not know how to go about it. It is in the middle of the day,* in the
Shakspeare knew the consequence of adapting his scenery to his action, in exciting terror by natural as well as supernatural agents :
The sun is in the heaven ; and the proud day,
middle of an assembly of the states of the empire, and preceded by a peal of thunder, that the spirit of Ninus makes its appearance from the tomb. From whence did Voltaire learn that apparitions were so bold ? What old woman could not have told him that apparitions were afraid of the light of the sun, and were not fond of visiting large assemblies? Voltaire was undoubtedly acquainted with all this; but he was too cautious, too delicate, to make use of such trifling circumstances. He was desirous indeed of showing us a ghost, but he was determined it should be one of French extraction, decent and noble. This decency spoiled the whole. A spectre, who takes liberties contrary to all custom, law, and established order of ghosts, does not seem to me a genuine spectre; and, in this case, every thing that does not strengthen the illusion tends to destroy it.
If Voltaire had examined with care, he would have felt the inconveniency which on another account must attend the bringing a phantom before so many people. On its appearance, all the
persons of the assembly (that is to say, all the actors who were representing the council of the queen and the states) ought to show in their countenances all the terror that the situation required; each ought even to show it differently from the rest, to avoid
Did with his iron tongue and brazen mouth
the cold uniformity of a ballet. How could such a troop of stupid assistants be trained to this exercise? And when it had succeeded as well as possible, would not this variety of expression of the same sentiment have divided the attention of the spectators, and necessarily have drawn it from the principal characters? That these may make a strong impression on us, it is not only necessary that we should see them, but it is also proper that we should see nothing else.
In Shakspeare, it is only with Hamlet that the ghost converses. In the scene where the mother is present, the spectre is neither seen nor heard by her. All our attention then is fixed on him alone; and the more we discover in him the signs of a soul distracted by terror and surprise, the more cause we have to think the apparition which occasions such agitations, as real as he seems to believe it. The ghost* operates more on us through him than itself. The impression that it makes on him passes into our minds, and the effect is too sensible and too strong for us to doubt of an extraordinary
Of this secret Voltaire knew little. It is precisely because his spectre tries to terrify many people, that it produces little terror in any one.
* “ Fielding makes Partridge account for his fear in the same manner. Not that it was the ghost that surprised me neither; for I should have known that to have been only a man in a strange dress: but when I saw the little man so frightened himself, it was that which took hold of me.'-Tom Jones, Book xvi, chap. 5."-Pye.