« PreviousContinue »
the course of the play, told us of having performed a journey of ten or twenty rather than of a thousand miles, and if the spectator had neither that nor any other circumstance to make him ask how so much could be performed in so short a time.
In an abstract view of dramatic art, its principles must appear to lie nearer to unity than to the opposite extreme of disunion, in our conceptions of time and place. Giving up the law of unity in its literal rigour, there is still a latitude of its application which may preserve proportion and harmony in the drama.
The brilliant and able Schlegel has traced the principles of what he denominates the romantic in opposition to the classical drama, and conceives that Shakspeare's theatre, when tried by those principles, will be found not to have violated any of the unities, if they are largely and liberally understood. I have no doubt that Mr. Schlegel's criticism will be found to have proved this point in a considerable number of the works of our mighty poet. There are traits, however, in Shakspeare, which, I must own, appear to my humble judgment incapable of being illustrated by any system or principles of art I do not allude to his historical plays, which, expressly from being historical, may be called a privileged class; but in those of purer fiction, it strikes me that there are licences conceded indeed to imagination's “chartered libertine,” but anomalous with regard to anything which can be recognized as principles in dramatic art. When Perdita, for instance, grows from the cradle to the marriage altar in the course of the play, I can perceive no unity in the design of the piece, and take refuge in the supposition of Shakspeare's genius triumphing and trampling over art. Yet Mr. Schlegel, as far as I have observed, makes no exception to this breach of temporal unity; nor, in proving Shakspeare a regular artist on a mighty scale, does he deign to notice this circumstance even as the ultima Thule of his licence. If a man contends that dramatic laws are all idle restrictions, I can understand him ; or if he says that Perdita's growth on the stage is a trespass on art, but that Shakspeare's fascination over and over again redeems it, I can both understand and agree with him. But when I am left to infer that all this is right on romantic principles, I confess that those principles become too romantic for my conception. If Perdita may be born and married on the stage, why may not Webster's Duchess of Malfy lie-in between the acts, and produce a fine family of tragic children? Her Grace actually does so in Webster's drama, and he is a poet of some genius, though it is not quite so sufficient as Shakspeare's, to give a “sweet oblivious antidote” to such “perilous stuff.” It is not, however, either in favour of Shakspeare's or of Webster's genius that we shall be called on to make allowance, if we justify in the drama the lapse of such a number of years as may change the apparent identity of an individual. If romantic unity is to be so largely interpreted, the old Spanish dramas, where youths grow grey-beards upon the stage, the mysteries and moralities, and productions teeming with the wildest anachronism, might all come in with their grave or laughable claims to romantic legitimacy.
Hor. On a general view, I conceive it may be said that Shakspeare nobly and legitimately enlarged the boundaries of time and place in the drama; but, in extreme cases, I would rather agree with Cumberland, to wave all mention of his name in speaking of dramatic laws, than accept of those licences for art which are not art, and designate irregularity by the name of order.
Specimens of English Poetry, vol. 1. These observations of Mr. Campbell on the genius of Shakspeare, and on one of his most remarkable violations of the unity of time, are the product of sound and unbiassed judgment, and form a necessary corrective of the somewhat too unqualified, and, I may say, systematic eulogy of Schlegel, and one or two other critics, who, in attempting to gift the poet with undeviating excellence in the mechanism and construction of all his plots, have assuredly gone rather too far.
ON THE GENIUS OF SHAKSPEARE, AND ON HIS FOUR DRAMAS, MACBETH, OTHELLO, HAMLET, AND LEAR.
SHAKSPEARE alone is of no age. He speaks a language which thrills in our blood in spite of the separation of two hundred years. His thoughts, passions, feelings, strains of fancy,-all are of this day, as they were of his own; and his genius may be contemporary with the mind of every generation for a thousand years to come.-He, above all poets, looked upon-men, and lived for mankind. His genius, universal in intellect and sympathy, could find, in no more bounded circumference, its proper sphere. It could not bear exclusion from any part of human existence. Whatever in nature and life was given to man, was given in contemplation and poetry to him also ; and over the undimmed mirror of his mind passed all the shadows of our mortal world. Look through his plays, and tell what form of existence, what quality of spirit, he is most skilful to delineate? Which of all the manifold beings he has drawn, lives before our thoughts, our eyes, in most unpictured reality? Is it Othello, Shylock, Falstaff, Lear, the Wife of Macbeth, Imogen, Hamlet, Ariel? In none of the other great dramatists do we see any thing like a perfected art. In their works, every thing, it is true, exists in some shape or other, which can be required in a drama taking for its interest the absolute interest of human life and nature; but, after all, may not the very best of their works be looked on as sublime masses of chaotic confusion, through which the elements of our moral being appear? It was Shakspeare, the most unlearned of all our writers, who first exhibited on the stage perfect models, perfect images of all human characters, and of all human events. We cannot conceive any skill that could from his great characters remove any defect, or add to their perfect composition. Except in him, we look in vain for the entire fulness, the self-consistency, and self-completeness, of perfect art. All the rest of our drama may be regarded rather as a testimony of the state of genius—of the state of mind of the country, full of great poetical disposition, and great tragic capacity and power—than as a collection of the works of an art. Of Shakspeare and Homer alone, it may be averred that we miss in them nothing of the greatness of nature. In all other poets we do; we feel the measure of their power, and the restraint under which it is held ; but in Shakspeare and in Homer, all is free and unbounded as in nature; and as we travel along with them in a car drawn by celestial steeds, our view seems ever interminable as before, and still equally far off the glorious horizon.