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ON SHAKSPEARE, AND ON THE CHARACTER OF
THERE are beauties of the first order to be found in Shakspeare, relating to every country and every period of time. His faults are those which belonged to the times in which he lived; and the singularities then so prevalent among the English, are still represented with the greatest success upon their theatres.
Shakspeare did not imitate the ancients; nor, like Racine, did he feed his genius upon the Grecian tragedies. He composed one piece upon a Greek subject, Troilus and Cressida ; in which the manners in the time of Homer are not at all observed. He excelled infinitely more in those tragedies which were taken from Roman subjects. But history, and the Lives of Plutarch, which Shakspeare appears to have read with the utmost attention, are not purely a literary study; we may therein trace the man almost to a state of exist
When an author is solely penetrated with the models of the dramatic art of antiquity, and when he imitates imitations, he must of course have less originality: he cannot have that genius which draws from Nature ; that immediate genius, if I may so express myself, which so particularly
characterizes Shakspeare. From the times of the Greeks down to this time, we see every species of literature derived one from another, and all arising from the same source. Shakspeare opened a new field of literature: it was borrowed, without doubt, from the general spirit and colour of the North; but it was Shakspeare who gave to the English literature its impulse, and to their dramatic art its character.
A nation which has carved out its liberty through the horrors of civil war, and whose passions have been strongly agitated, is much more susceptible of the emotion excited by Shakspeare, than that which is caused by Racine. When misfortune lies heavy and for a long time upon a nation, it creates a character, which even succeeding prosperity can never entirely efface. Shakspeare was the first who painted moral affliction in the highest degree: the bitterness of those sufferings of which he gives us the idea, might pass for the phantoms of imagination, if Nature did not recognise her own picture in them.
The ancients believed in a fatality, which came upon them with the rapidity of lightning, and destroyed them like a thunderbolt. The moderns, and more especially Shakspeare, found a much deeper source of emotion in a philosophical distress, which was often composed of irreparable misfortunes, of ineffectual exertions, and blighted hopes. But the ancients inhabited a world yet in its infancy, were in possession of but very few histories, and withal were so sanguine in respect to the future, that the scenes of distress painted by them could never be so heart-rending as those in the English tragedies.
The terror of death was a sentiment, the effects of which, whether from religion or from stoicism, was seldom displayed by the ancients. Shakspeare has represented it in every point of view : he makes us feel that dreadful emotion which chills the blood of him, who, in the full enjoyment of life and health, learns that death awaits him. In the tragedies of Shakspeare, the criminal and the virtuous, infancy and old age, are alike condemned to die, and express every emotion natural to such a situation. What tenderness do we feel, when we hear the complaints of Arthur, a child condemned to death by the order of King John; or when the assassin Tyrrel comes to relate to Richard the Third the peaceful slumber of the children of Edward ? When a hero is painted just going to be deprived of his existence, the grandeur of his character, and the recollection of his achievements, excite the greatest interest; but when men of weak minds, and doomed to an inglorious destiny, are represented as condemned to perish,--such as Henry VI., Richard II., and King Lear,—the great debates of Nature between existence and nonexistence absorb the whole attention of the spectators. Shakspeare knew how to paint with genius that mixture of physical emotions and moral reflections which are inspired by the approach of death, when no intoxicating passion deprives man of his intellectual faculties.
Another sentiment which Shakspeare alone knew how to render theatrical, was pity unmixed with admiration for those who suffer; pity for an insignificant being, and sometimes for a contemptible one.
There must be an infinity of talent to be able to convey this sentiment from real life to the stage, and to preserve it in all its force; but when once it is accomplished, the effect which it produces is more nearly allied to reality than any other. It is for the man alone that we are interested, and not by sentiments which are often but a theatrical romance: it is by a sentiment so nearly approaching the impressions of life, that the illusion is still the greater.
Even when Shakspeare represents personages whose career has been illustrious, he draws the interest of the spectators towards them by sentiments purely natural. The circumstances are grand, but the men differ less from other men than those in the French tragedies.' Shakspeare makes you penetrate entirely into the glory which he paints : in listening to him, you pass through all
- It is this fidelity to nature, independent of all extrinsic circumstances, which has given to Shakspeare such a decided superiority over all other dramatic writers. Whatever may be the artificialities which surround his characters, we distinctly see, through the veil, the human heart. I would particularly point to the Dramatis Persona of Troilus and Cressida as a striking proof, among many others, of this excellency.
the different shades and gradations which lead to heroism; and you arrive at the height without perceiving any thing unnatural.
The national pride of the English, that sentiment displayed in their jealous love of liberty, disposed them much less to enthusiasm for their chiefs than that spirit of chivalry which existed in the French monarchy. In England, they wish to recompense the services of a good citizen; but they have no turn for that unbounded ardour which existed in the habits, the institutions, and the character of the French. That haughty repugnance to unlimited obedience, which at all times characterised the English nation, was probably what inspired their national poet with the idea of assailing the passions of his audience by pity rather than by admiration. The tears which were given by the French to the sublime characters of their tragedies, the English author drew forth for private sufferings; for those who were forsaken; and for such a long list of the unfortunate, that we cannot entirely sympathize with Shakspeare's sufferers without acquiring also some of the bitter experience of real life.
But if he excelled in exciting pity, what energy appeared in his terror! It was from the crime itself that he drew dismay and fear. It may be said of crimes painted by Shakspeare, as the Bible says of Death, that he is the King of TERRORS. How skilfully combined are the remorse and the super