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severe rules of the French tragedies exclude from
The crowd of spectators in England require that comic scenes should succeed tragic effects. The contrast of what is noble with that which is not, as I have observed before, always produces a disagreeable impression upon men of taste. A noble style must have shades; but a too glaring opposition is nothing more than fantasticalness. That play upon words, those licentious equivocations, popular tales, and that string of proverbs which are handed down from generation to generation, and are, as one may say, the patrimonial ideas of the common people,-all these are applauded by the multitude, and censured by reason. These have no connection with the sublime effects which Shakspeare drew from simple words and common circumstances artfully arranged, which the French most absurdly would fear to bring upon their stage.
Shakspeare, when he wrote the parts of vulgar minds in his tragedies, sheltered himself from the judgment of taste by rendering himself the object of popular admiration : he then conducted himself like an able chief, but not like a good writer.
The people of the North existed, during many centuries, in a state that was at once both social and barbarous ; which left, for a long time, the vestiges of the rude and ferocious. Traces of this recollection are to be found in many of Shakspeare's characters, which are painted in the style that was most admired in those ages, in which
they only lived for combats, physical power, and military courage.
We may also perceive in Shakspeare some of the ignorance of his century with regard to the principles of literature; his powers are superior to the Greek tragedies for the philosophy of the passions, and the knowledge of mankind ; * but he was inferior to many with regard to the perfection of the art. Shakspeare may be reproached with incoherent images, prolixity, and useless repetitions; but the attention of the spectators in those days was too easily captivated, that the author should be very strict with himself. A dramatic poet, to attain all the perfection his talents will permit, must neither be judged by impaired age, nor by youth, who find the source of emotion within themselves.
The French have often condemned the scenes
Among the great number of philosophical traits which are remarked even in the least celebrated works of Shakspeare, there is one with wbich I was singularly struck. In that piece entitled Measure for Measure, Lucien, the friend of Claudius, and brother to Isabella, presses her to go and sue for his pardon to the Governor Angelo, who had condemned this brother to die. Isabella, young and timid, answers, that she fears it would be useless; that Angelo was too much irritated, and would be inflexible, &c. Lucien insists, and says to her,
Our doubts are traitors,
By fearing to attempt. Who can have lived in a revolution, and not be sensible of the truth of these words?
of horror represented by Shakspeare; not because they excited an emotion too strong, but because they sometimes destroyed the theatrical illusion. They certainly appear to me susceptible of criticism. In the first place, there are certain situations which are only frightful; and the bad imitators of Shakspeare wishing to represent them, produced nothing more than a disagreeable invention, without any of the pleasures which the tragedy ought to produce; and again, there are many situations really affecting in themselves, which nevertheless require stage effect to amuse the attention, and of course the interest.
When the governor of the tower, in which the young Arthur is confined, orders a red-hot iron to be brought, to put out his eyes; without speaking of the atrociousness of such a scene, there must pass upon the stage an action, the imitation of which is impossible; and the attention of the audience is so much taken up with the execution of it, that the moral effect is quite forgotten.
The character of Caliban, in the Tempest,” is singularly original; but the almost animal figure, which his dress must give him, turns the attention from all that is philosophical in the conception of
In reading “ Richard III.,” one of the beauties is what he himself says of his natural deformity. One can feel that the horror which he causes ought to act reciprocally upon his own mind, and
render it yet more atrocious.—Nevertheless, can there be any thing more difficult in an elevated style, or more nearly allied to ridicule, than the imitation of an ill-shaped man upon the stage ? Every thing in nature may interest the mind; but upon the stage, the illusion of sight must be treated with the most scrupulous caution, or every serious effect will be irreparably destroyed.
Shakspeare also represented physical sufferings much too often. Philoctetes is the only example of any theatrical effect being produced by it; and, in this instance, it was the heroic cause of his wounds that fixed the attention of the spectators. Physical sufferings may be related, but cannot be represented. It is not the author, but the actor, who cannot express himself with grandeur; it is not the ideas, but the senses, which refuse to lend their aid to this style of imitation.
In short, one of the greatest faults which Shakspeare can be accused of, is his want of simplicity in the intervals of his sublime passages. When he is not exalted, he is affected; he wanted the art of sustaining himself, that is to say, of being as natural in his scenes of transition, as he was in the grand movements of the soul.
Otway, Rowe, and some other English poets, Addison excepted, all wrote their tragedies in the style of Shakspeare ;' and Otway's Venice Pre
This is a great mistake; for assuredly neither Otway nor Rowe can be said, either as to manner or diction, to have ap
served” almost equalled his model. But the two most truly tragical situations ever conceived by men, were first portrayed by Shakspeare :-madness caused by misfortune, and misfortune abandoned to solitude and itself.
Ajax is furious; Orestes is pursued by the anger of the gods; Phædra is consumed by the fever of love; but Hamlet, Ophelia, and King Lear, with different situations and different characters, have all, nevertheless, the same marks of derangement: it is distress alone that speaks in them ; every idea of common life disappears before this predominant one: they are alive to nothing but affection; and this affecting delirium of a suffering object seems to set it free from that timidity which forbids us to expose ourselves without reserve to the eyes of pity. The spectators would perhaps refuse their sympathy to voluntary complaints; but they readily yield to the emotion which arises from a grief that cannot answer for itself.—Insanity, as portrayed by Shakspeare, is the finest picture of the shipwreck of moral nature, when the storm of life
MADAME DE STAEL HOLSTEIN."
proached the style of Shakspeare. Had they such an object in view, which I do not believe, they must be pronounced to have egregiously failed.
Influence of Literature upon Society. Translated from the French of Madame De Stael Holstein. Second edition. In 2 vols. London: printed for Henry Colburn. Vol. 1. p. 288 to