« ElőzőTovább »
can tend to individualise them, and already touched with the Promethean fire, that might infuse a soul into what, without it, were lifeless form. From the rest, perhaps the character of Thersites deserves to be selected (how cold and school-boy a sketch in Homer !) as exhibiting an appropriate vein of sarcastic humour amidst his cowardice, and a profoundness and truth in his mode of laying open the foibles of those about him, impossible to be excelled.
Before we quit this branch of Shakspeare's praise, it may not be unworthy of our attention to advert to one of the methods by which he has attained this uncommon superiority. One of the most formidable adversaries of true poetry is an attribute which is generally miscalled dignity. Shakspeare possessed, no man in higher perfection, the true dignity and loftiness of the poetical afflatus, which he has displayed in many of the finest passages of his works with miraculous success. But he knew that no man ever was, or ever can be, always dignified. He knew that those subtler traits of character which identify a man, are familiar and relaxed, pervaded with passion, and not played off with an eternal eye to decorum. In this respect the peculiarities of Shakspeare's genius are no where more forcibly illustrated than in the play of Troilus and Cressida. The champions of Greece and Troy, from the hour in which their names were first recorded, had always worn a certain formality of attire, and marched with a slow and measured step. No poet till this time had ever ventured to force them out of the manner which their epic creator had given them. Shakspeare first suppled their limbs, took from them the classic stiffness of their gait, and enriched them with an entire set of those attributes which might render them completely beings of the same species with ourselves.
1 Life of Chaucer, octavo edition, vol. i. p. 509 ad p. 512. I have before appealed to this play (Troilus and Cressida) as a proof of Shakspeare's transcendent talent in the developement of character; and though from the nature of its fable, not one of the most pleasing or interesting of his productions, yet would it be a difficult task to select another exhibiting more profound and original traits of discrimination; and this too, notwithstanding the materials on which it is based, would appear from early and indelible classical association, to be altogether fixed and intractable. The reader, however, will in a few pages more meet a further enquiry from the pen of Mr. Godwin into the merits of this drama, as compared with Chaucer's mode of treating the same subject.
ON THE SIMILITUDE BETWEEN SHAKSPEARE AND
HOMER IN RELATION TO THEIR KNOWLEDGE OF THE HUMAN HEART.
KNOWLEDGE of the human heart is a science of the highest dignity. It is recommended not only by its own importance, but also by this, that none but an exalted genius is capable of it. To delineate the objects of the material world requires a fine imagination, but to penetrate into the mental system, and to describe its different objects with all their distinguishing (though sometimes almost imperceptible) peculiarities, requires an imagination far more extensive and vigorous. It is this kind of imagination which appears so conspicuous in the works of Shakspeare and Homer, and which, in my opinion, raises them above all other poets whatsoever: I mean not only that talent by which they can adapt themselves to the heart of their readers, and excite whatever affection they please, in which the former plainly stands unrivalled ; I mean also that wonderfully penetrating and plastic faculty, which is capable of representing every species of character, not, as our ordinary poets do, by a high shoulder, a wry mouth, or gigantic stature, but by hitting off, with a delicate hand, the distinguishing feature, and that in such a manner as makes it easily known from all others whatsoever, however similar to a superficial eye. Hotspur and Henry V. are heroes resembling one another, yet very distinct in their characters; Falstaff, and Pistol, and Bardolph, are buffoons, but each in his own way; Desdemona and Juliet are not the same; Bottom and Dogberry, and the grave-diggers, are different characters; and the same may be said of the most similar of Homer's characters : each has some mark that makes him essentially different from the rest. But these great masters are not more eminent in distinguishing than in completing their characters. I am a little acquainted with a Cato, a Sempronius, a Tinsel, a Sir Charles Easy, &c. ; but I am perfectly acquainted with Achilles, Hector, Falstaff, Lear, Pistol, and Quickly; I know them more thoroughly than any other persons of my acquaintance.
SHAKSPEARE AND SCHYLUS COMPARED.
THERE is no ancient poet that bears so close a resemblance in point of genius to any of the moderns, as Æschylus bears to Shakspeare.Æschylus is justly styled the father of tragedy, but this is not to be interpreted as if he was the inventor of it: Shakspeare, with equal justice, claims the same title, and his originality is qualified with the same exception. The Greek tragedy was not more rude and undigested when Æschylus brought it into shape, than the English tragedy was when Shakspeare began to write; if, therefore, it be granted that he had no aids from the Greek theatre, (and I think this is not likely to be disputed,) so far these great masters are upon equal ground. Æschylus was a warrior of high repute, of a lofty generous spirit, and deep as it should seem in the erudition of his times. In all these particulars he has great advantage over our countryman, who was humbly born, and, as it is generally thought, unlearned. Æschylus had the whole epic of Homer in his hands, the Iliad, Odyssey, and that prolific source of dramatic fable, the Ilias Minor ; he had also a great fabu