« ElőzőTovább »
ON SHAKSPEARE, AND ON THE CHARACTER
OF HIS COMEDIES.
Amongst English comic writers, Shakspeare must occupy not only the first, but the highest place. His dramas, after a lapse of two centuries, are still gazed at with unabated ardour by the populace, are still read with admiration by the scholar. They interest the old and the young, the gallery and the pit, the people and the critic. At their representation appetite is never palled, expectation never disappointed. The changes of fashion have not cast him into shade, the variations of language have not rendered him obsolete. His plots are lively, and command attention; his characters are still new and striking; and his wit is fertile even to exuberance. Perhaps there never was a drama which so happily combined tender sentiment with comic force as As You Like It; there is scarcely a character in it which fails to interest. Adam and Jaques are truly original ; and even the buffoonery of the clown is of a superior cast. In the Merchant of Venice the unity of action is somewhat violated by a double plot, but perhaps two plots were never so happily combined as in this play; and the one rises so naturally out of the other, that not the smallest confusion is
duced. The comic scenes pleasantly relieve the mind from the effect produced by the serious. The conclusion is unexpected, and the effect of the whole is truly happy. Gratiano appears to me a character which Shakspeare only could have penned; though, from the little interest which he has in the plot, he is less noticed than he would have been for his sportive wit, had he been of more importance to the main action. Perhaps the Merry Wives of Windsor is one of the most regular of Shakspeare's comedies; and I scarcely know a play that comes more completely under that description. The principal character, Falstaff, is, however, scarcely so well depicted as in Henry the Fourth. In the scenes with the Prince, when debauchery and cheating are the themes, the old knight seems more in his proper element than in his rencounter with ladies. Much Ado About Nothing, though the subject in some measure justifies the title, is yet abundant in wit and pleasantry; and Measure for Measure and the Twelfth Night are truly interesting. The Winter's Tale is the most irregular of our author's comedies: there the unity of time is indeed violated beyond all bounds; yet it contains some exquisite strokes of nature and poetry, and many pleasant playful
Of the Midsummer-Night's Dream it is difficult to judge by any of the rules of criticism; it is in every point of view a most extraordinary piece, and I confess I should like to see it well performed. The scenes between Bottom, Quince, and their company of players, are exquisitely humorous.
Letters on Literature, Taste, and Composition, vol. 2. p. 252 et seq. It would be difficult to compress into a shorter compass a more eloquent and just description of the influence of the dramas of Shakspeare on all ranks and ages, than what the opening of this number affords us.
ON THE FAME AND ACQUIREMENTS OF
SHAKSPEARE is the pride of his nation. A late poet has, with propriety, called him the genius of the British isles. He was the idol of his contemporaries; and after the interval of puritanical fanaticism which commenced in a succeeding age, and put an end to every thing like liberal knowledge; after the reign of Charles the Second, during which his works were either not acted, or very much disfigured, his fame began to revive with more than its original brightness towards the beginning of the last century; and since that period it has increased with the progress of time, and for centuries to come,-I speak with the greatest confidence,-it will continue to gather strength, like an Alpine avalanche, at every period of its descent. As an important earnest of the future extension of his fame, we may allude to the enthusiasm with which he was naturalised in Germany the moment that he was known. The language, and the impossibility of translating him with fidelity, will be for ever, perhaps, an invincible obstacle to his general diffusion in the South of Europe.* In
* This impossibility extends also to France; for it must not be supposed that a literal translation can ever be a faithful one.
England, the greatest actors vie with each other in the characters of Shakspeare; the printers in splendid editions of his works; and the painters in transferring his scenes to the canvas. Like Dante, Shakspeare has received the indispensable but cumbersome honour of being treated like a classical author of antiquity.
The ignorance or learning of our poet has been the subject of endless controversy, and yet it is a matter of the easiest determination. Shakspeare was poor in dead learning, but he possessed a fulness of living and applicable knowledge. He knew Latin, and even something of Greek, though not, probably, enough to read the writers with ease in the original language. Of the modern languages, the French and Italian, he had also but a superficial acquaintance. The general direction of his inclination was not towards the collection of words but of facts. He had a very extensive acquaintance with English books, original and translated : we may safely affirm that he had read all that his language then contained which could be of any use to him in any of his poetical objects. He was sufficiently intimate with mythology to employ it in the only manner he wished, as a symbolical ornament. He had formed the most correct notions of the spirit of ancient history, and more particularly of that of the Romans; and the history Mrs. Montagu has sufficiently shown bow wretchedly Voltaire translated some passages of Hamlet, and the first acts of Julius Cæsar, into rhymeless alexandrines.