« 上一頁繼續 »
ON FOUR COMIC CHARACTERS :
SIR JOHN FALSTAFF, DON QUIXOTE, SIR ROGER DE COVERLEY
AND MY UNCLE TOBY.
The finest comic characters that human genius has yet familiarized to the imagination of mankind, are Sir John Falstaff, Don Quixote, Sir Roger de Coverley, and My Uncle Toby. He who has once become acquainted with these unrivalled intellectual creations, (as substantial as flesh and blood,) has increased the number of his associates with four delightful beings, who will never leave him while he breathes the breath of life. These comic. personages are not like the slight and vulgar sketches of ordinary nature or of mere manners, that we generally meet with in the page of fiction, and which
“Come like shadows, so depart." The majority of modern novelists perplex us with shadowy shapes that leave no trace behind them, but these four characters are as distinct to our apprehension as living creatures, and have an individuality founded upon general nature that renders them equally intelligible and pleasing to all times and nations. It is strange that no critic has yet thought of bringing into contact and comparison these masterpieces of comic genius. In the hope that some writer who has more ability for the task, may be induced to pursue the subject further, we venture to offer the following very imperfect remarks and illustrations.
It is interesting to remember, that Shakespeare and Cervantes were contemporaries, and that they finished their mortal career upon the same day. Lope de Vega, who has been called the Spanish Shakespeare, flourished about the same period; but though a successful dramatist, he was not so nearly allied in genius to our own great poet as Cervantes. It is true, that Lope de Vega was a better playwright than the author of Don Quixote, but he stands considerably lower as a man of genius. As a dramatist, Cervantes was singularly unsuccessful, and was a striking illustra. tion of the strange truth, that a man may display a rich dramatic invention in a romance or novel, and fail entirely in writing for the theatre. In later times and in our own country, Fielding and Sir Walter Scott have both shown, that the order of mind which supplies a prose fiction with dramatic scenes and characters, is not precisely the same as that which produces and adapts a picture of human life for representation on the stage. The novelist excels chiefly in description and narration, the dramatist in dialogue; and though we often see fine dramatic materials in a well-conceived novel, there is rarely at the same time that unaccountable skill or instinct or intuition which is displayed by a genuine dramatist in making the several creatures of his brain develop their own peculiar characters. In the same way we are sometimes puzzled at observing all the elements of rich and beautiful poetry in a prose romance by a writer, whose brain seems as barren as winter the moment he attempts a regular poem. It would lead us too far from our present purpose if we were to make any attempt to account for these well known facts in the world of intellect.
We have reason to know that Cervantes could not have written plays like those of Shakespeare ; but it is quite certain, that he has produced a comic character that is as perfect in its way as old Jack Falstaff himself. It has probably indeed given pleasure to a much greater number of readers, for the far-famed romance of Cervantes has been translated into every European language. The author was neglected, but his book was extremely popular from the moment of its publication, which was eight or nine years after the appearance of the first and second parts of Shakespeare's King Henry the Fourth. Though Cervantes was suffered to languish in poverty and neglect, it is said that Philip III. was delighted with his romance, and was fully aware of its popularity*. It is added, that one day standing in a balcony of his palace, his Majesty perceived a student on the bank of a river, reading a book, and every now and then striking his forehead and bursting into fits of laughter. That man, said his majesty, is either mad or reading Don Quixote. Some courtiers went out to satisfy their curiosity, and found that his Majesty had made a happy guess, the student being actually engaged in reading the adventures of the valorous Knight of La Mancha. Our own Charles the Second had Hudibrast by heart, and yet allowed the unhappy author to starve in the streets of his metropolis.
It is quite possible that Shakespeare himself had held his sides over the ludicrous misfortunes of the Knight of the Rueful Countenance, for English literature in the time of Elizabeth was rich in translations from the continental languages, and it is very unlikely that so famous a work as Don Quixote should have been neglected by the linguists who supplied the English literary market with foreign rarities. At all events we may be certain that no one would have relished its humour with a greater gusto,
It is melancholy indeed to remember that men whom the world adore have died in beggary. Cervantes, who has given so much delight to mankind, was so reduced as to be compelled to beg for his support, and to receive assistance by the hands of the servants of his patrons. Camoens, the great Portuguese poet, supported his last moments by alms which his black servant gathered in the streets of Lisbon. After the death of Cervantes five cities of Spain disputed for the honor of having given him birth. He reminds us of the fate of Homer.
“Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead,
Through which the living Homer begged his bread.” + Hudibrus is a vast storehouse of wit, but after all it is too local and temporary to give lasting or general pleasure. If regarded as an imitation of Don Quixote it is undoubtedly a failure and full of incongruities. But all imia tations of the romance of Cervantes are very unsuccessful. Smollett's Sir Launcelot Greaves is his poorest production.
had he enjoyed that opportunity, than he who introduced into the world the delightful Jack Falstaff.
There are as many striking points of opposition between Sir John Falstaff and Don Quixote as if they had proceeded from the same brain, and were expressly intended to illustrate each other upon the principle of contrast. Sir John is all plumpness and merriment.
“The fattest hog in Epicurus' sty.” The hero of La Mancha, is a mere anatomy, and has a presence as sad and solemn as a mute's. The one is uniformly cheerful, the other uniformly solemn. The one is absorbed in sensual delights, and abhors the remotest idea of pain or danger; the other voluntarily endures the pangs of hunger, exults in the severity of his trials, and only seems to exist when life itself is threatened. The humour of the one character consists in the transformation of the sublime into the ridiculous, that of the other in the exaggeration of trifles and common-places into a romantic importance and magnificence. Falstaff turns the weightiest business of human life into a jest, and Don Quixote converts the dirty sluts at the doors of miserable inns into radiant princesses at the gates of stately castles, and turns a barber's brass bason into Membrino's helmet.
Sir John Falstaff is a gentleman by birth and education, but his principles are destroyed by a preponderance of the animal propensities. Don Quixote is also a gentleman, but under the most humiliating circumstances he preserves the best attributes of that character entirely unimpaired. Falstaff is a coward and a liar, but the Knight of La Mancha is brave and honorable*. The latter is too proud to be mean, while the former is too vain to be great. Sir Philip Sidney, the observed of all observers, is not a truer hero or gentleman than Don Quixote. His solitary imperfection is an obliquity of mind on a single subject. He is on all other points as sane and judicious as could be desired. Even this one imperfection is occasioned by an excess of generous impulses-the credulity and extravagance of a noble nature. But Falstaff deviates as much from true wisdom, and discovers a far more deplorable alienation of mind, when he imagines that there is no pleasure but what is derived from sensual excite. ments, and that man approaches the extreme point of felicity in proportion as he sinks his nature to that of a beast. It is better to mistake an inn for a castle, than to suppose the sole enjoyment of a rational being to consist in sack and debauchery. Falstaff's life is that of mere flesh and blood. It is shared by the lower creation. His intellectual powers evaporate in a witticism, but his sensual propensities are pampered and gratified to their utmost capability of enjoyment. Falstaff has no love for woman beyond the sensual. Don Quixote's is pure and ideal. Even their corporeal frames are in keeping with this contrast of character. Falstaff is a huge hill of flesh-a horse-back breaker. Don Quixote is mere bones and armour, that when struck in conflict seem to rattle in unison. Even the miserable Rozinante finds his master a man of no substance. Falstaff would crush the poor animal to the earth. The Knight, however severely pommelled, is in no danger of a fever. You might as well anticipate an apoplexy in a skele.
* In Morgan's ingenious but paradoxical Essay on the character of Falstaff, he tries hard to persuade the world that Jack Falstaff is no coward. Perhaps he is not a coward from mere constitutional timidity, but it is clear that he is a coward on reflection :-that is to say, that he prefers a safe life and a cup of sack the ces of death and glory. He never seems to want
presence of mind. He has always so much coolness in the midst of danger as to give utterance to the most ingenious witticisms; and nothing requires more presence of mind than wit. But he is too much of an Epicurean to risk substantial pudding for empty praise. Though not indifferent to glory, he loves life better. It is a bad compliment to Shakespeare to maintain, that Falstaff is in no sense of the word a coward; for if Mr. Morgan is correct, the dramatist has failed to give the impression he intended.