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particularly to the works of Beaumont and Fletcher, who may perhaps be regarded as the only writers of that day who superseded Shakspeare in the public favor.
In an introductory dissertation to the History of English Poetry, Warton has already pointed out the fitness of the age of chivalry for the indulgence of poetic fancy; but he has not pursued the subject to its full extent. “ The age of chivalry," though past in the reigns of Henry VIII. and Elizabeth, had by no means lost its influence. Its setting glories had left behind them a long train of radiance; and even when time had diminished its lustre, its reflected light was sufficient to irradiate the productions of its votaries.
The effects of chivalry were visible, not only in the jousts and tourneys of the sixteenth century, but also in the popular tenets and belief. Devotedness to the sex, implicit submission to the will of the sovereign, who conferred knighthood after exacting allegiance, and an habitual recourse to the protection of guardian saints, were its characteristics. The eastern Crusades resulted from this principle; and the religion, or rather the superstition, of Rome, by which it was first guided, sanctioned the belief of supernatural agency, of witchcraft, and of the conditional government of the infernal powers by magic. These are familiar in the romances of chivalry; and even when the yoke that bound us to the Roman faith was torn asunder, they long subsisted in full vigor. Of such materials, our elder dramatists made very liberal use; and the personifications of the ancient mysteries had already prepared the way for their introduction on the stage. They took their plots from the tomances of the time ; which, when freed from the miracles of chivalry, were still remote from the soberness of modern fiction. There is often some wonder-working poison,' or radical improbability of circumstance, which would alone condemn a production of these times, though it may give rise to vigorous efforts of imagination. They in general moulded history to their own purposes, and bid defiance to probability, when it was conceived that its absence could be more than compensated by fancy and invention. The unities of time and place were unknown, or wilfully neglected. Histories and lives were compressed into plays; anachronisms were committed without remorse ; and persons, customs, and events, were
Custom of the Country; Humorous Lieutenant; Valentinian ; Thierry and Theodoret.
* Prophetess; Cupid's Revenge,
shuffled together by the poet with little ceremony, provided the effect of his moving pictures was calculated to excite the anxieties and raise the admiration of the spectators. But besides these, the writer had other resources from which the modern author is debarred.
The doctrine of non-resistance was another corroborant of invention. --The right divine of kings to govern wrong,”-the principle that no excesses of tyranny would jusțify the active Tesentment of the subject, was encouraged by Elizabeth,' in order to maintain the validity of her title against the intrigues of the Court of Rome; and it is known that her immediate successors were not averse to this doctrine. Hence, in the produce tions of our earlier poets, in which the interest is founded on the unparallelled injuries of princes towards their subjects, and the inward struggles of nature with imaginary duty, the extrava gance of the plot, which would appear most repulsive in our days, is willingly tolerated; while the conflict of feelings arising from circumstances not only enables the poet to obtain a keener insight into the human heart, aroused and agonized by the sea verity of its trials, but to transfer the conflict, in some measure, to the bosoms of his audience. His office is analogous to that of a gifted spirit, who maintains his self-command in the bosom of the storm ; fires the embryo germ of the earthquake, presides over the wreck of suffering humanity, and reveals the hideous but instructive mysteries of the convulsed and yawning deep Man's whole being is under his control : his mental eye ranges over the moral universe with despotic power to frame the creatures of his fancy, and to dispose of them at his pleasure, He heaps oppression on their heads like the boiling fury of the volcano, or parches them in the torrid climate of vindictive passion. Can it then require much argument to prove that the highest exertion of power, physical or moral, whether in acting or suffering, must depend upon circumstances? To our elder dramatists, we must look for all the vividness of the mind and the heart; for the burning agonies of suppressed revenge, ungoverned, but powerless ; the dignity or impulse of resentment;
· Hurd's Political Dialogues.
* Maid's Tragedy ; Valentinian ; Wife for a Month. The interest of these plays, which have considerable poetiçal merit, arises from the tyranny of the monarchs, who either violate their subjects wives, or forbid the núptial duties on the wedding night, under pain of death. In one instance, the wife, before her mas. tiage, has plotted with the adulterer for her husband's dishonor.
she writhings of pride ; the goading laceration of remorse ; and the calm or wildered moodiness of unrequited love. But if a modern author had the power of exercising this privilege, he is interdicted its use. His incidents may be striking, but they must not be revolting ; his characters criminal, but not atrocious : for admitting that our morality is neither more nor less than that of our ancestors, we have more fastidiousness and delicacy, more decorum of language and manners.
But without deciding whether the poetical feelings of our ancestors, which caused them to dwell with fondness on exhibitions which are now banished from the stage, could excuse that criticism, which overlooked the wildest combinations of fancy, on account of their excitement and suggestion, we may perhaps explain why our standard dramatists yet retain their fame, though plays are no longer written on the same principles. There are many performances, whose poetical merit, considered apart from the nature of their plot and manners, the reader may acknowledge with rapture, but which he could not conscientiously recommend for present exhibition, and which no modern author, how much soever he may admire their beauty and magnificence, would even be tempted to imitate. A student is naturally warm in the praise of those who have afforded him intellectual pleasure and profit; but if it be urged that the modern drama is less energetic than the ancient, let us in justice ask, whether the same means be still accessible for the same end.
Another license which is now seldom, if at all, granted to writers for the theatre, is that of the mixed drama, and of composing alternately in blank verse and prose. By mixed drama, we would be understood as meaning that species in which the serious interest of tragedy is interchanged with urbanity or humor, naturally springing from the character and accasion, and not interfering with the more pathetic situations of the piece ; or else that kind of comedy which is dignified by serious interests and energy of sentiment, though the play end with good, fortune, and its main cast of character may be that of either refined or ludicrous comedy, or even wholly serious. The two kinds may be so intermingled, that it would be difficult to designate the performance exclusively as either tragedy or comedy, but more properly as a mixed drama. Frequently,
· Philaster; King and no King Custom of the Country ; Prophetess; Lover's Progress; Wife for a Month; Honest Man's Fortune; Two Noble Kinsmen; Island Princess; Women Pleased.
one or two deaths are deemed sufficient to characterize a tragedy, although it may have a fortunate termination. In modern times, a play is generally confined to one department, and possesses but little variation ; the exception taking place only in favor of comedy, the sentimental class of which may occasionally approach the solemnity of the buskin. Some future opportunity may perhaps be afforded us for discussing by what critical laws the licence of the mixed drama, usually known by the name of tragi-comedy, should be restrained : that the attraction of our ancient poets is much heightened by this diversity of interest, there is no doubt. The exuberance of poetic genius at the period alluded to, we apprehend, is susceptible of being traced to moral causes.
The benefits resulting from the revival of learning, which were first felt in Italy, after the capture of Constantinople, had extended to England. The recent emancipation from a corrupted form of religious worship was also calculated to excite inquiry; and a strong impetus still existed in the minds of men, As the classic literature of Greece and Rome was not extensively diffused in this country; and our progress in political economy, didactic reasoning, and general science, was still inconsiderable ; the attention of authors was principally divided between the study of divinity and the cultivation of their native language, in which poetry was the most attractive pursuit. The literature of Italy, whence the day-star of knowledge first arose on the rest of Europe, was the model which our own writers followed, not with servile adherence, but with the esteem of congenial talent, and that assertion of their own dignity which enhanced the value of the tribute. Some perversions of taste however are met with in those metaphysical conceits, which seem to bind up, in a kind of fairy frost-work, the passion they affect to celebrite; but their acquaintance with the poets of Italy was, upon the whole, beneficial; as from these masters they were taught to write with richness, variety, wildness, and ingenuity of imagination, which were regulated by the passions and feelings in their own bosoms. In their portraiture of passion, we disa cern a freedom, and even licentiousness of language and subject,--a contempt of delicacy and humanity in the equities of personal regard, which strongly reflect the character of the
age. The manners of that æra displayed a singular mixture of plainness of deportment, with high-wrought elevation of principle.
· Thierry and Theodoret ; Custom of the Country ; Queen of Corinth; Women Pleased; Woman's Prize.
Whenever the personages of our dramatists are stimulated by wrongs, or impelled by circumstances, the influence of the sexual passion, or any other natural appetite, is mentioned with a freedom unknown to modern times, though it may not always amount to a want of decency. This has been supposed to give the scene an air of truth and reality; and to arrest our attention on the same principle that we admire the symmetry of the naked statue--because we scan its fidelity to nature. But the personifications of a modern author must be enveloped in formal drapery, which impedes their movements, conceals their proportions, and checks the rising emotions of the soul; and thus renders it almost impossible to be at once decorous and poetical in the highest degree.
The comparative freedom of the stage, prior to exclusive patents, caused the theatres to be better fitted for hearing and seeing than the immense structures of the present day. Their want of scenic decoration was supplied by a correspondent in, dulgence, or ignorance on the part of the spectators ; and their number was sufficient to meet the popular demand for entertainment. The audiences of that century had probably no higher opinion of their writers, than the public is now instructed to form of contemporary genius ; but the plays then acted, even with all their faults and extravagancies, were better adapted to develope and foster the activity and excursiveness of genius, than the subjects on which modern powers must be tried. With the advance of society, taste seems to have deserted our antique groves and forests, for those pursuits which adorn a mild and elegant course of domestic life, unexposed to danger, from vicissitudes or tempests. The vine and the myrtle, the willow and the cypress, may yet flourish; but we must no longer look for them in unison or in contrast with the majesty of the cedar, or the solemn and firm grandeur of the oak.
The general superiority of Shakspeare to his contemporaries is too well established to be rashly doubted. He is, on the whole, superior in moral instruction; but in the refinement of polished intercourse, the succeeding generation appears to have considered him inferior to Beaumont and Fletcher, whose circumstances of birth and connections might indeed_give them some advantage. Shakspeare may fall short of Fletcher in the tenderness and delicacy of love, and those who will com
Fr he year 15 to 1629, no less than seventeen the tres were erected for the performance of the drama.