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GOETHE'S CHARACTER OF EGMONT.
Goethe was a man of conceptions, and his writings are a succession of attempts to express them; mostly, too, under some hieroglyphical or mystical form. They are, accordingly, suggestive, symbolic, since each detached sentiment is, as it were, a fragment from the architecture of some temple which it is left to the reader's imagination to comlete. In this drama, we have one of is conceptions of the human being, one of his favorite modes of solving the problem of life. He has constructed a certain style and measure of a man, has given us excellencies and defects, tendencies and limitations. It stands before us in such a questionable shape, that we feel moved to speak to it, and to inquire by virtue of what it presumes to challenge our attention. We would know of what elements it is made, and what excuse it can give for its existence. But before o upon this examination, it may e proper to explain somewhat the times and facts which constitute the groundwork of the play. William orall, Count Egmont, Prince of Gaure, flourished in the time of Philip the Second, and while Margarette of Parma, the king's sister, was regent of the Low Countries. This monarch, influenced by a conscientious, but extremely narrow and absurd devotion to the Church of Rome, with a wooden-brained inflexibility, attempted to impose unjust religious restrictions upon the Dutch, infringing, at the same time, on their political rights. The royal mandates were disregarded, and multitudes suffered the most horrible tortures at the hand of the executioner, while the Inquisition held the people in Poll. terror and rebellion. Many of the nobility, from motives of conscience or of policy, sided openly and thoroughly with the king, and many of the more substantial of the tradesmen and merchants, were placed on the same ground by their abhorrence of the absurdities and extravagances of the new Protestant sects. Still, a very large portion of the people and of the inferior nobility, together with the Prince of Orange and Count Egmont, and a few of the more clear-headed and ;". of the highest class, were at eart opposed to the measures of their
monarch, used all the influence they possessed to change his policy, and did all they dared to thwart it. Egmont, who was of a generous and confident nature, the true friend and the favorite of his countrymen, at last showed so strong an attachment to the popular cause, and engaged so decidedly in its support, that he was accused of high treason, tried by a new court, instituted with special powers, and beheaded. Soon after, the famous struggle commenced, since known as the “War of the Low Countries.” It was in this that William, Prince of Orange, distinguished himself as a great leader, and here Alva has embalmed his genius and piety in severities, which even in the recital, and at this distant day, make the blood boil. Goethe has chosen the time just previous to the entry of the Spanish duke with his army for the opening of his drama, and concludes with the execution of its hero. Egmont is heard of in the first scene,
where two burghers of Brussels, an old invalid veteran, and one of the count's soldiers, are found in a tavern, discoursing of politics over their ale. Says YETTER.—The king, I think, would be a gracious master, if he only had better advisers. SoFSt.—No no He has no disposition for us Netherlanders. His heart is not inclined to his people: he does not love us—how can we love him him in return ? Why do all the world feel so kind towards Count Egmont ?
Why do we all bear him up in our hands
Because every one sees that he wishes us well. Because his good temper, his free, bold life, and his kind-heartedness look out at his eyes; because there is nothing that he would not share with the poor man, as soon as with one in want of nothing. Buyck, it belongs to you to give the first toast; give us your master's health.-Again YETTER exclaims:— There, too, we must not sing the new psalms : They are nicely done in rhyme, and of a right-edifying sort. These must we not sing, but bawdy songs, as many as we please. And why? There are heresies in them, they say—and things —God knows! But I sing them, however ! It's something new, and I see nothing in them. Buyck.-Catch me asking leave In our province we sing what we please. That's because Count Egmont is our stadtholder. He cares not a straw for such things. In Ghent, Opern, throughout all Flanders, they sing them, every one that likes—(louder to Ruysam, who is deaf)—Is any thing more harmless than psalms and hymns : not so, uncle 2 RUYsAM.–Eh! well ! It's a sort o' worship—an edification. In the second scene, too, Egmont is mentioned. The regentess is imparting her troubles and solicitudes to Machiavell. The weight of her crown presses sorely. Egmont has “moved her disleasure.” MAch.—By what behavior GENT.-His accustomed behavior; his indifference and levity. I received the frightful intelligence, even as, accompanied by him and many others, I was going from the church. I did not conceal my chagrin ; I complained aloud, and exclaimed, as I turned towards him. “see what is going on in your province Do you suffer this, count, of whom the king has promised himself so much f" MACH.-And what was his answer RECENT-As though it were nothing at all, the merest trifle, he replied, “that were the Netherlanders once well assured with respect to their constitution the rest would soon settle itself.” The secretary intimates that possibly Egmont said this “with more of truth than of prudence or loyalty,” yet he doubts not that the count is at heart “the king's most dutiful subject.” Again, the queen confesses: “I fear Orange, but I fear for Egmont. Orange meditates no good. His thoughts reach into the distance. He conceals—appears to admit every thing, never disputes, but with a show of profoundest respect, and an astonishing foresight, does whatsoever pleases him.” MAch.— In just the opposite way Egmont moves—as though the world waited his nod. QUEEN.—He bears his head high as though the hand of Majesty hovered not over him. MAch.—The eyes of the people follow after him; eir hearts hang on him. QUEEN.—He has a very accommodating conscience. His demeanor is often affronting. He appears at times as though he had the entire supervision of things; as though he were Lord and Master, and refrained from making us too sensible of it, only out of courtesy. Once more in the third scene, we hear of Egmont. In the first he was the favorite of the people, in the second an object of suspicion to the government,
and he now appears in the remaining important relation which he sustains in the play, as the lover of Clara. He is not, however, seen himself. The conversation is between Clara, her mother, and one Brackenburg, a young tradesman, who is compelled to yield before the superior claim of the Prince. Egmont next appears in person. He is seen on horseback at the head of his suite, riding into the midst of a mobsome of whom are beating a decent looking man, who was not sufficiently patriotic to suit their taste, and most of whom were busily en ged in shouting, “Freedom " and “Privilege " EGMont.— Peace Peace G people : What's the matter? Disperse! CARPENTER.— Gracious master! You come like an angel from heaven—Stop! Don't you see Count Egmont. His Excellency, the Count Egmont. EGM.—Here, too What are you trying to do Citizens against citizens ! Is not the presence of her majesty, the Regentess, enough to restrain such irregularities 2 Disperse. Go about your business. It's a bad sign that you are idle on work-days. What was it 2 (The tumult gradually stills itself, and the crowd collects about him.) CARP.-They are fighting about their privileges. GM.—Which they will yet courageously maul to death—and who are you ? You look like honest people. CARP.-That is our endeavor. EGM. —Your trade 2 CARP-A house-joiner, and master of the Guild. EGM.–And ou? Soest.—A cobbler. EGM.—You? ETTER—A tailor. EGM.—I remember now ; you have worked on liveries for my people. Your name is Yetter. YET TER—Too much honor, that you care to remember it. EGM.—I forget no one easily, whom I have once seen and spoken to. He gives them some very mild and wholesome advice, hears them patiently, says, “Sensible people can make themselves very useful,” and rides off. Can this be Goethe, and this Egmont? The scene, as a whole, cannot for an instant bear comparison with any similar ones in Shakspeare; and even those in Philip Van Artevelde surpass it far. The conclusion of it, given above, and the only part where the hero of the play appears, is especially weak. Let the reader open to the commencement of Julius Caesar, or to the address of Antony, or to the place in Hamlet, where Laertes bursts in with a mob upon the usurper, and demands his father. Our princely Egmont has not half the dignity or force, even of the “bloat king,” who poisoned his brother.
“KING..—What is the cause Laertes, That thy rebellion looks so giant-like 2– Let him go, Gertrude; do not fear our person; There's such divinity doth hedge a king, That treason can but peep to what it would, Acts little of its will.—Tell me Laertes, Why thou art thus incensed ?—let him go, Gertrude;— Speak, man s”
But we are to take the idea, perhaps, and not the thing given. We are not to delay upon the É. but pierce into the substance and ask, not, what have we here 2 but, what does this, which we have here, mean? It is “symbolic,” like every thing which Goethe wrote or did. This is the smbol of a mob, and not a genuine, vulgar mob. It stands for a mob-it means a mob—this is its significance.
Well and good. But we cannot believe these pretensions to militate at all against the idea of the insignificance of the scene before us, as a dramatic effort. There are hieroglyphics on Egyptian monuments which are symbolic of human beings, but we hardly mention them with the master-works in painting or sculpture. Among the Indians of the Missouri valley there are thousands of significant representations, on buffalo hides, of fierce wars and bloody victories, and the merest mummeries in religious ceremony are claimed as symbols of vast and holy mysteries: this does not make them respectable, except in comparison with meaner symbols, or symbols of meaner things. It is when the work is, on the one hand, typical, and true to nature, and at the same time the representation of that which is of a most excellent and lofty quality, or is intense and powerful, as with the great masters in the Fine Arts, and in Tragedy; it is then that we award the highest praise, and only then. Goethe's writings seem to have acquired the reputation of great “significance,” in part from the fact that they frequently have little other interest or force than merely hieroglyphic or typical. But all things are symbolic to him who has an eye to see them; yet no one dreams that all things are of equal value. The question is, what is symbolized, and how
well ? So the world inquired, before it placed Shakspeare at the head of Tragedy. For the grandest and mightiest, and most delicate elements of human nature enter into his representations, and are there most vividly and effectively portrayed. In this scene of Goethe's Egmont, it is certainly far otherwise. The mob-we have no respect for such a mob-and the hero is only a good-humored, popular, fair-looking man, on horseback, who makes much of the scant, common-place artfulness, with which Providence, or, more properly, Goethe, has endowed him. We cannot quite concede to him, even the honor of being the hieroglyphic of a hero, for those qualities which are most essential have, as yet, no representative in him. The second scene of the second act is in Egmont's own house. His private secretary is sitting alone at a table overspread with papers. He rises up out of temper, and begins to complain of his master's tardiness. The count, when he arrives, notes the dissatisfaction and petulence that is clouding his young friend's face, and banters with him a little upon his dolefulness of visage, fears lest Donna Elvira will not be obliged to him for having occasioned this delay. He compliments his secretary on the taste he has displayed in the selection of his lady, and proceeds forthwith to business. A letter has come from his captain, asking for directions concerning some prisoners. Egmont is “weary of hanging,” and would have the church-plunderers dismissed with a flogging. A young soldier wishes to marry. The count remembers that he is a fine fellow, and for “this once” says “yes,” though his officer complains that the squadrons already begin to look like gangs of gypsies. A Huguenot preacher, instead of suffering at the stake, is just quietly set over the borders, and strongly advised not to return. Debtors who neglect to pay—the worst of them, those who are wilful in their neglect—have, nevertheless, a “fortnight more” given them; and yet the steward must “get the gold;"—however, the usual instalments paid to old soldiers and to widows, must not be curtailed. When his secretary inquires where the steward shall get the money, Egmont replies, “that is for him to discover—it has already been told him in former letters.” Sec.—And in accordance with them has he made these propositions. EGM.—Which don't suit. He must
think of some other plan. He should suggest things that are practicable, and at any rate he must get the gold. Next comes up a letter from an old friend of the family, who seems to take a fatherly interest in the count, and who has often vainly endeavored to dissuade him from the dangerous course he was pursuing. Egmont turns from the letter with indignation and disgust, and tells his secretary finally, “write him that he need not be concerned; I shall manage as I can ; I shall take care of myself; he shall use his influence at court in my favor, and be sure of my hearty gratitude.” SEc.—Is this all Oh! he expects more. EGM.—What more shall I say : Would you make more words It rests with you, then. He is forever troublin himself about some one point. That am free-hearted, take things easy, live a bold life, is my good fortune; and I would not barter it for the security of a charnel-house; I have no blood in my veins for this Spanish mode of life, no wish, or will to muster my steps after this new court-cadence. Do I live only to meditate upon my life Shall I give up the enjoyment of the present moment, in order to make sure of the next? and then spoil that with new whims and anxieties 2 SEc.—I beseech you, my lord, be not so harsh and rough with the ood old man. You are accustomed to e kind to all. Give me some pleasant word that shall compose your noble friend. See how considerate he is; how softly he lays his hand upon you. EGM.—But he is for ever laying his hands on these same chords. He knows of old how hateful these admonitions are to me. They only make one stumble— they are no help. If I were in the nightmare, and walking on the slippery ridge of the house, is it an act of friendship to call me by name, warn me, wake me, and plunge me off? Let every one his own way—he can take care of self. SEc.—It is your nature to be unconcerned; but one who knows and loves you— EGM. (gazing on the letter.)—Here he brings up that old falsehood * * * * * * Are the bits of colored rags, which a youthful disposition and a lively fancy H. about the miserable nakedness of our life, to be envied us? If you take life too seriously, what does it become 2 If the morning wakes us to no new joys, and at evening no pleasures remain to be hoped for, is it worth the putting on and off of clothes?
Does the sun shine upon me to-day, that I may reconsider what took place yesterday; and counsel for, and determine— what cannot be counseled for and determined—the fortunes of the coming day Away with these meditations: we will leave them to school-boys and courtiers. Let them meditate and ponder, stray and sneak about, lay hold of what they can, creep into what they can. If you can use any of this without making a book of your epistle, so then ; it suits me well. Every thing seems too wicked to the good old man.—Yes! So a friend who has long held our hand presses it the harder just as he lets it go. SEc.—Pardon me. It makes the foot-passenger iddy to see one driving on in such mad aste. EGM.–Child Child ! no more : As though scourged on by invisible spirits, the sun-steeds of time are rushing away with the light chariot of my fate: and for me nothing remains, but with firm courage to hold fast the reins, and from rocks on the one hand and gulfs on the other to guide aside the wheels. Whither it goes, who can tell ? One scarce remembers what he has passed. SEc.—My Lord my Lord EGM.—I stand high—and I can, and must, stand higher still. I feel within me hope, courage, and strength. I have not yet reached the summit of my increase; and let me once stand there, I will stand firmly, and not with trembling. Should I fall—yes! a thunderbolt, a whirlwind, a false step, even, may hurl me off into the abyss—l shall lie there with man thousands. I have never been loth wit my good companions in arms to cast the bloody die for a small stake, and shall I haggle when the throw is for the whole free worth of life This is some of the best of Egmont. His rhetoric is waked; he is eloquent, though a portion of his utterance seems common-place. It should have been, however, a soliloquy. All these grand thoughts are the ones which a hero does not speak: or only to himself. In his bosom they lie silent. He does not think to utter them; for they are so much a matter of course, that the necessity of making public declaration of them, does not occur to him. Imagine a great statesman and general, a high-born courtier, a gentleman of aristocratic blood, a hero to whom great thoughts are familiar, spout: ing thus to his private secretary. And then, again, what a slip-shod manager our friend is, how badly he conducts his business; not criminally, as we should say, but poorly. He is no knave, nor does he appear to be overmastered by great exigences. He is simply good for nothing, and cannot be trusted—a generous man, aspiring, and one who will doubtless be popular, but not the man to make a tragedy of . The conversation between Egmont and his secretary ends where we left it, and there is scarcely time for the gathering up of papers, before the Prince of Orange arrives. This conference is one of importance. Orange has become convinced that the policy of the Spanish court is about to change. Its severities are to be shifted from the people to the princes. The Duke of Alva is coming with an army. But our count has no fears. (The interview is too long to insert entire, and very little would be gained by quoting fragments of it.) The prince urges that they retire, each to his own province, and entrench themselves behind the courage and fidelity of their vassals. But Egmont lives by faith, not by sight, and is wholly invulnerable to facts or persuasions. It is hard for Orange to leave him. EGMont.—How ! Tears Orange 2 OR.—A man may weep for one who is lost. EGM.—You fancy me lost OR.—Thou art! Think well ! There is left thee but a short space. Farewell. EGM.—[Alone.] That other men's opinions should have such an effect upon me? I had never thought it. And this man extends his solicitude even to me. Away ! This is a strange drop in my blood. Kind Nature, cast it out again! And there occurs just now a good means for smoothing these wrinkles of thought from my brow. Now if the play of the great artist was intended to be tragical, this scene, which sets forth the conflict of the hero's good and evil genius, should be the pith and marrow of tragedy. The time resembles that “a little ere the mightiest Julius fell,” when Cesar questions whether he shall go to the capitol. mont's good angel comes in the person
of Orange, to beg him to depart. All the
elements are ready for the consummation. Destiny waits upon his decision. His act is the seal of fate. It is necessary, therefore, that whatsoever it be, it be admirable and impressive. For the moment he wears the stern prerogatives of the eldest law; and it is not permitted him, being the minister of that which is so dignified and terrible, to do any thing
that is mean or common. But he disputes and argues with Orange upon matters of fact and probabilities so weakly and unsuccessfully, that it becomes impossible to respect him. True, we are not unwilling here to concede him the praise of being a well-meaning, generoussouled man; but he is of poor stuff. Orange is represented as pithy, sharp, sensible, brave and wise. He is activeminded, and severely honest; clear-headed, resolute; loving towards his friend, and such an enemy as one may well be “ware of.” But Egmont seems to hold his resolution of remaining, rather from a general debility of understanding, a made-up determination to go through fire and water, but that he will believe the king will never harm him. He is an unthinking man, befooled with his impulses; not only incapable of discovering the necessities of his situation, but of being taught them. And this not from any especial fatality, from any cause that appears peculiarly to cloud his intelligence at this particular time; on the contrary, he seems in the full prosperity of all his faculties. Consider, moreover, how with aforethought, he takes express measures for “smoothing the wrinkles of anxiety on his brow.” His plan is nothing less than a visit to his mistress. On the whole, one cannot see that Egmont's determination to remain has any thing of tragic dignity or impressiveness in it. We pity the man, that he must so simply get himself into difficulty, but recognize in him nothing that is heroic. But we are disposed to blame the author of this drama, as well as the hero of it. For the real Egmont was a man of some practical seriousness, the husband of a wife and the father of a family, whom he seems to have dearly loved. We are told that one chief reason of his remaining in the country, and exposing himself to the violent death it proved his lot to suffer, was his affection for them. Now how much more worthy does that prince appear to us, who has given himself to the honorable bonds of marriage, who loves his children, and is educating them to fill his place, when he shall have left it empty, and to continue their father's beneficence over new generations. We could even pardon him, if he should find himself unable to quit them for the sake of personal safety, or if he were blinded by their seeming interests to their real ones. Goethe, doubtless, had a right to make such a change, if necessary; but a