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Vice always found a sympathetic friend;
eighteenth century, when, according to the They pleas'd their age, and did not aim to epitaph, the poet's forms were sunk in death
Yet bards like these aspir'd to lasting praise, And proudly hop'd to pimp in future days. Their cause was gen'ral, their supports were strong;
Their slaves were willing, and their reign was long:
Till Shame regain'd the post that Sense betray'd,
And Virtue call'd Oblivion to her aid.
"Then, crush'd by rules, and weaken'd as refin'd,
For years the pow'r of Tragedy declin'd; From bard to bard the frigid caution crept, Till declamation roar'd whilst passion slept; Yet still did Virtue deign the stage to tread, Philosophy remain'd though Nature fled. But forc'd, at length, her ancient reign to quit, She saw great Faustus lay the ghost of Wit; Exulting Folly hail'd the joyous day, And pantomime and song confirm'd her sway." It is tolerably evident, from the whole tenour of this celebrated prologue, that of the early dramatists Shakspere reigned upon the stage supreme, if not almost alone. It has been the fault of actors, and the flatterers of actors, to believe that a dramatic poet is only known to the world through their lips. Garrick was held to have given life to Shakspere. The following inscription on Garrick's tomb in Westminster Abbey has been truly held by Charles Lamb to be " a farrago of false thoughts and nonsense:
"To paint fair Nature, by divine command,
Though sunk to death the forms the Poet drew,
The Actor's genius bade them breathe anew; Though, like the bard himself, in night they lay,
Immortal Garrick call'd them back to day:
And earth irradiate with a beam divine."
and lay in night, there had been thirteen editions of Shakspere's collected works, nine of which had appeared during the preceding forty years. Of Ben Jonson there had been three editions in the seventeenth century, and one in the eighteenth; of Beaumont and Fletcher two in the seventeenth century, and one in the eighteenth. Yet, absurd and impertinent as it may be to talk of immortal Garrick calling the plays of Shakspere back to day, it cannot be denied that the very power of those plays to create a school of great actors was in itself a cause of their extension amongst readers. The most monstrous alterations, perpetrated with the worst taste, and with the most essential ignorance of Shakspere's art, were still in some sort tributes to his power. The actors sent many to read Shakspere with a true delight; and then it was felt how little he needed the aid of acting, and how much indeed of his highest excellence could only be received into the mind by reverent meditation.
In 1765 appeared, in eight volumes octavo, 'The Plays of William Shakspeare, with the Corrections and Illustrations of various Commentators: to which are added Notes by Samuel JOHNSON.' This was the foundation of the variorum editions, the principle of which has been to select from all the commentary, or nearly all, that has been produced, every opinion upon a passage, however conflicting. The respective value of the critics who had preceded him are fully discussed by Johnson in the latter part of his Preface: this branch of the subject was only of temporary interest. But the larger portion of Johnson's Preface not only to a certain extent represented the tone of opinion in Johnson's age, but was written with so much pomp of diction, with such apparent candour, and with such abundant manifestations of good sense, that, perhaps more than any other production, it has influenced the public opinion of Shakspere up to this day. That the influence has been, for the most part, evil, we have no hesitation in believing. This celebrated Preface is accessible to most
Up to the end of the first half of the readers of Shakspere.
It was observed by Warburton, in 1747, that the fit criticism for Shakspere was not such " as may be raised mechanically on the rules which Dacier, Rapin, and Bossu have collected from antiquity: and of which such kind of writers as Rymer, Gildon, Dennis, and Oldmixon, have only gathered and chewed the husks." But he goes on to infer that "crude and superficial judgments on books and things" had taken the place of the older mechanical criticism; and that there was “a deluge of the worst sort of critical jargon-that which looks most like ." The rules of art, as they were called, having been rejected as inapplicable to Shakspere, a swarm of writers arose who considered that he was to be judged without the application of any general principles at all. They held that he wrote without a system; that the absence of this system produced his excellences and his faults; that his absurdities were as striking as his beauties; that he was the most careless and hasty of writers; and that therefore it was the business of all grave and discreet critics to warn the unenlightened multitude against his blunders, his contradictions, his violations of sense and decency. This was the critical school of individual judgment, which has lasted for more than a century amongst us; and which, to our minds, is a far more corrupting thing than the pedantries of all the Gildons and Dennises who have eat paper and drunk ink. Before the publication of Johnson's preface (which, being of a higher order of composition than what had previously been produced upon Shakspere, seemed to establish fixed rules for opinion), the impertinences which were poured out by the feeblest minds upon Shakspere's merits and demerits surpass all ordinary belief. Mrs. Charlotte Lennox, in whose 'Shakespear Illustrated' Johnson himself is reputed to have had some hand, is an average specimen of the insolence of that critical jargon "which looks most like sense."
Mrs. Lennox was evidently a very small-minded person attempting to form a judgment upon a very high subject. But it was not only the small minds which uttered such babble in the last century. Samuel
| Johnson himself, in some of his critical opinions upon individual plays, is not very far above the good lady whom he patronized. What shall we think of the prosaic appro| bation of ‘A Midsummer-Night's Dream ?'— "Wild and fantastical as this play is, all the parts in their various modes are well written." What of his praise of 'Romeo and Juliet ?'— "His comic scenes are happily wrought, but his pathetic strains are always polluted with some unexpected depravations." What of the imputed omissions in ‘As You Like It ?'"By hastening to the end of this work Shakspeare suppressed the dialogue between the usurper and the hermit, and lost an opportunity of exhibiting a moral lesson in which he might have found matter worthy of his highest powers." What of the pompous seesawing about 'Macbeth?'-"It has no nice discriminations of character. . . danger of ambition is well described. The passions are directed to the true end. Lady Macbeth is merely detested; and, though the courage of Macbeth preserves some esteem, yet every reader rejoices at his fall.” What, lastly, shall we say to the bow-wow about 'Cymbeline?'-" To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility-upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation." All that we can in truth say of these startling things is this-that this learned, sensible, sometimes profound, and really great man, having trampled upon the unities and other tests of poetical merit, the fashion of Dryden's age but not of his own, is perpetually groping about in the mists of his private judgment, now pursuing a glimmering of light, now involved in outer darkness. This system of criticism upon Shakspere was rotten to the foundation. It was based upon an extension and a misapplication of Ben Jonson's dogmatic assertion-"He wanted art." The art of Shakspere was not revealed to the critics of the last century. Let us hear one to whom the principles of this art were revealed :-"It is a painful truth, that
not only individuals, but even whole nations, | sions," then he is bewildered; and he geneare ofttimes so enslaved to the habits of their education and immediate circumstances, as not to judge disinterestedly even on those subjects the very pleasure arising from which consists in its disinterestedness, namely, on subjects of taste and polite literature. Instead of deciding concerning their own modes and customs by any rule of reason, nothing appears rational, becoming, or beautiful to them but what coincides with the peculiarities of their education. In this narrow circle individuals may attain to exquisite discrimination, as the French critics have done in their own literature; but a true critic can no more be such, without placing himself on some central point, from which he may command the whole,—that is, some general rule, which, founded in reason, or the faculties common to all men, must therefore apply to each,—than an astronomer can explain the movements of the solar system without taking his stand in the sun.”*
rally ends in blaming his author. The cha-
Samuel Johnson proposes to inquire, in his preface, "by what peculiarities of excellence Shakspeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen." He answers the question at considerable length, by dis- | playing what he holds to be the great peculiarity of his excellence :-"Shakspeare is, above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. . . . . This, therefore, is the praise of Shakspeare-that his drama is the mirror of life." Such is the leading idea of the critic. He sees nothing higher in Shakspere than an exhibition of the real. "He who has mazed his imagination in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him may here be cured of his delirious ecstacies, by reading human sentiments in human language; by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions." When John-vice and wrong, become clear to us; to bring son is unable to trace this actual picture of life in Shakspere, when he perceives any deviations from the regular "transactions of the world," or the due "progress of the pas* Coleridge's Literary Remains,' vol. ii. p. 63.
the heart into immediate acquaintance with the awful and the terrible, as well as with the joyous and pleasurable; and, lastly, to lead the fancy to hover gently, dreamily, on the wing of imagination, and entice her to
revel in the seductive witchery of its volup- | more, which penetrates into the abysses of tuous emotion and contemplation. Art should employ this manifold richness of its subject-matter to supply on the one hand the deficiencies of our actual experience of external life, and on the other hand to excite in us those passions which shall cause the actual events of life to move us more deeply and awaken our susceptibility for receiving impressions of all kinds.”*
This is something higher than Johnson's notion of Shakspere's art-higher as that notion was than the mechanical criticism of the age which preceded him. But the inconsistencies into which the critic is betrayed show the narrowness and weakness of his foundations. The drama of Shakspere is a mirror of life;" and yet, according to the critic, it is the great sin of Shakspere that he is perpetually violating "poetical justice." Thus Johnson says in the preface, "He makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to show in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance." Johnson could not have avoided seeing that, if Shakspere had not carried his persons "indifferently though right and wrong," he would not have exhibited "the real state of sublunary nature." But there was something much higher that Shakspere would not then have done. Had he gone upon the principle of teaching an impracticable and therefore an unnatural theory of rewards and punishments in human affairs, if he had not intended that "his precepts and axioms" should drop casually from him," he would have lost his supereminent power of gradually raising the mind into a comprehension of what belongs to the spiritual part of our nature; of exciting a deep sympathy with strong emotion and lofty passion; of producing an expansion of the heart, which embraces all the manifestations of human goodness and human sorrow; and, what is
*We quote this from a very able article in the British and Foreign Review,' on Hegel's Esthetics.' The passage is Hegel's.
guilt and degradation, and shows that there is no true peace, and no real resting-place, for what separates us from our fellow men and from our God. This is not to be effected by didactic precepts not dropped casually; by false representations of the course of worldly affairs and the workings of man's secret heart. The mind comprehends the whole truth, when it is elevated by the art of the poet into a fit state for its comprehension. The whole moral purpose is then evolved, through a series of deductions in the mind of him who is thus moved. This is the highest logic, because it is based upon the broadest premises. Rymer sneers at Shakspere when he says that the moral of 'Othello' is, that maidens of quality should not run away with blackamoors. The sarcasm only tells upon those who demand any literal moral in a high work of art.
Because Johnson only saw in Shakspere's dramas "a mirror of life," he prefers his comedy to his tragedy. "His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct." When the poet is working with grander materials than belong to the familiar scenes of life, however natural and universal, the critic does not see that the region of literal things is necessarily abandoned that skill must be more manifest in its effects. We are then in a world of higher reality than every-day reality. "In tragedy he often writes with great appearance of toil and study what is written at last with little felicity." This now strikes the most superficial student of Shakspere as monstrous. We open 'Irene,' and we understand it. "He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting which the train of his story seems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting for the sake of those which are more easy." It is a great privilege of the art of Shakspere, that in his most tragical scenes he never takes us out of the region of pleasurable emotions. It was his higher art, as compared with the lower art of Otway. He does reject "those exhibitions which would be more affecting," but not "for the sake of those which are more easy." Let any one try which is the
more easy, "to touch a soul to the quick, to lay upon fear as much as it can bear, to wean and weary a life till it is ready to drop," as Charles Lamb describes the tragic art of Webster; or to make a Desdemona, amidst the indignities which are heaped upon her, and the fears which subdue her soul, move tranquilly in an atmosphere of poetical beauty, thinking of the maid that
"had a song of-willow;
An old thing 'twas, but it express'd her fortune,
And she died singing it."
It is a rude conception which Johnson has of Shakspere's art, when he says of the play of 'Hamlet,' "The scenes are interchangeably diversified with merriment and solemnity. The pretended madness of Hamlet causes much mirth; the mournful distraction of Ophelia fills the heart with tenderness; and every personage produces the effect intended." True. But it was no intended effect of the madness of Hamlet to cause "much mirth." Every word that Hamlet utters has something in it which sounds the depths of our intellectual being, because every word is consistent with his own character, which, of all poetical creations, sends us most to search into the mysteries of our own individual natures. This, if we understand it aright, is poetry. But Johnson says, "Voltaire expresses his wonder that our author's extravagances are endured by a nation which has seen the tragedy of 'Cato.' Let him be answered, that Addison speaks the language of poets, and Shakspeare of men. We find in 'Cato' innumerable beauties which enamour us of its author, but we see nothing that acquaints us with human sentiments or human actions; we place it with the fairest and noblest progeny which judgment propagates by conjunction with learning; but 'Othello' is the vigorous and vivacious offspring of observation, impregnated with genius." If Addison speaks "the language of poets," properly so called, 'Cato' is poetry. If Shakspere speaks the language of men, as distinct from the language of poets, 'Othello' is not poetry. It needs no further argument to show that the critic has a false theory of
the poetical art. He has here narrowed the question to an absurdity.
We may observe, from what Johnson says of "the minute and slender criticism of VOLTAIRE," that the English critics fancied that, doing Shakspere ample justice themselves, they were called upon to defend him from the mistaken criticisms of a foreign school. Every Englishman, from the period of Johnson, who has fancied himself absolved from the guilt of not admiring and understanding Shakspere has taken up a stone to cast at Voltaire. Those who speak of Voltaire as an ignorant and tasteless calumniator of Shakspere forget that his hostility was based upon a system of art which he conceived, and rightly so, was opposed to the system of Shakspere. He had been bred up in the school of Corneille and Racine, the glories of his countrymen; and it is really a remarkable proof of the vigour of his mind that he tolerated so much as he did in Shakspere, and admired so much; in this respect going farther perhaps than many of our own countrymen of no mean reputation, such as Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke in 1730. In his 'Discourse on Tragedy,' prefixed to 'Brutus,' and addressed to Bolingbroke in that year, he says, "Not being able, my lord, to risk upon the French stage verses without rhyme, such as are the usage of Italy and of England, I have at least desired to transport to our scene certain beauties of yours. It is true, and I avow it, that the English theatre is very faulty. I have heard from your mouth that you have not a good tragedy. But in compensation you have some admirable scenes in these very monstrous pieces. Until the present time almost all the tragic authors of your nation have wanted that purity, that regular conduct, those bienséances of action and style, that elegance, and all those refinements of art, which have established the reputation of the French theatre since the great Corneille. But the most irregular of your pieces have one grand merit—it is that of action." In the same letter we have his opinion of Shakspere, which is certainly not that of a cold critic, but of one who admired even where he could not approve, and blamed as we had been accustomed to