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HIS DRAMATIC KNOWLEDGE
SOME have contended, and many have indirectly assumed, that he was ignorant of the laws necessary to the construction of the classic drama; that is, of the three unities; but this must be held to be impossible. His intimacy with Ben Jonson, who strongly inculcated the propriety of a strict adherence to classical rules, forbad it. Four of his plays, the Comedy of Errors, (which he took from a translation of Plautus) Love's Labour Lost, Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Tempest, are written with as much regard to the three unities as Ben Jonson himself paid to them in his earliest work, perhaps on the whole his masterpiece, Every Man in his Humour. Indeed the unity of action in this comedy is less pure than in any comedy by Shakespeare; old Knowell's parental solicitude, and Kiteley's jealousy of his wife, stand so nearly on the same eminence, that it is difficult to say which is the episode to the other, except that the latter is the more interesting. Putting aside the probability of our poet's having studied, while in a lawyer's office, the tragedies of Seneca, we know that
HIS DRAMATIC KNOWLEDGE AND ART.
a translation existed of them for his perusal, as well as of the comedies of Terence. We also know he read the Supposes, a regular comedy, translated from Ariosto, by the use he made of it in the Taming of the Shrew. Before his time, the Supposes had been acted; so had Jocasta, from Euripides; and Gorbuduc, a classically formed tragedy. He could not be ignorant of what the literary world in London was then arguing as the vital question of our drama. At its birth in Elizabeth's reign, it appeared in a classic form, seemingly without much success. Authors very soon discovered that an alliance with the old favourites of the people, the irregular Mysteries and Moralities, was more acceptable to their audiences, and thus arose the mixed nature of our national drama. Mrs. Montague, in her Essay, has well observed, “Our stage arose from hymns to the Virgin, and encomiums to the patriarchs and the saints; as the Grecian tragedies from the hymns to Bacchus.”
Much as I am averse to at least nine-tenths of what Dr. Johnson has written on Shakespeare, and pained at the fact of his having led, by his authority, so many into error, he has my gratitude for that part of his Preface, wherein he argues against the necessity of our subservience to the three unities. The unity of action he considers indispensable, and to have been sufficiently regarded by Shakespeare; but the unities of time and place he shows, in his most powerfully convincing manner, to be not only unnecessary, but rather to be rejected. The passage alluded to commences with,—“ His histories being neither tragedies nor comedies,”—and ends with,—“ dignity or force to the soliloquy of Cato.” My first idea was to transcribe it; but it would occupy pages, and is either well known or easily referred to by any one interested in the argument.
I wish it were possible to write as forcibly in favour of those sins against chronology, or violations of costume, so frequent with our old dramatists. Schlegel and others have urged much in their excuse, if not in their defence. On this subject Shakespeare, because he is more read than his contemporaries, is made the scape-goat of the whole flock; whereas he is innocent compared with others. Together with our mixed drama, this fault had sprung from the old Mysteries, and had therefore been rendered familiar to men's minds. The people were accustomed to incongruities. In the olden time it was by no means an uncommon thing to see one of the holy patriarchs on the scene, and to hear some attendant buffoon, if not the patriarch himself, (for their sacred representations would be profane to us) talk of taking a cup of canaries in Cheapside, at the sign of the Rose and Crown; or some such monstrous anachronism. We may smile at this, but the classic Virgil has committed the most flagrant anachronism, throughout the regions of poetry, in the meeting of Dido and Æneas; because it is neither a passing observation, nor a trifling incident, but a grand and leading event of his poem. Yet Virgil is excused, and even applauded for it; perhaps for no better reason than that he is denominated classic.
But let us examine into the conduct of the peers and contemporaries of our poet, according to the precept of the author of Hudibras, in his well argued poem, On Critics who judge of modern plays precisely by the rules of the Ancients:
“ An English poet should be tried b' his peers,
And not by pedants and philosophers,
As butchers are forbid to b’ of a jury.” Omitting the writers before his time, including Marlowe, among whom the examples more frequently occur, none will be found guiltless of gross incongruities. Beaumont and Fletcher saw no impropriety
. in giving a pistol to the Humorous Lieutenant, immediately after the death of Alexander the Great; but these 6 twin stars of wit,” it must be confessed, never seemed to heed when or where their scene was laid. Webster and Rowley, in their Thracian Wonder, where the Delphic Oracle is mentioned, and where Pythia herself is introduced, have no hesitation in talking of the “Turks,” and sending a king of Africa abroad with an army to punish “ Christendom.”
66 Webster in his Appius and Virginia, talks, as a matter of course, of “ Dutchmen” and “Frenchwomen.” Massinger, who I once thought was tolerably correct, in the days of the emperor Dioclesian, styles Bacchus, “ Head-warden of Vintner's Hall, ale-conner, and mayor of all victualling houses ;” and makes one of the old Romans speak “ French.” He notices, in his Bondman, the “College of Physicians," at Syracuse, prior to the fall of Carthage. His emperor Domitian pulls out his watch, wishing to move the “dial's tongue to six;" and his emperor Theodosius is acquainted with the fame of “Paracelsus," his
junior by a thousand years. I have here pointed out only some of the instances which first attracted my notice, on hastily turning over their works; and they are enough for my purpose. Nor is the scrupulous Ben Jonson, though his scenes are rarely laid out of England, or away from his own age, less faulty ; since in his Poetaster, where Virgil, Ovid, and Horace, are on the stage, he writes about a coat of arms,” and about “ Owleglass,” a certain Dutch mock hero. Besides which, in Volpone, the catastrophe is founded on laws, declared to be strictly Venetian, which never existed in Venice; and, in Every Man out of his Humour, where the scene is not explicitly stated, though, by the allusions and facts mentioned in the dialogue, it must necessarily be in London, the greater part of the native characters have Italian names, and call each other, in surprising incongruity,
Signor,” and “ Signora.”
It has been remarked to me that our old poets were like men who rush into any armoury, ancient or modern, for sword or buckler, heedless of their fashion, provided they best serve their purposes. Good; but why did they so? Was it purely because they well knew that, by so doing, they would not shock the antiquarian knowledge of their audiences ? Had they no ambition to appear faultless in the eyes of better judges, when their works might be printed ? Was it sheer wilfulness on their part knowingly and premeditatedly? For myself, perceiving this occasional disregard of what is esteemed by modern critics, essential at all times, among authors, who, nearly every one, were educated at our universities, I cannot