ePub 版

must either have been a wonderful actor, which is contrary to all accounts, or he was a successful playwright. So rapid a rise can only be conceived as a consequence of his profits from writing. At Stratford he had tried his hand at Seneca, a useful occupation, inasmuch as teaching him what style to avoid; and he was ever and anon, year


year, a spectator of plays in the town, if not also picking up knowledge of the profession among the players there. Can it be thought, that, with his mind, aided by these advantages, Shakespeare was incapable of producing this comedy at the age of one-and-twenty? Sheridan was little older when he wrote his best comedies.

This play appears to me enriched with all the freshness of youth; with strong indications of his future matured poetical power and dramatic effect. It is the day-spring of genius, full of promise, beauty, and quietude, before the sun has arisen to its splendour. I can likewise discern in it his peculiar gradual developement of character, his minute touches, each tending to complete a portrait: and if these are not executed by the master-hand as shown in his later plays, they are by the same apprentice-hand, --each touch of strength sufficient to harmonize with the whole. We dwell with pleasure on Valentine, the two ladies, and the two servants, especially Launce; whose whimsical drollery is acknowledged by every one to be the most irresistible of all his clowns; but Proteus has been declared unworthy of the poet,-a compound of contradictions; a being, either infamous or honourable, either criminal or penitent, according to the exigences of the scene. Proteus has been neglected and misunderstood; and, regarding his conduct as natural and admirably delineated, I crave permission, at some length, to introduce him, as a creation of Shakespeare, to more favourable notice.

There appear to be three principal objections against the consistency and propriety of his character: one is inconstancy and guilt, without apparent cause, in a man praised and beloved by the other persons of the drama; the second is the improbability of his sudden repentance, and of his return to Julia's arms, with all his former love, uninjured by the treachery of broken faith ; and the last is, the immoral conclusion that may be drawn from his remaining not only unpunished, but rewarded, and that at the sacrifice of a lovely and interesting girl. These seeming incongruities vanish when we attend to the impression made on us by the character, and carefully examine the


From his being the associate of Valentine, and the favourite of Julia, we are apt to conceive a higher opinion of his qualities than he can justly claim. When we bring him nearer to our view, and scrutinize his character by the assistance of Shakespeare's pen, developing the secrets of the heart, we shall find him a youth who, on the first temptation, was likely to become false and treacherous. He is deficient in kindly affections; he is a stranger to every warm and generous sensation; he is wrapped up in self, keenly alive to the effects of public disgrace, but little affected by th consciousness of dishonour; a proficient in learning, but wanting natural ability. His reputation has been obtained, among the old, by his studies, and by his

being free from the excesses of a wild and thoughtless disposition; and these properties, together with a handsome person, and the accomplishments of a gentleman, gain applause among the young. His pre

. sumptive goodness is founded on his not having committed evil; he is not addicted to the follies of his

age; he is neither quarrelsome nor vindictive; he offends nobody. A due consideration of all that is right and becoming, attends him in all situations; if a fellowcreature was in danger, he might possibly not refuse to fight in his defence; if his friend or father were to fall down in a fit at his feet, he would reflect awhile which physician lived nearest, which was the most likely to be at home, and which was the most skilful for that particular kind of disease; instead of running with all speed to the first one that entered his head, like a man with more heart than brains at the moment.

After this description of him, it may be asked, how could Valentine bind to his bosom, in the closest ties of friendship, one so bereaved of every amiable qualification? Shakespeare tells us, and the information is enough, that

“ From their infancy They had conversed, and spent their hours together." It was an early attachment,—therefore strong; not connected by a congeniality of disposition, but by habit, and a continuance of mutual kindness. Had they not been schoolfellows, and their friendship matured before their judgment, it is scarcely possi would have been common acquaintances. These two friends form one of Shakespeare's happy contrasts. There is a life, a gaiety about Valentine, in every

thing he says and does, and his raillery is as elegant as it is inoffensive. He never opens his lips but he speaks the language of his soul, and wins at once our admiration and esteem. By the strength of his natural talents he has overleapt mere scholarship; and, unconscious of superiority, bestows unmerited applause on Proteus, who knows no more than what is told him by his tutor. In short, Valentine is a man from whom a woman derives a higher dignity, and is ennobled among her sex, the instant he declares his passion.

Perhaps it is difficult entirely to excuse Julia for having made choice of Proteus. He was handsome, and had not betrayed a single fault; which are much to an unsuspicious girl. Julia, though exquisitely portrayed, is inferior to most of Shakespeare's women; she has beauty, constancy, and tenderness, but no other brilliant attributes. Compare her with Viola, in a similar situation with herself, and she will appear to great disadvantage. To define the love in the breast of Proteus, I should say it was not in the slightest degree mental, but corporeal; it neither had its source from the intellect, nor was it fed from it; but it proceeded from mere changeable nature. Like an idolater in religion, he must have his deity continually before him, or his adoration ceases.

It was not possible for him, like Valentine, to fall into ecstacy at the sight of his mistress's glove; it would have been valueless to him, unless it contained her hand.

The comedy opens with the separation of the two friends, when Proteus displays no ardour of attachment,-although his conduct is wholly blameless. He expresses, in the approved style, a desire to accom

[ocr errors]

pany him to the sea-side ; but this being answered with “Sweet Proteus, no," he readily forgoes the pleasure of being the last person to bid him farewell, and does not conceive it needful to repeat his request. He had done everything that the established forms of friendship demanded, and doubtless to his own satis. faction as a friend : he had entreated Valentine to remain in Verona, and afterwards wished him all happiness in his travels, and even offered to be his bead'sman, an offer much in character with so sober and sedate a youth.

“In thy danger,
If ever danger do environ thee,
Convey thy grievance to my holy prayer,

And I will be thy bead's-man, Valentine.” The wording how excellent! how unconsciously cold! When left alone, not a word falls from him expressive of regret. Instantly he talks of self, of his passion for Julia, and laments her cruelty in a strain ridiculous in

a young pedant.
“ Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphosed me,

Made me neglect my studies, lose my time." At length Julia promises to be his ! Never having dwelt with enthusiasm on the perfections of his mistress, feeling no more than a partiality and the warmth of youth, it ought not to be expected that the news should madden him into rapture; it is quite enough that he is highly pleased.

“ Sweet love ! sweet lines ! sweet life!
Here is her hand, the agent of her heart;
Here is her oath for love, her honour's pawn:
Oh! that our fathers would applaud our loves,

any but

« 上一頁繼續 »