« ZurückWeiter »
rences; fome the terrours of diftrefs, and fome the gayeties of profperity. Thus rofe the two modes of imitation, known by the names of tragedy and comedy, compofitions intended to promote different ends by contrary means, and confidered as foʻlittle allied, that I do not recollect among the Greeks or Romans a single writer who attempted both.
Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and forrow not only in one mind but in one compofition. Almoft all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the fucceffive evolutions of the defign, fometimes produce seriousness and forrow, and fometimes levity and laughter.
That this is a practice contrary to the rules of criticifm will be readily allowed; but there is always an appeal open from criticifm to nature. The end of writing is to inftruct; the end of poetry is to inftruct by pleasing. That the mingled drama may convey all the inftruction of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied, because it includes both in its alterations. of exhibition, and approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life, by fhewing how great machinations and flender defigns may promote or obviate one another, and the high and the low co-operate in the general fyftem by unavoidable concatenation.
It is objected, that by this change of fcenes the paffions are interrupted in their progreffion, and that the principal event, being not advanced by a due gradation of preparatory incidents, wants at last the power
power to move, which conftitutes the perfection of
The players, who in their edition divided our authour's works into comedies, hiftories, and tragedies, feem not to have diftinguished the three kinds, by any very exact or definite ideas."
An action which ended happily to the principal perfons, however ferious or diftressful through its intermediate incidents, in their opinion conftituted a comedy. This idea of a comedy continued long amongst us, and plays were written, which, by changing the catastrophe, were tragedies to-day and come
Tragedy was not in thofe times a poem of more general dignity or elevation than comedy; it required only a calamitous conclufion, with which the common criticism of that age was fatisfied, whatever lighter pleasure it afforded in its progrefs.
Hiftory was a series of actions, with no other than chronological fucceffion, independent of each other, and without any tendency to introduce or regulate the conclufion. It is not always very nicely diftinguished from tragedy.. There is not much nearer approach to unity of action in the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, than in the hiftory of Richard the Second. But a history might be continued through many plays; as it had no plan, it had no limits.
Through all these denominations of the drama, Shakespeare's mode of compofition is the fame; an interchange of ferioufnefs and merriment, by which the mind is foftened at one time, and exhilarated at another. But whatever be his purpofe, whether to gladden or deprefs, or to conduct the ftory, without vehemence or emotion, through tracts of eafy and familiar dialogue, he never fails to attain his purpofe; as he commands us, we laugh or mourn, or fit filent with quiet expectation, in tranquillity without indifference.
When Shakespeare's plan is understood, most of the criticisms of Rhymer and Voltaire vanish away. The play of Hamlet is opened, without impropriety, by two fentinels; Iago bellows at Brabantio's window, without injury to the fcheme of the play, though in terms which a modern audience would not eafily endure; the character of Polonius is feasonable and ufeful; and the Grave-diggers themfelves may be heard
Shakespeare engaged in dramatick poetry with the world open before him; the rules of the ancients were yet known to few; the publick judgment was unformed; he had no example of fuch fame as might force him upon imitation, nor criticks of fuch authority as might reftrain his extravagance: He therefore indulged his natural difpofition, and his difpofition, as Rhymer has remarked, led him to comedy. In tragedy he often writes with great appearance of toil and study, what is written at laft with little felicity; but in his comick fcenes, he feems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy he is always ftruggling after fome occafion to be comick, but in comedy he feems to repofe, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragick fcenes there is always fomething wanting, but his comedy often furpaffes expectation or defire. His comedy pleafes by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy feems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.
The force of his comick fcenes has fuffered little diminution from the changes made by a century and a half, in manners or in words. As his perfonages act upon principles arifing from genuine paffion, very little modified by particular forms, their pleasures and vexations are communicable to all times and to all places; they are natural, and therefore durable; the adventitious peculiarities of perfonal habits, are only fuperficial dies, bright and pleafing for a little VOL. I.
while, yet foon fading to a dim tinct, without any remains of former luftre; but the difcriminations of true paffion are the colours of nature; they pervade the whole mafs, and can only perish with the body that exhibits them. The accidental compofitions of heterogeneous modes are diffolved by the chance which combined them; but the uniform fimplicity of primitive qualities neither admits increafe, nor fuffers decay. The fand heaped by one flood is fcattered by another, but the rock always continues in its place. The ftream of time, which is continually washing the diffoluble fabricks of other poets, paffes without injury by the adamant of Shakespeare.
If there be, what I believe there is, in every nation, a ftile which never becomes obfolete, a certain mode of phrafeology fo confonant and congenial to the analogy and principles of its refpective language as to remain fettled and unaltered; this ftile is probably to be fought in the common intercourfe of life, among thofe who fpeak only to be understood, without ambition of elegance. The polite are always catching modish innovations, and the learned depart from eftablished forms of fpeech, in hope of finding or making better; thofe who with for diftinction forfake the vulgar, when the vulgar is right; but there is a converfation above groffnefs and below refinement, where propriety refides, and where this poet feems to have gathered his comick dialogue. He is therefore more agreeable to the ears of the prefent age than any other authour equally remote, and among his other excellencies