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force when it departs from the refemblance of reality.
From the narrow limitation of time neceffarily arifes the contraction of place. The fpectator, who knows that he saw the first Act at Alexandria, cannot fuppofe that he fees the next at Rome, at a diftance to which not the dragons of Medea could, in fo fhort a time, have tranfported him; he knows with certainty that he has not changed his place; and he knows that place cannot change itfelf; that what was a houfe cannot become a plain; that what was Thebes can never be Perfepolis.
Such is the triumphant language with which a critick exults over the mifery of an irregular poet, and exults commonly without refiftance or reply. It is time therefore to tell him, by the authority of Shakspeare, that he affumes, as an unquestionable principle, a pofition, which, while his breath is forming it into words, his understanding pronounces to be falfe. It is falfe, that any reprefentation is mistaken for reality; that any dramatick fable in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a fingle moment, was ever credited.
The objection arifing from the impoffibility of paffing the firft hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, fuppofes, that when the play opens, the fpectator really imagines himself at Alexandria,
and believes that his walk to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt, and that he lives in the days of Antony and Cleopatra. Surely he that imagines this may imagine more. He that can take the ftage at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Actium. Delufion, if delufion be admitted, has no certain limitation; if the fpectator can be once
perfuaded, that his old acquaintance are Alexander and Cæfar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharfalia, or the bank of Granicus, he is in a ftate of elevation above the reach of reason, or of truth, and from the heights of empyrean poetry, may defpife the circumfcriptions of terreftrial nature. There is no reason why a mind thus wandering in ecstasy fhould count the clock, or why an hour fhould not be a century in that calenture of the brains that can make the ftage a field.
The truth is, that the fpectators are always in their fenfes, and know, from the first Act to the laft, that the ftage is only a ftage, and that the players are only players. They come to hear a certain number of lines recited with juft gesture and elegant modulation. The lines relate to fome action, and an action must be in fome place; but the different actions that complete a ftory may be in places very remote from each other; and where is the abfurdity of allowing that space to represent firft Athens, and then Sicily, which was always known to be neither Sicily nor Athens, but a modern theatre ?
By fuppofition, as place is introduced, time may be extended; the time required by the fable elapfes for the most part between the acts; for, of fo much
So in the Epiftle Dedicatory to Dryden's Love Triumphant : "They who will not allow this liberty to a poet, make it a very ridiculous thing, for an audience to suppose themselves fometimes to be in a field, fometimes in a garden, and at other times in a chamber. There are not, indeed, fo many abfurdities in their fuppofition, as in ours; but 'tis an original abfurdity for the audience to suppose themselves to be in any other place, than in the very theatre in which they fit; which is neither a chamber, nor garden, nor yet a publick place of any bufinefs but that of the. representation." STEEVENS,
of the action as is represented, the real and poetica duration is the fame. If, in the firft Act, preparations for war againft Mithridates are reprefented to be made in Rome, the event of the war may, without abfurdity, be represented, in the catastrophe, as happening in Pontus; we know that there is neither war, nor preparation for war; we know that we are neither in Rome nor Pontus; that neither Mithridates nor Lucullus are before us. The drama exhibits fucceffive imitations of fucceffive actions, and why may not the fecond imitation represent an action that happened years after the firft; if it be fo connected with it, that nothing but time can be supposed to intervene ? Time is, of all modes of existence, moft obfequious to the imagination; a lapfe of years is as eafily conceived as a paffage of hours. In contemplation we eafily contract the time of real actions, and therefore willingly permit it to be contracted when we only fee their imitation.
It will be asked, how the drama moves, if it is not credited. It is credited with all the credit due to a drama. It is credited, whenever it moves, as a juft picture of a real original; as reprefenting to the auditor what he would himfelf feel, if he were to do or fuffer what is there feigned to be fuffered or to be done. The reflection that ftrikes the heart is not, that the evils before us are real evils, but that they are evils to which we ourselves may be expofed. If there be any fallacy, it is not that we fancy the players, but that we fancy ourfelves unhappy for a moment; but we rather lament the poffibility than fuppofe the presence of mifery, as a mother weeps over her babe, when the remembers that death may take it from her. The delight of tragedy proceeds from our confciousness of fic
tion; if we thought murders and treasons real, they would please no more.
Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not becaufe they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind. When the imagination is recreated by a painted landscape, the trees are not fuppofed capable to give us fhade, or the fountains coolness; but we confider, how we fhould be pleased with such fountains playing befide us, and fuch woods waving over us. We are agitated in reading the history of Henry the Fifth, yet no man takes his book for the field of Agincourt. A dramatick exhibition is a book recited with concomitants that increase or diminish its effect. Familiar comedy is often more powerful on the theatre, than in the page; imperial tragedy is always lefs. The humour of Petruchio may be heightened by grimace; but what voice or what gefture can hope to add dignity or force to the foliloquy of Cato?
A play read, affects the mind like a play acted. It is therefore evident, that the action is not fuppofed to be real; and it follows, that between the Acts a longer or fhorter time may be allowed to pass, and that no more account of space or duration is to be taken by the auditor of a drama, than by the reader of a narrative, before whom may pass in an hour the life of a hero, or the revolutions of an empire.
Whether Shakspeare knew the unities, and rejected them by defign, or deviated from them by happy ignorance, it is, I think, impoffible to decide, and useless to enquire. We may reasonably suppose, that, when he rofe to notice, he did not want the counfels and admonitions of scholars and criticks, and that he at laft deliberately perfifted in a practice, which he might have begun by chance.
As nothing is effential to the fable, but unity of action, and as the unities of time and place arife evidently from falfe affumptions, and, by circumfcribing the extent of the drama, leffen its variety, I cannot think it much to be lamented, that they were not known by him, or not obferved: nor, if fuch another poet could arife, fhould I very vehemently reproach him, that his first Act paffed at Venice, and his next in Cyprus. Such violations of rules merely pofitive, become the comprehenfive genius of Shakspeare, and fuch cenfures are fuitable to the minute and flender criticism of Voltaire :
"Non ufque adeo permiscuit imis
"Longus fumma dies, ut non, fi voce Metelli
Yet when I fpeak thus flightly of dramatick rules, I cannot but recollect how much wit and learning may be produced against me; before fuch authorities I am afraid to ftand, not that I think the prefent queftion one of those that are to be decided by mere authority, but because it is to be fufpected, that these precepts have not been fo easily received, but for better reasons than I have yet been able to find. The refult of my inquiries, in which it would be ludicrous to boaft of impartiality, is, that the unities of time and place are not effential to a just drama, that though they may fometimes conduce to pleasure, they are always to be facrificed to the nobler beauties of variety and inftruction; and that a play, written with nice observation of critical rules, is to be contemplated as an elaborate curiofity, as the product of fuperfluous and oftentatious art, by which is shown, rather what is poffible, than what is necessary.