« PreviousContinue »
His adherence to general nature has exposed him to the censure of criticks, who form their judgments upon narrower principles. Dennis and Rymer think his Romans not sufficiently Roman; and Voltaire censures his kings as not completely royal. Dennis is offended, that Menenius, a senator of Rome, should play the buffoon; and Voltaire perhaps thinks decency violated when the Danish usurper is represented as a drunkard. But Shakspeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preserves the essential character, is not very careful of distinctions superinduced and adventitious. His story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men. He knew that Rome, like every other city, had men of all dispositions; and wanting a buffoon, he went into the senatehouse for that which the senate-house would certainly have afforded him. He was inclined to show an usurper and a murderer not only odious, but despicable; he therefore added drunkenness to his other qualities, knowing that kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural power upon kings. These are the petty cavils of petty minds; a poet overlooks the casual distinction of country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.
The censure which he has incurred by mixing comick and tragick scenes, as it extends to all his works, deserves more consideration. Let the fact
be first stated, and then examined.
Shakspeare's plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of
combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.
Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and casualties, the ancient poets, according to the laws which custom had prescribed, selected some the crimes of men, and some their absurdities: some the momentous vicissitudes of life, and some the lighter occurrences; some the terrors of distress, and some the gayeties of prosperity. Thus rose the two modes of imitation, known by the names of tragedy and comedy, compositions intended to promote different ends by contrary means, and considered as so little allied, that I do not recollect among the Greeks or Romans a single writer who attempted both.8
• From this remark it appears, that Dr. Johnson was unacquainted with the Cyclops of Euripides.
It may, however, be observed, that Dr. Johnson, perhaps, was misled by the following passage in Dryden's Essay on Dramatick Poesy: "Tragedies and Comedies were not writ then as they are now, promiscuously, by the same person; but he who found his genius bending to the one, never attempted the other way. This is so plain, that I need not instance to you that Aristophanes, Plautus, Terence, never any of them writ a tragedy; Eschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and Seneca, never meddled with comedy: the sock and buskin were not worn by the same poet." And yet, to show the uncertain state of Dryden's memory, in his Dedication to his Juvenal he has expended at least a page in describing the Cyclops of Euripides.
So intimately connected with this subject are the following remarks of Mr. Twining in his excellent commentary on the
Shakspeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in
Poetick of Aristotle, that they ought not to be withheld from our readers.
"The prejudiced admirers of the ancients are very angry at the least insinuation that they had any idea of our barbarous tragi-comedy. But, after all, it cannot be dissembled, that, if they had not the name, they had the thing, or something very nearly approaching to it. If that be tragi-comedy, which is partly serious and partly comical, I do not know why we should scruple to say, that the Alcestis of Euripides is, to all intents and purposes, a tragi-comedy. I have not the least doubt, that it had upon an Athenian audience the proper effect of tragicomedy; that is, that in some places it made them cry, and in others, laugh. And the best thing we have to hope, for the credit of Euripides, is, that he intended to produce this effect. For though he may be an unskilful poet, who purposes to write a tragi-comedy, he surely is a more unskilful poet, who writes one without knowing it.
"The learned reader will understand me to allude particularly to the scene, in which the domestick describes the behaviour of Hercules; and to the speech of Hercules himself, which follows. Nothing can well be of a more comick cast than the servant's complaint. He describes the hero as the most greedy and ill. mannered guest he had ever attended, under his master's hospitable roof; calling about him, eating, drinking, and singing, in a room by himself, while the master and all the family were in the height of funereal lamentation. He was not contented with such refreshments as had been set before him:
ετι σωφρόνως ἐδέξατο
• Τα προστυχοντα ξενια
• Αλλ' ἐι τι μη φεροιμεν, ΩΤΡΥΝΕΝ φερειν.
Then he drinks
-crowns himself with myrtle, and sings, ΑΜΟΥΣ ΥΛΑΚΤΩΝand all this, alone. Cette description,' says Fontenelle, est si burlesque, qu'on diroit d'un crocheteur qui est de confrairie.' A censure somewhat justified by Euripides himself, who makes the servant take Hercules for a thief:
πανέργον ΚΛΩΠΑ και ΛΗΙΣΤΗΝ τινα.
"The speech of Hercules, piλoropavтos Év μeln, as the scholiast observes (v. 776,) philosophizing in his cups,' is still more
one composition. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in
curious. It is, indeed, full of the λ dvs, and completely justifies the attendant's description. Nothing can be more jolly. It is in the true spirit of a modern drinking song; recommending it to the servant to uncloud his brow, enjoy the present hour, think nothing of the morrow, and drown his cares in love and wine:
· ΟΥΤΟΣ—Τι σεμνον και πεφροντικό βλέπεις ;
* ΔΕΥΡ' ΕΛΘ', ὅπως ἀν και σοφώτερος γενη.
• Τα θνητα πραγματ' διδας ἦν ἔχει φύσιν ;
ΟΙΜΑΙ μεν 'ΟΥ ΠΟΘΕΝ ΓΑΡ;ἀλλ' ἀκεε με.
• Βροτοις άπασι κατθανειν οφειλεται,
· Κ' εκ ἐστι θνητων ὅστις ἐξεπιλαται
Την άυριον μέλλεσαν ἐι βιώσεται.
Ευφραινε σαυτόν· ΠΙΝΕ!—τον καθ ήμεραν
"If any man can read this, without supposing it to have set the audience in a roar, I certainly cannot demonstrate that he is mistaken. I can only say, that I think he must be a very grave man himself, and must forget that the Athenians were not a very grave people. The zeal of Pere Brumoy in defending this tragedy, betrays him into a little indiscretion. He says, tout cela à fait penser à quelques critiques modernes que cette piece etoit une tragi-comedie; chimere inconnu aux anciens. Cette piece est du gout des autres tragedies antiques.' Indeed they, who call this play a tragi-comedy, give it rather a favourable name; for, in the scenes alluded to, it is, in fact, of a lower species than our tragi-comedy: it is rather burlesque tragedy; what Demetrius calls τραγωδία παίζεσα. Much of the comick cast prevails in other scenes; though mixed with those genuine strokes of simple and universal nature, which abound in this poet, and which I should be sorry to exchange for that monotonous and unaffecting level of tragick dignity, which never falls, and never rises.
"I will only mention one more instance of this tragi-comick mixture, and that from Sophocles. The dialogue between Mi
the successive evolutions of the design, sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.
nerva and Ulysses, in the first scene of the Ajax, from v. 74 to
What are you about, Minerva?-by no means call him out.'
• Ου σιγ' άνεξη, μηδε δειλίαν αρεις;
Will you not be silent, and lay aside your fears?'
* ΜΗ, ΠΡΟΣ ΘΕΩΝ-ἀλλ ̓ ἐνδον αρκείτω μενων.
· Μενοιμ' αν' ΗΘΕΛΟΝ Δ' ΑΝ ΕΚΤΟΣ ΩΝ ΤΥΧΕΙΝ. I'll stay-(aside) but I wish I was not here.'
J'avoue,' says Brumoy, que ce trait n'est pas à la louange d'Ulysse, ni de Sophocle.'
"No unprejudiced person, I think, can read this scene without being convinced, not only, that it must actually have produced, but that it must have been intended to produce, the effect of comedy.
"It appears indeed to me, that we may plainly trace in the Greek tragedy, with all its improvements, and all its beauties, pretty strong marks of its popular and tragi-comick origin. For Tpaywdia, we are told, was, originally, the only dramatick appellation; and when, afterwards, the ludicrous was separated from the serious, and distinguished by its appropriated name of Comedy, the separation seems to have been imperfectly made, and Tragedy, distinctively so called, still seems to have retained a tincture of its original merriment. Nor will this appear strange, if we consider the popular nature of the Greek spectacles. The people, it is probable, would still require, even in the midst of their tragick emotion, a little dash of their old satyrick fun, and poets were obliged to comply, in some degree, with their taste." Twining's Notes, pp. 202, 203, 204, 205, 206.