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and the marvellous, though not necessarily incredible, requires a facile and fanciful state of belief. When dramatic poetry, therefore, reveals a certain degree of beauty, it expands the imagination beyond prosaic and literal calculations into a willing faith in romantic probability. A solid dunce he must be who would calculate the casket and judgment scenes of the • Merchant of Venice” by the every day probabilities of life. But, while we grant this indulgence to genius, if it be asked whether we can extend it to different talent, the answer must be that we assuredly do not and cannot. The romance of the fancy is a sun-flower that will open itself only to Apollo. Whatever we give to inspired fiction is repaid to us with lavish interest: but our faith can have no dealings with dulness in affairs of the marvellous.
To return to Dodsley. I am no way surprised that the Drury Lane audience had no desire to see our great actress herself in “Cleone” beyond the second night. Even on that evening the boxes were observed to be almost deserted; and the reason assigned was, that she had affected the ladies 100 much at the former representation. It was said of Dr. Duigenan that he had as strong an influence over the House of Commons as Grattan himself; for, if Grattan could fill the House, the other could at any time empty it. In the same manner, the author of “ Cleone” might boast that he had called forth a perfectly new power in Mrs. Siddons's acting,—that of thinning her audiences.
1787.] The next new part which she assumed was that of Imogen, in “Cymbeline."* This play, one of the loveliest creations of Shakspeare's fancy, is, perhaps, the fittest in his whole theatre to illustrate the principle which I have just been pointing out, namely, that great dramatic genius can occasionally venture on bold improbabilities, and yet not only shrive the offence, but leave us enchanted with the offender. The wager of Posthumus, in “ Cymbeline,” is a very unlikely one. tainly dislike that spirit of detraction which obviously pervades Mrs. Lennox's dissections of Shakspeare ; but really, when she puts the question, whether a noble-minded prince acts consistently in betting on his wife's chastity, I am at a loss how to answer her. Schlegel, the hierophant of Shakspeare, admits that Posthumus's character is somewhat sacrificed for the sake of counterbalacing effect. Hazlitt avoids the question; and Mrs. Jameson apologises for the wager on the score of the rude times. There is so much anachronism in a play where
* Jan. 26, 1787. Posthumus, J. Kemble ; Iuchimo, Smith.
British princes and Romans appear in one scene, and a French gentleman in another, that we are left with but vague conceptions of the suitable manners. But in no age or state of manners would a sensible man have closed with Iachimo's challenge; and the more that we hear of Posthumus being such a creature,
“ As to seek through the regions of the earth
For one his like, there would be something failing
the more we wonder at his undignified bet.
Let us deal honestly with the objection ; and admit the wager to be improbable. But still we have enough in the play to make us forget it, and more than forgive it. Shakspeare foresaw that, from this license, he could deduce delightful scenes and situations; and he scrupled not to hazard it. The faulty incident may thus be compared to a little fountain, which, though impregnated with some unpalatable mineral, gives birth to a large stream ; and that stream, as it proceeds, soon loses its taint of taste in the sweet and many waters that join its
Be the wager what it may, it gives birth to charming incidents. It introduces us to a feast of the chastest luxury, in the sleeping scene, when we gaze on the shut eyelids of Imogen. And that scene (how ineffably rich as well as modest !) is followed by others, that swell our interest to enchantment. Imogen's character hallows to the imagination every thing that loves her, and that she loves in return: and, when she forgives Posthumus, who may dare to refuse him pardon ? Then, in her friendship with her unconscious brothers of the mountain-cave, what delicious touches of romance! I think I exaggerate not, in saying that Shakspeare has nowhere breathed more pleasurable feelings over the mind, as an antidote to tragic pain, than in “Cymbeline.” Yet, why do I doubt of my partiality to this tragedy of Shakspeare's being perfectly just? It is only because among the masterpieces of Shakspeare-a pretty numerous class,-if I were asked which was my chief favourite, I should always be apt to answer, That which I have last read.
In the tragedy of “ Cymbeline,” we have a deep curiosity for Imogen's destiny ; wonderfully sustained, at the same time, with a never-doubting hope. We see futurity in the story as through a richly-stained window, that hides the landscape, and yet glows with its light.
Mrs. Šiddons was peculiarly happy in Imogen. She gave greatness to the character, without diminishing its gentleness. I believe that a feeling of rivalship with Mrs. Jordan was not quite unconcerned with her motives for wishing to play the part. In tragic acting, she had palpably defeated the Yates and the Crawford ; and, though Miss Farren still showed herself in the “ Winter's Tale” as Hermione, she had no tragic popularity that could in the least alarm Mrs. Siddons. But Mrs. Jordan had admirers absurd enough to predict her greatness in tragedy; and she had played Bellario and Imogen with no small celebrity in the preceding season. By acting Imogen only once, our great actress put a stop to Mrs. Jordan's competition with her on the graver stage. Imogen, having to repulse Cloten, and to rebuke Iachimo, requires not only sweetness, but dignity of demeanour. of the latter princely quality the lovely and romping Mrs. Jordan had not a particle.*
On the 15th of March, she found a new character in the Hortensia of Jephson's “ Count of Narbonne." This tragedy is avowedly taken from Walpole’s “Castle of Otranto;" though, of course, there is no preternatural agency represented on the stage. The hero of the play, like that of the romance, has inherited his estate from an unrighteous owner; and the curse of unexpiated blood hangs over his house. The heirs-apparent successively die. The last of them perishes, not, as in Walpole’s romance, by the fall of a gigantic helmet, but by being thrown from his horse in the chase. He is not, like the heir
* Mrs. Siddons had to play this character, during some of the scenes, in man's attire. From all that I can collect, she was here more fortunate than in Rosalind. A letter of hers is now before me, which she wrote to Mr. Hamilton, the painter, just before she appeared in the part.
“ To Mr. Hamilton, Dean-street, Soho. “Mrs. Siddons presents her compliments to Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton, and wishes them many happy returns of this joyous season (Christmas) She hopes they will do her the favour to lay their commands upon her, at all times, when they are disposed to amuse themselves an hour or two at the theatre. She is very much afraid they have deserted poor Old Drury.
“Mrs. Siddons would be extremely obliged to Mr. Hamilton, if he would be so good as to make her a slight sketch for a boy's dress, to conceal the person as much as possible, as she was obliged to give the one he was so good as to make for Rosalind to Mrs. O'Neil, when she was last in Ireland. Mrs. Siddons soon hopes to bring the little folks to see their old friend. She expects them all this week. The dress is for Imogen, but Mrs. Siddons does not wish to have it known.”
+ Raymond, Mr. Kemble ; Austin, Bensley: Theodore, Bannister, jun. : Adelaide, Mrs. Crouch.
of Otranto, a sickly weakling, but a noble and promising youth. The father's shock at losing him so abruptly, in the bloom of youth, is well described. He had mourned over his other sons, he says, but their sickness had slowly prepared him for losing them:
“I saw my lilies drooping, and, accustomed
To see them dying, bore to see them dead.” Jephson is abundant in such touches of amenity ; but this tragedy is weak as a whole, and the part of Hortensia, the wife of the Count of Narbonne, was by no means worthy of Mrs. Siddons's powers.
A few days afterward, March 29, for her brother's benefit, she acted Lady Restless, in Murphy's diverting comedy of “ All in the Wrong."*
“Mrs. Siddons,” says Boaden, “ had as much bustle as the restless lady required, and spoke the dialogue naturally and skilfully, but the laugh excited was not of the hearty kind.”
My own impression, the only time I ever saw her in comedy, which was at Edinburgh, and in the last century, was scarcely so favourable to her comic powers as that which Mr. Boaden here expresses; and I believe, at this moment, that it was correct. She played Lady Townly, I thought, with so marvellous a lack of airiness, that when I came to London, and had the honour of being introduced to her, a surprising addition to my pleasure in forming her acquaintance was, to find that she had a vast relish for humour, ay, and a fund of laughable anecdotes in conversation. In her own slow way, she told a comic story inimitably; and I have heard her read scenes in comedy with irresistible effect. The impression made by those readings, and my constant perception, during a long acquaintance, of a strong and naïve sense of humour in her character, by degrees led me to wonder how it was that nature had not fitted her to be ambidextrous on the stage. I was at one time, I must confess, almost a convert to the doctrine of my gifted friend Joanna Baillie, who still insists that nothing but unfair discouragement prevented Mrs. Siddons from being a great comic actress. My leaning towards this opinion, though I have at last abjured it, was increased by finding Oxberry, an ill-natured, but rather shrewd writer about theatricals, and himself an artist, somewhat an admirer of Mrs. Siddons in comedy. Mr. Godwin, a
* For Kemble's benefit. Sir John Restless, King; Beverley, Kemble ; Belinda, Miss Farren.
better authority, for whose friendly interest in the present work I owe my warmest acknowledgments, also spoke to me of the great felicity of her comic acting in the part of Portia ; and he had the kindness to favour me, soon after our conversation, with the following note.
“ New Palace Yard;
Friday Evening, Oct. 18, 1833. “ MY DEAR SIR, " It struck me, after you left us this morning, that I had answered your question respecting Mrs. Siddons's performance of the character of Portia, in the “Merchant of Venice," with more than my usual imperfectness and generality; and, as you flatter me by laying a stress on my opinion, I am desirous of supplying this defect.
" I should say, therefore, that there was a most striking fascination in her manner of exhibiting what sh ad to in the fifth act. The scene is merely a light one, exhibiting the perplexity into which she throws Bassanio, by persisting that he had given his ring to a woman, and not to a man. This would appear almost nothing from a female of gamesome and rattling character, and would have made little impression. But Mrs. Siddons had a particular advantage, from the gravity of her general demeanour; and there was something inexpressibly delightful in beholding a woman of her general majesty condescend for once to become sportive. There was a marvellous grace in her mode of doing this; and her demure and queenlike smile, when, appearing to be most in earnest, she was really most in jest, gave her a loveliness that it would be in vain for me to endeavour to find words to express.
“ Believe me, my dear sir,
66 WILLIAM GODWIN."
I believe that Mr. Godwin, in the word condescend, explains the secret of all Mrs. Siddons's limited power in comedy ; for some power she certainly had, though it was not much. George Colman called her, in comedy, “a frisking Gog." Joanna Baillie and myself, less witty, but much more reverential towards the great actress, in our gratitude for her condescension to be mirthful, I have no doubt, exaggerated her comic powers. I had something like a remaining doubt upon the subject, when, about a year ago, I waited on the famous comedian Bannister, as an applicant for whatever recollections