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A writer of some pretensions among ourselves has reproached the French with." an equal want of books and men.” There is a common French print, in which Molière is represented reading one of his plays in the presence of the celebrated Ninon de l'Enclos, to a circle of the wits and first men of his own time. Among these are the great Corneille; the tender, faultless Racine; Fontaine, the artless old man, unconscious of immortality; the accomplished St. Evremond; the Duke de la Rochefoucault, the severe anatomiser of the human breast; Boileau, the flatterer of courts and judge of men! Were these men nothing? they have passed for men (and great ones) hitherto, and though the prejudice is an old one, I should hope it may still last our time.
Rabelais is another name that might have saved this unjust censure. The wise sayings and heroic deeds of Gargantua and Pantagruel ought not to be set down as nothing. I have already spoken my mind at large of this author; but I cannot help thinking of him here, sitting in his easy chair, with an eye languid with excess of mirth, his lip quivering with a new-born conceit, and wiping his beard after a well-seasoned jest, with his pen held carelessly in his hand, his wine-flagons, and his books of law, of school divinity, and physic before him, which were his jest-books, whence he drew endless stores of absurdity; laughing at the world and enjoying it by turns, and making the world laugh with him again, for the last three hundred years, at his teeming wit and its own prolific follies. Even to those who have never read his works, the name of Rabelais is a cordial to the spirits, and the mention of it cannot consist with gravity or spleen
- LECTURE II.
DR. Johnson thought Shakspeare's comedies better than his tragedies, and gives as a reason, that he was more at home in the one than in the other. That comedies should be written in a more easy and careless vein than tragedies, is but natural. This is only saying that a comedy is not so serious a thing as a tragedy. But that he showed a greater mastery in the one than in the other, I cannot allow, nor is it generally felt. The labour which the Doctor thought it cost Shakspeare to write his tragedies, only showed the labour which it cost the critic in reading them, that is, his general indisposition to sympathise heartily and spontaneously with works of high-wrought passion or imagination. There is not in any part of this author's writings the slightest trace of his ever having been “smit with the love of sacred song,” except some passages in Pope. His habitually morbid temperament and saturnine turn of thought required that the string should rather be relaxed than tightened, that the weight upon the mind should rather be taken off than have anything added to it. There was a sluggish moroseness about his moral constitution that refused to be roused to any keen agony of thought, and that was not very safely to be trifled with in lighter matters, though this last was allowed to pass off as the most pardonable offence against the gravity of his pretensions. It is in fact the established rule at present, in these cases, to speak highly of the Doctor's authority, and to dissent from almost every one of his critical decisions. For my own part, I so far consider this preference given to the comic genius of the poet as erroneous and unfounded, that I should say that he is the only tragic poet in the world in the highest sense, as being on a par with, and the same as Nature, in her greatest heights and depths of action and suffering. There is but one who durst walk within that mighty circle, treading the utmost bound of nature and passion, showing us the dread abyss of woe in all its ghastly shapes and colours, and laying open all the faculties of the human soul to act, to think, and suffer, in direst extremities; whereas, I think, on the other hand, that in comedy, though his talents there too were as wonderful as they were delightful, yet that there were some before him, others on a level with him, and many close behind him. I cannot help thinking, for instance, that Molière was as great, or a greater comic genius than Shakspeare, though assuredly I do not think that Racine was as great, or a greater tragic genius. I think that both Rabelais and Cervantes, the one in the power of ludicrous description, the other in the invention and perfect keeping of comic character, excelled Shakspeare; that is, they would have been greater men, if they had had equal power with him over the stronger passions. For my own reading, I like Vanbrugh's ‘City Wives' Confederacy’ as well, or (“not to speak it profanely”) better than the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor, and Congreve's ‘Way of the World' as well as the ‘Comedy of Errors' or ‘Love's Labour Lost.' But I cannot say that I know of any tragedies in the world that make even a tolerable approach to ‘Hamlet, or “Lear, or “Othello, or some others, either in the sum total of their effect, or in their complete distinctness from everything else, by which they take not only unquestioned, but undivided possession of the mind, and form a class, a world by themselves mingling with all our thoughts like a second being. Other tragedies tell for more or less, are good, bad, or indifferent, as they have more or less excellence of a kind common to them with others: but these stand alone by themselves; they have nothing common-place in them; they are a new power in the imagination, they tell for their whole amount, they measure from the ground. There is not only nothing so good (in my judgment) as ‘Hamlet,” or ‘Lear,' or ‘Othello, or “Macbeth, but there is nothing like • Hamlet, or ‘Lear, or ‘Othello, or “Macbeth.’ There is nothing, I believe, in the majestic Corneille, equal to the stern pride of ‘Coriolanus; or which gives such an idea of the crumbling in pieces of the Roman grandeur, “like an unsubstantial pageant faded,” as the ‘Antony and Cleopatra.' But to match the best serious comedies, such as Molière's ‘Misanthrope' and his ‘Tartuffe, we must go to Shakspeare's tragic characters, the Timon of Athens or honest Iago, when we shall more than succeed. He put his strength into his tragedies, and played with comedy. He was greatest in what was greatest; and his forte was not trifling, according to the opinion here combated, even though he might do that as well as anybody else, unless he could do it better than anybody else. I would not be understood to say that there are not scenes or whole characters in Shakspeare equal in wit and drollery to anything upon record. Falstaff alone is an instance which, if I would, I could not get over. “He is the leviathan of all the creatures of the author's comic genius, and tumbles about his unwieldy bulk in an ocean of wit and humour.” But in general it will be found (if I am not mistaken,) that even in the very best of these the spirit of humanity and the fancy of the poet greatly prevail over the mere wit and satire, and that we sympathise with his characters oftener than we laugh at them. His ridicule wants the sting of ill-nature. He had hardly such a thing as spleen in his composition. Falstaff himself is so great a joke, rather from his being so huge a mass of enjoyment than of absurdity. His re-appearance in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ is not “a consummation devoutly to be wished,” for we do not take pleasure in the repeated triumphs over him. Mercutio's quips and banter upon his friends show amazing gaiety, frankness, and volubility of tongue, but we think no more of them when the poet takes the words out of his mouth, and gives the description of Queen Mab. Touchstone, again, is a shrewd biting fellow, a lively, mischievous wag; but still what are his gibing sentences and chopped logic to the fine moralising vein of the fantastical Jaques, stretched beneath “the shade of melancholy boughs?” Nothing. That is, Shakspeare was a greater poet than wit; his imagination was the leading and master-quality of his mind, which was always ready to soar into its native element: the ludicrous was only secondary and subordinate. In the comedies of gallantry and intrigue, with what freshness and delight we come to the serious and romantic parts! What a relief they are to the mind, after those of mere ribaldry or mirth ! Those in the “Twelfth Night,' for instance, and “Much Ado about Nothing,' where Olivia and Hero are concerned, throw even Malvolio and Sir Toby, and Benedick and Beatrice, into the shade. They “give a very echo to the seat where love is throned.” What he has said of music might be said of his own poetry—
“Oh! it came o'er my ear like the sweet south
How poor, in general, what a falling-off, these parts seem in mere comic authors; how ashamed we are of them; and how fast we hurry the blank verse over, that we may get upon safe ground again, and recover our good opinion of the author A striking and lamentable instance of this may be found (by any one who chooses) in the high-flown speeches in Sir Richard Steele's ‘Conscious Lovers.” As good an example as any of this informing and redeeming power in our author's genius might be taken from the comic scenes in both parts of Henry IV. Nothing can go much lower in intellect or morals than many of the characters. Here are knaves and fools in abundance, of the meanest order, and stripped stark-naked. But genius, like charity, “covers a multitude of sins;” we pity as much as we despise them; in spite of our disgust we like them, because they like themselves, and because we are made to sympathise with them; and the ligament, fine as it is, which links them to humanity, is never broken. Who would quarrel with Wart, or Feeble, or Mouldy, or Bull-cals, or even with Pistol, Nym, or Bardolph? None but a hypocrite. The severe censurers of the morals of imaginary characters can generally find a hole for their own vices to creep out at, and yet do not perceive how it is that the imperfect and even deformed characters in Shakspeare's plays, as done to the life, by forming a part of our personal consciousness, claim our personal forgiveness, and suspend or evade our moral judgment, by bribing our self. love to side with them. Not to do so, is not morality, but affectation, stupidity, or ill-nature. I have more sympathy with one
of Shakspeare's pick-purses, Gadshill or Peto, than I can possibly