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philosopher always spoke with contempt. He could see no merit in Shakspeare, called him a barbarian, and wondered how a nation that had such a play as Cato could tolerate the absurdities of Hamlet. Hume, on this subject, echoed Voltaire's opinions. His thoughts and habits of mind were entirely French. From his essays it appears that he really considered Pope a greater poet than Milton, and Addison a greater dramatist than Shakspeare. And in his history, he considers Shakspeare as a man born in a dark age; as a man whose dramas were much overrated; as a man whose works had indeed some excellencies, but they appeared more excellent by being buried under so many absurdities; as a man who had little knowledge either of books or of the world. Both these men believed implicitly in the unities of place and time: and because Addison kept these unities, he was a greater dramatist than he who left us the remorse of Macbeth and the wit of Falstaff
, the rage of Timon and the death of Catherine, the philosophy of Hamlet and the misery of Lear.
All Shakspeare's plays may be said, more or less, to violate the unities' of Aristotle. But it is in his historical plays that they are the most openly abandoned. It is by the manner in which these unities are regarded that these plays must stand or fall. If the writer who fulfils these unities the most perfectly be the greatest dramatist, then Shakspeare, who always neglects them, must be considered one of the worst dramatists. If the play in which these unities are the most carefully attended to be considered the best play, then Henry IV. and Henry VIII. must be considered very bad plays. This subject is most important. It has given rise to much controversy. It is necessary then at setting out to enquire how far Shakspeare was wrong in deviating from the track of the ancients, and how just is the scorn with which he has been treated by men of no ordinary minds.
At the threshold we are stopped by the consideration that, if Shakspeare had followed these unities, he could
never have exhibited to us all the variety of characters and scenes which plain men think the greatest charm of the historical playe. Now it seems strange that an art, of which the greatest object is to represent mankind as they are, should be shackled by laws which prevent it from so truly representing mankind as they
It is undeniable, that all the scenes and characters which are depicted in Henry IV. and Richard III., could never have been drawn if Shakspeare had confined his dramatis persone to one place and to one time. How could Falstaff have been represented, if he had always been confined to Mrs. Quickly's inn? Should we not have been obliged to dispense with his military manæuvres, his interviews with Justice Shallow, and his conduct on the field of battle? How could the Prince of Wales have been painted at once as the rake of Eastcheap, and the hero of Shrewsbury? Should we not have had to content ourselves with one side of his character, and could Shakspeare's Prince of Wales have been thus delineated ? How could we have been shown in one place and in one time the wonderful versatility in the character of Richard III. ; his opening soliloquy, his meeting with Ann, his plot with Buckingham, his thoughts during the night on Bosworth Field, and his heroism in the battle ? We might have had long speeches purposely introduced for filling up acts, but could we have had Richard III.? How could we have had in one place and in one time Lear's interviews with his daughters, Lear in the storm, Lear on the cliff, Lear on his death bed? The ingenuity of the dramatist might have been taxed, and all probability might have been violated in making actions and their consequences, which could scarcely occur in twentyfour months, occur in twenty-four hours; but could that terrible picture of sin and suffering, the rage of the elements, and the rage of man have been displayed ? How could we have had in one place and in one time all the wonderful occurrences in Hamlet; the appearance of the ghost, Hamlet's interview with his mother, the misfortunes of Ophelia, the scene in the church
yard ? If the unities had been followed, could this great drama, perhaps the greatest of all dramas, have been so great a work of genius as it is ?
The more Shakspeare's plays are examined, the more plain it will appear, that we could not have had half of the wonderful scenes which now delight and astonish mankind, if his genius had been checked and tamed by the prescriptions of the French theatre.
The conclusion is obvious. Seeing that Shakspeare's genius would not have appeared so great as it is, nor his plays so wonderful as they are, if he had followed the rules of the ancient Greeks or of the modern French, it should seem that he was justified in following that method by which he was the most likely to delineate human character the most correctly, and to give the greatest delight to his audience and readers.
If it could be proved, indeed, that he who most closely keeps the unities of place and time best accomplishes the object which the dramatist has in view, it must be admitted that Shakspeare in violating these rules ought not to be considered as worthy of approbation. But what is the object of the drama? It is the representation of human life. It is the representation of human life not as it ought to be, but as it is. It has to do with that strange creature Man; a creature that is full of inconsistencies; a creature that is ever sinning and repenting; a creature that in his noblest aspirations ascends like an angel to the skies, and in his lowest degradations crawls like a serpent in the dust. The great object of the drama is, as Shakspeare himself says, to hold the mirror up to nature. All the various workings of passion, as they are displayed on the human lip and brow, the throbbings of the human heart and the wiles of the human tongue, the misery and trouble, the little vanities and jealousies, the sunshine of hope and the clouds of fear, the rocks of misfortune and the blasts of malevolence which beset the path of man in his hard pilgrimage through the world, are to be reflected in the scenes of the dramatist,
He who can reflect them the most perfectly should seem to be the best dramatist; and the play in which they are the most perfectly reflected should seem to be the best drama.
This seems independent of all the rules of Aristotle and Horace, of Boileau and Pope. The Greek dramatists, indeed, keep the unities which Shakspeare violates. But are the plays of Sophocles better exhibitions of human life than those of Shakspeare ? Assuredly not. It is admitted by all who are acquainted with Greek literature, that the Greek dramas, though beautiful compositions, though full of the finest poetry, are as pictures of men and manners far inferior to the great writers of the Elizabethan age. And who was it that first imposed those laws which all the great geniuses of the world have ever to obey ? They were made by the Greeks themselves. The Athenian writers obeyed the rules which they themselves had made; and, in this respect, may be considered as great innovators as Shakspeare or Schiller. They obeyed the rules which they thought best for their literature. And they were right. Their object was to excite in the minds of the spectators noble and affecting images. They desired to paint scenes that might appeal strongly to the imagination, and to write verses that might be sung. They did not at first attempt to portray human life. The drama was subordinate to the chorus.
Shakspeare was writing for a very different time, and for a very different people. His object was, therefore, very different. Long before his age the people had been accustomed to see their history represented on the stage. The oldest English plays, of which we know anything, are historical representations. The people loved to see their old monarchs, statesmen, beroes, of whom they were so proud, again brought to life, and act over again on the stage their parts as they had done in the real world. Out of dates and names the dramatist had to revive the past, illuminate the darkness of the grave, and show men living and acting. The people wished to see the battles of Cressy, Poictiers, and Agincourt again fought in their sight. They wished to see Caur de Lion, Edward I., Edward III., the Black Prince, Harry V., Talbot, and all their great warriors conquer as they had conquered during their lives. They wished to see the weaknesses, the follies, the crimes of some of their rulers; the pride, bravery, magnanimity of others displayed in true and vivid colours. They thus became familiar with their history and proud of their national glory. Few of the people could then read, and it was from such representations that the humbler classes of society acquired all their knowledge of English history. The historical play was then what Hume's History of England and Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire now are. Before condemning Shakspeare's historical plays, because they were not written like the Greek plays, it would have been well if the critics had understood these noble pieces.
The dramas of Greece were indigenous to her soil. They were in exact accordance with the genius of her people. They were not imitations of any preceding theatre. They were truly original. They were therefore national. And so it is with the English historical plays. They are the natural product of the English soil
. They in every respect agree with the genius of the English people. The English theatre, of which Shakspeare may be considered the representative, stands out in bold relief from every other theatre, as the white cliffs of England stand out in the sea differing from every other shore.
The Greek drama in its majestic simplicity, purity, and perfect beauty, resembles a noble statue as it has been chiselled by some great statuary. There is the form that seems to rival nature, the majestic posture, the lofty forehead, the extended arm, the attributes of command, the air of dignity and repose. One thing alone is wanting, We turn away with admiration, but not without disappointment; for though very beautiful, it is not real. The English drama is like a great painting. There is in it more than an outline; there are all the different tints, the lights and shades, the colour of the eyebrows, the fire in the eyes, the countenance lighted up with animation and expression.