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The second, that of the ascendency of what is called French Taste. The last, that of the ascendency of German Taste. We propose to take a rapid survey of the principles which regulated all three; but before entering on it, we wish to bring forward a few considerations which seem to us to have been too much neglected by all these critics.
It must have been remarked by every one that criticisms on Shakspeare have been generally vitiated by the application of arbitrary principles, drawn from the Greek and the French drama; or else, through want of comprehensiveness, have sunk to the mere consideration of isolated passages and particular topics: While almost all attempts at enlarged and philosophic criticism have been unsatisfactory, in consequence of the critic not having distinctly set before him the aim and purpose of the poet. Much of this has arisen from a misconception of the office of criticism. Critics are not the Legislators, but the Judges and Police of literature. They do not make laws -- they interpret and try to enforce them. Every one admits that there could have been no Aristotle till there had been a Homer; but this admission is not carried far enough: it does not recognise the fact that the appearance of every truly original poet may probably originate new laws — which will need a new Aristotle. For what really is the meaning of “Rules of Art?' Are rules anything absolute in themselves, and binding upon all generations? —or, are they not rather the conclusions which from time to time experience appears to have warranted, with respect to the best methods of attaining the artist's aim?
Before anything, therefore, can be settled about the rules of an Art, the object of the Art must be first distinctly ascertained. In the case of Shakspeare we are not aware of any critic having borne this in mind throughout, with the completeness and correctness which the case requires. Shakspeare was a Dramatic poet; but of all the numerous disquisitions on his genius, there have been none which, properly speaking, treat his works as dramas. As a poet, as a thinker, and as a delineator of character he has been praised and described with nice discrimination. But as a dramatic poet, as the writer of dramas, scarcely any one has descended from generalities to point out his characteristic excellence. It is certain, however, that plays are not to be judged simply as poems. The drama is a branch of art peculiar in itself, aiming at peculiar effects, and achieving its effects by peculiar means. A drama is poetry applied to the purposes of the stage: and many a poem which may be exquisite in the closet would be unendurable on the stage. Architecture is not more the application of symmetry to the purposes of habitation, than the drama is the application of poetry to the purposes of the theatre. And as in architecture, we cannot regard beauty irrespective of utility, so neither in a drama will mere poetry succeed.
What then is the first purpose of a dramatist — the very condition at least, under which he works? To interest and amuse an audience. Let no one exclaim against this as a prosaic or degrading supposition. Prosaic or not, the fact is undeniable: People do go to the theatre for amusement. Whatever higher aims the dramatic poet may have in view, unless he amuses and sustains attention, he has failed. This is vividly shadowed out in the Theater Prolog to Faust, wherein the manager and the poet typify the two elements of a drama : popular amusement and poetic beauty. The means are passion, character, poetry, and story, so combined as to rivet the attention of an audience; and while rivetting their attention, stirring and exalting the soul by that taðnuatwv kabapois which belongs to art. For art is not mere amusement; but something which, through amusement, leads us into higher regions, and calls finer faculties into play. The purpose of the dramatist is this : Appealing to the vulgar instincts of curiosity, appealing to our delight in sensuous impressions, appealing to that sympathy which man feels for man, he seeks, while fixing our attention, at the same time to fill our fancy with images of exquisite beauty, and leave in us the abiding influence of great thoughts and noble aspirations.
To disregard the Stage in treating of the art of Shakspeare, is as if a man were to point out the mechanism of a watch, without any reference to its powers of indicating time. He may call upon us to admire the ingenuity and complexity of its mechanism, its wheel within wheel, and chain upon chain; he may point out the splendour of the diamond on which it turns; but after all we ask, does it keep time? Though it should be studded with diamonds, still it is a bad watch if it does not keep time. So with a drama. It may be poetical, it may have nice discrimination of character, it may be bright with gems—but it is a bad play if it fail to amuse an audience. Amusement is the preliminary condition; if that fail all fails. Vainly may critics agree on the merits of a tragedy, on its truth, its originality, its correctness' according to the rules; if not a heart beats, if not an eye is wet with tears, the audience, in shameless defiance of Aristotle, will be cold — perhaps will yawn. Academies may day down rules, but they cannot sway audiences; no audience ever wept academic tears.
It is not difficult to write rounded periods about the aim of tragedy being the purification of the passions, and about the
stage being a secular pulpit from which great poets have delivered their lessons to mankind. But let us be frank.
A direct question demands a direct answer.
Did you ever in the whole course of your life · book two front seats in the boxes,' or shield your wife from the crush at the pit door, under the impression that your passions were to be purified, and next Sunday's sermon anticipated ? Did you not, on the contrary, book those places under the reasonable expectation of being amused — of having your eye dazzled by splendid scenery, your ear caressed by harmonious verse, your heart moved by the exhibition of passion? If you had not been amused, would you not have hissed ?
Moreover, remembering Shakspeare's position - at once the poet and the manager of a company, ask yourself this other question: What did Shakspeare think of, when he sat down to write a play? You will answer, if you answer honestly, - To fill the Globe theatre:' and you know, he could only fill it by amusing the public.
To obviate misconception, we may distinguish here between theatrical and dramatic excellence, for we are by no means desirous of reducing Shakspeare to the level of a mere playwright. Amusement, we have said, is primarily sought at the theatre. Now, there being low amusements as well as refined amusements, and the lower faculties being more universally energetic in man than the higher faculties, it is natural that the theatre should be furnished with plays which have no value beyond that derived from acting. A good acting play may be a miserable poem ; a fine poem may be a miserable acting play; the art of the dramatist is to unite the acting qualities of the one to the more refined and enduring qualities of the other. We may illustrate this by portrait painting. As in a portrait the first requisite is correct likeness, so in a drama the first requisite is a rivetting story. The painting may be a daub, the drama may be trash ; but if the one resemble its original, if the other interest an audience, the main object has been achieved. Superadd to the indispensable condition of resemblance the charms of good painting, and you have a fine portrait; endow the play with appropriate poetry, with delicate fancy and deep passion, and you have a fine drama. A Titian, should he fail to render the traits and expression of his sitter, cannot by the magic of his pencil supply that failure in the eyes of one who wished to possess the image of a person whom he loves ; nor could even a Shakspeare, by the prodigality of his fancy, imagination and knowledge, prevent the weariness of an audience, should he throw that wealth away on an undramatic subject. For the purpose, indeed, of connoisseurs and students, a work of more elaborate art will have advantages over the cor
rect portrait or the amusing play; and this has led that class of persons into an under estimate of the value both of resemblance in portrait painting, and of theatrical excellence in the drama. But if they fancy that theatrical effect is easily attained, they are mistaken. None of the powers which we most admire may be necessary to produce a good acting play: But, in proportion to the refinement of the subject, the difficulty of combining theatrical excellence with poetic treatment becomes greater, so great indeed, that success in it is among the rarest of literary triumphs. An ordinary man can model a rude figure out of clay; but to bend the marble to the slightest caprices of the mind, to make its stubborn material plastic to the most airy and delicate conceptions, is the work only of a great artist. To take an example from the dramatic representation of Character: However much we may delight in delineations of character for their own sake, it must be remembered that the art of the dramatist is not shown in the mere portrayal of mental states, but in the adaptation of those mental states to the purposes of the drama. A character may be drawn with skill, and yet not be dramatic. All the traits which do not assist the fuller comprehension of the story are superfluous and inartistic. Suppose jealousy be the passion of the play, as in Othello. For simple theatrical purposes the writer may confine himself almost exclusively to this passion, and only exhibit in Othello the jealous husband. It is obvious, however, that our sympathies will not be greatly stirred, unless in this jealous husband we recognise other passions and other traits of human nature; and the great problem is, so to contrive and combine these additional features, as not only to make the character individual and engaging, but to help forward the action and interest of the piece. An ordinary Moor in a paroxysm of jealousy would be a far less touching sight than that of the highminded, chivalric, open, affectionate Othello. The art of the poet is therefore to delineate these other qualities; and the art of the dramatist is to make them dramatic agents in the development of his story. Accordingly, all that we see and hear of Othello are not simply preparations for the exhibition of his jealousy and wrath, but are circumstances skilfully adapted for bringing out the story. We thus learn both how the gentle Desdemona was justified in her love, and how Iago found him so easy a victim ; so that at last we listen not only with patience, but compassion, to the noble speech, in which at the moment of executing his stern sentence on himself, he seeks to show that he was worthy of a better fate. Had Shakspeare introduced traits into this portrait which, though consistent in themselves, yet had
no bearing on the general picture, he would have ruined its dramatic interest. People do not go to the theatre to learn Moorish customs or to analyse character, but to see a drama; and a drama is not a mirror of life in all its fulness and in all its details. It is an episode in life, and must so be circumscribed.
These introductory observations bring to a point the debated question of Shakspeare's dramatic art, and place it in some degree in a new light. That he is the greatest of our Poets is an undisputed proposition ---- that he is the greatest of our Dramatists has also always been admitted; yet by a strange. misconception he was long accused of wanting art?' He has, charmed the audiences of his own and of every succeeding age. Amid all the fluctuations in opinion which have from time to time diversified the aspect of our literature, there have been fluctuations in the style of criticism, but there has been no ebb in the deep and abiding reverence felt for his genius. There is indeed a vulgar error, according to which Shakspeare is supposed to have fallen into neglect, and to have been revived? in the last century. Though refuted by the most ample and explicit evidence, this strange notion still pertinaciously keeps its ground; for when was an error of the kind exploded by being refuted ? Crushed to day, it re-appears to-morrow as vigorous as ever. We, however, need waste no ink upon the subject. The reader who has any misgivings about the uninterrupted success of Shakspeare, will find the fact placed beyond all cavil in Charles Knight's · History of Opinion.' True it is, that their admiration was long extorted from the critics in defiance of their rules. They felt the greatness of Shakspeare; but they did not understand it. They eulogised his genius, but they wailed over his irregularity.' 'He was nature's child, but he outraged Aristotle. While Ben Jonson and his learned contemporaries heartily admired him, they could not help thinking that he wanted art. What they meant was, that he wanted learning.
The scholarly men who, on the revival of ancient literature, confounded want of learning with want of art, must at times one would think, have questioned the reasonableness of their theory, from what was passing before their eyes in the case of Shakspeare and Ben Jonson :- dramatists who might appear to have been born to represent and verify the very distinction which they overlooked. Shakspeare drew delighted audiences; and the grateful actors of the Globe' lived upon his plays even after his death. Thus he had “art' enough to achieve the first and greatest object, - that of interesting his