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NEW EXEGESIS OF SHAKESPEARE.
1. If the philosophy of Shakespeare's drama be still imperfectly conceived, it can be from no lack of number or experiment in the expounders. Through the crowd and the contention of these sedulous instructors, in the various shapes of lecture, annotation, disquisition, the theme itself is come at last to be confused into a myth, and Shakespeare shuffled off the stage of his own genius and even writings. This anti-climax of patriotic admiration and acuteness has been reached in a recent essay by an American authoress, and so a sex as well as nation who, averse to half measures, love in most things, in the home apothegm, to “go the whole hog.” But both the nation and the sex are also known not to be nice, if British criticism longer furnished something fresh for repetition. So that the desperate resort to a Shakespearian scepticism seems to indicate, like the Homeric, the exhaustion of the commentators : and a lady was, for various reasons, the natural flag of sich distress.
Yet it is evident that Shakespeare in reality is not exbausted. Even the ablest of his critics are but rarely
agreed, with one another or themselves, on either his excellences or defects. There is inevitably an agreement that he neglects the classic unities ; but there is difference as to the value to be set on the observance. Pope, though more through classic prejudice or his own formal and compact genius, than comprehension of the merits, blames the negligence of Shakespeare. Johnson, on the contrary, excuses or defends it, and on grounds no less unsound than Pope's objections were inapplicable. Assuming that the unities, at least of space and time, are nothing more than mere artistic expedients of illusion, he replies that there is really no illusion from first to last. The spectators continue fully conscious of the theatre while assenting to the opening scene which yet supposes them elsewhere ; there can therefore, concludes Johnson, after this be nothing dissonant in the recurrence of the like solutions of continuity throughout the piece. He was deluded by an understanding which though masculine was material, and had no notion of an ideal world beyond the negative stage of ghosts. Conceding him the fact, which, however, should be qualified, the consciousness he speaks of being but rapidly intermittent, still the principle, the argument, would be invalid and absurd. The theatre and time are of the province of the senses, while the action of the play can be pursued but by the intellect. The illusion, then, commences, not on the floor, but on the stage ; and takes place not in the senses, but alone in the imagination. So far, therefore, from identity or analogy of principle, as Johnson's reasoning assumed, there is a sort of contrariety. Imagination is a species of reaction against the senses, an endeavour to reduce to unity their dispersive multiplicity. Unity is thus its
object, and by consequence the soul of art. In fact, the arts are the language of action applied to truth, in awaiting the articulate enunciation of science : but truth will be admitted to be one and continuous. Nor in exacting these conditions in the drama or other art, is there, moreover, an implication of “illusion” in the proper sense. This word is taken, like Johnson's argument, from the point of view of the senses. But with the intellect in the stage of imagination and even of reason, it is the objects of the senses that, on the contrary, are illusory : in the arts and even the sciences it is the ideal that is real, the abstract that is true, the harmonious that is natural.
August Schlegel, too, although a critic of more taste, repeats the view of Johnson, but has the grace to avoid his principles. With him a sufficient account of the exclusion of the unities appears to be supplied by the term “ romantic drama.” For, how this species of drama can dispense with them legitimately, or what it is itself, he does not very clearly say. His main authority and explanation is its Teutonic extraction. The offspring is, however, not so flattering as he imagines; as will, it is expected, be unfolded in the sequel. In fine, a critic of our own, the most in vogue, perhaps of the day, and in reality a writer of ability and learning, denounces these unities as “the most absurd laws by which genius was ever held in servitude.”
This is certainly scarce modest in the teeth of Aristotle, backed moreover by the practice of most dramatists before and after him. The critic, therefore, will support himself by argument, no doubt ? Not at all ; he only thinks to fortify hyperbole by
1 Macaulay, on Moore's Life of Byron.
emphase. “No human being,” he proceeds, “ has ever been able to find anything that could, even by courtesy, be called argument for these unities, except that they have been deduced from the general practice of the Greeks"! But even supposing it might be asked how they got into this general practice, and how the practice of the Greeks became in this, as so many other things, a general rule of the learned world, if it was palpably absurd. The rhetorician, apprehending that this conflict with a “precedent” would be more sensible than if he trampled on the whole decalogue of principles, condescends to a show of argument, but in the usual trenchant tone. He takes the bull by the horns, and disparages the Greek drama, as “incomparably inferior (of course) to the English, in the exhibition of human character and human life.” But this, again, might well be, and yet the unities be obligatory: the canoe of the Red Indian is inferior to a merchantman, but they are both not the less constructed on the same fundamental laws. Perceiving this, apparently, he specifies in this wise : “Every scholar knows that the dramatic part of the Athenian tragedies was at first subordinate to the lyrical part. It would, therefore, have been little less than a miracle if the laws of the Athenian stage had been found to suit plays in which there was no chorus.” Now it should be known to scholars, even in the Oxford sense, that what may
have been true “at first," is not conclusive throughout; that the unities could never be, at first or at last, applied at all to lyrical composition, in any form; that, in fine, the drama proper dropped its lyrical placentum but in proportion as conformed to those laws of its organism. But Macaulay has no doubt the same apology for
vilifying, as Shakespeare would himself have for discarding, the unities : the one was perhaps acting no less than the other. At all events, the "little less than miracle" he speaks of, was wrought, it has been seen, quite incidentally above. Long before, the universal obligation of the unities was hinted by the earliest, yet the best, of English critics : the accomplished Philip Sidney remarks of a play, that it is “faultie both in place and time, the two necessarie companions of all corporall actions." This is really an extension of Aristotle's empiric statement ; for the unities apply to plays by the same necessity as to machines.
As of Shakespeare's defects in even the least questioned instance, so is the least contested of his excellences still unsettled. This, it is familiar, is the portraiture of character. Yet listen to M. Guizot, who speaks, however, of the comedies :“Look for neither verisimilitude, nor coherence, nor profound knowledge of man or of society; the poet scarce troubles himself about these things, and invites you to do likewise. To excite interest by the development of situations, to divert by the variety of incidents, to charm by the poetic affluence of the details, such is his aspiration ; such the pleasures which he
Even in these, there is no connection, no concatenation ; vices, virtues, purposes, all change from moment to moment. But Johnson says that comedy was the “ instinct” of Shakespeare's genius, and tragedy an effort of skill. M. Guizot, it is true, reverses the opinion, thinks the drollery a mere condescension to public taste, and the tragedy to be the instinct, agreeing, however, that its forte is character. Well, be it so, but what character ? The
Shakespeare et son Temps.