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The Essay on the Life and Works of Shakspeare, which I reprint in the present volume, appeared for the first time as an Introduction to the French edition of Shakspeare's complete works, which was published at Paris in 1821. This edition was based upon the translation of Shakspeare's plays which was commenced in 1776 by Le Tourneur, and which, at that period, gave rise to such animated disputes in the literary world, and especially in the Correspondence of Voltaire and of La Harpe. In 1821 I undertook to edit this translation of Shakspeare's principal works, and I revised six tragedies, ten historical dramas, and three comedies. M. De Barante kindly assisted me by translating “ Hamlet ;” and M. Amédée Pichot, who is so thoroughly acquainted with England and English literature, undertook to revise all the remaining plays.
Since that period other translations of Shakspeare, both partial and complete, in prose and in verse, have been published. Whatever their merit may be, they have not been successful; and no one will ever succeed, except imperfectly, in transfusing into our language, with their true character and full effect, the works of this prodigious genius. This arises not only from the fact that every translation must necessarily be imperfect and insufficient, but also on account of the particular turn of Shakspeare's mind and style, as well as that of his national tongue. Shakspeare is excellent in substance, but deficient in form; he
discerns, and brings admirably into view, the instincts, passions, ideas—indeed, all the inner life of man; he is the most profound and most dramatic of moralists; but he makes his personages speak a language which is often fastidious, strange, excessive, and destitute of moderation and naturalness. And the English language is singularly propitious to the defects, as well as to the beauties, of Shakspeare; it is rich, energetic, passionate, abundant, striking; it readily admits the lofty flights, and even the wild excesses, of the poetic imagination; but it does not possess that elegant sobriety, that severe and delicate precision, that moderation in expression and harmony in imagery, which constitute the peculiar merit of the French language; so that, when Shakspeare passes from England into France, if he is translated with scrupulous fidelity, his defects become more apparent, and more offensive, beneath his new dress, than they were in his native form ; and if, on the other hand, it is attempted to adapt his language, even in the slightest degree, to the genius of our tongue, he is inevitably robbed of a great part of his wealth, force, and originality. A literal translation and a free rendering do wrong to Shakspeare in a different manner, but in an equal degree. When he is translated, or when he is read in a translation, it must never be forgotten that he labors under one or other of these disadvantages.
In continuation of the Essay on the Life and Works of Shakspeare, I have published, in this volume, a series of Notices of his principal dramas, and an Essay on Othello and Dramatic Art in France in 1830, which the Duke De Broglie inserted, at that period, in the “Revue Francaise,” and which he has kindly allowed me to include in this volume. These Essays constitute, in some sort, proofs in support of the ideas which, in 1821, I endeavored to de
velop regarding the nature of dramatic art in general, and the particular and diversified forms which it has assumed among those nations and in those ages in which it has shone with greatest brilliancy : an art so powerful and attractive, that, in all times and at all places, in the period of its infancy as well as in that of its maturity-of its glory as well as of its decline it has ever remained invincibly popular, and has never ceased to charm all men either by its master-pieces or by its sparkling bluettes.
PARIS, June 10, 1852.