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ON THE PROVINCES OF TRAGEDY AND
From the idea of these two species, as given above, the following conclusions, about the natures of each, are immediately deducible.
1. If the proper end of tragedy be to affect, it follows, “ that actions, not characters,
are the chief object of its representations." For that which affects 'us most in the view of human life is the observation of those signal circumstances of felicity or distress, which occur in the fortunes of men.
But felicity and distress, as the great critic takes notice, depend on action; κατά τας πράξεις, ευδαίμονες, ή τεναντίον. They are then the calamitous events, or fortunate Issues in human action, which stir up the stronger affections, and agitate the heart with Passion. The manners are not, indeed, to be neglected. But they become an inferior consideration in the views of the tragic poet, and are exhibited only for the sake of making the action more proper to interest us. Thus our joy, on the happy catastrophe of the fable, depends, in a good degree, on the virtuous character of the agent; as on the other hand, we sympathize more strongly with him, on a distressful issue. The manners of the several persons in the drama must, also, be signified, that the action, which in many cases will be determined by them, may appear to be carried on with truth and probability. Hence every thing passing before us, as we are accustomed to see it in real life, we enter more warmly into their interests, as forgetting, that we are attentive to a fictitious scene. And, besides, from knowing the personal good, or ill, qualities of the agents, we learn to anticipate their future felicity or misery, which gives increase to the passion in either case. Our acquaintance with Tago's close villainy makes us tremble for Othello and Desdemona before. hand : and Hamlet's filial piety and intrepid daring occasion the audience secretly to exult in the expectation of some successful vengeance to be inflicted on the incestuous murderers.
2. For the same reason as tragedy takes for its object the actions of men, it, also, prefers, or rather confines itself to, such actions, as are most important. Which is only saying, that as it intends to interest, it, of course,
chuses the representation of those events, which are most interesting.
And this shews the defect of modern tragedy, in turning so constantly as it does, on love subjects; the effect of this practice is, that, excepting only the rank of the actors (which indeed, as will be seen presently, is of considerable importance), the rest is below the dignity of this drama. For the action, when stripped of its accidental ornaments and reduced to the essential fact, is nothing more than what might as well have passed in a cottage, as a king's palace. The Greek poets should be our guides here, who take the very grandest events in their story to ennoble their tragedy. Whence it comes to pass that the action, having an essential dignity, is always interesting, and by the simplest management of the poet becomes in a supreme degrees pathetic.
3. On the same account, the persons, whose actions Tragedy would exhibit to us, must be of principal rank and dignity. For the actions of these are, both in themselves and in their consequences, most fitted to excite passion. The distresses of private and inferior persons will, no doubt, affect us greatly; and we may give the name of tragedies, if we please, to dramatic representations of them: as, in fact, we have several applauded pieces of this kind. Nay, it may seem, that the fortunes of private men, as more nearly resembling those of the generality, should be most affecting. But this circumstance, in no degree, makes amends for the loss of other and much greater advantages. For, whatever be the unhappy incidents in the story of private men, it is certain, they must take faster hold of the imagination, and, of course, impress the heart more forcibly, when related of the higher characters in life.
Τών γάρ μεγάλων αξιοπενθείς
Eurip. Hipp. V. 1484.
Kings, Heroes, Statesmen, and other persons of great and public authority, influence by their ill-fortune the whole community, to which they belong. The attention is rouzed, and all our faculties take an alarm, at the
apprehension of such extensive and important wretchedness. And, besides, if we regard the event itself, without an eye to its effects, there is still the widest difference between the two
Those ideas of awe and veneration,
which opinion throws round the
of princes, make us esteem the very same event in their fortunes, as more august and emphatical, than in the fortunes of private men. In the one, it is ordinary and familiar to our conceptions; it is singular and surprizing, in the other. The fall of a cottage, by the accidents of time and weather, is almost unheeded; while the ruin of a tower, which the neighbourhood hath gazed at for ages with admiration, strikes all observers with concern.
So that if we chuse to continue the absurdity, taken notice of in the last article of planning unimportant action in our tragedy, we should, at least, take care to give it this foreign and extrinsic importance of great actors : Yet our passion for the familiar goes so far, that we have tragedies, not only of private action, but of private persons; and so have well nigh annihilated the noblest of the two dramas amongst us.
On the whole it appears, that as the proper object of tragedy is action, so it is important action, and therefore more especially the action of great and illustrious men. Each of these conclusions is the direct consequence of our idea of its end.
The reverse of all this holds true of COMEDY, For,