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more easy, “ to touch a soul to the quick, to the poetical art. He has here narrowed the lay upon fear as much as it can bear, to question to an absurdity. wean and weary a life till it is ready to We may observe, from what Johnson says drop," as Charles Lamb describes the tragic of “the minute and slender criticism of art of Webster; or to make a Desdemona, VOLTAIRE,” that the English critics fancied amidst the indignities which are heaped that, doing Shakspere ample justice themupon her, and the fears which subdue her selves, they were called upon to defend him soul, move tranquilly in an atmosphere of from the mistaken criticisms of a foreign poetical beauty, thinking of the maid that school. Every Englishman, from the period
of Johnson, who has fancied himself absolved “had a song of --willow;
from the guilt of not admiring and underAn old thing 'twas, but it express'd her for
standing Shakspere has taken up a stone to tune, And she died singing it."
cast at Voltaire. Those who speak of Voltaire
as an ignorant and tasteless calumniator of It is a rude conception which Johnson has of Shakspere forget that his hostility was based Shakspere's art, when he says of the play of upon a system of art which he conceived, “Hamlet,” “The scenes are interchangeably di- and rightly so, was opposed to the system versified with merriment and solemnity... of Shakspere. He had been bred up in the The pretended madness of Hamlet causes school of Corneille and Racine, the glories of much mirth; the mournful distraction of his countrymen; and it is really a remarkOphelia fills the heart with tenderness; and able proof of the vigour of his mind that he every personage produces the effect intended.” | tolerated so much as he did in Shakspere, True. But it was no intended effect of the and admired so much; in this respect going madness of Hamlet to cause “much mirth.” farther perhaps than many of our own Every word that Hamlet utters has some- countrymen of no mean reputation, such thing in it which sounds the depths of our as Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke in 1730. intellectual being, because every word In his “Discourse on Tragedy,' prefixed to consistent with his own character, which, ' Brutus,' and addressed to Boling broke in of all poetical creations, sends us most to that year, he says, “ Not being able, my lord, search into the mysteries of our own in- to risk upon the French stage verses without dividual natures. This, if we understand rhyme, such as are the usage of Italy and of it aright, is poetry. But Johnson says, England, I have at least desired to transport “ Voltaire expresses his wonder that our to our scene certain beauties of yours. It is author's extravagances are endured by a na- true, and I avow it, that the English theatre tion which has seen the tragedy of Cato.' is very faulty. I have heard from your mouth Let him be answered, that Addison speaks the that you have not a good tragedy. But in comlanguage of poets, and Shakspeare of men. pensation you have some admirable scenes in We find in ‘Cato’innumerable beauties which these very monstrous pieces. Until the preenamour us of its author, but we see nothing sent time almost all the tragic authors of that acquaints us with human sentiments or your nation have wanted that purity, that human actions; we place it with the fairest regular conduct, those bienséances of action and noblest progeny wbich judgment pro- and style, that elegance, and all those repagates by conjunction with learning ; but finements of art, which have established the ‘Othello' is the vigorous and vivacious off- reputation of the French theatre since the spring of observation, impregnated with ge- great Corneille. But the most irregular of nius.” If Addison speaks “the language of your pieces have one grand merit—it is that poets,” properly so called, ‘Cato' is poetry. of action.” In the same letter we have If Shakspere speaks the language of men, as his opinion of Shakspere, which is certainly distinct from the language of poets, ‘Othello' not that of a cold critic, but of one who is not poetry. It needs no further argument admired even where he could not approve, to show that the critic has a false theory of and blamed as we had been accustomed to
blame:"With what pleasure have I seen as it is, of more value than the vague homage in London your tragedy of ‘Julius Cæsar,' of those who, despising, or affecting to despise, which for a hundred and fifty years has Voltaire's system, have embraced no system been the delight of your nation! I assuredly of their own, and thus infallibly come to be do not pretend to approve the barbarous more dogmatical, more supercilious, in their irregularities with which it abounds. It is abuse, and more creeping in their praise, only astonishing that one finds not more than the most slavish disciple of a school of them in a work composed in an age of wholly opposed to Shakspere, but consecrated ignorance, by a man who even knew not by time, by high example, and by national Latin, and who had no master but his own opinion. The worst things which Voltaire genius. But, in the midst of so many gross has said of Shakspere are conceived in this faults, with what ravishment have I seen spirit, and therefore ought not in truth to Brutus," &c. All this is perfectly intel- offend Shakspere's warmest admirers. “He ligible, and demands no harsher censure had a genius full of power and fruitfulness, than we have a right to apply to Dryden, of the natural and the sublime "—this is who says nearly as strong things, and writes the praise. The dispraise is linked to it: most of his own tragedies in the spirit of “Without the least spark of good taste, and a devoted worshipper of the French school. without the slightest knowledge rules." In 1761, some thirty years after his letter to We may dissent from this, but it is not Bolingbroke, Voltaire writes.' An Essay on fair to quarrel with it. He then goes on :the English Theatre,' in which he expresses “I will say a hazardous thing, but true, the wonder, which Johnson notices, that the that the merit of this author has ruined the nation which has ‘Cato' can endure Shak- English theatre. There are so many fine spere. In this essay he has a long analysis scenes, so many grand and terrible passages of ‘Hamlet,' in which, without attempting to spread through his monstrous farces which penetrate at all into the real idea of that they call tragedies, that his pieces have drama, he gives such an account of the always been represented with extreme sucplot as may exaggerate what ne regards as cess." We smile at the man's power of its absurdities. He then says, “We cannot ridicule when he travesties a plot of Shakhave a more forcible example of the differ- spere, as in the dissertation prefixed to ence of taste among nations. Let us, after 'Semiramis.' But his object is so manifest this, speak of the rules of Aristotle, and the --that of the elevation of his own theory of three unities, and the bienséances, and the art—that he cannot outrage us. For what necessity of never leaving the scene empty, is his conclusion ? That Shakspere would and that no person should go out or come have been a perfect poet if he had lived in in without a sensible reason. Let us talk, the time of Addisont. after this, of the artful arrangement of the The famous “Letter to the Academy,' in plot and its natural development; of the ex- 1776, was the crowning effort of Voltaire's pressions being simple and noble; of making hostility to Shakspere. In that year was princes speak with the decency which they announced a complete translation of Shakalways have, or ought to have; of never spere ; and several of the plays were pubviolating the rules of language. It is clear lished as a commencement of the underthat a whole nation may be enchanted with-taking. France, according to Grimm, was out giving oneself such trouble.” No one in a ferment I. The announcement of this can be more consistent than Voltaire in the translation appears to have enraged Voltaire. expression of his opinions. It is not the It said that Shakspere was the creator of the individual judgment of the man betraying sublime art of the theatre, which received him into a doubtful and varying tone, but from his hands existence and perfection ; his uniform theory of the poetical art, which directs all his censure of Shakspere; and
* Lettres Philosophiques.' Lettre 18.
+ Dictionnaire Philosophique.' which therefore makes his admiration, such
* Correspondance,' 3me partie, tome 1re.
and, what was personally offensive, it added | Take a specimen :—“Our author, by followthat Shakspere was unknown in France, or, ing minutely the chronicles of the times, rather, disfigured. Voltaire tells the Academy has embarrassed his dramas with too great that he was the first who made Shakspere a number of persons and events. The hurlyknown in France, by the translation of some burly of these plays recommended them to of his passages; that he had translated, too, a rude, illiterate audience, who, as he says, the ‘Julius Cæsar.' But he is indignant that loved a noise of targets. His poverty, and the new translators would sacrifice France to the low condition of the stage (which at that England, in paying no homage to the great time was not frequented by persons of rank), French dramatists, whose pieces are acted obliged him to this complaisance; and, unthroughout Europe. He notices, then, the fortunately, he had not been tutored by any four plays which they have translated, and rules of art, or informed by acquaintance calls upon them, of course in his tone of ex- with just and regular dramas."* She gives aggeration and ridicule, to render faithfully a speech of Lear, and says, “ Thus it is certain passages which they have slurred that Shakspeare redeems the nonsense, the over. But Voltaire avows the support which indecorums, the irregularities of his plays." he receives from the English themselves in Again, in her criticism on ‘Macbeth:'-—“Our his condemnation of what he holds to be author is too much addicted to the obscure the absurdities of Shakspere, quoting from bombast much affected by all sorts of writers Marmontel in this matter :-“ The English in that age. .... There are many bombast have learned to correct and abridge Shak- speeches in the tragedy of Macbeth,' and spere. Garrick has banished from his scene the these are the lawful prize of the critic." Grave-diggers in ‘Hamlet,' and has omitted The exhibition of the fickle humour of the nearly all the fifth act.” Voltaire then adds, mob in Julius ‘Cæsar' is not to be “entirely —“The translator agrees not with this truth; condemned.” “ The quarrel between Brutus he takes the part of the gravediggers; he and Cassius does not, by any means, deserve would preserve them as a respectable monu- the ridicule thrown upon it by the French ment of an unique genius.” The critic then critic: ...... but it rather retards than gives a scene of 'Bajazet,' contrasting it brings forward the catastrophe, and is usewith the opening scene of 'Romeo and Juliet.' ful only in setting Brutus in a good light.” “ It is for you,” he says to the Academicians, One more extract from Mrs. Montagu, and "to decide which method we ought to follow we have done:-“ It has been demonstrated —that of Shakspere, the god of tragedy, or with great ingenuity and candour that he of Racine.” In a similar way he contrasts was destitute of learning: the age was rude a passage in Corneille and ‘Lear:'—“Let the and void of taste; but what had a still more Academicians judge if the nation which has pernicious influence on his works was, that produced ‘Iphigénie' and 'Athalie' ought to the court and the universities, the statesabandon them, to behold men and women men and scholars, affected a scientific jargon. strangled upon the stage, street-porters, An obscurity of expression was thought the sorcerers, buffoons, and drunken priests—if veil of wisdom and knowledge ; and that our court, so long renowned for its politeness mist, common to the morn and eve of and its taste, ought to be changed into an literature, which in fact proves it is not at alehouse and a wine-shop.” In this letter to its high meridian, was affectedly thrown over the Academy Voltaire loses his temper and the writings, and even the conversation of his candour. He is afraid to risk any ad- the learned, who often preferred images dismiration of Shakspere. But this intolerance torted or magnified, to a simple exposition is more intelligible than the apologies of of their thoughts. Shakspeare is never more Shakspere's defenders in England. We must worthy of the true critic's censure than in confess that we have more sympathy with those instances in which he complies with Voltaire's earnest attack upon Shakspere this false pomp of manner. than with Mrs. Montagu's maudlin defence. * Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakspeare.'
It was par
donable in a man of his rank not to be scarcely emerging out of barbarism."* But more polite and delicate than his contem- Mrs. Montagu is not alone in this. Others, poraries ; but we cannot so easily excuse as angry with Voltaire as prodigal of their such superiority of talents for stooping to admiration of Shakspere, quietly surrender any affectation.” This half-patronising, half- what Voltaire really attacks, forgetting that vindicating tone is very well meant; and we his praises have been nearly as strong, and respect Mrs. Montagu for coming forward sometimes a little more judicious than their to break a lance with the great European own. Hear Martin SHERLOCK apostrophizing critic; but the very celebrity of Shakspere's Shakspere :"fair warrior" is one of the proofs that there
“ Always therefore study Nature. was no real school of criticism amongst us. Apologies for Shakspere, lamentations over
" It is she who was thy book, O Shakhis defects, explanations of the causes of speare ; it is she who was thy study day and them, — rude age, unlettered audience, the night; it is she from whom thou hast drawn poet himself working without knowledge,-all those beauties which are at once the glory this, the invariable language of the English and delight of thy nation. Thou wert the critics, is eagerly laid hold of, not only to eldest son, the darling child, of nature; and justify the hostility of Voltaire, but to like thy mother, enchanting, astonishing, perpetuate the reign of a system altogether sublime, graceful, thy variety is inexhaustible. opposed to the system of Shakspere, up to the Always original, always new, thou art the present hour. M. Villemain, in the new only prodigy which nature has produced. edition of his " Essay upon Shakspeare,' | Homer was the first of men, but thou art published in 1839, gives us as much inter
more than man. The reader who thinks this jectional eulogy of our national poet as might eulogium extravagant is a stranger to my satisfy the most eager appetite of those subject. To say that Shakspeare had the admirers who think such praise worth any- imagination of Dante, and the depth of thing. The French critic, of nearly a century Machiavel, would be a weak encomium : he later than Voltaire, holds that Shakspere has had them and more. To say that he posno other system than his genius. It is in sessed the terrible graces of Michael Angelo, this chaos that we must seek his splendour. and the amiable graces of Correggio, would His absurdities, his buffooneries, belong to be a weak encomium : he had them, and the gross theatre of his period. In judging more. To the brilliancy of Voltaire he added Shakspere we must reject the mass of bar- the strength of Demosthenes ; and to the barism and false taste with which he is simplicity of La Fontaine the majesty of surcharged. But then, apart from any Virgil.—But, say you, we have never seen system,“ quelle passion! quelle poésie! quelle such 'a being. You are in the right; éloquence !" “ This rude and barbarous Nature made it, and broke the mould.” genius discovers an unknown delicacy in the
This is the first page of 'A Fragment on development of his female characters.” And Shakspeare' (1786). The following is an why? “ The taste which is so often missing extract from the last page :-“ The only view in him is here supplied by a delicate instinct, of Shakspeare was to make his fortune, and which makes him even anticipate what was
for that it was necessary to fill the playwanting to the civilization of his time.” The house. At the same time that he caused a critic reposes somewhat on English authority: duchess to enter the boxes, he would cause —“Mrs. Montagu has repelled the contempt her servants to enter the pit.
The people of Voltaire by a judicious criticism of some
have always money; to make them spend it, defects of the French theatre, but she cannot they must be diverted; and Shakspeare palliate the enormous extravagancies of the forced his sublime genius to stoop to the pieces of Shakspere. Let us not forget, she gross taste of the populace, as Sylla jested says, that these pieces were played in a
with his soldiers." miserable inn before an unlettered audience,
*Essai sur Shakspeare, Paris, 1839.
David Hume, the most popular historian | point, and viewing all the parts as so many of England, thus writes of Shakspere :- irradiations from it. Hence, nothing is so “ Born in a rude age and educated in the rare as a critic who can elevate himself to lowest manner, without any instruction either the contemplation of an extensive work of from the world or from books." The con- art. Shakspere's compositions, from the very sequence of this national and individual depth of purpose displayed in them, have ignorance was a necessary one :-“A reason- been exposed to the misfortune of being able propriety of thought he cannot for any misunderstood. Besides, this prosaical species time uphold.” What right have we to abuse of criticism applies always the poetical form Voltaire, when we hear this from an English to the details of execution ; but, in so far writer of the same period? We fully agree as the plan of the piece is concerned, it with Schlegel in this matter : That never looks for more than the logical conforeigners, and Frenchmen in particular, who nection of causes and effects, or some partial frequently speak in the most strange language and trivial moral by way of application ; and of antiquity and the middle ages, as if all that cannot be reconciled to this is cannibalism had been first put an end to in declared a superfluous, or even a detrimental, Europe by Louis XIV., should entertain this addition. On these principles we must opinion of Shakspere, might be pardonable ; equally strike out most of the choral songs but that Englishmen should adopt such a of the Greek tragedies, which also contribute calumniation of that glorious epoch of their nothing to the development of the action, history, in which the foundation of their but are merely an harmonious echo of the greatness was laid, is to me incompre- impression aimed at by the poet. In this hensible.”* But it is not wholly incom- they altogether mistake the rights of poetry prehensible. Schlegel has in part explained and the nature of the romantic drama, which, it :-“I have elsewhere examined into the for the very reason that it is and ought to be pretensions of modern cultivation, as it is picturesque, requires richer accompaniments called, which looks down with such contempt and contrasts for its main groups. In all on all preceding ages. I have shown that it art and poetry, but more especially in the is all little, superficial, and unsubstantial at romantic, the fancy lays claim to be conbottom. The pride of what has been called sidered as an independent mental power the present maturity of human reason has governed according to its own laws." come to a miserable end; and the structures The translation of Schlegel's work in 1815, erected by those pedagogues of the human in conjunction with the admirable lectures race have fallen to pieces like the baby- of Coleridge, gave a new direction amongst houses of children." So far, of the critical the thinking few to our national opinion of contempt of the age of Shakspere. Schlegel Shakspere. Other critics of a higher school again, with equal truth, lays bare the real than our own race of commentators had character of the same critical opinions of the preceded Schlegel in Germany; and it would poet himself:—“It was, generally speaking, be perhaps not too much to say that, as the the prevailing tendency of the time which reverent study of Shakspere has principally preceded our own, a tendency displayed also formed their æsthetic school, so that æsthetic in physical science, to consider what is school has sent us back to the reverent study possessed of life as a mere accumulation of of Shakspere. He lived in the hearts of the dead parts; to separate what exists only in people, who knew nothing of the English connection and cannot otherwise be con
critics. The learned, as they were called, ceived, instead of penetrating to the central understood him least. Let the lovers of truth *Lectures on Dramatic Literature,'Black's translation.
rejoice that their despotism is over.