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France the revolutions of public opinion have been so great, and the thread of national tradition has been so often interrupted, that it would be exceedingly difficult for French poets, when introducing heroes of their own history, to unite the spirit of former ages with that of the new.
Those critics who are shocked to meet with the language and manners of the court of Louis XIV., in Achilles and Agamemnon, would be at least equally shocked to meet with them in the contemporaries of Charlemagne, Philip Augustus or Saint Louis.
But art is not condemned to the exclusive treatment of national subjects. Full liberty must be allowed to the poet to choose his own dwelling-place wherever his imagination may be pleased to alight; and one means invariably remains to him of resolving all anachronisms into a wider harmony, but it is the secret and very miracle of genius. It consists in painting that which is everlastingly human, in all the characters borrowed from whatsoever scrap of history, or fragment of the human
And in this way they become matters of interest, not only at the time and at the place at which they first appear, but for all time and for all places : Ben Jonson affords interest to a few learned men of his own epoch and of ours, but Shakespeare interests all Englishmen of his own day and all men of every century.
. I cannot entirely agree with M. Taine in the clever and amusing passage with which he closes his study of Racine :
“If I had the pleasure of being a duke, and the honour of being a millionaire, I should endeavour to collect a small group of
of noble birth and high-bred manners; and I would shake every branch of my genealogical tree in hopes of dislodging some oracular old relation, who in the solitude of the provinces had preserved a courtly politeness and old-world dignity, and I would beg of him to honour me with his counsels. I should decorate some lofty hall with sculptured panels, and high looking-glasses of a slightly greenish hue, and I * In looking through this chapter preparatory to its publication in this volume, I perceived that I had omitted to indicate the limits, which
should beg of my guests to make it their pleasure to represent the manners of their ancestors. I should be careful not to swathe their limbs in linen nor to let their pointed elbows appear, in vain attempt to imitate the nudity of Greek statues. I would have nothing to do with such miserable travesties of Greek plays as Lekain, and after him Talma, imposed upon the stage, and I would propose that they should dress themselves up like the courtiers of Louis XIV., only increasing the magnificence of their embroideries and gewgaws, accepting at most, from time to time, a semi-antique helmet, which they would hide under a large cavalier-like plume of feathers. I should entreat the ladies as a favour to speak just in their usual manner, with all their smiles and witticisms, and airs and graces, and to make believe they really were at court. Then, for the first time, I should see the stage of Racine, and at last think I understood it." “ And at last think I understood it.” If Racine is only intelligible under the conditions here laid down by M. Taine, he has only succeeded in depicting society in the time of Louis XIV., and not mankind in general. But for my part, I believe that Racine possessed genius, and that he too, in common with all poets of genius, painted universal humanity, so that it is still possible, even without having recourse to any aged relative, to understand and admire his plays.
Douce concludes his sentence of condemnation on Shakespeare's anachronisms with these words: “The stage should be a true and perfect mirror of history and manners.” But the stage is not the mirror of history, but of nature, as Hamlet teaches the players, and should reflect the present, not the past. Goethe remarks with great insight
“ Properly speaking there are no historical personages in poetry; only, when a poet wishes to represent the moral world he has conceived, he does certain individuals he meets with in history the honour of borrowing their names for the beings he has created.”
History,” says Dumas, with picturesque abruptness, " is the peg on which I hang my drama." *
are, however, easily recognized, within which the plea for anachronisms in art must be confined. Antique personages and modern sentiments are easily admissible, but it is scarcely possible to tolerate a mixture of antique and modern sentiments in the same personage. Barbarous customs, such as that of human sacrifices, are irreconcilable with the courteous manners and polished language of the heroes of Racine's “Iphigénie,” the delicate refinements of the love-plot in “ Andromaque" agree but awkwardly with a state of civilization in which it was possible for the conqueror of Hector to reduce his royal spouse to the condition of a slave. The author of the German “Iphigenia,” with his great perception and great art, knew how to avoid this kind of anachronism. The exquisite beauty of Goethe's masterpiece consists in so perfect a moral harmony that, in the part of the heroine at least, not the slightest incongruity of this sort appears, any more than in the Roman tragedies of Shakespeare, in which the asperity of the Roman nature and the roughness of the English nature coalesce.
The interest attached to the beginning of Shakespeare's career is due rather to the modest and tranquil regularity with which his genius developed itself, than to the production of any brilliant and striking work. Classical antiquity and its most direct heir, the Renaissance in Italy, were then the two great schools of art and taste, and it was in imitation of these that Shakespeare's first efforts were made.
Far from shutting himself up from others and from choosing an isolated point to start from, he sought support from the motor forces around him, whether at court or amongst literary celebrities. The company of actors of which he became a member on his arrival in London was the first in importance, on account of the distinguished patronage with which it was honoured, it being composed of the Lord Chamberlain's men, who somewhere about 1583 had received the title of the Queen's players, and whose leader, James Burbadge, built the Blackfriars and Globe theatres. Elizabeth distinguished the Blackfriars company with her favour more than that of any other actors, and it continued to receive the royal patronage of James I., who it is said wrote with his own hand a letter to Shakespeare, thanking him for the flattering allusion to his person in “Macbeth.” Without insisting upon this tradition, which appears to be apocryphal,* we may accept as true the general -fact of which it is the legendary expression; that Shakespeare as actor and as poet had entered, as might naturally be expected, into relations with the eloquent and lettered society that took delight in the theatre and especially favoured the company to which he belonged. The tastes of this society are well known : enamoured of classical antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, “they swore but by the ancients or their imitators.” Shakespeare's chief friends amongst the aristocracy were the Earl of Essex, and, above all, the Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated the poems of “Venus and Adonis" and "Lucrece."
Shakespeare followed the fashion of the day, and like every one else imitated other writers,-imitating not only Virgil or Petrarch, but also contemporary English poets, after the manner of all beginners; not disdaining to borrow the three stanzas and concluding couplet for the form of his sonnets from Daniel, the author of " Cleopatra,” the very same who blamed the “idle fictions and "gross follies” of the romantic drama.
Some critics think that Shakespeare had travelled into Italy, and it is certain that many of his stage comrades had visited that fair land,“ the empire of the sun, the mistress of the world, and the cradle of letters," as Corinne calls it, and that their enthusiastic memories of their sojourn there were not without influence on the imagination of the young poet.
Classical reminiscences of every kind occur too frequently, as we have already seen, throughout Shake
* Payne Collier (I. 370) and Hallam (“Lit. of Europe," III. 320) call into question the authenticity of the anecdote related by Malone.
† See on the subject a dissertation, written with much learning and moderation, in the “Essays " of Karl Elze. The conclusion arrived at by the author, is that Shakespeare did travel in Italy, but he places no credence in the other journeys, to Scotland and elsewhere, attributed to him.