Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

good faith that Ulysses praises him for his firmness of word, his patience, and his judgment.

Another point in “Troilus and Cressida” that has been criticised is its double plot, and the utterly separate nature of the interests developed in it, having the episode of the lovers on the one hand, and the combats and deliberations of the Trojans on the other. This criticism may be equally applied to all Shakespeare's comedies; they invariably contain two, and sometimes contain three, more or less distinct and separable groups of personages. In the play under consideration, the two plots, though not more firmly welded together than in other instances, seem to me to be in very happy juxtaposition; and there is great ingenuity in the way in which the parallel is drawn (the idea of which was not, however, originated by Shakespeare),—in conceiving this counterpart in Troy of the story of Helen, in setting the pretty Trojan girl over against the beautiful Greek, Troilus against Menelaus, and Diomedes against Paris. The seduction of Cressida by Diomedes avenges Helen's flight with Paris. Nothing but treachery ! all incontinent varlets !” as the chorus exclaims through the voice of Thersites.

One of the secrets of art is to produce great effects through small means, and in this respect the fun and drollery of Shakespeare's play shine forth in brilliant contrast to a celebrated work, the thought of which has more than once crossed my mind in the course of this long study of “Troilus and Cressida,”—I mean Offenbach's opera of “ La Belle Hélène.” The comparison of different modes of treating the same subject is a fruitful field, always abounding in fresh surprises, and these chapters would be incomplete if, after having touched upon the ancient Greek “Iliad” and that of the Middle Ages and that of the Renaissance, we passed over in silence the “Iliad” of the present day, as acted in the Théâtre des Variétés. In the

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

ear;

amusing burlesque Offenbach has set to music, the actors wear ridiculous costumes, and astonish both

eye

and a blacksmith drags across the stage Jupiter's thunderbolts which he has had to mend, and Achilles has his heel encased in iron.

Ajax. What a noise you make in walking!
Cal. I know what it is ! his heel is clad in iron.

Achil. Well, what then? What would you have done in my place? . . . Since my mother was imprudent enough to leave out my heel when she plunged me into the Styx. It would have been so easy to have popped me in both ways, first like this, and then like that.

Orestes. That certainly is a thought that should have occurred to a mother.

Ajax. Great merit indeed, to be brave when one is in vulnerable ! He had only one weak point, and that was his heel. And now he has had that clad in iron. And he calls himself a hero !

Achil, Son of Telamon! you will have to answer for this.

Ajax. Never in all my life. Whoever thinks of fighting against a wall ?

Achil. You beg off then ?
Ajux. Certainly."

Shakespeare contrives to make his Greeks ridiculous with less material cost, and seeks no help from any farfetched means.

While the authors of “ La Belle Hélène” exaggerate and burlesque the vulnerable point of Achilles, Shakespeare proceeds in quite a different manner, and simply denudes his characters of their robes of state and heroic garb, and presents them in all the simplicity of their ordinary domestic life. No more than this is needed to deprive them of their heroic status, and to make them pass instantaneously from the higher epic spheres into the every-day world of comedy. The comical effect is the result of the surprise felt by the spectator at so unexpected a sight, accustomed as we are to associate the names of Agamemnon and of Achilles with ideas of grandeur and solemnity. In itself, there is nothing ludicrous in the fact of Agamemnon begging Menelaus, when he hears a trumpet blown during his conference with the chiefs, to step out and see what it means; or of his reminding Diomedes, when he sends him as an ambassador to Troy, to dress himself in a befitting manner; nor is it ridiculous, in itself, that Ulysses should be deep in the perusal of a philosophic treatise as he takes his walk, or that the chiefs of the Greek army should take a turn after dinner round the camp to enjoy a little fresh air, and yet, nevertheless, all these details make us laugh because of the contrast they form to the traditional comportment of the heroes. Precise details and a picturesque familiarity are fatal to the grave and dignified aspect of a subject, as Buffon, the naturalist, who was of a solemn turn of mind, was well aware, and which led him to recommend his colleagues, the members of the French Academy, always to make use of the most general terms in their writings. It is very curious to observe how the admission of some little word of too definite a nature into the midst of a tirade which is otherwise grand and impressive, is sufficient entirely to destroy the intended effect. In “Les Martyrs," Chateaubriand describes how the wives of the Barbarians, into whose camp the Romans have forced their way, rush past the enemy and put themselves to death with their own hands. The picture is grand and imposing; but the writer, most unfortunately, shows us the same woman holding the fugitive Sicambre by his beard, and from this moment all is lost, the notion makes us laugh, and so, farewell to the sublime! So delicate is the boundary line between the sublime and the ridiculous, the tragic and the comic. The figures in Shakespeare are always very individual, because he never shrank, even in his tragedies, from freely introducing a comic vein. Perfect individuality of character is impossible when the blending of the two styles is carefully avoided. If, as Gervinus remarks, Homer's heroes are more individual than those of Sophocles, the reason undoubtedly is that the father of epic poetry allowed himself more elbow-room, and was not afraid of laughing a little; for in Homer also, there is a comic vein, or rather I should say, a plenteous stream; and comedy and tragedy alike flow in a full current from the “Iliad and the

Odyssey.” Individualizing touches abound among the personages of “Troilus and Cressida :” Pandarus suffers from the rheumatism and has a cold in his eye; Ulysses recognizes Diomedes at a distance by his manner of rising on the toe in walking. It is possible, as Rümelin suggests, that this may contain a personal allusion to the then actor of the part; in the same way that Hamlet is said to be “ fat and scant of breath,” a description that applied to the famous actor Richard Burbadge.

“Troilus and Cressida” is, to sum up, the playful recreation with which a great genius amused himself in his lighter moods, when, finding in the traditions of the two lovers and of the Trojan war a framework that struck his fancy, he filled it up, somewhat hastily indeed, but lavishing upon it all he has taught us to expect from him, of dramatic life and wealth of ideas, of wit, of pathos and of poetry. To seek for any deep hidden meaning in this play implies an utter misconception of its character. In order to appreciate it, it is necessary to enter into Shakespeare's humour and frankly to throw off all literary and moral preconceptions, without pretending to greater seriousness than he did himself. Then our admiration can be freely given to a poet who is so perfectly distinct from all his characters, and is so completely independent and at his ease, moulding his subject after his sovereign will and pleasure and we are of one mind with Goethe when he said to Eckermann, “If you wish to know Shakespeare's utter freedom of thought, read · Troilus and Cressida.'

[ocr errors]

6

CHAPTER XII.

TIMON OF ATHENS.

ANALYSIS OF THE PLAY.

The scene is in Athens, in the house of the rich and magnificent Timon, where visitors throng as to a king's palace. Never did citizen spend his fortune or practise hospitality with a more regal profusion and extravagance. No porter guards his gate

“But rather one that smiles and still invites

All that pass by." A poet, a painter, a jeweller, a merchant, senators and lords, and a cynical philosopher all meet in the hall of the palace, where the master of the house soon makes his appearance, and accosts all his various visitors with the greatest affability. His very first words and deeds proclaim him the friend and benefactor of men; giving five talents to the servant of Ventidius, to pay his master's debts and free him from his creditors; and promising to bestow

upon Lucilius, one of his own servants, a sum of money sufficient to induce the old Athenian with whose daughter Lucilius is in love to accept him as a son-in-law. The jeweller offers Timon a jewel, the poet proffers a dedication, and the painter a newly finished picture, to one and all of which Timon accords a gracious reception. To the painter he remarks

“ Painting is welcome.
The painting is almost the natural man;
For since dishonour traffics with man's nature,
He is but outside : these pencilled figures are
Even such as they give out.”

« AnteriorContinuar »