Obrázky stránek
PDF
ePub

moment invidious to ask if they are symmetrically united into a whole. Succeeding generations have acknowledged the pathos and richness of his strains, and the new contour and enlarged dimensions of grace which he gave to English poetry. He is the poetical father of a Milton and a Thomson. Gray habitually read him when he wished to frame his thoughts for composition; and there are few eminent poets in the language who have not been essentially indebted to him.

"Hither, as to their fountain, other stars Repair, and in their urns draw golden light."

The publication of "The Fairy Queen," and the commencement of Shakspeare's dramatic career, may be noticed as contemporary events; for by no supposition can Shakspeare's appearance as a dramatist be traced higher than 1589*, and that of Spenser's great poem was in the year 1590. I turn back from that date to an earlier period, when the first lineaments of our regular drama began to show themselves.

[* It is clear that before 1591, or even 1592, Shakspeare had no celebrity as a writer of plays; he must, therefore, have been valuable to the theatre chiefly as an actor; and if this was the case, namely, that he speedily trode the stage with some respectability, Mr. Rowe's tradition that he was at first admitted in a mean capacity must be taken with a bushel of doubt.-CAMPBELL, Life of Shakspeare, 8vo. 1838, p. xxii.]

the interludes became prevalen reign of Henry VIII. ‡

Warton also mentions Rastell, the Sir Thomas More, who was a printer; bu by the historian of our poetry to have bee and to have made the moralities in some e of science and philosophy. He publish new interlude on The Nature of the F which The Tracts of America lately dis manners of the natives are describe

Annals, vol. ii. p. 319.]

Before Elizabeth's reign we had no dramatic authors more important than Bale and Heywood the Epigrammatist. Bale, before the titles of tragedy and comedy were well distinguished, had written comedies on such subjects as the Resurrection of Lazarus, and the Passion and Sepulture of our Lord. He was, in fact, the last of the race of mysterywriters. Both Bale and Heywood died about the middle of the sixteenth century, but flourished (if such a word can be applied to them) as early as the reign of Henry VIII. Until the time of Elizabeth, the public was contented with mysteries, moralities, or interludes, too humble to deserve the name of comedy. The first of these, the mysteries, originated almost as early as the Conquest, in shows given by be preferred to an English one.]

[8 Sackville became a statesman, and for paths of poetry; nor does he appear to h in others; for in an age rife with poetica he seems to have drawn but one solitary attached to a book where praises were m Faerie Queene." He died, and received from Abbot, but no tears of regret fron who should have been a second Pembroke Still took to the church and became a before the creator of our comedy had writt letter that, for acting at Cambridge, a I

the church to the people. The moralities †, which were chiefly allegorical, probably arose about the middle of the fifteenth century, and

[ Speaking of Gammer Gurton, Scot piece of low humour; the whole jest turr and the recovery of the needle with whi ton was to repair the breeches of her ma point of manners, it is a great curios supellex of our ancestors is scarcely a described." "The unity," he continues, and action, are observed through the I curacy of which France might be jeal alluding to Gorboduc, "It is remarkable English tragedy and comedy are both wor merit; that each partakes of the distinc class; that the tragedy is without interm the comedy without any intermixture of Prose Works, vol. vi. p. 333.]

[ The Mysteries Mr. Collier would have called MiraclePlays, and the Moralities, Morals or Moral-Plays.]

Lord Sackville's Gorboduc, firs in 1561-2, and Still's Gammer Gur about 1566, were the earliest, draughts of our regular tragedy a They did not, however, immediat the taste for the allegorical mora ville even introduced dumb show to explain the piece, and he wa of the old dramatists who did so. conceive the explanation of allpersonages to be a natural compl audience; but there is somethi ingenious in making allegory ex and the dumb interpret for the speak. In reviewing the rise o Gammar Gurton's Needle, and Sa boduc, form convenient resting-p memory; but it may be doubted riority over the mysteries and half so great as their real dista affecting tragedy, or an exhilara The main incident in Gammer Gu is the loss of a needle in a man's s

Gorboduc has no interesting plot or impassioned dialogue; but it dignified the stage with moral reflection and stately measure. It first introduced black verse instead of ballad rhymes in the drama. Gascoigne gave a farther popularity to blank verse by his paraphrase of Jocasta, from Euripides, which appeared in 1566. The same author's "Supposes," translated from Ariosto, was our earliest prose comedy. Its dialogue is easy and spirited. Edward's Palamon and Arcite was acted in the same year, to the great admiration of Queen Elizabeth, who called the author into her presence, and complimented him on having justly drawn the character of a genuine lover.

Ten tragedies of Seneca were translated into English verse at different times, and by different authors, before the year 1581. One of these translators was Alexander Neyvile, afterwards secretary to Archbishop Parker, whose Oedipus came out as early as 1563; and though he was but a youth of nineteen, his style has considerable beauty. The following lines, which open the first act, may serve as a specimen.

[blocks in formation]

stone, the author of " Promos and Cassandra,” [1578], in which piece there is a partial anticipation of the plot of Shakspeare's Measure for Measure. Another is that of Preston, whose tragedy of Cambyses + is alluded to by Shakspeare, when Falstaff calls for a cup of sack, that he may weep "in King Cambyses' vein‡." There is, indeed, matter for weeping in this tragedy; for, in the course of it, an elderly gentleman is flayed alive. To make the skinning more pathetic, his own son is witness to it, and exclaims,

"What child is he of Nature's mould could bide the same to see,

His father fleaed in this wise? O how it grieveth me!" It may comfort the reader to know that this theatric decortication was meant to be allegorical; and we may believe that it was performed with no degree of stage illusion that could deeply affect the spectator§.

In the last twenty years of the sixteenth century, we come to a period when the increasing demand for theatrical entertainments The produced play-writers by profession. earliest of these appears to have been George Peele, who was the city poet and conductor of the civil pageants. His "Arraignment of

Paris" came out in 1584. Nash calls him an Atlas in poetry. Unless we make allowance for his antiquity, the expression will appear hyperbolical; but, with that allowance, we may justly cherish the memory of Peele as the oldest genuine dramatic poet of our language. His "David and Bethsabe" is the earliest fountain of pathos and harmony that can be traced in our dramatic poetry. His fancy is rich and his feeling tender, and his conceptions of dramatic character have no inconsiderable mixture of solid veracity and ideal beauty. There is no such sweetness of

In the title-page it is denominated "A lamentable Tragedy, mixed full of pleasant Mirth."

[The Tamerlanes and Tamer-chams of the late age had nothing in them but the scenical strutting, and furious vociferation, to warrant them to the ignorant gapers.BEN JONSON. (Gifford, vol. ix. p. 180.)

I suspect that Shakspeare confounded King Cambyses with King Darius. Falstaff's solemn fustian bears not the slightest resemblance, either in metre or in matter, to the vein of King Cambyses. Kyng Daryus, whose doleful strain is here burlesqued, was a pithic and plesaunt Enterlude, printed about the middle of the sixteenth century.-GIFFORD. Note on Jonson's Poctaster, Works, vol. ii. p. 455.]

[§ The stage direction excites a smile. Flea him with a false skin.]

versification and imagery to be found in our blank verse anterior to Shakspeare*. David's character-the traits both of his guilt and sensibility-his passion for Bethsabe-his art in inflaming the military ambition of Urias, and his grief for Absalom, are delineated with no vulgar skill. The luxuriant image of Bethsabe is introduced by these lines:

Come, gentle Zephyr, trick'd with those perfumes
That erst in Eden sweeten'd Adam's love,
And stroke my bosom with thy gentle fan:
This shade, sun-proof, is yet no proof for thee.
Thy body, smoother than this waveless spring,
And purer than the substance of the same,
Can creep through that his lances cannot pierce.
Thou and thy sister, soft and sacred Air,
Goddess of life, and governess of health,
Keeps every fountain fresh, and arbour sweet.
No brazen gate her passage can refuse,
Nor bushy thicket bar thy subtle breath:
Then deck thee with thy loose delightsome robes,
And on thy wings bring delicate perfumes,
To play the wanton with us through the leaves.

David. What tunes, what words, what looks, what wonders pierce

My soul, incensed with a sudden fire?

What tree, what shade, what spring, what paradise,
Enjoys the beauty of so fair a dame?

Fair Eva, placed in perfect happiness,
Lending her praise-notes to the liberal heavens,
Strook with the accents of archangels' tunes,
Wrought not more pleasure to her husband's thoughts,
Than this fair woman's words and notes to mine.
May that sweet plain, that bears her pleasant weight,
Be still enamell'd with discolour'd flowers!
That precious fount bear sand of purest gold;
And, for the pebble, let the silver streams
Play upon rubies, sapphires, chrysolites;
The brims let be embraced with golden curls
Of moss, that sleeps with sound the waters make;
For joy to feed the fount with their recourse
Let all the grass that beautifies her bower
Bear manna every morn instead of dew.

*

*

*

*

*

Joab thus describes the glory of David : Beauteous and bright is he among the tribes; As when the sun, attired in glistering robe, Comes dancing from his oriental gate, And, bridegroom-like, hurls through the gloomy air His radiant beams: such doth King David show, Crown'd with the honour of his enemies' town, Shining in riches like the firmament, The starry vault that overhangs the earth; So looketh David, King of Israel.

At the conclusion of the tragedy, when David gives way to his grief for Absalom, he is roused

[* Mr. Dyce, in his edition of Peele, has quoted this passage from Mr. Campbell," a critic," he styles him, "who is by no means subject to the pardonable weakness of discovering beauties in every writer of the olden time." p. xxxviii.

It is quoted too by Mr. Hallam (Lit. Hist. vol. ii. p. 378), who concurs with Mr. Collier in thinking these compliments excessive.]

with great dignity and energy of Joab. When informed by death of his son, David exclaims

David. Thou man of blood! thou sept Whose marble breast entombs my bowel Did I not charge thee, nay, entreat thy 1 Even for my sake, to spare my Absalom And hast thou now, in spite of David's h And scorn to do my heart some happines Given him the sword, and spilt his purp

Joab. What! irks it David, that he vi That Juda, and the fields of Israel Should cleanse their faces from their ch What! art thou weary of thy royal rule Is Israel's throne a serpent in thine eyes And he that set thee there, so far from t That thou must curse his servant for his Hast thou not said, that, as the morning The cloudless morning, so should be thi And not as flowers, by the brightest rain Which grow up quickly, and as quickly Hast thou not said, the wicked are as th That cannot be preserved with the hand And that the man shall touch them mu With coats of iron, and garments made Or with the shaft of a defenced spear? And art thou angry he is now cut off, That led the guiltless swarming to their And was more wicked than an host of m Advance thee from thy melancholy den, And deck thy body with thy blissful rol Or, by the Lord that sways the Heaven, I'll lead thine armies to another king, Shall cheer them for their princely chiv And not sit daunted, frowning in the da When his fair looks, with oil and wine r Should dart into their bosoms gladsome And fill their stomachs with triumphan That, when elsewhere stern War shall s And call another battle to the field, Fame still may bring thy valiant soldie And for their service happily confess She wanted worthy trumps to sound the Take thou this course, and live;-Refus

Lyly, Peele, Greene, Kyd, Na Marlowe, were the other writer stage, a part of whose career pr Shakspeare*. Lyly, whose dra

[ An interesting subject of inquiry literary history, is the state of our drar he began to alter and originate Englis his time mere mysteries and miracleAdam and Eve appeared naked, in wh played his horns and tail, and in which the patriarch's ears before entering th comparatively into disuse, after a pe centuries; and, in the course of the s the clergy were forbidden by orders fr form in them. Meanwhile "Moralimade their appearance about the midd century, were also hastening their re those pageants and masques in honour nevertheless aided the introduction of th owe our first regular dramas to the uni of court, and public seminaries. The

is prose, has traits of genius which we should not expect from his generally depraved taste, and he has several graceful interspersions of "sweet lyric song." But his manner, on the whole, is stilted. "Brave Marlowe, bathed in the Thespian springs," of whose "mighty muse Ben Jonson himself speaks reverentially, had powers of no ordinary class, and even ventured a few steps into the pathless sublime. But his pathos is dreary, and the terrors of his Muse remind us more of Minerva's gorgon than her countenance. The first sober and cold school of tragedy, which began with Lord Sackville's Gorboduc, was succeeded by one of headlong extravagance. Kyd's bombast was proverbial in his own day. With him the genius of tragedy might be said to have run mad; and, if we may judge of one work, the joint production of Greene and Lodge, to have hardly recovered her wits in the company of those authors. The piece to which I allude is entitled "A Looking-glass for London" [1594]. There, the Tamburlane establishments engaged in free translations of classical dramatists, though with so little taste, that Seneca was one of their favourites. They caught the coldness of that model, however, without the feeblest trace of his slender graces; they looked at the ancients without understanding them; and they brought to their plots neither unity, design, nor affecting interest. There is a general similarity among all the plays that preceded Shakspeare in their ill-conceived plots, in the bombast and dulness of tragedy, and in the vulgar buffoonery of comedy.

Of our great Poet's immediate predecessors, the most distinguished were Lyly, Peele, Greene, Kyd, Nash, Lodge, and Marlowe. Lyly was not entirely devoid of poetry, for we have some pleasing lyrical verses by him; but in the drama he is cold, mythological, and conceited, and he even polluted for a time the juvenile age of our literature with his abominable Euphuism. Peele has left some melodious and fanciful passages in his "David and Bethsabe." Greene is not unjustly praised for his comedy "Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay." Kyd's "Spanish Tragedy" was at first admired, but, subsequently, quoted only for its samples of the mock sublime. Nash wrote no poetry except for the stage; but he is a poor dramatic poet -though his prose satires are remarkably powerful. Lodge was not much happier on the stage than Nash; his prose works are not very valuable; but he wrote one satire in verse of considerable merit, and various graceful little lyrics. Marlowe was the only great man among Shakspeare's precursors; his conceptions were strong and original; his intellect grasped his subject as a whole: no doubt he dislocated the thews of his language by overstrained efforts at the show of strength, but he delineated character with a degree of truth unknown to his predecessors: his Edward the Second " is pathetic; and his "Faustus" has real grandeur. If Marlowe had lived, Shakspeare might have had something like a competitor. -CAMPBELL, Life of Shakspeare, p. xxiii.]

[* Drayton.]

[ocr errors]

of Kyd is fairly rivalled in rant and blasphemy by the hero Rasni, King of Nineveh, who boasts

"Great Jewry's God, that foil'd stout Benhadab, Could not rebate the strength that Rasni brought; For be he God in Heaven, yet viceroys know Rasni is God on earth, and none but he."

In the course of the play, the imperial swaggerer marries his own sister, who is quite as consequential a character as himself; but finding her struck dead by lightning, he deigns to espouse her lady-in-waiting, and is finally converted after his wedding, by Jonah, who soon afterwards arrives at Nineveh. It would be

perhaps unfair, however, to assume this tragedy as a fair test of the dramatic talents of either Greene or Lodge, Ritson recommended the dramas of Greene as well worthy of being collected. The taste of that antiquary was not exquisite, but his knowledge may entitle his opinion to consideration +.

Among these precursors of Shakspeare we may trace, in Peele and Marlowe, a pleasing dawn of the drama, though it was by no means a dawn corresponding to so bright a sunrise as the appearance of his mighty genius. He created our romantic drama, or if the assertion is to be qualified, it requires but a small qualification. There were, undoubtedly, prior

[t His Dramas and Poems were printed together in 1831 by Mr. Dyce. "In richness of fancy Greene," says Mr. Dyce, "is inferior to Peele; and with the exception of his amusing comedy Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, there is, perhaps, but little to admire in his dramatic productions."]

[ Untaught, unpracticed, in a barbarous age,

I found not, but created first the stage,And if I drain'd no Greek or Latin store, 'Twas that my own abundance gave me more. DRYDEN of Shakspeare. The English stage might be considered equally without rule and without model when Shakspeare arose. The effect of the genius of an individual upon the taste of a nation is mighty; but that genius, in its turn, is formed according to the opinions prevalent at the period when it comes into existence. Such was the case with Shakspeare. Had he received an education more extensive, and possessed a taste refined by the classical models, it is probable that be also, in admiration of the ancient Drama, might have mistaken the form for the essence, and subscribed to those rules which had produced such masterpieces of art. Fortunately for the full exertion of a genius, as comprehensive and versatile as intense and powerful, Shakspeare had no access to any models of which the commanding merit might have controlled and limited his own exertions. He followed the path which a nameless crowd of obscure writers had trodden before him; but he moved in it with the grace and majestic step of a being of a superior order; and vindicated for ever the British theatre from a pedantic

occupants of the dramatic ground in our language; but they appear only like unprosperous settlers on the patches and skirts cf a wilderness, which he converted into a garden. He is, therefore, never compared with his native predecessors. Criticism goes back for names worthy of being put in competition with his, to the first great masters of dramatic invention; and even in the points of dissimilarity between them and him, discovers some of the highest indications of his genius. Compared with the classical composers of antiquity, he is to our conceptions nearer the character of a universal poet; more acquainted with man in the real world, and more terrific and bewitching in the preternatural. He expanded the magic circle of the drama beyond the limits that belonged to it in antiquity; made it embrace more time and locality; filled it with larger business and action-with vicissitudes of gay and serious emotion, which classical taste had kept divided-with characters which developed humanity in stronger lights and subtler movements—and with a language more wildly, more playfully diversified by fancy and passion, than was ever spoken on any stage. Like Nature herself, he presents alternations of the gay and the tragic; and his mutability, like the suspense and precariousness of real existence, often deepens the force of our impressions. He converted imitation into illusion. To say that, magician as he was, he was not faultless, is only to recal the flat and stale truism, that everything human is imperfect. But how to estimate his imperfections*! To praise him

restriction to classical rule. Nothing went before Shakspeare which in any respect was fit to fix and stamp the character of a national Drama; and certainly no one will succeed him capable of establishing, by mere authority, a form more restricted than that which Shakspeare used. -SIR WALTER SCOTT, Misc. Pr. Works, vol. iii. p. 336.

Shakspeare began his literary career by alterations and adaptations of former dramas and copyright pieces to more popular and poetical purposes. He seems to have extended his desire for emendation to the works of living writers; and, taught by nature, to have done for the writings of University Men what Pope did (with equal offence) for the rhymes and lines of Wycherley. It was the common practice of his age to call in the pen of a living writer to aid with additions the Muse of a fellow dramatist. He soon, however, learned to depend on his own myriad-minded genius, on his own thousandtongued soul.]

[ He (Shakspeare) was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still preent to him, and he drew them not laboriously but luckily:

is easy--In facili causa cuivis licet ess to make a special, full, and accur of his imperfections would requi and comprehensive discrimination thority which are almost as seldo one man as the powers of Shaksp He is the poet of the world. Th of his genius puts it beyond all pri to set defined limits to the admirat due to it. We know, upon the wł sum of blemishes to be deducte merits is not great †, and we sho be thankful to one who should be make it. No other poet triumph lously over eccentricities and pec composition which would appear others; so that his blemishes a have an affinity which we are jeal ing any hand with the task of sepa dread the interference of criticism cination so often inexplicable by c and justly apprehend that any ma ing between us and Shakspeare m pretended spots upon his disk only of his own opacity.

Still it is not a part even of that creed, to believe that he has no ex ture of the tragic and comic, no b language in the elliptical throng an pressure of his images, no irreg plot and action, which another would avoid, if "nature had not mould in which she made him, should come back into the world t perience with inspiration .

when he describes anything, you more th feel it too. Those who accuse him to have ing, give him the greater commendation: rally learned; he needed not the spectacl read nature; he looked inwards, and fou I cannot say he is everywhere alike; w should do him injury to compare him wit of mankind. He is many times flat, insip wit degenerating into clenches, his serious bombast. But he is always great, when gr presented to him; no man can say he ever ject for his wit, and did not then raise hi above the rest of poets

Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cu

If Shakspeare's embroideries were bur would still be silver at the bottom of the DRYDEN, Malone, vol. ii. p. 295.]

[Of the learning of Shakspeare, Mr. elsewhere: "There is not a doubt that he glorious fancy at the lamp of classical myth Hyperion's curls-the front of Jove him

« PředchozíPokračovat »