Page images
PDF
EPUB

neglect into which Shakspere had fallen as competitors; formed for the mutual assistance a popular dramatist, may be opposed the and illustration of each other's genius. How most distinct testimony of one, especially, Shakespeare wrote, all men who have a taste who was

a most accurate and minute for nature may read, and know; but with chronicler of the public taste. COLLEY CIBBER, what higher rapture would he still be read, who himself became an actor, in 1690, in the could they conceive how Betterton played one privileged company of London, of which him!” Whenever Cibber speaks of BetterBetterton was the head-a company formed ton's wondrous excellence, it is always in out of the united strength of the two connection with Shakspere: “Should I tell companies which had been established at the you that all the Othellos, Hamlets, Hotspurs, Restoration-describes the state of the stage Macbeths, and Brutuses whom you may have at the period of the first revival of dramatic seen since his time, have fallen far short of performances: “Besides their being thorough him, this still should give you no idea of his masters of their art, these actors set forward particular excellence.” For some years after with two critical advantages, which perhaps the Restoration it seems to have been difficult may never happen again in many ages.” to satiate the people with the repetition of One of the advantages he mentions, but a Shakspere's great characters and leading secondary one, was, “that before the Restora- plays, in company with some of the plays of tion no actresses had ever been seen upon the Jonson and Fletcher. The two companies English stage.” But the chief advantage had an agreement as to their performances : was, “their immediate opening after the so “All the capital plays of Shakespeare, long interdiction of plays during the civil Fletcher, and Ben Jonson were divided bewar and the anarchy that followed it.” He tween them by the approbation of the court, then goes on to say, “What eager appetites and their own alternate choice.

So that, from so long a fast must the guests of those when Hart was famous for Othello, Betterton times have had to that high and fresh variety had no less a reputation for Hamlet.” Still, of entertainments !” Provided by whom? | the test of histrionic excellence was ShakBy the combined variety of Jonson, and spere. So far from Shakspere being neglected Fletcher, and Massinger, and Ford, and at this period, it is almost evident that the Shirley, and a host of other writers, whose performance of him was overdone ; for every attactive fare was to be presented to the one knows that a theatrical audience, even eager guests after so long a fast ? No. The in the largest city, is, in a considerable high entertainment and the fresh variety degree, composed of regular frequenters of was to be provided by one man alone,—the the theatre, and that novelty is therefore an man who we are told was neglected in his indispensable requisite to continued success. own age, and forgotten in that which came The plays of Shakspere were better acted by after him. “What eager appetites from so the company of which Betterton was the long a fast must the guests of those tinies head, than by the rival company ; and this, have had to that high and fresh variety of according to Cibber, led to the introduction entertainments which Shakespeare had left of a new taste :-“ These two excellent prepared for them! Never was a stage so companies were both prosperous for some few provided. A hundred years are wasted, and years, till their variety of plays began to be another silent century well advanced *, and exhausted. Then, of course, the better actors yet what unborn age shall say Shakespeare (which the King's seem to have been allowed) has his equal! How many shining actors could not fail of drawing the greater audihave the warm scenes of his genius given to

Sir William Davenant, therefore, posterity!" Betterton is idolized as master of the Duke's company, to make head actor, as much as the old man venerates against their success, was forced to add Shakspere : “ Betterton was an actor, as spectacle and music to action, and to intro Shakespeare was an author, both without duce a new species of plays, since called * Cibber is writing as late as 1740.

dramatic operas, of which kind were “The

ences.

[ocr errors]

an

Tempest,' 'Psyche,' 'Circe,' and others, all / several angels holding the King's arms, as if set off with the most expensive decorations they were placing them in the midst of that of scenes and habits, with the best voices compass-pediment. Behind this is the scene, and dancers.

which represents a thick cloudy sky, a very “This sensual supply of sight and sound rocky coast, and a tempestuous sea in percoming into the assistance of the weaker petual agitation. This tempest (supposed party, it was no wonder they should grow too be raised by magic) has many dreadful hard for sense and simple nature, when it is objects in it, as several spirits in horrid considered how many more people there are shapes flying down amongst the sailors, then that can see and hear than think and judge. rising in the air. And, when the ship is So wanton a change of the public taste, sinking, the whole house is darkened, and a therefore, began to fall as heavy upon the shower of fire falls upon 'em. This is King's company as their greater excellence in accompanied with lightning, and several action had before fallen upon their competitors. claps of thunder, to the end of the storm." Of which encroachment upon wit several In the alterations of this play, which were good prologues in those days frequently made in 1669, and which continued to possess complained."

the English stage for nearly a century and a There can be no doubt that most of the half, it is impossible now not to feel how original performances of Shakspere, imme- false was the taste upon which they were diately after the Restoration, were given built. Dryden says of this play, that Davefrom his unsophisticated text. The first nant, to put the last hand to it, “designed improvements that were perpetrated upon the counterpart to Shakespeare's plot, namely, this text resulted from the cause which that of a man who had never seen a woman; Cibber has so accurately described. Davenant, that by this means those two characters of to make head against the success of the innocence and love might the more illustrate King's company “was forced to add spectacle and commend each other.” Nothing can be and music to action.” What importance weaker and falser in art than this mere Davenant attached to these novelties, we may duplication of an idea. But still it was not leam from the description of the opening done irreverently. The prologue to this scene of "The Enchanted Island ;' that altered Tempest (of his own part of which alteration of 'The Tempest,' by himself and Dryden says, “I never writ anything with Dryden, to which Cibber refers :-“The front more delight”) is of itself an answer to the of the stage is opened, and the band of asinine assertion that Dryden, in common twenty-four violins, with the harpsicals and with the public of his day, was indifferent to theorbos which accompany the voices, are the memory of Shakspere :placed between the pit and the stage. While the overture is playing, the curtain rises,

As, when a tree's cut down, the secret root and discovers a new frontispiece joined to

Lives underground, and thence new branches the great pilasters on each side of the stage. This frontispiece is a noble arch, supported

So, from old Shakespear's honour'd dust, this by large wreathed columns of the Corinthian

day

Springs up and buds a new reviving play. order; the wreathings of the columns are beautified with roses wound round them, and

Shakespear, who taught by none) did first

impart several Cupids flying about them. On the

To Fletcher wit, to labouring Jonson art. cornice, just over the capitals, sits on either

He, monarch like, gave those his subjects side a figure, with a trumpet in one hand law, and a palm in the other, representing Fame. And is that nature which they paint and A little farther on the same cornice, on each draw. side of a compass pediment, lie a lion and a Fletcher reached that which on his heights unicorn, the supporters of the royal arms of England. In the middle of the arch are Whilst Jonson crept and gather'd all below.

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

shoot;

did grow,

roar.

now

This did his love, and this his mirth digest: ages. But 'tis almost a miracle that much One imitates him most, the other best. of his language remains so pure ; and that If they have since out-writ all other men, he who began dramatic poetry amongst us, 'Tis with the drops which fell from Shake- untaught by any, and, as Ben Jonson tells speare's pen.

us, without learning, should, by the force of The storm which vanish'd on the neighb'ring his own genius, perform so much, that in a shore

manner he has left no praise for any who Was taught by Shakespear's Tempest first to

came after him." That innocence and beauty which did smile

Dryden had the notion, in which ShaftesIn Fletcher, grow on this Enchanted Isle.

bury followed him, that the style of ShakBut Shakespear's magic could not copied be,

spere was obsolete, although we have just Within that circle none durst walk but he. seen that he says, “ 'Tis almost a miracle I must confess 'twas bold, nor would you

that much of his language remains so pure.”

Yet with this notion, which he puts forward That liberty to vulgar wits allow,

as an apology for tampering with Shakspere, Which works by magic supernatural things : he never ceases to express his admiration of But Shakespear's power is sacred as a king's. him ; and, what is of more importance, to Those legends from old priesthood were re- show how general was the same feeling. ceiv'd,

The preface to “Troilus and Cressida' thus And he then writ, as people then believ'd.

begins :-“The poet Æschylus was held in

the same veneration by the Athenians of Of Dryden's personal admiration of Shak- after-ages as Shakspeare is by us.” In this spere, of his profound veneration for Shak-preface is introduced the 'Grounds of Critispere, there is abundant proof. He belonged cism in Tragedy,' in which the critic applies to the transition period of English poetry. a variety of tests to the art of Shakspere, His better judgment was sometimes held in which only show that he did not understand subjection to the false taste that prevailed the principles upon which Shakspere worked: around him. He attempted to found a school but still there is everywhere the most unof criticism, which should establish rules of qualified admiration ; and in the prologue art differing from those which produced the to the altered play, which, being addressed drama of Shakspere, and yet not acknow- to the people, could scarcely deal with such ledging the supremacy of the tame and rules and exceptions for the formation of a forinal school of the French tragedians. He judgment, we have again the most positive did not perfectly understand the real nature | testimony to the public sense of Shakspere. of the romantic drama. He did not see This prologue is “spoken by Mr. Betterton, that, as in all other high poetry, simplicity representing the ghost of Shakspeare." was one of its great elements. He was of those who would "gild refined gold.” But

“See, my lov'd Britons, see your Shakespear for genial hearty admiration of the great

rise, master of the romantic drama no one ever

An awful ghost confess'd to human eyes !

Unnam'd, methinks, distinguish'd I had been went beyond him. Take, for example, the

From other shades, by this eternal green, conclusion of his preface to 'All for Love :'

Above whose wreaths the vulgar poets strive, _“In my style I have professed to imitate

And with a touch their wither'd bars re the divine Shakespear ; which that I might

vive. perform more freely, I have disencumbered

Untaught, unpractis'd, in a barbarous age, myself from rhyme. Not that I condemn

I found not, but created first, the stage. my former way, but that this is more proper And, if I drain'd no Greek or Latin store, to my present purpose. I hope I need not

'Twas, that my own abundance gave me to explain myself that I have not copied my author servilely. Words and phrases must On foreign trade I needed not rely, of necessity receive a change in succeeding Like fruitful Britain, rich without supply.

more.

In this my rough-drawn play you shall be box. One thing is perfectly clear : that, hold

when Dryden is addressing the people, he Some master-strokes, so manly and so bold, speaks of Shakspere as their especial faThat he, who meant to alter, found 'em such, vourite. He is then “your Shakspere.” The He shook; and thought it sacrilege to

crafty and prosaic Pepys, on the contrary, no touch.

doubt expressed many a courtier’s sentiment Now, where are the successors to my name?

about Shakspere. In the entry of his Diary What bring they to fill out a poet's fame?

of August 20th, 1666, we have, “ To DeptWeak, short-liv'd issues of a feeble age ; Scarce living to be christend on the stage !"

ford by water, reading Othello, Moor of

Venice,' which I ever heretofore esteemed a With these repeated acknowledgments of mighty good play; but, having so lately read Shakspere's supremacy, it is at first difficult 'The Adventures of Five Hours,' it seems a to understand how, in 1665, Dryden should mean thing." "The Adventures of Five have written, “others are now generally pre- Hours,' a tragi-comedy, by Sir Samuel Tuke, ferred before him.” The age, as he himself was a translation from the Spanish, which tells us, differed in this respect from that of Echard commends for its variety of plots Shakspere's own age, and also from that of and intrigues. We can easily understand Charles I. He says, in the same 'Essay on how Pepys, and “my wife's maid,” counted Dramatic Poesy,' speaking of Beaumont and Othello' a mean thing in comparison with Fletcher, “Their plays are now the most. it. Pepys shows us pretty clearly the sort of pleasant and frequent entertainments of the audience that in that day was called fashionstage, two of theirs being acted through the able, and the mode in which they displayed year for one of Shakespear's or Jonson’s.” | their interest in a theatrical entertainment : But this is not neglect or oblivion of Shak- -“My wife and I to the King's playhouse, spere. We learn pretty clearly from Dryden, and there saw "The Island Princess,' the though he does not care to say so, for that first time I ever saw it; and it is a pretty would have been self-condemnation, that a good play, many good things being in it, and licentiousness which was not found in Shak- a good scene of a town on fire. We sat in spere was an agreeable thing to a licentious an upper box, and the jade Nell came and audience : “They” (Beaumont and Fletcher) sat in the next box ; a bold, merry slut, who “understood and imitated the conversation lay laughing there upon people.” Again : of gentlemen much better, whose wild de- "To the King's house to “The Maid's Trabaucheries, and quickness of wit in repar- gedy; but vexed all the while with two tees, no poet before them could paint as talking ladies and Sir Charles Sedley ; yet they have done. ... They represented all pleased to hear their discourse, he being a the passions very lively, but, above all, love." stranger.” We can easily imagine that the The highest things in Shakspere can only be “jade Nell," and the "talking ladies,” were fitly appreciated by a people amongst whom the representatives of a very large class, there is a high moral tone, capable of under- who preferred “other plays” to those of standing and of originating the highest Shakspere. poetical things. With all their faults, the We select a few passages from "The ages of Elizabeth and James possessed this Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy,' which tone ; and it is impossible now to estimate contains a more condensed view of Dryden's how greatly Shakspere contributed to its opinions of Shakspere than any other of his preservation. But nine years after the Re- prefaces. It is the summary of the judgstoration there was no public principle in ment of the highest critical authority of England, and little private honour. The this period,—when the public taste had been keenest relish for Shakspere most probably corrupted with music and spectacle, and existed out of the Court; and Betterton, in comedies of licentious intrigue abounded, in all likelihood, felt the applause of the pit company with the rhyming tragedies of more truly valuable than that of the king's | Dryden himself, and the ranting bombast of his inferior rivals. This essay first appeared ought to be shown in every man, as prein 1679:

dominant over all the rest; as covetousness “How defective Shakespear and Fletcher in Crassus, love of his country in Brutus ; have been in all their plots, Mr. Rymer has and the same in characters which are discovered in his “Criticisms :' neither can feigned. ... we, who follow them, be excused from the “ The present French poets are generally same or greater errors ; which are the more accused, that, wheresoever they lay the scene, unpardonable in us, because we want their or in whatsoever age, the manners of their beauty to countervail our faults. . .

heroes are wholly French. Racine's Bajazet “ The difference between Shakespear and is bred at Constantinople, but his civilities Fletcher, in their plotting, seems to be this are conveyed to him by some secret passage that Shakespear generally moves more terror, from Versailles into the Seraglio. But our and Fletcher more compassion. For the Shakespear, having ascribed to Henry the first had a more masculine, a bolder, and Fourth the character of a king and of a more fiery genius ; the second, a more soft father, gives him the perfect manners of and womanish. In the mechanic beauties of each relation, when either he transacts with the plot, which are the observation of the his son or with his subjects. Fletcher, on the three unities—time, place, and action—they other side, gives neither to Arbaces, nor to are both deficient; but Shakespear most. his king in "The Maid's Tragedy,' the quaBen Jonson reformed those errors in his lities which are suitable to a monarch, .. comedies, yet one of Shakespear's was regular To return once more to Shakespear: no before him; which is, 'The Merry Wives of man ever drew so many characters, or gene Windsor,

rally distinguished them better from one “ After the plot, which is the foundation another, excepting only Jonson. I will inof the play, the next thing to which we stance but in one, to show the copiousness of ought to apply our judgment is the manners; his invention ; it is that of Caliban, or the for now the poet comes to work above ground. monster, in "The Tempest.' He seems there The groundwork indeed is that which is to have created a person which was not in most necessary, as that upon which depends nature—a boldness which at first sight would the firmness of the whole fabric ; yet it appear intolerable ; for he makes him a strikes not the eye so much as the beauties species of himself, begotten by an incubus or imperfections of the manners, the thoughts, on a witch ; but this, as I have elsewhere and the expressions. .

proved, is not wholly beyond the bounds of “ From the manners the characters of credibility,--at least the vulgar still believe persons are derived ; for indeed the charac-it. We have the separated notions of a ters are no other than the inclinations, as spirit and of a witch—and spirits, accordthey appear in the several persons of the ing to Pl are vested with a subtle body; poem. A character, or that which distin- according to some of his followers, have difguishes one man from all others, cannot be ferent sexes) ;—therefore, as from the dissupposed to consist of one particular virtue, tinct apprehensions of a horse and of a man, or vice, or passion only; but it is a com- | imagination has formed a Centaur, so from position of qualities which are not contrary those of an incubus and a sorceress Shaketo one another in the same person. Thus, spear has produced his monster. Whether the same man may be liberal and valiant, or no his generation can be defended I leave but not liberal and covetous ; so in a comical to philosophy ; but of this I am certain, character, or humour, (which is an inclina- that the poet has most judiciously furnished tion to this or that particular folly,) Falstaff him with a person, a language, and a chais a liar and a coward, a glutton and a buf-racter which will suit him, both by father's foon, because all these qualities may agree and mother's side: he has all the disconin the same man ; yet it is still to be obtents and malice of a witch and of a devil, served that one virtue, vice, and passion, | besides a convenient proportion of the deadly

« PreviousContinue »