« ZurückWeiter »
out of the plot or story, and not be formed upon any mechanical or technical principles. They should be rather diversified than contrasted. To step “ from grave to gay, from lively to severe,” is a good rule, and where a contrast naturally presents itself, it will contribute to enliven the scene; but probability should never be sacrificed to it.
In comedy something of exaggeration may be permitted. It is indeed a picture of life, but it is a picture in caricature. I believe, in truth, that any exact picture of life would tire or disgust on the stage, where we expect to see something different from what we are every day accustomed to ; and for this reason such plays as are the most exact copies of life; such as the Careless Husband, and the Jealous Wife, are the least interesting. Yet nature and probability must not be violated too far, for then it ceases to be a representation. The illusion must be kept up to the spectator; he must for the instant believe it real, or the effect is lost. Nothing of a horrid or disgusting nature should be introduced into comedy, for then the cheerfulness and hilarity it is intended to excite would be destroyed. It is needless almost to add, that a comedy should always (for the same reason) have a fortunate conclusion: yct I must remark that, to achieve the end, in many modern comedies all probability is violated. The spendthrift is made frugal, the miser becomes generous; and the greatest contrast is exhibited in the same personage, who is often the complete opposite at the end of the play to what he was in the beginning. The consistency of character is most ably maintained by Shakspeare and Moliere.
The language in comedy should be always adapted to the respective characters. In the mouth of a clown, or a very low person, even vulgar language may be admitted; but the style should in no case be too highly polished or refined, like the language of books. As the piece is a representation of life, so the language should be that of conversation ; and any thing above it is only natural in the mouth of a pedant or very affected person, a Malvolio, a Vellum, or a Malaprop.
The first writers of comedy introduced living characters, and sometimes the most virtuous persons of the age, upon the stage, Socrates himself not excepted. This was, however, attended with great evils and disturbances, and at length they were prohibited by law from the exhibition of any living characters. Aristophanes is the principal author of this description now extant. The wit of these writers was, as I before hinted, of the lowest kind, and their discourses often obscene. What is called the middle comedy was an elusion of the laws, by introducing real characters under feigned names; but we have no author of this kind now remaining. The new comedy consists in drawing pictures and characters, but not living ones.
Plautus and Terence were the most popular comic writers among the Romans. Plautus has more of the truly comic ; his characters are drawn with strong features, his language is also strong, but coarse. Terence is a strict observer of rules, but fails in strength; and what detracts from his merit is, that he is a constant imitator of the Greeks.
A considerable difference is to be observed between the French and the English comedy. The French are more regular, perhaps more tame; the English are irregular, but interesting and full of plot: I am afraid I must add, that the French are more decorous and chaste. If, indeed, I gave little praise to the French tragic writers, I cannot in justice be equally niggardly of applause to their comic drama. Moliere is himself an host: he abounds in character, wit and humour; his plots are ingenious, lively, and interesting; and in his plays in general we find little to offend a modest ear, or throw ridicule upon virtue. It must be allowed, however, that some of Moliere's plays (the much admired Misanthrope, for instance) are heavy and spiritless. Indeed, the French plays have in general less variety than the English; and perhaps this might in some measure be accounted for from the nature of their despotic government, which had a tendency to spread a greater uniformity over their behaviour: but it is strange that the French, who are remarkable for their levity, and certainly not praise-worthy for their morals, should so far exceed the English in the decency and decorum of their comedies.
Since the time of Moliere, the French have invented a new kind of comedy, called Larmoyante. In this kind of writing, sentiment is more studied than plot or character; the plots chiefly turn on the discovery of some person, a woman, for instance, in mean circumstances, found to be the daughter of some rich man; or a wife finds her husband, whom she imagined lost or dead. This style of writing has also been introduced in England, under the name of sentimental comedy ; but the humour of Goldsmith, and the wit of Sheridan, have laughed it off the stage.
In taking a short view of the English comic writers. Shakspeare must occupy not only the first, but the highest place. His dramas, after a lapse of two centuries, are still gazed at with unabated ardour by the populace, are still read with admiration by the scholar. They interest the old and the young, the gallery and the pit, the people and the critic. At their representation appetite is never palled, expectation never disappointed. The changes of fashion have not cast him into shade, the variations of language have not rendered him obsolete. His plots are lively, and command attention; his characters are still new and striking, and his wit is fertile even to exuberance. Perhaps there never was a drama which so happily combined tender sentiment with comic force as “ As You Like it:" there is scarcely a character in it which fails to interest. Adam and Jacques, are truly original; and even the buffoonery of the clown is of a superior cast.
In the Merchant of Venice the unity of action is somewhat violated by a double plot; but perhaps two plots were never so happily combined as in this play ; and one rises so naturally out of the other, that not the sm
st confusion is pro
duced. The comic scenes pleasantly relieve the mind from the effect produced by the serious. The conclusion is unexpected, and the effect of the whole is truly happy. Gratiano appears to me a character which Shakspeare only could have penned; though, from the little interest which he has in the plot, he is less noticed than he would have been for his sportive wit, had he been of more impormance to the main action. What an effort of imagination is ihe Tempest! Magic, the tendency of which is naturally to excite horror and disgust, is converted into an instrument of gaiety and pleasure ; and the author can give diversity of character even to ideal beings, or rather seems as much conversant with the world of spirits as with the characters of men. Perhaps the Merry Wives of Windsor is one of the most regular of Shakspeare's comedies; and I scarcely know a play that comes more completely under that description. The principal character, Falstaff, is, however, scarcely so well depicted as in Henry the Fourth. In the scenes with the Prince, when debauchery and cheating are the themes, the old Knight seems more in his proper element than in his rencounter with ladies. It is remarkable tliat, so early as Shakspeare's time, the paltry stage trick of exciting a vulgar laugh at the broken dialect of a foreigner was in use; a trick which has since been almost the sole support of a comedy, but which was utterly unworthy of the genius of Shakspeare. Much Ado About Nothing, though the subject in some measure justifies the title, is yet abundant in wit and pleasantry; and Measure for Measure, and the Twelfth Night, are truly interesting. The Winter's tale is the most irregular of our author's comedies : there the unity of time is indeed violated beyond all bounds : yet it contains some exquisite strokes of nature and poetry, and many pleasant playful scenes. Of the Midsummer Night's Dream it is difficult to judge by any of the rules of criticism ; it is, in every point of view, a most extraordinary piece, and I confess I should like to see it well performed. The scenes between Bottom, Quince, and their compa
ny of players, are exquisitely humorous. The Comedy of Errors, Love's Labour Lost, and the Two Gentlemen of Verona, are the worst of our author's productions, if indeed they are really his.
Ben Jonson may be regarded as next in order of time to Shakspeare, but in genius he is greatly his inferior. Jonson was classically educated, and he endeavoured to reduce the English comedy to the rules of the critics. He studied character rather than plot; but he crowds characters together in an artificial manner, and yet they are less striking than those of Shakspeare. Another circumstance unfavourable to the dramas of Jonson, when compared with those of his great master, is, that Jonson painted from the age in which he lived, Shakspeare from human nature itself. “ He's knight of the shire, and represents you all,” is a line that will apply to most of the characters of Shakspeare. Hence his plays are in fashion in every age; while those of Jonson are now almost banished from the stage.
Beaumont and Fletcher wrote rather on the model of Shakspeare than of Jonson ;* yet in their plots they are somewhat more regular than the former; but the composition is incorrect, though they contain many beauties. Dryden informs us that the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher were the reigning favourites of his time, two of theirs being acted for one of Shakspeare's: they have, however, had their day, for at present only one of them keeps the stage, « Rule a Wife and Have a Wife;" which, notwithstanding a strain of indelicacy in it, is still popular, from the entertainment which it affords, by an interesting plot supported by much hu
I shall pass over a multitude of comic writers whose plays are now consigned to oblivion, and even Dryden himself, (whose excellence was certainly not comedy, thoug! in the Spanish Friar there is much pleasantry and wit) to mention Congreve, an author of whom you