« ZurückWeiter »
repeat it. His stores of antiquarian knowledge were at least equal to those of Steevens: but he was not equally endowed by Nature with that popular commentator: Malone's intellect was unquestionably of a subordinate class. He could collect and amass; but he could not combine and arrange. Like a weak soldier under heavy armour, he is oppressed by his means of safety and triumph. He sinks beneath bis knowledge, and cannot profitably use it. The weakness of his judgment deprived the result of his industry of its proper effect. He acts on a right principle of criticism: but, ignorant of its right application, he employs it for the purposes of error. He was not, in short, formed of the costly materials of a critic; and no labour, against the inhibition of Nature, could fashion him into a critic. His page is pregnant with information: but it is thrown into so many involutions and tangles, that it is lighter labour to work it out of the original quarry than to select it amid the confusion in which it is thus brought to your hand. If any copy of indisputable authority bad been in existence, Malone would have produced a fac-simile of it, and would thus, indeed, have been an admirable editor of his author, for not a preposition, a copulative, a particle, a comma to be found in his original, would have been out of its place in his transcript. But no such authentic copy of Shakspeare could be discovered; and something more than diligence and accuracy was required in his editor: and to nothing more than diligence and accuracy could Malone's very bumble and circumscribed abilities aspire. Attaching, therefore, fictitious authority to some of the earlier copies, be followed them with conscientious. precision; and, disclaiming all emendatory criticism, he rejoiced in his fidelity to the errors of the first careless or illiterate transcriber. He closed the long file of the editors of Shakspeare. But although no formal editor or commentator has hitherto appeared to supply the place left vacant by Malone, yet does the importance of our bard continue to excite the man of talents to write in his cause, and to refresh the wreath of fame, which bas huny for two centuries on bis tomb. On this occasion
I must adduce the name of Skottowe, a gentleman who has recently gratified the public with a life of Shakspeare, involving a variety of matter respecting him, in a style eminent for its compression and its neatness. To Mr. Skottowe I must acknowledge my especial obligations, for not infrequently relieving me from the prolixities and the perplexities of Malone; and sometimes for giving to me information in a compendious and lucid form, like a jewel set in the rich simplicity of gold.
When I speak of Malone as the last of the editors of Shakspeare, I speak, of course, with reference to the time at which I am writing, when no later editor has shown himself to the world. But when I am placed before the awful tribunal of the Public, a new Editor of our great dramatist will stand by my side: who, whilst I can be only a suppliant for pardon, may justly be a candidate for praise. With Mr. SINGER, the editor in question, I am personally unacquainted; and till a period, long subsequent to my completion of the little task which I had undertaken, I had not seen a line of his Shakspearian illustrations. But, deeming it right to obtain some knowledge of the Gentleman, who was bound on the same voyage of adventure, in the same vessel with myself, I have since read the far greater part of his commentary on my author; and it would be unjust in me not to say, that I have found much in it to applaud, and very little to censure. Mr. Singer's antiquarian learning is accurate and extensive : his critical sagacity is considerable; and his judgment generally approves itself to be correct. He enters on the field with the strength of a giant; but with the diffidence and the humility of a child. We sometimes wish, indeed, that his humility had been less: for be is apt to defer to inferior men, and to be satisfied with following when he is privileged to lead. His explanations of bi author are frequently happy; and sometimes they illus trate a passage, which had been left in unregarded dark ness by the commentators who had preceded him. Th sole fault of these explanatory notes (if such indeed ca be deemed a fault) is their redundancy; and their recurrence in cases where their aid seems to be unnecessary. Mr. Singer and I may occasionally differ in our opinions, respecting the text, which he has adopted : but, in these instances of our dissent, it is fully as probable that I may be wrong as he. I feel, in short, confident, on the whole, that Mr. Singer is now advancing, not to claim (for to claim is inconsistent with his modesty) but, to obtain a high place among the editors of Shakspeare ; and to have his name enrolled with the names of those who have been the chief benefactors of the reader of our transcendent Poet.
We have now seen, from the first editorial attempt of Rowe, a whole century excited by the greatness of one man, and sending forth its most ambitious spirits, from the man of genius down to the literary mechanic, to tend on him as the vassals of his royalty, and to illustrate his magnificence to the world. Has this excitement had an adequate cause? or has it been only the frenzy of the times, or a sort of meteorous exhalation from an idle and overexuberant soil ? Let us examine our great poet, and dramatist, with the eye of impartial criticism; and then let the result of our examination form the reply to these interrogatories of doubt.
Shakspeare took his stories from any quarter, whence they were offered to him; from Italian novels; from histories; from old story-books; from old plays; and even from old ballads. In one instance, and in one alone, no prototype has been found for his fiction; and the whole of“ The Tempest," from its first moving point to the plenitude of its existence, must be admitted to be the offspring of bis wonderful imagination *.. But whencesoever he drew the first suggestion of his story, or whatever might be its original substance, be soon converts it into an image of ivory and gold, like that of the Minerva of Phidias; and then, beyond the efficacy of the sculptor's art, he breathes into it the breath of life. This, indeed, is spoken only of his tragedies and comedies: for his histories, as they were first
+ Tbis, perhaps, may be affirmed also of “ A Midsummer Night's Dream.”
called, or historical dramas, are transcripts from the page of Hall or Hollingshed; and, in some instances, are his workings on old plays, and belong to him no otherwise than as he imparted to them the powerful delineation of character, or enriched them with some exquisite scenes. These pieces, however, which affect not the combination of a fable ; but, wrought upon the page of the chronicler or of the elder dramatist, follow the current of events, as it flows on in historic succession, must be made the first subjects of our remarks; and we will then pass to those dramas, which are more properly and strictly his own. To these historical plays, then, whatever may be their original materials, the power of the Poet has communicated irresistible attraction; not, as Samuel Johnson would wish us to believe,“ by being not long soft or pathetic without some idle conceit or contemptible equivocation :" not“ by checking and blasting terror and pity, as they are rising in the mind, with sudden frigidity,” but by the strongest exertions of the highest poetry; and by commanding, with the royalty of genius, every avenue to the human heart. For the truth of what we assert, we will make our appeal to the frantic and soul-piercing lamentations of Constance in “ King John;" to the scene between that monarch and Hubert; and between Hubert and young Arthur; to the subsequent scene between Hubert and his murderous sovereign, when the effects of the reported death of Arthur on the populace are described, and the murderer quarrels with bis agent: to the scene, finally, in which the king dies, and which concludes the play.
For the evidence of the power of our great Poet we might appeal also to many scenes and descriptions even in “ Richard II.;" though of all his historical dramas this, perhaps, is the least instinct with animation, and the least attractive with dramatic interest. Of " Richard II.” we may say with Mr. Skottowe, that,“ though it is an exquisite poem, it is an indifferent play.” But in the drama which, in its historic order, succeeds to it, we receive an ample compensation for any failure of the dramatist in “ Richard II.” In every page of “ Henry
IV.," both the serious and the comic, Shakspeare “ is bimself again;" and our fancy is either elevated or amused without the interruption of a single discordant or uncharacteristic sentiment. Worcester, indeed, says,
“ And 'tis no little reason bids us speed
To save our heads by raising of a head,” and is thus guilty of a quibble; an offense of which the Prince, on two occasions, shows himself to be capable ; once when he sees Falstaff apparently dead on the field of Shrewsbury; and once when, on his accession to the throne, he appoints his father's Chief Justice to a contingance in his high office: and these, as I believe, are the sole instances of our Poet's dalliance with his Cleopatra, for whose love he was content to lose the world, throughout the whole of the serious parts of this long and admirable drama.
The succeeding play of “ Henry V.” bears noble testimony to the poetic and the dramatic supremacy of Shakspeare: to the former, more especially in its three fine choruses, one of them serving as the prologue to the play, one opening the third act, and one describing the night preceding the battle of Agincourt: to the latter, in every speech of the King's, and in the far greater part of the remaining dialogue, whether it be comic or tragic. Henry V.,” however, is sullied with some weak and silly scenes; and, on the whole, is certainly inferior in dramatic attraction to its illustrious predecessor, But it is a very fine production, and far-far above the reach of any other English writer, who has been devoted to the service of the stage.
Of“ Henry VI.,” that drum and trumpet thing, as it has happily been called by a man of genius *, who ranged himself with the advocates of Shakspeare, I shall not take any notice on the present occasion, as the three parts of this dramatized history are nothing more than three old plays, corrected by the hand of Shakspeare, and here and there illustrious with the
* The late Mr. Maurice Morgann; who wrote an eloquent essay on the dramatic character of Falstaff.