« ZurückWeiter »
of the mighty and sublime Æschylus, shrinks into insignificance before this of the murdered Majesty of Denmark. For his success, indeed, in this instance, Shakspeare is greatly indebted to the superior awfulness of his religion; and the use which he has made of the Romish purgatory must be regarded as supremely felicitous. When the imagination of Shakspeare sported without controll amid these creations of its own, it unquestionably lifted bim high above any competition. As he plays with the fairies in their bowers of eglantine and woodbine; or directs the operations in the magic cave; or calls the dead from the “ cold obstruction” of the tomb,“ to make night hideous,” he may challenge the poets of every age, from that of Homer to the present, and be fearless of the event. But either from his ignorance of them, which is not easily credible, or from his disregard to them, or rather perhaps from his desire to escape from their yoke, he violates without remorse the dramatic unities of time and place, contenting himself to preserve the unity of action or design, without which, indeed, nothing worthy of the name of composition can exist. And who steps forward, in this instance of his licentious liberty, as the champion of Shakspeare, but that very critic who brings such charges against him as a poet and a dramatist, that, if they were capable of being substantiated, would overturn him from his lofty pedestal; and would prove the object of our homage, during two centuries, to be a little deformed image, wbich we had with the most silly idolatry mistaken for a god? But Johnson's defense of Shakspeare seems to be as weak as bis attack; though in either case the want of power in the warrior is concealed under the glare of his ostentatious arms. It is unquestionable that, since the days of the patrician of Argos, recorded by Horace *, who would sit for hours in the vacant theatre, and give his applause to actors who were not there, no man, unattended by a keeper, ever mistook the wooden and narrow platform of a stage for the fields of Philippi or Agincourt; or the painted canvas, shifting under his
-Fuit haud ignobilis Argis, &c. Epis. lib. ii. Ep. ii. 1. 128.
eye, for the palace of the Ptolemies or the Cæsars; or the walk, which had brought him from his own house to the theatre, for a voyage across the Mediterranean to Alexandria; or the men and women, with whom he had probably conversed in the common intercourse of life, for old Romans and Grecians. Such a power of illusion, quite incompatible with any degree of sanity of mind, has never been challenged by any critic, as attached to poetry and the stage; and it is adduced, in bis accustomed style of argument, by Johnson, only for the purpose of confounding his adversaries with absurdity, or of baffling them with ridicule. But there is a power of illusion, belonging to genuine poetry, which, without overthrowing the reason, can seise upon the imagination, and make it subservient to its purposes. This is asserted by Horace in that often cited passage:
“ Ille per extentum fanem mibi posse videtur
Ut magus; et modo me Thebis modo ponit Athenis.” Assisted by the scenery, the dresses of the actors, and their fine adaptation of the voice and countenance to the design of the poet, this illusion becomes so strong as intimately to blend us with the fictitious personages whom we see before us. We know, indeed, that we are seated upon benches, and are spectators only of a poetic fiction: but the power, which mingles us with the agents upon the stage, is of such a nature that we feel, as it were, one interest with them: we resent the injuries which they suffer, we rejoice at the good fortune which betides them: the pulses of our hearts beat in harmony with theirs; and as the tear gushes from their eyes, it swells and overflows in ours. To account for this intluence of poetic imitation; for this contagion of represented passion belongs to the metaphysician : the sole business of the critic is to remark and to reason from the fact. It is unquestionable that our imaginations are, to a certain extent, under the controll of authentic poetry, and especially of that poetry which employs the scenic imitation for its instrument. The stream of passion, like a stream of electricity, rushes from the actor to us, and we are as unable as we are unwilling to resist it. Now it is this feeling, which constitutes the poetic probability of what we see and hear, and which may be violated by an injudicious and lawless shifting of the scene. If our passions be interested by an action passing at a place called Rome, it must shock and cbill them to have our attentions hurried suddenly, without any reason for the discontinuance of the acti to a place, called Alexandria, separated by the intervention of a thousand miles. Let us suppose, then, that in the fulness of the scenic excitement, a friend at our elbow, with the impassible fibre of a Johnson, were to shake us and to say, “ What! are you mad? Know you not where you are? in Drury Lane theatre? within a few hundred yards of your own chambers in Lincoln's Inn, and neither at Rome nor at Alexandria ? and perceive you not that the old man whom you see there on his knee, with his hands clenched, and his eyes raised in imprecation to heaven, is our old friend, Garrick, who is reciting with much propriety some verses made by a man, long since in his grave? Yes! Garrick, with whom you conversed not many hours ago; and who, a few hours bence, will be talking with his friends, over a comfortable supper, of the effects of his present mimickry?" If we should be thus addressed (and a sudden shifting of the scene may produce an equal dissipation of the illusion which delights us), should we be thankful to our wise friend for thus informing our understanding by the interruption of our feelings? Should we not rather exclaim with the Argive noble of Horace, when purged by hellebore into his senses,
“ Pol me occidisticui sic extorta volaptas Et demptus per vim mentis gratissimus error.” With the illusion of the poetic or dramatic imitation, established as an unquestionable truth in our minds, let us now turn and consider the dramatic unities in their origin and effect. The unity of action, indeed, may be thrown altogether from our notice; for, universally acknowledged to be essentially necessary to the drama, and constituting what may be called its living principle, it has escaped from violation even by our Jawless Poet himself. The drama, as we know, in Greece, derived its origin from the choral odes, which were sung at certain seasons before the altar of Bacchus. To these, in the first instance, was added a dialogue of two persons; and, the number of speakers being subsequently increased, a regular dramatic fable was, at length, constructed, and the dialogue usurped the prime honours of the performance. But the chorus, though degraded, could not be expelled from the scene, which was once entirely its own; and, consecrated by the regard of the people, it was forced upon the acceptance of the dramatist, to act with it in the best manner that he could. It was stationed, therefore, permanently on the stage, and made to occupy its place with the agents who were to conduct the action of the fable. From the circumstance of its being stationary on the stage, it secured the strict observance of the unity of place: for with a stage, which was never vacant, and consequently with only one scene, the Grecian dramatist could not remove his agents whithersoever he pleased, in accommodation to his immediate convenience; but on the spot, where the scene opened, he was constrained to retain them till the action of the drama was closed, and what could not consistently be acted was necessarily consigned to narration. This was a heavy servitude to the dramatist; but it had its compensations in uninterrupted feeling, and in the greater conservation of probability. To the unity of time, as time is more pliant to the imagination than place, the Grecian dramatist seems to have paid little if any regard. In the Agamemnon of Æschylus, the fire signals have only just announced to Mycenæ the fall of Troy, when the herald arrives with the tidings of the victorious king's approach; who must thus have passed from Phrygia to the Peloponnesus, obstructed also as bis passage was by a tempest, with the celerity nearly of a ray of light; and in the Trachiniæ of Sophocles, a journey of about one hundred and twenty miles is accomplished during the recitation of a hundred verses. The
transgression of the unity of time was not, perhaps, much the subject of the auditor's calculation, or in any degree of his concern. With his mind intent on the still occupied stage and the unchanging scene, he was ready to welcome the occurrence of any new event, or to listen with pleasure to any new narration of facts beyond the stage, without pausing to investigate the poet's due apportionment of time. If the scene had been shifted, the feelings of the spectator would have been outraged by such an infringement of the unity of place. When the arbitrary separation of the drama into acts was accomplished by the Roman dramatists, the observance of the unity of place became more easy, though still it was not to be abandoned. An act constitutes a portion of the action of a drama, at the close of which the stage is vacated and the curtain drops. If, during the act, the scene be shifted, the unity of place is broken; the probability of the dramatic imitation is diminished, and our feelings are certainly offended : but in the interval between act and act, the scene may be removed to any place where it may suit the convenience of the poet to plant it, to Venice or to Cyprus; and any lapse of time may, readily and without absurdity, be imagined to intervene. The action of the drama must necessarily be maintained one and entire, and then, with the scene stationary during the act, all the dramatic unities will be sufficiently, if not rigidly, preserved. As we know nothing of the tragic writers of Rome, all their works having perisbed, with the exception of those of Seneca, from which not any thing of value can be learned, we cannot decide whether or not they availed themselves of the liberty wbich they had obtained by this division of their plays into acts; and that their plays were divided into acts, like those of the Roman comic writers, we are assured by Horace wben he tells the Pisos
“ Neve minor, neu sit quinto productior actu
Fabula, &c. *.” But if they did not assert the liberty, which they bad
* De Arte Poetica, 1. 189.