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The stage in Shakspeare's time was a naked room with a blanket for a curtain ; but he made it a field for monarchs. That law of unity, which has its foundations, not in the factitious necessity of custom, but in nature itself, the unity of feeling, is every where and at all times observed by Shakspeare in his plays. Read Romeo and Juliet;-all is youth and spring ;-youth with its follies, its virtues, its precipitancies ;-spring with its odours, its flowers, and its transiency; it is one and the same feeling that commences, goes through, and ends the play. The old men, the Capulets and the Montagues, are not common old men; they have an eagerness, a heartiness, a vehemence, the effect of spring; with Romeo, his change of passion, his sudden marriage, and his rash death, are all the effects of youth ;-whilst in Juliet love has all that is tender and melancholy in the nightingale, all that is voluptuous in the rose, with whatever is sweet in the freshness of spring; but it ends with a long deep sigh like the last breeze of the Italian evening. (0) This unity of feeling and character pervades every drama of Shakspeare.
It seems to me that his plays are distinguished from those of all other dramatic poets by the following characteristics :
1. Expectation in preference to surprise. It is like the true reading of the passage;
-- God said, Let there be light, and there was light;'-not there was light. As the feeling with which we startle at
a shooting star compared with that of watching the sunrise at the pre-established moment, such and so low is surprise compared with expectation.
2. Signal adherence to the great law of nature, that all opposites tend to attract and temper each other. Passion in Shakspeare generally displays libertinism, but involves morality; and if there are exceptions to this, they are, independently of their intrinsic value, all of them indicative of individual character, and, like the farewell admonitions of a parent, have an end beyond the parental relation. Thus the Countess's beautiful precepts to Bertram, by elevating her character, raise that of Helena her favorite, and soften down the point in her which Shakspeare does not mean us not to see, but to see and to forgive, and at length to justify. And so it is in Polonius, who is the personified memory of wisdom no longer actually possessed. This admi. rable character is always misrepresented on the stage. Shakspeare never intended to exhibit him as a buffoon; for although it was natural that Ham
l let,-a young man of fire and genius, detesting formality, and disliking Polonius on political grounds, as imagining that he had assisted his uncle in his usurpation,-should express himself satirically, yet this must not be taken as exactly the poet's conception of him. In Polonius a certain induration of character had arisen from long habits of business; but take his advice to Laertes, and Ophelia's reverence for his memory, and we shall see that
he was meant to be represented as a statesman somewhat
past his faculties, — his recollections of life all full of wisdom, and showing a knowledge of human nature, whilst what immediately takes place before him, and escapes from him, is indicative of weakness.
But as in Homer all the deities are in armour, even Venus ; so in Shakspeare all the characters are strong. Hence real folly and dulness are made by him the vehicles of wisdom. There is no difficulty for one being a fool to imitate a fool; but to be, remain, and speak like a wise man and a great wit, and yet so as to give a vivid representation of a veritable fool, - hic labor, hoc opus est. A drunken constable is not uncommon, nor hard to draw; but see nd examine what goes to make up a Dogberry.
3. Keeping at all times in the high road.of life. Shakspeare has no innocent adulteries, no interesting incests, no virtuous vice; — he never renders that amiable which religion and reason alike teach us to detest, or clothes impurity in the garb of virtue, like Beaumont and Fletcher, the Kotzebues of the day. Shakspeare's fathers are roused by ingratitude, his husbands stung by unfaithfulness; in him, in short, the affections are wounded in those points in which all may, nay, must, feel. Let the morality of Shakspeare be contrasted with that of the writers of his own, or the succeeding, age, or of those of the present day, who boast their superiority
in this respect. No one can dispute that the result of such sa comparison is altogether in favour of Shakspeare;—even the letters of women of high rank in his age were often coarser than his writings.. If he occasionally disgusts a keen sense of delicity, he never injures the mind; he neither excites, nor datters, passion, in order to degrade the subject of it; he does not use the faulty thing for a faulty purpose, nor carries on warfare against virtue, by causing wickedness to appear as no wickedness, through the medium of a morbid sympathy awith the unfortunate. In Shakspeare vice never walks as in twilight; nothing is purposely out of its place; – he inverts not the order of nature and propriety, — does not make every magistrate a drunkard or glutton, nor every poor man meek, humane, and temperate; he has no benevolent butchers, nor any sentimental rat-catchers.
4. Independence of the dramatic interest on the plot. The interest in the plot is always in fact on account of the characters, not vice versa, as in almost all other writers; the plot is a mere canvass and no more. Hence arises the true justification of the same stratagem being used in regard to Benedict and Beatrice, — the vanity in each being alike. Take away from the Much Ado About Nothing all that which is not indispensable to the plot, either as having little to do with it, or, at best, like Dogberry and his comrades, forced into the service, when any other less ingeniously absurd watchmen and night-Constables would have answered the mere necessities of the action;-take away Benedict, Beatrice, Dogberry, and the reaction of the former on the character of Hero,—and what will remain ? In other writers the main agent of the plot is always the prominent character; in Shakspeare it is so, or is not so, as the character is in itself calculated, or not calculated, to form the plot. Don John is the main-spring of the plot of this play; but he is merely shown and then withdrawn.
5. Independence of the interest on the story as the ground-work of the plot. Hence Shakspeare never took the trouble of inventing stories. It was enough for him to select from those that had been already invented or recorded such as had one or other, or both, of two recommendations, namely, suitableness to his particular purpose, and their being parts of popular tradition,-names of which we had often heard, and of their fortunes, and as to which all we wanted was, to see the man himselt. So it is just the man himself, the Lear, the Shylock, the Richard, that Shakspeare makes us for the first time acquainted with. Omit the first scene in Lear, and yet every thing will remain ; so the first and second scenes in the Merchant of Venice. Indeed it is universally true. 6. Interfusion of the lyrical—that which in its, ly
— very essence is poetical—not only with the dramatic, as in the plays of Metastasio, where at the end of the scene comes the aria as the exit speech of