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The injury done by Edmund to the simplicity of the action, is abundantly recompensed by the addition of variety; by the art with which he is made to cooperate with the chief design, and the opportunity which he gives the Poet of combining perfidy with perfidy, and connecting the wicked son with the wicked daughters, to impress this important moral, that villany is never at a stop; that crimes lead to crimes, and at last terminate in ruin.
But though this moral be incidentally enforced, Shakspeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange. to the faith of chronicles." Yet this conduct is justified by The Spectator, who blames Tate for giving Cordelia success and happiness in his alteration, and declares, that, in his opinion, the tragedy has lost half its beauty. Dennis has remarked, whether justly or not, that, to secure the favorable reception of Cato, the town was poisoned with much false and abominable criticism, and that endeavors had been used to discredit and decry poetical justice. A play in which the wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be good, because it is a just representation of the common events of human life; but, since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded that the observation of justice makes a play worse; or that, if other excellences are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.
In the present case, the public has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could add any thing to the general suffrage, I might relate, I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.
There is another controversy among the critics concerning this play. It is disputed whether the predominant image in Lear's disordered mind be the loss of his kingdom or the cruelty of his daughters. Mr. Murphy, a very judicious critic, has evinced, by induction of particular passages, that the cruelty of his daughters is the primary source of his distress, and that the loss of royalty affects him only as a secondary and subordinate evil. He observes, with great justness, that Lear would move our compassion but little, did we not rather consider the injured father than the degraded king.
The story of this play, except the episode of Edmund, which is derived, I think, from Sidney, is taken originally from Geoffry of Monmouth, whom Holinshed generally copied; but perhaps immediately from an old historical ballad. My reason for believing that the play was posterior to the ballad, rather than the ballad to the play, is, that the ballad has nothing of Shakspeare's nocturnal tempest, which is too striking to have been omitted, and that it follows the chronicle; it has the rudiments of the play, but none of its amplifications; it first hinted Lear's madness, but did not array it in circumstances. The writer of the ballad added something to the history, which is a proof that he would have added more, if more had occurred to his mind, and more must have occurred if he had seen Shakspeare.
The original relater of this story appears to have been Luigi da Porto, a gentleman of Vicenza, who died in 1529. His novel seems not to have been printed till some years after his death; being first published at Venice, in 1535, under the title of "La Giulietta :" there is, however, a dateless copy by the same printer. In the dedication to Madonna Lucina Savorgnana, he tells her, that the story was related to him by one of his archers, named Peregrino, a native of Verona, while serving in Friuli, to beguile the solitary road that leads from Gradisca to Udine.
Girolamo della Corte, in his History of Verona, relates it circumstantially as a true event, occurring in 1303;* but Maffei does not give him the highest credit as an historian. He carries his history down to the year 1560, and probably adopted the novel to grace his book. The earlier annalists of Verona, and, above all, Torello Sarayna, who published, in 1542, “Le Historie e Fatti de Veronesi nell Tempi d'il Popolo e Signori Scaligeri," are entirely silent upon the subject, though some other domestic tragedies grace their narrations.
As to the origin of this interesting story, Mr. Douce has observed, that its material incidents are to be found in the Ephesiacs of Xenophon of Ephesus, a Greek romance of the middle ages: he adınits, indeed, that this work was not published nor translated in the time of Luigi da Porto, but suggests that he might have seen a copy of the original in manuscript. Mr. Dunlop, in his History of Fiction, has traced it to the thirty-second novel of Massuccio Salernitano, whose “ Novelino,” a collection of tales, was first printed in 1476. The hero of Massuccio is named Mariotto di Giannozza, and his catastrophe is different; yet there are sufficient points of resemblance between the two narratives. Mr. Boswell observes, that
* Captain Breval, in his Travels, tells us that he was shown at Verona what was called the tomb of these unhappy lovers; and that, on a strict inquiry into the histories of Verona, he found that Shakspeare had varied very little from the truth, either in the names, characters, or other circumstances of this play. The fact seems to be, that the invention of the novelist has been adopted into the popular history of the city, just as Shakspeare's historical dramas furnish numbers with their notions of the events to which they relate.
* we may, perhaps, carry the fiction back to a much greater antiquity,
The story is also to be found in the second volume of the Novels of
In the preface to Arthur Brooke's poem there is a very curious passage, in which he says, “I saw the same argument lately set foorth on stage with more commendation then I can looke for, (being there much better set forth then I have or can dooe.)" He has not, however, stated in what country this play was represented: the rude state of our drama, prior to 1562, renders it improbable that it was in England. “ Yet (says Mr. Boswell) I cannot but be of opinion that Romeo and Juliet may be added to the list, already numerous, of plays in which our great Poet has had a dramatic precursor, and that some slight remains of the old play are still to be traced in the earliest quarto."
66 The story has at all times been eminently popular in all parts of Europe. A Spanish play was formed on it by Lope de Vega, entitled Los Castelvies y Monteses; and another in the same language, by Don Francisco de Roxas, under the name of Los Vandos de Verona. In Italy, as may well be supposed, it has not been neglected. The modern productions on this subject are too numerous to be specified; but, as early as 1578, Luigi Groto produced a drama upon the subject, called Hadriana, of which an analysis may be found in Mr. Walker's Memoir on Italian Tragedy. Groto has stated, in his prologue, that the story is drawn from the ancient history of Adria, his native place;" so that Verona is not the only place that has appropriated this interesting fable.
This has been generally considered one of Shakspeare's earliest plays;" and Schlegel has eloquently said, that "it shines with the colors of the dawn of morning; but a dawn whose purple clouds already announce the thunder of a sultry day.” “Romeo and Juliet (says the same admirable critic) is a picture of love and its pitiable fate, in a world whose atmosphere is too rough for this tenderest blossom of human life. Two beings, created for each other, feel mutual love at first glance: every consideration disappears before the irresistible influence of living in one another; they join themselves secretly, under circumstances hostile in the highest degree to their union, relying merely on the protection of an invisible power. By unfriendly events following blow upon blow, their heroic constancy is exposed to all manner of trials; till, forcibly separated from each other, by a voluntary death they are united in the grave, to meet again in anothe: world. All this is to be found in the beautiful story, which Shakspeare has not invented; and which, however simply told, will always excite a tender sympathy: but it was reserved for Shakspeare to unite purity of heart and the glow of imagination, sweetness and dignity of manners and passionate violence, in one ideal picture. By the manner in which he has handled it, It has become a glorious song of praise on that inexpressible feeling which ennobles the soul, and gives to it its highest sublimity, and which elevates even the senses themselves into soul; and at the same time is a melancholy elegy on its frailty from its own nature and external circumstances; at once the deification and the burial of love. It appears here like a heavenly spark, that, descending to the earth, is converted into a flash of lightning, by which mortal creatures are almost in the same
* Malone thinks that the foundation of the play might be laid in 1591, and finished in 1596. Mr. George Chalmers places the date of its composition in the spring of 1592. And Dr. Drake, with greater probability, ascribes it to 1593. There are four early quarto editions, in 1597, 1599, 1609, and one without a date. The first edition is less ample than those which succeed. Shakspeare appears to have revised the play ; but in the succeeding impressions no fresh inci lents are introduced ; the alterations are merely additions to the length of particular speeches and scenes. The principal variations are pointed out in the notes. VOL. VII.
moment set on fire and consumed. Whatever is most intoxicating in the odor of a southern spring, languishing in the song of the nightingale, or voluptuous in the first opening of the rose, is to be found in this poem. But, even more rapidly than the earliest blossoms of youth and beauty decay, it hurries on from the first timidly-bold declaration of love and modest return, to the most unlimited passion, to an irrevocable union; then, amidst alternating storms of rapture and despair, to the death of the two lovers, who still appear enviable, as their love survives them, and as by their death they have obtained a triumph over every separating power. The sweetest and the bitterest, love and hatred, festivity and dark forebodings, tender embraces and sepulchres, the fulness of life and self-annihilation, are all here brought close to each other; and all these contrasts are so blended, in the harmonious and wonderful work, into a unity of impression, that the echo, which the whole leaves behind in the mind, resembles a single but endless sigh.
“ The excellent dramatic arrangement, the signification of each character in its place, the judicious selection of all the circumstances, even the most minute," have been pointed out by Schlegel in a dissertation referred to in a note at the end of the play; in which he remarks, that 6 there can be nothing more diffuse, more wearisome, than the rhyming history, which Shakspeare's genius, 'like richest alchymy,' has changed to beauty and to worthiness.” Nothing but the delight of seeing into this wonderful metamorphosis, can compensate for the laborious task of reading through more than three thousand six and seven-footed iambics, which, in respect of every thing that amuses, affects, and enraptures us in this play, are as a mere blank leaf.—Here all interest is entirely smothered under the coarse, heavy pretensions of an elaborate exposition, How much was to be cleared away, before life could be breathed into the shapeless mass! In many parts, what is here given, bears the same relation to what Shakspeare has made out of it, which any common description of a thing bears to the thing itself. Thus, out of the following hint
“ A courtier, that eche-where was highly had in pryce,
For he was courteous of his speche and pleasant of devise:
and the addition that the said Mercutio from his swathing-bands constartly had cold hands,--has arisen a splendid character decked out with the utmost profusion of wit. Not to mention a number of nicer deviations from the original, we find also some important incidents ; for instance, the meeting and the combat between Paris and Romeo at Juliet's grave.--Shakspeare knew how to transform by enchantment, letters into spirit, a workman's daub into a poetical masterpiece.