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when he adopted an inferior play. I would add, that it is occasional speeches, rather than in the dramatic history of particular characters, that the instruction of which the critic justly speaks, is to be found.
Indeed, Dr. Johnson himself elsewhere appears to be of this opinion.
“His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings, indeed, a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally ; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him, he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to show in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right or wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their example to operate by chance. ... The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design. He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting, which the train of his story seems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhi. bitions which would be more affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy."*
I had forgotten this passage, when I made a remark,t — for which, if these commentaries should be the subject of criticism, I shall probably be censured,-on the absence of design in Shakspeare's historical characters.
I shall listen, I trust, with candour and good temper, to any man who will endeavour to convince me that I am wrong in this point: I confess that my opinion is founded upon observation, not only of Shakspeare and his plays, but upon what generally passes in the world. I am a great disbeliever in complicated plots and deep-laid intrigues. I suspect that in nine cases out of ten in which elaborate design is imputed
false or exaggerated. “Many mischiefs (as Johnson himself says,) and many benefits, are done and hindered without design.” |
This frame of mind may perhaps have disposed me more readily to receive the impression which I have avowed. Yet, in looking back to the prominent characters in the fourteen plays which I have reviewed, I am satisfied that, as applied to the historical dramas, it is just.
• Bosw. 72.
ii. 171, 261.
[ Bosw. 65.
I believe Shakspeare to have been a very idle man. His observation was extensive and accurate, his imagination unbounded, his invention fertile, his understanding vigorous, and, withal, the whole frame of his mind poetical ; from all these he derived masterly powers of delineation and creation. But he was often indolent in the use of these powers, and if the “present popularity and present profit"* which he sought, could be attained by the conversion of the works of others, he was satisfied.
Nullum tetigit quod non ornavit. Not only could he improve what was good before, but he could raise excellence out of baseness, and turn an utterly worthless piece into a splendid drama. He took little pains except with the language and versification. In amplifying a speech, he did not often introduce new ideas, but he enlarged, and clothed in more correct language and more stately verse, those which he found prepared for him. Whether he found them in a play or in a chronicle, he seldom reconstructed the plot or the characters; and if either the unskilfulness of former writers, the mistakes of historians or translators, or the real facts of history, had occasioned a want of that consistency, definitiveness, and unity, which are as desirable for moral as for dramatic effect, Shakspeare cared not to supply the deficiency.
* Johnson, in Bosw. 90.
For his historical dramas, he had always a model, copious in detail, either in a chronicle, an older play, or both. To these, sometimes very unworthy sources, he recurred for scenes as well as plots; and it is, therefore, that in these plays there is less of Shakspeare's own than in many of the plays of which the borrowed outline was less complete. It will be found that where a mere hint was all that his prototype supplied, he was most successful. I have mentioned one of these instances, — the speech of Antony over Cæsar's body, and I am glad to find, in a work which will live so long as the English language endures, a confirmation of my opinion of that masterly and effective oration.
“.. Nor is there perhaps in the whole range of ancient and modern eloquence, a speech more fully realizing the perfection that orators have striven to attain.”*
But it is in this same play, that that memorable instance of inattention occurs, through which Brutus, from Shakspeare's use of a mistranslation, is made to contradict himself.*
* Hallam's Introduction to the Literature of the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries, iii. 571.
Notwithstanding the laudatory tone in which Johnson, in his “ celebrated preface,” speaks of Shakspeare in the general, and the undoubted correctness of many of his remarks, he exhibits his faults in a tone so censorious and almost contemptuous, and neglects so many of his excellences, as hardly to be classed properly among the admirers of the great dramatist.
Yet, though I cannot adopt him as my master in criticism upon Shakspeare, I own that, if I turn from the austere Johnson to the enthusiastic Coleridge, I am equally at a loss! If the one is too cold, the other is too hot. Coleridge is one of those who acknowledging, as Christians or philosophers, the imperfection of every thing human, yet conceive that it pleased Providence to make one exception; and to favour the reign of Elizabeth, the kingdom of England, the county of Warwick, the town of Stratfordupon-Avon, and the one man Shakspeare born there, with an exemption from this otherwise universal rule.
I write this sentence in fear and trembling, because I know that Coleridge is one of a nume