Page images

the want of which a variety of the most entertaining incidents can scarcely atone.*


In regard to the necessity for a strict observance of the unities of time and place, we must here make some allowance for the classical prejudices of Dr. Warton, who has certainly rated their importance much beyond that to which they are entitled. The following remarks of a recent and very sensible critic may be quoted as an excellent corrective of the Doctor's Aristotelian bias. "Of the three unities of action, time, and place," he observes, "which Aristotle had deemed indispensable, the first I have always thought important to every composition, as consisting in the relation of every incident to some great action or end; and it is no less necessary to preserve it in epic poetry than in tragedy. It is essential even to history, for the detail of two narratives at once, or the intermixture of them can only serve to confuse.

"The second unity is that of time, which (according to those absurd critics who have merely copied from the imperfect sketches left by the ancients) requires that a play should occupy no more time in the supposed action than it does in the representation. Unity of place, (according to the same prejudiced judges, who never looked at the origin of the prejudice,) required that the scene should be never shifted from one place to another. By observing the first of these, the ancients had great difficulty to find any interesting events which could be supposed to be acted in so short a time; on this account, Aristotle himself, who was a slave to precedent, was obliged to change the time, and allowed them twenty-four hours.

"That they might not violate the third unity, they were obliged to fix their action in some public place, such as a court or area before a palace; on which account much business was transacted there which ought to have been done in private.

"The truth is, these two last unities arose out of the imper

fection of the Greek drama. As the chorus never left the stage, the curtain was not let down between the acts. Shakspeare understood nature better than those pedantic critics who have extolled the unities of Aristotle; and surely, according to the modern custom, the spectators can, with no degree of violence upon the imagination while the action is suspended, suppose a certain time to elapse between the acts; and by a very small effort of the imagination, they can also suppose themselves transported, or the scene shifted, from one place to another.

"Upon the whole then, it is plain the moderns have judged rightly in laying aside the chorus; and Shakspeare, who rejected the unities of time and place, has produced the best dramas."

Letters on Literature, Taste, and Composition, by George Gregory, D. D. In two volumes, London, 1808. Vol. 2. p. 224, et seq.

I need scarcely remind any reader of Shakspeare that Dr. Johnson, in his admirable preface to his edition of the bard, was one of the first to exert his great critical abilities in support of the licence practised by our poet as to the unities of time and place.

Adventurer, No. 97. October 9, 1753.

No. III.


ONE of the most remarkable differences betwixt ancient and modern tragedy, arises from the prevailing custom of describing only those distresses that are occasioned by the passion of love; a passion which, from the universality of its dominion, may doubtless justly claim a large share in representations of human life; but which, by totally engrossing the theatre, had contributed to degrade that noble school of virtue into an academy of effeminacy.

[ocr errors]

When Racine persuaded the celebrated Arnauld to read his Phædra, 'Why,' said that severe critic to his friend, have you falsified the manners of Hippolitus, and represented him in love?'-' Alas!' replied the poet, without that circumstance, how would the ladies and the beaux have received my piece?' And it may well be imagined, that to gratify so considerable and important a part of his audience, was the powerful motive that induced Corneille to enervate even the matchless and affecting story of Edipus, by the frigid and impertinent episode of Theseus's passion for Dirce.

Shakspeare has shown us, by his Hamlet, Macbeth, and Cæsar, and, above all, by his Lear, that

very interesting tragedies may be written, that are not founded on gallantry and love; and that Boileau was mistaken when he affirmed,

de l'amour la sensible peinture,

Est pour aller au cœur la route la plus sure.

Those tender scenes that pictur'd love impart,
Insure success and best engage the heart.

The distresses in this tragedy are of a very uncommon nature, and are not touched upon by any other dramatic author. They are occasioned by a rash resolution of an aged monarch of strong passions and quick sensibility, to resign his crown, and to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters; the youngest of whom, who was his favourite, not answering his sanguine expectations in expressions of affection to him, he for ever banishes, and endows her sisters with her allotted share. Their unnatural ingratitude, the intolerable affronts, indignities, and cruelties he suffers from them, and the remorse he feels from his imprudent resignation of his power, at first inflame him with the most violent rage, and by degrees drive him to madness and death. This is the outline of the fable.

I shall confine myself at present to consider singly the judgment and art of the poet, in describing the origin and progress of the distraction of Lear, in which, I think, he has succeeded better than any other writer; even than Euripides himself,

whom Longinus so highly commends for his representation of the madness of Orestes.

It is well contrived that the first affront that is offered Lear should be a proposal from Gonerill, his eldest daughter, to lessen the number of his knights, which must needs affect and irritate a person so jealous of his rank and the respect due to it. He is at first astonished at the complicated impudence and ingratitude of this design, but quickly kindles into rage, and resolves to depart instantly:

Darkness and devils!

Saddle my horses, call my train together-
Degen'rate bastard! I'll not trouble thee.—

This is followed by a severe reflection upon his
own folly for resigning his crown, and a solemn
invocation to Nature to heap the most horrible
curses on the head of Gonerill, that her own off-
spring may prove equally cruel and unnatural :
that she may feel,

How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is

To have a thankless child!

When Albany demands the cause of this passion, Lear answers, 'I'll tell thee!' but immediately cries out to Gonerill,

Life and death! I am asham'd,

That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus.
Blasts and fogs upon thee!

Th' untented woundings of a father's curse

Pierce every sense about thee!

« EelmineJätka »