« EelmineJätka »
who eases himself on trot and amble. You find him likewise commending Fletcher's pastoral of "The Faithful Shepherdess," which is for the most part rhyme, though not refined to that purity to which it hath since been brought. And these examples are enough to clear us from a servile imitation of the French.
But to return whence I have digressed: I dare boldly affirm these two things of the English drama;-First, that we have many plays of ours as regular as any of theirs, and which, besides, have more variety of plot and characters; and, secondly, that in most of the irregular plays of Shakspeare or Fletcher, (for Ben Jonson's are for the most part regular,) there is a more masculine fancy, and greater spirit in the writing, than there is in any of the French. I could produce, even in Shakspeare's and Fletcher's works, some plays which are almost exactly formed; as the "Merry Wives of Windsor," and "The Scornful Lady :" but, because (generally speaking) Shakspeare, who writ first, did not perfectly observe the laws of comedy, and Fletcher, who came nearer to perfection, yet through carelessness made many faults; I will take the pattern of a perfect play from Ben Jonson, who was a careful and learned observer of the dramatic laws, and from all his comedies I shall select "The Silent Woman," of which I will make a short examen, according to those rules which the French observe.
you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there. I cannot say he is everywhere alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat, insipid; his comic wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great, when some great occasion is presented to him: no man can say, he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise himself as high above the rest of poets,
Quantum lenta solent inter víburna cupressi.
Mr. Malone justly observes, that the caution observed in this decision, proves the miserable taste of the age. In fact, Jonson, by dint of learning and arrogance, fairly bullied the age into receiving his own character of his merits; and he was not the only person of the name that has done so.
The consideration of this made Mr. Hales of Eton* say, that there was no subject of which any poet ever writ, but he would produce it much better done in Shakspeare; and however others are now generally preferred before him, yet the age wherein he lived, which had contemporaries with him, Fletcher and Jonson, never equalled them to him in their esteem: and in the last king's court, when Ben's reputation was at highest, Sir John Suckling, and with him the greater part of the courtiers, set our Shakspeare far above him.
Beaumont and Fletcher, of whom I am next to speak, had, with the advantage of Shakspeare's wit, which was their precedent, great natural gifts, improved by study; Beaumont especially being so accurate a judge of plays, that Ben Jonson, while he lived, submitted all his writings to his censure, and 'tis thought, used
The learned John Hales of Eton, whom Wood calls a walking library, and Clarendon pronounces the least man and greatest scholar of his time. Gildon tells the anecdote to which Dryden seems to al
lude, in an essay addressed to Dryden himself on the vindication of Shakspeare, and be quotes our author as his authority. "The matter of fact, if my memory fail me not, was this: Mr. Hales of Eton affirmed, that he would show all the poets of antiquity outdone by Shakspeare, in all the topics and common-places made use of in poetry. The enemies of Shakespear would by no means yield him so much excellence; so that it came to a resolution of a trial of skill upon that subject. The place agreed on for the dispute, was Mr. Hales' chamber at Eton. A great many books were sent down by the enemies of this poet; and on the appointed day, my Lord Falkland, Sir John Suckling, and all the persons of quality that had wit and learning, and interested themselves in the quarrel, met there; and upon a thorough disquisition of the point, the judges chosen by agreement out of this learned and ingenious assembly, unanimously gave the preference to Shakspeare, and the Greek and Roman poets were adjudged to veil at least their glory in that to the English hero."-Gildon's Essays.
Tate, in the preface to the "Loyal General," and Rowe, in his "Life of Shakspeare." quote the same anecdote.
his judgment in correcting, if not contriving, all his plots. What value he had for him, appears by the verses he writ to him; and therefore I need speak no farther of it. The first play that brought Fletcher and him in esteem, was their "Philaster;" for before that, they had written two or three very unsuccessfully: as the like is reported of Ben Jonson, before he writ "Every Man in his Humour." Their plots were generally more regular than Shakespeare's, especially those which were made before Beaumont's death; and they understood and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better; whose wild debaucheries, and quickness of wit in repartees, no poet before them could paint as they have done. Humour,* which Ben Jonson derived from particular persons, they made it not their business to describe; they represented all the passions very lively, but above all, love. I am apt to believe the English language in them arrived to its highest perfection; what words have since been taken in, are rather superfluous than ornamental. Their plays are now the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the stage; two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakspeare's or Jonson's: the reason is, because there is a certain gayety in their comedies, and pathos in their more serious plays, which suits generally with all men's humours. Shakspeare's language is likewise a little obsolete, and Ben Jonson's wit comes short of theirs.
As for Jonson, to whose character I am now arrived, if we look upon him while he was himself, (for his last plays were but his dotages,) I think him the most learned and judicious writer which any theatre ever had. He was a most severe judge of himself, as well as others. One cannot say he wanted wit, but rather that he was frugal of it. In his works you find little to retrench or alter. Wit and language, and humour also in some measure, we had before him; but something of art was wanting to the drama, till he came. He managed his strength to more advantage than any who preceded him. You seldom find him making love in any of his scenes, or endeavouring to move the passions; his genius was soo sullen and saturnine to do it gracefully, especially when he knew he came after those who had performed both to such a height. Humour was his proper sphere; and in that he delighted most to represent mechanic people. He was deeply conversant in the ancients, both Greek and Latin, and he borrowed boldly from them: there is scarce a poet or historian among
• Humour, in the ancient dramatic language, signified some peculiar or fantastic bias, or habit of mind, in an individual,
the Roman authors of those times, whom he has not translated in "Sejanus" and "Catiline." But he has done his robberies so openly, that one may see he fears not to be taxed by any law, He invades authors like a monarch; and what would be theft in other poets, is only victory in him. With the spoils of these writers he so represents old Rome to us, in its rites, ceremonies, and customs, that if one of their poets had written either of his tragedies, we had seen less of it than in him. If there was any fault in his language, it was, that he weaved it too closely and laboriously, in his comedies especially : perhaps, too, he did a little too much Romanize our tongue, leaving the words which he translated almost as much Latin as he found them: wherein, though he learnedly followed their language, he did not enough comply with the idiom of ours. If I would compare him with Shakspeare, I must acknowledge him the more correct poet, but Shakspeare the greater wit.* Shakspeare was the Homer, or father of our dramatic poets; Jonson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing: I admire him, but I love Shakspeare. To conclude of him; as he has given us the most correct plays, so in the precepts which he has laid down in his "Discoveries," we have as many and profitable rules for perfecting the stage, as any wherewith the French can furnish us.
Having thus spoken of the author, I proceed to the examination of his comedy, "The Silent Woman."
Examen of "The Silent Woman."
To begin first with the length of the action: it is so far from exceeding the compass of a natural day, that it takes not up an artificial one. It is all included in the limits of three hours and a half, which is no more than is required for the presentment of the stage; a beauty perhaps not much observed; if it had, we should not have looked on the Spanish translation of "Five
Hours" with so much wonder. The scene of it is laid in London; the latitude of place is almost as little as you can imagine; for it lies all within the compass of two houses, and, after the first act, in one. The continuity of scenes is observed more than in any of our plays, except bis own "Fox" and "Alchemist." They are not broken above twice, or thrice at most, in the whole comedy; and in the two best of Corneille's plays, the "Cid" and "Cinna," they are interrupted once. The action of the play is entirely one; the end or aim of which is the settling Morose's estate on Dauphine. The
*Dryden here understands wit in the enlarged sense of invention, or genius.
which succeeded, the poets sought indeed to express the Jos, as in their tragedies the rádos of mankind. But this os contained only the general characters of men and manners; as old men, lovers, serving-men, courtesans, parasites, and such other persons as we see in their comedies: all which they made alike: that is, one old man or father, one lover, one courtesan, so like another, as if the first of them had begot the rest of every sort: Ex homine hunc natum dicas. The same custom they observed likewise in their tragedies. As for the French, though they have the word humeur among them, yet they have small use of it in their comedies, or farces; they being but ill imitations of the ridiculum, or that which stirred up laughter in the old comedy. But among the English 'tis otherwise; where, by humour is meant some extravagant habit, passion, or affection, particular (as I said before) to some one person, by the oddness of which he is immediately distinguished from the rest of men; which being lively and naturally represented, most frequently begets that malicious pleasure in the audience which is testified by laughter; as all things which are deviations from custom are ever the aptest to produce it: though, by the way, this laughter is only accidental, as the person represented is fantastic or bizarre; but pleasure is essential to it, as the imitation of what is natural. The description of these humours, drawn from the knowledge and observation of particular persons, was the peculiar genius and talent of Ben Jonson; to whose play I now return.
Besides Morose, there are at least nine or ten different characters and humours in the "Silent Woman;" all which persons have several concernments of their own, yet are all used by the
to the conducting of the main design to perfection. I shall not waste time in commending the writing of this play; but I will give you my opinion, that there is more wit and acuteness of fancy in it than in any of Ben Jonson's. Besides, that he has here described the conversation of gentlemen, in the persons of True-Wit and his friends, with more gayety, air, and freedom, than in the rest of his comedies.* For the contrivance of the plot, 'tis extreme, elaborate and yet withal easy; for the Avots, or untying of it, 'tis so admirable, that when it is done, no one of the audience would think the poet could have missed it; and yet it was concealed so much before the last scene, that any other way would sooner have entered into your thoughts. But I dare not take upon me to commend the fabric of it, because it is altogether so full, of
intrigue of it is the greatest and most noble of
•This conversation, however, appears formidably stiff in the present age.
art, that I must unravel every scene in it to commend it as I ought. And this excellent contrivance is still the more to be admired, because 'tis comedy where the persons are only of common rank, and their business private, not elevated by passions or high concernments, as in serious plays. Here every one is a proper judge of all he sees; nothing is represented but that with which he daily converses: so that by consequence all faults lie open to discovery, and few are pardonable. 'Tis this which Horace has judiciously observed:
Creditur, ex medio quia res arcessit, habere Sudoris minimum; sed habet Comedia tanto Plus oneris, quanto veniæ minus.
But our poet, who was not ignorant of these difficulties, has made use of all advantages; as he who designs a large leap, takes his rise from the highest ground. One of these advantages is that which Corneille has laid down as the greatest which can arrive to any poem, and which he himself could never compass above thrice in all his plays; viz. the making choice of some signal and long expected day, whereon the action of the play is to depend. This day was that designed by Dauphine for the settling of his uncle's estate upon him; which, to compass, he contrives to marry him. That the marriage had been plotted by him long beforehand, is made evident by what he tells True-Wit in the second act, that in one moment he had destroyed what he had been raising many months.
There is another artifice of the poet, which I cannot here omit, because by the frequent practice of it in his comedies, he has left it to us almost as a rule; that is, when he has any character or humour wherein he would show a coup de maître, or his highest skill, he recommends it to your observation, by a pleasant description of it before the person first appears. Thus, in "Bartholomew Fair," he gives you the pictures of Numps and Cokes, and in this, those of Daw, Lafoole, Morose, and the Collegiate Ladies; all which you hear described before you see them. So that before they come upon the stage, you have a longing expectation of them, which prepares you to receive them favourably; and when they are there, even from their first appearance you are so far acquainted with them, that nothing of their humour is lost to you.
I will observe yet one thing farther of this admirable plot; the business of it rises in every act. The second is greater than the first; the third than the second; and so forward to the fifth. There too you see, till the very last scene, new difficulties arising to obstruct the action of the play; and when the audience is
brought into despair that the business can naturally be effected, then, and not before, the discovery is made. But that the poet might entertain you with more variety all this while, he reserves some new characters to show you, which he opens not till the second and third act. In the second, Morose, Daw, the Barber, and Otter; in the third, the Collegiate Ladies; all which he moves afterwards in by-walks, or under-plots, as diversions to the main design, lest it should grow tedious, though they are still naturally joined with it, and somewhere or other subservient to it. Thus, like a skilful chessplayer, by little and little he draws out his men, and makes his pawns of use to his greater per
If this comedy, and some others of his, were translated into French prose, (which would now be no wonder to them, since Moliere has lately given them plays out of verse, which have not displeased them,) I believe the controversy would soon be decided betwixt the two nations, even making them the judges.* But we need not call our heroes to our aid; be it spoken to the honour of the English, our nation can never want in any age such, who are able to dispute the empire of wit with any people in the universe. And though the fury of a civil war, and power, for twenty years together, abandoned to a barbarous race of men, enemies of all good learning, had buried the muses under the ruins of monarchy; yet, with the restoration of our happiness, we see revived poesy lifting up its head, and already shaking off the rubbish which lay so heavy on it. We have seen, since his majesty's return, many dramatic poems which yield not to those of any foreign nation, and which deserve all laurels but the English. I will set aside flattery and envy;
it cannot be denied but we have had some little blemish either in the plot or writing of all those plays which have been made within these seven years; and perhaps there is no nation in the world so quick to discern them, or so difficult to pardon them, as ours: yet if we can persuado ourselves to use the candour of that poet, who, though the most severe of critics, has left us this caution by which to moderate our censures
-ubi plura nitent in carmine, non ego paucis Offendar maculis ;
if, in consideration of their many and great beauties, we can wink at some slight and little imperfections; if we, I say, can be thus equal
I should be sorry to see the comparative merits of the stages tried upon that issue: Moliere, in natural comedy, is as far superior to Jonson, as Shak speare is to both.
to ourselves, I ask no favour from the French. And if I do not venture upon any particular judgment of our late plays, 'tis out of the consideration which an ancient writer gives me : vivorum, ut magna admiratio, ita censura difficilis: betwixt the extremes of admiration and malice, 'tis hard to judge uprightly of the living. Only I think it may be permitted me to say, that as it is no lessening to us to yield to some plays, and those not many, of our own nation, in the last age, so can it be no addition to pronounce of our present poets, that they have far surpassed all the ancients, and the modern writers of other countries.
This was the substance of what was then spoke on that occasion; and Lisideius, I think, was going to reply, when he was prevented thus by Crites:-I am confident, said he, that the most material things that can be said, have been already urged on either side; if they have not, I must beg of Lisideius, that he will defer his answer till another time: for I confess I have a joint quarrel to you both, because you have concluded, without any reason given for it, that rhyme is proper for the stage. I will not dispute how ancient it hath been among us to write this way; perhaps our ancestors knew no better till Shakspeare's time. I will grant it was not altogether left by him, and that Fletcher and Ben Jonson used it frequently in their pastorals, and sometimes in other plays. Farther, I will not argue whether we received it originally from our own countrymen, or from the French; for that is an inquiry of as little benefit as theirs, who, in the midst of the late plague, were not so solicitous to provide against it, as to know whether we had it from the malignity of our own air, or by transportation from Holland, I have therefore only to affirm, that it is not allowable in serious plays; for comedies, I find you already concluding with me. To prove this, I might satisfy myself to tell you, how much in vain it is for you to strive against the stream of the people's inclination; the greatest part of which are prepossessed so much with those excellent plays of Shakspeare, Fletcher, and Ben Jonson, which have been written out of rhyme, that except you could bring them such as were written better in it, and those too by persons of equal reputation with them, it will be impossible for you to gain your cause with them, who still be judges. This it is to which, in fine, all your reasons must submit. The unanimous consent of an audience is so powerful, that even Julius Cæsar, (as Macrobius reports of him,) when he was perpetual dictator, was not able to balance it on the other side; but when Laberius, a Ro
man knight, at his request contended' in the Mime with another poet, he was forced to cry out, Etiam favente me victus es, Laberi. But I will not, on this occasion, take the advantage of the greater number, but only urge such reasons against rhyme, as I find in the writings of those who have argued for the other way. First then, I am of opinion, that rhyme is unnatural in a play, because dialogue there is presented as the effect of sudden thought.* For a play is
* The reasons against rhyme,-and very weighty our author at last found them,-are taken from the Preface to Sir Robert Howard's plays, the Crites of the dialogue.
"Another way of the ancients, which the French follow, and our stage has now lately practised, is, to write in rhyme; and this is the dispute betwixt many ingenious persons, whether verse in rhyme, or verse without the sound, which may be called blank verse, (though a hard expression,) is to be preferred. But take the question largely, and it is never to be decided; but, by right application, I suppose it is, one for a play, the other for a poem or copy of may; for in the general, they are both proper, that verses; a blank verse being as much too low for one, as rhyme is unnatural for the other. A poem, being a premeditaied form of thoughts upon designed occasions, ought not to be unfurnished of any harmony in words or sound; the other is presented as the present effect of accidents not thought of;, so that it is impossible it should be equally proper to both these, unless it were possible that all persons were born so much more than poets, that verses were not to be composed by them, but already made in them. Some may object, that this argument is trivial, because, whatever is showed, it is known still to be but a play; but such may as well excuse an ill scene, that is not naturally painted, because they know it is only a scene, and not really a city or country.
"But there is yet another thing which makes verse upon the stage appear more unnatural; that is, when a piece of a verse is made up by one that knew not what the other meant to say, and the former verse answered as perfectly in sound as the last is supplied in measure; so that the smartness of a reply, which has its beauty by coming from sudden thoughts, seems lost by that which rather looks like a design of two, than the answer of one. It may be said, that rhyme is such a confinement to a quick and luxuriant fancy, that it gives a stop to Its speed, till slow judgment comes in to assist it: but this is no argument for the question in hand; for the dispute is not, which way a man may write best in, but which is most proper for the subject he writes upon: and, if this were let pass, the argument is yet unsolved in itself: for he that wants judgment in the liberty of his fancy, may as well show the defect of it in its confinement: and, to say truth, he that has judgment will avoid the errors, and he that wants it will commit them both. It may be obJected, it is improbable that any should speak extemthough in blank verse: I do not only acknowledge pore as well as Beaumont and Fletcher makes them, that, but that it is also imbrobable any will write so able, I believe it may be concluded impossible that well that way. But if that may be allowed improb any should speak as good verses in rhyme, as the best poets have writ; and therefore, that which ferred. Nor are great thoughts more adorned by seems nearest to what it intends, is ever to be preverse, than verse unbeautified by mean ones: so that verse seems not only unfit in the best use of it, but much more in the worse, when a servant is called, or a door bid to be shut, in rhyme. Verses