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- Lectures on Dramatic Art - 80/97 -


the enjoyment of love is so much the more natural in Richard, as his brother Edward, who besides preceded him in the possession of the crown, was distinguished by the nobleness and beauty of his figure, and was an almost irresistible conqueror of female hearts. Notwithstanding his pretended renunciation, Richard places his chief vanity in being able to please and win over the women, if not by his figure at least by his insinuating discourse. Shakspeare here shows us, with his accustomed acuteness of observation, that human nature, even when it is altogether decided in goodness or wickedness, is still subject to petty infirmities. Richard's favourite amusement is to ridicule others, and he possesses an eminent satirical wit. He entertains at bottom a contempt for all mankind: for he is confident of his ability to deceive them, whether as his instruments or his adversaries. In hypocrisy he is particularly fond of using religious forms, as if actuated by a desire of profaning in the service of hell the religion whose blessings he had inwardly abjured.

So much for the main features of Richard's character. The play named after him embraces also the latter part of the reign of Edward IV., in the whole a period of eight years. It exhibits all the machinations by which Richard obtained the throne, and the deeds which he perpetrated to secure himself in its possession, which lasted however but two years. Shakspeare intended that terror rather than compassion should prevail throughout this tragedy: he has rather avoided than sought the pathetic scenes which he had at command. Of all the sacrifices to Richard's lust of power, Clarence alone is put to death on the stage: his dream excites a deep horror, and proves the omnipotence of the poet's fancy: his conversation with the murderers is powerfully agitating; but the earlier crimes of Clarence merited death, although not from his brother's hand. The most innocent and unspotted sacrifices are the two princes: we see but little of them, and their murder is merely related. Anne disappears without our learning any thing farther respecting her: in marrying the murderer of her husband, she had shown a weakness almost incredible. The parts of Lord Rivers, and other friends of the queen, are of too secondary a nature to excite a powerful sympathy; Hastings, from his triumph at the fall of his friend, forfeits all title to compassion; Buckingham is the satellite of the tyrant, who is afterwards consigned by him to the axe of the executioner. In the background the widowed Queen Margaret appears as the fury of the past, who invokes a curse on the future: every calamity, which her enemies draw down on each other, is a cordial to her revengeful heart. Other female voices join, from time to time, in the lamentations and imprecations. But Richard is the soul or rather the daemon, of the whole tragedy. He fulfils the promise which he formerly made of leading the murderous Macchiavel to school. Notwithstanding the uniform aversion with which he inspires us, he still engages us in the greatest variety of ways by his profound skill in dissimulation, his wit, his prudence, his presence of mind, his quick activity, and his valour. He fights at last against Richmond like a desperado, and dies the honourable death of a hero on the field of battle. Shakspeare could not change this historical issue, and yet it is by no means satisfactory to our moral feelings, as Lessing, when speaking of a German play on the same subject, has very judiciously remarked. How has Shakspeare solved this difficulty? By a wonderful invention he opens a prospect into the other world, and shows us Richard in his last moments already branded with the stamp of reprobation. We see Richard and Richmond in the night before the battle sleeping in their tents; the spirits of the murdered victims of the tyrant ascend in succession, and pour out their curses against him, and their blessings on his adversary. These apparitions are properly but the dreams of the two generals represented visibly. It is no doubt contrary to probability that their tents should only be separated by so small a space; but Shakspeare could reckon on poetical spectators who were ready to take the breadth of the stage for the distance between two hostile camps, if for such indulgence they were to be recompensed by beauties of so sublime a nature as this series of spectres and Richard's awakening soliloquy. The catastrophe of _Richard the Third_ is, in respect of the external events, very like that of _Macbeth_: we have only to compare the thorough difference of handling them to be convinced that Shakspeare has most accurately observed poetical justice in the genuine sense of the word, that is, as signifying the revelation of an invisible blessing or curse which hangs over human sentiments and actions.

Although the last four pieces of the historical series paint later events, yet the plays of _Henry the Fourth and Fifth_ have, in tone and costume, a much more modern appearance. This is partly owing to the number of comic scenes; for the comic must always be founded not only in national, but also in contemporary manners. Shakspeare, however, seems also to have had the same design in the serious part. Bloody revolutions and devastations of civil war appear to posterity as a relapse into an earlier and more uncultivated condition of society, or they are in reality accompanied by such a relapse into unbridled savageness. If therefore the propensity of a young poetical mind to remove its object to a wonderful distance has had an influence on the style in which _Henry the Sixth_ and _Richard the Third_ are conceived, Shakspeare has been rightly guided by his instinct. As it is peculiar to the heroic poem to paint the races of men in times past as colossal in strength of body and resolution, so in these plays, the voices of a Talbot, a Warwick, a Clifford, and others, so ring on our ear that we imagine we hear the clanging trumpets of foreign or of civil war. The contest of the Houses of York and Lancaster was the last outbreak of feudal independence; it was the cause of the great and not of the people, who were only dragged into the struggle by the former. Afterwards the part was swallowed up in the whole, and no longer could any one be, like Warwick, a maker of kings. Shakspeare was as profound a historian as a poet; when we compare his _Henry the Eighth_ with the preceding pieces, we see distinctly that the English nation during the long, peaceable, and economical reign of Henry VII., whether from the exhaustion which was the fruit of the civil wars, or from more general European influences, had made a sudden transition from the powerful confusion of the middle age, to the regular tameness of modern times. _Henry the Eighth_ has, therefore, somewhat of a prosaic appearance; for Shakspeare, artist-like, adapted himself always to the quality of his materials. If others of his works, both in elevation of fancy and in energy of pathos and character, tower far above this, we have here on the other hand occasion to admire his nice powers of discrimination and his perfect knowledge of courts and the world. What tact was requisite to represent before the eyes of the queen [Footnote: It is quite clear that _Henry the Eighth_ was written while Elizabeth was still alive. We know that Ben Jonson, in the reign of King James, brought the piece again on the stage with additional pomp, and took the liberty of making several changes and additions. Without doubt, the prophecy respecting James the First is due to Ben Jonson: it would only have displeased Elizabeth, and is so ill introduced that we at once recognize in it a foreign interpolation.] subjects of such a delicate nature, and in which she was personally so nearly concerned, without doing violence to the truth! He has unmasked the tyrannical king, and to the intelligent observer exhibited him such as he was actually: haughty and obstinate, voluptuous and unfeeling, extravagant in conferring favours, and revengeful under the pretext of justice; and yet the picture is so dexterously handled that a daughter might take it for favourable. The legitimacy of Elizabeth's birth depended on the invalidity of Henry's first marriage, and Shakspeare has placed the proceedings respecting his separation from Catharine of Arragon in a very doubtful light. We see clearly that Henry's scruples of conscience are no other than the beauty of Anne Boleyn. Catharine is, properly speaking, the heroine of the piece; she excites the warmest sympathy by her virtues, her defenceless misery, her mild but firm opposition, and her dignified resignation. After her, the fall of Cardinal Wolsey constitutes the principal part of the business. Henry's whole reign was not adapted for dramatic poetry. It would have merely been a repetition of the same scenes: the repudiation, or the execution of his wives, and the disgrace of his most estimable ministers, which was usually soon followed by death. Of all that distinguished Henry's life Shakspeare has given us sufficient specimens. But as, properly speaking, there is no division in the history where he breaks off, we must excuse him if he gives us a flattering compliment of the great Elizabeth for a fortunate catastrophe. The piece ends with the general joy at the birth of that princess, and with prophecies of the happiness which she was afterwards to enjoy or to diffuse. It was only by such a turn that the hazardous freedom of thought in the rest of the composition could have passed with impunity: Shakspeare was not certainly himself deceived respecting this theatrical delusion. The true conclusion is the death of Catharine, which under a feeling of this kind, he has placed earlier than was conformable to history. I have now gone through all the unquestionably genuine works of Shakspeare. I have carefully abstained from all indefinite eulogies, which merely serve to prove a disproportion betwixt the feeling and the capability of expressing it. To many the above observations will appear too diffuse for the object and plan of these Lectures; to others they will perhaps seem unsatisfactory. I shall be satisfied if they place those readers who are not yet familiar with the poet in the right point of view, and pave the way for a solid knowledge, and if they recall to the minds of intelligent critics some of those thoughts which have occurred to themselves.

APPENDIX

_Respecting the Pieces said to be falsely attributed to Shakspeare._

The commentators of Shakspeare, in their attempts to deprive him of parts of his works, or even of whole pieces, have for the most part displayed very little of a true critical spirit. Pope, as is well known, was strongly disposed to reject whole scenes as interpolations by the players; but his opinion was not much listened to. However, Steevens acceded to the opinion of Pope, as to the apparition of the ghosts and of Jupiter, in _Cymbeline_, while Posthumus is sleeping in the dungeon. But Posthumus finds on waking a tablet on his breast, with a prophecy on which the _dénouement_ of the piece depends. Is it to be imagined that Shakspeare would require of his spectators the belief in a wonder without a visible cause? Can Posthumus have got this tablet with the prophecy by dreaming? But these gentlemen do not descend to this objection. The verses which the apparitions deliver do not appear to them good enough to be Shakspeare's. I imagine I can discover why the poet has not given them more of the splendour of diction. It is the aged parents and brothers of Posthumus, who, from concern for his fate, return from the world below: ought they not consequently to speak the language of a more simple olden time, and their voices, too, ought they not also to seem a feeble sound of wailing, when contrasted with the thundering oracular language of Jupiter? For this reason Shakspeare chose a syllabic measure which was very common before his time, but which was then going out of fashion, though it still continued to be frequently used, especially in translations of the classical poets. In some such manner might the shades express themselves in the then existing translations of Homer and Virgil. The speech of Jupiter is, on the other hand, majestic, and in form and style bears a complete resemblance to Shakspeare's sonnets. Nothing but incapacity to appreciate the views of the poet, and the perspective observed by him, could lead them to stumble at this passage.

Pope would willingly have declared the _Winter's Tale_ spurious, one of the noblest creations of the equally bold and lovely fancy of Shakspeare. Why? I suppose on account of the ship coming to Bohemia, and of the chasm of sixteen years between the third and fourth acts, which Time as a prologue entreats us to overleap.

_The Three Parts of Henry the Sixth_ are now at length admitted to be Shakspeare's. Theobald, Warburton, and lastly Farmer, affirmed that they were not Shakspeare's. In this case, we might well ask them to point out the other works of the unknown author, who was capable of inventing, among many others, the noble death-scenes of Talbot, Suffolk, Beaufort, and York. The assertion is so ridiculous, that in this case _Richard the Third_ might also not be Shakspeare's, as it is linked in the most immediate manner to the three other pieces, both by the subject, and the spirit and style of handling.


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