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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

Shakspere violated the unities


Shaksperian tradition is unbroken in the history of English literature and of the English theater. His plays, in one form or another, have always kept the stage even in the most degenerate condition of public taste.[8] Few handsomer tributes have been paid to Shakspere's genius than were paid in prose and verse, by the critics of our classical age, from Dryden to Johnson. "To begin then with Shakspere," says the former, in his "Essay of Dramatic Poesy," "he was the man who, of all modern and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul." And, in the prologue to his adaptation of "The Tempest," he acknowledges that

"Shakspere's magic could not copied be: Within that circle none durst walk but he."

"The poet of whose works I have undertaken the revision," writes Dr. Johnson, "may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration."[9]

"Each change of many-colored life he drew, Exhausted worlds, and then imagined new."[10]

Yet Dryden made many petulant, and Johnson many fatuous mistakes about Shakspere; while such minor criticasters as Thomas Rymer[11] and Mrs. Charlotte Lenox[12] uttered inanities of blasphemy about the finest touches in "Macbeth" and "Othello." For if we look closer, we notice that everyone who bore witness to Shakspere's

greatness qualified his praise by an emphatic disapproval of his methods. He was a prodigious genius, but a most defective artist. He was the supremest of dramatic poets, but he did not know his business. It did not apparently occur to anyone--except, in some degree, to Johnson--that there was an absurdity in this contradiction; and that the real fault was not in Shakspere, but in the standards by which he was tried. Here are the tests which technical criticism has always been seeking to impose, and they are not confined to the classical period only. They are used by Sidney, who took the measure of the English buskin before Shakspere had begun to write; by Jonson, who measured socks with him in his own day; by Matthew Arnold, who wanted an English Academy, but in whom the academic vaccine, after so long a transmission, worked but mildly. Shakspere violated the unities; his plays were neither right comedies nor right tragedies; he had small Latin and less Greek; he wanted art and sometimes sense, committing anachronisms and Bohemian shipwrecks; wrote hastily, did not blot enough, and failed of the grand style. He was "untaught, unpractised in a barbarous age"; a wild, irregular child of nature, ignorant of the rules, unacquainted with ancient models, succeeding--when he did succeed--by happy accident and the sheer force of genius; his plays were "roughdrawn," his plots lame, his speeches bombastic; he was guilty on every page of "some solecism or some notorious flaw in sense."[13]

Langbaine, to be sure, defends him against Dryden's censure. But Dennis regrets his ignorance of poetic art and the disadvantages under which he lay from not being conversant with the ancients. If he had known his Sallust, he would have drawn a juster picture of Caesar; and if he had read Horace "Ad Pisones," he would have made a better Achilles. He complains that he makes the good and the bad perish promiscuously; and that in "Coriolanus"--a play which Dennis "improved" for the new stage--he represents Menenius as a buffoon and introduces the rabble in a most undignified fashion.[14] Gildon, again, says that Shakspere must have read Sidney's "Defence of Posey" and therefore, ought to have known the rules and that his neglect of them was owing to laziness. "Money seems to have been his aim more than reputation, and therefore he was always in a hurry . . . and he thought it time thrown away, to study regularity and order, when any confused stuff that came into his head would do his business and fill his house."[15]

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