« ÎnapoiContinuă »
Cleopatra for which he loft the world, and was content to lose it.
It will be thought ftrange, that, in enumerating the defects of this writer, I have not yet mentioned his neglect of the unities; his violation of thofe laws which have been inftituted and established by the joint authority of poets and of criticks.
For his other deviations from the art of writing, I refign him to critical juftice, without making any other demand in his favour, than that which must be indulged to all human excellence; that his virtues be rated with his failings: But, from the cenfure which this irregularity may bring upon him, I fhall, with due reverence to that learning which I muft oppose, adventure to try how I can defend him.
His hiftories, being neither tragedies nor comedies, are not fubject to any of their laws; nothing more is neceffary to all the praife which they expect, than that the changes of action be fo prepared as to be underfood, that the incidents be various and affecting, and the characters confiftent, natural and diftinct. No other unity is intended, and therefore none is to be fought.
In his other works he has well enough preserved the unity of action. He has not, indeed, an intrigue regularly perplexed and regularly unravelled; he does not endeavour to hide his defign only to difcover it, for this is feldom the order of real events, and ShakeSpeare is the poet of nature: But his plan has commonly what Aristotle requires, a beginning, a middle,
and an end; one event is concatenated with another, and the conclufion follows by eafy confequence. There are perhaps fome incidents that might be spared, as in other poets there is much talk that only fills
up time upon the ftage; but the general fyftem makes gradual advances, and the end of the play is the end of expectation.
To the unities of time and place he has fhewn no regard, and perhaps a nearer view of the principles on which they ftand will diminish their value, and withdraw from them the veneration which, from the time of Corneille, they have very generally received by discovering that they have given more trouble to the poet, than pleasure to the auditor.
The neceffity of observing the unities of time and place arifes from the fuppofed neceffity of making the drama credible. The criticks hold it impoffible, that an action of months or years can be poffibly believed to pass in three hours; or that the fpectator can fuppofe himself to fit in the theatre, while ambaffadors go and return between diftant kings, while armies are levied and towns befieged, while an exile wanders and returns, or till he whom they faw courting his mistress, shall lament the untimely fall of his fon. The mind revolts from evident falfehood, and fiction lofes its force when it departs from the refemblance of reality.
From the narrow limitation of time neceffarily arifes the contraction of place. The fpectator, who knows that he faw the firft act at Alexandria, cannot
fuppofe that he fees the next at Rome, at a distance to which not the dragons of Medea could, in fo short a time, have tranfported him; he knows with certainty that he has not changed his place; and he knows that place cannot change itself; that what was a house cannot become a plain; that what was Thebes can never be Perfepolis.
Such is the triumphant language with which a critick exults over the mifery of an irregular poet, and exults commonly without refiftance or reply. It is time therefore to tell him, by the authority of ShakeSpeare, that he affumes, as an unqueflionable princi ple, a pofition, which, while his breath is forming it into words, his understanding pronounces to be falfe. It is falfe, that any reprefentation is mistaken for reality; that any dramatick fable in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a fingle moment, was ever credited.
The objection arifing from the impoffibility of paffing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, fupposes, that when the play opens the fpectator really imagines himself at Alexandria, and believes that his walk to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt, and that he lives in the days of Antony and Cleopatra. Surely he that imagines this, may imagine more. He that can take the ftage at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Actium. Delufion, if delufion be admitted, has no certain limitation; if the fpectator can be once perfuaded, that his old acquaintance are Alexander
Alexander and Cæfar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharfalia, or the bank of Granicus, he is in a ftate of elevation above the reach of reason, or of truth, and from the heights of empyrean poetry, may defpife the circumfcriptions of terreftrial nature. There is no reafon why a mind thus wandering in extafy fhould count the clock, or why an hour should not be a century in that calenture of the brains that can make the stage a field.
The truth is, that the spectators are always in their fenfes, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players. They come to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation. The lines relate to fome action, and an action must be in fome place; but the different actions that compleat a story may be in places very remote from each other; and where is the abfurdity of allowing that Space to reprefent firft Athens, and then Sicily, which was always known to be neither Sicily nor Athens, but a modern theatre.
By fuppofition, as place is introduced, time may be extended; the time required by the fable elapfes for the moft part between the acts; for, of so much of the action as is reprefented, the real and poetical duration is the fame. If, in the first act, preparations for war against Mithridates are reprefented to be made in Rome, the event of the war may, without abfurdity, be reprefented, in the catastrophe, as happening in Pontus; we know that there is neither
war, nor preparation for war; we know that we are neither in Rome nor Pontus; that neither Mithridates nor Lucullus are before us. The drama exhibits fuc-ceffive imitations of fucceffive actions, and why may not the fecond imitation reprefent an action that happened years after the firft; if it be fo connected with it, that nothing but time can be fuppofed to intervene. Time is, of all modes of exiftence, moft obfequious to the imagination; a lapfe of years is as eafily conceived as a paffage of hours. In contemplation we eafily contract the time of real actions, and therefore willingly permit it to be contracted when we only fee their imitation.
It will be afked, how the drama moves, if it is not credited. It is credited with all the credit due to a drama. It is credited, whenever it moves, as a juft picture of a real original; as reprefenting to the auditor what he would himself feel, if he were to do or
fuffer what is there feigned to be fuffered or to be done. The reflection that ftrikes the heart is not, that the evils before us are real evils, but that they are evils to which we ourselves may be expofed. If there be any fallacy, it is not that we fancy the players, but that we fancy ourfelves unhappy for a moment; but we rather lament the poffibility than fuppose the prefence of mifery, as a mother weeps over her babe, when the remembers that death may take it from her. The delight of tragedy proceeds from our confcioufnefs of fiction; if we thought murders and treafons real, they would please no more.