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Lectures on Dramatic Art by August Wilhelm Schlegel trans John Black

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their heroic magnificence, and assuming a modern, not to say a vulgar air.
He has succeeded best in painting the public life of the Roman republic;
and it is a great merit in the _Virginia_ that the action takes place in
the forum, and in part before the eyes of the people. In other pieces,
while the Unity of Place is strictly observed, the scene chosen is for the
most part so invisible and indeterminate, that one would fain imagine it
is some out-of-the-way corner, where nobody comes but persons involved in
painful and disagreeable transactions. Again, the stripping his kings and
heroes, for the sake of simplicity, of all their external retinue,
produces the impression that the world is actually depopulated around
them. This stage-solitude is very striking in _Saul_, where the scene is
laid before two armies in battle-array, on the point of a decisive
engagement. And yet, in other respects this piece is favourably
distinguished from the rest, by a certain Oriental splendour, and the
lyrical sublimity in which the troubled mind of Saul gives utterance to
itself. _Myrrha_ is a perilous attempt to treat with propriety a subject
equally revolting to the senses and the feelings. The Spaniard Arteaga has
criticised this tragedy and the _Filippo_ with great severity but with
great truth.

I reserve for my notice of the present condition of the Italian theatre
all that I have to remark on the successors of Alfieri, and go back in
order of time in order to give a short sketch of the history of Comedy.

In this department the Italians began with an imitation of the ancients,
which was not sufficiently attentive to the difference of times and
manners, and translations of Plautus and Terence were usually represented
in their earliest theatres; they soon fell, however, into the most
singular extravagancies. We have comedies of Ariosto and Macchiavelli--
those of the former are in rhymeless verse, _versi sdruccioli_, and
those of the latter in prose. Such men could produce nothing which did not
bear traces of their genius. But Ariosto in the structure of his pieces
kept too close to the stories of the ancients, and, therefore, did not
exhibit any true living picture of the manners of his own times. In
Macchiavelli this is only the case in his _Clitia_, an imitation of
Plautus; the _Mandragola_, and another comedy, which is without a
name, are sufficiently Florentine; but, unfortunately, they are not of a
very edifying description. A simple deceived husband, and a hypocritical
and pandering monk, form the principal parts. Tales, in the style of the
free and merry tales of Boccacio, are boldly and bluntly, I cannot say,
dramatised: for with respect to theatrical effect they are altogether
inartificial, but given in the form of dialogue. As _Mimes_, that is,
as pictures of the language of ordinary life with all its idioms, these
productions are much to be commended. In one point they resemble the Latin
comic poets; they are not deficient in indecency. This was, indeed, their
general tone. The comedies of Pietro Aretino are merely remarkable for
their shameless immodesty. It almost seems as if these writers, deeming
the spirit of refined love inconsistent with the essence of Comedy, had
exhausted the very lees of the sensual amours of Greek Comedy.

At a still earlier period, in the beginning, namely, of the sixteenth
century, an unsuccessful attempt had been made in the _Virginia_ of
Accolti to dramatise a serious novel, as a middle species between Comedy
and Tragedy, and to adorn it with poetical splendour. Its subject is the
same story on which Shakspeare's _All's Well that Ends Well_, is founded.
I have never had an opportunity of reading it, but the unfavourable report
of a literary man disposes me to think favourably of it. [Footnote:
Bouterwek's _Geschichte der Poesie und Beredsamkeit.--Ersten Band_, s.
334, &c.] According to his description, it resembles the older pieces of
the Spanish stage before it had attained to maturity of form, and in
common with them it employs the stanza for its metre. The attempts at
romantic drama have always failed in Italy; whereas in Spain, on the
contrary, all endeavours to model the theatre according to the rules of
the ancients, and latterly of the French, have from the difference of
national taste uniformly been abortive.

We have a comedy of Tasso's, _Gli Intrichi d'Amore_, which ought rather to
be called a lengthy romance in the form of dialogue. So many and such
wonderful events are crowded together within the narrow limit of five
acts, that one incident treads closely upon the heels of another, without
being in the least accounted for by human motives, so as to give to the
whole an insupportable hardness. Criminal designs are portrayed with
indifference, and the merriment is made to consist in the manner in which
some accident or other invariably frustrates their consequences. We cannot
here recognise the Tasso whose nice sense of love, chivalry, and honour
speaks so delightfully in the _Jerusalem Delivered_, and on this ground it
has even been doubted whether this work be really his. The richness of
invention, if we may give this name to a rude accumulation of incidents,
is so great, that the attention is painfully tortured in the endeavour to
keep clear and disentangled the many and diversely crossing threads.

We have of this date a multitude of Italian comedies on a similar plan,
only with less order and connexion, and whoso aim apparently is to delight
by means of indecency. A parasite and procuress are standing characters in
all. Among the comic poets of this class, Giambatista Porta deserves to be
distinguished. His plots, it is true, are like the rest, imitations of
Plautus and Terence, or dramatised tales; but, throughout the love-
dialogues, on which he seems to have laboured with peculiar fondness,
there breathes a tender feeling which rises even from the midst of the
rudeness of the old Italian Comedy, and its generally uncongenial

In the seventeenth century, when the Spanish theatre flourished in all its
glory, the Italians seem to have borrowed frequently from it; but not
without misemploying and disfiguring whatever they so acquired. The
neglect of the regular stage increased with the all-absorbing passion for
the opera, and with the growing taste of the multitude for improvisatory
farces with standing masks. The latter are not in themselves to be
despised: they serve to fix, as it were, so many central points of the
national character in the comic exhibition, by the external peculiarities
of speech, dress, &c. Their constant recurrence does not by any means
preclude the greatest possible diversity in the plot of the pieces, even
as in chess, with a small number of men, of which each has his fixed
movement, an endless number of combinations is possible. But as to
extemporary playing, it no doubt readily degenerates into insipidity; and
this may have been the case even in Italy, notwithstanding the great fund
of drollery and fantastic wit, and a peculiar felicity in farcical
gesticulation, which the Italians possess.

About the middle of the last century, Goldoni appeared as the reformer of
Italian Comedy, and his success was so great, that he remained almost
exclusively in possession of the comic stage. He is certainly not
deficient in theatrical skill; but, as the event has proved, he is wanting
in that solidity, that depth of characterization, that novelty and
richness of invention, which are necessary to ensure a lasting reputation.
His pictures of manners are true, but not sufficiently elevated above the
range of every-day life; he has exhausted the surface of life; and as
there is little progression in his dramas, and every thing turns usually
on the same point, this adds to the impression of shallowness and ennui,
as characteristic of the existing state of society. Willingly would he
have abolished masks altogether, but he could hardly have compensated for
them out of his own resources; however, he retained only a few of them, as
Harlequin, Brighella, and Pantaloon, and limited their parts. And yet he
fell again into a great uniformity of character, which, indeed, he partly
confesses in his repeated use of the same names: for instance, his
Beatrice is always a lively, and his Rosaura a feeling young maiden; and
as for any farther distinction, it is not to be found in him.

The excessive admiration of Goldoni, and the injury sustained thereby by
the masked comedy, for which the company of Sacchi in Venice possessed the
highest talents, gave rise to the dramas of Gozzi. They are fairy tales in
a dramatic form, in which, however, along side of the wonderful,
versified, and more serious part, he employed the whole of the masks, and
allowed them full and unrestrained development of their peculiarities.
They, if ever any were, are pieces for effect, of great boldness of plot,
still more fantastic than romantic; even though Gozzi was the first among
the comic poets of Italy to show any true feeling for honour and love. The
execution does not betoken either care or skill, but is sketchily dashed
off. With all his whimsical boldness he is still quite a popular writer;
the principal motives are detailed with the most unambiguous perspicuity,
all the touches are coarse and vigorous: he says, he knows well that his
countrymen are fond of _robust_ situations. After his imagination had
revelled to satiety among Oriental tales, he took to re-modelling Spanish
plays, and particularly those of Calderon; but here he is, in my opinion,
less deserving of praise. By him the ethereal and delicately-tinted poetry
of the Spaniard is uniformly vulgarised, and deepened with the most
glaring colours; while the weight of his masks draws the aerial tissue to
the ground, for the humorous introduction of the _gracioso_ in the
Spanish is of far finer texture. On the other hand, the wonderful
extravagance of the masked parts serves as an admirable contrast to the
wild marvels of fairy tale. Thus the character of these pieces was, in the
serious part, as well as in the accompanying drollery, equally removed
from natural truth. Here Gozzi had fallen almost accidentally on a fund of
whose value he was not, perhaps, fully aware: his prosaical, and for the
most part improvisatory, masks, forming altogether of themselves the irony
on the poetical part. What I here mean by irony, I shall explain more
fully when I come to the justification of the mixture of the tragic and
comic in the romantic drama of Shakspeare and Calderon. At present I shall
only observe, that it is a sort of confession interwoven into the
representation itself, and more or less distinctly expressed, of its
overcharged one-sidedness in matters of fancy and feeling, and by means of
which the equipoise is again restored. The Italians were not, however,
conscious of this, and Gozzi did not find any followers to carry his rude
sketches to a higher degree of perfection. Instead of combining like him,
only with greater refinement, the charms of wonderful poetry with
exhilarating mirth; instead of comparing Gozzi with the foreign masters of
the romantic drama, whom he resembles notwithstanding his great disparity,
and from the unconscious affinity between them in spirit and plan, drawing
the conclusion that the principle common to both was founded in nature;
the Italians contented themselves with considering the pieces of Gozzi as
the wild offspring of an extravagant imagination, and with banishing them
from the stage. The comedy with masks is held in contempt by all who
pretend to any degree of refinement, as if they were too wise for it, and
is abandoned to the vulgar, in the Sunday representations at the theatres
and in the puppet-shows. Although this contempt must have had an injurious
influence on the masks, preventing, as it does, any actor of talent from
devoting himself to them, so that there are no examples now of the spirit
and wit with which they were formerly filled up, still the _Commedia
dell' Arte_ is the only one in Italy where we can meet with original
and truly theatrical entertainment. [Footnote: A few years ago, I saw in
Milan an excellent Truffaldin or Harlequin, and here and there in obscure
theatres, and even in puppet-shows, admirable representations of the old
traditional jokes of the country. [Unfortunately, on my last visit to
Milan, my friend was no longer to be met with. Under the French rule,
Harlequin's merry occupation had been proscribed in the Great Theatres,
from a care, it was alleged, for the dignity of man. The Puppet-theatre of
Gerolamo still flourishes, however but a stranger finds it difficult to
follow the jokes of the Piedmontese and Milan Masks.--LAST EDITION.]]

In Tragedy the Italians generally imitate Alfieri, who, although it is the
prevailing fashion to admire him, is too bold and manly a thinker to be
tolerated on the stage. They have produced some single pieces of merit,
but the principles of tragic art which Alfieri followed are altogether
false, and in the bawling and heartless declamation of their actors, this
tragic poetry, stripped with stoical severity of all the charms of
grouping, of musical harmony, and of every tender emotion, is represented
with the most deadening uniformity and monotony. As all the rich rewards
are reserved for the singers, it is only natural that their players, who
are only introduced as a sort of stop-gaps between singing and dancing,
should, for the most part, not even possess the very elements of their
art, viz., pure pronunciation, and practised memory. They seem to have no
idea that their parts can be got by heart, and hence, in an Italian
theatre, we hear every piece as it were twice over; the prompter speaking
as loud as a good player elsewhere, and the actors in order to be
distinguished from him bawling most insufferably. It is exceedingly
amusing to see the prompter, when, from the general forgetfulness, a scene
threatens to fall into confusion, labouring away, and stretching out his
head like a serpent from his hole, hurrying through the dialogue before
the different speakers. Of all the actors in the world, I conceive those
of Paris to have their parts best by heart; in this, as well as in the
knowledge of versification, the Germans are far inferior to them.

One of their living poets, Giovanni Pindemonti, has endeavoured to
introduce greater extent, variety, and nature into his historical plays,
but he has been severely handled by their critics for descending from the
height of the cothurnus to attain that truth of circumstance without which
it is impossible for this species of drama to exist; perhaps also for
deviating from the strict observation of the traditional rules, so blindly
worshipped by them. If the Italian verse be in fact so fastidious as not
to consort with many historical peculiarities, modern names and titles for
instance, let them write partly in prose, and call the production not a
tragedy, but an historical drama. It seems in general to be assumed as an
undoubted principle, that the _verso sciolto_, or rhymeless line, of
eleven syllables, is alone fit for the drama, but this does not seem to me
to be by any means proved. This verse, in variety and metrical
signification, is greatly inferior to the English and German rhymeless
iambic, from its uniform feminine termination, and from there being merely
an accentuation in Italian, without any syllabic measure. Moreover, from
the frequent transition of the sense from verse to verse, according to
every possible division, the lines flow into one another without its being
possible for the ear to separate them. Alfieri imagined that he had found
out the genuine dramatic manner of treating this verse correspondent to
the form of his own dialogue, which consists of simply detached periods,
or rather of propositions entirely unperiodical and abruptly terminated.
It is possible that he carried into his works a personal peculiarity, for
he is said to have been extremely laconic; he was also, as he himself
relates, influenced by the example of Seneca: but how different a lesson
might he have learned from the Greeks! We do not, it is true, in
conversation, connect our language so closely as in an oratorical
harangue, but the opposite extreme is equally unnatural. Even in our
common discourses, we observe a certain continuity, we give a development
both to arguments and objections, and in an instant passion will animate
us to fulness of expression, to a flow of eloquence, and even to lyrical
sublimity. The ideal dialogue of Tragedy may therefore find in actual
conversation all the various tones and turns of poetry, with the exception
of epic repose. The metre therefore of Metastasio, and before him, of
Tasso and Guarini, in their pastoral dramas, seems to me much more
agreeable and suitable than the monotonous verse of eleven syllables: they
intermingle with it verses of seven syllables, and occasionally, after a
number of blank lines, introduce a pair of rhymes, and even insert a rhyme
in the middle of a verse. From this the transition to more measured
strophes, either in _ottave rime_, or in direct lyrical metres, would
be easy. Rhyme, and the connexion which it forms, have nothing in them
inconsistent with the essence of dramatic dialogue, and the objection to
change of measure in the drama rests merely on a chilling idea of

No suitable versification for Comedy has yet been invented in Italy. The
_verso sciolto_, it is well known, does not answer; it is not sufficiently
familiar. The verse of twelve syllables, with a _sdrucciolo_ termination
selected by Ariosto, is much better, resembling the trimeter of the
ancients, but is still somewhat monotonous. It has been, however, but
little cultivated. The Martellian verse, a bad imitation of the
Alexandrine, is a downright torture to the ear. Chiari, and occasionally
Goldoni, came at last to use it, and Gozzi by way of derision. It still
remains therefore to the prejudice of a more elegant style of prose.

Of Comedy, the modern Italians have nothing worth the name. What they
have, are nothing but pictures of manners still more dull and superficial
than those of Goldoni, without drollery, or invention, and from their
every-day commonplace, downright disagreeable. They have, on the other
hand, acquired a true relish for the sentimental drama and familiar
tragedy; they frequent with great partiality the representation of popular
German pieces of this description, and even produce the strangest and
oddest imitations of them. Long accustomed to operas and ballets, as their
favourite entertainments, wherein nothing is ever attempted beyond a
beautiful air or an elegant movement, the public seems altogether to have
lost all sense of dramatic connexion: they are perfectly satisfied with
seeing the same evening two acts from different operas, or even the last
act of an opera before the first.

We believe, therefore, that we are not going too far if we affirm, that
both dramatic poetry and the histrionic art are in a lamentable state of
decline in Italy, that not even the first foundations of a true national
theatre have yet been laid, and that there is no prospect of it, till the
prevailing ideas on the subject shall have undergone a total change.

Calsabigi attributes the cause of this state to the want of permanent
companies of players, and of a capital. In this last reason there is
certainly some foundation: in England, Spain, and France, a national
system of dramatic art has been developed and established; in Italy and
Germany, where there are only capitals of separate states, but no general
metropolis, great difficulties are opposed to the improvement of the
theatre. Calsabigi could not adduce the obstacles arising from a false
theory, for he was himself under their influence.


Antiquities of the French Stage--Influence of Aristotle and the Imitation
of the Ancients--Investigation of the Three Unities--What is Unity of
Action?--Unity of Time--Was it observed by the Greeks?--Unity of Place as
connected with it.

We now proceed to the Dramatic Literature of France. We have no intention
of dwelling at length on the first beginnings of Tragedy in this country,
and therefore leave to French critics the task of depreciating the
antiquities of their own literature, which, with the mere view of adding
to the glory of the later age of Richelieu and Louis XIV., they so
zealously enter upon. Their language, it is true, was at this time first
cultivated, from an indescribable waste of tastelessness and barbarity,
while the harmonious diction of the Italian and Spanish poetry, which had
long before spontaneously developed itself in the most beautiful
luxuriance, was rapidly degenerating. Hence we are not to be astonished if
the French lay such great stress on negative excellences, and so carefully
endeavour to avoid everything like impropriety, and that from dread of
relapse into rudeness this has ever since been the general object of their
critical labours. When La Harpe says of the tragedies of Corneille, that
"their tone rises above flatness, only to fall into the opposite extreme
of affectation," judging from the proofs which he adduces, we see no
reason to differ from him. The publication recently of Legouvé's _Death
of Henry the Fourth_, has led to the reprinting of a contemporary piece
on the same subject, which is not only written in a ludicrous style, but
in the general plan and distribution of the subject, with its prologue
spoken by Satan, and its chorus of pages, with its endless monologues and
want of progress and action, betrays the infancy of the dramatic art; not
a naïve infancy, full of hope and promise, but one disfigured by the most
pedantic bombast and absurdity. For a character of the earlier tragical
attempts of the French in the last half of the sixteenth and the first
thirty or forty years of the seventeenth century, we refer to Fontenelle,
La Harpe, and the _Mélanges Littéraires_ of Suard and André. We shall
confine ourselves to the characteristics of three of their most celebrated
tragic poets, Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire, who, it would seem, have
given an immutable shape to their tragic stage. Our chief object, however,
is an examination of the _system of tragic art_ practically followed
by these poets, and by them, in part, but by the French critics
universally, considered as alone entitled to any authority, and every
deviation from it viewed as an offence against good taste. If only the
system be in itself the right one, we shall be compelled to allow that its
execution is masterly, perhaps not to be surpassed. But the great question
here is: how far the French tragedy is in spirit and inward essence
related to the Greek, and whether it deserves to be considered as an
improvement upon it?

Of the earlier attempts it is only necessary for us to observe, that the
endeavour to imitate the ancients showed itself from the very earliest
period in France. Moreover, they considered it the surest method of
succeeding in this endeavour to observe the outward regularity of form, of
which their notion was derived from Aristotle, and especially from Seneca,
rather than from any intimate acquaintance with the Greek models
themselves. In the first tragedies that were represented, the _Cleopatra_,
and _Dido_ of Jodelle, a prologue and chorus were introduced; Jean de la
Peruse translated the _Medea_ of Seneca; and Garnier's pieces are all
taken from the Greek tragedies or from Seneca, but in the execution they
bear a much closer resemblance to the latter. The writers of that day,
moreover, modelled themselves diligently on the _Sophonisbe_ of Trissino,
in good confidence of its classic form. Whoever is acquainted with the
procedure of true genius, how it is impelled by an almost unconscious and
immediate contemplation of great and important truths, and in no wise by
convictions obtained mediately, and by circuitous deductions, will be on
that ground alone extremely suspicious of all activity in art which
originates in an abstract theory. But Corneille did not, like an
antiquary, execute his dramas as so many learned school exercises, on the
model of the ancients. Seneca, it is true, led him astray, but he knew and
loved the Spanish theatre, and it had a great influence on his mind. The
first of his pieces, with which, according to general admission, the
classical aera of French tragedy commences, and which is certainly one of
his best, the _Cid_, is well known to have been borrowed from the Spanish.
It violates in a great degree the unity of place, if not also that of
time, and it is animated throughout by the spirit of chivalrous love and
honour. But the opinion of his contemporaries, that a tragedy must be
framed in strict accordance with the rules of Aristotle, was so
universally predominant, that it bore down all opposition. Almost at the
close of his dramatic career, Corneille began to entertain scruples of
conscience, and in a separate treatise endeavoured to prove that, although
in the composition of his pieces he had never even thought of Aristotle,
they were yet all accurately written according to his rules. This was no
easy task, and he was obliged to have recourse to all manner of forced
explanations. If he had been able to establish his case satisfactorily, it
would but lead to the inference that the rules of Aristotle must be very
loose and indeterminate, if works so dissimilar in spirit and form, as the
tragedies of the Greeks and those of Corneille are yet equally true to

It is quite otherwise with Racine: of all the French poets he was, without
doubt, the one who was best acquainted with the ancients; and not merely
did he study them as a scholar, he felt them also as a poet. He found,
however, the practice of the theatre already firmly established, and he
did not, for the sake of approaching these models, undertake to deviate
from it. He contented himself, therefore, with appropriating the separate
beauties of the Greek poets; but, whether from deference to the taste of
his age, or from inclination, he remained faithful to the prevailing
gallantry so alien to the spirit of Greek tragedy, and, for the most part,
made it the foundation of the complication of his plots.

Such, nearly, was the state of the French theatre before the appearance of
Voltaire. His knowledge of the Greeks was very limited, although he now
and then spoke of them with enthusiasm, in order, on other occasions, to
rank them below the more modern masters of his own nation, including
himself still, he always felt himself bound to preach up the grand
severity and simplicity of the Greeks as essential to Tragedy. He censured
the deviations of his predecessors therefrom as mistakes, and insisted on
purifying and at the same time enlarging the stage, as, in his opinion,
from the constraint of court manners, it had been almost straitened to the
dimensions of an antechamber. He at first spoke of Shakspeare's bursts of
genius, and borrowed many things from this poet, at that time altogether
unknown to his countrymen; he insisted, too, on greater depth in the
delineation of passion--on a stronger theatrical effect; he called for a
scene more majestically ornamented; and, lastly, he frequently endeavoured
to give to his pieces a political or philosophical interest altogether
foreign to poetry. His labours hare unquestionably been of utility to the
French stage, although in language and versification (which in the
classification of dramatic excellences ought only to hold a secondary
place, though in France they alone almost decide the fate of a piece), he
is, by most critics, considered inferior to his predecessors, or at least
to Racine. It is now the fashion to attack this idol of a bygone
generation on every point, and with the most unrelenting and partial
hostility. His innovations on the stage are therefore cried down as so
many literary heresies, even by watchmen of the critical Zion, who seem to
think that the age of Louis XIV. has left nothing for all succeeding time,
to the end of the world, but a passive admiration of its perfections,
without a presumptuous thought of making improvements of its own. For
authority is avowed with so little disguise as the first principle of the
French critics, that this expression of literary heresy is quite current
with them.

In so far as we have to raise a doubt of the unconditional authority of
the rules followed by the old French tragic authors, of the pretended
affinity between the spirit of their works and the spirit of the Greek
tragedians, and of the indispensableness of many supposed proprieties, we
find an ally in Voltaire. But in many other points he has, without
examination, nay even unconsciously, adopted the maxims of his
predecessors, and followed their practice. He is alike implicated with
them in many opinions, which are perhaps founded more on national
peculiarities than on human nature and the essence of tragic poetry in
general. On this account we may include him in a common examination with
them; for we are here concerned not with the execution of particular
parts, but with the general principles of tragic art which reveal
themselves in the shape of the works.

The consideration of the dramatic regularity for which these critics
contend brings us back to the so-called Three Unities of Aristotle. We
shall therefore examine the doctrine delivered by the Greek philosopher on
this subject: how far the Greek tragedians knew or observed these rules;
whether the French poets have in reality overcome the difficulty of
observing them without the sacrifice of freedom and probability, or merely
dexterously avoided it; and finally, whether the merit of this observance
is actually so great and essential as it has been deemed, and does not
rather entail the sacrifice of still more essential beauties.

There is, however, another aspect of French Tragedy from which it cannot
appeal to the authority of the ancients: this is, the tying of poetry to a
number of merely conventional proprieties. On this subject the French are
far less clear than on that of the rules; for nations are not usually more
capable of knowing and appreciating themselves than individuals are. It
is, however, intimately connected with the spirit of French poetry in
general, nay, rather of their whole literature and the very language
itself. All this, in France, has been formed under the guardianship of
society, and, in its progressive development, has uniformly been guided
and determined by it--the guardianship of a society which zealously
imitated the tone of the capital, which again took its direction from the
reigning modes of a brilliant court. If, as there is indeed no difficulty
in proving, such be really the case, we may easily conceive why French
literature, of and since the age of Louis XIV., has been, and still is, so
well received in the upper ranks of society and the fashionable world
throughout Europe, whereas the body of the people, everywhere true to
their own customs and manners, have never shown anything like a cordial
liking for it. In this way, even in foreign countries, it again in some
measure finds the place of its birth.

The far-famed Three Unities, which have given rise to a whole Iliad of
critical wars, are the Unities of Action, Time, and Place.

The validity of the first is universally allowed, but the difficulty is to
agree about its true meaning; and, I may add, that it is no easy matter to
come to an understanding on the subject.

The Unities of Time and of Place are considered by some quite a
subordinate matter, while others lay the greatest stress upon them, and
affirm that out of the pale of them there is no safety for the dramatic
poet. In France this zeal is not confined merely to the learned world, but
seems to be shared by the whole nation in common. Every Frenchman who has
sucked in his Boileau with his mother's milk, considers himself a born
champion of the Dramatic Unities, much in the same way that the kings of
England since Henry VIII. are hereditary Defenders of the Faith.

It is amusing enough to see Aristotle driven perforce to lend his name to
these three Unities, whereas the only one of which he speaks with any
degree of fulness is the first, the Unity of Action. With respect to the
Unity of Time he merely throws out a vague hint; while of the Unity of
Place he says not a syllable.

I do not, therefore, find myself in a polemical relation to Aristotle, for
I by no means contest the Unity of Action properly understood: I only
claim a greater latitude with respect to place and time for many species
of the drama, nay, hold it essential to them. In order, however, that we
may view the matter in its true light, I must first say a few words on the
_Poetics_ of Aristotle, those few pages which have given rise to such
voluminous commentaries.

It is well established that this treatise is merely a fragment, for it
does not even touch upon many important matters. Several scholars have
even been of opinion, that it is not a fragment of the true original, but
of an abridgment which some one had made for his own improvement. On one
point all philological critics are unanimous: namely, that the text is
very much corrupted, and they have endeavoured to restore it by
conjectural emendations. Its great obscurity is either expressly
complained of by commentators, or substantiated by the fact, that all in
turn reject the interpretations of their predecessors, while they cannot
approve their own to those who succeed them.

Very different is it with the _Rhetoric_ of Aristotle. It is undoubtedly
genuine, perfect, and easily understood. But how does he there consider
the oratorical art? As a sister of Logic: for as this produces conviction
by its syllogism, so must Rhetoric in a kindred manner operate persuasion.
This is about the same as to consider architecture simply as the art of
building solidly and conveniently. This is, certainly, the first
requisite, but a great deal more is still necessary before we can consider
it as one of the fine arts. What we require of architecture is, that it
should combine these essential objects of an edifice with beauty of plan
and harmony of proportion, and give to the whole a correspondent
impression. Now when we see how Aristotle, without allowing for
imagination or feeling, has viewed oratory only on that side which is
accessible to the understanding, and is subservient to an external aim,
can it surprise us if that he has still less fathomed the mystery of
poetry, that art which is absolved from every other aim but its own
unconditional one of creating the beautiful by free invention and clothing
it in suitable language?--Already have I had the hardihood to maintain
this heresy, and hitherto I have seen no reason for retracting my opinion.
Lessing thought otherwise. But what if Lessing, with his acute analytical
criticism, split exactly on the same rock? This species of criticism is
completely victorious when it exposes the contradictions for the
understanding in works composed exclusively with the understanding; but it
could hardly rise to the idea of a work of art created by the true genius.

The philosophical theory of the fine arts collectively was, as a distinct
science, little cultivated among the ancients; of technical works on the
several arts individually, in which the means of execution were alone
considered, they had no lack. Were I to select a guide from among the
ancient philosophers, it should undoubtedly be Plato, who acquired the
idea of the beautiful not by dissection, which never can give it, but by
intuitive inspiration, and in whose works the germs of a genuine
Philosophy of Art, are every where scattered.

Let us now hear what Aristotle says on the Unity of Action.

"We affirm that Tragedy is the imitation of a perfect and entire action
which has a certain magnitude: for there may be a whole without any
magnitude whatever. Now a whole is what has a beginning, middle, and end.
A beginning is that which is not necessarily after some other thing, but
that which from its nature has something after it, or arising out of it.
An end, on the other hand, is that which from its nature is after
something else, either necessarily, or usually, but after which there is
nothing, A middle, what is itself after some other thing, and after which
also there is something. Hence poems which are properly composed must
neither begin nor end accidentally, but according to the principles above
laid down."

Strictly speaking, it is a contradiction in terms to say that a whole,
which has parts, can be without magnitude. But Aristotle goes on to state,
in explanation, that by "magnitude" as a requisition of beauty, he means,
a certain measure which is neither so small as to preclude us from
distinguishing its parts, nor so extensive as to prevent us from taking
the whole in at one view. This is, therefore, merely an external
definition of the beautiful, derived from experience, and founded on the
quality of our organs of sense and our powers of comprehension. However,
his application of it to the drama is remarkable. "It must have an
extension, but such as may easily be taken in by the memory. The
determination of the length according to the wants of the representation,
does not come within the province of Art. With respect to the essence of
the thing, the composition will be the more beautiful the more extensive
it is without prejudice to its comprehensibility." This assertion would be
highly favourable for the compositions of Shakspeare and of other romantic
poets, who have included in one picture a more extensive circle of life,
characters, and events, than is to be found in the simple Greek tragedy,
if only we could show that they have given it the necessary unity, and
such a magnitude as can be clearly taken in at a view, and this we have no
hesitation in affirming to be actually the case.

In another place Aristotle requires the same unity of action from the epic
as from the dramatic poet; he repeats the preceding definitions, and says
that the poet must not resemble the historian, who relates contemporary
events, although they have no bearing on one another. Here we have still a
more express demand of that connexion of cause and effect between the
represented events, which before, in his explanation of the parts of a
whole, was at most implied. He admits, however, that the epic poet may
take in a much greater number of events connected with one main action,
since the narrative form enables him to describe many things as going on
at the same time; on the other hand, the dramatic poet cannot represent
several simultaneous actions, but only so much as is going on upon the
stage, and the part which the persons who appear there take in one action.
But what if a different construction of the scene, and a more skilful
theatric perspective, should enable the dramatic poet, duly and without
confusion, although in a more compressed space, to develope a fable not
inferior in extent to the epic poem? Where would be the objection, if the
only obstacle were the supposed impossibility?

This is nearly all that is to be found in the _Poetics_ of Aristotle
on Unity of Action. A short investigation will serve to show how very much
these anatomical ideas, which have been stamped as rules, are below the
essential requisites of poetry.

Unity of Action is required. What is action? Most critics pass over this
point, as if it were self-evident In the higher, proper signification,
action is an activity dependent on the will of man. Its unity will consist
in the direction towards a single end; and to its completeness belongs all
that lies between the first determination and the execution of the deed.

This idea of action is applicable to many tragedies of the ancients (for
instance, Orestes' murder of his mother, Oedipus' determination to
discover and punish the murderer of Laius), but by no means to all; still
less does it apply to the greater part of modern tragedies, at least if
the action is to be sought in the principal characters. What comes to pass
through them, and proceeds with them, has frequently no more connexion
with a voluntary determination, than a ship's striking on a rock in a
storm. But further, in the term action, as understood by the ancients, we
must include the resolution to bear the consequences of the deed with
heroic magnanimity, and the execution of this determination will belong to
its completion. The pious resolve of Antigone to perform the last duties
to her unburied brother is soon executed and without difficulty; but
genuineness, on which alone rests its claim to be a fit subject for a
tragedy, is only subsequently proved when, without repentance, and without
any symptoms of weakness, she suffers death as its penalty. And to take an
example from quite a different sphere, is not Shakspeare's _Julius
Caesar_, as respects the action, constructed on the same principle?
Brutus is the hero of the piece; the completion of his great resolve does
not consist in the mere assassination of Caesar (an action ambiguous in
itself, and of which the motives might have been ambition and jealousy),
but in this, that he proves himself the pure champion of Roman liberty, by
the calm sacrifice of his amiable life.

Farther, there could be no complication of the plot without opposition,
and this arises mostly out of the contradictory motives and views of the
acting personages. If, therefore, we limit the notion of an action to the
determination and the deed, then we shall, in most cases, have two or
three actions in a single tragedy. Which now is the principal action?
Every person thinks his own the most important, for every man is his own
central point. Creon's determination to maintain his kingly authority, by
punishing the burial of Polynices with death, is equally fixed with
Antigone's determination, equally important, and, as we see at the end,
not less dangerous, as it draws after it the ruin of his whole house. It
may be perhaps urged that the merely negative determination is to be
considered simply as the complement of the affirmative. But what if each
determines on something not exactly opposite, but altogether different? In
the _Andromache_ of Bacine, Orestes wishes to move Hermione to return
his love; Hermione is resolved to compel Pyrrhus to marry her, or she will
be revenged on him; Pyrrhus wishes to be rid of Hermione, and to be united
to Andromache; Andromache is desirous of saving her son, and at the same
time remaining true to the memory of her husband. Yet nobody ever
questioned the unity of this piece, as the whole has a common connexion,
and ends with one common catastrophe. But which of the actions of the four
persons is the main action? In strength of passion, their endeavours are
pretty nearly equal--in all the whole happiness of life is at stake; the
action of Andromache has, however, the advantage in moral dignity, and
Racine was therefore perfectly right in naming the piece after her.

We see here a new condition in the notion of action, namely, the reference
to the idea of moral liberty, by which alone man is considered as the
original author of his own resolutions. For, considered within the
province of experience, the resolution, as the beginning of action, is not
a cause merely, but is also an effect of antecedent motives. It was in
this reference to a higher idea, that we previously found the _unity_
and _wholeness_ of Tragedy in the sense of the ancients; namely, its
absolute beginning is the assertion of Free-will, and the acknowledgment
of Necessity its absolute end. But we consider ourselves justified in
affirming that Aristotle was altogether a stranger to this view; he
nowhere speaks of the idea of Destiny as essential to Tragedy. In fact, we
must not expect from him a strict idea of action as a resolution and deed.
He says somewhere--"The extent of a tragedy is always sufficiently great,
if, by a series of probable or necessary consequences, a reverse from
adversity to prosperity, or from happiness to misery, is brought about."
It is evident, therefore, that he, like all the moderns, understood by
_action_ something merely that takes place. This action, according to
him, must have beginning, middle, and end, and consequently consist of a
plurality of connected events. But where are the limits of this plurality?
Is not the concatenation of causes and effects, backwards and forwards,
without end? and may we then, with equal propriety, begin and break off
wherever we please? In this province, can there be either beginning or
end, corresponding to Aristotle's very accurate definition of these
notions? Completeness would therefore be altogether impossible. If,
however, for the unity of a plurality of events nothing more is requisite
than casual connexion, then this rule is indefinite in the extreme, and
the unity admits of being narrowed or enlarged at pleasure. For every
series of incidents or actions, which are occasioned by each other,
however much it be prolonged, may always be comprehended under a single
point of view, and denoted by a single name. When Calderon in a single
drama describes the conversion of Peru to Christianity, from its very
beginning (that is, from the discovery of the country) down to its
completion, and when nothing actually occurs in the piece which had not
some influence on that event, does he not give us as much Unity in the
above sense as the simplest Greek tragedy, which, however, the champions
of Aristotle's rules will by no means allow?

Corneille was well aware of the difficulty of a proper definition of
unity, as applicable to an inevitable plurality of subordinate actions;
and in this way did he endeavour to get rid of it. "I assume," says he,
"that in Comedy, Unity of Action consists in Unity of the Intrigue; that
is, of the obstacles raised to the designs of the principal persons; and
in Tragedy, in the unity of the danger, whether the hero sinks under, or
extricates himself from it. By this, however, I do not mean to assert that
several dangers in Tragedy, and several intrigues or obstacles in Comedy,
may not be allowable, provided only that the personage falls necessarily
from one into the other; for then the escape from the first danger does
not make the action complete, for it draws a second after it, as also the
clearing up of one intrigue does not place the acting persons at their
ease, because it involves them in another."

In the first place the difference here assumed between tragic and comic
Unity is altogether unessential. For the manner of putting the play
together is not influenced by the circumstance, that the incidents in
Tragedy are more serious, as affecting person and life; the embarrassment
of the characters in Comedy when they cannot accomplish their design and
intrigues, may equally be termed a danger. Corneille, like most others,
refers all to the idea of connexion between cause and effect. No doubt
when the principal persons, either by marriage or death, are set at rest,
the drama comes to a close; but if nothing more is necessary to its Unity
than the uninterrupted progress of an opposition, which serves to keep up
the dramatic movement, simplicity will then come but poorly off: for,
without violating this rule of Unity, we may go on to an almost endless
accumulation of events, as in the _Thousand and One Nights_, where
the thread of the story is never once broken.

De la Motte, a French author, who wrote against the Unities in general,
would substitute for Unity of action, the _Unity of interest_. If the
term be not confined to the interest in the destinies of some single
personage, but is taken to mean in general the direction which the mind
takes at the sight of an event, this explanation, so understood, seems
most satisfactory and very near the truth.

But we should derive but little advantage from groping about empirically
with the commentators on Aristotle. The idea of _One_ and _Whole_ is in no
way whatever derived from experience, but arises out of the primary and
spontaneous activity of the human mind. To account for the manner in which
we in general arrive at this idea, and come to think of one and a whole,
would require nothing short of a system of metaphysics.

The external sense perceives in objects only an indefinite plurality of
distinguishable parts; the judgment, by which we comprehend these into an
entire and perfect unity, is in all cases founded on a reference to a
higher sphere of ideas. Thus, for example, the mechanical unity of a watch
consists in its aim of measuring time; this aim, however, exists only for
the understanding, and is neither visible to the eye, nor palpable to the
touch: the organic unity of a plant or an animal consists in the idea of
life; but the inward intuition of life, which, in itself uncorporeal,
nevertheless manifests itself through the medium of the corporeal world,
is brought by us to the observation of the individual living object,
otherwise we could not obtain it from that object.

The separate parts of a work of art, and (to return to the question before
us,) the separate parts, consequently, of a tragedy, must not be taken in
by the eye and ear alone, but also comprehended by the understanding.
Collectively, however, they are all subservient to one common aim, namely,
to produce a joint impression on the mind. Here, therefore, as in the
above examples, the Unity lies in a higher sphere, in the feeling or in
the reference to ideas. This is all one; for the feeling, so far as it is
not merely sensual and passive, is our sense, our organ for the Infinite,
which forms itself into ideas for us.

Far, therefore, from rejecting the law of a perfect Unity in Tragedy as
unnecessary, I require a deeper, more intrinsic, and more mysterious unity
than that with which most critics are satisfied. This Unity I find in the
tragical compositions of Shakspeare, in as great perfection as in those of
Aeschylus and Sophocles; while, on the contrary, I do not find it in many
of those tragedies which nevertheless are lauded as correct by the critics
of the dissecting school.

Logical coherence, the causal connexion, I hold to be equally essential to
Tragedy and every serious drama, because all the mental powers act and
react upon each other, and if the Understanding be compelled to take a
leap, Imagination and Feeling do not follow the composition with equal
alacrity. But unfortunately the champions of what is called regularity
have applied this rule with a degree of petty subtlety, which can have no
other effect than that of cramping the poet, and rendering true excellence

We must not suppose that the order of sequences in a tragedy resembles a
slender thread, of which we are every moment in anxious dread lest it
should snap. This simile is by no means applicable, for it is admitted
that a plurality of subordinate actions and interests is inevitable; but
rather let us suppose it a mighty stream, which in its impetuous course
overcomes many obstructions, and loses itself at last in the repose of the
ocean. It springs perhaps from different sources, and certainly receives
into itself other rivers, which hasten towards it from opposite regions.
Why should not the poet be allowed to carry on several, and, for a while,
independent streams of human passions and endeavours, down to the moment
of their raging junction, if only he can place the spectator on an
eminence from whence he may overlook the whole of their course? And if
this great and swollen body of waters again divide into several branches,
and pour itself into the sea by several mouths, is it not still one and
the same stream?

So much for the Unity of Action. With respect to the Unity of Time, we
find in Aristotle no more than the following passage: "Moreover, the Epos
is distinguished from Tragedy by its length: for the latter seeks as far
as possible to circumscribe itself within one revolution of the sun, or to
exceed it but little; the Epos is unlimited in point of time, and in that
respect differs from Tragedy. At first, however, the case was in this
respect alike in tragedies and epic poems."

We may in the first place observe that Aristotle is not giving a precept
here, but only making historical mention of a peculiarity which he
observed in the Grecian examples before him. But what if the Greek
tragedians had particular reasons for circumscribing themselves within
this extent of time, which with the constitution of our theatres no longer
exist? We shall immediately see that this was really the case.

Corneille with great reason finds the rule extremely inconvenient; he
therefore prefers the more lenient interpretation, and says, "he would not
scruple to extend the duration of the action even to thirty hours."
Others, however, most rigorously insist on the principle that the action
should not occupy a longer period than that of its representation, that is
to say, from two to three hours.--The dramatic poet must, according to
them, be punctual to his hour. In the main, the latter plead a sounder
cause than the more lenient critics. For the only ground of the rule is
the observation of a probability which they suppose to be necessary for
illusion, namely, that the actual time and that of the representation
should be the same. If once a discrepancy be allowed, such as the
difference between two hours and thirty, we may upon the same principle go
much farther. This idea of illusion has occasioned great errors in the
theory of art. By this term there has often been understood the
unwittingly erroneous belief that the represented action is reality. In
that case the terrors of Tragedy would be a true torture to us, they would
be like an Alpine load on the fancy. No, the theatrical as well as every
other poetical illusion, is a waking dream, to which we voluntarily
surrender ourselves. To produce it, the poet and actors must powerfully
agitate the mind, and the probabilities of calculation do not in the least
contribute towards it. This demand of literal deception, pushed to the
extreme, would make all poetic form impossible; for we know well that the
mythological and historical persons did not speak our language, that
impassioned grief does not express itself in verse, &c. What an unpoetical
spectator were he who, instead of following the incidents with his
sympathy, should, like a gaoler, with watch or hour-glass in hand, count
out to the heroes of the tragedy, the minutes which they still have to
live and act! Is our soul then a piece of clock-work, that tells the hours
and minutes with infallible accuracy? Has it not rather very different
measures of time for agreeable occupation and for wearisomeness? In the
one case, under an easy and varied activity, the hours fly apace; in the
other, while we feel all our mental powers clogged and impeded, they are
stretched out to an immeasurable length. Thus it is during the present,
but in memory quite the reverse: the interval of dull and empty uniformity
vanishes in a moment; while that which marks an abundance of varied
impressions grows and widens in the same proportion. Our body is subjected
to external astronomical time, because the organical operations are
regulated by it; but our mind has its own ideal time, which is no other
but the consciousness of the progressive development of our beings. In
this measure of time the intervals of an indifferent inactivity pass for
nothing, and two important moments, though they lie years apart, link
themselves immediately to each other. Thus, when we have been intensely
engaged with any matter before we fell asleep, we often resume the very
same train of thought the instant we awake and the intervening dreams
vanish into their unsubstantial obscurity. It is the same with dramatic
exhibition: our imagination overleaps with ease the times which are
presupposed and intimated, but which are omitted because nothing important
takes place in them; it dwells solely on the decisive moments placed
before it, by the compression of which the poet gives wings to the lazy
course of days and hours.

But, it will be objected, the ancient tragedians at least observed the
Unity of Time. This expression is by no means precise; it should at least
be the identity of the imaginary with the material time. But even then it
does not apply to the ancients: what they observe is nothing but the
_seeming_ continuity of time. It is of importance to attend to this
distinction--the seeming; for they unquestionably allow much more to take
place during the choral songs than could really happen within their actual
duration. Thus the _Agamemnon_ of Aeschylus comprises the whole interval,
from the destruction of Troy to his arrival in Mycenae, which, it is
plain, must have consisted of a very considerable number of days; in
the _Trachiniae_ of Sophocles, during the course of the play, the voyage
from Thessaly to Euboea is thrice performed; and again, in the _Supplices_
of Euripides, during a single choral one, the _entire_ march of an army
from Athens to Thebes is supposed to take place, a battle to be fought,
and the General to return victorious. So far were the Greeks from this
sort of minute and painful calculations! They had, however, a particular
reason for observing the seeming continuity of time in the constant
presence of the Chorus. When the Chorus leaves the stage, the continuous
progress is interrupted; of this we have a striking instance in the
_Eumenides_ of Aeschylus, where the whole interval is omitted which was
necessary to allow Orestes to proceed from Delphi to Athens. Moreover,
between the three pieces of a trilogy, which were acted consecutively, and
were intended to constitute a whole, there were saps of time as
considerable as those between the three acts of many a Spanish drama.

The moderns have, in the division of their plays into acts, which,
properly speaking, were unknown to Greek Tragedy, a convenient means of
extending the period of representation without any ill effect. For the
poet may fairly reckon so far on the spectator's imagination as to presume
that during the entire suspension of the representation, he will readily
conceive a much longer interval to have elapsed than that which is
measured by the rhythmical time of the music between the acts; otherwise
to make it appear the more natural to him, it might be as well to invite
him to come and see the next act to-morrow. The division into acts had its
origin with the New Comedy, in consequence of the exclusion of the chorus.
Horace prescribes the condition of a regular play, that it should have
neither more nor less than five acts. The rule is so unessential, that
Wieland thought Horace was here laughing at the young Pisos in urging a
precept like this with such solemnity of tone as if it were really of
importance. If in the ancient Tragedy we may mark it as the conclusion of
an act wherever the stage remains empty, and the chorus is left alone to
proceed with its dance and ode, we shall often have fewer than five acts,
but often also more than five. As an observation that in a representation,
between two or three hours long, such a number of rests are necessary for
the attention, it may be allowed to pass. But, considered in any other
light, I should like to hear a reason for it, grounded on the nature of
Dramatic Poetry, why a drama must have so many and only so many divisions.
But the world is governed by prescription and tradition: a smaller number
of acts has been tolerated; to transgress the consecrated number of five
[Footnote: Three unities, five acts: why not seven persons? These rules
seem to proceed according to odd numbers.] is still considered a dangerous
and atrocious profanation.

As a general rule, the division into acts seems to me erroneous, when, as
is so often the case in modern plays, nothing takes place in the intervals
between them, and when the persons at the beginning of the new act are
exhibited in exactly the same situation as at the close of the foregoing
one. And yet this stand-still has given much less offence than the
assumption of a considerable interval, or of incidents omitted in the
representation, because the former is merely a negative error.

The romantic poets take the liberty even of changing the scene during the
course of an act. As the stage is always previously left empty, these also
are such interruptions of the continuity, as would warrant them in the
assumption of as many intervals. If we stumble at this, but admit the
propriety of a division into acts, we have only to consider these changes
of scene in the light of a greater number of short acts. But then, it will
perhaps be objected, this is but justifying one error by another, the
violation of the Unity of Time by the violation of the Unity of Place: we
shall, therefore, proceed to examine more at length how far the last-
mentioned rule is indispensable.

In vain, as we have already said, shall we look to Aristotle for any
opinion on this subject. It is asserted that the rule was observed by the
ancients. Not always, only generally. Of seven plays by Aeschylus, and the
same number by Sophocles, there are two, the _Eumenides_ and the _Ajax_,
in which the scene is changed. That they generally retain the same scene
follows naturally from the constant presence of the chorus, which must be
got rid of by some suitable device before there can be a change of place.
And then, again, it must not be forgotten, that their scene represented a
much wider extent than in most cases ours does; not a mere room, but the
open space before several buildings: and the disclosing the interior of a
house by means of the encyclema, may be considered in the same light as
the drawing a back curtain on our stage.

The objection to the change of scene is founded on the same erroneous idea
of illusion which we have already discussed. To transfer the action to
another place would, it is urged, dispel the illusion. But now if we are
in reality to consider the imaginary for the actual place, then must stage
decoration and scenery be altogether different from what it now is.
[Footnote: It is calculated merely for a single point of view: seen from
every other point, the broken lines betray the imperfection of the
imitation. Even as to the architectural import, so little attention do the
audience in general pay to these niceties, that they are not even shocked
when the actors enter and disappear through a wall without a door, between
the side scenes.] Johnson, a critic who, in general, is an advocate for
the strict rules, very justly observes, that if our imagination once goes
the length of transporting us eighteen hundred years back to Alexandria,
in order to figure to ourselves the story of Antony and Cleopatra as
actually taking place before us, the next step, of transporting ourselves
from Alexandria to Rome, is easier. The capability of our mind to fly in
thought, with the rapidity of lightning, through the immensity of time and
space, is well known and acknowledged in common life; and shall poetry,
whose very purpose it is to add all manner of wings to our mind, and which
has at command all the magic of genuine illusion, that is, of a lively and
enrapturing fiction, be alone compelled to renounce this universal

Voltaire wishes to derive the Unity of Place and Time from the Unity of
Action, but his reasoning is shallow in the extreme. "For the same
reason," says he, "the Unity of Place is essential, because no one action
can go on in several places at once." But still, as we have already seen,
several persons necessarily take part in the one principal action, since
it consists of a plurality of subordinate actions, and what should hinder
these from proceeding in different places at the same time? Is not the
same war frequently carried on simultaneously in Europe and India; and
must not the historian recount alike in his narrative the events which
take place on both these scenes?

"The Unity of Time," he adds, "is naturally connected with the two first.
If the poet represents a conspiracy, and extends the action to fourteen
days, he must account to me for all that takes place in these fourteen
days." Yes, for all that belongs to the matter in hand; all the rest,
being extraneous to it, he passes over in silence, as every good
storyteller would, and no person ever thinks of the omission. "If,
therefore, he places before me the events of fourteen days, this gives at
least fourteen different actions, however small they may be." No doubt, if
the poet were so unskilful as to wind off the fourteen days one after
another with visible precision; if day and night are just so often to come
and go and the characters to go to bed and get up again just so many
times. But the clever poet thrusts into the background all the intervals
which are connected with no perceptible progress in the action, and in his
picture annihilates all the pauses of absolute stand-still, and contrives,
though with a rapid touch, to convey an accurate idea of the period
supposed to have elapsed. But why is the privilege of adopting a much
wider space between the two extremes of the piece than the material time
of the representation important to the dramatist, and even indispensable
to him in many subjects? The example of a conspiracy given by Voltaire
comes in here very opportunely.

A conspiracy plotted and executed in two hours is, in the first place, an
incredible thing. Moreover, with reference to the characters of the
personages of the piece, such a plot is very different from one in which
the conceived purpose, however dangerous, is silently persevered in by all
the parties for a considerable time. Though the poet does not admit this
lapse of time into his exhibition immediately, in the midst of the
characters, as in a mirror, he gives us as it were a perspective view of
it. In this sort of perspective Shakspeare is the greatest master I know:
a single word frequently opens to view an almost interminable vista of
antecedent states of mind. Confined within the narrow limits of time, the
poet is in many subjects obliged to mutilate the action, by beginning
close to the last decisive stroke, or else he is under the necessity of
unsuitably hurrying on its progress: on either supposition he must reduce
within petty dimensions the grand picture of a strong purpose, which is no
momentary ebullition, but a firm resolve undauntedly maintained in the
midst of all external vicissitudes, till the time is ripe for its
execution. It is no longer what Shakspeare has so often painted, and what
he has described in the following lines:--

Between the acting of a dreadful thing,
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The genius, and the mortal instruments,
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

But why are the Greek and romantic poets so different in their practice
with respect to place and time? The spirit of our criticism will not allow
us to follow the practice of many critics, who so summarily pronounce the
latter to be barbarians. On the contrary, we conceive that they lived in
very cultivated times, and were themselves highly cultivated men. As to
the ancients, besides the structure of their stage, which, as we have
already said, led naturally to the seeming continuity of time and to the
absence of change of scene, their observance of this practice was also
favoured by the nature of the materials on which the Grecian dramatist had
to work. These materials were mythology, and, consequently, a fiction,
which, under the handling of preceding poets, had collected into
continuous and perspicuous masses, what in reality was detached and
scattered about in various ways. Moreover, the heroic age which they
painted was at once extremely simple in its manners, and marvellous in its
incidents; and hence everything of itself went straight to the mark of a
tragic resolution.

But the principal cause of the difference lies in the plastic spirit of
the antique, and the picturesque spirit of the romantic poetry. Sculpture
directs our attention exclusively to the group which it sets before us, it
divests it as far as possible from all external accompaniments, and where
they cannot be dispensed with, it indicates them as slightly as possible.
Painting, on the other hand, delights in exhibiting, along with the
principal figures, all the details of the surrounding locality and all
secondary circumstances, and to open a prospect into a boundless distance
in the background; and light and shade with perspective are its peculiar
charms. Hence the Dramatic, and especially the Tragic Art, of the
ancients, annihilates in some measure the external circumstances of space
and time; while, by their changes, the romantic drama adorns its more
varied pictures. Or, to express myself in other terms, the principle of
the antique poetry is ideal; that of the romantic is mystical: the former
subjects space and time to the internal free-agency of the mind; the
latter honours these incomprehensible essences as supernatural powers, in
which there is somewhat of indwelling divinity.


Mischief resulting to the French Stage from too narrow Interpretation of
the Rules of Unity--Influence of these rules on French Tragedy--Manner of
treating Mythological and Historical Materials--Idea of Tragical Dignity--
Observation of Conventional Rules--False System of Expositions.

I come now to the influence which the above rules of Unity, strictly
interpreted and received as inviolable, have, with other conventional
rules, exercised on the shape of French tragedy.

With the stage of a wholly different structure, with materials for the
most part dissimilar, and handled in an opposite spirit, they were still
desirous of retaining the rules of the ancient Tragedy, so far as they are
to be learnt from Aristotle.

They prescribed the same simplicity of action as the Grecian Tragedy
observed, and yet rejected the lyrical part, which is a protracted
development of the present moment, and consequently a stand-still of the
action. This part could not, it is true, be retained, since we no longer
possess the ancient music, which was subservient to the poetry, instead of
overbearing it as ours does. If we deduct from the Greek Tragedies the
choral odes, and the lyrical pieces which are occasionally put into the
mouths of individuals, they will be found nearly one-half shorter than an
ordinary French tragedy. Voltaire, in his prefaces, frequently complains
of the great difficulty in procuring materials for five long acts. How now
have the gaps arising from the omission of the lyrical parts been filled
up? By intrigue. While with the Greeks the action, measured by a few great
moments, rolls on uninterruptedly to its issue, the French have introduced
many secondary characters almost exclusively with the view that their
opposite purposes may give rise to a multitude of impeding incidents, to
keep up our attention, or rather our curiosity, to the close. There was
now an end therefore of everything like simplicity; still they flattered
themselves that they had, by means of an artificial coherence, preserved
at least a unity for the understanding.

Intrigue is not, in itself, a Tragical motive; to Comedy, it is essential,
as we have already shown. Comedy, even at its close, must often be
satisfied with mere suppositions for the understanding; but this is by no
means the poetic side of this demi-prosaic species of the Drama. Although
the French Tragedy endeavours in the details of execution to rise by
earnestness, dignity, and pathos, as high as possible above Comedy, in its
general structure and composition, it still bears, in my opinion, but too
close an affinity to it. In many French tragedies I find indeed a Unity
for the Understanding, but the Feeling is left unsatisfied. Out of a
complication of painful and violent situations we do, it is true, arrive
at last, happily or unhappily, at a state of repose; but in the
represented course of affairs there is no secret and mysterious revelation
of a higher order of things; there is no allusion to any consolatory
thoughts of heaven, whether in the dignity of human nature successfully
maintained in its conflicts with fate, or in the guidance of an over-
ruling providence. To such a tranquillizing feeling the so-called poetical
justice is partly unnecessary, and partly also, so very questionably and
obliquely is it usually administered, very insufficient. But even poetical
justice (which I cannot help considering as a made-up example of a
doctrine false in itself, and one, moreover, which by no means tends to
the excitation of truly moral feelings) has not unfrequently been
altogether neglected by the French tragedians.

The use of intrigue is certainly well calculated to effect the all-desired
short duration of an important action. For the intriguer is ever
expeditious, and loses no time in attaining to his object. But the mighty
course of human destinies proceeds, like the change of seasons, with
measured pace: great designs ripen slowly; stealthily and hesitatingly the
dark suggestions of deadly malice quit the abysses of the mind for the
light of day; and, as Horace, with equal truth and beauty observes, "the
flying criminal is only limpingly followed by penal retribution."
Rarò antecedentem scelestum
Deseruit pede paena claudo.--TRANS.] Let only the attempt be made, for
instance, to bring within the narrow frame of the Unity of Time
Shakspeare's gigantic picture of Macbeth's murder of Duncan, his
tyrannical usurpation and final fall; let as many as may be of the events
which the great dramatist successively exhibits before us in such dread
array be placed anterior to the opening of the piece, and made the subject
of an after recital, and it will be seen how thereby the story loses all
its sublime significance. This drama does, it is true, embrace a
considerable period of time: but does its rapid progress leave us leisure
to calculate this? We see, as it were, the Fates weaving their dark web on
the whistling loom of time; and we are drawn irresistibly on by the storm
and whirlwind of events, which hurries on the hero to the first atrocious
deed, and from it to innumerable crimes to secure its fruits with
fluctuating fortunes and perils, to his final fall on the field of battle.
Such a tragic exhibition resembles a comet's course, which, hardly visible
at first, and revealing itself only to the astronomic eye, appears at a
nebulous distance in the heavens, but soon soars with unheard-of and
accelerating rapidity towards the central point of our system, scattering
dismay among the nations of the earth, till, in a moment, when least
expected, with its portentous tail it overspreads the half of the
firmament with resplendent flame.

For the sake of the prescribed Unity of Time the French poets must fain
renounce all those artistic effects which proceed from the gradually
accelerated growth of any object in the mind, or in the external world,
through the march of time, while of all that in a drama is calculated to
fascinate the eye they were through their wretched arrangement of stage-
scenery deprived in a great measure by the Unity of Place. Accidental
circumstances might in truth enforce a closer observance of this rule, or
even render it indispensable. From a remark of Corneille's [Footnote: In
his _Premier Discours sur la Poésie Dramatique_ he says: "Une chanson
a quelquefois bonne grâce; et dans les pièces de machines cet ornement est
redevenu nécessaire pour remplir les oreilles du spectateur, _pendant
que les machines descendent_."] we are led to conjecture that stage-
machinery in France was in his time extremely clumsy and imperfect. It was
moreover the general custom for a number of distinguished spectators to
have seats on both sides of the stage itself, which hardly left a breadth
of ten paces for the free movements of the actors. Regnard, in _Le
Distrait_, gives us an amusing description of the noise and disorder
these fashionable _petit-maîtres_ in his day kept up in this privileged
place, how chattering and laughing behind the backs of the actors they
disturbed the spectators, and drew away attention from the play to
themselves as the prominent objects of the stage. This evil practice
continued even down to Voltaire's time, who has the merit of having by his
zealous opposition to it obtained at last its complete abolition, on the
appearance of his _Semiramis_. How could they have ventured to make a
change of scene in presence of such an unpoetical chorus as this, totally
unconnected with the piece, and yet thrust into the very middle of the
representation? In the _Cid_, the scene of the action manifestly changes
several times in the course of the same act, and yet in the representation
the material scene was never changed. In the English and Spanish plays of
the same date the case was generally the same; certain signs, however,
were agreed on which served to denote the change of place, and the docile
imagination of the spectators followed the poet whithersoever he chose.
But in France, the young men of quality who sat on the stage lay in wait
to discover something to laugh at; and as all theatrical effect requires a
certain distance, and when viewed too closely appears ludicrous, all
attempt at it was, in such a state of things, necessarily abandoned, and
the poet confined himself principally to the dialogue between a few
characters, the stage being subjected to all the formalities of an

And in truth, for the most part, the scene did actually represent an
antechamber, or at least a hall in the interior of a palace. As the action
of the Greek tragedies is always carried on in open places surrounded by
the abode or symbols of majesty, so the French poets have modified their
mythological materials, from a consideration of the scene, to the manners
of modern courts. In a princely palace no strong emotion, no breach of
social etiquette is allowable; and as in a tragedy affairs cannot always
proceed with pure courtesy, every bolder deed, therefore, every act of
violence, every thing startling and calculated strongly to impress the
senses, as transacted behind the scenes, and related merely by confidants
or other messengers. And yet as Horace, centuries ago remarked, whatever
is communicated to the ear excites the mind far more feebly than what is
exhibited to the trusty eye, and the spectator informs himself of. What he
recommends to be withdrawn from observation is only the incredible and the
revoltingly cruel. The dramatic effect of the visible may, it is true, be
liable to great abuse; and it is possible for a theatre to degenerate into
a noisy arena of mere bodily events, to which words and gestures may be
but superfluous appendages. But surely the opposite extreme of allowing to
the eye no conviction of its own, and always referring to something
absent, is deserving of equal reprobation. In many French tragedies the
spectator might well entertain a feeling that great actions were actually
taking place, but that he had chosen a bad place to be witness of them. It
is certain that the obvious impression of a drama is greatly impaired when
the effects, which the spectators behold, proceed from invisible and
distant causes. The converse procedure of this is preferable,--to exhibit
the cause itself, and to allow the effect to be simply recounted. Voltaire
was aware of the injury which theatrical effect sustained from the
established practice of the tragic stage in France; he frequently insisted
on the necessity of richer scenical decorations; and he himself in his
pieces, and others after his example, have ventured to represent many
things to the eye, which before would have been considered as unsuitable,
not to say, ridiculous. But notwithstanding this attempt, and the still
earlier one of Racine in his _Athalie_, the eye is now more out of
favour than ever with the fashionable critics. Wherever any thing is
allowed to be seen, or an action is performed bodily before them, they
scent a melodrama; and the idea that Tragedy, if its purity, or rather its
bald insipidity, was not watchfully guarded, would be gradually
amalgamated with this species of play, (of which a word hereafter,) haunts
them as a horrible phantom.

Voltaire himself has indulged in various infractions of the Unity of Time;
nevertheless he has not dared directly to attack the rule itself as
unessential. He did but wish to see a greater latitude given to its
interpretation. It would, he thought, be sufficient if the action took
place within the circuit of a palace or even of a town, though in a
different part of them. In order however, to avoid a change of scene, he
would have it so contrived as at once to comprise the several localities.
Here he betrays very confused ideas, both of architecture and perspective.
He refers to Palladio's theatre at Vicenza, which he could hardly have
ever seen: for his account of this theatre, which, as we have already
observed, is itself a misconception of the structure of the ancient stage,
appears to be altogether founded on descriptions which clearly he did not
understand. In the _Semiramis_, the play in which he first attempted
to carry into practice his principles on this subject, he has fallen into
a singular error. Instead of allowing the persons to proceed to various
places, he has actually brought the places to the persons. The scene in
the third act is a cabinet; this cabinet, to use Voltaire's own words,
gives way (without--let it be remembered--the queen leaving it), to a
grand saloon magnificently furnished. The Mausoleum of Ninus too, which
stood at first in an open place before the palace, and opposite to the
temple of the Magi, has also found means to steal to the side of the
throne in the centre of this hall. After yielding his spirit to the light
of day, to the terror of many beholders, and again receiving it back, it
repairs in the following act to its old place, where it probably had left
its obelisks behind. In the fifth act we see that the tomb is extremely
spacious, and provided with subterraneous passages. What a noise would the
French critics make were a foreigner to commit such ridiculous blunders.
In _Brutus_ we have another example of this running about of the
scene with the persons. Before the opening of the first act we have a long
and particular description of the scenic arrangement: the Senate is
assembled between the Capitoline temple and the house of the Consuls, in
the open air. Afterwards, on the rising of the assembly, Arons and Albin
alone remain behind, and of them it is now said: _qui sont supposés être
entrés de la salle d'audience dans un autre appartement de la maison de
Brutus_. What is the poet's meaning here? Is the scene changed without
being empty, or does he trust so far to the imagination of his spectators,
as to require them against the evidence of their senses, to take for a
chamber a scene which is ornamented in quite a different style? And how
does that which in the first description is a public place become
afterwards a hall of audience? In this scenic arrangement there must be
either legerdemain or a bad memory.

With respect to the Unity of Place, we may in general observe that it is
often very unsatisfactorily observed, even in comedy, by the French poets,
as well as by all who follow the same system of rules. The scene is not,
it is true, changed, but things which do not usually happen in the same
place are made to follow each other. What can be more improbable than that
people should confide their secrets to one another in a place where they
know their enemies are close at hand? or that plots against a sovereign
should be hatched in his own antechamber? Great importance is attached to
the principle that the stage should never in the course of an act remain
empty. This is called binding the scenes. But frequently the rule is
observed in appearance only, since the personages of the preceding scene
go out at one door the very moment that those of the next enter at
another. Moreover, they must not make their entrance or exit without a
motive distinctly announced: to ensure this particular pains are taken;
the confidants are despatched on missions, and equals also are expressly,
and sometimes not even courteously, told to go out of the way. With all
these endeavours, the determinations of the places where things take place
are often so vague and contradictory, that in many pieces, as a German
writer [Footnote: Joh. Elias Schlegel, in his _Gedanken zur Aufnahme des
Dänischen Theatres_.] has well said, we ought to insert under the list
of the _dramatis personae_--"The scene is on the theatre."

These inconveniences arise almost inevitably from an anxious observance of
the Greek rules, under a total change of circumstances. To avoid the
pretended improbability which would lie in springing from one time and one
place to another, they have often involved themselves in real and grave
improbabilities. A thousand times have we reason to repeat the observation
of the Academy, in their criticism on the _Cid_, respecting the crowding
together so many events in the period of twenty-four hours: "From the fear
of sinning against the rules of art, the poet has rather chosen to sin
against the rules of nature." But this imaginary contradiction between art
and nature could only be suggested by a low and narrow range of artistic

I come now to a more important point, namely, to the handling of the
subject-matter unsuitably to its nature and quality. The Greek tragedians,
with a few exceptions, selected their subjects from the national
mythology. The French tragedians borrow theirs sometimes from the ancient
mythology, but much more frequently from the history of almost every age
and nation, and their mode of treating mythological and historical
subjects respectively, is but too often not properly mythological, and not
properly historical. I will explain myself more distinctly. The poet who
selects an ancient mythological fable, that is, a fable connected by
hallowing tradition with the religious belief of the Greeks, should
transport both himself and his spectators into the spirit of antiquity; he
should keep ever before our minds the simple manners of the heroic ages,
with which alone such violent passions and actions are consistent and
credible; his personages should preserve that near resemblance to the gods
which, from their descent, and the frequency of their immediate
intercourse with them, the ancients believed them to possess; the
marvellous in the Greek religion should not be purposely avoided or
understated, but the imagination of the spectators should be required to
surrender itself fully to the belief of it. Instead of this, however, the
French poets have given to their mythological heroes and heroines the
refinement of the fashionable world, and the court manners of the present
day; they have, because those heroes were princes ("shepherds of the
people," Homer calls them), accounted for their situations and views by
the motives of a calculating policy, and violated, in every point, not
merely archaeological costume, but all the costume of character. In
_Phaedra_, this princess is, upon the supposed death of Theseus, to
be declared regent during the minority of her son. How was this compatible
with the relations of the Grecian women of that day? It brings us down to
the times of a Cleopatra. Hermione remains alone, without the protection
of a brother or a father, at the court of Pyrrhus, nay, even in his
palace, and yet she is not married to him. With the ancients, and not
merely in the Homeric age, marriage consisted simply in the bride being
received into the bridegroom's house. But whatever justification of
Hermione's situation may be found in the practice of European courts, it
is not the less repugnant to female dignity, and the more indecorous, as
Hermione is in love with the unwilling Pyrrhus, and uses every influence
to incline him to marriage. What would the Greeks have thought of this
bold and indecent courtship? No doubt it would appear equally offensive to
a French audience, if Andromache were exhibited to them in the situation
in which she appears in Euripides, where, as a captive, her person is
enjoyed by the conqueror of her country. But when the ways of thinking of
two nations are so totally different, why should there be so painful an
effort to polish a subject founded on the manners of the one, with the
manners of the other? What is allowed to remain after this polishing
process will always exhibit a striking incongruity with that which is new-
modelled, and to change the whole is either impossible, or in nowise
preferable to a new invention. The Grecian tragedians certainly allowed
themselves a great latitude in changing the circumstances of their myths,
but the alterations were always consistent with the general and prevalent
notions of the heroic age. On the other hand, they always left the
characters as they received them from tradition and an earlier fiction, by
means of which the cunning of Ulysses, the wisdom of Nestor, and the wrath
of Achilles, had almost become proverbial. Horace particularly insists on
the rule. But how unlike is the Achilles of Racine's _Iphigenia_ to
the Achilles of Homer! The gallantry ascribed to him is not merely a sin
against Homer, but it renders the whole story improbable. Are human
sacrifices conceivable among a people whose chiefs and heroes are so
susceptible of the tenderest emotions? In vain recourse is had to the
powerful influences of religion: history teaches that a cruel religion
invariably becomes milder with the softening manners of a people.

In these new exhibitions of ancient fables, the marvellous has been
studiously rejected as alien to our belief. But when we are once brought
from a world in which it was a part of the very order of things, into a
world entirely prosaical and historically settled, then whatever marvel
the poet may exhibit must, from the insulated state in which it stands,
appear only so much the more incredible. In Homer, and in the Greek
tragedians, everything takes place in the presence of the gods, and when
they become visible, or manifest themselves in some wonderful operation,
we are in no degree astonished. On the other hand, all the labour and art
of the modern poets, all the eloquence of their narratives, cannot
reconcile our minds to these exhibitions. Examples are superfluous, the
thing is so universally known. Yet I cannot help cursorily remarking how
singularly Racine, cautious as he generally is, has on an occasion of this
kind involved himself in an inconsistency. Respecting the origin of the
fable of Theseus descending into the world below to carry off Proserpine
for his friend Pirithöus, he adopts the historical explanation of
Plutarch, that he was the prisoner of a Thracian king, whose wife he
endeavoured to carry off for his friend. On this he grounds the report of
the death of Theseus, which, at the opening of the play, was current. And
yet he allows Phaedra [Footnote:
Je l'aime, non point tel que l'ont vu les enfers,
Volage adorateur de mille objets divers,
Qui va du dieu des morts déshonorer la couche.] to mention the fabulous
tradition as an earlier achievement of the hero. How many women then did
Theseus wish to carry off for Pirithöus? Pradon manages this much better:
when Theseus is asked by a confidant if he really had been in the world
below, he answers, how could any sensible man possibly believe so silly a
tale! he merely availed himself of the credulity of the people, and gave
out this report from political motives.

So much with respect to the manner of handling mythological materials.
With respect to the historical, in the first place, the same objection
applies, namely, that the French manners of the day are substituted to
those which properly belong to the several persons, and that the
characters do not sufficiently bear the colour of their age and nation.
But to this we must add another detrimental circumstance. A mythological
subject is in its nature poetical, and ever ready to take a new poetical
shape. In the French Tragedy, as in the Greek, an equable and pervading
dignity is required, and the French language is even much more fastidious
in this respect, as very many things cannot be at all mentioned in French
poetry. But in history we are on a prosaic domain, and the truth of the
picture requires conditions, circumstances, and features, which cannot be
given without a greater or less descent from the elevation of the tragical
cothurnus; such as has been made without hesitation by Shakspeare, the
most perfect of historical dramatists. The French tragedians, however,
could not bring their minds to submit to this, and hence their works are
frequently deficient in those circumstances which give life and truth to a
picture; and when an obstinate prosaical circumstance must after all be
mentioned, they avail themselves of laboured and artificial

Respecting the tragic dignity of historical subjects, peculiar principles
have prevailed. Corneille was in the best way of the world when he brought
his _Cid_ on the stage, a story of the middle ages, which belonged to
a kindred people, characterized by chivalrous love and honour, and in
which the principal characters are not even of princely rank. Had this
example been followed, a number of prejudices respecting the tragic
Ceremonial would have disappeared of themselves; Tragedy from its greater
verisimilitude, and being most readily intelligible, and deriving its
motives from still current modes of thinking and acting, would have come
more home to the heart: the very nature of the subjects would alone have
turned them from the stiff observation of the rules of the ancients, which
they did not understand, as indeed Corneille never deviated so far from
these rules as, in the train, no doubt, of his Spanish model, he does in
this very piece; in one word, the French Tragedy would have become
national and truly romantic. But I know not what malignant star was in the
ascendant: notwithstanding the extraordinary success of his _Cid_,
Corneille did not go one step further, and the attempt which he made found
no imitators. In the time of Louis XIV. it was considered as a matter
established beyond dispute, that the French, nay generally the modern
European history was not adapted for the purposes of tragedy. They had
recourse therefore to the ancient universal history: besides the Romans
and Grecians, they frequently hunted about among the Assyrians,
Babylonians, Persians, and Egyptians, for events which, however obscure
they might often be, they could dress out for the tragic stage. Racine,
according to his own confession, made a hazardous attempt with the Turks;
it was successful, and since that time the necessary tragical dignity has
been allowed to this barbarous people, among whom the customs and habits
of the rudest despotism and the most abject slavery are often united in
the same person, and nothing is known of love, but the most luxurious
sensuality; while, on the other hand, it has been refused to the
Europeans, notwithstanding that their religion, their sense of honour, and
their respect for the female sex, plead so powerfully in their behalf. But
it was merely modern, and more particularly French names that, as
untragical and unpoetical, could not, for a moment, be tolerated; for the
heroes of antiquity are with them Frenchmen in everything but the name;
and antiquity was merely a thin veil beneath which the modern French
character might be distinctly recognized. Racine's Alexander is certainly
not the Alexander of history; but if under this name we imagine to
ourselves the great Condé, the whole will appear tolerably natural. And
who does not suppose that Louis XIV. and the Duchess de la Vallière are
represented under the names Titus and Berenice? The poet has himself
flatteringly alluded to his sovereign. Voltaire's expression is somewhat
strong, when he says that in reading the tragedies which succeeded those
of Racine we might fancy ourselves perusing the romances of Mademoiselle
Scuderi, which paint citizens of Paris under the names of heroes of
antiquity. He alluded herein more particularly to Crebillon. Corneille and
Racine, however, deeply tainted as they were with the way of thinking of
their own nation, were still at times penetrated with the spirit of true
objective exhibition. Corneille gives us a masterly picture of the
Spaniards in the _Cid_; and this is conceivable enough, for he drew
his materials from the fountain-head. With the exception of the original
sin of gallantry, he succeeded also pretty well with the Romans: of one
part of their character, at least, he had a tolerable conception, their
predominating patriotism, and unbending pride of liberty, and the
magnanimity of their political sentiments. All this, it is true, is nearly
the same as we find it in Lucan, varnished over with a certain inflation
and self-conscious pomp. The simple republican austerity, and their
religious submissiveness, was beyond his reach. Racine has admirably
painted the corruptions of the Romans of the Empire, and the first timid
outbreaks of Nero's tyranny. It is true, as he himself gratefully
acknowledges, he had in this Tacitus for a predecessor, but still it is a
great merit so ably to translate history into poetry. He had also a just
perception of the general spirit of Hebrew history; here he was guided by
religious reverence, which, in greater or less degree, the poet ought
always to bring with him to his subject. He was less successful with the
Turks: Bajazet makes love quite in the style of an European; the
bloodthirsty policy of Eastern despotism is well portrayed, it is true, in
the Vizier: but the whole resembles Turkey upside down, where the women,
instead of being slaves, have contrived to get possession of the
government, which thereupon assumes so revolting an appearance as to
incline us to believe the Turks are, after all, not much to blame in
keeping their women under lock and key. Neither has Voltaire, in my
opinion, succeeded much better in his _Mahomet_ and _Zaire_; throughout we
miss the glowing colouring of Oriental fancy. Voltaire has, however, this
great merit, that as he insisted on treating subjects with more historical
truth, he made it also the object of his own endeavours; and farther, that
he again raised to the dignity of the tragical stage the chivalrous and
Christian characters of modern Europe, which since the time of the _Cid_
had been altogether excluded from it. His _Lusignan_ and _Nerestan_ are
among his most truthful, affecting, and noble creations; his _Tancred_,
although as a whole the invention is deficient in keeping, will always,
like his namesake in Tasso, win every heart. _Alzire_, in a historical
point of view, is highly eminent. It is singular enough that Voltaire, in
his restless search after tragic materials, has actually travelled the
whole world over; for as in _Alzire_ he exhibits the American tribes of
the other hemisphere, in his _Dschingiskan_ he brings Chinese on the
stage, from the farthest extremity of ours, who, however, from the
faithful observation of their costume, have almost the stamp of comic or
grotesque figures.

Unfortunately Voltaire came too late with his projected reformation of the
theatre: much had been already ruined by the trammels within which French
Tragedy had been so long confined; and the prejudice which gave such
disproportionate importance to the observance of external rules and
proprieties was, at it appears, established firmly and irrevocably.

Next to the rules regarding the external mechanism, which without
examination they had adopted from the ancients, the prevailing national
ideas of social propriety were the principal hindrances which impeded the
French poets in the exercise of their talents, and in many cases put it
altogether out of their power to reach the highest tragical effect. The
problem which the dramatic poet has to solve is to combine poetic form
with nature and truth, and consequently nothing ought to be included in
the former which is inadmissible by the latter. French Tragedy, from the
time of Richelieu, developed itself under the favour and protection of the
court; and even its scene had (as already observed) the appearance of an
antechamber. In such an atmosphere the spectators might impress the poet
with the idea that courtesy is one of the original and essential
ingredients of human nature. But in Tragedy men are either matched with
men in fearful strife, or set in close struggle with misfortune; we can,
therefore, exact from them only an ideal dignity, for from the nice
observance of social punctilios they are absolved by their situation. So
long as they possess sufficient presence of mind not to violate them, so
long as they do not appear completely overpowered by their grief and
mental agony, the deepest emotion is not as yet reached. The poet may
indeed be allowed to take that care for his persons which Caesar, after
his death-blow, had for himself, and make them fall with decorum. He must
not exhibit human nature in all its repulsive nakedness. The most heart-
rending and dreadful pictures must still be invested with beauty, and
endued with a dignity higher than the common reality. This miracle is
effected by poetry: it has its indescribable sighs, its immediate accents
of the deepest agony, in which there still runs a something melodious. It
is only a certain full-dressed and formal beauty, which is incompatible
with the greatest truth of expression. And yet it is exactly this beauty
that is demanded in the style of a French tragedy. No doubt something too
is to be ascribed to the quality of their language and versification. The
French language is wholly incapable of many bold flights, it has little
poetical freedom, and it carries into poetry all the grammatical stiffness
of prose. This their poets have often acknowledged and lamented. Besides,
the Alexandrine with its couplets, with its hemistichs of equal length, is
a very symmetrical and monotonous species of verse, and far better adapted
for the expression of antithetical maxims, than for the musical
delineation of passion with its unequal, abrupt, and erratic course of
thoughts. But the main cause lies in a national feature, in the social
endeavour never to forget themselves in presence of others, and always to
exhibit themselves to the greatest possible advantage. It has been often
remarked, that in French Tragedy the poet is always too easily seen
through the discourses of the different personages, that he communicates
to them his awn presence of mind, his cool reflections on their situation,
and his desire to shine on all occasions. When most of their tragical
speeches are closely examined, they are seldom found to be such as the
persons speaking or acting by themselves without restraint would deliver;
something or other is generally discovered in them which betrays a
reference to the spectator more or less perceptible. Before, however, our
compassion can be powerfully excited, we must be familiar with the
persons; but how is this possible if we are always to see them under the
yoke of their designs and endeavours, or, what is worse, of an unnatural
and assumed grandeur of character? We must overhear them in their
unguarded moments, when they imagine themselves alone, and throw aside all
care and reserve.

Eloquence may and ought to have a place in Tragedy, but in so far as it is
in some measure artificial in its method and preparation, it can only be
in character when the speaker is sufficiently master of himself; for, for
overpowering passion, an unconscious and involuntary eloquence is alone
suitable. The truly inspired orator forgets himself in the subject of his
eloquence. We call it rhetoric when he thinks less of his subject than of
himself, and of the art in which he flatters himself he has obtained a
mastery. Rhetoric, and rhetoric in a court dress, prevails but too much in
many French tragedies, especially in those of Corneille, instead of the
suggestions of a noble, but simple and artless nature; Racine and
Voltaire, however, have come much nearer to the true conception of a mind
carried away by its sufferings. Whenever the tragic hero is able to
express his pain in antitheses and ingenious allusions, we may safely
reserve our pity. This sort of conventional dignity is, as it were, a coat
of mail, which prevents the pain from reaching the inmost heart. On
account of their retaining this festal pomp in situations where the most
complete self-forgetfulness would be natural, Schiller has wittily enough
compared the heroes in French Tragedy to the kings in old engravings who
lie in bed, crown, sceptre, robes and all.

This social refinement prevails through the whole of French literature and
art. Social refinement sharpens, no doubt, the sense for the ludicrous,
and even on that account, when it is carried to a fastidious excess, it is
the death of every thing like enthusiasm. For all enthusiasm, all poetry,
has a ludicrous aspect for the unfeeling. When, therefore, such a way of
thinking has once become universal in a nation, a certain negative
criticism will be associated with it. A thousand different things must be
avoided, and in attending to these, the highest object of all, that which
ought properly to be accomplished, is lost sight of. The fear of ridicule
is the conscience of French poets; it has clipt their wings, and impaired
their flight. For it is exactly in the most serious kind of poetry that
this fear must torment them the most; for extremes run into one another,
and whenever pathos fails it gives rise to laughter and parody. It is
amusing to witness Voltaire's extreme agony when he was threatened with a
parody of his _Semiramis_ on the Italian theatre. In a petition to
the queen, this man, whose whole life had been passed in turning every
thing great and venerable into ridicule, urges his situation as one of the
servants of the king's household, as a ground for obtaining from high
authority the prohibition of a very innocent and allowable amusement. As
French wits have indulged themselves in turning every thing in the world
into ridicule, and more especially the mental productions of other
nations, they will also allow us on our part to divert ourselves at the
expense of their tragic writers, if with all their care they have now and
then split upon the rock of which they were most in dread. Lessing has,
with the most irresistible and victorious wit, pointed out the ludicrous
nature of the very plans of _Rodogune_, _Semiramis_, _Merope_, and
_Zaire_. But both in this respect and with regard to single laughable
turns, a rich harvest might yet be gathered. [Footnote: A few examples of
the latter will be sufficient. The lines with which Theseus in the
_Oedipus_ of Corneille opens his part, are deserving of one of the first
Quelque ravage affreux qu'étale ici la peste
L'absence aux vrais amans est encore plus funeste.
The following from his _Otho_ are equally well known:
Dis moi donc, lorsqu' Othon s'est offert à Camille,
A-t-il paru contraint? a-t-elle été facile?
Son hommage auprès d'elle a-t-il eu plein effet?
Comment l'a-t-elle pris, et comment l'a-t-il fait?
Where it is almost inconceivable, that the poet could have failed to see
the application which might be made of the passage, especially as he
allows the confidant to answer, _J'ai tout vu._ That _Attila_ should treat
the kings who are dependent on him like good-for-nothing fellows:
Ils ne sont pas venus, nos deux rois; qu'on leur die
Qu'ils se font trop attendre, et qu' Attila s'ennuie
Qu'alors que je les mande ils doivent se hâter:
may in one view appear very serious and true; but nevertheless it appears
exceedingly droll to us from the turn of expression, and especially from
its being the opening of the piece. Generally speaking, with respect to
the ludicrous, Corneille lived in a state of great innocence; since his
time the world has become a great deal more witty. Hence, after making all
allowances for what he cannot justly be blamed for, what, namely, arises
merely from his language having become obsolete, we shall still find an
ample field remaining for our ridicule. Among the numerous plays which are
not reckoned among his master-pieces, we have only to turn up any one at
random to light upon numerous passages susceptible of a ludicrous
application. Racine, from the refinement and moderation which were natural
to him, was much better guarded against this danger; but yet, here and
there, expressions of the same kind escape from him. Among these we may
include the whole of the speech in which Theramenes exhorts his pupil
Hippolytus to yield himself up to love. The ludicrous can hardly be
carried farther than it is in these lines:
Craint-on de s'égarer sur les traces d'Hercule?
Quels courages Venus n'a-t-elle pas domtés?
Vous même, _où seriez vous_, vous qui la combattez,
Si toujours Antiope, à ses loix opposée,
D'une _pudique_ ardeur n'eut brûlé pour Thésée?
In _Berenice_, Antiochus receives his confidant, whom he had sent to
announce his visit to the Queen, with the words: _Arsace, entrerons-
nous?_ This humble patience in an antechamber would appear even
undignified in Comedy, but it appears too pitiful even for a second-rate
tragical hero. Antiochus says afterwards to the queen:
Je me suis tû cinq ans
Madame, et vais encore me taire plus long-tems--
And to give an immediate proof of his intention by his conduct, he repeats
after this no less than fifty verses in a breath.

When Orosman says to Zaire, whom he pretends to love with European
Je sais que notre loi, favorable aux plaisirs
Ouvre un champ sans limite _à nos vastes désirs_:
his language is still more indecorous than laughable. But the answer of
Zaire to her confidante, who thereupon reminded her that she is a
Christian, is highly comic:
Ah! que dis-tu? pourquoi rappeler mes ennuis?
Upon the whole, however, Voltaire is much more upon his guard against the
ludicrous than his predecessors: this was perfectly natural, for in his
time the rage of turning every thing into ridicule was most prevalent. We
may boldly affirm that in our days a single verse of the same kind as
hundreds in Corneille would inevitably ruin any play.] But the war which
Lessing carried on against the French stage was much more merciless,
perhaps, than we, in the present day, should be justified in waging. At
the time when he published his _Dramaturgie_, we Germans had scarcely
any but French tragedies upon our stages, and the extravagant predilection
for them as classical models had not then been combated. At present the
national taste has declared itself so decidedly against them, that we have
nothing to fear of an illusion in that quarter.

It is farther said that the French dramatists have to do with a public not
only extremely fastidious in its dislike of any low intermixture, and
highly susceptible of the ludicrous, but also extremely impatient. We will
allow them the full enjoyment of this self-flattery: for we have no doubt
that their real meaning is, that this impatience is a proof of quickness
of apprehension and sharpness of wit. It is susceptible, however, of
another interpretation: superficial knowledge, and more especially
intrinsic emptiness of mind, invariably display themselves in fretful
impatience. But however this may be, the disposition in question has had
both a favourable and an unfavourable influence on the structure of their
pieces. Favourable, in so far as it has compelled them to lop off every
superfluity, to go directly to the main business, to be perspicuous, to
study compression, to endeavour to turn every moment to the utmost
advantage. All these are good theatrical proprieties, and have been the
means of recommending the French tragedies as models of perfection to
those who in the examination of works of art, measure everything by the
dry test of the understanding, rather than listen to the voice of
imagination and feeling. It has been unfavourable, in so far as even
motion, rapidity, and a continued stretch of expectation, become at length
monotonous and wearisome. It is like a music from which the _piano_
should be altogether excluded, and in which even the difference between
_forte_ and _fortissimo_ should, from the mistaken emulation of the
performers, be rendered indistinguishable. I find too few resting-places
in their tragedies similar to those in the ancient tragedies where the
lyric parts come in. There are moments in human life which are dedicated
by every religious mind to self-meditation, and when, with the view turned
towards the past and the future, it keeps as it were holiday. This
sacredness of the moment is not, I think, sufficiently reverenced: the
actors and spectators alike are incessantly hurried on to something that
is to follow; and we shall find very few scenes indeed, where a mere
state, independent of its causal connexion, is represented developing
itself. The question with them is always _what_ happens, and only too
seldom _how_ happens it. And yet this is the main point, if an impression
is to be made on the witnesses of human events. Hence every thing like
silent effect is almost entirely excluded from their domain of dramatic
art. The only leisure which remains for the actor for his silent pantomime
is during the delivery of the long discourses addressed to him, when,
however, it more frequently serves to embarrass him than assists him
in the development of his part. They are satisfied if the web of the
intrigue keeps uninterruptedly in advance of their own quickness of tact,
and if in the speeches and answers the shuttle flies diligently backwards
and forwards to the end.

Generally speaking, impatience is by no means a good disposition for the
reception of the beautiful. Even dramatic poetry, the most animated
production of art, has its contemplative side, and where this is
neglected, the representation, from its very rapidity and animation,
engenders only a deafening tumult in our mind, instead of that inward
music which ought to accompany it.

The existence of many technical imperfections in their tragedy has been
admitted even by French critics themselves; the confidants, for instance.
Every hero and heroine regularly drags some one along with them, a
gentleman in waiting or a court lady. In not a few pieces, we may count
three or four of these merely passive hearers, who sometimes open their
lips to tell something to their patron which he must have known better
himself, or who on occasion are dispatched hither and thither on messages.
The confidants in the Greek tragedies, either old guardian-slaves and
nurses, or servants, have always peculiar characteristical destinations,
and the ancient tragedians felt so little the want of communications
between a hero and his confidant, to make us acquainted with the hero's
state of mind and views, that they even introduce as a mute personage so
important and proverbially famous a friend as a Pylades. But whatever
ridicule was cast on the confidants, and however great the reproach of
being reduced to make use of them, no attempt was ever made till the time
of Alfieri to get rid of them.

The expositions or statements of the preliminary situation of things are
another nuisance. They generally consist of choicely turned disclosures to
the confidants, delivered in a happy moment of leisure. That very public
whose impatience keeps the poets and players under such strict discipline,
has, however, patience enough to listen to the prolix unfolding of what
ought to be sensibly developed before their eyes. It is allowed that an
exposition is seldom unexceptionable; that in their speeches the persons
generally begin farther back than they naturally ought, and that they tell
one another what they must both have known before, &c. If the affair is
complicated, these expositions are generally extremely tedious: those of
Heraclius and Rodogune absolutely make the head giddy. Chaulieu says of
Crebillon's _Rhadamiste_, "The piece would be perfectly clear were it
not for the exposition." To me it seems that their whole system of
expositions, both in Tragedy and in High Comedy, is exceedingly erroneous.
Nothing can be more ill-judged than to begin at once to instruct us
without any dramatic movement. At the first drawing up of the curtain the
spectator's attention is almost unavoidably distracted by external
circumstances, his interest has not yet been excited; and this is
precisely the time chosen by the poet to exact from him an earnest of
undivided attention to a dry explanation,--a demand which he can hardly be
supposed ready to meet. It will perhaps be urged that the same thing was
done by the Greek poets. But with them the subject was for the most part
extremely simple, and already known to the spectators; and their
expositions, with the exception of the unskilful prologues of Euripides,
have not the didactic particularising tone of the French, but are full of
life and motion. How admirable again are the expositions of Shakspeare and
Calderon! At the very outset they lay hold of the imagination; and when
they have once gained the spectator's interest and sympathy they then
bring forward the information necessary for the full understanding of the
implied transactions. This means is, it is true, denied to the French
tragic poets, who, if at all, are only very sparingly allowed the use of
any thing calculated to make an impression on the senses, any thing like
corporeal action; and who, therefore, for the sake of a gradual
heightening of the impression are obliged to reserve to the last acts the
little which is within their power.

To sum up all my previous observations in a few words: the French have
endeavoured to form their tragedy according to a strict idea; but instead
of this they have set up merely an abstract notion. They require tragical
dignity and grandeur, tragical situations, passions, and pathos,
altogether simple and pure, and without any foreign appendages. Stript
thus of their proper investiture, they lose much in truth, profundity, and
character; and the whole composition is deprived of the living charm of
variety, of the magic of picturesque situations, and of all those
ravishing effects which a light but preparatory matter, when left to
itself, often produces on the mind by its marvellous and spontaneous
growth. With respect to the theory of the tragic art, they are yet at the
very same point that they were in the art of gardening before the time of
Lenotre. All merit consisted, in their judgment, in extorting a triumph
from nature by means of art. They had no other idea of regularity than the
measured symmetry of straight alleys, clipped edges, &c. Vain would have
been the attempt to make those who laid out such gardens to comprehend
that there could be any plan, any hidden order, in an English park, and
demonstrate to them that a succession of landscapes, which from their
gradation, their alternation, and their opposition, give effect to each
other, did all aim at exciting in us a certain mental impression.

The rooted and lasting prejudices of a whole nation are seldom accidental,
but are connected with some general want of intrinsic capacities, from
which even the eminent minds who read the rest are not exempted. We are
not, therefore, to consider such prejudices merely as causes; we must also
consider them at the same time as important effects. We allow that the
narrow system of rules, that a dissecting criticism of the understanding,
has shackled the efforts of the French tragedians; still, however, it
remains doubtful whether of their own inclination they would ever have
made choice of more comprehensive designs, and, if so, in what way they
would have filled them up. The most distinguished among them have
certainly not been deficient in means and talents. In a particular
examination of their different productions we cannot show them any favour;
but, on a general view, they are more deserving of pity than censure; and
when, under such unfavourable circumstances, they yet produce what is
excellent, they are doubly entitled to our admiration, although we can by
no means admit the justice of the common-place observation, that the
overcoming of difficulty is a source of pleasure, nor find anything
meritorious in a work of art merely because it is artificially composed.
As for the claim which the French advance to set themselves up, in spite
of all their one-sidedness and inadequacy of view, as the lawgivers of
taste, it must be rejected with becoming indignation.


Use at first made of the Spanish Theatre by the French--General Character
of Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire--Review of the principal Works of
Corneille and of Racine--Thomas Corneille and Crebillon.

I have briefly noticed all that was necessary to mention of the
antiquities of the French stage. The duties of the poet were gradually
more rigorously laid down, under a belief in the authority of the
ancients, and the infallibility of Aristotle. By their own inclination,
however, the poets were led to the Spanish theatre, as long as the
Dramatic Art in France, under a native education, had not attained its
full maturity. They not only imitated the Spaniards, but, from this mine
of ingenious invention, even borrowed largely and directly. I do not
merely allude to the earlier times under Richelieu; this state of things
continued through the whole of the first half of the age of Louis XIV.;
and Racine is perhaps the oldest poet who seems to have been altogether
unacquainted with the Spaniards, or at least who was in no manner
influenced by them. The comedies of Corneille are nearly all taken from
Spanish pieces; and of his celebrated works, the _Cid_ and _Don Sancho of
Aragon_ are also Spanish. The only piece of Rotrou which still keeps its
place on the theatre, _Wenceslas_, is borrowed from Francisco de Roxas:
Molière's unfinished _Princess of Etis_ is from Moreto, his _Don Garcia of
Navarre_ from an unknown author, and the _Festin de Pierre_ carries its
origin in its front: [Footnote: And betrays at the same time Molière's
ignorance of Spanish. For if he had possessed even a tolerable knowledge
of it, how could he have translated _El Convidado de Piedra_ (the Stone
Guest) into the _Stone Feast_, which has no meaning here, and could only
be applicable to the Feasts of Midas?] we have only to look at the works
of Thomas Corneille to be at once convinced that, with the exception of a
few, they are all Spanish; as also are the earlier labours of Quinault,
namely, his comedies and tragi-comedies. The right of drawing without
scruple from this source was so universal, that the French imitators, when
they borrowed without the least disguise, did not even give themselves the
trouble of naming the author of the original, and assigning to the true
owner a part of the applause which they might earn. In the _Cid_ alone the
text of the Spanish poet is frequently cited, and that only because
Corneille's claim to originality had been called in question.

We should certainly derive much instruction from a discovery of the
prototypes, when they are not among the more celebrated, or already known
by their titles, and thereupon instituting a comparison between them and
their copies. We must, however, go very differently to work from Voltaire
in _Heraclius_, in which, as Garcia de la Huerta [Footnote: In the
introduction to his Theatro Hespañol.] has incontestably proved, he
displays both great ignorance and studied and disgusting perversions. If
the most of these imitations give little pleasure to France in the present
day, this decision is noways against the originals, which must always have
suffered considerably from the recast. The national characters of the
French and Spanish are totally different; and consequently also the spirit
of their language and poetry. The most temperate and restrained character
belongs to the French; the Spaniard, though in the remotest West,
displays, what his history may easily account for, an Oriental vein, which
luxuriates in a profusion of bold images and sallies of wit. When we strip
their dramas of these rich and splendid ornaments, when, for the glowing
colours of their romance and the musical variations of the rhymed strophes
in which they are composed, we compel them to assume the monotony of the
Alexandrine, and submit to the fetters of external regularities, while the
character and situations are allowed to remain essentially the same, there
can no longer be any harmony between the subject and its mode of
treatment, and it loses that truth which it may still retain within the
domain of fancy.

The charm of the Spanish poetry consists, generally speaking, in the union
of a sublime and enthusiastic earnestness of feeling, which peculiarly
descends from the North, with the lovely breath of the South, and the
dazzling pomp of the East. Corneille possessed an affinity to the Spanish
spirit but only in the first point; he might be taken for a Spaniard
educated in Normandy. It is much to be regretted that he had not, after
the composition of the _Cid_, employed himself without depending on
foreign models, upon subjects which would have allowed him to follow
altogether his feeling for chivalrous honour and fidelity. But on the
other hand he took himself to the Roman history; and the severe patriotism
of the older, and the ambitious policy of the later Romans, supplied the
place of chivalry, and in some measure assumed its garb. It was by no
means so much his object to excite our terror and compassion as our
admiration for the characters and astonishment at the situations of his
heroes. He hardly ever affects us; and is seldom capable of agitating our
minds. And here I may indeed observe, that such is his partiality for
exciting our wonder and admiration, that, not contented with exacting it
for the heroism of virtue, he claims it also for the heroism of vice, by
the boldness, strength of soul, presence of mind, and elevation above all
human weakness, with which he endows his criminals of both sexes. Nay,
often his characters express themselves in the language of ostentatious
pride, without our being well able to see what they have to be proud of:
they are merely proud of their pride. We cannot often say that we take an
interest in them: they either appear, from the great resources which they
possess within themselves, to stand in no need of our compassion, or else
they are undeserving of it. He has delineated the conflict of passions and
motives; but for the most part not immediately as such, but as already
metamorphosed into a contest of principles. It is in love that he has been
found coldest; and this was because he could not prevail on himself to
paint it as an amiable weakness, although he everywhere introduced it,
even where most unsuitable, either out of a condescension to the taste of
the age or a private inclination for chivalry, where love always appears
as the ornament of valour, as the checquered favour waving at the lance,
or the elegant ribbon-knot to the sword. Seldom does he paint love as a
power which imperceptibly steals upon us, and gains at last an involuntary
and irresistible dominion over us; but as an homage freely chosen at
first, to the exclusion of duty, but afterwards maintaining its place
along with it. This is the case at least in his better pieces; for in his
later works love is frequently compelled to give way to ambition; and
these two springs of action mutually weaken each other. His females are
generally not sufficiently feminine; and the love which they inspire is
with them not the last object, but merely a means to something beyond.
They drive their lovers into great dangers, and sometimes also to great
crimes; and the men too often appear to disadvantage, while they allow
themselves to become mere instruments in the hands of women, or to be
dispatched by them on heroic errands, as it were, for the sake of winning
the prize of love held out to them. Such women as Emilia in _Cinna and
Rodogune_, must surely be unsusceptible of love. But if in his principal
characters, Corneille, by exaggerating the energetic and underrating the
passive part of our nature, has departed from truth; if his heroes display
too much volition and too little feeling, he is still much more unnatural
in his situations. He has, in defiance of all probability, pointed them in
such a way that we might with great propriety give them the name of
tragical antitheses, and it becomes almost natural if the personages
express themselves in a series of epigrammatical maxims. He is fond of
exhibiting perfectly symmetrical oppositions. His eloquence is often
admirable from its strength and compression; but it sometimes degenerates
into bombast, and exhausts itself in superfluous accumulations. The later
Romans, Seneca the philosopher, and Lucan, were considered by him too much
in the light of models; and unfortunately he possessed also a vein of
Seneca the tragedian. From this wearisome pomp of declamation, a few
simple words interspersed here and there, have been often made the subject
of extravagant praise. [Footnote: For instance, the _Qu'il mourût_ of the
old Horatius; the _Soyons amis, Cinna_: also the _Moi_ of Medea, which, we
may observe in passing, is borrowed from Seneca.] If they stood alone they
would certainly be entitled to praise; but they are immediately followed
by long harangues which destroy their effect. When the Spartan mother, on
delivering the shield to her son, used the well-known words, "This, or on
this!" she certainly made no farther addition to them. Corneille was
peculiarly well qualified to portray ambition and the lust of power, a
passion which stifles all other human feelings, and never properly erects
its throne till the mind has become a cold and dreary wilderness. His
youth was passed in the last civil wars, and he still saw around him
remains of the feudal independence. I will not pretend to decide how much
this may have influenced him, but it is undeniable that the sense which he
often showed of the great importance of political questions was altogether
lost in the following age, and did not make its appearance again before
Voltaire. However he, like the rest of the poets of his time, paid his
tribute of flattery to Louis the Fourteenth, in verses which are now

Racine, who for all but an entire century has been unhesitatingly
proclaimed the favourite poet of the French nation, was by no means during
his lifetime in so enviable a situation, and, notwithstanding many an
instance of brilliant success, could not rest as yet in the pleasing and
undisturbed possession of his fame. His merit in giving the last polish to
the French language, his unrivalled excellence both of expression and
versification, were not then allowed; on the stage he had rivals, of whom
some were undeservedly preferred before him. On the one hand, the
exclusive admirers of Corneille, with Madame Sevigné at their head, made a
formal party against him; on the other hand, Pradon, a younger candidate
for the honours of the Tragic Muse, endeavoured to wrest the victory from
him, and actually succeeded, not merely, it would appear, in gaining over
the crowd, but the very court itself, notwithstanding the zeal with which

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