Lectures on Dramatic Art by August Wilhelm Schlegel

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Produced by Anne Soulard, Tiffany Vergon and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.

“Were I to pray for a taste which should stand me in stead under every variety of circumstances, and be a source of happiness and cheerfulness to me during life, and a shield against its ills, however things might go amiss and the world frown upon me, it would he a taste for reading…. Give a man this taste, and the means of gratifying it, and you can hardly fail of making him a happy man; unless, indeed, you put into his hands a most perverse selection of Books. You place him in contact with the best society in every period of history,–with the wisest, the wittiest, the tenderest, the bravest, and the purest characters who have adorned humanity. You make him a denizen of all nations, a contemporary of all ages. The world has been created for him.”–SIR JOHN HERSCHEL. _Address on the opening of the Eton Library_, 1833.




Preface of the Translator.

Author’s Preface.

Memoir of the Life of Augustus William Schlegel.


Introduction–Spirit of True Criticism–Difference of Taste between the Ancients and Moderns–Classical and Romantic Poetry and Art–Division of Dramatic Literature; the Ancients, their Imitators, and the Romantic Poets.


Definition of the Drama–View of the Theatres of all Nations–Theatrical Effect–Importance of the Stage–Principal Species of the Drama.


Essence of Tragedy and Comedy–Earnestness and Sport–How far it is possible to become acquainted with the Ancients without knowing Original Languages–Winkelmann.


Structure of the Stage among the Greeks–Their Acting–Use of Masks–False comparison of Ancient Tragedy to the Opera–Tragical Lyric Poetry.


Essence of the Greek Tragedies–Ideality of the Representation–Idea of Fate–Source of the Pleasure derived from Tragical Representations–Import of the Chorus–The materials of Greek Tragedy derived from Mythology– Comparison with the Plastic Arts.


Progress of the Tragic Art among the Greeks–Various styles of Tragic Art –Aeschylus–Connexion in a Trilogy of Aeschylus–His remaining Works.


Life and Political Character of Sophocles–Character of his different Tragedies.


Euripides–His Merits and Defects–Decline of Tragic Poetry through him.


Comparison between the _Choephorae_ of Aeschylus, the _Electra_ of Sophocles, and that of Euripides.


Character of the remaining Works of Euripides–The Satirical Drama– Alexandrian Tragic Poets.


The Old Comedy proved to be completely a contrast to Tragedy–Parody– Ideality of Comedy the reverse of that of Tragedy–Mirthful Caprice– Allegoric and Political Signification–The Chorus and its Parabases.


Aristophanes–His Character as an Artist–Description and Character of his remaining Works–A Scene, translated from the _Acharnae_, by way of Appendix.


Whether the Middle Comedy was a distinct species–Origin of the New Comedy–A mixed species–Its prosaic character–Whether versification is essential to Comedy–Subordinate kinds–Pieces of Character, and of Intrigue–The Comic of observation, of self-consciousness, and arbitrary Comic–Morality of Comedy.


Plautus and Terence as Imitators of the Greeks, here examined and characterized in the absence of the Originals they copied–Motives of the Athenian Comedy from Manners and Society–Portrait-Statues of two Comedians.


Roman Theatre–Native kinds: Atellane Fables, Mimes, Comoedia Togata– Greek Tragedy transplanted to Rome–Tragic Authors of a former Epoch, and of the Augustan Age–Idea of a National Roman Tragedy–Causes of the want of success of the Romans in Tragedy–Seneca.


The Italians–Pastoral Dramas of Tasso and Guarini–Small progress in Tragedy–Metastasio and Alfieri–Character of both–Comedies of Ariosto, Aretin, Porta–Improvisatore Masks–Goldoni–Gozzi–Latest state.


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.


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.


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.


Voltaire–Tragedies on Greek Subjects: _Oedipe_, _Merope_, _Oreste_– Tragedies on Roman Subjects: _Brute_, _Mort de César_, _Catiline_, _Le Triumvirat_–Earlier Pieces: _Zaire_, _Alzire_, _Mahomet_, _Semiramis_, And _Tancred_.


French Comedy–Molière–Criticism of his Works–Scarron, Boursault, Regnard; Comedies in the Time of the Regency; Marivaux and Destouches; Piron and Gresset–Later Attempts–The Heroic Opera: Quinault–Operettes and Vaudevilles–Diderot’s attempted Change of the Theatre–The Weeping Drama–Beaumarchais–Melo-Dramas–Merits and Defects of the Histrionic Art.


Comparison of the English and Spanish Theatres–Spirit of the Romantic Drama–Shakspeare–His Age and the Circumstances of his Life.


Ignorance or Learning of Shakspeare–Costume as observed by Shakspeare, and how far necessary, or may be dispensed with, in the Drama–Shakspeare the greatest drawer of Character–Vindication of the genuineness of his pathos–Play on Words–Moral Delicacy–Irony-Mixture of the Tragic and Comic–The part of the Fool or Clown–Shakspeare’s Language and Versification.


Criticisms on Shakspeare’s Comedies.


Criticisms on Shakspeare’s Tragedies.


Criticisms on Shakspeare’s Historical Dramas.


Two Periods of the English Theatre: the first the most important–The first Conformation of the Stage, and its Advantages–State of the Histrionic Art in Shakspeare’s Time–Antiquities of Dramatic Literature– Lilly, Marlow, Heywood–Ben Jonson; Criticism of his Works–Masques– Beaumont and Fletcher–General Characterization of these Poets, and Remarks on some of their Pieces–Massinger and other Contemporaries of Charles I.


Closing of the Stage by the Puritans–Revival of the Stage under Charles II.–Depravity of Taste and Morals–Dryden, Otway, and others– Characterization of the Comic Poets from Wycherley and Congreve to the Middle of the Eighteenth Century–Tragedies of the same Period–Rowe– Addison’s _Cato_–Later Pieces–Familiar Tragedy: Lillo–Garrick– Latest State.


Spanish Theatre–Its three Periods: Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderon– Spirit of the Spanish Poetry in general–Influence of the National History on it–Form, and various Species of the Spanish Drama–Decline since the beginning of the Eighteenth Century.


Origin of the German Theatre–Hans Sachs–Gryphius–The Age of Gottsched– Wretched Imitation of the French–Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller–Review of their Works–Their Influence on Chivalrous Dramas, Affecting Dramas, and Family Pictures–Prospect for Futurity.


The Lectures of A. W. SCHLEGEL on Dramatic Poetry have obtained high celebrity on the Continent, and been much alluded to of late in several publications in this country. The boldness of his attacks on rules which are considered as sacred by the French critics, and on works of which the French nation in general have long been proud, called forth a more than ordinary degree of indignation against his work in France. It was amusing enough to observe the hostility carried on against him in the Parisian Journals. The writers in these Journals found it much easier to condemn M. SCHLEGEL than to refute him: they allowed that what he said was very ingenious, and had a great appearance of truth; but still they said it was not truth. They never, however, as far as I could observe, thought proper to grapple with him, to point out anything unfounded in his premises, or illogical in the conclusions which he drew from them; they generally confined themselves to mere assertions, or to minute and unimportant observations by which the real question was in no manner affected.

In this country the work will no doubt meet with a very different reception. Here we have no want of scholars to appreciate the value of his views of the ancient drama; and it will be no disadvantage to him, in our eyes, that he has been unsparing in his attack on the literature of our enemies. It will hardly fail to astonish us, however, to find a stranger better acquainted with the brightest poetical ornament of this country than any of ourselves; and that the admiration of the English nation for Shakspeare should first obtain a truly enlightened interpreter in a critic of Germany.

It is not for me, however, to enlarge on the merits of a work which has already obtained so high a reputation. I shall better consult my own advantage in giving a short extract from the animated account of M. SCHLEGEL’S Lectures in the late work on Germany by Madame de Staël:–

“W. SCHLEGEL has given a course of Dramatic Literature at Vienna, which comprises every thing remarkable that has been composed for the theatre, from the time of the Grecians to our own days. It is not a barren nomenclature of the works of the various authors: he seizes the spirit of their different sorts of literature with all the imagination of a poet. We are sensible that to produce such consequences extraordinary studies are required: but learning is not perceived in this work, except by his perfect knowledge of the _chefs-d’oeuvre_ of composition. In a few pages we reap the fruit of the labour of a whole life; every opinion formed by the author, every epithet given to the writers of whom he speaks, is beautiful and just, concise and animated. He has found the art of treating the finest pieces of poetry as so many wonders of nature, and of painting them in lively colours, which do not injure the justness of the outline; for we cannot repeat too often, that imagination, far from being an enemy to truth, brings it forward more than any other faculty of the mind; and all those who depend upon it as an excuse for indefinite terms or exaggerated expressions, are at least as destitute of poetry as of good sense.

“An analysis of the principles on which both Tragedy and Comedy are founded, is treated in this course with much depth of philosophy. This kind of merit is often found among the German writers; but SCHLEGEL has no equal in the art of inspiring his own admiration; in general, be shows himself attached to a simple taste, sometimes bordering on rusticity; but he deviates from his usual opinions in favour of the inhabitants of the South. Their play on words is not the object of his censure; he detests the affectation which owes its existence to the spirit of society: but that which is excited by the luxury of imagination pleases him, in poetry, as the profusion of colours and perfumes would do in nature. SCHLEGEL, after having acquired a great reputation by his translation of Shakspeare, became also enamoured of Calderon, but with a very different sort of attachment from that with which Shakspeare had inspired him; for while the English author is deep and gloomy in his knowledge of the human heart, the Spanish poet gives himself up with pleasure and delight to the beauty of life, to the sincerity of faith, and to all the brilliancy of those virtues which derive their colouring from the sunshine of the soul.

“I was at Vienna when W. SCHLEGEL gave his public course of Lectures. I expected only good sense and instruction, where the object was merely to convey information: I was astonished to hear a critic as eloquent as an orator, and who, far from falling upon defects, which are the eternal food of mean and little jealousy, sought only the means of reviving a creative genius.”

Thus far Madame de Staël. In taking upon me to become the interpreter of a work of this description to my countrymen, I am aware that I have incurred no slight degree of responsibility. How I have executed my task it is not for me to speak, but for the reader to judge. This much, however, I will say,–that I have always endeavoured to discover the true meaning of the author, and that I believe I have seldom mistaken it. Those who are best acquainted with the psychological riches of the German language, will be the most disposed to look on my labour with an eye of indulgence.


From the size of the present work, it will not be expected that it should contain either a course of Dramatic Literature bibliographically complete, or a history of the theatre compiled with antiquarian accuracy. Of books containing dry accounts and lists of names there are already enough. My purpose was to give a general view, and to develope those ideas which ought to guide us in our estimate of the value of the dramatic productions of various ages and nations.

The greatest part of the following Lectures, with the exception of a few observations of a secondary nature, the suggestion of the moment, were delivered orally as they now appear in print. The only alteration consists in a more commodious distribution, and here and there in additions, where the limits of the time prevented me from handling many matters with uniform minuteness. This may afford a compensation for the animation of oral delivery which sometimes throws a veil over deficiencies of expression, and always excites a certain degree of expectation.

I delivered these Lectures, in the spring of 1808, at Vienna, to a brilliant audience of nearly three hundred individuals of both sexes. The inhabitants of Vienna have long been in the habit of refuting the injurious descriptions which many writers of the North of Germany have given of that capital, by the kindest reception of all learned men and artists belonging to these regions, and by the most disinterested zeal for the credit of our national literature, a zeal which a just sensibility has not been able to cool. I found here the cordiality of better times united with that amiable animation of the South, which is often denied to our German seriousness, and the universal diffusion of a keen taste for intellectual amusement. To this circumstance alone I must attribute it that not a few of the men who hold the most important places at court, in the state, and in the army, artists and literary men of merit, women of the choicest social cultivation, paid me not merely an occasional visit, but devoted to me an uninterrupted attention.

With joy I seize this fresh opportunity of laying my gratitude at the feet of the benignant monarch who, in the permission to deliver these Lectures communicated to me by way of distinction immediately from his own hand, gave me an honourable testimony of his gracious confidence, which I as a foreigner who had not the happiness to be born under his sceptre, and merely felt myself bound as a German and a citizen of the world to wish him every blessing and prosperity, could not possibly have merited.

Many enlightened patrons and zealous promoters of everything good and becoming have merited my gratitude for the assistance which they gave to my undertaking, and the encouragement which they afforded me during its execution.

The whole of my auditors rendered my labour extremely agreeable by their indulgence, their attentive participation, and their readiness to distinguish, in a feeling manner, every passage which seemed worthy of their applause.

It was a flattering moment, which I shall never forget, when, in the last hour, after I had called up recollections of the old German renown sacred to every one possessed of true patriotic sentiment, and when the minds of my auditors were thus more solemnly attuned, I was at last obliged to take my leave powerfully agitated by the reflection that our recent relation, founded on a common love for a nobler mental cultivation, would be so soon dissolved, and that I should never again see those together who were then assembled around me. A general emotion was perceptible, excited by so much that I could not say, but respecting which our hearts understood each other. In the mental dominion of thought and poetry, inaccessible to worldly power, the Germans, who are separated in so many ways from each other, still feel their unity: and in this feeling, whose interpreter the writer and orator must be, amidst our clouded prospects we may still cherish the elevating presage of the great and immortal calling of our people, who from time immemorial have remained unmixed in their present habitations.

GENEVA, _February_, 1809.


The declaration in the Preface that these Lectures were, with some additions, printed as they were delivered, is in so far to be corrected, that the additions in the second part are much more considerable than in the first. The restriction, in point of time in the oral delivery, compelled me to leave more gaps in the last half than in the first. The part respecting Shakspeare and the English theatre, in particular, has been, almost altogether re-written. I have been prevented, partly by the want of leisure and partly by the limits of the work, from treating of the Spanish theatre with that fulness which its importance deserves.


AUGUSTUS WILLIAM VON SCHLEGEL, the author of the following Lectures, was, with his no-less distinguished brother, Frederick, the son of John Adolph Schlegel, a native of Saxony, and descended from a noble family. Holding a high appointment in the Lutheran church, Adolph Schlegel distinguished himself as a religious poet, and was the friend and associate of Rabener, Gellert, and Klopstock. Celebrated for his eloquence in the pulpit, and strictly diligent in the performance of his religious duties, he died in 1792, leaving an example to his children which no doubt had a happy influence on them.

Of these, the seventh, Augustus William, was born in Hanover, September 5th, 1767. In his early childhood, he evinced a genuine susceptibility for all that was good and noble; and this early promise of a generous and virtuous disposition was carefully nurtured by the religious instruction of his mother, an amiable and highly-gifted woman. Of this parent’s pious and judicious teaching, Augustus William had to the end of his days a grateful remembrance, and he cherished for her throughout life a sincere and affectionate esteem, whose ardour neither time nor distance could diminish. The filial affection of her favourite son soothed the declining years of his mother, and lightened the anxieties with which the critical and troubled state of the times alarmed her old age. His further education was carried on by a private tutor, who prepared him for the grammar-school at Hanover, where he was distinguished both for his unremitting application, to which he often sacrificed the hours of leisure and recreation, and for the early display of a natural gift for language, which enabled him immediately on the close of his academic career to accept a tutorial appointment, which demanded of its holder a knowledge not only of the classics but also of English and French. He also displayed at a very early age a talent for poetry, and some of his juvenile extempore effusions were remarkable for their easy versification and rhythmical flow. In his eighteenth year he was called upon to deliver in the Lyceum of his native city, the anniversary oration in honour of a royal birthday. His address on this occasion excited an extraordinary sensation both by the graceful elegance of the style and the interest of the matter, written in hexameters. It embraced a short history of poetry in Germany, and was relieved and animated with many judicious and striking illustrations from the earliest Teutonic poets.

He now proceeded to the University of Göttingen as a student of theology, which science, however, he shortly abandoned for the more congenial one of philology. The propriety of this charge he amply attested by his Essay on the Geography of Homer, which displayed both an intelligent and comprehensive study of this difficult branch of classical archaeology.

At Göttingen he lived in the closest intimacy with Heyne, for whose _Virgil_, in 1788 he completed an index; he also became acquainted with the celebrated Michaelis. It was here too that he formed the friendship of Bürger, to whose _Academie der Schönen Redekünste_, he contributed his _Ariadne_, and an essay on _Dante_. The kindred genius of Bürger favourably influenced his own mind and tastes, and moved him to make the first known attempt to naturalize the Italian sonnet in Germany.

Towards the end of his university career he combined his own studies with the private instruction of a rich young Englishman, born in the East Indies, and at the close of it accepted the post of tutor to the only son of Herr Muilmann, the celebrated Banker of Amsterdam. In this situation he gained universal respect and esteem, but after three years he quitted it to enter upon a wider sphere of literary activity. On his return to his native country he was elected Professor in the University of Jena. Schlegel’s residence in this place, which may truly be called the classic soil of German literature, as it gained him the acquaintance of his eminent contemporaries Schiller and Goethe, marks a decisive epoch in the formation of his intellectual character. At this date he contributed largely to the _Horen_, and also to Schiller’s _Musen-Almanach_, and down to 1799 was one of the most fertile writers in the _Allgemeinen Literatur-Zeitung_ of Jena. It was here, also, that he commenced his translations of Shakspeare, (9 vols., Berlin, 1797-1810,) which produced a salutary effect on the taste and judgment of his countrymen, and also on Dramatic Art and theatrical representation in Germany. Notwithstanding the favourable reception of this work he subsequently abandoned it, and on the publication of a new edition, in 1825, he cheerfully consigned to Tieck the revision of his own labours, and the completion of the yet untranslated pieces.

Continuing attached to the University of Jena, where the dignity of Professorship was associated with that of Member of the Council, he now commenced a course of lectures on Aesthetics, and joined his brother Frederick in the editorship of the _Athenaeum_, (3 vols., Berlin, 1796-1800,) an Aesthetico-critical journal, intended, while observing a rigorous but an impartial spirit of criticism, to discover and foster every grain of a truly vital development of mind. It was also during his residence at Jena that he published the first edition of his Poems, among which the religious pieces and the Sonnets on Art were greatly admired and had many imitators. To the latter years of his residence at Jena, which may be called the political portion of Schlegel’s literary career, belongs the _Gate of Honour for the Stage-President Von-Kotzebue_, (_Ehrenpforte fur den Theater Präsidenten von Kotzebue_, 1800,) an ill-natured and much- censured satire in reply to Kotzebue’s attack, entitled the _Hyperborean Ass_ (_Hyperboreischen Esee_). At this time he also collected several of his own and brother Frederick’s earlier and occasional contributions to various periodicals, and these, together with the hitherto unpublished dissertations on Bürger’s works, make up the _Characteristiken u Kritiken_ (2 vols., Koenigsberg, 1801). Shortly afterwards he undertook with Tieck the editorship of _Musen-Almanack_ for 1802. The two brothers were now leading a truly scientific and poetic life, associating and co-operating with many minds of a kindred spirit, who gathered round Tieck and Novalis as their centre.

His marriage with the daughter of Michaelis was not a happy one, and was quickly followed by a separation, upon which Schlegel proceeded to Berlin. In this city, towards the end of 1802, he delivered his _Lectures on the Present State of Literature and the Fine Arts_, which were afterwards printed in the _Europa_, under his brother’s editorship. The publication in 1803 of his _Ion_, a drama in imitation of the ancients, but as a composition unmarked by any peculiar display of vigour, led to an interesting argument between himself, Bernhardi, and Schilling. This discussion, which extended from its original subject to Euripides and Dramatic Representation in general, was carried on in the _Journal for the Polite World_ (_Zeitung fur die elegante Welt_,) which Schlegel supported by his advice and contributions. In this periodical he also entered the lists in opposition to Kotzebue and Merkel in the _Freimüthige_ (_The Liberal_), and the merits of the so-called modern school and its leaders, was the subject of a paper war, waged with the bitterest acrimony of controversy, which did not scruple to employ the sharpest weapons of personal abuse and ridicule.

At this date Schlegel was engaged upon his _Spanish Theatre_, (2 vols., Berlin, 1803-1809). In the execution of this work, much was naturally demanded of the translator of Shakspeare, nor did he disappoint the general expectator, although he had here far greater difficulties to contend with. Not content with merely giving a faithful interpretation of his author’s meaning, he laid down and strictly observed the law of adhering rigorously to all the measures, rhythms, and assonances of the original. These two excellent translations, in each of which he has brought to bear both the great command of his own, and a wonderful quickness in catching the spirit of a foreign language, have earned for Schlegel the foremost place among successful and able translators, while his _Flowers of Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese Poetry_ (_Blumensträusse d. Ital. Span. u. Portug. Poesie_, Berlin, 1804), furnish another proof both of his skill in this pursuit and of the extent of his acquaintance with European literature. Moreover, the merit of having by these translations made Shakspeare and Calderon more widely known and better appreciated in Germany would, in default of any other claim, alone entitle him to take high rank in the annals of modern literature.

But a new and more important career was now open to him by his introduction to Madame de Staël. Making a tour in Germany, this distinguished woman arrived at Berlin in 1805, and desirous of acquainting herself more thoroughly with German literature she selected Schlegel to direct her studies of it, and at the same time confided to his charge the completion of her children’s education. Quitting Berlin he accompanied this lady on her travels through Italy and France, and afterwards repaired with her to her paternal seat at Coppet, on the Lake of Geneva, which now became for some time his fixed abode. It was here that in 1807 he wrote in French his _Parallel between the Phaedra of Euripides and the Phèdre of Racine_, which produced a lively sensation in the literary circles of Paris. This city had peculiar attractions for Schlegel, both in its invaluable literary stores and its re-union of men of letters, among whom his own views and opinions found many enthusiastic admirers and partisans, notwithstanding that in his critical analysis of Racine’s _Phèdre_ he had presumed to attack what Frenchmen deemed the chiefest glory of their literature, and had mortified their national vanity in its most sensitive point.

In the spring of 1808 he visited Vienna, and there read to a brilliant audience his _Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature_, which, on their publication, were hailed throughout Europe with marked approbation, and which will, unquestionably, transmit his name to the latest posterity. His object in these Lectures is both to take a rapid survey of dramatic productions of different ages and nations, and to develope and determine the general ideas by which their true artistic value must be judged. In his travels with Madame de Staël he was introduced to the present King, then the Crown Prince, of Bavaria, who bestowed on him many marks of his respect and esteem, and about this time he took a part in the _German Museum_ (_Deutsche Museum_), of his brother Frederick, contributing some learned and profound dissertations on the _Lay of the Nibelungen_. In 1812, when the subjugated South no longer afforded an asylum to the liberal-minded De Staël, with whose personal fortunes he felt himself inseparably linked by that deep feeling of esteem and friendship which speaks so touchingly and pathetically in some of his later poems, he accompanied that lady on a visit to Stockholm, where he formed the acquaintance of the Crown Prince.

The great political events of this period were not without their effect on Schlegel’s mind, and in 1813 he came forward as a political writer, when his powerful pen was not without its effect in rousing the German mind from the torpor into which it had sunk beneath the victorious military despotism of France. But he was called upon to take a more active part in the measures of these stirring times, and in this year entered the service of the Crown Prince of Sweden, as secretary and counsellor at head quarters. For this Prince he had a great personal regard, and estimated highly both his virtues as a man and his talents as a general. The services he rendered the Swedish Prince were duly appreciated and rewarded, among other marks of distinction by a patent of nobility, in virtue of which he prefixed the “Von” to his paternal name of Schlegel. The Emperor Alexander, of whose religious elevation of character he always spoke with admiration, also honoured him with his intimacy and many tokens of esteem.

Upon the fall of Napoleon he returned to Coppet with Madame de Staël, and in 1815 published a second volume of his _Poetical Works_, (Heildelberg, 1811-1815, 2nd edit., 2 vols., 1820). These are characterized not merely by the brilliancy and purity of the language, but also by the variety and richness of the imagery. Among these the _Arion_, _Pygmalion_, and _Der Heilige Lucas_ (St. Luke,) the Sonnets, and the sublime elegy, _Rhine_, dedicated to Madame de Staël, deserve especial mention, and give him a just claim to a poet’s crown.

On the death of his friend and patroness in 1819, he accepted the offer of a professor’s chair in Bonn, where he married a daughter of Professor Paulus. This union, as short-lived as the first, was followed by a separation in 1820. In his new position of academic tutor, while he diligently promoted the study of the fine arts and sciences, both of the Ancient and the Moderns, he applied himself with peculiar ardour to Oriental literature, and particularly to the Sanscrit. As a fruit of these studies, he published his _Indian Library_, (2 vols., Bonn, 1820-26); he also set up a press for printing the great Sanscrit work, the _Râmâjana_ (Bonn, 1825). He also edited the Sanscrit text, with a Latin translation, of the Bhagavad-Gita, an episode of the great Indian Epos, the _Mahâbhârata_ (Bonn, 1829). About this period his Oriental studies took, him to France, and afterwards to England, where, in London and in the college libraries of Oxford and Cambridge, and the East India College at Hailesbury, he carefully examined the various collections of Oriental MSS. On his return he was appointed Superintendent of the Museum of Antiquities, and in 1827 delivered at Berlin a course of Lectures on the _Theory and History of the Fine Arts_, (Berlin, 1827). These were followed by his _Criticisms_, (Berlin, 1828), and his _Réflexion sur l’Etude des Langues Asiatiques_, addressed to Sir James Mackintosh. Being accused of a secret leaning to Roman Catholicism, (Kryptocatholicisme,) he ably defended himself in a reply entitled _Explication de quelques Malentendus_, (Berlin, 1828.)

A. W. Von Schlegel, besides being a Member of the Legion of Honour, was invested with the decorations of several other Orders. He wrote French with as much facility as his native language, and many French journals were proud to number him among their contributors. He also assisted Madame de Staël in her celebrated work _De l’Allemagne_, and superintended the publication of her posthumous _Considérations sur la Révolution Française_.

After this long career of successful literary activity, A. W. Von Schlegel died at Bonn, 12 May, 1845. His death was thus noticed in the _Athenaeum_:–

“This illustrious writer was, in conjunction with his brother Frederick, as most European readers well know, the founder of the modern romantic school of German literature, and as a critic fought many a hard battle for his faith. The clearness of his insight into poetical and dramatic truth, Englishmen will always be apt to estimate by the fact that it procured for himself and for his countrymen the freedom of Shakspeare’s enchanted world, and the taste of all the marvellous things that, like the treasures of Aladdin’s garden, are fruit and gem at once upon its immortal boughs:– Frenchmen will not readily forget that he disparaged Molière. The merit of Schlegel’s dramatic criticism ought not, however, to be thus limited. Englishmen themselves are deeply indebted to him. His Lectures, translated by Black, excited great interest here when first published, some thirty years since, and have worthily taken a permanent place in our libraries.”

His collection of books, which was rather extensive, and rich in Oriental, especially Sanscrit literature, was sold by auction in Bonn, December, 1845. It appears by a chronological list prefixed to the catalogue, that reckoning both his separate publications and those contributed to periodicals, his printed works number no fewer than 126. Besides these he left many unpublished manuscripts, which, says the _Athenaeum_, “he bequeathed to the celebrated archaeologist, Welcker, professor at the Royal University of Bonn, with a request that he would cause them to be published.”



Introduction–Spirit of True Criticism–Difference of Taste between the Ancients and Moderns–Classical and Romantic Poetry and Art–Division of Dramatic Literature; the Ancients, their Imitators, and the Romantic Poets.

The object of the present series of Lectures will be to combine the theory of Dramatic Art with its history, and to bring before my auditors at once its principles and its models.

It belongs to the general philosophical theory of poetry, and the other fine arts, to establish the fundamental laws of the beautiful. Every art, on the other hand, has its own special theory, designed to teach the limits, the difficulties, and the means by which it must be regulated in its attempt to realize those laws. For this purpose, certain scientific investigations are indispensable to the artist, although they have but little attraction for those whose admiration of art is confined to the enjoyment of the actual productions of distinguished minds. The general theory, on the other hand, seeks to analyze that essential faculty of human nature–the sense of the beautiful, which at once calls the fine arts into existence, and accounts for the satisfaction which arises from the contemplation of them; and also points out the relation which subsists between this and all other sentient and cognizant faculties of man. To the man of thought and speculation, therefore, it is of the highest importance, but by itself alone it is quite inadequate to guide and direct the essays and practice of art.

Now, the history of the fine arts informs us what has been, and the theory teaches what ought to be accomplished by them. But without some intermediate and connecting link, both would remain independent and separate from one and other, and each by itself, inadequate and defective. This connecting link is furnished by criticism, which both elucidates the history of the arts, and makes the theory fruitful. The comparing together, and judging of the existing productions of the human mind, necessarily throws light upon the conditions which are indispensable to the creation of original and masterly works of art.

Ordinarily, indeed, men entertain a very erroneous notion of criticism, and understand by it nothing more than a certain shrewdness in detecting and exposing the faults of a work of art. As I have devoted the greater part of my life to this pursuit, I may be excused if, by way of preface, I seek to lay before my auditors my own ideas of the true genius of criticism.

We see numbers of men, and even whole nations, so fettered by the conventions of education and habits of life, that, even in the appreciation of the fine arts, they cannot shake them off. Nothing to them appears natural, appropriate, or beautiful, which is alien to their own language, manners, and social relations. With this exclusive mode of seeing and feeling, it is no doubt possible to attain, by means of cultivation, to great nicety of discrimination within the narrow circle to which it limits and circumscribes them. But no man can be a true critic or connoisseur without universality of mind, without that flexibility which enables him, by renouncing all personal predilections and blind habits, to adapt himself to the peculiarities of other ages and nations–to feel them, as it were, from their proper central point, and, what ennobles human nature, to recognise and duly appreciate whatever is beautiful and grand under the external accessories which were necessary to its embodying, even though occasionally they may seem to disguise and distort it. There is no monopoly of poetry for particular ages and nations; and consequently that despotism in taste, which would seek to invest with universal authority the rules which at first, perhaps, were but arbitrarily advanced, is but a vain and empty pretension. Poetry, taken in its widest acceptation, as the power of creating what is beautiful, and representing it to the eye or the ear, is a universal gift of Heaven, being shared to a certain extent even by those whom we call barbarians and savages. Internal excellence is alone decisive, and where this exists, we must not allow ourselves to be repelled by the external appearance. Everything must be traced up to the root of human nature: if it has sprung from thence, it has an undoubted worth of its own; but if, without possessing a living germ, it is merely externally attached thereto, it will never thrive nor acquire a proper growth. Many productions which appear at first sight dazzling phenomena in the province of the fine arts, and which as a whole have been honoured with the appellation of works of a golden age, resemble the mimic gardens of children: impatient to witness the work of their hands, they break off here and there branches and flowers, and plant them in the earth; everything at first assumes a noble appearance: the childish gardener struts proudly up and down among his showy beds, till the rootless plants begin to droop, and hang their withered leaves and blossoms, and nothing soon remains but the bare twigs, while the dark forest, on which no art or care was ever bestowed, and which towered up towards heaven long before human remembrance, bears every blast unshaken, and fills the solitary beholder with religious awe.

Let us now apply the idea which we have been developing, of the universality of true criticism, to the history of poetry and the fine arts. This, like the so-called universal history, we generally limit (even though beyond this range there may be much that is both remarkable and worth knowing) to whatever has had a nearer or more remote influence on the present civilisation of Europe: consequently, to the works of the Greeks and Romans, and of those of the modern European nations, who first and chiefly distinguished themselves in art and literature. It is well known that, three centuries and a-half ago, the study of ancient literature received a new life, by the diffusion of the Grecian language (for the Latin never became extinct); the classical authors were brought to light, and rendered universally accessible by means of the press; and the monuments of ancient art were diligently disinterred and preserved. All this powerfully excited the human mind, and formed a decided epoch in the history of human civilisation; its manifold effects have extended to our times, and will yet extend to an incalculable series of ages. But the study of the ancients was forthwith most fatally perverted. The learned, who were chiefly in the possession of this knowledge, and who were incapable of distinguishing themselves by works of their own, claimed for the ancients an unlimited authority, and with great appearance of reason, since they are models in their kind. Maintaining that nothing could be hoped for the human mind but from an imitation of antiquity, in the works of the moderns they only valued what resembled, or seemed to bear a resemblance to, those of the ancients. Everything else they rejected as barbarous and unnatural. With the great poets and artists it was quite otherwise. However strong their enthusiasm for the ancients, and however determined their purpose of entering into competition with them, they were compelled by their independence and originality of mind, to strike out a path of their own, and to impress upon their productions the stamp of their own genius. Such was the case with Dante among the Italians, the father of modern poetry; acknowledging Virgil for his master, he has produced a work which, of all others, most differs from the Aeneid, and in our opinion far excels its pretended model in power, truth, compass, and profundity. It was the same afterwards with Ariosto, who has most unaccountably been compared to Homer, for nothing can be more unlike. So in art with Michael Angelo and Raphael, who had no doubt deeply studied the antique. When we ground our judgment of modern painters merely on their greater or less resemblance to the ancients, we must necessarily be unjust towards them, as Winkelmann undoubtedly has in the case of Raphael. As the poets for the most part had their share of scholarship, it gave rise to a curious struggle between their natural inclination and their imaginary duty. When they sacrificed to the latter, they were praised by the learned; but by yielding to the former, they became the favourites of the people. What preserves the heroic poems of a Tasso and a Camoëns to this day alive in the hearts and on the lips of their countrymen, is by no means their imperfect resemblance to Virgil, or even to Homer, but in Tasso the tender feeling of chivalrous love and honour, and in Camoëns the glowing inspiration of heroic patriotism.

Those very ages, nations, and ranks, who felt least the want of a poetry of their own, were the most assiduous in their imitation of the ancients; accordingly, its results are but dull school exercises, which at best excite a frigid admiration. But in the fine arts, mere imitation is always fruitless; even what we borrow from others, to assume a true poetical shape, must, as it were, be born again within us. Of what avail is all foreign imitation? Art cannot exist without nature, and man can give nothing to his fellow-men but himself.

Genuine successors and true rivals of the ancients, who, by virtue of congenial talents and cultivation have walked in their path and worked in their spirit, have ever been as rare as their mechanical spiritless copyists are common. Seduced by the form, the great body of critics have been but too indulgent to these servile imitators. These were held up as correct modern classics, while the great truly living and popular poets, whose reputation was a part of their nations’ glory, and to whose sublimity it was impossible to be altogether blind, were at best but tolerated as rude and wild natural geniuses. But the unqualified separation of genius and taste on which such a judgment proceeds, is altogether untenable. Genius is the almost unconscious choice of the highest degree of excellence, and, consequently, it is taste in its highest activity.

In this state, nearly, matters continued till a period not far back, when several inquiring minds, chiefly Germans, endeavoured to clear up the misconception, and to give the ancients their due, without being insensible to the merits of the moderns, although of a totally different kind. The apparent contradiction did not intimidate them. The groundwork of human nature is no doubt everywhere the same; but in all our investigations, we may observe that, throughout the whole range of nature, there is no elementary power so simple, but that it is capable of dividing and diverging into opposite directions. The whole play of vital motion hinges on harmony and contrast. Why, then, should not this phenomenon recur on a grander scale in the history of man? In this idea we have perhaps discovered the true key to the ancient and modern history of poetry and the fine arts. Those who adopted it, gave to the peculiar spirit of _modern_ art, as contrasted with the _antique_ or _classical_, the name of _romantic_. The term is certainly not inappropriate; the word is derived from _romance_–the name originally given to the languages which were formed from the mixture of the Latin and the old Teutonic dialects, in the same manner as modern civilisation is the fruit of the heterogeneous union of the peculiarities of the northern nations and the fragments of antiquity; whereas the civilisation of the ancients was much more of a piece.

The distinction which we have just stated can hardly fail to appear well founded, if it can be shown, so far as our knowledge of antiquity extends, that the same contrast in the labours of the ancients and moderns runs symmetrically, I might almost say systematically, throughout every branch of art–that it is as evident in music and the plastic arts as in poetry. This is a problem which, in its full extent, still remains to be demonstrated, though, on particular portions of it, many excellent observations have been advanced already.

Among the foreign authors who wrote before this school can be said to have been formed in Germany, we may mention Rousseau, who acknowledged the contrast in music, and showed that rhythm and melody were the prevailing principles of ancient, as harmony is that of modern music. In his prejudices against harmony, however, we cannot at all concur. On the subject of the arts of design an ingenious observation was made by Hemsterhuys, that the ancient painters were perhaps too much of sculptors, and the modern sculptors too much of painters. This is the exact point of difference; for, as I shall distinctly show in the sequel, the spirit of ancient art and poetry is _plastic_, but that of the moderns _pìcturesque_.

By an example taken from another art, that of architecture, I shall endeavour to illustrate what I mean by this contrast. Throughout the Middle Ages there prevailed, and in the latter centuries of that aera was carried to perfection, a style of architecture, which has been called Gothic, but ought really to have been termed old German. When, on the general revival of classical antiquity, the imitation of Grecian architecture became prevalent, and but too frequently without a due regard to the difference of climate and manners or to the purpose of the building, the zealots of this new taste, passing a sweeping sentence of condemnation on the Gothic, reprobated it as tasteless, gloomy, and barbarous. This was in some degree pardonable in the Italians, among whom a love for ancient architecture, cherished by hereditary remains of classical edifices, and the similarity of their climate to that of the Greeks and Romans, might, in some sort, be said to be innate. But we Northerns are not so easily to be talked out of the powerful, solemn impressions which seize upon the mind at entering a Gothic cathedral. We feel, on the contrary, a strong desire to investigate and to justify the source of this impression. A very slight attention will convince us, that the Gothic architecture displays not only an extraordinary degree of mechanical skill, but also a marvellous power of invention; and, on a closer examination, we recognize its profound significance, and perceive that as well as the Grecian it constitutes in itself a complete and finished system.

To the application!–The Pantheon is not more different from Westminster Abbey or the church of St. Stephen at Vienna, than the structure of a tragedy of Sophocles from a drama of Shakspeare. The comparison between these wonderful productions of poetry and architecture might be carried still farther. But does our admiration of the one compel us to depreciate the other? May we not admit that each is great and admirable in its kind, although the one is, and is meant to be, different from the other? The experiment is worth attempting. We will quarrel with no man for his predilection either for the Grecian or the Gothic. The world is wide, and affords room for a great diversity of objects. Narrow and blindly adopted prepossessions will never constitute a genuine critic or connoisseur, who ought, on the contrary, to possess the power of dwelling with liberal impartiality on the most discrepant views, renouncing the while all personal inclinations.

For our present object, the justification, namely, of the grand division which we lay down in the history of art, and according to which we conceive ourselves equally warranted in establishing the same division in dramatic literature, it might be sufficient merely to have stated this contrast between the ancient, or classical, and the romantic. But as there are exclusive admirers of the ancients, who never cease asserting that all deviation from them is merely the whim of a new school of critics, who, expressing themselves in language full of mystery, cautiously avoid conveying their sentiments in a tangible shape, I shall endeavour to explain the origin and spirit of the _romantic_, and then leave the world to judge if the use of the word, and of the idea which it is intended to convey, be thereby justified.

The mental culture of the Greeks was a finished education in the school of Nature. Of a beautiful and noble race, endowed with susceptible senses and a cheerful spirit under a mild sky, they lived and bloomed in the full health of existence; and, favoured by a rare combination of circumstances, accomplished all that the finite nature of man is capable of. The whole of their art and poetry is the expression of a consciousness of this harmony of all their faculties. They invented the poetry of joy.

Their religion was the deification of the powers of nature and of the earthly life: but this worship, which, among other nations, clouded the imagination with hideous shapes, and hardened the heart to cruelty, assumed, among the Greeks, a mild, a grand, and a dignified form. Superstition, too often the tyrant of the human faculties, seemed to have here contributed to their freest development. It cherished the arts by which it was adorned, and its idols became the models of ideal beauty.

But however highly the Greeks may have succeeded in the Beautiful, and even in the Moral, we cannot concede any higher character to their civilisation than that of a refined and ennobled sensuality. Of course this must be understood generally. The conjectures of a few philosophers, and the irradiations of poetical inspiration, constitute an occasional exception. Man can never altogether turn aside his thoughts from infinity, and some obscure recollections will always remind him of the home he has lost; but we are now speaking of the predominant tendency of his endeavours.

Religion is the root of human existence. Were it possible for man to renounce all religion, including that which is unconscious, independent of the will, he would become a mere surface without any internal substance. When this centre is disturbed, the whole system of the mental faculties and feelings takes a new shape.

And this is what has actually taken place in modern Europe through the introduction of Christianity. This sublime and beneficent religion has regenerated the ancient world from its state of exhaustion and debasement; it is the guiding principle in the history of modern nations, and even at this day, when many suppose they have shaken off its authority, they still find themselves much more influenced by it in their views of human affairs than they themselves are aware.

After Christianity, the character of Europe has, since the commencement of the Middle Ages, been chiefly influenced by the Germanic race of northern conquerors, who infused new life and vigour into a degenerated people. The stern nature of the North drives man back within himself; and what is lost in the free sportive development of the senses, must, in noble dispositions, be compensated by earnestness of mind. Hence the honest cordiality with which Christianity was welcomed by all the Teutonic tribes, so that among no other race of men has it penetrated more deeply into the inner man, displayed more powerful effects, or become more interwoven with all human feelings and sensibilities.

The rough, but honest heroism of the northern conquerors, by its admixture with the sentiments of Christianity, gave rise to chivalry, of which the object was, by vows which should be looked upon as sacred, to guard the practice of arms from every rude and ungenerous abuse of force into which it was so likely to sink.

With the virtues of chivalry was associated a new and purer spirit of love, an inspired homage for genuine female worth, which was now revered as the acmè of human excellence, and, maintained by religion itself under the image of a virgin mother, infused into all hearts a mysterious sense of the purity of love.

As Christianity did not, like the heathen worship, rest satisfied with certain external acts, but claimed an authority over the whole inward man and the most hidden movement of the heart; the feeling of moral independence took refuge in the domain of honour, a worldly morality, as it were, which subsisting alongside of, was often at variance with that of religion, but yet in so far resembling it that it never calculated consequences, but consecrated unconditionally certain principles of action, which like the articles of faith, were elevated far beyond the investigation of a casuistical reasoning.

Chivalry, love, and honour, together with religion itself, are the subjects of that poetry of nature which poured itself out in the Middle Ages with incredible fulness, and preceded the more artistic cultivation of the romantic spirit. This age had also its mythology, consisting of chivalrous tales and legends; but its wonders and its heroism were the very reverse of those of the ancient mythology.

Several inquirers who, in other respects, entertain the same conception of the peculiarities of the moderns, and trace them to the same source that we do, have placed the essence of the northern poetry in melancholy; and to this, when properly understood, we have nothing to object.

Among the Greeks human nature was in itself all-sufficient; it was conscious of no defects, and aspired to no higher perfection than that which it could actually attain by the exercise of its own energies. We, however, are taught by superior wisdom that man, through a grievous transgression, forfeited the place for which he was originally destined; and that the sole destination of his earthly existence is to struggle to regain his lost position, which, if left to his own strength, he can never accomplish. The old religion of the senses sought no higher possession than outward and perishable blessings; and immortality, so far as it was believed, stood shadow-like in the obscure distance, a faint dream of this sunny waking life. The very reverse of all this is the case with the Christian view: every thing finite and mortal is lost in the contemplation of infinity; life has become shadow and darkness, and the first day of our real existence dawns in the world beyond the grave. Such a religion must waken the vague foreboding, which slumbers in every feeling heart, into a distinct consciousness that the happiness after which we are here striving is unattainable; that no external object can ever entirely fill our souls; and that all earthly enjoyment is but a fleeting and momentary illusion. When the soul, resting as it were under the willows of exile, [Footnote: _Trauerweiden der verbannung_, literally _the weeping willows of banishment_, an allusion, as every reader must know, to the 137th Psalm. Linnaeus, from this Psalm, calls the weeping willow _Salix Babylonica_.–TRANS.] breathes out its longing for its distant home, what else but melancholy can be the key-note of its songs? Hence the poetry of the ancients was the poetry of enjoyment, and ours is that of desire: the former has its foundation in the scene which is present, while the latter hovers betwixt recollection and hope. Let me not be understood as affirming that everything flows in one unvarying strain of wailing and complaint, and that the voice of melancholy is always loudly heard. As the austerity of tragedy was not incompatible with the joyous views of the Greeks, so that romantic poetry whose origin I have been describing, can assume every tone, even that of the liveliest joy; but still it will always, in some indescribable way, bear traces of the source from which it originated. The feeling of the moderns is, upon the whole, more inward, their fancy more incorporeal, and their thoughts more contemplative. In nature, it is true, the boundaries of objects run more into one another, and things are not so distinctly separated as we must exhibit them in order to convey distinct notions of them.

The Grecian ideal of human nature was perfect unison and proportion between all the powers,–a natural harmony. The moderns, on the contrary, have arrived at the consciousness of an internal discord which renders such an ideal impossible; and hence the endeavour of their poetry is to reconcile these two worlds between which we find ourselves divided, and to blend them indissolubly together. The impressions of the senses are to be hallowed, as it were, by a mysterious connexion with higher feelings; and the soul, on the other hand, embodies its forebodings, or indescribable intuitions of infinity, in types and symbols borrowed from the visible world.

In Grecian art and poetry we find an original and unconscious unity of form and matter; in the modern, so far as it has remained true to its own spirit, we observe a keen struggle to unite the two, as being naturally in opposition to each other. The Grecian executed what it proposed in the utmost perfection; but the modern can only do justice to its endeavours after what is infinite by approximation; and, from a certain appearance of imperfection, is in greater danger of not being duly appreciated.

It would lead us too far, if in the separate arts of architecture, music, and painting (for the moderns have never had a sculpture of their own), we should endeavour to point out the distinctions which we have here announced, to show the contrast observable in the character of the same arts among the ancients and moderns, and at the same time to demonstrate the kindred aim of both.

Neither can we here enter into a more particular consideration of the different kinds and forms of romantic poetry in general, but must return to our more immediate subject, which is dramatic art and literature. The division of this, as of the other departments of art, into the antique and the romantic, at once points out to us the course which we have to pursue.

We shall begin with the ancients; then proceed to their imitators, their genuine or supposed successors among the moderns; and lastly, we shall consider those poets of later times, who, either disregarding the classical models, or purposely deviating from them, have struck out a path for themselves.

Of the ancient dramatists, the Greeks alone are of any importance. In this branch of art the Romans were at first mere translators of the Greeks, and afterwards imitators, and not always very successful ones. Besides, of their dramatic labours very little has been preserved. Among modern nations an endeavour to restore the ancient stage, and, where possible, to improve it, has been shown in a very lively manner by the Italians and the French. In other nations, also, attempts of the same kind, more or less earnest, have at times, especially of late, been made in tragedy; for in comedy, the form under which it appears in Plautus and Terence has certainly been more generally prevalent. Of all studied imitations of the ancient tragedy the French is the most brilliant essay, has acquired the greatest renown, and consequently deserves the most attentive consideration. After the French come the modern Italians; viz., Metastasio and Alfieri. The romantic drama, which, strictly speaking, can neither be called tragedy nor comedy in the sense of the ancients, is indigenous only to England and Spain. In both it began to flourish at the same time, somewhat more than two hundred years ago, being brought to perfection by Shakspeare in the former country, and in the latter by Lope de Vega.

The German stage is the last of all, and has been influenced in the greatest variety of ways by all those which preceded it. It will be most appropriate, therefore, to enter upon its consideration last of all. By this course we shall be better enabled to judge of the directions which it has hitherto taken, and to point out the prospects which are still open to it.

When I promise to go through the history of the Greek and Roman, of the Italian and French, and of the English and Spanish theatres, in the few hours which are dedicated to these Lectures, I wish it to be understood that I can only enter into such an account of them as will comprehend their most essential peculiarities under general points of view. Although I confine myself to a single domain of poetry, still the mass of materials comprehended within it is too extensive to be taken in by the eye at once, and this would be the case were I even to limit myself to one of its subordinate departments. We might read ourselves to death with farces. In the ordinary histories of literature the poets of one language, and one description, are enumerated in succession, without any further discrimination, like the Assyrian and Egyptian kings in the old universal histories. There are persons who have an unconquerable passion for the titles of books, and we willingly concede to them the privilege of increasing their number by books on the titles of books. It is much the same thing, however, as in the history of a war to give the name of every soldier who fought in the ranks of the hostile armies. It is usual, however, to speak only of the generals, and those who may have performed actions of distinction. In like manner the battles of the human mind, if I may use the expression, have been won by a few intellectual heroes. The history of the development of art and its various forms may be therefore exhibited in the characters of a number, by no means considerable, of elevated and creative minds.


Definition of the Drama–View of the Theatres of all Nations–Theatrical Effect–Importance of the Stage–Principal Species of the Drama.

Before, however, entering upon such a history as we have now described, it will be necessary to examine what is meant by _dramatic_, _theatrical_, _tragic_, and _comic_.

What is dramatic? To many the answer will seem very easy: where various persons are introduced conversing together, and the poet does not speak in his own person. This is, however, merely the first external foundation of the form; and that is dialogue. But the characters may express thoughts and sentiments without operating any change on each other, and so leave the minds of both in exactly the same state in which they were at the commencement; in such a case, however interesting the conversation may be, it cannot be said to possess a dramatic interest. I shall make this clear by alluding to a more tranquil species of dialogue, not adapted for the stage, the philosophic. When, in Plato, Socrates asks the conceited sophist Hippias, what is the meaning of the beautiful, the latter is at once ready with a superficial answer, but is afterwards compelled by the ironical objections of Socrates to give up his former definition, and to grope about him for other ideas, till, ashamed at last and irritated at the superiority of the sage who has convicted him of his ignorance, he is forced to quit the field: this dialogue is not merely philosophically instructive, but arrests the attention like a drama in miniature. And justly, therefore, has this lively movement in the thoughts, this stretch of expectation for the issue, in a word, the dramatic cast of the dialogues of Plato, been always celebrated.

From this we may conceive wherein consists the great charm of dramatic poetry. Action is the true enjoyment of life, nay, life itself. Mere passive enjoyments may lull us into a state of listless complacency, but even then, if possessed of the least internal activity, we cannot avoid being soon wearied. The great bulk of mankind merely from their situation in life, or from their incapacity for extraordinary exertions, are confined within a narrow circle of insignificant operations. Their days flow on in succession under the sleepy rule of custom, their life advances by an insensible progress, and the bursting torrent of the first passions of youth soon settles into a stagnant marsh. From the discontent which this occasions they are compelled to have recourse to all sorts of diversions, which uniformly consist in a species of occupation that may be renounced at pleasure, and though a struggle with difficulties, yet with difficulties that are easily surmounted. But of all diversions the theatre is undoubtedly the most entertaining. Here we may see others act even when we cannot act to any great purpose ourselves. The highest object of human activity is man, and in the drama we see men, measuring their powers with each other, as intellectual and moral beings, either as friends or foes, influencing each other by their opinions, sentiments, and passions, and decisively determining their reciprocal relations and circumstances. The art of the poet accordingly consists in separating from the fable whatever does not essentially belong to it, whatever, in the daily necessities of real life, and the petty occupations to which they give rise, interrupts the progress of important actions, and concentrating within a narrow space a number of events calculated to attract the minds of the hearers and to fill them with attention and expectation. In this manner he gives us a renovated picture of life; a compendium of whatever is moving and progressive in human existence.

But this is not all. Even in a lively oral narration, it is not unusual to introduce persons in conversation with each other, and to give a corresponding variety to the tone and the expression. But the gaps, which these conversations leave in the story, the narrator fills up in his own name with a description of the accompanying circumstances, and other particulars. The dramatic poet must renounce all such expedients; but for this he is richly recompensed in the following invention. He requires each of the characters in his story to be personated by a living individual; that this individual should, in sex, age, and figure, meet as near as may be the prevalent conceptions of his fictitious original, nay, assume his entire personality; that every speech should be delivered in a suitable tone of voice, and accompanied by appropriate action and gesture; and that those external circumstances should be added which are necessary to give the hearers a clear idea of what is going forward. Moreover, these representatives of the creatures of his imagination must appear in the costume belonging to their assumed rank, and to their age and country; partly for the sake of greater resemblance, and partly because, even in dress, there is something characteristic. Lastly, he must see them placed in a locality, which, in some degree, resembles that where, according to his fable, the action took place, because this also contributes to the resemblance: he places them, _i.e._, on a scene. All this brings us to the idea of the _theatre_. It is evident that the very form of dramatic poetry, that is, the exhibition of an action by dialogue without the aid of narrative, implies the theatre as its necessary complement. We allow that there are dramatic works which were not originally designed for the stage, and not calculated to produce any great effect there, which nevertheless afford great pleasure in the perusal. I am, however, very much inclined to doubt whether they would produce the same strong impression, with which they affect us, upon a person who had never seen or heard a description of a theatre. In reading dramatic works, we are accustomed ourselves to supply the representation.

The invention of dramatic art, and of the theatre, seems a very obvious and natural one. Man has a great disposition to mimicry; when he enters vividly into the situation, sentiments, and passions of others, he involuntarily puts on a resemblance to them in his gestures. Children are perpetually going out of themselves; it is one of their chief amusements to represent those grown people whom they have had an opportunity of observing, or whatever strikes their fancy; and with the happy pliancy of their imagination, they can exhibit all the characteristics of any dignity they may choose to assume, be it that of a father, a schoolmaster, or a king. But one step more was requisite for the invention of the drama, namely, to separate and extract the mimetic elements from the separate parts of social life, and to present them to itself again collectively in one mass; yet in many nations it has not been taken. In the very minute description of ancient Egypt given by Herodotus and other writers, I do not recollect observing the smallest trace of it. The Etruscans, on the contrary, who in many respects resembled the Egyptians, had theatrical representations; and what is singular enough, the Etruscan name for an actor _histrio_, is preserved in living languages even to the present day. The Arabians and Persians, though possessed of a rich poetical literature, are unacquainted with the drama. It was the same with Europe in the Middle Ages. On the introduction of Christianity, the plays handed down from the Greeks and Romans were set aside, partly because they had reference to heathen ideas, and partly because they had degenerated into the most shameless immorality; nor were they again revived till after the lapse of nearly a thousand years. Even in the fourteenth century, in that complete picture which Boccacio gives us of the existing frame of society, we do not find the smallest trace of plays. In place of them they had simply their _conteurs_, _menestriers_, _jongleurs_. On the other hand we are by no means entitled to assume that the invention of the drama was made once for all in the world, to be afterwards borrowed by one people from another. The English circumnavigators tell us, that among the islanders of the South Seas, who in every mental qualification and acquirement are at the lowest grade of civilization, they yet observed a rude drama in which a common incident in life was imitated for the sake of diversion. And to pass to the other extremity of the world, among the Indians, whose social institutions and mental cultivation descend unquestionably from a remote antiquity, plays were known long before they could have experienced any foreign influence. It has lately been made known to Europe that they possess a rich dramatic literature, which goes backward through nearly two thousand years. The only specimen of their plays (nataks) hitherto known to us in the delightful Sakontala, which, notwithstanding the foreign colouring of its native climate, bears in its general structure such a striking resemblance to our own romantic drama, that we might be inclined to suspect we owe this resemblance to the predilection for Shakspeare entertained by the English translator (Sir William Jones), if his fidelity were not attested by other learned orientalists. The drama, indeed, seems to have been a favourite amusement of the Native Princes; and to owe to this circumstance that tone of refined society which prevails in it. Uggargini (Oude?) is specially named as a seat of this art. Under the Mahommedan rulers it naturally fell into decay: the national tongue was strange to them, Persian being the language of the court; and moreover, the mythology which was so intimately interwoven with poetry was irreconcilable with their religious notions. Generally, indeed, we know of no Mahommedan nation that has accomplished any thing in dramatic poetry, or even had any notion of it. The Chinese again have their standing national theatre, standing perhaps in every sense of the word; and I do not doubt, that in the establishment of arbitrary rules, and the delicate observance of insignificant conventionalities, they leave the most correct Europeans very far behind them. When the new European stage sprung up in the fifteenth century, with its allegorical and religious pieces called Moralities and Mysteries, its rise was uninfluenced by the ancient dramatists, who did not come into circulation till some time afterwards. In those rude beginnings lay the germ of the romantic drama as a peculiar invention.

In this wide diffusion of theatrical entertainments, the great difference in dramatic talent which subsists between nations equally distinguished for intellect, is something remarkable; so that theatrical talent would seem to be a peculiar quality, essentially distinct from the poetical gift in general. We do not wonder at the contrast in this respect between the Greeks and the Romans, for the Greeks were altogether a nation of artists, and the Romans a practical people. Among the latter the fine arts were introduced as a corrupting article of luxury, both betokening and accelerating the degeneracy of the times. They carried this luxury so far with respect to the theatre itself, that the perfection in essentials was sacrificed to the accessories of embellishment. Even among the Greeks dramatic talent was far from universal. The theatre was invented in Athens, and in Athens alone was it brought to perfection. The Doric dramas of Epicharmus form only a slight exception to the truth of this remark. All the great creative dramatists of the Greeks were born in Attica, and formed their style in Athens. Widely as the Grecian race was spread, successfully as everywhere almost it cultivated the fine arts, yet beyond the bounds of Attica it was content to admire, without venturing to rival, the productions of the Athenian stage.

Equally remarkable is the difference in this respect between the Spaniards and their neighbours the Portuguese, though related to them both by descent and by language. The Spaniards possess a dramatic literature of inexhaustible wealth; in fertility their dramatists resemble the Greeks, among whom more than a hundred pieces can frequently be assigned by name to a single author. Whatever judgment may be pronounced on them in other respects, the praise of invention has never yet been denied to them; their claim to this has in fact been but too well established, since Italian, French, and English writers have all availed themselves of the ingenious inventions of the Spaniards, and often without acknowledging the source from which they derived them. The Portuguese, on the other hand, while in the other branches of poetry they rival the Spaniards, have in this department accomplished hardly anything, and have never even possessed a national theatre; visited from time to time by strolling players from Spain, they chose rather to listen to a foreign dialect, which, without previous study, they could not perfectly understand, than to invent, or even to translate and imitate, for themselves.

Of the many talents for art and literature displayed by the Italians, the dramatic is by no means pre-eminent, and this defect they seem to have inherited from the Romans, in the same manner as their great talent for mimicry and buffoonery goes back to the most ancient times. The extemporary compositions called _Fabulae Atellanae_, the only original and national form of the Roman drama, in respect of plan, were not perhaps more perfect than the so-called _Commedia dell’ Arte_, in which, the parts being fixed and invariable, the dialogue is extemporised by masked actors. In the ancient Saturnalia we have probably the germ of the present carnival, which is entirely an Italian invention. The Opera and the Ballet were also the invention of the Italians: two species of theatrical amusement, in which the dramatic interest is entirely subordinate to music and dancing.

If the German mind has not developed itself in the drama with the same fulness and ease as in other departments of literature, this defect is perhaps to be accounted for by the peculiar character of the nation. The Germans are a speculative people; in other words, they wish to discover by reflection and meditation, the principle of whatever they engage in. On that very account they are not sufficiently practical; for if we wish to act with skill and determination, we must make up our minds that we have somehow or other become masters of our subject, and not be perpetually recurring to an examination of the theory on which it rests; we must, as it were, have settled down and contented ourselves with a certain partial apprehension of the idea. But now in the invention and conduct of a drama the practical spirit must prevail: the dramatic poet is not allowed to dream away under his inspiration, he must take the straightest road to his end; but the Germans are only too apt to lose sight of the object in the course of their way to it. Besides, in the drama the nationality does usually, nay, must show itself in the most marked manner, and the national character of the Germans is modest and retiring: it loves not to make a noisy display of itself; and the noble endeavour to become acquainted with, and to appropriate to itself whatever is excellent in others, is not seldom accompanied with an undervaluing of its own worth. For these reasons the German stage has often, in form and matter, been more than duly affected by foreign influence. Not indeed that the Germans propose to themselves no higher object than the mere passive repetition of the Grecian, the French, the Spanish, or the English theatre; but, as it appears to me, they are in search of a more perfect form, which, excluding all that is merely local or temporary, may combine whatever is truly poetical in all these theatres. In the matter, however, the German national features ought certainly to predominate.

After this rapid sketch of what may be called the map of dramatic literature, we return to the examination of its fundamental ideas. Since, as we have already shown, visible representation is essential to the very form of the drama; a dramatic work may always be regarded from a double point of view,–how far it is _poetical_, and how far it is _theatrical_. The two are by no means inseparable. Let not, however, the expression _poetical_ be misunderstood: I am not now speaking of the versification and the ornaments of language; these, when not animated by some higher excellence, are the least effective on the stage; but I speak of the poetry in the spirit and design of a piece; and this may exist in as high a degree when the drama is written in prose as in verse. What is it, then, that makes a drama poetical? The very same, assuredly, that makes other works so. It must in the first place be a connected whole, complete and satisfactory within itself. But this is merely the negative definition of a work of art, by which it is distinguished from the phenomena of nature, which run into each other, and do not possess in themselves a complete and independent existence. To be poetical it is necessary that a composition should be a mirror of ideas, that is, thoughts and feelings which in their character are necessary and eternally true, and soar above this earthly life, and also that it should exhibit them embodied before us. What the ideas are, which in this view are essential to the different departments of the drama, will hereafter be the subject of our investigation. We shall also, on the other hand, show that without them a drama becomes altogether prosaic and empirical, that is to say, patched together by the understanding out of the observations it has gathered from literal reality.

But how does a dramatic work become theatrical, or fitted to appear with advantage on the stage? In single instances it is often difficult to determine whether a work possesses such a property or not. It is indeed frequently the subject of great controversy, especially when the self-love of authors and actors comes into collision; each shifts the blame of failure on the other, and those who advocate the cause of the author appeal to an imaginary perfection of the histrionic art, and complain of the insufficiency of the existing means for its realization. But in general the answer to this question is by no means so difficult. The object proposed is to produce an impression on an assembled multitude, to rivet their attention, and to excite their interest and sympathy. In this respect the poet’s occupation coincides with that of the orator. How then does the latter attain his end? By perspicuity, rapidity, and energy. Whatever exceeds the ordinary measure of patience or comprehension he must diligently avoid. Moreover, when a number of men are assembled together, they mutually distract each other’s attention whenever their eyes and ears are not drawn to a common object without and beyond themselves.

Hence the dramatic poet, as well as the orator, must from the very commencement, by strong impressions, transport his hearers out of themselves, and, as it were, take bodily possession of their attention. There is a species of poetry which gently stirs a mind attuned to solitary contemplation, as soft breezes elicit melody from the Aeolian harp. However excellent this poetry may be in itself, without some other accompaniments its tones would be lost on the stage. The melting _harmonica_ is not calculated to regulate the march of an army, and kindle its military enthusiasm. For this we must have piercing instruments, but above all a strongly-marked rhythm, to quicken the pulsation and give a more rapid movement to the animal spirits. The grand requisite in a drama is to make this rhythm perceptible in the onward progress of the action. When this has once been effected, the poet may all the sooner halt in his rapid career, and indulge the bent of his own genius. There are points, when the most elaborate and polished style, the most enthusiastic lyrics, the most profound thoughts and remote allusions, the smartest coruscations of wit, and the most dazzling flights of a sportive or ethereal fancy, are all in their place, and when the willing audience, even those who cannot entirely comprehend them, follow the whole with a greedy ear, like music in unison with their feelings. Here the poet’s great art lies in availing himself of the effect of contrasts, which enable him at one time to produce calm repose, profound contemplation, and even the self-abandoned indifference of exhaustion, or at another, the most tumultuous emotions, the most violent storm of the passions. With respect to theatrical fitness, however, it must not be forgotten that much must always depend on the capacities and humours of the audience, and, consequently, on the national character in general, and the particular degree of mental culture. Of all kinds of poetry the dramatic is, in a certain sense, the most secular; for, issuing from the stillness of an inspired mind, it yet fears not to exhibit itself in the midst of the noise and tumult of social life. The dramatic poet is, more than any other, obliged to court external favour and loud applause. But of course it is only in appearance that he thus lowers himself to his hearers; while, in reality, he is elevating them to himself.

In thus producing an impression on an assembled multitude the following circumstance deserves to be weighed, in order to ascertain the whole amount of its importance. In ordinary intercourse men exhibit only the outward man to each other. They are withheld by mistrust or indifference from allowing others to look into what passes within them; and to speak with any thing like emotion or agitation of that which is nearest our heart is considered unsuitable to the tone of polished society. The orator and the dramatist find means to break through these barriers of conventional reserve. While they transport their hearers into such lively emotions that the outward signs thereof break forth involuntarily, every man perceives those around him to be affected in the same manner and degree, and those who before were strangers to one another, become in a moment intimately acquainted. The tears which the dramatist or the orator compels them to shed for calumniated innocence or dying heroism, make friends and brothers of them all. Almost inconceivable is the power of a visible communion of numbers to give intensity to those feelings of the heart which usually retire into privacy, or only open themselves to the confidence of friendship. The faith in the validity of such emotions becomes irrefragable from its diffusion; we feel ourselves strong among so many associates, and all hearts and minds flow together in one great and irresistible stream. On this very account the privilege of influencing an assembled crowd is exposed to most dangerous abuses. As one may disinterestedly animate them, for the noblest and best of purposes, so another may entangle them in the deceitful meshes of sophistry, and dazzle them by the glare of a false magnanimity, whose vainglorious crimes may be painted as virtues and even as sacrifices. Beneath the delightful charms of oratory and poetry, the poison steals imperceptibly into ear and heart. Above all others must the comic poet (seeing that his very occupation keeps him always on the slippery brink of this precipice,) take heed, lest he afford an opportunity for the lower and baser parts of human nature to display themselves without restraint. When the sense of shame which ordinarily keeps these baser propensities within the bounds of decency, is once weakened by the sight of others’ participation in them, our inherent sympathy with what is vile will soon break out into the most unbridled licentiousness.

The powerful nature of such an engine for either good or bad purposes has in all times justly drawn the attention of the legislature to the drama. Many regulations have been devised by different governments, to render it subservient to their views and to guard against its abuse. The great difficulty is to combine such a degree of freedom as is necessary for the production of works of excellence, with the precautions demanded by the customs and institutions of the different states. In Athens the theatre enjoyed up to its maturity, under the patronage of religion, almost unlimited freedom, and the public morality preserved it for a time from degeneracy. The comedies of Aristophanes, which with our views and habits appear to us so intolerably licentious, and in which the senate and the people itself are unmercifully turned to ridicule, were the seal of Athenian freedom. To meet this abuse, Plato, who lived in the very same Athens, and either witnessed or foresaw the decline of art, proposed the entire banishment of dramatic poets from his ideal republic. Few states, however, have conceived it necessary to subscribe to this severe sentence of condemnation; but few also have thought proper to leave the theatre to itself without any superintendence. In many Christian countries the dramatic art has been honoured by being made subservient to religion, in the popular treatment and exhibition of religious subjects; and in Spain more especially competition in this department has given birth to many works which, neither devotion nor poetry will disown. In other states and under other circumstances this has been thought both objectionable and inexpedient. Wherever, however, the subsequent responsibility of the poet and actor has been thought insufficient, and it has been deemed advisable to submit every piece before its appearance on the stage to a previous censorship, it has been generally found to fail in the very point which is of the greatest importance: namely, the spirit and general impression of a play. From the nature of the dramatic art, the poet must put into the mouths of his characters much of which he does not himself approve, while with respect to his own sentiments he claims to be judged by the spirit and connexion of the whole. It may again happen that a piece is perfectly inoffensive in its single speeches, and defies all censorship, while as a whole it is calculated to produce the most pernicious effect. We have in our own times seen but too many plays favourably received throughout Europe, over-flowing with ebullitions of good-heartedness and traits of magnanimity, and in which, notwithstanding, a keener eye cannot fail to detect the hidden purpose of the writer to sap the foundations of moral principle, and the veneration for whatever ought to be held sacred by man; while all this sentimentality is only to bribe to his purpose the effeminate soft-heartedness of his contemporaries [Footnote: The author it is supposed alludes to Kotzebue.–TRANS.]. On the other hand, if any person were to undertake the moral vindication of poor Aristophanes, who has such a bad name, and whose licentiousness in particular passages, is to our ideas quite intolerable, he will find good grounds for his defence in the general object of his pieces, in which he at least displays the sentiments of a patriotic citizen.

The purport of these observations is to evince the importance of the subject we are considering. The theatre, where many arts are combined to produce a magical effect; where the most lofty and profound poetry has for its interpreter the most finished action, which is at once eloquence and an animated picture; while architecture contributes her splendid decorations, and painting her perspective illusions, and the aid of music is called in to attune the mind, or to heighten by its strains the emotions which already agitate it; the theatre, in short, where the whole of the social and artistic enlightenment, which a nation possesses, the fruit of many centuries of continued exertion, are brought into play within the representation of a few short hours, has an extraordinary charm for every age, sex, and rank, and has ever been the favourite amusement of every cultivated people. Here, princes, statesmen, and generals, behold the great events of past times, similar to those in which they themselves are called upon to act, laid open in their inmost springs and motives; here, too, the philosopher finds subject for profoundest reflection on the nature and constitution of man; with curious eye the artist follows the groups which pass rapidly before him, and from them impresses on his fancy the germ of many a future picture; the susceptible youth opens his heart to every elevating feeling; age becomes young again in recollection; even childhood sits with anxious expectation before the gaudy curtain, which is soon to be drawn up with its rustling sound, and to display to it so many unknown wonders: all alike are diverted, all exhilarated, and all feel themselves for a time raised above the daily cares, the troubles, and the sorrows of life. As the drama, with the arts which are subservient to it, may, from neglect and the mutual contempt of artists and the public, so far degenerate, as to become nothing better than a trivial and stupid amusement, and even a downright waste of time, we conceive that we are attempting something more than a passing entertainment, if we propose to enter on a consideration of the works produced by the most distinguished nations in their most brilliant periods, and to institute an inquiry into the means of ennobling and perfecting so important an art.


Essence of Tragedy and Comedy–Earnestness and Sport–How far it is possible to become acquainted with the Ancients without knowing Original Languages–Winkelmann.

The importance of our subject is, I think, fully proved. Let us now enter upon a brief consideration of the two kinds into which all dramatic poetry is divided, the _tragic_ and _comic_, and examine the meaning and import of each.

The three principal kinds of poetry in general are the epic, the lyric, and the dramatic. All the other subordinate species are either derived from these, or formed by combination from them. If we would consider these three leading kinds in their purity, we must go back to the forms in which they appeared among the Greeks. For the theory of poetical art is most conveniently illustrated by the history of Grecian poetry; for the latter is well entitled to the appellation of systematical, since it furnishes for every independent idea derived from experience the most distinct and precise manifestation.

It is singular that epic and lyric poetry admit not of any such precise division into two opposite species, as the dramatic does. The ludicrous epopee has, it is true, been styled a peculiar species, but it is only an accidental variety, a mere parody of the epos, and consists in applying its solemn staidness of development, which seems only suitable to great objects, to trifling and insignificant events. In lyric poetry there are only intervals and gradations between the song, the ode, and the elegy, but no proper contrast.

The spirit of epic poetry, as we recognise it in its father, Homer, is clear self-possession. The epos is the calm quiet representation of an action in progress. The poet relates joyful as well as mournful events, but he relates them with equanimity, and considers them as already past, and at a certain remoteness from our minds.

The lyric poem is the musical expression of mental emotions by language. The essence of musical feeling consists in this, that we endeavour with complacency to dwell on, and even to perpetuate in our souls, a joyful or painful emotion. The feeling must consequently be already so far mitigated as not to impel us by the desire of its pleasure or the dread of its pain, to tear ourselves from it, but such as to allow us, unconcerned at the fluctuations of feeling which time produces, to dwell upon and be absorbed in a single moment of existence.

The dramatic poet, as well as the epic, represents external events, but he represents them as real and present. In common with the lyric poet he also claims our mental participation, but not in the same calm composedness; the feeling of joy and sorrow which the dramatist excites is more immediate and vehement. He calls forth all the emotions which the sight of similar deeds and fortunes of living men would elicit, and it is only by the total sum of the impression which he produces that he ultimately resolves these conflicting emotions into a harmonious tone of feeling. As he stands in such close proximity to real life, and endeavours to endue his own imaginary creations with vitality, the equanimity of the epic poet would in him be indifference; he must decidedly take part with one or other of the leading views of human life, and constrain his audience also to participate in the same feeling.

To employ simpler and more intelligible language: the _tragic_ and _comic_ bear the same relation to one another as _earnest_ and _sport_. Every man, from his own experience, is acquainted with both these states of mind; but to determine their essence and their source would demand deep philosophical investigation. Both, indeed, bear the stamp of our common nature; but earnestness belongs more to its moral, and mirth to its animal part. The creatures destitute of reason are incapable either of earnest or of sport. Animals seem indeed at times to labour as if they were earnestly intent upon some aim, and as if they made the present moment subordinate to the future; at other times they seem to sport, that is, they give themselves up without object or purpose to the pleasure of existence: but they do not possess consciousness, which alone can entitle these two conditions to the names of earnest and sport. Man alone, of all the animals with which we are acquainted, is capable of looking back towards the past, and forward into futurity; and he has to purchase the enjoyment of this noble privilege at a dear rate. Earnestness, in the most extensive signification, is the direction of our mental powers to some aim. But as soon as we begin to call ourselves to account for our actions, reason compels us to fix this aim higher and higher, till we come at last to the highest end of our existence: and here that longing for the infinite which is inherent in our being, is baffled by the limits of our finite existence. All that we do, all that we effect, is vain and perishable; death stands everywhere in the back ground, and to it every well or ill- spent moment brings us nearer and closer; and even when a man has been so singularly fortunate as to reach the utmost term of life without any grievous calamity, the inevitable doom still awaits him to leave or to be left by all that is most dear to him on earth. There is no bond of love without a separation, no enjoyment without the grief of losing it. When, however, we contemplate the relations of our existence to the extreme limit of possibilities: when we reflect on its entire dependence on a chain of causes and effects, stretching beyond our ken: when we consider how weak and helpless, and doomed to struggle against the enormous powers of nature, and conflicting appetites, we are cast on the shores of an unknown world, as it were, shipwrecked at our very birth; how we are subject to all kinds of errors and deceptions, any one of which may be our ruin; that in our passions we cherish an enemy in our bosoms; how every moment demands from us, in the name of the most sacred duties, the sacrifice of our dearest inclinations, and how at one blow we may be robbed of all that we have acquired with much toil and difficulty; that with every accession to our stores, the risk of loss is proportionately increased, and we are only the more exposed to the malice of hostile fortune: when we think upon all this, every heart which is not dead to feeling must be overpowered by an inexpressible melancholy, for which there is no other counter-poise than the consciousness of a vocation transcending the limits of this earthly life. This is the tragic tone of mind; and when the thought of the possible issues out of the mind as a living reality, when this tone pervades and animates a visible representation of the most striking instances of violent revolutions in a man’s fortunes, either prostrating his mental energies or calling forth the most heroic endurance–then the result is _Tragic Poetry_. We thus see how this kind of poetry has its foundation in our nature, while to a certain extent we have also answered the question, why we are fond of such mournful representations, and even find something consoling and elevating in them? This tone of mind we have described is inseparable from strong feeling; and although poetry cannot remove these internal dissonances, she must at least endeavour to effect an ideal reconciliation of them.

As earnestness, in the highest degree, is the essence of tragic representation; so is sport of the comic. The disposition to mirth is a forgetfulness of all gloomy considerations in the pleasant feeling of present happiness. We are then inclined to view every thing in a sportive light, and to allow nothing to disturb or ruffle our minds. The imperfections and the irregularities of men are no longer an object of dislike and compassion, but serve, by their strange inconsistencies, to entertain the understanding and to amuse the fancy. The comic poet must therefore carefully abstain from whatever is calculated to excite moral indignation at the conduct, or sympathy with the situations of his personages, because this would inevitably bring us back again into earnestness. He must paint their irregularities as springing out of the predominance of the animal part of their nature, and the incidents which befal them as merely ludicrous distresses, which will be attended with no fatal consequences. This is uniformly what takes place in what we call Comedy, in which, however, there is still a mixture of seriousness, as I shall show in the sequel. The oldest comedy of the Greeks was, however, entirely sportive, and in that respect formed the most complete contrast to their tragedy. Not only were the characters and situations of individuals worked up into a comic picture of real life, but the whole frame of society, the constitution, nature, and the gods, were all fantastically painted in the most ridiculous and laughable colours.

When we have formed in this manner a pure idea of the tragic and comic, as exhibited to us in Grecian examples, we shall then be enabled to analyze the various corruptions of both, which the moderns have invented, to discriminate their incongruous additions, and to separate their several ingredients.

In the history of poetry and the fine arts among the Greeks, their development was subject to an invariable law. Everything heterogeneous was first excluded, and then all homogeneous elements were combined, and each being perfected in itself, at last elevated into an independent and harmonious unity. Hence with them each species is confined within its natural boundaries, and the different styles distinctly marked. In beginning, therefore, with the history of the Grecian art and poetry, we are not merely observing the order of time, but also the order of ideas.

In the case of the majority of my hearers, I can hardly presume upon a direct acquaintance with the Greeks, derived from the study of their poetical works in the original language. Translations in prose, or even in verse, in which they are but dressed up again in the modern taste, can afford no true idea of the Grecian drama. True and faithful translations, which endeavour in expression and versification to rise to the height of the original, have as yet been attempted only in Germany. But although our language is extremely flexible, and in many respects resembling the Greek, it is after all a battle with unequal weapons; and stiffness and harshness not unfrequently take the place of the easy sweetness of the Greek. But we are even far from having yet done all that can perhaps be accomplished: I know of no translation of a Greek tragedian deserving of unqualified praise. But even supposing the translation as perfect as possible, and deviating very slightly from the original, the reader who is unacquainted with the other works of the Greeks, will be perpetually disturbed by the foreign nature of the subject, by national peculiarities and numerous allusions (which cannot be understood without some scholarship), and thus unable to comprehend particular parts, he will be prevented from forming a clear idea of the whole. So long as we have to struggle with difficulties it is impossible to have any true enjoyment of a work of art. To feel the ancients as we ought, we must have become in some degree one of themselves, and breathed as it were the Grecian air.

What is the best means of becoming imbued with the spirit of the Greeks, without a knowledge of their language? I answer without hesitation,–the study of the antique; and if this is not always possible through the originals, yet, by means of casts, it is to a certain extent within the power of every man. These models of the human form require no interpretation; their elevated character is imperishable, and will always be recognized through all vicissitudes of time, and in every region under heaven, wherever there exists a noble race of men akin to the Grecian (as the European undoubtedly is), and wherever the unkindness of nature has not degraded the human features too much below the pure standard, and, by habituating them to their own deformity, rendered them insensible to genuine corporeal beauty. Respecting the inimitable perfection of the antique in its few remains of a first-rate character, there is but one voice throughout the whole of civilized Europe; and if ever their merit was called in question, it was in times when the modern arts of design had sunk to the lowest depths of mannerism. Not only all intelligent artists, but all men of any degree of taste, bow with enthusiastic adoration before the masterly productions of ancient sculpture.

The best guide to conduct us to this sanctuary of the beautiful, with deep and thoughtful contemplation, is the History of Art by our immortal Winkelmann. In the description of particular works it no doubt leaves much to be desired; nay, it even abounds in grave errors, but no man has so deeply penetrated into the innermost spirit of Grecian art. Winkelmann transformed himself completely into an ancient, and seemingly lived in his own century, unmoved by its spirit and influences.

The immediate subject of his work is the plastic arts, but it contains also many important hints concerning other branches of Grecian civilisation, and is very useful as a preparation for the understanding of their poetry, and especially their dramatic poetry. As the latter was designed for visible representation before spectators, whose eye must have been as difficult to please on the stage as elsewhere, we have no better means of feeling the whole dignity of their tragic exhibitions, and of giving it a sort of theatrical animation, than to keep these forms of gods and heroes ever present to our fancy. The assertion may appear somewhat strange at present, but I hope in the sequel to demonstrate its justice: it is only before the groups of Niobe or Laocoön that we first enter into the spirit of the tragedies of Sophocles.

We are yet in want of a work in which the entire poetic, artistic, scientific, and social culture of the Greeks should be painted as one grand and harmonious whole, as a true work of nature, prevaded by the most wondrous symmetry and proportion of the parts, and traced through its connected development in the same spirit which Winkelmann has executed in the part which he attempted. An attempt has indeed been made in a popular work, which is in everybody’s hands, I mean the _Travels of the Younger Anacharsis_. This book is valuable for its learning, and may be very useful in diffusing a knowledge of antiquities; but, without censuring the error of the dress in which it is exhibited, it betrays more good-will to do justice to the Greeks, than ability to enter deeply into their spirit. In this respect the work is in many points superficial, and even disfigured with modern views. It is not the travels of a young Scythian, but of an old Parisian.

The superior excellence of the Greeks in the fine arts, as I have already said, is the most universally acknowledged. An enthusiasm for their literature is in a great measure confined to the English and Germans, among whom also the study of the Grecian language is the most zealously prosecuted. It is singular that the French critics of all others, they who so zealously acknowledge the remains of the theoretical writings of the ancients on literature, Aristotle, Horace, Quinctilian, &c., as infallible standards of taste, should yet distinguish themselves by the contemptuous and irreverent manner in which they speak of their poetical compositions, and especially of their dramatic literature. Look, for instance, into a book very much read,–La Harpe’s _Cours de Littérature_. It contains many acute remarks on the French Theatre; but whoever should think to learn the Greeks from it must be very ill advised: the author was as deficient in a solid knowledge of their literature as in a sense for appreciating it. Voltaire, also, often speaks most unwarrantably on this subject: he elevates or lowers them at the suggestions of his caprice, or according to the purpose of the moment to produce such or such an effect on the mind of the public. I remember too to have read a cursory critique of Metastasio’s on the Greek tragedians, in which he treats them like so many school-boys. Racine is much more modest, and cannot be in any manner charged with this sort of presumption: even because he was the best acquainted of all of them with the Greeks. It is easy to see into the motives of these hostile critics. Their national and personal vanity has much to do with the matter; conceiting themselves that they have far surpassed the ancients, they venture to commit such observations to the public, knowing that the works of the ancient poets have come down to us in a dead language, accessible only to the learned, without the animating accompaniment of recitation, music, ideal and truly plastic impersonation, and scenic pomp; all which, in every respect worthy of the poetry, was on the Athenian stage combined in such wonderful harmony, that if only it could be represented to our eye and ear, it would at once strike dumb the whole herd of these noisy and interested critics. The ancient statues require no commentary; they speak for themselves, and everything like competition on the part of a modern artist would be regarded as ridiculous pretension. In respect of the theatre, they lay great stress on the infancy of the art; and because these poets lived two thousand years before us, they conclude that we must have made great progress since. In this way poor Aeschylus especially is got rid of. But in sober truth, if this was the infancy of dramatic art, it was the infancy of a Hercules, who strangled serpents in his cradle.

I have already expressed my opinion on that blind partiality for the ancients, which regards their excellence as a frigid faultlessness, and which exhibits them as models, in such a way as to put a stop to everything like improvement, and reduce us to abandon the exercise of art as altogether fruitless. I, for my part, am disposed to believe that poetry, as the fervid expression of our whole being, must assume new and peculiar forms in different ages. Nevertheless, I cherish an enthusiastic veneration for the Greeks, as a people endowed, by the peculiar favour of Nature, with the most perfect genius for art; in the consciousness of which, they gave to all the nations with which they were acquainted, compared with themselves, the appellation of barbarians,–an appellation in the use of which they were in some degree justified. I would not wish to imitate certain travellers, who, on returning from a country which their readers cannot easily visit, give such exaggerated accounts of it, and relate so many marvels, as to hazard their own character for veracity. I shall rather endeavour to characterize them as they appear to me after sedulous and repeated study, without concealing their defects, and to bring a living picture of the Grecian stage before the eyes of my hearers.

We shall treat first of the Tragedy of the Greeks, then of their _Old_ Comedy, and lastly of the _New_ Comedy which arose out of it.

The same theatrical accompaniments were common to all the three kinds. We must, therefore, give a short preliminary view of the theatre, its architecture and decorations, that we may have a distinct idea of their representation.

The histrionic art of the ancients had also many peculiarities: the use of masks, for example, although these were quite different in tragedy and comedy; in the former, _ideal_, and in the latter, at least in the Old Comedy, somewhat caricatured.

In tragedy, we shall first consider what constituted its most distinctive peculiarity among the ancients: the ideality of the representation, the prevailing idea of destiny, and the chorus; and we shall lastly treat of their mythology, as the materials of tragic poetry. We shall then proceed to characterize, in the three tragedians of whom alone entire works still remain, the different styles–that is, the necessary epochs in the history of the tragic art.


Structure of the Stage among the Greeks–Their Acting–Use of Masks–False comparison of Ancient Tragedy to the Opera–Tragical Lyric Poetry.

When we hear the word “theatre,” we naturally think of what with us bears the same name; and yet nothing can be more different from our theatre, in its entire structure, than that of the Greeks. If in reading the Grecian pieces we associate our own stage with them, the light in which we shall view them must be false in every respect.

The leading authority on this subject, and one, too, whose statements are mathematically accurate, is Vitruvius, who also distinctly points out the great difference between the Greek and Roman theatres. But these and similar passages of the ancient writers have been most incorrectly interpreted by architects unacquainted with the ancient dramatists [Footnote: We have a remarkable instance of this in the pretended ancient theatre of Palladio, at Vicenza. Herculaneum, it is true, had not then been discovered; and it is difficult to understand the ruins of the ancient theatre without having seen a complete one.]; and philologists, in their turn, from ignorance of architecture, have also egregiously erred. The ancient dramatists are still, therefore, greatly in want of that illustration which a right understanding of their scenic arrangements is calculated to throw upon them. In many tragedies I think that I have a tolerably clear notion of the matter; but others, again, present difficulties which are not easily solved. But it is in figuring the representation of Aristophanes’ comedies that I find myself most at a loss: the ingenious poet must have brought his wonderful inventions before the eyes of his audience in a manner equally bold and astonishing. Even Barthélemy’s description of the Grecian stage is not a little confused, and his subjoined plan extremely incorrect; where he attempts to describe the acting of a play, the _Antigone_ or the _Ajax_, for instance, he goes altogether wrong. For this reason the following explanation will appear the less superfluous [Footnote: I am partly indebted for them to the elucidations of a learned architect, M. Genelli, of Berlin, author of the ingenious _Letters on Vitruvius_. We have compared several Greek tragedies with our interpretation of Vitruvius’s description, and endeavoured to figure to ourselves the manner in which they were represented; and I afterwards found our ideas confirmed by an examination of the theatre of Herculaneum, and the two very small ones at Pompeii.].

The theatres of the Greeks were quite open above, and their dramas were always acted in day, and beneath the canopy of heaven. The Romans, indeed, at an after period, may have screened the audience, by an awning, from the sun; but luxury was scarcely ever carried so far by the Greeks. Such a state of things appears very uncomfortable to us; but the Greeks had nothing of effeminacy about them; and we must not forget, too, the mildness of their climate. When a storm or a shower came on, the play was of course interrupted, and the spectators sought shelter in the lofty colonnade which ran behind their seats; but they were willing rather to put up with such occasional inconveniences, than, by shutting themselves up in a close and crowded house, entirely to forfeit the sunny brightness of a religious solemnity–for such, in fact, their plays were [Footnote: They carefully made choice of a beautiful situation. The theatre at Tauromenium, at present Taormino, in Sicily, of which the ruins are still visible, was, according to Hunter’s description, situated in such a manner that the audience had a view of Etna over the back-ground of the theatre.]. To have covered in the scene itself, and imprisoned gods and heroes in a dark and gloomy apartment, artificially lighted up, would have appeared still more ridiculous to them. An action which so gloriously attested their affinity with heaven, could fitly be exhibited only beneath the free heaven, and, as it were, under the very eyes of the gods, for whom, according to Seneca, the sight of a brave man struggling with adversity is a suitable spectacle. With respect to the supposed inconvenience, which, according to the assertion of many modern critics, hence accrued, compelling the poets always to lay the scene of their pieces out of doors, and consequently often forcing them to violate probability, it was very little felt by Tragedy and the Older Comedy. The Greeks, like many southern nations of the present day, lived much more in the open air than we do, and transacted many things in public places which with us usually take place within doors. Besides, the theatre did not represent the street, but a front area belonging to the house, where the altar stood on which sacrifices were offered to the household gods. Here, therefore, the women, notwithstanding the retired life they led among the Greeks, even those who were unmarried, might appear without any impropriety. Neither was it impossible for them, if necessary, to give a view of the interior of the house; and this was effected, as we shall presently see; by means of the _Encyclema_.

But the principal ground of this practice was that publicity which, according to the republican notion of the Greeks, was essential to all grave and important transactions. This was signified by the presence of the chorus, whose presence during many secret transactions has been judged of according to rules of propriety inapplicable to the country, and so most undeservedly censured.

The theatres of the ancients were, in comparison with the small scale of ours, of colossal magnitude, partly for the sake of containing the whole of the people, with the concourse of strangers who flocked to the festivals, and partly to correspond with the majesty of the dramas represented in them, which required to be seen at a respectful distance. The seats of the spectators were formed by ascending steps which rose round the semicircle of the orchestra, (called by us the pit,) so that all could see with equal convenience. The diminution of effect by distance was counteracted to the eye and ear by artificial contrivances consisting in the employment of masks, and of an apparatus for increasing the loudness of the voice, and of the cothurnus to give additional stature. Vitruvius speaks also of vehicles of sound, distributed throughout the building; but