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84 HAZLITT's shAKESPEARE — FALSTAFF.
pathise with all the conceits and puerilities that occur in this play; for instance, this exhortation to Night, which Mr. H. has extracted for praise!—
“Give me my Romeo — and when he shall die,
We agree, however, with less reservation, in his rapturous encomium on Lear — but can afford no extracts, The following speculation on the character of Falstaff is a striking, and, on the whole, a favourable specimen of our author's manner.
“Wit is often a meagre substitute for pleasurable sensation: an effusion of spleen and petty spite at the comforts of others, from feeling none in itself. Falstaff's wit is an emanation of a fine constitution; an exuberance of good-humour and good-nature; an overflowing of his love of laughter, and good-fellowship; a giving vent to his heart's ease and over-contentment with himself and others. He would not be in character if he were not so fat as he is ; for there is the greatest keeping in the boundless luxury of his imagination and the pampered self-indulgence of his physical appetites. He manures and nourishes his mind with jests, as he does his body with sack and sugar. He carves out his jokes, as he would a capon, or a haunch of venison, where there is cut and come again; and lavishly pours out upon them the oil of gladness. His tongue drops fatness, and in the chambers of his brain it snows of meat and drink.” He keeps up perpetual holiday and open house, and we live with him in a round of invitations to a rump and dozen. — Yet we are not left to suppose that he was a mere sensualist. All this is as much in imagination as in reality. His sensuality does not engross and stupify his other faculties, but ‘ascends me into the brain, clears away all the dull, crude vapours that environ it, and makes it full of nimble fiery, and delectable shapes.’ His imagination keeps up the ball long after his senses have done with it. He seems to have even a greater enjoyment of the freedom from restraint, of good cheer, of his ease, of his vanity, in the ideal and exaggerated descriptions which he gives of them, than in fact. He never fails to enrich his discourse with allusions to eating and drinking; but we never see him at table. He carries his own larder about with him, and he is himself “a tun of a man.’ His pulling out the bottle in the field of battle is a joke to show his contempt for glory accompanied with danger, his systematic adherence to his Epicurean philosophy in the most trying circumstances. Again, such is his deliberate exaggeration of his own vices, that it does not seem quite certain whether the account of his hostess's bill, found in his pocket, with such an out of the way charge for capons and sack with only one half-penny-worth of bread, was not put there by himself, as
THE COMEDY OF SHAKESPEARE. 85
a trick to humour the jest upon his favourite propensities, and as a conscious caricature of himself. “The secret of Falstaff's wit is for the most part a masterly presence of mind, an absolute self-possession, which nothing can disturb. His repartees are involuntary suggestions of his self-love; instinctive evasions of every thing that threatens to interrupt the career of his triumphant jollity and self complacency. His very size floats him out of all his difficulties in a sea of rich conceits; and he turns round on the pivot of his convenience, with every occasion and at a moment's warning. His natural repugnance to every unpleasant thought or circumstance, of itself makes light of objections, and provokes the most extravagant and licentious answers in his own justification. His indifference to truth puts no check upon his invention; and the more improbable and unexpected his contrivances are, the more happily does he seem to be delivered of them, the anticipation of their effect acting as a stimulus to the gaiety of his fancy. The success of one adventurous sally gives him spirits to undertake another; he deals always in round numbers, and his exaggerations and excuses are open, Palpable, monstrous as the father that begets them.”—p. 189 – 192.
It is time, however, to make an end of this. We are not in the humour to discuss points of learning with this author; and our readers now see well enough what sort of book he has written. We shall conclude with his remarks on Shakespeare's style of Comedy, introduced in the account of the Twelfth Night.
“This is justly considered as one of the most delightful of Shakespeare's comedies. It is full of sweetness and pleasantry. It is perhaps too good-natured for comedy. It has little satire, and no spleen. It aims at the ludicrous rather than the ridiculous. It makes us laugh at the follies of mankind; not despise them, and still less bear any ill-will towards them. Shakespeare's comic genius resembles the bee rather in its power of extracting sweets from weeds or poisons, than in leaving a sting behind it. He gives the most amusing exaggeration of the prevailing foibles of his characters, but in a way that they themselves, instead of being offended at, would almost join in to humour; he rather contrives opportunities for them to show themselves off in the happiest lights, than renders them contemptible in the perverse construction of the wit or malice of others.
“There is a certain stage of society, in which people, become conscious of their peculiarities and absurdities, affect to disguise what they are, and set up pretensions to what they are not. This gives rise to a corresponding style of comedy, the object of which is to detect the disguises of self-love, and to make reprisals on these preposterous assumptions of vanity, by marking the contrast between the real and the affected character as severely as possible, and denying to those, who would impose on us for what they are not, even the merit which they have. This is the comedy of artificial life, of wit and satire, such as we see it in Congreve, Wycherley, Vanbrugh, &c. But there is a
86 THE COMEDY OF SHAKESPEARE.
period in the progress of manners anterior to this, in which the foibles and follies of individuals are of nature's planting, not the growth of art or study; in which they are therefore unconscious of them themselves, or care not who knows them, if they can but have their whim out; and in which, as there is no attempt at imposition, the spectators rather receive pleasure from humouring the inclinations of the persons they laugh at, than wish to give them pain by exposing their absurdity. This may be called the comedy of nature; and it is the comedy which we generally find in Shakespeare. —Whether the analysis here given be just or not, the spirit of his comedies is evidently quite distinct from that of the authors above mentioned; as it is in its essence the same with that of Cervantes, and also very frequently of Molière, though he was more systematic in his extravagance than Shakespeare. Shakespeare's comedy is of a pastoral and poetical cast. Folly is indigenous to the soil, and shoots out with native, happy, unchecked luxuriance. Absurdity has every encouragement afforded it; and nonsense has room to flourish in. Nothing is stunted by the churlish, icy hand of indifference or severity. The poet runs riot in a conceit, and idolizes a quibble. His whole object is to turn the meanest or rudest object to a pleasurable account. And yet the relish which he has of a pun or of the quaint humour of a low character, does not interfere with the delight with which he describes a beautiful image, or the most refined love. The clown's forced jests do not spoil the sweetness of the character of Viola. The same house is big enough to hold Malvolio, the Countess Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. For instance, nothing can fall much lower than this last character in intellect or morals: yet how are his weaknesses nursed and dandled by Sir Toby into something “high fantastical; when on Sir Andrew's commendation of himself for dancing and fencing, Sir Toby answers, – ‘Wherefore are these things hid 2 Wherefore have these gifts a curtain before them 2 Are they like to take dust, like Mrs. Moll's picture? Why dost thou not go to church in a galliard, and come home in a coranto? My very walk should be a jig I would not so much as make water but in a cinque-pace. What dost thou mean? Is this a world to hide virtues in 2 I did think by the excellent constitution of thy leg, it was framed under the star of a galliard ' ' — How Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and the Clown afterwards chirp orer their cups' how they ‘rouse the night-owl in a catch, able to draw three souls out of one weaver !' What can be better than Sir Toby's unanswerable answer to Malvolio, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?'— In a word, the best turn is given to everything, instead of the worst, There is a constant infusion of the romantic and enthusiastic, in proportion as the characters are natural and sincere: whereas, in the more artificial style of comedy, everything gives way to ridicule and indifference; there being nothing left but affectation on one side, and incredulity on the other.”— p. 255 — 259
LORD BYRON's TRAGEDIES. 87
Sardanapalus, a Tragedy. The Two Foscari, a Tragedy. Cain, a Mystery. By LoRD BYRON. 8vo. pp. 440. Murray. Loudon: 1822.*
It must be a more difficult thing to write a good play— or even a good dramatic poem — than we had imagined. Not that we should, a priori, have imagined it to be very easy: But it is impossible not to be struck with the fact, that, in comparatively rude times, when the resources of the art had been less carefully considered, and Poetry certainly had not collected all her materials, success seems to have been more frequently, and far more easily obtained. From the middle of Elizabeth's reign till the end of James's, the drama formed by far the most brilliant and beautiful part of our poetry, and indeed of our literature in general. From that period to the Revolution, it lost a part of its splendour and originality; but still continued to occupy the most Conspicuous and considerable place in our literary annals. For the last century, it has been quite otherwise. Our poetry has ceased almost entirely to be dramatic; and, though men of great name and great talent have occasionally adventured into this once fertile field, they have reaped no laurels, and left no trophies behind them. The genius of Dryden appears nowhere to so little adVantage as in his tragedies; and the contrast is truly humiliating when, in a presumptuous attempt to heighten the colouring, or enrich the simplicity of Shakespeare, he bedaubs with obscenity, or deforms with rant, the genuine passion and profligacy of Antony and Cleopatra -or intrudes on the enchanted solitude of Prospero
* I have thought it best to put all my Dramatical criticisms in one series; and, therefore, I take the tragedies of Lord Byron in this place - and apart from his other poetry.
88 SINGULAR DECAY OF OUR TRAGIC GENIUS,
and his daughter, with the tones of worldly gallantry, or the caricatures of affected simplicity. Otway, with the sweet and mellow diction of the former age, had none of its force, variety, or invention. Its decaying fires burst forth in some strong and irregular flashes, in the disorderly scenes of Lee; and sunk at last in the ashes, and scarcely glowing embers, of Rowe. "Since his time—till very lately — the school of our ancient dramatists has been deserted : and we can scarcely say that any new one has been established. Instead of the irregular and comprehensive plot—the rich discursive dialogue—the ramblings of fancy — the magic creations of poetry — the rapid succession of incidents and characters—the soft, flexible, and evervarying diction — and the flowing, continuous, and easy versification, which characterised those masters of the golden time, we have had tame, formal, elaborate, and stately compositions— meagre stories—few personages — characters decorous and consistent, but without nature or spirit—a guarded, timid, classical diction — ingenious and methodical disquisitions — turgid or sententious declamations—and a solemn and monotonous strain of versification. Nor can this be ascribed, even plausibly, to any decay of genius among us; for the most remakable failures have fallen on the highest talents.) We have already hinted at the miscarriages of - Dryden. The exquisite taste and fine observation of Addison, produced only the solemn mawkishness of Cato. The beautiful fancy, the gorgeous diction, and generous affections of Thomson, were chilled and withered as soon as he touched the verge of the Drama; where his name is associated with a mass of verbose puerility, which it is difficult to conceive could ever have proceeded from the author of the Seasons and the Castle of Indolence. Even the mighty intellect, the eloquent morality, and lofty style of Johnson, which gave too tragic and magnificent a tone to his ordinary writing, failed altogether to support him in his attempt to write actual tragedy; and Irene is not only unworthy of the imitator of Juvenal and the author of Rasselas and the Lives of the Poets, but is