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wardness of rusticity, or a false accent caught from bad education?
The dramatis personæ of Shakspeare are men, frail by constitution, hurt by ill habits, faulty and unequal: but they speak with human voices, are actuated by human passions, and are engaged in the common affairs of human life. We are interested in what they do, or say, by feeling, every moment, that they are of the same nature as ourselves. Their precepts therefore are an instruction, their fates and fortunes an experience, their testimony an authority, and their misfortunes a warning.
Love and ambition are the subjects of the French plays. From the first of these passions, many by age and temper are entirely exempted; and from the second, many more, by situation. Among a thousand spectators, there are not perhaps half a dozen, who ever were, or can be, in the circumstances of the persons represented:
they cannot sympathize with them, unless they have some conception of a tender passion, combated by ambition, or of ambition struggling with love. The fable of the French plays is often taken from history, but then a romantic passion is superadded to it, and to that both events and characters are rendered subservient.
Shakspeare, in various nature wise, does not confine himself to any particular passion. When he writes from history, he attributes to the persons such sentiments, as agreed with their actions and characters. There is not a more sure way of judging of the merit of rival geniuses, than by bringing them to the test of comparison where they have attempted subjects of a similar nature.
Corneille appears much inferior to our Shakspeare in the art of conducting the events, and displaying the characters, he borrows from the historian's page: his tragedy of Otho comprehends that period,
in which the courtiers are caballing to make Galba adopt a successor agreeable to their interests. The court of that emperor is finely described by Tacitus, who, in a few words, sets before us the insolence, the profligacy, and rapaciousness of a set of ministers, encouraged by the weakness of the prince to attempt whatever they wished, and incited by his age to snatch by hasty rapine whatever they coveted.Tacitus, with his masterly pencil, has drawn the outlines of their characters so strongly, that a writer of any genius might finish up the portraits to great resemblance and perfection. We have surely a right to expect this from an author, who professes to have copied this great historian the most faithfully that was possible. One would imagine the insolent Martianus, the bold and subtle Vinius, the base, scandalous, slothful Laco, should all appear in their proper characters, which would be unfolding through the whole progress of the play, as their various schemes and interests were exposed. Instead of this, Martianus
Martianus makes submissive love: Vinius and Laco are two ambitious courtiers, without any quality that distinguishes them from each other, or from any other intriguing statesman; nor do they at all contribute to bring about the revolution in the empire: their whole business seems to be match-making, and in that too they are so unskilful as not to succeed. They undertake it indeed, merely as it may influence the adoption. Several sentences from Tacitus are ingrafted into the dialogues, but, from a change of persons and circumstances, they lose much of their original force and beauty.
Galba addresses to his niece, who is in love with Otho, the fine speech which the historian supposes him to have made to Piso when he adopted him. The love-sick lady, tired of an harangue, the purport of which is unfavourable to her lover, and being besides no politician, answers the emperor, that she does not understand state affairs: a cruel reply to a speech he could have no
motive for making, but to display his wisdom and eloquence. The old warrior is more complaisant to her, for he enters into all the delicacies of her passion, as if he had studied la carte du tendre*. To steal so much matter from Tacitus without imbibing one spark of his spirit; to translate whole speeches, yet preserve no likeness in the characters; is surely betraying a great deficiency of dramatic powers, and of the art of imitation. To represent the gay, luxurious, dissolute, ambitious Otho, the courtier of Nero, and the gallant of Poppea, as a mere Pastor Fido, who would die rather than be inconstant to his mistress, and is indifferent to empire but for her sake, is such a violation of historical truth, as is not to be endured. I pass over the absurd scene between the jealous ladies, the improbability of their treating the powerful and haughty favourites of the emperor with indignity, and Otho's thrice repeated attempt to kill himself be
*Roman de Clelie.