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ESSA Y S.
ON THE TRAGEDIES OF SHAKSPEARE,
CONSIDERED WITH REFERENCE TO THEIR FITNESS FOR STAGE
Taking a turn the other day in the abbey, I was struck with the affected attitude of a figure, which I do not remember to have seen before, and which, upon examination, proved to be a whole length of the celebrated Mr. Garrick. Though I would not go so far with some good catholics abroad as to shut players altogether out of consecrated ground, yet I own I was not a little scandalized at the introduction of theatrical airs and gestures into a place set apart to remind us of the saddest realities. Going nearer, I found inscribed under this harlequin figure the following lines :
“ To paint fair Nature, by divine command,
It would be an insult to my readers’ understandings to attempt anything like a criticism on this farrago of false thoughts and nonsense.
But the reflection it led me into was a kind of wonder, how, from the days of the actor here celebrated to our own, it should have been the fashion to compliment every performer in his turn, that has had the luck to please the town in any of the great characters of Shakspeare, with the notion of possessing a mind cungenial with the poet's : how people should come thus unaccountably to confound the power of originating poetical images and conceptions with the faculty of being able to read or recite the same when put
into words ;* or what connexion that absolute mastery over the heart and soul of man which a great dramatic poet possesses, has with those low tricks
ear, which à player, by observing a few general effects which some common passion, as grief, anger, &c., usually has upon the gestures and exterior, can so easily compass. To know the internal workings and movements of a great mind, of an Othello or a Hamlet, for instance, and the when, and the why, and the how far they should be moved; to what pitch a passion is becoming; to give the reins, and to pull in the curb exactly at the moment when the drawing in or the slackening is most graceful, seems to demand a reach of intellect of a vastly different extent from that which is employed upon the bare imitation of the signs of these passions in the counte
or gesture, which signs are usually observed to be most lively and emphatic in the weaker sort of minds, and which signs can, after all, but indicate some passion, as I said before, anger, or grief, generally; but of the motives and grounds of the passion, wherein it differs from the same passion in low and vulgar natures, of these the actor can give no more idea by his face or gesture than the eye (without a metaphor) can speak or the muscles utter intelligible sounds. But such is the instantaneous nature of the impressions which we take in at the eye and ear at a play-house, compared with the slow apprehension oftentimes of the understanding in reading, that we are apt not only to sink the play-writer in the consideration which we pay to the actor, but even to identify in our minds, in a perverse manner, the actor with the character which he represents. It is difficult for a frequent play-goer to disembarrass the idea of Hamlet from the person and voice of Mr. K. We speak of Lady Macbeth, while we are in reality thinking of Mrs. S. Nor is this confusion incidental alone to unlettered persons, who, not possessing the advantage of reading, are necessarily dependant upon the stage-player for all the pleasure which they can receive from the drama, and to whom the very idea of what an author is cannot be made comprehensible without some pain and perplexity of mind: the error is one from which persons, otherwise not meanly lettered, find it almost impossible to extricate themselves.
* It is observable that we fall into this confusion only in dramatic recitations. We never dreain that the gentleman who reads Lucretius in public with great applause is therefore a great poet and philosopher; nor do we find that Tom Davis, the bookseller, who is recorded to have recited the Paradise Lost better than any man in England in his day, (though I cannot help thinking there must be some mistake in this tradition, was therefore, by his inti. mate friends, set upon a level with Milton.
Never let me be so ungrateful as to forget the very high degree of satisfaction which I received some years back from seeing, for the first time, a tragedy of Shakspeare performed, in which those two great performers sustained the principal parts. It seemed to imbody and realize conceptions which had hitherto assumed no distinct shape. But dearly do we pay all our life after for this juvenile pleasure, this sense of distinctness. When the novelty is past, we find to our cost that, instead of realizing an idea, we have only materialized and brought down a fine vision to the standard of flesh and blood. We have let go a dream, in quest of an unattainable substance.
How cruelly this operates upon the mind, to have its free conceptions thus cramped and pressed down to the measure of a straight-lacing actuality, may be judged from that delightful sensation of freshness with which we turn to those plays of Shakspeare which have escaped being performed, and to those passages in the acting plays of the same writer which have happily been left out in the performance. How far the very custom of hearing anything spouted withers and blows upon a fine passage, may be seen in those speeches from Henry the Fifth, &c. which are current in the mouths of schoolboys from their being found in Enfield's Speaker, and such kind of books. I confess myself utterly unable to appreciate that celebrated soliloquy in Hamlet, beginning “ To be, or not to be,” or to tell whether it be good, bad, or indifferent, it has been so handled and pawed about by declamatory boys and men, and torn so inhumanly from its living place and principle of continuity in the play, till it is become to me a perfect dead member.
It may seem a paradox, but I cannot help being of opinion that the plays of Shakspeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any other dramatist whatever. Their distinguishing excellence is a reason that they should be so. There is so much in them which comes not under the province of acting, with which eye, and tone, and gesture have nothing to do.
The glory of the scenic art is to personate passion and the turns of passion ; and the more coarse and palpable the passion is, the more hold upon
and ears of the spectators the performer obviously possesses. For this reason, scolding scenes, scenes where two persons talk themselves into a fit of fury, and then in a surprising manner talk themselves out of it again, have always been the most popular upon our stage. And the reason is plain, because the spectators are here most palpably appealed to, they are the proper judges in this war
of words, they are the legitimate ring that should be formed round such “intellectual prize-fighters." Talking is the direct object of the imitation here. But in all the best dramas, and in Shakspeare above all, how obvious it is, that the form of speaking, whether it be in soliloquy or dialogue, is only a medium, and often a highly artificial one, for putting the reader or spectator into possession of that knowledge of the inner structure and workings of mind in a character, which he could otherwise never have arrived at in that form of composition by any gift short of intuition. We do here as we do with novels written in the epistolary form. How many improprieties, per. fect solecisms in letter-writing, do we put up with in Clarissa, and other books, for the sake of the delight which that form upon the whole gives us.
But the practice of stage representation reduces everything to a controversy of elocution. Every character, from the boisterous blasphemings of Bajazet to the shrinking timidity of womanhood, must play the orator. The love-dialogues of Romeo and Juliet, those silver-sweet sounds of lovers’ tongues by night; the more intimate and sacred sweetness of nuptial colloquy between an Othello or a Posthumus with their married wives ; all those delicacies which are so delightful in the reading, as when we read of those youthful dalliances in paradise
" As beseem'd
Alone ;" by the inherent fault of stage representation, how are these things sullied and turned from their very nature by being exposed to a large assembly ; when such speeches as Imogen addresses to her lord come drawling out of the mouth of a hired actress, whose courtship, though nominally addressed to the personated Posthumus, is manifestly aimed at the spectators, who are to judge of her endearments and her returns of love.
The character of Hamlet is perhaps that by which, since the days of Betterton, a succession of popular performers have had the greatest ambition to distinguish themselves. The length of the part may be one of their reasons. But for the character itself
, we find it in a play; and therefore we judge it a fit subject of dramatic representation. The play itself abounds in maxims and reflections beyond any other, and therefore we consider it as a proper vehicle for conveying moral instruction. But Hamlet himself—what does he suffer meanwhile by being dragged forth as the public schoolmaster, to give lectures to the crowd! Why, nine parts in ten of what Hamlet does are transactions between himself and his
ON THE TRAGEDIES OF SHAKSPEARE,
CONSIDERED WITH REFERENCE TO THEIR FITNESS FOR STAGE
Taking a turn the other day in the abbey, I was struck with the affected attitude of a figure, which I do not remember to have seen before, and which, upon examination, proved to be a whole length of the celebrated Mr. Garrick. Though I would not go so far with some good catholics abroad as to shut players altogether out of consecrated ground, yet I own I was not a little scandalized at the introduction of theatrical airs and gestures into a place set apart to remind us of the saddest realities. Going nearer, I found inscribed under this harlequin figure the following lines :-
“To paint fair Nature, by divine command,
And earth irradiate with a beam divine.” It would be an insult to my readers' understandings to attempt anything like a criticism on this farrago of false thoughts and nonsense. But the reflection it led me into was a kind of wonder, how, from the days of the actor here celebrated to our own, it should have been the fashion to compliment every performer in his turn, that has had the luck to please the town in any of the great characters of Shakspeare, with the notion of possessing a mind cvngenial with the poet's: how people should come thus unaccountably to confound the power of originating poetical images and conceptions with the faculty of being able to read or recite the same when put