Page images

gree venial. Such misfortunes call forth the social affections, and warmly interest the spectator. An accidental misfortune, if not extremely singular, doth not greatly move our pity; the person who suffers, being innocent, is freed from the greatest of all torments, that anguish of mind which is occasioned by remorse.

An atrocious criminal, on the other hand, who brings misfortunes upon himself, excites little pity, for a different reason; his remorse, it is true, aggravates his distress, and swells the first emotions of pity; but these are immediately blunted by our hatred of him as a criminal. Misfortunes that are not innocent, nor highly criminal, partake the advantages of each extreme: they are attended with remorse to embitter the distress, which raises our pity to a height; and the slight indignation we have at a venial fault, detracts not sensibly from our pity. The happiest of all subjects, accordingly, for raising pity, is where a man of integrity falls into a great misfortune by doing an action that is innocent, but which, by some singular means, is conceived by him to be criminal: his remorse aggravates his distress; and our compassion, unrestrained by indignation, knows no bounds. Pity comes thus to be the ruling passion of a pathetic tragedy: and, by proper representation, may be raised to a height scarce exceeded by any thing felt in real life. A moral tragedy takes in a larger field; as it not only exercises our pity, but raises another passion, which, though selfish, deserves to be cherished equally with the social affection. The passion I have in view is fear or terror; for when a misfortune is the natural consequence of some wrong bias in the temper, every spectator who is conscious of such a bias in himself, takes the alarm, and dreads his falling into the same misfortune; and by the emotion of fear or terror, frequently reiterated in a variety of moral tragedies, the spectators are put upon their guard against the disorders of passion.

The commentators upon Aristotle, and other critics, have been much gravelled about the account given


of tragedy by that author; "That, by means of pity and terror, it refines or purifies in us all sorts of passion." But no one who has a clear conception of the end and effects of a good tragedy, can have any difficulty about Aristotle's meaning: our pity is engaged for the persons represented; and our terror is upon our own account. Pity indeed is here made to stand for all the sympathetic emotions, because of these it is the capital. There can be no doubt that our sympathetic emotions are refined or improved by daily exercise; and in what manner our other passions are refined by terror, I have just now said. One thing is certain, that no other meaning can justly be given to the foregoing doctrine, than that now mentioned; and that it was really Aristotle's meaning, appears from his thirteenth chapter, where he delivers several propositions conformable to the doctrine, as here explained. These, at the same time, I take the liberty to mention; because, as far as authority can go, they confirm the foregoing reasoning about subjects proper for tragedy. The first proposition is, That it being the province of tragedy to excite pity and terror, an innocent person falling into adversity ought never to be the subject. This proposition is a necessary consequence of his doctrine as explained: a subject of that nature may indeed excite pity and terror; but in the former in an inferior degree, and in the latter in no degree for moral instruction. The second proposition is, That the history of a wicked person, in a change from misery to happiness, ought not to be represented. It excites neither terror nor compassion, nor is agreeable in any respect. The third is, That the misfortunes of a wicked person ought not to be represented. Such representation may be agreeable in some measure, upon a principle of justice; but it will not move our pity, nor any degree of terror, except in those of the same vicious disposition with the person represented. The last proposition is, That the only character fit for representation lies in the middle, neither eminently

good nor eminently bad: where the misfortune is not the effect of deliberate vice, but of some involuntary fault, as our author expresses it.* The only objection I find to Aristotle's account of tragedy, is, that he confines it within too narrow bounds, by refusing admittance to the pathetic kind: for if terror be essential to tragedy, no representation deserves that name but the moral kind, where the misfortunes exhibited are caused by a wrong balance of mind, or some disorder in the internal constitution; such misfortunes always suggest moral instruction; and by such misfortunes only can terror be excited for our improvement.

Thus Aristotle's four propositions above mentioned relate solely to tragedies of the moral kind. Those of the pathetic kind are not confined within so narrow limits: subjects fitted for the theatre are not in such plenty as to make us reject innocent misfortunes, which rouse our sympathy, though they inculcate no moral. With respect indeed to subjects of that kind, it may be doubted whether the conclusion ought not always to be fortunate. Where a person of integrity is represented as suffering to the end under misfortunes purely accidental, we depart discontented, and with some obscure sense of injustice: for seldom is man so submissive to Providence, as not to revolt against the tyranny and vexations of blind chance: he will be tempted to say, This ought not to be. Chance, giving an impression of anarchy and misrule, produces always a damp upon the mind. I give for an example the Romeo and Juliet of Shakspeare, where the fatal catastrophe is occasioned by Friar Laurence's coming to the monument a minute too late; we are vexed at the unlucky chance, and go away dissatisfied. Such impressions, which ought not to be cherished, are a sufficient reason for excluding stories of that kind from the theatre. The misfortunes of a virtuous person, arising

*If any one can be amused with a grave discourse which promised much and performs nothing, I refer to Brumoy, in his Theatre Grec, Preliminary Discourse on the Origin of Tragedy,

from necessary causes, or from a chain of unavoidable circumstances, are considered in a different light. A regular chain of causes and effects directed by the general laws of nature, never fails to suggest the hand of Providence; to which we submit without resentment, being conscious that submission is our duty. For that reason, we are not disgusted with the distresses of Voltaire's Mariamne, though redoubled on her till her death, without the least fault or failing on her part; her misfortunes are owing to a cause extremely natural, and not unfrequent, the jealousy of a barbarous husband. The fate of Desdemona, in the Moor of Venice, affects us in the same manner. We are not so easily reconciled to the fate of Cordelia in King Lear; the causes of her misfortune are by no means so evident, as to exclude the gloomy notion of chance. In short, a perfect character suffering under misfortunes is qualified for being the subject of a pathetic tragedy, provided chance be excluded. Nor is a perfect character altogether inconsistent with a moral tragedy; it may successfully be introduced in an under part, if the chief place be occupied by an imperfect character, from which a moral can be drawn. This is the case of Desdemona and Mariamne just mentioned; and it is the case of Monimia and Belvidera, in Otway's two tragedies, The Orphan, and Venice Preserved.

I had an early opportunity to unfold a curious doctrine, That fable operates on our passions, by representing its events as passing in our sight, and by deluding us into a conviction of reality. Hence, in epic and dramatic compositions, every circumstance ought to be employed that may promote the delusion; such as the borrowing from history some noted event, with the addition of circumstances that may answer the author's purpose: the principal facts are known to be true; and we are disposed to extend our belief to every circumstance. But in choosing a subject that makes a figure in history, greater precaution is neces

sary than where the whole is a fiction. In the latter case, there is full scope for invention: the author is under no restraint other than that the characters and incidents be just copies of nature. But where the story is founded on truth, no circumstances must be added, but such as connect naturally with what are known to be true; history may be supplied, but must not be contradicted: farther, the subject chosen must be distant in time, or at least in place: for the familiarity of recent persons and events ought to be avoided. Familiarity ought more especially to be avoided in an epic poem, the peculiar character of which is dignity and elevation: modern manners make no figure in such a poem.*

After Voltaire, no writer, it is probable, will think of rearing an epic poem upon a recent event in the history of his own country. But an event of that kind is perhaps not altogether unqualified for tragedy: it was admitted in Greece; and Shakspeare has employed it successfully in several of his pieces. One advantage it possesses above fiction, that of more readily engaging our belief, which tends above any other circumstance to raise our sympathy. The scene of comedy is generally laid at home; familiarity is no objection; and we are peculiarly sensible of the ridicule of our

own manners.

After a proper subject is chosen, the dividing it into parts requires some art. The conclusion of a book in an epic poem, or of an act in a play, cannot be altogether arbitrary; nor be intended for so slight a purpose as to make the parts of equal length. The supposed pause at the end of every book, and the real pause at the end of every act, ought always to coin

*I would not from this observation be thought to undervalue modern manners. The roughness and impetuosity of ancient manners may be better fitted for an epic poem, without being better fitted for society. But with regard to that circumstance, it is the familiarity of modern manners that unqualifies them for a lofty subject. The dignity of our present manners will be better understood in future ages, when they are no longer familiar.

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »