Page images

as the author's Morats and Almanzors, only dipped into a different paint. Like so many of Dryden's personages, he is better adapted for the stage than the closet. Every word and gesture would tell in the hands of a good actor, and in Dryden's time the stage was richer in first-class performers than it ever was before, and probably than it has ever been since. Dryden himself, it must be recorded, attached a high value to his piece, and Dryden was an excellent critic of himself as well as of others. The merit on which he lays chief stress, however, is the ingenious blending of the tragic and comic action. The tragic part,'

• says Mr. Churton Collins, 'helps out the comic, and the comic relieves naturally and appropriately the tragic. In this work, tragi-comedy, from an artistic point of view, has achieved perhaps its highest success. This, how. ever, is the achievement of a playwright; in one passage alone do we find the poet. It is the highly imaginative series of descriptions of the distant noises from the Moorish camp, boding assault to the beleaguered city, of the panic in the city itself, and of the far-off, uncertain battle:

* From the Moorish camp, an hour and more, There has been heard a distant humming noise, Like bees disturbed, and arming in their hives.'

[ocr errors]

• Never was known a night of such distraction ;
Noise so confused and dreadful, jostling crowds,
That run, and know not whither ; torches gliding,
Like meteors, by each other in the streets.'

From the Moors' camp the noise grows louder still :
Rattling of armour, trumpets, drums, and atabals ;
And sometimes peals of shouts that rend the heavens,
Like victory ; then groans ain, and howlings,
Like those of vanquished men, but every echo
Goes fainter off, and dies in distant sounds.'

[ocr errors]

The next play of Dryden's which it is necessary to notice here might have ranked among his masterpieces if it had been entirely or even principally his own. It is sufficient praise for him to have followed Plautus and Molière with no unequal steps, and while borrowing, as he could not help, the substance of his piece from them, to have enriched their groundwork with original conceptions of his own.

The plot of Amphitryon may be considered common property. A better subject for the comic theatre cannot be conceived than the equivocations occasioned by Jupiter's assumption of Amphitryon's appearance, doubled, and, as it were, parodied over again by the comic poet's happy thought of introducing Mercury in the disguise of Amphitryon's valet. It is surprising that the theme should not have attracted the best poets of the Athenian Middle Comedy. So far as we know, however, it was only treated by a single author, and he not one of the highest reputation, Archippus. How far Plautus translated Archippus must remain a question, but considering that the Greek play attained no especial reputation, while the Latin is one of the best we have, it is only fair to give Plautus credit for having introduced a good deal of his own. His comedy has unfortunately reached us in a mutilated condition, wanting, probably, not less than three hundred verses in the fourth act, but enough remains to show how the action was conducted. Molière, the greatest of comic poets, could not fail to improve upon his model. The substance of the piece admitted of no material alteration, but Molière has greatly enriched and embellished it—first by the happy idea of the prologue between Mercury and Night, for which, however, he is as much indebted to Lucian as he is to Plautus for the restand even more by the amusing scene between Sosia and Cleanthis. His play, unlike most of his other performances,

[ocr errors]

is written in a lyrical metre, and the language is a model of elegance, harmony, and polish. Dryden, writing in prose or negligent blank verse, could not rival Molière in this respect; but while losing nothing of the vis comica of either of his predecessors, he has heightened the humour of the piece by a still further elaboration of the hints given by Molière. He was himself well acquainted with Lucian, from whom he has borrowed several additional strokes; and he has doubled the entertainment of the situation between Sosia and Cleanthis by the creation of Phædra, whose intrigue with Mercury makes the comedy of errors absolutely complete.

We have now to consider the two plays of Dryden's on which his fame as a dramatist principally rests, and which, if in some respects less interesting than his other dramatic writings, as less intensely characteristic of the man and his age, are for that very reason better equipped for competition for a place among the dramas of all time.

All for Love (1678) is, Dryden tells us, the only play he wrote entirely to please his own taste, and composed professedly in imitation of the divine Shakespeare.' He did not, as in his unfortunate alteration of Troilus and Cressida, select a piece of Shakespeare's which, not understanding, he rashly thought himself able to improve, but, in a spirit of true reverence, set himself to copy one which he held in high esteem. It should be remembered, to the honour of Dryden's critical judgment, that the two plays of Shakespeare's most warmly commended by him, Antony and Cleopatra and Richard the Second, were generally underrated even by Shakespeare's most devoted worshippers, until Coleridge taught us better. In All for Love he found a subject suitable to his genius, and, in our opinion, achieved very decidedly his best play. It is, indeed, almost as good as a play on the French model can be, inferior to


its prototypes only from the lack of brilliant declamation, scarcely practicable without rhyme, but more than compensating this inferiority by the greater freedom and flexibility of its blank verse. Its defects are mainly those of its species, and would be less apparent if it did not so directly court comparison with one of the greatest examples of Shakespeare's art. It would have been impossible for a greater genius than Dryden to have done justice to his theme within the confines prescribed by the classical drama. The demeanour of Antony during the period of his downfall, as recorded by history, is below the dignity of tragedy. Some weakness may be forgiven in a hero, but the heroism of the real Antony is swallowed up in weakness. We can but pity, and pity is largely leavened with contempt. There is but one remedy, to create a Cleopatra so wondrous and fascinating as fairly to counterbalance the empire which Antony throws away for her sake. Shakespeare's art is equal to the occasion; his Cleopatra is dæmonic, and at the same time so intensely feminine that the purest and meekest of her sex may see much of themselves in her. She is at once an epitome and an encyclopædia, and the reader can hardly despise Antony for being the slave of a spell which he feels so strongly bimself. Dryden's Cleopatra wants this character of universality, which, indeed, none but Shakespeare could have given, and Shakespeare himself could not have given if in bondage to the unities. She is a fine, passionate, sensuous woman, a kind of Mary Stuart, interesting, but not to the point at which it could be felt that the world were well lost for her. The inferiority of Cleopatra reacts grievously upon Antony. Shakespeare's Cleopatra is so grand that her lover is exalted by the admiration which, in spite of her perfidies, she manifestly feels for him. The beloved of such a woman must be heroic, an impression skilfully assisted by the effect Antony

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

produces upon the prudent and politic Augustus. Dryden's Cleopatra can bestow no such patent of distinction. By so much as the chief personages are inferior to their exemplars, by so much also is the puny, starved action of Dryden's tragedy, restricted to one day and seven characters, inferior to the opulence of Shakespeare's, ranging over the Roman world, crowded with personages, and gathering up every trait from Plutarch that could contribute picturesqueness to its prodigality of incident and sentiment. Nor is Dryden entirely successful in the conduct of his plot. The introduction of Octavia is a happy idea, but she appears at too late a period of Antony's history. The implication that his return to her could have availed him in so desperate an extremity is more contrary to historical truth and common reason than any of the anachronisms for which Dryden derides Elizabethan poets. The intrigue by which Dolabella is made to excite Antony's jealousy is more worthy of comedy than of heroic tragedy, besides being inconsistent with the manly character of its promoter, Ventidius. This gallant veteran is indeed a fine creation ; too fine, for he sometimes seems to eclipse Antony and Cleopatra both, and assumes more prominence in the action than Shakespeare would have allowed him. Alexas is the hasty and much marred outline of a character which might have been hardly less impressive had Dryden been at the pains to work out the conception adumbrated in the first act. When all these imperfections are admitted, and they should not be passed over in silence after Scott's ill-judged parallel of Dryden's performance with Shakespeare's, it remains true that All for Love is a very fine play, energetic, passionate, and steeped in that atmosphere of nobility which half redeems the literary defects of The Conquest of Granada. The poetry is frequently very fine, as in Octavia's speech

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »