Imatges de pÓgina
[ocr errors]

to him, and I warrant Helen, to change, would give money to boot." This is the language he addresses to his niece: nor is die much behind-hand in coming into the plot. Her head is as light and fluttering as her heart. "It is the prettiest villain, she fetches her breath so short as a new-ta'en-sparrow." Both cha

racters are originals, and quite different from what they are in Chaucer. In Chaucer, Cressida is represented as a grave, sober, considerate personage (a widow—he cannot tell her age, nor whether she has children or no), who has an alternate eye to her character, her interest, and her pleasure. Shakspeare's Cressida is a giddy girl, an unpractised jilt, who falls in love with Troilus, as she afterwards deserts him, from mere levity and thoughtlessness of temper. She may be wooed and won to anything and from anything, at a moment's warning: the other knows very well what she would be at, and sticks to it, and is more governed by substantial reasons than by caprice or vanity. Pandarus again, in Chaucer's story, is a friendly sort of gobetween, tolerably busy, officious, and forward in bringing matters to bear; but in Shakspeare he has "a stamp exclusive and professional:" he wears the badge of his trade; he is a regular knight of the game. The difference of the manner in which the subject is treated arises perhaps less from intention, than from the different genius of the two poets. There is no double entendre in the characters of Chaucer: they are either quite serious or quite comic. In Shakspeare the ludicrous and ironical are constantly blended with the stately and the impassioned. We see Chaucer's characters as they saw themselves, not as they appeared to others or might have appeared to the poet. He is as deeply implicated in the affairs of his personages as they could be themselves. He had to go a long journey with each of them, and became a kind of necessary confidant. There is little relief, or light and shade, in his pictures. The conscious smile is not seen lurking under the brow of grief or impatience. Everything with him is intense and continuous—a working out of what went before. Shakspeare never committed himself to his characters. He trifled, laughed, or wept with them as he chose. He has no prejudices for or against them; and it seems a matter of perfect indifference whether he shall be in jest or

earnest. According to him, "the web of our lives is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together." His genius was dramatic, as Chaucer's was historical. He saw both sides of a question, the different views taken of it according to the different interests of the parties concerned, and he was at once an actor and spectator in the scene. If anything, he is too various and flexible; too full of transitions, of glancing lights, of salient points. If Chaucer followed up his subject too doggedly, perhaps Shakspeare was too volatile and heedless. The Muse's wing too often lifted him off his feet. He made infinite excursions to the right and the left.

"He hath done

Mad and fantastic execution,

Engaging and redeeming of himself

With such a careless force and forceless care,

As if that luck, in very spite of cunning,

Bad him win all."

Chaucer attended chiefly to the real and natural, that is, to the involuntary and inevitable impressions on the mind in given circumstances. Shakspeare exhibited also the possible and the fantastical, not only what things are in themselves, but whatever they might seem to be, their different reflections, their endless combinations. He lent his fancy, wit, invention, to others, and borrowed their feelings in return. Chaucer excelled in the force of habitual sentiment; Shakspeare added to it every variety of passion, every suggestion of thought or accident. Chaucer described external objects with the eye of a painter, or he might be said to have embodied them with the hand of a sculptor, every part is so thoroughly made out, and tangible :—Shakspeare's imagination threw over them a lustre

"Prouder than when blue Iris bends."

Everything in Chaucer has a downright reality. A simile or a sentiment is as if it were given in upon evidence. In Shakspeare the commonest matter-of-fact has a romantic grace about it; or seems to float with the breath of imagination in a freer element. No one could have more depth of feeling or observa

tion than Chaucer, but he wanted resources of invention to lay open the stores of nature or the human heart with the same radiant light that Shakspeare has done. However fine or profound the thought, we know what was coming, whereas the effect of reading Shakspeare is "like the eye of vassalage encountering majesty." Chaucer's mind was consecutive, rather than discursive. He arrived at truth through a certain process; Shakspeare saw everything by intuition. Chaucer had great variety of power, but he could do only one thing at once. He set himself to work on a particular subject. His ideas were kept separate, labelled, ticketed and parcelled out in a set form, in pews and compartments by themselves. They did not play into one another's hands. They did not re-act upon one another, as the blower's breath moulds the yielding glass. There is something hard and dry in them. What is the most wonderful thing in Shakspeare's faculties is their excessive sociability, and how they gossiped and compared notes together.

We must conclude this criticism; and we will do it with a quotation or two. One of the most beautiful passages in Chaucer's tale is the description of Cresseide's first avowal of her love.

"And as the new abashed nightingale, That stinteth first when she beginneth sing, When that she heareth any herdé's tale,

Or in the hedges any wight stirring,

And, after, sicker doth her voice outring;

Right so Cresseide, when that her dread stent,
Opened her heart, and told him her intent."

See also the two next stanzas, and particularly that divine one beginning

"Her armés small, her back both straight and soft," &c.

Compare this with the following speech of Troilus to Cressida in the play.

"O, that I thought it could be in a woman; And if it can, I will presume in you,

To feed for aye her lamp and flame of love,
To keep her constancy in plight and youth,
Out-living beauties out-ward, with a mind
That doth renew swifter than blood decays.
Or, that persuasion could but thus convince me,
That my integrity and truth to you

Might be affronted with the match and weight
Of such a winnow'd purity in love;

How were I then uplifted! But alas,

I am as true as Truth's simplicity,

And simpler than the infancy of Truth."

These passages may not seem very characteristic at first sight, though we think they are so. We will give two, that cannot be mistaken, Patroclus says to Achilles,

"Rouse yourself; and the weak wanton Cupid

Shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold,
And like a dew-drop from the lion's mane
Be shook to air."

Troilus, addressing the god of day on the approach of the morning that parts him from Cressida, says with much scorn,

"What! proffer'st thou thy light here for to sell?
Go, sell it them that smallé selés grave."

If nobody but Shakspeare could have written the former, nobody but Chaucer would have thought of the latter. Chaucer was the most literal of poets, as Richardson was of prose writers.


THIS is a very noble play. Though not in the first order of Shakspeare's productions, it stands next to them, and is, we think, the finest of his historical plays, that is, of those in which he made poetry the organ of history, and assumed a certain tone of character and sentiment, in conformity to known facts, instead of trusting to his observations of general nature, or to the unlimited indulgence of his own fancy. What he has added to the history is upon an equality with it. His genius was, as it were, a match for history as well as nature, and could grapple at will with either. This play is full of that pervading comprehensive power by which the poet always seems to identify himself with time and circumstances. It presents a fine picture of Roman pride and Eastern magnificence and in the struggle between the two, the empire of the world seems suspended, "like the swan's down-feather,

"That stands upon the swell at full of tide,
And neither way inclines."

The characters breathe, move, and live. Shakspeare does not stand reasoning on what his characters would do or say, but at once becomes them, and speaks and acts for them. He does not present us with groups of stage puppets or poetical machines making set speeches on human life, and acting from a calculation of ostensible motives, but he brings living men and women on the scene, who speak and act from real feelings, according to the ebbs and flows of passion, without the least tincture of the pedantry of logic or rhetoric. Nothing is made out by inference and analogy, by climax and antithesis, but everything takes place just as it would have done in reality, according

« AnteriorContinua »