Imatges de pÓgina
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BRIEF CRITICISMS

ON THE

Works of Shakespeare.

THERE have been men of learning and talent in the world, whose merits, real or supposed, have ensured to their names and memories honours more glorious and more lasting than the highest titles which any merely hereditary or heraldic claims could boast. We have the learned John Selden;" “ the judicious Hooker;" “ the ever-memorable John Hales;" “the admirable Crichton;" “the leviathan in literature, Dr. Samuel Johnson," and many others; but not one of all this phalanx of merit has more justly deserved his honorary distinction, than “the IMMORTAL Shakespeare.” Had this man lived in the ancient days of Greece or Rome, he had now occupied no contemptible place in the mythological records of those times. But Shakespeare was born to higher honours than any to be derived from a Pagan apotheosis. He lives in the heart of every man of correct taste—he dwells on the lip of eloquence—he gives life, and soul, and energy to every feeling expression—be lends his powerful aid to the moralist, and is not despised even by the true religionist -Day, his very enemies, the saints of modern date, “praise him in the gate"-and often, unwittingly, it is granted, do homage to his memory by borrowing his language to aid their own crude conceptions; nor have instances been wanting, within the observation of the writer, of persons, even in the pulpit, quoting the “bard of Avon,” at a time when they themselves imagined they were borrowing from some of our best divines.

Alas! bow difficult a task it is to write of Shakespeare and his works in terms adequate to their claims on our wonder, admiration, and esteem! Yet nearly one hundred different works have already been successively published on the writings and genius of this truly immortal bard.

Of the life of our author nothing new can be said : his biography has been exhausted, yet would it be a gross injustice to him to print his works without prefixing whatever has been authentically handed down to us. But his mind lives for ever; and will for ever furnish some new topic of admiration, or some fresh subject of literary criticism.

A contemporary writer on Ecclesiastical History, speaking of that best of books, the Bible, thus expresses himself: “One little book, which I can carry in my bosom, and refer to in every exigence of moment to my soul's peace, is worth all the mighty tomes of the Vatican; superior, in my estimation, to all that ever bishops wrote, or canonists have quarrelled about.” There is nothing profane in the observation, that what the Sacred Volume is to the devout Christian, the works of Shakespeare are to the man of taste; for there is scarcely a subject of the slightest interest, that has not received some illustration from the writings of this author, in whose mind appear to have been embodied all the forms and fashions, all the great, and all the minute shades of human character. Shakespeare was great upon all subjects, which is more than can, with truth, be asserted of any other writer, in any age or any country. His writings may be referred to on almost all occasions; and the man whose mind is stored with the language of our bard, need never be at a loss for topics of conversation, or subjects of important reflection.

Shakespeare was not only what Ben Jonson denominates him, the

soul of the age,
The applause, delight, and wonder of the stage;"

but is to this hour the constant companion of the contemplative, ad well as the gay associate of the playful and the happy.

“Thus while I wond'ring pause o'er Shakespeare's page,
I mark in visions of delight the sage;

High o'er the wrecks of man, who stands sublime,
A column in the melancholy waste,
(Its glory humbled and its glories past,)

Majestic 'mid the solitude of time."

On this head it would be unpardonable to omit noticing what Schlegel has said of our poet, in his German “ Lectures on the Jrama," which, translated into English, is as follows:-Never, perhaps, was there so comprehensive a talent for characterization as Shakespeare's. It not only grasps the diversities of rank, sex, and age, down to the dawnings of infancy; not only do the king and the beggar, the hero and the pickpocket, the wise and the idiot, speak and act with equal truth-not only does he transport himself to distant ages and to foreign nations, and pourtray in the most accurate manner, with only a few apparent violations of costume, the spirit of the ancient Romans of the French in their wars with the English—of the English themselves during a great part of their history-of the Southern Europeans (in the serious parts of many of his comedies,) the cultivated society of that time, and the former rude and barbarous state of the north ; his human characters have not only such depth and precision that they cannot be arranged under classes, and are inexhaustible, even in conception; no, this Prometheus not merely forms men, but opens the gates of the magical world of spirits; calls up the midnight ghost ; exhibits before us his witches amidst their unhallowed mysteries; peoples the air with sportive fairies and sylphs; and these beings, existing only in imagination, possess such truth and consistency, that even when they are deformed monsters, like Caliban, he extorts the assenting conviction that, if there should be such beings, they would so conduct themselves. In a word, as he carries with him the most fruitful and daring fancy into the kingdom of nature, on the other hand he carries nature into the regions of fancy, lying beyond the confines of reality. We are lost in astonishment at seeing the extraordinary, the wonderful, and the unheard, in such intimate nearness.

Again: if Shakespeare deserves our admiration for his characters, he is equally deserving of it for the exhibition of passiontaking this word in its widest signification, as including every mental condition, every tone of indifference, or familiar mirth, to the wildest rage and despair. He gives us the history of minds; he lays open to us, in a single word, a whole series of preceding conditions. His passions do not at first stand displayed to us in all their height, as is the case with so many tragic poets, who, in the language of Lessing, are thorough masters of the legal style of love. He paints, in a most inimitable manner, the gradual progress from the first origin. “ He gives," as Lessing says, “a living picture of all the most minute and secret artifices by which a feeling steals into our souls; of all the imperceptible advantages which it there gains; of all the stratagems by which every other passion is made subservient to it, till it becomes the sole tyrant of our desires and aversions. Of all poets, perhaps, he alone has pourtrayed the mental diseases—melancholy, delirium, lunacy,—with such inexpressible, and in every respect, definite truth, that the physician may enrich his observations from them in the same manner as from real cases.

And yet Johnson has objected to Shakespeare, that his pathos is not always natural and free from affectation. There are, it is true, passages, though, comparatively speaking, very few, where his poetry exceeds the bounds of true dialogue; where a too soaring imagination, a too luxuriant wit, rendered the complete dramatic forgetfulness of himself impossible. Hence an idea has been formed of simple and natural pathos, which consists in exclamations destitute of imagery, and nowise elevated above every-day life. But energetical passions electrify the whole of the mental powers, and consequently they will, in highly-favoured natures, express themselves in an ingenious and figurative manner. Besides, to use the observation of Mrs. Montagu-" Heaven-born genius acts from something superior to rules, and antecedent to rules, and has a right of appeal to Nature herself.” In accordance with this sentiment, it is remarked by the German critic, that the rights of the poetical form have not been duly weighed. Shakespeare, who was always sure of bis object, to move in a sufficiently powerful manner when he wished to do so, has occasionally, by indulging in a freer play, purposely moderated the impressions when too painful, and immediately introduced a musical alleviation of our sympathy. He had not those rude ideas of his wit which many moderns seem to have, as it the poet, like the clown in the proverb, must strike twice in the same place.

THE LIFE

OF

William Shakespeare.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, the most illustrious name in the history of English dramatic poetry, was born at Stratford-uponAvon, on the 23d of April, 1564. His father, who sprang from a good family, was a considerable dealer in wool, and had been un officer and bailiff of Stratford, where he for some time acted as justice of the peace. His mother was of the ancient family of Arden, in the same county, one of undoubted gentility. William, who was the eldest of ten children, received the common education of a country free-school, where, it is probable, he acquired what little Latin he was master of. At an early age, he was taken by his father to assist in his own business, and thus deprived of attaining any proficiency in classical literature ; but whether a better acquaintance with ancient authors might not have restrained some of that fire, impetuosity, and even beautiful extravagance, which we admire in Shakespeare, may well admit of a dispute. Be this as it may, he seems to have adopted the mode of life which his father proposed to him; and we find that in his eighteenth year he married Ann Hathaway, the daughter of a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood, who was eight years older than himself. Of his domestic establishment, or professional occupation, at this time nothing determinate is recorded; but it appears that he was wild and irregular, from the fact of his connexion with a party who made a practice of stealing the deer of Sir Thomas Lucy, of Charlecote, near Stratford. This imprudence brought upon him a

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