Imatges de pÓgina

they bring back an accession of this, they cannot be said to have been sent out in vain-for 'knowledge is power;' and we may safely commit to the stream of time the beneficial results of its irresistible influence.

ART. IX.-Characters of Shakespear's Plays. By William Hazlitt. 8vo. London. 1817.

WHEN we called the attention of our readers to Mr. Beckett's Shakspeare's himself again,' we little flattered ourselves that another writer would arise, so well qualified as the author of the work before us, to contend with him for the palm of critical excellence. Their objects are indeed different; but in point of taste and knowledge, they coincide in a very remarkable degree, Mr. Beckett informed us that no one, who did not study his book, could comprehend Shakspeare's meaning. Mr. Hazlitt does not undertake to make us understand the poet better, and in truth he is sometimes not very intelligible himself; but he endeavours to persuade us that, without his assistance, we shall be incapable of feeling his beauties. Mr. Beckett's qualifications must be gathered from the perusal of his work; but the peculiar excellencies of Mr. Hazlitt have been pointed out by a friend and admirer who is himself the great sublime he draws.' They principally consist in his indestructible love of flowers and odours, and dews, and clear waters, and soft airs and sounds, and bright skies, and woodland solitudes, with moonlight bowers.'

[ocr errors]

Thus gifted, it may be supposed that Mr. Hazlitt is not inclined to speak with much respect of his critical predecessors. He mentions, indeed, with some indulgence, a parallel between the characters of Macbeth and Richard, by a gentleman of the name of Mason (not Mason the poet)'--such is his accurate mode of describing the late Mr. Whateley !—but he pours the whole weight of his censure on Dr. Johnson. He scarcely thinks his preface worthy of perusal, and has therefore read it so hastily that he does not seem to have understood one word of it: hence he charges the Doctor with supporting opinions which he never entertained, and some of which, indeed, he has expressly opposed. We shall not misspend our own and the reader's time by entering into a formal defence of one of the most perfect pieces of criticism which bas appeared since the days of Quintilian, but content ourselves with producing a specimen of the erudition by which it has been assailed. Johnson's object, he tells us, was to cut down imagination to matter-of-fact, regulate the passions according to reason, and translate


the whole into logical diagrams and rhetorical declamation.' What Johnson thought of rhetorical declamation in tragedy, and how much he wished to find it in Shakspeare, he has told us in this very preface, and elsewhere more particularly, in his defence of Cato from the cavils of Voltaire;-but if Mr. Hazlitt has discovered a mode of constructing logical diagrams, he is the sole depositary of his own secret, and may claim an equal rank in science with the honest Cambridge carter who, when asked whether his horses could draw an inference? boldly replied, Yes, or any thing in reason. Nor is this a mere slip of the pen: Mr. Hazlitt is fond of the phrase, and seems to consider its use as an evidence of his scholarship. We meet with it again in a passage which will not be easily paralleled for slip-slop absurdity.

The character of lago is one of the supererogations of Shakespear's genius. Some persons, more nice than wise, have thought this whole character unnatural, because his villainy is without a sufficient motive. Shakespear, who was as good a philosopher as he was a poet, thought otherwise. He knew that the love of power, which is another name for the love of mischief, is natural to man. He would know this as well or better than if it had been demonstrated to him by a logical dia gram, merely from seeing children paddle in the dirt or kill flies for sport.' -p. 54.


The variety of Mr. Hazlitt's style is as striking as his phraseology. Sometimes he would seem, from his gorgeous accumulation of em blematical terms, which leave all meaning far behind, to have formed himself upon the model of Samuel Johnson-not the author of the Rambler-but, of Hurlothrumbo the Supernatural. times he breaks forth into a poetical strain, as, at the mention of Ophelia, 'O, rose of May! O, flower too soon faded!' but more frequently he descends to that simpler style of eloquence which is in use among washerwomen, the class of females with whom, as we learn from the 'Round Table,' he and his friend Mr. Hunt more particularly delight to associate; Iago here turns the character of poor Desdemona as it were inside out,' &c. In nothing however is Mr. Hazlitt more independent, than in his notions of versification. He will not accept of the text as adopted by his predecessors, but constructs it anew upon principles of metrical harmony, peculiarly his own. Having occasion to quote a well known passage in Macbeth, he exhibits it in the following state of improvement:

"My way of life is fallen into the sear,

The yellow leaf; and that which should accompany old age,
As honour, troops of friends, I must not look to have;

But in their stead, curses not loud but deep,

Mouth-honour, breath, which the poor heart
Would fain deny and dare not."-p. 29.


The first play upon which he has favoured us with his remarks is Cymbeline, where he points out, in a very original manner, Shakspeare's use of the principle of analogy.

The striking and powerful contrasts in which Shakespear abounds could not escape observation; but the use he makes of the principle of analogy to reconcile the greatest diversities of character and to maintain a continuity of feeling throughout, has not been sufficiently attended to.'-p. 9.

These examples of the same feeling' are, as he informs us, the amorous importunities of Cloten, the determination of Jachimo to conceal the defeat of his project by a daring imposture, the faithful attachment of Pisanio, and the incorrigible wickedness of the queen' all these, with the unalterable fidelity of Imogen, are (it seems)' different inflections of the same predominating principle, melting into and strengthening each other, like chords in music.' If the principle of analogy, which produces such extraordinary associations, is predominant in Cymbeline, the principle of contrast is as strikingly apparent in Macbeth. Hence arise, we are told, the violent antitheses of the style, the throes and labour which run through the expression.' If Shakspeare has at any time forgotten to give us an antithesis, Mr. Hazlitt is at hand to supply it. Duncan is cut off betimes by treason leagued with witchcraft, and Macduff is ripped untimely from his mother's womb to avenge his death. After two pages of this sort of contrast, he proudly concludes, with perfect truth, We might multiply such instances every where.'

The witches, he observes, cannot be represented with their full effect upon the stage, from their no longer being the subject of popular superstition. This leads him into various melancholy, reflections upon the degeneracy of the age we live in, a topic sufficiently trite, but which is treated by Mr. Hazlitt in a perfectly novel manner. He not only laments that we no longer believe in witchcraft, but seems to think, (what the framers of the Police Report were by no means aware of,) that there is an alarming deficiency of pickpockets.

The progress of manners and knowledge has an influence on the stage, and will in time perhaps destroy both tragedy and comedy. Filch's picking pockets, in the Beggars' Opera, is not so good a jest as it used to be: by the force of the police and of philosophy, Lillo's murders and the ghosts in Shakespear will become obsolete. At last there will be nothing left, good nor bad, to be desired or dreaded, on the theatre or in real life.'-p. 30.

Hamlet is introduced to us in the dashing style of a showman at a fair-Walk in, ladies and gentlemen-

This is that Hamlet the Dane, whom we read of in our youth, and whom we seem almost to remember in our after-years; he who made


that famous soliloquy on life, who gave the advice to the players, who thought this goodly frame, the earth," a steril promontory-who talked with the grave-diggers, and moralised on Yorick's skull; who lived at the court of Horwendillus five hundred years before we were born, but all whose thoughts we seem to know as well as we do our own, because we have read them in Shakespear.'-p. 104.

Lest, however, we should be carried away by the illusion of the scene, like Partridge in Tom Jones, Mr. Hazlitt is so good as to inform us that there is no such person as Hamlet. 'Hamlet is a name: his speeches and sayings are but the idle coinage of the poet's brain. What then, are they not real? They are as real as our own thoughts. Their reality is in the reader's mind. It is we who are Hamlet.' If this means that we sympathise so much with the feelings and sentiments of Hamlet, that we identify ourselves with the character, we have to accuse Mr. Hazlitt of strangely misleading us a few pages back. The moral of Othello comes directly home to the business and bosoms of men: the interest in Hamlet is more remote and reflex.' And yet it is we who are Hamlet!' Thus it is when a man employs himself in stringing together phrases without caring for their meaning.



[ocr errors]

The article upon Romeo and Juliet is the best in the volume. It has not, in fact, much in it; but there is nothing very absurd in its meaning, and, what is quite as rare with Mr. Hazlitt, nothing very profligate in its sentiments. He has here an ample field for the display of his indestructible love for flowery odours,' and 'such like dulcet diseases'--and his daisies and hyacinths' are scattered about in gay profusion. All this, however, we should have lost, but for a device to which, for lack of topics, he is fond of resorting. He conjures up objections to the poet which were never dreamt of before, and then gallantly sallies forth to combat the phantoms of his own creation. Thus he endeavours to convince one class of critics, that the poet's genius was not confined to the production of stage effect by supernatural means.' In another place he expresses his astonishment that Shakespear should be considered as a gloomy writer, who painted nothing but "gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire;" and, in speaking of Shylock, he observes, 'that he has but one idea is not true.' Upon this occasion, too, he defends the poet from those whom he has heard' object to the youth of Romeo and Juliet. In opposition to all such critics, he very justly contends that it would be no sort of improvement were the hero and heroine of a love-tale to be represented as very elderly persons; and he thinks Shakspeare was in the right when he did not endeavour to extract beauty from wrinkles, or the wild throb of passion from the last expiring sigh of indifference.' As he has got upon this subject, he steps out of his way to give some information to Mr.


Wordsworth, who, in his Ode on the Progress of Human Life, has introduced the platonic notion of a pre-existent state. He takes considerable pains to instruct that gentleman that, in point of fact, there is no such state, and that therefore to talk about it in poetry is idle.' It is well that he did not take Shakspeare to task for a similar mistake, derived from the same source where, in the Merchant of Venice, he alludes to the music of the spheres. Mr. Hazlitt, we have no doubt, could have informed the poet that after a diligent perusal of Sir John Hawkins's History, he could not discover that there was any such music.

His observations on King Lear commence with an acknowledgment remarkable for its naïveté and its truth. With a wider application, it might have served as an introduction to his whole work, but could never have found a more appropriate situation than where be has placed it.

To attempt to give a description of the play itself, or of its effect upon the mind, is mere impertinence: yet we must say something.'— p. 153.

Having satisfied himself that it was necessary he should say something where he had nothing to say, (though whence this necessity arose we know not,) and given the reader fair warning that it would be very absurd, he proceeds to fulfil his promise. It is then the best of all Shakespear's plays, for it is the one in which he was most in earnest (Macbeth and Othello were mere jeux d'esprit, we presume ;) he was here fairly caught in the web of his own imagination. The character of the aged king is then illustrated by a string of similes which have as little resemblance to Lear as they have to one another.

'The mind of Lear, staggering between the weight of attachment and the hurried movements of passion, is like a tall ship driven about by the winds, buffetted by the furious waves, but that still rides above the storm, having its anchor fixed in the bottom of the sea; or it is like the sharp rock circled by the eddying whirlpool that foams and beats against it; or like the solid promontory pushed from its basis by the force of an earthquake.'-p. 154.

and very like a whale, he might have added.

Having pointed out the deliberate hypocrisy of Regan and Gonerill, he subjoins, it is the absence of this detestable quality that is the only relief in the character of Edmund the bastard.' Had he not sat down with a declared determination to write nousense, we might have been tempted from this passage to pay him the compliment of believing that he had not read the play. We question if, in the whole range of the drama, hypocrisy is more strongly marked than in this very character. He tells us himself that his practices ride easy upon the credulous Gloster and the


« AnteriorContinua »