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The choice of a story that at once gave countenance to King James's doctrine of dæmonology, and shewed the ancient destination of his family to the throne of Great Britain, was noless flattering to that monarch than Virgil's to Augustus and the Roman people, in making Anchises shew to Æneas the representations of unborn heroes, that were to adorn his line, and augment the glory of their commonwealth. It is reported, that a great French wit often laughs at the tragedy of Macbeth, for having a legion of ghosts in it. One would imagine he either had not learnt English, or had forgotten his Latin; for the Spirits of Banquo's line are no more ghosts, than the representations of the Julian race in the Æneid; and there is no ghost but Banquo's in the whole play. Euripides, in the most philosophic and polite age of the Athenians, brings the shade of Polydorus, Priam's son, upon the stage, to tell a very long and lamentable tale. Here is therefore produced, by cach tragedian, the departed spirit walking this upper world for causes admitted by popular faith. Among the Ancients,
Ancients, the unburied, and with us, the murdered, were supposed to do so. The apparitions are therefore equally justifiable or blameable; so the laurel must be adjudged to that poet who throws most of the sublime and the marvellous into the supernatural agent; best preserves the credibility of its intervention, and renders it most useful in the drama. There surely can be no dispute of the superiority of our countryman in these articles. There are many bombast speeches in the Tragedy of Macbeth; and these are the lawful prize of the critic; but envy, not content to nibble at faults, strikes at its true object, the prime excellencies and perfections of the thing it would depreciate. One should not wonder if a school-boy critic, who neither knows what were the superstitions of former times, or the poet's privileges in all times, should flourish away, with all the rash dexterity of wit, upon the appearance of a ghost; but it is strange, a man of universal learning, a real and just connoisseur, and a true genius, should cite as improper and absurd, what has been practised by the most celebrated artists in
the dramatic way, when such machinery was authorized by the belief of the people. Is there not reason to suspect from such uncandid treatment of our Poet by this critic, that he
Views him with jealous, yet with scornful eyes,
The difference between a mind naturally prone to evil, and a frail one warped by the violence of temptations, is delicately distinguished in Macbeth and his wife. There are also some touches of the pencil, that mark the male and female character. When they deliberate on the murder of the King, the duties of host and subject strongly plead with him against the deed. She passes over these considerations; goes to Duncan's chamber resolved to kill him, but could not do it, becauus, she says, he resembled her father while he slept. There is something feminine in this, and perfectly agreeable to the nature of the sex; who, even when void of principle, are seldom entirely divested of sentiment; and thus the poet, who, to use
his own phrase, had overstepped the modesty of nature in the exaggerated fierceness of her character, returns back to the line and limits of humanity, and that very judiciously, by a sudden impression, which has only an instantaneous effect. Thus she may relapse into her former wickedness, and, from the same susceptibility, by the force of other impressions, be afterwards driven to distraction.
As her character was not composed of those gentle elements out of which regular repentance could be formed, it was well judged to throw her mind into the chaos of madness; and, as she had exhibited wickedness in its highest degree of ferocity and atrociousness, she should be an example of the wildest agonies of remorse. As Shakspeare could most exactly delineate the human mind, in its regular state of reason, so no one ever so happily caught its varying forms, in the wanderings of delirium.
The scene in which Macduff is informed of the murder of his wife and children, is so celebrated, that it is not necessary to enlarge upon its merit. We feel there, how much
much a just imitation of natural sentiments, on such a tender occasion, is more pathetic, than chosen terms and studied phrases. As, in the foregoing chapter, I have made some observations on our Author's management of the Præternatural Beings, I forbear to enlarge further on the subject of the Witches: that he has kept closely to the traditions concerning them, is very fully set forth, in the notes of a learned commentator on his works.
This piece may certainly be deemed one of the best of Shakspeare's compositions: and though it contains some faulty speeches, and one whole scene entirely absurd and improper, which art might have corrected or lopped away; yet genius, powerful genius only, (wild nature's vigour working at the root!) could have produced such strong and original beauties, and adapted both to the general temper and taste of the age in which it appeared.