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Προσαναγκαζαν τον Σωκρατη ομολογειν αυτους του αυτου ανδρος ειναι Κωμωδιαν και Τραγωδιαν επισασθαι ποιείν, τον τεχνη Τραγωδοτοιον οντα και Κωμωδοποιον ειναι."
Quanquam ridentem dicere verum
HORACE.—Satirarum, lib. i. I.
“Res severa est verum gaudium."
THE CLASSICAL COMEDY COMPARED WITH
THAT OF SHAKSPEARE.
The following Essay must be considered the sequel and, indeed, the pendent, of the preceding one. The Tragic genius of our great bard was there placed in the presence of some of the mightiest masters of that lofty art, and was tried by the model of some of their noblest compositions. Chiefly were adduced the works of Æschylus and Euripides, with rapid selections of their most sublime or tender passages. That the reference should not be exclusive to the muse of Greece, we ventured also a slight allusion to the tragedies of Seneca. As comparison was our principal purpose, those portions of these authors were generally cited which furnished the best adapted materials for it. Parallelism, and even contrast, could only be attempted where the ancient and the modern made some approach to each other. Much, therefore, it is but just to say, of the Attic and Roman cothurnus could not traverse our little temporary stage. It is alike necessary to remark that Shakspeare was far more aggrieved by such a hurried survey, and such an unequally-matched competition. It is confidently assumed that all, who have allowed themselves to look dispassionately at these several rivals, must admit, that in true natural action, in profound development of human character, in accurate tracing out of motive, in uncloying richness and versatility of metaphor, in invention of character, in dialogue for every lip and ear, in magnificent machinery which moves ideal and supernatural worlds,-he, who so long has been the boast and pride of our literature,-he, who so long has ruled our fears and touched our sensibilities,-is not only worthy to stand in this illustrious fellowship, this memorable choir, but that he transcends, but that his song is fuller, grander, sweeter, than them all! Having accomplished that task, I am anxious now to treat of his comic genius. Yet I am conscious of some reluctance. I know that his faults, as also, what must not be blinked, his vices, lie most numerously and flagrantly in this path. Perhaps the reflection has crossed my mind that my solemn engagements elsewhere, scarcely justified this lighter species of analysis and criticism. But aware that Shakspeare is all but universally read, that no interdict can proscribe him, that no index expurgatorius can cashier and banish him,-it seemed not wholly unfitting, withal being myself nearly committed to the endeavour, to describe his beauties, to reprobate his deformities, and to apply to his stupendous powers, rules for the discrimination of both.
In Comedy there is no more evil than in the sister style. Each is but the representation of what is. Directly either affects the unimaginable, its design is vacated. This order of histrionism ought to be gentle, kindly, cheerful. Crime belongs not to it. Guilt must not overshadow it. But it aims to correct and to improve. By banter and satire it lashes folly and infirmity. Its cunning smile, its open laugh, may make vice ashamed. Tragedy, therefore, need not vaunt a deeper moral as invariably hers. The rocking of the earthquake, the rolling of the thunder, cause us to tremble: the soft sunrise, the vernal gale, the lovely landscape, bid us rejoice. The awe, perhaps, is no more salutary than the heart-moving mirth. The danger is, still, not trifling, that the humour which seizes the ridiculous may blind us to qualities which, if they stood alone, would simply excite our disgust and horror.
Tragedy always seeks, and probably always requires, a more than ordinary sphere and condition of life. It wants palaces, temples, senate-houses, for its canopy; kingdoms and battle-fields for its exhibition, — heroes and princes for its enactment. This canon is not capricious, but is established in very intelligible principles. To fill the scene, there must be mighty vicissitude, tremendous reverse. Dethronement, defeat in battle, the funeral of a royal heir, regicide, the exile of the imperial matron and maid,—these are its chosen and most fitting
themes. All can bewail, all will appreciate, such signal misfortunes. Sorrow then levels to our rank those who were raised so greatly above us. Whatever was our envy is checked. The tear swells easily for fallen greatness. The mind measures the wide extremes of the exaltation and the fall, and yields to the sufferer all its sympathy. How striking is this in the Agamemnon! How proud his port! How rounded is his fame! The leader of chiefs, the king of monarchs,—the beacon of Ida has shot up its blaze, it flies before him from Lemnos to Athos, from Cithæron to Arachne,-Troy at his feet in ashes, Greece at his feet in tributes,—the deep-inwoven laurel around his brow, -panting for his home,—the shout of Mycenæ has hailed him, -embroideries fill the streets,-Argos opens its majestic balls,their portals have shut on him,—his household is supposed to concentrate his well-won delights,-conjugal kiss and embrace and welcome have cheered him,--the festal board is spread,the panegyric harp is tuned,—the refreshing bath invites,and suddenly he awakes to perfect misery and despair, amidst the entanglements of the net, and beneath the blows of the hatchet !
In the preface of Zaleucus, preserved in the Communes Loci of Stobæus, and commented on by Bentley in his Dissertation on Phalaris, (be it authentic or not,) we find a meaning attached to Tragedy, which shows that it is always, in its widest use, employed for a dignified purpose: “Ns ou To jeãtai deos υπ' ανθρωπου φαυλου, ουδε θεραπευεται δαπάναις ουδε τραγωδιαις των αλισγουμενων, καθαπερ μοχθηρος ανθρωπος :” τραγωδια still retains the sense, though it be rendered by sacrifice, of something sumptuous and noble.
To this end Sir Philip Sidney, in his Defence of Poesy, assigns the province of that literary species concerning which we now speak. It is, he says, “to open the greatest wounds, and to show forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue; to make kings fear to be tyrants; tyrants, to manifest their tyrannical humours; that, stirring the effects of admiration and commiseration, teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilded roofs are builded ; that maketh us know, “qui sceptra sævus duro imperio regit, timet timentes, metus in autorem redit."
On the other hand, Comedy may content itself with departments of a more familiar life. She wants not the “sceptred pall” of her sister. The sock steps lightly where the buskin stalks. According to Horace its language cannot be very poetic; and situations and stories, such as it admits, cannot be stirring:
** Idcirco quidam, comædia necne poëma
Esset, quæsivere: quod acer spiritus, ac vis,
Cicero makes a similar observation, “ Etenim hæc conficta arbitror a poetis esse ut effictos nostros mores in alienis personis, expressam imaginem nostræ vitæ quotidianæ videremus."+ And there is the same remark in his Fragments: “ Comedia est imitatio vitæ, speculum consuetudinis, imago veritatis.”
of Tragedy must be, consequently, more narrow. It necessarily individualises, and its occasions can be but few. The terrible in passion, or in fate, is not of frequent experience. The eclipse and the earthquake are awful because they are rare. But while tragedy sits solitary, as throned among the hills,comedy appropriates all the plains to the heaven's bend and the horizon's ring. She has a theatre wherever there is a human heart. She finds an audience wherever there are old and young. Were there no personification, were there no comic epitome, were there no author nor work pretending to the name,—were even satire and persiflage talents quite uncultivated and unknown, -still the disguises, the complications, the transitions, the distortions, of passion among men would be so tempting to remark, so provoking of observation, that every eye would twinkle with the jest, and every hand would arm itself with the scourge. More ill-natured severity would, doubtless, be exercised then. The public censor, tyrannic as he may be, precludes much
Sat : lib. i. 4.
+ Orat : pro. Sex : Roscio Amerino. * Libror : Incert : Donat : Vita Terentii.