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The object of this book is to give an outline of the attitude of the English and American literary world towards the plays of William Shakespeare from the seventeenth century to the present time. The verdict of the world of playgoers, that some of the plays when well acted were far better worth seeing than those of any other dramatist, has been the same for all generations. But the estimate of the plays by professional writers, as reflected in literary criticism, has varied, or rather the views on which the estimate was based have varied, greatly. For a long time it was a matter of faith with most of them that Shakespeare was “irregular, because his construction and method differed widely from that of the dramatists of Greece. Admitting that he was a unique genius, as shown in many passages of force and beauty, it was thought that the plays would be much better if they were less original and more imitative of the ancient models, and the poet had always kept to a certain dignity of diction and situation, and in particular had observed the formal rules which were supposed to be deduced from the plays of the ancient dramatists and were known as the three unities. English common sense continually rebelled against the contention that an English poet lacked taste and culture because he did not imitate the methods or style of the poets of another race, and the position was finally abandoned in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Coleridge barely alludes to it, and Lamb and Hazlitt of the early nineteenth century ignore it completely.
The critics of the eighteenth century were largely occupied with endeavors to establish a standard text by emendation and conjecture. Quite generally they looked at the plays from the standpoint of the theatre, ignoring the idea that the tragedies were commentaries on human nature and possessed an absolute quality like truth or beauty. Dr. Johnson is typical of this class, if he is not too extreme an instance of common sense to be typical of that excellent quality. Though these critics rebelled rather timidly against slavish obedience to the authority of the ancients, the idea that the author was an untutored, natural genius, who would have been much improved by a university training, was not fully eradicated. The true nature of art was not philosophically grasped, and the profound relation of the plays to life was but dimly hinted at. The idea that the characters could be discussed exactly as if they were real, that they differed from historic characters in
possessing more interesting personalities, in being placed in more complicated and trying situations, and, therefore, exemplifying more fully the passions of men, did not occur to the critics till very late in the eighteenth century. Nor was it discovered till towards the close of the eighteenth century that Shakespeare's female characters bear almost as close a relation to feminine nature as his heroes do to manly nature. In fact, both of these views may be said to belong to the romantic school of the nineteenth century.
In the beginning of the nineteenth century the critics of the so-called romantic school, who viewed life and literature from the standpoint of the emotions, widened the scope of criticism and justified the preëminence of the poet by more refined considerations. Coleridge was the leading figure of this school, in which, though enthusiasm tended to rhapsodical generalizations, the
conception of literature and art became more spiritual. The importation of notions from the German ästhetic school gave a new philosophic basis and added elements to criticism, which, if sometimes tending to mystic indefiniteness, were at least part of a system of thought.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century the success of the scientific method applied to the material and animate world affected the tone of critical thought, and, indeed, of all reasoning. Great attention was paid to details of material form, and some remarkable discoveries resulted from exact analysis of the verse of different plays. At the same time there was a disposition to minimize the elements of wonder and reverence, and to reduce all critical considerations to rational grounds. This corrected some of the extravagancies of the romanticists, but in some instances overdid itself by sinking the æsthetic quality of the play and concentrating attention on matters that could be counted and generalized mathematically, or by accumulating a mass of historic details of slight significance and regarding the accumulation as an end. This is quite evident in the writings of Messrs. Furnival, Fleay, and Simpson. The influence of the scientific method is also apparent in a tendency towards minute subdivisions such as are properly made in botany and geology, and further in a disposition to treat the poet and his plays as ordinary phenomena, natural products to be accounted for by favorable circumstances, a view which leads to erroneous conceptions as surely as does the other extreme, that poetry is the result of a direct inspiration from some source outside the inspired individual. Many critics who may be regarded as natural-born romanticists, or perhaps influenced by the later-day æsthetes, combatted the scientific critics vigorously.
In the end, however, the scientific method was lim
ited to careful scrutiny of facts and rational deduction therefrom, tempered by a consciousness that the material criticised was great poetry, a product of the imagination as well as of the reason, and dependent on a faculty which, if not abnormal in its nature, is so excessive in the favored individual as to be abnormal in energy, and, therefore, creative. In Professors Bradley and Lounsbury we have critics to whom poetry is a wonderful and beautiful thing, but who sift evidence and form no conclusions not legitimately based on evidence. They might be called rational romanticists, combining learning and culture. They have a sublimated common sense and a comprehension of the function of great art which to the mathematicians is foolishness.
Of course men of any type may exist in any period. A romantic individualist like Mr. Swinburne may be contemporary with the most rigorous scientist like Mr. Fleay, a man of ponderous common sense like Dr. Gervinus may succeed a romanticist like Schlegel. Hallam closely follows Coleridge, instead of preceding him by a generation. Nevertheless, there is a development of thought in Shakespearean criticism. Considering the effort that has been expended on it, it would be discouraging were there not signs of more catholic views and increasing breadth of grasp.
This book considers only the principal critics. The first volume of Knight's Cabinet Edition contains a brief review of the critical writings on Shakespeare down to 1850, but is principally taken up with an account of various editions. It is out of print. The copious extracts in Dr. Furness's Variorum Edition apply to individual plays. Professor Lounsbury's volumes give a minute history of Shakespearean criticism for the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.