Page images
[ocr errors]

as Spencer's Fairy Queen was the admired work of the times.

Allegorical beings, performing acts of chivalry, fell in with the taste of an age that affected' abstrufe Learning romantic Valour, and high-flown Gallantry, ' Prince Arthur, the British Hercules, was brought from ancient ballads and romaneés, to be allegorized into the knight of magnanimity, at the court of Gloriana. His knights followed him thither, in the same moralized garb: and even the questynge beast received no less honour and improvement from the allegorizing art of Spencer, as has been Thewn by a Critic of great learning, ingenuity, and taste, in his obfervations on the Fairy Queen.

Our first theatrical entertainments, after we emerged from gross barbarism, were of the allegorical kind. The Christmas carol, and carnival Thews, the pious pastimes of our holy-days, were turned into pageantries

K 3


and masques, all symbolical and allegorical. Our stage rose from hymns to the Virgin, and encomiums on the Patriarchs and Saints : as the Grecian tragedies from the hymns to Bacchus. Our early poets added narration and action to this kind of psalmody, as Æschylus had done to the song of the goat. Much more rapid indeed was the progress of the Grecian stage towards perfection.-Philosophy, Poetry, Eloquence, all the fine arts, were in their meridian glory, when the drama first began to dawn at Athens, and gloriously it shone forth, illumined by every kind of intellectual light,

Shakespear, in the dark shades of Gothic barbarism, had no resources but in the very phantoms, that walked the night of ignorance and superstition : or in touching the latent passions of civil rage and discord : sure to please best his fierce and barbarous audience, when he raised the bloody ghost, or reared the warlike standard, His choice of these subjects was judicious, if we consider the


times in which he lived.; his

management of them fo masterly, that he will be admired in all times.

In the same age, Ben. Johnson, more proud of his learning than confident of his. genius, was desirous to give a metaphysical air to his works. He composed many pieces of the allegorical kind, established on the Grecian mythology, and rendered his playhouse a perfect pantheon. Shakespear disdained these quaint devices ;. an admirable judge of human nature, with a capacity most extensive, and an invention most happy, he contented himself with giving dramatic manners to History, Sublimity and its appropriated powers and charms to Fiction, and in both these arts he is unequalled.---The Cataline and Sejanus of Johnson are cold, crude, heavy pieces; turgid where they should be great; bombast where they should be sublime ; the sentiments extravagant; the manners exaggerated ; and the whole undramatically conducted by long fenatorial speeches, and Aat plagiarisms from


K 4

Tacitus and Sallust. Such of this author's pieces as he boasts to be grounded on antitiquity and solid learning, and to lay hold on removed mysteries *, have neither the majesty of Shakespear's serious fables, nor the pleafing sportfulness and poetical imagination of his fairy tales. Indeed if we compare our countryman in this respect, with the most admired writers of Antiquity, we shall, perhaps, not find him inferior to them. Æschylus, with greater impetuosity of genius than even Shakespear, makes bold incursions into the blind chaos of mingled allegory and fable, but he is not so happy in diffusing the folemn shade; in casting thedim, religious light that thould reign there. When he introduces his furies, and other supernatural beings, he exposes-them by too glaring a light; causes affright in the spectator, but never rises to the imparting that unlimited terror which we feel when Macbeth to his bold address,

* Prologue to the Masque of Queens.


How 'now! ye secret, foul, and midnight hags,

What is't ye do? is answered,

A deed without a name.

[ocr errors]

The witches of the forest are as im.' portant in the tragedy of Macbeth, as the Eumenides in the drama of Æschylus; but our Poet is infinitely more dexterous and judicious in the conduct of their part. The secret, foul, and midnight hags are not introduced into the castle of Macbeth; they never appear but in their allotted region of solitude and night, nor act beyond their sphere of ambiguous prophecy, and maligo nant forcery. The Eumenides, snoring in the temple of Apollo, and then appearing as evidences against Orestes in the Areopagus,

seem both acting out of their sphere, and below their character. It was the appointed office of the venerable goddesses, to avenge the crimes unwhipt of justice, not to demand the public trial of guilty men. They must lose much of the fear and reverence in which they were held


« PreviousContinue »