Page images

and masques, all fymbolical 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 beft 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 playhoufe a perfect pantheon. --Shakespear difdained 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 fat 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 bold 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 impetuofity 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 solemn shade; in casting thedim, religious light that should reign there. When he introduces his furies, and other supernatural beings, he exposes them by too glaring à light; causes affright in the spectator, but never rises to the imparting that unlimited terror which we feel when Macbeth to his bold address,

[ocr errors][merged small][merged small]

How now! ye secret, foul, and midnight hags, What is't ye do? is answered,

A deed without a name.

The witches of the forest are as important 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 folitude and night, nor act beyond their sphere of ambiguous prophecy, and malignant forcery. The Eumenides, snoring in the temple of Apollo, and then appearing as evidences against Orestes in the Areo, pagus, 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

• for

for their secret influence on the mind, and the terrors they could inflict on criminal conscience, when they were represented as obliged to have recourse to the ordinary method of revenge, by being witnesses and pleaders in a court of justice, to obtain the corporal punishment of the offender. Indeed, it is possible, that the whole story of this play might be allegorical, as thus, that Orestes, haunted by the terrors which pursue the guilty mind, confessed his crime to the Areopagus, with all the aggravating circumstances remorse suggested to him, from a pious desire to expiate his offence, by submitting to whatever sentence this respectable assembly fhould pronounce for that purpose. The oracle which commanded him to put Clytemnestra to death, would plead for him with his judges ; their voices being equal for absolving or punishing, wisdom gives her vote for abfolving him.

The sentiment that appears so odd in the mouth of the goddess, from these considera


« PreviousContinue »