« AnteriorContinuar »
that the subject best fitted for tragedy is where a man has himself been the cause of his misfortune; not so as to be deeply guilty, nor altogether innocent: the misfortune must be occasioned by a fault incident to human nature, and, therefore, in some degree venial. Such misfortunes call forth the social affections, and warmly interest the spectator. An accidental misfortune, if not extremely singular, does not greatly move our pity: the person who suffers, being innocent, is freed from the greatest of all torments, that anguish of mind which is occasioned by remorse. An atrocious criminal, on the other hand, who brings misfortunes upon himself, excites little pity, for a different reason: his remorse, it is true, aggravates his distress, and swells the first emotions of pity; but these are immediately blunted by our hatred of him as a criminal. Misfortunes that are not innocent, nor highly criminal, partake the advantages of each extreme: they are attended with remorse to embitter the distress, which raises our pity to a height; and the slight indignation we have at a venial fault, detracts not sensibly from our pity. The happiest of all subjects accordingly for raising pity, is where a man of integrity falls into a great misfortune by doing an action that is innocent, but which, by some singular means is conceived by him to be criminal: his remorse aggravates his distress; and our compassion, unrestrained by indignation, knows no bounds. Pity comes thus to be the ruling passion of a pathetic tragedy; and by proper representation, may be raised to a height scarcely exceeded by any thing felt in real life. A moral tragedy takes in a larger field; as it not only exercises our pity, but raises another passion, which, though selfish, deserves to be cherished equally with the social affection. The passion I have in view is fear or terror; for when a misfortune is the natural consequence of some wrong bias in the temper, every spectator who is conscious of such a bias in himself, takes the alarm, and dreads his falling into the same misfortune: and by the emotion of fear or terror, frequently reiterated in a variety of moral tragedies, the spectators are put upon their guard against the disorders of passion.
The commentators upon Aristotle, and other critics, have been much puzzled about the account given of tragedy by that author:
That, by means of pity and terror, it refines or purifies in us all sorts of passion." But no one who has a clear conception of the end and effects of a good tragedy, can have any difficulty about Aristotle's meaning: our pity is engaged for the persons represented; and our terror is upon our own account. Pity indeed is here made to stand for all the sympathetic emotions, because of these it is the capital. There can be no doubt that our sympathetic emotions are refined or improved by daily exercise; and in what manner our other passions are refined by terror, I have just now said. One thing is certain, that no other meaning can justly be given to the foregoing doctrine than that now mentioned; and that it was really Aristotle's meaning, appears from his 13th chapter, where he delivers several propositions conformable to the doctrine as here explained. These, at the same time, I take the liberty to mention; because, as
far as authority can go, they confirm the foregoing reasoning about subjects proper for tragedy. The first proposition is, that it being the province of tragedy to excite pity and terror, an innocent person falling into adversity ought never to be the subject. This proposition is a necessary consequence of his doctrine as explained: a subject of that nature may indeed excite pity and terror; but in the former in an inferior degree, and the latter no degree for moral instruction. The second proposition is, that the history of a wicked person in a change from misery to happiness, ought not to be represented. It excites neither terror nor compassion, nor is agreeable in any respect. The third is, that the misfortunes of a wicked person ought not to be represented. Such representation may be agreeable in some measure upon a principle of justice: but it will not move our pity; nor any degree of terror; except in those of the same vicious disposition with the person represented. The last proposition is, that the only character fit for representation lies in the middle, neither eminently good nor eminently bad; where the misfortune is not the effect of deliberate but of some involuntary fault, as our author expresses it.*
The only objection I find to Aristotle's account of tragedy, is, that he confines it within too narrow bounds, by refusing admittance to the pathetic kind: for if terror be essential to tragedy, no representation deserves that name but the moral kind, where the misfortunes exhibited are caused by a wrong balance of mind, or some disorder in the internal constitution: such misfortunes always suggest moral instruction; and by such misfortunes only, can terror be excited for our improvement.
Thus Aristotle's four propositions above mentioned relate solely to tragedies of the moral kind. Those of the pathetic kind, are not confined within so narrow limits : subjects fitted for the theatre, are not in such plenty as to make us reject innocent misfortunes which rouse our sympathy, though they inculcate no moral. With respect, indeed, to subjects of that kind, it may be doubted; whether the conclusion ought not always to be fortunate. Where a person of integrity is represented as suffering to the end under misfortunes purely accidental, we depart discontented, and with some obscure sense of injustice: for seldom is man so submissive to Providence, as not to revolt against the tyranny and vexations of blind chance; he will be tempted to say, this ought not to be. Chance, giving an impression of anarchy and misrule, produces always a damp upon the mind. I give for an example the Romeo and Juliet of Shakspeare, where the fatal catastrophe is occasioned by Friar Laurence's coming to the monument a minute too late: we are vexed at the unlucky chance, and go away dissatisfied. Such impressions, which ought not to be cherished, are a sufficient reason for excluding stories of that kind from the theatre. The misfortunes of a virtuous person, arising from necessary causes or from a chain of unavoidable circumstances, are considered in a different light. A regular chain of causes and effects
* If any one can be amused with a grave discourse which promiseth much and performs nothing, I refer to Brumoy in his Theatre Grec, Preliminary discourse on the origin of Tragedy.
directed by the general laws of nature, never fails to suggest the hand of Providence; to which we submit without resentment, being conscious that submission is our duty.* For that reason, we are not disgusted with the distresses of Voltaire's Mariamne, though redoubled on her till her death, without the least fault or failing on her part: her misfortunes are owing to a cause extremely natural, and not unfrequent, the jealousy of a barbarous husband. The fate of Desdemona, in the Moor of Venice, affects us in the same manner. We are not so easily reconciled to the fate of Cordelia in King Lear: the causes of her misfortune are by no means so evident, as to exclude the gloomy notion of chance. In short, a perfect character suffering under misfortunes, is qualified for being the subject of a pathetic tragedy, provided chance be excluded. Nor is a perfect character altogether inconsistent with a moral tragedy: it may successfully be introduced in an under part, if the chief place be occupied by an imperfect character, from which a moral can be drawn. This is the case of Desdemona and Mariamne just mentioned; and it is the case of Monimia and Belvidera, in Otway's two tragedies, the Orphan, and Venice Preserved.
I had an early opportunity to unfold a curious doctrine, that fable operates on our passions, by representing its events as passing in our sight
, and by deluding us into a conviction of reality.† Hence, in epic and dramatic compositions, every circumstance ought to be employed that may promote the delusion; such as the borrowing from history of some noted event, with the addition of circumstances that may answer the author's purpose: the principal facts are known to be true; and we are disposed to extend our belief to every
circumBut in choosing a subject that makes a figure in history, greater precaution is necessary than where the whole is a fiction. In the latter case there is full scope for invention: the author is under no restraint other than that the characters and incidents be just copies of nature. But where the story is founded on truth, no circumstances must be added, but such as connect naturally with what are known to be true; history may be supplied, but must not be contradicted : farther, the subject chosen must be distant in time, or at least in place; for the familiarity of recent persons and events ought to be avoided. Familiarity ought more especially to be avoided in an epic poem, the peculiar character of which is dignity and elevation: modern manners make no figure in such a poem. I
After Voltaire, no writer, it is probable, will think of rearing an epic poem upon a recent event in the history of his own country. But an event of that kind is perhaps not altogether unqualified for tragedy: it was admitted in Greece; and Shakspeare has employed
* See Essays on the Principles of Morality, edit. 2. p. 291. + Chap. 2. Part 1. Sect. 7.
# I would not from this observation be thought to undervalue modern manners. The roughness and impetuosity of ancient manners, may be better fitted for an epic poem, without being better fitted for society. But without regard to that circumstance, it is the familiarity of modern manners that unqualifies them for a lofty subject. The dignity of our present manners, will be better understood in future ages, when they are no longer familiar.
it successfully in several of his pieces. One advantage it possesses above fiction, that of more readily engaging our belief, which tends above
any other circumstance to raise our sympathy. The scene of comedy is generally laid at home; familiarity is no objection; and we are peculiarly sensible of the ridicule of our own man
After a proper subject is chosen, the dividing of it into parts requires some art. The conclusion of a book in an epic poem, or of an act in a play, cannot be altogether arbitrary; nor be intended for so slight a purpose as to make the parts of equal length. The supposed pause at the end of every book, and the real pause at the end of every act, ought always to coincide with some pause in the action. In this respect, a dramatic or epic poem ought to resemble a sentence or period in language, divided into members that are distinguished from each other by proper pauses; or it ought to resemble a piece of music, having a full close at the end, preceded by imperfect closes that contribute to the melody. Every act in a dramatic poem ought, therefore, to close with some incident that makes a pause in the action; for otherwise there can be no pretext for interrupting the representation : it would be absurd to break off in the very heat of action; against which every one would exclaim: the absurdity still remains where the action relents, if it be not actually suspended for some time. This rule is also applicable to an epic poem : though in it a deviation from the rule is less remarka. ble, because it is in the reader's power to hide the absurdity, by proceeding instantly to another book. The first book of Paradise Lost ends without any close, perfect or imperfect : it breaks off abruptly, where Satan, seated on his throne, is prepared to harangue the convocated host of the fallen angels; and the second_book begins with the speech. Milton seems to have copied the Æneid, of which the two first books are divided much in the same manner. Neither is there any proper pause at the end of the fifth book of the Æneid. There is no proper pause at the end of the seventh book of Paradise Lost, nor at the end of the eleventh. In the Iliad, little attention is given to this rule.
This branch of the subject shall be closed with a general rulethat action being the fundamental part of every composition whether epic or dramatic, the sentiments and tone of language ought to be subservient to the action, so as to appear natural, and proper for the occasion. The application of this rule to our modern plays, would reduce the bulk of them to a skeleton.*
*"En général, il y a beaucoup de discours et peu d'action sur la scene Françoise. Quelqu'un disoit en sortant d'une piece de Denis le Tiran, Je n'ai rien vu, mais j'ai entendu force paroles. Voila ce qu'on peut dire en sortant des pieces Françoises. Racine et Corneille, avec tout leur génie, ne sont eux-mêmes que des parleurs; et leur successeur est le premier qui, à l'imitation des Angiois, ait ose mettre quelquefois la scene en représentation. Communément tout se passe en beaux dialogues bien agencés, bien ronflans, ou l'on voit d'abord que le premier soin de chaque interlocuteur est toujours celui de briller. Presque tout s'enonce en maximes générales. Quelque agités qu'ils puissent être, ils songent toujours plus au public qu’à eux mêmes ; une sentence leur coute moins qu'un sentiment; les pieces de Racine et de Moliere exceptées, le je est presque aussi
After carrying on together epic and dramatic composition, I shall mention circumstances peculiar to each; beginning with the epic kind. In a theatrical entertainment, which employs both the eye and the ear, it would be a gross absurdity, to introduce uponthe stage superior beings in a visible shape. There is no place for such objection in an epic poem; and Boileau,* with many other critics, declares strongly for that sort of machinery in an epic poem. But waving authority, which is apt to impose upon the judgment, let us draw what light we can from reason. I begin with a preliminary remark—that this matter is but indistinctly handled by critics: the poetical privilege of animating insensible objects for enlivening a description, is very different from what is termed machinery, where deities, angels, devils, or other supernatural powers, are introduced as real personages, mixing in the action, and contributing to the catastrophe; and yet these are constantly jumbled together in the reasoning. The former is founded on a natural principle;t but can the latter claim the same authority ? far from it; nothing is more unnatural. Its effects, at the same time, are deplorable. First, it gives an air of fiction to the whole; and prevents that impression of reality, which
is requisite to interest our affections, and to move our passions. This of itself is sufficient to explode machinery, whatever entertainment it may afford to readers of a fantastic taste or irregular imagination. And, next, were it possible, by disguising the fiction, to delude us into a notion of reality, which I think can hardly be; an insuperable objection would still remain, that the aim or end of an epic poem can never be attained in any perfection, where machinery is introduced; for an evident reason, that virtuous emotions cannot be raised successfully, but by the actions of those who are endued with passions and affections like our own ; that is, by human actions: and as for moral instruction, it is clear, that none can be drawn from beings who act not upon the same principles with us. A fable in Æsop's manner is no objection to this reasoning : his lions, bulls, and goats, are truly men in disguise : they act and feel in every respect as human beings; and the moral we draw is founded on that supposition. Homer, it is true, introduces the gods into his fable: but the religion of his country authorised that liberty; it being an article in the Grecian creed, that the gods often interpose visibly and bodily in human affairs. I must, however, observe, that Homer's deities do no honor to his poems : scrupuleusement banni de la scene Françoise que des écrits de Port Royal ; et les passions humaines, aussi modestes que l'humilité Chrétienne, n'y parlent jamais que par on. Il y a encore une certaine dignité manierée dans la geste et dans le propos, qui ne permet jamais à la passion
de parler exactement son language, ni à l'auteur de revetir son personage, et de se transporter au lieu de la scene; mais le tient toujours enchainé sur le théatre, et sous les yeux des spectateurs. Aussi les situations les plus vives ne lui font-elles jamais oublier un bel arrangement de phrases, ni des attitudes élégantes; et si le desespoir lui plonge un poignard dans fe cæur, non content d'observer la décence en tombant comme Polixene, il ne tombe point; la décence le maintient debout aprés sa mort, et tous ceux qui viennent d'expirer s'en retournent l'instant d'après sur leurs jambes.” Rousseau.
* Third Part of his Art of Poetry. + Chap. 20. Sect. 1.
See Chap. 2. Part I. Sect. 7.