Page images
PDF
EPUB

INTRODUCTORY REMARKS.

THE

TE

SKETCH OF THE HISTORY OF CRITICAL OPINION TOUCHING

MERITS
AND AUTHORSHIP OF THIS PLAY—ITS CHARACTERISTICS AND VARIETY
OF MANNER--PROBABLE CAUSES OF THIS VARIETY, ETC.
NHE literary history of this play, and of the varying critical opinions respecting it, is

curious. PERICLES was a very popular play during the whole of Shakespeare's dramatic

career; it was often acted at the “Globe,” by the company in which he had an interest, where (froin the frequency of contemporary allusions to it) it seems to have been what is now called a stock play. Two successive editions of it, in the small quarto pamphlet form, then in use for such publications, were published during his life, and two or more within a few years after his death, (1619 and 1630,) all bearing his name as the author. It was, however, not contained in the first folio collection of his dramatic works, in 1623. It was afterwards inserted in the collection known as the “ third folio," in 1684. During the whole of that century, there appears abundant contemporary evidence that Pericles was indeed,

as its title-pages assert it to have been, a “much-admired play.” Ben Jonson growled at it as “a mouldy tale,” made up of " scraps out of every dish.” But this was when, prematurely old, poor, and mortified at public injustice, he poured forth his “just indignation at the vulgar censure of his play, by malicious spectators;" and in doing so he bears strong testimony that the public judgment as to Pericles was the reverse of his own—that it“ kept up the play-club," and was the favourite dramatic repast to the exclusion of his own “well-ordered banquet,” in what he denounced as “a loathsome age,” when

sweepings do as well
As the best-ordered meal ;
For who the relish of such guests would fit,
Needs set them but the alms-basket of wit.

(Ben Jonson's Ode to Himself"_" Come, leave the loathed stage," etc.) Ben's frank and friendly admonitor, the moralist Owen Feltham, replies by reminding him, that there were scenes and jokes in his own unfortunate play, (the “New Inn,") that,

throw a stain Through all the unlikely plot, and do displease

As deep as Pericles ;thus giving an additional testimony that the faults of Pericles did not escape the critical eye, while they pleased the many. Thus it kept possession of the stage until the days of Addison, when Pericles was one of the favourite parts of Betterton. Dryden, who lived near enough the author's time to have learned the stage tradition from contemporaries, while he evidently perceived the imperfections of this piece, never doubted its authenticity, and accounted for its inferiority to the greater tragedies, by considering them the consequences of the author's youthful inexperience:

Shakespeare's own muse his Pericles first bore;
The Prince of Tyre was older than the Moor:
'Tis miracle to see a first good play;
All hawthorns do not bloom on Christmas day.

(Prologue to Datenant's Circe," 1675.) This was in 1675, and the reputation of Pericles, and its unquestioned filiation as by Shakespeare, remained undisturbed until Rowe's edition, in 1709. Rowe had, upon some theory of his own, adopted the wild idea that Shakespeare, by the pure force of genius, attained at once to his highest excellence, without passing through the ordinary apprenticeship even of self-formed authors, in acquiring the coinmand of words, style, versification and invention, as well as taste, skill and judgment, by persevering trial and experience. He thought, on the contrary, that “perhaps we are not to look for his beginnings, like those of other authors, among their least perfect writings: art had so little and nature so large a share in what he did, that, for aught I know, the performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, and had the most fire and strength of imagination in them, were the best.” In consonance with this notice, he seems to have rejected the traditional opinion that Pericles was “a performance of the Poet's youth,” and instead of it makes the assertion that “it is owned that some part of Pericles was written by him, particularly the last scene;" thus intimating that the rest was from an inferior hand. He accordingly omitted the play in his editions, in which he was followed by the next succeeding editors. Pope's edition was the next in order, and the poet-critic, in his preface, made“ no doubt that these wretched plays, 'PERICLES,'· Locrine,'. Sir John Oldcastle,' etc., etc., cannot be admitted as his.” On the authority of these two poets, and especially of Pope, whom his admiring friend and successor in the editorial chair, Warburton, praised for his skill in selecting Shakespeare's genuine passages and works from the spurious ones, Pericles was summarily ejected from all the succeeding editions, those of Warburton, Theobald, Hanmer, and Johnson, as well as the common popular editions, without comment; so that, during the greater part of the last century, it was entirely unknown to the ordinary admirers of Shakespeare. Even Theobald, the bitter enemy and often the sagacious corrector of Pope, did not venture to dissent from the general decision, though he perceived and acknowledged in the play the traces of the master's hand. During this period, Pericles was noticed by critics and writers upon the English drama, only as

[ocr errors]

a play once erroneously attributed to Shakespeare, and was as little known among literary men as any of the place of the secondary dramatists of the same age, who have since been made familiar, at least by name and in quotatud oy the brilliant comments of Lamb and Hazlitt, and the large use made of them by the commentators.

Towards the end of the century, Pericles appeared in the editions of Malone, and in those of Johnson and Stereos. after the associations of these two critics. This was mainly in consequence of the opinion maintained by Malore. who had the courage to assert and support by argument, that " Pericles was the entire work of Shakespeare, and one of his earliest compositious.” Stevens, on the other hand, resolutely maintained :

“ The drama before us contains no discrimination of manners, (except in the comic dialogues,) very few traca of original thought, and is evidently destitute of that intelligence and useful knowledge that pervade even the meanest of Shakespeare's undisputed performances. To speak more plainly, it is neither enriched by the genus that sparkle through the rubbish of Love's LaboC R's Lost, nor the good sense which so often fertilizes the barren fable of the Two GENTLEMEN OF VERONA. PERICLES, in short, is little more than a string of adventures so UDDA rous, so inartificially crowded together, and so far removed from probability, that, in my private judgment. I 11.04 acquit even the irregular and lawless Shakespeare of having constructed the fabric of the drama, though be has certainly bestowed some decoration on its parts. Yet even this decoration, like embroidery on a blanket, oals serves by contrast to expose the meanness of the original materials. That the plays of Shakespeare have their ine qualities likewise, is sufficiently understood; but they are still the inequalities of Shakespeare. He may casos ally be absurd, but is seldom foolish; he may be censured, but can rarely be despised.

“I do not recollect a single plot of Shakespeare's formation, (or even adoption from preceding plays or posek.) in which the majority of the characters are not so well connected, and so necessary in respect of each other, tha: they proceed in combination to the end of the story; unless the story (as in the cases of Antigonus and Mercato) requires the interposition of death. In Pericles this continuity is wanting :

- disjectas moles, avulsaque sasis

Saxa vides; and even with the aid of Gower the scenes are rather loosely tacked together, than closely interwoven. We see no more of Antiochus after his first appearance. His anonymous daughter utters but one unintelligible comple: and then vanishes. Simonides likewise is lost as soon as the marriage of Thaisa is over; and the punishment of Cleon and his wife, which poetic justice demanded, makes no part of the action, but is related in a kind of epilogue by Gower. This is at least a practice which in no instance has received the sanction of Shakespeare. From such deficiency of mutual interest, and liaison among the personages of the drama, I am further strengthened in my be lief that our great Poet had no share in constructing it. Dr. Johnson long ago observed that his real power is not seen in the splendour of particular passages, but in the progress of his fable, and the tenour of his dialogue; and when it becomes necessary for me to quote a decision founded on comprehensive views, I can appeal to none in which I should more implicitly confide. Gower relates the story of Pericles in a manner not quite so desultory; and yet such a tale as that of Prince Appolyn, in its most perfeci state, would hardly have attracted the notice of any playwright, except one who was quite a novice in the rules of his art.”

In this view Malone finally acquiesced, in substance, though, with great truth and good taste, still insisting that

" The wildness and irregularity of the fable, the artless conduct of the piece, and the inequalities of the poetrs, may be all accounted for, by supposing it either his first or one of his earliest essays in dramatic composition."

Stevens's decision long remained unquestioned; both as to the point of Shakespeare's share of authorship, and the poetic merits of the drama itself; and it has recently received more authority for having been substantially reaffirmed by Mr. Hallam :-“ From the poverty and bad management of the fable, the want of effective and distin guishable character, and the general feebleness of the tragedy as a whole, I should not believe the structure to bare been Shakespeare's. But (he adds) many passages are far more in his manner than in that of any contemporary writer with whom I am acquainted, and the extrinsic testimony, though not conclusive, being of some value, 1 should not dissent from the judgment of Stevens and Malone, that it was in ‘no inconsiderable degree repaired and improved by his hand."" (Literature of Europe.) He elsewhere insists, that “ the play is full of evident marks of an inferior hand.” Other modern critics, of nearly as high name, have gone still further in censure: W. Gifford, for example, rejects and brands the play as “ the worthless Pericles.”

This sweeping, unqualified censure was amusingly counterbalanced by as unqualified an expression of admiration, by William Godwin—a writer whose political ethics and metaphysics, full of the boldest opinions, expressed in the most startling and paradoxical form, had prepared the public to expect similar extravagances on all other subjects, and had thus taken away much of the weight of his literary judgments. Yet these judgments are in fact entitled to all the weight due to a writer of genius, manifesting on all such subjects an extensive acquaintance with English literature, in its whole range, guided by a pure taste, and a quick and deep sensibility to every form of beauty. In his “Life of Chaucer," incidentally speaking of Pericles, he designates it as “ a beautiful drama," " which in sweetness of manner, delicacy of description, truth of feeling, and natural ease of language, would do honour to the greatest author that ever existed.” Since that period, many others have been more disposed to dwell upon the beauties of Pericles—the existence of which few now deny—than upon its many defects, to which none but a blind idolater of the great bard can close his eyes. Accordingly its merits have been vindicated by the modern continental critics, and by several of the later English ones; as by Franz Horn, Ulrici, Knight, Dr. Drake, and especially by Mr. Proctor, (Barry Cornwall,) in a long and admirable note, in his memoir of Ben Jonson, prefixed to Moxon's edition of Jonson's works, (1838.) (See extracts in notes to this edition.) Barry Cornwall roundly charges the preceding critics (from Pope to Gifford) with having condemned Pericles unread; while he proves that “ the merit and style of the work sufficiently denote the author"—that author of whom he eloquently says, that he " was and is, bevond all competition, the greatest Poet that the world has ever seen. He is the

a

a

greatest in general power, and greatest in style, which is symbol or evidence of power. For the motion of verse corresponds with the power of the poet; as the swell and tumult of the sea answer to the winds that call them up. From Lear down to Pericles, there ought to be no mistake between Shakespeare and any other writer.”— (Memoir of Ben Jonson, xxxi.)

The “ glorious uncertainty of the law" has been exemplified and commemorated, in a large and closely printed volume, containing nothing but the mere titles of legal decisions, once acknowledged as law, and since reversed or contradicted, as cases overruled, doubted, or denied.” The decisions of the critical tribunals would furnish materials for a much larger work; and Shakespearian criticism, by itself, would supply an ample record of varying or overruled judgments. Those on the subject of Pericles alone would constitute a large title in the collection; and, as a slight contribution to such compilation, I have thrown together, at the end of the notes to this play, some of the judgments and dicta of the principal critical authorities, upon the long-controverted questions connected witha this tragedy.

Yet, in the play itself may be found some foundation for all and each of those opinions, though least for the hasty and vague censures of Pope and Gifford. The play is awkwardly and unskilfully constructed, being on the plan of the old legendary drama, when it was thought sufficient to put some popular narrative into action, with little attempt at a condensed and sustained continuous interest in the plot or its personages. It rambles along through the period of two generations, without any attempt at the artist-like management of a similar duration in the WinTER's Tale, by breaking up the story into parts, and making the one a natural sequel to the other, so as to keep up a uniform continuity of interest throughout both. The story itself is extravagant, and its denouement is caused by the aid of the heathen mythology, which, as we have had occasion to observe elsewhere, (Introductory Remarks to CYMBELINE,) every mind, trained under modern associations and habits of thought, feels as repugnant to dramatic truth, and at once refuses to lend to it that transient conventional belief so necessary to any degree of illusion or interest, and so readily given to shadowy superstitions of other kinds, as ghosts, witches, and fairies, more akin to our general opinions, or more familiar to our childhood. A still greater defect than this is one rare indeed in any thing from Shakespeare's mind—the vagueness and meagerness of the characters, undistinguished by any of that portrait-like individuality which gives life and reality to the humblest personages of his scene. Thence, in spite of the excellence of particular parts, there results a general feebleness of effect in the whole. The versification is, in general, singularly halting and uncouth, and the style is sometimes creeping and sometimes extravagant.

From these circumstances, if, at the time when Pericles was excluded from the ordinary editions, its place had been supplied by a prose outline of the story, with occasional specimens of the dialogue, such as Voltaire gave of JULIUS CESAR, selected only from the most extravagant passages, there would be little hesitation in denying the whole or the greater part of the play to be Shakespeare's, or in allowing that it bore “ evident marks of an inferior hand.”

Yet, on the other hand, it contains much to please, to surprise, to affect, and to delight. The introduction of old Gower, linking togethe : the broken action, by his antiquated legendary narrative, is original and pleasing. The very first scenes have nere and there some passages of sudden and unexpected grandeur, and the later acts bear everywhere the very “ form and pressure" of Shakespeare's mind. Yet it is observable, that wherever we meet hiin, in his own unquestionable person, it is not as the poetic Shakespeare of the youthful comedies, but with the port and style the author of Lear and Cordeli Indeed, the scene in the last act, of Pericles's recognition of his daughter, recalls strongly the touching passages of Cordelia's filial love, and Lear's return to reason, by a resemblance, not so much of situation or language, as of spirit and feeling. The language and style of these nobler passages are peculiarly Shakespearian, and, as Mr. Hallam justly observes, “ of the Poet's later manner." They have his emphatic mode of employing the plainest and most homely words in the highest and most poetical sense,-his original compounds, his crowded magnificence of gorgeous imagery, interspersed with the simplest touches of living nature. Thus, when Pericles retraces his lost wife's features in his recovered child :

My dearest wife was like this maid, and such a one
My daughter might have been; my queen's square brows,
ller stature to an inch; as wand-like straight;
As silver voiced; her eyes as jewel-like,

And cas'd as richly; in pace another Juno, etc.-(Ad v. scene 1.) Here, too, we find his peculiar mode of stating and enforcing general truths-not in didactic digression, but as interwoven with and growing out of the incidents or passing emotions of the scene. (See note, act i. scene 1.) Taking these characteristics into view, and these alone, the play must be pronounced worthy of all the praise bestowed by Godwin. If then we were to reverse the experiment just suggested, upon the supposed reader who knows no more of Pericles than that it is a play which has been ascribed by some to Shakespeare, and to place before him a prose abstract of the plot, interspersed with large extracts from the finer passages, he would surely wonder why there could have been a moment's hesitation in placing Pericles by the side of Cymbeline and the WINTER'S TALE.

There are two different solutions of these contradictory phenomena, and it is not easy to decide, with confidence, which is the true one. The first hypothesis is founded upon the old traditionary opinion, that Pericles, in its original form, was one of the author's earliest dramatic essays, perhaps an almost boyish work; but that not long before 1609, when it was printed as a “ late much-admired play,” the author, then in the meridian of his reputation, revised and enlarged it, as he had repeatedly done with others of his plays, which, like ROMEO AND JULIET, Love's Labour's Lost, etc, are announced in their title-pages as having been “ newly corrected, augmented, and amended." This hypothesis, of course, rejects the favourite notion that Shakespeare's genius burst forth at once,

« PreviousContinue »