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Hamlet is perhaps the most faulty of our author's dramas ; and yet it is perhsps the most interesting of them all in the representation. The plot is very ill conducted: the appearance
of a ghost violates the probability of the action ; and yet, as Dr. Johnson well remarks, “ the apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose : the revenge that was required is not obtained but by the death of him who was required to take it.” The murder of Polonius, and the subsequent madness and death of poor Ophelia, who is all along cruelly treated, outrages humanity; and Hamlet's neglect of the opportunity to kill the king when at prayers (and that upon the most shocking of motives, lest from the occasion he might obtain mercy of Heaven) seems to defeat the object of the play; and reduces the author to a very awkward and disgusting catastrophe.
Where then lies the charm of Hamlet? I answer, in the matchless genius of Shakspeare, who has combined in this play more variety of incident, more refinement of moral sentiment, more exquisite displays of human character than are to be found in any other drama. The ghost is such as no other author could have conjured up, solemn, dignified, yet tender and pathetic. The incident of the play exhibited before the court is finely contrived ; the spectator's interest is kept alive from the beginning for the fate of Hamlet ; and the closet scene with the Queen is perhaps the finest specimen extant of dramatic dialogue.
The pictures referred to are undoubtedly supposed to hang against the wall, as part of the furniture of the queen's closet.
Macbeth scarcely holds a lower rank than any of the preceding. I cannot agree with Dr. Johnson, that it is deficient in discrimination of character. I think the progress of wickedness is more finely marked in Macbeth than in any portrait that I have ever found. He commences a brave, honourable, and loyal person. One false step conducts to another, and he becomes gradually so depraved, that he declares
“ I am in blood
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
The machinery, which is grounded upon historical, or at least traditional evidence, is finely supported. I think it is Dryden that says:
“ But Shakspeare's magic could not copied be,
And I cannot remark with indignation on the abominable manner in which this incomparable play is commonly represented. The witches, who are designed as very serious characters, are represented by buffoons. On the contrary, instead of the low comedians, the very best declaimers in the theatre ought to support these awful, I had almost said sublime personages; and every exertion should be made to add to the solemnity of the scene.
The versatility of Shakspeare's talents is shewn in Cymbeline, where the passion of jealousy is exhibited under a different form and character to what it assumes in Othello. In his historical plays, the correctness with which the characters are drawn and sustained, as far as historical report enables us to judge, is greatly to be admired. The best I think are Julius Cæsar, and Richard III. In the former it is impossible not to observe how much better the character of Brutus is drawn by Shakspeare, than that of Cato by Mr. Addi
Next to Shakspeare, our best tragic writer is un. doubtedly Otway. Dr. Beattie most unaccountably der clares...." That the merit of Venice Preserved, and the Orphan, lies rather in the beauty of particular passages than in the general effect of the whole.” If this was the case, it is plain that these plays would only affect and please a few individuals of nice taste and discrimination, whereas the populace are always attracted by them and delighted with them. I believe much finer passages might be selected from some of Dryden's plays than any which are to be found in Otway, yet these plays do not keep the stage, and are not admired on the whole. In truth a few fine passages will never support any drama. After Otway, Rowe and Young rank highest in the list of English tragic writers.
COMEDY..... ARISTOPHANES......PLAUTUS.... TERENCE.....
MOLIERE......SHAKSPEARE.......JONSON.....BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER...DRYDEN...CONGREVE...FARQUHAR
MY DEAR JOHN,
ON the subject of comedy I shall, I hope, be less prolix than on the other branch of dramatic poetry; for much of what might be said on this topic is anticipated in my last letter. For good compositions of this kind, as well as of the former class, we must look to the moderns, and not to the ancients; indeed, as I obseryed, a play (strictly so called) may be regarded as a modern invention, at least what the ancients have left us are to be considered only as hints on which modern dramatists have successfully improved. Aristophanes was a mere farce writer, a buffoon, almost destitute of the only qualities that can render buffoonery tolerable, wit and humour. Plautus was much superior, and some of his dramas have both plot and character. Terence, who is regarded as a translator of Menander, is intolerably flat and tedious, and there is a sameness in all his dramas which renders the perusal of them, to me at least, insufferably irksome. In them there is
little of character or wit, nor indeed any one essential of a good play.
As I rejected Aristotle's rules respecting time and place in tragedy, so I think them equally absurd applied to comedy. The unity of action I would still insist upon for a general reason, which has been frequently repeated in the course of these letters.
The object of comedy is commonly regarded as diametrically opposite to that of tragedy; yet I am not one of that class of critics who condemn those mingled dramas, which sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter. “They approach nearer,” says Johnson, “than either (tragedy or comedy) to the appearance of life; they shew how great machinations and slender designs may promote or obviate one another, and the high and low co-operate in the general system of unavoidable concatenation.”
As, however, the provinces of each are distinct, though they may occasionally be united in the same production, we may be allowed to consider them under a distinct character.
The ends and principles of tragedy I formerly stated to be the passions of terror and pity; the ludicrous and absurd are the objects of comedy; and while the former is conversant in the great and important transactions of human life, the latter occupies itself with the lesser views and follies of men. The scene of tragedy is best laid in a different country, or at least at a different period of time; but comedy should be suited to the common level of men, and therefore directly contrary in both these respects. Dr. Blair is of opinion that the scene should be most frequently laid in our own country, or at least not too far distant, to expose the reigning foibles : thus the general idea or definition of comedy is a satirical exhibition of the follies and improprieties of mankind. While this is strictly pursued, comedy may answer an excellent purpose, besides that of amusement, and become subservient to the improvement of morals; but in licentious hands it may be, as it too frequently is, made an instrument of corruption.
In writing comedy, as well as tragedy, the first, object should be to find a really interesting story or plot, not too intricate, but such as will engage the audience, and keep attention alive. The next is to fill the drama with such an exhibition of characters, as will at once interest and amuse.
Much has been said about contrasting the characters, but this is reducing genius to line and rule. The characters should naturally emanate