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peasant, who quietly dies in the cottage where he was born, the same throughout his life, both in manners and in rank.
There is a second species of story or fable, not simple, but complicated; a species where the succeeding events differ widely from the preceding; as, for example, the story of the well-known Massinello, who, in a few days, from a poor fisherman_rose to sovereign authority. Here the succession is not equal or similar, because we have a sudden revolution from low to high, from mean to magnificent.
There is another complicated species, the reverse of this last, where the revolution, though in extremes, is from high to low, from magnificent to mean. This may be illustrated by the same Massinello, who, after a short taste of sovereignty, was ignominiously slain.
And thus are all fables or stories either simple or complicated and the complicated also of two subordinate sorts; of which the one, beginning from bad, ends in good; the other, beginning from good, ends in bad.
If we contemplate these various species, we shall find the simple story least adapted either to comedy or tragedy. It wants those striking revolutions, those unexpected discoveries, so essential to engage and to detain a spectator.
It is not so with complicated stories. Here every sudden revolution, every discovery, has a charm, and the unexpected events never fail to interest.
It must be remarked, however, of these complicated stories, that, where the revolution is from bad to good, as in the first subordinate sort, they are more natural to comedy than to tragedy, because comedies, however perplexed and turbid may
· Εἰσὶ δὲ τῶν μύθων οἱ μὲν ἁπλοῖ, οἱ δὲ πεπλεγμένοι· καὶ γὰρ αἱ πράξεις, ὧν μιμήσεις οἱ μυθοί εἰσιν, ὑπάρχουσιν εὐθὺς οὔσαι τοιαύται λέγω δὲ, κ. τ. λ. "Of fables, some are simple, and some are complicated; for such are human actions, of which fables are imitations. By simple, I mean," &c. Aristot. Poet. cap. 10. p. 235. edit. Sylb.
b These revolutions and discoveries are
called in Greek περιπέτειαι and ἀναγνώ ρισεις. They are thus defined: Ἐστὶ δὲ περιπέτεια μὲν ἡ εἰς τὸ ἐναντίον τῶν πραττομένων μεταβόλη, καθάπερ εἴρηται, καὶ τοῦτο δὲ—κατὰ τὸ εἰκὸς, ἢ ἀναγκαῖον: “Α revolution is, as has been already said, a change into the reverse of what is doing, and that either according to probability, or from necessity." Aristot. Poet. c. 11. p. 235. edit. Sylb. Again: 'Avayvάpiois d' doriv, ὥσπερ καὶ τοὔνομα σημαίνει, ἐξ ἀγνοίας εἰς γνῶσιν μεταβολὴ, ἢ εἰς φιλίαν ἢ ἔχθραν τῶν πρὸς εὐτυχίαν ἢ δυστυχίαν ὡρισμένων: "A discovery is, as the name implies, a
change from ignorance to knowledge ; knowledge leading either to friendship or enmity between those who [in the course of the drama] are destined to felicity or infelicity." Aristot. Poet. ut supra.
The Stagirite having approved the practice, that tragedy should end with infelicity, and told us that the introduction of felicity was a sort of compliment paid by the poet to the wishes of the spectators, adds, upon the subject of a happy endingἜστι δὲ οὐχ αὕτη ἀπὸ τραγῳδίας ἡδονὴ, ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον τῆς κωμῳδίας οἰκεία· ἐκεῖ γὰρ ἂν οἱ ἔχθιστοι ὦσιν ἐν τῷ μύθω· οἷον Ορέστης καὶ Αἴγισθος· φίλοι γενόμενοι ἐπὶ τελευτῆς ἐξέρχονται, καὶ ἀποθνήσκει οὐδεὶς ὑπ ̓ οὐdevós: "This is not a pleasure arising from tragedy, but is rather peculiar to comedy. For there, if the characters are most hostile, (as much so, as Orestes and Ægisthus were,) they become friends at last, when they quit the stage, nor does any one die by the means of any other.” Aristot. Poet. c. 13. p. 238. edit. Sylb.
be their beginning, generally produce at last (as well the ancient as the modern) a reconciliation of parties, and a wedding in consequence. Not only Terence, but every modern may furnish us with examples.
On the contrary, when the revolution, as in the second sort, is from good to bad, (that is, from happy to unhappy, from prosperous to adverse,) here we discover the true fable, or story, proper for tragedy. Common sense leads us to call, even in real life, such events, tragical. When Henry the Fourth of France, the triumphant sovereign of a great people, was unexpectedly murdered by a wretched fanatic, we cannot help saying, it was a tragical story.
But to come to the tragic drama itself.
We see this kind of revolution sublimely illustrated in the Edipus of Sophocles; where Edipus, after having flattered himself in vain, that his suspicions would be relieved by his inquiries, is at last by those very inquiries plunged into the deepest woe, from finding it confirmed and put beyond doubt, that he had murdered his own father, and was then married to his own mother.
We see the force also of such a revolution in Milton's Samson Agonistes. When his father had specious hopes to redeem him from captivity, these hopes are at once blasted by his unexpected destruction.
Othello commences with a prospect of conjugal felicity; Lear with that of repose, by retiring from royalty. Different revolutions (arising from jealousy, ingratitude, and other culpable affections) change both of these pleasing prospects into the deepest distress, and with this distress each of the tragedies concludes.
Nor is it a small heightening to these revolutions, if they are attended, as in the Edipus, with a discovery; that is, if the parties who suffer, and those who cause their sufferings, are discovered to be connected: for example, to be husband and wife, brother and sister, parents and a child, &c.
If a man in real life happen to kill another, it certainly heightens the misfortune, even though an event of mere chance, if he discover that person to be his father or his son.
It is easy to perceive, if these events are tragic, (and can we for a moment doubt them to be such?) that pity and terror are the true tragic passions; that they truly bear that name, and are necessarily diffused through every fable truly tragic.
d See the same Poetics of Aristotle, in the beginning of chap. 11. "QoTep év T Οἰδίποδι, κ. τ. λ. p. 235. edit. Sylb.
e See Samson Agonistes, v. 1452, &c. f This example refers to the real Lear of Shakspeare, not the spurious one, commonly acted under his name, where the
imaginary mender seems to have paid the same compliment to his audience, as was paid to other audiences two thousand years ago, and then justly censured. See note c, p. 429.
It has been observed, that if persons of consummate virtue and probity are made
Now whether our ingenious countryman, Lillo, in that capital play of his, the Fatal Curiosity, learned this doctrine from others, or was guided by pure genius, void of critical literature; it is certain that in this tragedy (whatever was the cause) we find the model of a perfect fable, under all the characters here described.
"A long-lost son, returning home unexpectedly, finds his parents alive, but perishing with indigence.
"The young man, whom from his long absence his parents never expected, discovers himself first to an amiable friend, his long-loved Charlotte, and with her concerts the manner how to discover himself to his parents.
"It is agreed he should go to their house, and there remain unknown, till Charlotte should arrive, and make the happy discovery.
"He goes thither accordingly; and having, by a letter of Charlotte's, been admitted, converses, though unknown, both with father and mother, and beholds their misery with filial affection; complains at length he was fatigued, (which in fact he really was,) and begs he may be admitted for a while to repose. Retiring, he delivers a casket to his mother, and tells her it is a deposit she must guard till he awakes.
"Curiosity tempts her to open the casket, where she is dazzled with the splendour of innumerable jewels. Objects so alluring suggest bad ideas, and poverty soon gives to those ideas a sanction. Black as they are, she communicates them to her husband, who, at first reluctant, is at length persuaded, and for the sake of the jewels stabs the stranger while he sleeps.
"The fatal murder is perpetrating, or at least but barely perpetrated, when Charlotte arrives, full of joy, to inform them that the stranger within their walls was their long-lost son."
What a discovery? What a revolution? How irresistibly are the tragic passions of terror and pity excited."
It is no small praise to this affecting fable, that it so much resembles that of the play just mentioned, the Edipus Tyrannus. In both tragedies, that which apparently leads to joy, leads in its completion to misery; both tragedies concur in the horror of their discoveries; and both in those great outlines of a truly tragic revolution, where (according to the nervous sentiment of Lillo himself) we see
unfortunate, it does not move our pity, for we are shocked; if persons notoriously infamous are unfortunate, it may move our humanity, but hardly then our pity. It remains that pity, and we may add fear, are naturally excited by middle characters, those who are no way distinguished by their extraordinary virtue, nor who bring their misfortunes upon them so much by improbity as by error.
As we think the sufferings of such persons rather hard, they move our pity; as we think them like ourselves, they move our fear.
This will explain the following expressions: Ελεος μὲν, περὶ τὸν ἀνάξιον· φόβος de Tepl Tòv Suolov. Aristot. Poet. c. 13. p. 237. edit. Sylb.
h See page 430.
The two extremes of life,
The highest happiness, and deepest woe,
A further concurrence may be added, which is, that each piece begins and proceeds in a train of events, which with perfect probability lead to its conclusion, without the help of machines, deities, prodigies, spectres, or any thing else incomprehensible or incredible.k
We may say, too, in both pieces there exists totality; that is to say, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end.'
We mention this again, though we have mentioned it already, because we think we cannot enough enforce so absolutely essential a requisite; a requisite descending in poetry from the mighty epopee down to the minute epigram; and never to be dispensed with, but in sessions-papers, controversial pamphlets, and those passing productions, which, like certain insects of which we read, live and die within the day."
And now having given, in the above instances, this description of the tragic fable, we may be enabled to perceive its amazing efficacy. It does not, like a fine sentiment, or a beautiful simile, give an occasional or local grace; it is never out of sight; it adorns every part, and passes through the whole.
It was from these reasonings that the great father of criticism, speaking of the tragic fable, calls it the very soul of tragedy."
Nor is this assertion less true of the comic fable, which has, too, like the tragic, its revolutions and its discoveries; its praise from natural order, and from a just totality.
The difference between them only lies in the persons and the catastrophe, inasmuch as (contrary to the usual practice of tragedy) the comic persons are mostly either of middle or lower life, and the catastrophe for the greater part from bad to good, or (to talk less in extremes) from turbid to tranquil."
On fables, comic as well as tragic, we may alike remark, that, when good, like many other fine things, they are difficult. And hence perhaps the cause, why in this respect so many dramas are defective; and why their story or fable is commonly no more than either a jumble of events hard to comprehend, or a tale taken from some wretched novel, which has little foundation either in nature or probability.
Even in the plays we most admire, we shall seldom find our admiration to arise from the fable: it is either from the sentiment, as in Measure for Measure; or from the purity of the
It is true, that in one play mention is made of an oracle; in the other, of a dream; but neither of them affects the catastrophe; which in both plays arises from incidents perfectly natural.
1 See chap. v.
m Vid. Aristot. Animal. Histor. L. v. p. 143. edit. Sylb.
n See before, p. 427.
• See p. 429, 430.
diction, as in Cato; or from the characters and manners, as in Lear, Othello, Falstaff, Benedict and Beatrice, Ben the Sailor, sir Peter and lady Teazle, with the other persons of that pleasing drama, the School for Scandal.
To these merits, which are great, we may add others far inferior, such as the scenery; such as, in tragedy, the spectacle of pomps and processions; in comedy, the amusing bustle of surprises and squabbles; all of which have their effect, and keep our attention alive.
But here, alas! commences the grievance. After sentiment, diction, characters, and manners; after the elegance of scenes; after pomps and processions, squabbles and surprises; when, these being over, the whole draws to a conclusion, it is then unfortunately comes the failure. At that critical moment, of all the most interesting, (by that critical moment, I mean the catastrophe,) it is then the poor spectator is led into a labyrinth, where both himself and the poet are often lost together.
In tragedy, this knot, like the Gordian knot, is frequently solved by the sword. The principal parties are slain; and, these being despatched, the play ends of course.
In comedy, the expedient is little better. The old gentleman of the drama, after having fretted and stormed through the first four acts, towards the conclusion of the fifth is unaccountably appeased. At the same time, the dissipated coquette and the dissolute fine gentleman, whose vices cannot be occasional, but must clearly be habitual, are in the space of half a scene miraculously reformed, and grow at once as completely good as if they had never been otherwise.
It was from a sense of this concluding jumble, this unnatural huddling of events, that a witty friend of mine, who was himself a dramatic writer, used pleasantly, though perhaps rather freely, to damn the man who invented fifth acts.P
And so much for the nature or character of the dramatic fable.
We are now to inquire concerning manners and sentiment; and first for the theory of manners.
P So said the celebrated Henry Fielding, who was a respectable person both by education and birth, having been bred at Eton school and Leyden, and being lineally descended from an earl of Denbigh.
His Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones may be called master-pieces in the comic epopee, which none since have equalled, though multitudes have imitated; and which he was peculiarly qualified to write in the manner he did, both from his life, his learning, and his genius.
Had his life been less irregular, (for irregular it was, and spent in a promiscuous intercourse with persons of all ranks,) his pictures of human kind had neither been so
various nor so natural.
Had he possessed less of literature, he could not have infused such a spirit of classical elegance.
Had his genius been less fertile in wit and humour, he could not have maintained that uninterrupted pleasantry, which never suffers his reader to feel fatigue.