« PreviousContinue »
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished 24: For never was a story of more woe, Than this of Juliet and her Romeo 25. [Exeunt. This play is one of the most pleasing of our author's performances. The scenes are busy and various, the incidents numerous and important, the .catastrophe irresistibly affecting, and the process of the action carried on with such probability, at least with such congruity to popular opinions, as tragedy requires.
24 This line has reference to the poem from which the fable is taken; in which the Nurse is banished for concealing the marriage; Romeo's servant set at liberty, because he had only acted in obedience to his master's orders; the Apothecary is hanged; while Friar Laurence was permitted to retire to a hermitage near Verona, where he ended his life in penitence and tranquillity.
25 Shakspeare in his revision of this play has not effected the alteration by introducing any new incidents, but merely by adding to the length of the scenes. The piece appears to have been always a very popular one. Marston, in his Satires, 1598, says:
· Luscus, what's play'd to-day? faith, now I know;
Nought but pure Juliet and Romeo.' The concluding lines may have been formed on the last couplet of the old poem :
among the monuments that in Verona been,
Here is one of the few attempts of Shakspeare to exhibit the conversation of gentlemen, to represent the airy sprightliness of juvenile elegance. Dryden mentions a tradition, which might easily reach his time, of a declaration made by Shakspeare, that he was obliged to kill Mercutio in the third Act, lest he should have been killed by him. Yet he thinks him no such formidable person, but that he might have lived through the play, and died in his bed, without danger to the poet. Dryden well knew, had he been in quest of truth, in a pointed sentence, that more regard is commonly had to the words than the thought, and that it is very seldom to be rigorously understood. Mercutio's wit, gaiety, and courage, will always procure him friends that wish him a longer life; but his death is not precipitated, he has lived out the time allotted him in the construction of the play; nor do I doubt the ability of Shakspeare to have continued his existence, though some of his sallies are perhaps out of the reach of Dryden; whose genius was not very fertile of merriment, nor ductile to humour, but acute, argumentative, comprehensive, and sublime.
The Nurse is one of the characters in which the author delighted : he has with great subtility of distinction, drawn her at once loquacious and secret, obsequious and insolent, trusty and dishonest.
His comick scenes are happily wrought, but his pathetick strains are always polluted with some unexpected depravations*.
* A. W. Schlegel has answered this remark at length, and, as I think, satisfactorily, in a detailed criticism upon this tragedy, published in the Horen, a journal conducted by Schiller in 1794–1795, and made accessible to the English reader in Ollier's Literary Miscellany, Part I. In his Lectures on Dramatic Literature (vol. ii. p. 135, Eng. translation), will be found some further sensible remarks upon the 'conceits' here stigmatized. It should be remembered that playing on words was a very favourite species of wit combat with our ancestors.
• With children, as well as nations of the most simple manners, a great inclination to playing on words is often displayed; [they canVOL. X.
His persons, however distressed, have a conceit left them in their misery, a miserable conceit t.
not therefore be both puerile and unnatural : If the first charge is founded, the second cannot be so.] In Homer we find several examples ; the Books of Moses, the oldest written memorial of the primitive world, are, it is well known, full of them. On the other hand, poets of a very cultivated taste, or orators like Cicero, have delighted in them. Whoever, in Richard the Second, is disgusted with the affecting play of words of the dying John of Gaunt on his own name, let him remember that the same thing occurs in the Ajax of Sophocles.'
S. W. S. + This quotation is also found in the Preface to Dryden's Fables:– Just John Littlewit, in Bartholomew Fair, who had a conceit (as he tells you) left him in his misery; a miserable conceit.'