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Shakespearian Criticism in the Eighteenth
The early nineteenth century was too readily convinced by Coleridge and Hazlitt that they were the first to recognise and to explain the greatness of Shakespeare. If amends have recently been made to the literary ideals of Pope and Johnson, the reaction has not yet extended to Shakespearian criticism. Are we not still inclined to hold the verdicts of Hume and Chesterfield as representative of eighteenth-century opinion, and to find proof of a lack of appreciation in the editorial travesties of the playhouse ? To this century, as much as to the nineteenth, Shakespeare was the glory of English letters. So Pope and Johnson had stated in unequivocal language, which should not have been forgotten. “He is not so much an imitator as an instrument of Nature,” said Pope, “and 'tis not so just to say that he speaks from her as that she speaks through him ”; and Johnson declared that “the stream of time, which is continually washing the dissoluble fabrics of other poets, passes without injury by the adamant of Shakespeare.” But Pope and Johnson had ventured to point out, in the honesty of their criticism, that Shakespeare was not free from faults; and it was this which the nineteenth century chose to remark. Johnson's Preface in particular was remembered only to be despised. It is not rash to say
that at the present time the majority of those who chance to speak of it pronounce it a discreditable performance.
This false attitude to the eighteenth century had its nemesis in the belief that we were awakened by foreigners to the greatness of Shakespeare. Even one so eminently sane as Hazlitt lent support to this opinion. “We will confess,” says the Preface to the Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, “ that some little jealousy of the character of the national understanding was not without its share in producing the following undertaking, for we were piqued that it should be reserved for a foreign critic to give reasons for the faith which we English have in Shakespeare"; and the whole Preface resolves itself, however reluctantly, into praise of Schlegel and censure of Johnson. When a thorough Englishman writes thus, it is not surprising that Germany should have claimed to be the first to give Shakespeare his true place. The heresy has been exposed ; but even the slightest investigation of eighteenth-century opinion, or
the mere recollection of what Dryden had said, should have prevented its rise. Though Hazlitt took upon himself the defence of the national intelligence, he incorporated in his Preface a long passage from Schlegel, because, in his opinion, no English critic had shown like enthusiasm or philosophical acuteness. We cannot regret the delusion if we owe to it the Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, but his patriotic task would have been easier, and might even have appeared unnecessary, had he known that many of Schlegel's acute and enthusiastic observations had been anticipated at home.
Even those who are willing to give the eighteenth century its due have not recognised how it appreciated Shakespeare. At no time in this century was he not popular. The author of Esmond tells us that Shakespeare was quite out of fashion until Steele brought him back into the mode. Theatrical records would alone
1 Esmond, ii, 10. Thackeray was probably recalling a passage in the eighth Tatler.
be sufficient to show that the ascription of this honour to Steele is an injustice to his contemporaries. In the year that the Tatler was begun, Rowe brought out his edition of the best of our poets'; and a reissue was called for five years later. It is said by Johnson ? that Pope's edition drew the public attention to Shakespeare's works, which, though often mentioned, had been little read. Henceforward there was certainly an increase in the number of critical investigations, but if Shakespeare had been little read, how are we to explain the coffee-house discussions of which we seem to catch echoes in the periodical literature? The allusions in the Spectator, or the essays in the Censor, must have been addressed to a public which knew him. Dennis, who “read him over and over and still remained unsatiated," tells how he was accused, by blind admirers of the poet, of lack of veneration, because he had ventured to criticise, and how he had appealed from a private discussion to the judgment of the public.
“ Above all I am pleased,” says the Guardian, “in observing that the Tragedies of Shakespeare, which in my youthful days have so frequently filled my eyes with tears, hold their rank still, and are the great support of our theatre.” 2 Theobald could say that “this author is grown so universal a book that there are very few studies or collections of books, though small, amongst which it does not hold a place”; and he could add that “there is scarce a poet that our English tongue boasts of who is more the subject of the Ladies' reading." 3 It would be difficult to explain away these statements. The critical interest in Shakespeare occasioned by Pope's edition may have increased the knowledge of him, but he had been regularly cited, long before Pope's day, as England's representative
1 In the Life of Pope.
2 Guardian, No. 37 (23rd April, 1713). The paper was written by John Hughes (1677-1720), who had assisted Rowe in his edition of Shakespeare (see Reed's Variorum edition, 1803, ii. p. 149).
: Introduction to Shakespeare Restored.
genius. To argue that he had ever been out of favour we must rely on later statements, and they are presumably less trustworthy than those which are contemporary. Lyttelton remarked that a veneration for Shakespeare seems to be a part of the national religion, and the only part in which even men of sense are fanatics;' and Gibbon spoke of the “idolatry for the gigantic genius of Shakespeare, which is inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of an Englishman. The present volume will show how the eighteenth century could almost lose itself in panegyric of Shakespeare. 'The evidence is so overwhelming that it is hard to understand how the century's respect for Shakespeare was ever doubted. When Tom Jones took Partridge to the gallery of Drury Lane, the play was Hamlet. The fashionable topics on which Mr. Thornhill's friends from town would talk, to the embarrassment of the Primroses and the Flamboroughs, were “pictures, taste, Shakespeare, and the musical glasses.” The greatest poet of the century played a leading part in erecting the statue
a in the Poets' Corner. And it was an eighteenth-century actor who instituted the Stratford celebrations.
During the entire century Shakespeare dominated the stage. He was more to the actor then, and more familiar to the theatre-goer, than he is now. It is true that from Betterton's days to Garrick's, and later, his plays were commonly acted from mangled versions. But these versions were of two distinct types. The one respected the rules of the classical drama, the other indulged the license of pantomime. The one was the labour of the pedant theorist, the other was rather the improvisation of the theatre manager. And if the former were truly representative of the taste of the century, as has sometimes been implied, it has to be explained how they were not so popular as the latter. “ Our taste has gone back a whole century,” says the strolling player in the Vicar of Wakefield, “ Fletcher, Ben Jonson, and all the plays of Shakespeare are the only things that go down.” The whole passage is a satire on Garrick and a gibe at Drury Lane : “ The public go only to be amused, and find themselves happy when they can enjoy a pantomime under the sanction of Jonson's or Shakespeare's name.” But, whatever was done with Shakespeare's plays, they were the very life of the theatre. When we remember also the number of editions which were published, and the controversies to which they gave rise, as well as the fact that the two literary dictators were among his editors, we are prompted to ask, What century has felt the influence of Shakespeare more than the eighteenth ?
1 Dialogues of the Dead, xiv., Boileau and Pope. 2 Memoirs, ed. Birkbeck Hill, 1900, p. 105.
The century's interest in Shakespeare shows itself in four main phases. The first deals with his neglect of the so-called rules of the drama ; the second determines what was the extent of his learning; the third considers the treatment of his text; and the fourth, more purely aesthetic, shows his value as a delineator of character. The following remarks take these questions in order; and a concluding section gives an account of the individual essays here reprinted. Though the phases are closely connected and overlap to some extent, the order in which they are here treated accords in the main with their chronological sequence.
|_ Dryden is the father of Shakespearian criticism. Though he disguised his veneration at times, he expressed his true faith when he wrote, deliberately, the fervent
1 Chap. xviii. That the passage is animated by pique and that amusing jealousy which Goldsmith showed on unexpected occasions is evident from the Present State of Polite Learning, Ch. xi.
- Cf. Theophilus Cibber's attack on Garrick's adaptations in his Two Dissertations on the Theatres, 1756.