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nounced as one design of his “Specimens of the Early Drama" to show how much of Shakspeare shines in the great men his contemporaries, and how far in his divine mind and manners he surpassed them and all mankind.
Accustoined as we are to such elevated conceptions of Shakspeare's powers, it makes a strange impression on the mind when we first read a description of the theatrical representations for which his writings were originally intended. The rude fashion of the buildings, and the still ruder fashion of the audience, seem singularly incongruous. amusements,” we are told, “of the audience, previous to the commencement of the play, were reading, playing at cards, smoking tobacco, drinking ale, and eating nuts and apples. Even during the performance, it was customary for wits and critics, and young gallants who were desirious of attracting attention, to station themselves on the stage, either lying on the rushes or seated on hired stools, while their pages furnished them with pipes and tobacco." To these animals Shakspeare cast the pearls of his philosophy! To think that to such as these were first spoken the deep-souled melancholy, the heart-stricken meditations, of Hamlet! In one particular, it has been well remarked the destitute condition of the early theatre was propitious to the poetry of the drama,—the absence of all moveable
scenery or scenic
preparations rendering it necessary to appeal solely and strongly to the imagination of the hearer; for had there been any ambitious imitation by painted canvas, we might not have stood with Lear on the cliffs of Dover, or amid the palaces of Venice with Shylock and Antonio.
The theatrical inadequacy in Shakspeare's own times suggests the inquiry whether the stage at any period is competent to the representation of his wonderful productions. Not questioning that occasionally a single part may be enacted with ability, I do not hesitate to believe that, for integrity of impression, the stage is utterly and universally incompetent; and, still more, that it intrudes into the imagination low, mean, and false associations, --notions which it is hard to purge the mind of. And therefore I rejoice that every year the representation of Shakspeare's plays is becoming less and less frequent. The satisfaction of witnessing the masterly representation of a chief part by a great actor is purchased at too high a cost.
How, for instance, can flesh and blood, of the lightest texture, deal with the representation of such a creature as Ariel, so ethereal that he speeds on Prospero's mandate -
" I drink the air before me, and return
and, while doing his spiriting gently in his earthly master's service, can yet sing a bird-like song, a fairy's lyric, such as only Shakspeare's sweet fancy could have framed :
“ Where the bee sucks, there suck I;
In a cowslip s bell I lie;
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough." What has the stage ever done for the weird sisters in “Macbeth” The curtain rises, and there stand three figures, tattered and grotesquelooking,—very like those wretched vagrants to be seen in our streets picking rags
scraps from out the gutters; and the first sounds they utter reveal that the parts are filled by the comic actors of the company, -the
very tones of whose voices come associated with vulgar buffoonery and ribaldry. And these are the chosen representations of those terrific creations ! and thus that mighty work of genius, crimson-dyed in the blood of tragedy, is ushered in like a farce! No; the myriad mind of Shakspeare is a region too lofty and too pure for scenic art to reach. The genius of Garrick sank beneath the effort. The best acting plays are the works of far inferior dramatists ; but for Shakspeare let no one put his intellect in pledge to receive his idea from the players. Indeed, several of his chief dramas have been vilely mutilated for the very purpose of adapting them to the stage. In “Richard the Third,” passages have been interpolated which the heart of the poet would have repudiated with disgust. In the “Tempest” there was not love enough; and actually a second pair of lovers has been thrųst in, marring the lovely impression of those sweet interviews of Ferdinand and Miranda. “Romeo and Juliet” was not tragic enough ; and a little more grief is patched on the catastrophe. “King Lear” was too tragic, and the catastrophe must be abated.
The inadequacy of the stage-not only for Shakspeare's supernatural creations, but even his human characters—has been admirably discussed by Charles Lamb, in one of his peculiar and inimitable essays. “The Lear of Shakspeare,” he remarks, “cannot be acted. It is essentially impossible to be represented on a stage: the contemptible machinery by which they mimic the storm he goes out in is not more inadequate to represent the horrors of the real elements than any actor can be to represent Lear; they might more easily propose to personate the Satani of Milton upon a stage, or one of Michael Angelo's terrible figures.
The greatness of Lear is not in corporeal dimension, but in intellectual: the explosions of his passions are terrible as a volcano; they are storms, turning up and disclosing to the bottom that sea, his mind, with all its vast riches. It is his mind which is laid bare. This case of flesh and blood seems too insignificant to be thought on, even as he himself neglects it. On the stage we see nothing but corporeal infirmities and weakness, the impotence of rage; while we read it, we see not Lear, but we are Lear; we are in his mind; we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms. What have looks or tones to do with that sublime identification of his age with that of the heavens themselves, when, in his reproaches to them for conniving at the injustice of his children, he reminds them that they themselves are old '? What gesture shall we appropriate to this ? what has the voice or the eye to do with such things ? But the play is beyond all art, as the tamperings with it show. It is too hard and stony; it must have love-scenes and a happy ending. It is not enough that Cordelia is a daughter; she must shine as a lover too. A happy ending!
- As if the living martyrdom that Lear had gone through, the flaying of his feelings alive, did not make a fair dismissal from the stage of life the only decorous thing for him. If he is to live and be happy after,—if he could sustain this world's burden after,—why all this pudder and preparation ? why torment us with all this unnecessary sympathy? As if the childish pleasure of getting his gilt robes and sceptre again could tempt him to act over again his misused station ! as if, at his years and with his experience, anything was left but to die.”
The knowledge of the drama of Shakspeare is to be gained by deep and careful study,-study thoughtful and imaginative; that is, not only by reflection and meditation on the wisdom of his oracular poetry, but by sympathetic action of the imagination, so as to realize what he creates. Just in proportion to the intensity of this imaginative effort will be the completeness of conception formed of any of these inventions. Tlus only do they leave an integrity of impression. For instance, it is essential to the true appreciation of “Macbeth” to realize the supernatural atmosphere which envelopes the action of that tragedy with all its rapidity of movement. It is set in a shadowy, spectral region of witches and dreams and nightmare; of visions to the open eye of the wakeful and the sealed eye of the sleeping; of invisible and mysterious powers in the elements, and the prophetic sight of distant dynasties of kings; of incantations ; of voiceless ghosts arising from bloody graves blood-bolstered visitants from charnel-houses; of the gloomy presentiments of the innocent and the more fearful hauntings of a blood-stained
conscience. The brief scene the drama opens with stamps its whole character. It is a wild and instant appeal to the imagination, especially by the absence of all definite designation. The scene, place:” amid thunder and lightning; the turmoil and carnage of war close at hand; the three witches, kinless, nameless,-sexless too, I may say; the weird women with beards, scenting the blood of a battlefield, meet, to meet again, to seal the deep damnation of their victim. Their fatal intent thus darkly intimated, they answer to mysterious calls of you know not what,—“Paddock” and “Graymalkin;" and, ere you have well known their presence, they vanish, with wild utterance of the confusion and murkiness of a demon's heart :
“ Fair is foul, and foul is fair ;
Hover through the fog and filthy air.” In short space they come again,—these posters of the sea and land,hastening from witchcraft mischief, gloating over the treasure of
“A pilot's thumb, Wreck'd as homeward he did come.”
And then, catching somewhat of sublimity from the greatness of the malice, they rise suddenly to the full stature of their supernatural strength, and, on the blasted heath, proclaim their prophetic salutation to Macbeth and Banquo. The sun shines out a little while on that sweet landscape in which Duncan is moving on with sacrificial meekness to his slaughter. As the guilt deepens, the supernatural atmosphere thickens with it,—visions and dreams and spiritual voices :
“Lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death;
There are Banquo's dreams of the weird sisters, and the bosom-weight of his gloomy presentiment; the fatal vision of “the air-drawn dagger,” with its “gouts of blood;" the broken sleep of the surfeited grooms, their laughter, their terror, and their prayers; and the wild curse in the air of eternal wakefulness : and all this magnified and distorted through the medium of a murderous, burning brain :
“There's one did laugh in his sleep, and one cried, murder !
“One cried, God bless us! and, Amen, the other;
“Still it cried, Sleep no more! to all the house ;
Glamis hath murder'd sleep; and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more!” The storm without is raging; and who can doubt that the witches were riding on the blast and untying the winds on that unruly night? The whole domain of Macbeth's castle is impregnated with the supernatural atmosphere :—the raven croaking over the battlements, the owl screaming, the obscene bird clamouring the livelong night,
War with mankind.” At a more advanced part of the tragedy the supernatural begins to fade away; "the dark and midnight hags”—whom the tyrant tampers with while their toils are winding closer and closer round him—vanish with Macbeth's curse upon them :
“Infected be the air whereon they ride,
And damn'd all those that trust them.” And when we draw near the catastrophe of the drama we almost forget the witchery of the weird sisters. Their mighty and superhuman malice has been achieved, and then all is left to human vice, human passion, human misery. The high-wrought spirituality of the tragedy has its sublime close in the slumbering agitation of Lady Macbeth that terrific, open-eyed, sleep-walking, sleep-talking, -and the neverending misery of the blood-stained hand,—the appalling incoherencies of the hauntings of guilt :
Out, damned spot ! out, I say ! ... Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him ? ..
I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried; he cannot come out of his grave.