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That our devices still are overthrown;
But die thy thoughts, when thy first lord is dead.” Now by the side of this observe a meditation of Shakspeare clothed in his appropriate diction:
“ Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well,
Rough-hew them how we will.” In this difference of style, both of thought and language, Shakspeare acted from a deep principle of art. If the play within the play had been expressed in his usual style, there would have been nothing to distinguish it. It was necessary to have line of discrimination between the two; otherwise Hamlet and the dramatic interlude woven into the plot would have been very much the same thing. But how was this to be accomplished ? In a way manifesting Shakspeare's perfect sense of the true philosophy of the drama as an imaginative imitation of life. The play to be acted at Hamlet's suggestion, to satisfy his doubts of the king's guilt, was, of course, one degrée further removed from nature; and consequently a style proportionately removed from the ordinary speech of life was appropriated to it: a hyperbolical strain was needed to show its position beyond the primary drama, it being an imitation within an imitation, and the most fastidious taste is thus unconsciously reconciled to its exaggerations. Now, in applying these principles to the heroic tragedies of Dryden, it is perceived that the author has gone directly to the exaggerations, without any of that necessity which is the explanation of Shakspeare's employment of such a style. The simple language of imagination was not stimulant enough for a vitiated taste. The bounds of nature, within which the genius of Shakspeare moved, were disdainfully overleaped; and the consequence was bombast and fustian and all extravagance.
After Dryden had wasted much of his strength on his rhyming tragedies, his opinions began to undergo a change, and, perhaps with a truer appreciation of Shakspeare, to perceive that the fashion he had so greatly encouraged was nothing more than a fashion. The prevalent dramatic style had been keenly satirized, in the famous parody, “The Rehearsal,” by the witty and profligate Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, -Dryden being held up to chief ridicule in the prominent character of the dramatic author “Bayes.” The sharp shaft pierced him, giving not a mortal but a poisoned wound; for Dryden reserved his vengeance for
DRYDEN'S ALTERATION OF
the weighty blow he dealt to Buckingham some years after in his celebrated political satire. When the rhyme was relinquished and blank verse adopted by Dryden, in his later tragedies, his tone rose with the change; and now and then a passage may be discovered of admirable poetic cast.
Before dismissing the dramatic part of Dryden's career of authorship, two of his productions should be mentioned, as singularly illustrative of the perverted taste of the writer, and of those for whom he wrote. The first was his paraphrase of “Paradise Lost," which he traduced into a rhyming play, in five acts, entitled “The Fall of Innocence :"> work the merit of which may be conjectured from the plan of it, and, to my mind, conclusive that Dryden could not have had a just appreciation of the great epic poet. I know there is an expression of Dryden's often qnoted to prove his admiration of Milton; but there is also enough to show that he considered himself on this occasion as refining the matchless poem he was tampering with, and as giving it a polish and
grace it stood in need of. A still bolder venture was when, jointly with Davenant, he undertook to improve Shakspeare's exquisite play, “The Tempest,” and gave it the altered form which is still listened to in the theatres, doubtless, by not a few, as the real original production. This abuse of another of his unapproachable predecessors was also accompanied by words of admiration; for in the prologue he used the lines frequently quoted,
“Shakspeare's magic could not copied be:
Within that circle none durst walk but he."
But the sincerity of these words is scarcely to be reconciled with the ill-judged work they are prefaced to, of which it has been well said that not only “not one additional beauty has been inserted, not one felicitous hint improved, but the profound skill and knowledge of nature, for which the original has been justly praised, has been lost sight of by the improvers, who have stripped the spiritual creation of Shakspeare of its sky-tinctured robes, and stifled the wild harmony of its notes, in order that they might deck it in the artificial finery and bestow on it the conventional manners of their grosser times and their degraded theatre.”
Sir Walter Scott has, with great truth, observed “how much the character and style of Shakspeare's and Dryden's dramas were influenced by the manners of the respective ages in which they lived, and the different audiences they were addressed to. The poor, small theatres in which Shakspeare's and Jonson's plays were represented were filled with spectators who, though of the middle ranks, were probably worse educated than our more vulgar; but they came prepared with a tribute of tears and laughter to bursts of passion or effusions of wit, though incapable of estimating the beauties derived from the gradual development of a story, well-maintained characters, well-arranged incidents, and the minute beauties of language. Dryden, on the other hand, wrote what was to pass before the judgment of a monarch and his courtiers, professed judges of dramatic criticism, and a formidable band of town critics. Art, therefore, was not only a requisite qualification, but the principal attribute, of the dramatic poet. An exhibition of nature, in the strength of her wildest energies, as in 'Lear' and “Othello,'—deep emotion, or sweet and simple pathos,—would have found no correspondent feeling in the bosoms of the selfish, the witty, the affected, and the critical audiences who preferred the ingenious, romantic, and polished:” and, therefore, Scott reasonably questions whether the age of Charles II. would have borne the introduction of Othello or Falstaff.
The miserable vassalage of Dryden to the theatre at last began at once to irritate and depress him ; for he had a spirit which, if not elevated enough to save his talents from unworthy pursuits, did yet sooner or later awaken the painful sense of self-degradation. “I desire,” said he, “to be no longer the Sisyphus of the stage,-to roll up a stone with endless labour, which, to follow the proverb, gathers no moss, and which is perpetually falling down again.”
The ambition of an heroic poem was flitting across his mind. But from this he was called away to a different service; and it is vain to speculate what an epic poem from the pen of Dryden might have been. I can see little reason to regret that he was diverted from the attempt; for his imagination, with all its power in certain departments, was hardly capable of a long-sustained and requisite majesty. He was now to enlarge the domain of English poetry by the production of the most nervous political satire in the language. When the inquiry is made as to the ground of Dryden's poetical fame, he is found to be one of the poets whose reputation is not at once justified by a reference to any one chief production. It probably rests principally upon his great satire, -the poem of “Absalom and Achitophel.” The reign of Charles II. was a reign of political intrigue,—an effect or one form of its corruption. It was a period of plot and cabal, busy with the present and still busier with the future,—the question of the succession. It would consume more time than is at my command to recall the state of things which Dryden took as the occasion of his poem. It was levelled against the
THE DUKE OF BUCKINGHAM.
scheme of Shaftesbury and his adherents to set aside the heir-presumptive to the throne and advance the interests of the king's natural son, ---the unfortunate Duke of Monmouth. Political lampoons and satires were no novelties in the ephemeral literature of England; but such a satire as Dryden's was an engine of destruction such as had not been known before. It was like some of the weapons which are revolutionizing modern warfare, contrasted with the bow and arrow or the clumsy matchlock musket of olden times. The satire of Dryden had the merit of striking high as well as strongly,- having, however, it should be added, the royal encouragement to sanction its boldness, and some against whom it was levelled having fallen from their high station. The poem gave its author opportunity for his long-reserved retribution upon one who had made the first assault,—the Duke of Buckingham, --the satire of “ The Rehearsal” being now repaid in a few lines, into which was compressed sarcasm a hundredfold multiplied. The character of Zimri, in which he represented Buckingham, was considered by the author himself as the masterpiece of his satire, and his own comment is the best statement of the admirable adroitness of the attack :“The character of Zimri, in my 'Absalom,' is, in my opinion, worth the whole poem. It is not bloody, but it is ridiculous enough; and he for whom it was intended was too witty to resent it as an injury. If I had railed, I might have suffered for it justly; but I managed my own work more happily, perhaps more dexterously. I avoided the mention of great crimes, and applied myself to the representing of blind sides and little extravagances, to which the wittier a man is he is generally the more obnoxious. It succeeded as I wished; the jest went round, and he was laughed at in his turn who began the frolic :
“ Some of their chiefs were princes of the land :
In the first rank of these did Zimri stand ;
but all mankind's epitome:
In squandering wealth was his peculiar art,
By forming parties, but could ne'er be chief.” The finest skill of the satirist was shown in his choice of the vulnerable points of character. Buckingham was a cankered profligate, casehardened in sensuality, with every moral feeling literally dead; and, therefore, if the satire had consisted of invective of his immorality, or exposure of what was already notorious,-his debauchery and vice-it would have trickled off like drops of water on an oiled surface; but, as it was, it struck him, indurated as he was, like a shower of molten lead. Dryden well knew how encased his adversary was in the armour of a moral torpor; but he detected the joints of that armour, and there found space to thrust with his keen sword a desperate wound.
The grasp of Dryden's satire seized on some of his luckless contemporaries in authorship,-his small rivals in poetry,—who have gained a sinister immortality, owing all their fame to the stamp he put upon them, -such as Shadwell and poor Settle, who have come down to posterity in these lines :
“Doeg, though without knowing how or why,
And, if they rhymed and rattled, all was well." I cannot here omit noticing that a very wretched condition of literary society existed in Dryden's time; for there was a multitude of writers, many of them mere scribblers and versifiers, full of pretensions and empty of
every manly principle and generous feeling,-mean, mercenary, and stupid, for ever on the alert to take unfair advantage of a fellowlabourer. When Dryden meditated an epic poem, he was carefully mysterious as to the intended subject of it; for what reason, do you suppose? Why, from the fear that it would be immediately seized and appropriated by some of the countless scribblers, and thus his design be forestalled by this curious species of literary larceny. How melancholy a contrast is this to that hearty and open-hearted intercourse which prevailed among the distinguished dramatic contemporaries of