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A certain actor, in repeating these lines, bent the knee, and kissed the hand, instead of assuming, as he ought, the firm attitude and indignant look, proper to express Hamlet's contempt for a cringing parasite. But it is still more absurd, in grave delivery, to regard mere phraseology instead of sentiment and emotion.
There is no case in which this want of discrimination oftener occurs, than in a class of words denoting sometimes numerical, and sometimes local extent, accompanied by the spreading of both hands; the significance of this gesture being destroyed by misapplication. The following examples may illustrate my meaning.
Exam. 1. “The goodness of God is the source of all our blessings.” The declaimer, when he utters the word God, raises his eye and his right hand ; and when he utters the word all, extends both hands. Now the latter action confounds two things, that are very distinct, number and space. When I recount all the blessings of my life, they are very many; but why should I spread my hands, to denote a multiplicity that is merely numerical and successive ? when the thought has no concern with local dimensions any more than in this case : “ All the days of Methusaleh were nine hundred and sixty years."
Exam. 2. All the actions of our lives will be brought into judgment.” Here again, the thought is that of arithmetical succession, not of local extent; and if any gesture is demanded, it is not the spreading of both hands.
Exam. 3. “I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Here the local extent which belongs to the thought, is properly expressed by action of both hands.
If there is language in action, it requires propriety and precision. The indiscriminate movement of the hands signifies nothing. Want of emphasis in this language is a great, but common fault. When the speaker, however, has an emphatic stroke of the hand, its effect is lost if that stroke does not accompany the emphasis of the voice; that is, if it falls one syllable after the stress of voice, or if it is disproportionate in force to that stress, in the same degree its meaning is impaired. The direction of the hand too, in which the emphatic stroke terminates, is significant. The elevated termination suits high passion; the horizontal, decision; the downward, disapprobation. And any of these may denote definitive designation of particular objects.
Another fault of action is excess. In some cases it is too constant. To enter on a discourse with passionate exclamations and high wrought figures, while the speaker and audience are both cool, is not more absurd than to begin with continual gesticulation. No man probably ever carried the language of action to so high a pitch as Garrick. Yet Dr. Gregory says of this great dramatic speak
“ He used less action than any performer I ever saw ; but his action always had meaning; it always spoke. By being less than that of other actors, it had the greater force.” But if constant action bas too much levity, even for the stage, what shall we say of that man's taste, who, in speaking on a subject of serious importance, can scarcely utter a sentence without extending his hands. " Ne
quid nimis. "*
* Fenelon says, "Some time ago, I happened to fall asleep at a sermon ; and when I awaked, the preacher was in a very violent
But action may be not merely too much ;-it may be too violent. Such are the habits of some men, that they can never raise the hand, without stretching the arm at full length above the head, or in a horizontal sweep; or drawing it back, as if in the attitude of prostratring some giant at a stroke. But such a man seems to forget that gentleness, and tranquillity, and dignity, are attributes that prevail more than violence, in real oratory. The full stroke of the hand, with extended arm, should be reserved for its own appropriate occasions. For common purposes, a smaller movement is sufficient, and even more expressive. The meaning of a gesture depends not on its compass. The tap of Cæsar's finger was enough to awe a Senate,
Action is often too complex. When there is want of precision, in the intellectual habits of the speaker, he adopts perhaps two or three gestures for one thought. In this way all simplicity is sacrificed ; for though the idea is complex, an attempt to exhibit each shade of meaning by the band, is ridiculous. After one principal stroke, every appendage to this, commonly weakens its effect.
Another fault of action, is too great uniformity. Like periodic tones and stress of voice, the same gesture recur
agitation, so that I fancied at first, he was pressing some important point of morality. But he was only giving notice, that on the Sunday following, he would preach upon repentance. I was extremely surprised to hear so indifferent a thing uttered with so much vehemence. The motion of the arm is proper, when the orator is very vehement; but he ought move his arm
order to appear vehement. Nay, there are many things that ought to be pronounced calmly, and without any motion."
ring constantly, shows want of discriminating taste. “In all things,” says Cicero, “ repetition is the parent of satiety."*
This barren sameness usually prevails, in a man's manner, just in proportion as it is ungraceful. Suppose, for example, that he is accustomed to raise his arm by a motion from the shoulder, without bending the elbow; or that the elbow is bent to a right angle, and thrust outward; or that it is drawn close to the side, so that the action is confined to the lower part of the arm and hand; or that the hand is drawn to the left, by bending the wrist so far as to give the appearance of constraint, or backwards so far as to contract the thumb and fingers ;-in all these cases, the motion is at once stiff and unvaried.
The same thing is commonly true of all short, abrupt, and jerking movements. These remind you of the dry limb of a tree, forced into short and rigid vibrations by the wind ; and not of the luxuriant branch of the willow, gently and variously waving before the breeze. The action of the graceful speaker, is easy and flowing, as well as forcible. His hand describes curve lines, rather than right or acute angles; and when its office is finished, in any case, it drops gently down at his side, instead of being snatched away, as from the bite of a reptile. The action of young children is never deficient in grace or variety; because it is not vitiated by diffidence, affectation, or habit.
There is one more class of faults, which seem to arise from an attempt to shun such as I have just described, and which I cannot better designate, than by the phrase mechanical variety.
* When a preacher,” says Reybaz, “ has only one gesture, it will necessarily, be incorrect or insignificant :--a dull uniformity of
is the common defect of preachers.”
This is analogous to that variety of tones, which is produced by an effort to be various, without regard to sense. The diversity of notes, like those of the chiming clock, returns periodically, but is always the same diversity. So a speaker may have several gestures, which he repeats always in the same successive order. The most common form of this artificial variety, consists in the alternate use of the right hand and the left. I have seen a preacher, who aimed to avoid sameness of action, in the course of a few sentences, extend first his right hand, then his left, and then both. This order was continued through the discourse; so that these three gestures, whatever might be the sentiment, returned, with nearly periodical exact
Now whatever variety is attained in this way, is at best but a uniform variety ; and is the more disgusting, in proportion as it is the more studied and artificial.
But the question arises, does this charge always lie against the use of the left hand alone ? I answer, by no means. The almost universal precepts, however, in the institutes of oratory, giving precedence to the right hand, are not without reason. It has been said, indeed, that the confinement of the left hand in holding up the robe, was originally the ground of this preference; and that this is a reason which does not exist in modern times. But how did it happen that this service, denoting inferiority, came to be assigned to the left, rather than the right hand ? Doubtless because this accords with a general usage of men, through all time. When Joseph brought his two sons to be blessed by Jacob, the patriarch signified which was the object of special benediction, by placing the right hand on his head, and the left on the head of the other