Page images

narily inove, is perfectly well known to all who are acquainted with the machinery of the drama. In the case before us, even if Shakespeare had not this principle in view, the association of the English earthquake must have been strongly in his mind, when he made the Nurse date from an earthquake. Without reference to the circumstance of Juliet's age, he would naturally, dating from the earthquake, have made the date refer to the period of his writing the passage, inst ad of the period of Juliet's being weaned. But, according to the Nurse's chronology, Juliet had not arrived at that epoch in the lives of children, till she was three years old. The very contradiction shows that Shakespeare l'ad another object in view than that of making the Nurse's chronology tally with The age of her nursling."

This of course would throw the original writing of the play back to the year 1591, or thereabouts, and so give ample time for the growth of mind indicated by the additions and improvements of the second issue. However, we do not regard the argument from the Nurse's speech as conclusive; for, even granting the Poet to have had his thoughts on the particular earthquake in question, it does not follow that he would have made the Nurse perfectly accurate in her reckoning of time. It may be worth observing, in this connection, that there appears some little remembrance, one way or the other, between the play and Daniel's Complaint of Rosamond, published in 1592. The passage from Daniel is given in Act v. sc. 3, note 7; so that it need not be quoted here. It will be seen, from the preceding note, that, except in one slight particular, the resemblances both of thought and expression are not found in the oldest copy of the play. Nor even in that particular is the resemblance so close as to infer any more acquaintance than might well enough have been formed by the ear; and Daniel was a man of theatrical tastes. So that this does not necessarily make against 1591 as Shakespeare's true date; though whether Daniel first improved upon him, and then he upon Daniel, or whether the original writing of the play was not till after the priuting of the poem, cannot with certainty be affirmed.

At all events, we are quite satisfied, from many, though for the most part undefinable, tricks of style, that the tragedy in its original state was produced somewhere between 1591 and 1595. The cast of thought and imagery, but especially the large infusion, not to sav preponderance, of the lyrical element, naturally associates it is the same stage of art and authorship which gave us A Midsummer-Night's Dream. The resemblance of the two plays in these respects is too strong and clear, we think, to escape any studious eye, well-practised in discerning the Poet's different styles. And a diligent comparison of Romeo and Juliet with, for example, the poetical scenes in the First Part of King Henry IV., which was published in 1598, will suffice for the conclusion that the former must have been written several years before the latter

We have seen that nearly all the incidents of the tragedy were borrowed, the Poet's invention herein being confined to the duel of Mercutio and Tybalt, and the meeting of Romeo and Paris at the tomb. In the older English versions of the story, there is a general fight between the partizans of the two houses; when, af. ter many have been killed and wounded on both sides, Romeo comes in, tries in vain to appease with gentle words the fury of Tybalt, and at last kills him in self-defence. What a vast gain of dramatic life and spirit is made by Shakespeare's change in this point, is too obvious to need insisting on. Much of a certain amiable grace, also, is reflected upon Paris from the circumstarices ihat occasion his death ; and the character of the heroine is proportionably raised by the beauty and pathos thus shed around her second lover; there being, in the older versions, a cold and selfish policy in his love-making, which dishonours both himself and the object of it. The ;. licious bent of the Poet's invention is the more apparent in these particulars, that in the others he did but reproduce what he found in Brooke's poem. Moreover, the inci. dents, throughout, are disposed and worked out with all imaginable skill for dramatic effect; so that what was before a compar atively lymphatic and lazy narrative is made redundant of ani. mation and interest.

In respect of character, too, the play has little of formal orig. nality beyond Mercutio and the Nurse; though all are indeed set forth with a depth and vigour and clearness of delineation lo which the older versions of the tale can make no pretension. It scarce need be said, that the two characters wamed are, in the Poet's workmanship, as different as can well be conceived from any thing that was done to bis hand. But what is most worthy of remark, here, is, that he just inverts the relation between the incidents and the characterisation, using the former merely to support the latter, instead of being supported by it. Before, the persons served but as a sort of frame-work for the story ; here, the story is inade to serve but as canvas for the portraiture of char.

So that, notwithstanding the large borrowings of incident and character, the play, as a whole, has eminently the stamp of an original work; and, which is more, an acquaintance with the sources drawn upon nowise diminishes our impression of its originality.

Before proceeding further, we must make some abatements from the indiscriminate praise which this drama has of late received. For criticism, in its natural and just reaction from the mechanical methods formerly in vogue, has run to the opposite extreme of unreserved special-pleading, and of hunting out of nature after reasons for unqualified approval ; by which course it stultifies itself without really helping the subject. Now, we can. not deny, and care not to disguise, that in several places this play is sa dly blemished with ingenious and elaborate affectations. We


[ocr errors]

refer not now to the conceits which Romeo indulges in so freely before his meeting with Juliet; for, in his then state of mind, such self centred and fantastical eddyings of thought may be not altogether without reason, as proceeding not from genuine passion, put rather from the want of it: he may be excused for playing with these little smoke-wreaths of fancy, forasmuch as the true lame is not yet kindled in his heart. But, surely, this excuse will not serve for those which are vented 'so profusely by the heroine even in her most impassioned moments; as, especially, in her dialogue with the Nurse in the second scene of Act iii. Yet Knight boldly justifies these, calling them the results of strong emotion, seeking to relieve itself by a violent effort of the intellect, that the will may recover its balance.” Which is either a piece of forced and far-fetched attorneyship, or else it is too deep for our comprehension. No, no! these things are plain disfigure. ments and blemishes, and criticism will best serve its proper end by calling them so. And if there be any sufficient apology for thein, doubtless it is this, — That they grew from the general custom and conventional pressure of the time, and were written before the Poet liad by practice and experience worked himself abovethese into the original strength and rectitude of his genius. And we submit, that any unsophisticated criticism, however broad and liberal, will naturally regard them as the effects of imitation, not of mental character, because they are plainly out of keeping with the general style of the piece, and strike against the grain of the sentiment which that style inspires.

Bating certain considerable drawbacks on this score, - and the sault disappears after Act iii., - the play gives the impression of baving been all conceived and struck out in the full beat and glow of youthful passion ; as if the Poet's genius were for the time thoroughly possessed with the spirit and temper of the subject, so that every thing becomes touched with its efficacy ;- - while at the same time the passion, though carried to the utmost intensity, is every where so pervaded with the light and grace of imagination, that it kindles but to ennoble and exalt. For richness of poetical colouring, - poured oui with lavish hand indeed, but yet so man. aged as not to interfere either with the development of character or the proper dramatic effect, but rather to heighten them both, it may challenge a comparison with any of the Poet's dramas.

It is this intense passion, acting through the imagination, that gives to the play its remarkable unity of effect. On this point, Coleridge has spoken with such rare felicity that his words ought always to go with the subject. « That law of unity,” says he, " which has its foundations, not in the factitious necessity of cus lom, but in nature itself, the unity of feeling, is everywhere and at all times observed by Shakespeare in his plays. Read Romeo and Juliet : — all is youth and spring ; - youth with its follies, its virtues, its precipitancies ;- spring with its odours, its flowers

and its transiency;-- it is one and the same feeling that com inences.goes through, and ends the play. The old men, the Capulets and the Montagues, are not common old men ; they have an eagerness, a heartiness, a vehemence, the effect of spring : with Romeo, bis change of passion, his sudden marriage, and his rash death, are all the effects of youth ; · whilst in Juliet love has all that is tender and melancholy in the nightingale, all that is voluptuous in the rose, with whatever is sweet in the freshness of spring ; but it ends with a long deep sigh, like the last breeze of the Italian evening. This unity of feeling and character pervades every drama of Shakespeare.

In accordance with the principles here suggested, we find every thing on the run; all the passions of the drama are in the same fiery-footed and unmanageable excess : the impatient vehemence of old Capulet, the furious valour of Tybalt, the brilliant volubility of Mercutio, the petulant loquacity of the Nurse, being all but so many symptoms of the reigning irritability and impetuosity. Amid this general stress of impassioned life, old animosities are rekindled, old feuds have broken out anew; while the efforts of private friendship and public authority to quench the strife only go to prove it unquenchable, the same violent passions that have caused the tumults being brought to the suppression of them. The prevalence of extreme hate serves of course to generate the opposite extreme ; out of the most passionate and faial enmities there naturally springs a love as passionate and fatal. With dis positions too gentle and poble to share in the animosities so rife about thein, the hearts of the lovers are but rendered thereby the more alive and open to impressions of a contrary nature; the vierce rancour of their houses only swelling in them the emotions ibat prevent their sympathising with it.

In this way, both the persons and the readers of the drama are prepared for the forthcoming issues : the leading passion, intense as it is, being so' associated with others of equal intensity, that we receive it without any sense of disproportion to nature ; whereas, if cut out of the harmony in which it exists, it would seem overwrought and incredible. Thus the Poet secures continuity of impression, and carries us smocthly along through all the acbing joys and giddy transports of the lovers, by his manner of dispoz. ing the objects and persons about them. And he does this with so much ease as not io betray his exertions ; his means are hidden in the skill with which he uses them; and we forget the height to which he soars, because he has the strength of wing to bear us along with him, or rather gives us wings to rise with him of our. selves.

Not the least considerable feature of this drama is, how, by divers little showings, we are let into the general condition of life where the scene is laid, and bow this again is made to throw light on the main action. We see before us a most artificial and un. ncalihy state of socieiy, where all the safely-valves of nature are closed up by an oppressive conventionality, and where the better passions, being clogged down to their source, have turned their strength into the worse ; men's antipathies being the more violent, because no free play is given to their sympathies. Principle and impulse are often spoken of as opposed to each other; and, as men are, such is indeed too ofien the case : but in ingenuous natures and in well-ordered societies the two grow forth together, each serving to unfold and deepen the other, so that principle gets warmed into impulse, and impulse fixed into principle. When such is the case, the state of man is at peace and unity; other. wise, he is a house divided against itself, where principle and im. pulse strive each for the mastery, and sway by turns ; headlong and sensual in his passions, cunning and selfish in his reason.

Now, this fatal divorce of reason and passion is strongly ap parent in the condition of life here reflected. The generous im. pulses of nature are overborne and stifled by a discipline of selfishness. Coldly calculative where they ought to be impassioned, people are of course blindly passionate where they ought to be deliberate and cool. Even marriage is plainly stripped of its sacredness, made an affair of expediency, not of affection, insomuch that a previous union of hearts is discouraged, lest it should interfere with a prudent union of hands. So that we have a state of society, where the hearts of the young are, if possible, kept sealed against all deep and strong impressions, and the development of the nobler impulses foreclosed by the icy considerations of interest and policy.

Amidst this heart-withering refinement, the hero and the heroine stand out the unschooled and unspoiled creatures of native sense and sensibility. Art bas tried ils utmost upon them, but nature has proved too strong for it: in the silent creativeness of youth their feelings have insensibly matured themselves; and they come before us glowing with the warmth of natural sentiment, with susceptibilities deep as life, and waiting only for the kindling touch of passion. So that they exemplify the simplicity of nature thriving amidst the most artificial manners : nay, they are the more natural for the excess of art around them; as if nature, driven from the hearts of others, had taken refuge in theirs.

Principle, however, is as strong in them as passion ; they have the purity as well as the impulsiveness of nature; and because they are free from immodest desires, they therefore put forth no angelic pretensions. Idolizing each other, they would, however, make none but permitted offerings. Not being led by the conventionalities of life, they therefore are not to be misled by them as their hearts are joined in mulual love, so their hands must be oined in mutual honour; for, while loving each other with a love as boundless as the sea, ihey al the same time love in each other whatsoever is precious and heavenly in their uitsoiled imaginations

« PreviousContinue »