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of which, were not familiar to the readers of “ old romance.” I will pass by the ancient Greeks, who thought it even necessary to the fable of a tragedy, that its substance should be previously known. That there had been at least fifty tragedies with the same title, would be one of the motives which determined Sophocles and Euripedes, in the choice of Electra, as a subject. But Milton
D. Aye Milton, indeed! but do not Dr. Johnson, and other great men tell us, that nobody now reads Milton but as a task ?
P. So much the worse for them, of whom this can be truly said ! But why then do you pretend to admire Shakespeare? The greater part, if not all, of his dramas were, as far as the names and the main incidents are concerned, already stock plays. All the stories, at least, on which they are built, pre-existed in the chronicles, ballads, or translations of contemporary or preceding English writers. Why, I repeat, do you pretend to admire Shakespeare ? Is it, perhaps, that you only pretend to admire him? However, as once for all, you have dismissed the well-known events and personages of history, or the epic muse, what have you taken in their stead? Whom has your tragic muse armed with her bowl and dagger? the sentimental muse I should have said, whom
you have seated in the throne of tragedy? What heroes has she reared on her buskins ?
D. O! our good friends and next-door-neighbours--honest tradesmen, valiant tars, highspirited half-pay officers, philanthropic Jews, virtuous courtezans, tender-hearted braziers, and sentimental rat-catchers! (a little bluff or so, but all our very generous, tender-hearted characters are a little rude or misanthropic, and all our misanthropes very tender-hearted.)
P. But I pray you, friend, in what actions great or interesting, can such men be engaged?
D. They give away a great deal of money: find rich dowries for young men and maidens who have all other good qualities; they browbeat lords, baronets, and justices of the peace, (for they are as bold as Hector !)—they rescue stage coaches at the instant they are falling down precipices; carry away infants in the sight of opposing armies ; and some of our performers act a muscular able-bodied man to such perfection, that our dramatic poets, who always have the actors in their eye, seldom fail to make their favourite male character as strong as Sampson. And then they take such prodigious leaps!! And what is done on the stage is more striking even than what is acted. I once remember such a deafening explosion, that I could not hear a word of the play for half an act after
it: and a little real gunpowder being set fire to at the same time, and smelt by all the spectators, the naturalness of the scene was quite astonishing!
P. But how can you connect with such men and such actions that dependance of thousands on the fate of one, which gives so lofty an interest to the personages of Shakespeare, and the Greek Tragedians ? How can you connect with them that sublimest of all feelings, the power of destiny and the controlling might of heaven, which seems to elevate the characters which sink beneath its irresistible blow?
D. O mere fancies! We seek and find on the present stage our own wants and passions, our own vexations, losses, and embarassments.
P. It is your own poor pettifogging nature then, which you desire to have represented before you? not human nature in its heighth and vigour? But surely you might find the former with all its joys and sorrows, more conveniently in your own houses and parishes.
D. True ! but here comes a difference. Fortune is blind, but the poet has his eyes open, and is besides as complaisant as fortune is capricious. He makes every thing turn out exactly as we would wish it. He gratifies us by representing those as hateful or contemptible whom we hate and wish to despise.
P. (aside) That is, he gratifies your envy by libelling your superiors.
D. He makes all those precise moralists, who affect to be better than their neighbours, turn out at last abject hypocrites, traitors, and hardhearted villains; and your men of spirit, who take their girl and their glass with equal freedom, prove the true men of honour, and (that no part of the audience may remain unsatisfied) reform in the last scene, and leave no doubt on the minds of the ladies, that they will make most faithful and excellent husbands: though it does seem a pity, that they should be obliged to get rid of qualities which had made them so interesting! Besides, the poor become rich all at once; and in the final matrimonial choice the opulent and high-born themselves are made to confess, that VIRTUE IS NOBILITY, AND DOWRY OF HERSELF!!
P. Excellent! But you have forgotten those brilliant flashes of loyalty, those patriotic praises of the king and old England, which, especially if conveyed in a metaphot from the ship or the shop, so often solicit and so unfailingly receive the public plaudit! I give your prudence credit for the omission. For the whole system of your drama is a moral and intellectual Jacobinism of the most dangerous
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kind, and those common-place ránts of loyalty are no better than hypocrisy in your playwrights, and your own sympathy with them a gross self-delusion. For the whole secret of dramatic popularity consists with you, in the confusion and subversion of the natural order of things, their causes and their effects; in the excitement of surprise, by representing the qualities of liberality, refined feeling, and a nice sense of honour (those things rather, which pass among you for such) in persons and in classes of life where experience teaches us least to expect
and in rewarding with all the sympathies that are the dues of virtue, thos criminals whom law, reason, and religion, have excommunicated from our esteem !
And now good night! Truly! I might have written this last sheet without having gone to Germany, but I fancied myself talking to you by your own fire-side, and can you think it a small pleasure to me to forget now and then, that I am not there. Besides, you and my other good friends have made up your minds to me as I am, and from whatever place I write you will expect that part of my “ Travels” will consist of the excursions in my own mind.