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Britons reaching back to the times of the first Roman Emperors, and he has contrived, by the most gentle transitions, to blend together into one harmonious whole the social manners of the latest times with the heroic deeds, and even with appearances of the gods.”*
It may be also remarked, that, if the unities of time and place be as little observed in this play, as in many others of the same poet, unity of character and feeling, the test of genius, and without which the utmost effort of art will ever be unavailing, is uniformly and happily supported.
Imogen, the most lovely and perfect of Shakspeare's female characters, the pattern of connubial love and chastity, by the delicacy and propriety of her sentiments, by her sensibility, tenderness, and resignation, by her patient endurance of persecution from the quarter where she had confidently looked for endearment and protection, irresistibly seizes upon our affections; and when compelled to fly from the paternal roof, from
« A father cruel, and a step-dame false,
A foolish suitor to a wedded lady,
she is driven to assume, under the name of Fidele, the disguise of a page, we follow her footsteps with the liveliest interest and admiration.
The scenes which disclose the incidents of her pilgrimage; her reception at the cave of Belarius; her intercourse with her lost brothers, who are ignorant of their birth and rank, her supposed death, funeral rites, and resuscitation, are wrought up with a mixture of pathos and romantic wildness, peculiarly characteristic of our author's genius, and which has had but few successful imitators. Among these few, stands pre-eminent the poet Collins, who seems to have trodden this consecrated ground with a congenial mind, and who has
sung the sorrows of Fidele in strains worthy of their subject, and
Lectures on Dramatic Literature, vol. ii. p. 183.
which will continue to charm the mind and soothe the heart “ till pity's self be dead.” When compared with this fascinating portrait, the other
personages of the drama appear but in a secondary light. Yet are they adequately brought out, and skilfully diversified; the treacherous subtlety of Iachimo, the sage experience of Belarius, , the native nobleness of heart, and innate heroism of mind, which burst forth in the vigorous sketches of Guiderius and Arviragus, the temerity, credulity, and penitence of Posthumus, the uxorious weakness of Cymbeline, the hypocrisy of his Queen, and the comic arrogance of Cloten, half fool and half knave, produce a striking diversity of action and sentiment.
Of this latter character, the constitution has been thought so extraordinary, and involving elements of a kind so incompatible, as to form an exception to the customary integrity and consistency of our author's draughts from nature. But the following passage from the pen of an elegant female writer, will prove, that this curious assemblage of frequently opposite qualities, has existed, and no doubt did exist in the days of Shakspeare :
:-“ It is curious that Shakspeare should, in so singular a character as Cloten, have given the exact prototype of a being whom I once knew. The unmeaning frown of the countenance; the shuffling gait; the burst of voice; the bustling insignificance; the fever and ague fits of valour; the froward tetchiness; the unprincipled malice ; and, what is most curious, those occasional gleams of good sense, amidst the floating clouds of folly which generally darkened and confused the man's brain ; and which, in the character of Cloten, we are apt to impute to a violation of unity in character ; but in the some time Captain C-n, I saw that the portrait of Cloten was not out of nature.”*
Poetical justice has been strictly observed in this drama; the vicious characters meet the punishment due to their crimes, while
• Letters of Anna Seward, vol. iii. p. 246.
virtue, in all its various degrees, is proportionably rewarded. The scene of retribution, which is the closing one of the play, is a masterpiece of skill; the developement of the plot, for its fullness, completeness, and ingenuity, surpassing any effort of the kind among our author's contemporaries, and atoning for any partial incongruity which the structure or conduct of the story may have previously displayed.
28. MACBETH : 1606. We have now reached what may justly be termed the greatest effort of our author's genius ; the most sublime and impressive drama which the world has ever beheld.
Than the conception of the character of Macbeth, it is scarcely possible to conceive a picture more original and grand ? Too great and good to fall beneath the common temptations to villany, Shakspeare has called in the powers of supernatural agency, and seizing upon ambition as the vulnerable part of his hero's character, and placing him between the suggestions of hell on one side, and those of his fiend-like wife on the other, he has, in conformity to the letter of the traditions which were before him, brought about a catastrophe, which, as he has conducted it, is the most awful on dramatic record. For, whilst the influence of the world unknown throws a dread solemnity over the principal incidents, the volition of Macbeth
, remains sufficiently free to enable the poet to bring into full play the strongest passions of the human breast.
Originally brave, magnanimous, humane, and gentle,
“ not without ambition ; but without The illness should attend it,"
and wishing to do that holily which he would highly; fully sensible also of the enormous ingratitude and guilt which he should incur by the assassination of the monarch who had loaded him with honours, and who was moreover his kinsman and his guest, the struggle would necessarily have terminated on the side of virtue, had not the predictions of the weird sisters, in part, instantly accomplished, and assuming the form therefore of inevitable destiny, concealed from his
bewildered senses the eternal truth, that not from fate, but from his own agency alone could spring the commission of a crime, whose very suggestion had at first filled him with horror. But even this delusion, which seemed for a time to deaden the sense
responsibility, would have failed in its effect, had not the ferocious and sarcastic eloquence of Lady Macbeth been called in to its aid : dazzled by the splendour with which she clothes the expected issue of the deed ; indignant at the charge of cowardice, to which she artfully imputes his irresolution, and allured by the means which she has planned as a security from detection, he, at length, rushes into the snare.
No sooner, however, has the assassination of Duncan been perpetrated, than the virtuous principles which had slumbered in the bosom of Macbeth rise up to accuse and condemn him. Consciencestricken, and recoiling with horror from the atrocity of his own deed, he becomes the victim of the most agonising remorse; he feels deserted both by God and man, and unable even to deprecate the wrath which night and day pursues him :
66 I have done the deed : Did'st thou not hear a noise ?
There's one did laugh in his sleep, and one cried, Murder !
To this dread of vengeance from offended heaven, is soon added
* Reed's Shakspeare, vol. x. pp. 110, 111, 112. 114.
the apprehension of punishment from mankind, his keen abhorrence of his own iniquity leading him to paint, in the strongest colours, the detestation and resentment which it must have incurred from others. This fear of retaliation from his fellow-creatures, together with the awful prospect of retribution in another world, produce a complete revolution in his character; he is exhibited distrustful, treacherous, and cruel, sweeping from existence, without pity or hesitation, all whose talents, virtues, sufferings, or pretensions seem to endanger a life, of which, though hourly becoming more wretched and depraved, he anticipates the close with horror and dismay.
To the very last, the contest is kept up with tremendous energy, between the native vigour of a brave mind, and the debilitating effects of a guilty, and, therefore, a fear-creating conscience. The lesson is, beyond every other, salutary and important, as it proves that the dominion of one perverted passion subjugates to its own depraved purposes the very principles of virtue itself; the sensibility of Macbeth to his own wickedness, giving birth to terrors which urge him on to reiterated murder, and finally to irretrievable destruction.
The management of the fable of Macbeth presents us with a remarkable instance of the profound art of Shakspeare, in condensing into one representation, and with an uninterrupted progress of the action, an extensive and closely concatenated series of events, forming a perfect cycle of influential incidents and passions, on a scale commensurate with that of nature, and for which it were in vain to look, where the unrelaxing unities of time and place have imposed their fetters on the poet. “ Let any one, for instance,” observes Schlegel,
attempt to circumscribe the gigantic picture of Macbeth's murder, his tyrannical usurpation, and final fall, within the narrow limits of the unity of time, and he will then see, that, however many of the events which Shakspeare successively exhibits before us in such dread array, he may have placed anterior to the commencement of the piece, and made the subject of after recital, he has altogether deprived it of its sublimity of import. This drama, it
This drama, it is true, comprehends a