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CHARACTER OF BEATRICE.
[May 18th, 1847.]
HERE, again, the stage may fairly be held responsible for much of the prevailing critical misconception. The modern theatrical Beatrice has commonly exhibited herself either as a hoyden, or a vixen, or that still more repulsive personage, a compound of the
But the Beatrice of Shakespeare, we have seen, is the high-bred, high-spirited, and generous-hearted lady of the later chivalric time. How, then, shall she be most adequately embodied on the stage ?
Such, let us here observe, is the thorough individuality of all Shakespeare's heroines - notwithstanding all the essential womanhood which forms the basis of character in each—that were it possible to have, for each new character, a particular performer with special individual qualifications for that part above all others,—such multiplicity of actresses, no
doubt, would most completely realize a perfect ideal of 'cf. 245)
feminine Shakespearian personation. But seeing that histrionic resources such as here imagined, are hardly conceivable in even the most prosperous state that any stage can ever attain,--and are peculiarly in contrast with the poverty of the British theatre at present,—we are left to choose between having the character of Beatrice, amongst others, assumed by a comic actress in the commonplace acceptation, or by an artist capable of embodying the still higher ideals of Shakespearian womanhood.
Now, in the appreciation of character, any more than in mathematics, the lesser cannot comprehend the
greater. While, therefore, it is quite impossible for > the merely comic actress to reach the conception, and
much more the expression, of any one of Shakespeare's peculiarly ideal women,-it is hardly more
practicable for her to rise to the nobility of spirit, as well as refinement of manner, which should not only appear in the generously impassioned passages of a character like Beatrice, but should lend grace and delicacy to her most exuberant effusions of humorous or sarcastic merriment.
On the contrary, it is possible for the artist capable of embodying the more ideal conception, to descend (for it is descending, even in Shakespeare) to the personation of a real-life character, though still of the noblest order. The actress really capable of a Rosalind, can conceive of a Beatrice, and can express her truly as well as adequately.
That concluding Shakespearian season at DruryLane, to which we have already adverted as affording a perfect illustration of the contrast between the commonplace and the ideal Rosalind,* presented, in the persons of the very same performers, an exactly parallel contrast between the vulgarized and the genuine impersonation of Beatrice. On the former of these two performances, we shall enter into no detail. It was simply, we repeat, the traditionally vulgar stage conception of the part, very coarsely rendered.
In this instance, to seek to instruct the artist were as unavailing, as to reproach her would be unjust: for here, again, the fault, if any, lay with the manager, who should have understood Shakespeare better than to have caused or permitted her to attempt the character at all.
But respecting the contrasting personation which was presented to the London public during the latter nights of the same season, we must point out the fine illustration which it afforded of the general position we have stated above—that the high ideal artist ca successfully adapt herself to a character like this, although the commonplace performer can never rise to its elevation. As for details in this instance, we prefer citing a passage or two from critical notices of à later date, which, though provincial, are highly in
See, in this volume, pages 236-240.
telligent; and while they corroborate our own general testimony, serve to place in a striking light the importance of histrionic aid like this, in restoring the full and true intelligence, enjoyment, and appreciation of Shakespeare. Only a familiarity with the living embodiment of the elegant and heroic as well as pleasant-spirited Beatrice, can thoroughly banish from the public mind that medley of associations which has so long possessed it—made up, as we have said, from the vixen on the one hand, and the hoyden on the other, which, though in varying proportions, the modern stage has constantly set before it.
“The Manchester Courier', then, of Saturday, May 9th, 1846, speaking of Miss Helen Faucit's personation of Beatrice on the previous Thursday, says:-“ It was a performance of rare beauty, though differing entirely both in conception and developement from any
Beatrice we have seen for some years back. It is less buoyant, less boisterous, if the terms may be applied to the exuberance of feeling which is generally thrown into the part by modern actresses; it has not the hearty laugh of Mrs. Jordan, that made the listener doubt if such a woman could be ever unhappy; nor the biting sarcasm and fire-eating of others we could name, who stand high in the list of the approved. Yet to those who have read Shakespeare and made him a study, it must have been delightful to perceive how beautifully she made Beatrice accord with the almost universal sentiment of woman's character as pourtrayed by the great writer. In all her mirth, there was still refinement and rare deli
But if this lady's Beatrice has not the laugh of Mrs. Jordan, it wants not the more refined though exuberant joyousness of Shakespeare's heroine. On this head, the testimony of The Liverpool Journal', dated but a week earlier (May 2nd), is remarkable. After opening his notice by saying—“It was with much misgiving we heard the play announced: we doubted Miss Faucit's versatility, and from what we
had seen were apprehensive that she was deficient in that elastic and buoyant spirit which the character demands,"—the writer continues;—“We were, how
ever, never more agreeably disappointed. Miss Faucit's Beatrice is a creature o'erflowing with joyousness-raillery itself being in her nothing more than an excess of animal spirits, tempered by passing through a soul of goodness.” As, again, yet more
. recently, The Newcastle Courant', of Friday, April 30th, 1847, speaking of this lady's performance there on the previous Tuesday, tells us—“ The playfulness and sarcastic humour of Beatrice, were given with lady-like grace and girlish buoyancy."
It is, indeed, one of the things most marvellous to any fresh student of this actress's personations, to discover that the very being who at one moment had seemed born to breathe the deepest soul of mournful or heroic tragedy, could at the next become a seemingly exhaustless fountain of spontaneous and delicious cheerfulness--that not only do we find a plaintive Imogen thus magically transmuted into a buoyant Rosalind in all the dewy-fragrant sunshine of her spirit,—but even the most awfully thrilling Lady Macbeth herself, into the most genuinely laughing Beatrice!
Yet all this only argues—but argues incontrovert-1 ibly—the existence in the artist herself-rare in any time, and precious in the present--of that whole rich essence of poetic womanhood of which Shakespeare
1 had such perfect and peculiar intuition.
Few plays more clearly illustrate the essentially defective state of our Shakespearian interpretation, both in criticism and on the stage, than the one which gives title to the present essay. The very mainspring of the tragic action and the tragic interest in the “Romeo and Juliet” is continually mistaken-a mistake involving, we shall see, a radical misunderstanding of Shakespeare's mode of conceiving and method of combining the leading elements of tragedy in general. In spite of all the diligent and elaborate care which, in this instance, the dramatist has taken to shew, both to hearer and to reader, that the violent sorrows and calamitous end of his “pair of star-crossed lovers are brought upon them by causes quite independent of any defect of character or impropriety of conduct in both or either of them,-yet we find the piece continually talked and written about as if the misfortunes of the hero and heroine were produced in the main by their own “fault,” or “rashness,” or “imprudence,"—to the utter oblivion or disregard, in the mind of the verbal or literary critic, of that ever