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ber. Aristotle, indeed, divides a tragedy into five parts; but this distinction refers to the turns of the story, and not to the stages of its progress; and, concerning rather the causes of revolutions, than the times of their occurrence, may have place in a drama of three acts as well as in one of five, and in one of ten as well as in one of three. There is reason to believe, says Dryden, that the choruses sang more than five times; and Horace is the first critic, who delivers the precept,
Neve minor, neu sit quinto productior actu.
De Art. Poet. v. 189.
It was among the French, that the unities were the most zealously enforced, and the most scrupulously observed. They would tolerate no play, which was not exactly fashioned upon the model of the ancients; and, so fearful were they, lest they should transgress venerable rules, that the critics long agitated a dispute,-indeed, we know not, that it is yet determined, whether Aristotle's day means the time, during which the sun is above the horizon, or the whole number of hours, which measure the diurnal revolution. When Europe first awaked from the slumber of ignorance, precedent and authority were every thing; and, so firmly did Aristotle and Horace fasten upon the human mind, that, even as late as Dryden's day, their precepts were held inviolably sacred. The merits of an author were graduated by his subserviency to those precepts. To neglect them, was to be stupid; to violate them, was a lack of genius. Men durst not judge for themselves; and Ben Jonson enjoyed that celebrity, which Shakspeare deserved, and which he has since obtained.
Dryden was the first to begin the revolution, which, at last, bestowed the crown upon the right brow; and the merit of this service is the more
glorious, because he shook the tyrants of literature by the beard, at the very time, when their domination was the most supreme. Since names no longer forbid mankind to examine things, it is not difficult to find absurdities in the rules of Aristotle or Horace; and any person, who has given his attention to dramatic criticism, will perhaps discover few novelties in Dryden's Essay. But most things are easy, after an example has been set; and the merit of Dryden does not so much consist in giving us profound thoughts, as in teaching us to think for ourselves.
The ancient laws of the drama were founded upon the presumed segnity of the human mind; upon a supposition, that the fancy is a calculator of probabilities. Though the theatre be, in its very nature, a delusion,-though, in its simplest form, the place of action can never be real, the action, such as it is represented, or the actors, what they pretend to be,-it was thought, that spectators would be unable to deceive themselves beyond a single day, a single room, a single street, or a single city. What could only be recited in two hours, must necessarily have happened within twenty-four: we might, in the first act, imagine one set of paste-board to be Athens; but could not, in the next, take another for Thebes; and, though it were easy to think some fellow-citizen a king through the play, it could not be possible to fancy one a boy in the first act, and a man in the last. These absurdities are not merely speculative; nor do the rules of Horace solely concern the accommodation of authors. Few interesting stories can be crowded into one room, or one day; and, by a rigorous adherence to the unities, an endless variety of topics must necessarily be excluded.
Dryden's Essay, from which we shall make some extracts to illustrate these observations, is written in the form of a dialogue; and is one of the few
modern attempts at this species of composition, which remind us of the colloquies at Tusculum. The speakers are four ; Crites, who is supposed to be the author's brother-in-law, Sir Robert Howard ; Lisideius, the anagram of Sir Charles Sidley; Eugenius, or the Earl of Dorset; and Neander, who is Dryden himself. Crites is the champion of the ancients, and Neander of the moderns. The latter is thus made to describe the dramas of antiquity :
Next, for the plot, which Aristotle called to μυθος, and often των πραγμάτων συνθεσις, and from him the Romans Fabula. It has already been judiciously observed by a late writer, that, in their tragedies, it was only some tale derived from Thebes or Troy, or at least something that happened in those two ages; which was worn so threadbare by all the epic poets, and even by tradition itself of the talkative Greeklings, (as Ben Jonson calls them,) that, before it came upon the stage, it was already known to all the audience; and the people, so soon as ever they heard the name of Edipus, knew as well as the poet, that he had killed his father by mistake, and committed incest with his mother, before the play; that they were now to hear of a great plague, an oracle, and the ghost of Laius : so that they sate with a yawning kind of expectation, till he was to come with his eyes pulled out, and speak a hundred or more verses in a tragic tone, in complaint of his misfortunes. But our @dipus, Hercules, or Medea, had been tolerable; poor people, they escaped not so good cheap; they had still the chapon bouillé set before them, till their appetites are cloyed with the same dish; and, the novelty being gone, the pleasure vanished; so that one main end of dramatic poesy, in its definition, *
* A just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions
and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind. P. 302,
which was to cause delight, was of consequence destroyed.
• In their comedies, the Romans generally borrow their plots from the Greek poets; and theirs was commonly a little girl stolen or wandered from her parents, brought back unknown to the city, there got with child by some lewd young fellow, who, by the help of his servant, cheats his father; and when her turn comes, to cry- Juno Lucina fer opem, one or other sees a little box or cabinet, which was carried away with her, and so discovers her to her friends, if some god do not prevent it, by coming down in a machine, and taking the thanks of it to himself.
By the plot you may guess much of the characters of the persons. An old father, who would, willingly, before he dies, see his son well married ; his debauched son, kind in his nature towards his mistress, but miserably in want of money; a serv. ant or slave, who has so much wit to strike in with him, and help to dupe his father; a braggadocio captain, a parasite, and a lady of pleasure.
As for the poor honest maid, on whom the story is built, and who ought to be one of the principal actors in the play, she is commonly a mute in it: she has the breeding of the old Elizabeth way, which was for maids to be seen, and not to be heard; and it is enough you know she is willing to be married, when the fifth act requires it.
“These are plots built after the Italian mode of houses, you see through them all at once: the characters are, indeed, the imitations of nature, but so narrow, as if they had imitated an eye or a hand, and did not dare to venture upon the lines of the face, or the proportion of a body.
‘But in how straight a compass, soever they have bounded their plots and characters, we will pass it by, if they have regularly pursued them, and perfectly observed those three unities of time, place,
and action; the knowledge of which you (Crites) is derived to us from them. But, in the first place, give me leave to tell you, that the unity of place, however it might be practised by them, was never any of their rules: we neither find it in Aristotle, Horace, or any, who have written of it, till in our age the French poets first made it a precept of the stage. The unity of time, even Terence himself, who was the best and most regular of them, has neglected: his Heautontimorcemenos, or Self-Punisher, takes up visibly two days, says Scaliger; the two first acts concluding the first day; the three last the day ensuing; and Euripides, in tying him. self to one day, has committed an absurdity never to be forgiven him; for in one of his tragedies he has made Theseus go from Athens to Thebes, which was about forty English miles, under the walls of it, to give battle, and appear victorious in the next act; and yét from the time of his departure to the return of the Nuntius, who gives the relation of his victory, Æthra and the Chorus have but thirty-six verses; which is not for every mile a
Tragi-comedy is thus defended : “As for their new way of mingling mirth with serious plot, I do not, with Lisidrius, condemn the thing, though I cannot approve their manner of doing it. He tells us, we cannot so speedily collect ourselves after a scene of great passion and concernment, as to pass to another of mirth and humour, and to enjoy it with any relish: but why should he imagine the soul of man more heavy than his senses? Does not the eye pass from an unpleasant object to a pleasant, in a much shorter time than is required to this! And does not the unpleasantness of the first commend the beauty of the latter? The old rule of logic might have convinced him, that contraries,
* Scott's Dryd. vol. xv, p. 313-315.