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186

EXAMPLES OF COMIC SITUATIONS.

snare; for instance, when he is to keep up a lie, but has a bad memory. On the other hand, the mistake of the deceived party, when not seriously dangerous, is a comic situation, and the more so in proportion as this error of the understanding arises from previous abuse of the mental powers, from vanity, folly, or obliquity. But above all when deceit and error cross one another, and are by that means multiplied, the comic situations produced are particularly excellent. For instance, two men meet with the intention of deceiving one another; each howerer is forewarned and on his guard, and so both go away deceived only in respect to the success of their deception. Or again, one wishes to deceive another, but unwittingly tells him the truth; the other person, however, being suspicious, falls into the snare, merely from being over-much on bis guard. We might in this way compose a sort of comic grammar, which should show how the separate motives are to be entangled one with another, with continually increasing effect, up to the most artificial complication. It might also point out how that tangle of misunderstanding which constitutes a Comedy of Intrigue is by no means so contemptible a part of the comic art, as the advocates of the fine-spun Coniedy of Character are pleased to assert.

Aristotle describes the laughable as an imperfection, an impropriety which is not productive of any essential harm. Excellently said: for from the moment that we entertain a real compassion for the characters, all mirthful feeling is at an end. Comic misfortune must not go beyond an embarrassment, which is to be set right at last, or at most, a deserved humiliation of this description are corporeal means of

. education applied to grown people, which our finer, or at least more fastidious age, will not tolerate on the stage, although Molière, Holberg, and other masters, have frequently availed themselves of them. The comic effect arises

from our having herein a pretty obvious demonstration of the mind's dependence on external things : we have, as it were, motives assuming a palpable form. In Comedy these chastisements hold the same place that violent deaths, met with heroic magnanimity, do in Tragedy. Here the resolution remains uushaken amid all the terrors of annihilation; the man perishes but his principles survive; there the corporeal existence remains, but the sentiments suffer an instantaneous change.

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COMEDY REPROACHED WITI IMMORALITY.

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As then Comedy must place the spectator in a point of view altogether different from that of moral appreciation, with what right can moral instrnction be demanded of Comedy, with what ground can it be expected? When we examine more closely the moral apophthegms of the Greek comic writers, we find that they are all of them maxims of experience. It is not, however, from experience that we gain a knowledge of our duties, of which conscience gives us an immediate conviction ; experience can only enlighten us with respect to what is profitable or detrimental. The instruction of Comedy does not turn on the dignity of the object proposed but on the sufficiency of the means employed. It is, as has been already said, the doctrine of prudence; the morality of consequences and not of motives. Morality, in its genuine acceptation, is essentially allied to the spirit of Tragedy.

Many philosophers have on this account reproached Comedy with immorality, and among others, Rousseau, with much eloquence, in his Epistle on the Drama. The aspect of the actual course of things in the world is, no doubt, far from edifying; it is not, however, held up in Comedy as a model for imitation, but as a warning and admonition. In the doctrine of morals there is an applied or practical part: it may be called the Art of Living. Whoever has no knowledge of the world is perpetually in danger of making a wrong application of moral principles to individual cases, and, so with the very best intentions in the world, may occasion much mischief both to himself and others. Comedy is intended to sharpen our powers of discrimination, both of persons and situations; to make us shrewder; and this is its true and only possible morality

So much for the determination of the general idea, which must serve as our clue in the examination of the merits of the individual poets.

188

THE NEW COMEDY OF THE GREEKS.

LECTURE XIV.

Plautus and Terence as Imitators of the Greeks, here examined and cha.

racterized in the absence of the Originals they copied-Motives of the Athenian Comedy from Manners and Society-Portrait-Statues of two

Comedians. On the little of the New Comedy of the Greeks that has reached us, either in fragments or through the medium of Roman imitations, all I have to say may be comprised in a few words.

In this department Greek literature was extremely rich: the mere list of the comic writers whose works are lost, and of the names of their works, so far as they are known to us, makes of itself no inconsiderable dictionary. Although the New Comedy developed itself and flourished only in the short interval between the end of the Peloponnesian war and the first successors of Alexander the Great, yet the stock of pieces amounted to thousands; but time has made such havoc in this superabundance of talented and ingenious works, that nothing remains in the original but a number of detached fragments, of which many are so disfigured as to be unintelligible, and, in the Latin, about twenty translations or recasts of Greek originals by Plautus, and six by Terence. Here is a fitting task for the redintegrative labours of criticism, to put together all the fragmentary traces which we possess, in order to form from them something like a just estimate and char racter of what is lost. The chief requisites in an undertaking of this kind, I will take upon myself to point out. The fragments and moral maxims of the comic writers are, in their versification and language, distinguished by extreme purity, elegance, and accuracy; moreover, the tone of society which speaks in them breathes a certain Attic grace. The Latin comic poets, on the other hand, are negligent in their versification; they trouble themselves very little about syllabic quantity, and the very idea of it is almost lost amidst their many metrical licences. Their language also, at least that

TUE ROMAN WRITERS: PLAUTUS AND TERENCE.

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of Plautus, is deficient in cultivation and polish. Several learned Romans, and Varro among others, have, it is true, highly praised the style of this poet, but then we must make the due distinction between philological and poetical approbation. Plautus and Terence were among the most ancient Roman w ers, and belonged an age when a book-language had hardly yet an existence, and when every phrase was caught up fresh from the life. This naïve simplicity had its peculiar charms for the later Romans of the age of learned cultivation: it was, however, rather the gift of nature than the fruit of poetical art. Horace set himself against this excessive partiality, and asserted that Plautus and the other comic poets threw off their pieces negligently, and wrote them in the utmost haste, that they might be the sooner paid for them. We may safely affirm, therefore, that in the graces and elegances of execution, the Greek poets have always lost in the Latin imitations. These we must, in imagination, retranslate into the finished elegance which we perceive in the Greek fragments. Moreover, Plautus and Terence made many changes in the general plan, and these could hardly be improvements

. The former at times omitted whole scenes and characters, and the latter made additions, and occasionally ran two plays into one. Was this done with an artistic design, and were they actually desirous of excelling their Grecian predecessors in the structure of their pieces? I doubt it. Plautus was perpetually running out into diffuseness, and he was obliged to remedy in some other way the lengthening which this gave to the original; the imitations of Terence, on the other hand, from his lack of invention, turned out somewhat meagre, and he filled up the gaps with materials borrowed from other pieces. Even his contemporaries reproached him with having falsified or corrupted a number of Greek pieces, for the purpose of making out of them a few Latin ones.

Plautus and Terence are generally mentioned as writers in every respect original. In Romans this was perhaps pardonable: they possessed but little of the true poetic spirit, and their poetical literature owed its origin, for the most part, first to translation, then to free imitation, and finally to appropriation and new modelling, of the Greek. With them, therefore, a particular sort of adaptation passed for originality,

190

PLAUTUS AND TERENCE: THEIR CHARACTER.

Thus we find, from Terence's apologetic prologues, that they had so lowered the notion of plagiarism, that he was accused of it, because he had made use of matter wbich had been already adapted from the Greek. As we cannot, therefore, consider these writers in the light of creative artists, and since consequently they are only important to us in so far as we may by their means become acquainted with the shape of the Greek New Comedy, I will here insert the few remarks I have to make on their character and differences, and then return to the Greek writers of the New Comedy.

Among the Greeks, poets and artists were at all times held in honour and estimation; among the Romans, on the contrary, polite literature was at first cultivated by men of the lowest rank, by needy foreigners, and even by slaves. Plautus and Terence, who closely followed each other in time, and whose lifetime belongs to the last years of the second Punic

war, and to the interval between the second and third, were of the lowest rank: the former, at best a poor day labourer, and the latter, a Carthaginian slave, and afterwards a freed man. Their fortunes, however, were very different. Plautus, when he was not employed in writing comedies, was fain to hire himself out to do the work of a beast of burthen in a mill; Terence was domesticated with the elder Scipio and his bosom friend Lælius, who deigned to admit him to such familiarity, that he fell under the honourable imputation of being assisted in the composition of his pieces by these noble Romans, and it was even said that they allowed their own labours to pass under bis name. The habits of their lives are perceptible iu their respective modes of writing: the bold, coarse style of Plautus, and his famous jests, betray his intercourse with the vulgar; in that of Terence, we discern the traces of good society. They are further distinguished by their choice of matter. Plautus generally inclines to the farcical, to overwrought, and often disgusting drollery; Terence prefers the more delicate shades of characterization, and, avoiding everything like exaggeration, approaches the seriously instructive and sentimental kind. Some of the pieces of Plautus are taken from Diphilus and Philemon, but there is reason to believe that he added a considerable degree of coarseness to his originals; from whom he derived the others is unknown, unless, perhaps, the assertion of Horace,

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