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Letters on England

18. On Tragedy
The English as well as the Spaniards were possessed of theatres at a time when
the French had no more than moving, itinerant stages. Shakspeare, who was
considered as the Corneille of the first- mentioned nation, was pretty nearly
contemporary with Lopez de Vega, and he created, as it were, the English
theatre. Shakspeare boasted a strong fruitful genius. He was natural and
sublime, but had not so much as a single spark of good taste, or knew one rule of
the drama. I will now hazard a random, but, at the same time, true reflection,
which is, that the great merit of this dramatic poet has been the ruin of the
English stage. There are such beautiful, such noble, such dreadful scenes in this
writer's monstrous farces, to which the name of tragedy is given, that they have
always been exhibited with great success. Time, which alone gives reputation to
writers, at last makes their very faults venerable. Most of the whimsical gigantic
images of this poet, have, through length of time (it being a hundred and fifty
years since they were first drawn) acquired a right of passing for sublime. Most of
the modern dramatic writers have copied him; but the touches and descriptions
which are applauded in Shakspeare, are hissed at in these writers; and you will
easily believe that the veneration in which this author is held, increases in
proportion to the contempt which is shown to the moderns. Dramatic writers don't
consider that they should not imitate him; and the ill-success of Shakspeare's
imitators produces no other effect, than to make him be considered as inimitable.
You remember that in the tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice, a most tender
piece, a man strangles his wife on the stage, and that the poor woman, whilst
she is strangling, cries aloud that she dies very unjustly. You know that in
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, two grave- diggers make a grave, and are all the
time drinking, singing ballads, and making humorous reflections (natural indeed
enough to persons of their profession) on the several skulls they throw up with
their spades; but a circumstance which will surprise you is, that this ridiculous
incident has been imitated. In the reign of King Charles II., which was that of
politeness, and the Golden Age of the liberal arts; Otway, in his Venice
Preserved, introduces Antonio the senator, and Naki, his courtesan, in the midst
of the horrors of the Marquis of Bedemar's conspiracy.
Antonio, the superannuated senator plays, in his mistress's presence, all the
apish tricks of a lewd, impotent debauchee, who is quite frantic and out of his
senses. He mimics a bull and a dog, and bites his mistress's legs, who kicks and
whips him. However, the players have struck these buffooneries (which indeed
were calculated merely for the dregs of the people) out of Otway's tragedy; but
they have still left in Shakspeare's Julius Caesar the jokes of the Roman
shoemakers and cobblers, who are introduced in the same scene with Brutus
and Cassius. You will undoubtedly complain, that those who have hitherto
discoursed with you on the English stage, and especially on the celebrated
Shakspeare, have taken notice only of his errors; and that no one has translated