The History of Tom Jones HTML version

Book VII.
Containing Three Days.
Chapter 1.
A comparison between the world and the stage.
The world hath been often compared to the theatre; and many grave writers, as
well as the poets, have considered human life as a great drama, resembling, in
almost every particular, those scenical representations which Thespis is first
reported to have invented, and which have been since received with so much
approbation and delight in all polite countries.
This thought hath been carried so far, and is become so general, that some
words proper to the theatre, and which were at first metaphorically applied to the
world, are now indiscriminately and literally spoken of both; thus stage and scene
are by common use grown as familiar to us, when we speak of life in general, as
when we confine ourselves to dramatic performances: and when transactions
behind the curtain are mentioned, St James's is more likely to occur to our
thoughts than Drury-lane.
It may seem easy enough to account for all this, by reflecting that the theatrical
stage is nothing more than a representation, or, as Aristotle calls it, an imitation
of what really exists; and hence, perhaps, we might fairly pay a very high
compliment to those who by their writings or actions have been so capable of
imitating life, as to have their pictures in a manner confounded with, or mistaken
for, the originals.
But, in reality, we are not so fond of paying compliments to these people, whom
we use as children frequently do the instruments of their amusement; and have
much more pleasure in hissing and buffeting them, than in admiring their
excellence. There are many other reasons which have induced us to see this
analogy between the world and the stage.
Some have considered the larger part of mankind in the light of actors, as
personating characters no more their own, and to which in fact they have no
better title, than the player hath to be in earnest thought the king or emperor
whom he represents. Thus the hypocrite may be said to be a player; and indeed
the Greeks called them both by one and the same name.
The brevity of life hath likewise given occasion to this comparison. So the
immortal Shakespear--
--Life's a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
For which hackneyed quotation I will make the reader amends by a very noble
one, which few, I believe, have read. It is taken from a poem called the Deity,
published about nine years ago, and long since buried in oblivion; a proof that
good books, no more than good men, do always survive the bad.
From Thee[*] all human actions take their springs,
The rise of empires and the fall of kings!
See the vast Theatre of Time display'd,