Page images
PDF
EPUB

sport it is, when the deceiver is caught in his own snare ; for instance, when he wants to tell a lie, and has a bad memory. On the other hand the mistake of the person who is deceived, so far as it is not seriously dangerous, is a comic situation, and the more so, in proportion as this malady of the understanding proceeds from previous abuse of the mental powers, from vanity, folly, obliquity. But above all, when deceit and mistake are completely at cross-purposes, and are increased twofold, the one by the other, there will be excellent comic situations. For instance, two persons meet with the intention of deceiving each other, but each is warned beforehand, gives no credence, but only pretends to do so, and thus both go off deceived only in respect of their expectation of success in deceiving. Or, again, suppose one wishes to deceive the other, but tells him the truth unawares; the other is suspicious, and falls into the mistake merely from being too anxious to guard himself against deceit. In this way a kind of Grammar of Comedy might be composed, in which it might be shown how individual motives are entangled with each other, with continually increasing effect, up to the most artificial complications. So it might also be shown that the complexity of misunderstandings, which forms a comedy of intrigue, is by no means so contemptible a part of comic art as is maintained by the champions of the fine-spun play of character.

Aristotle describes the ludicrous, as an imperfection, an impropriety, which does not really tend to do any harm. Excellently said ! for the moment we feel a real compassion for the persons, all is over with the mirthful tone of feeling. Comic misfortune ought to be merely an embarrassment which is to be set right at last; at most a deserved humiliation. To this end belong certain corporeal means of education for grown persons, which our finer or at least more lenient age would fain banish from the stage, whereas Molière, Holberg, and other masters have made diligent use of them. Comic effect arises from its being made intuitively clear, that the disposition depends on things external : they are motives turned into a tangible shape. These chastisements in Comedy form the counterpart to a violent death suffered with heroic endurance in Tragedy. Here the sentiments remain unshaken amid all the terrors of annihilation; the man perishes, but he holds fast his principles : there the corporeal being remains unhurt, but then sudden revolutions of sentiment are expressed.

Now if comic representation must needs set the spectator in quite another station of view than that of moral appreciation, with what right can moral instruction be demanded of Comedy, on what grounds can it be expected ? On closer examination of the moral maxims of the Greek comedians, we shall find they are altogether precepts of experience. But it is not from experience that we learn our duties, of which conscience gives us an immediate conviction ; experience can only enlighten us as to what is profitable or detrimental. The fact is, comic instruction does not concern itself with the merits of the object, but confines itself solely to the fitness of the means. It is, as I have already said, the doctrine of prudence, the morality of consequences, and not that of motives. This, the only genuine morality, is essentially allied to the spirit of Tragedy.

Many philosophers, accordingly, have reproached Comedy with its immorality; as Rousseau, with much eloquence, in his Epistle on the Drama. No doubt the aspect of the real world is any thing but edifying; but then it is nowise held up in Comedy as a pattern for imitation, but as a warning. In the doctrine of Morals, there is an Applied or Practical Part: it might be called the Art of Living. A person that has no knowledge of the world, is in danger of making quite a wrong application of moral principles to particular cases, and so, with

, the best intentions, may occasion mischief to himself and others. Comedy is intended to sharpen our wits in discriminating persons and situations; it makes us more clever, and this is its true and only possible morality.

So much for the determination of the general conceptions which must be our clue in our examination of the merits of the individual poets. On the little that has come down to us of the New Comedy of the Greeks in fragments and through the medium of Roman imitations, I can comprise what I have to say in few words.

The Greek Literature was immeasurably rich in this department: the catalogue of the lost comedians, most of whom were very prolific, and of the names of their works, so far as we are acquainted with them, forms no inconsiderable dictionary. Although New Comedy unfolded itself, and flourished only in the short interval between the end of the Peloponnesian War and Alexander's first successors, the stock of plays certainly amounted to thousands; but time has made such havoc with this superabundance of talented works, that nothing remains to us except, in the original, a number of detached fragments, in many cases so disfigured as to be unintelligible, and in the Latin, twenty translations or free imitations of Greek originals by Plautus, and six by Terence. Here is a fit task for redintegrative criticism, to put together all the fragmentary indications in order to enable us to form a true conception and estimate of what we have lost. What would be chiefly requisite in such an undertaking, I will venture to mention. The fragments and moral sayings of the comedians are distinguished by extreme purity, polish, and accuracy of versification and language: they also breathe a certain Attic gracefulness of the conversational tone. The Latin comedians, on the contrary, are careless in their metre; they give themselves very little trouble about the quantity of syllables, and the very idea of it is almost lost amidst their many metrical licences. Their language also, at least that of Plautus, wants cultivation and polish. Some learned Romans, it is true, and Varro for one, have passed the highest encomiums on this poet's style, but then we should distinguish between philological and poetical complacency. Plautus and Terence belonged to the oldest Roman authors of an age in which there was scarcely any book-language, so that every thing was caught up fresh from the life. This naïve simplicity the later Romans of the age of learned cultivation found very charming; but it was rather to be regarded as a gift of nature, than to be ascribed to the art of the poets. Horace sets himself against thisexaggerated partiality, and maintains that Plautus and other Latin comedians threw off their pieces carelessly, just to get paid for them as quickly as possible. In the detail, therefore, the Greek poets were certainly always losers in the Latin imitations. These we must, in imagination, retranslate to that finished elegance which we perceive in the Greek fragments. But Plautus and Terence also altered much in the arrangement of the entire play, and scarcely for the better. The former, sometimes, omitted whole scenes and characters; the latter added to them, and ran two plays into one. Was this done from an artist-like

U

[ocr errors]

design, and from a real wish to surpass their predecessors in the perfect structure of their plays? I doubt it. In Plautus all is broad and diffuse; and the lengthening of the original thus occasioned, he was obliged to redeem in some other way, namely, by curtailment and omissions: Terence's imitations, on the other hand, from his lack of invention, turned out somewhat meagre, and he set himself to fill up the gaps by interpolation of other matter. Even his contemporaries reproached him with having falsified or corrupted many Greek plays, to make out of them only a few Latin ones.

Plautus and Terence are commonly treated as original and perfectly independent authors. In Romans this may be excused : they had little of the proper poetic spirit, and their poetical literature, for the most part, originated first in translation, then in free imitation : and, lastly, in appropriation and transformation of the Greek. Hence among them even a particular style of copying passed for originality. Thus, in Terence's apologetical prologues we find the notion of plagiarism so lowered, that, as imputed to him, it referred only to his having used, for a second time, matter that had already been transmuted from the Greek. Therefore, as we can nowise regard these authors as creative geniuses, as they are only so far important to us, as by their means we become acquainted with the form of the Greek New Comedy, I shall here insert what I have to remark concerning them, and then return to the Greeks themselves.

Among the Greeks, poets and artists lived from of old in the most honourable relations : among the Romans, on the contrary, polite literature was at first exercised by men of the lowest class, by needy foreigners, even by slaves. Plautus and Terence, whose contiguous æras fell towards the end of the second Punic war, and in the interval between the second and third, were, the one a poor day-labourer at best, the other a Carthaginian slave and afterwards freed-man. But the fortunes they experienced were very different. Plautus was fain to take turn-about between comedy-writing and doing the work of a beast of burden in the mill for hire; Terence domesticated with the elder Scipio and his bosom-friend Lælius, and they admitted him into such confidential intercourse, that he fell under the honourable imputation of having been assisted by Diphilus - Philemon-Apollodorus-Menander.

291

these noble Romans in the composition of his plays, nay, of giving his name to works composed by them. The style of both poets betrays the habits of their respective manners of life: the bold, coarse style of Plautus, and his famous jokes, savour of his familiarity with the vulgar; in that of Terence, we find

' some touch of the tone of good society. The second distinguishing mark is their choice of plays to be worked upon. Plautus mostly inclines to the farcical, to overwrought and often offensive drollery ; Terence prefers the fine delineation of character, the temperate style of composition, and verges towards the seriously-instructive and even the pathetic kind. Some of Plautus's plays are modelled after those of Diphilus and Philemon, but there is reason to think he threw a great deal of coarseness into his originals; whence he took the rest we do not know, unless perhaps Horace's account, “ It is said of Plautus, that he emulates the model of the Sicilian Epicharmus,” may justify the conjecture that he borrowed his Amphitryo, a play of quite a different kind from the rest, and which he himself calls a tragicomedy, from the old Doric comedian, who, as we know, particularly treated mythological subjects. Among Terence's plays, whose imitations, saving the alterations in the composition, are probably much more faithful in detail, we find two composed after Apollodorus, the rest after Menander. Julius Cæsar has honoured Terence with some verses, in which he calls him a half-Menander, praises the lenity of his style, and only laments that he fails in a certain comic vigour of his original.

This naturally brings us back to the Greek masters. Diphilus, Philemon, Apollodorus, and Menander, are certainly among the most illustrious of their number. The palm of elegance, polish, and gracefulness, is unanimously adjudged to Menander, though Philemon frequently won the prize from him, perhaps because he more studied the taste of the vulgar, or used other adscititious means of popularity. This, at least, Menander gave him to understand, when on one occasion he met his rival, and asked him, “ Prythee, Philemon, dost thou not blush when thou gainest the prize over my head?”

Menander flourished after the times of Alexander the Great. He was contemporary with Demetrius Phalereus. Theophrastus was his master in philosophy, but he himself inclined in his opinions to the doctrine of Epicurus, and boasted in an epigram

« PreviousContinue »