« PreviousContinue »
enquiries, Let us consider tragedy un. der those heads to which Aristotle's rules may be reduced ; viz. the subject, characters, sentiments, and language. I shall begin with the subject, or fable.
That celebrated Grecian critic defines tragedy to be an imitation of an action that is grave, entire, and hath a just length; the stile of which is agreeable and diversified, and which, without the allistance of narration, by means of compalfion and terror perfectly refines in us all forts of passions.
The most important part of tragedy, according to the same critic, is the table, or the composition of things : for tra. gedy is an imitation, not of men, buc of their actions, lives, good or ill fortune; all which conlist in action; and
the end is not a quality, but an action. Now we have such or such qualities by our manners, but we are happy or mifer. able by our actions. Tragedy then does not endeavour to imitate manners, but adds them by reason of the actions; so that actions and fable are the end of
An action is entire which hath a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning is that which necessarily supposes nothing to be before it, and requires after it something else, which is or ought to be. The end is just contrary; for it requires nothing after it, but neceffarily fupposes something which precedes it. The middle is that which supposes fomething which ought to precede it, and
# Arift. Poet. ch. vi.
) requires fomething which ought to fols low. This is Aristotle's definition of a complete action, and it agrees with Plato's ; the maxim is drawn from nature and the pra&ice of the antients: thac critic regarded Oedipus as the finelt fubject for tragedy the :wit of man ever thought of. Let us take a view of the fable. The scene opens with a sacrifice which a great number of Thebans are making in the court of Oedipus's palace. That prince enters, and to comfort the people, tells them that he had fent Creon a long time ago to enquire of Apollo's cracle at Delphos, the means of making the devouring pestilence cease, upon which Creon arrives and relates what the oracle had said; Oedipus fends for Tiresias to explain it. The prophet at first refused to do it ; but provoked at last by the severe carriage of Oedipus,
he accuses him of the murder of Laius. Oedipus imagiaes that it was Creon made him do this : Creon complains of this injustice, fo the two princes. quarrel. Jocasta comes in to appease them, and endeavours to remove the uneasiness, which the reproach that was cast on Oedipus gave him ; bat all that the faid ferved only to augment his trouble! A meffenger encers from Corinth, who brought the news of the death of king Polybius, who was thought to be his fa. ther; and to remove some fears which he had upon account of his supposed defiling his father's bed, he tells him, that the king and queen of Corinth were not his
parents. He was resolved to know the matter thoroughly, and enquires of the thepherd, who alone was able to give him a perfect account of his misfortunes : the thepherd leaves him no room
(6) to doubt of all his crimes, and then he punishes himself. This is the entire plan of the Oedipus, even with the episodes. There is nothing in it but what may be seen at once, and which the memory may easily retain *
This is the principal of the three unities about which critics are of so many different opinions. The unity of time is also of great importance with some cris tics ; but this is not so perfectly settled
• The happiest of all subjects for tragedy, if fuch a one could be invented, would be where a man of integrity falls into a great misfortune by doing an innocent action, but which by some fin gular means he conceives to be criminal. His remorse aggravates his distress; and our compaffion, unrestrained by indignation, rises to its bighest pitch. Pity becomes thus to be the ruling passion of a pathetic tragedy, and by proper representation, may be raised to a height scarce exceeded by any thing felt in real life. Elements of Criticisin, vol. iii. p. 228.