« PreviousContinue »
(7) as that of action. Aristotle says, chat a piece, to have its just extent, ought to take up so much time, as it must neceffarily, or probably do, rightly to induce all the incidents, till che unravelling the plot shews the last good or ill fortune of the principal persons.
As this is one of those passages which bas fo often been quoted in defence of the unity of time, I cannot help observing, that a poet is left much more at liberty by ic than our modern critics will allow. It has often been afferted that the time should not exceed the representation ; and a faultless piece composed by the exactest rules of criticism will be formed on that plan ; but a thoufand fertile and poetic subjects must be rejected, if we were always to submit to this unity * Many
* Boffu, after observing with wonderful critical fagacity, that winter is an improper season for
of the greatest poets, I know, have con. formed to it: the actions of the finest pieces of Sophocles are but of four hours. Those of Racine's Cinna, Andromache, and Bajazet, the Oedipus either of Corneille, de la Motte, or Voltaire, are not of longer duration. If other plots, says Voltaire, require a greater length of time for their execution, it is a licence only pardonable in favour of very great beauties; and the farther this licence is extended, the greater the fault must be t. It would shew a want of talents
an epic poem, and night not less improper for tragedy; admits, however, that an epic poem may be spread through the whole fummer months, and a tragedy through the whole sun-thine hours of the longest summer-day. Du Poeme Epique, J. iii. chap. 12. At this rate an English tragedy may be longer than a French tragedy; and in Nova Zembla the time of a tragedy and of an epic poem may be the same.
Elements of Criticism, vol. iii. p. 269. + Pref. to Voltaire's Oedipus.
and fertility to extend an action beyond che limited time and place. As a man, fays he, who has hurried together 200 many events in the fame play, the reafon of this conduct? If he is fincere, he will telt you
he wanted genius to fill his piece with a single fact; and if he employs two days, and takes in two towns for the feene of action, be assured it is because he had not the address to confine it to the space of three hours, and within the lie mits of a palace, as probability required *.
I must however differ from this ingenious Frenchman in his criticisın. Neg. lecting the unities is no proof of want of genius, of which there are too many proofs to need citing; twenty Vol: taires won't make one Shakespear. It is
+ Etay on Tragedy.
abfurd to imagine that the great irregular geniuses break through rúles because they cannot conform to them : no, their rapid invention hurries them beyond all bounds, and instead of writing on rules laid down by others, their works occasion new rules. Breaking the unities may often give rise to great and manly beauties, as we have many instances in Shakefpear; many of whose striking passages are the effects of his no critical learn. ing.
« It is obfervable, that the same critics, who condemn so much in Shakefpear a neglect of the unities, are equally forward in acknowledging the fingular energy and beauty of his sentiments. Now, it seems to me, that the fault which they censure, is the principal source of the beauties which they admire. For,
as the poet was not confined to an unity and fimplicity of action, he created in cidents in proportion to the promptness and vivacity of his genius. Hence, his sentiments spring from motives exquifitely fitted to produce them: to this they owe that original spirit, that commanding energy, which overcome the im. probabilities of the scene; and trans: port the heart in defiance of the under, standing. I do not mean by this to jurtify our poet in all his exceffes. It must be confess'd, that he has often carried the indulgence of his genius much too far : but it is equally certain, that a rigid observance of the dramatic unities is not free from objections : for as no one simple and confined action can furnish many incidents, and those, such as they are, must tend to one common point, it necessarily follows, that there must be a