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SHAKSPEARE AND HIS TIMES.
VOLTAIRE was the first person in France who spoke of Shakspeare's genius; and although he spoke of him merely as a barbarian genius, the French public were of opinion that Voltaire had said too much in his favor. Indeed, they thought it nothing less than profanation to apply the words genius and glory to dramas which they considered as crude as they were coarse.
At the present day, all controversy regarding Shakspeare's genius and glory has come to an end. No one ventures any longer to dispute them; but a greater question has arisen, namely, whether Shakspeare's dramatic system is not far superior to that of Voltaire.
This question I do not presume to decide. I merely say that it is now open for discussion. We have been led to it by the onward progress of ideas. I shall endeavor to point out the causes which have brought it about; but at present I insist merely upon the fact itself, and deduce from it one simple consequence, that literary criticism has changed its ground, and can no longer remain restricted to the limits within which it was formerly confined.
Literature does not escape from the revolutions of the human mind; it is compelled to follow it in its courseto transport itself beneath the horizon under which it is conveyed; to gain elevation and extension with the ideas
which occupy its notice, and to consider the questions which it discusses under the new aspects and novel circumstances in which they are placed by the new state of thought and of society.
My readers will not, therefore, be surprised that, in order properly to appreciate Shakspeare, I find it necessary to make some preliminary researches into the nature of dramatic poetry and the civilization of modern peoples, especially of England. If we did not begin with these general considerations, it would be impossible to keep pace with the confused, perhaps, but active and urgent ideas, which such a subject originates in all minds.
A theatrical performance is a popular festival; that it should be so is required by the very nature of dramatic poetry. Its power rests upon the effects of sympathyof that mysterious force which causes laughter to beget laughter; which bids tears to flow at the sight of tears, and which, in spite of the diversity of dispositions, conditions, and characters, produces the same impression on all upon whom it simultaneously acts. For the proper development of these effects, a crowd must be assembled; those ideas and feelings which would pass languidly from one man to another, traverse the serried ranks of a multitude with the rapidity of lightning; and it is only when large masses of men are collected together that we observe the action of that moral electricity which the dramatic poet calls into such powerful operation.
Dramatic poetry, therefore, could originate only among the people. At its birth it was destined to promote their pleasures; in their festivities it once performed an active part; and with the first songs of Thespis the chorus of the spectators invariably united.
But the people are not slow to perceive that the pleas