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Sir Walter Scott

“ The first point of comparison [between Shakespeare's Play and Dryden's] is the general conduct, or plot, of the tragedy. . . . Shakespeare, with the license peculiar to his age and character, had diffused the action of his play over Italy, Greece, and Egypt; but Dryden, who was well aware of the advantage to be derived from a simplicity and concentration of plot, has laid every scene in the city of Alexandria. By this he guarded the audience from that vague and puzzling distraction which must necessarily attend a violent change of place. It is a mistake to suppose that the argument in favour of the unities depends upon preserving the deception of the scene; they are necessarily connected with the intelligibility of the piece. It may be true, that no spectator supposes that the stage before him is actually the court of Alexandria; yet, when he has once made up his mind to let it pass as such during the representation, it is a cruel tax, not merely on his imagination, but on his powers of comprehension, if the scene be suddenly transferred to a distant country. Time is lost before he can form new associations, and reconcile their bearings with those originally presented to him, and if he be a person of slow comprehension, or happens to lose any part of the dialogue, announcing the changes, the whole becomes unintelligible confusion. In this respect, and in discarding a number of uninteresting characters, the plan of Dryden's play must be unequivocally preferred to that of Shakespeare in point of coherence, unity, and simplicity. It is a natural consequence of this more artful arrangement of the story, that Dryden contents himself with the concluding scene of Antony's history, instead of introducing the incidents of the war with Cneius Pompey, the negotiation with Lepidus, death of his first wife, and other circumstances, which, in Shakespeare, only tend to distract our attention from the main interest of the drama. The unity of time, as necessary as that of place to the intelligibility of the drama, has, in like manner, been happily attained; and an interesting event is placed before the audience with no other change of place, and no greater lapse of time, than can be readily adapted to an ordinary imagination. But, having given Dryden the praise of superior address in managing the story, I fear he must be pronounced in most other respects inferior to his grand prototype. Antony, the principal character in both plays, is incomparably grander in that of Shakespeare. The majesty and generosity of the military hero is happily expressed by both poets; but the awful ruin of grandeur, undermined by passion, and tottering to its fall, is far more striking in the Antony of Shakespeare. Love, it is true, is the predominant, but it is not the sole ingredient in his character. It has usurped possession of his mind, but is assailed by his original passions, ambition of power, and thirst for military fame. He is, therefore, often, and it should seem naturally represented, as feeling for the downfall of his glory and power, even so intensely as to withdraw his thoughts from Cleopatra, unless considered as the cause of his ruin. Thus, in the scene in which he compares himself to ‘black Vesper's pageants,’ he runs on in a train of fantastic and melancholy similes, having relation only to his fallen state, till the mention of Egypt suddenly recalls the idea of Cleopatra. But Dryden has taken a different view of Antony's character, and more closely approaching to his title of All for Love. ‘He seems not now that awful Antony.’ His whole thoughts and being are dedicated to his fatal passion; and though a spark of resentment is occasionally struck out by the reproaches of Ventidius, he instantly relapses into love-sick melancholy. The following beautiful speech exhibits the romance of despairing love, without the deep and mingled passion of a dishonoured soldier, and dethroned emperor: [All for Love:Ant. Lie there, thou shadow of an Emperor. . . . And take me for their ‘fellow-citizen,’ p. 417.] Even when Antony is finally ruined, the power of jealousy is called upon to complete his despair, and he is less sensible to the idea of Cæsar's successful arms than to the risque of Dolabella's rivalling him in the affections of Cleopatra. It is true, the Antony of Shakespeare also starts into fury, upon Cleopatra permitting Thyreus to kiss her hand; but this is not jealousy; it is pride offended, that she, for whom he had sacrificed his glory and empire, should already begin to court the favour of the conqueror, and vouchsafe her hand to be saluted by a ‘jack of Cæsar's.’ Hence Enobarbus, the witness of the scene, alludes immediately to the fury of mortified ambition and falling power: ‘'Tis better playing with ‘a lion's whelp, Than with an old one dying.’ . . . Having, however, adopted an idea of Antony's character, rather suitable to romance than to nature, or history, we must not deny Dryden the praise of having exquisitely brought out the picture he intended to draw. He has informed us, that this was the only play written to please himself; and he has certainly exerted in it the full force of his incomparable genius. Antony is throughout the piece what the author meant him to be: a victim to the omnipotence of love, or rather to the infatuation of one engrossing passion.

In the Cleopatra of Dryden, there is greatly less spirit and originality than in Shakespeare's. The preparation of the latter for death has a grandeur which puts to shame the same scene in Dryden, and serves to support the interest during the whole fifth act, although Antony has died in the conclusion of the fourth. No circumstance can more highly evince the power of Shakespeare's genius, in spite of his irregularities; since the conclusion in Dryden, where both lovers die in the same scene, and after a reconciliation, is infinitely more artful and better adapted to theatrical effect. In the character of Ventidius, Dryden has filled up, with ability, the rude sketches, which Shakespeare has thrown off in those of Scæva [sic] and Eros. The rough old Roman soldier is painted with great truth; and the quarrel betwixt him and Antony, in the first act, is equal to any single scene that our author ever wrote, excepting, perhaps, that betwixt Sebastian and Dorax; an opinion in which the judgment of the critic coincides with that of the poet. It is a pity, as has often been remarked, that this dialogue occurs so early in the play, since what follows is necessarily inferior in force. Dryden, while writing this scene, had unquestionably in his recollection the quarrel betwixt Brutus and Cassius, which was justly so great a favourite in his time, and to which he had referred as inimitable in his prologue to Aureng-Zebe. The inferior characters are better supported in Dryden than in Shakespeare. We have no low buffoonery in the former, such as disgraces Enobarbus, and is hardly redeemed by his affecting catastrophe. Even the Egyptian Alexas acquires some respectability, from his patriotic attachment to the interests of his country, and from his skill as a wily courtier. . . . The Octavia of Dryden is a much more important personage than in the Antony and Cleopatra of Shakespeare. She is, however, more cold and unamiable; for, in the very short scenes in which the Octavia of Shakespeare appears, she is placed in rather an interesting point of view. But Dryden has himself informed us, that he was apprehensive the justice of a wife's claim upon her husband would draw the audience to her side, and lessen their interest in the lover and the mistress. He seems accordingly to have studiedly lowered the character of the injured Octavia, who, in her conduct towards her husband, shews much duty and little love; and plainly intimates, that her rectitude of conduct flows from a due regard to her own reputation, rather than from attachment to Antony's person, or sympathy with him in his misfortunes. It happens, therefore, with Octavia, as with all other very good selfish kind of people; we think it unnecessary to feel any thing for her, as she is obviously capable of taking very good care of herself. I must not omit, that her scolding scene with Cleopatra, although anxiously justified by the author in the preface, seems too coarse to be in character, and is a glaring exception to the general good taste evinced throughout the rest of the piece. . . . In judging betwixt these celebrated passages, [the descriptions by Shakespeare and by Dryden of Cleopatra on the Cydnus] we feel almost afraid to avow a preference of Dryden, founded partly upon the easy flow of the verse, which seems to soften with the subject, but chiefly upon the beauty of the language and imagery, which is flowery without diffusiveness, and rapturous without hyperbole. I fear Shakespeare cannot be exculpated from the latter fault; yet I am sensible, it is by sifting his beauties from his conceits that his imitator has been enabled to excel him. It is impossible to bestow too much praise on the beautiful passages which occur so frequently in All for Love. I content myself with extracting the sublime and terrific description of an omen presaging the downfall of Egypt. [‘Serap. Last night, between the Hours of Twelve and One. . . . And so unfinish'd left the horrid Scene.’ p. 412.]

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