« PreviousContinue »
of his former encomiums on our mighty poet, though the French critic has twice translated the same speech in Hamlet, some years ago in admiration, latterly in derision ; and I am sorry to find that his judgment grows weaker, when it ought to be farther matured.
But I shall make use of his own words, delivered on the general topic of the theatre, when • he was neither thinking to recommend or decry Shakespeare's practice ; consequently at a moment when Voltaire was impartial. In the preface to his Enfant Prodigue, that erquisite piece, of which I declare my admiration, and which, should I live twenty year longer, I trust I shall never attempt to ridicule, he has these words, speaking of comedy, (but equally applicable to tragedy, if tragedy is, as surely it ought to be, a picture of human life ; nor can I conceive why occasional pleasantry ought more to be banished from the tragic scene, than pathetic seriousness from the comic,)“ On y voit un melange de serieux et de plaisanterie, de comique et de touchant ; souvent meme une seule avanture produit tous ces contrastes. Rien n'est si commun qu'une maison dans laquelle un pere gronde, une fille occupée de sa passion pleure ; le fils se moque des deux, et quelques parens prennent part differemment à la scene, &c. Nous n'inferons pas de là que toute Comedie doive avoir des scenes de bouffonerie et des scenes attendrissantes : Il y a beaucoup de tres bonnes pièces où il ne regne que de la gayeté ; d'autres toutes serieuses ; D'autres melangées : d'autres où l'attendrissement va jusqu' aux larmes : Il ne faut donner l'exclusion à aucun genre: et si l'on me demandoit, quel genre est le meilleur, je repondrois, celui qui est le mieux traité." Surely if a comedy may be toute serieuse, tragedy may now and then, soberly, be indulged in a smile. Who shall proscribe it? shall the critic, who, in self-defence, declares that no kind ought to be excluded from comedy, give laws to Shakespeare ?
I am aware that the preface from whence I have quoted these passages, does not stand in Monsieur de Voltaire's name, but in that of his editor ; yet who doubts that the editor and author were the same person? or where is the editor, who has so happily possessed himself of his author's style and brilliant ease of argument? These passages were indubitably the genuine sentiments of that great writer. In his epistle to Maffei, prefixed to his Merope, he delivers almost the same opinion, though I doubt with a little irony. I will repeat his words, and then give my reason for quoting them. After translating a passage in Maffei’s Merope, Monsieur de Voltaire adds, “ Tous ces traits sont naifs : Tout y est convenable à ceur que vous introduises sur la scene, et aux mæurs que vous leur donmez. Ces familiarités naturelles eussent étè à ce que je crois, bien reçues dans Athenes ; mais Poris et notre parterre veulent une autre espece de simplicité." I doubt, I say, whether there is not a grain of sneer in this and other passages of that epistle; yet the force of truth is not damaged by being tinged with ridicule. Maffei was to represent a Grecian story: Surely the Athenians were as competent judges of Grecian manners, and of the propriety of introducing them, as the parterre of Paris. “ On the contrary,” says Voltaire, (and ! cannot but admire his reasoning,)“ there were but ten thousand citizens at Athens, and Paris has near eight hundred thousand inhabitants, among whom one may reckon thirty thousand judges of dramatic works.”— Indeed !- but allowing so numerous a tribunal, I believe this is the only instance in which it was ever pretended that thirty thousand persons, living near two thousand years after the era in question, were, upon the mere face of the poll, declared better judges than the Grecians themselves, of what ought to be the manners of a tragedy written on a Grecian story.
I will not enter into a discussion of the espece de simplicité, which the parterre of Paris demands, nor of the shackles with which the thirty thousand judges hare cramped their poetry, the chief merit of which, as I gather from repeated passages in the New Commen: tary on Corneille, consists in vaulting in spite of those fetters; a merit which, if true, would reduce poetry from the lofty effort of imagination, to a puerile and most contemptible labour difficiles nuga with a witness! I cannot, however, help mentioning a couplet, which, to my English ears, always sounded as the flattest and most trifling instance of circumstantial propriety, but which Voltaire, who has dealt so severely with nine parts in teu of Corneille's works, has singled out to defend in Racine :
« De son appartement cette porte est prochaine,
Unhappy Shakespeare ! hadst thou made Rosencrantz inform his compeer, Guildenstern, of the ichnography of the palace of Copenhagen, instead of presenting us with a moral dialogue between the Prince of Denmark and the grave-digger, the illuminated pit of Paris would have been instructed a second time to adore thy talents.
The result of all I have said, is, to shelter my own daring under the cannon of the brightest genius this country, at least, has produced. I might have pleaded, that having created a new species of Romance, I was at liberty to lay down what rules I thought fit for the conduct of it. But I should be more proud of having imitated, however faintly, weakly, and at a distance, so masterly a pattern, than to enjoy the entire Inerit of invention, unless I could have marked my work with genius as well as with originality. Such as it is, the public have honoured it sufficiently, whatever rank their suffrages allot to it.
beginning the divine office, when Conrad him
self was missing. Manfred, impatient of the CHAP. I.
least delay, and who had not observed his son
retire, dispatched one of his attendants to sumMANFRED, Prince of Otranto, had one son and mon the young Prince. The servant, who had one daughter : the latter, a most beautiful vir- not staid long enough to have crossed the court gin, aged eighteen, was called Matilda. Con- to Conrad's apartment, came running back rad, the son, was three years younger, a homely breathless, in a frantic manner, his eyes staring, youth, sickly, and of no promising disposition; and foaming at the mouth. He said nothing, yet he was the darling of his father, who never but pointed to the court. The company were shewed any symptoms of affection to Matilda. struck with terror and amazement. The PrinManfred had contracted a marriage for his son cess Hippolita, without knowing what was the with the Marquis of Vicenza's daughter, Isa- matter, but anxious for her son, swooned away, bella ; and she had already been delivered by Manfred, less apprehensive than enraged at the her guardians into the hands of Manfred, that procrastination of the nuptials, and at the folly he might celebrate the wedding as soon as Con- of his domestic, asked imperiously, what was rad's infirm state of health would permit. Man- the matter? The fellow made no answer, but fred's impatience for this ceremonial was remark- continued pointing towards the court-yard ; and, ed by his family and neighbours. The former in- at last, after repeated questions put to him, cried deed, apprehending the severity of their Prince's out, “ Oh! the helmet! the helmet!" In the disposition, did not dare to utter their surmises mean time, some of the company had run into on this precipitation. Hippolita, his wife, an the court, from whence was heard a confused amiable lady, did sometimes venture to repre- noise of shrieks, horror, and surprise. Manfred, sent the danger of marrying their only son so who began to be alarmed at not seeing his son, early, considering his great youth, and greater went himself to get information of what occainfirmities; but she never received any other sioned this strange confusion. Matilda remainanswer than reflections on her own sterility, who ed, endeavouring to assist her mother; and Isa. had given him but one heir. His tenants and sub- bella staid for the same purpose, and to avoid jects were less cautious in their discourses. They shewing any impatience for the bridegroom, for attributed this hasty wedding to the Prince's whom, in truth, she had conceived little affci. dread of seeing accomplished an ancient pro- tion. phecy, which was said to have pronounced, that The first thing that struck Manfred's eyes, the Castle and Lordship of Otranto should pa ss was a group of his servants, endeavouring to from the present family, whenever the real owner raise something that appeared to him a mounshould be grown two large to inhabit it. It was tain of sable plumes. He gazed, without belie difficult to make any sense of this prophecy; and ving his sight. “ What are ye doing?" cried still less easy to conceive what it had to do with Manfred, wrathfully ; “ where is my son ?" A the marriage in question. Yet these mysteries, volley of voices replied, “Oh! My lord! the or contradictions, did not make the populace ad- Prince ! the Prince! the helmet! the helmet! here the less to their opinion.
Shocked with these lamentable sounds, and Young Conrad's birth-day was fixed for his dreading he knew not what, he advanced hastiespousals. The company was assembled in the ly; but, what a sight for a father's eyes! he be chapel of the castle, and every thing ready for held his child dashed to pieces, and almost bu
ried under an enormous helmet, an hundred rles, whether any man knew from whence it times more large than any casque ever made for could have come } Nobody could give him the human being, and shaded with a proportionable least information. However, as it seemed to be quantity of black feathers.
the sole object of his curiosity, it soon became The horror of the spectacle, the ignorance of so to the rest of the spectators, whose conjectures all around how this misfortune had happened, were as absurd and improbable, as the catasand, above all, the tremendous phenomenon be- trophe itself was unprecedented. In the midst fore him, took away the Prince's speech. Yet of their senseless guesses, a young peasant, whom his silence lasted longer than even grief could rumour had drawn thither from a neighbouring occasion. He fixed his eyes on what he wished village, observed, that the miraculous helmet in vain to believe a vision ; and seemed less at- was exactly like that on the figure in black martentive to his loss, than buried in meditation on ble of Alfonso the Good, one of their former the stupendous object that had occasioned it. princes, in the church of St Nicholas. « VilHe touched, he examined, the fatal casque ; nor lain! what sayest thou ?" cried Manfred, startcould even the bleeding mangled remains of the ing from his trance in a tempest of rage, and young Prince, divert the eyes of Manfred from seizing the young man by the collar; “how darest the portent before him. All who had known his thou utter such treason ? thy life shall pay for partial fondness for young Conrad, were as much it.” The spectators, who as little comprehendsurprised at their Prince's insensibility, as thun- ed the cause of the Prince's fury as all the rest derstruck themselves at the miracle of the hel- they had seen, were at a loss to unravel this new
met. They conveyed the disfigured corpse in- circumstance. The young peasant himself was 1 to the hall, without receiving the least direc- still more astonished, not conceiving how he had
tion from Manfred. As little was he attentive offended the Prince : yet, recollecting himself, to the ladies who remained in the chapel : on with a mixture of grace and humility, he disenthe contrary, without mentioning the unhappy gaged himself from Manfred's gripe, and then princesses, his wife and daughter, the first sounds with an obeisance, which discovered more jeathat dropped from Manfred's lips were, “ Take lousy of innocence, than dismay, he asked, with care of the Lady Isabella.”
respect, of what he was guilty ? Manfred, more The domestics, without observing the singu- enraged at the vigour, however decently exertlarity of this direction, were guided by their af- ed, with which the young man had shaken off fection to their mistress, to consider it as pecu- his hold, than appeased by his submission, orliarly addressed to her situation, and flew to her dered his attendants to seize him, and, if he had assistance. They conveyed her to her chamber not been withheld by his friends, whom he had more dead than alive, and indifferent to all the invited to the nuptials, would have poniarded strange circumstances she heard, except the death the peasant in their arms. of her son. Matilda, who doated on her mother, During this altercation, some of the vulgar smothered her own grief and amazement, and spectators had run to the great church, which thought of nothing but assisting and comforting stood near the castle, and came back open-mouthher afflicted parent. Isabella, who had been ed, declaring, that the helmet was missing from treated by Hippolita like a daughter, and who Alphonso's statue. Manfred, at this news, grew returned that tenderness with equal duty and perfectly frantic ; and, as if he sought a subject affection, was scarce less assiduous about the on which to vent the tempest within him, he Princess ; at the same time, endeavouring to par- rushed again on the young peasant, crying, “Viltake and lessen the weight of sorrow which she lain! monster! sorcerer !''tis thou hast done this! saw Matilda strove to suppress, for whom she 'tis thou hast slain my son !" The mob, who had conceived the warmest sympathy of friend- wanted some object within the scope of their caship. Yet her own situation could not help find- pacities, on whom they might discharge their ing its place in her thoughts. She felt no con- bewildered reasonings, caught the words from cern for the death of young Conrad, except com- the mouth of their lord, and re-echoed, “Ay, miseration ; and she was not sorry to be deliver- ay; 'tis he! 'tis he! He has stolen the helmet ed from a marriage, which had promised her from good Alfonso's tomb, and dashed out the little felicity, either from her destined bride- brains of our young Prince with it !” never regroom, or from the severe temper of Manfred; flecting, how enormous the disproportion was who, though he had distinguished her by great between the marble helmet that had been in the indulgence, had impressed her mind with terror, church, and that of steel before their eyes ; nor, from his causeless rigour to such amiable prin- how impossible it was for a youth, seemingly cesses as Hippolita and Matilda.
not twenty, to wield a piece of armour of so proWhile the ladies were conveying the wretch- digious a weight. ed mother to her bed, Manfred remained in the The folly of these ejaculations brought Man, court, gazing on the ominous casque, and re- fred to himself: yet, whether provoked at the gardless of the crowd which the strangeness of peasant having observed the resemblance bethe event had now assembled around him. The tween the two helmets, and thereby led to the few words he articulated, tended solely to inqui- farther discovery of the absence of that in the
church ; or wishing to bury any fresh rumour trembling, “My dearest father, it is 1, you
of it would give to Hippolita, who questioned It was in vain for the youth to represent against her in the most anxious terms on the health of this preposterous sentence; in vain did Man- Manfred, and how he bore his loss. Matilda fred's friends endeavour to divert him from assured her he was well, and supported his misthis savage and ill-grounded resolution. The fortune with manly fortitude." But will be generality were charmed with their lord's deci- not let me see him," said Hippolita mournfully, sion, which, to their apprehensions, carried great “will he not permit me to blend my tears with appearance of justice, as the magician was to be his, and shed a mother's sorrows in the bosom punished by the very instrument with which he of her lord ? or do you deceive me, Matilda? I had offended; nor were they struck with the know how Manfred doated on his son: is not least compunction at the probability of the youth the stroke too heavy for him ? has he not sunk being starved, for they firmly believed, that, by under it? you do not answer me; alas ! I dread his diabolical skill, he could easily supply him- the worst !-Raise me, my maidens; I will, I self with nutriment.
will, see my lord. Bear me to him instantly: Manfred thus saw his commands even cheer- he is dearer to me even than my children ? fully obeyed; and appointing a guard, with strict Matilda made signs to Isabella to prevent Hiporders to prevent any food being conveyed to polita's rising ; and both those lovely young the prisoner, he dismissed his friends and at- women were using their gentle violence to stop tendants, and retired to his own chamber, after and calm the Princess, when a servant, on the locking the gates of the castle, in which he suf- part of Manfred, arrived, and told Isabella that fered none but his domestics to remain.
his lord demanded to speak with her. In the mean time, the care and zeal of the “With me!” cried Isabella. “Go," said young ladies had brought the Princess Hippo- Hippolita, relieved by a message from her lord: lita to herself, who, amidst the transports of her “ Manfred cannot support the sight of his own own sorrow, frequently demanded news of her family. He thinks you less disordered than we lord, would have dismissed her attendants to are, and dreads the shock of my grief. Console watch over him, and at last enjoined Matilda him, dear Isabella ; and tell him I will smother to leave her, and visit and comfort her father. my own anguish rather than add to his.” Matilda, who wanted not affectionate duty to As it was now evening, the servant, who conManfred, though she trembled at his austerity, ducted Isabella, bore a torch before her. When obeyed the orders of Hippolita, whom she ten- they came to Manfred, who was walking imderly recommended to Isabella ; and inquiring patiently about the gallery, he started, and said of the domestics of her father, was informed hastily, “ Take away that light, and begone!" that he was retired to his chamber, and had Then shutting the door impetuously, he flung commanded that nobody should have admit- himself upon a bench against the wall, and bade tance to him. Concluding that he was im- Isabella sit by him. She obeyed, trembling. mersed in sorrow for the death of her brother, “ I sent for you, lady,” said he, and then stopand fearing to renew his tears by the sight of ped, under great appearance of confusion. "My his sole remaining child, she hesitated whether lord !”_“Yes, I sent for you, on a matter of she should break in upon his affliction ; yet so- great moment,” resumed he; " dry your tears, licitude for him, backed by the commands of her young lady. You have lost your bridegroom mother, encouraged her to venture disobeying -yes, cruel fate! and I have lost the hopes of the orders he had given ; a fault she had never my race! but Conrad was not worthy of your been guilty of before. The gentle timidity of beauty."_" How ! my lord !" said Isabella ; her nature made her pause for some minutes at “sure you do not suspect me of not feeling the his door. She heard him traverse his chamber concern I ought! my duty and affection would backwards and forwards with disordered steps; have always" " Think no more of him," ida mood which increased her apprehensions. She terrupted Manfred ; "he was a sickly, puny was however just going to beg admittance, when child; and heaven has perhaps taken him away, Manfred suddenly opened the door ; and as it that I might not trust the honours of my house was now twilight, concurring with the disorder on so frail a foundation. The line of Mantra of his mind, he did not distinguish the person, calls for numerous supports. My foolish fondo but asked angrily, who it was ? Matilda replied, ness for that boy blinded the eyes of my prus
pita In a