July 23 1815: Hazlitt on The Tempest

On July 23 1815, William Hazlitt’s review of The Tempest appears in the Examiner.

As we returned some evenings ago from seeing the Tempest at Covent Garden, we almost came to the resolution of never going to another representation of a play of Shakespeare’s as long as we lived; and we certainly did come to this determination, that we never would go by choice. To call it a representation is, indeed, an abuse of language: it is travestie, caricature, anything you please but a representation.

Even those daubs of pictures, formerly exhibited under the title of the Shakespeare Gallery, had a less evident tendency to disturb and distort all the previous notions we had imbibed from reading Shakespeare. In the first place, it was thought fit and necessary, in order to gratify the sound sense, the steady, sober judgment, and natural unsophisticated feelings of Englishmen a hundred years ago, to modernise the original play, and to disfigure its simple and beautiful structure, by loading it with the commonplace, clap-trap sentiments, artificial contrasts of situations and character, and all the heavy tinsel and affected formality which Dryden had borrowed from the French school. And be it observed, further, that these same anomalous, unmeaning, vulgar, and ridiculous additions, are all that take in the present farcical representation of the Tempest. The beautiful, the exquisitely beautiful descriptions in Shakespeare, the still more refined and more affecting sentiments, are not only not applauded as they ought to be (what fine murmur of applause should do them justice ?) —they are not understood, nor are they even heard. The lips of the actors are seen to move, but the sounds they utter, exciting no corresponding emotions in the breast, are no more distinguished than the repetition of so many cabalistical words. The ears of the audience are not prepared to drink in the music of the poet ; or grant that they were, the bitterness of disappointment would only succeed to the stupor of indifference.

Shakespeare has given to Prospero, Ariel, and the other characters in this play, language such as wizards and spirits, “the gay creatures of the element,” might want to express their thoughts and purposes, and this language is here put into the mouth of Messrs. Young, Abbott, and Emery, and of Misses Matthews, Bristow, and Booth. “‘Tis much.” Mr. Young is in general what is called a respectable actor. Now, as this is a phrase which does not seem to be very clearly understood by those who most frequently use it, we shall take this opportunity to define it. A respectable actor, then, is one who seldom gratifies, and who seldom offends us; who never disappoints us, because we do not expect anything from him, and who takes care never to rouse our dormant admiration by any unlooked-for strokes of excellence. In short, an actor of this class (not to speak it profanely) is a mere machine, who walks and speaks his part; who, having a tolerable voice, face, and figure, reposes entirely and with a prepossessing self-complacency on these natural advantages; who never risks a failure because he never makes an effort ; who keep on the safe side of custom and decorum, without attempting improper liberties with his art; and who has not genius or spirit enough to do either well or ill. A respectable actor is on the stage, much what a pretty woman is in private life, who trusts to her outward attractions, and does not commit her taste or understanding by hazardous attempts to shine in conversation. So we have generals, who leave everything to be done by their men; patriots, whose reputation depends on their estates; and authors, who live on the stock of ideas they have in common with their readers.

Such is the best account we can give of the class of actors to which Mr. Young belongs, and of which he forms a principal ornament. As long as he contents himself to play indifferent characters, we shall say nothing; but whenever he plays Shakespeare, we must be excused if we take unequal revenge for the martyrdom which our feelings suffer. His Prospero was good for nothing ; and, consequently, was indescribably bad. It was grave without solemnity, stately without dignity, pompous without being impressive, and totally destitute of the wild, mysterious, preternatural character of the original. Prospero, as depicted by Mr. Young, did not appear the potent wizard brooding in gloomy abstraction over the secrets of his art, and around whom spirits and airy shapes throng numberless “at his bidding “; but seemed himself an automaton, stupidly prompted by others: his lips moved up and down as if pulled by wires, not governed by the deep and varied impulses of passion; and his painted face, and snowy hair and beard, reminded us of the masks for the representation of Pantaloon. In a word, Mr. Young did not personate Prospero, but a pedagogue teaching his scholars how to recite the part, and not teaching them well.

Of one of the actors who assisted at this sacrifice of poetical genius, Emery, we think as highly as any one can do: he is indeed, in his way, the most perfect actor on the stage. His representations of common rustic life have an absolute identity with the thing represented. But the power of his mind is evidently that of imitation, not that of creation. He has nothing romantic, grotesque, or imaginary about him. Everything in his hands takes a local and habitual shape. Now, Caliban is a mere creation; one of the wildest and most abstracted of all Shakespeare’s characters, whose deformity is only redeemed by the power and truth of the imagination displayed in it. It is the essence of grossness, but there is not the smallest vulgarity in it. Shakespeare has described the brutal mind of this man-monster in contact with the pure and original forms of nature; the character grows out of the soil where it is rooted, uncontrolled, uncouth, and wild, uncramped by any of the meannesses of custom. It is quite remote from anything provincial; from the manners or dialect of any county in England. Mr. Emery had nothing of Caliban but his gaberdine, which did not become him. (We liked Mr. Grimaldi’s Orson1 much better, which we saw afterwards in the pantomime.) Shakespeare has, by a process of imagination usual with him, drawn off from Caliban the elements of everything etherial and refined, to compound them into the unearthly mould of Ariel. Nothing was ever more finely conceived than this contrast between the material and the spiritual, the gross and delicate. Miss Matthews played and sung Ariel. She is, to be sure, a very “tricksy spirit”; and all that we can say in her praise is, that she is a better representative of the sylphlike form of the character than the light and portable Mrs. Bland, who used formerly to play it. She certainly does not sing the songs so well. We do not, however, wish to hear them sung, though never so well; no music can add anything to their magical effect. The words of Shakespeare would be sweet, even “after the songs of Apollo!”

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