I. Dependence of the Drama upon conditions of Stage-Representation. The Drama and the Novel—The Drama as ‘Stage-play’— Dependence of the Drama on Stage Conditions—Illustration: Greek Tragedy—Another Illustration: The Shakespearean Drama, II. Plot in the Drama. III. Characterisation in the Drama. Its Conditions: Brevity of Treatment—Impersonality—Methods of Characterisation — Action—Dialogue—The Soliloquy and ‘Aside’—Shakespeare’s Use of Soliloquy. IV. The Natural Divisions of a Dramatic Plot. Exposition—Initial Incident or Exciting Force—Rising Action— Crisis—Falling Action or Denouement—Catastrophe or Conclusion—Some General Considerations. V. Some Features of Dramatic Design. Parallelism—Contrast—In Plot—In Characterisation— Ethical Use of Contrast—Dramatic Irony—Concealment and Surprise. VI. The Different Types of Drama. Greek Drama—The Chorus—Latin Drama—Eariy History of Modern Drama—Triumph of the Romantic Type in England—The Spanish Drama—Comparison of the Neo-Classic and Romantic Types—Themes and Styles—Unity and Variety of Tone—The Three Unities—The Unities of Time and Place— Unity of Action—Narrative and Action—Narrative and Action in Shakespeare—The Contemporary Drama. VII. The Drama as Criticism of Life.
At the opening of the last chapter it was premised that, as the novel and the drama are compounded of the same elements, a great deal of what would be said about the former would be found equally applicable to the latter. We are now in a position to realise the force of this statement. The general principles of criticism which we have laid down for the study of plot, characterisation, dialogue, local and temporal setting, and interpretation of life, in prose fiction, hold good, for the most part, as will be seen, in respect of the same constituents in a play. In taking up the study of the drama, therefore, we shall discover that the ground is already broken, and that many questions, especially questions of valuation, have been answered by anticipation. But it was further pointed out that, though their elements are identical the novelist and the dramatist work under very dissimilar conditions, and for this reason have to manipulate their material in dissimilar ways. Hence the immense difference between novel and play in everything that pertains to technique. This difference is the starting-point of our present inquiry. Other matters will be dealt with later, which, though involved in the analysis of the novel no less than in that of the play, have been held over till now because they can be more easily considered in this part of our study. But our first business will be with some of the elementary characteristics of the drama, as—in the phrase already used—a specific form of literary art.
It is important at the outset to understand that what we call the principles of dramatic construction and the laws of dramatic technique arise out of and are imposed by the requirements, which owing to the very circumstances of its existence, the drama is compelled to meet. The ancient epic was composed for recitation ; the modern novel is written to be read ; the drama is designed for representation by actors who impersonate the characters of its story, and among whom the narrative and the dialogue are distributed. While, then, the epic and the novel relate and report, the drama imitates by action and speech ; and it is by reference to the fundamental necessities entailed by such imitation that the structural features of the drama have to be examined and explained. Because it helps us to keep this point clearly in view—because it serves to remind us that the literary art of the drama is organically bound up with its histrionic conditions—there is much to be said in favour of the good old name for drama—stage-play.
It may of course be assumed that the essential difference in technique between the novel and the drama is commonly recognised in theory by every reader of the one or the other. But its practical bearings for the student of literature are, I believe, very seldom appreciated to the full, and to these, therefore some attention should be given.
The novel is self-contained ; that is, it provides within its own compass everything that the writer deemed necessary for the comprehension and enjoyment of his work. The drama, on the other hand, when it reaches us in the form of print, and when we read it as literature, in the same way as we read a novel, is not in this sense self-contained. It implies everywhere the co-operation of elements outside itself, and for the moment these elements are lacking. What we read is, in fact, little more than a bare outline which the playwright intended to be filled in by the art of the actor and the ‘business’ of the boards—a literary basis for that stage-representation upon which he calculated for the full execution of his design. In the mere perusal of a play, therefore, we labour under certain drawbacks and difficulties, for much of its effect is likely to be lost upon us for want of those continual appeals to the imagination, those descriptions, explanations, and personal commentaries, which in a novel help us to visualise scenes, understand people, estimate motives, grasp the ethical import of actions. For this reason, the comprehension and enjoyment of a play as a piece of literature must always make immeasurably greater demands upon us than the comprehension and enjoyment of a novel. We have to supply for ourselves the external conditions from which it derives much of its life, and the whole machinery of actual performance ; in countless cases of detail, where, had we been spectators, we should have relied upon the ‘reading’ of the actor, we must as students have recourse to our own powers of apprehension and interpretation ; our imagination must be so alert that every scene may be conceived as if it were passing before us in action. In ordinary practice—and particularly in our study of Shakespeare, whose works we persist in treating as ‘pure’ literature, and rarely regard in their primary qualities as plays written expressly for the stage—we are too apt to neglect these simple but far-reaching considerations. It is worth while, therefore, to insist that in our study of any drama we should do our utmost to recreate its proper theatrical circumstances and surroundings, and thus to make our private reading of it so far as possible an adequate substitute for public performance.
Nor is it only the general conditions of stage-representation which thus demand attention. We have also to investigate the special conditions which at different times have affected the methods of the dramatist, and given a certain form and tendency to his art.
Thus, it is impossible either to understand the structural peculiarities or to appreciate the aesthetic effect of Greek tragedy without some knowledge of the economy of the Attic theatre. Take, for instance, the enormous size of the audiences which commonly numbered upward of 20,000 ; the shallowness of the platform, or ‘speaking place,’ to which the regular dialogue and action were confined ; and the heavy conventional costume of the actors, who were ‘made up’ with padding and the thick-soled, high-heeled cothurnus, or buskin, to appear of heroic proportions, and who always wore masks representing “a set of features much larger than those of any ordinary man.” Now these three facts, taken together, go far to explain various outstanding principles of the ancient drama, and especially its want of anything approaching the free and rapid action, the well-marked individuality of character, and the realistic quality, with which we are familiar in modern plays. The shallowness of the ‘speaking place’ prevented mass-scenes and elaborate stage pictures requiring depth and perspective; the arrangement of the chief persons and their retinues being that of a processional bas-relief. The distance of the performers from the spectators made by-play and detailed gesture impossible. As rapid utterance, low tones, and changing inflections would have been lost in an immense open-air theatre, the language employed was of the rhetorical, not of the conversational, kind—of the kind adapted to recitative or declamation, which accounts for “the extreme stiffness and formality which distinguishes the tragic dialogue of the Greeks from that dexterous and varied play of verbal interchange which delights us so much in Shakespeare and other masters of English tragedy.” The costume of the actors compelled them to move with a measured and stately gait, to adopt “abrupt and angular” gesticulations, and to avoid all vigorous activity; while the use of the mask not only “precluded all attempts at varied expression,” but necessarily tended also to stereotype the passions portrayed, to prevent any rapid changes of emotion, and to give to the persons represented a generic or typical rather than an individual character. “The effect produced by the unchangeable expression of the actor’s countenance,” writes Müller, “unnatural as it seems to us, was of less consequence in the ancient tragedy, because the principal characters appeared throughout the piece under the influence of the same feelings by which they were actuated at the commencement. Thus we may easily imagine an Orestes in Æschylus, an Ajax in Sophocles, or a Medea in Euripides, retaining the same expression from the beginning to the end of a play, although it may be impossible to conceive this of a Hamlet or a Tasso. All these facts suffice to show why the conditions of representation in the Greek theatre were particularly suitable “for the exhibition of processions, plastic situations and groups, and for solemn measured declamation, rather than deeds of passion and violence” ; why “single combats, battles, murders, and similar scenes, would have produced a strange, we may almost say a ludicrous, effect on the Athenian stage” ; and why, therefore, “such events were invariably related, instead of being enacted in presence of the audience.” Some other points of interest have been admirably dealt with by Prof. Moulton. “The influence on Ancient Tragedy of the Theatre and theatrical representation rests mainly on the fact that Tragedy never ceased to be a solemn religious and national festival, celebrated in a building which was regarded as the temple of Dionysus, whose alter was the most prominent object in the orchestra, and in the presence of what may fairly be described as the whole ‘public’ of Athens and Attica…One effect flowing from the religious associations of Tragedy was limitation of subject-matter, which was confined to the sacred Myths, progress towards real life being slow. Surprise as a dramatic effect was eliminated where all knew the end of the story. On the other hand, great scope was given for irony—ignorance of the sequel on the part of the personages represented clashing with knowledge of it on the part of the audience.… But the general influence of representation in Ancient Tragedy may be best summed up in the word ‘conventionality.’ This and the antithetical term, ‘realism,’ are the two poles of dramatic effect, all acting having reference to both and varying between the two : the latter aims directly at the imitation of life, conventionality is for ever falling into recognised positions of beauty. Not only did the ancient drama lean to the conventional, but the conception of beauty, underlying it was different from the spirited movement and picturesque situations of the modern stage, and approached nearer to the foremost art of antiquity—statuary. The acting of an ancient scene is best regarded as a passage from one piece of statuesque grouping to another, in which motion is reduced to a minimum and positions of rest expanded to a maximum—a view which accounts for the great length of speeches in Greek drama. The episodes of Ancient Tragedy were displays of animated statuary, just as the choral odes were feats of expressive dancing.”
Apart from any consideration of the abstract aesthetic principles by which the Greek poets were guided in their work, and with which we are not for the moment concerned, we can now understand that many of the most marked peculiarities of Attic tragedy—its ideal quality, its large simplicity of manner, the rhetorical nature of its dialogue, its broadly typical handling of character, its want of movement and action—were direct and necessary results of those special conditions of public performance which the evolution of dramatic art in Greece had brought in its train. One other matter may just be mentioned. To the modern reader no single feature of the classic drama is more curious than the Chorus. Into the question of the origin and function of this essential element of Attic tragedy, this is not the occasion to enter; reference is made to it now only that we may note its influence in two ways upon dramatic form and method. In the first place, it was the prominence of the Chorus, with its elaborate odes and solemn dancing, which gave to Greek tragedy its preeminently lyrical and operatic character. Secondly, since “the action of the drama was carried on from beginning to end in presence of the Chorus, a band of witnesses, always the same, and remaining in the same place, the poet…had scarcely any choice but to limit the scene to one spot, and the time to one day” ; and thus the so-called unities of place and time became accepted principles of dramatic construction.
Another illustration, and one of capital interest to the student of the English drama, will serve to make clear in a somewhat different way the immediate dependence of a playwright’s technique upon the histrionic methods and resources of his time. When, ceasing to regard Shakespeare’s plays merely as literature, we think of them in their connection with the principles and requirements of stage effect, it is the stage as we know it to-day that we almost invariably have in mind. Now a comparison of any modern acting version of one of these plays with the original text will reveal many points of difference ; it will be found that numerous passages and even whole scenes are cut out entirely ; that scenes which Shakespeare separated are brought together ; that the order of events in the plot is sometimes changed. Often, of course, these alterations are arbitrarily made, and, except insofar as they throw a curious light upon the taste of this or that manager and the public for which he caters, they are therefore without significance. But often, on the other hand, as analysis will show, they carry us back directly to the fact that the stage for which Shakespeare wrote was in various fundamental particulars quite unlike our own, and that many characteristics of his dramas are thus to be understood only when they are studied in relation with theatrical conditions which have long since ceased to exist. We must riot be beguiled by the fascination of the subject into any general discussion of the arrangements of the Elizabethan stage, our present task being merely to indicate the importance of these for the student of Shakespeare. Confining our attention to a couple of points only, let us therefore simply note the way in which his work was affected by the lack of movable scenery and the absence of a drop-curtain.
In connection with what follows, the reader is advised to study carefully the pen-and-ink sketch of the Swan Theatre reproduced on the next page. This was made by a Dutchman, one Johannes de Witt, about the year 1596, and discovered in 1888 by a German scholar, Dr. Gaedertz, in the Library of the University of Utrecht. It is, of course, very rough, and in sundry details it does not altogether correspond with what we otherwise know or infer about the Elizabethan stage. But it is of immense interest and value as our only contemporary picture of the interior of a playhouse in Shakespeare’s time.
As movable scenery was then unknown, the dramatist was under no necessity to give, scene by scene, a definite locality to his action. The stage on which his plays were performed—a narrow platform running out into the
auditorium—was divided into three parts of which the first, or ‘front stage,’ was conventionally employed for any kind of open space—street, or square, or field ; the second, or ‘back stage’ (the portion behind the columns of De Witt’s drawing), with its few common articles of furniture, was similarly accepted as representing a room in a palace, a council chamber or any other interior ; while the third, or ‘upper stage,’ a gallery behind this inner stage and above the actors’ ‘tiring house’ (mimorum cedes), was used for any elevated spot,—the walls of a castle or town, for example, or Brabantio’s window, or Juliet’s gallery. Evidently, this simplicity of stage-setting permitted and encouraged a freedom and rapidity in the movement of the action which are rendered practically impossible by the elaborate and cumbersome scenic devices of the modern theatre. Just because there was, in our sense of the term, ‘no change of scene’ to be made, it could be made without difficulty, and as frequently as might be desired; for as soon as one group of characters went off, another group could enter, and a fresh scene begin, even though the spectators were supposed to be transported in imagination into different place.
Thus the lack of movable scenery on the Elizabethan boards helps us at once to explain various structural features in which the Shakespearean drama differs conspicuously from the drama of recent times. Its complete indifference to all considerations of locality and the unity of place; its numerous minor scenes, which break up the plot and are a source of so much perplexity to modern managers; its frequent recourse to a series of such minor scenes, which follow one another in quick succession, and over which the interest of the action is scattered in a way which seems singularly unsatisfactory to us who are accustomed to more concentrated effects: —these, and various other peculiarities (such, for example, as the wealth of natural description often to be found in the dialogue) are to be largely accounted for by reference to this one fact that the Elizabethan stage was a stage without scenery.
The second of the two facts above mentioned—that the Elizabethan stage was likewise a stage without a dropcurtain—had also a marked, though perhaps a less obvious, influence on Shakespeare’s dramatic methods. As in the absence of such curtain there was no way of closing a scene except by taking all the characters off in full view of the spectators, provision for a general clearance had always to be made ; and it had to be made in the case not only of the living but also of the dead. This explains the specific commands which are frequently given among the scanty stage directions of the original text, for the carrying away of the bodies of those who had been slain, such as “Exit Hamlet tugging in Polonius” ; and the orders which are often incorporated in the dialogue, such as the Prince of Verona’s “Bear hence this body,” and Cornwall’s “throw this slave upon the dunghill.” But this, though an interesting, is a comparatively trivial, matter. A far more important result of the absence of the drop-curtain, and one which shows that this deficiency profoundly affected Shakespeare’s entire structural plan, will be brought to light by a careful examination of the manner in which he rounds off his scenes and acts. It is not too much to say that the skill of a modern playwright is largely exercised in the contrivance of a thoroughly effective ‘curtain’ ; a scene is worked up to its most thrilling situation, and upon this it closes abruptly, the incident being left incomplete. Shakespeare knows nothing of this device. He is obliged by the very necessities of the case to carry each scene to its natural conclusion ; and the consequence is that he often passes beyond the note of highest dramatic interest in a situation into what from a modern playwright’s point of view would be pronounced an anticlimax. His general method is, therefore, as one writer on the subject has well said, “peculiarly unsuited to the actdrop. Upon one of Shakespeare’s plays the curtain falls like the knife of a guillotine.”
We thus see, without going further, that Shakespeare’s work is not only essentially theatrical, in the sense that it was written with an eye to the conditions of performance in a public theatre, but also that it possesses a special kind of theatrical quality which can be appreciated only when it is examined from the historic side. Produced to meet certain conditions, it was everywhere moulded by these conditions. The study of Shakespeare’s plays must therefore include a study of the theatrical methods in vogue at his time.
The foregoing remarks will perhaps suffice to open up a fruitful line of investigation for the student who is specially interested in the changing technique of the drama at different periods of its development. But as considerations of space prevent us from here pursuing this large subject into further details, we will at once pass on to note how, with little reference to local and temporary influences, and therefore in ways that are fairly uniform, the dramatist’s practice is directly affected by the necessities of stage representation in regard, first, to the constitution and management of his plot, and, secondly, to the treatment of his characters.
In the constitution of his plot, it is obvious, he labours under one elementary disadvantage as compared with his fellow-craftsman in the field of prose fiction. The novelist enjoys almost absolute freedom as to the length of his work, and therefore as to the amount of material that may go to its composition. At both points the dramatist is subject to severe restrictions. A novel is not designed to be read through at a single sitting. It can be put down and taken up again at the pleasure or convenience of the reader; its perusal may extend over days and weeks ; and the only requirement it has to meet is, that its interest shall be so sustained as to prompt a return to it when occasion offers. A play, on the other hand, is intended, in Aristotle’s phrase, for “a single hearing” ; and as the physical endurance of the spectator is limited, and as, when the limit is once reached, even the most engrossing scenes will fail to arrest the flagging of attention, relative brevity is a first practical law of dramatic being. A dramatist then, to begin with, is compelled to work within a much more confined space than the novelist. He has therefore to compress his materials ; to eliminate everything not absolutely essential to his purpose ; to select the most important incidents and situations, and concentrate his attention upon these. Hence the significance of Aristotle’s warning to the playwright that he should not attempt to “construct a tragedy upon an epic plan” ; meaning by “epic plan” a “fable composed of many fables ; as if anyone, for instance, should take the entire fable of the Iliad for the subject of a tragedy.” In the same way, it is easy to appreciate the difference between the expansive plan permitted by the conditions of prose fiction, and the condensed plan demanded by the drama, and to understand how much excision and compression are required in dramatising a novel of any length and complexity. In securing brevity, the dramatist is greatly helped, it is true, by the secondary arts of the stage ; since much that the novelist has to explain he may leave to histrionic interpretation, while stage setting practically relieves him from the necessity of verbal description. Yet the problem of the clear and effective disposition of his material within the narrow limits he is forced to accept, is one which will always tax his constructive skill; and it is to this aspect of his plot, therefore, that attention may first be directed. Analysis will show that, unlike the novelist, who generally tells his tale in a comprehensive narrative, incorporating all the necessary details as they arise, the dramatist commonly reserves for full treatment a number of important scenes, providing within these scenes the links of the story which are required to bind them together. Yet even here allowance must be made for the differences of technique which have resulted from differences in the conditions of stage representation. There is far more massing of incident and concentration of interest upon a few outstanding points in the works of a skilled modern playwright than in our romantic drama. Compared with the method of Sardou, or Ibsen, or Sudermann, Shakespeare’s is much more nearly allied to the method of the epic poet or romance writer, since, like them, he habitually follows his plot through a succession of minor scenes in which he directly exhibits transitional movements which the modern playwright would give in the form of explanatory narrative. The peculiar freedom of the stage for which he wrote, as we have already observed, largely accounts for this practice. Thus, when Shakespeare appropriates some story in prose or verse (like Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet, Lodge’s Rosalynde, or Greene’s Pandosto), and turns it into a play, he does so without undertaking that entire recasting of its materials which would now be deemed necessary. In one conspicuous case—that of The Winter’s Tale—he produces indeed what is rather a dramatised romance than a drama. One striking illustration of the general losseness of texture which was permitted by the conditions of the Elizabethan stage and encouraged by the spirit of the time, is provided by the Chronicle-play, which the criticism of our own day is bound to regard, so far as formal structure is concerned, as an unsatisfactory compromise between the claims of history and those of dramatic art.
The points which have been here touched upon belong, of course, to the mere rudiments of dramatic theory, and it is quite unnecessary to consume space in their elaboration. Some important questions connected with the laws and principles of dramatic construction will be considered later.
Great, however, as are the structural differences between drama and novel in the management of plot, they are even greater in the exposition of character.
It is sometimes carelessly assumed that, since the business of the stage is so largely and so necessarily with action, characterisation in a play is really of minor importance. On this assumption, indeed, many plays are still written. It is none the less so far a mistake that everything that has been said about the supremacy of the character-element in prose fiction is equally applicable to the drama. “I suppose,” says Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, “that the first demand of an average theatrical audience to its author will always be the same as the child’s—Tell me a story.” And then, after explaining that he has no desire to belittle the value of a story as such, Mr. Jones continues : “Story and incident and situation in theatrical work are, unless related to character, comparatively childish and unintellectual. They should indeed be only another phase of the development of character…A mere story, a mere succession of incidents, if these do not embody and display character and human nature, only give you something in raw melodrama pretty much equivalent to the adventures of our old friend, Mr. Richard Turpin.” This is sound doctrine. Characterisation is the really fundamental and lasting element in the greatness of any dramatic work. We have only to turn to Shakespeare to find a telling illustration. No one would contend that his plays owe their permanent place in literature to the quality of his plots. The interest which keeps them alive is the interest of the men and women in them. As I have elsewhere said, “it is only because the core of Macbeth is not the murders which Macbeth commits, but the character of Macbeth himself, that Macbeth is a stupendous tragedy and not a mere farrago of sensational horrors. It is only because the core of The Merchant of Venice is not the things which are done, but the people who do them, that our play is a great comedy, and not a mere tissue of childish absurdities” Considered simply on the side of its plot, Hamlet has to be classed with those numerous “tragedies of blood,” or “revenge plays,” which, with their crude violence and mons-trous passions, made a stirring appeal to the strong nerves of the Elizabethan public. But out of this unpromising material Shakespeare has made a drama of inexhaustible interest ; and he has done this by the development of what in the language of our time we call the psychological element. And it is, in the last analysis, upon this psychological element that the permanent vitality of any play depends.
As in the handling of plot, so again in characterisation a first condition of dramatic art is brevity. In defence of an over-long novel it is sometimes urged that the exposition of motive, the full portrayal of character, demand and justify prolixity. But the dramatist has to deal with motive and character within the narrowly circumscribed area of a comparatively few scenes, in which at the same time (since the drama affords little scope for characterisation divorced from action) tie has to be more or less concerned with the progress of his story. Until their attention has been specially directed to it, few readers realise the full meaning of this fact. It may be well, therefore, to emphasise its significance by taking a single illustration. Macbeth is often referred to as a wonderful example of the condensed treatment of action. It is even more remarkable as an example of the condensed treatment of character. It is trite to say that Macbeth and his wife are among the most vital and permanently interesting figures in literature ; the endless critical discussions which have gone on about them testify to the fact that Shakespeare has endowed them with the reality and the mystery of life. We may well be surprised, therefore, to discover by direct investigation how little there is of them, and how few are the master-strokes with which they are drawn. If we examine the first act, we find in it a marvellously complete exhibition of the potentialities of both of them for good and ill—Macbeth’s physical courage, his prowess on the battlefield, the confidence of others in him, the evil already fermenting in his mind, his imaginative and superstitious temperament ; Lady Macbeth’s strength and moral courage, her singleness of purpose, the power, and direction of her influence over her husband’s more sensitive and less resolute nature :— all these things are made clear to us in broad outline ; we feel that we have been brought into the closest contact with the motive-forces of these two mighty personalities. Yet this act contains, all told, only some twenty-five pages of ordinary print, or fewer than five hundred lines ; and in it Lady Macbeth speaks only fourteen times, uttering 864 words, and Macbeth only twenty-six times, uttering 878 words. In the whole play Lady Macbeth has something less than 60 speeches, Macbeth barely 150, and in each case some of the speeches are very short. Perhaps it is only when we put it in this way that we are quite able to appreciate the extraordinary range and resources of Shakespeare’s art, which, once appreciated, must remain, as Prof. Barrett Wendell says, “a matter for constant admiration.” Macbeth is indeed an exceptional example of condensation, but any other of Shakespeare’s greater plays would, on analysis, reveal results only a little less surprising. Hamlet’s, for instance, is the longest single part in the Shakespearean drama ; yet when we think of the enormous complexity of the character and of the place which it holds among the great imaginative creations of all literature, it is not the length of the part, but its brevity which should impress us.
Concentration as a necessary condition of dramatic characterisation, of course, implies the most carefully considered emphasis upon the qualities which have to be brought into relief. More even than in the novel, therefore, every word of dailogue must be made to tell, each feature must be elaborated in strict relevancy to the whole, and all mere supererogatory talk must be avoided. The rule being that every character should be so presented as to appear absolutely adequate to all the demands which the plot makes upon it, “dramatic criticism is inclined to insist,” as Prof. Tolman says, “that only those characteristics of the hero”—or indeed of any important personage—”should be made prominent which really influence the course of the action ; and that these characteristics should be unmistakable.” The principles of dramatic economy may justly be appealed to in support of this opinion. Yet it is interesting to note that the great creators of character in the drama seem sometimes to become absorbed in the development of character for its own sake, with a resulting occasional tendency to what we may call ‘over-characterisation’—that is, characterisation in excess of the real needs of the action. Shakespeare not infrequently exhibits this tendency. There is undoubtedly more in the character of Hamlet, for example, than is actually required to account for his part in the plot.
An even more important condition of characterisation in the drama than that of mere brevity is its necessary impersonality. The novelist can himself mingle freely with the men and women of his story, take them to pieces from the outside, lay their thoughts and feelings bare before us, pass judgment upon them. The dramatist cannot do this ; he is compelled to stand apart. Here again, and most obviously, the advantage is on the side of the novelist, especially where complexities of character and the subtler shadings of motive and passion are concerned. When, remembering this, we join with such advantage his practically unrestricted freedom in respect alike of movement and of space, we can see that the peculiarities which critics sometimes regard as the artistic imperfections of the novel—its wide range, its looseness of structure, its eminently personal quality—really give it an enormous superiority to the drama in the field of characterisation. Here we have one among several reasons which go far to explain the displacement of the drama by prose fiction in an age greatly occupied with the problems of the inner life.
It is clear that we have now reached the point of fundamental distinction between characterisation in the novel and characterisation in the drama. There arises, therefore, the question of the methods of dramatic characterisation. Debarred as he is from adopting the novelist’s simple plan of constituting himself the official interpreter of his men and women, and telling us himself all that we need to know about them, how does the playwright disclose their personalities to us? How does he make us realise what manner of men and women they are? He has, of course, to do so wholly through the medium of the plot and the utterances of his characters.
It is possible that, drawing as we often do an arbitrary line of demarcation between them, we commonly overlook the significance of plot as a means of characterisation. Yet action connotes character and implies it. Through the very movement of a story, and particularly through its great crises and situations, the larger intellectual and moral qualities of the persons who take part in it are necessarily impressed upon us. We know them by what they do, as the tree is known by its fruit. The importance of this point will become more manifest if we recall what has been said about the proper inter-relations of plot and character in a well-constructed story. In a good play, as in a good novel, plot really rests upon character ; it evolves, as I have said, “as a natural consequence of the fact that a number of given people, of such and such dispositions and impelled by such and such motives and passions, are brought together in circumstances which give rise to an interplay of influence or clash of interests among them.” This being so, the evolution of the story inevitably reveals their dispositions, motives, and passions, which are indeed the actual forces behind the events of which the story is composed. This is a corollary from the remark of Mr. Jones which I have quoted, that in theatrical work, story, incident, and situation “should be only another phase of the development of character.” It was a curious practice of Diderot, when he went to the theatre, to stop his ears to the dialogue and to watch the play as mere pantomine. He did so for the purpose of isolating the acting and studying this by itself. But such an experiment might be made for the isolation of the action and the study of the exposition of character through this and the histrionic interpretation which would be required to make it effective. Were Agamemnon or Œdipus the King, Hamlet, Macbeth, or Othello, represented in dumb show only, we should still be left in little doubt as to the broad characteristics of their principal personalities. We should at least have certain outstanding features to rely upon, and from these much else might be safely inferred.
Plot, however, since it can show us nothing more than the man in action, discloses such broad characteristics only ; and that it may do even this at all clearly, it is necessary that it should be bold in outlines and full of movement, that its critical situations should be so well defined that to mistake their meaning is impossible, and that the characters themselves should be of the massive and relatively simple kind. All these conditions, we may just note in passing, are fulfilled in our English romantic drama. For all details of characterisation, and for the exhibition of passions, motives, feelings in their growth, entanglements, and conflicts, we must in every case refer from the action itself to the dialogue which accompanies it ; and evidently this must be particularly true where the interest of a drama is predominantly psychological and the plot concerns itself rather with the play of the forces behind action than in the external events in which these discharge themselves. Dialogue then becomes an essential adjunct to action, or even an integral part of it: the story moving beneath the talk, and being, stage by stage, elucidated by it. Yet the principal function of dialogue in the drama as in the novel is, as I have said, in direct connection with characterisation. Even in the hands of the novelist, as we have already seen, dialogue will often be used to fill the place and do the work of analysis and commentary. In the drama (save for the exception presently to be mentioned) it is not simply an aid to analysis and commentary, it is, in fact, a substitute for them.
We may regard dramatic dialogue as a means of characterisation under two heads ; taking, first, the utterances of a given person in his conversation with others, and then the remarks made about him by other persons in the play.
Of the former aspect of dialogue there is little to be said. Speaking broadly, the utterances of any person in a play will furnish a continual running commentary upon his conduct and character ; and when, for any reason, such commentary is particularly necessary, we may expect to find scenes in which the action practically stands still while thoughts, feelings, and motives are brought to the front. ‘Mere talk’—as it is sometimes called by those who are impatient of any delay in the movement of a story— talk in which we are directly concerned with character and only indirectly with incident—the kind of talk of which there is so much, for instance, in the greater plays of Moliére, and in the works of modern psychological playwrights like Ibsen—is thus amply justified on the one condition that it really serves the end for which it is intended. Of course, in the critical examination of dialogue the demands of natural reticence, and occasionally of deliberate disguise, may have to be allowed for. Much that a person tells us about himself may have to be told, as it were, unconsciously and by implication. Alceste in Moliére’s Le Misanthrope will very properly make a full statement of his feelings to his friend and confidant Philante ; but just as properly the arch-hypocrite in the same writer’s Le Tartuffe will do his utmost to hide his real nature from those about him. In this case, indeed, we already know him too well to be deceived. But now and then it may be necessary that some character should at first throw us more or less completely off our guard as to his aims and motives, and reveal these only gradually, or, as is far more likely to happen, in some sudden turn of the action, like Euphrasia in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster. Where this occurs, we shall then have to go back over the whole play and consider all the utterances of the person in question under the fresh light which this final revelation throws upon them. A skilful playwright, unless he has some special motive for concealment or delay, will take pains to indicate the fundamental qualities of his principal characters—the qualities on which the plot is to hinge—as soon and as clearly as possible. This is Shakespeare’s general method. “The later a new characteristic trail enters the action, the more carefully,” as Freytag says, “must be motive for it be laid in the beginning, in order that the spectator may enjoy to the full extent the pleasure of the surprise, and perceive that it corresponds exactly to the constitution of true character.”
While, however, this direct self-portrayal through a person’s own speech must always constitute the principal means of characterisation by dialogue, it may be greatly reinforced by what other people say about him either to his face or among themselves. In this way we may often obtain a number of cross-lights which, taken together, may prove of the utmost value. In considering this indirect evidence we mast, it is obvious, keep steadily in mind its essentially dramatic quality. Every utterance must therefore be tested by reference to the character of the particular speaker, his own situation and relation to the action, the possible bias given by his interests, his sympathy, his antipathy. To catch at a phrase here and there, and, without thought of its context, to treat it as an impartial and authoritative expression of opinion, is in the last degree uncritical. There are commentators who have thus caught at the word as “ambitious Constance,” in the opening scene of Shakespeare‘s King John, and have hastily assumed, on the strength of them, that Shakespeare intended us to understand that ambition was the keynote of Constance’s character. The question whether or not this view of Constance is in fact just, is not one which we now have to discuss. The point is, that the words cited do not in themselves warrant the interpretation which is thus rashly put upon them. For the phrase is used by Elinor in a private speech to to son ; and a moment’s consideration will suffice to show now greatly its significance must therefore be discounted ; since Elinor, in using it, is manifestly inspired by a powerful personal animus against Constance, and by a desire to influence the king against her. The expression thus tells us how Constance appeared to Elinor, or how Elinor wished her to appear to the king; but before we conclude that it also tells us how Shakespeare would have Constance appear to us, the whole play must be passed under careful examination. In considering the language employed by any character about any other, then, we have always to note who it is that is speaking, what motive such a person may in the circumstances have for speaking as he does, how his utterances may be coloured by his own feelings. Only then shall we be able to determine how far we are justified in taking his words as a factor in the formation of our own opinion.
While, however, occasional phrases must thus be carefully scrutinised before they are accepted as aids in the analysis of the character to whom they refer, we cannot go far wrong when we find that various utterances scattered through the dialogue of a play all converge towards the same point. In this case we have a body of cumulative evidence, each item of which gains in value by its correspondence with all the rest. A dramatist who is anxious to throw some particular figure into clear relief is likely to avail himself freely of this method of cross-lighting. Shakespeare often employs it with great effect. He employs it, for example, with Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. To deepen our feeling of horror at Shylock’s nefarious scheme against his life, his nobility and purity of nature are repeatedly impressed upon us by the attitude of the other characters towards him. Bassanio’s praise of him in III, ii, 287-291, is cunningly introduced for emphasis at a critical moment ; and we feel that this is no mere heated expression of friendship and agitation, because nearly everybody else in the play catches the same tone of admiration and affection : —Salanio calls him “the good Antonio” ; Lorenzo refers to him as a “true…gentleman” ; Gratiano “loves” him ; the chief men in Venice respect him ; the gaoler, as Shylock complains, grants him unusual privileges ; while even Shylock’s own sneer at his “low simplicity” is only another bit of testimony—and it is not the less significant because it is oblique—to the merchant’s goodness of heart. In the case of Brutus in Julius Cæsar, again, the measure of the man is continually suggested by his associates, both friends and foes ; the cynical Casca is bound to acknowledge his probity ; Cassius lays stress upon his nobility and influence ; Ligarius shows blind faith in him ; Portia’s devotion brings out the tender side of his nature ; and, as a final stroke, his enemy Mark Antony, in the last important passage in the play, pronounces an eloquent eulogy upon him as “the noblest Roman of them all.” It is unnecessary to add further examples to show the value of this indirect method of characterisation.’
In considering this method we shall occasionally find that a certain character in a play seems to stand a little apart from the rest and to speak, as it were, with somewhat greater authority. Such a character is sometimes described as the ‘Chorus’ of the drama in which he appears, because to a limited extent he fulfils the interpretative function of the Chorus in Greek tragedy. Of his role as commentator I shall speak later. Here we have only to note that where it seems safe to conclude that any character is thus used to point the dramatist’s own judgment, his utterances must, of course, be accepted as having a special weight. Enobarbus, for instance, is commonly regarded as a kind of ‘Chorus’ in Antony and Cleopatra ; among those who come into personal contact with the queen, he alone remains untouched by the spell of her marvellous fascination ; he sees her as others do not ; and his pungent criticisms thus help very greatly to set her under the proper light.
I have said that there is one exception to be made to the general statement that dialogue is the dramatist’s only substitute for the direct analysis and commentary of the novel. This exception is furnished by the device known as the soliloquy, under which term we include not only the soliloquy proper, but also that minor subdivision of the same form which we call the ‘aside.’
The purpose of this piece of pure convention is, of course, clear. It is the dramatist’s means of taking us down into the hidden recesses of a person’s nature, and of revealing those springs of conduct which ordinary dialogue provides him with no adequate opportunity to disclose. It may be necessary for our complete comprehension of his action that we should know certain of his characters from the inside. He cannot himself dissect them, as the novelist does. He therefore allows them to do the work of dissection on their own account. They think aloud to themselves, and we overhear what they say.
A very fair account of the rationale and functions of soliloquy in characterisation will be found in the following remarks by Congreve. His Double Dealer had been criticised because, among other things, of the place given in it to soliloquy. As this criticism did “not relate in particular to this play, but to all or most that were ever written,” Congreve undertakes to answer it “not only for my own sake, but to save others the trouble, to whom it may hereafter be objected,” and he proceeds :—
“I grant that for a man to talk to himself appears absurd and unnatural ; and indeed it is so in most cases ; but the circumstances which may attend the occasion make great alteration. It oftentimes happens to a man to have designs which require him to himself [sic], and in their nature cannot admit of a confidant. Such, for certain, is all villainy ; and other less mischievous intentions may be very improper to be communicated to a second person. In such a case, therefore, the audience must observe, whether the person upon the stage takes any notice of them at all, or no. For if he supposes any one to be by when he talks to himself, it is monstrous and ridiculous to the last degree. Nay, not only in this case, but in any part of a play, if there is expressed any knowledge of an audience, it is insufferable. But otherwise, when a man in soliloquy reasons with himself, and pros and cons, and weighs all his designs, we ought not to imagine that this man either talks to us or to himself ; he is only thinking, and thinking such matter as were inexcusable folly in him to speak. But because we are concealed spectators of the plot in agitation, and the poet finds it necessary to let us know the whole mystery of his contrivance, he is willing to inform us of this person’s thoughts; and to that end is forced to make use of the expedient of speech, no other better way being yet invented for the communication of thought.”
Apart from its interest as a playwright’s statement of the case for the soliloquy, this passage is noteworthy because it serves to remind us that the convention in question was a common feature of our early English drama. Despite such adverse opinion as is here referred to, a common feature it remained down to quite recent times, as a glance at the standard English plays of the Victorian period will at once prove. The criticism of our own day is, however, distinctly against its use, at any rate in realistic drama; it is now held to be not only a convention, but a clumsy convention, and one, strictly speaking, non-dramatic; a chief aim of the dramatist, it is asserted, should be to avoid it; whilst its appearance is deemed sufficient to stamp any new play as “old-fashioned” in its style of workmanship. Even Mr. Jones, who has valiantly undertaken its defence, admits that it is “childish,” that it should be employed as sparingly as possible, and that “it is never permissible to do by soliloquy what can be adequately done by dialogue.” The practical disappearance of both formal soliloquy and incidental aside from our greater contemporary drama, notwithstanding the fact that this drama is so largely psychological in its interest, is thus a most significant index of a general change in our ideas of dramatic technique.
In our study of the older drama, however, we must accept the soliloquy without protest as an established convention, and, setting aside all question as to its theoretical justification, must concern ourselves only with the use to which it is put. That Shakespeare systematically has recourse to it is a fact familiar to even the most casual reader of his plays. Again and again his leading persons, through their direct and confidential utterances, make us participants of their intimate thoughts and desires, exhibit the motives by which their conduct is governed, and define their true relations (which are often very different from their apparent relations) to the progress of events about them. He adopts this course in particular with his more complex characters, with characters who are engaged in internal conflict, and, generally, in all cases in which, but for the illumination thus given, we should find it difficult or impossible to explain the words and doings of the people who talk and act before us. In the soliloquies of Shakespeare’s characters we shall therefore naturally expect to find the real basis for our interpretation of them. But while every passage of self-delineation must thus be carefully examined, special importance must be attached to the first soliloquy or aside. It has been noted that it was Shakespeare’s practice to reveal very early in a play and very clearly those qualities of character in any principal personage on which the plot is to turn. It will be found that he often provides us with the necessary clue in the first words which this personage has an opportunity—thinking aloud— to utter to himself.
To complete this part of our subject it should be added that the soliloquy is often more or less successfully disguised by being turned into a speech addressed to some listener who is brought forward for the purpose. The so-called confident originated in the Chorus of Greek tragedy, and passed thence through Seneca into the drama of the Renaissance under the form of the intimate friend, or nurse, or duenna, or some such person to whom the speaker, without restraint, could unburden his soul. Modern criticism accepts the confidant, but only on condition that he shall cease to be a mere lay figure, and shall himself be provided with an essential part in the action.
We cannot go far in our study of any play without some knowledge of the general principles of dramatic design. To these, therefore, we will now direct our attention.
Every dramatic story arises out of some conflict—some clash of opposed individuals, or passions, or interests. In the most elementary, and still most popular type of story, such conflict takes a purely personal form ; the collision is between good and evil as embodied respectively in the hero and the villain of the piece. But it may of course assume various other shapes ; the struggle may, for example, be waged by the hero against fate or circumstance, as in Œdipus the King ; or against the code or conventions of society, as in Antigone, he Misanthrope, An Enemy of the People; or the collision of the hero with outer antagonistic forces may be involved with and even largely subordinated to the inward struggle which goes on in the nature of the man himself, who is, like Brutus, “with himself at war,” as in the case of Orestes in The Libation Bearers, of Hamlet, of Macbeth, of Nora in A Doll’s Home. Some kind of conflict is, however, the datum and very backbone of a dramatic story. With the opening of this conflict the real plot begins ; with its conclusion the real plot ends ; and since, between these two terms, the essential interest of the story will be composed of the development and fluctuations of the struggle, the movement of the plot will necessarily follow a fairly well-defined and uniform course. The complications which arise from the initial clash of opposed forces will, as a rule, continue to increase until a point is reached at which a decisive turn is taken in favour of one side or the other ; after which, the progress of events will be inevitably, though often with many minor interruptions, towards the final triumph of good over evil or of evil over good. Through every plot we may thus trace more or less clearly what is sometimes called ‘the dramatic line.’ We have, to begin with, some Initial Incident of Incidents in which the conflict originates ; secondly, the Rising Action, Growth, or Complication, comprising that part of the play in which the conflict continues to increase in intensity while the outcome remains uncertain ; thirdly, the Climax, Crisis, or Turning Point, at which one of the contending forces obtains such controlling power that henceforth its ultimate success is assured ; fourthly, the Falling Action, Resolution, or Denouement, comprising that part of the play in which the stages in the movement of events towards this success are marked out; and fifthly, the Conclusion or Catastrophe, in which the conflict is brought to a close.
It is probable that this natural five-fold structure of a dramatic story may account for the common, indeed at one time universal, division of a play into five acts. It must be remembered, however, that in a Shakespearean or other five-act drama, the mechanical divisions do not actually correspond with the natural divisions, since, as the most casual examination of any such play will show, the complication commonly arises in the first act and runs on into the third ; the third act generally contains, alongwith a portion of the complication, both the crisis and the beginning of the resolution ; while the resolution continues through the fourth act into the fifth. Moreover, the natural divisions, inasmuch as they are natural, are of course independent of any artificial disposition of the materials of a story into a given number of acts. In the four-act dramas of our modern stage, and in a brief one-act play, we shall still find the dramatic line.
Our analysis of dramatic structure, however, is not yet complete. Though the real plot of a play begins with the beginning of a conflict, such conflict arises out of and therefore pre-supposes a certain existing condition of things and certain relations among the characters who are to come into collision. These conditions and relations have to be explained to us, since otherwise the story will be unintelligible. We have therefore to distinguish another division of a drama—the Introduction or Exposition, comprising that part of it which leads up to and prepares for the initial incident.
Since Freytag first pointed out that the plot of a play may be symbolised as a “pyramidal structure,” it has been a common practice with writers on dramatic theory to represent the dramatic line in the form of a diagram. Different versions have been adopted; the one I should select would be this:
In this diagram, a stands for the exposition ; b, for the initial incident ; c, for the growth of the action to its crisis ; d, for the crisis, or turning-point ; e, for the resolution ; and f, for the catastrophe. This particular figure, however, will evidently serve only to represent a play in which, as, e.g., in Julius Cæsar, the crisis comes almost exactly in the middle of the plot, which is thus divided into two practically equal parts. It would of course have to be varied to meet cases in which this extreme symmetry is not found. Thus, in King Lear the real crisis of the main plot is in the very first scene ; in Othello it does not occur till the first scene of the fourth act. In order to indicate approximately the plot-movement in these two instances, we should have to use for the one some such form as—
and for the other, some such form as—
The use of this pyramidal diagram in the study of dramatic technique is now so popular that I could not possibly pass it over here without some reference. Its principal claim upon our attention undoubtedly lies in the fact that it helps to bring the great divisions of a dramatic story vividly before our minds. On the whole, however, I am inclined to deprecate the employment of such diagrams in the study of literature in general, as tending to make it too mechanical and formal. I will, therefore, without further discussion, leave this ‘dramatic pyramid’ with the reader for his own consideration.
Having now learned what are the great divisions of a dramatic story, we have next to examine these one by one, and to inquire under each head what constitute some of the chief demands of good dramatic workmanship.
The purpose of the introduction or exposition is to put the spectator in possession of all such information as is necessary for the proper understanding of the play he is about to witness. At the outset, he finds himself in the presence of a number of people in whose fortunes he hopes soon to be interested, but of whom and of whose circumstances he for the moment knows nothing ; and as it is essential that he should learn as quickly as possible who and what they are, and what the relations in which they stand to one another before the action begins, the opening scene or scenes of any drama must be largely occupied with explanatory matter. It is a commonplace of dramatic criticism that the management of this explanatory matter is one of the severest tests of a playwright’s skill ; be his story ever so simple, difficulties will be involved in it ; and these difficulties of course increase with the complexity of his subject and the number of his characters. Even the novelist is often greatly taxed by his preliminaries, and sometimes staggers awkwardly beneath the heavy burden which they impose. “When one has a story to tell,” says Mrs. Stowe, in the first chapter of her best, though not her best known book, The Minister’s Wooing, “one is always puzzled which end of it to begin at. You have a whole corps of people to introduce that you know and your reader doesn’t ; and one thing so presupposes another that, whichever way you turn your patchwork, the figures still seem ill-arranged.” If such be the experience of the novelist, who can always, when necessary, have recourse to direct narrative and explanation, the difficulty of exposition in the drama must be apparent.
Among the expedients which have been adopted to overcome this difficulty, the least dramatic is the set speech of some particular character, to whom, more or less appropriately, the task of elucidation is thus assigned. The crudest form of this is the detached explanatory prologue, or ‘versified programme,’ habitually used by Euripides and Seneca. This has never had an established place on the modern stage ; yet some of Shakespeare’s introductory soliloquies—notably that of Gloucester in Richard III—may almost be regarded as attenuated survivals of it. But the set speech, though now indeed embedded in dialogue and occasionally broken by it, may still be recognised in those lengthy passages of retrospect and description which are so clumsy a feature of the opening scenes in many Elizabethan and Stuart plays. Dryden may have been guilty of some little exaggeration when he said that such passages “are seldom listened to by the audience” : but it is certain that only a very perfunctory attention is commonly accorded to them, and unless they are marked by real dramatic power, they are sure to drag. The tedious narrative of Prospero in the second scene of The Tempest is a case in point; another is furnished by Horatio’s long account of the political relations of Denmark and Norway, which greatly mars the exposition in Hamlet, otherwise an admirable piece of work. Evidently, then, the dramatist will always be well advised when he breaks up his introductory narratives as much as possible, and relieves them of their formal quality by giving them the tone of conversation. Thus we pass, though of course by insensible degrees, to exposition through dialogue, and here it is easy for the veriest tyro in criticism to distinguish between what is really excellent in dramatic workmanship and what is slovenly or poor. Every playgoer is familiar with the servants who, while busy dusting furniture or laying the breakfast-table, discourse freely of their master’s concerns ; with the person just returned from abroad, who hungers for all the local news, and opportunely meets an old acquaintance who is able and eager to satisfy his curiosity ; with the “First Gentleman” and “Second Gentleman” whom Shakespeare employed when he was in a hurry, and whom Tennyson artlessly borrowed from him. In all such cases the artifice is so obvious and so ‘stagey’ that, while we listen to the talk because we know that from it we must glean all the particulars that are necessary if the coming action is to be intelligible to us, we do so with an irritating sense that it has all been arranged for nothing but our own edification. This maladroit kind of exposition was happily satirised by Sheridan in The Critic. Sir Walter Raleigh is introduced in conversation with Sir Christopher Hatton, and proceeds to give his friend a great deal of manifestly gratuitous information. Dangle interrupts the rehearsal with the remark : “Mr. Puff, as he knows all this, why does Sir Walter go on telling him ?” Puffs reply is: “But the audience are not supposed to know anything of the matter, are they?” ‘True,” says Sneer, “but I think you manage ill; for there is no reason why Sir Walter should be so communicative.” Whereupon Puff retorts : “Foreged now, that is one of the most ungrateful observation I have ever heard ; for the less inducement he has to tell all this, the more I think you ought to be obliged to him ; for I am sure you’d know nothing of the matter without it.” The art of a dramatist is nowhere shown to greater advantage than in his power so to conduct his exposition as to relieve it of all such appearance of effort and artifice. Good exposition will therefore take the form of dialogue which seems in the circumstances to be natural and appropriate, which is put into the mouths of characters who are made at once to interest us, and which is, moreover, so bound up with the beginning of the action as to be practically undistinguishable from it. In such fine dramatic openings as, for example, those of Othello and The Alchemist, the business of the play starts almost with the rise of the curtain ; our attention is immediately arrested and our curiosity aroused by scenes and talk which are full of life and character ; and in following these we unconsciously learn all that is for the moment requisite about the initial situation, the events which have led up to it, and the people whose fortunes are to provide the substance of the plot. It must, of course, be understood that it is often impossible for the dramatist to attain ideal perfection in this portion of his work. His introductory matter may prove so intractable that even under the most dexterous handling some signs of effort and artifice will remain; and since it is the first condition of exposition that, at whatever cost, it shall at least furnish us with the necessary clues to the coming action, the employment of purely conventional stage devices may have to be accepted as unavoidable. Yet the ideal should nonetheless be kept in view as a standard for judgment. Exposition should be clear; it should be as brief as the nature of the material will permit;‘ it should be dramatic; it should if possible be vitally connected with the first movements of the plot; and it should be so disguised that, while analysis will never fail to reveal its mechanism ; the impression left upon the spectator shall be one of absolute naturalness and spontaneity.
In our diagrammatic representation of plot in the drama, it will be seen that exposition is marked off as a separate division, preparing for, but independent of, the action proper. From what has just been said, however, it will be evident that this is only an arbitrary way of conceiving the matter, since plot will commonly be found to begin before exposition is over. Somewhere in the early part of a play, possibly in the very first scene, in any case before the end of the first act, we shall come upon the genesis of the action in some incident or incidents which, as giving birth to the conflict out of which the play is to be made, may be described, in Freytag’s terminology, as “the exciting force.” It is not necessary that this exciting force should stand out prominently at the time, or that we should be made to realise at any given moment that the action of the play has begun ; though it was Shakespeare’s general practice to mark distinctly the starting-point of his dramatic conflict. It should perhaps be noted that the use of the word ‘incident’ to define this starting-point, while very common in technical criticism, is open to objection on the ground that the real inception of the action is often to be found (as, e.g., in Richard III, Julius Cæsar, and Othello) not in some particular occurrence, but in the purpose formed suddenly or gradually in the mind of one of the characters, whose subsequent efforts to carry out his designs will thus become the motive-principle of the plot. ‘Incident’ must therefore be interpreted broadly enough to cover mental processes as well as external events. In many cases we may distinguish two springs of action : as in Romeo and Juliet, where the conflict arises both from Romeo’s determination to attend the Capulets’ ball and from the resolve of Juliet’s parents to marry her to the County Paris ; and again in Macbeth, in which the motive of the drama is to be sought in the mind of Lady Macbeth no less than in that of her husband. Of course in a play composed of two or more stories, each story will have its initial incident ; and these initial incidents may or may not occur close together. In The Merchant of Venice, for example, the principal plots arise almost at the same time in the first act, while the minor imbroglio of the rings, which is to help to fill out the drama after its main interest has been completed, does not originate until the second scene of the third act. But such late introduction of new motives is not as a rule to be regarded as satisfactory.
With the initial incident we enter upon the real business of the play, the first portion of which comprises the complication, or rise of the action to its crisis. Here the instinct of every thoughtful reader will lead him, as a matter of course, to test the dramatist’s workmanship by the elementary canons of clearness and logical consistency. Given the characters and their circumstances, then every event should appear to grow naturally out of what preceded it ; while in the movement of the action as a whole, that which is essential should never be obscured by unimportant details, however interesting in themselves these may be. The play of motives should be distinctly shown, and should be obviously sufficient to account for what is said and done ; and the proper relations, between character and action should be carefully maintained. Moreover, every scene should occupy a definute place in the evolution of the dramatic organism, either by marking a fresh stage in the development of the plot, or by adding to our knowledge of the characters, or in both of these ways. The rigorous application of this principle of dramatic economy to Shakespeare’s plays will occasionally yield rather unexpected results. No one of course will require to be told that the scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor (IV. i.), in which Sir Hugh Evans cross-examines little William on the rudiments of Latin accidence, has really nothing whatever to do with the play ; but it may perhaps give us a shock of surprise to discover that Hamlet’s famous interview with the Gravediggers (V, i. 1-240), while we should never now dream of sacrificing it to the demands of structural unity, has in fact no artistic justification.
The playwright’s treatment of his material is also a subject for careful consideration from the point of view of technique and dramatic effect. Swept along by the strong current of interest, the ordinary reader or spectator accepts a great scene—like the Trial Scene in The Merchant of Venice, or the Play Scene in Hamlet, or the scene in Ibsen’s Doll’s House, in which Nora dances a tarentella while Krogstad’s incriminating letter lies close at hand in her husband’s letter-box—as if it were a spontaneous growth, and all its details matters of mere happy chance. It is only when we place such a scene under searching analysis, and note every turn of the action and every phrase in the dialogue, that we begin to appreciate the consummate skill by the exercise of which the dramatist has made the very most of his opportunity. When once our attention has been directed to this side of his art, however, every particular relating to plan and structure will be found to have its significance. We shall instantly perceive—to take a single example—how greatly the effect of the central incident in Much Ado about Nothing, Act II, scene iii, is enhanced by Benedick’s long soliloquy which leads up to it. It must at the same time be remembered that as the aim of the dramatist must always be to achieve the appearance of naturalness and spontaneity even in his most cunningly devised effects, whatever obtrudes itself upon us as contrivance must be accounted an artistic mistake. Such obtrusion is one secret of the ‘staginess’ which offends us in many otherwise well-made dramas. Every student of Shakespeare knows that one difference between his experimental and his mature plays lies in the fact that in the former the devices employed to obtain effect are so obvious that they cannot escape even the least attentive reader, while in the latter they are so deftly managed that it needs critical examination to bring them to light.
The foregoing considerations, though it has been convenient to deal with them in connection with the first stage of the dramatic action, will manifestly be found to apply to the management of the plot as a whole. One special feature of the complication must, however, be referred to. It may be laid down as a general rule that during the rising action those elements in the conflict will already be indicated which at the crisis are to come into prominence, for good or evil, as the chief agents in bringing about the catastrophe. If the conflict is mainly between persons, then the first part of the play should familiarise us with the characters who are to dominate the second part ; if it lies mainly in the mind of the hero, then by the careful presentation of those qualities which are presently to gain control, the conduct should be foreshadowed which will lead him to happiness or disaster. In this way the foundations of the subsequent action will be firmly laid at the outset. To spring a fresh force upon us without warning or preparation—to introduce an entirely new character—to bring forward interests and motives of which hitherto no hint has been given— must, save in very exceptional circumstances, he pronounced extremely poor art.
Since the play of antagonistic forces cannot go on indefinitely, every dramatic story sooner or later reaches a stage in its development at which the balance begins to incline decisively to one or the other side. This we have called the turning-point or crisis of the action.
The great law of the crisis is that it shall be the natural and logical outcome of all that has gone before ; which means that we shall be able to explain it completely by reference to the characters and to the condition of things existing at the time. An event which is to determine the whole course of the action to its catastrophe should thus arise out of the action itself ; it should not, like the death of the French king in Love’s Labour’s Lost, be a mere accident thrown into the plot from the outside. Provided that this law be obeyed, the treatment of the crisis may be allowed to vary according to circumstances. It may often be made emphatic by being condensed into a single incident or group of incidents, which, moreover, may perhaps be attended by accessories which will serve to accentuate the importance of what is occurring ; as in the Capitol scene in Julius Cæsar and the Banquet scene in Macbeth. Such concentration and emphasis, however, are not by any means necessary. On the other hand, it is certainly requisite that the critical change in the movement of events shall be made so clear that no doubt shall be left in our minds as to its significance. This, as we have already noted, is the weakness of Antony and Cleopatra—it has no well-defined crisis ; for Antony’s relapse, instead of being exhibited in one powerful scene as a final choice of passion before honour, is spread over a number of minor scenes, which do not arrest our attention, and the essential point of which is lost amid masses of unessential detail.
Though the aim of many modern playwrights seems to be to postpone the crisis as long as possible, the practice of our older stage was to place it somewhere about the middle of the action, perhaps, generally, a little beyond this. In Shakespeare’s plays it is commonly to be sought towards the close of the third act, or quite early in the fourth. Thus, as has already been pointed out, in Macbeth it occurs in III, i. where with the escape of Fleance and the appearance of Banquo’s ghost begins the tragic reversal of Macbeth’s fortunes ; in Othello, in IV, i, where the Moor is finally convinced of his wife’s infidelity ; in Julius Cæsar, in III, i, the scene of Cæsar’s death ; whilst King Lear, a singular and perplexing exception to the Shakespearean rule, the crisis of the mainplot, “instead of standing in the centre of the composition…stands almost at the beginning.”
The crisis past, we enter upon that portion of the play in which the dramatic conflict is to be brought to its conclusion. The conduct of this denouement will depend upon the answer to the question whether the play is to have a happy or an unhappy ending. In comedy it will take the form of the gradual withdrawal of the obstacles, the clearing away of the difficulties and misunderstandings, by which the wishes of the hero and heroine have been thwarted and their good fortune jeopardised. In tragedy, on the contrary, its essence will consist in the removal of those resisting elements which have held the power of evil in check, and in the consequent setting free of that power to work out its own will. In any case, what remains after the crisis is the development of the new movement which has arisen out of it ; and to the extent to which we now foresee, more or less distinctly, the outcome of events, our interest will be different in kind from that which had been excited during the earlier stages of the action. Hitherto, we have watched the plot with growing uncertainty and suspense ; now, uncertainty and suspense being largely set at rest, our interest will be due in part to that sympathy with the characters which makes us desirous of following their story to its very close, in part to the dramatist’s skill in the treatment of the incidents by which the anticipated results are to be accomplished.
The special difficulty of the denouement is now apparent. The problem of the dramatist will always be, how to keep the interest alive after the spectators have become aware that the resolution has begun, and that the current of events has definitely set in towards a certain catastrophe. We can now understand why Fielding anathematised “the man who invented fifth acts,” and why, as we have already noted, the tendency with many modern playwrights is to extend the rising action and reduce the resolution to their utmost possible limits. Mere power in the handling of the necessary material is now the chief point to consider ; as in the case of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, in which, despite our clear premonition of the upshot of things, the interest continues to increase in intensity to the very last. An expedient frequently adopted to sustain interest in the second part of a play is worthy of particular attention. It is that of delaying the catastrophe by the interposition of events which interrupt the progress of the falling action and thus serve temporarily to revive uncertainty and suspense. In comedy this is often done by the employment of various unexpected obstacles which check the happy course of things ; in tragedy, by suggestions that a way of escape for the hero and heroine may yet open up, and the fate that awaits them be averted. In Much Ado about Nothing, for example, the plot against Hero is discovered in time for its complete frustration, but a fresh difficulty arises through the failure of the watchmen to give Leonato information of it before he leaves for the wedding ceremony. In Antigone we are led for a moment to hope that Creon’s order to release the maiden from her cave-prison may not be too late. Edmund’s revocation of his command that Lear and Cordelia shall be put to death has something of the same effect. A great effect in the falling action of Romeo and Juliet is attained when it seems at least possible that success may yet crown the Friar’s plans. This sudden flash of light amid the fast gathering gloom is not only poignantly dramatic in itself ; it also intensifies the darkness which follows.
We now come to the ultimate stage of the plot, in which the dramatic conflict is brought to an issue on which the imagination is willing to rest with a sense of finality and completeness. In modern plays, as in modern novels, we have often indeed “a conclusion in which nothing is concluded”—in which we are left, as Tennyson once complained, poised on the crest of a wave which does not break. Critical advocates of extreme realism defend this inconclusiveness on the ground that the drama and fiction should be true to life, and in life there is no such thing as an ‘end,’ since every situation contains within itself the germ of fresh activities. In one sense, this view is of course correct; as a resting-place for the imagination nothing can be more purely conventional, for instance, than the marriage upon which the curtain falls in the vast majority of comedies. Yet against this doctrinaire contention it may surely be urged that while experience is undoubtedly continuous, any series of incidents selected out of it for dramatic treatment may be traced from a real beginning to a fairly definite, if only temporary, close ; that imagination does in fact conceive any such series as a detached and self-existent whole ; and that while in real life, as we are all well aware, no record is ever completed, and the last term of one series is only the starting-point of the next, art, on the other hand, may justly claim as part of its privilege of selection and arrangement the right to adopt the convention of the ‘end.’ These matters belong, however, to theory only. It is certain that in practice we all of us instinctively demand a catastrophe in which all the lines of the story are gathered together and no loose threads are left.
It is usual to distinguish between the two chief kinds of drama—comedy and tragedy—by reference to the nature of the catastrophe : the one having a happy, the other an unhappy, ending. There are many plays, however, in which, as in the tragicomedy of our older stage and in our modern melodramas, the interest of the plot is largely tragic, though at the last the Fates smile on most of the good characters. Moreover, whether the catastrophe be in the main unhappy or happy, it may be qualified in various ways. In tragedy the darkness may be somewhat broken by a suggestion that virtue has not suffered nor good been overcome in vain ; while into the general rejoicing of a comedy-close an element of pathos may be introduced by the undeserved misfortune or unrequited affection of some one among the persons of the drama in whom our sympathetic interest has been specially aroused. Thus, for example in Romeo and Juliet our sorrow is to some extent mitigated when we realise that the family hatred which has been the ruin of love is at length conquered by the love which it has destroyed ; while in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster a tender touch is given to the final scene by the faithful and charming Euphrasia’s hopeless passion for the hero. It will also be understood that, though a happy close necessitates the discomfiture of evil, such discomfiture may be managed in accordance with one or the other of two opposed principles. Evil may be foiled and delivered over to the fate which it deserves, as in The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado ; or it may be turned to good and caught up in the general harmony of forgiveness and reconciliation, as in As You Like It and The Tempest.
What has been said about the crisis must now be repeated with reference to the catastrophe—whatever form it takes, it must obey the great law of causality, and thus satisfy us as the natural and logical outcome of the forces which have been at work during the entire action. This law was explicitly stated by Aristotle when he wrote : “It is therefore evident that the unravelling of the plot, no less than its complication, must arise out of the plot itself ; it must not be brought about by the deus ex machina. Within the action there must be nothing irrational.” Any ending which does not grow inevitably out of the characters and the action, but which is of the nature of an accident introduced from the outside, is therefore to be pronounced defective. To the large class of such merely arbitrary solutions belongs the device mentioned by Aristotle and so frequently employed by Euripides—that of the ‘god out of the machine,’ who, at the required moment, was brought upon the scene to secure that conclusion which, though really alien from the dramatist’s treatment of his story, was none the less prescribed by tradition. Parallels to this may occasionally be found in the modern drama when some powerful external agency is invoked to cut the knot which the playwright is unable or too impatient to untie ; as in the interposition of the King to accomplish the overthrow of the hypocrite in Moliere’s Le Tartuffe. In modern plays the fortuitous element assumes a number of forms ; as when the villain is removed by a timely accident, or a lost will turns up, or an uncle, long reported dead, proves to be very much alive. But perhaps1 the commonest kind of arbitrary conclusion is that which depends upon a sudden and incredible change of heart in one of the persons of the drama. Here we have to re-emphasise another great law to which allusion was made in our chapter on prose fiction—the law of the conservation of character. Conspicuous illustrations of the transgression of this law will be found in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and As You Like It.
It should, however, be added that in plays in which the handling of life is relatively light and superficial, it would be impertinent to insist too rigorously upon the application of the foregoing principles. The dramatist may be justified, therefore, when working in the mood of comedy, in devising a conclusion by contrivances which, in the mood of tragedy, he would never dream of employing. Considerable latitude may thus be granted to the writer of comedy even in the treatment of the logic of motive and passion. This qualification has also ethical bearings which it is important to keep well in mind, since the closing scenes in comedy are by no means bound to possess that moral weight and significance which of necessity belongs to the catastrophe in any serious drama. Thus, while the character of Claudio in Much Ado must, undoubtedly, always remain an ugly blot upon an otherwise delightful play, his marriage at the end to the girl he has so foully wronged must not be criticised in that strenuous spirit in which it is often discussed. After all, notwithstanding the pathetic interest of its central theme, Much Ado is only light comedy, and for the purposes of such a piece it is enough that each Jack shall have his Jill, and that the curtain shall fall with a promise of wedding bells. To enforce moral standards and to indulge in the refinements of over-curious scholastic interpretation in such a case as this is, therefore, more than a trifle absured. We are, in fact, satisfied, and we have a perfect right to be satisfied, in a play of this description, with a certain laxity of moral treatment which we should at once resent in a drama which purported to grapple seriously with life’s deeper realities. We can now understand why, as Canon Beeching has well pointed out, roguery is dealt with by Shakespeare in one way when it is found in the world of pure comedy, and in another and quite different way-when it is entangled with the moral issues of actual life. “In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff, notwithstanding his enormities—and Shakespeare needs all the excuse of a Royal Command for the way he has degraded him—meets no further punishment than the jeers of his would-be victims ; it is sufficient in comedy that faults should be judged by laughter. Nobody wants Sir Toby put on the black list as a tippler, or Autolycus sent to gaol for filching linen from the hedges. But when the world of comedy touches the real world, as in Henry IV and Henry V, social offences have to meet social punishment, and so we have not only Falstaff exiled from court and dying of a broken heart, but poor Nym and Bardolph hanged for stealing in the wars.”
In concluding this brief survey of the natural divisions of plot in the drama, I would ask the reader to remember several things. In the first place, so formal an analysis must necessarily give to the principles of dramatic structure an appearance of simplicity which is in fact rather delusive. In our study of any play, therefore, we must never expect to find that the various points of the dramatic line will be as distinctly marked and as easily detected as our abstract statement might lead us to suppose. Secondly, there are types of play which do not exactly correspond with the plan outlined. In many comedies of intrigue, for example, as in Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts, and works of the same general class, the main interest of the plot is provided by the efforts by which the intrigue gradually overcomes all difficulties and achieves complete success, and in such cases the diagrammatic representation would have to take the form, not of a pyramid, but of an irregularly ascending line. Moreover, there are modern dramatists, like Henry Becque and Gerhart Hauptmann, who, in their anxiety to escape convention and to exemplify the principles of naturalism, deliberately disregard the formulas of what the French critics used to call the ‘well-made’ play. Finally, it is often quite possible to interpret the dramatic movement of any play in various different ways according to the particular point of view which we chose to adopt in regard to it. Thus, in Macbeth, it is usual to place the crisis, as we have said, in III, i, the scene which marks the turn in Macbeth’s outward fortunes. But if we look rather at the spiritual significance of the tragedy than at its plot, we may with perfect justice contend that the real crisis is reached at the moment when Macbeth, yielding to the evil in his own nature and to the solicitations of the witches, definitely commits himself to a career of crime, and that the subsequent deterioration of his character from this point onward, and not his external ruin, constitutes the true falling action. Similarly with King Lear. Here we have accepted Mr. Price’s view that the crisis arises with the king’s division of his kingdom. But it is much more usual to put it, with Freytag, in the hovel scene in the fourth act.
These illustrations will suffice to show that our interpretation of a play is not to be governed by hard and fast mechanical rules.
A few outstanding features of structural design have still to be considered, which are too important to be omitted even from a mere introductory study of dramatic art.
Among these, the first place must be given to the principles of Parallelism and Contrast.
Parallelism is a familiar element in the composition of plot, especially in the form of the reduplication of motives. An excellent effect is often obtained when the central idea of one part of the action reappears in another part of it, and each is thus made to illustrate and reinforce the other. Shakespeare was much addicted to this practice of repetition. Sometimes he adopts it for the mere purpose of further complicating the dramatic interest of his story. Thus, e.g., in The Comedy of Errors, he adds to the confusion which he had found in the Menaechmi of Plautus by providing the two twin brothers with two slaves who are also twins and also indistinguishable in appearance ; while in his version of the imbroglio of the rings in The Merchant of Venice he gives us two rings instead of the one which had figured in the original story in Il Pecorone. Sometimes, however, the repetition is not used merely to complicate the action and so increase its theatrical effectiveness, but rather to draw its diverse materials together into an organic whole. In Much Ado, for example, Shakespeare set out to dramatise a borrowed story in which a pair of lovers were driven apart by an evil trick; with this story he finds it necessary to combine an under-plot ; and he invents one in which there are also two lovers (at all events, potential lovers) who are brought together by a merry trick. The idea of trickery, in the one case for evil, in the other for good, is thus used to fuse two stories which otherwise stand in the sharpest contrast. But the most extraordinary example of parallelism in the Shakespearean drama is that which is presented by King Lear, the two plots of which correspond in almost every detail. In this play, the dramatist worked upon two narratives derived from widely different sources. “In the one story, there was the father deceived in the character of his daughters, and finding love only in that one whose love he had denied and spurned. In the other story, there was the father deceived in the character of his sons, and finding allegiance and affection only in him that he had sought to destroy as assassin and parricide. Thus, in the two stories, alongwith their antithetical difference, there was an almost artificial symmetry of plan and movement. And so, in the mind of the poet, at some happy moment of stimulated creative power, the two stories, coming from regions and times so different, and so completely independent, flashed together, as capable of so supplementing each other, as to merge in one great movement of tragical emotion.”
In such cases of parallelism, in which we have, as it were, a series of variations upon a single theme, the repetition of motive provides the real bond of connection between the different parts of a play, and thus secures a kind of moral unity. This is exemplified again in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this comedy, as the commentators have pointed out, a common motive seems to be furnished by the idea of love as a lawless power, by which friendship is broken, and girls are inspired to rebellion against their parents, and lovers are led into strange inconstancy, and even the Queen of the Fairies is made the victim of a monstrous infatuation. Many other illustrations of such unification through repetition will be found in the Shakespearean drama.
Occasionally parallelism is employed for the purposes of burlesque; in other words, the repetition of motive is introduced in the way of ridicule. Such burlesque parallelism was a singular feature of the Spanish drama of the seventeenth century, in which the gracioso, or valet—the recognised ‘funny man’ of the stage—was often specially entrusted with the task of parodying the high-flown sentiments, the flamboyant language, and the romantic actions, of his master. A ludicrous example may be cited from one of the best known of the Spanish plays—El Mάgico Prodigioso (The Wonder-working Magician) of Calderon. The main plot of this curious drama shows how Cipriano, to obtain possession of Justina, sells himself to the Devil, to whom he gives a contract signed in the blood which he draws from his own arm. In all this he is aped by his servant Clarin, who, with much absurd mockheroic talk, also sells himself to the Devil for the sake of the “cruel Libia,” and that he too may sign the compact in his own blood strikes his nose and makes it bleed. It would probably be difficult to discover any instances of so crude a sort of parody as this in our English drama, unless it be in the so-called ‘comic’ scenes in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, But in subtler forms burlesque parallelism has from time to time been employed by our playwrights with telling results. It is occasionally employed by Shakespeare ; as, for example, in the Silvius-Phcebe and Corin-Audrey episodes in As You Like It, and even more distinctly in Bottom’s interlude in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, travestying as it does the central motive of the main action, completes the series of variations contained in it upon the underlying theme—the lawless power of love.
Far more important, however, than parallelism as an element in dramatic design is the principle of contrast. As this principle inheres indeed in the very nature of conflict—as it must be involved in any clash of opposed persons, or passions, or interests—it belongs of necessity to the very substance of every dramatic story. But contrast in the drama takes so many different forms, and is employed in such a large variety of ways, that a comprehensive discussion of it would require a separate treaties. Here we must confine ourselves to a few of its simpler and more common uses.
Of its primary manifestions as one of the constituents of every plot, little needs to be said ; it is enough merely to recognise in passing that some antithesis will always be found between the good and evil, or the ‘sympathetic’ and ‘unsympathetic’ sides of the action ; and, specifically, among the characters and groups of characters by whom ‘these different sides are respectively represented. But one particular aspect of this elementary distinction perhaps calls for notice, and this is the contrast between the growth of the action and its final stages of resolution and catastrophe. Whether a play begins happily and ends in disaster, or begins with a struggle and ends in success, the difference “in tone and spirit between the opening and closing parts is likely to be more or less clearly marked. This is perhaps especially true of tragedy, in which the gloom which gathers about us as the plot proceeds is intensified by the sunshine which we have only just left behind. So important indeed is this change as a factor in the heightening of tragic effect that a dramatist will often, in one way or another, throw stress upon it. Even Æschylus, who was hardly a playwright in the modern sense of the term, was alive to the value of this form of contrast, and carefully prepared for the fall of Agamemnon by a preliminary picture of his greatness and glory in the hour of his happy return from Troy. So, too, the pitiful fate of Sophocles’ Œdipus is rendered more pitiful by the skill with which in the opening scenes we are impressed by the fine qualities of his character, the esteem in which he is held by his people, his kingly state and self-confidence. In our first acquaintance with Macbeth enough is told us of the nobler possibilities of his nature to enhance the significance of the ultimate triumph of evil and the spiritual ruin which this entails. The gay and sportive preliminaries in Romeo and Juliet, and the scenes of lyric passion which immediately follow, add immensely to the pathos of the heartrending close, for the memory of them lingers with us as we gaze into the tomb where the young lovers lie clasped in death, and instinctively we look upon this picture and on that ; while Othello’s absolute confidence in Desdemona, and the utter happiness which each has found in each, constitutes an admirable prelude to the awful crash which is soon to come. Ibsen frequently utilises, and with wonderful effect; this principle of contrast, for he opens several of his plays (e.g., An Enemy of the People and Rosmersholm) at a moment of calm and peace just before the bursting of a great storm.
Contrast as an element of plot-design is, however, by no means confined to this difference between the rising and falling actions. It is often most clearly presented in the difference in character (other, I mean, than that between good and evil) between the different materials which enter into the composition of a play. We are all familiar with this kind of contrast in our romantic drama in the humorous relief, which indeed sometimes assumes the proportions of a regular comic under-plot, which is frequently introduced amid the serious or tragic interests of the main action. In the balancing of plots in a compound play, contrast frequently combines with parallelism, as in several of the examples of parallelism given above. In Much Ado, for instance, while the Hero-Claudio and Beatrice-Benedick actions correspond in motive, there is, as we have pointed out, the greatest difference between them in tone. In the same comedy the successful use of contrasted parallelism is delightfully illustrated by the way in which the Beatrice-Benedick action and the Dogberry episodes are set off against each other, since the fun depends upon two opposite kinds of effect—in the one case, upon brilliant, daring, intellectual wit ; in the other, upon blundering stupidity, muddle-headedness, and ignorant verbosity. Contrast, moreover, often appears in the evolution of the plot, and in the arrangement or articulation of the successive scenes. In the romantic drama, with its blend of the serious and the comic, it is often emphasised by rapid and sudden transitions from the one to the other.
Enough has now been said to indicate the many-sided interest of contrast in the structure of a dramatic plot. It must, however, be remembered that, like all other artistic principles, this too is liable to abuse ; and that, just because its place and value are so obvious, it is in fact very frequently overdone or injudiciously employed. To lay down any abstract rule for guidance in such a matter is, indeed, impossible, for each case will have to be judged on its own merits. Keeping to general terms we can only say that when, under any of its aspects, contrast impresses us as forced or mechanical, when it suggests ‘theatrical’ over-emphasis and a striving after sensational effect, or when it is of such a nature that the harmony of the plot-design is destroyed, then, certainly, it must be condemned. The contrasts of the Elizabethan drama, while they strongly appealed to the ‘groundlings’ of the time, often seem to us crude and violent, and we frequently have the same feeling in regard to those of modern melodrama, which are devised to delight the gallery rather than to meet the demands of critical taste.
Contrast in plot, of course, implies contrast in characterisation, and this introduces us to another and extremely important phase of our subject. Merely noting that it is under this head that we have to include that inner struggle which often occurs between opposed passions and interests in a single complex and paradoxical nature, we have here chiefly to remark that the principle of contrast commonly underlies the scheme of characters in any well-organised play. When we first read or witness a certain drama, we are perhaps aware only of the fact that its story is carried on by a number of people who are interesting in themselves. But when we look a little more closely into the matter, we discover that the particular qualities of each individual are accentuated, and his motives and feelings thrown into sharper relief, through his relations with other individuals of unlike qualities, motives, and feelings, who thus act continually as foils to him. The character-scheme of any play, therefore, deserves careful study, not as a collection of individuals only, but as a scheme ; while in following the working out of a plot we should always take special note of the way in which the principal figures are brought out by contrast with those among whom they move. With dramatists of all times and schools it has been a favourite practice to present the leading persons of a drama as companion studies. A very early instance of this is to be found in the two sisters in the Antigone of Sophocles. This method was much used by Shakespeare, who indeed hardly ever brings two characters into intimate connection without making each a foil to each. Such balanced pairs as Romeo and Juliet, Beatrice and Benedick, Prince Hal and Hotspur, Brutus and Cassius, Macbeth and his wife, Othello and Iago, Timon and Alcibiades, will at once occur to every reader as a few among the many cases in point. But this bilateral symmetry is only a first step in the arrangement of a character-scheme, in which careful analysis will seldom fail to reveal a number of well-considered contrasts and resemblances.
Here, again, the warning against abuse must be repeated. The balancing of characters, like the balancing of motives and incidents, to be artistically satisfactory, must never be so obvious or so mechanical as to appear unnatural. Thus it is because it is at once too obvious and too mechanical that we take exception to the contrast between Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The elaborate and artificial symmetry which governs the disposition of the characters in Shakespeare’s early comedies is, moreover, clearly a mistake.
One service to which the principle of contrast is often put must also be mentioned. It is often expressly used to illustrate and enforce the thesis or moral purpose of a play ; the different aspects of the subject treated being thus presented from various different points of view. The balancing of the two sisters in Antigone, just referred to, has evidently something of this moral significance. The contrast between Alceste and Philinte in Moliére’s Le Misanthrope, and that between Léonor and Isabelle in the same writer’s L’Ecole des Maris, are manifestly inspired by a direct ethical aim. Again, in Lessing’s magnificent didactic drama (which, as a didactic drama, may safely be described as the greatest thing of its kind in all literature)—Nathan der Weise—the whole caste of characters, from the Patriarch of Jerusalem at one end of the scale to the Jew himself at the other, is most skilfully arranged in a delicately graded series of antitheses to bring out the author’s teaching in regard to tolerance and the essential spirit of true religion. Shakespeare repeatedly uses contrast for moral as well as dramatic effect. The appearance of Orlando with old Adam at the close of the melancholy Jaques’ cynical speech on the seven ages of man (As You Like It, Act II, scene vii) is evidently not an accident. If, to take another illustration, we are right in concluding that the underlying motive of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that of the lawless power of love, then we can see how this motive, which runs through the main story and the fairy scenes, and is burlesqued in the handicraftsmen’s play, receives additional emphasis from the contrast provided by the framework of the action, with its dignified figures of Duke Theseus and his Amazonian bride, and its fine picture of their mature and noble love. When contrast is thus employed for ethical purposes, exaggeration is not only artistically unsatisfactory, but also morally disastrous. By over-charging his antithesis between the English and the French in Henry V, Shakespeare has really defeated the very object which he had in view—the glorification of the triumph of English arms at Agincourt.
One other kind of contrast remains to be mentioned—that to which the name Dramatic Irony is generally given. This we may define, in the broadest sense, as the contrast between two aspects of the same thing, whether such contrast is perceived at the time or becomes apparent later. In critical discussion the term is most commonly used to express the effect produced when there is a marked and significant difference in the meaning of what is being done or said on the stage for the characters themselves on the one hand and for the spectators on the other ; and this difference necessarily arises whenever the characters act or speak in ignorance of
important facts of which meanwhile the spectators are in possession. As the difference may turn in the main either on action or on utterance, we may make a formal distinction between Irony of Situation or Incident and Verbal Irony, though in practice of course these are often found in combination. A wonderful example of the irony of situation is furnished by the scene at the close of the Electra of Sophocles, when Ægisthus stands beside the covered corpse which we know to be the corpse of Clytæmnestra, though he believes it to be that of Orestes, which Orestes himself, unrecognised by him, bids him withdraw the veil and disclose the face. As an illustration of the same kind of irony in the Shakespearean drama we may take the scene in Henry V (Act II, scene ii) in which the conspiracy against the king is brought to light. While the conspirators are firmly convinced that their plot is a secret, we on the contrary know already that the king himself is fully aware of their designs; and it is our knowledge of this fact which gives point and interest to every detail of the interview in which the guilty men, led on by Henry, step by step, to their complete self-condemnation, move blindly forward to the fate which we have foreseen from the outset. Again, if we know that a certain character is actually trembling on the brink of terrible disaster ; and if, at that critical moment, he nonetheless appears to himself to occupy a position of greatness and security, and proceeds accordingly to give expression to feelings of pride, or safety, or self-confidence (e.g., Richard II, Act III, scene ii ; Julius Cæsar, Act III, scene i), a similar effect of irony is obtained. In these cases, in which the tragic suggestion inheres in the person’s own unconsciousness of what we know to be his real situation, dialogue evidently plays an important part in accentuating the difference between his point of view and ours. But verbal irony, or equivoke, has an independent value when the language used by any character, though in its primary sense perfectly natural in the circumstances, possesses at the same time for the audience a secondary meaning and application which sometimes the speaker himself does not understand ; and of which, at any rate, those whom he addresses are entirely ignorant. It thus arises when in the words of Prof. Moulton previously quoted. “ignorance of the sequel on the part of the personages represented” clashes “with knowledge of it on the part of the audience.” This species of irony is specially characteristic of the Greek drama. As the plot of a Greek tragedy was not invented by the poet, but was drawn by him from some great common store-house of tradition, local or pan-hellenic, its main outlines at least, and its general course and issue, must have been familiar to all who witnessed its representation, and thus continual opportunity was afforded for effective contrast between the real significance of events as understood by the spectators, and their apparent significance as regarded by the persons taking part in them. Of this opportunity Sophocles in particular availed himself to the full, as notably in Œdipus the King—one of the world’s masterpieces of sustained irony—the dialogue of which is packed with skilfully devised ambiguous detail. When the dramatist himself deliberately informs us in advance of facts which are concealed from some at least of the leading actors in his story, such irony again becomes prominent. Thus the scenes in Shakespeare’s comedies, in which (as in Twelfth Night and As You Like It) the heroine appears disguised as a young man, are often charged with equivoke, both the remarks of the masquerading girl and those with whom she is in conversation assuming a humorous complexion for us who know, as the characters on the stage do not, her sex and position. Ironic effect, it should also be noted, does not necessarily depend upon elaboration. Sometimes a mere casual phrase or even a single word may become pregnant with double meaning. Thus, for instance, the simple epithet “honest,” which Othello applies to the fiend in human shape who is already busy plotting his ruin, has a tragic-suggestiveness for us, because we so well understand its hideous inapplicability.
In the forms thus far considered, irony is produced by the opposition between the point of view of the characters on the stage and that of the spectators, as this opposition is perceived by the spectators at the time of its occurrence. But, as we have already implied, the revelation of the contrast may be delayed ; we may for the moment only suspect a double meaning ; or perhaps the secondary significance of what we see and hear may be brought home to us by the subsequent course of the action. This subtle kind of verbal irony may be amply illustrated from the tragedy of Macbeth. The protagonist’s first words—”So fair and foul a day I have not seen”—contain an obvious and direct reference to the state of the weather ; but they so clearly echo the witches’ “fair is foul and foul is fair,” that they at once suggest to us a bond of sympathy between the speaker and those agents of evil who are to lure him to his doom, while later on we recall them as an index of the moral struggle between the foul and fair in Macbeth’s own nature. When his soliloquy—
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other—
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other—
is interrupted by the entrance of his wife ; her timely appearance just at that juncture emphasises the part which, as his spur, she is to play in the coming crime. In the same way, when Duncan in describing the traitor Cawdor, says—
There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face;
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust,
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust,
and at that moment Macbeth enters ; we instinctively feel that the words are so placed that they apply to Macbeth as much as to Cawdor. There are other phrases in the play which distinctly point forward ; and which, though not perhaps specially noted at the time, are remembered afterwards, when circumstances bring out their tragic significance. In these cases we have equivoke, but an equivoke the disclosure of which is postponed. Thus, Lady Macbeth’s words in the murder scene—
These deeds must not be thought
After these ways ; so, it will make us mad ;
Go get some water
And wash this filthy witness from your hand;
A little water clears us of this deed :
How easy is it, then ;
How easy is it, then ;
are full of terrible prognostications of the sleep-walking scene, and of the remorse which finds utterance in the conscience-stricken woman’s despairing cry—
“Out, damned, spot ! out, I say !…What, will these hands ne’er be clean ?—No more o’ that, my lord, no more o’ that : you will mar all with this starting…Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh !”
Another aspect of this Prophetic Irony, as it may be called, is also exemplified in the same tragedy—the contrast between the course of events as anticipated, and what actually comes to pass. The predictions of the witches are indeed fulfilled to the very letter, but in a way quite different from that upon which Macbeth had been led to count ; the irony being pointed by Macbeth’s own words—
And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense ;
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope.
That palter with us in a double sense ;
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope.
A problem of some importance is suggested by the foregoing considerations—that of the artistic value of concealment and surprise as elements in sustaining interest. In the conduct of his plot, the dramatist may often have a choice between two methods. He may elect to hold back from his audience essential particulars relating to characters, motives, or incidents, which, while they will of course enter into his action, will do so as hidden agencies, to be inferred only, if at all, by their results: and he may calculate upon the production of a telling effect when the real facts are disclosed, and the causes of what has been happening made evident. Or he may, on the contrary, prefer to take his audience into his confidence, exhibit to them at the outset the nature of the chief forces which are involved in his plot, and then rely upon the interest with which they will follow the action and reaction of these forces in working out a certain issue. The question of the relative advantages of these two methods is, again, one which cannot be answered in general terms: it is only when all the circumstances of any given case are considered that it is possible for us to decide what the dramatist has lost, and what he has gained, by adopting the one or the other. It should, however, be borne in mind that the effort to create excitement and maintain attention by means of mystery, secrecy, and the unexpected, though perfectly legitimate, is so common a characteristic of the merely sensational kind of novel and play that it comes under suspicion of belonging to the more rudimentary stages of art : and that the interest of the reader or spectator is generally quite as keen as well as more intelligent when, instead of having the motive forces of the plot withheld from him, and perhaps being misled as to their real meaning and direction, he is enabled by preliminary knowledge to follow, as it were, from the inside the play of passion and the evolution of events. Every student of his technique is aware that Shakespeare, though (as in the supposed death and final restoration of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale) he occasionally has recourse to concealment and surprise, rarely depends much upon them; even his great villains and intriguers betray themselves to us at the beginning, and it is with a full insight into their characters and purposes that we watch them working out their designs. A suggestive fact comes to light when we examine his way of using the device of sex-ambiguity, already referred to. This he employs a number of times—in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Cymbeline ; but in every instance we are taken into the secret, and thus no effect of surprise is sought through revelation of the truth that a character we had been led to take for a youth is really a girl. Now it happens that in the two best-known pieces in our romantic drama, after these, in which sex-ambiguity is introduced—Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster and Ben Jonson’s Epiccene or The Silent Women—the opposite plan is adopted. In the former it is not till the end that we learn that the supposed page Bellario is the maiden Euphrasia; in the latter, we are kept in the dark to the very last of the fact that Epiccene is a youth in disguise. So far as this particular matter is concerned, we need, I think, have no hesitation in saying that Shakespeare’s is the better way.
Mention has already been made of the familiar fact that under the influence, in part of those different technical conditions of which we have spoken, but in part also of different artistic aims and ideals, the drama has assumed very different forms in different periods and countries. It is customary for the historian and critic to distinguish sharply between two antithetical types of drama—the classic and the romantic. This broad division is, however, insufficient. The classic type must be sub-divided into the ancient, or true classic, and the neo-classic, or pseudo-classic, while a separate place must be made for the drama of our own time.
Greek tragedy and comedy, with which any systematic study of the drama must begin, alike originated in rustic festivals which in early Attica were periodically held in honour of the nature-god, Dionysus—the one from the serious, the other from the frolicsome side of such celebrations. Comedy in Athens passed through three stages: Old Comedy, or the comedy of political and personal satire; Middle Comedy, which marked the transition from this to the comedy of social life and manners; and New Comedy, in which this change was completed, and a kind of comedy evolved in many ways resembling our own. With the exception of eleven plays by one writer—the greatest master of Old Comedy. Aristophanes—all the productions of the comic writers of Athens have been lost; and though we have examples in two plays of Aristophanes—the Ecclesiazuaæ (or Women in Parliament) and Plutus—of Middle Comedy, New Comedy we know only through the imitations of Latin playwrights. Of Greek tragedy, fortunately, a larger and more representative body of work has come down to us, for we possess thirty-two plays of the three great tragic poets— Æschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
Some of the salient features of Greek tragedy have already been described. A few words must, however, be added in regard to one point of primary importance—the Chorus. I have said that to the modern reader no one characteristic of the Attic drama is more curious than this. When we first take up the study of Greek tragedy, indeed, it is with some astonishment that we find in every play such a chorus, or body of persons, forming, as it were, a multiple individuality, moving, singing, and dancing together, and continually interrupting the dialogue and the progress of the action with their odes or interludes. This feature seems to us so strange and even so undramatic, it appears to be such a clog upon the movement of the play, that we are naturally impelled to ask when and why it was incorporated into Greek tragedy. The answer is, that it was never ‘incorporated’ into Greek tragedy—that it was not, in other words, an imported element or artistic invention. It was simply a necessary result of the conditions out of which Greek tragedy arose. The genesis of tragedy is to be found in the dithyramb, or choral hymn, which was chanted by the village worshippers around the altar of Dionysus ; the individual actor and dialogue were later developments out of this. Thus the chorus belonged to Greek tragedy because it was the germ from which it sprang. It is true that from the very beginning of real tragedy with Æschylus, the tendency of artistic evolution was consistently towards the subordination of the choral element to that of the individual actors, who were correspondingly brought to the front. This change in the centre of interest is strikingly shown by a comparison of the works of the first with those of the last of our three tragic poets. In Æschylus, roughly speaking, about one-half of a play is occupied by choral odes; in Euripides, only from a quarter to a ninth part. Nor is this all. Along with this decrease in the prominence of the chorus went its gradual detachment from the action. In Æschylus, the connection between the chorus and the movement of the plot is very close and organic ; it remains very close and organic in Sophocles ; but in Euripides, the choral odes are generally little more than musical interludes, with only the slightest relevancy to the dramatic context. Thus, as Mr. Haigh has said, the history of the chorus in Greek tragedy is a history of gradual decay. None the less, the chorus remained a formal feature of it till its end, and from it was taken over in turn by the Latin dramatists.
Yet, while from our point of view, this gradual subordination of the chorus seems a perfectly natural effort to eliminate a vestigial element which we cannot but regard as clumsy, the student must still remember that the exquisite tact of the Greeks was rarely more triumphantly shown than in the skill with which they turned this very element of the higher purposes of dramatic art. The lyrical portions of their tragedies were employed as channels for the expression of the emotions aroused by the action, and of such general moral reflections as would be likely to suggest themselves to a sympathetic spectator. It is in the plays of Sophocles— “the mellow glory of the Attic stage”—that this use of the chorus reaches perfection, and it is in these plays, therefore, that we can best study its functions as they are admirably explained in the following passage by Matthew Arnold:
“The Chorus was, at each stage of the action, to collect and weigh the impressions which the action would at that stage naturally make on a pious thoughtful mind ; and was at last, at the end of the tragedy, when the issue of the action appeared, to strike a final balance. If the feeling with which the actual spectator regarded the course of the tragedy could be deepened by reminding him of what was past, or by indicating to him what was to come, it was the province of the ideal spectator so to deepen it. To combine, to harmonise, to deepen for the spectator the feelings excited in him by the sight of what was passing on the stage—this is the one grand effect produced by the Chonft in Greek tragedy.”
Following the movement of dramatic history, we pass from Greece to Rome, which at the time of its literary awakening under Hellenic impulses began to fashion both comedies and tragedies on the lines which the Greeks had laid down. The great mass of Latin dramatic literature has perished. But in comedy we possess twenty plays of Plautus and six of Terence, while tragedy is represented by the ten dramas which have come down to us under the name of Seneca. Both the comedies and the tragedies have great historical importance ; the comedies, in part because it is through them, as I have said, that we derive our knowledge of the Greek New Comedy, which they copied or adapted, and in part because of the influence which they presently exerted on the modern drama; the tragedies, on account of the fact that it was these imitative productions, and not the works of the original Greeks masters, which decame the great incentives and models of the neoclassic dramatists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Religion in origin, like that of the Greeks, the drama of modern Europe arose out of the rich symbolic liturgy of the mediaeval church through the gradual dramatisation of important events commemorated in the chief services of the calendar. This liturgical drama in course of time evolved into a fully developed and widely popular religious play—the Mystery, or Miracle Play ; the subject-matter of which was derived mainly from the Bible, but in part also from tradition and the lives of the saints. Mr. Symonds described the religious drama in England as the “Dame School” of our dramatic genius. The phrase is not inapt. Very crude of course it was ; but dramatic elements were not altogether wanting—elements of tragedy, as in the Crucifixion and Last Judgment ; elements of pathos, as in the story of Abraham and Isaac ; elements, even, of humour, as in the scenes between Cain and his boy, between Noah and his wife, and in the Shepherd plays of the Chester and Wakefield cycles. A little later, another kind of didactic drama arose and flourished in the Morality, or allegorical play, in which the scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages, and presently, the new learning and the theological ideas of a period of fierce controversy, found a vehicle of popular expression. Closer attention than is usually accorded to them should, I am convinced, be given by the student to these experimental forms, which counted more than is commonly supposed in the after development of the drama in England. At the same time, they were of course mere preliminaries. The real beginnings of modern comedy and tragedy are closely connected with that particular phase of the Renaissance which we call the classic revival. Fired by enthusiasm for everything belonging to the newly discovered world of pagan antiquity, men turned back to that world for inspiration and example in the drama as in all other forms of literary art. In comedy, the native and popular elements were too strong in England to permit of mere academic imitation ; but the study of Plautus and Terence helped greatly to teach the rising school of dramatists the principles of structure and form. Evidence of this will be found in our first English comedy—Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (about 1550)—in which characters and humours of ordinary contemporary life form the substance of a play which yet admittedly owes much to the influence of the Latin masters. Tragedy, on the other hand, was at the outset purely academic. It began with a deliberate attempt on the part of the humanists to produce the entire system of the tragic drama of classical antiquity. Here the historical importance of Seneca becomes manifest; since it was upon his plays, and not directly upon those of the Greek poets, that, as I have said, the new serious drama was closely fashioned. Now Senecan tragedy, while in matter it tended to a free use of the violent, the horrible, and the supernatural, presented the structural principles of the classis drama in an exaggerated form, action being entirely eliminated and long stately speeches, full of rhetoric and declamation, taking the place of dramatic dialogue. This was the pattern adopted for tragedy by the Italian and French dramatists of the sixteenth century; this was the pattern adopted also by the writers of our first regular English tragedy, Gorboduc, which was performed at the Inner Temple three years before Shakespeare was born. But here we reach the great point of rupture between the destinies of Italian and French tragedy on the one hand and those of English tragedy on the other. In Italy and France, while the Senecan type was modified in various particulars, it was still taken as a foundation, and neo-classicism was firmly established ; its ideals, backed by the enormous power of the Academy, ruling supreme in the latter country till the time of Dumas and Victor Hugo. In England, after a few abortive experiments and despite the efforts and influence of humanists like Sidney. Seneca and neo-classicism were abandoned, and an independent type of drama—the romantic—triumphed instead.
In one other country beside England the national genius was too strong to accept the classic yoke, and a rich romantic drama arose in defiance of all the attempts of scholars and critics to regulate it by line and rule. This was Spain. The Spanish romantic drama of the seventeenth century—best known to us in the work of its two chief masters, Lope de Vega and Calderon—deserves the attention of the student for various reasons, and especially for its immense fertility and ingenuity in the matter of plot, and for the influence which it exerted on this side upon the Italian, French, and English dramas. Yet the permanent literary value of this drama is, after all, very slight. Its very strength implies its radical weakness. It is essentially theatrical. Its interest depends almost entirely upon incident and intrigue—upon skilfully devised complications, telling situations, unexpected turns in the action, surprises. In characterisation it is thin and poor ; in psychology, crude and unconvincing. Tested by the criteria upon which we have repeatedly insisted, it must therefore be assigned a very subordinate rank among the great dramas of the world.
We will now make a brief comparison of the two great types of modern drama, the neo-classic and the romantic. While the latter is represented for us chiefly by the works of our Elizabethan and Stuart playwrights, with Shakespeare at their head,, we must add to these two later products of the romantic spirit—the German drama of Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller, and the French drama of Dumas, Victor Hugo, and their contemporaries. The finest examples of the former type are furnished by the writings of the great French masters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries— Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire, though a place beside them may also be made for the tragedies of the Italian poet, Alfieri.
Two points at which the neo-classic tragedy departed from its Senecan model must first be mentioned. In the substance of its plots it gave great prominence, and generally indeed the principal place, to the interest of romantic love, a motive which had been conspicuous by its absence from the serious drama of pagan antiquity. In structure it introduced a great change by dropping the chorus, though a survival of this is, as I have said, to be detected in that familiar figure in many neo-classic plays, the confidant, who has little or nothing to do with the action except as the alter ego of the hero or heroine, to listen to their confessions and reply with sympathy and advice. These points of difference between the neo-classic and the antique drama are, however, of less importance for us than their broad resemblances. As between the neo-classic and the romantic drama, on the contrary, the interest of the comparison lies in their fundamental contrasts.
In the first place, neo-classic tragedy (notwithstanding its innovation in the matter of romantic love) followed the classic model in the general nature of its subjects, and in the way in which these subjects were treated. Classic drama had dealt with the great legends of a remote mythical age ; its chief characters had been majestic heroes who belonged to a world of tradition altogether apart from and far above that of ordinary humanity and experience ; and in its handling of such themes and persons it had sought a purely poetic rendering in harmony with them. Thus the dialogue was kept throughout at the ideal tragic pitch of stateli-ness and nobility, and homely phrases and realistic details were avoided as discordant notes. It is true that this general statement is subject to some exceptions. There is even in Æschylus an occasional approach to the tone of common life; and in Euripides, the most modern of all the Greek poets in this as in other respects, the homely phrase and the realistic detail are often conspicuous. Yet ideal treatment and undisturbed unity of tone were the theoretical principles of Greek tragic art ; while as for the Senecan drama, it was uniformly elevated, stately, dignified, and rhetorical. In neo-classic drama the same principles are studiously maintained. The subjects are drawn from a great variety of sources, but they are always aristocratic in quality. “Kings, emperors, generals of armies, principal chiefs of republics—it does not matter,” says Voltaire, “but tragedy always requires characters raised above the common plane.” This formulates the conception of tragedy which was repeated again and again by Italian, French, and even English critics of the period of the Renaissance, and during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Tragedy, in brief, had to confine itself to ‘great’ themes and ‘illustrious’ persons. In treatment, meanwhile, the neo-classics were more consistently classic than the Greeks themselves. No attempt to mirror ordinary life, or to reproduce common human nature, was ever permitted. All had to be on the grand, the heroic, scale. Unity of tone had to be preserved, as Voltaire distinctly says, by the banishment from the dialogue of everything savouring of colloquialism or suggestive of familiarity.
The contrast at this point between the neo-classic drama and the romantic is manifest. Romantic tragedy is indeed commonly aristocratic in character ; as its very name implies, it too is generally concerned with matters remote from the interests of ordinary life, and with the struggles and misfortunes of more or less ‘illustrious’ people. But in its treatment of its subjects, it repudiates entirely the neo-classic method. No attempt is made to preserve the ideal atmosphere or unity of tone. The tragic hero is often set in a world of commonplace men and things. The dialogue, though predominantly poetical, is often racy with colloquialism, and has many touches of familiarity. Realistic details—like Lear’s famous “Pray you, undo this button”— abound, which to neo-classic playwrights and critics would appear shockingly trivial and vulgar. Thus, while the neo-classic tragedy is entirely ideal, the romantic tragedy combines the idealistic with the realistic.
The fundamental principle of unity of tone in the neo-classic drama leads, in the second place, to an important result in the complete separation in it, as in the ancient drama, of tragedy and comedy. Though comedy was, rather grudgingly, allowed to rise into seriousness, and even on occasion to become ‘heroic,’ as in Corneille’s Don Sanche d’ Aragon and Moliere’s Don Garcie de Navarre, no touch of humour was ever allowed to mar the sustained solemnity of a tragic scene. It is unnecessary to dwell at length upon the difference here presented between the two types of drama. The free use of tragedy and comedy in the same play is one of the most striking and familiar features in the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Romantic drama revels in variety of effect, while tragi-comedy, or the “mixed play”— according to Addison, “one of the most monstrous inventions that ever entered into a poet’s thought”—has always been a particularly popular form on the romantic stage.
A third fundamental contrast between the two types of dramatic construction is to be found in their opposed attitudes towards the unities of Time, Place and Action. Neo-classicism adhered to these in tragedy, at least in theory. Romantic drama ignored the first two, and, while it adopted the third, put an interpretation upon it quite different from that maintained by disciples of the other school. As in the one case, the distinction is between acceptance and rejection, while in the other it is between diverse views of the same principle, it will be convenient to deal with the two questions separately.
A definition of the neo-classic position is first required, and this is provided in the following couplet of the “law-giver of Parnassus,” Boileau—
Qu’en un lieu, qu’en un jour, un seul fait accompli
Tienne jusqu’a lά fin le théâtre rempli.
Tienne jusqu’a lά fin le théâtre rempli.
“Let the stage be occupied to the end by a single completed action, which takes place in one spot, in one day.” Disregarding for the moment the question of singleness of action, we have here a clear and compact statement of the rule concerning time and place—the former must be confined to one day ; the latter must never be changed. Into the history of the rise and formulation of these supposed laws of the drama, we cannot now enter, nor is it necessary, or indeed possible, to undertake any discussion of their artistic justification from the point of view of their supporters. It is important, however, to understand that they are, strictly speaking, neo-classic, and not classic; that is, that their real source and authority must be sought in the theories of modern critics, and not in the principles or practice of the Greek stage. They took definite shape among the Italian humanists of the Renaissance, and passed thence into France, where they maintained tyrannous sway till the time of the Romantic revolt. Yet their rule was not accepted without occasional protest, and even son attempts at compromise. Corneille, the first great master of French tragedy, but a Romantic by temper, clearly chafed under them. Against the rigorous reading of the unity of time, for example, he pleaded hard for “quelque élargissement”—for thirty hours, where necessary, instead of the prescribed twenty-four. Moreover, many instances may be found in French tragedy in which, as Lessing said, even if the letter of the law is obeyed, its spirit is broken. Thus, in Corneille’s Le Cid we have a quarrel, a couple of scenes in which the heroine has audience of the king, two agitating interviews between the heroine and her lover, two duels, and a great battle with the Moors. No wonder that Corneille himself admitted, as well he might, that for a single day’s work the action was “un peu précipitée”; or that the Academy, in passing judgment upon the play, should have declared that “the poet in trying to observe the rules of art had chosen rather to sin against those of nature.” In more perfect examples of neo-classic drama we do not indeed encounter absurdities so glaring as these. Yet the impression often left is one of artificially contrived simplicity, and quite unnatural condensation.
That to these pedantic rules concerning time and place romantic dramatists have always been supremely indifferent is a fact well-known to every student of the English stage. Shakespeare cared nothing for them, moving his scene freely from town to town, and from country to country, as often as occasion required, “jumping o’er times,” and “turning the accomplishment of many years into an hour glass.” In two cases, it is true—in the Comedy of Errors and The Tempest—he confines his plot to one day and practically to one spot ; the latter play being specially remarkable because in it the ideal of time-unity is reached in the almost complete correspondence of stage-time with actual time. But these exceptions only prove that, like other romantic playwrights, Shakespeare felt himself at perfect liberty to accept as well as to reject academic convention, and to work in whatever form seemed most suitable to the matter in hand. To us who are bred in the Shakespearean tradition, this romantic freedom in the handling of time and place appears, of course, so natural and proper that it is difficult for us to give quite serious attention to the arguments of the neo-classic school. Yet we must never forget that romantic liberty may easily degenerate into licence, and that if liberty is to be defended, licence is still to be condemned. Shakespeare himself, with his too rapid and frequent changes of scene within an act, and his total carelessness as to the number of days, or months, or even years required by his action, provides many illustrations of the abuse of freedom. The Winter’s Tale may be regarded as a classic example of romantic excess ; and such excess is again almost equally conspicuous in the straggling and incoherent chronicle plays.
In turning from the unities of time and place to that of action or plot, we pass from mere arbitrary restraints imposed from the outside to what has been universally acknowledged as an inherent and essential principle of dramatic construction. The difference between the neo-classic and the romantic types of drama is, therefore, at this point, as I have said, one of interpretation only, and this difference can be very easily explained. Aristotle’s canon—πράξζιζ μíα τε ổλη—an action one and complete (the “seul fait accompli” of Boileau) was taken by the neo-classicists in its most rigorous acceptation to mean a single plot, undiversified by episodes and uncomplicated by subordinate incidents and characters. So severely was this rule enforced that adverse criticism was passed upon Le Cid, because the Infanta’s love for the hero, though not developed into a sub-plot, diverted attention from the real theme of the play by introducing an independent centre of interest. In the romantic reading of the law, on the other hand, the largest freedom has always been conceded in the use of episodes and subordinate incidents and characters. Unity, according to this view, is not incompatible with complexity ; it does not mean singleness of action ; it means merely organic connection and coherence. Minor actions or subplots are therefore admitted on the one condition which is, however, indispensable, that all the elements of the plot are woven together and made interdependent as cooperating factors in the evolution of the plot as a whole. Here again it is evident that the difference between the two conceptions ultimately rests upon the difference between the assumptions from which the two schools of dramatic theory respectively start ; that of the neo-classic being that the drama should aim at ideal simplicity ; that of the romantic, that it should reflect the variety and complexity of actual life. Our romantic drama, then, is habitually a drama of compound plot. It is important, however, to hold fast to the principle that the variety and complexity which delight us in it must not be obtained at the sacrifice of that organic wholeness upon which I have just laid stress. The law of dramatic structure requires that there shall be a well-marked central interest to which all other interests are duly subordinated ; that as Dryden happily put it, the pawns on the chess-board shall be made of service to the “greater persons” ; that all the lines of action shall run together in a single catastrophe. Such unity through complexity is achieved, for example, in Much Ado about Nothing, in which the two principal plots, though for a time practically independent, coalesce in the church scene (IV, i), and in which the episodical watchmen have a vital part in working out the main intrigue. But Shakespeare is often guilty of violating the law of structural unity. His plots frequently hang very loosely together. The Winter’s Tale is really two plays rolled into one. In Julius Cæsar, as in the English chronicle-dramas, he fails to reduce the scattered events of history to artistic consistency. Many of his plays suffer from a plethora of matter. Marvellous as is the skill with which the two distinct stories in King Lear have been dovetailed into one another, there are critics who hold, with Freytag, that the tragedy loses more than it gains by its immense and almost bewildering intricacy. In numerous instances secondary incidents and characters are allowed to expand until they occupy a wholly disproportionate place in the general scheme, the balance and symmetry of which are thus destroyed. While, for instance, we should be unwilling to suppress a single detail in the great Falstaffian comedy in Henry IV, criticism has still to insist that from the strictly artistic point of view there is in fact altogether too much of it ; that it forms by itself a separate play within the play ; that it is so brilliant and so fascinating that it not only splits the interest but even throws the main plot into the background ; and that, finally, it is to be condemned also because it has no real connection with the business of the historic action.
One other important point of contrast between our two types of drama has still to be noted. They differ fundamentally in their methods of conducting their plots.
Faithfully following in this respect the practice of the Greeks and the precept of Horace—”Let not Medea slay her children before the public”—the neo-classic drama depends almost entirely upon narrative ; nearly everything that happens, especially everything of a violent character, happens, in technical phraseology, ‘off,’ and is simply reported to the audience. In the ground-work of its story, a neo-classic tragedy often contains as much sensational material as the most romantic of romantic plays, but we only hear of the incidents, we do not witness them. Take, for example, our first English tragedy, Gorboduc. The ‘argument’ prefixed to this drama runs thus : “Gorboduc, king of Brittaine, divided his realme in his life-time to his sonnes, Ferrex and Porrex ; the sonnes fell to discention ; the yonger killed the elder ; the mother, that more dearely loved the elder, for revenge killed the yonger ; the people, moved with the crueltie of the fact, rose in rebellion and slew both father and mother ; the nobilitie assembled and most terribly destroyed the rebels ; and afterwardes, for want of issue of the prince, whereby the succession of the crowne became uncertaine, they fell to civill warre, in which both they and many of their issues were slaine, and the land for a long time almost desolate and miserably wasted.” It is evident that such a plot—which, like that of Hamlet, literally reeks with gore—provides abundant material for vigorous action and thrilling situations. But all the murder and bloodshed take place behind the scenes, and we are kept informed of what is occurring by descriptive speeches of enormous length. So again with Le Cid. Two duels and a big battle are amply sufficient to redeem this play from any charge of uneventfulness. But the duels are simply reported, while instead of a representation of the battle, such as Shakespeare would have given us, we have Rodrigue’s vivid account of it in a magnificent oration of seventy-three lines. The only thing that we should commonly regard as an incident which occurs on the stage is at the very beginning, when Don Gomès strikes Don Diègue across the face with his glove; and even this was condemned by the Academy as a breach of dramatic decorum.
While the neo-classic drama is thus a drama of narrative, the romantic, on the contrary, is essentially a drama of action. Nearly everything that happens in it happens on the stage, and duels are fought, murders and suicides committed, outrages perpetrated, and battles waged, in full view of the spectators. The great public of the virile and full-blooded Elizabethan age, with their over-flowing energies, their thirst for adventure, their love of stirring deeds, were too keenly interested in the immense and many-sided pageantry of actual life to tolerate rhetorical description as a substitute for movement and representation and spectacle. For dramatic decorum they cared nothing ; in their craving for realistic display and delight in seeing things done, they accepted the crude inadequacy (ridiculed by Ben Jonson) with which the battle scenes were perforce enacted ; they did not even recoil from sights which seem to us too shocking for exhibition. The fact must never be overlooked that the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries were written to satisfy this enormous appetite for action.
We must not allow our familiarity with the romantic drama, and our general adherence to its principles, to betray us into the supposition that representation is always to be preferred to narrative, and that nothing is to be said in favour of the neo-classic method. While the greatest scope for action should undoubtedly be granted, and while its practical absence from neo-classic tragedy necessarily leaves us with a sense of baldness and unreality, the question of how much in any given case shall be exhibited and how much merely reported is still one that is open to discussion. Here indeed we touch upon an important and sometimes very difficult problem of dramatic technique. It may fairly be argued that Shakespeare’s numerous battle scenes are really unfortunate concessions to the taste of the ‘groundlings’ of his time, that in many instances they are more than a trifle absurd, and that his plays would often have been vastly improved by their excision. A similar judgment may safely be passed upon the great ‘realistic’ scenes—the fires, and floods, and railway accidents—of modern melodrama. The contention of Dryden’s Lisideius, that “those actions which by reason of their cruelty will cause aversion in us, or by reason of their impossibility, unbelief, ought either to be wholly avoided by the poet, or only delivered by narration,” is also, broadly speaking, perfectly sound. Nor is the widely current notion, to which even Horace lent his authority—that “things heard make a feebler impression than things seen”—by any means universally true, for the impressiveness of representation may frequently be marred by imperfection of detail, as in many of the boasted sensational effects of the modern stage ; while, as common experience teaches, there are countless cases in which an appeal to the imagination is much more powerful than one to actual sight. Shakespeare gives us many murders, but it is surely a significant fact that the most terrible of all—that of Duncan in Macbeth—takes place off the stage. We must also be on our guard against too narrow an interpretation of action and incident. This point is well emphasised in Dryden’s Essay— “‘Tis a great mistake in us,” says Lisideius, “to believe the French present no part of the action on the stage: every alteration or crossing of a design, every new-sprung passion, and turn of it, is a part of the action, and much the noblest, except we conceive nothing to be action till the players come to blows.”
The reference just made to the murder of Duncan suggests one point to which the student of Shakespeare will do well to devote some attention. Like other romantic playwrights, Shakespeare leans strongly towards action. His usual practice is to put as much of his story as is possible on the stage. But every now and then we come upon marked exceptions to this general rule—upon scenes in which important events are thrown into narrative instead of being represented ; and then the question naturally arises as to the reason which prompted him to depart from his customary plan. I need hardly say that there is no one answer to this question which will meet all cases. Sometimes, it is evident, he is governed by mere practical necessity. Sometimes we shall find that he has substituted narrative for action for the purpose of condensing a large amount of material which would otherwise have become unmanageable, or which would have occupied too much space. But sometimes, as the briefest investigation will show, neither of these superficial explanations will serve, and the cause will then have to be sought in considerations of artistic purpose and effect. Macbeth will suffice to illustrate all these phases of the subject. Though Macbeth’s head is immediately afterwards brought on the stage, the actual decapitation takes place behind the scenes. This we can scarcely hesitate to ascribe to practical necessity. The flight of Malcolm and Donalbain to England and Ireland provides an example of narrative condensation. But two incidents of the utmost importance occur ‘off’—the murder of Duncan which has led to this discussion, and the death of Lady Macbeth. In neither of these instances can any considerations of necessity or condensation be alleged, both could have been represented perfectly well, and the play is so short that time could easily have been spared for them. Why, then, is neither of these enacted ? Here the question resolves itself into one of artistic purpose and effect, and the answer to it is not, I think, very far to seek. After the awful sleep-walking scene in which appropriate nemesis overtakes the guilty queen, the actual exhibition of her death would have been almost an anticlimax, while coming where it does, its significance for us is not so much in the incident itself, as in the revelation it is made to furnish of the condition of her husband’s mind. In the great murder-scene the real tragedy manifestly lies not in the murder as a physical fact, but in the emotional stress which accompanies it—not in the death of the king, but in the souls of his slayers. This essential tragedy is driven home upon us with infinitely greater force in the scene as its stands—heightened as it is with all the accessories of horror— than would have been the case had the murder been done before our eyes, because our attention is never for a moment distracted by the details of the crime as such. It is the concentration of all our interest upon the inner meaning of the situation that makes it so tremendous and overwhelming.
Such, then, are some of the fundamental differences in principle and method between the neo-classic and the romantic types of drama, each of which has, in its own particular way, triumphantly justified itself by a brilliant history and many masterpieces. The drama of our own time, while it must not be passed over in silence, may be much more briefly dismissed.
The product of an age of electicism and experiment in every department of art, the modern drama exhibits so many varieties that no summary statement of its characteristics would be possible. Keeping to generalities, however, we may say that, in the sense that it is quite indifferent to all academic rules and conventions, it carries on the romantic tradition. It habitually assumes an absolute freedom as to time and place of action ; it consults its own convenience only in the use of subplots and subordinate interests ; it has no scruple about the combination of the serious and the comic ; action and narrative are employed in it without reference to precepts, and simply as the exigencies of the plot may dictate. Little trace, moreover, is anywhere to be found in it of the aristocratic limitations of older tragedy. Here even the prepossessions of the romantic stage have been abandoned, and under the co-operating influences of the democratic spirit and of realism the Domestic Drama, the avowed aim of which is to hold the mirror up to ordinary human life, has definitely established itself as the most completely representative form of modern dramatic art—the form in which, with few exceptions, its most noteworthy work has been done.
Yet while always holding themselves at liberty to pursue their own course without regard to the theories of the older schools, it happens that some of our greatest recent dramatists tend in various ways towards the principles of the neo-classic play. This is pre-eminently the case with the chief masters of the Domestic Drama, in which mere convention of every kind is most openly defied. Referring to the three unities, a writer on practical stage technique has said: “At the present time the terms no longer have any meaning, save in the historical sense, when speaking of plays written under the influence of the old rules of criticism. No one pretends to regard them at the present day.” So far as any conscious recognition of these rules simply as rules is concerned, this is undoubtedly true. But if the unities are not obeyed as a matter of theory, they are often more or less closely observed in practice. If we turn, for example, to the work of the most skilful as well as most powerful of modern playwrights, Ibsen, we occasionally find a concentration of treatment even in excess of that required by the most rigorous upholders of the neo-classic view. The whole action of Ghosts, for instance passes in one room, and occupies only a few hours of a single day. In The Pillars of Society and Hedda Gabler the scene never changes; in John Gabriel Borkman, the correspondence of stage time with actual time is approximately complete. Such compactness and condensation are largely due to the nature of the dramatist’s themes, his controlling psychological purpose, and his whole conception of structure and effect. But we must also remember that throughout the modern drama in general the elaborate methods of stage-representation now in vogue have tended to make frequent changes of scene both difficult and costly, and thus through mere stress of practical necessity the extreme laxity of the old romantic play has been for the most part abandoned. In realistic drama the unities of time and place are now very commonly preserved within each act.
This leads us to touch upon one other feature in which Ibsen, and many modern playwrights whom we may roughly class as belonging to his school, often revert not only to neo-classic methods, but also to the principles of the pure Greek type of tragedy. Since it was entirely unchecked in respect of time and place, the romantic drama could represent the whole of a story, however long and intricate. Since it was severely limited in respect of time and place, Greek tragedy, on the other hand, was compelled to confine its action to the closing portions of its story, leaving all antecedent circumstances to be explained by dialogue and retrospective narrative. The difference becomes clear, if, for example, we compare Macbeth with Œdipus the King. In the one case, the action on the stage begins with the rise of the motive of ambition in Macbeth’s mind. In the other case, it begins only at the moment when the predictions of the oracle are about to be fulfilled. Thus a Greek tragedy may be regarded from the point of view of the matter which actually falls within the performance as equivalent to the denouement—to the fourth and fifth acts, or sometimes even to the fifth act only—of a romantic play. Ibsen’s work provides some striking examples of the same structural plan. The roots of his actions often run far down into the past ; but when the curtain rises on the first scene, we have already reached the beginning of the end, and the stage-representation is concerned only with the last term of a long series of events. Such is the case with Ghosts and Rosmersholm. In these plays, moreover, as in Œdipus the King, an immense amount of space is necessarily devoted to the elucidation of those antecedent circumstances which constitute the foundations of the tragedy which we are asked to witness. In dramas of this type, therefore, exposition often undergoes enormous expansion ; it continues through the action, and belongs indeed to its very substance.
Thus far we have dealt almost wholly with the technical aspects of the study of the drama. But since, like all other kinds of literature, the drama has also to be judged on the broad basis of its moral power and value, something must be added about it as the vehicle of a criticism or philosophy of life.
It is unnecessary to go again over the ground which we have already traversed in the closing section of our chapter on prose fiction; the moreso, as in our consideration of the novelist’s criticism of life the dramatist was specifically included. Everything that was then said about the importance of the ethical element in any work of fiction, whether in the narrative or in the dramatic form, and about the moral standards which have to be applied to it, may, therefore, be taken for granted without repetition. Our only concern now is with the way in which the drama interprets life.
Here we are brought back again to that fundamental distinction between the novel and the drama upon which we have more than once had to dwell at length. In theory, the drama is entirely objective; the novel permits the continual intrusion of the personality of the writer. Thus, as we have shown, the novelist may interpret life both indirectly by his exhibition of it, and directly by his comments upon it. The dramatist is supposedly limited to the former indirect method. “A novel,” says Henry James, “is, in the broadest definition, a personal impression of life.” The drama, on the contrary, may be regarded, from the strictly theoretical standpoint, as an impersonal representation of life. Hence we shall always find it far more difficult in the case of a drama than in the case of a novel to reduce the writer’s consciously given or unconsciously suggested philosophy to formal statement. The novelist, as I have said, often helps us greatly in this task by his own incidental interpretations. The whole burden of responsibility in reading his meaning, and making explicit what he gives only by implication, is, according to the commonly accepted view, tlirown by the dramatist on our shoulders.
It will be observed, however, that in speaking of the impersonality of the drama, I have done so with qualifications. I have said that in theory the drama is entirely objective, and that the dramatist is supposedly limited to the indirect method of interpretation. The drama is indeed the most completely objective form of literary art ; the novel combines the objective with the subjective. Dealing with the matter in a general way, therefore, we cannot well over-emphasise the importance of the fact that, unlike the novelist, the dramatist can never appear in proper person in his action. But it has still to be remembered that in practice he has often contrived a way of escape from the cramping restraints imposed upon him by the conditions under which he has to work. If he cannot appear in proper person in his action, he may nonetheless make his presence felt there in the person of some accredited representative.
Such an accredited representative may undoubtedly be recognised in the Chorus of many Greek tragedies, the significance of whose interpretative functions has already been pointed out. To accept the Chorus as an ‘ideal spectator’ is tantamount to regarding its utterances as having special authority as an expression of the thoughts and feelings which the poet would wish that his plot should arouse in ourselves. The Chorus in Greek tragedy, then, is often, though not necessarily or always, the delegate of the poet, and the mouthpiece of his philosophy of life. On the modern stage this mediating element is no longer at the dramatist’s disposal. But that its place is sometimes, and to a certain extent, taken by one of the characters in a drama is shown by the fact, already noted, that such a character is occasionally picked out by the commentators and described as the “Chorus” of the action. We have previously spoken of Enobarbus as a kind of chorus in Antony and Cleopatra, because in his detachment from the queen he helps to put us at the right point of view in regard to her, while by his comments at critical moments in the action he brings out the meaning of Antony’s degeneration under the spell of the “serpent of old Nile.” I have elsewhere said of Berowne, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, that though it is uncritical to see in him “either a deliberate study in self-portraiture or an unconscious reflection of the personality of the author,” he “does stand a little apart from the other characters,” is “nearer to Shakespeare than any of them,” and is in fact from time to time “pushed forward as the designed interpreter of the dramatist’s own thought,” to whom is entrusted the business of under-scoring the moral. Even more distinctly is the Bastard the chorus in King John ; for though, like Berowne, he makes all his comments in his own proper character, there is no possibility of mistaking the significance of his soliloquy on “Commodity, the bias of the world,” or of that splendid outburst of fervid patriotism with which he closes the play, and in which indeed he strikes the keynote of all Shakespeare’s chronicle-dramas. In modern ‘thesis-plays”—plays in which the main purpose of the dramatist is to open up moral problems or expound specific opinions—we often find some one character whose principal function in the plot (whether or not he has also any active part in it) is clearly to move through it as a philosophic spectator, and to formulate its meaning on the writer’s behalf. So prominent has such an expositor become in this class of drama that French critics have adopted a special name for him ; they call him the ‘raisonneur.’ There are numerous examples of the raisonneur in the plays of the younger Dumas and other playwrights of the doctrinaire school. As, according to his own well-known declaration, Ibsen’s mission was to ask questions and not to answer them, the real expositor is rare in his work. But we have, I think, a case in point in the cynical Dr. Relling in that strangest and most puzzling of all his social dramas, The Wild Duck. “Life might yet be quite tolerable,” says the doctor, “if only we were lift in peace by these blessed duns who are continually knocking at the doors of us poor folks with their ‘ideal demand.’ ” Just as truly as the closing words of a Sophoclean chorus serve to strike ‘the final balance’ of the action, does this remark sum up the pessimistic moral which Ibsen designs his play to enforce.
It is scarcely necessary to point out that great care must always be exercised in the search for a chorus or expositor. Because a certain character in a play talks a good deal and expresses his opinions more freely and more explicitly than any other person on the stage, it is not hastily to be assumed that what he says carries with it the authority of the dramatist himself. His utterances must be rigorously tested by the whole spirit and tendency of the action, and only when it is evident that they harmonise with these and help in their elucidation are we warranted in regarding them as possessing a general in contradistinction to a merely dramatic value. Some commentators have chosen to discover in the melancholy Jaques in As You Like It the representative of Shakespeare and the interpreter of his view of life. But the entire plot is surely against this identification ; as Canon Beeching has well said, “We know that Shakespeare does not mean us to admire Jaques’s melancholy, because he makes all the healthy-minded people in the play, one after another, laugh at it,” In the same way, two distinguished German critics, Gervinus and Kreyssig, have found in the reflections of Friar Laurence the philosophic text of Romeo and Juliet, and basing their reading upon these, have turned a young poet’s superb glorification of youthful love into a sort of homily against unregulated passion. That the Friar’s moralisings do give us one point of view from which the tragedy may be regarded is undeniable : but that this point of view, while most appropriate to the speaker, in the least represents Shakespeare’s, the whole burden of the drama makes it impossible to believe.
The chorus or raisonneur is, however, an occasional figure only in the drama, and unless he is properly disguised by having a real part to play in the plot, criticism is justified in objecting to him entirely. We have therefore to ask whether, keeping more strictly within the bounds of impersonal art, and without having recourse to this device of direct representation, the dramatist may not still find an opportunity of conveying to the audience his own thoughts and feelings. The answer is that he may do this through the utterances of his various characters, who, while never ceasing to speak in accordance with their personalities and situations, may nonetheless be utilised by him as exponents of his ideas about men and things.
Here we have to be on our guard against what Prof. Moulton has called “the Fallacy of Quotations.”1 This fallacy is familiar to us all through the typical case of our own greatest dramatist, from whose plays maxims and judgments are continually cited as illustrations of what “Shakespeare says,” without regard to the fact that every one of these passages was spoken in character, and must therefore be primarily accepted only at its dramatic value as an expression of the mind of the speaker. No mere miscellaneous collection of quotations or ‘beauties’ will serve to throw the slightest light for us upon the essential principles of Shakespeare’s own thought ; and Prof. Moulton does well to warn us against any attempt to penetrate into these principles by the wholly uncritical method of taking even the wisest and most pregnant sayings out of their context and referring them directly to the dramatist himself. But he is surely guilty of serious exaggeration when he writes: “Dramatic differs from other literature in this, that quotations from a play can never reveal either the mind of the author or the spirit of the drama…For every word in a play some imaginary speaker, and only he, is responsible ; and thus in dramatic literature no amount of quotations can give us the mind of the poet or the meaning of the poem.” I do not question that this is a perfectly correct statement of the abstract theory of the drama—of its ideal objectivity. But I contend that, as the above remarks on the chorus and raisonneur have shown, this abstract ideal is not always realised in practice, and that it was not always realised even by Shakespeare. Prof. Moulton’s protest against the use of quotations in the interpretation of Shakespeare’s thought must, therefore, be taken with much modification. Can we doubt that the dramatist does sometimes, wittingly or unwittingly, drop the mask, and give utterance to sentiments for which he, and not his imaginary character and spokesman, is responsible ?—that, to take only one outstanding example, it is Shakespeare and not Hamlet who unpacks his heart in musings over “the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,” who discourses on the drunkenness of his fellow-countrymen, who lectures the players on the art of acting, and complains of the popularity of the boy-actors of the Queen’s Revels ? In all these passages, curiously inappropriate as they are to character and situation, we are listening, it is obvious, not to Hamlet but to Shakespeare : even so conservative a critic as Prof. Boas admits that they put “out of court all a priori theories of Shakespeare’s pure objectivity.” But Hamlet is an exceptional case. It is more important therefore to insist that even when he does not thus manifestly drop the mask—even when his characters speak entirely in accordance with their personalities and circumstances—Shakespeare again and again gives us through their lips a clear indication of his own ideas and judgments. But how are we to know when he does this? How are we to discriminate—as no mere miscellaneous collection of ‘beauties’ will enable us to discriminate—between the passages which are simply dramatic and those which, while still dramatic, may safely be read as representing Shakespeare’s own mind ? The answer is one which, I believe, every intelligent student who is not hampered by “a priori theories of Shakespeare’s pure objectivity” must have discovered for himself. “We can,” as Canon Beeching says, observe the sentiments put into the mouths of those characters with whom we are plainly meant to sympathise, and contrast them with those that are put into the mouths of other characters with whom we are meant not to sympathise. This, Mr. Beeching rightly adds, “is a consideration sufficiently obvious, but it is too often neglected, although it is of the utmost importance in the interpretation of the dramas.” Nor is this quite all. Mr. Beeching might also have remarked, though he has not done so, that even the characters with whom we are not meant to sympathise may very clearly at time be used to bear indirect and unwilling testimony to moral truths formerly defied by them, and expressed perhaps by characters with whom we are meant to sympathise. “The gods are just,” says Edgar, at the end of King Lear, “and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us.” And Edmund replies : “Thou hast spoken right, ’tis true ; the wheel has come full circle ; I am here.” Edmund’s villainy has brought about its own fitting nemesis, and even more than Edgar’s generalisation does this final admission on his part of the reality of the moral law which he has broken provide the dramatist’s commentary upon this part of his plot. In our attempt to interpret a dramatist’s criticism of life, therefore, guidance may properly be sought in the systematic examination and collation of the sentiments distributed among the characters. But the principle already laid down in connection with the chorus must again be emphasised. Every utterance of every character must, as I have put it, be rigorously tested by the whole spirit and tendency of the action.
This brings us to our last point. It is in the whole spirit and tendency of the action that a dramatist’s criticism of life is, after all, most fully embodied. In dealing with the ethical aspects of prose fiction I quoted with approval Prof. Moulton’s remark that “every play of Shakespeare,” critically examined, turns out to be “a microcosm, of which the author is the creator, and the plot is its providential scheme.” It can never be too often repeated that the world which the dramatist calls into being, with all its men and women, actions, passions, motives, struggles, successes, failures, is a world of his own creation—a world for which, when the last word about objectivity in art has been said, he alone is responsible. Now, because it is a world of his own creation, it must of necessity be the projection of his own personality ; of necessity it must reveal the quality and temper of his mind, the atmosphere through which he looked out upon things, the direction of his thought, the lines of his interests, the general meaning which life had for him. It is quite true that to express the spirit and tendency of his work in any abstract statement which will satisfy us as comprehensive and final, is often very difficult, and sometimes impossible. But by carefully analysing the total impression, intellectual and moral, which that work makes upon us, we shall gain a broad sense at least of the dramatist’s underlying philosophy of life.
Note to page 231.—In referring the genesis of Greek tragedy to the primitive Dionysiac dithyramb, 1 adopted the theory which was still in almost undisputed possession of the field at the time when the present pages were written. This theory has now been challenged by Prof. Ridgeway in his Origin of Tragedy, with Special Reference to the Greek Tragedians, published in 1910. Prof. Ridgeway maintains with great learning and skill that tragedy in fact arose, not out of the rustic worship of Dionysus, but out of ancestor-worship or the cult of the dead. In my judgment he has made out a very strong case for this view, and his book is one which every student of the Greek drama should read. At the same time, the substitution of the one theory for the other would make no difference to the general principles enunciated in the text. It is still conceded that Greek tragedy was choric in origin, and thus the statement is correct that “the chorus belonged to Greek tragedy because it was the germ from which it sprang.”