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Mr. Hallam, keenly alive alike to the "meditative philosophy" of HAMLET, the passion of OTHELLO, and the pure poetry of fancy, strikes me as entering somewhat coldly, as a critic, into the sympathetic enjoyment of broad humour.
Perhaps such may be the reasons that caused these great critics to censure as improbable, and containing "no just picture of life," this delightful comedy, the defects of which, if such they are, pass unmarked by others, in the exhilarating effect of the whole, arising from the complete connection and interlacing of the ludicrous with the beautiful-of the impassioned sweetness of the poetry, with the lively rapidity of incident, and the fantastic originality of its revelling invention. It is this which may explain what some readers may think paradoxical or exaggerated-Coleridge's speaking of LEAR, OTHELLO, HENRY IV., and the TWELFTH NIGHT, as giving the highest proof of the author's dramatic talent."-(Remarks on Shakespeare as a Poet generally." Hazlitt adds his own to the general suffrage, and says "It is justly considered as one of the most delightful of Shakespeare's comedies."
Mrs. Jameson thus defends Viola and Olivia from the censures above quoted:
"Viola is engaged in the service of the Duke, whom she finds 'fancy sick' for the love of Olivia. We are left to infer, (for so it is hinted in the first scene,) that this duke-who, with his accomplishments and his personal attractions, his taste for music, his chivalrous tenderness, and his unrequited love, is really a very fascinating and poetical personage, though a little passionate and fantastic-had already made some impression on Viola's imagination; and when she comes to play the confidante, and to be loaded with favours and kindness in her assumed character, that she should be touched by a passion made up of pity, admiration, gratitude, and tenderness, does not, I think, in any way detract from the genuine sweetness and delicacy of her character,for she never told her love.'
"Now all this may not present a very just picture of life, and it may also fail to impart any moral lesson for the especial profit of young ladies; but is it not in truth and in nature? Did it ever fail to charm or to interest, to seize on the coldest fancy, to touch the most insensible heart?
"Viola, then, is the chosen favourite of the enamoured Duke, and becomes his messenger to Olivia, and the interpreter of his sufferings to that inaccessible beauty. In her character of a youthful page, she attracts the favour of Olivia, and excites the jealousy of her lord. The situation is critical and delicate; but how exquisitely is the character of Viola fitted to her part, carrying her through the ordeal with all the inward and spiritual grace of modesty! What beautiful propriety in the distinction drawn between Rosalind and Viola! The wild sweetness, the frolic humour, which sports free and unblamed amid the shades of Ardennes, would ill become Viola, whose playfulness is assumed as part of her disguise as a court-page, and is guarded by the strictest delicacy.
"The feminine cowardice of Viola, which will not allow her even to affect a courage becoming her attireher horror at the idea of drawing a sword, is very natural and characteristic; and produces a most humorous effect, even at the very moment it charms and interests us. "Contrasted with the deep, silent, patient love of Viola for the Duke, we have the lady-like wilfulness of Olivia; and her sudden passion, or rather fancy, for the disguised page, takes so beautiful a colouring of poetry and sentiment, that we do not think her forward. Olivia is like a princess of romance, and has all the privileges of one: she is, like Portia, high-born and highbred, mistress over her servants; but not like Portia 'queen o'er herself.' She has never in her life been opposed; the first contradiction, therefore, rouses all the woman in her, and turns a caprice into a headlong passion.
"The distance of rank which separates the countess from the real page-the real sex of Viola-the dignified elegance of Olivia's deportment, except where passion
gets the better of her pride-her consistent coldness towards the Duke-the description of that 'smooth, dis creet, and stable bearing' with which she rules her household-her generous care for her steward Malvolio, in the midst of her own distress,-all these circumstances raise Olivia in our fancy, and render her caprice for the page a source of amusement and interest; not a subject of reproach. TWELFTH NIGHT is a genuine comedy-a perpetual spring of the gayest and the sweetest fancies. In artificial society, men and women are divided into castes and classes: and it is rarely that extremes in character or manners can approximate. To blend into one harmonious picture the utmost grace and refinement of sentiment, and the broadest effects of humour-the most poignant wit and the most indulgent benignity;-in short, to bring before us, in the same scene, Viola and Olivia, with Malvolio and Sir Toby, belonged only to Nature and to Shakespeare."
Mr. Hazlitt thus felicitously characterizes its poetic beauties:
"We have a friendship for Sir Toby; we patronize Sir Andrew; we have an understanding with the Clown; a sneaking kindness for Maria and her rogueries; we feel a regard for Malvolio, and sympathy with his gravity, his smiles, his cross-garters, his yellow stockings, and his imprisonment in the stocks. But there is something that excites in us a stronger feeling than all this-it is Viola's confession of her love.
'Shakespeare alone could describe the effect of his own poetry:
O! it came o'er my ear like the sweet south,
What we so much admire here is not the image of Patience on a monument, which has been so generally quoted, but the lines before and after it. They give a very echo to the seat where love is throned.' How long ago it is since we first learned to repeat them! and still they vibrate on the heart like the sounds which the passing wind draws from the trembling strings of a harp left on some desert shore!
"There are other passages of not less impassioned sweetness. Such is Olivia's address to Sebastian, whom she supposed to have already deceived her in a promise of marriage:
Plight me the full assurance of your faith;
"After reading other parts of this play, and particularly the garden-scene, where Malvolio picks up the letter, if we were to say that Shakespeare's genius for comedy was less than his genius for tragedy, it would perhaps only prove that our own taste in such matters is more saturnine than mercurial."
To conclude, Thomas Campbell, who, as our readers have seen, had found not a little to censure in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, which Mr. Hallam places so far above the TWELFTH NIGHT, after analyzing the plot of the latter, concludes thus:
"This is a dry abbreviation of the story; but who can abridge Shakespeare's stories, or tell them in any other language than his own? The delicacy with which a modest maiden makes love in male disguise, and the pathos with which she describes her imaginary but too real self-when 'concealment, like a worm i' the bud, fed on her damask cheek,'-and the sudden growth of Orsino's attachment to her, on the discovery of her sex, and on the recalling of her words from his memory to his understanding, form beauties in this comedy which no touch of human revision could improve. The comic and the grave and tender were never more finely amalgamated than here. The characters play booty, as it were; they are in collusion to aid each other, though seemingly hostile. The character of Viola is so sweetly peculiar that I have never seen justice done to it on the stage. Mrs. Siddons was too tragic for it, and Mrs. Jordan too comic."
The critics who are precise upon points of dramatic geography and of historic costume, in its larger sense of manners, customs, names, etc., as well as dress, are much at a loss to settle the questions of this sort arising in this play. The "Pictorial" editor admits the difficulties, and proposes a very ingenious solution of some of them :
"The scene is laid in Illyria, while the names of the dramatis persone are a mixture of Spanish, Italian, and English. The best mode of reconciling the discrepancies arising from so many conflicting circumstances appears to us to be the assumption, first, that Duke or Count Orsino (for he is indifferently so entitled in the play) is a Venetian governor of that portion of Dalmatia which was all of the ancient Illyria remaining under the dominion of the republic at the commencement of the seventeenth century, and that his attendants, Valentine, Curio, etc., as well as Olivia, Malvolio, and Maria, are also Venetians; and, secondly, that Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Ague-cheek are English residents-the former a maternal uncle to Olivia; her father, a Venetian count, having married Sir Toby's sister. If this be allowed, and there is nothing that we can perceive in the play to prevent it, there is no impropriety in dressing the above-named characters in the Venetian and English costume of Shakespeare's own time, and the two sea-captains and Sebastian in the very picturesque habits of Chimariot, Illyrian, and dark Suliote.""
Ingenious as this is, it does not carry with it much likelihood of such an explanation having ever been in the Poet's mind, and is besides a needless refinement. The supposed English personages are clearly meant as
natives of Illyria-Italians in race and tongue, whose characteristic names, in their own tongue, the Poet has translated into English for the sake of his audience. Sir Toby might have been the Cavaliere Rutto, but the English audience would then have lost the significance of that name; which the author, therefore, puts in plain English, just as some of Cervantes's translators have turned his characteristic Spanish compound names into their own vernacular. Illyria may well be the Ragusan part of the Illyria of ancient history and middle-age romance, as that was ruled by a noble Italian aristocracy. But it is to be presumed that the Poet had no intention of defining his locality any further than to throw the scene far away from common-place and home associations, to some place on the romantic and poetic Adriatic, such as would harmonize with the romantic incidents and poetic thoughts of his nobler personages; while, as to the rest of his creations, poor human nature is so much alike everywhere and at all times, in its follies and vices, that his coxcombs, fools, and frolickers would be as much at home on the shores of the Adriatic as on the banks of the Thames.
The dramatic chronology is marked as much as the locality, and no more. Its age is not of classical or barbarous, or even legendary manners. They belong to the period of the existence of the independent Italian states, and of the manners of Europe which were modern in the author's day, without being marked as contemporary-such as belonged generally to the two or three preceding centuries; thus affording ample latitude for the romantic, without imposing any inconvenient restraint on humorous and satirical delineation.