S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
As a perfect tragedy is the noblest production of human nature, so it is capable of giving the mind one of the most delightful and most improving entertainments. A virtuous man (says Seneca) struggling with misfortunes, is such a spectacle as gods might look upon with pleasure, and such a pleasure it is which one meets with in the representation of a well-written tragedy.
The modern tragedy excels that of Greece and Rome in the intricacy and disposition of the fable; but, what a Christian writer would be ashamed to own, falls infinitely short of it in the moral part of the performance.
Since I am upon this subject, I must observe that our English poets have succeeded much better in the style than in the sentiments of their tragedies. Their language is very often noble and sonorous, but the sense either very trifling, or very common. On the contrary, in the ancient tragedies, and indeed in those of Corneille and Racine, though the expressions are very great, it is the thought that bears them up and swells them.
The English writers of tragedy are possessed with a notion that when they represent a virtuous or innocent person in distress they ought not to leave him till they have delivered him out of his troubles, or made him triumph over his enemies. This error they have been led into by a ridiculous doctrine in modern criticism, that they are obliged to an equal distribution of rewards and punishments, and an impartial execution of poetical justice.
I have often thought our writers of tragedy have been very defective in this particular, and that they might have given great beauty to their works, by certain stops and pauses in the representation of such passions as it is not in the power of language to express.
To examine this point concerning the effect of tragedy in a proper manner, we must previously consider how we are affected by the feelings of our fellow-creatures in circumstances of real distress. I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others; for let the affection be what it will in appearance, if it does not make us shun such objects, if on the contrary it induces us to approach them, if it makes us dwell upon them, in this case I conceive we must have a delight or pleasure of some species or other in contemplating objects of this kind. Do we not read the authentic histories of scenes of this nature with as much pleasure as romances or poems, where the incidents are fictitious?
Choose a day on which to represent the most sublime and affecting tragedy we have; appoint the most favourite actors; spare no cost upon the scenes and decorations; unite the greatest efforts of poetry, painting, and music; and when you have collected your audience, just at the moment when their minds are erect with expectation, let it be reported that a state criminal of high rank is on the point of being executed in the adjoining square; in a moment the emptiness of the theatre would demonstrate the comparative weakness of the imitative arts, and proclaim the triumph of the real sympathy.
Tragedy must be something bigger than life, or it would not affect us. In nature the most violent passions are silent; in tragedy they must speak, and speak with dignity too. Hence the necessity of their being written in verse, and, unfortunately for the French, from the weakness of their language, in rhymes. And for the same reason, Cato, the Stoic, expiring at Utica, rhymes masculine and feminine at Paris, and fetches his last breath at London in most harmonious and correct blank verse.
Lord Chesterfield: Letters to his Son, Jan. 23, 1752.
In a tragedy, or epic poem, the hero of the piece must be advanced foremost to the view of the reader or spectator; he must outshine the rest of all the characters; he must appear the prince of them, like the sun in the Copernican system, encompassed with the less noble planets.
Tragedy fires the soul, elevates the heart, and is calculated to generate heroes. Considered under this point of view, perhaps France owes to Corneille a part of her great actions; and, gentlemen, had he lived in my time I would have made him a prince.
The name of tragedy ([Greek]) is most probably derived from the goat-like appearance of the satyrs, who sang or acted with mimetic gesticulations the old Bacchic songs, with Silenus, the constant companion of Dionysus, or Bacchus, for their leader. According to another opinion, the word tragedy was first coined from the goat that was the prize for it: this derivation, however, as well as another, connecting it with the goat offered on the altar of Bacchus, around which the chorus sang, is not equally supported either by the etymological principles of the language or the analogous instance of [Greek] (comedy), the revel song.