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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Example of Shakespeare
By François Guizot (1787–1874)
 
From ‘Shakespeare and his Times’

VOLTAIRE was the first person in France who spoke of Shakespeare’s genius; and although he spoke of him merely as a barbarian genius, the French public were of opinion that Voltaire had said too much in his favor. Indeed, they thought it nothing less than profanation to apply the words “genius” and “glory” to dramas which they considered as crude as they were coarse.  1
  At the present day, all controversy regarding Shakespeare’s genius and glory has come to an end. No one ventures any longer to dispute them; but a greater question has arisen,—namely, whether Shakespeare’s dramatic system is not far superior to that of Voltaire. This question I do not presume to decide. I merely say that it is now open for discussion. We have been led to it by the onward progress of ideas. I shall endeavor to point out the causes which have brought it about; but at present I insist merely upon the fact itself, and deduce from it one simple consequence, that literary criticism has changed its ground, and can no longer remain restricted to the limits within which it was formerly confined.  2
  Literature does not escape from the revolutions of the human mind; it is compelled to follow it in its course, to transport itself beneath the horizon under which it is conveyed, to gain elevation and extension with the ideas which occupy its notice, and to consider the questions which it discusses, under the new aspects and novel circumstances in which they are placed by the new state of thought and of society….  3
  When we embrace human destiny in all its aspects, and human nature in all the conditions of man upon earth, we enter into possession of an exhaustless treasure. It is the peculiar advantage of such a system that it escapes, by its extent, from the dominion of any particular genius. We may discover its principles in Shakespeare’s works; but he was not fully acquainted with them, nor did he always respect them. He should serve as an example, not as a model. Some men, even of superior talent, have attempted to write plays according to Shakespeare’s taste, without perceiving that they were deficient in one important qualification for the task; and that was to write as he did, to write them for our age just as Shakespeare’s plays were written for the age in which he lived. This is an enterprise the difficulties of which have hitherto, perhaps, been maturely considered by no one. We have seen how much art and effort were employed by Shakespeare to surmount those which are inherent in his system. They are still greater in our times, and would unveil themselves much more completely to the spirit of criticism which now accompanies the boldest essays of genius. It is not only with spectators of more fastidious taste and of more idle and inattentive imagination, that the poet would have to do who should venture to follow in Shakespeare’s footsteps. He would be called upon to give movement to personages embarrassed in much more complicated interests, preoccupied with much more various feelings, and subject to less simple habits of mind and to less decided tendencies. Neither science, nor reflection, nor the scruples of conscience, nor the uncertainties of thought frequently incumber Shakespeare’s heroes; doubt is of little use among them, and the violence of their passions speedily transfers their belief to the side of their desires, or sets their actions above their belief. Hamlet alone presents the confused spectacle of a mind formed by the enlightenment of society, in conflict with a position contrary to its laws; and he needs a supernatural apparition to determine him to act, and a fortuitous event to accomplish his project. If incessantly placed in an analogous position, the personages of a tragedy conceived at the present day according to the Romantic system would offer us the same picture of indecision. Ideas now crowd and intersect each other in the mind of man, duties multiply in his conscience and obstacles and bonds around his life. Instead of those electric brains, prompt to communicate the spark which they have received; instead of those ardent and simple-minded men, whose projects like Macbeth’s “will to hand,”—the world now presents to the poet minds like Hamlet’s, deep in the observation of those inward conflicts which our classical system has derived from a state of society more advanced than that of the time in which Shakespeare lived. So many feelings, interests, and ideas, the necessary consequences of modern civilization, might become even in their simplest form of expression a troublesome burden, which it would be difficult to carry through the rapid evolutions and bold advances of the Romantic system.  4
  We must however satisfy every demand; success itself requires it. The reason must be contented at the same time that the imagination is occupied. The progress of taste, of enlightenment, of society, and of mankind, must serve not to diminish or disturb our enjoyment, but to render them worthy of ourselves and capable of supplying the new wants which we have contracted. Advance without rule and art in the Romantic system, and you will produce melodramas calculated to excite a passing emotion in the multitude, but in the multitude alone, and for a few days; just as by dragging along without originality in the Classical system, you will satisfy only that cold literary class who are acquainted with nothing in nature which is more important than the interests of versification, or more imposing than the three unities. This is not the work of the poet who is called to power and destined for glory: he acts upon a grander scale, and can address the superior intellects as well as the general and simple faculties of all men. It is doubtless necessary that the crowd should throng to behold those dramatic works of which you desire to make a national spectacle; but do not hope to become national, if you do not unite in your festivities all those classes of persons and minds whose well-arranged hierarchy raises a nation to its loftiest dignity. Genius is bound to follow human nature in all its developments; its strength consists in finding within itself the means for constantly satisfying the whole of the public. The same task is now imposed upon government and upon poetry: both should exist for all, and suffice at once for the wants of the masses and for the requirements of the most exalted minds.  5
  Doubtless stopped in its course by these conditions, the full severity of which will only be revealed to the talent that can comply with them, dramatic art, even in England, where under the protection of Shakespeare it would have liberty to attempt anything, scarcely ventures at the present day even to try timidly to follow him. Meanwhile England, France, and the whole of Europe demand of the drama pleasures and emotions that can no longer be supplied by the inanimate representation of a world that has ceased to exist. The Classical system had its origin in the life of its time: that time has passed; its image subsists in brilliant colors in its works, but can no more be reproduced. Near the monuments of past ages, the monuments of another age are now beginning to arise. What will be their form? I cannot tell; but the ground upon which their foundations may rest is already perceptible. This ground is not the ground of Corneille and Racine, nor is it that of Shakespeare; it is our own; but Shakespeare’s system, as it appears to me, may furnish the plans according to which genius ought now to work. This system alone includes all those social conditions and all those general or diverse feelings, the simultaneous conjunction and activity of which constitute for us at the present day the spectacle of human things. Witnesses during thirty years of the greatest revolutions of society, we shall no longer willingly confine the movement of our mind within the narrow space of some family event, or the agitations of a purely individual passion. The nature and destiny of man have appeared to us under their most striking and their simplest aspect, in all their extent and in all their variableness. We require pictures in which this spectacle is reproduced, in which man is displayed in his completeness and excites our entire sympathy.  6
 
 
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