Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Romantic Drama
By August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767–1845)
From ‘Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature’: Translation of John Black

SO many things among men have been handed down from century to century and from nation to nation, and the human mind is in general so slow to invent, that originality in any department of mental exertion is everywhere a rare phenomenon. We are desirous of seeing the result of the efforts of inventive geniuses when, regardless of what in the same line has elsewhere been carried to a high degree of perfection, they set to work in good earnest to invent altogether for themselves; when they lay the foundation of the new edifice on uncovered ground, and draw all the preparations, all the building materials, from their own resources. We participate, in some measure, in the joy of success, when we see them advance rapidly from their first helplessness and need to a finished mastery in their art. The history of the Grecian theatre would afford us this cheering prospect could we witness its rudest beginnings, which were not preserved, for they were not committed to writing; but it is easy, when we compare together Æschylus and Sophocles, to form some idea of the preceding period. The Greeks neither inherited nor borrowed their dramatic art from any other people; it was original and native, and for that very reason was it able to produce a living and powerful effect. But it ended with the period when Greeks imitated Greeks; namely, when the Alexandrian poets began learnedly and critically to compose dramas after the model of the great tragic writers. The reverse of this was the case with the Romans: they received the form and substance of their dramas from the Greeks; they never attempted to act according to their own discretion, and to express their own way of thinking; and hence they occupy so insignificant a place in the history of dramatic art. Among the nations of modern Europe, the English and Spaniards alone (for the German stage is but forming), possess as yet a theatre entirely original and national, which, in its own peculiar shape, has arrived at maturity.  1
  Those critics who consider the authority of the ancients as models to be such, that in poetry, as in all the other arts, there can be no safety out of the pale of imitation, affirm, that as the nations in question have not followed this course, they have brought nothing but irregular works on the stage, which, though they may possess occasional passages of splendor and beauty, must yet, as a whole, be forever reprobated as barbarous, and wanting in form. We have already, in the introductory part of these Lectures, stated our sentiments generally on this way of thinking; but we must now examine the subject somewhat more closely.  2
  If the assertion be well founded, all that distinguishes the works of the greatest English and Spanish dramatists, a Shakespeare and a Calderón, must rank them far below the ancients; they could in no wise be of importance for theory, and would at most appear remarkable, on the assumption that the obstinacy of these nations in refusing to comply with the rules may have afforded a more ample field to the poets to display their native originality, though at the expense of art. But even this assumption, on a closer examination, appears extremely questionable. The poetic spirit requires to be limited, that it may move with a becoming liberty, within its proper precincts, as has been felt by all nations on the first invention of metre; it must act according to laws derivable from its own essence, otherwise its strength will evaporate in boundless vacuity.  3
  The works of genius cannot therefore be permitted to be without form; but of this there is no danger. However, that we may answer this objection of want of form, we must understand the exact meaning of the term form, since most critics, and more especially those who insist on a stiff regularity, interpret it merely in a mechanical, and not in an organical sense. Form is mechanical when, through external force, it is imparted to any material merely as an accidental addition without reference to its quality; as, for example, when we give a particular shape to a soft mass that it may retain the same after its induration. Organical form, again, is innate; it unfolds itself from within, and acquires its determination contemporaneously with the perfect development of the germ. We everywhere discover such forms in nature throughout the whole range of living powers, from the crystallization of salts and minerals to plants and flowers, and from these again to the human body. In the fine arts, as well as in the domain of nature,—the supreme artist,—all genuine forms are organical, that is, determined by the quality of the work. In a word, the form is nothing but a significant exterior, the speaking physiognomy of each thing, which, as long as it is not disfigured by any destructive accident, gives a true evidence of its hidden essence.  4
  Hence it is evident that the spirit of poetry, which, though imperishable, migrates, as it were, through different bodies, must, so often as it is newly born in the human race, mold to itself, out of the nutrimental substance of an altered age, a body of a different conformation. The forms vary with the direction taken by the poetical sense; and when we give to the new kinds of poetry the old names, and judge of them according to the ideas conveyed by these names, the application which we make of the authority of classical antiquity is altogether unjustifiable. No one should be tried before a tribunal to which he is not amenable. We may safely admit, that the most of the English and Spanish dramatic works are neither tragedies nor comedies in the sense of the ancients: they are romantic dramas. That the stage of a people who, in its foundation and formation, neither knew nor wished to know anything of foreign models, will possess many peculiarities; and not only deviate from, but even exhibit a striking contrast to, the theatres of other nations who had a common model for imitation before their eyes, is easily supposable, and we should only be astonished were it otherwise. But when in two nations, differing so widely as the English and Spanish, in physical, moral, political, and religious respects, the theatres (which, without being known to each other, arose about the same time) possess, along with external and internal diversities, the most striking features of affinity, the attention even of the most thoughtless cannot but be turned to this phenomenon; and the conjecture will naturally occur, that the same, or at least a kindred, principle must have prevailed in the development of both. This comparison, however, of the English and Spanish theatre, in their common contrast with every dramatic literature which has grown up out of an imitation of the ancients, has, so far as we know, never yet been attempted. Could we raise from the dead a countryman, contemporary, and intelligent admirer of Shakespeare, and another of Calderón, and introduce to their acquaintance the works of the poet to which in life they were strangers, they would both, without doubt, considering the subject rather from a national than a general point of view, enter with difficulty into the above idea, and have many objections to urge against it. But here a reconciling criticism must step in; and this, perhaps, may be best exercised by a German, who is free from the national peculiarities of either Englishmen or Spaniards, yet by inclination friendly to both, and prevented by no jealousy from acknowledging the greatness which has been earlier exhibited in other countries than in his own.  5
  The similarity of the English and Spanish theatres does not consist merely in the bold neglect of the Unities of Place and Time, and in the commixture of comic and tragic elements: that they were unwilling or unable to comply with the rules and with right reason, (in the meaning of certain critics these terms are equivalent), may be considered as an evidence of merely negative properties. The ground of the resemblance lies far deeper, in the inmost substance of the fictions, and in the essential relations, through which every deviation of form becomes a true requisite, which, together with its validity, has also its significance. What they have in common with each other is the spirit of the romantic poetry, giving utterance to itself in a dramatic shape. However, to explain ourselves with due precision, the Spanish theatre, in our opinion, down to its decline and fall in the commencement of the eighteenth century, is almost entirely romantic; the English is completely so in Shakespeare alone, its founder and greatest master: in later poets the romantic principle appears more or less degenerated, or is no longer perceivable, although the march of dramatic composition introduced by virtue of it has been, outwardly at least, pretty generally retained. The manner in which the different ways of thinking of the two nations, one a northern and the other a southern, have been expressed; the former endowed with a gloomy, the latter with a glowing imagination; the one nation possessed of a scrutinizing seriousness disposed to withdraw within themselves, the other impelled outwardly by the violence of passion; the mode in which all this has been accomplished will be most satisfactorily explained at the close of this section, when we come to institute a parallel between Shakespeare and Calderón, the only two poets who are entitled to be called great.  6
  Of the origin and essence of the romantic I treated in my first Lecture, and I shall here, therefore, merely briefly mention the subject. The ancient art and poetry rigorously separate things which are dissimilar; the romantic delights in indissoluble mixtures; all contrarieties: nature and art, poetry and prose, seriousness and mirth, recollection and anticipation, spirituality and sensuality, terrestrial and celestial, life and death, are by it blended together in the most intimate combination. As the oldest lawgivers delivered their mandatory instructions and prescriptions in measured melodies; as this is fabulously ascribed to Orpheus, the first softener of the yet untamed race of mortals; in like manner the whole of the ancient poetry and art is, as it were, a rhythmical nomos (law), an harmonious promulgation of the permanently established legislation of a world submitted to a beautiful order, and reflecting in itself the eternal images of things. Romantic poetry, on the other hand, is the expression of the secret attraction to a chaos which lies concealed in the very bosom of the ordered universe, and is perpetually striving after new and marvelous births; the life-giving spirit of primal love broods here anew on the face of the waters. The former is more simple, clear, and like to nature in the self-existent perfection of her separate works, the latter, notwithstanding its fragmentary appearance, approaches more to the secret of the universe. For Conception can only comprise each object separately, but nothing in truth can ever exist separately and by itself; Feeling perceives all in all at one and the same time.  7
  Respecting the two species of poetry with which we are here principally occupied, we compare the ancient Tragedy to a group in sculpture: the figures corresponding to the characters, and their grouping to the action; and to these two in both productions of art is the consideration exclusively directed, as being all that is properly exhibited. But the romantic drama must be viewed as a large picture, where not merely figure and motion are exhibited in larger, richer groups, but where even all that surrounds the figures must also be portrayed; where we see not merely the nearest objects, but are indulged with the prospect of a considerable distance; and all this under a magical light, which assists in giving to the impression the particular character desired.  8
  Such a picture must be bounded less perfectly and less distinctly, than the group; for it is like a fragment cut out of the optic scene of the world. However the painter, by the setting of his foreground, by throwing the whole of his light into the centre, and by other means of fixing the point of view, will learn that he must neither wander beyond the composition, not omit anything within it.  9
  In the representation of figure, Painting cannot compete with Sculpture, since the former can only exhibit it by a deception and from a single point of view; but, on the other hand, it communicates more life to its imitations, by colors which in a picture are made to imitate the lightest shades of mental expression in the countenance. The look, which can be given only very imperfectly by Sculpture, enables us to read much deeper in the mind, and to perceive its lightest movements. Its peculiar charm, in short, consists in this, that it enables us to see in bodily objects what is least corporeal, namely, light and air.  10
  The very same description of beauties are peculiar to the romantic drama. It does not (like the Old Tragedy) separate seriousness and the action, in a rigid manner, from among the whole ingredients of life; it embraces at once the whole of the checkered drama of life with all its circumstances; and while it seems only to represent subjects brought accidentally together, it satisfies the unconscious requisitions of fancy, buries us in reflections on the inexpressible signification of the objects which we view blended by order, nearness and distance, light and color, into one harmonious whole; and thus lends, as it were, a soul to the prospect before us.  11
  The change of time and of place (supposing its influence on the mind to be included in the picture; and that it comes to the aid of the theatrical perspective, with reference to what is indicated in the distance, or half-concealed by intervening objects); the contrast of sport and earnest (supposing that in degree and kind they bear a proportion to each other); finally, the mixture of the dialogical and the lyrical elements (by which the poet is enabled, more or less perfectly, to transform his personages into poetical beings): these, in my opinion, are not mere licenses, but true beauties in the romantic drama. In all these points, and in many others also, the English and Spanish works, which are pre-eminently worthy of this title of Romantic, fully resemble each other, however different they may be in other respects.  12
  Of the two we shall first notice the English theatre, because it arrived earlier at maturity than the Spanish. In both we must occupy ourselves almost exclusively with a single artist, with Shakespeare in the one and Calderón in the other; but not in the same order with each, for Shakespeare stands first and earliest among the English.
*        *        *        *        *
  In England, the greatest actors vie with each other in the impersonation of his characters; the printers in splendid editions of his works; and the painters in transferring his scenes to the canvas. Like Dante, Shakespeare has received the perhaps indispensable but still cumbersome honor of being treated like a classical author of antiquity. The oldest editions have been carefully collated, and where the readings seemed corrupt, many corrections have been suggested; and the whole literature of his age has been drawn forth from the oblivion to which it had been consigned, for the sole purpose of explaining the phrases, and illustrating the allusions of Shakespeare. Commentators have succeeded one another in such number, that their labors alone, with the critical controversies to which they have given rise, constitute of themselves no inconsiderable library. These labors deserve both our praise and gratitude; and more especially the historical investigations into the sources from which Shakespeare drew the materials of his plays, and also into the previous and contemporary state of the English stage, and other kindred subjects of inquiry.  14

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.