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François Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694–1778). Letters on the English.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Letter XVIII—On Tragedy

THE ENGLISH as well as the Spaniards were possessed of theatres at a time when the French had no more than moving, itinerant stages. Shakspeare, who was considered as the Corneille of the first-mentioned nation, was pretty nearly contemporary with Lope de Vega, and he created, as it were, the English theatre. Shakspeare boasted a strong fruitful genius. He was natural and sublime, but had not so much as a single spark of good taste, or knew one rule of the drama. I will now hazard a random, but, at the same time, true reflection, which is, that the great merit of this dramatic poet has been the ruin of the English stage. There are such beautiful, such noble, such dreadful scenes in this writer’s monstrous farces, to which the name of tragedy is given, that they have always been exhibited with great success. Time, which alone gives reputation to writers, at last makes their very faults venerable. Most of the whimsical gigantic images of this poet, have, through length of time (it being a hundred and fifty years since they were first drawn) acquired a right of passing for sublime. Most of the modern dramatic writers have copied him: but the touches and descriptions which are applauded in Shakspeare. are hissed at in these writers; and you will easily believe that the veneration in which this author is held, increases in proportion to the contempt which is shown to the moderns. Dramatic writers don’t consider that they should not imitate him; and the ill-success of Shakspeare’s imitators produces no other effect, than to make him be considered as inimitable. You remember that in the tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice, a most tender piece, a man strangles his wife on the stage; and that the poor woman, whilst she is strangling, cries aloud that she dies very unjustly. You know that in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, two grave-diggers make a grave, and are all the time drinking, singing ballads, and making humorous reflections (natural indeed enough to persons of their profession) on the several skulls they throw up with their spades; but a circumstance which will surprise you is, that this ridiculous incident has been imitated. In the reign of King Charles II., which was that of politeness, and the Golden Age of the liberal arts; Otway, in his Venice Preserved, introduces Antonio the senator, and Naki, his courtesan, in the midst of the horrors of the Marquis of Bedemar’s conspiracy. Antonio, the super-annuated senator plays, in his mistress’ presence, all the apish tricks of a lewd, impotent debauchee, who is quite frantic and out of his senses. He mimics a bull and a dog, and bites his mistress’ legs, who kicks and whips him. However, the players have struck these buffooneries (which indeed were calculated merely for the dregs of the people) out of Otway’s tragedy; but they have still left in Shakspeare’s Julius Cæsar the jokes of the Roman shoemakers and cobblers, who are introduced in the same scene with Brutus and Cassius. You will undoubtedly complain, that those who have hitherto discoursed with you on the English stage, and especially on the celebrated Shakspeare, have taken notice only of his errors; and that on one has translated any of those strong, those forcible passages which atone for all his faults. But to this I will answer, that nothing is easier than to exhibit in prose all the silly impertinences which a poet may have thrown out; but that it is a very difficult task to translate his fine verses. All your junior academical sophs, who set up for censors of the eminent writers, compile whole volumes; but methinks two pages which display some of the beauties of great geniuses, are of infinitely more value than all the idle rhapsodies of those commentators; and I will join in opinion with all persons of good taste in declaring, that greater advantage may be reaped from a dozen verses of Homer or Virgil, than from all the critiques put together which have been made on those two great poets.

I have ventured to translate some passages of the most celebrated English poets, and shall now give you one from Shakspeare. Pardon the blemishes of the translation for the sake of the original; and remember always that when you see a version, you see merely a faint print of a beautiful picture. I have made choice of part of the celebrated soliloquy in Hamlet, which you may remember is as follows:—

  • “To be, or not to be? that is the question!
  • Whether ’t is nobler in the mind to suffer
  • The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
  • Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
  • And by opposing, end them? To die! to sleep!
  • No more! and by a sleep to say we end
  • The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
  • That flesh is heir to! ’T is a consummation
  • Devoutly to be wished. To die! to sleep!
  • To sleep; perchance to dream! Ay, there’s the rub;
  • For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come
  • When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
  • Must give us pause. There ’s the respect
  • That makes a calamity of so long life:
  • For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
  • The oppressor’s wrong, the poor man’s contumely,
  • The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
  • The insolence of office, and the spurns
  • That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
  • When he himself might his quietus make
  • With a bare bodkin. Who would fardels bear
  • To groan and sweat under a weary life,
  • But that the dread of something after death,
  • The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
  • No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
  • And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
  • Than fly to others that we know not of?
  • Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
  • And thus the native hue of resolution
  • Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought:
  • And enterprises of great weight and moment
  • With this regard their currents turn awry,
  • And lose the name of action—”
  • My version of it runs thus:—
  • “Demeure, il faut choisir et passer à l’instant
  • De la vie à la mort, ou de l’être au neant.
  • Dieux cruels, s’il en est, éclairez mon courage.
  • Faut-il vieillir courbé sous la main qui m’outrage,
  • Supporter, ou finir mon malheur et mon sort?
  • Qui suis je? Qui m’arrête! et qu’est-ce que la mort?
  • C’est la fin de nos maux, c’est mon unique asile
  • Après de longs transports, c’est un sommeil tranquile.
  • On s’endort, et tout meurt, mais un affreux reveil
  • Doit succeder peut etre aux douceurs du sommeil!
  • On nous menace, on dit que cette courte vie,
  • De tourmens éternels est aussi-tôt suivie.
  • O mort! moment fatal! affreuse eternité!
  • Tout cœur à ton seul nom se glace épouvanté.
  • Eh! qui pourroit sans toi supporter cette vie,
  • De nos prêtres menteurs benir l’hypocrisie;
  • D’une indigne maitresse encenser les erreurs,
  • Ramper sous un ministre, adorer ses hauteurs;
  • Et montrer les langueurs de son ame abattüe,
  • A des amis ingrats qui detournent la vüe?
  • La mort seroit trop douce en ces extrémitez,
  • Mais le scrupule parle, et nous crie, arrêtez;
  • Il defend à nos mains cet heureux homicide
  • Et d’un heros guerrier, fait un Chrétien timide,” &c.
  • Do not imagine that I have translated Shakspeare in a servile manner. Woe to the writer who gives a literal version; who by rendering every word of his original, by that very means enervates the sense, and extinguishes all the fire of it. It is on such an occasion one may justly affirm, that the letter kills, but the Spirit quickens.

    Here follows another passage copied from a celebrated tragic writer among the English. It is Dryden, a poet in the reign of Charles II.—a writer whose genius was too exuberant, and not accompanied with judgment enough. Had he written only a tenth part of the works he left behind him, his character would have been conspicuous in every part; but his great fault is his having endeavoured to be universal.

    The passage in question is as follows:—

  • “When I consider life, ’t is all a cheat,
  • Yet fooled by hope, men favour the deceit;
  • Trust on and think, to-morrow will repay;
  • To-morrow’s falser than the former day;
  • Lies more; and whilst it says we shall be blest
  • With some new joy, cuts off what we possessed;
  • Strange cozenage! none would live past years again,
  • Yet all hope pleasure in what yet remain,
  • And from the dregs of life think to receive
  • What the first sprightly running could not give.
  • I’m tired with waiting for his chymic gold,
  • Which fools us young, and beggars us when old.”
  • I shall now give you my translation:—

  • “De desseins en regrets et d’erreurs en desirs
  • Les mortels insensés promenent leur folie.
  • Dans des malheurs presents, dans l’espoir des plaisirs
  • Nous ne vivons jamais, nous attendons la vie.
  • Demain, demain, dit-on, va combler tous nos vœus.
  • Demain vient, et nous laisse encore plus malheureux.
  • Quelle est l’erreur, helas! du soin qui nous dévore,
  • Nul de nous ne voudroit recommencer son cours.
  • De nos premiers momens nous maudissons l’aurore,
  • Et de la nuit qui vient nous attendons encore,
  • Ce qu’ont en vain promis les plus beaux de nos jours,” &c.
  • It is in these detached passages that the English have hitherto excelled. Their dramatic pieces, most of which are barbarous and without decorum, order, or verisimilitude, dart such resplendent flashes through this gleam, as amaze and astonish. The style is too much inflated, too unnatural, too closely copied from the Hebrew writers, who abound so much with the Asiatic fustian. But then it must be also confessed that the stilts of the figurative style, on which the English tongue is lifted up, raises the genius at the same time very far aloft, though with an irregular pace. The first English writer who composed a regular tragedy, and infused a spirit of elegance through every part of it, was the illustrious Mr. Addison. His “Cato” is a masterpiece, both with regard to the diction and to the beauty and harmony of the numbers. The character of Cato is, in my opinion, vastly superior to that of Cornelia in the “Pompey” of Corneille, for Cato is great without anything like fustian, and Cornelia, who besides is not a necessary character, tends sometimes to bombast. Mr. Addison’s Cato appears to me the greatest character that was ever brought upon any stage, but then the rest of them do not correspond to the dignity of it, and this dramatic piece, so excellently well writ, is disfigured by a dull love plot, which spreads a certain languor over the whole, that quite murders it.

    The custom of introducing love at random and at any rate in the drama passed from Paris to London about 1660, with our ribbons and our perruques. The ladies who adorn the theatrical circle there, in like manner as in this city will suffer love only to be the theme of every conversation. The judicious Mr. Addison had the effeminate complaisance to soften the severity of his dramatic character, so as to adapt it to the manners of the age, and, from an endeavour to please, quite ruined a masterpiece in its kind. Since is time the drama is become more regular, the audience more difficult to be leased, and writers more correct and less bold. I have seen some new pieces hat were written with great regularity, but which, at the same time, were very flat and insipid. One would think that the English had been hitherto formed to produce irregular beauties only. The shining monsters of Shakspeare give infinite more delight than the judicious images of the moderns. Hitherto the poetical genius of the English resembles a tufted tree planted by the hand of Nature, that throws out a thousand branches at random, and spreads unequally, but with great vigour. It dies if you attempt to force its nature, and to lop and dress it in the same manner as the trees of the Garden of Marli.