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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsLetters On England - LETTER XVIII - ON TRAGEDY
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Letters On England - LETTER XVIII - ON TRAGEDY Post by :jimn10 Category :Nonfictions Author :Voltaire Date :January 2011 Read :832

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Letters On England - 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 Lopez 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
superannuated senator plays, in his mistress's 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's 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 Caesar 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 no 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 of 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! 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die! to sleep!
To sleep; perchance to dream! O, 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 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 a l'instant
De la vie, a la mort, ou de l'etre au neant.
Dieux cruels, s'il en est, eclairez mon courage.
Faut-il vieillir courbe sous la main qui m'outrage,
Supporter, ou finir mon malheur et mon sort?
Qui suis je? Qui m'arrete! et qu'est-ce que la mort?
C'est la fin de nos maux, c'est mon unique asile
Apres 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 eternels est aussi-tot suivie.
O mort! moment fatal! affreuse eternite!
Tout coeur a ton seul nom se glace epouvante.
Eh! qui pourroit sans toi supporter cette vie,
De nos pretres 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 abattue,
A des amis ingrats qui detournent la vue?
La mort seroit trop douce en ces extremitez,
Mais le scrupule parle, et nous crie, arretez;
Il defend a nos mains cet heureux homicide
Et d'un heros guerrier, fait un Chretien 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 this 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 mortals insenses 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 voeux.
Demain vient, et nous laisse encore plus malheureux.
Quelle est l'erreur, helas! du soin qui nous devore,
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 his time the
drama is become more regular, the audience more difficult to be
pleased, and writers more correct and less bold. I have seen some
new pieces that 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.

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