Shakespeare Et l'Antiquité

IT is a vast subject that Mr. Paul Stapfer has chosen, and one that has already been discussed piecemeal by a great many writers, yet it is left practically inexhaustible. What can be more inspiring for a writer of literary criticism than the necessity of treating that form of expression which has been chosen by the greatest of writers, ancient and modern, and of comparing the methods of the most eminent of these authors ? Stapfer is admirably fitted for undertaking this task, for his previous work has shown the considerable extent of his acquirements and the catholicity of his taste. His volume on Sterne is doubtless the best book on that author that has been written in any language; and his two volumes of general literary criticism, Causeries Guernesiaises and Causeries Parisiennes, are full of acute and wise remarks. Here he tries a longer flight. In the first volume of Shakespeare et l’Antiquité 1 he throws light on many sides of the English poet; but it is with the second, in which he makes a comparison between the Greek tragedians and Shakespeare, that we have to do at present. It stands by itself as a separate division of the subject, and so may be treated without reference to the other volume.

In handling a subject like this, the obvious danger is that the writer will exaggerate the importance of such bits of resemblance as he may find, and that he will detect points of likeness that exist only in his imagination; in short, that he will be run away with by his hobby. Stapler is not guilty of this mistake ; he has no theory to prove; he merely studies the subject, and takes the reader with him while he examines the evidence, and it would be hard to find one who combines more agreeably the qualities of guide and companion. A subject of this kind demands that the writer should above all avoid anything like dogmatism ; the process of finding analogies and points of difference can have no more important object than that of enabling the reader better to understand and enjoy both the ancient tragedians and Shakespeare. Even if we differ from our teacher’s views on any one point, this difference of opinion is a healthy thing, for it forces us to fix our attention upon matters that we might otherwise pass by. In this way Stapfer’s book is very suggestive. It is not necessary for us forever to combine Lady Macbeth and Clytemnestra in one category, or to keep them wholly separate ; the main thing is that we do not neglect our opportunity to observe and study the method of the poets who have immortalized those characters.

At the beginning of his study Stapfer points out that the difference between Euripides and his two predecessors is apparently as great as that between Shakespeare and Euripides, — if indeed it be not greater. Euripides, that is to say, founded the romantic drama in Greece ; and whereas Æschylus and Sophocles in their plays gave a religious representation of heroic and ideal actions, their successor substituted a picture of human life. Menander followed the same path, in which he was imitated by Plautus and Terence. “ One quality,” he says, “ especially distinguishes the tragedies of Sophocles from those of Euripides, and that is the severe plastic beauty of the characters in the writings of the first-named, and the very general nature of the motives that inspire their actions. . . . The state, the family, and especially religion, are the grand actors of the ancient drama; the individual, as such, is lost under the greatness of his part. Antigone, for instance, is an admirable figure ; admiration is so truly the feeling she inspires that no other epithet is needed to characterize her. To say that she is touching would be less precise ; not that slie fails to move our feelings when she bids farewell to life, but in the first place, and above everything, she commands our admiration by her nobility, by her pride, — I was going to say, her severity. This is because Sophocles did not want to give ns a pathetic representation of reality; as a painter of the ideal, he put before us the sublime image of a young girl wholly absorbed in the accomplishment of a religious duty, firm as a rock in her resolution, and inaccessible to anything that could change her. She has no marked individual characteristics; all her qualities are large and general. Antigone might be called ‘ piety towards the dead ’ or ‘ fraternal love.’ There are no villains in the plays of Sophocles, if under that title we include beings affected by motives of base egotism who choose any means for the accomplishment of their ends. Creon does not persecute Antigone for the pleasure of doing ill ; he represents the state, the severe laws of which forbid giving burial to the enemies of the country. . . . The passion of the ancient drama is always identified with some sacred duty or interest.”

To this lucid account of the classic play he appends a description of the modern tragedy, in which, as in Hamlet, for example, the conflict lies in the mind of the hero. This change we see in the work of Euripides. Æschylus and Sophocles had represented Orestes as readily obeying the command of Apollo, while in Euripides we find him suspecting the oracle and torn by conflicting doubts. For this reason Stapfer calls the latest of the three great tragedians the father of the romanticism of antiquity. With the Renaissance came a great wave of admiration for the ancient plays, which begot an immense number of imitations, especially in French and Italian literature, while Shakespeare escaped this tendency. Elays of this sort Stapfer calls neo-classic. Shakespeare may be taken as, of course, easily the greatest of the romantic writers, and in the body of the book Stapfer points out some of the resemblances between him and the Greeks.

Many of these points of resemblance are merely external, and more curious than instructive. Some had already been pointed out by Mr. J. R. Lowell, in his Shakespeare Once More,2 and they are certainly worth noticing. Besides giving many examples of possibly conscious imitation — for Mr. Lowell asks if it is at all unlikely that Shakespeare got hold of some Latin translation of the Greek tragedians, and with such poor wits as he had spelled out their plays — Stapfer goes on to more serious analogies. In this part of his book he makes, naturally, many generalizations ; but while he does this, be bears in mind the fact that generalizations express only what is generally true. The reader will perhaps permit the brief condensation of a few of Stapfer’s remarks, which may present, though in compressed form, some of his suggestions, and can hardly fail to show how acute a thinker he is and how fairminded an observer.

Stapfer points out Shakespeare’s impersonality, which is so much more marked than that of Calderon, Schiller, Goethe, Corneille, and Racine. “ He is truly antique in this, and he is as objective, as impersonal, not only as Sophocles, a man of cultivation, but as Homer, poëte naïf. Then, too, he has the moral healthiness, the serenity, that distinguishes the ancients. He knows nothing of the melancholy which is the bane of our age. He began his career with a poem that was openly sensual and pagan, —still, Stapfer should not throw too much weight on this, for Shakespeare only as truly followed a fashion of his day as does any little poet of this year who turns off sonnets: think for a moment of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander; Marston’s Pygmalion; the translations of Ovid, etc., etc. He represented every human emotion, every form of good and evil, of crime and virtue, happiness and misfortune ; sometimes lettiug the end of the plays satisfy our feeling of justice, at others, leaving us to look for compensation only beyond the grave ; and with all this he simply holds the mirror up to nature, without giving us any definite information about his own feelings.

This is all familiar to readers of Shakespeare, though it can well endure repetition; but illustrated as it is by Stapfer, by comparisons from other modern poets, and corrected by examples of the melancholy of the ancients, we find in it the best work of the critic, which is not condemning the faulty or giving rewards to the good, but simply discussing, with all the light possible, what is best in literature. In doing this Stapfer acknowledges the great delicacy of literary truth, the difficulty of making absolute statements which may not be successfully contradicted within five minutes ; and is careful not to insist upon this or that fact, so much as to look on all sides of what is one of the most interesting questions for students of letters. In speaking of Shakespeare’s impersonality, for instance, Stapfer opens wide discussions. The mere blank statement is trite enough ; but the way in which it is exemplified by showing the great poet’s truth to nature, and his indifference to those questions of temporary interest that make up so much of our life, this is something that Stapfer has done with great skill. Many people have written to show that Shakespeare always introduced exact justice into his tragedies, while others have proved that he did nothing of the sort, and that this was a strange neglect of an obvious duty. Stapfer has no parti pris to defend ; he is there to examine the evidence, not to arrange it, and he sets the matter very simply before the reader, who cannot help seeing the presumptuousness of trying to make Shakespeare over again. He lets the various advocates express their opinions, and with liberal quotations.

The full analyses that Stapfer gives of some of the plays are interesting. It is curious to see, once more, how poetical the good French prose translations of poetry can be, and on almost every page we find examples. Cymbeline is the subject of a long chapter, and Macbeth and Hamlet are also discussed at considerable length, and the reader cannot do better than compare what Stapfer has to say about Hamlet with Mr. Lowell’s remarks in the essay mentioned above. What the French author gives us in addition is a very suggestive comparison between Hamlet and Orestes, which serves to illustrate very clearly the various points of contrast and resemblance that are to be observed in the works of the ancient tragedians and of Shakespeare. It is this comparative study of literature that cannot fail to benefit students. Instead of trusting to remembrance of what we read last year, we are enabled to observe the various objects of study presented before us at the same time, and when we have so intelligent a commentator as Stapfer, literature appears in its true light. His method is delightful; it consists in the absence of dogmatism, the study of the best authorities, and incessant illustration by means of pertinent quotations. The reader is nowhere buried under a load of authorities; he is aided in every way to form his own opinion, and to make that opinion a wise one.

In the last half of the book are several chapters devoted to Molière, in which Stapfer defends that great writer from some of the condemnation that has been poured upon him by foreign — principally German — critics. He does not maintain that Moliere is in any way a rival of Shakespeare, but he does assert, and demonstrate, that a great deal of nonsense has been talked and written about the wonderful writer of comedies, He does this without adding to the amount, and in the course of the discussion he makes a most admirable statement about the proper way of forming opinions concerning matters of taste. In showing the futility of some of the Teutonic methods of foi'ining a priori notions of what comedies are or should be, the questions naturally arise : What sure ground have we in matters of this sort ? How can any one tell that anything is really good in literature ? What lines must we go by ?

This discussion is one of great importance, and the way in which Stapfer denounces dogmatism and pedantry, and shows how delicate a thing literary judgment is, forms a part of the book that every one should read. In defending Moliere from some of the criticisms made against him, he points out the great charm of the comedies, giving the poet the position he rightly owns. From this he wanders into a discussion of humor, in which he makes a comparison between Shakespeare and Molière, and with this the book ends.

in this meagre notice no shadow of justice can be done to the fullness of the book in intelligence and acuteness. There is not a page in it that does not contain food for thought. Apparently, the text was written for a course of lectures, a style of composition that makes lucidity of great importance ; and if we were called upon to mention any fault, we should be tempted to name the sometimes exaggerated care with which well-known things are explained. But this is the most pardonable, as well as the rarest, of sins in books of this kind. University education in France must be looking up again, when such courses as this one are given, — when the student can find abundant information and good judgment combined so gracefully.

  1. Shakespeare et l’Antiquité. Par PAUL STAPFER, Professeur à la Faculté des Lettres de Grenoble. Deuxième partie. Shakespeare et les Tragiques Grecs, suivie de Molière, Shakespeare, et la Critique Allemande. Paris: Sandoz et Fisehbacher. Boston: C. Schönhof. 1880.
  2. Among my Books, pages 191-5.