On Shakespeare by Voltaire

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.

 

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Selected from Letters on the English (1733) by Voltaire, from the chapter On Tragedy.

Translated by David Price (1894).