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Y HEN we compare Shakespeare's plays one
with another, it is difficult (for the most B part) to decide their relative merits, because they are all of them (with a few exceptions) perfect in their own line. The utmost therefore, we can do in such a case is to consider which of them has taken the highest line. Now, when viewed in this light, I suppose it will be generally admitted that “Romeo and Juliet” does not deserve to occupy the first position among Shakespeare's tragedies. We could not place it altogether on a level with “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Lear,” or “Othello.” It does not possess the grandeur, the elevation, the sublimity of horror which characterize these lastmentioned plays. But if it be inferior to them in these respects, it is superior to them all, in pathos, in unity of design, and in the subordination of interest, characters, and incidents to the one great masterpassion. Therefore, in its own line it may, perhaps, be considered the most complete of all.
It does not profess to be anything more than a love story, but it is of all love stories, the most perfect, as well as the most touching. Everything contributes to this perfection--the scene in which the story is laid--the characters of the lovers—the incidents—and the manner in which the plot is conducted, and the catastrophe brought about. As we are engaged in a work of analytical investigation, it may be not unusitable to show how entirely this assertion is confirmed by fact. But, first, I cannot help observing that Shakespeare, in his choice of materials, presents a favourable contrast to some modern authors, who seek to vary the monotony of of the ordinary routine of love and courtship, and to show their power, by endeavouring to extract beauty out of unlovely materials. Thus they will sometimes bestow upon their hero or heroine an unprepossessing exterior, or they will represent one of them as being no longer young; or they will choose them out of a class of persons who, either from their habits, their occupation, or from other circumstances, have been connected in most minds, with unpoetical and unromantic associations; or they will endow them with qualities which are rather of a repulsive character. Now this endeavour to gather grapes off thorns, &c., even though it may to a certain extent succeed, involves a waste of power ; and when it does succeed, it reminds us of those difficult musical performances, respecting which Dr. S. Johnson said, that he only wished they were impossible, such as playing “God save the King,” on a single string, &c. Perhaps, in these days, such attempts may be more excusable, from the fact that the public is constantly craving
for something new, and that in order to gratify this craving, it is necessary that an author should sometimes leave the beaten track, even though in so doing he may be compelled to violate the rules of strict good taste. Besides, it may not only be allowable, but useful, for the writer of fiction occasionally to teach his readers that there are gems of beauty which lie hid, “not only in the dark unfathomed caves of ocean," but also in the dusty high road and in muddy pools. Still, we must confess, that where the subject is a love story, it is rather painful to see the author groping in the dirt in order to find these gems. At all events, without censuring those writers who take such a course, we cannot help rejoicing that Shakespeare has attempted nothing of this sort, but, on the contrary, has (as we have already pointed out) gathered together all the most promising materials which he could select for his story. He has made his hero and heroine young, beautiful, loving, innocent, and faithful even to death. There are no repulsive traits in their character, no discordant notes in their hearts; but, like the language of that land to which they belong, every chord in those hearts is musical, and is attuned to the one emotion which forms the key-note of their being—their mutual love. Even those defects which I shall shortly have to notice in them, and which render them imperfect as individuals, contribute to their perfection as lovers. Then, again, as regards the place which he has selected for the scene of the play, Shakespeare is equally fortunate. He has chosen a country to which Byron's description of Clarens, in Switzerland, eminently apply
“Birth place of deep love,
Thine air is the young breath of passionate thought,
Every one who has visited, Italy must feel how well the surrounding scenery, together with other adjuncts peculiar to that country is (when memory enables us to picture them) calculated to enhance the beauty of the balcony scene, where Juliet makes her first confession of love. The clear sky, the balmy air of an Italian evening, through the medium of which the accents of love, uttered in the most melodious of all modern languages, came mellowed and softened; the calm moonlight, shining through the clear southern atmosphere, and the peculiar kind of beauty which characterizes an Italian garden-a beauty most especially appropriate to that country.
Indeed, whether or not it be from an association of ideas, I cannot help thinking that not only the history and character of the Italian people, but also the scenery of Italy, render that country the most appropriate site for the introduction of a story of passionate love, ending in death, and interspersed with private feuds and scenes of slaughter. Without going so far as to assert that the story of Romeo and Juliet would have appeared unnatural to us, had the scene of it been originally laid in England, we cannot but feel, that once laid in Italy, if it could be transferred to our own country, all the incidents, as
well as the whole tone and tenor of the drama, would seem comparatively uncongenial to the character, history, and scenery of the land in which they were placed. They would excite in us a sense of incongruity, similar to that which is produced in some minds at least) by the introduction of an Italian garden into England, where the laurels are cut into a miserable imitation of orange trees and the yews of cypresses, and where the urns and statues seem to pine on their marble pedestals, beneath the dark and foggy atmosphere of our northern climate. And there are other incongruities than those produced by an uncongeniality of climate, and difference in the vegetable productions, which, while I am on the subject I cannot forbear mentioning. An Italian garden, partly from association, and partly perhaps from its own peculiar character, suggests ideas which are essentially anti-English. Its marble terraces, its broad walks, planted on either side, and not as in our own gardens, winding round intersecting flower beds, but leaving a wide space for the imagination to fill up ;-all these characteristic features, united to the associations of history, make us feel, when visiting such spots, as if there were a gap to be filled up, and as if the peculiar features of beauty which we see around us, would be in a measure wasted, unless we could not make them the scene of some romantic story, with a considerable infusion of tragedy—such tragedy as belongs more to the history and habits of the Italian than of the English nation. Far different are the feelings excited by an English garden. I am not here speaking of