**** ROTATE **** **** ROTATE **** **** ROTATE **** **** ROTATE ****

Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

No. 039 [from The Spectator]
by [?]

No. 39
Saturday, April 14, 1711. Addison.

‘Multa fero, ut placem genus irritabile vatum,

Cum scribo.’


As a perfect Tragedy is the Noblest Production of Human Nature, so it is capable of giving the Mind one of the most delightful and most improving Entertainments. A virtuous Man (says Seneca) struggling with Misfortunes, is such a Spectacle as Gods might look upon with Pleasure: [1] And such a Pleasure it is which one meets with in the Representation of a well-written Tragedy. Diversions of this kind wear out of our Thoughts every thing that is mean and little. They cherish and cultivate that Humanity which is the Ornament of our Nature. They soften Insolence, sooth Affliction, and subdue the Mind to the Dispensations of Providence.

It is no Wonder therefore that in all the polite Nations of the World, this part of the Drama has met with publick Encouragement.

The modern Tragedy excels that of Greece and Rome, in the Intricacy and Disposition of the Fable; but, what a Christian Writer would be ashamed to own, falls infinitely short of it in the Moral Part of the Performance.

This I [may [2]] shew more at large hereafter; and in the mean time, that I may contribute something towards the Improvement of the English Tragedy, I shall take notice, in this and in other following Papers, of some particular Parts in it that seem liable to Exception.

Aristotle [3] observes, that the Iambick Verse in the Greek Tongue was the most proper for Tragedy: Because at the same time that it lifted up the Discourse from Prose, it was that which approached nearer to it than any other kind of Verse. For, says he, we may observe that Men in Ordinary Discourse very often speak Iambicks, without taking notice of it. We may make the same Observation of our English Blank Verse, which often enters into our Common Discourse, though we do not attend to it, and is such a due Medium between Rhyme and Prose, that it seems wonderfully adapted to Tragedy. I am therefore very much offended when I see a Play in Rhyme, which is as absurd in English, as a Tragedy of Hexameters would have been in Greek or Latin. The Solaecism is, I think, still greater, in those Plays that have some Scenes in Rhyme and some in Blank Verse, which are to be looked upon as two several Languages; or where we see some particular Similies dignifyed with Rhyme, at the same time that everything about them lyes in Blank Verse. I would not however debar the Poet from concluding his Tragedy, or, if he pleases, every Act of it, with two or three Couplets, which may have the same Effect as an Air in the Italian Opera after a long Recitativo, and give the Actor a graceful Exit. Besides that we see a Diversity of Numbers in some Parts of the Old Tragedy, in order to hinder the Ear from being tired with the same continued Modulation of Voice. For the same Reason I do not dislike the Speeches in our English Tragedy that close with an Hemistick, or half Verse, notwithstanding the Person who speaks after it begins a new Verse, without filling up the preceding one; Nor with abrupt Pauses and Breakings-off in the middle of a Verse, when they humour any Passion that is expressed by it.

Since I am upon this Subject, I must observe that our English Poets have succeeded much better in the Style, than in the Sentiments of their Tragedies. Their Language is very often Noble and Sonorous, but the Sense either very trifling or very common. On the contrary, in the Ancient Tragedies, and indeed in those of Corneille and Racine [4] tho’ the Expressions are very great, it is the Thought that bears them up and swells them. For my own part, I prefer a noble Sentiment that is depressed with homely Language, infinitely before a vulgar one that is blown up with all the Sound and Energy of Expression. Whether this Defect in our Tragedies may arise from Want of Genius, Knowledge, or Experience in the Writers, or from their Compliance with the vicious Taste of their Readers, who are better Judges of the Language than of the Sentiments, and consequently relish the one more than the other, I cannot determine. But I believe it might rectify the Conduct both of the one and of the other, if the Writer laid down the whole Contexture of his Dialogue in plain English, before he turned it into Blank Verse; and if the Reader, after the Perusal of a Scene, would consider the naked Thought of every Speech in it, when divested of all its Tragick Ornaments. By this means, without being imposed upon by Words, we may judge impartially of the Thought, and consider whether it be natural or great enough for the Person that utters it, whether it deserves to shine in such a Blaze of Eloquence, or shew itself in such a Variety of Lights as are generally made use of by the Writers of our English Tragedy.