Front Page Titles (by Subject) ENGLISH TRAGEDY. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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ENGLISH TRAGEDY. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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The English had a regular theatre, as well as the Spaniards, while the French had as yet but booths. Shakespeare, whom the English consider as another Sophocles, flourished about the time of Lope de Vega; he was properly the creator of their theatre. His genius was at once strong and abundant, natural and sublime, but without the smallest spark of taste, and void of the remotest idea of the rules. I will venture to tell you a bold but yet undoubted truth; which is, that the merit of this author has been the ruin of the English stage: there are in him scenes so perfectly beautiful, and passages so very full of the great and terrible, spread up and down those monstrous farces of his which they have christened tragedies, that his pieces have always been played with prodigious success. Time, which alone is capable of establishing the reputation of authors, serves at length to consecrate their very defects. The greater part of those extravagant passages, and of that bombast which abounds in his works, have, in the course of a hundred and fifty years, acquired a kind of title to pass for the true sublime. Their modern authors are, generally speaking, no more than copiers of him, though what succeeded in Shakespeare is hissed in them; and you know the veneration they entertain for this author increases in proportion to their contempt of the moderns. They never once reflect that it is absurd to pretend to imitate him; and it is wholly owing to the ill success of those copiers, and not to their want of capacity, that he is thought inimitable.
You know that in the tragedy of the “Moor of Venice,” a very interesting piece, a husband smothers his wife on the stage, and the poor woman dies asserting her innocence. You are not ignorant that in “Hamlet” a couple of grave–diggers dig a grave upon the stage, singing and drinking at their work, and passing the low jokes common to this sort of people, on the skulls they throw up; but what will most astonish you is that these fooleries have been imitated.
In the reign of Charles II., which was the reign of politeness, and the era of the fine arts, Otway, in his “Venice Preserved,” introduced the senator Antonio, and his courtesan, Aquilina, in the midst of the horrors of Bedemar’s conspiracy; the old senator plays all the monkey–tricks, on the stage, of an old impotent crazy lecher. He mimics by turns a bull, and a dog, and he bites his mistress’ legs, who alternately whips and kicks him. These buffooneries, however, calculated to please the rabble, have since been omitted in the representation of this piece; but in “Julius Cæsar,” the idle jests of Roman shoemakers and cobblers are still introduced on the stage with Cassius and Brutus.
You will, no doubt, lament that those who have hitherto spoken to you of the English stage, and particularly of the celebrated Shakespeare, have pointed out only his errors, and that no one has translated those striking passages in this great man which atone for all his faults. To this I shall answer that it is very easy to recount in prose the absurdities of a poet, but very difficult to translate his fine verses; those who set themselves up for critics of celebrated writers generally compile volumes; but I had rather read two pages which present only their beauties; for I shall always concur with all men of taste in this opinion, that there is more to be learned in a dozen verses of Homer or Virgil, than in all the criticisms on those great men.
I have ventured to translate some passages of the best English poets, and I begin with one of Shakespeare’s. Be indulgent to the copy, in honor to the original; and always remember, that when you see a translation, you perceive only a faint copy of a fine picture. I have selected the soliloquy in the tragedy of “Hamlet,” which is universally known, and begins with this line: “To be, or not to be! that is the question!” It is Hamlet, prince of Denmark, who speaks.1
Do not imagine that I have given you the English word for word—woe be to those literal translators, who, by rendering every single word, enervate the sense! It is in this case that we may truly say, “The letter kills, and the spirit giveth life.”
I shall now give you a passage from the famous Dryden, an English poet who flourished in the reign of Charles II.; an author more fertile than judicious, who would have preserved an unblemished reputation, if he had written only the tenth part of his works.
The passage begins thus:
It is in these detached sentences that the English tragedies have hitherto excelled. Their pieces, almost always barbarous, void of decency, order, and probability, have yet, amidst this night of darkness, their splendid days of light: their style is too stiff, too unnatural, too much copied from the Hebrew writers, and too full of Asiatic bombast; but then the mind is transported to an amazing height, soaring on the pinions of the metaphorical style which adorns the English language.
It sometimes seems as if nature were not the same in England as elsewhere. This same Dryden, in his farce of “Don Sebastian, King of Portugal,” which he calls a tragedy, makes an officer give the following reply to that monarch:
This speech is in the English taste; and the whole piece is full of buffoonery. How shall we reconcile, say our critics, so much good sense with such absurdity, so much meanness with such sublimity of expression? Nothing so easy; let it be remembered that they were written by men. The Spanish stage has all the faults of the English, without its beauties; and, in reality, what were the Greek authors? what Euripides, who, in the same piece, paints so affecting, so noble a picture of Alcestes sacrificing herself to the manes of her husband, and puts into the mouth of Admetes and his father such gross puerilities, that have puzzled even his commentators? A reader must have great patience and fortitude not to find Homer’s sleepy fit sometimes a little tedious, and his dreams insipid. It will require many ages to purify good taste. Virgil among the Romans, Racine among the French, were the first who always preserved a purity of taste in capital pieces.
Addison was the first Englishman who wrote a rational tragedy; but I should pity him if he had only made it barely rational. His tragedy of “Cato” is written from the beginning to the end with that masterly and energic elegance of which Corneille first gave us such fine examples in his unequalled style. It appears to me that this piece is adapted to an audience somewhat philosophic, and very republican. I much doubt if our young ladies and petitsmaîtres would have relished Cato in his nightgown, reading Plato’s dialogues, and making reflections on the immortality of the soul: but those who soar above the customs, the prejudices, and the foibles of their own nation, who are of every age, and of every country, those who prefer philosophic grandeur to soft tales of love, will be pleased to find here a copy, though an imperfect one, of that sublime scene. It seems as if Addison, in this fine soliloquy, aimed at rivalling Shakespeare. I will translate the one as I did the other; I mean, with that freedom without which we are too apt to wander from the original, by endeavoring at too close an imitation. The groundwork is faithfully portrayed, I shall only add a few shades. Not being able to equal him, I must attempt to improve upon him.
In this tragedy of a patriot and philosopher, the character of Cato appears to me to be one of the most complete that ever appeared on any stage. The Cato of Addison is, in my opinion, greatly superior to the Cornelia of Pierre Corneille, for he is continually great without ostentation; and the part of Cornelia, besides being an unnecessary one, is in many places too declamatory; she would always be the heroine, and Cato never perceives that he is the hero.
It is a great pity that so fine a piece should not be a complete tragedy; unconnected scenes, which often leave the stage empty, injudicious and tedious apart or aside speeches, cold and insipid amours, a conspiracy quite foreign to the piece, a certain Sempronius disgusted and killed on the stage; all these put together render the celebrated tragedy of “Cato” a performance that our comedians would never venture to present, even if we were of the same way of thinking as the Romans, or the English themselves. The barbarism and irregularity of the theatre at London made an impression on Addison’s better judgment: methinks I see in him the Czar Peter, who, in reforming the Russians, still retained some prejudices of his education, and of the manners of his country.
The custom of introducing love, right or wrong, into dramatic works, passed over from Paris to London about the year 1660, with our ribbons and perukes. The ladies, who there as well as here embellish the theatre, would no longer suffer any other but love scenes on the stage. The sage Addison had the effeminate complaisance to bend the severity of his character to the manners of his time, and spoiled a masterpiece to comply with the reigning mode.
Since his time the pieces have become more regular, the people more difficult, and the authors more timid. I have seen very decent, but very flat, modern compositions: it seems as if the English poets had hitherto been born to produce only irregular beauties.
The poetic genius of the English resembles, at this day, a spreading tree planted by nature, shooting forth at random a thousand branches, and growing with unequal strength: it dies if you force its nature, or shape it into a regular tree, fit for the gardens of Marly.
[1 ]A translation of this will be found in the article on the “English Theatre,” in this volume.