Page:Romeo and Juliet (The Illustrated Shakespeare, 1847).djvu/5

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INTRODUCTORY REMARKS

DATE, HISTORY, AND CHARACTERISTICS OF THE PLAY.

Romeo and Juliet is the production of youthful genius. It is all redolent of youth in its subject, its style, and its spirit. It is a tale of mutually youthful love, impetuous, ardent, passionate, rapturous,—yet tender, imaginative, idolatrous,—where each of the lovers is the sole object of the other's existence, and both of them reckless of all else, even of life itself. Into this one, engrossing, pervading feeling of the poem, the youthful author throws his whole soul; he pours forth his "thick-coming fancies" with the mounting spirit, the keen relish of existence of oneto whom this world is still fresh and young. He does not anticipate the sad and bitter hours of the winding-up of the mournful tale he is about to tell, but luxuriates in the short-lived happiness of the lovers, and showers over them, and on all around them, the flowers and gems of poetical fancy, with a joyous, careless, extravagant wit. It is not until death is about to cast his mantle over the loves of the young and beautiful and brave, that the Poet suffers either his own mind or his reader's to repose from the constant excitement of passion, wit, or fancy. It is this buoyancy of spirit, this luxury of language and imagery, this fervid activity of intellect and of fancy, that mark Romeo and Juliet as a work of the great Poet when just arrived to the full possession and confidence of his strength, yet still immature in experience and knowledge; quite as much as the numerous "conceits depraving his pathetic strains" which Johnson censured, or those similar faults which youthful compliance with the taste of the age can best explain or excuse; and not less than the "absence (remarked by Hallam) of that thoughtful philosophy which, when it had once germinated in Shakespeare's mind, never ceased to display itself." Coleridge therefore pronounced this play to have been intended by the author to approach more to the poem than to the drama. I should rather say that it bears the internal evidence of having been written in the period of the transition of the author's mind from its purely poetical to its dramatic cast of thought; from the poetry of external nature, of ingenious fancy and active thought, to that of the deeper philosophy of the heart.

This drama is also remarkable in another point of view; as it not only exhibits to us the genius of the Poet in this stage of its progress, but it affords no small insight into the history of the progress itself. It was first printed in 1597, as having been before that time "often with great applause plaid publiquely." This edition, an original copy of which is now of great rarity and value, has been reprinted literatim by Stevens, in his edition of the original quartos of "twenty of the plays of Shakespeare." Although this first edition was probably one of those "stolen and surreptitious copies maimed and deformed by the hand which stole them," of which the old folio editions complain, yet it enables us, by the comparison of the play there given, with what was afterwards avowedly added, to trace the advance of the author's taste and judgment. It contains the whole of the plot, incidents, and characters of the play afterwards enlarged, with its sweetness and beauty of imagery and luxury of language, and almost all its gayety and wit. Its defects of taste are more conspicuous, because it contains, in a much smaller compass, all the rhyming couplets, the ingenious and long-drawn conceits, and the extravagances of fanciful metaphor, which are still intertwined with the nobler beauties of this play. In 1599 appeared a second quarto edition, "newly corrected, augmented, and enlarged," containing about one fourth more in quantity, partly from expansion of thoughts already expressed imperfectly, and partly by large and admirable additions. Among these are the several soliloquies of Juliet, and especially that before taking the sleeping-potion, and the last speech of Romeo at the tomb. These all breathe that solemn melody of rhythm which Shakespeare created for the appropriate vehicle of his own mightier thoughts; while, as compared with the earlier play, the passion becomes more direct and intense, and less imaginative, and the language assumes more of that condensed and suggestive cast which afterwards became habitual to his mind.

The original structure is the work of a poet, and arranged with the skill of a practised dramatist; yet it is also evidently the work of a man of genius whose powers were governed, controlled, and modified by the spirit and taste of the literature of his day, and it consequently partakes of the usual blemishes of the poetry and eloquence of that age. The additions and corrections are those of the same mind, with its mighty energies more developed, and now throwing off the influence of inferior minds, giving to itself its own law, and about to assume the sway of its country's language and literature.

The contrast between the revision and the original play, beautiful and glowing as that is, with all its extravagance of thought and defects of taste, is such that I fully agree with Mr. Knight's just and acute observation, that the development of power and judgment is too great to have taken place in the short period of two years, the interval between the dates of the first and second editions; and that therefore the Romeo and Juliet, when

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