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William Shakespeare

by Victor Hugo

Part I -- Book 4: The Ancient Shakespeare
Chapter 1

Æschylus is the ancient Shakespeare.

Let us return to Æschylus. He is the grandsire of the stage.

This book would be incomplete if Æschylus had not his separate place in it.

A man whom we do not know how to class in his own century, so little does he belong to it, being at the same time so much behind it and so much in advance of it, the Marquis de Mirabeau, that queer customer as a philanthropist, but a very rare thinker after all, had a library, in the two corners of which he had carved a dog and a she-goat, in remembrance of Socrates, who swore by the dog, and of Zeno, who swore by the goat. His library presented this peculiarity: on one side he had Hesiod, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, Pindar, Theocritus, Anacreon, Theophrastus, Demosthenes, Plutarch, Cicero, Titus Livius, Seneca, Persius, Lucan, Terence, Horace, Ovid, Propertius, Tibullus, Virgil, and underneath could be read, engraved in letters of gold, "Amo;" [I love] on the other side, he had Æschylus alone, and underneath, this word, "Timeo." [I fear]

Æschylus, in reality, is formidable. He cannot be approached without trembling. He has magnitude and mystery. Barbarous, extravagant, emphatic, antithetical, bombastic, absurd, -- such is the judgment passed on him by the official rhetoric of the present day. This rhetoric will be changed. Æschylus is one of those men whom superficial criticism scoffs at or disdains, but whom the true critic approaches with a sort of sacred fear. The dread of genius is the first step toward taste.

In the true critic there is always a poet, even when in a latent state.

Whoever does not comprehend Æschylus is irremediably an ordinary mind. Intellects may be tried on Æschylus.

The Drama is a strange form of art. Its diameter measures from the "Seven against Thebes" to the "Philosopher Without Knowing it," and from Brid'oison to Œdipus. Thyestes forms part of it, Turcaret also. If you wish to define it, put into your definition Electra and Marton.

The drama is disconcerting. It baffles the weak. This comes from its ubiquity. The drama has every horizon. You may then imagine its capacity. The epic poem has been blended in the drama, and the result is this marvellous literary novelty, which is at the same time a social power,-- the romance.

Bronze, amalgamation of the epic, lyric, and dramatic,-- such is the romance. "Don Quixote" is iliad, ode, and comedy.

Such is the expansion possible to the drama.

The drama is the largest recipient of art. God and Satan are there; witness Job.

To look at art in the absolute point of view, the characteristic of the epic poem is grandeur; the characteristic of the drama is immensity. The immense differs from the great in this, that it excludes, if it chooses, dimension; that 'it is beyond measure,' as the common saying is; and that it can, without losing beauty, lose proportion. It is harmonious as is the Milky Way. It is by this characteristic of immensity that the drama commences, four thousand years ago, in Job, whom we have just named again, and two thousand twho hundred years ago, in Æschylus; it is by this characteristic that it continues in Shakespeare. What personages does Æschylus take? Volcanoes,-- one of his lost tragedies is called "Etna;" then the mountains,-- Caucasus, with Prometheus; then the sea,-- the Ocean on its dragon, and the waves, the Oceanides; then the vast East,-- the Persians; then the bottomless darkness,-- the Eumenides. Æschylus proves the man by the giant. In Shakespeare the drama approaches nearer to humanity, but remains colossal. Macbeth seems a polar Atrides. You see that the drama opens Nature, then opens the soul; there is no limit to this horizon. The drama is life; and life is everything. The epic poem can be only great; the drama must necessarily be immense.

This immensity, it is Æschylus throughout, and Shakespeare throughout.

The immense, in Æschylus, is a will. It is also a temperament. Æschylus invents the buskin which makes the man taller, and the mask which enlarges the voice. His metaphors are enormous. He calls Xerxes "the man with the dragon eyes." The sea, which is a plain for so many poets, is for Æschylus "a forest,"-- αλσος. These magnifiying figures, peculiar to the highest poets, and to them only, are true; they are the true emanations of revery. Æschylus excites you to the very brink of convulsion. His tragical effects are like blows struck at the spectators. When the furies of Æschylus make their appearance, pregnant women miscarry. Pollux, the lexicographer, affirms that there were children taken with epilepsy and who died, on looking at those faces of serpents and at those torches violently tossed about.

That is evidently "going beyond the aim." Even the grace of Æschylus, that strange and sovereign grace of which we have spoken, has a Cyclopean look. It is Polyphemus smiling. At times the smile is formidable, and seems to hide an obscure rage. Put, by way of example, in the presence of Helen, those two poets, Homer and Æschylus. Home is at once conquered and admires. His admiration is forgiveness. Æschylus is moved, but remains grave. He calls Helen, "fatal flower;" then he adds, "soul as calm as the tranquil sea." One day Shakespeare will say, "False as the wave."

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