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concerned with a pair of lovers placed in the highest position of splendour and power; in both the tragedy comes about through a fatal discordance between the claims of love and of the world; in both the action passes in the
age of Roman greatness, and vast imperial issues are intertwined with individual destinies. Of Shakespeare's drama it is hardly necessary to speak. Nowhere else, perhaps, has that universal genius displayed more completely the extraordinary fertility of his mind. The play is crammed full and running over with the multifarious activities of human existence. “What is there in the whole of life, in all the experience of the world,” one is inclined to ask after a perusal of it, “that is not to be found somewhere or other among these amazing pages?” This tremendous effect has been produced, in the first place, by means of the immense variety of the characters; persons of every rank and every occupation-generals and waiting-women, princesses and pirates, diplomatists and peasants, eunuchs and emperors—all these we have, and a hundred more; and, of course, as the grand consummation of all, we have the dazzling complexity of Cleopatra. But this mass of character could never have been presented to us without a corresponding variety of incident; and, indeed, the tragedy is packed with an endless succession of incidents-battles, intrigues, marriages, divorces, treacheries, reconciliations, deaths. The complicated action stretches over a long period of time and over a huge tract of space. The scene constantly shifts from Alexandria to Rome, from Athens to Messina, from Pompey's galley to the plains of Actium. Some commentators have been puzzled by the multitude of these changes, and when, for a scene of a few moments, Shakespeare shows us a Roman army marching through Syria, they have been able to see in it nothing more than a wanton violation of the rule of the unity of place; they have not understood that it is precisely by such touches as these that Shakespeare has succeeded in bringing before our minds a sense of universal agitation and the enormous dissolution of empires.
Turning to Bérénice, we find a curious contrast. The whole tragedy takes place in a small ante-chamber; the action lasts hardly longer than its actual performance about two hours and a half; and the characters are three in number. As for the plot, it is contained in the following six words of Suetonius: “Titus reginam Berenicem dimisßit invitus invitam.” It seems extraordinary that with such materials Racine should have ventured to set out to write a tragedy: it is more extraordinary still that he succeeded. The interest of the play never ceases for a moment; the simple situation is exposed, developed, and closed with all the refinements of art; nothing is omitted that is essential, nothing that is unessential is introduced. Racine has studiously avoided anything approaching violent action or contrast or complexity; he has relied entirely for his effect upon his treatment of a few intimate human feelings interacting among themselves. The strain and press of the outer world—that outer world which plays so great a part in Shakespeare's masterpiece is almost banished from his dramaalmost, but not quite. With wonderful art Racine manages to suggest that, behind the quiet personal crisis in the retired little room, the strain and the pressure of outside things do exist. For this is the force that separates the lovers—the cruel claims of government and the state. When, at the critical moment, Titus is at last obliged to make the fatal choice, one word, as he hesitates, seems to dominate and convince his soul: it is the word “Rome.” Into this single syllable Racine has distilled his own poignant version of the long-resounding elaborations of Antony and Cleopatra.
It would, no doubt, be absurd to claim for Racine's tragedy a place as high as Shakespeare's. But this fact should not blind us to the extraordinary merits which it does possess. In one respect, indeed, it might be urged that the English play is surpassed by the French one and that is, as a play. Bérénice is still acted with success; but Antony and Cleopatra? It is impossible to do justice to such a work on the stage; it must be mutilated, rearranged, decocted, and in the end, at the best, it will hardly do more than produce an impression of confused splendour on an audience. It is the old difficulty of getting a quart into a pint bottle. But Bérénice is a pint-neither more nor less, and fits its bottle to a nicety. To witness a performance of it is a rare and exquisite pleasure; the impression is one of flawless beauty; one comes away profoundly moved, and with a new vision of the capacities of art.
Singleness of purpose is the dominating characteristic of the French classical drama, and of Racine's in particular; and this singleness shows itself not only in the action and its accessories, but in the whole tone of the piece. Unity of tone is, in fact, a more important element in a play than any other unity. To obtain it Racine and his school avoided both the extreme contrasts and the displays of physical action which the Elizabethans delighted in. The mixture of comedy and tragedy was abhorrent to Racine, not because it was bad in itself, but because it must have shattered the unity of his tone; and for the same reason he preferred not to produce before the audience the most exciting and disturbing circumstances of his plots, but to present them indirectly, by means of description. Now it is clear that the great danger lying before a dramatist who employs these methods is the danger of dullness. Unity of tone is an excellent thing, but if the tone is a tedious one, it is better to avoid it. Unfortunately Racine's successors in Classical Tragedy did not realise this truth. They did not understand the difficult art of keeping interest alive without variety of mood, and consequently their works are now almost unreadable. The truth is that they were deluded by the apparent ease with which Racine accomplished this difficult task. Having inherited his manner, they were content; they forgot that there was something else which they had not inherited-his genius.