Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary
The Philosophical Dictionary
Selected and Translated by H.I. Woolf
New York: Knopf, 1924

Scanned by the Hanover College Department of History in 1995.
Proofread and pages added by Jonathan Perry, March 2001.

On the English Theatre

I HAVE cast my eyes on an edition of Shakespeare issued by Master Samuel Johnson. I saw there that foreigners who are astonished that in the plays of the great Shakespeare a Roman senator plays the buffoon, and that a king appears on the stage drunk, are treated as little-minded. I do not desire to suspect Master Johnson of being a sorry jester, and of being too fond of wine; but I find it somewhat extraordinary that he counts buffoonery and drunkenness among the beauties of the tragic stage: and no less singular is the reason he gives, that the poet disdains accidental distinctions of circumstance and country, like a painter who, content with having painted the figure, neglects the drapery. The comparison would be more just if he were speaking of a painter who in a noble subject should introduce ridiculous grotesques, should paint Alexander the Great mounted on an ass in the battle of Arbela, and Darius' wife drinking at an inn with rapscallions.

But there is one thing more extraordinary than all, that is that Shakespeare is a genius. The Italians, the French, the men of letters of all other countries, who have not spent some time in England, take him only for a clown, for a joker far inferior to Harlequin, for the most contemptible buffoon who has ever amused the populace. Nevertheless, it is in this same man that one finds pieces which exalt the imagination and which stir the heart to its depths. It is Truth, it is Nature herself who speaks her own language with no admixture of artifice. It is of the sublime, and the author has in no wise sought it.

What can one conclude from this contrast of grandeur and sordidness, of sublime reason and uncouth folly, in short from all the contrasts that we see in Shakespeare? That he would have been a perfect poet had he lived in the time of Addison.

The famous Addison, who flourished under Queen Anne, is perhaps of all English writers the one who best knew how to guide genius with taste. He had a correct style, an imagination discreet in expression, elegance, strength and simplicity in his verse and in his prose. A friend of propriety and orderliness, he wanted tragedy to be written with dignity, and it is thus that his "Cato" is composed.

From the very first act the verses are worthy of Virgil, and the sentiments worthy of Cato. There is no theatre in Europe where the scene of Juba and Syphax was not applauded as a masterpiece of skill, of well-developed characters, of fine contrasts, and of pure and noble diction. Literary Europe, which knows the translations of this piece, applauded even to the philosophic traits with which the role of Cato is filled.

The piece had the great success which its beauty of detail merited, and which was assured to it by the troubles in England to which this tragedy was in more than one place a striking allusion. But the appositeness of these allusions having passed, the verse being only beautiful, the maxims being only noble and just, and the piece being cold, people no longer felt anything more than the coldness. Nothing is more beautiful than Virgil's second canto; recite it on the stage, it will bore: on the stage one must have passion, live dialogue, action. People soon returned to Shakespeare's uncouth but captivating aberrations.

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