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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

IV. The Drama and the Stage

§ 14. Voltaire and the English Drama

While Lillo and Moore were thus enlarging the field of tragedy by extending it to the concerns of ordinary life and developing, however crudely, a new medium of prose expression, the influence of Voltaire was being exerted in behalf of classical standards. In 1726, he began a residence of almost three years in England which brought him into contact with English drama. Cato he regarded as a masterpiece of classical tragedy. Yet, like Addison, he confessed, once, at least, that creative energy such as Shakespeare’s “leaves far behind it everything which can boast only of reason and correctness.” The greater freedom and vigour of action of the English stage clearly affect both Voltaire’s classical dramatic standards and his own dramatic practice. In a letter of 1735, he declares that French drama “is ordinarily devoid of action and of great interests,” and, in another of 1750, full of his usual strictures on the barbarities of English tragedy, he concedes that “’t is true we have too much of words, if you have too much of action, and perhaps the perfection of the art should consist in a due mixture of the French taste and the English energy.” His own dramas borrow from Shakespeare with a freedom that impressed even those who translated and adapted Voltaire’s plays for the English stage. In the prologue to Aaron Hill’s Zara (1736), a version of Voltaire’s Zaire, Colley Cibber says plainly:

  • From English plays, Zara’s French author fired,
  • Confessed his muse, beyond himself, inspired;
  • From rack’d Othello’s rage he raised his style,
  • And snatched the brand that lights his tragic pile.
  • The prologue to James Miller’s version of Mahomet (1744) is equally frank:
  • Britons, these numbers to yourselves you owe;
  • Voltaire hath strength to shoot in Shakespeare’s bow.
  • The monstrosities which Voltaire took pains to point out in Shakespeare’s tragedies did not prevent him from borrowing from such dramas as Othello, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear far more than he troubled himself to acknowledge. Nor did his borrowings from Shakespeare measure his indebtedness to English drama. William Duncombe’s adaptation of Brutus (1734), which begins the long list of English stage versions of Voltaire, brought upon the French dramatist the charge of plagiarism from Lee’s restoration tragedy, Brutus.