The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VIII. Nineteenth-Century Drama
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 5. Sheridan Knowles; R. H. Horne
Meanwhille, there had arisen a tragedian who endeavoured to purge tragedy of the extravagance with which the influence of German romanticism had affected it. James Sheridan Knowles, said Hazlitt,has hardly read a poem or a play or seen anything of the world, but he hears the anxious beatings of his own heart, and makes others feel them by the force of sympathy.Save that Sheridan Knowles had read Shakespeare to such good purpose that contemporary critics accused him of borrowing everything from Shakespeare, Hazlitt’s remark is just. Knowles “kept his eye on the object,” and abstained from seeking effect from wild and whirling words that had little or no connection with the subject and the characters. His situations arise out of the characters and the circumstances. A sympathetic imagination and an instinctive, rather than acquired, reverence for the principles of dramatic composition make his work, in the main, just, sensible and moving; and he delineates natural feeling with much simple understanding. To this simplicity, he owes the few things in his work which come near to genius—speeches, like Virginius’s remark to his daughter:I never saw you look so like your motherIn all my life!which might well seem almost “low” to an audience accustomed to Sheil and to Maturin, but which impress the reader with their truth. Such moments are rare; for, though Knowles’s language brings relief from the towering nonsense of his immediate predecessors, it varies between triviality and excessive, sometimes ridiculous, decoration; and his verse is pedestrian. When the plot was given him by history, he could handle it clearly and effectively. In his comedies, of which an account will be given later, he proved himself unable to spin a comprehensible tale; but his chief tragedies and plays—Virginius (1820); Caius Gracchus (produced in 1823, though written before Virginius); William Tell (1825); and The Wife (1833)—are clearly constructed and full of situations at once effective and inevitable. Supported by the acting of Macready and Helen Faucit, Sheridan Knowles succeeded, for a time, in restoring tragedy at once to its proper dignity and to a good measure of popularity in the theatre; but the taste for it, poisoned by the excesses of the romantics, was all but dead. The fine plays of Richard Henry (or Hengist) Horne were never produced on the stage. Cosmo de’ Medici, a tragedy in five acts, published in 1837, is a well-built, well-written piece of poetical drama, in which two brothers fall with perfect naturalness into a fatal quarrel; the murderer’s attempt to conceal the half-involuntary deed is acutely imagined, and the only questionable episode is the somewhat theatrical death of the father after he has executed the offender with his own hand. The Death of Marlowe, a short play published in the same year, has a curious and beautiful intensity in the execution of the theme; and Horne’s other plays, Gregory VII (1840) and Judas Iscariot (1848), are works of power and some grandeur, born out of due time.