The English had a regular theatre, as well as the Spaniards, while the French had only platforms. Shakespeare, who passed for the English Corneille, flourished about the time of Lope de Vega. He created the theatre. His genius was at once strong and abundant, natural and sublime, but without the smallest spark of taste, and without the slightest knowledge of the rules. I will venture to tell you a bold but yet undoubted truth; which is, that the merit of this author has been the ruin of the English stage: there are in him scenes so perfectly beautiful, and passages so full of the great and terrible, spread up and down those monstrous farces of his which they have christened tragedies, that his pieces have always been played with prodigious success. Time, which alone makes men's reputation, serves at length to consecrate their very defects. The greater part of those extravagant passages and bombast have, in the course of two hundred years, acquired the right to pass for the sublime. Almost all modern authors have copied him, though what succeeded in Shakespeare is hissed in them; and you can well imagine that the veneration they entertain for this ancient increases in proportion to their contempt of the moderns. They never once reflect that it is absurd to imitate him; and the ill success of those copiers makes him thought inimitable.
You know that in the tragedy of the "Moor of Venice," a very touching piece, a husband smothers his wife on the stage, and the poor woman dies asserting her innocence. You are not ignorant that in "Hamlet" a couple of grave-diggers dig a grave upon the stage, singing and drinking at their work, and making the low jokes common to this sort of people, about the skulls they throw up; but what will most astonish you is that these fooleries have been imitated in the reign of Charles II, which was the reign of politeness, and the golden age of the fine arts.
Otway, in his "Venice Preserved," introduced the senator Antonio, and his courtesan, Aquilina, in the midst of the horrors of Bedamar's conspiracy; the old senator plays all the tricks of an old impotent crazy lecher. He mimics by turns a bull, and a dog, and he bites his mistress' legs, who alternately whips and kicks him. These buffooneries, made to please the rabble, have since been omitted in the representation of this piece; but in "Julius Caesar," the idle jests of Roman shoemakers and cobblers are still introduced on the stage with Cassius and Brutus. This is because Otway's foolishness is modern, while Shakespeare's is ancient.
You will, no doubt, lament that those who have hitherto spoken to you of the English stage, and particularly of this celebrated Shakespeare, have pointed out only his errors, and that no one has translated those striking passages in this great man which atone for all his faults. To this I shall answer that it is very easy to recount in prose the absurdities of a poet, but very difficult to translate his fine verses; those who set themselves up as critics of celebrated writers generally compile volumes; but I had rather read two pages which present only their beauties; for I shall always concur with all men of good taste, that there is more to be learned in a dozen verses of Homer or Virgil, than in all the criticism that has been written on these two great men.
I have ventured to translate some passages of the best English poets: here is one of Shakespeare's. Be indulgent to the copy, in honor to the original; and always remember, that when you see a translation, you perceive only a faint copy of a beautiful picture.
I have selected the soliloquy in the tragedy of "Hamlet," which is universally known, and begins with this line: "To be, or not to be: that is the question." It is Hamlet, prince of Denmark, who speaks.
Demeure; il faut choisir, & passer à l'instant
De la vie à la mort, ou de l'être au néant.
Dieux cruels! s'il en est, éclairez mon courage.
Faut-il vieillir courbé sous la main qui m'outrage,
Supporter ou finir mon malheur & mon sort? Qui suis-je?
Qui m'arrête? Et qu'est-ce que la mort?
C'est la fin de nos maux, c'est mon unique asile;
Après de longs transports, c'est un sommeil tranquille,
On s'endort, et tout meurt; mais un affreux réveil