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The Mirror of Taste, and Dramatic Censor, Vol. I, No. 4, April 1810   By: (-1820?)

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Vol. I APRIL 1810. No. 4.




Though the term "tragedy" has from the first productions of Æschylus to the present time, been exclusively appropriated to actions of a serious nature and melancholy catastrophe, there is reason to believe that it originally included also exhibitions of a pleasant, or comic kind. The rude satires, and gross mummery which occupied the stage, or rather the cart, of Thespis, were certainly calculated to provoke mirth in the multitude. By what has already been shown, the reader is apprised that the word, in its original sense, bore no relation whatever to those passions and subjects, to the representations of which it is now applied; but meant simply a dramatic action performed at the feast of the goat, in honour of Bacchus. Thus the different provinces of the drama then undistinguished, were confounded under one term, and constituted the prime trunk from which sprung forth the two branches of tragedy and comedy separately the first in point of time usurping the original title of the parent stock, and retaining it ever after.

Why human creatures should take delight in witnessing fictitious representations of the anguish and misfortunes of their fellow beings, in tragedy, and, in comedy of those follies, foibles and imperfections which degrade their nature, is a question which many have asked, but few have been able to answer. The facts are admitted. Towards a solution of their causes, let us consider what is said on the subject of tragedy in that invaluable work "A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the SUBLIME AND BEAUTIFUL."

"It is a common observation," says the author, in the chapter on sympathy and its effects, "that objects which in the reality would shock, are, in tragical and such like representations, the source of a very high species of pleasure. This taken as a fact, has been the cause of much reasoning. The satisfaction has been commonly attributed, first to the comfort we receive in considering that so melancholy a story is no more than a fiction; and next to the contemplation of our own freedom from the evils which we see represented. I am afraid it is a practice much too common in inquiries of this nature, to attribute the cause of feelings, which merely arise from the mechanical structure of our bodies, or from the natural frame and construction of our minds, to certain conclusions of the reasoning faculty on the objects presented to us: for I should imagine that the influence of reason, in producing our passions, is nothing near so extensive as is commonly believed.

"To examine this point, concerning the effect of tragedy in a proper manner, we must previously consider how we are affected by the feelings of our fellow creatures, in circumstances of real distress. I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others; for let the affection be what it will in appearance, if it does not make us shun such objects, if, on the contrary, it induces us to approach them, if it makes us dwell upon them, in this case we must have a delight or pleasure of some species or other in contemplating objects of this kind.

"Do we not read the authentic histories of scenes of this nature with as much pleasure as romances or poems, where the incidents are fictitious? The prosperity of no empire, nor the grandeur of no king, can so agreeably affect in the reading, as the ruin of the state of Macedon and the distress of its unhappy prince. Such a catastrophe touches us in history, as much as the destruction of Troy does in fable. Our delight in cases of this kind is very greatly heightened if the sufferer be some excellent person who sinks under an unworthy fortune. Scipio and Cato are both virtuous characters, but we are more deeply affected by the violent death of the one, and the ruin of the great cause he adhered to, than with the deserved triumphs and uninterrupted prosperity of the other; for terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close; and pity is a passion accompanied with pleasure, because it arises from love and social affection... Continue reading book >>

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