The Cambridge History of English and American Literature
The following is an excerpt from “The Cambridge History of English and American Literature” with a focus on the Age of Johnson. This particular section is about English Drama and Voltaire.
1. While Lillo and Moore were thus enlarging the field of tragedy
2. by extending it to the concerns of ordinary life and developing,
3. however crudely, a new medium of prose expression, the influence
4. of Voltaire was being exerted in behalf of classical standards.
5. In 1726, he began a residence of almost three years in England
6. which brought him into contact with English drama. Cato he
7. regarded as a masterpiece of classical tragedy. Yet, like Addison,
8. he confessed, once, at least, that creative energy such as
9. Shakespeare’s “leaves far behind it everything which can boast
10. only of reason and correctness.” The greater freedom and vigour
11. of action of the English stage clearly affect both Voltaire’s
12. classical dramatic standards and his own dramatic practice.
13. In a letter of 1735, he declares that French drama “is ordinarily
14. devoid of action and of great interests,” and, in another of 1750,
15. full of his usual strictures on the barbarities of English tragedy,
16. he concedes that “’t is true we have too much of words, if you
17. have too much of action, and perhaps the perfection of the
18. art should consist in a due mixture of the French taste and the
19. English energy.” His own dramas borrow from Shakespeare
20. with a freedom that impressed even those who translated
21. and adapted Voltaire’s plays for the English stage. In the
22. prologue to Aaron Hill’s Zara (1736), a version of Voltaire’s
23. Zaire, Colley Cibber says plainly:
24. From English plays, Zara’s French author fired,
25. Confessed his muse, beyond himself, inspired;
26. From rack’d Othello’s rage he raised his style
27. And snatched the brand that lights his tragic pile.
28. The prologue to James Miller’s version of Mahomet (1744)
29. is equally frank:
30. Britons, these numbers to yourselves you owe;
31. Voltaire hath strength to shoot in Shakespeare’s bow.
32. The monstrosities which Voltaire took pains to point out in
33. Shakespeare’s tragedies did not prevent him from borrowing
34. from such dramas as Othello, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth
35. and King Lear far more than he troubled himself to acknowledge.
36. Nor did his borrowings from Shakespeare measure his
37. indebtedness to English drama. William Duncombe’s adaptation
38. of Brutus (1734), which begins the long list of English
39. stage versions of Voltaire, brought upon the French dramatist
40. the charge of plagiarism from Lee’s restoration tragedy, Brutus.
The tone of the passage can be best described as