chapter  33
1 Pages

Voltaire, ‘Art Dramatique’, in Questions sur l’Encyclopédie

I cast my eyes over an edition of Shakespeare produced by Mr. Samuel Johnson. I found that he describes as ‘petty minds’ those foreigners who are astonished to find in plays by the great Shakespeare that ‘a Roman senator should play the buffoon and a king should appear drunk on the stage’.1 Far be it from me to suspect that Mr. Johnson is given to clumsy jokes or is over-addicted to wine; but I find it rather extraordinary that he should include buffoonery and drunkenness among the beauties of the tragic theatre; the reason he gives for doing so is not less remarkable. ‘The poet’, he says, ‘overlooks the casual distinction of condition and country, as a painter who, satisfied with having painted the figure, neglects the drapery.’ The comparison would have been more accurate if he had been speaking of a painter who introduced ridiculous clowns into a noble subject, or portrayed Alexander the Great mounted on an ass at the battle of Arbela and the wife of Darius drinking with the rabble in a common tavern.