Sunday, January 11, 2015

Coleridge's Remorse

In 1811, Samuel Taylor Coleridge began a series of lectures of Shakespeare and Milton. The lectures, which were preserved in shorthand form, show the poet had a tremendous grasp of drama. They also attracted some future playwrights, including Lord Byron.

The early lectures were less than spectacular, perhaps in part because Coleridge was suffering from opium-induced severe constipation. However, by the seventh lecture, given on December 9, 1811, Coleridge was hitting his stride, speaking insightfully about Romeo and Juliet. In one particularly good passage, his discussion of the play seemed to rise to the level of rhapsody:

Romeo became enamoured of the ideal he formed in his own mind & then as it were christened the first real being as that which he desired. He appeared to be in love with Rosaline, but in truth he was in love only with his own idea. He felt the necessity of being beloved which no noble mind can be without: Shakespeare then introduces Romeo to Juliet and makes it not only a violent but permanent love at first sight which had been so often ridiculed in Shakespeare.

The lectures expressed Coleridge's opinions about drama, though the sentiments were not always entirely original. Beginning with his ninth lecture, he began borrowing heavily from August Wilhelm Schlegel, whose German theories of vegetable genius greatly influenced a number of Romantic writers.

When he got to Hamlet in the twelfth lecture, delivered on January 2, 1812, Coleridge articulated the Romantic vision of the Danish prince as a man of brilliance incapable of making up his mind:

Yet with all this sense of duty, this resolution arising out of conviction nothing is done: this admirable & consistent character, deeply acquainted with his own feelings, painting them with such wonderful power & accuracy, and just as strongly convinced of the fitness of executing the solemn charge committed to him, still yields to the same retiring from all reality, which is the result of having what we express by the term a world within himself.

Around this time, Coleridge had influence over another future playwright, Percy Bysshe Shelley. The young Shelley bought copies of all of Coleridge's works and spoke of him as the most important literary figure of the time. The two were supposed to meet in February of 1812, but just missed each other.

Eventually, Coleridge's own work did reach the stage, and on January 23, 1813, Drury Lane premiered his tragedy Remorse, a reworking of his earlier play Osorio. The play was an enormous success, with an initial run of twenty nights. Coleridge wrote of the triumph to his wife:

You will have heard, that on my entering the Box on Saturday Night I was discovered by the Pit--& that they all turned their faces toward our Box, & gave a treble chear of Claps, I mention these things because it will please Southey to hear that there is a large number of Persons in London, who hail with enthusiasm any prospect of the Stage's becoming purified & rendered classical. My success, if I succeed (of which, I assure you, I entertain doubts in my opinion well-founded, both from the want of a prominent Actor for Ordonio, & from the want of vulgar Pathos...) but if I succeed, I succeed for others as well as for myself--

Of course, he did succeed, and was now Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Playwright. And as he predicted, he succeeded not just for himself, but for others, too. The success of Remorse no doubt helped to spur Byron to write Manfred and Shelley to write The Cenci. Neither of those plays were performed within their authors' short lifetimes, but they both came to have an extraordinary impact on the theatre to come.

Even Leigh Hunt, a political enemy of Coleridge, reluctantly had to give Remorse its due. In an article on tragic actors published in February of 1815, Hunt called the play "the only tragedy touched with real poetry for the last fifty years." This is perhaps too harsh, as it leaves out Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Pizarro, and De Montfort by Joanna Baillie. Still, Remorse helped to inspire a younger generation, including Byron and Shelley, so that it would not be the only great tragedy written for the next fifty years