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I cannot however but mention some of his principal and characteristic Excellencies, for which (notwithstanding his defects) he is justly and universally elevated above all other Dramatick Writers. Not that this is the proper place of praising him, but because I would not omit any occasion of doing it.
If ever any Author deserved the name of an Original, it was Shakespear. Homer himself drew. not his art so immediately from the fountains of Nature, it proceeded thro' Ægyptian strainers and channels, and came to him not without some tincture of the learning, or some cast of the models, of those before him. The Poetry of Shakespear was Inspiration indeed : he is not so much an Imitator, as an Instrument, of Nature ; and 'tis not so just to say that he speaks from her, as that the speaks thro’ him.
His Characters are so much Nature her self, that 'tis a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as Copies of her. Those of other Poets have a constant resemblance, which shews that they receivid them from one another, and were but multiplyers of the fame image : each picture like a mock-rainbow is but the reflexion of a reflexion. But every fingle character in Shakespear is as much an Individual, as those in Life it self; it is as impossible to find any two alike ; and such as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be Twins, will upon comparison be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of Character, we must add the wonderful Preferyation of it; which is such throughout his Plays, that had all the Speeches been printed without the very names of the Persons, I believe one might have apply'd them with certainty to
The Power over our Pasions was never possess’d in a more eminent degree, or display'd in so different instances. Yet all along, there is seen no labour, no pains to raise them; no preparation to guide our guess to the effect, or be perceiy’d to lead toward it. But the heart swells, and the tears burst out, just at the proper places: We are surpriz’d, the moment we weep; and yet upon reflection find the passion fo just, that we shou'd be surpriz’d if we had not wept, and wept at that very moment.
How astonishing is it again, that the Passions directly opposite to these, Laughter and Spleen, are no less at his command! that he is not more a master of the Great, than of the Ridiculous in human nature; of our noblest tendernesses, than of our vainest foibles; of our strongest emotions, than of our idlest sensations !
Nor does he only excel in the Passions : In the coolness of Reflection and Reasoning he is full as admirable. His Sentiments are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious upon every subject; but by a talent very peculiar, something between Penetration and Felicity, he hits upon that particular point on which the bent of each argument turns, or the force of each motive depends. This is perfectly amazing, from a Man of no education or experience in those great and publick scenes of life which are usually the subject of his thoughts : So that he seems to have known the world by Intuition, to have look'd thro' human nature at one glance, and to be
the only Author that gives ground for a very new opinion, That the Philosopher and even the Man of the world, may be Born, as well as the Poet.
It must be own’d that with all these great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, so he has perhaps written worse, than any other. But I think I can in some measure account for these defects, from several causes and accidents; without which it is hard to imagine that so large and so enlighten'd a mind could ever have been susceptible of them. That all these Contingencies should unite to his disadvantage seems to me almost as singularly unlucky, as that so many various (nay contrary) Talents should meet in one man, was happy and extraordinary.
It must be allowed that Stage-Poetry of all other, is more particularly levell’d to please the Populace, and its success more immediately depending upon the Common Suffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakespear having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a subsistence, directed his endeavours solely to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed. The Audience was generally composed of the meaner sort of people; and therefore the Images of Life were to be drawn from those of their own rank: accordingly we find, that not our Author's only but almost all the old Comedies have their Scene among Tradesmen and Mechanicks: And even their Historical Plays strictly follow the common Old Stories or Vulgar Traditions of that kind of people. In Tragedy, nothing was so fure to Surprize and cause Admiration, as the most strange, unexpected, and consequently most unnatural, Events and Incidents; the most exaggerated Thoughts; the most verbose and bombast Expression; the most pompous Rhymes, and thundering Versification. In Comedy, nothing was so sure to Please, as mean buffoonry, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jests of fools and clowns. Yet even in these, our Author's Wit buoys up, and is born above his subject: his Genius in those low parts is like some Prince of a Romance in the disguise of a Shepherd or Peasant; a certain Greatness and Spirit now and then break out, which manifest his higher extraction and qualities. It
may be added, that not only the common Audience had no notion of the rules of writing, but few even of the better fort piqu'd themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way; 'till Ben Johnson getting possession of the Stage, brought critical learning into vogue: And that this was not done without difficulty, may appear from those frequent leffons (and indeed almost Declamations) which he was forced to prefix to his first plays, and put into the mouth of his Actors, the Grex, Chorus, &c. to remove the prejudices, and inform the judgment of his hearers. 'Till then, our Authors had no thoughts of writing on the model of the Ancients: their Tragedies were only Histories in Dialogue; and their Comedies followed the thread of any Novel as they found it, no less implicitly than if it had been true History.
To judge therefore of Shakespear by Aristotle's rules, is like trying a man by the laws of one Country, who acted under those of another. He writ to the People; and writ at first without patronage from
the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleasing them: without assistance or advice from the Learned, as without the advantage of education or acquaintance among them: without that knowledge of the best models, the Ancients, to inspire him with an emulation of them; in a word, without any views of Reputation, and of what Poets are pleas'd to call Immortality: Some or all of which have encourag'd the vanity, or animated the ambition, of other writers.
Yet it must be observ'd, that when his performances had merited the protection of his Prince, and when the encouragement of the Court had succeeded to that of the Town; the works of his riper years are manifestly raised above those of his former. The Dates of his plays sufficiently evidence that his productions improved, in proportion to the respect he had for his auditors. And I make no doubt this observation would be found true in every instance, were but Editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was composed, and whether writ for the Town, or the Court.
Another Cause (and no less strong than the former) may be deduced from our Author's being a Player, and forming himself first upon the judgments of that body of men whereof he was a member. · They have ever had a Standard to themselves, upon other principles than those of Aristotle. As they live by the Majority, they know no rule but that of pleasing the present humour, and complying with the wit in fashion; a consideration which brings all their judgment to a short point.