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That praises are without reason lavished on the | tative and experimental must be estimated by their dead, and that the honours due only to excellence proportion to the general and collective ability of are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be man, as it is discovered in a long succession of enalways continued by those, who, being able to add deavours. Of the first building that was raised, it nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the here might be with certainty determined that it was sies of paradox; or those, who, being forced by round or square; but whether it was spacious or disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are lofty must have been referred to time. The Pythawilling to hope from posterity what the present gorean scale of numbers was at once discovered to age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know which is yet denied by envy, will be at last bestowed not to transcend the common limits of human inby time.
telligence, but by remarking, that nation after Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts nation, and century after century, has been able to the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries do little more than transpose his incidents, new that reverence it, not from reason, but from preju- name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments. dice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately what- The reverence due to writings that have long ever bas been long preserved, without considering subsisted arises therefore not from any credulous that time has sometimes co-operated with chance; confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or all perhaps are more willing to honour past than gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, present excellence: and the mind contemplates but is the consequence of acknowledged and indugenius through the shades of age, as the eye sur- bitable positions, that what has been longest known veys the sun through artificial opacity. The great hast been most considered, and what is most concontention of criticism is to find the faults of the sidered is best understood. moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While The poet, of whose works I have undertaken an author is yet living, we estimate his powers by the revision, may now begin to assume the dignity his worst performance, and when he is dead we of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established rate them by his best.
fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outTo works, however, of which the excellence is lived his century, the term commonly fixed as the not absolute and definite, but gradual and compar- test of literary merit
. Whatever advantages he ative; to works not raised upon principles demon- might once derive from personal allusions, local strative and scientific, but appealing wholly to customs, or temporary opinions, have for many observation and experience, no other test can be years been lost; and every topic of merriment or applied than length of duration and continuance of motive of sorrow, which the modes of artificial life esteem. What mankind have long possessed they afforded him, now only obscure the scenes which have often examined and compared, and if they they once illuminated. The effects of favour and persist to value the possession, it is because fre- competition are at an end; the tradition of his quent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its friendships and his enmities has perished; his works favour. As among the works of nature, no man can support no opinion with arguments, nor supply any properly call a river deep, or a mountain high, with-faction with invectives; they can neither indulge out the knowledge of many moumtains, and many vanity, nor gratify malignity; but are read without rivers; so in the productions of genius, nothing any other reason than the desire of pleasure, and can be styled excellent till it has been compared are therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained; with other works of the same kind. Demonstration yet, thus unassisted by interest or passion, they immediately displays its power, and has nothing to have passed through variations of taste and chanhope or fear from the flux of years; but works ten- ges of manners, and, as they devolved from one
generation to another, have received new honours 1) First printed separately in 1765.
at every transmission.
But because human judgment, though it be gra- | never heard, upon topics which will never arise in dually gaining upon certainty, never becomes in the commerce of mankind. But the dialogue of this fallible; and approbation, though long continued, author is often so evidently determined by the inmay yet be only the approbation of prejudice or cident which produces it, and is pursued with so fashion; it is proper to inquire, by what peculiari- much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to ties of excellence Shakspeare has gained and kept claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned the favour of his countrymen.
by diligent selection out of common conversation, Nothing can please many, and please long, but and common occurrences. just representations of general nature. Particular Upon every other stage the universal agent is manners can be known to few, and therefore few love, by whose power all good and evil is distribonly can judge how nearly they are copied. The uted, and every action quickened or retarded. irregular combinations of fanciful invention may To bring a lover, a lady, and a rival into the fable; delight awhile, by that novelty of which the com- to entangle them in contradictory obligations, permon satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the plex them with oppositions of interest, and harass pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, them with violence of desires inconsistent with each and the mind can only repose on the stability other; to make them meet in rapture, and part in of truth.
agony; to fill their mouths with hyperbolical joy Shakspeare is above all writers, at least above and outrageous sorrow; to distress them as nothing all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet human ever was distressed; to deliver them as that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of nothing human ever was delivered, is the business manners and of life. His characters are not modi- of a modern dramatist. For this, probability is viofied by the customs of particular places, unpractised lated, life is misrepresented, and language is deby the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of stu- praved. But love is only one of many passions, and dies or professions, which can operate but upon as it has no great influence upon the siím of life, it small numbers; or by the accidents of transient has little operation in the dramas of a poet, who fashions or temporary opinions: they are the ge- caught his ideas from the living world, and exhibnuine
progeny of common humanity, such as the ited only what he saw before him. He knew, that world will always supply, and observation will al- any other passion, as it was regular or exorbitant, ways find. His persons act and speak by the in- was a cause of happiness or calamity. fluence of those general passions and principles by Characters thus ample and general were not which all minds are agitated, and the whole system easily discriminated and preserved, yet perhaps no of life is continued in motion. In the writings of poet ever kept his personages more distinct from other poets a character is too often an individual; each other. I will not say with Pope, that every in those of Shakspeare it is commonly a species. speech may be assigned to the proper speaker, be
It is from this wide extension of design that so cause many speeches there are which have nothing much instruction is derived. It is this which fills the characteristical; but, perhaps, though some may be plays of Shakspeare with practical axioms and do- | equally adapted to every person, it will be difficult mestic wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that every to find any that can be properly transferred from verse was a precept; and it may be said of Shak- the present possessor to another claimant. The speare, that from his works may be collected a sys- choice is right, when there is reason for choice. tem of civil and economical prudence. Yet his Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyreal power is not shown in the splendour of partic- perbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous ular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and and unexampled excellence or depravity, as the the tenor of his dialogue; and he that tries to re-writers of barbarous romances invigorated the commend him by select quotations, will succeed reader by a giant and a dwarf; and he that should like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered form his expectation of human affairs from the play, his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a or from the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakspecimen.
has no heroes ; his scenes are occupied only It will not easily be imagined how much Shak-by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks speare excels in accommodating his sentiments to that he should himself have spoken or acted on the real life, but by comparing him with other authors. same occasion; even where the agency is supernaIt was observed of the ancient schools of declam- tural, the dialogue is level with life. Other writers ation, that the more diligently they were frequented, disguise the most natural passions and most frethe more was the student disqualified for the world, quent incidents; so that he who contemplates them because he found nothing there which he should in the book will not know them in the world: Shakever meet in any other place. The same remark speare approximates the remote, and familiarizes may be applied to every stage but that of Shak- the wonderful; the event which he represents will speare. The theatre, when it is under any other not happen, but if it were possible, its effects would direction, is peopled by such characters as were probably be such as he has assigned; and it may never seen, conversing in a language which was be said, that he has not only shown human nature
as it acts in real exigencies, but as it would be lighter occurrences; some the terrors of distress, found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed. and some the gaieties of prosperity. Thus rose
This therefore is the praise of Shakspeare, that the two modes of imitation, known by the names his draina is the mirror of life; that he who has of tragedy and comedy, compositions intended to mazed his imagination, in following the phantoins promote different ends by contrary means, and which other writers raise up before him, may here considered as so little allied, that I do not recollect be cured of his delirious ecstacies, by reading hu- among the Greeks or Romans a single writer who man sentiments in human language; by scenes attempted both. from which a hermit may estiinate the transactions Shakspeare has united the powers of exciting of the world, and a confessor predict the progress laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in of the passions.
one composition. Almost all his plays are divided His adherence to general nature has exposed between serious and ludicrous characters, and in him to the censure of critics, who form their judg- the successive evolutions of the design, sometimes ments upon narrower principles. Depnis and Ry- produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes mer think bis Romans not sufficiently Roman, and levity and laughter.
Voltaire censures his kings as not completely royal. That this is a practice contrary to the rules of 1 Dennis is offended, that Menenius, a senator of criticisın will be readily allowed; but there is al
Rome, should play the buffoon; and Voltaire per- ways an appeal open from criticism to nature. The haps thinks deceney violated when the Danish end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is usurper is represented as a drunkard. But Shak- to instruct by pleasing. That the mingled drama speare always makes nature predominate over acci- may convey all the instruction of tragedy or codent; and if he preserves the essential character, is medy cannot be denied, because it includes both not very careful of distinctions superinduced and in its alternations of exhibition, and approaches adventitious. His story requires Romans or kings, nearer than either to the appearance of life, by but he thinks only on men. He knew that Rome, showing how great machinations and slender delike every other city, had men of all dispositions; signs may promote or obviate one another, and and wanting a buffoon, he went into the senate- the high and the low co-operate in the general syshouse for that which the senate-house would cer- tem by unavoidable concatenation. tainly have afforded hiin. He was inclined to show It is objected, that by this change of scenes the an usurper and a murderer not only odious, but passions are interrupted in their progression, and despicable; he therefore added drunkenness to his that the principal event, being not advanced by a other qualities, knowing that kings love wine like due gradation of preparatory incidents, wants at other men, and that wine exerts its natural power last the power to move, which constitutes the perupon kings. These are the petty cavils of petty fection of dramatic poetry. This reasoning is so minds; a poet overlooks the casual distinction of specious, that it is received as true even by those country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with who in daily experience feel it to be false. The inthe figure, neglects the drapery,
terchanges of mingled scenes seldom fail to proThe censure which he has incurred by mixing duce the intended vicissitudes of passion. Fiction comic and tragic scenes, as it extends to all his cannot move so much, but that the attention may works, deserves more consideration. Let the fact be easily transferred; and though it must be albe first stated, and then examined.
lowed that pleasing melancholy be sometimes inShakspeare's plays are not in the rigorous and terrupted by unwelcome levity, yet let it be consicritical sense either tragedies or comedies, but com- dered likewise, that melancholy is often not pleaspositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the realing, and that the disturbance of one man may be state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good the relief of another; that different auditors have and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless va- different habitudes; and that, upon the whole, all riety of proportion and innumerable modes of com- pleasure consists in variety. bination; and expressing the coursc of the world, The players, who in their edition divided our in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in author's works into comedies, histories, and tragewhich, at the same time, the reveller is hasting dies, seem not to have distinguished the three kinds, to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; by any very exact or definite ideas. in which the malignity of one is sometimes de- An action which ended happily to the principal feated by the frolic of another: and many mis- persons, however serious or distressful through its chiefs and many benefits are done and hindered intermediate incidents, in their opinion constituted without design.
a comedy. This idea of a comedy continued long Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and ca- amongst us, and plays were written, which, by sualties, the ancient poets, according to the laws changing the catastrophe, were tragedies to-day, which custom bad prescribed, selected some the and coinedies to-morrow. crimes of men, and some their absurdities; some Tragedy was not in those times a
more the momentous vicissitudes of life, and some the general dignity or elevation than comedy; it required only a calamitous conclusion, with which the to all times and to all places; they are natural, and common criticism of that age was satisfied, what therefore durable: the adventitious peculiarities of ever lighter pleasure it afforded in its progress. personal habits, are only superficial dies, bright
History was a series of actions, with no other and pleasing for a little while, yet soon fading to a than chronological succession, independent on each | dim tinct, without any remains of former lustre; other, and without any tendency to introduce and but the discriminations of true passion are the coregulate the conclusion. It is not always very lours of nature; they pervade the whole mass, and nicely distinguished from tragedy. There is not can only perish with the body that exhibits them. much nearer approach to unity of action in the tra- The accidental compositions of heterogeneous gedy of Antony and Cleopatra, than in the history modes are dissolved by the chance which combined of Richard the Second. But a history might be them; but the uniform simplicity of primitive qualcontinued through many plays; as it had no plan, | ities neither admits increase, nor suffers decay. it had no limits.
The sand heaped by one flood is scattered by anoThrough all these denominations of the drama, ther, but the rock always continues in its place. Shakspeare's mode of composition is the same; | The stream of time, which is continually washing an interchange of seriousness and merriment, by the dissoluble fabrics of other poets, passes without which the mind is softened at one time, and exhi- injury by the adamant of Shakspeare. larated at another. But whatever be his purpose, If there be, what I believe there is, in every nawhether to gladden or depress, or to conduct the tion, a style which never becomes obsolete, a certain story, without vehemence or emotion, through mode of phraseology so consonant and congenial tracts of easy and familiar dialogue, he never fails to the analogy and principles of its respective lanto attain his purpose; as he commands us, we laugh guage, as to remain settled and unaltered; this or mourn, or sit silent with quiet expectation, in style is probably to be sought in the common intertranquillity without indifference.
course of life, among those who speak only to be When Shakspeare's plan is understood, most of understood, without ambition of elegance. The the criticisms of Rymer and Voltaire vanish away. || polite are always catching modish innovations, and The play of Hamlet is opened, without impro- the learned depart from established forms of speech, priety, by two centinels; lago bellows at Braban- | in hope of finding or making better; those who tio's window, without injury to the scheme of the wish for distinction forsake the vulgar, when the play, though in terms which a modern audience | vulgar is right: but there is a conversation above would not easily endure; the character of Polonius grossness and below refinement, where propriety is seasonable and useful; and the Gravediggers resides, and where this poet seems to have gathemselves may be heard with applause.
thered his comic dialogue. He is therefore more Shakspeare engaged in dramatic poetry with | agreeable to the ears of the present age than any the world open before him; the rules of the an- other author equally remote, and among his other cients were yet known to few; the public judgment excellencies deserves to be studied as one of the was unformed; he had no example of such fame as original masters of our language. might force him upon imitation, nor critics of such These observations are to be considered not as authority as might restrain his extravagance: he unexceptionably constant, but as containing genetherefore indulged his natural disposition, and his ral and predominant truth. Shakspeare's familiar disposition, as Rymer has remarked, led him to co- dialogue is affirmed to be smooth and clear, yet medy. In tragedy he often writes with great ap- not wholly without ruggedness or difficulty: as a pearance of toil and study, what is written at last country may be eminently fruitful, though it has with little felicity; but in his comic scenes, he seems spots unfit for cultivation: his characters are praised to produce without labour, what no labour can im- | as natural, though their sentiments are sometimes prove. In tragedy he is always struggling after forced, and their actions improbable; as the earth some occasion to be comic, but in comedy he seems upon the whole is spherical, though its surface is to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking varied with protuberances and cavities. congenial to his nature. In his tragic scenes there Shakspeare with his excellences has likewise is always something wanting, but his comedy often faults, and faults sufficient to obscure and oversurpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases whelm any other merit. I shall show them in the by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy proportion in which they appear to me, without for the greater part by incident and action. His envious malignity or superstitious veneration. No tragedy seems to be skill
, his comedy to be instinct. question can be more innocently discussed than a The force of his comic scenes has suffered little dead poet's pretensions to renown; and little rediminution from the changes made by a century gard is due to that bigotry which sets eandour and a half, in manners or in words. As his person- higher than truth. ages act upon principles arising from genuine His first defect is that to which may be imputed passion, very little modified by particular forms, most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices their pleasures and vexations are communicable virtue to convenience, and is so much more care
ful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write some modes of gaiety preferable to others, and a without any moral purpose. From his writings in writer ought to choose the best. deed a system of social duty may be selected, for In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be that thinks reasonably must think morally; but be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions of his precepts and axioms drop casually from him ; passion, which exigence forces out, are for the he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor most part striking and energetic; but whenever he is always careful to show in the virtuous a disap- solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the probation of the wicked; he carries his persons in- offspring of his throes is tumour, meanness, tedious
differently through right and wrong, and at the ness, and obscurity. ! close dismisses them without further care, and In narration he affects a disproportionate pomp
leaves their examples to operate by chance. This of diction, and a wearisome train of circumlocution, fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, it is always a writer's duty to make the world better, which might have been more plainly delivered in and justice is a virtue independent on time or place. few. Narration in dramatic poetry is naturally
The plots are often so loosely formed, that a tedious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obvery slight consideration may improve them, and structs the progress of the action; it should there50 carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fore always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent fully to comprehend his own design. He omits op- interruption. Shakspeare found it an incumbrance, portunities of instructing or delighting, which the and instead of lightening it by brevity, endeavoured train of his story seems to force upon him, and to recommend it by dignity and splendor. apparently rejects those exhibitions which would His declamations or set speeches are commonly be more affecting, for the sake of those which are cold and weak, for his power was the power of namore easy
ture; when he endeavoured, like other tragic wriIt may be observed that in many of his plays the ters, to catch opportunities of amplification, and latter part is evidently neglected. When he found instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, himself near the end of his work, and in view of to show how much his stores of knowledge could his reward, he shortened the labour, to snatch the supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or reprofit. He therefore remits his efforts where he sentinent of his reader. should most vigorously exert them, and his catas- It is incident to him to be now and then entrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly re- tangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he canpresented.
not well express, and will not reject; he struggles He bad no regard to distinction of time or place, with it a while, and if it continues stubborn, combut gives to one age or nation, withont scruple, the prises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be customs, institutions, and opinions of another, at disentangled and evolved by those who have more the expence not only of likelihood, but of possibil leisure to bestow upon it. ity. These faults Pope has endeavoured with more Not that always where the language is intricate, zeal than judgment, to transfer to his imagined in the thought is subtle, or the image always great terpolators. We need not to wonder to find Hector where the line is bulky; the equality of words to quoting Aristotle, when we see the loves of The things is very often neglected, and trivial sentiseus and Hyppolyta combined with the Gothic my-ments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, thology of fairies. Shakspeare, indeed, was not the to which they are recommended by sonorous epicnly violator of chronology, for in the same age thets and swelling figures. Sidney, who wanted not the advantages of learning, But the admirers of this great poet have most has, in his Arcadia, confounded the pastoral with reason to complain when he approaches nearest to the feudal times, the days of innocence, quiet, and his highest excellence, and seems fully resolved to security, with those of turbulence, violence, and sink them in dejection and mollify them with tenadventure.
der emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger In his comic scenes, he is seldom very successful, of innocence, or the crosses of love. What he does when he engages his characters in reciprocations best, he soon ceases to do. He is not long soft and of smartness and contests of sarcasm; their jests pathetic without some idle conceit, or contemptible are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licen- equivocation. He no sooner begins to move, than tious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have he counteracts himself; and terror and pity, as much delicacy, nor are sufficiently distinguished they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted from his clowns by any appearance of refined man- by sudden frigidity. ners. Whether he represented the real conversation A quibble is to Shakspeare, what luminous vaof his time is not easy to determine; the reign of pours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adElizabeth is commonly supposed to have been a ventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and time of stateliness, formality, and reserve, yet per- sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malighaps the relaxations of that severity were not very nant power over his mind, and its fascinations elegant. There must, however, have been always are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or pro