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An action which ended happily to the principal perfons, however ferious or diftrefsful through its intermediate incidents, in their opinion conftituted a comedy. This idea of a comedy continued long amongst us, and plays were written, which, by changing the catastrophe, were tragedies to-day, and comedies to-morrow.9
Tragedy was not in those times a poem of more general dignity or elevation than comedy; it required only a calamitous conclufion, with which the common criticism of that age was fatisfied, whatever lighter pleasure it afforded in its progrefs.
History was a feries of actions, with no other than chronological fucceffion, independent on each other, and without any tendency to introduce and regulate the conclufion. It is not always very nicely distinguished from tragedy. There is not much nearer approach to unity of action in the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, than in the hiftory of Richard the Second. But a history might be continued through many plays; as it had no plan, it had no limits.
Through all these denominations of the drama, Shakspeare's mode of compofition is the fame; an interchange of seriousness and merriment, by which the mind is foftened at one time, and exhilarated at another. But whatever be his purpose, whether to gladden or deprefs, or to conduct the ftory, without vehemence or emotion, through tracts of eafy and familiar dialogue, he never fails to attain his
9 Thus, fays Downes the Prompter, p. 22: The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet was made fome time after  into a tragicomedy, by Mr. James Howard, he preferving Romeo and Juliet alive; fo that when the tragedy was revived again, 'twas play'd alternately, tragical one day, and tragi-comical another, for several days together." STEEVENS.
purpofe; as he commands us, we laugh or mourn, or fit filent with quiet expectation, in tranquillity without indifference.
When Shakspeare's plan is understood, moft of the criticisms of Rymer and Voltaire vanish away. The play of Hamlet is opened, without impropriety, by two centinels; Iago bellows at Brabantio's window, without injury to the fcheme of the play, though in terms which a modern audience would not easily endure; the character of Polonius is feasonable and useful; and the Gravediggers themfelves may be heard with applaufe.
Shakspeare engaged in dramatick poetry with the world open before him; the rules of the ancients were yet known to few; the publick judgment was unformed; he had no example of fuch fame as might force him upon imitation, nor criticks of fuch authority as might reftrain his extravagance : he therefore indulged his natural difpofition, and his difpofition, as Rymer has remarked, led him to comedy. In tragedy he often writes with great appearance of toil and ftudy, what is written at last with little felicity; but in his comick fcenes, he feems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy he is always ftruggling after fome occafion to be comick, but in comedy he feems to repofe, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragick scenes there is always fomething wanting, but his comedy often furpaffes expectation or defire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.'
In the rank and order of geniuses it muft, I think, be allowed, that the writer of good tragedy is fuperior. And there
The force of his comick scenes has fuffered little diminution from the changes made by a century and a half, in manners or in words. As his perfonages act upon principles arifing from genuine paffion, very little modified by particular forms, their pleafures and vexations are communicable to all times and to all places; they are natural, and therefore durable; the adventitious peculiarities of perfonal habits, are only fuperficial dies, bright and pleafing for a little while, yet foon fading to a dim tinct, without any remains of former luftre; and the difcrimination of true paffion are the colours of nature; they pervade the whole mafs, and can only perish with the body that exhibits them. The accidental compofitions of heterogeneous modes are diffolved by the chance that combined them but the uniform fimplicity of primitive qualities neither admits increafe, nor fuffers decay. fand heaped by one flood is fcattered by another, but the rock always continues in its place. The ftream of time, which is continually washing the diffoluble fabricks of other poets, paffes without injury by the adamant of Shakspeare.
If there be, what I believe there is, in every nation, a ftyle which never becomes obfolete, a certain mode of phrafeology fo confonant and congenial to the analogy and principles of its refpective language, as to remain fettled and unaltered: this ftyle is probably to be fought in the common intercourfe of life, among those who speak only to be understood, without ambition of elegance.
fore, I think the opinion, which I am forry to perceive gains ground, that Shakspeare's chief and predominant talent lay in comedy, tends to leffen the unrivalled excellence of our divine bard. J. WArton.
See Vol. XIX. p. 529, for Philips's remark on this fubject. STEEVENS.
The polite are always catching modifh innovations, and the learned depart from established forms of fpeech, in hope of finding or making better; those who with for diftinction forfake the vulgar, when the vulgar is right; but there is a converfation above groffnefs and below refinement, where propriety refides, and where this poet feems to have gathered his comick dialogue. He is therefore more agreeable to the ears of the prefent age than any other author equally remote, and among his other excellencies deferves to be ftudied as one of the original mafters of our language.
Thefe obfervations are to be confidered not as unexceptionably conftant, but as containing general and predominant truth. Shakspeare's familiar dialogue is affirmed to be fmooth and clear, yet not wholly without ruggedness or difficulty; as a country may be eminently fruitful, though it has fpots unfit for cultivation: his characters are praised as natural, though their fentiments are fometimes forced, and their actions improbable; as the earth upon the whole is fpherical, though its furface is varied with protuberances and cavities.
Shakspeare with his excellencies has likewife faults, and faults fufficient to obfcure and overwhelm any other merit. I fhall fhow them in the proportion in which they appear to me, without envious malignity or fuperftitious veneration. queftion can be more innocently difcuffed than a dead poet's pretenfions to renown; and little regard is due to that bigotry which fets candour higher than truth.
His firft defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He facrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to inftruct, that he seems to write
without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a fyftem of focial duty may be felected, for he that thinks reasonably muft think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop cafually from him; he makes no juft diftribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to fhow in the virtuous a difapprobation of the wicked; he carries his perfons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the clofe difmiffes them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer's duty to make the world better, and juftice is a virtue independent on time or place.
The plots are often fo loosely formed, that a very flight confideration may improve them, and fo carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own defign. He omits opportunities of inftructing or delighting, which the train of his ftory feems to force upon him, and apparently rejects thofe exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the fake of those which are more easy.
It may be obferved, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and in view of his reward, he fhortened the labour to fnatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he fhould moft vigorously exert them, and his cataftrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly reprefented.
He had no regard to diftinction of time or place, but gives to one age or nation, without fcruple, the customs, inftitutions, and opinions of another, at the expence not only of likelihood, but of poffibility. These faults Pope has endeavoured, with more zeal than judgment, to transfer to his imagined interpolators. We need not wonder to find Hector.