Page images

ed by every eye, and their fentiments acknowledged by every breaft. Those whom their fame invites to the fame ftudies, copy partly them, and partly nature, till the books of one age gain fuch authority, as to stand in the place of nature to another, and imitation, always deviating a little, becomes at laft capricious and cafual. Shakspeare, whether life or nature be his fubject, fhows plainly, that he has feen with his own eyes; he gives the image which he receives, not weakened or distorted by the intervention of any other mind; the ignorant feel his reprefentations to be juft, and the learned fee that they are complete.

Perhaps it would not be easy to find any author, except Homer, who invented fo much as Shakfpeare, who fo much advanced the ftudies which he cultivated, or effufed fo much novelty upon his age or country. The form, the character, the language, and the fhows of the English drama are his. He feems, fays Dennis, to have been the very origi nal of our English tragical harmony, that is, the harmony of blank verfe, diversified often by diffyllable and triffyllable terminations. For the diverfity diftinguishes it from heroick harmony, and by bringing it nearer to common ufe makes it more proper to gain attention, and more fit for action and dialogue. Such verfe we make when we are writing profe; we make fuch verfe in common converfation."

Thus, alfo, Dryden, in the Epiftle Dedicatory to his Rival Ladies: " Shakespear (who with fome errors not to be avoided in that age, had, undoubtedly, a larger foul of poefie than ever any of our nation) was the firft, who, to fhun the pains of continual rhyming, invented that kind of writing which we call blank verfe, but the French more properly, profe mefurée; into which the English tongue fo naturally flides, that in writing profe 'tis hardly to be avoided." STEEVENS.

I know not whether this praise is rigorously juft The diffyllable termination, which the critick rightly appropriates to the drama, is to be found, though, I think, not in Gorboduc, which is confeffedly before our author; yet in Hieronymo," of which the date is not certain, but which there is reason to believe at least as old as his earliest plays. This however is certain, that he is the firft who taught either tragedy or comedy to please, there being no theatrical piece of any older writer, of which the name is known, except to antiquaries and collectors of books, which are fought because they are scarce, and would not have been scarce, had they been much efteemed.

To him we must ascribe the praise, unless Spenfer may divide it with him, of having firft discovered to how much smoothness and harmony the English language could be foftened. He has fpeeches, perhaps fometimes fcenes, which have all the delicacy of Rowe, without his effeminacy. He endeavours indeed commonly to ftrike by the force and vigour of his dialogue, but he never executes his purpose better, than when he tries to footh by


Yet it must be at laft confeffed, that as we owe every thing to him, he owes fomething to us; that, if much of his praife is paid by perception and judgment, much is likewife given by cuftom and veneration. We fix our eyes upon his graces, and turn them from his deformities, and endure in him what we fhould in another loath or defpife. If we endured without praifing, respect for the father of

It appears from the Induction of Ben Jonfon's Bartholomew Fair, to have been acted before the year 1590. See also Vol. X. p. 344, n. 3. STEEVENS.

our drama might excufe us; but I have feen, in the book of fome modern critick, a collection of anomalies, which fhow that he has corrupted language by every mode of depravation, but which his admirer has accumulated as a monument of honour.

He has fcenes of undoubted and perpetual excellence, but perhaps not one play, which, if it were now exhibited as the work of a contemporary writer, would be heard to the conclufion. I am indeed far from thinking, that his works were wrought to his own ideas of perfection; when they were fuch as would fatisfy the audience, they fatisfied the writer. It is feldom that authors, though more ftudious of fame than Shakspeare, rife much above the standard of their own age; to add a little to what is beft will always be fufficient for prefent praife, and those who find themfelves exalted into fame, are willing to credit their encomiafts, and to fpare the labour of contending with themselves.

It does not appear, that Shakspeare thought his works worthy of pofterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had any further profpect, than of prefent popularity and prefent profit. When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end; he folicited no addition of honour from the reader. He therefore made no fcruple to repeat the fame jefts in many dialogues, or to entangle different plots by the fame knot of perplexity, which may be at leaft forgiven him, by thofe who recollect, that of Congreve's four comedies, two are concluded by a marriage in a mafk, by a deception, which perhaps never happened, and which, whether likely or not, he did not invent.

So careless was this great poet of future fame,

that, though he retired to ease and plenty, while he was yet little declined into the vale of years, before he could be difgufted with fatigue, or difabled by infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor, defired to rescue thofe that had been already published from the depravations that obfcured them, or fecure to the reft a better deftiny, by giving them to the world in their genuine ftate.

Of the plays which bear the name of Shakspeare in the late editions, the greater part were not publifhed till about feven years after his death, and the few which appeared in his life are apparently thrust into the world without the care of the author, and therefore probably without his knowledge.

Of all the publifhers, clandeftine or profeffed, the negligence and unfkilfulness has by the late revisers been fufficiently fhown. The faults of all are indeed numerous and grofs, and have not only corrupted many paffages perhaps beyond recovery, but have brought others into fufpicion, which are only obfcured by obfolete phrafeology, or by the writer's unfkilfulness and affectation. To alter is more eafy than to explain, and temerity is a more common quality than diligence. Those who faw that they must employ conjecture to a certain degree, were willing to indulge it a little further. Had the author publifhed his own works, we should have fat quietly down to difentangle his intricacies, and clear his obfcurities; but now we tear what we cannot loose, and eject what we happen not to understand.

The faults are more than could have happened

What Montaigne has faid of his own works may almost be applied to thofe of Shakspeare, who "n'avoit point d'autre fergent de bande à ranger fes pieces, que la fortune." STEEVENS.


without the concurrence of many causes. ftyle of Shakspeare was in itself ungrammatical, perplexed, and obfcure; his works were tranfcribed for the players by thofe who may be fupposed to have feldom understood them; they were tranfmitted by copiers equally unfkilful, who still multiplied errors; they were perhaps fometimes mutilated by the actors, for the fake of fhortening the fpeeches; and were at laft printed without correction of the press.9

[ocr errors]

In this state they remained, not as Dr. Warburton fuppofes, because they were unregarded, but becaufe the editor's art was not yet applied to modern languages, and our ancestors were accustomed to fo much negligence of English printers, that they could very patiently endure it. At laft an edition was undertaken by Rowe; not because a poet was to be published by a poet, for Rowe feems to have thought very little on correction or explanation, but that our author's works might appear like thofe of his fraternity, with the appendages of a life and

9 Much deserved cenfure has been thrown out on the careleffnefs of our ancient printers, as well as on the wretched tranfcripts they obtained from contemporary theatres. Yet I cannot help obferving that, even at this inftant, fhould any one undertake to publish a play of Shakspeare from pages of no greater fidelity than fuch as are iffued out for the ufe of performers, the prefs would teem with as interpolated and inextricable nonfenfe as it produced above a century ago. Mr. Colman (who cannot be fufpected of ignorance or mifreprefentation) in his preface to the last edition of Beaumont and Fletcher, very forcibly ftyles the prompter's books" the most inaccurate and barbarous of all manufcripts." And well may they deserve that character for verfe (as I am informed) ftill continues to be tranfcribed as profe by a set of mercenaries, who in general have neither the advantage of literature or understanding. Foliis tantum ne carmina manda, ne turbata volent ludibria, was the requeft of Virgil's Hero to the Sybil, and fhould alfo be the fupplication of every dramatick poet to the agents of a prompter. STEEVENS.

« PreviousContinue »