« PreviousContinue »
be properly transferred from the present poffeffor to another claimant. The choice is right, when there is reafon for choice.
Other dramatifts can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous and unexampled excellence or depravity, as the writers of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a giant and a dwarf, and he that should form his expectations of human affairs from the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakespeare has no heroes; his fcenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks' that he should himself have spoken or acted on the fame occafion : even where the agency is fupernatural, the dialogue is level with life. Other writers difguife the most natural paffions and most frequent incidents; so that he who contemplates them in the book will not know them in the world: Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were poffible, its effects would probably be fuch as he has affigned; and it may be faid, that he has not only shewn human nature as it acts in real exigences, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed.
This therefore is the praife of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious ecftafies, by reading human fentiments in human language; by fcenes from which a [A 4] hermit
hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confeffor predict the progrefs of the paffions.
His adherence to general nature has expofed him to the cenfure of criticks, who form their judgments upon narrower principles. Dennis and Rhymer think his Romans not fufficiently Roman; and Voltaire cenfures his kings as not completely royal. Dennis is offended, that Menenius, a fenator of Rome, fhould play the buffoon; and Voltaire perhaps thinks decency violated when the Danish ufurper is represented as a drunkard. But Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preferves the essential character, is not very careful of distinctions fuperinduced and adventitious. His story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men. He knew that Rome, like every other city, had men of all dispositions; and wanting a buffoon, he went into the fenate-house for that which the senate-house would certainly have afforded him. He was inclined to fhew an ufurper and a murderer not only odious, but defpicable; he therefore added drunkenness to his other qualities, knowing that kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural power upon kings. These are the petty cavils of petty minds; a poet overlooks the cafual distinction of country and condition, as a painter, fatisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.
The cenfure which he has incurred by mixing comick and tragick scenes, as it extends to all his works, deferves more confideration. Let the fact be firft ftated, and then examined,
Shakespeare's plays are not in the rigorous and critical fenfe either tragedies or comedies, but compofitions of a diftin&t kind; exhibiting the real ftate of fublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and forrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expreffing the courfe of the world, in which the lofs of one is the gain of another; in which, at the fame time, the reveller is hafting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without defign.
Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and cafualties the ancient poets, according to the laws which custom had prescribed, selected fome the crimes of men, and fome their abfurdities; fome the momentous viciffitudes of life, and fome the lighter occurrences; fome the terrors of diftrefs, and fome the gayeties of profperity. Thus rofe the two modes of imitation, known by the names of tragedy and comedy, compofitions intended to promote different ends by contrary means, and confidered as fo little allied, that I do not recollect among the Greeks or Romans a fingle writer who attempted both.
Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and forrow not only in one mind, but in one compofition. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the fucceffive evolutions of the defign, fometimes pro
duce seriousness and forrow, and fometimes levity and laughter.
That this is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism will be readily allowed; but there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature. The end of writing is to inftruct; the end of poetry is to inftruct by pleafing. That the mingled drama may convey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied, because it includes both in its alterations of exhibition, and approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life, by fhewing how great machinations and flender defigns may promote or obviate one another, and the high and the low co-operate in the general system by unavoidable concatenation.
It is objected, that by this change of scenes the paffions are interrupted in their progreffion, and that the principal event, being not advanced by a due gradation of preparatory incidents, wants at laft the power to move, which conftitutes the perfection of dramatick poetry. This reasoning is so specious, that it is received as true even by thofe who in daily experience feel it to be falfe. The interchanges of mingled scenes feldom fail to produce the intended viciffitudes of paffion. Fiction cannot move so much, but fo that the attention may be easily transferred; and though it must be allowed that pleasing melancholy be fometimes interrupted by unwelcome levity, yet let it be confidered likewise, that melancholy is often not pleasing, and that the disturbance of one man may be the relief of another; that different auditors
have different habitudes; and that, upon the whole, all pleasure consists in variety.
The players, who in their edition divided our au thor's works into comedies, hiftories, and tragedies, feem not to have distinguished the three kinds, by any very exact or definite ideas.
An action which ended happily to the principal persons, however ferious or distressful through its intermediate incidents, in their opinion constituted 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.
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 progress..
History was a series of actions, with no other than chronological fucceffion, independent on each other, and without any tendency to introduce or regulate the conclufion. It is not always very nicely diftinguished from tragedy. There is not much nearer approach to unity of action in the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, than in the history of Richard the Second. But a history might be continued through many plays; as it had no plan, it had no limits.