Page images

achievement—as mean, petulant, and ostentatious, and indebted for a little reputation to the circumstance of bis having Pope for an opponent. Sir Thomas Hanmer was the next who undertook to illustrate Shakspeare: his work was published in 1744, in 6 vols. 4to. He is generally termed the "Oxford editor;" and, though eminently qualified by nature for such pursuits, is said to have adopted all the innovations of Pope, in addition to the capricious suggestions of his own taste. In 1747, Dr. Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, published his edition in 8 vols. 8vo., and by an unbounded license in substituting his own chimerical conceits for the plain text of his author, subjected himself to the imputation of wishing rather to display his own learning, than to illustrate the obscurities of the poet. It has been said, indeed, of this celebrated critic, that he erected his throne on a heap of stones, that he might have them at hand to throw at the heads of all who passed by; but though his interpretations are sometimes perverse, and bis conjectures improbablethough be occasionally discovers absurdities where the sense is plain, or dwells upon profundity of meaning which the author never contemplated, yet his emendations are frequently happy, and his commentaries learned and ingenious. In 1765, that distinguished moralist, scholar, and critic, Dr. Samuel Johnson, published these plays with additional criticisms, accompanying them with a preface, which is considered a perfect specimen of his own extraordinary genius, and in which, also, the respective merits of all the abovenamed editors are characterized with great candour, and with singular fertility of expression. It is said, that he has commented on the writings of Shakspeare with a severity far removed from accuracy and justice, and that he did not fully understand the varied merits of his author. But Mr. Malone, in the very intelligent and amusing preface to his edition of our poet, published in 1790, vindicates the Doctor's happy and just refutation of Mr. Theobald and Warburton's false glosses, and asserts that his vigorous and comprehensive understanding threw more light on the involved and difficult passages of many plays, than the united labour of all his predecessors had been able to do. In the edition of 1803, published by Mr. Steevens, (in 21 vols. 8vo. commonly called Johnson and Steevens's Shakspeare, and justly esteemed the best,) all Mr. Malone's original notes and improvements are incorporated. From 1716 to 1790, a period of seventy-four years, thirty thousand copies of Shakspeare were circulated in England; and since that time, the number has at least been doubled. Some of them issued under the auspices of able and accomplished scholars, particularly the edition of 1805, 10 vols. 8vo. by Alexander Chalmers, F.S.A.; which is distinguished by a sketch of the life of Shakspeare, founded upon the statements of Rowe, with the additional and corrective remarks of Malone and Steevens. The generality, however, are mere reprints, with various degrees of typographical embellishments, and in almost every size and shape; but the magnificent copy published some time since by the Messrs. Boydell, in large folio, enriched with the most sumptuous engravings, is justly considered as one of the finest specimens of art ever produced in this, or in any other country.

Nothing is more difficult, in estimating the real merits of a popular writer, than to "season the admiration" by judicious rules. These can only be learnt from the opinions of such as have made it their particular business to investigate the pretensions of authors, and to define the boundaries of taste by the best examples which learning and experience supply. Some useful information, applicable to this purpose, may be gained from the following analysis, exhibiting the most formidable objections that have been urged against Shakspeare's dramas, in conjunction with the principal merits by which they are said to be distinguished.

Voltaire, after allowing that Shakspeare, besides possessing a strong fruitful genius, was natural and sublime, decides that he had not one spark of good taste, nor a single dramatic rule, and that his great merit has been the ruin of the English stage. "There are (says he) such noble, such beautiful, such dreadful scenes in this writer's monstrous verses, to which the name of tragedy is given, that they have always been exhibited with great success. Time, which only gives reputation to writers, at last makes their very faults venerable. Most of the whimsical gigantic images of this poet, have, through length of time, acquired a right of passing for sublime. In Othello, a most tender piece, a man strangles his wife upon the stage, and though the poor woman is strangling, she cries out aloud that she dies very unjustly. In Hamlet, the two grave-diggers are drunk, singing ballads, and making humorous reflections on the skulls which they throw up. The players have not even struck out the buffoonery of the shoemakers and cobblers, who are introduced (in Julius Cæsar) in the same scene with Brutus and Cassius."

These, says Dr. Johnson, are the petty cavils of petty minds. Shakspeare's plays are not, in the rigorous and critical sense, either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind, exhibiting the mingled good and evil, joy and sorrow, inseparable from this sublunary state. That this is a practice contrary to ancient dramatic rules, will be readily allowa; but there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature. The end of writing

is to instruct; the end of poetry, to instruct by pleasing; and there is no reason why the mingled drama should not convey all the pleasure and instruction of which tragedy or comedy, in their simple form, are capable of doing. The English nation, in the time of Shakspeare, was yet struggling to emerge from barbarity. The philology of Italy had been transplanted hither in the reign of Henry VIII., and the learned languages had been successfully cultivated by Lilly, Linacre, and More; by Pole, Cheke, and Gardiner; and afterwards by Smith, Clerk, Haddon, and Ascham. Greek was taught in the public schools, and many of the Italian and Spanish poets were read with great diligence. But these advantages were confined to distinguished rank, whilst the public at large was still gross and dark. Plebeian learning was confined to giants, dragons, and enchantments; and the sober representations of common life would not have been tolerated by a nation which delighted in the wonders of fiction, in the exploits of Palmerin, and the feats of Guy of Warwick. Writing for such audiences as these, Shakspeare was compelled to look around for strange events and fabulous transactions; and that incredibility by which maturer knowledge is offended, was the chief recommendation of his writings to unskilfal curiosity. Such, indeed, is the power of the marvellous, even over those who despise it, that every man finds his mind more strongly seized by the tragedies of Shakspeare than of any other writer; and he has, perhaps, excelled all but Homer, in the leading qualifications of a writer, by the power of exciting a restless and unquenchable curiosity. The necessity of observing the unities of time and place, arises from the supposed necessity of making the drama credible; but it will be found that the slavish adherence to these principles, which Voltaire and others so rigidly enforce, gives much more trouble to the poet, than pleasure to the audience. It is false that any representation is mistaken for reality; for if a spectator can once be persuaded that his old acquaintance are Alexander and Cæsar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharsalia, he is in a state of elevation beyond the reach of truth, and there is no reason why, in such a state of ecstasy, he should count the clock, or consider minutes and hours, as any other than days and years. Whether, therefore, Shakspeare knew the unities, and rejected them by design, or deviated from them by happy ignorance, it is impossible to decide, and aseless to inquire; since they are not essential to a just drama, and though sometimes conducive to pleasure, may always be sacrificed to the nobler beauties of variety and instruction.

Mr. Rowe's was the first editorial commentary on the plays of Shakspeare, and notwithstanding bis alleged incapacity for criticism, the prominent beauties of our poet are judiciously and not inelegantly pointed out. Like other critics, he praises the fertility of his invention the historical fidelity of his characters-the stateliness of his diction-the power of his muse in creating terror, or exciting mith-and the perfection of his writings at a time of almost universal license and ignorance, where there was not one play in existence of sufficient merit to be acted at the present day.

With an ardour, an eloquence, and a discrimination, suited to his highly-gifted mind, and becoming the liberality of his poetical character, Mr. Pope enlarges on the characteristic excellences of our immortal bard. He considers him more original even than Homer; since the art of the latter proceeded through Egyptian strainers, and came to him not without some tincture of the learning of those that preceded him. In the power of the passions, he declares him to be no less admirable, than in the coolness of reflection and reasoning; and (as though he had been acquainted with the world by intuition) that his sentiments are the most pertinent and judicious, even on those great and public scenes, of which he could have had no experience. One cause of Shakspeare's peculiarities was the profession to which he belonged. Players are just judges of what is right, as tailors are of what is graceful. Living by the majority, they know no rule but that of pleasing the present humour, and complying with the wit in fashion. Our author first formed himself upon the opinions of this class of men; and consequently his faults are less to be ascribed to his wrong judgment as a poet, than to his right judgment as a player.

Mr. Theobald, in the midst of many compliments to his own acuteness, and much irreverent abuse of Pope, whose wit (he says) is as thick as Tewkesbury mustard, thus penegyrizes Shakspeare: "Whether we respect the force and greatness of his genius, the extent of his knowledge and reading, the power and address with which he throws out and applies either nature or learning, there is ample scope both for our wonder and pleasure."

Sir Thomas Hanmer commends the rich vein of sense which runs through the entire works of Shakspeare; and declares him unequalled in the two great branches of dramatic poetry, by the best writers of any age or country.

Dr. Warburton, in a paper replete with brilliant wit and energetic argument, thus speaks of the productions of Shakspeare: "Of all the literary exercitations of speculative men, whether designed for the use or entertainment of the world, there are none of so

much importance as those which let us into the knowledge of our nature. Others may exercise the reason, or amuse the imagination, but these only can improve the heart, and form the mind to wisdom. Now in this science Shakspeare confessedly occupies the foremost place; whether we consider the amazing sagacity with which he investigates every hidden spring and wheel of human action; or his happy manner of communicating this knowledge, in the just and living paintings which he has given us of all our passions, appetites, and pursuits."

To the recorded testimony of these eminent writers, it is scarcely necessary that any other should be added; but the inquisitive reader will find the merits of Shakspeare stil! further developed in the essays of Mrs. Montague, Dr. Richardson, Dr. Grey, and Mr. Britton. Dryden, whose own accomplished genius was sullied and debased by the dramatic impurities in which he indulged, says that Shakspeare had the largest and most comprehensive soul of all modern, and perhaps ancient, poets, and that, in dramatic composition, he has left no praise for any who come after him. In a similar feeling, and with that stately sentiment which pervades all he has written, Dr. Young thus exalts the qualifications of our poet: "Whatever other learning he wanted, he was master of two books unknown to many of the profoundly read, though books which the last conflagration alone can destroy: the book of nature, and that of man." Mr. Malone calls him the great refiner and polisher of our language; and ranks his compound epithets, his bold metaphors, his energetic expressions, and harmonious numbers, amongst the chief beauties of his works. Dr. Johnson, whose opinions have already been recited in opposition to those of Voltaire, declares that a valuable system of civil and economical prudence may be collected from the plays of Shakspeare-that they are filled with practical axioms and domestic wisdom-that almost every verse (as was formerly said of the writings of Euripides) is a precept; but that, at the same time, his real power is shewn in the progress of the fable, and the tenor of the dialogue-and that he who tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.

Though the excellence of Shakspeare's productions has become an article of literary faith in England, and though such of his defects as are too palpable to be overlooked, have been gratuitously attributed to the age in which he lived, it is only a necessary supplement to the foregoing remarks, and essential to a right appreciation of his character, briefly to point out what those deefcts are. 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 shortened the labour to snatch the profit. The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design. In his comic scenes, the jests are frequently gross, and the pleasantry licentious; nor are his ladies and gentlemen sufficiently distinguished from clowns, by any appearance of refined manners. He is not long soft and pathetic, without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. What he does best, he soon ceases to do. Let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished he follows it at all adventures, however dignified or profound, however tender or pathetic, the subject which engages his attention. Lastly, he is accused of sacrificing virtue to convenience, and of being much more careful to please than to instruct. He that thinks reasonably, must think morally; but our poet's precepts drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil; and after carrying his persons indifferently through right and wrong, he dismisses them at the close without further care, leaving their examples to operate by chance.

With these imperfect particulars, derived from the united labours of various admirers and commentators, our brief sketch of the life of Shakspeare must necessarily conclude. On all the topics which usually constitute the personal history of an individual, his contemporaries and immediate successors have been equally silent. The meagre facts which were first imbodied in a memoir by Mr. Rowe, and have been moulded into so many forms by the caprice or taste of successive writers, remain to the present day, unaided by any accession of novelty, and unimpeached by the utmost acuteness of criticism. His early studies-the progress of his pen--his moral and social qualities—his friendships and his errors, are completely buried in oblivion, as if the homage which is paid to his splendid poetical genius, should be unmingled with any recollection of his faults and failings as a man. Nor, after an interval of two centuries, is it probable that any undiscovered clue is in existence, by which the memoria. of his actions can be redeemed from its present obscurity.



THIS play, supposed to have been written in 1609, comprehends a period of five or six years. The plebeian citizens of Rome, unable to pay their debts from poverty, consequent upon the long war against Tarquin and the Latins, and incensed by the supposed indifference of the senators and patricians, retired with the undisbanded troops of Valerius, to a mountain about three miles from Rome, afterwards called Mout Sacer. The city was thrown into great alarm by this defection, and Menenius, who is described as "a very discreet person, and a great orator," was sent with other commissioners, to bring about a reconciliation. Here he related to them the fable of the belly and its members; the application of which had such an effect, that they were about to follow him home, when Sicinius and Junius Brutus (two factious fellows) cuaningly demanding a guarantee for the people, were in the end appointed their tribunes, with very extraordinary power. In the year following, there was a severe famine; and Coriolanus (so called for his exploits at Corioli) with other young patricians, making excursions into the enemy's country, returned, laden with corn. Provisions also arriving from Sicily, the senate determined upon selling them at a cheap rate to the poor; but Coriolanus proposed the abolition of the tribuneship, and the retention of the corn, because the people had obstinately refused to join in the expedition sent out to obtain it. The exasperated populace would instantly have thrown him from the Tarpeian rock, but were repulsed by his friends. Being arraigned at the proper tribunal, he defended himself with so much grace and energy, that the people called out for his acquittal; whereupon one of the tribunes artfully and falsely accusing him of illegally appropriating the spoils of war, he was as suddenly sentenced to banishment. In a spirit of revenge, he offered his services to the Volsciaus, and carried destruction to the very gates of Rome. The city was on the point of being assaulted, when his mother, accompanied by his wife 14 and children, threw herself at his feet, and worked so much upon the feelings of nature, that he granted a peace, and withdrew his troops. On returning to Antium, by the perfidious management of Tullus, he was cat in pieces ere he had time to defend his conduct; but the Volsci disapproved the assassination, buried him ho nourably, adorned his tomb with trophies, and the Roman women mourned for him twelve months. The poet has adhered very closely to historical facts. Mr. Pope remarks, that Shakspeare is found to be very knowing in the customs, rites, and manners of antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Cæsar, not only the spirit, but the manners of the Romans are exactly drawn; and a still nicer distinction is shown between Roman manners ia the time of the former and of the latter." Many of the principal speeches are copied from Plutarch's Life of Curiolanus, as translated by Sir Thomas North. There are some glaring anachronisms in this play, such as introducing our nicknames of Hob, Dick, &c. church-yards, knells, and particularly, theatres for the exhibition of plays, which did not exist until 250 years after the death of Coriolanus. Volumnia, also, was the name of his wife, not of his mother; and the good Menenius died three or four years before his revenge ful expedition against Rome.---Dr. Johnson says: The tragedy of Coriolanus is one of the most amusing of our author's performances. The old man's merriment in Menenius; the lofty lady's dignity in Volumnia; the bridal modesty in Virgilia; the patrician and military haughtiness in Coriolanus; the plebeian malignity and tribunitian insolence in Brutus and Sicinius make a very pleasing and interesting variety; and the various revolutions of the hero's fortune fill the mind with anxious curiosity. There is, perhaps, too much bustle in the first act, and too little in the last.


TITUS LARTIUS, Generals against the Vol-


MENENIUS AGRIPPA, Friend to Coriolanus.


Tribunes of the people.

YOUNG MARCIUS, Son to Coriolanus.


TULLUS AUFIDIUS, General of the Volscians.
LIEUTENANT to Aufidius.

CONSPIRATORS with Aufidius.

A CITIZEN of Antium.
VOLUMNIA, Mother of Coriolanus.
VIRGILIA, Wife to Coriolanus.
GENTLEWOMAN, attending Virgilia.
VALERIA, Friend to Virgilia.

Roman and Volscian Senators, Patricians,
Adiles, Lictors, Soldiers, Citizens, Mes-
sengers, Servants to Aufidius, and other

SCENE: partly in Rome, and partly in the territories of the Volscians and Antiates.

[blocks in formation]

1 Cit. Let us kill him, and we'll have corn at our own price. Is't a verdict?

Cit. No more talking on't; let it be done: away, away.

2 Cit. One word, good citizens.

1 Cit. We are accounted poor citizens; the patricians, good: What authority surfeits on, would relieve us; If they would yield us but the superfluity, while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us humanely; but they think we are too dear :† the leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory to parti.

[blocks in formation]

Men. There was a time, when all the body's

cularize their abundance; our sufferance is a gain | think to fob off our disgrace with a tale: but, to them. Let us revenge this with our pikes, an't please you, deliver. ere we become rakes: for the gods know, I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge. 1 Cit. Would you proceed especially against Caius Marcius ?

Cit. Against him first: he's a very dog to the commonalty.

2 Cit. Consider you what services he has done for his country?

1 Cit. Very well; and could be content to give him good report for't, but that he pays himself with being proud.

2 Cit. Nay, but speak not maliciously.

1 Cit. I say unto you, what he hath done famously, he did it to that end; though soft-conscienc'd men can be content to say it was for his country, he did it to please his mother, and to be partly proud; which he is, even to the altitude of his virtue.

2 Cit. What he cannot help in his nature, you account a vice in him: You must in no way say he is covetous.

1 Cit. If I must not, I need not be barren of accusations; he hath faults, with surplus, to tire in repetition. [Shouts within.] What shouts are these? The other side o'the city is risen: Why stay we prating here? to the Capitol ! Cit. Come, come.

1 Cit. Soft; who comes here?


2 Cit. Worthy Menenius Agrippa: one that hath always loved the people.

1 Cit. He's one honest enough; 'Would, all the rest were so!

Men. What work's, my countrymen, in hand? Where go you

With bats and clubs? The matter? Speak, 1 pray you.

1 Cit. Our business is not unknown to the senate; they have had inkling, this fortnight what we intend to do, which now we'll show 'em in deeds. They say, poor suitors have strong breaths; they shall know we have strong arms

[blocks in formation]

Against the Roman state; whose course will on
The way it takes, cracking ten thousand curbs
Of more strong link asunder, that can ever
Appear in your impediment: For the dearth,
The gods, not the patricians, make it; and
Your knees to them, not arms, must help.

You are transported by calamity
Thither where more attends you; and you slander
The helms o'the state, who care for you like
When you curse them as enemies. [fathers,
1 Cit. Care for us! True, indeed! They
ne'er cared for us yet. Suffer us to famish, and
their store-houses crammed with grain; make
edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily
any wholesome act established against the rich;
and provide more piercing statutes daily, to
chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat
us not up, they will; and there's all the love
they hear us.

Men. Either you must

Confess yourselves wondrous malicious,
Or be accus'd of folly. I shall tell you
A pretty tale; it may be, you have heard it:
But, since it serves my purpose, I will venture
To scale'tt a little more.

1 Cit. Well, I'll hear it, Sir; yet you must not * Spread it.

Thin as rakes. ↑ A hint.


Rebell'd against the belly; thus accus'd it :-
That only like a gulf it did remain
'the midst o'the body, idle and inactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing
Like labour with the rest; where


the other

Did see, and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection commou
Of the whole body. The belly answered,-

1 Cit. Well, Sir, what answer made the belly? Men. Sir, I shall tell you. With a kind of


Which ne'er came from the lungs, but even thus,
(For, look you, I may make the belly saile
As well as speak,) it tauntingly replied
To the discontented members, the inutinous parts
That envied his receipt; even so most fitly;
As you malign our senators, for that
They are not such as you—

1 Cit. Your belly's answer: What!
The kingly-crowned head, the vigilant eye,
The counsellor heart, the arm our soldier,
Our steed the leg, the tongue our trumpeter,
With other muniments and petty helps
In this our fabric, if that they-

Men. What then?

[blocks in formation]

Men. I will tell you;

If you'll bestow a small (of what you have little,) Patience, a while, you'll hear the belly's answer. 1 Cit. You are long about it.

Men. Note ine this, good friend; Your most grave belly was deliberate, Not rash like his accusers, and thus answer'd. True is it, my incorporate friends, quoth he, That I receive the general food at first, Which you do live upon and fit it is; Because I am the store-house, and the shop Of the whole body: But if you do remember, I send it through the rivers of your blood, Even to the court, the heart,-to the seat o'the brain;

| And, through the cranks and offices of man, The strongest nerves, and small inferior veins, From me receive that natural competency Whereby they live And though that all at

[blocks in formation]
« PreviousContinue »