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That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox; or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are willing to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy, will be at least bestowed by time.
Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from reason, but from prejudice. Some seem to admire in. discriminately whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour past than present excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the shades of age, as the eye surveys the sun through artificial opacity. The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns and the beauties of the ancients. While an author is yet living, we estimate his powers by his worst performance; and when he is dead, we rate them by his best.
bation of prejudice or fashion; it is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of excellence Shakspeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.
Nothing can please many, and please long, but just repre. sentations of general nature. Particular manners can be known to few, and therefore few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The irregular combinations of fanciful in vention may delight awhile, by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.
Shakspeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His char acters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities or studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other pocts a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakspeare it is com monly a species.
To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientific, but ap. pealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep, or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains, and many riv. ers; so in the productions of genius, nothing can be styled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind. Demonstration immediately displays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is discovered in a long succession of endeavours. Of the first building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined that it was round or square; but whether it was spa cious or lofty must have been referred to time. The Pythagorean scale of numbers was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to transcend the common limits of human intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than transpose his incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.
It is from this wide extension of design that so much in. struction is derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shak speare with practical axioms and domestic wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that every verse was a precept; and it may be said of Shakspeare, that from his works may be col lected a system of civil and economical prudence. Yet his real power is not shown in the splendour of particular pas. sages, but by the progress of his fable, and the tenor of his dialogue; and he that 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.
It will not easily be imagined how much Shakspeare excels in accommodating his sentiments to real life, but by com paring him with other authors. It was observed of the ancient schools of declamation, that the more diligently they were frequented, the more was the student disqualified for the world, because he found nothing there which he should ever meet in any other place. The same remark may be applied to every stage but that of Shakspeare. The theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peopled by such characters as were never seen, conversing in a language which was never heard, upon topics which will never arise The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted, in the commerce of mankind. But the dialogue of this auarises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the thor is often so evidently determined by the incident which superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, degeneracy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknow. that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to ledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common con. known has been most considered, and what is most consider-versation and common occurrences, ed is best understood.
Upon every other stage the universal agent is love, by whose power all good and evil is distributed, and every action quickened or retarded. To bring a lover, a lady, and a rival into the fable; to entangle them in contradictory obli gations, perplex them with oppositions of interest, and har ass them with violence of desires inconsistent with each other to make them meet in rapture, and part in agony; to fill their mouths with hyperbolical joy and outrageous sorrow; to distress them as nothing human ever was distressed; to deliver them as nothing human ever was delivered; is the business of a modern dramatist. For this, probability is violated, life is misrepresented, and language is depraved. But love is only one of many passions, and it has no great influence upon the sum of life, it has little operation in the dramas of a poet, who caught his ideas from the living world, and exhibited only what he saw before him. He knew, that any other passion, as it was regular or exorbitant, was a cause of happiness or calamity.
Characters thus ample and general were not casily discrim inated and preserved, yet perhaps no poet ever kept his personages more distinct from each other. I will not say, with Pope, that every speech may be assigned to the proper speaker, because many speeches there are which have no thing characteristical; but, perhaps, though some may be equally adapted to every person, it will be difficult to find any that can be properly transferred from the present possessor to another claimant. The choice is right when there is reason for choice.
The poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from personal allusions, local customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years been lost; and every topic of merriment or motive of sorrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obscure the scenes which they once illuminated. The effects of favour and competition are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and his enmities has perished; his works support no opinion with arguments, nor supply any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity, nor gratify malignity; but are read without any other reason than the desire of pleasure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained; yet, thus unassisted by interest or passion, they have past through variations of taste and changes of manners, and, as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every transmission.
But because human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long continued, may yet be only the appro
• Ft vetus atque probus, centum qui perficit annos." Hor STEEVENS,
nigh and the low co-operate in the general system by una.
Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous and unexampled ex- voidable concatenation. cellence or depravity, as the writers of barbarous romances It is objected, that by this change of scenes the passions invigorated the reader by a giant and a dwarf; and he that are interrupted in their progression, and that the principal should form his expectation of human affairs from the play, event, being not advanced by a due gradation of preparatory or from the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakspeare incidents, wants at least the power to move, which constitutes has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act the perfection of dramatic poetry. This reasoning is so and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have specious, that it is received as true even by those who in spoken or acted on the same occasion: even where the agency daily experience feel it to be false. The interchanges of is supernatural, the dialogue is level with life. Other writ- mingled scenes seldom fail to produce the intended vicissi ers disguise the most natural passions and most frequent in- tudes of passion. Fiction cannot move so much, but that the cidents; so that he who contemplates them in the book will not attention may be easily transferred; and though it must be know them in the world: Shakspeare approximates the re-allowed that pleasing melancholy be sometimes interrupted mote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he by unwelcome levity, yet let it be considered likewise, that represents will not happen, but if it were possible, its effects melancholy is often not pleasing, and that the disturbance.c! would probably be such as he has assigned; and it may be one man may be the relief of another; that different auditors raid, that he has not only shown human nature as it acts in have different habitudes; and that, upon the whole, all plea real exigencies, but as it would be found in trials, to which sure consists in variety. it cannot be exposed.
This therefore is the praise of Shakspeare, 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 ecstacies, by reading human sentiments in human language; by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions. viole
His adherence to general naturo has exposed him to the censure of critics, who form their judgments upon narrow principles: Dennis and Rymer think his Romans not suffi ciently Roman, and Voltaire censures his kings as not completely royal. Dennis is offended, that Menenius, a senator of Rome, should play the buffoon; and Voltaire perhaps thinks decency violated when the Danish usurper is repre sented as a drunkard. But Shakspeare always makes nature History was a series of actions, with no other than chrono predominate over accident; and if he preserves the essential logical succession, independent on each other, and without character, is not very careful of distinctions superinduced and any tendency to introduce and regulate the conclusion. It adventitious. His story requires Romans or kings, but he is not always very nicely distinguished from tragedy. There thinks only on men. He knew that Rome, like every other is not much nearer approach to unity of action in the tragedy city, had men of all dispositions; and, wanting a buffoon, he of Antony and Cleopatra, than in the history of Richard the went into the senate-house for that which the senate-house Second. But a history might be continued through many would certainly have afforded him. He was inclined to show plays; as it had no plan, it had no limits.
an usurper and a murderer not only odious, but despicabis, Through all these denominations of the drama, Shakspeare's he therefore added drunkenness to his other qualities, know. mode of composition is the same; an interchange of serious. ing that kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts ness and merriment, by which the mind is softened at one Its natural power upon kings. These are the petty cavils ofime, and exhilarated at another. But whatever be his purpetty minds; a poet overlooks the casual distinction of pose, whether to gladden or depress, or to conduct the story country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with the figure without vehemence or emotion, through tracts of easy and neglects the drapery. quand on familiar dialogue, he never fails to attain his purpose: as he The censure which he has incurred by mixing comic an commands us, we laugh or mourn, or sit silent with quiet tragic scenes, as it extends to all his works, deserves mor expectation, in tranquillity without indifference. consideration. Let the fact be first stated, and then ex amined.
When Shakspeare's plan is understood, most of the criti cisms of Rymer and Voltaire vanish away. The play of Hamlet is opened, without impropriety, by two centinels;
Shakspeare's plays are not in the rigorous and critic sens either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct lago bellows at Brabantio's window, without injury to the kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which scheme of the play, though in terms which a modern audience partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with end-would not casily endure; the character of Polonius is seasonless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combi- able and useful; and the Gravediggers themselves may be nation; and expressing the course of the world, in which heard with applause. the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same Shakspeare engaged in dramatic poetry with the world time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner open before him; the rules of the ancients were yet known burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is some to few; the public judgment was unformed; he had no times defeated by the frolic of another: and many mis example of such fame as might force him upon imitation, chiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without nor critics of such authority as might restrain his extrava design, petanoma gance: he therefore indulged his natural disposition, and his Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and casualties, disposition, as Rymer has remarked, led him to comedy. In ancient poets, according to the laws which custom had pre tragedy he often writes, with great appearance of toil and scribed, selected, some the crimes of men, and some their study, what is written at last with little felicity; but in his absurdities; some, the momentous vicissitudes of life, and comic scenes, he seems to produce, without labour, what no some the lighter occurrences; some the terrors of distress, labour can improve. In tragedy he is always struggling after and some the galetles of prosperity. Thus rose the two some occasion to be comic, but in comedy he seems to repose, modes of imitation, known by the names of tragedy and or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to bis comedy compositions intended to promote different ends by nature. In his tragic scenes there is always something contrary means, and considered as so little allied, that I do wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or de not recollect among the Greeks or Romans a single writer tire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, who attempted both. and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. Shakspeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct. Borrow not only in one mind, but in one composition. Al The force of his comic scenes has suffered little diminution most all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous from the changes made by a century and a half, in manners characters, and, in the successive evolutions of the design, or in words. As his petsonages act upon principles arising sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes from genuine passion, very little modified by particular forms, levity and laughter. their pleasures and vexations are communicable to all times That this is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism and to all places; they are natural, and therefore durable; will be readily allowed; but there is always an appeal open the adventitious peculiarities of personal habits are only from criticism to nature. The end of writing is to instruct; superficial dies, bright and pleasing for a little while, yet soon the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing. That the mingled fading to a dim tint, without any remains of former lustre; drama may convey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy but the discriminations of true passion are the colours of cannot be denied, because it includes both in its alterations nature; they pervade the whole mass, and can only perish of exhibition, and approaches nearer than either to the ap with the body that exhibits them. The accidental composi pearance of life, by showing how great machinations and tions of heterogeneous modes are dissolved by the chance Blender designs may promote or obviate one another, and the that combined them: but the uniform simplicity of primitive qualities neither admits increase, nor suffers decay. The sand heaped by one flood is scattered by another, but the rock always continues in its place. The stream of time, which is continually washing the dissoluble fabrics of other Docts, passes without injury by the adamant of Shakopoare. Timeg tega menijo WE MAMAN WAS
" 'N XD.
" Quærit quod nusquam est gentium, reperit tamen Facit illud verisimile quod mendacium est.
Plauti. Pseudolus, Act I. sc. iv.:
The players, who in their edition divided our author's works into comedies, histories, and tragedies, seem not to have distinguished the three kinds, by any very exact or. definite ideas.
An action which ended happily to the principal persons, nowever serious or distressful through its intermediate inci dents, 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 calami tous conclusion, with which the common criticism of that age was satisfied, whatever lighter pleasure it afforded in its progress.
If there be, what I believe there is, in every nation, a style which never becomes obsolete, a certain mode of phra. Beology so consonant and congenial to the analogy and prin. ciples of its respective language, as to remain settled and un.. altered; this style is probably to be sought in the common intercourse of life, among those who speak only to be understood, without ambition of elegance. The polite are always catching modish innovations, and the learned depart from the established forms of speech, in hope of finding or making better; those who wish for distinction forsake the vulgar, when the vulgar is right: but there is a conversation above grossnes and below refinement, where propriety resides, and where this poet seems to have gathered his comic dialogue. He is therefore more agreeable to the ears of the present age than any other author equally remote, and among his other excellencies deserves to be studied as one of the original masters of our language, un
These observations are to be considered not as unexception, ably constant, but as containing general and predominant truth. Shakspeare's familiar dialogue is affirmed to be smooth and clear, yet not wholly without ruggedness or difficulty; as a country may be eminently fruitful though it has spots unfit for cultivation: his characters are praised as natural, though their sentiments are sometimes forced, and their actions improbable; as the earth upon the whole is spherical, though its surface is varied with protuberances and cavitles.
Shakspeare with his excellencies has likewise faults, and faults sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any other merit. I shall show them in the proportion in which they appear to me, without envious malignity or superstitious veneration. No question, can, be more innocently discussed than a dead poet's pretensions to renown: and little regard is due to that bigotry which sets candour higher than truth,
His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioma drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to show in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses 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 justice is a vir. tue independent on time or place.
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. He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting, which the train of his story seems to forco upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy. Bolt may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglectedWhen he found himself near the end of his work, and in view of his reward, he shortened the labour to snatch at the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly repre
In narration he affects a disproportionate pomp of diction, and a wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the in. cident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few. Narration in dramatie poetry is naturally tedious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obstructs the progress of the action; it should therefore always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakspeare found it an incumbrance, and instead of lightening it by brevity, endeavoured to recommend it by dignity and splendour.
He had no regard to distinction of time or place, but gives to one age or nation, without scruple, the customs, institutions, and opinions of another at the expense not only of likelihood, but of possibility. These faults Pope has endea voured, with more zeal than Judgment, to transfer to his Imagined interpolatore. We need not wonder to find Hector quoting Aristotle, when we see the love of Theseus and Hippolyta combined with the Gothic mythology of fairies. Shakspeare, indeed, was not the only violator of chronology; for in the same age, Sidney, who wanted not the advantages of learning, has, in his Arcadia, confounded the pastoral with curity, with those of turbulence, violence, and gaven and,e adventure, In his comic scenes, he is seldom very successful, when he engages his characters; in reciprocations of smartness and contests of sarcasm; their jests are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licenflous; neither his gentlemen nor his Jadies have much delicacy, nor are sufficiently distinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners. Whether he represented the real conversation of his time is not easy to determine; the reign of Elizabeth is commonly supposed to have been a time of stateliness, formality, and reserve, yet perhaps the relaxations of that severity were not very elegant. There must, however, have been always some modes of galety preferable to others, and a writer ought to choose the best. ooongates
In tragedy bis performance seems constantly to be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions of passion, which exigence forces out, are for the most part striking and energetic; but whenever he solicite his invention, or strains his facul tice, of menaness, outness, and obsstrify it the
His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he en deavoured, like other tragic writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.
It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it awhile, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and evolved by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.
Not that always where the language is intricate the thought is subtle, or the image always great where the line is bulky; the equality of words to things is very often ne glected, and trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by sonorous epithets and swelling figures. Po Ni
But the admirers of this great poet have most reason to complain when he approaches nearest to his highest excol lence, and seems fully resolved to sink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. What he does best, he soon ceases to do. He is not long soft and pathetic without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner begins to move, than he counteracts bimself and terror and pity, as they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.
A quibble is, to Shakspeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascina tions are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisitions, whether he be enlarging knowledge, or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchanting it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it by the sacrifice of reason, propriety, and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it. It will be thought strange, that, in enumerating the defects of this.writer, I have not yet mentioned his neglect of the unities; his violation of those laws which have been instituted and established by the joint authority of poets and of critics.
For his other deviations from the art of writing, I resign him to critical justice, without making any other demand in his favour, than that which must be indulged to all human excellence; that his virtues be rated with his failings; but from the censure which this irregularity may bring upon him, I shall, with due reverence to that learning which I must oppose, adventure to try how I can defend him.
His histories, being neither tragedies nor comedies, are not subject to any of their laws; nothing more is necessary to all the praise. which they expect, than that the changes of ac tion be so prepared as to be understood, that the incidents be various and affecting, and the characters consistent, natural, and distinct. No other unity is intended, and therefore none! is to be sought. 9 hab & 120 Dubitabitos In his other works he has well enough preserved the unity of action. He has not, indeed, an intrigue regularly perplex ed and regularly to his design only to discover it, for this is seldom the order of 1 real events, and Shakspeare is the poet of nature but his plan has commonly what Aristotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; one event is concatenated with another, and the conclusion follows by easy consequence. There are perhaps some incidents that might be spared, as in other poets there is much talk that only fills up time upon the stage; but the general system makes gradual advances, and the end of the play is the end of expectation.
To the unities of time and place he has shown no regard and perhaps a nearer view of the principles on which they stand will diminish their value, and withdraw from them the veneration which, from the time of Corneille, they have very generally received, by discovering that they have given more trouble to the poet, than pleasure to the auditor.
The necessity of observing the unities of time and place arises from the supposed necessity of making the drama The an of
ang fansa huud encoura už kurumi sul bue i dhor years can be possibly believed to pass in three home; or
jendjali „Kimiva ima
that the spectator can suppose himself to sit in the theatre, while ambassadors go and return between distant, kings, while armies are levied and towns besieged, while an exile wanders and returns, or till he, whom they saw courting his mistress, shall lament the untimely fall of his son. The mind revolts from evident falsehood, and fiction loses its force when it departs from the resemblance of reality.
waving over us. We are agitated in reading the history of Henry the Fifth, yet no man takes his book for the field of Agincourt. A dramatic exhibition is a book, recited with concomitants that increase or diminish its effect. Familiar comedy is often more powerful on the theatre than in the page imperial tragedy is always less. The humour of Petruchio may be heightened by grimace; but what voice or what gesture can hope to add dignity or force to the soliloquy of Cato? A play read, affects the mind like a play acted. It is there. fore evident, that the action is not supposed to be real; and it follows that between the acts a longer or shorter time may be allowed to pass, and that no more account of space or duration is to be taken by the auditor of a drama, than by the reader of a narrative, before whom may pass in an hour the life of a hero, or the revolutions of an empire.
Whether Shakspeare knew the unities, and rejected them by design, or deviated from them by happy ignorance, it is, I think, impossible to decide, and useless to inquire. We may reasonably suppose, that, when he rose to notice, he did not want the counsels and admonitions of scholars and critics, and that he at last deliberately persisted in a practice, which he might have begun by chance. As nothing is essential to the fable but unity of action, and as the unities of time and place arise evidently from false assumptions, and, by circumscribing the extent of the drama, lessen its variety, I cannot think it much to be lamented, that they were not known by him, or not observed; nor, if such another poet could arise, should I very vehemently reproach him, that his first act passed at Venice, and his next in Cyprus. Such violations of rules merely positive, become the comprehensive genius of Shakspeare, and such censures are suitable to the minute and slender criticism of Voltaire :
From the narrow limitation of time necessarily arises the contraction of place. The spectator, who knows that he saw the first act at Alexandria, cannot suppose that he sees the next at Rome, at a distance to which not the dragons of Medea could, in so short a time, have transported him; he knows with certainty that he has not changed his place; and he knows that place cannot change itself; that what was a house cannot become a plain; that what was Thebes can never be Persepolis. Such is the triumphant language with which a critic exults over the misery of an irregular poet, and exults commonly without resistance or reply. It is time therefore to tell him, by the authority of Shakspeare, that he assumes, as an unquestionable principle, a position, which, while his breath is forming it into words, his understanding pronounces to be false. It is false, that any representation is mistaken for reality that any dramatic fable in its materiality was ever credible; or, for a single moment, was ever credited.
The objection arising from the impossibility of passing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, supposes, that when the play opens, the spectator really imagines himself at Alexandria, and believes that his walk to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt, and that he lives in the days of Antony and Cleopatra. Surely he that imagines this may imagine more. He that can take the stage at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Actium. Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation; if the spectator can be once persuaded, that his old acquaintance are Alexander and Cæsar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharsalia, or the banks of Granicus, he is in a state of elevation above the reach of reason, or of truth, and from the heights of empyrean poetry may despise the circumscriptions of terrestrial nature. There is no reason why a mind thus wandering in ecstacy should count the clock, or why an hour should not be a century, in that calenture of the brains that can make the stage a field. The truth is, that the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players. They come to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation. The lines relate to some action, and an action must be in some place; but the different actions that complete a story may be in places very remote from each other; and where is the absurdity of allowing that space to represent first Athens, and then Sicily, which was always known to be neither Sicily nor Athens, but a modern theatre? By supposition, as place is introduced, time may be extend-He that, without diminution of any other excellence, shall ed; the time required by the fable elapses for the most part preserve all the unities unbroken, deserves the like applause between the acts; for, of so much of the action as is represent- with the architect, who shall display all the orders of architec ed, the real and poetical duration is the same. If, in the first ture in a citadel, without any deduction from its strength; act, preparations for war against Mithridates are represented but the principal beauty of a citadel is to exclude the enemy; to be made in Rome, the event of the war may, without absur- and the greatest graces of a play are to copy nature and in dity, be represented, in the catastrophe, as happening in Pon- struct life. tus; we know that there is neither war, nor preparation for war; we know that we are neither in Rome nor Pontus; that nelther Mithridates nor Lucullus are before us. The drama exhibits successive imitations of successive actions, and why may not the second imitation represent an action that happened years after the first; if it be so connected with it, that nothing but time can be supposed to intervene? Time is, of all modes of existence, most obsequious to the imagination; a lapse of years is as easily conceived as a passage of hours. In contemplation we easily contract the time of real actions, and therefore willingly permit it to be contracted when we only see their imitation.
It will be asked, how the drama moves, if it is not credited. It is credited, with all the credit due to a drama. It is credited, whenever it moves, as a just picture of a real original; as representing to the auditor what he would himself feel, if he were to do or suffer what is there feigned to be suffered or to be done. The reflection that strikes the heart is not, that the evils before us are real evils, but that they are evils to which we ourselves may be exposed. If there be any fallacy, it is not that we fancy the players, but that we fancy ourselves unhappy for a moment; and that we rather lament the possibility than suppose the presence of misery, as a mother weeps over her babe, when she remembers that death may tak, it from her. The delight of tragedy proceeds from our consciousness of fiction; if we thought murders and treasons real, they would please no more.
Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind. When the imagination is recreated by a painted landscape, e trees are not supposed capable to give us shade, or the fountains coolness; but we consider how we should be pleased with such fountains playing beside us, and such wood
"Non usque adeo permiscuit Imis
Longus summa dies, ut non, si voce Metelli
Yet when I speak thus lightly of dramatic rules, I cannot but recollect how much wit and learning may be produced against me: before such authorities I am afraid to stand, not that I think the present question one of those that are to be decided by mere authority, but because it is to be suspected, that these precepts have not been so easily received, but for better reasons than I have yet been able to find. The result of my inquiries, in which it would be ludicrous to boast of impartiality, is that the unities of time and place are not essential to a just drama; and though they may sometimes conduce to pleasure, they are always to be sacrificed to the nobler beauties of variety and instruction; and that a play, written with nice observation of critical rules, is to be contemplated as an elaborate curiosity, as the product of superfluous and ostentatious art, by which is shown, rather what is possible than what is necessary.
Perhaps, what I have here not dogmatically but deliberately written, may recall the principles of the drama to a new examination. I am almost frighted at my own temerity; and when I estimate the fame and the strength of those that maintain the contrary opinion, am ready to sink down in reverential silence; as Eneas withdrew from the defence of Troy, when he saw Neptune shaking the wall, and Juno heading the besiegers. Those whom my arguments cannot persuade to give their approbation to the judgment of Shakspeare, will easily, if they consider the condition of his life, make some allowance for his ignorance.
Every man's performances, to be rightly estimated, must be compared to the state of the age in which he lived, and with his own particular opportunities; and though to a reader a book be not worse or better for the circumstances of the author, yet as there is always a silent reference of human works to human abilities, and as the inquiry, how far man may extend his designs, or how he may rate his native force, is of far greater dignity than in what rank we shall place any par Hicular performance, curiosity is always busy to discover the instruments, as well as to survey the workmanship, to know how much is to be ascribed to original powers, and how much to casual and adventitious help. The palaces of Peru and Mexico were certainly mean and incommodious habitations, if compared to the houses of European monarchs; yet who could forbear to view them with astonishment, who remembered that they were built without the use of iron?
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 the Eighth; and the learned languages had been successfully cultivated by Lilly, Linacre, and More; by Pole, Cheke, and Gar diner; and afterwards by Smith, Clerk, Haddon, and Aschan.
Greek was now taught to boys in the principal schools; and those who united elegance with learning, read, with great diligence, the Italian and Spanish poets. But literature was yet confined to professed scholars, or to men and women of high rank. The public was gross and dark; and to be able to read and write, was an accomplishment still valued for its rarity.
Nations, like individuals, have their infancy. A people newly awakened to literary curiosity, being yet unacquainted with the true state of things, knows not how to judge of that which is proposed as its resemblance. Whatever is remote from common appearances is always welcome to vulgar, as to childish credulity; and of a country unenlightened by learning the whole people is the vulgar. The study of those who then aspired to the plebeian learning was laid out upon adventures, giants, dragons, and enchantments. The Death of Arthur was the favourite volume.
The mind, which has feasted on the luxurious wonders of fiction, has no taste of the insipidity of truth. A play which imitated only the common occurrences of the world, would, upon the admirers of Palmerin and Guy of Warwick, have made little impression; he that wrote for such an audience was under the necessity of looking round for strange events and fabulous transactions, and that incredibility, by which maturer knowledge is offended, was the chief recommendation of writings, to unskilful curiosity.
Our author's plots are generally borrowed from novels; and it is reasonable to suppose, that he chose the most popular, such as were read by many, and related by more; for his audience could not have followed him through the intric acies of the drama, had they not held the thread of the story in their hands.
The stories which we now find only in remoter authors, were in his time accessible and familiar. The fable of As you like it, which is supposed to be copied from Chaucer's Gamelyn, was a little pamphlet of those times; and old Mr. Cibber remembered the tale of Hamlet in plain English prose, which the critics have now to seek in Saxo Gram maticus.
His English histories he took from English chronicles and English ballads; and as the ancient writers were made known to his countrymen by versions, they supplied him with new subjects; he dilated some of Plutarch's lives into plays when they had been translated by North.
His plots, whether historical or fabulous, are always crowd. ed with incidents, by which the attention of a rude people was more easily caught than by sentiment or argumentation; and such 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; others please us by particular speeches, but he always makes us anxious for the event, and has perhaps excelled all but Homer in securing the first purpose of a writer, by exciting restless and unquenchable curiosity, and compel ling him that reads his work to read it through.
The shows and bustle with which his plays abound have the same original. As knowledge advances, pleasure passes from the eye to the ear, but returns, as it declines, from the ear to the eye. Those to whom our author's labours were exhibited had more skill in pomps or processions than in poetical language, and perhaps wanted some visible and discriminated events, as comments on the dialogue. He knew how he should most please; and whether his practice is more agreeable to nature, or whether his example has prejudiced the nation, we still find that on our stage something must be done as well as said, and inactive declamation is very coldly heard, however musical or elegant, passionate or sublime.
clouded by incrustations, debased by impurities, and mingleo with a mass of meaner minerals,
It has been much disputed, whether Shakspeare owed his excellence to his own native force, or whether he had the common helps of scholastic education, the precepts of crit ical science, and the examples of ancient authors.
There has always prevailed a tradition, that Shakspearo wanted learning, that he had no regular education, nor much skill in the dead languages. Jonson, his friend, affirms, that he had small Latin, and less Greek; who, besides that he had no imaginable temptation to falsehood, wrote at a time when the character and acquisitions of Shakspeare were known to multitudes. His evidence ought, therefore, to decide the controversy, unless some testimony of equal force could be opposed.
Some have imagined, that they have discovered deep learning in many imitations of old writers; but the examples which I have known urged, were drawn from books trans. lated in his time; or were such easy coincidences of thought, as will happen to all who consider the same subjects; or such remarks on life or axioms of morality as float in conversation, and are transmitted through the world in proverbial sentences.
I have found it remarked, that, in this important sentence, Go before, I'll follow, we read a translation of, I præ, sequar. I have been told, that when Caliban, after a pleasing dream, says, I cried to sleep again, the author imitates Anacreon, who had, like every other man, the same wish on the same occasion.
There are a few passages which may pass for imitations, but so few, that the exception only confirms the rule; he obtained them from accidental quotations, or by oral communication, and as he used what he had, would have used more if he had obtained it.
Voltaire expresses his wonder, that our author's extrava gancies are endured by a nation, which has seen the tragedy of Cato. Let him be answered, that Addison speaks the language of poets, and Shakspeare of men. We find in Cato innumerable beauties which enamour us of its author, but we see nothing that acquaints us with human sentiments or human actions; we place it with the fairest and the noblest progeny which judgment propagates by conjunction with learning; but Othello is the vigorous and vivacious offspring of observation, impregnated by genius. Cato affords a splendid exhibition of artificial and fictitious manners, and deliv. ers just and noble sentiments, in diction casy, elevated, and harmonious; but its hopes and fears communicate no vibra tion to the heart; the composition refers us only to the writer; we pronounce the name of Cato, but we think on Addison.
The Comedy of Errors is confessedly taken from the Menachmi of Plautus; from the only play of Plautus which was then in English. What can be more probable, than that he who copied that, would have copied more; but that those which were not translated were inaccessible?
Whether he knew the modern languages is uncertain. That his plays have some French scenes proves but little; he might easily procure them to be written, and probably, even though he had known the language in the common degree, he could not have written it without assistance. In the story of Romeo and Juliet he is observed to have followed the Eng lish translation, where he deviates from the Italian; but this on the other part proves nothing against his knowledge of the original. He was to copy, not what he knew himself, but what was known to his audience.
It is most likely that he had learned Latin sufficiently to make him acquainted with construction, but that he never advanced to an easy perusal of the Roman authors. Concern. ing his skill in modern languages, I can find no sufficient ground of determination; but as no imitations of French or Italian authors have been discovered, though the Italian poetry was then in high esteem, I am inclined to believe, that he read little more than English, and chose for his fables only such tales as he found translated.
That much knowledge is scattered over his works is very justly observed by Pope, but it is often such knowledge as books did not supply. He that will understand Shakspeare, must not be content to study him in the closet, he must look for his meaning sometimes among the sports of the field, and sometimes among the manufactures of the shop.
There is, however, proof enough that he was a very dili gent reader, nor was our language then so indigent of books, but that he might very liberally indulge his curiosity without excursion into foreign literature. Many of the Roman authors were translated, and some of the Greek; the Reformation had filled the kingdom with theological learning; most of the topics of human disquisition had found English writers; and poetry had been cultivated, not only with diligence, but success. This was a stock of knowledge sufficient for a mind so capable of appropriating and improving it.
But the greater part of his excellence was the product of his own genius. He found the English stage in a state of the utmost rudeness; no essays either in tragedy or comedy had appeared, from which it could be discovered to what degree of delight either one or other might be carried. Neither character nor dialogue were yet understood. Shak speare may be truly said to have introduced them both amongst us, and in some of his happier scenes to have carried them both to the utmost height.
The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden ac. curately formed and diligently planted, varied with shades and scented with flowers: the composition of Shakspeare is
By what gradations of improvement he proceeded, is not easily known; for the chronology of his works is yet unset tied Rowe is of opinion, that perhaps we are not to look for his beginning, like those of other writers, in his least perfect
er in the air, interspersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses; Aling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endless diversity. Other poets display cabinets of preclous rarities, minutely finished, wrought into shape, and polished into brightness. Shakspeare opens a mine which ns gold and diamonds in unexhaustible plenty, though
a forest, in which oaks extend their branches, and pines tow-works; art had so little, and nature so large a share in what he did, that for ought I know, says he, the performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, were the best. But the power of nature is only the power of using to any certain purpose the materials, which diligence procures, or opportunity supplies. Nature gives no man knowledge, and when images are collected by study and experience, can only assist in combining or applying them. Shakspeare, however