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THAT praises are without reason lavished on the || tative and experimental must be estimated by their dead, and that the honours due only to excellence proportion to the general and collective ability of 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 last 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 indiscriminately 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.
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 spacious 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.
The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known hast been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.
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 outTo works, however, of which the excellence is lived his century, the term commonly fixed as the not absolute and definite, but gradual and compar- test of literary merit. Whatever advantages he ative; to works not raised upon principles demon- might once derive from personal allusions, local strative and scientific, but appealing wholly to customs, or temporary opinions, have for many observation and experience, no other test can be years been lost; and every topic of merriment or applied than length of duration and continuance of motive of sorrow, which the modes of artificial life esteem. What mankind have long possessed they afforded him, now only obscure the scenes which have often examined and compared, and if they they once illuminated. The effects of favour and persist to value the possession, it is because fre- competition are at an end; the tradition of his quent comparisons have, confirmed opinion in its friendships and his enmities has perished; his works favour. As among the works of nature, no man can support no opinion with arguments, nor supply any properly call a river deep, or a mountain high, with- faction with invectives; they can neither indulge out the knowledge of many mountains, and many vanity, nor gratify malignity; but are read without rivers; so in the productions of genius, nothing any other reason than the desire of pleasure, and can be styled excellent till it has been compared are therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained; with other works of the same kind. Demonstration yet, thus unassisted by interest or passion, they immediately displays its power, and has nothing to have passed through variations of taste and chanhope or fear from the flux of years; but works ten-ges of manners, and, as they devolved from one
1) First printed separately in 1765.
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 approbation 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 representations 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 invention 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.
never heard, upon topics which will never arise in the commerce of mankind. But the dialogue of this author is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, | and common occurrences.
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 obligations, perplex them with oppositions of interest, and harass 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 Shakspeare is above all writers, at least above and outrageous sorrow; to distress them as nothing all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet human ever was distressed; to deliver them as that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of nothing human ever was delivered, is the business manners and of life. His characters are not modi- || of a modern dramatist. For this, probability is viofied by the customs of particular places, unpractised lated, life is misrepresented, and language is deby the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of stu-praved. But love is only one of many passions, and dies or professions, which can operate but upon as it has no great influence upon the sum of life, it small numbers; or by the accidents of transient has little operation in the dramas of a poet, who fashions or temporary opinions: they are the ge- caught his ideas from the living world, and exhibnuine progeny of common humanity, such as the ited only what he saw before him. He knew, that world will always supply, and observation will al- any other passion, as it was regular or exorbitant, ways find. His persons act and speak by the in-was a cause of happiness or calamity. fluence 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 poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakspeare it is commonly a species.
Characters thus ample and general were not easily discriminated 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, beIt is from this wide extension of design that so cause many speeches there are which have nothing much instruction is derived. It is this which fills the characteristical; but, perhaps, though some may be plays of Shakspeare with practical axioms and do- equally adapted to every person, it will be difficult mestic wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that every to find any that can be properly transferred from verse was a precept; and it may be said of Shak- the present possessor to another claimant. The speare, that from his works may be collected a sys- choice is right, when there is reason for choice. tem of civil and economical prudence. Yet his Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyreal power is not shown in the splendour of partic-perbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous ular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and and unexampled excellence or depravity, as the the tenor of his dialogue; and he that tries to re-writers of barbarous romances invigorated the commend 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.
reader by a giant and a dwarf; and he that should form his expectation of human affairs from the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakspeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only It will not easily be imagined how much Shak- by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks speare excels in accommodating his sentiments to that he should himself have spoken or acted on the real life, but by comparing him with other authors. same occasion; even where the agency is supernaIt was observed of the ancient schools of declam-tural, the dialogue is level with life. Other writers ation, 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
disguise the most natural passions and most frequent incidents; so that he who contemplates them in the book will not know them in the world: Shakspeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were possible, its effects would probably be such as he has assigned; and it may be said, that he has not only shown human nature
as it acts in real exigencies, but as it would be lighter occurrences; some the terrors of distress, found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed. and some the gaieties of prosperity. Thus rose the two modes of imitation, known by the names of tragedy and comedy, compositions intended to promote different ends by contrary means, and considered as so little allied, that I do not recollect among the Greeks or Romans a single writer who attempted both.
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.
That this is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism will be readily allowed; but there is al
Shakspeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in one composition. Almost all his plays are divided His adherence to general nature has exposed between serious and ludicrous characters, and in him to the censure of critics, who form their judg- the successive evolutions of the design, sometimes ments upon narrower principles. Dennis and Ry-produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes mer think b's Romans not sufficiently Roman, and levity and laughter. Voltaire censures his kings as not completely royal. Dennis is offended, that Menenius, a senator of Rome, should play the buffoon; and Voltaire per-ways an appeal open from criticism to nature. The haps thinks decency violated when the Danish usurper is represented as a drunkard. But Shakspeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preserves the essential character, is not very careful of distinctions superinduced 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 senatehouse for that which the senate-house would certainly have afforded him. He was inclined to show an usurper and a murderer not only odious, but despicable; 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 casual distinction of country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery,
The censure which he has incurred by mixing comic and tragic scenes, as it extends to all his works, deserves more consideration. Let the fact be first stated, and then examined.
Shakspeare's plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolic of another: and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.
Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and casualties, the ancient poets, according to the laws which custom had prescribed, selected some the crimes of men, and some their absurdities; some the momentous vicissitudes of life, and some the
end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing. That the mingled drama may convey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied, because it includes both in its alternations of exhibition, and approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life, by showing how great machinations and slender designs 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 passions are interrupted in their progression, and that the principal event, being not advanced by a due gradation of preparatory incidents, wants at last the power to move, which constitutes the perfection of dramatic poetry. This reasoning is so specious, that it is received as true even by those who in daily experience feel it to be false. The interchanges of mingled scenes seldom fail to produce the intended vicissitudes of passion. Fiction cannot move so much, but that the attention may be easily transferred; and though it must be allowed that pleasing melancholy be sometimes interrupted by unwelcome levity, yet let it be considered 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 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, however serious 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 re
quired only a calamitous conclusion, with which the to all times and to all places; they are natural, and common criticism of that age was satisfied, what- therefore durable: the adventitious peculiarities of ever lighter pleasure it afforded in its progress. personal habits, are only superficial dies, bright History was a series of actions, with no other and pleasing for a little while, yet soon fading to a than chronological succession, independent on each dim tinct, without any remains of former lustre; other, and without any tendency to introduce and || but the discriminations of true passion are the coregulate the conclusion. It is not always very lours of nature; they pervade the whole mass, and nicely distinguished from tragedy. There is not can only perish with the body that exhibits them. much nearer approach to unity of action in the tra- The accidental compositions of heterogeneous gedy of Antony and Cleopatra, than in the history modes are dissolved by the chance which combined of Richard the Second. But a history might be them; but the uniform simplicity of primitive qualcontinued through many plays; as it had no plan, || ities neither admits increase, nor suffers decay. it had no limits. 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 poets, passes without injury by the adamant of Shakspeare.
Through all these denominations of the drama, Shakspeare's mode of composition is the same; an interchange of seriousness and merriment, by which the mind is softened at one time, and exhilarated at another. But whatever be his purpose, If there be, what I believe there is, in every nawhether to gladden or depress, or to conduct the||tion, a style which never becomes obsolete, a certain story, without vehemence or emotion, through || mode of phraseology so consonant and congenial tracts of easy and familiar dialogue, he never fails to the analogy and principles of its respective lanto attain his purpose; as he commands us, we laugh guage, as to remain settled and unaltered; this or mourn, or sit silent with quiet expectation, in style is probably to be sought in the common intertranquillity without indifference. course 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 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 grossness 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.
When Shakspeare's plan is understood, most of the criticisms of Rymer and Voltaire vanish away. || The play of Hamlet is opened, without impropriety, by two centinels; lago bellows at Brabantio's window, without injury to the scheme of the play, though in terms which a modern audience would not easily endure; the character of Polonius is seasonable and useful; and the Gravediggers themselves may be heard with applause.
These observations are to be considered not as unexceptionably 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 cavities.
Shakspeare engaged in dramatic poetry with the world open before him; the rules of the ancients were yet known to few; the public judgment was unformed; he had no example of such fame as might force him upon imitation, nor critics of such authority as might restrain his extravagance: he therefore indulged his natural disposition, and his disposition, as Rymer has remarked, led him to comedy. In tragedy he often writes with great appearance of toil and study, what is written at last with little felicity; but in his comic scenes, he seems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy he is always struggling after some occasion to be comic, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragic scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct. The force of his comic scenes has suffered little diminution from the changes made by a century and a half, in manners or in words. As his person-higher than truth. ages act upon principles arising from genuine His first defect is that to which may be imputed passion, very little modified by particular forms, most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices their pleasures and vexations are communicable virtue to convenience, and is so much more care
Shakspeare with his excellences 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
some modes of gaiety preferable to others, and a writer ought to choose the best.
ful 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 In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be that thinks reasonably must think morally; but be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions of his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; passion, which exigence forces out, are for the he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor most part striking and energetic; but whenever he is always careful to show in the virtuous a disap-solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the probation of the wicked; he carries his persons in- offspring of his throes is tumour, meanness, tediousdifferently through right and wrong, and at the ness, and obscurity. 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 virtue 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 force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy.
It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and in view of his reward, he shortened the labour, to snatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly represented.
In narration he affects a disproportionate pomp of diction, and a wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few. Narration in dramatic 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 splendor.
His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, 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 a while, 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.
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 expence not only of likelihood, but of possibility. These faults Pope has endeavoured with more Not that always where the language is intricate, zeal than judgment, to transfer to his imagined in- the thought is subtle, or the image always great terpolators. We need not to wonder to find Hector where the line is bulky; the equality of words to quoting Aristotle, when we see the loves of The things is very often neglected, and trivial sentiseus and Hyppolyta combined with the Gothic my-ments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, thology of fairies. Shakspeare, indeed, was not the to which they are recommended by sonorous epienly violator of chronology, for in the same age thets and swelling figures. Sidney, who wanted not the advantages of learning, has, in his Arcadia, confounded the pastoral with the feudal times, the days of innocence, quiet, and security, with those of turbulence, violence, and 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 licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies 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
But the admirers of this great poet have most reason to complain when he approaches nearest to his highest excellence, 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 himself; 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 fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or pro