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age, and not Ben Jonson's; for you see, a little before him, that admirable wit, Sir Philip Sidney, perpetually playing with his words. In his time, I believe, it ascended first into the pulpit, where, if you will give me leave to clench too, it yet finds the benefit of its clergy; for they are commonly the first corrupters of eloquence, and the last reformed from vicious oratory: as a famous Italian has observed before me, in his Treatise of the Corruption of the Italian Tongue, which he principally ascribes to priests and preaching friars.
But, to conclude with what brevity I can, I will only add this in the defence of our present writers ; that if they reach not some excellencies of Ben Jonson, (which no age, I am confident, ever shall,) yet, at least, they are above that meanness of thought which I have taxed, and which is frequent in him.
That the wit of this age is much more courtly, may easily be proved by viewing the characters of gentlemen which were written in the last. First, for Jonson :-Truewit, in The Silent WOMAN, was his master-piece, and Truewit was a scholar
did, he might with equal propriety object to Catullus, who says that his villa
- non ad austri
like kind of man, a gentleman with an allay of pedantry; a man who seems mortified to the world, by much reading. The best of his discourse is drawn, not from the knowledge of the town, but books; and, in short, he would be a fine gentleman in an University. Shakspeare shewed the best of his skill in his Mercutio ; and he said himself, that he was forced to kill him in the third act, to prevent being killed by him. But for my part, I cannot find he was so dangerous a person : I see nothing in him but what was so exceeding harmless, that he might have lived to the end of the play, and died in his bed, without offence to any man."
s It is extraordinary that our author should in this place have taken no notice of one of Shakspeare's most finished characters, in that style which he is here considering ; I mean Benedick, in whom, as Mr. Steevens has justly remarked, are combined" the wit, the humourist, the gentleman, and the soldier.”
On the tradition, that “ Shakspeare was obliged to kill Mercutio in the third act, lest he should have been killed by him ;" and our author's reflection—"that he thinks him no such formidable person, but that he might have lived to the end of the play, and died in his bed without offence to any man ;” Dr. Johnson has made the following judicious observation : “ Dryden well knew, had he been in quest of truth, that in a pointed sentence, more regard is commonly had to the words than the thought ; and that it is very seldom to be rigorously understood. Mer. cutio's wit, gaiety, and courage, will always procure him friends that wish him a longer life; but his death is not precipitated : he has lived out the time allotted to him in
Fletcher's Don John is our only bugbear; and yet, I may affirm without suspicion of flattery, that he now speaks better, and that his character is maintained with much more vigour in the. fourth and fifth acts, than it was by Fletcher in the three former. I have always acknowledged the wit of our predecessors, with all the veneration which becomes me; but I am sure, their wit was not that of gentlemen ; there was ever somewhat that was ill-bred and clownish in it, and which confessed the conversation of the authors.
And this leads me to the last and greatest advantage of our writing, which proceeds from conversation. In the age wherein those poets lived, there was less of gallantry than in ours; neither did they keep the best company of theirs." Their fortune has been* much like that of Epicurus,
the construction of the play. Nor do I doubt the ability of Shakspeare to have continued his existence, though some of his sallies are perhaps out of the reach of Dryden; whose genius was not very fertile of merriment, nor ductile to humour, but acute, argumentative, compre. hensive, and sublime.”
6 In Fletcher's Chances, as altered by the Duke of Buckingham.
? Though Shakspeare did not keep company with courtiers, there is abundant evidence that he lived in familiarity with several respectable gentlemen; and he. appears to have been as well acquainted with the language of the court, as if he had passed his life there.
* This phraseology, which was perhaps once general, is now peculiar to Scotland. We should now write—Their fortune was, &c.
in the retirement of his gardens; to live almost unknown, and to be celebrated after their decease. I cannot find that any of them were conversant in courts, except Ben Jonson: and his genius lay not so much that way, as to make an improvement by it. Greatness was not, then, so easy of access, nor conversation so free as now it is. I cannot therefore conceive it any insolence to affirm, that by the knowledge and pattern of their wit, who writ before us, and by the advantage of our own conversation, the discourse and raillery of our comedies excel what has been written by them. And this will be denied by none, but some few old fellows, who value themselves on their acquaintance with the Black-Friars : who, because they saw their plays, would pretend a right to judge ours. The memory of these grave gentlemen is their only plea for being Wits. They can tell a story of Ben Jonson, and perhaps have had fancy enough to give a supper in Apollo, that they might be called his sons : and because they were drawn in to be laughed at in those times, they think themselves now sufficiently intitled to laugh at ours. Learning I never saw in any of them, and wit no more than they could remember. In short, they were unlucky to have been bred in an unpolished age, and more unlucky to live to a refined one. They have lasted beyond their own, and are cast behind ours; and not contented to have known little at the age of twenty, they boast of their ignorance at threescore.
Now if any ask me, whence it is that our conversation is so much refined, I must freely, and without flattery, ascribe it to the court; and, in it, particularly to the king, whose example gives a law to it. His own misfortunes, and the nation's, afforded him an opportunity, which is rarely allowed to sovereign princes; I mean of travelling, and being conversant in the most polished courts of Europe : and, thereby, of cultivating a spirit, which was formed by nature to receive the impressions of a gallant and generous education. At his return, he found a nation lost as much in barbarism as in rebellion. And as the excellency of his nature forgave the one, so the excellency of his manners reformed the other. The desire of imitating so great a pattern, first awakened the dull and heavy spirits of the English from their natural reservedness; loosened them from their stiff forms of conversation ; and made them easy and pliant to each other in discourse. Thus, insensibly, our way of living became more free ; and the fire of the English wit, which was before stifled under a constrained, melancholy way of breeding, began first to display its force, by mixing the solidity of our nation with the air and gaiety of our neighbours. This being granted to be true, it would be a wonder if the poets, whose work is imitation, should be the only persons in three kingdoms, who should not receive advantage by it; or, if they should not more easily