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poffible, its effects would be probably such as he has affigned; and it may be faid, that he has not only fhewn human nature as it acts in real exigencies, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be expofed.

This therefore is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirrour 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 extafies, by reading human fentiments in human language; by fcenes from which a hermit may estimate the tranfactions of the world, and a confeffor predict the progrefs of the paffions.

His adherence to general nature has expofed him to the cenfure of criticks, who form their judgments upon narrower principles. Dennis and Rhymer think his Romans not fufficiently Roman; and Voltaire cenfures his kings as not completely royal. Dennis is offended, that Menenius, a fenator of Rome, fhould play the buffoon; and Voltaire perhaps thinks decency violated when the Danish Ufurper is reprefented as a drunkard. But Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preferves the effential character, is not very careful of diftinctions fuperinduced and adventitious. His flory requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men. He knew that Rome, like every other city, had men of all difpofitions; and wanting a buffoon, he went into the fenate-houfe for that which the fenate-house would certainly have afforded him. He was inclined to fhew


an ufurper and a murderer not only cdious but defpicable, he therefore added drunkenness to his other qualities, knowing that kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural power upon kings. These are the petty cavils of petty. minds; a poet overlooks the cafual distinction of country and condition, as a painter, fatisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.

The cenfure which he has incurred by mixing comick and tragick fcenes, as it extends to all his works, deferves more confideration. Let the fact be first stated,

and then examined.


Shakespeare's plays are not in the rigorous or critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compofitions of a diftinct kind; exhibiting the real ftate of fublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and forrow, mingled with endless variety of portion and innumerable modes of combination: and expreffing the courfe of the world, in which the lofs of one is the gain of another; in which, at the fame time, the reveller is hafting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without defign.

Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and cafualties the ancient poets, according to the laws which custom had prescribed, felected fome the crimes of men, and fome their abfurdities; fome the momentous viciffitudes of life, and fome the lighter occur


rences; fome the terrours of distress, and some the gayeties of profperity. Thus rofe the two modes of imitation, known by the names of tragedy and comedy, compofitions intended to promote different ends by contrary means, and confidered as fo little allied, that I do not recollect among the Greeks or Romans a fingle writer who attempted both.

Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and forrow not only in one mind but in one compofition. Almost all his plays are divided between ferious and ludicrous characters, and, in the fucceffive evolutions of the defign, fometimes produce seriousness and forrow, and fometimes levity and laughter.

That this is a practice contrary to the rules of criticifm will be readily allowed; but there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature. The end of writing is to inftruct; the end of poetry is to 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 alterations of exhibition, and approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life, by fhewing how great machinations and flender defigns may promote or obviate one another, and the high and the low co-operate in the general fyftem by unavoidable concatenation.

It is objected, that by this change of fcenes the paffions are interrupted in their progreffion, and that the principal event, being not advanced by a due gradation of preparatory incidents, wants at laft the power


power to move, which conftitutes the perfection of dramatick poetry. This reafoning is fo fpecious, that it is received as true even by thofe who in daily experience feel it to be falfe. The interchanges of mingled fcenes feldom fail to produce the intended viciffitudes of paffion. Fiction cannot move fo much, but that the attention may be easily transferred; and though it must be allowed that pleasing melancholy be fometimes interrupted by unwelcome levity, yet let it be confidered likewife, that melancholy is often not pleafing, 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 pleafure confifts in variety.

The players, who in their edition divided our authour's works into comedies, hiftories, and tragedies, feem not to have diftinguished the three kinds, by any very exact or definitive ideas.


An action which ended happily to the principal perfons, however ferious or distressful through its intermediate incidents, in their opinion conflituted 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 thofe times a poem of more general dignity or elevation than comedy; it required only a calamitous conclufion, with which the common criticism of that age was fatisfied, whatever lighter pleasure it afforded in its progress.


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Hiflory was a series of actions, with no other than chronological fucceffion, independent of each other, and without any tendency to introduce or regulate the conclufion. It is not always very nicely diftinguished from tragedy. There is not much nearer approach to unity of action in the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, than in the hiftory of Richard the Second. But a hiftory might be continued through many plays; as it had no plan, it had no limits.

Through all thefe denominations of the drama, Shakespeare's mode of compofition is the fame; an interchange of ferioufnefs and merriment, by which the mind is foftened at one time, and exhilarated at another. But whatever be his purpose, whether to gladden or deprefs, or to conduct the ftory, without vehemence or emotion, through tracts of easy and familiar dialogue, he never fails to attain his purpose; as he commands us, we laugh or mourn, or fit filent with quiet expectation, in tranquillity without indifference.

When Shakespeare's plan is understood, most of the criticisms of Rhymer and Voltaire vanish away. The play of Hamlet is opened, without impropriety, by two fentinels; Iago bellows at Brabantio's window, without injury to the scheme of the play, though in terms which a modern audience would not eafily endure; the character of Polonius is feasonable and useful; and the Grave diggers themselves may be heard with applaufe.



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