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T is not my design to enter into a criticism upon this author; though to do it effectually, and not su
perficially, would be the best occasion that any just writer could take, to form the judgment and taste of our nation. For of all English poets Shakespear must be confessed to be the fairest and fullest subject for criticism, and to afford the most numerous, as well as most confpicuous instances, both of beauties and faults of all sorts. But this far exceeds the bounds of a preface; the business of which is only to give an account of the fate of his works, and the disadvantages under which they have been transmitted to us. We shall hereby extenuate many faults which are his, and clear him from the imputation of many which are not : A design which, though it can be no guide to future critics to do him justice in one way, will at least be sufficient to prevent their doing him an injustice in the other.
I cannot however but mention some of his principal and characteristic excellencies, for which notwith
( standing his defects) he is justly and universally elevated above all other dramatic writers. Not that this is the proper place of praising him, but because I would not omit any occasion of doing it,
If ever any author deserved the name of an original, it was Shakespear. Homer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of nature; it proceeded through Egyptian strainers and channels, and came to him not without fome tincture of the learning, or some cast of the models, of those before him. The poetry of Shakespear was inspiration indeed: he is not so much än imitator, as as instrument, of Nature; and it is noť so just to say, that he speaks from her, as that the speaks through him.
His characters are so much Nature herself, that it is a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as copies of her. Those of other poets have a constant resemblance, 'which shews that they received them from one
another, and were but multipliers of the same image : each picture, like a mock-rainbow, is but the reflection of a reflection. But every single character in Shakespear is as much an individual as those in life itself; it is as impotlible to find any two alike; and such as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be twins, will upon comparison be found remarkably dirtinct. To this life and variety of character, we must add the wonderful preservation of it; which is such throughout his plays, that, had all the speeches been printed without the very names of ihe perfons, I believe one might have applied them with certainty to erery spaker.
The pouer over our paligns was never possessed in a more eminent degree, or displayed in so different in
Yet all along there is seen no labour, no pains to raise them; no preparation to guide our guess to the effet, or be perceived to lead toward it: but the heart swells, and the tears burst out, just at the proper places. We are surprised the moment we weep; and yet upon reflection find the passion fo just, that we should be surprised if we had not wept, and wept at that very moment.
How astonishing is it again, that the passions directly opposite to these, laughter and spleen, are no less at his command! that he is not more a maiter of the
great than of the ridiculous in human nature; of our nobleit tendernefits, than of our vainest foibles; of our strongeit emotions, than of our idlet sensations !
Nor does he only excel in the passions : in the coolnefs of reflection and reasoning he is full as admirable. His sentiments are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious upon every subject; but by a talent very pcculiar, fomething between penetration and felicity, he hits upon that particular point on which the bent of each argument turns, or the force of each motive depends. This is perfectly amazing, from a man of no education or experience in those great and public scenes of life which are usually the subject of his thoughts : so that he seems to have known the world by intuition, to have locked through human nature at one glance, and to be the only author that gives ground for a very
Dew opinion, That the philofopher, and even the man of the world, may be born, as well as the poet.
It muit be owned, that with all these great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, so he has perhaps written worse than any other. But I think I can in fome measure account for these defects, from several causes and accidents ; without which it is hard to imagine, that fo large and so enlightened a mind could ever have been susceptible of them. That all these contingencies should unite to his disadvantage, seems to me almost as singularly unlucky, as that so many various (nay contrary) talents should meet in one man, was happy and extraordinary.
It must be allowed, that stage-poetry, of all other, is more particularly levelled to please the populace, and its success more immediately depending upon the common suffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakespear, having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a subsistence, directed his endeavours solely to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed. The audience was generally composed of the meaner sort of people; and therefore the images of life were to be drawn from those of their own rank. Accordingly we find, that not our author's only, but almost all the old comedies, have their scene among tradesmen and mechanics : and even their historical plays striály follow the common old stories or vulgar traditions of that kind of people. In tragedy, nothing was so sure to furprise, and cause admiration, as the most strange, unexpected, and consequently most unnatural events and incidents; the most exaggerated thoughts; the most verbofe and bombast expreffion; the most pompous rhymes, and thundering versification. In comedy, nothing was so sure to please, as mean buffoonry, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jeits of fools and clowns. Yet even in these our author's wit buoys up, and is borne above his subject : his genius in thore low parts, is like fom: prince of a romance in the disguise of a shepherd or peasant; a certain greatness and spirit now and then break out, which manifett his higher extraction and qualities.
It may be added, that not only the common audience
had no notion of the rules of writing, but few even of the better sort piqued themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way; till Ben Johnson getting posseihon of the stage, brought critical learning into vogue : and that this was not done without difficulty, may appear from those frequent lessons (and indeed almost declamations) which he was forced to prefix to his first plays, and put into the mouth of his actors, the Grex, Chorus, &c. to remove the prejudices and inform the judgment of his hearers. Till then our authors had no thoughts of writing on the model of the ancients : their tragedies were only histories in dialogue ; and their comedies followed the thread of any novel as they found it, no less implicitly than if it had been true history.
To judge therefore of Shakespear by Aristotle's rules, is like trying a man by the laws of one country, who acted under those of another. He writ to the people; and writ at first without patronage from the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleasing them; without asliftance or advice from the learned, as without the advantage of education or acquaintance among them; without that knowledge of the best models, the ancients, to inspire him with an emulation of them ; in a word, without any views of reputation, and of what poets are pleased to call immortality : fome or all of which have encouraged the vanity, or animated the ambition of other writers.
Yet it must be observed, that when his performances had merited the protection of his prince, and when the encouragement of the court had succeeded to that of the town ; the works of his riper years are manifestly raised above those of his former. The dates of his plays sufficiently evidence, that his productions improved, in proportion to the respect he had for his auditors. And I make no doubt this observation would be found true in every instance, were but editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was composed, and whether writ for the town or the court.
Another cause (and no less strong than the former) may be deduced from our author's being a player, and forming himself first upon the judgments of that body
of men whereof he was a member. They have ever had a standard to themselves, upon other principles than those of Aristotle. As they live by the majority, they know no rule but that of pleasing the present humour, and complying with the wit in fathion; a confideration which brings all their judgment to a short point. Players are just such judges of what is right, as tailors are of what is graceful. And in this view it will be but fair to allow, that most of our author's faults are less to be ascribed to his wrong judgment as a poet, than to his right judgment as a player.
By these men it was thought a praise to Shakespear, that he scarce ever blotted a line. This they industriously propagated; as appears from what we are told by Ben Johnson in his Discoveries, and from the preface of Heminges and Condell to the first folio edition. But in reality (however it has prevailed) there never was a more groundless report, or to the contrary of which there are more undeniable evidences : As the comedy of The Merry wives of Windfor, which he entirely new writ; The History of Henry VI. which was first published under the title of the contention of York and Lancaster; and that of Henry V. extremely improved; that of Hamlet, enlarged to almost as much again as at first, and many others. I believe the common opinion of his want of learning proceeded from no better ground. This too might be thought a praise by fome, and to this his errors have as injudicioully been ascribed by others. For it is certain, were it true, it could concern but a finall part of them: the most are such as are not properly defects, but fuperfætations ; and arise not from want of learning or reading, but from want of thinking or judging; or rather (to be more just to our author) from a compliance to those wants in others. choice of the subject, a wrong conduct of the incidents, false thoughts, forced expressions, &c. if thes are not to be ascribed to the foresaid accident. I r aso is, they must be charged upon the poet himself, and there is no help for it. But I think the two disadvantages which I have mentioned, ito be obliged to please the lowest of people, and to keep the worit of company), if the conLideration be extended as far as it reasonably may, will
As to a wrong