« AnteriorContinuar »
diftinct. To this life and variety of character, we must add the wonderful preservation of it; which is fuch throughout his plays, that had all the fpeeches been printed without the very names of the perfons, I believe one might have applied them with certainty to every speaker.'
The power over our pafsions was never poffeffed in a more eminent degree, or difplayed in fo different inftances. Yet all along, there is feen no labour, no pains to raise them; no preparation to guide or guefs to the effect, or be perceived to lead toward it: but the heart fwells, and the tears burst out, just at the proper places: we are furprised the moment we weep; and yet upon reflection find the paffion fo juft, that we fhould be furprised if we had not wept, and wept at that very
How astonishing is it again, that the paffions directly oppofite to thefe, laughter and fpleen, are no lefs at his command! that he is not more a mafter of the great than of the ridiculous in human nature; of our nobleft tendernesses, than of our vainest foibles; of our ftrongest emotions, than of our idleft fenfations!
Nor does he only excel in the paffions in the coolness of reflection and reafoning he is full as admirable. His fentiments are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious upon every fubject; but by a talent very peculiar, fomething between penetration and felicity, he hits upon that particular point on which the bent of each argu
Addifon, in the 273d Spectator, has delivered a fimilar opinion refpecting Homer: "There is fcarce a fpeech or action in the Iliad, which the reader may not ascribe to the person who fpeaks or acts, without feeing his name at the head of it."
ment turns, or the force of each motive depends. This is perfectly amazing, from a man of no education or experience in thofe great and publick scenes of life which are ufually the fubject of his thoughts: fo that he seems to have known the world by intuition, to have looked through human nature at one glance, and to be the only author that gives ground for a very new opinion, that the philofopher, and even the man of the world, may be born, as well as the poet.
It must be owned, that with all thefe great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, fo he has perhaps written worse, than any other. But I think I can in fome measure account for thefe defects, from feveral caufes and accidents; without which it is hard to imagine that fo large and fo enlightened a mind could ever have been fufceptible of them. That all these contingencies fhould unite to his difadvantage feems to me almoft as fingularly unlucky, as that fo many various (nay contrary) talents fhould meet in one man, was happy and extraordinary.
It must be allowed that ftage-poetry, of all other, is more particularly levelled to please the populace, and its fuccefs more immediately depending upon the common fuffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakspeare, having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a subsistence, directed his endeavours folely to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed. The audience was generally compofed of the meaner fort of people; and therefore the images of life were to be drawn from thofe of their own rank: accordingly we find, that not our author's only, but almost all the old comedies have their fcene among
tradesmen and mechanicks: and even their historical plays strictly follow the common old stories or vulgar traditions of that kind of people. In tragedy, nothing was fo fure to furprize and cause admiration, as the most strange, unexpected, and confequently moft unnatural, events and incidents; the most exaggerated thoughts; the moft verbose and bombaft expreffion; the most pompous rhymes, and thundering verfification. In comedy, nothing was fo fure to please, as mean buffoonery, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jefts of fools and clowns. Yet even in these our author's wit buoys up, and is borne above his subject: his genius in thofe low parts is like fome prince of a romance in the disguise of a fhepherd or peasant; a certain greatness and spirit now and then break out, which manifest 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 fort piqued themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way; till Ben Jonfon getting poffeffion of the ftage, brought critical learning into vogue: and that this was not done without difficulty, may appear from those frequent leffons (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 hiftories 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 Shakspeare by Ariftotle's rules, is like trying a man by the laws of one coun
try, who acted under thofe of another. He writ to the people; and writ at firft without patronage from the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleafing them without affiftance or advice from the learned, as without the advantage of education or acquaintance among them; without that knowledge of the beft models, the ancients, to inspire him with an emulation of them; in a word, without any views of reputation, and of what poets are pleafed 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 fucceeded to that of the town; the works of his riper years are manifeftly raised above thofe of his former. The dates of his plays fufficiently evidence that his productions improved, in proportion to the respect he had for his auditors. And I make no doubt this obfervation will be found true in every inftance, were but editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was compofed, and whether writ for the town, or the court.
Another caufe (and no lefs ftrong than the former) may be deduced from our poet's being a player, and forming himself firft upon the judgments of that body of men whereof he was a member. They have ever had a standard to themfelves, upon other principles than those of Aristotle. As they live by the majority, they know no rule but that of pleafing the prefent humour, and complying with the wit in fafhion; a confideration which brings all their judgment to a fhort point. Players are juft fuch 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 lefs to be afcribed to his wrong judgment as a poet, than to his right judgment as a player.
By these men it would be thought a praise to Shakspeare, that he scarce ever blotted a line. This they induftriously propagated, as appears from what we are told by Ben Jonfon in his Discoveries, and from the preface of Heminge and Condell to the firft 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 Hiftory of Henry the Sixth, which was first published under the title of The Contention of York and Lancafter; and that of Henry the Fifth, 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 praife by fome, and to this his errors have as injudiciously been afcribed by others. For 'tis certain, were it true, it would concern but a fmall part of them; the most are fuch as are not properly defects, but fuperfœtations and arife 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 thofe wants in others. As to a wrong choice of the subject, a wrong conduct of the incidents, falfe thoughts, forced expreffions, &c. if thefe are not to be afcribed to the forefaid accidental reafons, they must be charged upon the poet himself, and there is no help for it.