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that reverence it, not from reafon, but from prejudice. Some feem to admire indifcriminately whatever has been long preferved, without confidering that time has fometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour paft than prefent excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the fhades of age, as the eye furveys the fun through artificial opacity. The great contention of criticifm 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 worft performance; and when he is dead, we rate them by his best.
To works, however, of which the excellence is not abfolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonftrative and fcientifick, but appealing wholly to obfervation and experience, no other teft can be applied than length of duration and continuance of efteem, What mankind have long poffeffed they have often examined and compared, and if they perfift to value the poffeffion, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep, or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains, and many rivers; fo in the production of genius, nothing can be ftyled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the fame kind. Demonftration immediately difplays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is difcovered in a long fucceffion of endeavours. Of the firft building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined
that it was round or fquare; but whether it was fpacious or lofty muft have been referred to time. The Pythagorean fcale of numbers was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to tranfcend 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 tranfpofe his incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrate his fentiments.
The reverence due to writings that have long fubfifted arises therefore not from any credulous. confidence in the fuperior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy perfuafion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the confequence of acknowledged and indubitable pofitions, that what has been longest known has been moft confidered, and what is moft confidered is beft understood.
The poet, of whofe works I have undertaken the revifion, may now begin to affume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of an established fame and prefcriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the teft of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from perfonal allufions, local cuftoms, or temporary opinions, have for many years been loft; and every topick of merriment or motive of forrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obfcure the fcenes which they once illuminated. The effects of favour and competition are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and his enmities has perifhed; his works fupport no opinion with arguments, nor fupply
"Eft vetus atque probus, centum qui perficit annos." Hor.
any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity, nor gratify malignity; but are read without any other reafon than the defire of pleafure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained; yet, thus unaffifted by intereft or paffion, they have past through variations of tafte and changes of inanners, and, as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every tranfmiffion.
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 juft reprefentations 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 fatiety of life fends us all in queft; the pleafures of fudden wonder are foon exhausted, and the mind can only repofe on the ftability of truth.
Shakspeare is above all writers, at leaft above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractifed by the rest of the world: by the peculiarities of ftudies or profeffions, which can operate but upon fmall numbers; or by the accidents of tranfient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, fuch as the world will always fupply, and obfervation will
always find. His perfons act and fpeak by the influence of thofe general paffions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole fyftem of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in thofe of Shakspeare it is commonly a fpecies.
It is from this wide extenfion of design that fo much inftruction is derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shakspeare with practical axioms and domeftick wifdom. It was faid of Euripides, that every verfe was a precept; and it may be faid of Shakspeare, that from his works may be collected a fyftem of civil and economical prudence. Yet his real power is not fhown in the fplendor of particular paffages, but by the progrefs of his fable, and the tenor of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by felect quotations, will fucceed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to fale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.
It will not easily be imagined how much Shakfpeare excels in accommodating his fentiments to real life, but by comparing him with other authors. It was obferved of the ancient fchools of declamation, that the more diligently they were frequented, the more was the ftudent difqualified for the world, because he found nothing there which he should ever meet in any other place. The fame remark may be applied to every ftage but that of Shakfpeare. The theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peopled by fuch characters as were never feen, converfing in a language which was never heard, upon topicks which will never arife in the commerce of mankind. But the dialogue of this author is often fo evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is purfued with fo
much ease and fimplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent felection out of common converfation, and common occurrences.
Upon every other stage the univerfal agent is love, by whofe power all good and evil is diftributed, 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 oppofitions of intereft, and harrafs them with violence of defires inconfiftent with each other; to make them meet in rapture, and part in agony; to fill their mouths with hyperbolical joy and outrageous forrow; to distress them as nothing human ever was diftreffed; to deliver them as nothing human ever was delivered, is the bufinefs of a modern dramatift. For this, probability is violated, life is mifreprefented, and language is depraved. But love is only one of many paffions, and as it has no great influence upon the fum of life, it has little operation in the dramas of a poet, who caught his ideas from the living world, and exhibited only what he faw before him. He knew, that any other paffion, as it was regular or exorbitant, was a cause of happiness or calamity.
Characters thus ample and general were not easily discriminated and preserved, yet perhaps no poet ever kept his perfonages more diftinct from each other. I will not fay with Pope, that every speech may be affigned to the proper speaker, because many speeches there are which have nothing characteristical; but, perhaps, though fome may be equally adapted to every perfon, it will be difficult. to find any that can be properly transferred from the prefent poffeffor to another claimant. choice is right, when there is reafon for choice.