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cannot say he is every where alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat and insipid ; his comick wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great, when some great occasion is presented to him : no man can say, he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise himself as high above the rest of poets,
Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi. It is to be lamented that such a writer should want a commentary; that his language should become obsolete, or his sentiments obscure. But it is vain to carry wishes beyond the condition of human things; that which must happen to all, has happened to Shakespeare, by accident and time; and more than has been suffered by any other writer since the use of types, has been suffered by him through his own negligence of fame, or perhaps by that superiority of mind, which despised its own performances, when it compared them with its powers, and judged those works unworthy to be preserved, which the criticks of following ages were to contend for the fame of restoring and explaining
Among these candidates of inferior fame, I am now to stand the judgment of the publick; and wish that I could confidently produce my commentary as equal to the encouragement which I have had the honour of receiving. Every work of this kind is by its nature deficient, and I should feel little solicitude about the sentence, were it to be pronounced only by the skilful and the learned.
An Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare:
Addressed to Joseph Cradock, Esq.
PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION, 1767.
The Author of the following Essay was solicitous only for the honour of Shakespeare: he hath however, in his own capacity, little reason to complain of occasional Criticks, or Criticks by profession. The very few, who have been pleased to controvert any part of his Doctrine, have favoured him with better manners than arguments; and claim his thanks for a further opportunity of demonstrating the futility of Theoretick reasoning against Matter of Fact. It is indeed strange that any real Friends of our immortal Poet should be still willing to force him into a situation which is not tenable: treat him as a learned Man, and what shall excuse the most gross violations of History, Chronology, and Geography? Ού πείσεις ούδ' ήν πείσης is the Motto of
Polemick: like his Brethren at the Amphitheatre, he holds it a merit to die hard; and will not say, Enough, though the Battle be decided. “Were it shewn,” says some one, “ that the old Bard borrowed all his allusions from English books then published, our Essayist might have possibly established his System.”—In good time! -This had scarcely been attempted by Peter Burman himself, with the Library of Shakespeare before him.-" Truly,” as Mr. Dogberry says, “for mine own part, if I were as tedious as a King, I could find in my heart to bestow it all on this Subject": but where should I meet with a Reader ? When the main Pillars are taken away, the whole Building falls in course: Nothing hath been, or can be, pointed out, which is not easily removed; or rather, which was not virtually removed before: a very little Analogy will do the business. I shall therefore have no occasion to trouble myself any further; and may venture to call my Pamphlet, in the words of a pleasant Declaimer against Sermons on the thirtieth of January, “ an Answer to every thing that shall hereafter be written on the Subject.”
But “this method of reasoning will prove any one ignorant of the Languages, who hath written when Translations were extant. -Shade of Burgersdicius ! does it follow, because Shakespeare's early life was incompatible with a course of Education--whose Contemporaries, Friends and Foes, nay, and himself likewise, agree in his want of what is usually called Literaturewhose mistakes from equivocal Translations, and even typographical Errors, cannot possibly be accounted for otherwise,—that Locke, to whom not one of these circumstances is applicable, understood no Greek ?-I suspect, Rollin's Opinion of our Philosopher was not founded on this argument.
Shakespeare wanted not the Stilts of Languages to raise him above all other men. The quotation from Lilly in the Taming of the Shrew, if indeed it be his, strongly proves the extent of his reading : had he known Terence, he would not have quoted erroneously from his Grammar. Every one hath met with men in common life, who, according to the language of the Water-poet, “got only from Possum to Posset," and yet will throw out a line occasionally from their Accidence or their Cato de Moribus with tolerable propriety. If, however, the old Editions
be trusted in this passage, our Author's memory somewhat failed him in point of Concord.
The rage of Parallelisms is almost over, and in truth nothing can be more absurd. “This was stolen from one Classick,---That from another”;--and had I not stept in to his rescue, poor Shakespeare had been stript as naked of ornament, as when he first held Horses at the door of the Playhouse.
The late ingenious and modest Mr. Dodsley declared himself
Untutor'd in the lore of Greece or Rome :
Γυνή γαρ εν κακoίσι και νόσοις πόσει
Ψυχήν μεθιστασ’!. -Par. 4to. 1623.
It seems however, at last, that “ Taste should determine the matter.” This, as Bardolph expresses it, is a word of exceeding good command: but I am willing that the Standard itself be somewhat better ascertained before it be opposed to demonstrative Evidence. Upon the whole,
may consider myself as the Pioneer of the Commentators :
I have removed a deal of learned Rubbish, and pointed out to them Shakespeare's track in the ever-pleasing Paths of Nature. This was necessarily a previous Inquiry; and I hope I may assume with some confidence, what one of the first Criticks of the Age was pleased to declare on reading the former Edition, that “The Question is now for ever decided."
may just remark, lest they be mistaken for Errata, that the word Catherine in the 47th page [p. 191) is written, according to the old Orthography, for Catharine ; and that the passage in the 5 ist page [p. 193] is copied from Upton, who improperly calls Horatio and Marcellus in Hamlet, “the Centinels.”
AN ESSAY ON THE LEARNING OF SHAKESPEARE:
ADDRESSED TO JOSEPH CRADOCK, ESQ.
“SHAKESPEARE,” says a Brother of the Craft, “is a vast garden of criticism”: and certainly no one can be favoured with more weeders gratis.
But how often, my dear Sir, are weeds and flowers torn up indiscriminately ?—the ravaged spot is re-planted in a moment, and a profusion of critical thorns thrown over it for security.
“A prudent man, therefore, would not venture his fingers amongst them.”
Be, however, in little pain for your friend, who regards himself sufficiently to be cautious :—yet he asserts with confidence, that no improvement can be expected, whilst the natural soil is mistaken for a hot-bed, and the Natives of the banks of Avon are scientifically choked with the culture of exoticks.
Thus much for metaphor ; it is contrary to the Statute to fly out so early : but who can tell, whether it may not be demonstrated by some critick or other, that a deviation from rule is peculiarly happy in an Essay on Shakespeare !