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You have long known my opinion concerning the literary acquisitions of our immortal Dramatist; and remember how I congratulated myself on my coincidence with the last and best of his Editors. I told you, however, that his small Latin and less Greek would still be litigated, and you see very assuredly that I was not mistaken. The trumpet hath been sounded against “the darling project of representing Shakespeare as one of the illiterate vulgar”; and indeed to so good purpose, that I would by all means recommend the performer to the army of the braying Faction, recorded by Cervantes. The testimony of his contemporaries is again disputed; constant tradition is opposed by flimsy arguments; and nothing is heard but confusion and nonsense. One could scarcely imagine this a topick very likely to inflame the passions : it is asserted by Dryden, that “those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greatest commendation"; yet an attack upon an article of faith hath been usually received with more temper and complacence, than the unfortunate opinion which I am about to defend.
But let us previously lament, with every lover of Shakespeare, that the Question was not fully discussed by Mr. Johnson himself: what he sees intuitively, others must arrive at by a series of proofs ; and I have not time to teach with precision : be contented therefore with a few cursory observations, as they may happen to arise from the Chaos of Papers you have so often laughed at, “a stock sufficient to set up an Editor in form.” I am convinced of the strength of my cause, and superior to any little advantage from sophistical arrangements.
General positions without proofs will probably have no great weight on either side, yet it may not seem fair to suppress them: take them therefore as their authors occur to me, and we will afterward proceed to particulars.
The testimony of Ben. stands foremost; and some have held it sufficient to decide the controversy : in the warmest Panegyrick that ever was written, he apologizes
for what he supposed the only defect in his “beloved friend,
- Soul of the age ! Th’applause ! delight ! the wonder of our stage! whose memory he honoured almost to idolatry”: and conscious of the worth of ancient literature, like any other man on the same occasion, he rather carries his acquirements above than below the truth. “ Jealousy!” cries Mr. Upton ; “People will allow others any qualities, but those upon which they highly value themselves.” Yes, where there is a competition, and the competitor formidable : but, I think, this Critick himself hath scarcely set in opposition the learning of Shakespeare and Jonson. When a superiority is universally granted, it by no means appears a man's literary interest to depress the reputation of his Antagonist.
In truth the received opinion of the pride and malignity of Jonson, at least in the earlier part of life, is absolutely groundless : at this time scarce a play or a poem appeared without Ben's encomium, from the original Shakespeare to the translator of Du Bartas.
But Jonson is by no means our only authority. Drayton, the countryman and acquaintance of Shakespeare, determines his excellence to the naturall Braine only. Digges, a wit of the town before our Poet left the stage, is very strong to the purpose,
- Nature only helpt him, for looke thorow
Nor once from vulgar languages translate. Suckling opposes his easier strain to the sweat of learned fonson. Denham assures us that all he had was from old Mother-wit. His native wood-notes wild, every one remembers to be celebrated by Milton. Dryden observes prettily enough, that “ he wanted not the spectacles of books to read Nature.” He came out of her hand, as some one else expresses it, like Pallas out of Jove's head, at full growth and mature.
The ever memorable Hales of Eton (who, notwithstanding his Epithet, is, I fear, almost forgotten) had too great a knowledge both of Shakespeare and the Ancients to allow much acquaintance between them: and urged very justly on the part of Genius in opposition to Pedantry, That “if he had not read the Classicks, he had likewise not stolen from them; and if any Topick was produced from a Poet of antiquity, he would undertake to shew somewhat on the same subject, at least as well written by Shakespeare.”
Fuller, a diligent and equal searcher after truth and quibbles, declares positively that “his learning was very little,—Nature was all the Art used upon him, as he himself, if alive, would confess.” And may we not say he did confess it, when he apologized for his untutored lines to his noble patron the Earl of Southampton ?—this list of witnesses might be easily enlarged ; but I fatter myself, I shall stand in no need of such evidence.
One of the first and most vehement assertors of the learning of Shakespeare was the Editor of his Poems, the well-known Mr. Gildon ; and his steps were most punctually taken by a subsequent labourer in the same department, Dr. Sewel.
Mr. Pope supposed“ little ground for the common opinion of his want of learning”: once indeed he made a proper distinction between learning and languages, as I would be understood to do in my Title-page ; but unfortunately he forgot it in the course of his disquisition, and endeavoured to persuade himself that Shakespeare's acquaintance with the Ancients might be actually proved by the same medium as Jonson's.
Mr. Theobald is “very unwilling to allow him so poor a scholar as many have laboured to represent him”; and yet is “cautious of declaring too positively on the other side of the question.”
Dr. Warburton hath exposed the weakness of some arguments from suspected imitations; and yet offers others, which, I doubt not, he could as easily have refuted.
Mr. Upton wonders “ with what kind of reasoning any one could be so far imposed upon, as to imagine that Shakespeare had no learning"; and lashes with much zeal and satisfaction “the pride and pertness of dunces, who, under such a name, would gladly shelter their own idleness and ignorance.”
He, like the learned Knight, at every anomaly in grammar or metre,
Hath hard words ready to shew why,
And tell what Rule he did it by. How would the old Bard have been astonished to have found that he had very skilfully given the trochaic dimeter brachycatalectic, COMMONLY called the ithyphallic measure, to the Witches in Macbeth! and that now and then a halting Verse afforded a most beautiful instance of the Pes proceleusmaticus!
“But,” continues Mr. Upton, “it was a learned age; Roger Ascham assures us that Queen Elizabeth read more Greek every day, than some Dignitaries of the Church did Latin in a whole week.” This appears very probable ; and a pleasant proof it is of the general learning of the times, and of Shakespeare in particular. I wonder he did not corroborate it with an extract from her injunctions to her Clergy, that “such as were but mean Readers should peruse over before, once or twice, the Chapters and Homilies, to the intent they might read to the better understanding of the people.”
Dr. Grey declares that Shakespeare's knowledge in the Greek and Latin tongues cannot reasonably be called in question. Dr. Dodd supposes it proved, that he was not such a novice in learning and antiquity as some people would pretend. And to close the whole, for I suspect you to be tired of quotation, Mr. Whalley, the ingenious Editor of Jonson, hath written a piece expressly on this side the question : perhaps from a very excusable partiality, he was willing to draw Shakespeare from the field of Nature to classick ground, where alone, he knew, his Author could possibly cope with him.
These criticks, and many others their coadjutors, have supposed themselves able to trace Shakespeare in the writings of the Ancients; and have sometimes persuaded us of their own learning, whatever became of their Author's. Plagiarisms have been discovered in every natural description and every moral sentiment. Indeed by the kind assistance of the various Excerpta, Sententiæ, and Flores, this business may be effected with very little expense of time or sagacity; as Addison hath demonstrated in his Comment on Chevy-chase, and Wagstaff on Tom Thumb; and I myself will engage to give you quotations from the elder English writers (for, to own the truth, I was once idle enough to collect such) which shall carry with them at least an equal degree of similarity. But there can be no occasion of wasting any future time in this department: the world is now in possession of the Marks of Imitation.
“Shakespeare, however, hath frequent allusions to the facts and fables of antiquity.” Granted :—and, as Mat. Prior says, to save the effusion of more Christian ink, I will endeavour to shew how they came to his acquaintance.
It is notorious that much of his matter of fact knowledge is deduced from Plutarch : but in what language he read him, hath yet been the question. Mr. Upton is pretty confident of his skill in the Original, and corrects accordingly the Errors of his Copyists by the Greek standard. Take a few instances, which will elucidate this matter sufficiently.
In the third act of Anthony and Cleopatra, Octavius represents to his Courtiers the imperial pomp of those illustrious lovers, and the arrangement of their dominion,
- Unto her He gave the 'stablishment of Egypt, made her Of lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia,
Absolute Queen. Read Libya, says the critick authoritatively, as is plain from Plutarch, II pútnu mer ånéonve Kleopárpav Basidiorav Αιγύπτου και Κύπρου και ΛΙΒΥΗΣ, και κοίλης Συρίας.