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Poet as the Historian. He seems indeed so far from proposing to himself any one action for a Subject, that the Title very often tells you, 'tis The Life of King John, King Richard, &c. What can be more agreeable to the idea our historians give of Henry the Sixth, than the picture Shakespear has drawn of him! His Manners are every where exactly the same with the story; one finds him still describ'd with simplicity, passive sanctity, want of courage, weakness of mind, and easie submission to the governance of an imperious Wife, or prevailing Faction : Tho' at the same time the Poet do's justice to his good qualities, and moves the pity of his audience for him, by showing him pious, disinterested, a contemner of the things of this world, and wholly resign'd to the severest dispensations of God's providence. There is a short Scene in the second part of Henry VI., which I cannot but think admirable in its kind. Cardinal Beaufort, who had murder'd the Duke of Gloucester, is shewn in the last agonies on his death-bed, with the good King praying over him. There is so much terror in one, so much tenderness and moving piety in the other, as must touch any one who is capable either of fear or pity. In his Henry VIII. that Prince is drawn with that greatness of mind, and all those good qualities which are attributed to him in any account of his reign. If his faults are not shewn in an equal degree, and the shades in this picture do not bear a just proportion to the lights, it is not that the Artist wanted either colours or skill in the disposition of 'em ; but the truth, I believe, might be, that he forbore doing it out of regard to Queen Elizabeth, since it could have been no very great respect to the memory of his Mistress, to have expos'd some certain parts of her father's life upon the stage. He has dealt much more freely with the Minister of that great King, and certainly nothing was ever more justly written, than the character of Cardinal Wolsey. He has shewn him tyrannical, cruel, and insolent in his prosperity; and yet, by a wonderful address, he makes his fall and ruin the subject of general compassion. The whole man, with his vices and virtues, is finely and exactly describ'd in the second Scene of the fourth Act. The distresses likewise of Queen Katherine, in this Play, are very movingly touch'd ; and tho' the art of the Poet has skreen'd King Henry from any gross imputation of injustice, yet one is inclin'd to wish, the Queen had met with a fortune more worthy of her birth and virtue. Nor are the Manners, proper to the persons represented, less justly obsery'd in those characters taken from the Roman History; and of this, the fierceness and impatience of Coriolanus, his courage and disdain of the common people, the virtue and philosophical temper of Brutus, and the irregular greatness of mind in M. Antony, are beautiful proofs. For the two last especially, you find 'em exactly as they are describ'd by Plutarch, from whom certainly Shakespear copy'd 'em. He has indeed follow'd his original pretty close, and taken in several little incidents that might have been spar'd in a Play. But, as I hinted before, his design seems most commonly rather to describe those great men in the several fortunes and accidents of their lives, than to take any single great action, and form his work simply upon that. However, there are some of his pieces, where the Fable is founded upon one action only. Such are more especially, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello. The design in Romeo and Juliet is plainly the punishment of their two families, for the unreasonable feuds and animosities that had been so long kept up between 'em, and occasion'd the effusion of so much blood. In the management of this story, he has shewn something wonderfully tender and passionate in the lovepart, and very pitiful in the distress. Hamlet is founded on much the same Tale with the Electra of Sophocles. In each of 'em a young Prince is engag'd to revenge the death of his father, their mothers are equally guilty, are both concern’d in the murder of their husbands, and are afterwards married to the murderers. There is in the first part of the Greek Tragedy, something very moving in the grief of Electra ; but as Mr. D'Acier has observ'd,
there is something very unnatural and shocking in the
But howsoever thou pursu'st this Act,
To prick and sting her. This is to distinguish rightly between Horror and Terror. The latter is a proper passion of Tragedy, but the former ought always to be carefully avoided. And certainly no dramatick Writer ever succeeded better in raising Terror in the minds of an audience than Shakespear has done. The whole Tragedy of Macbeth, but more especially the scene where the King is murder'd, in the second Act, as well as this Play, is a noble proof of that manly spirit with which
he writ; and both shew how powerful he was, in giving the strongest motions to our souls that they are capable of. I cannot leave Hamlet without taking notice of the advantage with which we have seen this Master-piece of Shakespear distinguish it self upon the stage, by Mr. Betterton's fine performance of that part: A man who, tho’ he had no other good qualities, as he has a great many, must have made his way into the esteem of all men of letters, by this only excellency. No man is better acquainted with Shakespear's manner of expression, and indeed he has study'd him so well, and is so much a master of him, that whatever part of his he performs, he does it as if it had been written on purpose for him, and that the Author had exactly conceiv’d it as he plays it. I must own a particular obligation to him, for the most considerable part of the passages relating to this life, which I have here transmitted to the publick; his veneration for the memory of Shakespear having engaged him to make a journey into Warwickshire, on purpose to gather up what remains he could of a name for which he had so great a value. Since I had at first resolv'd not to enter into any critical controversie, I won't pretend to enquire into the justness of Mr. Rhymer's Remarks on Othello ; he has certainly pointed out some faults very judiciously ; and indeed they are such as most people will agree with him, to be faults : But I wish he would likewise have observ'd some of the beauties too; as I think it became an exact and equal Critique to do. It seems strange that he should allow nothing good in the whole : If the Fable and Incidents are not to his taste, yet the Thoughts are almost every where very noble, and the Diction manly and proper. These last, indeed, are parts of Shakespear's praise, which it would be very hard to dispute with him. His Sentiments and Images of things are great and natural; and his Expression (tho' perhaps in some instances a little irregular) just, and rais'd in proportion to his subject and occasion. It would be even endless to mention the particular instances that might be given of this kind : But his Book is in the possession of the publick, and 'twill be hard to dip into any part of it, without finding what I have said of him made good.
The latter part of his life was spent, as all men of good sense will wish theirs may be, in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends. He had the good fortune to gather an estate equal to his occasion, and, in that, to his wish ; and is said to have spent some years before his death at his native Stratford. His pleasurable wit, and good nature, engag'd him in the acquaintance, and entitled him to the friendship of the gentlemen of the neighbourhood. Amongst them, it is a story almost still remember'd in that country, that he had a particular intimacy with Mr. Combe, an old gentleman noted thereabouts for his wealth and usury : It happen'd, that in a pleasant conversation amongst their common friends, Mr. Combe told Shakespear in a laughing manner, that he fancy'd he intended to write his Epitaph, if he happen'd to out-live him ; and since he could not know what might be said of him when he was dead, he desir'd it might be done immediately: Upon which Shakespear gave him these four verses.
Ten in the hundred lies here ingray’d,
Oh! ho! quoth the devil, 'tis my John-a-Gombe. But the sharpness of the Satyr is said to have stung the man so severely, that he never forgave it.
He dy'd in the 53d year of his age, and was bury'd on the north side of the chancel, in the great church at Stratford, where a monument, as engrav'd in the plate, is plac'd in the wall. On his Grave-stone underneath is,
Good friend, for Jesus sake, forbear
And curst be he that moves my bones.