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those dismal Calamities, that horrible Slaughter, those endless Wars, and that unbounded Devastation, which will certainly fall upon Mankind, if the Restoration of Liberty is prevented by his Death, or his incurable Sickness : And lastly, he entreats him by his Thirst of immortal Glory, that Glory in which he now has Rivals, if he has not Equals ; but which, if he re-establishes Liberty, will be acknowledg’d by consenting Nations to have neither Equal nor Second.
I am apt to believe that if Shakespear had been acquainted with all this, we had had from him quite another Character of Cæsar than that which we now find in him. He might then have given us a Scene something like that which Corneille has so happily us'd in his Cinna ; something like that which really happen'd between Augustus, Mecænas, and Agrippa. He might then have introduc'd Cæsar consulting Cicero on the one side, and on the other Anthony, whether he should retain that absolute Sovereignty which he had acquir'd by his Victory, or whether he should re-establish and immortalize Liberty. That would have been a Scene which might have employ'd the finest Art and the utmost force of a Writer. That had been a Scene in which all the great Qualities of Cæsar might have been display'd. I will not pretend to determine here how that Scene might have been turn'd; and what I have already said on this Subject, has been spoke with the utmost Caution and Diffidence. But this I will venture to say, that if that Scene had been manag'd so, as, by the powerful Motives employ'd in it, to have shaken the Soul of Cæsar, and to have left room for the least Hope, for the least Doubt, that Cæsar would have re-establish'd Liberty, after his Parthian Expedition ; and if this Conversation had been kept secret till the Death of Cæsar, and then had been discover'd by Anthony ; then had Cæsar fall’n, so belov'd and lamented by the Roman People, so pitied and so bewail'd even by the Conspirators themselves, as never Man fell. Then there would have been a Catastrophe the most dreadful and the most deplorable that ever was beheld upon the Tragick Stage. Then had we seen the noblest of the Conspirators cursing their temerarious Act, and the most apprehensive of them in dreadful expectation of those horrible Calamities which fell upon the Romans after the Death of Cæsar. But, Sir, when I write this to you, I write it with the utmost Deference to the extraordinary Judgment of that great Man who some Years ago, I hear, alter'd the Julius Cæsar. And I make no doubt but that his fine Discernment and the rest of his great Qualities have amply supply'd the Defects which are found in the Character of Shakespear's Cæsar.
I should here answer an Argument, by which some People pretend to prove, and especially those with whom I lately convers'd, that Shakespear was conversant with the Ancients. But besides that the Post is about to be gone, I am heartily tir'd with what I have already writ, and so doubtless are you ; I shall therefore defer the rest to the next opportunity, and remain
Feb. 8. I COME now to the main Argument, which some People urge to prove that Shakespear was conversant with the Ancients. For there is, say they, among Shakespear's Plays, one callid The Comedy of Errors, which is undeniably an Imitation of the Menechmi of Plautus. Now Shakespear, say they, being conversant with Plautus, it undeniably follows that he was acquainted with the Ancients; because
Roman Author could be hard to him who had conquer'd Plautus. To which I answer, that the Errors which we have mention'd above are to be accounted for no
other way but by the want of knowing the Ancients, or by downright want of Capacity. But nothing can be more absurd or more unjust than to impute it to want of Capacity. For the very Sentiments of Shakespear alone are sufficient to shew that he had a great Understanding : And therefore we must account some other way for his Imitation of the Menechmi. I remember to have seen, among the Translations of Ovid's Epistles printed by Mr. Tonson, an Imitation of that from Enone to Paris, which Mr. Dryden tells us in his Preface to those Epistles was imitated by one of the Fair Sex who understood no Latin, but that she had done enough to make those blush who understood it the best. There are at this day several Translators, who, as Hudibrass has it,
Translate from Languages of which
They understand no part of Speech. I will not affirm that of Shakespear; I believe he was able to do what Pedants call construe, but that he was able to read Plautus without Pain and Difficulty I can never believe. Now I appeal to you, Sir, what time he had between his Writing and his Acting, to read any thing that could not be read with Ease and Pleasure. We see that our Adversaries themselves acknowledge, that if Shakespear was able to read Plautus with Ease, nothing in Latinity could be hard to him. How comes it to pass then, that he has given us no Proofs of his familiar Acquaintance with the Ancients, but this Imitation of the Menechmi, and a Version of two Epistles of Ovid? How comes it that he had never read Horace, of a superiour Merit to either, and particularly his Epistle to the Piso's, which so much concern'd his Art? Or if he had read that Epistle, how comes it that in his Troylus and Cressida [we must observe by the way, that when Shakespear wrote that Play, Ben Johnson had not as yet translated that Epistle] he runs counter to the Instructions which
Horace has given for the forming the Character of
Scriptor : Honoratum si forte reponis Achillem,
Jura neget sibi nata. Where is the Impiger, the Iracundus, or the Acer, in the Character of Shakespear's Achilles ? who is nothing but a drolling, lazy, conceited, overlooking Coxcomb; so far from being the honour'd Achilles, the Epithet that Homer and Horace after him give him, that he is deservedly the Scorn and the Jest of the rest of the Characters, even to that Buffoon Thersites.
Tho' Shakespear succeeded very well in Comedy, yet his principal Talent and his chief Delight was Tragedy.“ If then Shakespear was qualify'd to read Plautus with Ease, he could read with a great deal more Ease the Translations of Sophocles and Euripides. And tho' by these Translations he would not have been able have seen the charming colouring of those great Masters, yet would he have seen all the Harmony and the Beauty of their great and their just Designs. He would have seen enough to have stirr'd up a noble Emulation in so exalted a Soul as his. How comes it then that we hear nothing from him of the Edipus, the Electra, the Antigone of Sophocles, of the Iphigenia's, the Orestes, the Medea, the Hecuba of Euripides? How comes it that we see nothing in the Conduct of his Pieces, that shews us that he had the least Acquaintance with any of these great Masterpieces? Did Shakespear appear to be so nearly touch'd with the Affliction of Hecuba for the Death of Priam, which was but daub’d and bungled by one of his Countrymen, that he could not forbear introducing it as it were by Violence into his own Hamlet, and would he make no
no Imitation, no Commendation, not the least Mention of the unparallelld and inimitable Grief of the Hecuba of Euripides ? How comes it that we find no Imitation of any ancient Play in Him but the
Menechmi of Plautus ? How came he to chuse a Comick preferably to the Tragick Poets ? Or how comes he to chuse Plautus preferably to Terence, who is so much more just, more graceful, more regular, and natural ? Or how comes he to chuse the Menechmi of Plautus, which is by no means his Master-piece, before all his other Comedies ? I vehemently suspect that this Imitation of the Menechmi was either from a printed Translation of that Comedy which is lost, or x some Version in Manuscript brought him by a Friend, or sent him perhaps by a Stranger, or from the original Play it self recommended to him, and read to him by some learned Friend. In short, I had rather account for this by what is not absurd than by what is, or by a less Absurdity than by a greater. For nothing can be more wrong than to conclude from this that Shakespear was conversant with the Ancients; which contradicts the Testimony of his Contemporary and his familiar Acquaintance Ben Johnson, and of his Successor Milton;
Lo Shakespear, Fancy's sweetest Child,
Warbles his native Wood-notes wild; and of Mr. Dryden after them both; and which destroys the most glorious Part of Shakespear's Merit immediately. For how can he be esteem'd equal by Nature or superior to the Ancients, when he falls so far short of them in Art, tho' he had the Advantage of knowing all that they did before him? Nay it debases him below those of common Capacity, by reason of the Errors which we mention'd above. Therefore he who allows that Shakespear had Learning and a familiar Acquaintance with the Ancients, ought to be look'd upon as a Detractor from his extraordinary Merit, and from the Glory of Great Britain. For whether is it more honourable for this Island to have produc'd a Man who, without having any Acquaintance with the Ancients, or any but a slender