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Decay of Dramatick Poetry, and the Contempt the Stage then lay under, amongst his Miscellaneous Works, p. 147.
And he the Man whom Nature's self had made
Than so himself to Mockery to sell. I know some people have been of opinion, that Shakespear is not meant by Willy in the first stanza of these verses, because Spencer's death happen'd twenty years before Shakespear's. But, besides that the character is not applicable to any man of that time but himself, it is plain by the last stanza that Mr. Spencer does not mean that he was then really dead, but only that he had withdrawn himself from the publick, or at least with-held his hand from writing, out of a disgust he had taken at the then ill taste of the Town, and the mean condition of the Stage. Mr. Dryden was always of opinion these verses were meant of Shakespear; and 'tis highly probable they were so, since he was three and thirty years old at Spencer's death; and his reputation in Poetry must have been great enough before that time to have desery'd what is here said of him. His acquaintance with Ben Johnson began with a remarkable piece of humanity and good nature; Mr. Johnson, who was at that time altogether unknown to the world, had offer'd one of his Plays to the Players,
in order to have it acted ; and the persons into whose hands it was put, after having turn'd it carelessly and superciliously over, were just upon returning it to him with an ill-natur'd answer, that it would be of no service to their Company, when Shakespear luckily cast his eye upon it, and found something so well in it as to engage him first to read it through, and afterwards to recommend Mr. Johnson and his writings to the publick. After this they were profess'd friends ; tho' I don't know whether the other ever made him an equal return of gentleness and sincerity. Ben was naturally proud and insolent, and in the days of his reputation did so far take upon him the supremacy in wit, that he could not but look with an evil eye upon any one that seem'd to stand in competition with him. And if at times he has affected to commend him, it has always been with some reserve, insinuating his uncorrectness, a careless manner of writing, and want of judgment; the praise of seldom altering or blotting out what he writ, which was given him by the Players who were the first Publishers of his Works after his death, was what yohnson could not bear ; he thought it impossible, perhaps, for another man to strike out the greatest thoughts in the finest expression, and to reach those excellencies of Poetry with the ease of a first imagination, which himself with infinite labour and study could but hardly attain to. Johnson was certainly a very good scholar, and in that had the advantage of Shakespear; tho' at the same time I believe it must be allow'd, that what Nature gave the latter, was more than a ballance for what Books had given the former ; and the judgment of a great man upon this occasion was, I think, very just and proper. In a conversation between Sir yohn Suckling, Sir William D'Avenant, Endymion Porter, Mr. Hales of Eaton, and Ben Johnson ; Sir John Suckling, who was a profess'd admirer of Shakespear, had undertaken his defence against Ben Yohnson with some warmth ; Mr. Hales, who had sat still for some time, hearing Ben frequently reproaching him with the
want of learning, and ignorance of the Antients, told him at last, That if Mr. Shakespear had not read the Antients, he had likewise not stollen any thing from 'em (a fault the other made no conscience of); and that if he would produce any one Topick finely treated by any one of them, he would undertake to shew something upon the same subject at least as well written by Shakespear. Johnson did indeed take a large liberty, even to the transcribing and translating of whole scenes together; and sometimes, with all deference to so great a name as his, not altogether for the advantage of the authors of whom he borrow'd. And if Augustus and Virgil were really what he has made 'em in a scene of his Poetaster, they are as odd an Emperor and a Poet as ever met. Shakespear, on the other hand, was beholding to no body farther than the foundation of the tale, the incidents were often his own, and the writing intirely so. There is one Play of his, indeed, The Comedy of Errors, in a great measure taken from the Menæchmi of Plautus. How that happen'd, I cannot easily divine, since, as I hinted before, I do not take him to have been master of Latin enough to read it in the original, and I know of no translation of Plautus so old as his time.
As I have not propos'd to my self to enter into a large and compleat criticism upon Shakespear's Works, so I suppose it will neither be expected that I should take notice of the severe remarks that have been formerly made upon him by Mr. Rhymer. I must confess, I can't very well see what could be the reason of his animadverting with so much sharpness, upon the faults of a man excellent on most occasions, and whom all the world ever was and will be inclin’d to have an esteem and veneration for. If it was to shew his own knowledge in the Art of Poetry, besides that there is a vanity in making that only his design, I question if there be not many imperfections as well in those schemes and precepts he has given for the direction of others, as well as in that sample of Tragedy which he has written to shew the excellency of his own Genius. If he had a pique against the man, and wrote on
purpose to ruin a reputation so well establish'd, he has had the mortification to fail altogether in his attempt, and to see the world at least as fond of Shakespear as of his Critique. But I won't believe a gentleman, and a goodnatur'd man, capable of the last intention. Whatever may have been his meaning, finding fault is certainly the easiest task of knowledge, and commonly those men of good judgment, who are likewise of good and gentle dispositions, abandon this ungrateful province to the tyranny of pedants. If one would enter into the beauties of Shakespear, there is a much larger, as well as a more delightful field; but as I won't prescribe to the tastes of other people, so I will only take the liberty, with all due submission to the judgments of others, to observe some of those things I have been pleas'd with in looking him over.
His Plays are properly to be distinguish'd only into Comedies and Tragedies. Those which are called Histories, and even some of his Comedies, are really Tragedies, with a run or mixture of Comedy amongst 'em. That way of Trage-comedy was the common mistake of that age, and is indeed become so agreeable to the English taste, that tho' the severer Critiques among us cannot bear it, yet the generality of our audiences seem to be better pleas'd with it than with an exact Tragedy. The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, and The Taming of the Shrew, are all pure Comedy ; the rest, however they are call’d, have something of both kinds. 'Tis not very easy to determine which way of writing he was most excellent in. There is certainly a great deal of entertainment in his comical humours; and tho' they did not then strike at all ranks of people, as the Satyr of the present age has taken the liberty to do, yet there is a pleasing and a well-distinguish'd variety in those characters which he thought fit to meddle with. Falstaff is allow'd by every body to be a master-piece; the Character is always wellsustain'd, tho' drawn out into the length of three Plays; and even the account of his death, given by his old
landlady Mrs. Quickly, in the first act of Henry V., tho' it be extremely natural, is yet as diverting as any part of his life. If there be any fault in the draught he has made of this lewd old fellow, it is, that tho' he has made him a thief, lying, cowardly, vain-glorious, and in short every way vicious, yet he has given him so much wit as to make him almost too agreeable ; and I don't know whether some people have not, in remembrance of the diversion he had formerly afforded 'em, been sorry to see his friend Hal use him so scurvily, when he comes to the crown in the end of the second part of Henry the Fourth. Amongst other extravagances, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he has made him a Deer-stealer, that he might at the same time remember his Warwickshire prosecutor, under the name of Justice Shallow ; he has given him very near the same coat of arms which Dugdale, in his Antiquities of that county, describes for a family there, and makes the Welsh parson descant very pleasantly upon 'em. That whole play is admirable ; the humours are various and well oppos'd; the main design, which is to cure Ford of his unreasonable jealousie, is extremely well conducted. Falstaff's Billet-Doux, and Master Slender's
Ah ! Sweet Ann Page ! are very good expressions of love in their way. In Twelfth-Night there is something singularly ridiculous and pleasant in the fantastical steward Malvolio. The parasite and the vain-glorious in Parolles, in All's Well that ends Well, is as good as any thing of that kind in Plautus or Terence. Petruchio, in The Taming of the Shrew, is an uncommon piece of humour. The conversation of Benedick and Beatrice, in Much Ado about Nothing, and of Rosalind in As you like it, have much wit and sprightliness all along. His clowns, without which character there was hardly any play writ in that time, are all very entertaining: And, I believe, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and Apemantus in Timon, will be allow'd to be master-pieces of ill nature and satyrical snarling. To these I might add