Imágenes de páginas

them: in a.word, without any views of reputation and of what poets are pleased to call immortality; some or all of which have encouraged the vanity, or animated the ambition of other writers. ." Another cause, no less strong than the former, may be deduced from our author's being a player, and forming himself first upon the judgments of that body of men whereof he was a member. They have ever had a standard to themselves, upon other principles than those

of Aristotle. As they live by the majority, they know · no' rule but that of pleasing the present humour, and

complying with the wit in fashion ; a consideration which brings all their judgments to a short point. And in this view, it will be but fair to allow, that most of our author's faults are less to be ascribed to his wrong judgment as a poet, than to his right judgment as a player.

“ By the actors of his day it was thought a praise to Shakespeare that he scarce ever blotted a line. This they industriously propagated, as appears from what we are told by Ben Jonson, in his Discoveries, and from the preface of Heminge and Condell to the first folio edition. But, in reality, there never was a more groundless report, or to the contrary of which there are more undeniable evidences; as the comedy of the Merry Wives of Windsor, which he entirely re-wrote ; The History of Henry the Sixth, which was first pub-, lished under the title of The Contention of York and Lancaster ; and that of Henry the Fifth, extremely improved. That of Hamlet, enlarged to almost as much again as at first, and many others. I believe the comte

mon opinion of his want of learning proceeded from no better ground. 5. “ With respect to our author's want of learning, it may be necessary to say something more. There is certainly a vast difference between learning and languages. How far he was ignorant of the latter, I cannot determine ; but it is plain he had much reading, at least, if they will not call it learning. Nor is it any great matter, if a man has knowledge, whether he has it from one language or another. Nothing is more evident, than that he had a taste for natural philosophy, mechanics, ancient and modern history, poetical learning, and mythology. We find him very knowing in the customs, rules,' and manners of antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Cæsar, not only the spirit but manners of the Romans are exactly known; and still a nicer distinction is drawn between the manners of the Romans in the time of the former and of the latter. His reading in the an. cient historians is no less conspicuous, in many references to particular passages; and the speeches copied from Plutarch in Coriolanus, may, I think, as well be made an instance of his learning, as those copied from Cicero in the Catiline of Ben Jonson. The manners of other nations, in general, the Egyptians, Venetians, French, &c. are drawn with equal propriety. Whatever objects of nature, or branch of science, he either speaks of, or describes, it is always with competent, if not extensive knowledge ; his descriptions are still exact; all his metaphors appropriated, and remarkably drawn from the true nature and inherent qualities of eacb subject: where he treats of ethics or politics, wer" may constantly observe a wonderful juştness of distinc tion, as well as extent of comprehension. No one is more a master of the poetical story, or has more frequeạt allusions to the various parts of it. The modern Italian writers of novels he was manifestly acquainted with: and we may conclude him to be no less conversant with the ancients of his own country, from the use he has made of Chaucer in Troilus and Cressida.

I am inclined to think that the opinion of Shakespeare's want of learning proceeded originally from the zeal of the partizans of our author and Ben Jonson. It is ever the nature of parties to be in extremes; and nothing is so probable, as that, because Ben Jonson had much the more learning, it was said, on the one hand, thạt Shaķespeare had none at all; and because Shakespeare borrowed nothing, it was said that Ben Jonson borrowed every thing. Because Ben Jonson did not write extempore, he was reproached with being a year about every piece; and because Shakespeare wrote with ease and rapidity, they cried he never once made a blot. Nay, the spirit of opposition ran so high, that whatever those of the one side objected to the other, was taken at the rebound, and turned into praises, as injudiciously, as their antagonists before had made them objections.

“I will conclude by saying of Shakespeare, that, with all his faults, and with all the irregularity of biş drama, one may look upon his works, in comparison of those that are more finished and regular, aş upon an ancient majestic piece of Gothic architecture, compared with a neat modern building : the latter is more ele

gánt and glaring, but the former is more strong and more solemn. It must be allowed, that in one of these there are materials enough to make many of the other. It has much the greater variéty, and much the nobler apartments; though we are conducted to them, by dark, odd, and uncouth passages. Nor does the whole fail to strike us with greater reverence, though many of the parts are childish; ill-placed, and unequal to its grandeur.” Pope's Preface.

“The poet, (says Dr. Johnson) of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame, and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from personal allusions, local customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years been lost; and every topic of merriment, or motive of sorrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obscure the scenes which they once illuminated. The effects of favour and competition are at an end; the tradition of his friendship and his enmities has perished; his works support no opinion with arguments, nór supply any faction with innovations; they can neither indulge vanity, nor gratify malignity; but are read without any other reason than the desire of pleasure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained : yet, thus unassisted by interest or passion, they have passed through variations of taste, and change of manners, and as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every transmission.

But, because human judgment, though it be gradually, gaining upon certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long continued, may yet be only, the approbation of prejudice or fashion, it is proper to enquire, by what peculiarity of excellence Shakespeare has gained, and kept, the favour of his countrymen. " : “Shakespeare is, above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature ; the poet that holds up to his readers, a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions ; they are the genuine progeny of common humanitý, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets, a character is too often an individual ; in those of Shakespeare, it is commonly a species.

“ It is from this wide extention of design, that so much instruction is derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shakespeare with practical axioms, and domestic wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that every verse was a precept; and it may be said of Shakespeare, that from his works may be collected a system of civil and economical prudence. Yet his real power is not shewn in the splendour of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and the fenour of his dialogue;

« AnteriorContinuar »