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rious (nay contrary) Talents should meet in one man, was happy and extraordinary.
It must be allowed that Stage-Poetry of all other, is more particularly levell’d to please the Populace, and its success more immediately depending upon the Common Suffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakespear, having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a subsistence, directed his endeavours solely to hit the taite and humour that then prevailed. The Audience was generally composed of the meaner sort of people, and therefore the Images of Life were to be drawn from those of their own rank : accordingly we find, that not our Author's only but almost all the old Comedies have their Scene among Tradesmen and Mechanicks : And even their Historical Plays strictly follow the common Old Stories or Vulgar Traditions of that kind of people. In Tragedy, nothing was so sure to Surprize and cause Admiration, as the most strange, unexpected, and consequently most unnatural, Events and Incidents ; the most exaggerated Thoughts; the most verbose and bombast Expression; the most pompous Rhymes, and thundering Versification. In Comedy, nothing was so sure to Please, as mean buffoonry, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jelts of fools and clowns. Yet even in these, our Author's Wit buoys up, and is born above his subject : his Genius in those low parts is like some Prince of a Romance in the disguise of a Shepherd or Peasant ; a certain Greatness and Spirit now and then break out, which manifest his higher extraction and qualities.
It may be added, that not only the common Audience had no notion of the rules of writing, but few even of the better sort piqu'd themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way ; 'till Ben Johnson getting pofleffion of the Stage, brought critical learning into vogue : And that this was not done without difficulty, may appear from those frequent lessons (and indeed almost Declamations) which he was forced to prefix to his first plays, and put
into the mouth of his Actors, the Grex, Chorus, &c. e to remove the prejudices, and inform the judgment f of his hearers. 'Till then, our Authors had no
thoughts of writing on the model of the Ancients :
their Tragedies were only Histories in Dialogue; and t their Comedies followed the thread of any Novel as
they found it, no less implicitly than if it had been e true History
To judge therefore of Shakespear by Aristotle'go 731 rules, is like trying a man by the laws of one Counse try, who acted under those of another. He writ to
the People ; and writ at first without patronage from 2. the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleasing
them: without assistance or advice from the Learned, Le a3 without the advantage of education or acquaintance - among them : without that knowledge of the best e models, the Ancients, to inspire him with an emulad. tion of them ; in a word, without any views of Red! putation, and of what Poets are pleas'd to call Ims mortality : Some or all of which have encourag'd the
vanity, or animated the ambition, of other writers.. i Yet it must be observ'd, that when his perform 1 mances had merited the protection of his Prince, and s when the encouragement of the Court had succeeded 3 to that of the Town; the works of his riper years are
manifestly raised above those of his former. The Dates V of his plays sufficiently evidence that his productions improved, in proportion to the respect he had for his auditors. And I make no doubt this observation
would be found true in every instance, were but Ediv cions extant from which we might learn the exact Il time when every piece was composed, and whether
writ for the Town, or the Court.
ei Vol. I.
Another Cause (and 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 judgment to a short point. Players are just such judges of what is right, as Taylors are of what is graceful. 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
By these Men it was thought a praise to Shakespear, that he scacre ever blotted a line. This they industriously propagated, as appears from what we are told by Ben Johnson in his Discoveries, and from the preface of Heminges and Condell to the first folio Edition. But in reality ( however it has prevailed) 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 new writ; the History of Henry the 6tb, which was first published under the title of the Contention of York and Lancaster, and that of Henry the 5th, extremely improved ; that of Hamlet enlarged to almost as much again as at first, and many others. I believe the common opinion of his want of Learning proceeded from no better ground. This too might be thought a Praise by some, and to this his Errors have as injudiciously been ascribed by others. For 'tis certain, were it true, it could concern but a small part of them; the most are such as are not properly Defects, but Superfotations : and arise not from want of learning or reading, but from want of thinking or
judging : judging: or rather (to be more just to our Author) from a compliance to those wants in others. As to a wrong choice of the subject, a wrong conduct of the incidents, false thoughts, forc'd expressions, &c. if these are not to be ascrib'd to the foresaid accidental reasons, they must be charg'd upon the Poet himself, and there is no help for it. "But I think the two Difadvantages which I have mention'd (to be obliged to please the lowest of people, and to keep the worst of company) if the consideration be extended as far as it reasonably may, will appear fufficient to mislead and depress the greatest Genius upon earth. Nay the more modesty with which fuch a one is endued, the more he is in danger of submitting and conforming to others, against his own better judgment.
But as to his 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 'tis 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 from another. Nothing is more evident than that he had a taste of natural Philosophy, Mechanicks, ancient and modern History, Poetical learning and Mythology : We find him very knowing in the customs, rites, and manners of Antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Cæfar, not only the Spirit, but Manners, of the Romans are exactly drawn ; and still a nicer distinction is shown, between the manners of che Romans in the time of the former, and of the latter. His reading in the ancient Historians is no lefs conspicuous, in many references to particular passages : and the speeches copy'd from Plutarch in Coriolanus may, I think, as well be made an instance of his learning, as those copy'd from Cicero in Catiline, of Ben Johnson's. The manners of other nations in geb 2
neral, neral, the Egyptians, Venetians, French, &c. are drawny with equal propriety. Whatever object 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 each fubject. When he treats of Ethic or Politic, we may conftantly observe a wonderful justness of distinction, as well as extent of comprehension. No one is more a master of the Poetical story, or has more frequent allusions to the various parts of it: Mr. Waller ( who has been celebrated for this last particular ) has not shewn more learning this way than Shakespear. We have Translations from Ovid published in his name, among those Poems which pass for his, and for some of which we have undoubted authority, (being published by himself, and dedicated to his noble Patron the Earl of Southampton :) He appears also to have been converfant in Plautus, from whom he has taken the plot of one of his plays : he follows the Greek Authors, and particularly Dares Phrygius, in another: (altho' I will not pretend to say in what language he read them.) 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, and in the Two Noble Kinsmen, if that Play be his, as there goes a Tradition it was, (and indeed it has little resemblance of Fletcher, and more of our Author than fome of those which have been received as genuine.)