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His chara&ters are so much nature itself, that it is a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as copies of her. Those of other poets have a constant resemblance, which shews that they received them from one another, and were but multipliers of the same image: each picture, like a mock-rainbow, is but the reflexion of a reflexion. But every single character in Shakespeare is as much an individual, as those in life itself; it is as impossible to find any two alike; and such as from their relation or allinity in any respect appear most to be twins, will, upon comparison, be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of character, we must add the wonderful preservation of it; which is such throughout his plays, that had all the speeches been printed without the very names of the persons, I believe one might have applied them with certainty to every speaker.
The power over our passions was never poiielied in a more eminent degree, or displayed in so different instances. Yet all along, there is seen no labour, no pains to raise them; no preparation to guide our guess to the effect, or be perceived to lead toward it: but the heart swells, and the tears burst out, just at the proper places: we are surprised the moment we weep; and yet upon refiexion find the passion so just, that we should be surprised if we had not wept, and wept at that very monient.
How astonishing is it again, that the passions directly opposite to these, laughter and spleen, are no less at his command! that he is not more a master of the great than of the ridiculous in human nature; of our nobleit tendernefies, than of our vainest foibles; of our strongest emotions, than of our idlest sensations!
Nor does he only excel in the paflions: in the coolness of reflexion and reafoning he is full as admirable. His fantiments are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious upon every subject; but by a talent very peculiar, fomething between penetration and felicity, he hits upon that particular point on which the bent of each argument turns, or the force of cachi motive depends. This is perfectly amazing, from a man of no cducation or experience in those great and publick scenes of life which are usually the subject of his thoughts: so that he seems to have known the world by intuition, to have looked through human nature at one glance, and to be the only author that gives ground for a very new opinion, that the philosopher, and even the man of the world, may be born, as well as the poet.
It must be owned, that with all these great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, so he has perhaps written worse than any other. But I think I can in some measure account for these defects, from several causes and accidents; without which it is hard to imagine that so large and so enlightened a mind could ever have been susceptible of them. That all these contingencies should unite to his disadvantage seems to me almost as lingularly unlucky, as that so many various (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 levelled to please the populace, and its success more immediately depending upon the common suffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakespeare, having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a fubsistence, directed his endeavours solely to hit the taste 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 caufe almiration, as the most strange, unexpected, and confequently most unnatural, events and incidents; the most exaggerated thoughts; the most verbose and bombast exprellion; the moit pompous rhymes, and thundering versification. In comedy, nothing was so sure to please, as mean buffoonry, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jests of fools and clowns. Yet even in these our author's wit buoys up, and is borne 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 higlier extraction and qualitics, It
may be added, that not only the common audience had tio notion of the rules of writing, but few even of the better fort piqued themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way; till Ben Jonson getting poilellion 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 firit plays, and yut into the inouth
like trying a
of his actors, the grex, chorus, &c to remove the preju. dices, and inform the judgment 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 their comedies followed the thread of any novel as they found it, no less implicitly than if it had been true history: To judge therefore of Shakespeare by Aristotle's rules, is
man by the laws of one country, who acted under those of another. He writ to the peaple; and writ at first without patronage from the better fort, and therefore without aims of plealing them: without afistance or advice from the learned, as without the advantage of education or acquaintance among them: without that knowledge of the best models, the ancients, to inspire him with an emulation of them; in a word, without any views of reputation, and of what poets are pleased to call immortality: fome or all of which have encouraged the vanity, or animated the ambition, of other writers.
Yet it must be observed, that when his performances had merited the protection of his prince, and when the encouragement of the court had succeeded to that of the town; the works of his riper years are manifestly raised above those of his former. The dates 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 observa ation would be found true in every infance, were but editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was composed, and whether writ for the town, or the court.
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 prefent humour, and complying with the wit in fathion; a confideration 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 lefs to be ascribed to his wrong judgment as a poet, than to his right judgment as a player.
Dy these men it was thought a praise to Shakespeare, that l.c farce ever borted a line. This they industrioully propa. VOL. I. [H]
gated, as appears from what we are told by Ben Jonson in
But as to his want of learning, it may be necessary to say
the manners of the Romans in the time of the former, and of the latter. His reading in the ancient 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 Catiline, of Ben Jonson's. The manners of other nations in general, the Egyptians, Vene: tians, French, &c. are drawn with equal propriety. What ever object of nature, or branch of science, he either speaks of.or describes; it is always with competent, if not extenfive knowledge: his defcriptions are still exact; all his metaphors appropriated, and remarkably drawn from the true nature and inherent qualities of each subject. When he treats of ethick or politick, we may constantly obferve a wonderful jultness 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 thewn more learning this way than Shakespeare. We have translations from Ovid published in his namie, among those poems which pafs for his, and for fome 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 conversant in Plautus, from whom he has taken the plot of one of his plays: he follows the Greck authors, and particularly Dares Phrygius, in another: (al-, though 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 some of those which have been received as genuine). .
I am inclined to think this opinion proceeded originally from the zeal of the partizans of our author and Ben Jona fon; as they endeavoured to exalt the one at the expence of the other. It is ever the nature of parties to be in extremes, and nothing is fo probable, as that because Ben Jonson had much the more learning, it was faid on the one hand that Shakespeare had none at all; and because Shakee speare had much the most wit and fancy, it was retorted on the other, that Jonfon wanted both, Because Shakespeare