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medies 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 like trying a man by the laws of one country, who acted under those of another. He writ to the people ; and writ at first without patronage from the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleasing them : without assistance 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: some 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 observation would be found true in every instance, 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 present humour, and complying with the wit in fashion; à 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 player.
By these men 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 Heminges and Condell to the firit 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 Sixth, which was first published 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 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 it is certain, were it true, it could concern but a small part of them; the most are such as are not properly defects, ' but superfætations : and arise not from want of learning or reading, but from want of thinking or 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, forced expressions, &c. if these are not to be ascribed to the forefaid accidental reasons, they must be charged upon the poet himself, and there is no help for it. But I think the two difadvantages which I have mentioned (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 sufficient to mislead and depress the greatest genius upon earth. Nay, the more modesty with which such 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 deterinine ; 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 from another. Nothing is more evident than that he had a taste of natural philosophy, nechanicks, 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 shewn between 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, Venetians, French, &c. are drawn with equal propriety. Whatever object of nature, or branch of science, he either speaks of or describes; it is always with competent, if not extenfive knowledge: his descriptions 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 observe a wonderful justness of diftinction, 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 parti
cular) cular) has not shewn more learning this way than Shakespeare. We have tranNations 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 conversant 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 : although I will not pretend to say in what language he read thein). 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 Jonson ; 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 so probable, as that because Ben Jonson had much the more learning, it was said on the one hand that Shakespeare had none at all; and because Shakespeare had much the most wit and fancy, it was retorted on the other, that Jonson wanted both. Because Shakespeare borrowed nothing, it was said that Ben Jonson borrowed every thing. Because 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 injudi
ciously, ciously, aš their antagonists before had made them objections.
Poets are always afraid of envy; but sure they have as much reason to be afraid of admiration. They are the Scylla and Charybdis of authors; those who escape one, often fall by the other. Pefimum genus inimicorum laudantes, says Tacitus : and Virgil desires to wear a charm against those who praise a poet without rule or reason.
-Si ultra placitum laudárit baccare frontem
But however this contention might be carried on by the partizans on either side, I cannot help thinking these two great poets were good friends, and lived on amicable terms and in offices of society with each other. It is an acknowledged fact, that Ben Jonson was introduced upon the stage, and his first works encouraged, by Shakespeare. And after his death, that author writes, To the memory of his beloved Mr. William Shakespeare, which shews as if the friendship had continued through life. I cannot for my own part find any thing invidious or sparing in those verses, but wonder Mr. Dryden was of that opinion. He exalts him not only above all his cotemporaries, but above Chaucer and Spenser, whom he will not allow to be great enough to be ranked with him; and challenges the names of Sophocles, Euripides, and Æschylus, nay, all Greece and Rome at once, to equal him; and (which is very particular) expresly vindicates him from the imputation of wanting art, not enduring that all his excellencies should be attributed to nature. It is remarkable too, that the praise he gives him in his Discoveries seems to proceed from a personal kindness; he tells us, that he loved the man, as well as honoured his memory ; celebrates the honesty, openncis, and frankness of his temper; and only distin