« AnteriorContinuar »
that are less obvious to common readers, and whose illustration depends on the rules of just criticism, and an exact knowledge of human life, should deservedly have a share in a general critick upon the author. But to pass over at once to another subject:
It has been allowed on all hands, how far our author was indebted to nature ; it is not so well agreed, how much he owed to languages and acquired learning. The decisions on this subject were certainly set on foot by the hint from Ben Jonson, that he had small Latin and less Greek : and from this tradition, as it were, Mr. Rowe has thought fit peremptorily to declare, that, “ It is without controversy, he had no “ knowledge of the writings of the ancient poets, 6 for that in his works we find no traces of any thing " which looks like an imitation of the ancients. For " the delicacy of his taste (continues he) and the “ natural bent of his own great genius (equal, if
not superior, to some of the best of theirs) would “ certainly have led him to read and study them with “ so much pleasure, that some of their fine images “ would naturally have insinuated themselves into, “ and been mixed with his own writings : and so his “ not copying, at least, something from them, may “ be an argument of his never having read them.” I shall leave it to the determination of my learned readers, from the numerous passages which I have occasionally quoted in my notes, in which our poet seems closely to have imitated the classicks, whether Mr. Rowe's affertion be fo, absolutely to be depended
The result of the controversy must certainly, either way, terminate to our author's honour: how happily he could imitate them, if that point be allowed; or how gloriously he could think like them, without owing any thing to imitation.
Though I should be very unwilling to allow Shakefpeare so poor a scholar, as many have laboured to represent him, yet I shall be very cautious of declaring
too positively on the other fide of the question ; that is, with regard to my opinion of his knowledge in the dead languages. And therefore the passages, that I occasionally quote from the classicks, fhall not be urged as proofs that he knowingly imitated those originals; but brought to fhew how happily he has expreted himself upon the fame topicks. A very learned critick of our own nation has declared, that a fameness of thought and fameness of expression too, in two writers of a different age, can hardly happen, without a violent suspicion of the latter copying from his predeceffor. I shall not therefore run any great rifque of a censure, though I should venture to hint, that the resemblances in thought and expression of our author and an ancient (which we should allow to be imitation in the one, whose learning was not questioned) may sometimes take its rise from strength of memory, and those impreffions which he owed to the school. And if we may allow a possibility of this, considering that, when he quitted the school, he gave into his father's profesion and way of living, and had, it is likely, but a Nender library of classical learning; and considering what a number of translations, romances, and legends started about his time, and a little before (most of which, it is very evident, he read) I think it may easily be reconciled, why he rather schemed his plots and characters from these more latter informations, than went back to thofe fountains, for which he might entertain a fincere veneration, but to which he could not have so ready a recourse.
In touching on another part of his learning, as it related to the knowledge of history and books, I shall advance fomething, that, at first sight, will very much wear the appearance of a paradox. For I shall find it no hard matter to prove, that, from the groffest blunders in hiftory, we are not to infer his real ignorance of it: nor from a greater use of Latin words, (H 2]
than ever any other English author used, must we infer his intimate acquaintance with that language.
A reader of taste may easily observe, that though Shakespeare, almost in every scene of his historical plays, commits the groffest offences against chronology, history, and ancient politicks; yet this was not through ignorance, as is generally supposed, but through the too powerful blaze of his imagination ; which, when once raised, made all acquired knowledge vanish and disappear before it. But this licence in him, as I have said, must not be imputed to ignorance: since as often we may find him, when occafion serves, reafoning up to the truth of history; and throwing out sentiments as justly adapted to the circumstances of his subject, as to the dignity of his characters, or dictates of nature in general.
Then to come to his knowledge of the Latin tongue, it is certain, there is a surprising effusion of Latin words made English, far more than in any one English author I have seen; but we must be cautious to imagine, this was of his own doing. For the English tongue, in his age, began extremely to suffer by an inundation of Latin: and this, to be sure, was occasioned by the pedantry of those two monarchs, Elizabeth and James, both great Latinifts. For it is not to be wondered at, if both the court and schools, equal fatterers of power, should adapt themselves to the royal taste.
But now I am touching on the question (which has been so frequently agitated, yet so entirely undecided) of his learning and acquaintance with the languages; : an additional word or two naturally falls in here upon the genius of our author, as compared with that of Jonson his contemporary. They are confessedly the greatest writers our nation could ever boast of in the drama. The first, we say, owed all to his prodigious - natural genius ; and the other a great deal to his art and learning. This, if attended to, will explain a very remarkable appearance in their writings. Besides those wonderful master-pieces of art and genius, which each has given us ; they are the authors of other works very unworthy of them : but with this difference ; that in Jonson's bad pieces we do not discover one single trace of the author of The Fox and Alchymist: but in the wild extravagant notes of Shakespeare you every now and then encounter strains that recognize the divine composer. This difference may be thus accounted for. Jonson, as we said before, owing all his excellence to his art, by which he sometimes strained himself to an uncommon pitch, when at other times he unbent and played with his subject, having nothing then to support him, it is no wonder he wrote fo far beneath himself. But Shakespeare, indebted more largely to nature, than the other to acquired talents, in his most negligent hours could never so totally divest himself of his genius, but that it would frequently break out with astonishing force and splendor.
As I have never proposed to dilate farther on the character of my author, than was necessary to explain the nature and use of this edition, I shall proceed to consider him as a genius in poffeffion of an everlasting name. And how great that merit must be, which could gain it against all the disadvantages of the horrid condition in which he has hitherto appeared! Had Homer, or any other admired author, first started into publick fo maimed and deformed, we cannot determine whether they had not sunk for ever under the ignominy of such an ill appearance. The mangled condition of Shakespeare has been acknowledged by Mr. Rowe, who published him indeed, but neither corrected his text, nor collated the old copies. This gentleman had abilities, and sufficient knowledge of his author, had but his industry been equal to his talents. The fame mangled condition has been acknowledged too by Mr. Pope, who published him
likewise, pretended to have collated the old copies, and yet seldom has corrected the text but to its injury. I congratulate with the manes of our poet, that this gentleman has been sparing in indulging his private sense, as he phrases it; for he, who tampers with an author, whom he does not understand, must do it at the expence of his subject. I have made it evident throughout my remarks, that he has frequently inAlicted a wound where he intended a cure. He has acted with regard to our author, as an editor, whom Lipsius mentions, did with regard to Martial; Inventus eft nescio quis Popa, qui non vitia ejus, sed ipsum excidit. He has attacked him like an unhandy fiaughterman; and not lopped off the errors, but the poet.
When this is found to be the fact, how absurd must
appear the praises of such an editor ? It seems a moot point, whether Mr. Pope has done most injury to Shakespeare, as his editor and encomiast; or Mr. Rymer done him service, as his rival and censurer. They have both shewn themselves in an equal impuissance of suspecting or amending the corrupted passages : and though it be neither prudence to censure, or commend what one does not understand ; yet if a man must do one when he plays the critick, the latter is the more ridiculous office; and by that Shakespeare suffers most. For the natural veneration which we have for him, makes us apt to swallow whatever is given us as his, and set off with encomiums; and hence we quit all suspicions of depravity : on the contrary, the censure of fo divine an author fets us upon his defence; and this produces an exact scrutiny and examination, which ends in finding out and difcriminating the true from the spurious.
It is not with any secret pleasure, that I fo frequently animadvert on Mr. Pope as a critick; but there are provocations, which a man can never quite forget. His libels have been thrown out with so