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It may be added, that not only the common audience had no 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 Johnson getting poffeffion of the stage, brought critical learning into vogue: and that this was not done without difficulty, may appear from those frequent leffons (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. to remove the prejudices 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 hiftories in dialogue; and their comedies followed the thread of any novel as they found it, no lefs implicity than if it had been true history.
To judge therefore of Shakespear by Aristotle's rules, is like trying a man by the laws of one country, who acted under thofe of another. He writ to the people ; and writ at firft without patronage from the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleafing them ; without affiftance 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 pleafed to call immortality: fome or all of which have encouraged the vanity, or animated the ambition of other writers.
Yet it must be obferved, that when his performances had merited the protection of his prince, and when the encouragement of the court had fucceeded to that of the town; the works of his riper years are manifeftly raised above thofe of his former. The dates of his plays fufficiently evidence, that his productionsi mproved, in proportion to the refpect he had for his auditors. And I make no doubt this obfervation would be found true in every inftance, were but editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was compofed, 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 thofe of Aristotle. As they live by the majority, they know no rule but that of pleafing the prefent humour, and complying with the wit in fathion; fideration which brings all their judgment to a fhort point. Players are juft fuch judges of what is right, as tailors 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 afcribed to his wrong judgment as a poet, than to his right judgment as a player.
By these men it was thought a praife to Shakespear, that he scarce ever blotted a line. This they industri oufly propagated; as appears from what we are told by Ben Johnson in his Difcoveries, and from the preface of Heminges and Condell to the firft 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 Windfor, which he entirely new writ; The Hiftory of Henry VI. which was first published under the title of The contention of York and Lancafer; and that of Henry V. 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 praife by fome, and to this his errors have as injudicioufly been afcribed by others. For it is certain, were it true, it could concern but a fmall part of them: the most are fuch as are not properly defects, but fuperfotations; and arife 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 thofe wants in others. As to a wrong choice of the fubject, a wrong conduct of the incidents, falfe thoughts, forced expreffions, &c. if thefe are not to be afcribed to the forefaid accidental reafons, 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 loweft of people, and VOL. I.
to keep the worst of company), if the confideration be extended as far as it reasonably may, will appear fufficient to mislead and deprefs the greatest genius upon earth. Nay, the more modefty with which fuch a one is endued, the more he is in danger of fubmitting and conforming to others, against his own better judg
But as to his want of learning, it may be neceffary to fay fomething more. There is certainly a vast dif ference 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 from another. Nothing is more evident, than that he had a taste of natural philofophy, mechanics, ancient and modern hiftory, poetical learning and mythology. We find him very knowing in the cuftoms, rites, and manners of antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Cæfar, not only the fpirit, but manners of the Romans are exactly drawn; and still a nicer distinction is fhown, between the manners of the Romans in the time of the former and of the latter. His reading in the ancient hiftorians is no lefs confpicuous, in many references to particular paffages: and the fpeeches copied from plutarch in Coriolanus, may, I think, as well be made an inftance of his learning, as thofe copied from Cicero in Catiline of Ben Johnson'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 fcience, he either fpeaks of or defcribes, it is always with competent, if not extenfive knowledge: his defcriptions are ftill 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 obferve a wonderful juftnefs of distinction, as well as extent of comprehenfion. No one is more a master of the poetical ftory, or has more frequent allufions to the various parts of it. Mr. Waller (who has been celebrated for this laft particular) has not shewn more learning this way than Shake
Ipear. We have tranflations from Ovid published in his name, among thofe poems which pass 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 alfo 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: although I will not pretend to fay in what language he read them. The modern Italian writers of novels he was manifeftly acquainted with; and we may conclude him to be no lefs converfant with the ancients of his own country, from the use he has made of Chaucer in Troilus and Crefida, and in the Two Noble Kinfmen, if that play be his, as there goes a tradition it was; and indeed it has little refemblance 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 partiians of our author and Ben Johnfon; 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 becaufe Ben Johnfon had much the more learning, it was faid on the one hand that shakefpear had none at all; and because Shakespear had much the moft wit and fancy, it was retorted on the other, that Johnfon wanted both. Because Shakefpear borrowed nothing, it was faid that Ben Johnson borrowed every thing. Because Johnfon did not write extempore, he was reproached with being a year about every piece; and because Shakefpear wrote with ease and rapidity, they cried, He never once made a blot. Nay, the spirit of oppofition ran fo high, that whatever those of the one fide objected to the other, was taken at the rebound, and turned into praites; as injudiciously as their antagonists before had made them objections.
Poets are always afraid of envy; but fure they have as much reafon to be afraid of admiration. They are the Scylla and Charybdis of authors; thofe who escape one, often fall by the other. Peffimum genus inimico
rum laudantes, fays Tacitus: and Virgil defires to wear a charm against those who praife a poet without rulé or reafon;
Si ultra placitum laudarit, baccare frontem Cingito, ne vati noceat
But however this contention might be carried on by the partifans on either fide, I cannot help thinking these two great poets were good friends, and lived on amicable terins and in offices of fociety with each other. It is an acknowledged fact, that Ben Johnfon was introduced upon the ftage, and his firft works encouraged, by Shakefpear. And after his death, that author writes To the memory of his beloved Mr. William Shakespear; which fhews 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 contemporaries, but above. Chaucer and Spencer, whom he will not allow to be great enough to be ranked with him; and challenges the names of Sophocles, Euripides, and Efchilus, nay all Greece and Rome at once, to equal him; and (which is very particular) exprefsly vindicates him from the imputation of wanting Art, not enduring that all his excellencies thould be attributed to Nature. It is remarkable too, that the praise he gives him in his Difcoveries, feems to proceed from a perfonal kindness: he tells us, that he loved the man, as well as honoured his memory; celebrates the honefty, openness, and franknefs of his temper; and only diltinguilhes as he reafonably ought, between the real merit of the author, and the filly and derogatory applaufes of the players. Ben Johnson might indeed be sparing in his cominendations, (though certainly he is not fo in this. initance), partly from his own nature, and partly from judgment. For men of judgment think they do any man more fervice in praifing him juftly, than lavishly. I fay, I would fain believe they were friends, though the violence and ill-breeding of their followers and flatterers were enough to give rife to the contrary report. I would hope that it may be with parties, both