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To conclude with an obfervation of a fine writer and great philofopher of our own; which I would gladly bind, though with all honour, as a phylactery, on the brow of every awful grammarian, to teach him at once the ufe and limits of his art: WORDS ARE THE MONEY OF FOOLS, AND THE COUNTERS OF WISE MEN.
THAT praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by thofe, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the herefies of paradox; or thofe, who, being forced by disappointment upon confolatory expedients, are willing to hope from pofterity what the present age refufes, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy, will be at last bestowed by time.
Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries
s First printed in 1765.
that reverence it, not from reafon, but from prejudice. Some seem to admire indifcriminately whatever has been long preferved, without confidering that time has fometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour paft than prefent excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the shades of age, as the eye furveys the fun through artificial opacity. The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an author is yet living, we estimate his powers by his worst performance; and when he is dead, we rate them by his best.
To works, however, of which the excellence is not abfolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonftrative and fcientifick, but appealing wholly to obfervation and experience, no other teft can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long poffeffed they have often examined and compared, and if they perfift to value the poffeffion, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep, or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains, and many rivers; fo in the production of genius, nothing can be ftyled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the fame kind. Demonftration immediately difplays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is difcovered in a long fucceffion of endeavours. Of the firft building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined
that it was round or fquare; but whether it was fpacious or lofty must have been referred to time. The Pythagorean fcale of numbers was at once difcovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to tranfcend the common limits of human intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than tranfpofe his incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrafe his fentiments.
The reverence due to writings that have long fubfifted arifes therefore not from any credulous confidence in the fuperior wifdom of paft ages, or gloomy perfuafion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the confequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known has been moft confidered, and what is moft confidered is beft understood.
The poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revifion, may now begin to affume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of an established fame and preferiptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from perfonal allufions, local cuftoms, or temporary opinions, have for many years been loft; and every topick of merriment or motive of forrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obfcure the scenes which they once illuminated. The effects of favour and competition are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and his enmities has perifhed; his works fupport no opinion with arguments, nor fupply
"Eft vetus atque probus, centum qui perficit annos." Hor. STEEVENS.
any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity, nor gratify malignity; but are read without any other reafon than the defire of pleafure, and are therefore praifed only as pleasure is obtained; yet, thus unaffifted by intereft or paffion, they have past through variations of tafte and changes of manners, and, as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every transmission.
But because human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion; it is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of excellence Shakspeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.
Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature. Particular manners can be known to few, and therefore few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile, by that novelty of which the common fatiety of life fends us all in queft; the pleafures of fudden wonder are foon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.
Shakspeare is above all writers, at leaft above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractifed by the reft of the world; by the peculiarities of ftudies or profeffions, which can operate but upon fmall numbers; or by the accidents of tranfient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, fuch as the world will always fupply, and obfervation will
always find. His perfons act and speak by the influence of those general paffions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole fyftem of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in thofe of Shakspeare it is commonly a fpecies.
It is from this wide extenfion of defign that fo much inftruction is derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shakspeare with practical axioms and domeftick wisdom. It was faid of Euripides, that every verfe was a precept; and it may be faid of Shakspeare, that from his works may be collected
fyftem of civil and economical prudence. Yet his real power is not shown in the splendor of ticular paffages, but by the progrefs of his fable, and the tenor of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by felect quotations, will fucceed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his houfe to fale, carried a brick in his pocket as a fpecimen.
It will not eafily be imagined how much Shakfpeare excels in accommodating his fentiments to real life, but by comparing him with other authors. It was observed of the ancient schools of declamation, that the more diligently they were frequented, the more was the student disqualified for the world, because he found nothing there which he fhould ever meet in any other place. The fame remark may be applied to every ftage but that of Shakfpeare. The theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peopled by fuch characters as were never feen, converfing in a language which was never heard, upon topicks which will never arise in the commerce of mankind. But the dialogue of this author is often fo evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with fo