Εικόνες σελίδας
PDF
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

genius of Shakspeare was not to be depreffed by the weight of poverty, nor limited by the narrow converfation to which men in want are inevitably condemned; the incumbrances of his fortune were fhaken from his mind, as de-w-drops frem a lion's mane.

Though he had fo many difficulties to encounter, and fo little affiftance to furmount them, he has been able to obtain an exact knowledge of many modes of life, and many cafts of native difpofitions; to vary them with great multiplicity; to mark them by nice diftinctions; and to show them in full view by proper combinations. In this part of his performances he had none to imitate, but has himself been imitated by all fucceeding writers; and it may be doubted, whether from all his fucceffors more maxims of theoretical knowledge, or more rules of practical prudence, can be collected, than he alone has given to his country.

Nor was his attention confined to the actions of men; he was an exact furveyor of the inanimate world; his defcriptions have always fome peculiarities, gathered by contemplating things as they really exift. It may be obferved, that the oldeft poets of many nations preserve their reputation, and that the following generations of wit, after a short celebrity, fink into oblivion. The first, whoever they be, must take their fentiments and defcriptions immediately from knowledge; the refemblance is therefore juft, their descriptions are verified by every eye, and their fentiments acknowledged by every breast. Those whom their fame invites to the fame ftudies, copy partly them, and partly nature, till the books of one age gain fuch authority, as to stand in the place of nature to another, and imitation, always deviating a little, becomes at last capricious and cafual. Shakspeare, whether life or nature be his subject, shews plainly, that he has feen with

his own eyes; he gives the image which he receives, not weakened or distorted by the intervention of any other mind; the ignorant feel his reprefentations to be just, and the learned fee that they are complete.

Perhaps it would not be easy to find any author, except Homer, who invented fo much as Shakspeare, who fo much advanced the ftudies which he cultivated, or effused fo much novelty upon his age or country. The form, the character, the language, and the fhows of the English drama are his. He feems, fays Dennis, to have been the very original of our English tragical harmony, that is, the harmony of blank verfe, diverfified often by diffyllable and triffyllable terminations. For the diverfity diftinguishes it from heroick harmony, and by bringing it nearer to common ufe makes it more proper to gain attention, and more fit for action and dialogue. Such verfe we make when we are writing profe; we make such verse in common conversation.

I know not whether this praife is rigorously just. The diffyllable termination, which the critick rightly appropriates to the drama, is to be found, though, I think, not in Gorbeduc, which is confeffedly before our author; yet in Hieronymo, of which the date is not certain, but which there is reafon to believe at leaft as old as his earliest plays. This however is certain, that he is the first who taught either tragedy or comedy to please, there being no theatrical piece of any older writer, of which the name is known, except to antiquaries and collectors of books, which are fought because they are scarce, and would not have been fcarce, had they been much efteemed.

To him we must afcribe the praife, unlefs Spenfer may divide it with him, of having firft difcovered to how much fmoothness and harmony the English language could be softened. He has fpeeches, perhaps fometimes

fcenes,

fcenes, which have all the delicacy of Rowe, without his effeminacy. He endeavours indeed commonly to strike by the force and vigour of his dialogue, but he never executes his purpose better, then when he tries to footh by foftnefs.

Yet it must be at laft confeffed, that as we owe every thing to him, he owes fomething to us; that if much of his praife is paid by perception and judgment, much is likewife given by cuftom and veneration. We fix our eyes upon his graces, and turn them rom his de ́orm t ́es,

and endure in him what we fhould in another loath or despise. If we endured without praising, refpe&t for the father of our drama might excufe us; but I have seen, in the book of fome modern critick, a collection of anomalies, which show that he has corrupted language by every mode of depravation, but which his admirer has accumulated as a monument of honour.

He has scenes of undoubted and perpetual excellence, but perhaps not one play, which, if it were now exhibited as the work of a contemporary writer, would be heard to the conclufion. I am indeed far from thinking, that his works were wrought to his own ideas of perfection; when they were fuch as would fatisfy the audience, they fatisfied the writer. It is feldom that authors, though more ftudious of fame than Shakspeare, rife much above the fandard of their own age; to add a little to what is beft will always be fufficient for prefent praise, and those who find themselves exalted into fame, are willing to credit their encomiafts, and to fpare the labour of contending with themselves.

It does not appear, that Shakspeare thought his works worthy of pofterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had any further profpect, than of prefent popularity and prefent profit. When his plays had

been

been acted, his hope was at an end; he folicited no addition of honour from the reader. He therefore made no fcruple to repeat the fame jefts in many dialogues, or to entangle different plots by the fame knot of perplexity, which may be at leaft forgiven him, by thofe who recollect, that of Congreve's four comedies, two are concluded by a marriage in a mask, by a deception, which perhaps never happened, and which, whether likely or not, he did not invent.

So careless was this great poet of future fame, that, though he retired to eafe and plenty, while he was yet little declined into the vale of years, before he could be difgufted with fatigue, or difabled by infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor defired to rescue those that had been already published from the depravations that obfcured them, or fecure to the reft a better destiny, by giving them to the world in their genuine state.

Of the plays which bear the name of Shakspeare in the late editions, the greater part were not published till about seven years after his death, and the few which appeared in his life are apparently thrust into the world without the care of the author, and therefore probably without his knowledge.

Of all the publishers, clandeftine or profeffed, the negligence and unskilfulness has by the late revisers been fufficiently shown. The faults of all are indeed numerous and grofs, and have not only corrupted many passages perhaps beyond recovery, but have brought others into suspicion, which are only obfcured by obfolete phraseology, or by the writer's unfkilfulness and affectation. To alter is more easy than to explain, and temerity is a more common quality than diligence. Those who faw that they must employ conjecture to a certain degree, were willing to indulge it a little further. Had the au

thor published his own works, we should have fat quietly down to disentangle his intricacies, and clear his obfcurities; but now we tear what we cannot loofe, and eject what we happen not to understand.

The faults are more than could have happened without the concurrence of many causes. The style of Shakspeare was in itself ungrammatical, perplexed, and obfcure; his works were transcribed for the players by thofe who may be supposed to have seldom understood them; they were tranfmitted by copiers equally unfkilful, who ftill multiplied errors; they were perhaps fometimes mutilated by the actors, for the fake of shortening the fpeeches; and were at laft printed without correction of the prefs.

In this state they remained, not as Dr. Warburton fuppofes, because they were unregarded, but because the editor's art was not yet applied to modern languages, and our ancestors were accustomed to fo much negligence of English printers, that they could very patiently endure it. At laft an edition was undertaken by Rowe; not becaufe a poet was to be published by a poet, for Rowe seems to have thought very little on correction or explanation, but that our author's works might appear like those of his fraternity, with the appendages of a life and recommendatory preface. Rowe has been clamorously blamed for not performing what he did not undertake, and it is time that juftice be done him, by confeffing, that though he seems to have had no thought of corruption beyond the printer's errors, yet he has made many emendations, if they were not made before, which his fucceffors have received without acknowledgment, and which, if they had produced them, would have filled pages and pages with cenfures of the ftupidity by which the faults were committed, with displays of the abfurdities which they involved,

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »