« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »
geny of common humanity, fuch as the world will always fupply, and obfervation will always find. His perfons act and speak by the influence of thofe 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 those of
Shakespeare 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 Shakespeare with practical axioms and domestick wisdom. It was faid of Euripides, that every verfe was a precept; and it may be faid of ShakeSpeare, that from his works may be collected a system of civil and economical prudence. Yet his real power is not shown in the fplendour of particular paffages, but by the progrefs of his fable, and, the tenour of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will fucceed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to fale, carried a brick in his pocket as a fpecimen.
It will not easily be imagined how much Shakefpeare excells in accommodating his fentiments to real life, but by comparing him with other authours. It was observed of the ancient fchools of declamation, that the more diligently they were frequented, the more was the student difqualified 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 stage but that of Shakespeare. 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 arife in the commerce of mankind. But the dialogue of this authour is often fo evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with fo much ease and fimplicity, that it seems fcarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent felection out of common converfation, and common oc
Upon every other stage the universal agent is love, by whose power all good and evil is distributed, and every action quickened or retarded. To bring a lover, a lady and a rival into the fable; to entangle them in contradictory obligations, perplex them with oppofitions of intereft, and harrafs them with violence of defires inconfiftent with each other; to make them meet in rapture and part in agony; to fill their mouths with hyperbolical joy and outrageous forrow; to distress them as nothing human ever was diftreffed; to deliver them as nothing human ever was delivered, is the bufinefs of a modern dramatift. For this probability is violated, life is mifreprefented, and language is depraved. But love is only one of many paffions, and as it has no great influence upon the fum of life, it has little operation in the dramas of a poet, who caught his ideas from the living world, and exhibited only what he faw before him. He knew, that any other paffion, as it was
regular or exorbitant, was a caufe of happiness or calamity.
Characters thus ample and general were not eafily discriminated and preferved, yet perhaps no poet ever kept his perfonages more diftinct from each other. I will not fay with Pope, that every fpeech may be affigned to the proper fpeaker, because many fpeeches there are which have nothing characteristical; but, perhaps, though fome may be equally adapted to every person, it will be difficult to find, any that can be properly transferred from the prefent poffeffor to another claimant. The choice is right, when there is reafon for choice.
Other dramatifts can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous and unexampled excellence or depravity, as the writers. of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a giant and a dwarf; and he that fhould form his expectations of human affairs from the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakespeare has no heroes; his fcenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he fhould himself have spoken or acted on the fame occafion: Even where the agency is fupernatural the dialogue is level with life. Other writers difguife the most natural paffions and moft frequent incidents; fo that he who contemplates them in the book will not know them in the world: Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he reprefents will not happen, but if it were poffible,
poffible, its effects would be probably fuch as he has affigned; and it may be faid, that he has not only fhewn human nature as it acts in real exigences, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be expofed.
This therefore is the praife of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirrour of life; that he who has mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious extafies, by reading human fentiments in human language; by fcenes from which a hermit 1 may eftimate the tranfactions of the world, and a confeffor predict the progrefs of the paffions.
His adherence to general nature has expofed him to the cenfure of criticks, who form their judgments upon narrower principles. Dennis, and Rhymer think. his Romans not fufficiently Roman; and Voltaire cenfures his kings as not completely royal. Dennis is offended, that Menenius, a fenator of Rome, should play the buffoon; and Voltaire perhaps thinks decency violated when the Danish Ufurper is reprefented as a drunkard. But Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preferves the effential character, is not very careful of diftinctions fuperinduced and adventitious. His ftory requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men. knew that Rome, like every other city, had men of all difpofitions; and wanting a buffoon, he went into the fenate-houfe for that which the fenate-house would certainly have afforded him. He was inclined to fhew
an ufurper and a murderer not only odious but despicable, he therefore added drunkennefs to his other qualities, knowing that kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural power upon kings. These are the petty cavils of petty + minds; a poet overlooks the cafual diftinction of country and condition, as a painter, fatisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.
The cenfure which he has incurred by mixing comick and tragick scenes, as it extends to all his works, deserves more confideration. Let the fact be first stated, and then examined.
Shakespeare's plays are not in the rigorous or critical fenfe either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of fublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and forrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expreffing the courfe of the world, in which the lofs of one is the gain of another; in which, at the fame time, the reveller is hafting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is fometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mifchiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without defign.
Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and cafualties the ancient poets, according to the laws which cuftom had prefcribed, felected fome the crimes of men, and fome their abfurdities; fome the momentous viciffitudes of life, and fome the lighter occur