« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »
the Great than of the Ridiculous in human nature; of
Nor does he only excel in the Paffions: In the coolnefs of reflexion and Reafoning he is full as admirable. His Sentiments are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious upon every fubject, but by a talent very peculiar, fomething between Penetration and Felicity, he hits upon that particular point on which the bent of each argument turns, or the force of each moment depends. This is perfectly amazing, from a man of no education or experience in thote great and publick fcenes of life which are ufually the fubject of his thoughts: So that he feems to have known the world by Intuition, to have look'd thro' human nature at one glance, and to be the only Au kep thor that gives ground for a very new opinion, That? the Philofopher and even the Man of the world, may be Born, as well as the Poet.
It must be own'd that with all these great excellencies, he has almoft as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, fo he has perhaps written worle, than any other. But I think I can in fome measure account for thefe defects, from feveral caufes and accidents; without which it is hard to imagine that fo large and fo enlighten'd a mind could ever have been fufceptible of them. That all thefe Contingencies fhould unite to his difadvantage feems to me almost as fingularly unlucky, as that fo many various (nay contrary) Talents fhould meet in one man, was happy and extraordinary.
It must be allowed that Stage-Poetry of all other, is more particularly levell'd to please the Populace, and its fuccefs more immediately depending upon the Common Suffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakespear, having at his firft appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a fubfiftance, directed
his endeavours folely to hit the tafte and humour that then prevailed. The Audience was generally compofed of the meaner fort of people; and therefore the Images of Life were to be drawn from thofe of their own rank: accordingly we find, that not our Author's only but almost all the old Comedies have their Scene among Tradesmen and Mechanicks: And even their Hiftorical Plays ftrictly follow the common Old Stories or Vulgar Traditions of that kind of people. In Tragedy, nothing was fo fure to Surprize and cause Admiration, as the moft ftrange, unexpected, and consequently moft unnatural, Events and Incidents; the most exaggerated Thoughts; the most verbose and bombaft Expreffion; the moft pompous Rhymes, and thundering Verfification. In Comedy, nothing was fo fure to Pleafe, as mean buffoonry, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jefts of fools and clowns. Yet even in thefe, our Author's Wit buoys up, and is born above his fubject: his Genius in thofe low parts is like fome Prince of a Romance in the difguife of a Shepherd or Peafant; a certain Greatnefs and Spirit now and then break out, which manifeft his higher extraction and qualities.
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 piqu'd themfelves 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 thofe frequent leffons (and indeed almoft Declamations) which he was forced to prefix to his firft 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 writng on the model of the Ancients: their Tragedies were only Hiitories in Dialogue; and their Co
medies followed the thread of any Novel as they found it, no leis implicitly than if it had been true Hiftory.
To judge therefore of Shakespear by Ariftotle'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 first without patronage from the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleafing them: with out affistance 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 infpire him with an emulation of them; in a word, without any views of Reputation, and of what Poets are pleas'd to call Immortality a Some or all of which have encourag'd the vanity, or animated the ambition of other writers.
Yet it must be obferv'd, 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 manifestly raised above those of his former. The Dates of his plays fufficiently evidence that his productions improved, in proportion to the refpect he had for his auditors. And I make no doubt this obíervation. 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 Caufe (and no lefs ftrong than the former) may be deduced from our Author's being a Player, and forming himself firft 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 role. As they live by the Majority, they know no rule but that of pleafing the prefent humour, and complying with the wit in fafhion; a confideration which brings all their judgment to a short point. Players are just fuch judges of what is right, as Taylors are of what is graceful. And in this VOL. I.
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 induftriouly propagated, as appears from what we are told by Ben Johnson in his Discoveries, 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 History of Henry the 6th, which was first published under the title of the Contention of York and Lancaster; and that of Henry the 5th, ex.. tremely 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 injudiciously been afcribed by others. For 'tis certain, were it true, it could concern but a small part of them; the most are fuch as are not properly Defects, but Superfotations: and arise not from want of learning or reading, but from want of thinking or judging or rather (to be more juft 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, false thoughts, forced expreffions, &c. if these are not to be afcrib'd to the forefaid accidental reasons, they must be charg'd upon the Poet himself, and there is no help for it. But I think the two Difadvantages which I have mention'd (to be obliged to pleate the lowest of people, and 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 modesty with which fuch a one is endued, the more he is in danger of fubmitting and conforming to others, against his own better judgment.
But as to his Want of Learning, it may be neceffary to fay fomething more: There is certainly a vast difference between Learning and Languages. How far he was ignorant of the latter, I cannot determine; but 'tis plain he had much Reading at leaft, 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, Mechanicks, ancient and modern History, Poetical learning and Mythology; We find him very knowing in the customs, rites, and manners of Antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Cæfer, not only the Spirit, but. Manners, of the Romans are exactly drawn; and still a nicer diftinction is fhewn, 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 conspicuous, in many references to particular paffages; and the fpeeches copy'd from Plutarch in Coriolanus may, I think, as well be made an inftance of his learning, as thofe copy'd 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 science, he either fpeaks of or defcribes; it th is always with competent, if not extenfive knowledge: his defcriptions are still exact; all his metaphors appropriated, and remarkably drawn from the true na ture and inherent qualities of each fubject. When he treats of Ethic or Politic, we may conftantly observe a wonderful juftness of diftinction, as well as extent of comprehenfion. No one is more a mafter of the Poetical story, or has more frequent allufions to the various parts of it: Mr. Waller (who has been celebrated for this last particular) has not fhewn more learning