Εικόνες σελίδας
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

vulgar is right; but there is a converfation above groffnefs and below refinement, where propriety refides, and where this poet feems to have gathered his comick dialogue. He is therefore more agreeable to the ears of the prefent age than any other authour equally remote, and among his other excellencies deferves to be studied as one of the original mafters of our language.

Thefe obfervations are to be confidered not as unexceptionably conftant, but as containing general and predominant truth. Shakespeare's familiar dialogue is affirmed to be smooth and clear, yet not wholly without ruggedness or difficulty; as a country may be eminently fruitful, though it has fpots unfit for cultivation: His characters are praised as natural, though their sentiments are fometimes forced, and their actions improbable; as the earth upon the whole is spherical, though its furface is varied with protuberances and cavities.

Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewife faults, and faults fufficient to obfcurè and overwhelm any other merit. I fhall fhew them in the proportion in which they appear to me, without envious malignity or fuperftitious veneration. No queftion can be more innocently difcuffed than a dead poet's pretenfions to renown; and little regard is due to that bigotry which fets candour higher than truth.

His firft defect is that to which may be imputed moft of the evil in books or in men. He facrifices virtue to convenience, and is fo much more careful to please than to inftruct, that he feems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a fyftem of focial duty may be felected, for he that thinks reasonably muft think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop cafually from him; he makes no juft diftribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to fhew in the virtuous a difapprobation of the wicked; he carries his perfons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close difiniffes them without further care, and leaves their examples

examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer's duty to make the world better, and juftice is a virtue independant on time or place.

The plots are often fo loofely formed, that a very flight confideration may improve them, and fo carelessly purfued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own defign. He omits opportunities of inftructing or delighting, which the train of his ftory feems to force upon him, and apparently rejects thofe exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the fake of those which are more easy.

It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and, in view of his reward, he shortened the labour, to fnatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he fhould moft vigorously exert them, and his cataftrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly reprefented.

He had no regard to diftinction of time or place, but gives to one age or nation, without fcruple, the customs, inftitutions, and opinions of another, at the expence not only of likelihood, but of poffibility. Thefe faults Pope has endeavoured, with more zeal than judgment, to transfer to his imagined interpolators. We need not wonder to find Hector quoting Ariftotle, when we fee the loves of Thefeus and Hippolyta combined with the Gothick mythology of fairies. Shakespeare, indeed, was not the only violater of chronology, for in the fame age Sidney, who wanted not the advantages of learning, has, in his Arcadia, confounded the paftoral with the feudal times, the days of innocence, quiet and fecurity, with thofe of turbulence, violence and advenuce and adven


In his comick scenes he is feldom very fuccefsful, when he engages his characters in reciprocations of fmartnefs and conteft of farcafm; their jefts are com


monly grofs, and their pleasantry licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are fufficiently diftinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners. Whether he reprefented the real converfation of his time is not eafy to determine; the reign of Elizabeth is commonly fuppofed to have been a time of stateliness, formality and reserve, yet perhaps the relaxations of that feverity were not very elegant. There muft, however, have been always fome modes of gayety preferable to others, and a writer ought to chuse the best.

In tragedy his performance feems conftantly to be worfe, as his labour is more. The effufions of paffion which exigence forces out, are for the most part striking and energetick; but whenever he folicits his invention, or ftrains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obfcurity.

In narration he affects a difproportionate pomp of diction, and a wearifome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few. Narration in dramatick poetry is naturally tedious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obftructs the progrefs of the action; it should therefore always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakespeare found it an encumbrance, and instead of lightening it by brevity, endeavoured to recommend it by dignity and splendour..

His declamations or fet fpeeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragick writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and inftead of inquiring what the occafion demanded, to show how much his ftores of knowledge could fupply, he seldom. escapes without the pity or refentment of his reader.

It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy fentiment, which he cannot well exprefs, and will not reject; he ftruggles with it a while,


and if it continues ftubborn, comprifes it in words fuch as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and evolved by those who have more leifure to bestow upon it.

Not that always where the language is intricate the thought is fubtle, or the image always great where the line is bulky; the equality of words to things is very often neglected, and trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by fonorous epithets and fwelling figures.

But the admirers of this great poet have never lefs reason to indulge their hopes of fupreme excellence, than when he seems fully refolved to fink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatnefs, the danger of innocence, or the croffes of love. He is not long foft and pathetick without fome idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no fooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself; and terrour and pity, as they are rifing in the mind, are checked and blafted by fudden frigidity.

A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures, it is fure to lead him out of his way, and fure to engulf him in the mire. It has fome malignant power over his mind, and its fafcinations are irrefiftable. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his difquifition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in fufpenfe, let but a quibble fpring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn afide from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him fuch delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the facrifice of reafon, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he loft the world, and was content to lofe it.


It will be thought ftrange, that, in enumerating the defects of this writer, I have not yet mentioned his neglect of the unities; his violation of those laws which have been instituted and established by the joint authority of poets and of criticks.

For his other deviations from the art of writing, I refign him to critical juftice, without making any other demand in his favour, than that which must be indulged to all human excellence; that his virtues be rated with his failings: But, from the cenfure which this irregularity may bring upon him, I fhall, with due reverence to that learning which I muft oppofe, adventure to try how I can defend him.

His hiftories, being neither tragedies nor comedies, are not fubject to any of their laws; nothing more is neceffary to all the praise which they expect, than that the changes of action be fo prepared as to be underftood, that the incidents be various and affecting, and the characters confiftent, natural and diftinct. No other unity is intended, and therefore none is to be fought.

In his other works he has well enough preferved the unity of action. He has not, indeed, an intrigue regularly perplexed and regularly unravelled; he does not endeavour to hide his defign only to discover it, for this is feldom the order of real events, and Shakespeare: is the poet of nature: But his plan has commonly what Ariftotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; one event is concatenated with another, and the conclufion follows by eafy confequence. There are perhaps fome incidents that might be fpared, as in other poets there is much talk that only fills up time upon the stage; but the general fyftem makes gradual advan ces, and the end of the play is the end of expectation.

To the unities of time and place he has fhewn no regard, and perhaps a nearer view of the principles on which they stand will diminish their value, and withdraw from them the veneration which, from the time


« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »