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To works, however, of which the excellence is not abfolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonftrative and scientifick, 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 productions of genius, nothing can be ftiled 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 eftimated 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 scale of numbers was at once difcovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to tranf cend 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 transpose his incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrafe his fentiments.
The reverence due to writings that have long fubfifted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the fuperior wisdom of paft ages, or gloomy perfuafion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the confequence of acknowledged, and indubitable pofitions, that what has been longest known has been most confidered, and what is moft confidered is best understood.
The poet, of whofe works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin to affume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prefcriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the teft of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from perfonal allufions, local customs, 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 any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity, nor gratify malignity; but are read without any other reason than the defire of pleafure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained; yet, thus unaffisted by interest or paffion, they have past through variations of taste and changes. of manners, and, as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every tranf mission.
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 Shakespeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.
Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature. Particula. 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; but the pleasures of fudden wonder are foon exhaufted, and the mind can only repofe on the stability of truth.
Shakespeare is above all writers, at least 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, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of ftudies or profeffions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient 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 fpeak 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;
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 verse was a precept; and it may be faid of Shakespeare, that from his works, may be collected a system of civil and oeconomical prudence. Yet his real power is not shewn in the splendor of particular paffages, but by the progress 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 house to fale, carried a brick in his pocket as a fpecimen.
It will not easily be imagined how much Shakefpeare 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 difqualified for the world, because he found nothing there which he should 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 other direction, is peopled by fuch characters as were never seen, 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 purfued with fo much eafe and fimplicity, that it feems
feems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common occurrences.
Upon every other stage the universal agent is love, by whofe power all good and evil is diftributed, 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 inconsistent 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 business of a modern dramatift. For this, probability is violated, life is misrepresented, 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 cause of happiness or calamity.
Characters thus ample and general were not easily difcriminated and preferved, yet perhaps no poet ever kept his perfonages more diftinct from each other. I will not fay with Pope, that every speech may be affigned to the proper fpeaker, because many speeches there are which have nothing characteristical; but, perhaps, though fome may be equally adapted to every perfon, it will be difficult to find any that can