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from Chaucer's Gamelyn,' was a little pamphlet of those times; and old Mr. Cibber remembered the tale of ‘Hamlet' in plain English prose, which the critics have now to seek in Saxo Grammaticus.
His English histories he took from English chronicles and English ballads; and as the ancient writers were made known to his countrymen by versions, they supplied him with new subjects; he dilated some of Plutarch's Lives into plays, when they had been translated by North.
His plots, whether historical or fabulous, are always crowded with incidents, by which the attention of a rude people was more easily caught than by sentiment or argumentation; and such is the power of the marvellous, even over those who despise it, that every man finds his mind more strongly seized by the tragedies of Sbakspeare than of any other writer: others please us by particular speeches ; but he always makes us anxious for the event, and has perhaps excelled all but Homer in securing the first purpose of a writer, by exciting restless and unquenchable curiosity, and compelling him that reads his work to read it through.
The shows and bustle with which his plays abound have the same original. As knowlege advances, pleasure passes from the eye to the ear, but returns, as it declines, from the ear to the eye. Those to whom our author's labors were exhibited had more skill in pomps or processions than in poetical language, and perhaps wanted some visible and discriminated events, as comments on the dialogue. He knew how he should most please ; and whether his practice is more agreeable to nature, or whether his example has prejudiced the nation, we still find that on our stage something must be done as well as said, and inactive declamation is very coldly heard, however musical or elegant, passionate or sublime.
Voltaire expresses his wonder that our author's extravagances are endured by a nation which has seen the tragedy of ‘Cato.' Let him be answered, that Addison speaks the language of poets, and Shakspeare of men. We find in Cato' innumerable beauties which enamour us of its author, but we see nothing that acquaints us with human sentiments or human actions; we place it with the fairest and the noblest progeny which judgment propagates by conjunction with learning; but “Othello' is the vigorous and vivacious offspring of observation impregnated by genius. • Cato' affords a splendid exhibition of artificial and fictitious manners, and delivers just and noble sentiments, in diction easy, elevated, and harmonious; but its hopes and fears communicate no vibration to the heart; the composition refers us only to the writer : we pronounce the name of Cato, but we think on Addison.
The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately formed and diligently planted, varied with shades, and scented with flowers; the composition of Sbakspeare is a forest, in which oaks extend their branches, and pines tower in the air, interspersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses; filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endless diversity. Other poets display cabinets of precious rarities, minutely finished, wrought into shape, and polished into brightness. Shakspeare opens a mine wbich contains gold and diamonds in inexhaustible plenty, though clouded by incrustations, debased by impurities, and mingled with a mass of meaner minerals.
It has been much disputed, whether Shakspeare owed his excellence to his own native force, or whether be had the common helps of scholastic education, the precepts of critical science, and the examples of ancient authors.
There has always prevailed a tradition, that Shakspeare wanted learning, that he had no regular education, nor much skill in the dead languages. Jonson, his friend, affirms, that he had small Latin, and less Greek;' who, besides that he had no imaginable temptation to falshood, wrote at a time when the character and acquisitions of Shakspeare were known to multitudes. His evidence ought therefore to decide the controversy, unless some testimony of equal force could be opposed.
Some have imagined that they have discovered deep learning in many imitations of old writers; but the examples which I have known urged were drawn from books translated in his time; or were such easy coincidences of thought, as will happen to all who consider the same subjects ; or such remarks on life or axioms of morality as float in conversation, and are transmitted through the world in proverbial sentences.
I have found it remarked, that, in this important sentence, 'Go before, I'll follow,' we read a translation of, I præ, sequar. I have been told, that when Caliban, after a pleasing dream, says, “I cried to sleep again,' the author imitates Anacreon, who had, like every other man, the same wish on the same occasion.
There are a few passages which may pass for imitations, but so few, that the exception only confirms the rule : he obtained them from accidental quotations, or by oral communication; and as he used what he had, would have used more if he had obtained it.
The Comedy of Errors' is confessedly taken from the “Menæchmi’ of Plautus ; from the only play of Plautus which was then in English. What can be more probable, than that he who copied that, would have copied more ; but that those which were not translated were inaccessible?
Whether he knew the modern languages is uncertain. That his plays have some French scenes proves but little ; he might easily procure them to be written, and probably, even though he had known the language in the common degree, he could not have written it without assistance. In the story of 'Romeo and Juliet,' he is observed to have followed the English translation, where it deviates from the Italian ; but this on the other band proves nothing against his knowlege of the original. He was to copy, not what he knew himself, but what was known to his audience.
It is most likely that he had learned Latin sufficiently to make him acquainted with construction, but that he never advanced to an easy perusal of the Roman authors. Concerning his skill in modern languages, I can find no sufficient ground of determination; but as no imitations of French or Italian authors have been discovered, though the Italian poetry was then in high esteem, I am inclined to believe that he read little more than English, and chose for his fables only such tales as he found translated.
That much knowlege is scattered over his works is very justly observed by Pope, but it is often such knowlege as books did not supply. He that will understand Shakspeare, must not be content to study him in the closet: he must look for his meaning sometimes among the sports of the field, and sometimes among the manufactures of the shop.
There is however proof enough that he was a very diligent reader, nor was our language then so indigent of books, but that he might very liberally indulge his curiosity without excursion into foreign literature. Many of the Roman authors were translated, and some of the Greek; the Reformation had filled the kingdom with theological learning; most of the topics of human disquisition had found English writers; and poetry
had been cultivated, not only with diligence, but
This was a stock of knowlege sufficient for a mind so capable of appropriating and improving it.
But the greater part of his excellence was the product of his own genius. He found the English stage in a state of the utmost rudeness; no essays either in tragedy or comedy had appeared, from which it could be discovered to what degree of delight either one or other might be carried. Neither character nor dialogue were yet understood. Shakspeare may be truly said to have introduced them both amongst us, and in some of his happier scenes to have carried them both to the utmost height.
By what gradations of improvement he proceeded, is not easily known; for the chronology of bis works is yet unsettled. Rowe is of opinion, that “perhaps we are not to look for his beginning, like those of other writers, in his least perfect works ; art had so little, and nature so large a share in what he did, that for aught I know,' says he, the performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, were the best.' But the power of nature is only the power of using to any certain purpose the materials which diligence procures, or opportunity supplies. Nature gives no man knowlege, and when images are collected by study and experience, can only assist in combining or applying them. Shakspeare, however favored by nature, could impart only what he had learned ; and as he must increase his ideas, like other mortals, by gradual acquisition, he, like them, grew wiser as he grew older, could display life better, as he knew it more, and instruct with more efficacy, as he was himself more amply instructed.
There is a vigilance of observation and accuracy of distinction which books and precepts cannot confer; from this almost all original and native excellence pro