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ceeds. Shakspeare must have looked on mankind with perspicacity, in the highest degree curious and attentive. Other writers borrow their characters from preceding writers, and diversify them only by the accidental appendages of present manners; the dress is a little varied, but the body is the same. Our author had both matter and form to provide ; for except the characters of Chaucer, to whom I think he is not much indebted, there were no writers in English, and perhaps not many in other modern languages, which showed life in its native colors.
The contest about the original benevolence or malignity of man had not yet commenced. Speculation had not yet attempted to analyse the mind, to trace the passions to their sources, to unfold the seminal principles of vice and virtue, or sound the depths of the heart for the motives of action. All those inquiries, which from that time that human nature became the fashionable study, have been made sometimes with nice discernment, but often with idle subtilty, were yet unattempted. The tales, with which the infancy of learning was satisfied, exhibited only the superficial appearances of action, related the events, but omitted the causes, and were formed for such as delighted in wonders rather than in truth. Mankind was not then to be studied in the closet: he that would know the world, was under the necessity of gleaning his own remarks, by mingling as he could in its business and amusements.
Boyle congratulated bimself on his high birth, because it favored his curiosity, by facilitating his access. Shakspeare had no such advantage ; he came to London a needy adventurer, and lived for a time by very mean employments. Many works of genius and learning have been performed in states of life that appear very little favorable to thought or to inquiry; so many, that he who considers them is inclined to think that be sees enterprise and perseverance predominating over all external agency, and bidding help and hindrance vanish before them. The genius of Shakspeare was not to be depressed by the weight of poverty, nor limited by the narrow conversation to which men in want are inevitably condemned ; the encumbrances of his fortune were shaken from his mind, 'as dew-drops from a lion's mane.'
Though he had so many difficulties to encounter, and so little assistance to surmount them, he has been able to obtain an exact knowlege of many modes of life, and many casts of native dispositions; to vary them with great multiplicity ; to mark them by nice distinctions; and to show them in full view by proper combinations. In this part of his performances he had none to imitate, but has himself been imitated by all succeeding writers; and it may be doubted, whether from all his successors more maxims of theoretical knowlege, or more rules of practical prudence, can be collected, than he alone has given to his country.
Nor was his attention confined to the actions of men; he was an exact surveyor of the inanimate world; his descriptions have always some peculiarities, gathered by contemplating things as they really exist. It may be observed, that the oldest poets of many nations preserve their reputation, and that the following generations of wit, after a short celebrity, sink into oblivion. The first, whoever they be, must take their sentiments and descriptions immediately from knowlege ; the resemblance is therefore just, their descriptions are verified by every eye, and their sentiments acknowleged by every breast. Those whom their fame invites to the same studies, copy partly them, and partly nature, till the books of one age gain such authority, as stand in the place of nature to
another, and imitation, always deviating a little, becomes at last capricious and casual. Shakspeare, whether life or nature be his subject, shows plainly that he has seen with his own eyes; he gives the image which he receives, not weakened or distorted by the intervention of any other mind : the ignorant feel his representations to be just, and the learned see that they are complete.
Perhaps it would not be easy to find any author, except Homer, who invented so much as Shakspeare, who so much advanced the studies which he cultivated, or effused so much novelty on his age or country. The form, the character, the language, and the shows of the English drama are his. “He seems,' says Dennis,
to have been the very original of our English tragical harmony, that is, the harmony of blank verse, diversified often by dissyllable and trisyllable terminations. For the diversity distinguishes it from heroic harmony, and by bringing it nearer to common use makes it more proper to gain attention, and more fit for action and dialogue. Such verse we make when we writing prose; we make such verse in common conversation.'
I know not whether this phrase is rigorously just. The dissyllable termination, which the critic rightly appropriates to the drama, is to be found, though, I think, not in ‘Gorboduc,' which is confessedly before our author; yet in ‘Hieronymo,' of which the date is not certain, but which there is reason to believe at least as old as his earliest plays. This however is certain, that he is the first who taught either tragedy or comedy to please, there being no theatrical piece of any older writer, of which the name is known, except to antiquaries and collectors of books, which are sought because they are scarce, and would not have been scarce had they been much esteemed.
To him we must ascribe the praise, unless Spenser may divide it with him, of having first discovered to how much smoothness and harmony the English language could be softened. He has speeches, perhaps sometimes scenes, which have all the delicacy of Rowe, without his effeminacy. He endeavors indeed commonly to strike by the force and vigor of his dialogue, but he never executes his purpose better, than when he tries to soothe by softness.
Yet it must be at last confessed, that as we owe every thing to him, he owes something to us; that, if much of his praise is paid by perception and judgment, much is likewise given by custom and veneration. We fix our eyes on his graces, and turn them from his deformities, and endure in him what we should in another loathe or despise. If we endured without praising, respect for the father of our drama might excuse us ; but I have seen, in the book of some modern critic, a collection of anomalies, which show that he has corrupted language by every mode of depravation, but which his admirer has accumulated as a monument of honor.
He has scenes of undoubted and perpetual excellence, but perhaps not one play, which, if it were now exhibited as the work of a contemporary writer, would be heard to the conclusion. I am indeed far from thinking that his works were wrought to his own ideas of perfection: when they were such as would satisfy the audience, they satisfied the writer. It is seldom that authors, though more studious of fame than Shakspeare, rise much above the standard of their own age: to add a little to what is best will always be sufficient for present praise; and those who find themselves exalted into fame, are willing to credit their encomiasts, and to spare the labor of contending with themselves.
It does not appear that Shakspeare thought his works worthy of posterity, that he levied any ideal tribute on future times, or had any farther prospect, than of present popularity and present profit. When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end ; he solicited no addition of honor from the reader. He therefore made no scruple to repeat the same jests in many dialogues, or to entangle different plots by the same knot of perplexity, wbich may be at least forgiven him by those who recollect, that of Congreve's four comedies, two are concluded by a marriage in a mask ; by a deception, which perhaps never happened, and which, whether likely or not, he did not invent.
So careless was this great poet of future fame, that, though he retired to ease and plenty, while he was yet little 'declined into the vale of years,' before he could be disgusted with fatigue, or disabled by infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor desired to rescue those that had been already published from the depravations that obscured them, or secure to the rest a better destiny, by giving them to the world in their genuine state.
Of the plays which bear the name of Shakspeare in the late editions, the greater part were not published till about seven years after his death, and the few which appeared in his life are apparently thrust into the world without the care of the author, and therefore probably without his knowlege.
Of all the publishers, clandestine or professed, their negligence and unskilfulness has by the late revisers been sufficiently shown. The faults of all are indeed numerous and gross, and have not only corrupted many passages perhaps beyond recovery, but have brought others into suspicion, which are only obscured by obsolete phraseology, or by the writer's