Obrázky stránek

mind fo capable of appropriating and improving


But the greater part of his excellence was the product of his own genius. He found the English stage in a state of the utmoft rudeness; no effays either in tragedy or comedy had appeared, from which it could be difcovered to what degree of delight either one or other might be carried. Neither character nor dialogue were yet understood. Shakspeare may be truly faid to have introduced them both amongst us, and in fome 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 his works is yet unfettled. Rowe is of opinion, that perhaps we are not to look for his beginning, like thofe of other writers, in his leaft perfect works; art had fo little, and nature fo large a fhare in what he did, that for aught I know, fays he, the performances of his youth, as they were the moft vigorous, were the best. But the power of nature is only the power of ufing to any certain purpose the materials which diligence procures, or opportunity fupplies. Nature gives no man knowledge, and when images are collected by ftudy and experience, can only affift in combining or applying them. Shakspeare, however favoured by nature, could impart only what he had learned; and as he must encrease his ideas, like other mortals, by gradual acquifition, he, like them, grew wifer as he grew older, could difplay life better, as he knew it more, and inftruct with more efficacy, as he was himself more amply inftructed.

There is a vigilance of obfervation and accuracy of diftinction which books and precepts cannot

confer; from this almost all original and native excellence proceeds. Shakspeare must have looked upon mankind with perfpicacity, in the highest degree curious and attentive. Other writers borrow their characters from preceding writers, and diverfify them only by the accidental appendages of prefent manners; the dress is a little varied, but the body is the fame. 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 fhowed life in its native colours.

The conteft about the original benevolence or malignity of man had not yet commenced. Speculation had not yet attempted to analyse the mind, to trace the paffions to their fources, to unfold the feminal principles of vice and virtue, or found the depths of the heart for the motives of action. All those enquiries, which from that time that human nature became the fashionable study, have been made fometimes with nice difcernment, but often with idle fubtilty, were yet unattempted. The tales, with which the infancy of learning was fatisfied, exhibited only the fuperficial appearances of action, related the events, but omitted the causes, and were formed for fuch as delighted in wonders rather than in truth. Mankind was not then to be ftudied in the clofet; he that would know the world, was under the neceffity of gleaning his own remarks, by mingling as he could in its bufinefs and amusements.

Boyle congratulated himself upon his high birth, because it favoured his curiofity, by facilitating his access. Shakspeare had no fuch 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 ftates of life that appear very little favourable to thought or to enquiry; fo many, that he who confiders them is inclined to think that he fees enterprize and perfeverance predominating over all external agency, and bidding help and hindrance vanish before them. The genius of Shakspeare was not to be depreffed by the weight of poverty, nor limited by the narrow conversation to which men in want are inevitably condemned; the incumbrances of his fortune were fhaken from his mind, as dew-drops from a lion's mane.

Though he had fo many difficulties to encounter, and fo little affiftance to furmount them, he has been able to obtain an exact knowledge of many modes of life, and many cafts of native dispositions ; to vary them with great multiplicity; to mark them by nice diftinctions; and to fhow 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 fucceeding writers; and it may be doubted, whether from all his fucceffors more maxims of theoretical knowledge, 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 furveyor of the inanimate world; his descriptions have always fome peculiarities, gathered by contemplating things as they really exift. It may be obferved, that the oldest poets of many nations preferve their reputation, and that the following generations of wit, after a fhort celebrity, fink into oblivion. The firft, whoever they be, muft take their fentiments and defcriptions immediately from knowledge; the refemblance is therefore juft, their descriptions are verifi

ed by every eye, and their fentiments acknowledged by every breaft. Those whom their fame invites to the fame ftudies, copy partly them, and partly nature, till the books of one age gain fuch authority, as to stand in the place of nature to another, and imitation, always deviating a little, becomes at laft capricious and cafual. Shakspeare, whether life or nature be his fubject, fhows plainly, that he has feen with his own eyes; he gives the image which he receives, not weakened or diftorted by the intervention of any other mind; the ignorant feel his representations to be juft, and the learned fee that they are complete.

Perhaps it would not be eafy to find any author, except Homer, who invented fo much as Shakfpeare, who fo much advanced the ftudies which he cultivated, or effused so much novelty upon his age or country. The form, the character, the language, and the shows of the English drama are his. He Jeems, fays Dennis, to have been the very original of our English tragical harmony, that is, the harmony of blank verfe, diversified often by diffyllable and triffyllable terminations. For the diverfity diftinguishes it from heroick harmony, and by bringing it nearer to common use makes it more proper to gain attention, and more fit for action and dialogue. Such verfe we make when we are writing profe; we make fuch verfe in common conversation.

Thus, alfo, Dryden, in the Epiftle Dedicatory to his Rival Ladies: " Shakespear (who with fome errors not to be avoided in that age, had, undoubtedly, a larger foul of poefie than ever any of our nation) was the first, who, to fhun the pains of continual rhyming, invented that kind of writing which we call blank verfe, but the French more properly, profe mesurée; into which the English tongue fo naturally flides, that in writing profe 'tis hardly to be avoided." STEEVENS.

I know not whether this praise is rigorously juft. The diffyllable termination, which the critick rightly appropriates to the drama, is to be found, though, I think, not in Gorboduc, which is confeffedly 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 fought because they are scarce, and would not have been fcarce, had they been much efteemed.

To him we muft afcribe the praise, unless Spenfer may divide it with him, of having firft difcovered to how much smoothness and harmony the English language could be softened. He has fpeeches, perhaps fometimes fcenes, which have all the delicacy of Rowe, without his effeminacy. He endeavours indeed commonly to ftrike by the force and vigour of his dialogue, but he never executes his purpose better, than when he tries to footh by foftnefs.

Yet it must be at last confeffed, that as we owe every thing to him, he owes fomething to us; that, if much of his praife is paid by perception and judgment, much is likewife given by custom and veneration. We fix our eyes upon his graces, and turn them from his deformities, and endure in him what we should in another loath or defpife. If we endured without praifing, refpect for the father of

? It appears from the Induction of Ben Jonfon's Bartholomew Fair, to have been acted before the year 1590. See also Vol. X、 p. 344, n. 3. STEEVENS.


« PředchozíPokračovat »