Obrázky stránek
PDF
ePub

3

weep; and yet upon reflection find the passion fo just, that we shou'd be furpriz’d if we had not wept, and wept at that very moment.

How astonishing is it again, that the Passions directly opposite to these, Laughter and Spleen, are no Jefs at his command! that he is not more a master of the Great than of the Ridiculous in human nature ; of our noblest tendernesses, than of our vainest foibles of our strongest emotions, than of our idleft fenlations!

Nor does he only excel in the Passions: In the coolnefs of Reflection and Reasoning he is full as admirable. His Sentiments are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious upon every subject; but by a talent very peculiar, something between Penetration and Felicity, he hits upon that particular point on which the bent of each argument turns, or the force of each motive depends. This is perfectly amazing, from a Man of no education or experience in thole : great and publick scenes of life which are usually the Tubject of his thoughts : So that he seems to have known the world by Intuition, to have look'd thro' human nature at one glance, and to be the only Auchor that gives ground for a very new opinion, That the Philosopher and even the Man of the world, may be Born, as well as the Poet.

It must be own'd that with all these great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, so he has perhaps written worse, than any other. But I think I can in some measure account for these defects, from several causes and accidents, without which it is hard to imagine that lo large and so enlighten'd a mind could ever have been fusceptible of them. That all these Contingencies should unite to his disadvantage seems to me almost as singularly unlucky, as that fo many va

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

,

It must be allowed that Stage-Poetry of all other, is more particularly levell’d to please the Populace, and its success more immediately depending upon the Common Suffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakespear, having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a fubfiftence, directed his endeavours solely to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed. The Audience was generally composed of the meaner sort of people, and therefore the Images of Life were to be drawn from those of their own rank : accordingly we find, that not our Author's only but almost all the old Comedies have their Scene among Tradesmen and Mechanicks : And even their Historical Plays strictly follow the common Old Stories or Vulgar Traditions of that kind of people. In Tragedy, nothing was so sure to Surprize and cause Admiration, as the most strange, unexpected, and confequently most unnatural, Events and Incidents ; the most exaggerated Thoughts; the most verbose and bombast Expression; the most pompous Rhymes, and thundering Versification. In Comedy, nothing was so sure to Please, as mean buffoonry, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jests of fools and clowns. Yet even in these, our Author's Wit buoys up, and is born above his subject : his Genius in those low parts is like fome Prince of a Romance in the disguise of a Shepherd or Peasant ; a certain Greatness and Spirit now and then break out, which manifest his higher extraction and qualities.

It may be added, that not only the common Audience had no notion of the rules of writing, but few even of the better fort piqu?d themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way ; 'till Ben Johnson getting poffeffion of the Stage, brought critical learning into vogue: And that this was not

donc

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

done without difficulty, may appear from those frequent Jeflons (and indeed almost Declamations) which he was forced to prefix to his first plays, and put into the mouth of his Actors, the Grex, Cborus, &c. to remove the prejudices, and inform the judgment of his hearers. 'Till then, our Authors had no thoughts of writing on the model of the Ancients : their Tragedies were only Histories in Dialogue; and their Comedies followed the thread of any Novel as they found it, no less implicitly than if it had been true History

To judge therefore of Shakespear by Aristotle's rules, is like trying a man by the laws of one Country, who acted under those of another. He writ to the People ; and writ at first without patronage from the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleasing them; without affistance or advice from the Learned, 23 without the advantage of education or acquaintance among them: without that knowledge of the best models, the Ancients, to inspire him with an emula tion of them ; in a word, without any views of Rer putation, and of what Poets are pleas'd to call Immortality : Some or all of which have encouragʻd the vanity, or animated the ambition, of other writers.

Yet it must be observ'd, that when his perfor mances had merited the protection of his Prince, and when the encouragement of the Court hrad fucceeded to that of the Town; the works of his riper years are manifestly raised above those of his former. The Dates of his plays fufficiently evidence that his productions improved, in proportion to the respect he had for his auditors. And I make no doubt this observation would be found true in every instance, were but Editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was composed, and whechier Writ for the Town, or the Court.

Vol. I.

b

Another

Another Cause (and no less strong than the former) may be deduced from our Author's being a Player, and forming himself first upon the judgments of that body of men whereof he was a member. They have ever had a Standard to themselves, upon other principles than those of Aristotle. As they live by the Majority, they know no rule but that of pleasing the present humour, and complying with the wit in fashion ; a consideration which brings all their judgment to a short point. Players are just such judges of what is right, as Taylors are of what is graceful. And in this view it will be but fair to allow, that most of our Author's faults are less to be ascribed to his wrong judgment as a Poet, than to his right judgment as a Player.

By these Men it was thought a praise to Shakespear, that he scacre ever blotted a line. This they industripusly propagated, as appears from what we are told by Ben Johnson in his Discoveries, and from the

preface of Heminges and Condell to the first folio Edition. But in reality (however it has prevailed) there never was a more groundless report, or to the contrary of which there are more undeniable evidences. As, the Comedy of the Merry Wives of Windsor, which he entirely new writ; the History of Henry the 6th, which was first published under the title of the Contention of York and Lancaster; and that of Henry the 5th, extremely improved ; that of Hamlet enlarged to almost'as much again as at first, and many others. I believe the common opinion of his want of Learning proceeded from no better ground. This too might be thought a Praise by some, and to this his Errors have as injudiciously been ascribed byl others.". For 'tis certain, were it true, it could concern but a small part of them; the most are such as are not properly Defects, but Superfoetations : and arise not from want of learning or reading, but from want of thinking or

judging :

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

judging : or rather (to be more just to our Author) from a compliance to those wants in others. As to a wrong choice of the subject, a wrong conduct of the incidents, false thoughts, forc'd expressions, &c. if these are not to be ascrib'd to the forefaid accidental reasons, they must be charg'd upon the Poet himself, and there is no help for it. But I think the two Difadvantages which I have mention'd (to be oblig'd to please the lowest of people, and to keep the worst of company) if the consideration be extended as far as it reasonably may,

will

appear fufficient to mislead and depress the greatest Genius upon earth. Nay the more modesty with which such a one is endued, the more he is in danger of submitting and conforming to others, against his own better judgment.

But as to his Want of Learning, it may be neceffary to say something more: There is certainly a vast difference between Learning and Languages. How far he was ignorant of the latter, I cannot determine; but 'tis plain he had much Reading at least, if they will not call it Learning. Nor is it any great matter, if a man has Knowledge, whether he has it from one language or from another. Nothing is more evident than that he had a taste of natural Philosophy, Mechanicks, ancient and modern History, Poetical learning and Mythology: We find him very knowing in the customs, rites, and manners of Antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Cæfar, not only the Spirit, but Manners, of the Romans are exactly drawn ; and still a nicer distinction is shown, between the manners of the Romans in the time of the former, and of the latter. His reading in the ancient Historians is no less iconspicuous, in many references to particular paffages : and the speeches copy'd from Plutarch in Coriolanus may, I think, as well be made an initance of his learning, as those copy'd from Cicero in Catilines of Ben Johnson's. The manners of other nations in geb 2

Heral

[ocr errors]
« PředchozíPokračovat »