« ZurückWeiter »
are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious, upon
Ir must be own'd, that with all these great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, fo he has, perhaps, written worse, than any other. But I think, I can in fome measure account for thefe defects, from feveral caufes and accidents; without which it is hard to imagine that fo large and fo enlighten'd a mind could ever have been fufceptible of them. That all these contingencies should unite to his disadvantage feems to me almoft as fingularly unlucky, as that fo many various (nay contrary) talents fhould meet in one man, was happy and extraordinary.
Ir must be allowed, that ftage-poetry of all other, is more particularly levell'd to please the populace, and its fuccefs more immediately depending upon the common fuffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakespear, having at his firft appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a subsistence, directed his endeavours. folely to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed. The audience was, generally, compofed of the meaner fort of people; and therefore the images of life were to be drawn from thofe 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 ftrictly follow the common old ftories, or vulgar traditions, of that kind of people. In tragedy, nothing was fo fure to surprise and
cause admiration, as the most strange, unexpected, and confequently most unnatural, events and incidents; the most exaggerated thoughts; the most verbose and bombaft expreffion; the most pompous rhymes, and thundering verfification. In comedy, nothing was fo fure to please, as mean buffoonery, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jefts of fools and clowns. Yet even in these, our author's wit buoys up, and is born above his fubject: his genius in thofe low parts is like fome prince of a romance in the disguise of a fhepherd or peafant; a certain greatness and spirit now and then break out, which manifeft 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 themfelves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way; till Ben. Jonfon, getting poffeffion of the stage, brought critical learning into vogue: and that this was not done without difficulty, may appear from those frequent lessons (and indeed almost declamations) which he was forced to prefix to his first plays, and put into the mouth of his actors, the grex, chorus, &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 hiftory.
To judge therefore of Shakespear by Ariftotle'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 pleafing them: without affistance or advice from the learned, as without the advantage of education or acquaintance among them: without that knowledge of the best models, the ancients, to inspire him with an emulation of them: in a word, without any views of reputation, and of what poets are pleas'd to call immortality;
immortality; fome or all of which have encourag'd the vanity, or animated the ambition, of other writers.
YET it must be obferved, that when his performances had merited the protection of his prince, and when the encouragement of the court had fucceeded to that of the town; the works of his riper years are manifeftly raised above those of his former. The dates of his plays fufficiently evidence that his productions improved, in proportion to the refpect he had for his auditors. And, I make no doubt, this obfervation would be found true in every inftance, were but editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was compofed, and whether writ for the town, or the court.
ANOTHER Caufe (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 ftandard to themselves, upon other principals than those of Ariftotle. As they live by the majority, they know no rule but that of pleafing the prefent humour, and complying with the wit in fashion; a confideration which brings all their judgment to a short point. Players are juft fuch judges of what is right, as taylors are of what is graceful. And in this view it will be but fair to allow, that moft of our author's faults are lefs to be afcribed 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 scarce ever blotted a line. This they induftrioufly propagated, as appears from what we are told by Ben. Jonfon in his difcoveries, and from the preface of Heminges and Gondell 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 Windfor, which he entirely new writ; the Hiftory of Henry the fixth,which was first published under the title of the Contention
of York and Lancaster; and that of Henry the fifth, extremely improved; that of Hamlet enlarged to almoft 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 praife by fome; and to this his errours have as injudiciously been ascribed by others. For 'tis certain, were it true, it could concern but a small part of them; the most are fuch as are not properly defects, but fuperfœtations; and arise not from want of learning or reading, but from want of thinking or judging: or rather (to be more just to our author) from a compliance to thofe wants in others. As to a wrong choice of the fubject, a wrong conduct of the incidents, falfe thoughts, forc'd expreffions, &c. if thefe are not to be afcrib'd to the forefaid accidental reafons, they must be charg'd upon the poet himself, and there is no help for it. But, I think, the two disadvantages which I have mention'd (to be obliged to please the loweft of people, and to keep the worst of company) if the confideration be extended as far as it reasonably may, will appear fufficient to mislead and depress the greatest genius upon earth. Nay the more modefty with which fuch a one is endued, the more he is in danger of fubmitting and conforming to others, against his own better judgment.
BUT as to his want of learning, it may be neceffary to say fomething more There is certainly a vaft 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 tafte of natural philofophy, mechanicks, ancient and modern hiftory, poctical learning, and mythology: we find him very knowing in the customs, rites, and manners, of antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Cæfar, not only the fpirit, but manners, of the Romans are exactly drawn; and still a nicer diftinction is shown, between the manners of the Romans in the time of the former,
and of the latter. His reading in the ancient hiftorians is no less confpicuous, in many references to particular paffages: and the fpeeches copy'd from Plutarch in Coriolanus may, I think, as well be made an inftance of his learning, as thofe copy'd from Cicero in Catiline, of Ben. Jonfon's. The manners of other nations in general, the Egyptians, Venetians, French, &c. are drawn with equal propriety. Whatever object of nature, or branch of fcience, he either fpeaks of or defcribes; it is always with competent if not extenfive knowledge: his descriptions are still exact; all his metaphors appropriated, and remarkably drawn from the true nature and inherent qualities of each fubject. When he treats of ethick or politick, we may conftantly obferve a wonderful juftnefs of diftinction,as well as extent of comprehenfion. No one is more a master of the poetical story, or has more frequent allufions to the various parts of it: Mr. Waller (who has been celebrated for this laft particular) has not shown more learning this way than Shakespear. We have tranflations from Ovid published in his name, among thofe poems which pass for his, and for fome of which we have undoubted authority, (being published by himself, and dedicated to his noble patron the earl of Southampton :) he appears also to have been converfant in Plautus, from whom he has taken the plot of one of his plays: he follows the Greek authors, and particularly Dares Phrygius, in another (although I will not pretend to fay in what language he read them.) The modern Italian writers of novels he was manifeftly acquainted with; and we may conclude him to be no lefs converfant with the ancients of his own country, from the ufe he has made of Chaucer in Troilus and Creffida, and in the Two Noble Kinfmen, if that play be his, as there goes a tradition
was, (and, indeed, it has little refemblance of Fletcher, and more of our author than fome of those which have been received. as genuine.)
I AM inclined to think, this opinion proceeded originally from the zeal of the partizans of our author and Ben. Jonfon; as they endeavoured to exalt the one at the expence of the other. It is