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lencies deferves to be ftudied as one of the original mafters of our language.
Thefe obfervations are to be confidered not as unexceptionably conftant, but as containing general and predominant truth. Shakespeare's familiar dialogue is affirmed to be smooth and clear, yet not wholly with-. out ruggedness or difficulty; as a country may be eminently fruitful, though it has fpots unfit for cultivation: His characters are praised as natural, though their sentiments are fometimes forced, and their actions" improbable; as the earth upon the whole is fpherical, though its furface is varied with protuberances and
Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewife faults, and faults fufficient to obfcure and overwhelm any other merit. I fhall fhew them in the proportion in. which they appear to me, without envious malignity or fuperftitious veneration. No queftion can be more innocently difcuffed than a dead poet's pretenfions to renown; and little regard is due to that bigotry which fets candour higher than truth.
His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He facrifices virtue to convenience, and is fo much more careful to please than to inftruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpofe. From his writings indeed a fyftem of focial duty may be felected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop cafually from him; he makes no juft diftribution of good or evil,
nor is al
ways careful to fhew in the virtuous a disapprobation. of the wicked; he carries his perfons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the clofe difmiffes them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his
age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer's duty to make the world better, and juftice is a virtue independant on time or place.
The plots are often fo loosely formed, that a very flight confideration may improve them, and fo carelefsly purfued, that he feems not always fully to comprehend his own defign. He omits opportunities of inftructing or delighting which the train of his ftory feems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the fake of thofe which are more eafy.
It may be obferved, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himfelf near the end of his work, and, in view of his reward, he fhortened the labour, to fnatch the profit. He therefore 'remits his efforts where he fhould most vigorously exert them, and his cataftrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly reprefented.
He had no regard to diftinction of time or place, but gives to one age or nation, without fcruple, the cuftoms, inftitutions, and opinions of another, at the expence not only of likelihood, but of poffibility. Thefe faults Pope has endeavoured, with more zeal than judgment, to transfer to his imagined interpolators. We need not wonder to find Hector quoting
quoting Ariftotle, when we fee the loves of Thefeus
In his comick fcenes he is feldom very fuccefsful, when he engages his characters in reciprocations of smartness and conteft of farcafm; their jefts are commonly grofs, and their pleafantry licentious; neither his gentlemen nor kis ladies have much delicacy, nor are fufficiently diftinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners. Whether he reprefented the real converfation of his time is not easy to determine; the reign of Elizabeth is commonly fup. pofed to have been a time of ftatelinefs, formality and referve, yet perhaps the relaxations of that feverity were not very elegant. There must, however, nave been always fome modes of gayety preferable to others, and a writer ought to chufe the best.
In tragedy his performance feems conftantly to be worfe, as his labour is more. The effufions of paffion which exigence forces out are for the most part ftriking and energetick; but whenever he folicits his invention, or ftrains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumour, meannefs, tedioufnefs, and obfcurity.
In narration he affects a difproportionate pomp of diction and a wearifome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few. Narration in dramatick poetry is naturally tedious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obftructs the progrefs of the action; it fhould therefore always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakespeare found it an encumbrance, and instead of lightening it by brevity, endeavoured to recommend it by dignity and fplendour.
His declamations or fet fpeeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragick writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and inftead of inquiring what the occafion demanded, to fhow how much his ftores of knowledge could fupply, he feldom escapes without the pity or refentment of his reader.'
It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy fentiment, which he cannot well exprefs, and will not reject; he struggles with it a while, and if it continues ftubborn, comprifes it in words fuch as occur, and leaves it to be difentangled and evolved by thofe who have more leifure to bestow upon it.
Not that always where the language is intricate the thought is fubtle, or the image always great where the line is bulky; the equality of words to things is very often neglected, and trivial fentiments and
vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by fonorous epithets and fwelling figures.
But the admirers of this great poet have never lefs reafon to indulge their hopes of fupreme excellence, than when he feems fully refolved to fink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the croffes of love. He is not long foft and pathetick without fome idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no fooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself, and terrour and pity, as they are rifing in the mind, are checked and blasted by fudden frigidity.
A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures, it is fure to lead him out of his way, and fure to engulf him in the mire. It has fome malignant power over his mind, and its fafcinations are irrefiftible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his dif quifition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amufing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in fufpenfe, let but a quibble fpring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn afide from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble poor and barren as it is, gave him fuch delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the facrifice of reafon, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal