« FöregåendeFortsätt »
tradefmen and mechanicks: and even their hiftorical plays strictly follow the common old ftories or vulgar traditions of that kind of people. In tragedy, nothing was fo fure to furprize and caufe admiration, as the most strange, unexpected, and confequently most unnatural, events and incidents; the moft exaggerated thoughts; the moft 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 thefe our author's wit buoys up, and is borne above his fubject: his genius in thofe low parts is like fome prince of a romance in the disguise of a fhepherd or peasant; a certain greatness and fpirit 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 piqued themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way; till Ben Jonfon getting poffeffion of the ftage, brought critical learning into vogue: and that this was not done without difficulty, may appear from those frequent leffons (and indeed almoft. 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 hiftories 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 Shakspeare by Ariftotle's rules, is like trying a man by the laws of one coun
try, who acted under thofe of another. He writ to the people; and writ at firft without patronage from the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleafing them without affiftance or advice from the learned, as without the advantage of education or acquaintance among them; without that knowledge of the beft models, the ancients, to infpire him with an emulation of them; in a word, without any views of reputation, and of what poets are pleased to call immortality: fome or all of which have encouraged 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 thofe 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 obfervation will be found true in every instance, 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 lefs ftrong than the former) may be deduced from our poet'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 themfelves, upon other principles 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 fafhion; a confideration which brings all their judgment to a fhort point. Players are juft fuch judges of what is right, as
tailors are of what is graceful. And in this view it will be but fair to allow, that most of our author's faults are lefs to be ascribed to his wrong judgment as a poet, than to his right judgment as a player.
By these men it would be thought a praife to Shakspeare, that he scarce ever blotted a line. This they induftriously propagated, as appears from what we are told by Ben Jonfon in his Difcoveries, and from the preface of Heminge 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 Windfor, which he entirely new writ; The Hiftory of Henry the Sixth, 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 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 praife by fome, and to this his errors have as injudiciously been ascribed by others. For 'tis certain, were it true, it would concern but a fmall part of them; the most are such as are not properly defects, but fuperfœtations and arife not from want of learning or reading, but from want of thinking or judging or rather (to be more juft 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, forced expreffions, &c. if these are not to be afcribed to the forefaid accidental reafons, they must be charged upon the poet himself, and there is no help for it.
But I think the two difadvantages which I have mentioned (to be obliged to please the lowest of the 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 deprefs 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 judg
But as to his want of learning, it may be necefsary to say something more: there is certainly a vaft difference between learning and languages. How far he was ignorant of the latter, I cannot determine; but it is plain he had much reading at leaft, 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 hiftory, 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 fpirit, but manners, of the Romans are exactly drawn; and ftill 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 historians is no lefs confpicuous, in many references to particular paffages and the fpeeches copied from Plutarch in Coriolanus may, I think, as well be made an inftance of his learning, as thofe copied from Cicero in Catiline of Ben Jonfon's. The manners of
Thefe, as the reader will find in the notes on that play, Shakspeare drew from Sir Thomas North's tranflation, 1579.
other nations in general, the Egyptians, Venetians, French, &c. are drawn with equal propriety. Whatever object of nature, or branch of fcience, he either speaks of or defcribes, it is always with competent, if not extenfive knowledge: his defcriptions are ftill exact; all his metaphors appropriated, and remarkably drawn from the true nature and inherent qualities of each subject. When he treats of ethick or politick, we may conftantly observe a wonderful juftnefs of diftinction, as well as extent of comprehenfion. No one is more a master of the political ftory, 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 Shakspeare. We have translations from Ovid published in his name,3 among those poems which pafs for his, and for fome of which we have undoubted authority (being publifhed by himself, and dedicated to his noble patron the Earl of Southampton): he appears alfo 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 Crefsida, and in The Two Noble Kinfmen, if that play be his, as there goes a tradition it was (and indeed it has little resemblance of Fletcher, and more of our author than some of those which have been received as genuine).
3 They were written by Thomas Heywood. See [Mr. Malone's] Vol. X. p. 321, n. 1. MALONE.