Sidor som bilder

without any moral purpose. 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 always careful to show 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 independent on time or place.

The plots are often fo loosely formed, that a very flight confideration may improve them, and fo carelessly pursued, 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 thofe exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the fake of those which are more easy.

It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself 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 moft vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly reprefented.

He had no regard to distinction of time or place, but gives to one age or nation, without fcruple, the customs, inftitutions, and opinions of another, at the expence not only of likelihood, but of poffibility. These faults Pope has endeavoured, with more zeal than judgment, to transfer to his imagined interpolators. We need not wonder to find Hector

quoting Ariftotle, when we fee the loves of Thefeus and Hippolyta combined with the Gothick mythology of fairies. Shakspeare, indeed, was not the only violator of chronology, for in the fame age Sidney, who wanted not the advantages of learning, has, in his Arcadia, confounded the paftoral with the feudal times, the days of innocence, quiet, and fecurity, with thofe of turbulence, violence, and adventure.2

In his comick scenes he is feldom very fuccessful, when he engages his characters in reciprocations of fmartness and contests of sarcasm; their jefts are commonly grofs, and their pleafantry licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are fufficiently diftinguifhed from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners. Whether he represented the real converfation of

2 As a further extenuation of Shakspeare's error, it may be urged that he found the Gothick mythology of Fairies already incorporated with Greek and Roman ftory, by our early tranfiators. Phaer and Golding, who first gave us Virgil and Ovid in an English dress, introduce Fairies almost as often as Nymphs are mentioned in these claffick authors. Thus, Homer, in his 24th Iliad:

“ Ἐν Σιπύλω, ὅθι φασὶ θεάων ἔμμεναι εὐνας NUMPAΩN, αἵτ ̓ ἀμφ' Αχελώϊον ἐρρωσαντο.” But Chapman translates


In Sypilus-in that place where 'tis faid

"The goddeffe Fairies ufe to dance about the funeral bed "Of Achelous :


Neither are our ancient verfifiers lefs culpable on the score of anachronisms. Under their hands the balifta becomes a cannon, and other modern instruments are perpetually substituted for such as were the produce of the remotest ages.

It may be added, that in Arthur Hall's verfion of the fourth Iliad, Juno fays to Jupiter:

(6 ―


the time will come that Totnam French fhal turn." And in the tenth Book we hear of "The Baftile," wooll," and "The Byble." STEEVENS.


his time is not easy to determine; the reign of Elizabeth is commonly fuppofed to have been a time of ftatelinefs, formality, and referve, yet perhaps the relaxations of that feverity were not very elegant. There muft, however, have been always fome modes of gaiety preferable to others, and a writer ought to choose the best.

In tragedy his performance feems conftantly to be worse, as his labour is more. The effufions of paffion, which exigence forces out, are for the most part striking and energetick; but whenever he folicits his invention, or ftrains his faculties, the offfpring of his throes is tumour, meanness, 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 should therefore always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakspeare found it an incumbrance, 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 can

not well express, and will not reject; he ftruggles 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 those 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 difappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by fonorous epithets and fwelling figures.

But the admirers of this great poet have most reason to complain when he approaches nearest to his highest excellence, and feems fully refolved to fink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatnefs, the danger of innocence, or the croffes of love. What he does best, he foon ceases to do. 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 terror and pity, as they are rifing in the mind, are checked and blafted by fudden frigidity.

A quibble is to Shakspeare, 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 difquifitions, whether he be enlarging knowledge, or exalting affection, whether he be amufing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn afide from his ca

reer, or floop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him fuch delight, that he wa's content to purchase it by the facrifice of reafon, propriety, and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.

It will be thought ftrange, that, in enumerating the defects of this writer, I have not yet mentioned his neglect of the unities; his violation of those laws which have been inftituted and established by the joint authority of poets and of criticks.

For his other deviations from the art of writing, I refign him to critical juftice, without making any other demand in his favour, than that which must be indulged to all human excellence; that his virtues be rated with his failings: but, from the cenfure which this irregularity may bring upon him, I fhall, with due reverence to that learning which I muft oppofe, adventure to try how I can defend him.

His hiftories, being neither tragedies nor comedies, are not subject to any of their laws; nothing more is neceffary to all the praise which they expect, than that the changes of action be fo prepared as to be understood, that the incidents be various and affecting, and the characters confiftent, natural, and diftinct. No other unity is intended, and therefore none is to be fought.

In his other works he has well enough preserved the unity of action. He has not, indeed, an intrigue regularly perplexed and regularly unravelled; he does not endeavour to hide his defign only to discover it, for this is feldom the order of real events, and Shakspeare is the poet of nature: but his plan has commonly what Ariftotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; one event is

« FöregåendeFortsätt »