« FöregåendeFortsätt »
fore to decide the controverfy, unless fome teftimony of equal force could be oppofed.
Some have imagined, that they have difcovered deep learning in imitation of old writers; but the examples which I have known urged, were drawn from books tranflated in his time; or were fuch eafy coincidencies of thought, as will happen to all who confider the same subjects; or fuch remarks on life or axioms of morality as float in converfation, and are tranfmitted through the world in proverbial fentences.
I have found it remarked, that, in this important fentence, Go before, I'll follow, we read a tranflation of, I prae fequar. I have been told, that when Caliban, after a pleasing dream, fays, I cried to fleep again, the author imitates Anacreon, who had, like every other man, the fame wifh on the fame occafion.
There are a few paffages which may pafs for imitations, but fo few, that the exception only confirms the rule; he obtained them from accidental quotations, or by oral communication, and as he used what he had, would have used more if he had obtained it.
The Comedy of Errors is confeffedly taken from the Menæchmi of Plautus; from the only play of Plautus which was then in English. What can be more probable, than that he who copied that, would have copied more; but that those which were not tranflated were inacceffible?
Whether he knew the modern languages is uncertain. That his plays have fome French fcenes proves but little; he might eafily procure them to be written, and probably, even though he had known the language in the common degree, he could not have written it without affiftance. In the
ftory of Romeo and Juliet he is obferved to have followed the English translation, where it deviates from the Italian; but this on the other part proves nothing against his knowledge of the original. He was to copy, not what he knew himfelf, but what was known to his audience.
It is most likely that he had learned Latin fufficiently to make him acquainted with conftruction, but that he never advanced to an eafy perufal of the Roman authors. Concerning his fkill in modern languages, I can find no fufficient ground of determination; but as no imitations of French or Italian authors have been difcovered, though the Italian poetry was then in high efteem, I am inclined to believe, that he read little more than English, and chofe for his fables only fuch tales as he found translated.
That much knowledge is fcattered over his works is very juftly obferved by Pope, but it is often fuch knowledge as books did not fupply. He that will underftand Shakspeare, muft not be content to study him in the clofet, he muft look for his meaning fometimes among the fports of the field, and fometimes among the manufactures of the shop.
There is, however, proof enough that he was a very diligent reader, nor was our language then fo indigent of books, but that he might very liberally indulge his curiofity without excurfion into foreign literature. Many of the Roman authors were tranflated, and fome of the Greek; the Reformation had filled the kingdom with theological learning; moft of the topicks of human difquifition had found English writers; and poetry had been cultivated, not only with diligence, but fuccefs. This was a flock of knowledge fufficient for a
mind fo capable of appropriating and improving it.
But the greater part of his excellence was the product of his own genius. He found the English ftage in a state of the utmoft rudeness; no effays either in tragedy or comedy had appeared, from which it could be discovered to what degree of delight either one or other might be carried. Neither character nor dialogue were yet understood. Shakspeare may be truly faid to have introduced them both amongst us, and in fome of his happier fcenes to have carried them both to the utmoft height.
By what gradations of improvement he proceeded, is not eafily known; for the chronology of his works is yet unfettled. Rowe is of opinion, that perhaps we are not to look for his beginning, like thofe of other writers, in his least perfect works; art had fo little, and nature fo large a fhare in what he did, that for aught I know, fays he, the performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, were the beft. But the power of nature is only the power of ufing to any certain purpose the materials which diligence procures, or opportunity fupplies. Nature gives no man knowledge, and when images are collected by study and experience, can only affift in combining or applying them. Shakspeare, however favoured by nature, could impart only what he had learned; and as he must encrease his ideas, like other mortals, by gradual acquifition, he, like them, grew wifer as he grew older, could difplay life better, as he knew it more, and inftruct with more efficacy, as he was himself more amply inftructed.
There is a vigilance of obfervation and accuracy of diftinction which books and precepts cannot
confer; from this almost all original and native excellence proceeds. Shakspeare must have looked upon mankind with perfpicacity, in the highest degree curious and attentive. Other writers borrow their characters from preceding writers, and diverfify them only by the accidental appendages of prefent manners; the drefs is a little varied, but the body is the fame. Our author had both matter and form to provide; for, except the characters of Chaucer, to whom I think he is not much indebted, there were no writers in English, and perhaps not many in other modern languages, which fhowed life in its native colours.
The conteft about the original benevolence or malignity of man had not yet commenced. Speculation had not yet attempted to analyfe the mind, to trace the paffions to their fources, to unfold the feminal principles of vice and virtue, or found the depths of the heart for the motives of action. All thofe enquiries, which from that time that human nature became the fashionable ftudy, have been made fometimes with nice difcernment, but often with idle fubtilty, were yet unattempted. The tales, with which the infancy of learning was fatisfied, exhibited only the fuperficial appearances of action, related the events, but omitted the causes, and were formed for fuch as delighted in wonders rather than in truth. Mankind was not then to be ftudied in the clofet; he that would know the world, was under the neceffity of gleaning his own remarks, by mingling as he could in its bufinefs and amusements.
Boyle congratulated himself upon his high birth, because it favoured his curiofity, by facilitating his accefs. Shakspeare had no fuch advantage; he came to London a needy adventurer, and lived for a time by very mean employments. Many works
of genius and learning have been performed in ftates of life that appear very little favourable to thought or to enquiry; fo many, that he who confiders them is inclined to think that he fees enterprize and perfeverance predominating over all external agency, and bidding help and hindrance vanifh before them. The genius of Shakspeare was not to be depreffed by the weight of poverty, nor limited by the narrow converfation to which men in want are inevitably condemned; the incumbrances of his fortune were fhaken from his mind, as dew-drops from a lion's mane.
Though he had fo many difficulties to encounter, and fo little affiftance to furmount them, he has been able to obtain an exact knowledge of many modes of life, and many cafts of native difpofitions; to vary them with great multiplicity; to mark them by nice diftinctions; and to fhow them in full view by proper combinations. In this part of his performances he had none to imitate, but has himfelf been imitated by all fucceeding writers; and it may be doubted, whether from all his fucceffors more maxims of theoretical knowledge, or more rules of practical prudence, can be collected, than he alone has given to his country.
Nor was his attention confined to the actions of men; he was an exact furveyor of the inanimate world; his descriptions have always fome peculiarities, gathered by contemplating things as they really exift. It may be obferved, that the oldeft poets of many nations preferve their reputation, and that the following generations of wit, after a fhort celebrity, fink into oblivion. The firft, whoever they be, muft take their fentiments and defcriptions immediately from knowledge; the refemblance is therefore juft, their descriptions are verifi