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LEARNING OF SHAKSPEARE:
JOSEPH CRADOCK, Esq.
HAKSPEARE," fays a brother of the craft, " is a vast garden of criticism:" and certainly no one can be favoured with more weeders gratis. But how often, my dear fir, are weeds and flowers torn up indiscriminately?—the ravaged spot is replanted in a moment, and a profufion of critical thorns thrown over it for fecurity.
"A prudent man, therefore, would not venture his fingers amongst them.”
Be however in little pain for your friend, who regards himself fufficiently to be cautious :-yet he afferts with confidence, that no improvement can be expected, whilft the natural foil is mistaken for a hot-bed, and the natives of the banks of Avon are scientifically choked with the culture of exoticks.
2 Mr. Seward, in his Preface to Beaumont and Fletcher, 10 Vols. 8vo. 1750.
Thus much for metaphor; it is contrary to the ftatute to fly out fo early: but who can tell, whether it may not be demonftrated by fome critick or other, that a deviation from rule is peculiarly happy in an Effay on Shakspeare!
You have long known my opinion concerning the literary acquifitions of our immortal dramatist; and remember how I congratulated myself on my coincidence with the laft and beft of his editors. I told you however, that his Small Latin and lefs Greek would still be litigated, and you fee.very affuredly that I was not mistaken. The trumpet hath been founded against "the darling project of representing Shakspeare as one of the illiterate vulgar;" and indeed to fo good purpofe, that I would by all means recommend the performer to the army of the braying faction, recorded by Cervantes. The teftimony of his contemporaries is again difputed; conftant tradition is oppofed by Alimfy arguments; and nothing is heard, but confufion and nonfenfe. One could fcarcely imagine this a topick very likely to inflame the paffions: it is afferted by Dryden, that " thofe who accufe him to have wanted learning, give him the greatest commendation;" yet an attack upon an article of faith hath been usually received with more temper and complacence, than the unfortunate opinion, which I am about to defend.
But let us previously lament with every lover of Shakspeare, that the queftion was not fully difcuffed
3 This paffage of Ben Jonfon, so often quoted, is given us in the admirable preface to the late edition, with a various reading, "fmall Latin and no Greek," which hath been held up to the publick for a modern fophiftication: yet whether an error or not, it was adopted above a century ago by W. Towers, in a panegyrick on Cartwright. His eulogy, with more than fifty others, on this now forgotten poet, was prefixed to the edit. 1651.
by Mr. Johnson himself: what he fees intuitively, others must arrive at by a series of proofs; and I have not time to teach with precifion: be contented therefore with a few curfory obfervations, as they may happen to arise from the chaos of papers, you have fo often laughed at, "a ftock fufficient to fet up an editor in form." I am convinced of the ftrength of my caufe, and fuperior to any little advantage from fophiftical arrangements.
General pofitions without proofs will probably have no great weight on either fide, yet it may not feem fair to fupprefs them: take them therefore as their authors occur to me, and we will afterward proceed to particulars.
The teftimony of Ben. ftands foremost; and fome have held it fufficient to decide the controverfy: in the warmeft panegyrick, that ever was written, he apologizes for what be supposed the only defect in his " beloved friend,
Soul of the age!
Th' applaufe! delight! the wonder of our stage!—'
whose memory he honoured almost to idolatry :" and confcious of the worth of ancient literature, like any other man on the fame occafion, he rather carries his acquirements above, than below the truth. "Jealoufy!" cries Mr. Upton; " people will allow others any qualities, but thofe upon which they highly value themselves." Yes, where there is a. competition, and the competitor formidable: but, I think, this critick himself hath scarcely fet in oppofition the learning of Shakspeare and Jonfon. When a fuperiority is univerfally granted, it by no means appears a man's literary intereft to deprefs the reputation of his antagonist.
4" Though thou hadft Small Latin," &c.
In truth the received opinion of the pride and malignity of Jonfon, at least in the earlier part of life, is abfolutely groundless: at this time scarce a play or a poem appeared without Ben's encomium, from the original Shakspeare to the tranflator of Du Bartas.
But Jonfon is by no means our only authority. Drayton the countryman and acquaintance of Shakspeare, determines his excellence to the naturall braine only. Digges, a wit of the town before our poet left the ftage, is very strong to the purpose,
-Nature only helpt him, for looke thorow
Suckling oppofed his easier ftrain to the sweat of the learned fonfon. Denham affures us, that all he had was from old mother-wit. His native woodnotes wild, every one remembers to be celebrated by Milton. Dryden obferves prettily enough, that "he wanted not the fpectacles of books to read nature." He came out of her hand, as fome one elfe expreffes it, like Pallas out of Jove's head, at full growth and mature.
The ever memorable Hales of Eton, (who, notwithstanding his epithet, is, I fear, almost forgotten,) had too great a knowledge both of Shakspeare and the ancients to allow much acquaintance between them: and urged very juftly on the part of genius
5 In his Elegie on Poets and Poefie, p. 206. Folio, 1627.
6 From his Poem upon Mafter William Shakspeare, intended to have been prefixed, with the other of his compofition, to the folio of 1623 and afterward printed in feveral miscellaneous collections: particularly the fpurious edition of Shakspeare's Poems, 1640. Some account of him may be met with in Wood's Athena.