« VorigeDoorgaan »
and many rivers; so in the productions of genius, nothing can be styled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind. Demonstration immediately displays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is discovered in a long succession of endeavours. Of the first building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined that it was round or square ; but whether it was spacious or lofty must have been referred to time. The Pythagorean scale of numbers was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to transcend the common limits of duman intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than transpose his incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.
The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wis. dom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubi. table positions, that what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.
The poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of an established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century,* the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from personal allusions, local customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years been lost; and every topick of merriment or motive of sorrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obscure the scenes which they once illuminated. The effects of favour and competition are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and his enmities has perished; his works support no opinion with arguments, nor supply any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity, nor gratify malignity; but are read without any other reason than the desire of pleasure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained; yet, thus unassisted by interest or passion, they have past through variations of taste and changes of manners, and, as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every transmission.
But because human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion; it is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of excel. lence Shakspeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.
Nothing can please many, and please long, but just represen
*“Est vetus atque probus, centum qui perficit annos.” Hor.
tations of general nature. Particular manners can be known to few, and therefore few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile, by that novelty of wbich the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.
Shakspeare is above all writers, at least above all modern wri. ters, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not mo. dified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine pro. geny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and coservation will always find. His persons act and speak by the intiuence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakspeare it is commonly a species.
It is from this wide extension of design that so much instruc. tion is derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shakspeare with practical axioms and domestick wisdom. It was said of Euri. pides, that every verse was a precept; and it may be said of Shakspeare, that from his works may be collected a system of civil and economical prudence. Yet his real power is not shown in the splendor of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and the tenor of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocies, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.
It will not easily be imagined how much Shakspeare excels in accommodating his sentiments to real life, but by comparing him with other authors. It was observed of the ancient schools of declamation, that the more diligently they were frequented, the more was the student disqualified for the world, because he found nothing there which he should ever meet in any other place. The same remark may be applied to every stage but that of Shakspeare. The theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peopled by such characters as were never seen, conversing in a language which was never heard, upon topicks which will never arise in the commerce of mankind. But the dialogue of this author is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim thé merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common occurrences.
Upon every other stage the universal agent is love, by whose power all good and evil is distributed, and every action quickened or retarded. To bring a lover, a lady, and a rival into the fable; to entangle them in contradictory obligations, perplex them
with oppositions of interest, and harrass them with violence of desires inconsistent with each other; to make them meet in rap. ture, and part in agony; to fill their mouths with hyperbolical joy and outrageous sorrow; to distress them as nothing human ever was distressed; to deliver them as nothing human ever was delivered, is the business of a modern dramatist. For this, probability is violated, life is misrepresented, and language is depraved. But love is only one of many passions, and as it has no great influence upon the sum of life, it has little operation in the dramas of a poet who caught his ideas from the living world, and exhibited only what he saw before him. He knew, that any other passion, as it was regular or exorbitant, was a cause of happiness or calamity.
Characters thus ample and general were not easily discriminated and preserved, yet perhaps no poet ever kept his personages more distinct from each other. I will not say with Pope, that every speech may be assigned to the proper speaker, because many speeches there are which have nothing characteris. tical; but, perhaps, though some may be equally adapted to every person, it will be difficult to find any that can be properly transferred from the present possessor to another claimant. The choice is right, when there is reason for choice.
Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous and unexampled excellence or depravity, as the writers of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a giant and a dwarf; and he that should form his expectations of human affairs from the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakspeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion: even where the agency is super-natural, the dialogue is level with life. Other writers disguise the most natural pas. sions and most frequent incidents; so that he who contemplates them in the book will not know them in the world: Shakspeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were pos, sible, its effects would probably be such as he has assigned ;* and it may be said, that he has not only shewn human nature as it acts in real exigences, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed.
This therefore is the praise of Shakspeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies, by reading human sentiments in human language; by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.
*“Quærit quod nusquam est gentium, reperit tamen,
Plauti. Pseudolus, Act I, sc. iv. Steevens.
His adherence to general nature has exposed him to the censure of criticks, who form their judgments upon narrower principles. Dennis and Rymer think his Romans not sufficiently Roman; and Voltaire censures his kings as not completely royal, Dennis is offended, that Menenius, a senator of Rome, should play the buffoon; and Voltaire perhaps thinks decency violated when the Danish usurper is represented as a drunkard. But'. Shakspeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preserves the essential character, is not very careful of distinctions superinduced and adventitious. His story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men. He knew that Rome, like every other city, had men of all dispositions; and wanting a buffoon, he went into the senate-house for that which the senate-house would certainly have afforded him. He was in. clined to shew an usurper and a murderer not only odious, but despicable; he therefore added drunkenness to his other qualities, knowing that kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural power upon kings. These are the petty cavils of petty minds; a poet overlooks the casual distinction of country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.
The censure which he has incurred by mixing comick and tragick scenes, as it extends to all his works, deserves more consideration. Let the fact be first stated, and then examined.
Shakspeare's plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.
Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and casualties, the ancient poets, according to the laws which custom had prescribed, selected some the crimes of men, and some their ab. surdities: some the momentous vicissitudes of life, and some the lighter occurrences; some the terrors of distress, and some the gayeties of prosperity. Thus rose the two modes of imitation, known by the names of tragedy and comedy, compositions intended to promote different ends by contrary means, and considered as so little allied, that I do not recollect among the Greeks or Romans a single writer who attempted both.*
* From this remark it appears, that Dr. Johnson was unacquainted with the Cyclops of Euripides.
It may, however, be observed, that Dr. Johnson, perhaps, was misied by the following passage in Dryden's Essay on Dramatick Poesy: “Tragedies and Comedies were not writ then as
Shakspeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in one composition. Almost all
they are now, promiscuously, by the same person; but he who found his genius bending to the one, never attempted the other way. This is so plain, that I need not instance to you that Aristophanes, Plautus, Terence, never any of them writ a tragedy: Æschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and Seneca, never meddled with comedy: the sock and buskin were not worn by the same poet." And yet, to show the uncertain state of Dryden's memory, in his Dedication to his Juvenal he has expended at least a page in describing the Cyclops of Euripides.
So intimately connected with this subject are the following remarks of Mr. Twining in his excellent commentary on the Poetick of Aristotle, that they ought not to be withheld from our readers.
The prejudiced admirers of the ancients are very angry at the least insinuation that they had any idea of our barbarous tragi-comedy. But, after all, it cannot be dissembled, that, if they had not the name, they had the thing, or something very nearly approaching to it. If that be tragi-comedy, which is partly serious and partly comical, I do not know why we should scruple to say, that the Alcestis of Euripides is, to all intents and purposes, a tragi-comedy. I have not the least doubt, that it had upon an Athenian audience the proper effect of tragi-comedy; that is, that in some places it would make them cry, and in others, laugh. And the best thing we have to hope, for the credit of Euripides, is, that he intended to produce this effect. For though he may be an unskilful poet, who purposes to write a tragi-comedy, he surely is a more unskilful poet, who writes one without knowing it.
“ The learned reader will understand me to allude particularly to the scene, in which the domestick describes the behaviour of Hercules; and to the speech of Hercules himself, which follows. Nothing can well be of a more comick cast that the servant's complaint. He describes the hero as the most greedy and ill-natured guest he had ever attended, under his master's hos. pitable roof; calling about him, eating, drinking, and singing, in a room by himself, while the master and all the family were in the height of funeral lamentation. He was not contented with such refreshments as had been set before him:
ότι σωφρονως εδεξατο Τα προστυχοντα ξενια
Αγγ' ει τι μη φεροιμεν, ΩΤΡΥΝΕΝ φερειυ. Then he drinks
• Εως εθερμην' αυτον αμφιβασα φλοξ
-crowns himself with myrtle, and sings, AMOTE' TA AKTIN ---and all this, alone. Cette description,' says Fontenelle, est