« PreviousContinue »
The force of his comick scenes has fuffered little diminution from the changes made by a century and a half, in manners or in words. As his perfonages act upon principles arifing from genuine paffion, very little modified by particular forms, their pleasures and vexations are communicable to all times and to all places; they are natural, and therefore durable; the adventitious peculiarities of perfonal habits, are only fuperficial dies, bright and pleafing for a little while, yet foon fading to a dim tinct, without any remains of former luftre; and the difcrimination of true paffion are the colours of nature; they pervade the whole mafs, and can only perish with the body that exhibits them. The accidental compofitions of heterogeneous modes are diffolved by the chance that combined them; but the uniform fimplicity of primitive qualities neither admits increafe, nor fuffers decay. The fand heaped by one flood is fcattered by another, but the rock always continues in its place. The ftream of time, which is continually wafhing the diffoluble fabricks of other poets, passes without injury by the adamant of Shakspeare.
If there be, what I believe there is, in every nation, a ftyle which never becomes obfolete, a certain mode of phrafeology fo confonant and congenial to the analogy and principles of its respective language, as to remain fettled and unaltered: this ftyle is probably to be fought in the common intercourfe of life, among those who speak only to be understood, without ambition of elegance.
fore, I think the opinion, which I am forry to perceive gains ground, that Shakspeare's chief and predominant talent lay in comedy, tends to leffen the unrivalled excellence of our divine bard. J. WARTON.
See Vol. XIX. p. 529, for Philips's remark on this fubject.
The polite are always catching modifh innovations, and the learned depart from established forms of fpeech, in hope of finding or making better; those who wifh for diftinction forfake the vulgar, when the vulgar is right; but there is a converfation above groffness and below refinement, where propriety refides, and where this poet seems to have gathered his comick dialogue. He is therefore more agreeable to the ears of the prefent age than any other author equally remote, and among his other excellencies deferves to be ftudied as one of the original masters of our language.
Thefe obfervations are to be confidered not as unexceptionably conftant, but as containing general and predominant truth. Shakspeare's familiar dialogue is affirmed to be fmooth and clear, yet not wholly without ruggedness or difficulty; as à country may be eminently fruitful, though it has fpots unfit for cultivation: his characters are praised as natural, though their fentiments are fometimes forced, and their actions improbable; as the earth upon the whole is spherical, though its furface is varied with protuberances and cavities.
Shakspeare with his excellencies has likewise faults, and faults fufficient to obfcure and overwhelm any other merit. I fhall fhow them in the proportion in which they appear to me, without envious malignity or fuperftitious veneration. No queftion can be more innocently difcuffed than a dead poet's pretenfions to renown; and little regard is due to that bigotry which fets candour higher than truth.
His firft defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He facrifices virtue to convenience, and is fo much more careful to please than to inftruct, that he feems to write
without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system of focial duty may be selected, 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 fhow in the virtuous a difapprobation 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 seems 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 most 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 pastoral with the feudal times, the days of innocence, quiet, and security, with those of turbulence, violence, and adventure.2
In his comick scenes he is feldom very fuccefsful, when he engages his characters in reciprocations of fmartness and contefts of farcafm; their jefts are commonly grofs, and their pleasantry licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are fufficiently diftinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners. Whether he reprefented 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 tranflators. 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:
“ ̓Εν Σιπύλω, ὅθι φασὶ θεάων ἔμμεναι εὐγὰς “ NUMPAΩN, αἶτ ̓ ἀμφ' Αχελώϊον ἐρρώσαντο." But Chapman translates
"In Sypilus-in that place where 'tis faid
"The goddeffe Fairies use 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 inftruments 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 :
the time will come that Totnam French fhal turn." And in the tenth Book we hear of "The Baftile," "Lemfter Wooll," and "The Byble." STEEvens.
his time is not eafy to determine; the reign of Elizabeth is commonly fuppofed to have been a time of ftateliness, formality, and referye, 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 ftriking 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 progress of the action; it should therefore always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakspeare found it an incumbrance, and inftead 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