« PreviousContinue »
your fhillings worth, your five fhillings worth at a time, or higher, fo you rife to the juft rates, and welcome. But, whatever you doe, buy. Cenfure will not drive a trade, or make the jacke goe. And though you be a magiftrate of wit, and fit on the ftage at Black-friars, or the Cockpit, to arraigne plays dailie, know, these playes have had their triall already, and ftood out all appeales; and do now come forth quitted rather by a decree of court, than any purchased letters of commendation.
It had bene a thing, we confeffe, worthie to have been wished, that the author himselfe had lived to have fet forth, and overseen his owne writings; but fince it hath been ordained otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envie his friends the office of their care and paine, to have collected and published them; and so to have published them, as where (before) you were abused with divers ftolne and furreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious impofters, that expofed them, even thofe are now offered to your view cured, and perfect of their limbes; and all the reft, abfolute in their numbers as he conceived them: who, as he was a happy imitator of nature, was a moft gentle expreffer of it. His mind and hand went together; and what he thought, he uttered with that eafineffe, that wee have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.9 But it is not our province, who onely gather his workes, and give them you, to praife him. It is yours that reade him. And there we hope, to your divers capacities, you will finde enough, both to draw, and hold you: for his wit can no more lie hid,
8 as where-] i. e. whereas. MALONE.
then it could be loft. Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe: and if then you doe not like him, furely you are in fome manifeft danger, not to understand him. And fo we leave you to other of his friends, who, if you need, can bee your guides: if you neede them not, you can leade yourselves, and others. And fuch readers we with him.
IT is not my defign to enter into a criticifin upon
this author; though to do it effectually, and not fuperficially, would be the beft occafion that any juft writer could take, to form the judgment and tafte of our nation. For of all English poets Shakspeare muft be confeffed to be the faireft and fulleft fubject for criticifm, and to afford the most numerous, as well as moft confpicuous inftances, both of beauties and faults of all forts. But this far exceeds the bounds of a preface, the bufinefs of which is only to give an account of the fate of his works, and the disadvantages under which they have been transmitted to us. We shall hereby ex
tenuate many faults which are his, and clear him from the imputation of many which are not: a defign, which, though it can be no guide to future criticks to do him juftice in one way, will at least be fufficient to prevent their doing him an injuftice. in the other.
I cannot however but mention some of his principal and characteristick excellencies, for which (notwithstanding his defects) he is juftly and univerfally elevated above all other dramatick writers. Not that this is the proper place of praising him, but because I would not omit any occafion of doing it.
If ever any author deserved the name of an original, it was Shakspeare. Homer himself drew not his art fo immediately from the fountains of nature, it proceeded through Ægyptian ftrainers and channels, and came to him not without fome tincture of the learning, or fome caft of the models, of those before him. The poetry of Shakspeare was inspiration indeed: he is not fo much an imitator, as an inftrument, of nature; and it is not fo just to say that he speaks from her, as that she speaks through him.
His characters are fo much nature herself, that it is a fort of injury to call them by so distant a name as copies of her. Thofe of other poets have a conftant resemblance, which shows that they received them from one another, and were but multipliers of the fame image: each picture, like a mockrainbow, is but the reflection of a reflection. But every single character in Shakspeare is as much an individual, as thofe in life itfelf: it is as impoffible to find any two alike; and fuch as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be twins, will, upon comparison, be found remarkably
diftinct. To this life and variety of character, we must add the wonderful prefervation of it; which is fuch throughout his plays, that had all the fpeeches been printed without the very names of the perfons, I believe one might have applied them with certainty to every speaker."
The power over our pafsions was never poffeffed in a more eminent degree, or displayed in so different inftances. Yet all along, there is feen no labour, no pains to raise them; no preparation to guide or guefs to the effect, or be perceived to lead toward it but the heart fwells, and the tears burst out, juft at the proper places: we are furprifed the moment we weep; and yet upon reflection find the paffion fo juft, that we fhould be furprised if we had not wept, and wept at that very
How aftonishing is it again, that the paffions directly oppofite to thefe, laughter and spleen, are no lefs at his command! that he is not more a mafter of the great than of the ridiculous in human nature; of our nobleft tenderneffes, than of our vaineft foibles; of our ftrongest emotions, than of our idleft fenfations!
Nor does he only excel in the paffions: in the coolness of reflection and reasoning he is full as admirable. His fentiments are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious upon every fubject; but by a talent very peculiar, fomething between penetration and felicity, he hits upon that particular point on which the bent of each argu
Addifon, in the 273d Spectator, has delivered a fimilar opinion refpecting Homer: "There is fcarce a speech or action in the Iliad, which the reader may not ascribe to the person who Speaks or acts, without feeing his name at the head of it."
ment turns, or the force of each motive depends. This is perfectly amazing, from a man of no education or experience in thofe great and publick scenes of life which are ufually the fubject of his thoughts: so that he seems to have known the world by intuition, to have looked through human nature at one glance, and to be the only author that gives ground for a very new opinion, that the philofopher, and even the man of the world, may be born, as well as the poet.
It must be owned, that with all these great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, fo he has perhaps written worse, than any other. But I think I can in fome measure account for these defects, from feveral caufes and accidents; without which it is hard to imagine that fo large and fo enlightened a mind could ever have been fufceptible of them. That all these contingencies fhould unite to his disadvantage feems to me almoft as fingularly unlucky, as that fo many various (nay contrary) talents should meet in one man, was happy and extraordinary.
It must be allowed that ftage-poetry, of all other, is more particularly levelled to please the populace, and its fuccefs more immediately depending upon the common fuffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakspeare, having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a fubfiftence, directed his endeavours folely to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed. The audience was generally compofed of the meaner fort of people; and therefore the images of life were to be drawn from thofe of their own rank: accordingly we find, that not our author's only, but almost all the old comedies have their scene among