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HOSE Dramas of Shakespear, which he distinguishes by the name of his Hiftories, being of an original kind and peculiar conftruction, cannot come within any rules, prior to their exiftence. The office of the Critic, in regard to Poetry, is like that of the Grammarian and Rhetorician in respect to Language: it is the bufiness of both to fhew why fuch and such modes of speech are proper and graceful, others improper and ungraceful: but they pronounce on fuch words and expreffions only, as are actually extant.
The rules of Ariftotle were drawn from D 4 the
the Tragedies of Æfchylus, Sophocles, &c. Had that great Critic seen a play so fashioned on the chronicles of his country, thus reprefentative of the manners of the times, and of the characters of the most illustrious perfons concerned in a series of important events, perhaps he would have esteemed fuch a fort of Drama well worth his attention, as very peculiarly adapted to those ends, which the Grecian Philofophers propofed in popular entertainments. If it be the chief use of History, to teach Philosophy by Example, this fpecies of Hiftory must be allowed to be the best preceptor. The cataftrophe of these plays is not built on a vain and idle fable of the wrath of Juno, or of the revenge of flighted Bacchus; nor is a man reprefented entangled in the web of Fate, from which his Virtues and his Deities cannot extricate him: but here we are admonished to obferve the effects of pride and ambition, the Tyrant's dangers and the Traitor's fate. The fentiments and the manners, the paffions and their confequences, are fully fet before you; the
force and luftre of poetical language join with the weight and authority of history, to imprefs the moral leffon on the heart. The Poet collects, as it were, into a focus those truths, which lie fcattered in the diffufe volume of the Hiftorian, and kindles the flame of virtue, while he shews the miferies and calamities of vice.
The common interests of humanity make us attentive to every story that has an air of reality, but we are more affected if we know it to be true; and the intereft is ftill heightened if we have any relation to the perfons concerned. Our noble countryman, Percy, engages us much more than Achilles, or any Grecian hero. The people, for whose use these public entertainments should be chiefly intended, know the battle of Shrewsbury to be a Fact: they are informed of what paffed on the banks of the Severn; all that happened on the shore of the Scamander has, to them, the appearance of a fiction.
As the misfortunes of nations, like thofe of individuals, often arife from their peculiar difpofitions, cuftoms, prejudices, and vices, these home-born Dramas are excellently calculated to correct them. The Grecian tragedies are fo much founded on their mythology as to be very improper on our ftage. The paffion of Phædra and the death of Hippolytus, occafioned by the interpofition of Venus and Neptune, wear the apparent marks of fiction; and when we cease to believe, we ceafe to be affected.
The nature of the Historical Play gave scope to the extenfive talents of Shakespear. He had an uncommon felicity in painting Manners, and developing Characters, which he could employ with peculiar grace and propriety, when he exhibited the Chiefs in our civil wars. The great Earl of Warwick, Cardinal Beaufort, Humphrey Duke of Gloucefter, the renowned Hotfpur, were very interesting objects to their countrymen. Whatever fhewed them in a strong light, and
and represented them with fentiments and manners agreeable to their hiftorical characters; and to thofe things, which common fame had divulged of them, must have engaged the attention of the spectator, and affifted in that delufion of his Imagination, from whence his fympathy with the story muft arife. We are affected by the catastrophe of a Stranger, we lament the destiny of an dipus, and the misfortunes of an Hecuba; but the little peculiarities of a character touch us only where we have some nearer affinity to the person, than the common relation of humanity: nor, unless we are particularly acquainted with the original character, can these distinguishing marks have the merit of heightening the refemblance, and animating the portrait.
We are apt to confider Shakespear only as a Poet; but he is certainly one of the greatest moral Philofophers that ever lived.