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other demand in his favour, than that which must be indulged to all human excellence; that his virtues be rated with his failings: But, from the cenfure which this irregularity may bring upon him, I fhall, with due reverence to that learning which I muft oppofe, adventure to try how I can defend him.
His hiftories, being neither tragedies nor comedies, are not fubject to any of their laws; nothing more is neceffary to all the praife which they expect, than that the changes of action be fo prepared as to be understood, that the incidents be various and affecting, and the characters confiftent, natural and diftin&t. No other unity is intended, and therefore none is to be fought,
In his other works he has well enough preferved the unity of action. He has not, indeed, an intrigue regularly perplexed and regularly unravelled; he does not endeavour to hide his defign only to difcover it, for this is feldom the order of real events, and ShakeSpeare is the poet of nature: But his plan has commonly what Ariftotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; one event is concatenated with another, and the conclufion follows by eafy confequence. There are perhaps fome incidents that might be fpared, as in other poets there is much talk that only fills up time upon the ftage; but the general fyftem makes gradual advances, and the end of the play is the end of expectation.
To the unities of time and place he has fhewn no regard, and perhaps a nearer view of the principles on which they ftand will diminish their value, and withdraw from them the veneration which, from the time of Corneille, they have very generally received, by discovering that they have given more trouble to than pleasure to the auditor.
The neceffity of obferving the unities of time and place arifes from the fuppofed neceffity of making the drama credible. The criticks hold it impoffible, that an action of months or years can be poffibly believed to pass in three hours; or that the spectator can fup pofe himself to fit in the theatre, while ambaffadors go and return between diftant kings, while armies are levied and towns befieged, while an exile wanders and returns, or till he whom they faw courting his miftrefs, fhall lament the untimely fall of his fon. The mind revolts from evident falfehood, and fiction lofes its force when it departs from the refemblance of reality.
From the narrow limitation of time neceffarily arifes the contraction of place.
The fpectator, who knows that he faw the first act at Alexandria, cannot fuppofe that he fees the next at Rome, at a diftance to which not the dragons of Medea could, in so short a time, have tranfported him; he knows with certainty that he has not changed his place; and he knows that place cannot change itfelf; that what was
a houfe cannot become a plain; that what was Thebes can never be Perfepolis.
Such is the triumphant language with which a critick exults over the mifery of an irregular poet, and exults commonly without refiftance or reply, It is time therefore to tell him, by the authority of Shakefpeare, that he affumes, as an unquestionable principle, a pofition, which, while his breath is forming it into words, his understanding pronounces to be false. It is falfe, that any reprefentation is mistaken for reality; that any dramatick fable in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a single moment, was ever credited.
The objection arifing from the impoffibility of paffing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, fuppofes, that when the play opens the spectator really imagines himself at Alexandria, and believes that his walk to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt, and that he lives in the days of Antony and Cleopatra. Surely he that imagines this may imagine more. He that can take the stage at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Allium. Delufion, if delufion be admitted, has no certain limitation, if the spectator can be once perfuaded, that his old acquaintance are Alexander and Cæfar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharfalia, or the bank of Granicus, he is in a ftate of elevation above the reach of rea
fon, or of truth, and from the heights of empyrean
The truth is, that the fpectators are always in their
By fuppofition, as place is introduced, time may
neither in Rome nor Pontus; that neither Mithridates nor Lucullus are before us. The drama exhibits fuc-. ceffive imitations of fucceffive actions, and why may not the fecond imitation reprefent an action that happened years after the firft, if it be fo connected with it, that nothing but time can be fuppofed to intervene. Time is, of all modes of exiftence, moft obfequious to the imagination; a lapfe of years is as eafily conceived as a paffage of hours. In contemplation we easily contract the time of real actions, and therefore willingly permit it to be contracted when we only fee their imitation.
It will be afked, how the drama moves, if it is not credited. It is credited with all the credit due to a drama. It is credited, whenever it moves, as a just picture of a real original; as reprefenting to the auditor what he would himself feel, if he were to do or fuffer what is there feigned to be fuffered or to be done. The reflection that ftrikes the heart is not, that the evils before us are real evils, but that they are evils to which we ourselves may be expofed. If there be any fallacy, it is not that we fancy the players, but that we fancy ourselves unhappy for a moment; but we rather lament the poffibility than fuppofe the prefence of mifery, as a mother weeps over her babe, when the remembers that death may take it from her. The delight of tragedy proceeds from our confcioufnefs of fiction; if we thought murders and treafons real, they would pleafe no more. Ža