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The reverence due to writings that have long
of whose works I have undertaken the
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 excellence Shakspeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.
Nothing can please many and please long, but just representations 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 a while, by that novelty of which the conimon fatiety of life sends us»all in quest; the pleafures of sudden wonder are foon exhaufted, and the mind can only repose on the flability of truth.
Shakspeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and' of life.
His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world ; by the particularities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of tranfient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity; fuch as the world will always supply, and obfervation will always find. His perfons act and speak by the influence 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 instruction is derived. It is this which fills
the plays of Shakspeare with practical axioms and domestic wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that every verse was a precept; and it may be faid 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 Hierocles, 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 fame 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 fo evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent fele&tion out of common cunverlation, and common occurrences.
Upon every other flage the universal agent is love, by whose power all good and evil is distri
buted, and every action quickened or retarded, To bring a lover, a lady, and a rival into the fable; to entangle them in contradiĉory'obligations, perplex them with oppositions of interest -and harrass them with violence of desires inconsistent with each other; to make them meet in rapture, and part in agony; to fill their mouths with hyperbolical joy and outrageous forrow; 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 Jife, 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 exorbi: tant, 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 mcre diftinct 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 characteristical; 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 diguise the most natural passions 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 possible, its effects would probably be such as he has afsigned; and it may be faid, 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 transa&tions of the world, and a confeffor predict the progress of the passions.
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