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tinually washing the dissoluble fabrics of other poets, passes without injury by the adamant of Shakspeare.
If there be, what I believe there is, in every nation, a style which never becomes obsolete, a certain mode of phraseology so consonant and congenial to the analogy and principles of its respective language, as to remain settled and unaltered; this style is probably to be sought in the common intercourse of life ; among those who speak only to be understood, without ambition of elegance. The polite are always catching modish innovations, and the learned depart from established forms of speech, in hope of finding or making better : those who wish for distinction forsake the vulgar, when the vulgar is right : but there is a conversation above grossness and below refinement, where propriety resides, and where this poet seems to have gathered his comic dialogue. He is therefore more agreeable to the ears of the present age than any other author equally remote ; and among his other excellences deserves to be studied as one of the original masters of our language.
These observations are to be considered not as unexceptionably constant, but as containing general and predominant truth. Shakspeare's familiar dialogue is affirmed to be smooth and clear, yet not wholly without ruggedness or difficulty; as a country may be eminently fruitful, though it has spots unfit for cultivation : his characters are praised as natural, though their sentiments are sometimes forced, and their actions im. probable; as the earth on the whole is spherical, though its surface is varied with protuberances and cavities.
Shakspeare with his excellences has likewise faults, and faults sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any other merit. I shall show them in the proportion in which they appear to me, without envious malignity or superstitious veneration. No question can be more innocently discussed than a dead poet's pretensions to renown; and little regard is due to that bigotry which sets candor higher than truth.
His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men : he sacrifices virtue to conve. qience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for be that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to show in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked : he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without farther care, and leaves their ex. amples 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 justice is a virtue independent on time or place.
The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration may improve them; and so carelessly pursueu,. that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design. He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting, which the train of his story seems to force on him; and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the sake 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, be shortened the labor to snatch the profit. He therefore remits bis efforts where he should most vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly represented.
He had no regard to distinction of time or place, but gives to one age or nation, without scruple, the customs, institutions, and opinions of another, at the expense, not only of likelihood, but of possibility. These faults Pope has endeavored, with more zeal than judgment, to transfer to his imagined interpolators. We need not wonder to find Hector quoting Aristotle, when we see the loves of Theseus and Hippolyta combined with the Gothic mythology of fairies.
Shakspeare, indeed, was not the only violator of chronology; for in the same 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.
In his comic scenes he is seldom very successful, when he engages his characters in reciprocations of smartness and contests of sarcasm ; their jests are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licentious ; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are sufficiently distinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners. Whether he represented the real conversation of his time is not easy to determine : the reign of Elizabeth is commonly supposed to have been a time of stateliness, formality, and reserve, yet perhaps the relaxations of that severity were not very elegant. • There must, however, have been always some modes of gaiety preferable to others, and a writer ought to choose the best.
In tragedy bis performance seems constantly to be worse, as bis labor is more. The effusions of passion, which exigence forces out, are for the most part striking and energetic; but whenever he solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumor, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity.
In narration be affects a disproportionate pomp of diction, and a wearisome train of circumlocution; and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few. Narration in dramatic poetry is naturally tedious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obstructs the progress of the action; it should therefore always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakspeare found it an encumbrance, and instead of lightening it by brevity, endeavored to recommend it by dignity and splendor.
His declamations or set speeches are commonly ccld and weak, for his power was the power of nature : when he endeavored, like other tragic writers, to catch opportunities ut umplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion de. manded, to show how much his stores of knowlege could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.
It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an onwieldy sentiment, wbich he cannot well express, and will not reject: he struggles with it awhile, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and evolved by those who have moro leisure to bestow on it.
Not that always where the language is intricate the thought is subtile, or the image always great where the line is bulky : the equality of words to things is very often neglected, and trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by sonorous epithets and swelling figures.
But the admirers of this great poet have never less reason to indulge their hopes of supreme excellence, than when he seems fully resolved to sink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. What he does best, he soon ceases to do. He is not long soft and pathetic without some idle conceit or contemptible equirocation. He no sooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself; ana terror and pity, as they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.
A quibhle is to Shakspeare, what luminous vapors are to the traveller : he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of the way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascina. tions are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisitions, whether he be enlarging knowlege or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with in. cidents, or enchanting it ir suspense, let but a quilole spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety, and truth. A quibble was to bim the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.
It will be thought strange, that, in enumerating the defecta of this writer, I have not yet mentioned his neglect of the unities; bis violation of those laws which have been insti. tuted and established by the joint authority of pcets and of critics.
For his other deviations from the art of writing, I resign him to critical justice, without making any other demand in his favor, than that which must be indulged to all human excellence ; that his virtues be rated with his failings : but, from the censure which this irregularity may bring on him, I shall, with due reverence to that learning which I must oppose, adventure to try how I can defend him.
His histories, being neither tragedies nor comedies, are not subject to any of their laws : nothing more is necessary to all the praise which they expect, than that the changes of action be so prepared as to be understood, that the incidents be various and affecting, and the characters consistent, natural, and distinct. No other unity is intended, and therefore none is to be sought.
In bis other works he has well enough preserved the unity of action. He has not, indeed, an intrigue, regularly perplexed and regularly unravelled; he does not endeavor to hide his design only to discover it, for this is seldom tho order of real events, and Shakspeare is the poet of nature : but his plan has commonly what Aristotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; one event is concatenated with another, and the conclusion follows by easy consequence. There are perhaps some incidents that might be spared, ils ia