« AnteriorContinuar »
any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity, nor gratify malignity; but are read without any other reafon than the defire of pleafure, and are therefore praised only as pleafure is obtained; yet, thus unaffifted by intereft or paffion, they have paft through variations of tafte and changes of manners, and, as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every tranfmiffion.
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 juft reprefentations 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 awhile, by that novelty of which the common fatiety of life fends us all in queft; the pleafurés of fudden wonder are foon exhaufted, and the mind can only repofe on the ftability of truth.
Shakspeare is above all writers, at leaft 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, unpractifed by the reft of the world; by the peculiarities of ftudies or profeffions, which can operate but upon fmall 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 fupply, and obfervation will
always find. His perfons act and speak by the influence of thofe general paffions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole fyftem of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in thofe of Shakspeare it is commonly a fpecies.
It is from this wide extenfion of defign that fo much inftruction is derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shakspeare with practical axioms and domeftick wisdom. It was faid of Euripides, that every verfe was a precept; and it may be faid of Shakspeare, that from his works may be collected a fyftem of civil and economical prudence. Yet his real power is not fhown in the fplendor of particular paffages, but by the progrefs of his fable, and the tenor of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by felect quotations, will fucceed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his houfe to fale, carried a brick in his pocket as a Specimen.
It will not eafily be imagined how much Shakfpeare excels in accommodating his fentiments 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 ftudent difqualified for the world, because he found nothing there which he fhould ever meet in any other place. The fame remark may be applied to every ftage but that of Shakfpeare. The theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peopled by fuch characters as were never seen, converfing in a language which was never heard, upon topicks which will never arife 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 fo
much ease and fimplicity, that it feems fcarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent felection out of common converfation, and common occurrences.
Upon every other ftage the univerfal agent is love, by whofe power all good and evil is diftributed, and every action quickened or retarded. To bring a lover, a lady, and a rival into the fable; to entangle them in contradictory obligations, perplex them with oppofitions of intereft, and harrass them with violence of defires inconfiftent with each other; to make them meet in rapture, and part in agony; to fill their mouths with hyperbolical joy and outrageous forrow; to diftrefs them as nothing human ever was diftreffed; to deliver them as nothing human ever was delivered, is the bufinefs of a modern dramatift. For this, probability is violated, life is mifreprefented, and language is depraved. But love is only one of many paffions, and as it has no great influence upon the fum of life, 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 paffion, as it was regular or exorbitant, was a cause of happiness or calamity.
Characters thus ample and general were not eafily difcriminated and preferved, yet perhaps no poet ever kept his perfonages more diftinct from each other. I will not fay with Pope, that every fpeech may be affigned to the proper fpeaker, because many speeches there are which have nothing characteristical; but, perhaps, though fome may be equally adapted to every perfon, it will be difficult to find any that can be properly transferred from
the prefent poffeffor to another claimant. The
choice is right, when there is reafon for choice.
Other dramatifts 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 fhould form his expectation of human affairs from the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakspeare has no heroes; his fcenes are occupied only by men, who act and fpeak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the fame occafion: eyen where the agency is fuper-natural, the dialogue is level with life. Other writers difguise the most natural paffions and moft frequent incidents; fo 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 poffible, its effects would probably be fuch as he has af figned; and it may be faid, that he has not only fhown human nature as it acts in real exigencies, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed.
This therefore is the praife of Shakspeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raife up before him, may here be cured of his delirious ecftafies, by reading human fentiments in human language; by fcenes from which a hermit may eftimate the tranfactions of the world, and a confeffor predict the progrefs of the paffions.
7 "Quærit quod nufquam eft gentium, reperit tamen, "Facit illud verifimile quod mendacium eft."
Plauti. Pfeudolus, A&t I. fc. iv. STEEVENS.
His adherence to general nature has expofed him to the cenfure of criticks, who form their judgments upon narrower principles. Dennis and Rymer think his Romans not fufficiently Roman; and Voltaire cenfures his kings as not completely royal. Dennis is offended, that Menenius à fenator of Rome, fhould play the buffoon; and Voltaire perhaps thinks decency violated when the Danish ufurper is represented as a drunkard. But Shakfpeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and if he preferves the effential character, is not very careful of diftinctions fuperinduced and adventitious. His ftory requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men. He knew that Rome, like every other city, had men of all difpofitions; and wanting a buffoon, he went into the fenatehouse for that which the fenate-house would certainly have afforded him. He was inclined to fhow an ufurper and a murderer not only odious, but defpicable; he therefore added drunkenness to his other qualities, knowing that kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural power upon kings. Thefe are the petty cavils of petty minds; a poet overlooks the cafual diftinction of country and condition, as a painter, fatisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.
The cenfure which he has incurred by mixing comick and tragick fcenes, as it extends to all his works, deferves more confideration. Let the fact be first stated, and then examined.
Shakspeare's plays are not in the rigorous and critical fenfe either tragedies or comedies, but compofitions of a diftinct kind; exhibiting the real state of fublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and forrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of