Imagens das páginas

Those whom my arguments cannot perfuade to give their approbation to the judgment of Shakespeare, will eafily, if they confider the condition of his life, make fome allowance for his ignorance.

Every man's performances, to be rightly estimated, must be compared with the state of the age in which he lived, and with his own particular opportunities; and though to the reader a book be not worse or better for the circumstances of the author, yet as there is always a filent reference of human works to human abilities, and as the enquiry, how far man may extend his defigns, or how high he may rate his native force, is of far greater dignity than in what rank we fhall place any particular performance, curiofity is always bufy to difcover the instruments, as well as to furvey the workmanship, to know how much is to be afcribed to original powers, and how much to cafual and adventitious help. The palaces of Peru or Mexico were certainly mean and incommodious habitations, if compared to the houfes of European monarchs; yet who could forbear to view them with astonishment, who remembered that they were built without the use of iron?

The English nation, in the time of Shakespeare, was yet ftruggling to emerge from barbarity. The philology of Italy had been tranfplanted hither in the reign of Henry the Eighth; and the learned languages had been fuccefsfully cultivated by Lilly, Linacer, and More; by Pole, Cheke, and Gardiner; and afterwards by Smith, Clerk, Haddon, and Afcham. Greek was now taught to boys in the principal schools; and those who united elegance with learning, read, with great diligence, the Italian and Spanish poets. But literature was yet confined to profeffed scholars, or to men and women of high rank. The publick was grofs and dark; and to be able to read and write, was an accomplishment ftill valued for its rarity.


Nations, like individuals, have their infancy. A people newly awakened to literary curiofity, being yet unacquainted with the true ftate of things, knows not how to judge of that which is propofed as its refemblance. Whatever is remote from common appearances is always welcome to vulgar, as to childifh credulity; and of a country unenlightened by learning, the whole people is the vulgar. The ftudy of those who then af pired to plebeian learning was laid out upon adventures, giants, dragons, and enchantments. The Death of Arthur was the favourite volume.

The mind, which has feafted on the luxurious wonders of fiction, has no tafte of the infipidity of truth. A play which imitated only the common occurrences of the world, would, upon the admirers of Palmerin and Guy of Warwick, have made little impreffion; he that wrote for fuch an audience was under the neceffity of looking round for strange events and fabulous tranfactions, and that incredibility, by which maturer knowledge is offended, was the chief recommendation of writings, to unskilful curiofity.

Our authour's plots are generally borrowed from novels, and it is reasonable to suppose, that he chofe the most popular, fuch as were read by many, and related by more; for his audience could not have followed him through the intricacies of the drama, had they not held the thread of the story in their hands.

The ftories, which we now find only in remoter authours, were in his time acceffible and familiar.

The fable of As you like it, which is fuppofed to be copied from Chaucer's Gamelyn, was a little pamphlet of thofe times; and old Mr. Cibber remembered the tale of Hamlet in plain English profe, which the criticks have now to feek in Saxo Grammaticus.

His English hiftories he took from English chronicles and Englifb ballads; and as the ancient writers were made known to his countrymen by verfions, they fup


plied him with new fubjects; he dilated fome of Plutarch's lives into plays, when they had been tranflated by North.

His plots, whether historical or fabulous, are always crouded with incidents, by which the attention of a rude people was more easily caught than by fentiment or argumentation; and fuch is the power of the marvellous, even over those who defpife it, that every man finds his mind more strongly seized by the tragedies of Shakespeare than of any other writer; others pleafe us by particular speeches, but he always makes us anxious for the event, and has perhaps excelled all but Homer in fecuring the first purpose of a writer, by exciting reftlefs and unquenchable curiofity, and compelling him that reads his work to read it through.

The shows and bustle with which his plays abound have the fame original. As knowledge advances, pleafure paffes from the eye to the ear, but returns, as it declines, from the ear to the eye. Those to whom our authour's labours were exhibited had more skill in pomps or proceffions than in poetical language, and perhaps wanted fome vifible and difcriminated events, as comments on the dialogue. He knew how he should most please; and whether his practice is more agreeable to nature, or whether his example has prejudiced the nation, we ftill find that on our ftage fomething muft be done as well as faid, and inactive declamation is very coldly heard, however mufical or elegant, paffionate or fublime.

Voltaire expreffes his wonder, that our authour's extravagancies are endured by a nation, which has feen the tragedy of Cato. Let him be anfwered, that Addifon fpeaks the language of poets, and Shakespeare, of men. We find in Cato innumerable beauties which enamour us of its authour, but we fee nothing that acquaints us with human fentiments or human actions; we place it with the fairest and the noblest progeny

which judgment propagates by conjunction with learning, but Othello is the vigorous and vivacious offspring of observation impregnated by genius. Cato affords a fplendid exhibition of artificial and fictitious manners, and delivers juft and noble sentiments, in diction easy, elevated and harmonious, but its hopes and fears communicate no vibration to the heart; the compofition refers us only to the writer; we pronounce the name of Cato, but we think on Addifon.

The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately formed and diligently planted, varied with fhades, and fcented with flowers; the compofition of Shakespeare is a foreft, in which oaks extend their branches, and pines tower in the air, interfperfed fometimes with weeds and brambles, and fometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to rofes; filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endlefs diverfity. Other poets difplay cabinets of precious rarities, minutely finished, wrought into shape, and polished unto brightness. Shakespeare opens a mine which contains gold and diamonds in unexhauftible plenty, though clouded by incruftations, debased by impurities, and mingled with a mafs of meaner minerals.

It has been much difputed, whether Shakespeare owed his excellence to his own native force, or whether he had the common helps of fcholaftick education, the precepts of critical science, and the examples of ancient authours.59

There has always prevailed a tradition, that ShakeSpeare wanted learning, that he had no regular education, nor much skill in the dead languages. Johnson, his friend, affirms, that he had fmall Latin, and no Greek; who, befides that he had no imaginable temptation to falfehood, wrote at a time when the character and acquifitions of Shakespeare were known to multitudes. His evidence ought therefore to decide the conVOL. I.



troverfy, unless fomè teftimony of equal force could be oppofed.

Some have imagined, that they have discovered deep learning in many imitations of old writers; but the examples which I have known urged, were drawn from books tranflated in his time; or were fuch eafy coincidences of thought, as will happen to all who confider. the fame fubjects; or fuch remarks on life or axioms of morality as float in conversation, and are tranfmitted through the world in proverbial fentences.

I have found it remarked, that, in this important fentence, Go before, I'll follow, we read a tranflation of, I prae, fequar. I have been told, that when Caliban, after a pleafing dream, fays, I cry'd to fleep again, the author imitates Anacreon, who had, like every other man, the fame with on the fame occafion.

There are a few paffages which may pafs for imitations, but fo few, that the exception only confirms the rule; he obtained them from accidental quotations, or by oral communication, and as he used what he had, would have used more if he had obtained it.

The Comedy of Errors is confeffedly taken from the Menæchmi of Plautus; from the only play of Plautus which was then in English. What can be more probable, than that he who copied that, would have copied more; but that those which were not tranflated were inacceffible?

Whether he knew the modern languages is uncertain. That his plays have fome French scenes proves but little; he might eafily procure them to be written, and probably, even though he had known the language in the common degree, he could not have written it without affiftance. In the ftory of Romeo and Juliet he is obferved to have followed the English tranflation, where it deviates from the Italian; but this on the other part proves nothing againft his knowledge of the original.

« AnteriorContinuar »