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thour is yet living we estimate his powers by his worst
To works, however, of which the excellence is
intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do Jittle more chan transpose his incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.
The reverence due to writings that have long subfifted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, chat what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.
The Poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from personal allusions, local customs, or tenporary opinions, have for many years been loft; and every topick of merriment or motive of sorrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him; now only obscure the scenes which they once illuminated. The effects of favour and competition are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and his enmities has perished; his works support no opinion with arguments, nor supply any faction with invectives ; they can neither indulge vanity nor gratify malignity, but are read without any other reason than the desire of pleasure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure
is obtained ; yet, thus unaffisted by interest or pasfion, they have past through variations of taste and changes of manners, and, as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every transmission.
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 Shakespeare 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 common saciety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are foon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.
Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the puet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour 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 peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of tranGent fashions or temporary opinions : they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general pallions 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 Shakespeare 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 Shakespeare with practical axioms and domestick wifdom. It was said of Euripides, that every verse was a precept; and it may be faid of ShakeSpeare, that from his works may be collected a syftem of civil and economical prudence. Yet his real power is not shown in the fplendour of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and, the tenour 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 fale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.
It will not easily be imagined how much ShakeSpeare excells in accommodating his sentiments to real life, but by comparing him with other authours. 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 same remark may be applied to every stage but that of Shakespeare. The
theatre, when it is under any other direction, is
peo. pled 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 authour is often so 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 selection out of common conversation, and common oc
agony ; to fill their
Upon every other stage the universal agent is love, by whose power all good and evil is distributed, 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 oppositions of interest, and harrafs 'them with violence of desires inconsistent with each other ; to make them meet in rapture and part
in mouths with hyperbolical joy and outrageous sorrow; 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 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 pasion, as it was