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try, who acted under those of another. He writ to the people ; and writ at first without patronage from the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleasing them : without affistance or advice from the learned, as without the advantage of education or acquaintance among them ; without that knowledge of the best models, the ancients, to inspire him with an emulation of them; in a word, without any views of reputation, and of what poets are pleased to call immortality : fome or all of which have encouraged the vanity, or animated the ambition, of other writers.
Yet it must be observed, that when his performances had merited the protection of his prince, and when the encouragement of the court had succeeded to that of the town; the works of his riper years are manifestly raised above those of his former. The dates of his plays fufficiently evidence that his productions improved, in proportion to the respect he had for his auditors. And I make no doubt this observation will be found true in every instance, were but editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was composed, and whether writ for the town, or the court.
Another cause (and no less strong than the former) may be deduced from our poet's being a player, and forming himself first upon the judge ments of that body of men whereof he was a member. They have ever had a standard to themselves, upon other principles than those of Aristotle. As they live by the majority, they know no rule but that of pleasing the present humour, and complying with the wit in fashion ; a confideration which brings all their judgment to a short point. Players are just such judges of what is right, as tailors are of what is graceful. And in this view it will be but fair to allow, that most of our author's faults are less to be ascribed to his wrong judgment as a poet, than to his right judgment as a player.
By these men it would be thought a praise to Shakspeare, that he scarce ever blotted a line. This they industriously propagated, as appears from what we are told by Ben Jonson in his Discoveries, and from the preface of Heminge and Condell to the first folio edition. But in reality (however it has prevailed) there never was a more groundless report, or to the contrary of which there are more undeniable evidences. As, the comedy of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he entirely new writ; The History of Henry the Sixth, which was first published under the title of The Contention of York and Lancaster ; and that of Henry the Fifth, extremely improved; that of Hamlet enlarged to almost as much again as at first, and many others. I believe the common opinion of his want of learning proceeded from no better ground. This too might be thought a praise by fome, and to this his errors have as injudiciously been afcribed by others.
For 'tis certain, were it true, it would concern but a small part of them ; the most are such as are not properly defects, but superfotations : and arise not from want of learning or reading, but from want of thinking or judging: or rather (to be more just to our author) from a compliance to thofe wants in others. As to a wrong choice of the subject, a wrong conduct of the incidents, false thoughts, forced expresfions, &c. if these are not to be ascribed to the foresaid accidental reasons, they must be charged upon the poet himself, and there is no help for it.
But I think the two disadvantages which I have mentioned (to be obliged to please the lowest of the people, and to keep the worst of company) if the confideration be extended as far as it reasonably may, will appear fufficient to mislead and depress the greatest genius upon earth. Nay, the more modesty with which such a one is endued, the more he is in danger of submitting and conforming to others, against his own better judgment.
But as to his want of learning, it may be necefsary to fay something more : there is certainly a valt difference between learning and languages. How far he was ignorant of the latter, I cannot determine ; but it is plain he had much reading at least, if they will not call it learning. Nor is it any great matter, if a man has knowledge, whether he has it from one language or from another. Nothing is more evident than that he had a taste of natural philosophy, mechanicks, ancient and modern history, poetical learning, and mythology: we find him very knowing in the customs, rites, and manners of antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Cæfar, not only the spirit, but manners, of the Romans are exactly drawn ; and still a nicer diftinction is shown between the manners of the Romans in the time of the former, and of the latter. His reading in the ancient historians is no less confpicuous, in many references to particular passages : and the speeches copied from Plutarch in Coriolanus 2 may, I think, as well be made an instance of his learning, as those copied from Cicero in Catiline of Ben Jonson's. The manners of other nations in general, the Egyptians, Venetians, French, &c. are drawn with equal propriety. Whatever object of nature, or branch of science, he either speaks of or describes, it is always with competent, if not extensive knowledge : his descriptions are still exact ; all his metaphors appropriated, and remarkably drawn from the true nature and inherent qualities of each subject. When he treats of ethick or politick, we may constantly observe a wonderful justness of distinction, as well as extent of comprehension. No one is more a master of the political story, or has more frequent allusions to the various parts of it: Mr. Waller (who has been celebrated for this last particular) has not shown more learning this
2 These, as the reader will find in the notes on that play, Shakspeare drew from Sir Thomas North's tranNation, 1579.
way than Shakspeare. We have translations from Ovid published in his name,3 among those poems which pass for his, and for some of which we have undoubted authority (being published by himself, and dedicated to his noble patron the Earl of Southampton): he appears also
have been conversant in Plautus, from whom he has taken the plot of one of his plays: he follows the Greek authors, and particularly Dares Phrygius, in another, (although I will not pretend to say in what language he read them). The modern Italian writers of novels he was manifestly acquainted with ; and we may conclude him to be no less conversant with the ancients of his own country, from the use he has made of Chaucer in Troilus and Cressida, and in The Two Noble Kinsmen, if that play be his, as there goes a tradition it was (and indeed it has little resemblance of Fletcher, and more of our author than fome of those which have been received as genuine).
3 They were written by Thomas Heywood. See [Mr. Malone's] Vol. X. p. 321, n. 1. MALONE.
I am inclined to think this opinion proceeded originally from the zeal of the partizans of our author and Ben Jonson ; as they endeavoured to exalt the one at the expence of the other. It is ever the nature of parties to be in extremes ; and nothing is so probable, as that because Ben Jonson had much the more learning, it was said on the one hand that Shakspeare had none at all ; and because Shakfpeare had much the most wit and fancy, it was retorted on the other, that Jonson wanted both. Because Shakspeare borrowed nothing, it was said that Ben Jonson borrowed every thing. Because Jonson did not write extempore, he was reproached with being a year about every piece; and because Shakspeare wrote with eafe and rapidity, they cried, he never once made a blot. Nay, the spirit of opposition ran so 'high, that whatever those of the one side objected to the other, was taken at the rebound, and turned into praises ; as injudiciously, as their antagonists before had made them objections.
Poets are always afraid of envy; but sure they have as much reason to be afraid of admiration. They are the Scylla and Charybdis of authors those who escape one, often fall by the other. Pessimum genus inimicorum laudantes, says Tacitus; and Virgil desires to wear a charm against those, who praise a poet without rule or reason :
- si ultra placitum laudârit, baccare frontem Cingite, ne vati noceat
But however this contention might be carried on by the partizans on either side, I cannot help thinking these two great poets were good friends, and lived on amicable terms, and in offices of society VOL. I.