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PRE FACE . OF THE PLAY E R S.
To the great Variety of Readers.
TROM the most able, to him that can but fpell: there
you are number'd, we had rather you were weighd. Especially, when the fate of all bookes depends upon your capacities: and not of your heads alone, but of your purses. Well! it is now publique, and you will stand for your priviledges, wee know: to read, and censure. Doe so, but buy it first. That doth best commend a booke, the stationer faies. Then, how odde foever your braines be, or your wifedomes, make your licence the same, and spare not. Judge your fixe-pen'orth, your shillings worth, your five shillings worth at a time, or higher, so you rise to the just rates, and welcome. But, whatever you doe, buy, Cenfure will not drive a trade, or make the jacke goe. And though you be a magistrate of wit, and sit on the stage at Black-friars, or the Cock-pit, to arraigne plays dailie, know, these playes have had their triall already, and stood out all appeales; and do now come forth quitted rather by a decree of court, than any purchas'd letters of commendation.
It had bene a thing, we confefse, worthie to have been wished, that the author himselfe had liv'd to have set forth, and overseen his owne writings; but since it hath been ora dain'd otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you doe not envie his friends, the office of their care and paine, to have collected and publish'd them; and so to have publish'd them, as where (before) you were abus'd with divers ftolne and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious impostors, that expos'd them: even those are now offer'd to your view cur'd,
and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers as he conceived them. Who, as he was a happy imitator of nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: and what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarce received from him a blot in his papers. But it is not our province, who onely gather his workes, and give them you, to praise him. It is yours that reade him. And there we hope, to your divers capacities, you will finde enough, both to draw, and hold you: for his wit can no more lie hid, then it could be loft. Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe : and if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him. And so we leave you to other of his friends, who, if you need, can bee your guides: if you neede them not, you can leade yourselves, and others. And such readers we wish him.
TT is not my design to enter into a criticism upon this I author; though to do it effectually, and not fuperficially, would be the best occasion that any juft writer could take, to form the judgment and taste of our nation. For of all English poets Shakespeare must be confessed to be the fairest and fullest subject for criticism, and to afford the most numerous, as well as most conspicuous instances, both of beauties and faults of all sorts. But this far exceeds the bounds of a preface, the business of which is only to give an account of the fate of his works, and the disadvantages under which they have been transmitted to us. We shall hereby extenuate many faults which are his, and clear him from the imputation of many which are not: a design, which, though it can be no guide to future criticks to do him justice in one way, will at least be sufficient to prevent their doing him an injustice in the other.
I cannot however but mention some of his principal and characteristick excellencies, for which (notwithstanding his defects) he is justly and universally elevated above all other dramatick writers. Not that this is the proper place of praising him, but because I would not omit any occasion of doing it.
If ever any author deserved the name of an original, it was Shakespeare. Homer himself drew not his art so im. mediately from the fountains of nature, it proceeded through Ægyptian strainers and channels, and came to him not witha out some tincture of the learning, or some cast of the models, of those before him. The poetry of Shakespeare was inspiration indeed: he is not so much an imitator, as an instrument, of naturc; and it is net so just to say that he speaks troin her, as that she speaks through him.
His characters are fo much nature itself, that it is a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as copies of her. Those of other poets have a constant resemblance, which fhews that they received them from one another, and were but multipliers of the same image : each picture, like a mock-rainbow, is but the reflexion of a reflexion. But every fingle character in Shakespeare is as much an individual, as those in life itself; it is as impossible to find any two alike; and such as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be twins, will, upon comparison, be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of character, we must add the wonderful preservation of it; which is such throughout his plays, that had all the speeches been printed without the very names of the persons, I believe one might have applied them with certainty to every speaker.
The power over our passions was never poflessed in a more eminent degree, or displayed in fo different instances. Yet all along, there is feen no labour, no pains to raise them; no preparation to guide our guess to the effect, or be perceived to lead toward it: but the heart fwells, and the tears burst out, just at the proper places: we are surprised the moment we weep; and yet upon reflexion find the passion so just, that we should be surprised if we had not wept, and wept at that very moment. - How astonishing is it again, that the passions directly opposite to these, laughter and spleen, are no less at his coma mand! that he is not more a master of the great than of the ridiculous in human nature; of our nobleít tenderneiles, than of our vainest foibles; of our strongest emotions, than of our idlest sensations!
Nor does he only excel in the paffions: in the coolness of reflexion and reasoning he is full as admirable. His sentiments are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious upon every subject; but by a talent very peculiar, something between penetration and felicity, he hits upon that particular point on which the bent of cach argument turns, or the force of each motive depends. This is perfecta ly amazing, from a man of no education or experience in those great and publick scenes of life which are usually the subject of his thoughts: so that he seems to have known the world by intuition, to have looked through human nature at one glance, and to be the only author that gives ground for a very new opinion, that the philofopher, and even the inan of the world, may be born, as well as the poet.
It It must be owned, that with all these great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, so he has perhaps written worse than any other. But I think I can in some measure account for these defects, from several causes and accidents; without which it is hard to imagine that so large and so enlightened a mind could ever have been susceptible of them. That all these contingencies should unite to his disadvantage seems to me almost as lingularly unlucky, as that so many various (nay contrary) talents should meet in one man, was happy and extraordinary.
It must be allowed that stage-poetry, of all other, is more particularly levelled to please the populace, and its success more immediately depending upon the common suffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakespeare, having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a. sublistence, directed his endeavours solely to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed. The audience was generally composed of the meaner sort of people; and therefore the images of life were to be drawn from those of their own rank: accordingly we find, that not our author's, only, but almost all the old comedies have their scene among tradesmen and mechanicks: and even their historical plays strictly follow the common old stories or välgar traditions of that kind of people. In tragedy, nothing was so sure to surprize and cause admiration, as the most strange, unexpected, and confequently most unnatural, events and incidents; the most exaggerated thoughts; the most verbose and bombast exo, pression; the most pompous rhymes, and thundering versification. In comedy, nothing was so sure to please, as mean buffoonry, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jests of fools and.. clowns. Yet even in these our author's wit buoys up, and is borne above his subject : his genius in those low parts is like some prince of a romance in the disguise of a shepherd or peasant; a certain greatness and spirit now and then breaks out, which manifest his higher extraction and qualities,
It may be added, that not only the common audience had no notion of the rules of writing, but few even of the better fort piqued themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way; till Ben Jonson getting possession of the ftage, brought critical learning into vogue: and that this was not done without difficulty, may appear from those frequent lessons (and indeed almost declamations) which he was forced to prefix to his first plays, and put into the mouth
ifett'hamels and the disguite hore low up and
fort piqued the way, till Benning into voguppear from the he