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cannot therefote wonder, if Shakespeare, having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a subsistence, 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: and 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 krictly follow the common old fories or vulgar traditions of that kind of people. In tragedy, nothing was so sure to furprize and cause admiration, as the most ftrange, unexpected, and consequently most unnatural, events and incidents ; the most exaggerated thoughts; the most verbofe and bombast expreffion; 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 fhepherd or peasant; a certain greatness and spirit now and then break out, which manifeft his high 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 sort piqu’d themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way; till Ben Johnson getting posseffion of the stage, 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 of his actors, the grex, chorus, &c. to remove the prejudices,
and inform the judgment of his hearers. "Till then, our authors had no thoughts of writing on the model of the ancients : their tragedies were only histories in dialogue; and their comedies followed the thread of any novel as they found it, no less implicitly than if it had been true history.
To judge therefore of Shakespeare by Aristotle's rules, is like trying a man by the laws of one country, who acted under those of another. He writ to the feople, and writ at first without patronage from the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleasing them : without affiftance 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 the poets are pleas’d 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 encou. ragement 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 would be found true in every inftance, 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 author's being a ployer, and forming himself first upon the judgments 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 have no rule but that of pleasing the present humour, and complying with the wit in fashion; a conīderation which brings all their judgment to a short point. Players are just such judges of what is rigbt, as taylors are of what is graceful. And in this view it will be cut 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 was thought a praise to Shakespeare, that he scarce ever člotted a line. This they industriously propagated, as appears from what we are told by Ben Johnson in his Discoveries, and from the preface of Heminges 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 VIth, which was first published under the title of the Contention of York and Lancaster; and that of Henry the Vth, 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 some, and to this his errors have as injudiciously been ascribed by others. For 'tis certain, were it true, it could concern but a small part of them; the most are such as are not properly defects, but superfætations: 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 those wants in others. As to a wrong choice of the subject, a wrong conduct of the incidents, false thoughts, forced expressions, &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 mention'd (to be obliged to please the lowest of the people, and to kcep the worst of company) if the confideration be extended as far as it reasonably may, will appear sufficient to mislead and depress the greatest genius upon earth. Nay the more modefty 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 necessary to fay something more: there is certainly a vast difference between learning and languages. How far he was ignorant of the lat. ter, I cannot determine; but 'tis 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 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 mansers of antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Cæsar, not only the spirit, but manners, of the Romans, are exactly drawn; and still a nicer distinction is shewn, 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 conspicuous, in many references to particular passages; and the speeches copy'd from Plutarch in Coriolanus may, I think, as well be made an instance of his learning, as those copy'd from Cicero in Cataline, of Ben Johnson's. The manners of other nations in general, the Egyptians, Venetians, French, &c. are drawn with equal proprietv. 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 suject. When he treats of ethic or politic, we may conítantly observe a juftness of distinction, as well as extent of comprebension. No one is more a master of the poetical story, or has more frequent allusions to the various parts of it: Mr. Waller (who has been celebrated for this last particular) has not fewn more learning this way than Shakespeare. We have translatians from Ovid published in his name, 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 to have been conversant in Plautus, from whom he has taken the plot of one of his plays : 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 converfant with the ancients of his own country; from the use he has made of Chaucer in Troilus and Creflida, and in the Two Noble Kinímen, 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 some of thole which have been received as genuine.)
I am inclined to think, this opinion proceeded originally from the zeal of the partizans of our author and Ben Johnson; 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 Johnson had much the more learning, it was said on the