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novels which fell within their notice. Severe injunctions were issued against the printing of plays; nor were any allowed to be published, till revised and approved by persons in authority. In the temper and feeling of the times, this may be considered a virtual probibition; and the publication of Shakspeare's works was therefore justly accounted a very doubtful speculation. For several years after his death, the public taste, ever dependent upon novelty, was strongly directed to the plays of Fletcher, and during the remainder of the seventeenth century, the noble productions of our poet gave place to a species of dramatic composition, equally conspicuous for its wit and its obscenity, and which the more chastened judgment of modern audiences has driven with abhorrence from the stage. The works of his rival and contemporary Jonson, appear indeed to have passed through several editions, and to have been read with uncommon avidity, while those of our poet were doomed to comparative neglect; but this is chiefly attributable to the passion for classical literature and collegiate learning, which were then regarded the chief criteria of merit. Only fifty years after his death, Dryden affirms that he was become "a little obsolete; and Tate, in his dedication to the altered play of King Lear, speaks of the original as an obscure piece, recommended to his notice by a friend. In the beginning of the last century, Lord Shaftesbury complained of "his rude unpolished style, and his antiquated phrase and wit;" and it is certain, that for nearly a hundred years after his death,-partly owing to the rebellion, when the stage was totally abolished-partly from the licentious taste encouraged in the time of Charles II., which we have already alluded to-and partly from the incorrect state of his works, be was almost entirely neglected. When, moreover, in addition to these facts, it is recollected that his works were published in a very unwieldy size-that the opportunities of attracting notice by advertisements were then very few-that the women had not applied to literature, nor was every house furnished with a closet of books-the limited sale of his works will cease to be a matter of surprise, and may fairly be attributed to the character and predominant occupations of the times which immediately followed his decease. Further examination will equally explain another apparent singularity, and also refute the supposition that Shakspeare was himself insensible of the value of his works, or careless of any reward beyond present popularity and present profit. He wrote them for a particalar theatre, sold them to the managers when only an actor, reserved them in manuscript when himself a manager, and on disposing of his property in the theatre, they were still preserved in manuscript, to prevent their being acted by the rival houses. Copies of some of them appear to bave been surreptitiously obtained, and published in a very incorrect state; but the managers were wise enough to overlook this fraud, rather than publish a correct edition, and so destroy the exclusive property they enjoyed. It is clear, therefore, on the one hand, that any publication of his plays by himself, would have interfered at first with his own interest, and afterwards with that of his fellow-managers, to whom he had made over his share in them; and on the other, that though the fame which he enjoyed was probably the highest which dramatic genius could bestow, yet that dramatic genius was novel and unappreciated, or perhaps, not heard of beyond the limits of the metropolis. It is, indeed, very doubtful whether he would have gained much by publication, whilst the refinements of criticism were so little understood, and the sympathies of taste so inadequately felt.
In 1709 an edition was undertaken by Mr. Nicholas Rowe, which had nothing to recommend it but some biographical particulars of Shakspeare, communicated by Betterton, the celebrated comedian, who had been at the trouble of a journey into Warwickshire purposely to obtain them. Nearly all the faults of the first edition were perpetuated in this; and according to Dr. Warburton, Mr. Rowe, though a wit, was so utterly unacquainted with the whole business of criticism, that he did not examine or consult the early copies of the work which he ventured to re-publish. But it is now very generally allowed, that he made a number of emendations which succeeding editors have received without acknowledgment. In 1725 Mr. Pope published his edition in 6 vols. 4to, and gave the first example of critical and emendatory notes. He collected the old copies, and restored many lines to their integrity; bis preface is equally celebrated for elegance of composition, and justness of remark; but, by a very compendious criticism, he rejected whatever he disliked, thinking more of amputation than of cure, and proving himself a better poet than dramatic critic. Every anomaly of language, and every expression at variance with the accepted phraseology of that day, was considered an error or corruption, and the text was altered, or amended, as it was called, at pleasure. By these fanciful deviations, the poet was so completely modernized, that had be "revisited the glimpses of the moon," he would scarcely have understood his own works. In 1733 Mr. Theobald ventured upon a similar task, giving to his work the imposing title of Shakspeare Restored. Dr. Johnson describes him as a man of narrow comprehension and small acquirements-restoring a stray comma, and then panegyrizing himself for the
achievement—as mean, petulant, and ostentatious, and indebted for a little reputation to the circumstance of bis having Pope for an opponent. Sir Thomas Hanmer was the next who undertook to illustrate Shakspeare: his work was published in 1744, in 6 vols. 4to. He is generally termed the "Oxford editor;" and, though eminently qualified by nature for such pursuits, is said to have adopted all the innovations of Pope, in addition to the capricious suggestions of his own taste. In 1747, Dr. Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, published his edition in 8 vols. 8vo., and by an unbounded license in substituting his own chimerical conceits for the plain text of his author, subjected himself to the imputation of wishing rather to display his own learning, than to illustrate the obscurities of the poet. It has been said, indeed, of this celebrated critic, that he erected his throne on a heap of stones, that he might have them at band to throw at the heads of all who passed by; but though his interpretations are sometimes perverse, and his conjectures improbablethough he occasionally discovers absurdities where the sense is plain, or dwells upon profundity of meaning which the author never contemplated, yet his emendations are frequently happy, and his commentaries learned and ingenious. In 1765, that distinguished moralist, scholar, and critic, Dr. Samuel Johnson, published these plays with additional criticisms, accompanying them with a preface, which is considered a perfect specimen of bis own extraordinary genius, and in which, also, the respective merits of all the abovenamed editors are characterized with great candour, and with singular fertility of expres sion. It is said, that be has commented on the writings of Shakspeare with a severity far removed from accuracy and justice, and that he did not fully understand the varied merits of his author. But Mr. Malone, in the very intelligent and amusing preface to his edition of our poet, published in 1790, vindicates the Doctor's happy and just refutation of Mr. Theobald and Warburton's false glosses, and asserts that his vigorous and comprehensive understanding threw more light on the involved and difficult passages of many plays, than the united labour of all his predecessors had been able to do. In the edition of 1803, published by Mr. Steevens, (in 21 vols. 8vo. commonly called Johnson and Steevens's Shakspeare, and justly esteemed the best,) all Mr. Malone's original notes and improvements are incorporated. From 1716 to 1790, a period of seventy-fo years, thirty thousand copies of Shakspeare were circulated in England; and since that time, the number has at least been doubled. Some of them issued under the auspices of able and accomplished scholars, particularly the edition of 1805, 10 vols. 8vo. by Alexander Chalmers, F.S.A.; which is distinguished by a sketch of the life of Shakspeare, founded upon the statements of Rowe, with the additional and corrective remarks of Malone and Steevens. The generality, however, are mere reprints, with various degrees of typographical embellishments, and in almost every size and shape; but the magnificent copy published some time since by the Messrs. Boydell, in large folio, enriched with the most sumptuous engravings, is justly considered as one of the finest specimens of art ever produced in this, or in any other country.
Nothing is more difficult, in estimating the real merits of a popular writer, than to "season the admiration" by judicious rules. These can only be learnt from the opinions of such as have made it their particular business to investigate the pretensions of authors, and to define the boundaries of taste by the best examples which learning and experience supply. Some useful information, applicable to this purpose, may be gained from the following analysis, exhibiting the most formidable objections that have been urged against Shakspeare's dramas, in conjunction with the principal merits by which they are said to be distinguished.
Voltaire, after allowing that Shakspeare, besides possessing a strong fruitful genius, was natural and sublime, decides that he had not one spark of good taste, nor a single dramatic rule, and that his great merit has been the ruin of the English stage. There are (says he) such noble, such beautiful, such dreadful scenes in this writer's monstrous verses, to which the name of tragedy is given, that they have always been exhibited with great success. Time, which only gives reputation to writers, at last makes their very faults venerable. Most of the whimsical gigantic images of this poet, have, through length of time, acquired a right of passing for sublime. In Othello, a most tender piece, a man strangles his wife upon the stage, and though the poor woman is strangling, she cries out aloud that she dies very unjustly. In Hamlet, the two grave-diggers are drunk, singing ballads, and making humorous reflections on the skulls which they throw up. The players have not even struck out the buffoonery of the shoemakers and cobblers, who are introduced (in Julius Cæsar) in the same scene with Brutus and Cassius."
These, says Dr. Johnson, are the petty cavils of petty minds. Shakspeare's plays are not, in the rigorous and critical sense, either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind, exhibiting the mingled good and evil, joy and sorrow, inseparable from this sublunary state. That this is a practice contrary to ancient dramatic rules, will be readily allowed; but there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature. The end of writing
is to instruct; the end of poetry, to instruct by pleasing; and there is no reason why the mingled drama should not convey all the pleasure and instruction of which tragedy or comedy, in their simple form, are capable of doing. The English nation, in the time of Shakspeare, was yet struggling to emerge from barbarity. The philology of Italy had been transplanted hither in the reign of Henry VIII., and the learned languages had been successfully cultivated by Lilly, Linacre, and More; by Pole, Cheke, and Gardiner; and afterwards by Smith, Clerk, Haddon, and Ascham. Greek was taught in the public schools, and many of the Italian and Spanish poets were read with great diligence. But these advantages were confined to distinguished rank, whilst the public at large was still gross and dark. Plebeian learning was confined to giants, dragons, and enchantments; and the sober representations of common life would not have been tolerated by a nation which delighted in the wonders of fiction, in the exploits of Palmerin, and the feats of Guy of Warwick. Writing for such audiences as these, Shakspeare was compelled to look around for strange events and fabulous transactions; and that incredibility by which maturer knowledge is offended, was the chief recommendation of his writings to unskilful curiosity. Such, indeed, is the power of the marvellous, even over those who despise it, that every man finds his mind more strongly seized by the tragedies of Shakspeare than of any other writer; and be has, perhaps, excelled all but Homer, in the leading qualifications of a writer, by the power of exciting a restless and unquenchable curiosity. The necessity of observing the unities of time and place, arises from the supposed necessity of making the drama credible; but it will be found that the slavish adherence to these principles, which Voltaire and others so rigidly enforce, gives much more trouble to the poet, than pleasure to the audience. It is false that any representation is mistaken for reality; for if a spectator can once be persuaded that his old acquaintance are Alexander and Cæsar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharsalia, he is in a state of elevation beyond the reach of truth, and there is no reason why, in such a state of ecstasy, he should count the clock, or consider minutes and hours, as any other than days and years. Whether, therefore, Shakspeare knew the unities, and rejected them by design, or deviated from them by happy ignorance, it is impossible to decide, and useless to inquire; since they are not essential to a just drama, and though sometimes conducive to pleasure, may always be sacrificed to the nobler beauties of variety and instruction.
Mr. Rowe's was the first editorial commentary on the plays of Shakspeare, and notwithstanding bis alleged incapacity for criticism, the prominent beauties of our poet are judiciously and not inelegantly pointed out. Like other critics, he praises the fertility of bis invention the historical fidelity of his characters-the stateliness of his diction-the power of his muse in creating terror, or exciting mirth-and the perfection of his writings at a time of almost universal license and ignorance, where there was not one play in existence of sufficient merit to be acted at the present day.
With an ardour, an eloquence, and a discrimination, suited to his bighly-gifted mind, and becoming the liberality of his poetical character, Mr. Pope enlarges on the characteristic excellences of our immortal bard. He considers him more original even than Homer; since the art of the latter proceeded through Egyptian strainers, and came to him not without some tincture of the learning of those that preceded him. In the power of the passions, he declares him to be no less admirable, than in the coolness of reflection and reasoning; and (as though he had been acquainted with the world by intuition) that his sentiments are the most pertinent and judicious, even on those great and public scenes, of which he could have had no experience. One cause of Shakspeare's peculiarities was the profession to which he belonged. Players are just judges of what is right, as tailors are of what is graceful. Living by the majority, they know no rule but that of pleasing the present humour, and complying with the wit in fashion. Our author first formed himself upon the opinions of this class of men; and consequently his faults are less to be ascribed to his wrong judgment as a poet, than to his right judgment as a player.
Mr. Theobald, in the midst of many compliments to bis own acuteness, and much irreverent abuse of Pope, whose wit (he says) is as thick as Tewkesbury mustard, thus penegyrizes Shakspeare: "Whether we respect the force and greatness of his genius, the extent of his knowledge and reading, the power and address with which he throws out and applies either nature or learning, there is ample scope both for our wonder and pleasure."
Sir Thomas Hanmer commends the rich vein of sense which runs through the entire works of Shakspeare; and declares him unequalled in the two great branches of dramatic poetry, by the best writers of any age or country.
Dr. Warburton, in a paper replete with brilliant wit and energetic argument, thus speaks of the productions of Shakspeare: "Of all the literary exercitations of speculative men, whether designed for the use or entertainment of the world, there are none of so
much importance as those which let us into the knowledge of our nature. Others may exercise the reason, or amuse the imagination, but these only can improve the heart, and form the mind to wisdom. Now in this science Shakspeare confessedly occupies the foremost place; whether we consider the amazing sagacity with which he investigates every hidden spring and wheel of human action; or his happy manner of communicating this knowledge, in the just and living paintings which he has given us of all our passions, appetites, and pursuits."
To the recorded testimony of these eminent writers, it is scarcely necessary that any other should be added; but the inquisitive reader will find the merits of Shakspeare stil! further developed in the essays of Mrs. Montague, Dr. Richardson, Dr. Grey, and Mr. Britton. Dryden, whose own accomplished genius was sullied and debased by the dramatic impurities in which he indulged, says that Shakspeare had the largest and most comprehensive soul of all modern, and perhaps ancient, poets, and that, in dramatic composition, he has left no praise for any who come after him. In a similar feeling, and with that stately sentiment which pervades all he has written, Dr. Young thus exalts the qualifications of our poet: "Whatever other learning he wanted, he was master of two books unknown to many of the profoundly read, though books which the last conflagration alone can destroy: the book of nature, and that of man." Mr. Malone calls him the great refiner and polisher of our language; and ranks his compound epithets, his bold metaphors, his energetic expressions, and harmonious numbers, amongst the chief beauties of his works. Dr. Johnson, whose opinions have already been recited in opposition to those of Voltaire, declares that a valuable system of civil and economical prudence may be collected from the plays of Shakspeare-that they are filled with practical axioms and domestic wisdom-that almost every verse (as was formerly said of the writings of Euripides) is a precept; but that, at the same time, his real power is shewn in the progress of the fable, and the tenor of the dialogue-and that he who tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.
Though the excellence of Shakspeare's productions has become an article of literary faith in England, and though such of his defects as are too palpable to be overlooked, have been gratuitously attributed to the age in which he lived, it is only a necessary supplement to the foregoing remarks, and essential to a right appreciation of his character, briefly to point out what those deefcts are. In many of his plays, the latter part is evidently neglected; when he found himself near the end of his work, and in view of his reward, he shortened the labour to snatch the profit. The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design. In his comic scenes, the jests are frequently gross, and the pleasantry licentions; nor are his ladies and gentlemen sufficiently distinguished from clowns, by any appearance of refined manners. He is not long soft and pathetic, without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. What he does best, he soon ceases to do. Let but a quibble spring up before him, and be leaves his work unfinished he follows it at all adventures, however dignified or profound, bowever tender or pathetic, the subject which engages his attention. Lastly, he is accused of sacrificing virtue to convenience, and of being much more careful to please than to instruct. He that thinks reasonably, must think morally; but our poet's precepts drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil; and after carrying bis persons indifferently through right and wrong, he dismisses them at the close without further care, leaving their examples to operate by chance.
With these imperfect particulars, derived from the united labours of various admirers and commentators, our brief sketch of the life of Shakspeare must necessarily conclude. On all the topics which usually constitute the personal history of an individual, his contemporaries and immediate successors have been equally silent. The meagre facts which were first imbodied in a memoir by Mr. Rowe, and have been moulded into so many forms by the caprice or taste of successive writers, remain to the present day, unaided by any accession of novelty, and unimpeached by the utmost acuteness of criticism. His early studies-the progress of his pen--his moral and social qualities-his friendships and his errors, are completely buried in oblivion, as if the homage which is paid to his splendid poetical genius, should be unmingled with any recollection of his faults and failings as a man. Nor, after an interval of two centuries, is it probable that any undiscovered clue is in existence, by which the memoria. of his actions can be redeemed from its present obscurity.