صور الصفحة
النشر الإلكتروني
[ocr errors]

performance. Errour and inadvertence are imputed, as natural effects, to hafte; and even ignorance itself finds a convenient Thelter under the pretence of rapidity of composition. A very different fate attends on those works, whose publication, having been long promiled and frequently deferred, is supposed to be delayed only to render them by so much the more valuable when they appear, as their appearance may have been procrastinated.

Under this disadvantage lies the present edition of Shakespeare; a poet, who leaft requires, and most deserves, a comment, of all the writers his age produced. We cannot help thinking it, therefore, a misfortune almost as singular as his merit, that, among so many ingenious scholiasts that have employed themselves in elucidating his writings, hardly one of them hath been found in any degree worthy of him. They all seem to have mistaken the route, in which only they could do honour to themselves, or be useful to the rcader. Engaged in the piddling task of adjusting quibbles, and restoring conundrums, they have neglected the illuftration of characters, sentiments and situations, Inītead of aspiring to trim the ruffled bays that have a little obscured his brow, they have been laboriously and servilely employed in brushing the dirt from his shoes. Instead of strewing flowers, and planting fresh laurels, on his tomb, they have been irreve. rently tramplin down the turf, that had otherwise covered his dult with perpetual verdure. From the present Editor, it is true, we hoped better things. But what shall we fay? when he himself confefies, that, as to the poetical beauties ar defects of his author, he hath not been very diligent to observe them ; having given up this part of his design to chance and caprice.' This is Furely a strange concession to be made by the author of the proposals for printing this work by subscription! We were by them given to understand, that the Editor would proceed in a manner very different from his predecessors; and were encouraged to hope that Shakespeare would no longer be commented on, like a barren or obsolete writer ; whose works were of no other use than to employ the fagacity of antiquarians and philologers. But perhaps our Editor found the task, of commenting on Shakespeare as a poet, much more difficult than he had conceived it to be. It might found as harsh in the car of the public, to tax a writer whom it hath so much honoured by its approbation, with want of capacity for writing such a commentary, as it doubtless would, in the ears of Dr. Johnson, to hear himself charged with want of application to it, when he acknowledges the great encouragement he has had the honour of receiving for that purpose. We should be very tender, be the occasion what it would, of laying any writer of acknowledged merit under the neceffity of pleading guilty either to the charge of ignorance or indolence, But we cannot help subscribing to the opinion of a very inge



[ocr errors]

nous critic*, when he affirms, that every writer is justly chargeable with want of knowledge when he betrays it on the subject he is treating af, let him be ever so capable of treating other subjects, or however

justly founded may be his reputation for learning in general.' It hath been observed, in some remarks already published t on this occafion, that our Editor's notes, few and exceptionable as they are, lay claim to our admiration, if we refect on the extreme indolence of the Writer; who is naturally an idler. How far such a plea may be satisfactory to the purchasers of this edition, we know not; but we have too high an opinion of the Editor's character, to think he will more readily acquiesce under the imputation of ingratitude than under that of incapacity. At the same time, however, we cannot but express our apprehensions, that every judicious reader, who may accompany us through a fair and impartial review of his preface and commentary, will think, with us, that there are many evident marks of the want of ingenuity or industry in the Commentator.

We find little in the first five pages of our Editor's preface, but trite and common-place reflections, on our veneration for antiquity, and on the general talents of Shakespeare; delivered in that pompous style which is so peculiar to himself, and is lo much admired by some kind of readers. In some places, however, he is less verbose; and then he is generally sensible, inîtructive and entertaining.

Shakespeare, says he, is above all writers, at least above all modern writors, the poet 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 reft of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient 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 pafsions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In she writings of other poets a character is too often an individual ; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a (pecies.

• 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 domestic wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that every verse was a precept; and it may be said of Shakespeare, that from his works may be collected a system of civil and economical prudence. Yet his real power is not shewn in

[ocr errors]

+ In the St.

The author of the Canons of Criticism.
James's Chronicle.

U 4


the splendour 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 peopled by such characters as were never seen, conversing in a language which was never heard, upon topicks which will never arile 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 fimplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common occurrences.

• Upon every other stage the universal agent is Jove, 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 oppofitions of interest, and harrass them with violence of desires inconsistent with each other; to make them meet in rapture and part in agony; to fill their 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 passion, as it was regular or exorbitant, was a caufe of happiness or caJamity.

Characters thus ample and general were not easily discrimitiated and prclerved, yet perhaps no poet ever kept his personages more distinct from each other. I will not say with Pope, that every speech may be assigned to the proper speaker, because many. speeches there are which have nothing characteristical; but perhars, though some may be equally adapted to every perfon, it will be difficult to find any, that can be properly transferred from the present poffeffor to another claimant. The choice is right, when there is reason for choice.


Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous and unexampled excellence or depravity, as the writers of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a giant and a dwarf; and he that should form bis expectations of human affairs from the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakespeare has no heroes ; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion : Even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue is level with life. Other writers disguise the most natural passions and most frequent incidents ; so that he who contemplates them in the book will not know them in the world : Shakefpeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were possible, its effects would probably, be such as he has alfigned ; and it may be said, that he has not only shewn human nature as it acts in real exigences, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed.

• This therefore is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirrour of life; that he who has mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious extasies, by reading human sentiments in human language ; by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confes. for predict the progress of the passions.'

After bestowing this just elogium on Shakespeare, our editor proceeds to exculpate him from the censures of Rhymer, Dennis, and Voltaire ; entering particularly into a defence of the tragi-comedy, or that mixed kind of drama, which hath given such great offence to the minor critics. He states the fact, and confiders it thus:

. Shakespeare's plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination ; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend ; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolic of another ; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.

• Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and casualties the ancient poets, according to the laws which custom had prescribed, selected some the crimes of men, and some their absurdities; fome the momentous vicissitudes of life, and some the lighter occurrences; fome the terrors of distrce, and some the gayeties of 4



prosperity. Thus rose the two modes of imitation, known by the names of tragedy and comedy, compositions intended to promote different ends by contrary means, and considered as so little allied, that I do not recollect among the Greeks or Romans a single writer who attempted both.

Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and forrow not only in one mind but in one compofition. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the successive evolutions of the design, fometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.

" That this is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism 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 is to instruct by pleasing. That the mingled drama may convey all the instruction of tragedy and comedy cannot be denied, because it includes both in its alterations and exhibition, and approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life, by fhewing how great machinations and sender designs may promote or obviate one another, and the high and the low co-operate in the general system by unavoidable concatenation.

" It is objected, that by this change of scenes the passions are interrupted in their progression, and that the principal event, being not advanced by a due gradation of preparatory incidents, wants at last the power to move, which constitutes the perfection of dramatick poetry. This reasoning is so specious, that it is received as true even by those who in daily experience feel it to be false. The interchanges of mingled scenes seldom fail to produce the intended vicisitudes of passion. Fi&tion cannot move so much, but that the attention may be easily transferred; and though it must be allowed that pleasing melancholy be sometimes interrupted by unwelcome levity, yet let it be considered like, wise, that melancholy is often not pleasing, and that the disturbance of one man may be the relief of another ; that different auditors have different habitudes; and that, upon the whole, all pleasure consists in variety.'

We do not feel the force of this reasoning; though we think the critics have condemned this kind of drama too severely. What follows also is to us a little problematical. Dr. Johnson prefers Shakespeare's comic scenes to his tragic: in the latter, he says, s there is always something wanting, while the former often surpasses expectation or desire. His tragedy seems to be skill, and his comedy instinct. As this is a general assertion, unsupported by any particular examples, we cannot very easily controvert it ; but we are apt to suspect it is founded in a great degree on the preserence which the Editor himself may. poffibly be disposed to give to comedy in general. Different auditors, as he observes, have different habitudes; fo that, were we to put

« السابقةمتابعة »