صور الصفحة
PDF
النشر الإلكتروني

The scholarship of this great genius hath been a point much difputed among the critics. Dr. Johnson is of opinion, that he had some little learning, though not so much as some other of bis editors are willing to allow him. “ It is most likely, says te, that he had learned Latin sufficiently to make him acquainted with construction, but that he never advanced to an easy perusal of the Roman authors. Concerning his skill in modern languages, I can find no sufficient ground of determination ; but as no imitations of French or Italian authors have been discovered, though the Italian poetry was then high in efteem, I am inclioed to believe, that he read little more than English, and chose for his fables only such tales as he found translated,

. That much knowledge is scattered over his works is very justly observed by Pope, but it is often such knowledge as books did not supply. He that will understand Shakespeare, must not be content to study him in the closet, he must look for his mean. ing sometimes among the sports of the field, and sometimes among the manufactures of the shop. ." There is however proof enough that he was a very diligent reader, nor was our language then lo indigent of books, but that he might very liberally indulge his curiosity without excurfion into foreign literature. Many of the Roman authors were translated, and some of the Greek; the reformation had filled the kingdom with theological learning; most of the topics of human disquisition had found English writers; and poetry had been cultivated, not only with diligence, but success. This was a stock of knowledge sufficient for a mind so capable of appropriating and improving it.

. But the greater part of his excellence was the product of his own genius. He found the English stage in a state of the utmost rudencfs; no eslays either in tragedy or comedy had appeared, from which it could be discovered to what degree of delight either one or other might be carried. Neither character nior dialogue were yet understood. Shakespeare may be truly said to have introduced them bo:h amongst us, and in some of his happier scenes to have carried them both to the utmoft height. . By what gradation of improvement he proceeded, is not easily known; for the chronology of his works is yet unfettled, Rowe is of opinion, that “ perhaps we are not to look for his beginning, like those of other writers, in his leaft perfect works; art had so little, and nature so large a share in what he did, that for ought I know, says he, the performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, were the best." But the power of nature is only the power of using to any certain purpose the materials which diligence procures, or opportunity supplies, Nature gives no man knowledge, and when images are collect

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

ed by study and experience, can only affist in combining or applying them. Shakespeare, however favoured by nature, could impart only what he had learned ; and as he must increase his ideas, like other mortals, by gradual acquisition, he, like them, grew wifer as he grew older, could display life better, as he knew it more, and instruct with more efficacy, as he was himself more amply instructed.

• There is a vigilance of observation and accuracy of distinction which books and precepts cannot confer; from this almost all original and native excellence proceeds. Shakespeare must have looked upon mankind with perspicacity, in the highest degree curious and attentive. Other writers borrow their characters from preceding writers, and diversify them only by the accidental appendages of present manners; the dress is a little va. ried, but the body is the same. Our authour had both matter and form to provide ; for except the characters of Chaucer, to whom I think he is not much indebted, there were no writers in English, and perhaps not many other modern languages, which shewed life in its native colours.

On the other hand, Dr. Johnson observes, . It must be at least confessed, that as we owe every thing to him, he owes something to us; that, if much of his praise is paid by perception and judgment, much is likewise given by custom and veneration. We fix our eyes upon his graces, and turn them from his deformities, and endure in him what we should in another loath or despise. If we endured without praising, respect for the father of our drama might excufe us ; but I have seen in the book of some modern critick, a collection of anomalies, which shew that he has corrupted language by every mode of depravation, but which his admirer has accumulated as a monument of honour.

• He has fcenes of undoubted and perpetual excellence, but perhaps not one play, which, if it were now exhibited as the work of a contemporary writer, would be heard to the conclufion. I am indeed far from thinking, that his works were wrought to his own ideas of perfection; when they were such as would satisfy the audience, they satisfied the writer. It is feldom that authours, though more ftudious of fame than Shakèspeare, rise much above the standard of their own age; to add a little to what is best will always be sufficient for present praise, and those who find themselves exalted into fame, are willing to credit their encomiafts, and to spare the labour of contending with themselves.'

One of the greateft encomiums, however, that can be paid to Shakespear, and in which all his commentators seem to agree, is that remarkable modefty, which caused him to think so lightly of his own productions. How different, in this respect, was this

cafionar Editone levied at han ofn acted,

inimitable writer to the modern tribe of authors, who plumą themselves so highly, and set such an enormous value on the literary Nothings they occasionally produce !

"It does not appear, says our Editor, that Shakespeare thought his works worthy of pofterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had any further prospect, than of present popularity and present profit. When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end; he sollicited no addition of honour from the reader. He therefore made no scruple to repeat the same jests in many dialogues, or to entangle different plots by the same knot of perplexity, which may be at least forgiven him, by those who recollect, that of Congreve's four comedies, two are concluded by a marriage in a mask, by a deception, which perhaps never happened, and which, whether likely or not, he did not invent.

So careless was this great poet of future fame, that, though he retired to ease and plenty, while he was yet little declined into the vale of years, before he could be disgusted with fatigue, or disabled by infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor defired to rescue those that had been already published from the depravations that obscured them, or secure to the rest a better destiny, by giving them to the world in their genuine statę.

"Of the plays which bear the name of Shakespeare in the Ja'e editions, the greater part were not published till about seven years after his death, and the few which appeared in his life are apparently thrust into the world without the care of the authour, and therefore probably without his knowledge.

Having treated of the character and abilities of the poet, Dr. Johnson proceeds to consider those of his editors : . Of all the publishers, says he, clandestine or professed, their negligence and unskilfulness has by the late revisers been sufficiently shown. The faults of all are indeed numerous and gross, and have not only corrupted many passages perhaps beyond recovery, but have brought others into suspicion, which are only obscured by obsolete phraseology, or by the writer's unskilfulness and affectation.“ To alter is more easy than to explain, and tei merity is a more common quality than diligence. Those who

saw that they must employ conjecture to a certain degree, were willing to indulge it a little further. Had the authour pubJished his own works, we should have fat quietly down to difentangle his. intricacies, and clear his obscurities; but now we tear what we cannot loose, and eject what we happen not to understand.

? The faults are more than 'could have happened without the concurrence of many causes. The stile of Shakespeare was in itself ungrammatical, perplexed and obscure; his works were transcribed for the players, by those who may be supposed to have

seldom

seldom understood them; they were transmitted by copiers equale ly unskilful, who still multiplied errours; they were perhaps sometimes mutilated by the actors, for the sake of shortening the speeches ; and were at last printed without correction of the preis.

• In this state they remained, not, as Dr. Warburton supposes, because they were unregarded, but because the editor's art was not yet applied to modern languages, and our ancestors were accustomed to so much negligence of English printers, that they could very patiently endure it. At last an edition was undertaken by Rowe ; not because a poet was to be published by a poet, for Rowe seems to have thought very little on correction or explanation, but that our authour's works might appear like those of his fraternity, with the appendages of a life and recommendatory preface. Rowe has been clamorously blamed for not performing what he did not undertake, and it is time that jus. tice be done him, by confessing, that though he seems to have had no thought of corruption beyond the printer's errours, yet he has made many emendations, if they were not made before, which his successors have received without acknowledgment, and which, if they had produced them, would have filled pages and pages with censures of the stupidity by which the faults were committed, with displays of the absurdities which they involved, with ostentatious expolitions of the new reading, and self-congratulations on the happine!s of discovering it.'.

The nation, continues the Prefacer, had been for many years content enough with Mr. Rowe's performance, when Mr. Pope made them acquainted with the true state of Shakespeare's text, thewed that it was extremely corrupt, and gave reason to hope that there were means of reforming it. Mr. Pope's edition, however, he observes, fell below his own expectations, and he was so much offended, when he was found to have left any thing for others to do, that he passed the latter part of his life in a state of hostility with verbal criticism.“ Dr. Johnson proceeds

< Pope was succeeded by Theobald, a man of narrow comprehension and small acquisitions, with no native and intrinsic Splendour of genius, with little of the artificial light of learning, but zealous for minute accuracy, and not negligent in pursuing. He collated the ancient copies, and rečtiñed many errours. A man fo anxiously scrupulous might have been expected to do more, but what little he did was commonly right." -Is our Editor here altogether consistent? Is Theobald's doing little, compatible with his having been zealously and diligently attached to minute accuracy; with his having collated the ancient copies and rectified many errours ? Dr. Johnson indeed proceeds to treat poor Theobald with great severity, fumming up his character, as an Editor, with the following reflections. " Theobald, thus weak and ignorant, thus mean and faithless, thus petulant and oftentatious, by the good luck of having Pope for his enemy, has escaped, and escaped alone, with reputation from this undertaking. So wil. Jingly does the world support thofe who follicit favour, against those who command reverence; and so easily is he praised, whom no man can envy.'

great

It is very true, as Dr. Johnson observes, that Theobald hath escaped alone with reputation from the task of commenting on Shakespeare ; we cannot impute it, however, to the motives affigned by the present Editor. On the contrary, we are well convinced, that the object of praise is generally the object of envy, and vice versa ; although it is certain, that in notorious cases, the public prepofíellion fometimes gives way to public justice. At the same time, the writer must content himself with a very slender pittance of fame, indeed, who derives it only from the public compassion. Fame, like other strumpets, may be sometimes bullied into compliance, but the fondelt of her lov. ers may pine himself into a consumption, ere he obtains any substantial favour from her pity. · Of Sir Thomas Hanmer, Shakespeare's next editor, the Prefacer speaks with great moderation and candour; giving him the due praise to which we think he is justly entitled.

We shall give what he says of the next editor * in his own words.

• Of the last editor it is more difficult to fpeak. Respect is due to high place, tenderness to living reputation, and veneration to genius and learning; but he cannot be justly offended at that liberty of which he has himself so frequently given an example, nor very felicitous what is thought of notes, which he ought never to have considered as part of his serious employments, and which, I suppose, since the ardour of composition is remitted, he no longer numbers among his happy effusions.

The original and predominant errour of his commentary, is acquiescence in his first thoughts; that precipitation which is produced by consciousness of quick discernment; and that confidence which presumes to do, by surveying the furface, what labour only can perform, by penetracing (to] the bottom. His notes exhibit sometimes perverse interpretations, and sometimes improbable conjectures ; he at one time gives the authour more profundity of meaning, than the sentence admits, and at another discovers abfurdities, where the sense is plain to every other reader. But his emendations are likewife often happy and just; and his interpretation of obscure passages learned and sagacious. • Of his notes, I have commonly rejected those, against

* Dr. Warburton.

« السابقةمتابعة »