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 Johnson getting poffeffion 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 implicity than if it had been true history.

To judge therefore of Shakespear 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 people ; and writ at first without patronage from the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleasing them ; without affistance 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 poets are pleased 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 encouragement 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 productionsi mproved, in proportion to the respect he had for his auditors. And I make no doubt this observation would be found true in every instance, 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 player, and

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

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 Ariltotle. As they live by the majority, they know no rule but that of pleasing the present hu. mour, and complying with the wit in falhion; a confideration which brings all their judgment to a short point. Players are just such judges of what is right, as tailors are of what is graceful. And in this view it will be but fair to allow, that most of our author's faults are lefs 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 Shakespear, that be fcarce ever blotted a line. This they industri. qully 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 Windfor, which he en. tirely new writ; The History of Henry VI. which was first published under the title of The contention of York and Lancasier; and that of Henry V. extremely im proved ; that of Hamlet, enlarged to alınost 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 fome, and to this his errors have as injudiciously been ascribed by, others. For it is certain, were it true, it could concern but a finali part of them: the mnost are such as are not properly defects, but fuperfætations; and arise not from want of learning or read ing, but from want of thinking or judging; or rather (to be more just to oựr quthor) from a compliance to thofe wants in others. As to a wrong choice of the lubject, a wrong conduct of the incidents, false thoughts, forced expressions, &c. if these are not to be ascribed to the foresaid accidental reasons, they mult be charged upon the poet himself, and there is no help for it. But I think the two disadvantages which I have mention. ed, (to be obliged to please the lowest of people, and



to keep the worst of company), if the consideration be extended as far as it reasonably may,


fuffi. cient to mislead and depress the greatest genius upon earth. Nay, the more modelty 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 say something more. There is certainly a vast difference between learning and languages. How far he was ignorant of the latter, I cannot determine; but it is 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 from another. Nothing is more evident, than that he had a taste of natural philosophy, mechanics, ancient and modern history, poetical learning and my. thology. We find him very knowing in the customs, rites, and manners of antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Cæfar, not only the fpirit, but manners of the Romans are exactly drawn; and still a nicer distinction is shown, 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 copied from plutarch in Goriolanus, may, I think, as well be made an instance of his learning, as those copied from Cicero in Catiline of Ben Johnson's The manners of other nations in general, the Ægyptians, Venetians, French, doc. are drawn with equal propriety, Whatever object of nature, or branch of science, he either speaks of or describes, it is always with competeut, if not extensive knowledge: his descriptions are ftill exact; all his metaphors appropriated, and remarkably drawn from the true nature and inherent qualities of each subject When he treats of ethic or politic, we may constantly observe a wonderful justness of distinction, as well as extent of comprehension. 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 particuJar) has not shewn more learning this way than Shake


[pear. We have translations from Ovid published in his name, among


poems which pass for his; and for some of which we have undoubted authority, bea ing 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; he 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 Cressida, and in the Two Noble Kinsmen, if 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 those which have been received as genuine.

I am inclined to think, this opinion proceeded originally from the zeal of the partitans 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 laid on the one hand that Shakespear had none at all, and because Shakespear had much the most wit and fancy, it was retorted on the other, that Johnson wanted both. Because Shakespear borrowed nothing, it was said that Ben Johnfon borrowed every thing. Because Johnson did not write extempore, he was reproached with being a year about every piece; and because Shakespear wrote with ease and rapidity, they cried, He never once made a blot. Nay, the spirit of oppofition ran fo high, that whatever those of the one side objected to the other, was taken at the rebound, and turned into praites; as injudiciously as their antagonists before had made them objections.

Poets are always afraid of envy; but sure they have as much reason to be afraid of adıniration. They are the Scylla and Charybdis of authors; those who escape one, often fall by the other. Pejimnum genus inimico

C 2

[ocr errors]

r'um laudantes, says Tacitus: and Virgil desires to wear a charm against those who praise a poet without rule or reason;

Si altra placitum laudibrit, baccare frontem Cingito, 'ne vati noceatBut however this contention might be carried on by the partisans on either side, I cannot help thinking these two great poets were good friends, and lived on amicable terins and in offices of society with each other. It is an acknowledged fact, that Ben Johnson was introduced upon the stage, and his first works encouraged, by Shakelpear. And after his death, that auihor writes To the memory of his beloved Mr. William Shakespear; which shews as if the friendship liad continued through life. I cannot for my own part find any thing invidious or sparing in those verses, 'but wonder Mr. Dryden was of that opinion. He exalts him not only above all his contemporaries, but above Chaucer and Spencer, whom he will not allow to be great enough to be ranked with himn; and challenges the names of Sophocles, Euripides, and Æschilus, nay all Greece and Rome at once, to equal him; and (which is very particular) expressly vindicates him from the imputation of wanting Art, not enduring that all his excellencies should be attributed to Nature. It is remarkable too, that the praise be gives him in his Discoveries, seems to proceed from a personal kindness :he tells us, that he loved the man, as well as honoured his memory; celebrates the honesty, openness, and frankness of his temper; and only diftinguishes as he reasonably cught, between the real merit of the author, and the silly and derogatory applauses of the players. Ben Johnson might indeed be sparing in his

cominendations, (though certainly he is not so in this. initance), partly from his own nature, and partly from judgment. For men of judgment think they do any inan more service in praising him justly, than lavishly. I say, I would fain believe they were friends, though the violence and ill-breeding of their followers and flatterers were enough to give rise to the contrary report. I would hope that it may be with parties, both


« 前へ次へ »