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rence to history, than his departure from it."* If I have shown that those who have ascribed to the dramatist the merits of the historian have spoken heedlessly, surely I have not thereby depreciated his poetical merit.
I shall not now enquire whether historical truth is itself desirable: more, or less, importance may be ascribed to history; but surely, if history be valuable at all, it is valuable in proportion to its accuracy ; if we desire a pleasing narrative, we should recur to Walter Scott rather than to Lingard : if we desire a narrative of real transactions, we must look for those of which the evidence is the best. This is my apology for the minuteness of detail into which my love of historical accuracy has occasionally led me. In reference to this topic, I beg leave to subjoin a passage with which I have met, in an article in the Quarterly Review on the “Early History of Rome.”
“ The intrinsic value of a history depends upon the extent and accuracy of research displayed in its compilation ; and that extent can only be marked, that accuracy can alone be established, by copious reference. Notes are indispensable to its existence : they are guarantees for its trustworthiness ; they are * Pref. i. xiii. + Pict. Shak., part 1, 2, 3.
| xxvii. 307.
the only measure which the reader possesses of the credulity or discrimination of the writer. Without them, he does not know whether he is depending on the assertions of a Dionysius or a Tacitus; and he may, for anything he knows to the contrary, be reposing on the tales of the former, that confidence which he perhaps would be willing to concede only to the philosophic narrative of the latter. The personal friends indeed of the historian may perhaps feel satisfied that he would advance nothing as matter of historic truth, except what he had attentively examined and expressly believed ; but what inference will other persons draw from a history without note or reference? They will assuredly never rest their belief on its assertions; they will never receive its unsupported details as matter of strict and conclusive evidence.”
If it were necessary for me to make any further defence against the critic who censures the plan of my Historical Illustrations, I should find it in the example of the critic himself, who has appended to each of his chapters, under that very title, a specimen of that “worse than useless employment of running parallels between the poet and the chronicler.” How he has executed this task, it is not for me to say, seeing that my critic is also my rival. I am, however, certainly entitled to the merit of preceding him in the work ; whether my labours have been of any use to him, it is not for me to decide.
The high literary character of Dr. Johnson induced me, at the commencement of my undertaking, to reprint his criticism upon each play, though by no means prepared to concur in the justice of his sentences. In reviewing these, I find scarcely one instance in which I am satisfied with the criticism. The commendation is, in my opinion, generally too sparingly bestowed, nor is the selection of praiseworthy points always judicious. Nevertheless, the vigour of Dr. Johnson's understanding, and, still more, the independence of his spirit, induce me to pursue his criticisms a little further.
Dr. Johnson's sentences are the most just upon Henry IV.,* Macbeth,t and Coriolanus : of all which plays he speaks well; and upon Richard III.,9 which he conceives to have been over-rated. In the single instance of the three parts of Henry VI. || he bestows undeserved praise ; but he does less than justice to Richard II., I Henry V.,** Henry VIII.,tt, Julius Cæsar, 11 and Antony and Cleopatra.s$
* i. 158. ii. 206. I ii. 229.
** i. 210. tt ii. 169. 1 ii. 260. $$ ii. 255. On the general effect of Johnson's summaries, see A. W. Schlegel, Lit. Dram., ii. 369.
I differ from Johnson, as to the general character of Shakspeare's merit in these histori. cal plays.
“ Shakspeare,” (he says)“ is, above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest 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 general 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 passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets, a character is too often an individual ; in those of Shaskspeare, it is commonly a species. It is from this wide extension of design that so much instruction is derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shakspeare with practical actions and domestic wisdom. It was said of Euripides that every verse was a precept, and it may be said of Shakspeare, that from his works may be collected a system of civil and economical prudence."*
* Johnson's preface, Bosw. i. 62.
To most of this, I apprehend, every reader of Shakspeare will subscribe; and it can only have been from not thinking the allusion necessary in this particular place, that Johnson omitted to mention those characters of Shakspeare which are purely imaginative. Even these may be said to be beyond or beside nature, rather than opposed to it.
But what follows requires, at least, much qualification.
“ Yet his real power is not shewn in the splendour of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable and the tenor 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 for sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.”*
Now, it appears to me, that in many of the plays, and perhaps in most of the historical plays, it is in separate passages that the superiority consists. Such, indeed, is necessarily the case, where the play describes not one great action, but a series of events. And if this be admitted, where our author drew from an old Chronicle, it is not less true, or less natural,
* Ibid. 62.