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PREFACE, BY DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON.
FIRST PRINTED IN 1765.
TIAT praises are without reason lavished on the rest known has been most considered, and what is dead, and that the honours due only to ex- most considered is best understood. cellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint like- The poet, of whose works I have undertaken ly to be always continued by those, who, being the revision, may now begin to assume the digable to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence nity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of from the heresies of paradox; or those, who, be established fame and prescriptive veneration. ing forced by disappointment upon consolatory He has long outlived his century, the term comexpedients, are willing to hope from posterity monly fixed as the test of literary merit. Whatwhat the present age refuses, and flatter them. ever advantages he might once derive from perselves that the regard which is yet denied by sonal allusions, local customs, or temporary opienvy, will be at last bestowed by time.
nions, have for many years been lost; and every Antiquity, like every other quality that at topic of merriment or motive of sorrow, which the tracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly modes of artificial life afforded him, now only votaries that reverence it, but from reason, but obscure the scenes which they once illuminated. from prejudice. Some seem to admire indiscri. The effects of favour and competition are at an minately whatever has been long preserved, with end; the tradition of his friendships and his enout considering that time has sometimes co.opera- mities has perished ; his works support no opinion ted with chance; all perhaps are more willing to with arguments, nor supply any faction with inhonour past than presentexcellence; and themind vectives; they can neither indulge vanity, nor contemplates genius through the shades of age, as gratify malignity; but are read without any the eye surveys the sun through artificial opa- other reason than the desire of pleasure, and are city. The great contention of criticism is to find therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained ; the faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the yet, thus unassisted by interest or passion, they ancients. While an author is yet living, we esti- have passed through variations of taste and mate his powers by his worst performance; and changes of manners, and, as they devolved from when he is dead, we rate them by his best. one generation to another, have received new.
To works, however, of which the excellence is honours at every transmission. not absolute and definite, but gradual and com- But because human judgment, though it be parative; to works, not raised upon principles gradually gaining upon certainty, never becomes demonstrative and scientific, but appealing wholly infallible; and approbation, though long continto observation and experience, no other test can ued, may yet be only the approbation of preju. be applied than length of duration and continu- dice or fashion; it is proper to inquire, by what ance of esteem. What mankind have long pos peculiarities of excellence Shakspeare has gained sessed they have often examined and compared, and kept the favour of his countrymen. and if they persist to value the possession, it is Nothing can please many, and please long, but because frequent comparisons have confirmed just representations of general nature. Particuopinion in its favour. As among the works of lar manners can be known to few, and therefore naturo no man can properly call a river deep, or few only can judge how nearly they are copied. a mountain high, without the knowledgeof many The irregular combinations of fanciful invention mountains, and many rivers ; so, in the produc- may delight awhile, by that novelty of which the tions of genius, nothing can be styled excellent common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but till it has been compared with other works of the the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhaustsarse kind. Demonstration immediately displays ed, and the mind can only repose on the stability its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from of truth. the flux of years; but works tentative and ex. Shakspeare is above all writers, at least above. perimental must be estimated by their propor- all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet tion to the general and collective ability of man, that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of as it is discovered in a long succession of endea- manners and of life. His characters are not
Of the first building that was raised, it modified by the customs of particular places, un. might be with certainty determined that it was practised by the rest of the world; by the pecua round or square; but whether it was spacious liarities of studies or professions, which can oper. or lofty must have been referred to time. The ate but upou small numbers; or by the accidents Pythagorean scale of numbers was at once dis- of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they covered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer are the genuine progeny of common humanity, we yet know not to transcend the common limits such as the world will always supply, and obser.. of human intelligence, but by remarking, that vation will always find. His persons act and nation after nation, and century after century, speak by influence of those general passions has been able to do little more than transpose his and principles by which all minds are agitated, incidents, new name his characters, and para- and the whole system of life is continued in mophrase his sentiments.
tion. In the writings of other poets a character The reverence due to writings that have long is too often an individual : in those of Shakspeare subsisted, arises therefore, not from any credu- it is commonly a species. lous confidence in the superior wisdom of past It is from this wide extension of design that so ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of much instruction is derived. It is this which fills mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged the plays of Shakspeare with practical axioms andindubitable positions, that whathas been long. and domestic wisdom It was said of Euripides,
that every verse was a precept; and it is said of logue is level with life. Other writers disguise Shakspeare, that from his works may be collect the most natural passions and most frequent ined a system of civil and economical prudence.cidents; so that he who contemplates them in Yet his real power is not shown in the splendour the book will not know them in the world; Shakof particular passages, but by the progress of his speare approximates the remote, and familiarizes table, and the tenor of his dialogue; and he that the wonderful; the event which he represents tries to recommend him by select quotations, will will not happen, but if it were possible, its effects succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when would probably be such as he has assigned; and he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his it may be said, that he has not only shown hu. pocket as a specimen.
man nature as it acts in real exigencies, but as It will not easily be imagined how much Shak- it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be speare excels in accommodating his sentiments exposed. to real life, but by comparing him with other au. This therefore is the praise of Shakspeare, that thors. It was observed of the ancient schools of his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has declamation, that the more diligently they were mazed his imagination, in following the phanfrequented, the more was the student disqualified toms which other writers raise up before him, for the world, because he found nothing there may here be cured of his deilrious ecstasies, by which he should ever meet in any other place. reading human sentiments in human language; The same remark may be applied to every stage by scenes frem which a hermit may estimate the but that of Shakspeare. The theatre, when it is transactions of the world, and a confessor preunder any other direction, is peopled by such dict the progress of the passions. characters as were never seen, conversing in a His adherence to general nature has exposed language which was never heard, upon topics him to the censure of critics, who form their which will never arise in the commerce of man- judgment upon narrower principles. Dennis and kind. But the dialogue of this author is often Rymer think his Romans not sufficiently Roman; so evidently determined by the incident which and Voltaire censures his kings as not completeproduces it, and is pursued with so much ease ly royal. Dennis is offended, that Menenius, a and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim senator of Rome, should play the buffoon; and the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by Voltaire perhaps thinks decency, violated when diligent selection out of common conversation, the Danish usurper is represented as a drunkard. and common occurrences.
But Shakspeare always makes nature predominUpon every other stage the universal agent is ate over accident; and if he preserves the essenlove, by whose power all good and evil is distri. tial character, is not very careful of distinctions huted, and every action quickened or retarded. superinduced and adventitious. His story reTo bring a lover, a lady, and a rival into the fa- quires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on ble; to entangle them in contradictory obliga- men. He knew that Rome, like every other tions, perplex them with oppositions of interest city, had men of all dispositions; and wanting a and harass them with violence of desires incon- buffoon, he went into the senate-house for that sistent with each other; to make them meet in which the senate-house would certainly have af. rapture, and part in agony: to fill their mouths forded him. He was inclined to show an usurper with hyperbolical joy and outrageous sorrow; and a murderer, not only odious but despicable; to distress them as nothing human ever was dis- he therefore added drunkenness to his other tressed; to deliver them as nothing human ever qualities, knowing that kings love wine like was delivered, is the business of a modern dra- other men, and that wine exerts its natural powmatist. For this, probability is violated, life is er upon kings. These are the petty cavils of petinisrepresented, and language is depraved. But ty minds; a poet overlooks the casual distinction love is only one of many passions, and as it has of country and condition, as a painter, satisfied no great influence upon the sum of life, it has with the figure, neglects the drapery, little operation in the dramas of a poet, who The censure which he has incurred by mixing caught his ideas from the living world, and ex. comic and tragic scenes, as it extends to all his hibited only what he saw before him. He knew, works, deserves more consideration. Let the that any other passion, as it was regular or ex. fact be first stated, and then examined. orbitant, was a-cause of happiness or calamity. Shakspeare's plays are not in the rigorous and
Characters thus ample and general were not critical sense, either tragedies or comedies, but easily discriminated and preserved, yet perhaps compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the no poet ever kept his personages more distinct real state of sublunary nature, which partakes from each other. I will not say with Pope, that of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with every speech may be assigned to the proper endless variety of proportion and innumerable speaker, because many speeches there are which modes of combination; and expressing the course have nothing characteristical; but, perhaps, of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain though some may be equally adapted to every of another; in which, at the same time, the reperson, it will be difficult to find any that can be veller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner properly transferred from the present possessor burying his friend ; in which the malignity of to another claimant. The choice is right, when one is sometimes defeated by the frolic of ano). there is reason for choice.
ther; and many mischiefs and many benefits Other dramatists can only gain attention by are done and hindered without design. hyperbolical or aggravated characters, by fabu. Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and lous and unexampled excellence or depravity, as casualties, the ancient poets, according to the the writers of barbarous romances invigorated laws which custom had prescribed, selected some the reader by a giant and a dwarf; and he the crimes of men, and some their absurdities : :that should form his expectations of human af- some the momentous vicissitudes of life, and fairs from the play, or from the tale, would be some the lighter occurrences; some the terrors equally deceived. Shakspeare has no heroes ; of distress, and some the gaieties of prosperity. his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and Thus rose the two modes of imitation, known by speak as the reader thinks that he should him the names of tragedy and comedy, compositions self have spoken or acted on the same occasion; intended to promote different ends by contrary even where the agency is supernatural, the dia. I means, and considered as so little allied, that I
do not recollect among the Greeks or Romans: a he never fails to attain his purpose; as he com. single writer who attempted both.
mands us, we laugh or mourn, or sit silent with Shakspeare has united the powers of exciting quiet expectation, in tranquillity without indif. laughter and sorrow, not only in one mind, but ference. in one composition. Almost all his plays are When Shakspeare's plan is understood, most divided between serious and ludicrous characters, of the criticisms of Rymer and Voltaire vanish and, in the successive evolutions of the design, away. The play of Hamlet is opened, without sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and impropriety, by two centinels: Iago bellows at sometimes levity and laughter.
Brabantio's window, without injury to the That this is a practice contrary to the rules of scheme of the play, though in terms which a criticism will be readily allowed; but there is modern audience would not easily endure; the always an appeal open from criticism to nature. character of Polonius is seasonable and useful; T'he end of writing is to instruct; the end of and the Gravediggers themselves may be heard poetry is to instruct by pleasing. That the with applause. mingled drama may convey all the instruction Shakspeare engaged in dramatic poetry with of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied, because the world open before him; the rules of the anit includes both in its alternations of exhibition, cients were yet known to few; the public judgand approaches nearer than either to the appear- ment was unformed; he had no example of such ance of life, by showing how great machinations fame as might force him upon imitation, nor and slender designs may promote or obviate one critics of such authority as might restrain his ex, another, and the high and the low co-operate in travagance; he therefore indulged his natural the general system by unavoidable concatenation. disposition, and his disposition, as Rymer has
It is objected, that by this change of scenes the remarked, led him to comedy. In tragedy, he of, passions are interrupted in their progression, and ten writes with great appearance of toil and that the principal event, being not advanced by study, what is written at last with little felicity; a due gradation of preparatory incidents, wants but in his comio scenes, he seems to produce at last the power to move, which constitutes the without labour, what no labour can improve. perfection of dramatic poetry. This reasoning In tragedy he is always struggling after some is so specious, that it is received as true even by occasion to be comic, but in comedy he seems to those who in daily experience feel it to be false. repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking The interchanges of mingled scenes seldom fail congenial to his nature. In his tragic scenes to produce the intended vicissitudes of passion. there is always something wanting, but his comeFiction cannot move so much, but that the at- dy often surpasses expectation or desire. His tention may be easily transferred; and though comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, it must be allowed that pleasing melancholy may and his tragedy for the greater part by incident be sometimes interrupted by unwelcome levity, and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his yet let it be considered likewise, that melancholy comedy to be instinct. is often not pleasing, and that the disturbance The force of his comic scenes has suffered little of one man may be the relief of another; that diminution from the changes made by a century different auditors have different habitudes; and and a half, in manners or in words. As his per. that, upon the whole, all pleasure consists in sonages act upon principles arising from genuine variety.
passion, very little modified by particular forms, The players, who in their edition divided our their pleasures and vexations are communicaauthor's works into comedies, histories, and tra- ble to all times and to all places; they are naturgedies, seem not to have distinguished the three al, and therefore durable; the adventitious pecukinds by any very exact or definite ideas. liarities of personal habits are only superficial
An action which ended happily to the principal dies, bright and pleasing for a little while, yet persons, however serious or distressful through soon fading to a dim tinct, without any remains its intermediate incidents, in their opinion con. of former lustre; but the discriminations of true stituted a comedy. This idea of a comedy con- passion are the colorus of nature; they pervade tinued long among us, and plays were written, the whole mass, and can only perish with the which, by changing the catastrophe, were trage- body that exhibits them. The accidental comdies to-day, and comedies to-morrow.
positions of the heterogeneous modes are disTragedy was not in those times a poem of more solved by the chance that combined them; but general dignity or elevation than comedy; it re- the uniform simplicity of primitive qualities neiquired only a calamitous conclusion, with wbich ther admits increase, nor suffers decay. The the common criticism of that age was satisfied, sand heaped by one flood is scattered by another, whatever lighter pleasure it afforded in its pro- but the rock always continues in its place. The gress.
stream of time, which is continually washing the History was a series of actions with no other dissoluble fabrics of other poets, passes without than chronological succession, independent on injury by the adamant of Shakspeare. each other, and without any tendency to intro- 'If there be, what I believe there is, in every duce and regulate the conclusion. It is not al. nation, a style which never becomes obsolete, a ways very nicely distinguished from tragedy: certain mode of phraseology so consonant and There is not much nearer approach to unity of congenial to the analogy and principles of its action in the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, respective language, as to remain settled and unthan in the history of Richard the Second. But altered: this style is probably to be sought in a histury might be continued through many the common intercourse of life, among those who plays; as it had no plan, it had no limits. speak only to be understood, without ambition
Through all these denominations of the drama, or elegance. The polite are always catching Shakspeare's mode of composition is the same; modish innovations, and the learned depart an interchange of seriousness and merriment, from the established forms of speech, in hope of by which the mind is softened at one time, and finding or making better; those who wish for exhilarated at another. But whatever be his distinction forsake the vulgar, when the vulgar purpose, whether to gladden or depress, or to is right; but there is a conversation above grossconduct the story, without vehemence or emo- ness and below refinement, where propriety retion, through tracts of easy and familiar dialogue, sides, and where this poet seems to have gather
ed his comic dialogue. He is, therefore, more In his comic scenes, he is seldom very successagreeable to the ears of the present age, than ful, when he engages his characters in reciprocaany other author equally remote, and, among tions of smartness and contests of sarcasm; their his other excellencies, deserves to be studied as jests are commonly gross, and their pleasantry one of the original masters of our language. licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies
These observations are to be considered not as have much delicacy, nor are sufficiently distin. unexceptionably constant, but as containing guished from his clowns by any appearance of general and predominant truth. Sbakspeare's refined manners. Whether he represented the familiar dialogue is affirmed to be smooth and real conversation of his time is not easy to deterclear, yet not wholly without ruggedness
or diffi- mine; the reign of Elizabeth is commonly supculty; as a country may be eminently fruitful, posed to have been a time of stateliness, formality, though it has spots unfit for cultivation: his and reserve, yet perhaps the relaxations of that characters are praised as natural, though their severity were not very elegant. There must, sentiments are sometimes forced, and their ac- however, have been always some modes of gaiety tions improbable; as the earth upon the whole preferable to others, and a writer ought to choose is spherical, though its surface is varied with pro- the best. tuberances and cavities.
In tragedy his performance seems constantly Shakspeare with his excellencies has likewise to be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions faults, and faults sufficient to obscure and over. of passion, which exigence forces out, are for the whelm any other merit. I shall show them in most part striking and energetic; but whenever the proportion in which they appear to me, with- he solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, out envious malignity or superstitious venera- the offspring of his throes is tumour, meanness, tion. No question can be more innocently dis- tediousness, and obscurity. discussed than a dead poet's pretensions to re- In narration he affects a disproportionate nown; and little regard is due to that bigotry pompof diction, and a wearisome train of circum. which sets candour higher than truth.
locution, and tells the incident imperfectly in His first defect is that to which may be im- many words, which might have been more plainputed most of the evil in books or in men. He ly delivered in few. Narration in dramatic sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much poetry is naturally tedious, as it is unanimated more careful to please than to instruct, that he and inactive, and obstructs the progress of the seems to write without any moral purpose. From action; it should therefore always be rapid, and his writings indeed a system of social duty may enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakspeare be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must found it an incumbrance, and instead of lightenthink morally; but his precepts and axioms drop ing it by brevity, endeavoured to recommend it casually from him: he makes no just distribu by dignity and splendour. tion of good or evil, nor is always careful to show His declamations or set speeches are commonin the virtuous, disapprobation of the wicked; he ly cold and weak, for his power was the power carries his persons indifferently through right of nature; when he endeavoured, like other traand wrong, and at the close dismisses them with. gic writers, to catch opportunities of amplificaout further care, and leaves their examples to tion, and instead of inquiring what the occasion operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of demanded, to show how much his stores of knowhis age cannot extenuate; for it is always a wri- ledge could supply, he seldom escapes without ter's duty to make the world better, and justice the pity or resentment of his reader. is a virtue independent on time or place.
It is incident to him to be now and then en. The plots are often so loosely formed, that a tangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he very slight consideration may improve them, and cannot well express, and will not reject; he Bo carelessly pursued, that he seems not always struggles with it awhile, and if it continues stubfully to comprehend his own design. He omits born, comprises it in words such as occur, and opportunities ef instructing or delighting, which leaves it to be disentangled and evolved by those the train of his story seems to force upon him, who have more leisure to bestow upon it. and apparently rejects those exhibitions which Not that always where the language is intri. would be more affecting, for the sake of those cate, the thought is subtle, or the image always which are more easy.
great where the line is bulky; the equality of It may be observed, that in many of his plays words to things is very often neglected, and trithe latter part is evidently neglected. When he vial sentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint the found himself near the end of his work, and in attention, to which they are recommended by view of his reward, he shortened the labour, to sonorous epithets and swelling figures. snatch the profit. He therefore remits his ef- But the admirers of this great poet.have most forts where he should most vigorously exert reason to complain when he approaches nearest them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced to his highest excellence, and seems fully resolv. or imperfectly represented.
ed to sink them in dejection, and mollify them He had no regard to distinction of time or with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the place, but gives to one age or nation, without danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. scruple, the customs, institutions, and opinions What he does best, he soon ceases to do. He is of another, at the expense not only of likelihood, not long soft and pathetic without some idle con. but of possibility. These faults Pope bas en ceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner deavoured, with more zeal than judgment, to begins to move, than he counteracts himself; transfer to his imagined interpolators. We need and terror and pity, as they are rising in the not wonder to find Hector quoting Aristotle, mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigiwhen we see the loves of Theseus and Hippolyta dity. combined with the Gothic mythology of fairies. Å quibble is to Shakspeare what luminous vaShakspeare, indeed, was not the only violator of pours are to the traveller; he follows it at all ad. chropology, for in the same age Sidney, who ventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, wanted not the advantages of learning, has, in his and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some Arcadia, confounded the pastoral with the feudal malignant power over his mind, and its fascinatimes, the days of innocence, quiet, and security, tions are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity with those of turbulence, violence, and adventure. (or profundity of his disquisition, whether be be