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not well exprefs, and will not reject; he ftruggles with it a while, and if it continues ftubborn, comprifes it in words fuch as occur, and leaves it to be difentangled and-evolved by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.
Not that always where the language is intricate, the thought is fubtle, or the image always great where the line is bulky; the equality of words to things is very often neglected, and trivial fentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by fonorous epithets and fwelling figures.
But the admirers of this great poet have most reafon to complain when he approaches neareft to his highest excellence, and feems fully refolved to fink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatnefs, the danger of innocence, or the croffes of love. What he does beft, he foon ceases to do. He is not long foft and pathetick without fome idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no fooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself; and terror and pity, as they are rifing in the mind, are checked and blafted by fudden frigidity.
A quibble is to Shakspeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is fure to lead him out of his way, and fure to engulf him in the mire. It has fome malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irrefiftible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his difquifitions, whether he be enlarging knowledge, or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in fufpenfe, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn afide from his ca
reer, or ftoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him fuch delight, that he was content to purchase it by the facrifice of reafon, propriety, and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he loft the world, and was content to lose it.
It will be thought ftrange, that, in enumerating the defects of this writer, I have not yet mentioned his neglect of the unities; his violation of those laws which have been instituted and established by the joint authority of poets and of criticks.
For his other deviations from the art of writing, I refign him to critical juftice, without making any other demand in his favour, than that which muft be indulged to all human excellence; that his virtues be rated with his failings: but, from the cenfure which this irregularity may bring upon him, I fhall, with due reverence to that learning which I muft oppofe, adventure to try how I can defend him.
His hiftories, being neither tragedies nor comedies, are not subject to any of their laws; nothing more is neceffary to all the praise which they expect, than that the changes of action be fo prepared as to be understood, that the incidents be various and affecting, and the characters confiftent, natural, and diftinct. No other unity is intended, and therefore none is to be fought.
In his other works he has well enough preserved the unity of action. He has not, indeed, an intrigue regularly perplexed and regularly unravelled; he does not endeavour to hide his defign only to discover it, for this is feldom the order of real events, and Shakspeare is the poet of nature: but his plan has commonly what Aristotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; one event is
concatenated with another, and the conclufion follows by eafy confequence. There are perhaps fome incidents that might be spared, as in other poets there is much talk that only fills up time. upon the stage; but the general fyftem makes gradual advances, and the end of the play is the end of expectation.
To the unities of time and place3 he has fhown no regard; and perhaps a nearer view of the principles on which they ftand will diminish their value, and withdraw from them the veneration which, from the time of Corneille, they have very generally received, by difcovering that they have given more trouble to the poet, than pleasure to the auditor.
The neceffity of obferving the unities of time and place arifes from the fuppofed neceffity of making the drama credible. The criticks hold it impoffible, that an action of months or years can be poffibly believed to pass in three hours; or that the fpectator can fuppofe himself to fit in the theatre, while ambaffadors go and return between diftant kings, while armies are levied and towns befieged, while an exile wanders and returns, or till he whom they faw courting his mistress, fhall lament the untimely fall of his fon. The mind revolts from evident falsehood, and fiction loses its
unities of time and place-] Mr. Twining, among his judicious remarks on the poetick of Ariftotle, obferves, that "with respect to the ftrict unities of time and place, no fuch rules were imposed on the Greek poets by the criticks, or by themselves; nor are impofed on any poet, either by the nature, or the end, of the dramatick imitation itself."
Ariftotle does not express a fingle precept concerning unity of place. This fuppofed reftraint originated from the hypercriticism of his French commentators. STEEVENS.
force when it departs from the refemblance of reality.
From the narrow limitation of time neceffarily arifes the contraction of place. The fpectator, who knows that he saw the first Act at Alexandria, cannot suppose that he fees the next at Rome, at a diftance to which not the dragons of Medea could, in fo fhort a time, have tranfported him; he knows with certainty that he has not changed his place; and he knows that place cannot change itself; that what was a houfe cannot become a plain; that what was Thebes can never be Perfepolis.
Such is the triumphant language with which a critick exults over the mifery of an irregular poet, and exults commonly without refiftance or reply. It is time therefore to tell him, by the authority of Shakspeare, that he affumes, as an unquestionable principle, a pofition, which, while his breath is forming it into words, his understanding pronounces to be falfe. It is falfe, that any reprefentation is mistaken for reality; that any dramatick fable in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a fingle moment, was ever credited.
The objection arifing from the impoffibility of paffing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, fuppofes, that when the play opens, the fpectator really imagines himself at Alexandria, and believes that his walk to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt, and that he lives in the days of Antony and Cleopatra. Surely he that imagines this may imagine more. He that can take the ftage at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Actium. Delufion, if delufion be admitted, has no certain limitation; if the fpectator can be once
perfuaded, that his old acquaintance are Alexander and Cæfar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharfalia, or the bank of Granicus, he is in a ftate of elevation above the reach of reason, or of truth, and from the heights of empyrean poetry, may defpife the circumfcriptions of terrestrial nature. There is no reason why a mind thus wandering in ecstasy fhould count the clock, or why an hour fhould not be a century in that calenture of the brains that can make the ftage a field.
The truth is, that the fpectators are always in their fenfes, and know, from the firft Act to the laft, that the stage is only a ftage, and that the players are only players. They come to hear a certain number of lines recited with juft gefture and elegant modulation. The lines relate to fome action, and an action must be in fome place; but the different actions that complete a ftory may be in places very remote from each other; and where is the abfurdity of allowing that space to reprefent firft Athens, and then Sicily, which was always known to be neither Sicily nor Athens, but a modern theatre ?
By fuppofition, as place is introduced, time may be extended; the time required by the fable elapfes for the most part between the acts; for, of fo much
4 So in the Epiftle Dedicatory to Dryden's Love Triumphant: "They who will not allow this liberty to a poet, make it a very ridiculous thing, for an audience to fuppofe themselves fometimes to be in a field, fometimes in a garden, and at other times in a chamber. There are not, indeed, so many absurdities in their fuppofition, as in ours; but 'tis an original abfurdity for the audience to fuppofe themselves to be in any other place, than in the very theatre in which they fit; which is neither a chamber, nor garden, nor yet a publick place of any business but that of the reprefentation." STEEVENS.