Слике страница
PDF
ePub

his extravagance: he therefore indulged his natural difpofition, and his difpofition, as Rymer has remarked, led him to comedy. In tragedy he often writes with great appearance of toil and study, what is written at last with little felicity; but in his comick scenes, he feems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy he is always ftruggling after fome occafion to be comick, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragick scenes there is always fomething wanting, but his comedy often furpaffes expectation or defire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy feems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.

The force of his comick scenes has fuffered little diminution from the changes made by a century and a half, in manners or in words. As his perfonages act upon principles arifing from genuine paffion, very little modified by particular forms, their pleafures and vexations are communicable to all times and to all places; they are natural, and therefore durable; the adventitious peculiarities of perfonal habits, are only fuperficial dies, bright and pleafing for a little while, yet foon fading to a dim tinct, without any remains of former luftre; but the difcriminations of true paffion are the colours of nature; they pervade the whole mass, and can only perish with the body that exhibits them. The accidental compofitions of heterogeneous modes are diffolved by the chance which combined them; but the uniform fimplicity of primitive qualities neither admits increase, nor fuffers decay. The fand heaped by one flood is scattered by another, but the rock always continues in its place. The ftream of tim, which is continually washing the diffoluble

D 3

diffoluble fabricks of other poets, paffes without injury by the adamant of Shakspeare.

If there be, what I believe there is, in every nation, a ftyle which never becomes obfolete, a certain mode of phrafeology fo confonant and congenial to the analogy and principles of its refpective language, as to remain settled and unaltered; this style is probably to be fought in the common intercourse of life, among those who speak only to be understood, without ambition of elegance. The polite are always catching modifh innovations, and the learned depart from established forms of fpeech, in hope of finding or making better; those who wish for distinction forfake the vulgar, when the vulgar is right; but there is a conversation above groffness and below refinement, where propriety refides, and where this poet seems to have gathered his comick dialogue. He is therefore more agreeable to the ears of the present age than any other author equally remote, and among his other excellencies deferves to be ftudied as one of the original masters of our language.

These observations are to be confidered not as unexceptionably conftant, but as containing general and predominant truth. Shakspeare's familiar dialogue is affirmed to be smooth and clear, yet not wholly without ruggednefs or difficulty; as a country may be eminently fruitful, though it has fpots unfit for cultivation : his characters are praised as natural, though their fentiments are fometimes forced, and their actions improbable; as the earth upon the whole is fpherical, though its furface is varied with protuberances and cavities.

Shakspeare with his excellencies has likewife faults, and faults fufficient to obfcure and overwhelm any other merit. I fhall fhew them in the proportion in which they appear to me, without envioùs malignity or fuperftitious veneration.

6

tion. No queftion can be more innocently difcuffed than a dead poet's pretenfions to renown; and little regard is due to that bigotry which fets candour higher than truth.

His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He facrifices virtue to convenience, and is fo much more careful to please than to inftruct, that he feems to write without any moral purpofe. From his writings indeed a system of focial duty may be felected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to shew in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his perfons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close difmiffes them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer's duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent on time or place.

The plots are often fo loosely formed, that a very flight confideration may improve them, and fo carelessly purfued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own defign. He omits opportunities of inftructing or delighting, which the train of his ftory feems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the fake of those which are more eafy.

It may be obferved, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and in view of his reward, he fhortened the labour to snatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly reprefented.

He had no regard to diftinction of time or place, but gives to one age or nation, without fcruple, the customs, inftitutions, and opinions of another, at the expence not only of likelihood, but of poffibility. These faults Pope has endeavoured, with more zeal than judgment, to tranffer to his imagined interpolators. We need not wonder to find Hector quoting Aristotle, when we see the loves of Thefeus and Hippolyta combined with the Gothick my.. thology of Fairies. Shakspeare, indeed, was not the only violator of chronology, for in the fame age Sidney, who wanted nor the advantages of learning, has, in his Arcadia, confounded the paftoral with the feudal times, the days of innocence, quiet, and fecurity, with those of turbulence, violence, and adventure.

In his comick scenes he is feldom very fuccefsful when he engages his characters in reciprocations of smartness and contests of farcafm; their jefts are commonly grofs, and their pleasantry licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are fufficiently diftinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refinedð manners. Whether he represented the real converfation of his time is not easy to determine; the reign of Elizabeth is commonly fuppofed to have been a time of ftatelinefs, formality, and reserve, yet perhaps the relaxations of that severity were not very elegant. There must, however, have been always fome modes of gaiety preferable to others, and a writer ought to choose the best.

In tragedy his performance feems conftantly to be worse, as his labour is more. The effufions of paffion, which exigence forces out, are for the most part striking and energetick; but whenever he folicits his invention, or ftrains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumour, meannefs, tedioufnefs, and obfcurity.

In narration he affects a difproportionate pomp of dic

tion, and a wearifome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few. Narration in dramatick poetry is naturally tedious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obstructs the progress of the action; it should therefore always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakspeare found it an encumbrance, and instead of lightening it by brevity, endeavoured to recommend it by dignity and fplendour.

His declamations or fet speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragick writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and inftead of inquiring what the occafion demanded, to fhew how much his ftores of knowledge could supply, he feldom escapes without the pity or refentment of his reader.

It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well exprefs, and will not reject; he struggles with it a while, and if it continues ftubborn, comprifes it in words fuch as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled 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 difappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by fonorous epithets and fwelling figures.

But the admirers of this great poet have most reason to complain when he approaches nearest to his highest excellence, and feems fully refolved to fink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. What he does beft, he foon ceafes to do. He is not long

foft

« ПретходнаНастави »