Слике страница

on the theatre, than in the page; imperial tragedy is always lefs. The humour of Petruchio may be heightened by grimace; but what voice or what gesture can hope to add dignity or force to the foliloquy of Cato?,

A play read, affects the mind like a play acted. It is therefore evident, that the action is not supposed to be real; and it follows, that between the acts a longer or fhorter time may be allowed to pass, and that no more account of space or duration is to be taken by the auditor of a drama, than by the reader of a narrative, before whom may pass in an hour the life of a hero, or the revolutions of an empire.

Whether Shakspeare knew the unities, and rejected them by design, or deviated from them by happy ignor ance, it is, I think, impoffible to decide, and useless to inquire. We may reasonably suppose, that, when he rose to notice, he did not want the counfels and admonitions of fcholars and criticks, and that he at last deliberately perfifted in a practice, which he might have begun by chance. As nothing is effential to the fable, but unity of action, and as the unities of time and place arise evidently from false affumptions, and, by circumfcribing the extent of the drama, lessen its variety, I cannot think it much to be lamented, that they were not known by him, or not obferved: : nor, if fuch another poet could arise, should I very vehemently reproach him, that his first act paffed at Venice, and his next in Cyprus. Such violations of rules merely positive, become the comprehenfive genius of Shakspeare, and fuch cenfures are fuitable to the minute and flender criticism of Voltaire:

Non ufque adeo permiscuit imis

Longus fumma dies, ut non, fi voce Metelli
Serventur leges, malint a Cæfare tolli.


Yet when I fpeak thus flightly of dramatick rules, I cannot but recollect how much wit and learning may be produced against me; before fuch authorities I am afraid to stand, not that I think the prefent question one of those that are to be decided by mere authority, but because it is to be suspected, that these precepts have not been so easily received, but for better reafons than I have yet been able to find. The refult of my inquiries, in which it would be ludicrous to boast of impartiality, is, that the unities of time and place are not effential to a juft drama; that though they may fometimes conduce to pleasure, they are always to be facrificed to the nobler beauties of variety and instruction; and that a play, written with nice obfervation of critical rules, is to be contemplated as an elaborate curiofity, as the product of fuperfluous and oftentatious art, by which is fhown, rather what is poffible, than what is neceffary.

He that, without diminution of any other excellence, fhall preferve all the unities unbroken, deferves the like applaufe with the architect, who fhall difplay all the orders of architecture in a citadel, without any deduction from its ftrength; but the principal beauty of a citadel is to exclude the enemy; and the greatest graces of a play are to copy nature, and inftruct life.

Perhaps, what I have here not dogmatically but deliberately written, may recall the principles of the drama to a new examination. I am almoft frighted at my own temerity; and, when I eftimate the fame and the strength of thofe that maintain the contrary opinion, am ready to fink down in reverential filence; as neas withdrew from the defence of Troy, when he faw Neptune fhaking the wall, and Juno heading the besiegers.

Those whom my arguments cannot perfuade to give their approbation to the judgment of Shakspeare, will


eafily, if they confider the condition of his life, make some allowance for his ignorance.

Every man's performances, to be rightly estimated, must be compared with the state of the age in which he lived, and with his own particular opportunities; and though to a reader a book be not worse or better for the circumstances of the author, yet as there is always a filent reference of human works to human abilities, and as the inquiry, how far man may extend his defigns, or how high he may rate his native force, is of far greater dignity than in what rank we fhall place any particular performance, curiosity is always busy to discover the inftruments, as well as to furvey the workmanship, to know how much is to be ascribed to original powers, and how much to cafual and adventitious help. The palaces of Peru or Mexico were certainly mean and incommodious habitations, if compared to the houses of European monarchs ; yet who could forbear to view them with astonishment, who remembered that they were built without the use of iron?

The English nation, in the time of Shakspeare, was yet ftruggling to emerge from barbarity. The philology of Italy had been transplanted hither in the reign of Henry the Eighth; and the learned languages had been fucceffully cultivated by Lilly, Linacre, and More; by Pole, Cheke, and Gardiner; and afterwards by Smith, Clerk, Haddon, and Afcham. Greek was now taught to boys in the principal schools; and those who united elegance with learning, read, with great diligence, the Italian and Spanish poets. But literature was yet confined to professed scholars, or to men and women of high rank. The publick was grofs and dark; and to be able to read and write, was an accomplishment still valued for its rarity.

Nations, like individuals, have their infancy. A peo

[blocks in formation]

ple newly awakened to literary curiofity, being yet unacquainted with the true ftate of things, know not how to judge of that which is proposed as its resemblance. Whatever is remote from common appearances is always welcome to vulgar, as to childish credulity; and of a country unenlightened by learning, the whole people is the vulgar. The ftudy of those who then aspired to plebeian learning was laid out upon adventures, giants, dragons, and enchantments. The Death of Arthur was the favourite volume.

The mind, which has feafted on the luxurious wonders of fiction, has no taste of the infipidity of truth. A play, which imitated only the common occurrences of the world, would, upon the admirers of Palmerin and Guy of Warwick, have made little impreffion; he that wrote for fuch an audience was under the neceffity of looking round for ftrange events and fabulous tranfactions, and that incredibility, by which maturer knowledge is offended, was the chief recommendation of writings, to unfkilful curiofity.

Our author's plots are generally borrowed from novels; and it is reasonable to fuppofe, that he chofe the most popular, fuch as were read by many, and related by more; for his audience could not have followed him through the intricacies of the drama, had they not held the thread of the story in their hands.

The ftories, which we now find only in remoter authors, were in his time acceffible and familiar. The fable of As you like it, which is supposed to be copied from Chaucer's Gamelyn, was a little pamphlet of thofe times; and old Mr. Cibber remembered the tale of Hamlet in plain English profe, which the criticks have now to feek in Saxo Gram


His English hiftories he took from English chronicles

and English ballads; and as the ancient writers were made known to his countrymen by verfions, they supplied him with new fubjects; he dilated fome of Plutarch's lives into plays, when they had been tranflated by North.

His plots, whether hiftorical or fabulous, are always crouded with incidents, by which the attention of a rude people was more easily caught than by fentiment or argumentation; and fuch is the power of the marvellous, even over those who despise it, that every man finds his mind more strongly seized by the tragedies of Shakspeare than of any other writer; others please us by particular speeches, but he always makes us anxious for the event, and has perhaps excelled all but Homer in fecuring the first purpose of a writer, by exciting restless and unquenchable curiofity, and compelling him that reads his work to read it through.

The fhows and buftle with which his plays abound have the fame original. As knowledge advances, pleasure passes from the eye to the ear, but returns, as it declines, from the ear to the eye. Thofe to whom our author's labours were exhibited had more fkill in pomps or proceffions than in poetical language, and perhaps wanted fome visible and difcriminated events, as comments on the dialogue. He knew how he should moft please; and whether his practice is more agreeable to nature, or whether his example has prejudiced the nation, we still find that on our stage something must be done as well as faid, and inactive declamation is very coldly heard, however mufical or elegant, paffionate or fublime.

Voltaire expreffes his wonder, that our author's extravagancies are endured by a nation, which has feen the tragedy of Cato. Let him be answered, that Addison speaks the language of poets, and Shakspeare, of men. We find in Cato innumerable beauties which enamour us of its

[blocks in formation]
« ПретходнаНастави »