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of the action as is reprefented, the real and poetica duration is the fame. If, in the first Act, preparations for war against Mithridates are represented to be made in Rome; the event of the war may, without abfurdity, be represented, in the catastrophe, as happening in Pontus; we know that there is neither war, nor preparation for war; we know that we are neither in Rome nor Pontus; that neither Mithridates nor Lucullus are before us. The drama exhibits fucceffive imitations of fucceffive actions, and why may not the fecond imitation represent an action that happened years after the firft; if it be fo connected with it, that nothing but time can be supposed to intervene? Time is, of all modes of existence, moft obfequious to the imagination; a lapfe of years is as eafily conceived as a paffage of hours. In contemplation we eafily contract the time of real actions, and therefore willingly permit it to be contracted when we only fee their imitation.
It will be asked, how the drama moves, if it is not credited. It is credited with all the credit due to a drama. It is credited, whenever it moves, as a juft picture of a real original; as reprefenting to the auditor what he would himself feel, if he were to do or fuffer what is there feigned to be suffered or to be done. The reflection that frikes the heart is not, that the evils before us are real evils, but that they are evils to which we ourselves may be expofed. If there be any fallacy, it is not that we fancy the players, but that we fancy ourselves unhappy for a moment; but we rather lament the poffibility than fuppofe the presence of mifery, as a mother weeps over her babe, when fhe remembers that death may take it from her. The delight of tragedy proceeds from our confcioufnefs of fic
tion; if we thought murders and treafons real, they would please no more.
Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind. When the imagination is recreated by a painted landscape, the trees are not fuppofed capable to give us fhade, or the fountains coolness; but we confider, how we fhould be pleased with such fountains playing befide us, and fuch woods waving over us. We are agitated in reading the history of Henry the Fifth, yet no man takes his book for the field of Agincourt. A dramatick exhibition is a book recited with concomitants that increase or diminish its effect. Familiar comedy is often more powerful 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 gefture 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 fupposed 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 defign, or deviated from them by happy ignorance, it is, I think, impoffible to decide, and useless to enquire. We may reasonably suppose, that, when he rose to notice, he did not want the counsels and admonitions of scholars 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 arife evidently from false affumptions, and, by circumfcribing the extent of the drama, leffen its variety, I cannot think it much to be lamented, that they were not known by him, or not observed: nor, if fuch another poet could arife, fhould I very vehemently reproach him, that his first Act paffed at Venice, and his next in Cyprus. Such violations of rules merely pofitive, become the comprehenfive genius of Shakspeare, and fuch cenfures are fuitable to the minute and flender criticifm of Voltaire :
"Non ufque adeo permifcuit imis
Yet when I fpeak thus flightly of dramatick rules, I cannot but recollect how much wit and learning may be produced againft me; before fuch authori ties I am afraid to ftand, not that I think the prefent question one of those that are to be decided by mere authority, but because it is to be fufpected, that these precepts have not been fo eafily received, but for better reasons than I have yet been able to find. The refult of my inquiries, in which it would be ludicrous to boaft of impartiality, is, that the unities of time and place are not effential to at just drama, that though they may fometimes conduce to pleasure, they are always to be facrificed to the nobler beauties of variety and inftruction; 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 shown, 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 display 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 almost frighted at my own temerity; and when I eftimate the fame and the strength of those that maintain the contrary opinion, am ready to fink down in reverential filence; as Æneas withdrew from the defence of Troy, when he faw Neptune fhaking the wall, and Juno heading the befiegers.
Those whom my arguments cannot perfuade to give their approbation to the judgment of Shakfpeare, will eafily, if they confider the condition of his life, make fome allowance for his igno
Every man's performances, to be rightly estimated, must be compared to the ftate 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 circumftances of the author, yet as there is always a filent reference of human works to human abilities, and as the enquiry, 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 shall place any particular performance, curiofity is always bufy 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 adven
titious help. The palaces of Peru or Mexico were certainly mean and incommodious habitations, if compared to the houfes of European monarchs; yet who could forbear to view them with aftonishment, who remembered that they were built without the ufe 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 fuccefsfully 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 fchools; and thofe who united elegance with learning, read, with great diligence, the Italian and Spanish poets. But literature was yet confined to profeffed fcholars, or to men and women of high rank. The publick was grofs and dark; and to be able to read and write, was an accom→ plishment still valued for its rarity.
Nations, like individuals, have their infancy. A people newly awakened to literary curiofity, being yet unacquainted with the true ftate of things, knows not how to judge of that which is propofed as its refemblance. 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 thofe who then afpired 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 tafte of the infipidity of truth. A play, which imitated only the common