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M R. POPE, in the preface to his edition of Shakspeare, sets out with declaring, that, of all English poets, this author offers the fullest and fairest subject for criticism. Animated by an opinion of such authority, some of the most learned and ingenious of our critics have made correct editions of his works, and enriched them with notes. The superiority of talents and learning, which I acknowledge in these editors, leaves me no room to entertain the rain presumption of attempting to correct any passages of this celebrated Author ; but the whole, as corrected and elucidated by them, lies open to a thorough enquiry into the genius of our great English classic. Unprejudiced and candid judgment will be the surest basis of his fame. But he seems now in danger of incurring the fate of the heroes of the fabulous ages, on whom the vanity of their country, and the superstition of the times, bestowed an apotheosis founded on pretensions to achievements beyond human capacity, by which they lost, in a more sceptical and critical age, the glory due to them for what they had really done ; and all the veneration they had obtained, was ascribed to ignorant credulity, and national prepossession. -Our Shakspeare, whose very faults pass here unquestioned, or are perhaps consecrated through the enthusiasm of his admirers, and the veneration paid to long-established fame, is by a great wit, a great critic, and a great poet of a neighbouring nation, treated as a writer of monstrous farces, called by him Tragedies; and barbarism and ignorance are attributed to the nation, by which he is admired. Yet if wits, poets, critics, could ever be charged with presumption, one might say there was some degree of it in pronouncing, that, in a country where Sophocles and Euripides are as well understood as in any part, of Europe, the perfections of dramatic poetry should be as little comprehended as among the
Learning here is not confined to ecclesiastics, or a few lettered sages and academics : every English gentleman has an education, which gives him an early acquaintance with the writings of the ancients. His knowledge of polite literature does not begin with that period, which Mr. de Voltaire calls le siécle de Louis quatorze. Be- . fore he is admitted as a spectator at the theatre in London, it is probable he has already heard the tragic muse as she spoke at Athens, and as she now speaks at Paris, or in Italy; and he can discern between the natural language, in which she once addressed the human heart, and the artificial dialect which she has acquired from the prejudices of a particular nation, or the jargon caught from the tone of a court. In order to please upon the French stage, every person of every age and nation was made to adopt French manners.
The heroes of antiquity were not more disguised in the romances of Calprenede and Scuderi, than in the tragedies of Corneille. In spite of the admonitions given by that admira
ble critic Boileau to their dramatic writers in the following lines :
Gardez donc de donner, ainsi que dans Clélie,
the Horatii are represented no less obsequious in their address to their king, than the courtiers of the grand monarque. Theseus is made a mere sighing swain. Many of the greatest men of antiquity, and even the roughest heroes amongst the Goths and Vandals, are exhibited in this effeminate form. The poet dignified the piece, perhaps, with the name of an Hercules ; but, alas ! it was always Hercules spinning, that was shewn to the spectator. And yet the editor of Corneille's works, in terms so gross as are hardly pardonable in such a master of fine raillery, frequently attacks our Shakspeare for the want of delicacy and politeness in his pieces. It must be owned, that in some places they bear the marks of the unpolished times in which he wrote ; but one cannot forbear smiling to hear a