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Had Shakspeare made one unsuccessful attempt in the manner of the ancients (that he had any knowledge of their rules, remains to be proved,) it would certainly have been recorded by contemporary writers, among whom Ben Jonson would have been the first. Had his darling ancients been unskilfully imitated by a rival poet, he would at least have preserved the memory of the fact, to show how unsafe it was for any one, who was not as thorough a scholar as himself, to have meddled with their sacred remains.
“Within that circle none durst walk but he." He has represented Inigo Jones as being ignorant of the very names of those classick authors, whose architecture he undertook to correct; in his Poetaster he has in several places hinted at our poet's injudi. cious use of words, and seems to have pointed his ridicule more than once at some of his descriptions and characters. It is true that he has praised him, but it was not while that praise could have been of any service to him; and posthumous applause is al. ways to be had on easy conditions. Happy it was for Shakspeare, that he took nature for his guide, and, engaged in the warm pursuit of her beauties, left to Jonson the repositories of learning: so has he escaped a contest which might have rendered his life uneasy, and bequeathed to our possession the more valuable copies from nature herself: for Shakspeare was (says Dr. Hurd, in his notes on Horace's Art of Poetry) “ the first that broke through the bondage of classical superstition. And he owed this felicity, as he did some others, to his want of what is called the advantage of a learned education. Thus uninfluenced by the weight of early prepossession, he struck at once into the road of nature and common sense: and without designing, without knowing it, hath left us in his historical plays, with all their anomalies, an exacter re. semblance of the Athenian stage than is any where to be found in its most professed admirers and copyists.” Again, ibid: “It is possible, there are, who think, a want of reading, as well as vast superiority of genius, hath contributed to lift this astonishing man, to the glory of being esteemed the most original THINKER and SPEAKER, since the times of Homer.”
To this extract I may add the sentiments of Dr. Edward Young on the same occasion. “ Who knows whether Shakspeare might
It appears to me not only that Shakspeare had the favourable opinion of these lines which he makes Hamlet express, but that they were extracted from some play which he, at a more early period, had either produceri or projected upon the story of Dido and Æneas. The verses recited are far superior to those of any coeval writer: the parallel passage in Marlowe and Nashe's Disho will not bear the comparison. Possibly, indeed, it might have been his first attempt, before the divinity that lodo'd within hinn had instructed him to despise the tumid and unnatural style so much and so unjustly admired in his predecessors or contemporaries, and which he afterwards so happily ridiculed in "the swaggering vaine of Ancient Pistol.” Ritson.
not have thought less, if he had read more? Who knows if he might not have laboured under the load of Jonson's learning, as Enceladus under Ætna? His mighty genius, indeed, through the most mountainous oppression would
have breathed out some of his inextinguishable fire; yet possibly, he might not have risen up into that giant, that much more than common man, at which we now gaze with amazement and delight. Perhaps he was as learned as his dramatick province required; for whatever other learning he wanted, he was master of two books, which the last conflagra. tion alone can destroy; the book of nature, and that of man. These he had by heart, and has transcribed many admirable pages of them into his immortal works. These are the fountain-head, whence the Castalian streams of original composition flow; and these are often mudded by other waters, though waters in their distinct channel, most wholesome and pure; as two chemical li. quors, separately clear as chrystal, grow foul by mixture, and offend the sight. So that he had not only as much learning as his dramatick province required, but, perhaps as it could safely bear. If Milton had spared some of his learning, his muse would have gained more glory than he would have lost by it.”
Conjectures on Original Composition. The first remark of Voltaire on ihis tragedy, is that the former king had been poisoned by his brother and his queen. The guilt of the latter, however, is far from being ascertained. The Ghost forbears to accuse her as an accessary, and very forcibly recommends her to the mercy of her son. I may add, that her conscience appears undisturbed during the exhibition of the mock tragedy, which produces so visible a disorder in her husband who was really criminal. The last observation of the same author bas no greater degree of veracity to boast of; for now, says he, all the actors in the piece were swept away, and one Monsieur For. tenbras is introduced to conclude it. Can this be true, when Ho. ratio, Osric, Voltimand, and Cornelius survive? These, together with the whole court of Denmark, are supposed to be present at the catastrophe, so that we are not indebted to the Norwegian chief for having kept the stage from vacancy,
Monsieur de Voltaire has since transmitted, in an epistle to the Academy of Belles Lettres, some remarks on the late French translation of Shakspeare; but, alas! no traces of genius or vi. gour are discoverable in this crambe repetita, which is notorious only for its insipidity, fallacy, and malice. It serves indeed to show an apparent decline of talents and spirit in its writer, who no longer relies on his own ability to depreciate a rival, but appeals in a plaintive strain to the queen and princesses of France for their assistance to stop the further circulation of Shakspeare's
Impartiality, nevertheless, must acknowledge that his private correspondence displays a superior degree of animation. Perhaps an ague shook him when he appealed to the publick on this sub. ject; but the effects of a fever seem to predominate in his subsequent letter to Monsieur D'Argenteuil on the same occasion; for
such a letter it is as our John Dennis (while his phrenzy lasted) might be supposed to have written. “C'est moi qui autrefois parlai le premier de ce Shakspeare: c'est moi qui le premier montrai aux François quelques perles quels j'avois trouvé dans son enorme fumier.” Mrs. Montague, the justly celebrated authoress of the Essay on the Genius and Writings of our author, was in Pa. ris, and in the circle where these ravings of the Frenchman were first publickly recited. On hearing the illiberal expression already quoted, with no less elegance than readiness she replied “C'est un fumier qui a fertilize une terre bien ingrate."-- In short, the author of Zayre, Mahomet, and Semiramis, possesses all the mischievous qualities of a midnight felon, who, in the hope to con. ceal his guilt, sets the house he has robbed on fire.
As for Messieurs D'Alembert and Marmontel, they might safely be passed over with that neglect which their impotence of criti. cism deserves. Voltaire, in spite of his natural disposition to vi. lify an English poet, by adopting sentiments, characters, and situations from Shakspeare, has bestowed on him involuntary praise. Happily, he has not been disgraced by the worthless encomiums or disfigured by the aukward imitations of the other pair, who “ follow in the chace not like hounds that hunt, but like those who fill up the cry.” When D'Alembert declares that more sterling sense is to be met with in ten French verses than in thirty English ones, contempt is all that he provokes such contempt as can only be exceeded by that which every scholar will express, who may chance to look into the prose translation of Lucan by Marmontel, with the vain expectation of discovering either the sense, the spirit, or the whole of the original. Steevens.