« PreviousContinue »
bv indecent and indelicate manners and language. By contagion, or from complaisance to the taste of the public, Shakspeare falls sometimes into the fashionable mode of writing : but this is only by fits; for many parts of all his plays are written with the most noble, elegant, and uncorrupted simplicity. Such is his merit, that, the more just and refined the taste of the nation is become, the more he has increased in reputation. He was approved by his own age, admired by the next, and is revered, and almost adored by the present. His merit. is disputed by little wits, and his errors are the jests of little critics; but there has not been a great poet, or great critic, since his time, who has not spoken of him with the highest veneration, Mr. Voltaire alone excepted ; whose translations often, whose criticisms still oftener, prove he did not perfectly understand the words of the Author ; and therefore it is certain he could not enter into his meaning He comprehended enough to perceive that Shakspeare was unobservant of some established rules of composition; the felicity, with which he performs what no rules can
teach, escapes him. Will an intelligent spectator not admire the prodigious structures of Stone-Henge, because he does not know by what law of mechanics they were raised ? Like them, our Author's works will remain for eyer the greatest monuments of the amazing force of nature, which we ought to view as we do other prodigies, with an attention to, and admiration of their stupendous parts, and proud irregularity of greatness.
It has been already declared, that Shakspeare is not to be tried by any code of critic laws; nor is it more equitable to judge him entirely by the practice of any particular theatre. Yet some criterion must be established by which we may determine his merits. First, we must take into consideration what is proposed to be done by the means of dramatic imitation. Every species of poetry has its distinct offices. The effecting certain moral purposes, by the representation of a fable, seeins to have been the universal intention, from the first institution of the Drama to this time ; and to have prevailed,
not only in Europe, but in all countries where the dramatic art has been attempted. It has indeed been the common aim of all poetry to please and instruct; but by means as various as the kinds of composition. We are pleased with the ode, the elegy, the eclogue; not only for having invention, spirit, elegance, and such perfections as are necessary to recommend any sort of poetry, but we also require that each should have its specific merit; the ode, that which constitutes the perfection of an ode, &c. In these views, then, our Author is to be examined: First, whether his fables answer the noblest end of fable, moral instruction ; next, whether his dramatic imitation has its proper dramatic excellence. In the latter of these articles, perhaps, there is not any thing will more assist our judgment than a candid comparison (where the nature of the subjects will bear it) between his, and some other celebrated dramatic compositions. It is idle to refer to a vague, unrealized
, idea of perfection : we may safely pronounce that to be well executed, in any art, which, after the repeated efforts of great geniuses, is equal to any
thing which has been produced. We may securely applaud what the ancients have crowned, therefore should not withhold our approbation wherever we find our countryman has equalled the most admired passages in the Greek tragedians ; but we shall not do justice to his native talents, when they are the object of consideration, if we do not remember the different circumstances under which tliese writings were composed. Shakspeare's plays were to be acted in 'a paltry tavern, to an unlettered audience, just emerging from barbarity: the Greek tragedies were to be exhibited at the public charge, under the care and auspices of the magistrates, at Athens; where the very populace were critics in wit, and connoisseurs in public spectacles. The period when Sophocles and Euripides wrote, was that in which the fine arts, and polite literature, were in a degree of perfection which succeeding ages have emulated in vain.
It happened in the literary as in the moral world; a few sages, from the veneration which they had obtained by extraordinary wisdom,
and a faultless conduct, rose to the authority of legislators. The practice and manner of the three celebrated Greek tragedians were by succeeding critics established as dramatic laws : happily for Shakspeare, Mr. Johnson, whose genius and learning render him superior to a servile awe of pedantic institutions, in his in genious preface to his edition of Shakspeare, has well obviated all that can be objected to our Author's neglect of the unities of time and place.
Shakspeare's felicity has been rendered complete in this age. His genius produced works that time could not destroy: but some of the lighter characters were become illegible; these have been restored by critics, whose learning and penetration have traced back the vestiges of superannuated opinions and customs. They are now no longer in danger of being effaced, and the testimony of these learned commentators to his merit, will guard our Author's great monument of human wit from the presumptuous invasions of our rash critics, and the squibs of our