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As nothing is essential to the fable, but unity of action, and as the unities of time and place arise evidently from falfe affumptions, and, by circumscribing 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 obferved: 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 criticism of Voltaire :
"Non ufque adeo permifcuit imis
"Longus fumma dies, ut non, fi voce Metelli
Yet when I speak 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 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 a juft 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 observation 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 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 almost frighted at my own temerity; and when I estimate 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 fhall 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 originál 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 houses of European monarchs; yet who could forbear to view them with aftonish. ment, who remembered that they were built without the ufe of iron?
The English nation, in the time of Shakspeare, was yet struggling to emerge from barbarity. The philology of Italy had been tranfplanted 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 schools; and those 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 accomplishment ftill 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
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 chose 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 fuppofed to be copied from Chaucer's Gamelyn, was a little pamphlet of those times; and old Mr. Cibber remembered the tale of Hamlet in plain English profe, which the criticks have now to feek in Saxo Grammaticus.
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 fupplied 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 eafily caught than by fentiment or argumentation; and fuch is the power of the marvellous, even over those who defpife 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 restlefs and unquenchable curiofity, and compelling him that reads his work to read it through.
The shows and bustle with which his plays abound have the fame original. As knowledge advances, pleasure paffes from the eye to the ear, but returns, as it declines, from the ear to the eye. Those to whom our author's labours were exhibited had more skill in pomps or proceffions than in poetical language, and perhaps wanted fome vifible and difcriminated events, as comments on the dialogue. He knew how he should most please ; and whether his practice is more agreeable to nature, or whether his example has prejudiced the nation, we ftill find that on our ftage fomething 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 fpeaks the language of poets, and Shakspeare, of men. We find in Cato innumerable beauties which enamour us of its author, but we fee nothing that acquaints us with human fentiments or human actions; we place it with the fairest and the nobleft progeny which judgment propagates by conjunction with learning; but Othello is the vigorous and vivacious offspring of obfervation impregnated by genius. Cato affords a fplendid exhibition of artificial and fictitious manners, and delivers juft and noble fentiments, in diction easy, elevated, and harmonious, but its