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That this is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism will be ready allowed; but there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature. The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to inftruct by pleasing. That the mingled drama may convey all the inftruction of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied, because it includes both in its al. terations of exhibition, and approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life, by shewing how great machinations and sender designs may promote or obviate one another, and the high and the low co-operate in the general system by unavoidable concatenation.
It is objected, that by this change of scenes the passions are interrupted in their progression, and that the principal event, being not advanced by a due gradation of perparatory incidents, wants at last the power to move, which conftitutes the perfection of dramatick poetry. This reasoning is so specious, that it is received as true even by those who in daily experience feel it to be false. The interchanges of mingled scenes seldom fail to produce the intended viciffitudes of paflion. Fiction cannot move so much, but that the attention may be easily transferred; and though it must be allowed that pleasing melancholy be sometimes interrupta ed by unwelcome levity, yet let it be considered likewise, that melancholy is often not pleasing, and that the disturbance of one man may be the relief of another; that dif. ferent auditors have different habitudes; and that, upon the whole, all pleasure consists in variety.
The players, who in their edition divided our author's works into comedies histories, and tragedies, seem not to have distinguished the three kinds, by any very exact or definite idea.
An action which ended happily to the principal persons, however serious or distressful through its intermediate inci.
dents, in their opinion constituted a comedy. This idea of a comedy continued long amongst us, and plays were written, which, by changing the catastrophe, were tragedies to-day and comedies to-morrow.
Tragedy was not in those times a poem of more general dignity or elevation than comedy; it required only a calamitous conclusion, with which the common criticism of that age was latisfied, whatever lighter pleasure it afforded in its progress.
History was a series of actions, with no other than chronological succession, independent on each other, and without any tendency to introduce or regulate the conclufion. It is not always very nicely distinguished from tragedy. There is not much nearer approach to unity of action in the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, than in the history of Richard the Second, But a history might be continued through many plays ; as it had no plan, it had no limits.
Through all these denominations of the drama, Shakespeare's mode of composition is the same; an interchange of seriousness and merriment, by which the mind is foftened at one time, and exhilarated at another. But whatever be his purpose, whether to gladden or depress, or to conduct the story, without vehemence or emotion, through tracts of easy and familiar dialogue, he never fails to attain his purpofe ; as he commands us, we laugh or mourn, or fit filent with quiet expectation, in tranquillity without indifference.
When Shakespeare's plan is understood, most of the criticisms of Rhymer and Voltaire vanish away. The play of Hamlet is opened, without impropriety, by two sentinels; Iago bellows at Brabantio's window, without injury to the Scheme of the play, though in terms which a modern audi. ence would not easily endure; the character of Polonius is
seasonable and useful; and the Grave-diggers themselves may be heard with applause.
Shakespeare engaged in dramatic poetry with the world open before him; the rules of the ancients were yet known to few; the public judgment was uniformed; he had no example of such fame as might force him upon imitation, nor criticks of such authority as might restrain his extravagance : He therefore indulged his natural disposition, and his difpofition, as Rhymer has remarked, led him to comedy. In tragedy he often writes with great appearance of toil and Audy, what is written at last with little felicity; but in his comic scenes, he seems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy he is always struggling after fome occafion to be comic, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragic scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or defire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be inftin&.
The force of his comic scenes has suffered little diminution from the changes made by a century and a half, in manners or in words. As his personages, act upon principles arising from genuine passion, very little modified by particu- . lar forms, their pleasures and vexations are communicable to all times and to all places; they are natural, and therefore durable; the adventitious peculiarities of personal habits, are only superficial dies, bright and pleasing for a little while, yet foon fading to a im tinct, without any remains of former luftre; but the discriminations of true paffion are the colours of nature, they pervade the whole mass, and can only perish with the body that exhibits them. The acci. dental compositions of heterogeneous modes are dissolved by
the chance which combined them; but the uniform fimpli. city of primitive qualities neither admits increase, nor suffers decay. The fand heaped by one flood is scattered by another, but the rock always continues in its place. The stream of time, which is continually washing the diffoluble fabricks of other poets, passes without injury by the adamant of Shakespeare.
If there be, what I believe there is, in every nation, a Atile which never becomes obsolete, a certain mode of phraseology so consonant and congenial to the analogy and principles of its respective language as to remain settled and unaltered; this stile is probably to be fought in the common intercourse of life, among those who speak only to be underfood, without ambition of elegance. The polite are always catching modifh innovations, and the learned depart from eftablished forms of speech, in hope of finding or making better; those who wish for distinction, forsake the vulgar, when the vulgar is right; but there is a conversation above grofsness and below refinement, where propriety resides, and where this poet seems to have gathered his comic dialogue. He is therefore more agreeable to the ears of the present age than any other author equally remote, and among his other excellencies deserves to be studied as one of the original masters of our language.
These observations are to be considered not as unexceptionably constant, but as containing general and predominant truth. Shakespeare's familiar dialogue is affirmed to be smooth and clear, yet not wholly without ruggedness or difficulty; as a country may be eminently fruitful, though it has spots unfit for cultivation : His characters are praised as natural, though their sentiments are sometimes forced, and their actions improbable; as the earth upon the whole is spherical, though its surface is varied with protuberances and cavities.
Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults, and faults sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any other merit*. I shall thew them in the proportion in which they appear to me, without envious malignity or superstitious veneration. No question can be more innocently discussed than a dead poet's pretensions to renown; and little regard is due to that bigotry which sets candour higher than truth.
His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He facrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to inftrud, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a fyftem of social duty may be see lected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally ; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him ; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to Thew in the virtuous, a disapprobation of the wicked ; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and "leaves their examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer's duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent on time or place.
The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very night confideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own defign. He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting, which the train of his story seems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy.
• In this passage, Dr. Johnson has been charged with asserting, that Shakespeare's faults were sufficient to obscure and overwhelm his Excellencies : But by other merit, he certainly means the merit of any other writer,