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It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and, in view of his reward, he Shortened the labour, to fnatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly represented.
He had no regard to distinction of time or place, but gives to one age or nation, without scruple, the customs, institutions, and opinions of another, at the expence not only of likelihood, but of poffibility. These faults Pope has endeavoured, with more z-al than judgment, to transfer to his imagined interpolators. We need not wonder to find Hector quoting Aristotls, when we see the loves of Theseus and Hippolyta combined with the Gothick mythology of fairies. Shakespeare, indeed, was not the only violater of chronology; for in the same ge Sidney, who wanted not the advantages of learning, has, in his Arcadia, confounded the pastoral with the feudal times, the days of innocence, quiet and security, with those of turbulence, violence and adventure.
In his comic scenes he is seldom very successful, when he engages his characters in reciprocations of smartness and con.teft of sarcasm ; their jefts are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are fufficiently distinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners.
Whether he represented the real conversation of his time is not easy to determina ; th: reign of Elizabeth is commonly suppored to have been a time of stateliness, formality and reserve, yet perhaps the relaxations of that severity were not very elegant. There must, however, have bien always some modes of gaiety preferable to others, and a writer ought to chuse the best.
In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be worse, as his labour is more. The effufions of passion which exigence forces out, are for the most part ftriking and energerick; but whenever he solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his thröes is tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obfcurity.
In narration he affects a disproportionate pomp of diction, and a wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few. Narration in dramatic poetry is naturally tedious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obstructs the progress of the action; it should therefore al. ways be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakespeare found it an encumbrance, and instead of lightening it by brevity, endeavoured to recommend it by dignity and-splendour.
His de lamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragic writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the o. cafion demanded; to show how much his stores of knowledge could fupply, he feldom escapes without the pity or refentment of his reader.
It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and evolved by those who have more leisare to bestow upon it.
Not that always where the language is intricate the thought is subtle, or the image always great where the line is bulky; the equality of words to things is
often neglected, and trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint
the attention, to which they are recommended by fonorous ephithets and swelling figures.
But the admirers of this great poet have never less reason to indulge their hopes of Supreme excellence, that when he seems fully resolved to fink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. He is not long soft and pathetic without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner begins to move, than he coun. teracts himself; and terrour and pity, as they are rifing in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.
A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures, it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irrefiftible. Whatever be the dignity or profoundity of his difquifition, whether he be enlarging know- ledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but 'a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfi. nilhed. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or itoop from his elevati.
A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.
It will be thought strange, that, in enumerating the defects of this writer, I have not yet mentioned his neglect of the unities ; his violation of those laws which have been instituted and established by the joint authority of poets and of criticks.
For his other deviations from the art of writing, I resign him to critical justice, without making any other demand in his favour, than that which must be indulged to all human excellence; that his virtues be rated with his failings : But, from the cenfure which this irregularity may bring upon him, I shall, with due reverence to that learning which I muft oppose, adventure to try how I can defend him.
His hiftories, being neither tragedies nor comedies, are not subject to any of their laws; nothing more is necessary to all the praise which they expect, than that the changes of action be so prepared as to be understood, that the incidents be various and affecting, and the characters consistent, natural and distinct. No other unity is intended, and therefore none is to be fought.
In his other works he has well enough preserved the unity of action. He has not, indeed, an intrigue regularly per. plexed and regularly unravelled ; he does not endeavour to hide his design only to discover it, for this is seldom the order of real events, and Sheakspeare is the poet of nature : But his plan has commonly what Aristotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; one event is concatenated with another, and the conclusion follows by easy consequence. There are perhaps some incidents that might be spared, as in other poets there is much talk that only fills up time upon the stage ; but the general system makes gradual advances, and the end of the play is the end of expectation.
To the unities of time and place he has shewn no regard, and perhaps a nearer view of the principles on which they Aand will diminish their value, and withdraw from them the veneration which, from the time of Corneille, they have very generally received, by discovering that they have VOL. I.
given more trouble to the poet, then pleasure to the auditor.
The necessity of observing the unities of time and place arises from the supposed necessity of making the drama credible. The criticks hold it impoffible, that an action of months or years can be possibly believed to pass in three hours; or that the spectator can suppose himself to fit in the theatre, while ambassadors go and return betwe. n distant kings, while armies are levied and towns besieged, while an exile wanders and returns, or till he whom they saw courting his mistress, shall lament the untimely fall of his son. The mind revolts from evident falsehood, and fiction loses its force when it departs from the resemblance of reality.
From the narrow limitation of time necessarily arises the contraction of place. The spectator, who knows that he faw the first act at Alexandria, cannot suppose that he sees the next at Rome, at a distance to which not the dragons of Medea could, in so short a time, have transported him ; he knows with certainty that he has not changed his place ; and he knows that place cannot change itself; that what was a house cannot become a plain; that what was Thebes can never be Persepolis.
Such is the triumphant language with which a critic exults over the misery of an irregular poet, and exults commonly without refiftance or reply. It is time therefore co tell him, by the authority of Shakespeare, that he assumes, as an unquestionable principle, a pofition, which, while his breath is forming it into words, his understanding pronounces to be false. It is false, that any representation is mistaken for reality; that any dramatic fable in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a single moment, was ever credited.
The objection arising from the impoffibility of passing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, supposes,