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pal schools ; and those who united elegance with learning, read, with great diligence, the Italian and Spanish poets, But literature was yet confined to professed scholars, or to men and women of high rank. The public was gross and dark; and to be able to read and write, 'was an accomplishment till valued for its rarity.
Nations, like individuals, have their infancy. A people newly awakened to literary curiosity, being yet unacquainted with the true state of things, knows not how to judge of that which is proposed as its resemblance. 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 study of those who then aspired to plebeian learning was laid out upon adventures, giants, dragons, and enchantments. Tbe Death of Arthur was the favourite volume.
The mind, who has feasted on the luxurious wonders of fiction, has no taste of the insipidity 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 impression; he that wrote for such an audience was under the n cessity of looking round for strange ev nts and fabulous transactions, and that incredibility, by which maturer knowledge is offended, was the chief recommenda. tion of writings, to skilful curiosity.
Our author's plots are generally borrowed from novels, and it is reasonable to suppose, that he chose the most popular, such as were read by many, and related by more ; for his audience could not have followed him tặrough the intricacies of the drama, had they not held the thread of the story in their hands.
The stories, which we now find only in remoter authors, were in his time accessible and familiar.
The fable of As you like it, which is supposed 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 prose, which the criticks have now to seek in Saxo Grammaticus.
His English histories he took from English chronicles and English ballads; and as the ancient writers were made known to his countrymen by versions, they supplied him with new subjects; he dilated fome of Plutarch's lives into plays, when they had been translated by North.
His plots, whether historical or fabulous, are alway& crouded with incidents, by which the attention of a rude people was more eafily caught than by sentiment or argumentation; and such is the power of the marvellous, even over, those who despise it, that every man finds his mind more strongly seized by the tragedies of Shakespeare than of any other writer; others please us by particular speeches, but he always makes us anxious for the event, and has perhaps exa celled all but Homer in securing the first prispose of a writer, by exciting restless and unquenchable curiosity, and compelling him that reads his work to read it through.
The shows and bustle with which his plays abound have the same original. As knowledge advances, pleasure passes 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 processions than in poetical language, and perhaps wanted some visible and discri. minated ev. nts, as comments on the dialogue. He knew how he fould most please; and whether his practice is more agreeable to nature, or whether his example has prejudiced the nation, we still find that on our stage something must be done as well as said, and inactive declamation is very coldly heard, however musical or elegant, passionate or sublimea
Voltaire expresses his wonder, that our authour's extravagances are endured by a nation, which has seen the tragedy of Cato. Let him be answered, that Addison speaks the language of poets, and Shakespeare of men. We find in Cato innumerable beauties which enamour us of its authour, but we see nothing that acquaints us with human sentiments or human actions; we place it with the fairest and the noblest progeny which judgment propagates by conjunction with learning, but Othello is the vigorous and vivacious offspring of observation impregnated by genius. Cato affords a splendid exhibition of artificial and fictitious manners, and delivers just and noble sentiments, in diction easy, elevated and harmonious, but its hopes and fears communicate no vibration to the heart; the composition îefers us only to the writer; we pronounce the name of Cato, but we think on Addison.
The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately formed and diligently planted, varied with shades, and scented with flowers ; the composition of Shakespeare is a forest, in which oaks extend their branches, and pines tower in the air, interspersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and roses; filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endless diversity.' Other poets display cabinets of precio. rarities, minutely finished, wrought into shape, and polished unto brightness. Shakespeaee opens a mine which fontains gold and diamonds in unexhaustible plenty, though clouded by incrustations, debased by impurities, and mingled with a mass of meaner minerals.
It has been much disputed, whether Shakespeare owed his excellence to his own native force, or whether he had the common helps of fcholaftick education, the precepts of critiial science, and the examples of ancient authoxrs.
There has always prevailed a tradition, that Shakespeare wanted learning, that he had no regular education, nor much skill in the dead languages. Johnson, his friend, affirms, that be bad fmall Latin, and no Greek; who, besides that he had no imaginable temptation to falsehood, wrote at a time when the character and acquisitions of Shakespeare were known to multitudes. His evidence ought therefore to decide the controversy, unless fome testimony of equal force could be opposed.
Some have imagined, that they have discovered deep learning in many imitations of old writers; but the examples which I have known urged, were drawn from books translated in his time; or were such easy coincidencies of thought, as will happen to all who consider the same subjects; or such remarks on life or axioms of morality as float in converfation, and are transmitted through the world in proverbial sentences
I have found it remarked, that, in this important sentence, Go before, I'll follow, we read a translation of, I prae, fequar. I have been told, that when Caliban, after a pleasing dream, says, I cry'd to sleep again, the authour imitates Anacreon, who had, like every other man, the same with on the fame occasion.
There are a few passages which may pass for imitations ; but fo few, that the exception only confirms the rule ; he obtained them from accidental quotations, or by oral communication, and as he used what he had, would have used more if he had obtained it.
The Comedy of Errors is confessedly taken from the Menæchmi of Plautus ; from the only play of Plautus which was then in English. What can be more probable, than
that he who copied that, would have copied more, but that those which were not translated were inaccessible ?
Whether he knew the modern languages is uncertain. That his plays have some French scenes, proves but little : be might easily procure them to be written, and probably even though he had known the language in the common degree, he could not have written it without affiftance. In the story of Romeo and Juliet he is observed to have fol. lowed the English tranNation, where it deviates from the Italian ; but this on the other part proves nothing against his knowledge of the original. He was to copy, not what he knew himself, but what was known to his audience.
It is most likely that he had learned Latin fufficiently to make him acquainted with construction, but that he never advanced to an easy perusal of the Roman authours. Concerning his skill in modern languages, I can find no sufficient ground of determination ; but as no imitations of French or Italian authours have been dis overed, though the Italian poetry was then in high efteem, I am inclined to believe that he read little more than English, and chose for his fables only such tales as he found translated.
That much knowledge is scattered over his works, is very juftly observed by Pope, but it is often such knowledge as books did not supply. He that will unde: ftand Shakespeare, muft not be content to study him in the closet; he must look for his meaning sometimes among the sports of the field, and sometimes among the manufactures of the hop.
There is however proof enough that he was a very dili. gent reader; nor was our language then so indigent of books; but that he might very liberally indulge his curiosity without excursion into foreign literature. Many of the Roman authours were translated, and some of the Greek; the re