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The contest about the original benevolence or malignity of man had not yet commenced. Speculation had not yet attempted to analyse the mind, to trace the pasions to their sources, to unfold the feminal principles of vice and virtue, or found the depths of the heart for the motives of action. All those enquiries, which from that time that human nature became the fashionable study, have been made fometimes with nice discernment, but often with idle subtilty, were yet unattempted. The tales, with which the infancy of learning was satisfied, exhibited only the superficial appearances of action, related the events, but omitted the causes, and were formed for such as delighted in wonders rather than in truth. Mankind was not then to be studied in the closet; he that would know the world, was under the necessity of gleaning his own remarks, by mingling as he could in its business and amusements.
Boyle congratulated himself upon his high birth, because it favoured his curiosity, by facilitating his access. Shakelpeare had no fich advantage; he came to London a needy adventurer, and lived for a time by very mean employınents. Many works of genius and learning have been performed in states of life, that appear very little favourable to thought or to enquiry; so many, that he who considers them is inclined to think that he fees enterprize and perseverance predominating over all external agency, and bidding help and hindrance vanish before them. The genius of Shakespeare was not to be depresied by the weight of poverty, nor limited by the narrow conversation to which men in want are inevitably con
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F À demned the incumbrances of his fortune were shaken from his mind, as dew-drops from a lion's
Though he had so many difficulties to encounter, and so little affistance to surmount them, he has been able to obtain an exact knowledge of many
modes of life, and many casts of native dispositions ; to vary them with great multiplicity; to mark them by nice distinctions; and to few tiern in fuli view by proper combinations. In this part of his performances he had none to imitate, but has himself been imitated by all succeeding writers; and it may be doubted, whether from all his fucceffors more maxims of theoretical knowledge, or more rules of practical pruzdence, can be collected, than he alone has given to his country.
Nor was his attention confined to the actions of men; he was an exact surveyer of the inanimate world ; his descriptions have always some peculiarities, gathered by contemplating things as they really exist. It may be observe:t, that the oldest poets of many nations preserve their reputation, and that the following generations of wit, after a short celebrity, sink into oblivion.
sink into oblivion. The first, whoever they be, must take their fentiments and defcriptions ir.mediately from knowledge ; the resemblance is therefore juít, their descriptions are verified by every eye, and their sentiments acknowledged by every breast. Those whom their fame invites to the same studies, copy partly them, and partly nature, till the books of one age gain such authority, as to stand in [C3]
the place of nature to another, and imitation, always deviating a litt'e, becomes at last capricious and casual. Shakespeare, whether life or nature be his subject, shews plainly, that he has seen with his own cyes; he gives the image which he receives, not weakened cr distorted by the intervention of any other mind; the ignorant feel his representations to be just, and the learned see that they are complete.
Perhaps it would not be casy to find any author, except Homer, who invented so much as Shakespeare, who so much advanced the studies which he cultivated, or effused so much novelty upon his age or country. The form, the characters, the language, and the shows of the English drama are his. Ile seems, says Dennis, to have been the very original of our English tragiccl barmony, thet is, the harnicin of blank verse, diversified often by disyllable and trisyilable terminctions. For the diversity distinguishes it from heroick þarmony, and by bringing it nearer to common use makes it more proper to gain attention, and more fit for ailicz end dialogue. Such verse we make when we are criting prose; we make such verse in cominon conversation.
I know not whether this praise is rigorously just. The diffyllable termination, which the critick rightly appropriates to the drama, is to be found, though, I think, not in Gorboduc, which is confessedly before our author ; yet in Hieronnymo, of which the date is not certain, but which there is reason to believe at least as old as his earliest plays. This however is certain, that he is the first who taught either tragedy or comedy to please, there being no theatrical piece of
older writer, of which the name is known, except to antiquaries and collectors of books, which are sought because they are scarce, and would not have been scarce, had they been much esteemed.
To him we must ascribe the praise, unless Spenser may divide it with him, of having first discovered to how much smoothness and harmony the English language could be softened. He has speeches, perhaps sometimes scenes, which have all the delicacy of Rowe, without his effeminacy. He endeavours indeed commonly to strike by the force and vigour of his dialogue, but he never executes his purpose better, than when he tries to footh by foftness.
Yet it must be at last confessed, that as we owe every thing to him, he owes formething to us; that, if much of his praise is paid by perception and judgment, much is likewise given by custom and veneration. We fix our eyes upon his graces, and turn them from his deformities, and endure in him what we should in another loath or despise. If we endured without praising, respect for the father of our drama might excuse us; but I have seen, in the book of some modern critick, a collection of anomalies, which Thew that he has corrupted language by every mode of depravation, but which his admirer has accumulated as a monument of honour.
He has scenes of undoubted and perpetual excellence, but perhaps not one play, which, if it were now exhibited as the work of a contemporary writer, would be heard to the conclusion. I am indeed far
from thinking, that his works were wrought to his own ideas of perfection; when they were such as would satisfy the audience, they satisfied the writer. It is seldom that authors, though more studious of fame than Shakespeare, rise much above the standard of their own age; to add a little to what is best will always be sufficient for present praise, and those who find themselves exalted into fame, are willing to credit their encomiasts, and to spare the labour of contending with themselves.
It does not appear, that Shakespeare thought his works worthy of pofterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had any further profpect, than of present popularity and present profit. When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end; he soliciied no addition of honour from the rcader. He therefore made no scruple to repeat the same jests in many dialogues, or to entangle different plots by the famc knot of perplexity, which may be at least forgiven him, by those who recollect, that of Congreve's four comedies, two are concluded by a marriage in a mask, by a deception, which perhaps never happened, and which, whether likely or not, he did not invent.
So careless was this great poet of future fame, that, though he retired to ease and plenty, while he was yet little declined into the vale of years, before he could be disgusted with fatigue, or disabled by infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor desired to rescue those that had been already published from the depravations that obscured them, or secure to the rest