Page images

immortality; some or all of which have encourag’d the vanity, or animated the ambition, of other writers.

Yet it must be observed, that when his performances had merited the protection of his prince, and when the encouragement of the court had succeeded to that of the town; the works of his riper years are manifestly raised above those of his former. The dates of his plays sufficiently evidence that his productions improved, in proportion to the respect he had for his auditors. And, I make no doubt, this observation would be found true in every instance, were but editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was composed, and whether writ for the town, or the court.

first upon

Another cause (and no less strong than the former) may be deduced from our author's being a player, and forming himself

the judgments of that body of men whereof he was a member. They have ever had a standard to themselves, upon other principals than those of Aristotle. As they live by the majority, they know no rule but that of pleasing the present humour, and complying with the wit in fashion; a consideration which brings all their judgment to a short point. Players are just such judges of what is right, as taylors are of what is graceful. And in this view it will be but fair to allow, that most of our author's faults are less to be ascribed to his wrong judgment as a poet, than to his right judgment as a player.

By these men it was thought a praise to Shakespear, that he scarce ever blotted a line. This they industriously propagated, as appears from what we are told by Ben. Jonson in his discoveries, and from the preface of Heminges and Gondell to the first folio edition. But in reality (however it has prevailed) there never was a more groundless report, or to the contrary of which there are more undeniable evidences. As, the comedy of the Merry Wives of Windsor, which he entirely new writ; the History of Henry the fixth, which was first published under the title of the Contention


[ocr errors]

of York and Lancaster ; and that 'of Henry the fifth, extremely iinproved; that of Hamlet enlarged to almost as much again as at first, and many others. I believe, the common opinion of his want of learning proceeded from no better ground. This too might be thought a praise by some; and to this his errours have as injudiciously been ascribed by others. For 'tis certain, were it true, it could concern but a small part of them; the most are such as are not properly defects, but superfætations; and arise not from want of learning or reading, but from want of thinking or judging: or rather (to be more just to our author) from a compliance to those wants in others. As to a wrong choice of the subject, a wrong conduct of the incidents, false thoughts, forc'd expreslions, &c. if these are not to be ascrib’d to the foresaid accidental reasons, they must be charg'd upon


poet himself, and there is no help for it. But, I think, the two disadvantages which I have mention’d (to be obliged to please the lowest of people, and to keep the worst of company) if the consideration be extended as far as it reasonably may, will

appear sufficient to mislead and depress the greatest genius upon earth.

. Nay the more modesty with which such a one is endued, the more he is in danger of submitting and conforming to others, against his own better judgment.

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

But as to his want of learning, it may be necessary to say something more There is certainly a vast difference between learning and languages : how far he was ignorant of the latter, I cannot determine; but 'tis plain he had much reading at least, if they will not call it learning. Nor is it any great matter, if a man has knowledge, whether he has it from one language or from another. Nothing is more evident than that he had a taste of natural philosophy, mechanicks, ancient and modern history, poctical learning, and mythology: we find him very knowing in the customs, rites, and manners, of antiquity. În Coriolanus and Julius Cæsar, not only the spirit, but maồners, of the Romans are exactly drawn; and still a nicer distinction is shown, between the manners of the Romans in the time of the former,


and of the latter. His reading in the ancient historians is no less conspicuous, in many references to particular passages : and the speeches copy'd from Plutarch in Coriolanus may, I think, as well be made an instance of his learning, as those copy'd from Cicero in Catiline, of Ben. Jonson's. The manners of other nations in general, the Ægyptians, Venetians, French, &c. are drawn with equal propriety. Whatever object of nature, or branch of science, he either speaks of or describes; it is always with competent if not extensive knowledge: his descriptions are still exact ; all his metaphors appropriated, and remarkably drawn from the true nature and inherent qualities of each subject. When he treats of ethick or politick, we may constantly observe a wonderful justness of distinction as well as extent of comprehension. No one is more a master of the poetical story, or has more frequent allusions to the various parts of it: Mr. Waller (who has been celebrated for this last particular) has not shown more learning this way than Shakespear. We have translations from Ovid published in his name, among those poems which pass for his, and for some of which we have undoubted authority, (being published by himself, and dedicated to his noble patron the ear) of Southampton :) he appears also to have been conversant in Plautus, from whom he has taken the plot of one of his plays : he follows the Greek authors, and particularly Dares Phrygius, in another : (although I will not pretend to say in what language he read them.) The modern Italian writers of novels he was manifestly acquainted with; and we may conclude him to be no less conversant with the ancients of his own country, from the use he has made of Chaucer in Troilus and Cresida, and in the Two Noble Kinsmen, if that play be his, as there goes a tradition it was, (and, indeed, it has little resemblance of Fletcher, and more of our author than some of those which have been received as genuine.)

I am inclined to think, this opinion proceeded originally from the zeal of the partizans of our author and Ben. Jonson; as they endeavoured to exalt the one at the expence of the other. It is

[ocr errors]

ever the nature of parties to be in extremes ; and nothing is so probable, as that because Ben. Fonfon had much the most learning, it was said, on the one hand, that Shakespear had none at all; and because Shakespear had much the most wit and fancy, it was retorted on the other, that Jonson wanted both. Because Shakespear borrowed nothing, it was said that Ben. Jonson borrowed every thing. Because Yonfon did not write extempore, he was reproached with being a year about every piece; and because Shakespear wrote with ease and rapidity, they cry'd, he never once made a blot. Nay the spirit of opposition ran so high, that whatever those of the one side objected to the other, was taken at the rebound, and turned into praises; as injudiciously, as their antagonists before had made them objections.

Poets are always afraid of envy; but, fure, they have as much reason to be afraid of admiration. They are the Scylla and Charybdis of authors; those who escape one often fall by the other. Peffimum genus inimicorum laudantes, says Tacitus : and Virgil desires to wear a charm against those who praise a poet without rule or reason.

Si ultra placitum laudárit, baccare frontem Cingito, ne vati noceat But however this contention might be carried on by the partizans on either side, I cannot help thinking these two great poets were good friends, and lived on amicable terms and in offices of society with each other. It is an acknowledged fact, that Ben. Jonson was introduced upon the stage, and his first works encouraged, by Shakespear. And after his death, that author writes To the memory of his beloved Mr. William Shakespear, which ihows as if the friendihip had continued through life. I cannot for my own part find any thing invidious or Sparing in those verses, but wonder Mr. Dryden was of that opinion. He exalts him not only above all his contemporaries, but above Chaucer and Spenser,whom he will not allow to be great enough to be rank'd with him; and challenges the names of Sophocles, Euripides, and Æschylus, nay all Greece and Rome at once, to equal him; and (which is very particular)


[ocr errors]

expressly vindicates him from the imputation of wanting art, not enduring that all his excellencies should be attributed to nature. It is remarkable too, that the praise he gives him in his Discoveries feems to proceed from a personal kindness; he tells us that he lov’d the man, as well as honoured his memory; celebrates the honesty, openness, and frankness, of his temper; and only distinguishes, as he reasonably ought, between the real merit of the author, and the filly and derogatory applauses of the players. Ben. Fon on might, indeed, be sparing in his commendations (though certainly he is not so in this instance) partly from his own nature, and partly from judgment. For men of judgment think they do any man more service in praising him justly, than lavishly. I say, I would fain believe they were friends, though the violence and ill-breeding of their followers and flatterers were enough to give rise to the contrary report. I would hope, that it may be with parties, both in wit and state, as with those monsters described by the poets; and that their heads at least may have something human, though their bodies and tails are wild beasts and serpents.

As I believe that what I have mentioned gave rise to the. opinion of Shakespear's want of learning ; so what has continued it down to us may have been the many blunders and illiteracies of the first publishers of his works. In these editions their ignorance shines almost in every page; nothing is more common than Aftus tertia. Exit omnes. Enter three witches folus. Their French is as bad as their Latin, both in construction and spelling: their very Welsh is false. Nothing is more likely than that those palpable blunders of Hector's quoting Aristotle, with others of that grofs kind, sprung from the same root : it not being at all credible that these could be the errours of any man who had the least tincture of a school, or the Icast conversation with such as had. Ben. Jonson (whom they will not think partial to him) allows him at least to have had forne L::tin; which is utter'y inconlillint with mistakes like these. Nay the constant blunders in proper names of persons and places, are such as must have



« PreviousContinue »