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MR POPE'S PREFACE.
T is not my design to enter into a criticism upon this author;
though to do it effectually and not fuperficially, would be the best occasion that any just writer could take, to form the judgment and taste of our nation. For of all English poets Shakespear must be confessed to be the fairest and fullest subject for criticism, and to afford the most numerous, as well as most conspicuous instances, both of beauties and faults of all sorts. But this far exceeds the bounds of a preface, the business of which is only to give an account of the fate of his works,and the disadvantages under which they have been transmitted to us. We shall hereby extenuate many faults which are his, and clear him from the iinputation of many which are not: a design, which, though it can be no guide to future criticks to do him justice in one way, will at least be sufficient to prevent their doing him an injustice in the other.
I CANNOT, however, but mention some of his principal and characteristick excellencies, for which (notwithstanding his defects) he is justly and universally elevated above all other dramatick writers. Not that this is the proper place of praising him, but because I would not omit any occasion of doing it.
If ever any author deserved the name of an original, it was Shakespear. Horner himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of nature; it proceeded through Ægyptian strainers and channels, and came to him not without some tincture of the learning, or some caft of the models, of those before him. The
poetry of Shakespear was inspiration indeed : he is not so much an imitator, as an instrument, of nature; and 'tis not so just to say, that he speaks from her, as that she speaks through him.
His.characters are so much nature herself, that 'tis a sort of jnjury to call them by fo distant a name as copies of her. Those of other poets have a constant resemblance, which shows that they receiv'd them from one another, and were but multipliers of the same image: each picture, like a mock-rainbow, is but the reflection of a reflection. But every single character in Shakespear is as much an individual, as those in life itself; it is as impossible to find any two alike; and such as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be twins, will, upon comparison, be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of character, we must add the wonderful preservation of it; which is such throughout his plays, that, had all the speeches been printed without the very names of the persons, I believe, one might have apply'd them with certainty to every speaker.
The power over our passions was never possess'd in a more eminent degree, or display'd in so different instances. Yet all along, there is seen no labour, no pains to raise them ; no preparation to guide our guess to the effect, or be perceiv'd to lead toward it: but the heart swells, and the tears burst out, just at the proper places: we are surpriz'd, the moment we weep; and yet upon reflection find the passion so just, that we should be surpriz'd if we had not wept, and wept at that very moment.
How astonishing is it again, that the passions directly opposite to these, laughter and spleen, are no less at his commands that he is not more a master of the great, than of the ridiculous in human nature; of our noblest tendernesses, than of our vainest foibles; of our strongest emotions, than of our idleft sensations !
Nor does he only excel in the passions: in the coolness of reflection and reasoning he is full as admirable. His sentiments
are not only in general the most pertinent and judicious upon every subject; but, by a talent very peculiar, something between penetration and felicity, he hits upon that particular point on which the bent of each argument turns, or the force of each motive depends. This is perfectly amazing, from a man of, no education or experience in those great and publick scenes of life which are usually the subject of his thoughts : so that he seems to have known the world by intuition, to have look'd through human nature at one glance, and to be the only author that gives ground for a very new opinion, that the philosopher, and even the man of the world, may be born, as well as the poet.
. It must be own’d, that with all these great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, so he has, perhaps, written worse, than any other. But I think, I can in some measure account for these defects, from several causes and accidents; without which it is hard to imagine that so large and so enlighten'd a mind could ever have been susceptible of them. That all these contingencies should unite to his disadvantage seems to me almost as singularly unlucky, as that so many various (nay contrary) talents should meet in one man, was happy and extraordinary.
It must be allowed, that stage-poetry of all other, is more particularly levell’d to please the populace, and its success more immediately depending upon the common suffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakespear, having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a subsistence, directed his endeavours. solely to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed. The audience was, generally, composed of the meaner sort of people; and therefore the images of life were to be drawn from those of their own rank: accordingly we find, that not our author's only, but almost all the old comedies have their scene among tradesmen and mechanicks : and even their historical plays ftri&ly follow the common old stories, or vulgar traditions, of that kind of people. In tragedy, nothing was so sure to surprise and
cause admiration; as the most ftrange, unexpected, and consequently most unnatural, events and incidents ; the most exaggerated thoughts; the inost verbose and bombast expression; the most pompous rhymes, and thundering versification. In comedy, nothing was so sure to please, as mean buffoonery, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jests of tools and clowns. Yet even in these, our author's wit buoys up, and is born above his subject : his genius in those low parts is like some prince of a romance in the disguise of a shepherd or peasant ; a certain greatness and spirit now and then break out, which manifeft his higher extraction and qualities.
may be added, that not only the common audience had no notion of the rules of writing, but few even of the better fort piqu’d themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way; till Ben. Jonson, getting pofleffion of the stage, brought critical learning into vogue: and that this was not done without difficulty, may appear from those frequent lessons (and indeed almost declamations) which he was forced to prefix to his first plays, and put into the mouth of his actors, the grex, ciorus, &c. to remove the prejudices, and inform the judgment of his hearers. Till then, our authors had no thoughts of writing on the model of the ancients: their tragedies were only histories in dialogue ; and their comedies followed the thread of any novel as they found it, no less implicitly than if it had been true history.
To judge therefore of Shakespear by Aristotle's rules, is like trying a man by the laws of one country, who acted under those of another. He writ to the people ; and writ at first without patronage from the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleasing them: without assistance or advice from the learned, as without the advantage of education or acquaintance among them: without that knowledge of the best models, the ancients
, to inspire him with an emulation of them: in a word, without any views of reputation, and of what poets are pleas’d to call