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speare, what a man of great rank is to one of the lower sort born with the same talents of mind." When we speak of genius, we always mean that which is original and inherent, not any thing produced or derived from what is external. But Mr. Voltaire, by saying the genius of Corneille has that superiority over our countryman, which a person of rank has over a man in a low station, born with the same talents, perplexes the thing very much. It seems to carry the comparison from the genius, to the manner, of the writers.
If that manner is preferable, which gives the most becoming sentiments and the noblest character to the principal person of his drama, there is no doubt but our Poet has perfectly established his superiority over his competitor; for it cannot be denied, that Cinna is un homme du peuple (a low fellow), compared to Brutus.
Mr. Voltaire, in all the comparisons he has made between these authors, has not taken into theaccount that Shakspeare has
written the best comedy in our language: that the same man should have had such variety of talents, as to have produced Macbeth and the Merry Wives of Windsor, is astonishing. Where is there an instance, among the ancients or moderns, of one poet's uniting the sublime and pathetic, the boldest inventions of fiction, and the most just and accurate delineation of characters; and also possessing the vis comica in its highest perfection? The best French poets have been those
Who from the ancients like the ancients writ;
and who have aspired to the secondary' praise of good imitators: but all our critics allow Shakspeare to be an original. Mr. Pope confesses him to be more so than even Homer himself. It has been demonstrated with great ingenuity and candour, that he was destitute of learning: the age was rude and void of taste; but what had a still more pernicious influence on his works, was, that the court and the universities, the statesmen and scholars, affected a scientific jargon. An obscurity of expression
was thought the veil of wisdom and knowledge and that mist common to the morn and eve of literature, which in fact proves it is not at its high meridian, was affectedly thrown over the writings, and even the conversation of the learned, who often preferred images distorted or magnified, to a simple exposition of their thoughts. Shakspeare is never more worthy of the true critic's censure, than in those instances in which he complies with this false pomp of manner. It was pardonable in a man of his rank, not to be more polite and delicate than his contemporaries; but we cannot so easily excuse such superiority of talents for stooping to any affectation.
I may perhaps be charged with partiality to my author, for not having indulged that malignant spirit of criticism, which delights in exposing every blemish. I have passed over beauties and defects, in the same silence, where they have not essentially affected the great purposes of the Drama. They are of so palpable a nature, that the most inattentive reader must perceive them: the splendour of
his fine passages is equally striking. It appears to me that the dramatic requires a different species of criticism from any other poetry. A drama is to be considered in the light of a living body; regularity of features, grace of limbs, smoothness and delicacy of complexion, cannot render it perfect, if it is not properly organized within, as well as beautiful in its external structure. Many a character in a play, like a handsome person paralytic, is inert, feeble, and totally unfit for its duties and offices, so that its necessary exertions must be supplied by some substitute. The action is carried on much after the manner it is done in epic poetry, by the help of description and narration, and a series of detached parts.
It is unfair to judge singly of every line in a work where the merit depends on the result of various operations, and repated efforts to obtain a particular end. Works without genius are usually regularly dull, and coldly correct, resembling those living characters that want, while
They dream the blank of life along,
Sense to be right, and passion to be wrong*.
Some allowances must be made to those who are more animated and more employed, if in the bustle of great actions, and the exertion of great powers, they fall into some little errors. The genius of Shakspeare is so extensive and profound, I have reason to fear a greater number of excellencies have escaped my discernment, than I have suffered faults to pass without my animadversion: but I hope this weak attempt to vindicate our great dramatic Poet, will excite some critic able to do him more ample justice. In that confidence I have left untouched many of his pieces, which deserve the protection of more judicious zeal, and skilful care.
* Dr. Young's Satires.