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P R E F A C E . ' TO THE WORKs of SHAKESPEAR.:
T T is not my design to enter into a critieism upon I this author ; tho' to do it effectually and not fuperficially, would be the beft occasion that any juft writer could take, to form the judgment and taste of our nation. For of all English poets Shakespear muft be confessed to be the faireft and fullest subject for criticism, and to afford the most numerous, as well as most conspicuous instances, both of beauties and faults of all forts. 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 imputation 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 fufficient to prevent their doing him an injustice in the other.
Vol. VII, . X
I cannot however but mention some of his principal and characteristic excellencies, for which (not. withstanding his defects) he is justly and universally elevated above all other dramatic 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. Homer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of Na. ture ; it proceeded through Ægyptian strainers and channels, and came to him not without some tincture of the learning, or some cast of the models, of those before him. The poetry of Shakespear was inspiracion 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 injury to call them by so diftant a name as copies of her. Those of other Poets have a conftant resemblance, which shews that they received 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 m any respect appear most to be twins, will upon com
parison be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of character, we must add the wonder. ful 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 applied them with certainty to every speaker. .
The Power over ou Passions was never poffeffed in a more eminent degree, or displayed 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 perceived to lead toward ir: But the heart swells, and the tears burit qut, just at the proper places: We are surprized the moment we weep; and yet upon reflection find the passion fo jult, that we should be surprized 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 command ! that he is not more a ma. fter of the great than of the ridiculous in human nature; of our nobleft tendernesses, than of our vaineft foibles ; of our strongeit 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 pereits tration 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 a. mazing, 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 looked thro' human nature at one glance, and to be the only author that gives ground for a very new opinion, That the philofopher and even the man of the world, may be born as well as the poet.
It must be owned 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 enlightened a mind could ever have been susceptible of them. That all these contingencies should unite to his disadvantage feems to me almost as fingularly 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 levelled to please the fopulace, and its success more immediately depending upon der the common fuffrage. 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 gene. rally composed of the meaner fort 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&tly follow the common old stories or vulgar traditions, of that kind of people. In Tragedy, nothing was fo fure to furprize and cause admiration, as the most strange, unexpected, and consequently most unnatural, events and incidents; the most exaggerated thoughts; the most verbofe and bombaft expression; the most pompous rhymes, and thundering versification. In comedy, nothing was fo sure to please, as mean buffoonry, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jests of fools and clowns. Yet even in these, our author's wit buoys up, and is borne 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.
It may be added, that not only the common audience had no notion of the rules of writing, but few even of the better fort piqued themselves upon