Page images

În touching on another part of his learning, as it related to the knowledge of history and books, I shall advance something that, at first sight, will very much wear the appearance of a paradox. For I shall find it no hard matter to prove, that, from the groffest blunders in history, we are not to infer his real ignorance of it; nor from a greater use of Latin words, than ever any other English author used, must we infer his intimate acquaintance with that language.

A reader of taste may easily observe, that though Shakspeare, almost in every scene of his historical plays, commits the grossest offences against chronology, history, and ancient politicks; yet this was not through ignorance, as is generally supposed, but through the too powerful blaze of his imagination, which, when once raised, made all acquired knowledge vanish and disappear before it. But this licence in him, as I have said, must not be imputed to ignorance, since as often we may find him, when occasion ferves, reasoning up to the truth of history; and throwing out sentiments as justly adapted to the circumstances of his subject, as to the dignity of his characters, or dictates of nature in general.

Then to come to his knowledge of the Latin tongue, it is certain, there is a surprizing effusion of Latin words made English, far more than in any one English author I have seen; but we must be cautious. to imagine, this was of his own doing. For the English tongue, in this age, began extremely to suffer by an inundation of Latin: and this, to be sure, was occafioned by the pedantry of those two monarchs, Elizabeth and James, both


great Latinists. For it is not to be wondered at, if both the court and schools, equal flatterers of power, should adapt themselves to the royal taste.

But now I am touching on the question (which has been so frequently agitated, yet so entirely undecided) of his learning and acquaintance with the languages ; an additional word or two naturally falls in here upon the genius of our author, as compared with that of Jonson his contemporary. They are confessedly the greatest writers our nation could ever boast of in the drama. The first, we say, owed all to his prodigious natural genius; and the other a great deal to his art and learning. This, if attended to, will explain a very remarkable appearance in their writings. Besides those wonderful inalter-pieces of art and genius, which each has given us; they are the authors of other works very unworthy of them: but with this difference, that in Jonson's bad pieces we do not discover one single trace of the author of The Fox and Alchemist; but, in the wild extravagant notes of Shakspeare, you every now and then encounter strains that recognize the divine composer. This difference may be thus accounted for. Jonson, as we said before, owing all his excellence to his art, by which he sometimes strained himself to an uncommon pitch, when at other times he unbent and played with his subject, having nothing then to support him, it is no wonder that he wrote so far beneath himself. But Shakspeare, indebted more largely to nature than the other to acquired talents, in his most negligent hours could never so totally diveft himself of his genius, but that it would frequently break out with astonislıing force and fplendor.


As I have never proposed to dilate farther on the character of my author, than was necessary to explain the nature and use of this edition, I shall proceed to consider him as a genius in possession of an everlasting name. And how great that merit must be, which could gain it against all the disadvantages of the horrid condition in which he has hitherto appeared! Had Homer, or any other admired author, first started into publick so maimed and deformed, cannot determine whether they had not funk for ever under the ignominy of such an ill appearance.

The mangled condition of Shakspeare has been acknowledged by Mr. Rowe, who published him indeed, but neither corrected his text, nor collated the old copies. This gentleman had abilities, and sufficient knowledge of his author, had but his industry been equal to his talents. The same mangled condition has been acknowledged too by Mr. Pope, who published him likewise, pretended to have collated the old copies, and very seldom has corrected the text but to its injury. I congratulate with the manes of our poet, that this gentleman has been sparing in indulging his private sense, as he phrases it; for he, who tampers with an author, whom he does not understand, must do it at the expence of his subject. I have made it evident throughout my remarks, that he has frequently inflicted a wound where he intended a cure. He has acted with regard to aur author, as an editor, whom Lipsius mentions, did with regard to MARTIAL; Inventus eft nefcio quis Popa, qui non vitia ejus, sed ipsum excidit. He has attacked him like an unhandy Naughterman; and not lopped of the errors,

[ocr errors]

but the poet.

When this is found to be fact, how absurd must appear the praises of such an editor! It seems a moot point, whether Mr. Pope has done most injury to Shakspeare, as his editor and encomiast; or Mr. Rymer done him service, as his rival and censurer. They have both shewn themselves in an equal impuisance of suspecting or amending the corrupted passages: and though it be neither

prudence to censure or commend what one does not understand; yet if a man must do one when he plays the critick, the latter is the more ridiculous office; and by that Shakspeare suffers moft. For the natural veneration which we have for him makes us apt to swallow whatever is given us as his, and fet off with encomiums; and hence we quit all suspicions of depravity: on the contrary, the censure of so divine an author sets us upon his defence; and this produces an exact scrutiny and examination, which ends in finding out and discriminating the true from the fpurious.

It is not with any secret pleasure that I so frea quently animadvert on Mr. Pope as a critick, but there are provocations, which a man can never quite forget. His libels have been thrown out with fo much inveteracy, that, not to dispute whether they should come from a christian, they leave it a question whether they could come from a man.

I should be loth to doubt, as Quintus Serenus did in a like case:


" Sive homo, feu fimilis turpissima bestia nobis
“ Vulnera dente dedit.

[ocr errors]

The indignation, perhaps, for being represented a blockhead, may be as strong in us, as it is in the

[ocr errors]

It is cer

ladies for a reflection on their beauties. tain, I am indebted to him for some flagrant civilities; and I shall willingly devote a part of my life to the honest endeavour of quitting scores : with this exception, however, that I will not return those civilities in his peculiar strain, but confine myself, at least, to the limits of common decency. I shall ever think it better to wánt wit than to want humanity: and impartial posterity may, perhaps, be of my opinion.

But to return to my subject, which now calls upon me to enquire into those causes, to which the depravations of my author originally may be affigned. We are to consider him as a writer, of

a whom no authentick manuscript was left extant; as a writer, whose pieces were dispersedly performed on the several suges then in being. And it was the custom of those days for the poets to take a price of the players for the pieces they from time to time furnished; and thereupon it was supposed they had no farther right to print them without the consent of the players. As it was the interest of the companies to keep their plays unpublished, when any one succeeded, there was a contest betwixt the curiosity of the town, who demanded to fee it in print, and the policy of the fagers, who wished to secrete it within their own walls. Hence many pieces were taken down in short-hand, and imperfectly copied by ear from a representation : others were printed from piecemeal parts surreptitiously obtained from the theatres, uncorrect, and without the poet's knowledge. To some of these causes we owe the train of blemishes, that deform those pieces which stole fingly into the world in our author's life-time.

« PreviousContinue »