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Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind. When the imagination is recreated by a painted landscape, the trees are not fuppofed capable to give us fhade, or the fountains coolness; but we confider, how we fhould be pleafed with fuch fountains playing befide us, and fuch woods waving over us. We are agitated in reading the history of Henry the Fifth, yet no man takes his book for the field of Agencourt. A dramatick exhibition is a book recited with concomitants that encrease or diminifh its effect. Familiar comedy is often more powerful on the theatre, than in the page; imperial tragedy is always lefs. The humour of Petruchio may be heightened by grimace; but what voice or what gefture can hope to add dignity or force to the foliloquy of Cato. L
A play read, affects the mind like a play acted. It is therefore evident, that the action is not fupposed to be real, and it follows that between the acts a longer or fhorter time may be allowed to pafs, and that no more account of fpace or duration is to be taken by the auditor of a drama, than by the reader of a narrative, before whom may pafs in an hour the life of a hero, or the revolutions of an empire.
Whether Shakespeare knew the unities, and rejected them by defign, or deviated from them by happy ignorance, it is, I think, impoffible to decide, and useless to inquire. We may reasonably suppose, that, when he rofe to notice, he did not want the counfels
counfels and admonitions of fcholars and crticks, and that he at laft deliberately perfifted in a practice, which he might have begun by chance. As nothing is effential to the fable, but unity of action, and as the unities of time and place arife evidently from false affumptions, and, by circumfcribing the extent of the drama, leffen its variety, I cannot think it much to be lamented, that they were not known by him, or not observed: Nor, if fuch another poet could arife, fhould I very vehemently reproach him, that his firft act paffed at Venice, and his next in Cyprus. Such violations of rules merely pofitive, become the comprehenfive genius of Shakespeare, and fuch cenfures are fuitable to the minute and flender criticism of Voltaire :
Non ufque adeo permiscuit imis
Longus fumma dies, ut non, fi voce Metelli
Serventur leges, malint a Cæfare tolli.
Yet when I fpeak thus flightly of dramatick rules, I cannot but recollect how much wit and learning may be produced against me; before fuch authorities I am afraid to ftand, not that I think the prefent question one of thofe that are to be decided by mere authority, but because it is to be fufpected, that these precepts have not been fo eafily received but for better reafons than I have yet been able to find. The refult of my enquiries, in which it would be ludicrous to boast of impartiality, is, that the unities of time and place are not effential to a juft dra
ma, that though they may fometimes conduce to pleafure, they are always to be facrificed to the nobler' beauties of variety and inftruction; and that a play, written with nice obfervation of critical rules, is to be contemplated as an elaborate curiofity, as the product of fuperfluous and oftentatious art, by which is fhewn, rather what is poffible, than what is neceffary.
He that, without diminution of any other excellence, fhall preferve all the unities unbroken, deferves the like applaufe with the architect, who fhall difplay all the orders of architecture in a citadel, without any deduction from its ftrength; but the principal beauty of a citadel is to exclude the enemy; and the greatest graces of a play, are to copy nature and inftruct life.
Perhaps, what I have here not dogmatically but deliberately written, may recal the principles of the drama to a new examination. I am almoft frighted at my own temerity; and when I eftimate the fame and the ftrength of thofe that maintain the contrary opinion, am ready to fink down in reverential filence; as Eneas withdrew from the defence of Troy, when he faw Neptune fhaking the wall, and Juno heading the befiegers.
Those whom my arguments cannot perfuade to give their approbation to the judgment of Shakespeare, will eafily, if they confider the condition of his life, make fome allowance for his ignorance.
Every man's performances, to be rightly eftimated, must be compared with the fate of the age in
which he lived, and with his own particular oppor→ tunities; and though to the reader a book be not worfe or better for the circumftances of the authour, yet as there is always a filent reference of human works to human abilities, and as the enquiry, how far man may extend his defigns, or how high he may rate his native force, is of far greater dignity than in what rank we shall place any particular performance, curiofity is always bufy to difcover the inftruments, as well as to furvey the workmanship, to know how much is to be ascribed to original powers, and how much to cafual and adventitious help. The palaces of Peru or Mexico were certainly mean and incommodious habitations, if compared to the houses of European monarchs; yet who could forbear to view them with astonishment, who remembered that they were built without the ufe of iron?
The English nation, in the time of Shakespeare, was yet struggling to emerge from barbarity. The philology of Italy had been transplanted hither in the reign of Henry the Eighth; and the learned languages had been fuccessfully cultivated by Lilly, Linacer, and More; by Pole, Cheke, and Gardiner; and afterwards by Smith, Clerk, Haddon, and Afcham. Greek was now tought to boys in the principal fchools; and thofe who united elegance with learning, read, with great diligence, the Italian and Spanish poets. But literature was yet confined to profefied scholars, or to men and women of high rank. The publick was grofs and dark; and to be able to read and write, was an accomplishment still valued for its rarity.
Nations, like individuals, have their infancy. A people newly awakened to literary curiofity, being yet unacquainted with the true ftate of things, knows not how to judge of that which is propofed as its refemblance. Whatever is remote from common appearances is always welcome to vulgar, as to childish credulity; and of a country unenlightened by learning, the whole people is the vulgar. The ftudy of thofe who then afpired to plebeian learning was laid out upon adventures, giants, dragons, and enchantments. The Death of Arthur was the favourite volume.
The mind, which has feafted on the luxurious wonders of fiction, has no tafte of the infipidity of truth. A play which imitated only the common occurrences of the world, would, upon the admirers of Palmerin and Guy of Warwick, have made little impreffion; he that wrote for fuch an audience was under the neceffity of looking round for firange events and fabulous tranfactions, and that incredibility, by which maturer knowledge is offended, was the chief recommendation of writings, to unfkilful curiofity.
Our authour's plots are generally borrowed from novels, and it is reafonable to fuppofe, that he chofe the most popular, fuch as were read by many, and related by more; for his audience could not have followed him through the intricacies of the drama, had they not held the thread of the story in their hands.
The ftories, which we now find only in remoter authours, were in his time acceffible and familiar. VOL. I. The