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The fable of As you like it, which is fuppofed to be copied from Chaucer's Gamelyn, was a little pamphlet of thofe times; and old Mr. Cibber remembered the tale of Hamlet in plain English profe, which the criticks have now to feek in Saxo Grammaticus.
His English hiftories he took from English chronicles and English ballads; and as the ancient writers were made known to his countrymen by verfions, they fupplied him with new fubjects; he dilated fome of Plutarch's lives into plays, when they had been tranflated by North.
His plots, whether hiftorical or fabulous, are always crouded with incidents, by which the attention of a rude people was more eafily caught than by fentiment or argumentation; and fuch is the power of the marvellous even over thofe who defpife it, that every man finds his mind more ftrongly feized by the tragedies of Shakespeare than of any other wriothers please us by particular fpeeches, but he always makes us anxious for the event, and has perhaps excelled all but Homer in fecuring the first purpose of a writer, by exciting reftlefs and unquenchable curiofity, and compelling him that reads his work to read it through.
The fhows and bustle with which his plays abound have the fame original. As knowledge advances, pleasure paffes from the eye to the ear, but returns, as it declines, from the ear to the eye. Those to whom our authour's labours were exhibited had more fkill in pomps or proceffions than in poetical language, and
and perhaps wanted fome visible and difcriminated events, as comments on the dialogue. He knew how he fhould moft pleafe; and whether his practice is more agreeable to nature, or whether his example has prejudiced the nation, we still find that on our stage fomething must be done as well as faid, and inactive declamation is very coldly heard, however mufical or elegant, paffionate or fublime.
Voltaire expreffes his wonder, that our authour's extravagancies are endured by a nation, which has seen the tragedy of Cato. Let him be answered, that Addison fpeaks the language of poets, and ShakeSpeare, of men. We find in Cato innumerable beauties which enamour us of its authour, but we see nothing that acquaints us with human fentiments or human actions; we place it with the fairest and the noblest progeny which judgment propagates by conjunction with learning, but Othello is the vigorous and vivacious offspring of obfervation impregnated by genius. Cato affords a fplendid exhibition of artificial and fictitious manners, and delivers just and noble fentiments, in diction eafy, elevated and harmonious, but its hopes and fears communicate no vibration to the heart; the compofition refers us only to the writer; we pronounce the name of Cato, but we think on Addifon.
The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately formed and diligently planted, varied with fhades, and fçented with flowers; the compofition of Shakespeare is a foreft, in which oaks extend b 2 their
their branches, and pines tower in the air, interfperfed fometimes with weeds and brambles, and fometimes giving fhelter to myrtles and to rofes; filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endlefs diverfity. Other poets difplay cabinets of precious rarities, minutely finished, wrought into fhape, and polifhed unto brightness. Shakespeare opens a mine which contains gold and diamonds in unexhaustible plenty, though clouded by incrustations, debafed by impurities, and mingled with a mafs of meaner minerals.
It has been much difputed, whether Shakespeare owed his excellence to his own native force, or whether he had the common helps of fcholaftick education, the precepts of critical science, and the examples
of ancient authours.
There has always prevailed a tradition, that ShakeSpeare wanted learning, that he had no regular education, ner much skill in the dead languages. Johnfon, his friend, affirms, that he bad fmall Latin, and no Greek; who, befides that he had no imaginable temptation to falfehood, wrote at a time when the character and acquifitions of Shakespeare were known to multitudes. His evidence ought therefore to decide the controverfy, unless fome teftimony of equal force could be oppofed.
Some have imagined, that they have discovered deep learning in many imitations of old writers; but the examples which I have known urged, were drawn from books tranflated in his time; or were fuch
fuch eafy coincidencies of thought, as will happen to all who confider the fame fubjects; or fuch remarks on life or axioms of morality as float in converfation, and are tranfmitted through the world in proverbial fentences.
I have found it remarked, that, in this important fentence, Go before, I'll follow, we read a tranflation of, I prae, fequar. I have been told, that when Caliban, after a pleafing dream, fays, I cry'd to fleep again, the authour imitates Anacreon, who had, like every other man, the fame wifh on the fame occafion.
There are a few paffages which may pafs for imitations, but fo few, that the exception only confirms the rule; he obtained them from accidental quotations, or by oral communication, and as he used what he had, would have used more if he had obtained it.
The Comedy of Errors is confeffedly taken from the Menæchmi of Plautus; from the only play of Plautus which was then in English. What can be more probable, than that he who copied that, would have copied more; but that thofe which were not tranflated were inacceffible?
Whether he knew the modern languages is uncertain. That his plays have fome French fcenes 'proves but little; he might easily procure them to be written, and probably, even though he had known the language in the common degree, he could not have written it without affiftance. In the ftory of Romeo and Juliet he is obferved to have followed the English translation, where it deviates from the Itab 3
lian, but this on the other part proves nothing againft his knowledge of the original. He was to copy, not what he knew himfelf, but what was known to his audience.
It is most likely that he had learned Latin fufficiently to make him acquainted with conftruction, but that he never advanced to an eafy perufal of the Roman authours. Concerning his fkill in modern languages, I can find no fufficient ground of determination; but as no imitations of French or Italian authours have been discovered, though the Italian poetry was then high in efteem, I am inclined to believe, that he read little more than English, and chofe for his fables only fuch tales as he found tranflated.
That much knowledge is fcattered over his works is very juftly obferved by Pope, but it is often fuch knowledge as books did not fupply. He that will understand Shakespeare, muft not be content to study him in the clofet, he muft look for his meaning fometimes among the fports of the field, and fometimes among the manufactures of the fhop.
There is however proof enough that he was a very diligent reader, nor was our language then fo indigent of books, but that he might very liberally indulge his curiofity without excurfion into foreign literature. Many of the Roman au hours were tranflated, and fome of the Greek; the reformation had filled the kingdom with theological learning; most of the topicks of human difquifition had found Englib writers; and poetry had been cultivated, not only