Imagini ale paginilor

only with diligence, but fuccefs. This was a stock of knowledge fufficient for a mind fo capable of appropriating and improving it.

Bnt the greater part of his excellence was the produft of his own genius. He found the English stage in a state of the utmost rudenefs; no effays either in tragedy or comedy had appeared, from which it could be discovered to what degree of delight either one or other might be carried. Neither character nor dialogue were yet understood. Shakespeare may be truly faid to have introduced them both amongst us, and in fome of his happier fcenes to have carried them both to the utmost height.

By what gradations of improvement he proceeded, is not eafily known; for the chronology of his works is yet unfettled. Rowe is of opinion, that perhaps we are not to look for his beginning, like those of other writers, in his least perfect works; art had fo little, and nature fo large a share in what he did, that for ought I know, fays he, the performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, were the best. But the power of nature is only the power of ufing to any certain purpose the materials which diligence procures, or opportunity fupplies. Nature gives no man knowledge, and when images are collected by study an experience, can only affift in combining or apply. ing them. Shakespeare, however favoured by nature, could impart only what he had learned; and as he muft increase his ideas, like other mortals, by gradual acquifition, he, like them, grew wifer as he

[blocks in formation]

grew older, could difplay life better, as he knew it more, and inftruct with more efficacy, as he was himfelf more amply inftructed.

There is a vigilance of obfervation and accuracy of diftinction which books and precepts cannot confer; from this almoft all original and native excellence proceeds. Shakespeare must have looked upon mankind with perfpicacity, in the highest degree curious and attentive. Other writers borrow their characters from preceding writers, and diverfify them only by the accidental appendages of prefent manners; the drefs is a little varied, but the body is the fame. Our authour had both matter and form to provide; for except the characters of Chaucer, to whom I think he is not much indebted, there were no writers in English, and perhaps not many in other modern languages, which fhewed life in its native colours.


The conteft about the original benevolence or malignity of man had not yet commenced. Speculation had not yet attempted to analyfe the mind, to trace the paffions to their fources, to unfold the feminal principles of vice and virtue, or found the depths of the heart for the motives of action. thofe enquiries, which from that time that human nature became the fashionable ftudy, have been made fometimes with nice difcernment, but often with idle fubtilty, were yet unattempted. The tales, with which the infancy of learning was fatisfied, exhibited only the fuperficial appearances of action, related


the events but omitted the caufes, and were formed for fuch as delighted in wonders rather than in truth. Mankind was not then to be ftudied in the closet; he that would know the world, was under the neceffity. of gleaning his own remarks, by mingling as he could in its bufinefs and amusements.

Boyle congratulated himfelf upon his high birth, because it favoured his curiofity, by facilitating his accefs. Shakespeare had no fuch advantage; he came to London a needy adventurer, and lived for a time by very mean employments. Many works of genius and learning have been performed in ftates of life, that appear very little favourable to thought or to enquiry; fo many, that he who confiders them is inclined to think that he fees enterprise and perseverance predominating over all external agency, and bidding help and hindrance vanifh before them. The geniusof Shakespeare was not to be depreffed by the weight of poverty, nor limited by the narrow converfation to which men in want are inevitably condemned; the incumbrances of his fortune were fhaken from his mind, as dewdrops from a lion's mane.

Though he had fo many difficulties to encounter, and fo little affiftance to furmount them, he has been able to obtain an exact knowledge of many modes of life, and many cafts of native difpofitions; to vary them with great multiplicity; to mark them by nice distinctions; and to fhew them in full view by proper combinations. In this part of his performances he had none to imitate, but has himfelf been imitated


by all fucceeding writers; and it may be doubted, whether from all his fucceffors more maxims of theoretical knowledge, or more rules of practical prudence, can be collected, than he alone has given to his country.

Nor was his attention confined to the actions of men; he was an exact furveyor of the inanimate world; his defcriptions have always fome peculiarities, gathered by contemplating things as they really exift. It may be obferved, that the oldest poets of many nations preserve their reputation, and that the following generations of wit, after a fhort celebrity, fink into oblivion. The first, whoever they be, must take their fentiments and defcriptions immediately from knowledge; the refemblance is therefore juft, their defcriptions are verified by every eye, and their fentiments acknowledged by every breaft. Those whom their fame invites to the fame ftudies, copy partly them, and partly nature, till the books of one age gain fuch authority, as to ftand in the place of nature to another, and imitation, always deviating a little, becomes at laft capricious and cafual. Shakespeare, whether life or nature be his fubject, fhews plainly, that he has feen with his own eyes; he gives the image, which he receives, not weakened or distortedby the intervention of any other mind; the ignorant feel his reprefentations to be juft, and the learned fee that they are compleat.

Perhaps it would not be eafy to find any authour, except Homer, who invented fo much as Shakespeare,


who fo much advanced the ftudies which he cultivated, or effused so much novelty upon his age or country. The form, the characters, the language, and the shows of the English drama are his. He feems, fays Dennis, to bave been the very original of our English tragical barmony, that is, the barmony of blank verse, diversified often by diffyllable and triffyllable terminations. For the diverfity diftinguishes it from heroick barmony, and by bringing it nearer to common ufe makes it more proper to gain attention, and more fit for action and dialogue. Such verfe we make when we are writing profe; we make fucb verfe in common converfation.

I know not whether this praife is rigorously juft. The diffyllable termination, which the critick rightly appropriates to the drama, is to be found, though, I think, not in Gorboduc which is confeffedly before our authour; yet in Hieronnymo, of which the date is not certain, but which there is reafon to believe at least as old as his earliest plays. This however is certain, that he is the first who taught either tragedy or comedy to please, there being no theatrical piece of any older writer, of which the name is known, except to antiquaries and collectors of books, which are fought because they are fcarce, and would not have been fcarce, had they been much efteemed.

To him we muft afcribe the praife, unless Spenfer may divide it with him, of having firft difcovered to how much smoothnefs and harmony the English language could be foftened. He has fpeeches, perhaps fometimes fcenes, which have all the delicacy of Rowe,


« ÎnapoiContinuă »