« AnteriorContinuar »
ded drunkenness to his oth-r qualities, knowing that kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural power upon kings. These are the petty cavils of petty minds; a poet overlooks the casual distinction of country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.
The censure which he has incurred by, mixing comick and trag ck scenes, as it extends to all his works, deserves more consideration. Let the fact be first stated, and then examined.
Shakspeare's plays are not in the rigorous, and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind;. exbibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partak-s of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerabie modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is basting to bis wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and bindered without design.
But of this cha's of mingled purposes and casualties, the ancient poets, according to the laws which custom had prescribed, selected, some the crimes of men, and some their absurdities; sime the momentous vicissitudes of life, and somo the lighter occurrences; some the terrors of distress, and some the gayeties of prosperity. Thus rose the two modes of imitation, known by the names of tragedy and comedy, cumpositions intended to promote different ends by contrary m-ans, and considered as so little allied, that I do not recollect among the Greeks or Romans a single writer who attempted both *).
Shakspeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in one composition. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the successive evolutiors of the design, sometimas priduce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.
That this is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism
*) From this remark it appears that Johnson was unacquainted with the Cyclops of Euripides. Steevens.
will be readily allowed; but there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature. The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing. That the mingled drama 'may convey all the instruction of trag dy or comedy cannot be denied, because it includes both in its altern nations of exhibition, and approaches bearer than either to the appearance of life, by showing, how great machinations and slender designs may promote or vbviaie one another, and the high and the low cooperate in the general sysiem by unavoidable concatenation.
It is objected, that by this change of scenes the passions are interrupted in their progression, and that the principal event, being not advanced by a due gradation of preparatory incidents, wants at last the power to move, wh.ch constitutes the perfections of dramatick poetry. This reasoning is so specious, that it is received as true even by thuse who in daily experience feel it to be false. The interchanges of mingled scenes seldum 'fail to produce the intended vicissitudes of passion. Fiction cannot move so much, but that the attention may be easily transferred, and thougla it must be allowed that pleasing melancholy be sometimes interrupted by unwelcome levity, yet let it be considered likewise, that melancholy is often not pleasing, and that the disturbance of one man may be the relief of another: that different anditors have different habitudes: and that upon the whole, all pleasure consists in variety.
The players, who in their edition divided our author's works into comedies, histories, and tragedies, seem not to have distinguished the three kinds, by any very exact or definite ideas.
An action which ended happily to the principal persons, however serious or distressful through its intermediate incidents, in their opinion constituted a comedy. This idea of a comedy continued long amongst us, and plays were written, which, by changing the catastrophe, were tragedies to-day, and comedies to-morrow.
Tragedy was net in those times a poem of more general dignity or elevation than comedy; it required only a calamitous conclusion, with which the common criticism of that age was satisfied whatever lighter pleasure it afforded in its pro-fress.
History was a series of actions, with no other than chronological succession, independent on each other, and without any tendency to introduce or regulate the conclusion. It is not always very nicely distinguished from tragedy. There is not much nearer approach to unity of action in the tragedy of Aotony and Cleopatra, than in the history of Richard the Second. But a history might be continued through many plays; as it had no plan, it had no limits.
Through all these denominations of the drama, Shakspeare's mode of composition is the same; an interchange of seriousness and merriment, by which the mind is softened at one time, and exhilarated at another. But whatever be his purpose, whether to "gladden or depress, or to conduct the story, without vehemence or emotion, through tracts of easy and familiar dialogue, he never fails to attain his purpose; as he commands us, we laugh or mourn, or sit silent with quiet expectation, in tranquillity without indifference.
When Shakspeare's plan is understood, most of the criticisms of Rymer and Voltaire vanish away. The play of Hamlet is opened, without impropriety, by two centinels, Jago bellows at Brabantio's *) window, without injury to the scheme of the play, though in terms which a modern audience would not easily endure; the character of Polonius **) is seasonable and useful; and the Gravediggers themselves may be heard with applausė.
Shakspeare engaged in dramatick poetry with the world open before him; the rules of the ancients were yet known to few; the publick judgment was unformed: he had no example of such fame as might force him upon imitation, nor criticks of such authority as might restrain his extravagance: he therefore indulged his natural disposition, and his disposition, as Rymer has remarked, led him to comedy. In tragedy he often writes with great appearance of toil and study, what is written at last with little felicity; but in his comick scenes he seems to produce without labour, what no labour can inprove. In tragedy hc is always struggling after some occasion to be comick, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to laxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to bis nature. his tragick scenes there is always something wanting, but his
comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action, His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.
The force of his comick scenes has suffered little dimination from the changes made by a century and a half, in manners or in words. As bis personages act upon principles arising from genuine passion, very little modified by particular forms, their pleasures and vexations are communicable to all times and to all places : they are natural and therefore durable; the adventitious peculiarities of personal habits, are only superficial dies, bright and pleasing for a little while, yet soon faded to a dim tinct, without any remains of former lustre; but the discriminations of true passion are the colours of nature; they pervade the whole mass, and can only perish with the body that exhibits them. The accidental compositions of heterogeneous modes are dissolved by the chance wh ch combined them; but the upitorai simplicity of primitive qualit:es neither admits increase, nor suffers decay. The sand heaped upon one flood is sca'tered by another, but the rick a ways continues in its place. The stream of time, which is continually waching the dissoluble fabricks of other poets, passes without injury by the adamant of Shak.prare.
If there be, what I believe there is, in every nation, a siyle which never becomes obsulete, a certain mode of phraseology so consonant and congenial to the analogy and principles of its respective language, as to remain settled and unaltered; this style is probably to be sought in the common intercourse of life, among those who speak only to be understood, withjut ambition of elegance. The pulite are always catching mudish, innovations, and the learned depart from established furms of speech, in hope of finding or making better; thuse who wish for distinction forsake the vulgar, when the vulgar is right : but there is a conversation above grossness and below refinement, where propriety resides, and where this, pyet seems to have gathered his comick dialogue. He is therefore more agreeable to the ears of the present age than any other author eq ally remote,
his other excellencies deserves to be studied as one of the original) masters of our language.
These observations are to be considered not as unexceptionably constant, but as containing general and predominant
truth. Shakspeare's familiar dialogue is affirmed to be smooth and clear, yet not wholly without ruggedness or difficulty; as a country may be eminently fruitful, though it has spots unfit for cultivation; his characters are praised as natural, though their sentiments are sometimes forced, and their actions improbable; as the earth upon the whole is spherical though its surtace is varied with protuberances and cavities.
3). THE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHENSTONE William Shenstone, the son of Thomas" shenstone and Anne Pen, was born in November 1714, at the Leasowes in Hales - Owen, one of those insulated districts which, in the division of the kingdom, was appended, for some reason not now discoverable, to a distant country; and which, though surrounded by Warwickshire and Worcestershire, belongs to Shropshire, though perhaps thirty miles distant from any other part of it.
He learned to read of an old dame, whom his poem of the „School-mistress " bas delivered to posterity; and soon received such delight from books, that he was always calling for fresh entertainment, and expected that, when any of the family went to market,' a new book should be brought him, which, when it came, was in fondness carried to bed and laid by him. It is said, that when his request bad been neglected, his mother wrapped up a piece of wood of the same form, and pacified him for the night.
As he grew older, he went for a while to the Grammarschool in Hales - Owen, and was placed afterwards with Mr. Crumpton, an eminent school - master at Solihul, where he distinguished himself by the quickness of his progress.
When he was young (June 1724) he was deprived of bis father, and soon after (August, 1726) of his grandfather; and was, with his brother, who died afterwards unmarried, left to the care of his grandmother, who managed the estate.
From school he was sent in 1732 to Pembroke College in Oxford, a society which for half a century has been eminent for English poetry and elegant literature. Here it appears that he found delight and advantage: for he continued his
*) The Lives of the most eminent English poets etc. Vol. IV.'