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all comedies in other languages, is scarcely mentioned in any of his plays: And for humour itself, the poets of this age will be more wary than to imitate the meanness of his persons. Gentlemen will now be entertained with the follies of each other; and, though they allow Cobb and Tib to speak properly, yet they are not much pleased with their tankard, or with their rags : And surely their conversation can be no jest to them on the theatre, when they would avoid it in the street.
To conclude all, let us render to our predecessors what is their due, without confining ourselves to a servile imitation of all they writ; and, without assuming to ourselves the title of better poets, let us ascribe to the gallantry and civility of our age the advantage which we have above them, and, to our knowledge of the customs and manners of it, the happiness we have to please beyond them.
The bold Epilogue, which is here defended with so much animation, and the censure which it threw on the fathers of the stage, seems to have given great offence. It is thus severely assailed by Rochester:
But does not Dryden find even Jonson dull?
Prove him no more a poet than a wit. It is a bold, perhaps a presumptuous task, to attempt to separate the true from the false criticism in the foregoing essay; for who is qualified to be umpire betwixt Shakespeare and Dryden? Nevertheless, our knowledge of the manners of the respective ages which these extraordinary men adorned, and the remoteness of our own from both, may enable us, with impartiality at least, to sift the grounds of Dryden's censure. The nature of the stage in the days of Shakespeare has been ascertained, by the sedulous exertions of his commentators. A variety of small theatres, all of them accessible to the lowest of the people, poor and rude in all the arts of decoration, were dispersed through London when Shakespeare and Jonson wrote for the stage. It was a natural consequence, that the writings of these great men were biassed by the taste of those for whom they wrote;
For those, who live to please, must please, to live. Art was not demanded ; and when used by Jonson, he complains it was not duly appreciated. Men of a middle rank were then probably worse educated than our mere vulgar.
But the good old time bore rough and manly spirits, who came prepared with a tribute of tears and laughter, to bursts of pathos, or effusions of humour, although incapable of receiving the delights which a cultivated mind derives from the gradual development of a story, the just dependence of its parts upon each other, the minute beauties of language, and the absence of everything incongruous or indecorous. Dryden, on the other hand, wrote for a stage patronised by a monarch and his courtiers, who were professed judges of dramatie composition; while the rigour of religious prejudice, and perhaps a just abhorrence of the licentious turn of the drama, banished from the theatres a great proportion of the middle classes, always the most valuable part of an audience; because, with a certain degree of cultivation, they unite an unhackneyed energy of feeling. Art, therefore, became, in the days of Dryden, not only a requisite qualification, but even the principal attribute of the dramatic poet. He was to address himself to the heads and judgments of his audience, on the acuteness of which they piqued themselves; not to their feelings, stupefied, probably, by selfish dissipation. Even the acquisition and exercise of critical knowledge tends to blunt the sense of natural beauties, as a refined harmonist becomes indifferent to the strains of simple melody. Hence the sacrifices which Shakespeare made, without being aware, to the taste of his age, were amply compensated by his being called upon, and, as it were, compelled, by the nature of his audience, to rouse them with his thunder, and to melt them with his dew. I question much if the age of Charles II. would have borne the introduction of Othello or Falstaff. We may find something like Dryden's self-complacent opinion expressed by the editor of Corneille,* where he civilly admits, “ Corneille était inégal comme Shakespeare, et plein de génie comme lui : mais le génie de Corneille était à celui de Shakespeare ce qu'un seigneur est à l'égard d'un homme de peuple, né avec le même esprit que lui.” In other words, the works of the one retain the rough bold tints of nature and originality, while those of the other are qualified by the artificial restraints which fashion imposes upon the homme de condition. It is, therefore, unjustly, that Dryden dwells so long on Shakespeare's irregularities, amongst which I cannot help suspecting he includes some of his greatest beauties. While we do not defend his quibbles and carwitchets, as Bibber would have termed them, we may rejoice that he purchased, at so
slight a sacrifice, the power and privilege of launching into every subject with a liberty as unbounded as his genius;
As there is music, uninformed by art,
Which better taught at home, yet please us less. [It may be repeated that the subject of Dryden's relations with the older dramatists, being too large for a note, will be treated in the Appendix.-ED.]