« PreviousContinue »
taste, that tho' the severer Critics among us cannot bear it, yet the generality of our audiences seem to be better pleas'd with it than with an exact Tragedy. The Merry Wives of Windsor, the Comedy of Errors, and the Taming of the Shrew, are all pure Comedy; the relt, however they are call’d, have something of both kinds. 'Tis not very easy to determine which way of writing he was most excellent in. . There is certainly a great deal of entertainment in his comical humours; and tho they did not then strike at all ranks of people, as the Satire of the present age has taken the liberty to do, yet there is a pleasing and a well-distinguish'd variety in those characters which he thought fit to meddle with. Falstaff is allow'd by every body to be a master-piece; the Character is always well-sustain'd, tho' drawn out into the length of three Plays; and even the account of his death, given by his old landlady Mrs. Quickly, in the first act of Henry V. tho' it be extremely natural, is yet as diverting as any part of his life. If there be any fault in the draught he has made of this lewd old fellow, it is, that tho' he has made him a thief, lying, cowardly, vain-glorious, and in fhort every way vicious, yet he has given him so much wit as to make him almost too agreeable; and I don't know whether some people have not, in remembrance of the diversion he had formerly afforded 'em, been sorry to see his friend Hal use him so scurvily, when he comes to the crown in the end of the second part of Henry the fourth. Amongst other extravagancies, in the Merry Wives of Windsor, he has made him a Deer-stealer, that he might at the same time remember bis Warwickshire prosecutor, under the name of Justice Shallow; he has given him very near the same coat of arms which Dugdale, in his antiquities of that county, describes for a family there, and makes the Welsh parson descant very pleasantly upon ’em. That whole play is admirable; the humours are various and well oppos’d; the main design, which is to cure Ford of his unreasonable jealousy, is extremely well conducted. In Twelfth-Night there is something singularly ridiculous and pleasant in the fantastical steward Malvolio. The parasite and the vainglorious in Parolles, in All's Well that Ends well, is as good as any thing of that kind in Plautus or Terence. Petruchio, in The Taming of the Shrew, is an uncommon piece of humour. The conversation of Benedick and Beatrice, in Much ado about Nothing, and of Rosalind in As you like it, have much wit and sprightli all along. His clowns, without which character there was hardly any play writ in that time, are all very entertaining: And, I be. lieve, Ther
sites in Troilus and Crellida, and Apemantus in Timon, will be allow'd to be master-pieces of ill-nature, and satyrical fnarling. To these I might add, that incomparable character of Shylock the Jew, in the Merchant of Venice; but tho' we have seen
that play receiv'd and acted as a comedy, and the part of the Jezu perform'd by an excellent Comedian, yet I cannot but think it was designed tragically by the Author. There appears in it a deadly spirit of revenge, such a favage fierceness and fellness, and such a bloody designation of cruelty and mischief, as cannot agree either with the style or characters of Comedy. The play it felf, take it altogether, seems to me to be one of the most finish'd of any of Shakespear's. The tale indeed, in that part relating to the caskets, and the extravagant and unusual kind of bond given by Antonio, is too much remov'd from the rules of probability: But taking the fad for granted, we must allow it to be very beautifully written. There is something in the friendship of Antonio to Bassanio very great, generous and tender. The whole fourth act (fuppofing, as I said, the fact to be probable) is extremely fine. But there are two passages that deserve a particular notice. The first is, what Portia says in praise of mercy, and the other on the power of mufick. The melancholy of Jaques, in As you like it, is as singular and odd as it is diverting. And if, what Horace says,
Difficile eft proprie communia dicere, 'twill be a hard task for any one to go beyond him in the description of the several degrees and ages of man's life, tho' the thought be old, and common enough.
-----All the world is a Stage,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side ;
Vol. 2. p. 203.
His Images are indeed every where fo lively, that the thing he would represent stands full before you, and you possess every part of it. I will venture to point out one more, which is, I think, as strong and as uncommon as any thing I ever faw; 'tis an image of Patience. Speaking of a maid in love, he says,
She never told her love,
Smiling at Grief. What an Image is here given! and what a task would it have been for the greatest masters of Greece and Rome to have express’d the passions design'd by this sketch of Statuary! The style of his comedy is, in general, natural to the characters, and easy in it self; and the wit most commonly sprightly and pleasing, except in those places where he runs into doggris rhymes, as in The Comedy of Errors, and some other plays. As for his jingling sometimes, and playing upon words, it was the common vice of the age he liv'd in: And if we find it in the pulpit, made use of as an ornament to the Sermons of some of the gravest Divines of those times; perhaps it may not be thought too light for the Stage.
But certainly the greatness of this Author's genius do's no where so much appear, as where he gives his imagination an entire loose, and raises his fancy to a flight above mankind and the limits of the visible world. Such are his attempts in The Tempeft, MidsummerNight's Dream,, Mackbeth, and Hamlet. Of these, The Tempeft, however it comes to be plac'd the first by the Publishers of his works, can never have been the firft written by him: It seems to me as perfect in its kind, as almost any thing we bave of his. One may observe, that the Unities are kept here, with an exactness uncommon to the liberties of his writing: tho' that was what, I fuppose, he valu'd himself leaft upon, since his excellencies were all of another kind. I am very sensible that he do's, in this play, depart
too much from that likeness to truth which ought to be observ'd in these fort of writings; yet he do's it so very finely, that one is eafily drawn in to have more faith for his fake, than reason does well allow of. His Magick has something in it very solemn and very poetical: And that extravagant character of Caliban is mighty well sustain'd, shews a wonderful invention in the Author, who could strike out such a particular wild image, and is certainly one of the finest and most uncommon Grotesques that was ever seen. The observation, which I have been inform’d a three very great men concurr'd in making upon this part, was extremely just'; That Shakespear had not only found out a new Character in his Caliban, but had also devis'd and adapted a new manner of Language for that Character.
It is the fame magick that raises the Fairies in Midsummer Night's Dream, the Witches in Macbeth, and the Ghost in Hamlet, with thoughts and language fo proper to the parts they sustain, and so peculiar to the talent of this Writer. But of the two last of these Plays I shall have occasion to take notice, among the Tragedies of Mr. Shakespear. If one undertook to examine the greatest part these by those rules which are establish'd by Ariftotle, and taken from the model of the Grecian Stage, it would be no very hard task to find a great many faults: But as Shakespear liv'd under a kind of mere light of nature, and had never been made acquainted with the regularity of those written precepts, so it would be hard to judge him by a law he knew nothing of. We are to consider him as a man that liv'd in a state of almost universal license and ignorance: there was no establish'd judge, but every one took the liberty · to write according to the dictates of his own fancy. When one considers, that there is not one play before him of a reputation good enough to entitle it to an appearance on the present Stage, it cannot but be a matter of great wonder that he should advance dramatick Poetry so far as he did. The Fable is what is generally plac'd the first, among those that are reckon'd the constituent parts of a Tragick or Heroick Poem ; not, perhaps, as it is the most difficult or beautiful, but as it is the first properly to be thought of in the contrivance and course of the whole; and with the Fable ought to be consider’d, the fit Disposition, Order and Conduct of its le. veral parts. As it is not in this province of the Drama that the strength and mastery of Shakespear lay, so I shall not undertake the tedious and ill-natur'd trouble to point out the several faults te was guilty of in it. His Tales were seldom invented, but rather taken either from true History, or Novels and Romances: And he commonly made use of 'em in that order, with those Incidents, and that extent of time in which he found 'em in the Authors
from (a) Lord Falkland, Lord C. 7. Vaughan, and Mr. Selden.
from whence he borrow'd them. Almost all his historical Plays comprehend a great length of time, and very different and diftin&t places: And in his Antony and Cleopatra, the Scene travels over the greatest part of the Roman Empire. But in recompence for his carelessness in this point, when he comes to another part of the Drama, The Manners of his Charaéters, in acting or speaking what is proper for them, and fit to be shown by the Poet, he may be generally justify’d, and in very many places greatly commended. For those Plays which he has taken from the English or Roman history, let any man compare 'em, and he will find the character as exact in the Poet as the Historian. He seems indeed so far from proposing to himself any one action for a Subject, that the Title very often tells you, 'tis The Life of King John, King Richard, &c. What can be more agreeable to the idea our historians give of Henry the fixth, than the pi&ture Shakespear has drawn of him! His Manners are every where exactly the fame with the story; one finds him ftill describ'd with simplícity, passive fan&ity, want of courage, weakness of mind, and easie submission to the governance of an imperious Wife, or prevailing Fadion: Thoat the same time the Poet does justice to his good qualities, and moves the pity of his audience for him, by shewing him pious, disinterested, a contemner of the things of this world, and wholly resign'd to the severest dispensations of God's providence. There is a short Scene in the second part of Henry VI. which I cannot but think admirable in its kind. Cardinal Beaufort, who had murder'd the Duke of Gloucester, is shewn in the last agonies on his death-bed, with the good King praying over him, There is so much terror in one, so much tenderness and moving piety in the other, as must touch any one who is capable either of fear or pity. In his Henry VIII, that Prince is drawn with that greatness of mind, and all those good qualities which are attributed to him in any account of his reign. If his faults are not shewn in an equal degree, and the shades in this picture do not bear a just proportion to the lights, it is not that the Artist wanted either colours or skill in the disposition of 'em ; but the truth, I believe, might be, that he forbore doing it out of regard to Queen Elizabeth, since it could have been no very great respect to the memory of his Mistress, to have expod fome certain parts of her father's life upon the stage. He has dealt much more freely with the Minister of that great King, and certainly nothing was ever more justly written, than the character of Cardinal 1Voljey. He has shewn him infolent in his prosperity; and yet, by a wonderful address, he makes his fall and ruin the subject of general compassion. The whole man, with his vices and virtues, is finely and exactly describd in the second scene of the fourth act. The distresses likewise of Queen Catharine, in this