« PreviousContinue »
find it in the Vice of the Playing
What an image is here given! and what a task would it have been for the greatest masters of Greece and Rome to have expressed the passions designed by this sketch of statuary! The stile of his comedy is, in general, natural to the characters, and easy in itself ; and the wit most commonly sprightly and pleasing, except in those places where he runs into doggere! rhimes, 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 lived in: and if we find it in the pulpit, made use of as an ornament to the fermons of fome 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 does 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 Tempest, Midfummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, and Hamlet. Of chefe, The Tempest, however it comes to be placed the first by the publishers of his works, can never have been the first written by him : it seems to me as perfect in its kind, as almost any thing we have of his. One may observe, that the unities are kept here, with an exactness uncommon to the liberties of his writing; though that was what, I suppose, he valued himself least upon, since his excellencies were all of another kind. I am very sensible that he does, in this play, depart too much from that likeness to truth which ought to be observed in these sort of writings; yet he does it so very finely, that one is easily drawn in to have more faith for his fake; than reason docs well allow of. His magick has something in it very solemn and very poetical: and that extravagant character of Caliban is mighty well sustained, 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 informed 4 three very great men concurred in making upon this part, was extremely just; That Shakespeare had not only found out a new charaEter in his Caliban, but had also devised and adapted a new manner of language for that character.
It is the same 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. Shakespeare. If one undertook to examine the greatest part of these by those rules which are established by Aristotle, and taken from the model of a Grecian stage, it would be no very hard talk to find a great many faults; but as Shakespeare lived 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 lived in a state of almost universal licence and ignorance: there was no established 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 placed the first, among those that are reckoned the conftituent 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
4 Lord Falkland, Lord C. J. Vaughan, and Mr. Selden.
be be considered the fit disposition, order, and conduct of its several parts. As it is not in this province of the drama that the strength and mastery of Shakespeare lay, so I shall not undertake the tedious and ill-natured trouble to point out the several faults he 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 them in that order, with those incidents, and that extent of time in which he found them in the authors from whence he borrowed them. Almost all his historical plays comprehend a great length of time, and very different and distinct places : and in his Antony and Cleopatra, the scene travels over the greatest part of the Roman empire. But in recompence for his carejessness in this point, when he comes to another part of the drama, The manners of his chara&ters, in ačting or speaking what is proper for them, and fit to be mewn by the poet, he may be generally justified, and in very many places greatly commended. For those plays which he has taken from the English or Roman history, let any man compare them, 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, it is The Life of King John, King Richard, &c. What can be more agreeable to the idea our historians give of Henry the Sixth, than the picture Shakespeare has drawn of him! His manners are every where exactly the same with the story; one finds him ftill described with simplicity, passive sanctity, want of courage, weakness of mind, and easy submission to the governance of an imperious wife, or prevailing faction : though at 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 resigned 10 the fevereit dispensations of God's providence. · [M 3]
There is a short scene in the Second Part of Henry the Sixth, which I cannot but think admirable in its kind. Cardinal Beaufort, who had murdered the Duke of Gloucester, is shewn in the last agonies on his deathbed, with the good king praying over him. There is so much terror in one, so much tenderness and moving piety in the other, as muft touch any one who is capable either of fear or pity. In his Henry the Eighth, 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 them, 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 exposed tome 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 Wolfey. He has shewn him insolent in his prosperity ; and yet, by a wonderful address, he inakes his fall and ruin the subject of general compaflion. The whole man, with his vices and virtues, is finely and exactly described in the second scene of the fourth act. The distresses likewise of Queen Catharine, in this play, are very movingly touched; and though the art of the poet has screened King Henry from any grofs imputation of injustice, yet one is inclined to wish, the Queen had met with a fortune more worthy of her birth and virtue. Nor are the manners, proper to the persons represented, less juftly observed, in those characters taken from the Roman history; and of this, the fierceness and impatience of Coriolanus, his courage and disdain of the common people, the virtue and philosophical temper of Brutus,
Carciver more great kino
and the irregular greatness of mind in M. Antony, are beautiful proofs. For the two last especially, you find them exactly as they are described by Plutarch, from whom certainly Shakespeare copied them. He has indeed followed his original pretty close, and taken in several little incidents that might have been spared in a play. But, as I hinted before, his design feems most coinmonly rather to describe those great men in the several fortunes and accidents of their lives, than to take any single great action, and form his work fimply upon that. However, there are some of his pieces, where the fable is founded upon one action only. Such are more especially, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello. The design in Romeo and Juliet is plainly the punishment of their two families, for the unreasonable feuds and animosities that had been so long kept up between them, and occasioned the effusion of so much blood. In the management of this story, he has shewn something wonderfully tender and passionate in the love-part, and very pitiful in the distress. Hamlet is founded on much the same tale with the Elextra of Sophocles. In each of them a young prince is engaged to revenge the death of his father, their mothers are equally guilty, are both concerned in the murder of their husbands, and are afterwards married to the murderers. There is in the first part of the Greek tragedy something very moving in the grief of Electra; but, as Mr. Dacier has observed, there is something very unnatural and shocking in the manners he has given that Princess and Orestes in the latter part. Oreites embrues his hands in the blood of his own mother, and that barbarous action is performed, though not immediately upon the stage, yet so near, that the audience hear Clytemnestra crying out to Ægysthus for help, and to her son for mercy : while Electra her daughter, and a Princess (both of then characters that ought to have appeared with more decency) stands upon the stage, and encourages [M 4]
in the murds are equally as the death of