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There are few things that would tend more immediately to repress our vanity, and to gratify our curiosity at the same time, than an attentive examination of the fluctuation of opinion, in regard to the respective literary rank of authors. To contemplate the feverish elevation that superficial and obtrusive ignorance 'has sometimes risen to, as opposed to the cold and bitter neglect that has more frequently chilled the labours of retiring genius : to see the same man, perhaps,
Who having sometime, like young Phaëton,
outliving his popularity,' and in his own time forgotten: to see posterity, to whom we so frequently and foolishly appeal, as one that
truly renders To each man his desert
stripping the tombs of the dead of their wellearned chaplets, to place them on the brow of some unworthy minion of its own: to şee these things, is a sufficient evidence of the instability of popular favour, to embitter the successful moments of ambition, and dash the cup of hope from the lip of less fortunate merit. Such feelings are naturally awakened on presenting these
dramas to the public, selected as they have been from authors who delighted and enlightened the ages in which they wrote, but who were for nearly two centuries after forgotten; whose works, indeed, have been preserved to us, rather as curiosities, the possession of which tended to gratify the humble pride of their possessor, than as relics of high and inestimable value.
This is not the place for, neither would the Editor have been justified in any where indulging in, an extended critical examination of the works in this collection. He has sometimes ventured, it is true, to throw out an opinion as they passed under his notice; but he wishes it to be understood as only expressive of his own feeling, and not as an attempt to direct the judgment of his reader. There is no doubt a great inequality in the different writers, and indeed in their several works: they are certainly inferior to what the public might have expected from the contemporaries of Shakspeare, if it were not remembered that Shakspeare was a prodigy in his own time, as well as in ours: neither has the Editor, in his most sanguine moments, presumed to place them on a level with the works of Beaumont and Fletcher, or Jonson, or Massinger; but he believes it will be conceded to him, that they have many excellencies in common with those great men; the same peculiarities in their language, their manner of thinking, and their moral feeling; in brief, that they are of the same school, the first and greatest of English dramatic literature.
It has been said of these writers by Dr. Johnson, that they “ are sought after because they are scarce, and would not have been scarce had they been much esteemed;" but in this it must be presumed, that he rather sought to dazzle the reader with the point and brilliancy of the sentence, than to force conviction on the understanding by its truth: it presupposes (what it would be monstrous to allow) that public opinion is always right, and always consistent; and he must have forgotten that a period had existed in which the assertion might have been urged with comparative force against the immortal poet, with whose works he was at that moment about to present the public; for Shakspeare was surely little read when the story of Catherine and Petruchio could be told as a family occurrence in Lincolnshire. It may be admitted, however, that, in a very limited sense, and when no extraordinary circumstances intervene to give a bias to public opinion, limitations that almost make the admission nugatory, it is founded on truth: but it cannot in justice be urged against men, who only sunk in a revolution of opinion with which the mighty genius of Shakspeare could with difficulty contend, under à stupid fanaticism which prohibited the representation of their works by fine and imprisonment. If it be asked why, if the neglect were unmerited, was it con
tinued on the revival of the drama ? The question will be found on examination to be infinitely more specious than just. In a great body of the people, the puritanical principles, in which originated the severe ordinances of the usurpation, still existed in their full force, presenting an insurmountable objection to the countenancing of theatrical exhibitions: the players therefore became, in a much greater degree than usual, dependant on the protection of the great ; and what congeniality could be expected between the uncontroulable wildness and unaffected simplicity of these old writers, their simple portraitures of nature, and passion; and the taste of a monarch and a court accustomed to the regular and inflated drama of the French school, with its unnatural and unimpassioned beings? And without withholding a sincere tribute of admiration justly due to many of the writers of Charles the Second's reign, it will scarcely be denied that they became of necessity the caterers to a diseased and unwholesome appetite. The gloomy bigotry of the interregnum stopped the course of dramatic literature; but the Restoration did what was infinitely worse, it poisoned the "pure well-bead of poetry;" and from that period we have gradually descended to our present degraded and disgraceful level *.
* Milton was intimately read in, and formed himself on the model of the old school; he was in consequence unsuited to the