Page images

in the friendship of Antonio to Baffanio very great, generous, and tender. The whole fourth act (fuppofing, as I faid, the fact to be probable) is extremely fine. But there are two paffages that deferve a particular notice. The firft is, what Portia fays in praise of mercy, and the other on the power of mufick. The melancholy of Jaques, in As you like it, is as fingular and odd as it is diverting. And if, what Horace fays,

"Difficile est proprie communia dicere,"

it will be a hard task for any one to go beyond him in the defcription of the feveral degrees and ages of man's life, though the thought be old, and common enough.

All the world's a stage,

"And all the men and women merely players;

[ocr errors]

They have their exits and their entrances,

"And one man in his time plays many parts,

"His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,

[ocr errors]

Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms:

"And then, the whining school-boy with his satchel, "And shining morning face, creeping like snail "Unwillingly to school. And then, the lover "Sighing like furnace, with a woful ballad

"Made to his mistress' eye-brow. Then, a soldier; "Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, "Seeking the bubble reputation


"Ev'n in the cannon's mouth. And then, the justice; "In fair round belly, with good capon lin❜d,

"With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
"Full of wise saws and modern instances;

"And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
"Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon;
"With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side;
"His youthful hose, well sav'd, a world too wide
"For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
"Turning again tow'rd childish treble, pipes
"And whistles in his sound: Last scene of all,



"That ends this strange eventful history, "Is second childishness, and mere oblivion; "Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing.'


His images are indeed every where fo lively, that the thing he would represent stands full before you, and you poffefs every part of it. I will venture to point out one more, which is, I think, as ftrong and as uncommon as any thing I ever faw; it is an image of Patience. Speaking of a maid in love, he fays,

[blocks in formation]

"But let concealment, like a worm i' th' bud, "Feed on her damask cheek: she pin'd in thought, "And sate like PATIENCE on a monument, 66 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 expreffed the paffions defigned by this sketch of ftatuary! The ftile of his comedy is, in general, natural to the characters, and eafy in itfelf; and the wit moft commonly fprightly and pleafing, except in thofe places where he runs into doggerel rhimes, as in The Comedy of Errors, and fome other plays. As for his jingling fometimes, and playing upon words, it was the common vice of the age he lived in: and if we find it in the pulpit, made ufe of as an ornament to the fermons of fome of the graveft divines of thofe times, perhaps it may not be thought too light for the stage.

But certainly the greatness of this author's genius does no where fo much appear, as where he gives his imagination an entire loofe, and raifes his fancy to a flight above mankind, and the limits of the vifible world. Such are his attempts in The Tempeft, A Midfummer-Night's Dream, Macbeth, and Hamlet. Of thefe, The Tempeft, however it comes to

be placed the first by the publishers of his works, can never have been the firft written by him: it feems to me as perfect in its kind, as almost any thing we have of his. One may obferve, that the unities are kept here, with an exactnefs uncommon to the liberties of his writing; though that was what, I fuppofe, he valued himself lealt upon, fince his excellencies were all of another kind. I am very fenfible that he does, in this play, depart too much from that likeness to truth which ought to be observed in thefe fort of writings; yet he does it fo very finely, that one is eafily drawn in to have more faith for his fake, than reafon does well allow of. His magick has fomething in it very folemn, and very poetical: and that extravagant character of Caliban is mighty well fuftained, fhews a wonderful invention in the author, who could ftrike out fuch a particular wild image, and is certainly one of the finest and most uncommon grotefques that ever was feen. The obfervation, which, I have been informed, three very great men concurred in making upon this part, was extremely just; that Shakspeare had not only found out a new character in bis Caliban, but had aljo devised and adapted a new manner of language for that character.

It is the fame magick that raises the Fairies in A Midfummer-Night's Dream,the Witches in Macbeth, and the Ghost in Hamlet, with thoughts and language fo proper to the parts they fuftain, and fo peculiar to the talent of this writer. But of the two laft of thefe plays I fhall have occafion to take notice, among the tragedies of Mr. Shakspeare. If one undertook to examine the greatest part of these by thofe rules which are established by Aristotle, and taken from the model of the Grecian ftage, it would be no very hard task to find a great many

faults; but as Shakspeare lived under a kind of mere light of nature, and had never been made acquainted with the regularity of those written precepts, fo it would be hard to judge him by a law he knew nothing of. We are to confider him as a man that lived in a ftate of almoft univerfal licence and ignorance: there was no eftablished judge, but every one took the liberty to write according to the dictates of his own fancy. When one confiders, that there is not one play before him of a reputa tion good enough to entitle it to an appearance on the prefent ftage, it cannot but be a matter of great wonder that he should advance dramatick poetry fo far as he did. The fable is what is generally placed the first, among thofe 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 firft properly to be thought of in the contrivance and courfe of the whole; and with the fable ought to be confidered the fit difpofition, order, and conduct of its feveral parts. it is not in this province of the drama that the ftrength and maftery of Shakspeare lay, fo I fhall not undertake the tedious and ill-natured trouble to point out the feveral faults he was guilty of in it. His tales were feldom invented, but rather taken either from the true hiftory, or novels and romances and he commonly made use of them in that order, with thofe incidents, and that extent of time in which he found them in the authors from whence he borrowed them. So The Winter's Tale, which is taken from an old book, called The Delectable Hiftory of Doraftus and Fawnia, contains the space of fixteen or feventeen years, and the scene is fometimes laid in Bohemia, and fometimes in Sicily, according to the original order of the ftory. Almost all his hiftorical plays comprehend a great


length of time,and very different and diftinct places: and in his Antony and Cleopatra, the fcene travels over the greateft 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 characters, in acting or fpeaking what is proper for them, and fit to be be fhewn by the poet, he may be generally juftified, and in very many places greatly commended. For thofe 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 hiftorian. He feems indeed fo far from propofing to himself any one action for a fubject, 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 hiftorians give of Henry the Sixth, than the picture Shakspeare has drawn of him! His manners are every where exactly the fame with the ftory; one finds him ftill defcribed with fimplicity, paffive fanctity, want of courage, weakness of mind, and easy submission to the governance of an imperious wife, or prevailing faction: though at the fame time the poet does juftice to his good qualities, and moves the pity of his audience for him, by fhewing him pious, difinterested, a contemner of the things of this world, and wholly refigned to the feverest difpenfations of God's providence. There is a fhort fcene 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 Gloucefter, is fhewn in the laft agonies on his death-bed, with the good king praying over him. There is fo much terror in one, fo 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

« PreviousContinue »