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occurrences of the world, would, upon the admirers of Palmerin and Guy of Warwick, have made little impreffion; he that wrote for fuch an audience was under the neceffity of looking round for ftrange events and fabulous tranfactions, and that incredibility, by which maturer knowledge is offended, was the chief recommendation of writings, to unfkilful curiofity.
Our author's plots are generally borrowed from novels; and it is reasonable to fuppofe, that he chose the most popular, fuch as were read by many, and related by more; for his audience could not have followed him through the intricacies of the drama, had they not held the thread of the story in their hands.
The stories, which we now find only in remoter authors, were in his time acceffible and familiar. The fable of As you like it, which is fuppofed to be copied from Chaucer's Gamelyn, was a little pamphlet of those times; and old Mr. Cibber remembered the tale of Hamlet in plain English profe, which the criticks have now to feek in Saxo Grammaticus.
His English hiftories he took from English chronicles and English ballads; and as the ancient writers were made known to his countrymen by verfions, they fupplied him with new fubjects; he dilated fome of Plutarch's lives into plays, when they had been tranflated by North.
His plots, whether historical or fabulous, are always crouded with incidents, by which the attention of a rude people was more eafily caught than by fentiment or argumentation; and fuch is the power of the marvellous, even over those who defpife it, that every man finds his mind more ftrongly feized by the tragedies of Shakspeare than of any other
writer; others please us by particular speeches, but he always makes us anxious for the event, and has perhaps excelled all but Homer in fecuring the first purpose of a writer, by exciting restless and unquenchable curiofity, and compelling him that reads his work to read it through.
The shows and buftle with which his plays abound have the fame original. As knowledge advances, pleasure paffes from the eye to the ear, but returns, as it declines, from the ear to the eye. Thofe to whom our author's labours were exhibited had more skill in pomps or proceffions than in poetical language, and perhaps wanted fome vifible and difcriminated events, as comments on the dialogue. He knew how he should most please ; and whether his practice is more agreeable to nature, or whether his example has prejudiced the nation, we still find that on our ftage fomething must be done as well as faid, and inactive declamation is very coldly heard, however mufical or elegant, paffionate or fublime.
Voltaire expreffes his wonder, that our author's extravagancies are endured by a nation, which has feen the tragedy of Cato. Let him be answered, that Addison speaks the language of poets, and Shakspeare, of men. We find in Cato innumerable beauties which enamour us of its author, but we fee nothing that acquaints us with human fentiments or human actions; we place it with the fairest and the nobleft progeny which judgment propagates by conjunction with learning; but Othello is the vigorous and vivacious offspring of obfervation impregnated by genius. Cato affords a fplendid exhibition of artificial and fictitious manners, and delivers juft and noble fentiments, in diction eafy, elevated, and harmonious, but its
hopes and fears communicate no vibration to the heart; the compofition refers us only to the writer; we pronounce the name of Cato, but we think on Addifon.5
The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately formed and diligently planted, varied with fhades, and fcented with flowers: the compofition of Shakspeare is a foreft, in which oaks extend their branches, and pines tower in the air, interfperfed fometimes with weeds and brambles, and fometimes giving fhelter to myrtles and to rofes; filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endless diverfity. Other poets difplay cabinets of precious rarities, minutely finished, wrought into shape, and polished into brightness. Shakspeare opens a mine which contains gold and diamonds in unexhaustible plenty, though clouded by incrustations, debased by impurities, and mingled with a mafs of meaner minerals.
It has been much difputed, whether Shakspeare owed his excellence to his own native force, or whether he had the common helps of fcholaftick education, the precepts of critical fcience, and the examples of ancient authors.
There has always prevailed a tradition, that Shakspeare wanted learning, that he had no regular education, nor much skill in the dead languages. Jonfon, his friend, affirms, that he had fmall Latin, and lefs Greek; who, befides that he had no imaginable temptation to falfehood, wrote at a time when the character and acquifitions of Shakspeare were known to multitudes. His evidence ought there
5 See Mr. Twining's commentary on Ariftotle, note 51.
fore to decide the controverfy, unless fome teftimony of equal force could be oppofed.
Some have imagined, that they have difcovered deep learning in imitation of old writers; but the examples which I have known urged, were drawn from books tranflated in his time; or were fuch eafy coincidencies of thought, as will happen to all who confider the fame fubjects; or fuch remarks on life or axioms of morality as float in converfation, and are tranfmitted through the world in proverbial fentences.
I have found it remarked, that, in this important fentence, Go before, I'll follow, we read a tranflation of, I prae fequar. I have been told, that when Caliban, after a pleafing dream, fays, I cried to fleep again, the author imitates Anacreon, who had, like every other man, the fame wish on the fame occafion.
There are a few paffages which may pafs for imitations, but fo few, that the exception only confirms the rule; he obtained them from accidental quotations, or by oral communication, and as he used what he had, would have used more if he had obtained it.
The Comedy of Errors is confeffedly taken from the Menæchmi of Plautus; from the only play of Plautus which was then in English. What can be more probable, than that he who copied that, would have copied more; but that thofe which were not tranflated were inacceffible?
Whether he knew the modern languages is uncertain. That his plays have fome French scenes proves but little; he might eafily procure them to be written, and probably, even though he had known the language in the common degree, he could not have written it without affiftance. In the
ftory of Romeo and Juliet he is obferved to have followed the English translation, where it deviates from the Italian; but this on the other part proves nothing against his knowledge of the original. He was to copy, not what he knew himself, but what was known to his audience.
It is moft likely that he had learned Latin fufficiently to make him acquainted with conftruction, but that he never advanced to an eafy perufal of the Roman authors. Concerning his skill in modern languages, I can find no fufficient ground of determination; but as no imitations of French or Italian authors have been discovered, though the Italian poetry was then in high efteem, I am inclined to believe, that he read little more than English, and chofe for his fables only fuch tales as he found tranflated.
That much knowledge is fcattered over his works is very juftly obferved by Pope, but it is often fuch knowledge as books did not fupply. He that will understand Shakspeare, muft not be content to ftudy him in the closet, he must look for his meaning fometimes among the fports of the field, and fometimes among the manufactures of the shop.
There is, however, proof enough that he was a very diligent reader, nor was our language then fo indigent of books, but that he might very liberally indulge his curiofity without excurfion into foreign literature. Many of the Roman authors were tranflated, and some of the Greek; the Reformation had filled the kingdom with theological learning; moft of the topicks of human difquifition had found English writers; and poetry had been cultivated, not only with diligence, but fuccefs. This was a flock of knowledge fufficient for a