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ment turns, or the force of each motive depends. This is perfectly amazing, from a man of no education or experience in those great and publick scenes of life which are usually the fubject of his thoughts: fo that he seems to have known the world by intuition, to have looked through human nature at one glance, and to be the only author that gives ground for a very new opinion, that the philofopher, and even the man of the world, may be born, as well as the poet.
It must be owned, that with all thefe great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, fo he has perhaps written worse, than any other. But I think I can in fome measure account for thefe defects, from feveral causes and accidents; without which it is hard to imagine that fo large and fo enlightened a mind could ever have been fufceptible of them. That all these contingencies fhould unite to his difadvantage feems to me almost as fingularly unlucky, as that fo many various (nay contrary) talents should meet in one man, was happy and extraordi
It must be allowed that ftage-poetry, of all other, is more particularly levelled to please the populace, and its fuccefs more immediately depending upon the common fuffrage. One cannot therefore wonder, if Shakspeare, having at his first appearance no other aim in his writings than to procure a fubfiftence, directed his endeavours folely to hit the taste and humour that then prevailed. The audience was generally compofed of the meaner fort of people; and therefore the images of life were to be drawn from those of their own rank: accordingly we find, that not our author's only, but almost all the old comedies have their fcene among
tradesmen and mechanicks: and even their historical plays ftrictly follow the common old ftories or vulgar traditions of that kind of people. In tragedy, nothing was fo fure to furprize and caufe admiration, as the most firange, unexpected, and confequently moft unnatural, events and incidents; the most exaggerated thoughts; the moft verbofe and bombaft expreffion; the most pompous rhymes, and thundering verfification. In comedy, nothing was fo fure to please, as mean buffoonery, vile ribaldry, and unmannerly jefts of fools and clowns. Yet even in these our author's wit buoys up, and is borne above his subject: his genius in thofe low parts is like fome prince of a romance in the disguise of a fhepherd or peasant; a certain greatness and fpirit now and then break out, which manifeft his higher extraction and qualities.
It may be added, that not only the common audience had no notion of the rules of writing, but few even of the better fort piqued themselves upon any great degree of knowledge or nicety that way; till Ben Jonfon getting poffeffion of the ftage, brought critical learning into vogue: and that this was not done without difficulty, may appear from those frequent leffons (and indeed almoft declamations) which he was forced to prefix to his first plays, and put into the mouth of his actors, the grex, chorus, &c. to remove the prejudices, and inform the judgment of his hearers. Till then, our authors had no thoughts of writing on the model of the ancients: their tragedies were only hiftories in dialogue; and their comedies followed the thread of any novel as they found it, no less implicitly than if it had been true hiftory.
To judge therefore of Shakspeare by Ariftotle's rules, is like trying a man by the laws of one coun
try, who acted under thofe of another. He writ to the people; and writ at firft without patronage from the better fort, and therefore without aims of pleafing them without affiftance or advice from the learned, as without the advantage of education or acquaintance among them; without that knowledge of the beft models, the ancients, to infpire him with an emulation of them; in a word, without any views of reputation, and of what poets are pleased to call immortality: fome or all of which have encouraged the vanity, or animated the ambition, of other writers.
Yet it must be observed, that when his performances had merited the protection of his prince, and when the encouragement of the court had fucceeded to that of the town; the works of his riper years are manifeftly raised above thofe of his former. The dates of his plays fufficiently evidence that his productions improved, in proportion to the respect he had for his auditors. And I make no doubt this obfervation will be found true in every instance, were but editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was compofed, and whether writ for the town, or the court.
Another caufe (and no lefs ftrong than the former) may be deduced from our poet's being a player, and forming himself firft upon the judgments of that body of men whereof he was a member. They have ever had a ftandard to themfelves, upon other principles than those of Aristotle. As they live by the majority, they know no rule but that of pleafing the prefent humour, and complying with the wit in fashion; a confideration which brings all their judgment to a fhort point. Players are juft fuch judges of what is right, as
tailors are of what is graceful. And in this view it will be but fair to allow, that most of our author's faults are lefs to be afcribed to his wrong judgment as a poet, than to his right judgment as a player.
By these men it would be thought a praise to Shakspeare, that he scarce ever blotted a line. This they induftrioufly propagated, as appears from what we are told by Ben Jonfon in his Difcoveries, and from the preface of Heminge and Condell to the first folio edition. But in reality (however it has prevailed) there never was a more groundless report, or to the contrary of which there are more undeniable evidences. As, the comedy of The Merry Wives of Windfor, which he entirely new writ; The Hiftory of Henry the Sixth, which was first published under the title of The Contention of York and Lancafter; and that of Henry the Fifth, extremely improved; that of Hamlet enlarged to almost as much again as at firft, and many others. I believe the common opinion of his want of learning proceeded from no better ground. This too might be thought a praise by fome, and to this his errors have as injudiciously been ascribed by others. For 'tis certain, were it true, it would concern but a fmall part of them; the moft are fuch as are not properly defects, but fuperfœtations and arife not from want of learning or reading, but from want of thinking or judging or rather (to be more juft to our author) from a compliance to thofe wants in others. As to a wrong choice of the subject, a wrong conduct of the incidents, falfe thoughts, forced expreffions, &c. if these are not to be afcribed to the forefaid accidental reasons, they must be charged upon the poet himself, and there is no help for it.
But I think the two difadvantages which I have mentioned (to be obliged to please the loweft of the people, and to keep the worst of company) if the confideration be extended as far as it reafonably may, will appear fufficient to mislead and deprefs the greateft genius upon earth. Nay, the more modefty with which fuch a one is endued, the more he is in danger of fubmitting and conforming to others, againft his own better judg
But as to his want of learning, it may be neceffary to fay fomething more: there is certainly a vaft difference between learning and languages. How far he was ignorant of the latter, I cannot determine; but it is plain he had much reading at leaft, if they will not call it learning. Nor is it any great matter, if a man has knowledge, whether he has it from one language or from another. Nothing is more evident than that he had a tafte of natural philofophy, mechanicks, ancient and modern hiftory, poetical learning, and mythology: we find him very knowing in the customs, rites, and manners of antiquity. In Coriolanus and Julius Cæfar, not only the fpirit, but manners, of the Romans are exactly drawn; and ftill a nicer diftinction is shown between the manners of the Romans in the time of the former, and of the latter. His reading in the ancient hiftorians is no lefs confpicuous, in many references to particular paffages and the fpeeches copied from Plutarch in Coriolanus may, I think, as well be made an inftance of his learning, as thofe copied from Cicero in Catiline of Ben Jonfon's. The manners of
Thefe, as the reader will find in the notes on that play, Shakspeare drew from Sir Thomas North's tranflation, 1579.