The Works of Samuel Johnson in Nine Volumes
Part 3 out of 9
comparison of Shakespeare's sentiments or expression with those of
ancient or modern authors, or from the display of any beauties not
obvious to the students of poetry; for, as he hopes to leave his author
better understood, he wishes, likewise, to procure him more rational
The former editors have affected to slight their predecessors: but in
this edition all that is valuable will be adopted from every
commentator, that posterity may consider it as including all the rest,
and exhibiting whatever is hitherto known of the great, father of the
 It is not true, that the plays of this author were more incorrectly
printed than those of any of his contemporaries: for in the plays of
Massinger, Marlowe, Marston, Fletcher, and others, as many errors
may be found. It is not true, that the art of printing was in no
other age in such unskilful hands. Nor is it true, in the latitude
in which it is stated, that "these plays were printed from
compilations made by chance or by stealth, out of the separate parts
written for the theatre:" two only of all his dramas, The Merry
Wives of Windsor, and King Henry V. appear to have been thus thrust
into the world; and of the former it is yet a doubt, whether it is a
first sketch, or an imperfect copy. See Malone's Preface throughout.
 See how this respectful reference to his labours was rewarded by
this "meek and modest ecclesiastic" in his Letters, 410, 272, 273.
Also Edinburgh Review for January, 1809.
PUBLISHED IN THE YEAR 1768.
That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the
honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint
likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add nothing
to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox; or those, who,
being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are willing
to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, and flatter
themselves that the regard, which is yet denied by envy, will be at last
bestowed by time.
Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind,
has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from reason, but from
prejudice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been long
preserved, without considering that time has sometimes co-operated with
chance; all, perhaps, are more willing to honour past than present
excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the shades of age,
as the eye surveys the sun through artificial opacity. The great
contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns, and the
beauties of the ancients. While an author is yet living, we estimate his
powers by his worst performance, and when he is dead we rate them by his
To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and definite,
but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles
demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to observation and
experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and
continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often
examined and compared; and if they persist to value the possession, it
is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour.
As, among the works of nature, no man can properly call a river deep, or
a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains, and many
rivers; so, in the productions of genius, nothing can be styled
excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind.
Demonstration immediately displays its power, and has nothing to hope or
fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental must
be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability
of man, as it is discovered in a long succession of endeavours. Of the
first building that was raised, it might be, with certainty, determined
that it was round or square; but whether it was spacious or lofty must
have been referred to time. The Pythagorean scale of numbers was at once
discovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to
transcend the common limits of human intelligence, but by remarking,
that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do
little more than transpose his incidents, new name his characters, and
paraphrase his sentiments.
The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted, arises,
therefore, not from any credulous confidence in the superiour wisdom of
past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the
consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has
been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered
is best understood.
The poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin
to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of
established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his
century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit.
Whatever advantages he might once derive from personal allusions, local
customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years been lost; and every
topick of merriment, or motive of sorrow, which the modes of artificial
life afforded him, now only obscure the scenes which they once
illuminated. The effects of favour and competition are at an end; the
tradition of his friendships and his enmities has perished; his works
support no opinion with arguments, nor supply any faction with
invectives; they can neither indulge vanity, nor gratify malignity; but
are read without any other reason than the desire of pleasure, and are,
therefore, praised only as pleasure is obtained; yet, thus unassisted by
interest or passion, they have passed through variations of taste and
changes of manners, and, as they devolved from one generation to
another, have received new honours at every transmission.
But because human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon
certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long
continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion; it
is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of excellence Shakespeare
has gained, and kept the favour of his countrymen.
Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of
general nature. Particular manners can be known to few, and, therefore,
few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The irregular
combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile, by that novelty
of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the
pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only
repose on the stability of truth.
Shakespeare is, above all writers, at least above all modern writers,
the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful
mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the
customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by
the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon
small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary
opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the
world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons
act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles
by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is
continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too
often an individual: in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.
It is from this wide extension of design that so much instruction is
derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shakespeare with practical
axioms and domestick wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that every verse
was a precept; and it may be said of Shakespeare, that from his works
may be collected a system of civil and economical prudence. Yet his real
power is not shown in the splendour of particular passages, but by the
progress of his fable, and the tenour of his dialogue; and he that tries
to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in
Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in
his pocket as a specimen.
It will not easily be imagined how much Shakespeare excels in
accommodating his sentiments to real life, but by comparing him with
other authors. It was observed of the ancient schools of declamation,
that the more diligently they were frequented, the more was the student
disqualified for the world, because he found nothing there which he
should ever meet in any other place. The same remark may be applied to
every stage but that of Shakespeare. The theatre, when it is under any
other direction, is peopled by such characters as were never seen,
conversing in a language which was never heard, upon topicks which will
never arise in the commerce of mankind. But the dialogue of this author
is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and
is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to
claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned, by diligent
selection, out of common conversation and common occurrences.
Upon every other stage the universal agent is love, by whose power all
good and evil is distributed, and every action quickened or retarded. To
bring a lover, a lady, and a rival into the fable; to entangle them in
contradictory obligations, perplex them with oppositions of interest,
and harass them with violence of desires inconsistent with each other;
to make them meet in rapture, and part in agony; to fill their mouths
with hyperbolical joy and outrageous sorrow; to distress them as nothing
human ever was distressed; to deliver them as nothing human ever was
delivered; is the business of a modern dramatist. For this, probability
is violated, life is misrepresented, and language is depraved. But love
is only one of many passions; and, as it has no great influence upon the
sum of life, it has little operation in the dramas of a poet, who
caught his ideas from the living world, and exhibited only what he saw
before him. He knew that any other passion, as it was regular or
exorbitant, was a cause of happiness or calamity.
Characters thus ample and general were not easily discriminated and
preserved, yet, perhaps, no poet ever kept his personages more distinct
from each other. I will not say, with Pope, that every speech may be
assigned to the proper speaker, because many speeches there are which
have nothing characteristical; but, perhaps, though some may be equally
adapted to every person, it will be difficult to find any that can be
properly transferred from the present possessor to another claimant. The
choice is right, when there is reason for choice.
Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated
characters, by fabulous and unexampled excellence or depravity, as the
writers of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a giant and a
dwarf; and he that should form his expectations of human affairs from
the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived. Shakespeare has
no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the
reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same
occasion: even where the agency is supernatural, the dialogue is level
with life. Other writers disguise the most natural passions and most
frequent incidents; so that he who contemplates them in the book will
not know them in the world: Shakespeare approximates the remote, and
familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he represents will not
happen, but, if it were possible, its effects would, probably, be such
as he has assigned; and it may be said, that he has not only shown
human nature as it acts in real exigencies, but as it would be found in
trials, to which it cannot be exposed.
This, therefore, is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the
mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination, in following the
phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of
his delirious ecstacies, by reading human sentiments in human language,
by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the
world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.
His adherence to general nature has exposed him to the censure of
criticks, who form their judgments upon narrower principles. Dennis and
Rymer think his Romans not sufficiently Roman; and Voltaire censures his
kings as not completely royal. Dennis is offended, that Menenius, a
senator of Rome, should play the buffoon; and Voltaire, perhaps, thinks
decency violated when the Danish usurper is represented as a drunkard.
But Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident; and, if
he preserves the essential character, is not very careful of
distinctions superinduced and adventitious. His story requires Romans or
kings, but he thinks only on men. He knew that Rome, like every other
city, had men of all dispositions; and, wanting a buffoon, he went into
the senate-house for that which the senate-house would certainly have
afforded him. He was inclined to show an usurper and a murderer, not
only odious, but despicable; he, therefore, added drunkenness to his
other qualities, knowing that kings love wine like other men, and that
wine exerts its natural power upon kings. These are the petty cavils of
petty minds; a poet overlooks the casual distinction of country and
condition, as a painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the
The censure which he has incurred by mixing comick and tragick scenes,
as it extends to all his works, deserves more consideration. Let the
fact be first stated, and then examined.
Shakespeare's plays are not, in the rigorous or critical sense, either
tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting
the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy
and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable
modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which
the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the
reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in
which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of
another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered
Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and casualties the ancient poets,
according to the laws which custom had prescribed, selected some the
crimes of men, and some their absurdities; some the momentous
vicissitudes of life, and some the lighter occurrences; some the
terrours of distress and some the gaieties of prosperity. Thus rose the
two modes of imitation, known by the names of _tragedy_ and _comedy_,
compositions intended to promote different ends by contrary means, and
considered as so little allied, that I do not recollect among the Greeks
or Romans a single writer who attempted both.
Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow, not
only in one mind, but in one composition. Almost all his plays are
divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the successive
evolutions of the design, sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and
sometimes levity and laughter.
That this is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism will be
readily allowed; but there is always an appeal open from criticism to
nature. The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to
instruct by pleasing. That the mingled drama may convey all the
instruction of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied, because it includes
both in its alternations of exhibition, and approaches nearer than
either to the appearance of life, by showing how great machinations and
slender designs may promote or obviate one another, and the high and the
low co-operate in the general system by unavoidable concatenation.
It is objected, that by this change of scenes the passions are
interrupted in their progression, and that the principal event, being
not advanced by a due gradation of preparatory incidents, wants, at
last, the power to move, which constitutes the perfection of dramatick
poetry. This reasoning is so specious, that it is received as true even
by those who, in daily experience, feel it to be false. The interchanges
of mingled scenes seldom fail to produce the intended vicissitudes of
passion. Fiction cannot move so much, but that the attention may be
easily transferred; and though it must be allowed that pleasing
melancholy may be sometimes interrupted by unwelcome levity, yet let it
be considered, likewise, that melancholy is often not pleasing, and that
the disturbance of one man may be the relief of another; that different
auditors have different habitudes; and that, upon the whole, all
pleasure consists in variety.
The players, who, in their edition, divided our author's works into
comedies, histories and tragedies, seem not to have distinguished the
three kinds by any very exact or definite ideas.
An action which ended happily to the principal persons, however serious
or distressful through its intermediate incidents, in their opinion,
constituted a comedy. This idea of a comedy continued long amongst us;
and plays were written, which, by changing the catastrophe, were
tragedies to-day, and comedies to-morrow.
Tragedy was not in those times a poem of more general dignity or
elevation than comedy; it required only a calamitous conclusion, with
which the common criticism of that age was satisfied, whatever lighter
pleasure it afforded in its progress.
History was a series of actions, with no other than chronological
succession, independent of each other, and without any tendency to
introduce or regulate the conclusion. It is not always very nicely
distinguished from tragedy. There is not much nearer approach to unity
of action in the tragedy of Anthony and Cleopatra, than in the history
of Richard the second. But a history might be continued through many
plays, as it had no plan, it had no limits.
Through all these denominations of the drama, Shakespeare's mode of
composition is the same; an interchange of seriousness and merriment, by
which the mind is softened at one time, and exhilarated at another. But
whatever be his purpose, whether to gladden or depress, or to conduct
the story, without vehemence or emotion, through tracts of easy and
familiar dialogue, he never fails to attain his purpose; as he commands
us, we laugh or mourn, or sit silent with quiet expectation, in
tranquillity without indifference.
When Shakespeare's plan is understood, most of the criticisms of Rymer
and Voltaire vanish away. The play of Hamlet is opened, without
impropriety, by two centinels; Iago bellows at Brabantio's window,
without injury to the scheme of the play, though in terms which a modern
audience would not easily endure; the character of Polonius is
seasonable and useful; and the Gravediggers themselves may be heard with
Shakespeare engaged in dramatick poetry with the world open before him;
the rules of the ancients were yet known to few; the publick judgment
was unformed; he had no example of such fame as might force him upon
imitation, nor criticks of such authority as might restrain his
extravagance: he, therefore, indulged his natural disposition, and his
disposition, as Rymer has remarked, led him to comedy. In tragedy he
often writes, with great appearance of toil and study, what is written
at last with little felicity; but, in his comick scenes, he seems to
produce, without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy he is
always struggling after some occasion to be comick; but in comedy he
seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to
his nature. In his tragick scenes there is always something wanting, but
his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by
the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy, for the greater part, by
incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be
The force of his comick scenes has suffered little diminution from the
changes made by a century and a half, in manners or in words. As his
personages act upon principles arising from genuine passion, very little
modified by particular forms, their pleasures and vexations are
communicable to all times and to all places; they are natural, and,
therefore, durable; the adventitious peculiarities of personal habits
are only superficial dies, bright and pleasing for a little while, yet
soon fading to a dim tinct, without any remains of former lustre; but
the discriminations of true passion are the colours of nature; they
pervade the whole mass, and can only perish with the body that exhibits
them. The accidental compositions of heterogeneous modes are dissolved
by the chance that combined them; but the uniform simplicity of
primitive qualities neither admits increase, nor suffers decay. The sand
heaped by one flood is scattered by another, but the rock always
continues in its place. The stream of time, which is continually washing
the dissoluble fabricks of other poets, passes, without injury, by the
adamant of Shakespeare.
If there be, what I believe there is, in every nation, a style which
never becomes obsolete, a certain mode of phraseology so consonant and
congenial to the analogy and principles of its respective language, as
to remain settled and unaltered; this style is probably to be sought in
the common intercourse of life, among those who speak only to be
understood, without ambition of elegance. The polite are always catching
modish innovations, and the learned depart from established forms of
speech, in hope of finding or making better; those who wish for
distinction forsake the vulgar, when the vulgar is right; but there is a
conversation above grossness and below refinement, where propriety
resides, and where this poet seems to have gathered his comick dialogue.
He is, therefore, more agreeable to the ears of the present age than any
other author equally remote, and among his other excellencies deserves
to be studied as one of the original masters of our language.
These observations are to be considered not as unexceptionably constant,
but as containing general and predominant truth. Shakespeare's familiar
dialogue is affirmed to be smooth and clear, yet not wholly without
ruggedness or difficulty; as a country may be eminently fruitful, though
it has spots unfit for cultivation: his characters are praised as
natural, though their sentiments are sometimes forced, and their actions
improbable; as the earth upon the whole is spherical, though its surface
is varied with protuberances and cavities.
Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults, and faults
sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any other merit. I shall show them
in the proportion in which they appear to me, without envious malignity
or superstitious veneration. No question can be more innocently
discussed than a dead poet's pretensions to renown; and little regard is
due to that bigotry which sets candour higher than truth.
His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in
books or in men. He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much
more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without
any moral purpose. From his writings, indeed, a system of social duty
may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but
his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just
distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to show in the
virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons
indifferently through right and wrong, and, at the close, dismisses them
without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance.
This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a
writer's duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue
independent on time or place.
The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration
may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems, not always
fully to comprehend his own design. He omits opportunities of
instructing or delighting, which the train of his story seems to force
upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more
affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy.
It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is
evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and
in view of his reward, he shortened the labour to snatch the profit. He,
therefore, remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert
them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly
He had no regard to distinction of time or place, but gives to one age
or nation, without scruple, the customs, institutions, and opinions of
another, at the expense not only of likelihood, but of possibility.
These faults Pope has endeavoured, with more zeal than judgment, to
transfer to his imagined interpolators. We need not wonder to find
Hector quoting Aristotle, when we see the loves of Theseus and Hippolyta
combined with the Gothick mythology of fairies. Shakespeare, indeed, was
not the only violator of chronology, for in the same age Sidney, who
wanted not the advantages of learning, has, in his Arcadia, confounded
the pastoral with the feudal times, the days of innocence, quiet, and
security, with those of turbulence, violence, and adventure.
In his comick scenes he is seldom very successful, when he engages his
characters in reciprocations of smartness and contests of sarcasm; their
jests are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licentious; neither his
gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are sufficiently
distinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners.
Whether he represented the real conversation of his time is not easy to
determine; the reign of Elizabeth is commonly supposed to have been a
time of stateliness, formality, and reserve; yet, perhaps, the
relaxations of that severity were not very elegant. There must,
however, have been always some modes of gaiety preferable to others, and
a writer ought to choose the best.
In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be worse, as his labour
is more. The effusions of passion, which exigence forces out, are, for
the most part, striking and energetick; but whenever he solicits his
invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is
tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity.
In narration he affects a disproportionate pomp of diction, and a
wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in
many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few.
Narration in dramatick poetry is naturally tedious, as it is unanimated
and inactive, and obstructs the progress of the action; it should,
therefore, always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption.
Shakespeare found it an incumbrance, and instead of lightening it by
brevity, endeavoured to recommend it by dignity and splendour.
His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his
power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragick
writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of
inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of
knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment
of his reader.
It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy
sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he
struggles with it a while, and, if it continues stubborn, comprises it
in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and evolved by
those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.
Not that always where the language is intricate, the thought is subtile,
or the image always great where the line is bulky; the equality of words
to things is very often neglected, and trivial sentiments and vulgar
ideas disappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by
sonorous epithets and swelling figures.
But the admirers of this great poet have most reason to complain when he
approaches nearest to his highest excellence, and seems fully resolved
to sink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions, by the
fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. What
he does best, he soon ceases to do. He is not long soft and pathetick
without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner
begins to move, than he counteracts himself; and terrour and pity, as
they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden
A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller;
he follows it at all adventures it is sure to lead him out of his way,
and sure to ingulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his
mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or
profundity of his disquisitions, whether he be enlarging knowledge or
exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or
enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and
he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which
he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation.
A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was
content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth.
A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world,
and was content to lose it.
It will be thought strange, that, in enumerating the defects of this
writer, I have not yet mentioned his neglect of the unities; his
violation of those laws which have been instituted and established by
the joint authority of poets and of criticks.
For his other deviations from the art of writing, I resign him to
critical justice, without making any other demand in his favour, than
that which must be indulged to all human excellence; that his virtues be
rated with his failings: but, from the censure which this irregularity
may bring upon him, I shall, with due reverence to that learning which I
must oppose, adventure to try how I can defend him.
His histories, being neither tragedies nor comedies, are not subject to
any of their laws; nothing more is necessary to all the praise which
they expect, than that the changes of action be so prepared as to be
understood; that the incidents be various and affecting, and the
characters consistent, natural and distinct. No other unity is intended,
and, therefore, none is to be sought.
In his other works he has well enough preserved the unity of action. He
has not, indeed, an intrigue regularly perplexed and regularly
unravelled: he does not endeavour to hide his design only to discover
it, for this is seldom the order of real events, and Shakespeare is the
poet of nature: but his plan has commonly what Aristotle requires, a
beginning, a middle, and an end; one event is concatenated with another,
and the conclusion follows by easy consequence. There are, perhaps, some
incidents that might be spared, as in other poets there is much talk
that only fills up time upon the stage; but the general system makes
gradual advances, and the end of the play is the end of expectation.
To the unities of time and place he has shown no regard; and, perhaps, a
nearer view of the principles on which they stand will diminish their
value, and withdraw from them the veneration which, from the time of
Corneille, they have generally received, by discovering that they have
given more trouble to the poet, than pleasure to the auditor.
The necessity of observing the unities of time and place arises from the
supposed necessity of making the drama credible. The criticks hold it
impossible, that an action of months or years can be possibly believed
to pass in three hours; or that the spectator can suppose himself to sit
in the theatre, while ambassadors go and return between distant kings,
while armies are levied and towns besieged, while an exile wanders and
returns, or till he whom they saw courting his mistress, shall lament
the untimely fall of his son. The mind revolts from evident falsehood,
and fiction loses its force when it departs from the resemblance of
From the narrow limitation of time necessarily arises the contraction of
place. The spectator, who knows that he saw the first act at Alexandria,
cannot suppose that he sees the next at Rome, at a distance to which not
the dragons of Medea could, in so short a time, have transported him; he
knows with certainty that he has not changed his place; and he knows
that place cannot change itself; that what was a house cannot become a
plain; that what was Thebes can never be Persepolis.
Such is the triumphant language with which a critick exults over the
misery of an irregular poet, and exults commonly without resistance or
reply. It is time, therefore, to tell him, by the authority of
Shakespeare, that he assumes, as an unquestionable principle, a
position, which, while his breath is forming it into words, his
understanding pronounces to be false. It is false, that any
representation is mistaken for reality; that any dramatick fable in its
materiality was ever credible, or, for a single moment, was ever
The objection arising from the impossibility of passing the first hour
at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, supposes, that when the play opens,
the spectator really imagines himself at Alexandria, and believes that
his walk to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt, and that he lives in
the days of Anthony and Cleopatra. Surely he that imagines this may
imagine more. He that can take the stage at one time for the palace of
the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Actium.
Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation; if the
spectator can be once persuaded, that his old acquaintance are Alexander
and Caesar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of
Pharsalia, or the bank of Granicus, he is in a state of elevation above
the reach of reason, or of truth, and from the heights of empyrean
poetry, may despise the circumscriptions of terrestrial nature. There is
no reason why a mind thus wandering in ecstacy should count the clock,
or why an hour should not be a century in that calenture of the brains
that can make the stage a field.
The truth is, that the spectators are always in their senses, and know,
from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that
the players are only players. They come to hear a certain number of
lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation. The lines relate
to some action, and an action must be in some place; but the different
actions that complete a story may be in places very remote from each
other; and where is the absurdity of allowing that space to represent
first Athens, and then Sicily, which was always known to be neither
Sicily nor Athens, but a modern theatre?
By supposition, as place is introduced, time may be extended; the time
required by the fable elapses, for the most part, between the acts; for,
of so much of the action as is represented, the real and poetical
duration is the same. If, in the first act, preparations for war against
Mithridates are represented to be made in Rome, the event of the war
may, without absurdity, be represented, in the catastrophe, as happening
in Pontus; we know that there is neither war, nor preparation for war;
we know that we are neither in Rome nor Pontus; that neither Mithridates
nor Lucullus are before us. The drama exhibits successive imitations of
successive actions; and why may not the second imitation represent an
action that happened years after the first, if it be so connected with
it, that nothing but time can be supposed to intervene? Time is, of all
modes of existence, most obsequious to the imagination; a lapse of years
is as easily conceived as a passage of hours. In contemplation we easily
contract the time of real actions, and, therefore, willingly permit it
to be contracted when we only see their imitation.
It will be asked, how the drama moves, if it is not credited. It is
credited with all the credit due to a drama. It is credited, whenever it
moves, as a just picture of a real original; as representing to the
auditor what he would himself feel, if he were to do or suffer what is
there feigned to be suffered or to be done. The reflection that strikes
the heart is not, that the evils before us are real evils, but that they
are evils to which we ourselves may be exposed. If there be any fallacy,
it is not that we fancy the players, but that we fancy ourselves unhappy
for a moment; but we rather lament the possibility than suppose the
presence of misery, as a mother weeps over her babe, when she remembers
that death may take it from her. The delight of tragedy proceeds from
our consciousness of fiction; if we thought murders and treasons real,
they would please no more.
Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for
realities, but because they bring realities to mind. When the
imagination is recreated by a painted landscape, the trees are not
supposed capable to give us shade, or the fountains coolness; but we
consider how we should be pleased with such fountains playing beside us,
and such woods waving over us. We are agitated in reading the history of
Henry the fifth, yet no man takes his book for the field of Agincourt. A
dramatick exhibition is a book recited with concomitants that increase
or diminish its effect. Familiar comedy is often more powerful on the
theatre, than in the page; imperial tragedy is always less. The humour
of Petruchio may be heightened by grimace; but what voice or what
gesture can hope to add dignity or force to the soliloquy of Cato?
A play read, affects the mind like a play acted. It is, therefore,
evident, that the action is not supposed to be real; and it follows,
that between the acts a longer or shorter time may be allowed to pass,
and that no more account of space or duration is to be taken by the
auditor of a drama, than by the reader of a narrative, before whom may
pass in an hour the life of a hero, or the revolutions of an empire.
Whether Shakespeare knew the unities, and rejected them by design, or
deviated from them by happy ignorance, it is, I think, impossible to
decide, and useless to inquire. We may reasonably suppose, that, when he
rose to notice, he did not want the counsels and admonitions of scholars
and criticks, and that he, at last, deliberately persisted in a
practice, which he might have begun by chance. As nothing is essential
to the fable but unity of action, and as the unities of time and place
arise evidently from false assumptions, and, by circumscribing the
extent of the drama, lessen its variety, I cannot think it much to be
lamented, that they were not known by him, or not observed: nor, if such
another poet could arise, should I very vehemently reproach him, that
his first act passed at Venice, and his next in Cyprus. Such violations
of rules merely positive, become the comprehensive genius of
Shakespeare, and such censures are suitable to the minute and slender
criticism of Voltaire.
Non usque adeo permiscuit imis
Longus summa dies, ut non, si voce Metelli
Serventur leges, malint a Caesare tolli.
Yet when I speak thus slightly of dramatick rules, I cannot but
recollect how much wit and learning may be produced against me; before
such authorities I am afraid to stand, not that I think the present
question one of those that are to be decided by mere authority, but
because it is to be suspected, that these precepts have not been so
easily received, but for better reasons than I have yet been able to
find. The result of my inquiries, in which it would be ludicrous to
boast of impartiality, is, that the unities of time and place are not
essential to a just drama; that though they may sometimes conduce to
pleasure, they are always to be sacrificed to the nobler beauties of
variety and instruction; and that a play written with nice observation
of critical rules, is to be contemplated as an elaborate curiosity, as
the product of superfluous and ostentatious art, by which is shown,
rather what is possible, than what is necessary.
He that, without diminution of any other excellence, shall preserve all
the unities unbroken, deserves the like applause with the architect, who
shall display all the orders of architecture in a citadel, without any
deduction from its strength; but the principal beauty of a citadel is to
exclude the enemy; and the greatest graces of a play are to copy nature,
and instruct life.
Perhaps, what I have here not dogmatically but deliberately written, may
recall the principles of the drama to a new examination. I am almost
frighted at my own temerity; and when I estimate the fame and the
strength of those that maintain the contrary opinion, am ready to sink
down in reverential silence; as AEneas withdrew from the defence of
Troy, when he saw Neptune shaking the wall, and Juno heading the
Those whom my arguments cannot persuade to give their approbation to the
judgment of Shakespeare, will easily, if they consider the condition of
his life, make some allowance for his ignorance.
Every man's performances, to be rightly estimated, must be compared with
the state of the age in which he lived, and with his own particular
opportunities; and though to the reader a book be not worse or better
for the circumstances of the author, yet, as there is always a silent
reference of human works to human abilities, and as the inquiry, how far
man may extend his designs, or how high he may rate his native force, is
of far greater dignity than in what rank we shall place any particular
performance, curiosity is always busy to discover the instruments, as
well as to survey the workmanship, to know how much is to be ascribed to
original powers, and how much to casual and adventitious help. The
palaces of Peru or Mexico were certainly mean and incommodious
habitations, if compared to the houses of European monarchs; yet who
could forbear to view them with astonishment, who remembered that they
were built without the use of iron?
The English nation, in the time of Shakespeare, was yet struggling to
emerge from barbarity. The philology of Italy had been transplanted
hither in the reign of Henry the eighth; and the learned languages had
been successfully cultivated by Lilly, Linacre, and More; by Pole,
Cheke, and Gardiner; and afterwards by Smith, Clerk, Haddon, and Ascham.
Greek was now taught to boys in the principal schools; and those who
united elegance with learning, read, with great diligence, the Italian
and Spanish poets. But literature was yet confined to professed
scholars, or to men and women of high rank. The publick was gross and
dark; and to be able to read and write, was an accomplishment still
valued for its rarity.
Nations, like individuals, have their infancy. A people newly awakened
to literary curiosity, being yet unacquainted with the true state of
things, knows not how to judge of that which is proposed as its
resemblance. Whatever is remote from common appearances is always
welcome to vulgar, as to childish credulity; and of a country
unenlightened by learning, the whole people is the vulgar. The study of
those who then aspired to plebeian learning was laid out upon
adventures, giants, dragons, and enchantments. The Death of Arthur was
the favourite volume.
The mind, which has feasted on the luxurious wonders of fiction, has no
taste of the insipidity of truth. A play, which imitated only the common
occurrences of the world, would, upon the admirers of Palmerin and Guy
of Warwick, have made little impression; he that wrote for such an
audience was under the necessity of looking round for strange events and
fabulous transactions; and that incredibility, by which maturer
knowledge is offended, was the chief recommendation of writings to
Our author's plots are generally borrowed from novels; and it is
reasonable to suppose, that he chose the most popular, such 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, accessible and familiar. The fable of As You Like It, which is
supposed 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 prose, which the criticks have now to seek in Saxo Grammaticus.
His English histories he took from English chronicles and English
ballads; and as the ancient writers were made known to his countrymen by
versions, they supplied him with new subjects; he dilated some of
Plutarch's lives into plays, when they had been translated by North.
His plots, whether historical or fabulous, are always crowded with
incidents, by which the attention of a rude people was more easily
caught than by sentiment or argumentation; and such is the power of the
marvellous, even over those who despise it, that every man finds his
mind more strongly seized by the tragedies of Shakespeare 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 securing the first purpose of a writer, by exciting restless and
unquenchable curiosity, and compelling him that reads his work to read
The shows and bustle with which his plays abound have the same original.
As knowledge advances, pleasure passes from the eye to the ear, but
returns, as it declines, from the ear to the eye. Those to whom our
author's labours were exhibited had more skill in pomps or processions
than in poetical language, and, perhaps, wanted some visible and
discriminated 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
stage something must be done as well as said, and inactive declamation
is very coldly heard, however musical or elegant, passionate or sublime.
Voltaire expresses his wonder, that our author's extravagancies are
endured by a nation, which has seen the tragedy of Cato. Let him be
answered, that Addison speaks the language of poets, and Shakespeare of
men. We find in Cato innumerable beauties, which enamour us of its
author, but we see nothing that acquaints us with human sentiments or
human actions; we place it with the fairest and the noblest progeny
which judgment propagates by conjunction with learning; but Othello is
the vigorous and vivacious offspring of observation impregnated by
genius. Cato affords a splendid exhibition of artificial and fictitious
manners, and delivers just and noble sentiments, in diction easy,
elevated, and harmonious, but its hopes and fears communicate no
vibration to the heart; the composition refers us only to the writer; we
pronounce the name of Cato, but we think on Addison.
The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately formed
and diligently planted, varied with shades, and scented with flowers;
the composition of Shakespeare is a forest, in which oaks extend their
branches, and pines tower in the air, interspersed sometimes with weeds
and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses;
filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endless
diversity. Other poets display cabinets of precious rarities, minutely
finished, wrought into shape, and polished into brightness. Shakespeare
opens a mine which contains gold and diamonds in unexhaustible plenty,
though clouded by incrustations, debased by impurities, and mingled with
a mass of meaner minerals.
It has been much disputed, whether Shakespeare owed his excellence to
his own native force, or whether he had the common helps of scholastick
education, the precepts of critical science, and the examples of ancient
There has always prevailed a tradition, that Shakespeare wanted
learning, that he had no regular education, nor much skill in the dead
languages. Jonson, his friend, affirms, that "he had small Latin and
less Greek;" who, besides that he had no imaginable temptation to
falsehood, wrote at a time when the character and acquisitions of
Shakespeare were known to multitudes. His evidence ought, therefore, to
decide the controversy, unless some testimony of equal force could be
Some have imagined, that they have discovered deep learning in many
imitations of old writers; but the examples which I have known urged
were drawn from books translated in his time; or were such easy
coincidences of thought, as will happen to all who consider the same
subjects; or such remarks on life, or axioms of morality, as float in
conversation, and are transmitted through the world in proverbial
I have found it remarked, that, in this important sentence, "Go before,
I'll follow," we read a translation of, _I prae, sequar_. I have been
told, that when Caliban, after a pleasing dream, says, "I cry'd to sleep
again," the author imitates Anacreon, who had, like every other man,
the same wish on the same occasion.
There are a few passages which may pass for imitations, but so 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 confessedly taken from the Menaechmi 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 those which were not translated were inaccessible?
Whether he knew the modern languages is uncertain. That his plays have
some French scenes proves but little; he might easily 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 assistance. In the
story of Romeo and Juliet, he is observed 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 most likely that he had learned Latin sufficiently to make him
acquainted with construction, but that he never advanced to an easy
perusal of the Roman authors. Concerning his skill in modern languages,
I can find no sufficient ground of determination; but as no imitations
of French or Italian authors have been discovered, though the Italian
poetry was then high in esteem, I am inclined to believe, that he read
little more than English, and chose for his fables only such tales as he
That much knowledge is scattered over his works is very justly observed
by Pope; but it is often such knowledge as books did not supply. He that
will understand Shakespeare, must not be content to study him in the
closet; he must look for his meaning sometimes among the sports of the
field, and sometimes among the manufactures of the shop.
There is, however, proof enough that he was a very diligent reader; nor
was our language then so indigent of books, but that he might very
liberally indulge his curiosity without excursion into foreign
literature. Many of the Roman authors were translated, and some of the
Greek; the Reformation had filled the kingdom with theological
learning; most of the topicks of human disquisition had found English
writers; and poetry had been cultivated, not only with diligence, but
success. This was a stock of knowledge sufficient for a mind so capable
of appropriating and improving it.
But the greater part of his excellence was the product of his own
genius. He found the English stage in a state of the utmost rudeness; no
essays, either in tragedy or comedy, had appeared, from which it could
be discovered to what degree of delight either one or other might be
carried. Neither character nor dialogue were yet understood. Shakespeare
may be truly said to have introduced them both amongst us, and in some
of his happier scenes to have carried them both to the utmost height.
By what gradations of improvement he proceeded, is not easily known; for
the chronology of his works is yet unsettled. Rowe is of opinion, that
"perhaps we are not to look for his beginning, like those of other
writers, in his least perfect works; art had so little, and nature so
large a share in what he did, that for aught I know," says he, "the
performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, were the
best." But the power of nature is only the power of using to any certain
purpose the materials which diligence procures, or opportunity supplies.
Nature gives no man knowledge, and, when images are collected by study
and experience, can only assist in combining or applying them.
Shakespeare, however favoured by nature, could impart only what he had
learned; and, as he must increase his ideas, like other mortals, by
gradual acquisition, he, like them, grew wiser, as he grew older, could
display life better, as he knew it more, and instruct with more
efficacy, as he was himself more amply instructed.
There is a vigilance of observation and accuracy of distinction which
books and precepts cannot confer; from this almost all original and
native excellence proceeds. Shakespeare must have looked upon mankind
with perspicacity, in the highest degree curious and attentive. Other
writers borrow their characters from preceding writers, and diversify
them only by the accidental appendages of present manners; the dress is
a little varied, but the body is the same. Our author had both matter
and form to provide; for, except the characters of Chaucer, to whom I
think he is not much indebted, there were no writers in English, and,
perhaps, not many in other modern languages, which showed life in its
The contest about the original benevolence or malignity of man had not
yet commenced. Speculation had not yet attempted to analyze the mind, to
trace the passions to their sources, to unfold the seminal principles of
vice and virtue, or sound the depths of the heart for the motives of
action. All those inquiries, which from that time that human nature
became the fashionable study, have been made sometimes with nice
discernment, but often with idle subtilty, were yet unattempted. The
tales, with which the infancy of learning was satisfied, exhibited only
the superficial appearances of action, related the events, but omitted
the causes, and were formed for such as delighted in wonders rather than
in truth. Mankind was not then to be studied in the closet; he that
would know the world, was under the necessity of gleaning his own
remarks, by mingling as he could in its business and amusements.
Boyle congratulated himself upon his high birth, because it favoured his
curiosity, by facilitating his access. Shakespeare had no such
advantage: he came to London a needy adventurer, and lived for a time by
very mean employments. Many works of genius and learning have been
performed in states of life that appear very little favourable to
thought or to inquiry; so many, that he who considers them is inclined
to think that he sees enterprize and perseverance predominating over all
external agency, and bidding help and hindrance vanish before them. The
genius of Shakespeare was not to be depressed by the weight of poverty,
nor limited by the narrow conversation to which men in want are
inevitably condemned; the encumbrances of his fortune were shaken from
his mind, "as dewdrops from a lion's mane".
Though he had so many difficulties to encounter, and so little
assistance to surmount them, he has been able to obtain an exact
knowledge of many modes of life, and many casts of native dispositions;
to vary them with great multiplicity; to mark them by nice distinctions;
and to show them in full view by proper combinations. In this part of
his performances he had none to imitate, but has himself been imitated
by all succeeding writers; and it may be doubted, whether from all his
successors more maxims of theoretical knowledge, or more rules of
practical prudence, can be collected, than he alone has given to his
Nor was his attention confined to the actions of men; he was an exact
surveyor of the inanimate world; his descriptions have always some
peculiarities, gathered by contemplating things as they really exist. It
may be observed, that the oldest poets of many nations preserve their
reputation, and that the following generations of wit, after a short
celebrity, sink into oblivion. The first, whoever they be, must take
their sentiments and descriptions immediately from knowledge; the
resemblance is, therefore, just, their descriptions are verified by
every eye, and their sentiments acknowledged by every breast. Those whom
their fame invites to the same studies, copy partly them and partly
nature, till the books of one age gain such authority, as to stand in
the place of nature to another, and imitation, always deviating a
little, becomes at last capricious and casual. Shakespeare, whether life
or nature be his subject, shows plainly that he has seen with his own
eyes; he gives the image which he receives, not weakened or distorted by
the intervention of any other mind; the ignorant feel his
representations to be just, and the learned see that they are complete.
Perhaps it would not be easy to find any author, except Homer, who
invented so much as Shakespeare, who so much advanced the studies which
he cultivated, or effused so much novelty upon his age or country. The
form, the characters, the language, and the shows of the English drama
are his. "He seems," says Dennis, "to have been the very original of our
English tragical harmony, that is, the harmony of blank verse,
diversified often by dissyllable and trisyllable terminations. For the
diversity distinguishes it from heroick harmony, and by bringing it
nearer to common use makes it more proper to gain attention, and more
fit for action and dialogue. Such verse we make when we are writing
prose; we make such verse in common conversation."
I know not whether this praise is rigorously just. The dissyllable
termination, which the critick rightly appropriates to the drama, is to
be found, though, I think, not in Gorboduc, which is confessedly before
our author; yet in Hieronymo of which the date is not certain, but
which there is reason to believe, at least, as old as his earliest
plays. This, however, is certain, that he is the first who taught either
tragedy or comedy to please, there being no theatrical piece of any
older writer, of which the name is known, except to antiquaries and
collectors of books, which are sought because they are scarce, and would
not have been scarce, had they been much esteemed.
To him we must ascribe the praise, unless Spenser may divide it with
him, of having first discovered to how much smoothness and harmony the
English language could be softened. He has speeches, perhaps, sometimes
scenes, which have all the delicacy of Rowe, without his effeminacy. He
endeavours, indeed, commonly to strike by the force and vigour of his
dialogue, but he never executes his purpose better, than when he tries
to sooth by softness.
Yet it must be at last confessed, that as we owe every thing to him, he
owes something to us; that, if much of his praise is paid by perception
and judgment, much is, likewise, given by custom and veneration. We fix
our eyes upon his graces, and turn them from his deformities, and endure
in him what we should in another loathe or despise. If we endured
without praising, respect for the father of our drama might excuse us;
but I have seen, in the book of some modern critick, a collection of
anomalies, which show that he has corrupted language by every mode of
depravation, but which his admirer has accumulated as a monument of
He has scenes of undoubted and perpetual excellence; but, perhaps, not
one play, which, if it were now exhibited as the work of a contemporary
writer, would be heard to the conclusion. I am, indeed, far from
thinking that his works were wrought to his own ideas of perfection;
when they were such as would satisfy the audience, they satisfied the
writer. It is seldom that authors, though more studious of fame than
Shakespeare, rise much above the standard of their own age; to add a
little to what is best will always be sufficient for present praise; and
those who find themselves exalted into fame, are willing to credit their
encomiasts, and to spare the labour of contending with themselves.
It does not appear, that Shakespeare thought his works worthy of
posterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had
any further prospect, than of present popularity and present profit.
When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end; he solicited no
addition of honour from the reader. He, therefore, made no scruple to
repeat the same jests in many dialogues, or to entangle different plots
by the same knot of perplexity; which may be at least forgiven him, by
those who recollect that of Congreve's four comedies, two are concluded
by a marriage in a mask, by a deception, which, perhaps, never happened,
and which, whether likely or not, he did not invent.
So careless was this great poet of future fame, that, though he retired
to ease and plenty, while he was yet little _declined into the vale of
years_, before he could be disgusted with fatigue, or disabled by
infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor desired to rescue
those that had been already published from the depravations that
obscured them, or secure to the rest a better destiny, by giving them to
the world in their genuine state.
Of the plays which bear the name of Shakespeare in the late editions,
the greater part were not published till about seven years after his
death; and the few which appeared in his life are apparently thrust into
the world without the care of the author, and, therefore, probably
without his knowledge.
Of all the publishers, clandestine or professed, the negligence and
unskilfulness has, by the late revisers, been sufficiently shown. The
faults of all are, indeed, numerous and gross, and have not only
corrupted many passages, perhaps, beyond recovery, but have brought
others into suspicion, which are only obscured by obsolete phraseology,
or by the writer's unskilfulness and affectation. To alter is more easy
than to explain, and temerity is a more common quality than diligence.
Those who saw that they must employ conjecture to a certain degree, were
willing to indulge it a little further. Had the author published his own
works, we should have sat quietly down to disentangle his intricacies,
and clear his obscurities; but now we tear what we cannot loose, and
eject what we happen not to understand.
The faults are more than could have happened without the concurrence of
many causes. The style of Shakespeare was in itself ungrammatical,
perplexed, and obscure; his works were transcribed for the players by
those who may be supposed to have seldom understood them; they were
transmitted by copiers equally unskilful, who still multiplied errours;
they were, perhaps, sometimes mutilated by the actors, for the sake of
shortening the speeches; and were at last printed without correction of
In this state they remained, not, as Dr. Warburton supposes, because
they were unregarded, but because the editor's art was not yet applied
to modern languages, and our ancestors were accustomed to so much
negligence of English printers, that they could very patiently endure
it. At last an edition was undertaken by Rowe; not because a poet was to
be published by a poet, for Rowe seems to have thought very little on
correction or explanation; but that our author's works might appear like
those of his fraternity, with the appendages of a life and
recommendatory preface. Rowe has been clamorously blamed for not
performing what he did not undertake; and it is time that justice be
done him, by confessing, that, though he seems to have had no thought of
corruption beyond the printer's errours, yet he has made many
emendations, if they were not made before, which his successors have
received without acknowledgment, and which, if they had produced them,
would have filled pages and pages with censures of the stupidity by
which the faults were committed, with displays of the absurdities which
they involved, with ostentatious expositions of the new reading, and
self-congratulations on the happiness of discovering it.
As of the other editors I have preserved the prefaces, I have likewise
borrowed the author's life from Howe, though not written with much
elegance or spirit; it relates, however, what is now to be known, and,
therefore, deserves to pass through all succeeding publications.
The nation had been for many years content enough with Mr. Rowe's
performance, when Mr. Pope made them acquainted with the true state of
Shakespeare's text, showed that it was extremely corrupt, and gave
reason to hope that there were means of reforming it. He collated the
old copies, which none had thought to examine before, and restored many
lines to their integrity; but, by a very compendious criticism, he
rejected whatever he disliked, and thought more of amputation than of
I know not why he is commended by Dr. Warburton for distinguishing the
genuine from the spurious plays. In this choice he exerted no judgment
of his own; the plays which he received were given by Hemings and
Condel, the first editors; and those which he rejected, though,
according to the licentiousness of the press in those times, they were
printed during Shakespeare's life, with his name, had been omitted by
his friends, and were never added to his works before the edition of
1664, from which they were copied by the later printers.
This was a work which Pope seems to have thought unworthy of his
abilities, being not able to suppress his contempt of _the dull duty of
an editor_. He understood but half his undertaking. The duty of a
collator is, indeed, dull, yet, like other tedious tasks, is very
necessary; but an emendatory critick would ill discharge his duty,
without qualities very different from dulness. In perusing a corrupted
piece, he must have before him all possibilities of meaning, with all
possibilities of expression. Such must be his comprehension of thought,
and such his copiousness of language. Out of many readings possible, he
must be able to select that which best suits with the state, opinions,
and modes of language prevailing in every age, and with his author's
particular cast of thought, and turn of expression. Such must be his
knowledge, and such his taste. Conjectural criticism demands more than
humanity possesses, and he that exercises it with most praise, has very
frequent need of indulgence. Let us now be told no more of the dull duty
of an editor.
Confidence is the common consequence of success. They whose excellence
of any kind has been loudly celebrated, are ready to conclude that their
powers are universal. Pope's edition fell below his own expectations,
and he was so much offended when he was found to have left any thing for
others to do, that he passed the latter part of his life in a state of
hostility with verbal criticism.
I have retained all his notes, that no fragment of so great a writer may
be lost; his preface, valuable alike for elegance of composition and
justness of remark, and containing a general criticism on his author, so
extensive that little can be added, and so exact that little can be
disputed, every editor has an interest to suppress, but that every
reader would demand its insertion.
Pope was succeeded by Theobald, a man of narrow comprehension, and small
acquisitions, with no native and intrinsick splendour of genius, with
little of the artificial light of learning, but zealous for minute
accuracy, and not negligent in pursuing it. He collated the ancient
copies, and rectified many errours. A man so anxiously scrupulous might
have been expected to do more, but what little he did was commonly
In his reports of copies and editions he is not to be trusted without
examination. He speaks sometimes indefinitely of copies, when he has
only one. In his enumeration of editions, he mentions the two first
folios as of high, and the third folio as of middle authority; but the
truth is, that the first is equivalent to all others, and that the rest
only deviate from it by the printer's negligence. Whoever has any of the
folios has all, excepting those diversities which mere reiteration of
editions will produce. I collated them all, at the beginning, but
afterwards used only the first.
Of his notes I have generally retained those which he retained himself
in his second edition, except when they were confuted by subsequent
annotators, or were too minute to merit preservation. I have sometimes
adopted his restoration of a comma, without inserting the panegyrick in
which he celebrated himself for his achievement. The exuberant
excrescence of his diction I have often lopped, his triumphant
exultations over Pope and Howe I have sometimes suppressed, and his
contemptible ostentation I have frequently concealed; but I have in some
places shown him, as he would have shown himself, for the reader's
diversion, that the inflated emptiness of some notes may justify or
excuse the contraction of the rest.
Theobald, thus weak and ignorant, thus mean and faithless, thus petulant
and ostentatious, by the good luck of having Pope for his enemy, has
escaped, and escaped alone, with reputation, from this undertaking. So
willingly does the world support those who solicit favour against those
who command reverence; and so easily is he praised whom no man can envy.
Our author fell then into the hands of Sir Thomas Hanmer, the Oxford
editor, a man, in my opinion, eminently qualified by nature for such
studies. He had, what is the first requisite to emendatory criticism,
that intuition by which the poet's intention is immediately discovered,
and that dexterity of intellect which despatches its work by the easiest
means. He had undoubtedly read much; his acquaintance with customs,
opinions, and traditions, seems to have been large; and he is often
learned without show. He seldom passes what he does not understand,
without an attempt to find or to make a meaning, and sometimes hastily
makes what a little more attention would have found. He is solicitous to
reduce to grammar what he could not be sure that his author intended to
be grammatical. Shakespeare regarded more the series of ideas, than of
words; and his language, not being designed for the reader's desk, was
all that he desired it to be, if it conveyed his meaning to the
Hanmer's care of the metre has been too violently censured. He found the
measure reformed in so many passages by the silent labours of some
editors, with the silent acquiescence of the rest, that he thought
himself allowed to extend a little further the license, which had
already been carried so far without reprehension; and, of his
corrections in general, it must be confessed, that they are often just,
and made commonly with the least possible violation of the text.
But, by inserting his emendations, whether invented or borrowed, into
the page, without any notice of varying copies, he has appropriated the
labour of his predecessors, and made his own edition of little
authority. His confidence indeed, both in himself and others, was too
great; he supposes all to be right that was done by Pope and Theobald;
he seems not to suspect a critick of fallibility; and it was but
reasonable that he should claim what he so liberally granted.
As he never writes without careful inquiry and diligent consideration, I
have received all his notes, and believe that every reader will wish for
Of the last editor it is more difficult to speak. Respect is due to high
place, tenderness to living reputation, and veneration to genius and
learning; but he cannot be justly offended at that liberty of which he
has himself so frequently given an example, nor very solicitous what is
thought of notes, which he ought never to have considered as part of his
serious employments, and which, I suppose, since the ardour of
composition is remitted, he no longer numbers among his happy effusions.
The original and predominant errour of his commentary is acquiescence in
his first thoughts; that precipitation which is produced by
consciousness of quick discernment; and that confidence which presumes
to do, by surveying the surface, what labour only can perform, by
penetrating the bottom. His notes exhibit sometimes perverse
interpretations, and sometimes improbable conjectures; he at one time
gives the author more profundity of meaning than the sentence admits,
and at another discovers absurdities, where the sense is plain to every
other reader. But his emendations are likewise often happy and just; and
his interpretation of obscure passages learned and sagacious.
Of his notes, I have commonly rejected, those against which the general
voice of the publick has exclaimed, or which their own incongruity
immediately condemns, and which, I suppose, the author himself would
desire to be forgotten. Of the rest, to part I have given the highest
approbation, by inserting the offered reading in the text; part I have
left to the judgment of the reader, as doubtful, though specious; and
part I have censured without reserve, but, I am sure, without bitterness
of malice, and, I hope, without wantonness of insult.
It is no pleasure to me, in revising my volumes, to observe how much
paper is wasted in confutation. Whoever considers the revolutions of
learning, and the various questions of greater or less importance, upon
which wit and reason have exercised their powers, must lament the
unsuccessfulness of inquiry, and the slow advances of truth, when he
reflects that great part of the labour of every writer is only the
destruction of those that went before him. The first care of the builder
of a new system, is to demolish the fabricks which are standing. The
chief desire of him that comments an author, is to show how much other
commentators have corrupted and obscured him. The opinions prevalent in
one age, as truths above the reach of controversy, are confuted and
rejected in another, and rise again to reception in remoter times. Thus
the human mind is kept in motion without progress. Thus sometimes truth
and errour, and sometimes contrarieties of errour, take each other's
place by reciprocal invasion. The tide of seeming knowledge, which is
poured over one generation, retires and leaves another naked and barren;
the sudden meteors of intelligence, which for awhile appear to shoot
their beams into the regions of obscurity, on a sudden withdraw their
lustre, and leave mortals again to grope their way.
These elevations and depressions of renown, and the contradictions to
which all improvers of knowledge must for ever be exposed, since they
are not escaped by the highest and brightest of mankind, may, surely, be
endured with patience by criticks and annotators, who can rank
themselves but as the satellites of their authors. How canst thou beg
for life, says Homer's hero to his captive, when thou knowest that thou
art now to suffer only what must another day be suffered by Achilles?
Dr. Warburton had a name sufficient to confer celebrity on those who
could exalt themselves into antagonists, and his notes have raised a
clamour too loud to be distinct. His chief assailants are the authors of
The Canons of Criticism, and of The Revisal of Shakespeare's Text; of
whom one ridicules his errours with airy petulance, suitable enough to
the levity of the controversy; the other attacks them with gloomy
malignity, as if he were dragging to justice an assassin or incendiary.
The one stings like a fly, sucks a little blood, takes a gay flutter,
and returns for more; the other bites like a viper, and would be glad to
leave inflammations and gangrene behind him. When I think on one, with
his confederates, I remember the danger of Coriolanus, who was afraid
that "girls with spits, and boys with stones, should slay him in puny
battle;" when the other crosses my imagination, I remember the prodigy
A falcon tow'ring in his pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd.
Let me, however, do them justice. One is a wit, and one a scholar.
They have both shown acuteness sufficient in the discovery of faults,
and have both advanced some probable interpretations of obscure
passages; but when they aspire to conjecture and emendation, it appears
how falsely we all estimate our own abilities, and the little which they
have been able to perform might have taught them more candour to the
endeavours of others.
Before Dr. Warburton's edition, Critical Observations on Shakespeare had
been published by Mr. Upton, a man skilled in languages, and
acquainted with books, but who seems to have had no great vigour of
genius or nicety of taste. Many of his explanations are curious and
useful, but he, likewise, though he professed to oppose the licentious
confidence of editors, and adhere to the old copies, is unable to
restrain the rage of emendation, though his ardour is ill seconded by
his skill. Every cold empirick, when his heart is expanded by a
successful experiment, swells into a theorist, and the laborious
collator at some unlucky moment frolicks in conjecture.
Critical, historical, and explanatory notes have been, likewise,
published upon Shakespeare by Dr. Grey, whose diligent perusal of the
old English writers has enabled him to make some useful observations.
What he undertook he has well enough performed; but as he neither
attempts judicial or emendatory criticism, he employs rather his memory
than his sagacity. It were to be wished that all would endeavour to
imitate his modesty, who have not been able to surpass his knowledge.
I can say, with great sincerity, of all my predecessors, what I hope
will hereafter be said of me, that not one has left Shakespeare without
improvement; nor is there one to whom I have not been indebted for
assistance and information. Whatever I have taken from them, it was my
intention to refer to its original author, and it is certain, that what
I have not given to another, I believed when I wrote it to be my own. In
some, perhaps, I have been anticipated; but if I am ever found to
encroach upon the remarks of any other commentators, I am willing that
the honour, be it more or less, should be transferred to the first
claimant, for his right, and his alone, stands above dispute; the second
can prove his pretensions only to himself, nor can himself always
distinguish invention, with sufficient certainty, from recollection.
They have all been treated by me with candour, which they have not been
careful of observing to one another. It is not easy to discover from
what cause the acrimony of a scholiast can naturally proceed. The
subjects to be discussed by him are of very small importance; they
involve neither property nor liberty; nor favour the interest of sect or
party. The various readings of copies, and different interpretations of
a passage, seem to be questions that might exercise the wit, without
engaging the passions. But whether it be that "small things make mean
men proud," and vanity catches small occasions; or that all contrariety
of opinion, even in those that can defend it no longer, makes proud men
angry; there is often found in commentaries a spontaneous strain of
invective and contempt, more eager and venomous than is vented by the
most furious controvertist in politicks against those whom he is hired
Perhaps the lightness of the matter may conduce to the vehemence of the
agency; when the truth to be investigated is so near to inexistence, as
to escape attention, its bulk is to be enlarged by rage and exclamation:
that to which all would be indifferent in its original state, may
attract notice when the fate of a name is appended to it. A commentator
has, indeed, great temptations to supply by turbulence what he wants of
dignity, to beat his little gold to a spacious surface, to work that to
foam which no art or diligence can exalt to spirit.
The notes which I have borrowed or written are either illustrative, by
which difficulties are explained; or judicial, by which faults and
beauties are remarked; or emendatory, by which depravations are
The explanations transcribed from others, if I do not subjoin any other
interpretation, I suppose commonly to be right, at least I intend by
acquiescence to confess, that I have nothing better to propose.
After the labours of all the editors, I found many passages which
appeared to me likely to obstruct the greater number of readers, and
thought it my duty to facilitate their passage. It is impossible for an
expositor not to write too little for some, and too much for others. He
can only judge what is necessary by his own experience; and how long
soever he may deliberate, will at last explain many lines which the
learned will think impossible to be mistaken, and omit many for which
the ignorant will want his help. These are censures merely relative, and
must be quietly endured. I have endeavoured to be neither superfluously
copious, nor scrupulously reserved, and hope that I have made my
author's meaning accessible to many, who before were frighted from
perusing him, and contributed something to the publick, by diffusing
innocent and rational pleasure.
The complete explanation of an author not systematick and consequential,
but desultory and vagrant, abounding in casual allusions and light
hints, is not to be expected from any single scholiast. All personal
reflections, when names are suppressed, must be in a few years
irrecoverably obliterated; and customs, too minute to attract the notice
of law, such as modes of dress, formalities of conversation, rules of
visits, disposition of furniture, and practices of ceremony, which
naturally find places in familiar dialogue, are so fugitive and
unsubstantial, that they are not easily retained or recovered. What can
be known will be collected by chance, from the recesses of obscure and
obsolete papers, perused commonly with some other view. Of this
knowledge every man has some, and none has much; but when an author has
engaged the publick attention, those who can add any thing to his
illustration, communicate their discoveries, and time produces what had
To time I have been obliged to resign many passages, which, though I did
not understand them, will, perhaps, hereafter be explained; having, I
hope, illustrated some, which others have neglected or mistaken,
sometimes by short remarks, or marginal directions, such as every editor
has added at his will, and often by comments more laborious than the
matter will seem to deserve; but that which is most difficult is not
always most important, and to an editor nothing is a trifle by which his
author is obscured.
The poetical beauties or defects I have not been very diligent to
observe. Some plays have more, and some fewer judicial observations, not
in proportion to their difference of merit, but because I gave this part
of my design to chance and to caprice. The reader, I believe, is seldom
pleased to find his opinion anticipated; it is natural to delight more
in what we find or make, than in what we receive. Judgment, like other
faculties, is improved by practice, and its advancement is hindered by
submission to dictatorial decisions, as the memory grows torpid by the
use of a table-book. Some initiation is, however, necessary; of all
skill, part is infused by precept, and part is obtained by habit; I
have, therefore, shown so much as may enable the candidate of criticism
to discover the rest.
To the end of most plays I have added short strictures, containing a
general censure of faults, or praise of excellence; in which I know not
how much I have concurred with the current opinion; but I have not, by
any affectation of singularity, deviated from it. Nothing is minutely
and particularly examined, and, therefore, it is to be supposed, that in
the plays which are condemned there is much to be praised, and in those
which are praised much to be condemned.
The part of criticism in which the whole succession of editors has
laboured with the greatest diligence, which has occasioned the most
arrogant ostentation, and excited the keenest acrimony, is the
emendation of corrupted passages, to which the publick attention, having
been first drawn by the violence of the contention between Pope and
Theobald, has been continued by the persecution, which, with a kind of
conspiracy, has been since raised against all the publishers of
That many passages have passed in a state of depravation through all the
editions, is indubitably certain; of these the restoration is only to be
attempted by collation of copies, or sagacity of conjecture. The
collator's province is safe and easy, the conjecturer's perilous and
difficult. Yet, as the greater part of the plays are extant only in one
copy, the peril must not be avoided, nor the difficulty refused.
Of the readings which this emulation of amendment has hitherto produced,
some from the labours of every publisher I have advanced into the text;
those are to be considered as, in my opinion, sufficiently supported;
some I have rejected without mention, as evidently erroneous; some I
have left in the notes without censure or approbation, as resting in
equipoise between objection and defence; and some, which seemed specious
but not right, I have inserted with a subsequent animadversion.
Having classed the observations of others, I was at last to try what I
could substitute for their mistakes, and how I could supply their
omissions. I collated such copies as I could procure, and wished for
more, but have not found the collectors of these rarities very
communicative. Of the editions which chance or kindness put into my
hands I have given an enumeration, that I may not be blamed for
neglecting what T had not the power to do.
By examining the old copies, I soon found that the later publishers,
with all their boasts of diligence, suffered many passages to stand
unauthorised, and contented themselves with Rowe's regulation of the
text, even where they knew it to be arbitrary, and with a little
consideration might have found it to be wrong. Some of these alterations
are only the ejection of a word for one that appeared to him more
elegant or more intelligible. These corruptions I have often silently
rectified; for the history of our language, and the true force of our
words, can only be preserved, by keeping the text of authors free from
adulteration. Others, and those very frequent, smoothed the cadence, or
regulated the measure: on these I have not exercised the same rigour; if
only a word was transposed, or a particle inserted or omitted, I have
sometimes suffered the line to stand; for the inconstancy of the copies
is such, as that some liberties may be easily permitted. But this
practice I have not suffered to proceed far, having restored the
primitive diction wherever it could for any reason be preferred.
The emendations, which comparison of copies supplied, I have inserted in
the text: sometimes, where the improvement was slight, without notice,
and sometimes with an account of the reasons of the change.
Conjecture, though it be sometimes unavoidable, I have not wantonly nor
licentiously indulged. It has been my settled principle, that the
reading of the ancient books is probably true, and, therefore, is not to
be disturbed for the sake of elegance, perspicuity, or mere improvement
of the sense. For though much credit is not due to the fidelity, nor any
to the judgment of the first publishers, yet they who had the copy
before their eyes were more likely to read it right, than we, who read
it only by imagination. But it is evident that they have often made
strange mistakes by ignorance or negligence, and that, therefore,
something may be properly attempted by criticism, keeping the middle way
between presumption and timidity.
Such criticism I have attempted to practise, and, where any passage
appeared inextricably perplexed have endeavoured to discover how it may
be recalled to sense, with least violence. But my first labour is,
always to turn the old text on every side, and try if there be any
interstice, through which light can find its way; nor would Huetius
himself condemn me, as refusing the trouble of research, for the
ambition of alteration. In this modest industry I have not been
unsuccessful. I have rescued many lines from the violations of temerity,
and secured many scenes from the inroads of correction. I have adopted
the Roman sentiment, that it is more honourable to save a citizen than
to kill an enemy, and have been more careful to protect than to attack.
I have preserved the common distribution of the plays into acts, though
I believe it to be in almost all the plays void of authority. Some of
those which are divided in the later editions have no division in the
first folio, and some that are divided in the folio have no division in
the preceding copies. The settled mode of the theatre requires four
intervals in the play; but few, if any, of our author's compositions can
be properly distributed in that manner. An act is so much of the drama
as passes without intervention of time, or change of place. A pause
makes a new act. In every real, and, therefore, in every imitative
action, the intervals may be more or fewer, the restriction of five acts
being accidental and arbitrary. This Shakespeare knew, and this he
practised; his plays were written, and, at first, printed in one
unbroken continuity, and ought now to be exhibited with short pauses,
interposed as often as the scene is changed, or any considerable time is
required to pass. This method would at once quell a thousand
In restoring the author's works to their integrity, I have considered
the punctuation as wholly in my power; for what could be their care of
colons and commas, who corrupted words and sentences? Whatever could be
done by adjusting points, is, therefore, silently performed, in some
plays with much diligence, in others with less; it is hard to keep a
busy eye steadily fixed upon evanescent atoms, or a discursive mind upon
The same liberty has been taken with a few particles, or other words of
slight effect. I have sometimes inserted or omitted them without notice.
I have done that sometimes, which the other editors have done always,
and which, indeed, the state of the text may sufficiently justify.
The greater part of readers, instead of blaming us for passing trifles,
will wonder that on mere trifles so much labour is expended, with such
importance of debate, and such solemnity of diction. To these I answer
with confidence, that they are judging of an art which they do not
understand; yet cannot much reproach them with their ignorance, nor
promise that they would become in general, by learning criticism, more
useful, happier, or wiser.
As I practised conjecture more, I learned to trust it less; and after I
had printed a few plays, resolved to insert none of my own readings in
the text. Upon this caution I now congratulate myself, for every day
increases my doubt of my emendations.
Since I have confined my imagination to the margin, it must not be
considered as very reprehensible, if I have suffered it to play some
freaks in its own dominion. There is no danger in conjecture, if it be
proposed as conjecture; and while the text remains uninjured, those
changes may be safely offered, which are not considered, even by him
that offers them, as necessary or safe.
If my readings are of little value, they have not been ostentatiously
displayed or importunately obtruded. I could have written longer notes,
for the art of writing notes is not of difficult attainment. The work is
performed, first by railing at the stupidity, negligence, ignorance, and
asinine tastelessness of the former editors, and showing, from all that
goes before and all that follows, the inelegance and absurdity of the
old reading; then by proposing something, which to superficial readers
would seem specious, but which the editor rejects with indignation; then
by producing the true reading, with a long paraphrase, and concluding
with loud acclamations on the discovery, and a sober wish for the
advancement and prosperity of genuine criticism.
All this may be done, and, perhaps, done sometimes without impropriety.
But I have always suspected that the reading is right, which requires
many words to prove it wrong; and the emendation wrong, that cannot
without so much labour appear to be right. The justness of a happy
restoration strikes at once, and the moral precept may be well applied
to criticism, "quod dubitas ne feceris."
To dread the shore which he sees spread with wrecks, is natural to the
sailor. I had before my eye so many critical adventures ended in
miscarriage, that caution was forced upon me. I encountered in every
page, wit struggling with its own sophistry, and learning confused by
the multiplicity of its views. I was forced to censure those whom I
admired, and could not but reflect, while I was dispossessing their
emendations, how soon the same fate might happen to my own, and how many
of the readings which I have corrected may be, by some other editor,
defended and established.
Critics I saw, that others' names efface,
And fix their own, with labour, in the place;
Their own, like others, soon their place resign'd,
Or disappear'd, and left the first behind.
That a conjectural critick should often be mistaken, cannot be
wonderful, either to others or himself, if it be considered, that in his
art there is no system, no principal and axiomatical truth that
regulates subordinate positions. His chance of errour is renewed at
every attempt; an oblique view of the passage, a slight misapprehension
of a phrase, a casual inattention to the parts connected, is sufficient
to make him not only fail, but fail ridiculously; and when he succeeds
best, he produces, perhaps, but one reading of many probable, and he
that suggests another will always be able to dispute his claims.
It is an unhappy state, in which danger is hid under pleasure. The
allurements of emendation are scarcely resistible. Conjecture has all
the joy and all the pride of invention, and he that has once started a
happy change, is too much delighted to consider what objections may rise
Yet conjectural criticism has been of great use in the learned world;
nor is it my intention to depreciate a study, that has exercised so many
mighty minds, from the revival of learning to our own age, from the
bishop of Aleria to English Bentley. The criticks on ancient authors
have, in the exercise of their sagacity, many assistances, which the
editor of Shakespeare is condemned to want. They are employed upon
grammatical and settled languages, whose construction contributes so
much to perspicuity, that Homer has fewer passages unintelligible than
Chaucer. The words have not only a known regimen, but invariable
quantities, which direct and confine the choice. There are commonly more
manuscripts than one; and they do not often conspire in the same
mistakes. Yet Scaliger could confess to Salmasius how little
satisfaction his emendations gave him: "Illudunt nobis conjecturae
nostrae, quarum nos pudet, posteaquam in meliores codices incidimus." And
Lipsius could complain that criticks were making faults, by trying to
remove them: "Ut olim vitiis, ita nunc remediis laboratur." And, indeed,
where mere conjecture is to be used, the emendations of Scaliger and
Lipsius, notwithstanding their wonderful sagacity and erudition, are
often vague and disputable, like mine or Theobald's.
Perhaps I may not be more censured for doing wrong, than for doing
little; for raising in the publick expectations which at last I have not
answered. The expectation of ignorance is indefinite, and that of
knowledge is often tyrannical. It is hard to satisfy those who know not
what to demand, or those who demand by design what they think impossible
to be done. I have, indeed, disappointed no opinion more than my own;
yet I have endeavoured to perform my task with no slight solicitude. Not
a single passage in the whole work has appeared to me corrupt, which I
have not attempted to restore; or obscure, which I have not endeavoured
to illustrate. In many I have failed, like others; and from many, after
all my efforts, I have retreated, and confessed the repulse. I have not
passed over, with affected superiority, what is equally difficult to the
reader and to myself, but, where I could not instruct him, have owned my
ignorance. I might easily have accumulated a mass of seeming learning
upon easy scenes; but it ought not to be imputed to negligence, that,
where nothing was necessary, nothing has been done, or that, where
others have said enough, I have said no more.
Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils. Let him, that
is yet unacquainted with the powers of Shakespeare, and who desires to
feel the highest pleasure that the drama can give, read every play, from
the first scene to the last, with utter negligence of all his
commentators. When his fancy is once on the wing, let it not stoop at
correction or explanation. When his attention is strongly engaged, let
it disdain alike to turn aside to the name of Theobald and of Pope. Let
him read on through brightness and obscurity, through integrity and
corruption; let him preserve his comprehension of the dialogue and his
interest in the fable. And when the pleasures of novelty have ceased,
let him attempt exactness, and read the commentators.
Particular passages are cleared by notes, but the general effect of the
work is weakened. The mind is refrigerated by interruption; the thoughts
are diverted from the principal subject; the reader is weary, he
suspects not why; and at last throws away the book which he has too
diligently studied. Parts are not to be examined till the whole has been
surveyed; there is a kind of intellectual remoteness necessary for the
comprehension of any great work in its full design and in its true
proportions; a close approach shows the smaller niceties, but the beauty
of the whole is discerned no longer.
It is not very grateful to consider how little the succession of editors
has added to this author's power of pleasing. He was read, admired,
studied, and imitated, while he was yet deformed with all the
improprieties which ignorance and neglect could accumulate upon him;
while the reading was yet not rectified, nor his allusions understood;
yet then did Dryden pronounce "that Shakespeare was the man, who, of all
modern and, perhaps, ancient poets, had the largest and most
comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him,
and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily: when he describes any
thing, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those, who accuse him to
have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was
naturally learned: he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature;
he looked inwards, and found her there. I cannot say he is every where
alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the
greatest of mankind. He is many times flat and insipid; his comick wit
degenerating into clinches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is
always great when some great occasion is presented to him: no man can
say, he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise
himself as high above the rest of poets,
Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi."
It is to be lamented that such a writer should want a commentary; that
his language should become obsolete, or his sentiments obscure. But it
is vain to carry wishes beyond the condition of human things; that which
must happen to all, has happened to Shakespeare, by accident and time;
and more than has been suffered by any other writer since the use of
types, has been suffered by him through his own negligence of fame,
or, perhaps, by that superiority of mind, which despised its own
performances, when it compared them with its powers, and judged those
works unworthy to be preserved, which the criticks of following ages
were to contend for the fame of restoring and explaining.
Among these candidates of inferiour fame, I am now to stand the judgment
of the publick; and wish that I could confidently produce my commentary
as equal to the encouragement which I have had the honour of receiving.
Every work of this kind is by its nature deficient, and I should feel
little solicitude about the sentence, were it to be pronounced only by
the skilful and the learned.
 Dr. Johnson's Preface first appeared in 1765. Malone's Shakespeare,
i. 108. and Boswell's Life of Johnson, i.
 Est vetus atque probus, centum qui perficit annos. Hon. Ep. II. 1.
 With all respect for our great critic's memory we must maintain,
that love has the _greatest_ influence on the sum of life: and every
popular tale or poem derives its main charm and power of pleasing
from the incidents of this universal passion. Other passions have,
undoubtedly, their sway, but love, when it does prevail, like
Aaron's rod, swallows up every feeling beside. It is one thing to
introduce the fulsome _badinage_ of compliment with which French
tragedy abounds, and another to exhibit the
--"very ecstacy of love:
Whose violent property foredoes itself,
And leads the will to desperate undertakings,
_As oft as any passion under heaven_,
That does afflict our natures."--
HAMLET. Act ii. Sc. i.
Quaerit quod nusquam est gentium, repent tamen.
Facit illud verisimile, quod mendacrium est.
PLAUTI PSEUDOLUS, Act i. Sc. 4.
Ficta voluptatis causa, sint proxima veris. HOR. ARS POET, 338.
See too the celebrated passage of Shakespeare himself--
Midsummer-night's Dream, Act v. Sc. 1; and Idler, 84.--Ed.
 The judgment of French poets on these points may be inferred from
the tenour of Boileau's admonitions:
Gardez donc de donner, ainsi que dans Clelie,
L'air ni l'esprit francois a l'antique Italie;
Et, sous des noms romains faisant notre portrait,
Peindre Caton galant, et Brutus dameret.
Art Poetique, iii.--Ed.
 The critic must, when he wrote this, have forgotten the Cyclops of
Euripides, and also the fact, that when an Athenian dramatist
brought out his _three_ tragedies at the Dionysiac festival, he
added, as a fourth, a sort of farce; a specimen of which Schlegel
considers the Cyclops. Mr. Twining, in his amusing and instructive
notes on Aristotle's Poetics, refers to the drunken jollity of
Hercules in the Alcestis, and to the ludicrous dialogue between
Ulysses and Minerva, in the first scene of the Ajax of Sophocles, as
instances of Greek tragi-comedy. We may add the Electra of
Euripides; for if the poet did not intend to burlesque the rules of
tragic composition in many of the scenes of that play, and to make
his audience laugh, he calculated on more dull gravity in Athens,
than we are accustomed to give that city of song the credit for. The
broad ridicule which Aristophanes casts against the tragedians is
not half so laughable.
 Thus, says Dowries the Prompter, p. 22: "The tragedy of Romeo and
Juliet was made some time after  into a tragi-comedy, by Mr.
James Howard, he preserving Romeo and Juliet alive; so that when the
tragedy was revived again, 'twas played alternately, tragical one
day, and tragi-comical another, for several days together."
 This opinion is controverted, and its effects deplored, by Dr. J.
Warton, in a note to Malone's Shakespeare, i. p. 71.--Ed.
 Dr. Drake conceives that Dr. Wolcot was indebted to the above noble
passage for the _prima stamina_ of the following stanza:
Thus, while I wond'ring pause o'er Shakespeare's page
I mark, in visions of delight, the sage
High o'er the wrecks of man who stands sublime,
A column in the melancholy waste,
(Its cities humbled, and its glories past,)
Majestic 'mid the solitude of time.--Ed.
 The poets and painters before and of Shakespeare's time were all
guilty of the same fault. The former "combined the Gothic mythology
of fairies" with the fables and traditions of Greek and Roman lore;
while the latter dressed out the heroes of antiquity in the arms
and costume of their own day. The grand front of Rouen cathedral
affords ample and curious illustration of what we state. Mr.
Steevens, in his Shakespeare, adds, "that in Arthur Hall's version
of the fourth Iliad, Juno says to Jupiter:
"The time will come that _Totnam French_ shall turn."
And in the tenth Book we hear of "The Bastile": "Lemster wool," and
 The relaxations of "England's queen" with her maids of honour were
not, if we may credit the existing memoirs of her court, precisely
such as modern fastidiousness would assign to the "fair vestal
throned by the west."
 A very full and satisfactory essay on the learning of Shakespeare,
may be found in Mr. Malone's Edition of Shakespeare, i. 300.
[Greek: Memonomenos d' o tlaemon
Aealin aethelon katheudein.] Anac. 8.
 The Comedy of Errors, which has been partly taken by some wretched
playwright from the Menaechmi of Plautus, is intolerably stupid:
that it may occasionally display the touch of Shakespeare, cannot
be denied; but these _purpurei panni_ are lamentably infrequent;
and, to adopt the language of Mr. Stevens, "that the entire play
was no work of his, is an opinion which (as Benedick says) fire
cannot melt out of me; I will die in it at the stake." Dr. Drake's
Literary Life of Johnson.--Ed.
 A list of these translations may be seen in Malone's Shakespeare,
i. 371. It was originally drawn up by Mr. Steevens.--Ed.
 See Dryden in the Epistle Dedicatory to his Rival Ladies.--Ed.
 It appears, from the induction of Ben Jonson's "Bartholomew Fair,"
to have been acted before the year 1590.--STEEVENS.
 The errors of the promoter's books of the present day excite the
violent invective of Mr. Steevens, in his notes on Johnson's
 This assertion is contradicted by Steevens and Malone, as regards
the second edition 1632. The former editor says, that it has the
advantage of various readings which are not merely such as
reiteration of copies will produce. The curious examiner of
Shakespeare's text, who possesses the first of these folio
editions, ought not to be unfurnished with the second. See Malone's
List of Early Editions in his Shakespeare, ii. 656.--Ed.
 It is extraordinary that this gentleman should attempt so
voluminous a work, as the Revisal of Shakespeare's text, when he
tells us in his preface, "he was not so fortunate as to be
furnished with either of the folio editions, much less any of the
ancient quartos: and even Sir Thomas Hanmer's performance was known
to him only by Dr. Warburton's representation."--FARMER.
 Republished by him in 1748, after Dr. Warburton's edition, with
 John Andreas. He was secretary to the Vatican library during the
papacies of Paul the second and Sixtus the fourth. By the former,
he was employed to superintend such works as were to be multiplied
by the new art of printing, at that time brought into Rome. He
published Herodotus, Strabo, Livy, Aulus Gellius, &c. His
schoolfellow, Cardinal de Cusa, procured him the bishopric of
Arcia, a province in Corsica; and Paul the second afterwards
appointed him to that of Aleria, in the same island, where he died
in 1493. See Fabric. Bibl. Lat. iii. 894, and Steevens, in Malone's
Shak. i. 106.
 See this assertion refuted by examples in a former note.--Ed.
PLAYS OF SHAKESPEARE.
It is observed of The Tempest, that its plan is regular; this the author
of The Revisal thinks, what I think too, an accidental effect of the
story, not intended or regarded by our author. But whatever might be
Shakespeare's intention in forming or adopting the plot, he has made it
instrumental to the production of many characters, diversified with
boundless invention, and preserved with profound skill in nature,
extensive knowledge of opinions, and accurate observation of life. In a
single drama are here exhibited princes, courtiers, and sailors, all
speaking in their real characters. There is the agency of airy spirits,
and of an earthly goblin; the operations of magick, the tumults of a
storm, the adventures of a desert island, the native effusion of
untaught affection, the punishment of guilt, and the final happiness of
the pair for whom our passions and reason are equally interested.
TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA.
In this play there is a strange mixture of knowledge and ignorance, of
care and negligence. The versification is often excellent, the allusions
are learned and just; but the author conveys his heroes by sea from one
inland town to another in the same country; he places the emperour at
Milan, and sends his young men to attend him, but never mentions him
more; he makes Protheus, after an interview with Silvia, say he has only
seen her picture; and, if we may credit the old copies, he has, by
mistaking places, left his scenery inextricable. The reason of all this
confusion seems to be, that he took his story from a novel, which he
sometimes followed, and sometimes forsook, sometimes remembered, and
That this play is rightly attributed to Shakespeare, I have little
doubt. If it be taken from him, to whom shall it be given? This question
may be asked of all the disputed plays, except Titus Andronicus; and it
will be found more credible that Shakespeare might sometimes sink below
his highest flights, than that any other should rise up to his lowest.
MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.
Of this play there is a tradition preserved by Mr. Rowe, that it was
written at the command of queen Elizabeth, who was so delighted with the
character of Falstaff, that she wished it to be diffused through more
plays; but, suspecting that it might pall by continued uniformity,
directed the poet to diversify his manner, by showing him in love. No
task is harder than that of writing to the ideas of another. Shakespeare
knew what the queen, if the story be true, seems not to have known, that
by any real passion of tenderness, the selfish craft, the careless
jollity, and the lazy luxury of Falstaff must have suffered so much
abatement, that little of his former cast would have remained. Falstaff
could not love, but by ceasing to be Falstaff. He could only counterfeit
love, and his professions could be prompted, not by the hope of
pleasure, but of money. Thus the poet approached as near as he could to
the work enjoined him; yet having, perhaps, in the former plays,
completed his own idea, seems not to have been able to give Falstaff all
his former power of entertainment.
This comedy is remarkable for the variety and number of the personages,
who exhibit more characters appropriated and discriminated, than,
perhaps, can be found in any other play.
Whether Shakespeare was the first that produced upon the English stage
the effect of language distorted and depraved by provincial or foreign
pronunciation, I cannot certainly decide. This mode of forming
ridiculous characters can confer praise only on him who originally
discovered it, for it requires not much of either wit or judgment; its
success must be derived almost wholly from the player, but its power in
a skilful mouth even he that despises it is unable to resist.
The conduct of this drama is deficient; the action begins and ends often
before the conclusion, and the different parts might change places
without inconvenience; but its general power, that power by which all
works of genius shall finally be tried, is such, that, perhaps, it never
yet had reader or spectator, who did not think it too soon at an end.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE.
There is, perhaps, not one of Shakespeare's plays more darkened than
this, by the peculiarities of its author, and the unskilfulness of its
editors, by distortions of phrase, or negligence of transcription.
The novel of Giraldi Cynthio, from which Shakespeare is supposed to have
borrowed this fable, may be read in Shakespeare Illustrated, elegantly
translated, with remarks, which will assist the inquirer to discover how
much absurdity Shakespeare has admitted or avoided.
I cannot but suspect that some other had new modelled the novel of
Cynthio, or written a story which, in some particulars, resembled it,
and that Cynthio was not the author whom Shakespeare immediately
followed. The emperour, in Cynthio, is named Maximine; the duke, in
Shakespeare's enumeration of the persons of the drama, is called
Vincentio. This appears a very slight remark; but since the duke has no
name in the play, nor is ever mentioned but by his title, why should he
be called Vincentio among the persons, but because the name was copied
from the story, and placed superfluously at the head of the list, by the
mere habit of transcription? It is, therefore, likely that there was
then a story of Vincentio duke of Vienna, different from that of
Maximine emperour of the Romans.
Of this play, the light or comick part is very natural and pleasing, but
the grave scenes, if a few passages be excepted, have more labour than
elegance. The plot is rather intricate than artful. The time of the
action is indefinite; some time, we know not how much, must have elapsed
between the recess of the duke and the imprisonment of Claudio; for he
must have learned the story of Mariana in his disguise, or he delegated
his power to a man already known to be corrupted. The unities of action
and place are sufficiently preserved.
LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST.
In this play, which all the editors have concurred to censure, and some
have rejected as unworthy of our poet, it must be confessed that there
are many passages mean, childish and vulgar; and some which ought not to
have been exhibited, as we are told they were, to a maiden queen. But
there are scattered through the whole many sparks of genius; nor is
there any play that has more evident marks of the hand of
Wild and fantastical as this play is, all the parts, in their various
modes, are well written, and give the kind of pleasure which the author
designed. Fairies in his time were much in fashion; common tradition had
made them familiar, and Spenser's poem had made them great.
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