The Works of Samuel Johnson in Nine Volumes
Samuel Johnson

Part 8 out of 9

to a just account. As far as we can judge by appearance, Plutarch had in
his hands all the plays of Aristophanes, which were at least fifty in

In these he saw more licentiousness than has come to our hands, though,
in the eleven that are still remaining, there is much more than could be

Plutarch censures him, in the second place, for playing upon words; and
against this charge Frischlinus defends him with less skill. It is
impossible to exemplify this in French. But, after all, this part is so
little, that it deserved not so severe a reprehension, especially since,
amongst those sayings, there are some so mischievously malignant, that
they became proverbial, at least by the sting of their malice, if not by
the delicacy of their wit. One example will be sufficient: speaking of
the tax-gatherers, or the excisemen of Athens, he crushes them at once,
by observing, non quod essent [Greek: tamiai], sed [Greek: lamiai]. The
word _lamiae_ signified, walking spirits, which, according to the vulgar
notion, devoured men; this makes the spirit of the sarcasm against the
tax-gatherers. This cannot be rendered in our language; but if any thing
as good had been said in France, on the like occasion, it would have
lasted too long, and, like many other sayings amongst us, been too well
received. The best is that Plutarch himself confesses that it was
extremely applauded.

The third charge is, a mixture of tragick and comick style. This
accusation is certainly true; Aristophanes often gets into the buskin;
but we must examine upon what occasion. He does not take upon him the
character of a tragick writer; but, having remarked that his trick of
parody was always well received, by a people who liked to laugh at that
for which they had been just weeping, he is eternally using the same
craft; and there is scarcely any tragedy or striking passage known by
memory, by the Athenians, which he does not turn into merriment, by
throwing over it a dress of ridicule and burlesque, which is done
sometimes by changing or transposing the words, and sometimes by an
unexpected application of the whole sentence. These are the shreds of
tragedy, in which he arrays the comick muse, to make her still more
comick. Cratinus had before done the same thing; and we know that he
made a comedy called Ulysses, to burlesque Homer and his Odyssey; which
shows, that the wits and poets are, with respect to one another, much
the same at all times, and that it was at Athens as here. I will prove
this system by facts, particularly with respect to the merriment of
Aristophanes, upon our three celebrated tragedians. This being the case,
the mingled style of Aristophanes will, perhaps, not deserve so much
censure as Plutarch has vented. We have no need of the travesty of
Virgil, nor the parodies of our own time, nor of the Lutrin of Boileau,
to show us, that this medly may have its merit upon particular

The same may be said, in general, of his obscurity, his meannesses, and
his high flights, and of all the seeming inequality of style, which puts
Plutarch in a rage. These censures can never be just upon a poet, whose
style has always been allowed to be perfectly attick, and of an atticism
which made him extremely delightful to the lovers of the Athenian taste.
Plutarch, perhaps, rather means to blame the choruses, of which the
language is sometimes elevated, sometimes burlesque, always very
poetical, and, therefore, in appearance, not suitable to comedy. But the
chorus, which had been borrowed from tragedy, was then all the fashion,
particularly for pieces of satire, and Aristophanes admitted them, like
the other poets of the old, and, perhaps, of the middle comedy; whereas
Menander suppressed them, not so much in compliance with his own
judgment, as in obedience to the publick edicts. It is not, therefore,
this mixture of tragick and comick that will place Aristophanes below

The fifth charge is, that he kept no distinction of character; that, for
example, he makes women speak like orators, and orators like slaves: but
it appears, by the characters which he ridicules, that this objection
falls of itself. It is sufficient to say, that a poet who painted not
imaginary characters, but real persons, men well known, citizens whom he
called by their names, and showed in dresses like their own, and masks
resembling their faces, whom he branded in the sight of a whole city
extremely haughty and full of derision; it is sufficient to say, that
such a poet could never be supposed to miss his characters. The applause
which his licentiousness produced, is too good a justification; besides,
if he had not succeeded, he exposed himself to the fate of Eupolis, who,
in a comedy called the Drowned Man, having imprudently pulled to pieces
particular persons, more powerful than himself, was laid hold of, and
drowned more effectually than those he had drowned upon the open stage.

The condemnation of the poignancy of Aristophanes, as having too much
acrimony, is better founded. Such was the turn of a species of comedy,
in which all licentiousness was allowed; in a nation which made every
thing a subject of laughter, in its jealousy of immoderate liberty, and
its enmity, to all appearance, of rule and superiority; for the genius
of independency, naturally produces a kind of satire, more keen than
delicate, as may be easily observed in most of the inhabitants of
islands. If we do not say, with Longinus, that a popular government
kindles eloquence, and that a lawful monarchy stifles it; at least it is
easy to discover, by the event, that eloquence in different governments
takes a different appearance. In republicks it is more sprightly and
violent, and in monarchies more insinuating and soft. The same thing may
be said of ridicule; it follows the cast of genius, as genius follows
that of government. Thus the republican raillery, particularly of the
age which we are now considering, must have been rougher than that of
the age which followed it, for the same reason that Horace is more
delicate, and Lucilius more pointed. A dish of satire was always a
delicious treat to human malignity; but that dish was differently
seasoned, as the manners were polished more or less. By polished manners
I mean that good-breeding, that art of reserve and self-restraint, which
is the consequence of dependance. If one was to determine the preference
due to one of those kinds of pleasantry, of which both have their value,
there would not need a moment's hesitation: every voice would join in
favour of the softer, yet without contempt of that which is rough.
Menander will, therefore, be preferred, but Aristophanes will not be
despised, especially since he was the first who quitted that wild
practice of satirizing at liberty right or wrong, and by a comedy of
another cast, made way for the manner of Menander, more agreeable yet,
and less dangerous. There is, yet, another distinction to be made
between the acrimony of the one, and the softness of the other; the
works of the one are acrimonious, and of the other soft, because, the
one exhibited personal, and the other, general characters; which leaves
us still at liberty to examine, if these different designs might not be
executed with equal delicacy.

We shall know this by a view of the particulars; in this place we say
only that the reigning taste, or the love of striking likenesses, might
justify Aristophanes for having turned, as Plutarch says, art into
malignity, simplicity into brutality, merriment into farce, and amour
into impudence; if, in any age, a poet could be excused for painting
publick folly and vice, in their true colours.

There is a motive of interest, at the bottom, which disposed Elian,
Plutarch, and many others, to condemn this poet without appeal.
Socrates, who is said to have been destroyed by a poetical attack, at
the instigation of two wretches[30], has too many friends among good
men, to have pardon granted to so horrid a crime. This has filled them
with an implacable hatred against Aristophanes, which is mingled with
the spirit of philosophy; a spirit, wherever it comes, more dangerous
than any other. A common enemy will confess some good qualities in his
adversary; but a philosopher, made partial by philosophy, is never at
rest till he has totally destroyed him who has hurt the most tender part
of his heart; that is, has disturbed him in his adherence to some
character, which, like that of Socrates, takes possession of the mind.
The mind is the freest part of man, and the most tender of its
liberties; possessions, life, and reputation may be in another's power,
but opinion is always independent. If any man can obtain that gentle
influence, by which he ingratiates himself with the understanding, and
makes a sect in a commonwealth, his followers will sacrifice themselves
for him, and nobody will be pardoned that dares to attack him, justly or
unjustly, because that truth, real or imaginary, which he maintained, is
now become an idol. Time will do nothing for the extinction of this
hatred; it will be propagated from age to age; and there is no hope that
Aristophanes will ever be treated with tenderness by the disciples of
Plato, who made Socrates his hero. Every body else may, perhaps,
confess, that Aristophanes, though in one instance a bad man, may,
nevertheless, be a good poet; but distinctions, like these, will not be
admitted by prejudice and passion, and one or other dictates all
characters, whether good or bad.

As I add my own reasons, such as they are, for or against Aristophanes,
to those of Frischlinus, his defender, I must not omit one thing which
he has forgot, and which, perhaps, without taking in the rest, put
Plutarch out of humour, which is that perpetual farce which goes through
all the comedies of Aristophanes, like the character of harlequin on the
Italian theatre. What kind of personages are clouds, frogs, wasps, and
birds? Plutarch, used to a comick stage of a very different appearance,
must have thought them strange things; and, yet stranger must they
appear to us, who have a newer kind of comedy, with which the Greeks
were unacquainted. This is what our poet may be charged with, and what
may be proved beyond refutation. This charge comprises all the rest, and
against this I shall not pretend to justify him. It would be of no use
to say, that Aristophanes wrote for an age that required shows which
filled the eye, and grotesque paintings in satirical performances; that
the crowds of spectators, which sometimes neglected Cratinus to throng
Aristophanes, obliged him, more and more, to comply with the ruling
taste, lest he should lose the publick favour by pictures more delicate
and less striking; that, in a state, where it was considered as policy
to lay open every thing that had the appearance of ambition,
singularity, or knavery, comedy was become a haranguer, a reformer, and
a publick counsellor, from whom the people learned to take care of their
most valuable interests; and that this comedy, in the attempt to lead,
and to please the people, claimed a right to the strongest touches of
eloquence, and had, likewise, the power of personal painting, peculiar
to herself. All these reasons, and many others, would disappear
immediately, and my mouth would be stopped with a single word, with
which every body would agree: my antagonist would tell me that such an
age was to be pitied, and, passing on from age to age, till he came to
our own, he would conclude flatly, that we are the only possessours of
common sense; a determination with which the French are too much
reproached, and which overthrows all the prejudice in favour of
antiquity. At the sight of so many happy touches, which one cannot help
admiring in Aristophanes, a man might, perhaps, be inclined to lament
that such a genius was thrown into an age of fools; but what age has
been without them? And have not we ourselves reason to fear, lest
posterity should judge of Moliere and his age, as we judge of
Aristophanes? Menander altered the taste, and was applauded in Athens,
but it was after Athens was changed. Terence imitated him at Rome, and
obtained the preference over Plautus, though Caesar called him but a
demi-Menander, because he appears to want that spirit and vivacity which
he calls the vis comica. We are now weary of the manner of Menander and
Terence, and leave them for Moliere, who appears like a new star in a
new course. Who can answer, that in such an interval of time as has
passed between these four writers, there will not arise another author,
or another taste, that may bring Moliere, in his turn, into neglect?
Without going further, our neighbours, the English, think he wants force
and fire. Whether they are right, or no, is another question; all that I
mean to advance is, that we are to fix it as a conclusion, that comick
authors must grow obsolete with the modes of life, if we admit any one
age, or any one climate, for the sovereign rule of taste. But let us
talk with more exactness, and endeavour, by an exact analysis, to find
out what there is in comedy, whether of Aristophanes and Plautus, of
Menander and Terence, of Moliere and his rivals, which is never
obsolete, and must please all ages and all nations.


I now speak particularly of comedy; for we must observe that between
that and other works of literature, especially tragedy, there is an
essential difference, which the enemies of antiquity will not
understand, and which I shall endeavour palpably to show.

All works show the age in which they are produced; they carry its stamp
upon them; the manners of the times are impressed by indelible marks. If
it be allowed, that the best of past times were rude in comparison with
ours, the cause of the ancients is decided against them; and the want of
politeness, with which their works are charged, in our days, must be
generally confessed. History alone seems to claim exemption from this
accusation. Nobody will dare to say of Herodotus or Thucydides, of
Livius or Tacitus, that which has been said, without scruple, of Homer
and the ancient poets. The reason is, that history takes the nearest way
to its purpose, and gives the characters and practices of nations, be
they what they will; it has no dependance upon its subject, and offers
nothing to examination, but the art of the narrative. An history of
China, well written, would please a Frenchman, as well as one of France.
It is otherwise with mere works of genius, they depend upon their
subjects, and, consequently, upon the characters and practices of the
times in which they were written; this, at least, is the light in which
they are beheld. This rule of judgment is not equitable; for, as I have
said, over and over, all the orators and the poets are painters, and
merely painters. They exhibit nature, as it is before them, influenced
by the accidents of education, which, without changing it entirely, yet
give it, in different ages and climates, a different appearance; but we
make their success depend, in a great degree, upon their subject, that
is, upon circumstances which we measure by the circumstances of our own
days. According to this prejudice, oratory depends more upon its subject
than history, and poetry yet more than oratory. Our times, therefore,
show more regard to Herodotus and Suetonius, than to Demosthenes and
Cicero, and more to all these than to Homer or Virgil. Of this
prejudice, there are regular gradations; and to come back to the point
which we have left, we show, for the same imperceptible reason, less
regard to tragick poets than to others. The reason is, that the subjects
of their paintings are more examined than the art. Thus comparing the
Achilles and Hippolytus of Euripides, with those of Racine, we drive
them off the stage, without considering that Racine's heroes will be
driven off, in a future age, if the same rule of judgment be followed,
and one time be measured by another.

Yet tragedy, having the passions for its object, is not wholly exposed
to the caprice of our taste, which would make our own manners the rule
of human kind; for the passions of Grecian heroes are often dressed in
external modes of appearance that disgust us, yet they break through the
veil when they are strongly marked, as we cannot deny them to be in
Eschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The essence then gets the better of
the circumstance. The passions of Greece and France do not so much
differ by the particular characters of particular ages, as they agree by
the participation of that which belongs to the same passion in all ages.
Our three tragick poets will, therefore, get clear by suffering only a
little ridicule, which falls directly upon their times; but these times
and themselves will be well recompensed, by the admiration which their
art will irresistibly enforce.

Comedy is in a more lamentable situation; for, not only its object is
the ridiculous, which, though in reality always the same, is so
dependant on custom, as to change its appearance with time, and with
place; but the art of a comick writer is, to lay hold of that species of
the ridiculous which will catch the spectators of the present hour,
without regard to futurity. But, though comedy has attained its end, and
diverted the pit, for which it was written; if it goes down to
posterity, it is a new world, where it is no longer known; it becomes
there quite a foreigner, because there are no longer the same originals,
nor the same species of the ridiculous, nor the same spectators, but a
set of merciless readers, who complain that they are tired with it,
though it once filled Athens, Rome, or Paris, with merriment. This
position is general, and comprises all poets and all ages. To say all,
at once, comedy is the slave of its subject, and of the reigning taste;
tragedy is not subject to the same degree of slavery, because the ends
of the two species of poetry are different. For this reason, if we
suppose that in all ages there are criticks, who measure every thing by
the same rule, it will follow, that if the comedy of Aristophanes be
become obsolete, that of Menander, likewise, after having delighted
Athens, and revived again at Rome, at last suffered by the force of
time. The muse of Moliere has almost made both of them forgotten, and
would still be walking the stage, if the desire of novelty did not in
time make us weary of that which we have too frequently admired.

Those, who have endeavoured to render their judgment independent upon
manners and customs, and of such men there have been always some, have
not judged so severely either of times, or of writers; they have
discovered that a certain resemblance runs through all polished ages,
which are alike in essential things, and differ only in external
manners, which, if we except religion, are things of indifference; that,
wherever there is genius, politeness, liberty, or plenty, there prevails
an exact and delicate taste, which, however hard to be expressed, is
felt by those that were born to feel it; that Athens, the inventress of
all the arts, the mother first of the Roman, and then of general taste,
did not consist of stupid savages; that the Athenian and Augustan ages
having always been considered as times that enjoyed a particular
privilege of excellence, though we may distinguish the good authors from
the bad, as in our own days, yet we ought to suspend the vehemence of
criticism, and proceed with caution and timidity, before we pass
sentence upon times and writers, whose good taste has been universally
applauded. This obvious consideration has disposed them to pause; they
have endeavoured to discover the original of taste, and have found that
there is not only a stable and immutable beauty, as there is a common
understanding in all times and places, which is never obsolete; but
there is another kind of beauty, such as we are now treating, which
depends upon times and places, and is, therefore, changeable. Such is
the imperfection of every thing below, that one mode of beauty is never
found without a mixture of the other, and from these two, blended
together, results what is called the taste of an age. I am now speaking
of an age sprightly and polite, an age which leaves works for a long
time behind it, an age which is imitated or criticised, when revolutions
have thrown it out of sight.

Upon this incontestable principle, which supposes a beauty, universal
and absolute, and a beauty, likewise, relative and particular, which are
mingled through one work in very different proportions, it is easy to
give an account of the contrary judgments passed on Aristophanes. If we
consider him only with respect to the beauties, which, though they do
not please us, delighted the Athenians, we shall condemn him at once,
though even this sort of beauty may, sometimes, have its original in
universal beauty carried to extravagance. Instead of commending him for
being able to give merriment to the most refined nation of those days,
we shall proceed to place that people, with all their atticism, in the
rank of savages, whom we take upon us to degrade, because they have no
other qualifications but innocence, and plain understanding. But have
not we, likewise, amidst our more polished manners, beauties merely
fashionable, which make part of our writings as of the writings of
former times; beauties of which our self-love now makes us fond, but
which, perhaps, will disgust our grandsons? Let us be more equitable;
let us leave this relative beauty to its real value, more or less, in
every age: or, if we must pass judgment upon it, let us say that these
touches in Aristophanes, Menander, and Moliere, were well struck off in
their own time; but that, comparing them with true beauty, that part of
Aristophanes was a colouring too strong, that of Menander was too weak,
and that of Moliere was a peculiar varnish, formed of one and the other,
which, without being an imitation, is itself inimitable, yet depending
upon time, which will efface it, by degrees, as our notions, which are
every day changing, shall receive a sensible alteration. Much of this
has already happened since the time of Moliere, who, if he was now to
come again, must take a new road.

With respect to unalterable beauties, of which comedy admits much fewer
than tragedy, when they are the subject of our consideration, we must
not, too easily, set Aristophanes and Plautus below Menander and
Terence. We may properly hesitate with Boileau, whether we shall prefer
the French comedy to the Greek and Latin. Let us only give, like him,
the great rule for pleasing in all ages, and the key by which all the
difficulties in passing judgment may be opened. This rule and this key
are nothing else but the ultimate design of the comedy.

Etudiez la cour, et connoissez la ville:
L'une et l'autre est toujours en modeles fertile.
C'est par-la que Moliere illustrant ses ecrits
Peut-etre de son art eut remporte le prix,
Si, moins ami du peuple en ses doctes peintures,
Il n'eut point fait souvent grimacer ses figures,
Quitte pour le bouffon l'agreable et le fin,
Et sans honte a Terence allie Tabarin[31].

In truth, Aristophanes and Plautus united buffoonery and delicacy, in a
greater degree than Moliere; and for this they may be blamed. That which
then pleased at Athens, and at Rome, was a transitory beauty, which had
not sufficient foundation in truth, and, therefore, the taste changed.
But, if we condemn those ages for this, what age shall we spare? Let us
refer every thing to permanent and universal taste, and we shall find in
Aristophanes at least as much to commend as censure.


But before we go on to his works, it may be allowed to make some
reflections upon tragedy and comedy. Tragedy, though different,
according to the difference of times and writers, is uniform in its
nature, being founded upon the passions, which never change. With comedy
it is otherwise. Whatever difference there is between Eschylus,
Sophocles, and Euripides; between Corneille and Racine; between the
French and the Greeks; it will not be found sufficient to constitute
more than one species of tragedy.

The works of those great masters are, in some respects, like the
seanymphs, of whom Ovid says, "That their faces were not the same, yet
so much alike, that they might be known to be sisters;"

--facies non omnibus una,
Nec diversa tamen, qualem decet esse sororum.

The reason is, that the same passions give action and animation to them
all. With respect to the comedies of Aristophanes and Plautus, Menander
and Terence, Moliere and his imitators, if we compare them one with
another, we shall find something of a family likeness, but much less
strongly marked, on account of the different appearance which ridicule
and pleasantry take from the different manners of every age. They will
not pass for sisters, but for very distant relations. The Muse of
Aristophanes and Plautus, to speak of her with justice, is a bacchanal
at least, whose malignant tongue is dipped in gall, or in poison
dangerous as that of the aspick or viper; but whose bursts of malice,
and sallies of wit, often give a blow where it is not expected. The Muse
of Terence, and, consequently, of Menander, is an artless and unpainted
beauty, of easy gaiety, whose features are rather delicate than
striking, rather soft than strong, rather plain and modest than great
and haughty, but always perfectly natural:

Ce n'est pas un portrait, une image semblable:
C'est un fils, un amant, un pere veritable.

The Muse of Moliere is not always plainly dressed, but takes airs of
quality, and rises above her original condition, so as to attire herself
gracefully in magnificent apparel. In her manners she mingles elegance
with foolery, force with delicacy and grandeur, or even haughtiness with
plainness and modesty. If, sometimes, to please the people, she gives a
loose to farce, it is only the gay folly of a moment, from which she
immediately returns, and which lasts no longer than a slight
intoxication. The first might be painted encircled with little satyrs,
some grossly foolish, the others delicate, but all extremely licentious
and malignant; monkeys always ready to laugh in your face, and to point
out to indiscriminate ridicule, the good and the bad. The second may be
shown encircled with geniuses full of softness and of candour, taught to
please by nature alone, and whose honeyed dialect is so much the more
insinuating, as there is no temptation to distrust it. The last must be
accompanied with the delicate laughter of the court, and that of the
city somewhat more coarse, and neither the one nor the other can be
separated from her. The Muse of Aristophanes and of Plautus can never be
denied the honour of sprightliness, animation, and invention; nor that
of Menander and Terence the praise of nature and of delicacy; to that of
Moliere must be allowed the happy secret of uniting all the piquancy of
the former, with a peculiar art which they did not know. Of these three
sorts of merit, let us show to each the justice that is due, let us, in
each, separate the pure and the true, from the false gold, without
approving or condemning either the one or the other, in the gross. If we
must pronounce, in general, upon the taste of their writings, we must
indisputably allow that Menander, Terence and Moliere, will give most
pleasure to a decent audience, and, consequently, that they approach
nearer to the true beauty, and have less mixture of beauties purely
relative, than Plautus and Aristophanes.

If we distinguish comedy by its subjects, we shall find three sorts
among the Greeks, and as many among the Latins, all differently dressed;
if we distinguish it by ages and authors, we shall again find three
sorts; and we shall find three sorts, a third time, if we regard more
closely the subject. As the ultimate and general rules of all these
sorts of comedy are the same, it will, perhaps, be agreeable to our
purpose to sketch them out, before we give a full display of the last
class. I can do nothing better, on this occasion, than transcribe the
twenty-fifth reflection of Rapin upon poetry in particular.


"Comedy," says he[32], "is a representation of common life: its end is
to show the faults of particular characters on the stage, to correct the
disorder of the people by the fear of ridicule. Thus ridicule is the
essential part of a comedy. Ridicule may be in words, or in things; it
may be decent, or grotesque. To find what is ridiculous in every thing,
is the gift merely of nature; for all the actions of life have their
bright, and their dark sides; something serious, and something merry.
But Aristotle, who has given rules for drawing tears, has given none for
raising laughter; for this is merely the work of nature, and must
proceed from genius, with very little help from art or matter. The
Spaniards have a turn to find the ridicule in things, much more than we;
and the Italians, who are natural comedians, have a better turn for
expressing it; their language is more proper for it than ours, by an air
of drollery which it can put on, and of which ours may become capable,
when it shall be brought nearer to perfection. In short, that agreeable
turn, that gaiety, which yet maintains the delicacy of its character,
without falling into dulness or into buffoonery; that elegant raillery,
which is the flower of fine wit, is the qualification which comedy
requires. We must, however, remember that the true artificial ridicule,
which is required on the theatre, must be only a transcript of the
ridicule which nature affords. Comedy is naturally written, when, being
on the theatre, a man can fancy himself in a private family, or a
particular part of the town, and meets with nothing but what he really
meets with in the world; for it is no real comedy in which a man does
not see his own picture, and find his own manners, and those of the
people among whom he lives. Menander succeeded only by this art among
the Greeks: and the Romans, when they sat at Terence's comedies,
imagined themselves in a private party; for they found nothing there
which they had not been used to find in common company. The great art of
comedy is to adhere to nature, without deviation; to have general
sentiments and expressions, which all the world can understand; for the
writer must keep it always in his mind, that the coarsest touches after
nature will please more, than the most delicate, with which nature is
inconsistent. However, low and mean words should never be allowed upon
the stage, if they are not supported with some kind of wit. Proverbs and
vulgar smartnesses can never be suffered, unless they have something in
them of nature and pleasantry. This is the universal principle of
comedy; whatever is represented, in this manner must please, and nothing
can ever please without it. It is by application to the study of nature
alone, that we arrive at probability, which is the only infallible guide
to theatrical success: without this probability, every thing is
defective, and that which has it, is beautiful; he that follows this,
can never go wrong; and the most common faults of comedy proceed from
the neglect of propriety, and the precipitation of incidents. Care must,
likewise, be taken, that the hints, made use of to introduce the
incidents, are not too strong, that the spectator may enjoy the pleasure
of finding out their meaning; but commonly the weak place in our comedy
is the untying of the plot, in which we almost always fail, on account
of the difficulty which there is in disentangling of what has been
perplexed. To perplex an intrigue is easy; the imagination does it by
itself; but it must be disentangled merely by the judgment, and is,
therefore, seldom done happily; and he that reflects a very little, will
find, that most comedies are faulty by an unnatural catastrophe. It
remains to be examined, whether comedy will allow pictures larger than
the life, that this strength of the strokes may make a deeper impression
upon the mind of the spectators; that is, if a poet may make a covetous
man more covetous, and a peevish man more impertinent, and more
troublesome than he really is. To which I answer, that this was the
practice of Plautus, whose aim was to please the people, but that
Terence, who wrote for gentlemen, confined himself within the compass of
nature, and represented vice without addition or aggravation. However,
these extravagant characters, such as the Citizen turned gentleman, and
the Hypochrondriac patient of Moliere, have lately succeeded at court,
where delicacy is carried so far; but every thing, even to provincial
interludes, is well received, if it has but merriment, for we had rather
laugh than admire. These are the most important rules of comedy.


These rules, indeed, are common to the three kinds which I have in my
mind; but it is necessary to distinguish each from the rest, which may
be done by diversity of matter, which always makes some diversity of
management. The old and middle comedy simply represented real
adventures: in the same way some passages of history and of fable might
form a class of comedies, which should resemble it without having its
faults; such is the Amphitryon. How many moral tales, how many
adventures, ancient and modern; how many little fables of Aesop, of
Phaedrus, of Fontaine, or some other ancient poet, would make pretty
exhibitions, if they were all made use of as materials by skilful hands?
And have we not seen some like Timon the man hater, that have been
successful in this way? This sort chiefly regards the Italians. The
ancient exhibition, called a satire, because the satyrs played their
part in it, of which we have no other instance than the Cyclops of
Euripides, has, without doubt, given occasion to the pastoral comedies,
for which we are chiefly indebted to Italy, and which are there more
cultivated than in France. It is, however, a kind of exhibition that
would have its charms, if it was touched with elegance and without
meanness: it is the pastoral put into action. To conclude, the new
comedy, invented by Menander, has produced the comedy, properly so
called in our times. This is that which has for its subject general
pictures of common life, and feigned names and adventures, whether of
the court or of the city. This third kind is incontestably the most
noble, and has received the strongest sanction from custom. It is,
likewise, the most difficult to perform, because it is merely the work
of invention, in which the poet has no help from real passages or
persons, which the tragick poet always makes use of. Who knows but, by
deep thinking, another kind of comedy may be invented, wholly different
from the three which I have mentioned? such is the fruitfulness of
comedy. But its course is already too wide for the discovery of new
fields to be wished; and on ground where we are already so apt to
stumble, nothing is so dangerous as novelty imperfectly understood. This
is the rock on which men have often split, in every kind of pursuit; to
go no further, in that of grammar and language, it is better to
endeavour after novelty, in the manner of expressing common things, than
to hunt for ideas out of the way, in which many a man loses himself. The
ill success of that odd composition, tragick comedy, a monster wholly
unknown to antiquity,[33] sufficiently shows the danger of novelty in
attempts like these.


To finish the parallel of the two dramas, a question may be revived
equally common and important, which has been oftener proposed than well
decided: it is, whether comedy or tragedy be most easy or difficult to
be well executed. I shall not have the temerity to determine,
positively, a question which so many great geniuses have been afraid to
decide; but, if it be allowed to every literary man to give his reason
for and against a mere work of genius, considered without respect to its
good or bad tendency, I shall, in a few words, give my opinion, drawn
from the nature of the two works, and the qualifications they demand.
Horace[35] proposes a question nearly of the same kind: "It has been
inquired, whether a good poem be the work of art or nature? for my part,
I do not see much to be done by art without genius, nor by genius
without knowledge. The one is necessary to the other, and the success
depends upon their cooperation." If we should endeavour to accommodate
matters in imitation of this decision of Horace, it were easy to say, at
once, that supposing two geniuses equal, one tragick and the other
comick, supposing the art, likewise, equal in each, one would be as easy
or difficult as the other; but this, though satisfactory in the simple
question put by Horace, will not be sufficient here. Nobody can doubt
but genius and industry contribute their part to every thing valuable,
and particularly to good poetry. But if genius and study were to be
weighed one against the other, in order to discover which must
contribute most to a good work, the question would become more curious,
and, perhaps, very difficult of solution. Indeed, though nature must
have a great part of the expanse of poetry, yet no poetry lasts long
that is not very correct: the balance, therefore, seems to incline in
favour of correction. For is it not known that Virgil, with less genius
than Ovid, is yet valued more by men of exquisite judgment; or, without
going so far, Boileau, the Horace of our time, who composed with so much
labour, and asked Moliere where he found his rhyme so easily, has said;
"If I write four words, I shall blot out three:" has not Boileau, by his
polished lines, retouched and retouched a thousand times, gained the
preference above the works of the same Moliere, which are so natural,
and produced, by so fruitful a genius! Horace was of that opinion, for
when he is teaching the writers of his age the art of poetry, he tells
them, in plain terms, that Rome would excel in writing as in arms, if
the poets were not afraid of the labour, patience, and time required to
polish their pieces. He thought every poem was bad that had not been
brought ten times back to the anvil, and required that a work should be
kept nine years, as a child is nine months in the womb of its mother, to
restrain that natural impatience which combines with sloth and self-love
to disguise faults: so certain is it that correction is the touchstone
of writing.

The question proposed comes back to the comparison which I have been
making between genius and correction, since we are now engaged in
inquiring, whether there is more or less difficulty in writing tragedy
or comedy: for, as we must compare nature and study one with another,
since they must both concur, more or less, to make a poet; so if we will
compare the labours of two different minds in different kinds of
writing, we must, with regard to the authors, compare the force of
genius, and, with respect to the composition, the difficulties of the

The genius of the tragick and comick writer will be easily allowed to be
remote from each other. Every performance, be what it will, requires a
turn of mind which a man cannot confer upon himself; it is purely the
gift of nature, which determines those who have it to pursue, almost in
spite of themselves, the taste which predominates in their minds. Pascal
found in his childhood, that he was a mathematician; and Vandyke, that
he was born a painter. Sometimes this internal direction of the mind
does not make such evident discoveries of itself; but it is rare to find
Corneilles, who have lived long without knowing that they were poets.
Corneille, having once got some notion of his powers, tried a long time,
on all sides, to know what particular direction he should take. He had
first made an attempt in comedy, in an age when it was yet so gross in
France, that it could give no pleasure to polite persons. Melite was so
well received, when he dressed her out, that she gave rise to a new
species of comedy and comedians.

This success, which encouraged Corneille to pursue that sort of comedy,
of which he was the first inventor, left him no reason to imagine, that
he was one day to produce those masterpieces of tragedy, which his muse
displayed afterwards with so much splendour; and yet less did he
imagine, that his comick pieces, which, for want of any that were
preferable, were then very much in fashion, would be eclipsed by another
genius[36] formed upon the Greeks and Romans, and who would add to their
excellencies improvements of his own, and that this modish comedy, to
which Corneille, as to his idol, dedicated his labours, would quickly be
forgot. He wrote first Medea, and afterwards the Cid; and, by that
prodigious flight of his genius, he discovered, though late, that nature
had formed him to run in no other course but that of Sophocles. Happy
genius! that, without rule or imitation, could at once take so high a
flight: having once, as I may say, made himself an eagle, he never
afterwards quitted the path which he had worked out for himself, over
the heads of the writers of his time; yet he retained some traces of the
false taste which infected the whole nation; but even in this, he
deserves our admiration, since, in time, he changed it completely by the
reflections he made, and those he occasioned. In short, Corneille was
born for tragedy, as Moliere for comedy. Moliere, indeed, knew his own
genius sooner, and was not less happy in procuring applause, though it
often happened to him as to Corneille,

"L'ignorance et l'erreur a ses naissantes pieces,
En habit de marquis, en robes de comtesses,
Vinssent pour diffamer son chef-d'oeuvre nouveau,
Et secouer la tele a l'endroit le plus beau."

But, without taking any farther notice of the time at which either came
to the knowledge of his own genius, let us suppose that the powers of
tragedy and comedy were as equally shared between Moliere and Corneille,
as they are different in their own nature, and then nothing more will
remain, than to compare the several difficulties of each composition,
and to rate those difficulties together which are common to both.

It appears, first, that the tragick poet has, in his subject, an
advantage over the comick, for he takes it from history; and his rival,
at least in the more elevated and splendid comedy, is obliged to form it
by his own invention. Now, it is not so easy, as it might seem, to find
comick subjects capable of a new and pleasing form; but history is a
source, if not inexhaustible, yet certainly so copious as never to leave
the genius aground. It is true, that invention seems to have a wider
field than history: real facts are limited in their number, but the
facts which may be feigned have no end; but though, in this respect,
invention may be allowed to have the advantage, is the difficulty of
inventing to be accounted as nothing? To make a tragedy, is to get
materials together, and to make use of them like a skilful architect;
but to make a comedy, is to build like Aesop in the air. It is in vain
to boast that the compass of invention is as wide as the extent of
desire; every thing is limited, and the mind of man like every thing
else. Besides, invention must be in conformity to nature; but distinct
and remarkable characters are very rare in nature herself. Moliere has
got hold on the principal touches of ridicule. If any man should bring
characters less strong, he will be in danger of dulness. Where comedy is
to be kept up by subordinate personages, it is in great danger. All the
force of a picture must arise from the principal persons, and not from
the multitude clustered up together. In the same manner, a comedy, to be
good, must be supported by a single striking character, and not by

But, on the contrary, tragick characters are without number, though of
them the general outlines are limited; but dissimulation, jealousy,
policy, ambition, desire of dominion, and other interests and passions,
are various without end, and take a thousand different forms in
different situations of history; so that, as long as there is tragedy,
there may be always novelty. Thus the jealous and dissembling
Mithridates, so happily painted by Racine, will not stand in the way of
a poet, who shall attempt a jealous and dissembling Tiberius. The stormy
violence of an Achilles will always leave room for the stormy violence
of Alexander.

But the case is very different with avarice, trifling vanity, hypocrisy,
and other vices, considered as ridiculous. It would be safer to double
and treble all the tragedies of our greatest poets, and use all their
subjects over and over, as has been done with Oedipus and Sophonisba,
than to bring again upon the stage, in five acts, a Miser, a Citizen
turned gentleman, a Tartuffe, and other subjects sufficiently known. Not
that these popular vices are less capable of diversification, or are
less varied by different circumstances, than the vices and passions of
heroes; but that if they were to be brought over again in comedies, they
would be less distinct, less exact, less forcible, and, consequently,
less applauded. Pleasantry and ridicule must be more strongly marked
than heroism and pathos, which support themselves by their own force.
Besides, though these two things, of so different natures, could support
themselves equally in equal variety, which is very far from being the
case, yet comedy, as it now stands, consists not in incidents, but in
characters. Now it is by incidents only that characters are diversified,
as well upon the stage of comedy, as upon the stage of life. Comedy, as
Moliere has left it, resembles the pictures of manners drawn by the
celebrated La Bruyere. Would any man, after him, venture to draw them
over again, he would expose himself to the fate of those who have
ventured to continue them. For instance, what could we add to his
character of the absent man? Shall we put him in other circumstances?
The principal strokes of absence of mind will always be the same; and
there are only those striking touches which are fit for a comedy, of
which, the end is painting after nature, but with strength and
sprightliness, like the designs of Callot. If comedy were among us what
it is in Spain, a kind of romance, consisting of many circumstances and
intrigues, perplexed and disentangled, so as to surprise; if it was
nearly the same with that which Corneille practised in his time; if,
like that of Terence, it went no farther than to draw the common
portraits of simple nature, and show us fathers, sons, and rivals;
notwithstanding the uniformity, which would always prevail, as in the
plays of Terence, and, probably, in those of Menander, whom he imitated
in his four first pieces, there would always be a resource found, either
in variety of incidents, like those of the Spaniards, or in the
repetition of the same characters, in the way of Terence; but the case
is now very different, the publick calls for new characters, and nothing
else. Multiplicity of accidents, and the laborious contrivance of an
intrigue, are not now allowed to shelter a weak genius, that would find
great conveniencies in that way of writing. Nor does it suit the taste
of comedy, which requires an air less constrained, and such freedom and
ease of manners as admits nothing of the romantick. She leaves all the
pomp of sudden events to the novels, or little romances, which were the
diversion of the last age. She allows nothing but a succession of
characters resembling nature, and falling in, without any apparent
contrivance. Racine has, likewise, taught us to give to tragedy the same
simplicity of air and action; he has endeavoured to disentangle it from
that great number of incidents, which made it rather a study than
diversion to the audience, and which show the poet not so much to abound
in invention, as to be deficient in taste. But, notwithstanding all that
he has done, or that we can do, to make it simple, it will always have
the advantage over comedy in the number of its subjects, because it
admits more variety of situations and events, which give variety and
novelty to the characters. A miser, copied after nature, will always be
the miser of Plautus or Moliere; but a Nero, or a prince like Nero, will
not always be the hero of Racine. Comedy admits of so little intrigue,
that the miser cannot be shown in any such position as will make his
picture new; but the great events of tragedy may put Nero in such
circumstances, as to make him wholly another character.

But, in the second place, over and above the subjects, may we not say
something concerning the final purpose of comedy and tragedy? The
purpose of the one is to divert, and the other to move; and, of these
two, which is the easier? To go to the bottom of those purposes; to move
is to strike those strings of the heart which are most natural, terrour
and pity; to divert is to make one laugh, a thing which, indeed, is
natural enough, but more delicate. The gentleman and the rustick have
both sensibility and tenderness of heart, perhaps, in greater or less
degree; but as they are men alike, the heart is moved by the same
touches. They both love, likewise, to send their thoughts abroad, and to
expand themselves in merriment; but the springs which must be touched
for this purpose are not the same in the gentleman as in the rustick.
The passions depend on nature, and merriment upon education. The clown
will laugh at a waggery, and the gentleman only at a stroke of delicate
conceit. The spectators of a tragedy, if they have but a little
knowledge, are almost all on a level; but with respect to comedy we have
three classes, if not more, the people, the learned, and the court. If
there are certain cases in which all may be comprehended in the term
people, this is not one of those cases. Whatever father Rapin may say
about it, we are more willing even to admire than to laugh. Every man,
that has any power of distinction, laughs as rarely as the philosopher
admires; for we are not to reckon those fits of laughter which are not
incited by nature, and which are given merely to complaisance, to
respect, flattery, and good-humour; such as break out at sayings which
pretend to smartness in assemblies. The laughter of the theatre is of
another stamp. Every reader and spectator judges of wit by his own
standard, and measures it by his capacity, or by his condition: the
different capacities and conditions of men make them diverted on very
different occasions. If, therefore, we consider the end of the tragick
and comick poet, the comedian must be involved in much more
difficulties, without taking in the obstructions to be encountered
equally by both, in an art which consists in raising the passions, or
the mirth of a great multitude. The tragedian has little to do but to
reflect upon his own thought, and draw from his heart those sentiments
which will certainly make their way to the hearts of others, if he found
them in his own. The other must take many forms, and change himself
almost into as many persons, as he undertakes to satisfy and divert.

It may be said, that, if genius be supposed equal, and success supposed
to depend upon genius, the business will be equally easy and difficult
to one author and to the other. This objection is of no weight; for the
same question still recurs, which is, whether of these two kinds of
genius is more valuable, or more rare? If we proceed by example, and not
by reasoning, we shall decide, I think, in favour of comedy.

It may be said, that, if merely art be considered, it will require
deeper thoughts to form a plan just and simple; to produce happy
surprises, without apparent contrivance; to carry a passion skilfully
through its gradations to its height; to arrive happily to the end by
always moving from it, as Ithaca seemed to fly Ulysses; to unite the
acts and scenes; and to raise, by insensible degrees, a striking
edifice, of which the least merit shall be exactness of proportion. It
may be added, that in comedy this art is infinitely less, for there the
characters come upon the stage with very little artifice or plot; the
whole scheme is so connected that we see it at once, and the plan and
disposition of the parts make a small part of its excellence, in
comparison of a gloss of pleasantry diffused over each scene, which is
more the happy effect of a lucky moment, than of long consideration.

These objections, and many others, which so fruitful a subject might
easily suggest, it is not difficult to refute; and, if we were to judge
by the impression made on the mind by tragedies and comedies of equal
excellence, perhaps, when we examine those impressions, it will be found
that a sally of pleasantry, which diverts all the world, required more
thought than a passage which gave the highest pleasure in tragedy; and,
to this determination we shall be more inclined, when a closer
examination shall show us, that a happy vein of tragedy is opened and
effused at less expense, than a well-placed witticism in comedy has
required, merely to assign its place.

It would be too much to dwell long upon such a digression; and, as I
have no business to decide the question, I leave both that and my
arguments to the taste of each particular reader, who will find what is
to be said for or against it. My purpose was only to say of comedy,
considered as a work of genius, all that a man of letters can be
supposed to deliver without departing from his character, and, without
palliating, in any degree, the corrupt use which has been almost always
made of an exhibition, which, in its nature, might be innocent; but has
been vicious from the time that it has been infected with the wickedness
of men. It is not for publick exhibitions that I am now writing, but for
literary inquiries. The stage is too much frequented, and books too much
neglected: yet it is to the literature of Greece and Rome that we are
indebted for that valuable taste, which will be insensibly lost, by the
affected negligence, which now prevails, of having recourse to
originals. If reason has been a considerable gainer, it must be
confessed that taste has been somewhat a loser.

To return to Aristophanes. So many great men of antiquity, through a
long succession of ages, down to our times, have set a value upon his
works, that we cannot, naturally, suppose them contemptible,
notwithstanding the essential faults with which he may be justly
reproached. It is sufficient to say, that he was esteemed by Plato and
Cicero; and, to conclude, by that which does him most honour, but,
still, falls short of justification, the strong and sprightly eloquence
of St. Chrysostom drew its support from the masculine and vigorous
atticism of this sarcastick comedian, to whom the father paid the same
regard as Alexander to Homer, that of putting his works under his
pillow, that he might read them, at night, before he slept, and, in the
morning, as soon as he awaked.


[1] Published by Mrs. Lennox in 4to. 1759. To the third volume of this
work the following advertisement is prefixed: "In this volume, the
Discourse on the Greek Comedy, and the General Conclusion, are
translated by the celebrated author of the Rambler. The Comedy of
the Birds, and that of Peace, by a young Gentleman. The Comedy of
the Frogs, by the learned and ingenious Dr. Gregory Sharpe. The
Discourse upon the Cyclops, by John Bourrya, esq. The Cyclops, by
Dr. Grainger, author of the translation of Tibullus."

[2] There was a law which forbade any judge of the Areopagus to write

[3] Madame Dacier, M. Boivin.

[4] Menander, an Athenian, son of Diopethes and Hegestrates, was,
apparently, the most eminent of the writers of the new comedy. He
had been a scholar of Theophrastus: his passion for the women
brought infamy upon him: he was squinteyed, and very lively. Of the
one hundred and eighty comedies, or, according to Suidas, the eighty
which he composed, and which are all said to be translated by
Terence, we have now only a few fragments remaining. He flourished
about the 115th Olympiad, 318 years before the Christian aera. He was
drowned as he was bathing in the port of Piraeus. I have told, in
another place, what is said of one Philemon, his antagonist, not so
good a poet as himself, but one who often gained the prize. This
Philemon was older than him, and was much in fashion in the time of
Alexander the great. He expressed all his wishes in two lines: "To
have health, and fortune, and pleasure, and never to be in debt, is
all I desire." He was very covetous, and was pictured with his
fingers hooked, so that he set his comedies at a high price. He
lived about a hundred years, some say a hundred and one. Many tales
are told of his death. Valerius Maximus says, that he died with
laughing at a little incident: seeing an ass eating his figs, he
ordered his servant to drive her away; the man made no great haste,
and the ass eat them all: "Well done," says Philemon, "now give her
some wine."--Apuleius and Quintilian placed this writer much below
Menander, but give him the second place.

[5] Greek Theatre, part i. vol. i.

[6] Hor. Ar. Poet. v. 275.

[7] Poet. ch. 4.

[8] Ibid.

[9] "The alterations, which have been made in tragedy, were perceptible,
and the authors of them known; but comedy has lain in obscurity,
being not cultivated, like tragedy, from the time of its original;
for it was long before the magistrates began to give comick
choruses. It was first exhibited by actors, who played voluntarily,
without orders of the magistrates. From the time that it began to
take some settled form, we know its authors, but are not informed
who first used masks, added prologues, increased the numbers of the
actors, and joined all the other things which now belong to it. The
first that thought of forming comick fables were Epicharmus and
Phormys, and, consequently, this manner came from Sicily. Crates was
the first Athenian that adopted it, and forsook the practice of
gross raillery that prevailed before." Aristot. ch. 5. Crates
flourished in the 82nd Olympiad, 450 years before our aera, twelve
or thirteen years before Aristophanes.

[10] Eupolis was an Athenian; his death, which we shall mention
presently, is represented differently by authors, who almost all
agree that he was drowned. Elian adds an incident which deserves to
be mentioned: he says (book x. Of Animals,) that one Augeas of
Eleusis, made Eupolis a present of a fine mastiff, who was so
faithful to his master as to worry to death a slave, who was
carrying away some of his comedies. He adds, that, when the poet
died at Egina, his dog staid by his tomb till he perished by grief
and hunger.

[11] Cratinus of Athens, who was son of Callimedes, died at the age of
ninety-seven. He composed twenty comedies, of which nine had the
prize: he was a daring writer, but a cowardly warriour.

[12] Hertelius has collected the sentences of fifty Greek poets of the
different ages of comedy.

[13] Interlude of the second act of the comedy entitled the Acharnians.

[14] Epigram attributed to Plato.

[15] This history of the three ages of comedy, and their different
characters, is taken in part from the valuable fragments of

[16] It will be shown, how, and in what sense, this was allowed.

[17] Perhaps the chorus was forbid in the middle age of the comedy.
Platonius seems to say so.

[18] Despreaux Art Poet. chant. 8.

[19] The year of Rome 514, the first year of the 135th Olympiad.

[20] Praetextae, Togatae, Tabernariae.

[21] Suet. de Claris Grammat. says, that C. Melissus, librarian to
Augustus, was the author of it.

[22] Homer, Odyssey.

[23] Orat. pro Archia Poeta.

[24] In the year of the 85th Olympiad; 437 before our aera, and 317 of
the foundation of Rome.

[25] The Greek comedies have been regarded, by many, in the light of
political journals, the Athenian newspapers of the day, where,
amidst the distortions of caricature, the lineaments of the times
were strongly drawn. See Madame de Stael de la Literature, c. iii.

[26] Preface to Plautus. Paris, 1684.

[27] Brumoy has mistaken Lucretius for Virgil.

[28] "Morum hujus temporis picturam, velut in speculo, suis in comoediis
repraesentavit Aristophanes." Valckenaer, Oratio de publicis
Atheniensium moribus.--Ed.

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
Pope's Essay on Man, ii. 217.

[30] It is not certain, that Aristophanes did procure the death of
Socrates; but, however, he is certainly criminal for having, in the
Clouds, accused him, publickly, of impiety. B.--Many ingenious
arguments have been advanced, since the time of Brumoy and Johnson,
in vindication of Aristophanes, with regard to Socrates. It has
been urged, that a man, of the established character of Socrates,
could not be injured by the dramatic imputation of faults and
follies, from which every individual in the theatre believed him to
be exempt; while the vices of the sophists and rhetors, whom
Aristophanes was really attacking, were placed in a more ludicrous,
or more odious light, by a mental juxta-position with the pure and
stern virtue of the master of Plato. This is very plausible; but it
may still be doubted, whether the greater part of an Athenian
audience, with all their native acuteness and practical criticism,
would, at the moment, detect this subtile irony. If, indeed, it was
irony, for still, with deference to great names be it spoken, it
remains to be disproved, that the Clouds was the introductory step
to a state-impeachment. Irony is, at best, a dangerous weapon, and
has, too frequently, been wielded by vulgar hands, to purposes
widely different from those which its authors designed. The
Tartuffe exposed to the indignation of France, a character, which
every good man detests. But, was the cause of religious sincerity
benefited, by Moliere's representation of a sullen, sly, and
sensual hypocrite? Did the French populace discriminate between
such, and the sincere professor of christianity? The facts of the
revolution give an awful answer to the question. Cervantes
ridiculed the fooleries and affectation ingrafted upon knight
errantry. Did he intend to banish honour, humanity and virtue,
loyalty, courtesy and gentlemanly feeling from Spain? The people
understood not irony, and Don Quixote combined with other causes,
to degrade to its present abasement, a land, so long renowned for
her high and honourable chivalry, for "ladye-love, and feats of
knightly worth." See likewise note on Adventurer, 84, and the
references there made; and preface to the Idler.--Ed.

[31] Boileau, Art. Poet. chant, 3.

[32] Reflexions sur la poet. p. 154. Paris, 1684.
[Transcriber's note: Although opening quotes are present (..."is a
representation...) closing quotes appear to be missing. It is
therefore unclear where this quotation ends.]

[33] [Transcriber's note: "See note to preface to Shakespeare in this
volume, page 103" in original. Page 103 is the first page of the
chapter; the only note on this page reads, "Dr. Johnson's Preface
first appeared in 1765. Malone's Shakespeare, i. 108. and Boswell's
Life of Johnson, i."]

[34] See this subject treated with reference to Shakespeare in preface
to Shakespeare, and notes.

[35] Ar. Poet. v. 407.

[36] Moliere.



Thus I have given a faithful extract of the remains of Aristophanes.
That I have not shown them in their true form, I am not afraid that any
body will complain. I have given an account of every thing, as far as it
was consistent with moral decency. No pen, however cynical or
heathenish, would venture to produce, in open day, the horrid passages
which I have put out of sight; and, instead of regretting any part that
I have suppressed, the very suppression will easily show to what degree
the Athenians were infected with licentiousness of imagination, and
corruption of principles. If the taste of antiquity allows us to
preserve what time and barbarity have hitherto spared, religion and
virtue at least oblige us not to spread it before the eyes of mankind.
To end this work in an useful manner, let us examine, in a few words,
the four particulars which are most striking in the eleven pieces of


The first is the character of the ancient comedy, which has no likeness
to any thing in nature. Its genius is so wild and strange, that it
scarce admits a definition. In what class of comedy must we place it? It
appears, to me, to be a species of writing by itself. If we had
Phrynicus, Plato, Eupolis, Cratinus, Ameipsias, and so many other
celebrated rivals of Aristophanes, of whom all that we can find are a
few fragments scattered in Plutarch, Athenaeus, and Suidas, we might
compare them with our poet, settle the general scheme, observe the
minuter differences, and form a complete notion of their comick stage.
But, for want of all this, we can fix only on Aristophanes; and it is
true that he may be, in some measure, sufficient to furnish a tolerable
judgment of the old comedy; for, if we believe him, and who can be
better credited? he was the most daring of all his brethren, the poets,
who practised the same kind of writing. Upon this supposition we may
conclude, that the comedy of those days consisted in an allegory drawn
out and continued; an allegory never very regular, but often ingenious,
and almost always carried beyond strict propriety; of satire keen and
biting, but diversified, sprightly, and unexpected; so that the wound
was given before it was perceived. Their points of satire were
thunderbolts, and their wild figures, with their variety and quickness,
had the effect of lightning. Their imitation was carried even to
resemblance of persons, and their common entertainments were a parody of
rival poets joined, if I may so express it, with a parody of manners and

But it would be tedious to draw out to the reader that which he will
already have perceived better than myself. I have no design to
anticipate his reflections; and, therefore, shall only sketch the
picture, which he must finish by himself: he will pursue the subject
farther, and form to himself a view of the common and domestick life of
the Athenians, of which this kind of comedy was a picture, with some
aggravation of the features: he will bring within his view all the
customs, manners, and vices, and the whole character of the people of
Athens. By bringing all these together he will fix in his mind an
indelible idea of a people, in whom so many contrarieties were united,
and who, in a manner that can scarce be expressed, connected nobility
with the cast of Athens, wisdom with madness, rage for novelty with a
bigotry for antiquity, the politeness of a monarchy with the roughness
of a republick, refinement with coarseness, independence with slavery,
haughtiness with servile compliance, severity of manners with
debauchery, a kind of irreligion with piety. We shall do this in
reading; as, in travelling through different nations, we make ourselves
masters of their characters by combining their different appearances,
and reflecting upon what we see.


The government of Athens makes a fine part of the ancient comedy. In
most states the mystery of government is confined within the walls of
the cabinets; even in commonwealths it does not pass but through five or
six heads, who rule those that think themselves the rulers. Oratory
dares not touch it, and comedy still less. Cicero himself did not speak
freely upon so nice a subject as the Roman commonwealth; but the
Athenian eloquence was informed of the whole secret, and searches the
recesses of the human mind, to fetch it out and expose it to the people.
Demosthenes, and his contemporaries, speak with a freedom at which we
are astonished, notwithstanding the notion we have of a popular
government; yet, at what time but this did comedy adventure to claim the
same rights with civil eloquence? The Italian comedy of the last age,
all daring as it was, could, for its boldness, come into no competition
with the ancient. It was limited to general satire, which was sometimes
carried so far, that the malignity was overlooked in an attention to the
wild exaggeration, the unexpected strokes, the pungent wit, and the
malignity concealed under such wild flights as became the character of
harlequin. But though it so far resembled Aristophanes, our age is yet
at a great distance from his, and the Italian comedy from his scenes.
But with respect to the liberty of censuring the government, there can
be no comparison made of one age or comedy with another. Aristophanes is
the only writer of his kind, and is, for that reason, of the highest
value. A powerful state, set at the head of Greece, is the subject of
his merriment, and that merriment is allowed by the state itself. This
appears to us an inconsistency; but it is true that it was the interest
of the state to allow it, though not always without inconveniency. It
was a restraint upon the ambition and tyranny of single men, a matter of
great importance to a people so very jealous of their liberty. Cleon,
Alcibiades, Lamachus, and many other generals and magistrates were kept
under by fear of the comick strokes of a poet so little cautious as
Aristophanes. He was once, indeed, in danger of paying dear for his wit.
He professed, as he tells us himself, to be of great use by his writings
to the state; and rated his merit so high as to complain that he was not
rewarded. But, under pretence of this publick spirit, he spared no part
of the publick conduct; neither was government, councils, revenues,
popular assemblies, secret proceedings in judicature, choice of
ministers, the government of the nobles, or that of the people, spared.

The Acharnians, the Peace, and the Birds, are eternal monuments of the
boldness of the poet, who was not afraid of censuring the government for
the obstinate continuance of a ruinous war, for undertaking new ones,
and feeding itself with wild imaginations, and running to destruction,
as it did, for an idle point of honour.

Nothing can be more reproachful to the Athenians than his play of the
Knights, where he represents, under an allegory, that may be easily seen
through, the nation of the Athenians, as an old doting fellow tricked by
a new man, such as Cleon and his companions, who were of the same stamp.

A single glance upon Lysistrata, and the Female Orators, must raise
astonishment, when the Athenian policy is set below the schemes of
women, whom the author makes ridiculous, for no other reason than, to
bring contempt upon their husbands, who held the helm of government.

The Wasps is written to expose the madness of the people for lawsuits
and litigations; and a multitude of iniquities are laid open.

It may easily be gathered, that, notwithstanding the wise laws of Solon,
which they still professed to follow, the government was falling into
decay, for we are not to understand the jest of Aristophanes in the
literal sense. It is plain that the corruption, though we should suppose
it but half as much as we are told, was very great, for it ended in the
destruction of Athens, which could scarce raise its head again, after it
had been taken by Lysander. Though we consider Aristophanes, as a comick
writer who deals in exaggeration, and bring down his stories to their
true standard, we still find that the fundamentals of their government
fail in almost all the essential points. That the people were inveigled
by men of ambition; that all councils and decrees had their original in
factious combinations; that avarice and private interest animated all
their policy to the hurt of the publick; that their revenues were ill
managed, their allies improperly treated; that their good citizens were
sacrificed, and the bad put in places; that a mad eagerness for judicial
litigation took up all their attention within, and that war was made
without, not so much with wisdom and precaution, as with temerity and
good-luck; that the love of novelty and fashion, in the manner of
managing the publick affairs, was a madness universally prevalent; and
that, as Melanthius says in Plutarch, the republick of Athens was
continued only by the perpetual discord of those that managed its
affairs. This remedied the dishonour by preserving the equilibrium, and
was kept always in action by eloquence and comedy.

This is what, in general, may be drawn from the reading Aristophanes.
The sagacity of the readers will go farther; they will compare the
different forms of government, by which that tumultuous people
endeavoured to regulate or increase the democracy, which forms were all
fatal to the state, because they were not built upon lasting
foundations, and had all in them the principles of destruction. A
strange contrivance it was to perpetuate a state, by changing the just
proportion which Solon had wisely settled between the nobles and the
people, and by opening a gate to the skilful ambition of those who had
art or courage enough to force themselves into the government by means
of the people, whom they flattered with protections, that they might
more certainly crush them.


Another part of the works of Aristophanes, are his pleasant reflections
upon the most celebrated poets. The shafts which he lets fly at the
three heroes of tragedy, and particularly at Euripides, might incline
the reader to believe that he had little esteem for those great men, and
that, probably, the spectators that applauded him were of his opinion.
This conclusion would not be just, as I have already shown by arguments,
which, if I had not offered them, the reader might have discovered
better than I. But, that I may leave no room for objections, and prevent
any shadow of captiousness, I shall venture to observe, that posterity
will not consider Racine as less a master of the French stage, because
his plays were ridiculed by parodies. Parody always fixes upon the best
pieces, and was more to the taste of the Greeks than to ours. At
present, the high theatres give it up to stages of inferiour rank; but
in Athens the comick theatre considered parody as its principal
ornament, for a reason which is worth examining. The ancient comedy was
not, like ours, a remote and delicate imitation; it was the art of gross
mimickry, and would have been supposed to have missed its aim, had it
not copied the mien, the walk, the dress, the motions of the face of
those whom it exhibited. Now parody is an imitation of this kind; it is
a change of serious to burlesque, by a slight variation of words,
inflection of voice, or an imperceptible art of mimickry. Parody is to
poetry, as a masque to a face. As the tragedies of Eschylus, of
Sophocles, and of Euripides were much in fashion, and were known by
memory to the people, the parodies upon them would naturally strike and
please, when they were accompanied by the grimaces of a good comedian,
who mimicked with archness a serious character. Such is the malignity of
human nature; we love to laugh at those whom we esteem most, and by this
make ourselves some recompense for the unwilling homage which we pay to
merit. The parodies upon these poets, made by Aristophanes, ought to be
considered rather as encomiums than satires. They give us occasion to
examine whether the criticisms are just or not in themselves; but, what
is more important, they afford no proof that Euripides, or his
predecessors, wanted the esteem of Aristophanes or his age. The statues
raised to their honour, the respect paid by the Athenians to their
writings, and the careful preservation of those writings themselves, are
immortal testimonies in their favour, and make it unnecessary for me to
stop any longer upon so plausible a solution of so frivolous an


The most troublesome difficulty, and that which, so far as I know, has
not yet been cleared to satisfaction, is the contemptuous manner in
which Aristophanes treats the gods. Though I am persuaded, in my own
mind, that I have found the true solution of this question, I am not
sure that it will make more impression than that of M. Boivin, who
contents himself with saying, that every thing was allowed to the comick
poets; and that even atheism was permitted to the licentiousness of the
stage; that the Athenians applauded all that made them laugh; and
believed that Jupiter himself laughed with them at the smart sayings of
a poet. Mr. Collier[1], an Englishman, in his remarks upon their stage,
attempts to prove that Aristophanes was an open atheist. For my part, I
am not satisfied with the account either of one or the other, and think
it better to venture a new system, of which I have already dropped some
hints in this work. The truth is, that the Athenians professed to be
great laughers, always ready for merriment on whatever subject. But it
cannot be conceived that Aristophanes should, without punishment,
publish himself an atheist, unless we suppose that atheism was the
opinion, likewise, of the spectators, and of the judges commissioned to
examine the plays; and yet this cannot be suspected of those who boasted
themselves the most religious nation, and, naturally, the most
superstitious of all Greece. How can we suppose those to be atheists who
passed sentence upon Diagoras, Socrates, and Alcibiades for impiety!
These are glaring inconsistencies. To say, like M. Boivin, for sake of
getting clear of the difficulty, that Alcibiades, Socrates, and Diagoras
attacked religion seriously, and were, therefore, not allowed, but that
Aristophanes did it in jest, or was authorized by custom, would be to
trifle with the difficulty, and not to clear it. Though the Athenians
loved merriment, it is not likely that, if Aristophanes had professed
atheism, they would have spared him more than Socrates, who had as much
life and pleasantry in his discourses, as the poet in his comedies. The
pungent raillery of Aristophanes, and the fondness of the Athenians for
it, are, therefore, not the true reason why the poet was spared, when
Socrates was condemned. I shall now solve the question with great

The true answer to this question is given by Plutarch in his treatise of
reading of the poets. Plutarch attempts to prove, that youth is not to
be prohibited the reading of the poets, but to be cautioned against such
parts as may have bad effects. They are first to be prepossessed with
this leading principle, that poetry is false and fabulous. He then
enumerates, at length, the fables which Homer and other poets have
invented about their deities, and concludes thus: "When, therefore,
there is found in poetical compositions any thing strange and shocking,
with respect to gods or demi-gods, or concerning the virtue of any
excellent and renowned characters, he that should receive these fictions
as truth, would be corrupted by an erroneous opinion; but he that always
keeps in his mind the fables and allusions, which it is the business of
poetry to contrive, will not be injured by these stories, nor receive
any ill impressions upon his thoughts, but will be ready to censure
himself, if, at any time, he happens to be afraid, lest Neptune, in his
rage, should split the earth, and lay open the infernal regions." Some
pages afterwards, he tells us, "that religion is a thing difficult of
comprehension, and above the understanding of poets; which it is," says
he, "necessary to have in mind when we read their fables."

The pagans, therefore, had their fables, which they distinguished from
their religion; for no one can be persuaded that Ovid intended his
Metamorphoses, as a true representation of the religion of the Romans.
The poets were allowed their imaginations about their gods, as things
which have no regard to the publick worship. Upon this principle, I say,
as I said before, there was, amongst the pagans, two sorts of religion;
one a poetical, and the other a real religion; one practical, the other
theatrical; a mythology for the poets, a theology for use. They had
fables, and a worship, which, though founded upon fable, was yet very

Diagoras, Socrates, Plato, and the philosophers of Athens, with Cicero,
their admirer, and the other pretended wise men of Rome are men by
themselves. These were the atheists with respect to the ancients. We
must not, therefore, look into Plato, or into Cicero, for the real
religion of the pagans, as distinct from the fabulous. These two authors
involve themselves in the clouds, that their opinions may not be
discovered. They durst not openly attack the real religion; but
destroyed it by attacking fable. To distinguish here, with exactness,
the agreement or difference between fable and religion, is not, at
present, my intention. It is not easy[2] to show, with exactness, what
was the Athenian notion of the nature of the gods whom they worshipped.
Plutarch himself tells us, that this was a thing very difficult for the
philosophers. It is sufficient for me that the mythology and theology of
the ancients were different at the bottom; that the names of the gods
continued the same; and that long custom gave up one to the caprices of
the poets, without supposing the other affected by them. This being once
settled upon the authority of the ancients themselves, I am no longer
surprised to see Jupiter, Minerva, Neptune, Bacchus, appear upon the
stage in the comedy of Aristophanes, and, at the same time, receiving
incense in the temples of Athens. This is, in my opinion, the most
reasonable account of a thing so obscure; and I am ready to give up my
system to any other, by which the Athenians shall be made more
consistent with themselves; those Athenians who sat laughing at the gods
of Aristophanes, while they condemned Socrates for having appeared to
despise the gods of his country.


A word is now to be spoken of the _mimi_, which had some relation to
comedy. This appellation was, by the Greeks and Romans, given to certain
dramatick performances, and to the actors that played them. The
denomination sufficiently shows, that their art consisted in imitation
and buffoonery. Of their works, nothing, or very little, is remaining;
so that they can only be considered, by the help of some passages in
authors, from which little is to be learned that deserves consideration.
I shall extract the substance, as I did with respect to the chorus,
without losing time, by defining all the different species, or producing
all the quotations, which would give the reader more trouble than
instruction. He that desires fuller instructions may read Vossius,
Valois, Saumaises, and Gataker, of whose compilations, however learned,
I should think it shame to be the author.

The mimi had their original from comedy, of which, at its first
appearance, they made a part; for their mimick actors always played and
exhibited grotesque dances in the comedies. The jealousy of rivalship
afterwards broke them off from the comick actors, and made them a
company by themselves. But to secure their reception, they borrowed from
comedy all its drollery, wildness, grossness, and licentiousness. This
amusement they added to their dances, and they produced what are now
called farces, or burlettas. These farces had not the regularity or
delicacy of comedies; they were only a succession of single scenes,
contrived to raise laughter, formed or unravelled without order, and
without connexion. They had no other end but to make the people laugh.
Now and then there might be good sentences, like the sentences of P.
Syrus, that are yet left us, but the groundwork was low comedy, and any
thing of greater dignity drops in by chance. We must, however, imagine,
that this odd species of the drama rose, at length, to somewhat a higher
character, since we are told that Plato, the philosopher, laid the mimi
of Sophron under his pillow, and they were found there after his death.
But in general we may say, with truth, that it always discovered the
meanness of its original, like a false pretension to nobility, in which
the cheat is always discovered, through the concealment of fictitious

These mimi were of two sorts, of which the length was different, but the
purposes the same. The mimi of one species were short; those of the
other long, and not quite so grotesque. These two kinds were subdivided
into many species, distinguished by the dresses and characters, such as
show drunkards, physicians, men, and women.

Thus far of the Greeks. The Romans, having borrowed of them the more
noble shows of tragedy and comedy, were not content till they had their
rhapsodies. They had their _planipedes_, who played with flat soles,
that they might have the more agility; and their _sannions_, whose head
was shaved, that they might box the better. There is no need of naming
here all who had a name for these diversions among the Greeks and
Romans. I have said enough, and, perhaps, too much of this abortion of
comedy, which drew upon itself the contempt of good men, the censures of
the magistrates, and the indignation of the fathers of the church[3].

Another set of players were called pantomimes: these were, at least, so
far preferable to the former, that they gave no offence to the ears.
They spoke only to the eyes; but with such art of expression, that,
without the utterance of a single word, they represented, as we are
told, a complete tragedy or comedy, in the same manner as dumb harlequin
is exhibited on our theatres. These pantomimes, among the Greeks, first
mingled singing with their dances; afterwards, about the time of Livius
Andronicus, the songs were performed by one part, and the dances by
another. Afterwards, in the time of Augustus, when they were sent for to
Rome, for the diversions of the people, whom he had enslaved, they
played comedies without songs or vocal utterance, but by the
sprightliness, activity, and efficacy of their gestures; or, as Sidonius
Apollinaris expresses it, "clausis faucibus, et loquente gestu." They
not only exhibited things and passions, but even the most delicate
distinctions of passions, and the slightest circumstances of facts. We
must not, however, imagine, at least, in my opinion, that the pantomimes
did literally represent regular tragedies or comedies by the mere
motions of their bodies. We may justly determine, notwithstanding all
their agility, their representations would, at last, be very incomplete:
yet we may suppose, with good reason, that their action was very lively,
and that the art of imitation went great lengths, since it raised the
admiration of the wisest men, and made the people mad with eagerness.
Yet, when we read that one Hylas, the pupil of one Pylades, in the time
of Augustus, divided the applauses of the people with his master, when
they represented Oedipus; or when Juvenal tells us, that Bathillus
played Leda, and other things of the same kind, it is not easy to
believe that a single man, without speaking a word, could exhibit
tragedies or comedies, and make starts and bounds supply the place of
vocal articulation. Notwithstanding the obscurity of this whole matter,
one may know what to admit as certain, or how far a representation could
be carried by dance, posture and grimace. Among these artificial dances,
of which we know nothing but the names, there was, as early as the time
of Aristophanes, some extremely indecent. These were continued in Italy
from the time of Augustus, long after the emperours. It was a publick
mischief, which contributed, in some measure, to the decay and ruin of
the Roman empire. To have a due detestation of those licentious
entertainments, there is no need of any recourse to the fathers; the
wiser pagans tell us, very plainly, what they thought of them. I have
made this mention of the mimi and pantomimes, only to show how the most
noble of publick spectacles were corrupted and abused, and to conduct
the reader to the end through every road, and through all the by-paths
of human wit, from Homer and Eschylus to our own time.


That we may conclude this work by applying the principles laid down at
the beginning, and extended through the whole, I desire the reader to
recur to that point, where I have represented the human mind as
beginning the course of the drama. The chorus was first a hymn to
Bacchus, produced by accident; art brought it to perfection, and delight
made it a publick diversion. Thespis made a single actor play before the
people; this was the beginning of theatrical shows. Eschylus, taking the
idea of the Iliad and Odyssey, animates, if I may so express it, the
epick poem, and gives a dialogue in place of simple recitation; puts the
whole into action, and sets it before the eyes, as if it was a present
and real transaction; he gives the chorus[4] an interest in the scenes;
contrives habits of dignity and theatrical decorations: in a word, he
gives both to Tragedy; or, more properly, draws it from the bosom of the
epick poem. She made her appearance, sparkling with graces, and
displayed such majesty, as gained every heart at the first view.
Sophocles considers her more nearly, with the eyes of a critick, and
finds that she has something still about her rough and swelling; he
divests her of her false ornaments; teaches her a more regular walk, and
more familiar dignity. Euripides was of opinion, that she ought to
receive still more softness and tenderness; he teaches her the new art
of pleasing by simplicity, and gives her the charms of graceful
negligence; so that he makes her stand in suspense, whether she appears
most to advantage in the dress of Sophocles, sparkling with gems, or in
that of Euripides, which is more simple and modest. Both, indeed, are
elegant; but the elegance is of different kinds, between which no
judgment, as yet, has decided the prize of superiority.

We can now trace it no farther; its progress amongst the Greeks is out
of sight. We must pass at once to the time of Augustus, when Apollo and
the Muses quitted their ancient residence in Greece, to fix their abode
in Italy. But it is vain to ask questions of Melpomene; she is
obstinately silent, and we only know, from strangers, her power amongst
the Romans. Seneca endeavours to make her speak; but the gaudy show,
with which he rather loads than adorns her, makes us think, that he took
some phantom of Melpomene for the Muse herself.

Another flight, equally rapid with that to Rome, must carry us through
thousands of years, from Rome to France. There, in the time of Lewis the
fourteenth, we see the mind of man giving birth to tragedy a second
time, as if the Greek tragedy had been utterly forgot. In the place of
Eschylus, we have our Rotrou; in Corneille, we have another Sophocles;
and in Racine, a second Euripides. Thus is Tragedy raised from her
ashes, carried to the utmost point of greatness, and so dazzling, that
she prefers herself to herself. Surprised to see herself produced again
in France, in so short a time, and nearly in the same manner as before
in Greece, she is disposed to believe that her fate is to make a short
transition from her birth to her perfection, like the goddess that
issued from the brain of Jupiter.

If we look back on the other side, to the rise of Comedy, we shall see
her hatched from the Margites, or from the Odyssey of Homer, the
imitation of her eldest sister; but we see her, under the conduct of
Aristophanes, become licentious and petulant, taking airs to herself,
which the magistrates were obliged to crush. Menander reduced her to
bounds, taught her, at once, gaiety and politeness, and enabled her to
correct vice, without shocking the offenders. Plautus, among the Romans,
to whom we must now pass, united the earlier and the later comedy, and
joined buffoonery with delicacy. Terence, who was better instructed,
received comedy from Menander, and surpassed his original, as he
endeavoured to copy it. And lastly, Moliere produced a new species of
comedy, which must be placed in a class by itself, in opposition to that
of Aristophanes, whose manner is, likewise, peculiar to himself.

But such is the weakness of the human mind, that, when we review the
successions of the drama a third time, we find genius falling from its
height, forgetting itself, and led astray by the love of novelty, and
the desire of striking out new paths. Tragedy degenerated, in Greece,
from the time of Aristotle, and, in Rome, after Augustus. At Rome and
Athens, comedy produced mimi, pantomimes, burlettas, tricks, and farces,
for the sake of variety; such is the character, and such the madness of
the mind of man. It is satisfied with having made great conquests, and
gives them up to attempt others which are far from answering its
expectation, and only enable it to discover its own folly, weakness and
deviations. But, why should we be tired with standing still at the true
point of perfection, when it is attained? If eloquence be wearied, and
forgets herself awhile, yet she soon returns to her former point: so
will it happen to our theatres, if the French Muses will keep the Greek
models in their view, and not look, with disdain, upon a stage, whose
mother is nature, whose soul is passion, and whose art is simplicity: a
stage, which, to speak the truth, does not, perhaps, equal ours in
splendour and elevation, but which excels it in simplicity and
propriety, and equals it, at least, in the conduct and direction of
those passions, which may properly affect an honest man and a christian.

For my part, I shall think myself well recompensed for my labour, and
shall attain the end which I had in view, if I shall, in some little
measure, revive in the minds of those, who purpose to run the round of
polite literature, not an immoderate and blind reverence, but a true
taste of antiquity: such a taste, as both feeds and polishes the mind,
and enriches it, by enabling it to appropriate the wealth of foreigners,
and to exert its natural fertility in exquisite productions; such a
taste as gave the Racines, the Molieres, the Boileaus, the Fontaines,
the Patrus, the Pelissons, and many other great geniuses of the last
age, all that they were, and all that they will always be; such a taste,
as puts the seal of immortality to those works in which it is
discovered; a taste, so necessary, that, without it, we may be certain,
that the greatest powers of nature will long continue in a state below
themselves; for no man ought to allow himself to be flattered or
seduced, by the example of some men of genius, who have rather appeared
to despise this taste, than to despise it in reality. It is true, that
excellent originals have given occasion, without any fault of their own,
to very bad copies. No man ought severely to ape either the ancients or
the moderns; but, if it was necessary, to run into an extreme of one
side or the other, which is never done by a judicious and well-directed
mind, it would be better for a wit, as for a painter, to enrich himself
by what he can take from the ancients, than to grow poor by taking all
from his own stock; or openly to affect an imitation of those moderns,
whose more fertile genius has produced beauties, peculiar to themselves,
and which themselves only can display with grace: beauties of that
peculiar kind, that they are not fit to be imitated by others; though,
in those who first invented them, they may be justly esteemed, and in
them only[5].


[1] View of the immorality and profaneness of the English stage, by
Jeremy Collier. 1698.--Ed.

[2] See St. Paul, upon the subject of the Ignoto Deo.

[3] It is the licentiousness of the mimi and pantomimes, against which
the censure of the holy fathers particularly breaks out, as against
a thing irregular and indecent, without supposing it much connected
with the cause of religion.

[4] Eschylus, in my opinion, as well as the other poets, his
contemporaries, retained the chorus, not merely because it was the
fashion, but because, examining tragedy to the bottom, they found it
not rational to conceive, that an action, great and splendid, like
the revolution of a state, could pass without witnesses.

[5] Much light has been thrown on the Greek drama since the labours of
Dr. Johnson, and the pere Brumoy. The papers on the subject, in
Cumberland's Observer, Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Literature,
Mr. Mitchell's Dissertations, in his translation of Aristophanes,
and the essays on the Greek Orators and Dramatists, in the Quarterly
Review, may be mentioned as among the most popular attempts to
illustrate this pleasing department of the Belles-Lettres.--Ed.


Dr. James's Medicinal Dictionary, 3 vols. folio. 1743.

To Dr. Mead.


That the Medicinal Dictionary is dedicated to you, is to be imputed only
to your reputation for superiour skill in those sciences, which I have
endeavoured to explain and facilitate; and you are, therefore, to
consider this address, if it be agreeable to you, as one of the rewards
of merit; and, if otherwise, as one of the inconveniencies of eminence.

However you shall receive it, my design cannot be disappointed; because
this publick appeal to your judgment will show, that I do not found my
hopes of approbation upon the ignorance of my readers, and that I fear
his censure least, whose knowledge is most extensive.

I am, Sir,
Your most obedient, humble servant,

The Female Quixote. By Mrs. Lennox. 1752.

To the right hon. the earl of Middlesex.


Such is the power of interest over almost every mind, that no one is
long without arguments to prove any position which is ardently wished to
be true, or to justify any measures which are dictated by inclination.

By this subtile sophistry of desire, I have been persuaded to hope that
this book may, without impropriety, be inscribed to your lordship; but
am not certain, that my reasons will have the same force upon other

The dread which a writer feels of the publick censure; the still greater
dread of neglect; and the eager wish for support and protection, which
is impressed by the consciousness of imbecility, are unknown to those
who have never adventured into the world; and, I am afraid, my lord,
equally unknown to those who have always found the world ready to
applaud them.

It is, therefore, not unlikely that the design of this address may be
mistaken, and the effects of my fear imputed to my vanity. They, who see
your lordship's name prefixed to my performance, will rather condemn my
presumption than compassionate my anxiety.

But, whatever be supposed my motive, the praise of judgment cannot be
denied me; for, to whom can timidity so properly fly for shelter, as to
him who has been so long distinguished for candour and humanity? How can
vanity be so completely gratified, as by the allowed patronage of him,
whose judgment has so long given a standard to the national taste! Or by
what other means could I so powerfully suppress all opposition, but that
of envy, as by declaring myself,

My lord,

Your lordship's obliged and
most obedient servant,


Shakespeare Illustrated; or, the Novels and Histories on which the plays
of Shakespeare are founded; collected and translated from the original
authors. With Critical Remarks. By the author of the Female Quixote.

To the right hon. John, earl of Orrery.


I have no other pretence to the honour of a patronage so illustrious as
that of your lordship, than the merit of attempting what has, by some
unaccountable neglect, been hitherto omitted, though absolutely
necessary to a perfect knowledge of the abilities of Shakespeare.

Among the powers that most conduce to constitute a poet, the first and
most valuable is invention; the highest seems to be that which is able
to produce a series of events. It is easy, when the thread of a story is
once drawn, to diversify it with variety of colours; and when a train of
action is presented to the mind, a little acquaintance with life will
supply circumstances and reflections, and a little knowledge of books
furnish parallels and illustrations. To tell over again a story that has
been told already, and to tell it better than the first author, is no
rare qualification: but to strike out the first hints of a new fable;
hence, to introduce a set of characters so diversified in their several
passions and interests, that from the clashing of this variety may
result many necessary incidents; to make these incidents surprising, and
yet natural, so as to delight the imagination, without shocking the
judgment of a reader; and, finally, to wind up the whole in a pleasing
catastrophe, produced by those very means which seem most likely to
oppose and prevent it, is the utmost effort of the human mind.

To discover how few of those writers, who profess to recount imaginary
adventures, have been able to produce any thing by their own
imagination, would require too much of that time which your lordship
employs in nobler studies. Of all the novels and romances that wit or
idleness, vanity or indigence, have pushed into the world, there are
very few of which the end cannot be conjectured from the beginning; or
where the authors have done more than to transpose the incidents of
other tales, or strip the circumstances from one event for the
decoration of another.

In the examination of a poet's character, it is, therefore, first to be
inquired, what degree of invention has been exerted by him. With this
view, I have very diligently read the works of Shakespeare, and now
presume to lay the result of my researches before your lordship, before
that judge whom Pliny himself would have wished for his assessor to hear
a literary cause.

How much the translation of the following novels will add to the
reputation of Shakespeare, or take away from it, you my lord, and men
learned and candid like you, if any such can be found, must now
determine. Some danger, I am informed, there is, lest his admirers
should think him injured by this attempt, and clamour, as at the
diminution of the honour of that nation, which boasts itself the parent
of so great a poet.

That no such enemies may arise against me, though I am unwilling to
believe it, I am far from being too confident, for who can fix bounds to
bigotry and folly? My sex, my age, have not given me many opportunities
of mingling in the world. There may be in it many a species of absurdity
which I have never seen, and, among them, such vanity as pleases itself
with false praise bestowed on another, and such superstition as worships
idols, without supposing them to be gods.

But the truth is, that a very small part of the reputation of this
mighty genius depends upon the naked plot or story of his plays. He
lived in an age, when the books of chivalry were yet popular, and when,
therefore, the minds of his auditors were not accustomed to balance
probabilities, or to examine nicely the proportion between causes and
effects. It was sufficient to recommend a story, that it was far removed
from common life, that its changes were frequent, and its close

This disposition of the age concurred so happily with the imagination of
Shakespeare, that he had no desire to reform it; and, indeed, to this he
was indebted for the licentious variety, by which he made his plays more
entertaining than those of any other author.

He had looked, with great attention, on the scenes of nature; but his
chief skill was in human actions, passions, and habits; he was,
therefore, delighted with such tales as afforded numerous incidents, and
exhibited many characters in many changes of situation. These characters
are so copiously diversified, and some of them so justly pursued, that
his works may be considered, as a map of life, a faithful miniature of
human transactions; and he that has read Shakespeare, with attention,
will, perhaps, find little new in the crowded world.

Among his other excellencies, it ought to be remarked, because it has
hitherto been unnoticed, that his heroes are men; that the love and
hatred, the hopes and fears of his chief personages, are such as are
common to other human beings, and not, like those which later times have
exhibited, peculiar to phantoms that strut upon the stage[1].

It is not, perhaps, very necessary to inquire whether the vehicle of so
much delight and instruction, be a story probable or unlikely, native or
foreign. Shakespeare's excellence is not the fiction of a tale, but the
representation of life; and his reputation is, therefore, safe, till
human nature shall be changed. Nor can he, who has so many just claims
to praise, suffer by losing that which ignorant admiration has
unreasonably given him. To calumniate the dead is baseness, and to
flatter them is surely folly.

From flattery, my lord, either of the dead or the living, I wish to be
clear, and have, therefore, solicited the countenance of a patron, whom,
if I knew how to praise him, I could praise with truth, and have the
world on my side; whose candour and humanity are universally
acknowledged, and whose judgment, perhaps, was then first to be doubted,
when he condescended to admit this address from,

My lord,
Your lordship's most obliged,
and most obedient, humble servant,

[1] See preface to Shakespeare.

Payne's Introduction to the Game of Draughts. 1756.

To the right hon. William Henry, earl of Rochford, &c.


WHEN I take the liberty of addressing to your lordship a treatise on the
game of draughts, I easily foresee, that I shall be in danger of
suffering ridicule on one part, while I am gaining honour on the other;
and that many, who may envy me the distinction of approaching you, will
deride the present I presume to offer.

Had I considered this little volume, as having no purpose beyond that of
teaching a game, I should, indeed, have left it to take its fate without
a patron. Triflers may find or make any thing a trifle; but, since it is
the great characteristick of a wise man to see events in their causes,
to obviate consequences, and ascertain contingencies, your lordship will
think nothing a trifle, by which the mind is inured to caution,
foresight, and circumspection. The same skill, and often the same degree
of skill, is exerted in great and little things; and your lordship may,
sometimes, exercise, on a harmless game[1], those abilities which have
been so happily employed in the service of your country.

I am, my lord,
Your lordship's most obliged, most obedient,
and most humble servant,


[1] The game of draughts, we know, is peculiarly calculated to fix the
attention, without straining it. There is a composure and gravity in
draughts, which insensibly tranquillises the mind; and, accordingly,
the Dutch are fond of it, as they are of smoking, of the sedative
influence of which, though he himself (Dr. Johnson) never smoked, he
had a high opinion.--Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. 3rd edit. p.

The Evangelical History of Jesus Christ harmonized, explained and
illustrated[1]. 2 vols. 8vo. 1758.

To the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons in parliament

That we are fallen upon an age in which corruption is barely not
universal, is universally confessed. Venality sculks no longer in the
dark, but snatches the bribe in publick; and prostitution issues forth
without shame, glittering with the ornaments of successful wickedness.
Rapine preys on the publick without opposition, and perjury betrays it
without inquiry. Irreligion is not only avowed, but boasted; and the
pestilence that used to walk in darkness, is now destroying at noonday.

Shall this be the state of the English nation; and shall her lawgivers
behold it without regard? Must the torrent continue to roll on, till it
shall sweep us into the gulf of perdition? Surely there will come a
time, when the careless shall be frighted, and the sluggish shall be
roused; when every passion shall be put upon the guard by the dread of
general depravity; when he who laughs at wickedness in his companion,
shall start from it in his child; when the man who fears not for his
soul, shall tremble for his possessions; when it shall be discovered
that religion only can secure the rich from robbery, and the poor from
oppression; can defend the state from treachery, and the throne from

If this time be ever to come, let it come quickly: a few years longer,
and, perhaps, all endeavours will be vain: we may be swallowed by an
earthquake; we may be delivered to our enemies, or abandoned to that
discord, which must inevitably prevail among men that have lost all
sense of divine superintendence, and have no higher motive of action or
forbearance, than present opinion of present interest.

It is the duty of private men to supplicate and propose; it is yours to
hear and to do right. Let religion be once more restored, and the nation
shall once more be great and happy. This consequence is not far distant:
that nation must always be powerful, where every man performs his duty;
and every man will perform his duty, that considers himself, as a being
whose condition is to be settled to all eternity by the laws of Christ.

The only doctrine by which man can be made "wise unto salvation," is the
will of God, revealed in the books of the Old and the New Testament.

To study the scriptures, therefore, according to his abilities and
attainments, is every man's duty; and to facilitate that study, to those
whom nature hath made weak, or education has left ignorant, or
indispensable cares detain from regular processes of inquiry, is the
business of those who have been blessed with abilities and learning, and
are appointed the instructers of the lower classes of men, by that
common Father, who distributes to all created beings their
qualifications and employments; who has allotted some to the labour of
the hand, and some to the exercise of the mind; has commanded some to
teach, and others to learn; has prescribed to some the patience of
instruction, and to others the meekness of obedience.

By what methods the unenlightened and ignorant may be made proper
readers of the word of God, has been long and diligently considered.
Commentaries of all kinds have, indeed, been copiously produced; but
there still remain multitudes to whom the labours of the learned are of
little use, for whom expositions require an expositor. To those, indeed,
who read the divine books, without vain curiosity, or a desire to be
wise beyond their powers, it will always be easy to discern the straight
path, to find the words of everlasting life. But such is the condition
of our nature, that we are always attempting what is difficult to
perform: he who reads the scripture to gain goodness, is desirous,
likewise, to gain knowledge, and by his impatience of ignorance, falls
into errour.

This danger has appeared to the doctors of the Romish church, so much to
be feared, and so difficult to be escaped, that they have snatched the
bible out of the hands of the people, and confined the liberty of
perusing it to those whom literature has previously qualified. By this
expedient they have formed a kind of uniformity, I am afraid, too much
like that of colours in the dark; but they have, certainly, usurped a
power which God has never given them, and precluded great numbers from
the highest spiritual consolation.

I know not whether this prohibition has not brought upon them an evil
which they themselves have not discovered. It is granted, I believe, by
the Romanists themselves, that the best commentaries on the bible have
been the works of protestants. I know not, indeed, whether, since the
celebrated paraphrase of Erasmus, any scholar has appeared amongst them,
whose works are much valued, even in his own communion. Why have those
who excel in every other kind of knowledge, to whom the world owes much
of the increase of light, which has shone upon these latter ages,
failed, and failed only, when they have attempted to explain the
scriptures of God? Why, but, because they are in the church less read,
and less examined; because they have another rule of deciding
controversies and instituting laws.

Of the bible, some of the books are prophetical; some doctrinal and
historical, as the gospels, of which we have, in the subsequent pages,
attempted an illustration. The books of the evangelists contain an
account of the life of our blessed Saviour, more particularly of the
years of his ministry, interspersed with his precepts, doctrines, and
predictions. Each of these histories contains facts, and dictates
related, likewise, in the rest, that the truth might be established by
concurrence of testimony; and each has, likewise, facts and dictates
which the rest omit, to prove that they were wrote without

These writers, not affecting the exactness of chronologers, and,
relating various events of the same life, or the same events with
various circumstances, have some difficulties to him, who, without the
help of many books, desires to collect a series of the acts and precepts
of Jesus Christ; fully to know his life, whose example was given for our
imitation; fully to understand his precepts, which it is sure
destruction to disobey.

In this work, therefore, an attempt has been made, by the help of
harmonists and expositors, to reduce the four gospels into one series of
narration; to form a complete history out of the different narratives of
the evangelists, by inserting every event in the order of time, and
connecting every precept of life and doctrine, with the occasion on
which it was delivered; showing, as far as history or the knowledge of
ancient customs can inform us, the reason and propriety of every action;
and explaining, or endeavouring to explain, every precept and
declaration in its true meaning.

Let it not be hastily concluded, that we intend to substitute this book
for the gospels, or to obtrude our own expositions as the oracles of
God. We recommend to the unlearned reader to consult us, when he finds
any difficulty, as men who have laboured not to deceive ourselves, and
who are without any temptation to deceive him; but as men, however,
that, while they mean best, may be mistaken. Let him be careful,
therefore, to distinguish what we cite from the gospels, from what we
offer as our own: he will find many difficulties removed; and, if some
yet remain, let him remember that, "God is in heaven and we upon earth,"
that, "our thoughts are not God's thoughts," and that the great cure of
doubt is an humble mind[2].


[1] The dedication to this work has been so confidently attributed to
Dr. Johnson, and so constantly inserted among his productions, that
it is given in the present edition. But Mr. Boswell was of opinion,
that it was not Johnson's composition. "He was no _croaker_,"
observes his friendly biographer, "no declaimer against the _times_.
He would not have written, 'That we are fallen upon an age, in which
corruption is not barely universal, is universally confessed.' Nor,
'rapine preys on the publick without opposition, and perjury betrays
it without injury.' Nor would he, to excite a speedy reformation,
have conjured up such phantoms as these: 'A few years longer, and,
perhaps, all endeavours will be in vain. We may be swallowed by an
earthquake, we may be delivered to our enemies.'" "This is not
Johnsonian," is Mr. Boswell's inference, iv. p. 423. note.--Ed.

[2] "My doctrine is not mine," said the Divine Founder of our religion,
"but his that sent me. If any man will _do_ his will, he shall
_know_ of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of
myself." St. John, vii. 16, 17. --Ed.

Angell's Stenography, or Shorthand improved. 1758.

To the most noble Charles duke of Richmond, Lennox, Aubigny, &c.

May it please Your Grace,

The improvement of arts and sciences has always been esteemed laudable:
and, in proportion to their utility and advantage to mankind, they have
generally gained the patronage of persons the most distinguished for
birth, learning, and reputation in the world. This is an art,
undoubtedly, of publick utility, and which has been cultivated by
persons of distinguished abilities, as will appear from its history.
But, as most of their systems have been defective, clogged with a
multiplicity of rules, and perplexed by arbitrary, intricate, and
impracticable schemes, I have endeavoured to rectify their defects, to
adapt it to all capacities, and render it of general, lasting, and
extensive benefit. How this is effected the following plates will
sufficiently explain, to which I have prefixed a suitable introduction,
and a concise and impartial history of the origin and progressive
improvements of this art. And, as I have submitted the whole to the
inspection of accurate judges, whose approbation I am honoured with, I
most humbly crave leave to publish it to the world, under your grace's
patronage: not merely on account of your great dignity and high rank in
life, though these receive a lustre from your grace's humanity; but also
from a knowledge of your grace's disposition to encourage every useful
art, and favour all true promoters of science. That your grace may long
live the friend of learning, the guardian of liberty, and the patron of
virtue, and then transmit your name, with the highest honour and esteem,
to latest posterity, is the ardent wish of

Your grace's most humble, &c.[1]
[1] This is the dedication mentioned by Dr. Johnson himself in
Boswell's Life, vol. ii. 226. I should not else have suspected what


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