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LEARNING OF SHAKSPEARE:
JOSEPH CRADOCK, ESQ.
SHAKSPEARE," says a brother of the craft, "is a vast garden of criticism :" and certainly no one can be favoured with more weeders gratis.
But how often, my dear sir, are weeds and flowers torn up indiscriminately?—the ravaged spot is replanted in a moment, and a profusion of critical thorns thrown over it for security.
"A prudent man, therefore, would not venture his fingers amongst them."
Be however in little pain for your friend, who regards himself sufficiently to be cautious :-yet he asserts with confidence, that no improvement can. be expected, whilst the natural soil is mistaken for a hot-bed, and the natives of the banks of Avon are scientifically choked with the culture of exoticks.
1 Mr. Seward, in his Preface to Beaumont and Fletcher, 10 Vols. 8vo. 1750..
Thus much for metaphor; it is contrary to the statute to fly out so early; but who can tell, whether it may not be demonstrated by some critick or other, that a deviation from rule is peculiarly happy in an Essay on Shakspeare!
You have long known my opinion concerning the literary acquisitions of our immortal dramatist; and remember how I congratulated myself on my coincidence with the last and best of his editors. I told you, however, that his small Latin and less Greek would still be litigated, and you see very assuredly that I was not mistaken. The trumpet hath been sounded against "the darling project of representing Shakspeare as one of the illiterate vulgar;" and indeed to so good purpose, that I would by all means recommend the performer to the army of the braying faction, recorded by Cervantes. The testimony of his contemporaries is again disputed; constant tradition is opposed by flimsy arguments; and nothing is heard, but confusion and nonsense. One could scarcely imagine this a topick very likely to inflame the passions: it is asserted by Dryden, that "those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greatest commendation;" yet an attack upon an article of faith hath been usually received with more temper and complacence, than the unfortunate opinion which I am about to defend.
But let us previously lament with every lover of
2 This passage of Ben Jonson, so often quoted, is given us in the admirable preface to the late edition, with a various reading, "small Latin and no Greek," which hath been held up to the publick for a modern sophistication: yet whether an error or not, it was adopted above a century ago by W. Towers, in a panegyrick on Cartwright. His eulogy, with more than fifty others,on this now forgotten poet, was prefixed to the edit. 1651.
Shakspeare, that the question was not fully discussed by Mr. Johnson himself: what he sees intuitively, others must arrive at by a series of proofs; and I have not time to teach with precision: be contented therefore with a few cursory observations, as they may happen to arise from the chaos of papers, you have so often laughed at," a stock sufficient to set up an editor in form." I am convinced of the strength of my cause, and superior to any little advantage from sophistical arrangements.
General positions without proofs will probably have no great weight on either side, yet it may not seem fair to suppress them: take them therefore as their authors occur to me, and we will afterward proceed to particulars.
The testimony of Ben. stands foremost; and some have held it sufficient to decide the controversy: in the warmest panegyrick, that ever was written, he apologizes for what he supposed the only defect in his beloved friend,
Soul of the age!
Th' applause! delight! the wonder of our stage!'
whose memory he honoured almost to idolatry :" and conscious of the worth of ancient literature, like any other man on the same occasion, he rather carries his acquirements above, than below the truth. "Jealousy!" cries Mr. Upton; " people will allow others any qualities, but those upon which they highly value themselves." Yes, where there is a competition, and the competitor formidable: but, I think, this critick himself hath scarcely set in opposition the learning of Shakspeare and Jonson
"Though thou hadst small Latin," &c.
When a superiority is universally granted, it by no means appears a man's literary interest to depress the reputation of his antagonist.
In truth the received opinion of the pride and malignity of Jonson, at least in the earlier part of life, is absolutely groundless: at this time scarce a play or a poem appeared without Ben's encomium, from the original Shakspeare to the translator of
But Jonson is by no means our only authority. Drayton, the countryman and acquaintance of Shakspeare, determines his excellence to the naturall braine only. Digges, a wit of the town, before our poet left the stage, is very strong to the purpose,
Nature only helpt him, for looke thorow
"This whole book, thou shalt find he doth not borow,
Suckling opposed his easier strain to the sweat of the learned Jonson. Denham assures us, that all he had was from old mother-wit. His native woodnotes wild, every one remembers to be celebrated by Milton. Dryden observes prettily enough, that "he wanted not the spectacles of books to read nature." He came out of her hand, as some one else expresses it, like Pallas out of Jove's head, at full growth and mature.
In his Elegie on Poets and Poesie, p. 206. Folio, 1627.
From his Poem upon Master William Shakspeare, intended to have been prefixed, with the other of his composition, to the folio of 1623 and afterward printed in several miscellaneous collections: particularly the spurious edition of Shakspeare's Poems, 1640. Some account of him may be met with in Wood's Athena.
The ever memorable Hales of Eton, (who, notwithstanding his epithet, is, I fear, almost forgotten,) had too great a knowledge both of Shakspeare and the ancients to allow much acquaintance between them and urged very justly on the part of genius in opposition to pedantry, that "if he had not read the classicks, he had likewise not stolen from them; and if any topick was produced from a poet of antiquity he would undertake to show somewhat on the same subject, at least as well written by Shakspeare.'
Fuller a diligent and equal searcher after truth and quibbles, declares positively, that "his learning was very little,-nature was all the art used upon him, as he himself, if alive, would confess." And may we not say, he did confess it, when he apologized for his untutored lines to his noble patron the Earl of Southampton?-this list of witnesses might be easily enlarged; but I flatter myself, I shall stand in no need of such evidence.
One of the first and most vehement assertors of the learning of Shakspeare, was the editor of his poems, the well-known Mr. Gildon ; and his steps
• Hence perhaps the ill-starr'd rage between this critick and his elder brother, John Dennis, so pathetically lamented in the Dunciad. Whilst the former was persuaded, that "the man who doubts of the learning of Shakspeare, hath none of his own:" the latter, above regarding the attack in his private capacity, declares with great patriotick vehemence, that "he who allows Shakspeare had learning, and a learning with the ancients, ought to be looked upon as a detractor from the glory of Great Britain." Dennis was expelled his college for attempting to stab a man in the dark: Pope would have been glad of this anecdote.*
* See this fact established against the doubts and objections of Dr. Kippis in the Biographia Britannica, in Dr. Farmer's Letter to me, printed in the European Magazine, June 1794, p. 412. REED.