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DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON.
FIRST PRINTED IN 1765.
That praises are without reason lavished on the but whether it was spacious or lofty must have beon dead, and that the honours due only to excellence referred to time. The Pythagorean scale of numbers are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be al- was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems ways continued by those, who, being able to add no. of Homer we yet know not to transcend the counthing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies mon limits of human intelligence, but by remarking, of paradox; or those, who, being forced by disap- that nation after nation, and century after century, pointment upop consolatory expedients, are willing has been able to do little more than transpose his io hope from posterity what the present age refuses, incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrase and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet bis sentiments. denied by envy, will be at last bestowed by time. The reverence due to writings that bave long sub
Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts sisted, arises therefore, not from any credulous conthe notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries fidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or that reverence it, not from reason, but from preju- gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, dice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately whal- but is the consequence of acknowledged indubitable ever has been long preserved, without considering positions, that what has been longest known has that time has sometimes co-operated with chance; been most considered, and what is most considered all perhaps are more willing to honour past than is best understood. present excellence; and the mind contemplates ge- The poet, of whose works I have undertaken the nius through the shades of age, as the eye surveys revision, may now begin to assume the dignity of the sun through artificial opacity. The great con- an ancient, and claim the privileye of an established tention of criticism is to find the faults of the mo- fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long derns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as aut bot is yet living, we estimate his powers by his the test of literary merit. Whatever. advantages worst performance; and when he is dead, we rate be might once derive from personal allusions, local them by his best.
customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years To works, however, of which the excellence is been lost; and every topic of merriment or mutive not absolute and definite, but gradual and compa- of sorrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded rative; to works, not raised upon principles de him, now only obscure the scenes which they once monstrative and scientific, but appealing wholly to illuminated. The effects of favour and competition observation and experience, no other test can be are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and applied than length of duration and continuance of his enmities has perished; his works support ao esteetn. What mankind have long possessed they opinion with arguments, nor supply any faction with bave often examined and compared, and if they invectives; they can neither indulge vanity, nor persist to value the possession, it is because frequent gratify malignity; but are read without any other comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. reason than the desire of pleasure, and are there. As among the works of nature no man can properly fore praised only as pleasure is obtained; yet, thus call a river deep, or a mountain high, without the upassisted by interest or passion, they have passed knowledge of many mountains, and many rivers ; through variations of taste and changes of manners, sy, in the production of genius, nothing can be styled and, as they devolved from one generation to anExcellent till it has been compared with other works other, have received new honours at every transof the same kind. Demonstration immediately dis- mission. plays its power, and bas nothing to hope or fear But because human judgment, though it be grafrom the ilus of years; but works tentative and ex. dually gaining upon certainty, never becomes in. perimental must be estimated by their proportion to fallible ; and approbation, though long continued, the general and collective ability of man, as it is may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or discovered in a long succession of endeavours. of fashion ; it is proper to inquire, hy what peculia. the first building that was raised, it might be with rities of excellence Shakspeare has gained and kopt certainty determined that it was round or square; the favour of bis countrymen.
Nothing can please many, and please long, but | For this, probability is violated, life is inisrepresentei. just represcotations of general nature. Particular and language is depraved. But love is only oue of manners can be known to few, and therefore few many passions, and as it has no great influence upon only can judge how nearly they are copied. The the sum of life, it bas little operation in the dramas irregular combinations of fanciful invention may of a poet, who caught his ideas from the living delight awhile, by that novelty of which the common world, and exhibited only what he saw before him. satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the plea- He knew, that any other passion, as it was regular sures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the or exorbitant, was a cause of happiness or calamity. mind can only repose or the stability of truth. Characters thus ample and general were not easily
Skakspeare is above all writers, at least above all discriminated and preserved, yet perhaps, no poet molern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that ever kept his personages more distinct from each holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners other. I will not say with Pope, that every speech and of life. His characters are not modified by the may be assigned to the proper speaker, because customs of particular places, uopractised by the rest many speeches there are which have nothing chaof the world : by the peculiarities of studies or pro-racteristical; but, perhaps, though some may be fessions, which can operate but upon small numbers; equally adapted to every person, it will be ditficult or by the accidents of transient fashions or tem to find any that can be properly transferred from the porary opinions : they are the genuine progeny of present possessor to another claimant. The choice common humanity, such as the world will always is right, when there is reason for choice. supply, and observation will always find. His per- Oiher dramatists can only gain attention by hy. sons act and speak by the influence of those general perbolical or aggravated characters, by fabulous and passions and principles by which all minds are agi. inexampled excellence or depravity, as the writers tated, and the whole system of life is continued in of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a motion. In the writings of other poets a character giant and a dwarf; and he that should form his cxis too often an individual: in those of Shakspeare pectations of human affairs from the play, or from it is commonly a species.
th: ale, would be equally deceived. Shakspeare It is from this wide extension of design that so has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by meu, much instruction is derived. It is this which fills who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should the plays, of Shakspeare with practical axioms and himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion : domestic wisdom. " It was said of Euripides, that even where the agency is supernatural, the dialogue every verse was a precept; and it may be said of is level with life. Other writers disguise the most Shakspeare, that from his works may be collected a natural passions and most frequent incidents ; so system of civil and economical prudence. Yet bis that he who contemplates them in the book will not real power is not shewn in the splendour of parti know them in the world : Shakspeare approximates cular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the .he tenour of his dialogue; and he that tries to re-event which he represents will not happen, but if it commend him by select quotations, will succeed were possible, its effects would probably be such as like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered he has assigned; and it may be said, that be has not his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a only shewn human nature as it acts in real exigenspecimen.
cies, but as it would be found in trials, to which it It will not easily he imagined how much Shak. cannot be exposed. speare excels in accommodating his sentiments to This therefore is the praise of Shakspeare, that rel life, but by comparing him with other authors. his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has It was observed of the ancient schools of declama- mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms tion, that the more diligently they were frequented, which other writers raise up before him, may here the more was the student disqualified for the world, be cured of his delirious ecstasies, by reading human because he found nothing there which he should ever sentiments in human language; by scenes from meet in any other place. The same remark may be which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the applied to every stage but that of Shakspeare. The world, and a confessor predict the progress of the theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peo- passions. pled by such characters as were never seen, con- His adherence to general nature has exposed him versing in a language which was never heard, upon to the censure of critics, who form their judgmeats topics which will never arise in the commerce of upon narrower principles. Dennis and Rymer think mankind. But the dialogue of this author is often his Romans not sufficiently Roman; and Voltaire so evidently determined by the incident which pro- censures his kings as not completely royai. Dennis duces it, and is pursued with so much ease and sim- is offended, that Menenius, a senator of Rome, should plicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of play the buffoon; and Voltaire perhaps thinks defiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selec- cency violated when the Danish usurper is repretion out of cominon conversation, and common oc- sented as a drunkard. But Shakspeare always
makes nature predominate over accident; and if he Upon every other stage the universal agent is preserves the essential character, is not very careful ove, by whose power all good and evil is distributed, of distinctions superinduced and adventitious. His and every action quickened or retarded. To bring story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only a lover, a lady, and a rival into the fable; to en-on inen. He knew that Rome, like every other tangle them in contradictory obligations, perplex city, had men of all dispositions; and wanting a them with oppositions of interest, and harass them buffoon, he went into the senate-house for that which with violence of desires inconsistent with each other; the senate-house would certainly have afforded him. to make them meet in rapture, and part in agony; to He was inclined to shew an usurper and a murhill their mouths with hyperbolical joy and outrageous derer, not only odious but despicable; he therefore sorrow; to distress them as nothing human ever was added drunkenness to his other qualities, knowing distressed : to deliver them as nothing human ever was that kings love wine like other meu, and that wins delivereu, is the business of a modern dramatist.cserts its natural power upon kings. These are the
petty cavils of petty minds; a poet overlooks the thor's works into comedies, histories, and tragedies, casual distinction of country and condition, as a seem not to have distinguished the three kinds by painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery. any very exact or definite ideas.
The censure which he has incurred by mixing Ad action which ended happily to the principa. comic and tragic scenes, as it extends to all his persons, however serious or distressful through its works, deserves more consideration. Let the fact intermediate incidents, in their opinion constituted be first stated, and then examined.
a comedy. This idea of a comedy continued long Sbakspeare's plays are not in the rigorous and among us, and plays were written, which, by changcritical seuse, either tragedies or comedies, but com- ing the catastrophe, were tragedies to-das, and copositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state medies to-morrow. or sublupary nature, which partakes of good and Tragedy was not in those times a poem of more eril, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety general dignity or elevation than comedy; it reof proportion and innumerable modes of combina- quired only a calamitous conclusion, with which the tion; and expressing the course of the world, in common criticism of that age was satisfied, whatever which the loss of one is the gain of another; in lighter pleasure it afforded in its progress. which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to History was a series of actions, with no other than bis wine, and the mourner burying bis friend in chronological succession, independent on each other, which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by and without any tendency to introduce and regulate the frolic of another; and many mischiefs and many the conclusiou. It is not always very nicely disbenefits are done and hindered without design. tinguished from tragedy. There is not much nearer
Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and casual approach to unity of action in the tragedy of Antony ties, the ancient poets, according to the laws which and Cleopatra, than in the history of Richard the custom had prescribed, selected some the crimes of Second. But a history might be continued through men, and sae their absurdities : some the momen- many plays; as it had no plan, it had no limits. tuas vicissitudes of life, and some the lighter occur. Through all these denoininations of the drama, rences some the terrors of aistress, and some the Shakspeare's mode of composition is the same; an guieties of prosperity. Thus rose the two modes of interchange of seriousness and merriment, by whien imitation, known by ihe names of trugedy and comedy, the mind is softened at one time, and exhilarated at compositions intended to promote different ends by another. But whatever be his purpose, whether to contrary means, and considered as so little allied, gladden or depress, or to conduct the story, without that I do not recollect among the Greeks or Ro- vehemence or emotion, through tracts of easy and mans a single writer who attempted both.
familiar dialogue, he never fails to attain bis purShakspeare bas united the powers of exciting pose; as he commands us, we laugh or mourn, or Laughter and sorrow, not only is one mind, but in sit silent with quiet expectation, in tranquillity with.
be composition. Almost all his plays are divided out indifference. between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in When Shakspeare's plan is understood, most of the successive evolutions of the design, sometimes the criticisms of Ryraer and Voltaire vanish away. preduce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes The play of Hamlet is opened, without impropriety, lenity and laughter.
by two centinels : Iago bellows at Brabantio's That this is a practice contrary to the rules of window, without injury to the scheme of the play, criticism will be readily allowed; but there is always though in terms which a modein audience would an appeal open from criticism to nature. The end not easily endure; the character of Polonius is seaof writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to in- sonable and useful; and the Gravediggers themselves stract by pleasing. That the mingled drama way may be heard with applause. cubrey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy can- Shakspeare engaged in dramatic poetry with the not be denied, because it includes both in its alter- world open before him; the rules of the ancients Dations of exhibition, and approaches nearer than were yet known to few; the public judgment was either to the appearance of life, by shewing how unformed; he had no example of such fame as might great machinations and slender designs may promote force him upon imitation, nor critics of such autho* obviate one another, and the high and the low rity as might restrain his extravagance; he thereCo-operate in the general system by unavoidable fore indulged his natural disposition, and his dispoconcatenation,
sition, as Rymer bas remarked, led him to comedy, It is objected, that by this change of scenes the In tragedy he often writes with great appearance of passions are interrupted in their progression, and toil and study, what is written at last with little ibat the priocipal event, being not advanced by a felicity; but in bis comic scenes, he seems to pro. due gradation of preparatory incidents, wants at last duce without labour, what no labour can improve the power to move, wbich constitutes the perfection in tragedy he is always struggling after some occa of dramatic poetry. This reasoning is so specious, sion to be comic, but in comedy he seems to repose, that it is received as true even by those who in daily or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial experience feel it to be false. The interchanges of to his nature. In his tragic scenes there is always magled scenes seldom fail to produce the intended something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses vleissitudes of passion. Fiction cannot move so expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the much, but that the attention may be easily trans- thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the ferred; and though it must be allowed that pleasing greater part by incident and action. His tragedy melancholy may be sumetimes interrupted by un- seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct. welcome lesity, yet let it be considered likewise, that T'he force of his comic scenes has suffered little melancholy is often not picasing, and that the dis- diminution from the changes made by a century and tartance of be man may be the relief of another; a balf, in manners or in words. As his personage that different auditurs have different habitudes; act upon principles arising from genuine passion, and that, upon the whole, all pleasure consists in very little modified by particular forms, their pleaTanety.
sures and vexations are communicable to all times The players, who in their editiva divided our au- and to all places; they are natural, and therefore durable; the adventitious peculiarities of personal The plots are often so lousely fornied, that a very habits are only superficial dies, bright and pleasing slight consideration may improve them, and so care. for a little while, yet soon fading to a dim tinct, lessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to without any remains of former lustre ; and the dis- comprehend his own design. He omits opportunities crimination of true passion are the colours of nature; of instructing or delighting, which the train of his they pervade the whole mass, and can only perish story seems to force upon him, and apparently rewith the body that exhibits them. The accidental jects tbose exhibitions which would be more affectcompositions of heterogeneous modes are dissolved ing, for the sake of those which are more easy. by the chance that combined them; but the uniform It may be observed, that in many of bis plays thsimplicity of primitive qualities neither admits in- latter part is evidently neglected. When he found crease. nor suffers decay. The sand heaped by one himself near the end of his work, and in view of his flood is scattered by another, but the rock always reward, he shortened the labour to snatch the profit. continues in its place. The stream of time, which He therefore remits bis efforts where he should most is continually washing the dissoluble fabrics of other vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is impoets, passes without injury by the adamant of Shak- probably produced or imperfectly represented. speare.
He had no regard to distinction of time or place, If there be, what I believe there is, in every pa. but gives to one age or nation, without scruple, the tion, a siyle which never becomes obsolete, a certain customs, institutions, and opinions of another, at mode of phraseology so consonant and congenial to the expense not only of likelihood, but of possibility: the analogy and principles of its respective language, These faults Pope has endeavoured, with more zeal as to remain settled and unaltered : this style is pro- than judgmeni, to transfer to his imagined interpobably to be sought in the common intercourse of life, lators. We need not wonder to find Hector quoting among those who speak only to be understood, with Aristotle, when we see the loves of Theseus and out ambition of elegance. The polite are always Hippolyta combined with the Gothic mythology of catching modish innovations, and the learned depart fairies. Shakspeare, indeed, was not the only viofrom established forms of speech, in hope of finding 'lator of chronology, for in the same age Sidney, who or making better; those who wish for distinction wanted not the advantages of learning, has, in his forsake the vulgar, when the vulgar is right; but Arcadia, confounded the pastoral with the feudal there is a conversatioa above grossness and below times, the days of innocence, quiet, and security, refinement, where propriety resides, and where this with those of turbulence, violence, and adventure. poet seems to have gathered his comic dialogue. He In his comic scenes, be is seldom very successful, is, therefore, more agreeable to the ears of the pre. when he engages his characters in reciprocations of sent age, than any other author equally remote, and, smartness and contests of sarcasm ; their jests are among his other excellencies, deserves to be studied commonly gross, and their pleasantry licentious; as one of the original masters of our language. neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much le
These observations are to be considered not as un. 'licacy, nor are sufficiently distinguished from his exceptionably constant, but as containing general and clowns by any appearance of refined manners. Whepredominant truth. Shakspeare's familiar dialogue ther he represented the real conversation of his time is affirmed to be smooth and clear, yet not wholly is not easy to determine; the reign of Elizabeth is without ruggedness or difficulty; as a country may commonly supposed to have been a time of statelibe eminentiy fruitful, though it has spots unfit for ness, formality, and reserve, yet perhaps the relaxacultivation : bis characters are praised as natural, tions of that severity were not very elegant. There though their sentiments are sometimes forced, and must, however, have been always some modes of their actions improbable; as the earth upon the gaiety preferable to uthers, and a writer ought to whole is spherical, though its surface is varied with choose the best. protuberances and cavities.
In tragedy his performance seems constantly to Shakspeare with his excellencies has likewise be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions of faults, and faults sufficient to obscure and over. passion, which exigence forces out, are for the most whelin any other merit. I shali shew them in the part striking and energetic; but whenever he soliproportion in which they appear to me, without en cits his invention, or strains his faculties, the off vious malignity or superstitius veneration. No spring of his throes is tumour, meauness, tediousquestion can be more innocently discussed than a ness, and obscurity. dead poet's pretensions to renown; and little regard In narration hé affects a disproportionate pomp is due to that bigotry which sets candour higher of diction, and a wearisome train of circumlocution, than truth.
and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, His first defect is that to which may be imp'ited which might have been more plainly delivered in most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices few. Narration in dramatic poetry is naturally te. virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful dious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obstructs to please than to instruct, that he seems to write the progress of the action; it should therefore always without any moral purpose. From his writings in- be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. deed a system of social duty may be selected, for Shakspeare found it an incumbrance, and instead he that thinks reasonabiy must think morally; but of lightening it by brevity, endeavoured to recombis precepts and axioms drop casually from him: mend it by dignity and splendour. hc makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is His declamations or set speeches are commonly always careful to shew in the virtuous a disapproba. cold and weak, for his power was the power of nation of the wicked; he carries his persons indiffer- ture; when he endeavoured, like other tragic wri. ently through right and wrong, and at the close dis- ters, to catch opportunities of amplification, and in. misses them without further care, and leaves their stead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to examples to operate by chance. This fault the bar. shew how much his stores of knowledge could supbarity of his age cannot extenuate ; for it is always ply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment a rriter's duty to make the world better, and justice of his reader. is a virtue independent on time or place
1 It is incident to him to be now and then entanglod