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HAT praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by thofe, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the herefies of paradox; or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon confolatory expedients, are willing to hope from pofterity what the prefent age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard, which is yet denied by envy, will be at last beflowed by time.
Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from reason, but from prejudice. Some feem to admire indifcriminately whatever has been long preserved, without confidering that time has fometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour past than prefent excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the fhades of age, as the eye furveys the fun through artificial opacity. The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an author is yet living, we estimate his powers by his worst performance; and when he is dead, we rate them by his best. [A]
To works, however, of which the excellence is not abfolute and definite, but gradual, and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonftrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to obfervation and experience, no other teft can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long poffeffed they have often examined and compared, and if they perfift to value the poffeffion, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep, or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains, and many rivers; fo in the productions of genius, nothing can be stiled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the fame kind. Demonstration immediately displays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective, ability of man, as it is discovered in a long fucceffion of endeavours. Of the firft building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined that it was round or fquare; but whether it was fpacious or lofty must have been referred to time. The Pythagorean scale of numbers was at once difcovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to transcend the common limits of human intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than transpose his incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrafe his fentiments.
The reverence due to writings that have long fubfifted arifes therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the confequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is moft confidered is best understood.
The poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin to affume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the teft of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from perfonal allufions, local cuftoms, or tem porary opinions, have for many years been loft; and every topick of merriment, or motive of forrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obfcure the scenes which they once illuminated. The effects of favour and competition are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and his enmities has perifhed; his works fupport no opinion with arguments, nor supply any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity, nor gratify malignity; but are read without any other reason than the defire of pleafure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained; yet, thus unaffifted by interest or paffion, they have past through variations of tafte and changes of manners, and, as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every tranfmiffion.
But because human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion; it is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of excellence Shakespeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.
Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature. Particula. manners can be known to few, and therefore few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile, by that novelty of which the common fatiety of life fends us all in queft; but the pleasures of fudden wonder are foon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.
Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of ftudies or profeffions, which can operate but upon fmall numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, fuch as the world will always fupply, and obfervation will always find. His perfons act and speak by the influence of thofe general paffions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole fyftem of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual
individual; in thofe of Shakespeare it is commonly a fpecies.
It is from this wide extenfion of defign that fo much inftruction is derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shakespeare with practical axioms and domestick wisdom. It was faid of Euripides, that every verse was a precept; and it may be faid of Shakefpeare, that from his works may be collected a fyftem of civil and oeconomical prudence. Yet his real power is not fhewn in the fplendor of particular paffages, but by the progress of his fable, and the tenor of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by felect quotations, will fucceed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his houfe to fale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.
It will not easily be imagined how much Shakespeare excels in accommodating his fentiments to real life, but by comparing him with other authors. It was observed of the ancient schools of declamation, that the more diligently they were frequented, the more was the student disqualified for the world, because he found nothing there which he should ever meet in any other place. The fame remark may be applied to every stage but that of Shakespeare. The theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peopled by fuch characters as were never feen, converfing in a language which was never heard, upon topicks which will never arife in the commerce of mankind. But the dialogue of this author is often fo evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is purfued with fo much eafe and fimplicity, that it