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´╗┐Title: Preface to Shakespeare
Author: Johnson, Samuel
Language: English
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Together with selected notes on some of the plays

By Samuel Johnson

[Johnson published his annotated edition of Shakespeare's Plays in

 Some of the notes to
           Measure for Measure
           Henry IV
           Henry V
           King Lear
           Romeo and Juliet


That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the
honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint
likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add
nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox;
or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon consolatory
expedients, are willing to hope from posterity what the present
age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet
denied by envy, will be at last bestowed by time.

Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice
of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from
reason, but from prejudice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately
whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time
has sometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing
to honour past than present excellence; and the mind contemplates
genius through the shades of age, as the eye surveys the sun through
artificial opacity. The great contention of criticism is to find the
faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an
authour is yet living we estimate his powers by his worst performance,
and when he is dead we rate them by his best.

To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and
definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon
principles demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly
to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than
length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have
long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they
persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons
have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature
no man can properly call a river deep or a mountain high, without
the knowledge of many mountains and many rivers; so in the productions
of genius, nothing can be stiled excellent till it has been compared
with other works of the same kind. Demonstration immediately
displays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux
of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated
by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man,
as it is discovered in a long succession of endeavours. Of the first
building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined
that it was round or square, but whether it was spacious or lofty
must have been referred to time. The Pythagorean scale of numbers
was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we
yet know not to transcend the common limits of human intelligence,
but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century,
has been able to do little more than transpose his incidents, new
name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.

The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises
therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom
of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind,
but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions,
that what has been longest known has been most considered, and what
is most considered is best understood.

The Poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now
begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege
of established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived
his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit.
Whatever advantages he might once derive from personal allusions,
local customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years been
lost; and every topick of merriment or motive of sorrow, which the
modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obscure the scenes
which they once illuminated. The effects of favour and competition
are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and his enmities has
perished; his works support no opinion with arguments, nor supply
any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity nor
gratify malignity, but are read without any other reason than the
desire of pleasure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure is
obtained; yet, thus unassisted by interest or passion, they have
past through variations of taste and changes of manners, and, as
they devolved from one generation to another, have received new
honours at every transmission.

But because human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon
certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long
continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion;
it is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of excellence
Shakespeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.

Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations
of general nature. Particular manners can be known to few,
and therefore few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The
irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight a-while,
by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all
in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted,
and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.

Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers,
the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful
mirrour of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by
the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the
world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can
operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient
fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of
common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation
will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those
general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated,
and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings
of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of
Shakespeare it is commonly a species.

It is from this wide extension of design that so much instruction
is derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shakespeare with
practical axioms and domestick wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that
every verse was a precept and it may be said of Shakespeare, that
from his works may be collected a system of civil and oeconomical
prudence. Yet his real power is not shown in the splendour
of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and the
tenour of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by select
quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when
he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a

It will not easily be imagined how much Shakespeare excells in
accommodating his sentiments to real life, but by comparing him
with other authours. It was observed of the ancient schools of
declamation, that the more diligently they were frequented, the
more was the student disqualified for the world, because he found
nothing there which he should ever meet in any other place. The
same remark may be applied to every stage but that of Shakespeare.
The theatre, when it is under any other direction, is peopled by
such characters as were never seen, conversing in a language which
was never heard, upon topicks which will never arise in the commerce
of mankind. But the dialogue of this authour is often so evidently
determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with
so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the
merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection
out of common conversation, and common occurrences.

Upon every other stage the universal agent is love, by whose
power all good and evil is distributed, and every action quickened
or retarded. To bring a lover, a lady and a rival into the fable;
to entangle them in contradictory obligations, perplex them with
oppositions of interest, and harrass them with violence of desires
inconsistent with each other; to make them meet in rapture and part
in agony; to fill their mouths with hyperbolical joy and outrageous
sorrow; to distress them as nothing human ever was distressed; to
deliver them as nothing human ever was delivered, is the business
of a modern dramatist. For this probability is violated, life is
misrepresented, and language is depraved. But love is only one of
many passions, and as it has no great influence upon the sum of
life, it has little operation in the dramas of a poet, who caught
his ideas from the living world, and exhibited only what he saw
before him. He knew, that any other passion, as it was regular or
exorbitant, was a cause of happiness or calamity.

Characters thus ample and general were not easily discriminated
and preserved, yet perhaps no poet ever kept his personages more
distinct from each other. I will not say with Pope, that every
speech may be assigned to the proper speaker, because many speeches
there are which have nothing characteristical; but, perhaps, though
some may be equally adapted to every person, it will be difficult
to find, any that can be properly transferred from the present
possessor to another claimant. The choice is right, when there is
reason for choice.

Other dramatists can only gain attention by hyperbolical or aggravated
characters, by fabulous and unexampled excellence or depravity, as
the writers of barbarous romances invigorated the reader by a giant
and a dwarf; and he that should form his expectations of human
affairs from the play, or from the tale, would be equally deceived.
Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men,
who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have
spoken or acted on the same occasion: Even where the agency is
supernatural the dialogue is level with life. Other writers disguise
the most natural passions and most frequent incidents: so that he
who contemplates them in the book will not know them in the world:
Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful;
the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were
possible, its effects would be probably such as he has assigned;
and it may be said, that he has not only shewn human nature as it
acts in real exigences, but as it would be found in trials, to which
it cannot be exposed. This therefore is the praise of Shakespeare,
that his drama is the mirrour of life; that he who has mazed his
imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise
up before him, may here be cured of his delirious extasies, by
reading human sentiments in human language; by scenes from which a
hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor
predict the progress of the passions.

His adherence to general nature has exposed him to the censure of
criticks, who form their judgments upon narrower principles.  Dennis
and Rhymer think his Romans not sufficiently Roman; and Voltaire
censures his kings as not completely royal. Dennis is offended, that
Menenius, a senator of Rome, should play the buffoon; and Voltaire
perhaps thinks decency violated when the Danish Usurper is represented
as a drunkard. But Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over
accident; and if he preserves the essential character, is not very
careful of distinctions superinduced and adventitious. His story
requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men. He knew that
Rome, like every other city, had men of all dispositions; and
wanting a buffoon, he went into the senate-house for that which the
senate-house would certainly have afforded him. He was inclined to
shew an usurper and a murderer not only odious but despicable, he
therefore added drunkenness to his other qualities, knowing that
kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural
power upon kings.  These are the petty cavils of petty minds; a
poet overlooks the casual distinction of country and condition, as
a painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.

The censure which he has incurred by mixing comick and tragick
scenes, as it extends to all his works, deserves more consideration.
Let the fact be first stated, and then examined.

Shakespeare's plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense
either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind;
exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes
of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of
proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing
the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of
another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to his
wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity
of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many
mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.

Out of this chaos of mingled purposes and casualties the ancient
poets, according to the laws which custom had prescribed, selected
some the crimes of men, and some their absurdities; some the
momentous vicissitudes of life, and some the lighter occurrences;
some the terrours of distress, and some the gayeties of prosperity.
Thus rose the two modes of imitation, known by the names of tragedy
and comedy, compositions intended to promote different ends by
contrary means, and considered as so little allied, that I do not
recollect among the Greeks or Romans a single writer who attempted

Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow
not only in one mind, but in one composition. Almost all his plays
are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the
successive evolutions of the design, sometimes produce seriousness
and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.

That this is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism will be
readily allowed; but there is always an appeal open from criticism
to nature. The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry
is to instruct by pleasing. That the mingled drama may convey all
the instruction of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied, because
it includes both in its alterations of exhibition, and approaches
nearer than either to the appearance of life, by shewing how
great machinations and slender designs may promote or obviate one
another, and the high and the low co-operate in the general system
by unavoidable concatenation.

It is objected, that by this change of scenes the passions are
interrupted in their progression, and that the principal event,
being not advanced by a due gradation of preparatory incidents,
wants at last the power to move, which constitutes the perfection
of dramatick poetry. This reasoning is so specious, that it is
received as true even by those who in daily experience feel it to
be false. The interchanges of mingled scenes seldom fail to produce
the intended vicissitudes of passion. Fiction cannot move so much,
but that the attention may be easily transferred; and though it
must be allowed that pleasing melancholy be sometimes interrupted
by unwelcome levity, yet let it be considered likewise, that
melancholy is often not pleasing, and that the disturbance of one
man may be the relief of another; that different auditors have
different habitudes; and that, upon the whole, all pleasure consists
in variety.

The players, who in their edition divided our authour's works into
comedies, histories, and tragedies, seem not to have distinguished
the three kinds, by any very exact or definite ideas.

An action which ended happily to the principal persons, however
serious or distressful through its intermediate incidents, in
their opinion constituted a comedy. This idea of a comedy continued
long amongst us, and plays were written, which, by changing the
catastrophe, were tragedies to-day and comedies to-morrow.

Tragedy was not in those times a poem of more general dignity or
elevation than comedy; it required only a calamitous conclusion,
with which the common criticism of that age was satisfied, whatever
lighter pleasure it afforded in its progress.

History was a series of actions, with no other than chronological
succession, independent of each other, and without any tendency to
introduce or regulate the conclusion. It is not always very nicely
distinguished from tragedy. There is not much nearer approach to
unity of action in the tragedy of "Antony and Cleopatra", than in
the history of "Richard the Second". But a history might be continued
through many plays; as it had no plan, it had no limits.

Through all these denominations of the drama, Shakespeare's mode
of composition is the same; an interchange of seriousness and
merriment, by which the mind is softened at one time, and exhilarated
at another. But whatever be his purpose, whether to gladden or
depress, or to conduct the story, without vehemence or emotion,
through tracts of easy and familiar dialogue, he never fails to
attain his purpose; as he commands us, we laugh or mourn, or sit
silent with quiet expectation, in tranquillity without indifference.

When Shakespeare's plan is understood, most of the criticisms of
Rhymer and Voltaire vanish away. The play of "Hamlet" is opened,
without impropriety, by two sentinels; Iago bellows at Brabantio's
window, without injury to the scheme of the play, though in terms
which a modern audience would not easily endure; the character of
Polonius is seasonable and useful; and the Grave-diggers themselves
may be heard with applause.

Shakespeare engaged in dramatick poetry with the world open before
him; the rules of the ancients were yet known to few; the publick
judgment was unformed; he had no example of such fame as might
force him upon imitation, nor criticks of such authority as might
restrain his extravagance: He therefore indulged his natural
disposition, and his disposition, as Rhymer has remarked, led him
to comedy. In tragedy he often writes with great appearance of
toil and study, what is written at last with little felicity; but
in his comick scenes, he seems to produce without labour, what no
labour can improve. In tragedy he is always struggling after some
occasion to be comick, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to
luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his
tragick scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy
often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the
thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by
incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to
be instinct.

The force of his comick scenes has suffered little diminution from
the changes made by a century and a half, in manners or in words.
As his personages act upon principles arising from genuine passion,
very little modified by particular forms, their pleasures and
vexations are communicable to all times and to all places; they are
natural, and therefore durable; the adventitious peculiarities of
personal habits, are only superficial dies, bright and pleasing
for a little while, yet soon fading to a dim tinct, without any
remains of former lustre; but the discriminations of true passion
are the colours of nature; they pervade the whole mass, and can only
perish with the body that exhibits them. The accidental compositions
of heterogeneous modes are dissolved by the chance which combined
them; but the uniform simplicity of primitive qualities neither
admits increase, nor suffers decay. The sand heaped by one flood is
scattered by another, but the rock always continues in its place.
The stream of time, which is continually washing the dissoluble
fabricks of other poets, passes without injury by the adamant of

If there be, what I believe there is, in every nation, a stile which
never becomes obsolete, a certain mode of phraseology so consonant
and congenial to the analogy and principles of its respective
language as to remain settled and unaltered; this stile is probably
to be sought in the common intercourse of life, among those who
speak only to be understood, without ambition of elegance. The
polite are always catching modish innovations, and the learned
depart from established forms of speech, in hope of finding or
making better; those who wish for distinction forsake the vulgar,
when the vulgar is right; but there is a conversation above grossness
and below refinement, where propriety resides, and where this poet
seems to have gathered his comick dialogue. He is therefore more
agreeable to the ears of the present age than any other authour
equally remote, and among his other excellencies deserves to be
studied as one of the original masters of our language.

These observations are to be considered not as unexceptionably constant,
but as containing general and predominant truth.  Shakespeare's
familiar dialogue is affirmed to be smooth and clear, yet not wholly
without ruggedness or difficulty; as a country may be eminently
fruitful, though it has spots unfit for cultivation: His characters
are praised as natural, though their sentiments are sometimes
forced, and their actions improbable; as the earth upon the whole
is spherical, though its surface is varied with protuberances and

Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults, and faults
sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any other merit. I shall shew
them in the proportion in which they appear to me, without envious
malignity or superstitious veneration. No question can be more
innocently discussed than a dead poet's pretensions to renown; and
little regard is due to that bigotry which sets candour higher than

His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil
in books or in men. He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is
so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to
write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system
of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably
must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from
him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always
careful to shew in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he
carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at
the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their
examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his
age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer's duty to make the
world better, and justice is a virtue independant on time or place.

The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration
may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not
always fully to comprehend his own design. He omits opportunities
of instructing or delighting which the train of his story seems
to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which
would be more affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy.

It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part
is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his
work, and, in view of his reward, he shortened the labour, to snatch
the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most
vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced
or imperfectly represented.

He had no regard to distinction of time or place, but gives to
one age or nation, without scruple, the customs, institutions, and
opinions of another, at the expence not only of likelihood, but
of possibility. These faults Pope has endeavoured, with more zeal
than judgment, to transfer to his imagined in interpolators. We
need not wonder to find Hector quoting Aristotle, when we see the
loves of Theseus and Hippolyta combined with the Gothic mythology
of fairies. Shakespeare, indeed, was not the only violator of
chronology, for in the same age Sidney, who wanted not the advantages
of learning, has, in his "Arcadia", confounded the pastoral with
the feudal times, the days of innocence, quiet and security, with
those of turbulence, violence and adventure.

In his comick scenes he is seldom very successful, when he engages
his characters in reciprocations of smartness and contest of sarcasm;
their jests are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licentious;
neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are
sufficiently distinguished from his clowns by any appearance of
refined manners. Whether he represented the real conversation of his
time is not easy to determine; the reign of Elizabeth is commonly
supposed to have been a time of stateliness, formality and reserve,
yet perhaps the relaxations of that severity were not very elegant.
There must, however, have been always some modes of gayety preferable
to others, and a writer ought to chuse the best.

In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be worse, as his
labour is more. The effusions of passion which exigence forces
out are for the most part striking and energetick; but whenever he
solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of
his throes is tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity.

In narration he affects a disproportionate pomp of diction and a
wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly
in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in
few. Narration in dramatick poetry is, naturally tedious, as it is
unanimated and inactive, and obstructs the progress of the action;
it should therefore always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent
interruption. Shakespeare found it an encumbrance, and instead of
lightening it by brevity, endeavoured to recommend it by dignity
and splendour.

His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for
his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other
tragick writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and
instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much
his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without
the pity or resentment of his reader.

It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy
sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he
struggles with it a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises
it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and
evolved by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.

Not that always where the language is intricate the thought
is subtle, or the image always great where the line is bulky; the
equality of words to things is very often neglected, and trivial
sentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they
are recommended by sonorous epithets and swelling figures.

But the admirers of this great poet have never less reason to
indulge their hopes of supreme excellence, than when he seems fully
resolved to sink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender
emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the
crosses of love. He is not long soft and pathetick without some
idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner begins to
move, than he counteracts himself; and terrour and pity, as they
are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.

A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the
traveller; he follows it at all adventures, it is sure to lead him
out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some
malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible.
Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether
he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be
amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense,
let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work
unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always
turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble
poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content
to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A
quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world,
and was content to lose it.

It will be thought strange, that, in enumerating the defects of
this writer, I have not yet mentioned his neglect of the unities;
his violation of those laws which have been instituted and established
by the joint authority of poets and of criticks.

For his other deviations from the art of writing, I resign him to
critical justice, without making any other demand in his favour,
than that which must be indulged to all human excellence; that his
virtues be rated with his failings: But, from the censure which
this irregularity may bring upon him, I shall, with due reverence
to that learning which I must oppose, adventure to try how I can
defend him.

His histories, being neither tragedies nor comedies, are not subject
to any of their laws; nothing more is necessary to all the praise
which they expect, than that the changes of action be so prepared
as to be understood, that the incidents be various and affecting,
and the characters consistent, natural and distinct. No other unity
is intended, and therefore none is to be sought.

In his other works he has well enough preserved the unity of action.
He has not, indeed, an intrigue regularly perplexed and regularly
unravelled; he does not endeavour to hide his design only to discover
it, for this is seldom the order of real events, and Shakespeare
is the poet of nature: But his plan has commonly what Aristotle
requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; one event is concatenated
with another, and the conclusion follows by easy consequence. There
are perhaps some incidents that might be spared, as in other poets
there is much talk that only fills up time upon the stage; but the
general system makes gradual advances, and the end of the play is
the end of expectation.

To the unities of time and place he has shewn no regard, and perhaps
a nearer view of the principles on which they stand will diminish
their value, and withdraw from them the veneration which, from the
time of Corneille, they have very generally received by discovering
that they have given more trouble to the poet, than pleasure to
the auditor.

The necessity of observing the unities of time and place arises from
the supposed necessity of making the drama credible. The criticks
hold it impossible, that an action of months or years can be possibly
believed to pass in three hours; or that the spectator can suppose
himself to sit in the theatre, while ambassadors go and return
between distant kings, while armies are levied and towns besieged,
while an exile wanders and returns, or till he whom they saw courting
his mistress, shall lament the untimely fall of his son. The mind
revolts from evident falsehood, and fiction loses its force when
it departs from the resemblance of reality.

From the narrow limitation of time necessarily arises the contraction
of place. The spectator, who knows that he saw the first act
at Alexandria, cannot suppose that he sees the next at Rome, at
a distance to which not the dragons of Medea could, in so short
a time, have transported him; he knows with certainty that he has
not changed his place; and he knows that place cannot change itself;
that what was a house cannot become a plain; that what was Thebes
can never be Persepolis.

Such is the triumphant language with which a critick exults over the
misery of an irregular poet, and exults commonly without resistance
or reply. It is time therefore to tell him, by the authority
of Shakespeare, that he assumes, as an unquestionable principle,
a position, which, while his breath is forming it into words,
his understanding pronounces to be false. It is false, that any
representation is mistaken for reality; that any dramatick fable
in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a single moment, was
ever credited.

The objection arising from the impossibility of passing the first
hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, supposes, that when the
play opens the spectator really imagines himself at Alexandria, and
believes that his walk to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt,
and that he lives in the days of Antony and Cleopatra.  Surely he
that imagines this, may imagine more. He that can take the stage
at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half
an hour for the promontory of Actium. Delusion, if delusion be
admitted, has no certain limitation; if the spectator can be once
persuaded, that his old acquaintance are Alexander and Caesar, that
a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharsalia, or the
bank of Granicus, he is in a state of elevation above the reach of
reason, or of truth, and from the heights of empyrean poetry, may
despise the circumscriptions of terrestrial nature. There is no
reason why a mind thus wandering in extasy should count the clock,
or why an hour should not be a century in that calenture of the
brains that can make the stage a field.

The truth is, that the spectators are always in their senses,
and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only
a stage, and that the players are only players. They come to hear
a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant
modulation. The lines relate to some action, and an action must
be in some place; but the different actions that compleat a story
may be in places very remote from each other; and where is the
absurdity of allowing that space to represent first Athens, and
then Sicily, which was always known to be neither Sicily nor Athens,
but a modern theatre?

By supposition, as place is introduced, time may be extended; the
time required by the fable elapses for the most part between the
acts; for, of so much of the action as is represented, the real and
poetical duration is the same. If, in the first act, preparations
for war against Mithridates are represented to be made in Rome,
the event of the war may, without absurdity, be represented, in the
catastrophe, as happening in Pontus; we know that there is neither
war, nor preparation for war; we know that we are neither in Rome
nor Pontus; that neither Mithridates nor Lucullus are before us.
The drama exhibits successive imitations of successive actions, and
why may not the second imitation represent an action that happened
years after the first; if it be so connected with it, that nothing
but time can be supposed to intervene? Time is, of all modes of
existence, most obsequious to the imagination; a lapse of years
is as easily conceived as a passage of hours. In contemplation we
easily contract the time of real actions, and therefore willingly
permit it to be contracted when we only see their imitation.

It will be asked, how the drama moves, if it is not credited. It
is credited with all the credit due to a drama. It is credited,
whenever it moves, as a just picture of a real original; as
representing to the auditor what he would himself feel, if he were
to do or suffer what is there feigned to be suffered or to be done.
The reflection that strikes the heart is not, that the evils before
us are real evils, but that they are evils to which we ourselves
may be exposed. If there be any fallacy, it is not that we fancy the
players, but that we fancy ourselves unhappy for a moment; but we
rather lament the possibility than suppose the presence of misery,
as a mother weeps over her babe, when she remembers that death
may take it from her. The delight of tragedy proceeds from our
consciousness of fiction; if we thought murders and treasons real,
they would please no more.

Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken
for realities, but because they bring realities to mind. When the
imagination is recreated by a painted landscape, the trees are not
supposed capable to give us shade, or the fountains coolness; but
we consider, how we should be pleased with such fountains playing
beside us, and such woods waving over us. We are agitated in reading
the history of "Henry the Fifth", yet no man takes his book for the
field of Agencourt. A dramatick exhibition is a book recited with
concomitants that encrease or diminish its effect.  Familiar comedy
is often more powerful on the theatre, than in the page; imperial
tragedy is always less. The humour of Petruchio may be heightened
by grimace; but what voice or what gesture can hope to add dignity
or force to the soliloquy of Cato.

A play read, affects the mind like a play acted. It is therefore
evident, that the action is not supposed to be real, and it follows
that between the acts a longer or shorter time may be allowed to
pass, and that no more account of space or duration is to be taken
by the auditor of a drama, than by the reader of a narrative, before
whom may pass in an hour the life of a hero, or the revolutions of
an empire.

Whether Shakespeare knew the unities, and rejected them by design,
or deviated from them by happy ignorance, it is, I think, impossible
to decide, and useless to inquire. We may reasonably suppose, that,
when he rose to notice, he did not want the counsels and admonitions
of scholars and criticks, and that he at last deliberately persisted
in a practice, which he might have begun by chance. As nothing is
essential to the fable, but unity of action, and as the unities
of time and place arise evidently from false assumptions, and,
by circumscribing the extent of the drama, lessen its variety, I
cannot think it much to be lamented, that they were not known by
him, or not observed: Nor, if such another poet could arise, should
I very vehemently reproach him, that his first act passed at Venice,
and his next in Cyprus. Such violations of rules merely positive,
become the comprehensive genius of Shakespeare, and such censures
are suitable to the minute and slender criticism of Voltaire:

     Non usque adeo permiscuit imis
     Longus summa dies, ut non, si voce Metelli
     Serventur leges, malint a Caesare tolli.

Yet when I speak thus slightly of dramatick rules, I cannot but
recollect how much wit and learning may be produced against me;
before such authorities I am afraid to stand, not that I think
the present question one of those that are to be decided by mere
authority, but because it is to be suspected, that these precepts
have not been so easily received but for better reasons than I
have yet been able to find. The result of my enquiries, in which it
would be ludicrous to boast of impartiality, is, that the unities
of time and place are not essential to a just drama, that though
they may sometimes conduce to pleasure, they are always to be
sacrificed to the nobler beauties of variety and instruction; and
that a play, written with nice observation of critical rules, is
to be contemplated as an elaborate curiosity, as the product of
superfluous and ostentatious art, by which is shewn, rather what
is possible, than what is necessary.

He that, without diminution of any other excellence, shall preserve
all the unities unbroken, deserves the like applause with the
architect, who shall display all the orders of architecture in a
citadel, without any deduction from its strength; but the principal
beauty of a citadel is to exclude the enemy; and the greatest graces
of a play, are to copy nature and instruct life.

Perhaps, what I have here not dogmatically but deliberately written,
may recal the principles of the drama to a new examination. I am
almost frighted at my own temerity; and when I estimate the fame
and the strength of those that maintain the contrary opinion, am
ready to sink down in reverential silence; as Aeneas withdrew from
the defence of Troy, when he saw Neptune shaking the wall, and Juno
heading the besiegers.

Those whom my arguments cannot persuade to give their approbation
to the judgment of Shakespeare, will easily, if they consider the
condition of his life, make some allowance for his ignorance.

Every man's performances, to be rightly estimated, must be compared
with the state of the age in which he lived, and with his own
particular opportunities; and though to the reader a book be not
worse or better for the circumstances of the authour, yet as there
is always a silent reference of human works to human abilities, and
as the enquiry, how far man may extend his designs, or how high
he may rate his native force, is of far greater dignity than in
what rank we shall place any particular performance, curiosity is
always busy to discover the instruments, as well as to survey the
workmanship, to know how much is to be ascribed to original powers,
and how much to casual and adventitious help. The palaces of Peru
or Mexico were certainly mean and incommodious habitations, if
compared to the houses of European monarchs; yet who could forbear
to view them with astonishment, who remembered that they were built
without the use of iron?

The English nation, in the time of Shakespeare, was yet struggling
to emerge from barbarity. The philology of Italy had been transplanted
hither in the reign of Henry the Eighth; and the learned languages
had been successfully cultivated by Lilly and More; by Pole, Cheke,
and Gardiner; and afterwards by Smith, Clerk, Haddon, and Ascham.
Greek was now taught to boys in the principal schools; and those
who united elegance with learning, read, with great diligence,
the Italian and Spanish poets. But literature was yet confined to
professed scholars, or to men and women of high rank. The publick
was gross and dark; and to be able to read and write, was an
accomplishment still valued for its rarity.

Nations, like individuals, have their infancy. A people newly awakened
to literary curiosity, being yet unacquainted with the true state
of things, knows not how to judge of that which is proposed as its
resemblance. Whatever is remote from common appearances is always
welcome to vulgar, as to childish credulity; and of a country
unenlightened by learning, the whole people is the vulgar. The
study of those who then aspired to plebeian learning was laid out
upon adventures, giants, dragons, and enchantments. The Death of
Arthur was the favourite volume.

The mind, which has feasted on the luxurious wonders of fiction,
has no taste of the insipidity of truth. A play which imitated only
the common occurrences of the world, would, upon the admirers of
Palmerin and Guy of Warwick, have made little impression; he that
wrote for such an audience was under the necessity of looking round
for strange events and fabulous transactions, and that incredibility,
by which maturer knowledge is offended, was the chief recommendation
of writings, to unskilful curiosity.

Our authour's plots are generally borrowed from novels, and it is
reasonable to suppose, that he chose the most popular, such as were
read by many, and related by more; for his audience could not have
followed him through the intricacies of the drama, had they not
held the thread of the story in their hands.

The stories, which we now find only in remoter authours, were in
his time accessible and familliar. The fable of "As You Like It",
which is supposed to be copied from Chaucer's Gamelyn, was a little
pamphlet of those times; and old Mr. Cibber remembered the tale of
Hamlet in plain English prose, which the criticks have now to seek
in Saxo Grammaticus.

His English histories he took from English chronicles and English
ballads; and as the ancient writers were made known to his countrymen
by versions, they supplied him with new subjects; he dilated some
of Plutarch's lives into plays, when they had been translated by

His plots, whether historical or fabulous, are always crouded with
incidents, by which the attention of a rude people was more easily
caught than by sentiment or argumentation; and such is the power
of the marvellous even over those who despise it, that every man
finds his mind more strongly seized by the tragedies of Shakespeare
than of any other writer; others please us by particular speeches,
but he always makes us anxious for the event, and has perhaps
excelled all but Homer in securing the first purpose of a writer,
by exciting restless and unquenchable curiosity, and compelling
him that reads his work to read it through.

The shows and bustle with which his plays abound have the same
original. As knowledge advances, pleasure passes from the eye to the
ear, but returns, as it declines, from the ear to the eye.  Those
to whom our authour's labours were exhibited had more skill in pomps
or processions than in poetical language, and perhaps wanted some
visible and discriminated events, as comments on the dialogue. He
knew how he should most please; and whether his practice is more
agreeable to nature, or whether his example has prejudiced the
nation, we still find that on our stage something must be done as
well as said, and inactive declamation is very coldly heard, however
musical or elegant, passionate or sublime.

Voltaire expresses his wonder, that our authour's extravagancies
are endured by a nation, which has seen the tragedy of Cato. Let
him be answered, that Addison speaks the language of poets, and
Shakespeare, of men. We find in Cato innumerable beauties which
enamour us of its authour, but we see nothing that acquaints us
with human sentiments or human actions; we place it with the fairest
and the noblest progeny which judgment propagates by conjunction
with learning, but "Othello" is the vigorous and vivacious offspring
of observation impregnated by genius. Cato affords a splendid
exhibition of artificial and fictitious manners, and delivers just
and noble sentiments, in diction easy, elevated and harmonious,
but its hopes and fears communicate no vibration to the heart; the
composition refers us only to the writer; we pronounce the name of
Cato, but we think on Addison.

The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately
formed and diligently planted, varied with shades, and scented with
flowers; the composition of Shakespeare is a forest, in which oaks
extend their branches, and pines tower in the air, interspersed
sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to
myrtles and to roses; filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying
the mind with endless diversity. Other poets display cabinets
of precious rarities, minutely finished, wrought into shape, and
polished unto brightness. Shakespeare opens a mine which contains
gold and diamonds in unexhaustible plenty, though clouded by
incrustations, debased by impurities, and mingled with a mass of
meaner minerals.

It has been much disputed, whether Shakespeare owed his excellence
to his own native force, or whether he had the common helps of
scholastick education, the precepts of critical science, and the
examples of ancient authours.

There has always prevailed a tradition, that Shakespeare wanted
learning, that he had no regular education, nor much skill in the
dead languages. Johnson, his friend, affirms, that "He had small Latin
and no Greek."; who, besides that he had no imaginable temptation
to falsehood, wrote at a time when the character and acquisitions
of Shakespeare were known to multitudes. His evidence ought therefore
to decide the controversy, unless some testimony of equal force
could be opposed.

Some have imagined, that they have discovered deep learning in
many imitations of old writers; but the examples which I have known
urged, were drawn from books translated in his time; or were such
easy coincidencies of thought, as will happen to all who consider
the same subjects; or such remarks on life or axioms of morality
as float in conversation, and are transmitted through the world in
proverbial sentences.

I have found it remarked, that, in this important sentence, "Go
before, I'll follow," we read a translation of, I prae, sequar. I
have been told, that when Caliban, after a pleasing dream, says,
"I cry'd to sleep again," the authour imitates Anacreon, who had,
like every other man, the same wish on the same occasion.

There are a few passages which may pass for imitations, but so few,
that the exception only confirms the rule; he obtained them from
accidental quotations, or by oral communication, and as he used
what he had, would have used more if he had obtained it.

The "Comedy of Errors" is confessedly taken from the Menaechmi of
Plautus; from the only play of Plautus which was then in English.
What can be more probable, than that he who copied that, would
have copied more; but that those which were not translated were

Whether he knew the modern languages is uncertain. That his plays
have some French scenes proves but little; he might easily procure
them to be written, and probably, even though he had known the
language in the common degree, he could not have written it without
assistance. In the story of "Romeo and Juliet" he is observed to
have followed the English translation, where it deviates from the
Italian; but this on the other part proves nothing against his
knowledge of the original. He was to copy, not what he knew himself,
but what was known to his audience.

It is most likely that he had learned Latin sufficiently to make
him acquainted with construction, but that he never advanced to an
easy perusal of the Roman authours. Concerning his skill in modern
languages, I can find no sufficient ground of determination; but as
no imitations of French or Italian authours have been discovered,
though the Italian poetry was then high in esteem, I am inclined
to believe, that he read little more than English, and chose for
his fables only such tales as he found translated.

That much knowledge is scattered over his works is very justly
observed by Pope, but it is often such knowledge as books did not
supply. He that will understand Shakespeare, must not be content
to study him in the closet, he must look for his meaning sometimes
among the sports of the field, and sometimes among the manufactures
of the shop.

There is however proof enough that he was a very diligent reader,
nor was our language then so indigent of books, but that he might
very liberally indulge his curiosity without excursion into foreign
literature. Many of the Roman authours were translated, and some of
the Greek; the reformation had filled the kingdom with theological
learning; most of the topicks of human disquisition had found English
writers; and poetry had been cultivated, not only with diligence,
but success. This was a stock of knowledge sufficient for a mind
so capable of appropriating and improving it.

But the greater part of his excellence was the product of his own
genius. He found the English stage in a state of the utmost rudeness;
no essays either in tragedy or comedy had appeared, from which it
could be discovered to what degree of delight either one or other
might be carried. Neither character nor dialogue were yet understood.
Shakespeare may be truly said to have introduced them both amongst
us, and in some of his happier scenes to have carried them both to
the utmost height.

By what gradations of improvement he proceeded, is not easily
known; for the chronology of his works is yet unsettled. Rowe is of
opinion, that "perhaps we are not to look for his beginning, like
those of other writers, in his least perfect works; art had so
little, and nature so large a share in what he did, that for ought
I know," says he, "the performances of his youth, as they were the
most vigorous, were the best." But the power of nature is only the
power of using to any certain purpose the materials which diligence
procures, or opportunity supplies. Nature gives no man knowledge,
and when images are collected by study and experience, can only
assist in combining or applying them. Shakespeare, however favoured
by nature, could impart only what he had learned; and as he must
increase his ideas, like other mortals, by gradual acquisition, he,
like them, grew wiser as he grew older, could display life better,
as he knew it more, and instruct with more efficacy, as he was
himself more amply instructed.

There is a vigilance of observation and accuracy of distinction which
books and precepts cannot confer; from this almost all original and
native excellence proceeds. Shakespeare must have looked upon mankind
with perspicacity, in the highest degree curious and attentive.
Other writers borrow their characters from preceding writers, and
diversify them only by the accidental appendages of present manners;
the dress is a little varied, but the body is the same. Our authour
had both matter and form to provide; for except the characters of
Chaucer, to whom I think he is not much indebted, there were no
writers in English, and perhaps not many in other modern languages,
which shewed life in its native colours.

The contest about the original benevolence or malignity of man had
not yet commenced. Speculation had not yet attempted to analyse
the mind, to trace the passions to their sources, to unfold the
seminal principles of vice and virtue, or sound the depths of the
heart for the motives of action. All those enquiries, which from
that time that human nature became the fashionable study, have been
made sometimes with nice discernment, but often with idle subtilty,
were yet unattempted. The tales, with which the infancy of learning
was satisfied, exhibited only the superficial appearances of action,
related the events but omitted the causes, and were formed for such
as delighted in wonders rather than in truth. Mankind was not then
to be studied in the closet; he that would know the world, was
under the necessity of gleaning his own remarks, by mingling as he
could in its business and amusements.

Boyle congratulated himself upon his high birth, because it favoured
his curiosity, by facilitating his access. Shakespeare had no such
advantage; he came to London a needy adventurer, and lived for a
time by very mean employments. Many works of genius and learning
have been performed in states of life, that appear very little
favourable to thought or to enquiry; so many, that he who considers
them is inclined to think that he sees enterprise and perseverance
predominating over all external agency, and bidding help and
hindrance vanish before them. The genius of Shakespeare was not to
be depressed by the weight of poverty, nor limited by the narrow
conversation to which men in want are inevitably condemned; the
incumbrances of his fortune were shaken from his mind, "as dewdrops
from a lion's mane."

Though he had so many difficulties to encounter, and so little assistance
to surmount them, he has been able to obtain an exact knowledge of
many modes of life, and many casts of native dispositions; to vary
them with great multiplicity; to mark them by nice distinctions;
and to shew them in full view by proper combinations. In this part
of his performances He had none to imitate, but has himself been
imitated by all succeeding writers; and it may be doubted, whether
from all his successors more maxims of theoretical knowledge, or
more rules of practical prudence, can be collected, than he alone
has given to his country.

Nor was his attention confined to the actions of men; he was an
exact surveyor of the inanimate world; his descriptions have always
some peculiarities, gathered by contemplating things as they really
exist. It may be observed, that the oldest poets of many nations
preserve their reputation, and that the following generations
of wit, after a short celebrity, sink into oblivion.  The first,
whoever they be, must take their sentiments and descriptions
immediately from knowledge; the resemblance is therefore just,
their descriptions are verified by every eye, and their sentiments
acknowledged by every breast. Those whom their fame invites to the
same studies, copy partly them, and partly nature, till the books
of one age gain such authority, as to stand in the place of nature
to another, and imitation, always deviating a little, becomes at
last capricious and casual. Shakespeare, whether life or nature
be his subject, shews plainly, that he has seen with his own eyes;
he gives the image which he receives, not weakened or distorted by
the intervention of any other mind; the ignorant feel his representations
to be just, and the learned see that they are compleat.

Perhaps it would not be easy to find any authour, except Homer, who
invented so much as Shakespeare, who so much advanced the studies
which he cultivated, or effused so much novelty upon his age
or country. The form, the characters, the language, and the shows
of the English drama are his. "He seems," says Dennis, "to have
been the very original of our English tragical harmony, that is,
the harmony of blank verse, diversified often by dissyllable and
trissyllable terminations. For the diversity distinguishes it from
heroick harmony, and by bringing it nearer to common use makes it
more proper to gain attention, and more fit for action and dialogue.
Such verse we make when we are writing prose; we make such verse
in common conversation."

I know not whether this praise is rigorously just. The dissyllable
termination, which the critick rightly appropriates to the drama,
is to be found, though, I think, not in Gorboduc which is confessedly
before our authour; yet in Hieronnymo, of which the date is not
certain, but which there is reason to believe at least as old as
his earliest plays. This however is certain, that he is the first
who taught either tragedy or comedy to please, there being no
theatrical piece of any older writer, of which the name is known,
except to antiquaries and collectors of books, which are sought
because they are scarce, and would not have been scarce, had they
been much esteemed.

To him we must ascribe the praise, unless Spenser may divide it
with him, of having first discovered to how much smoothness and
harmony the English language could be softened. He has speeches,
perhaps sometimes scenes, which have all the delicacy of Rowe,
without his effeminacy. He endeavours indeed commonly to strike
by the force and vigour of his dialogue, but he never executes his
purpose better, than when he tries to sooth by softness.

Yet it must be at last confessed, that as we owe every thing to
him, he owes something to us; that, if much of his praise is paid
by perception and judgement, much is likewise given by custom and
veneration. We fix our eyes upon his graces, and turn them from his
deformities, and endure in him what we should in another loath or
despise. If we endured without praising, respect for the father
of our drama might excuse us; but I have seen, in the book of some
modern critick, a collection of anomalies which shew that he has
corrupted language by every mode of depravation, but which his
admirer has accumulated as a monument of honour.

He has scenes of undoubted and perpetual excellence, but perhaps
not one play, which, if it were now exhibited as the work of a
contemporary writer, would be heard to the conclusion. I am indeed
far from thinking, that his works were wrought to his own ideas
of perfection; when they were such as would satisfy the audience,
they satisfied the writer. It is seldom that authours, though more
studious of fame than Shakespeare, rise much above the standard
of their own age; to add a little of what is best will always
be sufficient for present praise, and those who find themselves
exalted into fame, are willing to credit their encomiasts, and to
spare the labour of contending with themselves.

It does not appear, that Shakespeare thought his works worthy of
posterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or
had any further prospect, than of present popularity and present
profit. When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end;
he solicited no addition of honour from the reader. He therefore
made no scruple to repeat the same jests in many dialogues, or to
entangle different plots by the same knot of perplexity, which may
be at least forgiven him, by those who recollect, that of Congreve's
four comedies, two are concluded by a marriage in a mask, by a
deception, which perhaps never happened, and which, whether likely
or not, he did not invent.

So careless was this great poet of future fame, that, though he
retired to ease and plenty, while he was yet little "declined into
the vale of years," before he could be disgusted with fatigue,
or disabled by infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor
desired to rescue those that had been already published from the
depravations that obscured them, or secure to the rest a better
destiny, by giving them to the world in their genuine state.

Of the plays which bear the name of Shakespeare in the late editions,
the greater part were not published till about seven years after
his death, and the few which appeared in his life are apparently
thrust into the world without the care of the authour, and therefore
probably without his knowledge.

Of all the publishers, clandestine or professed, their negligence
and unskilfulness has by the late revisers been sufficiently shown.
The faults of all are indeed numerous and gross, and have not only
corrupted many passages perhaps beyond recovery, but have brought
others into suspicion, which are only obscured by obsolete
phraseology, or by the writer's unskilfulness and affectation. To
alter is more easy than to explain, and temerity is a more common
quality than diligence. Those who saw that they must employ conjecture
to a certain degree, were willing to indulge it a little further.
Had the authour published his own works, we should have sat quietly
down to disentangle his intricacies, and clear his obscurities; but
now we tear what we cannot loose, and eject what we happen not to

The faults are more than could have happened without the concurrence
of many causes. The stile of Shakespeare was in itself ungrammatical,
perplexed and obscure; his works were transcribed for the players
by those who may be supposed to have seldom understood them; they
were transmitted by copiers equally unskilful, who still multiplied
errours; they were perhaps sometimes mutilated by the actors,
for the sake of shortening the speeches; and were at last printed
without correction of the press.

In this state they remained, not as Dr. Warburton supposes,
because they were unregarded, but because the editor's art was not
yet applied to modern languages, and our ancestors were accustomed
to so much negligence of English printers, that they could very
patiently endure it. At last an edition was undertaken by Rowe;
not because a poet was to be published by a poet, for Rowe seems
to have thought very little on correction or explanation, but that
our authour's works might appear like those of his fraternity, with
the appendages of a life and recommendatory preface. Rowe has been
clamorously blamed for not performing what he did not undertake,
and it is time that justice be done him, by confessing, that though
he seems to have had no thought of corruption beyond the printer's
errours, yet he has made many emendations, if they were not made
before, which his successors have received without acknowledgment,
and which, if they had produced them, would have filled pages
and pages with censures of the stupidity by which the faults were
committed, with displays of the absurdities which they involved, with
ostentatious exposition of the new reading, and self congratulations
on the happiness of discovering it.

Of Rowe, as of all the editors, I have preserved the preface and
have likewise retained the authour's life, though not written with
much elegance or spirit; it relates however what is now to be known,
and therefore deserves to pass through all succeeding publications.

The nation had been for many years content enough with Mr. Rowe's
performance, when Mr. Pope made them acquainted with the true
state of Shakespeare's text, shewed that it was extremely corrupt,
and gave reason to hope that there were means of reforming it. He
collated the old copies, which none had thought to examine before,
and restored many lines to their integrity; but, by a very compendious
criticism, he rejected whatever he disliked, and thought more of
amputation than of cure.

I know not why he is commended by Dr. Warburton for distinguishing
the genuine from the spurious plays. In this choice he exerted no
judgement of his own; the plays which he received, were given by
Hemings and Condel, the first editors; and those which he rejected,
though, according to the licentiousness of the press in those
times, they were printed during Shakespeare's life, with his name,
had been omitted by his friends, and were never added to his works
before the edition of 1664, from which they were copied by the
later printers.

This was a work which Pope seems to have thought unworthy of his
abilities, being not able to suppress his contempt of "the dull
duty of an editor". He understood but half his undertaking. The
duty of a collator is indeed dull, yet, like other tedious tasks,
is very necessary; but an emendatory critick would ill discharge
his duty, without qualities very different from dulness. In perusing
a corrupted piece, he must have before him all possibilities of
meaning, with all possibilities of expression.  Such must be his
comprehension of thought, and such his copiousness of language. Out
of many readings possible, he must be able to select that which best
suits with the state, opinions, and modes of language prevailing
in every age, and with his authour's particular cast of thought,
and turn of expression. Such must be his knowledge, and such his
taste. Conjectural criticism demands more than humanity possesses,
and he that exercises it with most praise has very frequent need
of indulgence. Let us now be told no more of the dull duty of an

Confidence is the common consequence of success. They whose excellence
of any kind has been loudly celebrated, are ready to conclude,
that their powers are universal. Pope's edition fell below his own
expectations, and he was so much offended, when he was found to
have left any thing for others to do, that he past the latter part
of his life in a state of hostility with verbal criticism.

I have retained all his notes, that no fragment of so great a writer
may be lost; his preface, valuable alike for elegance of composition
and justness of remark, and containing a general criticism on his
authour, so extensive that little can be added, and so exact, that
little can be disputed, every editor has an interest to suppress,
but that every reader would demand its insertion.

Pope was succeeded by Theobald, a man of narrow comprehension and
small acquisitions, with no native and intrinsick splendour of
genius, with little of the artificial light of learning, but zealous
for minute accuracy, and not negligent in pursuing it. He collated
the ancient copies, and rectified many errors. A man so anxiously
scrupulous might have been expected to do more, but what little he
did was commonly right.

In his report of copies and editions he is not to be trusted,
without examination. He speaks sometimes indefinitely of copies,
when he has only one. In his enumeration of editions, he mentions
the two first folios as of high, and the third folio as of middle
authority; but the truth is, that the first is equivalent to all
others, and that the rest only deviate from it by the printer's
negligence. Whoever has any of the folios has all, excepting those
diversities which mere reiteration of editions will produce. I
collated them all at the beginning, but afterwards used only the

Of his notes I have generally retained those which he retained
himself in his second edition, except when they were confuted by
subsequent annotators, or were too minute to merit preservation. I
have sometimes adopted his restoration of a comma, without inserting
the panegyrick in which he celebrated himself for his achievement.
The exuberant excrescence of diction I have often lopped, his
triumphant exultations over Pope and Rowe I have sometimes suppressed,
and his contemptible ostentation I have frequently concealed; but
I have in some places shewn him, as he would have shewn himself,
for the reader's diversion, that the inflated emptiness of some
notes may justify or excuse the contraction of the rest.

Theobald, thus weak and ignorant, thus mean and faithless, thus
petulant and ostentatious, by the good luck of having Pope for his
enemy, has escaped, and escaped alone, with reputation, from this
undertaking. So willingly does the world support those who solicite
favour, against those who command reverence; and so easily is he
praised, whom no man can envy.

Our authour fell then into the hands of Sir Thomas Hanmer, the
Oxford editor, a man, in my opinion, eminently qualified by nature
for such studies. He had, what is the first requisite to emendatory
criticism, that intuition by which the poet's intention is immediately
discovered, and that dexterity of intellect which dispatches
its work by the easiest means. He had undoubtedly read much; his
acquaintance with customs, opinions, and traditions, seems to have
been large; and he is often learned without shew. He seldom passes
what he does not understand, without an attempt to find or to make
a meaning, and sometimes hastily makes what a little more attention
would have found. He is solicitous to reduce to grammar, what
he could not be sure that his authour intended to be grammatical.
Shakespeare regarded more the series of ideas, than of words; and
his language, not being designed for the reader's desk, was all
that he desired it to be, if it conveyed his meaning to the audience.

Hanmer's care of the metre has been too violently censured. He found
the measures reformed in so many passages, by the silent labours
of some editors, with the silent acquiescence of the rest, that
he thought himself allowed to extend a little further the license,
which had already been carried so far without reprehension; and
of his corrections in general, it must be confessed, that they are
often just, and made commonly with the least possible violation of
the text.

But, by inserting his emendations, whether invented or borrowed, into
the page, without any notice of varying copies, he has appropriated
the labour of his predecessors, and made his own edition of little
authority. His confidence indeed, both in himself and others, was
too great; he supposes all to be right that was done by Pope and
Theobald; he seems not to suspect a critick of fallibility, and it
was but reasonable that he should claim what he so liberally granted.

As he never writes without careful enquiry and diligent consideration,
I have received all his notes, and believe that every reader will
wish for more.

Of the last editor it is more difficult to speak. Respect is due
to high place, tenderness to living reputation, and veneration
to genius and learning; but he cannot be justly offended at that
liberty of which he has himself so frequently given an example, nor
very solicitous what is thought of notes, which he ought never to
have considered as part of his serious employments, and which, I
suppose, since the ardour of composition is remitted, he no longer
numbers among his happy effusions.

The original and predominant errour of his commentary, is
acquiescence in his first thoughts; that precipitation which is
produced by consciousness of quick discernment; and that confidence
which presumes to do, by surveying the surface, what labour only
can perform, by penetrating the bottom. His notes exhibit sometimes
perverse interpretations, and sometimes improbable conjectures;
he at one time gives the authour more profundity of meaning than
the sentence admits, and at another discovers absurdities, where
the sense is plain to every other reader. But his emendations are
likewise often happy and just; and his interpretation of obscure
passages learned and sagacious.

Of his notes, I have commonly rejected those, against which the
general voice of the publick has exclaimed, or which their own
incongruity immediately condemns, and which, I suppose, the authour
himself would desire to be forgotten. Of the rest, to part I have
given the highest approbation, by inserting the offered reading
in the text; part I have left to the judgment of the reader, as
doubtful, though specious; and part I have censured without reserve,
but I am sure without bitterness of malice, and, I hope, without
wantonness of insult.

It is no pleasure to me, in revising my volumes, to observe how much
paper is wasted in confutation. Whoever considers the revolutions
of learning, and the various questions of greater or less importance,
upon which wit and reason have exercised their powers, must lament
the unsuccessfulness of enquiry, and the slow advances of truth,
when he reflects, that great part of the labour of every writer is
only the destruction of those that went before him. The first care
of the builder of a new system, is to demolish the fabricks which
are standing. The chief desire of him that comments an authour,
is to shew how much other commentators have corrupted and obscured
him. The opinions prevalent in one age, as truths above the reach
of controversy, are confuted and rejected in another, and rise again
to reception in remoter times. Thus the human mind is kept in motion
without progress. Thus sometimes truth and errour, and sometimes
contrarieties of errour, take each other's place by reciprocal
invasion. The tide of seeming knowledge which is poured over one
generation, retires and leaves another naked and barren; the sudden
meteors of intelligence which for a while appear to shoot their
beams into the regions of obscurity, on a sudden withdraw their
lustre, and leave mortals again to grope their way.

These elevations and depressions of renown, and the contradictions
to which all improvers of knowledge must for ever be exposed, since
they are not escaped by the highest and brightest of mankind, may
surely be endured with patience by criticks and annotators, who
can rank themselves but as the satellites of their authours. How
canst thou beg for life, says Achilles to his captive, when thou
knowest that thou art now to suffer only what must another day be
suffered by Achilles?

Dr. Warburton had a name sufficient to confer celebrity on those
who could exalt themselves into antagonists, and his notes have
raised a clamour too loud to be distinct. His chief assailants
are the authours of the Canons of Criticism and of the Review of
Shakespeare's Text; of whom one ridicules his errours with airy
petulance, suitable enough to the levity of the controversy; the
other attacks them with gloomy malignity, as if he were dragging
to justice an assassin or incendiary. The one stings like a fly,
sucks a little blood, takes a gay flutter, and returns for more; the
other bites like a viper, and would be glad to leave inflammations
and gangrene behind him. When I think on one, with his confederates,
I remember the danger of Coriolanus, who was afraid that "girls
with spits, and boys with stones, should slay him in puny battle;"
when the other crosses my imagination, I remember the prodigy in

   An eagle tow'ring in his pride of place,
   was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd.

Let me however do them justice. One is a wit, and one a scholar.
They have both shewn acuteness sufficient in the discovery of
faults, and have both advanced some probable interpretations of
obscure passages; but when they aspire to conjecture and emendation,
it appears how falsely we all estimate our own abilities, and the
little which they have been able to perform might have taught them
more candour to the endeavours of others.

Before Dr. Warburton's edition, "Critical Observations on Shakespeare"
had been published by Mr. Upton, a man skilled in languages, and
acquainted with books, but who seems to have had no great vigour
of genius or nicety of taste. Many of his explanations are curious
and useful, but he likewise, though he professed to oppose the
licentious confidence of editors, and adhere to the old copies,
is unable to restrain the rage of emendation, though his ardour is
ill seconded by his skill. Every cold empirick, when his heart is
expanded by a successful experiment, swells into a theorist, and
the laborious collator some unlucky moment frolicks in conjecture.

"Critical, historical and explanatory notes" have been likewise
published upon Shakespeare by Dr. Grey, whose diligent perusal
of the old English writers has enabled him to make some useful
observations. What he undertook he has well enough performed, but
as he neither attempts judicial nor emendatory criticism, he employs
rather his memory than his sagacity. It were to be wished that all
would endeavour to imitate his modesty who have not been able to
surpass his knowledge.

I can say with great sincerity of all my predecessors, what I hope
will hereafter be said of me, that not one has left Shakespeare
without improvement, nor is there one to whom I have not been
indebted for assistance and information. Whatever I have taken from
them it was my intention to refer to its original authour, and it
is certain, that what I have not given to another, I believed when
I wrote it to be my own. In some perhaps I have been anticipated;
but if I am ever found to encroach upon the remarks of any other
commentator, I am willing that the honour, be it more or less,
should be transferred to the first claimant, for his right, and his
alone, stands above dispute; the second can prove his pretensions
only to himself, nor can himself always distinguish invention, with
sufficient certainty, from recollection.

They have all been treated by me with candour, which they have not
been careful of observing to one another. It is not easy to discover
from what cause the acrimony of a scholiast can naturally proceed.
The subjects to be discussed by him are of very small importance;
they involve neither property nor liberty; nor favour the interest
of sect or party. The various readings of copies, and different
interpretations of a passage, seem to be questions that might
exercise the wit, without engaging the passions. But, whether it
be, that "small things make mean men proud," and vanity catches
small occasions; or that all contrariety of opinion, even in those
that can defend it no longer, makes proud men angry; there is
often found in commentaries a spontaneous strain of invective and
contempt, more eager and venomous than is vented by the most furious
controvertist in politicks against those whom he is hired to defame.

Perhaps the lightness of the matter may conduce to the vehemence
of the agency; when the truth to be investigated is so near to
inexistence, as to escape attention, its bulk is to be enlarged
by rage and exclamation: That to which all would be indifferent
in its original state, may attract notice when the fate of a name
is appended to it. A commentator has indeed great temptations to
supply by turbulence what he wants of dignity, to beat his little
gold to a spacious surface, to work that to foam which no art or
diligence can exalt to spirit.

The notes which I have borrowed or written are either illustrative,
by which difficulties are explained; or judicial, by which faults
and beauties are remarked; or emendatory, by which depravations
are corrected.

The explanations transcribed from others, if I do not subjoin any
other interpretation, I suppose commonly to be right, at least I
intend by acquiescence to confess, that I have nothing better to

After the labours of all the editors, I found many passages which
appeared to me likely to obstruct the greater number of readers,
and thought it my duty to facilitate their passage. It is impossible
for an expositor not to write too little for some, and too much for
others. He can only judge what is necessary by his own experience;
and how long soever he may deliberate, will at last explain many
lines which the learned will think impossible to be mistaken, and
omit many for which the ignorant will want his help. These are censures
merely relative and must be quietly endured. I have endeavoured to
be neither superfluously copious, nor scrupulously reserved, and
hope that I have made my authour's meaning accessible to many who
before were frighted from perusing him, and contributed something
to the publick, by diffusing innocent and rational pleasure.

The compleat explanation of an authour not systematick
and consequential, but desultory and vagrant, abounding in casual
allusions and light hints, is not to be expected from any single
scholiast. All personal reflections, when names are suppressed,
must be in a few years irrecoverably obliterated; and customs,
too minute to attract the notice of law, such as mode of dress,
formalities of conversation, rules of visits, disposition of
furniture, and practices of ceremony, which naturally find places
in familiar dialogue, are so fugitive and unsubstantial that they
are not easily retained or recovered. What can be known, will
be collected by chance, from the recesses of obscure and obsolete
papers, perused commonly with some other view. Of this knowledge
every man has some, and none has much; but when an authour has
engaged the publick attention, those who can add any thing to his
illustration, communicate their discoveries, and time produces what
had eluded diligence.

To time I have been obliged to resign many passages, which, though
I did not understand them, will perhaps hereafter be explained,
having, I hope, illustrated some, which others have neglected or
mistaken, sometimes by short remarks or marginal directions, such
as every editor has added at his will, and often by comments more
laborious than the matter will seem to deserve; but that which
is most difficult is not always most important, and to an editor
nothing is a trifle by which his authour is obscured.

The poetical beauties or defects I have not been very diligent to
observe. Some plays have more, and some fewer judicial observations,
not in proportion to their difference of merit, but because I gave
this part of my design to chance and to caprice.  The reader, I
believe, is seldom pleased to find his opinion anticipated; it is
natural to delight more in what we find or make, than in what we
receive. Judgement, like other faculties, is improved by practice,
and its advancement is hindered by submission to dictatorial
decisions, as the memory grows torpid by the use of a table book.
Some initiation is however necessary; of all skill, part is infused
by precept, and part is obtained by habit; I have therefore shewn
so much as may enable the candidate of criticism to discover the

To the end of most plays, I have added short strictures, containing
a general censure of faults, or praise of excellence; in which I
know not how much I have concurred with the current opinion; but
I have not, by any affectation of singularity, deviated from it.
Nothing is minutely and particularly examined, and therefore it is
to be supposed, that in the plays which are condemned there is much
to be praised, and in these which are praised much to be condemned.

The part of criticism in which the whole succession of editors
has laboured with the greatest diligence, which has occasioned the
most arrogant ostentation, and excited the keenest acrimony, is the
emendation of corrupted passages, to which the publick attention
having been first drawn by the violence of contention between Pope
and Theobald, has been continued by the persecution, which, with a
kind of conspiracy, has been since raised against all the publishers
of Shakespeare.

That many passages have passed in a state of depravation through
all the editions is indubitably certain; of these the restoration
is only to be attempted by collation of copies or sagacity of
conjecture. The collator's province is safe and easy, the conjecturer's
perilous and difficult. Yet as the greater part of the plays are
extant only in one copy, the peril must not be avoided, nor the
difficulty refused.

Of the readings which this emulation of amendment has hitherto
produced, some from the labours of every publisher have advanced into
the text; those are to be considered as in my opinion sufficiently
supported; some I have rejected without mention, as evidently erroneous;
some I have left in the notes without censure or approbation, as
resting in equipoise between objection and defence; and some, which
seemed specious but not right, I have inserted with a subsequent

Having classed the observations of others, I was at last to try
what I could substitute for their mistakes, and how I could supply
their omissions. I collated such copies as I could procure, and
wished for more, but have not found the collectors of these rarities
very communicative. Of the editions which chance or kindness put
into my hands I have given an enumeration, that I may not be blamed
for neglecting what I had not the power to do.

By examining the old copies, I soon found that the late publishers,
with all their boasts of diligence, suffered many passages; to
stand unauthorised, and contented themselves with Rowe's regulation
of the text, even where they knew it to be arbitrary, and with a
little consideration might have found it to be wrong. Some of these
alterations are only the ejection of a word for one that appeared
to him more elegant or more intelligible. These corruptions I have
often silently rectified; for the history of our language, and
the true force of our words, can only be preserved, by keeping the
text of authours free from adulteration. Others, and those very
frequent, smoothed the cadence, or regulated the measure; on these
I have not exercised the same rigour; if only a word was transposed,
or a particle inserted or omitted, I have sometimes suffered the
line to stand; for the inconstancy of the copies is such, as that
some liberties may be easily permitted. But this practice I have
not suffered to proceed far, having restored the primitive diction
wherever it could for any reason be preferred.

The emendations, which comparison of copies supplied, I have
inserted in the text; sometimes where the improvement was slight,
without notice, and sometimes with an account of the reasons of
the change.

Conjecture, though it be sometimes unavoidable, I have not wantonly
nor licentiously indulged. It has been my settled principle, that
the reading of the ancient books is probably true, and therefore
is not to be disturbed for the sake of elegance, perspicuity, or
mere improvement of the sense. For though much credit is not due
to the fidelity, nor any to the judgement of the first publishers,
yet they who had the copy before their eyes were more likely to
read it right, than we who only read it by imagination. But it is
evident that they have often made strange mistakes by ignorance or
negligence, and that therefore something may be properly attempted by
criticism, keeping the middle way between presumption and timidity.

Such criticism I have attempted to practise, and where any passage
appeared inextricably perplexed, have endeavoured to discover how
it may be recalled to sense, with least violence. But my first labour
is, always to turn the old text on every side, and try if there
be any interstice, through which light can find its way; nor would
Huetius himself condemn me, as refusing the trouble of research,
for the ambition of alteration. In this modest industry I have not
been unsuccessful. I have rescued many lines from the violations of
temerity, and secured many scenes from the inroads of correction.
I have adopted the Roman sentiment, that it is more honourable to
save a citizen, than to kill an enemy, and have been more careful
to protect than to attack.

I have preserved the common distribution of the plays into acts,
though I believe it to be in almost all the plays void of authority.
Some of those which are divided in the later editions have no division
in the first folio, and some that are divided in the folio have no
division in the preceding copies. The settled mode of the theatre
requires four intervals in the play, but few, if any, of our
authour's compositions can be properly distributed in that manner.
An act is so much of the drama as passes without intervention of
time or change of place. A pause makes a new act.  In every real,
and therefore in every imitative action, the intervals may be
more or fewer, the restriction of five acts being accidental and
arbitrary. This Shakespeare knew, and this he practised; his plays
were written, and at first printed in one unbroken continuity, and
ought now to be exhibited with short pauses, interposed as often
as the scene is changed, or any considerable time is required to
pass. This method would at once quell a thousand absurdities.

In restoring the authour's works to their integrity, I have considered
the punctuation as wholly in my power; for what could be their care
of colons and commas, who corrupted words and sentences. Whatever
could be done by adjusting points is therefore silently performed,
in some plays with much diligence, in others with less; it is
hard to keep a busy eye steadily fixed upon evanescent atoms, or
a discursive mind upon evanescent truth.

The same liberty has been taken with a few particles, or other words
of slight effect. I have sometimes inserted or omitted them without
notice. I have done that sometimes, which the other editors have
done always, and which indeed the state of the text may sufficiently

The greater part of readers, instead of blaming us for passing trifles,
will wonder that on mere trifles so much labour is expended, with
such importance of debate, and such solemnity of diction. To these
I answer with confidence, that they are judging of an art which
they do not understand; yet cannot much reproach them with their
ignorance, nor promise that they would become in general, by learning
criticism, more useful, happier or wiser.

As I practised conjecture more, I learned to trust it less; and
after I had printed a few plays, resolved to insert none of my own
readings in the text. Upon this caution I now congratulate myself,
for every day encreases my doubt of my emendations.

Since I have confined my imagination to the margin, it must not
be considered as very reprehensible, if I have suffered it to play
some freaks in its own dominion. There is no danger in conjecture,
if it be proposed as conjecture; and while the text remains uninjured,
those changes may be safely offered, which are not considered even
by him that offers them as necessary or safe.

If my readings are of little value, they have not been ostentatiously
displayed or importunately obtruded. I could have written longer
notes, for the art of writing notes is not of difficult attainment.
The work is performed, first by railing at the stupidity, negligence,
ignorance, and asinine tastelessness of the former editors,
and shewing, from all that goes before and all that follows, the
inelegance and absurdity of the old reading; then by proposing
something, which to superficial readers would seem specious, but
which the editor rejects with indignation; then by producing the
true reading, with a long paraphrase, and concluding with loud
acclamations on the discovery, and a sober wish for the advancement
and prosperity of genuine criticism.

All this may be done, and perhaps done sometimes without impropriety. But
I have always suspected that the reading is right, which requires
many words to prove it wrong; and the emendation wrong, that cannot
without so much labour appear to be right. The justness of a happy
restoration strikes at once, and the moral precept may be well
applied to criticism, quod dubitas ne feceris.

To dread the shore which he sees spread with wrecks, is natural to
the sailor. I had before my eye, so many critical adventures ended
in miscarriage, that caution was forced upon me. I encountered
in every page Wit struggling with its own sophistry, and Learning
confused by the multiplicity of its views. I was forced to censure
those whom I admired, and could not but reflect, while I was
dispossessing their emenations, how soon the same fate might happen
to my own, and how many of the readings which I have corrected may
be some other editor defended and established.

     Criticks, I saw, that other's names efface,
     And fix their own, with labour, in the place;
     Their own, like others, soon their place resign'd,
     Or disappear'd, and left the first behind.--Pope.

That a conjectural critick should often be mistaken, cannot be
wonderful, either to others or himself, if it be considered that
in his art there is no system, no principal and axiomatical truth
that regulates subordinate positions. His chance of errour is renewed
at every attempt; an oblique view of the passage a slight misapprehension
of a phrase, a casual inattention to the parts connected, is sufficient
to make him not only fail but fail ridiculously; and when he succeeds
best, he produces perhaps but one reading of many probable, and he
that suggests another will always be able to dispute his claims.

It is an unhappy state, in which danger is hid under pleasure. The
allurements of emendation are scarcely resistible. Conjecture has
all the joy and all the pride of invention, and he that has once
started a happy change, is too much delighted to consider what
objections may rise against it.

Yet conjectural criticism has been of great use in the learned world;
nor is it my intention to depreciate a study, that has exercised
so many mighty minds, from the revival of learning to our own age,
from the Bishop of Aleria to English Bentley. The criticks on ancient
authours have, in the exercise of their sagacity, many assistances,
which the editor of Shakespeare is condemned to want. They are
employed upon grammatical and settled languages, whose construction
contributes so much to perspicuity, that Homer has fewer passages
unintelligible than Chaucer. The words have not only a known
regimen, but invariable quantities, which direct and confine the
choice. There are commonly more manuscripts than one; and they do
not often conspire in the same mistakes. Yet Scaliger could confess
to Salmasius how little satisfaction his emendations gave him.
Illudunt nobis conjecturae nostrae, quarum nos pudet, posteaquam
in meliores cofices incidimus. And Lipsius could complain, that
criticks were making faults, by trying to remove them, Ut olim
vitiis, ita nunc remediis laboratur. And indeed, where mere
conjecture is to be used, the emendations of Scaliger and Lipsius,
notwithstanding their wonderful sagacity and erudition, are often
vague and disputable, like mine or Theobald's.

Perhaps I may not be more censured for doing wrong, than for doing
little; for raising in the publick expectations, which at last I
have not answered. The expectation of ignorance is indefinite, and
that of knowledge is often tyrannical. It is hard to satisfy those
who know not what to demand, or those who demand by design what
they think impossible to be done. I have indeed disappointed no
opinion more than my own; yet I have endeavoured to perform my task
with no slight solicitude. Not a single passage in the whole work
has appeared to me corrupt, which I have not attempted to restore;
or obscure, which I have not endeavoured to illustrate.  In many
I have failed like others; and from many, after all my efforts, I
have retreated, and confessed the repulse. I have not passed over,
with affected superiority, what is equally difficult to the reader
and to myself, but where I could not instruct him, have owned my
ignorance. I might easily have accumulated a mass of seeming learning
upon easy scenes; but it ought not to be imputed to negligence,
that, where nothing was necessary, nothing has been done, or that,
where others have said enough, I have said no more.

Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils. Let him,
that is yet unacquainted with the powers of Shakespeare, and who
desires to feel the highest pleasure that the drama can give, read
every play from the first scene to the last, with utter negligence
of all his commentators. When his fancy is once on the wing, let
it not stoop at correction or explanation. When his attention is
strongly engaged, let it disdain alike to turn aside to the name of
Theobald and Pope. Let him read on through brightness and obscurity,
through integrity and corruption; let him preserve his comprehension
of the dialogue and his interest in the fable. And when the pleasures
of novelty have ceased, let him attempt exactness; and read the

Particular passages are cleared by notes, but the general effect
of the work is weakened. The mind is refrigerated by interruption;
the thoughts are diverted from the principal subject; the reader
is weary, he suspects not why; and at last throws away the book,
which he has too diligently studied.

Parts are not to be examined till the whole has been surveyed; there
is a kind of intellectual remoteness necessary for the comprehension
of any great work in its full design and its true proportions; a
close approach shews the smaller niceties, but the beauty of the
whole is discerned no longer.

It is not very grateful to consider how little the succession of
editors has added to this authour's power of pleasing. He was read,
admired, studied, and imitated, while he was yet deformed with all
the improprieties which ignorance and neglect could accumulate upon
him; while the reading was yet not rectified, nor his allusions
understood; yet then did Dryden pronounce "that Shakespeare was the
man, who, of all modern and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest
and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still
present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily:
When he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too.
Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater
commendation: he was naturally learned: he needed not the spectacles
of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there.
I cannot say he is every where alike; were he so, I should do him
injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many
times flat and insipid; his comick wit degenerating into clenches,
his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great, when
some great occasion is presented to him: No man can say, he ever
had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise himself as
high above the rest of poets,

     "Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi."

It is to be lamented, that such a writer should want a commentary;
that his language should become obsolete, or his sentiments obscure.
But it is vain to carry wishes beyond the condition of human things;
that which must happen to all, has happened to Shakespeare, by
accident and time; and more than has been suffered by any other
writer since the use of types, has been suffered by him through
his own negligence of fame, or perhaps by that superiority of mind,
which despised its own performances, when it compared them with
its powers, and judged those works unworthy to be preserved, which
the criticks of following ages were to contend for the fame of
restoring and explaining.

Among these candidates of inferiour fame, I am now to stand the
judgment of the publick; and wish that I could confidently produce
my commentary as equal to the encouragement which I have had
the honour of receiving. Every work of this kind is by its nature
deficient, and I should feel little solicitude about the sentence,
were it to be pronounced only by the skilful and the learned.



There is perhaps not one of Shakespeare's plays more darkened than
this by the peculiarities of its Authour, and the unskilfulness of
its Editors, by distortions of phrase, or negligence of transcription.

ACT I. SCENE i. (I. i. 7-9.)

                  Then no more remains:
     But that to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,
     And let them work.

This is a passage which has exercised the sagacity of the Editors,
and is now to employ mine.

Sir Tho. Hanmer having caught from Mr. Theobald a hint that a line
was lost, endeavours to supply it thus.

     --Then no more remains,
     But that to your sufficiency you join
     A will to serve us, as your worth is able.

He has by this bold conjecture undoubtedly obtained a meaning, but,
perhaps not, even in his own opinion, the meaning of Shakespeare.

That the passage is more or less corrupt, I believe every reader
will agree with the Editors. I am not convinced that a line is
lost, as Mr. Theobald conjectures, nor that the change of "but" to
"put", which Dr. Warburton has admitted after some other Editor,
will amend the fault. There was probably some original obscurity
in the expression, which gave occasion to mistake in repetition or
transcription. I therefore suspect that the Authour wrote thus,

     --Then no more remains,
     But that to your sufficiencies your worth is abled,
     And let them work.

easily be conceived how "sufficiencies" was, by an inarticulate
speaker, or inattentive hearer, confounded with "sufficiency as",
and how "abled", a word very unusual, was changed into "able". For
"abled", however, an authority is not wanting. Lear uses it in the
same sense, or nearly the same, with the Duke. As for "sufficiencies",
D. Hamilton, in his dying speech, prays that "Charles II. may exceed
both the VIRTUES and SUFFICIENCIES of his father."

ACT I. SCENE ii. (I. i. 51.)

     We have with a leaven'd and prepared choice.

"Leaven'd" has no sense in this place: we should read "Level'd
choice". The allusion is to archery, when a man has fixed upon his
object, after taking good aim.--Warburton.

No emendation is necessary. "leaven'd choice" is one of Shakespeare's
harsh metaphors. His train of ideas seems to be this. "I have proceeded
to you with choice mature, concocted, fermented, leaven'd." When
Bread is "leaven'd", it is left to ferment: a "leavn'd" choice is
therefore a choice not hasty, but considerate, not declared as soon
as it fell into the imagination, but suffered to work long in the
mind. Thus explained, it suits better with "prepared" than "levelled".

ACT II. SCENE ix. (II. iii. 11-12.)

     Who falling in the flaws of her own youth,
     Hath blister'd her report.

Who doth not see that the integrity of the metaphor requires we
should read "flames of her own youth."--Warburton.

Who does not see that upon such principles there is no end of

ACT III. SCENE i. (III. i. 13-15.)

                  Thou art not noble:
     For all th' accommodations, that thou bear'st
     Are nurs'd by baseness.

Dr. Warburton is undoubtedly mistaken in supposing that by "baseness"
is meant "self-love" here assigned as the motive of all human
actions. Shakespeare meant only to observe, that a minute analysis of
life at once destroys that splendour which dazzles the imagination.
Whatever grandeur can display, or luxury enjoy, is procured by "baseness",
by offices of which the mind shrinks from the contemplation. All
the delicacies of the table may be traced back to the shambles
and the dunghill, all magnificence of building was hewn from the
quarry, and all the pomp of ornaments, dug from among the damps
and darkness of the mine.

ACT III. SCENE i. (III. i. 16-17.)

       The soft and tender fork
     of a poor worm.

"Worm" is put for any creeping thing or "serpent". Shakespeare supposes
falsely, but according to the vulgar notion, that a serpent wounds
with his tongue, and that his tongue is "forked".  He confounds reality
and fiction, a serpent's tongue is "soft" but not "forked" nor
hurtful. If it could hurt, it could not be soft.  In Midsummer-night's
Dream he has the same notion.

     --With doubler tongue
     Then thine, O serpent, never adder stung.

ACT III. SCENE i. (III. i. 32-4.)

       Thou hast nor youth, nor age:
     But as it were an after dinner's sleep,
     Dreaming on both.

This is exquisitely imagined. When we are young we busy ourselves
in forming schemes for succeeding time, and miss the gratifications
that are before us; when we are old we amuse the languour of age
with the recollection of youthful pleasures or performances; so
that our life, of which no part is filled with the business of the
present time, resembles our dreams after dinner, when the events
of the morning are mingled with the designs of the evening.

ACT III. SCENE i. (III. i. 36-8.)

         When thou'rt old and rich,
       Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty
       To make thy riches pleasant.

But how does beauty make "riches pleasant"? We should read "bounty",
which compleats the sense, and is this; Thou hast neither the
pleasure of enjoying riches thy self, for thou wantest vigour: nor
of seeing it enjoyed by others, for thou wantest "bounty". Where
the making the want of "bounty" as inseparable from old age as
the want of "health", is extremely satyrical tho' not altogether
just.                            --Warburton.

I am inclined to believe that neither man nor woman will have much
difficulty to tell how "beauty makes riches pleasant". Surely this
emendation, though it is elegant and ingenious, is not such as that
an opportunity of inserting it should be purchased by declaring
ignorance of what every one knows, by confessing insensibility of
what every one feels.

ACT III. SCENE ii. (III. i. 137-8.)

     Is't not a kind of incest, to take life
     From thine own sister's shame?

In Isabella's declamation there is something harsh, and something
forced and far-fetched. But her indignation cannot be thought
violent when we consider her not only as a virgin but as a nun.

ACT IV. SCENE viii. (iv. iii. 4-5.)

     First here's young Mr. Rash, &c.

This enumeration of the inhabitants of the prison affords a very
striking view of the practices predominant in Shakespeare's age.
Besides those whose follies are common to all times, we have four
fighting men and a traveller. It is not unlikely that the originals
of these pictures were then known.

ACT IV. SCENE xiii. (IV. V. 1.)

     Duke. These letters at fit time deliver me.

Peter never delivers the letters, but tells his story without any
credentials. The poet forgot the plot which he had formed.

ACT V. SCENE vii. (V. i. 448.)

     'Till he did look on me.

The Duke has justly observed that Isabel is importuned against all
sense to solicit for Angelo, yet here against all sense she solicits
for him. Her argument is extraordinary.

     A due sincerity govern'd his deeds,
     'Till he did look on me; since it is so,
     Let him not die. That Angelo had committed

all the crimes charged against him, as far as he could commit
them, is evident. The only INTENT which his act did not overtake,
was the defilement of Isabel. Of this Angelo was only intentionally
guilty. Angelo's crimes were such, as must sufficiently justify
punishment, whether its end be to secure the innocent from wrong,
or to deter guilt by example; and I believe every reader feels some
indignation when he finds him spared. From what extenuation of his
crime can Isabel, who yet supposes her brother dead, form any plea
in his favour. Since he was good 'till he looked in me, let him
not die. I am afraid our Varlet Poet intended to inculcate, that
women think ill of nothing that raises the credit of their beauty,
and are ready, however virtuous, to pardon any act which they think
incited by their own charms.

ACT V. SCENE viii. (v. i. 479 foll.)

It is somewhat strange, that Isabel is not made to express either
gratitude, wonder or joy at the sight of her brother.

After the pardon of two murderers Lucio might be treated by the
good Duke with less harshness; but perhaps the Poet intended to
show, what is too often seen, that men easily forgive wrongs which
are not committed against themselves.

The novel of Cynthio Giraldi, from which Shakespeare is supposed to
have borrowed this fable, may be read in Shakespeare illustrated,
elegantly translated, with remarks which will assist the enquirer
to discover how much absurdity Shakespeare has admitted or avoided.

I cannot but suspect that some other had new modelled the novel
of Cynthio, or written a story which in some particulars resembled
it, and that Cinthio was not the authour whom Shakespeare immediately
followed. The Emperour in Cinthio is named Maximine, the Duke, in
Shakespeare's enumeration of the persons of the drama, is called
Vincentio. This appears a very slight remark; but since the Duke
has no name in the play, nor is ever mentioned but by his title,
why should he be called Vincentio among the "Persons", but because
the name was copied from the story, and placed superfluously
at the head of the list by the mere habit of transcription? It is
therefore likely that there was then a story of Vincentio Duke of
Vienna, different from that of Maximine Emperour of the Romans.

Of this play the light or comick part is very natural and pleasing,
but the grave scenes, if a few passages be excepted, have more labour
than elegance. The plot is rather intricate than artful. The time
of the action is indefinite; some time, we know not how much, must
have elapsed between the recess of the Duke and the imprisonment
of Claudio; for he must have learned the story of Mariana in his
disguise, or he delegated his power to a man already known to be
corrupted. The unities of action and place are sufficiently preserved.


None of Shakespeare's plays are more read than the first and second
parts of Henry the fourth. Perhaps no authour has ever in two
plays afforded so much delight. The great events are interesting,
for the fate of kingdoms depends upon them; the slighter occurrences
are diverting, and, except one or two, sufficiently probable; the
incidents are multiplied with wonderful fertility of invention, and
the characters diversified with the utmost nicety of discernment,
and the profoundest skill in the nature of man.

The prince, who is the hero both of the comick and tragick part,
is a young man of great abilities and violent passions, whose
sentiments are right, though his actions are wrong; whose virtues
are obscured by negligence, and whose understanding is dissipated
by levity. In his idle hours he is rather loose than wicked, and
when the occasion forces out his latent qualities, he is great
without effort, and brave without tumult. The trifler is roused into
a hero, and the hero again reposes in the trifler. This character
is great, original, and just. Piercy is a rugged soldier, cholerick,
and quarrelsome, and has only the soldier's virtues, generosity
and courage.

But Falstaff unimitated, unimitable Falstaff, how shall I describe
thee? Thou compound of sense and vice; of sense which may be
admired but not esteemed, of vice which may be despised, but hardly
detested. Falstaff is a character loaded with faults, and with
those faults which naturally produce contempt. He is a thief, and a
glutton, a coward, and a boaster, always ready to cheat the weak,
and prey upon the poor; to terrify the timorous and insult the
defenceless. At once obsequious and malignant, he satirises in their
absence those whom he lives by flattering. He is familiar with the
prince only as an agent of vice, but of this familiarity he is so
proud as not only to be supercilious and haughty with common men,
but to think his interest of importance to the duke of Lancaster.
Yet the man thus corrupt, thus despicable, makes himself necessary
to the prince that despises him, by the most pleasing of all
qualities, perpetual gaiety, by an unfailing power of exciting
laughter, which is the more freely indulged, as his wit is not of
the splendid or ambitious kind, but consists in easy escapes and
sallies of levity, which make sport but raise no envy.  It must be
observed that he is stained with no enormous or sanguinary crimes,
so that his licentiousness is not so offensive but that it may be
borne for his mirth.

The moral to be drawn from this representation is, that no man is
more dangerous than he that with a will to corrupt, hath the power
to please; and that neither wit nor honesty ought to think themselves
safe with such a companion when they see Henry seduced by Falstaff.


ACT. II. SCENE iv. (II. iii. 27-8.)

     Cold as any stone. Such is the end of Falstaff,

from whom Shakespeare had promised us in his epilogue to Henry
IV.  that we should receive more entertainment. It happened to
Shakespeare as to other writers, to have his imagination crowded
with a tumultuary confusion of images, which, while they were yet
unsorted and unexamined, seemed sufficient to furnish a long train
of incidents, and a new variety of merriment, but which, when he
was to produce them to view, shrunk suddenly from him, or could
not be accommodated to his general design. That he once designed
to have brought Falstaff on the scene again, we know from himself;
but whether he could contrive no train of adventures suitable
to his character, or could match him with no companions likely to
quicken his humour, or could open no new vein of pleasantry, and
was afraid to continue the same strain lest it should not find the
same reception, he has here for ever discarded him, and made haste
to dispatch him, perhaps for the same reason for which Addison
killed Sir Roger, that no other hand might attempt to exhibit him.

Let meaner authours learn from this example, that it is dangerous
to sell the bear which is yet not hunted, to promise to the publick
what they have not written.


The Tragedy of Lear is deservedly celebrated among the dramas of
Shakespeare. There is perhaps no play which keeps the attention so
strongly fixed; which so much agitates our passions and interests
our curiosity. The artful involutions of distinct interests, the
striking opposition of contrary characters, the sudden changes of
fortune, and the quick succession of events, fill the mind with a
perpetual tumult of indignation, pity, and hope. There is no scene
which does not contribute to the aggravation of the distress or
conduct of the action, and scarce a line which does not conduce
to the progress of the scene. So powerful is the current of the
poet's imagination, that the mind, which once ventures within it,
is hurried irresistibly along.

On the seeming improbability of Lear's conduct it may be observed,
that he is represented according to histories at that time vulgarly
received as true. And perhaps if we turn our thoughts upon the
barbarity and ignorance of the age to which this story is referred,
it will appear not so unlikely as while we estimate Lear's manners
by our own. Such preference of one daughter to another, or resignation
of dominion on such conditions, would be yet credible, if told of
a petty prince of Guinea or Madagascar.  Shakespeare, indeed, by the
mention of his Earls and Dukes, has given us the idea of times more
civilised, and of life regulated by softer manners; and the truth
that though he so nicely discriminates, and so minutely describes
the characters of men, he commonly neglects and confounds the
characters of ages, by mingling customs ancient and modern, English
and foreign.

My learned friend Mr. Warton, who has in the Adventurer very minutely
criticised this play, remarks, that the instances of cruelty are too
savage and shocking, and that the intervention of Edmund destroys
the simplicity of the story. These objections may, I think, be
answered, by repeating, that the cruelty of the daughters is an
historical fact, to which the poet has added little, having only
drawn it into a series by dialogue and action.  But I am not able to
apologise with equal plausibility for the extrusion of Gloucester's
eyes, which seems an act too horrid to be endured in dramatick
exhibition, and such as must always compel the mind to relieve its
distress by incredulity. Yet let it be remembered that our authour
well knew what would please the audience for which he wrote.

The injury done by Edmund to the simplicity of the action is abundantly
recompensed by the addition of variety, by the art with which he
is made to co-operate with the chief design and the opportunity
which he gives the poet of combining perfidy with perfidy, and
connecting the wicked son with the wicked daughters, to impress
this important moral, that villany is never at a stop, that crimes
lead to crimes, and at last terminate in ruin.

But though this moral be incidentally enforced, Shakespeare has
suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause contrary
to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and,
what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles. Yet this
conduct is justified by the Spectator, who blames Tate for giving
Cordelia success and happiness in his alteration, and declares,
that, in his opinion, the tragedy has lost half its beauty. Dennis
has remarked, whether justly or not, that, to secure the favourable
reception of Cato, "the town was poisoned with much false and
abominable criticism," and that endeavours had been used to discredit
and decry poetical justice. A play in which the wicked prosper,
and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be good, because it is a
just representation of the common events of human life: but since
all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be
persuaded, that the observation of justice makes a play worse; or,
that if other excellencies are equal, the audience will not always
rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.

In the present case the publick has decided. Cordelia, from the
time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And,
if my sensations could add any thing to the general suffrage, I
might relate, that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's
death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last
scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.


ACT I. SCENE ii. (I. i. 181 foll.)

     Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate! &c.

Of these lines neither the sense nor occasion is very evident. He
is not yet in love with an enemy, and to love one and hate another
is no such uncommon state, as can deserve all this toil of antithesis.

ACT I. SCENE iii. (I. ii. 25.)

     Earth-treading stars that make dark HEAVEN's light.

This nonsense should be reformed thus,

     Earth-treading stars that make dark EVEN light.

But why nonsense? Is anything more commonly said, than that beauties
eclipse the sun? Has not Pope the thought and the word?

     Sol through white curtains shot a tim'rous ray,
     And ope'd those eyes that must eclipse the day.

Both the old and the new reading are philosophical nonsense, but
they are both, and both equally poetical sense.

ACT I. SCENE iii. (I. ii. 26-8.)

     Such comfort as do lusty young men feel,
     When well-apparel'd April on the heel
     Of limping winter treads.

To say, and to say in pompous words, that a "young man shall feel"
as much in an assembly of beauties, "as young men feel in the month
of April," is surely to waste sound upon a very poor sentiment.
I read, Such comfort as do lusty YEOMEN feel. You shall feel from
the sight and conversation of these ladies such hopes of happiness
and such pleasure, as the farmer receives from the spring, when the
plenty of the year begins, and the prospect of the harvest fills
him with delight.

ACT I. SCENE iv. (l. iii. 92.)

     That in gold clasps locks in the golden story.

The "golden story" is perhaps the "golden legend", a book in the
darker ages of popery much read, and doubtless often exquisitely
embellished, but of which Canus, one of the popish doctors, proclaims
the author to have been homo ferrei oris, plumbei cordis.

ACT I. SCENE vi. (1. v. 34.)

     Good cousin Capulet.

This cousin Capulet is "unkle" in the paper of invitation, but as
Capulet is described as old, "cousin" is probably the right word
in both places. I know not how Capulet and his lady might agree,
their ages were very disproportionate; he has been past masking
for thirty years, and her age, as she tells Juliet is but eight
and twenty.


The use of this chorus is not easily discovered, it conduces nothing
to the progress of the play, but relates what is already known or
what the next scenes will shew; and relates it without adding the
improvement of any moral sentiment.

ACT II. SCENE vi. (ii. vi. 15.)

     Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

He that travels too fast is as long before he comes to the end of
his journey, as he that travels slow.

     Precipitation produces mishap.

ACT III. SCENE i. (III. i. 2.)

     The day is hot.

It is observed that in Italy almost all assassinations are committed
during the heat of summer.

ACT III. SCENE iii. (III. i. 183.)

     Affection makes him false.

The charge of falshood on Bentivolio, though produced at hazard,
is very just. The authour, who seems to intend the character of
Bentiolio as good, meant perhaps to shew, how the best minds, in
a state of faction and discord, are detorted to criminal partiality.

ACT III. SCENE viii. (III. v. 84.)

     And, yet, no Man like he doth grieve my heart.

Juliet's equivocations are rather too artful for a mind disturbed
by the loss of a new lover.

ACT IV. SCENE iii. (IV. iii. 2-3.)

          Leave me to myself to-night;
     For I have need of many orisons.

Juliet plays most of her pranks under the appearance of religion:
perhaps Shakespeare meant to punish her hypocrisy.

ACT V. SCENE i. (V. i. 3.)

     My bosom's Lord sits lightly on this throne, &c.

These three lines are very gay and pleasing. But why does Shakespeare
give Romeo this involuntary cheerfulness just before the extremity
of unhappiness? Perhaps to shew the vanity of trusting to those
uncertain and casual exaltations or depressions, which many consider
as certain foretokens of good and evil.

ACT V. SCENE v. (v. iii. 229.)

     FRIAR. I will be brief.

It is much to be lamented that the Poet did not conclude the dialogue
with the action, and avoid a narrative of events which the audience
already knew. This play is one of the most pleasing of our Author's
performances. The scenes are busy and various, the incidents
numerous and important, the catastrophe irresistably affecting
and the process of the action carried on with such probability at
least with such congruity to popular opinions, as tragedy requires.

Here is one of the few attempts of Shakespeare to exhibit the
conversation of gentlemen, to represent the airy sprightliness
of juvenile elegance. Mr. Dryden mentions a tradition which might
easily reach his time, of a declaration made by Shakespeare, that
he was obliged to kill Mercutio in the third act, lest he should
have been killed by him. Yet he thinks him no such formidable
person, but that he might have lived through the play, and died in
his bed, without danger to a poet. Dryden well knew, had he been in
quest of truth, that, in a pointed sentence, more regard is commonly
had to the word than the thought, and that it is very seldom to
be rigorously understood. Mercutio's wit, gaiety and courage, will
always procure him friends that wish him a longer life; but his
death is not precipitated, he has lived out the time allotted him
in the construction of the play; nor do I doubt the ability of
Shakespeare to have continued his existence, though some of his
sallies are perhaps out of the reach of Dryden; whose genius was
not very fertile of merriment, nor ductile to humour, but acute,
argumentative, comprehensive, and sublime.

The Nurse is one of the characters in which the Authour delighted:
he has, with great subtility of distinction, drawn her at once
loquacious and secret, obsequious and insolent, trusty and dishonest.

His comick scenes are happily wrought, but his pathetick strains
are always polluted with some unexpected depravations. His persons,


ACT II. SCENE ii. (II. i. 114-17.)

     It is as proper to our age
     To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions,
     As it is common for the younger sort

To lack discretion. This is not the remark of a weak man. The vice
of age is too much suspicion. Men long accustomed to the wiles
of life "cast" commonly "beyond themselves", let their cunning go
further than reason can attend it. This is always the fault of a
little mind, made artful by long commerce with the world.

ACT II. SCENE iv. (II. ii.)

Polonius is a man bred in courts, exercised in business, stored with
observation, confident of his knowledge, proud of his eloquence,
and declining into dotage. His mode of oratory is truly represented
as designed to ridicule the practice of those times, of prefaces
that made no introduction, and of method that embarrassed rather
than explained. This part of his character is accidental, the rest
is natural. Such a man is positive and confident, because he knows
that his mind was once strong, and knows not that it is become
weak. Such a man excels in general principles, but fails in the
particular application. He is knowing in retrospect, and ignorant
in foresight. While he depends upon his memory, and can draw from
his repositories of knowledge, he utters weighty sentences, and
gives useful counsel; but as the mind in its enfeebled state cannot
be kept long busy and intent, the old man is subject to sudden
dereliction of his faculties, he loses the order of his ideas, and
entangles himself in his own thoughts, till he recovers the leading
principle, and falls again into his former train. This idea of
dotage encroaching upon wisdom, will solve all the phenomena of
the character of Polonius.

If the dramas of Shakespeare were to be characterised, each by the
particular excellence which distinguishes it from the rest, we must
allow to the tragedy of HAMLET the praise of variety. The incidents
are so numerous, that the argument of the play would make a long
tale. The scenes are interchangeably diversified with merriment and
solemnity; with merriment that includes judicious and instructive
observations, and solemnity, not strained by poetical violence above
the natural sentiments of man. New characters appear from time to
time in continual succession, exhibiting various forms of life and
particular modes of conversation. The pretended madness of HAMLET
causes much mirth, the mournful distraction of OPHELIA fills the
heart with tenderness, and every personage produces the effect
intended, from the apparition that in the first act chills the
blood with horror, to the fop in the last that exposes affectation
to just contempt.

The conduct is perhaps not wholly secure against objections. The
action is indeed for the most part in continual progression, but
there are some scenes which neither forward nor retard it. Of the
feigned madness of Hamlet there appears no adequate cause, for he
does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of
sanity. He plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia with so
much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty.

Hamlet is, through the whole play, rather an instrument than an
agent. After he has, by the stratagem of the play, convicted the
King, he makes no attempt to punish him, and his death is at last
effected by an incident which Hamlet has no part in producing.

The catastrophe is not very happily produced; the exchange of
weapons is rather an expedient of necessity, than a stroke of art.
A scheme might easily have been formed, to kill Hamlet with the
dagger, and Laertes with the bowl.

The poet is accused of having shewn little regard to poetical justice,
and may be charged with equal neglect of poetical probability.
The apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose; the
revenge which he demands is not obtained but by the death of him
that was required to take it; and the gratification which would
arise from the destruction of an usurper and a murderer, is abated
by the untimely death of Ophelia, the young, the beautiful, the
harmless, and the pious.


ACT V. SCENE vi. (v. ii. 63-5.)

     Oh perjur'd woman! Thou dost stone my heart,
     And mak'st me call, what I intent to do,
     A murder, which I thought a sacrifice.

This line is difficult. Thou hast harden'd my heart, and makest
me kill thee with the rage of a MURDERER, when I thought to have
sacraficed thee to justice with the calmness of a priest striking
a victim.

It must not be omitted, that one of the elder quarto's reads, "Thou
dost stone THY heart:" which I suspect to be genuine. The meaning
then will be, thou forcest me to dismiss thee from the world in
the state of the murdered without preparation for death, when I
intended that thy punishment should have been "a sacrifice" atoning
for thy crime.

I am glad that I have ended my revisal of this dreadful scene. It
is not to be endured.

The beauties of this play impress themselves so strongly upon the
attention of the reader, that they can draw no aid from critical
illustration. The fiery openness of Othello, magnanimous, artless,
and credulous, boundless in his confidence, ardent in his affection,
inflexible in his resolution, and obdurate in his revenge; the cool
malignity of Iago, silent in his resentment, subtle in his designs,
and studious at once of his interest and his vengeance; the soft
simplicity of Desdemona, confident of merit, and conscious of
innocence, her artless perseverance in her suit, and her slowness
to suspect that she can be suspected, are such proofs of Shakespeare's
skill in human nature, as, I suppose, it is vain to seek in any
modern writer. The gradual progress which Iago makes in the Moor's
conviction, and the circumstances which he employs to inflame him,
are so artfully natural, that, though it will perhaps not be said
of him as he says of himself, that he is "a man not esily jealous,"
yet we cannot but pity him when at last we find him "perplexed in
the extreme."

There is always danger lest wickedness conjoined with abilities
should steal upon esteem, though it misses of approbation but the
character if Iago is so conducted, that he is from the first scene
to the last hated and despised.

Event he inferiour characters of this play would be very conspicuous
in any other piece, not only for their justness but their strength.
Cassio is brave, benevolent, and honest, ruined only by his want
of stubbornness  to resist an insidious invitation of Rodegigo's
suspicious credulity, and impatient submission of the cheats which
he sees practised upon him, and which by persuasion he suffers to
be repeated, exhibit a strong picture of a weak mind betrayed by
unlawful desires, to a false friend and the virtue of AEmilia is
such as we often find, worn loosely but not cast off, easy to commit
small crimes, but quickend and alarmed at atrocious villanies.

The Scenes from the beginning to the end are busy, varied but happy
interchanges, and regularly promoting the progression of the story;
and the narrative in the end, though it tells but what is known
already, yet is necessary to produce the death of Othello.

Had the scene opened in Cyprus, and the preceding incidents been
occasionally related, there had been little wanting of a drama of the
most exact and scrupulous regularity.

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Preface to Shakespeare" ***

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