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It has been already declared, that Shakespear is not to be tried by any code of critic laws ; nor is it more equitable to judge him entirely by the practice of any particular theatre. Yet fome criterion must be establifhed by which we may determine his merits. First, we must take into confideration what is proposed to be done by the means of dramatic imitation. Every fpecies of poetry has its diftinct offices. The effecting certain moral purposes, by the representation of a Fable, feems to have been the universal intention, from the first institution of the Drama to this time; and to have prevailed, not only in Europe, but in all countries where the dramatic art has been attempted. It has indeed been the common aim of all poetry to please and inftruct; but by means as various as the kinds of compofition. We are pleased with the ode, the elegy, the eclogue; not only for having Invention, fpirit, elegance, and fuch perfections as are neceffary to recommend any fort of poetry, but we alfo require that
each fhould have its fpecific merit ; the ode, that which conftitutes the perfection of an ode, &c. In these views, then, our author is to be examined. First, whether his Fables answer the nobleft end of Fable, moral inftruction; next, whether his dramatic imitation has its proper dramatic excellence. In the latter of these articles, perhaps, there is not any thing will more affift our judgment than a candid comparison (where the nature of the fubjects will bear it) between his, and fome other celebrated dramatic compofitions. It is idle to refer to a vague unrealized idea of Perfection: we may safely pronounce That to be well executed, in any art, which after the repeated efforts of great geniuses is equal to any thing which has been produced. We may fecurely applaud what the ancients have crowned, therefore should not withold our approbation wherever we find our countryman has equalled the most admired paffages in the Greek tragedians; but we shall not do justice to his native talents, when they are the ob
ject of confideration, if we do not remember the different circumstances under which these writings were compofed. Shakespear's plays were to be acted in a paltry tavern, to an unlettered audience, juft emerging from barba→ rity: the Greek tragedies were to be exhibited at the public charge, under the care and aufpices of the magiftrates, at Athens; where the very populace were critics in wit, and connoiffeurs in public fpectacles. The period when Sophocles and Euripides wrote, was that in which the fine arts, and polite literature, were in a degree of perfection which fucceeding ages have emulated in
It happened in the literary as in the moral world; a few fages, from the veneration which they had obtained by extraordinary wisdom, and a faultlefs conduct, rofe to the authority of Legiflators. The practice and manner of the three celebrated Greek trage dians were by fucceeding critics established a dramatic laws: happily for. Shakespear,
Mr. Johnfon, whofe genius and learning render him fuperior to a fervile awe of pedantic institutions, in his ingenious preface to his edition of Shakespear, has well obviated all that can be objected to our author's neglect of the unities of time and place.
Shakespear's felicity has been rendered compleat in this age. His genius produced works that time could not deftroy: but fome of the lighter characters were become illegible; these have been reftored by critics, whofe learning and penetration have traced back the vestiges of fuperannuated opinions and customs. They are now no longer in danger of being effaced, and the testimony of thefe learned commentators to his merit, will guard our author's great monument of human wit from the prefumptuous invafions of our rash critics, and the squibs of our witlings; fo that the bays will for ever flourish - unwithered and inviolate round his tomb; and his very spirit seems to come forth and to animate his characters, as often as Mr. Garrick,
who acts with the fame infpiration with which He wrote, affumes them on the stage.
After our poet has received fuch important fervices from the united efforts of talents and learning in his behalf, fome apology feems neceffary for this work. But let it be remembered, that the most fuperb and lasting monument that ever was confecrated to Beauty, was that to which every lover carried a tribute. I dare hope to do him honour only by augmenting the heap of volumes given by his admirers to his memory. I will own, I was incited to this undertaking by great admiration of his genius, and still greater indignation at the treatment he has received from a French wit, who seems to think he has made
prodigious conceffions to our prejudices
in favour of the works of our countryman, in allowing them the credit of a few splendid paffages, while he speaks of every entire piece as a monftrous and ill- constructed Farce.