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IN 1753, Mrs. Lennox published a work entitled Shakspeare Illustrated; or, the Novels and Histories on which the Plays of Shakspeare are founded." The subject was well chosen; for as Johnson, the friend of the authoress, observed with regard to Milton's great poem, "it must be interesting to find what was first projected, whence the scheme was taken, how it was improved, by what assistance it was executed, and from what stores the materials were collected; whether its founder dug them from the quarries of nature, or demolished other buildings to embellish his own."
Of the thirty-five plays usually ascribed to Shakspeare, Mrs. Lennox entirely neglected no less than twelve. Of the twenty-three on which she wrote essays, she failed in six instances of
tracing them to their correct sources; and of ten of the rest, she gave imperfect accounts of Shakspeare's materials. Without offering any
criticism on her "Illustrations" of the remaining seven plays, it is evident that there is room for another work on the subject.
Our great dramatist almost invariably selected for the plot of his drama an event of history, a romantic tale, or some previous dramatic composition, and imposed upon himself an almost implicit adherence to his authorities, even in cases where great improvement might have been effected with little pains. For the alterations which he chose to make, he is not often to be praised his additions to his originals are, however, almost always excellent; and so beautifully has he blended the separate actions, that they appear always to have formed one consistent whole.
The characters of Shakspeare's absolute creation are as many as those which he prepared on previous hints; and, though his serious dramas far outnumber his comedies, his
comic portraits are somewhat more numerous than his tragic. In point of importance, however, the preponderance is greatly on the side of the tragic characters, and the fact is easily accounted for the materials borrowed were mostly serious fables, or grave historical events; the personages engaged in their transaction were of a corresponding tone of mind, and the poet was compelled to concede them a prominence on the scene in some degree commensurate with their prominence in the narrative.
Scarcely one of Shakspeare's tragic characters was conceived by himself; a singular fact, considering that his comic characters, with the exception of about half-a-dozen, were entirely his own. The conclusion is inevitable that the bent of his mind was decidedly comic. Why, with such a disposition, so large a majority of the subjects selected by him were serious, it is in vain to enquire; but it appears, that he eagerly sought every opportunity which such a selection left him, to indulge his fancy's course. His predilection for the ludicrous required a wider field for
its display than was afforded him in his few comedies; and, with the mask and sock, he gaily rushed upon the consecrated ground of the tragic muse, engrafting incidents purely comic on subjects the most serious.
The biography of Shakspeare, and the History of the Stage are subjects on which every lover of the poet is desirous of information, and with a view of making these volumes a COMPANION TO SHAKSPEARE, both have been added to the original design of illustrating the dramatist by comparing his plays with the materials used in their construction. These additions will contribute, it is hoped, to the general utility of the book; and, with the aid of such information as the commonest editions of the poet afford, the general reader will be furnished with all the elucidatory information he can require, and be spared the pain of wading through the commentators' tomes of controversy.