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HOSE Dramas of Shakespear, which he distinguishes by the name of his Histories, being of an original kind and peculiar conftruction, cannot come within. any rules, prior to their existence. The office of the Critic, in regard to Poetry, is like that of the Grammarian and Rhetorician in respect to Language: it is the business of both to fhew why fuch and such modes of speech are proper and graceful, others improper and ungraceful: but they pronounce on fuch words and expreffions only, as are actually extant.
The rules of Aristotle were drawn from D 3 the
the Tragedies of Efchylus, Sophocles, &c. Had that great Critic feen a play so fashioned on the chronicles of his country, thus representative of the manners of the times, and of the characters of the moft illuftrious perfons concerned in a series of important events, perhaps he would have esteemed fuch a fort of Drama well worth his attention, as very peculiarly adapted to thofe ends, which the Grecian Philofophers proposed in popular entertainments. If it be the chief ufe of Hiftory, to teach Philofophy by Example, this species of Hiftory must be allowed to be the best preceptor. The catastrophe of these plays is not built on a vain and idle fable of the wrath of Juno, or of the revenge of flighted Bacchus; nor is a man reprefented entangled in the web of Fate, from which his Virtues and his Deities cannot extricate him: but here we are admonished to observe the effects of pride and ambition, the Tyrant's dangers and the Traitor's fate. The fentiments and the manners, the paffions and their confequences, are
fully fet before you; the force and lustre of poetical language join with the weight and authority of history, to impress the moral leffon on the heart. The Poet collects, as it were, into a focus, thofe truths, which lie fcattered in the diffuse volume of the Hiftorian, and kindles the flame of virtue, while he fhews the miferies and calamities of vice.
The common interests of humanity make us attentive to every story that has an air of reality, but we are more affected if we know it to be true; and the interest is ftill heightened if we have any relation to the perfons concerned. Our noble countryman, Percy, engages us much more than Achilles, or any Grecian hero. The people, for whofe use these public entertainments should be chiefly intended, know the battle of Shrewsbury to be a Fact: they are informed of what paffed on the banks of the Severn; all that happened on the shore of the Scamander has, to them, the appearance of a fiction.
As the misfortunes of nations, like those of individuals, often arise from their peculiar difpofitions, cuftoms, prejudices, and vices, these home-born Dramas are excellently calculated to correct them. The Grecian tragedies are fo much founded on their mythology as to be very improper on our stage. The paffion of Phædra and the death of Hippolytus, occafioned by the interpofition of Venus and Neptune, wear the apparent marks of fiction; and when we cease to believe, we ceafe to be affected.
The nature of the Hiftorical Play gave scope to the extensive talents of Shakespear. He had an uncommon felicity in painting Manners, and developing Characters, which he could employ with peculiar grace and propriety, when he exhibited the Chiefs in our civil wars. The great Earl of Warwick, Cardinal Beaufort, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, the renowned Hotspur, were very interesting objects to their countrymen. Whatever fhewed them in a strong light, and
and represented them with fentiments and manners agreeable to their hiftorical characters; and to those things, which common fame had divulged of them, must have engaged the attention of the spectator, and afsisted in that delufion of his Imagination, whence his fympathy with the ftory must arife. We are affected by the catastrophe of a Stranger, we lament the destiny of an Edipus, and the misfortunes of an Hecuba; but the little peculiarities of a character touch us only where we have fome nearer affinity to the perfon, than the common relation of humanity: nor, unless we are particularly acquainted with the original character, can these distinguishing marks have the merit of heightening the resemblance, and animating the portrait.
We are apt to confider Shakespear only as a Poet; but he is certainly one of the greatest moral Philofophers that ever lived.