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ON THE FAULTS OF SHAKESPEARE.
THE Commentators on Shakespeare have been accused of blind admiration. They are charged with over-rating his merits; and of regarding his faults with excessive indulgence. Only the last part of the charge has a foundation in justice. His merits have never been over-rated. The ardours of poetical fancy, the energies of strong expression, and unrivalled skill in delineating human nature, belong to him in a degree so conspicuous, as to justify the warmest applauses, and even to excuse, in some measure, the indulgence shewn him for his transgressions. Yet his transgressions are great: nor have they passed altogether unnoticed. Foreign critics have D d
assailed him with virulence, and have loaded his faults with the aggravations of national prejudice. Even in Britain, the praise of Shakespeare is often mingled with lamentations for his offences. His inattention to the laws of unity, to say nothing of his deviations from geographical and historical truth; his rude mixture of tragic and comic scenes; together with the vulgarity, and even indecency of language, admitted too often into his dialogue, have exposed him to frequent censure. To censure him for his faults is proper; it is even necessary; it hinders blind admiration from tainting the public taste; for offences against taste are more dangerous in men of genius, than in other persons; and the undistinguishing praises so profusely bestowed on Shakespeare, have contributed a good deal to retard our improvement in dramatical writing.
Is it then possible, that a man of genius, eminently conspicuous in one of the highest departments of elegant composition, can trespass against taste; and contribute, even in fine writing, to pervert the judgment? Or is it likely that taste and genius should,
depend upon different principles? They are, no doubt, of the same family; yet they are not so closely related, as that they may not be found apart. Many men, without possessing a single ray of invention, can discern what is excellent in fine writing, and even feel its effects. But is it probable, that men of ardent fancy, of active invention, endowed with talents for various expression, and every power of poetical execution, should be incapable, even in their own department, of perceiving, or feeling, what is fair or sublime? Shall the spectator be ravished with unspeakable transport; and shall the breast of him who communicates rapture be dark or joyless? Such assertion is certainly bold; and though it seems implied in the charge against Shakespeare, it must be heard with restriction.
As every work that belongs to the imagination, all the performances of the poet, the painter, or statuary, consist of parts, the pleasure we receive from them is the effect of those parts acting in proper union. The general delightful influence of such combinations may be strongly felt, without our
being able to distinguish their component members, whether of larger or of less dimension; or the nature of the relation subsisting between them. Many tears have been shed for the sufferings of Jane Shore and Calista; yet the persons who have shed them may not have known by what art they were moved. We may also observe, that the variety, the arrangement, the proportions, and mutual relations of those parts, which, united in a fine performance, afford us supreme delight, may be seen and distinguished by persons, who, from insensibility natural or acquired, are incapable of feeling their influence, or of perceiving them with exquisite pleasure. The accomplished critic must both feel what is excellent, and discern its nature. Yet, there are critics who discern, and never seem to have felt. But, besides feeling and discernment, a certain portion of knowledge is indispensably requisite; for offences against historical, or obvious philosophical truths, either in those that perform a work, or in those that judge of a performance, cannot fail of exciting disgust. Thus, consummate taste requires
that we be capable of feeling what is excellent; that we be capable, in some measure, of discerning the parts, and correspondence of parts, which, in works of invention, occasion excellence; and that we have competent knowledge in those things which are the subjects of an artist's labour.
Now, every man of poetic invention must receive exquisite pleasure in contem. plating the great and the beautiful, both of art and of nature. He possesses taste, so far as it depends upon feeling; and so far as a familiar acquaintance with beauty confers improvement, his taste will improve. But he may want discernment: for though the powers of discernment are bestowed by. nature, yet their perfection depends upon culture. He may not perceive proportion or union of parts in those things that give him pleasure; he may be totally ignorant of every fact concerning them, except of their direct or immediate impression; and thus, if taste depend upon intellectual improvement, his taste is imperfect. He may weep for the death of Lausus, as related by Virgil, without observing that the skill of