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which are ill sounding or improper, or in admitting new, which are more proper, more sounding, and more significant.
The reader will easily take notice, that when I speak of rejecting improper words and phrases, I mention not such as are antiquated by custom only; and, as I may say, without any fault of theirs. For in this case the refinement can be but accidental; that is, when the words and phrases which are rejected, happen to be improper. Neither would I be understood, when I speak of impropriety of language, either wholly to accuse the last age, or to excuse the present; and least of all, myself; for all writers have their imperfections and failings ; but I may safely conclude in the general, that our improprieties are less frequent, and less gross than theirs. One testimony of this is undeniable; that we are the first who have observed them; and, certainly, to observe errours is a great step to the correcting of them. But, malice and partiality set apart, let any man who understands English, read diligently the works of Shakspeare and Fletcher ; and I dare undertake that he will find in every page either some solecism of speech, or some notorious flaw in sense ::
3 These notorious flaws in sense, I conceive, will be found only by those who are not well acquainted with the phraseology of Shakspeare's time, as undoubtedly our author was not when he wrote thiş . piece. He tells us himself in his Preface to Juvenal, which is dated August 18, 1692, that about twenty years before, on the suggestion
and yet these men are reverenced, when we are not forgiven. That their wit is great, and many times their expressions noble, envy itself cannot deny:
neque ego illis detrahere ausim Hærentem capiti multâ cum laude coronam. But the times were ignorant in which they lived. Poetry was then, if not in its infancy among us, at least not arrived to its vigour and maturity : witness the lameness of their plots; many of which, especially those which they writ first,4 (for even that age refined itself in some measure,) were made up of some ridiculous, incoherent story, which in one play many times, took up the business of an age. I suppose I need not name Pericles Prince of Tyre, nor the historical plays of Shakspeare: of his friend Sir George Mackenzie, (author of Essays on Moral Subjects, and other ingenious and learned works,) he read over the principal English poets, with a view to improve his language, and to catch some of their “ beautiful turns of words and thoughts.”—I do not suppose that he was before unacquainted with the best English poets, but that he had not studied them with care and attention ; nor even after this perusal, did he, I conceive, ever acquire such a knowledge of the works of Shakspeare, as every intelligent modern reader may now attain, by means of those researches which have been made within these forty years, into the allusions and language of our incomparable dramatick poet. 14 This surely was said at random, and without authority, for the writer manifestly did not know which were Shakspeare's earliest productions. From his subsequent enumeration, he appears to have thought Pericles, The besides many of the rest, as THE WINTER'S TALE, Love's LABOUR Lost, MEASURE FOR MEASURE, which were either grounded on impossibilities, or at least so meanly written, that the comedy neither caused your mirth, nor the serious part your concernment. If I would expatiate on this subject, I could easily demonstrate that our admired Fletcher, who writ after him, neither understood correct plotting, nor that which they call the decorum of the stage. I would not search in his worst plays for examples : he who would consider his PHILASTER, his HUMOROUS LIEUTENANT, his FAITHFUL SHEPHERDESS, and many others which I could name, will find them much below the applause which is now given them : he will see Philaster wounding his mistress, and afterwards his boy, to save himself: not to mention the Clown who enters immediately, and not only has the advantage of the combat against the hero, but diverts you from your serious concernment, with
Winter's Tale, and MEASURE FOR MEASURE, to have been among that author's early productions : but PERICLES, at least in its present form, was probably produced in 1607 or 1608; THE WINTER'S TALE there are very good grounds for believing to have been produced in 1611, and to have been one of Shakspeare's latest works ; and MEASURE FOR MEASURE, it is almost certain, was first represented in 1603, or 1604, when its author had passed through more than half of his theatrical career. That these two plays should have been considered by Dryden as mean performances, is truly wonderful.
his ridiculous and absurd raillery. In his HuMOROUS LIEUTENANT you find his Demetrius and Leontius staying in the midst of a routed army, to hear the cold mirth of the Lieutenant ; and Demetrius afterwards appearing with a pistol in his hand, in the next age to Alexander the Great: and for his Shepherd, he falls twice into the former indecency of wounding women, But these absurdities, which those poets committed, may more properly be called the age's fault than theirs. For, besides the want of education and learning, (which was their particular unhappiness,) they wanted the benefit of converse : but of that I shall speak hereafter, in a place more proper for it. Their audiences knew no better ; and therefore were satisfied with what they brought. Those who call theirs the Golden Age of Poetry, have only this reason for it, that they were then content with acorns, before they knew the use of bread; or that "Anis diquos was become a proverb. They had many who admired them, and few who blamed them; and, certainly, a severe critick is the greatest help to a good wit : he does the office of a friend, while he designs that of an enemy; and his malice keeps a poet within those bounds, which the luxuriancy of his fancy would tempt him to overleap.
But it is not their plots which I meant, principally, to tax ; I was speaking of their sense and language ; and I dare almost challenge any man to shew me a page together, which is correct in both. As for Ben Jonson, I am loth to name him, because he is a most judicious writer ; yet he very often falls into these errours : and I once more beg the reader's pardon, for accusing him of them. Only let him consider, that I live in an age where my least faults are severely censured ; and that I have no way left to extenuate my failings, but by shewing as great in those whom we admire:
Cadimus, inque vicem præbemus crura sagittis. I cast my eyes but by chance on CATILINE ; and in the three or four last pages, found enough to conclude that Jonson writ not correctly.
Let the long-hid seeds
Ranker than horrour. In reading some bombast speeches of MACBETH, which are not to be understood, he used to say, that it was horrour; and I am much afraid that this is so.
Thy parricide late on thy only son,
s Here we have another proof of our author's not having sufficiently studied the language of his predecessors. He who is perfectly conversant with the writers contemporary with Shakspeare, will not, I believe, acknowledge that there is a single passage in this noble tragedy not to be understood.