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It has been allowed on all hands, how far our author was indebted to nature: it is not so well agreed, how much he owed to languages and acquired learning. The decisions on this subject were certainly set on foot by the hint from Ben Johnson, that he had small Latin and less Greek: And from this tradition, as it were, Mr. Rowe has thought fit peremptorily to declare, that, “ It is " without controversy, he had no knowledge of « the writings of the ancient poets, for that in his 66 works we find no traces of any thing which " looks like an iinitation of the ancients. For the « delicacy of his taste (continues he,) and the s natural bent of his own great genius (equal, “ if not superior, to some of the best of theirs ;) “ would certainly have led him to read and Itudy. “ them with so much pleasure, that some of their “ fine images would naturally have infinuated " themselves into, and been mixed with, his own “ writings : so that his not copying, at least, “ something from them, may be an argument of « his never having read them.” I shall leave it to the determination of my learned readers, from the numerous passages, which I have occasionally quoted in my notes, in which our Poet seems closely to have imitated the claffics, whether Mr. Rowe's affertion be so absolutely to be depended on. The result of the controversy must certainly, either way, terminate to our Author's honour; how happily he could imitate them, if that point be allowed ; or how gloriously he could
think like them, without owing any thing to imitation.
Tho' I should be very unwilling to allow Shakespeare so poor a scholar, as many have laboured to represent him, yet I shall be very cautious of declaring too positively on the other side of the question: that is, with regard to my opinion of his knowledge in the dead languages. And therefore the passages, that I occafionally quote from the classics, shall not be urged as proofs that he knowingly imitated those originals; but brought to thew how happily he has expressed hiinself
the same topicks. A very learned critick of our own nation has declared, that a lameness of thought and sameness of expreffion too, in two Writers of a different age, can hardly happen, without a violent fufpicion of the latter copying from his predecessor. I shall not therefore run any great risque of a censure, tho' I shall venture to hint, that the resemblance, in thought and expression, of our author and an ancient (which we should allow to be imitation in one, whose learning was not questioned) may fometimes take its rise from strength of memory, and those impressions which he owed to the school. And if we may allow a possibility of this, considering that, when he quitted the school, he gave into his father's profeffion and way of living, and had, 'tis likely, but a flender library of claffical learning and considering what a number of translations, romances, and legends, started about
his time, and a little before; (most of which, 'tis very evident, he read;) I think, it may easily be reconciled, why he rather schemed his plots and characters from these more latter informations, than went back to those fountains, for which he might entertain a fincere veneration, but to which he could not have so ready a recourse.
In touching on another part of his learning as it related to the knowledge of history and books, I shall advance something, that, at first sight, will very much wear the appearance of a paradox, For I shall find it no hard inatter to prove, that from the grofleft blunders in history, we are not to infer his real ignorance of it: Nor from a greater use of Latin words, than ever any other English author used, inust we infer his knowledge of that language.
A reader of taste may easily observe, that tho? Shakespeare, almost in every fcene of his historical plays, commits the grossest offences against chronology, history, and ancient politicks ;; yet this was not thro' ignorance, as is generally supposed, but thro’ the too powerful blaze of his imagination; which, when once raised, made all acquired knowledge vanih and disappear before it. For instance, in his Timon, he turns Athens, wnich was a perfect Democracy, into an Aristocracy; while he ridiculously gives a senator the power of baniihing Alçiviades. On the contrary, in Gurioianus, he makes Rome, which at that time was a perfect, Aristocracy, a Democracy full as ridiculoully, by
making the people choose Coriolanus conful: Whereas, in fact, it was not till the time of Manlius Torquatus, that the people had a right of choosing one consul. But this licence in him, as I have faid, must not be imputed to ignorance: fince as often we may find him, when occafion serves, reasoning up to the truth of history; and throwing out sentiments as justly adapted to the circumstances of his subject, as to the dignity of his characters, or dictates of nature in general.
Then, to come to his knowledge of the Latin tongue, 'tis certain, there is a surprising effufion of Latin words made English, far more than in any one English Author I have seen; but we must be cautious to imagine, this was of his own doing. For the English tongue, in his age, began extremely to suffer by an inundation of Latin; and to be overlaid, as it were, by its nurse, when it had just began to speak by her before-prudent. care and affiftance. And this, to be sure, was occasioned by the pedantry of those two monarchs, Elizabeth and James, both great Latinists. For it is not to be wondered at, if both the court and schools, equal Alatterers of power, should adapt themselves to the royal taste. This, then, was the condition of the English tongue when Shakespeare took it up: like a beggar in a rich wardrobe. He found the pure native English too cold. and poor to second the heat and abundance of his imagination: 'and therefore was forced to dress it up in the robes, he saw provided for it: rich in
themselves, but ill-shaped ; cut out to an air of magnificence, but disproportioned and cumbersome. To the coftliness of ornament, he added all the graces and decorum of it. It may be said, this did not require, or discover a knowledge of the Latin. To the first, I think, it did not; to the second, it is so far from discovering it, that, I think it discovers the contrary. To make this more obvious by a modern instance: The great MILTON likewise laboured under the like inconyenience; when he first set upon adorning his own tongue, he likewise animated and enriched it with the Latin, but from his own stock; and fo, rather by bringing in the phrases, than the words: And this was natural; and will, I believe, always be the case in the same circumftances. His language, especially his profe, is full of Latin words indeed, but much fuller of Latin phrases: and his mastery in the tongue made this unavoidable. On the contrary, ShakeSpeare, who, perhaps, was not fo intimately versed in the language, abounds in the words of it, but has few or none of its phrases : Nor, indeed, if what I affirm bę true, could he. This I take to be the truest criterion to determine this long agi. tated question.
It may be mentioned, tho'no certain conclusion can be drawn from it, as a probable argument of his having read the ancients ; that he perpetually expresses the genius of Homer, and other great pocts of the old world, in animating all the