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fully set before you; the force and lustre of poetical language join with the weight and authority of history, to impress the moral lesson on the heart. The poet collects, as it were, into a focus, those truths, which lie scattered in the diffuse volume of the historian, and kindles the flame. of virtue, while he shews the miseries 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 still heightened if we have any relation to the persons concerned. Our noble countryman, Percy, engages us much more than Achilles, or any Grecian hero. The people, for whose use these public entertainments should be chiefly intended, know the battle of Shrewsbury to be a fact; they are informed of what passed 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 dispositions, customs, prejudices, and vices, these home-born dramas are excellently calculated to correct them. The Grecian tragedies are so much founded on their mythology as to be very improper on our stage. The passion of Phædra and the death of Hippolytus, occasioned by the interposition of Venus and Neptune, wear the apparent marks of fiction: and when we cease to believe, we cease to be affected.
The nature of the Historical Play gave scope to the extensive talents of Shakspeare. 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 shewed them in a strong light, and
and represented them with sentiments and manners agreeable to their historical characters, and to those things which common fame had divulged of them, must have engaged the attention of the spectator, and assisted in that delusion of his imagination, whence his sympathy with the story must arise. 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 some nearer affinity to the person, 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 consider Shakspeare only as a poet; but he is certainly one of the greatest moral philosophers that ever lived.
Euripides was highly esteemed by the ancients for the moral sentences, with which he has interspersed the speeches in his tragedies; and certainly many general truths are expressed in them with a sententious brevity. But he rather collects general opinions into maxims, and gives them a form which is easily retained by memory, than extracts any new observations from the characters in action; which every reader of penetration will find the invariable practice of our author: and when he introduces a general maxim, it seems drawn from him by the occasion. As it arises out of the action, it loses itself again in it, and remains not, as in other writers, an ambitious ornament glittering alone, but is so connected as to be an useful passage very naturally united with the story. The examples of this are so frequent, as to occur almost in every scene of his best plays. But lest I should be misunderstood, I will cite one from the second part of Henry IV. where the general maxim is, that
An habitation giddy and unsure
Let us on:
And publish the occasion of our arms.
The commonwealth is sick of their own choice:
Their over-greedy love hath surfeited.
An habitation giddy and unsure
Hath he that buildeth on the vulgar heart.
Oh thou fond many! with what loud applause,
And now thou would'st eat thy dead vomit up,
Cry'st now, O earth, yield us that king again,