Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

Alexander Pope: Preface To Edition Of Shakespeare. 1725
by [?]

It is not my design to enter into a Criticism upon this Author; tho’ to do it effectually and not superficially would be the best occasion that any just Writer could take, to form the judgment and taste of our nation. For of all English Poets Shakespear must be confessed to be the fairest and fullest subject for Criticism, and to afford the most numerous as well as most conspicuous instances, both of Beauties and Faults of all sorts. But this far exceeds the bounds of a Preface, the business of which is only to give an account of the fate of his Works, and the disadvantages under which they have been transmitted to us. We shall hereby extenuate many faults which are his, and clear him from the imputation of many which are not: A design, which, tho’ it can be no guide to future Criticks to do him justice in one way, will at least be sufficient to prevent their doing him an injustice in the other.

I cannot however but mention some of his principal and characteristic Excellencies, for which (notwithstanding his defects) he is justly and universally elevated above all other Dramatic Writers. Not that this is the proper place of praising him, but because I would not omit any occasion of doing it.

If ever any Author deserved the name of an Original, it was Shakespear. Homer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of Nature; it proceeded thro’ AEgyptian strainers and channels, and came to him not without some tincture of the learning, or some cast of the models, of those before him. The Poetry of Shakespear was Inspiration indeed: he is not so much an Imitator, as an Instrument, of Nature; and ’tis not so just to say that he speaks from her, as that she speaks thro’ him.

His Characters are so much Nature her self, that ’tis a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as Copies of her. Those of other Poets have a constant resemblance, which shews that they receiv’d them from one another, and were but multiplyers of the same image: each picture, like a mock-rainbow, is but the reflexion of a reflexion. But every single character in Shakespear is as much an Individual as those in Life itself; it is as impossible to find any two alike; and such as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be Twins, will upon comparison be found remarkably distinct. To this life and variety of Character, we must add the wonderful Preservation of it; which is such throughout his plays, that had all the Speeches been printed without the very names of the Persons, I believe one might have apply’d them with certainty to every speaker.

The Power over our Passions was never possess’d in a more eminent degree, or display’d in so different instances. Yet all along, there is seen no labour, no pains to raise them; no preparation to guide our guess to the effect, or be perceiv’d to lead toward it: But the heart swells, and the tears burst out, just at the proper places: We are surpriz’d, the moment we weep; and yet upon reflection find the passion so just, that we shou’d be surpriz’d if we had not wept, and wept at that very moment.

How astonishing is it again, that the passions directly opposite to these, Laughter and Spleen, are no less at his command! that he is not more a master of the Great, than of the Ridiculous in human nature; of our noblest tendernesses, than of our vainest foibles; of our strongest emotions, than of our idlest sensations!