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John Dennis: On The Genius And Writings Of Shakespeare. 1711
by [?]

Letter I.

Sir, Feb. 1. 1710/11.

I here send you the Tragedy of Coriolanus, which I have alter’d from the Original of Shakespear, and with it a short Account of the Genius and Writings of that Author, both which you desired me to send to you the last time I had the good Fortune to see you. But I send them both upon this condition, that you will with your usual Sincerity tell me your Sentiments both of the Poem and of the Criticism.

Shakespear was one of the greatest Genius’s that the World e’er saw for the Tragick Stage. Tho’ he lay under greater Disadvantages than any of his Successors, yet had he greater and more genuine Beauties than the best and greatest of them. And what makes the brightest Glory of his Character, those Beauties were entirely his own, and owing to the Force of his own Nature; whereas his Faults were owing to his Education, and to the Age that he liv’d in. One may say of him as they did of Homer, that he had none to imitate, and is himself inimitable. His Imaginations were often as just, as they were bold and strong. He had a natural Discretion which never cou’d have been taught him, and his Judgment was strong and penetrating. He seems to have wanted nothing but Time and Leisure for Thought, to have found out those Rules of which he appears so ignorant. His Characters are always drawn justly, exactly, graphically, except where he fail’d by not knowing History or the Poetical Art. He has for the most part more fairly distinguish’d them than any of his Successors have done, who have falsified them, or confounded them, by making Love the predominant Quality in all. He had so fine a Talent for touching the Passions, and they are so lively in him, and so truly in Nature, that they often touch us more without their due Preparations, than those of other Tragick Poets, who have all the Beauty of Design and all the Advantage of Incidents. His Master-Passion was Terror, which he has often mov’d so powerfully and so wonderfully, that we may justly conclude, that if he had had the Advantage of Art and Learning, he wou’d have surpass’d the very best and strongest of the Ancients. His Paintings are often so beautiful and so lively, so graceful and so powerful, especially where he uses them in order to move Terror, that there is nothing perhaps more accomplish’d in our English Poetry. His Sentiments for the most part in his best Tragedies, are noble, generous, easie, and natural, and adapted to the Persons who use them. His Expression is in many Places good and pure after a hundred Years; simple tho’ elevated, graceful tho’ bold, and easie tho’ strong. He seems to have been the very Original of our English Tragical Harmony; that is the Harmony of Blank Verse, diversifyed often by Dissyllable and Trissyllable Terminations. For that Diversity distinguishes it from Heroick Harmony, and, bringing it nearer to common Use, makes it more proper to gain Attention, and more fit for Action and Dialogue. Such Verse we make when we are writing Prose; we make such Verse in common Conversation.

If Shakespear had these great Qualities by Nature, what would he not have been, if he had join’d to so happy a Genius Learning and the Poetical Art? For want of the latter, our Author has sometimes made gross Mistakes in the Characters which he has drawn from History, against the Equality and Conveniency of Manners of his Dramatical Persons. Witness Menenius in the following Tragedy, whom he has made an errant Buffoon, which is a great Absurdity. For he might as well have imagin’d a grave majestick Jack-Pudding, as a Buffoon in a Roman Senator. Aufidius the General of the Volscians is shewn a base and a profligate Villain. He has offended against the Equality of the Manners even in his Hero himself. For Coriolanus who in the first part of the Tragedy is shewn so open, so frank, so violent, and so magnanimous, is represented in the latter part by Aufidius, which is contradicted by no one, a flattering, fawning, cringing, insinuating Traytor.