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To discover how few of those writers, who profess to recount imaginary adventures, have been able to produce any thing by their own imagination, would require too much of that time which your lordship employs in nobler studies. Of all the novels and romances that wit or idleness, vanity or indigence, have pushed into the world, there are very few of which the end cannot be conjectured from the beginning; or where the authors have done more than to transpose the incidents of other tales, or strip the circumstances from one event for the decoration of another.

In the examination of a poet’s character, it is, therefore, first to be inquired, what degree of invention has been exerted by him. With this view, I have very diligently read the works of Shakespeare, and now presume to lay the result of my researches before your lordship, before that judge whom Pliny himself would have wished for his assessor to hear a literary cause.

How much the translation of the following novels will add to the reputation of Shakespeare, or take away from it, you my lord, and men learned and candid like you, if any such can be found, must now determine. Some danger, I am informed, there is, lest his admirers should think him injured by this attempt, and clamour, as at the diminution of the honour of that nation, which boasts itself the parent of so great a poet.

That no such enemies may arise against me, though I am unwilling to believe it, I am far from being too confident, for who can fix bounds to bigotry and folly? My sex, my age, have not given me many opportunities of mingling in the world. There may be in it many a species of absurdity which I have never seen, and, among them, such vanity as pleases itself with false praise bestowed on another, and such superstition as worships idols, without supposing them to be gods.

But the truth is, that a very small part of the reputation of this mighty genius depends upon the naked plot or story of his plays. He lived in an age, when the books of chivalry were yet popular, and when, therefore, the minds of his auditors were not accustomed to balance probabilities, or to examine nicely the proportion between causes and effects. It was sufficient to recommend a story, that it was far removed from common life, that its changes were frequent, and its close pathetick.

This disposition of the age concurred so happily with the imagination of Shakespeare, that he had no desire to reform it; and, indeed, to this he was indebted for the licentious variety, by which he made his plays more entertaining than those of any other author.

He had looked, with great attention, on the scenes of nature; but his chief skill was in human actions, passions, and habits; he was, therefore, delighted with such tales as afforded numerous incidents, and exhibited many characters in many changes of situation. These characters are so copiously diversified, and some of them so justly pursued, that his works may be considered, as a map of life, a faithful miniature of human transactions; and he that has read Shakespeare, with attention, will, perhaps, find little new in the crowded world.

Among his other excellencies, it ought to be remarked, because it has hitherto been unnoticed, that his heroes are men; that the love and hatred, the hopes and fears of his chief personages, are such as are common to other human beings, and not, like those which later times have exhibited, peculiar to phantoms that strut upon the stage[1].

It is not, perhaps, very necessary to inquire whether the vehicle of so much delight and instruction, be a story probable or unlikely, native or foreign. Shakespeare’s excellence is not the fiction of a tale, but the representation of life; and his reputation is, therefore, safe, till human nature shall be changed. Nor can he, who has so many just claims to praise, suffer by losing that which ignorant admiration has unreasonably given him. To calumniate the dead is baseness, and to flatter them is surely folly.