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vantage of knowing more and better than the former. And this, I think, is the state of the question in dispute. It is therefore my part to make it clear, that the language, wit, and conversation of our age, are improved and refined above the last; and then it will not be difficult to infer, that our plays have received some part of those advantages.

In the first place, therefore, it will be necessary to state, in general, what this refinement is, of which we treat; and that, I think, will not be defined amiss," An improvement of our Wit, Language, and Conversation; or, an alteration in them for the better."

To begin with Language. That an alteration is lately made in ours, or since the writers of the last age (in which I comprehend Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Jonson), is manifest. Any man who reads those excellent poets, and compares their language with what is now written, will see it almost in every line; but that this is an improvement of the language, or an alteration for the better, will not so easily be granted. For many are of a contrary opinion, that the English tongue was then in the height of its perfection; that from Jonson's time to ours it has been in a continual declination, like that of the Romans from the age of Virgil to Statius, and so downward to Claudian; of which, not only Petronius, but Quintilian himself so much complains, under the person of Secundus, in his famous dialogue De Causis corrupte Eloquentiæ:

But, to shew that our language is improved, and that those people have not a just value for the age in which they live, let us consider in what the refinement of a language principally consists: that is, "either in rejecting such old words, or phrases, which are ill sounding, or improper; or in admit

ting new, which are more proper, more sounding, and more significant."

The reader will easily take notice, that when I speak of rejecting improper words and phrases, I mention not such as are antiquated by custom only, and, as I may say, without any fault of theirs. For in this case the refinement can be but accidental; that is, when the words and phrases, which are rejected, happen to be improper. Neither would I be understood, when I speak of impropriety of language, either wholly to accuse the last age, or to excuse the present, and least of all myself; for all writers have their imperfections and failings: but I may safely conclude in the general, that our improprieties are less frequent, and less gross than theirs. One testimony of this is undeniable, that we are the first who have observed them; and, certainly, to observe errors is a great step to the correcting of them. But, malice and partiality set apart, let any man, who understands English, read diligently the works of Shakespeare and Fletcher, and I dare undertake, that he will find in every page either some solecism of speech, or some notorious flaw in sense*; and yet these men are reverenced, when we are not forgiven. That their wit is great, and many times their expressions noble, envy itself cannot deny.

Neque ego illis detrahere ausim
Hærentem capiti multâ cum laude coronam.

But the times were ignorant in which they lived. Poetry was then, if not in its infancy among us, at least not arrived to its vigour and maturity: Wit

In mitigation of the censure which must be passed on our author for this hasty and ill-considered judgment, let us remember the very inaccurate manner in which Shakespeare's plays were printed in the early editions.

ness the lameness of their plots; many of which, especially those which they writ first (for even that age refined itself in some measure), were made up of some ridiculous incoherent story, which in one play many times took up the business of an age. I suppose I need not name "Pericles, Prince of Tyre," nor the historical plays of Shakespeare: besides many of the rest, as the "Winter's Tale," "Love's Labour Lost," "Measure for Measure, which were either grounded on impossibilities, or at least so meanly written, that the comedy neither caused your mirth, nor the serious part your concernment*. If I would expatiate on this subject, I could easily demonstrate, that our admired Fletcher, who wrote after him, neither understood correct plotting, nor that which they call "the decorum of the stage." I would not search in his worst plays for examples: He who will consider his "Philaster," his "Humorous Lieutenant," his "Faithful Shepherdess," and many others which I could name, will find them much below the applause which is now given them. He will see Philaster wounding his mistress, and afterwards his boy, to save himself; not to mention the Clown, who enters immediately, and not only has the advantage of the combat against the hero, but diverts you from your serious concernment, with his ridiculous and absurd raillery. In his "Humorous Lieutenant," you find his Demetrius and Leontius staying in the midst of a routed army, to hear the cold mirth of the Lieutenant; and Demetrius afterwards appearing with

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* Mr Malone has judiciously remarked, that Dryden seems to have been ignorant of the order in which Shakespeare wrote his plays; and there will be charity in believing, that he was not intimately acquainted with those he so summarily and unjustly cen

sures.

a pistol in his hand, in the next age to Alexander the Great. And for his Shepherd, he falls twice into the former indecency of wounding women. But these absurdities, which those poets committed, may more properly be called the age's fault than theirs. For, besides the want of education and learning, (which was their particular unhappiness) they wanted the benefit of converse: But of that I shall speak hereafter, in a place more proper for it. Their audiences knew no better; and therefore were satisfied with what they brought. Those, who call theirs the golden age of poetry, have only this reason for it, that they were then content with acorns before they knew the use of bread; or that "Axis Spuòs was become a proverb. They had many who admired them, and few who blamed them; and certainly a severe critic is the greatest help to a good wit: he does the office of a friend, while he designs that of an enemy; and his malice keeps a poet within those bounds, which the luxuriancy of his fancy would tempt him to overleap.

But it is not their plots which I meant principally to tax; I was speaking of their sense and language; and I dare almost challenge any man to shew me a page together which is correct in both. As for Ben Jonson, I am loth to name him, because he is a most judicious writer; yet he very often falls into these errors: and I once more beg the reader's pardon for accusing him of them. Only let him consider, that I live in an age where my least faults are severely censured; and that I have no way left.

+ In these criticisms, we see the effects of the refinement which our stage had now borrowed from the French. It is probable, that, in the age of heroic plays, any degree of dulness, or extravagance, would have been tolerated in the dialogue, rather than an offence against the decorum of the scene,

to extenuate my failings, but by showing as great in those whom we admire:

Cadimus, inque vicem præbemus crura sagittis.

I cast my eyes but by chance on Catiline; and in the three or four last pages, found enough to conclude that Jonson writ not correctly.

-Let the long-hid seeds

Of treason, in thee, now shoot forth in deeds
Ranker than horror.

In reading some bombast speeches of Macbeth, which are not to be understood, he used to say that it was horror; and I am much afraid that this is

So.

Thy parricide late on thy only son,
After his mother, to make empty way

For thy last wicked nuptials, worse than they
That blaze that act of thy incestuous life,

Which gained thee at once a daughter and a wife.

The sense is here extremely perplexed; and I doubt the word they is false grammar.

-And be free

Not heaven itself from thy impiety.

A synchysis, or ill-placing of words, of which Tully so much complains in oratory.

The waves and dens of beasts could not receive
The bodies that those souls were frighted from.

The preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him, and which I have but lately observed in my own writings.

What all the several ills that visit earth,
Plague, famine, fire, could not reach unto,
The sword, nor surfeits, let thy fury do.

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