It is objected, that by this change of scenes the passions areinterrupted in their progression, and that the principal event,being not advanced by a due gradation of preparatory incidents,wants at last the power to move, which constitutes the perfectionof dramatick poetry. This reasoning is so specious, that it isreceived as true even by those who in daily experience feel it tobe false. The interchanges of mingled scenes seldom fail to producethe intended vicissitudes of passion. Fiction cannot move so much,but that the attention may be easily transferred; and though itmust be allowed that pleasing melancholy be sometimes interruptedby unwelcome levity, yet let it be considered likewise, thatmelancholy is often not pleasing, and that the disturbance of oneman may be the relief of another; that different auditors havedifferent habitudes; and that, upon the whole, all pleasure consistsin variety.The players, who in their edition divided our authour's works intocomedies, histories, and tragedies, seem not to have distinguishedthe three kinds, by any very exact or definite ideas.An action which ended happily to the principal persons, howeverserious or distressful through its intermediate incidents, intheir opinion constituted a comedy. This idea of a comedy continuedlong amongst us, and plays were written, which, by changing thecatastrophe, were tragedies to-day and comedies to-morrow.Tragedy was not in those times a poem of more general dignity orelevation than comedy; it required only a calamitous conclusion,with which the common criticism of that age was satisfied, whateverlighter pleasure it afforded in its progress.History was a series of actions, with no other than chronologicalsuccession, independent of each other, and without any tendency tointroduce or regulate the conclusion. It is not always very nicelydistinguished from tragedy. There is not much nearer approach tounity of action in the tragedy of "Antony and Cleopatra", than inthe history of "Richard the Second". But a history might be continuedthrough many plays; as it had no plan, it had no limits.Through all these denominations of the drama, Shakespeare's modeof composition is the same; an interchange of seriousness andmerriment, by which the mind is softened at one time, and exhilaratedat another. But whatever be his purpose, whether to gladden ordepress, or to conduct the story, without vehemence or emotion,through tracts of easy and familiar dialogue, he never fails toattain his purpose; as he commands us, we laugh or mourn, or sitsilent with quiet expectation, in tranquillity without indifference.When Shakespeare's plan is understood, most of the criticisms ofRhymer and Voltaire vanish away. The play of "Hamlet" is opened,without impropriety, by two sentinels; Iago bellows at Brabantio'swindow, without injury to the scheme of the play, though in termswhich a modern audience would not easily endure; the character ofPolonius is seasonable and useful; and the Grave-diggers themselvesmay be heard with applause.
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