Introduction to
An Essay on . . . Shakespear

Elizabeth Montagu

Edited and annotated by Jack Lynch

The text comes from An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear (London, 1769). Send comments and corrections to Jack Lynch.

E  S  S  A  Y
S H A K E S P E A R,
S O M E    R E M A R K S
Mons. de V O L T A I R E.

L O N D O N :
Printed for J. DODSLEY, Pall-mall; Mess. BAKER and LEIGH, York-street, Covent-garden; J. WALTER Charing-cross; T. CADELL, in the Strand; and J. WILKIE, No 71, St. Paul's Church-yard.



[1] Mr. Pope, in the preface to his edition of Shakespear, sets out by declaring, that, of all English poets, this tragedian offers the fullest and fairest subject for criticism. Animated by an opinion of such authority, some of the most learned and ingenious of our critics have made correct editions of his works, and enriched them with notes. The superiority of talents and learning, which I acknowledge in these editors, leaves me no room to entertain the vain presumption of attempting to correct any passages of this celebrated author; but the whole, as corrected and elucidated by them, lies open to a thorough enquiry into the genius of our great English classic. Unprejudiced and candid judgment will be the surest basis of his fame. He is now in danger of incurring the fate of the heroes of the fabulous ages, on whom the vanity of their country, and the superstition of the times, bestowed an apotheosis founded on pretensions to achievements beyond human capacity, by which they lost in a more sceptical and critical age, the glory that was due to them for what they had really done; and all the veneration they had obtained, was ascribed to ignorant credulity, and national prepossession. – Our Shakespear, whose very faults pass here unquestioned, or are perhaps consecrated through the enthusiasm of his admirers, and the veneration paid to long-established fame, is by a great wit, a great critic, and a great poet of a neighbouring nation, treated as the writer of monstrous farces, called by him tragedies; and barbarism and ignorance are attributed to the nation by which he is admired. Yet if wits, poets, critics could ever be charged with presumption, one might say there was some degree of it in pronouncing, that, in a country where Sophocles and Euripides are as well understood as in any in Europe, the perfections of dramatic poetry should be as little comprehended as among the Chinese.

[2] Learning here is not confined to ecclesiastics, or a few lettered sages and academics; every English gentleman has an education, which gives him an early acquaintance with the writings of the ancients. His knowledge of polite literature does not begin with that period which Mr. de Voltaire calls Le Siecle de Louis quatorze. Before he is admitted as a spectator at the theatre at London, it is probable he has heard the tragic muse as she spoke at Athens, and as she now speaks at Paris, or in Italy; and he can discern between the natural language in which she addressed the human heart, and the artificial dialect which she has acquired from the prejudices of a particular nation, or the jargon caught from the tone of a court. To please upon the French stage, every person of every age and nation was made to adopt their manners.

[3] The heroes of antiquity were not more disguised in the romances of Calprenede and Scuderi than in the tragedies of Corneille. In spite of the admonition given by that admirable critic Boileau to their dramatic writers in the following lines:

Gardez donc de donner, ainsi que dans Clélie,
L'air ni l'esprit Francois á l'antique Italie;
Et fous des noms Romains faissant notre portrait,
Peindre Caton galant, & Brutus damoret.

[4] The Horatii are represented no less obsequious in their address to their king than the courtiers of the grand monarque. Theseus is made a mere sighing swain. Many of the greatest men in antiquity, and even the roughest heroes among the Goths and Vandals, were exhibited in this effeminate form. The poet dignified the piece, perhaps with the name of an Hercules, but, alas! it was always Hercules spinning that was shewn to the spectator. The editor of Corneille's works, in terms so gross as are hardly pardonable in such a master of fine raillery, frequently attacks our Shakespear for the want of delicacy and politeness in his pieces: it must be owned, that in some places they bear the marks of the unpolished times in which he wrote, but one cannot forbear smiling to hear a critic, who professes himself an admirer of the tragedies of Corneille, object to the barbarism of Shakespear's. There never was a more barbarous mode of writing than that of the French romances in the last age, nor which from its tediousness, languor, and want of truth of character is less fit to be copied on the stage: and what are most the parts of Corneille's boasted tragedies, but the romantic dialogue, its tedious soliloquy, and its extravagant sentiments in the true Gothic livery of rhyme?

[5] The French poets assume a superiority over Shakespear, on account of their more constant adherence to Aristotle's unities of time and place.

[6] The pedant who bought at a great price the lamp of a famous philosopher, expecting that by its assistance his lucubrations would become equally celebrated, was little more absurd than those poets who suppose their dramas will be excellent if they are regulated by Aristotle's clock. To bring within a limited time and an assigned space certain series of conversations (and French plays are little more) is no difficult matter; for that is the easiest part of every art perhaps, but in poetry without dispute, in which the connoisseur can direct the artist.

[7] I do not believe the critic imagined that a mere obedience to his laws of drama would make a good tragedy, tho' it might prevent a poet more bold than judicious, from writing a very absurd one. A painter can define the just proportion of the human body, and the anatomist knows what muscles constitute the strength of the limb; but grace of motion, and exertion of strength, depend on the mind, which animates the form. The critic but fashions the body of a work; the poet must add the soul, which gives force and direction to its actions and gestures: when one of these critics has attempted to finish a work by his own rules, he has rarely been able to convey into it one spark of divine fire; and the hero of his piece, whom he designed for a man, remains a cold inanimate statue; which, moving on the wood and wire of the great masters in the mechanical part of the drama, presents to the spectators a kind of heroic puppet-shew. As these pieces take their rise in the school of criticism, they return thither again, and are as good subjects for the students in that art, as a dead body to the professors in physic. Most minutely too have they been anatomised in learned academies: but works animated by genius will not abide this kind of dissection.

[8] Mr. Pope says, that, to form a judgment of Shakespear's works, we are not to apply to the rules of Aristotle, which would be like trying a man by the laws of one country, who lived under those of another. –– Heaven-born genius acts from something superior to rules, and antecedent to rules; and has a right of appeal to nature herself.

[9] Great indulgence is due to the errors of original writers, who, quitting the beaten track which others have travelled, make daring incursions into unexplored regions of invention, and boldly strike into the pathless sublime: it is no wonder if they are often bewildered, sometimes benighted; yet surely it is more eligible to partake the pleasure and the toil of their adventures, than still to follow the cautious steps of timid imitators through trite and common roads. Genius is of a bold enterprizing nature, ill adapted to the formal restraints of critic institutions, or indeed to lay down to itself rules of nice discretion. If perfect and faultless composition is ever to be expected from human faculties, it must be at some happy period when a noble and graceful simplicity, the result of well regulated and sober magnanimity, reigns through the general manners. Then the muses and the arts, neither effeminately delicate nor audaciously bold, assume their highest character, and in all their compositions seem to respect the chastity of the public taste, which would equally disdain quaintness of ornament, or the rude neglect of elegance and decorum. Such periods had Greece, had Rome! Then were produced immortal works of every kind! But, when the living manners degenerated, in vain did an Aristotle and a Quintilian endeavour to restore by doctrine what had been inspired by sentiments, and fashioned by manners.

[10] If the severer muses, whose sphere is the library and the senate, are obliged in complaisance to this degeneracy, to trick themselves out with meretricious and frivolous ornaments, as is too apparent from the compositions of the historians and orators in declining empires, we can wonder that a dramatic poet, whose chief interest it is to please the people, should, more than any other writer, conform himself to their humour; and appear most strongly infected with the faults of the times, whether they be such as belong to unpolished, or corrupted taste.

[11] Shakespear wrote at a time when learning was tinctured with pedantry; wit was unpolished, and mirth ill-bred. The court of Elizabeth spoke a scientific jargon, and a certain obscurity of style was universally affected. James brought an addition of pedantry, accompanied by indecent and indelicate manners and language. By contagion, or from complaisance to the taste of the public, Shakespear falls sometimes into the fashionable mode of writing: but this is only by fits; for many parts of all his plays are written with the most noble, elegant, and uncorrupted simplicity. Such is his merit, that the more just and refined the taste of the nation has become, the more he has encreased in reputation. He was approved by his own age, admired by the next, and is revered, and almost adored by the present. His merit is disputed by little wits, and his errors are the jests of little critics; but there has not been a great poet, or great critic, since his time, who has not spoken of him with the highest veneration, Mr. Voltaire excepted. His translations often, his criticisms still oftener, prove he did not perfectly understand the words of the author; and therefore it is certain he could not enter into his meaning. He comprehended enough to perceive he was unobservant of some established rules of composition; the felicity with which he performs what no rules can teach escapes him. Will not an intelligent spectator admire the prodigious structures of Stone-Henge, because he does not know by what law of mechanics they were raised? Like them, our author's works will remain for ever the greatest monuments of the amazing force of nature, which we ought to view as we do other prodigies, with an attention to, and admiration of their stupendous parts, and proud irregularity of greatness.

[12] It has been already declared that Shakespear is not to be tried by any code of critic laws; nor is it more equitable to judge him entirely by the practice of any particular theatre. Yet some criterion must be established by which we may determine his merits. First, we must take into consideration what is proposed to be done by the means of dramatic imitation. Every species of poetry has its distinct offices. The effecting certain moral purposes, by the representation of a fable, seems to have been the universal intention, from the first institutions of the drama to this time; and to have prevailed, not only in Europe, but in all countries where the dramatic art has been attempted. It has indeed been the common aim of all poetry to please and instruct; but by means as various as the kinds of composition. We are pleased with the ode, the elegy, the eclogue; not only for having invention, spirit, elegance, and such perfections as are necessary to recommend any sort of poetry, but we also require that each should have its specific merit; the ode, that which constitutes the perfection of an ode, &c. In these views, then, our author is to be examined. First, if his fables answer the noblest end of fable, moral instruction; next, whether his dramatic imitation has its proper dramatic excellence. In the latter of these articles, perhaps, there is not any thing will more assist our judgment than a candid comparison (where the nature of the subjects well bear it) between his and some other celebrated dramatic compositions. It is idle to refer to a vague, unrealized idea of perfection: we may safely pronounce that to be well executed, in any art, which after the repeated efforts of great geniuses is equal to any thing that has been produced. We may securely applaud what the ancients of crowned; therefore should not withhold our approbation wherever we find our countryman has equalled the most admired passages in the Greek tragedians: but we shall not do justice to his native talents, when they are the object of consideration, if we do not remember the different circumstances under which these writers composed. Shakespear's plays were to be acted in a paltry tavern, to an unlettered audience, just emerging from barbarity: the Greek tragedies were to be exhibited at the public charge, under the care and auspices of the magistrates at Athens; where the very populace were critics in wit, and connoisseurs in public spectacles. The period when Sophocles and Euripides wrote, was that in which the fine arts, and polite literature, were in a degree of perfection which succeeding ages have emulated in vain.

[13] It happened in the literary as in the moral world; a few sages, from the veneration which they had obtained by extraordinary wisdom and a faultless conduct, rose to the authority of legislators. The practice and manner of the three celebrated Greek tragedians were by succeeding critics established as dramatic laws: happily for Shakespear, Mr. Johnson, whose genius and learning render him superior to a servile awe of pedantic institutions, in his ingenious preface to his edition of Shakespear has greatly obviated all that can be objected to our author's neglect of the unities of time and place.

[14] Shakespear's felicity has been rendered compleat in this age. His genius produced works that time could not destroy: but some of the lighter characters were becoming illegible; these have been restored by critics whose learning and penetration traced back the vestiges of superannuated opinions and customs. They are now no longer in danger of being effaced, and the testimonies of these learned commentators to his merit, will guard our author's great monument of human wit from the presumptuous invasions of our rash critics, and the squibs of our witlings; so that the bays will flourish unwithered and inviolate around his tomb; and his very spirit seems to come forth and animate his characters, as often as Mr. Garrick, who acts with the same inspiration with which he wrote, assumes them on the stage.

[15] After our poet had received such important services from the united efforts of talents and learning in his behalf, some apology seems necessary for this work. Let it be remembered that the most superb and lasting monument that ever was consecrated to beauty was that to which every lover carried a tribute. I dare hope to do him honour only by augmenting the heap of volumes given by his admirers to his memory; I will own I was incited to this undertaking by great admiration of his genius, and still greater indignation at the treatment he had received from a French wit, who seems to think he has made prodigious concessions to our prejudices in allowing them the credit of a few splendid passages, while he speaks of every entire piece as a monstrous and ill-constructed farce. – Ridiculously has our poet, and ridiculously has our taste been represented, by a writer of universal fame; and through the medium of an almost universal language. Superficial criticisms hit the level of shallow minds, to whom a bon mot will ever appear reason, and an epigrammatic turn argument; so that many of our countrymen have hastily adopted this lively writer's opinion of the extravagance and total want of design in Shakespear's dramas. With the more learned, deep, and sober critics he lies under one considerable disadvantage. For copying nature as he found it in the busy walks of human life, he drew from an original, with which the literati are seldom well acquainted. They perceive his portraits are not of the Grecian or of the Roman school: after finding them unlike to the celebrated forms preserved in learned museums they do not deign to enquire whether they resemble the living persons they were intended to represent. Among these connoisseurs, whose acquaintance with the characters of men is formed in the library, not in the street, the camp, or village, whatever is unpolished and uncouth passes for fantastic and absurd, though, in fact, it is a faithful representation of a really existing character.

[16] But it must be acknowledged, that, when this objection is obviated there will yet remain another cause of censure; for though our author, from want of delicacy or from a desire to please the popular taste, thought he had done well when he faithfully copied nature, or represented customs, it will appear to politer times the error of an untutored mind; which the example of judicious artists, and the admonitions of delicate connoisseurs had not taught, that only graceful nature and decent customs give proper subjects for imitation. It may be said in mitigation of his fault that the vulgar here had not, as at Athens, been used to behold,

      Gorgeous tragedy
In scepter'd pall come sweeping by,
Presenting Thebes or Pelops' line,
Or the tale of Troy divine.

[17] Homer's works alone were sufficient to teach the Greek poets how to write, and their audience how to judge. The songs sung by our bards at feasts and merry-makings were of a very coarse kind: as the people were totally illiterate, and only the better sort could read even their mother tongue, their taste was formed on these compositions. As yet our stage had exhibited only those palpable allegories by which rude unlettered moralists instruct and please the gross and ignorant multitude. Nothing can more plainly evince the opinion the poets of those times had of the ignorance of the people, than the condescension shewn to it by the learned Earl of Dorset in his tragedy of Gorboduc; in which the moral of each act is represented on the stage in a dumb shew. It is strange that Mr. de Voltaire who affects an impartial and philosophic spirit, should not rather speak with admiration than contempt of an author, who by the force of genius rose so much above the age and circumstances in which he was born, and who, even when the deviates most from rules, can rise to faults true critics dare not mend. In delineating characters he must be allowed far to surpass all dramatic writers, and even Homer himself; he gives an air of reality to every thing, and, in spite of many and great faults, effects, better than any one has done, the chief purposes of the theatrical representation. It avails little to prove that the means by which he effects them are not those prescribed in any sort of poetry. While we feel the power and energy of his predominant genius, shall we not be apt to treat the cold formal precepts of the critic, with the same peevish contempt that the good lady in the Guardian, smarting in the anguish of a burn, does her son's pedantic intrusion of Mr. Locke's doctrine, to prove that there is no heat in fire. Nature and sentiment will pronounce our Shakespear a mighty genius; judgment and taste will confess that as a writer he is far from being faultless.


[t.p.] Elizabeth Montagu: The Essay was published anonymously in 1769 by Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800), known as the "Queen of Bluestockings." Editions and reprints followed in 1770, 1772, 1777, 1778, 1785, and 1810; a pirated Dublin edition appeared in 1769; and translations appeared in German (1771), French (1777), and Italian (1828).

[1] Mr. Pope: Alexander Pope (1688-1744), English poet. Pope edited The Works of Shakespear in 1725.

[1] the most learned and ingenious of our critics: Many quarto and four folio editions of Shakespeare's plays appeared in the seventeenth century; all but the first folio were prepared anonymously. Nicholas Rowe was the first to put his name to an edition of Shakespeare in 1709-10; Pope followed in 1725. Soon many poets and scholars were applying techniques of classical editing to Shakespeare's plays. Among the most important editions were those by Theobald (1733), Warburton (1747), Johnson (1765), Capell (1767-68), Bell (1774), Johnson and Steevens (1778), and Malone (1790; rev. 1821).

[1] a great wit, a great critic, and a great poet of a neighbouring nation: Montagu refers to Voltaire (1694-1778), the French writer, who attacked Shakespeare's plays throughout his long career as barbarous and improper. His essay "Of Shakespeare" was known in England through a translation of 1761.

[2] Le Siecle de Louis quatorze: Voltaire published his great history of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century France, The Age of Louis XIV, in 1751.

[3] the romances of Calprenede and Scuderi: Gaultier de Coste, Seigneur de la Calpranède (c. 1610-33), and Madeleine de Scudéry (1607-1701), popular writers of romantic fiction.

[3] Corneille: Pierre Corneille (1606-84), French dramatist. His eminently regular plays were among the most highly regarded in France.

[3] Boileau: Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636-1711), French poet and critic, most famous in England for L'Art poétique (1674; imitated by Pope in his Essay on Criticism).

[3] Gardez donc de donner: "Be careful, then, not to give (as in Clélie) [Mlle de Scudérey's popular romance of 1654-60] a French air or a French spirit to ancient Italy; and, in giving Roman names to your own portrait, to paint Cato as a gallant, and Brutus as a beau." From Boileau's Art poétique, canto 3.

[4] The Horatii: A reference to Corneille's play, Horace (1640), which describes the battle between the Roman Horatii brothers and the Alban Curatii.

[4] Theseus: A character in Phèdre (1677), by Jean Baptiste Racine (1639-99).

[4] Hercules spinning: As punishment for killing Iole's brother, Hercules was forced to serve Omphale, queen of Lydia, who made him wear women's clothes and do women's spinning work. Hercules and the distaff was a popular subject for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French painters, including François Boucher (1703-70).

[4] Gothic livery of rhyme: Classical Greek and Roman poetry did not rhyme; rhyming verse was a development of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Many later critics therefore dismissed it as barbarous and medieval. Milton famously renounces "the troublesome modern bondage of rhyming" at the beginning of Paradise Lost (1667).

[5] Aristotle's unities of time and place: In his Poetics, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) observed that successful dramas respect three "unities": of time, of place, and of action. He noted that drama (unlike epic) usually takes place in the space of about twenty-four hours, that it happens in an area that might reasonably be traveled within that time, and that there is one central action. In the sixteenth century, Italian and French critics elevated Aristotle's observations into rules, and censored playwrights who disobeyed them. Shakespeare in particular pays little respect to the unities of time and place, spreading the action of some of his plays over years and continents. For this, he was much criticized in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly by the French. French dramatists like Corneille and Racine, on the other hand, observed the rules carefully – or, according to hostile English critics, slavishly.

[6] conversations (and French plays are little more): Seventeenth-century French dramatists gave far less attention to on-stage action than the English. The most respected parts of their plays were formal speeches which described action that occurred off-stage.

[7] the critic: Aristotle. English critics hastened to point out that Aristotle was not prescribing hard-and-fast rules, but merely offering guidelines.

[8] trying a man by the laws of one country: "To judge of Shakespear by Aristotle's rules, is like trying a Man by the Laws of one Country, who had acted under those of another" (Preface to The Works of Shakespear).

[9] Quintilian: Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (c. A.D. 35-95), Roman critic.

[11] wit was unpolished, and mirth ill-bred: Commonplaces of eighteenth-century Shakespeare criticism. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were often criticized for being only a few degrees above medieval barbarism. Zachary Grey, for instance, complains of "the false taste of the time in which he lived." Johnson notes, "A poet who like Shakespeare should now make the whole action of his tragedy depend upon enchantment would be banished from the theatre to the nursery." William Duff complains that Shakespeare's age was "certainly not the æra of correct and refined taste."

[12] Every species of poetry has its distinct offices: Another eighteenth-century commonplace. Each genre had its own objectives and its own rules.

[12] fable: Plot.

[13] Mr. Johnson: Samuel Johnson (1709-84), English writer. His edition of Shakespeare appeared in 1765. The Preface provided a powerful statement of the inadequacy of judging drama by its adherence to the unities of time and place.

[14] Mr. Garrick: David Garrick (1717-79), the most influential actor of the eighteenth century, well known for his passionate performances in Shakespearean roles.

[15] copying nature: A critical commonplace from the sixteenth century through the eighteenth. Compare Pope's Essay on Criticism:

First follow NATURE, and your Judgment frame
By her just Standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchang'd and Universal Light,
Life, Force, and Beauty, must to all impart,
At once the Source, and End, and Test of Art.

[16] Gorgeous tragedy: From John Milton's "Il Penseroso" (1745).

[17] allegories: Although a few classical allegories (such as those by Prodicus and Cebes) were highly regarded, most allegory was dismissed as a crude medieval form.

[17] Earl of Dorset: Thomas Sackville, first earl of Dorset (1536-1608), author (with Thomas Norton, 1532-84) of Gorboduc; or, Ferrex and Porrex (1561), the first English blank-verse tragedy on classical models.

[17] can rise to faults true critics dare not mend: From Pope's Essay on Criticism:

If, where the Rules not far enough extend,
(Since Rules were made but to promote their End)
Some Lucky LICENCE answers to the full
Th' Intent propos'd, that Licence is a Rule.
Thus Pegasus, a nearer way to take,
May boldly deviate from the common Track.
Great Wits sometimes may gloriously offend,
And rise to Faults true Criticks dare not mend;
From vulgar Bounds with brave Disorder part,
And snatch a Grace beyond the Reach of Art,
Which, without passing thro' the Judgment, gains
The Heart, and all its End at once attains.

Textual Notes

The text is transcribed verbatim from the 1769 edition of Montagu's Essay. I have provided paragraph numbers. Long s has been reduced to modern usage. Only two emendations have been introduced: