William Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage - Vol. 6

By Brian Vickers | Go to book overview

253.

Joseph Priestley, lectures on Shakespeare

1777

From A Course of Lectures on Oratory and Criticism (1777).

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) achieved distinction as a scientist with his work on the chemical properties of gases, as the ‘discoverer of oxygen’, and as author of a history of electricity (1767). In addition to many scientific works he published a great number of books on theological, religious, historical, educational, political, and social matters. His lectures on oratory derive from his time as tutor of languages and belleslettres at the Dissenting Academy of Warrington (1761-7). They are rather conventional examples of the ‘beauties and faults’ school of criticism.

This connexion of vivid ideas and emotions with reality will easily furnish the mind with pretences for justifying the extravagance of such passions as love, gratitude, anger, revenge, and envy. If these passions be raised, though ever so unreasonably, they are often able by this means to adjust the object to their gratification. Besides, since, in consequence of almost constant joint impressions, all ideas are associated with other ideas similar to themselves, these passions, while the mind is under their influence and as it were wholly occupied by them, will excite in abundance all such ideas as conspire with themselves, and preclude all attention to objects and circumstances connected with, and which would tend to introduce, an opposite state of mind….

An attention to these affections of our minds will show us the admirable propriety of innumerable fine touches of passion in our inimitable Shakespeare. How naturally doth he represent Cassius, full of envy at the greatness of Caesar, whose equal he had been, dwelling upon every little circumstance which shows the natural weakness of him whom fortune had made his master. Speaking of

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