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ON THE FABLE AND COMPOSITION OF
In order to make a true estimate of the abilities and merit of a writer, it is always neceffary to examine the genius of his age, and the opinions of his contemporaries. A poet who fhould now make the whole action of his tragedy depend upon enchantment, and produce the chief events by the affiftance of fupernatural agents, would be cenfured as tranfgreffing the bounds of probability, be banished from the theatre to the nursery, and condemned to write fairy tales inftead of tragedies; but a furvey of the notions that prevailed at the time when this play was written, will prove that Shakespeare was in no danger of fuch cenfures, fince he only turned the fyftem that was then universally admitted, to his advantage, and was far from overburthening the credulity of his audience.
The reality of witchcraft or enchantment, which, though not ftrictly the fame, are confounded in this play, has in all ages and countries been credited by the common people, and in moft, by the learned themfelves. The phantoms have indeed appeared more frequently, in proportion as the darkness of ignorance has been more grofs; but it cannot be fhown, that the brighteft gleams of knowledge have at any time been fufficient to drive them out of the world. The time in which this kind of credulity was at its height, seems to have been that of the holy war, in which the Chriftians imputed all their defeats to enchantments or diabolical oppofition, as they afcribed their success to the affiftance of their military faints; and the learned Dr Warburton appears to believe (Suppl. to the Introduction to Don Quixote) that the first accounts of enchant