Imagini ale paginilor
PDF
ePub

66

66

him, and where his necessities, if tradition may be credited, obliged him to accept the office of call-boy, or prompter's assistant. This is a menial whose employment it is to give the performers notice to be ready to enter, as often as the business of the play requires their appearance on the stage. Pope, however, relates a story communicated to him by Rowe, but which Rowe did not think deserving of a place in the life which he wrote, that must a little retard the advancement of our poet to the office just mentioned. According to this story, Shakspeare's first employment was to wait at the door of the play-house, and hold the horses of those who had no servants, that they might be ready after the performance. But "I cannot," says his acute commentator, Mr. Steevens, "dismiss this anecdote without observing "that it seems to want every mark of probability. Though Shakspeare quitted Stratford on account of a juvenile irregularity, we have no reason to suppose "that he had forfeited the protection of his father, who " was engaged in a lucrative business, or the love of his "wife, who had already brought him two children, and "was herself the daughter of a substantial yeoman. It " is unlikely, therefore, when he was beyond the reach "of his prosecutor, that he should conceal his plan of "life, or place of residence, from those who, if he found "himself distressed, could not fail to afford him such "supplies as would have set him above the necessity of "holding horses for subsistence. Mr. Malone has re"marked, in his Attempt to ascertain the Order in "which the Plays of Shakspeare were written,' that he "might have found an easy introduction to the stage: "for Thomas Green, a celebrated comedian of that "period, was his townsman, and perhaps his relation. "The genius of our author prompted him to write "poetry; his connexion with a player might have given "his productions a dramatic turn; or his own sagacity "might have taught him that fame was not incompatible

6

"with profit, and that the theatre was an avenue to "both. That it was once the general custom to ride on "horseback to the play I am likewise yet to learn. "The most popular of the theatres were on the Bank"side; and we are told by the satirical pamphleteers of "that time, that the usual mode of conveyance to these "places of amusement was by water, but not a single "writer so much as hints at the custom of riding to ❝them, or at the practice of having horses held during "the hours of exhibition. Some allusion to this usage, "(if it had existed,) must, I think, have been discovered "in the course of our researches after contemporary "fashions. Let it be remembered, too, that we receive "this tale on no higher authority than that of Cibber's "Lives of the Poets, vol. i. p. 130. Sir William "Davenant told it to Mr. Betterton, who communi"cated it to Mr. Rowe, who, according to Dr. Johnson, "related it to Mr. Pope."

Mr. Malone concurs in opinion that this story stands on a very slender foundation, while he differs with Mr. Steevens as to the fact of gentlemen going to the theatre on horseback. With respect to Shakspeare's father "being engaged in a lucrative business," we may remark that this could not have been the case at the time our author came to London. He is said to have arrived in London in 1586, the year in which his father resigned the office of alderman, and was in decayed cir

cumstances.

But in whatever situation he was first employed at the theatre, he appears to have soon discovered those talents which afterwards made him

"The applause! delight! the wonder of our stage !"

Some distinction he probably first acquired as an actor, although Mr. Rowe was not able to discover any character in which he appeared to more advantage than

that of the ghost in Hamlet. The instructions given to the players in that tragedy, and other passages of his works, show an intimate acquaintance with the skill of acting, and such as is scarcely surpassed in our own days. He appears to have studied nature in acting as much as in writing. Mr. Malone, however, does not believe that he played parts of the first rate, though he probably distinguished himself by whatever he performed; and the distinction which he obtained could only be in his own plays, in which he would be assisted by the novel appearance of author and actor combined. Before his time, it does not appear that any actor could avail himself of the wretched pieces represented on the stage.

Mr. Rowe regrets that he cannot inform us which was the first play he wrote, nor is that a point yet determined. Mr. Malone in his first edition, appears to have attained something conclusive; but in his last edition, he has changed the dates of so many of the plays, that we can only refer to the lists given at the end of his History of the Stage. The progress of Shakspeare's taste or genius, it seems to be impossible to ascertain with any certainty.

His plays, however, must have been not only popular, but approved by persons of the higher order, as we are certain that he enjoyed the gracious favour of queen Elizabeth, who was very fond of the stage; and the particular and affectionate patronage of the earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his poem of "Venus and Adonis," and his "Rape of Lucrece." On sir William Davenant's authority, it has been asserted that this nobleman at one time gave him a thousand pounds to enable him to complete a purchase. This anecdote Mr. Malone thinks extravagantly exaggerated, and considers it as far more likely that he might have presented the poet with an hundred pounds in return for his dedications.

At the conclusion of the advertisement prefixed to

[ocr errors]

Lintot's edition of Shakspeare's poems, it is said, "that "most learned prince and great patron of learning, "king James the First, was pleased with his own hand "to write an amicable letter to Mr. Shakspeare: which "letter, though now lost, remained long in the hands "of sir William D'Avenant, as a credible person now "living can testify." Dr. Farmer with great probability supposes, that this letter was written by king James in return for the compliment paid to him in Macbeth. The relator of this anecdote was Sheffield, duke of Buckingham. These brief notices, meagre as they are, may show that our author enjoyed high favour in his day. Whatever some may think of king James as a "learned "prince," his patronage, as well as that of his predecessor, was sufficient to give celebrity to the founder of a new stage. It may be added, that Shakspeare's uncommon merit, his candour, and good-nature are supposed to have procured him the admiration and acquaintance of every person distinguished for such qualities. It is not difficult indeed to suppose that Shakspeare was a man of humour and a social companion, and probably excelled in that species of minor wit not ill adapted to conversation, of which it could have been wished he had been more sparing in his writings.

How long he acted has not been discovered, but he continued to write till the year 1614. During his dramatic career he acquired a property in the theatre, 2 which he must have disposed of when he retired, as no mention of it occurs in his will. His connexion with Ben Jonson has been variously related. It is said that when Jonson was unknown to the world, he offered a play to the theatre, which was rejected after a very careless perusal, but that Shakspeare having accidentally cast his eye on it, conceived a favourable opinion of it,

2 In 1603 he and several others obtained a licence from king James to exhibit comedies, tragedies, histories, &c. at the Globe Theatre and elsewhere.

and afterwards recommended Jonson and his writings to the publick. For this candour he is said to have been repaid by Jonson, when the latter became a poet of note, with an envious disrespect. Jonson acquired reputation by the variety of his pieces, and endeavoured to arrogate the supremacy in dramatic genius. Like a French critic, he insinuated Shakspeare's incorrectness, his careless manner of writing, and his want of judgment; and, as he was a remarkable slow writer himself, he could not endure the praise frequently bestowed on Shakspeare, viz. that he seldom altered or blotted out what he had written. Mr. Malone says, that "not long after the "year 1600, a coolness arose between Shakspeare and "him, which, however he may talk of his almost idola"trous affection, produced, on his part, from that time to "the death of our author and for many years afterwards, "much clumsy sarcasm and many malevolent reflections." But from these, which were until lately the commonly received traditions on this subject, the learned Dr. Farmer was inclined to depart, and to think Jonson's hostility to Shakspeare absolutely groundless: and this opinion has been amply confirmed by more recent critics.

Jonson had only one advantage over Shakspeare, that of superior learning, which might, in certain situations, give him a superior rank, but could never promote his rivalship with a man who attained the highest excellence without it. Nor will Shakspeare suffer by its being known, that all the dramatic poets before he appeared were scholars. Greene, Lodge, Peele, Marlow, Nashe, Lily, and Kid, had all, says Mr. Malone, a regular university education; and, as scholars in our universities, frequently composed and acted plays on historical subjects.

3

3 This was the practice in Milton's days. "One of his objections to academical education, as it was then conducted, is, that men designed for orders in the church were permitted to act plays," &c. Johnson's Life of Milton.

66

« ÎnapoiContinuă »