Imagini ale paginilor
PDF
ePub

THE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE.

Second, Henry the Fourth, Richard the Third,
Romeo and Juliet, The Midsummer Night's Dream,
Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors,
The Love's Labour Lost, The Love's Labour Won,*
and The Merchant of Venice. He had also written
a great number of his Sonnets, and the minor
pieces of poetry which were collected and printed
by Jaggart, in 1599, under the somewhat affected
title of the Passionate Pilgrim. After this, we
have no means of ascertaining the succession in
which the plays of Shakspeare were composed.

Very early in his dramatic career, he appears
to have attained to a principal share in the direc-
tion and emoluments of the theatres to which he
was attached. His name stands second in the
list of proprietors of the Globe, and Blackfriars,
in the license granted to them by James the
First in 1603 and his industry in supporting
these establishments was indefatigable. Besides
the plays which were entirely of his own com-
position, or which he so completely rewrote as
to make them his own, he seems to have been
frequently engaged in revising, and adding to,
and remodelling, the works of others. This
task, however beneficial to the interests of his
theatre, and necessary to give attraction to the
pieces themselves, was viewed with an eye of
jealousy by the original authors; and Robert
Greene, in his Groatsworth of Wit, himself a
writer for the stage, in admonishing his fellow-
dramatists to abandon their pursuit, and apply
themselves to some more profitable vocation,
refers them to this part of our author's labours
with no little asperity. Trust them not (i. e.
the players), for there is an upstart crow beau-
tified with our feathers, that with his tyger's
beart wrapt in a player's hide, supposes he is
as well able to bombast out a blank-verse as the
best of you; and being an absolute Johannes fac-
tatum, is in his own conceit the only Shak-scene
in a country.'
This sarcasm, however, was
nothing more than the unwarranted effusion of
a dissolute and disappointed spirit. Greene was
The pamphlet from which the
above passage is extracted was published after
his death by Henry Chettle; and the editor,
after he had given it to the world, was so satis-
fed of the falsehood of the charges insinuated
against our author, that he made a public apo-
logy for his indiscretion in the preface to a sub-
sequent pamphlet of his own, entitled, Kind
Hart's Dreame; lamenting that he had not omit-

a bad man.

There is no such play extant as Love's Labour Wen. Dr. Farmer supposes this to have been another name for All's Well that Ends Well.

As was the case with Henry the Sixth; and probably many other plays that have not come down

DW.

In the present copies we read-Julius Cæsar, act
.1.

xvii

ted, or at least moderated, what Greene had written against Shakspeare, and adding, I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault; because myself have seen his demeanour, no less civil than he excelleth in the ualitie he professes: besides divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honestie, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his

art.'

E, Cesar doth not wrong; nor without cause,
Waihe be satisfied:

It may be conceived from the abundance of his works, of which, perhaps, very many have been lost, that our author's facility of composition must have been extremely great; and, on this point, we have the contemporary testimony of his sincere, kind-hearted, generous, and much slandered friend, Ben Jonson, who writes in his Discoveries, I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakspeare, that in writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, Would he had blotted out a thousand! which they thought a malevolent speech. I I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candour, for I loved the man, and do honour his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature, had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions; wherein he flowed with that felicity, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped: Sufflaminandus erat, as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too. Many times he fell into those things which could not escape laughter; as when he said, in the person of Cæsar, one speaking to him,

'Cæsar, thou dost me wrong.'

'He replied:

'Cæsar did never wrong, but with just cause,'t 'and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues; there was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.'§

But Shakspeare was not only an author but an actor. In this union of the two professions he was not singular; his friend Ben Jonson resembled him in this. With respect to the merits of Shakspeare as a performer, there has existed some doubt. From the expression used in

[merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

Rowe's Life, it would appear that he had been | of Shakspeare were confined, was that of elderly persons; parts, rather of declamation than of passion. With a countenance which, if any one of his pictures is a genuine resemblance of him, we may adduce that one as our authority for esteeming capable of every variety of expression; with a knowledge of the art that rendered him fit to be the teacher of the first actors of his day, and to instruct Joseph Taylor in the character of Hamlet, and John Lowine in that of King Henry the Eighth ; with such admirable qualifications for pre-eminence, we must infer that nothing but some personal defect could have reduced him to limit the exercise of his powers, and even in youth assume the slow and deliberate motion, which is the characteristic of old age. In his minor poems we, perhaps, trace the origin of this direction of his talents. It appears from two places in his Sonnets, that he was lamed by some accident. In the 37th sonnet he writes

"

but indifferently skilled in the inferior half of his
double vocation, and never attempted any parts
superior to the Ghost in Hamlet; but the words
of Chettle, speaking of him as one excellent in
the qualitie he professes,' confirm the account of
Aubrey, that he did act exceedingly well.' That
he understood the theory of his profession is
manifest from the invaluable instructions which
he has written, for the use of all future actors,
in the third act of Hamlet. His class of cha-
racters was probably not very extensive. If
the names of the performers prefixed to the
early editions of Every Man in his Humour
were arranged in the same order as the per-
sons of the drama, which was most probably
the case, he was the original representative of
Old Knowell; and an anecdote preserved by
Oldys would also make it appear that he played
Adam in As you like it. One of Shakspeare's
brothers, who lived to a good old age, even
some years after the restoration of Charles the
Second, would, in his younger days, come to
London to visit his brother Will, as he called
him, and be a spectator of him as an actor in some
of his own plays. This custom, as his brother's
fame enlarged, and his dramatic entertainments
grew the greatest support of our principal, if not
of all our theatres, he continued it seems so long
after his brother's death as even to the latter end
of his own life. The curiosity at this time of the
most noted actors (exciting them) to learn some-
thing from him of his brother, &c. they justly
held him in the highest veneration.
And it may
be well believed, as there was, besides, a kinsman
and descendant of the family, who was then a
celebrated actor among them (Charles Hart.
See Shakspeare's Will). This opportunity made
them greedily inquisitive into every little cir-
cumstance, more especially in his dramatic cha-
racter, which his brother could relate of him.
But he, it seems, was so stricken in years, and
possibly his memory so weakened with infirmities
(which might make him the easier pass for a man
of weak intellects), that he could give them but
little light into their inquiries; and all that
could be recollected from him of his brother
Will in that station was, the faint, general, and
almost lost ideas he had of having once seen him |
act a part in one of his own comedies, wherein,
being to personate a decrepit old man, he wore a
long beard, and appeared so weak and drooping
and unable to walk, that he was forced to be
supported and carried by another person to a
table, at which he was seated among some com-
pany, who were eating, and one of them sung a
song.'t From this it would appear, that the class
of characters to which the histrionic exertions

• Gilbert.

+ REED's Shakspeare, vol. i. 122.

So I made lame by Fortune's dearest spite.' And, in the 89th, he again alludes to his infirmity, and says

'Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt.' This imperfection would necessarily have rendered him unfit to appear as the representative of any characters of youthful ardour, in which rapidity of movement or violence of exertion was demanded; and would oblige him to apply his powers to such parts as were compatible with his measured and impeded action. Malone has most inefficiently attempted to explain away the palpable meaning of the above lines; and adds, 'If Shakspeare was in truth lame, he had it not in his power to halt occasionally for this or any other purpose. The defect must have been fixed and permanent.' Not so. Surely, many an infirmity of the kind may be skilfully concealed; or only become visible in the moments of hurried movement. Either Sir Walter Scott or Lord Byron might, without any impropriety, have written the verses in question. They would have been applicable to either of them. Indeed the lameness of Lord Byron was exactly such as Shakspeare's might have been; and I remember as a boy, that he selected those speeches for declamation, which would not constrain him to the use of such exertions, as might obtrude the defect of his person into notice.

Shakspeare's extraordinary merits, both as an author and as an actor, did not fail of obtaining for him the fame and the remuneration that they deserved. He was soon honoured by the patronage of the young Lord Southampton, one of the most amiable and accomplished noblemen of the court of Elizabeth, and one of the earliest

Roscius Anglicanus, commonly called, Downes the Prompter's Book.

THE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE.

patrons of our national drama. To this dis- | have been obtained by purchase, and could not

have been obtained for an inconsiderable sum;§ nor by any means that our author could of himself have procured, by the most indefatigable exertions of his talents and economy. At a time when the most successful dramatic representation did not produce to its author so much as twenty pounds, and generally little more than ten; when, as an actor, his salary would have amount

tinguished person our author dedicated, 'the first heir of his invention,'t the poem of Venus and Adonis, in 1593. This was within five years after Shakspeare arrived in London; and, in the following year, he inscribed the Rape of Lucrece to the same nobleman, in terms which prove that the barriers imposed by difference of condition had become gradually levelled, and that, between these young men, the cold and formal inter-ed to a mere trifle; and when, as we have before seen, the circumstances of his father could not have aided him by any supplies from home, it is only by adopting D'Avenant's statement, and admitting the munificence of Lord Southampton, that we can account for the sudden prosperity of Shakspeare. But, says Malone, it is more likely that he presented the poet with a hundred pounds in return for his dedications.' And this instance of liberality, which is so creditable to Shakspeare and his patron-to him who merited, and the high-spirited and noble youth who comprehended and rewarded his exalted merit-is to be discredited, because such an ardour of admiration does not square with the frigid views of probability entertained by the aged antiquarian in the seclusion of his closet!

The fortunes of Shakspeare were indeed rapid in their rise; but he did not selfishly monopolize the emoluments of his success. On being driven from Stratford, he left, as we have seen, a father in reduced circumstances, and a wife and children who were to be supported by his labours. We may confidently assert, on a comparison of facts and dates, that the spirit of Shakspeare was not of a niggard and undiffusive kind. The course of his success is marked by the returning prosperity of his family. In 1578, his father was unable to pay, as a member of the corporation, his usual contribution of four-pence a-week to the poor; and in 1588, a distress was issued for the seizure of his goods, which his poverty rendered nugatory; for it was returned, 'Johannes Shakspeare nihil habet unde distributio potest levari.** Yet, from this state of poverty, we find him within ten years rising with the fortunes of his child; cheered and invigorated by the first dawning of his illustrious son's prosperity; and in 1590, applying at the Herald's Office for a renewal of his grant of arms,†† and described as a Justice of the Peace, and one possessing lands and tenements to the amount of 5001. That this restoration of Mr. John Shakspeare's affairs

course of the patron and the client had been rapidly exchanged for the kinder familiarity of friendship. The first address is respectful; the second affectionate. When this intimacy began Shakspeare was in his twenty-seventh, and Lord Southampton in his twentieth year; a time of life when the expansion of our kindness is not restrained by any of those apprehensions and suspicions which, in after-life, impede the development of the affections; and when, in the enthusiastic admiration of excellence, we hasten to seek fellowship with it, and disregard every impediment to free communication which may be opposed by the artificial distinctions of society. The superiority of Shakspeare's genius raised him to a level with his friend. Lord Southampton allowed the gifts of Nature to claim equal privilege with the gifts of Fortune; and the splendid present of a thousand pounds, which our great poet received from him, was bestowed and accepted in the true spirit of generosity; as coming from one, who was exercising to its moblest uses the power of his affluence, and received by one whose soul was large enough to contain the sense of obligation without any mixture of petty shame or any sacrifice of independence. The name of Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, should be dear to every Englishman, as the first patron-the youthful friendand author of the fortunes of Shakspeare.

The authority for believing that this magnificent present was made which is equivalent to at least five thousand pounds at the present day -is the best that can be obtained respecting the events of our author's life; that of Sir William D'Avenant. It was given,' he says, 'to complete a purchase.' Malone doubts the extent of the earl's munificence and what does he not doubt? He says, 'no such purchase was ever made.'t This is a mere gratuitous assumption; for it is evident that Shakspeare had a very considerable property in two principal theatres, which must

My Lord Southampton and Lord Rutland came not to the court; the one doth but very seldome: they pass away the time in London, merely in going to plays every day.'-Rowland Whyte's Letter to bar Robert Sidney, 1599. Sydney Papers, vol. ii.

|

P 152.

• Dedication to Venus and Adonis.

: BOSWELL'S Shakspeare, vol. ii. p. 480.
The Globe was, perhaps, worth about 5007.; the
Backfriars somewhat more: but this was the least
Talable portion of the concern. The scenery, the

XIX

properties, and the dresses, must have been worth infinitely more. In Greene's Groate's worth of Wit, a player is introduced, boasting that his share in the stage apparel could not be sold for two hundred pounds. Shakspeare was also the purchaser of property at Stratford so early as 1597.

GIFFORD'S Massinger, vol. i. p. 64.
BOSWELL'S Shakspeare, vol. ii. p. 478.

** Register of the Bailiff's Court of Stratford. They were originally granted to him in 1569 while high-bailiff of the town.

originated in the filial piety of his son, appears | evident, from our knowledge that the branch of traffic with which his circumstances in life were inseparably connected, was at that period in its most extreme state of depression.*

The kindness of Shakspeare was not restricted to his family; and the only letter which remains out of the many he must have received, is one from his townsman, Richard Quiney, requesting in terms that speak him confident of success, the loan of thirty pounds, a sum in those days by no means inconsiderable.+

Pecuniary emolument and literary reputation were not the only reward that our poet received for his labours: the smiles of royalty itself shone upon him. 'Queen Elizabeth,' says Rowe, 'gave him many gracious marks of her favour;' and so delighted was she with the character of Falstaff, that she desired our author to continue it in another play, and exhibit him in love. To this command we owe The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dennis adds, that, from the Queen's eagerness to see it acted, 'she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days, and was afterwards, as tradition tells us, very well pleased with the representation.'§ If Queen Elizabeth was pleased to direct the course of our author's imagination, with her successor he was a distinguished favourite: and James the First, whose talents and judgment have deserved more respect than they have received, wrote him a letter with his own hand, which was long in the possession of Sir W. D'Avenant. I Dr. Farmer supposes this letter to have been written in return for the compliment paid the monarch in Macbeth; but he has overlooked an equally probable occasion. The Tempest was written for the festivities that attended the marriage of the Princess Elizabeth with the Prince Palatine; and was performed at court in the beginning of the year 1613. In the island Princess, Miranda, Shakspeare undoubtedly designed a poetic representative of the virgin and high-born bride; in the royal and learned Prospero, we may trace a complimentary allusion to the literary character and mysterious studies of her royal father; and it is at all events as likely that the letter of James to Shakspeare should have had reference to The Tempest as to Macbeth. Our author seems to have formed a far more correct estimate of the talents of his sovereign, than that which we have blindly received and adopted on the authority of his political enemies, the Non

• Supplication to the Lord Treasurer Burghley,

1590.

+ This letter is preserved in Boswell's Shakspeare, vol. ii. p. 485.

Life of Shakspeare.

§ Epistle Dedicatory to the Comical Gallant. James was the patron of Jonson and of Shakspeare; he possessed himself no inconsiderable talent for poetry. See Boswell's Shakspeare, vol. ii. p. 481,

conformists; and in a MS. volume of poems, which was purchased by Boswell, the following complimentary lines are preserved.

SHAKSPEARE UPON THE KING.

'Crownes have their compass, length of dayes their date,

Triumphes their tombs, felicity her fate:
Of more than earth cann earth make none partaker;
But knowledge makes the king most like his Maker."¶

Thus honoured and applauded by the great, the intercourse of Shakspeare with that bright band and company of gifted spirits, which ennobled the reigns of Elizabeth and James by their writings, must have been a source of the highest intellectual delight. The familiarity with which they seem to have communicated; the constant practice of uniting their powers in the completion of a joint production; the unenvying admiration with which they rejoiced in the triumphs of their literary companions, and introduced the compositions of one another to the world by recommendatory verses, present us with such a picture of kind and gay and intelligent society, as the imagination finds it difficult to entertain an adequate conception of. Sir Walter Raleigh, previously to his unfortunate engagement with the wretched Cobham and others, had instituted a meeting of beaux esprits at the Mermaid, a celebrated tavern in Fridaystreet. Of this club, which combined more talent and genius, perhaps, than ever met together before or since, our author was a member; and here, for many years, he regularly repaired with Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Selden, Cotton, Carew, Martin, Donne, and many others, whose names, even at this distant period, call up a mingled feeling of reverence and respect. Here, in the full flow and confidence of friendship, the lively and interesting “wit combats" took place between Ben Jonson and our author; and hither, in probable allusion to them, Beaumont fondly lets his thoughts wander, in his letter to Jonson, from the country:

668

What things have we seen Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been So nimble, and so full of subtle flame, As if that every one from whom they came, Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest, &c." "**

The 'wit combats' alluded to in this interesting passage are mentioned by Fuller, who, speaking of Shakspeare, says, Many were the wit com

482. He was called a pedant; but,' says Mr. D'lsraeli, he was no more a pedant than the ablest of his contemporaries; nor abhorred the taste of tobacco, nor feared witches, more than they did he was a great wit, a most acute disputant ' &c.-Calamities of Authors, vol. ii. p. 245.

BOSWELL'S Shakspeare, vol. ii. p. 481. ** GIFFORD'S Ben Jonson, vol. i. p. lxv. lxvi.

THE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE.

I

bates between Shakspeare and Ben Jonson. behold them like a Spanish great galleon, and an English man of war. Master Jonson, like the former, was built far higher in learning, solid but slow in his performances. Shakspeare, like the latter, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his

wit and invention.'*

Of these encounters of the keenest intellects not a vestige now remains. The memory of Fuller, perhaps, teemed with their sallies; but nothing on which we can depend has descended to us. The few traditionary tales that remain, are without any authority; but, such as they are, I present them to the reader as Dr. Drake has collected them.t

Shakspeare was godfather to one of Ben Jonson's children; and after the christening, being in deep study, Jonson came to cheer him up, and asked him, why he was so melancholy? No, faith, Ben,' says he, not I; but I have been considering a great while what should be the fittest gift for me to bestow upon my godchild, and I have resolved at last.' I prithee, what?' says be. 'I'faith, Ben, I'll e'en give her a dozen good Latin (latten‡) spoons, and thou shalt translate them.'

'The above,' says Archdeacon Nares, is a pleasant raillery enough on Jonson's love for translating.' The second is not so worthy of preservation. Mr. Ben Jonson and Mr. William Shakspeare being merrie at a tavern, Mr. Jonson begins this for his epitaph:

|

'Here lies Ben Jonson,

Who was once one-

G. PEEL.'

The first appearance of this Letter was in the Annual Register for 1770, whence it was copied into the Biographia Britannica, and in both these works it commences in the following manner: I must desyre that my syster hyr watche, and the cookerie book you promysed, may be sente bye the man. I never longed, &c.' 'Of the four, this is the only anecdote worth preserving; but,' concludes Dr. Drake, 'I apprehend it to be a mere forgery.'

The names of Shakspeare and Ben Jonson, as friends, and the most successful cultivators of our early dramatic literature, are so intimately connected, that the life of one involves the frequent mention of the other. Indeed, it is reported by Rowe, that Shakspeare was the original means

'He gives it to Mr. Shakspeare to make up, who of introducing the works of Jonson to the stage. presently writte,

'Jonson, altogether unknown to the world, had offered one of his plays to the players, in order to have it acted; and the persons into whose and superciliously over, were just upon returning hands it was put, after having turned it carelessly

it to him with an ill-natured answer, that it would be of no service to their company, when Shakspeare luckily cast his eye upon it, and found something so well in it, as to engage him first to

'Verses by Ben Jonson and Shakspeare, occasioned by the motto to the Globe Theatre-read it through, and afterwards to recommend Totus mundus agit histrionem.

'That, while he liv'd, was a slow thing, And now, being dead, is no-thing."

This stuff,' adds Mr. Gifford, is copied from the Ashmole MS. 38.'§

The next may be said to be rather of a 'better

leer.'

SHAKSPEARE.

'Little, or much, of what we see, we do;
We are all both actors and spectators too.'||

*Worthies, folio edition, p. 111. 126. Shakspeare and his Times, vol. ii. p. 593.

JONSON.

Jonson and his writings to the public.'¶-This anecdote is disputed by Mr. Gifford. He proves that in 1598, when Every Man in his Humour,

'If, but stage actors, all the world displays,

Where shall we find spectators of their plays?' the first effort of Jonson's genius which we are

acquainted with, was produced, its author was as well known as Shakspeare, and, perhaps, better. Very true; but this does not in the least impugn the credibility of Rowe's tradition. It

***

Latten, i. e. brass.

Hart MSS. No. 6395.

xxi

The intimacy of Shakspeare and Ben Jonson is alluded to in the following letter, written by G. Peel, a dramatic poet, to his friend Marle :

The anecdote is from the

" FRIEND MARLE,

last night. We were all very merrye at the
'I never longed for thy company more than
Globe, when Ned Alleyn did not scruple to
had stolen his speeche about the qualityes of an
affyrme pleasantely to thy friend Will, that he
conversations manyfold whych had passed be-
actor's excellencye, in Hamlet hys tragedye, from
tween them, and opinyons given by Alleyn
touchinge the subject. Shakspeare did not take
this talke in good sorte; but Jonson put an end
to the strife, wittylie remarking, This affaire
needeth no contentione; you stole it from Ned,
him act tymes out of number?
no doubt; do not marvel: have you not seen

GIFFORD'S Ben Jonson, vol. i. p. 1xxx.

| Poetical Characteristics, vol. i. MS. some time in the Harleian Library.

Rowe's Life of Shakspeare.

** Ben Jonson, vol. i. p. xliii.

« ÎnapoiContinuă »