Sivut kuvina
PDF
ePub

THE LIFE AND WRITINGS

OP
SHAKSPEARE.

WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE was born at Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire, April 23, 1564. Ilis ancestors are mentioned as “ gentlemen of good figure and fashion." His father was a considerable dealer in wool, and had been the high-bailiff or mayor of the body corporate of Stratford. He held also the oslice of justice of the peace, and at one time, it is said, possessed lands and tenements to the amount of £500; but he must have heen greatly reduced in the latter part of his life, as he was excused the trifling weekly tax of fourpence, levied on all aldermen, and subsequently resigned the oflice to another individual. His wife was the daughter and beiress of Robert Arden, of Wellingcote, in Warwickshire, “a gentleman of worship.” This lady brought him ten children; of whom William, our pcet, was the eldest. At a proper age be was sent to the freeschool in Stratford, to which he was indebted for whatever learning he may bave possessed; though his father had apparently no design to make him " a scholar," as he took bim, at an early period, into bis own business. Mr. Malone, on the contrary, conjectures, that he was placed in the oflice of some country attorney, after leaving school, or with the seneschal of some manor court, where he picked up those technical law phrases that so frequently occur in bis plays, and could not bave been in common use unless among professional men. However this may be, he resolved to write "man" earlier than usual, and before he was eighteen, married Anne Hathaway, eight years older than bimself, the daughter of John Hathaway, who is said to have been a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford. Before the expiration of his minority he became the father of three children, a son and two daughters, bis wise producing bim twins. Notbing is known of his domestic economy or professional occupation at this time; though Mr. Capell supposes that this early marriage prevented bis being sent to some university. Shortly after the birth of bis youngest child, he lest Stratford for the metropolis : bis motive for doing so, as well as his connexion and prospects in London, are involved in considerable obscurity. It is said that he became acquainted with a gang of deer-stealers, and being detected with them in robbing the park of Sir Thomas Lucy, of Charlecote, was prosecuted with so much rigour as to be obliged to take shelter in London ; having first revenged himself upon the knight by writing a satirical ballad. This was affixed to Sir Thomas's park-gates, and being liberally circulated in the veighbourhood, excited considerable attention, though it does no honour to our poet's genius, and was manifestly unjust. Some writers hare asserted, that Shakspeare escaped with impunity after his first offence; but that, repeating it audaciously, he was prosecuted by Sir Tbomas, whom he grossly lampooned that to escape a prison, he fled to London, where, as might be expected from a man of wit and humour in similar circumstances, he threw himself among the players, and made his first appearance on the stage in a very subordinate character. This account (according to a modern publication) is not entitled to full credence ; for though he may

some idle youths, either for the sake of catching deer, or for some t and hazardous enterprise, vet the story seems improbable, and comes in such a questionable shape, that it ought to be strongly corroborated before it he believed. Without depending on this circumstance, or supposing that “ he held horses at the door of a theatre for his livelihood," a rational motive for bis visiting London may be found in the circumstance, that he had a relative and townsman already established there ; Thomas Green, “a celebrated comedian.” The statement of Jobn Aubrey, a student in the university of Oxford only twenty-six years after our poet's death, strongly substantiates this view of the case, though it differs in some particulars from the commonly accepted opinions respecting bis parentage and occupation. “ His father (says Aubrey) was a butcher, and I have been told heretofore, by some of the peighbours, that wher he was a boy le exercised his father's trade, bot when he killed a calfe, he would doe it in a high style, and make a 'speeche. This William, (meaning Shakspeare,) being naturally inclined to poetry and acting, came to London, I guesse about eighteen, and was an actor at one o the play-houses, and did act exceedingly well. He began early to make essayes at dramatique poetry, which at that time was very lowe, and his playes tooke well.” This is good to a certain extent; but the truth probably is, that some freak, or it might be, felony, determined Shakspeare promptly to embrace that profession to which bis habits ana inclinations bad for a long time previously inclined him. The playful enthusiasm of his disposition, wheu directed not to the useful purposes of life, but to " poetry and acting," was calculated to encourage habits of idleness or improvidence, with a taste for those wild and irregular associations, which commence by despising order, and generally terminate in a defiance of law. When he made Falstaff a deer-stealer, and played the battery of his wit so keenly upon Jastice Shallow, the recollection of his own adventure was probably uppermost in bis mind; and if there were any doubt on the subject, the circumstance of bis having given to Shallow the identical quarterings of Sir Thomas Lucy, (his Warwickshire prosecutor,) would effectually set it at rest. The balance of evidence, therefore, preponderating greatly against “ this amiable man and supereminent author," bis admirers may be content to have him charged with an act of poaching, since it was the apparent cause of his producing those immortal dramas, which bave rendered him the delight of successive ages. It is not agreed in what situation he was first employed at the theatre, and Mr. Rowe has not been able to discover any character in which he appeared to more advantage than that of the ghost in Hamlet. The instructions given to the player, and other passages of his works, evince an intimate acquaintance with the science of acting, and shew that he studied nature in it, as much as in writing ; but all this might be mere theory. The situation of an actor neither deserved nor engaged his attention, and was far from adequate to the prodigious powers of his mind; he turned it to a higher and nobler use ; and having, by practice and observation, acquainted himself with the mechanical part of a theatre, his native genius inspired all the other essentially superior qualities of a play-wright. The date at wbich his first play appeared is unknown, and the greatest uncertainty prevails with respect to the chronological order in which the wbole series was written, exbibited, or published. As no certain aathority could be adduced upon this point, recourse has been had to internal evidence; and by searching for those marks of progressive excellence, which are supposed to result from exercise and improvement, the dates of each play have been pretty positively fixed.

have associated wi

Thougb Shakspeare continued to write till the year 1614, he had probably declined appearing as an actor long before that period; as no mention of his name can be found among the list of players subsequent to the production of Ben Jonson's Sejanus in 1603. He now succeeded in obtaining a license from king James to exbibit comedies, tragedies, histories, &c. at the Globe Theatre or elsewhere, and was enabled to acquire, during bis dramatic career, property to a considerable amount. Gildon (in his “Letters and Essays,” 1694) estimated the amount at £300 per annum, a sum at least equal to £1000 in our days; but Mr. Malone thinks it could not exceed £200, which yet was a considerable fortune in those times. It is supposed that he might have derived £200 per annum from the theatre, while he continued on the stage. Besides his thirty-five plays, Shakspeare wrote some poetical pieces, which were pnblished separately, viz. Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Passionate Pilgrin, A Lover's Complaint, and a rolame of Sonnets. The Earl of Southampton, with whom he was a great favourite, is said to bare presented him with a sum of £1000, to enable him to complete a purchase an act of munificent patronage, which has never been exceeded. He enjoyed in a great degree the personal favour of Queen Elizabeth ; and King James the First " was pleased with bis own band to write an amicable letter to Mr. Shakspeare,” in return (as Dr. Farmer supposes) for the compliment paid to him in Macbeth; where allusion is made to the kingdoms of England and Scotland being united under one monarch, and James's having begun to touch for the king's evil. Having acqoired such a fortune as suited his views and wishes, he quitted the stage and all other business, and passed the remainder of his life in an bonourable ease, at his native town of Stratford. Of the exact time when this took place, nothing certain is known; but Mr. Theobald supposes he did not resign the theatre before 1610, sipce, in his Tempest, be mentions the Bermuda islands, which were unknown to the English till 1609, when Sir Jolin Sumners discutered them on his voyage to North America. He lived in a very handsome house of his own purchasing, to which, baving repaired and modelled it to his own mind, be gave the name of New Place; and he had the good fortune to save it from the flames in the dreadful fire wbich shortly afterwards laid waste the town. During Sbakspeare's abode in this house, bis wit and good-humour engaged him the acquaintance and entitled him to the friendship of all the surrounding gentry. He was (says Aubrey) a handsome, well-shaped man, verie good companie, and of a verie ready, pleasant, and smooth wit. It is not difficult, indeed, to suppose that Shakspeare was a man of bamonr and a social companion, and that he excelled in that species of minor wit not ill adapted to conversation, of which it is to be wished be bad been more spariug in his writings. In the beginning of the year 1616 he made his will, wherein be testified his respect to his quondam theatrical partners, appointing bis youngest daughter, jointly with her husband, his execators, and bequeathing them the bulk of his estate, which came into their possession not long afterwards. It is inferred from this document, that our poet's lady did not enjoy much of bis affection, as his "second-best bed, will tho

furpitore," constituted the only bequest to her. It is not known what particular palady terminated, at no very advanced age, the life and labours of this incomparable genius; bat he died on the 23d of April, 1616, being the anniversary of his birth-day, when be exactly completed his fifty-second year. He was interred among bis ancestors, on the north side of the chancel, in the great church of Stratford, and a bandsome monument, bearing the following Larin distich, was erected to bis memory :

Judicio Pyliam, genio Socratem, arte Maronen,

Terra tegit, populus mæret, Olympus habet.
On the grave-stone in the pavement are the following singular lines •

Good friend, for Jesus' sake, forbear
To dig the dust enclosed bere :
Blest be the man that spares these stones,

And carst be he that moves my bones. Lo the year 1741, another very noble and beautiful monument was raised to bis memory, at the pablic expense, in Westininster Abbey, under the direction of the Earl of Burlington, Dr. Mead, Mr. Pope, and Mr. Martyn. It stands near the south door of the Abbey, in what is called Poets' Corner, and was the work of Sclieemaker, after a design of Kent's. The performers of each of the London theatres gave a benefit to defray the expenses, and the Dean and Chapter took nothing for tbe ground.

Mrs. Shakspeare survived her husband eight years, dying in 1623, at ibe age of sixtyseven. Of Shakspeare's family, the son died in 1996 ; the eldest daughter, Susanna, married Dr. Jobn Hall, a physician of Stratford, who is said to have obtained much reputatiou and practice. She brought her husband an only child, Elizabeth, who was married, first to Thomas Nashe. Esq. and afterwards to Sir John Barnard, of Abingdon, in Northamptonshire, but had no issue by eitber of them. The second daughter. Judith, married Thomas Quiney, a gentleman of good family, by whom she had three children; but as none of them reached their twentieth year, they left no posterity. Hence our poet's last descendant was Lady Barnard, who was buried at Abingdou, Feb. 17, 1669-70. Dr, Hall, bcr fatber, died Nov. 25, 1635, and ber mother, July 11, 1619, and were botb in(erred in Stratford cburcb. Our poet's house and lands continued in the possession of bis descendants to the time of the Restoration, wben they were re-purchased by the Clopton family, the original proprietors. Sir Hugh Clopton, who was knighted by King George the First, died in 1751, and his executor sold the estate to a clergyman of large sortuge, who resided in it but a few years, and in consequence of a disagreement with his neiglahours respecting a parochial assessment, peevishly pulled down the house, sold the materials, and left the town. To defeat the curiosity of the numerous strangers who were led to visit tbis classic ground, be had some time before cut down the mulberry-tree, wbich Shakspeare is known to have planted, and bad piled it as a stack of firewood, to the great vexation, loss, and disappointment, of the inhabitants of Stratford. Bat an honest silversmith bought the whole stack, and converted it into a number of toys and implements, wbicli were eagerly purchased by the curious. The purpose to which one of these trifles was applied gase rise to an occurrence, harmless, and perhaps laudable in itself, though by many considered as verging on the mock-heroic. The corporation of Stratford baving presented Garrick with the freedom of the town in a box made from the wood of the tree, this incident saggested to him the idea of a festival in commemoration of Sbakspeare, upou the very spot where he was born; and the plan was carried into execution in the autumn of 1769. Temporary buildings were raised--entertainments suited to every taste were provided--and company of all ranks, from the most distant parts of the kingdom, assembled to celebrate the memory of the poet. The jubilee lasted three days; but the weather was exceedingly unfavourable, and the pleasure enjoyed was by no means equal to that which the enthusiastic admirers of Sbakspeare had anticipated, though Garrick exerted all bis talents to gratify both the eye and the understanding. He composed several songs for music, with an ode of considerable length to the honour of his hero; and having expended a large sum of noney opou various parts of the entertainment, took a method of reimbursing himself, which gives a laughable finale to this overflow of eothusiasm :-tbe jubilee was converted into a dramatic representation, during the following winter, in London, and became so popular, that it was repeated night after niglit to the most crowded audiences,

The nature and extent of Sbakspeare's biblical learning will form a necessary introduction to the review of bis dramatic writings ; especially as there is no question connected witb his history, upon which more ingenious speculation bas been hazarded. There has always prevailed a tradition that Shakspeare wanted learning, and Ben Jonson, who wrote at a time when the character and acquisitions of our poet wore known to multitudes, affirms that be bad small Latin, and less Greek. Dr. Farmer, in a curious essay upon this subject, has proved that his imaginary imitations from numerous old writers were derived from English books, to which he had easy access. It is surprising how much angry argument has been employed by snch as are opposed to this opinion. Mr. Upton calls it the pride and pertness of dunces, whilst be very amusingly points out the skill with wbich Sbakspeare bas given “ the trocbaie-dimeter-bracby-catalectic, commonly called the ithyphallic measure,” to the witches in Macbeth; and says that now and then a halting verse affords “a most beautiful instance of the pes proceleasmaticus !” Dr. Grey declares that Shakspeare's knowledge of Greek and Latin cannot reasonably be doubted; and another writer doubts wbether Truepenny might not be derived from Toutavov; quoting, at the same time, with much parade, an old scholiast on Aristoplianes. Indeed, plagiarisms bave been discovered in every natural description and every moral sentiment ; a business wbich may be effected with very little time or sagacity, as Addison has shewn in his dissertation on Chevy Chase, and Wagstaff in his comment on Tom Thumb. To cite even a portion of the passages wbich Dr. Farmer bas proved to be suggested by old chronicles, translations, or books of poetry, instead of being taken directly from writers in the dead languages, would be impossible ; bat one result of his inquiries may be adduced as a specimen of the whole. “ Dr. Grey and Mr. Whalley assure us, that for the play of Hamlet, Shakspearé must have read Saxo Grammaticus in Latin, no translation having been made into any modern language. But the trutb is, that he did not take it from Saxo at all; a norel, called the Historie of Hamblet, was bis original; a fragment of which in black letter is now in my possession." Upon tbe same principle, Shakspeare's allusion to the darts of Capid in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where he says that some are tipped with gold and others with lead, does not prove bis acquaintance with Ovid, any more than his allusions to Dido establish bis knowledge of Virgil. Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate, bad already sung the fate of the love-sick queen, and Marlowe bad even introduced her on the stage ; whilst Surrey, Sidney, and Spenser, had defined in their amatory sonnets every characteristic distinction in Capid's arrows. The Comedy of Errors is taken from the only play of Plautus which was then in English; and unless those which were not translated were inaccessible to bim, there is no single reason why, if he copied one, he should not bave copied more. He probably had learnt sufficient Latin to make him acquainted with construction, though be never advanced to an easy perusal of the Roman anthors. Concerning his skill in modern languages, as no imitations of French or Italian authors have been discovered, though Italian poetry was then in high esteem, it would seem that be read Englisů oply, and chose for bis sables merely soch tales as he found translated. Some Italian words and phrases appear, it is true, in his works, but they are not of his own importation. With these opinions, the reader will form bis own decision upon the acquired learning of our poet; and with Drayton, the countryman and acquaintance of Sbakspeare, will probably attribute bis excellence to the naturall bruine only."

As a first impression, it naturally excites surprise, that the dramatic writings o! Shakspeare, productions so agreeable to the age that witnessed their birth, and distinguished by such unequivocal marks of popular approbation, were not more diffusely circulated from time to time through the medium of the press; or at all events secured, by the author himself, from the direct ravages of piracy or ignorance, the common accompaniments of successful genius. It is certain that Shakspeare did not himself print any one of his plays; nor was a collection of them published ontil 1623, seven years after his deatlı, by Heninge and Condale, his former fellow-managers. From that period to 1661, an interval of forty-one years, only two editions were disposed of; the numerical amount of which did not probably exceed one thousand copies ! Different commentators hare assigned different reasons for this apparent retrocession of the national taste ; but Mr. Chalmers has offered the most simple, and consequently the most satisfactory, solution of the circumstance, in a series of statements which it may be useful to lay before the reader, though necessarily in a condensed form. Shakspeare was the promoter of an amusement just emerging from barbarism, and one, moreorer, which h strong tendency to deviate from moral propriety, that the force of law bas been in all ages necessary to preserve it within the bounds of common decency. The church, in particular, has at all times been unfriendly to the stage ; and at this particular period, it required all the policy and circumspection of the court, to establish the reformed faith firmly in the affections of the people. To this important end the controversial efforts of the Puritans were greatly conducive, and nothing was more obnoxious to their tenets, than the toleration of dramatic amusements. Thus Elizabeth, and her successor, James, thougb privately disposed to patronize and foster the stage, as a pleasing addition to their courtly recreations, were yet under the necessity of loading it with some onerous res.rictions, whilst the bisbops themselves publicly committed to the flames all the poetrv and novels which fell within their notice. Severe injunctions were issued against the printing of plays; nor were any allowed to be published, till revised and approved by persons in authority. In the temper and feeling of the times, this may be considered a virtual prohibition; and the pablication of Sbakspeare's works was therefore justly accounted a rery doubtful speculation. For several years after his death, the public taste, ever dependent upon povelty, was strongly directed to the plays of Fletcher, and during the remainder of the seventeenth century, the noble productions of our poet gave place to a species of dramatio composition, equally conspicuous for its wit and its obscenity, and which the more chastened judgment of modern audiences bas driven with abhorrence from the stage. The works of his rival and contemporary Jonson, appear indeed to bare passed through several editions, and to have been read with uncommon avidity, wbile those of our poet were doomed to comparative neglect; but this is chiefly attributable to the passion for classical literature and collegiate learning, wbich were then regarded the chief criteria of merit. Only fifty years after his death, Dryden affirms that he was become “ a little obsolete; and Tate, in bis dedication to the altered play of King Lear, speaks of the original as an obscure piece, recommended to his notice by a friend. In the beginning of the last century, Lord Shaftesbury complained of “ bis rude onpolished style, and bis antiquated phrase and wit;" and it is certain, that for nearly a bundred years after his death,-partly owing to the rebellion, wben the stage was totally abolished-partly from the licentious taste encouraged in the time of Charles II., which we bave already alluded to—and partly from the incorrect state of bis works, he was almost entirely neglected. When, moreover, in addition to these facts, it is recollected that bis works were pnblished in a very anwieldy size-that the opportovities of attracting notice by advertisements were then very few that the women had not applied to literature, nor was every house furnished with a closet of books—the limited sale of his works will cease to be a matter of sarprise, and may fairly be attributed to the character and predominant occupations of the times which immediately followed his decease. Further examination will equally'explain another apparent singularity, and also refute the supposition that Sbakspeare was bimself insensible of the value of bis works, or careless of any reward beyond present popularity and present profit. He wrote them for a particular theatre, sold them to the managers when only an actor, reserved them in manuscript when himself a manager, and on disposing of bis property in the theatre, they were still preserved in manuscript, to prevent their being acted by the rival houses. Copies of some of them appear to bave been surreptitiously obtained, and publisbed in a very incorrect state ; bat the managers were wise enough to overlook this fraud, rather than publish a correct edition, and so destroy the exclusive property they enjoyed. It is clear, therefore, on the one hand, that any publication of his plays by bimself, would have interfered at first with his own interest, and afterwards with that of his fellow-managers, to whom be bad made over his share in them; and on the other, that though tbe fame which he enjoyed was probably the highest wbich dramatic genius could bestow, yet that dramatic genius was novel and unappreciated, or perhaps, not beard of beyond the limits of the metropolis. It is, indeed, very doubtful whether he would have gained much by publication, whilst the refinements of criticism were so little understood, and the sympathies of taste so inadequately felt.

In 1709 an edition was undertaken by Mr. Nicholas Rowe, which had nothing to recommend it but some biographical particulars of Sbakspeare, communicated by Betterton, the celebrated comedian, who had been at the trouble of a journey into Warwickshire purposely to obtain them. Nearly all the faults of the first edition were perpetuated in this ; and according to Dr. Warburton, Mr. Rowe, though a wit, was so utterly unacquainted with the whole business of criticism, that he did not examine or consult the early copies of the work whicb he ventured to re-publish. But it is now very generally allowed, that he made a number of emendations which succeeding editors have received without acknowledgment. In 1725 Mr. Pope published bis edition in 6 vols. 4to, and gave the first example of critical and emendatory notes. He collected the old copies, and restored many lines to their integrity; bis preface is equally celebrated for elegance of composition, and justness of remark; but, by a very compendious criticism, be rejected whatever he disliked, thinking more of amputation than of cure, and proving himself a better poet ihan dramatic critic. Every anomaly of language, and every expression at variance with the accepted phraseology of that day, was considered an error or corruption, and the text was altered, or amended, as it was called, at pleasure. By these fanciful deviations, the poet was so completely modernized, that bad be “revisited the glimpses of the moon," he would scarcely have understood bis own works. In 1733 Mr. Theobald ventured upon a similar task, giving to his work the imposing title of Shakspeare Restored. Dr. Johnson describes him as a man of narrow comprebension and small acquirements---restoring a stray coinma, and then panegyrizing himself for the

« EdellinenJatka »