Imágenes de páginas
PDF

regular occupations, he found leisure to engage in what were probably in his time considered rather as youthful frolics than serious crimes; and having broken the deerpark of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, and libelled the proprietor in a ballad for his severity in punishing this merely juvenile prank, Shakspeare found it necessary to leave the country, and in 1586 he went to London. Why should a living man despair? This youth, so friendless, and in circumstances so desperate that his only resource was the meanest offices about the theatre, or the lowest and most precarious employments of the stage, was destined, not merely to extend and refine, but almost to create and consummate the drama of his country-to become the wonder, the boast, and the envy of nations, such an one, that they who feast their minds with his enchant. ments “ till the sense aches,” begin to wonder in their dazzled or bewildered thoughts if he were indeed created

of kindred mould with their own. From the office of prompter, scene-shifter, or, as is even

said, link-boy, Shakspeare rose to fill some humble stageparts, though his highest character never went beyond the Ghost in his own Hamlet. Yet, if another proof of his mental supremacy were wanted, it might be found in his directions to the players. His natural taste is there shewn to have been as exquisite, and as far beyond his rant

ing contemporaries in the histrionic art as in the dramatic. Shakspeare's first-written play is supposed to have been Ro

meo and Juliet, which was printed about ten years after he came to London. Imagination loves this order of chronology; yet it is very doubtful, and some of his biographers not only place the historical plays first in order, but assign his earliest dramatic effort to a period so early as 1589, when he had been only three years in London. Whatever may have been the real order of succession in his dramas, it is certain that they were all composed be. fore 1614, at which time he retired to his native town, to

the undisturbed enjoyments of an easy and social life, thinking, apparently, very little about literary struggles, or poetical reputation. He had realized a fortune equal

to his wishes,-about £200 a-year. At Stratford he lived for two years in excellent fellowship with the gentlemen of the neighbourhood. His family consisted of two daughters, and a son, who died a boy. Both of the daughters were married, but no descendant of Shakspeare is known to have survived himself for a halfcentury. The scandalous chronicle, the only chronicle in which there is no interruption, makes him the father of Sir William Davenant, the poet and dramatist, but without any apparent foundation, save that Shakspeare, in his visits to Stratford, used to stop at the inn kept by the elder Davenant in Oxford, and that the boy, who was his godson, was very fond of him. Of his person and manners Aubrey says, “ He was a handsome, well-shaped man, verie good companie, and of a very ready, pleasant, and smooth wit.” Shakspeare was buried in the chancel of the great church of Stratford. His monument, the site of his dwelling, and the spot where he planted his mulberry tree, are still visited as shrines by men of all civilized nations :

“ Thither repair the pilgrims of his genius."

Shakspeare attained considerable popularity in his own

day, though his dramas, seen only in London, did not, for a century after his death, make their way to the heart of the nation. The neglect so long shewn to Shakspeare's writings is one of the most monstrous and flagrant proofs, which the history of literature affords, of the slow growth, or rather of the constant deficiency, of public taste for the highest order of excellence. The lofty grandeur, severity, and classic dignity of Milton, the involution, remoteness, and “ lone romance" of Spenser, and the poetic mysticism of the more modern Collins, may account for the neglect long shewn to them, and which is still practically shewn, even by those whom time and chance have made familiar with their consecrated names. That the “divine philosophy," the “ still small voice” of humanity, so exquisitely breathed by Wordsworth, should not at once fall on the ear of a world whose finer sense is stifled by the din of its own bustle, is sufficiently intelligible; but that the poet of the universe, whose genius traversed every region of imagination, and permeated every living thing, leaving its glowing impress on every scene of life, on every modification of character, should not have created an instant sympathy in every bosom that beats with human pulses, is indeed passing strange; yet such is the fact, and it may be whole. some to record it. The age of Shakspeare was an age highly poetical; yet even the slender popularity he enjoyed, not more than Mr Reynolds or Mr Kenny does now, declined on his retiring to the country. After his death, Beaumont and Fletcher's plays were much more frequently acted; and till the Restoration, or, more correctly, till the Revolution, his dramas were seldom seen, and had given place to the most turgid and bombastic trash that ever disgraced the stage of a polished nation. The name of Shakspeare does not once occur in the multifarious writings of his great contemporary Bacon, nor is there any allusion made to his dramas. Dryden, who admired Shakspeare so far as he understood him, says, “ he was becoming a little obsolete;" and Shaftesbury objects to his “ rude unpolished style, and antiquated phrase and wit.” During a whole century only four small editions of his works were published; and when Pope edited an edition of his plays, he found it necessary to point out the beauties of the obscure and antiquated author by placing his finest passages within inverted commas. It does not appear that, though there were lions in those days, Shakspeare was ever even a “ lion.” But the Queen, who relished dramatic performances, was gracious to him; and James the First wrote him a complimentary letter. This was fame enough, and probably much less would have sufficed ; for no writer ever appeared so little solicitous about reputation. He wrote dramas, for this was necessary to gain a living; and he made them the finest the world ever saw, for to this he was constrained by the “ so potent mastery” of his astonishing genius. His name, popular among the frequenters of the theatre, was often put to trash, as a bait to draw an audience, and, like Raleigh, to whom the same trick was sometimes played, he fathered the spurious brood with the most edifying indifference. While contemporary and succeeding writers were conciliating friends, flattering patrons, and talking big of themselves, their works, and their admirers, not a line, not a letter, public or private, not a single reference on his own affairs, does the world possess of Shakpeare; not a single anecdote or bon mot remains of him who must have been the most bewitching of social companions. To the courtiers he was probably best known as a theatrical manager; by the learned he was quite disregarded. He appears to have attracted social regard more by his candid, happy, and genial character, than by his genius ; and though connected for many years with the most ticklish and irascible of human beings-players, authors, and patrons-he does not appear to have been involved in a single squabble, or to have made any honest man his enemy. Ben Jonson, it is alleged, was somewhat jealous of this unlettered, “wild, irregular, genius ;" but Jonson, who had experienced his generous kindness, felt and acknowledged his superiority. It is impossible that Shakspeare could have been unconscious of his own genius :

“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes,

Shall outlive this powerful rhyme," is one of his fervid expressions in one of those sonnets

from which, as he frequently speaks in his own person, much of his genuine character may be gathered ; as, for example, in the sonnet beginning, “ Oh! for my sake, do you with Fortune chide," But singular happiness of temper did for him what a lofty indifference did for Milton; and he not only disregarded contemporary applause beyond the walls of his theatre, but probably never dreamed of posthumous fame. “He wrote for the great vulgar and the small," says one of the most eloquent of his panegyrists, “not for posterity. If Queen Elizabeth and the maids of honour laughed at his worst jokes, and the catcalls in the gallery were silent at his best passages, he went home and slept the night well." He did not trouble himself about Voltaire's criticism nor Schlegel's praise. Accused of violating all the laws of dramatic unity in Lear or the Winter's Tale, his apology was the rapid composition of Macbeth or Othello ; . again, if it so pleased him, annihilating both time and space, and filling the void with his own magic creations, till the plastic world of enchantment becomes for the time more seeming true, more teeming and various, than the world of reality. The language has been exhausted in the praise of Shakspeare. From Dryden downward every great writer has bowed to his illustrious shade, and “ done it courtesies.” Even his faults, like blemishes on the face of a beloved mistress, have come to be admired, if not as positive beauties, yet as points of identity which the enthusiastic lover could not see removed without some confusion of his feeling of his charmer's individuality allied to pain. Of all the modern critics of Shakspeare, the palm must be yielded to Mr Hazlitt, as much for the fervid and cordial heartiness of his admiration, as for his delicate perception of the more exquisite beauties, and subtle and intricate movements of the genius of his author. Other critics have admired Shakspeare, and have discoursed him feature by feature, and anatomized

« AnteriorContinuar »