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perhaps, Shakespeare's "lovely youth" was merely the creature of imagination, and had no more existence than those fair ones, whom various writers have so perseveringly wooed in verse.79 I have long felt convinced, after repeated perusals of the Sonnets, that the greater number of them was composed in an assumed character, on different subjects, and at different times, for the amusement, and probably at the suggestion, of the author's intimate associates.80 While, therefore, I contend that allusions scattered through these pieces should not be hastily referred to the personal circumstances of Shakespeare, I am willing to grant that one or two Sonnets have an individual application to the poet, as for instance, the cxth and the cxith, in which he expresses his sense of the degradation that accompanies "the profession of the stage. Augustus Schlegel is of opinion, that sufficient use has not been made of them, as important materials for Shakespeare's biography; but, even if we regard them all as transcripts of his genuine feelings, what a feeble
79 Dost thou think the poets, who every one of 'em celebrate the praises of some lady or other, had all real mistresses?...No, no, never think it; for I dare assure thee, the greatest part of 'em were nothing but the mere imaginations of the poets, for a ground-work to exercise their wits upon, and give to the world occasion to look on the authors as men of an amorous and gallant disposition." Don Quixote (translated by several hands) i. 225. ed. 1749.
80 Meres calls them "his sugred Sonnets among his private friends:" see p. xlviii.
and uncertain light would they throw on the history of his life!
About the excellence of these Sonnets, slightly disfigured as they are by conceits and quibbles,81 there can be no dispute. Next to the dramas of Shakespeare, they are by far the most valuable of his works. They contain such a quantity of profound thought as must astonish every reflecting reader; they are adorned by splendid and delicate imagery; they are sublime, pathetic, tender, or sweetly playful; while they delight the ear by their fluency, and their varied harmonies of rhythm. Our language can boast no sonnets altogether worthy of being placed by the side of Shakespeare's, except the few which Milton 82 poured forth, so severe, and so majestic.
Among the minor poems in the present volume, A Lover's Complaint stands pre-eminent in beauty. We recognize but little of Shakespeare's genius in The Miscellany entitled The Passionate Pilgrim: it appears to have been given to the press without his consent, or even his knowledge; and how much of it proceeded from his pen, cannot be distinctly ascertained.
81 What Robert Gould, in The Play House, A Satire, (Works ii. 245. ed. 1709), says of our author's dramas, applies also to his poems;
"And Shakespeare play'd with words, to please a quibbling age."
82 The English Sonnets that approach nearest in merit to Shakespeare's and Milton's, are undoubtedly those by the living ornament of our poetic literature, Wordsworth
CHRONOLOGICAL LIST OF SHAKESPEARE'S
Second Part of Henry VI....... 1591
Third Part of Henry VI.
Love's Labour's Lost.
1 See p. xxx.
2 See Collier's Hist. of English Dram. Poet. i. 327.
3 I agree with Malone in thinking that the passage of Othello (act iii. sc. iv.),
"the hearts of old gave hands,
But our new heraldry is hands, not hearts,"
does not contain the slightest allusion to the institution of the order of Baronets in 1611: see his Life of Shakespeare, p. 402. (Shak. by Boswell, ii.)
FROM THE ORIGINAL IN THE OFFICE OF THE PREROGATIVE COURT OF CANTERBURY.
Vicesimo quinto die Martii,1 Anno Regni Domini nostri Jacobi nunc Regis Angliæ, &c. decimo quarto, et Scotia quadragesimo nono. Anno Domini 1616.
In the name of God, Amen. I William Shakspeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, in the county of Warwick, gent. in perfect health and memory, (God be praised!) do make and ordain this my last will and testament in manner and form following; that is to say:
First, I commend my soul into the hands of God my creator, hoping, and assuredly believing, through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting; and my body to the earth whereof it is made.
Item, I give and bequeath unto my daughter Judith, one hundred and fifty pounds of lawful
Our poet's will appears to have been drawn up in February, though not executed till the following month; for February was first written, and afterwards struck out, and March written over it. MALONE.