« AnteriorContinuar »
TABLE OF CONTENTS.
THE LIFE AND WRITINGS
WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE was born at Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire, April 23, 1564. His 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 beld also the office 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 been greatly reduced in the latter part of his life, as he was excused the tribing weekly tax of foarpence, levied on all aldermen, and subsequently resigned the office to another individual. His wife was the daughter and beiress of Robert Arden, of Wellingcole, in Warwickshire, " & gentleman of worship.” This lady brought him ten children, of whom William, onr poet, was the eldest. At a proper age he was sent to the freeschool in Stratford, to which he was indebted for wbatever 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 his own business. Mr. Malone, on the contrary, conjectures, that he was placed in the ofice of some country attorney, after leaving school, or with the seneschal of some mapor court, where he picked up those technical law phrases that so frequently occur in his plays, and could not bave been in common use unless among professional men. However this may be, be 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 wife producing bim twins. Nothing is knowo 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 his youngest child, he left Stratford for the metropolis : his 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 bimself 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 hopoar to our poet's genius, and was manifestly unjust. Some writers bave asserted, that Sbakspeare escaped with impunity after his first offence; but that, repeating it audaciously, be was prosecuted by Sir Thomas, whom he grossly lampoonedthat to escape a prison, he iled 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 bis first appearance on the stage in a very subordinate character. This accoant (according to a modern publication) is not entitled to full credence ; for though he may bave associated with some idle youths, either for the sake of catching deer, or for some less difficult and hazardous enterprise, yet the story seems improbable, and comes in such a questionable shape, that it ought to be strongly corroborated before it be believed. Without depending on this circumstance, or supposing that “he beld horses at the door of a theatre for his livelihood," & ratioval znotive for his visiting London may be found in the circumstance, that be had a relative and townsman already established there ; Thomas Green, " a celebrated comedian.” The statement of Jobo Aubrey, a student in the upiversity 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 his parentage and occapation. • His father (says Aubrey) was a butcher, and I have been told heretofore, by some of the neighbours, that when he was a boy he exercised his father's trade, but when be killed a calfe, he would doc it in a high style, and make a speeche. This William, (meaning Sbakspeare,) being naturally inclined to poetry and acting, came to London, I guesse about eigbteen, and was an actor at one of the play-bonses
, 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 and indinations had for a long time previously inclined him. The playful enthusiasm of bis
disposition, when directed not to the useful parposes 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 Justice Shallow, the recollection of bis own adventare was probably uppermost in his mind; and if there were any doubt on the subject, the circunstance 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 anthor," 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 have 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 be appeared to more advantage than that of the ghost in Hamlet. The instructions given to the player, and oiber 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 meebanical part of a theatre, lis native genius inspired all the other essentially superior qualities of a play-wright. The date at which his first play appeared is unknown, and the greatest uncertainty prevails with respect to the chronological order in which the whole series was written, exbibited, or published. As no certain authority could be adduced upon this point, recourse has been bad to internal evidence; and by searching for those marks of progressive excellence, wbich are supposed to result from exercise and improvement, the dates of each play have been pretty positively fixed.
Though Shakspeare contioued to write till the year 1614, he had probably declined appearing as an actor long before that period; as no mention of bis name can be found among ibe list of players subsequent to the production of Ben Jonson's Sejanus in 1603. He now succeeded in obtaining a license from king James 10 exbibit comedies, tragedies, histories, &c. at the Globe Theatre or elsewhere, and was enabled to acquire, during his dramatic career, property to a considerable amount. Gildon (in his “Letters and Essays," 1694) estimated tbe amount at £300 per annum, a sum at least equal to £1000 in oar 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 bis thirty-five plays, Sbakspeare wrote some poetical pieces, which were publisbed separately, viz. Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Passionate Pilgrim, A Lover's Complaint, and a volume of Sonnets. The Earl of Southampton, with whom be was a great favourite, is said to have presented him with a sum of £1000, to enable bim to complete a purchase an act of munificent patronage, wbich has never been exceeded. He enjoyed in a great degree the personal favour of Queen Elizabeth ; and King James the First “was pleased with his owa band to write an amicable letter to Mr. Shakspeare,” in return (as Dr. Farmer supposes) for the compliment paid to bim 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 acquired 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 honourable ease, at bis native town of Stratford. Or the exact time when this took place, nothing certain is knowo; but Mr. Theobald supposes be did not resign the theatre before 1610, since, in his Tempest, be mentions the Bermuda islands, which were uoknown to the English till 1609, when Sir Jobn Sumpers discuvered them on bis voyage to North America. He lived in a very bandsome house of his own purchasing, to which, baving repaired and modelled it to his own mind, he gave the name of New Place; and he bad the good fortune to save it from the flames in the dreadfal fire wbicb shortly afterwards laid waste the town. During Shakspeare's abode in this house, bis wit and good-humour engaged bim the acquaintance and entitled bim 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 bumour and a social companion, and that be excelled in that species of minor wit not ill adapted to conversation, of which it is to be wished he had been more sparing in bis writings. In the begining of the year 1616 he made his will, wherein he testified his respect to his quondam theatrical partners, appointing his youngest daughter, jointly with ber husband, his executors, 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, with the
furniture," constilpled the only bequest to her. It is not known what particular malady terminated, at no very advanced age, the life and labours of this incomparable genius; but he died on the 23d of April, 1616, being the anniversary of bis birth-day, when he exactly completed his ffty-second year. He was interred among bis ancestors, on the north side of tbe chancel, in the great church of Stratford, and a handsome monument, bearing the following Larin distich, was erected to his memory:
Judicio Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem,
Terra tegit, populus mæret, Olympus habet.
Good friend, for Jesus' sake, forbear
And curst be be that moves iny bones.
Mrs. Sbakspeare survived ber husband eight years, dying in 1623, at the age of sixtyseven. Of Shakspeare's family, the son died in 1596; the eldest daughter, Susanna, married Dr. John Hall, a physician of Stratford, wbo is said to bave obtained much reputation 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, bat bad no issue by either of them. The second daughter, Judith, married Thomas Qainey, 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 Barvard, who was buried at Abingdon, Feb. 17, 1669-70. Dr. Hill, ber father, died Nov. 25, 1635, and her mother, July 11, 1649, and were both inlerred in Stratford church. Our poet's house and lands continued in the possession of his descendants to tbe time of the Restoration, wben they were re-purchased by the Clopton family, we 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 cortune, who resided in it but a few years, and in consequence of a disagreement with his neighé hours respecting a parochial assessment, peevishly pulled down the house, sold the materials
, and left the town. To defeat the cariosity of the numerous strangers who were led to visit this classic ground, he bad some time before cut down the mulberry-tree, which Shakspeare is known to have planted, and bad piled it as a stack of firewood, to the great Texation, loss, and disappointment, of the inhabitants of Stratford. But an honest silversaith bought the whole stack, and converted it into a number of toys and implements, which were eagerly parchased by the curious. The purpose to which one of these trifles was applied gave rise to an occurrence, harmless, and perhaps landable 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 Shakspeare, upou the rery 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 10 celebrate the memory of the poet. The jobilee lasted three days; but the weaIber was exceedingly anfavonrable, and the pleasure enjoyed was by no means equal to that which the enthusiastic admirers of Sbakspeare had anticipated, though Garrick exerted all his talents to gratify both the eye and the understanding. He composed sereral songs for music, with an ode of considerable length to the honour of his hero; and having expended a large sum of money upon various parts of the entertainment, inok a method of reimbursing himself, wbich gives a laugbable finale to this uverflow of cathasiasm :-the jubilee was converted into a dramatic representation, during the following miater, in London, and became so popular, that it was repeated vight after viglit to ile most crowded audiences. The nature and extent of Sbakspeare's biblical learning will form a necessary introduclion to the review of bis dramatic writings ; especially as there is no question connected with his history, upon which more ingenious speculation has been bazarded. There has always prevailed a tradition that Shakspeare wanted learning, and Ben Jonson, who Wote at a time when the character and acquisitions of our poet were known to multi
ludes, affirms that he had small Latia, and less Greek. Dr. Farmer, in a curious essay npwo this subject, bas proved that his imaginary imitations from numerous old writers were derived from English books, to which he had easy access. It is surprising how mucli angry argument bas been employed by snch as are opposed to this opinion. Mr. Lpton calls it the pride and perlness of duoces, whilst be very amusingly points out the skill with which Sbakspeare has given “ the trocbaic-dimeter-brachy-catalectic, commonly called the itbyphallio measure," to the witches in Macbeth; and says that now and then a halting verse affords “a most beautiful instance of the pes proceleosmaticus!". Dr. Grey declares that Shakspeare's knowledge of Greek and Latin cannot reasonably be doubted ; and another writer doubts wbether Truepenny migbt not be derived from Touravov; 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 basiness which may be effected with very little time or sagacity, as Addison has sewn in his dissertation on Chevy Chase, and Wagstaff in his comment on Tom Tbomb. To cite even a portion of the passages which Dr. Farmer has 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 ; but one result of his inquiries may be adduced as a specimen of the whole. “ Dr. Grey and Mr. Whalley assare us, that for the play of Hamlet, Shakspeare must have read Saxo Grammaticus in Latin, no translation baving been made into any modern language. But the truth 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 the same principle, Shakspeare's allusion to the darts of Cupid in A Midsummer Night's Dream, wbere he says that some are tipped with gold and others with lead, does not prove bis acquaintance with Ovid, any more tban his allusions to Dido establish bis knowledge of Virgil, Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate, bad already song 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 io Cupid's arrows. The Comedy of Errors is taken from the only play of Plautus which was then in English; and upless those which were not translated were inaccessible to bim, there is no single reason why, if he copied one, be should not bave copied more. He probably had learnt safficient Latin to make him acquainted with construction, though he never advanced to an easy perusal of the Roman anibors. Concerning bis skill in modern languages, as no imitations of French or Italian authors have been discovered, though Italian poetry was then in bigh esteem, it would seem that be read Englisis only, and chose for bis fables merely such 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 Drayion, the countryman and acquaintance of Shakspeare, will probably attribute his excellence to “ the naturall braine only."
As a first impression, it naturally excites surprise, that the dramatic writings of Sbakspeare, productions so agreeable to the age tbat witnessed their birth, and distinguished by such anequivocal 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 gepius. It is certain that Shakspeare did not himself print any one of his plays; nor was a collection of them published until 1623, seven years after his death, by Henjoge and Condale, his former fellow-managers. From that period to 1664, 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 have assigned different reasons for this apparent retrocession of the national taste ; but Mr. Chalmers bas 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 condec.ed form. Shakspeare was the promoter of an amusement just emerging from barbarism, and one, moreover, which has ever had soch a strong tendency to deviate from moral propriety, that the force of law has 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, tban the toleration of dramatic amusements. Thus Elizabeth, and her successor, James, though privately disposed to patronize and foster the stage, as a pleasing addition to their courily recreations, were yet under the necessity of loading it with some onerous restrictions, wbilst the bishops themselves publicly committed to the flames all the poetry and