Зображення сторінки
[ocr errors]

o either juvenile or female characters. The hireling was engaged at a weeky salary, and his services sometimes secured, by special articles of agreement, to a particular theatre for two or three years. , His stipend was naturally proportioned to his abilities: one notice occurs of the engagement of an actor at sive shillings a week for one year, and six shillings and jo for the second. And here I shall resume the biography of Shakspeare. It is improbable that haever obtained more than six shillings and eightpence a week for his services on the stage. He was at first engaged in a very mean capacity, and was so little distinguished afterwards for any extraordinary excellence as an actor, that the Ghost in his own Hamlet was considered his most successful effort 1). It was usual in old plays to mention the names of the actors, but not to distinguish the character which each player performed. The name of Shakspeare frequently occurs, but it is only further known that he was the representative of Adam in As You Like It 2). In the theory of the art of of: Shakspeare was, however, perfectly skilled. The directions of Hamlet to the players are a keen censure upon the boisterous rant, and impertinent ignorance of his contemporaries, and an admirable epitome of general principles for the guidance of the actor. But deficient in those peculiarities of nature that are necessary to the formation of a first-rate performer, it was in vain that Shakspeare entertained the highest ideas of the perfection of which scenic personification is capable. His name was, to all appearance, on the point of sinking to oblivion, but a spirit burnt within him which not the chilling influence of poverty could repress, nor the degradation of his situation Jong obscure, and the actor of mediocrity aspired to distinction as a writer for the stage. Among the dramas produced antecedently to 1590, there were many felicitous ideas, both of circumstance and passion which the half-formed tastes of their authors had imperfectly described. But as the love of theatricals became general, and the principles of dramatic composition better understood, the adaptation of the early plays to the more modern stage was a common practice. Encouraged by an easy acquisition of pecuniary reward, for no comparison existed between the task of revisal and the labour of original composition, authors of the highest talents did not disdain the employment. Decker, Rowley, Hayward, Jonson, and others, were frequently thus engaged in conferring value on the works of others, and to this ungrateful task the first efforts of Shakspeare were modestly confined. The second and third parts of Henry VI., (with the first part, Shakspeare had undoubtedly little, if any thing to do.) are vast improvements upon preceding dramatic productions by no means destitute of merit, and their success was such as to embolden the bard to risk a higher slight.

The utmost cfforts of industry, seconded by a prudence too seldom found among the votaries of the Muses, were barely adequate to tho supply of nature's simplest wants. The price }. by the managers for a new ''. Was twent V nobles, or 6l. 13s. 4d., for which consideration the author surrendered all property whatever in the piece... If, as was sometimes, the case, the play was not absolutely purchased by the theatre, the poet looked for remuneration from the profits of a third night's representation, the precarious produce of the sale of his play, when published, at sixpence a copy, and the hard-earned fee of forty shillings for an adulatory dedication to a patron. The sums given for the alteration of old plays varied extremely, and were, doubtless, regulated by the quantity of new matter furnished, and the success attendant upon the revival: as little as ten shillings was sometimes paid, and the highest remuneration was short of what was given for a new play. Dramatic writers, were, therefore, generally poor: they were bound to theatrical managers either by favours }. existing debts, or the perpetual dread of one day, needing their assistance. Their wants often compelled them to solicit, nay, their very existence o sometimes to have deended on, advances on the embryo productions of their brains, and the labours of to-day were devoted to cancel the obligation which the accessities of yester

1) Rowe, Note M. 2) Oldys, Note N.


day had contracted. It is truly piliable to find the great Ben Jomson soliciting from Henslowe, the advance of a sum so paltry as “five shillings.” In 1592 Shakspeare was well known as a writer for the stage, but no point of the poet's history is involved in greater obscurity than the time of his commencing original dramatic author, and every attempt to connect with certainty so interesting a circumstance with any one of his numerous dramas has ended in disappointment. The Two Gentlemen of Verona and the Comedy of Errors ho * pointed out, but others might, with equal propriety, have been Selected. The combination of the profession of a dramatic writer with the occupation of a player must have lightened the pecuniary difficulties of Shakspeare, but could assord him little prospect of emerging from the poverty in which almost every writer for the stage was then involved. But if he reaped no great pecuniary advantage from his labours as an actor and author, yet in his latter character he advanced in worldly consideration. The actors, in his day, were both denominated and regarded as servants, and when the comedian's duty summoned him to attendance at the mansion of his noble patron, the buttery was the place to which he was admitted. But the society of dramatic writers was o by the opulent; the nobility adopted them as acquaintances, and made them at once the objects of their bounty, and esteem. And thus it happened to Shakspeare and the accomplished Lord Southampton. Sir Thomas Ileminge, his lordship’s father-in-law, was treasurer of the chambers to the Queen, and the rewarding of the actors at the court was part of his office. The theatre and actors, therefore, were almost necessarily forced upon the attention of the young nobleman, and the effect of the early impression is sufficiently marked at still later periods of Lord Southampton's life by his neglect of the court for a daily attendance at the the: atre; his entertainment of Cecil with “plaies”; and his causing the tragedy of Richard the Second to be acted, for the double purpose of sedition and of amuscment, on the night previous to Essex’s rebellion i). At the theatre, then, com: menced that connection between himself and Shakspeare which is first intimated by the poet’s dedication to his Lordship of the poem of Venus and Adonis, in 1593, when Lord Southampton was just twenty years of age. Their mutual satisfaction was testified, and their growing friendship cemented, by Shakspeare's repetition of the compliment on the publication of the Rape of Lucrece in 1594. It is reported of Lord Southampton that he at one time gave to Shakspeare a thousand pounds to cnable him to complete a purchase 2); and the assertion is strongly corroborated by the opulence in which Shakspeare is found a Yery few years after his arrival in London,—an opulence far too considerable to have accrued from his emoluments of actor and writer for the stage. Some of his plays could only have entitled him to the smaller recompence paid for the alteration of an old drama. His original pieces were sold absolutely to the theatre: the gain, upon them, therefore, is ascertainable with tolerable precision, as he . o advantage from their publication nor from their dedication to the opulent 3). p In 1567, Shakspeare bought New Place, one of the best houses in his native town, which he repaired and adormed. In the following year, apparently as a man of known property, he was applied to by a brother townsman for the loan of thirty pounds 4); and, about the same time, he expressed himself as not unwilling to advance, on adequate security, money for the use of the town of Stratford 5). The poet’s still increasing wealth is marked by a continuation of his pur

1) Letter from Sir Rowland Whyte to Sir Robert Sidney in the Sidney papers, and Lord Bacon's works.

2) Rowe, on the authority of Davenant.

3) Fourteen plays of Shakspeare were printed during his lifetime, but without advantage to him, as they were surreptitious publications, alike fraudulent on him, on the managers of the Globe, and on the public.

4) Letter from Richard Quyney to Shakspeare.

5) Two letters from Abm. Sturley of Stratford.

chases. In 1602, he gave 820l. for 107 acres of land, which he connected with his former property in New Place. In 1605, he bought, for 440l., the lease of a moiety of the great and small tithes of Stratford 1); and, in 1613, a house in Blackfriars for 140l. A singularity attendant upon this purchase is, that only 80l. of the money were paid down, the remainder being left as a mortgage upon the premises 2). The Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery vied with Lord Southampton in patronizing Shakspeare 3); and he was also distinguished by the notice of two successive sovereigns, in a manner not less flattering than unusual. The delicacy of even a “virgin queen” was not shocked by the grossness of that keen-witted voluptuary, Falstaff; and so thoroughly did Elizabeth relish the humour of the two parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded the apearance of Falstaff under the influence of love. To this incident in the poet’s ife the world is indebted for the Merry Wives of Windsor; a play, it is said, written in the short space of a fort-night 4). The extension of the poet's fame was a necessary, consequence of the public approbation of his sovereign, and this, in all probability, was the greatest benefit, which resulted to him from her patronage. Of the “many gracious marks of her favour,” which Rowe makes no doubt Elizabeth conferred on Shakspeare, no vestige remains in the shape of reward more substantial than praise, on which to found a belief that the case of our poet formed an exemption to the almost invariable parsimony which charaeterized Elizabeth's conduct to literary men 5); though the dramatist was no niggard of his flattery, the most grateful incense that could be offered at the shrine of her prodigious vanity. The drama found in James a sincere and useful patron. In 1599 he received some English comedians under his protection in Edinburgh, and scarcely was he seated on the English throne, when he effected a complete revolution in theatrical affairs. An act of parliament of the first year of his reign 6), deprived the nobility of the power of licensing comedians, and their several meagre companies then became concentrated in three regular establishments, under the patronage of the royal family. Prince Henry was the patron of Lord Nottingham's company, which played at the Curtain; the servants of the Earl of Worcester, who occupied the Red Bull, were transferred to the Queen, and subsequently distinuished '. the designation of Children of the Revels: the King appropriated to imself the company of the Lord Chamberlain. His Majesty's licence 7) to Laurence Fletcher, William Shakspeare, Richard Burbage, and others, constituting them his servants, confirmed them in the possession of their usual house, the Globe, and authorised their exhibition of every variety of dramatic entertainment, in all suitable places throughout his dominions. The Globe, it appears from this document, was the general theatre of the Lord Chamberlain's company; but they had long enjoyed a sort of copartnership in the playhouse in Blackfriars, with “the Children,” and subsequently became the o: of that house. At one or other of these theatres all Shakspeare's dramas were produced, the Globe being the summer, the Blackfriars the winter, theatre of the company to which he attached himself. Like the other servants of the household, the per

[ocr errors]

1) Wheeler's Guide to Stratford.

2) Mortgage-deed executed by Shakspeare, and conveyance from Henry Walker.

3) Dedication to the first folio.

4) Rowe and Gildon.

5) Elizabeth's treatment of Richard Robinson, the translator of the Gesta, who solicited a recompence for the Harmony of King David's Harp, which he dedicated to her by permission, may be quoted in illustration. “Your Majesty thanked me for my good-will; your Highness was glad you had a subject could do so well, and that I deserved commendations. But for any gratification for any such labour, your Majesty was not in mynde to bestow any such relief upon me, for your Highness had care of the chargeable voyage to come, of relieving your needy soldiers and requiting of their pains. Finally, your Highness set me not on work, and therefore you were not to pay me my wages.” British Bibliographer, vol. i. p. iii. If the reader possesses any curiosity to see instances of the gross flattery used to Elizabeth, he may consult the same work and volume,

P. J.
6) Chap. VII. 7) Dated May 19, 1603.

formers enrolled in the King's company were sworn into office, and each was allowed four yards of bastard scarlet cloth for a cloak, and a quarter of a yard of velvet for the cape, every second year. With occasional variation in the number of companies, with the rise of one establishment, and the decline of another, circumstances of little influence on the general complexion of theatrical affairs, the theatre continued pretty much on the footing on which it was placed by James, till it was buried by fanaticism amidst the ruins of monarchy and civil order. From gratitude for the honour conferred §. the company, or in compliance with the o fashion of the time, Shakspeare paid his court in flattery to a monarch fully susceptible of its blandishments. Contrary to all historical authority, Banquo, the ancestor of James, is represented noble in mind, and guiltless of participation in the murder of his sovereign. The delicacy of the compliment, and the skill of its execution, well merited the reward it is said to have earned,—a letter from the monarch penned with his own hand 1). The delight afforded by Shakspeare to both his sovereigns, was a fact familiar to his contemporaries. “Sweet swan of Avon, what a sight it were To see thee in our waters yet appear, And mark those flights upon the banks of Thames, That so did take Eliza and our James” 2). Though Elizabeth and her successor were admirers of Shakspeare. and of theatrical amusements generally, neither of them a F. ever visited the public theatres, but gratified their tastes by directing the attendance of the comedians at court. These performances before royalty usually took place at night, an arrangement which did not interfere with the other engagements of the actors. The customary fee for an exhibition in London was 6l. 13s. 4d., and royal bounty graciously added an additional 81.6s. 8d. When, however, the company attended at any palace in the vicinity of the metropolis, and consequently lost the morning performance at their own theatre, the remuneration was doubled. At the end of a few years Shakspeare obtained a commanding voice in the management of the theatre. As a sharer he no longer received the recompence, merely, of an actor or author for services performed, but participated, additionally, in the profits of the company. What annual income he derived from that source, it is impossible to estimate with any pretensions to precision. It is alike unknown, how many shares the property of the theatre was divided into, and how many shares Shakspeare was possessed of. Supposing him, however, and the supposition is more than sufficiently diffident, to have stood on a footing with Heminges, who is associated with him in James's licence, we have the authority of his partner for asserting, that “a good yearly profit. 3) accrued to him from the concern, and his interest in it was as perfectly at his disposal by sale, gift, or bequest, as any thing else in his possession. It was in consequence, probably, of his elevation that Shakspeare ceased about this time to make his appearance as an actor, a profession which he followed without eminent success, and, apparently, with considerable disgust 4). In the list of the performers of Jonson's Sejanus, produced in 1603, the name of Shakspeare occurs for the last time as a comedian; and henceforth he may be supposed to have given his undivided attention to the management of the theatre, and the cultivation of dramatic literature, till he retired from the cares of active life. Including those plays which he either rewrote, or so materially modified as to . them as his own, Shakspeare was the undoubted author of thirty-four dramas between the period of his departure from, and final return to, Stratford. Of the order in which they made their appearance little that is decisive is known; and the most ardent investigator of the subject, after a laborious search for contemporary notices of, and allusions to, Shakspeare's dramas, and for indications of time in his works themselves, has not ventured to designate the result of his

1) Davenant possessed the letter, and related the circumstance to Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham. Oldys.

2) Ben Jonson. 3) Heminges' will.

4) Sonnets 110, 111.

labours by any other title than “An attempt to ascertain the order in which the plays of Shakspeare were written,” and modestly concludes, that it is probable they were composed “nearly in the following succession; which, though it cannot at this day be ascertained to be their true order, may yet be considered as approaching nearer to it than any which has been observed in the various editions of his works.”

1 Second Part of Henry VI. - 1591 2 Third Part of Henry VI. - 3 Two Gentlemen of Verona - 4 Comedy of Errors - - 1592 5 King Richard J.I. - - 1593 6 King Richard III. - - - 7 Love's Labours' Lost - - 1594 8 Merchant of Venice - - 9 Midsummer Night's Dream - 10 Taming of the Shrew - - 1596 11 Romeo and Juliet - - 12 King John - - - - 13 First Part of King Henry IV. - 1597 14 Second Part of King Henry IV. - 1599 15 As You Like It — - - 16 King Henry V. - - - 17 Much Ado about Nothing - 1600 18 Hamlet - - - 1600 19 Merry Wives of Windsor - 1601 20 Troilus and Cressida - - 1602 21 Measure for Measure - - 1603 22 Henry VIII. - - - 28 Othello - - - - 1604 24 Lear - - - - 1605 25 All's Well that Ends Well - 1606 26 Macbeth - - - 27 Julius Caesar - - - 1607 28 Twelfth Night – - - 29 Antony and Cleopatra - - 1608 * 30 Cymbeline - - - 1609 81 Coriolanus - - - 1610 22 Timon of Athens - - 33 Winter's Tale - - - 1611

34 Tempest

Some positions of this chronology rest on distinct and positive testimony, many are just deductions from certain premises, but others are the result of con!. so refined, on allusions so obscure and dubious, as to mock the name of CW1Clence. Malone's arrangement was succeeded by the belief that the order of Shakspeare's o exhibited the gradual expansion of their author's mind. But how stands the fact? In Shakspeare's long career of authorship, the brightest period is indisputably that which commences with the composition of Hamlet in 1600, and closes with Macbeth in 1606:—it was between those years that Lear and Othello were produced. Before the composition of Hamlet are found Richard II. and III., the W. of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, King John, a Midsummer Night's Dream, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V. As You Like It, and Much Ado about Nothing. And what is the merit of Shakspeare's compositions, subsequently to the Macbeth, which transcends the excellence of these? The claims of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, which come under the last division, may be met by the two Richards and Ho V.: King John, an early play, is equal to Timon; the Two Gentlemen of Verona is a drama scarcely inferior to Cymbeline; and the Merchant of Venice of more merit than the Winter's Tale. Twelfth Night, written in 1607, is indeed a comedy of the highest excellence; but is Much Ado about Nothing lower in the rubrick? Nor is the Tempest, the last of Shakspeare's compositions, and admirable in its kind, without a rival in Midsummer Night's lyream, which is among the earliest Fo of his muse. The merits of Romeo aud Juliet, the two parts of enry IV., and the Taming of the Shrew, all early plays, still remain to be urged, and they surely throw a weight into the scale more than sufficient to

« НазадПродовжити »