Зображення сторінки

ticism in the world would be sufficient to get over such a testimony.” The same critic assigns other reasons to show that this play was one of Shakspeare's early productions, between 1554 and 1590. “ Can we imagine,” he asks, 66 that such an active head would remain idle for six whole years, without making any attempt to emerge by his talents from an uncongenial situation :” The following pieces appeared during Shakspeare's life-tiine, and with his naine to them. 1. Locrine; 2. Sir John Oldcastle; 3. Lord Cromwell; 4. The London Prodigal; 5. The Puritan; and, 6. A Yorkshire Tragedy. Schlegel, speaking of these plays, says,

“ the three last are not only unquestiouably Shakspeare's, but, in my opinion, they deserve to be classed among his best and maturest works.” Steevens admits, at least in some degree, that they are Shakspeare's, as well as the others, excepting Locrine, but he speaks of all of them with great contempt, “ as quite worthless productions." On the same subject let us hear the decided language of Dr. Drake (ii. 536.) “ Of these wretched dramas, it has been now positively proved, through the medium of the Henslowe papers, that the name of Shakspeare, which is printed at length in the title-pages of Sir John Oldcastle, 1600; and The London Prodigal, 1605; was affixed to those pieces by a knavish bookseller, without any foundation *.'

Eight other dramatic pieces have been attributed to Shakspeare: all of which are condemned by Dr. Drake, who says, he does not believe that “twenty lines can be found of Shakspeare, in Henry VI. or Titus Andronicus,” and not so many in the six above enumerated: therefore, says he, “ it would be utter abuse of time to enter into any critical discussion of the merits or defects of those pieces. The same may be said of other volumes, consisting of poems, &c. which certain impudent publishers have foisted on the world, even with the name of Shakspeare in the title-page. I have seen a rare little volume, called Cupid's Cabinet Unlocked, in the possession of James Perry, Esq. with his name; but it has no other character. istic of the great author, whose name is thus prostituted.

Shakspeare, besides his plays, wrote several Poetical pieces, viz. “ Venus and Adonis," printed in 1593 ; “ The Rape of Lucrece," printed in 1594 ; " The Passionate Pilgrim," printed in 1599 ; “ A Lover's Complaint,” not dated; and a Collection of Sonnets, printed in 1609. The first and second of these productions were dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, who is stated, on the authority of Sir William D'Avenant, to have given the poet a thousand pounds.

* See Reed's Shakspeare, vol. iii. p. 390, &c.

If this anecdotę be really true, it evinces a spirit of liberality and well-directed munificence, which entitles his lordship to the highest rank among the patrons of genius. It shows also that Shakspeare's merits were appreciated by some eminent characters, even in his lifetime; a truth which is confirmed by the rapid sale of his poems, and hy the attentions which he received from Queen Elizabeth, and her successor, King James. The former, says Rowe, had several of his plays acted before her, and “ without doubt gave him many gracious marks of her fa. vour.” According to the same writer, it was at her desire he composed the Merry Wives of Windsor. King James also was present at the representation of many of his pieces, and is stated by Lintot to have written to him “an amicable letter" with his own hand, and as Dr. Farmer con. jectures, in return for the compliment paid him in Macbeth. This letter is said to have remained long in the possession of Sir William D'Avenant, who, according to some persons, was an illegitimate son of the poet.

Shakspeare, as already hinted, was an Actor as well as a writer of plays, and seems to have taken a share in the representation of many of his own productions. As late as the year 1603, only thirteen years before his death, his name appears among the actors of Ben Jonson's play of Sejanus. Thus it is evident that he continued to perform many years: but of his merits as a player, we find no positive data to found an accurate estimate, and hence there is much diversity of opinion among his commentators. Performers and dramatic authors were not then so closely watched, or so fastidiouly criticised as in the present age; indeed diurnal reviewers were then unknown. From some satirical passages in the writings of his contemporaries, he appears not to bave been a favourite actor with the public. His instructions on the subject of acting, however, in Hamlet, are so peculiarly excellent, that we are not a little inclined to suspect, if he was unpopular, that it arose rather from the want of taste in his audience, than from any deficiency of theatrical powers in himself.

The science of acting” was then only in its infancy; and as he that“ strutted

and bellowed” most, was probably esteemed the best player, Shakspeare's gentleness would be considered tameness, and bis observance of nature ignorance of his art. It has been traditionally said, and with every degree of probability, that our poet was a good performer; and that the notice he obtained by the personification of the Ghost in bis own play of Hamlet, shows, he not only knew how to "suit the action to the word, and the word to the action,” but could execute this advice. The whole of Hamlet's directions to the players, are so full of “ pith and moment,” so apposite, copious, and replete with sound sense, that one cannot doubt the ample qualifications of its author to feel, understand, and indeed accomplish parts of those instructions. Aubrey's testimony is, that Shakspeare “ did act exceedingly well.

At what period our poet gave up all personal connexion with the theatre has not been discovered ; but it is probable that he retired from it at least three years before his death. Rowe indeed states, that “the latter part of his life was spent, as all men of good sense would wish theirs may be ; in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends.” During his dramatic career, he acquired a share in the property of the Globe Theatre, and was joint manager of the same; his name is mentioned in the licence granted by King James, in 1603, for the exhibition of plays in that house, and in any part of the kingdom. This share he probably sold when he knally retired to Stratford, as it is neither alluded to in his will, nor does his name occur in the accounts of the theatre for 1613.

Sbakspeare, like most men of pre-eminent talents, is said to have been much assailed by the attacks of envious rivals ; yet we are assured that diffidence and good-nature were the peculiar characteristics of his personal deportment. Among those who are stated to have treated him with hostility, was the celebrated Ben Jonson; but Dr. Farmer thinks, that though Jonson was arrogant of bis scholarship, and publicly professed a rivalship of Shakspeare, he was in private his friend and associate. Pope, in his preface says, that Jonson “ loved” Shakspeare, “as well as honoured his memory; celebrates the honesty, openness, and frankness of his temper; and only distinguishes, as he reasonably ought, between the real merit of the author, and the silly and derogatory applauses of the players. Mr. Gilchrist, whose dramatic criticisms are generally profound and acute, has published a pamphlet to prove that Jonson was never a harsh, or an envious rival of Shakspeare, and that the popular opinion on this subject is founded in error. The following story respecting these two great dramatists is related by Rowe, and has been generally credited by subsequent biographers. “Mr. Jonson, who was at that time altogether unknown to the world, had offered one of his plays to the players, in order to have it acted; and the persons into whose hands it was put, after having turned it carelessly and superciliously over, were just upon returning it to him with an ill-natured answer, that it would be of no service to their company, when Shakspeare luckily cast his eye upon it, and found something so well in it, as to engage him first to read it through, and afterwards to recommend Mr. Jonson and his writings to the public.”

The opposition or rivalship of Shakspeare and Jonson produced, as might naturally be expected, much contention concerning the relative merits of each between their respective friends and admirers ; and it is not a little remarkable, that Jonson seems to have maintained a higher place in the estimation of the public in general than our poet, for more than a century after the death of the latter. Within that period Jonson's works are said to have passed through several editions, and to have been read with avi. dity, while Shakspeare's were comparatively neglected till the time of Rowe. This circumstance is in a great measure to be accounted for on the principle that classical literature and collegiate learning were regarded in those days as the chief criterions of merit. Accordingly Jonson's charge against Shakspeare was the want of that species of knowledge; and from his own proficiency in it, he probably arrogated a superiority. That all classical scholars, however, did not sanction Jonson's pretensions is certain ; for among the greatest admirers of Shakspeare, was one of the most learned men of bis age, the evermemorable Hales. On one occasion the latter, after listening in silence to a warm debate between Sir John Suckling and Jonson, is reported to have interposed by observing, “ That if Shakspeare had not read the ancients, he had likewise not stolen any thing from them; and that if he (Jonson) would produce any one topic finely treated by any one of them, he would undertake to show something upon the same subject, at least as well written by Shakspeare." A trial, is added, being in consequence agreed to, judges were appointed to decide the dispute, who unanimously voted in favour of the English poet, after a candid examination and comparison of the passages produced by the contending parties.

“ Shakspeare,” observes Rowe,“ had the good fortune to gather an estate equal to his occasion, and in that to his wish ;" but the biographer does not even bint at the amount of the poet's income. Malone, however, judging from the bequests in Shakspeare's Will, thinks it might be about 2001. per year; which at the age when he lived, was equal to 8001. a year at the present time. Subsequent to his retirement from the stage, he resided in a house at Stratford which he had purchased, according to Wheler, in 1597, from the family of Underhill, and which, previous to that time had been called the Great House, probably from its having been the best in the town, when it was originally erected by Sir Hugh Clopton, in the reign of Henry the Seventh. The poet appears to have made considerable alterations in this bouse, and changed its name to New-place. Here he seems to have resided a few years in retirement, but not without devoting some time to dramatic composition ; for Malone asserts, that the play of Twelfth Night was written after his final residence at Stratford. In this house he died, on Tuesday, April 23, 1616, being the anniversary of bis 52d year*; in two days afterwards his remains were interred within the chancel of the parish church; where a flat stone and a mural monument were afterwards placed to point out the spot, and commemorate his likeness, name, and memory.

Such is the substance of the scanty notices respecting the life of Shakspeare, which we are enabled to collect from Lowe, and from the various commentators on his work, to Dr. Drake inclusive. To these we shall add, the following anecdotes, in bis own words, as recorded by John Aubrey in his MS. collections in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. It is worthy of note that Aubrey resided at Oxford for several years after 1642; that he was intimate with Sir William D'Avenant, Hobbes, Mil

* It is a remarkable coincidence that Cervantes, the most original genius on the Continent, died on the same day.

« НазадПродовжити »