Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

It is uncertain whether this request and imprecation were written by Shakspeare, or by one of his friends. They probably allude to the custom of removing skeletons after a certain time and depositing them in charnel-houses, and similar execrations are found in many ancient Latin epitaphs.

We have no account of the malady which, at no very advanced age, closed the life and labours of this unrivalled and incomparable genius.

His family consisted of two daughters, and a son named Hamnet, who died in 1596, in the twelfth year of his age. Susannah, the eldest daughter, and her father's favourite, was married to Dr. John ifall, a physician, who died Nov. 1635, aged 60. Mrs. Hall died July 11, 1649, aged 66. They left only one child, Elizabeth, born 1607-8, and married April 22, 1626, to Thomas Nash, esq. who died in 1647, and afterwards to sir John Barnard of Abington in Northamptonshire, but died without issue by either husband. Judith, Shakspeare's youngest daughter, was married to a Mr. Thomas Quiney, and died Feb. 1661-62 in her 77th year. By Mr. Quiney she had three sons, Shakspeare, Richard, and Thomas, who all died unmarried. Sir Hugh Clopton, who was born two years after the death of lady Barnard, which happened in 1669-70, related to Mr. Macklin, in 1742, an old tradition, that she had carried away with her from Stratford many of her grandfather's papers. On the death of sir John Barnard, Mr. Malone thinks, these must have fallen into the hands of Mr. Edward Bagley, lady Barnard's executor, and if any descendant of that gentleman be now living, in his custody they probably remain. To this account of Shakspeare's family, we have now to add, that among Oldys's papers is another traditional story of his having been the father of sir William Davenant. Oldys's relation is thus given.

“ If tradition may be trusted, Shakspeare often baited at the Crown Inn or Tavern in Oxford, in his journey to and from London. The landlady was a woman of great beauty and sprightly wit, and her husband, Mr. John Davenant, (afterwards mayor of that city) a grave melancholy man; who, as well as his wife, used much to delight in Shakspeare's pleasant company. Their son, young Will. Davenant (afterwards sir William) was then a little school-boy in the town, of about seven or eight years old, and so fond also of Shakspeare, that whenever he heard of his arrival, he would fly from school to see him. One day an old townsman observing the boy running homeward almost out of breath, asked him whither he was posting in that heat and hurry. He answered, to see his god-father Shakspeare. “There's a good boy,' said the other, “but have a care that you do n't take God's name in vain.' This story Mr. Pope told me at the earl of Oxford's table, upon occasion of some discourse which arose about Shakspeare's monument then newly erected in Westminster Abbey."

This story appears to have originated with Anthony Wood, and it has been thought a presumption of its being true that, after careful examination, Mr. Thomas Warton was inclined to believe it. Mr. Steevens, however, treats it with the utmost contempt, but does not perhaps argue with his usual attention to experience when he brings sir William Davenant's “ heavy, vulgar, unmeaning face" as a proof that he could not be Shakspeare's son.

In the year 1741, a monument was erected to our poet in Westminster Abbey, by the direction of the earl of Burlington, Dr. Mead, Mr. Pope, and Mr. Martyn. It was the work of Scheemaker, (who received three hundred pounds for it) after a design of Kent, and was opened in January of that year. The performers of each of the London theatres gave a benefit to defray the expenses, and the dean and chapter of Westminster

took nothing for the ground. The money received by the performance at Drury Lane theatre amounted to above two hundred pounds, but the receipts at Covent Garden did not exceed one hundred pounds.

From these imperfect notices, which are all we have been able to collect from the labours of his biographers and commentators, our readers will perceive that less is known of Shakspeare than of almost any writer who has been considered as an object of laudable curiosity. Nothing could be more highly gratifying than an account of the early studies of this wonderful man, the progress of his pen, his moral and social qualities, his friendships, his failings, and whatever else constitutes personal history. But on all these topics his contemporaries and his immediate successors have been equally silent, and if aught can hereafter be discovered, it must be by exploring sources which have hitherto escaped the anxious researches of those who have devoted their whole lives, and their most vigorous talents, to revive his memory and illustrate his writings. In the sketch we have given, if the dates of his birth and death be excepted, what is there on which the reader can depend, or for which, if he contend eagerly, he may not be involved in controversy, and perplexed with contradictory opinions and authorities?

It is usually said that the life of an author can be little else than a history of his works ; but this opinion is liable to many exceptions. If an anthor, indeed, has passed his days in retirement, his life can afford little more variety than that of any other man who has lived in retirement; but if, as is generally the case with writers of great celebrity, he has acquired a pre-eminence over his contemporaries, if he has excited rival contentions, and defeated the attacks of criticism or of malignity, or if he has plunged into the controversies of his age, and performed the part either of a tyrant, or a liero in literature, his history may be rendered as interesting as that of any other public character. But whalever weight may be allowed to this remark, the decision will not be of much consequence in the case of Shakspeare. Unfortunately we know as little of the progress of his writings as of his personal history. The industry of his illustrators for the last thirty years has been such as probably never was surpassed in the annals of literary investigation, yet so far are we from information of the conclusive or satisfactory kind, that even the order in which his plays were written rests principally on conjecture, and of some plays usually printed among his works, it is not yet determined whether he wrote the whole, or any part.

Much of our ignorance of every thing which it would be desirable to know respecting Shakspeare's works, must be imputed to the author himself. If we look merely at the state in which he left his productions, we should be apt to conclude, either

that he was insensible of their value, or that while he was the greatest, he was e at the same time the humblest writer the world ever produced;

“ that be thought his works unworthy of posterity, that he levied no ideal tribute upon future times, bor had any further prospect, than that of present popularity and present profit ®.” And such an opinion, although it apparently partakes of the ease and looseness of conjecture, may not be far from probability. But before we allow it any higher merit, or attempt to decide upon the affection or neglect with which he reviewed his labours, it may be necessary to consider their precise nature, and certain circumstances in his situation which affected, them; and, above all, we must take into our account the character

e Dr. Johnson's preface, C.

[ocr errors]

and predominant occupations of the times in which he lived, and of those which followed his decease.

With respect to himself, it does not appear that he printed any one of his plays, and only eleven of them were printed in his lifetime. The reason assigned for this is, that he wrote them for a particular theatre, sold them to the managers when only an actor, reserved them in manuscript when himself a manager, and when he disposed of his property in the theatre, they were still preserved in manuscript to prevent their being acted by the rival houses. Copies of some of them appear to have been surreptitionsly obtained, and published in a very incorrect state, but we may suppose that it was wiser in the author or managers to overlook this fraud, than to publish a correct edition, and so destroy the exclusive property they enjoyed. It is clear therefore that any publication of his plays by himself would have interfered, at first with his own interest, and afterwards with the interest of those to whom he had made over his share in them. But even had this obstacle been removed, we are not sure that he would have gained much by publication. If he had no other copies but those belonging to the theatre, the business of correction for the press must have been a toil which we are afraid the taste of the public at that time would have poorly rewarded. We know not the exact portion of fame. he enjoyed; it was probably the highest which dramatic genius could confer, but dramatic genius was a new excellence, and not well understood. Its claims were probably not heard out of the jurisdiction of the master of the revels, certainly not beyond the metropolis.

Yet such was Shakspeare's reputation that we are told his name was put to pieces which he never wrote, and that he felt himself too confident in popular favour to undeceive the public. This was singular resolution in a man who wrote so unequally, that at this day the test of internal evidence must be applied to his doubtful productions with the greatest caution. But still how far his character would liave been elevated by an examination of his plays in the closet, in an age when the refinements of criticism were not understood, and the sympathies of taste were seldom felt, may admit of a question. “ His language,” says Dr. Johnson, “not being designed for the reader's desk, was all that he desired it to be, if it conveyed his meaning to the audience."

Shakspeare died in 1616, and seven years afterwards appeared the first edition of his plays, published at the charges of four booksellers, a circumstance from which Mr. Malone infers," that no single publisher was at that time willing to risk his money on a complete collection of our author's plays.” This edition was printed from the copies in the hands of his fellow-managers Heminge and Condell, which had been in a series of years frequently altered through convenience, caprice, or ignorance. Heminge and Condell had now retired from the stage, and, we may suppose, were guilty of no injury to their successors, in printing what their own interest only had formerly withheld. Of this, although we have no documents amounting to demonstration, we may be convinced, by adverting to a circumstance which will in our days appear very extraordinary, namely, the declension of Shakspeare's popularity. We have seen that the publication of his works was accounted a doubtful speculation, and it is yet more certain that so much had the public taste turned from him in quest of variety, that for several years

after his death the plays of Fletcher were more frequently acted than his, and during the whole of the seventeenth century, they were made to give place to performances, the greater part of which cannot now be endured. During the same period only four cditions of

bis works were published, all in folio ; and perhaps this unwieldy size of volume may be an additional proof that they were not popular; nor is it thought that the impressions were numerous.

These circumstances which attach to our author and to his works, must be allowed a plausible weight in accounting for our deficiencies in his biography and literary career; but there were circumstances enough in the history of the times to suspend the progress of that more regular drama of which he had set the example, and may be considered as the founder. If we wonder why we know so much less of Shakspeare than of his contemporaries, let us recollect that his genius, however highly and justly we now rate it, took a direction which was not calculated for permanent admiration, either in the

age

in which he lived, or in that which followed. Shakspeare was a writer of plays, a promoter of an amusement just emerging from barbarism ; and an amusement which, although it has been classed among the schools of morality, has ever had such a strong tendency to deviate from moral purposes, that the force of law has, in all ages, been called in to preserve it within the bounds of common decency. The church has ever been unfriendly to the stage. A part of the injunctions of queen Elizabeth is particularly directed against the printing of plays; and, according to an entry in the books of the stationers' company, in the forty-first year of her reign, it is ordered that no plays be printed except allowed by persons in authority. Dr. Farmer also remarks that, in that age, poetry and novels were destroyed publicly by the bishops, and privately by the puritans. The main transactions, indeed, of that period could not admit of much attention to matters of amusement. The Reformation required all the circumspection and policy of a long reign, to render it so firmly established in popular favour as to brave the caprice of any succeeding sovereign. This was effected, in a great measure, by the diffusion of religious controversy, which was encouraged by the church, and especially by the puritans, who were the immediate teachers of the lower classes, were listened to with veneration, and usually inveighed against all public amusements, as inconsistent with the Christian professipn. These controversies continued during the reign of James I. and were, in a considerable degree, promoted by him, although he, like Elizabeth, was a favourer of the stage, as an appendage to the grandeur and pleasures of the court. But the commotions which followed, in the unhappy reign of Charles I. when the stage was totally abolished, are sufficient to account for the oblivion thrown on the history and works of our great bard. From this time, no inquiry was made, until it was too late to obtain any information more satisfactory than the few hearsay scraps and contested traditions above detailed. “ How little,” says Mr. Steevens,“ Shakspeare was once read, may be understood from Tate, who, in his dedication to the altered play of King Lear, speaks of the original as an obscure piece, recommended to his notice by a friend; and the author of The Tatler having occasion to quote a few lines out of Macbeth, was content to receive them from Davenant's alteration of that celebrated drama, in which almost every original beauty is either awkwardly disguised, or arbitrarily omitted !!!

In fifty years after his death, Dryden mentions that he was then become “ a little ob solete.” In the beginning of the last century, lord Shaftesbury complains of his “rude, unpolished style, and his antiquated phrase and wit.” It is certain that, for nearly an hundred years after his death, partly owing to the immediate revolution and rebellion, and partly to the licentious taste encouraged in Charles II.'s time, and perhaps partly to

10 Mr. Steevens's Advertisement to the Reader, first printed in 1773.

the incorrect state of his works, he was almost entirely neglected. Mr. Malone has justly remarked, that “ if he had been read, admired, studied, and imitated, in the same degree as he is now, the enthusiasm of some one or other of his admirers in the last age would have induced him to make some inquiries concerning the history of his theatrical career, and the anecdotes of his private life"."

His admirers, however, if he had admirers in that age, possessed no portion of such enthusiasm. That curiosity which, in our days, has raised biography to the rank of an independent study, was scarcely known, and, where known, confined principally to the public transactions of eminent characters. And if, in addition to the circumstances already stated, we consider how little is known of the personal history of Shakspeare's contemporaries, we may easily resolve the question why, of all men who have ever claimed admiration by genius, wisdom, or valour, who have eminently contributed to enlarge the taste, promote the happiness, or increase the reputation of their country, we know the least of Shakspeare: and why, of the few particulars which seem entitled to credit, when simply related, and in which there is no manifest violation of probability, or promise of importance, there is scarcely one which has not swelled into a controversy. After a careful examination of all that modern research has discovered, we know not how to trust our curiosity beyond the limits of those barren dates which afford no personal history. The nature of Shakspeare's writings prevents that appeal to internal evidence which, in other cases, has been found to throw light on character. The purity of his morals, for example, if sought in his plays, must be measured against the licentiousness of his language; and the question will then be, how much did he write from convietion, and how much to gratify the taste of his hearers ? How much did he add to the age, and how much did he borrow from it? Pope says, “ He was obliged to please the lowest of the people, and to keep the worst of company;" and Pope might have said more : for, although we hope it was not true, we have no means of proving that it was false.

The only life which has been prefixed to all the editions of Shakspeare of the eighteenth century, is that drawn up by Mr. Rowe, and which he modestly calls “ Some Account, &c.” In this we have what Rowe could collect when every legitimate source of information was closed, a few traditions that were floating nearly a century after the author's death. Some inaccuracies in bis account have been detected, in the valuable notes of Mr. Steevens and Mr. Malone ; who, in other parts of their respective editions, have scattered a few brief notices, which are incorporated in the present sketch. The whole, however, is unsatisfactory. Shakspeare, in his private character, in his friendships, in his amusements, in his closet, in his family, is no where before us ; and such was the nature of the writings on which his fame depends, and of that employment in which he was engaged, that, being in no important respect connected with the history of his age, it is in vain to look into the latter for any information concerning him.

Mr. Capell is of opinion that he wrote some prose works, because " it can hardly be supposed that he, who had so considerable a share in the confidence of the earls of Essex and Southampton, could be a mute spectator only of controversies in which they were so much interested.” This editor, however, appears to have taken for granted a degree of confidence with these two statesmen which he ought first to have proved. Shakspeare might have enjoyed the confidence of their social hours, but it is mere conjecture that

11 Mr. Malone's Preface to his edition, 1790.

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »