« PreviousContinue »
last few years.
Art. I.-1. Shakespeare: The First Folia Edition of 1623.
Reproduced under the immediate supervision of Howard
Staunton, by Photo-lithography. Folio. 2. Shakespere: a Critical Biography. By Samuel Neil. 12mo. London, 1861. THE two works at the head of this article are samples of what has been done for Shakspearian literature within the
It is a matter of congratulation to all students of the great dramatist that the appliances of modern science should have given us an exact facsimile of the first collected edition of the poet's works, and thus have enabled all readers to judge for themselves of the state and arrangement of the text as it first left the hands of the poet's literary executors. Mr. Neil's little book has done good service in presenting the facts of the poet's biography, and the most material documents relating to it, in their strict chronological order. The value of the slenderest notices derived from original papers in illustrating not only the life of the poet, of his family, and his neighbours in Warwickshire, but the spirit and manners of the period, can never be fully appreciated until the whole mass of evidence has been thoroughly sifted. Availing ourselves therefore of what has been brought to light by the indefatigable diligence of the poet's admirers within the last few years, and of such papers as still remain unpublished in the Record Office, we propose to lay before our readers a sketch of Shakspeare's life and times, carefully eliminating from the former those supposed facts and theories which have gathered round it on the faith of documents now generally regarded with discredit.
Of Shakspeare's great contemporaries, by descent as well as by feeling, Spenser was intimately connected with the aristocracy of England. His life was spent at a distance from the metropolis. During his long residence in Ireland he treasured up the impressions he had received in his youth of the glories of Elizabeth, and the grandeur of Protestantism,-its heroic Vol. 131.–No. 261.
sufferings, its eventual triumph over all forms of falsehood and deceit, moral, religious, social, scientific, and political. These impressions were never disturbed by too close an approximation to realities. Happily, it was never the poet's lot to witness the party and personal squabbles in which his knights indulged too freely in the court of his Gloriana, or to see prelates and Puritans divided, and both equally forgetful of mutual charity, in bitter controversies about square caps and white surplices. Hooker, on the other hand, owed his descent to the burgher class. The chief part of his life was spent in the quiet seclusion of the university. If Spenser was mainly indebted to his imagination for his knowledge of the external world, Hooker judged it by his books. His mind was as deeply tinctured with fathers and schoolmen-with an ideal Christianity enshrined in the past—as Spenser's imagination lingered over mediæval romances and Arthurian legends. Over both the past had a stronger hold than the present ; the tò kalòp of the one and the tò dikalov of the other are equally heroical—both equally transcend the capabilities and the limits of poor, failing, commonplace humanity.
It was otherwise with Shakspeare. Like Spenser, he was allied by his mother's side to gentle blood ;* like Hooker, he was linked to the burgher classes by the stronger parent. Brought up in the country till the age of manhood, thrown early upon his own resources, obliged to no college-fellowship like Hooker, to no diplomatic appointment like Spenser, he was tossed on the seething waves of the metropolis, or rather cast himself upon them, with the same boldness, perhaps the same apparent recklessness, as he had entered on a marriage at eighteen, when he was no better than a poor apprentice or foreman to a failing glover in a poor country town. Of his life-struggles—and they must have been many—he has left no sign. Of his patience, his endurance, his solitary determination, whilst unassisted and unadvised he carved out his way from the safe obscurity of Stratford to the highest pinnacle of fame, he has told us nothing. This early familiarity with the hard realities of life left no trace on his mind, as these things leave scars and traces on inferior intellects, beyond perhaps that sympathy with humanity, that profound appreciation of it in all its forms, which is one of his greatest characteristics as a poet.
How far the circumstances of his life and times may have determined or assisted the development of his genius it is not easy to ascertain. Of no other English poet can it be said with greater justice: Poeta nascitur non fit.' Many, indeed, of Shakspeare's enthusiastic admirers will not allow that he owed anything to art or to learning. They claim for Nature and for natural inspiration alone those great masterpieces of invention in which others have professed to find traces of the most profound philosophy, the most acute physiological knowledge, the clearest distinctions of races, the fullest appreciation of all forms of poetry, the exactest study of man and of nature.
* •She was one of the heirs of Robert Arden of Wellingcote.'-Grant of Arms.
That Shakspeare owed most to Nature, that his obligations to learning or accidental circumstances were but slight, we may fully concede, without at the same time entirely overlooking the obvious advantages afforded by the times for dramatic composition, and the traces of classical education to be found throughout the poet's works. The same keen and unerring instinct which from a single glance could body forth and project in a visible form the whole life and character of a man, however remote from ordinary observation, would by a similar power extract from books-poor and meagre in themselves—the quintessence of a life rich and varied, instinct with thoughts and feelings, such as inferior intelligences would fail to gather from the most perfect productions of the greatest genius. The dreary chronicle, the blundering biography, the vapidest translations of Cæsar or of Sallust, were instruments sufficient to set at work that innate power of the poet which, like Nature itself, develops the most perfect and glorious results from the most contemptible and unworthy materials. That is what we mean by genius. With ordinary men the instruments by which they work must bear some proportion in dignity and value to the end to be produced ; but genius is divine and miraculous in this, that it is not tied to the order, methods, and instruments by which common men are bound. Admitting, then, that no amount of training or study can account for Shakspeare's plays, admitting also that the poet was little indebted to school learning for his wonderful productions, that would not necessarily invalidate the importance of his education, or the beneficial influences of his peculiar times. Brought up at the grammarschool of Stratford, he would acquire as much knowledge of Latin and French as fell to the lot of most of his contemporaries. Before the great public schools had attracted much attention -before, indeed, they were accessible to the large majority of the English country gentlemen, owing to bad roads and inefficient means of travelling—the grammar schools of our country towns furnished the only means for the training and education of the gentry and richer citizens throughout the largest extent of England. Were the results poor and unsatisfactory? Can any period be pointed out in our history which provided on the whole
abler schoolmasters or scholars more deeply interested in learning? It is impossible to open any popular book of those times without being struck with its rich abundance of classical allusion. If this be attributed to pedantry, that pedantry was universal. But we have a more unsuspicious testimony; not only did the dramatists of the age freely borrow from classical antiquity their plots, their quotations, their witticisms—and that for dramas intended for a popular audience—without scruple, without dread of being misunderstood—but in the humours of Eastcheap, in the busiest haunts of life, the honey of Hybla,' “pitiful Titan,' • Phæbus the wandering knight,' .Diana's foresters,' homo is a common name for all men,' are freely bandied from mouth to mouth, with not so much as a thought on the part of the author that his allusions will not be fully understood by his audience.
If Shakspeare, then, had, as Jonson observes, little Latin and less Greek,' the admission at least implies that he had some knowledge of both-enough of Latin to read ordinary Latin books and translations, and more than enough of genius to extract from what he did read the pith and substance. It was an age throughout of Latin cultivation. Greek, with few exceptions, was unattainable, except to men of fortune, or rare scholars at the universities. In fact
, Shakspeare was the poet of an age that loved learning for its own sake-an age that had come into a new inheritance of breathless wonder and interest
· Like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken;' and he would not have been the man of his time, nor the poet. that he was, had he been wholly indifferent to learning or wholly unacquainted with it.
Nor were the times less favourable to him as a dramatic poet. The Reformation had done much to develop individual character. The feeling of a common Christendom, the sense of submission to the Church as a great society, the duty of not diverging widely from the authorized limits of religious opinion and belief, had all. passed away.
Each man felt bound to carve out a faith for himself, and to discard as worthless-at least, as suspiciouswhatever was recommended or received on authority or tradition. Bacon has said that time, like a river, brings down on its surface the straw and the stubble, but the solid and the gold have long. since sunk to the bottom. What seems like a paradox to the philosopher, was accepted by the reformers as an undoubted and undeniable truth. Authority was the test of falsehood, not of truth. Uniformity of belief was not to be found in nations or in single men. No two agreed. Diversity of faith led to diversity
of character; and if there be one phenomenon more striking than another in the reign of Elizabeth, it is the strange humours, the extravagancies, the conceits, the motley exhibition of dress, manners, sentiments, and opinions, admitting no central authority, bound by no restraint beyond the caprice of the individual. There was, besides, no standard of taste, no school of criticism, no public opinion, literary or otherwise, to which men could defer, or, probably, if there had been, would have cared to defer. There were no settled forms of English—no deference to classical models, which all consented to accept. No long-established rules imposed a wholesome restraint on the teeming invention and luxuriant wit of the Elizabethan writers.
But while the Reformation had been thus powerful in developing individual character in its widest extent; whilst men revelled in their new-found liberty, and cared not to determine when it degenerated into licentiousness; whilst Nature avenged herself on the dry, logical studies of a preceding age by a reaction which sometimes trespassed into animalism, the material forms of the old world and the old religion still held their ground. In the parish church the service was in English, not in Latin; but the ceremonies, the dresses, the fasts, and the festivals, though curtailed, remained essentially the same. Sermons were scarcely more frequent than they had been in Popish times; men and women went to confession-paid their Easter offerings-looked up to the parish priest as their spiritual guide. Most of these priests had been in their livings when Edward VI. was crowned
- had complied with Queen Mary — had re-complied with Elizabeth-accommodated their new to their ancient faithdoubtless retained many of their old Romish practices and predilections--and were winked at by their bishops, especially in distant provinces. How could it be otherwise, unless the rulers of the Church were prepared to see nine-tenths of the parishes of England deprived of all spiritual instructors, and churches and congregations falling into irremediable decay? Though Puritanism was creeping on with rapid and stealthy pace towards the close of the century, it numbered as yet a contemptible and unnational minority. It had not yet contrived to inspire men with one intense and narrow sentimentalism ; to force
their unwilling acceptance its straitened notions of a straitened creed. It had not yet taught them to look with sour suspicion on all forms of annusement as ungodly; or to suspect Popery in mince-pies and cheerful village festivals. So ancient customs remained as they had remained ages before. Christmas, with its pageants and processions, its mummers and its good fare; Twelfth-night, Midsummer's Eve, St. Mark's, St. Valentine's, and All Saints