« PreviousContinue »
MR. WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE. .
WRITTEN BY MR. ROWE.
seems to be a kind of respect due to the memory of excellent men, especially of those whom their wit and learning have made famous, to deliver some account of themselves, as well as their works, to posterity. For this reason, how fond do we sce some people of discovering any little personal story of the great men of antiquity! their families, the common accidents of their lives, and even their shape, make, and features, have been the subject of critical enquiries! How trifling soever this curiosity may seem to be, it is certainly very natural; and we are hardly satisfied with an account of any remarkable person, till we have beard him described even to the very clothes he wears. As for what relates to men of letters, the knowledge of an author may sometimes conduce to the better understanding his book : and though the works of Mr. Shakspeare may seem, to many, not to want a comment; yet I fancy some little account of the man himself may not be thought improper to go along with them.
He was the son of Mr. John Shakspeare, and was born at Stratford upon Avon, in Warwickshire, in April 1564. His family, as appears by the register and public writings relating to that town, were of good figure and fashion there, and are mentioned as gentlemen. His father, who was a considerable dealer in wool, had so large a family, -ten children in all,--that, though he was his eldest son, he could give him no better education than his own employment. He had bred him, it is true, for some time at a free-school, where, it is probable, he acquired what Latin he was master of: but the narrowness of his circumstances, and the want of his assistance at home, forced his father to withdraw him thence, and unhappily preyented his further proficiency in that language. It is without controversy, that in his works we scarcely find any traces of any thing that looks like an imitation of the ancients. The delicacy of his taste, and the natural bent of his own great genius, (equal, if not superior, to some of the best of theirs,) would certainly have led him to read and study them with so much pleasure, that some of their fine images would naturally have insinuated themselves into, and been mixed with his own writings: so that his not copying at least something from them, may be an argument of his never having read them. Whether his ignorance of the ancients were a disadvantage to him or no, may admit of a dispute: for though the knowledge of them might have made him more correct, yet it is not improbable but that the regularity and deference for them, wbich would have attended that correctness, might have restrained some of that fire,
impetuosity, and even beautiful extravagance, which we admire in Shakspeare: and I believe we are better pleased with those thoughts, altogether new and uncommon, which his own imagination so abundantly supplied him with, than if he had given us the most beautiful passages out of the Greek and Latin poets, and that in the most agreeable manner that it was possible for a master of the English language to deliver them.
On his leaving school, he seems to have given entirely into that way of living which his father proposed to him; and, in order to settle in the world after a family manner, be thought fit to marry while he was yet very young.-His wife was the daughter of one Hathaway, said to have been a substantial ycoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford. In this kind of settlement he continued for some time, till an extravagance that he was guilty of, forced him both out of his country, and that way of living which he had taken up; and though it seemed at first to be a blemishı upon his good manners, and a misfortune to him, yet it afterwards happily proved the occasion of exerting one of the greatest geniuses that ever was known in dramatie poetry. Jle had, by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company; and, amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of deer-stealing engaged bim more than once in robbing a park that belonged to Sir Thomas Lucy, of Cherlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and, in order to revenge that ill usage, he made a ballad upon him. And though this, probably the first essay of his poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the prosecution against him to that degree, that he was obliged to leave his business and fainily in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter himself in London.
It is at this time, and upon this accident, that he is said to have made his first acquaintance in the playhouse. Ile was received into the company then in being, at first in a'very mean rank: but his admirable wit, and the natural turn of it to the stage, soon distinguished him, if not as an extraordinary actor, yet as an excellent writer. Ilis name is printed, as the custom was in those times, amongst those of the other players, before some old plays, but without any particular account of what sort of parts be used to play; and though I have enquired, I could never meet with any further account of hin this way, than that the top of his performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet. I should have been much more pleasel, to have learned from certain-authority, which was the first play lie wrote*; it would, without doubt, be a pleasure to any man, curious in things of this kind, to see and know what was the first essay of a fancy like Shakspeare's. Perhaps we are not to look for his beginnings, like those of other authors, among their least perfect writinys : art had so little, and nature so large a share in what he did, that, for aught I know, the performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, and had the most fire and strength of imagination in them, were the best. I would not be thought by this to nican, that his fancy was so loose and extravagant, as to be independent on the rule and government of judgement; but, that what he thought was commonly so great, so justly and rightly conceived in itself, that it wanted little or no correction, and was immediately approved by an impartial judgement at the first sight. But though the order of time in which the several pieces were written be generally uncertain, yet there are passages in some few of them which seem to fix their dates. So the Chorus at the end of the fourth act of Henry the Fifth, by a compliment very bandsomely turned to the earl of Essex, shews the play to have been written when that lord was general for the qucen in Ireland: and his eulogy upon queen Elizabeth, and her successor king James, in the latter end of his Henry the Eighth, is a proof of that play's being written after the accession of the latter of those two princes to the
* The highest date of any, I can yet find, is Romeo and Juliet in 1597, when the author was 33 years old; and Richard the Second, and Third, in the next year, viz. in the 34th year of his age.
crown of England. Whatever the particular times of his writing were, the people of his age, who began to grow wonderfully fond of diversions of this kind, could not but be highly pleased to see a genius arise from amongst them of so pleasurable, so rich a vein, and so plentifuily capable of furnishing their favourite entertainments. Besides the advaxtages of his wit, he was in himself a good-natured man, of great sweetness in his manners, and a most agreeable companion ; so that it is no wonder, if, with so many good qualities, he made himself acquainted with the best conversations of those times. Queen Elizabeth had several of his plays acted before her, and without doubt gave him many gracious marks of her favour: it is plainly that maiden princess, whom he interrds by
a fuir vestal, throned by the west in his Midsummer-Nighi's Dream: And that whole passage is a compliment very properly brought in, and very handsomely applied to her. She was so well pleased with that admirable character of Falstaff, in The Two Parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one play more, and to shew hiin in love. This is said to be the occasion of his writing The Merry IVives of Windsor. How well she was obeyed, the play itself is an admirable proof. Upon this occasion, it may not be improper to observe, that this part of Falstaff is said to have been written originally under the name of * Oldcastle: some of that family being then remaining, the queen was pleased to command him to alter it; upon which he made use of Falstaff. The present offence was indeed avoided; but I do not know whether the author may not have been somewhat to blame in bis second choice, since it is certain that Sir John Falstaff, who was a knight of the garter, and a lieutenantgeneral, was a name of distinguished merit in the wars in France in Henry the Fifth's and Henry the Sixth's times. What grace soever the queen conferred upon him, it was not to her only he owed the fortune which the reputation of his wit made. He had the honour to meet with many great and uncommon marks of favour and friends
ship, from the earl of Southampton, famous in the histories of that time for his friendship to the unfortunate earl of Essex. It was to that noble lord that he dedicated his poem of Venus and Adonis. There is one instance so singular in the magnificence of this patron of Shakspeare, that if I had not been assured that the story was handed down by Sir William D'Avenant, who was probably very well acquainted with his affairs, I should not lave ventured to have inserted ;-that my lord Southampton at one time gave him a thousand pounds, to enable him to go through witlr a purchase which he heard he had a mind to : A bounty very great, and very rare at any time, and almost equal to that profuse generosity which the present age has shewn to French dancers and Italian singers.
What particular habitudes or friendships he contracted with private men, I have not been able to leam, more than that every one, who had a true taste of merit, and could distinguish men, had generally a just value and esteem for him. His exceeding candour and good-nature must certainly have inclined all the gentler part of the world to love bim, as the power of his wit obliged the men of the most delicate knowledge and polite learning to admire him.
His acquaintance with Ben Jonson began with a remarkable piece of humanity and good-nature:-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. Jonson was certainly * See the Epilogue to Henry the Fourth.
a very good scholar, and in that had the advantage of Shakspeare; thougli, at the same time, I believe it must be allowed, that what nature gave the latter, was more than a balance for what books had given the former; and the judgement of a great man on this occasion was, I think, very just and proper.
In a conversation between Sir Jolin Suckling, Sir William D'Avenant, Endymion Porter, Mr. Hales of Eton, and Ben Jonson ; Sir John Suckling, who was a professed admirer of Shakspeare, had undertaken his defence against Ben Jonson with some warmth ; Mr. Hales, who had sat still for some time, told them, That if Mr. Shakspeare had not read the ana cients, he had likewise not stolen any thing from them; and that if he would produce any one topic finely treated by any one of them; he would undertake to shew something upon the same subject at least as well written by Shakspeare.
The latter part of his life was spent, as all men of good sense will wish theirs may be, in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends. He had the good fortune to gather an estate equal to his occasion, and, in that, to his wish; and is said to have spent some years before his death at his native Stratford. His pleasurable wit and good-nature engaged him in the acquaintance, and entitled him to the friendship, of the gentlemen of the neighbourhood. Amongst them it is a story almost still remembered in that county, that he bad a particular intimacy with Mr. Combe, an old gentleman noted thereabouts for his wealth and usury: It happened that, in a pleasant conversation amongst their common friends, Mr. Combe told Shakspeare in a laughing manner, that he fancied he intended to write his epitaph, if he happened to outlive him; and since he could not know what might be said of him when he was dead, he desired it might be done immediately: upon which, Shakspeare gave him these four verses :
Ten in the hundred lies here engrav'd,
Oh! oh! quoth the devil, 'tis my John-a-Combe * But the sharpness of the satire is said to have stung the man so severely, that he never forgave it.
Shakspeare died in the fifty-third year of his age +, and was buried on the north side of the chancel, in the great church at Stratford, where a monument is placed ir the wall. On his grave-stone, underneath, is inscribed ;
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
And curst be le that moves my bones ! He had three daughters, of whom two lived to be married : Judith, the elder, to one Mr. Thomas Quiney, by whom she had three sons, who all died without children: and Susannah, who was his favourite, to Dr. John Hall, a physician of good reputation in that country; she left one child only, a daughter, who was married first to Thomas Nash, esq., and afterwards to Sir John Bernard of Abbington; but died likewise without issue.
This is what I could learn of any note, either relating to himself or family; the character of the man is best seen in his writings. But since Ben Jonson has made a sort of an essay towards it in his Discoveries, I will give it in his words :
* The Rev. Francis Peck, in his Memoirs of the Life and Poetical Works of Mr.John Milton, 4to, 1740, p. 223, has introduced another epitaph imputed (on what authority is unknown) to Shakspeare. It is on Tom-a-Combe, alias Thin-Beurd, brother to this John who is mentioned by Mr. Rowe.
Thin in beard, and thick in purse;
« The devil and he had both one nurse. † Mr. Malone says, that he died on his birth-day, April 23, 1616, and had exactly completed his fifty second year.
6 I re
" I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakspeare, " that in writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer “ hath been, Would he had blouted a thousand! which they thought a malevolent
speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who chose that “ circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted : and to jus“ tify mine own candour, for I loved the man, and do honour his memory, on this “ side idolatry, as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free “ nature, had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions ; wherein “ he flowed with that facility, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stop
ped : Sufflaminandus erat, as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his own
power : would the rule of it had been so too! Many times he fell into those things “ which could not escape laughter; as when he said in the person of Cæsar, obe speaking to hiin,
« Cæsar, thou dost me wrong.
« Jle replied:
“ Cæsar did never rurong, but with just causen “ and such-like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his vir“ tues: there was ever more in him to be praised than pardoned.”
As for the passage which he mentions out of Shakspeare, there is somewhat like it in Julius Coesar, but without the absurdity; nor did I ever meet with it in any edition that I have seen, as quoted by Mr. Jonson. Besides his plays in this edition, there are two or three ascribed to him by Mr. Langbain, which I have never seen, and know nothing of. He writ likewise Venus and Adonis, and Tarquin and Lucrece, in stanzas, which have been printed in a late collection of poems. As to the character given of him by Ben Jonson, there is a good deal in it: but I believe it may be as well expressed by what Horace says of the first Romans, who wrote tragedy upon the Greek models (or indeed translated them), in his epistle to Augustus.
Naturú sublimis et acer,
Sed turpem puat in chartis metuitque lituram. As I have not proposed to myself to enter into a large and complete collection upon Shakspeare's works, so I will only take the liberty, with all due submission to the judgement of others, to obserye some of those things I have been pleased with in looking him over.
His plays are properly to be distinguished otily into comedies and tragedies. Those which are called histories, and even some of his comedies, are really tragedies, with a run or mixture of comedy amongst them. That way of tragi-comedy was the common mistake of that age, and is indeed become so agrecable to the English taste, that though the severer criticks among us cannot bear it, yet the generality of our audiences seem to be better pleased with it than with an exact tragedy.-- The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, and The Taming of the Shrew, are all pure comedy; the rest, however they are called, have something of both kinds. It is not very easy to determine which way of writing he was most excellent in. There is certainly a great deal of entertainment in his comical humours; and though they did not then strike at all ranks of people, as the satire of the present age has taken the liberty to do, yet there is a pleasing and a well-distinguished variety in those characters which he thought fit to meddle with.-Falstaff is allowed by every body to be a master-piece; the character is always well sustained, though drawn out into the length of three plays; and even the account of his death, given by his old landlady Mrs. Quickly, in the first act of Henry the Fifth, though it be extremely natural, is yet as diverting as any part of his life. If there be any fault in the draught he has made of this lewd old fellow, it is, that though he has made him a thief, lying,