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circumstance that relates to those persons whose writings we admire, awakens and interests our curiosity. The time and place of their birth, their education and gradual attainments, the dates of their productions and the reception they severally met with, their habits of life, their private friendships, and even their external form, are all points, which, how little foever they may have been adverted to by their contemporaries, strongly engage the attention of posterity. Not satisfied with receiving the aggregated wisdom of ages as a free gift, we visit the mansions where our instructors are faid to have resided, we contemplate with pleasure
2 The first edition of this Essay was published in January 1778.
the trees under whose shade ihey once reposed , and wish to see and to converse with those sages, whose labours have added strength to virtue, and efficacy to truth.
Shakspeare above all writers, since the days of Homer, has excited this curiosity in the highest in degree; as perhaps no poet of any nation was ever
more idolized by his countryinen. An ardent desire to understand and explain his works, is, to the honour of the present age, so much increased within the last forty years, that inore has been done towards their elucidation, during that period, } than in a century before. All the ancient copies of his plays, hitherto discovered, have been collated with the most scrupulous accuracy. The meanest books have been carefully examined, only because they were of the age in which he lived, and might happily throw a light on some forgotten custom, or obsolete phrascology: and, this object being still kept in view, the toil of wading through all such reading as was never read has been cheerfully endured, because no labour was thought too great, that might enable us to add one new laurel to the father of our drama. Almost every circumstance that tradition or history has preserved relative to him or his works, has been investigated, and laid before the publick; and the avidity with which all communications of this kind have been received, fufficiently proves that the time expended in the pursuit has not been wholly misemployed.
However, after the most diligent inquiries, very
3. Within the period here mentioned, the commentaries of Warburton, Edwards, Heath, Johnfon, Tyrwhitt, Farmer, and Steevens, have been published.
few particulars have been recovered, respecting his private life or literary history: and while it has been the endeavour of all his editors and commentators to illustrate his obfcurities, and to regulate and correct his text, 110 attempt has been made to trace the progress and order of his plays. Yeti surely it is no incurious speculation to mark the gradations * by which he rose from mediocrity to
* It is not pretended that a regular scale of gradual improvement is here presented to the publick: or that, if even Shakfpeare himself had left us a chronological lift of his dramas, it would exhibit such a scale. All that is meant is, that, as his knowledge increased, and as he became more conversant with the stage and with life, his performances in general were written more happily and with greater art; or (to use the words of Dr. Johnson) u that however favoured by nature, he could only impart what he had learned, and as he must increase his ideas, like other mortals, by gradual acquisition, he, like them, grew wiser as he grew older, could display life better as he knew it more, and instruct with more efficacy, as he was himself more amply instructed.” Of this opinion also was Mr. Pope. It must be observed, (says he,) that when his performances had merited the protection of his prince, and when the encouragement of the court had succeeded to that of the town, the works of his riper years are manifeNly raised above those of his former. - And I make no doubt that this observation would be found true in every instance, were but editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was composed, and whether writ for the town or the court.”—From the following lines it appears, that Dryden also thought that our author's most imperfect plays were his earliest dramatick compofitions :
" Your Ben and Fletcher in their first young flight,
And each were guilty of some Slighted Maid.
the summit of excellence ; from artless and sometimes uninieresting dialogues, to those unparalleled compositions, which have rendered him the delight and wonder of successive ages.
The materials for ascertaining the order in which his plays were written, are indeed so few, that, it is to be feared, nothing very decisive can be produced on this subject. In the following attempt to trace the progress of his dramatick art, probability alone is pretended to. The filence and inaccuracy of those persons, who, after his death, had the revisal of his papers, will perhaps for ever prevent our attaining to any thing like proof on this head. Little then remains, but to collect into one view, from his feveral dramas, and from the ancient
All hawthorns do not bloom on Christmas-day. " A slender poet must have time to grow,
And spread and burnish, as his brothers do : " Who still looks lean, fure with some p- is curst, " But no man can be Falstaff fat at first."
Prologue to the tragedy of Circe. The plays which Shakspeare produced before the year 1600, are known, and are seventeen or eighteen in number. The rest of his dramas, we may conclude, were composed between that year
and the time of his retiring to the country. It is incumbent on those, who differ in opinion from the great authorities abovementioned, - who think with Rowe, that” we are not to look for his beginnings in his leaft, perfe&t works,” it is incumbent, I say, on those persons, to enumerate in the former class, that is, among the plays produced before 1600, compositions of equal merit with Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, The Tempeft, and Twelfth Night, which we have reason to believe were all written in the latter period; and among his late performances, that is among the plays which are fupposed to have appeared after the year 1600, to point out pieces, as hasty and indigefted, as Love's Labour's Lost, The Comedy of Errors, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which, we know, were among
his earlier works.
tracts in which they are mentioned, or alluded to , all the circumstances that can throw any light on this new and curious inquiry. From those circumstances, and from the entries in the books of the Stationers' Company, extracted and published by Mr. Steevens, (to whom every admirer of Shakspeare has the highest obligations,) it is probable that our author's plays were written nearly in the following succession, which, though it can. not at this day be ascertaiued 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.
Of the twenty-one plays which were not printed. in our author's life-time, s the majority were ,
I believe, late compositions. “ The following arrangement is in some measure formed on this notion.
s They are, King Henry VI. P. 1. The Second and Third Parts of King Henry VI. (as he wrote them) The comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, King John , All's well that ends well, As you like it, King Henry VIII. Measure for Measure, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, Macbeth, Julius Cafar, Antony and Cleopatra , Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, Othello, The Tempeft, and Twelfth Night. None of these, except Othello , were printed in quarto, but appeared first in the folio edition published by Heminge and Condell, in 1623. Of these plays, seven, viz. The First Part of King Henry VI. (allowing that play to be Shakspeare's,) The Second and Third Parts of King Henry VI. King John, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona , were certainly early compofitions, and are an exceptiou to the general truth of this observation. One other, viz. All's well that ends well, though supposed to have been an early production, was, it must be acknowledged, not published in Shakspeare's life-time; but for the date of this play we rely only on conjecture.
6 This supposition is strongly confirmed by Meres's list of our author's plays, in 1598. From that lift, and from other