« AnteriorContinuar »
a very good scholar, and in that had the advantage of Shakspeare; though, 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 John 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 ancients, he had likewise not stolen any thing from them; and that if he would producė 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 had a particular intimacy with Mr. Combe, an old gentleman noted thereabouts for his wealth and usury: It happened that, in a pleasapt conversation amongst their common friends, Mr. Combe told Shakspeare in a laughing manner, that he fancied he intended to write his epitapb, 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 engravd,
Oh! oh! quoth tlie 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 in the wall. On his grave-stone, underneath, is inscribed ;
friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
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 Toni-a-Combe, alias Thin-Beard, 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.
66 I re.
" I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Slakspeare, « that in writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer “ hath been, Would he had blotted 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, one speaking to him,
“ Cæsar, thou dost me wrong. “ He replied:
“ Cæsar did weter wrong, but with just cause « and such-like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his vir“ tues: there was ever more in him to be praised thani pardoned.”
As for the passage which he mentions out of Shakspeare, there is somewhat like it in Julius Cæsar, 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.
Natura sublimis et acer,
Sed turpem putat in chartis metuitque liturum.
His plays are properly to be distinguished only 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 agreeable to the English taste, that though the severer criticks among us cannot bear it, yet the gefferality 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,
cowardly, cowardly, vain-glorious, and, in short, every way vicious, yet he has given bim so much wit as to make him almost too agreeable; and I do not know whether some people have not, in remembrance of the diversion he had formerly afforded them, been
sorry to see his friend Ilal use him so scurvily, when he comes to the crown, in the end of The Second Part of llenry the Fourth.--Amongst other extravagancies, in The Merry Ilives of Windsor, lic has made him a deer-stealer, that he might at the same time remember his Warwickshire prosecutor, under the name of Justice Shallow; he has given him very nearly the same coat of arms which Dugdale, in his Antiquities of that county, describes for a family there, and makes the Welsh parson descant very pleasantly upon them. That whole play is admirable; the humours are various and well opposed; the main design, which is to cure Ford of his unreasonable jealousy, is extremely well conducted. In Twelfth Night, there is something singularly ridiculous and pleasant in the fantastical steward Malvolio. --The parasite and the vain-glorious in Parolles, in All's Well that Ends Vell, is as good as any thing of that kind in Plautus or Terence. -Petruchio, in The Taming of the Shrew, is an uncommon piece of humour.—The conversation of Benedict and Beatrice, in Much Ado about Nothing, and of Rosalind in As You Like It, lave much-wit and sprightliness all along. His clowns, without which character there was hardly any play written in that tiine, are all very entertaining: and, I believe, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and Apemantus in Timon, will be allowed to be master-pieces of ill-nature and satirical snarling. To these I might add that incomparable character of Shylock the Jew, in The Merchant of Venice: but though we have seen that play received and acted as a comedy, and the part of the Jew performed by an excellent comedian, yet I cannot but think it was designed tragically by the author. There appears in it a deadly spirit of revenge, such a savage fierceness and fellness, and such a bloody designation of cruelty and mischief, as cannot agree either with the style or characters of comedy. The play itself, take it altogether, seems to me to be one of the most finished of any of Shakspeare's. The tale, indeed, in that part relating to the caskets, and the extravagant and unusual kind of bond given by Antonio, is too much removed from the rules of probability ; but, taking the fact for granted, we must allow it to be very beautifully written. There is something in the friendship of Antonio to Bassanio very great, generous, and tender. The whole fourth act (supposing, as I said, the fact to be probable) is exo tremely fine. But there are two passages that deserve a particular notice. The first is, what Portia says in praise of mercy, and the other on the power of musick.The melancholy of Jaques, in As You Like Il, is as singular and odd as it is diverting. And if, as Horace says,
Difficile est propriè communia dicere, it will be a hard task for any one to go beyond him in the description of the several degrees and ages of man's life, though the thought be old, and common enough :
All the world's a stage,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
and pouch on side;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing.
She never told her love,
Smiling at grief.
The style of his comedy is, in general, natural to the characters, and casy in itself; and the wit most commonly sprightly and pleasing, except in those places where he runs into doggerel rhimes, as in The Comedy of Errors, and some other plays. As for his jingling sometimes, and playing upon words, it was the common vice of the age he lived in: and if we find it in the pulpit, made use of as an ornament to the sermons of some of the gravest divines of those times, perhaps it may not be thought too light for the stage.
But certainly the greatness of this author's genius does no-where so much appear, as where he gives his imagination an entire loose, and raises his fancy to a flight above mankind, and the limits of the visible world. Such are his attempts in The Tempest, Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, and Hamlet. Of these, The Tempest, however it comes to be placed the first by the publishers of his works, can never have been the first written by him: it seems to me as perfect in its kind, as almost any thing we have of his. One may observe, that the unities are kept here, with an exactness uncommon to the liberties of his writing; though that was what, I suppose, he valued himself least upon, since his excellencies were all of another kind." I am very sensible that he does, in this play, depart too much from that likenëss to truth which ought to be observed in these sort of writings; yet he does it so very finely, that one is easily drawn in to have more faith for his sake, than reason does well allow of. His magic has something in it very solemn and very poetical: and that extravagant character of Caliban is mighty well sustained, shews a wonderful invention in the author, who could strike out such a particular wild image, and is certainly one of the finest and most uncommon grotesques that ever was seen. The observation, which I have been informed * three very great men concurred in making upon this part, was extremely just; That Shakspeare had not only found out a new character in his Caliban, but had also devised and adapted a new manner of language for that character.
It is the same magick that raises the Fairies in Midsummer Night's Dream, the
* Lord Falkland, Lord C. J. Vaughan, and Mr. Selden.
per to the parts they sustain, and so peculiar to the talent of this writer. But of the two last of these plays I shall have occasion to take notice, among the tragedies of Mr. Shakspeare. If one undertook to examine the greatest part of these by those rules which are established by Aristotle, and taken from the model of a Grecian stage, it would be no very hard task to find a great many faults; but as Shakspeare lived under a kind of mere light of nature, and had never been made acquainted with the regularity of those written precepts, so it would be hard to judge hiin by a law he knew nothing of. We are to consider him as a man that lived in a state of almost universal licence and ignorance: there was no established judge, but every one took the liberty to write according to the dictates of his own fancy. When one considers, that there is not one play before him of a reputation good enough to entitle it to an appearance on the present stage, it cannot but be a matter of great wonder that he should advance dramatic poetry so far as he did. The fable is what is generally placed the first among those that are reckoned the constituent parts of a tragic or heroic poem ; not, perhaps, as it is the most difficult or beautiful, but as it is the first properly to be thought of in the contrivance and course of the whole; and with the fable ought to be considered the fit disposition, order, and conduct of its several parts. As it is not in this province of the drama that the strength and mastery of Shakspeare lay, so I shall not undertake the tedious and ill-natured trouble to point out the several faults he was guilty of in it. His tales were seldom invented, but rather taken either from true history, or novels and romances; and he commonly made use of them in that order, with those incidents, and that extent of time in which he found them in the authors from whence he borrowed them. Almost all his historical plays comprehend a great length of time, and yery different and distinct places: And in his Antony and Cleopatra, the scene travels over the greatest part of the Roman empire, But in recompence
for his carelessness in this point, when he comes to another part of the drama, the manners of his characters, in acting or speaking what is proper for them, and fit to be shewn by the poet, he may be generally justified, and in very many places greatly commended. For those plays which he has taken from the English or Roman history, let any man compare them, and he will find the character as exact in the poet as the historian. He seems indeed so far from proposing to himself any one action for a subject, that the title very often tells you, it is The Life of King John, King Richard, &c. What can be more agreeable to the idea our historians give of Henry the Sixth, than the picture Shakspearc has drawn of him ? His manners are every wliere exactly the same with the story; one finds him still described with simplicity, passive sanctity, want of courage, weakness of mind, and easy submission to the governance of an imperious wife, or prevailing faction: though at the same time the poet does justice to his good qualities, and moves the pity of his audience for him, by shewing him pious, disinterested, a contemner of the things of this world, and wholly resigned to the severest dispensations of God's providence.There is a short scene in the Second Part of Henry the Sixth, which I cannot but think admirable in its kind. Cardinal Beaufort, who had murdered the Duke of Cljucester, is shown in the last agonies on his death-bed, with the good king pray, ing over him. There is so much terror in one, so much tenderness and moving piety in the other, as must touch any one who is capable either of fear or pity. - In his Henry the Eighth, that prince is drawn with that greatness of mind, and all those good qualities which are attributed to him in any account of his reign. If his faults are not shewn in an equal degree, and the shades in this picture do not bear a just proportion to the lights, it is not that the artist wanted either colours or skill in the disposit on of them; but the truth, I believe, might be, that he forebore doing it out of regard to Queen Elizabeth, since it could have been no very great respect to the memory o! his mistress, to have exposed some certain parts of her father's life upon the stage. He has dealt much more freely with the minister of that great king, and