« ElőzőTovább »
PROSPEROUS LONDON LIFE.
So, driven either by the fear of Sir Thomas Lucy's vengeance, or, more probably, by the need of providing daily bread for his wife and children, Shakspere went up to London in 1586 or 1587; and then began that wonderful theatrical life of six and twenty years, whose great creations form the chief glory of our dramatic literature. The brightest day at noon is that whose dawn is wrapped in heavy mists; and so upon the opening of this brilliant timethe midsummer of English poetry-thick clouds of darkness rest.
How Shakspere lived when first he arrived in London, we do not certainly know. Three Warwickshire men, one a native of his own town, then held a prominent place among the metropolitan players, and this, no doubt, coupled with his poetical tastes, led him to the theatre. Here, too, there are vague traditions of his life. According to one, he was call-boy or deputy - prompter ; according to another, he held horses at the theatre door. However he may have earned his first shillings in London, it is
rtain that he soon became prosperous, and even wealthy. In the year
1589 1589 he held a share in the Blackfriars Theatre, having
previously, by his acting, by the adaptation of old
plays, and the production of new ones, proved himself worthy to be much more than a mere sleeping partner in the con
As his fame brightened, his purse filled. He became also a part-owner of the Globe Theatre; and at one time drew from all sources a yearly income fully equivalent to £1500 of our money.
"Respectable" is, perhaps, the best word by which Shakspere's acting may be characterized : the Ghost in “Hamlet,” and Adam in “ As You Like It,” are named among his favourite parts. But his magic pen has taught us almost to forget that he ever was an actor; nor can we, without a violent stretch of fancy, realize our greatest poet stalking slowly with whitened cheeks across the boards, or tottering in old-fashioned livery through a rudely painted forest of Arden. Thus acting, writing, and managing, he lived among the fine London folks, honoured with the special notice of his Queen, and associating every day with the noblest and wittiest Englishmen of that brilliant time, yet never snapping the link which bound him to the sweet banks of Avon. Every year he ran down
THE DEATH OF SHAKSPERE.
to Stratford, where his family continued to reside ; and there he bought a house and land for the rest and solace of his waning life.
The year 1612 is given as the date of the poet's final retirement from London life. He was then only forty-eight, and might reasonably hope for a full score of years, in which to grow his flowers, his mulberries, and his apple-trees, to treat his friends to sack and claret under the hospitable roof of New Place, and to continue that series of Roman plays which had so noble a beginning in “ Julius Cæsar” and “ Coriolanus.”
But four years more brought this great life to an untimely close. He 1616 died on the 23d of April 1616, of what disease we have A.D. no certain knowledge. In a "Diary" by John Ward, a vicar of Stratford-on-Avon, written between 1648 and 1679, it is stated that the poet drank too much at a merry meeting with Drayton and Jonson, and took a fever in consequence, of which he died; but this story is considered an exaggeration. His wife survived him seven years ; his only son had gone to the grave before him; and long before the close of the century that saw this great poet die, all the descendants of William Shakspere had perished from the face of the earth. From the dim, uncertain story of his life, and the speedy blighting of his family-tree, withered in its third generation, let us turn to the magnificent works, which have won for this London actor the fame of being, certainly England's—perhaps the world's-greatest poet.
Seven years after the poet's death, a volume, known to students of Shakspere as the “First Folio," was published by his two professional friends, John Heminge and Henrie Condell, 1623 This book contained thirty-six plays ; seven more were added in the Third Folio ; but of these seven, only the play of Pericles is received as genuine. The plays of Shakspere, therefore, so far as the battling of critics has agreed upon their number, are thirty-seven. And these have been corrected and recorrected, altered and revised, mended and re-mended, until we must have a very true and pure text of the poet in this century of ours,-unless, indeed, something may have happened to certain passages, like that which the fable tells us happened to Jason's ship,
THE PLAYS OF SHAKSPERE.
the Argo, in which he sought the Golden Fleece. So carefully did a grateful and reverent nation patch up the decaying timbers of the old craft, as she lay high and dry on the Greek shore, that in process of time it became a serious question among learned men whether much of the old ship was left together after all. The books written about Shakspere and his works would of themselves fill a respectable library.
The thirty-seven plays are classed as Tragedies, Comedies, and Histories. The great Tragedies are five-Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello. The Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, and the Merchant of Venice, are perhaps the finest Comedies; while Richard III., Coriolanus, and Julius Cæsar, stand prominently out among the noble series of Histories. The student who knows these eleven plays, knows Shakspere in his finest vein. Yet fat and vinous old Jack Falstaff, whose portraiture is the happiest hit in all the varied range of English comedy, must be sought for in other scenes. Indeed, to know Shakspere as he ought to be known, we must read him right through from first to last; and in days when our most brilliant essayists draw gems of illustration from this exhaustless mine, when every newspaper and magazine studs its leaders with witty allusions to Shallow or Dogberry, Malvolio or Mercutio, and every orator borrows the lightning of some Shaksperian line to gild his meaner language with its flash,—not to have studied the prince of poets thoroughly, proves not merely the absence of a fine literary taste, but the total lack of that common sense which leads men to aim at knowing well and clearly every subject that may help them in their daily life.
The grand, surpassing quality of Shakspere's genius, was its creative power. Coleridge, who saw, perhaps, deeper into the unfathomed depths of the poet's spirit than any man has done, calls him the thousand-souled Shakspere, and speaks of his oceanic mind. And well tlie dramatist deserves such magnificent epithets, for no writer has ever created a host of characters, so numerous, so varied, and yet so completely distinct from one another. The door of his fancy opened, as if of its own accord,
SHAKSPERE VERSUS HISTORY.
and out trooped such a procession as the world had never seen. The bloodiest crimes and the broadest fun were represented there; the fresh silvery laughter of girls and the maniac shriekings of a wretched old man, the stern music of war and the roar of tavern rioters, mingled with a thousand other various sounds, yet no discordant note was heard in the manifold chorus. So true and subtile an interpreter of the human soul, in its myriad moods, has never written novel, play, or poem ; yet he drew but little from the life around him. The revels with Raleigh and Jonson at the Mermaid and the Falcon, may bave suggested some hints for the pictures of life in the Boar's Head Tavern, Eastcheap. The court of Elizabeth, and the greenwood that embowered Stratford, doubtless supplied material for many brilliant and lovely scenes. But those characters which were not drawn from the page of history, are chiefly the creations of his own inexhaustible imagination ; and often, when he does adopt a historic portraiture, the colouring is nearly all his own. Many of us read Shakspere before we read history, and take our ideas of historical heroes rather from his masterly idealizations than from the soberer painting of the historian's pencil. So deeply rooted, for example, are our early-caught notions of Macbeth's villany, and Richard Crookback's appalling guilt, that it is with somewhat of a startle and recoil we come in our later reading upon other and milder views of these Shaksperian criminals. And, read as we may, we can never get wholly rid of the magic spell with which the poet's genius has enchained us.
The language of Shakspere has been justly censured for its obscurity. “ It is full of new words in new senses."
There are lines and passages, upon whose impenetrable granite the brains of critics and commentators have been well-nigh dashed out ; and yet their meaning is still uncertain. Another fault is the frequent use of puns and verbal quibbles, where, quite out of place and keeping, they jar harshly upon the feelings of the reader. Yet these are spots upon the sun, forgotten while we rejoice in his cheerful beams and drink his light into our souls—discoverable only by the cold eyes of those critics who read for business, not delight.
SPECIMENS OF SHAKSPERE'S STYLE,
Besides his plays, Shakspere gave to the world various poems : Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, The Passionate Pilgrim, A Lover's Complaint, and one hundred and fifty-four Sonnets. The “ Venus and Adonis,” which formed the first fruits of his ripening powers, was published in 1593, with a dedication to Lord Southampton.
Dr. Johnson says, in his Preface to Shakspere's Works, that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.” The comparison is witty and just; yet, in pursuance of our plan, we must select specimens of Shakspere's style. The first extract illustrates the poet's tragic power ; the second shows him in a light and playful mood :
MACBETH.-Act II., SCENE 1.
Macbeth. - Is this a dagger, which I see before me,