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THE LIFE AND GENIUS OF SHAKSPEARE.
The glory of Shakspeare at first appeared in France to be a subject of paradox and scandal; it now threatens the ancient renown of our theatre. This revolution, which has been already remarked, undoubtedly supposes great changes in opinions and manners; not only has it given birth to a question of literature and taste, but it has awakened many others which belong to the history of society. We shall not here attempt to enter into them: the study of the works of a man of genius is a subject of itself sufficiently fruitful.
Voltaire alternately called Shakspeare a great poet and a miserable buffoon, a Homer and a Gilles. In his youth, returning from England, the enthusiasm which he brought back with him for some of the scenes of Shakspeare, was considered as one of the daring novelties which he introduced into France. Forty years afterwards the same man levelled a thousand marks of sarcasm against the barbarity of Shakspeare, and he chose the Academy in particular as a sort of sanctuary for the fulmination of his anathemas. I know not if the Academy would, in the present day, tolerate
such usage ; for the revolutions of taste penetrate into the literary world as well as into the world at large.
Voltaire deceived himself in wishing to debase the astonishing genius of Shakspeare; and all the burlesque citations which he accumulates for this purpose, prove nothing against the enthusiasm of which he himself had once partaken. I do not speak of La Harpe, who was led away by an intemperate displeasure not only against the defects but the reputation of Shakspeare, as if his own theatre had been in the least degree menaced by the gigantic fame of this poet. It is in the life, the age, and the genius of Shakspeare, that the critic must seek, without system and without caprice, for the source of his singular faults and powerful originality.
William Shakspeare was born on the 23rd of April, 1564, at Stratford-upon-Avon, in the county of Warwick. We know very little respecting the childhood and the life of this celebrated man; and, notwithstanding the minute researches of biographical erudition, excited by the interest of so great a name, and by national self-love, the English are acquainted with little more in relation to him than his works. One is not able, even amongst them, to determine very clearly whether he were a Catholic or a Protestant, and they still discuss the question whether he were not lame, like the most famous English poet of our own age.
It appears that Shakspeare was the eldest son of a family of ten children." His father, who was in the woollen trade,o had successively filled, in Stratford, the offices of grand bailiff and alderman, until the time in which loss of fortune, and perhaps the reproach of catholicism, deprived him of all public employment. According to some traditions, he joined to the woollen trade that of a butcher; and the young Shakspeare, hastily recalled from the public school, where his parents could no longer afford to keep him, was early employed, it is said, in the most laborious duties of this profession. If we may believe an almost contemporary author, when Shakspeare was commanded to kill a calf, he performed this office with a sort of pomp, and failed not to pronounce a discourse before the assembled neighbours. Literary curiosity may, if so inclined, trace some affinity between these harangues of the young apprentice, and the subsequent tragic vocation of
This error is the very reverse of one on the same subject noticed before, and has arisen amongst the biographers of Shakspeare from confounding the children of John Shakspeare, a shoemaker at Stratford from 1585 to 1592, with those of the father of the poet.
. It appears, from a manuscript of the proceedings of the bailiff's court in 1555, that John Shakspeare, the father of the poet, was originally a glover.
He was admitted of the corporation in 1557, became one of the chamberlains in 1561, an alderman in 1565, and highbailiff of the borough in 1568.
the poet; but it must be confessed that such firstfruits stand wide apart from the brilliant inspirations and the poetical origin of the Greek theatre. It was in the fields of Marathon, and at the festivals of victorious Athens, that Æschylus first heard the voice of the Muses.
Whatever might be these early and obscure occupations of Shakspeare, he was married in his eighteenth year to a woman older than himself, who rendered him, in a short time, the father of three children, but of whom, otherwise, there is scarcely a record in his history. This union probably left open to him all the avenues to an adventurous life. It was two years after this marriage that, chasing one night, in company with some poachers, the deer of a gentleman in the neighbourhood, Sir Thomas Lucy, he was seized by the keepers, and, avenging himself of this first disgrace by a satirical ballad, he fled to London to avoid the pursuit of the doubly offended knight. This anecdote is the best authenticated fact in the life of Shakspeare, for he has himself introduced it on the stage; and that ridiculous personage Judge Shallow, accusing Falstaff of a crime against the laws of the chase, is a remembrance of, and a retaliation for, this petty persecution.
On his arrival in London, Shakspeare, it is said, was reduced to the necessity of holding, at the door of a theatre, the horses of those who fre
quented it, or else filled at first some inferior office in this theatre; of the truth of these anecdotes, however, notwithstanding the researches of the commentators, we must still remain ignorant. What appears
less doubtful is, that in 1592, six or seven years after his arrival in London, he was already known, and even envied, as an actor, and as a dramatic author. A libel of the times contains allusions with regard to him sufficiently evident, and of which the bitterness betrays a well-founded jealousy. It appears, however, that Shakspeare did not give himself up at first, or, at least, not entirely, to dramatic composition. In publishing, under the date of 1593, a poem entitled Venus and Adonis, dedicated to Lord Southampton, Shakspeare called this work the first-born of his imagination. This little poem seems to be written altogether in the Italian taste, if we may judge from the studied nature of the style, from the affectation of wit, and the profusion of imagery. The same style is to be found in a collection of sonnets which he printed in 1596, under the title of The Passionate Pilgrim. We find it also in the poem of Lucrece, another production of Shakspeare's which bears the same date.
These various essays may be regarded as the first studies of this great poet, which cannot, without a strange misconception, be supposed destitute
4 There is much reason to believe this is an idle tale ; for Rowe, who was acquainted with the story, has declined making use of it in his life of the bard.