" At what time foever he became acquainted with the theatre, we may presume that he had not composed his first play long before it was acted; for being early encumbered with a young family, and not in very affluent circumstances, it is improbable that he should have suffered it to lie in his closet, without endeavouring to derive from it some profit; and in the miserable ftate of the drama in those days, the meanest of his genuine plays must have been a valuable acquisition, and would hardly have been refused by any of the managers of our ancient theatres.

Titus Andronicus appears to have been afled before any other play attributed to Shakspeare: and, therefore, as it hath been admitted into all the editions of his works, whoever might have been the writer of it, it is entitled to the first place in this general lift of his dramas. From Ben Jonson's induction to Bartholomew Fair 1614, we learn that Andronicus had been exhibited twenty-five or thirty years before ; that is, at the lowest computation, in 1589: or, taking a middle period (which is perbaps more juft), in 1587. In our Author's dedication of Venus and Adonis to lord Southampton, in 1593, he tells us, as Mr. Steevens hath observed, that that poem was the firf Heir of bis Invention,” and if we were sure that it was published immediately, or soon after it was written, it would at once prove Titus Andronicus not to be the production of Shakspeare, and nearly ascertain the time when he commenced a dramatic writer. But we do not know what interval m.ight have elapsed between the composition and the publication of that poem. There is indeed a paffage in the dedication already mentioned; which, if there were not such decisive evidence on the other side, might induce us to think that he had not written in 1593 any piece of more dignity than a love-poem; or at least any on which he himself set a value. “ If (says he to his noble patron) your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised; and vow to take advantage of all idle hours till I have honoured you with some graver labour."

' A book entitled “ A Noble Roman History of Titus Andronicus” (without any Author's name) was entered at Stationers Hall, Feb. 6, 1593-4. This I suppose to have been the play as it was printed in that year, and acted (according to Lange baine, who alone appears to have seen the first edition) by the servants of the earls of Pembroke, Derby, and Eflex.

Mr. Pope thought that Titus Andronicus was not written by Shakspeare; because Ben Jonson spoke fightingly of it while Shakspeare was yet living. This argument perhaps will not bear a very strict examination. If it were allowed to have any validity, many of our Author's genuine productions must be excluded from his works; for Ben has ridiculed several of his


[ocr errors]


dramas in the same piece in which he hath mentioned Andraniçus with contempt.

• It has been said, that Francis Meres, who, in 1598, enumerated this among our Author's plays, might have been misled by a title-page : but we may presume, that he was informed, or deceived, by some other means; for Shakspeare's name is not in the title-page of that in 1611; and therefore we may conclude, it was not in the title-page of the edition of 1994, of which the other was probably a re-imprefiion.

However (notwithstanding the authority of Meres), the high antiquity of the piece, its entry on the Stationers books, without the name of the writer, the regularity of the versification, the diffimilitude of the style from that of those plays which were undoubtedly compoted by our Author, and the tradition mentioned by Ravenscroft, at a period when some of his contemporaries had not been long dead (viz. “ that he had been told by some, anciently conversant with the stage, that Andronicus was not originally Shakspeare's, but brought by a private author to be acted, and that he only gave some maltertouches to one or two of the principal parts or characters.”] – these circumstances render it highly improbable, that this play should have been the composition of Shakspeare.'

These remarks are acute and judicious, and conclude much against the authenticity of this play: and yet, in spite of evidence internal and external, a certain painful collator of par. ticles and commas hath, through an old pair of fpectacles, which Tom Hearne had thrown aside as good for nothing, discovered beauties and excellencies in Titus Andronicus, which bad hitherto been invisible to mortal sight. On this wonderful dircovery, Mr. Malone indulges himself in a little pleasantry: for which we refer to the book.

Concerning the date of Macbeth, Mr. Malone offers the following ingenious conjectures.

From a book entitled Rex Platonicus, cited by Dr. Farmer, we learn, that King James, when he visited Oxford in 1605, was addressed by three students of St. John's College, who perfonated the three Weird Sitters; and recited a short dramatic poem, founded on the prediction of those Sybils (as the Author calls them), relative to Banquo and Macbeth.

· Dr. Farmer is of opinion, that this little piece preceded Shakspeare's play; a supposition which is strengthened by the filence of the Author of Rex Platonicus, who, if Macbeth had then appeared on the flage, would probably have mentioned fomething of it. It should likewise be remembered, that there subfifted, at that time, a spirit of opposition between the regular players and the academics of the two Universities; the latter of whom frequently acted plays both in Latin and English, and


seem to have piqued themselves on the superiority of their exhibitions to those of the establifted theatres. Wilhing, probably, to manifest this fuperiority to the Royal Pedant, it is not likely, that they would chule for a collegiate interlude, a subject which had already appeared on the public stage, with all the embeliihments that the magic hand of Shakspeare could bestow.

This tragedy contains an allution to the union of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland, under one rovereign, and also, to the cure of the King's-Evil by the Royal touch [Ad IV. Scene I, II.); but in what year that pretended power was assumed by King James I. is uncertain. Macbeth was not en'ered on the Stationers books, nor printed, till 1623.

At the time when Macbeth was supposed to have been written, the subject, it is probable, was considered as a topic the most likely to conciliate the favour of the court. In the additions to Warner's Albion's England, which were first printed in 1606, the story of the Three Fairies or IVeird Elves, as he calls them, is shortly told; and King James's descent from Banquo carefully deduced,

• Ben Jonson, a few years afterwards, paid his court to his Majesty, by his Masque of Queens, presented at Whitehall, Feb. 12, 1609, in which he hath given a minute detail of all the magic rites that are recorded by King James, in his book of Demonologie, or by any other author ancient or modern.

* Mr. Steevens hath lately discovered a MS. play, en:itled the WITCH, written by Thomas Middleton, which renders it questionable, whether Shakspeare was not indebted to that author for the first hint of the magic introduced in this tragedy. -The songs beginning Come away, &c. and Black spiriis, &c. being found at full length in Middleton's play, while only the two first words of them are printed in Macbeth, favour the supposition, that Middleton's piece preceded that of Shakspeare, the latter, it should seem, thinking it unnecessary to set down verses which were probably well known, and perhaps then in the poliefion of the managers of the Globe Theatre. The bigh reputation of Shakspeare's performances likewile firengthens this conjecture; for it is very improbable, that Middleton, or any other poet of that time, should have ventured into those regions of fiction, in which our Author had already expatiated.'

Mr. Steevens hath produced fome curious extracts from this old play, which, we are informed, ' will be published entire, for the satisfaction of the intelligent readers of Shakspeare.'

By the very numerous quotations from old plays, ballads, histories, and romances, which Mr. Steevens bath produced, to illustrate some obscure passages in Shakspeare, a hasty and superficial critic might be tempted to question his peculiar, and almost unrivalled claim to originality : or if he were not so preC4


fumptuous as to question what the united suffrages of the best judges have allowed him, yet, at least, to qualify it by a colder praise than hath been hitherto bestowed on him. It must, indeed, be acknowledged by the most enthusiastic admirer of this immortal poet, that many of his plays, which owe their chief beautjes to a boldness of invention, and a wildness of fancy, appear to have been in some degree indebted, either for plot, management, or machinery, to other writers. This remark receives confirmation from the discovery of Middleton's MS. play, above mentioned ; in which, somewhat of that imagery that hath equally astonished, charmed, and terrified us, in the closet and the theatre, in the tragedy of Macbeth, may be traced out by a curious and discerning eye. How far Shakspeare was indebted to old English translations of the Greek and Latin clasics-to Stow, Hall, Holingshed, and the translator of Hector Boethius's History of Scotland, hath been fufficiently noticed by preceding critics. It was, indeed, left to the indefatigable Mr. Steevens, to turn over a thousand dull and insignificant entries at Stationers Hall, in order to discover all the minutiæ of dates and titles which bore any reference to Shakspeare ; and after a molt laborious research, with an eye (as Dr. Johnson fays of the sagacious Mr. B—'s) that looked keenly on vacancy, he made a discovery of several plays, on similar fúbjects with many of Shakspeare's, which were prior to his, and even before his first entrance on the stage. All this may be true : nay, we have not a doubt of the fact. But nothing that hath yet been produced of Shakspeare's plagiarism, can deprive him of one tittle of his almost prescriptive right to all the honours of a great and unequalled original. The most captious critic, in the fulness of a Jefire to find fault, muft allow, that Shakspeare's borrowed ornaments fit on him with a more natural grace and elegance than on their original proprietors. They are so exquisitely disposed of—so nicely blended with what is unquestionably his own property, that we know not where the borrowed parts end, nor where the original ones begin. The whole appears to be the production of the same master : simplex duntaxat et unum. We may, perhaps, affert, that in the general and more disgraceful sense of the word, this great poet never appears to have borrowed at all. He had read indeed; and his capacious mind was stored with a vast treasure of knowledge and obfervation. He had reflected on the great acquisitions he had made; had arranged them in his mind with much care and exactness.

By thele means, they became incorporated with his own natural, and in the truest sense of the term, unborrowed reflections. Hence it is obvious to suppose, that when he addrefled himself to composition, he drew indiscriminately from the immense ftorehouse of his mind, whatever was hit for his purpofe, whether


of native or acquired knowledge-indifferent, and perhaps unconscious, whose property any part of it might be. This is not an uncommon circumstance. The utmost circumspection cannot always prevent its occurrence: for it is difficult to distinguish the power of invention from that of reflection. Fancy may claim for its own what had been first only adopted by memory.

Shakspeare hath the admirable art not only of applying his borrowed parts with propriety, but of embellishing and improving them. He adds to them a grace and dignity, which, at least, are his own. In the tragedy of Macbeth, his spirits, though similar in name to those of Middleton (particularly the presiding Deity hath in each che Grecian name of Hecate), yet they differ from Middleton's in almost every essential attribute of conduct and character. Middleton's fairies are light, frisky beings, who wreak their malice on small culprits, and revenge little mischiefs. Shakspeare's are brought on the stage for purposes of higher account. They are to be the inftruments of dire events-revolutions that were worthy the council of the Gods. This great object was of sufficient importance to excuse the interposition of supernatural beings. Hence, what Middleton invented to amuse, Shakspeare's more daring genius improved into an instrument of terror. This he hath accomplished with wonderful propriety : and we admire that skill and power which, on so flight a basis, could erect such a Atupendous fabric.

Shakspeare's witches seem to be fully aware of the high importance of the subject of their incantations, by the number of the ingredients which they throw into the cauldron. Hecate is anxious for its success; and enquires into the particulars of the infernal mixture. They solemnly cast in their respective share of the composition : but instead of the grifle of a man bang'd after fun-fet [i, e. a murderer, according to Middleton's play) they throw in the grease that's sweaten from a murderer's gibbet: and instead of Middleton's fat of an unbaptised child, they mix with the other ingredients of the cauldron, the finger of birth-strangled babe. Perhaps it may be impossible to describe the precise difference in the energy of these expressions. It must be felt from their several effe&ts on the imagination. Considered in that vicw, the difference is very great: at least, it is felt to be such by us ; and from a variety of circumstances of this kind, we are perfuaded, that Shakspeare never sat down to write from another's copy. His language was the natural expression of a mind fraught with the boldest conceptions, and the most lively ideas: and when the whole of Middleton's play is published, perhaps our convictions will be still farther corroborated, of Shakspeare's having never confidered it as a model for his scene of the


« ElőzőTovább »