Oldalképek
PDF
ePub

years old, he is said to have made his first acquaintance in the play-house, to which idleness or taste may have directed him, and where his necessities, if tradition may be credited, obliged him to accept the office of call-boy, or prompter's attendant. This is a menial whose employment it is to give the performers notice to be ready to euter, as often as the business of the play requires their appearance on the stage. Pope, however, relates a story, communicated to him by Rowe, but which Rowe did not think deserving of a place in the life he wrote, that must a little retard the advancement of our poet to the office just mentioned. According to this story, Shakspeare's first employment was to wait at the door of the play-house, and hold the horses of those who had no servants, that they might be ready after the performance. But, “ I cannot," says his acute commentator, Mr. Steevens, “ discuss this anecdote without observing that it seems to want every mark of probability. Though Shakspeare quitted Stratford on account of a juvenile irregularity, we have no reason to suppose that he had forfeited the protection of his father, who was engaged in a lucrative business, or the love of his wife, who had already brought him two children, and was herself the daughter of a substantial yeoman. It is unlikely, therefore, when he was beyond the reach of his prosecutor, that he should conceal his plan of life, or place of residence, from those who, if he found bimself distressed, could not fail to afford him such supplies as would have set him above the necessity of holding horses for subsistence. Mr. Malone has remarked in his “ Attenipt to ascertain the Order in which the Plays of Shakspeare were written,” that he might have found an easy introduction to the stage; for Thomas Green, a celebrated comedian of that period, was his townsman, and perhaps his relation. The genius of our author prompted him to write poetry; his connection with a player might have given his productions a dramatic turn; or his own sagacity might have taught him that fame was not incompatible with profit, and that the theatre was an avenue 10 both. That it was once the general custom to ride on horse-back to the play, I am likewise yet to learn. The most popular of the theatres were on the Bank Side; and we are told by the satirical pamphleteers of that time, that the usual mode of conveyance to these places of amusement was by water, but not a single writer so much as hints at the custom of riding to them, or at the practice of having horses held during the hours of exhibition. Some allusion to this usage, (if it had existed) must, I think, have been discovered in the course of our researches after contemporary fashions. Let it be remembered too, that we receive this tale on no higher authority than that of Cibber's Lives of the Poets, vol. i. p. 130. Sir William Davenant told it to Mr. Betterton, who communicated it to Mr. Rowe, who, according to Dr. Johnson, related it to Mr. Pope.” Mr. Malone concurs in opinion that this story stands on a very slender foundation, while he differs from Mr. Steevens as to the fact of gentlemen going to the theatre on horseback. With respect likewise to Shakspeare's father being gaged in a lucrative business," we may remark that this could not have been the case at the tiine our author came to London, if the preceding dates be correct. He is said to have arrived in London in 1586, the year in which his father resigned the office of alderman, unless indeed we are permitted to conjecture that his resignation was not the consequence of his necessities.

But in whatever situation he was first employed at the theatre, he appears to have soon discovered those talents which afterwards made him

en

“ Th' applause ! delight ! the wonder of our stage.”

Some 'distinction he probably first acquired as an actor, although Mr. Rowe has not been able to discover any character in which he appeared to more advantage than that of the ghost in Hamlet. The instructions given to the player in that tragedy, and other passages of his works, show an intimate acquaintance with the skill of acting, and such as is scarcely surpassed in our own days. He appears to have studied nature in acting as much as in writing. But all this might have been mere theory. Mr. Malone is of opinion he was no great actor. The distinction, however, which he obtained as an actor could only be in his own plays, in which he would be assisted by the novel appearance of author and actor combined. Before his time, it does not appear that any actor of genius could appear to advantage in the wretched pieces represented on the stage.

Mr. Rowe regrets that he cannot inform us which was the first play he wrote. More skilful research has since found that Romeo and Juliet, and Richard II. and III, were printed in 1597, when he was thirty-three years old; there is also some reason to think that he commenced a dramatic writer in 1592, and Mr. Malone even places his first play, First Part of Henry VI. iu 15892. His plays, however, must have been uot only popular, but approved by persons of the higher order, as we are certain that he enjoyed the gracious favour of queen Elizabeth, who was very fond of the stage ; and the particular and affectionate patronage of the earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his poems of Venus and Adonis and his Rape of Lucrece. On sir William Davenant's authority, it has been asserted that this nobleman at one time gave bim à thousand pounds to enable him to complete a purchase. At the conclusion of the advertisement prefixed to Lintot's edition of Shakspeare's Poems, it is said, " That most learned prince and great patron of learning, king James the First, was pleased with his own hand to write an amicable letter to Mr. Shakspeare : which letter, though now lost, remained long in the hands of sir William D'Avenant, as a credible person now living can testify." Dr. Farmer, with great probability, supposes that this letter was written by king James in return for the compliment paid to him in Macbeth. The relater of the anecdote was Sheffield, duke of Buckingham'. These brief notices, meagre as they are, may show that our author enjoyed high favour in his day. Whatever we may think of king James as a “ learned prince,” his patronage, as well as that of his predecessor, was sufficient to give celebrity to the founder of a new stage. It may be added that his uncommon merit, his candour, and good-nature are supposed to have procured him the admiration and acquaintance of every person distinguished for such qualities. It is not difficult, indeed, to suppose that Shakspeare was a man of humour and a social companion, and probably excelled in that species of minor wit not ill aclapted to conversation, of which it could have been wished he had been more sparing in his writings.

How long he acted has not been discovered, but he continued to write till the year 1614. During his dramatic career he acquired a property in the theatre 4 which he must have disposed of when he retired, as no mention of it occurs iv his will. His connection with Ben Jonson has been variously related. It is said that when Jonson was

2

See the lists of Mr. Malone and Mr. George Chalmers. · Note, by Mr. Malone, to Additional Anecdotes of William Shakspeare. C.

4 In 1603, Shakspeare and several others obtained a licence from king James to exhibit comedies, tragedies, histories, &c. at the Globe Theatre and elsewhere. C.

unknown to the world, he offered a play to the theatre, which was rejected after a very careless perusal, but that Shakspeare having accidentally cast his eye on it, conceived a favourable opinion of it, and afterwards recommended Jonson and his writings to the public. For this candour he was repaid by Jonson, when the latter became a poet of note, with an envious disrespect. Jonson acquired reputation by the variety of his pieces, and endeavoured to arrogate the supremacy in dramatic genius. Like a French critic, he insinuated Shakspeare's incorrectness, his careless manner of writing, and his want of judgment; and, as he was a remarkable slow writer himself, he could not endure the praise frequently bestowed on Shakspeare of seldom altering or blotting out what he had written. Mr. Malone says, that “not long after the year 1600 a cooluess arose between Shakspeare and him, which, however he may talk of his almost idolatrous affection, produced on his part, from that time to the death of our author, and for many years afterwards, much clumsy sarcasm, and many malevolent reflections." But from these, which are the commonly received opinions on this subject, Dr. Farmer is inclined to depart, and to think Jonson's hostility to Shakspeare absolutely groundless; so uncertain is every circumstance we attempt to recover of our great poet's life. Jonson had only one advantage over Shakspeare, that of superior learning, which might in certain situations be of some importance, but could never promote his rivalship with a mau who attained the highest excellence without it. Nor will Shakspeare suffer by its being known that all the dramatic poets before he appeared were scholars. Greene, Lodge, Peele, Marlowe, Nashe, Lily, and Kyd, had all, says Mr. Malone, a regular university education, and, as scholars in our universities, frequently composed and acted plays on historical subjects.

The latter part of Shakspeare's life was spent in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends. He had accumulated considerable property, which Gildon (in his Letters and Essays, 1694) stated to amount to three hundred pounds per annum, a sum at least equal to one thousand pounds in our days; but Mr. Malone doubts whether all his property amounted to much inore than two hundred pounds per annum, which yet was a considerable fortune in those times, and it is supposed that he might have derived two hundred pounds per annum from the theatre while he continued to act.

He retired, some years before his death, to a house in Stratford, of which it has been thought important to give the history. It was built by sir Hugh Clopton, a younger brother of an ancient family in that neighbourhood. Sir Hugh was sheriff of London in the reign of Richard III., and lord mayor in the reign of Henry VII. By his will he bequeathed to his elder brother's son his manor of Clopton, &c. and bis house by the name of the Great House in Stratford. A good part of the estate was in possession of Edward Clopton, esq. and sir Hugh Clopton, knt. in 1733. The principal estate had been sold out of the Clopton family for above a century at the time when Shakspeare became the purchaser, who having repaired and modelled it to his own mind, changed the name to New Place, which the mansion-house, afterwards erected, in the room of the poet's house, retained for many years. The house, and lands belonging to it, continued in the possession of Shakspeare's descendants to the time of the Restoration, when they were repurchased

* This was the practice in Milton's days. “ One of his objections to academical education, as it was then conducted, is, that men designed for orders in the church were permitted to act plays, &c.” Johnson's Life of Milton. C.

by the Clopton family. Here in May 1742, when Mr. Garrick, Mr. Macklin, and Mr. Delane visited Stratford, they were hospitably entertained under Shakspeare's mulberry tree, by sir Hugh Clopton. He was a barrister at law, was knighted by king George 1 and died in the soth year of his age, in Dec. 1751. His executor, about the year 1752, sold New Place to the Rev. Mr. Gastrell, a man of large fortune, who resided in it but a few years, in consequence of a disagreement with the inhabitants of Stratford. As he resided part of the year at Lichfield, he thought he was assessed too highly in the monthly rate towards the maintenance of the poor, but being very properly compelled by the magistrates of Stratford to pay the whole of what was levied on him, on the principle that his house was occupied by his servants in his absence, he peevishly declared, that that house should never be assessed again; and soon afterwards pulled it down, sold the materials, and left the town. He had some time before cut down Shakspeare's mulberry tree“, to save himself the trouble of shewing it to those whose admiration of our great poet led them to visit the classic ground on which it stood. That Shakspeare planted 1bis tree appears to be sufficiently authenticated. Where New Place stood is now a garden. Before concluding this history, it may be necessary to mention that the poet's house was once honoured by the temporary residence of Henrietta Maria, queen to Charles I. Theobald has given an inaccurate account of this, as if she had been obliged to take refuge in Stratford from the rebels, which was not the case. She marched from Newark, June 16, 1643, and entered Stratford triumphantly, about the 23d of the same month, at the head of three thousand foot and one thousand five hundred horse, with one hundred and fifty waggons, and a train of artillery. Here she was met by prince Rupert, accompanied by a large body of troops. She resided about three weeks at our poet's house, which was then possessed by his grand daughter, Mrs. Nash, and her husband.

During Shakspeare's abode in this house, his pleasurable wit, and good nature, says Mr. Rowe, engaged him the acquaintance and entitled him to the friendship of the gentlemen of the neighbourhood. Among these, Mr. Rowe tells a traditional story of a misêr, or usurer, named Combe, who, in conversation with Shakspeare, said be fancied the poet intended to write his epitaph if he should survive him, and desired to know what he meant to say. On this Shakspeare gave him the following, probably extempore.

• Ten in the hundred lies here ingravid,

"T is a hundred to ten bis soul is not sav'd.
If any man ask, who lies in this tombe?
"Oh! ho !' quoth the Devil, “'t is my John-a-Combe.”

The sharpness of the satire is said to have stung the man so severely that he never forgave it. These lines, however, or some which nearly resemble them, appeared in various collections both before and after the time they were said to have been composed,

6 « As the curiosity of this house and tree brought much fame, and more company and profit to the town, a certain man, on some disgust, has pulled the house down, so as not to leave one stone upon another, and cut down the tree, and piled it as a stack of firewood, to the great rexation, loss, and disappointinent of the inhabitants ; however, an honest silversmith bought the whole stack of wood, and makes many odd things of this wood for the curious.” Letter in Annual Register, 1760. Of Mr. Gastrell and bis lady, see Boswell's Life of Dr. Johnson, vol. ii. 490; iii. 443. C.

and the inquiries of Mr. Steevens and Mr. Malone satisfactorily prove that the whole story is a fabrication. Betterton is said to have heard it when he visited Warwickshire on purpose to collect anecdotes of our poet, and probably thought it of too much importance to be nicely examined. We know not whether it be worth adding of a story which we have rejected, that a usurer in Shakspeare's time did not mean one who took exorbitant, but any interest or usance for money, and that ten in the hundred, or ten per cent. was then the ordinary interest of money. It is of more consequence, however, to record the opinion of Mr. Malone, that Shakspeare, during his retirement, wrote the play of Twelfth Night.

He died on his birth-day, Tuesday, April 23, 1616, when he had exactly completed his fifty-second year?, 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 which he is represented under an arch, in a sitting posture, a cushion spread before him, with a pen in his right hand, and his left rested on a scroll of paper. The following Latin distich is engraved under the cushion.

Judicio Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem,

Terra tegit, populus mæret, Olympus babet.

“ The first syllable in Socratem,” says Mr. Steevens, " is here made short, which cannot be allowed. Perhaps we should read Sophoclem. Shakspeare is then appositely compared with a dramatic author among the ancients; but still it should be remembered that the eulogium is lessened while the metre is reformed; and it is well known that some of our early writers of Latin poetry were uncommonly negligent in their prosody, especially in proper names. The thought of this distich, as Mr. Tollet observes, might have been taken from The Faëry Queene of Spenser, b. ii. c. ix. st. 48, and c. x. st. 3.

“ To this Latin inscription on Shakspeare may be added the lines which are found underneath it on his monument:

“ Stay, passenger, why dost thou go so fast?

Read, if thou canst, whom envious Death hath plac'd
Within this monument; Shakspeare, with whom
Quick Nature dy'd ; whose name doth deck the tomb
Far more than cost; since all that he hath writ
Leaves living art but page to serve his wit.”

Obiit Ano Dni. 1616. æt. 55, die 23 Apri.

" It appears from the verses of Leonard Digges, that our author's monument was erected before the year 1623. It has been engraved by Vertue, and done in mezzotinto by Miller."

On his grave-stone underneath are these lines, in an uncouth mixture of small and capital letters.

« Good Frend for Iesus SAKE forbeare

To digo T-E Dust EncloAsed HERe
Blese be TE Man į spares TEs Stones
And curst be He I moves my bones."

* The only notice we have of his person is from Aubrey, who says, “ He was a handsome well-shaped man," and adds, “ verie good company, and of a very ready, and pleasant and smooth witt.” C.

« ElőzőTovább »