« PředchozíPokračovat »
It seems to be a kind of respect due to the memory of excellent men, especially of those whom their wit and learning have made famous, to deliver some account of themselves, as well as their works, to posterity. For this reason, how fond do we see some people of discovering any little personal story of the great men of antiquity! their families, the common accidents of their lives, and even their shape, make, and features, have been the subject of critical inquiries. How trifling soever this curiosity may seem to be, it is certainly very natural; and we are hardly satisfied with an account of any remarkable person, till we have heard him described even to the very clothes he wears. As for what relates to men of letters, the knowledge of an author may sometimes conduce to the better understanding his book; and though the works of Shakspeare may seem to many not to want a comment, yet perhaps some little account of the man himself may not be thought improper to go along
He was the son of Mr. John Shakspeare, and was born at Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire, in April, 1564. His family, as appears by the register and public writings relating to that town, were of good figure and fashion there, and are mentioned as gentlemen. His father, who was a considerable dealer in wool, had so large a family, ten children in all, that though he was his eldest son, he could give him no better education than his own employment. He had bred him, it is true, for some time at a free school, where, it is probable, he acquired what Latin he was master of: but the narrowness of his circumstances, and the want of his assistance at home, forced his father to withdraw him from thence, and unhappily prevented his further proficiency in that language.
Upon his leaving school, he seems to have given entirely into that way of living which his father proposed to him; and in order to settle in the. world after a family manner, he thought fit to marry while he was yet very young. His wife was
the daughter of one Hathaway, said to have been a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford. In this kind of settlement he continued for some time, till an extravagance that he was guilty of forced him both out of his country, and that way of living which he had taken up; and though it seemed at first to be a blemish upon his good manners, and a misfortune to him, yet it afterwards happily proved the occasion of exerting one of the greatest geniuses that ever was known in dramatic poetry. He had by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company, and amongst them some that made a frequent practice of deer-stealing, engaged him more than once in robbing a park that belonged to Sir Thomas Lucy, of Charlecote, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and in order to revenge that ill usage, he made a ballad upon him. And though this, probably the first essay of his poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the prosecution against him to that degree, that he was obliged to leave his business and fami ly in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter him. self in London.
It is at this time, and upon this accident, that he is said to have made his first acquaintance in the playhouse. He was received into the company then in being, at first in a very mean rank, but his admirable wit, and the natural turn of it to the stage, soon distinguished him, if not as an extraor dinary actor, yet as an excellent writer. His name is printed, as the custom was in those times, amongst those of the other players, before some old plays, but without any particular account of what sort of parts he used to play; and though considerable enquiries have been made, it does not appear that he obtained much celebrity as a performer.
Though the order of time in which his performances were written is generally uncertain, yet there are passages in some few of them which seem to fix their dates. The Chorus at the end of the fourth act of Henry the Fifth, by a compliment very handsomely turned to the Earl of Essex, shews the play to have been written when that lord was general for the Queen in Ireland; and his elogy upon Queen Elizabeth, and her successor King James, in the latter end of his Henry the Eighth, is a proof of that play's being written after the accession of the lat
900 to tumshots. ter of these t two princes to the crown of England SWhatever the particular times of his writing were' the people of his age, who began to grow wonderfully fond of diversions of this kind, could not but be highly pleased to see a genius arise amongst them of so pleasurable, so rich a vein, and so plen5tifully capable of furnishing their favourite entertainments. Besides the advantages of his wit, he was in himself a good-natured man, of great sweetness in his manners, and a most agreeable companion; so that it is no wonder, if, with so many good qualities, he made himself acquainted with the best society and conversation of those times. Queen Elizabeth had several of his plays acted before her; and without doubt gave him many gracious marks of her favour: it is that maiden princess plainly whom he intends by the duo a fair vestal, throned by the west." be pod A Midsummer Night's Dream. at Indeed the whole passage is a compliment very deg properly brought in, and very handsomely applied d to her. She was so well pleased with the admi ter rable character of Falstaff, in the Two Parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded him to contha tinue it for one play more, and to shew him in love. in This is said to be the occasion of his writing The mp Merry Wives of Windsor. How well she was obeybated, the play itself is an admirable proof. Upon this occasion it may not be improper to observe, xt that this part of Falstaff is said to have been written originally under the name of Oldcastle: some of that family being then remaining, the Queen was pleased to command him to alter it; upon which he made use of Falstaff. The present offence ble was indeed avoided; but it has been observed that that the author was in some degree censurable for his second choice, since it is certain that Sir erf John Falstaff, who was a knight of the garter, and t th a lieutenant general, was a name of distinguished een merit in the wars in France in Henry the Fifth's fo and Henry the Sixth's times. What grace soever yha the Queen conferred upon him, it was not to her ep only he owed the fortune which the reputation of ene his wit made. He had the honour to meet with Que many great and uncommon marks of favour and in friendship from the Earl of Southampton, famous of in the histories of that time for his friendship to the unfortunate Earl of Essex. It was to that noble lord that he dedicated his poem of Venus
s La he SO
and Adonis. There is one instance so singular in the magnificence of this patron of Shakspeare's, that if we had not been assured that the story was handed down by Sir William D'Avenant, who was probably very well acquainted with his affairs, we should not have ventured to have given credit to it; that Lord Southampton at one time gave him a thousand pounds, to enable him to go through with a purchase which he heard he had a mind to. A bounty very great, and very rare at any time, and almost equal to that profuse generosity the present age has shewn to French dancers and Italian singers.
What particular habitude or friendships he contracted with private men, does not appear, more than that every one, who had a true taste of merit, and could distinguish men, had generally a just value and esteem for him. His exceeding candour and good-nature must certainly have inclined all the gentler part of the world to love him, as the power of his wit obliged the men of the most delicate knowledge and polite learning to admire him.
His acquaintance with Ben Jonson began with a remarkable piece of humanity and good-nature: Mr. Jonson, who was at that time altogether unknown to the world, had offered one of his plays to the players, in order to have it acted; and the persons into whose hands it was put, after having turned it carelessly and superciliously over, were just upon returning it to him with an ill-natured answer, that it would be of no service to their company; when Shakspeare luckily cast his eye upon it, and found something so well in it, as to engage him first to read it through, and afterwards to recommend Mr. Jonson and his writings to the public. Jonson was certainly 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 judgment of a great man upon this occasion was, certainly, 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 un dertaken his defence against Ben Jonson with some warmth; Mr. Hales, who had sat still for some