« PreviousContinue »
CONTENTS OF VOL. I.
WILLIAM SHAKS PEARE,
REMARKS UPON HIS DRAMATIC WRITINGS.
Little more than two centuries has elapsed since William Shakspeare conversed with our tongue, and trod the self-same soil with ourselves; and if it were not for the records kept by our Church in its registers of births, marriages, and burials, we should at this moment be as personally ignorant of the “sweet swan of Avon " as we are of the old minstrel and rhapsodist of Meles. That William Shakspeare was born in Stratford upon Avon; that he married and had three children ; that he wrote a certain number of dramas; that he died before he had attained to old age, and was buried in his native town,-are positively the only facts, in the personal history of this extraordinary man, of which we are certainly possessed; and, if we should be solicitous to fill up this bare and most unsatisfactory outline, we must have recourse to the vague reports of unsubstantial tradition, or to the still more shadowy inferences of lawless and vagabond conjecture. Of this remarkable ignorance of one of the most richly endowed with intellect of the human species, who ran his mortal race in our own country, and who stands separated from us by no very great intervention of time, the causes may not be difficult to be ascertained. William Shakspeare was an actor and a writer of plays; in neither of which characters, however he might excel in them, could he be lifted high in the estimation of his contemporaries. He was honored, indeed, with the friendship of nobles and the patronage of monarchs: his
theatre was frequented by the wits of the metropolis; and he associated with the most intellectual of his times. But the spirit of the age was against him; and, in opposition to it, he could not become the subject of any general or comprehensive interest. The nation, in short, knew little and cared less about him. During his life, and for some years after his death, inferior dramatists outran him in the race of popularity; and then the flood of Puritan fanaticism swept him and the stage together into temporary oblivion. On the restoration of the monarchy and the theatre, the school of France perverted our taste ; and it was not till the last century was somewhat advanced, that William Shakspeare arose again, as it were, from the tomb, in all his proper majesty of light. He then became the subject of solicitous and learned inquiry; but inquiry was then too late; and all that it could recover from the ravage of time were only a few human fragments, which could scarcely be united into a man. To these causes of our personal ignorance of the great bard of England must be added his own strange indifference to the celebrity of genius. When he had produced his admirable works, ignorant or heedless of their value, he abandoned them with perfect indifference to oblivion or to fame. It surpassed his thought that he could grow into the admiration of the world; and, without any reference to the curiosity of future ages, in which he could not conceive himself to possess an interest, he was con tented to die in the arms of obscurity, as an unlaureled burgher of a provincial town. To this combination of causes are we to attribute the scantiness of our materials for the Life of William Shakspeare. His works are in myriads of hands : he constitutes the delight of myriads of readers: his renown is coextensive with the civilization of man; and, striding across the ocean from Europe, it occupies the wide region of transatlantic empire: but he is himself only a shadow which disappoints our grasp; an undefined form, which is rather intimated than discovered to the keenest searchings of our eye. Of the little, however, questionable or certain, which can be told of him, we must now proceed to make the best use in our power, to write what by courtesy may be called his life ; and we have only to lament that the result of our labor must greatly disappoint the curiosity which has been excited by the grandeur of his reputation. The slight narrative of Rowe, founded