Page images
PDF
EPUB

probable that he must have made several failures before getting into the right path. Genius is in a certain sense infallible, and has nothing to learn; but art is to be learned, and must be acquired by practice and experience. In Shakespear's acknowledged works we find hardly any traces of his apprenticeship, and yet an apprenticeship he certainly had. This every artist must have, and especially in a period where he 'has not before him the example of a school already formed. I consider it as extremely probable, that Shakespear began to write for the theatre at a much earlier period than the one which is generally stated, namely, not till after the year 1590. It appears that, as early as the year 1584, when only twenty years of age, he had left his paternal home and repaired to London. Can we imagine that such an active head would remain idle for six whole years without making any attempt to emerge by his talents from an uncongenial situation? That in the dedication of the poem of Venus and Adonis he calls it, " the first heir of his invention," proves nothing against the supposition. It was the first which he printed; he might have composed it at an earlier period; perhaps, also, he did not include theatrical labours, as they then possessed but little literary dignity. The earlier Shakespear began to compose for the theatre, the less are we enabled to consider the immaturity and imperfection of a work as a proof of its spuriousness in opposition to historical evidence, if we only find in it prominent features of his mind. Several of the works rejected as spurious, may still have been produced in the period betwixt Titus Andronicus, and the earliest of the acknowledged pieces.

"At last, Steevens published seven pieces ascribed to Shakespear in two supplementary volumes. It is to be remarked, that they all appeared in print in Shakespear's life-time, with his name prefixed at full length. They are the following:—

"1. Locrine. The proofs of the genuineness of this piece are not altogether unambiguous; the grounds for doubt, on the other hand, are entitled to attention. However, this question is immediately connected with that respecting Titus Andronicus, and must be at the same time resolved in the affirmative or negative.

"2. Pericles, Prince of Tyre. This piece was acknowledged by Dryden, but as a youthful work of Shakespear. It is most undoubtedly his, and it has been admitted into several of the later editions. The supposed imperfections originate in the circumstance, that Shakespear here handled a childish and extravagant romance of the old poet Gower, and was unwilling to drag the subject out of its proper sphere. Hence he even introduces Gower himself, and makes him deliver a prologue entirely in his antiquated language and versification. This power of assuming so foreign a manner is at least no proof of helplessness.

"3. The London Prodigal. If we are not mistaken, Lessing pronounced this piece to be Shakespear's, and wished to bring it on the German stage;

"4k The Puritan; or, the Widow of Walling Street. One of my literary friends, intimately acquainted with Shakespear, was of opinion that the poet must have wished to write a play for once in the style of Ben Jonson, and that in this way we must account for the difference between the present piece and his usual manner. To follow out this idea however would lead to a very nice critical investigation.

11 5. Thomas, Lord Cromwell.

"6. Sir John OldcastleFirst Part.

"7. A Yorkshire Tragedy.

"The three last pieces are not only unquestionably Shakespear's, but in my opinion they deserve to be classed among his best and maturest works.—Steevens admits at last, in some degree, that they are Shakespear's, as well as the others, excepting Locrine, but he speaks of all of them with great contempt, as quite worthless productions. This condemnatory sentence is not however in the slightest degree convincing, nor is it supported by critical acumen. I should like to see how such a cri tic would, of his own natural suggestion, have decided on Shakespear's acknowledged master-pieces, and what he would have thought of praising in them, had the public opinion not imposed on him the duty of admiration. Thomas, Lord Cromwell, and Sir John Oldcastle, are biographical dramas, and models in this species: the first is linked, from its subject, to Henry the Eighth, and the second to Henry the Fifth. The second part of Oldcastle is wanting; I know not whether a copy of the old edition has been discovered in England, or whether it is lost. The Yorkshire Tragedy is a tragedy in one act, a dramatised tale of murder: the tragical effect is overpowering, and it is extremely important to see how poetically Shakespear could handle such a subject.

"There have been still farther ascribed to him :—1st. The Merry Devil of Edmonton, a comedy in one act, printed in Dodsley's old plays. This has certainly some appearances in its favour. It contains a merry landlord, who bears a great similarity to the one in the Merry Wives of Windsor. However, at all events, though an ingenious, it is but a hasty sketch. 2d. The Accusation of Paris. M. The Birth of Merlin. 4th. Edward the Third. 5th. The Fair Emma. 6th. Mucedorus. 7th. Arden of Feversham. I have never seen any of these, and cannot therefore say any thing respecting them. From the passages cited, I am led to conjecture that the subject of Mucedorus is the popular story of Valentine and Orson; a beautiful subject which Lope de Vega has also taken for a play. Arden of Feversham is said to be a tragedy on the story of a man, from whom the poet was descended by the mother's side. If the quality of the piece is not too directly at variance with this claim, the circumstance would afford an additional probability in its favour. For such motives were not foreign to Shakespear: he treated Henry the Seventh, who bestowed lands on his forefathers for services performed by them, with a visible partiality.

"Whoever takes from Shakespear a play early ascribed to him, and confessedly belonging to his time, is unquestionably bound to answer, with some degree of probability, this question: who has then written it? Shakespear's competitors in the dramatic walk are pretty well known, and if those of them who have even acquired a considerable name, a Lilly, a Marlow, a Heywood, are still so very far below him, we can hardly imagine that the author of a work, which rises so high beyond theirs, would have remained unknown."—Lectures on Dramatic Literature, vol. ii. page 252.

• We agree to the truth of this last observation, but not to the justice of its application to some of the plays here mentioned. It is true that Shake

« PreviousContinue »