« PreviousContinue »
“SHAKSPERE was not so much esteemed, even Or that his hallow'd relics should be hid during his life, as we commonly suppose ; Under a star-ypointing pyramid ! and after his retirement from the stage he was Dear son of memory, great heir of fame, all but forgotten."* So we read in an What need'st thou such dull witness of thy
name? authority too mighty to enter upon evidence. The oblivion after his retirement and death
Thou in our wonder and astonishment is the true pendant to the alleged neglect
Hast built thyself a lasting monument.
For whilst to th' shame of slow endeavouring during his lifet. When did the oblivion
art begin? It could scarcely have existed when,
Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart in 1623, an expensive folio volume of many
Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued book hundred pages was published, without regard
Those Delphic lines with deep impression to the risk of such an undertaking—and it
took, was a risk, indeed, if the author had been
Then thou, our fancy of herself bereaving, neglected and was forgotten. But the editors
Dost make us marble with too much conof the volume do not ask timidly for support
ceiving, of these neglected and forgotten works. And so sepulchred in such pomp doth lie, They say to the reader, “Though you be a That kings for such a tomb would wish to die." magistrate of wit, and sit on the stage at
The author of these lines could not have Blackfriars or the Cockpit, to arraign plays known the works of the “admirable dramatic daily, know these plays have had their trial poet," while that poet was in life; but already, and stood out all appeals.” Did sixteen years after his death he was the dear the oblivion continue when, in 1632, a second
son of memory, the great heir of fame ; his edition of this large work was brought out ? bones were honoured, his relics were halThere was one man, certainly—a young and lowed, his works were a lasting monument, ardent scholar—who was not amongst the his book was priceless, his lines were oracular, oblivious. John Milton was twenty-four Delphic. Is this oblivion ? But it may be years of age when these verses were pub- said that Milton was a young enthusiast, lished:
one who saw farther than the million; that “An EPITAPH ON THE ADMIRABLE DRAMATIC the public opinion of a writer (and we are POET, W. SHAKESPEARE.
not talking of his positive excellence, apart “What need my Shakespeare for his honour'd from opinion) must be sought for in the bones
voice of the people, or at any rate in that of The labour of an age in piled stones,
the leaders of the people. How are we to
arrive at the knowledge of this expression ? * Life of Shakspere, in ‘Lardner's Cyclopædia.' † See Book ix. chap. iv.
We can only know, incidentally, that an
author was a favourite, either of a king or Richard the Third, speaking in as high a of a cobbler. We know that Shakspere was strain of piety and mortification as is uttered the favourite of a king, in these times of his in any passage of this book*, and sometimes oblivion. A distinguished writer says, “ The to the same sense and purpose with some Prince of Wales had learned to appreciate words in this place : 'I intended,' saith he, Shakspere, not originally from reading him, 'not only to oblige my friends, but my but from witnessing the court representations enemies.' The like saith Richard, Act 11., of his plays at Whitehall. Afterwards we
Scene 1.know that he made Shakspere his closet
*I do not know that Englishman alive companion, for he was reproached with doing With whom my soul is any jot: at odds, so by Milton.” *
The concluding words are More than the infant that is born to-night; founded upon a mistake of the passage in I thank my God for my humility.' Milton. Charles is not reproached with reading Shakspere. The great republican
Other stuff of this sort may be read throughdoes not condemn the king for having made out the whole tragedy, wherein the poet the dramatic poet the closet companion of used not much licence in departing from the his solitudes ; but, speaking of the dramatic truth of history, which delivers him a deep poet as a well-known author with whom the dissembler, not of his affections only but of king was familiar, he cites out of him a
religion.” It was a traditionary blunder,
which Warton received and transmitted to passage to show that pious words might be found in the mouth of a tyrant. The his successors, that Milton reproached Charles passage not only proves the familiarity of with reading Shakspere, and thus inferred Charles with Shakspere, but evidences also that Shakspere was no proper closet comMilton's familiarity; and, what is of more
panion. The passage has wholly the contrary importance, the familiarity even of those tendency; and he who thinks otherwise may stern and ascetic men to whom Milton was
just as well think that the phrase "other peculiarly addressing his opinions. The stuff of this sort” is also used disparagingly. passage of the 'Iconoclastes’ is as follows:
A few years before that is in 1645— “Andronicus Comnenus, the Byzantine em
Milton had offered another testimony to peror, though a most cruel tyrant, is reported Shakspere in his “L’Allegro," then pub
lished : by Nicetas to have been a constant reader of Saint Paul's epistles; and by continual
“ Then to the well-trod stage anon, study had so incorporated the phrase and If Jonson's learned sock be on, style of that transcendant apostle into all Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child,
Warble his native wood-notes wild." his familiar letters, that the imitation seemed to vie with the original. Yet this availed Milton was not afraid to publish these lines, not to deceive the people of that empire, even after the suppression of the theatres by who, notwithstanding his saint's vizard, tore his own political party. That he went along him to pieces for his tyranny. From stories with them in their extreme polemical opinions of this nature, both ancient and modern, it is impossible to believe ; but he would which abound, the poets also, and some nevertheless be careful not to mention, in English, have been in this point so mindful connexion with the stage, names of any of decorum as to put never more pious words doubtful eminence. He was not ashamed to in the mouth of any person than of a tyrant. say that the learning of Jonson, the nature I shall not instance an abstruse author, of Shakspere, had for him attractions, though wherein the king might be less conversant, the stage was proscribed. This contrast of but one whom we well know was the closet | the distinguishing qualities of the two men companion of these his solitudes, William is held to be one amongst the many proofs Shakespeare, who introduces the person of of Shakspere's want of learning; as if it was
* Mr. De Quincey's. Life of Shakespeare' in the 'Ency- * Milton here refers to the first section of the 'Eikon clopædia Britannica.'
Milton's opinions. It is not alone what is
not absolutely essential to the wbole spirit | Ben Jonson protect them against whoever and conception of the passage that the shall think fit to be severe in censure against learning of Jonson, thus pointed out as his them : the truth is, his tragedies ‘Sejanus' leading quality, should be contrasted with and 'Catiline’ seem to have in them more of the higher quality of Shakspere—that quality an artificial and inflate than of a pathetical which was assigned him as the greatest and naturally tragic height.” praise by his immediate contemporaries—his “ Christopher Marlowe, a kind of second nature. No one can doubt of Milton's affec- Shakespeare (whose contemporary he was), tion for Shakspere, and of his courage in not only because like him he rose from an avowing that affection, living as he was in actor to be a maker of plays, though inferior the heat of party opinion which was hostile both in fame and merit; but also because, to all such excellence. We have simply in his begun poem of 'Hero and Leander, “ Jonson's learned sock;" but the "native he seems to have a resemblance of that clean wood-notes wild” of Shakspere are associated and unsophisticated wit which is natural to with the most endearing expressions. He is that incomparable poet.” "sweetest Shakespear,” he is "Fancy's child.” George Chapman, a poetical writer, flouIn his later years, after a life of contention rishing in the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and and heavy responsibility, Milton still clung King James, in that repute both for his to his early delights. The “Theatrum Poe- translations of 'Homer' and `Hesiod,' and tarum,” which bears the name of his nephew what he wrote of his own proper genius, that Edward Phillips, is held to have received he is thought not the meanest of English many touches from Milton's pen*. At any poets of that time, and particularly for his rate it is natural that it should represent dramatic writings.”
“ John Fletcher, one of the happy triumhere said of Shakspere, but of Shakspere in virate (the other two being Jonson and comparison with the other great dramatic Shakespear) of the chief dramatic poets of poets of his age, that is important. Take a our nation in the last foregoing age, among few examples :
whom there might be said to be a symmetry Benjamin Jonson, the most learned, of perfection, while each excelled in his judicious, and correct, generally so accounted, peculiar way: Ben Jonson, in his elaborate of our English comedians, and the more to pains and knowledge of authors ; Shakespear, be admired for being so, for that neither the in his pure vein of wit, and natural poesy height of natural parts, for he was no Shak-height; Fletcher, in a courtly elegance and spere, nor the cost of extraordinary education, genteel familiarity of style, and withal a wit for he is reported but a bricklayer's son, but and invention so overflowing, that the his own proper industry and addiction to luxuriant branches thereof were frequently books, advanced him to this perfection : in thought convenient to be lopped off by three of his comedies, namely, “The Fox,' his almost incomparable companion Francis 'Alchymist,' and “Silent Woman,' he may Beaumont.” be compared, in the judgment of learned " William Shakespear, the glory of the men, for decorum, language, and well English stage; whose nativity at Stratfordhumouring of the parts, as well with the upon-Avon is the highest honour that town chief of the ancient Greek and Latin can boast of: from an actor of tragedies and comedians as the prime of modern Italians, comedies, he became a maker; and such a who have been judged the best of Europe maker, that, though some others may perhaps for a happy vein in comedies ; nor is his pretend to a more exact decorum and * Bartholomew Fair' much short of them ; economy, especially in tragedy, never any as for his other comedies, 'Cynthia's Revels,' expressed a more lofty and tragic height, Poetaster,' and the rest, let the name of never any represented nature more purely to * The' Theatrum Poetarum' was published in 1675, the
the life ; and where the polishments of art year after Milton's death.
are most wanting, as probably his learning
was not extraordinary, he pleaseth with a there are many that have a fame deservedly certain wild and native elegance; and in all for what they have writ, even in poetry his writings hath an unvulgar style, as weli itself, who, if they came to the test, I quesin his “Venus and Adonis,' his ‘Rape of tion how well they would endure to hold Lucrece,' and other various poems, as in his open their eagle eyes against the sun : wit, dramatics."
ingenuity, and learning in verse, even eleHalf a century had elapsed, when these gancy itself, though that comes nearest, are critical opinions were published, from the one thing, true native poetry is another; in time when Ben Jonson had apostrophized which there is a certain air and spirit, which Shakspere as “soul of the age.” Whatever perhaps the most learned and judicious in qualification we may here find in the praise other arts do not perfectly apprehend, much of Shakspere, it is unquestionable that the less is it attainable by any study or industry; critic sets him above all his contemporaries. nay, though all the laws of heroic poem, Benjamin Jonson was “learned, judicious, all the laws of tragedy were exactly oband correct,” but “he was no Shakspear.” served, yet still this tour entregent, this poetic Marlowe was “a kind of a second Shak- energy, if I may so call it, would be required spear;" and his greatest praise is, that “he to give life to all the rest, which shines seems to have a resemblance of that clean through the roughest, most unpolished and and unsophisticated wit which is natural to antiquated language, and may haply be that incomparable poet." Chapman is not wanting in the most polite and reformed. the meanest” of his time. Fletcher is “one Let us observe Spenser, with all his rusty of the happy triumvirate, the other two obsolete words, with all his rough-hewn being Jonson and Shakespear;" but the pe- clouterly verses ; yet take him throughout, culiar excellence of each is discriminated in and we shall find in him a graceful and a way which leaves no doubt as to which poetic majesty: in like manner, Shakespear, the critic meant to hold superior. But there in spite of all his unfiled expressions, his are no measured words applied to the cha- rambling and indigested fancies, the laughter racter of Shakspere. He is “the glory of of the critical, yet must be confessed a poet the English stage”_" never any expressed a above many that go beyond him in literature more lofty and tragic height, never any re- some degrees.” Taking the whole passage presented nature more purely to the life.” in connection, and looking also at the school We can understand what a pupil of Milton, of art in which the critic was bred, it is bred up in his school of severe study and impossible to receive this opinion as regards imitation of the ancients, meant, when he Shakspere in any other light than as one of says, “Where the polishments of art are enthusiastic admiration. It is important to most wanting, as probably his learning was note the period in which this admiration was not extraordinary, he pleases with a certain publicly expressed. It was fifteen years wild and native elegance.” Here is no ac- after the Restoration of Charles II., when cusation that the learning was wholly we had a new school of poetry and criticism absent : and that this absence produced the in England ; when the theatres were in a common effects of want of cultivation. Shak- palmy state as far as regarded courtly and spere, “ in all his writings, hath an unvulgar public encouragement. The natural assostyle.” In the preface to this valuable little ciation of these opinions with those of Milbook-which preface is a composition elo-ton's youth, has led us to leap over the quent enough to have been written by Milton interval which elapsed between the close of himself—there is a passage which is worthy the Shaksperean drama and the rise of the of special observation in connection with French school. We desired to show the what we have already quoted : “If it were continuity of opinion in Milton, and in Milonce brought to a strict scrutiny, who are ton's disciples, that had prevailed for forty the right, genuine, and true-born poets, I years ; during a large portion of which civil fear me our number would fall short, and war and polemical strife had well nigh
banished poetry and the sister arts from works of Shakspere, made me this question,” England; and dramatic poetry, especially, &c.* When the London theatres were prowas proscribed by a blind fanaticism, wholly vided with novelties in such abundance that, and irredeemably, without discrimination according to Prynne,“ one study was scarce between its elevating and its debasing in- able to hold the new play-books,” the plays fluence upon the public morals. Milton of Shakspere were still in such demand for himself had left “ a calm and pleasing soli- the purposes of the stage, that his successors tariness, fed with cheerful and confident in the theatrical property of the Globe and thoughts, to embark in a troubled sea of Blackfriars found it their interest to prenoises and hoarse disputes.” Let us retrace serve the monopoly of their performance our steps, and glance a little at the prelude (which they had so long enjoyed), by a to this period.
handsome gratuity to the Master of the In 1633 was published the celebrated Revels. There is this entry in the office'Histrio-Mastix, the Player's Scourge, of book of Sir Henry Herbert, in 1627 : “ReWilliam Prynne. In the epistle dedicatory ceived from Mr. Heming, in their company's to the benchers of Lincoln's Inn, he says, name, to forbid the playing of Shakespeare's that about seven years before he had set plays to the Red Bull Company, five pounds." down all the play-condemning passages The people clearly had not yet forgotten the which he recollected in the Fathers and “delight and wonder of the stage.” Fletcher, other authors, and that he had since enlarged Massinger, Shirley, were newer favourites ; the intended bulk of this discourse, “because but the people could not forget Shakspere. I saw the numbers of players, play-books, Neither was he forgotten by the great. In play-haunters, and play-houses still increas- the very year of the publication of Prynne's ing, there being above forty thousand play- book-when St. James's and Whitehall were books printed within these two years, as brilliant with the splendid revelries of an stationers inform me.” In his address to elegant court, and the queen herself took the Christian reader he has a distinct allu- part in the masques and pageantries,--the sion to the popularity of Shakspere's col- indecent allusion to which cost Prynne his lected works : “Some play-books since I first ears—the name of Shakspere was as familiar undertook this subject are grown from quarto to the royal circle as in the days of James. into folio, which yet bear so good a price From the seventeenth of November to the and sale, that I cannot but with grief relate sixth of January, there were eight perit, they are now new printed in far better formances at St. James's and Whitehall, paper than most octavo or quarto bibles, three of which were plays of Shakspere : which hardly find such vent as they." The namely, Richard III., Taming of the Shrew, two folio editions of Shakspere are the only and Cymbeline; and Sir Henry Herbert play-books grown from quarto to folio to records of the last, “well liked by the which the zealous puritan can allude, with king.”+ These office accounts have great the exception of Jonson's own edition of his lacunæ ; but, wherever we find them during plays, completed in 1631 ; those of Beau- | the reign of Charles, there we find a record mont and Fletcher were not collected till of the admiration of Shakspere. 1647. The very fact of the publication of Dryden lived near enough to the times of the first two folios of Shakspere is a proof of Charles I. to be good evidence as to the his popularity with general readers. They judgment which the higher circles formed of were not exclusively the studies of the Shakspere ; after the Restoration he wa scholar, such as Milton, or of the play- intimate with men who had moved in those haunters whom Prynne denounces. A letter circles. His 'Essay on Dramatic Poesy,' in the Bodleian Library, written by a Dr. which was first printed in 1668, contains the James, about this period, testifies how generally they were read: “A young gentle
* See Mr. Halliwell's Character of Falstaff," p. 19.
† See Malone's * Historical Account of the English lady of your acquaintance, having read the Stage.