Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

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 publick writings relating to that town, were of good figure and fashion there, and are mentioned as gentlemen. His father, who was a confiderable dealer in wool, had fo large a family, ten children in all, that though he was his eldest fon, he could give him no better education than his own employment, He had bred him, it is true, for fome time at a free school, where, it is probable, he acquired what Latin he was mafter of: but the narrowness of his circumstances, and the want of his affiftance at home, forced his father to withdraw him from thence, and unhappily prevented his further proficiency in that language. It is without controverfy, that in his works we scarce find any traces of any thing that looks like an imitation of the ancients. The delicacy of his tafte, and the natural bent of his own great genius, (equal, if not fuperior, to some of the best of theirs,) would certainly have led him to read and ftudy them with fo much pleasure, that fome of their fine images would naturally have infinuated themselves into, and been mixed with, his own writings; fo that his not copying at least something from them, may be an argument of his never having read them. Whether his ignorance of the ancients were a difadvantage to him or no, may admit of a difpute: for though the knowledge of them might have made him more correct, yet it is not improbable but that the regularity and deference for them, which would have attended that correctness,

might have restrained fome of that fire, impetuofity, and even beautiful extravagance, which we admire in Shakspeare: and I believe we are better pleafed with thofe thoughts, altogether new and uncommon, which his own imagination fupplied him fo abundantly with, than if he had given us the moft beautiful paffages out of the Greek and Latin poets, and that in the most agreeable manner that it was poffible for a master of the English language to deliver them.

Upon his leaving fchool, he feems to have given entirely into that way of living which his father proposed to him; and in order to fettle 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, faid to have been a fubftantial yeoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford. In this kind of fettlement he continued for fome 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 blemith upon his good manners, and a misfortune to him, yet it afterwards happily proved the occafion of exerting one of the greatest geniuses that ever was known in dramatick poetry. He had, by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company; and amongst them, fome 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 profecuted by that gentleman, as he thought, fomewhat too feverely; and in order to revenge that ill ufage, he

[blocks in formation]

made a ballad upon him. And though this, probably the first effay of his poetry, be loft, yet it is faid to have been fo very bitter, that it redoubled the prosecution against him to that degree, that he was obliged to leave his bufinefs and family in Warwickshire, for fome time, and fhelter himself in London.

It is at this time, and upon this accident, that he is faid to have made his firft acquaintance in the playhoufe. 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 diftinguished him, if not as an extraordinary actor, yet as an excellent writer. His name is printed, as the custom was in thofe times, amongst those of the other players, before fome old plays, but without any particular account of what fort of parts he ufed to play; and though I have inquired, I could never meet with any further account of him this way, than that the top of his performance was the Ghoft in his own Hamlet. I fhould have been much more pleased, to have learned from certain authority, which was the first play he wrote; it would be without, doubt a pleasure to any man, curious in things of this kind, to fee and know what was the firft effay of a fancy like Shakfpeare's. Perhaps we are not to look for his beginnings, like thofe of other authors, among their leaft perfe& writings; art had fo little, and nature fo large a fhare in what he did, that, for aught I know, the performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, and had the most fire and strength of imagination in them, were the best. I would not be thought

thought by this to mean, that his fancy was fo loose and extravagant, as to be independent on the rule and government of judgment; but that what he thought, was commonly fo great, so justly and rightly conceived in itself, that it wanted little or no correction, and was immediately approved by an impartial judgment at the first fight. But though the order of time in which the feveral pieces were written be generally uncertain, yet there are paffages in fome few of them which feem to fix their dates. So the Chorus at the end of the fourth act of Henry the Fifth, by a compliment very handsomely turned to the earl of Effex, shows the play to have been written when that lord was general for the queen in Ireland; and his elogy upon queen Elizabeth, and her fucceffor king James, in the latter end of his Henry the Eighth, is a proof of that play's being written after the acceffion of the latter of those two princes to the crown of England. Whatever the particular times of his writing were, the people of his age, who began to grow wonderfully fond of diverfions of this kind, could not but be highly pleased to see a genius arife amongst them of fo pleafurable, so rich a vein, and so plentifully capable of furnishing their favourite entertainments. Befides the advantages of his wit, he was in himself a goodnatured man, of great sweetness in his manners, and. a most agreeable companion; fo that it is no wonder, if, with fo many good qualities, he made himself acquainted with the best conversations 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

a fair veftal, throned by the west.

A Midfummer-Night's Dream.

and that whole paffage is a compliment very properly brought in, and very handsomely applied to her. She was fo well pleafed with that admirable character of Falstaff, in The Two Parts of Henry the Fourth, that the commanded him to continue it for one play more, and to fhow him in love. This is faid to be the occafion of his writing The Merry Wives of Windfor. How well fhe was obeyed, the play itself is an admirable proof. Upon this occafion it may not be improper to obferve, that this part of Falftaff is faid to have been written originally under the name of Oldcaftle: fome of that family being then remaining, the queen was pleased to command him to alter it; upon which he made ufe of Falstaff. The prefent offence was indeed avoided; but I do not know whether the author may not have been fomewhat to blame in his fecond choice, fince it is certain that Sir John Falstaff, who was a knight of the garter, and a lieutenantgeneral, was a name of diftinguished merit in the wars in France in Henry the Fifth's and Henry the Sixth's times. What grace foever the queen conferred upon him, it was not to her only he owed the fortune which the reputation of his wit made. He had the honour to meet with many great and uncommon marks of favour and friendship from the earl of Southampton,

famous

« VorigeDoorgaan »