Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

would not have stood alone above all others: he would not have been Shakespeare.

His passion for Mary Fitton lasted some twelve years. Again and again he lived golden hours with her like those Cleopatra boasted of and regretted. Life is wasted quickly in such orgasms of passion ; lust whipped to madness by jealousy. Mary Fitton was the only woman Shakespeare ever loved, or at least, the only woman he loved with such intensity as to influence his art. She was Rosaline, Cressid, Cleopatra, and the “ dark lady” of the sonnets. All his other women are parts of her or reflections Jof her, as all his heroes are sides of Hamlet, or reflections of him. Portia is the first full-length sketch of Ma Fitton, taken at a distance: Beatrice and Rosalind are mere reflections of her high spirits, her aristocratic pride and charm: her strength and resolution are incarnate in Lady Macbeth. Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia, are but abstract longings for

purity and constancy called into life by his misstress's faithlessness and passion.

Shakespeare admired Mary Fitton as intensely as he desired her, yet he could not be faithful to her for the dozen years his passion lasted. Love and her soft hours drew him irresistibly again and again : he was the ready spoil of opportunity. Here is one instance: it was his custom, Aubrey tells us, to visit Stratford every year, probably every summer: on his way he was accustomed to put up at an inn in Oxford, kept by John D'Avenant. Mrs. D'Avenant, we are told, was “a very beautiful woman, and of a very good witt and of conversation extremely agreeable. No doubt Shakespeare made up to her from the first. Her second son, William, who afterwards became the celebrated playwright, was born in March, 1605, and according to a tradition long current in Oxford, Shakespeare was his father. In later life Sir William D'Avenant himself was " contented enough to be thought his (Shakespeare's) son. There is every reason to accept the story as it has been handed down. Shakespeare, as Troilus, brags of his constancy; talks of himself as “plain and true”; but it was all boasting: from eighteen to forty-five he was as inconstant as the wind, and gave himself to all the “ subtle games of love with absolute abandonment, till his health broke under the strain.

In several of the Sonnets, notably in 36 and 37, Shakespeare tells us that he was “poor and despised ... made lame by fortune's dearest spite." He will not even have his friend's name coupled with his for fear lest his “ bewailed guilt ” should do him shame:

Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one:
So shall those blots that do with me remain
Without thy help, by me be borne alone.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Spalding and other critics believe that this “ guilt.” of Shakespeare refers to his profession as an actor, but that stain should not prevent Lord Herbert from honouring him with “public kindness.” It is clear, I think, from the words themselves, that the guilt refers to the fact that both Herbert and he were in love with the same woman. Jonson, as we have seen, had poked fun at their connection, and this is how Shakespeare tries to take the sting out of the sneer.

Shakespeare had many of the weaknesses of the neurotic and artistic temperament, but he had assuredly the noblest virtues of it: he was true to his friends, and more than generous to their merits.

If his ethical conscience was faulty, his aesthetical conscience was of the very highest. Whenever we find him in close relations with his contemporaries we are struck with his kindness and high impartial intelligence. Were they his rivals, he found the perfect word for their merits and shortcomings. How can one better praise Chapman than by talking of

The proud full sail of his great verse”?

How can one touch his defect more lightly than by hinting that his learning needed feathers to lift it from the ground? And if Shakespeare was fair even to his rivals, his friends could always reckon on his goodwill and his unwearied service. All his fine qualities came out when as an elder he met churlish Ben Jonson. Jonson did not influence him as much as Marlowe had influenced him; but these were the two greatest living men with whom he was brought into close contact, and his relations with Jonson show him as in a glass. Rowe has a characteristic story which must not be forgotten:

“His acquaintance with Ben Jonson began with a remarkable piece of humanity and good-nature; Mr. Jonson, who was at that time altogether unknown, had offered one of his playes to the Players, in order to have it acted; but 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 illnatured answer, that it would be of no service to their company, when Shakespeare luckily cast his eye upon it, and found something so well in it as to encourage him to read through and afterwards to recommend Ben Jonson and his writings to the publick. After this they were professed friends; though I don't know whether the other ever made him an equal return of gentleness and sincerity. Ben was naturally proud and indolent, and in the days of his reputation did so far take upon him the premier in witt that he could not but look with an evil eye upon anyone that seemed to stand in

competition with him. And if at times he has affected to commend him, it has always been with some reserve, insinuating his incorrectness, a careless manner of writing and a want of judgment; the praise of seldom altering or blotting out what he writt which was given him by the players over the first publish of his works after his death was what Jonson could not bear.

66

The story reads exactly like the story of Goethe and Schiller. It was Schiller who held aloof and was full of fault-finding criticism: it was Goethe who made all the advances and did all the kindnesses. It was Goethe who obtained for Schiller that place as professor of history at Jena which gave Schiller the leisure needed for his dramatic work. It is always the greater who gives and forgives.

I believe, of course, too, in the traditional account of the unforgettable evenings at the Mermaid. “Many were the wit-combats," wrote Fuller of Shakespeare in his “Worthies" (1662), “betwixt

66 him and Ben Jonson, which too I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning, solid but slow in his performances. Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all sides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds by the quickness of his wit and invention.”

It was natural for the onlooker to compare Ben Jonson and his “mountainous belly to some Spanish galleon, and Shakespeare, with his quicker wit, to the more active English ship. It was Jonson's great size—a quality which has always been too highly esteemed in England—his domineering

[ocr errors]

temper and desperate personal courage that induced the gossip to even him with Shakespeare.

Beaumont described these meetings, too, in his poetical letter to his friend Jonson:

“What things have we seen Done at the Mermaid? Heard words that have been So nimble and so full of subtle flame, As if that every one from whence they came Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest, And had resolved to live a fool the rest Of his dull life.”

was

In one respect at least the two men were antitheses.

Jonson exceedingly combative and quarrelsome, and seems to have taken a chief part in all the bitter disputes of his time between actors and men of letters. He killed one actor in a duel and attacked Marston and Dekker in “ The Poetaster"; they replied to him in the “Satiromastix.” More than once he criticized Shakespeare's writings; more than once jibed at Shakespeare, unfairly trying to wound him; but Shakespeare would not retort. It is to Jonson's credit that though he found fault with Shakespeare's “ Julius Caesar" and “ Pericles," he yet wrote of him in the “ Poetaster as a peacemaker, and, under the name of Virgil, honoured him as the greatest master of poetry.

Tradition gives us one witty story about the relations between the pair which seems to me extraordinarily characteristic. Shakespeare was godfather to one of Ben's children, and after the christening, being in a deep study, Jonson came to cheer him up, and asked him why he was so melancholy. No, faith, Ben,” says he; “not I, but I have been considering a great while what should be the fittest gift for me to bestow upon my godchild and I have

[ocr errors]

66

« VorigeDoorgaan »