Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

they all contribute to the main design, and support that just harmony which alone constitutes a perfect fable. Such, in fact, is the rigid accuracy of his plans, that it requires a constant, and almost painful attention, to trace out their various bearings and dependencies. Nothing is left 10 chance : before he sat down to write, he bad evidently arranged every circunstance in his mind ; preparations are made for incidents which do not immediately occur, and biols are dropped, which can only be comprehended at the unravelling of the piece. The play does not end with Jonson, because the fifth act is come to a conclusion ; nor are the most important events precipitated, and the most violent revolutions of character suddenly effected, because the progress of the story has involved the poet in difficulties from which he cannot otherwise extricate himself. This praise, whatever be ils worih, is enhanced by the rigid attention paid to the unities; to say nothing of those of place and character, that of time is so well observed in most of bis comedies, that the representation occupies scarcely an bour more on the stage, than the action Would require in real life.”

Mr. Gifford then goes on to explain, why Jonson, “ with such extraordinary requisites for the stage, joined to a strain of poetry always manly, frequently lofty, and sometimes sublime,” should not have retained his popularity; accounting for this result by the assignment of three causes, of which the first was, his dismissing “ the grace and urbanity which mark his lighter pieces whenever he approached the stage, putting on the censor with the sock;" the second sprung

from the circumstance, that “ Jonson was the painter of humours, not of passions," and aiming less to excite laughter in his hearers, “than to feast their understanding, and minister to their rational improvement," he frequently brought forward unamiable and uninteresting characters, pests which he wished to extirpate from society, not only by rendering them ridiculous, but by exhibiting them in an odious and disgusting light; and the third was, “a want of just discrimination. He seems to have been deficient,” observes Mr. Gifford, “ in that true tact or feeling of propriety which Shakspeare possessed in full excellence. He appears to have had an equal value for all his characters, and he labours upon the most unimportant, and even disagreeable of them, with the same fond and paternal assiduity which accompanies his happiest efforts." * This laboured and indiscriminate finishing may be termed, indeed, one of the prominent characteristics of Jonson's composition; and has, perhaps, more than any thing else, contributed to obscure his reputation.

The genius of Jonson seems to have forsaken him, when he touched the tragic chords. Neither pity nor terror answered to his call, and “ Sejanus” and “ Catiline" are valuable, principally, for their correct, though cold and hard, delineations of Roman character and costume. It is remarkable, that, in the construction of these tragedies, Jonson has deserted his Athenian masters, and, adopting the license of the Romantic school, he has laid aside the unities of time and place;. but without acquiring that breadth and freedom in the execution of his subjects, with which such deviations ought to have been accompanied.

The devotion of the poet to this high department of his art was not confined, however, to these two Roman dramas; he had planned a tragedy on the Fall of Mortimer, of which only a small fragment remains; and we find, from the Dulwich Manuscripts, that, the year preceding the first performance of Sejanus, he had actually been engaged in writing a play on the subject of Richard the Third :

-“ Lent unto Benjemy Johstone,” says lienslowe's memorandum, “at the appoyntment of E. Alleyn and Wm. Birde the 22 June, 1602, in earnest of a boocke called Richard Crook-back, and for new adycions for Jeronymo, the some of xlb." The Richard of Jonson, and the Macbeth of Milton 1-would that time had spared the one and witnessed the execution of the other! Ilow delightful, how interesting might have been the labour of comparison !

If Jonson failed, as he must be allowed to have done, in communicating pathos and interest to his tragic productions, he has made us ample amends by the unrivalled excellence of his numerous Masques, a species of dramatic poetry, to which

Gifford's Jonson, vol. i. Memoirs of Jonson, p. ccxiii--ccxv.

* Ibid. p. ccxvi--ccxix.

he, and he alone, put the seal of perfection. Here his imagination, which, in the peculiar line of comedy he cultivated, had but little scope for expansion, and was, in his tragedies, altogether repressed, by an undeviating adhesion to the letter of history, expatiated as in its native element. “No sooner,” remarks Mr. Gifford, “has he taken down his lyre, no sooner touched on his lighter pieces, than all is changed as if by magic, and he seems a new person. His genius awakes at once, his imagination becomes fertile, ardent, versatile, and excursive; his taste pure and elegant; and all his faculties attuned to sprightliness and pleasure.”

No greater honour, however, has been paid to the memory of Jonson, than the proof which Mr. Godwin has brought forward of his being the favourite author of Milton, “the predecessor that he chiefly had in his eye, and whom he seems principally to resemble in his style of composition.”+ Among the numerous passages by which he has substantiated this fact, none are more conspicuous than those that breathe the spirit of the lyrical portion of the Masques; for “ Milton," as he observes, “ will certainly be found to have studied his compositions in this kind more assiduously than those of any of his contemporaries.- It would be strange indeed, if the poet, who in early youth composed the Mask of Comus, had not diligently studied the writings of Ben Jonson.” I Can there be a test of merit more indisputable than this ? for “Comus,” though by no means faultless as a Masque, has to boast of a poetry more rich and imaginative than is to be found in any other composition, save The Tempest of Shakspeare.

“ It is not, however," proceeds Mr. Godwin, “ in lighter and incidental matters only, that Milton studied the great model afforded him by Jonson : we may find in bim much that would almost tempt us to hold opinion with Pythagoras, and to believe that the very spirit and souls of some men became transfused into their poetical successors. The address of our earlier poet to the lwo universities, prefixed to his most consummate performance, the comedy of “ The Fox,” will strike every reader familiar with the happiest passages of Milton's prose, with ils wonderful resemblance. —They were both of them emphatically poets who had sounded the depths, and formed themselves in the school, of classic lore.

The difference belween them’ may perhaps best be illustrated from the topic of religion. They had neither of them one spark of libertine and latitudinarian unbelief. But Jonson was not, like Milton, penetrated with his religion. It is to him a sort of servitude-it is not the principle that actuates, but the check that controls him. But in Milton, il is the element in which he breathes, a part of his nature. He acls, as ever in his Great Task-master's eye :' and this is not his misforlune ; but he rejoices in his condition, that he has so great, so wise, and so sublime a Being, to whom to render his audit.” *

The labours of Jonson closed with a species of dramatic poetry in which he had made no previous attempt, and we have only to regret that it was left in an un

[ocr errors]

• Gifford's Jonson, vol. i. Memoirs, p. ccxxx. After the passage which we have inserted in the text, follow these admirable observations :

“Such were the Masques of Jonson, in which, as Mr. Malone says, 'the wretched taste of those times found amusement.' That James and his court delighted in them cannot be doubted, and we have only to onen the Memoirs of Winwood and others to discover with what interest they were followed by the nobility

both sexes. Can we wonder at this? There were few entertainments of a public kind at which they could appear, and none in which they could participate. Here all was worthy of their hours of relaxation. Mythologues of classic purity, in which, as Hurd observes, the soundest moral lessons came recommended by the charm of numbers, were set forth with all the splendour of royalty, while Jones and Lanier, and Lawes and Ferrabosco, lavished all the grace and elegance of their respective arts on the embellishment of the entertainment.

“But in what was the taste of the times wretched ?'. In poetry, painting, architecture, they have not ince been equalled ; in theology, and moral philosophy, they are not even now surpassed ; and it ill ecomes us, who live in an age which can scarcely produce a Bartholomew Fair farce, to arraign the taste

a period which possessed a cluster of writers, of whom the meanest would now be esteemed a prodigy. od why is it assumed that the followers of the court of James were deficient in what Mr. Maione is pleased call taste? To say nothing of the men (who were trained to a high sense of decorum and intellectual scernment under Elizabeth), the Veres, the Wroths, the Bedfords, the Rudands, the Cliffords, and the rundels, who danced in the fairy rings, in the gay and gallant circles of these enchanting devices, of which ir most splendid shows are, at best, but beggarly parodies, were fully as accomplished in every interval and external grace as those who, in our days, have succeeded to their names and honours.”—Memoirs, . CCXXX. † Gifford's Jonson, vol. i. p. ccxcvii.

# Ibid. vol. i. p. ccciii-cccv. Ibid. vol. i. p. cccvii.

finished state; for had the “ Sad Shepherd” been completed in the style of excellence in which it was commenced, it would have been superior not only to the “ Faithful Shepherdess” of Fletcher, but perhaps to any thing which he himself had written. When Jonson, in his noble and generous eulogium on Shakspeare, tells us, that

“ He was not of an age, but for all time," he seized a characteristic of which the reverse, in some degree, applies to himself; for had he paid less attention to the minutie of his own age, and dedicated himself more to universal habits and feelings, his popularity would have nearly equalled that of the poet whom he loved and praised. Yet his fame rests on a broad and durable foundation, and we point, with pride and triumph, to that matchless constellation of dramatic merit, where burn, with inextinguishable glory, the mighty names of SuaKSPEARE, Jonson, FLETCHER, MASSINGER,

CHAPTER XIV.

The Biography of Shakspeare continued to the Close of his Residence in London.

*

VARIOU's particulars relative to the personal history of Shakspeare, in addition to those which terminated his biography in the country, having been detailed in the chapters that record his commencement as an actor, * the composition of his poems, † and his first efforts as a dramatic writer, † we have now to collect the few circumstances of his life which time has spared to us, during the most active season of its duration, resuming our narrative at a period when the capital was under considerable alarm from the prevalence of the plague, and from the numerous conspiracies which were entered into against the life of the Queen. Shakspeare had been exposed, during the year of his birth, to great risk from the plague at Stratford, and its recurrence in 1593 seems to have made so deep an impression upon him, that he has alluded to it in more than one of his plays; particularly in his Romeo and Juliet written in this very year, where he mentions the practice of sealing up the doors of houses, in which, “the infectious pestilence did reign.”S It is probable that the effect on his mind might have been rendered more powerful, by the recollected narrative of those who had tended his infancy, and who, no doubt, had often told him of the danger which threatened the dawn of his existence,

We have found that, on his arrival in London, his first employment was that of an actor, a profession which, we certainly know, he continued to exercise for, at least, seventeen years. That he was by no means partial, however, to this occupation, nay, that he bitterly regretted the necessity which compelled him to have recourse to it, as a mode of procuring subsistence, may be fairly deduced from the language of his ninety-first sonnet:

“ () for my sake do you with fortune chide,

The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,” &c. It appears strongly indeed, from the best of all evidence, that of his own words, that his early progress in life was thwarted by many obstacles, and accompanied by severe struggles, by poverty, contumely, and neglect. This he has emphatically told us, not only in one, but in several places, and in terms so expressive as

.

Vide Part. II. Chap. 1.

+ Part II. Chap. 2 & 5. $ Act v. sc. 2. See also The Two Gentlemen of Verona, act. ii. sc. I.

# Part H Chap. 9

[merged small][merged small][ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

to make us sympathize acutely with his sorrows. Yet we perceive him bearing up under his difficulties with a noble and independent spirit, and contrasting the world's oppression with the solace of private friendship. Thus, in that beautiful sonnet, the twenty-ninth, which has been noticed in another place, the transition from despair to hope is finely painted :

“ When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,

I all alone beweep my out-cast state,” &c. and again, in sonnet the thirty-seventh,

As a decrepit father takes delight

To see his active child do deeds of youth," &c. That, by the salutary though severe lessons of adversity, he had learnt to conquer his misfortunes, and to despise the shafts of vulgar scandal, will be evident from the two subsequent passages :

" Then hate me when thou wilt ; if ever, now;

Now while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of forlune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an alter-loss :
Ah! do not, when my heart hath scap'd this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquer'd woe.

Sonnet 90.

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

“ Your love and pity doth the impression fill

Which vulgar scandal stamp'd upon my brow ;
For what care l who calls me well or ill,
So you o'er-green my bad, my good allow ?--
In so profound abysm I throw all care
Of other's voices, that my adders sense
To critic and to flatterer stopped are.

Sonnet 112.
These complaints and consolations were, no doubt, written during the first ten
years of his residence in London, while his reputation, as a poet, was yet assail-
able, and while the patronage of Lord Southampton was his only shield against
the jealousy and traduction of illiberal competitors, whether off or on the stage.
But the same arising from his poems, and from the dramas of Romeo and Juliet,
and King Richard the Third, had, in 1596, most assuredly secured him from any
apprehensions of permanent injury; more especially as, soon after this period,
the encouragement and support of William, Earl of Pembroke, and Philip, Earl
of Montgomery, who, as the players tell us, in their dedication of the first folio,
"" had prosecuted our poet's plays, and their author living, with so much favour,
were added to the protecting influence of Southampton.

It was in this year, namely 1596, that Shakspeare's feelings as a father were put to a severe trial, by the loss of his only son Hamnet, who died in the month of August, at the age of twelve-a deprivation which, however sustained with fortitude, must have been long deplored.

He was now residing, it would appear from evidence referred to by Mr. Malone, * near the Bear-Garden in Southwark, and in the following year (1597) purchased of William Underhill, Esquire, one of the best houses in his nalive town of Stratford, which, having repaired and improved, he denominated New Place. +

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

See his “ Inquiry," p. 215. + Of this mansion, which Dugdale informs us was originally built by Sir Hugh Clopton in the time of Henry the Seventh, and was then “ a fair-house, built of brick and timber," and continued in the Clopton family until 1563, when it was purchased by William Bott, and resold in 1570 10 William Underhill, Esq., AirWheler has given us the following account, subsequent to the decease of our poet :-“On Shakspeare's death, it came to his daughter Mrs. Hall, for her life, and then to her only child Elizabeth, afterwards Lady Barnard; after whose death New Place was sold, in 1675, to Sir Edward Walker, Kat. Garler, King at Arms, who died the 20th of February, 1676-7; and under his Will, dated the 29th of June, 1676, it came to his only child, Barbara, the wife of Sir John Clopton, Knt. of Clopton, in this parish. Their younger son, Sir Hugh Clopwn, Knt. a barrister at law, and one of the heralds at arms, afterwards became possessed of New Place, which he modernised by internal and external alterations; and in 1742, cuter

"T

Whether this was the purchase in which he is said to have been so materialiy assisted by Lord Southampton, cannot positively be aflirmed; but as he had not Jong emerged from his difficulties, it is highly probable that on this, as well as on subsequent occasions, he was indebted to the bounty of his patron.*

To the year 1598 has been commonly assigned the commencement of the intimacy between our author and Ben Jonson. This epoch rests upon the authority of Mr. Rowe, who informs us, that

Shakspeare's acquintance with Ben Jonson began with a remarkable piece of humanity and good-nature. Mr. Jonson, who was at that time altogether unknown to the world, had offered one of his plays to the players to have it acted; and the persons into whose hands it was put, after having lurned it carelessly and superciliously over, was just upon the point of returning it to him with an ill-natured answer, that it would be of no service to their company, when Shakspeare luckily cast his eye upon it, and found something so well in it, as to engage him first to read it through, and afterwards to recommend Mr. Jonson and bis writings to the public.”

That this kind office was in perfect unison with the general character of Shakspeare, will readily be admitted, yet there is much reason to believe that the whole account is without foundation ; for, as we have related, in the last chapter,

Every Man in his Humour," which is supposed by all the editors and commentators to be the play alluded to by Rowe, was first performed at the Rose theatre; and

“That Jonson was ‘aliogether unknown to the world,'” remarks Mr. Gisord, " is a palpable unlruth. At ibis period,” (1598) he continues, “ Jonson was as well known as Shakspeare, and perhaps better. He was poor indeed, and very poor, and a mere retainer of the theatres ; bul he was intimately acquainted with Henslowe and Alleyn, and with all the performers at their houses. He was familiar with Draylon and Chapman, and Rowley, and Middleton, and Fleicher ; he had been writing for three years, in conjunction with Marston, and Decker, and Chettle, and Porter, and Bird, and with most of the poets of the day: he was celebrated by Meres as one of the principal writers of tragedy; and he had long been rising in reputation as a scholar and a poet among the most dislinguished characters of the age. Al this moment he was employed on “Every Man out of his Humour,” which was acted in 1599, and, in the elegant dedication of thal comedy to the • Gentlemen of the lons of Court,' he says, “When I wrote this poem, 1 iad friendship with divers in your Societies, who, as they were great names in learning, so were they no less examples of living. Of them and then, that I say no more, it was not despised.'— And yet, Jonson was,

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

tained Macklin, Garrick, and Dr. Delany, under Shakspeare's mulberry tree. By sir Hugh's son-iu-law and executor, Henry Talbot, Esq. brother to the Lord Chancellor Talbot, it was sold to the Rev. Francis Gastrell, vicar of Frodsham in Cheshire; who, if we may judge by his actions, felt no sort of pride or pleasure in this charming retirement, no consciousness of his being possessed of the sacred ground which the muses had consecrated to the memory of their favourite poet. The celebrated mulberry-tree planted by Shakspeare's hand became first an object of his dislike, because it subjected him to answer the frequent importunities of travellers, whose zeal might prompt them to visit it, and to hope that they might meet inspiration under its shade. In an evil hour, the sacrilegious priest ordered the tree, then remarkably large, and at its full growth, to be cut down ; which was no sooner done, than it was cleft to pieces for fire-wood: this took place in 1756, to the great regret and vexation, not only of the inhabitants, but of every admirer of our bard. The greater part of it was, however, soon after purchased by Mr. Thomas Sharp, watch-maker, of Stratford; who, well acquainted with the value set upon it by the world, turned it much to his advantage, by converting every fragment into small boxes, goblets, tooth-pick cases, tobaccostoppers, and numerous other articles. Nor did New Place long escape the destructive hand of Mr. Gastrell; who, being compelled to pay the monthly assessments towards the maintenance of the poor (some of which he expected to avoid, because he resided part of the year at Lichfield, though his servants continued in the house at Stratford during his absence), in the heat of his anger declareil, that house should never be assessed again ; and to give his

imprecation due effect, and wishing, as it seems to be “ damned to everlasting fame,” the demolition of New Place soon followed; for, in 1759, he rased the building to ground, disposed of the materials, and left Stratford amidst the rage and curses of its inhabitants. Thus was the town deprived of one of its principal ornaments, and most valued relics, by a man, who, had he been possessed of a true sense, and a veneration for the memory of our bard, would have rather preserved whatever particularly concerned their great and immortal owner, than ignorantly have trodden the ground which had been cultivated by the greatest genius in the world, without feeling those emotions which baturally arise in the breast of the generous enthusiast.

“The site of New Place was afterwards added to the adjoining garden, by its illiberal proprietor ; under whose Will, made on the 2d of October, 1768, it came to his widow, Mrs Jane Gastrell'; who, in 1775, sold it to William Hunt, Esq. late of this town ; from whose family it was purchased by Messrs. Battersbee and Morris, bankers, of Stratford.”-Wheeler's History of Stratford, p.135 ; and Guide to Stratford, p.45,47.

* It is more probable that he was assisted on various occasions by His Lordship, than that the large sum, mentioned by tradition, was bestwed at once, and at a period, 100, when it was less required.

« VorigeDoorgaan »