Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

comment, yet I fancy fome little account of the man himself may not be thought improper to go along with them.

He was the son of Mr John Shakespeare, and was born at Stratford upon Avon, in Warwick: shire, in April 1564. His family, as appears by the register and publick writings relating to that town, were of good figure and fathion there, and are mentioned as gentlemen. His father, who was a considerable dealer in wool, had fo large a family, ten children in all, that though he was his eldest son, he could give him no better education than his own cmployment. He had bred him, it is true, for fome time, at a free school, where, it is probable, he acquired what Latin he was malier of: but the narrowness of his circumstances, and the want of his asistance at home, forced his father to withdraw him from thence, and unhappily prevented his further proficiency in that language. It is without controversy, that in his works ve scarce find any traces of any thing that looks like an imitation of the ancients. The delicacy of his taste, and the natural bent of his own great, genius (equal, if not superior, to some of the best of theis), would certainly have led him to read and study them with so much pleasure, that some of their fine images would naturally have insinuated themselves into, and been mixed with, his own writings; fo that his not copying at least fomething from them may be an argument of his never having read them. Whether his ignorance of the ancients were a disadvantage to him or no, may admit of a dispute : for though the knowledge of them might have made him more correct,

yet

yet it is not improbable but that the regularity and deference for them, which would have attended that correctness, might have restrained some of that fire, impetuosity, and even beautiful extrava. gance, which we admire in Shakespeare: and I believe we are better pleased with those thoughts, altogether new and uncommon, which his own imagination supplied him so abundantly with, than if he had given us the most beautiful passages out of the Greek and Latin poets, and that in the molt agreeable manner that it was possible for a maiter of the English language to deliver them.

Upon his leaving school, he seems to have given entirely into that way of living which his father proposed to him; and, in order to settle in the world after a family mannet, lie thought fit to marry while he was yet very young. His wife was the daughter of one Hathaway, said to have been a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford. In this kind of settlement he contirued for some 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 blemish upon his good manners, and a misfortune to him, yet it afterwards happily proved the occasion of exerting one of the greatest geniuses that ever was known in dramatic poetry. He had; by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company; and, amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of deer-stealing engaged him more than once in robbing a park that belonged to Sir Thomas Lucy, of Cherlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman, as he

thought

thought, fomewhat too feverely; and, in order to revenge that ill usage, he made a ballad upon him. And though this, probably the first essay of his poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the prosecution against him to that degree, that he was obliged to leave his business and family in Warwickshire for some time, and shelter himself in London.

It is at this time, and upon this accident, that he is said to have made his first acquaintance in the playhouse* 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, foon distinguished him, if not as an extraordinary actor, yet as an excellent writer. His name is printed, as the custom was in those times, amongst those of the other players, before some old plays, but without any particular account of what sort of parts he used to play; and, though I have inquired, I could never meet with any

fur: ther account of him this way, than that the top of his performance was the Ghost in his own Han. let. I should have been much more pleased, to have learned, from certain authority, which was the first play he wrotet; it would be without doubt a pleasure to any man, curious in things of this

kind * There is a stage tradition, that his first office in the theatre was that of proinpter's attendant; whose employment is to give the performers notice to be ready to enter as often as the business of the play requires their appearance on the stage. MALONE.

+ The highest date of any I can yet find is Romeo and Juliet, in 1597, when the author was 33 years old ; and Richard the Second, and Third, in the next year, viz, the 34th of his age.

[ocr errors]

kind, to see and know what was the first essay of a fancy like Shakespeare's. Perhaps we are not to look for his beginnings, like those of other authors, among their lealt perfect writings; art had fo little, and nature had so large a share 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 then, were the best. I would not be thought by this to mean, that his fancy was so loose and extravagant, as to be independerit on the rule and

government of judgment; but that what he thought was commonly fo great, fo 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 several pieces were written be generally uncertain, yet there are paffages in some few of them which seem to fix their dates: So the Chorus at the end of the fourth act of Hen7y the Fifth, by a compliment very handsomely turned to the earl of Essex, thews the play to have been written when that lord was general for the queen in Ireland; and his eulogy upon queen Elizabeth, and her successor king James, in the latter-end of liis Henry the Eight, 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, wiro began to grow wonderfully fond of diversions of this kind, could not but be highly pleafed, to fee a genius arise from amongst them of fo pleasurable, lo rich a vein, and fo plentifully capable of furnishing their favourite entertainments. Besides the advantages of his wit, he was in himself a good-natured man, of great sweetness in his manners, and a most agreeable companion ; so that it is no wonder, if, with so 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 vesial, throned by the west.

ellers

Midsummer Night's Dream. And that whole passage is a compliment very properly brouglit in, and very handsomely applied to her. She was so well pleased with that admirable character of Falstaff, in The two Parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one play more and to thew him in love. This is faid to be the occasion of his writing The Merry Wives of Windfor. How well she was obeyed, the play itself is an admirable proof. Upon this occasion it may not be improper to observe, that this part of Falstaff is faid to have been written originally under the name of Oldcaftle* ; some of that family being the remaining, the queen was pleased to command lim to alter it ; upon which he made use of Falftatf. The present offence wasindeedavoided; but I do not know whether the author may not have been somewhat to blame in the second choice, fince it is certain that Sir John Falstaff, who was a knight of the garter and a licutenant-general, was a name of distinguished merit in the wars in France in

Henry * See the Epilogue to Henry the fourth.

« VorigeDoorgaan »