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After an interval of eighteen years, Shakspeare obtained once more an editor of great name, and seemingly in every way accomplished to assert the rights of his Author. In 1765, Dr. Samuel Johnson presented the world with his long-promised edition of our Dramatist; and the public expectation, which had been highly raised, was again doomed to be disappointed. Johnson had a powerful intellect, and was perfectly conversant with human life ; but he was not sufficiently versed in black-letter lore; and, deficient in poetic taste, he was unable to accompany our great Bard in the higher flights of his imagination. The public in general were not satisfied with his commentary or his text; but to his Preface they gave the most unlimited applause. The array and glitter of its words; the regular and pompous march of its periods, with its pervading affectation of deep thought and of sententious remark, seem to have fascinated the popular mind; and to have withdrawn from the common observation its occasional poverty of meaning ; the inconsistency of its praise and censure; the falsity in some instances of its critical remarks; and its defects now and then even with respect to composition. It has, however, its merits, and Heaven forbid that I should not be just to them. It gives a right view of the difficulties to be encountered by the editor of Shakspeare: it speaks modestly of himself, and candidly of those who had preceded him in the path which he was treading : it assigns to Pope, Hanmer, and Warburton, those victims to the rage of the minute critics, their due proportion of praise : it is honorably just, in short, to all who come within the scope of its observations, with the exception of the editor's great Author alone. To him also the editor gives abundant praise; but against it he arrays such a frightful host of censure as to command the field; and to leave us to wonder at our admiration of an object so little worthy of it, though he has been followed by the admiration of more than two entire centuries. As an unfolder of intricate and perplexed passages, Johnson must be allowed to excel. His explanations are always perspicuous, and his proffered amendments of a corrupt text are sometimes successful. But the expectations of the world had been too highly raised to be satisfied with his performance; and it was only to the most exceptionable part of it, the mighty Preface, that they gave their unmingled applause. — In the year following the publication of Johnson's edition, in 1766, George Steevens made his first appearance as a commentator on Shakspeare; and he showed himself to be deeply conversant with that antiquarian reading, of which his predecessor had been too ignorant. In 1768, an edition of Shakspeare was given to the public by Capell; a man fondly attached to his Author, but much too weak for the weighty task which he undertook. He had devoted a large portion of his life to the collection of his materials: he was an industrious collator, and all the merit which he possesses, must be derived from the extent and the fidelity of his collations. — In 1773 was published an edition of our Dramatist by the associated labors of Johnson and Steevens; and this edition, in which were united the native powers of the former, with the activity, the sagacity, and the antiquarian learning of the latter, still forms the standard edition for the publishers of our Poet.—In 1790, Malone entered the lists against them as a competitor for the editorial palm. After this publication, Malone seems to have devoted the remaining years of his life to the studies requisite for the illustration of his Author; and at his death he bequeathed the voluminous papers, which he had prepared, to his and my friend, James Boswell, the younger son of the biographer of Johnson; and by him these papers were published in twenty octavo volumes, just before the close of his own valuable life. That the fund of Shakspearian information has been enlarged by this publication, cannot reasonably be doubted; that the text of Shakspeare has been injured by it, may confidently be asserted. As my opinion of Malone, as an annotator on Shakspeare, has been already expressed, it would be superfluous to repeat it. His stores of antiquarian knowledge were at least equal to those of Steevens; but he was not equally endowed by nature with that popular commentator.
The last edition which I shall notice, is a recent one by Mr. Singer. This editor's antiquarian learning is accurate and extensive : his critical sagacity is considerable ; and his judgment generally approves itself to be correct. He enters on the field with the strength of a giant, but with the diffidence and the humility of a child. We sometimes wish, indeed, that his humility had been less; for he is apt to defer to inferior men, and to be satisfied with following when he is privileged to lead. His explanations of his Author are frequently happy; and sometimes they illustrate a passage which had been left in unregarded darkness by the commentators who had preceded him. The sole fault of these explanatory notes (if such, indeed, can be deemed a fault) is their redundancy, and their recurrence in cases where their aid seems to be unnecessary. Mr. Singer and I may occasionally differ in our opinions respecting the text which he has adopted; but, in these instances of our dissent, it is fully as probable that I may be wrong as he. I feel, in short, confident, on the whole, that Mr. Singer is now advancing, not to claim (for to claim is inconsistent with his modesty), but to obtain, a high place among the editors of Shakspeare; and to have his name enrolled with the names of those who have been the chief benefactors of the reader of our transcendent Poet.
REGARDING THE LIFE OF SHAKSPEARE.
So little is known of the personal history of Shakspeare, that the reader may be
gratified to learn the results of researches lately made by J. Payne Collier, F. S. A., among the manuscripes preserved at Bridgewater House, and lately published by him in a letter addressed to Thomas Amyot, F. R. S. They relate principally to Shakspeare's pecuniary circumstances : a few passages of liule moment, as respects our purpose, are omitted.
MY DEAR Amyot, In the “ History of English Dramatic Poetry and the Stage,” I remarked that,“ on looking back to the life of Shakspeare, the first observation that must be made is, that so few facts are extant regarding him;" and Steevens, the most acute, and perhaps the most learned, of his commentators, stated, long before, that “all that is known with any degree of certainty concerning Shakspeare isthat he was born at Stratford upon Avon-married and had children there—went to London, where he commenced actor, and wrote poems and plays--returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was buried.” The truth undoubtedly is, that there are scarcely any of his distinguished contemporaries, regarding the events of whose lives we are not better informed. I supplied a few novel particulars in the work from which I have already quoted, and I am now about to add others, with which I have since become acquainted, of a most authentic kind, and of considerable importance.
I should begin by stating that the most interesting of them are derived from the manuscripts of Lord Ellesmere, whose name is, of course, well known to every reader of our history, as keeper of the great seal to Queen Elizabeth, and lord chancellor to James I. They are preserved at Bridgewater House ; and Lord Francis Egerton gave me instant and unrestrained access to them, with permission to make use of any literary or historical information I could discover. The Rev. H. J. Todd had been there before me, and had classed some of the documents and correspondence; but large bundles of papers, ranging in point of date between 1581, when Lord Ellesmere was made solicitor-general, and 1616, when he retired from the office of lord chancellor, remained unexplored, and it was evident that many of them had never been opened from the time when, perhaps, his own hands tied them together.
Among these, in a most unpromising heap, chiefly of legal documents, I met with most of the new facts respecting Shakspeare, which are the occasion of my present letter. I shall accompany the statement of them with other illustrative information, relying upon your love for literary antiquarianism to allow for any false importance which my zeal in the pursuit of such matters may attach to comparative trifles : to me it seems impossible to consider any point, even remotely connected with the history and character of our great Dramatist, a trifle.
To make the matter more intelligible, I must carry you back to the period when our drama was first represented in buildings constructed for the purpose.
The most ancient of these were “the Theatre" and "the Curtain” in Shoreditch, which I imagine were built about the year 1570. The Blackfriars playhouse (where, in the winter, Shakspeare's dramas were acted, the performances at the Globe, which was open to the sky, being necessarily confined to the spring, summer, and
autumn) was erected by James Burbage, the father of Richard Burbage, in 1576. As early as 1579, the city authorities endeavored to dislodge the players from this place of refuge, to which they had been driven by the refusal of the lord mayor, aldermen, and common council, to allow dramatic representations within the boundaries of their jurisdiction.
The Blackfriars was supposed to be a privileged precinct, to which the power of the lord mayor did not extend, the exemption being derived from times when the site was occupied by the dwelling and grounds of a religious fraternity. In 1579, the corporation endeavored to establish a right of executing process there, and of intruding a regular police. Certain inhabitants of the Blackfriars also presented a petition to the privy council at the same date, which, perhaps, led that body to require the opinion of the two chief justices of the King's Bench and Common Pleas, Sir Christopher Wray and Sir James Dyer, upon the disputed question. Their decision is among the papers of Lord Ellesmere, and, without quoting it, for it affords no information, it may be stated that it was in favor of the claim of the city magistrates. Notwithstanding this powerful support, it is quite clear that no step was taken founded upon the opinion of these great lawyers, and that James Burbage and his associates continued their performances at the Blackfriars theatre. They were no doubt backed by the powerful interest of the Earl of Leicester, who had obtained for them the patent of the 7th of May, 1574; and the following is a copy of the order issued in their behalf by the privy council, with which I have only recently been made acquainted :
“ At the Court 23rd of December 1579. " It is ordered that the Playeres of the Erle of Leycestre be not restrained, nor in any wise molested in the exercise of their qualitye at the Blackfryars or elswhere throughout the realme of England, so that they be enabled the better to perforine before her Majestie for her solace and recreation this Xtenmas."
It is not likely that Shakspeare joined James Burbage's company until seven or eight years subsequent to 1579: he came to London for that purpose in 1586 or 1587, according to the most probable conjecture, and did not begin to write for the stage, even by the alteration of older plays, until 1590 or 1591. The earliest date at