« PreviousContinue »
LEARNING OF SHAKSPEARE,
JOSEPH CRADOCK, ESQ.
“SHAKSPEARE,” says a, brother of the craft,* “is a vast garden of criticism:" and certainly no one can be favoured with more weeders gratis.
But how often, my dear sir, are weeds and flowers torn up in. discriminately?-the ravaged spot is replanted in a moment, and a profusion of critical thorns thrown over it for security.
“A prudent man, therefore, would not venture his fingers amongst them.”
Be however in little pain for your friend, who regards himself sufficiently to be cautious :-yet he asserts with confidence, that no improvement can be expected, whilst the natural soil is mistaken for a hot-bed, and the natives of the banks of Aron are scientifically choked with the culture of exoticks.
Thus much for metaphor; it is contrary to the statute to fly out so early: but who can tell, whether it may not be demonstrated by some critick or other, that a deviation from rule is peculiarly happy in an Essay on Shakspeare!
You have long known my opinion concerning the literary acquisitions of our immortal dramatist; and remember how I congratulated myself on my coincidence with the last and best of his editors. I told you, however, that his small Latin and less Greekt would still be litigated, and you see very assuredly that I was not mistaken. The trumpet hath been sounded against “the darling project of representing Shakspeare as one of the illiterate vulgar;" and indeed to so good purpose, that I would by all means recommend the performer to the army of the braying faction, recorded by Cervantes. The testimony of his contemporaries is again disputed; constant tradition is opposed by
Mr. Seward, in his Preface to Beaumont and Fletcher, 10 Vols. 8vo. 1750.
* This passage of Ben Jonson, so often quoted, is given us in the admirable preface to the late edition, with a various reading, “ small Latin and no Greek,” which hath been held up to the publick for a modern sophistication : yet whether an error or not, it was adopted above a century ago by W. Towers, in a panegyrick on Cartwright. His eulogy, with more than fifty others, on this now forgotten poet, was prefixed to the edit. 1651.
Alimsy arguments; and nothing is heard, but confusion and nonsense. One could scarcely imagine this a topick very likely to inflame the passions: it is asserted by Dryden, that “those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greatest commendation;" yet an attack upon an article of faith hath been usually received with more temper and complacence, than the unfortunate opinion which I am about to defend.
But let us previously lament with every lover of Shakspeare, that the question was not fully discussed by Mr. Johnson himself: what he sees intuitively, others must arrive at by a series of proofs; and I have not time to teach with precision: be contented therefore with a few cursory observations, as they may happen to arise from the chaos of papers, you have so often laughed at, “a stock sufficient to set up an editor in form." I am convinced of the strength of my cause, and superior to any little advantage from sophistical arrangements.
General positions without proofs will probably have no great weight on either side, yet it may not seem fair to suppress them: take them therefore as their authors occur to me, and we will afterward proceed to particulars.
The testimony of Ben. stands foremost; and some have held it sufficient to decide the controversy: in the warmest panegy. rick, that ever was written, he apologizes* for what he supposed the only defect in his “beloved friend,
Soul of the age! 'Th' applause! delight! the wonder of our stagewhose memory he honoured almost to idolatry:” and conscious of the worth of ancient literature, like any other man on the same occasion, he rather carries his acquirements above, than below the truth. “ Jealousy!” cries Mr. Upton; “people will allow others any qualities, but those upon which they highly value themselves.” Yes, where there is a competition, and the competitor formidable: but, I think, this critick himself hath scarcely set in opposition the learning of Shakspeare and Jonson. When a superiority is universally granted, it by no means appears a man's literary interest to depress the reputation of his antagonist.
In truth the received opinion of the pride and malignity of Jonson, at least in the earlier part of life, is absolutely groundless: at this time, scarce a play or a poem appeared without Ben's encomium, from the original Shakspeare to the translator of Du Bartas.
But Jonson is by no means our only authority. Drayton, the countryman and acquaintance of Shakspeare, determines his excellence to the naturall brainet only. Digges, a wit of the town, before our poet left the stage, is very strong to the purpose,
· Nature only helpt him, for looke thorow “ This whole book, thou shalt find he doth not borow,
*“ Though thou hadst small Latin," &c.
“One phrase from Greekes, not Latines imitate,
“Nor once from vulgar languages translate." Suckling opposed his easier strain to the sweat of the learned Jonson. Denham assures us, that all he had was from old motherwit. His natire woodl-notes wild, every one remembers to be celebrated by Milton. Dryden observes, prettily enough, that “he wanted not the spectacles of books to read nature.” He came out of her band, as some one else expresses it, like Pallas out of Jove's head, at full growth and mature.
The ever memorable Hales of Eton, (who, notwithstanding his epithet, is, I fear, almost forgotten,) had too great a knowledge both of Shakspeare and the ancients to allow much acquaintance between them: and urged very justly on the part of genius in opposition to pedantry, that "if he had not read the classicks, he had likewise not stolen from them; and if any topick was produced from a poet of antiquity he would undertake to show somewhat on the same subject, at least as well written by Shakspeare.”
Fuller a diligent and equal searcher after truth and quibbles, declares positively, that “his learning was very little, -nature was all the art used upon him, as he himself, if alive, would con. fess.” And may we not say, he did confess it, when he apologized for his untutored lines to his noble patron the Earl of Southampton ?-this list of witnesses might be easily enlarged; but I flatter myself, I shall stand in no need of such evidence.
One of the first and most vehement assertors of the learning of Shakspeare, was the editor of his poems, the well-known Mr. Gildon;t and his steps were most punctually taken by a subse. quent labourer in the same department, Dr. Sewell.
* From his Poem upon Master William Shakspeare, intended to have been prefixed, with the other of his composition, to the folio of 1623: and afterward printed in several miscellaneous collections: particularly the spurious edition of Shakspeare's Poems, 164.0. Some account of him may be met with in Wood's Athene.
† Hence perhaps the ill-starr'd rage between this critick and his elder brother, John Dennis, so pathetically lamented in the Dunciad. Whilst the former was persuaded, that “the man who doubts of the learning of Shakspeare, hath none of his own;" the latter, above regarding the attack in his private capacity, declares with great patriotick vehemence, that “ he who allows Shakspeare had learning, and a familiar acquaintance with the ancients, ought to be looked upon as a detractor from the glory of GreatBritain.” Dennis was expelled his college for attempt. ing to stab a man in the dark: Pope would have been glad of this anecdote.s
§ See this fact established against the doubts and objections of Dr. Kippis in the Biographia Britannica, in Dr. Farmer's Letter to me, printed in the European Magazine, June 1794, p. 412. Reed.
Mr. Pope supposed "little ground for the common opinion of his want of learning:” once indeed he made a proper distinction between learning and languages, as I would be under. stood to do in my title-page; but unfortunately he forgot it in the course of his disquisition, and endeavoured to persuade himself that Shakspeare's acquaintance with the ancients might be actually proved by the same medium as Jonson's.
Mr. Theobald is “very unwilling to allow him so poor a scholar, as many have laboured to represent him;" and yet is cautious of declaring too positively on the other side of the question."
Dr. Warburton hath exposed the weakness of some arguments from suspected imitations; and yet offers others, which, I doubt not, he could as easily have refuted.
Mr. Upton wonders “with what kind of reasoning any one could be so far imposed upon, as to imagine that Shakspeare had no learning;” and lashes with much zeal and satisfaction "the pride and pertness of dunces, who, under such a name would gladly shelter their own idleness and ignorance.”
He, like the learned knight, at every anomaly in grammar or metre,
“Hath hard words ready to show why,
“And tell what rule he did it by.” How would the old bard have been astonished to have found, that he had very skilfully given the trochaic dimeter brachycatalectic, coMMONLY called the ithyphallic measure to the Witches in Macbeth! and that now and then a halting verse afforded a most beautiful instance of the pes proceleusmaticus !
“ But,” continues Mr. Upton, “ it was a learned age; Roger Ascham assures us, that Queen Elizabeth read more Greek every day, than some dignitaries of the church did Latin in a whole week.” This appears very probable; and a pleasant proof it is of the general learning of the times, and of Shakspeare in particular. I wonder, he did not corroborate it with an extract from her injunctions to her clergy, that “ such as were but mean readers should peruse over before, once or twice, the chapters and homilies, to the intent they might read to the better understanding of the people.”
Dr. Grey declares, that Shakspeare's knowledge in the Greek and Latin tongues cannot reasonably be called in question. Dr. Dodd supposes it proved, that he was not such a novice in learning and antiquity as some people would pretend. And to close the whole, for I suspect you to be tired of quotation, Mr. Whalley, the ingenious editor of Jonson, hath written a piece expressly on this side the question: perhaps from a very excusable partiality, he was willing to draw Shakspeare from the field of nature to classick ground, where alone, he knew, his author could possibly cope with him.
These criticks, and many others, their coadjutors, have sup. posed themselves able to trace Shakspeare in the writings of the ancients; and have sometimes persuaded us of their own learning, whatever became of their author's. Plagiarisms have been discovered in every natural description and every moral sentiment. Indeed by the kind assistance of the various Excerpta, Sententiæ, and Flores, this business may be effected with very little expence of time or sagacity; as Addison hath de. monstrated in his comment on Chevy-chase, and Wagstaff on Tom Thumb; and I myself will engage to give you quotations from the elder English writers (for to own the truth, I was once idle enough to collect such,) which shall carry with them at least an equal degree of similarity. But there can be no occasion of wasting any future time in this department: the world is now in possession of the Marks of Imitation.
Shakspeare, however, hath frequent allusions to the facts and fables of antiquity.” Granted:-and as Mat. Prior says, to save the effusion of more Christian ink, I will endeavour to show, how they came to his acquaintance.
It is notorious, that much of his matter of fact knowledge is deduced from Plutarch: but in what language he read him, hath not yet been the question. Mr. Upton is pretty confident of his skill in the original, and corrects accordingly the errors of his copyists by the Greek standard. Take a few instances, which will elucidate this matter sufficiently.
In the third Act of Antony and Cleopatra, Octavius represents to his courtiers the imperial pomp of those illustrious lovers, and the arrangement of their dominion,
- Absolute queen.”
This is very true: Mr. Heath* accedes to the correction, and Mr. Johnson admits it into the text: but turn to the translation, from the French of Amyot, by Thomas North, in folio, 1579,7 and you will at once see the origin of the mistake.
“First of all he did establish Cleopatra queene of Ægypt, of Cyprus, of Lydia, and the lower Syria.” Again, in the fourth act:
* It is extraordinary, that this gentleman should attempt so voluminous a work, as the Revisal of Shakspeare's. Text, when, he tells us in his Preface, “he was not so fortunate as to be fur. nished with either of the folio editions, much less any of the ancient quartos :" and even Sir Thomas Hanmer's performance was known to him only by Mr. Warburton's representation. f I find the character of this work pretty early delineated:
“ 'Twas Greek at first, that Greek was Latin made,