« PreviousContinue »
have materially injured the allusion of the scene, was in others of considerable advantage. It furnished the stage with a succession of youths regularly educated to the art, and experienced to fill the parts appropriate for their age. It obviated the necessity of obtruding performers before the public in parts that were unsuited to their time of life. When the lad had become too tall for Juliet, he was prepared to act, and was most admirably calculated in age to assume, the character of the ardent Romeo: when the voice had the “ manish crack,” that rendered the youth unfit to appear as the representative of the gentle Imogen, he was skilled in the knowledge of the stage, and capable of doing justice to the princely sentiments of Arviragus or Guiderius.
Such then was the state of the stage when Shakspeare entered into its service, in the double capacity of actor and author. As an author, though Dryden says, that
“ Shakspeare's own muse his Pericles first bore,” it is most probable that Titus Andronicus was the earliest dramatic effort of his pen. Shakspeare arrived in London about the year 1587, and according to the date of the latter play, as imitated by Ben Jonson, in his introduction to Bartholomew Fair, we find it to have been produced immediately after his arrival. That Titus Andronicus is really the work of Shakspeare, it would be a defiance to all contemporary evidence to doubt. It was not only printed among his works by his friends, Heminge and Condell, but is mentioned as one of his tragedies by an author, who appears to have been admitted to a sight of his MS. sonnets. Against this testimony, the critics have nothing to oppose but the accumulated horrors of its plot; the stately march of its versification ; and the dissimilarity of its style from the other efforts of Shakspeare's genius. It does not strike me that these arguments are sufficient to lead us to reject the play as the composition of our great dramatist. He was, perhaps, little more than three-and-twenty years of age when it was composed. The plays which at the time had possession of the stage, of which very few had been written, and not above fifteen are extant, supposing Andronicus to have been produced in 1589, were all of the same bombastic and exaggerated character; and the youthful poet naturally imitated the popular manner, and strove to beat his contemporaries with their own weapons. However tiresome the tragedy may be to us, it was a great favorite at its first appearance. It was full of barbarities that shock the refined taste; but these formed a mode of exciting the interest of the audience which was very commonly had recourse to by the play-writers of the age, and from which Shakspeare never became fully weaned, even at a period when his judgment was matured; as we may learn from the murder of Macduff's children, the hamstringing of Cassio, and the plucking out of the eyes of Gloucester. The versification and language of the play, are certainly very different from those of Othello, of Hamlet, of Macbeth, or Lear. The author had not yet acquired that facility of composition for which he was afterwards distinguished. He wrote with labor, and left in every line the trace of the labor in which he wrote. He had not yet discovered (and it was he who eventually made the discovery), that the true language of nature and of passion is that which passes most directly to the heart; but it is not with the works of his experienced years, that this “ bloody tragedy" should be compared ; if it be, we certainly should find a difficulty in admitting that writings of such opposite descriptions, could be the effusions of the same intellect; but, compare this tragedy with the other works of his youth, and the difficulty vanishes. Is it improbable that the author of the Venus and Adonis, and the Rape of Lucrece, should, on turning his attention to the stage, produce as heavy and monotonous a performance as Titus Andronicus ?
I have been rather more diffuse upon this subject, than the nature of the present notice would appear to warrant, because it affords the means of ascertaining the time when Shakspeare commenced writer for the stage. If Titus Andronicus be really his, as I suppose, he became an author immediately on finding himself in the service of the theatre. His first play, though we now despise and reject it, was the best play that had been presented to the public; and immediately placed him in the first ranks of the profession, and among the principal supports of the company to which he was attached.
Pericles, if the work of Shakspeare, was probably his next dramatic production. Dryden has most unequivocally attributed this play to Shakspeare, and he was also commended as its author, in 1646, by S. Shepherd, in a poem called Time displayed. It is true that it was omitted by Heminge and Condell, in their collection of our poet's works ; but this may have proceeded from forgetfulness, and it was only by an afterthought, that Trolius and Cresida escaped a similar fortune. How far Pericles, as originally written, was or was not, worthy the talents of Shakspeare, we have no means of judging. The only edition of this tragedy that have come down to us, are three spurious quartos, of which the text was printed from copies taken by illiterate persons during representation, and published without any regard to the property or the reputation of the author, to impose on the curiosity of the public. The Pericles of Shakspeare may have been a splendid composition, and yet not have shown so in the garbled editions of the booksellers. We may estimate the injuries Pericles received, by the injuries which we know were inflicted upon Hamlet on its first issuing, after such a process, from the press. In the first edition of Hamlet, 1603, there is scarcely a trace of the beauty and majesty of Shakspeare's work. Long passages, and even scenes, are misplaced ; grammar is set wholly at defiance; half lines frequently omitted, so as to destroy the sense ; and sentences brought together without any imaginable connexion. Sometimes the transcriber caught the expression, but lost the sentiment; and huddled the words together, without any regard to the meaning or no-meaning that they might happen to convey: at other times he remembered the sentiment, but lost the expression; and considered it no presumption to supply the lines of Shakspeare with doggerel verses of his own. Such were, for the most part, the early quart ressions of our author's plays : and it is not difficult to conceive, that Pericles, which seems to have suffered more than any other play in passing through the ignorant and negligent hands of the transcriber and the printer, might
have been originally the work of Shakspeare, without retaining in its published form any distinguishing characteristics of the magic hand that framed it. To attempt tracing the literary life of our great dramatist were a work of unprofitable toil. Chalmers, Malone, and Dr. Drake have given a list of his plays, according to the order in which they suppose them to have been composed : but the grounds of their conjectures are so uncertain, that little reliance can be placed in them, and all we really know npon the subject, is what we learn from Meres, that previously to the year 1598, that is, within twelve years after attaching himself to the theatre, Shakspeare had not only published his two poems, the Venus and Adonis, and the Rape of Lucrece, but had already written Titus Andronicus, King John, Richard the Second, Henry the Fourth, Richard the Third, Romeo and Juliet, The Midsummer Night's Dream, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, The Love's Labor Lost, The Love's Labor Won,* and The Merchant of Venice. He had also written a great number of his Sonnets, and the minor pieces of poetry which were collected and printed by Jaggart, in 1599, under the somewhat affected title of the Passionate Pilgrim. After this, we have no means of ascertaining the succession in which the plays of Shakspeare were composed.
Very early in his dramatic career, he appears to have attained to a principal share in the direction and emoluments of the theatres to which he was attached. His name stands second in the list of the proprietors of the Globe, and Blackfriars, in the license granted to them by James the First in 1603: and his industry in supporting these establishments was indefatigable. Besides the plays which were entirely of his own composition, or which he so completely rewrote as to make them his own, he seems to have been frequently engaged in revising, and adding to, and remodelling, the works of others. This task, however beneficial to the interests of his theatre, and necessary to give attraction to the pieces themselves, was viewed with an eye of jealousy by the original authors; and Robert Greene, in his Groatsworth of Wit, himself a writer for the stage, in admonishing his fellow-dramatists to abandon their pursuit, and apply themselves to some more profitable vocation, refers them to this part of our author's labors with no little asperity. “ Trust them not (i. e. the players), for there is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers, that with his tyger's heart wrapt in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank-verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is, in his own conceit, the only Shak-scene in a country.” This sarcasm, however, was nothing more than the unwarranted effusion of a dissolute and disappointed spirit. Greene was a bad man. The pamphlet from which the above passage is extracted was published after his death by Henry Chettle; and the editor, after he had given it to the world, was so satisfied of the falsehood of the charges insinuated against our author, that he made a public apology for his indiscretion in the preface to a subsequent pamphlet of his own, entitled, Kind Hart's Dreame; lamenting that he had not omitted, or at least moderated, what Greene had written against Shakspeare, and adding, “I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault; because myself have seen his demeanour, no less civil than he excelleth in the qualitie he professes : besides divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honestie, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art.”
* There is no such play extant as Love's Labor Won. Dr. Farmer supposes this to have been another name for All's Well that Ends Well.
It may be conceived from the abundance of his works, of which, perhaps, very many have been lost, that our author's facility of composition must have been extremely great; and, on this point, we have the contemporary testimony of his sincere, kind-hearted, generous, and much slandered friend, Ben Jonson, who writes in his Discoveries, “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakspeare, that in writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, Would that he had blotted out a thousand! which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted ; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved