« PreviousContinue »
the man, and do honor his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature, had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions; wherein he flowed with that felicity, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped : Suflaminandus erat, as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his own power ; would the rule of it had been so too. Many times he fell into those things which could not escape laughter; as when he said, in the person of Cæsar, one speaking to him,
• Cæsar, thou dost me wrong,' “ He replied :
Cæsar did never wrong, but with just cause,'
“and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues; there were ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.”
But Shakspeare was not only an author but an actor. In this union of the two professions he was not singular; his friend Ben Jonson resembled him in this. With respect to the merits of Shakspeare as a performer, there has existed some doubt. From the expression used in Rowe's life, it would appear that he had been but indifferently skilled in the inferior half of his vocation, and never attempted any parts superior to the Ghost in Hamlet ; but the words of Chettle, speaking of him as “one excellent in the qualitie he professes,” confirm the account of Aubrey, that “ he did act exceedingly well.” That he understood the theory of his profession is manifest from the invaluable instructions which he has written, for the use of all future actors, in the third act of Hamlet. His class of characters was probably not very extensive. If the names of the performers prefixed to the early editions of Every Man in his Humor were arranged in the same order as the persons of the drama, which was most probably the case, he was the original representative of Old Knowell; and an anecdote preserved by Oldys would also make it appear that he
Adam in As you like it. “ One of Shakspeare's brothers, who lived to a good old age, even some years after the restoration of Charles the Second, would, in
his younger days, come to London to visit his brother Will, as he called him, and be a spectator of him as an actor in some of his own plays. This custom, as his brother's enlarged, and his dramatic entertainments grew the greatest support of our principal, if not of all our theatres, he continued it seems so long after his brother's death as even to the latter end of his own life. The curiosity at this time of the most noted actors (exciting them) to learn something from him of his brother, &c., they justly held him in the highest veneration. And it may be well believed, as there was, besides, a kinsman and descendant of the family, who was then a celebrated actor among them (Charles Hart. See Shakspeare's Will). This opportunity made them greedily inquisitive into every little circumstance, more especially in his dramatic character, which his brother could relate of him. But he, it seems, was so stricken in years, and possibly his memory so weakened with infirmities (which might make him the easier pass for a man of weak intellects), that he could give them but little light into their inquiries; and all that could be recollected from him of his brother Will in that station was, the faint, general, and almost lost ideas he had of having once seen him act a part in one of his own comedies, wherein, being to personate a decrepit old man, he wore a long beard, and appeared so weak and drooping and unable to walk, that he was forced to be supported and carried by another person to a table, at which he was seated among some other company, who were eating, and one of them sung a song.” From this it would appear, that the class of characters to which the histrionic exertions of Shakspeare were confined, was that of elderly persons; parts, rather of declamation than of passion. With a countenance which, if any one of his pictures is a genuine resemblance of him, we may adduce that one as our authority for esteeming capable of every variety of expression; with a knowledge of the art that rendered him fit to be the teacher of the first actors of his day; and to instruct Joseph Taylor in the character of Hamlet, and John Lowine in that of King Henry the Eighth ; with such admirable qualifications for pre-eminenee, we must infer that nothing but some personal defect could
have reduced him to limit the exercise of his powers, and even in youth assume the slow and deliberate motion, which is the characteristic of old age. In his minor poems we, perhaps, trace the origin of this direction of his talents. It appears from two places in his Sonnets, that he was lamed by some accident. In the 37th sonnet he writes
“ So I made lame by Fortune's dearest spite,"
And, in the 89th, he again alludes to his infirmity, and says
“Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt.”
This imperfection would necessarily have rendered him unfit to appear as the representative of any characters of youthful ardor, in which rapidity of movement or violence of exertion was demanded ; and would oblige him to apply his powers to
l such parts as were compatible with his measured and impeded action. Malone has most inefficiently attempted to explain away the palpable meaning of the above lines; and adds, “If Shakspeare was in truth lame, he had it not in his power to halt occasionally for this or any other purpose. The defect must have been fixed and permanent.” Not so. Surely, many an infirmity of the kind may be skilfully concealed; or only become visible in the moments of hurried movement. Either Sir Walter Scott or Lord Byron might, without any impropriety, have written the verses in question. They would have been applicable to either of them. Indeed the lameness of Lord Byron was exactly such as Shakspeare's might have been; and I remember as a boy, that he selected those speeches for declamation, which would not constrain him to the use of such exertions as might obtrude the defect of his person into notice.
Shakspeare's extraordinary merits, both as an author and as an actor, did not fail of obtaining the fame and remuneration that they deserved. He was soon honored by the patronage of the young Lord Southampton, one of the most amiable and accomplished noblemen of the court of Elizabeth, and one of the earliest patrons of the national drama. To this distinguished person our author dedicated, “the first heir of his invention,” the poem of Venus and Adonis, in 1593. This was within five years after Shakspeare arrived in London; and, in the following year, he inscribed the Rape of Lucrece to the same nobleman, in terms which prove that the barriers imposed by difference in condition had become gradually levelled, and that, between these young men, the cold and formal intercourse of the patron and client had been rapidly exchanged for the kinder familiarity of friendship. The first address is respectful; the second affectionate. When this intimacy began Shakspeare was in his twentyseventh, and Lord Southampton in his twentieth year; a time of life when the expansion of our kindness is not restrained by any of those apprehensions and suspicions which, in after life, impede the development of the affections; and when, in the enthusiastic admiration of excellence, we hasten to seek fellowship with it, and disregard every impediment to free communication which may be opposed by the artificial distinctions of society. The superiority of Shakspeare's genius raised him to a level with his friend. Lord Southampton allowed the gifts of Nature to claim equal privilege with the gifts of Fortune; and the splendid present of the thousand pounds which our great poet received from him, was bestowed and accepted in the true spirit of generosity; as coming from one, who was exercising to its noblest uses the power of his affluence, and received by one whose soul was large enough to contain the sense of obligation, without any mixture of petty shame, or any sacrifice of independence. The name of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, should be dear to every Englishman, as the first patron the youthful friend - and author of the fortunes of Shakspeare.
The authority for believing that this magnificent present was made — which is equivalent to at least five thousand pounds at the present day - is the best that can be obtained respecting the events of our author's life; that of Sir William D'Avenant. “ It was given," he says, “ to complete a purchase.” Malone doubts the extent of the earl's munifi- and what does he not doubt? He says,
no such purchase was ever made.” This is a mere gratuitous assumption ; for it is evident that Shakspeare had a very con
siderable property in the two principal theatres, which must have been obtained by purchase, and could not have been obtained for an inconsiderable sum; nor by any means that our author could of himself have procured, by the most indefatigable exertions of his talents and economy. At a time when the most successful dramatic representation did not produce to its author so much as twenty pounds, and generally little more than ten; when, as an actor his salary would have amounted to a mere trifle ; and when, as we have before seen, the circumstances of his father could not have aided him by any supplies from home, it is only by adopting D'Avenant's statement, and admitting the munificence of Lord Southampton, that we can account for the sudden prosperity of Shakspeare. “But,” says Malone, “it is more likely that he presented the poet with a hundred pounds in return for his dedications.” And this instance of liberality, which is so creditable to Shakspeare and his patron to him who merited, and the high-spirited and noble youth who comprehended and rewarded his exalted merit—is to be discredited, because such an ardor of imagination does not square with the frigid views of probability entertained by the aged antiquarian in his closet!
The fortunes of Shakspeare were indeed rapid in their rise : but he did not selfishly monopolize the emoluments of his
On being driven from Stratford, he left, as we have seen, a father in reduced circumstances, and a wife and children who were to be supported by his labors. We may confidently assert, on a comparison of facts and dates, that the spirit of Shakspeare was not of a niggard and undiffusive kind. The source of his success is marked by the returning prosperity of his family. In 1578, his father was unable to pay, as a member of the corporation, his usual contribution of four-pence a-week to the poor; and in 1588, a distress was issued for the seizure of his goods, which his poverty rendered nugatory; for it was returned, “Johannes Shakspeare nihil habet unde distributio potest levari.” Yet, from this state of poverty, we find him within ten years rising with the fortunes of his child ; cheered and invigorated by the first dawning of his illustrious son's prosperity; and in 1590,