« PreviousContinue »
managers when only an actor, reserved them in manuscript when himself a manager, and when he disposed of his property in the theatre, they were still preserved in manuscript to prevent their being acted by the rival houses. Copies of some of them appear to have been surreptitiously obtained, and pube lished in a very incorrect state; but we may suppose, that it was wiser in the author or managers to overlook this fraud, than publish a correct edition, and 80 destroy the exclusive property they enjoyed. It is clear, therefore, that any publication of his plays by himself would have interfered, at first with his own interest, and afterwards with the interest of those to whom he had made over his share in thein. But even had this obstacle been removed, we are not sure that he would have gained much by publication. If he had no other copies but those belonging to the theatre, the business of correction for the press must have been a toil which we are afraid the taste of the public a* that time would have poorly rewarded. We know not the exact portion of fame he enjoyed: it was probably the highest which dramatic genius could confer; but dramatic genius was a new excellence, and not well understood. His claims were probably not heard out of the jurisdiction of the master of the revels, certainly not beyond the metropolis. Yet such was Shakspeare's reputation, that we are told his name was put to pieces which he never wrote, and that he felt himself too confident in popular favour to undeceive the public. This was singular resolution in a man who wrote so unequally, that at this day, the test of internal evidence must be applied to his doubtful productions with the greatest caution. But still how far his character would have been elevated by an examination of his plays in the closet, in an age when the refinements of criticism were not understood, and the sympathies of taste were seldom felt, may admit of a question. “His language," says Dr. Johnson,
w not being designed for the reader's desk, was all that he desired it to be if it conveyed his meaning to the audience.”
Shakspeare died in 1616; and seven years afterward appeared the first edition of his plays, published at the charges of four booksellers, — a circumstance from which Mr. Malone infers, “that no single publisher was at that time willing to risk his money on a complete collection of our author's plays." This edition was printed from the copies in the hands of his fellow-managers, Heminge and Condell, which had been in a series of years frequently altered through convenience, caprice, or ignorance. Heminge and Condell had now retired from the stage; and, we may suppose, were guilty of no injury to their successors,
in printing what their own interest only had formerly withheld. Of this, although we have no documents amounting to demonstration, we may be convinced, by adverting to a circumstance, which will, in our days, appear very extraordinary, namely, the declension of Shakspeare's popularity. We have seen that the publication of his works was accounted a doubtful speculation; and it is yet more certain, that so much had the publio taste turned from him in quest of variety, that for several years after his death the plays o? Fletcher were more frequently acted than his, and uuring the whole of the seventeenth century, they were made to give place to per
fisrmances, the greater part of which cannot now be endured. During the same period, only four editions of his works were published, all in folio; ana perhaps this unwieldy size of volume may be an additional proof that they were not popular; nor is it thought that the impressions were numerous.
These circumstances which attach to our author and to his works, must be allowed a plausible weight in accounting for our deficiencies in his biography and literary career; but there were circumstances enough in the history of the times to suspend the progress of that more regular drama or which he had set the example, and may be considered as the founder. If we wonder why we know so much less of Shakspeare than of his contemporaries, let us recol. lect that his genius, however highly and justly we now rate it, took a direc. tion which was not calculated for permanent admiration, either in the age in which he lived, or in that which followed. Shakspeare was a writer of plays, a promoter of an amusement just emerging from barbarism; and an amuse. ment which, although it has been classed among the schools of morality, has ever had such a strong tendency to deviate from moral purposes, that the force of law has, in all ages, been called in to preserve it within the bounds of common decency. The Church has ever been unfriendly to the stage. A part of the injunctions of Queen Elizabeth is particularly directed against the printing of plays; and, according to an entry in the books of the Stationers' Company, in the forty-first year of her reign, it is ordered, that no plays be printed, except allowed by persons in authority. Dr. Farmer also remarks, that in that age, poetry and novels were destroyed publicly by the bishops, and privately by the puritans. The main transactions, indeed, of that period, could not admit of much attention to matters of amusement. The Reformation required all the circumspection and policy of a long reign to render it so firmly established in popular favour as to brave the caprice of any succeed. ing sovereign. This was effected, in a great measure, by the diffusion of religious controversy, which was encouraged by the Church, and especially by the puritans, who were the immediate teachers of the lower classes, were lis. tened to with veneration, and usually inveighed against all public amuse. ments, as inconsistent with the Christian profession. These controversies continued during the reign of James I., and were, in a considerable degree, promoted by him, although he, like Elizabeth, was a favourer of the stage, as an appendage to the grandeur and pleasures of the court. But the commotions which followed in the unhappy reign of Charles I., when the stage was totally abolished, are sufficient to account for the oblivion thrown on the his. tory and works of our great bard. From this time, no inquiry was made, until it was too late to obtain any information more satisfactory, than the few hearsay scraps and contested traditions above detailed.
“ How little,” says Mr. Steevens, “Shakspeare was once read, may be understood from Tate, who, in his dedication to the altered play of King Lear, speaks of the original as an obscure piece, recommended to his notice by a friend; and the author of the Tatler having occasion to quote a few lines out of Macbeth, was content to receive them from D'Avenant's alteration of that celebrated drama, in
which almost every original beauty is either awkwardly disguised, or arbi. trarily omitted." ;
In fifty years after his death, Dryden mentions that he was then become "a little obsolete.” In the beginning of the last century, Lord Shaftesbury complains of his “rude, unpolished style, and his antiquated phrase and wit.” It is certain, that for nearly a hundred years after his death, partly owing to the immediate revolution and rebellion, and partly to the licentious taste en. couraged in Charles II.'s time, and perhaps partly to the incorrect state of his works, he was almost entirely neglected. Mr. Malone has justly remarked, u that if he had been read, admired, studied, and imitated, in the same degree as he is now, the enthusiasm of some one or other of his admirers in the last age would have induced him to make some inquiries concerning the history of his theatrical career, and the anecdotes of his private life."6°
The only life which has been prefixed to all the editions of Shakspeare of the eighteenth century, is that drawn up by Mr. Rowe, and which he modestly calls, “Some Account,” &c. In this we have what Rowe could collect when every legitimate source of information was closed, a few traditions that were floating nearly a century after the author's death. Some inaccuracies in his account have been detected in the valuable notes of Mr. Steevens and Mr. Malone, who, in other parts of their respective editions, have scattered a few brief notices which we have incorporated in the present sketch. The whole, however, is unsatisfactory. Shakspeare, in his private character, in his friendships, in his amusements, in his closet, in his family, is nowhere before us, and such was the nature of the writings on which his fame depends, and of that employment in which he was engaged, that being in no important respect connected with the history of his age, it is in vain to look into the latter for any information concerning him.
Mr. Capell is of opinion, that he wrote some prose works, because it can hardly be supposed that he, who had so considerable a share in the confidence of the Earls of Essex and Southampton, could be a mute spectator only of controversies in which they were so much interested." This editor, how. ever, appears to have taken for granted, a degree of confidence with these two statesmen, which he ought first to have proved. Shakspeare might have enjoyed the confidence of their social hours; but it is mere conjecture that they admitted him into the confidence of their state affairs. Mr. Malone, whose opinions are entitled to a higher degree of credit, thinks that his prose compositions, if they should be discovered, would exhibit the same perspicuity. the same cadence, the same elegance and vigor, which we find in his plays. It is unfortunate, however, for all wishes and all conjectures, tha not a linu of Shakspeare's manuscript is known to exist, and his prose writings are nu where hinted at. We have only printed copies of his plays and poems, and those so depraved by carelessness or ignorance, that all the labour of all his commentators has not yet been able to restore them to a probable purity:
6 Mr. Steevens's Advertisement to the Reader, first printed in 1773.
Many of the greatest difficulties attending the perusal of them yet remain, and will require, what it is scarcely possible to expect, greater sagacity are more happy conjecture than have hitherto been employed.
Mr. Malone says, that “from the year 1716 to the date of his edition is: 1790,—that is, in seventy-four years-above 30,000 copies of Shakspeare have been dispersed through England." Among the honours paid to his genius, we ought not to forget the very magnificent edition undertaken by Messrs. Boydell. Still less ought it to be forgotten how much the reputation of Shak. speare was revived by the unrivalled excellence of Garrick's performance.
When public opinion had begun to assign to Shakspeare the very high rank he was destined to hold, he became the promising object of fraud and imposture. This, we have already observed, he did not wholly escape in his own time, and he had the spirit or policy to despise it. It was reserved for modern impostors, however, to avail themselves of the obscurity in which his history is involved. In 1751, a book was published, entitled, “ A Compen. dious or briefe examination of certayne ordinary Complaints of diuers of our Countrymen in those our days: which, although they are in some Parte un. just and frivolous, yet are they all by way of dialogue thoroughly debated and discussed by William Shakspeare, Gentleman." This had becn origi. nally published in 1581; but Dr. Farmer has clearly proved that W. S., gent., the only authority for attributing it to Shakspeare in the reprinted edition, meant William Stafford, gent. Theobald, the same accurate critic informs us, was desirous of palming upon the world a play called “ Double Falsc. hood," for a posthumous one of Shakspeare. In 1770 was reprinted at Feversham, an old play called “The Tragedy of Arden of Feversham and Black Will,” with a preface attributing it to Shakspeare without the smallest foundation. But these were trifles compared to the atrocious attempt made in 1795–6, when, besides a vast mass of prose and verse, letters. &c., pretendedly in the handwriting of Shakspeare and his correspondents, an entire play, entitled Vortigern, was not only brought forward for the astonishment of the admirers of Shakspeare, but actually performed on Drury Lane stage. It would be unnecessary to expatiate on the merits of this play, which Mr. Steevens has very happily characterized as “the performance of a madman without a lucid interval,” or to enter more at large into the nature of a fraud so recent, and so soon acknowledged by by the authors of it. It produced, however, an interesting controversy between Mr. Malone and Mr. George Chalmers, which, although mixed with some unpleasant asperities, was extended to inquiries into the history and antiquities of the stage, from which future critics and historians may derive considerable information.
? Mr. Malone has given a list of fourteen plays ascribed to Shakspeare, either by the edi. tors of the two later folios, or by the compilers of ancient catalogues. Of these, Pericles has found advocates for its admission into his works.