Page images
PDF
EPUB

The first formal attempt at an account of Shakespeare's life was made by Rowe, and the result of his labours was published in 1709, ninety-three years after the Poet's death. Rowe's account was avowedly made up for the most part from traditionary materials collected by Betterton the actor, who made a journey to Stratford expressly for that purpose.' Bettertcu was born in 1635, nineteen years after the death of Shakespeare, became an actor before 1660, retired from the stage about 1700, and died in 1710. At what time he risited Stratford, is not known: Malone thinks it was late in life ; Mr. Collier, that it was not later than 1670 or 1675, “ when he would naturally be more enthusiastic in a pursuit of that kind, and when he had not been afflicted by that disorder from which he suffered so severely in his later years, and to which, in fact, he owed his death." It is to be regretted that Rowe did not give Betterton's authorities for the particulars gathered by him. It is certain, however, that very good sources of information on the subject were accessible in his time: Judith Quiney, the Poet's second daughter, lived till 1662; Lady Barnard, his granddaughter, till 1670; and Sir William Davenant was manager of the theatre in which Betterton acted.?

' I canno: leave Hamlet, without taking notice of the advantage with which we have seen this master-piece of Shakespeare distinguish itself upon the stage, by Mr. Beiterton's fine perforinance of that part. No man is better acquainted with Shakespeare's inanner of expression; and indeed he has studied him so well, and is so much a master of him, that whatever part of his he per. forms, he does it as if it had been written on purpose for him, and that the author had exactly conceived it as he plays it. I must own a particular obligation to him for the most considerable part of the passages relating to this Life, which I have here transmit. ted to the public; his veneraticit for the memory of Shakespeare having engaged him to make a journey into Warwickshire, on purpose to gather up what remains he could of a name for which he had so great a veneration. - RowE's Account.

2 Downes was prompter at one of the theatres in 1662, and for some time afterwards. In his Roscius Anglicanus, 1708, we have the following in reference to Si: William Davenant's theatre, beTween 1662 and 1665 : “ The tragedy of Hamlet : Hamlet being

After Rowe's narrative, scarce any thing was added till the time of Malone, who by a learned and most industrious searching of public and private records brought to light a considerable number of facts, some of them very important, touching the Poet and his family. And in our own day, Mr. Colier has followed up the same course of inquiry with almost incredible diligence, and with a degree of success that gives earnest of still further discoveries yet to be made. Lastly, Mr. Halliwell has brought his intelligent and indefatigable labours to the same task, and made some valuable additions to our stock of information. Collier's Life of the Poet, published in 1844, is a work of very great interest and werth, and will long stand a monument of the author's learned and patient research ; but, besides being too lengthy for our purpose, it needs in divers particulars to be corrected or completed, from the results of later investigation. Halliwell's Life was published in 1848. It is a work of small pretence and large merit; though merit consists rather in the fulness and accuracy of the original materials, than in the shape and expression which the author has given them: so that the work, though highly valuable to the scholar, is little suited to the purposes of the general reader.

The labours of Rowe, Malone, Collier, and Halliwell are all before us; and whatsoever we can gather from them to wards making the reader acquainted with the man Shakespeare, will be found embodied in the following pages. Of course no means of adding to the stock of matter lie within

perform’d by Mr. Betterton, Sir William, having seen Mr. Taylor of the Black-fryars company act it, who being instructed by the author, Mr. Shakespear, taught Mr. Betterton in every particle of it; which, by his exact performance of it, gain'd him esteem and reputation superlative to all other plays.

King Henry the 8th. This play, by order of Sir Williain Davenant, was all new cloath'd in proper habits. The part of the King was so right and justly done by Mr. Betterton, be being instructed in it by Sir William, who had it from old Mr. Lowen, that had his instructions from Mr. Shakespear himself, that I dare and will aver none can or will come vear him in this age in the performance of ibal part.”

our reach, even if we had ever so much time and skill to prosecute such researches; so that the most we can hope for 18, to put into a compact and readable shape what others have collected. As Rowe's narrative was the first essay of the kind, and as it is, withal, very brief and well-written, it may justly receive a place in this our introductory chapter :

SOME ACCOUNT

OF THE

LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.

It seems to be a kind of respect due to the memory of excellent men, especially those whom their wit and learning have made famous, to deliver some account of themselves, as well as their works, to posterity. For this reason, how fond do we see some people of discovering any little personal story of the great men of antiquity! their families, the common accidents of their lives, and even their shape, make, and features have been the subject of critical inquiries. How trifling soever this curiosity may seem to be, it is certainly very natural; and we are hardly satisfied with an account of any remarkable person, till we have heard him described even to the very clothes he wears. As for what relates to men of letters, the knowledge of an author may sometimes conduce to the better understanding of his book ; and though the works of Shakespeare may seem to many not to want a comment, yet I fancy some little account of the man himself may not be thought improper to go along with them.

He was the son of Mr. John Shakespeare, and was born at Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire, in April, 1564. His family, as appears by the register and public writings relating to that town, were of good figure and fashion there, and are mentioned as gentlemen. His father, who was a considerable dealer in wool, had so large a family, ten chil

1

dren in ah, that, though he was his eldest son, he could give him no better education than his own employment. He had bred him, it is true, for some time at a free-school, where it is probable he acquired what Latin he was master of; but the narrowness of his circumstances, and the want of his assistance at home forced his father to withdraw him from thence, and unhappily prevented his further proficiency in that language. It is without controversy, that in his works we scarce find any traces of any thing that looks like an imitation of the ancients. The delicacy of his taste, and the natural bent of his own great genius (equal, if not superior, to some of the best of theirs) would certainly have led him to read and study them with so much pleasure, that some of their fine images would naturally have insinuated themselves into and been mixed with his own writings; so that his not copying at least something from them may be an argument of his never having read them. Whether his ignorance of the ancients were a disadvantage to him or no, may admit of a dispute ; for, though the knowledge of them might have made him more correct, yet it is not improbable but that the regularity and deference for them, which would have attended that correctness, might have restrained some of that fire, impetuosity, and even beautiful extravagance which we admire in Shakespeare; and I believe we are better pleased with those thoughts, altogether new and uncommon, which his own imagination supplied him so abundantly with, than if he had given us the most beautiful passages out of the Greek and Latin poets, and that in the most agreeable manner that it was possible for a master of the English language to deliver them.

Upon his leaving school, he seems to have given entirely into that way of living which his father proposed to him ; and, in order to settle in the world after a family manner, he thought fit to marry while he was yet very young.

His wife was the daughter of one Hathaway, said to have been a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford. In this kind of settlement he continued for some time, till an

1

extravagance that he was guilty of forced him both out of his country and that way of living which he had taken up; and, though it seemed at first to be a blemish upon his goor manners, and a misfortune to him, yet it afterwards happily proved the occasion of exerting one of the greatest geniuses that ever was known in dramatic poetry. He had, by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company; and among them some, that made a frequent practice of deer-stealing, engaged him with them more than once in robbing a park that belonged to Sir Thomas Lucy, of Charlecote, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and, in order to revenge that ill usage, he made a ballad upon him. And though this, probably the first essay of his poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the prosecution against him to that degree, that he was obliged to leave his business and family in Warwickshire for some time, and shelter himself in London.

It is at this time, and upon this accident, that he is said to have made his first acquaintance in the play-house. He was received into the company then in being, at first in a very mean rank; but his admirable wit, and the natural turn of it to the stage, soon distinguished him, if not as an extraordinary actor, yet as an excellent writer. His name is printed, as the custom was in those times, among those of the other players, before some old plays, but without any particular account of what sort of parts he used to play ; and, though I have inquired, I could never meet with any further account of him this way, than that the top of his performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet. I should have been much more pleased to have learned from some certain authority which was the first play he wrote: it would be without doubt a pleasure to any man curious in things of this kind, to see and know what was the first essay of a fancy like Shakespeare's. Perhaps we are not to look for his beginnings, like those of other authors, among his least

1

« PreviousContinue »