« PreviousContinue »
his name appears among the actors of Ben Jonson's play of Sejanus. 'Thus it is evident that he continued to perform many years: but of his merits as a player, we find no positive data lo found an accurate estimate, and hence there is much diversity of opinion among his commentators. Performers and dramatic authors were not then so closely watched, and fastidiously criticised as in the present age; indeed diurnal reviewers were then unknown. From some satirical passages in the writings of his contemporaries, he appears not to bavo been a favourite actor with the public. His instructions on the subject of acting, however, in Hamlet, are so peculiarly excellent, that we are not a little inclined to suspect that his unpopularity arose rather from the want of laste in his audience, than from the deficiency of theatrical powers in himself. The “science of acting' was then only in its infancy; and as he that strutled and bellowed” most, was probably esteemed the best player, Shakspeare's gentleness would be considered tameness, and his observance of nature ignorance of his art.
At what period our poet gave up all personal connexion with the theatre bas not been discovered; but it is probable that be retired from it at least three years before his death. Rowe indeed states, that “the laller part of his life was spent, as all men of good sense would wish theirs may be, in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends.” During his dramatic career,
he appears lo have acquired a share in the properly of the Globe Thealre, and to have been joint manager of the same, as his name is mentioned in the licence granted by King James, in 1603, for the exhibition of plays in that house, and in any part of the kingdom. This share he probably sold when he finally retired to Stratford, as it is neither alluded to in his will, nor does his name occur in the accounts of the theatre for 1613.
Shakspeare, like most men of pre-eminent talents, is said to have been inuch assailed hy lhe attacks of envious rivals, notwithstanding that diffidence and good nature were the peculiar characteristics of his personal deport
ment. Among those who are stated to have treated hith with hostility, was the celebrated Ben Jonson; but Dr. Farmer departs from the received opinions on this subject, and thinks that though Jonson was arrogant of bis scholarship, and publicly professed a rivalship of Shakspeare, he was in private his friend and associate.
Pope, in his preface, says, that Jonson, “loved” Shakspeare, “as well as honoured his memory; celebrates the bonesty, openness, and frankness of his temper; and only distinguishes, as he reasonably ought, between the real merit of the author, and the silly and derogatory applauses of the players." Mr. Gilchrist, whose dramatic criticisms are generally profound and acute, has published a pamphlet, to prove that Jonson was never a harsh or an envious rival of Shakspeare; and that the popular opinion on this subject is founded in error. The following story respecting these two great drainatists is related by Rowe, and has been generally credited by subsequent biographers. “Mr. Jonson, who was at that timne altogether unknown to the world, bad offered one of his plays to the players, in order to have it acted; and the persons into whose bands it was put, after having turned it carelessly and superciliously over, were just upon returning it to him with an llnatured answer, that it would be of no service to their company, when Shakspeare luckily cast his eye apon it, and found something so well in it, as to engage hiin first to read it through, and afterwards to recomInend Mr. Jonson and his writings to the public."
The opposition or rivalship of Sbakspeare and Jonson produced, as might naturally be expected, inuch contention concerning their relative merits between their respective friends and admirers; and it is not a little reinarkable, that Jonson seems to have maintained a higher place in the estimation of the public in general than our poet, for more than a century after the death of the latter. Within that period Jonson's works are aid to have passed through several editions, and to have been read with avidity, while Shakspeare's were comparatively neglected til the time of Rowe. This
circumstance is in a great measure to be accounted for on the principle that classical literature and collegiate learning were regarded in those days as the chief criterions of inerit. Accordingly Jonson's grand charge against Shakspeare was the want of that species of knowledge; and upon his own proficiency in it, he arrogated to himself a superiority over him. That all classical scholars, however, did not sanction Jonson's pretensions is certain; for among the greatest admirers of Shakspeare, was one of the most learned men of his age, the ever-memorable Hales. On one occasion the latter, after listening in silence to a warm debate between Sir John Suckling and Jonson, is reported to have interposed by observing, “ That if Sbakspeare had not read the ancients, he had likewise not stolen any thing from them; and that if he (Jonson) would produce any one topic finely treated by any one of them, he would undertake to show something upon the same subject, at least as well written by Shakspeare.” A trial, it is added, being in consequence agreed to, judges were appointed to decide the dispute, who unanimously voted in favour of the English poet, after a candid examination and comparison of the passages produced by the contending parties.
“Shakspeare,” observes Rowe, “ had the good fortune lo gai'er an estate equal to his occasion, and in that to his #'sh;" but the biographer does not even bint at the amount of the poet's income. Malone, however, judging from the bequests in Shakspeare's Will, thinks it might be about 2001. per year; which at the age when he lived, was equal to 8001. a year at the present time. Subsequent to his retirement from the stage, he resided in a house at Stratford which he had purchased, according to Wheler, in 1597, from the family of Underhill, and which, previous lo that time bad been called the Great House, probably from its having been the best in the town, when it was originally erected by Sir Hugb Clopton, in the reign of Henry ibe Seventh. The poet appears to have made considerable alterations in this house, and changed its name to New-place. Here le appears to have resided a few years in retire.
ment, but not without devoting some time to dramatio composition; for Malone asserts, that the play of Twelfth Night was written after his final residence at Stratford. In this house he died, on Tuesday, April 23, 1616, being the anniversary of his 52d year: in two days afterwards his remains were interred within the chancel of the parish church; where a flat stone and a mural monument were afterwards placed to point out the spot, and commemorate his likeness, name, and memory.
Such is the subslance of the scanty notices of the life of Shakspeare, which we have been enabled to collect from Rowe, and from the various cominentators on his works, to Malone inclusive. To these we shall add, in his own words, the following anecdotes recorded by John Aubrey in his MS. collections in the Ashmolean Museum, at Oxford. “Mr. William Shakespear was borne at Stratford-upon-Avon, in the county of Warwick: his father was a butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when be was a boy he exercised his father's trade, but when be kill'd a calfe he would doe il in a high style and make a speech. There was at that time another butcher's son in this towne, that was belde not at all inferior to bim for a naturall witt, his acquaintance and coetanean, but dyed young. This Wm. being inclined naturally to poetry and acting came to London, I guesse about 18, and was an actor at one of the playhouses, and did act exceedingly well. Now B. Jonson never was a good actor, but an excellent instructor. He began early to make essayes at dramatique poetry, which at that time was very lowe, and his playes tooke well. He was a handsome well shap't man, very good Gazpany, and of a very readie and pleasant smooth witt: the humour of the constable in a Midsimmer Night's Dreame, he happened to take at Grendon, in Bucks, which is the roade from London to Stratford; and there was living that constable about 1642, when I first came to Oxon. Mr. Jos. Howe is of that parish, and knew him. Ben Jonson and lie did gather humours of men dayly, wherever they came. Ose time, as he was at the tavern, at Stratford-upon
Avon, one Combes, an old rich usurer, was to be buryed, he makes there this extemporary epitaph:
“ Ten in the hundred the devill allowes, But Combes will have twelve, he sweares and vowes :If any one askes who lies in this tombe, Hob, quoth the devill, ''tis my John Combe.' “ He was wout to goe to his native country once a yeare. I think I have been told, that he left 2 or 300 lib. per annum, there and thereabout, to a sister. I have heard Sir Wm. Davenant and Mr. Thomas Shadwell (who is counted the best comedian we have now), say that he had a most prodigious witt; and did admire his naturall parts beyond all other dramaticall writers, He was wont to say, that he never blotted out a line in his life: sayd Ben Jonson, 'I wish he had blotted out a thousand. His comodies will remaiu wilt as long as the English longue is understood, for that he handles mores hominum: now our present writers reflect so much upon particular persons and coxcombeities that twenty yeares hence they will not be understood.
“ Though, as Ben Jonson sayes of him, that be had but little Latine and lesse Greek, he understood Latine pretty well, for he had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country.” See Lelters from the Bodleian Library, &c. Vol. iii. p. 307.
The above account, though apparently sanctioned by good authority, and probably written about thirty years after Shakspeare's death, is treated by alınost all bis biographers as wholly incredible. of this opinion is Malone, in his notes upon the Life of our poet by Rowe; but in his own “ Historical Account of the English Slage,” he seems at a loss whether to argue for or against the probability of Aubrey's statement. The same wavering aud inconsistency, on dubious points, are visible in other parts of the writings of that commentator. Thus in one place he is positive that Shakspeare's father was thrice married; and in another, he is equally confident that he had not more than two wives. Tú bis chronology, he slates 1591 to be the year in which our author coinmenced writer for the stage, and argues throughout the whole essay on that presumption; but