William Shakespeare

Portret van Willam ShakespeareHieronder het artikel uit Chambers’s cyclopædia of English Literature uit 1886 over William Shakespeare.


Letter Shakespeare as a poet, claims to be noticed here. The incidents of his life will be related in the account of the dramatists. With the exception of the Faery Queen, there are no poems of the reign of Elizabeth equal to those productions to which the great dramatist affixed his name. In 1593, when the poet was in his twenty-ninth year, appeared his Venus and Adonis, and in the following year his Rape of Lucrece, both dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.

„I know not,” says the modest poet in his first dedication, „how I shall offend in dedication my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so prop to support so weak a burden; only, if your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather, and never after ear [till] so barren a land.”

The allusion to „idel hours” seems to point to the author’s profession of an actor, in which capacity he had probably attracted the attention of the Earl of Southampton; but very is not so easy to understand how the Venus and Adonis was the „first heir of its invention,” unless we believe that it had been written in early life, or that his dramatic labours had then been confined to the adeptation of old plays, not the writing of new ones, for the stage. There is a tradition, that the Earl of Southampton on one occasion presented Shakespeare with £1000, to complete a purchase which he wished to make. The gift was munificent, but the sum has assuredly been exaggerated. The Venus and Adonis is a glowing and essentially dramatic version of the well-known mythological story, full of fine descriptive passages, but objectionable on the score of licentiousness. Warton has shewn that it gave offence, at the time of its publication, on account of the excessive warmth of its colouring. The Rape of Lucrece is less animated, and is perhaps an inferior poem, though, from the boldness of its figurative expressions, and its tone of dignified pathos and reflection, it is more like the hasty sketch of a great poet. The first of Shakespeare’s classical poems was the most popular. A second edition was published in 1594, a third in 1596, a fourth in 1600, and a fifth in 1602. The Lucrece only reached a second edition in four years (1598), and a third in 1600.

The sonnets of Shakespeare were first printed in 1609, by Thomas Thorpe, a bookseller and publisher of the day, who prefixed to the volume the following enigmatical dedication: „To the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets, Mr. W. H., all happiness and that eternity promised by our everliving poet, wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth, T.T.” The sonnets are 154 in number. They are, with the exception of twenty-eight, addressed to some male object, whom the poet addresses in a style of affection, love, and idolatry, remarkable, even in the reign of Elizabeth, for its extravagant and enthusiastic character. Though printed continuously, it is obvious that the sonnets were written at different times, with long intervals between the dates of composition; and we know that, previous to 1598, Shakespeare had tried this species of composition, for Meres in that year alludes to his „sugared sonnets among his private friends.”

We almost wish, with Mr. Hallam, that Shakespeare had not written these sonnets, beautiful as many of them are in language and imagery. They represent him in a character foreign to that in which we love to regard him – as modest, virtuous, self-confiding, and independant. His excessive and elaborate praise of youthful beauty in a man seems derogatory to his genius, and savours of adulation; and when we find him excuse this friend for robbing him of his mistress – a married female – and subjecting his noble spirit to all the pangs of jealousy, of guilty love, and blind misplaced attachment, it is painful and difficult to believe that all this weakness and folly can be associated with the name of Shakespeare, and still more that he should record it in verse which he believed would descend to future ages:

Not marble, not the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.

Some of the sonnets may be written in a feigned character, and merely dramatic in expression; but in others, the poet alludes to his profession of an actor, and all bear the impress of strong passion and deep sincerity. A feeling of premature age seems to have crept on Shakespeare:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west
Which by and by black Night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

He laments his errors with deep and penitential sorrow, summoning up things past „to the sessions of sweet silent thoughts,” and exhibiting the depths of a spirit „solitary in the very vastness of its sympathies.” The „W.H.” alluded to by Thorpe has been conjectured to be William Herbert, afterwards Earl of Pembroke, who, as appears from the dedication of the folio of 1623, was one of Shakespeare’s patrons. This conjecture has received the assent of Mr. Hallam and others. Another theory is, that Henry Wriothesley (or H.W. the initials being reversed) was the object of Shakespeare’s idolatry.

The composition of these mysterious productions evinces Shakespeare’s great facility in versification of a difficult order, and they display more intense feeling and passion than either of his classical poems. They have the conceits and quaint turns of expression then common, praticularly in the sonnet; but they rise to far higher flights of genuine poetry than will be found in any other poet of the day, and they contain many traces of Shakespeare’s philosophical en reflective spirit.

The Horse of Adonis

Look, when a painter would surpass the life
In limning out a well-proportioned steed,
His art with nature’s workmanship at strife,
As if the dead the living should exceed:
So did his horse excel a common one
In shape, in courage, colour, pace, and bone.

Round-hoofed, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs, and passing strong,
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide:
Look, what a horse should have, he did not lack,
Save proud rider on so proud a back.

Sometimes he scuds far off, and there he stares;
Anon he starts at stirring of a feather:
To bid the wind a base he new prepares,
And whe’r he run, or fly, they know not whether;
For through his mane and tail the high wind sings,
Fanning the hairs, who wave like feathered wings.