William Shakespeare

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


Letter We have seen that Greene, Peele and Marlow prepared in some degree the way for Shakespeare. They had given a more settled and scholastic form to the drama, and assigned it a permanent place in the national literature. They adorned the stage with more variety of character and action, with deep passion, and true poetry The latter, indeed, was tinged with incoherence and extravagance, but the sterling ore of genius was, in Marlowe at least, abundant. Above all, they had familiarised the public ear to the use of blank verse. The last improvement was the greatest; for even the genius of Shakespeare would have been cramped and confined, if it had been condemned to move only in the fetters of rhyme. The quick interchange of dialogue, and the various nice shades and alternations of character and feeling, could not have been envolved in dramatic action, except in that admirable form of verse which unites thythmical harmony with the utmost freedom, grace, and flexibility. When Shakespeare, therefore, appeared conspicuously on the horizon, the scene may be said to have been prepared for his reception. The Genius of Drama had accumulated materials for the use of the great poet, who was to extend her empire over limits not yet recognised, and invest it with splendor which the world had never seen before.

The few incidents known of Shakespeare’s life are chiefly derieved from legal documents. The fond idolatry with which he is now regarded was only turned to his personal history at a late period, when little could be gathered even by the most enthusiastic collector.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE was born at Stratford-on-Avon, in the county of Warwick, in April 1564. There is a poetical and pleasant tradition, that he was born on the 23rd of the month, the anniversary of St. George, the tutelar saint of England; but all we know with certainty is, that he baptised on the 26th. His father, John Shakespeare, is traced to a family occupying land at Snitterfield, near Warwick. Het settled in the town of Stratford, became a wool-comber or glover, and elevated his social position by marriage with a rustic heiress, Mary Arden, possesed of an estate worth about £120 per annum of our present money. The poet’s father rose to be high-bailiff and chief alderman of Stratford; but in 1578, he is found mortgaging his wife’s inheritance, and, from entries in the town-books, is supposed to have fallen into comparative poverty. William was the eldest of six surviving children, and after some education at the grammar-school, he is said to have been brought home to assist at his father’s business.

There is a blank in his history for some years; but doubtless he was engaged, whatever might be his circumstances or employment, in treasuring up materials for his future poetry. The study of man and of nature facts in natural history, the country, the fields, and the woods, would be gleaned by familiar intercourse and observation among his fellow-townsmen, and in rambling over the beautiful valley of the Avon. It has been conjectured that he was some time in a lawyer’s office, as his works abound in technical legal phrases and illustrations. This has always seemed to us highly propable. The London players were also then in the habit of visiting Stratford; Thomas Green, an actor, was a native of the town; and Burbage, the greatest performer of his day – the future Richard, Hamlet, and Othello – was originally from Warwicjshire. Who can doubt, then, that the high-bailiff’s son, from the years of twelve to twenty, was a frequent and welcome visitant behind the scenes – that he there inbibed the tastes and feelings which coloured all his future life – and that he there felt the first stirrings of his immortal dramatic genius.

We are persuaded that he had begun to write long before he left Stratford, and had most probably sketched, if not completed, his Venus and Adonis, and the Lucrece. The amount of his education at the grammar-school has been made a question of eager scrutiny and controversy. Ben Jonson says he had „little Latin, and less Greek.” This is not denying that he had some. Many Latinised idioms and expressions are to be found in his plays. The choice of two classical subjects for his early poetry, and the numerous felicitous allusions in his dramas to the mythology of the ancients, shew that he was imbued with the spirit and taste of classical scholar. His mind was too comprehensive to degenerate into pedantry; but when, at the age of four of five and twenty, he took the field of original dramatic composition, in company with the university-bred authors and wits of his times, he soon distanced them all, in correctness as well as facility, in the intellectual richness of his thoughts and diction and in the wide range of his acquired knowledge. It may be safely assumed therefore, that at Straford he was a hard, though perhaps an irregular student.

On the 28th of November 1582, he obtained a licence at Worcester, legalising the union with Anne Hathaway, with once asking of the banns. Two of his neighbours became security in the sum of £40, that the poet would fulfil his matrimonial engagement, he being a minor, and unable, legally, to contract for himself. Anne Hathaway was seven years older than her husband. She was the daughter of a „substantial yeoman” of the village of Shottery, about a mile from Stratford. The poet’s daughter, Susanna, was christened on the 26th of May 1583, six months after the marriage. In a year and a half, two other children, twins, were born to Shakespeare, who had no family afterwards.

We may readily suppose that the smaal town of Stratford did not offer scope for the ambition of the poet, now arrived at early manhood, and feeling the ties of a husband and a father. He removed to London in 1586 or 1587. It has been said that his departure was hastened by the effects of a lampoon he had written on a neighbouring squire, Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, in revenge for Sir Thomas prosecuting him for deer-stealing. The story is inconsistent in its details. Part of it must be untrue; it was never recorded against him in his lifetime; abd the whole may have been built upon the opening scene in the Merry Wives of Windsor – not written till after Sir Thomas Lucy’s death – in which there is some wanton wit on the armorial bearings of the Lucy family. As an actor, Shakespeare is spoken favourable of by Lodge. In 1603, when a new patent was granted to the Blackfriars Company by King James, the poet’s name appears second in the list; but the source of his unexampled succes was his immortal dramas, the delight and wonder of his age –

That so did take Eliza and our James,

As Ben Jonson has recorded, and as is confirmed by various authorities. Up to 1611, the whole of Shakespeare’s plays – thirty-seven in number, according to the first folio edition – are supposed to have been produced. With the nobles. the wits, and poets of his day, he was in familiar intercourse. The „gentle Shakespeare,” as he was usually styled, was throned in all hearts. But notwithstanding his brilliant success in the metropolis, the poet early looked forward to a permanent retirement to the country. He visited Stratford once a year; and when wealth flowed in upon him, he purchased property in his native town and its vicinity. In 1597 he paid £60 for New Place, the principal house in Stratford; in 1602 he gave £320 for 107 acres of land adjoining to his purchase; and in 1605 he paid £440 for the lease of the tithes of Stratford. The produce of his lands he no doubt disposed of like the ordinary lords of the soil, and Mr. Halliwell, in his life of Shakespeare (1848), shews that in 1604 the poet brought an action against Philip Rogers for £1,15s.10d for malt sold and delivered to him.

The latest entry of his name among the king’s players is in 1604, but he was living in London in 1609. The year 1612 has been assigned as the date of his final retirement to the country. In the fulness of his fame, with a handsome competency, and before age has chilled the enjoyment of life, the poet returned to his native town, to spend the remainder of his days among the quiet scenes and the friends of his youth. His parents were both dead, but their declining years had been gladdened by the prosperity of their illustrious son. His family appears to have had a leaning towards the Puritans, and in the town-chamberlain’s accounts for 1614, there is a record of a present of sack and claret, „given to a preacher at New Place.” Preachers of all sects, if good men, would be wellcome to the poet’s hospitality! Four years were spent by Shakespeare in this dignified retirement, and the history of literature scarcely presents another such picture of calm felicity and satisfied ambition. He died on the 23d of April 1616, having just completed his fifty-second year. His widow survived him seven years. His two daughters were both married – his only son Hamnet had died in 1596 – and one of them had three sons; but all these died without issue, and there now remains no lineal representative of the great poet.

Of the recent Shakespearian researches, we must say with regret, in the words of Mr. Hallam, „no letter of his writing, no record of his conversation, no character of him drawn with any fulness by a contemporary, has been produced.” The Calenders of the State Papers, published under the authority of the Master of the Rolls, shew that in the list of trained soldiers of the hundred of Barlichway, in Warwickshire, in September 1605, was a William Shakespeare. The militia bands were at that time – the agitated year of the Gunpowder Plot – formed in order to repress and expected rising in the midland shires, and as the poet was then a considerable landholder in his native county, he may have been enrolled as one of its military defenders. To know positively that the „gentle Shakespeare” had borne arms, and, like Ben Jonson, „shouldered in a pike,” as one of the Warwickshire public force, would be a curious and suggestive fact in his personal history. In June 1858, an autograph signature of the poet to a mortgage deed of a house in Blackfriars, dated March 11, 1612-13, was sold in London to the British Museum for three hundred guineas – unquestionably the largest sum ever given for a mere autograph. From none of the few signatures of the poet can we ascertain with any degree of certainty how he spelled his surname. The three signatures in the will are all indistinct. Neither of his parents, it is now proved, could write, as deeds are extant to which John and Mary Shakespeare affix their marks.

In 1852, Mr Collier published a volume of Notes and Emendations of the plays of Shakespeare, derived from a corrected copy of the second edition in 1632, which had apparently belonged to one Thomas Perkins. Certain other documents relating to the dramatist and his plays, purporting to be found in the library at Bridgewater House, in the Audit Office, and at Dulwich College, have also been published. But it seems to be satisfactorily proved that all these are modern fabrications, executed, in some respects, with ingenuity and skill.

Shakespeare, it is believed, like his comtemporary dramatists, began his career as an author by altering the works of others, and adapting them for the stage. The extract from Greene’s Groat’s Worth of Wit in which we have given in the life of that unhappy author, shews that he had been engaged in this subordinate literary labour before 1592.

Three years previous to this, Nash had published an address to the students of the two universities, in which there is a remarkable passage: „It is,” he says, „a common practice now-a-days, among a sort of shifting companions, that run through every art, and thrive by none, to leave the trade of Noverint, whereto they were born, and busy themselves with the endeavours of art, that could scarce Latinise their neck-verse if they should have need; yet English Seneca, read by candle-light, yields many good sentences, as blood is a beggar, and so forth; and if you entreat him far in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches.”

The term Novarint was applied to lawyers’ clerks, so called from the first word of a Latin deed of those times, equivalent to the modern commencement of „Know all men,” &c. It appears from the title-page to the first edition of Hamlet, in 1604, that, like Romeo and Juliet, and the Merry Wives of Windsor, it had been enlarged to almost twice its original size. It seems scarcely probable that the great dramatist should not have commenced writing before he was twenty-seven. Some of his first drafts, as we have seen, he subsequently enlarged and completed; others may have sunk into oblivion, as being judged unworthy of resucitation or improvement in his riper years. Pericles is supposed to be one of his earliest adaptations. Dryden, indeed, expressly states it to be the first birth of his muse; but two if not three styles are distinctly traceable in this play, and the first two acts look like the work of Greene or Peele. Titus Andronicus resembles the style of Marlowe, and if written by Shakepeare, as distinct contemporary testimony affirms, it must have been a very youthful production.

The Taming of the Shrew is greatly indebted to an old play on the same subject, and must also be reffered to the same period. It is doubtful whether Shakespeare wrote any of the first part of Henry VI. The second and third parts are modelled on two older playes, the Contention of York and Lancaster, and the True Tragedy of the Duke of York. Whether these old dramas were early sketches of Shakespeare’s own, cannot now be ascertained; they contain the death-scene of Cardinal Beaufort, the last speech of the Duke of York, and the germs of that vigorous delineation of character and passion completed in Richard III. We know no other dramatist of that early period, excepting Marlowe, who could have written those powerfull sketches. From the old plays, Shakepeare borrowed no less than 1771 entire lines, and nearly double that number are merely alterations. Hence it has been supposed that Shakespeare’s property in the second and third parts of Henry VI> was only in the additions and alterations he introduced. Whole lines in the old plays are identical with passages in Marlowe’s Edward II.; and there seems no reason to doubt that Marlowe and Greene were the original authors, and that Shakespeare had remodelled their plays, to fit them for his theatre, retaining what was popular, and improving what was defective. Thus the charge of plagiarism brought by Greene against our great dramatist stands explained and reconciled with probability, if not with fact, though we must remenber that it was Shakespeare’s first editors, not himself, that claimed for him the sole authorship of Henry VI as of the other plays.

The gradual progress of Shakespeare’s genius is supposed to have been not unobserved by Spenser. In 1594 or 1595, the venerable poet wrote his pastoral, entitled Colin Clout’s Come Home Again, in which he commemorates his brother-poets under feigned names. The gallant Raleigh is the Shepherd of the Ocean, Sir Philip Sidney is Astrophel, and other living authors are characterised by fictitious appelations. He concludes as follows:

And then, though last, not least, is Aëtion;
A gentler shepherd may nowhere be found,
Whose muse, full of high thoughts’ invention,
Doth, like himself, heroically sound.

The sonorous and chivalrous-like name of Shakespeare seems here designated. The poet had then published his two classical poems, and probably most of his English historical plays had been acted. The supposition that Shakespeare was meant, is at least a pleasing one. We love to figure Spenser and Raleigh sitting under the „shady alders” on the banks of Mulla, reading the manuscript of the Faery Queen; but it is not less interesting to consider the great poet watching the dawn of that mighty mind in which was to eclipse all its contemporaries. A few years afterwards, in 1598, we meet with an important notice of Shakespeare by Francis Meres, a contemporary author. „As Plautus and Seneca,” he says, „are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy among the Latins, so Shakespeare, among the English, is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love’s Labour Lost, his Love’ Labour Won (or All’s Well that Ends Well), his Midsummer Night’s Dream, and his merchant of Venice; for tragedy, his Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, King John, Titus Andronicus, and his Romeo and Juliet.” This was indeed a brilliant contribution to the English drama, throwing Greene, Peele, and Marlowe immeasurably into shade, and far transcending all the previous productions of the Englisg stage. The harvest, however, was not yet half reaped – the glorious intellect of Shakespeare was still forming, and his imagination nursing those magnificent conceptions which were afterwards embodied in the Lear, the Macbeth, Othello, and Tempest of his tragic muse.

The chronology of Shakespeare’s plays has been arbitrarily fixed by Malone and others, without adequate authority. Macbeth is put down to 1606, though we only know that it existed in 1610. Henry VIII. is assigned in 1603, yet it is mentioned by Sir Henry Wotton as a new play in 1613, and we know that it was produced with unusual scenic decoration and splendour in that year. The Roman plays were undoubtedly among his latest works. The Tempest hass been usually considered the last, but on no decisive authority. Adopting this popular belief, Campbell has remarked, that the Tempest has a „sort of sacredness” as the last drama of the great poet, who, as if conscious that this was to be the case, has been „inspired to typify himself as a wise, potent, and benevolant magicioan.”

There seems no good reason for believing that Shakspeare did not continue writing on to the period of his death in 1616; and such a supposition is countenanced by a tradition thus recorded in the diary of the Rev. John Ward, A.M. vicar of Stratford-on-Avon, extending from 1648 to 1679. „I have heard,” says the careless and incurious vicar, who might have added largely to our stock of Shakespearian facts, had he possessed taste, acuteteness, or industry – „I have heard that Mr. Shakespeare was a natural wit, without any art at all. He frequented the plays all his younger time, but in his elder days lived at stratford, and supplied the stage with two plays every year, and for it had an allowance so large, that he spent at the rate of one thousand pounds a year, as I have heard. Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry-meeting, and, it seems, drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.”

We place no great reliance on this testimony, either as to the facts literary or personal. Those who have studied the works of the great dramatist, and marked his succesive approaches to perfection, must see that he united the closest study to the keenest observation; that he attained to the highest pitch of dramatic art, and the most accurate philosophy of the human mind; and that he was, as Schlegel has happily remarked, „a profound artist, and not a blind and wildly luxuriant genius”. Coleridge boasted of being the first in time who publicly demonstrated to the full extent of the position, that he supposed irregularity and extravagances of Shakespeare were „the mere dreams of a pedantry that arraigned the eagle because it had not the dimensions of the swan.” He maintains, with his usual fine poetical apprecation and feeling, that that law of unity which has its foundations, not in the factitious necessity of custom, but in nature itself, the unity of feeling is everywhere, and at all times, observed by Shakespeare in his plays. „Read Romeao and Juliet – all is youth and spring; youth with its follies, its virtues, its precipitancies; spring with its odours, its flowers, and its transiency; it is one and the same feeling that commences, goes through, and ends the play.”

This unity of action, or of character and interest, conspicuous in Shakespeare, Coleridge illustrates by an image drawn, with the taste of a poet, from external nature. „Whence arises the harmony that strikes us in the wildest natural landscapes – in the relative shapes of rocks – the harmony of colours in the heaths, ferns, and lichens – the leaves of the beech and the oak – the sterns and rich brown branches of the birch and other mountain trees, varying from verging autumn to returning spring – compared with the visual effect from the greater number of artificial plantations? From this – that the natural landscape is effected, as it were, by a single energy modified ab intra in each component part.” In working out his conceptions, either of character or passion, we conceive Shakespeare to have laboured for ultimate and lasting fame, not immediate theatrical effect. His audiences must often been unable to follow his philosophy, his subtile distinctions, and his imagery. The actors must have been equally unable to give effect to many of his personations. He was apparantly indifferent to both – at least in his great works – and wrote for the mind of the universe. There was, however, always enough of ordinary nature, of pomp, ar variety of action, for the multitude; and the English historical plays, connected with national pride and glory, must have rendered their author popular.

Sixteen of the dramas were printed during Shakespeare’s life, probably from copies piratically obtained. It was the interest of the managers that new and popular pieces should not be published; but we entertain the most perfect conviction, that the poet intended all his original works, as he had revised some, for publication. The Merry Wives of Windsor is said to have been written in fourteen days, by command of Queen Elizabeth, who wished to see Falstaff in love. Shakespeare, however, was anxious for his fame, as well as eager to gratify the queen: when the temporary occasion was served, he returned to his play, filled up his first imperfect outline, and heightened the humour of the dialogue and character. Let not the example of this greatest name in English literature be ever quoted to support the false opinion, that excellence can be attained without study and labour.

In 1623 appeared the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s dramatic works – seven years after his own death, and six months after that of his widow, who may have had a life-interest in the plays. The whole were contained in one folio volume, and a preface and dedication were supplied by the poet’s fellow-comedians, Hemming and Condell.

The plots of Shakespeare’s dramas were nearly all borrowed, some from novels and romances, others from legendary tales, and some from older plays. In his Roman subjects, he followed North’s translation of plutarch’s Lives; his English historical plays are chiefly taken from Holinshed’s Chronicle. From the latter source he also derived the plot of Macbeth. A very cursory perusal will display the gradual progress and elevation of his art. In the Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the earlier comedies, we see the timidity and immaturity of youthful genius; a half-fromed style, bearing frequent traces of that of his predecessors; fantastic quibles and conceits – which he never wholly abandoned; only a partial development of character; a romantic and playful fancy; but no great strength of imagination, energy, or passion.
In Richard II. and III. the creative and master mind are visible in the delineation of character. In the Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, &c. we find the ripened poetical imagination, prodigality of invention, and a searching, meditative spirit.
These qualities, with a finer vein of morality and comtemplative philosophy, pervade As You Like It and the Twelfth Night. In Henry IV. the Merry Wives and Measure for Measure, we see his inimitable powers of comedy, full formed, revelling in an atmosphere of joyous life, and fresh as if from the hand of nature. He took a loftier flight in his classical dramas, conceived and finished with consummate taste and freedom. In his later tragedies – Lear, Hamlet (in its improved form), Othello, Macbeth, and the Tempest – all his wonderful faculties and acquirements are found combined – his wit, pathos, passion, and sublimity – his profound knowledge and observation of mankind, mellowed by a refined humanity and benevolence – his imagination richer from skilful culture and added stores od information – his unrivalled language (like „light from geaven”) – his imagery and versification.

That Shakespeare deviated from the dramatic unities of time, place, and action laid down by the ancients, and adopted by the French theatre, is well known, and needs no defence. In his tragedies, he amply fulfils what Aristotle admits to be the end and object of tragedy, to beget admiration, terror, or sympathy. His mixture of comic with tragic scenes is sometimes a blemish, but it was the fault of his age; and if he had lived to edit his works, some of these oncongruities would doubtless have been expunged. But, on the whole, such blending of opposite qualities and characters is accordant with the actual experience and vicissitudes of life. No course of events, however tragic in its results, moves on in measured, unvaried solemnity, nor would the English taste tolerate this stately French style.
The great preceptress of Shakespeare was Nature: he spoke from her inspired dictates, „warm from the heart, and faithful to its fires;” and in his disregard of classic rules, pursued at will his winged way through all the labyrinths of fancy and of the human heart.

These celestial flights, however, were regulated, as we have said, by knowledge and taste. Mere poetical imagination might have created a Caliban, or evoked the airy spirits of the anchanted island and the Midsummer Dream; but to delineate a Desdemona or Imogen, a Miranda or Viola, the influence of a pure and refined spirit, cultivated and disciplined by „gentle arts,” and familiar by habit, thoughts, and example, with the better parts of wisdom and humanity, were indispensably requisite.
Peele or Marlowe might have drawn the forest of Arden, with its woodland glades, but who but Shakespeare could have supplied the moral beauty of the scene – the refined simplicity and gaiety of Rosalind, the philosophic meditations of Jaques, the true wisdom, tenderness, and grace, diffused over the whole of that antique half-courtly and half-pastoral drama.

These and similar personations, such as Benedict and Beatrice, Mercutio, &c. seem to us even more wonderful that the loftier characters of Shakespeare. No types of them could have existed but in his own mind. The old drama and the chronicles furnished the outlines of his historical personages, though destitute of the heroic ardour and elevation which he breathed into them. Plutarch and the poets kindled his classic enthusiasm and taste; old Chapman’s Homer perhaps rolled its majestic cadences over his ear and imagination; but characters in which polished manners and easy grace are as predominant as wit, reflection, or fancy, were then unknown to the stage, as to actual life. They are among the most perfect creations of his genius, and, in reference to his taste and habits, they are valuable materials for his biography.

In judgment, Shakespeare excels his contemporary dramatists as much as in genius, nut at the same time it must be confessed that he also partakes of their errors. To be unwilling to acknowledge any faults in his plays, is, as Hallam remarks „an extravagance rather derogatory to the critic than honourable to the poet.” Fresh from the perusal of any of his works, and under the immediate effects of his inspirations – walking, as it were, in a world of his creating, with beings familiar to us almost from infancy – it seems like sacrilege to breathe one word of censure. Yet truth must admit that some of his plays are hastily and ill constructed as to plot; that his proneness to quibble and play with words is brought forward in scenes where this peculiarity constitutes a positive defect; that he is sometimes indelicate where indelicacy is least pardonable, and where it jars most painfully with the associations of the scene; and that his style is occasionally stiff, turgid, and obscure, chiefly because it is at once highly figurative and condensed in expression. Ben Jonson has touched freely, but with manliness and fairness, on these defects:

„I remember,” he says, „the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing – whatsoever he penned – he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand! which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ognorance who chose that circumstance to commend their friends by wherein he most faulted, and to justify mine own candour; for I loved the man, and do honour his memory on this side idolatry as much as any.
He was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped, suffimandus 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 could not escape laughter, as when he saud, 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 was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.”

The first edition of Shakespeare was published, as already stated, in 1623. A second edition was published in 1632, the same asthe first, excepting that it was more disfigured with errors of the press. A third edition was published in 1664, and a fourth in 1685. The public admiration of this great English classic now demanded that he should receive the honours of a commentary; and Rowe, the poet, gave an improved edition in 1709. Pope, Warburton, johnson, Chalmers, Steevens, and others successively published editions of the poet, with copious notes. In our own day, editions by Collier, Knight, Singer, Halliwell, Dyce, and others have appeared. The critics of the great poet are innumerable, and they bid fair, like Banquo’s progeny, to „stretch to the crack of doom.” The scholars of germany have distinguished themselves by their philosophical and critical dissertations on the genius of Shakespeare. There never was an author, ancient or modern, whose works have been so carefully analysed and illustrated, so eloquently expounded, or so universally admired.