Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

than one fool or coxcomb, there is the same resemblance in them, as in that painter's draughts who was happy only at forming a rose; you find them all younger brothers of the same family, and all of them have a pretence to give the same crest: but Shakspeare's clowns and fops come all of a different house; they are no farther allied to one another than as man to man, members of the same species; but as different in features and lineaments of character, as we are from one another in face or complexion. But I am unawares launching into his character as a writer, before I have said what I intended of him as a private member of the republick.

Mr. Rowe has very justly observed, that people are fond of discovering any little personal story of the great men of antiquity; and that the common accidents of their lives naturally become the subject of our critical enquiries: that however tri. fling such a curiosity at the first view may appear, yet, as for what relates to men of letters, the knowledge of an author may, perhaps, sometimes conduce to the better understanding his works; and, indeed, this author's works, from the bad treatment he has met with from copyists and editors, have so long wanted a comment, that one would zealously embrace every me. thod of information that could coniribute to recover them from the injuries with which they have so long lain overwhelmed.

'Tis certain, that if we have first admired the man in his writ. ings, his case is so circumstanced, that we must naturally ad. mire the writings in the man: that if we go back to take a view of his education, and the employment in life which fortune had cut out for him, we shall retain the stronger ideas of his extensive genius.

His father, we are told, was a considerable dealer in wool; but having no fewer than ten children, of whom our Shakspeare was the eldest, the best education he could afford him was no better than to qualify him for his own business and employment. I cannot affirm with any certainty how long his father lived; but I take him to be the same Mr. John Shakspeare who was living in the year 1599, and who then, in honour of his son, took out an extract of his family arms from the herald's office; by which it appears, that he had been officer and bailiff of Stratford-uponAvon, in Warwickshire; and that he enjoyed some hereditary lands and tenements, the reward of his great grandfather's faithful and approved service to King Henry VII.

Be this as it will, our Shakspeare, it seems, was bred for some time at a free-school; the very free-school, I presume, founded at Stratford: where, we are told, he acquired what Latin he was master of: but that his father being obliged, through narrowness of circumstances, to withdraw him too soon from thence, he was thereby unhappily prevented from making any proficiency in the dead languages; a point that will deserve some little discussion in the sequel of this dissertation.

How long he continued in his father's way of business, either as an assistant to him, or on his own proper account, no notices

are left to inform us: nor have I been able to learn precisely at what period of life he quitted his native Stratford, and began his acquaintance with London and the stage.

In order to settle in the world after a family-manner, he thought fit, Mr. Rowe acquaints us, to marry while he was yet very young. It is certain he did so: for by the monument in Stratford church, erected to the memory of his daughter Susanna, the wife of John Hall, gentleman, it appears, that she died on the 2d of July, in the year 1649, aged 66. So that she was born in 1583, when her father could not be füll 19 years old; who was himself born in the year 1564. Nor was she his eldest child, for he had another daughter, Judith, who was born before her, * and who was married to one Mr. Thomas Quiney. So that Shakspeare must have entered into wedlock by that time he was turned of seventeen years.

Whether the force of inclination merely, or some concurring circumstances of convenience in the match, prompted him to marry so early, is not easy to be determined at this distance; but, it is probable, a view of interest might partly sway his conduct in this point: for he married the daughter of one Hathaway, a substantial yeoman in his neighbourhood, and she had the start of him in age no less than eight years. She survived him notwithstanding seven seasons, and died that very year the players published the first edition of his works in folio, anno Dom. 1623, at the age of 67 years, as we likewise learn from her monument in Stratford church.

How long he continued in this kind of settlement, upon his own native spot, is not more easily to be determined. But if the tradition be true, of that extravagance which forced him both to quit his country and way of living, to wit, his being engaged with a knot of young deer-stealers, to rob the park of Sir Thomas Lucy, of Cherlecot, near Stratford, the enterprize savours so much of youth and levity, we may reasonably suppose it was before he could write full man. Besides, considering he has left us six-and-thirty plays at least, avowed to be genuine; and considering too that he had retired from the stage, to spend the latter part of his days at his own native Stratford; the interval of time necessarily required for the finishing so many dramatick pieces, obliges us to suppose he threw himself very early upon the play-house. And as he could, probably, contract no acquaintance with the drama, while he was driving on the affair of wool at home; some time must be lost, even after he had commenced player, before he could attain knowledge enough in the science to qualify himself for turning author.

It has been observed by Mr. Rowe, that amongst other extravagancies, which our author has given to his Sir John Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he has made him a deer-stealer;

* See the extracts from the register-book of the parish of Stratford, in a preceding page. Steevens. VOL. I.

Bb

and, that he might at the same time remember his Warwick shire prosecutor, under the name of Justice Shallow, he has given him very near the same coat of arms, which Dugdale, in his Antiquities of that county, describes for a family there. There are two coats, I observe, in Dugdale, where three silver fishes are borne in the name of Lucy; and another coat, to the monument of Thomas Lucy, son of Sir William Lucy, in which are quartered, in four several divisions, twelve little fishes, three in each division, probably Luces. This very coat, indeed, seems alluded to in Shallow's giving the dozen white Luces, and in Slender saying he may quarter. When I consider the exceeding candour and good-nature of our author (which inclined all the gen. tler part of the world to love him, as the power of his wit obliged the men of the most delicate knowledge and polite learning to admire him): and that he should throw this humorous piece of satire at his piosecutor, at least twenty years after the provocation given; I am confidently persuaded it must be owing to an unforgiving rancour on the prosecutor's side: and, if this was the case, it were pity but the disgrace of such an inveteracy should remain as a lasting reproach, and Shallow stand as a mark of ridicule to stigmatize his malice.

It is said, our author spent some years before his death in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends, at his native Stratford. I could never pick up any certain intelligence, when he relinquished the stage. I know, it has been mistakenly thought by some, that Spenser's Thalia, in his Tears of the Muses, where she laments the loss of her Willy in the comick scene, has been applied to our author's quitting the stage. But Spenser himself, it is well known, quitted the stage of life in the year 1598; and, five years after this, we find Shakspeare's name among the actors in Ben Jonson's Sejanus, which first made its appearance in the year 1603. Nor, surely, could he then have any thoughts of retiring, since that very year a licence under the privy-seal was granted by King James 1, to him and Fletcher, Burbage, Phillippes, Hemings, Condell, &c. authorizing them to exercise the art of playing comedies, tragedies, &c. as well at their usual house called The Globe on the other side of the water, as in any other parts of the kingdom, during his majesty's pleasure (a copy of which licence is preserved in Rymer's Fædera). Again, it is certain, that Shakspeare did not exhibit his Macbeth till af. ter the Union was brought about, and till after King James I had begun to touch for the evil: for it is plain, he has inserted compliments on both those accounts, upon his royal master in that tragedy. Nor, indeed, could the number of the dramatick pieces, he produced, admit of his retiring near so early as that period. So that what Spenser there says, if it relate at all to Shakspeare, must hint at some occasional recess he made for a time upon a disgust taken: or the Willy, there mentioned, must relate to some other favourite poet. I believe, we may safely determine, that he had not quitted in the year 1610. For, in his Tempest, our author makes mention of the Bermuda islands, which were unknown to the English, till, in 1609, Sir John Summers made

a statue

a voyage to North-America, and discovered them, and afterwards invited some of his countrymen to settle a plantation there. That he became the private gentleman at least three years before his decease, is pretty obvious from another circumstance: I mean, from that remarkable and well-known sto. ry, which Mr. Rowe has given us of our author's intimacy with Mr. John Combe, an old gentleman noted thereabouts for his wealth and usury; and upon whom Shakspeare made the following facetious epitaph:

“ Ten in the hundred lies here ingravid,
« 'Tis a hundred to ten his soul is not sav'd;
“ If any man ask, who lies in this tomb,

“Oh! oh! quoth the devil, 'tis my John-a-Combe." This sarcastical piece of wit was, at the gentleman's own request, thrown out extemporally in his company. And this Mr.John Combe I take to be the same, who, by Dugdale in his Antiquities of Warwickshire, is said to have died in the year 1614,* and for whom, at the upper end of the quire of the Guild of the Holy Cross at Stratford, a fair monument is erected, havi thereon cut in alabaster, and in a gown, with this epitaph: “ Here lieth interred the body of John Combe, esq; who died the 10th of July, 1614, who bequeathed several annual charities to the parish of Stratford, and 1001. to be lent to fifteen poor tradesmen from three years to three years, changing the parties every third year, at the rate of fifty shillings per annum, the increase to be distributed to the almes-poor there.”—The donation has all the air of a rich and sagacious usurer.

Shakspeare himself did not survive Mr. Combe long, for he died in the year 1616, the 53d of his age. He lies buried on the north side of the chancel in the great church at Stratford; where a monument, decent enough for the time, is erected to him, and placed against the wall. He is represented under an arch in a sit. ting posture, a cushion spread before him, with a pen in his right hand, and his left rested on a scrowl of paper. The Latin distich, which is placed under the cushion, has been given us by Mr. Pope, or his graver, in this manner:

INGENIO Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem,

Terra tegit, populus mæret, Olympus habet.” I confess, I do not conceive the difference betwixt ingenio and genio in the first verse. They seem to me intirely synonymous terms; nor was the Pylian sage Nestor celebrated for his ingenuity, but for an experience and judgment owing to his long age. Dugdale, in his Antiquities of Warwickshire, has copied this distich with a distinction which Mr. Rowe has followed, and which certainly restores us the true meaning of the epitaph:

“ JUDICIO Pylium, genio Socratem,” &c.

* By Mr. Combe's Will, which is now in the Prerogativeoffice in London, Shakspeare had a legacy of five pounds bequeathed to him. The Will is without any date. Reed.

In 1614, the greater part of the town of Stratford was consumed by fire; but our Shakspeare's house, among some others, escaped the flames. This house was first built by Sir Hugh Clopton, a younger brother of an ancient family in that neighbour. hood, who took their name from the manor of Clopton. Sir Hugh was Sheriff of London in the reign of Richard III, and Lord. Mayor in the reign of King Henry VII. To this gentleman the town of Stratford is indebted for the fine stone bridge, consisting of fourteen arches, which, at an extraordinary expence, he built over the Avon, together with a causeway running at the west-end thereof; as also for rebuilding the chapel adjoining to his house, and the cross-aisle in the church there. It is remarkable of him, that, though he lived and died a bachelor, among the other extensive charities which he left both to the city of London and town of Stratford, he bequeathed considerable legacies for the marriage of poor maidens of good name and fame both in London and Stratford. Notwithstanding which large donations in his life, and bequests at his death, as he had purchased the manor of Clopton, and all the estate of the family; so he left the same again to his elder brother's son with a very great ad. dition: (a proof how well beneficence and economy may walk hand in hand in wise families): a good part of which estate is yet in the possession of Edward Clopton, Esq. and Sir Hugh Clopton, Knt. lineally descended from the elder brother of the first Sir Hugh, who particularly bequeathed to his nephew, by his will, his house, by the name of his Great House in Stratford.

The estate had now been sold out of the Clopton family for above a century, at the time when Shakspeare became the purchaser; who, having repaired and modelled it to his own mind, changed the name to New-Pluce, which the mansion-house, since erected upon the same spot, at this day retains. The house and lands, which attended it, continued in Shakspeare's descendants to the time of the Restoration ; when they were re-purchased by the Clopton family, and the mansion now belongs to Sir Hugh Clopton, Knt. To the favour of this worthy gentleman I owe the knowledge of one particular, in honour of our poet's once dwelling house, of which, I presume, Mr. Rowe never was apprized. When the civil war raged in England, and King Charles the First's queen was driven by the necessity of affairs to make a recess in Warwickshire, she kept her court for three weeks in New-Place. We may reasonably suppose it then the best private house in the town; and her majesty preferred it to the college, which was in the possession of the Combe family, who did not so strongly favour the king's party,

How much our author employed himself in poetry, after his retirement from the stage, does not so evidently appear: very few posthumous sketches of his pen have been recovered to ascertain that point. We have been told, indeed, in print,* but not

* See an answer to Mr. Pope's Preface to Shakspeare, by a Strolling Player, 8vo. 1729, p. 45. Reed,

« VorigeDoorgaan »