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He quickly, however, distinguished himself, if not as an extraordinary actor, as a fine writer.
It would undoubtedly be curious to ascertain, from proper authorities, the first essay of his genius, that it might be traced through it's gradual progressions to the summit of perfection which it finally attained. But here, likewise, we are left in the dark.*
Beside the advantage which Shakspeare possessed over all men in the article of wit, he was of a gentle and amiable disposition, and was a most agreeable companion. By these qualities, he was introduced into the best company of his time.
Queen Elizabeth † had several of his plays acted before her; and with the admirable character of Falstaff, in the two parts of Henry IV.'‡ she was
siderable part was that of the Ghost, in his own 'Hamlet.' While he was in this situation, he had an opportunity of serving Ben Jonson, by introducing one of his first pieces upon the stage. His taking a part in it himself might be a more equivocal benefit: but there could be no doubt of the advantages, which would accrue from his literary aid. And Jonson repaid him by his farewell panegyric.
Romeo and Juliet' (his earliest production, according to Rowe) was written in 1597, when the author was thirty-three years old; and Richard II., and Richard III., the next year. + It is assuredly this maiden princess, whom he describes as A fair vestal, throned by the west.
(Midsummer Night's Dream.)
From the epilogue to this play it appears, that the part of Falstaff was written originally under the name of Oldcastle. Some of that family, however, being then remaining, the Queen commanded him to alter it: but the author was, perhaps, not wholly free from blame in the name, which he substituted; as it is certain, that Sir John Falstaff (or Fastolf), a Knight of the Garter and a Lieutenant-General, was a person of distinguished merit in the French wars under Henry V. and Henry VI.
so highly delighted, that she commanded him to continue it through an additional drama, and to exhibit the witty knight in love. This is said to have been the occasion of his writing the Merry Wives of Windsor.'
Beside the royal patronage, Shakspeare received many considerable favours from the Earl of Southampton, a nobleman celebrated in history from his connexion with the unfortunate Earl of Essex. To him he dedicated his poem of Venus and Adonis ;' and he received from him, it is said, a present of a thousand pounds to enable him to accomplish a favourite purchase. There are few instances of such liberality in later times!
We have no positive account, when Shakspeare quitted the stage for a private life. Some have imagined that Spenser's Thalia, in the Tears of the Muses,' where she laments the loss of her Willy in the comic scene, refers to this event. But Spenser, it is well known, died in the year 1598: and Shakspeare's name is to be found among the actors in Ben Jonson's Sejanus,' which made it's appearance in 1603; nor could he then indeed have had any thoughts of retiring, since that very year a licence by James I. was granted to him with Burbage, Philips, Hemmings, Condel, and others to exercise their profession, as well at their usual house (the Globe, on the Bank-Side, Southwark) as in any other part of the kingdom, during his Majesty's pleasure. Besides, that he wrote Macbeth,' it is inferred, after James' accession to the English
*This licence is printed in Rymer's Fœdera.
throne; as he there embraces the doctrine of witches, to which his Majesty was so partial, that he composed a work, entitled Demonology,' in defence of their existence. Hence the passage in Thalia, if it relates at all to Shakspeare, must have hinted only at some occasional recess.
His acquaintance with Ben Jonson took it's rise from a remarkable instance of humanity and goodnature. Jonson, at that time altogether unknown to the world, had offered one of his plays to the stage; and the person in whose hands it had been placed, after having turned it carelessly over, was about to return it to him, with an assurance that it would be of no service to the company:' when Shakspeare luckily casting his eye upon it, found in it so much merit, as to lead him first to read it through, and afterward to recommend Jonson and his writings to the public.
The latter part of his life was spent in ease and retirement. He had the good fortune to acquire a decent competency by his compositions; and he resided, for some years before his death, at his native town, in a handsome house to which he gave the name of 'New Place.' His wit and courtesy secured to him the friendship of the gentlemen of the neighbourhood: and his intimacy with one Combe, an old gentleman noted for his wealth, avarice, and usury, is still remembered. In a conversation among their common friends, Mr. Combe pleasantly told Shakspeare, that he expected from his pen an epitaph; and as he could not know what might be said of him when dead, he desired it might be done immediately;' upon which, Shakspeare instantly replied:
Ten in the hundred lies here ingraved;
"Oh! oh!" quoth the devil, "'tis my John-a-Combe."
The sharpness of this satire is said to have stung the subject of it so severely, that he never forgave it. In the beginning of the year 1616, Shakspeare made his will; in which, after leaving to his eldest daughter Judith, 150l. to be paid within twelve months after his decease, and 150/. more to be paid to her three years afterward, he appointed his younger and favourite daughter, and her husband Dr. John Hall, a physician of high provincial reputation, his joint executors; bequeathing to them the largest part of his estate. He, also, left legacies to his sister Joan, and her three sons; ten pounds to the poor of Stratford; his sword to Mr. Thomas Combe, and rings to his old dramatic partners, Hemmings, Burbage, and Condel.
He died on his birth-day 1616, having completed his fifty-second year, and was interred on the north-side of the chancel in the great church of Stratford, where a handsome monument was erected over him, inscribed with the following distich:
Judicio Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem
And, on the grave-stone, in the pavement beneath, are these lines:
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
In 1740, a noble monument was raised to his
memory in Westminster-Abbey.*
It is to be lamented, that so few incidents of the life of Shakspeare have been handed down to posterity; but this may, in some degree, be accounted for from the little vicissitude to which it was subject. A mere accident carried him to London; and there the constant exertion of his talents conducted him, by an easy and regular transition, from indigence and obscurity to fame and competence. His sound judgement suggested to him the felicity of retiring, as soon as he had accomplished his very moderate wishes; and no extraordinary events occurred to dignify, or to diversify, the annals of his closing days.
His family became extinct in the third generation for the three sons of his eldest daughter, who married Mr. Thomas Quincey, died childless: and the only daughter of Mrs. Hall, though twice married (to Thomas Nash, Esq., and to Sir John Bernard of Abingdon) left no issue.
* For this purpose, his tragedy of Julius Caesar' was petformed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on the twentyeight of April, 1738. The tickets for admission were fixed at an extraordinary price. The Earl of Burlington, Dr. Mead, Mr. Pope, and Mr. Fleetwood patentee of the theatre, were appointed trustees upon the occasion; and, under their direction, the monument was designed by Kent, and executed by Scheemakers. The figure of Shakspeare is a whole length, in white marble, dressed in the habit of his time. It reclines on the right arm, which is supported by a pedestal, and bears a scroll, inscribed with the following lines (not accurately quoted) from his 'Tempest :'
The cloud-capt towers, the gorgeous palaces,
Leave not a rack behind.