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In the Sonnets—which afford so remarkable a specimen of an autobiographical outpouring, where nothing is told of circumstance or event, but where the internal nature of the man himself is strikingly revealed; where the artist-soul,—in its struggles of alternate feeling, its humility of conscious imperfection with regality of conscious power, its dejected sense of human frailty with towering aspirations, its noble candours, its affecting generosities, its passionate homage, its self-confession,-stands bare to view, while no jot of incident is related : -in these sonnets may be traced tokens that Shakespeare could fully rely on the forbearance of his wife, and upon the unreproachful loving reception which she had ever ready for her Poet-husband. Were a crowning testimony wanting, of the warm attachment between Shakespeare and the woman who was the bride of his youth, as well as the wife to whom he constantly returned amid the excitement of his metropolitan life, it would be amply furnished in the nature of the bequest he left her in his will. The sacredness of the sentiment that united them, is mutely but eloquently expressed in that simple legacy. Things that seem all but meaningless to the eyes of lookers-on, are full of dearest intention to married lovers.
It was when Shakespeare had been a husband but bare four years, that, finding himself the father of three children, the means of his parents less prosperous, and his family demanding more lucrative exertion on his part than his native town afforded scope for, that he resolved to go up to London and seek employment there. Many circumstances concurred to render this step one of promising prospect. His acquaintance with the members of those companies of actors who had frequently performed at Stratford,-several of whom were natives of Warwickshire,—and his own dominant tastes for poetry and the theatre, led him to adopt this course, as offering an immediate source of profitable as well as delightful occupation. With his MS. poems, and a few plays already written, besides sketches and floating plans of others innumerable, we behold Shakespeare setting forth-in homely storybook phrase—“to seek his fortune." And what a fortune! One surpassing all that has been recorded of wandering princes or fairy heroes. He achieved the fortune of commanding men's admiring fealty to the end of time, and becoming lord of a boundless realm that shall never know decay or decadence.
It is pleasant to observe how the loving reminiscences of his native village clung perpetually to him, softening and ameliorating with their gentle rural influence the harder urban polishings and experiences. We find him giving the names of neighbour villagers—Fluellen, Bardolph, Audreyto certain of his written character creations. Anne was the name of one of his sisters, as well as his wife's name; and how well it becomes the pretty yeoman's daughter—“Sweet Anne Page!” His money-help to his parents; his obtaining a grant of arms for his father; his solicitude to support the family-name, to advance its social position and privilege to rank with the gentry, at a time when the profession of actor was held to be incompatible with claims to the title of “Gentleman;" his constant investment of his well-earned gains in landed property on the spot of his birth,—all demonstrate the honourable ambition and fond home-attachment of Shakespeare's nature. In their old age, he brought his father and mother to share the dwelling (“New Place") which his genius had enabled him to purchase ; he associated one brother (Edmund) with him in his profitable town avocations; and to another (Gilbert) he intrusted the management of his pecuniary affairs in their native place : all that Shakespeare did in this respect, serves to vindicate the noble privileges attained by well-earned money, and to rescue it from the vulgar supposition of its being a source of low and degrading consideration. Prudence in money-matters gives the right and the ability to indulge in a profuse generosity. He was as practical and provident, as he was poetical, and admirably showed how false is the notion, that the greatest genius is “irregular"—in any way. He was business-like, orderly, and methodical; and, how truly these are consistent with bounty, is avouched in the letter extant (the only one addressed to him known to be in existence) from Richard Quiney, applying to the poet for a loan of £30, (then equal to about £ 150 of sterling money now,) showing that his character stood well for liberality, in the likelihood entertained of a favourable reply—a belief confirmed by the result. While maintaining these strong links of sentiment with his native Stratford, he entered into all the vivacities of London life no less strenuously. It is this mingling of country charm with metropolitan vigour and refinement throughout his sojourn upon earth that so grandly concurred to make Shakespeare the consummately-perfected genius that he was born to be. At the same time that he continued to visit Stratford regularly every year, he freely led a town life while in town. He enjoyed royal favour, had court popularity, possessed the friendship of the worthiest and most distinguished noblemen, was honoured among his brother wits and writers, and was beloved by his fellow-actors. Pre-impressed with the beautiful and pure-joyed images of his country boyhood, he spent his prime of manly reflection amid scenes of intellectual culture and exercise. Everything afforded food to his observation, and faculty for turning it to immortal advantage. His keen perception beheld at once what others gather by studious and lengthened examination. His comradeship with actors—who are a genial, cheerful people—was conducive to good ; his intimacies with men of rank, gave ease and familiarity of admission to high-bred associations; his frequenting the company of author-friends was promotive of rapid interchange and expression of thought. How vividly is Shakespeare's manner painted to us by those fervent words of Ben Jonson, [ever blessed be his memory for putting them down for posterity!] “ 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 fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped.” What a complete picture of our poet's fertile outpouring of thought in speech, is conveyed in that last sentence! And think of “stopping” him! “Stopping” SHAKESPEARE while he talked !! It precisely confirms the description given by Fuller of the two men, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, in their “wit-combats :” “which two,” he says, “I behold like a Spanish great galleon, and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson, like the former, was built far higher in learning ; solid, but slow in his performances. Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention." These concentrated accounts-containing so much in so small space
-give us ample information of the social bearing of Shakespeare.
With regard to his acting powers, we can hardly have better pledge than the enthusiastically asserted belief of such a man as Coleridge; who said: “It is my persuasion-indeed my firm conviction—so firm that nothing can shake it—the rising of Shakespeare's spirit from the grave modestly confessing his own deficiencies, could not alter my opinion—that Shakespeare, in the best sense of the word, was a very great actor; nothing can exceed the judgment he displays upon that subject. He may not have had the physical advantages of Burbage or Field; but they would never have become what they were without his most able and sagacious instructions; and what would either of them have been without Shakespeare's plays? Great dramatists make great actors. But looking at him merely as a performer, I am certain that he was greater as Adam, in . As You Like It,' than Burbage as Hamlet or Richard III. Think of the scene between him and Orlando; and think again, that the actor of that part had to carry the author of that play in his arms! Think of having had Shakespeare in one's arms! It is worth having died two hundred years ago to have heard Shakespeare deliver a single line. He must have been a great actor.” We heartily subscribe to this “absolute 'must;'” and then, what more than music must have been Shakespeare's voice, as the Ghost in “Hamlet!” It thrills the soul only to think of the tones in which he doubtless uttered those accents from the grave of a dead king and father. Conceived by his brain, breathed by his lips, how ineffably sublime must they have been !
No less strong is our impression of the mode in which Shakespeare composed. Not only when he was seated, with paper before him, and pen in hand, but while he was journeying, as he went along, on horseback, passing through the open air, in his visits to his native place and back, we behold him revolving the thoughts which became pages. When strolling through the green lanes of Stratford, or pleasant Shottery, by Avon's banks, or along the wooded glades of Charlecote, he may have meditated those sylvan beauties that illumine the “Midsummer Night's Dream,” or “As You Like It ;" (in the latter play he has enshrined his mother's maiden name of “Arden,” giving it to the forest which is the beau-idéal of poetical forests; the old British word, “Arden" signified “woodiness ;") or when threading the mazes of London streets, he might have mused upon those great labyrinths of human passion, the throbbing heart of Lear, the “betoss'd soul” of Romeo, or the chaos of Othello's agony. Minds like Shakespeare's work spontaneously, and wait not for the formality of mechanical appliances. Many were the scenes on the road, between Middlesex and Warwickshire,-picturesque or grotesque, graceful or homely, pathetic or humorous,—that suggested hints to the poet's fancy, and set it working. At the Crown Inn, Oxford, where we are told he halted, when travelling between London and Stratford, he surely beheld, by lantern-light, just such a group of carriers as figure in the Rochester Inn-yard of Henry IV., Part I.; which he there and then recorded in his brain, to be transferred to paper at leisure, with its accompaniment of “ Charles's wain over the new stack of chimneys," and the reminiscence of “Robin Ostler, who never joyed since the price of oats rose."
His retirement into the country, to enjoy the remainder of his life with his family in his native place, at a period when men are usually still intent upon the pursuit of wealth and fame, gives another proof of Shakespeare's superior sense and feeling. He enjoyed the respect and liking of his neighbours, with whom he lived in friendly intercourse; and the monumental bust which surmounts his tomb in the chancel of Stratford-upon-Avon church, witnessing the honour in which his memory was held at his birth-place, gives us an excellent representation of him as he must have appeared at this epoch of retired ease. The bland, expansive forehead, the eyes full of mingled thought and cheerfulness, the rounded cheeks, the tranquil-smiling mouth, the person full, manly, and reposeful, combine to give a delightful embodiment of the poet in his quiet enjoying mood. The portrait by Droeshout (prefixed to the folio 1623, and forming the frontispiece to this edition) presents him to our view at the height of his mental activity. The face is full of blended spirit and sweetness, of intellectual