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On the dissolution of this parliament, which took place in March 1628, O. S., Coke retired to his house at Stoke-Pogis, in Buckinghamshire, where he spent the remainder of his life in an honourable retirement. He died on the 3rd of September, 1634, though his last moments are said to have been disturbed by the malice of his enemies. Shortly before his death, Sir Francis Windebanke entered his house by virtue of an Order of Council, to search for seditious papers, and carried away all the MSS. which the industry and learning of Coke had collected. Many years afterwards these were restored to his son, upon petition to the house of commons.
Of the general character and conduct of Sir Edward Coke, an idea may be formed even from the foregoing imperfect sketch; but duly to appreciate his merits as a lawyer would almost require the lucubrationes viginti annorum of which he himself speaks. "His learned and judicious works on the law," says Fuller, " will be admired by judicious posterity as long as Fame has a trumpet left her, and any breath to blow therein." He has been emphatically and truly called, the oracle of the law, for his name alone confers an almost undisputed authority. His learning was, at once, profound, excursive, and curious. When he applied the powers of his strong mind to the illustration of a legal question, he wholly exhausted the subject, and rather than quit it, he would resort even to remote analogies. With the grounds and reasons of the common law he was perfectly familiar, and, upon the whole, he may be considered the most consummate lawyer of his own or of any other time. His works, the honourable monuments of his unconquerable industry, for they were composed in the precious intervals of a more than usually active professional life, have received from succeeding times those marks of distinction which are due to their merits. His Institutes and Reports are called, par excellence, The Institutes and The Reports, and his first Institute, the Commentary upon Littleton, has become the bible of the law.* In the course of his laborious researches, some inaccuracies and incongruities necessarily
* Some passages in the writings of Sir Edward Coke gave offence to the king, and a committee was appointed to examine his Reports, but the inquiry was never proceeded in. Bacon, who was capable of doing his enemy justice, says, " To give every man his due, had it not been for Sir Edward Coke's Reports, which, though they may have errors, and some peremptory and extrajudicial resolutions, more than are warranted, yet contain infinite good decisions and rulings over of cases; the law, by this time, had been almost like a ship without ballast."
occur, more especially in the posthumous portions of his works. The incorruptible integrity which he displayed in his professional character is, even more than his learning, worthy of the highest praise. His preferment was always obtained, to use his own words, without either prayers or pence, and, in an age more than usually corrupt, he avoided the general contamination.
As a writer, though his style is excursive, it is yet exceedingly pregnant and full of matter. The prefaces to his Reports, which exhibit all the richness of the Elizabethan age, are perhaps the best specimens of his composition. We have selected, as a short instance of his peculiar style, a sentence from the conclusion of the fourth Institute, which presents a melancholy picture of a lawyer's occupations.
"Whilst we were in hand with these four parts of the Institutes, we often having occasion to go into the city, and from thence into the country, did in some sort envy the state of the honest ploughman, and other mechanics, for the one when he was at his work would merrily sing, and the ploughman whistle some self-pleasing tune, and yet their work both proceeded and succeeded; but he that takes upon himself to write doth captivate all the faculties and powers both of his mind and body, and must be only intentive to that which he collected], without any expression of joy or cheerfulness, whilst he is in his work."
In person, Sir Edward Coke, according to Fuller, was well proportioned, his features regular, his countenance always grave and composed, and his air and manner of speaking full of dignity. He was neat, but not nice in his dress, and his common saying was, "That the cleanness of a man's clothes ought to put him in mind of keeping all clean within." His habits must necessarily have been strict and laborious, and we learn from his grandson, Roger Coke, that " when he lay at the Temple, he measured out his time at regular hours, two whereof were to go to bed at nine o'clock, and in the morning to rise at three."
Sir Edward Coke amassed a large fortune, and left a numerous posterity to enjoy it. Sir Ihomas Coke, afterwards Earl of Leicester, by whom the magnificent edifice of Holkham was built, was a lineal descendant of the chief justice. From him that splendid mansion, with the princely fortune of the family, descended to its present possessor, who rivals, in the length of his public life, and his zeal in the cause of constitutional freedom, the patriotic virtues of his celebrated ancestors.
Art. VII.—The Witch. By Thomas Middleton. Printed from the Original MS. by Isaac Reed. 8vo. 1778.
The Changeling, a Tragedy. ByT. Middleton and W. Rowley. 4to. 1653.
Women beware of Women, a Tragedy. By T. Middleton. 8vo. 1657.
It has been said, often enough, that the lives of authors present but slender materials for biography; and that, in fact, their histories (which are rather histories of thoughts than actions) should be read where they are best recorded,—in their works. The first part of this assertion is well borne out by the life of Middleton. He is almost entirely unknown. The public, at least that part of the public who turn over now and then the leaves of our old dramatic writers, know that such a person existed; that he wrote, singly, and in conjunction with great associates, some memorable matter; but nothing further. None even of the editors of our old plays, can give any material account of this author; and we ourselves are unable to add any thing to the scanty statements which are already before the public. Middleton is said to have been appointed chronologer to the city of London in the year 1620, and to have been cited before the privy council, on the 30th August, 1624, as the writer of " The Game of Chess;" and there his biography ends.
Thomas Middleton was the sole author of about sixteen or eighteen regular dramatic works, and four pageants, besides being concerned in different plays jointly with Rowley, Dekker, Webster, Massinger, and even with Fletcher and Ben Jonson. It is said that during his life he owed the greatest part of his reputation to his connexion with his celebrated contemporaries; yet, as is well remarked by the author of the Biographia Dramatica, it is surely " a proof of merit sufficient to establish him in a rank far from the most contemptible of our dramatic writers, that a set of men of such acknowledged abilities considered him as deserving to be admitted a joint labourer with them in the fields of poetic fame; and more especially by Fletcher and Jonson, the first of whom, like a widowed muse, could not be supposed readily to admit another partner after the loss of his long and well-beloved mate, Beaumont; and the latter, who entertained so high an opinion of his own talents as scarcely to admit any brother near the throne, and would hardly have permitted the clear waters of his own Heliconian springs to have been muddied by the mixture of any streams, that did not apparently flow from the same source."
The truth is, that Middleton was a man of very "considerable power." It is difficult to assign him any precise station among the remarkable men who were his contemporaries. Indeed, nothing is more unsafe than to guage the comparative merits of authors by the depth of one's own personal admiration; especially where, as in dramatic writing, the individual claims to excellence are so various, as to make it almost impossible to institute any very close comparison among them. Besides, one critic may prefer tragedy, another comedy, another pastoral; a fourth may value only the truth of character; while a fifth may be careless of it, and esteem little else beyond the vigour of the diction, or the melodious flow of the verse. Dekker, Webster, Middleton, Ford, were all men of excelling talent. The first had the best idea of character; the second was the most profound; the third had most imagination; and the last equalled the others in pathos, and surpassed them in the delineation of the passion of love.— Yet these particular points were not all by which these writers caught the attention of critics, and retained the admiration of their readers. They had other qualities, differing in shade and varying in colour, which it would be difficult to contrast with any useful effect. Dekker was sometimes as profound as Webster, and Middleton as passionate as Ford. Again, the verse of Ford is, generally speaking, musical; while that of Webster is often harsh, but it is more pregnant with meaning, shadowy, spectral, and fuller of a dark and earthy imagination. So it is that Middleton, although he has drawn no sketches, perhaps, so good as Matheo or Friscobaldo, lets fall nevertheless, occasionally, shrewd observations, and displays a wealth of language, which would illuminate and do honour to the better drawn characters of Dekker. In short, one was often rich in qualities, of which another possessed little or nothing; while he, on his part, could retort upon his rival a claim to other excellencies, to which the first did not affect to have even a pretension. It seems, therefore, almost idle to determine the rank and " classes" to which these old writers should respectively belong. We can no more accomplish this, than we can determine upon the positive beauty of colours, or fix the standard of metals, whose durability or scarcity is utterly unknown. Independently of all these reasons, it is invidious, and not very grateful in us, who profess ourselves idolaters, to anatomize the remains of our gods, or to impale the reputations of these old fathers of poetry (sacrificing them face to face with each other), upon the hard and unrelenting spikes of modern criticism. They had faults which we have not-—and excellencies which we do not possess. They were a fresh, shrewd, vigorous people,—full of fire, and imagination, and deep feeling. They were not swathed and swaddled in the bands by which we cramp the thoughts, and paralyze the efforts of our infant poets; but they were rioters in their fancy,—bold, unfettered writers, whom no critics, monthly or quarterly, watched over for the benefit of the time to come. Accordingly, they dared to think,—they wrote what they thought—and their thoughts were generally strenuous, and often soaring, and sometimes even rich in wisdom.
With respect to Middleton, whom we have now more particularly to deal with;—he was, as we have said, a man of very considerable powers, and possessed a high imagination. The reader who is not intimately acquainted with his works, will recognize him, perhaps, when we mention him as the author of The Witch, from which Shakspeare is said to have collected his idea of the witches in Macbeth. This drama, indeed, is not a production of the highest character, but the witches themselves are worth any thing. The story, which involves a double plot, cannot be unravelled very briefly; nor is there anything in it of sufficient merit to compensate for the tediousness, which a detail of it would force upon the reader. It is sufficient to say, that a Duke of Ravenna, by cruel insults, drives his wife to wish for his death. She accomplishes his murder, as she conceives, by means of a fantastical courtier called Almachildes; and when she supposes that the deed is perpetrated, she is desirous of getting rid of her instrument.— For this purpose, she consults the witches. The superstition which is referred to in the beginning of the following scene, is (notwithstanding it has a somewhat Gothic look) as old as Theocritus.
"The Witches' Habitation. Enter Duchess, Hecate, Firestone.
Hec. What death is't you desire for Almachildes 1
Duck. A sudden and a subtle.
Hec. Then I've fitted you.
Duch. In what time, pr'ythee?
Hec. Perhaps in a month's progress.
Duch. What! a month?
Hec. Then seek no farther.