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ESTIMATE OF SHAKSPERE BY HIS CONTEMPORARIES.
The rank as a writer which Shakspere took his comic power,—his ability above all others in his own time is determined by a few to produce decided notices of him. These notices are
“Fine counterfesance, and unhurtful sport, as ample and as frequent as can be looked
Delight, and laughter, deck'd in seemly sort." for in an age which had no critical records, and when writers, therefore, almost went impossible to apply to any other man than
But passages such as these, which it is almost out of their way to refer to their literary contemporaries, except for the purposes of the opinion which was formed of him when
Shakspere, are still only indirect evidence of set compliment. We believe that, as early
he was yet a very young writer. But a few as 1591, Spenser called attention to Shak
years later we encounter the most direct tesspere, as
timony to his pre-eminence. He it was that, “ the man whom Nature self had made in 1598, was assigned his rank, not by any To mock herself, and truth to imitate;" vague and doubtful compliment, not with describing him also as
any ignorance of what had been achieved
by other men ancient and modern, but by " that same gentle spirit, from whose pen the learned discrimination of a scholar ; Large streams of honey and sweet nectar
and that rank was with Homer, Hesiod, flow."
Euripides, Æschylus, Sophocles, Pindar, We know that the envy of Greene, in 1592, Phocylides, and Aristophanes amongst the pointed at him as “an absolute Johannes Greeks; Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Silius Italicus, factotum, in his own conceit the only Lucan, Lucretius, Ausonius, and Claudian Shake-scene in a country;" and we receive amongst the Latins; and Sidney, Spenser, this bitterness of the unfortunate dramatist Daniel, Drayton, Warner, Marlowe, and against his more successful rival as a tribute Chapman amongst the English. According to his power and his popularity. We con- to the same authority, it was “in mellifluous sider that the apology of Chettle, who had and honey-tongued Shakspere ” that “the edited the posthumous work of Greene con- sweet witty soul of Ovid lives.” This praise taining this effusion of spite, was an ac- was applied to his 'Venus and Adonis,' and knowledgment of the established opinion other poems. But, for his dramas, he is of Shakspere's excellence as an author:- raised above every native contemporary and “Divers of worship have reported his up- predecessor : “ As Plautus and Seneca are rightness of dealing, which argues his accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, among the Latins; so Shakspere among the that approves his art.” This was printed English is the most excellent in both kinds in 1592, and yet the man who had won for the stage.” These are extracts with this reluctant testimony to his art, by which many of our readers must be familiar. “ his facetious grace in writing,” is held They are from · The Wits' Commonwealth'
o by modern authorities to have then been of Francis Meres, “ Master of Arts of both only a botcher of other men's works, as if Universities;” a book largely circulated, and “ facetious grace" were an expression that mentioned with applause by contemporary did not most happily mark the quality by writers. The author delivers not these senwhich Shakspere was then most eminently tences as his own peculiar opinion; he distinguished above all his contemporaries, speaks unhesitatingly, as of a fact admitting no doubt, that Shakspere, among “For when he would have said, King Richard the English, is the most excellent for Comedy died, and Tragedy. Does any one of the other And call’d, A horse, a horse ! he Burbage “excellent” dramatic writers of that day
cried."* rise up
to dispute the assertion, galling, per- But the facts connected with the original haps, to the self-love of some amongst them? publication of Shakspere's plays sufficiently Not a voice is heard to tell Francis Meres prove how eagerly they were for the most that he has overstated the public opinion of part received by the readers of the drama. the supremacy of Shakspere. Thomas Hey- From 1597 to 1600, ten of these plays were wood, one of this illustrious band, speaks of published from authentic copies, undoubtedly Meres as an approved good scholar, and with the consent of the author. The system says that his account of authors is learnedly of publication did not commence before 1597; done*. Heywood himself, indeed, in lines and, with four exceptions, it was not conwritten long after Shakspere's death, men- tinued beyond 1600. Of these plays there tions him in stronger terms of praise than were published, before the appearance of he applies to any of his contemporaries t. the collected edition of 1623, four editions Lastly, Meres, after other comparisons of of Richard II., six of The First Part of Shakspere with the great writers of an- Henry IV., six of Richard III., four of tiquity and of his own time, has these words, Romeo and Juliet, six of Hamlet, besides which nothing but a complete reliance upon repeated editions of the plays which were the received opinion of his day could have surreptitiously published—the maimed and warranted him in applying to any living imperfect copies described by the editors of man: “As Epius Stolo said that the Muses the first folio. Of the thirty-six plays conwould speak with Plautus' tongue, if they tained in the folio of 1623, only one-half would speak Latin; so I say that the Muses were published, whether genuine or piratical, would speak with Shakspere's fine filed phrase, in the author's lifetime; and it is by no if they would speak English.”
means improbable that many of those which Of the popularity of Shakspere in his own were originally published with his concurday, the external evidence, such as it is, is rence were not permitted to be reprinted, bemore decisive than the testimony of any cause such publication might be considered contemporary writer. He was at one and injurious to the great theatrical property the same time the favourite of the people with which he was connected. But the conand of the Court. There is no record stant demand for some of the plays is an whatever known to exist of the public evidence of their popularity which cannot be performances of Shakspere's plays at his mistaken, and is decisive as to the people's own theatres. Had such an account existed admiration of Shakspere. As for that of the of the receipts at the Blackfriars and the Court, the testimony, imperfect as it is, is Globe as Henslowe kept for his company, entirely conclusive. we should have known something precise of “Sweet Swan of Avon ! what a sight it were that popularity which was so extensive as to To see thee in our waters yet appear, make the innkeeper of Bosworth, “full of ale And make those flights upon the banks of and history,” derive his knowledge from the Thames stage of Shakspere:
That so did take Eliza and our James," *"Here I might take fit opportunity to reckon up all is no vague homage from Jonson to the our English writers, and compare them with the Greek, French, Italian, and Latin poets, not only in their pastoral,
memory of his " beloved friend ;" but the historical, elegiacal, and heroical poems, but in their
record of a fact. The accounts of the revels tragical and comical subjects, but it was my chance to at Court, between the years 1588 and 1604, happen on the like, learnedly done by an approved good the most interesting period in the career of scholar, in a book called • Wits' Commonwealth,' to which treatise I wholly refer you, returning to our present sub- Shakspere, have not been discovered in the ject."— Apology for Actors,' 1612. + Hierarchy of Blessed Angels,' 1635.
* Bishop Corbet, who died in 1635.
depositories for such papers. We have, | in learning, solid but slow in his performindeed, memoranda of payments to her Ma- ances ; Shakspere, like the latter, less in jesty's players during this period, but nothing bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with definite as to the plays represented. We all tides, tack about, and take advantage of know not what “so did take Eliza ;" but we all winds by the quickness of his wit and inare left in no doubt as to the attractions for vention.” Few would imagine that a passage
our James.” It appears from the Revels such as this should have been produced to Book that, from Hallowmas-day, 1604, to the prove that there was a quarrel between Jonfollowing Shrove Tuesday, there were thirteen son and Shakspere ; that the wit-combats of plays performed before the King, eight of these intellectual gladiators were the conwhich were Shakspere’s, namely—'Othello,' sequence of their habitual enmity. By the "The Merry Wives of Windsor,' 'Measure same perverse misinterpretation have the for Measure,' 'The Comedy of Errors,'' Love's commentators sought to prove that, when Labour 's Lost,' 'Henry V.,' and 'The Mer- Jonson, in his prologues, put forth his own chant of Venice' twice, that being “again theory of dramatic art, he meant to satirize commanded by the King's Majesty.” Not the principles upon which Shakspere worked. one of these, with the possible exception of It is held that in the prologue to ‘Every ‘Measure for Measure,' was recommended by Man in his Humour,' acted in 1598 at Shakits novelty. The series of the same accounts spere's own theatre, Jonson especially ridiis broken from 1605 to 1611 ; and then from cules the historical plays of 'Henry VI.' and Hallowmas-night to Shrove Tuesday, which Richard III.':appears to have been the theatrical season
“ With three rusty swords, of the Court, six different companies of And help of some few foot and half-foot words, players contribute to the amusements of Fight over York and Lancaster's long jars, Whitehall and Greenwich by the perform- And in the tiring-house bring wounds to scars." ance of twelve plays. Of five which are per- There is in another author a similar ridicule, formed by the King's players, two are by and stronger, of the inadequacy of the stage Shakspere: “The Tempest,' and 'The Winter's
to present a battle to the senses :Tale. If the records were more perfect, this proof of the admiration of Shakspere in the
“We shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils, highest circle would, no doubt, be more conclusive. As it is, it is sufficient to support
Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous
The name of Agincourt." this general argument.*
During the life of Shakspere, his surpass- But Shakspere himself was the author of ing popularity appears to have provoked no this passage ; and he was thus the satirist of expression of envy from his contemporaries, himself, as much as Jonson was his satirist, no attempt to show that his reputation was
when he compared, in his prologue, the built upon an unsolid foundation. Some of comedy of manners with the historical and the later commentators upon Shakspere, romantic drama which had then such attrachowever, took infinite pains to prove that tions for the people. Shakspere's Chorus to Jonson had ridiculed him during his life, Henry V.,' from which we have made the and disparaged him after his death. Every last extract, was written the year after the one knows Fuller's delightful picture of the performance of Jonson's play. We recognise convivial exercises in mental strength be- in it a candid admission of the good sense of tween Jonson and Shakspere :-“Many were Jonson, which at once shows that Shakspere the wit-combats between Shakspere and Ben
was the last to feel the criticism as a perJonson. I behold them like a Spanish great sonal attack. Nothing, in truth, can be galleon and an English man-of-war. Master more absurd than the attempts to show, Jonson, like the former, was built far higher from supposed allusions in Jonson, that he
was an habitual detractor of Shakspere. The by Peter Cunningham.
reader will find these “proofs of Jonson's
* Extracts from the Accounts of the Revels at Court,"
malignity" brought forward, and dismissed Upon the Muses' anvil : turn the same with the contempt that they deserve, in a (And himself with it) that he thinks to frame; paper appended to Gifford's Memoir of Or, for the laurel, he may gain a scorn, Jonson.' The same acute critic had the For a good poet 's made as well as born : merit of pointing out a passage in Jonson's
And such wert thou.” ‘Poetaster,' which, he says, “is as un- There can be no difficulty in understanding doubtedly true of Shakspere as if it were Jonson's dispraise of Shakspere, small as it pointedly written to describe him.” He was, when we look at the different characters further says, “It is evident that throughout of the two men. In his · Discoveries,' written the whole of this drama Jonson maintains a in his last years, there is the following constant allusion to himself and his con- passage :-“I remember, the players have temporaries,” and that, consequently, the often mentioned it as an honour to Shaklines in question were intended for Shak- spere, that in his writing, whatsoever he spere :
penned, he never blotted out a line. My “ That which he hath writ
answer had been, Would he had blotted a Is with such judgment labour'd and distillid thousand. Which they thought a malevolent Through all the needful uses of our lives, speech. I had not told posterity this, but That, could a man remember but his lines, for their ignorance who chose that circumHe should not touch at any serious point, stance to commend their friend by wherein But he might breathe his spirit out of him. he most faulted; and to justify mine own
candour: for I loved the man, and do honour His learning savours not the school-like gloss his memory, on this side idolatry, as much That most consists in echoing words and as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an terms,
open and free nature ; had an excellent And soonest wins a man an empty name; phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expresNor any long or far-fetch'd circumstance sions; wherein he flowed with that facility, Wrapp'd in the curious generalities of art; that sometimes it was necessary he should But a direct and analytic sum
be stopped: Sufflaminandus erat, as Augustus Of all the worth and first effects of art. said of Haterius. His wit was in his own And, for his poesy, 't is so ramm'd with life,
power ; would the rule of it had been so too." That it shall gather strength of life, with The players had said, in their preface to the being,
first folio_"His mind and hand went toAnd live hereafter more admired than now.'
gether; and what he thought he uttered We have already noticed the expression of with that easiness that we have scarce reJonson to Drummond, that “ Shakspere ceived from him a blot in his papers.” wanted art.” + It is impossible to receive Jonson, no doubt, alludes to this assertion. Jonson's words as any support of the absurd But we are not, therefore, to understand that opinion, so long propagated, that Shakspere Shakspere took no pains in perfecting what, worked without labour and without method. according to the notions of his editors, he Jonson's own testimony, delivered five years delivered with such easiness. The differences after the conversation with Drummond, between the earlier and the later copies of offers the most direct evidence against such some of his plays show the unremitting care a construction of his expression :
and the exquisite judgment with which he “ Yet must I not give Nature all : thy art, revised his productions. The expression
My gentle Shakspere, must enjoy a part. “ without a blot” might, nevertheless, be For though the poet's matter Nature be, perfectly true ; and the fact, no doubt, imHis art doth give the fashion : and that he pressed upon the minds of Heminge and Who casts to write a living line must sweat Condell what they were desirous to im(Such as thine are), and strike the second heat press upon others, that Shakspere was a * The Poetaster,' Act v. Sc. I.
writer of unequalled facility—“as he was a | Book viii. ch. i. p. 369.
happy imitator of nature, he was a most
gentle expresser of it.” Jonson received sary he should be stopped.” It was the this evidence of facility as a reproof to his facility that excited Jonson's critical comown laborious mode of composition. He felt parison of Shakspere with himself; and it froud, and wisely so, of the commendations was in the same way that, when he wrote of his admirers, that his works cost him much his noble verses “ To the Memory of my sweat and much oil; and when the players Beloved Mr. William Shakespeare and what told him that Shakspere never blotted out a he hath left us,” he could not avoid drawing line, he had his self-satisfied retort, “Would a comparison between his own profound he had blotted a thousand.” But this care- scholarship and Shakspere's practical learnlessness, as it appeared to Jonson,--this
ing :exuberant facility, as the players thought,
"If I thought my judgment were of years, was in itself no proof that Shakspere did not I should commit thee surely with thy peers, elaborate his works with the nicest care.
And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine, The same thing was said of Fletcher as of
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe's mighty line. him. Humphrey Moseley, the publisher of And though thou hadst small Latin and less Beaumont and Fletcher's works in 1647, says Greek,
_“ Whatever I have seen of Mr. Fletcher's From thence to honour thee I will not seek own hand is free from interlining, and his For names: but call forth thund'ring Eschylus, friends affirm he never writ any one thing Euripides, and Sophocles to us, twice.” But the stationer does not put this Pacuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead, forth as any proof of carelessness; for he most To live again, to hear thy buskin tread judiciously adds, “ It seems he had that rare And shake a stage: or, when thy socks were felicity to prepare and perfect all first in his on,
Leave thee alone for the comparison own brain, to shape and attire his notions, to add or lop off before he committed one
Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come. word to writing, and never touched pen till all was to stand as firm and immutable as if
Nature herself was proud of his designs, engraven in brass or marble.” This is the way, we believe, in which all works of great
And joy'd to wear the dressing of his lines !
Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit, originality are built up. If Shakspere blotted
As, since, she will vouchsafe no other wit. not a line, it was because he wrote not till
The merry Greek, tart Aristophanes, he had laid the foundations, and formed the
Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please, plan, and conceived the ornaments, of his
But antiquated and deserted lie, wondrous edifices. The execution of the
As they were not of Nature's family." work was then an easy thing; and the facility was the beautiful result of the pre- The interpretation of this passage is certainly vious labour.
not difficult. Its general sense is expressed But if Jonson expressed himself a little by Gifford :-" Jonson not only sets Shakpetulantly, and perhaps inconsiderately, speare above his contemporaries, but above about the boast of the players, surely nothing the ancients, whose works himself idolized, can be nobler than the hearty tribute which and of whose genuine merits he was perhaps he pays to the memory of Shakspere :-“I a more competent judge than any scholar of loved the man, and do honour his memory,
The entire passage was unon this side idolatry, as much as any." Un- questionably meant for praise, whatever questionably this is language which shows opinion might be implied in it as to Shakthat the memory of Shakspere was cherished spere's learning. Looking to the whole conby others even to idolatry; so that Jonson
struction and tendency of the passage, it may absolutely adopts an apologetical tone in even be doubted whether Jonson intended venturing an observation which can scarcely to express a direct opinion as to Shakspere's be considered disparaging—" he flowed with philological attainments. If we paraphrase that facility, that sometimes it was neces
**Jonson's Works,' vol. viii. p. 333.