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My enjoyment has been ever to regard him with affectionate homage, and, if possible with unalloyed admiration. If any of my chance readers, instead of his lovers, should prefer the view that has been formerly taken of him and his works, especially during the last century, let him proceed no farther with me. For the rest, opinions are of every possible shade on every possible question; and I cannot particularly recommend my own, except that they are to pleasant minds the pleasantest*
* When I had proceeded thus far, a friend informed me that, to the best of his recollection, an article had appeared in the London and Westminster Review, giving in a general manner my explanation of the Sonnets. I by no means seek to disguise the regret I felt; nor did I receive consolation from knowing that, before the date (October, 1836) of that number, I had read a paper on the Sonnets in public, with my full explanation. All my labour seemed useless. However, on reading the article, I find my friend was mistaken; but I perceive it contains much in my own vein,--so much that I cannot speak as I wish in its praise. Give me ten such able and true lovers of our poet, and I care not for his calumniators.
An old proverb must here be reversed,—" Who shall disagree when doctors decide ?" Dr. Johnson has informed us that Dr. Farmer's Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare has for ever settled the question. This is appalling: yet, with the assistance of the learned Upton, and Colman, the translator of Terence --who both dared to differ with the doctors-together with a moderate share of common sense, a man may venture on the perilous encounter.
To avoid confusion between learning and knowledge, I beg leave to confine, for my present purpose, the former to the acquirement of the dead and living languages, together with that of geography, whether at school, or in after life.
Were it possible to determine the extent of Shakespeare's learning, it would be interesting on several accounts : it would enrich his biography; it would be an additional guide to criticism on his works ; it would involve a question, supposing he knew little of the learned languages, why he did not study them thoroughly; and lastly, supposing he freely chose rather to study other subjects than the learned languages, another question would be started, -was his choice wise or unwise ?
Upton and others were at some pains to prove that Shakespeare must have read both Greek and Latin authors in their original languages; and Dr. Farmer was at more pains to prove his conclusion, that Shakespeare “remembered perhaps enough of his schoolboy learning to put the Hig, hag, hog, into the mouth of Sir Hugh Evans; and might pick up in the writers of the time, or in the course of conversation, a familiar phrase or two of French or Italian : but his studies were most* demonstratively confined to nature and his own language.”
We may concede the victory to Dr. Farmer onevery excessive claim brought forward by his opponents, yet utterly disregard his conclusion, so far as it respects the limit of Hig, hag, hog; the more so, because he either turns away from the evidence of Ben Jonson, in that well known line,
“For though thou hadst small Latin, and less Greek:” or he attempts, against positive authority, and, except for his own purpose, most unreasonably, to read the passage,-“ small Latin and no Greek.”
66 Ben Jonson edited his own works : we may safely rely on his written and printed words being neither more nor less than we have them; nor can we suspect that he misstated his knowledge of his friend.
* Did the learned Doctor ever meet with a demonstration in the superlative degree ?
Having read every thing in my power connected with this controversy, and reflected on it many times during several years, I cannot but adopt Colman's opinion, midway between the two extremes. His words are,-“Dr. Farmer himself will allow that Shakespeare began to learn Latin: I will allow that his studies lay in English : but why insist that he neither made any progress at school, nor improved his acquisitions there? The general encomiums of Suckling, Denham, Milton, &c. on his native genius, prove nothing; and Ben Jonson's celebrated charge of Shakespeare's small Latin and less Greek seems absolutely to decide that he had some knowledge of both; and, if we may judge by our time, a man who has any Greek is seldom without a very competent share of Latin; and yet such a man is very likely to study Plutarch in English, and to read translations of Ovid.”
That Shakespeare had “a very competent share of Latin;" that is, short of reading it with facility, is evident to me from the vast number of Anglo-Latin words throughout his writings. This fact has never been brought properly forward in favour of his scholarship, possibly because it did not prove enough-merely a competence in the language. On the contrary, we are told by Theobald, in his Preface, that, “ from a greater use of Latin words than ever any other English author used, we must not infer his intimate acquaintance with that language.” This, as he candidly owns, “ very much wears the appearance of a paradox;" but he explains himself in this manner. “ It is certain, there is a surprising effusion of Latin words made English, far more than in any one English
author I have seen; but we must be cautious to imagine this was of his own doing. For the English tongue, in his age, began extremely to suffer by an inundation of Latin; and this, to be sure, was occasioned by the pedantry of those two monarchs, Elizabeth and James, both great Latinists. For it is not to be wondered at, if both the court and schools, equal flatterers of power, should adapt themselves to the royal taste."
This passage scarcely makes up in elegance what it wants in clearness. The meaning of it must be,-it is likely Shakespeare had authority in the literature of his time for all his words derived from Latin. Now it is barely possible such was the case, since many may be produced which cannot be at present traced to older authority; and no author of his time, known to us, not even the learned Ben, has used so great a variety of Latin words as Shakespeare. They are not indeed so staringly apparent as in Ben Jonson, because Shakespeare's good taste taught him never to display his art, but to conceal it—a secret which he seems to have kept to himself, and which few have suspected For instance, he never would have written, “ Favour your tongues,” as the English of “ Favete linguis," however anxious he might have been to give the sacrificial mandate to the Roman people in its truest form. Had such been his purpose, he would have done it, and done it completely like an Englishman. Whereas Ben Jonson, proud of his Latin, and prouder still to show it, wrote this unintelligible translation in his tragedy of Sejanus, with a note to explain it, followed by others to exhibit his