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HIS LIFE, FROM 1585 To 1600.
Our first care must be to brush aside any little rubbish thrown in our way by unsupported tradition or sheer invention. That story, repeated by Dr. Johnson, of Shakespeare's having, on his first coming to London, been employed in holding gentlemen's horses at the play-house door, has been so amply and utterly disproved by Stevens, that it remains an impossible anecdote. Then Rowe states, “ he was received into the company then in being, at first in a very mean rank;” and Malone mentions that there was a stage tradition of his first office having been that of prompter's attendant. It is more likely that he was received into the company as a shareholder, though that is scarcely probable; for, thanks to the persevering researches, during the last few years, of Mr. Collier, we are certain he was a shareholder at least as early as November 1589. I say at least as early, because he was then not at the bottom of the list, but the twelfth from the top, among sixteen. I refer the reader to Mr. J. Payne Collier's New Facts regarding the Life of Shakespeare, for which I feel
the utmost gratitude; without his facts I should have been driven into many lengthened explanations of many a conjecture, which he has placed on irrefragable documents. The position of Shakespeare's name on the list is worthy of particular remark, as the names appear to have stood according to seniority, or the number of shares possessed by each ; witness the gradual rise of his name in after documents, till it became the second on the list. The shares consisted of twenty, some partners holding more than one. Instead of listening to idle gossip, gravely reported, about the meanness of his first employments in London, Mr. Collier has given us cause for astonishment at the rapidity of his success. Within four years, or at most five, he was joint proprietor of the Blackfriars Theatre, with one-fourth of the list below him; thus leaving little time, or rather no time at all, for previous mean employments or idleness.
Two things are specially to be avoided in forming our judgment on the character of Shakespeare : a preternatural estimation of his genius, and a notion that he must have had more faults than ourselves. The latter is a consequence of the former; because when we have exalted a fellow-creature far above our own level, our offended pride, at the sight of his unattainable superiority, is apt to fly to detraction, if no other means are within our reach, in order to pull him down again. This observation is not intended to apply to any individual, but to the million. Shakespeare is represented as overcoming, in his own despite, unconquerable difficulties, all at once, by dint of an unimaginable and uncontrollable genius; while
others, that our pride may not be too much humbled, assert or insinuate he was an idle improvident youth; one who, as a poet, “knew his trade,” according to Dr. Johnson, of a flatterer, and a sad libertine according to many. No one has chosen to point out how untenable are these accusations-how they may be withstood. That “flattering unction" to mediocrity, inculcating a persuasion that a man with the strongest mind must inevitably have also the weakest mind, has long been a restorative administered by quacks.
If he had not money of his own to buy a share in the theatre--and who can presume he had ?- he obtained it by his exertions as an actor and an author, but principally as an author. This is by no means incredible; it only proves that his mental powers were great, that he was industrious, and that some of his plays were produced very soon after his arrival in London. A contrary supposition, that he led for some years a dissipated town life, insisted on by Dr. Lardner, and that he did nothing but act, and write two poems, as some of his editors have assumed poems irrelevant to his profession, not for gain, but for his own amusement, with a wife and three children at home, or in order to compliment a young nobleman with his dedications—is too marvellous to be mentioned out of romance, where human nature is, by common consent, permitted to play an inferior part.
Thus, since he certainly possessed a share in the theatre in 1589, we may well credit the account of the performance, in that very year, of his Hamlet; that is, as it was first played, wanting its present grander
poetry and passion. We have no vestige of Hamlet in its first state; but if it was not superior to his Romeo and Juliet, before that tragedy was re-written, there is not the slightest difficulty in supposing it was one of his first dramatic attempts.
Judging from the plays we possess, I have always set down, in my mind, The Two Gentlemen of Verona as his first. In that comedy, sweet and fresh as the language is, there is a timidity of expression, nothing of deep-rooted and powerful passion, inexperience in the scene, and its mood is altogether rather pleasing than exciting; yet, with these objections, character is admirably conceived and preserved, and the very soul of Shakespeare shines, however faintly, throughout. The whole play, in its serious parts, runs sweetly, but languidly, much in this strain : “ O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day;
And by and by a cloud takes all away !" A notion has prevailed that his first literary occupation in the theatre was confined to the adaptation or improvement of plays by other authors. As far as the three parts of Henry the Sixth and Pericles are concerned, this may well have been; but I can neither trace his mind nor his manner, both so peculiarly his own, in any of his apocryphal plays, or in any other plays of the period not ascribed to him. Titus Andronicus, strangely printed in every edition, against the opinion of every succeeding editor, has not a line of the remotest resemblance to him. This tragedy of physical horrors ought to be included in the works of Marlowe. It is very likely that the horrors in Lust's Dominion had proved acceptable to the audience, before Shakespeare had raised his higher claims, and that, therefore, Marlowe was induced to rewrite the subject, varying the form, as in Titus Andronicus ; since there is not a shade of difference between the two Moors Eleazar and Aaron, or between the two queens and their love for the Moors. Besides which, the physical horrors are all repeated with additions, and it is easy to point out in Titus Andronicus the occasional “mighty line,” for which Marlowe is famed. Compared to the worst work that so superior a being as Shakespeare could have produced, this tragedy, in feeling more than in execution, is disgraceful, and ought never more to appear under his
The original fault lay with Meres and the editors of the first folio; but since the fault is acknowledged by all their successors, is it proper to
, perpetuate it?
Pericles may well stand in its stead, not in addition to it, as it does in some modern editions. In this lengthened legend of a tragedy, if my pencil-marks, joined to those of a friend, a true lover of Shakespeare, and which we made apart from each other, have any weight, just two-fifths of the lines are from Shakespeare's pen. A most rambling and improbable fable, with weak or no attempts at character, is here embellished, amidst bald lines, with poetry and dramatic effect worthy of our poet. Almost the whole of the last act, however, and two whole scenes in the third act, I would pronounce to be his undoubted property.