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Pericles delighted our ancestors; and it was thought worth while to improve it. I even suspect it had been once improved before Shakespeare took it in hand.
As for the six plays, added to his, after the first folio, Locrine, Sir John Oldcastle, Yorkshire Tragedy, Lord Cromwell, The Puritan, and The London Prodigal, I have read them attentively, and cannot perceive a hint of Shakespeare's power or philosophy in any one of them, though I regard them as intended imitations, published at the time with a purpose of deceiving the public.
The three chronologers of his plays, except in four instances, differ but little from each other. An attempt, for Malone calls it no more, to fix on the precise year for the production of each play, might have been no easy task for the Blackfriars' company themselves, after a lapse of a few years. Indeed, such precision would not be of use, unless as a guide to other matters; and, in that case, certainty is necessary. Had Mr. Collier made his discoveries in the time of Malone, the latter would have seen good reason for fixing the first play at a much earlier period than 1591. As it was, he felt compelled to crowd seventeen plays, together with the poems, within the space of eight years.
He comments on the fact, that Webbe, in his Discourse of English Poetry, published 1586, that Puttenham, in his Art of English Poesy, published 1589, and that Sir John Harrington, in his Apologie for Poetry, published 1591, all of whom made some mention of play-writers, passed by unnoticed the new prodigy in the dramatic world.” But it appears, by Malone's account, the first noticed only Whetstone and Munday; the second only Lord Buckhurst, Ferrys, the Earl of Oxford, and Edwardes; and the third, only two comedies of the day. If their omission is any thing, such writers for the stage as Heywood, Peele, Greene, Marlowe, and others, had produced nothing at the above dates; or, if they were unworthy of notice in the estimation of those critics, we need not wonder at their silence in regard to the adaptations of Henry the Sixth, and the first dramatic efforts of Shakespeare.
There is no direct contemporary notice of his works earlier than that by Francis Meres, in his Wit's Treasury, printed at the close of 1598. Speaking of Shakespeare as a dramatist, his words are these : 66 As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy, among the Latins ; so Shakespeare, among the English, is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage: for comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love's Labour Lost, his Love's Labour Wonne, liis Midsummer Night's Dream, and his Merchant of Venice; for tragedy, his Richard II, Richard II1, Henry IV, K. John, Titus Andronicus, and his Romeo and Juliet."
Love's Labour Wonne was perhaps another title for All's well that ends well. The Merchant of Venice was not entered at Stationers' Hall till the 22nd July of that very year. Meres must have been deceived (every editor agrees) in placing Titus Andronicus in the list. He may have omitted the three parts of Henry the Sixth, as plays not entirely written by our poet. Thus, though the list by no means bears the appearance of having been carefully made out, (for he knew not what painful comments would be made on it) still it contains much that is valuable, and on which we can rely.
Mr. Collier has furnished us with other useful facts. In 1589 the company of Blackfriars were obliged to send in an exculpatory petition to the Privy Council ; and in 1596 the same course was pursued, because “certaine persons, (some of them of honour) inhabitants of the said precinct and libertie of the Blackfriers, have, as your petitioners are informed, besought your honourable lordships not to permit the said private house any longer to remain open, but hereafter to be shut up and closed, to the manifest and great injurie of your petitioners,” &c. From this document, it is evident that the influence of men of power in the state was important to the preservation of the company against the active enmity of some of the principal citizens. In the same petition, we find the company were accustomed to be called on to perform for the recreation and solace of her majestie and her honourable court;" and assuredly the nobility, the younger branches in particular, were frequenters of the Blackfriars' Theatre, and would, some of them, seek the society of the actors or the authors. Situated nobleman, who might prove, literally, a friend at court. Though Venus and Adonis is declared “ the first heir of his invention," it was not pretended to be written expressly for him, but rather as having been written some time, in contradistinction to his plays, which are indirectly promised to his future patronage, when published together; for I hold, as I shall attempt to prove, that Shakespeare did intend to edit his own works. That the young earl had himself desired this public compliment from the poet, with whom he had become acquainted, or, at least, that he was gratified by it, is shown, in the dedication of the Rape of Lucrece, by these words :— “ The warrant I have of your honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance.” In return, and in pure friendship, the Earl no doubt exerted himself for the protection of the company, who maintained their post against the ill-will of some of the citizens; and it is delightful to add, that his friendship was not short-lived. This last is proved by another document, with which Mr. Collier has obliged us; a letter from the Earl of Southampton, which Mr. Collier conjectures was written about 1606, addressed to Lord Ellesmere, in favour of Shakespeare. That the Earl had ever presented him with a thousand pounds, is incredible, and rests on no authority whatever. This is its origin: after the death of Sir William D'Avenant, who was not likely, ignorant as he was of every thing else in Shakespeare's life, to know that extraordinary circumstance, it was related by some nameless person, who
company were, we can, in this manner, readily account for the circumstance of Venus and Adonis being dedicated to the Earl of Southampton in 1593, followed by the Rape of Lucrece in 1594. Two unpublished poems, though written ten years before, were thus made serviceable as a compliment to a
assured Rowe that the story was handed down by D'Avenant,-and there it should have stopped.
But had our poet no other friend among the nobility ? This question brings me at last to the Sonnets, now that I have endeavoured to show the nature of his situation up to the period when I conceive the first part of them was written.
I am not aware that an argument has been publicly attempted against the genuineness of the Sonnets. Many years ago, it was urged to me, in conversation, and it has since been told me, (perhaps erroneously) that a disproval of their authenticity is in preparation. Thus, to the long-continued difficulty of comprehending their meaning, that of discovering by whom they were written may be superadded. Such a task must be deduced from one or more of the following species of evidence.
First, we must be satisfied that Meres wrongfully ascribed the Sonnets to Shakespeare, or that he meant some other unknown sonnets, or the six others which are known, and that their publication, under Shakespeare's name, during his life, uncontradicted by himself or any other person, is of no weight. Certainly other men's plays were printed in his time, with his name and initials attached to them; and Meres gave him the discredit of Titus Andronicus. . But though Meres might have fallen into an error by echoing a common report, in which he was afterwards upheld by Heminge and Condell, our poet's personal friends, yet, as his account bears the semblance of honesty and disinterestedness, it cannot well be