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On this head it would be unpardonable to omit noticing what Schlegel has said of our poet, in his German “ Lectures on the Drama,” which, translated into English, is as follows:- Never, perhaps, was there so comprehensive a talent for characterization as Shakespeare's. It not only grasps the diversities of rank, sex, and age, down to the dawnings of infancy; not only do the king and the beggar, the hero and the pickpocket, the wise and the idiot, speak and act with equal truth—not only does he transport himself to distant ages and to foreign nations, and pourtray in the most accurate manner, with only a few apparent violations of costume, the spirit of the ancient Romans-of the French in their wars with the English-of the English themselves during a great part of their history—of the Southern Europeans (in the serious parts of many of his comedies,) the cultivated society of that time, and the former rude and barbarous state of the north ; his human characters have not only such depth and precision that they cannot be arranged under classes, and are inexhaustible, even in conception ; no, this Prometheus not merely forms men, but opens the gates of the magical world of spirits; calls up the midnight ghost; exhibits before us his witches amidst their unhallowed mysteries ; peoples the air with sportive fairies and sylphs; and these beings, existing only in imagination, possess such truth and consistency, that even when they are deformed monsters, like Caliban, he extorts the assenting conviction that, if there should be such beings, they would so conduct themselves. In a word, as he carries with him the most fruitful and daring fancy into the kingdom of nature, on the other hand he carries nature into the regions of fancy, lying beyond the confines of reality. We are lost in astonishment at seeing the extraordinary, the wonderful, and the unheard, in such intimate nearness.
Again: if Shakespeare deserves our admiration for his characters, he is equally deserving of it for the exhibition of passiontaking this word in its widest signification, as including every mental condition, every tone of indifference, or familiar mirth, to the wildest rage and despair. He gives us the history of minds; he lays open to us, in a single word, a whole series of preceding conditions. His passions do not at first stand displayed to us in all their height, as is the case with so many tragic poets, who, in the language of Lessing, are thorough masters of the legal style of love. He paints, in a most inimitable manner, the gradual progress from the first origin. “ He gives," as Lessing says, “a living picture of all the most minute and secret artifices by which a feeling steals into our souls; of all the imperceptible advantages which it there gains; of all the stratagems by which every other passion is made subservient to it, till it becomes the sole tyrant of our desires and aversions. Of all poets, perhaps, he alone has pourtrayed the mental diseases-melancholy, delirium, lunacy, with such inexpressible, and in every respect, definite truth, that the physician may enrich his observations from them in the same manner as from real cases.
And yet Johnson has objected to Shakespeare, that his pathos is not always natural and free from affectation. There are, it is true, passages, though, comparatively speaking, very few, where his poetry exceeds the bounds of true dialogue; where a too soaring imagination, a too luxuriant wit, rendered the complete dramatic forgetfulness of himself impossible. Hence an idea has been formed of simple and natural pathos, which consists in exclamations destitute of imagery, and nowise elevated above every-day life. But energetical passions, electrify the whole of the mental powers, and consequently they will, in highly-favoured natures, express themselves in an ingenious and figurative manner. Besides, to use the observation of Mrs. Montagu-"Heaven-born genius acts from something superior to rules, and antecedent to rules, and has a right of appeal to Nature herself.” In accordance with this sentiment, it is remarked by the German critic, that the rights of the poetical form have not been duly weighed. Shakespeare, who was always sure of his object, to move in a sufficiently powerful manner when he wished to do so, has occasionally, by indulging in a freer play, purposely moderated the impressions when too painful, and immediately introduced a musical alleviation of our sympathy. He had not those rude ideas of his wit which many moderns seem to have, as if the poet, like the clown in the proverb, must strike twice in the same place.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, the most illustrious name in the history of English dramatic poetry, was born at Stratford-uponAvon, on the 23d of April, 1564. His father, who sprang from a good family, was a considerable dealer in wool, and had been an officer and bailiff of Stratford, where he for some time acted as justice of the peace. His mother was of the ancient family of Arden, in the same county, one of undoubted gentility. William, who was the eldest of ten children, received the common education of a country free-school, where, it is probable, he acquired what little Latin he was master of. At an early age, he was taken by his father to assist in his own business, and thus deprived of attaining any proficiency in classical literature ; but whether a better acquaintance with ancient authors might not have restrained some of that fire, impetuosity, and even beautiful extravagance, which we admire in Shakespeare, may well admit of a dispute. Be this as it may, he seems to have adopted the mode of life which his father proposed to him; and we find that in his eighteenth year he married Ann Hathaway, the daughter of a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood, who was eight years older than himself. Of his domestic establishment, or professional occupation, at this time nothing determinate is recorded; but it appears that he was wild and irregular, from the fact of his connexion with a party who made a practice of stealing the deer of Sir Thomas Lucy, of Charlecote, near Stratford. This imprudence brought upon him a prosecution, which he rendered more severe by a lampoon upon that gentleman, in the form of a ballad which he had affixed to his park gates. He also indulges in a vein of splenetic drollery upon the same magistrate, in the character of Justice Shallow, in, the opening scene of “The Merry Wives of Windsor;" which continued hostility, as he was indisputably a kind-hearted man, we may presume was occasioned by an excess of rigour and pertinacity on the part of Sir Thomas.
The consequence of this youthful imprudence drove him to London for shelter; and it is some proof that he had already imbibed a taste for the drama, that his first application was to the players, among whom, in one Thomas Green, a popular comedian of the day, he met a townsman and acquaintance. This removal has been thought to have taken place in 1586, when he was in his twenty-second year. If tradition may be depended upon, he was necessitated, in the first instance to become the prompter's call-boy or attendant, while another less probable story describes him as holding the horses of those who attended the play without servants, a prevalent custom at that period.
As an actor, the top of his performance is said to have been the Ghost in his own Hamlet. “I should have been much more pleased,” says Mr. Rowe in his remarks on the genius and writings of Shakespeare, “to have learned, from certain authority, which was the first play he wrote; it would be without doubt a pleasure to any man, curious in things of this kind, to see and know what was the first essay of a fancy like Shakespeare's. Perhaps we are not to look for his beginnings, like those of other authors, among their least perfect writings; art had so little, and nature so large a share in what he did, that, for aught I know, the performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, and had the most fire and strength of imagination 'in them, were the best. I would not be thought by this to mean, that his fancy was so loose and extravagant, as to be independent of the rule and government of judg. ment; but that what he thought was commonly so great, so justly and rightly conceived in itself, that it wanted little or no correction, and was immediately approved by an impartial judgment at the first sight. But, though the order of time in which the several pieces were written, be generally uncertain, yet there are passages in some few of them which seem to fix their dates. So the Chorus at the end of the fourth act of Henry the Fifth, by a compliment very handsomely turned to the Earl of Essex, shows the play to have been written when that lord was general for the queen in Ireland; and his eulogy upon Queen Elizabeth, and her successor King James, in the latter end of his Henry the Eighth, is a proof of that play's being written after the accession of the latter of these two princes to the crown of England. Whatever the particular times of his writings were, the people of his age, who began to grow wonderfully fond of diversions of this kind, could not but be highly pleased to see a genius arise amongst them of so pleasurable, 80 rich a vein, and so plentifully capable of furnishing their favourite entertainments. Besides the advantages of his wit, ho was in himself a good natured man, of great sweetness in his manners, and a most agreeable companion; so that it is no wonder, if, with so many good qualities, he made himself acquainted with the best conversations of those times. Queen Elizabeth had several of his plays acted before her; and, without a doubt, gave him many gracious marks of her favour: it is that maiden princess plainly whom he intends by
a fair vestal, throned by the west.”
A Midsummer Night's Dream.
And that whole passage is a compliment very properly brought in, and very handsomely applied to her. She was so well pleased with the admirable character of Falstaff, in the Two Parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one play more, and to show him in love. This is said to be the occasion of his writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. How well she was obeyed, the play itself is an admirable proof. Upon this occasion, it may not be improper to observe, that this part of Falstaff is said to have been written originally under the name of Oldcastle : some of that family being then remaining, the Queen was pleased to command him to alter it; upon which he made use of Falstaff. The present offence was indeed avoided; but I do not know whether the author may not have been somewhat to blame in his second choice, since it is certain that Sir John Falstaff, who was a knight of the garter, and a lieutenant-general, was a name of distinguished merit in the wars in France in Henry the Fifth's and Henry the Sixth's times. What grace soever the Queen conferred upon him, it was not to her only he owed the fortune which the reputation of his wit made.