IT seems to be a kind of Respect due to the Memory of Excellent Men, especially of those whom their Wit and Learning have made Famous, to deliver some Account of themselves, as well as their Works, to Posterity. For this Reason, how fond do we see some People of discovering any little Personal Story of the great Men of Antiquity, their Families, the common Accidents of their Lives, and even their Shape, Make and Features have been the Subject of critical Enquiries. How trifling soever this Curiosity may seem to be, it is certainly very Natural; and we are hardly satisfy'd with an Account of any remarkable Person, 'till we have heard him describ'd even to the very Cloaths he wears. As for what relates to Men of Letters, the knowledge of an Author may sometimes conduce to the better understanding his Book: And tho' the Works of Mr. Shakespear may seem to many not to want a Comment, yet I fancy some little Account of the Man himself may not be thought improper to go along with them.
He was the Son of Mr. John Shakespear, and was Born at Stratford upon Avon, in Warwickshire, in April 1564. His Family, as appears by the Register and Publick Writings relating to that Town, were of good Figure and Fashion there, and are mention'd as Gentlemen. His Father, who was a considerable Dealer in Wool, had so large a Family, ten Children in all (note 2), that tho' he was his eldest Son, he could give him no better Education than his own Employment. He had bred him, 'tis true, for some time at a Free-School, where 'tis probable he aquir'd that little Latin he was Master of: But the narrowness of his Circumstances, and the want of his assistance at Home, forc'd his Father to withdraw him from thence, and unhappily prevented his further Proficiency in that Language. It is without Controversie, that he had no knowledge of the Writings of the Antient Poets, not only from this Reason, but from his Works themselves, where we find no traces of any thing that looks like an Imitation of 'em; the Delicacy of his Taste, and the natural Bent of his own Great Genius, equal, if not superior to some of the best of theirs, would certainly have led him to Read and Study 'em with so much Pleasure, that some of their fine Images would naturally have insinuated themselves into, and been mix'd with his own Writings; so that his not copying at least something from them, may be an Argument of his never having read 'em. Whether his Ignorance of the Antients were a disadvantage to him or no, may admit of a Dispute: For tho' the knowledge of 'em might have made him more Correct, yet it is not improbable but that the Regularity and Deference for them, which would have attended that Correctness, might have restrain'd some of that Fire, Impetuosity, and even beautiful Extravagance which we admire in Shakespear: And I believe we are better pleas'd with those Thoughts, altogether New and Uncommon, which his own Imagination supply'd him so abundantly with, than if he had given us the most beautiful Passages out of the Greek and Latin Poets, and that in the most agreeable manner that it was possible for a Master of the English Language to deliver 'em. (note 3) Some Latin without question he did know, and one may see up and down in his Plays how far his Reading that way went: In Love's Labour lost, the Pedant comes out with a Verse of Mantuan; and in Titus Andronicus, one of the Gothick Princes, upon reading
Integer vitæ scelerisque purus
Non eget Mauri jaculis nec arcu-
says, 'Tis a Verse in Horace, but he remembers it out of his Grammar: Which, I suppose, was the Author's Case. (note 4) Whatever Latin he had, 'tis certain he undrstood French, as may be observ'd from many Words and Sentences scatter'd up and down his Plays in that Language; and especially from one Scene in Henry the Fifth written wholly in it. Upon his leaving School, he seems to have given intirely into that way of Living which his Father propos'd to him; and in order to settle in the World after a Family manner, he thought fit to marry while he was yet very Young. His Wife was the Daughter of one Hathaway, said to have been a substantial Yeoman in the Neighbourhood of Stratford. In this kind of Settlement he continu'd for some time, 'till an Extravagance that he was guilty of, forc'd him both out of his Country and that way of Living which he had taken up; and tho' it seem'd at first to be a Blemish upon his good Manners, and a Misfortune to him, yet it afterwards happily prov'd the occasion of exerting one of the greatest Genius's that ever was known in Dramatick Poetry. He had, by a Mistortune common enough to young Fellows, fallen into ill Company; and amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of Deer-stealing, engag'd him with them more than once in robbing a Park that belong'd to Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that Gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and in order to revenge that ill Usage, he made a Ballad upon him. And tho' this, probably the first Essay of his Poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the Prosecution against him to that degree, that he was oblig'd to leave his Business and Family in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter himself in London.
It is at this Time, and upon this Accident, that he is said to have made his first Acquaintance in the Play-house. He was receiv'd into the Company then in being, at first in a very mean Rank; But his admirable Wit, and the natural Turn of it to the Stage, soon distinguished him, if not as an extraodinary Actor, yet as an excellent Writer. His Name is Printed, as the Custom was in those Times, amongst those of the other Players, before some old Plays, but without any particular Account of what sort of Parts he us'd to play; and tho' I have inquir'd, I could never meet with any further Account of him this way, than that the top of his Performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet. I should have been much more pleas'd, to have learn'd from some 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 Shakespear'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 ought I know, the Performances of his Youth, as they were the most vigorous, and had the most fire and strength of Imagination in 'em, were the best. I would not be thought by this to mean, that his Fancy was so loose and extravagant, as to be Independent on the Rule and Government of Judgment; but that what he thought, was commonly so Great, so justly and rightly Conceiv'd in it self, that it wanted little or no Correction, and was immediately approv'd by an impartial Judgment at the first sight. Mr. Dryden seems to think that Pericles is one of his first Plays; but there is no judgment to be form'd on that, since there is good Reason to believe that the greatest part of that Play was not written by him; tho' it is own'd, some part of it certainly was, particularly the last Act. But tho' 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 in the beginning of the fifth Act of Henry V. by a Compliment very handsomly turn'd to the Earl of Essex, shews the Play to have been written when that Lord was General for the Queen in Ireland: And his Elogy upon Q. Elizabeth, and her Successor K. James, in the latter end of his Henry VIII, is a Proof of that Play's being written after the Accession of the latter of those two Princes to the Crown of England. Whatever the particular Times of his Writing were, the People of his Age, who began to grow wonderfully fond of Diversions of this kind, could not but be highly pleas'd to see a Genius arise amonst 'em of so pleasurable, so rich a Vein, and so plentifully capable of furnishing their favourite Entertainments. Besides the advantages of his Wit, he was in himself a good-natur'd 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 doubt gave him many gracious Marks of her Favour: It is that Maiden Princess plainly, whom he intends by
Midsummer Night's Dream, Vol. 2. p. 480.
And that whole Passage is a Compliment very properly brought in, and very
handsomly apply'd to her. She was so well pleas'd with that 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 shew him in Love. This is
said to be the Occasion of his Writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. How
well she was obey'd, the Play it self 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 pleas'd to command him to alter
it; upon which he made use of Falstaff. The present Offence was indeed
avoided; but I don't 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
distinguish'd Merit in the Wars in France in Henry the fifth's
and Henry the Sixth's Times. What Grace soever the Queen confer'd upon
him, it was not to her only he ow'd the Fortune which the Reputation of his Wit
made. He had the Honour to meet with many great and uncommon Marks of Favour and
Friendship from the Earl of Southampton, famous in the Histories of
that Time for his Friendship to the unfortunate Earl of Essex. It was
to that Noble Lord that he Dedicated his Venus and Adonis, the
only Piece of his Poetry which he ever publish'd himself, tho' many of his Plays
were surrepticiously and lamely Printed in his Life-time.
There is one Instance so singular in the Magnificence of
this Patron of Shakespear's, that if I had not been assur'd that
the Story was handed down by Sir William D'Avenant, who was probably
very well acquainted with his Affairs, I should not have ventur'd to have
inserted, that my Lord Southampton, at one time, gave him a thousand
Pounds, to enable him to go through with a Purchase which he heard he had a mind
to. A Bounty very great, and very rare at any time, and almost equal to that
profuse Generosity the present Age has shewn to French Dancers and
What particular Habitude or Friendship he contracted with private Men, I have not been able to learn, more than that every one who had a true Taste of Merit, and could distinguish Men, had generally a just Value and Esteem for him. His exceeding Candor and good Nature must certainly have inclin'd all the gentler Part of the World to love him, as the power of his Wit oblig'd the Men of the most delicate Knowledge and polite Learning to admire him. Amongst these was the incomparable Mr. Edmond Spencer, who speaks of him in his Tears of the Muses, not only with the Praises due to a good Poet, but even lamenting his Absence with the tenderness of a Friend. The Passage is in Thalia's Complaint for the Decay of Dramatick Poetry, and the Contempt the Stage then lay under, amongst his Miscellaneous Works, p. 147.
|And he the Man, whom Nature's self had made
To mock her self, and Truth to imitate
With kindly Counter under mimick Shade,
Our pleasant Willy, ah! is dead of late:
With whom all Joy and jolly Merriment
Is also deaded, and in Dolour drent.
|Instead thereof, scoffing Scurrility
And scorning Folly with Contempt is crept,
Rolling in Rhimes of shameless Ribaudry,
Without Regard or due Decorum kept;
Each idle Wit at will presumes to make,
And doth the Learned's Task upon him take.
|But that same gentle Spirit, from whose Pen
Large Streams of Honey and sweet Nectar flow,
Scorning the Boldness of such base-born Men,
Which dare their Follies forth so rashly throw;
Doth rather choose to sit in idle Cell,
Than so himself to Mockery to sell. (note 8)
I know some People have been of the Opinion, that Shakespear is not meant by Willy in the first Stanza of these Verses, because Spencer's Death happen'd twenty Years before Shakespear's. But, besides that the Character is not applicable to any Man of that time but himself, it is plain by the last Stanza that Mr. Spencer does not mean that he was then really Dead, but only that he had with-drawn himself from the Publick, or at least with-held his Hand from Writing, out of a disgust he had taken at the then ill taste of the Town, and the mean Condition of the Stage. Mr. Dryden was always of Opinion these Verses were meant of Shakespear; and 'tis highly probable they were so, since he was three and thirty Years old at Spencer's Death; and his Reputation in Poetry must have been great enough before that Time to have deserv'd what is here said of him. His Acquaintance with Ben Johnson began with a remarkable piece of Humanity and good Nature; Mr. Johnson, who was at that Time altogether unknown to the World, had offer'd one of his Plays to the Players, in order to have it Acted; and the Persons into whose Hands it was put, after having turn'd it carelessly and superciliously over, were just upon returning it to him with an ill-natur'd Answer, that it would be of no service to their Company, when Shakespear luckily cast his Eye upon it, and found something so well in it as to engage him first to read it through, and afterwards to recommend Mr. Johnson and his Writings to the Publick. After this they were profess'd Friends; tho' I don't know whether the other ever made him an equal return of Gentleness and Sincerity. Ben was naturally Proud and Insolent, and in the Days of his Reputation did so far take upon him the Supremacy in Wit, that he could not but look with an evil Eye upon any one that seem'd to stand in Competition with him. And if at times he has affected to commend him, it has always been with some Reserve, insinuating his Uncorrectness, a careless manner of Writing, and want of Judgment; the Praise of seldom altering or blotting out what he writ, which was given him by the Players who were the first Publishers of his Works after his Death, was what Johnson could not bear; he thought it impossible, perhaps, for another Man to strike out the greatest Thoughts in the finest Expression, and to reach those Excellencies of Poetry with the Ease of a first Imagination, which himself with infinite Labour and Study could but hardly attain to. Johnson was certainly a very good Scholar, and in that had the advantage of Shakespear; tho' at the same time I believe it must be allow'd, that what Nature gave the latter, was more than a Ballance for what Books had given the former; and Judgment of a great Man upon this occasion was, I think, very just and proper. In a Conversation between Sir John Suckling, Sir William D'Avenant, Endymion Porter, Mr. Hales of Eaton, and Ben Johnson; Sir John Suckling, who was a profess'd Admirer of Shakespear had undertaken his Defence against Ben Johnson with some warmth; Mr. Hales, who had sat still for some time, hearing Ben frequently reproaching him with the want of Learning, and Ignorance of the Antients, told him at last, That if Mr. Shakespear had not read the Antients, he had likewise not stollen any thing from 'em; (a Fault the other made no Conscience of) and that if he would produce any one Topick finely treated by any of them, he would undertake to shew something upon the same Subject at least as well written by Shakespear. (note 9) Johnson did indeed take a large liberty, even to the transcribing and translating of whole Scenes together; and sometimes, with all Deference to so great a Name as his, not altogether for the advantage of the Authors of whom he borrow'd. And if Augustus and Virgil were really what he has made 'em in a Scene of his Poetaster, they are as odd an Emperor and a Poet as ever met. Shakespear, on the other Hand, was beholding to no body farther than the Foundation of the Tale, the Incidents were often his own, and the Writing intirely so, there is one Play of his, indeed, The Comedy of Errors, in a great measure taken from the Menæchmi of Plautus. How that happen'd, I cannot easily Divine, since, as I hinted before, I do not take him to have been Master of Latin enough to read it in the Original, and I know of no Translation of Plautus so Old as his Time. (note 10)
As I have not propos'd to my self to enter into a Large and Compleat Criticism upon Mr. Shakespear's Works, so I suppose it will neither be expected that I should take notice of the severe Remarks that have been formerly made upon him by Mr. Rhymer (note 11). I must confess, I can't very well see what could be the Reason of his animadverting with so much Sharpness, upon the Faults of a Man Excellent on most Occasions, and whom all the World ever was and will be inclin'd to have an Esteen and Veneration for. If it was to shew his own Knowledge in the Art of Poetry, besides that there is a Vanity in making that only his Design, I question if there be not many Imperfections as well in those Schemes and Precepts he has given for the Direction of others, as well as in that Sample of Tragedy which he has written to shew the Excellency of his own Genius. If he had a Pique against the Man, and wrote on purpose to ruin a Reputation so well establish'd, he has had the Mortification to fail altogether in his Attempt, and to see the World at least as fond of Shakespear as of his Critique. But I won't believe a Gentleman, and a good natur'd Man, capable of the last Intention. Whatever may have been his Meaning, finding fault is certainly the easiest Task of Knowledge, and commonly those Men of good Judgment, who are likewise of good and gentle Dispositions, abandon this ungrateful Province to the Tyranny of Pedants. If one would enter into the Beauties of Shakespear, there is a much larger, as well as a more delightful Field; but as I won't prescribe to the Tastes of other People, so I will only take the liberty, with all due Submissions to the Judgment of others, to observe some of those Things I have been pleas'd with in looking him over.
His Plays are properly to be distinguish'd only into Comedies and Tragedies. Those which are called Histories, and even some of his Comedies, are really Tragedies, with a run or mixture of Comedy amongst 'em. That way of Trage-Comedy was the common Mistake of that Age, and is indeed become so agreeable to the English Tast, that tho' the severer Critiques among us cannot bear it, yet the generality of our Audiences seem to be better pleas'd with it than with an exact Tragedy. The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, and The Taming of the Shrew are all pure Comedy; the rest, however they are call'd have something of both Kinds. 'Tis not very easie to determine which way of Writing he was most Excellent in. There is certainly a great deal of Entertainment in his Comical Humours; and tho' they did not then strike at all Ranks of People, as the Satyr of the present Age has taken the Liberty to do, yet there is a pleasing and a well-distinguish'd Variety in those Characters which he thought fit to meddle with. Falstaff is allow'd by every body to be a Master-piece; the Character is always well-sustain'd, tho' drawn out into the length of three Plays; and even the Account of his Death, given by his Old Landlady Mrs. Quickly, in the first Act of Henry V. tho' it be extremely Natural, is yet as diverting as any Part of his Life. If there be any Fault in the Draught he has made of this lewd old Fellow, it is, that tho' he has made him a Thief, Lying, Cowardly, Vain-glorious, and in short every way Vicious, yet he has given him so much Wit as to make him almost too agreeable; and I don't know whether some People have not, in remembrance of the Diversion he had formerly afforded 'em, been sorry to see his Friend Hal use him so scurvily, when he comes to the Crown in the End of the Second Part of Henry the Fourth. Amongst other Extravagances, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he has made him a Deer-stealer, that he might at the same time remember his Warwickshire Prosecutor, under the Name of Justice Shallow; he has given him very near the same Coat of Arms which Dugdale, in his Antiquities of that County (note 12), describes for a Family there, and makes the Welsh Parson descant very pleasantly upon 'em. That whole Play is admirable; the Humours are various and well oppos'd; the main Design, which is to cure Ford of his unreasonable Jealousie, is extremely well conducted. Falstaff's Billet-doux, and Master Slender's
Ah! Sweet Ann Page!
are very good Expressions of Love in their Way. In Twelfth-Night
there is something singularly Ridiculous and Pleasant in the fantastical Steward
Malvolio. The Parasite and the Vain-glorious in Parolles, in
All's Well that ends Well, is as good as any thing of that Kind in
Plautus or Terence. Petruchio, in The Taming of the Shrew,
is an uncommon Piece of Humour. The Conversation of Benedick and
Beatrice, in Much ado about Nothing, and of Rosalind in
As you like it, have much Wit and Sprightliness all along. His Clowns,
without which Character there was hardly any Play writ in that Time, are all
very entertaining: And, I believe, Thersites in Troilus and
Cressida, and Apemantus in Timon, will be allow'd to
be Master-Pieces of ill Nature, and satyrical Snarling. To these I might add,
that incomparable Character of Shylock the Jew, in The
Merchant of Venice; but tho' we have seen that Play Receiv'd and Acted as a
Comedy, and the Part of the Jew perform'd by an Excellent Comedian, yet
I cannot but think it was design'd Tragically by the Author. There appears in it
such a deadly Spirit of Revenge, such a savage Fierceness and Fellness, and such
a bloody designation of Cruelty and Mischief, as cannot agree either with the
Stile or Characters of Comedy. The Play it self, take it all together, seems to
me to be one of the most finish'd of any Shakespear's. The Tale indeed,
in that Part relating to the Caskets, and the extravagant and unusual kind of
Bond given by Antonio, is a little too much remov'd from the Rules of
Probability: But taking the Fact for granted, we must allow it to be very
beautifully written. There is something in the Friendship of Antonio
and Bassanio very Great, Generous and Tender. The whole fourth Act,
supposing, as I said, the Fact to be probable, is extremely Fine. But there are
two Passages that deserve a particular Notice. The first is, what Portia
says in praise of Mercy, pag. 577; and the other on the Power of Musick,
pag. 587. The Melancholy of Jaques, in As you like it,
is as singular and odd as it is diverting. And if what Horace says
Difficile est proprie communia Dicere,
13) 'Twill be be a hard Task for any one to go beyond him in the
Description of the several Degrees and Ages of Man's Life, tho' the Thought be
old, and common enough.
|--All the World's a Stage;
And all the Men and Women meerly Players;
They have their Exits and their Entrances,
And one Man in his time plays many Parts,
His Acts being seven Ages. At first the Infant
Mewling and puking in the Nurse's Arms:
And then, the whining School-boy with his Satchel,
and shining Morning-face, creeping like Snail
Unwillingly to School. And then the Lover
Sighing like Furnace, with a woful Ballad
Made to his Mistress' Eye-brow. Then a Soldier
Full of strange Oaths, and bearded like the Pard,
Jealous in Honour, sudden and quick in Quarrel,
Seeking the bubble Reputation
Ev'n in the Cannon's Mouth. And then the Justice
In fair round Belly, with good Capon lin'd,
With Eyes severe, and Beard of formal Cut,
Full of wise Saws and modern Instances;
And so he plays his Part. The sixth Age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd Pantaloon,
With Spectacles on Nose, and Pouch on Side;
His youthful Hose, well sav'd, a world too wide
For his shrunk Shank; and his big manly Voice
Turning again tow'rd childish treble Pipes,
And Whistles in his Sound. Last Scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful History,
Is second Childishness and meer Oblivion,
Sans Teeth, sans Eyes, sans Tast, sans ev'ry thing.
His Images are indeed ev'ry where so lively, that the Thing he would represent stands full before you, and you possess ev'ry Part of it. I will venture to point out one more, which is, I think, as strong and as uncommon as any thing I ever saw; 'tis an Image of Patience. Speaking of a Maid in Love, he says,
|--She never told her Love,
But let Concealment, like a Worm i'th' Bud
Feed on her Damask Cheek: She pin'd in Thought,
And sate like Patience on a Monument,
Smiling at Grief (note 15)
What an Image is here given! and what a Task would it have been for the greatest Masters of Greece and Rome to have express'd the Passions design'd by this Sketch of Statuary? The Stile of his Comedy is, in general, Natural to the Characters, and easie in it self; and the Wit most commonly sprightly and pleasing, except in those places where he runs into Dogrel Rhymes, as in The Comedy of Errors, and a Passage or two in some other Plays. As for his Jingling sometimes, and playing upon Words, it was the common Vice of the Age he liv'd in: And if we find it in the Pulpit, made use of as an Ornament to the Sermons of some of the Gravest Divines of those Times; perhaps it may not be thought too light for the Stage.
But certainly the greatness of this Author's Genius do's no where so much appear, as where he gives his Imagination an entire Loose, and raises his Fancy to a flight above Mankind and the Limits of the visible World. Such are his Attempts in The Tempest, Midsummer-Night's Dream, Macbeth and Hamlet. Of these, The Tempest, however it comes to be palc'd the first by the former Publishers of his Works, can never have been the first written by him: It seems to me as perfect in its Kind, as almost any thing we have of his. One may observe, that the Unities are kept here with an Exactness uncommon to the Liberties of his Writing: Tho' that was what, I suppose, he valu'd himself least upon, since his Excellencies were all of another Kind. I am very sensible that he do's, in this Play, depart too much from that likeness to Truth which ought to be observ'd in these sort of Writings; yet he do's it so very finely, that one is easily drawn in to have more Faith for his sake, than Reason does well allow of. His Magick has something in it very Solimn and very Poetical: And that extravagant Character of Caliban is mighty well sustain'd, shews a wonderful Invention in the Author, who could strike out such a particular wild Image, and is certainly one of the finest and most uncommon Grotesques that was ever seen. The Observation, which I have been inform'd (note 16) three very great Men concurr'd in making upon this Part, was extremely just. That Shakespear had not only found out a new Character in his Caliban but had also devis'd and adapted a new manner of Language for that Character. Among the particular Beauties of this Piece, I think one may be allow'd to point out the Tale of Prospero in the First Act; his Speech to Ferdinand in the Fourth, upon the breaking up the Masque of Juno and Ceres; and that in the Fifth, where he dissolves his Charms, and resolves to break his Magick Rod. This Play has been alter'd by Sir William D'avenant and Mr. Dryden; and tho' I won't Arraign the Judgment of those two great Men, yet I think I may be allow'd to say, that there are some things left out by them, that might, and even ought to have been kept in. Mr. Dryden was an Admirer of our Author, and, indeed, he owed him a great deal, as those who have read them both may very easily observe. And, I think, in Justice to 'em both, I should not on this Occasion omit what Mr. Dryden has said of him.
|Shakespear, who, taught by none, did first impart
To Fletcher Wit, to lab'ring Johnson Art.
He, Monarch-like, gave those his Subjects Law,
And is that Nature which they Paint and Draw.
Fletcher reach'd that which on his heights did grow,
Whilst Johnson crept and gather'd all below:
This did his Love, and this his Mirth digest,
One imitates him most, the other best.
If they have since out-writ all other Men,
'Tis with the Drops which fell from Shakespear's Pen.
The Storm which vanish'd on the neighb'ring Shoar,
Was taught by Shakespear's Tempest first to roar.
That Innocence and Beauty which did smile
In Fletcher, grew on this Enchanted Isle.
But Shakespear's Magick could not copied be,
Within that Circle none durst walk but he.
I must confess 'twas bold, nor would you now
That Liberty to vulgar Wits allow,
Which works by Magick supernatural things:
But Shakespear's Pow'r is Sacred as a King's.
Prologue to The Tempest, as it is alter'd by Mr. Dryden
It is the same Magick that raises the Fairies in Midsummer Night's Dream, the Witches in Macbeth, and the Ghost in Hamlet, with Thoughts and Language so proper to the Parts they sustain, and so peculiar to the Talent of this Writer. But of the two last of these Plays I shall have occasion to take notice, among the Tragedies of Mr. Shakespear. If one undertook to examine the greatest part of these by those Rules which are establish'd by Aristotle, and taken from the Model of the Grecian Stage, it would be no very hard Task to find a great many Faults: But as Shakespear liv'd under a kind of mere Light of Nature, and had never been made acquainted with the Regularity of those written Precepts, so it would be hard to judge him by a Law he knew nothing of. We are to consider him as a Man that liv'd in a State of almost universal License and Ignorance: There was no establish'd Judge, but every one took the liberty to Write according to the Dictates of his own Fancy. When one considers, that there is not one Play before him of a Reputation good enough to entitle it to an Appearance on the present Stage, it cannot but be a Matter of great Wonder that he should advance Dramatick Poetry so far as he did. The Fable is what is generally plac'd the first, among those that are reckon'd the constituent Parts of a Tragick or Heroick Poem; not, perhaps, as it is the most Difficult or Beautiful, but as it is the first properly to be thought of in the Contrivance and Course of the whole; and with the Fable ought to be consider'd, the fit Disposition, Order and Conduct of its several Parts. As it is not in this Province of the Drama that the Strength and Mastery of Shakespear lay, so I shall not undertake the tedious and ill-natur'd Trouble to point out the several Faults he was guilty of in it. His Tales were seldom invented, but rather taken either from true History, or Novels and Romances: And he commonly made use of 'em in that Order, with those Incidents, and that extent of Time in which he found 'em in the Authors from whence he borrow'd them. So The Winter's Tale, which is taken from an old Book, call'd, The Delectable History of Dorastus and Faunia,(note 17) contains the space of sixteen or seventeen Years, and the Scene is sometimes laid in Bohemia, and sometimes in Sicily, according to the original Order of the Story. Almost all his Historical Plays comprehend a great length of Time, and very different and distinct Places: And in his Antony and Cleopatra, the Scene travels over the greatest Part of the Roman Empire. But in Recompence for his Carelessness in this Point, when he comes to another Part of the Drama, The Manners of his Characters, in Acting or Speaking what is proper for them, and fit to be shown by the Poet, he may be generally justify'd, and in very many places greatly commended. For those Plays which he has taken from the English or Roman History, let any Man compare 'em, and he will find the Character as exact in the Poet as the Historian. He seems indeed so far from proposing to himself any one Action for a Subject, that the Title very often tells you, 'tis The Life of King John, King Richard, &c. What can be more agreeable to the Idea our Historians give of Henry the Sixth, than the Picture Shakespear has drawn of him! His Manners are every where exactly the same with the Story; one finds him still describ'd with Simplicity, passive Sanctity, want of Courage, weakness of Mind, and easie Submission to the Governance of an imperious Wife, or prevailing Faction: Tho' at the same time the Poet do's Justice to his good Qualities, and moves the Pity of his Audience for him, by showing him Pious, Disinterested, a Contemner of Things of this World, and wholly resign'd to the severest Dispensations of God's Providence. There is a short Scene in the Second Part of Henry VI Vol. III pag. 1504. which I cannot but think admirable in its Kind. Cardinal Beaufort, who had murder'd the Duke of Gloucester, is shewn in the last Agonies on his Death-Bed, with the good King praying over him. There is so much Terror in one, so much Tenderness and moving Piety in the other, as must touch any one who is capable either of Fear or Pity. In his Henry VIII. that Prince is drawn with that Greatness of Mind, and all those good Qualities which are attributed to him in any Account of his Reign. If his Faults are not shewn in an equal degree, and the Shades in this Picture do not bear a just Proportion to the Lights, it is not that the Artist wanted either Colours or Skill in the Disposition of 'em; but the truth, I believe, might be, that he forbore doing it out of regard to Queen Elizabeth, since it could have been no very great Respect to the Memory of his Mistress, to have expos'd some certain Parts of her Father's Life upon the Stage. He has dealt much more freely with the Minister of that Great King, and certainly nothing was ever more justly written, than the Character of Cardinal Wolsey. He has shewn him Tyrannical, Cruel, and Insolent in his Prosperity; and yet, by a wonderful Address, he makes his Fall and Ruin the Subject of general Compassion. The whole Man, with his Vices and Virtues, is finely and exactly describ'd in the second Scene of the fourth Act. The Distresses likewise of Queen Katherine, in this Play, are very movingly touch'd; and tho' the Art of the Poet has skreen'd King Henry from any gross Imputation of Injustice, yet one is inclin'd to wish, the Queen had met with a Fortune more worthy of her Birth and Virtue. Nor are the Manners, proper to the Persons represented, less justly observ'd, in those Characters taken from the Roman History; and of this, the Fierceness and Impatience of Coriolanus, his Courage and Disdain of the common People, the Virtue and Philosophical Temper of Brutus, the irregular Greatness of Mind in M. Antony, are beautiful Proofs. For the two last especially, you find 'em exactly as they are describ'd by Plutarch, from whom certainly Shakespear copy'd 'em. He has indeed follow'd his Original pretty close, and taken in several little Incidents that might have been spar'd in a Play. But, as I hinted before, his Design seems most commonly rather to describe those great Men in the several Fortunes and Accidents of their Lives, than to take any single great Action, and form his Work simply upon that. However, there are some of his Pieces, where the fable is founded upon one Action only. Such are more especially, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello. The Design in Romeo and Juliet, is plainly the Punishment of their two Families, for the unreasonable Feuds and Animosities that had been so long kept up between 'em, and occasion'd the Effusion of so much Blood. In the management of this Story, he has shewn something wonderfully Tender and Passionate in the Love-part, and very Pitiful in the Distress. Hamlet is founded on much the same Tale with the Electra of Sophocles (note 18). In each of 'em a young Prince is engag'd to Revenge the Death of his Father, their Mothers are equally Guilty, are both concern'd in the Murder of their Husbands, and are afterwards married to the Murderers. There is in the first Part of the Greek Trajedy, something very moving in the Grief of Electra; but as Mr. D'Acier (note 19) has observ'd, there is something very unnatural and shocking in the Manners he has given that Princess and Orestes in the latter Part. Orestes embrues his Hands in the Blood of his own Mother; and that barbarous Action is perfom'd, tho' not immediately upon the Stage, yet so near, that the Audience hear Clytemnestra crying out to Aeghystus for Help, and to her Son for Mercy: While Electra, her Daughter, and a Princess, both of them Characters that ought to have appear'd with more Decency, stands upon the Stage and encourages her Brother in the Parracide. What Horror does this not raise! Clytemnestra was a wicked Woman, and had deserv'd to Die; nay, in the truth of the Story, she was kill'd by her own Son; but to represent an Action of this Kind on the Stage, is certainly an Offence against those Rules of Manners proper to the Persons that ought to be observ'd there. On the contrary, let us only look a little on the Conduct of Shakespear. Hamlet is represented with the same Piety towards his Father, and Resolution to Revenge his Death, as Orestes; he has the same Abhorrence for his Mother's Guilt, which, to provoke him the more, is heighten'd by Incest: But 'tis with wonderful Art and Justness of Judgment, that the Poet restrains him from doing Violence to his Mother. To prevent anything of that Kind, he makes his Father's Ghost forbid that part of his Vengeance.
|But howsoever thou pursu'st this Act,
Taint not thy Mind; nor let thy Soul contrive
Against thy Mother ought; leave her to Heav'n,
And to those Thorns that in her Bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.
Vol. V. p. 2386. (note 20)
This is to distinguish rightly between Horror and Terror. The latter is a proper Passion of Tragedy, but the former ought always to be carefully avoided. And certainly no Dramatick Writer ever succeeded better in raising Terror in the Minds of an Audience than Shakespear has done. The whole Tragedy of Macbeth, but more especially the Scene where the King is murder'd, in the second Act, as well as this Play, is noble Proof of that manly Spirit with which he writ; and both shew how powerful he was, in giving the strongest Motions to our Souls that they are capable of. I cannot leave Hamlet, without taking notice of the Advantage with which we have seen this Masterpiece of Shakespear distinguish it self upon the Stage, by Mr. Betterton's fine Performance of that Part. A Man, who tho' he had no other good Qualities, as he has a great many, must have made his way into the Esteem of all Men of Letters, by this only Excellency. No Man is better acquainted with Shaespear's Manner of Expression, and indeed he has study'd him so well, and is so much a Master of him, that whatever Part of his he performs, he does it as if it had been written on purpose for him, and that the Author had exactly conceiv'd it as he plays it. I must own a particular Obligation to him, for the most considerable part of the Passages relating to his Life, which I have here transmitted to the Publick; his Veneration for the Memory of Shaespear having engag'd him to make a Journey into Warwickshire, on purpose to gather up what Remains he could of a Name for which he had so great a Value. Since I had at first resolv'd not to enter into any Critical Controversie, I won't pretend to enquire into the Justness of Mr. Rhymer's Remarks on Othello; he has certainly pointed out some Faults very judiciously; and indeed they are such as most People will agree, with him, to be Faults: But I wish he would likewise have observ'd some of the Beauties too; as I think it became an Exact and Equal Critique to do. It seems strange that he should allow nothing Good in the whole: If the Fable and Incidents are not to his Taste, yet the Thoughts are almost every where very Noble, and the Diction manly and proper. These last, indeed, are Parts of Shakespear's Praise, which it would be very hard to Dispute with him. His Sentiments and Images of Things are Great and Natural; and his Expression (tho' perhaps in some Instances a little Irregular) just, and rais'd in Proportion to his Subject and Occasion. It would be even endless to mention the particular Instances that might be given of this Kind: But his Book is in the Possession of the Publick, and 'twill be hard to dip into any Part of it, without finding what I have said of him made good.
The latter Part of his Life was spent, as all Men of good Sense will wish theirs may be, in Ease, Retirement, and the Conversation of his Friends. He had the good Fortune to gather an Estate equal to his Occasion, and, in that, to his Wish; and is said to have spent some Years before his Death at his native Stratford. His pleasurable Wit, and good Nature, engag'd him in the Acquaintance, and entitled him to the Friendship of the Gentlemen of the Neighbourhood. Amongst them, it is a Story almost still remember'd in that Country, that he had a particular Intimacy with Mr. Combe, an old Gentleman noted thereabouts for his Wealth and Usury: It happen'd, that in a pleasant Conversation amongst their common Friends, Mr. Combe told Shakespear in a laughing manner, that he fancy'd, he intended to write his Epitaph, if he happen'd to out-live him; and since he could not know what might be said of him when he was dead, he desir'd it might be done immediately: Upon which Shakespear gave him these four Verses.
|Ten in the Hundred lies here ingrav'd,
'Tis a Hundred to Ten, his Soul is not sav'd:
If any Man ask, Who lies in this Tomb?
Oh! ho! quoth the Devil, 'tis my John-a-Combe.
But the Sharpness of the Satyr is said to have stung the Man so severely,
that he never forgave it.
He Dy'd in the 53d Year of his Age, and was bury'd on the North side of the Chancel, in the Great Church at Stratford, where a Monument, as engrav'd in the Plate, is plac'd in the Wall. On his Grave-Stone underneath is,
|Good Friend, for Jesus sake, forbear
To dig the Dust inclosed here.
Blest be the Man that spares these Stones,
And Curst be he that moves my Bones.
He had three Daughters
(note 22), of which two liv'd to be marry'd; Judith, the
Elder, to one Mr. Thomas Quiney, by whom she had three Sons, who all
dy'd without Children; and Susannah, who was his Favourite, to Dr.
John Hall, a Physician of good reputation in that Country. She left one
Child only, a Daughter, who was marry'd first to Thomas Nash, Esq; and
afterwards to Sir John Bernard of Abbington, but dy'd likewise
This is what I could learn of any Note, either relating to himself or Family: The Character of the Man is best seen in his Writings. But since Ben Johnson has made a sort of an Essay towards it in his Discoveries, tho' as I have before hinted, he was not very Cordial in his Friendship, I will venture to give it in his words.
|'I remember the Players have oftern mention'd it as an Honour
'to Shakespear, that in Writing (whatsoever he penn'd) he never
'blotted out a Line,. My Answer hath been, Would he had blotted
'a thousand, which they thought a malevolent Speech. I had not
'told Posterity this, but for their Ignorance, who chose that
'Circumstance to commend their Friend by, wherin he most
'faulted. And to justifie mine own Candor, (for I lov'd the Man,
'and do honour his Memory, on this side Idolatry, as much as
'any.) He was indeed, Honest, and of an open and free Nature,
'had an Excellent Fancy, brave Notions, and gentle Expressions;
'wherein he flow'd with that Facility, that sometimes it was
'necessary he should be stopp'd: Sufflaminandus erat, as Augustus
'said of Haterius. His Wit was in his own Power, would Rule
'of it had been so too. Many times he fell into those things could
'not escape Laughter; as when he said in the Person of Caesar,
'one speaking to him,
'Caesar thou dost me Wrong.
'He reply'd: 'Caesar did never Wrong, but with just Cause.
'and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeem'd his Vices
'with his Virtues: There was ever more in him to be Prais'd
'than to be Pardon'd.
As for the Passage which he mentions out of Shakespear, there is somewhat like it in Julius Caesar, Vol. V. p. 2260. (note 23) but without the Absurdity; nor did I ever meet with it in any Edition that I have seen, as quoted by Mr. Johnson. Besides his Plays in this Edition, there are two or three ascrib'd to him by Mr. Langbain (note 24), which I have never seen, and know nothing of. He writ likewise, Venus and Adonis, and Tarquin and Lucrece, in Stanza's which have been printed in a late Collection of Poems. As to the Character given of him by Ben Johnson, there is a good deal true in it: But I believe it may be as well express'd by what Horace says of the first Romans, who wrote Tragedy upon the Greek Models, (or indeed translated 'em) in his Epistle to Augustus.
|-Naturâ sublimis & Acer
Nam Spirat Tragicum satis & Fæliciter Audet,
Sed turpem putat in Chartis metuitq; Lituram. (note 25)
There is a book of Poems, publish'd in 1640, under the Name of Mr. Willikam Shakespear, but as I have but very lately seen it, without an Opportunity of making any Judgment upon it, I won't pretend to determine, whether it be his or no.
Notes to Rowe's Biography of Shakespeare
This is the introduction to Nicholas Rowe's 1709 edition of Shakespeare's plays. It was published again in a second edition in 1714, without change. Rowe was both the first editor of Shakespeare and his first biographer. This Account became the standard 18th Century biography, and in fact became the foundation document for all subsequent biographies. Though it contains inaccuracies, it also preserves information which, were it not for Rowe, would surely have been lost. Rowe acknowleges his debt for "...the most considerable part of the passages relating to this life..." to the actor Thomas Betterton (1634-1710), who made "a journey to Warwickshire on purpose to gather up what remains he could, of a name for which he had so great a veneration." [See section 12]
Rowe's comments are both charming and sentimental, as when he says "...the Works of Mr. Shakespear may seem to many not to want a Comment,..." [Section 1], or, in speaking of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, "...tho' the Art of the Poet has skreen'd King Henry from any gross Imputation of Injustice, yet one is inclin'd to wish, the Queen had met with a Fortune more worthy of her Birth and Virtue." [Section 12]. Despairing of much content based on the bare facts of Shakespeare's life, Rowe resorts to criticism for the bulk of the essay [Sections 6-12]. It is a criticism informed by lively 18th Century prejudices:
"That way of Trage-Comedy was the common Mistake of that Age..." [Section 7]
The remarkable (to modern ears) comment:
"If one undertook to examine the greatest part of these by those Rules which are establish'd by Aristotle, and taken from the Model of the Grecian Stage, it would be no very hard Task to find a great many Faults: But as Shakespear liv'd under a kind of mere Light of Nature, and had never been made acquainted with the Regularity of those written Precepts, so it would be hard to judge him by a Law he knew nothing of. We are to consider him as a Man that liv'd in a State of almost universal License and Ignorance: There was no establish'd Judge, but every one took the liberty to Write according to the Dictates of his own Fancy." [Section 12]
And the charmingly superfluous comments on Orestes and Electra that they "ought to have appear'd with more Decency..." and that representing their actions in killing their mother, Clytemnestra, on Stage "...is certainly an Offence against those Rules of Manners proper to the Persons that ought to be observ'd there." [Section 12].
One of the values of examining the criticism of earlier ages is to cause us to reflect on our own reliance on modern prejudices, such as naturalism and 'historical accuracy.' Where Rowe sees Shakespeare's verse as "manly and proper" may we not be equally mistaken in seeing it as empathetic and bisexual?
The reliable source for a modern, printed version of Rowe's Account is D. Nichol Smith's Eighteenth Century Essays On Shakespeare (Oxford, 1963). I say "reliable" because in 1725 Alexander Pope issued his own edition of the Works, reprinting Rowe's Account, but editing it without acknowledging that, in fact, Rowe's work had been modified. Pope omitted and modified to suit his taste. Unfortunately, Pope's version became the standard for subsequent reprints, and gained the authority of the great editors such as Steevens and Malone who passed it on uncritically. It is all too easy to find even a modern collection of prefaces to Shakespeare which reprints the Pope version rather than the original.
I have numbered each section throughout boldfaced within square brackets at their heads. The problem with electronic publishing of any sort is that the text will appear different depending on the browser used to view it or, if printed, the printer font, pitch, etc. In order to have a somewhat consistent means of citation I have settled on section numbers roughly corresponding to paragraphs, though some of the paragraphs are prodigious indeed. When making reference, I say [See section n], as after the first paragraph to this note. The hypertext links are to the exact quote, and not simply the section head. Clicking on the Return to text link, at the end of each note, will return you to the appropriate area of the text.
Throughout I have tried, as much as possible given the constraints of HTML, to retain the original appearance and orthography. The essay loses much of its charm when them is substituted for Rowe's 'em, and &c is replaced by et cetera. Rowe's original edition of the Plays appeared as 6 octavo volumes. For the sake of completeness, I have included Rowe's references to his own volumes, to which this Account is prefatory. So in section 8, for example, the long quote from As You Like It is followed simply by a "p.625". This refers to page 625 in Rowe's original edition.
This is an example of Betterton's misreading of the public records at Stratford. Shakespeare was, in fact, one of eight children in all. Joan and Margaret died in infancy before he was born. William was born in 1564. Subsequent children were Gilbert (1566), another Joan (1569), Anne (1571), Richard (1574), and Edmund (1580). His sister Joan died in 1646 and was the only of the children to survive him.
Pope excises the next two sentences dealing with Shakespeare's knowlege of Latin and French, and picks up again at the sentence beginning "Upon his leaving School..." I have drawn attention to some of Pope's larger changes, but for more on Pope, see note 9.
Titus Andronicus IV ii 20-21. The quotation from Horace means 'the man of upright life and free from crime does not need the javelines or bows of the Moor.' Cited from Jonathan Bates Titus Andronicus (The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series, 1995, p.219). The Grammar refers to Lily's Latin grammar, Brevissima Institutio, used in the schools from 1540 onwards. (Bates, p.220)
This is, of course, an error. Venus and Adonis was undoubtedly written during the theater closures in 1592 and was printed in 1593 with the dedication to the Earl. Shakespeare's next non-dramatic poem was The Rape of Lucrece, probably written during the same period and published in 1594, again, dedicated, more warmly, to the same Lord. Pope silently edits out Rowe's mistake.
Rowe was the poet laureate, and no libertine, but his language here alarms the fastidious Pope, who modifies it to "Italian singers." Sir William D'Avenant claimed to be the illegitimate son of Shakespeare, a claim regarded with some likelihood by more than a few biographers. His acquaintance with Dryden, who passed on several of the Shakespeare legends, has led many to assume D'Avenant the source.
The pleasant Willy of line 4 has been identified "more plausibly" (in Dr. Schoenbaum's words) as Richard Wills or Willey, the author of De Re Poetica. Spencer's poem Tears of the Muses was published in 1591.
Pope here excises Rowe's allegations regarding Jonson's plagiarisms, and moves the next 4 long sections, where Rowe gives free reign to his own criticisms of Shakespeare, to the latter part of the essay. In Pope's own preface, he defends Ben Jonson. Pope moves the original text, at the sentence that begins "The latter part of his life was spent...", to this point. For a detailed view of Pope's mischief see the notes to the printed version in D. Nichol Smith's Eighteenth Century Essays On Shakespeare (Oxford, 1963), pp. 284-288.
The source of the conversation between Suckling, D'Avenant, Porter and Hales is Dryden, who had recorded it in 1668 in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy. It appears in several other places, with shifting details. See D. Nichol Smith's notes, p. 286.
The Menaechmi was translated into English by W. W., William Warner, and licensed in 1594, but not published until 1595. If Shakespeare made reference to it, it was in its manuscript version. The Comedy of Errors was first performed in late 1594. It is possible that Shakespeare used Warner's manuscript, but the view of Shakespeare's attainments in Latin has radically changed.
A reference to Thomas Rhymer author of Short View of Tragedy, published in 1693. According to Schoenbaum (Shakespeare's Lives, Oxford, 1991, p. 99) Rhymer criticized Shakespeare for ignoring the classical unities, violating decorum by descending into grossness, introducing low characters into stately scenes, and mingling buffoonery with high seriousness. Further, Shakespeare abandoned the use of the classical Chorus, which Rhymer felt essential, and committed outrageous puns and wrote in blank verse rather than rhymed. To the modern, this is what makes Shakespeare great, but it is well to remember that before the rise of bardolatry in the mid-eighteenth Century, there were dissenting views.
In spite of Rowe's protestations, he turns here from biography to criticism and extends his analysis of the plays through section 12.
Sir William Dugdale (1605-1686). Antiquities of Warwickshire. Illustrated from Records, Leiger-Books, Manuscripts, Charters, Evidences, Tombes, and Armes. Beautified with maps, prospects, and portraictures. 1656.
As You Like It, II vii 139-166. It is interesting that "sans everything" is Orlando's cue to enter with Adam carried on his back. Many believe (on the authority of Oldys citing Shakespeare's younger brother Gilbert) Adam to have been a role played by Shakespeare himself. It seems to be the kind of joke he found irresistable.
Here Rowe inserts the Note: "Lord Falkland, Lord C. J. Vaughan and Mr. Selden." He refers to Lord Falkland, Lucius Cary, 1610-1643; Lord C. J. Vaughan, Sir John Vaughan, 1603-1674; and Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, John Selden, 1584-1654.
This is the alternative title to Robert Greene's Pandosto, or the Triumph of Time, published in 1588. The same Greene who complained in his Groatsworth of Wit about Shakespeare being "beautified with our feathers," though, of course, Greene was long dead by the time of The Winter's Tale.
The modern view is best summed by G. K. Hunter in "Shakespeare and the traditions of tragedy" (The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, Cambridge, 1986) "...it has alway seemed natural, when searching for sources or models of English tragedy, to look first of all at the plays of Greece and Rome. Yet in spite of the lengthy effort made, very little connective tissue has been found." (p.127) The lengthy effort had not yet been made in Rowe's day, and the recurrent criticism of Shakespeare throughout the period has to do with his non-observance of the Aristotelian unities and his general lack of classical learning. Rowe is generous (Dr. Johnson even more so) and obviously loves the works more than the unities.
According to Smith (Eighteenth Century Essays on Shakespeare, Oxford, 1963, p.288) this refers to Gerard Langbaine in his Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691). The additional plays making up the 46, beyond the canonical 36 First Folio plays and Pericles, accepted as canonical (see Rowe on Dryden's view of Pericles, Section 3), are those printed in the third Folio (1664):
And those listed by Langbaine:
Horace, Epistles, II i 165. "being gifted in spirit and vigor, for he has some tragic inspiration, and is happy in his ventures, but in ignorance, deeming it disgraceful, hesitates to blot." (Horace Satires, Epistles, Ars Poetica Loeb Classical Library, Harvard, 1926 - trans. H. Rushton Fairclough).
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