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here: I can but observe that in these plays, as might be expected from one who was modest and wished to learn, we have much of imitation as distinguished from character, though of imitation surpassing its models. And it seems to me that no fair view can be had of the Poet's mind, no justice done to his art, but by carefully discriminating in his work what grew from imitation, and what from character. For he evidently wrote very much like others of his time, before he learned to write like himself; that is, it was some time before he found, by practice and experience, his own strength; and meanwhile he relied more or less on the strength of custom and example. Nor was it till he had surpassed others in their way, that he hit upon that more excellent way in which none could walk but he.
It has been quite too common to speak of Shakespeare as a miracle of spontaneous genius, who did his best things by force of instinct, not of art; and that, consequently, he was nowise indebted to time and experience for the reach and power which his dramas display. This is an "old fond paradox" which seems to have originated with those who could not conceive how any man could acquire intellectual skill without scholastic advantages; forgetting, apparently, that several things, if not more, may be learned in the school of Nature, provided one have an eye to read her "open secrets" without "the spectacles of books." This notion has vitiated a good deal of Shakespearian criticism. Rowe had something of it. "Art," says he, "had so little, and Nature so large a share in what Shakespeare did, that, for aught I know, the performances of his youth were the best." I think decidedly otherwise; and have grounds for doing so which Rowe had not, in what has since been done towards ascertaining the chronology of the Poet's plays.
It would seem from Chettle's apology, that Shakespeare was already beginning to attract liberal notice from that circle of brave and accomplished gentlemen which adorned the state of Queen Elisabeth. Among the " divers of worship," first and foremost stood, no doubt, the high-souled, the generous Southampton, then in his twentieth year. Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, was but eight years old when his father died: the Southampton estates were large; during the young Earl's minority his interests were in good hands, and the revenues accumulated; so that on coming of age he had means answerable to his dispositions. Moreover, he was a young man of good parts, of studious habits, of cultivated tastes, and withal of a highly chivalrous and romantic spirit: to all which he added the honour of being the early and munificent patron of Shakespeare. In 1593, the Poet published his Venus and Adonis, with a modest and manly dedication to this nobleman, very different from the usual high-flown style of literary adulation then in vogue; telling him, "If your Honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour." In the dedication, he calls the poem " the first heir of my invention." Whether he dated its birth from the writing or the publishing, does not appear: probably it had been written some time; possibly before he left Stratford. This was followed, the next year, by his Lucrece, dedicated to the same nobleman in a strain of more open and assured friendship: "The warrant I have of your honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours."
It was probably about this time that the event took place which Rowe heard of through Sir William Davenant, that Southampton at one time gave the Poet a thousand pounds, to enable him to go through with a purchase which he knew him to be desirous of making. Rowe might well scruple, as he did, the story of so large a gift, — equal to nearly $30,000 in our time; but the fact of his scruples being overruled shows that he had strong grounds for the statement. The sum may indeed have been exaggerated; but all we know of the Earl assures us that he could not but wish to make a handsome return for the Venus and Adonis; and that whatever of the kind he did was bound to be something rich and rare; while it was but of a piece with his approved nobleness of character, to feel more the honour he was receiving than that he was conferring by such an act of generosity. Might not this be what Shakespeare meant by "the warrant I have of your honourable disposition "? That the Earl was both able and disposed to the amount alleged, need not be scrupled: the only doubt has reference to the Poet's occasions. Let us see, then, what these may have been.
In December, 1593, Richard Burbadge, who, his father having died or retired, was then the leader of the Blackfriars company, signed a contract for the building of the Globe theatre, in which Shakespeare is known to have been a large owner. The Blackfriars was not accommodation enough for the company's uses, but was entirely covered-in, and furnished suitably for the Winter. The Globe, made larger, and designed for Summer use, was a round wooden building, open to the sky, with the stage protected by an overhanging roof. All things considered, then, it is not incredible that the munificent Earl may have bestowed even as large a sum as a thousand pounds, to enable the Poet to do what he wished towards the new enterprise.
The next authentic notice we have of Shakespeare is a public tribute of admiration from the highest source that could have yielded any thing of the sort at that time. In 1594, Edmund Spenser published his Colin Clout's Come Home again, which has these lines:
"And there, though last not least, is MAXon:
This was Spenser's delicate way of suggesting the Poet's name. Ben Jonson has a like allusion in his lines, — " Tc the Memory of my beloved Mr. William Shakespeare ":
"In each of which he seems to shake a lance
There can be little doubt, though we have no certain knowledge on the point, that by this time the Poet's genius had sweetened itself into the good graces of Queen Elisabeth; as the irresistible compliment paid her in a A Midsummer-Night's Dream could hardly have been of a later date. It would be gratifying to know by what play he made his first conquest of the Queen. That he did captivate her, is told us in Ben Jonson's poem just quoted:
"Sweet swan of Avon, what a sight it were
King John, King Richard the Second, King Richard the Third, A Midsummer-Night's Dream, and the original form of AWs Well that Ends Well, were, no doubt, all written before the Spring of 1596. So that these five plays, and perhaps one or two others, in addition to the ten mentioned before, may by that time have been performed in her Majesty's hearing, "as well for the recreation of our loving subjects as for our solace and pleasure."
Aubrey tells us that Shakespeare "was wont to go to his native country once a year." We now have better authority than Aubrey for believing that the Poet's heart was in "his native country" all the while. No sooner is he well established at London, and in receipt of funds to spare from the demands of business, than we find him making liberal investments amidst the scenes of his youth. Some years ago, Mr. Halliwell discovered in the Chapter-House, Westminster, a document which ascertains that in the Spring of 1597 Shakespeare bought of William Underhill, for the sum of £ 60, the establishment called "New Place," described as consisting of "one messuage, two barns, and two gardens, with their appurtenances." This was one of the best dwelling-houses in Stratford, and was situate in one of the best parts of the town. Early in the sixteenth century it was owned by the Cloptons, and called "the great house." It was in one of the gardens belonging to this house that the Poet was believed to have planted a mulberry-tree. New Place remained in the hands of Shakespeare and his heirs till the Restoration, when it was repurchased by the Clopton family. In the Spring of 1742, Garrick, Macklin, and Delane were entertained there by Sir Hugh Clopton, under the Poet's mulberry-tree. About 1752, the place was sold to the Rev. Francis Gastrell, who, falling out with the Stratford authorities in some matter of rates, demolished the house, and cut down the tree; for which his memory has been visited with exemplary retribution.
We have other tokens of the Poet's thrift about this time. One of these is a curious letter, dated January 24, 1598, and written by Abraham Sturley, an alderman of Stratford, to his brother-in-law, Richard Quiney, who was then in London on business for himself and others. Sturley, it seems, had learned that "our countryman, Mr. Shakespeare," had money to invest, and so was for having him urged to buy up certain tithes at Stratford, on the ground that such a purchase "would advance him indeed, and would do us much good"; the meaning of which is, that the Stratford people were in want of money, and were looking to Shakespeare for a supply.
Another token of like import is a letter written by the same Richard Quiney, whose son Thomas afterwards married the Poet's youngest daughter. The letter was dated, " From the Bell, in Carter-lane, the 25th October, 1598," and addressed, "To my loving good friend and countryman, Mr. Wm. Shakespeare." The purpose of the letter was to solicit a loan of £ 30 from the Poet on good security. No private letter written by Shakespeare has been found; and this is the only one written to him that has come to light. How the writer's request was answered we have no certain information; but we may fairly conclude the answer to have been satisfactory, because on the same day Quiney wrote to Sturley, and in Sturley's reply, dated November 4, 1598, which is also extant, the writer expresses himself much comforted at learning that "our countryman, Mr. Wm. Shak., would procure us money."