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The earliest printed copies of Shakespeare's plays, known in our time, are Romeo and Juliet, King Richard the Second, and King Richard the Third, which were published separately in 1597. Three years later there was another edition of Romeo and Juliet, "newly corrected, augmented, and amended." In 1598, two more, the First Part of King Henry the Fourth and Love's Labour's Lost, came from the press. The author's name was not given in any of these issues except Love's Labour's Lost, which was said to be "newly corrected and augmented." King Richard the Second and King Richard the Third were issued again in 1598, and the First Part of King Henry the Fourth in 1599; and in all these cases the author's name was printed in the titlepage. The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth was most likely written before 1598, but we hear of no edition of it till 1600.
Francis Meres has the honour of being the first critic of Shakespeare that appeared in print. In 1598, he put forth a book entitled PaUadis Tamia, Wits Treasury, which has the following: "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." The writer then instances twelve of the Poet's dramas by title, in proof of his point. His list, however, contains none but what I have already mentioned, except The Merchant of Venice. Taking all our sources of information together, we find at least eighteen of the plays written before 1598, when the Poet was thirty-four years of age, and had probably been in the theatre about twelve years.
Shakespeare was now decidedly at the head of the English Drama; moreover, he had found it a low, foul, disreputable thing, chiefly in the hands of profligate adventurers, and he had lifted it out of the mire, breathed strength and sweetness into it, and made it clean, fair, and honourable, a structure all alive with beauty and honest delectation. Such being the case, his standing was naturally firm and secure; he had little cause to fear rivalry, he could well afford to be generous; and any play that had his approval would be likely to pass. Ben Jonson, whose name has a peculiar right to be coupled with his, was ten years younger than he, and was working with that learned and sinewy diligence which marked his character. We have it on the sound authority of Rowe, that Shakespeare lent a helping hand to honest Ben, and on an occasion that does credit to them both. "Mr. Jonson," says he, "who was at that time altogether unknown to the world, had offered one of his plays to the players, in order to have it acted; and the persons into whose hands it was put, after having turned it carelessly and superciliously over, were just upon returning it to him, with an ill-natured answer that it would be of no service to their company, when Shakespeare luckily cast his eye upon it, and found something in it so well, as to engage him first to read it through, and afterwards to recommend Mr. Jonson and his writings to the public."
Some attempts have been made to impugn this account, but the result of them all has been rather to confirm it. How nobly the Poet's gentle and judicious act of kindness was remembered, is shown by Jonson's superb verses, some of which I have quoted, prefixed to the folio of 1623; enough of themselves to confer an immortality both on the writer and on the subject of them.
In 1599, we find a coat of arms granted to John Shakespeare, by the Herald's College, in London. The grant was made, no doubt, at the instance of his son William. The matter is involved in a good deal of perplexity; the claims of the son being confounded with those of the father, in order, apparently, that out of the two together might be made a good, or at least a plausible, case. Our Poet, the son of a glover, or a yeoman, had evidently set his heart on being heralded into a gentleman; and, as his profession of actor stood in the way, the application was made in his father's name. The thing was started as early as 1596, but 30 much question was had, so many difficulties raised, concerning it, that the Poet was three years in working it through. To be sure, such heraldic gentry was of little worth in itself, and the Poet knew this well enough; but then it assured a certain very desirable social standing, and therefore, as an aspiring member of society, he was right in seeking it.
In the year 1600, five more of his plays were published in as many quarto pamphlets. These were, A MidsummerNight's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado about Nothing, the Second Part of King Henry the Fourth, and King Henry the Fifth. It appears, also, that As You Like It was then written; for it was entered at the Stationers' for publication, but was locked up from the press under a "stay." The Merry Wives of Windsor was probably then in being also, though not printed till 1602. And a recent discovery ascertains that Twelfth Night was played in February, 1602. The original form of Hamlet, too, is known to have been written before 1603. Adding, then, the six plays now heard of for the first time, to the eighteen mentioned before, we have twenty-four plays written before the Poet had finished his thirty-eighth year.
The great Queen died on the 24th of March, 1603. We have abundant proof that she was, both by her presence and her purse, a frequent and steady patron of the Drama, especially as its interests were represented by "the Lord Chamberlain's servants." Everybody, no doubt, has heard the tradition of her having been so taken with Falstaff in King Henry the Fourth, that she requested the Poet to continue the character through another play, and to represent him in love; whereupon he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor. Whatever embellishments may have been added, there is nothing incredible in the substance of the tradition; while the approved taste and judgment of this female king, in matters of literature and art, give it strong likelihoods of truth.
Elizabeth knew how to unbend in such noble delectations without abating her dignity as a queen, or forgetting her duty as the mother of her people. If the patronage of King James fell below hers in wisdom, it was certainly not lacking in warmth. One of his first acts, after reaching London, was to order out a warrant from the Privy Seal for the issuing of a patent under the Great Seal, whereby. the Lord Chamberlain's players were taken into his immediate patronage under the title of " The King's Servants.". The instrument names nine players, and Shakespeare stands second in the list. Nor did the King's patent prove a mere barren honour: many instances of the company's playing at the Court, and being well paid for it, are on record.
The Poet evidently was, as indeed from the nature of his position he could not but be, very desirous of withdrawing from the stage; and had long cherished, apparently, a design of doing so. In several passages of his Sonnets, two of which I have already quoted, he expresses, in very strong and even pathetic language, his intense dislike of the business, and his grief at being compelled to pursue it. At what time he carried into effect his purpose of retirement is not precisely known; nor can I stay to trace out the argument on that point. The probability is, that he ceased to be an actor in the Summer of 1604. The preceding year,
1603, Ben Jonson's Sejanus was brought out at the Blackfriars, and one of the parts was sustained by Shakespeare. After this we have no note of his appearance on the stage; and there are certain traditions inferring the contrary.
In 1603, an edition of Hamlet was published, though very different from the present form of the play. The next year,
1604, the finished Hamlet was published; the title-page containing the words, "enlarged to almost as much again as it was." Of Measure for Measure we have no well-authenticated notice during the Poet's life; though there is a record, which has been received as authentic, of its having been acted at Court on the 26th of December, 1604. That record, however, has lately been discredited. Of Timon of Athens and Julius Caesar we have no express contemporary notice at all, authentic or otherwise. Nor have we any of Troilus and Oressida till 1609, in which year a stolen edition of it was published. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that these plays were all written, though perhaps not all in their present shape, before the close of 1604. Reckoning, then, the four last named, we have twenty-eight of the plays written when the Poet was forty years of age, and had probably been at the work about eighteen years. Time has indeed left few traces of the process; but what a magnificent treasure of results! If Shakespeare had done no more, he would have stood the greatest intellect of the world. How all alive must those eighteen years have been with intense and varied exertion! His quick discernment, his masterly tact, his grace of manners, his practical judgment, and his fertility of expedients, would needs make him the soul of the establishment; doubtless the light of his eye and the life of his hand were in all its movements and plans. Besides, the compass and accuracy of information displayed in his writings prove him to have been, for that age, a careful and voluminous student of books. Portions of classical and of continental literature were accessible to him in translations. Nor are we without strong reasons for believing that, in addition to his "small Latin and less Greek," he found or made time to form a tolerable reading acquaintance with Italian and French. Chaucer, too, " the day-star," and Spenser, "the sunrise," of English poetry, were pouring their beauty round his walks. From all these, and from the growing richness and abundance of contemporary literature, his all-gifted and all-grasping mind no doubt greedily took in and quickly digested whatever was adapted to please his taste, or enrich his intellect, or assist his art.
I have mentioned the Poet's purchase of New Place at Stratford in 1597. Thenceforward he kept making other investments from time to time, some of them pretty large, the records of which have lately come to light. It appears by a subsidy roll of 1598, that he was assessed on property valued at £ 5 13 s. 4 d., in the parish of St. Helen's, Bishops