Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

fiders, 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 placed the first, among those that are reckoned the conftituent parts

of a tragick or heroick poem ; not, perhaps, as it is the moft difficult or beautiful, but as it is the firit properly to be thought of in the contrivance and course of the whole; and with the fable ought to be confidered the fit difpofition, order, and conduct of its several parts. As it is not in this province of the drama that the strength and mastery of Shakspeare lay, fo I shall not undertake the tedious and ill-natured trouble to point out the several faults he was guilty of in it. His tales were seldom invented, but rather taken either froin the true hif. tory, or novels and romances : and he commonly made use of them in that order, with those incidents, and that extent of time in which he found them in the authors from whence he borrowed them. So The Winter's Tale, which is taken from an old book, called The Dele&table History of Dorastu's and Fawnia, contains the space of fixteen or seventeen years, and the scene is sometimes laid in Bohemia, and fometimes 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 shewn by the poet, he may be generally justified, and in very many places greatly commended. For those plays which he has taken from the English or Roman history, let any man compare them, 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, it is 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 Shakspeare has drawn of him! His manners are every where exactly the fame with the story;

опе

[ocr errors]

one finds him ftill described with fimplicity, paffive sanctity, want of courage, weakness of mind, and easy fubmiffion to the governance of an imperious wife, or prevailing faction": though at the same time the poet does justice to his good qualities, and moves the pity of his audience for him, by thewing him pious, disinterested, a contemner of the things of this world, and wholly resigned to the feverest difpenfa. tions of God's providence. There is a short scene in The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, which I cannot but think admirable in its kind. Cardinal Beaufort, who had mur. dered 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. the Eighth, 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 juft proportion. to the lights, it is not that the artist wanted either colours or skill in the disposition of them; 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 exposed fome 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 infolenc in his prosperity; and yet, by a wonderful address, he makes his fall and ruin the subject of general compallion. The whole man, with his vices and virtues, is finely and exactly described in the second scene of the fourth adt. The distrelles likewise of Queen Katharine, in this play, are very movingly touched ; and though the art of the poet has screened King Henry from any grofs imputation of injustice, . yet one is inclined to wish, the Queen had met with a fora tune more worthy of her birth and virtue. Nor are the manners, proper to the persons represented, less justly obferved, in those characters taken from the Roinan history ; and of this, the fierceness and impatience of Coriolanus, his

courage

more

courage and disdain of the common people ; the virtue and philosophical temper of Brutus, and the irregular greatness of mind in M. Antony, are beautiful proofs. For the two lalt especially, you find them exactly as they are described by Plutarch, from whom certainly Shakspeare copied them. Híe has indeed followed his original pretty close, and taken in several little incidents that might have been spared 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 fingle great action, and form his work fimply upon that. However, there are some of his pieces, where the fable is founded upon one action only.

Such are especially, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Oihello. The design in Romeo and Juliet is plainly the punishment of their two families, for the unreasonable feuds and animofities that had been so long kept up between them, and occasioned the effufion of so much blood. In the management of this ftory, he has shewn something wonderfully tender and paffionare in the love-part, and very pitiful in the distress. Hamlet is founded on much the same tale with the Ele&tra of Sophocles. In each of them a young prince is engaged to revenge the death of his father, their mothers are equally guilty, are both concerned in the murder of their husbands, and are afterwards married to the murderers. There is in the first part of the Greek tragedy something very moving in the grief of Electra; but, as Mr. Dacier has observed, there is something very unnatural and shocking in the main ners he has given that Princess and Oreftes in the latter part. Orestes imbrues his hands in the blood of his own mother; and that barbarous action is performed, though not immediately upon the stage, yet so near, that the audience hear Clytem. neitra crying out to Ægysthus for help, and to her fón for mercy : while Electra her daughter, and a Princess, (both of them characters that ought to have appeared with more decency,) stands upon the Itage, and encourages

her brother in the parricide. What horror does this not raise! ClytemDeftra was a wicked woman, and had deserved to die; nay,

in 4 It dors not appear that Hamlet's mother was concerned in the dea.di. of her huiband. MALONE.

in the truth of the story, she was killed 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 observed there. On the contrary, let us only look a little on the conduct of Shakspeare. Hamlet is represented with the same piety towards his father, and resolution to revenge his death, as Orestes; he has the fame abhorrence for his mother's guilt, which, to provoke him the more, is heightened by inceit: but it is with wonderful art and justness of judgment, that the poet restrains him from doing violence to his mother. To prevent any thing 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 aught; leave her to heav'n,
" And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,

« To prick and sting her.” 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 dramatitk writer ever succeeded better in raising terror in the minds of an audience than Shakspeare has done. The whole tragedy of Macbeth, but more especially the scene where the King is murdered, in the second act, as well as this play, is a noble proof of that manly spirit with which he writ; and both shew how powerful he was, in giving the strongest motions to our fouls that they are capable of. I cannot leave Hamlet, without taking notice of the advantage with which we have seen this master-piece of Shakspeare distinguish itself upon the stage, by Mr. Betterton's fine performance of that part. A man, though 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 Shakspeare's manner of expression, and indeed he has studied him so well, and is fo 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 conceived it as he plays it. I muft own a particular obligation to him, for the most

considerable

considerable part of the passages relating to this life, which I have here transmitted to the publick; his veneration for the memory of Shakspeare having engaged him to make a journey into Warwickshire, on purpose to gather up what remains he could, of a name for which he had fo great a veneration.5 To the foregoing Accounts of SHAKSPEARE'S LIFE, I have

only one pasage to add, which Mr. Pope related, as communi

cated to him by Mr. Rowe. IN N the time of Elizabeth, coaches being yet uncommon,

and hired coaches not at all in use, those who were too proud, too tender, or too idle to walk, went on horseback to any diftant business or diversion. Many came on horse. back to the play, and when Shakspeare fled to London from the terror of a criminal prosecution, his first expedient was to wait at the door of the playhouse, and hold the horses of those that had no servants, that they might be ready again after the performance. In this office he became fo confpicuous for his care and readiness, that in a short time every man as he alighted called for Will. Shakspeare, and scarcely any other waiter was trusted with a horse while Will. Shakspeare could be had. This was the first dawn of better fortune. Shakspeare, finding more horses put into his hand than he could hold, hired boys to wait under his inspection, who, when Will. Shakspeare was summoned, were imme. diately to present themselves, I am Shakspeare's boy, Sir. In time Shakspeare found higher employment: but as long as the practice of riding to the playhouse continued, the waiters

that 5 Mr. Betterton was born in 1635, and had many opportunities of collecting information relative to Shakspeare, but unfortunately the age in which he lived was not an age of curiosity. Had either he or Dryden or Sir William D'Avenant taken the trouble to visit our poet's youngest . daughter, who lived till 1662, or his grand-daughter, who did not die till 1670, many particulars might have been preserved which are now irrecoverably loft. Shakspeare's sister, Joan Hart, who was only five years younger than him, died at Stratford in Nov. 1646, at the age of seventyfix; and from her undoubtedly his two daughters, and his grand-daughter Lady Barnard, had learned several circumstances of his early history an.. tecedent to the year 1600. MALONE

This Account of ike Life of Shakspeare is printed from Mr. Rowe's fecond edition, in which it has been abridged and altered by hiinseif after its appearance in 1709. STEEVENS, • Plays were at this time performed in the afternoon, STEEVENS

« ZurückWeiter »