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Mr. Godwin has justly observed, he bore a striking resemblance to Chaucer, who was remarkable for the placidity and cheerfulness of his disposition; nor can there, probably, be a surer indication of that peace and sunshine of the soul which surpasses all other gifts, than this habitual tone of mind.
"That Shakspeare was entitled to its possession from his moral virtues, we have already seen; and that, in a religious point of view, he had a claim to the enjoyment, the numerous passages in his works, which breathe a spirit of pious gratitude and devotional rapture, will sufficiently declare. In fact, upon the topic of religious, as upon that of ethic wisdom, no profane poet can furnish us with a greater number of just and luminous aphorisms; passages which dwell upon the heart, and reach the soul; for they have issued from lips of fire, from conceptions worthy of a superior nature, from feelings solemn and unearthly."
Of the descendants of Shakspeare there is not one remaining. Hammet, his only son, died in childhood. His eldest daughter, Mrs. Hall, survived her father upwards of thirty years; and if the inscription on her tomb present us with a fair estimate of her talents and her virtues, she was the worthy child of Shakspeare. She left one daughter only, who is mentioned in our poet's will, as his "niece Elizabeth." This lady was twice married; to Thomas Nashe, Esq., and afterwards to Sir John Barnard, of Abington, near Northampton, but had no issue by either husband. Judith, the other daughter of our poet, was the mother of several children; of which the eldest, with an honest pride in that maiden name, which her father's genius had rendered illustrious, was christened Shakspeare; but none of her offspring arrived at years of maturity.
It must strike every one as extraordinary, that the writings of a poet so distinguished should have been handed down to us in so corrupt and imperfect a state; and that so little should be known with any degree of certainty respecting the author of them. Shakspeare himself appears to have been entirely careless of literary fame. In his early works he was sufficiently cautious in superintending their progress through
the press; and the Venus and Adonis, the Rape of Lucrece, and the Titus Andronicus, were presented to the public with as much typographical accuracy as any volumes of the time. He was at first not indifferent to celebrity as an author; but it was a mere youthful vanity, and having attained the object of his ambition, and perceived its worthlessness, he afterwards only considered his genius and his improved skill in composition as the means of acquiring independence for his family, and securing an early retirement from the anxieties of public life. He wrote only for the theatre; his purpose was answered, if his pieces were successful on the stage; and he was perfectly careless of the manner in which his most splendid productions were disfigured in surreptitious and defective editions, and his most exquisite passages rendered ridiculous by the blunders of ignorant transcribers. The plays that were printed in his life-time, with the exception of Titus Andronicus, had all issued from the press under circumstances the most injurious to the reputation of their author, without his revision or superintendence, and perhaps. without his consent or knowledge; and when, eight years years after his death, Heminge and Condell undertook the collection and publication of his works, it is scarcely possible that the MSS. from which the edition was printed, could have been the genuine MSS. of Shakspeare. Those had most probably perished in the fire that destroyed the Globe Theatre in 1613; and the first folio was made up from the playhouse copies, and deformed by all the omissions and the additions which had been adopted to suit the imperfections or the caprice of the several performers. If Shakspeare still appears to us the first of poets, it is in spite of every possible disadvantage, to which his owu sublime contempt of applause had exposed his fame, from the ignorance, the negligence, the avarice, or the officiousness of his early editors.
To these causes it is to be ascribed that the writings of Shakspeare have come down to us in a state more imperfect than those of any other author of his time, and requiring every exertion of critical skill to illustrate and amend them. That so little should be known with certainty of the history of his life, was the natural consequence of the events which
immediately followed his dissolution. It is true, that the age in which he flourished was little curious about the lives of literary men: but our ignorance will not wholly be attributed to the want of curiosity in the immediate successors of the poet. The public mind soon became violently agitated in the conflict of opposite opinions. Every individual was called upon to take his stand as the partisan of a religious or political faction. Each was too intimately occupied with his personal interest to find leisure for so peaceful a pursuit as tracing the biography of a poet. If this was the case during the time of civil commotion, under the puritanical dynasty of Cromwell the stage was totally destroyed; and the life of a dramatic author, however eminent his merits, would not only have been considered as a subject undeserving of inquiry, but only worthy of contempt, and abomination. The genius of Shakspeare was dear to Milton and Dryden; to a few lofty minds and gifted spirits; but it was dead to the multitude of his countrymen, who, in their foolish bigotry, would have considered their very houses as polluted, if they had retained a copy of his works. After the Restoration, these severe restrictions were relaxed, and, as is universally the case, the counteraction was correspondent to the action. The nation suddenly exchanged the rigid austerity of Puritanism for the extreme of profligacy and licentiousness. When the drama was revived, it existed no longer to inculcate such lessons of morality as were enforced by the contrition of Macbeth, the purity of Isabel, or the suffering constancy of Imogen; but to teach modesty to blush at its own innocence, to corrupt the heart by pictures of debauchery, and to exalt a gay selfishness and daring sensuality above all that is noble in principle and honorable in action. At this period Shakspeare was forgotten. He wrote not for such profligate times. His sentiments would have been met by no correspondent feelings in the breasts of such audiences as were then collected within the walls of the metropolitan theatres, who came to hear their vices flattered; and of women masked, ashamed to show their faces at represen tations which they were sufficiently abandoned to delight.in. The jesting, lying, bold intriguing rake, whom Shakspeare
had rendered contemptible in Lucio, and hateful in Iachimo, was the very character that the dramatists of Charles's time were painting after the model of the court favorites, and representing in false colors as a deserving object of approbation. French taste and French morals had banished our author from the stage, and his name had faded from the. memory of the people. Tate, in his altered play of King Lear, mentions the original in his dedication as an obscure piece: the author of the Tatler, in quoting some lines from Macbeth, cites them from the disfigured alteration of D'Avenant. The works of Shakspeare were only read by those whom the desire of literary plunder induced to pry into the volumes of antiquated authors, with the hopes of discovering some neglected jewels that might be clandestinely transplanted to enrich their own poverty of invention; and so little were the productions of the most gifted poet that ever ventured to embark on the varying waters of the imagination known to the generality of his countrymen, that Otway stole the character of the Nurse and all the love scenes of Romeo and Juliet, and published them as his own, without the slightest acknowledgment of the obligation, or any apprehension of detection. A better taste returned: but when, nearly a ceutury after the death of Shakspeare, Rowe undertook to superintend an edition of his Plays, and to collect the Memoirs of his Life, the race had passed away from whom any certain recollections of our great national poet might have been gathered; and nothing better can be obtained than the slight notes of Aubrey, the scattered hints of Oldys, the loose intimations which had escaped from D'Avenant, and the vague reports which Betterton had gleaned in his pilgrimage to Stratford.