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“ Old Ben's Light Heart made heavy by young John's Melancholy Lover," containing some anecdotes of Shakspeare, Ben Jonson, and John Ford, the dramatick poet; and suspected that the plausible tale which the writer of that letter has told, was an innocent forgery, fabricated for the purpose of aiding
a benefit, and making the town believe that The Lover's Melancholy came from the mint of Shakspeare. Some additional information on this subject, which I have lately obtained, appears to me so decisively to confirm and establish my opinion, that I shall here, though somewhat out of place, devote a few pages to the examination of this question.
Having always thought with indignation on the tastelessness of the scholars of that age in preferring Jonson to Shakspeare after the death of the latter, I did not find myself much inclined to dispute the authenticity of a paper, which, in its general tenout, was conformable to my own notions : but the love of truth ought ever to be superior to such considerations. Our poet's fame is fixed upon a basis as broad and general as the casing air, and stands in no need of such meretricious aids as the pen of fiction may be able to furnishi. However, before I entered on this discussion, I thought it incumbent on me to apply to Mr. Macklin, the author of the letter in question, upon the subject : but his memory is so much impaired, (he being now in the ninety-first year of his age,) that he scarcely recollects having written such a letter, much less the circumstances attending it. I ought, however, to add, that I had some conversation with him a few years ago upon the same topick, and then strongly urged to him that no kind of disgrace could attend his owning that this letter was a mere jeu d'esprit, written for an occasional harmless purpose: but he persisted in asserting that the pamphlet of which he has given an account, (for which I in vain offered by a publick advertisement, continued for some time in the newspapers, to pay two guineas, and of which no copy has been found in any publick or private library in the course of forty years,) was once in his possession; was printed in quarto, and bound up with several small political tracts of the same period; and was lost with a large collection of old plays and other books, on the coast of Ireland, in the year 1760. I cannot therefore boast, habeo confitentem reum. However, let the point be tried by those rules of evidence which regulate trials of greater importance; and I make no doubt that I shall be able to produce such testimony as shall convict our veteran comedian of having, sportively, ingeniously, and falsely, (though with no malice afore-thought,) invented and fabricated the narrative given in the letter already mentioned, contrary to the Statute of Biography, and other wholesome laws of the Parnassian Code, in this case made and provided, for the security of the rights of authors, and the greater certainty and authenticity of dramatick history.
Nor let our poet's admirers be at all alarmed, or shrink from this discussion ; for after this slight and temporary fabrick, erected to his honour, shall have been demolished, there will still remain abundant proofs of the gentleness, modesty, and humility of Shakspeare; of the overweening arrogance of old Ben; and of the ridiculous absurdity of his partizans, who for near a century set above our great dramatick poet a writer whom no man is now hardy enough to mention as even his competitor.
I must premise, that the Lover's Melancholy, written by John Ford, was announced for representation at Drurylane theatre on Friday the 22d of April, 1748. Mr. Steevens has mentioned that it was performed for a benefit; but the person for whose benefit this play was acted is in the present case very material : it was performed for the benefit of Mrs. Macklin; and consequently it was the interest of Mr. Macklin that the entertainment of that night should
prove profitable, or in other words that such expectation should be raised among the frequenters of the play-house as should draw together a numerous audience. Mr. Macklin, who had then been on the stage about twenty-five years, was sufficiently conversant with the arts of puffing, which, though now practised with perhaps superior dexterity, have at all times (by whatever name they may have gone) been tolerably well understood : and accordingly on Tuesday the 19th of April, three days before the day appointed for his wife's benefit, he inserted the following letter in The General (now The Publick) Advertiser, which appears to have escaped the notice of my predecessor :
Sir, · As The Lover's Melancholy, which is to be revived on Friday next at the theatre-royal in Drury-Lane, for the
benefit of Mrs. Macklin, is a scarce play, and in a very few hands, it is hoped, that a short account of the author, his works in general, and of that piece in particular, will not be unacceptable to the publick.
* John Ford, Esq. was one of the Middle Temple, and though but a young man when Shakspeare left the stage, yet as he lived in strict friendship with him till he died, which appears by several of Ford's sonnets and verses, it may be said with some propriety, that he was a contemporary of that great man's.
It is said that he wrote twelve or fourteen dramatick pieces, eight of which only have been collected, viz. The Broken Heart, Love's Sacrifice, Perkin Warbeck, The Ladies' Trial, 'Tis Pity she's a Whore, The Sun's Darling, a Masque, and The Lover's Melancholy
• Most of those pieces have great merit in them, particularly The Lover's Melancholy; which in the private opinion of many admirers of the stage, is written with an art, ease, and dramatick spirit, inferior to none before or since his time, Shakspeare excepted.
• The moral of this play is obvious and laudable; the fable natural, simple, interesting, and perfect in all its parts; the action one and entire; the time twelve hours, and the place a palace.
• The writing, as the piece is of that species of the drama, which is neither tragedy, nor comedy, but a play, is often in familiar, and sometimes in elevated, prose, after the manner of Shakspeare ; but when his subject and characters demand it, he has sentiment, diction, and flowing numbers, at command.
His characters are natural, and well chosen, and so distinct in manners, sentiment, and language, that each as he speaks would distinctly live in the reader's judgment, without the common help of marginal directions.
* As Ford was an intimate and a professed admirer of Shakspeare, it is not to be wondered at, that he often thinks and expresses like him; which is not his misfortune, but his happiness ; for when he is most like Shakspeare, he is most like nature. He does not put you in mind of him like a plagiarist, or an affected mere imitator; but like a true genius, who had studied under that great man, and could not avoid catching some of his divine excellence.
* This praise perhaps by some people may be thought too much ; of that the praiser pretends not to be a judge ;
he only speaks his own feeling, not with an intent to im-
[excellent play, The] * Lover's Melancholy.
“ G. Donne." « On [that excellent play] The Lover's Melancholy.
“ 'Tis not the language, nor the fore-plac'd rhimes
• Your's, B, B.' How far The Lover's Melancholy is entitled to all this high praise, it is not my business at present to inquire. I shall only observe, that this kind of prelude to a benefit play appears at that period to have been a common artifice. For the Muses Looking-Glass, an old comedy of Randolph's, being revived for the benefit of Mr. Ryan in 1718, I find an account of the author, and an high elogium on his works, in the form of a letter, inserted in the month of March, in the same newspaper.
* The words within crotchets here and below were interpolated by Mr. Macklin, not being found in the original.
+ In the original, this signature is in Greek characters, O P12os; a language with which Mr. Macklin is unacquainted. In this instance therefore he must have had the assistance of some more learned friend.
In the preceding letter it is observable, we are only told that the author of The Lover's Melancholy lived in the strictest intimacy with Shakspeare till he died, as appears by several of Ford's Sonnets and Verses (which unluckily, however, are no where to be found); that the piece is inferior to none written before or since, except those of Shakspeare; that as Ford was an intimate and professed admirer of Shakspeare, and had studied under him, it is not to be wondered at that it should be written in his manner, and that the author should have caught some portion of his divine excellence; but no hint is yet given, that The Lover's Melancholy had a still higher claim to the attention of the town than being written in Shakspeare's manner, namely, its being supposed to be compiled from the papers of that great poet, which, after his death, as we shall presently hear, fell into Ford's hands. And yet undoubtedly this valuable piece of information was on Monday the 21st day of April, (when this letter appears to have been written,) in Mr. Macklin's possession, if ever he was possessed of it; for so improbable a circumstance will not, I suppose, be urged, as that he found the
I uncommon pamphlet in which it is said to be contained, between that day and the following Friday.
Judiciously as the preceding letter was calculated to attain the end for which it was written, it appears not to have made a sufficient impression on the publick. All the boxes for Mrs. Macklin's benefit, it should seem, were not yet taken ; and the town was not quite so anxious as might have been expected, to see this transcendent and incomparable secular tragedy; though it was announced in the bills as not having been performed for one hundred years; though its moral, fable, and action, were all perfect and entire; though the time consumed in the drama was as little as the most rigid French critick could exact : and though the audience during the whole representation would enjoy the supreme felicity of beholding not a forest, an open plain, or a coinmon room, but the inside of a palace. What then was to be done? An ordinary application having failed, Spanish flies are to be tried; for though the publick might not go to see a play written in the manner of Shakspeare, they could not be so insensible as not to have some curiosity about a piece, which, if the insinuations of the author's contemporaries were to be credited, was actually written by him; a play,