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Whatever may be the merits of this pasquinade as an effort of genius, and we cannot allow it much, its effects, as a satire upon Sir Thomas, were so bitterly felt, that he immediately ordered an attorney at Warwick to proceed against the juvenile libeller;
and the prosecution was conducted with so much severity, that he was glad to escape from the county and find refuge in London. It is also said that pecuniary difficulties besides induced him to change his residence, and that “the terriers of the law, for debt, rather than for deer-stealing, or for libelling, chased him from his home.” However this may be, it is certain that Shakspeare never quite forgave the harshness of Sir Thomas Lucy, which we find him, many years after, avenging by the ridiculous picture which he draws of a justice of the peace, in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” under the character of “ Justice Shallow.”
On his arrival in London, in 1586, or 1587, Shakspeare, either by some accident, or from inclination, became connected with the stage; not indeed, at first, as an original writer, but as a corrector and remodeller of old plays; was not until 1591 that he supplied more original composition for the theatre, nor till the succeeding year that he was noticed as a dramatic writer of any celebrity. But before this he had commenced the profession of an author by publishing his poem entitled “ Venus and Adonis," with a dedication to the Earl of Southampton.
Shakspeare's departure from Stratford, whether caused by the prosecution of Sir Thomas Lucy, or by his debts, or by both, was so sudden that he was not able to take his family with him, but left them in his native place, where they continued to live during his life, and where he managed to visit them once a-year. As to his original employment at the theatre there is much doubt and discussion. One author asserts that he was received into the company in a very mean rank, that his situation was that of a call-boy, and that his business was to tell the different actors when their presence on the stage was required. Another places him still lower, and informs us that, since many persons in those days, when coaches were very uncommon, were wont to come to the
theatre on horseback, and whilst there, if they did not bring their own servants, needed some one to hold their horses in readiness against their coming out again, for which they bestowed a trifling reward,--Shakspeare's first expedient to support himself on his arrival in London was to wait at the entrance of the playhouse, and by such an employment to endeavour to earn a livelihood. Another account, and a more probable one, is, that from being a fellow-countryman of some well-known actors of that period, he was immediately introduced to the stage and employed as a player, though not at first in any but mean and insignificant parts. He seems, indeed, never to have aspired to the highest characters, but to have contented himself with second-rate personations at the utmost; and the part of the Ghost, in his own play of “Hamlet,” was, according to one of his biographers, “ the top of his performance.” The characters, however, which he did sustain, were ably performed, as we may gather from what we are told of his performance of “ Adam,” in “ As You Like It.” One who frequently saw him in that character describes him as admirably performing “the decrepit old man who wore a long beard, and appeared so weak and drooping, and unable to walk, that he was forced to be supported and carried by another person to a table, at which he was seated among some company who were eating, and one of them sung a song.” The representation of aged characters seems to have been his forte, for there is reason to suppose that in the play of “ Every Man in his Humour,” by Ben Jonson, he took the part of Old Knowell. The “kingly parts,” too, according to an old poem, by John Davies, dedicated to our English Terence, Mr. William Shakspeare, were favourites with our poet, as an actor; part of the dedication runs thus :
“Some say, good Will, which I in sport do sing,
Hadst thou not played some kingly parts in sport,
And been a king among the meaner sort;"
from which we may not be far wrong if we infer that
of the personations of kings in his own plays, such as the parts of Henry the Fourth, Henry the Sixth, and Henry the Eighth, were considered by himself and others as not badly adapted to his powers; an inference which is quite compatible with the opinion that second-rate characters were preferred by him, and that he performed the part of the Ghost, in “Hamlet.”
The theatre at Blackfriars a famous one at that time—was the scene of Shakspeare's early performances; and no sooner did he consider himself established there than he commenced the work of a dramatic writer. Before this, most likely previous to his flight from Stratford, he had tried his skill as a poet in writing, as we before remarked, his “ Venus and Adonis.” The publication of even his earliest plays attracted some attention, but not of the most pleasant kind, for in 1592, only one year after his first production, Chettle and Greene, minor poets of the period, both mention him, but not without some acrimony and jealousy; one speaking of his "facetious grace in writing,” and the other calling him “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers ;” and after parodying a line from the third part of Henry the Sixth, he concludes by telling us that he is “ an absolute Johannes Factotum, and in his own conceit the only SHAKE-SCENE in the country.”
It might not appear to be out of place to give here some account of the successive production of Shakspeare's dramas; but even if it could be positively told, which it cannot, in what order they were published, such an enumeration would be uninteresting without some critical notice of each play, and that would occupy far more space than we can spare; remarks upon the dramas selected for this volume will be found
prefixed to each of them in the order which we have adopted.
Shakspeare's new occupation as an author did not draw him from his profession of an actor, which he exercised for seventeen years at least, being most probably obliged to combine the two employments by reason of the scanty remuneration which his works procured him; for during the first ten years of his residence in London he had no patron but the Earl of Southampton, to whom his first work had been dedicated. But then the fame arising from his poems, and, more especially, from the dramas of “Romeo and Juliet," and “ Richard the Third,” secured him the notice of many of his contemporaries, and obtained him the support and encouragement of the Earl of Pembroke, and of the Earl of Montgomery, “who," as say the editors of the first folio edition of his writings, “prosecuted our poet's plays, and their author living, with much favour.”
In 1596, he lost his only son Hamnet, a youth twelve years of age, which must have been a sad drawback upon his improving fortunes. At this time he was living near the Bear-Garden in Southwark; but this he still only regarded as a temporary residence, always hoping eventually to return and live permanently in his native place. Keeping this in view, in 1597, he purchased of William Underhill, Esq. a large house at Stratford, which, when repaired and beautified, he called New Place. His generous and early patron, Lord Southampton, most likely assisted him in this purchase. It was here that some years after he planted his celebrated mulberrytree, which, in 1756, was sacrilegiously (we may almost say) cut down by the then owner of New Place, the Rev. Francis Gastrell,' and sold for fire-wood, because he disliked the trouble which visitors wbo came to see Shakspeare's tree entailed upon him. The wood, however, met with a somewhat less ignoble end, for being bought by one Sharp, a watchmaker at Stratford, it was by him converted into various ornaments, such as small boxes, cups, toys, tooth-pick cases, and many other articles ; so many things, indeed, were made of Shakspeare's mulberry-tree, that the worthy watchmaker has been suspected, and perhaps not unjustly, of more ingeniously than honestly imposing upon the credulity of his customers by substituting wood from other mulberry-trees to take the place of the veritable tree, in order to meet the eager fancy of the curious.
In 1598 Shakspeare became acquainted with Ben Jonson, who, notwithstanding the common story that he was introduced to the stage as a writer by his great contemporary, was already well known to the public for his play of “Every Man
(1) This same person, in a fit of anger, actually rased to the ground New Place, the scene of Shakspeare's retirement, where he spent his latter days, and where he died!
in his Humour.” The year following it is not unlikely that he visited Scotland, and thence collected some of the materials which enabled him to compose his great tragedy, “Macbeth :" some suppose him to have gone thither in company with certain players whom Queen Elizabeth, at the request of King James, sent to Edinburgh.
In 1601, the same year in which he lost his father, Shakspeare, by his wonderful compositions, drew upon himself the observation and applause of the Court. Queen Elizabeth was so delighted with his “ Two Parts of Henry the Fourth,” that she honoured him with a command to produce Falstaff, which character especially pleased her, in another play. This was done in a fortnight, as we are told, and her Majesty was completely satisfied with the performance. Indeed, both Elizabeth and James were not backward in their patronage of our immortal bard, both of whom “were taken with his flights,” to use the language of Ben Jonson. Shakspeare's difficulties and hardships were now past, and he became year by year more and more possessed of that fortune which his talents and virtues deserved; and this increase in his means enabled him the year following to buy for 3201. (a much larger sum then than now) upwards of one bundred acres of land at Stratford, which he annexed to his previous purchase of New Place.
His easy circumstances now induced him to relinquish his profession as an actor, and to devote all his attention to writing plays, and to managing the Globe Theatre at Southwark, to which he had been licensed with several others by King James, in May 1603. The last, or at all events one of the last plays in which he acted was the “Sejanus ” of Ben Jonson. Being thus released from the irksome labour of acting he found time to cultivate more closely the conversation and acquaintance of his contemporaries; and for this he resorted, together with Jonson, to the famous club at “ the Mermaid,” which had been originally instituted by Sir Walter Raleigh. Here would he spend many of his evenings; and in the society of Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Selden, Cotton, Carew, Martin, Donne, and many others, delighted himself in what Fuller calls “ wit-combats :” “Many were the wit