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But Shakespeare's purpose differed slightly from Montaigne's: it was not to his kinsfolk and friends, but to the world at large that he wished to make himself known; and he wished to make himself known only when, through recognising the exceptional value of his work, perhaps generations thence, the world wished and sought to know him.
But whether Shakespeare's idea of writing his autobiographical Sonnets owed anything to Montaigne or not, that the Sonnets are autobiographical, that they present a picture of the poet's mind under an allegory, we have been told by one who, all will agree, was more likely to know than anyone except Shakespeare himself. We mean Ben Jonson.
The statement is contained in his lines to Shakespeare in the First Folio; but before we examine them it is necessary that we should have a correct idea of the circumstances under which they were written. They were not written as in general such commendatory verses would be written-immediately after having read in manuscript the works to which they are prefixed. Jonson knew the man, had seen the plays on the stage, and had doubtless read as they appeared such of them as had been previously published in quarto; those responsible for the production of the First Folio, therefore, would not submit to him such a mass of material as the thirtysix plays, which make up the First Folio, but would simply say that they wished to have some verses from him about his old friend and his work; and so he would naturally write of Shakespeare and his work as a whole. This, in fact, he professes to do, addressing his verses to
nothing short of To the memory of my beloved, the author, Master William Shakespeare, and what he hath left us.'
He naturally gives the greater part of his attention to Shakespeare as dramatist, whose office Shakespeare himself defines in defining the purpose of playing'whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 't were the mirror up to nature';--but he was careful to note that Shakespeare was not occupied solely as a dramatist, solely in 'holding the mirror up to nature'; he was careful to note that he was occupied too in another sphere of work, in which Nature-physical nature and the nature of man-was used merely as the matter in which to set forth his 'feigning.' Jonson wrote:
'Nature herself was proud of his designs,
As they were not of Nature's family.
Shakespeare's plays were considered in his own time and for long afterwards the product of nature to the exclusion of art';-Shakespeare supposed to have been a child of nature who produced his plays almost without conscious artifice. But in his lines to Shakespeare Jonson does not use the word 'Nature' in this sense.
Throughout he speaks of Nature as something which Shakespeare had been 'mirroring,' 'presenting,' 'dressing'; and he says that Shakespeare had presented the varied nature of man so truly that Nature herself was proud to be so set forth, and disdained to accept as true others' presentment of her; that the works of Terence and of Plautus lie deserted because mankind as presented therein were unnatural-not of Nature's family. After saying that Shakespeare presented Nature truly and others did not, Jonson continues:
'Yet must I not give Nature all thy Art,
These words have been taken to mean:- Yet I must not consider that your plays were the product of Nature to the exclusion of Art; Art had some share in them.' But Jonson did not mean this. His reference to Nature in the above two lines is, as in the lines which precede them, to Nature as something that Shakespeare had been 'mirroring,' as is proved by his later words, 'for though the poet's matter Nature be'; and his words mean: 'Yet in writing of what you have left us, I must not write as though you had left us plays only: I must not consider that you were occupied solely in work whose end was to mirror Nature: you were occupied also in another sphere of work, in which Art played the chief part, physical nature and the nature of man being there but the matter in which is expressed your "feigning." He used the word Art' in reference to Shakespeare's 'feigning' in the Sonnets; as John Warren did in his lines prefixed to the first reprint of the Sonnets (1640):
Let carping Momus bark and bite his fill,
Jonson cannot have been separately and specially praising Shakespeare's art as dramatist, for, some five years earlier (towards the end of 1618), his criticism of Shakespeare as dramatist,1 to Drummond of Hawthornden, was: Shakespeare wanted art.'2 And in expressing this opinion he was in harmony with all but comparatively recent critics. Here are a few of the earliest opinions:
1632. MILTON: 3
'For whilst to th' shame of slow-endeavouring Art
1640. LEONARD DIGGES: 4
'Poets are borne not made, when I would prove
'He was an eminent instance of the truth of that Rule, 1 We say ་ as dramatist' though Jonson's dictum occurs in complete isolation; for we suppose that no one will deny that it is a moral certainty that the words were applied to Shakespeare as playwright, since he was so preponderatingly such, and in his plays utterly disregarded the classic rules of construction, while Jonson strongly insisted on them (Prologue, Every Man in His Humour), and produced plays which show regard for them as plainly as Shakespeare's show the lack of it. 2 Jonson's Conversation with Drummond, p. 3.
3 Verses in Second Folio edition of Shakespeare's works, 1632.
4 Verses in 1640 edition of Shakespeare's "Poems."
5 History of the Worthies of England: Warwickshire, fol. 1662, p. 126.
Poeta non fit, sed nascitur; one is not made, but born a Poet. Indeed his Learning was very little. nature it self was all the art which was used upon him.'
REV. JOHN WARD:1
'I have heard that Mr. Shakespeare was a natural wit, without any art at all.'
Halliwell-Phillipps says, ... and by exhibiting his marvellous conceptions in the pristine form in which they had instinctively emanated, become the poet of nature instead of the poet of art. That Shakespeare wrote without effort, by inspiration not by design, was, so far as it has been recorded, the unanimous belief of his contemporaries and immediate successors.' 2
Jonson's deliberate judgment to Drummond, agreeing as it does with the general opinion of his time, shows that the word 'Art' in the lines:
'Yet must I not give Nature all: thy Art,
distinguishes from the plays, in which Shakespeare was mirroring nature, a department of work smaller, in which he was 'feigning.' The following, from Jonson's 'Timber,' also shows that the reference is to be so understood:
1 Diary of the Rev. John Ward, ed. Severn, 1839, p. 183.
2 Outlines, ed. 1887, i. 117-18.
A poet is that which by the Greeks is called κὰτ' ἐξοχήν, Ó TоiŋTýs, a maker, or a feigner: his art an art of imitation or feigning; expressing the life of man in fit measure, numbers, and harmony, according to Aristotle: from the