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It would be highly interesting to be able to point out what were the characters which Shakspeare performed, either in his own plays, or in those of other writers; but the information which we have on this subject is, unfortunately, very scanty. Mr. Rowe has mentioned, as the sole result of his enquiries, that the Ghost in Hamlet was his chef-d'œuvre. That this part, however, in the opinion of the poet, required some skill and management in the execution, is evident from the expressions attributed to Hamlet, who exclaims, on the appearance of the royal spectre, during the interview between himself and his mother,
a description, which, there is reason to suppose, the author would not have ventured to introduce, unless he had been conscious of the possession of powers capable of doing justice to his own delineation.
Another tradition, preserved by Mr. Oldys, and communicated to him, as Mr. Malone thinks, by Mr. Thomas Jones of Tarbick, in Worcestershire, whom we have formerly mentioned, imports, as corrected by the commentator just mentioned, that a relation of the poet's, then in advanced age, but who in his youth had been in the habit of visiting London for the purpose of seeing him act in some of his own plays, told Mr. Jones, that he had a faint recollection "of having once seen him act a part in one of his own comedies, wherein being to personate a decrepit old man, he 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." That this part was the character of Adam, in As You Like It, there can be no doubt, and if we add, that, from the arrangement of the names of the actors and of the persons of the drama, prefixed to Ben Jonson's play of "Every Man in his Humour," first acted in 1598, there is reason to imagine that he performed the part of Old Knowell in that comedy, we may be warranted probably in drawing the conclusion, that the representation of aged characters was peculiarly his forte.
It appears, also, from the first four lines of a small poem, written by John Davies, about the year 1611, and inscribed, "To our English Terence, Mr. William Shakspeare," that our bard had been accustomed to perform kingly parts;
"Some say, good Will, which I in sport do sing,
Hadst thou not play'd some kingly parts in sport,
And been a king among the meaner sort;"
a passage which leads us to infer, that several of the regal characters in his own plays, perhaps the parts of King Henry the Eighth, King Henry the Sixth, and King Henry the Fourth, may have been appropriated to him, as adapted to the general estimate of his powers in acting.
From the notices thus collected, it will be perceived, that Shakspeare attempted not the performance of characters of the first rank; but that in the representation of those of a second-rate order, to which he modestly confined his exertions, he
* The Scourge of Folly, by John Davies of Hereford, no date.
was deemed excellent. We have just grounds also for concluding that of the theory of acting in its very highest departments, he was a complete master; and though not competent to carry his own precepts into perfect execution, he was a consummate judge of the attainments and deficiencies of his fellow-comedians, and was accordingly employed to instruct them in his own conception of the parts which they were destined to perform.
It may be considered, indeed, as a most fortunate circumstance for the lovers of dramatic poetry, that our author, in point of execution, did not attain to the loftiest summit of his profession. He would, in that case, it is very probable, have either sate down content with the high reputation accruing to him from this source, or would have found little time for the labours of composition, and consequently we should have been in a great degree, if not altogether, deprived of what now constitute the noblest efforts of human genius.
Shakspeare commences a Writer of Poetry, probably about the year 1587, by the composition of his Venus and Adonis-Historical Outline of Polite Literature, during the Age of Shakspeare.
As the first object of Shakspeare must necessarily have been, from the confined nature of his circumstances, to procure employment, it is highly reasonable to conclude that he at first contented himself with the diligent discharge of those duties which fell to his share as an actor of inferior rank. That these, however, were calculated to absorb, for any length of time, a mind so active, ample, and creative, cannot for a moment be credited; and, indeed, we are warranted, by every fair inference, to assert, that, no sooner did he consider his situation at the theatre of Blackfriars as tolerably secured, than he immediately directed his powers to the cultivation of his favourite art-that of poetry.
Of his inclination to this elegant branch of literature, we have an early proof, in the mode of retaliation which he adopted, in consequence of his prosecution by Sir Thomas Lucy; and that the Venus and Adonis, "the first heir of his invention," as he terms it, was commenced, not long subsequent to this period, and shortly after his arrival in town, a little enquiry will induce us to consider as an almost established fact.
It has, indeed, been surmised, by a very intelligent critic, that this poem may have been written while its author "felt the powerful incentive of love,' and consequently "before he had sallied from Stratford;" "certainly," he adds, "before he was known to fame." The first suggestion we may dismiss as a mere supposition; the second must be acknowledged as founded on truth.
All the commentators agree in fixing on the year 1591, as the latest period for our author's commencement as a dramatic poet: for this obvious reason, that both Greene and Chettle have mentioned him as a writer of plays in 1592, and in such a manner, likewise, as proves that he was even then possessed of some degree of notoriety, the latter mentioning his "facetious grace in writing," and the former after calling him "an upstart crow beautified with our feathers," and parodying a line from the Third Part of King Henry VI., concludes by telling us, that he is in his own conceit the only SHAKE-SCENE in the country;" circumstances which have naturally induced the most sagacious critics on our bard to infer, that, thus early to have excited so much envy as this railing accusation evinces, he must without doubt have been a corrector and improver of plays anterior to 1590, and very probably in 1589.
Now, though the first edition of the Venus and Adonis was not published until 1593, yet the author's positive declaration, that it was "the first heir of his invention," necessarily implies that its composition had taken place prior to any poetical attempts for the stage; and as we have seen, that his arrival in town could not have occurred before 1586; that he was then immediately employed as an actor in a very inferior rank; and that his earliest efforts as a dramatic poet may be attributed to the year 1589 or 1590, it will follow, as a legitimate deduction, if we allow the space of a twelvemonth for his settlement at the theatre, that the composition of this poem, "the first heir of his invention," must be given to the interval elapsing between the years 1587 and 1590, a period not too extended, the nature of his other engagements being considered, for the completion of a poem very nearly amounting to twelve hundred lines.
Having thus conducted Shakspeare to his entrance on the career of authorship and fame, it will now be necessary, in conformity with our plan, to take a general and cursory survey of Literature, as it existed in the reigns of Elizabeth and James. The remainder of this chapter will therefore be devoted to a broad outline on this subject, reserving, however, the topics of Romance and Miscellaneous Poetry, for distinct and immediately subsequent consideration, as these will form an apposite prelude to an estimate of the patronage which our author enjoyed, to a critique on his poems, and to critical notices of contemporary miscellaneous poets, enquiries which, while they embrace, in one view, the merits of Shakspeare as a miscellaneous poet, are, at the same time, in their preliminary and collateral branches, in some degree preparatory to his introduction as a dramatic writer; preparatory also to a sketch of the manners, customs, and diversions of the metropolis, during his age, and to a discussion of his transcendent powers as the bard of fancy and of nature.
The literary period of which we are proceeding to give a slight sketch, may be justly considered as the most splendid in our annals; for in what equal portion of our history can we bring forward three such mighty names as Spenser, Bacon, and Shakspeare, each, in their repective departments, remaining without a rival. As the field, however, is so ample that even to do justice to an outline will require much attention to arrangement, it will be necessary to distribute what we have to offer, in this stage of our work, under the heads of Bibliography, Philology, Criticism, History, General, Local, and Personal, and Miscellaneous Literature; premising that as we confine ourselves, in the strictest sense, to elegant literature, or what has been termed the Belles Lettres, science, theology, and politics will, of course, be excluded.
Literature, which had for some centuries been confined to ecclesiastics and scholars by profession, was, at the commencement of Elizabeth's reign, thrown open to the higher classes of general society. The example was given by the Queen herself; and the nobility, the superior orders of the gentry, and even their wives and daughters, became enthusiasts in the cause of letters. The novelty which attended these studies, the eager desire to possess what had been so long studiously and jealously concealed, and the curiosity to explore and rifle the treasures of the Greek and Roman world, which mystery and imagination has swelled into the marvellous, contributed to excite an absolute passion for study and for books. The court, the ducal castle, and the baronial hall were suddenly converted into academies, and could boast of splendid libraries, as well as of splendid tapestries. In the first of these, according to Ascham, might be seen the Queen reading "mbre Greeke every day, than some prebendarie of this church doth read Latin in a whole week," and while she was translating Isocrates on Seneca, it may be easily conceived that her maids of honour found it convenient to praise and to adopt the disposition of her time. In the second, observes Warton, the daughter of a duchess was taught not only to distil strong waters, but to construe Greek; and in the third, every young lady who aspired to be fashionable was compelled, in imitation of the greater world, to exhibit similar marks of crudition.
If such were the studious manners of the ladies, it will readily be credited, that an equal, if not a greater attachment to literature existed in the other sex; in short, an intimacy with Greek, Latin, and Italian was deemed essential to the character of the nobleman and the courtier; and learning was thus rendered a passport to promotion and rank. That this is not an exaggerated statement, but founded on contemporary authority, will be evident from a passage in Harrison's Description of England, where, after delineating the court, he adds,-"This further is not to be omitted, to the singular commendation of both sorts and sexes of our courtiers here in England, that there are verie few of them, which have not the use and skill of sundrie speaches, beside an excellent veine of writing before time not regarded.—Trulie it is a rare thing with us now, to heare of a courtier which hath but his owne language. And to saie how many gentlewomen and ladies there are, that beside sound knowledge of the Greeke and Latine toongs, are thereto no lesse skilfull in the Spanish, Italian, and French, or in some one of them, it resteth not in me: sith I am persuaded, that as the noblemen and gentlemen do surmount in this behalfe, so these come verie little or nothing at all behind them for their parts, which industrie God continue, and accomplish that which otherwise is wanting!" Again, a few lines below, he remarks of the ladies of the court, that some of them employ themselves "in continuall reading either of the holie scriptures, or histories of our owne or forren nations about us, and diverse in writing volumes of their owne, or translating of other mens into our English and Latine toongs;"* employments which now appear to us very extraordinary as the daily occupations of a court, but were, then, the natural result of that ardent love of letters, which had somewhat suddenly been diffused through the higher classes.
Were we, however, to conclude, that the same erudite taste pervaded the bulk of the people, or even the middle orders of society, we should be grossly mistaken. Literature, though cultivated with enthusiasm in the metropolis, was confined even there to persons of high rank, or to those who were subservient to their education and amusement. In the country, to read and write were still esteemed rare accomplishments, and among the rural gentry of not the first degree, little difference, in point of literary information, was perceptible between the master and his menial attendant. Of this several of the plays of Spakspeare and Jonson will afford evidence, especially the comedies of the Merry Wives of Windsor, and Every Man in his Humour, to which a striking proof may be added from Burton, who wrote just at the close of the Shakspearian period; and, in treating of study, as a cause of melancholy, says,
"I may not deny, but that we have a sprinkling of our Gentry, here, and there, one, excellently well learned ;—but they are but few in respect of the multitude, the major part (and some again excepted, that are indifferent) are wholly bent for Hawks and Hounds, and carried away many times with intemperate lust, gaming and drinking. If they read a book at any time, 'tis an English Chronicle, Sir Huon of Bordeaux, Amadis de Gaule, &c., a play-book, or some pamphlet of News, and that at seasons only, when they cannot stir abroad, to drive away time; their sole discourse is dogs, hawks, horses, and what News? If some one have been a traveller in Italy, or as far as the Emperour's Court, wintered in Orleance, and can court his mistris in broken French, wear his clothes neatly in the newest fashion, sing some choice out-landish tunes, discourse of lords, ladies, towns, palaces, and cities, he is compleat and to be admired: otherwise he and they are much at one; no difference betwixt the master and the man, but worshipful titles: wink and choose betwixt him that sits down (clothes excepted) and him that holds the trencher behind him."†
It is to the court, therefore, and its attendants, to the nobility, higher gentry, and their preceptors, that we are to look for that ardent love of books and learning which so remarkably distinguished the reigns of Elizabeth and James, and which was destined, in another century, to descend into, and illuminate the larger
masses of our population. Nothing, indeed, can more forcibly paint Elizabeth's passion for books and learning, than a passage in Harrison's unadorned but faithful description of her court:
to avoid idlenesse, and
"Finallie,” says that interesting pourtrayer of ancient manners, prevent sundrie transgressions, otherwise likelie to be,committed and doone, such order is taken, that everie office hath either a bible, or a booke of the acts and monuments of the church of England, or both, beside some histories and chronicles lieing therein, for the exercise of such as come into the same: whereby the stranger that entereth into the court of England upon the sudden, shall rather imagine himselfe to come into some publike schoole of the universities, where manie gave eare to one that readeth, than into a princes palace, if you conferre the same with those of other nations. Would to God all honourable personages would take the example of hir graces godlie dealing in this behalfe, and shew their conformitie unto these hir so good beginnings! which if they would, then should manie grievous offences (wherewith God is highlie displeased) be cut off and restreined, which now doo reigne exceedinglie, in most noble and gentlemen's houses, whereof they see no patterne within hir graces gates.)”*
Well might Mr. Dibdin apostrophize this learned Queen in the following picturesque and characteristic terms:
"All hail to the sovereign, who, bred up in severe habits of reading and meditation, loved books and scholars to the very bottom of her heart! I consider Elizabeth as a royal bibliomaniac of transcendant fame!I see her, in imagination, wearing her favourite little Volume of Prayers,† the composition of Queen Catharine Parr, and Lady Tirwit, 'bound in solid gold, and hanging by a gold chain at her side,' at her morning and evening devotions—afterwards, as she became firmly seated upon her throne, taking an interest in the embellishments of the Prayer Book, which goes under her own name; and then indulging her strong bibliomaniacal appetites in fostering the institution for the erecting of a Library, and an Academy for the study of Antiquities and History." S
The example of Elizabeth, whose taste for books had been fostered under the tuition of Ascham, was speedily followed by some of the first characters in the kingdom; but by none with more ardent zeal then by Archbishop Parker, who was such an indefatigable admirer and collector of curious and precious books, and of every thing that appertained to them, that, according to Strype, ke kept constantly in his house "drawers of pictures, wood-cutters, painters, limners, writers, and book-binders,-one of these was Lylye, an excellent writer, that could counterfeit any antique writing. Him the archbishop customarily used to make old books compleat." No expense, in short, was spared, by this amiable and and accomplished divine, in procuring the most rare and valuable articles; his library was daily increased through the medium of numerous agents, whom he employed, both at home and abroad, and among these was Batman, the author of of the "Doome" and the commentator " uppon Bartholome," who, we are told, purchased for him not less than 6700 books"in the space of no more than four years."++
To Parker succeeded the still more celebrated names of Sir Robert Cotton and
Holinshed's Chronicles, vol. i. p. 331.
"The reader is referred to an account of a preciously bound diminutive godly book (once belonging to Q. Elizabeth), in the first volume of my edition of the British Typographical Antiquities, p. 83.; for which, I understand, the present owner asks the sum of 1507. We find that in the 16th year of Elizabeth's reign, she was in possession of One Gospell booke, covered with tissue and garnished on th' inside with the crucifix and the Queene's badges of silver guilt, poiz with wodde, leaves and all, cxij oz." Archæologia, vol. xiii. p. 221.
"I am in possession of the covers of a book, bound (A. D. 1569) in thick parchment or vellum, which has the whole length portrait of Luther on one side, and of Calvin on the other. These portraits, which are executed with uncommon spirit and accuracy, are encircled with a profusion of ornamental borders of the most exquisite taste and richness" Bibliomania, թ. 158.
"In the Prayer Book which goes by the name of Queen Elizabeth's, there is a portrait of Her Majesty kneeling upon a superb cushion with elevated hands, in prayer. This book was first printed in 1575; and is decorated with wood-cut borders of considerable spirit and beauty; representing, among other things, some of the subjects of Holbein's Dance of Death."
§ Dibdin's Bibliomania, 2d edit. 1811, p. 329–331. This book, the most fascinating which has ever been written on Bibliography, is already scarce. It is composed in the highest tone of enthusiasm for the art. and its dialogue and descriptions are given with a mellowness, a warmth and raciness, which absolutely fix and enchant the reader.
Strype's Life of Parker, p. 415, 529.
Ibid. p. 528.