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The PLAYS attributed to SHAKSPERE
-Primusque per avia campi
Usque procul (necdum totas lux moverat umbras),
Corporaque ire videt.
Trattando l'ombre come cosa saldo.
EVERY circumstance that relates to those persons whose writings we admire, interests our curiosity. The time and place of their birth, their education and gradual attainments, the dates of their productions, and the reception they severally met with, their habits of life, their private friendships, and even their external form, are all points, which, how little soever
they may have been adverted to by their contemporaries, strongly engage the attention of posterity. Not satisfied with receiving the aggregated wisdom of ages as a free gift, we visit the mansions where our instructors are said to have resided, we contemplate with pleasure the trees under whose shade they once reposed, and wish to see and to converse with those sages, whose labours have added strength to virtue, and efficacy to truth.
Shakspere, above all writers, since the days of Homer, has excited this curiosity in the highest degree; as, perhaps, no poet of any nation was ever more idolized by his countrymen. An ardent desire to understand and explain his works, has, to the honour of the present age, so much increased within these last thirty years, that more has been done towards their elucidation, during that period*, than, perhaps, in a century before. All the ancient copies of his plays, hitherto discovered, have been collated with the most scrupulous accuracy. The meanest books have been carefully examined, only because they were of the age in which he lived, and might, happily, throw a light on some forgotten custom, or obsolete phraseology: and, this object being still kept in view, the toil of wading through all such reading as was never read, has been cheerfully endured, because
* Within the period here mentioned, the commentaries of Warburton, Edwards, Heath, Johnson, Tyrwhitt, Farmer, and Steevens, have been published.
no labour was thought too great, that might enable us to add one new laurel to the father of our drama. Almost every circumstance that tradition or history has preserved, relative to him or his works, has been investigated, and laid before the publick; and the avidity with which all communications of this kind have been received, sufficiently proves, that the time expended in the pursuit has not been wholly misemployed.
However, after the most diligent inquiries, very few particulars have been recovered, respecting his private life, or literary history: and while it has been the endeavour of all his editors and commentators, to illustrate his obscurities, and to regulate and correct his text, no attempt has been made to trace the progress and order of his plays. Yet, surely, it is no incurious speculation, to mark the gradations * by
*It is not pretended, that a regular scale of gradual improvement is here presented to the publick; or that, if even Shakspere himself had left us a chronological list of his dramas, it would exhibit such a scale. All that is meant is, that, as his knowledge increased, and as he became more conversant with the stage and with life, his performances, in general, were written more happily, and with greater art; or (to use the words of Dr. Johnson), "that, however favoured by nature, he could only impart what he had learned, and as he must increase his ideas, like other mortals, by gradual acquisition, he, like them, grew wiser as he grew older, could display life better as he knew it more, and
which he rose from mediocrity to the summit of excellence; from artless and uninteresting dialogues, to those unparalleled compositions, which have rendered him the delight and wonder of successive ages.
instruct with more efficacy, as he was himself more amply instructed." Of this opinion also was Mr. Pope. be observed (says he), that when his performances had merited the protection of his prince, and when the encouragement of the court had succeeded to that of the town, the works of his riper years are manifestly raised above those of his former.And I make no doubt that this observation would be found true in every instance, were but editions extant from which we might learn the exact time when every piece was composed, and whether writ for the town or the court." From the following lines it appears, that Dryden also thought that our author's most imperfect plays were his earliest dramatick compositions:
"Your Ben and Fletcher, in their first young flight,
"But hopp'd about, and short excursions made
The materials for ascertaining the order in which his plays were written, are indeed so few, that, it is to be feared, nothing very decisive can be produced on this subject. In the following attempt to trace the progress of his dramatick art, probability alone is pretended to. The silence and inaccuracy of those persons, who, after his death, had the revisal of his papers, will, perhaps, for ever prevent our attaining
"Who still looks lean, sure with some p- is curst,
Prologue to the tragedy of Circe.
The plays which Shakspere produced before the year 1600, are known, and are about eighteen in number. The rest of his dramas, we may conclude, were composed between that year and the time of his retiring to the country. It is incumbent on those, who differ in opinion from the great authorities above-mentioned, who think with Rowe, that " we are not to look for his beginning in his least perfect works," it is incumbent, I say, on those persons, to enumerate in the former class, that is, among the plays produced before 1600, compositions of equal merit with Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night, which we have reason to believe were all written in the latter period; and among his late performances, that is, among the plays which are supposed to have appeared after the
year 1600, to point out five pieces, as hasty, indigested, and uninteresting, as the first and third parts of K. Henry VI. Love's Labour Lost, The Comedy of Errors, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which, we know, were among his earlier works.