Εικόνες σελίδας
PDF
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

ܕ

[ocr errors]

to remove to London, in the period, between the years 1585 and 1588 ; chased from his home, by the terriers of the law, for debt, rather than for deer-stealing, or for libelling."

The probability of this having been the case, will be much heightened, when we recollect, that between the years 1579 and 1586 the father of Shakspeare had fallen into distressed circumstances; that during the first of these periods, he had been excused paying a weekly contribution of 4d., and that during the latter he was under the necessity of resigning his office as alderman, not being able to defray the espense of attendance at the common halls; facts, which while they ascertain his impoverished state, at the same time prove his utter inability to assist his son, now burdened with a family, and anxiously looking round for the means of its support.

For the adoption of the year 1586 or 1587, as the era of our author's emigration to town, several powerful, and almost convincing, arguments may be given, and these it will be necessary here to state.

It is well ascertained that Shakspeare married in the year 1582, and Mr. Rowe has aflirmed that “in this kind of settlement he continued for some time, till an extravagance (the deer-stealing frolic) that he was guilty of, forced him both out of his country, and that way of living which he had taken up.” Now that this settlement for some time was the period which elapsed between the years 1582 and 1586, will almost certainly appear, when we recollect the domestic events which occurred during its progress; that, according to tradition, he had embraced his father's business, on entering into the marriage-state; and that the family of the poet in short was increased in this interval, by the birth of three children, baptized at Stratford; Susanna, May 26th, 1583, and Hamnet and Judith, Feb. 2d, 1581-5.

That the removal was not likely to have taken place later than 1587, will be generally admitted, when we advert to the commencement of his literary labours. The issue of research has rendered it highly probable that our bard was a corrector and improver of old plays for the stage in 1589; it has discovered from evidence amounting almost to certainty, that he was a writer for the theatre on a plan of greater originality in 1591, and that, even so early as 1592, he was noticed as a dramatic poet of some celebrity. Now, if we compare these facts, which will be noticed more fully hereaster, with the poet's own assertion, that the Venus and Adonis was “the first heir of his invention,”* it will go far to prove, that this poem, which is not a short one, and is elaborated with great care, must have been composed between his departure from Stratford, and his commencement as a writer for the stage, (that is between the years 1586 and 1589); for while there is no ground to surmise that it was written on the banks of the Avon, there is sufficient evidence to assert that it was finished, though not published, before he was hnown to fame.

It is impossible to contemplate the flight of Shakspeare from his family and nalive town, without pausing to reflect upon the consequences which followed that event; consequences most singularly propitious, not only to the intellectual character of his country in particular, but to the excitation and progress of genius throughout the world. Had not proverty and prosecution united in driving Shakspeare from his humble occupation in Wawickshire, how many matchless lessons of wisdom and morality, how many unparalleled displays of wit and imagination, of pathos and sublimity, had been buried in oblivion; pictures of emotion, of character, of passion, more profound than mere philosophy had ever conceived, more impressive than poetry had ever yet embodied; strains which shall now sound through distant posterity with increasing energy and interest, and which shall powerfully and beneficially continue to influence and to mould both national and individual feeling.

• Vide Dedication of the Poem to the Earl of Southampton.

PART II.

SHAKSPEARE IN LONDON.

CHAPTER I.

Shakspeare's Arrival in London about the Year 1546, when twenty-two Years of Age-Leaves his

Family at Stratford, visiting them occasionally-His Introduction to the Stage-His Merits a an Actor.

No era in the annals of Literary History ever perhaps occurred of greater importance, than that which witnessed the entrance of Shakspeare into the metropolis of his native country; a position which will readily be granted, if we consider the total revolution which this event produced in the Literature of the Stage, and the vast influence which, through the medium of the most popular branch of our poetry, it has subsequently exerted on the minds, manners, and taste of our countrymen. Friendless, persecuted, poor, about the early age of twenty-two, was the greatest poet wbich the world has ever seen, compelled to desert his home, his wife, his children, to seek employment from the hands of strangers. Rich, however, in talent, beyond all the sons of men, blessed with a cheerful disposition, an active mind, and a heart conscious of integrity, soon did the clouds which overspread his youth break away, and unveil a character which has ever since been the delight, the pride, the boast of England.

We have assigned some strong reasons, at the close of the last chapter, for placing the epoch of Shakspeare's arrival in London, about 1586 or 1587; and we shall now bring forward some presumptive proofs that he not only left his wife and family at Stratford on his first visit to the capital, but that his native town continued to be their settled residence during his lise.

Mr. Rowe has affirmed upon a tradition which we have no claim to dispute, that he was obliged to leave his family for some time;" a fact in the highest degree probable from the causes which led to his removal; for it is not to be supposed, situated as he then was, that he would be willing to render his wife and children the companions and partakers of the disasters and disappointments which it was probable he had to encounter. Tradition further says, as preserved in the manuscripts of Aubrey, that he was wont to go to his native country once a yeare;” and Mr. Oldys, in his collections for a life of our author, repeats this report with an additional circumstance, remarking if tradition may be trusted, 'Shakspeare often baited at the Crown Inn or Tavern in Oxford, in his journei's to and from London." It is true that these traditions, if insulated from other circumstances, might merely prove that he visited the place of his birth annually, without necessarily inferring that his family was also resident there; but if we consult the parish-register of Stratford, their testimony will indeed be strong, and powerfully confirm the deduction; for it appears on that record that, merely including his children, there is a succession of baptisms, marriages and deaths in his family at Stratford, from the year 1583 to 1616. This evidence, so satisfactory in itself

, Antony Wood, it appears, was the original author of this anecdote, for he tells us in his Athena, that John Davenant, who kept the Crown, was an admirer and lover of plays and play-makers, especial, Shakspeare, who frequented his house in his journies between Warwickshire and London.Ath. 0202. vol, ii. p. 292.

1

will be strengthened when we recollect that the poet in his mortgage, dated the Joth of March, 1612-13, is described as William Shakspeare of Stratford-uponAvon, gentleman; and that by his contemporaries he was frequently styled the "Sweet Swan of Avon," designations which, when combined with the testimony already adduced, must be considered as implying the family-residence of the poet."

It was this concatenation of circumstances which induced Mr. Chalmers, than whom a more indefatigable enquirer with regard to our author has not existed, to conclude that Shakspeare had no “fixed residence in the metropolis,” por “ever considered London as his home;" but had “resolved that his wife and family should remain through life," at Stratford, “though he himself made frequent excursions to London, the scene of his profit, and the theatre of his same;" adding, in a note, that the evidence from the parish-register of Stratford had compelled even scepticism to admit his position to be very probable.

While discussing this subject in his first Apology, he has introduced a novel and most curious fact, for the purpose of guarding the reader against an apparently opposing, but too hasty inference. “If documents," he observes, “be produced to prove that one Shakspeare, a player, resided in St. Saviour's parish, Southwark, at the end of the sixteenth, or the beginning of the seventeenth, century, this evidence will not be conclusive proof of the settled residence of Shakspeare: for, it is a fact, as new as it is curious, that his brother Edmond, who was baptized on the 3d of May, 1580, became a player at the Globe; lived in St. Saviour's; and was buried in the church of that parish: the entry in the register being without a Mur; '1607 December 31 was buried), Edmond Shakspeare, a player, in the church;' there can be no dispute about the date, or the name, or the profession. It is remarkable, that the parish-clerk, who scarcely ever mentions any other distinction of the deceased, than a man, or a woman, slould, by I know not what inspiration, have recorded Edmond Shakspeare, as a player. There were, consequently, two Shakspeares on the stage, during the same period; as there were two Burbages, who were also brothers, and who acted on the same theatre." ['pon the whole, we may with considerable confidence and safety conclude, that the family-residence of Shakspeare was always at Stratford ; that he himself originally went alone to London, and that he spent the greater part of every year there alone, annually, however, and probably for some months, returning to the bosom of his family, and that this alternation continued until he finally left the capital.

Having disposed of this question, another, even still more doubtful, immediately follows, with regard to the employment and mode of life which the poet was compulled to adopt on reaching the metropolis. Mr. Rowe, recording the consequences of the prosecution in Warwickshire, observes,-"It is at this time, and upon this accident, that he is said to have made his first acquaintance in the play-house. He was received into the company then in being, at first in a very mean rank."

From this passage we may in the first place in fer, that Shakspeare, immediately on his arrival in town, applied to the theatre for support; an expedient to which there is reason to suppose he was induced, by a previous connection or acquaintance with one or more of the performers. It appears, indeed, from the researches of Mr. Malone, that the probability of his being known, even while at Stratford, to Heminge, Burbage, and Thomas Greene, all of them celebrated comedians of their day, is very considerable. “I suspect,” remarks this acute commentator, "that both he (namely, John Heminge) and Burbage were Shakspeare's countrymen, and that Heminge was born at Shottery, a village in Warwickshire, at a

Ben Jonson, in his Poem to the Memory of Shakspeare, calls him “Sweet Swan of Avon ;” and Joseph Taylor, who represented the part of Hamlet in 1596, in the dedication which he and his fellow-players wtute for Beaumont and Fletcher's Works, in 1617, speaks of the flowing compositions of the then expired Sneel Swan of Aron, Shakspeare.

very small distance from Stratford-upon-Avon; where Shakspeare found his wife. I find two families of this name setiled in that town early in the reign of Quero Elizabeth. Elizabeth, the daughter of John Heminge of Shottery, was baptized at Stratford-upon-Avon, March 12, 1567. This John might have been the father of the actor, though I have found no entry relative to his baptism: for he was probably born before the year 1558, when the Register commenced. In the village of Shottery also lived Richard Hemyng, who had a son christened by the name of John, March 7, 1570. of the Burbage family the only notice I have sound is an entry in the Register of the parish of Stratford, October 12, 1545, on which day Philip Green was married in that town to Ursula Burbage, who mizht have been sister to James Burbage, the father of the actor, whose marriage I suppose to have taken place about that time. If this conjecture be well founded, our poet, we see, had an easy introduction to the theatre."

The same remark which concludes this paragraph is repeated by the commentator when speaking of Thomas Greene, whom he terms, a celebrated comedian, the townsman of Shakspeare, and perhaps his relation. The celebrity of Greene as an actor is fully ascertained by an address to the reader, prefixed by Thomas Ileywood to bis edition of John Cook's Greene's “Tu Quoque; or, The City Gallant;" "as for Maister Greene," says Heywood, "all that I will speak of him (and that without flattery) is this (if I were worthy to censure), there was not an actor of his nature, in his time, of better ability in performance of what he ondertook, more applauded by the audience, of greater grace at the court, or of more general love in the city;" * but the townsmanship and allinity rest only on the inference to be drawn from an entry in the parish-register of Stratford, and from some lines quoted by Chetwood from the comedy of the “Two Maids of Moreclack,” which represent Greene speaking in the character of a clown, and declaring

I prattled poesie in my nurse's arms,
And, born, where late our Swan of Avon sung,
In Avon's streams we both of us have lav'd,

And both came out together.”+ As these lines are not, however, in the play from which they are pretended to have been taken; as they appear to be a parody on a passage in Milton's Lycidas, and as Chetwood has been detected in falsifying and forging many of his dates, little credit can be attached to their evidence, and we must solely depend upon the import of the register, which records that “Thomas Greene, alias Shahspere, was buried there, March 6th, 1589." If this Thomas were the father of the actor, and the probability of this being the case cannot be denied, and may even have led to the attempted imposition of Chetwood, the affinity as well as the tow bimanship, will be established.

It seems, therefore, neither rash nor inconsequent to believe, in failure of more direct evidence, that the channel through which Shahspeare, immediately on his arrival in town, procured an introduction to the stage, was first open by bis relationship to Greene, who possessing, as we have seen, great merit an. influence as an actor, could easily insure him a connection at the theatre, and would naturally recommend him to his countryman Heminge, who was theo about thirty years of age, and had already acquired considerable reputation as a performer. 1

Mr. Rowe's second assertion that he was received into the company, then in being, at first in a very mean rank, has given rise to some reports relative to the nature of his early employment at the theatre, which are equally inconsistent and degrading. It has been related that his first office was that of Call-boy, or at* Ancient British Drama, vol ii. p. 539.

+ British Theatre, p. 9. Mr Chalmers, speaking of Heininges says-“ There is reason to believe, that he was, orizzare Warwickshire lad; a shire, which kas produced so many players and poets; the Burbages, the shadspeares, the Greens, and the Harts." Apology, p. 435, 136.

[ocr errors]

tendant on the prompter, and that his business was to give notice to the performers when their different entries on the stage were required. Another tradition, which places him in a still meaner occupation, is said to have been transmitted through the medium of Sir William Davenant to Mr. Betterton, who commnicated it to Mr. Rowe, and this gentleman to Mr. Pope, by whom, according to Dr. Johnson, it was related in the following terms :

“In the lime of Elizabeth, coaches being yet uncommon, and bired coaches not at all in use, those who were too proud, too tender, or loo idle to walk, went on horseback to any distant business or diversion. Many came on horseback to the play, and when Shakspeare fled to London from the terror of a criminal prosecution, his first expedient was to wait at the door of the playhouse, and hold the horses of those that had no servants, that they might be ready again after the performance. To this office he became so conspicuous for his care and readiness, That in a short time every man as he alighted called for Will. Shakspeare, and scarcely any other waiter was trusted with a horse while Will. Shakspeare could be bad. This was ibe first dawn of belter fortune. Shakspeare, finding more horses put into his hand than he could hold, hired boys 10 wait under his inspection, who, when Will. Shakspeare was summoned, were immediately lo present themselves, I am Shakspeare's boy, Sir. In time, Shakspeare found higher employment : but as long as the practice of riding to the playhouse continued, the waiters that held the horses relained the appellation of Shakspeare's boys.'

of this curious anecdote it should not be forgotten, that it made its first appearance in Cibber's Lives of the Poets ;* and that if it were known to Mr. Rowe, it is evident he thought it so little entitled to credit that he chose not to risk its insertion in his life of the poet. In short, if we reflect for a moment that Shakspeare, though he fled from Stratford to avoid the severity of a prosecution, could not be destitute either of money or friends, as the necessity for that flight was occasioned by an imprudent ebullition of wit, and not by any serious delinquency ; that the father of his wife was a yeoman both of respectability and property; that his own parent, though impoverished, was still in business; and that he had, in all likelihood, a ready admission to the stage through the influence of persons of leading weight in its concerns; we cannot, without doing the utmost violence to probability, conceive that, under these circumstances, and in the twenty-third year of his age, he would submit to the degrading employment of either a horse-holder at the door of a theatre, or of a call-boy within its walls.

Setting aside, therefore, these idle tales, we may reasonably conclude that by the phrase "a very mean rank,” Mr. Rowe meant to imply, that his first engagement as an actor was in the performance of characters of the lowest class. That his fellow-comedians were ushered into the dramatic world in a similar way, and rose to higher occupancy by gradation, the history of the stage will sufficiently prove: Richard Burbage, for instance, who began his career nearly at the same time with our author, and who subsequently became the greatest tragedian of his age, had, in the year 1589, appeared in no character more important than that of a Messenger. If this were the case with a performer of such acknowledged merit, we may readily acquiesce in the supposition that the parts first given to Shakspeare were equally as insignificant; and as readily allow that an actor thus circumstanced might very properly be said to have been admitted into the company at first in a very mean rank.

As Shakspeare's immediate employment, therefore, on his arrival in town, appears to have been that of an actor, it cannot be deemed irrelevant if we should here enquire into his merits and success in this department.

Two traditions, of a contradictory complexion, have reached us relative to Shakspeare's powers as an actor; one on the authority of Mr. Aubrey, and the other on that of Mr. Rowe. In the manuscript papers of the first of these gentlemen, we are told that our author, “being inclined naturally to poetry and acting, came to London, and was an actor at one of the play-houses, and did act

[ocr errors][merged small]
« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »