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entire play, under the title of "William Longsword," and had contributed towards the composition of not less than twenty others, whilst we learn, at the same time, from Meres, that he was well known as a writer of tragedy, not a particle of his authenticated poetry, in this province, should have reached posterity.
After this concise view of the contemporaries of Shakspeare, whom we conceive to have in general adopted, either tacitly or avowedly, and with an approximation nearly proportioned to their talents, the style and structure of his drama, we have now to bring forward the mighty leader of another school, which, if not equally excellent with that established by Shakspeare, possesses the most undoubted originality, and, in its peculiar walk, a degree of merit which neither in its own day, nor in any subsequent period, has encountered any successful rivalry. To this description is it necessary to add the name of BEN JONSON?
Some attempts at a more classical construction of our drama had been made about the period when Jonson began to write: Daniel, for instance, had published his "Cleopatra," in 1594, after the models of antiquity, and Alexander, Earl of Stirling, printed, in 1603 and 1604, his Monarchic Tragedies, in which a regular chorus is introduced; but these were abortive efforts, unsupported by the requisite abilities for dramatic composition, and it remained for Jonson to impress upon his own age, and upon posterity, the conviction that an equally correct form of art might be combined with some of the striking excellencies of the Romantic school.
It is probable that when Jonson first began to write for the theatre, which we find, from Mr. Henslowe's memorandums, was as early as 1593, and in conjunction with Decker, Marston, Chettle, etc., he conformed himself to their mode of composition; but no sooner had he ventured on the stage with a comedy exclusively his own, than he aspired to the establishment of a Dramatic Literature in this province, which, while it should adhere to the structure of the classical model, might exhibit various and extensive views of human nature, and uniformly have for its object the correction of vice and folly through the medium of unsparing satire.
Success, in a very extraordinary degree, accompanied this first adventure of laudable ambition, which, under the title of Every Man in his Humour" made its appearance, at The Rose theatre, in 1596, and, with material alterations and improvements, at The Globe, in 1598. This was followed, at various periods, and almost to the very close of his life, by thirteen more pieces in the same department, of which ten are comedies, and the remaining three, as their author chose to designate them, comical satires.
That these productions, though in the line peculiarly adapted to his genius, should be equally excellent, it would be extravagant to expect. The best, and, we may add, the most incomparable in their kind, are the play just mentioned, "Volpone, or The Fox," "Epicæne, or The Silent Woman," and "The Alchemist." As much inferior to these, but yet possessed of considerable merit, we may next enumerate "The Case is Altered," "The Devil is an Ass," and "The Staple of News;" and lastly, though not devoid of interesting and well-written passages, "Bartholomew Fair," "The New Inn," "The Magnetic Lady," and "A Tale of a Tub." The comical satires, entitled "Every Man out of his Humour," "Cynthia's Revels," and "The Poetaster," are, especially the last, composed in a tone of indignant strength; and, as their appellation might lead us to suppose, are personal and severe; but probably not more so than the occasion warranted.
The fair fame of Jonson which, both in a moral and dramatic light, has, for more than a century, been overwhelmed by a cloud of ignorance and prejudice, now brightens with more than pristine lustre, through the liberal and generous efforts of some accomplished scholars of the present day; and if ever it be permitted to departed spirits to witness the transactions of this sublunary sphere, with what delight and gratitude must the spirit of the injured bard look down
upon the labours of his learned friends, upon the noble and disinterested protection of a Gilchrist, a Godwin, and a Gifford !
Under such circumstances, and with such a triumvirate in his support, it were needless, and, indeed, it were unjust, to do more than repeat in this place their own summary of his merit as a comic poet, to which we will now add, once for all, however unimportant it may be, the expression of our conviction of the ge neral justness of their sentiments with regard to his writings, and of the unanswerable nature of their defence with regard to his moral character; a tribute which we are, beyond measure, gratified in paying, as whilst they have impartially brought forward the great talents of Jonson, they have paid a full and frank acknowledgment to the superior comprehensiveness of the genius of Shakspeare; and have, at the same time, placed in a striking point of view the steady friendship which subsisted between these two luminaries of the dramatic world.
It is, however, only with the literary character of Jonson that we are now occupied; and on the topic immediately before us, the consideration of his comic powers, Mr. Godwin has cursorily, but very justly, remarked, that
"These, perhaps, compose his strongest claim to the admiration of all posterity. He excele every writer that ever existed, in the article of humour; and it is a sort of identical proposition ! say, that humour is the soul of comedy. Even the caustic severity of his turn of mind aided hi-. in this. He seized with the utmost precision the weaknesses of human character, and painte them with a truth that is altogether irresistible. Shakspeare has some characters of humas? marvellously felicitous. But the difference between these two great supporters of the English drama, in the point of view we are considering, lies here. Humour is not Shakspeare's mansion, the palace wherein he dwells; there are many of his comedies, where the humorous characters rather form the episode of the piece; poetry, the manifestation of that lovely medium through which all creation appeared to his eye, and the quick sallies of repartee, are the objects with which his comic muse more usually delights herself. But Ben Jonson is all humour; and the fertily of his muse, in characters of this sort, is wholly inexhaustible.
With a fuller elucidation of the subject, which laid more directly before him. Mr. Gifford, after commenting on the inutility of the common practice of contrasting the two poets, and after observing that "Shakspeare wants no light but his own; 'for' as he never has been equalled, and in all human probability never will be equalled, it seems an invidious employ, at best, to speculate minutely on the precise degree in which others fell short of him," proceeds to state, that "the judgment of Jonson was correct and severe, and his knowledge of human nature extensive and profound. He was familiar with the various combinations of the humours and affections, and with the nice and evanescent tints by which the extremes of opposing qualities melt into one another, and are lost to the vulgar eye but the art which he possessed in perfection, was that of marking in the happiest manner the different shades of the same quality, in different minds, so as to discriminate the voluptuous from the voluptuous, the covetous from the covetous, etc.
"In what Hurd calls picturing,' he was excellent. His characters are delineated with a breadth and vigour, as well as a truth, that display a master band: his figures stand prominent on the canvas, bold and muscular, though not elegant: his attitudes, though sometimes ungraceful, are always just; while his strict ol servation of proportion (in which he was eminently skilled,) occasionally mel lowed the hard and rigid tone of his colouring, and by the mere force of symmetry, gave a warmth to the whole, as pleasing as it was unexpected. Such, in a word, was his success, that it may be doubted whether he has been surpassed, or even equalled, by any of those who have attempted to tread in his steps.
"In the plots of his comedies, which were constructed from his own materials, he is deserving of undisputed praise. Without violence; without, indeed, any visible effort, the various even's of the story are so linked together, that they have the appearance of accidental introduction; yer
* Jonson's Works by Gifford, vol. i. p. cexeix, ecc.
they all contribute to the main design, and support that just harmony which alone constitutes a perfect fable. Such, in fact, is the rigid accuracy of his plans, that it requires a constant, and z almost painful attention, to trace out their various bearings and dependencies. Nothing is left to chance: before he sat down to write, he had evidently arranged every circumstance in his mind; preparations are made for incidents which do not immediately occur, and hints are dropped, which can only be comprehended at the unravelling of the piece. The play does not end with Jonson, because the fifth act is come to a conclusion; nor are the most important events precipitated, and the most violent revolutions of character suddenly effected, because the progress of the story has involved the poet in difficulties from which be cannot otherwise extricate himself. This praise, whatever be its worth, is enhanced by the rigid attention paid to the unities; to say nothing of those of place and character, that of time is so well observed in most of bis comedies, that the representation occupies scarcely an hour more on the stage, than the action would require in real life."
Mr. Gifford then goes on to explain, why Jonson, "with such extraordinary requisites for the stage, joined to a strain of poetry always manly, frequently lofty, and sometimes sublime," should not have retained his popularity; accounting for this result by the assignment of three causes, of which the first was, his dismissing "the grace and urbanity which mark his lighter pieces whenever he approached the stage, putting on the censor with the sock;" the second sprung from the circumstance, that "Jonson was the painter of humours, not of passions," and aiming less to excite laughter in his hearers, "than to feast their understanding, and minister to their rational improvement," he frequently brought forward unamiable and uninteresting characters, pests which he wished to extirpate from society, not only by rendering them ridiculous, but by exhibiting them in an odious and disgusting light; and the third was, "a want of just discrimination. He seems to have been deficient," observes Mr. Gifford, “in that true tact or feeling of propriety which Shakspeare possessed in full excellence. He appears to have had an equal value for all his characters, and he labours upon the most unimportant, and even disagreeable of them, with the same fond and paternal assiduity which accompanies his happiest efforts." This laboured and indiscriminate finishing may be termed, indeed, one of the prominent characteristics of Jonson's composition; and has, perhaps, more than any thing else, contributed to obscure his reputation.
The genius of Jonson seems to have forsaken him, when he touched the tragic chords. Neither pity nor terror answered to his call, and "Sejanus” and “Catiline" are valuable, principally, for their correct, though cold and hard, delineations of Roman character and costume. It is remarkable, that, in the construction of these tragedies, Jonson has deserted his Athenian masters, and, adopting the license of the Romantic school, he has laid aside the unities of time and place; but without acquiring that breadth and freedom in the execution of his subjects, with which such deviations ought to have been accompanied.
The devotion of the poet to this high department of his art was not confined, however, to these two Roman dramas; he had planned a tragedy on the Fall of Mortimer, of which only a small fragment remains; and we find, from the Dulwich Manuscripts, that, the year preceding the first performance of Sejanus, he had actually been engaged in writing a play on the subject of Richard the Third : "Lent unto Benjemy Johstone," says Henslowe's memorandum, "at the appoyntment of E. Alleyn and Wm. Birde the 22 June, 1602, in earnest of a boocke called Richard Crook-back, and for new adycions for Jeronymo, the some of xlb." The Richard of Jonson, and the Macbeth of Milton !—would that time had spared the one and witnessed the execution of the other! How delightful, how interesting might have been the labour of comparison!
If Jonson failed, as he must be allowed to have done, in communicating pathos and interest to his tragic productions, he has made us ample amends by the unrivalled excellence of his numerous Masques, a species of dramatic poetry, to which
Gifford's Jonson, vol. i. Memoirs of Jonson, p. cexiï'—exv.
hid p cexvi-eexis
he, and he alone, put the seal of perfection. Here his imagination, which, in the peculiar line of comedy he cultivated, had but little scope for expansion, and was, in his tragedies, altogether repressed, by an undeviating adhesion to the letter of history, expatiated as in its native element. "No sooner," remarks Mr. Gifford, "has he taken down his lyre, no sooner touched on his lighter pieces, than all is changed as if by magic, and he seems a new person. His genius awakes at once, his imagination becomes fertile, ardent, versatile, and excursive; his taste pure and elegant; and all his faculties attuned to sprightliness and pleasure."*
No greater honour, however, has been paid to the memory of Jonson, than the proof which Mr. Godwin has brought forward of his being the favourite author of Milton, "the predecessor that he chiefly had in his eye, and whom he seems principally to resemble in his style of composition."+ Among the numerous passages by which he has substantiated this fact, none are more conspicuous than those that breathe the spirit of the lyrical portion of the Masques; for "Milton," as he observes, "will certainly be found to have studied his compositions in this kind more assiduously than those of any of his contemporaries.-It would be strange indeed, if the poet, who in early youth composed the Mask of Comus, had not diligently studied the writings of Ben Jonson." Can there be a test of merit more indisputable than this? for "Comus," though by no means faultless as a Masque, has to boast of a poetry more rich and imaginative than is to be found in any other composition, save The Tempest of Shakspeare.
"It is not, however," proceeds Mr. Godwin, "in lighter and incidental matters only, that Milton studied the great model afforded him by Jonson: we may find in him much that would almost tempt us to hold opinion with Pythagoras, and to believe that the very spirit and souls of some men became transfused into their poetical successors. The address of our earlier poet to the two universities, prefixed to his most consummate performance, the comedy of " The Fox,” will strike every reader familiar with the happiest passages of Mitton's prose, with its wonderful resemblance. They were both of them emphatically poets who had sounded the depths, and formed themselves in the school, of classic lore.
'The difference between them' may perhaps best be illustrated from the topic of religion. They had neither of them one spark of libertine and latitudinarian unbelief. But Jonson was not, like Milton, penetrated with his religion. It is to him a sort of servitude-it is not the principle that actuates, but the check that controls him. But in Milton, it is the element in which he breathes, a part of his nature. He acts, as ever in his Great Task-master's eye :' and this is not his misfortune; but he rejoices in his condition, that he has so great, so wise, and so sublime a Being, to whom to render his audit.” *
The labours of Jonson closed with a species of dramatic poetry in which he had made no previous attempt, and we have only to regret that it was left in an un
Gifford's Jonson, vol. i. Memoirs, p. ccxxx. After the passage which we have inserted in [the text, follow these admirable observations :
"Such were the Masques of Jonson, in which, as Mr. Malone says, 'the wretched taste of those times found amusement.' That James and his court delighted in them cannot be doubted, and we have only to open the Memoirs of Winwood and others to discover with what interest they were followed by the nobility of both sexes. Can we wonder at this? There were few entertainments of a public kind at which they could appear, and none in which they could participate. Here all was worthy of their hours of relaxation. Mythologues of classic purity, in which, as Hurd observes, the soundest moral lessons came recommended by the charm of numbers, were set forth with all the splendour of royalty, while Jones and Lanier, and Lawes and Ferrabosco, lavished all the grace and elegance of their respective arts on the embellishment of
"But in what was the taste of the times wretched? In poetry, painting, architecture, they have not since been equalled; in theology, and moral philosophy, they are not even now surpassed; and it i becomes us, who live in an age which can scarcely produce a Bartholomew Fair farce, to arraign the taste of a period which possessed a cluster of writers, of whom the meanest would now be esteemed a prodigy And why is it assumed that the followers of the court of James were deficient in what Mr. Malone is pleased to call taste? To say nothing of the men (who were trained to a high sense of decorum and intellectual discernment under Elizabeth), the Veres, the Wroths, the Bedfords, the Rutlands, the Cliffords, and tr Arundels, who danced in the fairy rings, in the gay and gallant circles of these enchanting devices, of which our most splendid shows are, at best, but beggarly parodies, were fully as accomplished in every internal and external grace as those who, in our days, have succeeded to their names and honours."-Memoirs, p. ccxxx. Ibid. vol. i. p. ecciii-cccv.
Gifford's Jonson, vol. i. p. ccxcvii.
finished state; for had the "Sad Shepherd" been completed in the style of excellence in which it was commenced, it would have been superior not only to the "Faithful Shepherdess" of Fletcher, but perhaps to any thing which he himself had written.
When Jonson, in his noble and generous eulogium on Shakspeare, tells us, that
"He was not of an age, but for all time,"
he seized a characteristic of which the reverse, in some degree, applies to himself; for had he paid less attention to the minutiae of his own age, and dedicated himself more to universal habits and feelings, his popularity would have nearly equalled that of the poet whom he loved and praised. Yet his fame rests on a broad and durable foundation, and we point, with pride and triumph, to that matchless. constellation of dramatic merit, where burn, with inextinguishable glory, the mighty names of SHAKSPEARE, JONSON, FLETCHER, MASSINGER.
The Biography of Shakspeare continued to the Close of his Residence in London.
VARIOUS particulars relative to the personal history of Shakspeare, in addition to those which terminated his biography in the country, having been detailed in the chapters that record his commencement as an actor, the composition of his poems, † and his first efforts as a dramatic writer, we have now to collect the few circumstances of his life which time has spared to us, during the most active season of its duration, resuming our narrative at a period when the capital was under considerable alarm from the prevalence of the plague, and from the numerous conspiracies which were entered into against the life of the Queen. Shakspeare had been exposed, during the year of his birth, to great risk from the plague at Stratford, and its recurrence in 1593 seems to have made so deep an impression upon him, that he has alluded to it in more than one of his plays; particularly in his Romeo and Juliet written in this very year, where he mentions the practice of sealing up the doors of houses, in which, the infectious pestilence did reign." It is probable that the effect on his mind might have been rendered more powerful, by the recollected narrative of those who had tended his infancy, and who, no doubt, had often told him of the danger which threatened the dawn of his existence.
We have found that, on his arrival in London, his first employment was that of an actor, a profession which, we certainly know, he continued to exercise for, at least, seventeen years. That he was by no means partial, however, to this occupation, nay, that he bitterly regretted the necessity which compelled him to have recourse to it, as a mode of procuring subsistence, may be fairly deduced from the language of his ninety-first sonnet:—
“O for my sake do you with fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds," &c.
It appears strongly indeed, from the best of all evidence, that of his own words, that his early progress in life was thwarted by many obstacles, and accompanied by severe struggles, by poverty, contumely, and neglect. This he has emphatically told us, not only in one, but in several places, and in terms so expressive as
Vide Part. II. Chap. 1.
Part II. Chap. 2 & 5.
§ Act v. sc. 2. See also The Two Gentlemen of Verona, act. ii. sc. I.
Part II Chap. 9