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Saxons, for a clown and his sister arrive at court, seeking a father for a child which the lady is about to present to the world. After some mummery which is meant for comedy, we have the following stage-direction:— "Enter the Devil in man's habit richly attired, his feet and his head horrid ;" and the young lady from the country immediately recognises the treacherous father. After another episode with Modestia and Edwin, thunder and lightning announce something terrible ; the birth of Merlin has taken place, and his father the Devil properly introduces him reading a book and foretelling his own future celebrity. We have now prophecy upon prophecy and fight upon fight, blazing stars, dragons, and Merlin expounding all amidst the din. We learn that Artesia has poisoned her husband, and that Uter has become King Pendragon. The Saxons are defeated by the new king, by whom Artesia, as a murderess, is buried alive. In the mean time the Devil has again been making some proposals to Merlin's mother, which end greatly to his discomfiture, for his powerful son shuts him up in a rock. Merlin then, addressing his mother, proposes to her to retire to a solitude he has prepared for her, "to weep away the flesh you have offended with;" "and when you die," he proceeds,—
"I will erect a monument Upon the verdant plains of Salisbury,—. No king shall have so high a sepuichre,— With pendulous stones, that I will hang by art,
Where neither lime nor mortar shall be used—
A place that I will hallow for your rest; Where no night-hag shall walk, nor werc-wolf tread,
Where Moriin's mother shall be sepulehred."
As this is a satisfactory account of the origin of Stonehenge, we might here conclude; but there is a little more to tell of this marvellous play. Uter, the triumphant king, desires Merlin to
"show the full event That shall both end our reign and chronicle."
Merlin thus consents:—
"What Heaven decrees, fate hath no power to alter:
The Saxons, sir, will keep the ground they have,
And by supplying numbers still increase,
I will, in visible apparitions,
Hautboys. Enter a King in armour, h is shield quartered with tiiirteen crowns. At the other end enter divers Princes, who present their crowns to him at his feet, and do him homage; then enters Death, and strikes him; he, growing sick, crowns
This Merlin explains to represent Uter's son, Arthur, and his successor; at which the prince, much gratified, asserts,
"All future times shall still record this story, Of Merlin's learned worth, and Arthur's glory."
CHAPTER IV. ESTIMATE OF SHAKSPERE BY HIS CONTEMPORARIES.
The rank as a writer which Shaksperc took in his own time is determined by a few decided notices of him. These notices are as ample and as frequent as can be looked for in an age which had no critical records, and when writers, therefore, almost went out of their way to refer to their literary contemporaries, except for the purposes of set compliment. We believe that, as early as 1591, Spenser called attention to Shaksperc, as
"the man whom Nature self had made To mock herself, and truth to imitate;"
describing him also as
"that same gentle spirit, from whose pen Large streams of honey and sweet nectar flow."
We know that the envy of Greene, in 1592, pointed at him as "an absolute Johannes factotum, in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country;" and wo receive this bitterness of the unfortunate dramatist against his more successful rival as a tribute to his power and his popularity. We consider that the apology of Chettle, who had edited the posthumous work of Greene containing this effusion of spite, was an acknowledgment of the established opinion of Shakspere's excellence as an author:— "Divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art." This was printed in 1592, and yet the man who had won this reluctant testimony to his art, by "his facetious grace in writing," is held by modern authorities to have then been only a botcher of other men's works, as if '• facetious grace" were an expression that did not most happily mark the quality by which Shakspere was then most eminently distinguished above all his contemporaries,—
his comic power,—his ability above all others to produce
"Fine counterfesance, and unhurtful sport. Delight, and laughter, deck'd in seemly sort."
But passages such as these, which it is almost impossible to apply to any other man than Shakspere, are still only indirect evidence of the opinion which was formed of him when he was yet a very young writer. But a few j years later we encounter the most direct testimony to his pre-eminence. He it was that, I in 1598, was assigned his rank, not by any' vague and doubtful compliment, not with any ignorance of what had been achieved by other men ancient and modern, but by the learned discrimination of a scholar; I and that rank was with Homer, Hesiod, i Euripides, ^Eschylus, Sophocles, Pindar. Phocylides, and Aristophanes amongst the Greeks; Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Silius Italicus. Lucan, Lucretius, Ausonius, and Claudkn amongst the Latins; and Sidney, Spenser. Daniel, Drayton, Warner, Marlowe, and , Chapman amongst the English. According to the same authority, it was "in mellifluous I and honey-tongued Shakspere" that "the 1 sweet witty soul of Ovid lives." This praise was applied to his 'Venus and Adonis,' and other poems. But, for his dramas, he is raised above every native contemporary and predecessor: "As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latins; so Shakspere among the English is the most c.rccUciit in both kinds for the stage." These are extracts with which many of our readers must be familiar. They are from 'The Wits' Commonwealth' of Francis Meres, "Master of Arts of both Universities;" a book largely circulated, and mentioned with applause by contemporary writers. The author delivers not these sentences as his own peculiar opinion; he speaks unhesitatingly, as of a fact admitting no doubt, that Shakspere, among j the English, is the most excellent for Comedy and Tragedy. Does any one of the other "excellent" dramatic writers of that day rise up to dispute the assertion, galling, perhaps, to the self-love of some amongst them? Not a voice is heard to tell Francis Meres that he has overstated the public opinion of the supremacy of Shakspere. Thomas Heywood, one of this illustrious band, speaks of Meres as an approved good scholar, and says that his account of authors is learnedly done*. Hey wood himself, indeed, in lines written long after Shakspere's death, mentions him in stronger terms of praise than
j he applies to any of his contemporaries t.
| Lastly, Meres, after other comparisons of Shakspere with the great writers of antiquity and of his own time, has these words, which nothing but a complete reliance upon the received opinion of his day could have warranted him in applying to any living man: "As Epius Stolo said that the Muses would speak with Plautus' tongue, if they would speak Latin; so I say that the Muses
! would speak with Shakspere's fine filed phrase,
I if they would speak English."
Of the popularity of Shakspere in his own day, the external evidence, such as it is, is more decisive than the testimony of any contemporary writer. He was at one and the same time the favourite of the people and of the Court. There is no record
1 whatever known to exist of the public
: performances of Shakspere's plays at his own theatres. Had such an account existed
i of the receipts at the Blackfriars and the
i Globe as Henslowe kept for his company,
. we should have known something precise of that popularity which was so extensive as to
I make the innkeeper of Bosworth, "full of ale and history," derive his knowledge from the stage of Shakspere:—
* '* Here I might take at opportunity to reckon up all our English writers, and compare them with the Greek, French, Italian, and Latin poets, not only in their pastoral, ! historical, elegiacal, and heroical poems, but in their 'tragical and comical subjects, but it was my dunce to I happen on the like, learnedly done by an approved good 1 scholar, in a book called ' Wits' Commonwealth,' to which treatise I wholly refer you, returning to our present subject."—'Apology for Actors,' lfil2. t 'Hierarchy of Blessed Angels,' 1635.
"For when he would have said, King Richard died,
And call'd, A horse, a horse! ho Burbage cried."*
But the facts connected with the original publication of Shakspere's plays sufficiently prove how eagerly they were for the most part received by the readers of the drama. From 1597 to 1600, ten of these plays were published from authentic copies, undoubtedly with the consent of the author. The system of publication did not commence before 1597; and, with four exceptions, it was not continued beyond 1600. Of these plays there were published, before the appearance of the collected edition of 1623, four editions of Richard II., six of The First Part of Henry IV., six of Richard III., four of Romeo and Juliet, six of Hamlet, besides repeated editions of the plays which were surreptitiously published—the maimed and imperfect copies described by the editors of the first folio. Of the thirty-six plays contained in the folio of 1623, only one-half were published, whether genuine or piratical, in the author's lifetime; and it is by no means improbable that many of those which were originally published with his concurrence were not permitted to be reprinted, because such publication might be considered injurious to the great theatrical property with which he was connected. But the constant demand for some of the plays is an evidence of their popularity which cannot be mistaken, and is decisive as to the people's admiration of Shakspere. As for that of the Court, the testimony, imperfect as it is, is entirely conclusive.
"Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were
That so did take Eliza and our James,"
is no vague homage from Jonson to the memory of his "beloved friend;" but the record of a fact. The accounts of the revels at Court, between the years 1588 and 1604, the most interesting period in the career of Shakspere, have not been discovered in the
* Bishop Corbet, who died in 1S35.
depositories for such papers. We have, indeed, memoranda of payments to her Majesty's players during this period, hut nothing definite as to the plays represented. We know not what " so did take Eliza;" but we are left in no doubt as to the attractions for "our James." It appears from the Revels Book that, from Hallowmas-day, 1604, to the following Shrove Tuesday, there were thirteen plays performed before the King, eight of which were Shakspere's, namely—' Othello,' 'The Merry Wives of Windsor,' 'Measure for Measure,' 'The Comedy of Errors,'' Love's Labour's Lost,' 'Henry V.,' and 'The Merchant of Venice' twice, that being "again commanded by the King's Majesty." Not one of these, with the possible exception of 'Measure for Measure,' was recommended by its novelty. The series of the same accounts is broken from 1605 to 1611 ; and then from Hallowmas-night to Shrove Tuesday, which appears to have been the theatrical season of the Court, six different companies of players contribute to the amusements of Whitehall and Greenwich by the performance of twelve plays. Oi five which are performed by the King's players, two are by Shakspere:' The Tempest,' and 'The Winter's Tale.' If the records were more perfect, this proof of the admiration of Shakspere in the highest circle would, no doubt, be more conclusive. As it is, it is sufficient to support this general argument.*
During the life of Shakspere, his surpassing popularity appears to have provoked no expression of envy from his contemporaries, no attempt to show that his reputation was built upon an unsolid foundation. Some of the later commentators upon Shakspere, however, took infinite pains to prove that Jonson had ridiculed him during his life, and disparaged him after his death. Every one knows Fuller's delightful picture of the convivial exercises in mental strength between Jonson and Shakspere :—" Many were the wit-combats between Shakspere and Ben Jonson. I behold them like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson, like the former, was built far higher
* * Extracts from the Accounts of the Reveli at Court,' by Peter Cunningham.
in learning, solid but slow in his performances; Shakspere, like the latter, less in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds by the quickness of his wit and invention." Few would imagine that a passage such as this should have been produced to prove that there was a quarrel between Jonson and Shakspere; that the wit-combats of these intellectual gladiators were the consequence of their habitual enmity. By the same perverse misinterpretation have the commentators sought to prove that, when Jonson, in his prologues, put forth hia own theory of dramatic art, he meant to satirize the principles upon which Shakspere worked It is held that in the prologue to 'Every Man in his Humour,' acted in 1598 at Shakspere's own theatre, Jonson especially ridicules the historical plays of 'Henry VI.' and 'Richard III.':—
"With three rusty swords, And help of some few foot and half-foot word*. Fight over York and Lancaster's long jars, And in the tiring-house bring wounds to soars."
There is in another author a similar ridicule, and stronger, of the inadequacy of the stage to present a battle to the senses :—
"We shall much disgrace— With four or five most vile and ragged foils, Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous— The name of Agineourt,"
But Shakspere himself was the author of this passage; and he was thus the satirist of himself, as much as Jonson was his satirist, when he compared, in his prologue, the comedy of manners with the historical and romantic drama which had then such attractions for the people. Shakspere's Chorus to 'Henry V.,' from which we have made the last extract, was written the year after the performance of Jonson's play. We recognue in it a candid admission of the good sense of Jonson, which at once shows that Shakspere was the last to feel the criticism as a personal attack. Nothing, in truth, can be more absurd than the attempts to show, from supposed allusions in Jonson, that he was an habitual detractor of Shakspere. The reader will find these "proofs of Jonsons malignity" brought forward, and dismissed with the contempt that they deserve, in a paper appended to Gifford's 'Memoir of Jonson.' The same acute critic had the merit of pointing out a passage in Jonson's 'Poetaster,' which, he says, "is as undoubtedly true of Shakspere as if it were pointedly written to describe him." He further says, " It is evident that throughout the whole of this drama Jonson maintains a constant allusion to himself and his contemporaries," and that, consequently, the lines in question were intended for Shakspere :—
"That which he hath writ Is with such judgment labour'd and distill'd Through all the needful uses of our lives, That, could a man remember but his lines, He should not touch at any serious point, But he might breathe his spirit out of him.
» * » •
His learning savours not the school-like gloss That most consists in echoing words and terms,
And soonest wins a man an empty name;
And live hereafter more admired than now."* We have already noticed the expression of Jonson to Drummond, that "Shakspere wanted art." t It is impossible to receive Jonson's words as any support of the absurd opinion, so long propagated, that Shakspere worked without labour and without method. Jonson's own testimony, delivered five years after the conversation with Drummond, offers the most direct evidence against such a construction of his expression :—
"Yet must I not give Nature all: thy art,
* 'The Poetaster,' Art v. Sc. 1.
Upon the Muses' anvil: turn the same
There can be no difficulty in understanding Jonson's dispraise of Shakspere, small as it was, when we look at the different characters of the two men. In his 'Discoveries,' written in his last years, there is the following passage :—" I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakspere, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer had been, Would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candour: for I loved the man, and do honour his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions; wherein he flowed with that facility, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped: Sufnaminandus erat,as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too." The players had said, in their preface to the first folio—" His mind and hand went together; and what he thought he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers." Jonson, no doubt, alludes to this assertion. But we are not, therefore, to understand that Shakspere took no pains in perfecting what, according to the notions of his editors, he delivered with such easiness. The differences between the earlier and the later copies of some of his plays show the unremitting care and the exquisite judgment with which ho revised his productions. The expression "without a blot" might, nevertheless, be perfectly true; and the fact, no doubt, impressed upon the minds of Heminge and Condell what they were desirous to impress upon others, that Shakspere was a writer of unequalled facility—" as he was a happy imitator of nature, he was a most