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commotions which followed in the unhappy reign of Charles I. when the stage was totally abolished, are sufficient to account for the oblivion thrown on the history and works of our great bard. From this time no inquiry was made, until it was too late to obtain any information more satisfactory than the few hearsay scraps and contested traditions above detailed. “How little,” says Mr. Steevens, “Shakspeare was once read, may be “ understood from Tate, who, in his dedication “ to the altered play of King Lear, speaks of the “ original as an obscure piece, recommended to “ his notice by a friend; and the author of the * Tatler having occasion to quote a few lines out “ of Macbeth, was content to receive them from “ D'Avenant's alteration of that celebrated drama, “ in which almost every original beauty is either ‘ aukwardly disguised, or arbitrarily omitted.”*
In fifty years after his death, Dryden mentions that he was then become “a little obsolete.” In the beginning of the last century, Lord Shaftesbury complains of his “rude unpolished style, and his antiquated phrase and wit.” It is certain that for nearly a hundred years after his death, partly owing to the immediate revolution and rebellion, and partly to the licentious taste en
* Mr. Steevens's Advertisement to the Reader, first printed in 1773.
couraged in Charles II's time, and perhaps partly to the incorrect state of his works, he was almost entirely neglected. Mr. Malone has justly remarked, “ that if he had been read, admired, “ studied, and imitated, in the same degree, as he “ is now, the enthusiasm of some one or other “ of his admirers in the last age would have in“duced him to make some inquiries concerning “ the history of his theatrical career, and the ‘ anecdotes of his private life.”* His admirers, however, if he had admirers in that age, possessed no portion of such enthusiasm. That curiosity, which in our days has raised biography to the rank of an independent study, was scarcely known, and where known, confined principally to the publick transactions of eminent characters. And if, in addition to the circumstances already stated, we consider how little is known of the personal history of Shakspeare's contemporaries, we may easily resolve the question, why, of all men who have ever claimed admiration by genius, wisdom, or valour, who have eminently contributed to enlarge the taste, promote the happiness, or increase the reputation of their country, we know the least of Shakspeare: and why, of the few particulars which seem entitled
* Mr. Malone's Preface to his Edition, 1790.
to credit, when simply related, and in which there is no manifest violation of probability, or promise of importance, there is scarcely one which has not swelled into a controversy. After a careful examination of all that modern research has discovered, we know not how to trust our curiosity beyond the limits of those barren dates which afford no personal history. The nature of Shakspeare's writings prevents that appeal to internal evidence, which in other cases has been found to throw light on character. The purity of his morals, for example, if sought in his plays, must be measured against the licentiousness of his language, and the question will then be, how much did he write from conviction, and how much to gratify the taste of his hearers How much did he add to the age, and how much did he borrow from it? Pope says, “ he was obliged to please the lowest of the people, and to keep the worst of company;” and Pope might have said more: for although we hope it was not true, we have no means of proving that it was false. The only life which has been prefixed to all the editions of Shakspeare of the 18th century, is that drawn up by Mr. Rowe, and which he modestly calls “Some Account, &c.” In this we have what Rowe could collect when every legitimate source of information was closed, a few traditions that were floating nearly a century after the author's death. Some inaccuracies in his account have been detected in the valuable notes of Mr. Steevens and Mr. Malone, who, in other parts of their respective editions have scattered a few brief notices which we have incorporated in the present sketch. The whole, however, is unsatisfactory. Shakspeare in his private character, in his friendships, in his amusements, in his closet, in his family, is no where before us: and such was the mature of the writings on which his fame depends, and of that employment in which he was engaged, that being in no important respect connected with the history of his age, it is in vain to look into the latter for any information concerning him. Mr. Capell is of opinion that he wrote some prose works, because “it can hardly be supposed “ that he, who had so considerable a share in “ the confidence of the Earls of Essex and “Southampton, could be a mute spectator only “ of controversies in which they were so much “ interested.” This editor, however, appears to have taken for granted a degree of confidence with these two statesmen which he ought first to have proved. Shakspeare might have enjoyed the confidence of their social hours, but it is mere conjecture that they admitted him into the con
fidence of their state affairs. Mr. Malone, whose opinions are entitled to a higher degree of credit, thinks that his prose compositions, if they should be discovered, would exhibit the same perspicuity, the same cadence, the same elegance and vigour, which we find in his plays. It is unfortunate, however, for all wishes and all conjectures, that not a line of Shakspeare's manuscript is known to exist, and his prose writings are no where hinted at. We have only printed copies of his plays and poems, and those so depraved by carelessness or ignorance that all the labour of all his commentators has not yet been able to restore them to a probable purity. Many of the greatest difficulties attending the perusal of them, yet remain, and will require, what it is scarcely possible to expect, greater sagacity and more happy conjecture than have hitherto been employed. Of his PoEMs, it is perhaps necessary that some notice should be taken, although they have never been favourites with the publick, and have seldom been reprinted with his plays. Shortly after his death, Mr. Malone informs us, a very incorrect impression of them was issued out, which in every subsequent edition was implicitly followed, until he published a correct edition in 1780 with illustrations, &c. But the peremptory