Page images

In 1740, a noble monument was raised to his memory in Westminster-Abbey.*

It is to be lamented, that so few incidents of the life of Shakspeare have been handed down to posterity; but this may, in some degree, be accounted for from the little vicissitude to which it was subject. A mere accident carried him to London; and there the constant exertion of his talents conducted him, by an easy and regular transition, from indigence and obscurity to fame and competence. His sound judgement suggested to him the felicity of retiring, as soon as he had accomplished his very moderate wishes; and no extraordinary events occurred to dignify, or to diversify, the annals of his closing days.

His family became extinct in the third generation for the three sons of his eldest daughter, who married Mr. Thomas Quincey, died childless: and the only daughter of Mrs. Hall, though twice married (to Thomas Nash, Esq., and to Sir John Bernard of Abingdon) left no issue.

* For this purpose, his tragedy of Julius Cæsar' was performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on the twentyeight of April, 1738. The tickets for admission were fixed at an extraordinary price. The Earl of Burlington, Dr. Mead, Mr. Pope, and Mr. Fleetwood patentee of the theatre, were appointed trustees upon the occasion; and, under their direction, the monument was designed by Kent, and executed by Scheemakers. The figure of Shakspeare is a whole length, in white marble, dressed in the habit of his time. It reclines on the right arm, which is supported by a pedestal, and bears a scroll, inscribed with the following lines (not accurately quoted) from his 'Tempest :'

The cloud-capt towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit shall dissolve,
And like the baseless fabric of a vision

Leave not a rack behind.

[ocr errors]

Much dispute has arisen upon the subject of Shakspeare's learning. Dr. Johnson says, It is most likely that he had learned Latin sufficiently to make him acquainted with construction, but that he never advanced to an easy perusal of the Roman authors. Concerning his skill in modern languages, I can find no sufficient ground of determination; but as no imitations of French or Italian authors have been discovered, though the Italian poetry was then high in esteem, I am inclined to believe, that he read little more than English, and chose for his fables only such tales as he found translated. There is, however, proof enough that he was a very diligent reader; nor was our language then so indigent of books, but that he might very liberally indulge his curiosity without excursion into foreign literature. Many of the Roman authors were translated, and some of the Greek the Reformation had filled the kingdom with theological learning: most of the topics of human disquisition had found English writers; and poetry had been cultivated, not only with diligence, but success. This was a stock of knowledge sufficient for a mind so capable of appropriating, and improving, it.' It has, however, been contended by other writers, that Shakspeare, far from being unskilled in the learned languages, was acquainted even with the Greek, as well as with the Roman Classics: but Dr. Farmer, in his admirable Essay on the Learning of Shakspeare,' has accounted most satisfactorily for the frequent allusions to the facts and fables of antiquity, which we find in his writings, without demanding the hypothesis of his having read those authors in their original texts. He particularly specifies the English translations, which

[ocr errors]

were then extant, and with which Shakspeare was evidently conversant; and upon the whole concludes, that his studies were certainly confined to nature and his own language.

On the merit and genius of this illustrious bard the following observations are made by Mr. Pope: If ever any author deserved the name of an original, it was Shakspeare. Homer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of nature; it proceeded through Egyptian strainers and channels, and came to him not without some tincture of the learning, or some cast of the models, of those before him. The poetry of Shakspeare was inspiration indeed: he is not so much an imitator, as an instrument, of nature; and 'tis not so just to say, that he speaks from her, as that she speaks through him. His characters are so much nature itself, that 'tis a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as copies of her. Those of other poets have a constant resemblance, which shows that they received them from one another, and were but multipliers of the same image: each picture, like a mock-rainbow, is but the reflexion of a reflexion. But every single character in Shakspeare is as much an individual, as those in life itself: it is as impossible to find any two alike; and such, as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be twins, will upon comparison be found remarkably distinct.'

'Shakspeare,' says Dr. Johnson, is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the Poet of Nature; the poet, that holds out to his readers a

* In his incomparable Preface to his Edition, first published in 1768.

faithful mirror of manners, and of life. His charac ters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions, or temporary opinions. They are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles, by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets, a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakspeare it is, commonly, a species. It is from this wide extension of design, that so much instruction is derived. It is this, which fills the plays of Shakspeare with practical axioms and domestic wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that every verse was a precept:' and it may be said of Shakspeare, that from his works may be collected a system of civil and economical prudence.'




This, therefore (he adds) is the praise of Shakspeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he, who has mazed his imagination in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.

[ocr errors]

Shakspeare engaged (he farther observes) in dramatic poetry with the world open before him. The rules of the ancients were yet known to few: the public judgement was unformed: he had no example

[blocks in formation]

of such fame as might force him upon imitation, nor critics of such authority as might restrain his extravagance. He, therefore, indulged his natural disposition; and his disposition, as Rymer has remarked, led him to comedy. In tragedy, he often writes, with great appearance of toil and study, what is written at last with little felicity: but, in his comic scenes, he seems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy, he is always struggling after some occasion to be comic; but in comedy, he seems to repose or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragic scenes, there is always something wanting; but his comedy often surpasses expectation, or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language; and his tragedy, for the greater part, by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill; his comedy to be instinct.

The force of his comic scenes has suffered little, diminution from the changes made by a century and a half in manners, or in words. As his personages act upon principles arising from genuine passion, very little modified by particular forms, their pleasures and vexations are communicable to all times and to all places they are natural, and therefore durable. The adventitious peculiarities of personal habits are only superficial dies, bright and pleasing for a little while, yet soon fading to a dim tinct, without any remains of former lustre: but the discriminations of true passion are colours of nature; they pervade the whole mass, and can only perish with the body that exhibits them. The accidental composition of heterogeneous modes are dissolved by the chance, which combined them; but the uniform simplicity of primitive qualities neither admits increase, nor suffers


« PreviousContinue »