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Whatever we can glean respecting Shakespeare, such are the common assertions, is scanty and apocryphal. A plausible speculation on his character may, therefore, gain attention, while a well-founded one must be interesting. My title-page, as far as his Sonnets are concerned, promises more. ceeding biographer has expressed his astonishment that little or no information has been bequeathed to us by his contemporaries and immediate followers; but not one has remarked that the domestic lives of the greatest men of that time, and for a long time after, were alike neglected. Doubtless, or they would have been recorded, the unromantic events of a great man's life were regarded as uninteresting. Memoirs were not then in fashion.
An author was permitted to remain concealed as much as he chose : that is, no one spoke of him to the public apart from his works; and if his works explained nothing of his personal character, nothing was said of it. This fashion has long since changed; but we should not reprove our forefathers for neglecting the biography
of any individual, however illustrious; nor should we imagine, from their silence, that such an individual was not held in great fame among them. They could not be aware of our modern taste; and, if they had been, they, as authors, were hardly to be expected to write for readers a century or two in advance. They seem to have considered it enough for the public to form to themselves a general opinion of an author, as a man, from the tenour of his works.
Shakespeare's readers, it is true, distinct from the magic of his genius, see nothing, throughout his works, but love and charity towards all mankind, the vicious alone excepted; and even these last excite our compassion, either in their want of knowledge or of natural capacity, or in the consequences of some overwhelming passion. He never afflicts us by too high, or by too low an estimate of human nature; for either is afflicting. Acting up to his own text, he sees “good in every thing," without shutting his eyes to the evil. “ The web of our life," he tells us, “is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.” This constant, undeviating, kind philosophy towards his fellow-creatures, and towards every thing belonging to the great Creator, is so impressed on our minds, that, relying on the honesty of his language, we have indeed more than an opinion, an assurance, that he wrote not from factitious feelings, but from the impulse of goodness. In this view we have his character made out fully and satisfactorily, superadding, as we needs must, those valuable
qualities, the inseparable attendants on so pure a philosophy,-qualities which, happily, are confirmed by the little his contemporaries have accidentally, as it were, said of him.
Yet, with all this, his true lovers cannot, and ought not to be content. In their love they would know all about him ; they would see him face to face, hear him speak, be in his companionship, live with him altogether. Wishes are boundless, but, when absurd, they quickly vanish; while, in an humbler and more reasonable strain, we sigh for the discovery of some well-authenticated, genuine anecdotes ;-a diary, kept by some Boswell companion, for instance, would be worth a million times its weight in gold. In the absence of so vast a treasure, let us, aided by the previous researches of others, strictly examine into his own writings, and endeavour to elicit something that may throw a light on the circumstances of his life, or his opinions, or his disposition.
At first sight, this task may be condemned as hopeless. Poets, though not essentially dramatic, are rarely to be relied on even when they seemingly profess to describe their own sentiments. They may choose rather to tell the world what they ought to be, than what they are; like Thomson, in his Seasons, expatiating on the happiness, the delight, the necessity of rural exercise, swimming, and early rising, calling out,
Falsely luxurious I will not man awake ?” while he himself was a sluggard in bed, and worse up, a willing captive in his own Castle of Indolence.
Who could believe, from the Night Thoughts, that Young was a flattering, slavish courtier ? yet, were his biographers silent, the dedications for above these hundred years kindly suppressed-give melancholy proof of it. On the other hand, Cowper and Burns, contrasts in all but sincerity, may be brought forward as evidences that it is possible for poets, and poets of a high order, to write nothing in discordance, as far as we are enabled to judge, with their lives. But dramatic writers, however honest they may be, are necessarily less transparent; since they profess to clothe, in language foreign to their own nature, the varied characters brought upon the scene; and the more truly the characters are drawn, unless the poet should, in a single instance, paint from himself, the more dissimilar they must be from himself. This is particularly the case with our great poet, of whom Pope, scarcely with exaggeration, says,—“Throughout his plays, had all the speeches been printed without the very names of the persons, I believe one might have applied them with certainty to every speaker.”
Still, let it be borne in mind, the dramatic writers of Elizabeth's age were not like our tragic writers of the last century. The latter, imitators of the French school, were so utterly of the same stamp, so starched up in the same buckram, and so imbued with the same parts of speech, that one mind, if mind it may be called, might have produced the entire progeny; while the former, free and vigorous, original in thought, and without cold models of expression to mislead them, bore each in himself his own identity ; so that an intimate reader may generally distinguish
from each other the works of Shakespeare, Marlow, Ben Jonson, Webster, Decker, Massinger, and Beaumont and Fletcher, without the aid of the title-page.
Distinct as these authors stand, a portion of their several characters may undoubtedly be discovered in their works. I have already mentioned the general opinion we form of Shakespeare's character, on which it is my purpose to dwell; and other points of particular import may be revealed by directing our remarks to the selection or invention of his fables, or of the persons of his dramas, the bias of his mind in the management of them, his recurrence to certain opinions, or to his apparent likings or dislikings; always keeping in view the manners of the age, so as to deduce, if less than conviction, more than a vague idea, and more than we have hitherto entertained respecting him.
For myself, in addition to some general deductions, I intend to bring forward internal evidence from his later plays, in proof of his having visited Italy, so as possibly to make the disbelief of his having been there far more difficult than the belief.
But he was not solely a dramatist. He has left us a volume of poems, among which are numerous Sonnets, wholly descriptive of events which had occurred to him, and of his feelings attendant on them. Schlegel, about twenty years ago, directed our particular attention to them, surprised at our neglect, and assured that, by competent diligence, something of Shakespeare's life might be revealed, or, at any rate, be illustrated by them. Since that time few have attempted to unfold their meaning; none with success.
Previously to entering on any part of this subject,