Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

it is no wonder, if, with so many good qualities, he made him. self acquainted with the best conversations of those times. Queen Elizabeth had several of his plays acted before her, and without doubt gave him many gracious marks of her favour: it is that maiden princess plainly, whom he intends by a fair vestal, throned by the west.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream. and that whole passage is a compliment very properly brought in, and very handsomely applied

to her. She was so well pleased with that admirable character of Falstaff, in The Two Parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one play more,* and to show him in love. This is said to be the occasion of his writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. How well she was obeyed, the play itself is an admirable proof. Upon this occasion it may not be improper to observe, that this part of Fal. staff is said to have been written originally under the name of Oldcastle:t some of that family being then remaining, the Queen was pleased to command him to alter it; upon which he made use of Falstafl. The present offence was indeed avoided; but I do not know whether the author may not have been somewhat to blame in the second choice, since it is certain that Sir John Falstaff, who was a knight of the garter, and a lieutenant-general, was a name of distinguished merit in the wars in France in Henry the Fifth's and Henry the Sixth's times. What grace soever the Queen conferred upon him, it was not to her only he owed the fortune which the reputation of his wit made. He had the honour to meet with many great and uncommon marks of favour and friendship from the Earl of Southampton,t famous in the histories of that time for his friendship to the unfortunate Earl of Essex. It was to that noble Lord that he dedicated his poem of Venus and Adonis. There is one instance so singular

*

she commanded him to continue it for one play more,] This anecdote was first given to the publick by Dennis, in the Epistle Dedicatory to his comedy entitled The Comical Gallunt, 4to. 1702, altered from The Merry Wives of Windsor. Malone.

t- this part of Falstaff is said to have been written originally under the name of Oldcastle;] See the Epilogue to Henry the Fourth. Pope.

In a note subjoined to that Epilogue, and more fully in Vol. VIII, p. 157, n. 2, the reader will find this notion overturned, and the origin of this vulgar error pointed out. Mr. Rowe was evidently deceived by a passage in Fuller's Worthies, misunderstood. Malone.

- from the Earl of Southampton,] Of this amiable noble. man such memoirs as I have been able to collect, may be found in the tenth volume, [i. e. of Mr. Malone's edition] prefixed to the poem of Venus and Adonis. Malone.

- he dedicated his poem of Venus and Adonis,] To this nobleman also he dedicated his Rape of Lucrece, printed in 4to. in 1594. Malone.

in the magnificence of this patron of Shakspeare's, that if I had not been assured that the story was handed down by Sir William D'Avenant, who was probably very well acquainted with his affairs, I should not have ventured to have inserted; that my Lord Southampton at one time gave him a thousand pounds, to enable him to go through with a purchase which he heard he had a mind to. A bounty very great, and very rare at any time, and almost equal to that profuse generosity the present age has shown to French dancers and Italian singers.

What particular habitude or friendships he contracted with private men, I have not been able to learn, more than that every one, who had a true taste of merit, and could distinguish men, had generally a just value and esteem for him. His exceeding candour and good-nature must certainly have inclined all the gentler part of the world to love him, as the power of his wit obliged the men of the most delicate knowledge and polite learning to admire him.

His acquaintance with Ben Jonson began with a remarkable piece of humanity and good-nature; Mr. Jonson, who was at that time altogether unknown to the world, had offered one of his plays to the players, in order to have it acted; and the persons into whose hands it was put, after having turned it carelessly and superciliously over, were just upon returning it to him with an ill-natured answer, that it would be of no service to their company; when Shakspeare luckily cast his eye upon it, and found some hing so well in it, as to engage him first to read it through, and afierwards to recommend Mr. Jonson and his writings to the publick.* Jonson was certainly a very good scho

to recommend Mr. Jonson and his writings to the publick.] In Mr. Rowe's first edition, after these words was inserted the following passage:

“ After this, they were professed friends; though I do not know whether the other ever made him an equal return of gentleness and sincerity. Ben was naturally proud and insolent, and in the days of his reputation did so far take upon him the supremacy in wit, that he could not but look with an evil eye upon any one that seemed to stand in competition with him. And if at times he has affected to commend him, it has always been with some reserve; insinuating his uncorrectness, a careless manner of writing, and want of judgment. The praise of seldom alter. ing or blotting out what he had writ, which was given him by the players, who were the first publishers of his works after his death, was what Jonson could not bear: he thought it impossible, perhaps, for another man to strike out the greatest thoughts in the finest expression, and to reach those excellencies of poetry with the ease of a first imagination, which himself with infinite labour and study could but hardly attain to."

I have preserved this passage because I believe it strictly true, except that in the last line, instead of but hardly, I would read lar, and in that had the advantage of Shakspeare; though at the same time I believe it must be allowed, that what nature

never.

Dryden, we are told by Pope, concurred with Mr. Rowe in thinking Jonson's posthumous verses on our author sparing and invidiou8.-See also Mr. Steevens's note on those verses.

Before Shakspeare's death Ben's envious disposition is menti. oned by one of his own friends; it must therefore have been even then notorious, though the writer denies the truth of the charge:

“To my well accomplish'd friend, Mr. Ben. Jonson.

“Thou art sound in body; but some say, thy soule,
Envy doth ulcer; yet corrupted hearts
“ Such censurers must have.”

Scourge of Folly, by J. Davies, printed about 1611. The following lines by one of Jonson's admirers will suffici. ently support Mr. Rowe in what he has said relative to the slowness of that writer in his compositions:

“Scorn then their censures who gave out, thy wit

As long upon a comedy did sit
“As elephants bring forth, and that thy blots
“And mending's took more time than FORTUNE-PLOTS;
“ That such thy drought was, and so great thy thirst,
“That all thy plays were drawn at the Mermaid first;
“That the king's yearly butt wrote, and his wine

Hath more right than thou to thy Catiline.The writer does not deny the charge, but vindicates his friend by saying that, however slow,“He that writes well, writes quick "

Verses on B. Jonson, by Jasper Mayne. So also, another of his panegyrists:

“ Admit his muse was slow, 'tis judgment's fate

“To move like greatest princes, stiil in state.” In The Return from Parnassus, 1606, Jonson is said to be “ so slow an enditer, that he were better betake himself to his old trade of bricklaying:” The same piece furnishes us with the earliest intimation of the quarrel between him and Shakspeare: “Why here's our fellow Shakspeare put them (the university poets; all down, ay, and Ben Jonson too. O, that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow; he brought up Horace giving the poets a pill, but our fellow Shakspeare hath given him a purge that made him bewray his credit.” Fuller, who was a diligent inquirer, and lived near enough the time to be well informed, confirms this account, asserting in his Worthies, 1662, that “

many were the wit-combats” between Jonson and our poet.

It is a singular circumstance that old Ben should for near two centuries have stalked on the stilts of an artificial reputation; and that even at this day, of the very few who read his works, scarcely one in ten yet ventures to confess how little entertain ment they afford. Such was the impression made on the public

gave the latter, was more than a balance for what books had given the former; and the judgment of a great man upon the

by the extravagant praises of those who knew more of books than of the drama, that Dryden in his Essay on Dramatick Poesie, written about 1667, does not venture to go further in his elo. gium on Shakspeare, than by saying, "he was at least Jonson's equal, if not his superior;” and in the preface to his Mock Astrologer, 1671, he hardly dares to assert, what, in my opinion, cannot be denied, that “ all Jonson's pieces, except three or four, are but crambe bis cocta; the same humours a little varied and written worse.”

Ben, however, did not trust to the praises of others. One of his admirers honestly confesses,

he
“ Of whom I write this, has prevented me,
“And boldly said so much in his own praise,

“No other pen need any trophy raise.” In vain, however, did he endeavour to bully the town into approbation by telling his auditors, “By G-'tis good, and if you like't, you may;" and by pouring out against those who preferred our poet to him, a torrent of illiberal abuse; which, as Mr. Walpole justly observes, some of his contemporaries were willing to think wit, because they were afraid of it; for, not. withstanding all his arrogant boasts, notwithstanding all the clamour of his partizans both in his own life-time and for sixty years after his death, the truth is, that his pieces, when first performed, were so far from being applauded by the people, that they were scarcely endured; and many of them were actually damned.

- the fine plush and velvets of the age

“Did oft for sixpence damn thee from the stage,”says one of his eulogists on Jonsonius Virbius 4to. 1638. Jonson himself owns that Sejanus was damned. “It is a poem,” says he, in his Dedication to Lord Aubigny, “ that, if I well remember, in your lordships sight suffered no less violence from our people here, than the subject of it did from the rage of the people of Rome.” His friend E. B. (probably Edmund Bolton) speaking of the same performance, says,

“But when I view'd the people's beastly rage,

“Bent to confound thy grave and learned toil,
“That cost thee so much sweat and so much oil,

My indignation I could hardly assuage.” Again, in his Dedication of Catiline to the Earl of Pembroke, the author says, " Posterity may pay your benefit the honour and thanks, when it shall know that you dare in these jig-given times to countenance a legitimate poem. I must call it so, against all noise of opinion, from whose crude and ayrie reports I appeal to that great and singular facultie of judgment in your lordship." occasion was, I think, very just and proper. In a conversation between Sir John Suckling, Sir William D'Avenant, Endymion Porter, Mr. Hales of Eton, and Ben Jonson, Sir John Suckling, who was a professed admirer of Shakspeare, had undertaken his defence against Ben Jonson with some warmth; Mr. Hales, who had sat stilt for some time, told them,* That if Mr. Shakspeare had not read the ancients, he had likewise not stolen any thing from them; and that if he woull produce any one topick finely treated by any one of them, he would undertake to shew something upon the same subject at least as well written by Shak speare.I

To his testimony and that of Mr. Drummond of Hawthornden, (there also mentioned) may be added that of Leonard Digges in his verses on Shakspeare, and of Sir Robert Howard, who says in the preface to his plays, folo, 1665, (not thirty years after Ben's death,) “When I consider how severe the former age has been to some of the best of Mr. Jonson's neverto-be-equalled comedies, I cannot but wonder, why any poet should speak of former times.” The truth is, that however extravagant the elogiums were that a few scholars gave him in their closets, he was not only not admired in his own time by the generality, but not even understood. His friend Beaumont assures, him in a copy of verses, that “his sense is so deep that he will not be understood for three ages to come.” Malone.

* Mr. Hales, who had sat still for some time, told them,] In Mr. Rowe's first edition this passage runs thus:

“Mr. Hales, who had sat still for some time, hearing Ben fre. quently reproach him with the want of learning and ignorance of the antients, told him at last, that if Mr. Shakspeare,” &c. By the alteration, the subsequent part of the sentence-"if he would produce,” &c. is rendered ungrammatical. Malone.

+- he would undertake to shew something upon the same subject at least as well written by Shakspeare.] I had long endeavoured in vain to find out on what authority this relation was founded; and have very lately discovered that Mr. Rowe probably derived his information from Dryden: for in Gildon's Letters and Essays, published in 1694, fifteen years before this life appeared, the same story is told; and Dryden, to whom an Essay in vindication of Shakspeare is addressed, is appealed to by the writer as his authority. As Gildon tells the story with some slight variations from the account given by Mr. Rowe, and the book in which it is found is now extremely scarce, I shall subjoin the passage in his own words:

“But to give the world some satisfaction that Shakspeare has had as great veneration paid his excellence by men of unquestioned parts, as this I now express for him, I shall give some account of what I have heard from your mouth, sir, about the noble triumph he gained over all the ancients, by the judgment of the ablest criticks of that time.

“The matter of fact, if my memory fail me.not, was this. M'.

« ZurückWeiter »