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Though two centuries have now elapsed, since the death of Shakspeare, no attempt has hitherto been made to render him the medium for a comprehensive and connected view of the Times in which he lived.
Yet, if any man be allowed to fill a station thus conspicuous and important, Shakspeare has undoubtedly the best claim to the distinction; not only from his pre-eminence as a dramatic poet, but from the intimate relation which his works bear to the manners, customs, superstitions, and amusements of his age.
Struck with the interest which a work of this kind, if properly executed, might possess, the author was induced, several years ago, to commence the undertaking, with the express intention of blending with the detail of manners, etc. such a portion of criticism, biography, and literary history, as should render the whole still more attractive and complete.
In attempting this, it has been his aim to place Shakspeare in the foreground of the picture, and to throw around him, in groups more or less distinct and full, the various objects of his design; giving them prominency and light, according to their greater or smaller connection with the principal figure.
More especially has it been his wish, to infuse throughout the whole plan, whether considered in respect to its entire scope, or to the parts of which it is composed, that degree of unity and integrity, of relative proportion and just bearing, without which neither harmony, simplicity, nor effect, can be expected or produced. | With a view, also, to distinctness and perspicuity of elucidation, the whole has been distributed into three parts or pictures, entitled, -"Shak
SPEARE IN STRATFORD; “SHAKSPEARE IN LONDON;” - “SHAKSPEARE in RETIREMENT ;” — which, though inseparably united, as forming but portions of the same story, and harmonized by the same means, have yet, both in subject and execution, a peculiar character to support.
The first represents our Poet in the days of his youth, on the banks of his native Avon, in the midst of rural imagery, occupations, and amusements; in the second, we behold him in the Capital of his country, in the centre of rivalry and competition, in the active pursuit of reputation and glory; and in the third, we accompany the venerated bard to the shades of retirement, to the bosom of domestic peace, to the enjoyment of unsullied fame.
It has, therefore, been the business of the author, in accordancy with his plan, to connect these delineations with their relative accompaniments; lo incorporate, for instance, with the first, what he has to relate of the country, as it existed in the age of Shakspeare; its manners, customs, and characters; its festivals, diversions, and many of its superstitions; opening and closing the subject with the biography of the poet, and binding the intermediate parts, not only by a perpetual reference to his drama, but by their own constant and direct tendency towards the development of the one object in view.
With the second, which commences with Shakspeare's introduction to the stage as an actor, is combined the poetic, dramatic, and general literature of the times, together with an account of metropolitan manners and diversions, and a full and continued criticism on the poems and plays of our bard.
After a survey, therefore, of the Literary world, under the heads of Bibliography, Philology, Criticism, History, Romantic and Miscellaneous Literature, follows a View of the Poetry of the same period, succeeded by a critique on the juvenile productions of Shakspeare, and including a biographical sketch of Lord Southampton, and a new hypothesis on the origin and object of the Sonnets.
Of the immediately subsequent description of diversions, etc. the Economy of the Stage forms a leading feature, as preparatory to a History of Dramatic Poetry, previous to the year 1590; and this is again introductory to a discussion concerning the Period when Shakspeare commenced a writer for the theatre; to a new chronology of his plays, and to a criticism on each drama; a department which is interspersed with dissertations on the Fairy Mythology, the Apparitions, the Witchcraft, and the Magic of Shakspeare; portions of popular credulity which had been, in reference to this distribution, omitted in detailing the superstitions of the country.
This second part is then terminated by a summary of Shakspeare's dramatic character, by a brief view of dramatic poetry during his connection with the stage, and by the biography of the poet to the close of his residence in London.
The third and last of these delineations is, unfortunately, but too short, being altogether occupied with the few circumstances which distinguish the last three years of the life of our bard, with a review of his disposition and moral character, and with some notice of the first tributes paid to his memory.
It will readily be admitted, that the materials for the greater part of this arduous task are abundant; but it must also be granted, that they are dispersed through a vast variety of distant and unconnected departments of literature; and that to draw forth, arrange, and give a luminous disposition to these masses of scattered intelligence, is an achievement of no slight magnitude, especially when it is considered, that no step in the progress of such an undertaking can be made, independent of a constant recurrence to authorities.
How far the author is qualified for the due execution of his design, remains for the public to decide'; but it may, without ostentation, be told, that his leisure, for the last thirty years, has been, in a great degree, devoted to a line of study immediately associated with the subject; and that his attachment to old English literature has led him to a familiarity with the only sources from which, on such a topic, authentic illustration is to be derived.
He will likewise venture to observe, that, in the style of criticism which he has pursued, it has been his object, an ambitious one it is true, to unfold, in a manner more distinct than has hitherto been effected, the peculiar character of the poet's drama; and, lastly, to produce a work, which, while it may satisfy the poetical antiquary, shall, from the variety, interest, and integrity of its component parts, be equally gratifying to the general reader.