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collectors of such crumbs, though I am not sure that we should not venerate Shakespeare as much if they had left him undisturbed in his obscurity. To be told that he played a trick to a brother player in a licentious amour, or that he died of a drunken frolic, as a stupid vicar of Stratford recounts (long after the time) in his diary, does not exactly inform us of the man who wrote Lear. If there was a Shakespeare of earth (as I suspect), there was also one of heaven; and it is of him we desire to know something.”—1842.
In fact, every accession of information we obtain respecting the man Shakespeare, renders it more and more difficult to detect in him the poet.
The evidence of Ben Jonson is so much more direct than
other source, that, as we intend to impugn it, we do not esteem it necessary to grapple with the others.
In his Discoveries Jonson writes :"I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writings (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, Would he had blotted a thousand! which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted, and to justify my own candour; for I loved the man, and do honour his memory on this side idolatry, as much as any. He was indeed) honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions; wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary that he should be stopped: Sufflaminandus erat, as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so to. Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter: as when he said, in the person of Cæsar, one speaking to him, 'Cæsar, thou dost me wrong,' he replied, Cæsar did never wrong but with just cause;' and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.”
The edition of Jonson's works, published in 1616,
-a rare folio-does not contain the Discoveries : they were first published in 1640, three years after Jonson's death. The Discoveries are detached thoughts and reflections, which appear to have been dotted down or entered in a commonplace book, without much regard to order, sequence, or priority. It is hardly possible to imagine any man,
upon no better
who had read the collected plays of Shakespeare,
This paragraph, therefore, has not the weight and importance which at first sight it would seem to possess.
Shakespeare's fame—the fame which he now and ever will enjoy—is based upon the folio of 1623. At its publication, it was ushered into the world accompanied by verses written by Ben Jonson, and Malone satisfactorily shows that the dedication and preface, ascribed to Heminge and Condell, were also most likely from his pen ; in fact, it probably would not be too much to say, that Ben Jonson was the Editor of the Folio of 1623.
Now, at this time Ben Jonson was at the zenith of his fame, and on terms of intimacy with Lord Bacon, and perhaps the most competent living judge and discriminator of the works of his various contemporaries. If then the lines which he wrote, and which accompany this volume, celebrate and identify the William Shakespeare who died in 1616 as the author of the plays therein written, that evidence ought to be conclusive. The lines are in many parts incomprehensible, and throughout exhibit a mysterious vagueness quite at variance with the general character of Ben Jonson's laudatory verses.
The critic who would translate them into plain prose, would not be ill employed ; but, as Bacon observes, with commentators, “it is ever usual to blanche the obscure places and discourse upon the plain.”
TO THE READER.
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
To the Memory of my beloved, the Author, MR. WILLIAM
SHAKESPEARE: and what he hath left us. To draw no envy (Shakespeare) on thy name,
Am I thus ample to thy Booke, and Fame: While I confesse thy writings to be such,
As neither Man, nor Muse, can praise too much. 'Tis true, and all men's suffrage. But these wayes
Were not the paths I meant unto thy praise: For seeliest Ignorance on these may light,
Which, when it sounds at best, but echoes right; Or blinde Affection, which doth ne’re advance
The truth, but gropes, and urgeth all by chance ; Or crafty Malice, might pretend this praise,
And thinke to ruine, where it seem'd to raise. These are, as some infamous Baud, or Whore,
Should praise a Matron. What could hurt her more ? But thou art proofe against them, and indeed
Above th' ill fortune of them, or the need. I, therefore will begin. Soule of the Age!
The applause ! delight! the wonder of our Stage! My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lye A little further, to make thee a roome:
Thou art a Moniment, without a Tombe, And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live,