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POPULAR ERRORS RESPECTING LORD SOUTHAMPTON AND SHAKESPEARE.
The popular opinion appears to be that William Shakespeare was the notoriety of his day. Part proprietor of the principal playhouse, which was the resort of the great and noble, he produced from time to time, plays which were at once the wonder and admiration of the town. Wise, witty, and accomplished, he was the universal favourite--the associate of the great and noble—the theme of every one's discourse—the subject of every one's admiration.
“From all the accounts of Shakespeare which have come down to us,” says Schlegel, “it is clear that his contemporaries knew well the treasure they possessed in him; and that they felt and understood him better than most of those who succeeded him. It is extremely probable that the poetical fame which in the progress of his career
he afterwards acquired, greatly contributed to ennoble the stage, and to bring the player's profession into better repute. That he was not admitted into the society of persons of distinction, is altogether incredible. Not to mention many others, he found a liberal friend and kind patron in the Earl of Southampton, the friend of the unfortunate Essex. His pieces were not only the delight of the great public, but also in great favour at court: the two monarchs under whose reigns he wrote, were, according to a contemporary, quite 'taken with him. Many were acted at court; and Elizabeth appears herself to have commanded the writing of more than one to be acted at her court festivals. King James, it is well known, honoured Shakespeare so far as to write to him with his own hand.”
Though probably, as an actor, not superior to the court tragedian of the present day-adding to that his excellency as an author—we think, by combining the court favour now extended to the one and the other, we can form some faint conception of the honour he enjoyed in the heartier days of the Virgin Queen. Every thing theatrical participated, we are told, in his exaltation; and the actors of that era attained an eminence, personal and professional, which has never since been equalled.
Yet surely—if records are to be trusted—the very reverse of this was the case. The Blackfriars Theatre was essentially the People's Playhouse. When the new craft of professed players was expelled the City, the nobles and the citizens experienced no let or hindrance of their enjoyments. The Queen in her palace, the noble in his mansion, the lawyer at his hall, the citizen at his tavern or inn, still partook of their favourite pastimes. The measure was directed against the populace. The community, as a body, had no desire to interfere with, but, on the contrary, were anxious to promote, their pleasures and pastimes, in so far as they tended to increase their bodily strength and activity; bearbaiting, wrestling, fighting, and pitching the bar, they might freely practise: it was the awakening of their minds that they dreaded. The Mysteries and Moralities, which were to have overawed and controlled the multitude, had been already turned against their originators; and the little great men of that day, like the little great men of every succeeding age, dreaded the result to them, if the people should be educated.
Bacon alone stood forward as the advocate of education, denouncing as ignorant those that were opposed to the diffusion of knowledge. “I think
good,” says he, “to deliver it from the discredits and disgraces which it hath received-all from ignorance, but ignorance severally disguised-appearing sometimes in the zeal and jealousy of divines; sometimes in the severity and arrogancy of politicians; and sometimes in the errors and imperfections of learned men themselves.”
The Stage had a powerful opponent in the fanatical religion of the Puritans; but this was a fluctuating feeling, acting with greater or less force in individuals; the other pervaded the whole of the upper classes, and was expressed and acted upon most vigorously by those who, from their proximity, considered their province would be soonest invaded. Thus the citizens were anxious to annihilate the professed players; whilst the nobles, seeing less danger to themselves, were willing to be more indulgent to the people, and content with vindicating their power, by imposing rigorous restraints.
With regard to Shakespeare himself, though we greatly admire and reluctantly differ from Schlegel, we cannot but think his statement disingenuous when he says, “Not to mention many others, he found a liberal friend and kind patron in the Earl of Southampton.” He must have known that the Earl of Southampton was the only noble name
with which that of Shakespeare has ever been associated.
In the present day, when the position of a nobleman subjects him to the impertinence of being addressed by any one,* it would be preposterous thence to presume the existence of any intimacy; and though formerly such freedom might not have been allowed, and the permission to dedicate prove a degree of knowledge and approval, yet in every case, it must be admitted, that a dedication seems to intimate inferiority rather than to infer intimacy. Few noblemen in that age of stern morality would have permitted their name to have been associated with a poem on such a subject as the Venus and Adonis ; and the fact of Lord Southampton having done so, seems to prove him to have been at least as renowned in the annals of licentiousness as in the arena of literature. In truth, he was no Macewas, but something of a 'libertine, and every whit a soldier—"sudden and quick in quarrel,” “ seeking the bubble reputation e'en in the cannon's mouth.” Banished from the court, he haunted the play house; addicted to duelling, and anxious to avenge his private wrongs, he forsook the service of
* The author means this as an apology for having addressed his letter to a noble earl.