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following passage, which has been often | verenced Shakspere. He tells us what was cited. Dryden is speaking in his own per- the opinion of “ Mr. Hales of Eton.” John son, in an imaginary conversation in which Hales, a Fellow of Eton, is known as the the Earl of Dorset bears a part : “ To begin, “ learned" Hales, and the “ever-memorable" then, with Shakspeare. He was the man Hales ; and of him, Aubrey says,
“ When who of all modern, and perhaps ancient the court was at Windsor the learned courpoets, had the largest and most compre- tiers much delighted in his company.” His hensive soul. All the images of nature were opinion of Shakspere is given with more still present to him, and he drew them not particularity by Gildon, in an Essay adlaboriously, but luckily: when he describes dressed to Dryden in 1694, in which he anything, you more than see it, you feel it appeals to Dryden himself as the relator of too. Those who accuse him to have wanted the anecdote. It is not because Gildon is learning give him the greater commenda- satirized in “The Dunciad' that his veracity tion: he was naturally learned ; he needed is to be questioned * :-“But to give the not the spectacles of books to read nature ; world some satisfaction that Shakspeare has he looked inwards, and found her there. I had as great veneration paid his excellence cannot say he is everywhere alike ; were he by men of unquestioned parts as this I so, I should do him injury to compare him now express for him, I shall give some acwith the greatest of mankind. He is many count of what I have heard from your mouth, times flat, insipid, his comic wit degenerating Sir, about the noble triumph he gained over into clenches, his serious swelling into bom- all the ancients, by the judgment of the bast. But he is always great when some ablest critics of that time. The matter of great occasion is presented to him ; no man fact, if my memory fail me not, was this. can say he ever had a fit subject for his wit, Mr. Hales of Eton affirmed, that he would and did not then raise himself as high above show all the poets of antiquity outdone by the rest of the poets,
Shakspeare, in all the topics and common 'Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi: places made use of in poetry. The enemies
of Shakspeare would by no means yield him The consideration of this made Mr. Hales of so much excellence; so that it came to a Eton say, that there was ‘no subject of resolution of a trial of skill upon that subwhich any poet ever writ, but he would project. The place agreed on for the dispute duce it much better done in Shakspeare ;' was Mr. Hales's chamber at Eton. A great and, however others are now generally pre- many books were sent down by the enemies ferred before him, yet the age wherein he of this poet ; and on the appointed day my lived, which had contemporaries with him, Lord Falkland, Sir John Suckling, and all Fletcher and Jonson, never equalled them the persons of quality that had wit and to him in their esteem : and in the last learning, and interested themselves in the king's court, when Ben's reputation was at quarrel, met there ; and upon a thorough highest, Sir John Suckling, and with him disquisition of the point, the judges chosen the greater part of the courtiers, set our by agreement out of this learned and inShakspeare far above him.” No testimony genious assembly, unanimously gave the can be more positive than this, that the two preference to Shakspeare, and the Greek and greatest contemporaries of Shakspere never Roman poets were adjudged to veil at least equalled him in the public estimation during their glory in that to the English hero.” his own time; and that in the succeeding From the death of Shakspere to the shutperiod of Charles I., when the reputation of ting up of the theatres in 1642, a period is Jonson was at the highest, Suckling, one of embraced of twenty-six years. We have seen the wittiest and sprightliest of men, and the the prodigious activity in the production greater part of the courtiers, set Shakspere of novelties which existed ten years before far above him. But it was not the gay the suppression of the theatres.
There is alone, according to Dryden, who thus re- * See Gifford's Memoirs of Jonson,' p. cclx.
too much reason to know that the stage them to stand, and some other few things, had acquired a more licentious tone after but in the greater part allowed of my reShakspere's time; and although the puritans formations. This was done upon a complaint were over-zealous in their indiscriminating of Mr. Endymion Porter's, in December. The violence against all theatrical performances, king is pleased to take faith, death, slight, for there is just cause to believe that the senses asseverations, and no oaths, to which I do of the people were stimulated by excitements humbly submit as my master's judgment; of plot and character, mingled with profane but under favour conceive them to be oaths, and licentious language, much more than and enter them here, to declare my opinion in the days when Shakspere rested for his and submission." But it was not the striking attractions on a large exhibition of natural out of the asseveration, or even of the oaths, passion and true wit; and when he produced which could purify the plays of that period. play after play, history, comedy, tragedy- Their principal demoralizing power consisted “ works truly excellent and capable of en- in their false representations of human chalarging the understanding, warming and pu- racter and actions. Take for example " the rifying the heart, and placing in the centre frightful contrasts," as they have justly been of the whole being the germs of noble and called, between the women of Beaumont and manlike actions.” * The nation was much Fletcher and those of Shakspere. He kept divided then, as it was long afterwards, at all times in the high road of life. He between the followers of extreme opinions “has no innocent adulteries, no interesting in morals—the over-strict on one hand, the incests, no virtuous vice; he never renders wholly careless on the other. Prynne tells that amiable which religion and reason alike us that, upon his first arrival in London, he teach us to detest, or clothes impurity in the had “heard and seen in four several plays, garb of virtue, like Beaumont and Fletcher, to which the pressing importunity of some the Kotzebues of the day.”
But this very ill acquaintance drew me whiles I was yet truth and purity of Shakspere must have a novice, such wickedness, such lewdness, greatly diminished his attractions, amidst a as then made my penitent heart to loathe, crowd who wrote upon opposite principles. my conscience to abhor, all stage-plays ever Nothing but the unequalled strength of his since.” Prynne left Oxford and came to artistical power could have preserved the London after 1620. Fletcher was then the unbroken continuance of his supremacy. living idol of the theatre; and any one who And this leads us to the consideration of is acquainted with his plays, full of genius another cause why the popular admiration as they are, must admit that Prynne had too of him would have been diminished and inmuch cause for his disgust. In the office- terrupted within a very few years after his book of Sir Henry Herbert, in 1633, we find death, and certainly long before the suppresthe following curious entry: “The comedy sion of the theatres, if his excellences had called "The Young Admiral,' being free from not so completely triumphed over every oaths, profaneness, or obsceneness, hath given impediment to his enduring popular fame. me much delight and satisfaction in the His plays were to a certain extent mixed up reading, and may serve for a pattern to with the reputation of the actors by whom other poets.” The play was Shirley's. But they were originally represented. In that six months after there is a still more curious curious play "The Return from Parnassus,' entry in the same book : “ This morning, which was acted by the students in St. John's being the 9th of January, 1633 [1634), the College, Cambridge, in 1606, and which was king was pleased to call me into his with clearly written by an academical person drawing chamber to the window, where he inclined to satirize the popular poets and went over all that I had crossed in Davenant's players of his day, Kempe is thus made to play-book, and, allowing of faith and slight to address two scholars who want lessons in be asseverations only and no oaths, marked | the histrionic art : “ Be merry, my lads ; * Coleridge.
* Coleridge's Literary Remains,' vol. ij. p. 79.
you have happened upon the most excellent own, but the stain of all other nations and
The theatres were thrown open at the of his own documents, for, when he gives us one Restoration. Malone, in his ‘Historical list, he points out that there are only three Account of the English Stage,' informs us, plays of Shakspere—“a melancholy proof” of that, “in the latter end of the year 1659, his decline; and at another list he shakes his some months before the restoration of King head, reciting “ the following plays of ShakCharles II., the theatres, which had been speare, and these only.” Now it appears to us suppressed during the usurpation, began to that, if any proof were wanting of the wonrevive, and several plays were performed at derful hold which Shakspere had taken of the the Red Bull in St. John's Street, in that English mind, under circumstances the most and the following years, before the return of adverse to his continued popularity, it would the King.” He then adds, that in June, be found in these imperfect lists, which do 1660, three companies seem to have been not extend over more than eight or nine formed, including that of the Red Bull ; and years. Here are absolutely fourteen plays of he enters into a history of the contests Shakspere revived—for that is the phrasebetween the Master of the Revels, and in an age which was prolific of its own Killigrew and Davenant, who had received authors, adapting themselves to a new school a patent from the king for the exclusive of courtly taste. All the indirect testimony, performance of dramatic entertainments. It however meagre, exhibits the enduring popuis scarcely necessary for us to pursue the larity of Shakspere. Killigrew's new theatre details of this contest, which, as is well in Drury Lane is opened with Henry IV. known, terminated in the permanent esta- Within a few months after the Restoration, blishment of two theatres only in London. when heading and hanging are going forward, Malone has ransacked the very irregular Pepys relates that he went to see “Othello.' series of papers connected with the office of In 1661, he is attracted by“Romeo and Juliet;' Sir Henry Herbert, who appears to have kept and, in 1662, we have an entry in his diary, an eye upon theatrical performances with a with his famous criticism : "To the King's view to demanding his fees if he should be Theatre, where we saw‘Midsummer's Night's supported by the higher powers. From Dream,' which I had never seen before, nor these, and other sources, such as the List of shall ever again, for it is the most insipid Downes, the prompter of the principal plays ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” acted by Killigrew's company, Malone infers, Here, upon unquestionable authority, we that “such was the lamentable taste of have a fifteenth play added to the fourteen those times that the plays of Fletcher, previously cited. But why need we search Jonson, and Shirley were much oftener ex- amongst such chance entries for evidence of hibited than those of Shakspere.” The plays the reputation of Shakspere immediately acted by this company, as he collects from after the Restoration ? Those who talk of these documents, were ‘Henry IV.,''Merry Shakspere as emerging some century ago into Wives of Windsor,' 'Othello,' and 'Julius celebrity after having fallen into neglect for Cæsar.' At Davenant's theatre, which boasted a lengthened period; those who flippantly of the great actor Betterton, we learn, from affirm, that “the preface of Pope was the Malone, that the plays performed were 'Pe- first thing that procured general admiration ricles,' 'Macbeth, The Tempest,''Lear, for his works,” are singularly ignorant of “Hamlet,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet,' 'Henry VIII.,' the commonest passages of literary history. 'Twelfth Night,'Taming of the Shrew,''Henry To the vague and random assertions and V? Malone does not do justice to the value assumptions, whether old or new, about the
neglect into which Shakspere had fallen as competitors; formed for the mutual assistance a popular dramatist, may be opposed the and illustration of each other's genius. How most distinct testimony of one, especially, Shakespeare wrote, all men who have a taste who was
a most accurate and minute for nature may read, and know; but with chronicler of the public taste. COLLEY CIBBER, what higher rapture would he still be read, who himself became an actor, in 1690, in the could they conceive how Betterton played one privileged company of London, of which him!” Whenever Cibber speaks of BetterBetterton was the head—a company formed ton's wondrous excellence, it is always in out of the united strength of the two connection with Shakspere: “Should I tell companies which had been established at the you that all the Othellos, Hamlets, Hotspurs, Restoration–describes the state of the stage Macbeths, and Brutuses whom you may have at the period of the first revival of dramatic seen since his time, have fallen far short of performances : “ Besides their being thorough him, this still should give you no idea of his masters of their art, these actors set forward particular excellence.” For some years after with two critical advantages, which perhaps the Restoration it seems to have been difficult may never happen again in many ages.” to satiate the people with the repetition of One of the advantages he mentions, but a Shakspere’s great characters and leading secondary one, was, “that before the Restora- plays, in company with some of the plays of tion no actresses had ever been seen upon the Jonson and Fletcher. The two companies English stage.” But the chief advantage had an agreement as to their performances : was, “their immediate opening after the so “All the capital plays of Shakespeare, long interdiction of plays during the civil Fletcher, and Ben Jonson were divided bewar and the anarchy that followed it.” He tween them by the approbation of the court, then goes on to say, “What eager appetites and their own alternate choice. So that, from so long a fast must the guests of those when Hart was famous for Othello, Betterton times have had to that high and fresh variety had no less a reputation for Hamlet.” Still, of entertainments!” Provided by whom? | the test of histrionic excellence was ShakBy the combined variety of Jonson, and spere. So far from Shakspere being neglected Fletcher, and Massinger, and Ford, and at this period, it is almost evident that the Shirley, and a host of other writers, whose performance of him was overdone ; for every attactive fare was to be presented to the one knows that a theatrical audience, even eager guests after so long a fast? No. The in the largest city, is, in a considerable high entertainment and the fresh variety degree, composed of regular frequenters of was to be provided by one man alone,—the the theatre, and that novelty is therefore an man who we are told was neglected in his indispensable requisite to continued success.
and forgotten in that which came The plays of Shakspere were better acted by after him. “What eager appetites from so the company of which Betterton was the long a fast must the guests of those times head, than by the rival company; and this, have had to that high and fresh variety of according to Cibber, led to the introduction entertainments which Shakespeare had left of a new taste :—“These two excellent prepared for them! Never was a stage so companies were both prosperous for some few provided. A hundred years are wasted, and years, till their variety of plays began to be another silent century well advanced *, and exhausted. Then, of course, the better actors yet what unborn age shall say Shakespeare (which the King's seem to have been allowed) has his equal! How many shining actors could not fail of drawing the greater audihave the warm scenes of his genius given to
Sir William Davenant, therefore, posterity!” Betterton is idolized as master of the Duke's company, to make head actor, as much as the old man venerates against their success, was forced to add Shakspere: “Betterton was an actor, as spectacle and music to action, and to introShakespeare was an author, both without duce a new species of plays, since called * Cibber is writing as late as 1740.
dramatic operas, of which kind were “The