CHARLES KNIGHT'S WILLIAM SHAKSPERE, A BIOGRAPHY.
THE completion of this work enables the purpose of the author to be better comprehended, than was possible in a piecemeal examination during its publication in numbers. It was indeed obvious from the First Part, that Mr. KNIGHT wished to over- throw the traditional authorities or learned inferences which have represented SHAKSPERE'S father as an uneducated man in em- barrassed circumstances, and that the poet himself was deficient in scholarship, driven to London by some outbreak of youth or some necessity of circumstances, and compelled on his arrival in the metropolis to subsist for a time by mean employments. It was also clear that the author intended to combine the fanciful with the real—to show by a combination of antiquarian knowledge of contemporary manners with the inferences derived from an actual survey of the country where SHAKSPERE was born and bred, not how the great poet lived and studied, (for that no one knows,) but bow he might have lived and studied. A perusal of the entire work shows that Mr. KNIGHT had a more extensive aim; which, large as it was, he has successfully accomplished. He wished to exhibit not only the life but the times of SHAKSPERE—/0 show the transition state of society in which the poet's youth was passed, together with the influence the old Popish observances and the new opinions of the Reformation might exercise upon his genius ; as well as to delineate the popular sports and pastimes, describe the pageants of the great, and exhibit the primordia of the new drama superseding the old "mysteries," which grew up even with SHAKSPERE himself. These things, however, with the supposed studies and training of the future dramatist, only refer to his early life at Stratford-upon-Avon. The incidents are varied if not widened when he comes to London. The state, economy, mode of management, and popular estimation of the theatres at the time, with the poetical character and moral conduct of SHAK- SPEER'S contemporaries and rivals, are presented to the reader ; the chronology of his principal plays is incidentally discussed ; and some of the probable sources, not so much of his plays as of particular sentiments in his plays, are deduced from an examination of passing events—as the threatened Armada might have given rise to the anti-papal and patriotic passages of King John. Front the same source of passing events deduc- tions are drawn as to SHAKSPERB'S whereabout at particular times—it was not likely that he remained in London when town was empty and the theatres closed by authority on account of the plague ; and by means of legal documents and parochial en- tries, some well known and some hunted out for almost the first time, the advancement of his fortune is traced with accuracy, and even his business habits are indicated. These materials are some- times presented in a defined narrative, where the authority admits of it ; sometimes they assume the shape of critical disquisition, to confute or establish mooted points ; but mare frequently they are exhibited in a species of descriptive reverie, where the writer calls upon the reader to accompany him in fancying that he sees certain things and persons : a style of composition where only a peculiar ability, restrained by judgment and working upon solid matter, can avoid exaggeration and a melodramatic air. Perhaps these are not always escaped in Mr. KNIGHT'S performance; but there is no mawkishness, and no heaviness of effect : the reader is carried agreeably through upwards of five hundred pages, where five pages would contain all the known facts; with Common attention he cannot be deceived as to what is fact, what deduction, and what assumed ; and nowhere can he attain such a complete account of all that is known respecting the poet, or such a complete view of SHAKSPERE and his times.
Beyond the boyhood and education of SHAKSPERE, which is so complete a blank that every one may fill it up as he pleases, three points are handled by Mr. KNIGHT, which may require a remark. I. The marriage-licence of SHAKSPERE is dated 28th November 1582; his daughter was christened on the 26th May 1583. On these facts, discovered by modern research, some modern writers have made remarks without a due consideration or perhaps a knowledge of provincial customs, or the then state of opinion arising from the unsettled condition of the marriage-laws; and they have built up a series of assumptions regarding SHAssrzaz's future life, quite un- supported by facts, and contrary to the evidence afforded by his prosperity. These opinions are not only combated by Mr. KNIGHT, but, to cover his hero, he introduces the scene of a contract or be- trothal, "about a year, we will say, before WILLIAM SHAKSPERE'S own marriage," for which there is no authority whatsoever, either direct or inferential. 2. In like manner, Mr. KNIGHT denies the deer-stealing tradition, and the subsistence in London by any mean employments. The specific facts of tradition are probably false or exaggerated ; but it is difficult to reconcile the choice of life with our author's view of SHAKSPERE'S family, without the existence of some escapade. A farmer of those days, striving to take rank as a country gentleman, and eventually attaining it, would not willingly have allowed his son and heir to turn player or playwright. 3. The probability of SHAKSPERE having visited Scotland has been mooted since 1767, but generally dismissed as untenable, till of late years. From a comparison of all that has been written on the subject, with a consideration of some documents lately brought to light, and an examination of the register of the Town. Council of Aberdeen, Mr. KNIGHT not only infers that SHAKSPERE visited Scotland with his company in 1601, but visited it under regal patronage; and that LAWRENCE FLETCHER, the head or "manager "pro tempore, was actually advanced to the honour of "a burgess of guild of the borough of Aberdeen." By a reference to contemporary Scottish events, with an induction of passages from Macbeth, Mr. KNIGHT concludes that the trial of the Aberdeen witches and the Ruthven conspiracy probably suggested much of the conduct and many of the images of that wonderful creation. In this chapter, and in many places throughout the volume, Mr. KNIGHT may "consider too curiously," but we think the inference just and strong that SHAKSPERE was in Scotland during 1601; that he then acquired the patronage of JAMES the Sixth ; and, what is of much more con- sequence, that he thence drew the raw ore of his great Scottish tragedy.
Strictly analyzed, the matter of William Shakspere a Biography consists of three kinds : the first is documentary matter, relating to SHAKSPERE, some of which is novel, but the greater part has already been dug up by the industrious research of other commen- tators; the second consists of antiquarian and literary informa- tion, existing in works all accessible to inquirers, and many to the general reader, if he would read ; the last and freshest kind is derived from a personal inspection of nature during many pilgrim- ages made in connexion with the object of the work or rather of the subject. Valuable and skilfully selected as is the matter, it does not, however, form the chief value of the work. This arises from the enthusiasm which has been brought to the subject, search- ing for every thing that could even remotely bear upon SHAKSPERE with indefatigable industry, examining and selecting the most con- clusive and striking circumstances relating to him with acute and in- genious partisanship, and fusing the matter drawn together from re- mote and unexpected sources into an entire work by the warmth of an asdent imagination. The book, however, is not one that can be understood by description, scarcely by extract ; though we will endeavour by some quotations to exhibit its combination of the facts and the fanciful. The extracts will be chosen as much as may be to exhibit the various kinds of materials.
THE POPISH AND NATIONAL FESTIVALS THE GERM OF THE SHAKSPERIAN STAGE.
It is the twenty-third of April, and the birthday of William Shakspere is a general holyday at Stratford. Ills Saint George's day. There is high feasting at Westminster or at Windsor. The green rushes are strewn in the outward courts of the Palace ; the choristers lift up the solemn chants of the Litany as a procession advances from the Queen's Hall to her Chapel ; the Heralds move on gorgeously in their coat-armour ; the Knights of the Garter and the Sovereign glitter in their velvet robes; the Yeomen of the Guard close round in their richest liveries. At Stratford there is humbler pageantry. Upon the walls of the Chapel of the Holy Cross there was a wondrous painting of a terrible dragon pierced through the neck with a spear ; but he has snapped the weapon In two with his fearful talons, and a gallant knight in complete armour is uplifting his sword, whilst the bold horse which he bestrides rushes upon the monster with his pointed champfrein : in the background is a crowned lady with a lamb; and on distant towers, a king and queen watching the combat. This story of Saint George and the delivery of the Princess of Silene from the power of the dragon, was on the twenty-third of April wont to be dramatized at Stratford. From the altar of Saint George was annually taken down an ancient suit of harness, which was duly scoured and repaired; and from some storehouse was produced the figure of a dragon, which had also all needful annual reparation. Upon the back of some sturdy labourer was the harness fitted, and another powerful man had to bear the dragon, into whose body he no doubt entered. Then, all the dignitaries of the town being duly assembled, did Saint George and the Dragon march along, amidst the ringing of bells and the firing of chambers, and the shout of the patriotic population of " Saint George for England." Here is the simplest of dramatic exhibitions, presented through a series of years to the observing eyes of • boy in whom the dramatic power of going out of himself to portray some incident oe character or passion, with incomparable truth, was to be developed and matured in the growth of his poetical faculty. As he looked upon that rude representation of a familiar legend, he may first have conceived the capability of exhibiting to the eye a moving picture of events, and of informing it with life by appropriate dialogue. But in truth, the essentially dramatic spirit of the ancient church had infused itself thoroughly into the popular mind ; and thus, long after the Reformation had swept away most of the ecclesiastical ceremonials that were held to belong to the superstitions of Popery, the people retained this principle of personation in their common festivals ; and many were the occasions in which the boy and the man, the maiden and the matron, were called upon to enact some part, in which bodily activity and mental readiness might be required ; in whieh something of grace and even of dignity might be called forth ; in which a free but good-tempered wit might command the applause of uncritical listeners; and a sweet or mellow voice, pouring forth our nation's songs, would receive the exhilarating homage of a jocund chorus.
A DEFENCE OF SHAISPERE'S CLASSICAL LEARNING.
The question rests not upon the interpretation of the dictum of this au- thority or that, but upon the indisputable fact that the very earliest writings of Shakspere are imbued with a spirit of classical antiquity ; and that the allusive nature of the learning that manifests itself in them, whilst it offers the best proof of his familiarity with the ancient writers, is a circumstance which has misled those who never attempted to dispute the existence of the learning which was displayed in the direct pedantry oh his contemporaries. " 1:f," said Hales of Eton, "he had not read the classics, he had likewise not stolen from them." Marlowe, Greene, Peele, and all the early dramatists, overload their plays with quotations and mythological allusion. According to Hales, they steal, and therefore they have read. He who uses his knowledge skilfully la assumed not to have read.
It is not our intention here to enter upon a general examination of the various opinions that have been held as to the learning of Shakepere, and the tendency of those opinions to show that he was without learning. We only desire to point out, by a very few observations, that the learning manifested in his early productions does not bear out the assertion of Rowe that his profi- ciency in the Latin language was interrupted by his early removal from the free-school of Stratford. His youthful poem Venus and Adonis, the first heir of Ms invention, is upon a classical subject. The Rape of Lucrece is founded upon a legend of the beginning of Roman history. Would he have ventured upon these subjects had he been unfamiliar with the ancient writers, from the attentive study of which he could alone obtain the knowledge which would enable him to treat them with propriety ? His was an age of sound scholarship : he dedicates both poems to a scholar, and a patron of scholars. Does any one of his contemporaries object that these classical subjects were treated by • young man ignorant of the classics? Will the most critical examination of these poems detect any thing that betrays this ignorance? Is there not the most perfect keeping in both these poems—an original conception of the mode of treating these subjects, advisedly adopted with the full knowledge of what might be imitated, but preferring the vigorous painting of nature to any imita- tion? Love's Labour's Lost, undoubtedly one of the earliest comedies, shows—upon the principle laid down by Coleridge, that "a young author's first work almost always bespeaks his recent pursuits "—that the habits of William Shakspere "had been scholastic, and those of a student." The Comedy of Ernes it full of those imitations of the ancients in particular passages which critics have in all cases been too apt to take as the chief evidences of learning. The critics of Shakspere are puzzled by these imitations ; and when they see with what skill he adopts, or amends, or rejects, the incidents of the " Mensechtni " of Plautus, they have no resource but to contend that his knowledge of Plautus was derived from a wretched translation, published in all probability eight or ten years after The Comedy of Errors was written. The Three Parts of Henry the Sixth are the earliest of the historical plays. Those who dispute the genu- ineness of the First Part, affirm that it contains more allusions to mythology and classical authors than Shakspere ever uses; but, with a most singular in- consistency, in the passages of the Second and Third Parts which they have chosen to pronounce as the additions of Shakspere to the original plays of another writer or writers, there are to be found as many allusions to mythology and classical writers as in the part which they deny to be his. We have re- marked upon these passages, that they furnish the proof that, as a young writer, he possessed a competent knowledge of the ancient authors, and was not unwilling to display it ; " but that, with that wonderful judgment which was as remarkable as the prodigious range of his imaginative powers, he soon learnt to avoid the pedantry to which inferior men so pertinaciously clung in the pride of their scholarship." Ranging over the whole dramatic works of Shakspere, whenever we find a classical image or illusion—such as in Hamlet,
.• A station like the herald Mercury.
New lighted on a heaven kissing lull"— the management of the idea is always elegant and graceful ; and the passage may sustain a contrast with the most refined imitations of his contemporaries,. or of his own imitator, Milton. In his Roman plays he appears coexistent with his wonderful characters, and to have read all the obscure pages of Roman history with a clearer eye than philosopher or historian. When he employs Latinisms in the construction of his sentences, and even lila the creation of new words, he does so with singular facility and unerring correctness. And then, we are to be told, he managed all this by studying bad translations, and by copying extracts from grammars and dictionaries ; as if it was reserved for such miracks of talent and industry as the Farmers and the Steevenses to read Ovid and Virgil in their original tongues, whilst the dull Sbakspere, whether school- boy or adult, was to be contented through life with the miserable translations of Arthur Golding and Thomas Phaer.
PLAYHOUSES IN ELIZABETHAN LONDON, AND SHAKSPERE'S STAGE.
In the continuation of Stow's Chronicle,' by Edmund Howes, there is a very curious passage, which carries us back from the period in which he was writing (1631) for sixty years. He describes the destruction of the Globe by fire in 1613, the burning of the Fortune Playhouse four years after, the rebuild- ing of both theatres, and the erection of "a new fair playhouse near the White.. friars." He then adds, " And this is the seventeenth stage or common play-. house which bath been new made within the space of threescore years within London and the suburbs ; viz, five inns or common hostelries turned to play- houses, one cockpit, St. Paul's singing-school, one in the Blackfriars, and one in the Whitefriarr, which was built last of all, in the year one thousand six hundred twenty-nine. All the rest not named were erected only for common playhouses, besides the oew-buidt Bear-gardens, which was built as well for plays and fencers' prizes as bull-baiting; besides one in former time at New. Ington Butts. Before the space of threescore years above said, I neither knew, heard, nor read of any such theatres, set stages, or playhouses, as have been purposely built within man's memory." It would appear, as far as we can judge from the very imperfect materials which exist, that in the early period of Sbakspere's connexion with the Blackfriars, it was the only private theatre. At a subsequent period, the Cockpit, or Phcenix, in Drury Lane' was a private theatre; and so was the theatre in Salisbury Court—the "new fair playhouse near the Whitefriars " of Howes. What, then, was the distinction between the private theatre of the Blackfriars, of which Shakspere was a shareholder in 1589, and the permanent and temporary public theatres with which it entered into competition ? It is natural to conclude that the proprietors of this theatre, being the Queen's servants, not merely nominally, but the sworn officers of her household, were the most respectable of their vocation; conformed to the ordi- nances of the state with the utmost scrupulousness; endeavoured to attract a select audience rather than an uncritical multitude; and received higher prices for admission than were paid at the public theatres. The performances at the Blackfriars were for the most part in the winter. 'Whether the performances were in the day or evening, artificial lights were used. The audience in what we now call the pit (then also so called) sat upon benches, and did not stand as in the yard open to the sky of the public playhouses. There were small rooms corresponding with the private boxes of existing theatres. A portion of the audience, including those who aspired to the distinction of critics, sat upon the stage. "Though you be a magistrate of wit, and sit on the stage at Black- friars to arraign plays daily," says the preface to the first folio of Shakspere. The passage we have quoted from Lambarde gives us a notion of the prices of admission at the very early theatres. Those who paid a penny for the "entry of the scaffold," had, of course, privileges not obtained by those who merely paid "the penny at the gate;" and those who, when they had reached the scaffold, Lad to pay another penny 'for quiet standing," had no doubt the advantage of some railed-off space, in some degree similar to the stalls of the modern pit. But the mass of the audience must have been the penny-payers. The passages in old plays and tracts which allude to the prices of admission, for the most part belong to the high and palmy period of the stage. But we learn from one of Lyly's tracts, in 1590, that the admission at "the theatre" was twopence, and at St. Paul's fourpence; though a penny still seems from other authorities to have been the common price. It is possible, and indeed there is some evi• deuce, that the rate of admission even then varied according to the attraction of the performance ; and we may be pretty sure that a company like that of Shakspere's generally charged at a higher rate than the larger theatres, which depended more upon the multitude. At a much later period, Ben Jonson and Fletcher mention a price as high as half-a-crown ; and the lowest price which Jenson mentions is sixpence. At a later period still, Jonson speaks of the six- penny mechanics of the Blackfriars. Those who sat upon the stage, it would appear, paid sixpence for a stool, in addition to their payment for admission.
The volume is illustrated by upwards of two hundred wood- engravings, constituting a running pictorial commentary on the text. They consist of views and portraits of the places and persons mentioned, and fac-similes of autographs. The portraits are aecurately copied from authentic prints; and the views are partly original and partly copied from old engraving.: they are all drawn on the wood by Mr. HARVEY, who has peopled many of the scenes with characteristic groups, representing the sports, pastimes, and pageants of the time; and they have an air of reality and animation that assists the fancy in imagining the life of the period. Some of them, too, are very effective pictures in an artistic point of view.