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Ir may not be amiss to preface our Shakspearian Readings with the few recollections which time has left of the Poet himself, and with some general estimate of his genius.
William Shakspeare, the prince of English poets, and the greatest dramatic poet that ever lived, produced his plays, which, in his own day, were distinguished as Histories, Tragedies, and Comedies, toward the end of Elizabeth's reign, and in the early years of the first James. He was the son of a Woolstapler of Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire. He married early, and had already commenced the cares of a family, when he quitted his native place in order, as vulgar report affirms, but without sufficient evidence, to avoid the consequences of some frolicsome depredations in the park of a justice of the peace. He came to London, being as is supposed no more than oneand-twenty years of age, and recommended himself to the good will and patronage of the players, some of whom he had probably met with in their professional visitations at Stratford. His first employment seems to have been to fill subordinate parts on the stage; at least it is certain that he did act, and that he never rose to the credit of filling the highest parts in the drama. The players doubtless soon found where his real talent lay, and set him to improve, by his pen, the stock of plays which they had purchased of previous and now forgotten writers. From being an improver of plays he became an original writer; and thus took the situation in which his extraordinary genius could be said to have fair play. For there is this difference between Shakspeare and other dramatic poets: other writers project a character only in general outline, a good or a bad man, shrewd or simple, mild or fierce, amorous, avaricious, and so forth; perhaps finishing with care and no little skill as they proceed, but always in such a manner that no more of the character at any time exists in the mind of the author than he has finished off, and exhibits to the reader or spectator. Shakspeare's power, leading to a very different procedure, is that of conceiving a character whole and entire, such that the language used is an effect of what previously exists, affording indications of the entire character that lives in the mind of the poet,
but, to the reader who dives not below the surface, never opening the whole of it. This power he exerted even when he set himself to work on the crude conceptions of another; for he brought the same creative fancy to interpret the language used, which stimulated his own productions; and it should seem that he never added or altered, ut when something more, or something different was absolutely necessary to suit the vivid reality excited in his mind. But thus to labour as the interpreter of what, in the outset, had not been conceived with the vigour of his own mind, was evidently to deal unfairly by his genius; and the consequence could not be escaped, namely, a sort of patch-. work, which, it must be confessed, is the character of some of the plays attributed to Shakspeare. The poet was not conscious of the injustice thus done to himself, because the vivid effects produced on his mind by these inferior productions, led him to an equal estimate of his contemporaries and of himself; nor did the public of that day, nor even the generations that immediately succeeded, discover the difference between Shakspeare and the dramatic poets of the same excellent school; for they looked only on the surface of what was planned and written; and, finding the language which Shakspeare used, and the stories he adopted, sometimes more, sometimes less striking than those of their other favourites, they gave him credit or discredit accordingly; and with this equal share of notice Shakspeare seems to have been satisfied, leaving his plays, when they had served their purpose, to sink, as he appears to have imagined they would sink, with those of his predecessors into oblivion, along with the changes and corruptions which it was impossible they should not gather. A few of his plays surreptitiously obtained, and full of evident blunders, were published during his life, apparently without concern on his part, though clearly without his sanction; and it was not till seven years after his death that a complete edition was attempted by Condell and Heminge, the managers of the Globe theatre, when the time was gone by for clearing the text of all that the poet himself might have chosen to reject. This edition, with no very great number of generally admitted corrections, is the text of Shakspeare at present received; and it is now reckoned a sin in literature to curtail, or change, or modify this text, if the so-formed production is put forward for the work of Shakspeare. Yet if the view we have taken is just, of Shakspeare's creations as compared with the characters elaborated by other poets, the persons of his drama are the least likely to suffer by being brought forward piecemeal,-the ultimate effect of his scenes is least likely to be marred, because a word here or there is substituted, instead of the exact word presented by the text. Fully admitting, then, that, as a part of literature, the text of Shakspeare, so professed, must not be tampered with, and that, in reading this greatest of poets as a scholar reads when he sits down deliberately to the work with all the means of literary illustration at hand-admitting that for this end the text of Shakspeare as we have received it, and nothing less nor other than the text, should come under the eye of the reader; we may yet crave indulgence for an adaptation of some of the scenes
of Shakspeare to a particular end, such as our audible Readings propose. Let it not be imagined that, by any omission, by any substitution, or any deviation whatever from the text, we presume to amend Shakspeare; but that, for the temporary end in view,-to save some explanation,—or some wrong impression which an obsolete word might leave,—or some grammatical scruple, or some difficulty of delivery, or a word from an unusual accent, or a discrepancy between fact and poetry, without stopping to discuss the point with matter-of-fact people; to save, in short, anything that might impede the smooth progress of your reader, and the full participation of his audience; we sometimes prefer what, in a literary sense, is worse, to something which is better. Our Readings, be it clearly remembered, are not meant to interfere with, or take the place of, the scholar-like reading to which allusion was just now made. But that the transcendent genius of Shakspeare may make itself felt, the cold, silent reading of the closet should be assisted: And can we not, for this purpose, select passages, and read them, or try to read them, so that one heart shali kindle from another, and nature's truths, of which our bard is the interpreter, be manifested by the contagious sympathy? A character may, at one time, be examined through all the speeches assigned to it, without catching a glimpse of the individual person that lives in the mind or che poet; at another time, a single passage may unfold the whole man. Experience has taught that, deeper than first or ordinary apprehension reaches, there always is an individual character; and the power of conceiving it clearly, and following its workings in all the business of the scene, is identical with a knowledge of human nature, and a perception of what is true and beautiful in poetry. No assertion can be more egregiously wrong than one which Johnson makes in his preface to Shakspeare; that, "in the writings of other poets, a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakspeare, it is commonly a species." The reverse of this is the fact; other poets are able, in their conceptions, to catch and embody only certain general characteristics of certain men, and so they exhibit only the species to which each man respectively belongs: or, if they attempt an individual character, it is not only such a one as never has existed, but it is made up of incongruities that force us, if skilled in life, to feel that it never could exist. The characters of Shakspearian creation are like those which nature frames ;—each is an individual: each indeed belongs to a species, but each is as different from that which comes the nearest in resemblance, as every individual man is different from other men who are like him. Indeed, the completeness of conception in the poet's mind seems to have been such as to include the complexion, the gait, the physical constitution, the ordinary habits, the exact person of the individual: not that the poet tells us all this by descriptions purposely introduced; but we learn that he has it all in mind by expressions dropped every now and then during the progress of the action, and the ordinary business of the scene. And where this consistency of character may seem to be violated, it is fair to suppose that Shakspeare has worked on that
which another began, or that, having begun, some following hand has marred his work. It seems proper to call attention, also, to this phenomenon in the dramatic works of Shakspeare,-that from none of them do we learn anything of the writer himself:-we cannot gather from one single circumstance, or one single hint, what was his own character,-what were his prevailing habits of thought,-what were his principles, religious, moral, or political,—what was his disposition, or what were his habits of life. No writer so completely forgets himself, or is so little of an egotist. To transcend the limits of that little world of thought and feeling which constitutes his own being, is an ability that scarcely any other writer possesses; certainly none in that degree in which Shakspeare enjoyed it: and with regard to the generality even of dramatic poets, what do we find in the different persons of their dramas, but different shades of the same single mind, from which single mind all that is said is felt to flow, however it may be assigned sometimes to one name, and sometimes to another of the persons of the drama? If, according to the etymology of the word, poetical power is creative power, and he is the greatest poet who can give existence to what is at the same time natural, and distinct in nature from himself, Shakspeare must be allowed that proud claim without danger of a competitor; or, if he has to dispute it with any other poet, it is with Homer alone.
What little more is certainly known of Shakspeare himself than has already been stated, is easily said. His popularity, even in his own day, though equally shared by others, appears to have been considerable it won for him some notice from Queen Elizabeth, and the especial patronage of the Earl of Southampton; and his profits as a writer, and a shareholder in the Globe theatre in Southwark, where all his plays were produced, procured him a competence, with which he purchased a small estate in his native town of Stratfordupon-Avon: and here he spent the last years of his life. He appears to have had all the personal qualities that make a man agreeable to others" a pleasurable wit and good nature;" and his contemporary, Ben Jonson, writing of him after his death, says, that "he loved the man, and honoured his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was indeed honest; of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions." Thus much for his personal worth. He died at Stratford on his birth-day in 1616, aged fifty-three, leaving two daughters, who also had children: but his posterity became extinct in his granddaughter Elizabeth, the wife of Sir John Barnard of Abingdon. Her death happened in 1669.
Before concluding this general preface to our Readings, it may be remarked, that the play-houses in Shakspeare's day were circular wooden buildings, open at the top to the sky, and the plays were acted by day-light. The inferior place of the theatre was the ground, or, as we now call it, the pit: the best places, or, as we now call them, the boxes, were then named rooms, and they were fenced from the weather by a partia! roof. The stage had a sort of balcony