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T seems to be a kind of respect due to the memory of excellent men, especially of those whom their wit and learning have made famous, to deliver fome ac
count of themselves, as well as their works, to Pofterity. For this reason, how fond do we see some people of discovering any little personal story of the great men of Antiquity! their families, the common accidents of their lives, and even their shape, make, and features have been the subject of critical enquiries. How trifling foever this Curiosity may seem to be, it is certainly very natural; and we are hardly satisfy'd with an account of any remarkable
person, till we have heard him describ'd even to the , very cloaths he wears. As for what relates to men of letters, the knowledge of an Author may sometimes conduce to the better understanding his book : And tho' the Works of Mr. Shakespear may seem to many not to want a comment, yet I fancy some little account of the man himself may not be thought improper to go along with them.
He was the son of Mr. John Shakespear, and was born at Stratford upon Avon, in Warwickshire, in April 1564. His family, as appears by the Register and publick Writings relating to that Town, were of good figure and fashion there, and are mention'd as gentlemen. His father, who was a considerable dealer in wool, had so large a family, ten children in all, that tho' he was his eldest son, he could give him no better education than his own employment. He had bred him, 'tis true, for some time at a Free-school, where 'tis probable he acquired what Latin he was master of: But the narrowness of his circumstances, and the want of his assistance at home, forc'd his father to withdraw him from thence, and unhappily prevented his further proficiency in that language. It is without controversy, that in his works we scarce find any traces of any thing that looks like an imitation of the Ancients. The delicacy of his taste, and the natural bent of his own great Genius, (equal, if not fuperior to some of the best of theirs) would certainly have led him to read and study 'ein with so much pleasure, that some of their fine images would naturally have insinuated themselves into, and been mix'd with his own writings ; so that his not copying at least fomething from them, may be an argument of his never having read 'em. Whether his ignorance of the Ancients were a difadvantage to him or no, may admit of a dispute : For tho' the knowledge of 'em might have made him more correct, yet it is not improbable but that the regularity and deference for them, which would have attended that correctness, might have restrain'd some of that fire, impetuofity, and even beautiful extravagance which we admire in Shakespear :
And I believe we are better pleas'd with those thoughts, altogether new and uncommon, which his own imagination supply'd him so abundantly with, than if he had given us the most beautiful passages out of the Greek and Latin poets, and that in the most agreeable manner that it was possible for a master of the English language to deliver 'em.
Upon his leaving school, he seems to have given entirely into that way of living which his father propos’d to him ; and in order to settle in the world after a family manner, he thought fit to marry while he was yet very young. His wife was the Daughter of one Hathaway, said to have been a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford. In this kind of settlement he continu'd for some time, 'till an extravagance that he was guilty of forc'd him both out of his country and that way of living which he had taken up; and tho' it seem'd at first to be a blemish upon his good manners, and a misfortune to him, yet it afterwards happily prov'd the occasion of exerting one of the greatest Genius's that ever was known in dramatick Poetry. He had, by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company; and amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of Deerstealing, engag‘d him with them more than once in robbing a Park that belong'd to Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too feverely; and in order to revenge that ill usage, he made a ballad upon him. And tho this, probably the first essay of his Poetry, be loft, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the Prosecution against him to that degree, that he was oblig'd to leave his business and family in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter himself in London.
It is at this time, and upon this accident, that he is said to have made his first acquaintance in the Play
house. He was receiv'd into the company then in being, at first in a very mean rank ; but his admirable wit, and the natural turn of it to the stage, foon distinguish'd him, if not as an extraordinary Actor, yet as an excellent Writer. His name is printed, as the custom was in those times, amongst those of the other Players, before some old Plays, but without any particular account of what sort of parts he us’d to play; and tho' I have enquir'd, I could never meet with
any further account of him this way, than that the
top of his Performance was the ghost in his own Hamlet. I should have been much more pleas'd, to have learn'd from some certain authority, which was the first Play he wrote (a); it would be without doubt a pleasure to any man, curious in things of this kind, to see and know what was the first essay of a fancy like Shakespear's. Perhaps we are not to look for his beginnings, like those of other authors, among their least perfect writings; art had so little, and nature so large a share in what he did, that, for ought I know, the performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, and had the most fire and strength of imagination in ’em, were the best. I would not be thought by this to mean, that his fancy was fo loose and extravagant, as to be independent on the rule and government of judgment; but that what he thought, was commonly fo great, so justly and rightly conceiv'd in it self, that it wanted little or no correction, and was immediately approv'd by an impartial judgment at the first sight. But tho' the order of time in which the several pieces were written be generally uncertain, yet there are passages in some few of them which seem to fix their dates. So the Chorus at the
(a) The highest date of any I can get find, is Romeo and Juliet 1x 1597, when the Author was 33 years old; and Richard the 2d, and 3d, in the next year, viz. the 34th of his age.
end of the fourth Act of Henry V. by a compliment very handsomely turn’d to the Earl of Efex, shews the Play to have been written when that Lord was General for the Queen in Ireland: And his Elogy upon Queen Elizabeth, and her successor King James, in the latter end of his Henry VIII. is a proof of that Play's being written after the accession of the latter of those two Princes to the crown of England. Whatever the particular times of his writing were, the people of his age, who began to grow wonderfully fond of diversions of this kind, could not but be highly pleas'd to see a Genius arise amongst 'em of fo pleasurable, so rich a vein, and so plentifully capable of furnishing their favourite entertainments. Besides the advantages of his wit, he was in himself a good-natur'd man, of great sweetness in his manners, and a most agreeable companion; so that it is no wonder if with so many good qualities he made himself acquainted with the best conversations of those times. Queen Elizabeth had several of his Plays acted before her, and without doubt gave him many gracious marks of her favour : It is that maiden Princess plainly, whom he intends by
-A fair Veftal, Throned by the West.
Midsummer-Night's Dream. And that whole passage is a compliment very properly brought in, and very handsomely apply'd to her. She was so well pleas'd with that admirable character of Falstaff, in the two parts of Henry the fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one Play more, and to shew him in love. This is said to be the occasion of his writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. How well she was obey'd, the Play itself is an admirable proof. Upon this occasion it may not be improper to observe, that this part of Falstaff is said to VOL. I.