Nicholas Rowe: Some Account Of The Life &c. Of Mr. William Shakespear by David Nichol Smith

Story type: Essay


It 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 some account of themselves, as well as their works, to Posterity. 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 soever 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 acquir’d that little 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 controversie, that he had no knowledge of the writings of the antient poets, not only from this reason, but from his works themselves, where we find no traces of any thing that looks like an imitation of ’em; the delicacy of his taste, and the natural bent of his own great Genius, equal, if not superior to some of the best of theirs, would certainly have led him to read and study ’em 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 something from them, may be an argument of his never having read ’em. Whether his ignorance of the Antients were a disadvantage 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, impetuosity, 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. Some Latin without question he did know, and one may see up and down in his Plays how far his reading that way went: In Love’s Labour lost, the Pedant comes out with a verse of Mantuan ; and in Titus Andronicus, one of the Gothick princes, upon reading

Integer vitae scelerisque purus
Non eget Mauri jaculis nec arcu–

says, ” Tis a verse in Horace, but he remembers it out of his Grammar”: which, I suppose, was the Author’s case. Whatever Latin he had, ’tis certain he understood French, as may be observ’d from many words and sentences scatter’d up and down his Plays in that language; and especially from one scene in Henry the Fifth written wholly in it. Upon his leaving school, he seems to have given intirely 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 Deer-stealing, 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 severely; 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 lost, 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, soon 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 inquir’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; 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 so loose and extravagant, as to be independent on the rule and government of judgment; but that what he thought, was commonly so 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. Mr. Dryden seems to think that Pericles is one of his first Plays; but there is no judgment to be form’d on that, since there is good reason to believe that the greatest part of that Play was not written by him; tho’ it is own’d, some part of it certainly was, particularly the last Act. 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 in the beginning of the fifth Act of Henry V. by a compliment very handsomly turn’d to the Earl of Essex, shews the Play to have been written when that Lord was General for the Queen in Ireland : And his Elogy upon Q. Elizabeth, and her successor K. 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 so 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 Vestal, 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 it self is an admirable proof. Upon this occasion it may not be improper to observe, that this part of Falstaff is said to have been written originally under the name of Oldcastle ; some of that family being then remaining, the Queen was pleas’d to command him to alter it; upon which he made use of Falstaff. The present offence was indeed avoided; but I don’t know whether the Author may not have been somewhat to blame in his second choice, since it is certain that Sir John Falstaff, who was a Knight of the Garter, and a Lieutenant-general, was a name of distinguish’d merit in the wars in France in Henry the Fifth’s and Henry the Sixth’s times. What grace soever the Queen conferr’d upon him, it was not to her only he ow’d the fortune which the reputation of his wit made. He had the honour to meet with many great and uncommon marks of favour and friendship from the Earl of Southampton, famous in the histories of that time for his friendship to the unfortunate Earl of Essex. It was to that noble Lord that he dedicated his Poem of Venus and Adonis, the only piece of his Poetry which he ever publish’d himself, tho’ many of his Plays were surrepticiously and lamely printed in his life-time. There is one instance so singular in the magnificence of this Patron of Shakespear‘s, that if I had not been assur’d that the story was handed down by Sir William D’Avenant, who was probably very well acquainted with his affairs, I should not have ventur’d to have inserted, that my Lord Southampton at one time gave him a thousand pounds, to enable him to go through with a purchase which he heard he had a mind to: A bounty very great, and very rare at any time, and almost equal to that profuse generosity the present age has shewn to French Dancers and Italian Eunuchs.

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What particular habitude or friendships he contracted with private men, I have not been able to learn, more than that every one who had a true taste of merit, and could distinguish men, had generally a just value and esteem for him. His exceeding candor and good nature must certainly have inclin’d all the gentler part of the world to love him, as the power of his wit oblig’d the men of the most delicate knowledge and polite learning to admire him. Amongst these was the incomparable Mr. Edmond Spencer, who speaks of him in his Tears of the Muses, not only with the praises due to a good Poet, but even lamenting his absence with the tenderness of a friend. The passage is in Thalia’s Complaint for the Decay of Dramatick Poetry, and the Contempt the Stage then lay under, amongst his Miscellaneous Works, p. 147.

And he the Man whom Nature’s self had made
To mock her self, and Truth to imitate
With friendly Counter under mimick Shade,
Our pleasant Willy, ah! is dead of late:
With whom all Joy and jolly Merriment
Is also deaded, and in Dolour drent.

Instead thereof, scoffing Scurrility
And scorning Folly with Contempt is crept,
Rolling in Rhimes of shameless Ribaudry,
Without Regard or due Decorum kept;
Each idle Wit at will presumes to make,
And doth the Learned’s Task upon him take.

But that same gentle Spirit, from whose Pen
Large Streams of Honey and sweet Nectar flow,
Scorning the Boldness of such base-born Men,
Which dare their Follies forth so rashly throw;
Doth rather choose to sit in idle Cell,
Than so himself to Mockery to sell.

I know some people have been of opinion, that Shakespear is not meant by Willy in the first stanza of these verses, because Spencer‘s death happen’d twenty years before Shakespear‘s. But, besides that the character is not applicable to any man of that time but himself, it is plain by the last stanza that Mr. Spencer does not mean that he was then really dead, but only that he had withdrawn himself from the publick, or at least with-held his hand from writing, out of a disgust he had taken at the then ill taste of the Town, and the mean condition of the Stage. Mr. Dryden was always of opinion these verses were meant of Shakespear ; and ’tis highly probable they were so, since he was three and thirty years old at Spencer‘s death; and his reputation in Poetry must have been great enough before that time to have deserv’d what is here said of him. His acquaintance with Ben Johnson began with a remarkable piece of humanity and good nature; Mr. Johnson, who was at that time altogether unknown to the world, had offer’d one of his Plays to the Players, in order to have it acted; and the persons into whose hands it was put, after having turn’d it carelessly and superciliously over, were just upon returning it to him with an ill-natur’d answer, that it would be of no service to their Company, when Shakespear luckily cast his eye upon it, and found something so well in it as to engage him first to read it through, and afterwards to recommend Mr. Johnson and his writings to the publick. After this they were profess’d friends; tho’ I don’t know whether the other ever made him an equal return of gentleness and sincerity. Ben was naturally proud and insolent, and in the days of his reputation did so far take upon him the supremacy in wit, that he could not but look with an evil eye upon any one that seem’d to stand in competition with him. And if at times he has affected to commend him, it has always been with some reserve, insinuating his uncorrectness, a careless manner of writing, and want of judgment; the praise of seldom altering or blotting out what he writ, which was given him by the Players who were the first Publishers of his Works after his death, was what Johnson could not bear; he thought it impossible, perhaps, for another man to strike out the greatest thoughts in the finest expression, and to reach those excellencies of Poetry with the ease of a first imagination, which himself with infinite labour and study could but hardly attain to. Johnson was certainly a very good scholar, and in that had the advantage of Shakespear ; tho’ at the same time I believe it must be allow’d, that what Nature gave the latter, was more than a ballance for what Books had given the former; and the judgment of a great man upon this occasion was, I think, very just and proper. In a conversation between Sir John Suckling, Sir William D’Avenant, Endymion Porter, Mr. Hales of Eaton, and Ben Johnson ; Sir John Suckling, who was a profess’d admirer of Shakespear, had undertaken his defence against Ben Johnson with some warmth; Mr. Hales, who had sat still for some time, hearing Ben frequently reproaching him with the want of learning, and ignorance of the Antients, told him at last, That if Mr. Shakespear had not read the Antients, he had likewise not stollen any thing from ’em (a fault the other made no conscience of); and that if he would produce any one Topick finely treated by any one of them, he would undertake to shew something upon the same subject at least as well written by Shakespear. Johnson did indeed take a large liberty, even to the transcribing and translating of whole scenes together; and sometimes, with all deference to so great a name as his, not altogether for the advantage of the authors of whom he borrow’d. And if Augustus and Virgil were really what he has made ’em in a scene of his Poetaster, they are as odd an Emperor and a Poet as ever met. Shakespear, on the other hand, was beholding to no body farther than the foundation of the tale, the incidents were often his own, and the writing intirely so. There is one Play of his, indeed, The Comedy of Errors, in a great measure taken from the Menaechmi of Plautus. How that happen’d, I cannot easily divine, since, as I hinted before, I do not take him to have been master of Latin enough to read it in the original, and I know of no translation of Plautus so old as his time.

As I have not propos’d to my self to enter into a large and compleat criticism upon Shakespear‘s Works, so I suppose it will neither be expected that I should take notice of the severe remarks that have been formerly made upon him by Mr. Rhymer. I must confess, I can’t very well see what could be the reason of his animadverting with so much sharpness, upon the faults of a man excellent on most occasions, and whom all the world ever was and will be inclin’d to have an esteem and veneration for. If it was to shew his own knowledge in the Art of Poetry, besides that there is a vanity in making that only his design, I question if there be not many imperfections as well in those schemes and precepts he has given for the direction of others, as well as in that sample of Tragedy which he has written to shew the excellency of his own Genius. If he had a pique against the man, and wrote on purpose to ruin a reputation so well establish’d, he has had the mortification to fail altogether in his attempt, and to see the world at least as fond of Shakespear as of his Critique. But I won’t believe a gentleman, and a good-natur’d man, capable of the last intention. Whatever may have been his meaning, finding fault is certainly the easiest task of knowledge, and commonly those men of good judgment, who are likewise of good and gentle dispositions, abandon this ungrateful province to the tyranny of pedants. If one would enter into the beauties of Shakespear, there is a much larger, as well as a more delightful field; but as I won’t prescribe to the tastes of other people, so I will only take the liberty, with all due submission to the judgments of others, to observe some of those things I have been pleas’d with in looking him over.

His Plays are properly to be distinguish’d only into Comedies and Tragedies. Those which are called Histories, and even some of his Comedies, are really Tragedies, with a run or mixture of Comedy amongst ’em. That way of Trage-comedy was the common mistake of that age, and is indeed become so agreeable to the English taste, that tho’ the severer Critiques among us cannot bear it, yet the generality of our audiences seem to be better pleas’d with it than with an exact Tragedy. The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, and The Taming of the Shrew, are all pure Comedy; the rest, however they are call’d, have something of both kinds. ‘Tis not very easy to determine which way of writing he was most excellent in. There is certainly a great deal of entertainment in his comical humours; and tho’ they did not then strike at all ranks of people, as the Satyr of the present age has taken the liberty to do, yet there is a pleasing and a well-distinguish’d variety in those characters which he thought fit to meddle with. Falstaff is allow’d by every body to be a master-piece; the Character is always well-sustain’d, tho’ drawn out into the length of three Plays; and even the account of his death, given by his old landlady Mrs. Quickly, in the first act of Henry V., tho’ it be extremely natural, is yet as diverting as any part of his life. If there be any fault in the draught he has made of this lewd old fellow, it is, that tho’ he has made him a thief, lying, cowardly, vain-glorious, and in short every way vicious, yet he has given him so much wit as to make him almost too agreeable; and I don’t know whether some people have not, in remembrance of the diversion he had formerly afforded ’em, been sorry to see his friend Hal use him so scurvily, when he comes to the crown in the end of the second part of Henry the Fourth. Amongst other extravagances, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he has made him a Deer-stealer, that he might at the same time remember his Warwickshire prosecutor, under the name of Justice Shallow ; he has given him very near the same coat of arms which Dugdale, in his Antiquities of that county, describes for a family there, and makes the Welsh parson descant very pleasantly upon ’em. That whole play is admirable; the humours are various and well oppos’d; the main design, which is to cure Ford of his unreasonable jealousie, is extremely well conducted. Falstaff’s Billet-Doux, and Master Slender‘s

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Ah! Sweet
Ann Page

are very good expressions of love in their way. In Twelfth-Night there is something singularly ridiculous and pleasant in the fantastical steward Malvolio. The parasite and the vain-glorious in Parolles, in All’s Well that ends Well, is as good as any thing of that kind in Plautus or Terence. Petruchio, in The Taming of the Shrew, is an uncommon piece of humour. The conversation of Benedick and Beatrice, in Much Ado about Nothing, and of Rosalind in As you like it, have much wit and sprightliness all along. His clowns, without which character there was hardly any play writ in that time, are all very entertaining: And, I believe, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and Apemantus in Timon, will be allow’d to be master-pieces of ill nature and satyrical snarling. To these I might add that incomparable character of Shylock the Jew in The Merchant of Venice; but tho’ we have seen that play receiv’d and acted as a Comedy, and the part of the Jew perform’d by an excellent Comedian, yet I cannot but think it was design’d tragically by the Author. There appears in it such a deadly spirit of revenge, such a savage fierceness and fellness, and such a bloody designation of cruelty and mischief, as cannot agree either with the stile or characters of Comedy. The Play it self, take it all together, seems to me to be one of the most finish’d of any of Shakespear‘s. The tale indeed, in that part relating to the caskets, and the extravagant and unusual kind of bond given by Antonio, is a little too much remov’d from the rules of probability: But taking the fact for granted, we must allow it to be very beautifully written. There is something in the friendship of Antonio to Bassanio very great, generous, and tender. The whole fourth act, supposing, as I said, the fact to be probable, is extremely fine. But there are two passages that deserve a particular notice. The first is, what Portia says in praise of mercy, and the other on the power of musick. The melancholy of Jaques, in As you like it, is as singular and odd as it is diverting. And if what Horace says,

Difficile est proprie communia dicere,

’twill be a hard task for any one to go beyond him in the description of the several degrees and ages of man’s life, tho’ the thought be old, and common enough.

—-All the World’s a Stage,
And all the men and women meerly Players;
They have their Exits and their Entrances,
And one man in his time plays many Parts,
His Acts being seven Ages. At first the Infant
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms:
And then, the whining School-boy with his satchel,
And shining morning-face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the Lover
Sighing like furnace, with a woful ballad
Made to his Mistress’ eye-brow. Then a Soldier
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the Pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble Reputation
Ev’n in the cannon’s mouth. And then the Justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth Age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d Pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice
Turning again tow’rd childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound: Last Scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful History,
Is second childishness and meer oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans ev’ry thing.

His Images are indeed ev’ry where so lively, that the thing he would represent stands full before you, and you possess ev’ry part of it. I will venture to point out one more, which is, I think, as strong and as uncommon as any thing I ever saw; ’tis an image of Patience. Speaking of a maid in love, he says,

—-She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’th’ bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: She pin’d in thought,
And sate like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at Grief.

What an Image is here given! and what a task would it have been for the greatest masters of Greece and Rome to have express’d the passions design’d by this sketch of Statuary! The stile of his Comedy is, in general, natural to the characters, and easie in it self; and the wit most commonly sprightly and pleasing, except in those places where he runs into dogrel rhymes, as in The Comedy of Errors, and a passage or two in some other plays. As for his jingling sometimes, and playing upon words, it was the common vice of the age he liv’d in: And if we find it in the Pulpit, made use of as an ornament to the Sermons of some of the gravest Divines of those times; perhaps it may not be thought too light for the Stage.

But certainly the greatness of this Author’s genius do’s no where so much appear, as where he gives his imagination an entire loose, and raises his fancy to a flight above mankind and the limits of the visible world. Such are his attempts in The Tempest, Midsummer Nights Dream, Macbeth, and Hamlet. Of these, The Tempest, however it comes to be plac’d the first by the former publishers of his works, can never have been the first written by him: It seems to me as perfect in its kind, as almost any thing we have of his. One may observe, that the Unities are kept here, with an exactness uncommon to the liberties of his writing; tho’ that was what, I suppose, he valu’d himself least upon, since his excellencies were all of another kind. I am very sensible that he do’s, in this play, depart too much from that likeness to truth which ought to be observ’d in these sort of writings; yet he do’s it so very finely, that one is easily drawn in to have more faith for his sake, than reason does well allow of. His Magick has something in it very solemn and very poetical: And that extravagant character of Caliban is mighty well sustain’d, shews a wonderful invention in the Author, who could strike out such a particular wild image, and is certainly one of the finest and most uncommon Grotesques that was ever seen. The observation, which I have been inform’d(36) three very great men concurr’d in making upon this part, was extremely just: That Shakespear had not only found out a new Character in his Caliban, but had also devis’d and adapted a new manner of Language for that Character. Among the particular beauties of this piece, I think one may be allow’d to point out the tale of Prospero in the first Act; his speech to Ferdinand in the fourth, upon the breaking up the masque of Juno and Ceres ; and that in the fifth, when he dissolves his charms, and resolves to break his magick rod. This Play has been alter’d by Sir William D’Avenant and Mr. Dryden ; and tho’ I won’t arraign the judgment of those two great men, yet I think I may be allow’d to say, that there are some things left out by them, that might, and even ought to have been kept in. Mr. Dryden was an admirer of our Author, and, indeed, he owed him a great deal, as those who have read them both may very easily observe. And, I think, in justice to ’em both, I should not on this occasion omit what Mr. Dryden has said of him.

[Footnote 36: Ld. Falkland,
Ld. C. J.
and Mr.

Shakespear, who, taught by none, did first impart
To Fletcher Wit, to lab’ring Johnson Art:
He, monarch-like, gave those his subjects Law,
And is that Nature which they paint and draw.
Fletcher reach’d that which on his heights did grow,
Whilst Johnson crept and gather’d all below:
This did his Love, and this his Mirth digest,
One imitates him most, the other best.
If they have since out-writ all other men,
‘Tis with the drops which fell from Shakespear‘s pen.
The(37) Storm which vanish’d on the neighb’ring shoar,
Was taught by Shakespear‘s Tempest first to roar.
That innocence and beauty which did smile
In Fletcher, grew on this Enchanted Isle.
But Shakespear‘s Magick could not copied be,
Within that Circle none durst walk but he.
I must confess ’twas bold, nor would you now
That liberty to vulgar Wits allow,
Which works by Magick supernatural things:
But Shakespear‘s Pow’r is Sacred as a King’s.

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Prologue to The Tempest, as it is alter’d by Mr. Dryden.

[Footnote 37: Alluding to the Sea-Voyage of

It is the same magick that raises the Fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Witches in Macbeth, and the Ghost in Hamlet, with thoughts and language so proper to the parts they sustain, and so peculiar to the talent of this Writer. But of the two last of these Plays I shall have occasion to take notice, among the Tragedies of Mr. Shakespear. If one undertook to examine the greatest part of these by those rules which are establish’d by Aristotle, and taken from the model of the Grecian stage, it would be no very hard task to find a great many faults: But as Shakespear liv’d under a kind of mere light of nature, and had never been made acquainted with the regularity of those written precepts, so it would be hard to judge him by a law he knew nothing of. We are to consider him as a man that liv’d in a state of almost universal licence and ignorance: There was no establish’d judge, but every one took the liberty to write according to the dictates of his own fancy. When one considers that there is not one play before him of a reputation good enough to entitle it to an appearance on the present Stage, it cannot but be a matter of great wonder that he should advance dramatick Poetry so far as he did. The Fable is what is generally plac’d the first, among those that are reckon’d the constituent parts of a Tragick or Heroick Poem; not, perhaps, as it is the most difficult or beautiful, but as it is the first properly to be thought of in the contrivance and course of the whole; and with the Fable ought to be consider’d the fit Disposition, Order, and Conduct of its several parts. As it is not in this province of the Drama that the strength and mastery of Shakespear lay, so I shall not undertake the tedious and ill-natur’d trouble to point out the several faults he was guilty of in it. His Tales were seldom invented, but rather taken either from true History, or Novels and Romances: And he commonly made use of ’em in that order, with those incidents, and that extent of time in which he found ’em in the Authors from whence he borrow’d them. So The Winter’s Tale, which is taken from an old book, call’d The Delectable History of Dorastus and Faunia, contains the space of sixteen or seventeen years, and the Scene is sometimes laid in Bohemia, and sometimes in Sicily, according to the original order of the Story. Almost all his historical Plays comprehend a great length of time, and very different and distinct places: And in his Antony and Cleopatra, the Scene travels over the greatest part of the Roman empire. But in recompence for his carelessness in this point, when he comes to another part of the Drama, The Manners of his Characters, in acting or speaking what is proper for them, and fit to be shown by the Poet, he may be generally justify’d, and in very many places greatly commended. For those Plays which he has taken from the English or Roman history, let any man compare ’em, and he will find the character as exact in the Poet as the Historian. He seems indeed so far from proposing to himself any one action for a Subject, that the Title very often tells you, ’tis The Life of King John, King Richard, etc.
What can be more agreeable to the idea our historians give of
Henry the Sixth, than the picture Shakespear has drawn of him! His Manners are every where exactly the same with the story; one finds him still describ’d with simplicity, passive sanctity, want of courage, weakness of mind, and easie submission to the governance of an imperious Wife, or prevailing Faction: Tho’ at the same time the Poet do’s justice to his good qualities, and moves the pity of his audience for him, by showing him pious, disinterested, a contemner of the things of this world, and wholly resign’d to the severest dispensations of God’s providence. There is a short Scene in the second part of Henry VI., which I cannot but think admirable in its kind. Cardinal Beaufort, who had murder’d the Duke of Gloucester, is shewn in the last agonies on his death-bed, with the good King praying over him. There is so much terror in one, so much tenderness and moving piety in the other, as must touch any one who is capable either of fear or pity. In his Henry VIII. that Prince is drawn with that greatness of mind, and all those good qualities which are attributed to him in any account of his reign. If his faults are not shewn in an equal degree, and the shades in this picture do not bear a just proportion to the lights, it is not that the Artist wanted either colours or skill in the disposition of ’em; but the truth, I believe, might be, that he forbore doing it out of regard to Queen Elizabeth, since it could have been no very great respect to the memory of his Mistress, to have expos’d some certain parts of her father’s life upon the stage. He has dealt much more freely with the Minister of that great King, and certainly nothing was ever more justly written, than the character of Cardinal Wolsey. He has shewn him tyrannical, cruel, and insolent in his prosperity; and yet, by a wonderful address, he makes his fall and ruin the subject of general compassion. The whole man, with his vices and virtues, is finely and exactly describ’d in the second Scene of the fourth Act. The distresses likewise of Queen Katherine, in this Play, are very movingly touch’d; and tho’ the art of the Poet has skreen’d King Henry from any gross imputation of injustice, yet one is inclin’d to wish, the Queen had met with a fortune more worthy of her birth and virtue. Nor are the Manners, proper to the persons represented, less justly observ’d in those characters taken from the Roman History; and of this, the fierceness and impatience of Coriolanus, his courage and disdain of the common people, the virtue and philosophical temper of Brutus, and the irregular greatness of mind in M. Antony, are beautiful proofs. For the two last especially, you find ’em exactly as they are describ’d by Plutarch, from whom certainly Shakespear copy’d ’em. He has indeed follow’d his original pretty close, and taken in several little incidents that might have been spar’d in a Play. But, as I hinted before, his design seems most commonly rather to describe those great men in the several fortunes and accidents of their lives, than to take any single great action, and form his work simply upon that. However, there are some of his pieces, where the Fable is founded upon one action only. Such are more especially, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello. The design in Romeo and Juliet is plainly the punishment of their two families, for the unreasonable feuds and animosities that had been so long kept up between ’em, and occasion’d the effusion of so much blood. In the management of this story, he has shewn something wonderfully tender and passionate in the love-part, and very pitiful in the distress. Hamlet is founded on much the same Tale with the Electra of Sophocles. In each of ’em a young Prince is engag’d to revenge the death of his father, their mothers are equally guilty, are both concern’d in the murder of their husbands, and are afterwards married to the murderers. There is in the first part of the Greek Tragedy, something very moving in the grief of Electra ; but as Mr. D’Acier has observ’d, there is something very unnatural and shocking in the Manners he has given that Princess and Orestes in the latter part. Orestes embrues his hands in the blood of his own mother; and that barbarous action is perform’d, tho’ not immediately upon the stage, yet so near, that the audience hear Clytemnestra crying out to AEgysthus for help, and to her son for mercy: While Electra, her daughter, and a Princess, both of them characters that ought to have appear’d with more decency, stands upon the stage and encourages her brother in the parricide. What horror does this not raise! Clytemnestra was a wicked woman, and had deserv’d to die; nay, in the truth of the story, she was kill’d by her own son; but to represent an action of this kind on the stage, is certainly an offence against those rules of manners proper to the persons, that ought to be observ’d there. On the contrary, let us only look a little on the conduct of Shakespear. Hamlet is represented with the same piety towards his father, and resolution to revenge his death, as Orestes ; he has the same abhorrence for his mother’s guilt, which, to provoke him the more, is heighten’d by incest: But ’tis with wonderful art and justness of judgment, that the Poet restrains him from doing violence to his mother. To prevent any thing of that kind, he makes his father’s Ghost forbid that part of his vengeance.

But howsoever thou pursu’st this Act,
Taint not thy mind; nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother ought; leave her to Heav’n,
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.

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This is to distinguish rightly between Horror and Terror. The latter is a proper passion of Tragedy, but the former ought always to be carefully avoided. And certainly no dramatick Writer ever succeeded better in raising Terror in the minds of an audience than Shakespear has done. The whole Tragedy of Macbeth, but more especially the scene where the King is murder’d, in the second Act, as well as this Play, is a noble proof of that manly spirit with which he writ; and both shew how powerful he was, in giving the strongest motions to our souls that they are capable of. I cannot leave Hamlet without taking notice of the advantage with which we have seen this Master-piece of Shakespear distinguish it self upon the stage, by Mr. Betterton‘s fine performance of that part: A man who, tho’ he had no other good qualities, as he has a great many, must have made his way into the esteem of all men of letters, by this only excellency. No man is better acquainted with Shakespear‘s manner of expression, and indeed he has study’d him so well, and is so much a master of him, that whatever part of his he performs, he does it as if it had been written on purpose for him, and that the Author had exactly conceiv’d it as he plays it. I must own a particular obligation to him, for the most considerable part of the passages relating to this life, which I have here transmitted to the publick; his veneration for the memory of Shakespear having engaged him to make a journey into Warwickshire, on purpose to gather up what remains he could of a name for which he had so great a value. Since I had at first resolv’d not to enter into any critical controversie, I won’t pretend to enquire into the justness of Mr. Rhymer‘s Remarks on Othello ; he has certainly pointed out some faults very judiciously; and indeed they are such as most people will agree, with him, to be faults: But I wish he would likewise have observ’d some of the beauties too; as I think it became an exact and equal Critique to do. It seems strange that he should allow nothing good in the whole: If the Fable and Incidents are not to his taste, yet the Thoughts are almost every where very noble, and the Diction manly and proper. These last, indeed, are parts of Shakespear‘s praise, which it would be very hard to dispute with him. His Sentiments and Images of things are great and natural; and his Expression (tho’ perhaps in some instances a little irregular) just, and rais’d in proportion to his subject and occasion. It would be even endless to mention the particular instances that might be given of this kind: But his Book is in the possession of the publick, and ’twill be hard to dip into any part of it, without finding what I have said of him made good.

The latter part of his life was spent, as all men of good sense will wish theirs may be, in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends. He had the good fortune to gather an estate equal to his occasion, and, in that, to his wish; and is said to have spent some years before his death at his native Stratford. His pleasurable wit, and good nature, engag’d him in the acquaintance, and entitled him to the friendship of the gentlemen of the neighbourhood. Amongst them, it is a story almost still remember’d in that country, that he had a particular intimacy with Mr. Combe, an old gentleman noted thereabouts for his wealth and usury: It happen’d, that in a pleasant conversation amongst their common friends, Mr. Combe told Shakespear in a laughing manner, that he fancy’d he intended to write his Epitaph, if he happen’d to out-live him; and since he could not know what might be said of him when he was dead, he desir’d it might be done immediately: Upon which Shakespear gave him these four verses.

Ten in the hundred lies here ingrav’d,
‘Tis a hundred to ten his soul is not sav’d:
If any man ask, Who lies in this tomb?
Oh! ho! quoth the devil, ’tis my John-a-Combe.

But the sharpness of the Satyr is said to have stung the man so severely, that he never forgave it.

He dy’d in the 53d year of his age, and was bury’d on the north side of the chancel, in the great church at Stratford, where a monument, as engrav’d in the plate, is plac’d in the wall. On his Grave-stone underneath is,

Good friend, for Jesus sake, forbear
To dig the dust inclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

He had three daughters, of which two liv’d to be marry’d; Judith, the elder, to one Mr. Thomas Quiney, by whom she had three Sons, who all dy’d without children; and Susannah, who was his favourite, to Dr. John Hall, a physician of good reputation in that country. She left one child only, a daughter, who was marry’d first to Thomas Nash, Esq; and afterwards to Sir John Bernard of Abington, but dy’d likewise without issue.

This is what I could learn of any note, either relating to himself or family: The character of the man is best seen in his writings. But since Ben Johnson has made a sort of an essay towards it in his Discoveries, tho’, as I have before hinted, he was not very cordial in his friendship, I will venture to give it in his words.

“I remember the Players have often mention’d it as an honour to Shakespear, that in writing (whatsoever he penn’d) he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, Would he had blotted a thousand, which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted: And to justifie mine own candor (for I lov’d the man, and do honour his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any). He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature, had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions; wherein he flow’d with that facility, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopp’d: Sufflaminandus erat, as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his own power, would the rule of it had been so too. Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter; as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him,

thou dost me wrong.

He reply’d:

did never wrong, but with just cause.

and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeem’d his vices with his virtues: There was ever more in him to be prais’d than to be pardon’d.”

As for the passage which he mentions out of Shakespear, there is somewhat like it in Julius Caesar, but without the absurdity; nor did I ever meet with it in any edition that I have seen, as quoted by Mr. Johnson. Besides his plays in this edition, there are two or three ascrib’d to him by Mr. Langbain, which I have never seen, and know nothing of. He writ likewise, Venus and Adonis, and Tarquin and Lucrece, in stanza’s, which have been printed in a late collection of Poems. As to the character given of him by Ben Johnson, there is a good deal true in it: But I believe it may be as well express’d by what Horace says of the first Romans, who wrote Tragedy upon the Greek models (or indeed translated ’em), in his epistle to Augustus.

—- Natura sublimis & Acer,
Nam spirat Tragicum satis & feliciter Audet,
Sed turpem putat in Chartis metuitque Lituram.

There is a Book of Poems, publish’d in 1640, under the name of Mr. William Shakespear, but as I have but very lately seen it, without an opportunity of making any judgment upon it, I won’t pretend to determine, whether it be his or no.


2. Some Latin without question, etc. This passage, down to the reference to the scene in Henry V., is omitted by Pope. Love’s Labour’s Lost, iv. 2, 95; Titus Andronicus, iv. 2, 20; Henry V., iii. 4.

3. Deer-stealing. This tradition–which was first recorded in print by Rowe–has often been doubted. See, however, Halliwell-Phillipps’s Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare, 1886, ii., p. 71, and Mr. Sidney Lee’s Life of Shakespeare, pp. 27, etc.

4. the first Play he wrote. Pope inserted here the following note: “The highest date of any I can yet find is Romeo and Juliet in 1597, when the author was 33 years old, and Richard the 2d and 3d in the next year, viz. the 34th of his age.” The two last had been printed in 1597.

Mr. Dryden seems to think that Pericles, etc. This sentence was omitted by Pope.

5. the best conversations, etc. Rowe here controverts the opinion expressed by Dryden in his Essay on the Dramatic Poetry of the Last Age : “I cannot find that any of them had been conversant in courts, except Ben Johnson; and his genius lay not so much that way as to make an improvement by it. Greatness was not then so easy of access, nor conversation so free, as now it is” ( Essays, ed. W. P. Ker, i., p. 175).

A fair Vestal. Midsummer Night’s Dream, ii. 1, 158. In the original Rowe adds to his quotations from Shakespeare the page references to his own edition.

The Merry Wives. The tradition that the Merry Wives was written at the command of Elizabeth had been recorded already by Dennis in the preface to his version of the play,– The Comical Gallant, or the Amours of Sir John Falstaffe (1702): “This Comedy was written at her command, and by her direction, and she was so eager to see it acted, that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days; and was afterwards, as Tradition tells us, very well pleas’d at the Representation.” Cf. Dennis’s Defence of a Regulated Stage : “she not only commanded Shakespear to write the comedy of the Merry Wives, and to write it in ten day’s time,” etc. ( Original Letters, 1721, i., p. 232).

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this part of Falstaff. Rowe is here indebted apparently to the account of John Fastolfe in Fuller’s Worthies of England (1662). But neither in it, nor in the similar passage on Oldcastle in the Church History of Britain (1655, Bk. IV., Cent, XV., p. 168), does Fuller say that the name was altered at the command of the queen, on objection being made by Oldcastle’s descendants. This may have been a tradition at Rowe’s time, as there was then apparently no printed authority for it, but, as Halliwell-Phillips showed in his Character of Sir John Falstaff, 1841, it is confirmed by a manuscript of about 1625, preserved in the Bodleian. Cf. also Halliwell-Phillips’s Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare, 1886, ii., pp. 351, etc.; Richard James’s Iter Lancastrense (Chetham Society, 1845, p. lxv.); and Ingleby’s Shakespeare’s Centurie of Prayse, 1879, pp. 164-5.

name of Oldcastle. Pope added in a footnote, ” See the Epilogue to Henry 4th.”

6. Venus and Adonis. The portion of the sentence following this title was omitted by Pope because it is inaccurate. The Rape of Lucrece also was dedicated to the Earl of Southampton. The error is alluded to in Sewell’s preface to the seventh volume of Pope’s Shakespeare, 1725.

Eunuchs. Pope reads “Singers.”

The passage dealing with Spenser (p. 6, l. 34, to p. 7, l. 36) was omitted by Pope. But it is interesting to know Dryden’s opinion, even though it is probably erroneous. Willy has not yet been identified.

8. After this they were professed friends, etc. This description of Ben Jonson, down to the words “with infinite labour and study could but hardly attain to,” was omitted by Pope, for reasons which appear in his Preface. See pp. 54, 55.

Ben was naturally proud and insolent, etc. Rowe here paraphrases and expands Dryden’s description in his Discourse concerning Satire of Jonson’s verses to the memory of Shakespeare,–“an insolent, sparing, and invidious panegyric” (ed. W. P. Ker, ii., p. 18).

In a conversation, etc. The authority for this conversation is Dryden, who had recorded it as early as 1668 in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy, at the conclusion of the magnificent eulogy of Shakespeare. He had also spoken of it to Charles Gildon, who, in his Reflections on Mr. Rymer’s Short View of Tragedy (1694), had given it with greater fulness of detail. Each of the three accounts contains certain particulars lacking in the other two, but they have unmistakably a common source. Dryden probably told the story to Rowe, as he had already told it to Gildon. The chief difficulty is the source, not of Rowe’s information, but of Dryden’s. As Jonson was present at the discussion, it must have taken place by 1637. It is such a discussion as prompted Suckling’s Session of the Poets (1637), wherein Hales and Falkland figure. It cannot be dated “before 1633” (as in Ingleby’s Centurie of Prayse, pp. 198-9). The Lord Falkland mentioned in Gildon’s account is undoubtedly the second lord, who succeeded in 1633, and died in 1643. Dryden may have got his information from Davenant.

8. Pope condensed the passage thus: “Mr. Hales, who had sat still for some time, told ’em, That if Shakespear had not read the Ancients, he had likewise not stollen anything from ’em; and that if he would produce,” etc.

9. Johnson did indeed take a large liberty. The concluding portion of this paragraph from these words is omitted by Pope.

The Menaechmi was translated by “W. W.,” probably William Warner. It was licensed in June, 1594, and published in 1595, but, as the preface states, it had been circulated in manuscript before it was printed. The Comedy of Errors, which was acted by 1594, may have been founded on the Historie of Error, which was given at Hampton Court in 1576-7, and probably also at Windsor in 1582-3. See Farmer’s Essay, p. 200,

This passage dealing with Rymer is omitted by Pope. He retains of this paragraph only the first two lines ( … “Shakespear’s Works”) and the last three (“so I will only take,” etc.).

Thomas Rymer, the editor of the Foedera, published his Short View of Tragedy in 1693. The criticism of Othello and Julius Caesar contained therein he had promised as early as 1678 in his Tragedies of the Last Age. His “sample of Tragedy,” Edgar or the British Monarch, appeared in 1678.

11. Falstaff’s Billet-Doux … expressions of love in their way, omitted by Pope.

12. The Merchant of Venice was turned into a comedy, with the title the Jew of Venice, by George Granville, Pope’s “Granville the polite,” afterwards Lord Lansdowne. It was acted at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1701. The part of the Jew was performed by Dogget. Betterton played Bassanio. See Genest’s English Stage, ii. 243, etc.

is a little too much (line 13). Pope reads is too much.

Difficile est, etc. Horace, Ars poetica, 128.

All the world, etc. As you like it, ii. 7. 139.

13. She never told her love, etc. Twelfth Night, ii. 4. 113-118: line 116, “And with a green and yellow melancholy” is omitted.

Pope omits a passage or two in (line 34).

ornament to the Sermons. Cf. Addison, Spectator, No. 61: “The greatest authors, in their most serious works, made frequent use of punns. The Sermons of Bishop Andrews, and the Tragedies of Shakespear, are full of them.”

14. Pope omits former (line 5).

Caliban. Cf. Dryden’s Preface to Troilus and Cressida (ed. W. P. Ker., i., p. 219) and the Spectator, Nos. 279 and 419. Johnson criticised the remark in his notes on the Tempest (ed. 1765, i., p. 21).

Note. Ld. Falkland, Lucius Gary (1610-1643), second Viscount Falkland; Ld. C. J. Vaughan, Sir John Vaughan (1603-1674), Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas; John Selden (1584-1654), the jurist.

Among the particular beauties, etc. This passage, to the end of the quotation from Dryden’s Prologue, is omitted by Pope.

16. Dorastus and Faunia, the alternative title of Robert Greene’s Pandosto, or the Triumph of Time, 1588.

17. Pope omits tyrannical, cruel, and (line 36).

18. Plutarch. Rowe’s statement that Shakespeare “copied” his Roman characters from Plutarch is–as it stands–inconsistent with the previous argument as to his want of learning. His use of North’s translation was not established till the days of Johnson and Farmer.

Andre Dacier (1651-1722) was best known in England by his Essay on Satire, which was included in his edition of Horace (1681, etc.), and by his edition of the Poetics of Aristotle (1692). The former was used by Dryden in his Discourse concerning Satire, and appeared in English in 1692 and 1695; the latter was translated in 1705. In 1692 he brought out a prose translation, “with remarks,” of the Oedipus and Electra of Sophocles. Rowe’s reference is to Dacier’s preface to the latter play, pp. 253, 254. Cf. his Poetics, notes to ch. xv., and the Spectator, No. 44.

19. But howsoever, etc. Hamlet, i. 5. 84.

20. Betterton’s contemporaries unite in praise of his performance of Hamlet. Downes has an interesting note in his Roscius Anglicanus showing how, in the acting of this part, Betterton benefited by Shakespeare’s coaching: “Sir William Davenant (having seen Mr. Taylor, of the Black Fryars Company, act it; who being instructed by the author, Mr. Shakespear) taught Mr. Betterton in every particle of it, gained him esteem and reputation superlative to all other plays” (1789, p. 29). But cf. the Rise and Progress of the English Theatre
, appended to Colley Cibber’s Apology, 1750, p. 516.

The epilogue for Betterton’s “benefit” in 1709 was written by Rowe. Betterton died in 1710.

Since I had at first resolv’d … said of him made good. This second criticism of Rymer is also omitted by Pope.

21. Ten in the hundred, etc. Reed, Steevens, and Malone have proved conclusively, if somewhat laboriously, that these wretched verses are not by Shakespeare. See also Halliwell-Phillips’s Outlines, i., p. 326. It may be noted that ten per cent. was the regular rate of interest at this time.

21. as engrav’d in the plate. A poor full-page engraving of the Stratford monument faces this statement in Rowe’s edition.

He had three daughters. Rowe is in error. Shakespeare had two daughters, and a son named Hamnet. Susannah was the elder daughter.

22. Pope omits tho’ as I … friendship and venture to (lines 10-12).

Caesar did never wrong, etc. Cf. Julius Caesar, iii. 1. 47, 48, when the lines read:

Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause
Will he be satisfied.

23. Gerard Langbaine in his Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691) ascribes to Shakespeare “about forty-six plays, all which except three are bound in one volume in Fol., printed London, 1685” (p. 454). The three plays not printed in the fourth folio are the Birth of Merlin, or the Child has lost his Father, a tragi-comedy, said by Langbaine to be by Shakespeare and Rowley; John King of England his troublesome Reign ; and the Death of King John at Swinstead Abbey. Langbaine thinks that the last two “were first writ by our Author, and afterwards revised and reduced into one Play by him: that in the Folio being far the better.” He mentions also the Arraignment of Paris, but does not ascribe it to Shakespeare, as he has not seen it.

a late collection of poems,– Poems on Affairs of State, from the year 1620 to the year 1707, vol. iv.

Natura sublimis, etc. Horace, Epistles, ii. 1. 165.

The concluding paragraph is omitted by Pope.

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