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mirable wit, and the natural turn of it to the stage, soon distinguished 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 used to play; and though I have inquired, 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.3 I should have been much more pleased, to have learned from 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 Shakspeare'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 aught I know, the performances of his youth, as they were the most vigorous, and had the most fire and strength of imagination in them, were the best." I would not
than that the top of his performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet.] See such notices as I have been able to collect on this subject, in the List of old English actors, post.
to have learned from certain authority, which was the first play he wrote;] 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 Second, and Third, in the next year, viz. the 34th of his age. POPE.
Richard II. and III. were both printed in 1597.-On the order of time in which Shakspeare's plays were written, see the Essay in the next volume. MALONE.
for aught I know, the performances of his youth-were the best.] See this notion controverted in An Attempt to ascertain the Order of Shakspeare's Plays. MALONE.
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 conceived in itself, that it wanted little or no correction, and was immediately approved by an impartial judgment at the first sight. But though 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 end of the fourth act of Henry the Fifth, by a compliment very handsomely turned to the Earl of Essex, shows 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 the Eighth, is a proof of that play's being written after the accession of the latter of these 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 pleased to see a genius arise amongst them 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-natured 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."
A Midsummer-Night's Dream.
and that whole passage is a compliment very properly brought in, and very handsomely applied to her. She was so well pleased 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 show him in love. This is said to be the occasion of his writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. How well she was obeyed, 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 have been written originally under the name of Oldcastle: some of that family being then remaining, the Queen was pleased to command him to alter it; upon which he made use of Falstaff. The present offence was indeed avoided; but I do not 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 distinguished merit in the wars in France in Henry the Fifth's and Henry the Sixth's times. What grace soever the Queen conferred upon him, it was not to her only he owed the fortune which the reputation of
she commanded him to continue it for one play more,] This anecdote was first given to the publick by Dennis, in the Epistle Dedicatory to his comedy entitled The Comical Gallant, 4to. 1702, altered from The Merry Wives of Windsor.
this part of Falstaff is said to have been written originally under the name of Oldcastle;] See the Epilogue to Henry the Fourth. POPE.
In a note subjoined to that Epilogue, and more fully in Vol. XI. p. 194. n. 3, the reader will find this notion overturned, and the origin of this vulgar error pointed out. Mr. Rowe was evidently deceived by a passage in Fuller's Worthies, misunderstood.
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. There is one instance so singular in the magnificence of this patron of Shakspeare's, that if I had not been assured that the story was handed down by Sir William D'Avenant, who was probably very well acquainted with his affairs, I should not have ventured 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 shown to French dancers and Italian singers.
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 candour and good-nature must certainly have inclined all the gentler part of the world to love him, as the power of his wit obliged the men of the most delicate knowledge and polite learning to admire him.
His acquaintance with Ben Jonson began with a
from the Earl of Southampton,] Of this amiable nobleman such memoirs as I have been able to collect, may be found in the tenth volume, [i. e. of Mr. Malone's edition] prefixed to the poem of Venus and Adonis. MALONE.
he dedicated his poem of Venus and Adonis,] To this nobleman also he dedicated his Rape of Lucrece, printed in 4to. in 1594. MALONE.
remarkable piece of humanity and good-nature; Mr. Jonson, who was at that time altogether unknown to the world, had offered one of his plays to the players, in order to have it acted; and the persons into whose hands it was put, after having turned it carelessly and superciliously over, were just upon returning it to him with an ill-natured answer, that it would be of no service to their company; when Shakspeare 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. Jonson and his writings to the publick.'
to recommend Mr. Jonson and his writings to the publick.] In Mr. Rowe's first edition, after these words was inserted the following passage:
"After this, they were professed friends; though I do not 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 seemed 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 Jonson 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."
I have preserved this passage because I believe it strictly true, except that in the last line, instead of but hardly, I would read
Dryden, we are told by Pope, concurred with Mr. Rowe in thinking Jonson's posthumous verses on our author sparing and invidious.-See also Mr. Steevens's note on those verses.
Before Shakspeare's death Ben's envious disposition is mentioned by one of his own friends; it must therefore have been even then notorious; though the writer denies the truth of the charge: