In 1837 I began to look about me for artistic materials adapted to a Pictorial Edition of Shakspere. At first view, the existing stores of illustrations seemed almost boundless. There were embellishments to various editions from the time of Rowe, chiefly of a theatrical character, and, for the most part, thoroughly unnatural. The grand historical pictures of the Shakspere Gallery were not in a very much higher taste, furnishing a remarkable example how painters of the highest rank in their day had contrived to make the characters of Shakspere little more than vehicles for the display of false costume. There were a few valuable antiquarian illustrations, such as those given by Mr. Douce. Altogether, it became necessary for me to look carefully at the plays, to see whether the aid of art might not be called in to add both to the information and enjoyment of the reader of Shakspere, by representing the Realities upon which the imagination of the poet must have rested. There were the localities of the various scenes, whether English or foreign; the portraits of the real personages of the historical plays ; the objects of natural history, so constantly occurring ; accurate costume in all its rich variety. Whilst engaged in my search after such pictorial illustrations, a gentleman, who has since distinguished himself by his antiquarian knowledge, lent me his note-book, in which he had jotted down a somewhat large list of archaeological subjects. This kindness of Mr. William Fairholt was of essential use to me. I very early put myself in communication with Mr. Poynter, who made for me a series of the most beautiful architectural drawings, which imparted a character of truthfulness to many scenes, which upon the stage had in general been merely fanciful creations of the painter. Mr. Harvey undertook to produce a series of frontispieces, which, embodying the realities of costume and other accessaries, would have enough of an imaginative character to render them pleasing.
The foundations of my edition as an illustrated work of art being thus laid, I diligently applied myself to a critical examination of the text to be adopted. I procured a copy of the first folio, which was read aloud to me whilst I marked upon a copy of the common trade edition, all the variations that presented themselves. I found that no book could be more incorrectly printed than this booksellers’ stereotyped volume. I subsequently expressed my belief that the text of Shakspere had not been compared with the originals carefully and systematically for half a century. Not only had words been changed by printers, but whole lines had been omitted. The punctuation of the received text was in the most confused state. Thus far, my way was clear to produce a pictorial edition with a more correct text, even if I absolutely relied upon the authority of the first folio compared with the quartos. Of these scarce morsels I could avail myself in Steevens’ very sccurate reprint. This accuracy I had tested by having the several plays which he thus reproduced, collated with originals in the British Museum. But then, a new difficulty arose. The conjectural emendations of the variorum editors were so numerous, that it was necessary that I should make up my mind as to their adoption or rejection. I had to decide upon many disputed readings ; and for this it was essential to consult the great mass of separate commentary that had been published by the learned, the dull, and the conceited, during the century in which the critical study of Shakspere’s text had been pursued by many competent and incompetent writers. There was one man of my acquaintance, for whom I had a high regard—Mr. Thomas Rodd, the well-known bookseller of Great Newport Street —whose knowledge of the works which he sold went far beyond their title-pages. He enabled me to form a considerable collection of commentaries on Shakspere, ranging from Rymer and Dennis to Hazlitt and Coleridge. As I advanced in my Shaksperian studies, I found that my labours would not cease with the acquirement of a more intimate knowledge of all that had been written about the text, but that I must carefully examine the various opinions as to the order in which the plays of Shakspere were produced, unless I were implicitly to adopt the theories advocated in Malone’s ” Essay” on that very difficult subject. I was satisfied that much depended in coming to something like accurate conclusions as to the plays which belonged respectively to the poet’s earlier period, his middle period, and his later period. The historical plays would necessarily follow in the order of the events of which they were the subject. But for the comedies and tragedies, I determined to print them in the order which I believed to be at least an approximation to the period of their composition.
After a year of preparation I issued my prospectus, in which I boldly declared that Shakspere demanded a rational edition of his performances, that should address itself to the popular understanding in a spirit of love, and not of captious and presumptuous cavilling. In the first number of my edition, containing the ” Two Gentlemen of Verona,” I made a distinct profession of faith in Shakspere, with a perfect knowledge that I should be assailed on many sides, but that I should call up hosts of friends ready to shake off their allegiance to ” the dwarfish commentators who are for ever cutting him down to their own size.” I thus wrote in my introductory notice to this play : ” We believe the time is past when it can afford any satisfaction to an Englishman to hear the greatest of our poets perpetually held up to ridicule as a sort of inspired barbarian, who worked without method, and wholly without learning. But before Shakspere can be properly understood, the popular mind must be led in an opposite direction ; and we must learn to regard him, as he really was; as the most consummate of artists, who had a complete and absolute control over all the materials and instruments of his art, without any subordination to mere impulses and caprices,—with entire self-possession and perfect knowledge.”
It was natural for many who had been bred in a reverence for the old school of criticism to consider me presumptuous in declaring my scepticism as to the authority of Steevens and of Malone. Probably, my new-born enthusiasm carried me somewhat too far. I accepted as a seasonable admonition a friendly letter from Mr. Rodd : ” Notwithstanding all their squabbles among themselves and abuse of each other, the dulness of some and wildness of others, I consider them as a whole as a body of men who have rendered singular service to English literature. In their readings for illustration of his text, they have thrown great light upon our national history, antiquities and language, and been the means of calling into notice several good authors who had fallen into unmerited obscurity. Let me beg of you to tread more lightly over their ashes in future.” But I was not likely, although I might modify my future exegressions, to be diverted from my convictions that I had chosen the right path, however perplexed it might be. I had abundant encouragement in my course. Henry Nelson Coleridge wrote to me upon the appearance of my opening number : “It is at once a beautiful and instructive edition ; indeed, the first in the country conceived in a right spirit.” Mrs. Jameson, in a most welcome letter, expressed her entire sympathy with my opinions : “I thought I had well studied Shakspere myself, but your edition has opened fresh sources of reflection and information.” My old friend, Sir Henry Ellis, proffered his assistance, and sent me a genuine slice of the mulberry-tree which he received from the Rev. Mr. Becket, and saw it cut from the block upon which Garrick had himself placed his seal. From Leigh Hunt I received a letter, from which I give an extract, very characteristic of the writer : ” It rejoices me to see you in a task like this, because it enables you to live in a world which belongs to you besides the world of business, and which will do you as much good as I believe it will give pleasure and profit to the reader. To live with Shakspere, is to breathe at once the sweetest and most universal air of humanity.” I could multiply these testimonies of kindness, were it not distasteful to me to appear like my own eulogist.
Offers of literary assistance in my undertaking reached me from various quarters. I had originally hoped for much direct aid, and had thought that my task would be lightened by having several persons engaged upon various departments. I found this idea, with two exceptions—music and costume—impossible of execution, even if I had not become enamoured of my work, and had derived from it a solace amidst many cares. The labour had not wearied me when I had completed three-fourths of my undertaking. In a postscript to my sixth volume, I thus expressed my feelings : ” It is now somewhat more than three years since I commenced the publication of The Pictorial Edition of Shakspere,’ in Monthly Parts ; and during that period I have produced a Part on the first day of each month, with one single exception. The task of editing this work has been to me a most agreeable one. It has been absorbing enough to require my daily attention,—to occupy my habitual thoughts,—to shut out dark forebodings,—to lighten the pressure of instant evils. It has furnished me a useful and honourable occupation, which has not been less zealously pursued because it was associated with the discharge of duties not so pleasurable. I have worked at this task with a full consciousness of the responsibility which lay upon me ; but as I have worked in the spirit of love, that consciousness has never been painful.”
The Two Gentlemen of Verona was printed for the first time in the folio of 1623. That volume also contained eight other comedies, three histories, and six tragedies, of which no previous edition is known. In addition to these eighteen plays, four other comedies were there first printed in a perfect shape. I had, therefore, ample reason for considering that first folio as standing with regard to half of Shakspere’s plays in the same relation to the text as the one manuscript of an ancient author. It was the only accredited complete copy of four more of his choicest works. I, therefore, from the first, held that for three-fifths of Shakspere’s plays that folio was the only authority, however the quartos might be advantageously compared with its text with regard to the other two-fifths. I did not place an exclusive reliance, as I have often been accused of doing, upon the text of that folio, but I did not rely by preference upon those rare quarto morsels which the editors of the first folio had described as stolen and surreptitious copies. Within a week after the appearance of my first number, I had a letter from Mr. John Wilson Croaker, which went to confirm me in my views with regard to the text. He says, ” Let me tell you that many years ago (near forty I fear) I wrote a great many pages to establish the principle that you have adopted—the paramount authority of the first folio ; and, as well as I can recollect, I went through the whole of Macbeth to prove my position. I know not whether my MS. is in existence, I rather fear not, as I have not seen it for near thirty years, but it may be in some boxes of old papers which are in a lumber room, and I will have it looked for. If I find it, and that it contains anything worth copying, you shall have it Perhaps, also, I may be able now and then to give you some hints which may be worth your consideration.” My old friend, Dr. Maginn, in a letter of the 15th of November, showed that he held the first folio in the same respect as I did myself, but was inclined to treat that and all other authorities with a licence that appeared to me somewhat dangerous : ” I have not any Shakespeare collections by me, though I once made a considerable number of notes with a view of giving an edition, not of the kind you are publishing, but merely critical with reference principally to the state of the text. I consider with you the first folio to be in the nature of a MS., and therefore toe be kept always primarily in view, not of course neglecting the second folio, and the quartos ; but having been reared in a school of criticism in which even MSS. themselves are used, not worshipped, I have no objection to wielding the hook in a manner which you would perhaps consider as slashing as that of Bentley himself.”
Having thus taken up my position with regard to the text, I went on fearlessly and consistently. I preferred perhaps a little too exclusively the authority of the folio. I often adopted the text of a reliable quarto, always pointing out the discrepancies of the two editions. But I utterly rejected the principle of making a hash out of two texts, which had been the common practice of the variorum editors. To decide amidst various readings was really a much more difficult task a quarter of a century ago than it would be now, did the text remain precisely in the state in which it was when I began my labours. There did not then exist such a perfect, I might almost say such a wonderful help to memory as Mrs. Cowden Clarke’s Concordance. Ayscough’s Index was exceedingly imperfect and ill-arranged. The ” Verbal Index” of Twiss—two rare volumes, which cost me three or four guineas—was a book that was to me a perpetual source of perplexity, for the references of a single word to a hundred different places, without the slightest key to its use and significance, led me into a labyrinth whose darkness it was impossible to penetrate. Honoured be the untiring industry and correct judgment of that lady, who came too late to assist me in my first edition, but who has ever since been my reliable aid whenever I was engaged in a critical study of Shakspere.
My continuous work had sometimes relief when questions arose which were of a more novel and exciting character than textual commentary or even aesthetical criticism. The Merry Wives of Windsor took me back into the old scenes of my childhood, which I retraced in companionship with one whose mind was as natural and genial as his landscapes are pure and truthful. Thomas Creswick and his wife spent a few weeks with us in a cottage at Salt Hill. A short walk took the painter with his sketch book, and the editor, with his unwritten knowledge of old familiar haunts, into Windsor, and there we might trace the misfortunes of Falstaff, as he was carried ” in the name of foul clothes to Datchet Lane,” and thence “slighted into the river where the shore was shelvy and narrow.” ” About the fields through Frogmore ” suggested a stroll in another direction, to find a fit locality for the farm-house where Ann Page was ” a feasting.” The Windsor town of mediaeval architecture was to be imagined, but the position of its streets with reference to the Castle could be well defined. Mr. Creswick’s charming designs made the Merry Wives of Windsor the gem of the comedies in my edition. But as if Shakspere, the ” gentle Shakspere,” was to be always provocative of controversy, I became involved in the discussion of the very doubtful question whether Herne’s Oak existed or had been cut down. The subject is stated so fully in my original edition, and, with some additional matter; in the revised issue of the Pictorial Shakspere now publishing, that it is scarcely necessary to add anything to my details of the evidence regarding the controverted points between Mr. Jesse and the “Quarterly Review,” beyond printing here an extract of a letter to me from Mr. Croker, of the 13th of January, 1842 :-
“Your dissertation on Hernia’s Oak is conclusive against Mr. Jesse’s fable, but there is one point of that fable, of the error of which you cannot be apprised. Mr. Jesse admits that George IV. frequently stated that George III. had cut down the tree supposed to be Herne’s oak ; ‘ but that ‘ he always added that it was not so.’ Now I was the person to whom George IV., told the whole story, and I told it, many years ago, to Mr. Jesse, to whom it was then new, and I can assert that George IV. never added anything like what Mr. Jesse has stated, but quite the reverse. I know not from whom else Mr. Jesse might afterwards have heard the story, nor with what additions ; but his statement that George IV. always told the story with the addition in question, is assuredly not the fact, for he did not so tell it me, and Mr. Jesse first heard the story from me without any such addition. Mr. Jesse asked me to allow him to print my version of the story—not at that time stating that he had heard any other version—but this I refused, out of delicacy to George IV., who, I think, was still alive, and to the rest of the Royal family, for the fact is, that George IV. told me the story as a proof that his father’s mental disorder had shown itself earlier than was generally known ; and all the circumstances of the anecdote—and they are very curious—tended to show that this cutting down of the tree was an act of temporary derangement. So much for my share in Mr. Jesse’s story. In 1838 George IV. and even William IV. were dead, and I thought I might, without impropriety, set the substance of the matter right in the ‘ Quarterly
Review,’ which I did in the passage you have quoted.”During my editorial employment upon Twelfth Night, I was led into considerations with regard to Shakspere’s domestic character by the perusal of Mr. De Quincey’s Life of Shakspere in a Part of the ” Encyclopedia Britannica ” which had just then appeared. My logical friend had taken up the notion that a passage in Twelfth Night was a pathetic counsel of the poet in his matures years ” against the errors into which his own inexperience had been ensnared.” He maintains that when the duke says to the pretended Caesar–
” Then let thy love be younger than thyself Or thy affection cannot hold the bent,”
Shakspere intends to notice the disparity of years between himself and his wife. Mr. De Quincey’s theory that Shakspere’s married life was one of unhappiness, was supported by the dictum of Malone in 1780, who first dragged a passage of Shakapere’s Will into light, to prove that in this, his last solemn act, the wife of the rich player of Stratford had not wholly escaped his memory ; but, as more strongly to mark how little he esteemed her, he had ” cut her off, not indeed with a shilling, but with an old bed.” Steevens considered the bequest of the second best bed as ” a mark of peculiar tenderness,” and assumed that she was provided for by a settlement. It certainly occurred to me that such conjectures and inferences were a mere waste of words. I had made what the critical solvers of historical puzzles call a discovery. Well do I remember the glee with which, having written the following paragraph, I showed it to my dear friend, Mr. Thomas Clarke, a sound lawyer, who confirmed my opinion, as fully as did Mr. Long and Mr. Hill, with whom I subsequently discussed the matter. ” Shakspere knew the law of England better than his legal commentators. His estates, with the exception of a copyhold tenement, expressly mentioned in his will, were freehold. CIS WIFE WAS ENTITLED TO DOWER. She was provided
for amply, by the clear and undeniable operation of the English law. Of the houses and gardens which Shakspere inherited from his father, she was assured of the life-interest of a third, should she survive her husband, the instant that old John Shakspere died. Of the capital messuage, called New Place, the best house in Stratford, which Shakspere purchased in 1597, she was assured of the same life-interest, from the moment of the conveyance, provided it was a direct conveyance to her husband. That it was so conveyed, we may infer from the terms of the conveyance of the lands in Old Stratford, and other places, which were purchased by Shakspere in 1602, and were then conveyed to the onlye proper use and behoofe of the saide William Shakespere, his heires and assignes for ever.’ Of a life-interest in a third of those lands also was she assured. The tenement in Blackfriars, purchased in 1614, was conveyed to Shakspere and three other persons, and after his death was re-conveyed by those persons to the uses of his will, for and in performance of the confidence and trust in them reposed by William Shakespeare deceased.’ In this estate, certainly, the widow of our poet had not dower.” In the postscript to Twelfth Night, I had said, adverting to a letter printed by Mr. Collier in his ” New Facts,” ” There was one who knew Shakspere well—who, illustrious as he was by birth and station, does not hesitate to call him, one of the poor players of Blackfriars, ‘ my especial friend’—who testifies decidedly enough to the public estimation of his domestic conduct.” That letter purported to have been written in 1608 by Lord Southampton to Lord Chancellor Ellesmere. I must give another extract from Mr. Croker’s correspondence with me on the subject of Shakspere, to show how carefully this friend watched my progress, and with what critical acumen he anticipated the objections of the present day to discoveries of this apocryphal character. ” I observe you quote and rely upon the leetter signed ‘ H. S.’ discovered among Lord Ellesmere’s papers by Mr. Collier. If that letter be genuine I must plead guilty to a great want of critical sagacity, for somehow it smacks to me of modern invention, and all my reconsideration of the subject, and some other circumstances which have since struck me, corroborate my doubts. Mr. Collier is, of course, above all suspicion of having any hand in a fabrication, but it appears that one person at least, and perhaps more, had access to the papers before him, though it would seem that the particular bundle appeared not to have been opened since it was first tied up. In short, I see such strong external evidence of authenticity, and, on the other hand, such internal evidence (in my judgment) of the contrary, that I am puzzled.”
In the spring of 1841 I commenced the publication of ” Knight’s Store of Knowledge for all Readers “—a series of original treatises by various authors. It was issued in weekly numbers at two pence. The first and second numbers were devoted to Shakspere and his writings, and they bore my name as their author. At this period I had finished six volumes of the Pictorial Shakspere, and the seventh, consisting of the doubtful plays and poems, was being printed. I had not yet commenced writing the biography, but I had collected various materials for that object ; had visited Stratford, and had inspected several documents preserved there. I was thus prepared to write the papers in the ” Store of Knowledge,” with many new materials, and a tolerably complete acquaintance with whatever had been published of this very obscure life. That this unpretending production of mine had supplied a want, I was assured in a letter which I have before me from John Sterling, written in February, 1842, when he was staying at Falmouth. He thanks me for the pleasure and instruction furnished by the first volume of my new edition of Shakspere—” The Library Edition,” published on the 1st of January, 1842,—and he then adds, ” I had previously read with great delight your convincing and comprehensive life of the Poet in the Store of Knowledge.’ I was charmed to find so much external evidence for a view which the study of his style—so richly composite—must have more or less obscurely suggested to all intelligent readers.” The praise of such a man furnished ample encouragement to me to devote my best exertions to the completion of the ” Biography” which I had announced. The outline in the ” Store of Knowledge ” embodied, with slight variations, the general view which I subsequently elaborated. As those papers have probably passed into oblivion, I shall here attempt a very brief analysis of the portions in which I expressed my strong objections, or grave doubts, as to much that had been previously given to the world as the authentic facts of Shakspere’s life. My discovery as to his wife’s dower, had perhaps made me a little too sceptical—perhaps a little too rash, in regard to many of the stories embodied in the elaborate ” Life of William Shakspeare,” by Edmund Malone, which occupies nearly three hundred pages of the edition of 1821. I had carried that volume with me to Stratford in my first visit just noticed ; and during my few days’ sojourn there, had made many marginal notes, for the most part recording my first doubts of the received biographies. At the head of the section in which it is attempted to prove that Shakspere’s father was an impoverished and dishonoured man, I find written, ” It appears to me that all this may be pounded into nothing.”
The first object which I proposed to myself, was to destroy the belief, first propagated by Aubrey, that his father was a butcher ; that when he was a boy, he exercised his father’s trade ; but that when he killed a calf, he would do it in a high style and make a speech. This wonderful story the old antiquary had gathered from some of the neighbours. Betterton, the great actor (as we learn from the life by Rowe, prefixed to his edition of 1709) had ascertained that Shakspere’s father was a considerable dealer in wool. Malone contends, upon the authority of a record of the proceedings in the Bailiff’s Court, that he was a glover. All these contradictory statements were attempted to be reconciled by me by a quotation from Hanison’s ” Description of England,” written at the precise time when Shakspere’s father was known to possess landed property. “Men of great port and countenance are so far from suffering their farmers to have any gain at all, that they themselves become graziers, butchers, tanners, sheepmaaters, woodmen, and denique quid non, thereby to enrich themselves, and bring all the wealth of the country into their own hands.” It was important to show, if possible, that we might look at Shakspere as a well-nurtured child, brought up by parents living in comfort, if not in affluence. In the ” Store of Knowledge,” I expressed myself warmly upon this point : ” His father and mother were, we have no doubt, educated persons; not indeed familiar with many books, but knowing some thoroughly ; cherishing a kindly love of nature and of rural enjoyments amidst the beautiful English scenery by which they were surrounded ; admirers and cultivators of music, as all persons above the lowest rank were in those days ; frugal and orderly in all their household arrangements ; of habitual benevolence and piety. We have a belief, which amounts to a conviction as strong as could be derived from any direct evidence, that the mind of William Shakspere was chiefly moulded by his mother. No writer that ever lived has in the slightest degree approached him in his delineations of the grace and purity of the female character ; and we scarcely exaggerate in saying that a very great deal of the just appreciation of women in England has been produced through our national familiarity with the works of Shakspere. But a father’s influence could not have been wanting in his culture.”
In tracing the course of Shakspere’s life with the conviction that “the child is father of the man,” I rejected the very doubtful evidence that the greatest amongst the minds of England had passed through early sorrow and suffering ; had encountered the degradations of positive want ; had fled his country for deer-stealing ; had left his family to hold horses at the door of a London theatre. Nor did I believe that Shakspere had been bred an attorney, because his plays abound with legal phraseology. It was clear to me that he had not been in an attorney’s office at Stratford, for Mr. Wheler, of that town—a solicitor of long standing, a diligent antiquary, a collector of every local fact regarding Shakspere-had told me that he had inspected hundreds of title-deeds and other documents bearing date from .1580 to 1590, in the hope to find William Shakspere’s signature ; and that, if he had been a lawyer’s clerk in Stratford, or indeed in any neighbouring town, his signature must have been attached to some document as an attesting witness, that formality being then required on the slightest occasions.
The deer-stealing story was surrounded with so many absurd traditions that, however willing I might have been to accept it for the sake of that charming volume by Mr. Landor, ” The Examination of Will liam Shakspere,” I could not but treat with absolute contempt the authority of a manuscript in the library of Corpus Christi, Oxford : ” He (Shakspere) was much given to all unluckiness, in stealing venison and rabbits, particularly from Sir Lucy, who had him oft whipt, and sometimes imprisoned, and at last made him fly his native country, to his great advancement.” Having at length got Shakspere out of his native town—in which, amidst all these pretended degradations, I was inclined to believe that he had composed his Venus and Adonis—I find him a writer of plays in London. During the publication of the Pictorial Edition, I had repeatedly expressed my conviction that he became a dramatic author at a much earlier period than had been usually determined. All his critics and commentators had agreed that he whose mental powers were bestowed upon him in the extremest prodigality of nature, was of wonderfully slow growth towards a capacity for intellectual production. In some lucky hour, they maintained, when his genius was growing vigorous—that is at. the age of twenty-seven—he produced a play. There was nothing extraordinary in Ben Jonson writing for the stage when he was only nineteen ; but then Shakspere, you know, was an untutored genius, &c., &c. It is unnecessary here to enter upon any details connected with this question, which had furnished much of the most interesting matter in my Introductory Notices to many of the Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. I believed that the first part of Henry VI. was written by Shakspere, and that it was his earliest dramatic production.
At the time of the publication of ” The Pictorial Shakspere,” the belief had gained ground that his Sonnets had not been sufficiently regarded as a store of materials for the biography of the poet. In 1838 Mr. Charles Armitage Brown had published a volume entitled ” Shakespeare’s Autobiographical Poems.” He regards them ” as pure uninterrupted biography.” In the ” Store of Knowledge,” I had held that although in the Sonnets there are repeated expressions of thoughts and feelings strictly personal, it was impossible to receive them as a continuous expression of such thoughts. and feelings. I then honestly confessed the extreme difficulty of forming any decided opinion. About six months afterwards, I published in my Pictorial Edition, an ” Illustration of the Sonnets.” In this elaborate analysis I worked out my theory that the poems of Shakspere, which Meres had, in 1598, termed his “sugared sonnets” amongst his private friends, when published as ” never before imprinted,” in 1609, ” were a collection of Sibylline leaves’ rescued from the perishableness of their written state, by some person who had access to the high and brilliant circle in which Shakspere was esteemed ; and that this person’s scrap-book, necessarily imperfect and pretending to no order, found its way to the hands of a bookseller, who was too happy to give to that age what its most distinguished man had written at various periods, for his own amusement, and for the gratification of his private friends.” My general belief was, that there are many circumstances connected with the mode in which the Sonnets were published, as well as in their internal evidence, to warrant us in receiving some as essentially dramatic, —that is, written in an assumed character ; and some as strictly personal,—expressing the thoughts and feelings of the man William Shakspere. Though the Sonnets are personal in their form, it is not therefore to be assumed that they are all personal in their relation to the author.
I commenced the composition of ” William Shakspere, a Biography,” at Stratford-upon-Avon, in the summer of 1842. The first book, comprising about half the volume, was published in November of that year. This portion embraces the scanty materials for a life of Shakspere properly so called, up to the period when he left Stratford to enter upon his dramatio career in London. But I endeavoured to associate Shakapere with the circumstances around him, in a manner which might fix them in the mind of the reader by exciting his interest. I might have accomplished the same end by somewhat extending the notice in the “Store of Knowledge,” accompanied by a History of Manners and Customs, a History of the Stage, &c., &c. The form of my biography might appear fancifuL It has been called by a prosaic critic a burlesque. But the narrative essentially rested upon facts, and if criticism required me to move in the old tfamway, I was content to have chosen a byway more circuitous, but probably more pleasing.
The month which I spent with my family at Stratford was one of real enjoyment. My friend William Harvey came down to complete some sketches which he had made in the previous summer, and we went together over all the ground which Shakspere may be supposed to have trodden in childhood, in youth, and in middle age. We examined all the memorials of the Elizabethan period in Stratford, the house in Henley Street, the Grammar School, the Chapel of the Guild, the neighbouring villages, and especially Shottery. We went to Kenilworth and Coventry, to Guy’s Cliff and Warwick. We followed the descent of the Avon to Bidford and to Evesham. We traced its upward course to Charlecote and Hampton Lucy. I wrote a very little, but my mind was completely filled with the matter upon which I had to write.
With a purpose of collating some of the rare quartos in the Bodleian, we moved from Stratford to Oxford. Here I pursued, in the charming silence of that noble Library, my double duty of collation and composition. It was the Long Vacation. I could not have found a more exquisite residence for two months—one more calculated to surround me with fitting associations, than these venerable buildings, when their courts were little visited by human tread, and these exquisite gardens, in which we might pass the long afternoons in almost perfect solitude. Within a few months I had to describe Shakspere as halting at Oxford on his first journey to London. I wrote, ” So noble a place, raised up entirely for the encouragement of learning, would excite in the young poet feelings that were strange and’ new. He had wept over the ruins of religious houses ; but here was something left to give the assurance that there was a real barrier against the desolations of force and ignorance. A deep regret might pass through his mind that he had not availed himself of the opening which was presented to the humblest in the land, here to make himself a ripe and good scholar. Oxford was the patrimony of the people, and he, one of the people, had not claimed his birthright. But, on the other hand, as he paused before Balliol College, he must have recollected what a fearful tragedy was there acted some thirty years before. Was he sure that the day of persecution for opinions was altogether past Z Men were still disputing everywhere around him ; and the slighter the differences between them, the more violent their zeal. They were furious for or against certain ceremonial observances ; so that they appeared to forget that the object of all devotional forms was to make the soul approach nearer to the Fountain of wisdom and goodness, and that He could not be approached without love and charity.”
In May, 1843, I was on my way to Edinburgh, for the purpose of investigating this curious problem, ” Did Shakspere visit Scotland ” On Monday, the 22nd, I was about all the morning seeing the noble city. My guide was William Spalding, a man of distinguished ability, extensive knowledge, and of a most amiable nature. He and his friend Mr. Hill Burton devoted themselves to my aid with a most unremitting kindness and assiduity, assisting me in the inspection of various documents in the Library of the Advocates. They had each been contributors to the ” Penny Cyclopadia.” Mr. Spalding bad corresponded with me upon Shakspere subjects. In the Part of the Pictorial Edition in which I bad given an analysis of the ” Two Noble Kinsmen,” I had, in April, 1842, noticed with genuine approbation, as it deserved, Mr. Spalding’s work on the authorship of that play. His production had earned the commendation of Hallam and of Jeffrey. Yet he wrote to me, with singular modesty, ” I feel particularly obliged by the kind forbearance which you have evinced in alluding to that which is one of the worst faults in my little book—namely, the undue predominance given to matters of style, and the imperfect appreciation of broader views of dramatic composition. The pamphlet was written when I was but beginning to struggle for emancipation from that verbal school of criticism in which my first training had been received ; and I have long been so fully and painfully sensible of this and other heavy’ defects in the treatise, that I have taken up and destroyed the unsold copies of the small edition.” Whilst at Edinburgh I saw Hawthornden, as well as I could under constant rain and mist. I had some pleasant dinners with Professor Wilson ; with Mr. Maclaren, the editor of the ” Scotsman ;” and with Mr. Boyd. I had a constant welcome at all times from Mr. Spalding, with whom I contracted an intimate friendship. ” Wilson,” I wrote home, ” was exceedingly kind. He is grown old, but full of the young poetry of his nature.” I did not see the sun during the four or five days I was in Edinburgh. As I was going away the veil of mist was lifted off the glories of the city for the first time. My Shaksperian discoveries were not of mulch importance ; but they formed the ground-work of some conjectural matter in the ” Biography,” not without interest for the general reader.
I went on to Glasgow, and was received with all kindness by Mr. John Kerr, whose acquaintance I had made some years before. He had an excellent library, was thoroughly well read upon all antiquarian and topographical subjects, and could probably give me as much information as any man upon the subject of my inquiry. What special knowledge I did obtain, and what theories I founded upon it, may be seen in my volume of ” Biography.” From some information Professor Wilson gave me, I found out De Quincey, who was in hiding in Glasgow. He looked better than he had done twelve years before, but he had a beard a foot long (an unusual appendage to the face of an Englishman twenty years ago), the cultivation of which, he said, was necessary to his health. Nothing could exceed the affection with which he – received me. ‘It was the last time I saw him.
In looking over the letters which I have preserved in connection with my Shaksperian labours,—from some of which I have unreservedly quoted,—the feattures, the intellectual qualities, the moral characteristics, of most of the writers come before me as things of the past, and I repeat again and again the touching opening of a beautiful little poem by James Montgomery
“Friend after friend departs;
Who hath not lost a friend ?”
What recollections of kindness must I ever associate with the names of Henry Nelson Coleridge, who was the first to encourage me in the task I had undertaken ; of his admirable wife, who conveyed to me her husband’s remembrances from that bed of sickness from which he never rose ; of Leigh Hunt ; of John Wilson Croker ; of Crofton Croker ; of William Magian ; of Thomas Hood ; of kind-hearted John Britton ; of Allan Cunningham ; of Thomas Rodd ; of Mrs. Jameson ; of John Sterling ; of William Spalding. The memories of some of these will be preserved in more durable notices than mine ; but few living men can look back upon a personal intercourse with any of those I may thus claim as friends with a truer esteem—in some cases with a warmer affection. One there was—not a man of letters, but of cultivated mind—who took the warmest interest in my ” Shakspere,” as he did in all my undertakings. Thomas Clarke, who, at the time of his death, filled the honourable post of Solicitor to the Board of Ordnance, was such a friend as a man has rarely by his side in the world’s struggles. Whilst I write, another has passed away, whose especial solicitude for my well-doing, and whose never-failing kindness, originated in his admiration of Shakspere. Andrew Mortimer Drummond, of the great banking-house, was a man to be loved.
THE “Penny Cyclopaedia ” was finished in twenty-seven volumes, in the spring of 1844. The notion of a Supplement had not then been matured. The work was deemed complete, as far as the efforts of the editor and his contributors could keep pace with the rapid march of invention, the improvements of legislation, and the onward rush of every department of knowledge. It is in the very nature of such works that they must be to some extent imperfect. Not Argus with his hundred eyes could note down all the metamorphoses of Time, the great magician, as he calls them into life.
Soon after the close of this labour of eleven years, I received an honour upon which I look back as one of my unalloyed ” Pleasures of Memory.” It comes before me now with the vagueness of an agreeable dream. To give some precision to my recollections, a friend transcribed for me, from the vast file of newspapers in the British Museum, some paragraphs from those of June, 1844. I will give one from the ” Athenaeum ” of the 15th of that month : ” Change is our order—the order of the nineteenth century ; and, in marking progress, we may record here that authors and publishers seem about to handy-dandy,’—and that the contributors to the ‘ Penny Cyclopaedia; and some personal friends, have given Mr. Charles Knight a sumptuous entertainment at the Albion Tavern, on the completion of that work.” The word ” handy-dandy ” may send my readers to their Shakspere Change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? ” This were an unsavoury allusion to the change indicated above ; if there were any meaning intended. But perhaps the ” Athenaeums” had turned to Todd’s “Johnson,” and had there found this definition : ” A play amongst children, in which something is shaken between two hands, and then a guess is made in which hand it is retained.” There was little of the material reward of industry to be retained in my palm had it been ever so ” itching ; ” and this my ” authors ” knew. But when one individual amongst ” publishers ” received such an unusual compliment as was bestowed upon me, I trust that I may regard the circumstance in the spirit of the ” Athenaeum “—as ” marking progress ” in the relations between two classes that were generally considered natural enemies, but whose interests are identical and ought never to be separated.
Upon reflection, I do not think it would be seemly in me to present my own recollections of the circumstances attending this dinner. Nor could I faithfully do so. I was at once joyous and frightened in my novel position. As to remembering what I said myself, in returning thanks, it comes before me “like a tangled chain.” One thing I recollect. I quoted from Joan of Arc’s speech in Henry VI.
” Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself,
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.”
And then I ejaculated “not so knowledge.”
But I must give some relation of this dinner ; and I therefore blend portions of the reports of “The Times ” and the ” Morning Chronicle,” without any deviation of phrase. ” On the suggestion of several eminent persons, it was proposed to give an entertainment to Mr. Knight, in celebration of the successful completion of the ” Penny Cyclopedia,” and to express their sense of the value and usefulness of the literary undertakings in which he has been engaged as editor or publisher. Accordingly a large party met on Wednesday evening at the Albion Tavern.
” The Chair was taken by Lord Brougham ; and amongst the company assembled were Lord Wrottesley, the Rev. Mr. Jones the tithe commissioner, Mr. Bellenden Ker, Mr. John Lefevre, Mr. Parkes, Professor Key, Professor Long, Mr. 31. D. Hill, Mr. Christie, M. P., Mr. Chadwick, Mr. Porter of the Board of Trade, and a host of literary and scientific gentlemen, as well as influential individuals connected with the publishing world.
” Lord Brougham, in proposing the health of Mr. Knight, dwelt on the various services which, in connection with the Useful Knowledge Society, he had been enabled to render towards the advancement of society in moral as well as intellectual knowledge ; pointed out especially the great service he did to the state in writing and publishing his two little works, ” The Rights of Industry ” and ” The Results of Machinery “—two publications which, at a time of great public excitement, were eminently conducive to allaying the reckless spirit which, in 1830, was leading multitudes to destroy property and break up machines. He also pointed out what Mr. Knight had done in editing and illustrating Shakspere ; in the projection and carrying on of the ‘ Penny Magazine ; ‘ and the completion of the Penny Cyclopaedia:
” Mr. Knight’s health was drunk with much enthusiasm, and he returned thanks in a very expressive manner, modestly urging the greater services of Professor Long, the editor, in, the completion of the Penny Cyclopaedia.’ The Chairman, after tendering apologies for the absence of Lord Denman, Lord John Russell, and Dr. Lushington, proposed the health of Professor Long, who duly returned thanks, and called on the assembly to thank the contributors whose valuable aid he had received. After a few words from Professor Key, Mr. Weir proposed the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, to which Lord Wrottesley responded.
” Some excellent speeches were made during the evening, especially one by Mr. M. D. Hill, who pointed out that the Pictorial History of England,’ projected by Mr. Knight, had realised a long-cherished idea, that of seeing a history of England which would make the people and the progress of national institutions a prominent feature. To this toast Mr. Craik responded. The Rev. Mr. Jones, who proposed the health of Lord Brougham, was warmly applauded in declaring that neither the Church nor religion had anything to fear from the spread of useful knowledge, but, on the contrary, its diffusion was tributary to the highest and best interests of mankind.”