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ON THE LEARNING OF SHAKESPEARE.
[In Fraser's Magazine, for September, 1839, was commenced the publication of Dr. Maginn's Papers on Dr. Farmer's “Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare.” The writer of this Essay -in which it was contended, at great length and much display, that Shakespeare's knowledge of ancient history and mythology was exclusively drawn from translations— was the Rev. Richard Farmer, D.D., who was born in 1735, was educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and died in 1797. He eventually became Vice-Chancellor and Librarian of his Alma Mater, with high preferment in the Church, the most distinguished of which was a Canonry of St. Paul's. His attempt to reduce Shakespeare's scholarship even below the “small Latin and less Greek,” which Ben Jonson had slightingly declared to be the extent of Shakespeare's classical learning, was very popular when first published, and has ever since been a text-book to those who contend that the Swan of Avon, deriving nothing from education of a higher order, must rest his claims to immortality solely upon his “native woodnotes wild.”
Many ardent admirers of Shakespeare have not unwillingly adopted this view of the question — partly from a carelessness in examining the subject by and for themselves, and partly because, the more untutored the great Poet appeared, the more honor might seem to be due to his natural powers, to his almost intuitive power of writing better than all his contemporaries, and to that "imagination all compact" which he possessed in a super-eminent degree. The less he knew from books, is the argument of such, the greater credit due to the greatness of his all-creating, all-adapting, and omniscient mind. It should be borne in mind, however, that, in the age of Shakespeare (as Warton states), allusions, quotations, and illustrations from ancient authors, ran through the whole conversation and amusements of society, as may be seen in the dramas of Lily, Peele, Greene, Marlowe, Jonson and others; and the daughters of the nobility, and all who pretended to a good education, were carefully instructed in Greek and Latin. Without doubt, Shakespeare was educated at the Grammar School of his native Stratford - one of the seminaries expressly established for instructing youth in the knowledge of Greek and Latin. Aubrey, who was a curious collector of memorabilia respecting eminent men, declares that Shakespeare not only knew Latin well, but, after he left school and before he went to London, had himself actually been a schoolmaster. The generality of critics hold, from the vast and varied information displayed all through his writings, that Shakespeare must have been highly educated. Only a few — among whom I am surprised to find Mr. Verplanck — hold the opposite opinion, and consider that his classical knowledge must have been small. That his knowledge was multitudinous can not be questioned. The doubt is, from what source did he fill his mind ?
It is complimenting Shakespeare's intellect, at the expense of his culture, to consider him as a rude, untaught poet of nature, who wrote wonderfully, notwithstanding his want of a good education. As already remarked, the impression unfavorable to Shakespeare's scholarship has been principally derived from Ben Jonson's deprecatory observation. It should be remembered — what his plays too painfully render evident—that Jonson was himself a very superior scholar. In truth, he thought that a knowledge of the classics was all-in-all, and he had so much of this knowledge that it rendered him pedantic in his writings, and haughtily intolerant in his estimate of the mental acquisitions and improvements of other men. Between his great erudition and common ignorance (says Dr. Ulrici) “there might be numerous intermediate and very respectable degrees of scholarship. Ben Jonson, from his elevated position, might have reason on his side, when he asserted that Shakespeare had little Latin and less Greek ;' and at the same time there might be no inconsistency in the statement of Aubrey, who, like Rowe, was a collector of anecdotes, traits, and stories relating to Shakespeare, that he understood Latin very well. The former judged by an extreme philological standard; the latter took the general measure of educated men.” It may be added (and Dr. Drake has accumulated an abundance of proofs, out of his works, on these points) that Shakespeare was well versed in all the popular French, Italian, and Spanish literature of his day, and was as intimate with the chronicles and histories of classical antiquity as with those of England. Law, medicine, divinity, the fine arts, geography, botany, and even the trades and occupations of the humbler classes were evidently familiar to him, also, and the truthfulness of his graphic descriptions of and allusions to different localities, at home and in foreign countries, warrants the belief that he had travelled largely and observingly. He knew all that was required to make him “the foremost man of all his time," or rather, to use the happy expression of Thomas Campbell, “the Poet of all the world.”
The articles on the Learning of Shakespeare which these observations are intended to introduce, were originally prefaced by the following letter to the editor of Fraser's Magazine :
Dear Sir:-As there appears to be a revived zeal for commentatorship on Shakespeare, I may be perhaps allowed to roll my tub among the rest ; and the first service I wish to perform is to rid, or at least to give some reasons for ridding, all future editors of a superfluous swelling in the shape of Dr. Farmer's Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare, which has long been a regular encumbrance on the variorum editions. In the subjoined letter, if you will be so good as to print it, your readers, who I hope are in number equal to the whole reading public of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Colonies,
-"From sunny Indns to the Pole,”— will find my reasons for not thinking highly of the Master of Emmanuel, or his Shakespearian labors. The critical clique to which he belonged was peculiarly absurd ; and we have only to cast a glance upon his face, as preserved in an engraving by Harding, to see that the feeble smirk of fat-headed and scornful blockheadism, self-satisfied, with that peddling pedantry of the smallest order, which entitled its possessor to look down with patronizing pity on the loftiest genius, is its prevailing feature. Perhaps somebody may think it worth while to contradict this assertion by a host of collegiate opinions in his favor, backed by a list of superlative panegyrics on his learning, and excellence of wisdom and wit, culled from various quarters; and I shall not dispute their justice, nor undervalue their merit. I am only dealing with the Essay before me; and with his picture, as I find it in the splendid Cracherode copy of Steevens (a presentation one) in the Britism Museum. Permit me to subscribe myself, with great respect,
Dear Mr. Yorke, faithfully yours,
WILLIAM Maginn. The editor of Fraser appended a note to intimate the pleasure with which he printed the paper, but added a disclaimer of being “ answerable for any of its statements or arguments." The fact that Dr. Maginn published these papers, avowing the authorship, in a periodical in which he had previously contributed almost exclusively as an anonymous writer, may be taken to indicate his own good opinion of what he had written.
gave the sanction of his name only to the Shakespeare characters (forming the previous part of this volume) and to the Homeric Ballads, which will be included in the present edition of his Miscellaneous Works.-M.]