페이지 이미지

Shirley was the last minstrel' of the early English stage. In him expired what may be properly called the school of Shakspeare. Like our northern poet's last of all the bards,' or, as he was called by one of his contemporaries, the last supporter of the dying scene,' after enjoying some years of fame and popularity, Shirley found himself fallen upon an ungenial time, on days in which his art could obtain but little audience. Before his career was half sun, his occupation was proscribed ; and at the Restoration, the lineal descendant of Fletcher and Massinger saw a new art take possession of the stage. He was a stranger among the race of poets who sprung up around him-he belonged to another age; some of his plays, as well as those of his great masters, Shakspeare and Fletcher, were indeed revived, but the rhyming heroic tragedy, and the profligate comedy of intrigue, were in the ascendant—and Shirley stood aloof. Conscious, as it were, that he belonged to a departed generation, that he had nothing in common with the popular playwrights of the modern æra, he refused to become a pupil in the new, the degenerate school, and thus to form, as he might, the link between the romantic and that which called itself the heroic drama. Hence the civil wars draw a complete line of demarcation between two periods of dramatic art.

Even if it had not thus come to a violent end, the Shakspearian drama might have yielded to that more slow and secret principle of change which seems to operate upon taste, as upon everything else connected with our mortal state; at this period, however, its fate was inevitable. Unless the drama could have taken higher ground, -unless, from an amusement it could have become a political power,---an engine by which one of the conflicting parties could strongly work upon the opinions of men, it could not but become extinct. Even Shakspeare himself, in such days of tumult and fierce collision, would scarcely have commanded a hearing. It needed not the ponderous anathema of Prynne, nor the stern edict of the Puritanical Parliament, to wean the popular taste from that languishing stage, wbich, for its few last years, was only supported as a faithful adherent of royalty, by the more indolent and careless cavaliers. The public mind was too serious for diversion; a real tragic drama was now darkening over the kingdom, and its still-impending catastrophe held the whole nation in breathless suspense. Characters were developing, in more striking and vivid colours than Shakspeare himself could have drawn; incidents, which had all the strange and stirring novelty of the boldest fiction, with the tremendous force of truth, were coming home to the hearths, to the bosoms of men. What, at such a time, was ' the fiction, the dream of passion ?' • What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba ? '


B 2

Who would go to witness the imaginary · Politician' of the dramatist, when he might watch the unravelling of the great plot in either House of Parliament? who listen to the hired actor at the Globe or the Cockpit, when he could see the Pyms and the Hampdens, the Hydes and the Falklands on that spirit-stirring stage? Even the apprentices had more animating work than in the galleries of the theatres, in themselves learning to take a part, by hooting down bishops, or malignants, in the tragedies of the day, and accelerating the last scene of Stratford, or of Charles.* Even' the pulpits would drain away the few lingering votaries from the sock and buskin, not merely by their stern maledictions on the sin of stage-playing, but by ministering themselves still stronger excitement. They dealt more largely, more effectively, in tragic terrors; they were not sparing even in comic buffoonery ;-they no longer dwelt, in their high, and solemn, and serene, and unworldly dignity, upon the eternal interests of man ;-they appealed to earthly passions ;—they addressed themselves to the personal, to the immediate hopes and fears ; the eventful present occupied all minds far more than the remote and mysterious future. It was another form in which the same great political drama was developed, and absorbed all less real, all fictitious interest; men's passions were in too vehement and tumultuous a state during every hour of the day, and at every occupation, whether religious or political, to be purged and softened, according to the advice of the old Greek critic, by the imaginary terror and pity of poetic representations.

The life of Shirley is perversely enough as obscure as that of most of his poetic fraternity. It appears to have been far from unfertile of incidents, but those incidents are unconnected, and unexplained by any knowledge of his private feelings or personal character. His poems, though sufficiently explicit upon his political sentiments, betray little of the workings of his mind, or of his moral temperament. To the meagre and unsatisfactory outline of Antony Wood, we know that Mr. Gifford despaired of adding anything of value; and where the diligent research and ex

* Thomas May, himself once no uusuccessful votary of the prohibited stage, but now a fiery partizan of the parliament, whose historian he became, thus addresses Shirley :

Although thou want the theatre's applause,
Which now is fitly silenced by the laws,
Since these sad times that civil swords did rage
And make three kingdoms the lamented stage

Of real tragedies' He concludes, in a high strain of compliment, which shows the estimation in which our poet was held in his own day:

• All Muses are not guiltless; but such strains
As thine deserve, if I may verdict prive,
In sober, chaste, and learned times to live.'


tensive knowledge of Mr. Dyce are found at fault, we can scarcely hope, unless new and, at present, inaccessible sources of information should be unexpectedly opened, that anything further will be gleaned to throw light on his personal history. Yet, living at such a period, it would have been singularly interesting to have traced the personal feelings and opinions of a man of genius in his peculiar situation, who, from a clergyman of the Protestant church, became a Roman Catholic; then a popular writer for the stage; who lived on terms of intimate friendship with most of the literary characters of his day, shared in the patronage of Strafford, was a personal follower of Newcastle ; sank again, in the troublous times, to his old employment of a schoolmaster, and, finally, became a fellow drudge with Ogilvy, and with him was exposed to the ignominious immortality of Dryden's satire.

James Shirley was descended from a family of good name, whe had ancient manors both in Sussex and Warwickshire. He was born in 1596, in the parish of St. Mary Woolnoth, London. He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, and went from thence to St. John's College, Oxford. Laud, then the head of that society, and already an ecclesiastical Martinet, is said, though he admired the talents of Shirley, to have considered him disqualified for the clerical profession by—a mole on his cheek. Mr. Dyce quotes a whimsical improvement of this anecdote from • Cibber's Lives of the Poets':

• Shirley had unfortunately a large mole upon his left cheek, which much disfigured him, and gave him a forbidding appearance. Laud observed very justly, that an audience can scarcely help conceiving a prejudice against a man whose appearance shocks them, and were he to preach with the tongue of an angel, that prejudice could never be surmounted ; besides the danger of women with child fixing their eyes on him in the pulpit; and as the imagination of pregnant women has strange

influence on the unborn infants, it is somewhat cruel to expose them to the danger, and by these means do them great injury, as one's fortunes, in some measure, depend upon external comeliness.”

If these were Laud's motives, other dignitaries of the church were not equally sensitive as to personal appearance, nor so provident of the beauty of unborn generations, for Shirley, having graduated at Catherine Hall, Cambridge, entered into orders, and obtained a living in or near St. Alban's. But the sweet sin’ of poetry had already captivated the imagination, and no doubt interfered with the professional studies of the young divine; he had already ventured on the press : his first work was a poem, called • Echo, or the Unfortunate Lovers. His mind, as was too common in those days of fierce religious strife, became unsettled, and more, of course, under the influence of imagination than of reason,


he embraced the Roman Catholic religion, to which he afterwards adhered with fidelity. Of course he had made up his mind to forfeit bis benefice, and, for his livelihood, he submitted, for a short time, to the drudgery of teacher to a grammarschool in St. Alban's. But the neighbourhood of the metropolis opened brighter prospects to a man of poetic talent. Perhaps while yet in his humble situation he had made his first attempt on the stage with Love's Tricks. This comedy, though with little originality or power, yet from its liveliness, and its strokes of satire at some of the follies, the affected language, and ridiculous accomplishments of the day, seems to have met with success, and probably determined at once the future destination of Shirley.

He had protested in his prologue, and at the time, perhaps, in perfect sincerity,

* This play is
The first fruits of a muse, that before this
Never saluted audience, nor doth mean

To swear herself a factor for the scene.' But, supposing, no doubt, that at poets', as well as at lovers' perjuries Jove laughs,' his ambition soon soared beyond drilling the accidence into the little boys of St. Alban's :-he chose, if the more precarious, the more pleasant and lucrative employment of ministering to the delight and sharing in the favour of a splendid court and an opulent city. In the downright words of old Wood, he retired to the metropolis, lived in Gray's Inn, and set up for a play-maker.' The halcyon days of the stage were not yet over; the dark times to which we have alluded did not yet even their shadows before.' For several years the prolitic invention of Shirley poured forth dramas in quick and unfailing succession; he appears to have lived on terms of intimacy with many of his brother poets-to have been universally esteemed for his gentle manners and amiable disposition; real respect for the blamelessness of his morals may be traced even through the flattering language of commendatory verses. Though his printed plays are by no means free from the vice of the age, coarse and indelicate allusions, yet in his later dramas he is far less offensive, and by the master of the revels, he is quoted as a pattern of 'a more beneficial and cleanly way of poetry. The comedy called The Young Admiral, being free from oaths, prophaneness, or obsceaness, hath given mee much delight and satisfaction in the readinge, and may serve for a patterne to other poetts, not only for the bettring of maners and language, but for the improvement of the quality, which hath received some brushings of late.'* Such is part of an

entry * Mr. Dyce quotes another curious passage from this document: it appears that



entry in the office-book of Sir Henry Herbert, who latterly seems to have turned somewhat of a precisian.'

Shirley was twice married, and had several children, but of the birth or quality of his two wives we know nothing, though Mr. Dyce conjectures that the first was a lady, whom he addresses in many poems, written in the conceited and metaphysical style of the day, under the name of Odelia. • He gained,' says Wood, not only a considerable livelihood, but also great respect and encouragement from persons of quality, especially from Henrietta Maria, the queen consort, who made hin her servant.' It appears, however, that he failed in improving the opportunities of advancement which such patronage afforded.

I never,' he observes, affected the ways of Hattery; some say, I have lost my preferment by not practising that court sin.' His broad and humorous song on the birth of Charles II., considering the adulation usually poured forth on such events, will scarcely impeach his sinlessness on this head.

Probably something of a chivalrous feeling of indignation at the insult supposed to be offered to Henrietta Maria by Pryone in bis · Histriomastix' embittered the fierce irony with which he dedicated his Bird in a Cage' to the Puritan in prison :

• The fame of your candour and innocent love to learning, especially to that musical part of humane knowledge, poetry, and in particular that which concerns the stage and scene (vourself

, as I hear, having lately written a tragedy*), doth justly challenge from me this dedication. I had an early desire to congratulate your happy retirement; but no poem could tempt me with so fair a circumstance as this in the title, wherein I take some delight to think (not without imitation of yourself, who have ingeniously fancied such elegant and apposite names for your own compositions, as Heallh's Sickness, The Unloveliness of Lovelocks, fc.) how aptly I may present you, at this time, with the “ Bird in a Cage," a comedy which wanteth, I must consess, much of that ornament, which the stage and action lent it, for it comprehending also another play or interlude, personated by ladies, I must refer to your imagination the music, the songs, the the players were apt 'to speak more than was set down for them,' and to interpolate oaths and other offensive expressions, the blame of which fell upon the innocent licenser of the plays. This led to a delicate question. “The kinge is pleased to take faith, death, slighi, for asseverations, and no oaths—as to which I doe humbly submit

o my master's judgment; but under favour conceive them to be oaths, and enter them here, to declare my opinion and submission. This will remind the reader of a scene in the Spiritual Quixote,' or of a still more recent farce enacted in the Committeeroom of the House of Commons,—where a part of the great legislative council of this nation were gravely employed in ascertaining from the elderly Grinner, who, we presume, upon the same principle on which the famous Barrington was made a judge in New South Wales, has been selected to watch over the morals of the drama, his opinions on the propriety of calling a woman an angel, and other equally deep points of doctrine! • The second part of the Histriomastix' was entitled the Actor's Tragedie.'


« 이전계속 »