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William Shakespeare

by Victor Hugo

Part I -- Book I: His Life
Chapter 4

Shakespeare's life was greatly imbittered. He lived perpetually slighted; he states it himself. Posterity may read this to-day in his own verses :--

Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdu'd.
Pity me, then,
Whilst, like a willing patient, I will drink
Potions of eysel. (Sonnet 111)

Your love and pity doth th'impression fill
which vulgar scandal samp'd upon my brow. (Sonnett 112)

Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name. (Sonnet 36)

Or on my frailty why are frailer spies. (Sonnet 121)

Shakespeare had permanently near him one envious person, Ben Johnson, -- an indifferent comic poet, whose début he assisted. Shakespeare was thirty-nine when Elizabeth died. This queen had not paide attention to him; she managed to reign fourty-four years without seeing that Shakespeare was there. She is not the least qualified, historically, to be called the 'protectress of arts and letters," etc. The historians of the old school gave these certificates to all princes, whether they knew how to read or not.

Shakespeare, persecuted like Molière at a later date, sought as Molieère, to lean on the master. Shakespeare and Molière would in our days have had a loftier spirit. The master, it was Elizabeth,-- "King Elizabeth," as the English called her. Shakespeare glorified Elizabeth: he called her the "Virgin Star," "Star of the West," and "Diana," -- a name of a goddess which pleased the queen,-- but in vain. The queen took no notice of it: less sensitive to the praises in which Shakespeare called her Diana than to the insults of Scipio Gentilis, who, taking the pretensions of Elizabeth on the bad side, called her "Hecate," and applied to her the ancient triple curse "Mormo! Bombo! Gorgo!" As for James I, when Henry IV called Master James, he gave, as we have seen, the lease of the Globe to Shakespeare, but he willingly forbade the publication of his pieces. Some contemporaries, Dr. Symon Forman among others, so far took notice of Shakespeare as to make a note of the occupation of an evening passed at the performance of the "Merchant of Venice!" That was all which he knew of glory. Shakespeare, once dead, entered into oblivion.

From 1640 to 1660 the Puritans abolished art, and shut up the playhouses. All theatricals were under a funeral shroud. With Charles II the drama revived without Shakespeare. The false taste of Louis XIV had invaded England. Charles II belonged rather to Versaille than London. He had as mistress a French girl, the Duchess of Portsmouth, and as an intimate friend the privy purse of the King of France. Clifford, his favourite, who never entered the parliament-house without spitting, said: "It is better for my master to be viceroy under a great monarch like Louis XIV than the slave of five hundred insolent English subjects." These were not the days of the republic,-- the time when Cromwell took the title of "Protector of England and France," and forced this same Louis XIV to accept the title of "King of the French."

Under this restoration of the Stuarts, Shakespeare completed his eclipse. He was so thoroughly dead that Davenant, possibly his son, re-composed his pieces. There was no longer any "Macbeth" but the "Macbeth" of Davenant. Dryden speaks of Shakespeare on one occasion in order to say that he is "out of date." Lord Shaftesbury calls him "a wit out of fashion." Dryden and Shaftesbury were two oracles. Dryden, a converted Catholic, had two sons, ushers in the Chamber of Clément XI, made tragedies worth putting into Latin verse, as Atterbury's hexameters prove; and he was the servant of that James H. who, before being king on his own account, had asked of his brother, Charles II, "Why don't you hang Milton?" The Earl of Shaftesbury, a friend of Locke, was the man who wrote an "Essay on Sprightliness in Important Conversations," and who, by the manner in which Chancellor Hyde helped his daughter to the wing of a chicken, divined that she was secretly married to the Duke of York.

These two men having condemned Shakespeare, the oracle had spoken. England, a country more obedient to conventional opinion than is generally believed, forgot Shakespeare. Some purchaser pulled down his house, New Place. A Rev. Dr. Cartrell cut down and burned his mulberry-tree. At the commencement of the eighteenth century the eclipse was total. In 1707, one called Nahum Tate published a "King Lear," warning his readers "that he borrowed the idea of it from a play which he had read by chance,-- the work of some nameless author." This "nameless author" was Shakespeare.

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