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- Characters of Shakespeare's Plays - 1/50 -



With an Introduction by SIR ARTHUR QUILLER-COUCH


The book here included among The World's Classics made its first appearance as an octavo volume of xxiv + 352 pages, with the title- page:

Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, By William Hazlitt. London: Printed by C. H. Reynell, 21 Piccadilly, 1817.

William Hazlitt (1778-1830) came of an Irish Protestant stock, and of a branch of it transplanted in the reign of George I from the county of Antrim to Tipperary. His father migrated, at nineteen, to the University of Glasgow (where he was contemporary with Adam Smith), graduated in 1761 or thereabouts, embraced the principles of the Unitarians, joined their ministry, and crossed over to England; being successively pastor at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, at Marshfield in Gloucestershire, and at Maidstone. At Wisbech he married Grace Loftus, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer. Of the many children granted to them but three survived infancy. William, the youngest of these, was born in Mitre Lane, Maidstone, on April 10, 1778. From Maidstone the family moved in 1780 to Bandon, Co. Cork; and from Bandon in 1783 to America, where Mr. Hazlitt preached before the new Assembly of the States-General of New Jersey, lectured at Philadelphia on the Evidences of Christianity, founded the First Unitarian Church at Boston, and declined a proffered diploma of D.D. In 1786-7 he returned to England and took up his abode at Wem, in Shropshire. His elder son, John, was now old enough to choose a vocation, and chose that of a miniature-painter. The second child, Peggy, had begun to paint also, amateurishly in oils. William, aged eight--a child out of whose recollection all memories of Bandon and of America (save the taste of barberries) soon faded-- took his education at home and at a local school. His father designed him for the Unitarian ministry.

The above dry recital contains a number of facts not to be overlooked as predisposing causes in young Hazlitt's later career; as that he was Irish by blood, intellectual by geniture, born into dissent, and a minority of dissent, taught at home to value the things of the mind, in early childhood a nomad, in later childhood 'privately educated'--a process which (whatever its merits) is apt to develop the freak as against the citizen, the eccentric and lop- sided as against what is proportionate and disciplined. Young Hazlitt's cleverness and his passion for individual liberty were alike precocious. In 1791, at the age of thirteen, he composed and published in The Shrewsbury Chronicle a letter of protest against the calumniators of Dr. Priestley: a performance which, for the gravity of its thought as for the balance of its expression, would do credit to ninety-nine grown men in a hundred. At fifteen, his father designing that he should enter the ministry, he proceeded to the Unitarian College, Hackney; where his master, a Mr. Corrie, found him 'rather backward in many of the ordinary points of learning and, in general, of a dry, intractable understanding', the truth being that the lad had set his heart against the ministry, aspiring rather to be a philosopher--in particular a political philosopher. At fourteen he had conceived ('in consequence of a dispute one day, after coming out of Meeting, between my father and an old lady of the congregation, respecting the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts and the limits of religious toleration') the germ of his Project for a New Theory of Civil and Criminal Legislation, published in his maturer years (1828), but drafted and scribbled upon constantly in these days, to the neglect of his theological studies. His father, hearing of the project, forbade him to pursue it.

Thus four or five years at the Unitarian College were wasted, or, at least, had been spent without apparent profit; and in 1798 young Hazlitt, aged close upon twenty, unsettled in his plans as in his prospects, was at home again and (as the saying is) at a loose end; when of a sudden his life found its spiritual apocalypse. It came with the descent of Samuel Taylor Coleridge upon Shrewsbury, to take over the charge of a Unitarian Congregation there.

He did not come till late on the Saturday afternoon before he was to preach; and Mr. Rowe [the abdicating minister], who himself went down to the coach in a state of anxiety and expectation to look for the arrival of his successor, could find no one at all answering the description, but a round-faced man, in a short black coat (like a shooting-jacket) which hardly seemed to have been made for him, but who seemed to be talking at a great rate to his fellow-passengers. Mr. Rowe had scarce returned to give an account of his disappointment when the round-faced man in black entered, and dissipated all doubts on the subject by beginning to talk. He did not cease while he stayed; nor has he since.

Of his meeting with Coleridge, and of the soul's awakening that followed, Hazlitt has left an account (My First Acquaintance with Poets) that will fascinate so long as English prose is read. 'Somehow that period [the time just after the French Revolution] was not a time when NOTHING WAS GIVEN FOR NOTHING. The mind opened, and a softness might be perceived coming over the heart of individuals beneath "the scales that fence" our self-interest.' As Wordsworth wrote:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very Heaven.

It was in January, 1798, that I was one morning before daylight, to walk ten miles in the mud, to hear this celebrated person preach. Never, the longest day I have to live, shall I have such another walk as this cold, raw, comfortless one in the winter of 1798. Il-y- a des impressions que ni le tems ni les circonstances peuvent effacer. Dusse-je vivre des siecles entiers, le doux tems de ma jeunesse ne peut renaitre pour moi, ni s'effacer jamais dans ma memoire. When I got there the organ was playing the 100th Psalm, and when it was done Mr. Coleridge rose and gave out his text, 'And he went up into the mountain to pray, HIMSELF, ALONE.' As he gave out this text, his voice 'rose like a stream of distilled perfumes', and when he came to the two last words, which he pronounced loud, deep, and distinct, it seemed to me, who was then young, as if the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe ... The preacher then launched into his subject, like an eagle dallying with the wind.

Coleridge visited Wem, walked and talked with young Hazlitt, and wound up by inviting the disciple to visit him at Nether Stowey in the Quantocks. Hazlitt went, made acquaintance with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and was drawn more deeply under the spell. In later years as the younger man grew cantankerous and the elder declined, through opium, into a 'battered seraph', there was an estrangement. But Hazlitt never forgot his obligation.

My soul has indeed remained in its original bondage, dark, obscure, with longings infinite and unsatisfed; my heart, shut up in the prison-house of this rude clay, has never found, nor will it ever find, a heart to speak to; but that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language that expresses itself, I owe to Coleridge.

Coleridge, sympathizing with the young man's taste for philosophy and abetting it, encouraged him to work. upon a treatise which saw the light in 1805, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action: Being an Argu-ment in favour of the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind. Meantime, however,--the ministry having been renounced--the question of a vocation became more and more urgent, and after long indecision Hazlitt packed his portmanteau for London, resolved to learn painting under his brother John, who had begun to do prosperously. John taught him some rudiments, and packed him off to Paris, where he studied for some four months in the Louvre and learned to idolize Bonaparte. This sojourn in Paris--writes his grandson and biographer--'was one long beau jour to him'. His allusions to it are constant. He returned to England in 1803, with formed tastes and predilections, very few of which he afterwards modified, much less forsook.

We next find him making a tour as a portrait-painter through the north of England, where (as was to be expected) he attempted a portrait of Wordsworth, among others. 'At his desire', says Wordsworth, 'I sat to him, but as he did not satisfy himself or my friends, the unfinished work was destroyed.' He was more successful with Charles Lamb, whom he painted (for a whim) in the dress of a Venetian Senator. As a friend of Coleridge and Wordsworth he had inevitably made acquaintance with the Lambs. He first met Lamb at one of the Godwins' strange evening parties and the two became intimate friends and fellow theatre-goers.

Hazlitt's touchy and difficult temper suspended this inintimacy in later years, though to the last Lamb regarded him as 'one of the finest and wisest spirits breathing'; but for a while it was unclouded. At the Lambs', moreover, Hazlitt made acquaintance with a Dr. Stoddart, owner of some property at Winterslow near Salisbury, and his sister Sarah, a lady wearing past her first youth but yet addicted to keeping a number of beaux to her string. Hazlitt, attracted to her from the first,--he made a gloomy lover and his subsequent performances in that part were unedifying--for some years played walking gentleman behind the leading suitors with whom Miss Stoddart from time to time diversified her comedy. But Mary Lamb was on his side; the rivals on one excuse or another went their ways or were dismissed; and on May 1, 1808, the marriage took place at St. Andrew's Church, Holborn. Lamb attended, foreboding little happiness to the couple from his knowledge of their temperaments. Seven years after (August 9, 1815), he wrote to Southey. 'I was at Hazlitt's marriage, and had like to have been turned out several times during the ceremony. Anything awful makes me laugh.' The marriage was not a happy one.

Portrait-painting had been abandoned long before this. The Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805) had fallen, as the saying is, stillborn from the press: Free Thoughts on Public Affairs (1806) had earned for the author many enemies but few readers: and a treatise attacking Malthus's theory of population (1807) had allured the public as little. A piece of hack-work, The Eloquence of the British Senate, also belongs to 1807: A New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue for the use of Schools to 1810. The nutriment to be derived from these works, again, was not of the sort that replenishes the family table, and in 1812 Hazlitt left Winterslow (where he had been quarrelling with his brother-in-law), settled in London in 19 York Street, Westminster--once the home of John Milton-

Characters of Shakespeare's Plays - 1/50

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