Shakespeare’s Contemporaries

Author: William Hazlitt  | Date: 1817

Shakespeare’s Contemporaries

WE affect to wonder at Shakespeare and one or two more of that period, as solitary instances upon record; whereas it is our own dearth of information that makes the waste; for there is no time more populous of intellect, or more prolific of intellectual wealth, than the one we are speaking of. Shakespeare did not look upon himself in this light, as a sort of monster of poetical genius, or on his contemporaries as ’less than smallest dwarfs,’ when he speaks with true, not false modesty, of himself and them, and of his wayward thoughts, ’desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope.’ We fancy that there were no such men, that could either add to or take any thing away from him, but such there were. He indeed overlooks and commands the admiration of posterity, but he does it from the table-land of the age in which he lived. He towered above his fellows, ’in shape and gesture proudly eminent;’ but he was one of a race of giants- the tallest, the strongest, the most graceful and beautiful of them; but it was a common and a noble brood. He was not something sacred and aloof from the vulgar herd of men, but shook hands with nature and the circumstances of the time, and is distinguished from his immediate contemporaries, not in kind, but in degree and greater variety of excellence. He did not form a class or species by himself, but belonged to a class or species. His age was necessary to him; nor could he have been wrenched from his place, in the edifice of which he was so conspicuous a part, without equal injury to himself and it. Mr. Wordsworth says of Milton, that ’his soul was like a star, and dwelt apart.’ This cannot be said with any propriety of Shakespear, who certainly moved in a constellation of bright luminaries, and ’drew after him a third part of the heavens.’ If we allow, for argument’s sake (or for truth’s, which is better), that he was in himself equal to all his competitors put together; yet there was more dramatic excellence in that age than in the whole of the period that has elapsed since. If his contemporaries, with their united strength, would hardly make one Shakespear, certain it is that all his successors would not make half a one. With the exception of a single writer, Otway, and of a single play of his ( Venice Preserved ), there is nobody in tragedy and dramatic poetry (I do not here speak of comedy) to be compared to the great men of the age of Shakespear, and immediately after. They are a mighty phalanx of kindred spirits closing him round, moving in the same orbit, and impelled by the same causes in their whirling and eccentric career. They had the same faults and the same excellences; the same strength and depth and richness, the same truth of character, passion, imagination, thought and language, thrown, heaped, massed together without careful polishing or exact method, but poured out in unconcerned profusion from the lap of nature and genius in boundless and unrivalled magnificence. The sweetness of Deckar, the thought of Marston, the gravity of Chapman, the grace of Fletcher and his young- eyed wit, Jonson’s learned sock, the flowing vein of Middleton, Heywood’s ease, the pathos of Webster, and Marlow’s deep designs, add a double lustre to the sweetness, thought, gravity, grace, wit, artless nature, copiousness, ease, pathos, and sublime conceptions of Shakespear’s Muse. They are indeed the scale by which we can best ascend to the true knowledge and love of him. Our admiration of them does not lessen our relish for him: but, on the contrary, increases and confirms it.

’General View of the Subject’

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Chicago: William Hazlitt, Shakespeare’s Contemporaries Original Sources, accessed December 10, 2019, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WFC8LXAK98LCPZS.

MLA: Hazlitt, William. Shakespeare’s Contemporaries, Original Sources. 10 Dec. 2019. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WFC8LXAK98LCPZS.

Harvard: Hazlitt, W, Shakespeare’s Contemporaries. Original Sources, retrieved 10 December 2019, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WFC8LXAK98LCPZS.