The Lives of the Poets-Laureate/Thomas Shadwell

Thomas Shadwell was a descendant of the younger branch of a Staffordshire family of great antiquity. He was born at the paternal seat, Santon Hall, in Norfolk, about 1640. His father had been a member of the Middle Temple, but having declined to compete for the more splendid prizes of the law, his ambition was satisfied with the performance of the lowlier, though important duties, connected with the local magistracy. He was in the commission of the peace for the counties of Middlesex, Norfolk and Suffolk. He espoused the side of the King during the times when loyalty was something more than lip-homage, and exhausted his patrimony through his devotion to the royal cause. The subject of this memoir was sent to Caius College, Cambridge, where his father had graduated before him, and afterwards to the Middle Temple, in the hope that his success at the bar might be a means of restoring the shattered fortunes of the house. Shadwell, however, felt little inclination to undergo the drudgery necessary for advancement in that most arduous of all the professions, and he deserted his law-books for others more congenial to his tastes. After a few years spent at the Temple, he made the tour of the Continent, and on his return home became acquainted with several of the literary men of the day. His firsts attempts in verse were lamentably bad, and he never achieved any reputation as a poet; but he made the theatre his study, and first attracted attention by a comedy entitled "The Sullen Lovers, or the Impertinents." This piece, which was acted by the Duke of York's company, and printed in 1668, was, like most first productions, a mere reflex of the writer's peculiar studies. An extract from the preface will show the principle upon which it was put together, and the author he proposed as his model.

"I have endeavoured," he writes, "to represent variety of humours which was the practice of Ben Jonson, whom I think all dramatic poets ought to imitate, though none are like to come near, he being the only person that appears to me to have made perfect representations of human life. Most other authors in their lower comedies content themselves with one or two humours at most, and those not near so perfect characters as the admirable Jonson always made, who never wrote comedy without seven or eight excellent humours. I never saw one except that of Falstaff that was in my judgment comparable to any of Jonson's considerable humours."

His admiration of Jonson was excessive. In another place, he observes of him that "he was incomparably the best dramatic poet that ever was or I believe ever will be; and I had rather be author of one scene in his best comedies, than of any play this age has produced." In his epilogue to "The Humorists," he also writes of his favourite thus:

"The mighty Prince of Poets, learned Ben,
Who alone dived into the minds of men,
Saw all their wand'rings, all their follies knew,
And all their vain fantastic passions drew. *****

'Twas he alone true humours understood,
And with great wit and judgment made them good."

And in the dedication prefixed to his play, "The Virtuoso," he explains humour to be "Such an affectation as misguides men in knowledge, art, or science, or that causes defection in manners or morality, or perverts their minds in the main actions of their lives."

Shadwell borrowed freely both from contemporary and preceding writers. The groundwork of "The Libertine," "The Miser," "Bury Fair," and "The Sullen Lovers," he took from Molière. "The Adelphi" of Terence gave him a hint for some passages in his "Squire of Alsatia," while he intimates that Shakespeare was under obligations to him for having first made a play of his "Timon of Athens." This hallucination respecting Shakespeare was common to authors, critics and the public of that time, and though indicating the immature or distorted taste that Shadwell had in common with his contemporaries, is no proof whatever, as has been alleged, of assurance or self-conceit.

His plays show great powers of observation, and make us well acquainted with the manners of his age. The public thought highly of them, and the Earl of Rochester, no bad critic, said:

"Of all our modern wits, none seem to me
Once to have touched upon true comedy,
But hasty Shadwell and slow Wycherley.
Shadwell's unfinish'd works do yet impart
Great proofs of force of genius, none of art,
With just bold strokes he dashes here and there,
Showing great mastery with little care."

But our dramatist had little skill in discerning the more hidden complexities, or in pourtraying the nicer shades of human character—he saw very little below the surface, though his method was based upon the right foundation. In this respect, he contrasts his own plan of writing with that of his stately antagonist, Dryden, who, richly gifted as he was, was totally destitute of the dramatic faculty. Driven by pecuniary considerations to the exercise of a craft for which he had no aptitude, to cloak his own defects, he had extolled wit and sprightliness of expression, qualities in which he excelled, above the more laboured attempt of depicting character; and some slight sparring on this topic appears to have been the commencement of that fierce antagonism which the malevolence of satire has gibbeted to undying remembrance.

One misfortune of "hasty" Shadwell was his facility. His tragedy of "Psyche" was written in five weeks, and some of his plays in less than a month. We are involuntarily reminded of a bon-mot of Sheridan, "that easy writing is ——— hard reading;" and tragedies dashed off at a heat are not likely to take any permanent hold on the public mind. He wrote altogether seventeen plays; and of his poetical works, the principal are a complimentary poem on the arrival of King William III., one on Queen Mary, and a translation of the Tenth Satire of Juvenal. Much time has been spent in the attempt to exhume these pieces from the public libraries of the metropolis, but without success; and if they yet slumber there, it would still be a thankless office to invade their dusty repose.

The following is a list of his plays:

"The Sullen Lovers, or the Impertinents." A comedy acted at the Duke's Theatre, and dedicated to the Duke of Newcastle. The plot taken from Molière's play, "Les Fâcheux."

"The Humorists." A comedy attacking the follies of the time. This play met with some opposition on its first appearance.

"The Royal Shepherdess." A tragi-comedy printed in 1669—an adaptation, by Shadwell, of a play written by a person of the name of Fountain, in the time of Charles II., called "The Reward of Virtue." It was never acted until this adoption and alteration by Shadwell. Pepys witnessed its performance, and had no very high opinion of its merits, as the reader will perceive by the following extract from his "Diary:"

"25 Feb., 1669.—To the Duke of York's house, and there before one, but the house infinite full, where, by-and-bye, the King and Court come, it being a new play, or an old one new vamp'd by Shadwell, call'd 'The Royall Shepherdesse,' but the silliest for words and design and everything else that I ever saw in my whole life, there being nothing in the world pleasing in it but a good martiall dance of pikemen, where Harris and another do handle their pikes in a dance to admiration; but I was never less satisfied with a play in my life."

"The Virtuoso," a comedy dedicated to the Duke of Newcastle, and printed in London, 1676. Gerard Langbaine observes of this play, that no one will deny it its due applause, as the University of Oxford, who, he says, may be allowed to be competent judges of comedy, had signified their approval of it.

"Psyche," acted at the Duke's Theatre, and dedicated to the unfortunate Duke of Monmouth. This met with much disfavour, and was Shadwell's first attempt at a rhyming play. In it, he borrowed largely from the French "Psyche" and Apuleius' "Asinus Aureus."

"The Libertine," a tragedy printed in 1676, and dedicated to the Duke of Newcastle. This has been regarded as one of his best plays. Music and poetry have since exhausted their resources in giving immortality to the worthless character, the hero of this piece, whom all Europe is intimate with as Don John, Don Giovanni, or Don Juan. In the preface, he says: "The story from which I took the hint of this play is famous all over Spain, Italy, and France. It was first put into a Spanish play, as I have been told, the Spaniards having a tradition (which they believe) of such a vicious Spaniard as is represented in this play. From them the Italian comedians took it, and from them, the French; and four several French plays were made upon the story.

"I hope the readers will excuse the irregularities of the play, when they consider the extravagance of the subject forced me to it. I have been told by a worthy gentleman, when first a play was made upon this story in Italy, he had seen it acted there by the name of 'Ateista Fulminato,' in churches on Sundays, as a part of devotion; and some, not of the least judgment and piety here, have thought it rather a useful moral than an encouragement of vice."

What must be our idea of the purity of that religion or the morality of that system which can countenance the performance of "Don Juan" in church on Sunday as a part of devotion? We present the reader with a few of the dramatis personæ of this portion of the Papal Church Service:

Don John. The Libertine, a rash, fearless man, guilty of all vice.
Leonora. Don John's mistress, abused by him, and yet follows him for love.
Maria. Abused by Don John, and following him for revenge.
Six women, all wives to Don John, &c.

Later in the preface we are told that the town was not unkind to it, and then follows a flourish about the rapidity with which it was written. "There being no act in it," says Shadwell, "which cost me above five days' writing, and the last two, the playhouse having great occasion for a play, were both written in four days, as several can testify." There is no more merit in quick writing than in quick digestion, and this parade of facility only sinks the author in our esteem, as it is either an affectation or a falsehood. Labour is the necessary condition of excellence, and the greatest master-pieces in every department of art or science have been the result of the most toilsome study. Much, however, depends on an author's habit of composition. Some writers put on paper every thought as it originates; others, without any mechanical aid, select and combine in their own minds, and there compose the independent whole; so that the act of writing is the mere transcription of what has already been carefully elaborated.

"Epsom Wells," a comedy, was printed in London in 1676, and dedicated to the Duke of Newcastle. This play won the praise of St. Evremont, and Shadwell tells us he was more fond of it than of any he ever wrote.

"The History of Timon of Athens, the Man-hater." In the dedication of this play to the Duke of Buckingham, Shadwell writes: "It has the inimitable hand of Shakespeare in it, which never made more masterly strokes than in this. Yet I can truly say I have made it into a play."

"The Miser," taken from Molière's "Avâre," and dedicated to the Earl of Dorset.

"A True Widow." A comedy, dedicated to Sir Charles Sedley, and which had the benefit of his correction. The prologue to this play was written by Dryden.

"The Lancashire Witches, and Teague O'Divelly the Irish Priest." A partizan production, which excited some opposition.

"The Woman Captain," dedicated to Lord Ogle, son of the Duke of Newcastle.

"The Squire of Alsatia." A comedy, founded on "The Adelphi" of Terence, dedicated to the Earl of Dorset.

"Bury Fair," dedicated to the Earl of Dorset, and founded partly on the Duke of Newcastle's "Triumphant Widow," partly on Molière's " Précieuses Ridicules."

"The Amorous Bigot," with the Second Part of "Teague O'Divelly," dedicated to the Earl of Shrewsbury.

"The Scourers," borrowed in part from a play of Sir George Etheredge.

"The Volunteers, or the Stock-Jobbers." A comedy, dedicated by his widow to the Queen.

Shadwell is now principally remembered as the antagonist of Dryden, and the consequent object of some of the most bitter satire in the English language. He was to the author of "MacFlecnoe" what Cibber was to Pope. In both cases the quarrel arose, as far as we can judge, from the most insignificant causes; a heedless piece of satire, or a momentary qualm of jealousy, which gradually strengthened into disgust, and was inflamed by opposition into the most rancorous hostility: while in Dryden's case "political hatred gangrened a wound inflicted by literary rivalry."

Now the actors are dust, how petty to us appear those fierce contentions which once formed a prominent topic of popular interest. Dryden and Shadwell; Pope and Cibber; Bentley and Boyle; the list might be indefinitely multiplied. The struggle, which, when some great principle of politics or morals is the subject of the strife, ennobles in our eyes the unflinching combatants, only degrades when the violence and the rancour result from the soreness of wounded vanity, or the malice of blighted anticipation. Infinitely grander in this respect stands out the character of Sir Walter Scott, who envied not the success of contemporaries, nor slighted rising talent, nor heeded attacks forgotten now because then unheeded, nor handled the weapon of satire, which is as dangerous to the offended as the offender.

Dryden and Shadwell were once on friendly terms, as, in 1676, in the preface to "The Humorists," the former is thus alluded to. "And here I must make a little digression, and take liberty to dissent from my particular friend, for whom I have a very great respect, and whose writings I extremely admire; and though I will not say his is the best way of writing, yet I am sure his manner of writing is much the best that ever was." They had even joined in worrying a brother of the craft, Elkanah Settle, the last Poet-Laureate to the city of London, and author of "A Panegyric on the Loyal and Honourable Sir George Jefferies, Lord Chief Justice of England, 1633." But the bond of union was frail, they had little in common in their literary tastes, and in politics they stood in direct opposition to each other. In the prologue to "The Virtuoso," Shadwell glanced at the "Aurungzebe," of Dryden, which had been acted with success that season; and in the dedication, dated 26th June, 1676, in a sneering allusion to Dryden's pension, he says: "Had I as much money and as much time for it, I might perhaps write as correct a comedy as any of my contemporaries."

However, two years afterwards, we find Dryden writing an epilogue for Shadwell's play of "The True Widow," so that the mighty war smouldered long before it burst forth into a blaze. Shadwell's political spleen prompted him to write "The Lancashire Witches," intended to throw ridicule on the Tory party, and he fiercely attacked "The Medal," a satire of Dryden's, published in 1681, on the notorious Shaftesbury. He was likewise concerned in the attack on "The Duke of Guise," in 1683; and Dryden, in his vindication of that play, mentions that Shadwell had repeatedly called him atheist in print. The poet, irritated almost to madness by the unceasing attacks that were made upon him from all quarters, at length singled out Shadwell from the host of his assailants, and poured on his head the full vial of his wrath. He launched into the world two satires, each published within a month of the other; first, the "MacFlecnoe," filling originally only a sheet and a half, and sold for two-pence, in which he ridiculed the poetical character of his victim; while as Og, in the second part of "Absalom and Achitophel," Shadwell's abilities as a political writer are held up for perpetual reprobation.

The literary quarrels of those times were waged with an animus, and were attended with effects which in our day we find it hard to credit. Hunt, who assisted Shadwell in his attack on "The Duke of Guise," was obliged to fly the country; while the latter, in the dedication of his "Bury Fair" to the Earl of Dorset, refers to "those worst of times, when his ruin was designed and his life was sought, and for near ten years he was kept from the exercise of that profession which had afforded him a competent subsistence."

Dryden, the greatest of the poets who have worn the laurel, was the only one who was forcibly deprived of it, when the Revolution of 1688 transferred it to the brows of Shadwell. On its being represented to the Earl of Dorset, through whose influence the appointment, as well as that of historiographer was conferred, that there were other authors whose merits better entitled them to the honour; that discriminating nobleman replied that "he did not pretend to determine how great a poet Shadwell might be, but was sure he was an honest man;" honesty being then literally synonymous with Whiggism. Even with this justification, the appointment was hardly fair, as if such was the qualification for the office, there were many men in Church and State who had shown more zealotry in the cause even than Shadwell. He did not long enjoy his honours, as he died suddenly at Chelsea, in November, 1692, in the fifty-second year of his age. The report that his death was caused by an over-dose of laudanum, was authoritatively contradicted by Brady, who preached his funeral sermon.

He was corpulent and unwieldy in person, addicted to sensual indulgence, a boon companion, and a clever conversationalist. Lord Rochester said that "if Shadwell had burnt all he wrote, and printed all he spoke, he would have had more wit and humour than any other poet." His plays denote much observation of life, quickness in perceiving foibles, and skill in depicting them, the characters are well sustained, and they will even now amuse in the perusal.

Brady, in his funeral panegyric says of him, that "he was a man of great honesty and integrity, and inviolable fidelity and strictness in his word; an unalterable friendship wherever he professed it, and however the world might be mistaken in him, he had a much deeper sense of religion than many who pretended more to it. His natural and acquired abilities made him very amiable to all who conversed with him, a very few being equal in the becoming qualities which adorn and set off a complete gentleman: his very enemies, if he has now any left, will give him this character, at least if they knew him so thoroughly as I did."

We will conclude this memoir with the following extracts from the satires of Dryden; and the reverse of the medal from the epilogue to Shadwell's play of "The Volunteers," which came out after his death, leaving to the reader the task of adjusting the due proportions of blame and praise; premising, however, that all the talent is exerted in deepening the lines of the unfavourable side.

Flecnoe addressing Shadwell, says:

"Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years;
Shadwell alone of all my sons is he,
Who stands confirmed in full stupidity,
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense;
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make a lucid interval;
But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day.

"But let no alien Sedley interpose,
To lard with wit thy hungry Epsom prose.

"Thou art my blood, where Jonson has no part—
What share have we in nature or in art?
When did his muse from Fletcher scenes purloin,
As thou whole Etheridge dost transfuse to thine?
But so transfused, as oil and waters flow,
His always floats above, thine sinks below.

"A tun of man in thy large bulk is writ,
But sure thou'rt but a kilderkin of wit;
Like mine, thy gentle members feebly creep,
Thy tragic muse gives smiles, thy comic sleep."

In the person of Og, Shadwell's political merits are descanted upon.

"Now stop your noses, readers, all and some,
For here's a tun of midnight work to come,
Og from a treason-tavern rolling home.
When wine has given him courage to blaspheme,
He curses God, but God before cursed him;
And if man could have reason, none has more
That made his paunch so rich, and him so poor.

"But though Heaven made him poor, with reverence speaking,
He never was a poet of God's making.
The midwife laid her hand on his thick skull,
With this prophetic blessing:—Be thou dull.
Drink, swear, and roar: forbear no lewd delight
Fit for thy bulk—do anything but write.
Eat opium, mingle arsenic with thy drink,
Still thou may'st live, avoiding pen and ink.
I see, I see, 'tis counsel given in vain,
For treason, botched in rhyme, may be thy bane.
Rhyme is the rock on which thou art to wreck,
'Tis fatal to thy fame and to thy neck.

"A double noose thou on thy neck dost pull,
For writing treason, and for writing dull.
To die for faction is a common evil,
But to be hanged for nonsense is the devil.

"I will not rake the dunghill of thy crimes,
For who would read thy life that reads thy rhymes?
But of King David's foes be this the doom,
May all be like the young man, Absalom.[1]
And for my foes, may this their blessing be,
To talk like Doeg,[2] and to write like thee."

The following is an extract from the Epilogue.

"Shadwell, the great support o' the comic stage,
Born to expose the follies of the age.
To whip prevailing vices, and unite
Mirth with Instruction, Profit with Delight.
For large ideas and a flowing pen,
First of our times, and second but to Ben.
Shadwell, who all his lines from Nature drew,
Copied her out and kept her still in view;
Who ne'er was bribed by Title or Estate,
To fawn and flatter with the Rich and Great.
To let a gilded vice or folly pass,
But always lash'd the villain and the ass.

"Crown you his last performance with applause,
Who love like him our liberties and laws.
Let but the 'honest' party do him right,
And their loud claps shall give him fame, in spite
Of the faint hiss of grumbling Jacobite."

  1. The Duke of Monmouth.
  2. Settle.