The Gallery of Portraits: with Memoirs. Vol 5 (of 7) online

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years, without the slightest opposition; but on all these occasions it
was as regularly rejected by the House of Peers. The original measure,
including copyhold as well as freehold estates, has recently become part
of the law of the land.

During the vacation of 1807 Sir Samuel Romilly prepared some of those
reforms in the criminal law, by which he is most known to the public.
For many years he had been intent on this subject, and had made it his
particular study. During repeated visits to the continent, he never
missed an opportunity of attending any important trial; and for the
sixteen years during which he attended the circuit, he had been in the
habit of noting down whatever appeared to him worthy of observation in
the criminal courts. Shocked at instances of judicial injustice, which
thus fell under his notice, he had secretly resolved that, if it should
ever be in his power, he would endeavour to provide a remedy for such
gross abuses. The principles of his intended reforms were contained in
his answer to Dr. Madan. He held that the prevention of crime is more
effectually accomplished by certainty than by severity of punishment;
that to approximate to certainty of punishment, it was necessary to
mitigate the severities of the penal code; that, unless this were done,
there would still be an indisposition on the part of the public to
prosecute, of witnesses to give evidence, of juries to convict, and even
of judges to put in execution the sentences they had themselves
passed;—that all these were so many chances of escape offered to a
culprit, operating rather as encouragements than as checks to crime.
These doctrines, then so new, although now received as axioms, made but
few converts at first; and it was not till they were again brought
before the public in the House of Commons, in 1808, that they attracted
some of that attention to which they were entitled. One of his first
bills, which repealed the punishment of death for stealing privately
from the person to the amount of five shillings, passed both houses with
but little opposition; but, as the number of prosecutions increased in
consequence, it was alleged that the crime itself had increased, and
that all similar reforms would be attended with similar mischief.
Romilly urged in vain that, when the measure was under consideration, he
had foretold that it would produce an increase of prosecutions; and that
this, far from being an argument against the mitigation of punishment,
was the best proof of its efficacy. In vain did he defend his principle,
with the varied stores of his knowledge, with the most powerful
arguments, and with the eloquence of deep conviction. The mature
reflections of above thirty years’ study and experience were treated as
the rash innovations of a wild theorist. The effect of government
circulars was too seldom counteracted by the attendance of his own
political friends; no party advantage could be gained from such
enlightened labours; there was no large and powerful body in the country
to second his efforts; and when, at length, after unremitting
perseverance, he occasionally succeeded in carrying a bill through the
Commons, it was rarely permitted to pass through the ordeal of the Upper
House. But these efforts were not thrown away. His views, ably and
diligently supported by Sir James Mackintosh and others, have since been
confirmed and acted on even by his political opponents. The credit which
was due to him who had sown the seed has since been claimed by those who
reaped it; but the harvest is not lost to the public.

But Romilly did not shrink from taking an active part on questions more
generally interesting to the public, even though the avowal of his
opinions might endanger his advancement in life. A remarkable instance
of this kind occurred in the beginning of 1809, when the conduct of the
Duke of York was brought before the house by Colonel Wardle. He was
aware that to support this inquiry would not be less obnoxious to many
members of the former government than to those then in office. It had
been significantly intimated to him that the Prince of Wales would
consider any attack on the duke as an attack on himself; and he felt
under some obligation to the Prince for having formerly offered him a
seat in parliament, which, however, he had declined. Such was his
position; entertaining, however, a strong opinion on the subject, he
resolved not to abandon his duty; and he spoke and voted in favour of
the motion. He concluded his speech in these words: “The venerable
judge[5] who took an early part in the discussion of this question has
attested the sincerity of his vote by an affecting allusion to his age
and infirmities, to the few inducements which the remainder of his life
presented to him. I cannot say the same thing. Not labouring under the
same affliction, and not having arrived at the same period of life, I
may reasonably be allowed for myself, and for those who are most dear to
me, to indulge hopes of prosperity yet to come. Reflecting on the
vicissitudes of human life, I may entertain apprehensions of adversity
and persecution which perhaps await me. I have, however, the
satisfaction to reflect, that it is not possible for me to hope to
derive, in any way the most remote, advantages from the vote which upon
this occasion I shall give, and from the part which I have thought it my
duty to act.”

Footnote 5:

Mr. Barton, a Welsh judge, who was then at the age of nearly seventy,
and deprived of his sight.

These anticipations were afterwards corroborated by several persons, who
told him, that after such a speech, he must give up all thoughts of ever
being Chancellor. The public also felt that he had made a sacrifice in
their cause. Thanks were voted to him in conjunction with Mr. Whitbread,
Lord Folkstone, and some others, from the City of London, Liverpool,
Carmarthen, Wiltshire, Bristol, Berwick, &c. &c.; and he was invited by
the Livery of London to a public dinner, as a mark of approbation of his
conduct. He declined, however, to accept the intended honour, and his
answers to the addresses were drawn up with that unaffected modesty, and
love of simple truth, which were so peculiarly characteristic of his
mind. Instead of dwelling upon his own merit, he drew the picture of
what would have been thought of him had he pursued an opposite course.
“Seeing the case,” he said in his answer to the Livery, “in the light in
which I saw it, to have acted otherwise than I did, I must have been
base enough to have deserted my public duty upon a most important
occasion, from the mean apprehension that to discharge my duty might be
attended with personal disadvantage to myself. If there be much merit in
not having been actuated by such unworthy motives, (which I cannot
think, but if there be,) that merit I certainly may pretend to, &c.”

The course which he took in the year following on the imprisonment of
Gale Jones, and the alleged breach of privilege by Sir Francis Burdett,
was again at variance with that adopted by either of the two great
parties in the house. The Opposition as well as the Ministry, and all
the lawyers who took any part in the debate, concurred in thinking the
paper written by Sir Francis Burdett a breach of privilege, and
deserving of punishment of one kind or another; while Romilly maintained
that the house had no jurisdiction to take cognizance of the offence. He
did not dispute the right to imprison for a breach of privilege which
obstructed their proceedings, but he denied the right and the policy of
doing so for the publication of animadversions on matters already
concluded. He urged that these latter questions “ought not to be decided
on by the house, which thus constituted itself prosecutor, party, and
judge, without affording to the accused the opportunity of even hearing
the charges preferred against him; but they ought to be left to the
ordinary tribunals, the courts of law.” These arguments, disregarded at
the time, were amply justified by the events which followed. The folly
of the course adopted was proved by serious disturbances, attended with
the loss of life; petitions couched in the most disrespectful language
were sent up, and inserted on the Journals; and the question of the
privileges of the Commons came, in the first instance, before the courts
of law, and was finally decided by the House of Lords. Invitations to
public dinners were again sent to him, which he again declined; and
addresses of thanks were voted “for the stand he had made in favour of
the dominion of the law, against arbitrary discretion and undefined

But it was not only in this way that the public showed how much they
appreciated his integrity and independence. In 1812 he was pressed to
allow himself to be put in nomination for several large constituencies;
amongst others for Liverpool, Chester, Middlesex, and Bristol. At
Bristol, his past political conduct was considered a sufficient
guarantee for the future; no pledge was required of him, he was to be
put to no expense, and it was agreed that he should be excused from
personal canvas. On terms so honourable he consented to be put in
nomination; and although a total stranger in the town, his reception was
most encouraging, and there seemed every prospect of success.
Nevertheless the common but dishonest maxim, of every thing being fair
at an election, being acted upon by the opposite party, it was soon
evident that he would not be returned; and on the seventh day he
resigned any further contest.

Although his opinions were not as yet to receive the sanction of any
large and popular constituency, he did not relax his efforts in favour
of the rights and interests of the people. On being returned for
Horsham, during the six sessions which this parliament lasted, we find
him the same strenuous advocate for civil liberty and religious
toleration in the most extensive sense of the words, at home and abroad;
the same determined enemy to peculation and corruption, the same ardent
and judicious reformer of the laws; “incapable on every occasion of
being swerved from his duty by the threats of power, the allurements of
the great, the temptations of private interest, or even the seduction of
popular favour. All the toil, the pain, and the fatigue of his duties
were his own; all the advantage which resulted from his labours were for
the public.”

He spoke and voted against military flogging, the game laws, the
punishment of the pillory, the poor laws, the law of libel, and
lotteries; against the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, Lord
Sidmouth’s circular letter, and the employment of spies and informers;
and against the persecution of the Protestants in France, and the Alien
bill at home; in favour of Catholic emancipation, the education of the
poor, and the liberty of the press. He was always a zealous advocate for
peace; against the system of the corn laws, and all restrictions on
commerce, and he was in favour of an extensive change in the
representation of the people, of shortening the duration of parliament,
and ensuring the free exercise of the elective franchise. He was also in
favour of the promulgation of laws, of allowing counsel to prisoners, of
giving compensation to those who had been unjustly accused, of greatly
extending the rules respecting the admission of evidence; of introducing
secondary punishments, and of instituting a public prosecutor; and all
this not more for the sake of humanity towards the guilty, than for the
great ends of justice, the prevention of crime, and the reform of

At the conclusion of this parliament in 1818, Sir Samuel Romilly, after
having again been invited to stand for several large constituencies, by
any of which he was assured he would be elected, was at length put in
nomination for Westminster; and although he was violently opposed by the
court on the one side, and by the ultra popular party on the other;
although, during the whole of the contest, he was calmly pursuing his
professional duties in the Court of Chancery, and never once appeared on
the hustings till the conclusion, he was returned at the head of the
poll. After his election, he did all in his power to avoid the ceremony
of chairing; but on his objections being over-ruled, his greatest
pleasure was when, after he had addressed the multitude from the windows
of Burlington House, he was able to escape by a back door and walk by
the less frequented streets to his home, there to receive
congratulations no less hearty, and more congenial to his temper and
taste. But he did not live to take his seat. A life of uninterrupted and
rarely equalled domestic happiness, and of great success in his
professional and political career, was suddenly embittered by the loss
of that being, to whom he had been deeply and devotedly attached for
above twenty years, and with whom he had ever considered his happiness
and prosperity as being indissolubly connected. He sank under this
calamity, and mankind was deprived of his services for ever[6].

Footnote 6:

Strong symptoms of an incipient brain fever showed themselves, and
these increased so rapidly as to produce, before they could be
checked, a temporary delirium, as most frequently happens in that
malady; and in this paroxysm he terminated his existence, November 22,
1818, three days after Lady Romilly’s death.

Romilly was reserved and silent in general society, but affectionate,
entertaining, and instructive with his friends; and full of joyousness,
humour, and playfulness with his children, and in the bosom of his
family. He was endowed with a lively imagination, he was fond of
retirement, and was a passionate admirer of the beauties of nature.
Indefatigable in his profession and in parliament, he yet found time to
keep up with the literature of the day, to write criticisms on the books
which he read, to keep a regular diary of his political career, and to
compose essays on various branches of the criminal law. His eloquence
was of that kind which never fails to make a lasting impression: it was
full of earnest conviction and deep sensibility. He was a great master
of sarcasm, but he considered it an unfair weapon and rarely employed
it. So jealous was he of his independence, that when he was
solicitor-general, and one of his nephews was peculiarly anxious to be
placed in the Military Academy at Woolwich, he refused to lay himself
under any obligation, even for so slight a favour; and the application
was never made. Few ever gained so large a portion of public favour, and
yet so studiously avoided courting popularity; and no one ever rose
higher in the esteem of his political contemporaries. Unsullied in
character as a lawyer, as a politician, and as a man, his life, which
was prolonged to the age of sixty-one, was a life of happiness and of
honour. No statues are erected to his memory; no titles descend to his
children; but he has bequeathed a richer, a prouder, and a more lasting
inheritance, than any which the world can bestow: the recollection of
his virtues is still fresh in the minds of his countrymen, and the
sacrifices he made in the cause of humanity will not be forgotten by



The materials which we possess for the biography of Shakspeare are very
unsatisfactory. The earliest life is that by the poet Rowe, who, as if
aware of its scantiness, merely entitles it ‘Some Account.’ It contains
what little the author could collect, when no sources of information
were left open but the floating traditions of the theatre after the
lapse of nearly a century. Mr. Malone prefixed a new life to his
edition, extending to above 500 pages; but he only brings his author to
London, and as to his professional progress, adds nothing to Rowe’s
meagre tale, except some particles of information previously
communicated in notes by himself and Steevens.

William Shakspeare was born at Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire,
April 23, 1564. He was one of ten children. His father was a dealer in
wool, as it is generally said, but according to Malone, a glover, and
alderman in the corporation of Stratford. Our great poet received such
education as the lower forms of the Grammar School at Stratford could
give him; but he was removed from that establishment at an early age, to
serve as clerk in a country attorney’s office. This anecdote of his
boyhood receives confirmation from the frequent recurrence of technical
law-phrases in his plays; and it has been remarked that he derives none
of his allusions from other learned professions. Before he was eighteen
years of age he contracted a marriage with Anne Hathaway, a woman some
years older than himself, and the daughter of a substantial yeoman in
his own neighbourhood. He went to London about 1586, when he was but
twenty-two years of age, being obliged, as the common story goes, to fly
the country, in consequence of being detected in deer-stealing. This
tale is thought to be confirmed by the ridicule cast on his supposed
prosecutor, Sir Thomas Lucy, in the character of Justice Shallow,
pointed as it is by the


_Engraved by E. Scriven._


_From the Picture in the Possession of His Grace the Duke of
Buckingham, at Stowe._

Under the Superintendance of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful

_London, Published by Charles Knight, Ludgate Street. June 1, 1835._

commendation of the “dozen white luces as a good coat.” But as this is
the only lawless action which tradition has imputed to one of the most
amiable and inoffensive of men, we may perhaps esteem the tale to be the
mere gossip of the tiring-room: indeed, Malone has adduced several
arguments to prove that it cannot be correctly told. It is not necessary
to suppose that Shakspeare was compelled to fly his native town because
he came to the metropolis; his emigration is sufficiently accounted for
by his father’s falling into distressed circumstances, and being obliged
in this very year, 1586, to resign his alderman’s gown on that account.
Another traditional anecdote, that Shakspeare’s first employment was to
wait at the play-house door, and hold the horses of those who had no
servants, is discredited by Mr. Steevens, who says, “That it was once
the general custom to ride on horseback to the play I am yet to learn.
The most popular of the theatres were on the Bankside; and we are told
by the satirical pamphleteers of that time that the usual mode of
conveyance to those places of amusement was by water; but not a single
writer so much as hints at the custom of riding to them, or at the
practice of having horses held during the hours of exhibition. Let it be
remembered too, that we receive this tale on no higher authority than
that of Cibber’s ‘Lives of the Poets.’”

Nothing is authentically proved with respect to Shakspeare’s
introduction to the stage. His first play is dated by Malone in 1589,
three years after the time assigned for the author’s arrival in London.
It appears from the dedication to ‘Venus and Adonis,’ published in 1593,
in which he calls that poem “the first heir of his invention,” that his
earliest essays were not in dramatic composition. The ‘Lucrece,’
published in 1594, and the collection of sonnets, entitled the
‘Passionate Pilgrim,’ published in 1599, also belong to an early period
of his poetical life. The ‘Lover’s Complaint,’ and a larger collection
of sonnets, were printed in 1609. It may be conjectured that he was led
to write for the stage in consequence of the advice and introduction of
Thomas Green, an eminent comedian of the day, who was his townsman, if
not his relation. Shakspeare trod the boards himself, but he never rose
to eminence as an actor: it is recorded that the Ghost in ‘Hamlet’ was
his masterpiece. But the instructions to the players in ‘Hamlet’ exhibit
a clear and delicate perception of what an actor ought to be, however
incompetent the writer might be to furnish the example in his own

The extent of Shakspeare’s learning has been much controverted. Dr.
Johnson speaks of it thus: “It is most likely that he had learned Latin
sufficiently to make him acquainted with construction, but that he never
advanced to an easy perusal of the Roman authors. Concerning his skill
in modern languages, I can find no sufficient ground of determination;
but as no imitations of French or Italian authors have been discovered,
though the Italian poetry was then high in esteem, I am inclined to
believe that he read little more than English, and chose for his fables
only such tales as he found translated.” Other writers have contended
that he must have been acquainted with the Greek and Roman classics: but
Dr. Farmer, in his ‘Essay on the Learning of Shakspeare,’ has accounted
in a very satisfactory manner for the frequent allusions to the facts
and fables of antiquity to be met with in Shakspeare’s writings, without
supposing that he read the classic authors in their original languages.
The supposition indeed is at variance with his whole history. Dr. Farmer
has particularly specified the English translations of the classics then
extant, and concludes on the whole, that the studies of Shakspeare were
confined to nature and his own language.

The merit of Shakspeare did not escape the notice of Queen Elizabeth. He
evinced his gratitude for her patronage in that beautiful passage in the
‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ where he speaks of her as “a fair vestal,
throned in the west.”

Sheffield, Duke of Buckinghamshire, is the relater of an anecdote which
shows the continuance of high favour to our author. It is expressed in
these words: that “the most learned prince and great patron of learning,
King James I., was pleased with his own hand to write an amicable letter
to Mr. Shakspeare;” and Dr. Farmer supposes, with apparent probability,
that this honour was conferred in return for the compliment paid to the
monarch in ‘Macbeth.’ Shakspeare also possessed the esteem of, and was
admitted to familiar intercourse with, the accomplished Earls of
Southampton and Essex; and enjoyed the friendship of his great
contemporary Ben Jonson.

Of the poet’s career before the London public nothing authentic has come
down to us; and perhaps if more were known, it might not be worth
recording. But his retirement in 1611 or 1612, about four years before
his death, though it afford no story, furnishes a pleasing reflection.
He had left his native place, poor and almost unknown: he returned to
it, not rich, but with a competence and an unblemished character. His
good-natured wit made him a welcome member of private society when he no
longer set the theatre in a roar; and he ended his days in habits of
intimacy, and in some cases in the bonds of friendship, with the leading
gentlemen of the neighbourhood. He died on his birthday, April 23, 1616,
when he had completed his fifty-second year. If we look merely at the
state in which he left his productions, we should be apt to conclude
that he was insensible of their value. To quote the words of Dr.
Johnson, “It does not appear that Shakspeare thought his works worthy of
posterity; that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had
any further prospect than that of present popularity and present
profit.” But the imperfect form in which they came before the public is
not necessarily to be accounted for by this extravagance of humility. It
is clear that any publication of his plays by himself would have
interfered at first with his own interest, and afterwards with the
interest of those to whom he made over his share in them; besides which,
such was the revulsion of the public taste, that the publication of his
works by Hemings and Condell was accounted a doubtful speculation. For
several years after his death the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher were
more frequently acted than those of Shakspeare; and the beautiful works
of the joint dramatists afterwards gave place to the rhyming rhapsodies
of Dryden and the bombast of Lee. Garrick brought back the public to
Shakspeare and every-day nature; Kemble exhibited him in the more
refined dress of classical taste and philosophy.

Mr. Malone has observed, that our author’s prose compositions, should
they be discovered, would exhibit the same perspicuity, the same
cadence, the same elegance and vigour, which we find in his plays. In
1751, an attempt was made to impose on the public by a book entitled ‘A

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Online LibraryAnonymousThe Gallery of Portraits: with Memoirs. Vol 5 (of 7) → online text (page 13 of 21)