This celebrated poet-laureat was descended of a very antient family in Staffordshire; the eldest branch of which has enjoyed an estate there of five-hundred pounds per ann. He was born about the year 1640, at Stanton-Hall in Norfolk, a seat of his father's, and educated at Caius College in Cambridge, where his father had been likewise bred; and then placed in the middle Temple, to study the law; where having spent frame time, he travelled abroad. Upon his return home he became acquainted with the most celebrated persons of wit, and distinguished quality, in that age; which was so much addicted to poetry and polite literature, that it was not easy for him, who had no doubt a native relish for the same accomplishments, to abstain from these the fashionable studies and amusements of those times. He applied himself chiefly to the dramatic kind of writing, in which he had considerable success. At the revolution, Mr. Dryden, who had so warmly espoused the opposite interest, was dispossessed of his place of Poet Laureat, and Mr. Shadwell succeeded him in it, which employment he possessed till his death. Mr. Shadwell has been illustrious, for nothing so much as the quarrel which subsisted between him and Dryden, who held him in the greatest contempt. We cannot discover what was the cause of Mr. Dryden's aversion to Shadwell, or how this quarrel began, unless it was occasioned by the vacant Laurel being bestowed on Mr. Shadwell: But it is certain, the former prosecuted his resentment severely, and, in his Mac Flecknoe, has transmitted his antagonist to posterity in no advantageous light. It is the nature of satire to be biting, but it is not always its nature to be true: We cannot help thinking that Mr. Dryden has treated Shadwell a little too unmercifully; and has violated truth to make the satire more pungent. He says, in the piece abovementioned,
Others to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense.
Which is not strictly true. There are high authorities in favour of many of his Comedies, and the best wits of the age gave their testimony for them: They have in them fine strokes of humour, the characters are often original, strongly mark'd, and well sustained; add to this, that he had the greatest expedition in writing imaginable, and sometimes produced a play in less than a month. Shadwell, as it appears from Rochester's Session of the Poets, was a great favourite with Otway, and as they lived in intimacy together, it might perhaps be the occasion of Dryden's expressing so much contempt for Otway; which his cooler judgment could never have directed him to do.
Mr. Shadwell died the 19th of December 1692, in the fifty-second year of his age, as we are informed by the inscription upon his monument in Westminster Abbey; tho' there may be some mistake in that date; for it is said in the title page of his funeral sermon preached by Dr. Nicholas Brady, that he was interred at Chelsea, on the 24th of November, that year. This sermon was published 1693, in quarto, and in it Dr. Brady tells us, "That our author was "a man of great honesty and integrity, an inviolable fidelity and strictness in his word, an unalterable friendship wherever he professed it, and however the world may be mistaken in him, he had a much deeper sense of religion than many who pretended more to it. His natural and acquired abilities, continues the Dr. made him very amiable to all who knew and 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 have now any left, will give him this character, at least if they knew him so thoroughly as I did. — His death seized him suddenly, but he could not he unprepared, since to my certain knowledge he never took a dose of opium, but he solemnly recommended himself to God by prayer."
When some persons urged to the then lord chamberlain, that there were authors who had better pretensions to the Laurel; his lordship replied, "He did not pretend to say how great a poet Shadwell might be, but was sure he was an honest man."
Besides his dramatic works, he wrote several other pieces of poetry; the chief of which are his congratulatory poem on the Prince of Orange's coming to England; another on queen Mary; his translation of the 10th Satire of Juvenal, &c. Shadwell in his Comedies imitated Ben Johnson, and proposed him as his model of excellence, with what decree of success we shall not take upon us to determine, hut proceed to give an account of his plays.
1. The Sullen Lovers, or the Impertinent, a Comedy acted at the duke's theatre, dedicated to William duke of Newcastle: the dedication is dated September 1st, 1668.
2. The Humourist, a Comedy acted by his royal highness's servants, dedicated to Margaret duchess of Newcastle.
3. The Royal Shepherdess, a Tragi-Comedy; acted by the duke of York's servants, printed at London 1669, in quarto. This play was originally written by Mr. Fountain of Devonshire, but altered throughout by Mr. Shadwell.
4. The Virtuoso, a Comedy; acted at the duke's theatre, printed at London 1676, in quarto, dedicated to the duke of Newcastle.
Mr. Langbaine observes, that no body will deny this play its due applause; at least I know, says he, that the university of Oxford, who may be allowed competent judges of comedy, especially such characters as Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, and Sir Formal Trifle, applauded it. And as no man ever undertook to discover the frailties of such pretenders to this kind of knowledge before Mr. Shadwell, so none since Johnson's time, ever drew so many different characters of humour, and with such success.
5. Pysche, a Tragedy; acted at the duke's theatre, printed in London 1675 in 4to, and dedicated to the duke of Monmouth. In the preface he tell us, that this play was written in five weeks.
6. The Libertine, a Tragedy; acted by his royal highness's servants, printed in London 1676, in quarto, and dedicated to the duke of Newcastle. In the preface Mr. Shadwell observes, that the story, from which he took the hint of this play, is famous all over Spain, Italy, and France. It was first used in a Spanish play, the Spaniards having a tradition of such a vicious Spaniard, as is represented in this play from them the Italian comedians took it; the French borrowed it from them, and four several plays have been made upon the story.
7. Epsom Wells, a comedy; acted at the duke's theatre; printed at London 1676, in 4to. and dedicated to the duke of Newcastle. Mr. Langbaine says, that this is to diverting and so true a comedy, that even foreigners, who are not in general kind to the wit of our nation, have extremely commended it.
8. The History of Timon of Athens the Man-hater; acted at the duke's theatre, printed at London 1678, in 4to. In the dedication to George duke of Buckingham he observes, that this play was originally Shakespear's, who never made, says he, more masterly strokes than in this; yet I can truly say, I have made it into a play.
9. The Miser, a Comedy; acted at the theatre royal, dedicated to the earl of Dorset. In the preface our author observes, he took the foundation of it from Moliere's L'Avare.
10. A true Widow, a Comedy; acted at the duke's theatre, printed in 1679, in 4to. dedicated to Sir Charles Sidley. The prologue was written by Mr. Dryden; for at this time they lived in friendship.
11. The Lancashire Witches, and Teague O Divelly, the Irish priest, comedy; acted at the duke's theatre, printed at London 1682. Our author has a long preface to this play, in which he vindicates his piece from the charge of reflecting upon the church, and the sacred order. He apologizes for the magical part, and observes, that he had no hopes of equaling Shakespear in his fancy, who created his Witches for the molt part out of his imagination; in which faculty no man ever excelled him, and therefore, says he, I resolve to take mine from authority.
12. The Woman Captain, a Comedy acted by his royal highness's servants.
13. The Squire of Alsatia, a Comedy; acted by his Majesty's servants, printed at London 1688, in 4to. and dedicated to the earl of Dorset and Middlesex.
14. Bury-Fair, a Comedy; acted by his Majesty's servants, printed at London 1689 in 4to. and dedicated to the earl of Dorset. In the dedication he observes, "That this play was written during eight months painful sickness, wherein all the several days in which he was able to write any part of a scene amounted not to one month, except some few, which were employed in indispensible business."
15. Amorous Bigot, with the second part of Teague O Divelly, a Comedy, acted by their Majesties servants, printed 1690 in 4to. dedicated to Charles earl of Shrewsbury.
16. The Scowerers, a Comedy, acted by their Majesties servants, and printed in 4to. 1690.
17. the Volunteers, or the Stock-Jobbers, a Comedy, acted by their Majesties servants, dedicated to the Queen by Mrs. Anne Shadwell, our author's widow.
In the epilogue the character of Mr. Shadwell, who was then dead, was given in the following lines.
Shadwell, the great support o' th' 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;
Whose mighty genius, and discerning mind,
Trac'd all the various humours of mankind;
Dressing them up, with such successful care
That ev'ry fop found his own picture there.
And blush'd for shame, at the surprising skill,
Which made his lov'd resemblance look so ill.
Shadwell who all his lines from nature drew,
Copy'd her out, and kept her still in view;
Who never sunk in prose, nor soar'd in verse,
So high as bombast, or so low as farce;
Who ne'er was brib'd by title or estate
To fawn or flatter with the rich or great;
To let a gilded vice or folly pass,
But always lash'd the villain and the ass.—