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on the information obtained, in the beginning of the last century, by the inquiries of Betterton, the famous actor, will necessarily supply us with the greater part of the materials with which we are to work.
William SHAKSPEARE, or SHAKSPERE (for the floating orthography of the name is properly attached to the one or the other of these varieties), was baptized in the church of Stratford upon Avon, as is ascertained by the parish register, on the 26th of April, 1564; and he is said to have been born on the 23d of the same month, the day consecrated to the tutelar saint of England His parents, John and Mary Shakspeare, were not of equal ranks in the community; for the former was only a respectable tradesman, whose ancestors cannot be traced into gentility, whilst the latter belonged to an ancient and opulent house in the county of Warwick, being the youngest daughter of Robert Arden of Wilmecote. The family of the Ardens (or Ardernes, as it is written in all the old deeds) was of considerable antiquity and importance, some of them having served as high sheriffs of their county, and two of them (Sir John Arden and his nephew, the grandfather of Mrs. Shakspeare) having enjoyed each a station of honor in the personal establishment of Henry VII. The younger of these Ardens was made, by his sovereign, keeper of the park of Aldercar, and bailiff of the lordship of Codoore. He obtained, also, from the crown, a valuable grant in the lease of the manor of Yoxsal, in Staffordshire, consisting of more than 4,600 acres, at a rent of 421. Mary Arden did not come dowerless to her plebeian husband; for she brought to him a small freehold estate called Asbies, and the sum of 61. 13s. 4d. in money. The freehold consisted of a house and fifty-four acres of land; and, as far as it appears, it was the first piece of landed property which was ever possessed by the Shakspeares. Of this marriage the offspring was four sons and four daughters; of whom Joan (or, according to the orthography of that time, Jone) and Margaret, the eldest of the children, died, one in infancy and one at a somewhat more advanced age; and Gilbert, whose birth immediately succeeded to that of our Poet, is supposed by some not to have reached his maturity, and by others, to have attained to considerable longevity. Joan, the eldest of the four remaining children, and named after her deceased sister, married William Hart, a hatter in her native town; and Edmund, the youngest of the family, adopting the profession of an actor, resided in St. Savior's parish in London; and was buried in St. Savior's Church, on the last day of December, 1607, in his twenty-eighth year. Of Anne and Richard, whose births intervened between those of Joan and Edmund, the parish register tells the whole history, when it records that the former was buried on the 4th of April, 1579, in the eighth year of her age, and the latter on the 4th of February, 1612–13, when he had nearly completed his thirty-ninth.
In consequence of a document, discovered in the year 1770, in the house in which, if tradition is to be trusted, our Poet was born, some persons have concluded that John Shakspeare was a Roman Catholic, though he had risen, by the regular gradation of office, to the chief dignity of the corporation of Stratford, that of high bailiff'; and, during the whole of this period, had unquestionably conformed to the rites of the Church of England. The asserted fact seemed not to be very probable; and the document in question, which, drawn up in a testamentary form, and regularly attested, zealously professes the Roman faith of him in whose name it speaks, having been subjected to a rigid examination by Malone, has been pronounced to be spurious. The trade of John Shakspeare, as well as his religious faith, has recently been made the subject of controversy. According to the testimony of Rowe, grounded on the tradition of Stratford, the father of our Poet was a dealer in wool, or, in the provincial vocabulary of his country, a wool-driver; and such he has been deemed by all the biographers of his son, till the fact was thrown into doubt by the result of the inquisitiveness of Malone. Finding, in an old and obscure MS. purporting to record the proceedings of the bailiff's court in Stratford, our John Shakspeare designated as a glover, Malone exults over the ignorance of poor Rowe, and assumes no small degree of merit to himself as the discoverer of a long-sought and a most important historic truth. If he had recollected the remark of the clown in the Twelfth Night,* that “a sentence is but a cheverel glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outwards !"
Act iii. sc. I.
- he would, doubtless, have pressed the observation into his service, and brought it as an irresistible attestation of the veracity of his old MS.
Whatever may have been the trade of John Shakspeare, whether that of wool-merchant or of glover, seems, with the little fortune of his wife, to have placed him in a state of easy competence. In 1569 or 1570, in consequence partly of his alliance with the Ardens, and partly of his attainment of the prime municipal honors of his town, he obtained a concession of arms from the herald's office-a grant which placed him and his family on the file of the gentry of England; and, in 1574, he purchased two houses, with gardens and orchards annexed to them, in Henley Street, in Stratford. But before the year 1578, his prosperity, from causes not now ascertainable, had certainly declined; for in that year, as we find from the records of his borough, he was excused, in condescension to his poverty, from the moiety of a very moderate assessment of six shillings and eight pence, made by the members of the corporation on themselves; at the same time that he was altogether exempted from his contribution to the relief of the poor. During the remaining years of his life, his fortunes appear not to have recovered themselves; for he ceased to attend the meetings of the corporation hall, where he had once presided; and, in 1586, another person was substituted as alderman in his place, in consequence of his magisterial inefficiency. He died in the September of 1601, when his illustrious son had already attained to high celebrity; and his wife, Mary Shakspeare, surviving him for seven years, deceased in the September of 1608, the burial of the former being registered on the eighth, and that of the latter on the ninth of this month, in each of these respective years.
On the 30th of June, 1564, when our Poet had not yet been three months in this breathing world, his native Stratford was visited by the plague; and, during the six succeeding months, the ravaging disease is calculated to have swept to the grave more than a seventh part of the whole population of the place. But the favored infant reposed in security in his cradle, and breathed health amid an atmosphere of pestilence. The Genius of England may be supposed to have held the arm of the destroyer, and not to have permitted it to fall on the consecrated dwelling of his and Nature's darling
The disease, indeed, did not overstep his charmed threshold; for the name of Shakspeare is not to be found in the register of deaths throughout that period of accelerated mortality. That he survived this desolating calamity of his townsmen, is all that we know of William Shakspeare from the day of his birth till he was sent, as we are informed by Rowe, to the free-school of Stratford; and was stationed there in the course of his education, till, in consequence of the straitened circumstances of his father, he was recalled to the paternal roof. As we are not told at what age he was sent to school, we cannot form any estimate of the time during which he remained there; but if he was placed under his master when he was six years old, he might have continued in a state of instruction for seven or even for eight years—a term sufficiently long for any boy, not an absolute blockhead, to acquire something more than the mere elements of the classical languages. We are too ignorant, however, of dates, in these instances, to speak with any confidence on the subject; and we can only assert that seven or eight of the fourteen years, which intervened between the birth of our Poet in 1564 and the known period of his father's diminished fortune in 1578, might very properly have been given to the advantages of the free-school. But now the important question is to be asked—What were the attainments of our young Shakspeare at this seat of youthful instruction ? Did he return to his father's house in a state of utter ignorance of classic literature ? or was he as far advanced in his school-studies as boys of his age (which I take to be thirteen or fourteen) usually are in the common progress of our public and more reputable schools? That his scholastic attainments did not rise to the point of learning, seems to have been the general opinion of his contemporaries; and to this opinion I am willing to assent. But I cannot persuade myself that he was entirely unacquainted with the classic tongues; or that, as Farmer and his followers labor to convince us, he could receive the instructions, even for three or four years, of a school of any character, and could then depart without any knowledge beyond that of the Latin accidence. The most accomplished scholar may read with pleasure the poetic versions of the classic poets; and the less advanced proficient may consult his indolence by applying to the page of a translation of a prose classic, when accuracy of quotation
may not be required; and on evidences of this nature is supported the charge which has been brought, and which is now generally admitted, against our immortal Bard, of more than school-boy igno
He might, indeed, from necessity apply to North for the interpretation of Plutarch; but he read Golding's Ovid only, as I am satisfied, for the entertainment of its English poetry. Ben Jonson, who must have been intimately conversant with his friend's classic acquisitions, tells us expressly that “ He had small Latin, and less Greek.” But, according to the usual plan of instruction in our schools, he must have traversed a considerable extent of the language of Rome, before he could touch even the confines of that of Greece. He must in short have read Ovid's Metamorphoses, and a part at least of Virgil, before he could open the grammar of the more ancient, and copious, and complex dialect. This I conceive to be a fair statement of the case in the question respecting Shakspeare's learning. Beyond controversy he was not a scholar; but he had not profited so little by the hours which he had passed in school, as not to be able to understand the more easy Roman authors without the assistance of a translation. If he himself had been asked, on the subject, he might have parodied his own Falstaff, and have answered, “Indeed I am not a Scaliger or a Budæus, but yet no blockhead, friend." I believe also that he was not wholly unacquainted with the popular languages of France and Italy. He had abundant leisure to acquire them; and the activity and the curiosity of his mind were sufficiently strong to urge him to their acquisition. But to discuss this much-agitated question, would lead me beyond the limits which are prescribed to me; and, contenting myself with declaring that, in my opinion, both parties are wrong, both they who contend for our Poet's learning, and they who place his illiteracy on a level with that of John Taylor, the celebrated water poet, I must resume my humble and most deficient narrative. The classical studies of William Shakspeare, whatever progress he may or may not have made in them, were now suspended; and he was replaced in his father's house, when he had attained his thirteenth or fourteenth year, to assist with his hand in the maintenance of the family. Whether he continued in this situation whilst he remained in his single state, has not been told to us, and cannot therefore, at this period, be known. But in the absence of informa