Page images
PDF
EPUB

attaining a “proficiency in that language,” his works manifesting “an ignorance of the ancients.” Mr. Halliwell, commenting upon this statement, says, “ John Shakspeare's circumstances began to fail him when William was about fourteen, and he then withdrew him from the grammar-school, for the purpose of obtaining his assistance in his agricultural pursuits." Was fourteen an unusually early age for a boy to be removed from a grammar-school? We think not, at a period when there were boybachelors at the Universities. If he had been taken from the school three years before, when he was eleven,-certainly an early age, we should have seen his father then recorded, in 1575, as the purchaser of two freehold houses in Henley Street, and the narrowness of his circumstances” as the reason of Shakspere's “no better proficiency,” would have been at once exploded. In his material allegation Rowe utterly fails.

The family of John Shakspere did not consist, as we have already shown, of ten children. In the year 1578, when the school education of William may be reasonably supposed to have terminated, and before which period his “ assistance at home" would rather have been embarrassing than useful to his father, the family consisted of five children: William, aged fourteen ; Gilbert, twelve ; Joan, nine ; Anne, seven; and Richard four. Anne died early in the following year; and, in 1580, Edmund, the youngest child, was born ; so that the family never exceeded five living at the same time. But still the circumstances of John Shakspere, even with five children, might have been straitened. The assertion of Rowe excited the persevering diligence of Malone ; and he collected together a series of documents from which he infers, or leaves the reader to infer, that John Shakspere and his family gradually sank from their station of respectability at Stratford into the depths of poverty and ruin. The sixth section of Malone's posthumous “Life” is devoted to a consideration of this subject. It thus commences : “ The manufacture of gloves, which was, at this period, a very flourishing one, both at Stratford and Worcester (in which latter city it is still carried on with great success), however generally beneficial, should seem, from whatever cause, to have aftorded our poet's father but a scanty maintenance." We have endeavoured to show to what extent, and in what manner, John Shakspere was a glover. However, be his occupation what it may, Malone affirms that “when our author was about fourteen years old” the “distressed situation" of his father was evident : it rests “upon surer grounds than conjecture.” The corporation books have shown that on particular occasions, such as the visitation of the plague in 1564, John Shakspere contributed like others to the relief of the poor ; but now, in January, 1577-8, he is taxed for the necessities of the borough only to pay half what other aldermen pay; and in November of the same year, whilst other aldermen are assessed fourpence weekly towards the relief of the poor, John Shakspere “shall not be taxed to pay anything." In 1579 the sum levied upon him for providing soldiers at the charge of the borough is returned, amongst similar sums of other persons, as “unpaid and unaccounted for.” There are other corroborative proofs of John Shakspere's poverty at this period brought forward by Malone. In this precise year, 1578, he mortgages his wife's inheritance of Asbies to Edmund Lambert for forty pounds; and, in the same year, the will of Mr. Roger Sadler of Stratford, to which is subjoined a list of debts due to him, shows that John Shakspere was indebted to him five pounds ; for which sum Edmund Lambert was a security,“ By which," says Malone, “it appears that John Shakspeare was then considered insolvent, if not as one depending rather on the credit of others than his own.” It is of little consequence to the present age to know whether an alderman of Stratford, nearly three hundred years past, became unequal to maintairr his social position ; but to enable us to form a right estimate of the education of William Shakspere, and of the circumstances in which he was placed at the most influential period of his life,

it may not be unprofitable to consider how far these revelations of the private affairs of his father support the case which Malone holds he has so triumphantly proved. At the time in question, the best evidence is unfortunately destroyed; for the registry of the Court of Record at Stratford is wanting, from 1569 to 1585. Nothing has been added to what Malone has collected as to this precise period. It amounts therefore to this,—that in 1578 he mortgages an estate for forty pounds ; that he is indebted also five pounds to a friend for which his mortgagee had become security; and that he is excused one public assessment, and has not contributed to another. At this time he is the possessor of two freehold houses in Henley Street, bought in' 1574. Malone, a lawyer by profession, supposes that the money for which Asbies was mortgaged went to pay the purchase of the Stratford freeholds ; according to which theory, these freeholds had been unpaid for during four years, and the “good and lawful money” was not "in hand” when the vendor parted with the premises. We hold, and we think more reasonably, that in 1578, when he mortgaged Asbies, John Shakspere became the purchaser, or at any rate the occupier, of lands in the parish of Stratford, but not in the borough; and that, in either case, the money for which Asbies was mortgaged was the capital employed in this undertaking. The lands which were purchased by William Shakspere of the Combe family, in 1601, are described in the deed as “ lying or being within the parish, fields, or town of Old Stretford.” But the will of William Shakspere, he having become the heir-atlaw of his father, devises all his lands and tenements “ within the towns, hamlets, villages, fields, and grounds of Stratford-upon-Avon, Old Stratford, Bishopton, and Welcombe.” Old Stratford is a local denomination, essentially different from Bishopton or Welcombe ; and, therefore, whilst the lands purchased by the son in 1601 might be those recited in the will as lying in Old Stratford, he might have derived from his father the lands of Bishopton and Welcombe, of the purchase of which by himself we have no record. But we have a distinct record that William Shakspere did derive lands from his father, in the same way that he inherited the two freeholds in Henley Street. Mr. Halliwell prints, without any inference, a “Deed of Settlement of Shakespeare's Property, 1639;" that deed contains a remarkable recital, which appears conclusive as to the position of the father as a landed proprietor. The fine for the purpose of settlement is taken upon; 1, a tenement in Blackfriars ; 2, a tenement at Acton; 3, the capital messuage of New Place; 4, the tenement in Henley Street; 5, one hundred and twenty-seven acres of land purchased of Combe ; and 6, “all other the messuages, lands, tenements and hereditaments whatsoever, situate lying and being in the towns, hamlets, villages, fields and grounds of Stratford-upon-Avon, Old Stratford, Bishopton, and Welcombe, or any of them in the said county of Warwick, which heretofore were the INHERITANCE of William Shakspere, gent., deceased.” The word inheritance could only be used in one legal sense ; they came to him by descent, as heir-at-law of his father. It would be difficult to find a more distinct confirmation of the memorandum upon the grant of arms in the Heralds' College to John Shakspere, “ he hath lands and tenements, of good wealth and substance, 500l.” The lands of Bishopton and Welcombe are in the parish of Stratford, but not in the borough. Bishopton was a hamlet, having an ancient chapel of ease. We hold, then, that in the year 1578 John Shakspere, having become more completely an agriculturist—a yeoman as he is described in a deed of 1579— ceased, for the purposes of business, to be an occupier within the borough of Stratford. Other aldermen are rated to pay towards the furniture of pikemen, billmen, and archers, six shillings and eight-pence; whilst John Shakspere is to pay three shillings and four-pence. Why less than other aldermen? The next entry but one, which relates to a brother alderman, suggests an answer to the question :* Robert Bratt, nothing IN THIS PLACE.” Again, ten months after,—“It is ordained

that every alderman shall pay weekly, towards the relief of the poor, four-pence, save John Shakspere and Robert Bratt, who shall not be taxed to pay any thing." Here John Shakspere is associated with Robert Bratt, who, according to the previous entry, was to pay nothing in this place; that is, in the borough of Stratford, to which the orders of the council alone apply. The return, in 1579, of Mr. Shakspere as leaving unpaid the sum of three shillings and three-pence, was the return upon a levy for the borough, in which, although the possessor of property, he might have ceased to reside, or have only partially resided, paying his assessments in the parish. The Borough of Stratford, and the Parish of Stratford, are essentially different things, as regards entries of the Corporation and of the Court of Record. The Report from Commissioners of Municipal Corporations says, “The limits of the borough extend over a space of about half a mile in breadth, and rather more in length * ** The mayor, recorder, and senior aldermen of the borough have also jurisdiction, as justices of the peace, over a small town or suburb adjoining the Church of Stratford-uponAvon, called Old Stratford, and over the precincts of the church itself.” We shall have oocasion to revert to this distinction between the borough and the parish, at a more advanced period in the life of Shakspere's father, when his utter ruin has been somewhat rashly inferred from certain obscure registers.

Seeing, then, that at any rate, in the year 1574, when John Shakspere purchased two freehold houses in Stratford, it was scarcely necessary for him to withdraw his son William from school, as Rowe has it, on account of the narrowness of his circumstances (the education of that school costing the father nothing), it is not difficult to believe that the son remained there till the period when boys were usually withdrawn from grammar-schools. In those days the education of the university commenced much earlier than at present. Boys intended for the learned professions, and more especially for the church, commonly went to Oxford and Cambridge at eleven or twelve years of age. If they were not intended for those professions, they probably remained at the grammar-school till they were thirteen or fourteen ; and then they were fitted for being apprenticed to tradesmen, or articled to attorneys, a numerous and thriving body in those days of cheap litigation. Many also went early to the Inns of Court, which were the universities of the law, and where there was real study and discipline in direct connection with the several Societies. To assume that William Shakspere did not stay long enough at the grammar-school of Stratford to obtain a very fair “ proficiency in Latin," with some knowledge of Greek, is to assume an absurdity upon the face of the circumstances; and it could never have been assumed at all, had not Rowe, setting out upon a false theory, that, because in the works of Shakspere “we scarce find any traces of anything that looks like an imitation of the ancients,” held that therefore “his not copying at least something from them may be an argument of his never having read them,” Opposed to this is the statement of Aubrey, much nearer to the times of Shakspere : "he understood Latin pretty well.” Rowe had been led into his illogical inference by the “small Latin and less Greek” of Jonson ; the “old mother-wit ” of Denham ; the “his learning was very little” of Fuller ; the “native wood-notes wild” of Milton,phrases, every one of which is to be taken with considerable qualification, whether we regard the peculiar characters of the utterers, or the circumstances connected with the words themselves. The question rests not upon the interpretation of the dictum of this authority or that; but upon the indisputable fact that the very earliest writings of Shakspere are imbued with a spirit of classical antiquity; and that the allusive nature of the learning that manifests itself in them, whilst it offers the best proof of his familiarity with the ancient writers, is a circumstance which has misled those who never attempted to dispute the existence of the learning which was displayed in the direct pedantry of his contemporaries. “ If,” said Hales of Eton," he had not read the classics, he had likewise not stolen from them.” Marlowe, Greene, Peele, and all the early dramatists, overload their plays with quotation and mythological allusion. According to Hales, they steal, and therefore they have read. He who uses his knowledge skilfully is assumed not to have read.

It is scarcely necessary to entertain any strong opinions as to the worldly calling of William Shakspere, between the period of his leaving the grammar-school and his occupation as a dramatic poet and actor. The internal evidence of his writings would appear to show the most intimate acquaintance with the ordinary life of a cultivator; and his own pursuits, in his occasional or complete retirement at Stratford, exhibit the same tastes. But Malone has a confident belief that upon Shakspere leaving school he was placed for two or three years in the office of one of the seven attorneys who practised in the Court of Record in Stratford. Mr. Wheler, of Stratford, having taken up the opinion many years ago, upon the suggestion of Malone, that Shakspere might have been in an attorney's office, availed himself of his opportunities as a solicitor to examine hundreds of documents of Shakspere's time, in the hope of discovering his signature. No such signature was found. Malone adds, “The comprehensive mind of our poet, it must be owned, embraced almost every object of nature, every trade, and every art, the manners of every description of men, and the general language of almost every profession : but his knowledge and application of legal terms seem to me not merely such as might have been acquired by the casual observation of his all-comprehending mind; it has the appearance of technical skill ; and he is so fond of displaying it on all occasions, that there is, I think, some ground for supposing that he was early initiated in at least the forms of the law.”* Malone then cites a number of passages exemplifying Shakspere's knowledge and application of legal terms. The theory was originally propounded by Malone in his edition of 1790 ; and it gave rise to many subsequent notes of the commentators, pointing out these technical allusions. The frequency of their occurrence, and the accuracy of their use, are, however, no proof to us that Shakspere was professionally a lawyer. There is every reason to believe that the principles of law, especially of the law of real property, were much more generally understood in those days than in our own. Educated men, chiefly those who possessed property, looked upon law as a science instead of a mystery ; and its terms were used in familiar speech instead of being regarded as a technical jargon. When Hamlet says, * This fellow might be in his time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries," he employs terms with which every gentleman was familiar, because the owner of property was often engaged in a practical acquaintance with them. This is one of the examples given by Malone. "No writer," again says Malone, “but one who had been conversant with the technical language of leases and other conveyances, would have used determination as synonymous to end." He refers to a passage in the 13th Sonnet,

“So should that beauty which you hold in lease

Find no determination.”

We may add that Coriolanus uses the verb in the same way :

“ Shall I be charg'd no further than this present?

Must all determine here?”

The word is used as a term of law, with a full knowledge of its primary meaning ; and so Shakspere uses it. The chroniclers use it in the same way. Upon the passage

* Posthumous “Life."

in the Sonnets to which we have just referred, Malone has a note, with a parallel passage from Daniel :

“In beauty's lease expir'd appears

The date of age, the calends of our death." Daniel was not a lawyer, but a scholar and a courtier. Upon the passage in

“Tell me, what state, what dignity, what honour,

Canst thou demise to any child of mine?”— Malone asks what poet but Shakspere has used the word demise in this sense ; observing that "hath demised, granted, and to farm let” is the constant language of leases. Being the constant language, a man of the world would be familiar with it. A quotation from a theologian may show this familiarity as well as one from a poet :-“I conceive it ridiculous to make the condition of an indenture something that is necessarily annexed to the possession of the demise." If Warburton had used law-terms in this logical manner, we might have recollected his early career ; but we do not learn that Hammond, the great divine from whom we quote, had any other than a theological education. We are further told, when Shallow says to Davy, in Henry IV., "Are those precepts served ? " that precepts, in this sense, is a word only known in the office of a justice of peace. Very different would it have been indeed from Shakspere's usual precision, had he put any word in the mouth of a justice of peace that was not known in his office. When the Boatswain, in “The Tempest," roars out “ Take in the topsail,” he uses a phrase that is known only on shipboard. In the passage of “Henry IV.,” Part II.,—

"For what in me was purchas'd,

Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort," it is held that purchase, being used in its strict legal sense, could be known only to a lawyer. An educated man could scarcely avoid knowing the great distinction of purchase as opposed to descent, the only two modes of acquiring real estate. This general knowledge, which it would be very remarkable if Shakspere had not acquired, involves the use of the familiar law-terms of his day, fee simple, fine and recovery, entail, remainder, escheut, mortgage. The commonest practice of the law, such as a sharp boy would have learnt in two or three casual attendances upon the Bailiff's Court at Stratford, would have familiarized Shakspere very early with the words which are held to imply considerable technical knowledge-action, bond, warrant, bill, suit, plea, arrest. It must not be forgotten that the terms of law, however they may be technically applied, belong to the habitual commerce of mankind; they are no abstract terms, but essentially deal with human acts, and interests, and thoughts : and it is thus that, without any fanciful analogies, they more readily express the feelings of those who use them with a general significancy, than any other words that the poet could apply. A writer who has carried the theory of Shakspere's professional occupation farther even than Malone, holds that the Poems are especially full of these technical terms; and he gives many instances from the “ Venus and Adonis," the “ Lucrece," and the “Sonnets,” saying, “they swarm in his poems even to deformity."* Surely, when we read those exquisite lines,

“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past," — we think of anything else than the judge and the crier of the court; and yet this is one of the examples produced in proof of this theory. Dryden's noble use of

* Brown's “Autobiographical Poems,” &c.

« PreviousContinue »