« PreviousContinue »
WILLIAM SH A KS PEARE,
REMARKS UPON HIS DRAMATIC WRITINGS.
LITTLE more than two centuries has elapsed since William Shakspeare conversed with our tongue, and trod the self-same soil with ourselves; and if it were not for the records kept by our Church in its registers of births, marriages, and burials, we should at this moment be as personally ignorant of the "sweet swan of Avon" as we are of the old minstrel and rhapsodist of Meles. That William Shakspeare was born in Stratford upon Avon; that he married and had three children ; that he wrote a certain number of dramas; that he died before he had attained to old age, buried in his native town,-are positively the only facts, in the personal history of this extraordinary man, of which we are certainly possessed ; and, if we should be solicitous to fill up this bare and most unsatisfactory outline, we must have recourse to the vague reports of unsubstantial tradition, or to the still more shadowy inferences of lawless and vagabond conjecture. Of this remarkable ignorance of one of the most richly endowed with intellect of the human species, who ran his mortal race in our own country, and who stands separated from us by no very great intervention of time, the causes may not be difficult to be ascertained. William Shakspeare was an actor and a writer of plays; in neither of which characters, however he might excel in them, could he be lifted high in the estimation of his contemporaries. He was honored, indeed, with the friendship of nobles and the patronage of monarchs: his
theatre was frequented by the wits of the metropolis; and he associated with the most intellectual of his times. But the spirit of the age was against him; and, in opposition to it, he could not become the subject of any general or comprehensive interest. The nation, in short, knew little and cared less about him. During his life, and for some years after his death, inferior dramatists outran him in the race of popularity; and then the flood of Puritan fanaticism swept him and the stage together into temporary oblivion. On the restoration of the monarchy and the theatre, the school of France perverted our taste ; and it was not till the last century was
; somewhat advanced, that William Shakspeare arose again, as it were, from the tomb, in all his proper majesty of light. He then became the subject of solicitous and learned inquiry; but inquiry was then too late; and all that it could recover from the ravage of time were only a few human fragments, which could scarcely be united into a man. To these causes of our personal ignorance of the great bard of England must be added his own strange indifference to the celebrity of genius. When he had produced his admirable works, ignorant or heedless of their value, he abandoned them with perfect indifference to oblivion or to fame. It surpassed his thought that he could grow into the admiration of the world ; and, without any reference to the curiosity of future ages, in which he could not conceive himself to possess an interest, he was contented to die in the arms of obscurity, as an unlaureled burgher of a provincial town. To this combination of causes are we to attribute the scantiness of our materials for the Life of William Shakspeare. His works are in myriads of hands : he constitutes the delight of myriads of readers: his renown is coexiensive with the civilization of man; and, striding across the ocean from Europe, it occupies the wide region of transatlantic empire: but he is himself only a shadow which disappoints our grasp; an undefined form, which is rather intimated than discovered to the keenest searchings of our eye. Of the little, however, questionable or certain, which can be told of him, we must now proceed to make the best use in our power, to write what by courtesy may be called his life; and we have only to lament that the result of our labor must greatly disappoint the curiosity which has been excited by the grandeur of his reputation. The slight narrative of Rowe, founded 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 Codnore. 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. 1.
-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, it 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.