« PreviousContinue »
cestors also had been rewarded for their faithful and iinportant services by the gratitude of Henry the Seventh. The third child, and the eldest son of this union, was the celebrated subject of the present memoirs.
WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE was born on the 23d of April, 1564, and baptized on the 26th of the same month.
At the time of the birth of his illustrious offspring, John Shakspeare evidently enjoyed no slight degree of estimation among his townsmen. He was already a member of the corporation, and for two successive years had been nominated one of the chamberlains of Stratford. From this time he began to be chosen in due succession to the highest municipal offices of the borough. In 1569, he was appointed to discharge the important duties ef high bailiff; and was subsequently elected and sworn chief alderman for the year 1571.
During this period of his life, which constitutes the poet's years of childhood, the fortune of Master John Shakspeare for so he is uniformly designated in the public writings of the borough, from the time of his acting as high. bailiff - perfectly corresponded with the station which we find him holding among his townsmen. His charities rank him with the second class of the inhabitants of Stratford. In a subscription for the relief of the poor, 1564, out of twenty-four persons, twelve gave more, six the same, and six less, than the poet's father; and in a second subscription, of fourteen persons, eight gave more, five the same, and one less. So early as 1556, he held the lease of two houses in the town, one in Green Hill, and the other in Henley street; in 1570 he rented fourteen acres of land, called Ington Meadow; and we find him four years afterwards becoming the purchaser of two additional houses in Henley street, with a garden and orchard attached to each.
In this season of prosperity, Mr. John Shakspeare was not careless of the abilities of his child. His own talents had been wholly unimproved by education, and he was one of the twelve, out of the nineteen alderman of Stratford, whose accomplishments did not extend to being able to sign their own names. This circumstance, by the bye, most satisfacto. rily establishes the fact, that he could not have written the
confession of faith which was found in repairing the roof of his residence at Stratford. But, whatever were his own deficiencies, he was careful that the talents of his son should not suffer from a similar neglect of education. William was placed at the Free School of Stratford : it is not uninteresting to know the names of the instructors of Shakspeare. They have been traced by the minute researches of Malone. Mr. Thomas Hunt, and Mr. Thomas Jenkins, were successively the masters of the school, from 1572 to '1580, which must have included the school-boy days of our poet.
At this time, Shakspeare would have possessed ample means of obtaining access to all those books of history, poetry, and romance, with which he seems to have had so intimate an acquaintance, and which were calculated to attract his early taste, and excite the admiration of his young and ardent fancy; and he might also thus early have become imbued with a taste for the drama, by attending the performances of the different companies of players, the comedians of the Queen, of the Earl of Worcester, of Lord Leicester, and of other noblemen, who were continually making the Guildhall of Stratford the scene of their representations. But he was soon called to other cares, and the discharge of more serious duties. The prosperity of his father was not of permanent duration. In 1578, Mr. John Shakspeare mortgaged the estate which he had received from his wife ; in the following year he was exempted from the contribution of four-pence a week for the poor, which was paid by the other aldermen; and that this exception in his favor was made in consequence of the pecuniary embarrassments under which he was known to labor, is manifest from his having been at the same period reduced to the necessity of obtaining Mr. Lambert's security for the payment of a debt of five pounds, to Sadler, a baker. This depression of his circumstances is alluded to by Rowe, and attributed to the expenses incidental to a large and increasing family; but in this statement, the real cause of his difficulties is mistaken. It has been ascertained, by the diligence of Malone, that the family of Shakspeare's father was by no means numerous ; for of his eight children, five only attained to the age of maturity. The decay of his affairs was the natural consequence of the de cline of the branch of trade in which he was engaged. As a wool-stapler, Mr. John Shakspeare had flourished as long as the business itself was prosperous; and with its failure, his fortunes had fallen into decay. He became involved in the gradual ruin which fell on the principal trade of the place, and which, in 1590, drew from the bailiff and burgesses of Stratford, a supplication to the Lord Treasurer Burghley, lamenting the distresses of the town; “for want of such trade as heretofore: they had by clothinge, and making of yarne, ymploying and mayntayninge a number of poore people by the same, which now live in great penury and miserie, by reason they are not set at worke, as before they have been.”
In this unfavorable state of the affairs of his family, Shakspeare was withdrawn from school; “his assistance was wanted at home.” It was, I should imagine, at this juncture, that his father, no longer able to secure a respectable subsistence for his wife and children, by his original trade as a wool-stapler, had recourse to the inferior occupation of a butcher; and, if the tale be founded in fact, which Aubrey says “he was told heretofore by some of his neighbours," then it must have been, that Shakspeare began to exhibit his dramatic propensities, and “when he killed a calfe, would do it in a high style, and make a speech."
The assistance, however, which the poet rendered his father in his business, was not of long duration. He had just attained the age of eighteen, when he was married. The object of this early attachment was Anne, the daughter of Richard Hathaway, a substantial yeoman, in the neighbor ood of his native town. She was eight years older than her husband; and Oldys, without stating his authority, in one of his MSS. mentions her as beautiful. It may be feared that this marriage was not perfectly happy. From the celebrated passage in Twelfth Night, concluding with
“ Then let thy love be younger than thyself,
we may suspect that Shakspeare, at the time of writing this,
which was probably his last play, had lived to repent his too early marriage, and the indulgence of an affection so much "misgrafted in respect of years.” Such is the conjecture of Malone; but it is hardly fair to apply personally to the poet the general maxims that may be discovered in his works. His daughter Susanna was born in the following year. The parish register of Stratford informs us that within eighteen months afterwards his wife bore twins, a son and daughter, who were baptized by the names of Hamet and Judith: and thus, when little more than twenty, Shakspeare had already a wife and three children dependent on his exertions for support.
Malone supposes that our author was at this time employed in an attorney's office, and gives a long list of quotations from his works, whieh show how familiarly he was acquainted with the terms and the usages of the law, in support of his conjecture. As there are no other grounds for entertaining such a supposition; as testimony of the same nature, and equally strong, might be adduced to prove that Shakspeare was a member of almost every other trade or profession, for he was ignorant of none; and as the legal knowledge which he displays might easily have been caught up in conversation, or indeed from experience in the quirks and technicalities of the law, during the course of his own and his father's difficulties; I have little hesitation in classing this among the many ingenious but unsound conjectures of the learned editor, and adopting the tradition of Aubrey respecting the avocation of this portion of his life. To satisfy the claims that were multiplying around him, Shakspeare endeavored to draw upon his talents and acquirements as the source of his supplies, and undertook the instruction of children.
The portion of classical knowledge that he brought to the task, has given occasion for much controversy, which it is now impossible to determine. The school at which he was educated, produced several individuals, among the contemporaries of our great poet, who were not deficient in learning; and though he was prematurely withdrawn from their comprnionship, it would be difficult to believe, that with his
quickness of apprehension, he could have mingled for any considerable time in their course of study, without attaining a proportionate share of their information. “He understood Latin pretty well,” says Aubrey; and this account corresponds exactly with the description of his friend Ben Jonson, who speaks of him as one possessed “of little Latin and less Greek.” Dr. Farmer, indeed, has proved, that translations of all the classics to which Shakspeare has referred, were already in circulation before he wrote; and that in most of his allusions to Greek and Latin authors, evident traces are discoverable of his having consulted the translation instead of the original. But this fact establishes very little: it might have proceeded from indolence, or from the haste of composition, urging him to the readiest sources of information, rather than from any incapacity of availing himself of those which were more pure, but less accessible. That he should appear unlearned in the judgment of Jonson, who, perhaps, measured him by the scale of his own enormous erudition, is no imputation on his classical attainments. A man may have made great advances in the knowledge of the dead languages, and yet be esteemed as having "little Latin and less Greek," by one who has reached those heights of scholarship, which the friend and companion of Shakspeare had achieved. It is a proof that his acquirements in the classic languages were considerable, or Jonson would scarcely have deemed them of sufficient value to be at all numbered among his qualifications. As to French, it is certain he did not deal with translations only; for the last line of one of his most celebrated speeches, the Seven Ages of Man, in As you like it, is imitated from a poem called the Henriade, which was first published in 1594, in France, and never translated. Garnier, the author of it, is describing the appearance of the ghost of Admiral Coligny, on the night after his murder, at the massacre of St. Bartholomew, and introduces the follow ing passage:
Sans pieds, sans mains, sans nez, sans oreilles, sans yeut,
Meurtri de toutes parts. The verse of Shakspeare,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing,