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History, indeed, which has hitherto dealt in generals, or has laboured only to rescue from oblivion the lives of conquerors and kings, forbore, as was to be expected, from recording the birth or death of a poet, humbly born, and distinguished by no other crown than a wreath of unfading laurel: but that the man of whose writings "rare Ben Jonson" had said that they were such
"As neither man nor Muse can praise too much;"
whom he addressed as "Soul of the Age," celebrating him above
"All that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
and predicting, in just and memorable verse, that
"He was not of an age, but-FOR ALL TIME!"
—that he should have eluded all research, or should not have stimulated some one of his co-evals to give forth to the world what could then have readily been collected respecting him, requires still to be explained. He was admitted, in his own time, to be the first dramatist of his country; and there can be no question but that he was so. That Fletcher, Beaumont, or other playwrights, may, during an interval of fashion or popular caprice, have been greater favourites, is probable enough. It is possible, even, that some critics (now forgotten) may have preferred inferior writers. But no other poet or dramatist of our country could, even for a moment, put forth such substantial claims to enduring fame, as seem to have been allowed, by the general voice, to Shakspere. Ben Jonson, the only dramatist who could compete with him, frankly and wisely yields the precedency; and to oppose any other writer, however respectable in his way or extolled in his age, would be, to the last degree, absurd and hopeless.
How is it that no letters of Shakspere, no memoranda respecting him, or his transactions with the theatres, or with his brother actors, should have escaped? It is true that the fire, which occurred in 1613, may have consumed his papers relating to the theatres, when it consumed his playhouse The Globe. But one must still marvel that a writer on whom so many elegies were showered, and whose reputation was such that, in 1623, a monument was erected to his memory in his native town, should have passed away with so little of contemporaneous record or comment. Several persons, including Betterton, the famous actor, visited Stratford during the seventeenth century, and made inquiries respecting Shakspere; one of them interrogating an ancient inhabitant of that town, who was himself born about the time of Shakspere's death; but neither history nor tradition had furnished him with more than one or two circumstances, and even these are encountered by opposite statements. Under all these difficulties, nothing remains but to take some things upon trust.
Without submitting to the reader, therefore, in minute detail, the reasons that induce me to prefer one hypothesis to another, and to accept one and reject another statement, I shall take leave to adopt silently those only which appear to me to approach nearest to the truth. It would be painful, indeed, if, from too fastidious a scepticism, we were to deprive ourselves or others of the pleasure of supposing that we know something, at least, of our great poet's origin.
To obtain strict legal proof of the birth or parentage of Shakspere is now, apparently, beyond the power of research. His identity with the "William the son of John Shakspere," who was baptised in 1564, has not, I imagine, been completely established. Sufficient is known, however, to induce a belief that the ordinary accounts of his parentage and birth are well-founded.
WILLIAM SHAKSPERE, then, was baptised on the 26th of April, 1564. The words "Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere," are on that day entered on the baptismal register, of the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire. The John Shakspere, from whom this great "son" descended, was apparently a person of some property and importance at Stratford, and traded as a glover or dealer in wool.
Of the ancestry of John Shakspere it is impossible to speak with any certainty; but it is known that he himself arrived at the dignity of bailiff of Stratford; that the title of "Master" was prefixed to his name, and that he married a lady of good family. The mother of our dramatist bore, before her marriage with John Shakspere, the name of Mary Arden. She was the daughter of Robert Arden (a gentleman possessing a landed estate at Willingcote, or Wylnecote, in Warwickshire), whose father was groom of the chamber to King Henry VII. A Sir John Arden, who held some office of honour near the person of the same sovereign, was the uncle of her before-mentioned grandfather, and also son of one Eleanor Hampden, of Buckinghamshire; who, herself, was a member of the family from which the illustrious patriot John Hampden afterwards descended.
Under the will of Robert Arden, which bears date the 24th of November, 1556, his daughter Mary derived considerable property in money and land. This happened, in all probability, before her marriage with John Shakspere, inasmuch as she is described in the will merely as "my youngest daughter Mary," without any additional distinction.
To this marriage between John Shakspere and Mary Arden (a gentle name, as it has been truly called), we owe the birth of our great poet. He was born in, or shortly previous to, the month of April, 1564, and, with all his family, providentially escaped the plague, which broke out soon afterwards in the town of Stratford, and committed extensive ravages amongst the inhabitants of the place.
In 1568, John Shakspere became bailiff of Stratford. In 1569, he obtained a grant of arms from Robert Cooke, the Clarencieux of the time; and this (having been lost) was confirmed by Dethick, Garter-King-at-Arms, and Camden (then Clarencieux), in 1599. All these things speak for the respectability of position occupied by our poet's father; and the circumstance of his mortgaging his wife's estate, in the interval between the two grants (1578), seems to detract little or nothing from such an inference.
The arms thus granted had reference to the family name, Shakspere; and appear, indeed, rather to have been confirmed than to have originated in the grant of 1569: for the preamble to the license of 1599, which describes John Shakspere as a "gentleman" of Stratford, refers also to his "parent and great-grandfather" as having done “faithful and approved service" to King Henry VII.; and assigns that circumstance, together with his marriage with the daughter, and one of the heirs, of Robert Arden, and his production of "this his ancient coat of arms," as so many reasons for the grant. Thenceforward, the arms of Shakspere—“Gould, on a bend sable; and a speare of the first, the point steeled, proper,”—were quartered with the arms of Arden.
Beyond this, the paternal ancestry of Shakspere is unknown. There is little doubt, however, but that he had a martial origin. The name shews that it was, in the first
instance, won and worn by an able soldier; perhaps by some obscure hero, who perilled his life, in field or foray, for a king or chieftain now as obscure as himself; one of the many millions who have had courage, skill, and fidelity, for their portion; but, wanting an historian, have sunk, without mark, into the oblivious abysses of Time.
In 1574, some houses in Henley-street, Stratford, were purchased by John Shakspere; and in 1578, he mortgaged his wife's estate, as has been stated. It seems that the mortgagee was let into possession of the land; for, about twenty years afterwards, a suit in equity was instituted by John Shakspere, for redemption or recovery of the mortgaged property. This mortgage has been adduced as presumptive proof of the distress of Shakspere's father, and, thence, of the probability of a want of education in his son. To persons acquainted with transactions of this nature, nothing can seem more rash than such conclusions, drawn from such imperfect premises. The purchase of houses, in 1574, denotes-if it denotes anything-a superfluity of money in the purchaser-money that, probably, was not then required for the purposes of his trade: and the mortgage, in 1578, shews that the money, which was invested four years before, was again wanted. But, as the houses were retained, and descended, with the other landed estate, to his son, it seems quite unlikely that he should have been seriously impoverished. As to the allegations by John Shakspere (in the suit) of his own poverty, and of the frauds practised by the person to whom he mortgaged his wife's estate, they may be classed amongst the many fictions of the law. If all the allegations contained in bills in equity were to be taken for granted, the defendants (who, according to the plaintiffs' statements, are always in the wrong), would present such a body of fraud, conspiracy, and oppression, as never was equalled in any civilised country.
To reconcile all the doings of the person or persons bearing the name of John Shakspere with each other-for there were several John Shaksperes at Stratford—would be a difficult task, and, as it appears to me, an unnecessary one. It is safer to proceed upon facts which, to use a species of pleonasm, are well authenticated. It is certain that John Shakspere, the poet's father, was a person holding a respectable position in society; that he married the daughter of an ancient house; that he was himself entitled to a coat of arms, acquired originally by services to the country; that with his wife he obtained a landed estate; that he purchased other landed property out of his own money; that he rose to such dignities as his native town offered; and, finally, that the estates which he purchased and acquired by marriage became, after his death, the property of his son. It is impossible, in the face of these facts, to argue, with any chance of success, that he was a pauper or insolvent. Both fact and probability weigh strongly against such a presumption. It is more wise, I think, to dismiss the little anecdotes and authorities which have been urged against the solvency of John Shakspere, as things which applied to another person of his name; or, if any of them applied to him, that they could not have shaken his station in life, or have affected him, otherwise than for a short time, and then in a very trivial degree.
There can be small doubt but that our poet had as good an education as the town of Stratford afforded; and that the learning or accomplishments, in Latin and otherwise, which tradesmen in Stratford possessed, and which they bestowed upon their children, were not withheld from William Shakspere. It has been ascertained, that the intercourse
between children and their parents (aldermen or tradesmen of Stratford), and also between some of the tradesmen themselves, on matters of business, was occasionally carried on by Latin letters and communications. Is it in the least likely, that Shakspere, the son of the principal officer of the town, and the inheritor of a valuable estate, should be wanting in an equal amount of learning? Is it possible that, with the same opportunities, the author of "TROILUS AND CRESSIDA," of "ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA," of "JULIUS CESAR," of "CORIOLANUS," should have passed his youth in sloth and unlettered ignorance? To come to such an opinion, we must suppose that the eager aptitude of the man had never disclosed itself in the boy; and, in effect, that the great genius of Shakspere had never felt the restlessness or impulses which are an integral part of genius, but had slumbered in utter idleness throughout the whole interval of boyhood. Ben Jonson's reference to his "little Latin and less Greek," shews that he knew both Latin and Greek; and so far as it is disparaging, must be understood to speak by way of comparison, between the mere word-learning of Shakspere, and that of himself (Jonson) and other ripe scholars of the time. In all that was essential, whether it related to the people of Rome or Greece, Shakspere undoubtedly knew infinitely more than "rare Ben Jonson" himself, or probably any of his cotemporaries.
Leaving the question of our poet's education and learning to be canvassed by the more curious, I proceed, and find that, towards the close of the year 1582, being then about eighteen years and seven months old, he intermarried with Ann Hathaway, a "maiden of Stratford," who, if the inscription on her tomb be correct, was his elder by eight years. Soon after the marriage, namely, on the 26th of May, 1583, Susanna, their eldest child, was baptised; and on the 2nd of February, 1585, their son and daughter, Hamnet and Judith. It appears by the register that Hamnet was buried on the 11th of August, 1596, and thereupon Susanna and Judith, the poet's two daughters, became his
Susanna, the eldest child of Shakspere, married John Hall, gentleman (who was a physician of Stratford), on the 5th of June, 1607, she being then thirty-four years of age; and Judith, the younger daughter, married Thomas Queeny on the 10th of February, 1616, about two months only before the death of her father. The wife of Shakspere, as it is supposed, survived him; for on the 6th of August, 1623, there appears on the register the burial of "Mrs. Shakspere, widow," who must then have been sixty-seven years old, her illustrious husband dying at the early age of fifty-two. His will, a copy of which follows this introductory essay, appears to have been made about a month after his daughter Judith's marriage, and to have preceded by a month only his own death; the approach of which, in all probability, then became visible to him.
It does not appear that the poet's youngest daughter left any issue; but there was one child of Susanna, named Elizabeth, who married Thomas Nash, Esq., and who herself had a daughter, afterwards the wife of Sir Reginald Forster; from which last-mentioned marriage there appears to have been a descent through two generations. The family of Shakspere, however, in the lineal direction, is now extinct.
Various conjectures have been formed as to the mode in which Shakspere was employed, previously and subsequently to his marriage; as to how he was enabled to maintain his wife and children; as to the motives that induced him to quit Stratford for London, and other circumstances very desirable to know; but all which have hitherto been diligently
sought for in vain. He may have been a schoolmaster or scrivener, as has been suggested; but I shall not add to the many ingenious hypotheses that have been started, by any idle speculations of my own. It is clear that it was his destiny. Whether impelled, outwardly or ostensibly, by the persecution of others, or by his own misfortunes or discontent, is an inquiry not very important. It was his destiny; the inner call of his genius, which bade him seek its proper development; which drew him, by its mysterious influence, from the solitudes where Nature is dumb, into the teeming city,-into those crowds and throng of men from whom he learned so much; and to whom, and to whose posterity, he taught all that we see written down in that volume which has no likeness, called, "THE WORKS OF SHAKSPERE."
The story of the deer-stealing, and of the prosecution of our poet by Sir Thomas Lucy, rests on too uncertain a foundation to render it necessary to do more than simply advert to it. That he may have taken part in any of the ordinary frolics of the time, is likely enough; but whether that was the cause which "drove" him to London, or whether, in fact, he was driven there at all, is beyond the power of any one at present to certify. It is generally thought that Shakspere quitted Warwickshire for London about 1586 or 1587; but in 1589 he was one of the proprietors of the Blackfriars Theatre, a fact that seems to indicate an earlier arrival in the metropolis than is usually supposed. It is not very probable that a youth who left Stratford in 1587 (whether to evade the pursuit of justice or not, but at all events) with small or no pecuniary resources, and with the burthen of a wife and children upon him, should, in the space of about a couple of years, become a joint proprietor of one of the principal theatres in London.
His position at the theatre, as proprietor, in 1589, therefore, seems to indicate that he must then have been a considerable period in London; and not only this, but also that he must then have been, for a considerable time, a writer for the stage. What, in fact, could have renovated his fortunes, and raised him to the dignity of proprietor, but the aid that he had given to the drama? His earliest work, according to his own account “the first heir of his invention," was the poem of "VENUS AND ADONIS." That was printed for the first time in 1593: but he was then the friend of Lord Southampton, who was the friend of genius. How had he manifested his genius and acquired this friendship, which did both so much honour, before 1593, unless by the dramas which he had without doubt at that time created? The fact of there having been none of his plays in print at that period proves nothing. There is, according to the opinion of critics, an evident and a very invidious allusion to him, as actor and dramatist, in Robert Green's "GROATSWORTH OF WIT," written in or before the year 1592; so that he was then well known as a writer of plays. The omission of Shakspere's name in Harrington's "APOLOGIE FOR POETRY," published in 1590-1, proves, not that Shakspere had not then written, but simply that Harrington either preferred the plays of Lord Buckhurst and others, or that he was unaware of the dramas of Shakspere, or of their merit. If the plays of our author were not (as they appear not to have been) in print at that period, the fact of Harrington having omitted to speak of the excellence of works that he had had no opportunity of reading, seems to be sufficiently accounted for.
On the arrival of Shakspere in London, it is generally supposed that he resorted to the stage for employment; commencing, probably, as actor, for it is certain that he was an actor during part of his sojourn; and producing afterwards, from time to time, his marvellous plays.