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F the personal history of Shakspere—the greatest genius, beyond
doubt or cavil, that ever the world produced — little now
The public of his time had no curiosity on the subject, or the writers of his time had no anxiety to collect or yield information, regarding him; and he himself — beyond, even,
"That last infirmity of noble minds,"
the desire of fame-did not think it worth while to place materials for his own history on record; or, secure of such immortality as earth can bestow, was content that we should track him into the depths and recesses of his being, by the light of his genius alone. What he did, or thought, or suffered, in his own individual person, is now mere matter for ingenious conjecture. We are sure that his mind was vast, liberal, compassionate, generous ;—that he saw human nature on every side, detecting it in its many masks and changes ;—that he penetrated into the innermost mysteries of man; that
“ From this bank and shoal of time"
his intellect soared upwards, and held commerce with the stars; with our dim “Hereafter;" and with worlds and agencies beyond our own; and knowing all this, our curiosity as to the possessor
of faculties so varied and wonderful, and our consequent disappointment on being baffled at every point of inquiry, becomes proportionably great.
It is not the least singular of the causes which have cast obscurity upon the life of Shakspere, that so much public apathy should have existed amongst his cotemporaries. 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.