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UR long travail is almost at an end. We
at various periods of his life, and at full length in twenty dramas, as the gentle, sensuous poet-thinker. We have studied him when given over to wild passion in the sonnets and elsewhere, and to insane jealousy in “Othello”; we have seen him as Hamlet brooding on revenge and self-murder, and in “ Lear,” and “ Timon” raging on the verge of madness, and in these ecstasies, when the soul is incapable of feigning, we have discovered his true nature as it differed from the ideal presentments which his vanity shaped and coloured. We have corrected his personal estimate by that “story of faults conceald” which Shakespeare himself referred to in sonnet 88. It only remains for me now to give a brief account of his life and the incidents of it to show that my reading of his character is borne out by the known facts, and thus put the man in his proper setting, so to speak.
On the other hand, our knowledge of Shakespeare's character will help us to reconstruct his life-story. What is known positively of his life could be given in a couple of pages; but there are traditions of him, tales about him, innumerable scraps of fact and fiction concerning him which
more or less interesting and authentic; and now that we know the man, we shall be able to
accept or reject these reports with some degree of confidence, and so arrive at a credible picture of his life's journey, and the changes which Time wrought in him. In all I may say about him I shall keep close to the facts as given in his works. When tradition seems consonant with what Shakespeare has told us about himself, or with what Ben Jonson said of him, I shall use it with confidence.
Shakespeare was a common name in Warwickshire; other Shakespeares besides the poet's family were known there in the sixteenth century, and at least one other William Shakespeare in the neighbourhood of Stratford. The poet's father, John Shakespeare, was of farmer stock, and seems have had an adventurous spirit: he left Snitterfield, his birthplace, as a young man, for the neighbouring town of Stratford, where he set up in business for himself. Aubrey says he was a butcher; he certainly dealt in meat, skins, and leather, as well as in corn, wool, and malt-an adaptable, quick man, who turned his hand to anything—a Jack-of-all trades. He appears to have been successful at first, for in 1556, five years after coming to Stratford, he purchased two freehold tenements, one with a garden in Henley Street, and the other in Greenhill Street, with an orchard. In 1557 he was elected burgess, or town councillor, and shortly afterwards did the best stroke of business in his life by marrying Mary Arden, whose father had been a substantial farmer. Mary inherited the fee simple of Asbies, a house with some fifty acres of land at Wilmcote, and an interest in property at Snitterfield; the whole perhaps worth some £80 or £90, or, say, £600 of our money. His marriage turned John Shakespeare into a well-to-do citizen; he filled various offices in the borough, and in 1568 became a bailiff, the highest position in the
corporation. During his year of office, we are told, he entertained two companies of actors at Stratford.
Mary Arden seems to have been her father's favourite child, and though she could not sign her own name, must have possessed rare qualities; for the poet, as we learn from “ Coriolanus,” held her in extraordinary esteem and affection, and mourned her after her death as 66 the noblest mother in the world.”
William Shakespeare, the first son and third child of this couple, was born on the 22nd or 23rd April, 1564, no one knows which day; the Stratford parish registers prove that he was baptized on 26th April. And if the date of his birth is not known, neither is the place of it; his father owned two houses in Henley Street, and it is uncertain which he was born in.
John Shakespeare had, fortunately, nothing to pay for the education of his sons. They had free tuition at the Grammar School at Stratford. The poet went to school when he was seven or eight years of age, and received an ordinary education together with some grounding in Latin. He probably spent most of his time at first making stories out of the frescoes on the walls. There can be no doubt that he learned easily all he was taught, and still less doubt that he was not taught much. He mastered Lyly's “ Latin Grammar," and was taken through some conversation books like the “ Sententiae Pueriles," and not much further, for he puts Latin phrases in the mouth of the schoolmasters, Holofernes in “Love's Labour's Lost," and Hugh Evans in “ The Merry Wives of Windsor," and all these phrases are taken word for word either from Lyly's Grammar or from the Sententiae Pueriles.” In “Titus Andronicus," too, one of Tamora's sons, on reading a Latin couplet, says it
is a verse of Horace, but he “ read it in the grammar,” which was probably the author's case. Ben Jonson's sneer was well-founded, Shakespeare had “ little Latine and lesse Greeke." His French, as shown in his “ Henry V.,” was anything but good, and his Italian was probably still slighter.
It was lucky for Shakespeare that his father's increasing poverty withdrew him from school early, and forced him into contact with life. Aubrey says that “ when he was a boy he exercised his father's trade [of butcher] ; but when he kill'd a calfe he would doe it in high style and make a speech.” I daresay young Will flourished about with a knife and made romantic speeches; but I am pretty sure he never killed a calf. Killing a calf is not the easiest part of a butcher's business; nor a task which Shakespeare at any time would have selected. The tradition is simply sufficient to prove that the town folk had already noticed the eager, quick, spouting lad.
Of Shakespeare's life after he left school, say from thirteen to eighteen, we know almost nothing. He probably did odd jobs for his father from time to time; but his father's business seems to have run rapidly from bad to worse; for in 1586 a creditor informed the local Court that John Shakespeare had no goods on which distraint could be levied, and on 6th September of the same year he was deprived of his alderman's gown. During this period of steadily increasing poverty in the house it was only to be expected that young Will Shakespeare would run wild.
The tradition as given by Rowe says that he fell“ into low company, and amongst them some that made a frequent practice of deer-stealing engaged him with them more than once in robbing the park of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman, as he then thought somewhat too severely, and in order to revenge that ill-usage he made a ballad upon him.”
Another story has it that Sir Thomas Lucy got a lawyer from Warwick to prosecute the boys, and that Shakespeare stuck his satirical ballad to the park gates at Charlecot. The ballad is said to have been lost, but certain verses were preserved which fit the circumstances and suit Shakespeare's character so perfectly that I for one am content to accept them. I give the first and the last verses as most characteristic:
“A parliament member, a Justice of peace,
He thinks himself greate
Yet an asse in his state,
“If a juvenile frolick he cannot forgive,
He thinks himself greate
Yet an asse in his state,
The last verse, so out of keeping in its curious