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SKETCH OF THE POET'S LIFE.
Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, April 26th, 1564. The day of his birth is not positively known, but the general custom then was to baptise infants at three days old, and the custom is justly presumeit to have been followed in this instance. Accordingly the 231 of April is agreed upon every where throughout the English-speaking world as the Poet's birthday, and is often celebrated as such with appropriate festivities. His father was John Shakespeare, a well-reputed citizen of Stratford, who held, successively, various local offices, closing with those of Mayor of the town and Head-Alderman. His mother was Mary, youngest daughter of Robert Arden, a man of good landed estate, who lived at Wilmecote, some three miles from Stratford.
Nothing further is directly known of Shakespeare till his marriage, which took place in November, 1582, when he was in his nineteenth year. The bride was Anne, daughter of Richard Hatlaway, a yeoman living at Shottery, which was a village near Stratford, and belonging to the same parish. The date of her baptism is not known; but the baptismal register of Stratford did not begin till 1558. She died August 6th, 1623, and the inscription on her monument gives her age as sixty-seven years; so that her birth must have been in 1556, some eight years before that of her husband. Their first child, Susanna, was baptised May 26th, 1583. Two more children, twins, were christened Hamnet and Judith, on the 2d of February, 1585, the Poet then being nearly twenty-one years old.
We have no certain knowledge as to when or why Shakespeare became an actor. At the last-named date, his father, after some years of thrift, had evidently suffered a considerable decline of fortune. Perhaps this was one reason of his leaving Stratford. Another reason may have been, that, as tradition gives it, he engaged, along with others, in a rather wild poaching frolic on the grounds of Sir Thomas Lucy, who owned a large estate not far from Stratford; which act Sir Thomas resented so sharply, that Shakespeare thought it best to quit the place and go to London. But the Drama was then a great and rising institution in England, and of course the dramatic interest had its centre in the metropolis. There were various companies of players in London, who used, at certain seasons, to go about the country, and perform in towns and villages. Stratford was often visited by such companies during the Poet's boyhood, and some of the players appear to have been natives of that section. In particular, the company that he afterwards belonged to performed there repeatedly while he was just about the right age to catch the spirit from them.
Shakespeare probably left Stratford in 1586 or thereabouts. Be that as it may, the next positive information we have of him is from a pamphlet written in 1592 by Robert Greene, a poor profligate who was then dying from the effects of his vices. Greene, who had himself written a good deal for the stage, there squibs someone as being, “in his own conceit, the only Shake-scene in a country.” There is no doubt that this refers to Shakespeare; and some of the terms applied to the Shuke-scene clearly infer that the Poet was already
getting to be well known as a writer of plays. After Greene's death, his pamphlet was given to the public by one Henry Chettle, who, on being remonstrated with by the persons assailed, published an apology, in which he expresses regret for the attack on Shakespeare, adding, “ because myself have seen his demeanour no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes ; besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art.”
Our next authentic notice of Shakespeare is by the publication of his Venus and Adonis, in 1593. This poem was dedicated to Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton, who was among the finest young noblemen of that time; and the language of the dedication is such as the Poet would hardly have used but to a warm personal friend. The following year, 1594, he published his Lucrece, dedicating it to the same nobleman, in still warmer terms of address, and indirectly acknowledging important obligations to him. The same year Spenser wrote his Colin Clout's Come Home again, in which we have the following, clearly referring to Shakespeare:
“And there, though last not least, is Ætion :
A gentler Shepherd may nowhere be found,
Doth like himself heroically sound.”
“In each of which he seems to shake a lance,
As brandish'd at the eyes of Ignorance.' All which may suffice to show that the Poet was not long in making his way to the favourable regards of some whose good opinion was most to be desired, and whose respect was a strong pledge both of recognized genius and personal worth in the object of it. It is to be noted, however, that the forecited marks of consideration were paid to him altogether as an author, and not as an actor. As an actor it does not appear that he was ever much distinguished; though some of the parts which tradition reports him to have sustained would naturally infer him to have been at least respectable in that capacity. But it must have been early evident that his gift looked in another direction; and his associates could not bave been long in finding his services most useful in the work for which he was specially gifted.
The dramatic company of which Shakespeare was a member were known as the Lord Chamberlain's Servants." Richard Burbage, the greatest actor of the time, was a member of the same. The company had for some years owned and occupied what was called the Blackfriars Theatre. This building did not afford accommodation enough for their business. So, in December, 1593, the company went about building the Globe Theatre, in which Shakespeare is known to have been a considerable owner. And the obligations which I have spoken of his being under to Southampton were probably on account of some generous aid which this nobleman rendered him towards that enterprise. Tradition tells us that the Earl gave him a thousand pounds for the occasion. As this would be nearly equivalent to $30, 000 in our time, we may well stick at the alleged amount of the gift; but the Earl's approved liberality in such matters renders even that sum not incredible, and assures us, at all events, that the present must have been something decidedly handsome; though, to be sure, tradition may have overdrawn the amount.
It does not appear that the Poet at any time had his family with
him in London. But it is very evident that his thoughts were a good deal with them at Stratford; for he is soon found saving up money from his London business, and investing it in lands and houses in his native town. The parish register of Stratford notes the death of his only son Hamnet, then in his twelfth year, on the 11th of August, 1596. So far as is known, he never had any children but the three already mentioned.
In the Spring of 1597, he bought of William Underhill the estab lishment called “ New Place,” and described as consisting of “one messuage, two barns and two gardens.” This was one of the best dwell. ing-houses in Stratford, and was situate in one of the best parts of the town. From that time forward we have many similar tokens of his thrift, which I must not stay to note in detail. Suffice it to say that for several years he continued to make frequent investments in Stratford and the neighbourhood ; thus justifying the statement of Rowe, that“ he had the good fortune to gather an estate equal to his occasions ;” and that “ the latter part of his life was spent, as all men of good sense will wish theirs may be, in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends."
None of his plays are known to have been printed till 1597, in which year three of them, King Richard 11., King Richard III., and Romeo and Juliet, came from the press, separately, and in quarto form. The next year, Francis Meres published his Wit's Treasury, in which we have the following : “As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy among the Latins; so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage.” The writer then specifies by title the three plays already named, and also nine others, in confirmation of his judgment. Besides these twelve, several others also are known to have been in being at that time; and it is all but certain that as many at least as eighteen of the Poet's dramas were written before 1598, when he was thirty-four years old, and had probably been in the theatre about twelve years.
The Poet seems to have been laudably ambitious of gaining a higher social position than that to which he was born. So, in 1599 he procured from the Herald's College in London a coat of arms iu the name of his father. Thus he got his yeoman sire dubbed a gentleman, doubtless that the honour might be his by inheritance, as he was his father's eldest son. An odd coinmentary on this proceeding is furnished by a passage in King Lear, Act iii. scene 6, where the Fool says to the old King, -“He's a mad yeoman that sees his son a gentleman before him.” The Poet's father was buried at Stratford, September 8th, 1601 ; and thenceforward we find him written down in legal documents as “ William Shakespeare, Gentleman."
King James the First caine to the throne of England in March, 1603. On the 17th of May following, he ordered a patent to be issued under the Great Seal, authorizing “our servants, Laurence Fletcher, William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage,” and six others, to exercise their art in all parts of the kingdoms, “as well for the recreation of our loving subjects as for our solace and pleasure, when we shall think good to see them.” By this instrument, the company who had hitherto been known as the Lord Chamberlain's Servants were taken directly under the royal patronage; accordingly they were henceforth designated as the King's Players.”
Whatever may have been his rank as an actor, Shakespeare evidently had a strong dislike to the vocation, and was impatient of his connection with the stage as a player. We have an affecting proof of this in one of his Sonnets, where he unmistakeably discovers his perBunal feelings on that point:
“O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
To what it works in, like the dyer's hand.” Moreover, as Dyce remarks, “it is evident that Shakespeare never ceased to turn his thoughts towards his birth-place, as the spot where he hoped to spend the evening of his days in honourable retirement." It is uncertain at what time he withdrew from the stage. The latest notice we have of his acting was in 1603, when Ben Jonson's Sejanus was performed at the Blackfriars, and one of the parts was sustained by him. The probability is that he ceased to be an actor in the course of the next year; though it is tolerably certain that he kept up his interest in the affairs of the company some years longer, and that he continued to write more or less for the stage down to as late a period as 1613.
The Poet's eldest daughter, Susanna, was married June 5th, 1607, to John Hall, a gentleman, and a medical practitioner at Stratford, and well-reputed as such throughout the county. His first grandchild, Elizabeth Hall, was baptised February 21st, 1608; and on the 9th of September following his mother died. His other daughter, Judith, was married to Thomas Quiney, February 10th, 1616. Quiney was four years younger than his wife, and was a vintner and wine-merchant at Stratford.
Perhaps I ought to add that Meres, in the work already quoted, speaks of the Poet's “sugared Sonnets among his private friends." At length, in 1609, these, and such others as the Poet may have written after 1598, were collected, to the number of a hundred and fifty-four, and published. By this time, also, as many as sixteen of his plays, including the three already named, had been issued, some of them repeatedly, in quarto form.
On the 25th of March, 1616, Shakespeare executed his will. The testator is there said to be “ in perfect health and memory ;” nevertheless he died at New Place on the 23d of April following; and, two days later, was buried beside the chancel of Stratford church. It is said that “ his wife and daughters did earnestly desire to be laid in the same grave with him ;” and accordingly two of them at leuit, ita wife and the eldest daughter, were in due time gathered to his side.
Shakespeare was by no means so little appreciated in his time as later generations have mainly supposed. Besides the passages already cited, we have many other notes of respect and esteem from his contemporaries. No man indeed of that age was held in higher regard for his intellectual gifts ; none drew forth more or stronger tributes of applause. Kings, princes, lords, gentlemen, and, what is perhaps still better, common people, all united in paying homage to his transcendent' genius. And from the scattered notices of his contemporaries, we get, also, a pretty complete and very exalted idea of his personal character. How dearly he was held by those who knew liim best is well shown by a passage of Ben Jonson's, written long after the Poet's death, and not published till 1640 : I loved the man and do honour his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any. He was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature.”
From the foregoing sketch it appears that the materials for a Life of Shakespeare are scanty indeed. Nevertheless there is enough, I think, to show that in all the common dealings of life he was eminently gentle, candid, upright, and judicious ; open-hearted, genial, and sweet in his social intercourses; while, in the smooth and happy
marriage which he seems to have realized, of the highest poetry and art with systematic and successful prudence in business affairs, we have an example of well-rounded practical manhood, such as may justly engage our admiration and respect.
STATE AND SOURCES OF THE POET'S TEXT.
Of the thirty-seven plays commonly known as Shakespeare's, sixteen were published, separately, in quarto, during the author's life. Some of these were issued several times in that form; as, for instance, King Richard Il., of which there were five quarto editions, severally dated 1597, 1598, 1608, 1608, and 1615. Some of these issues, however, were undoubtedly stolen and surreptitious, and it is by no means certain that any of them were authorized by the Poet.
In some cases, as, for instance, in King Henry V. and The Merry Wives of Windsor, the quartos present but wretched abortions of the genuine plays; the text being so mutilated and incomplete as to force the inference that the copy must have been taken at the theatre by ignorant or incompetent reporters. In other cases, again, as in the First and Second Parts of King Henry IV., the quartos give the text in such order and fulness as to justify the belief that they were printed from the Poet's own manuscript. Still, upon the whole, we have no clear reason for supposing that a single page of the proofs was ever corrected by the author himself. It should be observed further, that the plays were written for the special use and benefit of the company to which the author belonged. Of course the company was naturally interested in being able to prevent rival companies from getting hold of them; there being at that time no copyright law to restrain appropriations in that kind. Accordingly few things touching the history of the early English stage are more clearly settled, than that theatrical companies took great pains to keep their plays out of print, that so they might control them and have the exclusive use of them. Nevertheless, there are some cases in which we have strong reason to believe that companies gave their consent for the printing of their plays; as in The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado about Nothing, both of which were published in 1600; some of the circumstances being such as to warrant, if not invite, a conclusion to that effect.
Of the quarto editions, in some cases, if not in all, the later were undoubtedly printed from the earlier issues. Notwithstanding, we often find the several quarto issues of a given play differing a good deal among themselves in the reading of particular passages. Besides, some of them are shockingly printed, so that it is often impossible to make any sense at all out of the text; and all of them abound in gross typographical errors. Before passing on from this head, I must add that another of the plays, Othello, was published in quarto in 1622, six years after the author's death.
This brings me to what is known as the folio edition of 1693, in which the seventeen plays already printed in quarto, and all the others known or believed to be Shakespeare's, with the single exception of Pericles, were collected and published together in one volume. It was edited by two of the Poet's old friends and fellow-actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell; who dedicated the volume to the two brothers, William and Philip Herbert, Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery.' In their dedication the editors speak thus: “We have but collected them, and done an office to the dead, to procure his orphans guardians; without ambition either of self-profit or fame; only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare, by offer of his plays to your most noble patronage.”