Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

it is necessary to examine the accounts we have received of the early life of our poet. In order to form an estimate of his character, we ought to be acquainted with the situation in which he was placed; if not satisfactorily, still let us be acquainted with it as nearly as possible.

HIS YOUTH IN WARWICKSHIRE.

He was born at Stratford-upon-Avon, in April, 1564. His father was John Shakespeare. His mother's maiden name was Mary Arden. She possessed a small property in land. William was the eldest son of six children. Rowe, his first biographer, states,—“His family, as appears by the register and public writings relating to the town, were of good figure and fashion there, and are mentioned as gentlemen.” This idle assertion has given rise to much idle research and disquisition. It is certain, John Shakespeare, his father, had been Bailiff of the Town Corporation; and he was a dealer in wool, or a glover, or both by turns. Up to the period of 1574,” we are informed by Dr. Drake, “ Shakespeare's father might be considered as a man of property, being possessed of two houses and some land, beside personal property; but he shortly afterwards fell into a state of poverty.” In 1578 the mother's landed property was mortgaged for forty pounds; and the father, in that same year, was exempted, on account of his necessities, from paying his share of the poor-rate.

[ocr errors]

Here we have dates and facts whereon to rest ; by which it appears, that, at the age of fourteen, our William Shakespeare was the eldest son of a large and an extremely impoverished family.

It is agreed on all hands, that he was educated at the grammar-school of his native town; and it is reasonable to believe that he was benefitted there with a foundation for classical study. We are told, indeed, by Aubrey, (no good authority, I acknowledge, besides his being born ten years after the poet's death) that “he understood Latin pretty well; for he had been, in his younger years, a schoolmaster in the country.” Dr. Farmer treats Aubrey's tradition with contempt, arguing, that Shakespeare, having married before he was eighteen, and quitted the country, for London, three years afterwards, had not time to act as schoolmaster. Why not?—there was plenty of time, married or unmarried, before he was one-andtwenty, for the purpose, even if he did quit the country so early. Why should we not imagine he

age

of fifteen or sixteen, an assistant in that very grammar-school ? Such an employment of the eldest boy in a grammar-school, of one who has evinced ability, together with a desire of still improving his education, is not, and never could have been, uncommon. A more solid objection to Aubrey's story may be discovered in the improbability of any pecuniary recompense being given to so young an assistant at the school, while the family must have stood in need of his exertions. We certainly know nothing of the employment of his time while he was a lad—nothing on which we can rely; yet we cannot

[ocr errors]

*_was, at the

doubt, under the circumstances, but that his time was spent profitably.

Taking into consideration the urgent want of bread at home, it is not credible that the eldest son of a numerous family should not employ himself, or be employed, soon after he was fourteen, in earning something towards the maintenance of his brothers and sisters, or, at least, for himself. It is not credible, even if the lad had been unfeeling and worthless ; because, in that case, the father would have justly handed him over to some forced employment, so that he might not continue a burthen on the rest. But tradition has not brought to us a single anecdote of his youth in the country, except that of his having been a deer-stealer; and that has been amply refuted by Malone, as far as Sir Thomas Lucy's deer were concerned.

An important question, both on its own account, and as it involves others, inevitably suggests itself,– of what nature was his occupation? It appears to me, that, without straining facts, without injuring probability in the slightest degree, a satisfactory answer can be given; one, indeed, which has already obtained credence, and which it shall be my endeavour to support.

In the first place, we may reasonably suppose that his occupation was of a more lucrative nature than it could have been in his father's ruined trade, or in any common drudgery. An education at a grammarschool placed him above many of his fellow boys in the town; for perhaps it is not too much to imagine that not one in ten of the entire population could

read and write; his father, who had served as bailiff, was not able to write his own name. There is also tolerable proof that the boy had obtained a prosperous situation, in the fact of his having married Anne Hathaway, a farmer's daughter in the neighbourhood, when he was only eighteen. That she had property of her own, at the time of her marriage, is probable ; but it is highly improbable that she possessed enough for herself, her husband, and the children they must naturally have expected. Imprudent youthful marriages are frequent; but we never find that a youth, who takes a wife without fair hopes of maintaining her and hers, will be remarkable for prudence afterwards ; while Shakespeare was, in all good husbandry, not only superior to his brother poets, but to most men. Unless, therefore, we presume he was different, in all respects, from other human beings, we must come to the conclusion that he was in some way employed, so as to be able to earn a decent livelihood.

Malone first furnished us with a passage from Nashe, though he put no faith in it himself, showing that he had been a lawyer's clerk,-a noverint ; so called, from the first word of a Latin deed of those times, equivalent to our modern commencement of Know all men, &c. From the internal evidence of his works alone, Chalmers formed an opinion that he had been a lawyer's clerk; and the first of our critics, in Imaginary Conversations, has, in a delightful fiction, treated it as a certainty.

The early life of any one, if his character is to be particularly canvassed, is more important than a series of facts drawn from the history of his manhood. A

« ZurückWeiter »