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LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE,
Remarks upon his Dramatic Writings.
Wherever any extraordinary display of human intellect has been made, there will human curiosity, at one period or the other, be busy to obtain some personal acquaintance with the distinguished mortal whom Heaven had been pleased to endow with a larger portion of its own etherial energy. If the favoured man walked on the high places of the world; if he were conversant with courts; if he directed the movements of armies or of states, and thus held in his hand the fortunes and the lives of multitudes of his fellow-creatures, the interest, which he excites, will be immediate and strong: he stands on an eminence where he is the mark of many eyes; and dark and unlettered indeed must be the age in which the incidents of his eventful life will not be noted, and the record of them be preserved for the instruction or the entertainment of unborn generations. But if his course were through the vale of life: if he were unmingled with the factions and the contests of the great: if the powers of his mind were devoted to the silent parsuits of literature-to the converse of philosophy and the Muse, the possessor of the etherial treasure may excite little of the attention of his contemporaries; may walk quietly, with a veil over his glories, to
the grave; and, in other times, when the expansion of his intellectual greatness has filled the eyes of the world, it may be too late to inquire for his history as a man. The bright track of his genius indelibly remains; but the trace of his mortal footstep is soon obliterated for
Homer is now only a name—a solitary name, which assures us, that, at some unascertained period in the annals of mankind, a mighty mind was indulged to a human being, and gave its wonderful productions to the perpetual admiration of men, as they spring in succession in the path of time. Of Homer himself we actually know nothing; and we see only an arm of immense power thrust forth from a mass of impenetrablé darkness, and holding up the hero of his song to the applauses of never-dying fame. But it
supposed that the revolution of, perhaps, thirty centuries has collected the cloud wbich thus withdraws the father of poesy from our sight. Little more than two centuries bas elapsed since William Shakspeare conversed with our tongue, and trod the selfsame soil with ourselves ; and if it were not for the records kept by our Church in its registers of births, marriages, and burials, we should at this moment be as personally ignorant of the “sweet swan of Avon' as we are of the old minstrel and rhapsodist of Meles. That William Shakspeare was born in Stratford upon Avon; that he married and had three children; that he wrote a certain number of dramas ; that he died before he had attained to old age, and was buried in his native town, are positively the only facts, in the personal bistory of this extraordinary man, of which we are certainly possessed; and, if we should be solicitous to fill up this bare and most unsatisfactory outline, we must have recourse to the vague reports of unsubstantial tradition, or to the still more shadowy inferences of lawJess and vagabond conjecture. Of this remarkable ignorance of one of the most richly endowed with intellect of the human species, who ran his mortal race in our own country, and who stands separated from us by no very great intervention of time, the causes may not be difficult to be ascertained. William Shakspeare was an
actor and a writer of plays; in neither of which characters, however he might excel in them, could he be lifted high in the estimation of his contemporaries. He was honoured, indeed, with the friendship of nobles, and the patronage of monarchs: his theatre was frequented by the wits of the metropolis; and he associated with the most intellectual of his times. But the spirit of the age was against him; and, in opposition to it, he could not become the subject of any general or comprehensive interest. The nation, in short, knew little and cared less about him. During his life, and for some years after his death, inferior dramatists outran bim' in the race of popalarity; and then the flood of puritan fanaticism swept him and the stage together into temporary oblivion. On the restoration of the monarchy and the theatre, the school of France perverted our taste, and it was not till the last century was somewhat advanced that William Shakspeare arose again, as it were, from the tomb, in all his proper majesty of light. He then became the subject of solicitous and learned inquiry: but inquiry was then too late; and all that it could recover, from the ravage of time, were only a few human fragments, which could scarcely be united into a man. To these causes of our personal ignorance of the great bard of England, must be added bis own strange indifference to the celebrity of genius. When he had produced his 'admirable works, ignorant or heedless of their value, he abandoned them with perfect indifference to oblivion or to fame. It surpassed his thought that he could grow into the admiration of the world; and, without any reference to the curiosity of future ages, in which he could not conceive himself to possess an interest, he was contented to die in the arms of obscurity, as an unlaurelled burgher of a provincial town. To this combination of causes are we to attribute the scantiness of our materials for the Life of William Shakspeare. His works are in myriads of hands: be constitutes the delight of myriads of readers: his renown is coextensive with the civilization of man; and, striding across the ocean from
Europe, it'occupies the wide region of transatlantic: empire: but he is himself only a shadow which disappoints our grasp; an undefined form wbich is rather intimated than discovered to the keenest searchings of our eye. of the little however, questionable or certain, which can be told of him we must now proceed to make the best use in our power, to write what by courtesy may be called his life; and we have only to lament that the result of our labour must greatly disappoint the curiosity which has been excited by the grandeur of his reputation. The slight narrative of Rowe, founded.on the information obtained, in the beginning of the last century, by the inquiries of Betterton, the famous actor, will necessarily supply us with the greater part of the materials with which we are to work.
- WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE, or SHAKSPERE, (for the floating orthography of the name is properly attached to the one or the other of these varieties) was baptized in the church of Stratford upon Avon, as is ascertained by the parish register, on the 26th of April 1564; and he is said to have been born on the 23d of the same month, the day consecrated to the tutelar saint of England. His parents, John and Mary Shakspeare, were not of equal ranks in the community; for the former was only a respectable tradesman, whose ancestors cannot be traced into gentility, whilst the latter belonged to an ancient and opulent house in the county of Warwick, being the youngest daughter of Robert Arden of Wilmecote. The family of the Ardens (or Ardernes, as it is written in all the old deeds,) was of considerable antiquity and importance, some of them having served as high sheriffs of their county, and two of them (Sir John Arden and his nephew, the grandfather of Mrs. Shakspeare,) having enjoyed each a station of honour in the personal establishment of Henry VII. The younger of these Ardens was made, by bis sovereign, keeper of the park of Aldercar and bailiff of the lordship of Codnore. He obtained, also, from the crown a valuable grant in the