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CHAPTER III

SHAKESPEARE'S LIPB

IT
N endeavouring to summarise the events of Shakespeare's

life, we perceive that the sources of information regarding this man, whose name will last as long as civilisation itself, run scant indeed. The meagre, and still more, the confused and uncertain nature of the information regarding his life, youth, marriage, and other important circumstances of his career, is so great that legend has been woven around him, as though we had to do with one who lived in a far distant epoch of grey antiquity. It is not easy to assign the reasons for so remarkable a fact. In our examination, however, we shall attempt to discover its probable origin. First of all, we must note the difference between the learned and literary activity of his time and that of our own. Certainly there existed relatively no fewer nor less able scholars than at the present day. On the contrary, at that epoch of intellectual activity and movement there lived a remarkably large number of great minds, who strove to attain the highest summits of knowledge, and who by means of their bold speculations, discoveries, and inventions, marked an epoch in history, and aided the progress and aroused the astonishment of the world. But these men only worked on a grand scale. There were wanting those less brilliant but equally useful scholars and collectors who pay attention to small things, and it is just these details, these personal touches, which are precisely of the greatest importance in establishing the career of an eminent man. There were then no literary journals, indeed no newspapers, and all the innumerable aids which to-day help in preserving such details were wanting. To this negative cause, which hinders us from discovering any secure basis for literary biographies, there was added in the case of Shakespeare a positive cause, that contributed to this same result. It was an agitated era, which brought forth daily something new and unexpected. Incomparably great interests were at stake, great political events followed each other in unbroken succession. Although, as we have seen, a lively interest was taken by the higher and more cultivated classes, and even to some extent by the masses, in poetry and literature, and especially in the theatre, still this interest formed but a fraction of that activity which absorbed the general attention. Taken as a whole, far less interest was felt in intellectual matters than at the present day. It is true that politics and other public concerns still absorb much attention, but the principle of division of labour is extended. The activity of those who devote themselves to public affairs is now so subdivided, that while politics, war, statesmanship, legislation, social questions, parliamentarism, and many other matters, largely absorb the attention of the world, still there are enough persons outside these circles sufficiently occupied with literature, to prevent in the future any such uncertainty concerning the life of a great author or poet as prevails about Shakespeare. Everything to-day is collected and noted down, so that we are in a position to follow the lives of our modern intellectual heroes from year to year, from day to day, even from hour to hour. There is, in fact, sometimes too much of this research into details. At that time this beelike industry was lacking; hence an absence of material of certain knowledge. Another circumstance which contributed to an important extent in hindering the careful preservation of biographical details concerning a dramatic poet like Shakespeare is the course taken by English history not long after his advent. The great struggle between the House of Stuart and Parliament, which ended, after a long and terrible civil war, in the complete victory of the latter, brought into absolute power a generation who, in their black and fiery religious fanaticism, damned as the work of the Devil all gay and worldly pleasures, all arts that adorn and soften life. The theatre was the special object of their wrath, and it was part of their system to crush it entirely. These gloomy Puritans allowed no literary activity to flourish, and thus it came about that in a relatively short time tradition concerning the life of the greatest English poet was completely wiped out. This gap could no longer be filled up when interest on the subject reawakened, and it was necessary to bridge it over, as best might be, with hypotheses, fancies, and inventions. Let us try, without allowing too much playground to these hypotheses, to sketch the life of our poct from the scanty materials left to us.

It is ascertained that Shakespeare's family already possessed property in Warwickshire at the fall of the usurper Richard III. It is said, that in the battle which caused his fall, an ancestor fought on the side of Richmond, the lawful heir, and that he received a title and coat of arms as reward for his services. This title docs not, however appear to have been highly estcenied by the family, for we find the poet's father designated as plain John Shakespeare, a wool merchant, of Stratford-on-Avon. He was, however, a man of means, owning houses and land, and holding more than one honourable office in the town government. Through his marriage with Mary Arden he became connected with a noble and wealthy family. William Shakespeare, our poet, was born in Stratford, 1564, the eldest of eight children. The date of his birth cannot be fixed with absolute certainty; common consent puts it on April 23rd. He received his first instruction, and also learned Latin, in the free school of his birthplace. How far this classical education extended cannot be accurately settled. The anachronisms

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and historical and geographical absurdities found in his works have caused critics to suppose it was exceedingly slight. For example, he makes the Romans in Coriolanus march to the bcating of drums; in Julius Cæsar he causes a clock to strike; in the Winter's Tale he gives a seacoast to Bohemia; he names the celebrated Italian artist Giulio Romano as contemporary with the oracle of Delphi. Hence some have judged Shakespeare to have been an uneducated man. The objection that has been made to these strictures, viz., that he shows by various allusions no mean knowledge of ancient history and legend, that in his Roman plays he evinces familiarity with the Roman history at the most various periods, setting them forth with striking truth to life, may be met by the explanation that he learned all this from English translations of the classics, that it was thence he drew the material for his poems, and, uneducated as he was, was unable to recognise or to correct their errors. Now it may be true that Shakespeare was too little versed in classical studies to be able to read Livy and Plutarch in their own tongue, but the notion that he lacked education must be relegated to the realm of fable. We are certainly unacquainted with the details of his education. We do not know the direction taken by his training, whether it was orderly and systematic, or whether he obtained his knowledge by means of his own unaided exertions. But it has been said, “By their fruits ye shall know them," and it seems absolutely foolish to launch such a reproach against a man who certainly betrays in his poems an excellent knowledge of history, law, and other branches of learning, and who further makes such cogent and appropriate comments on the most diverse subjects. The extract from Hamlet, the directions to the players, of itself alone is sufficient to show that Shakespeare was not merely a great genius but a refined and highly educated man. We can no more deduce that Shakespeare's anachronisms were the result of ignorance than we could accuse Schiller of ignorance because he makes Butler, in Wallenstein, use a simile drawn from a lightningconductor, which shows that he was apparently ignorant of the fact that such were unknown until Franklin discovered them in the eighteenth century. After all, Shakespeare's outrageous offences against geography, science, and history, occur in his fantastic and merry dramas, plays far removed from the soil of material reality. In other dramas, where his poetical requirements did not need such sacrifices, Shakespeare evinccs most accurate acquaintance with the history and laws of his time and land, and, in innumerable cases, with the practical business of life. It is as difficult to form an accurate estimate of the truth or falsehood of the information we possess regarding the doctrine of the prosperity of the Shakespeare family, as it is to divine exactly what was the poet's intellectual training. Information exists to the effect that his father was no longer a member of the town council in 1579, and that he left behind him a very small taxable income, whence it has been inferred that he had sunk in social position. How far and in what degree this conclusion is correct cannot be certainly ascertained. Indeed, when we proceed to the account of Shakespeare's youth, we begin to enter a realm of uncertainty. Things are related which throw no favourable light upon the lad destined to become one of England's greatest men; and although some of his admirers, who cannot endure a spot on the fame of their hero, have striven to free him from these accusations, still it must be acknowledged that the boyhood of our poet was an irregular, and at times a wild one. Some believe the story of his poaching exploits to have been entirely an invention, but this can scarcely be. The tale which ran the country-side was that he had been tracked poaching in Sir Thonias Lucy's park, was caught, tried, and imprisoned, in return for which he avenged himself by nailing upon that gentleman's park gates and spreading abroad a bitter satire, spiced with allusions some of which outpassed the bounds of decency. Such tricks and irrcgularities as

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