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NEARLY all that has come down to us of the personal history of Shakespeare may be expressed in the words of one of his biographers: "All that is known with any degree of certainty is, that he was born at Stratford-upon-Avon-married, and had children there -went to London, where he commenced actor, and wrote poems and plays-returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was buried." It is most remarkable of such a man as Shakespeare, "that no letter of his writing, no record of his conversation, no fully drawn character of him by any contemporary has yet been discovered." The industry of his commentators has indeed discovered various documents in which he is mentioned, but the information is of the most meagre kind, and the history derived from the discovery, of a merely conjectural character.
At first sight one is disposed to imagine that, great as Shakespeare has been esteemed since his death, possibly he may have been undervalued by his contemporaries, but several incidental notices of him by writers of his age, show that not only were his writings appreciated, but that his plays had introduced a new era in the progress of dramatic literature.
So far as we can gather from the scanty facts which have been collected, Shakespeare seems to have had a most supreme indifference as to the place he was to occupy in the annals of literature; he has left us no records of his own life, nor does he appear ever to have taken the slightest trouble to have his dramas issued to the world in the state in which he wrote them. During his lifetime, edition after edition was published of many of his plays, unauthorised by him, and in a most imperfect and garbled form, yet he never seems to have interfered, and at his death no authorised copy of Shakespeare's plays was known to have been in existence. How much of Shakespeare we have in the generally received text is quite a matter of conjecture, and the text itself is as much a subject of discussion as the dramas of ancient Greece. The editors of the first collected edition of Shakespeare,-the famous edition of 1623,-did their duty most conscientiously, but their materials were of the most uncertain character, being chiefly collected from the manuscripts preserved in the various theatres, but not one of them bearing the authentication of Shakespeare. In this edition twenty plays were published for the first time.
The first certain information regarding the Shakespeares begins with his father, John Shakespeare, who is believed to have been the son of a substantial farmer in Snitterfield, about three miles from Stratford-on-Avon. John appears to have commenced business in Stratford about the year 1551, and it is singular that the first mention we have of him is in April, 1552, in a prosecution for ": piling up a dunghill in Henley Street, contrary to the laws." In 1558 he again appears in the Court roll as being fined fourpence for not keeping his gutters clean. The first trade he seems to have taken up was a glover, and he is so described in 1556 in a register of the Bailiff's Court. He soon after engaged in other occupations, as in 1564 he appears as selling timber, and still later to have "taken to agricultural pursuits," and "to have been a considerable dealer in wool." In 1579 he is styled in the chamberlain's accounts as a yeoman," and probably the early tradition that he was a butcher, may have originated in his occasionally slaughtering his stock for the Stratford market. In these various occupations he seems at first to have been very successful, and to have raised himself to easy circumstances. He was much esteemed by his townsmen, and filled in succession the various offices of the corporation, till in 1568 he was elected High Bailiff. It is significant of the state of education at this time that this the Chief Magistrate of Stratford could not sign his own name
In 1557 John Shakespeare married Mary Arden, daughter of Robert Arden, then deceased, a gentleman of ancient family, and a considerable landed proprietor in the neighbourhood. They had a large family. The following is a copy of the baptisms from the Stratford Register :
1558, Sept. 15, Joan. [Died in infancy.] 1569, Apr. 15, Joan. [Married W. Hart. Died 1646.] 1562, Dec. 2, Margaret. [Died 1563.] 1571, Sept. 28, Anne. [Died 1579.] 1564, April 26, William. [Died 1616.] 1574, Mar. 11, Richard. [Died 1613.] 1566, Oct. 13, Gilbert. [No information.] 1580, May 3, Edmund. [An actor. Died 1607.] The marriage into the Arden family not only gave John Shakespeare a greatly superior position in society, but he inherited through his wife the estate of Asbies, about 54 acres in extent, and some other valuable tenements in Snitterfield; these were held no inconsiderable dower in his days.
As John Shakespeare advanced in years he seems to have got into difficulties through unfortunate speculations and heavy losses in his business, so much so that in 1587 we find him actually in prison for debt,-a sad downfall for the Chief Magistrate of Stratford. After this, however, he appears to have again emerged into comfort and affluence; for, in 1596, we find John Shakespeare applying for and obtaining a grant of arms from the Heralds' College; and we have the assertion of Garter King-at-Arms that he was at this time worth £500 in tenements and lands. In 1599, a farther application is recorded, to authorise the impalement of the Arden arms with those of Shakespeare: the permission was granted. But it is more than probable that William Shakespeare had helped his father, and was the moving spring of these applications, as he was by this time fast accumulating wealth in a profession then so much looked down upon that he was precluded from seeking the honours for himself.
There is a curious document, dated 1592, being a return of all recusants or persons who, from various causes, did not attend church;" in this document John Shakespeare's name occurs, and there is a note appended that his absence was caused by a "feare of processe of debts." Yet we find him at this very time assisting in making an inventory of the effects of a tanner, not apparently afraid of arrest for debt. Some have held that these contradictions could only be reconciled by supposing a relapse from the Protestant faith, but the facts stated are too slight to justify such a conclusion.
John Shakespeare did not long enjoy his heraldic honours. He died in September, 1601. His wife survived him for seven years, dying in 1608.
William Shakespeare, the third child of John Shakespeare, was born on 23rd April, 1564. An entry in the register of Stratford records his baptism on the 26th April, and an early tradition that he died on the anniversary of his birth fixes the 23rd as the day on which he first saw the light. A house is still pointed out in Henley Street as that in which he was born.
From this time till his eighteenth year we have not a word of reliable history. Such information as we possess we gather from traditions not collected till about fifty years after his death.
It is believed that he received the elements of his education at the Free Grammar School of Stratford, which he entered about the age of seven, and at which he remained for six or seven years. We have few indications to guide us in judging of his proficiency there. One of the traditions makes him out "in his younger years to have been a schoolmaster in the country, and that he understood Latin pretty well." Some have supposed from this that in the Free Grammar School he had assisted "in teaching the young idea how to shoot." Ben Jonson, an intimate friend of his, makes the remark, "And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek," so that it is likely that he had made progress, at all events in the classics. It is also asserted that he was apprenticed to a lawyer in Stratford, but the proof of this is very insufficient.
When William Shakespeare was about the age of fourteen, it is supposed that the difficulties into which his father was fast getting induced him to take William from school to assist in his business. It has been already said that his father killed his stock for the market; and it may have been while with his father that, as tradition asserts, "when he (Shakespeare) killed a calf, he would do it in a high style, and make a speech." The occupations in which he would thus naturally be engaged may have given rise to one of the traditions that Shakespeare was apprenticed to a butcher.
It has been supposed that it was about this time that he first became acquainted with the strolling players, who occasionally visited Stratford, and under whose influence his mind received that impulse which some years later produced such wonderful results.
We now come to one of those events in the life of Shakespeare upon which the evidence is documentary-his marriage with Anne Hathaway, a resident of the neighbourhood. A marriage bond, dated 28th November, 1582, is still preserved, in which two persons, Fulk Sandells and John Richardson, come under a penalty of £40, to be forfeited to the Bishop in the event of any cause appearing hereafter why William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway should not be married, this bond being required to enable a clergyman to unite them after only a single publication of banns. The reason of this haste is not, unfortunately, difficult to find: their first child, Susanna, was born about the 26th May, 1583, scarcely six months after the date of the bond. Endeavours have been made to explain away the above circumstance by a suggestion that a previous marriage before witnesses had taken place, and that this was only to enable the religious part of the ceremony to be performed. But on this supposition the haste is unaccountable, especially with the responsibility which it threw on the signers of the bond. The bond, too, mentions a marriage to be performed afterwards; and as there is a seal R. H. also attached to the document, which is supposed to be that of Anne's father, then dead, it is but too plain why the various parties pushed on the legal solemnisation of the union. The truth is, the editors of Shakespeare have a feverish anxiety to show that his character was all but immaculate. The slightest incident in his favour is magnified to absurdity, while aught showing he was but a man, with the frailties of his age and times, is discarded as unworthy of credit.
Anne was seven or eight years older than her husband, and there is little in their future life to make us think that Shakespeare had much love for her. She seems, however, to have been a faithful and dutiful wife, and to have borne his long absences with at least equanimity. Shakespeare, on his departure for London, left his wife and family behind him, and there is no appearance of their ever having been with him during his residence there. It is said that he paid a yearly visit to his family at Stratford, until he finally gave up his profession, when he took up his abode with them in his native town. In 1585 were born at Stratford Shakespeare's two children-Hamnet and Judithtwins.
We now come to a great event in Shakespeare's life, his leaving Stratford for London. Great controversy has taken place as to the cause of this. The reason commonly assigned is "the deer-stealing story." The original statement of the matter is as follows:-"Hé had, by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company, and amongst them some that made a frequent practice of deer-stealing, engaged him more than once in robbing the park that belonged to Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlcote, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and, in order to revenge that ill usage, he made a ballad upon him; and though this, probably the first essay of his poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the prosecution against him to that degree, that he was obliged to leave his business and family in Warwickshire for some time, and shelter himself in London." Though mere tradition cannot prove the above account to be a narrative of facts, there appears nothing in the nature of the case to make the incidents unlikely. In all ages game-stealing has been a crime constantly before the law courts; and that Shakespeare, a young, active man, mingling with the class among whom the actors in these depredations are usually found, should engage with them in such an escapade, is not at all unnatural. It may be remarked, too, that the lower classes of society have ever had a difficulty in understanding a breach of the game laws to be a moral offence.
In the Merry Wives of Windsor (p. 49) Sir Thomas Lucy is plainly introduced as Justice Shallow; and when the Justice is made to threaten to make the deer-stealing a "Star Chamber business," it seems likely that Shakespeare refers to the manner in which he had been prosecuted for the offence. There is also a clear allusion to Sir Thomas Lucy's name and coat of arms in the same chapter where Slender refers to the luce (a pike.) Lucy's coat of arms contains three luces.
Though the above story seems to have been a strong reason for Shakespeare's departure, it is more than probable that the unsatisfactory state of his father's affairs gave additional reasons for his leaving home to push his fortunes in the world.
He appears to have left Stratford in 1586-7, and to have directed his course to London. but we have no reliable information regarding his occupation for the next two years. improbable story is told, that he held gentlemen's horses at the doors of the theatres, and became a great favourite in the occupation. It is not at all consistent, however, with the well-ascertained fact, that so early as 1589, within two or three years of his entering London, he was one of the twelve proprietors of Blackfriars' Theatre. We have a document, dated November, 1589, in which this information is given. It seems probable that Shakespeare had early obtained an introduction to the company of actors, and his genius and business activity must have raised him quickly through the lower situations till he became a sharer in the profits of the theatre itself.
Shakespeare was now fairly launched as an actor and writer of plays. Mr Halliwell has recently discovered documentary evidence of Shakespeare's having acted on two occasions before Queen Elizabeth in 1594. Many discordant statements have been made as to his talents as an actor; some asserting that his "top character was the Ghost in Hamlet;" but another story, if true, shows he had the ready appreciation of the part he had to play, which is the indication of a first-class actor. The story is as follows:-Queen Elizabeth on one occasion honoured the theatre with her presence while Shakespeare was personating a king. She, happening to walk across the stage near Shakespeare, dropped her glove, but Shakespeare took no notice of the circumstance. Elizabeth, desirous of ascertaining if this was intentional or a mere inadvertence, again moved past him, and dropped her glove. Shakespeare picked it up, and still personating the monarch in the play, said,
"And though now bent on this high embassy,
Yet stoop we to take up our cousin's glove."
He then presented it to Elizabeth, who was greatly pleased with his ready wit. Queen Elizabeth was a great admirer of Shakespeare's plays, and in Midsummer-Night's Dream (p. 137) he pays her one of the most refined tributes ever paid to woman. The passage ends with
"And the imperial votaress passed on
As a writer of dramas, it is likely that Shakespeare produced some of his plays at a very early period of his theatrical career, and it is probable that it was to his pen more than to his acting that he owed his rapid rise in his profession; at first he seems to have confined himself to the remodelling of plays already in existence, and to this class belong Pericles (his first drama), Titus Andronicus, Taming of the Shrew, and Comedy of Errors; some of these are supposed to have appeared as early as 1588. It was not till 1591 or 1591 that his first original play, Love's Labour Lost, appeared; but no reliable information has ever been obtained as to the dates when the rest of his plays were first produced. The dates when the following were first published (unsanctioned by Shakespeare) have been ascertained pretty correctly; but they must have been acted in the theatres long before
A question has been keenly discussed as to whether Shakespeare ever visited Scotland; there are circumstances which deserve notice as being the grounds for this supposition. A portion of the "Queen's players," with whom Shakespeare was connected, actually visited Scotland, and went as far as Aberdeen, having frequent opportunities of acting before King James; some have surmised that Shakespeare must have been in this company, of which he was usually a member, and that only his visit to the north would account for the marvellous descriptions in Macbeth. Adverse to this idea, it is remarkable that, though several members of the company are named as having received rewards and honours, Shakespeare's is not even mentioned. It is also to be remembered that it