Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

gate, London. In May, 1602, was executed a deed of conveyance whereby he became the owner of a hundred and seven acres of arable land in the town of Old Stratford, bought of William and John Combe for the sum of £320. In September following, a copyhold house in Walker-street, near New Place, was surrendered to him by Walter Getley. This property was held under the manor of Rowington: the transfer took place at the court-baron of the manor; and it appears that the Poet was not present at the time; there being a proviso, that the property should remain in the hands of the Lady of the manor till the purchaser had done suit and service in the court. One Philip Rogers, it seems, had several times bought malt of Shakespeare to the amount of £ 1 15s. 10d.; and in 1604 the Poet, not being able to get payment, filed in the Stratford Court of Record a declaration of suit against him; which probably had the desired effect, as nothing more is heard of it. This item is interesting, as it shows the Poet engaged in other pursuits than those relating to the stage. We have seen how, in 1598, Alderman Sturly was for "moving him to deal in the matter of our tithes." This was a matter wherein much depended on good management; and, as the town had a yearly rent from the tithes, it was for the public interest to have them managed well; and the moving of Shakespeare to deal in the matter sprang most likely from confidence in his practical judgment and skill. The tithes of" com, grain, blade, and hay," and also those of " wool, lamb, hemp, flax, and other small and privy tithes," in Stratford, Old Stratford, Welcombe, and Bishopton, had been leased in 1544 for the term of ninety-two years. In July, 1605, the unexpired term of the lease, thirty-one years, was bought in by Shakespeare for the sum of £440. In the indenture of conveyance, he is st yled " William Shakespeare, of Stratford-upon-Avon, Gentleman?

These notices enable us to form some tolerable conjecture as to how the Poet was getting on at the age of forty. Such details of business may not seem very appropriate in a Life of the greatest of poets; but we have clear evidence that he took a lively interest in them, and was a good hand at managing them. He had learned by experience, no doubt, that " money is a good soldier, and will on "; and that, "if money go before, all ways do lie open." And the thing carries this benefit, if no other, that it tells us a man may be something of a poet without being either above or below the common affairs of life.

A pretty careful investigation of the matter has brought good judges to the conclusion, that in 1608 the Poet's income could not have been less than £400 a year. This, for all practical purposes, would be equivalent to some $ 12,000 in our time. The Rev. John Ward, who became vicar of Stratford in 1662, noted in his Diary, that Shakespeare, after his retirement, "had an allowance so large that he spent at the rate of £ 1,000 a year, as I have heard." The honest and cautious man did well to add, "as I have heard." That the Poet kept up a liberal establishment, and was fond of entertaining his neighbours, and still more his old associates, we can well believe; but that he had £ 1,000 a year to spend, or would have spent it if he had, is not credible.

Some question has been made whether Shakespeare was a member of the celebrated convivial club established by Sir Walter Raleigh, and which held its meetings at the Mermaid tavern. We have nothing that directly certifies his membership of that choice institution; but there are several things inferring it so strongly as to leave no reasonable doubt on the subject. His conversations certainly ran in that circle of wits some of whom are directly known to have belonged to.it; and among them all there is not one whose then acknowledged merits gave him a better title to its privileges. It does not indeed necessarily follow from his facility and plenipotence of wit in writing, that he could shine at those extempore "flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar." But, besides the natural inference that way, we have the statement of honest old Aubrey, that " he was very good company, and of a very ready and pleasant smooth wit." Francis Beaumont, who was a prominent member of that jovial senate, and to whom Shirley applies the fine hyperbolism that " he talked a comedy," was born in 1586, and died in 1615. I cannot doubt that he had our Poet, among others, in his eye, when he wrote those celebrated lines to Ben Jonson:

"Methinks the little wit I had is lost
Since I saw you; for wit is like a rest
Held up at tennis, which men do the best
With the best gamesters. What things have we seen
Done at the Mermaid! heard words that have been
So nimble, and so full of subtile flame,
As if that every one from whence they came
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And had resolv'd to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life."

In further token of Shakespeare's having belonged to this merry parliament of genius, I must quote from Dr. Thomas Fuller, who, though not born till 1608, was acquainted with some of the old Mermaid wits. In his Worthies of Warwickshire, he winds up his account of the Poet thus : "Many were the wit-combats betwixt him and Ben Jonson; which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson, like the former, was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow, in his performances : Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention."

The Poet kept up his interest in the affairs of the company, and spent more or less of his time in London, after ceasing to be an actor. We have several subsequent notices of his being in the metropolis on business, one of which is a deed of conveyance, executed in March, 1613, and transferring to him and three others a house with a small piece of land for £ 140; £ 80 being paid down, and the rest left on bond and mortgage. The deed bears the Poet's signature, which shows him to have been in London at the time. The vicar, from whose Diary I have already quoted, notes further that Shakespeare "frequented the plays all his younger time, but in his elder days he lived at Stratford, and supplied the stage with two plays every year." That the writer's information was in all points literally correct, is not likely; but there is no doubt that the Poet continued to write for the stage after his retirement from it.

Of the nine plays still to be accounted for, Macbeth was played at the Globe in 1610, though probably written some time before; King Lear was acted at Whitehall in December, 1606, and three editions of it were issued in 1608; Antony and Cleopatra was entered at the Stationers' in 1608; Cymbeline was performed some time in the Spring of 1611, and The Winter's Tale in May the same year; King Henry the Eighth is not heard of till the burning of the Globe theatre in 1613, when it is described as "a new play." Of Coriolanus we have no notice whatever till after the Poet's death; while of Othello and The Tempest we have no well-authenticated notices during his life; though there is a record, which has generally passed for authentic, noting them to have been acted at Court, the former on the 1st of November, 1604, and the latter on the 1st of November, 1611: but that record, as in the case of Measure for Measure, has lately been pronounced spurious by the highest authority.

It would seem that after the year 1609, or thereabouts, the Poet's reputation did not mount any higher during his life. A new generation of dramatists was then rising into favour, who, with some excellences derived from him, united gross vices of their own, which however were well adapted to captivate the popular mind. Moreover, King James himself, notwithstanding his liberality of patronage, was essentially a man of loose morals and low tastes; and his taking to Shakespeare at first probably grew more from the public voice, or perhaps from Southampton's influence, than from his own preference. Before the Poet's death, we may trace the beginnings of that corruption which, rather stimulated than discouraged by Puritan bigotry and fanaticism, reached its height some seventy years later; though its course was for a while retarded by King Charles the First, who, whatever else may be said of him, was unquestionably a man of as high and elegant tastes in literature and art as England could boast of in his time.

Shakespeare, however, was by no means so little appreciated in his time as later generations have mainly supposed. No man 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 probably still better, common people, all united in paying homage to his transcendent genius. The noble lines, already referred to, of Ben Jonson, ■—-than whom few men, perhaps none, ever knew better how to judge and how to write on such a theme, — indicate how he struck the scholarship of the age. And from the scattered notices of his contemporaries we get, withal, a very complete and very exalted idea of his personal character as a man; although, to be sure, they yield us few facts in regard to his personal history or his actual course of life. How dearly he was held by those who knew him best, is well shown by a passage of Ben Jonson, written long after the Poet's death, and not published till 1640. Honest Ben had been charged with malevolence towards him, and he repelled the charge thus: "I lov'd 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; had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions."

I cannot dwell much on the particulars of the Poet's latter years; a few, however, must be added touching his family.

On the 5th of June, 1607, his eldest daughter, Susanna, then in her twenty-fifth year, was married to Mr. John

« ZurückWeiter »