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To obtain strict legal proof of the birth or parentage of Shakspere is now, apparently, beyond the power of research. His identity with the “William the son of John Shakspere," who was baptised in 1564, has not, I imagine, been completely established. Sufficient is known, however, to induce a belief that the ordinary accounts of his parentage and birth are well-founded.
WILLIAM SHAKSPERE, then, was baptised on the 26th of April, 1564. The words “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere," are on that day entered on the baptismal register, of the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire. The John Shakspere, from whom this great "son" descended, was apparently a person of some property and importance at Stratford, and traded as a glover or dealer in wool.
Of the ancestry of John Shakspere it is impossible to speak with any certainty ; but it is known that he himself arrived at the dignity of bailiff of Stratford; that the title of "Master” was prefixed to his name, and that he married a lady of good family. The mother of our dramatist bore, before her marriage with John Shakspere, the name of Mary Arden. She was the daughter of Robert Arden (a gentleman possessing a landed estate at Willingcote, or Wylnecote, in Warwickshire), whose father was groom of the chamber to King Henry VII. A Sir Johın Arden, who held some office of honour near the person of the same sovereign, was the uncle of her before-mentioned grandfather, and also son of one Eleanor Hampden, of Buckinghamshire; who, herself, was a member of the family from which the illustrious patriot John Hampden afterwards descended.
Under the will of Robert Arden, which bears date the 24th of November, 1556, his daughter Mary derived considerable property in money and land. This happened, in all probability, before her marriage with John Shakspere, inasmuch as she is described in the will merely as “my youngest daughter Mary,” without any additional distinction.
To this marriage between John Shakspere and Mary Arden (a gentle name, as it has been truly called), we owe the birth of our great poet. He was born in, or shortly previous to, the month of April, 1564, and, with all his family, providentially escaped the plague, which broke out soon afterwards in the town of Stratford, and committed extensive ravages amongst the inhabitants of the place.
In 1568, John Shakspere became bailiff of Stratford. In 1569, he obtained a grant of arms from Robert Cooke, the Clarencieux of the time; and this (having been lost) was confirmed by Dethick, Garter-King-at-Arms, and Camden (then Clarencieux), in 1599. All these things speak for the respectability of position occupied by our poet's
and the circumstance of his mortgaging his wife's estate, in the interval between the two grants (1578), seems to detract little or nothing from such an inference.
The arms thus granted had reference to the family name, Shakspere; and appear, indeed, rather to have been confirmed than to have originated in the grant of 1569: for the preamble to the license of 1599, which describes John Shakspere as a “gentleman" of Stratford, refers also to his “parent and great-grandfather" as having done "faithful and approved service" to King Henry VII.; and assigns that circumstance, together with his marriage with the daughter, and one of the heirs, of Robert Arden, and his production of “this his ancient coat of arms," as so many reasons for the grant. Thenceforward, the arms of Shakspere—“Gould, on a bend sable; and a speare of the first, the point steeled, propcr,"—were quartered with the arms of Arden.
Beyond this, the paternal ancestry of Shakspere is unknown. There is little doubt, however, but that he had a martial origin. The name shews that it was, in the first
instance, won and worn by an able soldier; perhaps by some obscure hero, who perilled his life, in field or foray, for a king or chieftain now as obscure as himself; one of the many millions who have had courage, skill, and fidelity, for their portion; but, wanting an historian, have sunk, without mark, into the oblivious abysses of Time.
In 1574, some houses in Henley-street, Stratford, were purchased by Jolin Shakspere; and in 1578, he mortgaged his wife's estate, as has been stated. It seems that the mortgagee was let into possession of the land; for, about twenty years afterwards, a suit in equity was instituted by John Shakspere, for redemption or recovery of the mortgaged property. This mortgage has been adduced as presumptive proof of the distress of Shakspere’s father, and, thence, of the probability of a want of education in his son. To persons acquainted with transactions of this nature, nothing can seem more rash than such conclusions, drawn from such imperfect premises. The purchase of houses, in 1574, denotes-if it denotes anything—a superfluity of money in the purchaser-money that, probably, was not then required for the purposes of his trade: and the mortgage, in 1578, shews that the money, which was invested four years before, was again wanted. But, as the houses were retained, and descended, with the other landed estate, to his son, it seems quite unlikely that he should have been seriously impoverished. As to the allegations by John Shakspere (in the suit) of his own poverty, and of the frauds practised by the person to whom he mortgaged his wife's estate, they may be classed amongst the many fictions of the law. If all the allegations contained in bills in equity were to be taken for granted, the defendants (who, according to the plaintiffs' statements, are always in the wrong), would present such a body of fraud, conspiracy, and oppression, as never was equalled in any civilised country.
To reconcile all the doings of the person or persons bearing the name of John Shakspere with each other-for there were several John Shaksperes at Stratford-would be a difficult task, and, as it appears to me, an unnecessary one. It is safer to proceed upon facts which, to use a species of pleonasm, are well authenticated. It is certain that John Shakspere, the poet's father, was a person holding a respectable position in society; that he married the daughter of an ancient house; that he was himself entitled to a coat of arms, acquired originally by services to the country; that with his wife he obtained a landed estate ; that he purchased other landed property out of his own money; that he rose to such dignities as his native town offered; and, finally, that the estates which he purchased and acquired by marriage became, after his death, the property of his son. It is impossible, in the face of these facts, to argue, with any chance of success, that he was a pauper or insolvent. Both fact and probability weigh strongly against such a presumption. It is more wise, I think, to dismiss the little anecdotes and authorities which have been urged against the solvency of John Shakspere, as things which applied to another person of his name; or, if any of them applied to him, that they could not have shaken his station in life, or have affected him, otherwise than for a short time, and then in a very trivial degree.
There can be small doubt but that our poet had as good an education as the town of Stratford afforded; and that the learning or accomplishments, in Latin and otherwise, which tradesmen in Stratford possessed, and which they bestowed upon their children, were not withheld from William Shakspere. It has been ascertained, that the intercourse
between children and their parents (aldermen or tradesmen of Stratford), and also between some of the tradesmen themselves, on matters of business, was occasionally carried on by Latin letters and communications. Is it in the least likely, that Shakspere, the son of the principal officer of the town, and the inheritor of a valuable estate, should be wanting in an equal amount of learning? Is it possible that, with the same opportunities, the author of " Troilus and Cressida,” of “ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA," of "Julius Cæsar,” of " Coriolanus,” should have passed his youth in sloth and unlettered ignorance? Το come to such an opinion, we must suppose that the eager aptitude of the man had never disclosed itself in the boy; and, in effect, that the great genius of Shakspere had never felt the restlessness or impulses which are an integral part of genius, but had slumbered in utter idleness throughout the whole interval of boyhood. Ben Jonson's reference to his "little Latin and less Greek," shews that he knew both Latin and Greek; and so far as it is disparaging, must be understood to speak by way of comparison, between the mere word-learning of Shakspere, and that of himself (Jonson) and other ripe scholars of the time. In all that was essential, whether it related to the people of Rome or Greece, Shakspere undoubtedly knew infinitely more than "rare Ben Jonson ” himself, or probably any of his cotemporaries.
Leaving the question of our poet's education and learning to be canvassed by the more curious, I proceed, and find that, towards the close of the year 1582, being then about eighteen years and seven months old, he intermarried with Ann Hathaway, a " maiden of Stratford,” who, if the inscription on her tomb be correct, was his elder by eight years.
Soon after the marriage, namely, on the 26th of May, 1583, Susanna, their eldest child, was baptised; and on the 2nd of February, 1585, their son and daughter, Hamnet and Judith. It appears by the register that Hamnet was buried on the 11th of August, 1596, and thereupon Susanna and Judith, the poet's two daughters, became his co-heiresses.
Susanna, the eldest child of Shakspere, married Jolin Hall, gentleman (who was a physician of Stratford), on the 5th of June, 1607, she being then thirty-four years of
age; and Judith, the younger daughter, married Thomas Queeny on the 10th of February, 1616, about two months only before the death of her father. The wife of Shakspere, as it is supposed, survived him; for on the 6th of August, 1623, there appears on the register the burial of “Mrs. Shakspere, widow,” who must then have been sixty-seven years old, her illustrious husband dying at the early age of fifty-two. His will, a copy of which follows this introductory essay, appears to have been made about a month after his daughter Judith's marriage, and to have preceded by a month only his own death; the approach of which, in all probability, then became visible to him.
It does not appear that the poet's youngest daughter left any issue; but there was one child of Susanna, named Elizabeth, wlio married Thomas Nash, Esq., and who herself had a daughter, afterwards the wife of Sir Reginald Forster; from which last-mentioned marriage there appears to have been a descent through two generations. The family of Shakspere, however, in the lineal direction, is now extinct.
Various conjectures have been formed as to the mode in which Shakspere was employed, previously and subsequently to his marriage; as to how he was enabled to maintain his wife and children; as to the motives that induced him to quit Stratford for London, and other circumstances very desirable to know; but all which have hitherto been diligently sought for in vain. He may have been a schoolmaster or scrivener, as bas been suggested ; but I shall not add to the many ingenious hypotheses that have been started, by any idle speculations of my own. It is clear that it was his destiny. Whether impelled, outwardly or ostensibly, by the persecution of others, or by his own misfortunes or discontent, is an inquiry not very important. It was his destiny; the inner call of his genius, which bade him seek its proper development; which drew him, by its mysterious influence, from the solitudes where Nature is dumb, into the teeming city,—into those crowds and throngs of men from whom he learned so much; and to whom,' and to whose posterity, he taught all that we see written down in that volume which has no likeness, called, “ The Works or SHAKSPERE."
The story of the deer-stealing, and of the prosecution of our poet by Sir Thomas Lucy, rests on too uncertain a foundation to render it necessary to do more than simply advert to it. That he may have taken part in any of the ordinary frolics of the time, is likely enough; but whether that was the cause which “drove" him to London, or wliether, in fact, he was driven there at all, is beyond the power of any one at present to certify. It is generally thought that Shakspere quitted Warwickshire for London about 1536 or 1587; but in 1589 he was one of the proprietors of the Blackfriars Theatre, a fact that seems to indicate an earlier arrival in the metropolis than is usually supposed. It is not very probable that a youth who left Stratford in 1587 (whether to evade the pursuit of justice or not, but at all events) with small or no pecuniary resources, and with the burthen of a wife and children upon him, should, in the space of about a couple of years, become a joint proprietor of one of the principal theatres in London.
His position at the theatre, as proprietor, in 1589, therefore, seems to indicate that he must then have been a considerable period in London; and not only this, but also that he must then have been, for a considerable time, a writer for the stage. What, in fact, could have renovated his fortunes, and raised him to the dignity of proprietor, but the aid that he had given to the drama? His earliest work, according to his own account "the first heir of his invention,” was the poem of “VENUS AND Adonis." That was printed for the first time in 1693 : but he was then the friend of Lord Southampton, who was the friend of genius. How had he manifested his genius and acquired this friendship, which did botlı so much honour, before 1693, unless by the dramas which he had without doubt at that time created ? The fact of there having been none of his plays in print at that period proves nothing. There is, according to the opinion of critics, an evident and a very invidious allusion to him, as actor and dramatist, in Robert Green's “GroATSWORTH or Wit," written in or before the year 1592 ; so that he was then well known as a writer of plays. The omission of Shakspere's name in Harrington's “ APOLOGIE FOR Poetry,” published in 1590-1, proves, not that Shakspere had not then written, but simply that Harrington either preferred the plays of Lord Buckhurst and others, or that he was unaware of the dramas of Shakspere, or of their merit. If the plays of our author were not (as they appear not to have been) in print at that period, the fact of Harrington having omitted to speak of the excellence of works that he had had no opportunity of reading, seems to be sufficiently accounted for.
On the arrival of Shakspere in London, it is generally supposed that he resorted to the stage for employment; commencing, probably, as actor, for it is certain that he was an actor during part of his sojourn; and producing afterwards, from time to time, his marvellous plays.
It would appear
It has been discovered that, in 1596, he lived near the Bear Garden, in Southwark, his residence being also in the neighbourhood of the theatre to which he was attached; and that in 1609 he occupied a good house within the liberty of the Clink. that he remained in London till about the year 1611: not longer, for in March, 1612, he is described as “of Stratford-upon-Avon, gentleman,” in a deed by which a house in Blackfriars, which he had purchased, was conveyed to him by one Henry Walker. During his residence in London, however, he made occasional visits to Stratford, in the course of which he was accustomed to stop at the Crown Inn, at Oxford, at that time kept by one John Davenant; and it is tolerably certain that he became, in 1606, the godfather of Davenant's son, afterwards known as Sir William Davenant, the poet. Previously to this, he had acquired the friendship of Lord Southampton, and of Lord Pembroke; had, in 1598, been admitted to an intimacy with Ben Jonson; and had associated generally with the wits and writers of the age. It was at the Mermaid, then a tavern of note in Fleet Street, that Shakspere, Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, and other social men of genius, were wont to congregate; and there* it was, that those lively interchanges of wit and vivacity, those "wit combats," which we are told of, occurred between Ben and Shakspere. Amongst other persons, he was acquainted with Alleyn, the founder of Dulwich College, and during that person's absence in the country, was in the habit of visiting his wife, who remained in London. In one of her letters to her absent husband, she informs him that a certain Mr. Francis Chaloner had endeavoured to borrow ten pounds; but that "Mr. Shakspere, of the Globe, who came said he knew him not, only he herd of him that he was a roge, so he was glad we did not lend him the money." This is the only real anecdote that we possess of Shakspere during his London residence. Amongst other acquisitions of this period, not to be forgotten, our poet obtained the approbation of Queen Elizabeth, before whom some of his plays were performed, and who is said to have “ appreciated his genius.” There is no evidence that
“She showered her bounties on bim, like the Hours,"
or, in fact, that she rewarded him with anything more solid than her smiles; a cheap mode of remunerating genius, but which, to the credit of that age, was not then common with persons of illustrious rank.
That Shakspere was loved as well as admired by many of his cotemporaries, is well authenticated. Ben Jonson (a warm hearted man, as well as a sterling writer) declares, “I do love the man and honour his memory, on this side of idolatry, as much as any: he was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature ;” and the editors of the folio edition of the plays, say that they have collected them “to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive, as was ur Shakspere." Whether the poet was beloved by any one of the opposite sex, remains a mystery. From the tenor of some of his sonnets, there is reason to suppose that he attached himself to some female, and that he was ill requited.
A few years ago some papers were written on this obscure subject, entitled, if I remember rightly, “ The Confessions of Shakspere.” They were made out, with great ingenuity, from the “ Sonnets" alone; combining and consolidating the several parts of each into one (as it were) authentic narrative. And, indeed, as one travels through these records of the great
The following is Puller's account of Shakspere, in his “Worthies of ENGLAND:" " He was an eminent instance of the truth of that rule, 'poeta non fil, sed nascitur: one is not made but born a poet.' 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. Shakspere, like an 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.”