Page images

well be imagined, that interest or affection would have induced some of these to collect every material connected with his life, which his surviving relatives would without doubt have been willing to communicate.

It is much to be regretted that no attempt of this kind was made before the year 1709, when an edi. tion of Shakspeare was undertaken by Mr. Nicholas Rowe, the dramatic poet, to which he prefixed some biographical particulars, which were communicated by Betterton, the celebrated player, who had visited Warwickshire in order to obtain them : but too long a period had now elapsed : most of the circumstances of the poet's private life were irrecoverably lost, and the inquiries of the tragedian were comparatively unsuccessful. A few traditional anecdotes, trivial in themselves, and unsupported by sufficient evidence, were indeed procured, and learned men have since added to the number of these scanty materials, the most authentic of which we now present to the reader. Perhaps the obscurity in which the circumcumstances of our author's life are involved shed a sublimity and halo round his magic name, which a more detailed narrative might fail to have afforded.

William Shakspeare, the son of John and Mary Shakspeare, was born at Stratford-on-Avon, in Warwickshire, on the 23rd of April, 1564, and was baptised on the 26th of the same month. • His family,' says Mr. Rowe, 'as appears by the register and public writings relating to that town, were of good figure and fashion there, and are mentioned as gentlemen. Certain it is that the family of Shakspeare is of great antiquity in the county of Warwick, where it was established long before our author's time: we may presume, however, that the patrimony of Mr. John Shakspeare, the father of our dramatist, was insufficient for the support of his family, independent of trade. He was, in fact, a wool-stapler; and it may be conjectured that during the former part of his life he was in prosperous

circumstances, since we find that he was early chosen a member of the corporation of Stratford, and shortly after high bailiff or chief magistrate, now distinguished by the title of mayor. This office he filled in 1569, as appears by the following extracts from the books of the corporation :

• Jan. 10. in the sixth year of the reign of our sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth, John Shakspeare passed his chamberlain's accounts.'

· At the hall holden the eleventh day of September, in the eleventh year of the reign of our sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth, 1569, were present Mr. John Shakspeare, high bailiff.'

During the period that he filled this office he first obtained a grant of arms ; and, in a note annexed to the subsequent patent of 1596, now in

lege of Arms, it is stated that he was likewise a justice of the peace, and possessed of lands and tenements to the amount of 5001.

Our author's mother was the daughter and heiress of R. Arden, of Wellingcote, in the county of Warwick, who, in the manuscript above referred to, is called 'a gentleman of worship.' This family appears to have been of considerable antiquity, R. Arden, of Bromwich, Esq. being recorded in Fuller's Worthies, among the names of the gentry of this county returned by the commissioners in the twelfth year of Henry VI, A. D. 1433. E. Arden was sheriff for the county in 1568. In consequence of this marriage, Mr. John Shakspeare and his posterity were allowed, by the college of heralds, to impale their arms with the ancient arms of the Ardens of Wellingcote.

Although the father of Shakspeare, at the period of his marriage, appears to have been in easy if not affluent circumstances, an unfavorable change in his prospects may be inferred, because he was excused, in 1579, the weekly payment of 4d., and dismissed the corporation in 1586, as appears from the books, where it is stated that

• At the hall holden November 19th, in the twenty-first year of the reign of our sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth, it is ordained, that every

alderman shall be taxed to pay weekly 4d., saving J. Shakspeare and R. Bruce, who shall not be taxed to pay any thing; and every burgess to pay 2d.'

• At the hall holden on the sixth day of September, in the twenty-eighth year of our sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth: at this hall W. Smith and R. Courte are chosen to be aldermen, in the places of J. Wheler and J. Shakspeare, for that Mr. Wheler doth desire to be put out of the company, and Mr. Shakspeare doth not come to the halls, when they be warned, nor hath not done of a long time.'

Little more than two months had passed over the head of the infant Shakspeare, when the plague, which in that and the preceding year was so fatal to England, broke out at Stratford-on-Avon, and raged with such violence between the 30th of June and the last day of December, that a seventh part of the population were carried off by the disorder. Fortunately for mankind, it did not reach the house where the infant Shakspeare lay; for not one of that name appears in the dead list.

It appears impossible to ascertain at what period Shakspeare was sent by his father to the free-school at Stratford, where he received his education. Of his school-days, unfortunately, no account whatever has come down to us : we are, therefore, unable to mark his gradual advancement, or to point out the early presages of future renown, which his extraordinary parts must have afforded. Were our poet's early history accurately known, it would unquestionably furnish us with many indications of that genius, which afterwards rendered him the admiration of the whole civilised world.

Although we know not how long he continued at school, or what proficiency he made there, we may, with the highest probability, assume, that he acquired a competent, though perhaps not a profound knowlege of the Latin language: for why should it be supposed that he, who surpassed all mankind in his maturer years, made less proficiency than his fellows in his youth, while he had the benefit of instructors equally skilful ? Even Ben Jonson, who undoubtedly was inclined rather to depreciate than overrate his rival's literary talents, allows that he knew some Latin. In the school of Stratford, therefore, we see no reason to suppose that Shakspeare was outstripped by his contemporaries. Dr. Farmer indeed has proved by unanswerable arguments that he was furnished by translations with most of those topics, which for half a century had been urged as indisputable proofs of his erudition. But though his Essay is decisive in this respect, it by no means proves that he had not acquired, at the school of Stratford, a moderate knowlege of Latin, though, perhaps, he never attained such a mastery of that language as to read it without the occasional aid of a dictionary. Like many other scholars who have not

« PreviousContinue »