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LIFE OF SHAKESPEARE
BY EDWARD DOWDEN, LL.D.
THE life of Shakespeare has been threefold: first, the external life of good and evil fortune which he lived as a youth in Stratford, as a player and playwright in London, and again as an honoured inhabitant of his native town; secondly, the inner life of his spirit, the wide-orbing movement of his intellect and imagination of which we can read something in his marvellous series of poetical creations, and can conjecture more; and last, the life which he has lived during three hundred years in the history of the national mind of England, or rather we should say the mind of humanity, the life of posthumous influence which he has exercised, and exercises at the present day, on the generations of mankind. Of each of these it will be our endeavour to speak.
"All that is known with any degree of certainty concerning Shakespeare 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 playsreturned to Stratford, made his will, died and was buried." So wrote Steevens a century ago, and De Quincey at a much more recent date is even briefer in his summing-up of the facts: "That he lived, and that he died, and that he was 'a little lower than the angels'-these make up pretty nearly the amount of our undisputed report." Having spoken of the perplexity which we are likely to feel on finding the materials for the biography of a transcendent writer so meagre and so few, De Quincey goes on to solve the difficulty by an elaborate argument intended to prove that the parliamentary war and the local feuds engendered by it extinguished those traditions and memorials of Shakespeare which, he says, must have been abundant up to that era. In truth there is no great cause for wonder or perplexity. More is known of Shakespeare's life than Steevens and De Quincey allege. More is known of Shakespeare's life than of the lives of many of his dramatic contemporaries. Far less has been ascertained respecting the life of Marlowe, whose fame stood so high in Elizabethan days, and whose personality was undoubtedly a striking one. Far less has been ascertained respecting the life of Webster or the life of Ford, although these dramatists flourished at a later time, and one of them was a gentleman of posi
tion. The materials for John Fletcher's biography are of the scantiest kind; it is not certain whether he went to Cambridge; it is not certain whether he lived and died unmarried; from 1593 to 1607 his history is a complete blank. Yet Fletcher was highly honoured by his contemporaries; he survived till the opening of the reign of Charles I.; his father was the Bishop of London. The Elizabethan age was not an age of literary biography; a playwright, unless, like Ben Jonson, he were distinguished for his scholarship and classical learning, was hardly thought of as a man of letters. Our wonder as regards Shakespeare should be, not that we know so little, but that we know so much. Our acquaintance with the facts of his outward history-partly founded on tradition, partly on documents-is due to the zeal of lovers of the great dramatist, from the actor Betterton to the latest and most indefatigable of investigators, Mr. HalliwellPhillipps. We cannot hope that much additional light will ever be gained. The facts which we possess are enough to assure us that the greatest of poets conducted his material life, after, perhaps, some errors of his ardent youth, wisely and well to a prosperous issue. They are enough to prove his good sense and discreet dealing in worldly affairs.
Richard Shakespeare, the poet's grandfather, was a Warwickshire farmer, renting land at Snitterfield, a village some three or four miles from Stratfordon-Avon. His son John, evidently a man of some enterprise and energy, settled at Stratford about 1551, and did business in Henley Street as a fellmonger and glover. According to Aubrey he was a butcher, and it may be that he slaughtered the beasts whose skins he converted into gauntlets and leggings; according to Rowe he was a considerable dealer in wool, and it is certain that he had transactions in corn and in timber. In 1557 he greatly improved his position by his marriage with Mary, the youngest and the favourite daughter of Robert Arden, a wealthy farmer, lately deceased, of the neighbouring hamlet of Wilmecote. That these Ardens were connected with an ancient family of gentlefolk of that name has been asserted, and may be true, but the statement cannot be proved. Mary Arden inherited from her father an estate of some sixty acres, known as Asbies, at Wilmecote, together with the reversion to part of a larger property at Snitterfield, on which Snitterfield property her father-inlaw, Richard Shakespeare, held land as a tenant. From this date John Shakespeare became a person of some importance at Stratford, and he rose year by year in the esteem of his fellow-townsmen. Appointed at first by the corporation one of the officers whose duty it was to supervise malt liquors and bread, he became in 1561 a chamberlain of the borough, in 1565 an alderman, and in 1568 he was elected to the most important official position in the town, that of high bailiff. It is true that he could not write even his name, but the accomplishment of penmanship was rare among the members of the corporation. He was certainly a successful man of business and a skilful accountant.
In the house in Henley Street towards the close of April, 1564, was born