[merged small][ocr errors]




ILLIAM SHAKSPEARE was born at Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire, on the 23d day of April, 1564. Of the rank of his family it is not easy to form an opinion. Mr. Rowe says, that by the register and certain public writings relating to Stratford, it appears that his ancestors were “ of good figure and fashion” in that town, and are mentioned as “gentlemen," an epithet which was certainly more determinate then than at present, when it has become an unlimited phrase of courtesy. His father, John Shakspeare, was a considerable dealer in wool, and had been an officer and bailiff (pro bably high-bailiff or mayor) of the body corporate of Stratford. He held also the office of justice of the peace, and at one time, it is said, possessed lands and tenendents to the amount of five hundred pounds, the reward of his grandfather's faithful and approved services to king Henry the Seventh. This, however, has been asserted upon very doubtful authority. Mr. Malone thinks “it is highly probable that he distinguished himself in Bosworth Field on the side of king Henry, and that he was rewarded for his military services by the bounty of that parsimonious prince, though not with a grant of lands. No such graut appears in the chapel of the Rolls, from the beginning to the end of Henry's reign.” But whatever may have been bris former wealth, it appears to have been greatly reduced in the latter part of his life, as we find, from the books of the corporation, that in 1579 he was excused the trifling weekly tax of four-pence levied on all the aldennen ; and that in 1586 another alderman was appointed in his room, in consequence of his declining to attend on the business of that office. It is even said by Aubrey', a man sufficiently accurate in facts, although credulous in superstitious narratives and traditions, that he followed for some time the occupation of a butcher, which Mr. Malone thinks not inconsistent with probability. It must have been, however, at this time, no inconsiderable addition to his difficulties that he had a family of ten children. His wife was the daughter and heiress of Robert Arden of Wellingcote, in the county of Warwick, who is styled, “ a gentleman of worship.” The family of Arden is tery ancient, Robert Arden of Bromich, esq. being in the list of the gentry of this county,

' MSS. Aubrey, Mus. Ashmol. Oxon, examined by Mr. Malone.

[ocr errors]

returned by the commissioners in the twelfth year of king Henry the Sixth, anno Domini 1433. Edward Arden was sheriff of the county in 1568. The woodland part of this county was anciently called Ardern, afterwards softened to Arden: and hence the name.

Our illustrious poet was the eldest son, and received his early education, whether narrow or liberal, at a free-school, probably that founded at Stratford; but from this he appears to have been soon removed, and placed, according to Mr. Malone's opinion, in the office of some country attorney, or the seneschal of some manor court, where it is highly probable be picked up those technical law phrases that so frequently occur in his plays, and could not have been in common use unless among professional men. Mr. Capell conjectures that his early marriage prevented his being sent to some university. It appears, however, as Dr. Farmer observes, that his early life was incompatible with a course of education, and it is certain that “his contemporaries, friends and foes, vay, and himself likewise, agree in his want of what is usually termed literature." It is, indeed, a strong argument in favour of Shakspeare's illiterature, that it was maintained by all his contemporaries, many of whom have left upon record every merit they could bestow on bim ; and by his successors, who lived nearest to his time, when“ his memory was green;" and that it has been denied only by Gildon, Sewell, and others, down to Upton, who could have no means of ascertaining the truth.

In his eighteenth year, or perhaps a little sooner, he married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years older than himself, the daughter of one Hathaway, who is said to have been a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford. Of his domestic economy, , or professional occupation, at this time, we have no information, but it would appear that both were in a considerable degree neglected by his associating with a gang of deerstealers. Being detected with them in robbing the park of sir Thomas Lucy of Charle cote, near Stratford, be was so rigorously prosecuted by that gentleman as to be obliged By to leave his family and business, and take shelter in London. Sir Thomas, on this occasion, is said to have been exasperated by a ballad Shakspeare wrote, probably his first essay in poetry, of which the following stanza was communicated to Mr. Oldys ;

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

A parliemente member, a justice of peace,
At home a poor scare-crowe, at London an asse,
If lowsie is Lucy, as some volke miscalle it,
Then Lucy is lowsie whatever befall it:

He thinks himself greate,

Yet an asse in his state
We allowe by his ears but with asses to mate.
If Lucy is lowsie, as some volke miscalle it,
Sing lowsie Lucy, whatever befall it."

These lines, it must be confessed, do no great honour to our poet, and probably were unjust, for although some of his admirers have recorded sir Thomas as a “ vain, weak, and vindictive magistrate," he was certainly exerting no very violent act of oppression, in protecting his property against a man who was degrading the commonest rank of life, and had at this time bespoke no indulgence by superior talents. The ballad, However, must have made some noise at sir Thomas's expense, as the author took care it should be affixed to his park-gates, and liberally circulated among his neighbours.

On his arrival in London, which was probably in 1586, when he was twenty-two

years old, he is said to have made his first acquaintance in the play-house, to which idleness or taste may have directed him, and where his necessities, if tradition may be credited, obliged him to accept the office of call-boy, or prompter's attendant. This is a menial whose employment it is to give the performers notice to be ready to enter, as often as the business of the play requires their appearance on the stage. Pope, however, relates a story, communicated to him by Rowe, but which Rowe did not think deserving of a place in the life he wrote, that must a little retard the advancement of our poet to the office just mentioned. According to this story, Shakspeare's first employment was to wait at the door of the play-house, and hold the horses of those who had no servants, that they might be ready after the performance. But, “I cannot,” says his acute commentator, Mr. Steevens, "discuss this anecdote without observing that it seems to want every mark of probability. Though Shakspeare quitted Stratford on account of a juvenile irregularity, we have no reason to suppose that he had forfeited the protection of his father, who was engaged in a lucrative business, or the love of his wife, who had already brought him two children, and was herself the daughter of a substantial yeoman. It is unlikely, therefore, when he was beyond the reach of his prosecutor, that he should conceal his plan of life, or place of residence, from those who, if he found himself distressed, could not fail to afford him such supplies as would have set him above the necessity of holding horses for subsistence. Mr. Malone has remarked in his " Attempt to ascertain the Order in which the Plays of Shakspeare were written," that he might have found an easy introduction to the stage; for Thomas Green, a celebrated comedian of that period, was his townsman, and perhaps his relation. The genius of our author prompted him to write poetry; his connection with a player might have given his productions a dramatic turn; or his own sagacity might have taught him that fame was not incompatible with profit, and that the theatre was an avenue to both. That it was once the general custom to ride on horse-back to the play, I am likewise yet to learn. The most popular of the theatres were on the Bank Side; and we are told by the satirical pamphleteers of that time, that the usual mode of conveyance to these places of amusement was by water, but not a single writer so much as hints at the custom of riding to them, or at the practice of having horses held during the hours of exhibition. Some allusion to this usage, (if it had existed) must, I think, have been discovered in the course of our researches after contemporary fashions. Let it be remembered too, that we receive this tale on no higher authority than that of Cibber's Lives of the Poets, vol. i. p. 130. Sir William Davenant told it to Mr. Betterton, who communicated it to Mr. Rowe, who, according to Dr. Johnson, related it to Mr. Pope." Mr. Malone concurs in opinion that this story stands on a very slender foundation, while he differs from Mr, Steevens as to the fact of gentlemen going to the theatre on horseback. With respect likewise to Shakspeare's father being gaged in a lucrative business," we may remark that this could not have been the case at the time our author came to London, if the preceding dates be correct. He is said to have arrived in London in 1586, the year in which his father resigned the office of alderman, unless indeed we are permitted to conjecture that his resignation was not the consequence of his necessities.



But in whatever situation he was first employed at the theatre, he appears to have soon discovered those talents which afterwards made him

"Th' applause! delight! the wonder of our stage."

« VorigeDoorgaan »