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play, he has portrayed in the character of the pedantic but not unkindly Holofernes the schoolmaster of his own early days.
John Shakespeare's fortunes, which were at their height in 1568, when he was chief magistrate, began to decline some few years later. In 1578-9 he was obliged to part with his wife's property in Wilmecote and Snitterfield ; and in 1586, after being painfully pressed by creditors, he was deprived of his alderman's gown. These troubles probably cut short Shakespeare's school life, and at the age of about
thirteen he joined his father in the support of the family, there being four or five younger children.
A few years later, in 1582, William married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a "husbandman" of Shottery, a
, hamlet just outside Stratford, to the west. The marriage was a hasty one, the bride was eight years older than the youthful bridegroom, and there are grounds for thinking that the match was repented of. daughter, Susannah, was born in 1583, and a son and daughter, twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. At about this time, 1585, Shakespeare left Stratford and came to London, and for eleven years his family saw little or nothing of him. Tradition gives as the reason for this hasty leaving, a poaching adventure in the woods of Charlecote, a few miles up the Avon; and there is little doubt that in the character of Justice Shallow in King Henry IV. and in the Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare pokes fun at the pompous and not overwise Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote.
When Shakespeare came to London there were two theatres only, The Theatre and the Curtain, both without
the city walls, in Shoreditch. To one of these he appears to have become speedily attached in some humble capacity, but before long he rose to be an actor of repute, and at Christmas, 1594, he joined Burbage and Kemp, the Garrick and Grimaldi of the time, in playing before the Queen at Greenwich Palace. In 1599 a larger theatre, the Globe, was built at Bankside, in Southwark, and there Shakespeare was both actor and part owner, and derived a large revenue therefrom.
Shakespeare's earliest dramatic work was almost certainly Love's Labour's Lost, and it is thought to have been written about 1591. It gives a lively picture of the manners of the fashionable gentlemen of the time, especially of their affectation in speech, the “Euphuism" on which they so much prided themselves. Side by side with this there are amusing pictures of rustic life and manners, such as Shakespeare remembered them at Stratford. The Comedy of Errors and the Two Gentlemen of Verona were not much later; and the two beautiful plays, A Midsummer-Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet, are also thought to belong to this early time.
At about the same time Shakespeare appears to have been employed by theatrical managers in recasting old plays, and, working either alone or perhaps in conjunction with Marlowe, he produced what we now have as the three parts of King Henry VI. The plays of Richard III. and Richard II., which followed soon after, bear many traces of the influence of Marlowe. In 1593 Shakespeare published the poem Venus and Adonis, dedicating it to the Earl of Southampton, a rich young nobleman of Elizabeth's court, who was one of the chief patrons of learning. In the following year he dedicated to him the poem The Rape of Lucrece, with language of extreme devotion. “The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end. What I have done is yours, what I have to do
The earl became his warm friend and patron, and is said to have given him a thousand pounds on one occasion to enable him to complete a purchase.
In 1596 Shakespeare's son Hamnet died, and then, if not before, the poet revisited his native town. From this time his father's pecuniary troubles ceased. Application was made to the Herald's Court for a coat of arms, and this was granted in 1599. In 1597 the poet bought New Place, the largest house in Stratford ; a few years later he bought more than a hundred acres of land near the town, and made also a valuable investment in the town tithes. Meanwhile his
success in London as a dramatist was becoming ever more
His early plays were like those of other men but better, but now he produced plays of greater power and greater originality. King John, with its indignant protests against papal aggression, appeared about 1595, and the two parts of King Henry IV. a year or two later. In Henry IV. appeared the inimitable Falstaff, who so delighted the Queen that she commanded Shakespeare to show the fat knight in
love, and to this command, we are told, we owe the play of the Merry Wives of Windsor. King Henry V. appeared about 1599, and with it Shakespeare closed his noble series of plays from English history, for Henry VIII., which appeared later, is only in part his work.
To this same period, the closing years of the century, belong some of the most charming of Shakespeare's comedies : Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and All's Well that Ends Well. The woodland scenery in As You Like It seems to be an idealised picture of the Warwickshire woods, through which the poet roved in Kis youth. Before the close of the century, and perhaps as early as 1593 or 1594, we must place all, or nearly all, of the Sonnets. It has been thought that these beautiful little poems enshrine the secrets of the poet's life; that in them Shakespeare "unlocked his heart”. But it seems probable that they are like the dramas -works of the imagination, and that it is the genius of the poet which has given them their intense reality. Many of them are undoubtedly in praise of Shakespeare's patron—the young and unmarried Southampton-and it is possible that in a few of them the poet may have given glimpses of himself.
With the new century Shakespeare put forth a series of tragedies, the noblest creations of his genius, but also the most sombre-and terrible : Julius Cæsar, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear, Coriolanus, and others. Nowhere is the cruel irony of fate and the vanity of human wishes more vividly shown than in these plays, and it has been thought that they reflect the poet's own feeling of life-weariness, and of man's inability to grapple with and solve the deep problems of human life. But this period of gloom passed, and the latest group of plays,
, Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winter's Tale, are suffused with a mild sunshine which is in strong contrast with the darkness and terror of Lear and Hamlet and Macbeth. In these latest plays the poet draws beautiful pictures of forgiveness of cruel wrong; of reconciliations after long estrangements, and of reunions of scattered families. Imogen in Cymbeline and Miranda in The Tempest are two of Shakespeare's most perfect pictures of womanhood, and nothing can excel the beauty of the scenes in The Winter's Tale, in which Perdita with her flowers appears.
The Winter's Tale and The Tempest were written about 1610 or 1611, and by that date, if not earlier, Shakespeare