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LIFE OF SHAKS P E A R E.
BY ALEXANDER CHALMERS, A.M.
William 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 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 (probably 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 tenements to the amount of £500, the reward of his grandfather's faithful and approved services to King Henry VII. 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 grant appears in the Chapel of the Rolls, from the beginning to the end of Herry's reign.” But whatever may have been his 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 fourpence levied on all the aldermen; 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 very ancient, Robert Arden of Bromich, Esq., being in the list of the gentry of this country returned by the commissioners in the twelfth year of King Henry VI, A. D. 1433. Edward Arden was sheriff of the county in 1568. The woodland part of this country was anciently called Ardern, afterwards softened to Arden ; and hence the name.
Our illustrious poet was the eldest son, and received his early education, however narrow or liberal, at a free school, probably that founded at Stratford. 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 he 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, nay, and himself likewise, agree in his want of what is usually termed literature.” It is, indeed, a strong argument in favor 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 him; 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 neighborhood 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
MSS. Aubrey, Mus. Ashmol. Oxon, examined by Mr. Malone.
associating with a gang of deer-stealers. Being detected with them in robbing the park of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, near Stratford, he was so rigorously prosecuted by that gentleman, as to be obliged 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 :
A parliemente member, a justice of peace,
He thinks himself greate,
Yet an asse in his state
Sing lowsie Lucy, whatever befall it. These lines, it must be confessed, do no great honor 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 neighbors.
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,“ dismiss 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 horseback to the play, I am likewise yet to learn. The most popular of the theatres were on the Bankside; 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 “ engaged 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! Some distinction he probably first acquired as an actor, although Mr. Rowe has not been able to discover any character in which he appeared to more advantage than that of the ghost in Hamlet. The instructions given to the player in that tragedy, and other passages of his works, show an intimate acquaintance with the skill of acting, and such as is scarcely surpassed in our own days. He appears to have studied nature in acting as much as in writing. But all this might have been mere theory. Mr. Malone is of opinion he was no great actor. The distinction, however, which he might obtain as an actor could only be in his own plays, in which he would be assisted by the novel appearance of author and actor combined. Before his time, it does not appear that any actor could avail himself of the wretched pieces represented on the stage.
Mr. Rowe regrets that he cannot inform us which was the first play he wrote. More skilful research has since found, that Romeo and Juliet, and Richard II and III were printed in 1597, when he was thirty-three years old; there is also some reason to think that-he commenced as a dramatic writer in 1592, and Mr. Malone even places his first play, “ First Part of Henry VI,” in 1589. His plays,
however, must have been not only popular, but approved by persons of the higher order, as we are certain, that he enjoyed the gracious favor of Queen Elizabeth, who was very fond of the stage: and the particular and affectionate patronage of the Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his poems of " Venus and Adonis," and his “Tarquin and Lucrece.” On Sir William Davenant's authority, it has been asserted, that this nobleman at one time gave him a thousand pounds to enable him to complete a purchase. At the conclusion of the advertisement prefixed to Lintot's edition of Shakspeare's poems, it is said, “ That most learned prince, and great patron of learning, King James the First, was pleased, with his own hand, to write an amicable letter to Mr. Shakspeare; which letter, though now İost
, remained long in the hands of Sir William D'Avenant, as a credible person now living can testify." Dr. Farmer with great probability supposes, that this letter was written by King James, in return for the compliment paid to him in Macbeth. The relater of this anecdote was Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham. These brief notices, meagre as they are, may show that our author enjoyed high favor in his day. Whatever we may think of King James as a “ learned prince,” his patronage, as well as that of his predecessor, was sufficient to give celebrity to the founder of a new stage. It may be added, that his uncommon merit, his candor, and good nature, are supposed to have procured him the admiration and acquaintance of every person distinguished for such qualities. It is not difficult, indeed, to suppose, that Shakspeare was a man of humor, and a social companion, and probably excelled in that species of minor wit not ill adapted to conversation, of which it could have been wished he had been more sparing in his writings.
How long he acted has not been discovered, but he continued to write till the year 1614. During his dramatic career he acquired a property in the theatre,' which he must have disposed of when he retired, as no mention of it occurs in his will. His connection with Ben Jonson has been variously related. It is said, that when Jonson was unknown to the world, he offered a play to the theatre, which was rejected after a very careless perusal, but that Shakspeare having accidentally cast his eye on it, conceived a favorable opinion of it, and afterwards recommended Jonson and his writings to the public. For this candor he was repaid by Jonson, when the latter became a poet of note, with an envious disrespect. Jonson acquired reputation by the variety of his pieces, and endeavored to arrogate the supremacy in dramatic genius. Like a French critic, he insinualed Shakspeare's incorrectness, his careless manner of writing, and his want of judgment; and, as he was a remarkably slow writer himself, he could not endure the praise frequently bestowed on Shakspeare, of seldom altering or blotting out what he had written. Mr. Malone says, “ that not long after the year 1600, a coolness arose between Shakspeare and him, which, however he may talk of his almost idolatrous affection, produced on his part, from that time to the death of our author, and for many years afterwards, much clumsy sarcasm, and many malevolent reflections." But from these, which are the commonly received opinions on this subject, Dr. Farmer is inclined to depart, and to think Jonson's hostility to Shakspeare absolutely groundless; so uncertain is every circumstance we attempt to recover of our great poet's life. Jonson had only one advantage over Shakspeare, that of superior learning, which might in certain situations give him a superior rank, but could never promote his rivalship with a man who attained the highest excellence without it. Nor will Shakspeare suffer by its being known, that all the dramatic poets before he appeared were scholars. Greene, Lodge, Peele, Marlowe, Nashe, Lily, and Kyd, had all, says Mr. Malone, a regular university education; and, as scholars in our universities, frequently composed and acted plays on historical subjects."
The latter part of Shakspeare's life was spent in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends. He had accumulated considerable property, which Gildon (in his “ Letters and Essays,” 1694) stated lo amount to £300 per annum, a sum at least equal to £1000 in our days; but Mr. Malone doubts whether all his property amounted to much more than £200 per annum, which yet was a considerable fortune in those times, and it is supposed that he might have derived £200 per annum from the theatre while he continued on the stage.
He retired some years before his death to a house in Stratford, of which it has been thought important to give the history. It was built by Sir Hugh Clopton, a younger brother of an ancient family in that neighborhood. Sir Hugh was Sheriff of London in the reign of Richard III, and Lord Mayor in the reign of Henry VII. By his will, he bequeathed to his elder brother's son, his manor of Clopton, &c., and his house by the name of the Great House in Stratford. A good part of the estate was in possession of Edward Clopton, Esq., and Sir Hugh Clopton, Knight, in 1733. The principal estate had been sold out of the Clopton family for above a century, at the time when Shakspeare became the purchaser; who having repaired and modelled it to his own mind, changed the name to New Place, which the mansion-house, afterwards erected in the room of the poet's house, retained for many years. The house and lands belonging to it continued in the possession of Shakspeare's descendants to the time of the Restoration, when they were re-purchased by the Clopton family. Here, in May, 1742, when Mr. Garrick, Mr. Macklin, and Mr. Delane, visited Stratford, they were hospitably entertained under Shakspeare's mulberry tree by Sir Hugh Clopton. He was a barrister at law, was knighted by King George I, and died in the 80th year of his age, in December, 1751. His executor, about the year 1752, sold New Place to the Rev. Mr. Gastrell, a man of large fortune, who resided in it but a few years, in consequence of a disagreement with the inhabitants of Stratford. As he resided part of the year at Litchfield, he thought he was assessed too highly in the monthly rate towards the maintenance of the poor; but being very properly compelled by the magistrates of Stratford to pay the whole of what was levied on him, on the principle that his house was occupied by his servants in his absence, he peevishly declared that that house should never be assessed again ; and soon afterwards pulled it down, sold the materials, and left the town. He had some time before cut down Shakspeare's mulberry • Note by Mr. Malone to "Additional Anecdotes of William Shakspeare."
In 1603, he and several others obtained a licence from King James to exhibit comedies, tragedies, histories, &c., at the Globe Theatre and elsewhere.
. This was the practice in Milton's days. "One of his objections to academical education, as it was then conducted, it, that men designed for orders in the Church were permitted to act plays,” &c. Johnson's Life of Milton.
tree, to save himself the trouble of showing it to those whose adiniration of our great poet led them
During Shakspeare's abode in this house, his pleasurable wit, and good nature, says Mr. Rowe,
Ten in the hundred lies here engraved,
Ohi hol quoth the devil, 'tis my John-a-Combe.
He died on his birth-day, Tuesday, April 23, 1616, when he had exactly completed his fifty-second
Judicio Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem,
Terra legit, populus mardi, Olympus habd.
To this Latin inscription on Shakspeare may be added the lines which are found underneath it on
Stay, passenger, why dost thou go so fast?
Obiit, Ano Dni. 1616.
æt. 53, die 23 Apri.
Good Friend for Iesus SAKE forbeare
And curst be He moves my Bones.
We have no account of the malady which, at no very advanced age, closed the life and labors of this
His family consisted of two daughters, and a son named Hamnet, who died in 1596, in the twelfth
8 " As the curiosity of this house and tree brought much fame, and more company and profit to the town, a certain
6 The only notice we have of his person is from Aubrey, who says, “ he was a handsome well-shaped man;" and
Hall, a physician, who died November, 1635, aged sixty. Mrs. Hall died July 11, 1649, aged sixtysix. They left only one child, Elizabeth, born 1607-8, and married April 22, 1626, to Thomas Nashe, Esq., who died in 1647; and afterwards to Sir John Barnard, of Abington, in Northamptonshire; but died without issue by either husband. Judith, Shakspeare's youngest daughter, was married to a Mr. Thomas Quiney, and died February, 1661-62, in her seventy-seventh year. By Mr. Quiney she had three sons, Shakspeare, Richard, and Thomas, who all died unmarried. Sir Hugh Clopton, who was born two years after the death of Lady Barnard, which happened in 1669-70, related to Mr. Macklin, in 1742, an old tradition, that she had carried away with her from Stratford, many of her grandfather's papers. On the death of Sir John Barnard, Mr. Malone thinks these must have fallen into the hands of Mr. Edward Bagley, Lady Barnard's executor; and if any descendant of that gentleman be now living, in his custody they probably remain. To this account of Shakspeare's family we have now to add, that among Oldys's papers is another traditional gossip's story of his having been the father of Sir William Davenant. Oldys's relation is thus given:
** If tradition may be trusted, Shakspeare often baited at the Crown Inn or Tavern in Oxford, in his journey to and from London. The landlady was a woman of great beauty and sprightly wit, and her husband, Mr. John Davenant. (afterwards mayor of that city,) a grave melancholy man; who, as well as his wife, used much to delight in Shakspeare's pleasant company. Their son, young Will. Davenant, (afterwards Sir William,) was then a little school-boy in the town, of about seven or eight years old, and so fond also of Shakspeare, that whenever he heard of his arrival, he would fly from school to see him. One day, an old townsman, observing the boy running homeward almost out of breath, asked him whither he was posting in that heat and hurry. He answered, to see his god-father Shakspeare. There's a good boy, said the other, but have a care that you don't take God's name in vain. This story, Mr. Pope told me at the Earl of Oxford's table, upon occasion of some discourse which arose about Shakspeare's monument, then newly erected in Westminster Abbey.”
This story appears to have originated with Anthony Wood, and it has been thought a presumption of its being true, that, after careful examination, Mr. Thomas Warton was inclined to believe it." Mr. Steerens, however, treats it with the utmost contempt; but does not, perhaps, argue with his usual attention to experience, when he brings Sir William Davenant's “heavy, vulgar, unmeaning face,” as a proof that he could not be Shakspeare's son.
In the year 1741, a monument was erected to our poet in Westminster Abbey, by the direction of the Earl of Burlington, Dr. Mead, Mr. Pope, and Mr. Martyn. It was the work of Scheemaker, (who received £300 for it,) after a design of Kent, and was opened in January of that year. The performers of each of the London theatres gave a benefit to defray the expenses, and the Dean and Chapter of Westminster took nothing for the ground. The money received by the performance at Drury Lane theatre amounted to above £200, but the receipts at Covent Garden did not exceed £100.
From these imperfect notices, which are all we have been able to collect from the labors of his biographers and commentators, our readers will perceive that less is known of Shakspeare than of almost any writer who has been considered as an object of laudable curiosity. Nothing could be more higbly gratifying than an account of the early studies of this wonderful man, the progress of his pen, his moral and social qualities, his friendships, his failings, and whatever else constitutes personal history. But on all these topics his contemporaries and his immediate successors have been equally silent, and if aught can be hereafter discovered, it must be by exploring sources which have hitherto escaped the anxious researches of those who have devoted their whole lives, and their most vigorous talents, to revive his memory and illustrate his writings. In the sketch we have given, if the dates of his birth and death be excepted, what is there on which the reader can depend, or for which, if he contend eagerly, he may not be involved in controversy, and perplexed with contradictory opinions and authorities?
It is usually said that the life of an author can be little else than a history of his works; but this opinion is liable to many exceptions. If an author, indeed, has passed his days in retirement, his life can afford little more variety than that of any other man who has lived in retirement; but if, as is generally the case with writers of great celebrity, he has acquired a pre-eminence over his contemporaries, if he has excited rival contentions, and defeated the attacks of criticism or of malignity, or if he has plunged into the controversies of his age, and performed the part either of a tyrant or a hero in literature, his history may be rendered as interesting as that of any other public character. But whatever weight may be allowed to this remark, the decision will not be of much consequence in the case of Shakspeare. Unfortunately, we know as little of his writings as of his personal history. The industry of his illustrators for the last thirty years has been such, as probably never was surpassed in the annals of erary investigation ; yet so far are we from information of the conclusive or satisfactory kind, that even the order in which his plays were written, rests principally on conjecture, and of some plays usually printed among his works, it is not yet determined whether he wrote the whole, or any part.
Much of our ignorance of every thing which it would be desirable to know respecting Shakspeare's works, must be imputed to the author himself. If we look merely at the state in which he left his productions, we should be apt to conclude, either that he was insensible of their value, or that, while he was the greatest, he was at the same time the humblest writer the world ever produced—“that he thought his works unworthy of posterity—that he levied no ideal tribute upon future times, nor had any farther prospect, than that of present popularity and present profit.” And such an opinion, although it apparently partakes of the ease and looseness of conjecture, may not be far from probability. But before we allow it any higher merit, or attempt to decide upon the affection or neglect with which he reviewed his labors, it may be necessary to consider their precise nature, and certain circumstances in his situation which affected them; and, above all, we must take into our account the character and predominant occupations of the times in which he lived, and of those which followed his decease.
* Dr. Johnson's Preface,