« PreviousContinue »
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 highbailiff 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. There is no direct testimony to support it. 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, after. wards 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 favour of Shakspeare's illite. rature, 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 succes. sors, 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 Hatha. way, who was eight years older than himself, the daughter of one Hathaway, who is said to have been a substantial geoman 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 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 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 twentytwo 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 ght 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 geoman. 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. 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 repre. sented 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 favour of Queen Elizabeth, who was very fond of the stage: and the particular and affectionate patronage of the Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedi. cated 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 pur. chase. 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 lost 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 Buck. ingham. These brief notices, meagre as they are, may show that our author enjoyed high favour 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 candour, 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.
Ilow 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 Shak. speare 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 candour 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 endeavoured to arrogate the supremacy in dramatic genius. Like a French critic, he insinuated 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 universi. ties, 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 to 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 an. num, 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
In 1603, he and several others obtained a licence from King James to exbibit comedies, tragedies, histories, &c., at the Globe Theatre and elsewbere.
* This was the practice in Milton's days. "One of his objections to academical educa. tion, as it was then conducted, is, ibat men designed for orders in the Church were pez. mitted to act plays," &e. Johnson's Life of Mason