Page images

which was probably his last play, had lived to repent his too early marriage, and the indulgence of an affection so much "misgrafted in respect of years." Such is the conjecture of Malone; but it is hardly fair to apply personally to the poet the general maxims that may be discovered in his works. His daughter Susanna was born in the following year. The parish register of Stratford informs us that within eighteen months afterwards his wife bore twins, a son and daughter, who were baptized by the names of Hamet and Judith: and thus, when little more than twenty, Shakspeare had already a wife and three children dependent on his exertions for support.

Malone supposes that our author was at this time employed in an attorney's office, and gives a long list of quotations from his works, whieh show how familiarly he was acquainted with the terms and the usages of the law, in support of his conjecture. As there are no other grounds for entertaining such a supposition; as testimony of the same nature, and equally strong, might be adduced to prove that Shakspeare was a member of almost every other trade or profession, for he was ignorant of none; and as the legal knowledge which he displays might easily have been caught up in conversation, or indeed from experience in the quirks and technicalities of the law, during the course of his own and his father's difficulties; I have little hesitation in classing this among the many ingenious but unsound conjectures of the learned editor, and adopting the tradition of Aubrey respecting the avocation of this portion of his life. To satisfy the claims that were multiplying around him, Shakspeare endeavored to draw upon his talents and acquirements as the source of his supplies, and undertook the instruction of children.

The portion of classical knowledge that he brought to the task, has given occasion for much controversy, which it is now impossible to determine. The school at which he was educated, produced several individuals, among the contemporaries of our great poet, who were not deficient in learning; and though he was prematurely withdrawn from their companionship, it would be difficult to believe, that with his

quickness of apprehension, he could have mingled for any considerable time in their course of study, without attaining a proportionate share of their information. "He understood Latin pretty well," says Aubrey; and this account corresponds exactly with the description of his friend Ben Jonson, who speaks of him as one possessed "of little Latin and less Greek." Dr. Farmer, indeed, has proved, that translations of all the classics to which Shakspeare has referred, were already in circulation before he wrote; and that in most of his allusions to Greek and Latin authors, evident traces are discoverable of his having consulted the translation instead of the original. But this fact establishes very little: it might have proceeded from indolence, or from the haste of composition, urging him to the readiest sources of information, rather than from any incapacity of availing himself of those which were more pure, but less accessible. That he should appear unlearned in the judgment of Jonson, who, perhaps, measured him by the scale of his own enormous erudition, is no imputation on his classical attainments. A man may have made great advances in the knowledge of the dead languages, and yet be esteemed as having "little Latin and less Greek," by one who has reached those heights of scholarship, which the friend and companion of Shakspeare had achieved. It is a proof that his acquirements in the classic languages were considerable, or Jonson would scarcely have deemed them of sufficient value to be at all numbered among his qualifications. As to French, it is certain he did not deal with translations only; for the last line of one of his most celebrated speeches, the Seven Ages of Man, in As you like it, is imitated from a poem called the Henriade, which was first published in 1594, in France, and never translated. Garnier, the author of it, is describing the appearance of the ghost of Admiral Coligny, on the night after his murder, at the massacre of St. Bartholomew, and introduces the follow

[blocks in formation]

Sans pieds, sans mains, sans nez, sans oreilles, sans yeux,
Meurtri de toutes parts.

The verse of Shakspeare,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing,

scarcely exceeds the rules of legitimate translation; and the introduction and repetition of the French preposition, indicates that the coincidence was intentional, and stands as an acknowledgment of the imitation. Mr. Capel Lofft has, perhaps, very fairly estimated the extent of Shakspeare's literary acquirements: "He had what would now be considered a very reasonable proportion of Latin; he was not wholly ignorant of Greek; he had a knowledge of the French so as to read it with ease; and I believe not less of the Italian. He was habitually conversant in the chronicles of his country. He had deeply imbibed the Scriptures."- And again, in speaking of his Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece, which were the first published efforts of Shakspeare's genius, Mr. Lofft continues: "I think it not easy, with due attention to these poems, to doubt of his having acquired, when a boy, no ordinary facility in the classic language of Rome; and, when Jonson said he had 'less Greek,' had it been true that he had none, it would have been as easy for the verse as for the sentiment, to have said 'no Greek.'

With these qualifications for the task, Shakspeare applied himself to the labor of tuition. But both the time and the habits of his life, rendered him peculiarly unfit for the situation. The gaiety of his disposition naturally inclined him to society; and the thoughtlessness of youth prevented his being sufficiently scrupulous about the conduct and the characters of his associates. "He had by a misfortune, common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill company," says Rowe; and the excesses into which they seduced him, were by no means consistent with that seriousness of deportment and behavior which is expected to accompany the occupation that he had adopted. The following anecdote of these days of his riot, is still current at Stratford, and the neighboring village of Bidford. I give it in the words of the author from whom it is taken. Speaking of Bidford, he says, "there were anciently two societies of village-yeomanry in this place, who frequently met under the appellation of Bidford topers. It was a custom of these heroes to challenge any of their neighbors, famed for the love of good ale, to a drunken combat: among others, the people of Stratford were called out

to a trial of strength, and in the number of their champions, as the traditional story runs, our Shakspeare, who forswore all thin potations, and addicted himself to ale as lustily as Falstaff to his sack, is said to have entered the lists. In confirmation of this tradition, we find an epigram written by Sir Aston Cockayn, and published in his poems in 1658, p. 124; it runs thus:

Shakspeare, your Wincot ale hath much renown'd,
That fox'd a beggar so (by chance was found
Sleeping) that there needed not many a word
To make him to believe he was a lord:
But you affirm (and in it seems most eager),
"Twill make a lord as drunk as any beggar.
Bid Norton brew such ale as Shakspeare fancies
Did put Kit Sly into such lordly trances;
And let us meet there (for a fit of gladness),

And drink ourselves merry in sober sadness.

"When the Stratford lads went over to Bidford, they found the topers were gone to Evesham fair; but were told, if they wished to try their strength with the sippers, they were ready for the contest. This being acceded to, our bard and his companions were staggered at the first outset, when they thought it advisable to sound a retreat, while the means of retreat were practicable; and they had scarce marched half a mile, before they were all forced to lay down more than their arms, and encamp in a very disorderly and unmilitary form, under no better covering than a large crab-tree; and there they rested till morning.

"This tree is yet standing by the side of the road. If, as it has been observed by the late Mr. T. Warton, the meanest hovel to which Shakspeare has an allusion interests curiosity, and acquires an importance, surely the tree which has spread its shade over him, and sheltered him from the dews of the night, has a claim to our attention.

"In the morning, when the company awakened our bard, the story says, they entreated him to return to Bidford, and renew the charge; but this he declined, and looking round

upon the adjoining villages, exclaimed, 'No! I have had enough; I have drank with

Piping Pebworth, Dancing Marston,
Haunted Hillbro', Hungry Grafton,

Dudging Exhall, Papist Wicksford,

Beggarly Broom, and Drunken Bidford.'

"Of the truth of this story, I have very little doubt; it is certain that the crab-tree is known all around the country by the name of Shakspeare's crab; and that the villages to which the allusion is made, all bear the epithets here given them: the people of Pebworth are still famed for their skill on the pipe and tabor; Hillborough is now called Haunted Hillborough; and Grafton is notorious for the poverty of its soil."

The above relation, if it be true, presents us with a most unfavorable picture of the manners and morals prevalent among the youth of Warwickshire, in the early years of Shakspeare; and it fills us with regret, to find our immortal poet, with faculties so exálted, competing the bad preeminence in such abominable contests. It is some relief to know that, though he erred in uniting himself with such gross associations, he was the first to retreat from them in disgust.

We can scarcely, at the present day, form a correct and impartial judgment of a subsequent offence, in which these mischievous connexions involved him as a party. The transgression, weighty as it would now be considered, appears to admit of great extenuation, on account of the manners and sentiments that prevailed at the time; and when we contemplate the consequences to which it led, we find it difficult to condemn, with much severity of censure, the occasion by which Shakspeare was removed from the intercourse of such unworthy companions, and by which those powerful energies of intelleet were awakened in one, who might otherwise, perhaps, have been degraded in the course of vulgar sensualities, to an equality with his associates, or have attained to no higher distinction than the applauses of a country town. One of the favorite amusements of the wild companions

« PreviousContinue »