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WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE, the greatest poet, or at least the greatest dramatic poet, that ever lived, was born at Stratfordupon-Avon, in the county of Warwick, on the 23d of April, 1564; and from the parish register of that place we find that he was baptized on the 26th of the same month.
The first of this family of whom any notice has been handed down to us is the great-grandfather of our poet, to whom Henry the Seventh made a grant of arms, and of certain lands and tenements in Warwickshire, "for his faithful and approved service," rendered, as it is supposed, to that monarch in his contest with Richard the Third on Bosworth Field. But whatever may have been the value of the possessions of the Shakspeare family thus acquired, they were not sufficient for John, the father of our poet, to support himself on without having recourse to trade, for we find him exercising the profession of a wool-stapler; but that, most likely, in a large and respectable way, since the books of the corporation of Stratford declare him to have held two of the most important offices in that body. In the sixth year of Queen Elizabeth's reign he was chamberlain, and in the seventh year high bailiff, or chief magistrate, of his native town.
John Shakspeare married the daughter and heir of Robert Arden, or Ardern, of Wallingcote, Warwickshire, "a gentleman of worship," and of a family well known in the county. He had many children, both sons and daughters, but whether
they were all the issue of this one marriage, or whether he was not married a second or even a third time, is not clear. Moreover, of these children, amounting, according to various accounts, to nine, or ten, or eleven, it is much disputed whether WILLIAM was the eldest or the second son.
Some years after his marriage the circumstances of John Shakspeare, owing, perhaps, to the burden of his large and increasing family, became embarrassed, as we may gather from the books of the corporation of Stratford, where it is noted that, though an alderman, he was excused the weekly payment of fourpence to the funds of that society; and some time afterwards his name was struck off the list altogether on the plea of non-attendance at the Town-hall. There is a tradition current among us, that "the father of William Shakspeare was a butcher;" if so, we may not be wrong in supposing that it was at this period of his distress that he added this meaner occupation to his other trade of dealing in wool. From the parish register of Stratford we find that John Shakspeare died in September 1601. A curious document was discovered in 1770 by a bricklayer who was repairing the house where Shakspeare was born, which purports to be, and there is reason to believe it to be genuine, the will of John Shakspeare. From this it is evident that the father of our poet died a member of the Roman Catholic Church; for it is commenced "In the name of God the Father, Sonne, and Holy Ghost, the most holy and blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God," &c.; a form which had been abandoned at this time by all who held the doctrines of the reformers.
At an early age William Shakspeare was sent, though but for a short time, to the free-school of Stratford, founded in the reign of Henry the Sixth, and, after the dissolution of religious houses, re-founded by Edward the Sixth. Here, under the Rev.
Jolefe, M.A., a native of the town, he acquired, to use the expression of Ben Jonson, "small Latin and less Greek;" but when we remember the extraordinary genius of Shakspeare, we have reason to believe that though his schooling may have
(1) This house, as doubtless most of our readers are aware, still exists, and is shown to the curious traveller when he visits the native place of the great bard.
been scanty, yet one year with him might be better than many years with most boys; and he most likely proceeded in both languages, and more especially in Latin, beyond the limits of mere elementary instruction. The early removal of young Shakspeare from school was no doubt caused by the pecuniary embarrassments of his father, whom, perhaps, he was required to assist, and to do what he was able towards the support of his younger brothers and sisters.
When Shakspeare was twelve years of age the Earl of Leicester entertained Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth, at whose "princely pleasures" there is every reason to suppose that he was present, since Stratford is only a few miles distant from the castle; and it may have been the Coventry play "whereat," we are told, “her Majestie laught well," which made an impression on the youthful bard, in after years causing him to devote his talents to that kind of composition in his hands destined to astonish the world.
From the time of his quitting school at this early age, Shakspeare assisted his father in the wool trade until his sixteenth or eighteenth year; he then obtained a situation in the office of some country attorney, a circumstance to which we are obviously indebted for many of the legal expressions which we meet with in his plays. It was during this time that Shakspeare acquired some slight knowledge of the French and Italian languages, which he not unfrequently uses in his writings, and from which he also sometimes derives illustrations and points in his dramas.
At the early age of eighteen and a half our poet was married to Anne Hathaway, the daughter of Richard Hathaway, a yeoman of some property, living at Shottery, a village about a mile from Stratford. This lady was no less than eight years older than her husband, whom, however, as appears by the inscription on her tombstone, she outlived seven years. The house in which her father resided is, or was, some few years ago, still in existence, and forms one of the attractions pointed out to the visitor of Shakspeare's birth-place. Within a year of his marriage, in May 1583, his eldest child was born, and baptized a few days after by the name of Susanna; and the
following year his wife presented him with twins, a son and a daughter, who were named Hamnet, or Hamlet, and Judith. Thus, when scarcely twenty years of age, did he find himself surrounded by all the pleasures and cares which are only usually attained at a much later period of life; but as the one did not make him lapse into indolence, so the other did not depress him, but served only to awaken betimes that energy of mind which eventually shone forth in a reputation as great, or greater, than that which has fallen to the lot of any mortal.
For four years after his marriage Shakspeare still continued to reside at Stratford, carrying on his own and his father's business. Here, however, a circumstance occurred which, though it does not reflect much credit on him, is yet worth mentioning, as being the first recorded instance of his displaying his poetical genius,1 and as being the cause of his removing to London, where he had more ample scope for the
(1) Unless, indeed, the following pretty verses, sometimes attributed to our author, be really his. They are addressed to his mistress, Anne Hathaway; and certainly, for the neatness of the conceit, and the beauty of the sentiments, we would willingly believe that they are the genuine and the first production of his
exercise of his talents. We are told that though he was a married man, and a father, yet he had the misfortune to fall in with, and to make associates of, a dissipated and thoughtless set of young men, who, amongst other mal-practices, were wont to engage in deer-stealing, and upon one occasion he was induced to join them in an expedition of this sort. The scene of depredation where Shakspeare and his companions were detected was Fulbroke Park, belonging to Sir Thomas Lucy, Knight. This worthy person having frequently suffered from similar thefts, was induced to be severe; and, accordingly, our author, when caught, was confined for a short time in the keeper's lodge, and then dismissed, with a reprimand and public exposure of his conduct. Here the matter would have rested had not the anger of the poet at his disgrace induced him to make a retaliation on Sir Thomas by writing a satire, which he caused to be affixed to the gates of Fulbroke Park, and to be widely circulated in the neighbourhood. This pasquinade has been preserved to us, though in an imperfect form; the wit of it turns upon the pronunciation, in those parts, of the word lowsie, which, we are told, the Warwickshire people call lucy. The point of the satire, then, runs on the pun thus made on the knight's name; the words are as follows:
"A parliamente member, a justice of peace,
At home a poor scare-crowe, at London an asse;
Yet an asse in his state,
We allow by his ears but with asses to mate.
Another fragment purporting, though of a different metre, to be part of the same composition, has also come down to us. Here, too, the wit turns upon a pun :
"Sir Thomas was too covetous
To covet so much deer,
Had not his worship one deer left?
Took pains enough to find him horns