Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

cal Homer the fortune of having the works which make his fame immortal pronounced medleys, in the composition of which he was but indirectly and partially concerned; and two enthusiasts, one in the Old England and the other in the New, have even maintained that they were written by the great philosophers and statesmen of his day, who used his name as a stalking horse with which to conceal themselves and mislead the public.*

Two generations had not followed that which gave to the world the great poet of our race and of mankind, when Thomas Betterton, the most celebrated London actor of his day, journeyed from the scene of Shakespeare's metropolitan distinction to that of his rustic youth and his rural retirement, in the hope of finding in the latter those traces of his private life which had been so entirely obliterated in the former. The grateful and reverential player, who had gained competence and reputation chiefly by performing Shakespeare's characters, gathered and preserved a few fading but important traditions; to these the assiduous investigation of more than a century and a half has added the records of a few other facts

* The accomplished and gifted lady who broached this theory on this side of the ocean in Putnam's Magazine for January, 1856, was then, doubtless, suffering from that mental aberration which soon after consigned her to the asylum in which she died. The Transatlantic critics are, I believe, without a similar excuse for the strange fancy of her British rival, which they were so quick to condemn in her as a trait of “American ” extravagance.

of hardly more significance, and confirmation of some of those traditions; and this is all the faint and uncertain light which falls from the past upon the man whose works cast such a blaze of everbrightening glory upon our literature. There have been issued, indeed, to us of the present generation, pamphlets professing to give new particulars of the life of Shakespeare, and tomes with even more pretentious titles. But from all these there has been but small satisfaction, save to those who can persuade themselves that, by knowing what Shakespeare might have done, they know what he did, or that a reflex of his daily life can be seen in parchments beginning, “This indenture made," or “ Noverint universi per præsentes.It is with no disrespect, nay, it is rather with thankfulness and sorrowing sympathy, that the devotee of Shakespeare, after examining the fruit of the laborious researches of men who have wasted sunlight and candles, and worn good eyes, in poring over sentences as musty as the parchments on which they are written, and as dry as the dust which covered them, will reluctantly decide that all this mousing has been almost in vain. It has incidentally resulted in the diffusion of a knowledge of the times and circumstances in which Shakespeare lived, and in the unearthing of much interesting illustration of his works from the mould of antiquity; but only those who have the taste of the literary antiquary can accept these documents, which

[merged small][ocr errors]

have been so plentifully produced and so pitilessly printed, - extracts from parish registers and old account-books, inventories, including lists of the knives and spoons and pots and pans of the guzzling aldermen of Stratford, last wills and testaments, leases, deeds, bonds, declarations, pleas, replications, rejoinders, surrejoinders, rebutters, and surrebutters, -as having aught to do with the life of such a man as William Shakespeare. They have, most of them, told us nothing, and only serve to mark and mock our futile efforts. For, although we do know something of Shakespeare's life, yet, compared with what we long to know, and what it would seem that we should be able to discover, our knowledge is, as knowledge often is, only the narrow boundary which marks the limit of a wide waste of ignorance. We do not know positively the date of Shakespeare's birth, or the house in which he first saw the light, or a single act of his life from the day of his baptism to the month of his obscure and suspicious marriage. We are equally ignorant of the date of that event, and of all else that befell him from its occurrence until we find him in London; and when he went there we are not sure, or when he finally returned to Stratford. That he wrote the plays which bear his name we know; but, except by inference, we do not know the years in which they were written, or even that in which either of them was first performed. We do not know that he laid his father

or his mother in the grave, or stood by the dying bedside of his only son, or that he gave the sanction of his presence to the marriage of his bestloved daughter. Hardly a word that he spoke has reached us, and not a familiar line from his hand, or the record of one interview at which he was present. Yet from the few facts which have been ascertained, and the vague and sometimes incongruous traditions which have been preserved concerning him, from the circumstances in which he must have been placed, and the mention of and allusion to him by some of his contemporaries, we may discover what manner of man this player-poet was, and learn, though imperfectly, his life's almost uneventful story.

Warwickshire, in Old England, seems to have been the favorite haunt, if it were not the ancestral soil, of a family whose name more than any other in our tongue sounds of battle and tells of knightly origin. It is possible, indeed, that Shakespeare is a corruption of some name of more peaceful meaning, and therefore mayhap (so bloody was ambition's very lowest step of old) of humbler derivation ; for in the irregular, phonographic spelling of antiquity it appears sometimes as Chacksper and Shaxpur. But upon such an uncertain foundation it is hardly safe even to base a doubt; and as the martial accents come down to us from the verge of the fourteenth century, we may safely

assume that a name thus spoken in chivalric days was not without chivalric significance.*

The Shakespeares, however, seem never to have risen to the rank of heraldic gentry, or to have established themselves firmly among the landholders of the county. An old register of the Guild of Saint Anne of Knolle in Warwickshire, which goes back to 1407, shows that, among many

* The manner in which the name is spelled in the old records varies almost to the extreme capacity of various letters to produce a sound approximating to that of the name as we pronounce it. It appears as Chacksper, Shaxpur, Shaxper, Schaksper, Schakesper, Schakspere, Schakespeire, Schakespeyr, Shagspere, Saxpere, Shaxpere, Shaxpeare, Shaxsper, Shaxspere, Shaxespere, Shakspere, Shakspear, Shakspeere, Schakspear, Shackspeare, Shackespeare, Shackespere, Shakspeyr, Skaksper, Shakespere, Shakyspere, Shakeseper, Shakespire, Shakespeire, Shakespear, Shakespeare, Shakaspeare; and there are even other varieties of its orthography. But Shakespeare himself, and his careful friend Ben Jonson, when they printed the name, spelled it Shake-speare, the hyphen being often used ; and in this form it is found in almost every book of their time in which it appeared. The final e is mere superfluity, and might with propriety be dropped ; but then we should also drop it from Greene, Marlowe, Peele, and other names in which it

appears.

There seems, therefore, to be no good reason for deviating from the orthog. raphy to which Shakespeare and his contemporaries gave a kind of formal recognition. As to the superior martial significance of this name to all others, we have, indeed, Breakspeare, Winspeare, Shakeshaft, Shakelance, Briselance, Hackstaff, Drawswerde, Curtlemace, Battleman, and some others of that sort; but in this regard they all must yield to that which was an attribute of Mars himself as long ago as when Homer wrote: Μαίνετο δ', ώς ότ' "Αρης έγχέσπαλος.

Iliad, O. 605.

« AnteriorContinuar »