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F the personal history of Shakespeare—the greatest genius, beyond
doubt or cavil, that ever the world produced—little now can with certainty be shown. The registers of Stratford; his own Sonnets; & few casual references to him, in the writings or sayings of cotemporary authors; and all the sources from which materials for his life
may be safely extracted, are reckoned up. The public of his time had no curiosity on the subject, or the writers of his time had no anxiety to collect or yield information, regarding him ; and he himself—beyond, even,
“ That last infirmity of noble minds,"
the desire of fame-did not think it worth while to place materials for his own history on record; or, secure of such immortality as earth can bestow, was content that we should track him into the depths and recesses of his being, by the light of his genius alone. What he did, or thought, or suffered, in his own individual person, is now mere matter for ingenious conjecture. We are sure that his mind was vast, liberal, compassionate, generous;—that he saw human nature on every side, detecting it in its many masks and changes ;-that he penetrated into the innermost mysteries of man ; that
“From this bank and shoal of time"
his intellect soared upwards, and held commerce with the stars ; with our dim“ Hereafter;" and with worlds and agencies beyond our own; and knowing all this, our curiosity as to the possessor of faculties so varied and wonderful, and our consequent disappointment on being baffled at every point of inquiry, becomes proportionably great.
It is not the least singular of the causes which have cast obscurity upon the life of Shakespeare, that so much public apathy should have existed amongst his contemporaries. History, indeed, which has hitherto dealt in generals, or has laboured only to rescue from oblivion the lives of conquerors and kings, forbore, as was to be expected, from recording the birth or death of a poet, humbly born, and distinguished by no other crown than a wreath of unfading laurel : but that the man of whose writings “rare Ben Jonson" hath said that they were such
“ As neither man nor Muse can praise too much ;" whom he addressed as “ Soul of the Age," celebrating him above
“All that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
and predicting, in just and memorable verse, that
“ He was not of an age, but—FOR ALL TIME !"
-that he should have eluded all research, or should not have stimulated some one of his coevals to give forth to the world what could then hare readily been collected respecting him, requires still to be explained. He was admitted, in his own time, to be the first dramatist of his country; and there can be no question but that he was so. That Fletcher, Beaumont, or other playwrights, may, during an interval of fashion or popular caprice, have been greater favourites, is probable enough. It is possible, even, that some critics (now forgotten) may have preferred inferior writers. But no other poet or dramatist of our country could, even for a moment, put forth such substantial claims to enduring fame, as seem to have been allowed, by the general voice, to Shakespeare. Ben Jonson, the only dramatist who could compete with him, frankly and wisely yields the precedency; and to oppose any other writer, however respectable in his way or extolled in his age, would be, to the last degree, absurd and hopeless.
How is it that no letters of Shakespeare, no memoranda respecting him, or his trans. actions with the theatres, or with bis brother actors, should have escaped ? It is true that the fire, which occurred in 1613, may have consumed his papers relating to the theatres, when it consumed his playhouse The Globe. But one must still marvel that a writer on whom so many elegies were showered, and whose reputation was such that, in 1623, a monument was erected to his memory in his native town, should have passed away with so little of contemporaneous record or comment. Several persons, including Better. ton, the famous actor, visited Stratford during the seventeenth century, and made inquiries respecting Shakespeare; one of them interrogating an ancient inhabitant of that town, who was himself born about the time of Shakespeare's death; but neither history nor tradition had furnished him with more than one or two circumstances, and even these are encountered by opposite statements. Under all these difficulties, nothing remains but to take some things upon trust.
Without submitting to the reader, therefore, in minute detail, the reasons that induce me to prefer one hypothesis to another, and to accept one and reject another statement, I shall take leave to adopt silently those only which appear to me to approach nearest to the truth. It would be painful, indeed, if, from too fastidious a scepticism, we were to deprive ourselves or others of the pleasure of supposing that we know something, at least, of our great poet's origin.
§ 2. To obtain strict legal proof of the birth or parentage of Shakespeare is now,
apparently, beyond the power of research. His identity with the “William the son of John Shakespeare," who was baptized in 1564, has not, I imagine, been completely established. Sufficient is known, however, to induce a belief that the ordinary accounts of his parentage and birth are well founded.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, then, was baptized on the 26th of April, 1564. The words “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare," are on that day entered on the baptismal register of the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire. The John Shakespeare, from whom this great “son” descended, was apparently a person of some property and importance at Stratford, and traded as a glover or dealer in wool.
Of the ancestry of John Shakespeare it is impossible to speak with any certainty ; but it is known that he himself arrived at the dignity of bailiff of Stratford; that the title of " Master" was prefixed to his name, and that he married a lady of good family. The mother of our dramatist bore, before her marriage with John Shakespeare, the name of Mary Arden. She was the daughter of Robert Arden (a gentleman possessing a landed estate at Willingcote, or Wylnecote, in Warwickshire), whose father was groom of the chamber to King Henry VII. A Sir John Arden, who held some office of honour near the person of the same sovereign, was the uncle of her before-mentioned grandfather, and also son of one Eleanor Hampden, of Buckinghamshire ; who, herself, was a member of the family from which the illustrious patriot John Hampden afterwards descended.
Under the will of Robert Arden, which bears date the 24th of November, 1556, his daughter Mary derived considerable property in money and land. This happened, in all probability, before her marriage with John Shakespeare, inasmuch as she is described in the will merely as “my youngest daughter Mary," without any additional distinction.
To this marriage between John Shakespeare and Mary Arden (a gentle name, as it has been truly called), we owe the birth of our great poet. He was born in, or shortly previous to, the month of April, 1564, and, with all his family, providentially escaped the plague, which broke out soon afterwards in the town of Stratford, and committed extensive ravages amongst the inbabitants of the place.
In 1568, John Shakespeare became bailiff of Stratford. In 1569, he obtained a grant of arms from Robert Cooke, the Clarencieux of the time; and this (having been lost) was confirmed by Dethick, Garter-King-at-Arms, and Camden (then Clarencieux), in 1599. All these things speak for the respectability of position occupied by our poet's father; and the circumstance of his mortgaging his wife's estate, in the interval between the two grants (1578), seems to detract little or nothing from such an inference.
The arms thus granted had reference to the family name, Shakespeare; and appear, indeed, rather to have been confirmed than to have originated in the grant of 1569; for the preamble to the licence of 1599, which describes John Shakespeare as a “gentleman” of Stratford, refers also to his parent and great-grandfather” as having done " faithful and approved service” to King Henry VII.; and assigns that circumstance, together with his marriage with the daughter, and one of the heirs, of Robert Arden, and his production of " this his ancient coat of arms," as so many reasons for the grant. Thenceforward, the arms of Shakespeare—“Gould, on a bend sable; and a speare of the first, the point steeled, proper, "-were quartered with the arms of Arden.
Beyond this, the paternal ancestry of Shakespeare is unknown. There is little doubt, however, but that he had a martial origin. The name shows that it was, in the first instance, won and worn by an able soldier; perhaps by some obscure hero, who perilled