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MEMOIR OF SHAKSPEARE.
LIFE of peace and prosperity furnishes but little matter for a chronicle. Such, doubtless, with but a brief interval, was that of Enyland's greatest poet, for the record of it is brief and jejune in the
extreme; only to be traced in registers and occasional notices. Unhappily for us, Shakspeare did not find, amongst the manifold characters which surrounded him, a Boswell, to note down the witty utterances with which his contemporaries were charmed; we have no authentic anecdotes of the “myriad-minded man,” as Coleridge terms him, only imperfect and apocryphal traditions. But everything that is known of him is of value in the eyes of Englishmen; we subjoin, therefore, a short notice of his life, from the few records that remain.
William Shakspeare was born at Stratford-on-Avon, on St. George's Day, April 23, 1564. He was the eldest son of John Shakspeare and his wife, Mary Arden.
His family were “gentle” upon both sides. His paternal ancestor is believed to have fought at Bosworth Field on the side of Richmond, for he received from Henry VII., in reward for“ valiant and faithful" services, tenements and lands in Warwickshire, on which his descendants dwelt till the birth of him who was destined to immortalize their name. Shakspeare's mother was the daughter and heiress of Robert Arden, of Wylmcote, (or Wellingcote,) in Warwickshire, a gentleman of ancient and honourable family, deriving its name probably from the forest land on which its possessions stood.
The year of Shakspeare's birth was marked by the outbreak of the plague in Stratford ; but the spotted curse passed harmlessly by the cradle of the glorious infant; whilst his then well-to-do father contributed of his means to the relief of the poor who had suffered by its ravages. The boyhood of Shakspeare, till he was ten years old, was spent, probably, in a manner well adapted to foster his genius. On his mother's heritage of Asbyes-in his father's nearer meadows-the young poet must have revelled in the greenwood shades, and amid the daisied meads, of which he afterwards painted such sweet sylvan pictures. The forest of Arden, the sheep-shearing of Perdita, the fairy-haunted woods, &c., were doubtless memories of his boyhood.
From about the time Shakspeare completed his eleventh year, the prosperity of his family waned; the shadow of evil days gathered over the hitherto prosperous yeoman. In 1578, John Shakspeare was unable to pay poor-rates; and .-happy and considerate must the age have been !-he was left untaxed.”
During these eleven years his gifted eldest son was receiving his early education at the free grammar school of Stratford; the masters being at that time Walter Roche, Thomas Hunt, and Thomas Jenkins. Of the where or how that education was completed we have no record. That his days of youthful study ended early, we may, however, conjecture, as he married at the age of eighteen Anne Hathaway, the daughter of Richard Hathaway, of Shottery, a substantial yeoman. The bride was eight years older than her husband. Before Shakspeare was twenty-one, he was the father of three children, a daughter -Susanna, the darling of his after life,—and a twin son and daughter, Hamnet (or Hamlet) and Judith.
It is probable that this rapid increase of family and his father's decaying circumstances, led to the resolve of the poet to seek a fortune in London. He had in the great city—which was an El Dorado to the imaginations of country folks in those days—a relative and townsman named Thomas Green, a celebrated comedian, who, in company with the actors Burbage, Slye, Hemynge, and Tooley, had very recently performed at Stratford--i.e., in 1584. Without giving much credence to the traditionary scandal of Shakspeare stealing deer from Sir Thomas Lucy's grounds at Charlecote, we may believe he had by some wild boyish freak given annoyance to the “ Justice," and thus added another motive to those which already disposed him to leave his fair Warwickshire home. Doubtless but little inducement was, however, required to lure him into the world of famous men whose renown then filled the length and breadth of the land ; and whose grand memories surround his own, lighting the age of Elizabeth with a galaxy of statesmen and heroes. He himself early declared that
“Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits.”
And with his consciousness of mental power, he would naturally seek the widest field for its exercise.
He went to London in 1586, and, as it is supposed, became an actor and adapter of plays for the Blackfriars' Theatre. In 1589 he was able to purchase a share in it, and from that time his fame and good fortune grew rapidly. His dramas became known and appreciated, and in the following year he was honoured by the generous praise of Spenser, in the “ Tears of the Muses."
In 1593 appeared his first poem,“Venus and Adonis," written probably during the suspension of theatrical performances in London, caused by the plague of 1592. It was published by himself; the printer being a Stratford man (probably an old acquaintance) named Richard Field. That it was successful we cannot doubt, as the next year his “ Tarquin and Lucrece" issued from the same press. Another poetical laurel was hestowed on him by Spenser ; and common tradition ascribes to this period a gift made to him by Lord Southampton (the friend of Essex), of a thousand pounds, in order that he might complete a meditated purchase.
The full tide of prosperity, which he had indeed“ taken at the flood,” now bore the great dramatist of all ages swiftly on its waters. The Queen-whose
grand character he could so well appreciate-smiled on him, and deigned to direct and call forth his genius; while England's most chivalrous nobles were his friends. “Probably,” says Lord Lytton, in his delightful “ Caxtoniana,"
“his (Shakspeare's) personal intimacies assisted to the perfection of his deliį neations of the manners and mind of the being we call gentleman-of a Bas
sanio, a Gratiano, a Benedick, an Orlando, a Mercutio, &c., not to speak of the incomparable art with which he retains to Falstaff, in despite of all the fat knight's rogueries, the character of the wit who has equality with princes.”
The date at which Shakspeare's first drama appeared is uncertain. That he was a renowned dramatist in 1591, Spenser's praise of him, published in that year, proves. Rowe was not able to discover any character in which he was remembered, as an actor, except that of the Ghost in “ Hamlet ;” nevertheless, the instructions to the players in that tragedy show, how perfect was his knowledge of the histrionic art, and how perfect the taste which would have guided his own performance-probably too good for such rude spectators as those who assembled at the Globe, and who had hitherto been used to tragedies in King Cambyses' vein—all rant, murder, and horrors. In 1596 a great sorrow fell upon the poet ; his only son Hamnet died, at the age of eleven years ;-a bitter grief must it have been to one whose tenderness and warmth of affection appear from the concurrent testimony of his age to have been equal to his genius. Shakspeare was a good son, as well as a genial and generous friend. His parents shared his prosperity. He helped them with his influence and his purse ; redeemed his mother's mortgaged property in “Green Arden,” and purchasing a large and pleasant dwelling in his native place-brought his parents home to dwell there.
He did not yet, however, retire from the stage. He had a house in Southwark, which was his London home; his visits to Stratford were periods of rest and recreation, probably also of quiet literary labour. He continued purchasing property near his country home; manifesting prudence and common sense in affairs of the world ; and a sound discretion in all things.
It is supposed that Shakspeare quitted the stage finally in 1604, as his name does not appear on the list of players after the production of Ben Jonson's "Sejanus,” in 1603. He had made a comfortable fortune, estimated by Gildon in his Letters and Essays) at 300l. a year, equal to rather more than a thousand a year at the present day, and had then only attained the age of forty years.
And now, happy in cherishing the age of his parents, in seeing his daughter Susanna a happy wife and mother, and in entertaining his friends, Shakspeare passed twelve years of well-earned repose; the darling alike of Nature and of Fortune.
He cultivated his land, planted the famous mulberry tree, and at this time published his exquisite Sonnets, which had, probably, been written in his youth. Such, at least, was the opinion of Coleridge, who says :-“ These extraordinary sonnets form, in fact, a poem of fourteen lines each; and, like the passion which inspired them, the sonnets are always the same, with a variety of ex
pression,-continuous, if you regard the lover's soul,—distinct, if you listen to them, as he heaves them sigh after sigh. These sonnets, like the ‘Venus and Adonis,' and the ‘Rape of Lucrece,' are characterised by boundless fertility and laboured condensation of thought, with perfection of sweetness in rhythm and metre. These are the essentials in the budding of a great poet. Afterwards habit and consciousness of power teach more ease.” He returned occasionally, however, to London, and was never forgotten by the noble friends his genius had secured. Lord Southampton-great from his personal qualities--styles him in a letter“ my especial friend.” Queen Elizabeth had honoured him with personal notice and favour ; James 1. “ was pleased with his own hand to write an amicable letter to Master Shakspeare," and the testimony of his fellow-actors,—of his rivals,-and of the poets of the age, all tell how worthy Shakspeare was of love as well as of renown.
He who was “for all Time ” did not fail, as we have seen, of winning the golden opinions of his own ; and at the distance of nearly three hundred years from that grand period of our national story, we can still find no better words to eulogize him than his own :
“His life was gentle; and the elements
And say to all the world—This was a man!” There is a tradition that Shakspeare's death was hastened by the hospitable entertainment he bestowed on Ben Jonson and Drayton, who visited him shortly before his last illness; but it seems probable that he had been ill for some short time previously, as in the January of the year in which he “rested from his labours” his will was prepared; it was signed by him in the March preceding his death. He expired on his birth-day, April 23rd, 1616, aged 52, having secured, during his comparatively short life, an eternity of fame.
“ He was,” says Aubrey, who lived only twenty-six years after his death, "a handsome, well-shaped man, verie good company, and of a verie ready, pleasant, and smooth wit.”
Shakspeare was buried with his ancestors on the north side of the chancel in the great Church of Stratford, and a monument was erected to his memory bearing the following Latin distich :
"Judicio Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem,
Terra tegit, populus mæret, Olympus habet." On the gravestone in the pavement is the well-known inscription which appears (in conjunction with certain modern notions of making a show of all belonging to the poet) to have been a prophetic injunction
“Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
And curst be he that moves my bulies." In the year 1741 another monument was erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey (near the south door in Poets' Corner), under the direction of