« 上一頁繼續 »
and included, besides the elementary branches of English, the rudiments of classical learning-the "small Latin and less Greek" which Ben Jonson attributed to him. His acquisitive powers were extraordinary; and, as is evident from his works, this elementary training, which appears so inadequate, was afterwards increased by rich stores of learning and wisdom. He exhibits not only a wide general knowledge, but also a technical acquaintance with several callings, including law, medicine, and divinity.
In 1582, at the youthful age of eighteen, he married Ann Hathaway, who was eight years his senior. Whether the marriage was a matter of choice or, as some believe, a necessity forced upon him, does not clearly appear. His wife, the daughter of a substantial yeoman, was not unworthy of him; and the marriage was probably a love-match, which proudly disdained the disparity in years. It is assumed by many critics that the union was necessarily an unhappy one; but an examination of the evidence leads to a different conclusion. In his sonnets there are several loving passages that seem to refer to his wife; and as soon as he had acquired wealth in his theatrical career in the metropolis, he returned to Stratford to spend his last years in the bosom of his family.
Several years after his marriage, at the age of twenty-two, he went to London. There is a tradition that his departure from Stratford was the result of a deer-stealing escapade, for which he was sharply prosecuted by an irate landlord. Though the poaching is probably not a myth, his departure may be satisfactorily explained on other grounds. Conscious no doubt of his native genius, it was but natural for him to seek his fortune amidst the opportunities afforded in a large city.
His poetic gifts and his acquaintance with the drama, as learned through visiting troupes in his native village, naturally drew him to the theatre. He held at first a subordinate position, and worked upwards by degrees. He recast plays and performed as an actor, for which his handsome and shapely form peculiarly fitted him. "The top of his performance,” says
an old historian, "was the Ghost in his own Hamlet." His progress was rapid, and at the end of six years he had achieved no small reputation. His success aroused the envy of some of his fellow playwrights; and Greene, in a scurrilous pamphlet, accused him of plagiarism, calling him "an upstart crow beautified with our feathers."
His ability attracted the attention of the court and the nobility. To the young Earl of Southampton he dedicated in 1593 his “Venus and Adonis,” which the poet, in a short and manly dedicatory letter, styles "the first heir of my invention;" and in return he is said to have received from that nobleman the princely gift of a thousand pounds. In Spenser's "Colin Clout's Come Home Again," we find this reference to Shakespeare:
"And there, though last not least, is Aetion;
A gentler shepherd may nowhere be found;
His plays delighted Elizabeth, who was a steady patron of the drama; and there is a tradition that the queen was so pleased with Falstaff in "King Henry the Fourth," that she requested the poet to continue the character in another play and to portray him in love. The result was "The Merry Wives of Windsor."
Unlike many of his fellow dramatists, Shakespeare avoided a life of extravagance and dissipation. He showed that high literary genius is not inconsistent with business sagacity. Not content with being actor and author, he became a large shareholder in the Blackfriars and the Globe, the two leading theatres of his day. Wealth accumulated; and with an affectionate remembrance of his native town, he purchased in 1597 a handsome residence in Stratford. He continued to make judicious investments; and a careful estimate places his income in 1608 at about four hundred pounds a year-equivalent to $12,000 at the present time.
We have several pleasing glimpses of his social life in London. He had a reputation for civility and honesty; he frequented the Mermaid, where he met Ben Jonson and the other leading wits of his day. Beaumont probably had him in mind when he wrote:
"What things have we seen
Done at the Mermaid! Heard words that have been
So nimble, and so full of subtile flame,
As if that every one from whence they came
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And had resolved to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life."
The following testimony of the rough, upright Ben Jonson is of special value: "I loved the man, and do honor his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any. He was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions."
With wealth and genius, it was not unnatural for the poet to desire a higher social rank. Accordingly, we find that in 1599, no doubt through his influence, a coat-of-arms was granted to his father. He grew tired of the actor's profession, chafing under its low social standing and its enslaving exactions upon his time and person. In one of his sonnets he writes,
"Alas! 'tis true I have gone here and there,
And made myself a motley to the view;
Gor'd mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Most time it is that I have looked on truth
Askance and strangely."
It is probable that Shakespeare ceased to be an actor in 1604, though he continued to write for the stage, and produced all his greatest master-pieces after that date. About 1611 he retired to his native town to live in quiet domestic enjoyment. How great the contrast with the excitements, labors, and vanities of his career in London! The last five years of his life
were spent in domestic comforts, local interests, the entertainment of friends, the composition of one or two great dramas, with an occasional visit to the scene of his former struggles and triumphs. He died April 23, 1616, on the anniversary of his birth, and was buried in the parish church of Stratford. If we may credit tradition, he rose from a sick bed to entertain Jonson and Drayton, and the convivial excesses of the occasion brought on a fatal relapse. His tomb bears the following inscription,
"Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here:
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
Such are the principal but meagre facts in the outward life of this great man.
Were this all we know of him, how incom
But there is another a life of the soul. It
plete and unsatisfactory our knowledge! life besides the outward and visible one is by the aims, thoughts, and feelings of this interior life that the character and greatness of a man are to be judged. Outward circumstances are, in a large measure, fortuitous; at most they but aid or hinder the operations of the spirit withinplume or clip its wings. It is when we turn to this interior life of Shakespeare, and measure its creations and experiences, that we learn his unapproachable greatness. Many other authors have surpassed him in the variety and splendor of outward circumstances; many warriors and statesmen and princes have been occupied with larger national interests; but where is the man that can compare with him in the richness and extent of this life of the soul?
There is no class of society, from kings to beggars, from queens to hags, with which he has not entered into the closest sympathy, thinking their thoughts and speaking their words. By his overpowering intuition, he comprehended, in all their extent, the various hopes, fears, desires, and passions of the human heart; and, as occasion arose, he gave them the most
perfect utterance they have ever found. Every age and country -early England, mediæval Italy, ancient Greece and Rome were all seized in their essential features.
There were no thoughts too high for his strong intellect to grasp; and the great world of nature, with its mysteries, its abounding beauty, its subtle harmonies, its deep moral teach ings, he irradiated with the light of his genius. If, as a poet has said, "we live in thoughts, not years, in feelings, not in figures on the dial," how infinitely rich the quarter of a century Shakespeare spent in London ! In comparison with his allembracing experience, the career of an Alexander, or Cæsar, or Napoleon, with its far-extending ambition and manifold interests, loses its towering greatness; for the English poet lived more than they all.
It is a mistake to suppose that Shakespeare owed everything to nature, and that in his productions he was guided alone by instinct. This view was maintained by his earliest biographer, Rowe, who says, "Art had so little, and nature so large a share in what Shakespeare did, that for aught I know the performances of his youth were the best." An examination of his works in their chronological order shows that his genius underwent a process of development, and was perfected by study, knowledge, and experience. His earliest dramas, such as "Henry VI.," "Love's Labor's Lost," "Comedy of Errors," and "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," all of which were composed prior to 1591, are lacking in the freedom and perfection of his later works. They show the influence of the contemporary stage, and declamation often takes the place of genuine passion.
But after this apprentice work, the poet passed into the full possession of his powers, and produced, during what may be regarded the middle period of his literary career, an uninterrupted succession of master-pieces, among which may be mentioned "The Merchant of Venice," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Romeo and Juliet," "As You Like It," "Hamlet," and most of his English historical plays. All these appeared