網頁圖片
PDF
ePub 版

scarcely be united into a man. To these causes of our personal ignorance of the great bard of England, must be added his own strange indifference to the celebrity of genius. When he had produced his admirable works, ignorant or heedless of their value, be abandoned them with perfect indifference to oblivion or to fame. It surpassed his thought that he could grow into the admiration of the world; and, without any reference to the curiosity of future ages, in which he could not conceive himself to possess an interest, he was contented to die in the arms of obscurity, as an unlaurelled burgher of a provincial town. To this combination of causes are we to attribute the scantiness of our mate. rials for the Life of William Shakspeare. His works are in myriads of hands: he constitutes the delight of myriads of readers : his renown is coextensive with the civilization of man; and, striding across the ocean from Europe, it occapies the wide region of transatlantic empire: but he is himself only a shadow which disappoints our grasp ; an undefined form which is rather intimated than discovered to the keenest searchings of our eye. Of the little however, questionable or certain, which can be told of him we must now proceed to make the best use in our power, to write what by courtesy may be called his life; and we have only to lament that the result of our labour must greatly disap. point the curiosity which has been excited by the grandeur of his reputation. The slight narrative of Rowe, founded on the information obtained, in the beginning of the last century, by the inquiries of Betterton, the famous actor, will necessarily supply us with the greater part of the materials with which we are to work.

WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE, or SHAKSPERE, (for the floating orthography of the name is properly attached to the one or the other of these vari. eties) was baptized in the church of Stratford upon Avon, as is ascertained by the parish register, on the 26th of April 1564; and he is said to have been born on the 23d of the same month, the day consecrated to the tutelar saint of Eng.

[ocr errors]

land. His parents, John and Mary Shakspeare, were not of equal ranks in the community; for the former was only a respectable tradesman, whose ancestors cannot be traced into gentility, whilst the latter belonged to an ancient and opulent house in the county of Warwick, being the youngest daughter of Robert Arden of Wilmecote. The family of the Ardens (or Ardernes, as it is written in all the old deeds,) was of con. siderable antiquity and importance, some of them baving served as bigh sheriffs of their county, and two of them (Sir John Arden and his nephew, the grandfather of Mrs. Shakspeare), having enjoyed each a station of honour in the personal establishment of Henry VII. The younger of these Ardens was made, by his sovereign, keeper of the park of Aldercar and bailiff of the lordship of Codnore. He obtained, also, from the crown a valuable grant in the lease of the manor of Yoxsal in Staffordshire, consisting of more than 4,600 acres, at a rent of 421. Mary Arden did not come dowerless to her plebeian husband, for she brought to him a small freehold estate called Asbies, and the sam of 61. 138. 4d. in money. The freehold consisted of a house and fifty-four acres of land; and, as far as it appears, it was the first piece of landed property which was ever possessed by the Shakspeares. Of this marriage the offspring

was four sons and four daughters; of whom Joan (or, according to the orthography of that time,Jone,) and Margaret, the eldest of the children, died one in infancy and one at a somewhat more advanced age; and Gilbert, whose birth imme. diately succeeded to that of our Poet, is supposed by some not to have reached his maturity, and by others to have attained to considerable longevity. Joan, the eldest of the four remaining children, and named after her deceased sister, married William Hart, a hatter in her native town; and Edmund, the youngest of the family, adopting the profession of an actor, resided in St. Saviour's parish in London; and was buried in St. Saviour's Church on the last day of December 1607, in his twenty-eighth year. Of Anne and Ricbard, whose births intervened between

those of Joan and Edmund, the parish register tells the whole history, when it records that the former was buried on the 4th of April 1579, in the eighth year of her age, and the latter on the 4th of February 1612-13, when he had nearly completed his thirty-ninth.

In consequence of a document, discovered in the year 1770, in the house in which, if tradition is to be trusted, our Poet was born, some persons have concluded that John Shakspeare was a Roman Catholic, though he had risen, by the regular gradation of office, to the chief dignity of the corporation of Stratford, that of high bailiff; and, during the whole of this period, bad unquestionably conformed to the rites of the Church of England. The asserted fact seemed not to be very probable; and the document in question, which, drawn 'np in a testamentary form and regularly attested, zealously professes the Roman faith of him in whose name it speaks, having been subjected to a rigid examination by Malone, has been pronounced to be spurious. The trade of John Shakspeare, as well as his religious faith, has recently been made the sub. ject of controversy. According to the testimony of Rowe, grounded on the tradition of Stratford, the father of our Poet was a dealer in wool, or, in the provincial vocabulary of his country, a wool-driver; and such he has been deemed by all the biographers of his son, till the fact was thrown into donbt by the result of the inquisitiveness of Malone. Finding, in an old and obscure MS. purporting to record the proceedings of the bailiff's court in Stratford, our John Shakspeare designated as a glover, Malone insults over the ignorance of poor Rowe, and assumes no small degree of merit to himself as the discoverer of a long sought and a most important historic truth. If he had recollected the remark of the clown in the Twelfth Night*, that“ a sentence is but a cheverel glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned ontwards !” he would, doubtless, have pressed the observation into his service, and brought it

# Act iii. sc. I.

as an irresistible attestation of the veracity of bis old MS.

Whatever may have been the trade of John Shakspeare, whether that of wool-merchant or of glover, it seems, with the little fortune of his wife, to have placed him in a state of easy competence. In 1569 or 1570, in consequence partly of his alliance with the Ardens, and partly of his attainment of the prime municipal honours of his town, he obtained a concession of arms from the herald's office, a grant, which placed him and his family on tbe file of the gentry of England; and, in 1574, he purchased two houses, with gardens and orchards annexed to them, in Henley Street in Stratford. But before the year 1578, his prosperity, from causes not now ascertainable, had certainly declined; for in that year, as we find from the records of his borough, he was excused, in condescension to his poverty, from the moiety of a very moderate assessment of six shillings and eightpence, made by the members of the corporation on themselves; at the same time that he was altogether exempted from his contribution to the relief of the poor. During the remaining years of his life, his fortunes appear not to have recovered themselves; for he ceased to attend the meetings of the corporation ball, where he had once presided; and, in 1586, another person was substituted as alderman in his place in consequence of bis magisterial inefficiency. He died'in the September of 1601, when his illustrious son had already attained to high celebrity; and his wife, Mary Shakspeare, surviving him

for seven years, deceased in the September of 1608, the burial of the former being registered on the eighth and tbat of the latter on the ninth of this month, in each of these respective years.

On the 30th of June 1564, when our Poet had not yet been three months in this breathing world, his native Stratford was visited by the plague; aud, during the six succeeding months, the ravaging disease is calculated to have swept to the grave more than a seventh part of the whole population of the place. But the favoured infant reposed in security in his cradle, and breathed health amid an atmosphere of pestilence. The Genius of England may be supposed to have held the arm of the destroyer, and not to have permitted it to fall on the consecrated dwelling of his and Nature's darling. The disease, indeed, did not overstep his charmed threshold; for the name of Shakspeare is not to be found in the register of deaths througbout that period of accelerated mortality. That he survived this desolating calamity of his townsmen, is all that we know of William Shakspeare from the day of his birth till he was sent, as we are informed by Rowe, to the free-school of Stratford; and was stationed there in the course of bis education, till, in consequence of the strait. ened circumstances of his father, he was recalled to the paternal roof. As we are not told at what age he was sent to school, we cannot form any estimate of the time during which he remained there. But if he was placed under his master when he was six years old, he might have continued in a state of instruction for seven or even for eight years; a term sufficiently long for any boy, pot an absolute blockhead, to acquire something more than the mere elements of the classical languages. We are too ignorant, however of dates in these instances to speak with any confidence on the subject; and we can only assert that seven or eight of the fourteen years, which intervened between the birth of our Poet in 1564 and the known period of his father's diminished fortune in 1578, might very properly have been given to the advantages of the free-school. But now the important question is to be askedWhat were the attainments of our young Shakspeare at this seat of youthful institution? Did he return to his father's house in a state of utter ignorance of classic literature? or was he as far advanced in his school-studies as boys of his age (which I take to be thirteen or fourteen) usually are in the common progress of our pub. lic and more reputable schools? That bis scholastic attainments did not rise to the point of learning, seems to have been the general opinion of his contemporaries; and to this opinion I am willing to assent. But I cannot persuade

« 上一頁繼續 »