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F the personal history of Shakspere-the greatest genius, beyond doubt or cavil, that ever the world produced- little now can with certainty be shewn. The registers of Stratford; his own Sonnets; a 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 Shakspere, that so much public apathy should have existed amongst his cotemporaries.
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" had 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 co-evals to give forth to the world what could then have 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 Shakspere. 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 Shakspere, no memoranda respecting him, or his transactions with the theatres, or with his 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 Betterton, the famous actor, visited Stratford during the seventeenth century, and made inquiries respecting Shakspere; one of them interrogating an ancient inhabitant of that town, who was himself born about the time of Shakspere'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.
To obtain strict legal proof of the birth or parentage of Shakspere is now, apparently, beyond the power of research. His identity with the "William the son of John Shakspere," who was baptised 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 SHAKSPERE, then, was baptised on the 26th of April, 1564. The words “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere," are on that day entered on the baptismal register, of the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire. The John Shakspere, 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 Shakspere 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 Shakspere, 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 Shakspere, inasmuch as she is described in the will merely as "my youngest daughter Mary," without any additional distinction.
To this marriage between John Shakspere 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 inhabitants of the place.
In 1568, John Shakspere 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, Shakspere; and appear, indeed, rather to have been confirmed than to have originated in the grant of 1569: for the preamble to the license of 1599, which describes John Shakspere 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 Shakspere-" 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 Shakspere is unknown. There is little doubt, however, but that he had a martial origin. The name shews that it was, in the first
instance, won and worn by an able soldier; perhaps by some obscure hero, who perilled his life, in field or foray, for a king or chieftain now as obscure as himself; one of the many millions who have had courage, skill, and fidelity, for their portion; but, wanting an historian, have sunk, without mark, into the oblivious abysses of Time.
In 1574, some houses in Henley-street, Stratford, were purchased by John Shakspere; and in 1578, he mortgaged his wife's estate, as has been stated. It seems that the mortgagee was let into possession of the land; for, about twenty years afterwards, a suit in equity was instituted by John Shakspere, for redemption or recovery of the mortgaged property. This mortgage has been adduced as presumptive proof of the distress of Shakspere's father, and, thence, of the probability of a want of education in his son. To persons acquainted with transactions of this nature, nothing can seem more rash than such conclusions, drawn from such imperfect premises. The purchase of houses, in 1574, denotes if it denotes anything-a superfluity of money in the purchaser-money that, probably, was not then required for the purposes of his trade: and the mortgage, in 1578, shews that the money, which was invested four years before, was again wanted. But, as the houses were retained, and descended, with the other landed estate, to his son, it seems quite unlikely that he should have been seriously impoverished. As to the allegations by John Shakspere (in the suit) of his own poverty, and of the frauds practised by the person to whom he mortgaged his wife's estate, they may be classed amongst the many fictions of the law. If all the allegations contained in bills in equity were to be taken for granted, the defendants (who, according to the plaintiffs' statements, are always in the wrong), would present such a body of fraud, conspiracy, and oppression, as never was equalled in any civilised country.
To reconcile all the doings of the person or persons bearing the name of John Shakspere with each other-for there were several John Shaksperes at Stratford-would be a difficult task, and, as it appears to me, an unnecessary one. It is safer to proceed upon facts which, to use a species of pleonasm, are well authenticated. It is certain that John Shakspere, the poet's father, was a person holding a respectable position in society; that he married the daughter of an ancient house; that he was himself entitled to a coat of arms, acquired originally by services to the country; that with his wife he obtained a landed estate; that he purchased other landed property out of his own money; that he rose to such dignities as his native town offered; and, finally, that the estates which he purchased and acquired by marriage became, after his death, the property of his son. It is impossible, in the face of these facts, to argue, with any chance of success, that he was a pauper or insolvent. Both fact and probability weigh strongly against such a presumption. It is more wise, I think, to dismiss the little anecdotes and authorities which have been urged against the solvency of John Shakspere, as things which applied to another person of his name; or, if any of them applied to him, that they could not have shaken his station in life, or have affected him, otherwise than for a short time, and then in a very trivial degree.
There can be small doubt but that our poet had as good an education as the town of Stratford afforded; and that the learning or accomplishments, in Latin and otherwise, which tradesmen in Stratford possessed, and which they bestowed upon their children, were not withheld from William Shakspere. It has been ascertained, that the intercourse