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LIFE OF SHAKSPEARE.
BY WILLIAM HAZLITT.
“ALL that is known with any degree of certainty concerning Shakspeare, is that he was born at Stratfordupon-Avon-married and had children there-went to London, where he commenced actor, and wrote poems and plays-returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was buried.” Such is the 'summary or brief chronicle of William Shakspeare,' by one of his most crushing commentators, Mr. George Steevens. Later and more painstaking biographers,—Messrs. Collier, Charles Knight, Halliwell,-have, however, collected together, from all sorts of sources, materials with which they have severally constructed Lives of Shakspeare, ample as those of any contemporary poets, ampler than those of any contemporary dramatists. I will endeavour to compress into the present sketch the leading facts, which the labours of these gentlemen have been so laudably applied to gather.
The family of Shakspeare appears to have been diffused throughout Warwickshire long before the birth of him by whom that family has been rendered illustrious for all time. Who the soldier was upon whom the surname was first imposed for “valour and feats of arms, or when he lived, we know not; but this we learn from the grant of arms to John Shakspeare, the poet's father, that “ his parent and great-grandfather, late antecessor, for his faithful and approved service to the late most prudent prince, King Henry VII. of famous memory, was advanced and rewarded with lands and tenements, given to him in those parts of Warwickshire, where they have continued, by some descents, in good reputation and credit.” John Shakspeare himself was the fourth in descent from this loyal servant, so royally rewarded, and both be and his immediate predecessors appear to have occupied the position of yeomen, or substantial farmers, at Snitterfield, a village near Stratford. By a marriage with Mary Arden, the youngest daughter of Robert Arden, of Wilmcote, in the parish of Aston Cantlow, also in Warwickshire, John Shakspeare at once augmented his means and aggrandized his position ; for the damsel was heiress to her father's land in Wilmcote, called Asbies, a farm of about sixty acres, arable and pasture, with a house, and six pounds thirteen shillings and four pence in money, and she was the descendant of a family that dated back to the time of the Conqueror. Why John Shakspeare quitted Snitterfield does not appear; but it is certain that he went to reside at Stratford, as a tradesman, in or about the
year 1551. What precise trade he pursued has been matter of infinite controversy; but he has been traced, by the research of Mr. Halliwell and others, in the various occupations of glover, wool-stapler, and dealer in malt and timber, and the probability would seem to be that his establishment in Stratford served principally as a mart for the produce of his farming, since we find, from a document in 1579, that at that time John Shakspeare continued his occupation as yeoman. His position at Stratford was, for many years, one of great respectability. The records of Stratford, as adduced by Mr. Charles Knight, show him to have gone through the whole regular course of municipal duty. In 1556 he was on the jury of the court leet; in 1557, an ale-taster; in 1558, a burgess ; in 1559, a constable ; in 1560, an affeeror ; in 1561, a chamberlain ; in 1565, an alderman, and in 1568, high bailiff. His worldly possessions were, in the aggregate, considerable, even before he augmented them by his marriage with Mary Arden, which took place, it is supposed, in 1557. The result of the union was eight children, of whom three died when quite young. William, the eldest of the sons, was born 23rd April, 1564, and the house in Henley-street, which tradition distinguishes as the place of his birth, still stands. The extent of education attained by our poet has been the subject of the most animated, though by no means animating, controversy: the argument on the one
side being, that Shakspeare knew “small Latin and less Greek ;” while, on the other hand, it is insisted that he retained of his scholastic training more Latin and Greek than most men. Whatever the amount of the knowledge, it was acquired at the Free Grammar School of Stratford, which he entered about 1571, and which, according to Mr. Halliwell, he left about 1578, his father's circumstances at that period beginning so to fail him, that he needed the gratuitous assistance of his son's services at home. We have no space to develop John Shakspeare's decline and fall, but he appears never to have recovered the commercial position which, there is reason to suppose, he began to lose somewhere about 1578. He died in 1601, two years after having obtained from the Herald's College a grant of arms, in all probability at the instance of his then eminent son. It is morally certain that his latter days were not, at all events, days of destitution ; William Shakspeare was not the man to let his father want. The first occupation of Shakspeare himself is matter of dispute. Old Aubrey says: “ John Shakspeare was a butcher ; and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when he (i.e. William Shakspeare) was a boy he exercised his father's trade; but when he killed a calf he would doe it in a high style, and make a speech.” The only Shakspeare who has been actually identified in any records with the trade of a butcher in this locality is a Thomas Shakspeare, who was a butcher at Warwick in 1610; but there certainly seems some ground for the supposition that John Shakspeare bound his son William apprentice to a butcher. There is, however, another tradition, reported with equal confidingness by Aubrey, which it is more agreeable to adopt, namely, that Shakspeare was, “in his younger years, a schoolmaster in the country ; which has been explained to mean that he was employed by the master of the Grammar School to aid him in the instruction of the juniors ; and this supposition comes in aid of those who advocate the learning of the poet. One species of wisdom, at all events, he had not acquired up to the age of eighteen, at which, being in the year 1582, he married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of Richard Hathaway, a yeoman, occupying a cottage, which still stands, at Shottery, a village near Stratford. The fruit of this marriage was three children ; Susanna, born May, 1583;
and Hanmet and Judith, twin-children, born 1585;