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Biographical Essays by Thomas de Quincey

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DE QUINCEY'S WRITINGS.

The "Confessions of an English Opium Eater," and "Suspiria De
Profundis," form the first volume of this series of Mr. De
Quincey's Writings. A third volume will shortly be issued,
containing some of his most interesting papers contributed to the
English magazines.

BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAYS.

BY THOMAS DE QUINCEY,

Author of "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater," Etc. Etc.

SHAKSPEARE.
[Endnote: 1]

William Shakspeare, the protagonist on the great arena of modern
poetry, and the glory of the human intellect, was born at
Stratford-upon-Avon, in the county of Warwick, in the year 1564,
and upon some day, not precisely ascertained, in the month of
April. It is certain that he was baptized on the 25th; and from
that fact, combined with some shadow of a tradition, Malone has
inferred that he was born on the 23d. There is doubtless, on the
one hand, no absolute necessity deducible from law or custom, as
either operated in those times, which obliges us to adopt such a
conclusion; for children might be baptized, and were baptized, at
various distances from their birth: yet, on the other hand, the 23d
is as likely to have been the day as any other; and more likely
than any earlier day, upon two arguments. First, because there was
probably a tradition floating in the seventeenth century, that
Shakspeare died upon his birthday: now it is beyond a doubt that he
died upon the 23d of April.

Secondly, because it is a reasonable presumption, that no parents,
living in a simple community, tenderly alive to the pieties of
household duty, and in an age still clinging reverentially to the
ceremonial ordinances of religion, would much delay the adoption of
their child into the great family of Christ. Considering the
extreme frailty of an infant's life during its two earliest years,
to delay would often be to disinherit the child of its Christian
privileges; privileges not the less eloquent to the feelings from
being profoundly mysterious, and, in the English church, forced not
only upon the attention, but even upon the eye of the most
thoughtless. According to the discipline of the English church, the
unbaptized are buried with "maimed rites," shorn of their
obsequies, and sternly denied that "sweet and solemn farewell," by
which otherwise the church expresses her final charity with all
men; and not only so, but they are even _locally_ separated
and sequestrated. Ground the most hallowed, and populous with
Christian burials of households,

"That died in peace with one another.
Father, sister, son, and brother,"

opens to receive the vilest malefactor; by which the church
symbolically expresses her maternal willingness to gather back into
her fold those even of her flock who have strayed from her by the
most memorable aberrations; and yet, with all this indulgence, she
banishes to unhallowed ground the innocent bodies of the
unbaptized. To them and to suicides she turns a face of wrath. With
this gloomy fact offered to the very external senses, it is
difficult to suppose that any parents would risk their own
reproaches, by putting the fulfilment of so grave a duty on the
hazard of a convulsion fit. The case of royal children is
different; their baptisms, it is true, were often delayed for weeks
but the household chaplains of the palace were always at hand,
night and day, to baptize them in the very agonies of death.
[Endnote: 3] We must presume, therefore, that William Shakspeare
was born on some day very little anterior to that of his baptism;
and the more so because the season of the year was lovely and
genial, the 23d of April in 1564, corresponding in fact with what
we now call the 3d of May, so that, whether the child was to be
carried abroad, or the clergyman to be summoned, no hindrance would
arise from the weather. One only argument has sometimes struck us
for supposing that the 22d might be the day, and not the 23d; which
is, that Shakspeare's sole granddaughter, Lady Barnard, was married
on the 22d of April, 1626, ten years exactly from the poet's death;
and the reason for choosing this day _might_ have had a reference to
her illustrious grandfather's birthday, which, there is good reason
for thinking, would be celebrated as a festival in the family for
generations. Still this choice _may_ have been an accident, or
governed merely by reason of convenience. And, on the whole, it is as
well perhaps to acquiesce in the old belief, that Shakspeare was born
and died on the 23d of April. We cannot do wrong if we drink to his
memory on both 22d and 23d.

On a first review of the circumstances, we have reason to feel no
little perplexity in finding the materials for a life of this
transcendent writer so meagre and so few; and amongst them the
larger part of doubtful authority. All the energy of curiosity
directed upon this subject, through a period of one hundred and
fifty years, (for so long it is since Betterton the actor began to
make researches,) has availed us little or nothing. Neither the
local traditions of his provincial birthplace, though sharing with
London through half a century the honor of his familiar presence,
nor the recollections of that brilliant literary circle with whom
he lived in the metropolis, have yielded much more than such an
outline of his history, as is oftentimes to be gathered from the
penurious records of a grave-stone. That he lived, and that he
died, and that he was "a little lower than the angels;"--these make
up pretty nearly the amount of our undisputed report. It may be
doubted, indeed, whether at this day we arc as accurately
acquainted with the life of Shakspeare as with that of Chaucer,
though divided from each other by an interval of two centuries, and
(what should have been more effectual towards oblivion) by the wars
of the two roses. And yet the traditional memory of a rural and a
sylvan region, such as Warwickshire at that time was, is usually
exact as well as tenacious; and, with respect to Shakspeare in
particular, we may presume it to have been full and circumstantial
through the generation succeeding to his own, not only from the
curiosity, and perhaps something of a scandalous interest, which
would pursue the motions of one living so large a part of his life
at a distance from his wife, but also from the final reverence and
honor which would settle upon the memory of a poet so predominently
successful; of one who, in a space of five and twenty years, after
running a bright career in the capital city of his native land, and
challenging notice from the throne, had retired with an ample
fortune, created by his personal efforts, and by labors purely
intellectual.

How are we to account, then, for that deluge, as if from Lethe,
which has swept away so entirely the traditional memorials of one
so illustrious? Such is the fatality of error which overclouds
every question connected with Shakspeare, that two of his principal
critics, Steevens and Malone, have endeavored to solve the
difficulty by cutting it with a falsehood. They deny in effect that
he _was_ illustrious in the century succeeding to his own, however
much he has since become so. We shall first produce their statements
in their own words, and we shall then briefly review them.

Steevens delivers _his_ opinion in the following terms: "How
little Shakspeare was once read, may be understood from Tate, who,
in his dedication to the altered play of King Lear, speaks of the
original as an obscure piece, recommended to his notice by a
friend; and the author of the Tatler, having occasion to quote a
few lines out of Macbeth, was content to receive them from
Davenant's alteration of that celebrated drama, in which almost
every original beauty is either awkwardly disguised or arbitrarily
omitted." Another critic, who cites this passage from Steevens,
pursues the hypothesis as follows: "In fifty years after his death,
Dryden mentions that he was then become _a little obsolete_.
In the beginning of the last century, Lord Shaftesbury complains of
his _rude unpolished style, and his antiquated phrase and
wit_. It is certain that, for nearly a hundred years after his
death, partly owing to the immediate revolution and rebellion, and
partly to the licentious taste encouraged in Charles II's time, and
perhaps partly to the incorrect state of his works, he was ALMOST
ENTIRELY NEGLECTED." This critic then goes on to quote with
approbation the opinion of Malone,--"that if he had been read,
admired, studied, and imitated, in the same degree as he is now,
the enthusiasm of some one or other of his admirers in the last age
would have induced him to make some inquiries concerning the
history of his theatrical career, and the anecdotes of his private
life." After which this enlightened writer re-affirms and clenches
the judgment he has quoted, by saying,--"His admirers, however,
_if he had admirers in that age_, possessed no portion of such
enthusiasm."

It may, perhaps, be an instructive lesson to young readers, if we
now show them, by a short sifting of these confident dogmatists,
how easy it is for a careless or a half-read man to circulate the
most absolute falsehoods under the semblance of truth; falsehoods
which impose upon himself as much as they do upon others. We
believe that not one word or illustration is uttered in the
sentences cited from these three critics, which is not
_virtually_ in the very teeth of the truth.

To begin with Mr. Nahum Tate. This poor grub of literature, if he
did really speak of Lear as "an _obscure_ piece, recommended
to his notice by a friend," of which we must be allowed to doubt,
was then uttering a conscious falsehood. It happens that Lear was
one of the few Shakspearian dramas which had kept the stage
unaltered. But it is easy to see a mercenary motive in such an
artifice as this. Mr. Nahum Tate is not of a class of whom it can
be safe to say that they are "well known:" they and their desperate
tricks are essentially obscure, and good reason he has to exult in
the felicity of such obscurity; for else this same vilest of
travesties, Mr. Nahum's Lear, would consecrate his name to
everlasting scorn. For himself, he belonged to the age of Dryden
rather than of Pope: he "flourished," if we can use such a phrase
of one who was always withering, about the era of the Revolution;
and his Lear, we believe, was arranged in the year 1682. But the
family to which he belongs is abundantly recorded in the Dunciad,
and his own name will be found amongst its catalogues of heroes.

With respect to _the author of the Tatler_, a very different
explanation is requisite. Steevens means the reader to understand
Addison; but it does not follow that the particular paper in
question was from his pen. Nothing, however, could be more natural
than to quote from the common form of the play as then in
possession of the stage. It was _there_, beyond a doubt, that
a fine gentleman living upon town, and not professing any deep
scholastic knowledge of literature, (a light in which we are always
to regard the writers of the Spectator, Guardian, &c.,) would be
likely to have learned anything he quoted from Macbeth. This we say
generally of the writers in those periodical papers; but, with
reference to Addison in particular, it is time to correct the
popular notion of his literary character, or at least to mark it by
severer lines of distinction. It is already pretty well known, that
Addison had no very intimate acquaintance with the literature of
his own country. It is known, also, that he did not think such an
acquaintance any ways essential to the character of an elegant
scholar and _litterateur_. Quite enough he found it, and more
than enough for the time he had to spare, if he could maintain a
tolerable familiarity with the foremost Latin poets, and a very
slender one indeed with the Grecian. _How_ slender, we can see
in his "Travels." Of modern authors, none as yet had been published
with notes, commentaries, or critical collations of the text; and,
accordingly, Addison looked upon all of them, except those few who
professed themselves followers in the retinue and equipage of the
ancients, as creatures of a lower race. Boileau, as a mere imitator
and propagator of Horace, he read, and probably little else amongst
the French classics. Hence it arose that he took upon himself to
speak sneeringly of Tasso. To this, which was a bold act for his
timid mind, he was emboldened by the countenance of Boileau. Of the
elder Italian authors, such as Ariosto, and, _a fortiori_,
Dante, be knew absolutely nothing. Passing to our own literature,
it is certain that Addison was profoundly ignorant of Chaucer and
of Spenser. Milton only,--and why? simply because he was a
brilliant scholar, and stands like a bridge between the Christian
literature and the Pagan,--Addison had read and esteemed. There was
also in the very constitution of Milton's mind, in the majestic
regularity and planetary solemnity of its _epic_ movements,
something which he could understand and appreciate. As to the
meteoric and incalculable eccentricities of the _dramatic_
mind, as it displayed itself in the heroic age of our drama,
amongst the Titans of 1590-1630, they confounded and overwhelmed
him.

In particular, with regard to Shakspeare, we shall now proclaim a
discovery which we made some twenty years ago. We, like others,
from seeing frequent references to Shakspeare in the Spectator, had
acquiesced in the common belief, that although Addison was no doubt
profoundly unlearned in Shakspeare's language, and thoroughly
unable to do him justice, (and this we might well assume, since his
great rival Pope, who had expressly studied Shakspeare, was, after
all, so memorably deficient in the appropriate knowledge,)--yet,
that of course he had a vague popular knowledge of the mighty
poet's cardinal dramas. Accident only led us into a discovery of
our mistake. Twice or thrice we had observed, that if Shakspeare
were quoted, that paper turned out not to be Addison's; and at
length, by express examination, we ascertained the curious fact,
that Addison has never in one instance quoted or made any reference
to Shakspeare. But was this, as Steevens most disingenuously
pretends, to be taken as an exponent of the public feeling towards
Shakspeare? Was Addison's neglect representative of a general
neglect? If so, whence came Rowe's edition, Pope's, Theobald's, Sir
Thomas Hanmer's, Bishop Warburton's, all upon the heels of one
another? With such facts staring him in the face, how shameless
must be that critic who could, in support of such a thesis, refer
to " _the author of the Tatler_" contemporary with all these
editors. The truth is, Addison was well aware of Shakspeare's hold
on the popular mind; too well aware of it. The feeble constitution
of the poetic faculty, as existing in himself, forbade his
sympathizing with Shakspeare; the proportions were too colossal for
his delicate vision; and yet, as one who sought popularity himself,
he durst not shock what perhaps he viewed as a national prejudice.
Those who have happened, like ourselves, to see the effect of
passionate music and "deep-inwoven harmonics" upon the feeling of
an idiot, we may conceive what we mean. Such music does not utterly
revolt the idiot; on the contrary, it has a strange but a horrid
fascination for him; it alarms, irritates, disturbs, makes him
profoundly unhappy; and chiefly by unlocking imperfect glimpses of
thoughts and slumbering instincts, which it is for his peace to
have entirely obscured, because for him they can be revealed only
partially, and with the sad effect of throwing a baleful gleam upon
his blighted condition. Do we mean, then, to compare Addison with
an idiot? Not generally, by any means. Nobody can more sincerely
admire him where he was a man of real genius, viz., in his
delineations of character and manners, or in the exquisite
delicacies of his humor. But assuredly Addison, as a poet, was
amongst the sons of the feeble; and between the authors of Cato and
of King Lear there was a gulf never to be bridged over. [Endnote: 4]

But Dryden, we are told, pronounced Shakspeare already in his day
_"a little obsolete."_ Here now we have wilful, deliberate
falsehood. _Obsolete_, in Dryden's meaning, does not imply
that he was so with regard to his popularity, (the question then at
issue,) but with regard to his diction and choice of words. To cite
Dryden as a witness for any purpose against Shakspeare,--Dryden,
who of all men had the most ransacked wit and exhausted language in
celebrating the supremacy of Shakspeare's genius, does indeed
require as much shamelessness in feeling as mendacity in principle.

But then Lord Shaftesbury, who may be taken as half way between
Dryden and Pope, (Dryden died in 1700, Pope was then twelve years
old, and Lord S. wrote chiefly, we believe, between 1700 and 1710,)
"complains," it seems, "of his rude unpolished style, and his
antiquated phrase and wit." What if he does? Let the whole truth be
told, and then we shall see how much stress is to be laid upon such
a judgment. The second Lord Shaftesbury, the author of the
Characteristics, was the grandson of that famous political
agitator, the Chancellor Shaftesbury, who passed his whole life in
storms of his own creation. The second Lord Shaftesbury was a man
of crazy constitution, querulous from ill health, and had received
an eccentric education from his eccentric grandfather. He was
practised daily in _talking_ Latin, to which afterwards he
added a competent study of the Greek; and finally he became
unusually learned for his rank, but the most absolute and
undistinguishing pedant that perhaps literature has to show. He
sneers continually at the regular built academic pedant; but he
himself, though no academic, was essentially the very impersonation
of pedantry. No thought however beautiful, no image however
magnificent, could conciliate his praise as long as it was clothed
in English; but present him with the most trivial common-places in
Greek, and he unaffectedly fancied them divine; mistaking the
pleasurable sense of his own power in a difficult and rare
accomplishment for some peculiar force or beauty in the passage.
Such was the outline of his literary taste. And was it upon
Shakspeare only, or upon him chiefly, that he lavished his
pedantry? Far from it. He attacked Milton with no less fervor; he
attacked Dryden with a thousand times more. Jeremy Taylor he quoted
only to ridicule; and even Locke, the confidential friend of his
grandfather, he never alludes to without a sneer. As to Shakspeare,
so far from Lord Shaftesbury's censures arguing his deficient
reputation, the very fact of his noticing him at all proves his
enormous popularity; for upon system he noticed those only who
ruled the public taste. The insipidity of his objections to
Shakspeare may be judged from this, that he comments in a spirit of
absolute puerility upon the name _Desdemona_, as though
intentionally formed from the Greek word for _superstition_.
In fact, he had evidently read little beyond the list of names in
Shakspeare; yet there is proof enough that the irresistible beauty
of what little he _had_ read was too much for all his
pedantry, and startled him exceedingly; for ever afterwards he
speaks of Shakspeare as one who, with a little aid from Grecian
sources, really had something great and promising about him. As to
modern authors, neither this Lord Shaftesbury nor Addison read any
thing for the latter years of their lives but Bayle's Dictionary.
And most of the little scintillations of erudition, which may be
found in the notes to the Characteristics, and in the Essays of
Addison, are derived, almost without exception, and uniformly
without acknowledgment, from Bayle. [Endnote: 5]

Finally, with regard to the sweeping assertion, that "for nearly a
hundred years after his death Shakspeare was almost entirely
neglected," we shall meet this scandalous falsehood, by a rapid
view of his fortunes during the century in question. The tradition
has always been, that Shakspeare was honored by the especial notice
of Queen Elizabeth, as well as by that of James I. At one time we
were disposed to question the truth of this tradition; but that was
for want of having read attentively the lines of Ben Jonson to the
memory of Shakspeare, those generous lines which have so absurdly
been taxed with faint praise. Jonson could make no mistake on this
point; he, as one of Shakspeare's familiar companions, must have
witnessed at the very time, and accompanied with friendly sympathy,
every motion of royal favor towards Shakspeare. Now he, in words
which leave no room for doubt, exclaims,

"Sweet swan of Avon, what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear;
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames,
_That so did take Eliza and our James."_

These princes, then, _were_ taken, were fascinated, with some
of Shakspeare's dramas. In Elizabeth the approbation would probably
be sincere. In James we can readily suppose it to have been
assumed; for he was a pedant in a different sense from Lord
Shaftesbury; not from undervaluing modern poetry, but from caring
little or nothing for any poetry, although he wrote about its
mechanic rules. Still the royal _imprimatur_ would be
influential and serviceable no less when offered hypocritically
than in full sincerity. Next let us consider, at the very moment of
Shakspeare's death, who were the leaders of the British youth, the
_principes juventutis_, in the two fields, equally important
to a great poet's fame, of rank and of genius. The Prince of Wales
and John Milton; the first being then about sixteen years old, the
other about eight. Now these two great powers, as we may call them,
these presiding stars over all that was English in thought and
action, were both impassioned admirers of Shakspeare. Each of them
counts for many thousands. The Prince of Wales [Endnote: 6] had
learned to appreciate Shakspeare, not originally from reading him,
but from witnessing the court representations of his plays at
Whitehall. Afterwards we know that he made Shakspeare his closet
companion, for he was reproached with doing so by Milton. And we
know also, from the just criticism pronounced upon the character
and diction of Caliban by one of Charles's confidential
counsellors, Lord Falkland, that the king's admiration of
Shakspeare had impressed a determination upon the court reading. As
to Milton, by double prejudices, puritanical and classical, his
mind had been preoccupied against the full impressions of
Shakspeare. And we know that there is such a thing as keeping the
sympathies of love and admiration in a dormant state, or state of
abeyance; an effort of self-conquest realized in more cases than
one by the ancient fathers, both Greek and Latin, with regard to
the profane classics. Intellectually they admired, and would not
belie their admiration; but they did not give their hearts
cordially, they did not abandon themselves to their natural
impulses. They averted their eyes and weaned their attention from
the dazzling object. Such, probably, was Milton's state of feeling
towards Shakspeare after 1642, when the theatres were suppressed,
and the fanatical fervor in its noontide heat. Yet even then he did
not belie his reverence intellectually for Shakspeare; and in his
younger days we know that he had spoken more enthusiastically of
Shakspeare, than he ever did again of any uninspired author. Not
only did he address a sonnet to his memory, in which he declares
that kings would wish to die, if by dying they could obtain such a
monument in the hearts of men; but he also speaks of him in his
_Il Penseroso_, as the tutelary genius of the English stage.
In this transmission of the torch (greek: lampadophoria) Dryden
succeeds to Milton; he was born nearly thirty years later; about
thirty years they were contemporaries; and by thirty years, or
nearly, Dryden survived his great leader. Dryden, in fact, lived
out the seventeenth century. And we have now arrived within nine
years of the era, when the critical editions started in hot
succession to one another. The names we have mentioned were the
great influential names of the century. But of inferior homage
there was no end. How came Betterton the actor, how came Davenant,
how came Rowe, or Pope, by their intense (if not always sound)
admiration for Shakspeare, unless they had found it fuming upwards
like incense to the Pagan deities in ancient times, from altars
erected at every turning upon all the paths of men?

But it is objected that inferior dramatists were sometimes
preferred to Shakspeare; and again, that vile travesties of
Shakspeare were preferred to the authentic dramas. As to the first
argument, let it be remembered, that if the saints of the chapel
are always in the same honor, because _there_ men are simply
discharging a duty, which once due will be due for ever; the saints
of the theatre, on the other hand, must bend to the local genius,
and to the very reasons for having a theatre at all. Men go thither
for amusement. This is the paramount purpose, and even acknowledged
merit or absolute superiority must give way to it. Does a man at
Paris expect to see Moliere reproduced in proportion to his
admitted precedency in the French drama? On the contrary, that very
precedency argues such a familiarization with his works, that those
who are in quest of relaxation will reasonably prefer any recent
drama to that which, having lost all its novelty, has lost much of
its excitement. We speak of ordinary minds; but in cases of
_public_ entertainments, deriving part of their power from
scenery and stage pomp, novelty is for all minds an essential
condition of attraction. Moreover, in some departments of the
comic, Beaumont and Fletcher, when writing in combination, really
had a freedom and breadth of manner which excels the comedy of
Shakspeare. As to the altered Shakspeare as taking precedency of
the genuine Shakspeare, no argument can be so frivolous. The public
were never allowed a choice; the great majority of an audience even
now cannot be expected to carry the real Shakspeare in their mind,
so as to pursue a comparison between that and the alteration. Their
comparisons must be exclusively amongst what they have
opportunities of seeing; that is, between the various pieces
presented to them by the managers of theatres. Further than this,
it is impossible for them to extend their office of judging and
collating; and the degenerate taste which substituted the caprices
of Davenant, the rants of Dryden, or the filth of Tate, for the
jewellery of Shakspeare, cannot with any justice be charged upon
the public, not one in a thousand of whom was furnished with any
means of comparing, but exclusively upon those (viz., theatrical
managers,) who had the very amplest. Yet even in excuse for
_them_ much may be said. The very length of some plays
compelled them to make alterations. The best of Shakspeare's
dramas, King Lear, is the least fitted for representation; and,
even for the vilest alteration, it ought in candor to be considered
that possession is nine points of the law. He who would not have
introduced, was often obliged to retain.

Finally, it is urged, that the small number of editions through
which Shakspeare passed in the seventeenth century, furnishes a
separate argument, and a conclusive one against his popularity. We
answer, that, considering the bulk of his plays collectively, the
editions were _not_ few. Compared with any known case, the
copies sold of Shakspeare were quite as many as could be expected
under the circumstances. Ten or fifteen times as much consideration
went to the purchase of one great folio like Shakspeare, as would
attend the purchase of a little volume like Waller or Donne.
Without reviews, or newspapers, or advertisements, to diffuse the
knowledge of books, the progress of literature was necessarily
slow, and its expansion narrow. But this is a topic which has
always been treated unfairly, not with regard to Shakspeare only,
but to Milton, as well as many others. The truth is, we have not
facts enough to guide us; for the number of editions often tells
nothing accurately as to the number of copies. With respect to
Shakspeare it is certain, that, had his masterpieces been gathered
into small volumes, Shakspeare would have had a most extensive
sale. As it was, there can be no doubt, that from his own
generation, throughout the seventeenth century, and until the
eighteenth began to accommodate, not any greater popularity in
_him_, but a greater taste for reading in the public, his fame
never ceased to be viewed as a national trophy of honor; and the
most illustrious men of the seventeenth century were no whit less
fervent in their admiration than those of the eighteenth and the
nineteenth, either as respected its strength and sincerity, or as
respected its open profession. [Endnote: 7]

It is therefore a false notion, that the general sympathy with the
merits of Shakspeare ever beat with a languid or intermitting
pulse. Undoubtedly, in times when the functions of critical
journals and of newspapers were not at hand to diffuse or to
strengthen the impressions which emanated from the capital, all
opinions must have travelled slowly into the provinces. But even
then, whilst the perfect organs of communication were wanting,
indirect substitutes were supplied by the necessities of the times,
or by the instincts of political zeal. Two channels especially lay
open between the great central organ of the national mind, and the
remotest provinces. Parliaments were occasionally summoned, (for
the judges' circuits were too brief to produce much effect,) and
during their longest suspensions, the nobility, with large
retinues, continually resorted to the court. But an intercourse
more constant and more comprehensive was maintained through the
agency of the two universities. Already, in the time of James I.,
the growing importance of the gentry, and the consequent birth of a
new interest in political questions, had begun to express itself at
Oxford, and still more so at Cambridge. Academic persons stationed
themselves as sentinels at London, for the purpose of watching the
court and the course of public affairs. These persons wrote
letters, like those of the celebrated Joseph Mede, which we find in
Ellis's Historical Collections, reporting to their
fellow-collegians all the novelties of public life as they arose,
or personally carried down such reports, and thus conducted the
general feelings at the centre into lesser centres, from which
again they were diffused into the ten thousand parishes of England;
for, (with a very few exceptions in favor of poor benefices, Welch
or Cumbrian,) every parish priest must unavoidably have spent his
three years at one or other of the English universities. And by
this mode of diffusion it is, that we can explain the strength with
which Shakspeare's thoughts and diction impressed themselves from a
very early period upon the national literature, and even more
generally upon the national thinking and conversation.[Endnote: 8]

The question, therefore, revolves upon us in threefold
difficulty--How, having stepped thus prematurely into this
inheritance of fame, leaping, as it were, thus abruptly into the
favor alike of princes and the enemies of princes, had it become
possible that in his native place, (honored still more in the final
testimonies of his preference when founding a family mansion,) such
a man's history, and the personal recollections which cling so
affectionately to the great intellectual potentates who have
recommended themselves by gracious manners, could so soon and so
utterly have been obliterated?

Malone, with childish irreflection, ascribes the loss of such
memorials to the want of enthusiasm in his admirers. Local
researches into private history had not then commenced. Such a
taste, often petty enough in its management, was the growth of
after ages. Else how came Spenser's life and fortunes to be so
utterly overwhelmed in oblivion? No poet of a high order could be
more popular.

The answer we believe to be this: Twenty-six years after
Shakspeare's death commenced the great parliamentary war. This it
was, and the local feuds arising to divide family from family,
brother from brother, upon which we must charge the extinction of
traditions and memorials, doubtless abundant up to that era. The
parliamentary contest, it will be said, did not last above three
years; the king's standard having been first raised at Nottingham
in August, 1642, and the battle of Naseby (which terminated the
open warfare) having been fought in June, 1645. Or even if we
extend its duration to the surrender of the last garrison, that war
terminated in the spring of 1646. And the brief explosions of
insurrection or of Scottish invasion, which occurred on subsequent
occasions, were all locally confined, and none came near to
Warwickshire, except the battle of Worcester, more than five years
after. This is true; but a short war will do much to efface recent
and merely personal memorials. And the following circumstances of
the war were even more important than the general fact.

First of all, the very mansion founded by Shakspeare became the
military headquarters for the queen in 1644, when marching from the
eastern coast of England to join the king in Oxford; and one such
special visitation would be likely to do more serious mischief in
the way of extinction, than many years of general warfare.
Secondly, as a fact, perhaps, equally important, Birmingham, the
chief town of Warwickshire, and the adjacent district, the seat of
our hardware manufactures, was the very focus of disaffection
towards the royal cause. Not only, therefore, would this whole
region suffer more from internal and spontaneous agitation, but it
would be the more frequently traversed vindictively from without,
and harassed by flying parties from Oxford, or others of the king's
garrisons. Thirdly, even apart from the political aspects of
Warwickshire, this county happens to be the central one of England,
as regards the roads between the north and south; and Birmingham
has long been the great central axis, [Endnote: 9] in which all
the radii from the four angles of England proper meet and
intersect. Mere accident, therefore, of local position, much more
when united with that avowed inveteracy of malignant feeling, which
was bitter enough to rouse a re-action of bitterness in the mind of
Lord Clarendon, would go far to account for the wreck of many
memorials relating to Shakspeare, as well as for the subversion of
that quiet and security for humble life, in which the traditional
memory finds its best _nidus_. Thus we obtain one solution,
and perhaps the main one, of the otherwise mysterious oblivion
which had swept away all traces of the mighty poet, by the time
when those quiet days revolved upon England, in which again the
solitary agent of learned research might roam in security from
house to house, gleaning those personal remembrances which, even in
the fury of civil strife, might long have lingered by the chimney
corner. But the fierce furnace of war had probably, by its
_local_ ravages, scorched this field of natural tradition, and
thinned the gleaner's inheritance by three parts out of four. This,
we repeat, may be one part of the solution to this difficult
problem.

And if another is still demanded, possibly it may be found in the
fact, hostile to the perfect consecration of Shakspeare's memory,
that after all he was a player. Many a coarse-minded country
gentleman, or village pastor, who would have held his town
glorified by the distinction of having sent forth a great judge or
an eminent bishop, might disdain to cherish the personal
recollections which surrounded one whom custom regarded as little
above a mountebank, and the illiberal law as a vagabond. The same
degrading appreciation attached both to the actor in plays and to
their author. The contemptuous appellation of "play-book," served
as readily to degrade the mighty volume which contained Lear and
Hamlet, as that of "play-actor," or "player-man," has always served
with the illiberal or the fanatical to dishonor the persons of
Roscius or of Garrick, of Talma or of Siddons. Nobody, indeed, was
better aware of this than the noble-minded Shakspeare; and
feelingly he has breathed forth in his sonnets this conscious
oppression under which he lay of public opinion, unfavorable by a
double title to his own pretensions; for, being both dramatic
author and dramatic performer, he found himself heir to a twofold
opprobrium, and at an era of English society when the weight of
that opprobrium was heaviest. In reality, there was at this period
a collision of forces acting in opposite directions upon the
estimation of the stage and scenical art, and therefore of all the
ministers in its equipage. Puritanism frowned upon these pursuits,
as ruinous to public morals; on the other hand, loyalty could not
but tolerate what was patronized by the sovereign; and it happened
that Elizabeth, James, and Charles I., were _all_ alike lovers
and promoters of theatrical amusements, which were indeed more
indispensable to the relief of court ceremony, and the monotony of
aulic pomp, than in any other region of life. This royal support,
and the consciousness that any brilliant success in these arts
implied an unusual share of natural endowments, did something in
mitigation of a scorn which must else have been intolerable to all
generous natures.

But whatever prejudice might thus operate against the perfect
sanctity of Shakspeare's posthumous reputation, it is certain that
the splendor of his worldly success must have done much to
obliterate that effect; his admirable colloquial talents a good
deal, and his gracious affability still more. The wonder,
therefore, will still remain, that Betterton, in less than a
century from his death, should have been able to glean so little.
And for the solution of this wonder, we must throw ourselves
chiefly upon the explanations we have made as to the parliamentary
war, and the local ravages of its progress in the very district, of
the very town, and the very house.

If further arguments are still wanted to explain this mysterious
abolition, we may refer the reader to the following succession of
disastrous events, by which it should seem that a perfect malice of
misfortune pursued the vestiges of the mighty poet's steps. In
1613, the Globe theatre, with which he had been so long connected,
was burned to the ground. Soon afterwards a great fire occurred in
Stratford; and next, (without counting upon the fire of London,
just fifty years after his death, which, however, would consume
many an important record from periods far more remote,) the house
of Ben Jonson, in which probably, as Mr. Campbell suggests, might
be parts of his correspondence, was also burned. Finally, there was
an old tradition that Lady Barnard, the sole grand-daughter of
Shakspeare, had carried off many of his papers from Stratford, and
these papers have never since been traced.

In many of the elder lives it has been asserted, that John
Shakspeare, the father of the poet, was a butcher, and in others
that he was a woolstapler. It is now settled beyond dispute that he
was a glover. This was his professed occupation in Stratford,
though it is certain that, with this leading trade, from which he
took his denomination, he combined some collateral pursuits; and it
is possible enough that, as openings offered, he may have meddled
with many. In that age, and in a provincial town, nothing like the
exquisite subdivision of labor was attempted which we now see
realized in the great cities of Christendom. And one trade is often
found to play into another with so much reciprocal advantage, that
even in our own days we do not much wonder at an enterprising man,
in country places, who combines several in his own person.
Accordingly, John Shakspeare is known to have united with his town
calling the rural and miscellaneous occupations of a farmer.

Meantime his avowed business stood upon a very different footing
from the same trade as it is exercised in modern times. Gloves were
in that age an article of dress more costly by much, and more
elaborately decorated, than in our own. They were a customary
present from some cities to the judges of assize, and to other
official persons; a custom of ancient standing, and in some places,
we believe, still subsisting; and in such cases it is reasonable to
suppose, that the gloves must originally have been more valuable
than the trivial modern article of the same name. So also, perhaps,
in their origin, of the gloves given at funerals. In reality,
whenever the simplicity of an age makes it difficult to renew the
parts of a wardrobe, except in capital towns of difficult access,
prudence suggests that such wares should be manufactured of more
durable materials; and, being so, they become obviously susceptible
of more lavish ornament. But it will not follow, from this
essential difference in the gloves of Shakspeare's age, that the
glover's occupation was more lucrative. Doubtless he sold more
costly gloves, and upon each pair had a larger profit, but for that
very reason he sold fewer. Two or three gentlemen "of worship" in
the neighborhood might occasionally require a pair of gloves, but
it is very doubtful whether any inhabitant of Stratford would ever
call for so mere a luxury.

The practical result, at all events, of John Shakspeare's various
pursuits, does not appear permanently to have met the demands of
his establishment, and in his maturer years there are indications
still surviving that he was under a cloud of embarrassment. He
certainly lost at one time his social position in the town of
Stratford; but there is a strong presumption, in _our_
construction of the case, that he finally retrieved it; and for
this retrieval of a station, which he had forfeited by personal
misfortunes or neglect, he was altogether indebted to the filial
piety of his immortal son.

Meantime the earlier years of the elder Shakspeare wore the aspect
of rising prosperity, however unsound might be the basis on which
it rested. There can be little doubt that William Shakspeare, from
his birth up to his tenth or perhaps his eleventh year, lived in
careless plenty, and saw nothing in his father's house but that
style of liberal house-keeping, which has ever distinguished the
upper yeomanry and the rural gentry of England. Probable enough it
is, that the resources for meeting this liberality were not
strictly commensurate with the family income, but were sometimes
allowed to entrench, by means of loans or mortgages, upon capital
funds. The stress upon the family finances was perhaps at times
severe; and that it was borne at all, must be imputed to the large
and even splendid portion which John Shakspeare received with his
wife.

This lady, for such she really was in an eminent sense, by birth as
well as by connections, bore the beautiful name of Mary Arden, a
name derived from the ancient forest district [Endnote: 10] of
the country; and doubtless she merits a more elaborate notice than
our slender materials will furnish. To have been _the mother of
Shakspeare, _--how august a title to the reverence of infinite
generations, and of centuries beyond the vision of prophecy. A
plausible hypothesis has been started in modern times, that the
facial structure, and that the intellectual conformation, may be
deduced more frequently from the corresponding characteristics in
the mother than in the father. It is certain that no very great man
has ever existed, but that his greatness has been rehearsed and
predicted in one or other of his parents. And it cannot be denied,
that in the most eminent men, where we have had the means of
pursuing the investigation, the mother has more frequently been
repeated and reproduced than the father. We have known cases where
the mother has furnished all the intellect, and the father all the
moral sensibility; upon which assumption, the wonder ceases that
_Cicero,_ Lord Chesterfield, and other brilliant men, who took
the utmost pains with their sons, should have failed so
conspicuously; for possibly the mothers had been women of excessive
and even exemplary stupidity. In the case of Shakspeare, each
parent, if we had any means of recovering their characteristics,
could not fail to furnish a study of the most profound interest;
and with regard to his mother in particular, if the modern
hypothesis be true, and if we are indeed to deduce from her the
stupendous intellect of her son, in that case she must have been a
benefactress to her husband's family, beyond the promises of fairy
land or the dreams of romance; for it is certain that to her
chiefly this family was also indebted for their worldly comfort.

Mary Arden was the youngest daughter and the heiress of Robert
Arden, of Wilmecote, Esq., in the county of Warwick. The family of
Arden was even then of great antiquity. About one century and a
quarter before the birth of William Shakspeare, a person bearing
the same name as his maternal grandfather had been returned by the
commissioners in their list of the Warwickshire gentry; he was
there styled Robert Arden, Esq., of Bromich. This was in 1433, or
the 12th year of Henry VI. In Henry VII.'s reign, the Ardens
received a grant of lands from the crown; and in 1568, four years
after the birth of William Shakspeare, Edward Arden, of the same
family, was sheriff of the county. Mary Arden was, therefore, a
young lady of excellent descent and connections, and an heiress of
considerable wealth. She brought to her husband, as her marriage
portion, the landed estate of Asbies, which, upon any just
valuation, must be considered as a handsome dowry for a woman of
her station. As this point has been contested, and as it goes a
great way towards determining the exact social position of the
poet's parents, let us be excused for sifting it a little more
narrowly than might else seem warranted by the proportions of our
present life. Every question which it can be reasonable to raise at
all, it must be reasonable to treat with at least so much of minute
research, as may justify the conclusions which it is made to
support.

The estate of Asbies contained fifty acres of arable land, six of
meadow, and a right of commonage. What may we assume to have been
the value of its fee-simple? Malone, who allows the total fortune
of Mary Arden to have been 110L 13s 4d., is sure that the value of
Asbies could not have been more than one hundred pounds. But why?
Because, says he, the "average" rent of land at that time was no
more than three shillings per acre. This we deny; but upon that
assumption, the total yearly rent of fifty-six acres would be
exactly eight guineas. [Endnote: 11] And therefore, in assigning
the value of Asbies at one hundred pounds, it appears that Malone
must have estimated the land at no more than twelve years'
purchase, which would carry the value to 100L. 16s. "Even at this
estimate," as the latest annotator [Endnote: 12] on this subject
_justly_ observes, "Mary Arden's portion was a larger one than
was usually given to a landed gentleman's daughter." But this
writer objects to Malone's principle of valuation. "We find," says
he, "that John Shakspeare also farmed the meadow of Tugton,
containing sixteen acres, at the rate of eleven shillings per acre.
Now what proof has Mr. Malone adduced, that the acres of Asbies
were not as valuable as those of Tugton? And if they were so, the
former estate must have been worth between three and four hundred
pounds." In the main drift of his objections we concur with Mr.
Campbell. But as they are liable to some criticism, let us clear
the ground of all plausible cavils, and then see what will be the
result. Malone, had he been alive, would probably have answered,
that Tugton was a farm specially privileged by nature; and that if
any man contended for so unusual a rent as eleven shillings an acre
for land not known to him, the _onus probandi_ would lie upon
_him_. Be it so; eleven shillings is certainly above the
ordinary level of rent, but three shillings is below it. We
contend, that for tolerably good land, situated advantageously,
that is, with a ready access to good markets and good fairs, such
as those of Coventry, Birmingham, Gloucester, Worcester,
Shrewsbury,. &c., one noble might be assumed as the annual rent;
and that in such situations twenty years' purchase was not a
valuation, even in Elizabeth's reign, very unusual. Let us,
however, assume the rent at only five shillings, and land at
sixteen years' purchase. Upon this basis, the rent would be 14L,
and the value of the fee simple 224L. Now, if it were required to
equate that sum with its present value, a very operose [Endnote:
13] calculation might be requisite. But contenting ourselves with
the gross method of making such equations between 1560 and the
current century, that is, multiplying by five, we shall find the
capital value of the estate to be eleven hundred and twenty pounds,
whilst the annual rent would be exactly seventy. But if the estate
had been sold, and the purchase-money lent upon mortgage, (the only
safe mode of investing money at that time,) the annual interest
would have reached 28L, equal to 140L of modern money; for
mortgages in Elizabeth's age readily produced ten per cent.

A woman who should bring at this day an annual income of 140L to a
provincial tradesman, living in a sort of _rus in urbe_,
according to the simple fashions of rustic life, would assuredly be
considered as an excellent match. And there can be little doubt
that Mary Arden's dowry it was which, for some ten or a dozen years
succeeding to his marriage, raised her husband to so much social
consideration in Stratford. In 1550 John Shakspeare is supposed to
have first settled in Stratford, having migrated from some other
part of Warwickshire. In 1557 he married Mary Arden; in 1565, the
year subsequent to the birth of his son William, his third child,
he was elected one of the aldermen; and in the year 1568 he became
first magistrate of the town, by the title of high bailiff. This
year we may assume to have been that in which the prosperity of
this family reached its zenith; for in this year it was, over and
above the presumptions furnished by his civic honors, that he
obtained a grant of arms from Clarencieux of the Heralds' College.
On this occasion he declared himself worth five hundred pounds
derived from his ancestors. And we really cannot understand the
right by which critics, living nearly three centuries from his
time, undertake to know his affairs better than himself, and to tax
him with either inaccuracy or falsehood. No man would be at leisure
to court heraldic honors, when he knew himself to be embarrassed,
or apprehended that he soon might be so. A man whose anxieties had
been fixed at all upon his daily livelihood would, by this chase
after the armorial honors of heraldry, have made himself a butt for
ridicule, such as no fortitude could enable him to sustain.

In 1568, therefore, when his son William would be moving through
his fifth year, John Shakspeare, (now honored by the designation of
_Master_,) would be found at times in the society of the
neighboring gentry. Ten years in advance of this period he was
already in difficulties. But there is no proof that these
difficulties had then reached a point of degradation, or of
memorable distress. The sole positive indications of his decaying
condition are, that in 1578 he received an exemption from the small
weekly assessment levied upon the aldermen of Stratford for the
relief of the poor; and that in the following year, 1579, he is
found enrolled amongst the defaulters in the payment of taxes. The
latter fact undoubtedly goes to prove that, like every man who is
falling back in the world, he was occasionally in arrears. Paying
taxes is not like the honors awarded or the processions regulated
by Clarencieux; no man is ambitious of precedency there; and if a
laggard pace in that duty is to be received as evidence of
pauperism, nine tenths of the English people might occasionally be
classed as paupers. With respect to his liberation from the weekly
assessment, that may bear a construction different from the one
which it has received. This payment, which could never have been
regarded as a burthen, not amounting to five pounds annually of our
present money, may have been held up as an exponent of wealth and
consideration; and John Shakspeare may have been required to resign
it as an honorable distinction, not suitable to the circumstances
of an embarrassed man. Finally, the fact of his being indebted to
Robert Sadler, a baker, in the sum of five pounds, and his being
under the necessity of bringing a friend as security for the
payment, proves nothing at all. There is not a town in Europe, in
which opulent men cannot be found that are backward in the payment
of their debts. And the probability is, that Master Sadler acted
like most people who, when they suppose a man to be going down in
the world, feel their respect for him sensibly decaying, and think
it wise to trample him under foot, provided only in that act of
trampling they can squeeze out of him their own individual debt.
Like that terrific chorus in Spohr's oratorio of St. Paul, _"
Stone him to death "_ is the cry of the selfish and the
illiberal amongst creditors, alike towards the just and the unjust
amongst debtors.

It was the wise and beautiful prayer of Agar, "Give me neither
poverty nor riches;" and, doubtless, for quiet, for peace, and the
_latentis semita vita_, that is the happiest dispensation.
But, perhaps, with a view to a school of discipline and of moral
fortitude, it might be a more salutary prayer, "Give me riches
_and_ poverty, and afterwards neither." For the transitional
state between riches and poverty will teach a lesson both as to the
baseness and the goodness of human nature, and will impress that
lesson with a searching force, such as no borrowed experience ever
can approach. Most probable it is that Shakspeare drew some of his
powerful scenes in the Timon of Athens, those which exhibit the
vileness of ingratitude and the impassioned frenzy of misanthropy,
from his personal recollections connected with the case of his own
father. Possibly, though a cloud of two hundred and seventy years
now veils it, this very Master Sadler, who was so urgent for his
five pounds, and who so little apprehended that he should be called
over the coals for it in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, may have
compensate for the portrait of that Lucullus who says of Timon:

"Alas, good lord! a noble gentleman 'tis, if he would not keep so
good a house. Many a time and often I have dined with him, and told
him on't; and come again to supper to him, of purpose to have him
spend less; and yet he would embrace no counsel, take no warning by
my coming. Every man has his fault, and honesty is his; I have told
him on't, but I could never get him from it."

For certain years, perhaps, John Shakspeare moved on in darkness
and sorrow:

"His familiars from his buried fortunes
Slunk all away; left their false vows with him,
Like empty purses pick'd; and his poor self,
A dedicated beggar to the air,
With his disease of all-shunn'd poverty,
Walk'd, like contempt, alone."

We, however, at this day, are chiefly interested in the case as it
bears upon the education and youthful happiness of the poet. Now if
we suppose that from 1568, the high noon of the family prosperity,
to 1578, the first year of their mature embarrassments, one half
the interval was passed in stationary sunshine, and the latter half
in the gradual twilight of declension, it will follow that the
young William had completed his tenth year before he heard the
first signals of distress; and for so long a period his education
would probably be conducted on as liberal a scale as the resources
of Stratford would allow. Through this earliest section of his life
he would undoubtedly rank as a gentleman's son, possibly as the
leader of his class, in Stratford. But what rank he held through
the next ten years, or, more generally, what was the standing in
society of Shakspeare until he had created a new station for
himself by his own exertions in the metropolis, is a question yet
unsettled, but which has been debated as keenly as if it had some
great dependencies. Upon this we shall observe, that could we by
possibility be called to settle beforehand what rank were best for
favoring the development of intellectual powers, the question might
wear a face of deep practical importance; but when the question is
simply as to a matter of fact, what _was_ the rank held by a
man whose intellectual development has long ago been completed,
this becomes a mere question of curiosity. The tree has fallen; it
is confessedly the noblest of all the forest; and we must therefore
conclude that the soil in which it flourished was either the best
possible, or, if not so, that any thing bad in its properties had
been disarmed and neutralized by the vital forces of the plant, or
by the benignity of nature. If any future Shakspeare were likely to
arise, it might be a problem of great interest to agitate, whether
the condition of a poor man or of a gentleman were best fitted to
nurse and stimulate his faculties. But for the actual Shakspeare,
since what he was he was, and since nothing greater can be
imagined, it is now become a matter of little moment whether his
course lay for fifteen or twenty years through the humilities of
absolute poverty, or through the chequered paths of gentry lying in
the shade. Whatever _was_, must, in this case at least, have
been the best, since it terminated in producing Shakspeare: and
thus far we must all be optimists.

Yet still, it will be urged, the curiosity is not illiberal which
would seek to ascertain the precise career through which Shakspeare
ran. This we readily concede; and we are anxious ourselves to
contribute any thing in our power to the settlement of a point so
obscure. What we have wished to protest against, is the spirit of
partisanship in which this question has too generally been
discussed. For, whilst some with a foolish affectation of plebeian
sympathies overwhelm us with the insipid commonplaces about birth
and ancient descent, as honors containing nothing meritorious, and
rush eagerly into an ostentatious exhibition of all the
circumstances which favor the notion of a humble station and humble
connections; others, with equal forgetfulness of true dignity,
plead with the intemperance and partiality of a legal advocate for
the pretensions of Shakspeare to the hereditary rank of gentleman.
Both parties violate the majesty of the subject. When we are
seeking for the sources of the Euphrates or the St. Lawrence, we
look for no proportions to the mighty volume of waters in that
particular summit amongst the chain of mountains which embosoms its
earliest fountains, nor are we shocked at the obscurity of these
fountains. Pursuing the career of Mahommed, or of any man who has
memorably impressed his own mind or agency upon the revolutions of
mankind, we feel solicitude about the circumstances which might
surround his cradle to be altogether unseasonable and impertinent.
Whether he were born in a hovel or a palace, whether he passed his
infancy in squalid poverty, or hedged around by the glittering
spears of bodyguards, as mere questions of fact may be interesting;
but, in the light of either accessories or counteragencies to the
native majesty of the subject, are trivial and below all
philosophic valuation. So with regard to the creator of Lear and
Hamlet, of Othello and Macbeth; to him from whose golden urns the
nations beyond the far Atlantic, the multitude of the isles, and the
generations unborn in Australian climes, even to the realms of the
rising sun (the greek: anatolai haedlioio,) must in every age
draw perennial streams of intellectual life, we feel that the
little accidents of birth and social condition are so unspeakably
below the grandeur of the theme, are so irrelevant and
disproportioned to the real interest at issue, so incommensurable
with any of its relations, that a biographer of Shakspeare at once
denounces himself as below his subject if he can entertain such a
question as seriously affecting the glory of the poet. In some
legends of saints, we find that they were born with a lambent
circle or golden aureola about their heads. This angelic coronet
shed light alike upon the chambers of a cottage or a palace, upon
the gloomy limits of a dungeon, or the vast expansion of a
cathedral; but the cottage, the palace, the dungeon, the cathedral,
were all equally incapable of adding one ray of color or one pencil
of light to the supernatural halo.

Having, therefore, thus pointedly guarded ourselves from
misconstruction, and consenting to entertain the question as one in
which we, the worshippers of Shakspeare, have an interest of
curiosity, but in which he, the object of our worship, has no
interest of glory, we proceed to state what appears to us the
result of the scanty facts surviving when collated with each other.

By his mother's side, Shakspeare was an authentic gentleman. By his
father's he would have stood in a more dubious position; but the
effect of municipal honors to raise and illustrate an equivocal
rank, has always been acknowledged under the popular tendencies of
our English political system. From the sort of lead, therefore,
which John Shakspeare took at one time amongst his fellow-townsmen,
and from his rank of first magistrate, we may presume that, about
the year 1568, he had placed himself at the head of the Stratford
community. Afterwards he continued for some years to descend from
this altitude; and the question is, at what point this gradual
degradation may be supposed to have settled. Now we shall avow it
as our opinion, that the composition of society in Stratford was
such that, even had the Shakspeare family maintained their
superiority, the main body of their daily associates must still
have been found amongst persons below the rank of gentry. The poet
must inevitably have mixed chiefly with mechanics and humble
tradesmen, for such people composed perhaps the total community.
But had there even been a gentry in Stratford, since they would
have marked the distinctions of their rank chiefly by greater
reserve of manners, it is probable that, after all, Shakspeare,
with his enormity of delight in exhibitions of human nature, would
have mostly cultivated that class of society in which the feelings
are more elementary and simple, in which the thoughts speak a
plainer language, and in which the restraints of factitious or
conventional decorum are exchanged for the restraints of mere
sexual decency. It is a noticeable fact to all who have looked upon
human life with an eye of strict attention, that the abstract image
of womanhood, in. its loveliness, its delicacy, and its modesty,
nowhere makes itself more impressive or more advantageously felt
than in the humblest cottages, because it is there brought into
immediate juxtaposition with the grossness of manners, and the
careless license of language incident to the fathers and brothers
of the house. And this is more especially true in a nation of
unaffected sexual gallantry, [Endnote: 14] such as the English and
the Gothic races in general; since, under the immunity which their
women enjoy from all servile labors of a coarse or out-of-doors
order, by as much lower as they descend in the scale of rank, by so
much more do they benefit under the force of contrast with the men
of their own level. A young man of that class, however noble in
appearance, is somewhat degraded in the eyes of women, by the
necessity which his indigence imposes of working under a master;
but a beautiful young woman, in the very poorest family, unless she
enters upon a life of domestic servitude, (in which case her labors
are light, suited to her sex, and withdrawn from the public eye,)
so long in fact as she stays under her father's roof, is as
perfectly her own mistress and _sui juris_ as the daughter of
an earl. This personal dignity, brought into stronger relief by the
mercenary employments of her male connections, and the feminine
gentleness of her voice and manners, exhibited under the same
advantages of contrast, oftentimes combine to make a young cottage
beauty as fascinating an object as any woman of any station.

Hence we may in part account for the great event of Shakspeare's
early manhood, his premature marriage. It has always been known, or
at least traditionally received for a fact, that Shakspeare had
married whilst yet a boy, and that his wife was unaccountably older
than himself. In the very earliest biographical sketch of the poet,
compiled by Rowe, from materials collected by Betterton the actor,
it was stated, (and that statement is now ascertained to have been
correct,) that he had married Anne Hathaway, "the daughter of a
substantial yeoman." Further than this nothing was known. But in
September, 1836, was published a very remarkable document, which
gives the assurance of law to the time and fact of this event, yet
still, unless collated with another record, does nothing to lessen
the mystery which had previously surrounded its circumstances. This
document consists of two parts; the first, and principal, according
to the logic of the case, though second according to the
arrangement, being a _license_ for the marriage of William
Shakspeare with Anne Hathaway, under the condition "of _once_
asking of the bannes of matrimony," that is, in effect, dispensing
with two out of the three customary askings; the second or
subordinate part of the document being a _bond_ entered into
by two sureties, viz.: Fulke Sandells and John Rychardson, both
described as _agricolae_ or yeomen, and both marksmen, (that
is, incapable of writing, and therefore subscribing by means of
_marks,_) for the payment of forty pounds sterling, in the
event of Shakspeare, yet a minor, and incapable of binding himself,
failing to fulfil the conditions of the license. In the bond, drawn
up in Latin, there is no mention of Shakspeare's name; but in the
license, which is altogether English, _his_ name, of course,
stands foremost; and as it may gratify the reader to see the very
words and orthography of the original, we here extract the
_operative_ part of this document, prefacing only, that the
license is attached by way of explanation to the bond. "The
condition of this obligation is suche, that if hereafter there
shall not appere any lawfull lett or impediment, by reason of any
precontract, &c., but that Willm. Shagspere, one thone ptie," [on
the one party,] "and Anne Hathwey of Stratford, in the diocess of
Worcester, maiden, may lawfully solemnize matrimony together; and
in the same afterwards remaine and continew like man and wiffe.
And, moreover, if the said Willm. Shagspere do not proceed to
solemnization of mariadg with the said Anne Hathwey, without the
consent of hir frinds;--then the said obligation" [viz., to pay
forty pounds]" to be voyd and of none effect, or els to stand &
abide in full force and vertue."

What are we to think of this document? Trepidation and anxiety are
written upon its face. The parties are not to be married by a
special license; not even by an ordinary license; in that case no
proclamation of banns, no public asking at all, would have been
requisite. Economical scruples are consulted; and yet the regular
movement of the marriage "through the bell-ropes" [Endnote: 15] is
disturbed. Economy, which retards the marriage, is here evidently
in collision with some opposite principle which precipitates it.
How is all this to be explained? Much light is afforded by the date
when illustrated by another document. The bond bears date on the
28th day of November, in the 25th year of our lady the queen, that
is, in 1582. Now the baptism of Shakspeare's eldest child, Susanna,
is registered on the 26th of May in the year following.

Suppose, therefore, that his marriage was solemnized on the 1st day
of December; it was barely possible that it could be earlier,
considering that the sureties, drinking, perhaps, at Worcester
throughout the 28th of November, would require the 29th, in so
dreary a season, for their return to Stratford; after which some
preparation might be requisite to the bride, since the marriage was
_not_ celebrated at Stratford. Next suppose the birth of Miss
Susanna to have occurred, like her father's, two days before her
baptism, viz., on the 24th of May. From December the 1st to May the
24th, both days inclusively, are one hundred and seventy-five days;
which, divided by seven, gives precisely twenty-five weeks, that is
to say, six months short by one week. Oh, fie, Miss Susanna, you
came rather before you were wanted.

Mr. Campbell's comment upon the affair is, that "_if_ this
was the case, "viz., if the baptism were really solemnized on the
26th of May," the poet's first child would _appear_ to have
been born only six months and eleven days after the bond was
entered into. "And he then concludes that, on this assumption,"
Miss Susanna Shakspeare came into the world a little prematurely."
But this is to doubt where there never was any ground for doubting;
the baptism was _certainly_ on the 26th of May; and, in the
next place, the calculation of six months and eleven days is
sustained by substituting lunar months for calendar, and then only
by supposing the marriage to have been celebrated on the very day
of subscribing the bond in Worcester, and the baptism to have been
coincident with the birth; of which suppositions the latter is
improbable, and the former, considering the situation of Worcester,
impossible.

Strange it is, that, whilst all biographers have worked with so
much zeal upon the most barren dates or most baseless traditions in
the great poet's life, realizing in a manner the chimeras of
Laputa, and endeavoring "to extract sunbeams from cucumbers," such
a story with regard to such an event, no fiction of village
scandal, but involved in legal documents, a story so significant
and so eloquent to the intelligent, should formerly have been
dismissed without notice of any kind, and even now, after the
discovery of 1836, with nothing beyond a slight conjectural
insinuation. For our parts, we should have been the last amongst
the biographers to unearth any forgotten scandal, or, after so vast
a lapse of time, and when the grave had shut out all but charitable
thoughts, to point any moral censures at a simple case of natural
frailty, youthful precipitancy of passion, of all trespasses the
most venial, where the final intentions are honorable. But in this
case there seems to have been something more in motion than passion
or the ardor of youth. "I like not," says Parson Evans, (alluding
to Falstaff in masquerade,) "I like not when a woman has a great
peard; I spy a great peard under her muffler." Neither do we like
the spectacle of a mature young woman, five years past her
majority, wearing the semblance of having been led astray by a boy
who had still two years and a half to run of his minority.
Shakspeare himself, looking back on this part of his youthful
history from his maturest years, breathes forth pathetic counsels
against the errors into which his own inexperience had been
insnared. The disparity of years between himself and his wife he
notices in a beautiful scene of the Twelfth Night. The Duke Orsino,
observing the sensibility which the pretended Cesario had betrayed
on hearing some touching old snatches of a love strain, swears that
his beardless page must have felt the passion of love, which the
other admits. Upon this the dialogue proceeds thus:

DUKE. What kind of woman is't?

VIOLA. Of your complexion.

DUKE. She is not worth thee then. What years?

VIOLA. I' faith, About your years, my lord.

DUKE. Too old, by heaven. _Let still the woman take
An elder than herself: so wears she to him,
So sways she level in her husband's heart._
For, boy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women's are.

VIOLA. I think it well, my lord.

DUKE. _Then let thy love be younger than thyself,
Or thy affection cannot hold the bent;_
For women are as roses, whose fair flower,
Being once display'd, doth fall that very hour.

These counsels were uttered nearly twenty years after the event in
his own life, to which they probably look back; for this play is
supposed to have been written in Shakspeare's thirty-eighth year.
And we may read an earnestness in pressing the point as to the
_inverted_ disparity of years, which indicates pretty clearly
an appeal to the lessons of his personal experience. But his other
indiscretion, in having yielded so far to passion and opportunity
as to crop by prelibation, and before they were hallowed, those
flowers of paradise which belonged to his marriage day; this he
adverts to with even more solemnity of sorrow, and with more
pointed energy of moral reproof, in the very last drama which is
supposed to have proceeded from his pen, and therefore with the
force and sanctity of testamentary counsel. The Tempest is all but
ascertained to have been composed in 1611, that is, about five
years before the poet's death; and indeed could not have been
composed much earlier; for the very incident which suggested the
basis of the plot, and of the local scene, viz., the shipwreck of
Sir George Somers on the Bermudas, (which were in consequence
denominated the Somers' Islands,) did not occur until the year
1609. In the opening of the fourth act, Prospero formally betrothes
his daughter to Ferdinand; and in doing so he pays the prince a
well-merited compliment of having "worthily purchas'd" this rich
jewel, by the patience with which, for her sake, he had supported
harsh usage, and other painful circumstances of his trial. But, he
adds solemnly,

"If thou dost break her virgin knot before
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be minister'd;"

in that case what would follow?

"No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall,
To make this contract grow; _but barren hate,
Sour-ey'd disdain and discord, shall bestrew
The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both._ Therefore take heed,
As Hymen's lamps shall light you."

The young prince assures him in reply, that no strength of
opportunity, concurring with the uttermost temptation, not

"the murkiest den,
The most opportune place, the strong'st suggestion
Our worser genius can----,"

should ever prevail to lay asleep his jealousy of self-control, so
as to take any advantage of Miranda's innocence. And he adds an
argument for this abstinence, by way of reminding Prospero, that
not honor only, but even prudential care of his own happiness, is
interested in the observance of his promise. Any unhallowed
anticipation would, as he insinuates,

"take away
The edge of that day's celebration,
When I shall think, or Phoebus' steeds are founder'd,
Or night kept chain'd below;"

that is, when even the winged hours would seem to move too slowly.
Even thus Prospero is not quite satisfied. During his subsequent
dialogue with Ariel, we are to suppose that Ferdinand, in
conversing apart with Miranda, betrays more impassioned ardor than
the wise magician altogether approves. The prince's caresses have
not been unobserved; and thus Prospero renews his warning:

"Look thou be true: do not give dalliance
Too much the rein: the strongest oaths are straw
To the fire i' the blood: be more abstemious,
Or else--good night your vow."

The royal lover reassures him of his loyalty to his engagements;
and again the wise father, so honorably jealous for his daughter,
professes himself satisfied with the prince's pledges.

Now in all these emphatic warnings, uttering the language "of that
sad wisdom folly leaves behind," who can avoid reading, as in
subtle hieroglyphics, the secret record of Shakspeare's own nuptial
disappointments? We, indeed, that is, universal posterity through
every age, have reason to rejoice in these disappointments; for to
them, past all doubt, we are indebted for Shakspeare's subsequent
migration to London, and his public occupation, which, giving him a
deep pecuniary interest in the productions of his pen, such as no
other literary application of his powers could have approached in
that day, were eventually the means of drawing forth those divine
works which have survived their author for our everlasting benefit.

Our own reading and deciphering of the whole case is as follows.
The Shakspeares were a handsome family, both father and sons. This
we assume upon the following grounds: First, on the presumption
arising out of John Shakspeare's having won the favor of a young
heiress higher in rank than himself; secondly, on the presumption
involved in the fact of three amongst his four sons having gone
upon the stage, to which the most obvious (and perhaps in those
days a _sine qua non_) recommendation would be a good person
and a pleasing countenance; thirdly, on the direct evidence of
Aubrey, who assures us that William Shakspeare was a handsome and a
well-shaped man; fourthly, on the implicit evidence of the
Stratford monument, which exhibits a man of good figure and noble
countenance; fifthly, on the confirmation of this evidence by the
Chandos portrait, which exhibits noble features, illustrated by the
utmost sweetness of expression; sixthly, on the selection of
theatrical parts, which it is known that Shakspeare personated,
most of them being such as required some dignity of form, viz.,
kings, the athletic (though aged) follower of an athletic young
man, and supernatural beings. On these grounds, direct or
circumstantial, we believe ourselves warranted in assuming that
William Shakspeare was a handsome and even noble looking boy. Miss
Anne Hathaway had herself probably some personal attractions; and,
if an indigent girl, who looked for no pecuniary advantages, would
probably have been early sought in marriage. But as the daughter of
"a substantial yeoman," who would expect some fortune in his
daughter's suitors, she had, to speak coarsely, a little outlived
her market. Time she had none to lose. William Shakspeare pleased
her eye; and the gentleness of his nature made him an apt subject
for female blandishments, possibly for female arts. Without
imputing, however, to this Anne Hathaway any thing so hateful as a
settled plot for insnaring him, it was easy enough for a mature
woman, armed with such inevitable advantages of experience and of
self-possession, to draw onward a blushing novice; and, without
directly creating opportunities, to place him in the way of turning
to account such as naturally offered. Young boys are generally
flattered by the condescending notice of grown-up women; and
perhaps Shakspeare's own lines upon a similar situation, to a young
boy adorned with the same natural gifts as himself, may give us the
key to the result:

"Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won;
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assail'd;
And, when a woman woos, what woman's son
Will sourly leave her till he have prevail'd?"

Once, indeed, entangled in such a pursuit, any person of manly
feelings would be sensible that he had no retreat; _that_
would be--to insult a woman, grievously to wound her sexual pride,
and to insure her lasting scorn and hatred. These were consequences
which the gentle-minded Shakspeare could not face. He pursued his
good fortunes, half perhaps in heedlessness, half in desperation,
until he was roused by the clamorous displeasure of her family upon
first discovering the situation of their kinswoman. For such a
situation there could be but one atonement, and that was hurried
forward by both parties; whilst, out of delicacy towards the bride,
the wedding was not celebrated in Stratford, (where the register
contains no notice of such an event); nor, as Malone imagined, in
Weston-upon-Avon, that being in the diocese of Gloucester; but in
some parish, as yet undiscovered, in the diocese of Worcester.

But now arose a serious question as to the future maintenance of
the young people. John Shakspeare was depressed in his
circumstances, and he had other children besides William, viz.,
three sons and a daughter. The elder lives have represented him as
burdened with ten; but this was an error, arising out of the
confusion between John Shakspeare the glover, and John Shakspeare a
shoemaker. This error has been thus far of use, that, by exposing
the fact of two John Shakspeares (not kinsmen) residing in
Stratford-upon-Avon, it has satisfactorily proved the name to be
amongst those which are locally indigenous to Warwickshire.
Meantime it is now ascertained that John Shakspeare the glover had
only eight children, viz., four daughters and four sons. The order
of their succession was this: Joan, Margaret, WILLIAM, Gilbert, a
second Joan, Anne, Richard, and Edmund. Three of the daughters,
viz., the two eldest of the family, Joan and Margaret, together
with Anne, died in childhood. All the rest attained mature ages,
and of these William was the eldest. This might give him some
advantage in his father's regard; but in a question of pecuniary
provision precedency amongst the children of an insolvent is nearly
nominal. For the present John Shakspeare could do little for his
son; and, under these circumstances, perhaps the father of Anne
Hathaway would come forward to assist the new-married couple. This
condition of dependency would furnish matter for painful feelings
and irritating words. The youthful husband, whose mind would be
expanding as rapidly as the leaves and blossoms of spring-time in
polar latitudes, would soon come to appreciate the sort of wiles by
which he had been caught. The female mind is quick, and almost
gifted with the power of witchcraft, to decipher what is passing in
the thoughts of familiar companions. Silent and forbearing as
William Shakspeare might be, Anne, his staid wife, would read his
secret reproaches; ill would she dissemble her wrath, and the less
so from the consciousness of having deserved them. It is no
uncommon case for women to feel anger in connection with one
subject, and to express it in connection with another; which other,
perhaps, (except as a serviceable mask,) would have been a matter
of indifference to their feelings. Anne would, therefore, reply to
those inevitable reproaches which her own sense must presume to be
lurking in her husband's heart, by others equally stinging, on his
inability to support his family, and on his obligations to her
father's purse. Shakspeare, we may be sure, would be ruminating
every hour on the means of his deliverance from so painful a
dependency; and at length, after four years' conjugal discord, he
would resolve upon that plan of solitary emigration to the
metropolis, which, at the same time that it released him from the
humiliation of domestic feuds, succeeded so splendidly for his
worldly prosperity, and with a train of consequences so vast for
all future ages.

Such, we are persuaded, was the real course of Shakspeare's
transition from school-boy pursuits to his public career. And upon
the known temperament of Shakspeare, his genial disposition to
enjoy life without disturbing his enjoyment by fretting anxieties,
we build the conclusion, that had his friends furnished him with
ampler funds, and had his marriage been well assorted or happy,
we--the world of posterity--should have lost the whole benefit and
delight which we have since reaped from his matchless faculties.
The motives which drove him _from_ Stratford are clear enough;
but what motives determined his course _to_ London, and
especially to the stage, still remains to be explained.
Stratford-upon-Avon, lying in the high road from London through
Oxford to Birmingham, (or more generally to the north,) had been
continually visited by some of the best comedians during
Shakspeare's childhood. One or two of the most respectable
metropolitan actors were natives of Stratford. These would be well
known to the elder Shakspeare. But, apart from that accident, it is
notorious that mere legal necessity and usage would compel all
companies of actors, upon coming into any town, to seek, in the
first place, from the chief magistrate, a license for opening a
theatre, and next, over and above this public sanction, to seek his
personal favor and patronage. As an alderman, therefore, but still
more whilst clothed with the official powers of chief magistrate,
the poet's father would have opportunities of doing essential
services to many persons connected with the London stage. The
conversation of comedians acquainted with books, fresh from the
keen and sparkling circles of the metropolis, and filled with racy
anecdotes of the court, as well as of public life generally, could
not but have been fascinating, by comparison with the stagnant
society of Stratford. Hospitalities on a liberal scale would be
offered to these men. Not impossibly this fact might be one
principal key to those dilapidations which the family estate had
suffered. These actors, on _their_ part, would retain a
grateful sense of the kindness they had received, and would seek to
repay it to John Shakspeare, now that he was depressed in his
fortunes, as opportunities might offer. His eldest son, growing up
a handsome young man, and beyond all doubt from his earliest days
of most splendid colloquial powers, (for assuredly of _him_ it
may be taken for granted),

"Nec licuit populis parvum te, Nile, videre,"

would be often reproached in a friendly way for burying himself in
a country life. These overtures, prompted alike by gratitude to the
father, and a real selfish interest in the talents of the son,
would at length take a definite shape; and, upon, some clear
understanding as to the terms of such an arrangement, William
Shakspeare would at length, (about 1586, according to the received
account, that is, in the fifth year of his married life, and the
twenty-third or twenty-fourth of his age,) unaccompanied by wife or
children, translate himself to London. Later than 1586 it could not
well be; for already in 1589 it has been recently ascertained that
he held a share in the property of a leading theatre.

We must here stop to notice, and the reader will allow us to notice
with summary indignation, the slanderous and idle tale which
represents Shakspeare as having fled to London in the character of
a criminal, from the persecutions of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecot.
This tale has long been propagated under two separate impulses.
Chiefly, perhaps, under the vulgar love of pointed and glaring
contrasts; the splendor of the man was in this instance brought
into a sort of epigrammatic antithesis with the humility of his
fortunes; secondly, under a baser impulse, the malicious pleasure
of seeing a great man degraded. Accordingly, as in the case of
Milton, [Endnote: 16] it has been affirmed that Shakspeare had
suffered corporal chastisement, in fact, (we abhor to utter such
words,) that he had been judicially whipped. Now, first of all, let
us mark the inconsistency of this tale. The poet was whipped, that
is, he was punished most disproportionately, and yet he fled to
avoid punishment. Next, we are informed that his offence was
deer-stealing, and from the park of Sir Thomas Lucy. And it has
been well ascertained that Sir Thomas had no deer, and had no park.
Moreover, deer-stealing was regarded by our ancestors exactly as
poaching is regarded by us. Deer ran wild in all the great forests;
and no offence was looked upon as so venial, none so compatible
with a noble Robin-Hood style of character, as this very trespass
upon what were regarded as _ferae naturae_, and not at all as
domestic property. But had it been otherwise, a trespass was not
punishable with whipping; nor had Sir Thomas Lucy the power to
irritate a whole community like Stratford-upon-Avon, by branding
with permanent disgrace a young man so closely connected with three
at least of the best families in the neighborhood. Besides, had
Shakspeare suffered any dishonor of that kind, the scandal would
infallibly have pursued him at his very heels to London; and in
that case Greene, who has left on record, in a posthumous work of
1592, his malicious feelings towards Shakspeare, could not have
failed to notice it. For, be it remembered, that a judicial
flagellation contains a twofold ignominy. Flagellation is
ignominious in its own nature, even though unjustly inflicted, and
by a ruffian; secondly, any judicial punishment is ignominous, even
though not wearing a shade of personal degradation. Now a judicial
flagellation includes both features of dishonor. And is it to be
imagined that an enemy, searching with the diligence of malice for
matter against Shakspeare, should have failed, six years after the
event, to hear of that very memorable disgrace which had exiled him
from Stratford, and was the very occasion of his first resorting to
London; or that a leading company of players in the metropolis,
_one of whom_, and a chief one, _was his own townsman_,
should cheerfully adopt into their society, as an honored partner,
a young man yet flagrant from the lash of the executioner or the
beadle?

This tale is fabulous, and rotten to its core; yet even this does
less dishonor to Shakspeare's memory than the sequel attached to
it. A sort of scurrilous rondeau, consisting of nine lines, so
loathsome in its brutal stupidity, and so vulgar in its expression,
that we shall not pollute our pages by transcribing it, has been
imputed to Shakspeare ever since the days of the credulous Rowe.
The total point of this idiot's drivel consists in calling Sir
Thomas "an asse;" and well it justifies the poet's own remark, "Let
there be gall enough in thy ink, no matter though thou write with a
goose pen." Our own belief is, that these lines were a production
of Charles II.'s reign, and applied to a Sir Thomas Lucy, not very
far removed, if at all, from the age of him who first picked up the
pecious filth. The phrase "parliament _member_" we believe to
be quite unknown in the colloquial use of Queen Elizabeth's reign.

But, that we may rid ourselves once and for ever of this outrageous
calumny upon Shakspeare's memory, we shall pursue the story to its
final stage. Even Malone has been thoughtless enough to accredit
this closing chapter, which contains, in fact, such a superfetation
of folly as the annals of human dullness do not exceed. Let us
recapitulate the points of the story. A baronet, who has no deer
and no park, is supposed to persecute a poet for stealing these
aerial deer out of this aerial park, both lying in
_nephelococcygia_. The poet sleeps upon this wrong for
eighteen years; but at length, hearing that his persecutor is dead
and buried, he conceives bloody thoughts of revenge. And this
revenge he purposes to execute by picking a hole in his dead
enemy's coat-of-arms. Is this coat-of-arms, then, Sir Thomas
Lucy's? Why, no; Malone admits that it is not. For the poet,
suddenly recollecting that this ridicule would settle upon the son
of his enemy, selects another coat-of-arms, with which his dead
enemy never had any connection, and he spends his thunder and
lighting upon this irrelevant object; and, after all, the ridicule
itself lies in a Welchman's mispronouncing one single heraldic
term--a Welchman who mispronounces all words. The last act of the
poet's malice recalls to us a sort of jest-book story of an
Irishman, the vulgarity of which the reader will pardon in
consideration of its relevancy. The Irishman having lost a pair of
silk stockings, mentions to a friend that he has taken steps for
recovering them by an advertisement, offering a reward to the
finder. His friend objects that the costs of advertising, and the
reward, would eat out the full value of the silk stockings. But to
this the Irishman replies, with a knowing air, that he is not so
green as to have overlooked _that_; and that, to keep down the
reward, he had advertised the stockings as worsted. Not at all less
flagrant is the bull ascribed to Shakspeare, when he is made to
punish a dead man by personalities meant for his exclusive ear,
through his coat-of-arms, but at the same time, with the express
purpose of blunting and defeating the edge of his own scurrility,
is made to substitute for the real arms some others which had no
more relation to the dead enemy than they had to the poet himself.
This is the very sublime of folly, beyond which human dotage cannot
advance.

It is painful, indeed, and dishonorable to human nature, that
whenever men of vulgar habits and of poor education wish to impress
us with a feeling of respect for a man's talents, they are sure to
cite, by way of evidence, some gross instance of malignity. Power,
in their minds, is best illustrated by malice or by the infliction
of pain. To this unwelcome fact we have some evidence in the
wretched tale which we have just dismissed; and there is another of
the same description to be found in all lives of Shakspeare, which
we will expose to the contempt of the reader whilst we are in this
field of discussion, that we may not afterwards have to resume so
disgusting a subject.

This poet, who was a model of gracious benignity in his manners,
and of whom, amidst our general ignorance, thus much is perfectly
established, that the term _gentle_ was almost as generally
and by prescriptive right associated with his name as the affix of
_venerable_ with Bede, or _judicious_ with Hooker, is
alleged to have insulted a friend by an imaginary epitaph beginning
"_Ten in the Hundred_" and supposing him to be damned, yet
without wit enough (which surely the Stratford bellman could have
furnished) for devising any, even fanciful, reason for such a
supposition; upon which the comment of some foolish critic is," The
_sharpness of the satire_ is said to have stung the man so
much that he never forgave it. "We have heard of the sting in the
tail atoning for the brainless head; but in this doggerel the tail
is surely as stingless as the head is brainless. For, 1st, _Ten
in the Hundred_ could be no reproach in Shakspeare's time, any
more than to call a man _Three-and-a-half-per-cent_. in this
present year, 1838; except, indeed, amongst those foolish persons
who built their morality upon the Jewish ceremonial law. Shakspeare
himself took ten per cent. _2dly_, It happens that John Combe,
so far from being the object of the poet's scurrility, or viewing
the poet as an object of implacable resentment, was a Stratford
friend; that one of his family was affectionately remembered in
Shakspeare's will by the bequest of his sword; and that John Combe
himself recorded his perfect charity with Shakspeare by leaving him
a legacy of 5L sterling. And in this lies the key to the whole
story. For, _3dly_, The four lines were written and printed
before Shakspeare was born. The name Combe is a common one; and
some stupid fellow, who had seen the name in Shakspeare's will, and
happened also to have seen the lines in a collection of epigrams,
chose to connect the cases by attributing an identity to the two
John Combes, though at war with chronology.

Finally, there is another specimen of doggerel attributed to
Shakspeare, which is not equally unworthy of him, because not
equally malignant, but otherwise equally below his intellect, no
less than his scholarship; we mean the inscription on his
grave-stone. This, as a sort of _siste viator_ appeal to
future sextons, is worthy of the grave-digger or the parish-clerk,
who was probably its author. Or it may have been an antique
formula, like the vulgar record of ownership in books--

"Anthony Timothy Dolthead's hook,
God give him grace therein to look."

Thus far the matter is of little importance; and it might
have been supposed that malignity itself could hardly have imputed
such trash to Shakspeare. But when we find, even in this short
compass, scarcely wider than the posy of a ring, room found for
traducing the poet's memory, it becomes important to say, that the
leading sentiment, the horror expressed at any disturbance offered
to his bones, is not one to which Shakspeare could have attached
the slightest weight; far less could have outraged the sanctities
of place and subject, by affixing to any sentiment whatever (and,
according to the fiction of the case, his farewell sentiment) the
sanction of a curse.

Filial veneration and piety towards the memory of this great man,
have led us into a digression that might have been unseasonable in
any cause less weighty than one, having for its object to deliver
his honored name from a load of the most brutal malignity. Never
more, we hope and venture to believe, will any thoughtless
biographer impute to Shakspeare the asinine doggerel with which the
uncritical blundering of his earliest biographer has caused his
name to be dishonored. We now resume the thread of our biography.
The stream of history is centuries in working itself clear of any
calumny with which it has once been polluted.

Most readers will be aware of an old story, according to which
Shakspeare gained his livelihood for some time after coming to
London by holding the horses of those who rode to the play. This
legend is as idle as any one of those which we have just exposed.
No custom ever existed of riding on horseback to the play.
Gentlemen, who rode valuable horses, would assuredly not expose
them systematically to the injury of standing exposed to cold for
two or even four hours; and persons of inferior rank would not ride
on horseback in the town. Besides, had such a custom ever existed,
stables (or sheds at least) would soon have arisen to meet the
public wants; and in some of the dramatic sketches of the day,
which noticed every fashion as it arose, this would not have been
overlooked. The story is traced originally to Sir William Davenant.
Betterton the actor, who professed to have received it from him,
passed it onwards to Rowe, he to Pope, Pope to Bishop Newton, the
editor of Milton, and Newton to Dr. Johnson. This pedigree of the
fable, however, adds nothing to its credit, and multiplies the
chances of some mistake. Another fable, not much less absurd,
represents Shakspeare as having from the very first been borne upon
the establishment of the theatre, and so far contradicts the other
fable, but originally in the very humble character of
_call-boy_ or deputy prompter, whose business it was to summon
each performer according to his order of coming upon the stage.
This story, however, quite as much as the other, is irreconcileable
with the discovery recently made by Mr. Collier, that in 1589
Shakspeare was a shareholder in the important property of a
principal London theatre. It seems destined that all the undoubted
facts of Shakspeare's life should come to us through the channel of
legal documents, which are better evidence even than imperial
medals; whilst, on the other hand, all the fabulous anecdotes, not
having an attorney's seal to them, seem to have been the fictions
of the wonder maker. The plain presumption from the record of
Shakspeare's situation in 1589, coupled with the fact that his
first arrival in London was possibly not until 1587, but according
to the earliest account not before 1586, a space of time which
leaves but little room for any remarkable changes of situation,
seems to be, that, either in requital of services done to the
players by the poet's family, or in consideration of money advanced
by his father-in-law, or on account of Shakspeare's personal
accomplishments as an actor, and as an adapter of dramatic works to
the stage; for one of these reasons, or for all of them united,
William Shakspeare, about the 23d year of his age, was adopted into
the partnership of a respectable histrionic company, possessing a
first-rate theatre in the metropolis. If 1586 were the year in
which he came up to London, it seems probable enough that his
immediate motive to that step was the increasing distress of his
father; for in that year John Shakspeare resigned the office of
alderman. There is, however, a bare possibility that Shakspeare
might have gone to London about the time when he completed his
twenty-first year, that is, in the spring of 1585, but not earlier.
Nearly two years after the birth of his eldest daughter Susanna,
his wife lay in for a second and a _last_ time; but she then
brought her husband twins, a son and a daughter. These children
were baptized in February of the year 1585; so that Shakspeare's
whole family of three children were born and baptized two months
before he completed his majority. The twins were baptized by the
names of Hamnet and Judith, those being the names of two amongst
their sponsors, viz., Mr. Sadler and his wife. Hamnet, which is a
remarkable name in itself, becomes still more so from its
resemblance to the immortal name of Hamlet [Endnote: 17] the Dane;
it was, however, the real baptismal name of Mr. Sadler, a friend of
Shakspeare's, about fourteen years older than himself. Shakspeare's
son must then have been most interesting to his heart, both as a
twin child and as his only boy. He died in 1596, when he was about
eleven years old. Both daughters survived their father; both
married; both left issue, and thus gave a chance for continuing the
succession from the great poet. But all the four grandchildren died
without offspring.

Of Shakspeare personally, at least of Shakspeare the man, as
distinguished from the author, there remains little more to record.
Already in 1592, Greene, in his posthumous Groat's-worth of Wit,
had expressed the earliest vocation of Shakspeare in the following
sentence: "There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers;
in his own conceit the only _Shakscene_ in a country!" This
alludes to Shakspeare's office of recasting, and even recomposing,
dramatic works, so as to fit them for representation; and Master
Greene, it is probable, had suffered in his self-estimation, or in
his purse, by the alterations in some piece of his own, which the
duty of Shakspeare to the general interests of the theatre had
obliged him to make. In 1591 it has been supposed that Shakspeare
wrote his first drama, the Two Gentlemen of Verona; the least
characteristically marked of all his plays, and, with the exception
of Love's Labors Lost, the least interesting.

From this year, 1591 to that of 1611, are just twenty years, within
which space lie the whole dramatic creations of Shakspeare,
averaging nearly one for every six months. In 1611 was written the
Tempest, which is supposed to have been the last of all
Shakspeare's works. Even on that account, as Mr. Campbell feelingly
observes, it has "a sort of sacredness;" and it is a most
remarkable fact, and one calculated to make a man superstitious,
that in this play the great enchanter Prospero, in whom," _as if
conscious_, "says Mr. Campbell," _that this would be his last
work_, the poet has been _inspired to typify himself as_ a
wise, potent, and _benevolent magician_" of whom, indeed, as
of Shakspeare himself, it may be said, that "within that circle"
(the circle of his own art)" none durst tread but he, "solemnly and
for ever renounces his mysterious functions, symbolically breaks
his enchanter's wand, and declares that he will bury his books, his
science, and his secrets,

"Deeper than did ever plummet sound."

Nay, it is even ominous, that in this play, and from the voice of
Prospero, issues that magnificent prophecy of the total destruction
which should one day swallow up

"The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit."

And this prophecy is followed immediately by a most profound
ejaculation, gathering into one pathetic abstraction the total
philosophy of life:

"We are such stuff
As dreams are made of; and our little life
Is rounded by a sleep;"

that is, in effect, our life is a little tract of feverish vigils,
surrounded and islanded by a shoreless ocean of sleep--sleep before
birth, sleep after death.

These remarkable passages were probably not undesigned; but if we
suppose them to have been thrown off without conscious notice of
their tendencies, then, according to the superstition of the
ancient Grecians, they would have been regarded as prefiguring
words, prompted by the secret genius that accompanies every man,
such as insure along with them their own accomplishment. With or
without intention, however, it is believed that Shakspeare wrote
nothing more after this exquisite romantic drama. With respect to
the remainder of his personal history, Dr. Drake and others have
supposed, that during the twenty years from 1591 to 1611, he
visited Stratford often, and latterly once a year.

In 1589 he had possessed some share in a theatre; in 1596 he had a
considerable share. Through Lord Southampton, as a surviving friend
of Lord Essex, who was viewed as the martyr to his Scottish
politics, there can be no doubt that Shakspeare had acquired the
favor of James I.; and accordingly, on the 29th of May, 1603, about
two months after the king's accession to the throne of England, a
patent was granted to the company of players who possessed the
Globe theatre; in which patent Shakspeare's name stands second.
This patent raised the company to the rank of his majesty's
servants, whereas previously they are supposed to have been simply
the servants of the Lord Chamberlain. Perhaps it was in grateful
acknowledgment of this royal favor that Shakspeare afterwards, in
1606, paid that sublime compliment to the house of Stuart, which is
involved in the vision shown to Macbeth. This vision is managed
with exquisite skill. It was impossible to display the whole series
of princes from Macbeth to James I.; but he beholds the posterity
of Banquo, one "gold-bound brow" succeeding to another, until he
comes to an eighth apparition of a Scottish king,

"Who bears a glass
Which shows him many more; and some he sees
Who twofold balls and treble sceptres carry;"

thus bringing down without tedium the long succession to the very
person of James I., by the symbolic image of the two crowns united
on one head.

About the beginning of the century Shakspeare had become rich
enough to purchase the best house in Stratford, called _The Great
House_, which name he altered to _New Place_; and in 1602
he bought one hundred and seven acres adjacent to this house for a
sum (320L) corresponding to about 1500 guineas of modern money.
Malone thinks that he purchased the house as early as 1597; and it
is certain that about that time he was able to assist his father in
obtaining a renewed grant of arms from the Herald's College, and
therefore, of course, to re-establish his father's fortunes. Ten
years of well-directed industry, viz., from 1591 to 1601, and the
prosperity of the theatre in which he was a proprietor, had raised
him to affluence; and after another ten years, improved with the
same success, he was able to retire with an income of 300L, or
(according to the customary computations) in modern money of 1500L,
per annum. Shakspeare was in fact the first man of letters, Pope
the second, and Sir Walter Scott the third, who, in Great Britain,
has ever realized a large fortune by literature; or in Christendom,
if we except Voltaire, and two dubious cases in Italy. The four or
five latter years of his life Shakspeare passed in dignified ease,
in profound meditation, we may be sure, and in universal respect,
at his native town of Stratford; and there he died, on the 23d of
April, 1616. [Endnote: 18]

His daughter Susanna had been married on the 5th of June of the
year 1607, to Dr. John Hall, [Endnote: 19] a physician in
Stratford. The doctor died in November, 1635, aged sixty; his wife,
at the age of sixty-six, on July 11, 1640. They had one child, a
daughter, named Elizabeth, born in 1608, married April 22, 1626, to
Thomas Nashe, Esq., left a widow in 1647, and subsequently
remarried to Sir John Barnard; but this Lady Barnard, the sole
grand-daughter of the poet, had no children by either marriage. The
other daughter, Judith, on February 10, 1616, (about ten weeks
before her father's death,) married Mr. Thomas Quincy of Stratford,
by whom she had three sons, Shakspeare, Richard, and Thomas. Judith
was about thirty-one years old at the time of her marriage; and
living just forty-six years afterwards, she died in February, 1662,
at the age of seventy-seven. Her three sons died without issue; and
thus, in the direct lineal descent, it is certain that no
representative has survived of this transcendent poet, the most
august amongst created intellects.

After this review of Shakspeare's life, it becomes our duty to take
a summary survey of his works, of his intellectual powers, and of
his station in literature, a station which is now irrevocably
settled, not so much (which happens in other cases) by a vast
overbalance of favorable suffrages, as by acclamation; not so much
by the _voices_ of those who admire him up to the verge of
idolatry, as by the _acts_ of those who everywhere seek for
his works among the primal necessities of life, demand them, and
crave them as they do their daily bread; not so much by eulogy
openly proclaiming itself, as by the silent homage recorded in the
endless multiplication of what he has bequeathed us; not so much by
his own compatriots, who, with regard to almost every other author,
[Endnote: 20] compose the total amount of his _effective_
audience, as by the unanimous "all hail!" of intellectual
Christendom; finally, not by the hasty partisanship of his own
generation, nor by the biassed judgment of an age trained in the
same modes of feeling and of thinking with himself,--but by the
solemn award of generation succeeding to generation, of one age
correcting the obliquities or peculiarities of another; by the
verdict of two hundred and thirty years, which have now elapsed
since the very _latest_ of his creations, or of two hundred
and forty-seven years if we date from the earliest; a verdict which
has been continually revived and re-opened, probed, searched,
vexed, by criticism in every spirit, from the most genial and
intelligent, down to the most malignant and scurrilously hostile
which feeble heads and great ignorance could suggest when
cooperating with impure hearts and narrow sensibilities; a verdict,
in short, sustained and countersigned by a longer series of
writers, many of them eminent for wit or learning, than were ever
before congregated upon any inquest relating to any author, be he
who he might, ancient [Endnote: 21] or modern, Pagan or Christian.
It was a most witty saying with respect to a piratical and knavish
publisher, who made a trade of insulting the memories of deceased
authors by forged writings, that he was "among the new terrors of
death." But in the gravest sense it may be affirmed of Shakspeare,
that he is among the modern luxuries of life; that life, in fact,
is a new thing, and one more to be coveted, since Shakspeare has
extended the domains of human consciousness, and pushed its dark
frontiers into regions not so much as dimly descried or even
suspected before his time, far less illuminated (as now they are)
by beauty and tropical luxuriance of life. For instance,--a single
instance, indeed one which in itself is a world of new revelation,
--the possible beauty of the female character had not been seen as
in a dream before Shakspeare called into perfect life the radiant
shapes of Desdemona, of Imogene, of Hermione, of Perdita, of
Ophelia, of Miranda, and many others. The Una of Spenser, earlier
by ten or fifteen years than most of these, was an idealized
portrait of female innocence and virgin purity, but too shadowy and
unreal for a dramatic reality. And as to the Grecian classics, let
not the reader imagine for an instant that any prototype in this
field of Shakspearian power can be looked for there. The
_Antigone_ and the _Electra_ of the tragic poets are the
two leading female characters that classical antiquity offers to
our respect, but assuredly not to our impassioned love, as
disciplined and exalted in the school of Shakspeare. They challenge
our admiration, severe, and even stern, as impersonations of filial
duty, cleaving to the steps of a desolate and afflicted old man; or
of sisterly affection, maintaining the rights of a brother under
circumstances of peril, of desertion, and consequently of perfect
self-reliance. Iphigenia, again, though not dramatically coming
before us in her own person, but according to the beautiful report
of a spectator, presents us with a fine statuesque model of heroic
fortitude, and of one whose young heart, even in the very agonies
of her cruel immolation, refused to forget, by a single indecorous
gesture, or so much as a moment's neglect of her own princely
descent, and that she herself was "a lady in the land." These are
fine marble groups, but they are not the warm breathing realities
of Shakspeare; there is "no speculation" in their cold marble eyes;
the breath of life is not in their nostrils; the fine pulses of
womanly sensibilities are not throbbing in their bosoms. And
besides this immeasurable difference between the cold moony
reflexes of life, as exhibited by the power of Grecian art, and the
true sunny life of Shakspeare, it must he observed that the
Antigones, &c. of the antique put forward but one single trait of
character, like the aloe with its single blossom. This solitary
feature is presented to us as an abstraction, and as an insulated
quality; whereas in Shakspeare all is presented in the
_concrete_; that is to say, not brought forward in relief, as
by some effort of an anatomical artist; but embodied and imbedded,
so to speak, as by the force of a creative nature, in the complex
system of a human life; a life in which all the elements move and
play simultaneously, and with something more than mere simultaneity
or co-existence, acting and re-acting each upon the other, nay,
even acting by each other and through each other. In Shakspeare's
characters is felt for ever a real _organic_ life, where each
is for the whole and in the whole, and where the whole is for each
and in each. They only are real incarnations.

The Greek poets could not exhibit any approximations to
_female_ character, without violating the truth of Grecian
life, and shocking the feelings of the audience. The drama with the
Greeks, as with us, though much less than with us, was a picture of
human life; and that which could not occur in life could not wisely
be exhibited on the stage. Now, in ancient Greece, women were
secluded from the society of men. The conventual sequestration of
the hareem, or female apartment [Endnote: 22] of the house, and
the Mahommedan consecration of its threshold against the ingress of
males, had been transplanted from Asia into Greece thousands of
years perhaps before either convents or Mahommed existed. Thus
barred from all open social intercourse, women could not develop or
express any character by word or action. Even to _have_ a
character, violated, to a Grecian mind, the ideal portrait of
feminine excellence; whence, perhaps, partly the too generic, too
little individualized, style of Grecian beauty. But prominently to
_express_ a character was impossible under the common tenor of
Grecian life, unless when high tragical catastrophes transcended
the decorums of that tenor, or for a brief interval raised the
curtain which veiled it. Hence the subordinate part which women
play upon the Greek stage in all but some half dozen cases. In the
paramount tragedy on that stage, the model tragedy, the (_OEdipus
Tyrannus_ of Sophocles), there is virtually no woman at all; for
Jocasta is a party to the story merely as the dead Laius or the
self-murdered Sphinx was a party, viz., by her contributions to the
fatalities of the event, not by anything she does or says
spontaneously. In fact, the Greek poet, if a wise poet, could not
address himself genially to a task in which he must begin by
shocking the sensibilities of his countrymen. And hence followed,
not only the dearth of female characters in the Grecian drama, but
also a second result still more favorable to the sense of a new
power evolved by Shakspeare. Whenever the common law of Grecian
life did give way, it was, as we have observed, to the suspending
force of some great convulsion or tragical catastrophe. This for a
moment (like an earthquake in a nunnery) would set at liberty even
the timid, fluttering Grecian women, those doves of the dove-cot,
and would call some of them into action. But which? Precisely those
of energetic and masculine minds; the timid and feminine would but
shrink the more from public gaze and from tumult. Thus it happened,
that such female characters as _were_ exhibited in Greece,
could not but be the harsh and the severe. If a gentle Ismene
appeared for a moment in contest with some energetic sister
Antigone, (and chiefly, perhaps, by way of drawing out the fiercer

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