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The disease, indeed, did not overstep his charmed threshold; for the name of Shakspeare is not to be found in the register of deaths throughout that period of accelerated mortality. That he survived this desolating calamity of his townsmen, is all that we know of William Shakspeare from the day of his birth till he was sent, as we are informed by Rowe, to the free-school of Stratford; and was stationed there in the course of his education, till, in consequence of the straitened circumstances of his father, he was recalled to the paternal roof. As we are not told at what age he was sent to school, we cannot form any estimate of the time during which he remained there; but if he was placed under his master when he was six years old, he might have continued in a state of instruction for seven or even for eight years—a term sufficiently long for any boy, not an absolute blockhead, to acquire something more than the mere elements of the classical languages. We are too ignorant, however, of dates, in these instances, to speak with any confidence on the subject; and we can only assert that seven or eight of the fourteen years, which intervened between the birth of our Poet in 1564 and the known period of his father's diminished fortune in 1578, might very properly have been given to the advantages of the free-school. But now the important question is to be asked—What were the attainments of our young Shakspeare at this seat of youthful instruction ? Did he return to his father's house in a state of utter ignorance of classic literature ? or was he as far advanced in his school-studies as boys of his age (which I take to be thirteen or fourteen) usually are in the common progress of our public and more reputable schools? That his scholastic attainments did not rise to the point of learning, seems to have been the general opinion of his contemporaries; and to this opinion I am willing to assent. But I cannot persuade myself that he was entirely unacquainted with the classic tongues; or that, as Farmer and his followers labor to convince us, he could receive the instructions, even for three or four years, of a school of any character, and could then depart without any knowledge beyond that of the Latin accidence. The most accomplished scholar may read with pleasure the poetic versions of the classic poets; and the less advanced proficient may consult his indolence by applying to the page of a translation of a prose classic, when accuracy of quotation may not be required; and on evidences of this nature is supported the charge which has been brought, and which is now generally admitted, against our immortal Bard, of more than school-boy ignorance. He might, indeed, from necessity apply to North for the interpretation of Plutarch; but he read Golding's Ovid only, as I am satisfied, for the entertainment of its English poetry. Ben Jonson, who must have been intimately conversant with his friend's classic acquisitions, tells us expressly that “ He had small Latin, and less Greek.” But, according to the usual plan of instruction in our schools, he must have traversed a considerable extent of the language
of Rome, before he could touch even the confines of that of Greece. He must in short have read Ovid's Metamorphoses, and a part at least of Virgil, before he could open the grammar of the more ancient, and copious, and complex dialect. This I conceive to be a fair statement of the case in the question respecting Shakspeare's learning. Beyond controversy he was not a scholar; but he had not profited so little by the hours which he had passed in school, as not to be able to understand the more easy Roman authors without the assistance of a translation. If he himself had been asked, on the subject, he might have parolied his own Falstaff, and have answered, “Indeed I am not a Scaliger or a Budæus, but yet no blockhead, friend." I believe also that he was not wholly unacquainted with the popular languages of France and Italy. He had abundant leisure to acquire them; and the activity and the curiosity of his mind were sufficiently strong to urge him to their acquisition. But to discuss this much-agitated question, would lead me beyond the limits which are prescribed to me; and, contenting myself with declaring that, in my opinion, both parties are wrong, both they who contend for our Poet's learning, and they who place his illiteracy on a level with that of John Taylor, the celebrated water poet, I must resume my humble and most deficient narrative. The classical studies of William Shakspeare, whatever progress he may or may not have made in them, were now suspended; and he was replaced in his father's house, when he had attained his thirteenth or fourteenth year, to assist with his hand in the maintenance of the family. Whether he continued in this situation whilst he remained in his single state, has not been told to us, and cannot therefore, at this period, be known. But in the absence of informa
tion, conjecture will be busy, and will soon cover the bare desert with unprofitable vegetation. Whilst Malone surmises that the young Poet passed the interval, till his marriage, or a large portion of it, in the office of an attorney, Aubrey stations him, during the same term, at the head of a country school. But the surmises of Malone are not universally happy; and to the assertions of Aubrey I am not disposed to attach more credit than was attached to them by Anthony Wood, who knew the old gossip, and was competent to appreciate his character. It is more probable that the necessity which brought young Shakspeare from his school, retained him with his father's occupation at home, till the acquisition of a wife made it convenient for him to remove to a separate habitation. It is reasonable to conclude that a mind like his, ardent, excursive, and “all compact of imagination,” would not be satisfied with entire inactivity, but would obtain knowledge where it could, if not from the stores of the ancients, from those at least which were supplied to him by the writers of his own country.
In 1582, before he had completed his eighteenth year, he married Anne Hathaway, the daughter, as Rowe informs us, of a substantial yeoman in the neighborhood of Stratford. We are unacquainted with the precise period of their marriage, and with the church in which it was solemnized; for in the register of Stratford there is no record of the event; and we are made certain of the year in which it occurred only by the baptism of Susannah, the first produce of the union, on the 26th of May, 1583. As young Shakspeare neither increased his fortune by this match, though he probably received some money with his wife, nor raised himself by it in the community, we may conclude that he was induced to it by inclination, and the impulse of love. But the youthful poet's dream of happiness does not seem to have been realized by the result. The bride was eight years older than the bridegroom; and whatever charms she might possess to fascinate the eyes of her boy-lover, she probably was deficient in those powers which are requisite to impose a durable fetter on the heart, and to hold “in sweet captivity" a mind of the very highest order. No charge is intimated against the lady; but she is left in Stratford by her husband during his long residence in the metropolis; and on his death, she is found to be only slightly, and, as it were, casually, remembered in his will. Her second
pregnancy, which was productive of twins (Hamnet and Judith, baptized on the 2d of February, 1594-5), terminated her pride as a mother; and we know nothing more respecting her, than that, surviving her illustrious consort by rather more than seven years, she was buried on the 8th of August, 1623, being, as we are told by the inscription on her tomb, of the age of sixty-seven. Respecting the habits of life, or the occupation of our young Poet by which he obtained his subsistence, or even the place of his residence, subsequently to his marriage, not a floating syllable has been wafted to us by tradition for the gratification of our curiosity; and the history of this great man is a perfect blank till the occurrence of an event, which drove him from his native town, and
his wonderful intellect to break out in its full lustre on the world. From the frequent allusions in his writings to the elegant sport of falconry, it has been suggested that this, possibly, might be one of his favorite amusements; and nothing can be more probable, from the active season of his life, and his fixed habitation in the country, than his strong and eager passion for all the pleasures of the field. As a sportsman, in his rank of life, he would naturally become a poacher; and then it is highly probable that he would fall into the acquaintance of poachers, and, associating with them in his idler hours, would occasionally be one of their fellow-marauders on the manors of their rich neighbors. In one of these licentious excursions on the grounds of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, in the immediate vicinity of Stratford, for the purpose, as it is said, of stealing his deer, our young Bard was detected; and, having farther irritated the knight by affixing a satirical ballad on him to the gates of Charlecote, he was compelled to fly before the enmity of his powerful adversary, and to seek an asylum in the capital. Malone, who is prone to doubt, wishes to question the truth of this whole narrative, and to ascribe the flight of young Shakspeare from his native country to the embarrassment of his circumstances, and the persecution of his creditors. But the story of the deer-stealing rests upon the uniform tradition of Stratford, and is confirmed by the character of Sir T. Lucy, who is known to have been a rigid preserver of his game; by the enmity displayed against his memory by Shakspeare in his succeeding life; and by a part of the offensive
ballad* itself, preserved by a Mr. Jones of Tarbick, a village near to Stratford, who obtained it from those who must have been acquainted with the fact, and who could not be biased by any interest or passion to falsify or misstate it. Besides, the objector, in this instance, seems not to be aware that it was easier to escape from the resentment of an offended proprietor of game, than from the avarice of a creditor; that, whilst the former might be satisfied with the removal of the delinquent to a situation where he could no longer infest his parks or his warrens, the latter would pursue his debtor wherever bailiffs could find and writs could attach him. account, therefore, I believe the tradition, recorded by Rowe, that our Poet retired from Stratford before the exasperated power of Sir T. Lucy, and found a refuge in London, not possibly beyond the reach of the arm, but beyond the hostile purposes of his provincial antagonist.
The time of this eventful flight of the great Bard of England cannot now be accurately determined; but we may somewhat confidently place it between the years 1585 and 1588; for in the former of these we may conclude him to have been present with his family at the baptism of his twins, Hamnet and Judith; and than the latter of them we cannot well assign a later date for his arrival in London, since we know † that before 1592 he had not only written two long poems, the Venus and Adonis, and the Rape of Lucrece, but had acquired no small degree of celebrity as an actor and as a dramatic writer.
At this agitating crisis of his life, the situation of young Shakspeare was certainly, in its obvious aspect, severe and even terrific. Without friends to protect or assist him, he was driven, under the frown of exasperated power, from his profession; from his native fields; from the companions of his childhood and his youth; from his wife and his infant offspring. The world was spread before him, like a dark ocean, in which no fortunate isle could be seen to glitter
* The first stanza of this ballad, which is admitted to be genuine, may properly be preserved as a curiosity. But as it is to be found in every life of our author, with the exception of Rowe's, I shall refer my readers, to whom it could not be gratifying, to some other pago for it than my own.
† From Robert Greene's posthumous work, written in 1592, and Chettle's Kind Hart' Dream, published very soon afterwards.