Page images

individual through the medium of his public actions only, is to estimate character by an artificial and deceptive light.

Every species of literary composition ought to be devoted to some useful end. The legitimate province of biography is to impart such information as may enlighten the understanding and ameliorate the heart. It is the author's duty to state every illustrative fact connected with the person whose life he portrays; to rouse the ardent mind to emulation, by displaying such qualities as do honour to human nature, and to point out and reprove those failings which detract from the perfection of man. It is also his province to trace the progress of genius from the cradle to the grave, to observe the gradations of its developement, and to mark those peculiarities by which it is distinguished ;—those accidents by which it is attracted or repelled, incited or repressed. Were we enabled to compose such a memoir of Shakspeare, we should bequeath to posterity an inestimable treasure ;-we should unfold such a history of talent, as would be of the greatest importance to the philosopher and the critic; at the same time that we exhibited a portrait of the most illustrious genius that ever adorned the intellectual world, we should display the most seductive example for the emulation of future authors.

When we reflect on these circumstances, and consider the defective state of biographical knowledge in general, we cannot refrain from expressing the deepest regret that so few illustrious men have thought proper to bequeath to the world memoirs of their own lives. Such legacies, if more frequently bestowed, would be of incalculable benefit to society; and would tend to prevent a vast deal of useless, because for the most part, uncertain and indefinite controversy.

But if the want of faithful biography be a subject of ordinary lament, how greatly is it to be deplored when it regards men endowed with minds of the very highest order. Men who, like the comets of heaven, appear only at distant periods to attract the gaze of admiring nations, and to shed an unusual glory over the intellectual system.

[blocks in formation]

Another sighs for harmony and grace,

And gentlest beauty. Hence when lightning fires
The arch of heaven, and thunders rock the ground,
When furious whirlwinds rend the howling air,
And ocean, groaning from his lowest bed,
Heaves his tempestuous billows to the sky;
Amid the mighty uproar, while below

The nations tremble, Shakspeare looks abroad
From some high cliff, superior, and enjoys
The elemental war.'


That SHAKSPEARE was one of that class of men, who, in relation to the species, deserve to be termed prodigies of intelligence, must be acknowledged by all to whom nature and education have given the capacity of understanding and appreciating his works. Not only does he stand unrivalled as a dramatic author, but in every quality of poetical composition he may challenge the most renowned competitor. His invention is certainly not equalled by that of Homer; and though he seldom attains the suavity and graceful majesty of Maro, he far excels that poet in striking imagery and in originality of personification. Even the genius of Milton, with all the aid which the sublimity of his subject afforded, is not more successful in its boldest flights than the wild and creative fancy of " our immortal bard." "If ever any author," says Pope," deserved the name of an original, it was Shakspeare. Homer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of nature; it proceeded through Ægyptian strainers and channels, and came to him not without some tincture of learning, or some cast of the models of them before him. The poetry of Shakspeare was inspiration indeed; he is not so much an imitator as an instrument of nature and it is not so just to say that he speaks from her, as that she speaks through him."

Ben Jonson correctly says,

"He was not of an age, but for all time;
And all the Muses still were in their prime;
Where, like Apollo, he came forth to warm
Our ears, or, like Mercury, to charm."

Whether his aim be to move the passions or to assuage their tumult, to excite pity or rouse indignation; whether he delineates scenes of terror or incidents of pleasure; in fine, whether his object be to excite grief or joy, to awaken in the breast powerful emotions of anguish or mirth, he appears to be a perfect master of his inimitable

art. Nor does he excel only in commanding and influencing the passions, for in his reflections on men and manners, and on subjects of religion and philosophy, his sentiments are uniformly appropriate, and are delivered with a force of argument not unworthy of the most profound divine, or the most acute and discriminating moralist. The following lines, from his own plays, applied to the character of the King, in Henry the Fifth, are finely applicable to himself.

"Hear him but reason in Divinity,

And, all-admiring, with an inward wish,

You would desire he had been made a prelate.
Hear him debate of Commonwealth affairs,
You'd say it hath been all in all his study.
List his discourse of War, and you shall hear
A fearful battle rendered you in music.
Turn him to any cause of Policy,
The gordian knot of it will he unloose,
Familiar as his garter: that when he speaks,
The air, a charter'd libertine, is still,
And the mute wonder lurketh in mens'
To steal his sweet and honeyed sentences."


The dramatic writings of Shakspeare are numerous, and are distinguished for the great diversity of characters they include and portray. Some of his plays certainly acquired much popularity during his own life, and were also published by his contemporaries; yet he must have been regardless of posthumous fame, for he neither prepared any of them for the press, nor gave directions concerning their appropriation in his last will. No author was ever less an egotist than Shakspeare. Equally careless as to the praise or censure of critics and biographers, he either neglected to preserve, or destroyed all records, documents, and memoranda, relating to his own life and writings. Hence the laudable curiosity of the present age is unrewarded by facts, and is held in continued and aggravated suspense, as to the peculiarities of his personal actions and pursuits. His writings have occasioned several volumes of comment. Several authors have also written conjectures and dissertations on his life; but all have hitherto failed in their design to develope any essential biographical facts. An extraordinary and astonishing degree of mystery envelopes his name; and it is not without considerable difficulty and doubt that I have drawn

up the following narrative, which has been derived from a careful examination of all preceding memoirs, aided by the intelligent communications of the historian of Stratford.


Of Shakspeare's remote and immediate ancestors, scarcely any facts are recorded. Only one solitary document has been found to identify his reputed parents, and to display the condition of his father. This is a grant, or confirmation of arms," dated 1599, by William Dethick and William Camden, officers of the Heralds' College, empowering John Shakspeare to impale the arms of Arden with his own. After the usual preamble it proceeds:― "Wherefore being solicited, and by credible report informed, that John Shakspeare, now of Stratford-uponAvon, in the counte of Warwicke, gent. whose parent, great grandfather, and late antecessor, for his faithefull and approved service* to the late most prudent prince, King Henry VII. of famous memorie, was advanced and rewarded with lands and tenements, geven to him in those parts of Warwickshere, where they have continewed by some descents in good reputacion and credit; and for that the said John Shakspeare, having maryed the daughter and one of the heyrs of Robert Arden of Wellingcote, in the said countie, and also produced this his auncient cote of arms heretofore assigned to him, whilest he was her Majesties officer and baylefe of that town+: In consideration of the premisses, and for the encouragement of his posteritie, unto whom suche blazon of arms and achievements of inheritance from theyre said mother, by the auncyent custome and lawes of arms, maye lawfully descend: We the said Garter and Clarencieulx have assigned," &c. (here follows a description of the arms) signifying thereby, that it maye and shalbe law full for the said John Shakspeare, gent. to bear and use the same shield of arms, single or impaled, as aforesaid, during his natural lyffe; and that it shalbe lawfull for his children,


*Mr. Malone, "on examining the two rough draughts of the grant of arms," dated 1596, found in the most perfect one," whose parents and antecessors were for their valour and faithful services," &c. These words " great grandfather" and late," he says, are interlineations to the grant of 1599.

+ This coat of arms appears to have been granted 1569, but the deed is not to be found in the Heralds' College.

yssue, and posteryte (lawfully begotten) to beare, use, and quarter, and show forth the same, with their dewe differences, in all lawfull warlyke facts, and civile use or exercises," &c. By a MS. note to the above grant, John Shakspeare is further stated to possess "lands and tenements in the county of Warwick," valued at 5001. These documents serve to show that he was a man of property and respectability; yet Rowe, and some other biographers, state that he was poor, or reduced in the latter part of life," and incapable of supporting his son William at school. They found this opinion on an entry in the books of the corporation of Stratford; wherein it appears that John Shakspeare and Robert Bruce, in 1579, (twenty years before the date of the above grant of arms) were excused paying a weekly fine of 4d. which was levied on the other aldermen. In 1586 his name was erased from the list of corporate members, and another substituted in his place," because he doth not come to the Halls." Though these entries are not demonstrative of poverty or disgrace, yet they imply it; and coupled with the statement, that he could not afford to pay for his son's schooling, they tend to render the heraldic grant at variance with these facts, and leave us in doubt and suspense. If unable to pay the usual weekly fine of 4d. and for the son's schooling, we cannot easily account for his obtaining the arms of Arden, in 1599, when his son William was 35 years of age, and when, according to the Stratford registers, he had been married to his third wife about eleven years. Dr. Drake reconciles these doubts, by supposing that the "increasing reputation and affluence of his son William," gave him comparative competence and respectability" about this time. By the following memorandum in the Heralds' College, and written apparently after the death of the alderman, we are justified in thinking favourably of his circumstances. "As for the Speare in bend, it is a patible difference; and the person to whom it was granted hath borne magistracy, and was justice of peace at Stratford-upon-Avon. He married the daughter and heire of Arderne, and was able to maintain that estate."

[ocr errors]

In the above documents we do not find any allusion to a second wife, or reference to the decease of the heiress of Arden: yet Malone, and Wheler (in his useful "History

« PreviousContinue »