« PreviousContinue »
who unhappily came into the property somewhere about 1751. It was the same reverend iniquity who destroyed the mulberry-tree. In New Place, Shakspeare's family chiefly resided from 1597 to the time of his death; and Mr. Halliwell adduces, from the local records, various pass ages which exhibit Shakspeare himself as much there, and engaged, if not actually in agriculture, at least in negotiations of a kindred character. In fact, he appears to have omitted no honourable means of increasing his store. A subsidy roll of 1598, for example, quoted by Mr. Hunter, shows him to have been the holder of a house in the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate; and as there are no indications that he ever lived in that locality, the probability is, that he had bought the lease of the premises as a speculation. The place was altogether out of the way of his occupation as actor, which he continued certainly up to 1603, in which year he was one of the principal performers in Ben Jonson's Sejanus. It is probable that, upon the whole, the year 1604 may be assigned as the period at which he finally retired from the stage as actor, though his connection with it as owner and comanager* continued some years longer. Old Aubrey tells us that "he was wont to go to his native country once a year;" it is likely that his journeys were more frequent, but whenever they occurred, we are informed by Anthony à Wood he always lodged at the sign of the Crown, in the Corn-market at Oxford,—a hostelry of which considerable portions still remain, and which at the time was kept by John Davenant, a very grave and discreet citizen, who had to wife a very beautiful woman, and of a very good wit, and of conversation extremely agreeable." The son of this couple, Sir William Davenant, who was born March 1605-6, used, "when he was pleasant over a glass of wine with his most intimate friends, e.g. Sam Butler (author of Hudibras), &c., to say that it seemed to him that he wrote with the very spirit that Shakspeare wrote, and was contented enough to be thought his son." If there be no better basis for this pleasantry than the poetlaureate's conceit that he wrote like Shakspeare, the fair fame of Mrs. Davenant, and the morality of William Shakspeare, in the particular case, have been needlessly vindicated. Chirping old Aubrey, however, who is always
*It was probably in the capacity of manager that he found occasion to bring Ben Jonson forward.
ready to trump any imbecility, adds as clincher: "Now, by the way, his (Davenant's) mother had a very light report. In those days she was called a trader (prostitute)." The actual period at which Shakspeare permanently retired to Stratford appears to have been the year 1611. His means for accomplishing this retirement were ample; his shares in the Blackfriars and Globe Theatres alone are estimated by Messrs. Collier and Halliwell, from documents, to have produced him (about 1608) £366. 13s. 4d. per annum, besides his income from houses and lands, and from his writings. Mr. Ward, the rector of Stratford, in a diary written in 1662, states that Shakspeare, "in his elder days, lived at Stratford, and supplied the stage with two plays every year, and for that paid an allowance so large, that he spent at the rate of £1,000 a year, as I have heard." This estimate may be considered as much above the mark, as that of Malone, who computes Shakspeare's retiring income at £200 per annum, is probably below it. Shakspeare's will, of which a copy is given in its proper place, scarcely affords a satisfactory solution of the question; but, as Mr. Halliwell aptly suggests, a portion of the poet's property was perhaps employed before his death in making provisions for those members of his family who have been thought by some biographers to have been neglected by him in his will.
Mr. Ward, in the passage above extracted, speaks of Shakspeare as having in his elder days supplied the stage with two plays every year, impliedly from Stratford; but upon the supposition that he did not retire permanently to his "place of lordship in the country" until 1611, he must have written the bulk of his plays previous to that retirement. His sonnets were probably among his earliest productions; but when they were written, where, and to whom they were addressed, and of whom they discourse, are all matters of mystery. Mr. Halliwell conjectures several of them to have been composed at Stratford before his marriage, and to have been addressed to Anne Hathaway; and such may very well have been the case compatibly with Mr. Dyce's opinion, "after repeated perusals of the sonnets, that the greater number of them were composed in an assumed character, on different subjects, and at different times, for the amusement and probably at the suggestion of the author's intimate associates."
Venus and Adonis, which Shakspeare himself designates the "first heir of his invention," meaning no doubt his first production of weight, was published in 1593. This was followed, in 1594, by the publication of Lucrece, and these two poems seem to have been petted much more than the plays, not only by contemporary writers, but even by Shakspeare himself; at least if we may draw any conclusion to the purpose from the fact that these were his only productions in the publication of which he at all concerned himself. The circumstance may, indeed, be attributable to the greater anxiety on such a subject of a young man just feeling his way to fortune; but it has more probable connection with that utter indifference to fame which so singularly contrasts Shakspeare, in this particular, with Milton, and which occasioned him evidently to feel no concern whether his works were given to the world in a perfect or imperfect state. Even while in the enjoyment of his retirement at Stratford, he did not so much as take the trouble to collect his writings together, and it was not until seven years after his death that his plays were formed into a volume by two of his old associates. Milton, on the contrary, who was haunted from his youth upwards, with the thought of composing some great work which should live for ages, when his Paradise Lost was published, blind as he was, and trifling as was the emolument it brought him, caused the printing to be superintended with the most minute care, and corrected the orthography throughout on a system peculiarly his own.
The order in which the plays of Shakspeare were written will probably never be determined with precision; each biographer and each commentator, either from actual conscientious belief, the result of new discoveries, real or supposed, or simply by way of being original at all events, has framed a scheme of his own, more or less differing from that of his predecessors. As a matter of fact, Meres, a contemporary writer, shows that in 1598, Shakspeare, then thirty-four years of age, had written, at all events, twelve plays: viz., 1. The Two Gentlemen of Verona; 2, The Comedy of Errors; 3. Love's Labour Lost; 4. Love's Labour Won (All's Well that Ends Well; or according to Halliwell, a separate play, now lost); 5. Midsummer Night's Dream; 6. Merchant of Venice; 7. Richard II.; 8. Richard III.; 9. Henry IV.; 10. King John; 11.
Titus Andronicus; 12. Romeo and Juliet. It can be further stated that Henry VI., Part I., had appeared before 1592; and that the first sketches of the Second and Third parts of Henry VI. had appeared in 1593; that the Merry Wives of Windsor was written in 1593, and that The Taming of the Shrew was acted at Henslow's Theatre in 1593. After 1598, we find Henry IV., Part II., printed 1600 (but believed by Halliwell to have been written before 1598); Henry V., printed 1600; Much Ado about Nothing, printed 1600; As You Like It, entered at Stationers' Hall, 1600; Twelfth Night, acted in Middle Temple Hall, 1602; Othello, acted at Harefield, July, 1602, but probably affirmed by Mr. Halliwell to have been written before 1600; Hamlet, printed 1603; Measure for Measure, acted at Whitehall, December 26, 1604; King Lear, acted at Whitehall, 1607; Troilus and Cressida acted at Court, before 1609; Pericles, printed 1609; The Tempest, acted at Whitehall, November 1, 1611; The Winter's Tale, acted at Whitehall, 5th November, 1611; Henry VIII., acted 1613. Macbeth, Cymbeline, Timon of Athens, Julius Cæsar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, are evidently the productions of Shakspeare's mature period; but their precise dates are uncertain.
"The latter part of Shakspeare's life," writes Mr. Rowe, was spent as all men of good sense will wish theirs may be, in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends. His pleasurable wit and good nature engaged him in the acquaintance and entitled him to the friendship of the gentlemen of the neighbourhood. Amongst them, it is a story almost still remembered in that country, that he had a particular intimacy with Mr. Combe, an old gentleman noted thereabouts for his wealth and usury: it happened that in a pleasant conversation, amongst their common friends, Mr. Combe told Shakspeare in a laughing manner, that he fancied he intended to write his epitaph, if he happened to outlive him; and since he could not know what might be said of him when he was dead, he desired it might be done immediately; upon which Shakspeare gave him these four lines :
Ten in the hundred lies here engrav❜d,
Oh! oh! quoth the devil, 'tis my John a Combe.
But the sharpness of the satire is said to have stung the man so severely that he never forgave it." Now these verses in themselves betray no asperity of feeling at all; Shakspeare's disposition, mild, gentle, and equable, seems to have even made him regard the failings of others, and even injuries done to himself, with forbearance, and in this particular instance the satire does not go beyond a jest, which certainly occasioned no lasting coolness, at all events, between the parties, for at his death in 1614, Mr. Combe left Shakspeare £5; and Shakspeare, when he himself died, bequeathed his sword to Mr. Thomas Combe.
Shakspeare died at New Place on April 23, 1616, aged fifty-two, and was buried in the chancel of Stratford church two days afterwards. His will, preserved in the Prerogative Office, London, is in the following terms, as finally corrected by him, the orthography only being here modernized :
25th day of March, in 14th year of the reign of our Lord James, now king of England, &c. A.D. 1616.
THE WILL OF WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE.
In the name of God, Amen! I, William Shakspeare, of Stratford-upon-Avon, in the county of Warwick, gentleman, in perfect health and memory, God be praised, do make and ordain this my last will and testament, in manner and form following: that is to say, first, I commend my soul into the hands of God my creator, hoping and assuredly believing, through the only merit of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting; and my body to the earth whereof it is made. Item, I give and bequeath unto my daughter Judith, one hundred and fifty pounds of lawful English money, to be paid unto her in manner and form following; that is to say, one hundred pounds in discharge of her marriage portion within one year after my decease, with consideration after the rate of two shillings in the pound for so long time as the same shall be unpaid to her after my decease, and the fifty pounds residue thereof upon her surrendering of or giving of such sufficient security as the overseers of this my will shall like of to surrender or grant all her estate and right, that shall descend or come unto her, after my decease, or that she now hath, of, in, or to one copyhold tenement, with the appurtenances, lying and being in Stratford-uponAvon aforesaid, in the said county of Warwick, being parcel, or holden of the manor of Rowington, unto my daughter Susannah Hall, and her heirs for ever. Item, I give and bequeath unto my said daughter Judith one hundred and fifty pounds more, if she or any issue of her body be living at the end of three years next ensuing the day of the date of this my will, during which