« PreviousContinue »
LIFE OF SHAKSPEARE.
BY WILLIAM HAZLITT.
"ALL that is known with any degree of certainty concerning Shakspeare, is that he was born at Stratfordupon-Avon-married and had children there-went to London, where he commenced actor, and wrote poems and plays-returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was buried." Such is the 'summary or brief chronicle of William Shakspeare,' by one of his most crushing commentators, Mr. George Steevens. Later and more painstaking biographers,-Messrs. Collier, Charles Knight, Halliwell,-have, however, collected together, from all sorts of sources, materials with which they have severally constructed Lives of Shakspeare, ample as those of any ‣ contemporary poets, ampler than those of any contemporary dramatists. I will endeavour to compress into the present sketch the leading facts, which the labours of these gentlemen have been so laudably applied to gather. The family of Shakspeare appears to have been diffused throughout Warwickshire long before the birth of him by whom that family has been rendered illustrious for all time. Who the soldier was upon whom the surname was first imposed for "valour and feats of arms," or when he lived, we know not; but this we learn from the grant of arms to John Shakspeare, the poet's father, that "his parent and great-grandfather, late antecessor, for his faithful and approved service to the late most prudent prince, King Henry VII. of famous memory, was advanced and rewarded with lands and tenements, given to him in those 29x423
parts of Warwickshire, where they have continued, by some descents, in good reputation and credit." John Shakspeare himself was the fourth in descent from this loyal servant, so royally rewarded, and both he and his immediate predecessors appear to have occupied the position of yeomen, or substantial farmers, at Snitterfield, a village near Stratford. By a marriage with Mary Arden, the youngest daughter of Robert Arden, of Wilmcote, in the parish of Aston Cantlow, also in Warwickshire, John Shakspeare at once augmented his means and aggrandized his position; for the damsel was heiress to her father's land in Wilmcote, called Asbies, a farm of about sixty acres, arable and pasture, with a house, and six pounds thirteen shillings and four pence in money; and she was the descendant of a family that dated back to the time of the Conqueror. Why John Shakspeare quitted Snitterfield does not appear; but it is certain that he went to reside at Stratford, as a tradesman, in or about the year 1551. What precise trade he pursued has been matter of infinite controversy; but he has been traced, by the research of Mr. Halliwell and others, in the various occupations of glover, wool-stapler, and dealer in malt and timber, and the probability would seem to be that his establishment in Stratford served principally as a mart for the produce of his farming, since we find, from a document in 1579, that at that time John Shakspeare continued his occupation as yeoman. His position at Stratford was, for many years, one of great respectability. The records of Stratford, as adduced by Mr. Charles Knight, show him to have gone through the whole regular course of municipal duty. In 1556 he was on the jury of the court leet; in 1557, an ale-taster; in 1558, a burgess; in 1559, a constable; in 1560, an affeeror; in 1561, a chamberlain; in 1565, an alderman, and in 1568, high bailiff. His worldly possessions were, in the aggregate, considerable, even be fore he augmented them by his marriage with Mary Arden, which took place, it is supposed, in 1557. The result of the union was eight children, of whom three died when quite young. William, the eldest of the sons, was born 23rd April, 1564, and the house in Henley-street, which tradition distinguishes as the place of his birth, still stands. The extent of education attained by our poet has been the subject of the most animated, though by no means animating, controversy: the argument on the one