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Of Shakspeare we know a little, and only a little, more. George Steevens has said, "All that is known with any degree of certainty concerning Shakspeare is—that he was born at Stratford-upon-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." This is certainly but a meagre skeleton of such a wonderful man, and is calculated to excite regret and disappointment. We become angry on account of our ignorance, although angry we cannot tell rightly with whom or what. Was Shakspeare bound to write an autobiography for our information? Or was nature bound to rear a Boswell to preserve, in a kind of dripping-pan, the exhaustless exuberance of his conversational genius? Or could his contemporaries be expected to appreciate a man who was "before all ages?" Besides, how do we know that his life, were it fully detailed, would be so interesting, or that his conversation, had it been recorded, would have been so extraordinary? Was he not perhaps a quiet, silent, brooding man-no great talker-none of those who "set the table in a roar," but rather
"A great observer, and who look'd
none the less keenly that he looked through them in silence? And does not, besides, a kind of ghost-like awe and mystery thus gather round that humble player, with the greatest mind on earth concealed now under his plain daily dress, and now under his tinsel nightly robes, and you feel as if Apollo or Mercury had disguised himself as a tapster or a sceneshifter? Perhaps, instead of vainly mourning that we know so little of him, we should rather cry out, as we have cried out before, "Munificent and modest benefactor, it was thine to knock at the door of the human family by night, to throw in inestimable wealth, and then, as if thou hadst done a guilty thing, to fly, leaving the sound of thy feet dying away in the distance as all the tidings thou hast given of thyself!"
Often when we contemplate the mind and history of
Edmund Burke-the plenitude of his knowledge, the profound wisdom of his intellect, the vast ken of his imaginative vision, the disinterestedness of his purpose, and the wide and watchful eye he kept on the progress of the human race everywhere, as well as the righteous and terrible anger which he felt at its oppressors—we are reminded less of a man, than of some benevolent angel or genie, incarnate in human flesh, for the purpose of furthering the great designs of God, and counteracting the machinations or the infuriated madness of infernal beings. In Shakspeare we do not see so clearly any definite moral purpose, but we see still greater prodigality of intellect and genius, and an attitude of thought and a relation to the world still more wonderful, and almost unearthly. He is among men, but not of them, although in a sense very different from that in which the impatient, reckless, and unhappy spirit of Byron was. Shakspeare stands above all men, but still close to them; knows all of them thoroughly, yet pities and loves them intensely; and is neither an accusing spirit nor a protecting genie, but simply a recorder of what he sees, an echo-cliff of what he hears, and is both upon a scale of stupendous magnitude. It follows, that his own personal character and history are of less importance. A Milton or a Burke striving to overrule public opinion, on political, moral, or religious themes, subjects himself to severe scrutiny. But not so a mirror-like mind such as that of Shakspeare. If mirrors are clear broad reflectors, it becomes of little moment whether their frame be covered with "dust o'ergilded," or be of pure and massive gold.
These remarks may tend somewhat to soothe the disappointment so generally felt by readers in reference to the little that centuries of inquiry have been able to collect about the life of the "myriad-minded;" for what proportion could be expected between one short life and a myriad minds? The one, however interesting, could be no measure to, or exponent of, the multiplicity of the other.
William Shakspeare, "man's miracle," was born in Stratford-on-Avon in April 1564. As his baptism took place on the 26th, and as one Joseph Green, a clergyman, and master
of the grammar school at Stratford, in an extract which he made from the register of Shakspeare's baptism, wrote on the margin, "Born on the 23rd," that is suspected to have been the actual date. His father, John Shakspeare, was a burgess of the corporation of Stratford. John's great-grandfather is supposed to have done good service to Richmond at Bosworth field, for which his descendant received two royal grants of lands and tenements in Warwickshire. Hence, perhaps, the strong Lancastrian bias to be found in the writings of the great dramatist. In 1559, John wedded Mary Arden, the descendant of an ancient family in Warwickshire, and who had been left by her father an estate of about sixty acres, and a house called Asbies. They were married at AstonCantlow, and John, taking possession of the estate in right of his wife, proceeded to fix his residence in the town of Stratford.
Much dubiety has rested on the occupation of the poet's father. Aubrey declares that he was a butcher, and that William in his boyhood practised the same occupation; but adds (as Brummell's valet declared that his master "always snored like a gentleman!") that the boy when he "killed a calf, did it in a high style, and made a speech." Another account, transmitted through an old parish-clerk, says nothing of the "speech" or of the father's trade, but insists that the 66 gentle Willy" was an apprentice to a butcher, till, disgusted at the occupation, he ran off to London. Both these accounts seem apocryphal; nor does Rowe's story, that John Shakspeare was a dealer in wool, and taught his son the same trade, rest on any sure foundation. The probability, founded on var various entries in old registers, is that the father of the poet partly lived on his own land, and partly rented ground from others— was certainly the proprietor of Asbies-and held, from one William Clopton, a piece of meadow-ground of fourteen acres, called Ingon, rented at eight pounds, equivalent to forty pounds of our present money-was, in short, what we would now call in Scotland a farmer and small laird.
To John Shakspeare and Mary Arden were born in succession, first, Joan, and then Margaret, both of whom died in
infancy; then William; then, two years after, Gilbert; then a second Joan; then another daughter, Anne, who soon followed her first two sisters to the grave; then Richard; and finally, in 1580, Edmund. Here, then," says Charles Knight, "we find that two sisters of William were removed by death, probably before his birth. In two years and a half another son, Gilbert, came to be his playmate; and when he was five years old, that most precious gift to a loving boy was granted—a sister, who grew up with him. Then came another sister, who faded untimely. When he was ten years old, he had another brother to lead by the hand into the green meadows. When he was grown into youthful strength, a boy of sixteen, his youngest brother was born. William, Gilbert, Joan, Richard, Edmund, constituted the whole of the family amongst whom John Shakspeare was to share his means of existence." Rowe's mistake about Shakspeare's family being "ten in all," seems to have arisen from the fact that there was another John Shakspeare in Stratford.
The very house where Shakspeare was born has been matter of controversy. His father gradually possessed himself of various houses-a copyhold house in Henley Street; a copyhold house in Greenhill Street; a house on the meadow called Ingon, about a mile from Stratford on the Warwick Road; and two freehold houses in Henley Street. Tradition, however, points somewhat distinctly to one of these latter as the house where Shakspeare was born, and the room is still shown. The house is one of the oldest in Stratford, and has passed through various changes, becoming latterly a compound of a butcher's shop and a public-house. We have beheld with reverence several of the birthplaces of poets, such as the "auld clay biggin'" where the restless ardent eye of Burns first saw the light, and the quiet upper room in Bristol where Southey first breathed the air. But how much more would we prize a sight of that spot where Shakspeare was born, and which is as yet to us a "Stratford unvisited," except in imagination and in hope! Every reader remembers the graceful picture given by Washington Irving in his "Sketch-Book" of his pilgrimage to the hallowed region.
Burns was born amidst a wild storm of "Januar' wind," which, while it
"Blew welcome in on Robin,"
blew down the humble dwelling, and seemed to shed
"Ominous conjecture on his whole success."
Shakspeare, less characteristically, was born while the plague which had ravaged all Europe, and especially London, in the previous year, was raging in Stratford, and the wail of the infant prodigy
("You know the first time that we smell the air,
might be almost unheard and unmarked amidst the cries of dying babes and of Rachels weeping for their children. This marvellous child, however, was sacred from the touch of the disease. He must have heard afterwards many fearful particulars of its ravages; and although he has nowhere in all his writings elaborately or at length painted the pest (what a thing he could have made of the plague of Athens, or of the Black Death in the middle ages!) yet he has enclosed the whole poetry, if not the whole pathos and horror of the plague in the lines of Timon
"Be as a planetary plague when Jove
Will o'er some high-viced city hang his poison
Nothing in all the descriptions of pestilence, in the pages of Thucydides, Boccaccio, Defoe, Brockden, Brown, Wilson, Shelley, or the author of that most vigorous story in Blackwood for December 1826, entitled "Di Vasari, a Tale of the Plague in Florence"-can be compared in intensity of power with the above lines, blending as they do the cause and the effect, the punishment and the crimes together in a gloomy harmony, and exhibiting the whole collected darkness of death lowering over the doomed city, as one poison-cup drugged by the hand of God Himself, and to be drank "without mixture.'
Some biographers of Shakspeare will have it that he was lame; and Sir Walter Scott in "Kenilworth," probably from