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Biography of William Shakespeare


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WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, the chief literary glory of England, was born at Stratford-on-Avon, in Warwickshire, it is believed, on the 23rd of April, 1564. His father, John Shakespeare, seems to have belonged, by birth, to the class of yeomen. His mother, Mary Arden, was of more distinguished origin. She came of a good old Warwickshire family; and when married, she brought to her husband as dower, a property called Asbies, fifty-four acres in extent, besides an interest in certain other lands at Wilmecote, and a small sum of money. Of a family of four sons and four daughters, William was the third child. At the free grammar-school of Stratford there can be little doubt that young Shakespeare received his entire education. As to the precise character and amount of this, there has been much controversial conjecture; some writers maintaining, on the internal evidence of his works, that he must have enjoyed a thorough classical training, whilst others represent him as probably destitute of any such youthful advantages.

Meantime, misfortune had overtaken, and more and more come to press heavily on John Shakespeare; in consequence of which William, now somewhat over fourteen, was withdrawn from school, and set to do something. How he was employed from this time till his departure for London, it is impossible to make out with distinctness. Out of the cloud of uncertainty which shrouds his life, two facts, however, emerge as beyond question - his marriage, and the birth of his eldest born. As soon as may be after the 28th of November, 1582 - on which day the license was procured at Worcester - Shakespeare, a lively lad, going on nineteen, was married to Anne Hathaway, of Shottery, a hamlet a mile or so out of Stratford, a damsel about eight years older than himself; and six months afterwards a daughter was born to him, whose baptism bears record May 26th, 1583. The only other children born of the marriage were twins, a boy and a girl, baptized February 2nd, 1585. The boy (Hammet) did not survive his father, dying in his twelfth year.

As nearly as can be made out, in the year 1586, Shakespeare, then twenty-two years of age, left the neighborhood of Stratford, and betook himself to London.

No certain details have come down to us as to his relations with the London theatre. According to one tradition, he was content at first to turn a penny by holding horses at the door. According to another - which seems a natural sequence with the foregoing - we find him admitted inside on his promotion, though as yet only in the humble capacity of prompter's attendant. What is certain in the matter is this, that if at any time he was thus meanly occupied, it could have been only for a brief period, as very speedily we have note of him as a man of some importance, at once dramatist, actor and shareholder in the Blackfriar's theatre. As an actor, he seems at no time to have shone especially, being rather respectable than eminent. As a dramatist his magnificent powers were at once recognized and in no long time had won for him the very foremost rank among the writers for the stage of his time. We have ample evidence of the unrivalled acceptance his works obtained from all classes; not only were they in the wider sense popular, but they brought him special marks of favor and approval from Queen Elizabeth and her successor James, who is said to have honored the poet with an amicable letter from his own hand - and procured him the patronage and friendship of some of the most accomplished men of rank of the time.

Shakespeare was plainly - as men of consummate genius mostly are - a man of shrewd, solid business ability; and throughout, his material prosperity kept pace with the growth of his poetical reputation. He became early, as we saw, a considerable shareholder in the Blackfriar's theatre. In the Globe, subsequently erected, he was also a part proprietor. To both he contributed dramas, and from his gains in the triple capacity of actor, author, and sharer of the general profits, he rapidly amassed a fortune. His local attachments were strong, and it seems to have become, as his wealth increased, one main object of his ambition to settle himself as a substantial country gentleman in his native district, to which annually he made a visit. We find him, with this view, from time to time making purchases there of houses and landed property. By and by, these visits to Stratford became more frequent; and it is positively certain that previous to the year 1613, he had ceased to reside in London, and finally established himself at Stratford. Of his last years there spent, further than that they lapsed peacefully in honor, and that he exercised a liberal and kindly hospitality, nearly nothing is known. His death took place on his 53rd birthday, the 23rd of April, 1616.

That Shakespeare erred and sinned at times like others, we know from the passionate confessions of his sonnets, in considerable portions of which the self reference is too plain to be denied; but that, whatever his occasional frailties, he was essentially a man of noble and estimable character, there is a complete concurrence of testimony. He was obviously of most kindly and lovable disposition; his pleasureable wit and good nature made him delightful as a companion, and it was as "gentle Will Shakespeare" that he was familiarly known to his contemporaries. In particular, with his associates and rivals in writing for the stage, his relations would seem to have been of the most cordial, and even endearing kind. The gruff Ben Jonson writes of him after death: "He was honest, and of open and free nature," and assures us that in "his well-turned and true-filed lines" we see but an authentic reflex of his beautiful "mind and manners;" and he avers that he "honors his memory only on this side of idolatry."

To discourse here at this date of the genius of Shakespeare, would be only to promulgate platitudes. The lofty eulogy of Dryden - "He was the man who, of all modern, and perhaps ancient, poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul," has since been generally acquiesced in. As a dramatist, he is admittedly in the world without a peer; as poet, there are but one or two names in literature even to be named beside his; and dismissing his claims in either kind, we have in his works a treasury of wisdom on all matters of human concernment such as no other writer has ever bequeathed to the world.

The only works of Shakespeare certainly published under his own hand, were the two poems, Venus and Adonis, and the Rape of Lucrece, which appeared in 1593-94, respectively. As was naturally to be looked for in the case of pieces on the stage so popular, certain of his dramas found their way, from time to time, into print, but no authoritative edition of any of them was issued during his lifetime. The first collected edition of his dramas was issued in 1623, by Heminge and Condell, his friends and co-proprietors in the Blackfriars and Globe theatres.