Imatges de pÓgina




HE scantiness of the notices that have come down to us of the life of William Shakespeare is perhaps as disappointing to a rational and grateful interest as to

trivial curiosity. The personal details of a great man, whether apart from or compared with his works, are often inquired after by the ambitious and emulative, who would study the sources of his aids and obstructions, the process of his self-education, and his bearing, as either defeated or successful. Historically, the same details furnish many an elucidation of the mutual reactions of the individual and the general mind,of the development of art and the epochs of civilization. The mental theorist also views them from a point of his own, and thinks he is guided, it may be, to the flaw in the so-called philosophy of Bacon by the story of his moral lapse, or finds the great originalities of Paradise Lost embodied in the life of Milton. To the gossip, of course, every detail is welcome that he can attach to a name that always will attract a listener. Whence, then, the scantiness complained of? Something may be due to accidents of times and persons that will occasionally countervail all general tendencies; to the supervention of the civil war; the puritanical suppression of the old drama, and its altered character on revival; but I know not whether more is not to be ascribed to a nobler cause


characteristic of the subject. It is a mistake to disallow our possession, in the case of Shakespeare, of the leading traits that are of most importance in a biography; and if matters subordinate have not been preserved, it was, I suspect, because such matters had no more than their true importance to admiring, affectionate, and revering contemporaries. The generation most solicitous for the minutiæ of biography will not be the one that enters most fully into the spirit of the poet. The memory of the man, to those who knew him, was a living feeling, like the appreciation of his works, and they have expressed the characteristics of both in language as simple and concise as forcible, and it is little indeed that we can add to the main result by either antiquarian collection or analytical criticism; and as regards the relation of the character of the man to the sentiment of his works, it seems to have been a feeling of their perfect harmony that made his friends and fellows speak of the preservation of his plays as identical with the eternal memory of his personal sensibilities and proper worth. For the rest,— the incomparable genius of the man would alone account for his surmounting difficulties, however great, though, as in the case of other great successes, fortune and opportunity did give sympathetic aid. Something of this sympathy, also, there was in the epoch both of political movement and of dramatic, but after all we must admit that such influence is manifestly but ancillary to the self-sustained endowment of the poet, when we find that it is all but lost upon feebler contemporaries.

From this point of view, then, I should be well contented not to diverge, and to ask no more for a biography of Shakespeare than is furnished by the expressions and allusions of those who were his immediate associates and contemporaries: these are facts that are not only the most interesting but among the most authentic, and it is only when we descend to matters that in comparison are of minor grade, that we get entangled among the dishonesties of forged traditions and of documents that are more difficult to deal with when merely impugned than when

manifestly falsified or fabricated. This mischief dates very early in these investigations, and it is an unhappy result of some detections that more are expected, and that a place of standing cannot be in justice or prudence refused to accusations that otherwise would be pushed aside as mere rancorous rivalry.

Leaving aside—whether for oblivion or further question-these tainted witnesses, we may pay rather more attention to the vague traditions that need not be suspected of much other corruption than accrues unconsciously, that can be traced as current approximately in time and locality, and that belong to a class which cannot be altogether wanting-the alterations of facts that tradition finds easier than original invention. What authentic particulars beyond these have rewarded the patient research of antiquaries are for the most part dry and disjointed facts, fruitful in conjectures which can be sought elsewhere, less fruitful of trustworthy deduction; taken, however, altogether, they do make up a certain sequence of connected facts in that lower or outer life of the man and the Englishman of the sixteenth century, and do occasionally reflect a ray upon the more valuable records of his true existence as a poet and a humanist, enfranchised-sovereign, for all time.

Shakespeare died in 1616: Sir William Dugdale, in his Antiquities of Warwickshire, 1656, connects his name with a monumental date or two; and Fuller, with a quibble or two, in his Worthies, published 1662. In this latter year died Judith Quiney, the daughter of Shakespeare's youth, having survived the Commonwealth. In the same year John Ward, A. M. became vicar of Stratford, and his Diary, in MS. in the library of the Medical Society of London, which commences earlier, and extends to 1679, has this notice :-" I have heard that Mr. Shakespeare was a natural wit, without any art at all: he frequented the plays all his younger time, but in his elder days lived at Stratford, and supplied the stage with two plays every year, and for it had an allowance so large that he spent at the rate of £1000 a year, as I have heard.”

In 1675, Ed. Phillips, the nephew of Milton, published his Theatrum Poetarum, prepared before Milton's death, and reflecting many of his opinions: he bestows a few lines on Shakespeare, but of eulogy and criticism, not biography:

"William Shakespeare, the glory of the English stage, whose nativity at Stratford upon Avon is the highest honour that town can boast of; from an actor of tragedies and comedies he became a maker, and such a maker, that though some others may, perhaps, pretend to a more exact decorum and economy, especially in tragedy, never any expressed a more lofty and tragic height, never any represented nature more purely to the life; and where the polishments of art are most wanting, as probably his learning was not extraordinary, he pleaseth with a certain wild and native elegance: and in all his writings hath an unvulgar style, as well in his Venus and Adonis, his Rape of Lucrece, and other various poems, as in his dramaticks."

About 1680, is to be dated the first antiquarian notice of Shakespeare's life, and here are the contents of the indiscriminate dragnet of Aubrey, from his "Minutes of Lives," addressed to Anthony à Wood.

"Mr. William Shakespeare was born at Stratford upon Avon, in the county of Warwick; his father was a butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when he was a boy he exercised his father's trade, but when he killed a calf he would do it in a high style, and make a speech. There was at that time another butcher's son in this town that was held not at all inferior to him for a natural wit, his acquaintance and coetanean, but died young. This William being naturally inclined to poetry and acting, came to London, I guess about eighteen, and was an actor at one of the playhouses, and did act exceedingly well. Now B. Jonson was never a good actor, but an excellent instructor. He began early to make essays at dramatic poetry, which at that time was very low, and his plays took well. He was a handsome, well-shaped man, very good company, and of a very ready and pleasant smooth wit.

"The humour of . . . . . . the constable in Midsummer Night's

Dream, he happened to take at Grendon, in Bucks, which is the road from London to Stratford, and there was living that constable in 1642, when I first came to Oxon. I think it was Midsummer night that he happened to lie there. Mr. Jos. How is of that parish, and knew him. Ben Jonson and he did gather humours of men daily, wherever they came. One time, as he was at the tavern at Stratford super Avon, one Combes, an old rich usurer, was to be buried; he makes there this extemporary epitaph:

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