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LIFE OF SHAKSPEARE.
BY ALEXANDER CHALMERS, A. M.
WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE was born at Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire, on the 23d day of April, 1564. Of the rank of his family it is not easy to form an opinion. Mr. Rowe says that by the register and certain public writings relating to Stratford, it appears that his ancestors were "of good figure and fashion," in that town, and are mentioned as "gentlemen,” an epithet which was more determinate then than at present, when it has become an unlimited phrase of courtesy. His father, John Shakspeare, was a considerable dealer in wool, and had been an officer and bailiff (probably highbailiff or mayor) of the body corporate of Stratford. He held also the office of justice of the peace; and at one time, it is said, possessed lands and tenements to the amount of £500, the reward of his grandfather's faithful and approved services to King Henry VII. This, however, has been asserted upon very doubtful authority. There is no direct testimony to support it. But whatever may have been his former wealth, it appears to have been greatly reduced in the latter part of his life, as we find, from the books of the Corporation, that, in 1579, he was excused the trifling weekly tax of fourpence levied on all the aldermen; and that, in 1586, another alderman was appointe in his room, in consequence of his declining to attend on the business of that office. It is even said by Aubrey, a man sufficiently accurate in facts, although credulous in superstitious narratives and traditions, that he followed for some time the occupation of a butcher, which Mr. Malone thinks not inconsistent with probability. It must have been, however, at this time, no inconsiderable addition to his difficulties that he had a family of ten children. His wife was the daughter and heiress of Robert Arden of Wellingcote, in the county of Warwick, who is styled "a gentleman of worship." The family of Arden is very ancient, Robert Arden of Bromich, Esq., being in the list of the gentry of this country returned by the commissioners in the twelfth year of King Henry VI., A. D. 1433. Edward Arden was sheriff of the county in 1568. The woodland part of this country was anciently called Ardern, afterwards softened to Arden; and hence the name.
Our illustrious poet was the eldest son, and received his early education, however narrow or liberal, at a free school, probably that founded at Stratford. From this he appears to have been soon removed, and placed, according to Mr Malone's opinion, in the office of some country attorney, or the seneschal of some manor court, where it is highly probable he picked up those technical law phrases that so frequently occur in his plays, and could not have been in common use, unless among professional men. Mr. Capell conjectures, that his early marriage prevented his being sent to some university. It appears, however, as Dr. Farmer observes, that his early life was incompatible with a course of education; and it is certain, that "his contemporaries, friends and foes, nay, and himself likewise, agree in his want of what is usually termed literature." It is, indeed, a strong argument in favour of Shakspeare's illiterature, that it was maintained by all his contemporaries, many of whom have left upon record every merit they could bestow on him; and by his successors, who lived nearest to his time, when "his memory was green ;" and that it has been denied only by Gildon, Sewell, and others down to Upton, who could have no means of ascertaining the truth.
In his eighteenth year, or perhaps a little sooner, he married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years older than himself, the daughter of one Hathaway, who is said to have been a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford. Of his domestic economy, or professional occupation at this time, we have no information; but it would appear that both were in a considerable degree neglected by his associating with a gang of deer-stealers. Being detected with them in robbing the park of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, near Stratford, he was so rigorously prosecuted by that gentleman, as to be obliged to leave his family and business, and take shelter in London. Sir Thomas, on this occasion, is said to have been exasperated by a ballad Shakspeare wrote, probably his first essay in poetry, of which the following stanza was communicated to Mr. Oldys:
A parliemente member, a justice of peace,
At home a poor scare-crowe, at London an asse,
He thinks himself greate,
Yet an asse in his state
We allowe by his ears but with asses to mate.
These lines, it must be confessed, do no great honour to our poet: and probably were unjust; for although some of his admirers have recorded Sir Thomas as a "vain, weak, and vindictive magistrate," he was certainly exerting no very violent act of oppression, in protecting his property against a man who was degrading the commonest rank of life, and had, at this time, bespoke no indulgence by superior talents. The ballad, however, must have made some noise at Sir Thomas's expense, as the author took care it should be affixed to his park gates, and liberally circulated among his neighbours.