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SHAKSPEARE AND HIS TIMES.
SHAKSPEARE IN RETIREMENT.
ANECDOTES RELATIVE TO SHAKSPEARE, DURING HIS RETIREMENT AT STRATFORD.
Yes, high in reputation as a poet, favoured by the great and accomplished, and beloved by all who knew him, Shakspeare, after a long residence in the capital, to the rational pleasures of which he had contributed more than any other individual of his age, at length sought for leisure and repose on the banks of his native stream : perhaps wisely considering, that, as he had acquired a competency adequate to the gratifications of a well-regulated mind; life had other duties to perform, to the discharge of which, while health and vigour should remain, he was now called upon to dedicate a larger portion of his time.
The Genius of dramatic poetry may sigh over a determination thus early taken ! but who shall blame what, from our knowledge of the man, we may justly conceive to have been his predominating motive, the hope that in the bosom of rural peace, aloof from the dissipations and seductions of the stage, he might the better prepare for that event which awaits us all, and which talents, such as his were, can only, from the magnitude of the trust, render more awfully responsible.
That he was greatly honoured and respected at Stratford, we are induced to credit, not only from tradition, but from the tone and disposition of heart and intellect which his works every-where evince; and accordingly, Rowe has told us, that “ his pleasurable wit and good-nature engaged him in the acquaintance, and entitled him to the friendship of the gentlemen of the neighbourhood.” *
He had scarcely, however, settled in the place, when his property, and that of all his neighbours, was threatened with utter extinction ; for, on the 9th of July, 1614, a fire broke out in the town, which according to a brief shortly afterwards granted for its relief, “ within the space of lesse than two houres consumed and burnt fifty and fowre Dwelling Howses, many of them being very faire Houses, besides Barnes, Stables, and other Howses of Office, together with great Store of Corne, Hay, Straw, Wood and Timber therein, amounting to the value of Eight Thowsand Pounds and upwards: the force of which fier was so great (the Wind sitting full upon the Towne) that it dispersed into so many places thereof, whereby the whole Towne was in very great danger to have beene utterly consumed.” † Shakspeare's house fortunately escaped.
On the 10th of July, 1614, our poet was deprived of his neighbour and acquaintance Mr. John Combe, a character whose celebrity is altogether founded on the epitaph which Shakspeare is said to have 'written
upon him. The story, however, as related by Rowe, is injurious to the memory of its supposed author, by representing him as wantonly inflicting pain at the moment when his friendship and forbearance were most required. “ In a pleasant conversation amongst their common friends,” relates Rowe, “ Mr. Combe told Shakspeare, in a laughing manner, that he fancied he intended to write his epitaph, if he happened to out-live him; and since he could not know what might be said of him when he was dead, he desired it might be done immediately ; upon which Shakspeare gave him these four
* Reed's Shakspeare, vol. i. pp. 74–76. + Wheler's History and Antiquities of Stratford, p. 15.
· Ten in the hundred lies here engrav’d;
But the sharpness of the satire is said to have stung the man so severely, that he never forgave it.” *
That Shakspeare, the gentle and unoffending Shakspeare as he is always represented, should have violated the hour of confidential gaiety by this sarcastic and condemnatory sally, is of itself sufficiently improbable; but we are happily released from weighing the inconsistencies accompanying such an anecdote, by the discovery of a prior and more authentic statement, which completely exonerates the bard, as it proves that the epitaph in question was written after the death of its object : 6 One time as he (Shakspeare) was at the taverne at Stratford,” narrates Aubrey, 6 Mr. Combes, an old usurer, was to be buried; he makes then this extemporary epitaph upon
Ten in the hundred the devill allowes,
Mr. Combe, who, it appears, was buried two days after his decease, was by no means a popular character, having amassed considerable wealth, through the medium of usury, a term then uniformly applied to the practice of all who took any interest or usance for
interest or usance for money. The custom, though now honourable and familiar, was then deemed so odious, and even criminal, that to be a money-lender, on such a plan, was considered as an indelible reproach.
* Reed's Shakspeare, vol. i. pp. 78–80.
On the 12th of July, 1614.–See Reed's Shakspeare, vol. i. p. 82.
That Shakspeare, therefore, though intimate with the family, should, after the death of Mr. Combe, have uttered this impromptu (which the reader will observe is in Aubrey, without the condemnatory clause) as a censure on his well-known rapacity, may, without any charge of undue severity on his part, or even any breach of his customary suavity of temper, readily be granted.
It is certain that he continued on good terms with the relatives of the deceased, as in his Will he bequeaths to Mr. Thomas Combe, the nephew of the usurer, his sword, as a token of remembrance.
Nor is this the only epitaph which Shakspeare is said to have written ; two others have been ascribed to him, one of which, as being given on the authority of Sir William Dugdale, a testimony,” observes Mr. Malone,” sufficient to ascertain its authenticity,” and possessing besides strong internal marks of being genuine, requires admission into our text.
It is written in commemoration of Sir Thomas Stanley, Knight, who died some time after the year 1600, and is thus described by Sir William :
“ On the north side of the chancell (of Tongue church, in the county of Salop) stands a very stately tombe, supported with Corinthian columnes. It hath two figures of men in armour, thereon lying, the one below the arches and columnes, and the other above them, and this epitaph upon it :
“ • Thomas Stanley, Knight, second son of Edward Earle of Derby, Lord Stanley and Strange, descended from the famielie of the Stanleys, married Margaret Vernon of Nether-Hadden, in the county of Derby, Knight, by whom he had issue two sons, Henry and Edward. Henry died an infant ; Edward survived, to whom those lordships descended; and married the lady Lucie Percie, second daughter of the Earle of Northumberland: by her he had issue seaven daughters. She and her foure daughters, Arabella, Marie, Alice, and Priscilla, are interred under a monument in the church of Waltham, in the county of Essex. Thomas her son, died in his infancy, and is buried in the
parish church of Winwich in the county of Lancaster. The other three, Petronilla, Frances, and Venesia, are yet living.'
“ These following verses were made by William SHAKSPEARE, the late famous tragedian :
“ Written upon the east ende of this tombe.
“ Written upon the west ende thereof.
Nor skye-aspiring pyramids our name.
It has been well remarked by Mr. Malone, that the fifth and last lines of this epitaph “bear very strong marks of the hand of Shakspeare."
* “ Preserved,” says Mr. Malone, “ in a collection of Epitaphs, at the end of the Visitation of Salop, taken by Sir William Dugdale in the year 1664, now remaining in the College of Arms, chap. xxxv. fol. 20.; a transcript of which Sir Isaac Heard, Garter Principal King at Arms, has obligingly transmitted to me.” — Reed's Shakspeare, vol. i. p. 90.
The other epitaph alluded to in the text, is from “ a Manuscript volume of Poems by William Herrick and others, in the hand-writing of the time of Charles I., among Rawlinson's Collections in the Bodleian Library.
Elias James to nature pay’d his debt,
WM. SHAKSPEARE. It appears from Mr. Malone's researches, that the James's were a family living at Stratford both during and after our poet's time. Vide Reed's Shakspearc, vol. i. p. 90.