He seems never to have sanctioned any publication, or to have read a single proof-sheet. It has become the fashion to say, not without some show of justice, that we know next to nothing of Shakespeare's life. We do not know for certain either when he left Stratford or when he returned to Stratford from London. We do not know for certain whether he ever went abroad, ever visited Italy. We do not know the name of a single woman whom he loved during all his years in London.
We do not know for certain to whom his Sonnets are addressed. We can see that as he advanced in life his prevailing mood became gloomier, but we do not know the reason. Later on, his temper seems to grow more serene, but we cannot tell why. We can form but tentative conjectures as to the order in which his works were produced, and can only with the greatest difficulty determine their approximate dates.
We do not know what made him so careless of his fame as he seems to have been. We only know that he himself did not publish his dramatic works, and that he does not even mention them in his will. On the other hand, enthusiastic and indefatigable research has gradually brought to light a great number of indubitable facts, which furnish us with points of departure and of guidance for an outline of the poet's life.
We possess documents, contracts, legal records; we can cite utterances of contemporaries, allusions to works of Shakespeare's and to passages in them, quotations, fierce attacks, outbursts of spite and hatred, touching testimonies to his worth as a man and to the lovableness of his nature, evidence of the early recognition of his talent as an actor, of his repute as a narrative poet, and of his popularity as a dramatist.
We have, moreover, one or two diaries kept by contemporaries, and among others the account-book of an old theatrical manager and pawnbroker, who supplied the players with money and dresses, and who has carefully dated the production of many plays. To these contemporary evidences we must add that of tradition. In a clergyman named John Ward, Vicar of Stratford, took some notes of information gathered from the inhabitants of the district; and in a Mr.
Dowdall recorded some details which he had learnt from the octogenarian sexton and verger of Stratford Church. But tradition is mainly represented by Rowe, Shakespeare's first tardy biographer. He refers in particular to three sources of information. The earliest is Sir William Davenant, Poet Laureate, who did nothing to discountenance [Pg 4] the rumour which gave him out to be an illegitimate son of Shakespeare. His contributions, however, can have reached Rowe only at second hand, since he died before Rowe was born.
Naturally enough, then, the greater part of what is related on his authority proves to be questionable. Rowe's second source of information was Aubrey, an antiquary after the fashion of his day, who, half a century after Shakespeare's death, visited Stratford on one of his riding-tours. He wrote numerous short biographies, all of which contain gross and demonstrable errors, so that we can scarcely put implicit faith in the insignificant anecdotes about Shakespeare preserved in his manuscript of Rowe's most important source of information, however, is Betterton the actor, who, about , made a journey to Warwickshire for the express purpose of collecting whatever oral traditions with regard to Shakespeare might linger in the district.
His gleanings form the most valuable part of Rowe's biography; contemporary documents subsequently discovered have in several instances lent them curious confirmation. We owe it, then, to a little group of worthy but by no means brilliant men that we are able to sketch the outline of Shakespeare's career. They have preserved for us anecdotes of little worth, even if they are true, while leaving us entirely in the dark as to important points in his outward history, and throwing little or no light upon the course of his inner life.
It is true that we possess in Shakespeare's Sonnets a group of poems which bring us more directly into touch with his personality than any of his other works. But to determine the value of the Sonnets as autobiographical documents requires not only historical knowledge but, critical instinct and tact, since it is by no means self-evident that the poet is, in a literal sense, speaking in his own name. William Shakespeare was a child of the country.
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He was born in Stratford-on-Avon, a little town of fourteen or fifteen hundred inhabitants, lying in a pleasant and undulating tract of country, rich in green meadows and trees and leafy hedges, the natural features of which Shakespeare seems to have had in his mind's eye when he wrote the descriptions of scenery in A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It , and A Winter's Tale. His first and deepest impressions of nature he received from this scenery; and he associated with it his earliest poetical impressions, gathered from the folk-songs of the peasantry, so often alluded to and reproduced in his plays.
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The town of Stratford lies upon the ancient high-road from London to Ireland, which here crosses the river Avon. To this circumstance it owes its name Street-ford. A handsome bridge spanned the river. The picturesque houses, with their gable-roofs, were either wooden or frame-built. There were two handsome public buildings, which still remain: the fine old church close to the river, and the Guildhall, with its chapel and Grammar School. In the chapel, which possessed a pleasant peal of bells, there was a set of frescoes—probably the first and for long the only paintings known to Shakespeare.
For the rest, Stratford-on-Avon was an insanitary place of residence. There was no sort of underground drainage, and street-sweepers and scavengers were unknown. The waste water from the houses flowed out into badly kept gutters; the streets were full of evil-smelling pools, in which pigs and geese freely disported themselves; and dunghills skirted the highway.
The first thing we learn about Shakespeare's father is that, in April , he was fined twelvepence for having formed a great midden outside his house in Henley Street—a circumstance which on the one hand proves that he kept sheep and cattle, and on the other indicates his scant care for cleanliness, since the common dunghill lay only a stone's-throw from his house.
At the time of his highest prosperity, in , he, along with some other citizens, is again fined fourpence for the same misdemeanour. The matter is not without interest, since it is in all probability to [Pg 6] these defects of sanitation that Shakespeare's early death is to be ascribed. Both on his father's and his mother's side, the poet was descended from yeoman families of Warwickshire. His grandfather, Richard Shakespeare, lived at Snitterfield, where he rented a small property.
Richard's second son, John Shakespeare, removed to Stratford about , and went into business in Henley Street as a tanner and glover. In the year his circumstances were considerably improved by his marriage with Mary Arden, the youngest daughter of Robert Arden, a well-to-do yeoman in the neighbourhood, who had died a few months before. On his death she had inherited his property of Asbies at Wilmecote; and she had, besides, a reversionary interest in a larger property at Snitterfield.
Shakespeare's theater troupe was a favorite of Elizabeth I's
Garments of linen they do not seem to have possessed. The eating utensils were of no value: wooden spoons and wooden platters. Yet the home of Shakespeare's mother was, according to the standard of that day, distinctly well-to-do. His marriage enabled John Shakespeare to extend his business. He had large transactions in wool, and also dealt, as occasion offered, in corn and other commodities. Aubrey's statement that he was a butcher seems to mean no more than that he himself fattened and killed the animals whose skins he used in his trade.
But in those days the different occupations in a small English country town were not at all strictly discriminated; the man who produced the raw material would generally work it up as well. John Shakespeare gradually rose to an influential position the little town in which he had settled. He first in became one of the ale-tasters, sworn to look to the quality of bread and beer; in the following year he was one of the four "petty constables" of the town. In he was Chamberlain, in Alderman, and finally, in , High Bailiff.
William Shakespeare was his parents' third child. Two sisters, who died in infancy, preceded him.
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He was baptized on the 26th of April ; we do not know his birthday precisely. Neither of Shakespeare's parents possessed any school education; neither of them seems to have been able to write his or her own name. They desired, however, that their eldest son should [Pg 7] not lack the education they themselves had been denied, and therefore sent the boy to the Free School or Grammar School of Stratford, where children from the age of seven upwards were grounded in Latin grammar, learned to construe out of a schoolbook called Sententice Pueriles , and afterwards read Ovid, Virgil, and Cicero.
The school-hours, both in summer and winter, occupied the whole day, with the necessary intervals for meals and recreation. An obvious reminiscence of Shakespeare's schooldays is preserved for us in The Merry Wives of Windsor iv. It even appears that his teacher was in fact a Welshman. The district in which the child grew up was rich in historical memories and monuments. Warwick, with its castle, renowned since the Wars of the Roses, was in the immediate neighbourhood. It had been the residence, in his day, of the Earl of Warwick who distinguished himself at the battle of Shrewsbury and negotiated the marriage of Henry V.
The district was, however, divided during the Wars of the Roses. Warwick for some time sided with York, Coventry with Lancaster. With Coventry, too, a town rich in memories of the period which he was afterwards to summon to life on the stage Shakespeare must have been acquainted in his boyhood.
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It was in Coventry that the two adversaries who appear in his Richard II. But in another respect as well Coventry must have had great attractions for the boy. It was the scene of regular theatrical representations, which, at first organised by the Church, afterwards passed into the hands of the guilds. Of royal and princely splendour Shakespeare had probably certain glimpses even in his childhood.
When he was eight years old Elizabeth paid a visit to Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, in the immediate neighbourhood of Stratford—the Sir Thomas Lucy who was to have such a determining influence upon Shakespeare's career. In any case, he must doubtless have visited the neighbouring castle of Kenilworth, and seen something of the great festivities organised by Leicester in Elizabeth's honour, during her visit to the castle in The town of Stratford showed a marked taste for secular theatricals. The first travelling company of players came to Stratford in the year when Shakespeare's father was High Bailiff, and between and no fewer than twenty-four strolling troupes visited the town.
Custom directed that they should first wait upon the High Bailiff to inform him in what nobleman's service they were enrolled; and their first performance took place before the Town Council alone. A writer named Willis, born in the same year as Shakespeare, has described how he was present at such a representation in the neighbouring town of Gloucester, standing between his father's knees; and we can thus picture to ourselves the way in which the glories of the theatre were for the first time revealed to the future poet.
As a boy and youth, then, he no doubt had opportunities of making himself familiar with the bulk of the old English repertory, partly composed of such pieces as he afterwards ridicules—for instance, the Cambyses , whose rant Falstaff parodies—partly of pieces which subsequently became the foundation of his own plays, such as The Supposes , which he used in The Taming of the Shrew , or The Troublesome Raigne of King John , or the Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth , which supplied some of the material for his Henry IV.
Probably Shakespeare, as a boy and youth, was not content with seeing the performances, but sought out the players in the different taverns where they took up their quarters, the "Swan," the "Crown," or the "Bear. The school course was generally over when a boy reached his fourteenth year. It appears that when Shakespeare was at this age his father removed him from the school, having need of him in his business.
His father's prosperity was by this time on the wane. In the same year the Town Council agrees that he shall be required to pay only one-half of a tax 6s. In the following year he cannot pay even his half of the pikemen-tax. In [Pg 9] he sold the reversion of a piece of land falling to him on his mother-in-law's death. In the following year he wanted to pay off the mortgage on Asbies; but the mortgagee, a certain Edmund Lambert, declined to receive the money, for the reason, or under the pretext, that it had not been tendered within the stipulated time, and that Shakespeare had, moreover, borrowed other sums of him.
In the course of the consequent lawsuit, John Shakespeare described himself as a person of "small wealthe, and verey fewe frends and alyance in the countie. And this utterance of the chief character in the Induction is, significantly enough, one of the few which Shakespeare added to the Induction to the old play he was here adapting. From this time forward John Shakespeare's position goes from bad to worse. In the year , when his son was probably already in London, his goods are distrained upon, and no fewer than three warrants are issued for his arrest; he seems for a time to have been imprisoned for debt.
He is removed from his position as Alderman because he has not for a long time attended the meetings at the Guildhall. He probably dared not put in an appearance for fear of being arrested by his creditors.