Page images
PDF
EPUB

pregnancy, which was productive of twins (Hamnet and Judith, baptized on the 2d of February, 1584–5), terminated her pride as a mother; and we know nothing more respecting her, than that, surviving her illustrious consort by rather more than seven years, she was buried on the 8th of August, 1623, being, as we are told by the inscription on her tomb, of the age of sixty-seven. Respecting the habits of life, or the occupation of our young Poet by which he obtained his subsistence, or even the place of his residence, subsequently to his marriage, not a floating syllable has been wafted to us by tradition for the gratification of our curiosity; and the history of this great man is a perfect blank till the occurrence of an event, which drove him from his native town, and gave his wonderful intellect to break out in its full lustre on the world. From the frequent allusions in his writings to the elegant sport of falconry, it has been suggested that this, possibly, might be one of his favorite amusements; and nothing can be more probable, from the active season of his life, and his fixed habitation in the country, than his strong and eager passion for all the pleasures of the field. As a sportsman, in his rank of life, he would naturally become a poacher; and then it is highly probable that he would fall into the acquaintance of poachers, and, associating with them in his idler hours, would occasionally be one of their fellow-marauders on the manors of their rich neighbors. In one of these licentious excursions on the grounds of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, in the immediate vicinity of Stratford, for the purpose, as it is said, of stealing his deer, our young Bard was detected; and, having farther irritated the knight by affixing a satirical ballad on him to the gates of Charlecote, he was compelled to fly before the enmity of his powerful adversary, and to seek an asylum in the capital. Malone, who is prone to doubt, wishes to question the truth of this whole narrative, and to ascribe the flight of young Shakspeare from his native country to the embarrassment of his circumstances, and the cution of his creditors. But the story of the deer-stealing rests upon the uniform tradition of Stratford, and is confirmed by the character of Sir T. Lucy, who is known to have been a rigid preserver of his game; by the enmity displayed against his memory by Shakspeare in his succeeding life; and by a part of the offensive

perse

ballad* itself, preserved by. a Mr. Jones of Tarbick, a village near to Stratford, who obtained it from those who must have been acquainted with the fact, and who could not be biased by any interest or passion to falsify or misstate it. Besides, the objector, in this instance, seems not to be aware that it was easier to escape from the resentment of an offended proprietor of game, than from the avarice of a creditor; that, whilst the former might be satisfied with the removal of the delinquent to a situation where he could no longer infest his parks or his warrens, the latter would pursue his debtor wherever bailiffs could find and writs could attach him. On every account, therefore, I believe the tradition, recorded by Rowe, that our Poet retired from Stratford before the exasperated power of Sir T. Lucy, and found a refuge in London, not possibly beyond the reach of the arm, but beyond the hostile purposes of his provincial antagonist.

The time of this eventful flight of the great Bard of England cannot now be accurately determined; but we may somewhat confidently place it between the years 1585 and 1588 ; for in the former of these we may conclude him to have been present with his family at the baptism of his twins, Hamnet and Judith; and than the latter of them we cannot well assign a later date for his arrival in London, since we know that before 1592 he had not only written two long poems, the Venus and Adonis, and the Rape of Lucrece, but had acquired no small degree of celebrity as an actor and as a dramatic writer. At this agitating crisis of his life, the situation of

Shakspeare was certainly, in its obvious aspect, severe and even terrific. Without friends to protect or assist him, he was driven, under the frown of exasperated power, from his profession; from his native fields; from the companions of his childhood and his youth; from his wife and his infant offspring. The world was spread before him, like a dark ocean, in which no fortunate isle could be seen to glitter amid the gloomy and sullen tide. But he was blessed with youth and health ; his conscience was unwounded, for the adventure for which he suffered, was regarded, in the estimation of his times, as a mere boy's frolic, of not greater guilt than the robbing of an orchard; and his mind, rich beyond example in the gold of heaven, could throw lustre over the black waste before him, and could people it with a beautiful creation of her own. We may imagine him, then, departing from his home, not indeed like the great Roman captive, as he is described by the poet

young

* The first stanza of this ballad, which is admitted to be genuine, may properly be preserved as a curiosity. But as it is to be found in every life of our author, with the exception of Rowe's, I shall refer my readers, to whom it could not be gratifying, to some other page for it than my own.

† From Robert Greene's posthumous work, written in 1592, and Chettle's Kind Hart' Dream, published very soon afterwards.

Fertur pudicæ conjugis osculum,
Parvosque natos, ut capitis minor,
Ab se removisse,

et virilem
Torvus humi posuisse, vultum, &c.--

It was

but touched with some feelings of natural sorrow, yet with an unfaltering step, and with hope vigorous at his heart. impossible that he should despair; and if he indulged in sanguine expectation, the event proved him not to be a visionary. In the course of a few years, the exile of Stratford became the associate of wits, the friend of nobles, the favorite of monarchs; and in a period which still left him not in sight of old age, he returned to his birthplace in affluence, with honor, and with the plaudits of the judicious and the noble resounding in his ears.

His immediate refuge in the metropolis was the stage; to which his access, as it appears, was easy. Stratford was fond of theatrical representations, which it accommodated with its town or guildhall, and had frequently been visited by companies of players when our Poet was of an age not only to enjoy their performances, but to form an acquaintance with their members. Thomas Greene, who was one of their distinguished actors, has been considered by some writers as a kinsman of our author's; and though he, possibly, may have been confounded by them with another Thomas Greene, a barrister, who was unquestionably connected with the Shakspeares, he was certainly a fellow-townsman of our fugitive Bard's; whilst Heminge and Burbage, two of the leaders of the company in question, belonged either to Stratford or to its immediate neighborhood. With the door of the theatre thus open to him, and under the impulse of his own theatrical bias (for however in after-life he may have lamented his degradation as a professional actor, it must be concluded that he now felt a strong attachment to the stage), it is not wonderful that young Shakspeare should solicit this asylum in his distress; or that he should be kindly received by men who knew him, and some of whom were connected, if not with his family, at least with his native town. The company, to which he united himself, was the Earl of Leicester's or the Queen's, which had obtained the royal license in 1574. The place of its performances, when our Poet became enrolled among its members, was the Globe on the Bankside ; and its managers subsequently purchased the theatre of Blackfriars (the oldest theatre in London), which they had previously rented for some years; and at these two theatres, the first of which was open in the centre for summer representations, and the last covered for those of winter, were acted all the dramatic productions of Shakspeare. That he was at first received into the company in a very subordinate situation, may be regarded not merely as probable, but as certain ; that he ever carried a link to light the frequenters of the theatre, or ever held their horses, must be rejected as an absurd tale, fabricated, no doubt, by the lovers of the marvellous, who were solicitous to obtain a contrast in the humility of his first to the pride of his subsequent fortunes. The mean and servile occupation, thus assigned to him, was incompatible with his circumstances, even in their present afflicted state; and his relations and connections, though far from wealthy, were yet too remote from absolute poverty, to permit him to act for a moment in such a degrading situation. He was certainly, therefore, immediately admitted within the theatre ; but in what rank or character cannot now be known. This fact, however, soon became of very little consequence; for he speedily raised himself into consideration among his new fellows by the exertions of his pen, if not by his proficiency as an actor. When he began his career as a dramatic writer, or to what degree of excellence he attained in his personation of dramatic characters, are questions which have been frequently agitated without any satisfactory result. By two publications, which appeared toward the end of 1592, we know, or at least we are induced strongly to infer, that at that period, either as the corrector of old or as the writer of original dramas, he had supplied the stage with a copiousness of materials. We learn also from the same documents that, in his profession of actor, he trod the boards not without the acquisition of applause. The two publications, to which I allude, are Robert Greene's “ Groatsworth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance," and Henry Chettle's “ Kind Hart's Dream.” In the former of these works, which was published by Chettle subsequently to the unhappy author's decease, the writer, addressing his fellow dramatists, Marlowe, Peele, and Lodge, says,

“ Yes ! trust them not” (the managers of the theatre); “ for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.” As it could not be doubtful against whom this attack was directed, we cannot wonder that Shakspeare should be hurt by it; or that he should expostulate on the occasion rather warmly with Chettle as the editor of the offensive matter. In consequence, as it is probable, of this expression of resentment on the part of Shakspeare, a pamphlet from the pen of Chettle, called “Kind Hart's Dream,” issued from the press before the close of the same year (1592) which had witnessed the publication of Greene's posthumous work. In this pamphlet, Chettle acknowledges his concern for having edited any thing which had given pain to Shakspeare, of whose character and accomplishments he avows a very favorable opinion. Marlowe, as well as Shakspeare, appears to have been offended by some passages in this production of poor Greene's; and to both of these great dramatic poets Chettle refers in the short citation which we shall now make from his page :

“ With neither of them that take offence was I acquainted, and with one of them” (concluded to be Marlowe, whose moral character was unhappily not good) “I care not if I never be. The other" (who must necessarily be Shakspeare), “whom at that time I did not so much spare as since I wish I had; for that, as I have moderated the hate of living authors, and might have used my own discretion (especially in such a case, the author being dead), that I did not, I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault; because myself have seen his demeanor no less civil than he is excellent in the quality he professes. Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty; and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art."

« PreviousContinue »