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The name of Shakspeare, which is mentioned by Verstegan, among those “syrnames imposed upon the first bearers of them for valour and feats of arms," is one of great antiquity in the woodland districts of Warwickshire. The family, thus honorably distinguished, appears to have received its origin either at Rowington or Lapworth. Long before the genius of our great dramatic poet had rendered their name a subject of national interest, the Shakspeares were established among the more affluent inhabitants of those villages, and thence several individuals of the race, from time to time, removed, and became settlers in the principal places of the country.
After the most indefatigable researches, Malone found himself unable to trace the particular branch of the family from which Shakspeare himself descended, beyond his immediate ancestor; but it is mentioned by Rowe, as being “ of good figure and fashion," in the town of Stratforil. This statement is supported by the authority of a document, preserved in the College of Heralds, conferring the grant of a coat of arms on John Shakspeare, the father of the poet, in which the title of gentleman is added to his denomination; and it is stated, that "his great grandfather had been rewarded by King Henry the Seventh, for his faithful and approved services, with lands and tenements given him in those parts of Warwickshire, where they have continued by gome descents in good reputation and credit.”
If Shakspeare's father inherited any portion of the estate which the royal munificence had thus conferred on his ances. tor, it was insufficient for his wants; and he was obliged to have recourse to trade to increase the narrow measure of his patrimony. The traditional accounts that have been received respecting him are consistent in describing him as engaged in business, though they disagree in the nature of the employment which they ascribe to him. In the MS. notes which Aubrey had collected for a life of the poet, it is affirmed, that “his father was a butcher ;” while, on the other hand, it is stated by Rowe that he was “a considerable dealer in wool.” The truth of the latter report it is scarcely possible to doubt. It was received from Betterton the player, whose veneration for the poet induced him to make a pilgrimage to Warwickshire, that he might collect all the information respecting the object of his enthusiasm which remained among his townsmen, at a time when such prominent facts as the circumstances and avocation of his parents could not yet have sunk into oblivion. It is, indeed, not improbable that both these accounts may be correct. “Few occupations," observes Malone, can be named which are more naturally connected with each other." Dr. Farmer has shown that the two trades were occasionally united : or if they were not thus exercised together by the poet's father, his having adopted them separately at different periods of his life, is not inconsistent with the changeful character of his circumstances. The new notion of John Shakspeare's having been a glover, which has been advanced in Malone's last edition of our author's works, I have no hesitation in dismissing. It is neither supported by tradition, nor probability; and the brief minute which the laborious editor discovered in the bailiff's court at Stratford, must have referred to some other of the innumerable John Shakspeares, whom we find mentioned in the wills and registers of the time.
The father of Shakspeare married, probably about the year 1555 or 1556, Mary the daughter of Robert Arden, of Willingcote, in the county of Warwick; by which connexion he obtained a small estate in land, some property in money, and such accession of respectability as is derived from an equal and honorable alliance. The family of Mary Arden, like his own, was one of great antiquity in the country, and her an. cestors also had been rewarded for their faithful and important services by the gratitude of Henry the Seventh. The third child, and the eldest son of this union, was the celebrated subject of the present memoirs.
WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE was born on the 23d of April, 1584, and baptized on the 26th of the same month.
At the time of the birth of his illustrious offspring, John Shakspeare evidently enjoyed no slight degree of estimation among his townsmen. He was already a member of the corporation, and for two successive years had been nominated one of the chamberlains of Stratford. From this time he began to be chosen in due succession to the highest municipal offices of the borough. In 1569, he was appointed to discharge the important duties ef high bailiff; and was subsequently elected and sworn chief alderman for the year 1571.
During this period of his life, which constitutes the poet's years of childhood, the fortune of Master John Shakspeare — for so he is uniformly designated in the public writings of the borough, from the time of his acting as high bailiff — perfectly corresponded with the station which we find him holding among his townsmen. His charities rank him with the second class of the inhabitants of Stratford. In a subscription for the relief of the poor, 1564, out of twenty-four persons, twelve gave more, six the same, and six less, than the poet's father; and in a second subscription, of fourteen persons, eight gave more, five the same, and one less. So early as 1556, he held the lease of two houses in the town, one in Green Hill, and the other in Henley street; in 1570 he rented fourteen acres of land, called Ington Meadow; and we find him four years afterwards becoming the purchaser of two additional houses in Henley street, with a garden and orchard attached to each.
In this season of prosperity, Mr. John Shakspeare was not careless of the abilities of his child. His own talents had been wholly unimproved by education, and he was one of the twelve, out of the nineteen aldermen of Stratford, whose accomplishments did not extend to being able to sign their own names. This circumstance, by the bye, most satisfacto. rily establishes the fact, that he could not have written the confession of faith which was found in repairing the roof of his residence at Stratford. But, whatever were his own deficiencies, he was careful that the talents of his son should not suffer from a similar neglect of education. William was placed at the Free School of Stratford: it is not uninteresting to know the names of the instructors of Shakspeare. They have been traced by the minute researches of Malone. Mr. Thomas Hunt, and Mr. Thomas Jenkins, were successively the masters of the school, from 1572 to 1580, which must have included the school-boy days of our poet.
At this time, Shakspeare would have possessed ample means of obtaining access to all those books of history, poetry, and romance, with which he seems to have had so intimate an acquaintance, and which were calculated to attract his early taste, and excite the admiration of his young and ardent fancy; and he might also thus early have become imbued with a taste for the drama, by attending the performances of the different companies of players, the comedians of the Queen, of the Earl of Worcester, of Lord Leicester, and of other noblemen, who were continually making the Guildhall of Stratford the scene of their representations, But he was soon called to other cares, and the discharge of more serious duties. The prosperity of his father was not of permanent duration. In 1578, Mr. John Shakspeare mortgaged the estate which he had received from his wife; in the following year he was exempted from the contribution of four-pence a week for the poor, which was paid by the other aldermen; and that this exception in his favor was made in consequence of the pecuniary embarrassments under which he was known to labor, is manifest from his having been at the same period reduced to the necessity of obtaining Mr. Lambert's security for the payment of a debt of five pounds, to Sadler, a baker. This depression of his circumstances is alluded to by Rowe, and attributed to the expenses incidental to a large and increasing family; but in this statement, the real cause of his difficulties is mistaken. It has been ascertained, by the diligence of Malone, that the family of Shakspeare's father was by no means numerous ; for of his eight children, five only attained to the age of maturity. The decay of his affairs was the natural consequence of the de cline of the branch of trade in which he was engaged. As a wool-stapler, Mr. John Shakspeare had flourished as long as the business itself was prosperous; and with its failure, his fortunes had fallen into decay. He became involved in the gradual ruin which fell on the principal trade of the place, and which, in 1590, drew from the bailiff and burgesses of Stratford, a supplication to the Lord Treasurer Burghley, lamenting the distresses of the town; “ for want of such trade as heretofore they had by clothinge, and making of yarne, ymploying and mayntayninge a number of poore people by the same, which now live in great penury and miserie, by reason they are not set at worke, as before they have been.”
In this unfavorable state of the affairs of his family, Shakspeare was withdrawn from school ; "his assistance was wanted at home.” It was, I should imagine, at this juncture, that his father, no longer able to secure a respectable subsistence for his wife and children, by his original trade as a wool-stapler, had recourse to the inferior occupation of a butcher; and, if the tale be founded in fact, which Aubrey says “ he was told heretofore by some of his neighbours," then it must have been, that Shakspeare began to exhibit his dramatic propensities, and “when he killed a calfe, would do it in a high style, and make a speech.”
The assistance, however, which the poet rendered his father in his business, was not of long duration. He had just attained the age of eighteen, when he was married. The object of this early attachment was Anne, the daughter of Richard Hathaway, a substantial yeoman, in the neighborhood of his native town. She was eight years older than her husband; and Oldys, without stating his authority, in one of his MSS. mentions her as beautiful. It may be feared that this marriage was not perfectly happy. From the celebrated passage in Twelfth Night, concluding with
“ Then let thy love be younger than thyself,
Or thy affection cannot hold the bent,” we may suspect that Shakspeare, at the time of writing this,