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SHAKESPEARE'S LIFE AND WORKS
William Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest writer who ever lived, was born in 1564, about a lifetime after the discovery of America, and died in 1616, four years before our Pilgrim Fathers landed on Plymouth Rock. We do not know the exact day of his birth; but it must have been in the latter part of April, for he was baptized on the twenty-sixth of that month, and in those times children usually received baptism when only a few days old. There is a tradition that he died on his birthday; if that is true, he was born on April twenty-third.
He was a country boy. Stratford-on-Avon, his native place, is a prosperous little town among the hills of central England. It lies in a wide valley, through which runs the beautiful river Avon. There are hints in the poet's later writings that, while roaming here as a child he had learned to observe birds and flowers, and had developed that wide-awake eye, that habit of noticing things, which is the best of all educations.
His father, John Shakespeare, had little learning but a good amount of natural ability. He was a
merrycheeked old man,
we are told, and one who did not fear to crack a joke with his famous son. During the poet's early boyhood John Shakespeare was a well-to-do business man, and head alderman or chief official of the borough of Stratford. But while William was still a mere boy, his father met with financial reverses which left him in comparative poverty.
There was a grammar school at Stratford; and here young Shakespeare must have learned some Latin, and perhaps a little Greek, as these studies were more generally required at that time than they are now. English was not taught in those days; and the future master of our language never had a chance to startle his teachers by his mastery of our mother tongue in some juvenile essay. Whatever he learned at school, his education, if we may believe tradition, was left unfinished. Apparently, his father's misfortunes compelled him to leave school when he was not more than sixteen; and the only education which he had afterward was the one gained in the great class-room of life.
However, we must never for this reason think of the mature Shakespeare as an uneducated man. Just the contrary is true, as his writings show. He had within himself that which took the place of a college training, the natural power to learn. All his lifetime he was learning, learning from the books he read, learning from the men he met, remembering all that he learned, and thinking out new ideas about all that he remembered. For this reason the education of the mature Shakespeare was both wide and deep, the finest, most practical kind of an education, which finds something in books that gives a new interest to real life, and something in real life that adds a new interest to books. He must have included in his wide range books by Greek, Latin, French, and Italian writers, as well as English.
At sixteen or earlier, as we have said, young William left school. At eighteen he married. His wife was the daughter of a poor farmer who lived about a mile from Stratford. Her name was Anne Hathaway, and she was eight years older than her bridegroom. We have some reason for believing that Shakespeare, like most young men who marry before they are old enough to know their own minds, was not wholly happy in his wedded life. Anne Hathaway may have loved him; but she could hardly have been the woman whom he would have chosen had he waited. Three children were born to them, two daughters and a son. Then Shakespeare went to London, and apparently saw his family only at rare intervals for
No record tells us just when or why the poet took this journey to London. It is usually assumed that he went in his twenty-third or twenty-fourth year. One reason for his departure may have been that he had incurred the ill-will of a neighboring gentleman, Sir Thomas Lucy, whose deer-park he is said to have invaded in a spirit of boyish adventure. Besides this, he would naturally feel that a man of his gifts could accomplish more in a great city, full of literary people and literary activity, than he ever could in a quiet midland town. It was the old story of a brilliant, quick-witted country boy going out to make his way in the world.
Mystery covers the first few years of his life in the