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WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE, the glory of his age and of his country, was born at Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire, April 23, 1564. In the public records of that town, his family are mentioned as persons of the rank of gentry. His father, John Shakspeare, who was a considerable dealer in wool, being encumbered with a family of ten children, could afford to give his eldest son only a slender education. He had bred him at a free-school, where he acquired a smattering of Latin; but by the narrowness of his circumstances he was compelled to take him home, and thus deprived him of all farther advantage from scholastic instruction. Upon this, he entirely devoted himself to his father's business; and, with a view of settling in the world, married while he was yet very young. His wife was the daughter of one Hatherway, said to have been a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford.
In this state of domestic obscurity he continued, till misconduct obliged him to take shelter in London. He had the misfortune to fall into bad company. Among these were some, who made a fre
quent practice of deer-stealing, and who engaged him more than once in robbing the park of Sir Thomas Lucy,* of Charlecot near Stratford. He was in consequence treated by that gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and, in order to revenge himself for his supposed ill-usage, he made a ballad upon him. This, probably the first essay of his poetry, is lost; but it is said to have been so extremely bitter, that it redoubled the persecution against him, and drove him from his business and his family to the metropolis.
On arriving in London, without money and without friends, he knew not by what means to support himself. At that time, coaches not being in use, gentlemen were accustomed to ride to the playhouse. Driven to the last necessity, Shakspeare (it is said) attended at the door, and earned a poor subsistence by holding the horses of the audience. Even in that humble station, he was noticed for his extraordinary diligence and punctuality, got speedily more business than he could manage, and was compelled to hire young assistants, who were known long afterward by the name of Shakspeare's boys.'
Some of the players, accidentally conversing with him, and finding him possessed of a fund of dramatic talent, introduced him to the company; into whose society he was admitted, though at first in a very humble line of acting, † and upon very low terms.
* This Sir Thomas Lucy was, it is said, afterward ridiculed by Shakspeare, under the character of Justice Shallow.
His name is printed (according to the custom of the times) among those of the other players, before some old plays, but without any statement of what characters he sustained; and from the most diligent researches it appears, that his most con
He quickly, however, distinguished himself, if not as an extraordinary actor, as a fine writer.
It would undoubtedly be curious to ascertain, from proper authorities, the first essay of his genius, that it might be traced through it's gradual progressions to the summit of perfection which it finally attained. But here, likewise, we are left in the dark.*
Beside the advantage which Shakspeare possessed over all men in the article of wit, he was of a gentle and amiable disposition, and was a most agreeable companion. By these qualities, he was introduced into the best company of his time.
Queen Elizabeth † had several of his plays acted before her; and with the admirable character of Falstaff, in the two parts of Henry IV.'‡ she was
siderable part was that of the Ghost, in his own 'Hamlet.' While he was in this situation, he had an opportunity of serving Ben Jonson, by introducing one of his first pieces upon the stage. His taking a part in it himself might be a more equivocal benefit: but there could be no doubt of the advantages, which would accrue from his literary aid. And Jonson repaid him by his farewell panegyric.
Romeo and Juliet' (his earliest production, according to Rowe) was written in 1597, when the author was thirty-three years old; and Richard II., and Richard III., the next year. It is assuredly this maiden princess, whom he describes as A fair vestal, throned by the west. (Midsummer Night's Dream.)
From the epilogue to this play it appears, that the part of Falstaff was written originally under the name of Oldcastle. Some of that family, however, being then remaining, the Queen commanded him to alter it: but the author was, perhaps, not wholly free from blame in the name, which he substituted; as it is certain, that Sir John Falstaff (or Fastolf), a Knight of the Garter and a Lieutenant-General, was a person of distinguished merit in the French wars under Henry V. and Henry VI.
so highly delighted, that she commanded him to continue it through an additional drama, and to exhibit the witty knight in love. This is said to have been the occasion of his writing the Merry Wives of Windsor.'
Beside the royal patronage, Shakspeare received many considerable favours from the Earl of Southampton, a nobleman celebrated in history from his connexion with the unfortunate Earl of Essex. To him he dedicated his poem of Venus and Adonis ;' and he received from him, it is said, a present of a thousand pounds to enable him to accomplish a favourite purchase. There are few instances of such liberality in later times!
We have no positive account, when Shakspeare quitted the stage for a private life. Some have imagined that Spenser's Thalia, in the Tears of the Muses,' where she laments the loss of her Willy in the comic scene, refers to this event. But Spenser, it is well known, died in the year 1598: and Shakspeare's name is to be found among the actors in Ben Jonson's Sejanus,' which made it's appearance in 1603; nor could he then indeed have had any thoughts of retiring, since that very year a licence by James I. was granted to him with Burbage, Philips, Hemmings, Condel, and others to exercise their profession, as well at their usual house (the Globe, on the Bank-Side, Southwark) as in any other part of the kingdom, during his Majesty's pleasure. Besides, that he wrote Macbeth,' it is inferred, after James' accession to the English
*This licence is printed in Rymer's Fœdera.
throne; as he there embraces the doctrine of witches, to which his Majesty was so partial, that he composed a work, entitled Demonology,' in defence of their existence. Hence the passage in Thalia, if it relates at all to Shakspeare, must have hinted only at some occasional recess.
His acquaintance with Ben Jonson took it's rise from a remarkable instance of humanity and goodnature. Jonson, at that time altogether unknown to the world, had offered one of his plays to the stage; and the person in whose hands it had been placed, after having turned it carelessly over, was about to return it to him, with an assurance that it would be of no service to the company:' when Shakspeare luckily casting his eye upon it, found in it so much merit, as to lead him first to read it through, and afterward to recommend Jonson and his writings to the public.
The latter part of his life was spent in ease and retirement. He had the good fortune to acquire a decent competency by his compositions; and he resided, for some years before his death, at his native town, in a handsome house to which he gave the name of New Place.' His wit and courtesy secured to him the friendship of the gentlemen of the neighbourhood and his intimacy with one Combe, an old gentleman noted for his wealth, avarice, and usury, is still remembered. In a conversation among their common friends, Mr. Combe pleasantly told Shakspeare, that he expected from his pen an epitaph ; and as he could not know what might be said of him when dead, he desired it might be done immediately;' upon which, Shakspeare instantly replied: