« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »
tal garbage. Secular plays, rudely constructed in every respect though they were, already were making headway, and acting was becoming a distinct profession.
The earliest comedy we have remaining is that of "Ralph Royster Doyster," written about the reign of Harry the Eighth, by Nicholas Udall, master of Westminster school : and the indefatigable Payne Collier has discovered four acts of a comedy called “ Mesogonus, written by one “ Thomas Rychardes,” the charact of which are English, though the scene is laid in Italy; and this piece Mr. Collier supposes to have been written in 1560,- four years before the birth of Shakspere.
Tragedy is of a rather later date; the earliest known specimen being the “ Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex," performed before Queen Elizabeth, at Whitehall, by the gentlemen of the Inner Temple, in the January of 1561. It was written by Thomas Sackville (afterwards Earl of Dorset) and Thomas Norton; consists of five acts; is in regular blank verse ; and contains some excellent writing. The classical models afforded by the Greek dramatists have been in many respects patterned after. Though mysteries and moralities continued to be performed for years after, their death-knell may now be said to have been rung; they were sentencer, without hopes of a reprieve.
Such, at a rapid glance, was the condition of England and her drama 'when William Shakspere was born,—the sun around which all the lesser orbs of our English literature may be said to revolve. How the energies of England —especially in literature, and the drama in particulargrew with Shakspere's growth, and strengthened with his strength, it is the object of the following pages to show.
The exact date of Shakspere's birth is unknown. The parish register of Stratford-on-Avon shows that William, the son of John Shakspere, was baptised on the twentysixth of April, 1564, being the sixth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, who was then thirty-one years of age. Some writers have supposed that the birth of Shakspere took place only three days before,—viz., on the twentythird of April, a day dedicated to St. George, the patron saint of England. But in this “the wish was father to the thought." It is a most improbable conjecture. Unless there was evident danger of death, no one would think of baptising a child in that day so soon after its birth ; the private baptism of infants being only inteuded for those who would otherwise be likely to die unbaptised. In all probability, Shakspere, like all other children at that time,
would be kept muffled up for a full fortnight; the gossips being afraid that the light would injure a new-born infant's eyes, even within the recollection of many of our own generation. A christening then, was not a mere religious ceremony, but a family festival, to which all friends were sure to be invited ; just as, forty-two years afterwards (1606), we find Shakspere himself standing godfather to the son of his friend John Davenant, of the Crown Inn, Oxford. The christening of William Shakspere would not take place till his mother attended the church, to offer up her thanks for her safe recovery; and that would not be until a full month had expired after her confinement. So that the probability is that he was not born in April, but somewhat earlier.
The very profession of John Shakspere, the father of the poet, is uncertain. He has been differently described, as a glover, a butcher, a dealer in wool, and a yeoman. We have nothing but what Thomas Carlyle would call “ tombstone information” respecting him, and not even that with any degree of certainty. “In the archives of the town,” says Charles Knight, "by which his course may be traced for some years, we find that he was, in 1556, one of the jury of the court-leet; in 1557, one of the ale-tasters; at Michaelmas of that year, or very soon afterwards, he was elected, a burgess or junior member of the corporation; in 1558 and 1559 he served the office of constable, which duty appears then to have been imposed upon the younger members of the corporate body ; lastly, in 1561, he was elected one of the chamberlains. Here, then, previous to the birth of William Shakspere, we find his father passing through the regular gradations of those municipal offices which were filled by the most respectable inhabitants of a country town--those who, following trades or professions, or possessed of a small independence, were useful in their several degrees, and received due honour and reverence from their neighbours.”
The wife of John Shakspere, and mother of the poetwho must have been a good woman to produce so gentle” souled a son—was Mary the youngest daughter of Robert Arden, a gentleman-farmer, who by his will, made November 24th, 1556, bequeathed to her all his “ land in Willmecote, called Asbyes, and the crop upon the ground,” and the sum of six pounds, thirteen shillings, and fourpence. Charles Knight says :
“The grandfather of Mary Arden was groom of the chamber to Henry VII., and he was the nephew of Sir John Arden, squire of the body to the same monarch. Sir John Arden was a son of Walter
Arden and of Eleanor, the daughter of John Hampden of Buckinghamshire. There were thus the ties of a common blood between William Shakspere and one of the most distinguished men of the next generation - John Hampden, who was a student in the Inner Temple when the poet died. Mary Arden's property has been computed to be worth some hundred and ten pounds of the money of her time. Let not the luxurious habits of the present age lead us to smile at such a fortune. All the worldly goods (except his lands) belonging to her father, were, in the inventory attached to his will, valued at seventy-seven pounds eleven shillings and tenpence; and these goods included numerous oxen, bullocks, kine, horses, sheep, besides wheat in the field and in the barn."
William Shakspere appears to have been the oldest son, but not the first child, of John and Mary Shakspere. The parish register of Stratford-on-Avon contains entries of the baptism of two of their daughters previous to that of William,-viz., Jone, September 15th, 1558, and Margaret, December 2nd, 1562; the latter of whom was buried April 30th, 1563. Augustine Skottowe says :
“ John Shakspere died in 1601. His family was numerous : Jone, Margaret William, Gilbert, Jone, Ann, Richard, and Edmund. The first-born, Jone, died in earliest infancy, and Mar. garet when only five months old. William was the poet Of Gilbert nothing appears after the registry of his baptism: the register, indeed, mentions the burial of Gilbert Shakspere, adolescens,' in 1611-2, who might, or might not, have been the son of the elder Gilbert. Jone married William Hart, a hatter in Stratford. She died in 1616, leaving three sons. She was remembered in her immor. tal brother's will by a contingent legacy of fifty pounds to her and her children ; a bequest of twenty pounds, all his wearing apparel, and the house which she then occupied, at a yearly rent of one shilling, for her life. The Harts have continued at Stratford during the two centuries that hare elapsed since the poet's death. In 1794, one of Shaks pere's two houses in Henley street was the property of Thomas Hart, a butcher, the sixth in descent from Jone, Ann Shakspere died in infancy. Richard was buried in 161 2-13. Edmund Shakspere embraced the calling of an actor, influenced, probably, in his choice, by the connection of his brother with the theatre He was a player at the Globe, lived in St. Saviour's, and was buried in the church of that parish, on the 31st of December, 1607.”
The house now shown as the birth-place of Shakspere, is situated in Henley-street, and may really have been such ; for eight years before that event (1556), John Shakspere had the lease of a house in that street, and of another in Greenhill-street; and ten years after the poet's birth (1574), John Shakspere purchased two houses in Henley-street, each with a garden and orchard attached. But allowing the so-called birth-place of Shakspere to be what it is supposed, which is probable enough, it has
been so infamously altered from what it formerly was — altered so much for the worse—that one is tempted to wish it had altogether fallen during the alterations, and become a mere heap of ruins. In its ancient state, it was a residence fit for a gentleman of that day, or even of our own, and compared to its present condition was as “Hyperion to a satyr.” Better that it had fallen into the unhallowed clutches of the Frodsham vicar, instead of the New Place and the mulberry tree, than that it should have been so awfully mutilated. Pity it is that poetic sites so oft become the possession of such unpoetic characters ! Truly “they know not what they do."
Washington Irving, in his beautiful “Sketch Book," thus describes the birth-place of Shakspere :
“I had come to Stratford on a poetical pilgrimage, My first visit was to the house where Shakspere was born, and where, according to tradition, he was brought up to his father's craft of wool-combing. It is a small mean-looking edifice of wood and plaster ; a true nesto ling place of genius, which seems to delight in hatching its offspring in by-corners. The walls of its squalid chambers are covered with names and inscriptions in every language, by pilgrims of all nations, ranks, and conditions, from the prince to the peasant : and present a simple, but striking, instance of the spontaneous and universal homage of mankind to the great poet of nature. There was the shattered stock of the very matchlock with which Shakspere shot the deer, on his poaching exploits. There, too, was his tobacco-box; which proves that he was a rival smoker of Sir Walter Raleigh; the sword, also, with which he played Hamlet; and the identical lantern with which Friar Laurence discovered Romeo and Juliet at the tomb! There was an ample supply also of Shakspere's mulberry tree, which seems to have as extraordinary powers of self-multiplication as the wood of the true cross; of which there is enough extant to build a ship of the line. The most favourite object of curiosity, however, is Shakspere's chair, * It stands in the chimney-nook of a small gloomy chamber, just behind what was his father's shop. Here he may many a time have sat when a boy, watching the slowly revolving spit, with all the longings of an urchin; or of an evening, listening to the cronies and gossips of Stratford, dealing forth churchyard tales and legendary anecdotes of the troublesome times of England. In this chair it is the custom of every one that visits the house to sit: whether this be done with the hope of imbibing any of the inspiration of the bard, I am at a loss to say ; I merely mention the fact; and mine hostess privately assured me, that, though built of solid oak, such was the fervent zeal of devotees, that the chair had to be new bottomed at least once in three years.
It is worthy of notice also, in the history of this extraordinary chair, that it partakes something of the volatile nature of the Santa Casa of Loretto, or the flying chair of the Arabian enchanter ; for though sold some few years since to a northern princess, yet strange to tell, it has found its way back again to the old chimney corner."
In the month of June—but two months after the baptism of Shakspere-that fearful pestilence, the plague, visited Stratford-upon-Avon ; and instead of a yearly average of some forty deaths, two hundred and thirty-eight souls, in the space of six months, were swept into eternity. The infant who was afterwards so to bless the world, was happily spared, nor does any member of his family appear to have perished ; but one may well imagine that anxiety of mind that Master John Shakspere would experience for the safety of his family ; and how Mary Shakspere would tremblingly kiss her sleeping babe, as the deep toll of the passing-bell daily smote upon her ear, announcing to all that
" Another soul from earth had fed,
Beneath the sod was numbered." And I durst swear that dewdrops never stood more conspicuous on the lupin, or raindrops thicker on the hawthorn, than did the tears in that mother's eyes. But dear as their infant son doubtless was to them, as he nestled in their arms, they dreamt not what more than monarch they were rearing for mankind. Could she have known, it would have turned her brain! One may also imagine the boy Shakspere, when a few more years were past, listening devoutly, as his mother related the particulars of that dreadful plague, as they sat around the fire on winter nights, when the storm-king ruled supreme without, and the blazing logs crackled merrily on the capacious hearth; whilst ever and anon the stool of the future poet of mankind would advance an inch or two nearer to the cheerful blaze. Even to read the narrative of a plague is enough to curdle one's blood ; how awful, then, must it have been to those who witnessed the dreadful mortality! Doubtless his mother's vivid reminiscenes of that awful event,
“Would harrow up his soul; freeze his young blood ;
Make his two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres ;
Hamlet, act i., scene 5th. It is worthy of remark that Erasmus, more like a philosopher than a divine, ascribes the frequent visits of the plague in England to the want of cleanliness amongst the people. If men will break the laws of nature, they can never do it with impunity: there are blessings for obe. dience, but pains and penalties, from which no repentance