« PreviousContinue »
Nothing further is heard of Mrs. Mary Shakespeare till her death in 1608. On the 9th of September, that year, the parish register notes the burial of “Mary Shakespeare, widow," her husband having died seven years before. That she had in a special degree the confidence and affection of her father, is apparent from the treatment she received in his will. It would be very gratifying, no doubt, perhaps very instructive also, to be let into the domestic life and character of the Poet's mother. That both her nature and her discipline entered largely into his composition, and had much to do in making him what he was, can hardly be questioned. Whatsoever of woman's beauty and sweetness and wisdom was expressed in her life and manners could not but be caught and repeated in his susceptive and fertile mind. He must have grown familiar with the noblest parts of womanhood somewhere; and I can scarce conceive how he should have learned them so well, but that the light and glory of them beamed upon him from his mother. At the time of her death, the Poet was in his forty-fifth year, and had already produced those mighty works which were to fill the world with his fame. For some years she must in all likelihood have been more or less under his care and protection; as her age, at the time of her death, could not well have been less than seventy.
And here I am minded to notice a point which, it seems to me, has been somewhat overworked within the last few years. Gervinus, the German critic, thinks – and our Mr. White agrees with him — that Shakespeare acquired all his best ideas of womanhood after he went to London, and conversed with the ladies of the city. And in support of this notion they cite the fact — for such it is - that the women of his later plays are much superior to those of his earlier ones.
But are not the men of his later plays quite as much superior to the men of his first? Are not his later plays as much better every way, as in respect of the female characters? The truth seems to be, that Shakespeare saw more of great and good in both man and woman, as he be
came older and knew them better; for he was full of intellectual righteousness in this as in other things. And in this matter it may with something of special fitness be said that a man finds what he brings with him the faculty for finding. Shakespeare's mind did not stay on the surface of things. Probably there never was a man more alive to the presence of humble, modest worth. And to his keen yet kindly eye the plain-thoughted women of his native Stratford
well have been as pure, as sweet, as lovely, as rich in all the inward graces which he delighted to unfold in his female characters, as any thing he afterwards found among the fine ladies of the metropolis ; albeit I mean no disparagement to these latter; for the Poet was by the best of all rights a gentleman, and the ladies who pleased him in London doubtless had sense and womanhood enough to recognize him as such. At all events, it is reasonable to suppose that the foundations of his mind were laid before he left Stratford, and that the gatherings of the boy's eye and heart were the germs of the man's thoughts.
We have seen our Poet springing from what may be justly termed the best vein of old English life. At the time of his birth, his parents, considering the purchases previously made by the father, and the portion inherited by the mother, must have been tolerably well off. Malone, reckoning only the bequests specified in her father's will, estimated Mary Shakespeare's fortune to be not less than £110. Later researches have brought to light considerable items of property that were unknown to Malone. Supposing her fortune to have been as good as £150 then, it would go nearly if not quite as far as $ 5000 in our time. So that the Poet passed his boyhood in just about that medium state between poverty and riches which is accounted most favourable to health of body and mind.
At the time when his father became High-Bailiff the Poet was in his fifth year; old enough to understand something of what would be said and done in the home of an English magistrate, and to take more or less interest in the duties, the hospitalities, and perhaps the gayeties incident to the headship of the borough. It would seem that the Poet came honestly by his inclination to the Drama. During his term of office, John Shakespeare is found acting in his public capacity as a patron of the stage. The chamberlain's accounts show that twice in the course of that year money was paid to different companies of players; and these are the earliest notices we have of theatrical performances in that ancient town. The Bailiff and his son William were most likely present at those performances. From that time forward, all through the Poet's youth, probably no year passed without similar exhibitions at Stratford. In 1572, however, an act was passed for restraining itinerant players, whereby, unless they could show a patent under the great seal, they became liable to be proceeded against as vagabonds, for performing without a license from the local authorities. Nevertheless, the chamberlain's accounts show that between 1569 and 1587 no less than ten distinct companies performed at Stratford under the patronage of the corporation. In 1587, five of those companies are found performing there; and within the period just mentioned the Earl of Leicester's men are noted on three several occasions as receiving money from the town treasury. In May, 1574, the Earl of Leicester obtained a patent under the great seal, enabling his players, James Burbadge and four others, to exercise their art in any part of the kingdom except London. In 1587, this company became “ The Lord Chamberlain's servants"; and we shall in due time find Shakespeare belonging to it. James Burbadge was the father of Richard Burbadge, the greatest actor of that age. The family was most likely from Warwickshire, and perhaps from Stratford, as we have already met with the name in that town. Such were the opportunities our embryo Poet had for catching the first rudiments of the art in which he afterwards displayed such learned mastery.
The forecited accounts have an entry, in 1564, of two shillings “paid for defacing image in the chapel.” Even then the excesses generated out of the Reformation were invading such towns as Stratford, and waging a “crusade against the harmless monuments of the ancient belief; no exercise of taste being suffered to interfere with what was considered a religious duty.” In these exhibitions of strolling players this spirit found matter, no doubt, more deserving of its hostility. While the Poet was yet a boy, a bitter war of books and pamphlets had begun against plays and players; and the Stratford records inform us of divers attempts to suppress them in that town; but the issue proves that the Stratfordians were not easily beaten from that sort of entertainment, in which they evidently took great delight.
We have seen that both John and Mary Shakespeare, instead of writing their name, were so far disciples of Jack Cade as to use the more primitive way of making their mark. It nowise follows from this that they could not read; neither have we any certain evidence that they could. Be this as it may, there was no good reason why their children should not be able to say, “I thank God, I have been so well brought up, that I can write my name.” A FreeSchool had been founded at Stratford by Thomas Jolyffe in the reign of Edward the Fourth. In 1553, King Edward the Sixth granted a charter, giving it a legal being, with legal rights and duties, under the name of The King's New School of Stratford-upon-Avon.” What particular course or method of instruction was used there, we have no certain knowledge; but it was probably much the same as that used in other like schools of that period; which included the elementary branches of English, and also the rudiments of classical learning.
Here it was, no doubt, that Shakespeare acquired the “ small Latin and less Greek” which Ben Jonson accords to him. What was “small” learning in the eyes of such a scholar as Jonson, may yet have been something handsome in itself; and his remark may fairly imply that the Poet
had at least the regular free-school education of the time. Honourably ambitious, as his father seems to have been, of being somebody, it is not unlikely that he may have prized learning the more for being himself without it. William was his oldest son; when his tide of fortune began to ebb, the Poet was in his fourteenth year, and, from his native qualities of mind, we cannot doubt that, up to that time at least, "all the learnings that his town could make him the receiver of he took, as we do air, fast as 'twas ministered, and in his Spring became a harvest."
The honest but credulous gossip Aubrey, who died about 1700, states, on the authority of one Beeston, that “Shakespeare understood Latin pretty well, for he had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country.” The statement may fairly challenge some respect, inasmuch as persons of the name of Beeston were connected with the stage before Shakespeare's death and long afterwards. And it is not unlikely that the Poet may, at some time, have been an assistant teacher in the free-school at Stratford. Nor does this conflict with Rowe's account, which states that John Shakespeare kept William at the free-school for some time; but that straitness of circumstances and need of help forced him to withdraw his son from the school. Though writing from tradition, Rowe was evidently careful, and what he says agrees perfectly with what later researches have established respecting John Shakespeare's course of fortune. He also tells us that the Poet's father“ could give him no better education than his own employment.” John Shakespeare, as we have seen, was so far occupied with agriculture as to be legally styled a “yeoman.” Nor am I sure but the ancient functions of an English yeoman's oldest son might be a better education for what the Poet afterwards accomplished than was to be had at any free-school or university in England. His large and apt use of legal terms and phrases has induced many good Shakespearians learned in the law to believe that he must have been for some time a student of that noble science. It is indeed difficult to