« AnteriorContinua »
rounded with greater dangers than in our own days of improved medical science, that we may believe that William Shakspere first saw the light only a day or two previous to this legal record of his existence. There is no direct evidence that he was born on the 23rd of April, according to the common belief. But there was probably a tradition to that effect; for some years ago the Rev. Joseph Greene, a master of the grammar-school at Stratford, in an extract which he made from the Register of Shakspere's baptism, wrote in the margin, “Born on the 23rd.” We turn back to the first year of the registry, 1558, and we find the baptism of Joan, daughter to John Shakspere, on the 15th of September. Again, in 1562, on the 2nd of December, Margaret, daughter to John Shakspere, is baptized. In the entry of burials in 1563 we find, under date of April 30, that Margaret closed a short life in five months. The elder daughter Joan also died young. We look forward, and in 1566 find the birth of another son registered :-Gilbert, son of John Shakspere, was baptized on the 13th of October of that year. In 1569 there is the registry of the baptism of a daughter, Joan, daughter of John Shakspere, on the 15th of April. Thus, the registry of a second Joan leaves no reasonable doubt that the first died, and that a favourite name was preserved in the family. In 1574 another son was baptized,-Richard, son of Master (Magister) John Shakspere, on the 11th of March. In 1578 another daughter was born,-Anne, daughter of Master John Shakspere, baptized on the 28th of September. The register of sorrow and blighted hope shows that Anne was buried on the following 4th of April. The last entry, which determines the extent of John Shakspere's family, is that of Edmund, son of Master John Shakspcre, baptized on the 3rd of May, 1580. Here, then, we find that two sisters of William were removed by death, probably before his birth. In two years and a half another son, Gilbert, came to be his playmate; and when he was five years old that most precious gift to a loving boy was granted, a sister, who grew up with him. When he was ten years
old he had another brother to lead by the hand into the green meadows. Then came another sister, who faded untimely; and when he was grown into youthful strength, a boy of sixteen, his youngest brother was born. William, Gilbert, Joan, Richard, Edmund, constituted the whole of the family amongst whom John Shakspere was to share his means of existence. Rowe, we have already seen, mentions the large family of John Shakspere, “ ten children in all.” Malone has established very satisfactorily the origin of this error into which Rowe has fallen. In later years there was another John Shakspere in Stratford. In the books of the corporation the name of John Shakspere, shoemaker, can be traced in 1586; in the register in 1584 we find him married to Margery Roberts, who dies in 1587; he is, without doubt, married a second time, for in 1589, 1590, and 1591, Ursula, Humphrey, and Philip are born. It is unquestionable that these are not the children of the father of William Shakspere, for they are entered in the register as the daughter, or sons, of John Shakspere, without the style which our John Shakspere always bore after 1569—“Magister.” There can be no doubt that the mother of all the children of Master John Shakspere was Mary Arden; for in proceedings in Chancery in 1597, which we shall notice hereafter, it is set forth that John Shakspere and his wife Mary, in the
20th Elizabeth, 1577, mortgaged her inheritance of Asbies. Nor can there be a doubt that the children born before 1569, when he is styled John Shakspere, without the honourable addition of Master, were also her children ; for in 1599, when William Shakspere is an opulent man, application is made to the College of Arms, that John Shakspere, and his issue and posterity, might use a “shield of arms," impaled with the arms of Shakspere and Arden. This application (which appears also to have been made in 1596, as the grant of arms by Dethick states the fact of John Shakspere's marriage) would in all probability have been at the instance of John Shakspere's eldest son and heir. The history of the family up to the period of William Shakspere's manhood is as clear as can reasonably be expected.
William Shakspere has been carried to the baptismal font in that fine old church of Stratford. The “thick-pleached alley” that leads through the churchyard to the porch is putting forth its buds and leaves.* The lime-flowers are sweet in the morning breath; the chestnut hangs its white blossoms over the
grassy mounds of that resting-place. All is joyous in the spring sunshine. Kind neighbours are smiling upon the happy father ; maidens and matrons snatch a kiss of the sleeping boy. There is "a spirit of life in everything” on this 26th of April, 1564. Summer comes, but it brings not joy to Stratford. There is wailing in her streets and woe in her houses. The death-register tells a fearful history. From the 30th June to the 31st December, two hundred and thirty-eight inhabitants, a sixth of the population, are carried to the grave. The plague is in the fated town; the doors are marked with the red cross, and
• It is supposed that such a green avenue was an old appendage to the church, the present trees having taken the place of more ancient ones.
the terrible inscription, “ Lord, have mercy upon us.” It is the same epidemic which ravaged Europe in that year; which in the previous year had desolated London, and still continued there; of which sad time Stow pithily says—“The poor citizens of London were this year plagued with a threefold plague, pestilence, scarcity of money, and dearth of victuals; the misery whereof were too long here to write: no doubt the poor remember it; the rich by flight into the countries made shift for themselves.” Scarcity of money and dearth of victuals are the harbingers and the ministers of pestilence. Despair gathers up itself to die. Labour goes not forth to its accustomed duties. Shops are closed. The market-cross hears no hum of trade. The harvest lies almost ungathered in the fields. At last the destroying angel has gone on his way. The labourers are thinned; there is more demand for labour; “victuals " are not more abundant, but there are fewer left to share the earth's bounty. Then the adult rush into marriage. A year of pestilence is followed by a year of weddings ;* and such a “strange eventful history” does the Stratford register tell. The Charnel-house-a melancholy-looking appendage to the chancel of Stratford Church, (now removed,) had then its heaps of unhonoured bones fearfully disturbed: but soon the old tower heard again the wedding-peal. The red
cross was probably not on the door of John Shakspere's dwelling. “Fortunately for mankind,” says Malone, “it did not reach the house where the infant Shakspere lay; for not one of that name appears on the dead list. A poetical enthusiast will find no difficulty in believing that, like Horace, he reposed
* See · Malthus on Population,' book ii., chap. 12.
secure and fearless in the midst of contagion and death, protected by the Muses to whom his future life was to be devoted:
sacrâ Lauroque, collatâque myrto,
Non sine diis animosus infans.'" There were more real dangers around Shakspere than could be averted by the sacred laurel and the myrtle—something more fearful than the serpent and the bear of the Roman poet.* He, by whom
Spirits are not finely touch'd
But to fine issues," may be said, without offence, to have guarded this unconscious child. William Shakspere was to be an instrument, and a great one, in the intellectual advancement of mankind. The guards that He placed around that threshold of Stratford, as secondary ministers, were cleanliness, abundance, free air, parental watchfulness. The “non sine diis"—the “protected by the Muses,”-rightly considered, must mean the same guardianship. Each is a recognition of something higher than accident and mere physical laws.
The parish of Stratford, then, was unquestionably the birth-place of William Shakspere. But in what part of Stratford dwelt his parents in the year 1564? It was ten years after this that his father became the purchaser of two freehold houses in Henley Street—houses which still exist. Nine years before William Shakspere was born, his father had also purchased two copyhold tenements in Stratford-one in Greenhill Street, one in Henley Street. The copyhold house in Henley Street, purchased in 1555, was unquestionably not one of the freehold houses in the same street, purchased in 1574: yet, from Malone's loose way of stating that in 1555 the lease of a house in Henley Street was assigned to John Shakspere, it has been conjectured that he purchased in 1574 the house he had occupied for many years. As he purchased two houses in 1555 in different parts of the town, it is not likely that he occupied both; he might not have occupied either. Before he purchased the two houses in Henley Street, in 1574, he occupied fourteen acres of meadow-land, with appurtenances, at a very high rent; the property is called Ingon meadow in “ the Close Rolls.” Dugdale calls the place where it was situated “Inge;” saying that it was a member of the manor of Old Stratford, “and signifyeth in our old English a meadow or low ground, the name well agreeing with its situation.” It is about a mile and a quarter from the town of Stratford, on the road to Warwick. William Shakspere, then, might have been born at either of his father's copyhold houses, in Greenhill Street, or in Henley Street; he might have been born at Ingon; or his father might have occupied one of the two freehold houses in Henley Street at the time of the birth of his eldest son. Tradition says that William Shakspere was born in one of these houses ; tradition points out the very room in which he was born. Let us not disturb the belief. To look upon that ancient house—perhaps now one of the oldest in Stratford
* Hor. lib. iii., car. iv.
pilgrims have come from every region where the name of Shakspere is known. The property passed into a younger branch of the poet's family; the descendants of that branch grew poorer and poorer; they sold off its orchards and gardens; they divided and subdivided it into smaller tenements; it became partly a butcher's shop, partly a little inn.* The external appearance was greatly altered, and its humble front rendered still humbler. The windows in the roof were removed ; and the half which had become the inn received a new brick casing. The central portion is that which is now shown as the birth-place of the illustrious man—“ the myriad-minded,”—he whose memory almost hushes the breathings even of the merely curious, who look upon that mean room, with its massive joists and plastered walls, firm with ribs of oak, where we are told the poet of the human race was born. Hundreds amongst the hundreds of thousands by whom that name is honoured have inscribed their names on the walls of that room. Eyes now closed on the world, but who have left that behind which the world “will not willingly let die,” have glistened under this humble roof, and there have been thoughts unutterable-solemn, confiding, grateful, humble-clustering round their hearts in that hour.f Disturb not the belief that William Shakspere first saw the light in this venerated room.
See Note at the end of this chapter. + The autographs of Byron and Scott are amongst hundreds of perishable inscriptions.