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F the precise day of Shakespeare's birth there is no positive record; but
we may be quite sure that he was born in April, 1564. His christening is fortunately chronicled in the old Parish register, in the Church of the Holy Trinity, at Stratford-upon-Avon, wherein the baptism of
“William, the son of John Shakspere,” is entered under the date of the twenty-fifth of April, 1564. The general belief is, that the twenty-third was the Poet's birthday; and though not proved, yet it receives confirmation from the custom prevalent in Shakespeare's time, of christening children three days after their birth; added to this, there is a tradition that he died on the anniversary of his birthday, and the day of his death was certainly the twenty-third.
The April which gave to John Shakespeare his first-born son, and to England her poet, was truly one of tears. The plague, which had been making London desolate, was then raging everywhere, and fell like a blight upon Stratford-onAvon, in six months reducing its population from 1428 to 1190 souls.
On the 30th of August, when the plague was at its height, the town council met in the open air, instead of in the council chamber. They twice raised money for the relief of the poor; and the name of John Shakespeare, the poet's father, appears on each occasion among the list of contributors.
Two years afterwards, the poet's brother Gilbert was born. When William was five years old, a sister was granted to him, and when he was ten, another brother was added to the family group. It is easy to imagine the old house animated by their cheerful childish voices.
In the meantime the eldest boy was led, like the little William of his own
“Merry Wives of Windsor," to the Grammar School, where he learnt the "smalle Lattine and lesse Greeke,” for which Ben Jonson gives him credit. We have no particular record of the method of instruction adopted in this school, but we know that Latin was taught in all the free schools of any note at that period.
The Masters of the Grammar School during Shakespeare's boyhood, were Walter Rache, 1570, Thomas Hunt, 1577, Thomas Jenkins, 1580. A desk which is now called “ Shakespeare's desk," but with no very good reason, as it could not have been exclusively his, has been removed from this school and placed in the museum attached to the birthplace. It is an interesting relic, however, and has been notched and inscribed by many generations of Stratford schoolboys.
That the boyhood of our poet may be more fally realized, we will say a few words about his father's position and career. John Shakespeare was the son of a farmer of Snitterfield. He came to reside in Stratford about the year 1551. He lived in Henley Street in 1552. Early writers state that he was a butcher, and he is sometimes called “a considerable dealer in wool.” He was probably both; for whatever his town-calling was, he is known to have united with it the rural and miscellaneous orcupations of a farmer, which may very easily have led him occasionally into the avocation of a butcher and a wool-stapler. But that John Shakespeare, at an early period of his career, was a glever, is distinctly proved by an entry in the register of the proceedings of the Bailiff's Court, dated June 17, 1556, when Thomas Siche brought an action against him for the sum of £8 10s. " Thomas Siche de Arscotte in com. Wigorn. queritur versus Johannem Shakyspere, glover in placeto quod redd, ei octo libras, x.s."
In the same year John Shakespeare purchased two copyhold estates -- one in "Grenehyll” Street, the other in Henley Street, and he was evidently thriving in business. In 1557 he married Mary Arden, the youngest daughter of Robert Arden, of Wilmcot, Esq., of Warwickshire. She brought to him, as her marriage portion, the estate of Ashbies, containing fifty acres of arable land, six of meadow, and a right of commonage. This was a considerable fortune in those days.
In 1569, when little William was five years old, his father was chief magistrate, of Stratford, and must have been very active and popular. He greatly encouraged the exhibition of dramatic performances in the town. Willis, who was born in 1616, says: “When players of interludes come to towne they first attend on the mayor to inform him what nobleman's servants they are, and so to get leave for their publique playing, and, if the mayor like the actors, or would show respect to their lord and master, he appoints them to play before himself, and the aldermen and the common councilmen of the city, and that is called the mayor's play, and where every one that will comes without money, the mayor giving the players a reward as he thinkes fitte, to show respect unto them.” It is gratifying to know that the poet's father was the first to extend this kind of patronage to players in the town of Stratford.
From the year 1570 to 1586, John Shakespeare continued one of the aldermen, and was a regular attendant at the council chamber, till 1577, when he began to absent himself. This was the turning point in his career. In 1578 we find him no longer buying land and tenements as heretofore, but selling and mortgaging his property.
In this year there was domestic amiction as well as pecuniary difficulty at the house in Henley Street. The Poet's little sister Anna died, in her eighth year.
At the commencement of this period of trial and embarrassment, William was fourteen years of age; and it is very likely that his father found it necessary to remove him from school, that he might have his assistance in agricultural and other pursuits.
Rowe, speaking of our Poet, says: "His father had bred him sometime at a free-school, where 'tis probable he acquired that little Latin he was master of; but