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'The few incidents in Shakspeare's life are surrounded with doubt and fable;' indeed, until lately, little could be said of his Biography, but that "he was born, lived, and died." The researches of Malone, and more recently those of Collier, Knight, and Halliwell, have however thrown some light on the Poet's history, and from these authorities we are enabled to compile a brief memoir of his life sufficient for our present design, referring the youthful student to the more elaborate sources to which we are indebted.
William Shakspeare was born at Stratford-upon-Avon, in the county of Warwick, England, in April, 1564. He was baptized on the 26th of the month, and a tradition exists that he was born on the 23d April, the anniversary of St. George the tutelar Saint of England. His father, John Shakspeare, was a wool-comber, or glover, who had risen above his somewhat obscure position by marrying a rural heiress, Mary Arden, possessed of a small estate in Warwickshire. Shakspeare's father rose to be high bailiff and chief alderman of Stratford; but became depressed in circumstances about the year 1578.
William was the eldest of six surviving children, and after receiving some education in the grammar school of his native town, he is said to have been brought home to assist in his father's business. There is an entire blank in his history for several years of his early life, but it may well be conjectured, that he was then treasuring up materials for those imperishable works which have rendered him the most eminent genius the world has ever produced. Some of his biographers have endeavored to prove that a portion of this period was passed in a lawyer's office, from the familiarity he exhibits in his works, with technical legal phrase and illustrations. But similar evidence might be adduced to prove his preparation for the church, or for the medical profession, for his works abound in the profoundest theological truths, and he appears to be equally well skilled in the elementary knowledge of medical science.
The amount of Shakspeare's educational acquirements has been the subject of eager scrutiny and controversy. Ben Jonson, with whom he was on terms of intimate acquaintance, says, he had "little Latin and less Greek." This is admitting that he knew something of both languages. His choice of two classical subjects for his early poetry, Venus and Adonis, and Lucrece, and the numerous allusions in his Plays to the mythology of the ancients, appear to warrant the conclusion that he was, at least, deeply imbued with the spirit and taste of classical literature. But, genius such as Shakspeare's did not derive its inspiration from mere classical learning. He was doubtless an irregular student, yet his native intellect and comprehensive mind enabled him, by study and observation, and "almost by intuition, to treasure up stores of knowledge by which he subsequently distanced all the university-bied wits and authors of his times."
On the 28th of November, 1582, Shakspeare was married to Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a "substantial yeoman" of the village of Shottery, about a mile from Stratford, and in the year 1586, it is ascertained that he removed to London, and commenced the occupation of a Player.
Much conjectural speculation has been expended upon the probable causes, which induced Shakspeare to adopt the profession of an actor, but no authentic accounts can be traced to ascertain the precise facts. During the period of his father's elevation to office, companies of players were frequently in the habit of performing at Stratford; among these players were several who were Shakspeare's townsmen. An acquaintance with these persons may naturally have been formed by the future Dramatist, and when circumstances induced him to quit Stratford, the intimacy with his old associates may have been resumed and his connection with the stage decided upon.
Shakspeare soon rose to distinction in the theatre, for in the year 1589 he became a shareholder in the Blackfriars Theatre. In 1596 he was a proprietor, and in 1603 he was named second in a new patent granted to the King's Players, by James I., on that monarch's accession to the British throne.
That the extraordinary powers of Shakspeare as a Dramatic writer, was the cause of his rapid elevation in the theatre, is a fact almost beyond dispute, for his talents as an actor never appear to have risen beyond a respectable mediocrity. A contemporary authority (supposed to be Lord Southampton) says that he was "of good account in the company;" and traditionary evidence assigns him the character of the "Ghost in Hamlet," and "Adam in As you like It," as being among the chief parts he sustained in his own plays.
With the nobles, the wits, and poets of his day, he lived in familiar intercourse. Even royalty unbended to do honor to the immortal Dramatist; his Plays were the favorite recreation of the haughty Elizabeth, and even the weak-minded James I. was not insensible to the genius of the great Poet. Ben Jonson, in a eulogy on Shakspeare, speaks of his Dramas, "That so did take Eliza and our James;" and other contemporary authorities confirm the fact of his popularity.
It is likely that Shakspeare began his career as a Dramatic Author by altering and adapting Plays for the Stage, furnished by other Dramatists, and subsequently, as he felt his powers expand, he poured forth in rapid succession that series of splendid Dramas, which are the imperishable monuments of his genius. No distinct chronological account can be given of these wonderful productions. It is however tolerably well established, that the whole of the thirty-seven Plays were produced before the year 1612, as it is supposed in that year he retired finally to his native town, where he had previously purchased an estate, called New Place, the principal house in Stratford. He had by this time acquired a handsome competency; and, in the words of his biographer Rowe, "The latter part of his life was Bpent, as all men of good sense will wish theirs to be, in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends."
Four years were passed by Shakspeare in this dignified retirement. He died on the 23d April, 1616, having just completed his fiftysecond year. His widow survived him seven years. His two daughters were both married at the time of hts death, (his only son, Hanmet, had died in 1596,) but all these died without issue, and there now remains no lineal representative of the Poet. He was interred in the Church of Stratford-upon-Avon, where a monument to his memory still exists in good preservation, and a flat grave-stone in front of the monument indicates the Poet's grave. On the stone is inscribed these lines, which tradition ascribes to be his own composition.
"Good frend, for Iesvs sake forbeare
We close this brief and unsatisfactory memoir of the life of Shakspeare, by the following comprehensive summary of his character, by Hallam the Historian.
"The name of Shakspeare is the greatest in our literature. No man ever came near to him in the creative powers of his mind; no man had ever such strength at once, and such variety of imagination."
PRINCE OF DENMARK.
Shakspeake is supposed to have taken the Plot of this Play, from "the HiUory of Hamlet," as it is found narrated in Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish Historian. An English translation of this particular story was published during the Poet's life, entitled "Hist one of Hamblet, Prince of Denmark," and from this version, it is conjectured that ShaJcspeare drew the materials, which have assisted him in this master-piece of tragic composition. As this Play is the most finished and the most popular of onr Author's productions, we have incorporated into our selections nearly all the prominent scenes.
We cannot better introduce the youthfu student into a just discrimination of tl< leading characteristics of Hamlet, than by furnishing the following clear analysis from ti pen of Goethe. He says—
"It is clear to me that Shakspeare's intention was to exhibit tb» effects of a grout action imposed as a duty upon a mind too feeble for its accomplishment.
"In this sense, I find the character consistent throughout. There is an oak planted in a china vase, proper only to receive the most delicate flowers ; the roots strike out, and the vessel flies to pieces. A pure, noble, highly moral disposition, bnt without that energy of soul which constitutes the hero, sinks under a load which it can neither support nor resolve to abandon altogether. All his obligations are sacred to him; but this alone is above his powers.
"An impossibility is required at his hands ; not an impossibility in itself, bnt that which is so to him. Observe how he shifts, turns, hesitates, advances, and recedes; how he is continually reminded and reminding himself of his great commission, which he, nevertheless, in the end, seems almost entirely to lose sight of; and this without ever recovering hit former tranquillity."
Hamlet, son to the former, and nephew to the present King.