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I. THE LIFE OF SHAKESPEARE
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE was born at Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, in April, 1564, perhaps on the 23d day of that month. A picture is here given of the house in Henley Street that is thought to have been the place of his birth. He was the first one of the children of John and Mary Shakespeare who lived to grow up. He had three brothers and one sister who reached maturity, - Gilbert, Richard, Edmund, and Joan.
Warwickshire, “the heart of England," was filled with the choicest rural and woodland scenery. The thickly wooded portion of the county north of the river Avon was called Arden. South of the lovely Avon meadows were rich pasture lands. Stratford, with about fourteen hundred inhabitants, was the center and chief market of an agricultural and grazing district. Shakespeare's works show us that he was familiar with all phases of country life. Hon. D. H. Madden has made a special study of those passages in the plays and poems which refer to hunting, hawking, angling, woodcraft, and horsemanship. He tells us of his "amazement at Shakespeare's knowledge of the most intimate secrets of woodcraft and falconry, and, above all, of the nature and disposition of the horse." Shakespeare knew all the phases and incidents of life in the forest; he understood the work of the farm and the care of cattle; he loved the wild flowers. We may be sure that he was welcome at the farms of his grandfather, his uncle, and the other relatives and friends of the family in the hamlets near Stratford. He
knew all the folk-lore of the country-side, listening eagerly to stories of the pranks of Robin Goodfellow; he learned the folk-songs concerning “old Robin Hood of England” and his life with his merry “under the greenwood tree”; he delighted in the May-day games, the Whitsun sports, and the festival of the sheep-shearing, the shepherd's harvest-home. It was surely of his own idyllic boyhood that Shakespeare was thinking when he made one of his characters speak of himself and the playmate of his early days as
“Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
The Winter's Tale, I, i, 63-65, 67–68.
Shakespeare often refers to the Scripture plays which were acted by the craftsmen in many parts of England, the so-called mystery plays; these were nowhere presented more elaborately than in Coventry, eighteen miles from Stratford. Shakespeare conceived the history of the Wars of the Roses in a vital, interesting way which forces us to realize that the battle of Bosworth Field was fought on the very border of Warwickshire, seventy-nine years before the birth of the dramatist, and that local history in those days was handed down in vivid form from father to son. And was not the great Earl of Warwick, the King-maker, almost the leading figure in those wars ?
In good measure Shakespeare enjoyed the advantages of both town life and country life. Says ten Brink :
“ The great advantage of a simple, primitive mode of life is that it guards a person from developing some of his talents at the expense of the others. ... Shakespeare was preserved from such one-sidedness both by his nature and his education. He lived in a little town where rural work was combined with town occupations. His father was a farmer and merchant. Already in early youth he was brought into close contact with many forms of human activity.
He accustomed himself to observe them all, to inquire into the aims, the methods, the implements, of each. And this habit he retained in later life. Thus it is that he knows the technical name of every object in every field of activity, that he can represent with such exactness every detail of work, complicated though it may be, in any trade.”
The young Shakespeare probably learned at the Free Grammar School of Stratford all the knowledge of books which he gained within school walls. What boy would be given a better opportunity than the son of John Shakespeare the high bailiff ?
mayor we should call him. In this school we suppose that the boy gained a knowledge of Latin which afterward revealed itself in his use of English (see the notes on produce, III, i, 229; and content, IV, ii, 41). At some time, probably later than his school days, he acquired a good knowledge of French, and some acquaintance with Italian. He wrote an entire scene of Henry V in French. He certainly had no university education; but the training at the English universities in the sixteenth century was so narrow and lacking in vitality that it would have been almost certain to do him more harm than good. “We can safely maintain," says Halleck, “that if Shakespeare had had much more of the current book-learning, he could never have written his plays."
In 1582 the eighteen-year-old boy was married to Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years older than himself. Their first child, Susanna, was baptized May 26, 1583; and in 1585 twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born to them. It seems clear, too, that since 1578 John Shakespeare had been steadily getting poorer and more embarrassed. The outlook for the young husband and father was dark.
We hear nothing further about Shakespeare until 1592.