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ENGLISH L ITE RATURE
AN ILLUSTRATED RECORD

IN EIGHT VOLUMES

VOLUME II — PART II

FROM THE AGE OF HENRY VIII TO THE
AGE OF MILTON

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CHAPTER V

SHAKESPEARE

WHEN the Greeks spoke of Homer, they did not always name him. They Shakespeare said the poet, certain that no vestige of doubt could exist as to the application *** of the description. Englishmen might thus speak of Shakespeare with no less security from misapprehension. In a literature eminent beyond most for the multitude of its great poets, many of whom may have excelled Shakespeare in this or that branch of art, not one could be selected as a possible rival to Shakespeare, and for this plain reason, that their excellence is particular, and his is universal. There is nothing within the compass of poetry in which he has not either achieved supremacy or shown that supremacy lay within his power; there is no situation of human fortune or emotion of the human bosom for which he has not the right word; if he cannot be described as of imagination all compact, it is only because his observation is still more extraordinary. His art is as consummate as his genius, and save when he wrote or planned in haste, impeccable. Infallibility may equally be predicated of the other two supreme poets of the world, Homer and Dante, but the restriction of their spheres forbids any claim to Shakespeare's distinguishing characteristic of universality. The knowledge, and by consequence the sympathy, of their periods was narrow in comparison with his ; he was in contact with a thousand things of which they had no cognisance; while, since Shakespeare's day, human interests and activities have so greatly multiplied that, unless civilisation should retrograde, the occurrence of another universal poet may well be deemed impossible. This overawing vastness of Shakespeare renders it almost impossible to obtain a point of view from which he can be contemplated as a whole. The critic will do best to gradually wind into his subject by a recital of the ordinary, and in Shakespeare's case the obscure, circumstances of ancestry and parentage. That the apparent etymology of the surname Shakespeare is also the Shakespeare's correct one is proved by the existence of an Italian representative, Crolla- so hislanza, which cannot possibly be a corruption of anything, but must have been bestowed upon the original bearer from some connection between him and the wielding of the spear. A similar cause would originate in England the name Shakespeare, which is of considerable antiquity in the south midland counties. Unfortunately, the earliest record of its occurrence discovered so

far is one establishing that the bearer, William “Saxspere" of Clopton in Gloucestershire, a hamlet about seven miles south of Stratford-on-Avon, was hanged in 1248. Another early Shakespeare is recorded as a felon, and another as a perturber of the King's peace. It may have been some association of this description that in 1487 induced an Oxford scholar and incipient Don, not gifted with the faculty of prevision, to change his name of Shakespeare into Saunders, “ because it was thought low (vile).” Others were less sensitive ; the name is found from Penrith in the north to Brixton in the South; and the industry of Mrs. Stopes has unearthed an amazing number of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Shakespeares, principally in War

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wickshire. There, in 1557, John Shakespeare, formerly of Snitterfield, and probably son of Richard Shakespeare, yeoman of that village, but himself of Stratford-on-Avon, married at Aston Cantlowe, Mary, daughter of Robert Arden, a farmer, but sprung from a good Warwickshire family. To them in 1564, and as tradition declares, on April 23, the day dedicated to England's patron saint, was born WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. The entry of baptism is on April 26. At the time of Shakespeare's birth his father was a prosperous tradesman, who had filled various municipal offices, including that of chamberlain to the borough. In 1565 he was alderman, in 1568 bailiff, and, in the light of things to come, it is most interesting to learn that in that capacity he was the first townsman of Stratford to accord an official welcome to players, the SHAKESPEARE'S HOME AND SCHOOL I 93

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companies of the Queen and of the Earl of Worcester. So late as 1575 he appears as buying two houses, but shortly afterwards he is so impoverished as to be unable to contribute fourpence towards the relief of the poor. In 1578 and 1579 he is found alienating his wife's property at Wilmcote and Snitterfield, and in 1586 he is deprived of his alderman's gown for nonattendance, being apparently unable to leave his home for fear of arrest. These circumstances must have made Shakespeare's youth unhappy, notwithstanding the antidotes of a singularly sunny and genial disposition, and of the high spirits natural to his age. The inevitable decline of the family in the estimation of their neighbours must have been especially galling to him ; and it is probable that his sense of slight and wrong reappears in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, where many griefs are enumerated of which the Prince of Denmark could have had no experience, but which were only too familiar to John Shakespeare and his son. Among them is “ the law’s delay,” of which the elder Shakespeare made ample trial in an unsuccessful litigation to recover his wife's property. Fortunately these embarrassments could not prevent Shakespeare from receiving a good education, he being entitled to free tuition at the Stratford grammar school. The character of the education then given at English grammar schools, a point of great importance in connection with the attempts that have been made to represent Shakespeare as an ignorant man, has been ably investigated by the late Professor Spencer Baynes. Mr. Baynes shows that the acquaintance with the technicalities of rhetorical instruction demanded by the allusions in Love's Labour's Lost could easily have been acquired by a stay at school of five years, agreeing exceedingly well with the probable age, seven or eight, of Shakespeare's entering the school and that of twelve or thirteen, when he would be old enough to assist his father in his business, and, considering the growing embarrassments of the elder Shakespeare, would almost certainly be withdrawn from school for that purpose. By this time he would have read in the ordinary course Valerius Cato, AEsop, Mantuan, a considerable part of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and something of Cicero, Terence, and Virgil. This would be a fair Latin outfit, and there is no good reason to believe that Shakespeare materially augmented it in after life. In the ordinary course Greek grammar would be commenced in the fifth year, but no Greek author would be read. Mr. Churton Collins has endeavoured with much ingenuity to establish Shakespeare's acquaintance witn Greek literature, but when it is considered that he could only have acquired Greek in mature life by solitary study or private instruction, and that Latin translations would be difficult and uninviting, the initial improbability must be held to outweigh the precarious evidence of apparent coincidences which may be otherwise accounted for. It may be added that there was no such Hellenic sentiment in Shakespeare's day as might in our own induce a man to take up the study for himself. The peculiar charm of the language and literature, which have yielded such stores of inspiration to the poets of the nineteenth century, was as vet but feebly discerned. The classical atmosphere was almost entirely Latin. Another important factor VOL. II N

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