By E. Nesbit
In the register of baptisms of the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon, a market town in Warwickshire, England, appears, under date of April 26, 1564, the entry of the baptism of William, the son of John Shakspeare.
The date of William Shakespeare’s birth has usually been taken as three days before his baptism, but there is certainly no evidence of this fact.
The family name was variously spelled, the dramatist himself not always spelling it in the same way. While in the baptismal record the name is spelled “Shakspeare,” in several authentic autographs of the dramatist it reads “Shakspere,” and in the first edition of his works it is printed “Shakespeare.”
Halliwell tells us, that there are not less than thirty-four ways in which the various members of the Shakespeare family wrote the name, and in the council-book of the corporation of Stratford, where it is introduced one hundred and sixty-six times during the period that the dramatist’s father was a member of the municipal body, there are fourteen different spellings. The modern “Shakespeare” is not among them.
Shakespeare’s father, while an alderman at Stratford, appears to have been unable to write his name, but as at that time nine men out of ten were content to make their mark for a signature, the fact is not specially to his discredit.
The traditions and other sources of information about the occupation of Shakespeare’s father differ. He is described as a butcher, a woolstapler, and a glover, and it is not impossible that he may have been all of these simultaneously or at different times, or that if he could not properly be called any one of them, the nature of his occupation was such as to make it easy to understand how the various traditions sprang up. He was a landed proprietor and cultivator of his own land even before his marriage, and he received with his wife, who was Mary Arden, daughter of a country gentleman, the estate of Asbies, 56 acres in extent. William was the third child. The two older than he were daughters, and both probably died in infancy. After him was born three sons and a daughter.
For ten or twelve years at least, after Shakespeare’s birth his father continued to be in easy circumstances. In the year 1568 he was the high bailiff or chief magistrate of Stratford, and for many years afterwards he held the position of alderman as he had done for three years before. To the completion of his tenth year, therefore, it is natural to suppose that William Shakespeare would get the best education that Stratford could afford. The free school of the town was open to all boys and like all the grammar-schools of that time, was under the direction of men who, as graduates of the universities, were qualified to diffuse that sound scholarship which was once the boast of England. There is no record of Shakespeare’s having been at this school, but there can be no rational doubt that he was educated there. His father could not have procured for him a better education anywhere. To those who have studied Shakespeare’s works without being influenced by the old traditional theory that he had received a very narrow education, they abound with evidences that he must have been solidly grounded in the learning, properly so called, was taught in the grammar schools.
There are local associations connected with Stratford which could not be without their influence in the formation of young Shakespeare’s mind. Within the range of such a boy’s curiosity were the fine old historic towns of Warwick and Coventry, the sumptuous palace of Kenilworth, the grand monastic remains of Evesham. His own Avon abounded with spots of singular beauty, quiet hamlets, solitary woods. Nor was Stratford shut out from the general world, as many country towns are. It was a great highway, and dealers with every variety of merchandise resorted to its markets. The eyes of the poet dramatist must always have been open for observation. But nothing is known positively of Shakespeare from his birth to his marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582, and from that date nothing but the birth of three children until we find him an actor in London about 1589.
How long acting continued to be Shakespeare’s sole profession we have no means of knowing, but it is in the highest degree probable that very soon after arriving in London he began that work of adaptation by which he is known to have begun his literary career. To improve and alter older plays not up to the standard that was required at the time was a common practice even among the best dramatists of the day, and Shakespeare’s abilities would speedily mark him out as eminently fitted for this kind of work. When the alterations in plays originally composed by other writers became very extensive, the work of adaptation would become in reality a work of creation. And this is exactly what we have examples of in a few of Shakespeare’s early works, which are known to have been founded on older plays.
It is unnecessary here to extol the published works of the world’s greatest dramatist. Criticism has been exhausted upon them, and the finest minds of England, Germany, and America have devoted their powers to an elucidation of their worth.
Shakespeare died at Stratford on the 23rd of April, 1616. His father had died before him, in 1602, and his mother in 1608. His wife survived him till August, 1623. His so Hamnet died in 1596 at the age of eleven years. His two daughters survived him, the eldest of whom, Susanna, had, in 1607, married a physician of Stratford, Dr. Hall. The only issue of this marriage, a daughter named Elizabeth, born in 1608, married first Thomas Nasbe, and afterwards Sir John Barnard, but left no children by either marriage. Shakespeare’s younger daughter, Judith, on the 10th of February, 1616, married a Stratford gentleman named Thomas Quincy, by whom she had three sons, all of whom died, however, without issue. There are thus no direct descendants of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s fellow-actors, fellow-dramatists, and those who knew him in other ways, agree in expressing not only admiration of his genius, but their respect and love for the man. Ben Jonson said, “I love the man, and do honor his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any. He was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature.” He was buried on the second day after his death, on the north side of the chancel of Stratford church. Over his grave there is a flat stone with this inscription, said to have been written by himself:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare
To digg the dust encloased heare:
Blest be ye man yt spares these stones,
And curst be he yt moves my bones.
(“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forebear, To dig the dust enclosed hear, Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”)