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SKETCH OF THE LIFE
WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE was born at Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire, on the 23d day of April, 1564. His family was above the vulgar rank. His father, John Shakspeare, was a considerable dealer in wool, and had been an officer of the corporation of Stratford. He was likewise a justice of the peace, and at one time a man of considerable property. This last, however, appears to have been lost by some means, in the latter part of his life. His wife was the daughter and heiress of Robert Arden, of Wellington, in the county of Warwick, by whom he had a family of ten children.
Our illustrious poet was the eldest son, and was educated, probably, at the free-school of Stratford; but from this he was soon removed, and placed in the office of some country attorney. The exact amount of his education has been long a subject of controversy. It is generally agreed, that he did not enjoy what is usually termed a literary education; but he certainly knew enough of Latin and
French to introduce scraps of both in his plays, without blunder or impropriety.
When about eighteen years old, he married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years older than himself. His conduct soon after this marriage was not very correct. Being detected with a gang of deer-stealers, in robbing the park of Sir Thomas Lucy, of Charlecote, near Stratford, he was obliged to leave his family and business, and take shelter in London.
He was twenty-two years of age when he arrived in London, and is said to have made his first acquaintance in the play-house. Here his necessities obliged him to accept the office of call-boy, or prompter's attendant; who is appointed to give the performers notice to be ready, as often as the business of the play requires their appearance on the stage. According to another account, far less probable, his first employment was to wait at the door of the play-house, and hold the horses of those who had no servants, that they might be ready after the performance. But in whatever situation he was first employed at the theatre, he appears to have soon discovered those talents which afterwards made him
Th' applause, delight, the wonder, of our stage.'
Some distinction he probably first acquired as an actor, but no character has been discovered in which he appeared to more advantage than in that of the Ghost in Hamlet: and the best critics and inquirers into his life are of opinion, that he
was not eminent as an actor. In tracing the chronology of his plays, it has been discovered, that Romeo and Juliet, and Richard II. and III., were printed in 1597, when he was thirty-three years old. There is also some reason to think that he commenced a dramatic writer in 1592, and Mr. Malone even places his first play, The First Part of Henry VI., in 1589.
His plays were not only popular but approved by persons of the higher order, as we are certain that he enjoyed the gracious favour of Queen Elizabeth, who was very fond of the stage; the patronage of the Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated some of his poems; and of King James, who wrote a very gracious letter to him with his own hand, probably in return for the compliment Shakspeare had paid to his majesty in the tragedy of Macbeth. It may be added, that his uncommon merit, his candour, and good-nature, are supposed to have procured him the admiration and acquaintance of every person distinguished for such qualities. It is not difficult, indeed, to trace, that Shakspeare was a man of humour, and a social companion; and probably excelled in that species of minor wit, not ill adapted to conversation, of which it could have been wished he had been more sparing in his writings.
How long he acted, has not been discovered; but he continued to write till the year 1614. During his dramatic career, he acquired a property in the theatre, which he must have disposed of when he retired, as no mention of it occurs in his will. The
latter part of his life was spent in ease, retirement, and the conversation of his friends. He had accumulated considerable property, which Gildon (in his Letters and Essays) stated to amount to 3001. per ann. a sum equal to 1000l. in our days. But Mr. Malone doubts whether all his property amounted to much more than 2001. per ann. which yet was a considerable fortune in those times; and it is supposed, that he might have derived 2001. annually from the theatre, while he continued
He retired some years before his death to a house in Stratford, of which it has been thought important to give the history. It was built by Sir Hugh Clopton, a younger brother of an ancient family in that neighbourhood. Sir Hugh was sheriff of London in the reign of Richard III. and lord mayor in that of Henry VII. By his will he bequeathed to his elder brother's son his manor of Clopton, &c. and his house by the name of the Great House in Stratford. A good part of the estate was in possession of Edward Clopton, Esq. and Sir Hugh Clopton, Knt. in 1733. The principal estate had been sold out of the Clopton family for above a century, at the time when Shakspeare became the purchaser, who, having repaired and modelled it to his own mind, changed the name to New Place, which the mansion-house afterwards erected, in the room of the poet's house, retained for many years. The house and lands belonging to it continued in the possession of Shakspeare's descendants to the time of the Restoration, when they were re-purchased by the Clopton family.
Here, in May 1742, when Mr. Garrick, Mr. Macklin, and Mr. Delane, visited Stratford, they were hospitably entertained under Shakspeare's mulberry-tree, by Sir Hugh Clopton, who was a barrister, was knighted by George I. and died in the 80th year of his age, 1751. His executor, about the year 1752, sold New Place to the Rev. Mr. Gastrel, a man of large fortune, who resided in it but a few years, in consequence of a disagreement with the inhabitants of Stratford. As he resided part of the year at Lichfield, he thought he was assessed too highly in the monthly rate towards the maintenance of the poor, and being opposed, he peevishly declared, that that house should never be assessed again; and soon afterwards pulled it down, sold the materials, and left the town. He had some time before cut down Shakspeare's mulberry-tree, to save himself the trouble of showing it to visitors. That Shakspeare planted this tree appears to be sufficiently authenticated. Where New Place stood is now a garden.
During Shakspeare's abode in this house, he enjoyed the acquaintance and friendship of the gentlemen of the neighbourhood; and here he is thought to have written the play of Twelfth Night. He died on his birth-day, Tuesday, April 23, 1616, when he had exactly completed his fifty-second year; and was buried on the north side of the chancel, in the great church at Stratford, where a monument is placed in the wall, on which he is represented under an arch, in a sitting posture, a cushion spread before him, with a pen in his right hand, and his left rested on a scroll of