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APRIL 23, 1564, is a red-letter day in the history of English literature; for on that day, as tradition has it, was born in the village of Stratford, in the county of Warwick, England, William Shakespeare, the greatest poet of modern times. Certain it is that three days later, April 26, the christening ceremony of the infant poet took place in the parish church at Stratford.
William Shakespeare came of ancient and honorable lineage. The surname itself, "implying capacity in the wielding of the spear,” testifies to the chivalric temper of some early ancestor. On both sides the poet could boast of sturdy yeoman ancestry. His father, John Shakespeare, was the son of a tenant farmer living at Snitterfield, four miles from Stratford, on land which was owned by Robert Arden, the maternal grandfather of the poet, and whose youngest daughter, Mary, was, in 1557, married to John Shakespeare. From her father, who died in 1556, Mary Arden inherited money and land, thus bringing a substantial dowry to her husband.
John Shakespeare seems to have been a shrewd, energetic business man, combining the occupations of farmer, glover, and trader in agricultural produce. He must have commanded the respect and confidence of his fellow-townsmen, for he was elected to various offices of trust and responsibility; finally, in 1568, attaining the highest office in the gift of the corporation, that of High Bailiff. His education must, however, have been very limited, some authorities asserting that he could neither read nor write; but according to Shakespeare's latest biographer, Sidney Lee, “When attesting documents he occasionally made his mark, but there is evidence in the Stratford archives that he could write with facility.” Mary Arden, as was usually the case with women of her station in life, was entirely ignorant of book-lore. William was the third child and the first son of this marriage. His two elder sisters having died in infancy, he naturally took the place of the eldest child in the home, where three younger brothers and one sister grew up with him. Happily, Stratford possessed an excellent Free Grammar School for the education of boys. The instruction was mainly in the Latin language and literature. Beginning with the Latin Grammar, or
accidence as it was called, the boys were drilled in conversational exercises, and later they read the great Roman authors,— Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Seneca, Plautus, and Terence. From our point of view this may seem a very one-sided training; but acquaintance with such writers is in itself a liberal education. School hours were long, occupying the entire day winter and summer, and we cannot wonder that the nature-loving Shakespeare should have written feelingly of the "schoolboy creeping like snail unwillingly to school.” Some knowledge of French and Italian he seems also to have acquired during the seven years that he is supposed to have attended the Grammar School.
In his fourteenth year Shakespeare was withdrawn from school, as it is supposed to assist his father, who had then become seriously embarrassed financially.
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
This counsel which Shakespeare puts into the mouth of the worldly-wise Polonius in the play of Hamlet may naturally have been suggested by knowledge of his father's financial difficulties. For, in a moment of pressing need, John Shakespeare had borrowed money from the husband of his wife's sister, giving
as security a mortgage on the Arden homestead, which had been included in Mary Arden's dowry. Once in debt, John Shakespeare found it impossible to extricate himself from his increasing financial distresses, and, in 1586, an importunate creditor informed the local court that the debtor had no goods which could be seized for payment of liabilities.
It is a significant fact that, about this very time, William Shakespeare left Stratford to seek his fortunes in London. Ere that time, however, William had himself incurred heavy responsibilities on his own account. Late in 1582, when but eighteen and a half years age, he had been married to Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior. She was the daughter of an old family friend living in the neighboring parish of Shottery, and it is probable that the marriage was the culmination of an early attachment.
In 1585 three little ones, a daughter, Susanna, and a twin boy and girl, Hamnet and Judith, had come into Shakespeare's home. How should he provide for his little family? Stratford offered few opportunities for an ambitious young man, and it seems natural that Shakespeare should turn to London to seek employment. There is a somewhat doubtful tradition to the effect that his departure was hastened by a prosecution for poaching on the deer preserves of a neighboring country gentleman, Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote Manor. However that may be, the year 1586 found young Shakespeare making his way to London, probably on foot. Whether he had already formed any definite plans as to his future work, it is impossible to say. From his early boyhood he had had frequent opportunities of witnessing dramatic performances. The Guildhall of Stratford, near by the Grammar School, was often visited by companies of travelling players once at least, while Shakespeare's father held the office of Bailiff ; the neighboring town of Coventry was the scene of regular dramatic representations; and the usual country festivals, such as May Day and Christmastide, were celebrated by some kind of dramatic performance. It is easy to believe that the instinct of genius attracted him to the theatre.
Tradition variously asserts that his earlier connection with the theatre was in the capacity of "prompter's attendant,” or call-boy, holder of horses for the visitors, and general servitor. In a short time he was enrolled among the actors, in which profession he speedily made a reputation. In 1592 the publisher Chettle wrote that Shakespeare was "exelent in the qualitie he professes,” and the old actor William Beeston asserted in the next century that Shakespeare “did act exceedingly well," 1 and he "pursued the profes
i Quoted by Sidney Lee in A Life of William Shakespeare.