William Shakespeare was born at Stratford, on the Avon, April 23, 1564, and was baptized on the 26th. Two months after his birth the plague swept over the pleasant village, carrying off a large part of the inhabitants. The danger that hung over the marvellous infant passed away, and he grew up healthy and strong. His mother, Mary Arden, inherited a large farm at Wilmecote, a mile from Stratford; and his father, John Shakespeare, who held several other pieces of land, was probably an active farmer, raising sheep, and perhaps cattle. The house in which it is said Shakespeare was born is still shown in Henley Street, Stratford—a plain building of timber and plaster, covered with the names of those who have come from every part of the world to visit the dark, narrow room made memorable by the poet's birth.
He had several younger brothers—Gilbert, Richard, Edmund, and a sister Joan—all of whom he aided in his[Pg 738] prosperity. The family in Henley Street was a happy one; and the young Shakespeares and their sister probably wandered in the flowery fields around the Avon, or lived on the farm at Wilmecote, saw the cows milked, and the cattle pastured, and all the changes of rural life. Shakespeare lived among the flowers he describes so well; and in the fine park of Fulbroke, not far off, saw the magnificent oaks, the herds of deer, and the gay troops of huntsmen chasing the poor stag along the forest glade. He must have been a precocious boy, seeing everything around him even in childhood. He is described or painted in later life as having a fair, melancholy, sensitive face, his eyes apparently dark, his hair brown and flowing. His disposition was gentle and benevolent; he won the love even of his foes.
As the son of a farmer he probably had little education. He went for several years to the grammar school at Stratford, and was then perhaps employed on his father's farm. Like Virgil, Horace, Burns, and many other poets, he grew up in the country. Nothing is certainly known of his youth. He was fond of rural sports, and amidst his early labors went no doubt to the country fairs, joined in the Christmas games and May-day dances, and probably when the Earl of Leicester gave the magnificent reception to Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth, described in Scott's novel, Shakespeare was there among the spectators. He was then a boy of twelve. He could enjoy the plays, games, the pomp and glitter, of that famous festival.
He must have read romances and tales early, like Dickens; he may have amused his little brothers and his sister Joan by repeating to them on winter evenings in the low room in Henley Street the story of the wild castle of Elsinore, or of the venerable Lear and the gentle Cordelia. He was all imagination, and precocious in knowledge; he must have studied when his companions played, and read everything that came in his way. At eighteen he fell in love and married Anne Hathaway, a young lady eight years older than himself. Before he was twenty-one he had three children to maintain, and went up to London to find employment. He remained in obscurity for some years; but at last appears, about 1590, the finest poet and dramatist of all ages.
Shakespeare pursued his career in London as author and theatrical manager for nearly twenty-five years. He was very industrious; he was prudent, but generous; he saved money, and grew wealthy. About 1612 or 1613 he returned to Stratford, where he lived in the best house of the little village, called "New Place." Here he gave a home to his father and mother, and provided liberally for his younger brothers. To his sister Joan he gave the house in Henley Street, which remained in the possession of her descendants until 1820. He may have looked forward to a long and honorable old age, but died in 1616, it is said, on the same day of the year on which he was born. His son Hamnet died long before him. He left two daughters.
His writings teach men to be kind and gentle.
From Harper's Magazine, 1880