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The Poetry of Chaucer. Root.
The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. by SKEAT.
Chaucer. GREENSLET. Forum, vol. 30, p. 375.
FREDERICK THE GREAT, in an essay on German litera
“To convince yourself of the little taste that prevails in Germany, you need only go to our theaters, where you will see the abominable works of Shakspere exhibited in German translations, while the whole audience almost die with delight as they listen to ridiculous farces worthy of American barbarians.”
This is the querulous protest of a monarch whose opinion had been formed by Voltaire. Goethe, greater than Frederick or Voltaire, said, “But we cannot talk about Shakspere; everything is inadequate. He is even too rich and too powerful.” Ben Jonson, the greatest contemporary of Shakspere, wrote:
I confess thy writings to be such
As neither man nor muse can praise too much." Such, too, is the verdict of three centuries of study. From Russia, Germany, France, Spain, Japan, and China comes the almost unanimous opinion that William Shakspere is the greatest literary genius of all lands and all times. As Browning sings,
"A thousand poets pried at life,
Rose to be Shakspere.”
What We Know About Shakspere.- We know much about Shakspere, and yet it is necessary for the student to distinguish carefully between fact and tradition, record and inference. The facts and records are few, the traditions and inferences are innumerable. But few as the facts are, they are more than we have of any of his literary contemporaries. The age in which he lived was not a biographical age. In a later age we find Dr. Johnson writing the lives of the poets, then Boswell writes a voluminous life of Johnson, and next a biographer writes the life of Boswell. In Shakspere's time, kings and queens alone seemed worthy of the biographer's zeal. Then after the death of the great poet came the era of Puritanism, an era in which the theater and everything connected with it was neglected.
During the last hundred years the students and critics have more than made up for any seventeenth-century lack of interest. After a century of the most painstaking toil in search of the minutest fact bearing on the life of this poet, we have a life of Shakspere which Professor Raleigh aptly calls “a scrap heap of respectable size.” These are the main facts: His baptismal record at Stratford shows that he was baptized April 26, 1564, and as children were baptized within two or three days of their birth, and because the inscription below his monument in the church has his age at 53, it is usually asserted that he was born on the 23rd. The house on Henley street is visited each year by some 20,000 pilgrims from all parts of the world, but we have only tradition to assert that the child was born there, for two houses were owned by the father at this time; but as the family was in prosperous circumstances we infer that the better of the two houses was occupied by the family when Shakspere was born. In 1582 he married Anne Hathaway; a few years later he went to London, where he became actor, playwright, and a manager of actors and owner of shares in the Blackfriars and Globe theaters; in 1597 he bought New Place, the best residence in Stratford; he died at Stratford in 1616, and was buried in Holy Trinity Church.
Parentage. - Richard Shakspere was a tenant farmer living at Snitterfield, a hamlet four miles north of Stratford. He had two sons, Henry and John. We first hear of John in a record of April, 1552, stating that he was fined twelve pence for permitting a heap of filth to accumulate before his house in Henley street, Stratford.
“Under these unsavory circumstances does the history of the poet's father commence in the records of England. But although there was little excuse for his negligence, all that can be said to his disparagement is that he was not in advance of his neighbors in such matters, two of whom were co-incidently fined for the same offence.” *
In 1557 John married Mary Arden, the daughter of a wealthy farmer who had died a few months previously. Her family belonged to the landed gentry, and no doubt the neighbors thought John Shakspere had done well in marrying Mary Arden. About her personal characteristics we know nothing, but we cannot help but think that she must have been a remarkable woman, of sound body and innate refinement, or how else could she have been the mother of a Shakspere? With his marriage to Mary Arden, John Shakspere's fortunes moved upward. During the next four years he became ale tester, burgess (petty constable), affeeror (adjuster of fines not determined by law), and city chamberlain (treasurer). In 1568 he became bailiff, and in 1571 head alderman. In signing documents John usually made a mark, but this does not imply that he was more illiterate than his neighbors; even the nobility regarded reading and writing as the accomplishment of clerks. In the Council books of the Stratford Corporation we find the name of John Shakspere 166 times, spelled in 14 different ways. Of these 166 times it is spelled Shaxspeare 69 times, and Shakspere 18 times; it is also spelled Shackspere, Shackesper, Shacksper, and Shackespere. These spellings would seem to show that the pronunciation of today is not the pronunciation heard by Shakspere himself.
Joan, Margareth, William, Gilbert, Joan (No. 2, the first having died), Anna, Richard, and Edmund were the children of John and Mary Shakspere. The first two died in infancy, Anna in her eighth year; and as Joan is the only one mentioned in Shakspere's will it is supposed that all but her had died before 1616. Joan lived until 1646, and was the mother of four children.
Education. - In Stratford the visitor of today is taken to the Grammar School and shown the very desk at which the youthful Shakspere studied. This is all very interesting, but again we are dealing with tradition, for there is no evidence that Shakspere
attended the Grammar School. He very likely did, for his father, during the poet's boyhood days, was in good circumstances, and besides, as town councillor, his children were entitled to free tuition. Any Stratford boy seven years old and able to read was entitled to enter. At this time the teachers were usually university men of fair scholarship, although the teaching as a rule was poor. “For one discreet and able teacher," writes Henry Peacham in the seventeenth century, "you shall find 20 ignorant and careless.... whereas they make one scholar, they mar ten.” The school hours were from six in the morning to six in the evening during summer, and in winter from dawn to dark. Shakspere studied Latin and some Greek. Lilly's Latin Grammar and the Sententiae Pueriles are the books from which later in life he gathers his quotations for his plays. The very mistake made in one of these books he makes in his quotation. Some think that Shakspere left the Grammar School at about thirteen or fourteen, because his father had failed in business and needed the boy's help.
Stratford and Vicinity. — The most important part of any boy's education is that received outside of school. This is especially true in the case of this poet whose scholastic experiences were so meager. Stratford was then a small village with possibly 1,500 inhabitants. To the north of the river stretched the Forest of Arden, among whose trees the youthful wanderer must have passed many a happy hour. Picturesque is the word that comes to the mind in thinking of the neighborhood about Stratford. During these early, impressionable years the unconscious boy was gathering the material later to be transmuted into the imperishable gold of the poet's imagery. In Venus and Adonis we have a picture of Wat, the poor hare, pursued by the hunters - a picture such as any boy wandering over the hills of Warwickshire might observe.