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Stratford-on-Avon, which extends from the year 1648 to 1679, there is this Memorandum :-“Remember to peruse Shakespeare's plays, and bee much versed in them, that I may not bee ignorant in that matter;" Eighth, In an indenture executed by the poet himself in 1613, he is described as William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, in the countie of Warwick, gentleman ;" Ninth, In the dedication to the “ Venus and Adonis ” and the “Rape of Lucrece,” printed in the poet's lifetime, and under his own superintendence, the signature is William Shakespeare; and the name is so spelt in the three folio editions of his plays, in Ben Jonson's verses under the portrait in these editions, in all the plays published separately during his lifetime, and in almost every work in which it occurs in the course of the seventeenth century; Lastly, In the original inscription on the gravestone of his widow and daughter the spelling is Shakespeare. These authorities are conclusive. It may be that Shakespeare himself did not adopt a uniform mode of writing his signature, which was no uncommon thing in his time; and the signature to his will is certainly liker Shackspeare than Shakespeare; but, as Halliwell observes, the only method of reconciling inconsistencies is to adopt the name as was bequeathed to us by his contemporaries and personal friends.
A problem more important than that which concerns only the precise letters of his name remains unsolved. His birthday is uncertain.
He was baptized, as the parish Register instructs, on the 26th April, 1564; but there is nothing to prove on what day he was born. The two reasons commonly assigned for fixing on the 23d April are both unsatisfactory. The first is, that at that time baptism followed quickly on birth, and that, although the second day after might be too soon, it is not likely that it was delayed after the third. It is plain that this is mere guess-work; and the second reason is still weaker. It is this,—that as his monumental inscription records that he was in his fifty-third year on the day of his death, 23d April, 1616, he must have been born on or before 23d April, 1564, seeing that his fifty-third year could not commence sooner than that day in 1616. But there is nothing to indicate that the day of his death was his birthday; and the presumption on the whole matter is that he was not born on the 23d April, but some days sooner. The error,
however, if it be one, which has popularly fixed on the 23d, St. George's Day, is very innocent, and it is better perhaps not to disturb it.
John Shakespeare, the poet's father, was a burgess of Stratford; but his pursuit or calling is another matter of doubt. The old chronicler Aubrey says he was a butcher; whilst the more authentic opinion seems to be that he was a wool-dealer and glover. He may have been regarded as in some sort a butcher or grazier, since he would no doubt rear sheep for the purposes of his trade. He stood at all events in good estimation; for the Corporation records show that he was not only an alderman, but
that in 1568 he rose to the dignity of High Bailiff or first Magistrate. He was a yeoman, and held some landed property, which there is ground for believing descended to him from his great-grandfather, who is said to have received a grant of land for military services rendered to Henry VII. John Shakespeare married, in 1557, Mary Arden, daughter and heiress of Robert Arden of Wilmecote, in the county of Warwick, a family of old and good repute. It was her destiny to become the mother of Shakespeare : "how august a title," says De Quincey, “to the reverence of infinite generations, and of centuries beyond the vision of prophecy !" She bore her husband eight children, four sons and four daughters. The two first were daughters, Jone or Joan, and Margaret; the third was William; then followed Gilbert, another Joan, Anne, Richard, and Edmond, who was born in 1580, and was therefore sixteen years younger than William. With the exception of the second Joan, all the poet's sisters died in childhood ; but his brothers attained to mature age.
William, being the oldest son, and born when his father's fortunes were in the ascendant, was no doubt looked carefully after. The year of his birth was one of terror and of woe in Stratford; for the plague which desolated London in 1563, and still continued there, spread over other parts of England in 1564, and the red cross was seen on many a door in quiet country towns, and was nowhere more alarmingly frequent than in Stratford. But, fortunately for mankind, the plague spared the house of Shakespeare. He lay, like Horace
They show the room still in which he was born,a low-roofed, antique apartment, but yet possessing an air of comfort, the walls of which are, in the words of Washington Irving, “covered with names and inscriptions in every language, by pilgrims of all nations, ranks, and conditions, from the prince to the peasant; and present a simple but striking instance of the spontaneous and universal homage of mankind to the great poet of nature.”
And when, in happy boyhood, he opened his eyes upon the world, and wandered out into the scenes that surrounded his home, he found them not only full of romantic beauty, but ennobled by old associations and poetical traditions. The immediate neighbourhood of Stratford is undulating and varied, with a picturesque variety of hill and dale, wood and meadowland, through which the Avon flows in silver links. Dear was that river to the young poet,—dear no doubt it was to every boy in Stratford; but thoughts came to Shakespeare by its green bank destined to shine as long as its waters
“Thou soft-flowing Avon, by thy silver stream Of things more than mortal sweet Shakespeare would
He had “an eye for all he saw.” Under the hedgerow, through the meadows, on the uplands, and in the beautiful bosom of the country, he noted every weed and wildflower. In after years, when buried in the heart of London, he could see, when he listed,
“The winking Mary-buds begin
Or Cytherea's breath.” or else,
A bank whereon the wild thyme blows,
With sweet musk roses and with eglantine.” In the dingiest room, darkened by a city's smoke, he could return at will to the umbrageous oaks and elms beneath whose shadows he had so often lain, and warble, as of old,
“ Under the greenwood tree
Unto the sweet bird's note,
Here shall he see
But winter and rough weather ! ” When he extended his rambles to greater distances, they led him to some grand old castle, or famous