NE April morning nearly three hundred and fifty years ago there
was a stir and bustle in a goodly house in the little country
town of Stratford-on-Avon. The neighbors went in and out with
nods and smiles and mysterious whisperings. Then there was a
sound of clinking of glasses and of laughter, for it became known
that to John and Mary Shakespeare a son had been born, and
presently there was brought to be shown to the company "The
infant mewling and puking in the nurse's arms." It was a great
event for the father and mother, something of an event for
Stratford-on-Avon, for John Shakespeare was a man of importance.
He was a
And now this April morning John Shakespeare's heart was glad. Already he had had two children, two little girls, but they had both died. Now he had a son who would surely live to grow strong and great, to be a comfort in his old age and carry on his business when he could no longer work. It was a great day for John Shakespeare. How little he knew that it was a great day for all the world and for all time.
Three days after he was born the tiny baby was christened. And
the name his father and mother gave him was William. After this
three months passed happily. Then one of the fearful plagues
which used to sweep over the land, when people lived in dark and
dirty houses in dark and dirty streets, attacked
Years passed on, and the house in Henley Street grew ever more noisy with chattering tongues and pattering feet, until little Will had two sisters and two brothers to keep him company.
Then, although his father and mother could neither of them write
themselves, they decided that their children should be taught, so
William was sent to the Grammar School. He was, I think, fonder
of the blue sky and the
But we do not know. And whether he liked school or not, at least we know that later, when he came to write plays, he made fun of schoolmasters. He knew "little Latin and less Greek," said a friend in after life, but then that friend was very learned and might think "little" that which we might take for "a good deal." Indeed, another old writer says "he understood Latin pretty well."
We know little either of Shakespeare's school hours or play hours, but once or twice at least he may have seen a play or pageant. His father went on prospering and was made chief bailiff of the town, and while in that office he entertained twice at least troups of strolling players, the Queen's Company and the Earl of Worcester's Company. It is very likely that little Will was taken to see the plays they acted. Then when he was eleven years old there was great excitement in the country town, for Queen Elizabeth came to visit the great Earl of Leicester at his castle of Kenilworth, not sixteen miles away. There were great doings then, and the Queen was received with all the magnificence and pomp that money could procure and imagination invent. Some of these grand shows Shakespeare must have seen.
Long afterwards he remembered perhaps how one evening he had
stood among the crowd tiptoeing and eager to catch a glimpse of
the great Queen as she sat enthroned on a golden chair. Her
It was with such pageants, such allegories, that her people
flattered Queen Elizabeth, for many men laid their hearts at her
feet, but she in return never gave her own. She was the woman
above all others to be loved, to be worshiped, but herself
remained in "maiden meditation
Some time after John Shakespeare became chief bailiff his fortunes turned. From being rich he became poor. Bit by bit he was obliged to sell his own and his wife's property. So little Will was taken away from school at the age of thirteen, and set to earn his own living as a butcher—his father's trade, we are told. But if he ever was a butcher he was, nevertheless, an actor and a poet, "and when he killed a calf he would do it in a high style and make a speech." How Shakespeare fared in this new work we do not know, but we may fancy him when work was done wandering along the pretty country lanes or losing himself in the forest of Arden, which lay not far from his home, "the poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling," and singing to himself:
He knew the lore of fields and woods, of trees and flowers, and birds and beasts. He sang of
He remembered, perhaps, in after years his rambles by the
He knew the times of the flowers. In spring he marked
Of summer flowers he tells us
He knew that "a lapwing runs close by the ground," that choughs
Sometimes in his country wanderings Shakespeare got into mischief too. He had a daring spirit, and on quiet dark nights he could creep silently about the woods snaring rabbits or hunting deer. But we are told "he was given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits." He was often caught, sometimes got a good beating, and sometimes was sent to prison.
So the years passed on, and we know little of what happened in
them. Some people like to think that Shakespeare was a
schoolmaster for a time, others that he was a clerk in a lawyer's
office. He may have been one or other, but we do not know. What
we do know is that when he was eighteen he took a great step. He
married. We can imagine him making
The lady whom Shakespeare married was named Anne Hathaway. She came of farmer folk like Shakespeare's own mother. She was eight years older than her boyish lover, but beyond that we know little of Anne Hathaway, for Shakespeare never anywhere mentions his wife.
A little while after their marriage a daughter was born to Anne and William Shakespeare. Nearly two years later a little boy and girl came to them. The boy died when he was about eleven, and only the two little girls, Judith and Susanna, lived to grow up.
In spite of the fact that Shakespeare had now a wife and children to look after, he had not settled down. He was still wild, and being caught once more in stealing game he left Stratford and went to London.