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SHAKESPEARE'S EARLY LIFE AND MARRIAGE

The following essay is reprinted from A Complete Manual of English Literature. Thomas B. Shaw. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1867.

Among the various legends connected with the early life of so great a man, and which posterity, in the singular absence of more trustworthy details, swallows with greediness, the most celebrated and romantic is that which represents his youth as irregular and even profligate, and in particular recounts his deer-stealing expedition, in company with other riotous young fellows, to Sir Thomas Lucy's park at Charlecote, near Stratford. The young poacher, who had "broken the park, stolen the deer, and kissed the keeper's daughter," is said to have been seized, brought before the indignant Justice of the Peace, and treated with so much severity by Sir Thomas that he revenged himself on the rural magnate by affixing a doggerel pasquinade to the gates of Charlecote. The wrath of the magistrate is said to have blazed so high at this additional insolence that Shakespeare was obliged to withdraw himself from more serious persecution by escaping to London. Here, continues the legend, which is so circumstantial and picturesque that we cannot but regret its total want of proof and probability, the young poet arrived in such deep poverty, as to be for some time reduced to earn a livelihood by holding horses at the doors of the theatres, where "his pleasant wit" attracting the notice of the actors, he ultimately obtained access "behind the scenes," and by degrees became a celebrated actor and valuable dramatic author.

Eager as we are for every scrap of personal information which can help to realize so great a man as Shakespeare, we are naturally reluctant to renounce our belief in so striking a story; but, though the deer-stealing story may very possibly be not altogether devoid of foundation, the romantic incidents connected with his leaving Stratford and embracing the theatrical career, are to be explained in a different and much less improbable manner. It is quite certain that he left his native town in 1586, at the age of twenty-two; and it is quite possible that the distressed situation in which his parents then were, and, what is no less likely, the imprudence and irregularity of his own youthful conduct, may have contributed to render a longer stay in Stratford disagreeable, if not impossible. One event, which had occurred about four years before, most probably contributed more powerfully to send him forth "to seek his fortune," than the ire of Sir Thomas Lucy, or the perhaps not very enviable reputation which his boyish escapades had probably acquired among the steady burgesses of the little town, who probably shook their heads at the young scap-grace, prophesying that he would never come to any good. This event was his marriage, contracted when he was only eighteen, in 1582, with Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a small farmer, little above the rank of a laboring man, who resided at the hamlet of Shottery, about two miles from Stratford. Anne Hathaway was seven years and a half older than her boy-husband; and the marriage appears to have been pressed on with eager haste, probably by the relatives of the bride, who may have forced young Shakespeare to heal a breach which he had made in the young woman's reputation. There is still in existence the undertaking, legally signed by the parties, giving Shakespeare, then a minor, the power of contracting marriage. The whole of this important episode in the poet's life bears strong trace of a not over-reputable family mystery. The fruit of this union was a first daughter Susanna, the poet's favorite child, born in 1583, and in the following year twins, Judith and Hamnet. The latter, the poet's only son, died at twelve years of age; his two daughters survived him. After these he had no more children; and there are several facts which seem to point, significantly though obscurely, to the conclusion that the married life of the poet was not marked by that love and confidence which is the usual result of well-considered and well-assorted unions. Thus, though Shakespeare passed the most active portion of his life, from 1586 to 1611, almost constantly in London, there is evidence to show that his wife, during the whole of that long period, never resided with her husband, but with his parents in Stratford; and therefore could only have seen him on the occasions, probably pretty frequent, of his flying visits to his native place. In the great poet's Will, too, which invaluable document gives us so many details concerning his private life, Mrs. Shakespeare appears to be treated in a manner very different from that which a beloved and respected wife might have expected from so generous and gentle a character as William Shakespeare's unquestionably was. To his wife the poet leaves only "he second-best bed, with the hangings," a very slighting and inconsiderable legacy when we reflect that he died comparatively rich.

Concerning the boyhood and youth of the great painter of nature and of man we know little or nothing. It is more than probable that his education was neglected, his passions strong, and his conduct far from regular; yet we may in some sort rejoice at the destiny which allowed him to draw his earliest impressions of nature from the calm and graceful scenery of Warwickshire, and placed him in a situation to study the passions and character of men among the unsophisticated inhabitants of a small provincial town. Perhaps, too, the very imperfection of his intellectual training was an advantage to his genius, in allowing his gigantic powers to develop themselves, untrammelled by the bonds of regular education. It is not improbable that at one period of his youth he had been placed in the office of some country practitioner of the law: in all his works he shows an extraordinary knowledge of the technical language of that profession, and frequently draws his illustrations from its vocabulary. Besides, such terms as he employs he almost always employs correctly; which would hardly be possible but to one who had been professionally versed in them: add to which in one of the few ill-natured and satirical allusions made to Shakespeare by his contemporary rivals, there is a distinct indication of the poet's having in his youth exercised "the trade of Noverint," that is, the occupation of a lawyer's clerk, this word being the usual commencement of writs--"noverint universi."

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