|APRIL 23RD, 1616.|
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W I L L I A M S H A K E S P E A R E.
BY J. O. HALLIWELL.
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The Essay reprinted in the following pages, is, it is believed, the first paper in which the poetic and historic interest attached to the Gardens of Shakespeare was brought before the notice of the public. It was written in 1861, long before the purchase of them by public subscription was suggested.
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LAST DAYS OF SHAKESPEARE.
THE world at the time knew not its loss when, on the twenty-third of April, in the year 1616, the gentle spirit of Shakespeare returned to the God who gave it; and everything of him that could fade lay stretched in a chamber of New Place, in his native town of Stratford-on-Avon. Barely half a century had elapsed / p.8 / since he had prattled in his nurse's arms, within a few hundred yards of the spot where his remains were then lying in that first dread change after death, when it is so difficult to realize the fact that what is left in this world is only dust; and that it is to be scattered to the winds until it is joined hereafter to the spiritual body that never dies. Once in existence we cannot get out of it. It is at once so fearful and so glorious to know this -- not so much in relation to ourselves -- although we are more or less selfish -- but in regard to the names that never die in this world; not only to fancy, but to know absolutely, for certain, that Shakespeare, Milton, and others (for a living word from whom we could / p.9 / almost barter our existence) are undying in another sense; and that we may -- for there is nothing in Scripture to gainsay it -- meet them some day elsewhere.
The surviving relations of Shakespeare thought of and knew this solemn fact. So religious were they, that they could not but have consoled the dramatist in his last days; and so little prejudiced, that, even at a time when the serious world was one that involved an excess of puritanical thought, especially in regard to the drama, they never dreamed of depreciating the profession to which Shakespeare had belonged, and from which he had retired with a noble competency. He had passed the later years / p.10 / of his life chiefly at Stratford; espousing the cause of the poor, adored in his family, respected by his neighbours. In January, 1616, he was in perfect health. It is sad, alas! to think that before a quarter of a year had elapsed, while he was yet in the flower of his age, he should have been stricken by fever and so died. Susanna Hall, his favourite daughter, exhibited that still, calm sorrow, which is so often the exponent of the severest grief. His wife, who had, on that morning of the sad twenty-third, smoothed the pillow beneath his head for the last time, felt that her right hand was taken from her. His other relatives bemoaned a parent and a friend. The inhabitants of the town of Stratford / p.11 / had lost a neighbour of consummate tact, kindliness, and geniality. In London, the theatrical circles regretted deeply the falling of one of their brightest stars. Even Ben Jonson, crabbed in the general, then felt that he was deprived of a friend whose worth in life he had hardly appreciated; but whose memory he now cherished on this side idolatry as much as any. But did the world then really know that the most stupendous genius of all ages had fallen like one of the slain? It is idle to answer such a question in the affirmative. The world at the time was unconscious of the magnitude of its loss, and when Shakespeare's spirit passed away, there were lamentation and mourning in limited circles; / p.12 / but there was not so much sensation in London as there would have been had one of the nobility, however now unknown to fame, been stricken by the hand of death.
The very fact of the comparative neglect of Shakespeare in his own day, imparts an additional interest to everything connected with the memory of his life in the locality where he was best appreciated, his native town of Stratford-on-Avon; whence he was driven in early life to seek his fortune in the metropolis, and to which he returned, after a brief period of activity, to become one of its leading inhabitants. Whatever may have been his position in society in London, we can at least feel / p.13 / tolerably certain that at Stratford he was universally known, and as widely respected. It is not much that we know of the later years of his life; but that little indicates a great deal that is pleasant and satisfactory. In a long-continued and careful examination of the Town Records, made some years ago, I fortunately discovered a leaf of memoranda made by a member of the corporation, amongst which was an allusion to the poet, which shows that in the September previously to his death he was at Stratford, and busying himself with matters relating to the projected enclosure of Welcombe Fields. The memorandum is dated September the 1st, 1615, and is in the following terms:-- "Mr. Shakespeare told / p.14 / Mr. J. Greene that he was not able to beare the enclosing of Welcombe." The important position he held in the estimation of his fellow-citizens, and the degree of local influence he must have possessed, are evinced in a remarkable degree by the value evidently attached to his opinions on the subject, which were of sufficient moment, not only to render them worthy of this special memorandum by Greene, but also to produce a letter to him signed by nearly all the members of the Corporation, at a period when it is possible that he might have been inclined to have given a hesitating compliance to the wishes of Combe. This is the latest notice of Shakespeare, written during his life, that is known to exist.
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It is proved beyond a doubt, from the same records, that Shakespeare's household was, at all events during the later years of his life, a religious one. As early as the year 1614, as appears from the Chamberlains' accounts, a preacher, one of the religious propagandists of the day, was entertained at New Place -- "Item, for one quart of sack, and one quart of claret wine, given to a preacher at the New Place, twenty pence." Presents of wine in this manner were, in those days, considered highly complimentary. This minister was invited to Stratford, under the sanction of a puritanical Corporation; and it is impossible to imagine that the reception of a reforming minister of religion in a / p.16 / private residence, at a period when party feeling in such matters was indulged in to so great an extent, could have taken place against the consent of the head of the family. When his daughter died, her bereaved husband well remembered, that as Shakespeare himself had realized the fact, in the subjection of genius to faith, so that what of his spirit had descended to her then availed her little. But there is a kindly feeling of reverence to the father in the allusion to this contained in the lines on her tombstone at Stratford-on-Avon:--
Witty above her sex, but that's not all,
Wise to salvation was good Mistress Hall;
Something of Shakespeare was in that, but this
Wholly of Him with whom she's now in bliss.
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Shakespeare, as it has been previously observed, died of a fever, no doubt from one engendered by the low sanitary state of the town, the evils of which were probably aggravated by a flood that had swamped the lowlands near the river exercising an injurious influence on the health of the inhabitants. The vulgar must, however, assign for an event a reason in consonance with the suggestions of their own imagination; and so, as Drayton, rare Ben, and some others, used occasionally to visit New Place, no doubt enlivening it with flashes of merriment the like of which will never again be heard, it was the report in Stratford, about forty years after the poet's decease, that, at one of these / p.18 / merry meetings he had taken more than a drop too much, and that so the fever was contracted. The Rev. John Ward, Vicar of Stratford, in a manuscript memorandum-book, written in the year 1662, asserts that "Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and, it seems, drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted." Mr. Ward ought to have known better than to have recorded such a bit of stupidity, without taking proper care to investigate the matter; but of all dangerous and ungenerous persons, some of the worst are those diarists who are indifferent altogether to the liberty taken with personal character, in their anxiety to fill their / p.19 / silly journals with fragments of gossip. Ward was just one of this class; and as Shakespeare was a great man, a morsel of detraction regarding such an one was exactly the thing for a pen that could indite nothing of itself that demanded a reader. He altogether overlooked the conclusion, that, if Shakespeare so contracted a fever, why should Ben and Mike have escaped? for to suppose that they refrained from taking glass for glass would be a libel on their characters. Oh, dear no! We may well believe in the fever; but as for the debauch, we will never entertain an idea that a man of Shakespeare's practical wisdom encountered the evils of intoxication a second time, / p.20 / the first occasion belonging, of course, to the celebrated episode in his life when he slumbered under the crab-tree.
New Place, the house in which Shakespeare lived when at Stratford from the year 1597 until his death in 1616, was one of the best residences in the town, inferior, of course, to "the College," then inhabited by the Combes, but, on the whole, superior to nearly all the other private edifices. It was situated at the corner of Chapel Lane and Chapel Street, and, in the poet's day, it had extensive grounds attached to it, part only of which now belong to the property. The house has been pulled down for more than a century, / p.21 / a man named Gastrell, annoyed by the curiousity of visitors, having destroyed the residence, and plucked up the celebrated mulberry-tree, thus leaving nothing but the site that can remain as a memorial of the later days of Shakespeare. But the violets are still there, and so is the eglantine; and one can yet wander in the poet's garden, looking towards the Chapel of the Guild, and feel that when gazing on that Sacred edifice, in a state fortunately unchanged, our eyes resting solely on Nature and the Chapel, we are indulging in a prospect once familiar to Shakespeare himself. There will be seen one of the few fragments of Stratford such as it was in the days of the great / p.22 / dramatist. On this spot Shakespeare died. The Author of Hamlet and of Macbeth will live in the hearts of numbers who may never see nor even hear of Stratford-on-Avon. Those, however, who have the opportunity, and who cherish his memory as the giver of the best legacies ever bequeathed by the sons of song, may well enter the garden, may detach their eyes from all of human hand, excepting from the Chapel whence the notes of the Gospel reached the ears of the poet, and pay a tribute of reverence to the memory of one of the great benefactors of the world, whispering, "Here wandered in his pilgrimage a man who has purified the imagination, and sweetened much / p.23 / of the hardness of the path of life in us, in you, in thousands who are dead, in numbers who are living, and whose mission will be carried on for the benefit of myriads yet unborn." We may not be moved to let fall a tear for his untimely death, but we may at least, without affectation, fervently breathe a hope that the coming owner of the consecrated spot may redeem, as far as possible, the want of reverence exhibited by his predecessors, surrendering to the earnest pilgrim a reverie in the bowers of the one who wrote as never man wrote. Truly, and indeed, it is something to gather the violets of Shakespeare, to partake of the fragrance of his eglantine!
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