The events - few in number - that have been recorded of the poet's life are well known. How he wooed in his boyhood the fair Anne Hathaway, and wedded her; how he (in company with a party of gay young companions) stole a deer from Sir Thomas Lucy's park, of Fulbrook, on the Warwick road (not as is commonly supposed from Charlecote), though it was in the hall of Charlecote that he was tried for poaching. How for this offence (which in those days would be looked on as a mere frolic) he was, he considered, too hardly treated, and how he avenged himself by writing a satirical ballad on Sir Thomas. It was so severe that it created for him a powerful enemy, and he took refuge in London, and became an actor and dramatist. Thus good came out of evil, and we owe in a manner to Sir Thomas Lucy the arousing of the slumbering genius that was to doom him (Lucy) to a painful immortality, and to direct to Stratford the feet of pilgrims from all lands as to a hallowed spot. His after fortunes, too, were won by his temporary exile from home; for Shakspeare gained love, fame, and independence in London, and returned to his native town to occupy its best house, and be its first citizen.
He was educated at the Free Grammar School of the town, founded by a native of Stratford in the reign of Henry VI.
Immediately over the Guildhall is the schoolroom, now divided into two chambers, and having a low, flat plaster ceiling in place of the arched roof Thither the boy Shakspeare went about the year 1571, his schoolmaster being the curate of the neighbouring village of Luddington - Thomas Hunt.
The tercentenary festival here, in 1864, bore good fruit, and in the way of permanent Shakspeare monuments there is much now to be seen there. The site of New Place, the house purchased by Shakspeare when he returned to the town, and in which he died, was bought for upwards of £3,000 by subscription from Mr. Halliwell Phillips, the first purchaser, the list of the subscribers' names being headed by that of the Prince Consort. The foundations of the house were all that remained of it, for it had been ruthlessly demolished by Mr. Gastrell; these foundations are now carefully preserved beneath an iron grating, and a scion of the mulberry tree, destroyed by the same person, was planted and grows there. The ground plan of the house and of the two gardens attached to it, may thus be easily traced. There is a Shakspearean museum to which many gifts have been made; a Shakspeare memorial (a fine building), and a library containing all the known editions, new and old, of the poet's works.
Shakspeare himself cared nothing about the preservation of his works. He seems to have been entirely free from "that last infirmity of noble minds," the desire for fame.
In this pushing, puffing age, when some writers are always striving to bring their small names before the public, this appears astonishing. But as Howitt says:-
"He (Shakspeare) had a mind that could not only achieve what was beyond the fame of other men, but a calm indifference even for his own fame, that more resembled the elevation of a Divine nature than the nervous temperament of humanity." He might have added, "its weak little vanity." Mr. Howitt also suggests another reason for Shakspeare's indifference to his own wonderful productions, the hint being taken from his sonnets, especially the one commencing-
Mr. Howitt observes on this sonnet, "He clearly regarded his profession of an actor as a degradation, as no doubt it was considered in the eye of those times. He probably regarded his dramas as mere compositions written to advance his fortune, and as standing testimonies to that mode of life which he regarded with aversion. This, it is probable, was the cause why he so entirely neglected them, and turned, as it were, his thoughts from them, as reminding him of many things during the period of their production which he would fain forget for ever."
This is quite possible; but also there is the known prodigality of genius, and that high ideal which no really great poet ever fully reaches. To us the matchless dramas are wonders of mental power; to him his own greater ideal must have rendered them partly unsatisfactory. He must have had a good deal of the nature of his own Coriolanus, who "hated to hear his nothings monstered," - the said "nothings" being deeds of the most unparalleled heroism, - a man fighting against a city.
Stratford Church stands between Stratford and the Avon, surrounded by trees, and with a pleached avenue up to the porch. The chancel is of beautiful architecture, and there is some grotesque carving on the stalls, where the priests used to sit.
Close to the communion table, in a niche on the north wall of the chancel, is the well-known bust of Shakspeare, placed on a cushion, holding a pen in his right hand, and his left resting upon a scroll. Above are his arms, and on each side of them a small sitting figure; one holding in his right hand a spade; the other, who has his eyes closed, has one hand upon a skull, and in the other holds an inverted torch. Beneath the cushion this distich is engraved:
And on a tablet underneath these lines:-
This monument is believed to have been erected by his son-in-law and executor, Dr. John Hall, not long after his death; for it was here before 1623.
Sir William Dugdale in his diary states the artist to have been Gerard Johnson, "a Hollander, a tombe-maker, who lived in St Thomas's Aposteles." It is a fine head; remarkable for the gravity of its features; there is an expression in it of great and calm benevolence. The bust was originally painted to resemble life; the eyes were light hazel; the hair and beard auburn. The dress was a scarlet doublet, with a loose black, sleeveless gown over it.
In 1748 the monument was repaired and the colours restored; the expense was defrayed by the receipts for the performance of "Othello" at the Old Town Hall, given by Mrs. Siddons' grandfather, Mr. Ward.
In 1793 Mr. Malone had the bust and monument painted white.
Below the monument and facing the communion rail are four inscribed flags covering the graves of the poet, his wife, his daughter Susanna, and her husband, Dr. John Hall. On that of Shakspeare is the awful warning by which the remains of the greatest Englishman have probably been preserved to his country.
Thus roughly engraved in large and small capitals stand the malediction and blessing. It reads thus:-
The desecration of his daughter Susanna's tomb shows that there was in those days need for such a warning. Her grave-stone bore the following inscription:
"Here lieth the body of Susanna, wife to John Hall, gent., the daughter of William Shakspeare, gent. She deceased ye 11th July, A.D. 1649, aged 66.
But these lines were long ago obliterated for another inscription, carved on the same stone for a Richard Watts, who must have been buried in Susanna's grave, though in no way related to the Shakspeares. In the eastern corner is the tomb of John-a-Combe, with his effigy stretched on it. He was a noted usurer. He lived at Welcome Lodge, and afterwards at the college, which, before Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, was inhabited by priests and choristers. It was let by the Crown to John-a-Combe, who died there, 1624, two years before Shakspeare. John-a-Combe became on friendly terms with the poet, and importuned him to write an epitaph for him; it is said that Shakspeare at last acceded to his wish, and for ever offended him by this epitaph:-
As if to contradict this satire it is recorded on Combe's tomb, and on gold lettered tablets in the church, that he left £1 for two sermons to be preached in that church; £6 13s. 4d. to "buy ten goundes for ten poore people; " and (true to his old habits) £100 to be loaned to fifteen poor tradesmen of the borough, from three years to three years, at 50s. per annum interest. The gain of the loan was to be distributed to the inmates of the almshouses, adding on his tomb, "Virtus Post Funera vivit." But in spite of this devised charity, the words of the poet have lived on in the hearts and mouths of the Stratford people to the present day.
Stratford Church has a very sad story attached to it. The Cloptons of Clopton were the great family of the neighbourhood - from them Shakspeare bought New Place - and at the east end of the north aisle (the chapel formerly dedicated to the Blessed Virgin) are their monuments "of massy though timeworn splendour." Under a Gothic arch an altar-tomb is raised more than four feet from the pavement; its sides are panelled, and must once have held shields; these are gone, and the flat stone on the top has no inscription; but the arms of Clopton, with those of the city of London and of the Woolstaplers' Company, to which Sir Hugh Clopton belonged (he was Lord Mayor of London in 1492), prove that this was his tomb.
The terrible story is this: the Cloptons had - judging by what we are told of her picture - a very lovely young daughter, with pale gold hair and soft blue eyes. During an epidemic of some sort that was highly infectious, Charlotte Clopton appeared to die, and was immediately, with unsafe haste, buried in Clopton Chapel. But the infection spread; another Clopton shortly after died, and was also hurried home to the ancestral vault. But, horror! as they descended the stairs with their burden, they saw by the torchlight, Charlotte Clopton in her grave-clothes, leaning against the wall. She had been buried in a trance, and they came too late to save her! She was dead; but in her agony of hunger she had bitten a piece from her own white shoulder.
Among the Shakspearean relics at Stratford is a painting of Charlotte in her trance - a lovely young woman leaning back in a cushioned chair in a profound sleep; probably it once hung in Clopton Hall.