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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VIII. Shakespeare: Life and Plays

§ 2. His Family and Education

No biography of Shakespeare, therefore, which deserves any confidence, has ever been constructed without a large infusion of the tell-tale words “apparently,” “probably,” “there can be little doubt”; and no small infusion of the still more tell-tale “perhaps,” “it would be natural,” “according to what was usual at the time” and so forth. The following summary will give the certain facts, with those which are generally accepted as the most probable, distinguishing the two classes, so far as is possible, without cumbrous saving clauses, but avoiding altogether mere guesswork, unless it has assumed such proportions in ordinary accounts that it cannot be passed by.

The name of Shakespeare appears to have been very common, especially in the west midlands; and there was a William Shakespeare hanged (cf. his namesake’s “Hang-hog is Latin for bacon”) as early as 1248, not far from Stratford itself. In the sixteenth century, the name seems to have been particularly common; and there were at least two John Shakespeares who were citizens of the town about the time of the poet’s birth. It has, however, been one of the accepted things that his father was a John Shakespeare (son of Richard), who, at one time, was a “prosperous gentleman”—or, at any rate, a prosperous man of business as woolstapler, fellmonger and so forth, thinking himself gentleman enough to make repeated applications for coat armour, which, at last, were granted. This John Shakespeare married Mary Arden, an heiress of a good yeomanly family, but as to whose connection with a more distinguished one of the same name there remains much room for doubt. The uncertainty of the poet’s birthday is one of the best known things about him. He was baptised on 26 April, 1564; and probability, reinforced by sentiment, has decided on the 23rd, St. George’s day, for the earlier initiation. He would seem to have had three brothers and two sisters.

There was a free grammar school at Stratford, to which, as the son of his father, he would have been entitled to admission; and it has been supposed that he went there. Aubrey, who is entirely unsupported, even says that he was a schoolmaster himself. The point is only of importance, first in regard to Jonson’s famous ascription to him of “small Latin and less Greek”; secondly, and much more, in relation to the difficulty which has been raised as to a person of no, or little, education having written the plays. The first count matters little—many schoolboys and some schoolmasters have answered to Ben’s description. The second matters much—for it seems to be the ground upon which some persons of wit have joined the many of none, who are “Baconians” or at least against “the Stratforder,” as certain anti-Shakespearean Germans call him.

The difficulty comes from a surprising mixture of ignorance and innocence. A lawyer of moderate intelligence and no extraordinary education will get up, on his brief, at a few days’ notice, more knowledge of an extremely technical kind than Shakespeare shows on any one point, and will repeat the process in regard to almost any subject. A journalist of no greater intelligence and education will, at a few hours’ or minutes’ notice, deceive the very elect in the same way. Omniscience, no doubt, is divine; but multiscience—especially multiscience a little scratched and admitting through the scratches a seacoast to Bohemia and knowledge of Aristotle in Ulysses—is quite human. What is wonderful is not what, in the book sense, Shakespeare knew, but what he did and was. And the man—whoever he was—who wrote what Shakespeare wrote would have had not the slightest difficulty in knowing what Shakespeare knew.