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Authors of almost every description have attempted this for Shakespeare, each one bitterly complaining of the paucity of facts, but making ample amends by conjectures of their own; for, as the great dramatist excelled all in imagination, his biographers have exceeded all other biographers in the facility with which they have regarded him in all imaginable and imaginary positions. A small portion only of the writers of the history of Shakespeare's life lay claim to the merit of having instituted original enquiries, the majority being content with appropriating the information recorded by their predecessors, and giving us the results of their own reasonings upon them. Some, especially Malone, and more recently Mr. Collier, have exercised laudable diligence in examining records for notices likely to throw light on the poet's history; legal registers of property and suits, which arrest so many latent facts that had otherwise been lost with the perishing details of social life. These two writers, indeed, have unfolded so much valuable information, and their perseverance has been so great as almost to have become proverbial, that no astonishment may well be expressed, when we find others declining to trace sources believed to have been so minutely investigated, and lamenting the inevitable conclusion that nothing more of any importance respecting the poet was now to be discovered.
Without undervaluing in the slightest degree the distinguished and valuable researches of those two critics, or complaining of want of industry in other biographers, it is necessary to say, however strange such an assertion may appear, that the repositories of documents most obvious to any enquirer as likely to contain information relating to
Shakespeare, have never yet been properly examined for that purpose. Even the records of Stratford-on-Avon have not been used to any extent, and the few notices of the Shakespeares hitherto quoted from them, have generally been most inaccurately transcribed. Mr. Collier, in this respect, has contented himself with Malone's researches, and Mr. Knight is, I believe, the only one of late years who has referred to the originals, but the very slight notice he has taken of them, and the portentous mistakes he has committed in cases where printed copies were not to be found, would appear to show that they were unintelligible to that writer. Malone, with all his errors, possessed some knowledge of palæography,* a science essentially necessary in the investigation of contracted records of the sixteenth century, especially of those written in Latin.
In the Council Chamber of Stratford-on-Avon are preserved vast quantities of manuscript papers, commencing at a very early period, and particularly rich in materials for a history of that town during the reign of Elizabeth. All these I have carefully perused,—attractive bundles, filling large boxes, chests, drawers, and cupboards,—and the important and novel information thence collected is fully exhibited in the following pages. They are in the custody of W. 0. Hunt, Esq., whose judicious care and anxiety for their preservation merit the warmest testimony. In the last century, these records were lent to Malone, who was indignant because the corporation requested their
* But not in a very profound degree, or he would scarcely have read tentator serricii in the extract I have given at p. 26.
restoration after they had been several years in his possession! The value of these precious treasures is now better understood, and their importance properly appreciated. They cannot, indeed, be too highly valued, or too rigidly guarded
These Records form the chief source from which the materials for this work have been derived, but they are by no means the only collections at Stratford illustrative of the genius whose name has cast a magic halo around that town, and conferred upon it everlasting celebrity. Among the inhabitants of Stratford who have felt this the most strongly, and worthily availed themselves of local advantages in collecting and preserving genuine memorials of the poet, none have performed more commendable services than the late Captain James Saunders. Possessing ample leisure, and an able draughtsman, no material relic of the ancient town was suffered to pass away before his pencil had perpetuated it for the information of posterity, and every document that came in his way which appeared to him likely to throw light on Shakespeare or his family was immediately transcribed. The hand of death prevented the accomplishment of his objects so fully perhaps as he had intended, but his manuscript collections and sketches will ever remain testimonies of his accurate and extensive research. He has, it is true, omitted to note many entries I have considered of great importance, but this circumstance may be attributed to the imperfect and unarranged state in which some of his papers were left at his decease. On the other hand, several manuscripts, the originals of which are private property, have been copied by him with minute accuracy, and some
of the most curious woodcuts in this volume have been derived from his careful drawings of objects now in many instances destroyed by the march of modern innovation. This valuable collection has recently, with as much judgment as liberality, been presented to the Royal Shakespearian Club of Stratford, by the author's son, Henry Caulfield Saunders, Esq., and it is to be hoped that in time all authentic papers relating to Shakespeare will eventually find a place in a Museum consecrated to his memory, to be erected on his patrimonial estate, and near to the spot where he first saw the light.
The Record Offices of London have also furnished much valuable information which has escaped previous enquirers. The want of a diligent spirit of research is here again eminently exhibited. For example, Mr. Collier enters into an elaborate argument to ascertain the year in which Shakespeare purchased New Place, and expresses his opinion that the exact date can never be recovered; but it is certainly most remarkable that no biographer should have been at the pains to take the first process in an enquiry relating to the purchase of property in those days, an inspection of the Index Finium. The date having been brought within narrow limits, a few minutes' search would have discovered the foot of the fine levied upon that occasion. This series of records has preserved several other important particulars respecting the poet and his father never before noticed.
It will be found that, with the aid of the documents discovered in the collections above mentioned, there are very few eras in the history of Shakespeare's life on which
I have not been able to throw some new light; and, with the exception of that little mine of valuable detail, Collier's New Facts, 1835, the present volume contains, I believe, more new information than any biographical work on Shakespeare that has yet appeared. But even with these advantages, the task is one so bold and arduous, if a writer presumes to form his own opinions on subjects treated of by so many abler men, that, in the commencement of this investigation, I entertained the humbler project of publishing my discoveries separately. “ When I said I would die a bachelor,” says Benedick, “I did not think I should live till I were married.” I had quite as little idea of becoming one of Shakespeare's biographers ; but the publishers, those arbitrers of the destinies of authors, refused to accept my collections unless presented to the public in a consecutive narrative, and I was obliged to make an essay which, under other circumstances, would probably not have been attempted.
A very few words on the course at length adopted will suffice, for the materials have been arranged in the least presuming form, and no more is attempted beyond placing before the reader an unprejudiced and complete view of every known fact respecting the poet. The word
unprejudiced need not create a smile, however impossible it might appear that impartiality could be wanting in such a matter; but latterly a spirit has arisen amongst a few writers, which would seem to tell us it is little better than sacrilege to believe any evidence affecting in the slightest degree Shakespeare's moral character. Believing this species of refinement to be unnecessary, and not exactly observing