A Seventeenth Century Biographical Sketch of William Shakespeare


“William Shakespeare” by John Aubrey

Mr William Shakespeare

Mr William Shakespeare was born at Stratford-upon-Avon in the county of Warwick. His father was a butcher and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours that when he was a boy he exercised his father’s trade, but when he killed a calf he would doe it in a high style, and make a speech. There was at this time another butcher’s son in this town that was held not at all inferior to him for a natural wit, his acquaintance and coetanean, but died young.

This William, being inclined naturally to poetry and acting, came to London, I guess, about 18: and was an actor at one of the play-houses, and did act exceedingly well (now Ben Jonson was never a good actor, but an excellent instructor). He began early to make essays at dramatic poetry, which at that time was very low, and his plays took well.

He was a handsome, well shaped man: very good company, and of a very ready and pleasant smoot wit. The humour of … the constable in Midsomernight’s Dreame, he happened to take at Grendon in Bucks — I think it was Midsomer night that he happened to lye there — which is the road from London to Stratford, and there was living that constable about 1642, when I first came to Oxford: Mr Jodas Howe is of that parish, and knew him. Ben Jonson and he did gather humours of men daily where ever they came. One time as he was at the tavern at Stratford-super-Avon, one Combes, an old rich usurer, was to be buried, he makes there this extemporary epitaph:

Ten in the Hundred the Devill allowes,
But Combes will have twelve, he sweares and vowes:
If anyone askes who lies in this tombe,
‘Hoh!’ quoth the Devill, ’tis my John o Combe.

He was wont to go to his native country once a year. I think I have been told that he left 2 or 300 li. per annum there and thereabout to a sister. Vide: his epitaph in Dugdale’s Warwickshire.

I have heard Sir William Davenant and Mr Thomas Shadwell (who is counted the best comedian we have now) say that he had a most prodigious wit, and did admire his natural parts beyond all other dramatical writers. He was wont to say (Ben Jonson’s Undererwoods) that he ‘never blotted out a line in his life’; said Ben Jonson, ‘I wish he had blotted-out a thousand.’

His comedies will remain wit as long as the English tongue is understood, for that he handles mores hominum [the ways of mankind]. Now our present writers reflect so much upon particular persons and coxcombeities, that twenty years hence they will not be understood.

Though, as Ben Jonson says of him, that he had but little Latin and less Greek, he understood Latin pretty well, for he had been in his younger years a schoolmaster, in the country – this from Mr … Breston.



This biographical sketch of Shakespeare was published in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, a collection of short biographies written by Aubrey (1626–1697).

The version posted here, which is in slightly edited form, was been published in Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey, My Own Life.


— Roger W. Smith

   September 2016

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