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Dictionary of National Biography

Shakespear, John (1774-1858)

Orientalist, born at Lount, near Ashby, Leicestershire, in August 1774, was the son of a small farmer. He was educated at the parish school in Staunton Herald, and afterwards at a school kept by a clergyman, who brought him to the notice of Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Lord Rawdon (afterwards Marquis of Hastings) [q.v.], the lord of the manor. Lord Rawdon, who was contemplating a mission to North Africa, sent Shakespear to learn Arabic in London, where he studied the language under Richardson and James Golius. In 1793 Lord Rawdon obtained for him a post in the commissariat of a force under his command, which it was proposed to send in aid of the insurgents in Brittany. About 1805 he was appointed to an oriental professorship at the Royal Military College, Marlow. When the East India Company, in 1809, opened a training college for cadets at Addiscombe, he was appointed professor of Hindustani there on 200l. a year, his salary rising in 1811 to 400l. and in 1822 to 600l. While at Addiscombe he compiled a Hundustani grammar and dictionary, and various text-books. Of the first edition of his dictionary he said that it was little more than a revision of one published in Calcutta by Dr. William Hunter, who died at Java in 1812; but subsequent editions contained the results of his own researchers. In 1829 he retired from the East India Company's service with a pension of 300l. a year. Being a man of singularly frugal and self-denying habits, he put by a considerable proportion of his salary as a professor, in addition to which he made large sums by the sale of his books. He was thus enabled on his retirement to purchase Langley Priory in Leicestershire, thereby fulfilling, it was said, the ambition of his boyhood (VIBART, Addiscombe).

In 1856 he gave 2,500l. to the trustees of the fund for preserving William Shakespeare's house at Stratford-on-Avon, this munificent offer being prompted  apparently by the idea that he might have been descended from a branch of the dramatist's family. In his will he bequeathed a further sum to the fund (Athaneum, 1858,ii. 85); but the court of chancery pronounced the bequest invalid. He died at Langley Priory on 10 June 1858 unmarried, the estate passing to his nephew Charles Bowles, who took the surname of Shakespear.

There is a portrait by H. P. Briggs, painted in 1835, and two others by artists unnamed, all at Langley Priory.

He was author of:

  1. 'Hindustani Grammar,' 1813; 6th edit. 1855.

  2. 'Dictionary of Hindustani and English,' 1817; to the fourth edition of which was added an English-Hindustani Dictionary.

  3. 'Muntakhabat-i-Hindi, Selections in Hindustani,' 1817-18.

  4. 'Introduction to the Hindustani Language,' 1845.

[Royal Asiatic Society's Journal, vol. xvii. old ser.; Vibart's Addiscombe; information supplied by Charles Shakespear, esq., J.P.]

S. W.

Notes on the possible genealogy of John Shakespear

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