« PreviousContinue »
The frontispiece is from the “Droeshout original ” portrait of Shakespeare, which was pre-
The name of Shakespeare was of wide and frequent occurrence in the midlands of England in the sixteenth and preceding centuries, and this fact, along with the scarcity of exact documentary evidence, makes even the immediate ancestry of the dramatist a matter of less than absolute certainty. But it is much more than probable that he was the son of one John Shakespeare, a dealer in agricultural produce, who at the time of William's birth was a person of increasing importance in the town of Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire. John Shakespeare's wife was Mary Arden, the youngest daughter of Robert Arden, a substantial farmer and landowner of Wilmcote, near Stratford. Their first son and third child, William, was baptized on April 26, 1564, the exact date of his birth being unrecorded. The history of his childhood is purely a matter of inference. He would naturally enter, as Rowe says he did, the grammar school of his vative town, since he was entitled to free education there; and from wbat is known of the usual curricula of sach schools at that period it is to be supposed that his studies were chiefly in Latin grammar and literature. Four years after the poet's birth, John Shakespeare had reached the most honorable municipal office, that of High Bailiff; but after 1572 there are signs that his fortunes had begun to decline. He absented himself from the meetings of the town council, and was deprived of office; and the nature of his financial transactions indicates that he was sinking deeply into debt. He may have withdrawn his son from sehool to aid him in business; for Aubrey, who died in 1697, says of the poet, “I have been told beretofore by some of the neighbours that when he was a boy he exercised his father's trade," which, according to this antiquary, was that of a butcher. Aubrey adds the two often-quoted statements: “When he kill'd a calf, he would doe it in a high style and make a speech. There was at that time another butcher's son in this towne, that was held not at all inferior to him for a naturall witt, his acquaintance, and coetanean, but dyed young."
The only additional information we have regarding Shakespeare's early years in Stratford pertains to his marriage, which took place when he was in his nineteenth year. No record of the actual ceremony has been found, but the date is approximately fixed by a document in the registry of the diocese of Worcester, dated November 28, 1582, in which two Stratford farmers gave bonds to free the bishop of responsibility in case of the subsequent discovery of any impediment rendering invalid the prospective marriage of William Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway. This Anne Hathaway is usually identified with Agnes, daughter of Richard Hathaway, a farmer of Shottery, in the parish of Stratford; and from the inscription on her tombstone it appears that she was eight years older than her husband. On May 26, 1583, the Stratford Registers record the baptism of "Susanna, daughter to William Shakspere;” and in February, 1584, the baptisms of " Hamnet and Judeth sonne and daughter to William Shakspere.” These few facts comprise all that is certainly known about Shakespeare's life before his removal to London; but mention must be made of one famous tradition. It is thus recorded by Rowe in 1709: "He bad, by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen into ill
company; and amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of Deer-stealing engag'd him with them more than once in robbing a Park that belong'd to Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and in order to revenge that ill usage, he made a ballad upon him. And tho' this, probably the first essay of his Poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the prosecution against him to that degree, that he was oblig'd to leave his business and family in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter himself in London.” This exploit is recorded also by Archdeacon Davies of Saperton in Gloucestershire in the latter part of the seventeenth century; and corroboration of a different kind is found in the supposed allusion to Lucy and his coat of arms in the “ dozen white luces" on Shallow's “old coat ” in The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1. i. 1-23. The date of the poaching affair is unknown, but is generally conjectured to have been 1585, and his departure is placed by many biographers in that year or the next. Belief in a germ of truth in the legend, however, does not carry with it the necessity of supposing that Shakespeare's migration to London was due to Lucy's persecution. Interest in the stage, with which he seems to have become connected soon after bis arrival in the metropolis, may have begun before he left home. While he was still a small boy, the actors of the Queen's Company and of the Earl of Worcester's Company were officially received in Stratford by his father as High Bailiff; and four companies visited the town in 1587. Those who place his removal as late as 1587, do so chiefly in order to find in the visit of the theatrical companies in that year a possible motive and occasion for the change.
The circumstances and occupation of Shakespeare on his first arrival in London are as uncertain as the date and cause of his leaving Stratford. Various late traditions unite in assigning to him some humble office in connection with the theatre, that of his holding horses outside the door being first printed in 1753. It is known, however, that by 1592 he had achieved considerable reputation as an actor and had begun to write. The company of which he was early a member, and to which he belonged during the greater part, if not the whole, of his career, was that known successively as the Earl of Leicester's (-1588), Lord Strange's (1588–92), Lord Derby's (1592–94), the Lord Chamberlain's (1594-July, 1596), Lord Hunsdon's (July, 1596-March, 1597), the Lord Chamberlain's (1597–1603), and finally, His Majesty's (1603-). Of the two playhouses in London at the beginning of his career, The Theatre is the one in which his later associations make it probable that he first acted. Others in which this company performed were The Rose, Newington Butts, The Curtain, and, after 1599, The Globe. It is doubtful whether Shakespeare was often on the stage after his company began to occupy The Blackfriars about Christmas, 1609. To these must be added the scenes of the performances given in many provincial towns while the company was touring, from Dover to Bristol and from Richmond to Coventry. There is no satisfactory evidence that Shakespeare ever accompanied any of the English actors who performed in Scotland or on the Continent, or, indeed, that he was ever out of England at all. As to his skill as an actor, Chettle stated in 1592 that he was "exelent in the qualitie he professes," and a later report, recorded by Aubrey, says that he acted “exceedingly well.” His name ranks high in the actors' lists of his time; he played in Jonson's Every Man in his Humour and Sejanus ; and tradition associates his name with the parts of the Ghost in Hamlet and of Adam in As You Like It, neither character, it must be allowed, being one likely to be assigned to the leading performer. That he had thought deeply and wisely on the purpose and methods of theatrical art is proved by the speech of Hamlet to the players.
As early as 1592, Shakespeare's success in theatrical matters was sufficiently marked to call forth an envious attack from Robert Greene, who died in September of that year. Addressing his fellow playwrights, Greene speaks of the actors as “those puppits that speake from our mouths; those anticks garnisht in our colours. Is it not strange that I, to whom they al have beene beholding, is it not like that you to whome they all have beene beholding, shall, were ye in that case that I am now, be both at once of them forsaken ? Yes, trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his owne conceit the only Shake-scene in a countrie. . . . Let those apes imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions; ... for it is pittie men of such rare wits should be subject to the pleasures of such rude groomes.” The words italicized are a parody on the line, “0 tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide ! ” which occurs in both The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke and 3 Henry VI, 1. iv. 137; and the word-play in “Shake-scene” confirms the interpretation which finds in the passage a denunciation of Shakespeare for his work in revising plays such as Henry VI, of the earlier forms of which Greene and his friends had presumably been the authors. A Groats-worth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance, in which the passage occurs, was published after Greene's death by Henry Chettle, who in December of the same year issued an apology in the prefatory address to his own Kind-Harts Dreame. "I am as sory,” he says, and he is understood to be speaking of Shakespeare, “as if the originall fault had been my fault, because myselfe have seene his demeanor no lesse civill, than he exelent in the qualitie be professes; – besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightnes of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writting, that aprooves his art.”
We thus find Shakespeare at the age of twenty-eight a person of some importance in theatrical circles, and recognized as a man to be reckoned with both as actor and as writer. In the two following years his versatility showed itself still farther in the publication of the highly popular Venus and Adonis and Lucrece ; and the suggestion of good relations with men of rank contained in Chettle's phrase, "divers of worship,” is made more definite by the terms of the dedications of these poems to the Earl of Southampton. The history of his next few years is mainly contained in the list of the dramas he produced; but there are other evidences of steady progress in fortune and repute. Already in 1594 be had been summoned to play before the Queen along with the most distinguished actors of the day; and from 1595 till long after his death, appeared a series of publications, poems as well as plays, with which he had nothing to do, but to which unsc
nscrupulous publishers attached his name or initials, thus testifying to the market value of his reputation.
Meantime, in Stratford, his father's affairs were going from bad to worse, until in 1596 the stopping of all actions for debt suggests that the dramatist had returned and restored the family fortunes. In August of that year his only son Hamnet died. In that year, too, an attempt to increase the family prestige was made in the name of John Shakespeare, though probably on the initiative of the poet, by applying to the College of Heralds for the grant of a coat of arms. Two drafts of such a grant are extant dated 1596, assigning to John Shakespeare a shield described thus: “Gould on a bend sable a speare of the first, steeled, argent; and for his creast or cognizance a faulcon, his winges displayed argent, standing on a wrethe of his coullors, supporting a speare gould steeled as aforesaid, sett upon a healmett with mantelles and tasselles as hath been accustomed.” The grant does not seem to bave been issued at this time; but three years later an application was made for an “exemplification” of the coat, the previous right to wear it being taken for granted. This application was successful, and the Shakespeares were benceforth regarded as entitled to the style of “gentlemen.” A more substautial evidence of the improved status of the family was afforded in 1597, when the dramatist bought and repaired New Place, then the largest house in Stratford. He did not, however, take up
bis permanent residence there till several years later. Various other legal and financial transactions indicate that he had come to be regarded as a man of substance; and his profession was sufficiently remunerative easily to account for this. It has been reckoned that his income as an actor must have averaged before the end of the century about £130 a year, and to this must be added about £20 annually from his plays. After The Globe was built in 1599 he became a shareholder, and the profits from this source are likely to have more than doubled his income. Gifts from patrons were not uncommon, and there may be some ground for the tradition handed down by Rowe from D'Avenant, that Shakespeare received from Southampton the gift of £1000. Money is usually reckoned to have had at that period from five to eight times its present purchasing power; but the difficulty of determining this with certainty, and the fragmentary and inconclusive nature of the bases of our information as to the financial side of the Elizabethan theatre, make it necessary to receive with caution the results of the calculations that have been made of Shakespeare's gains. There is no doubt, however, that he was an extremely successful man, that his affairs were conducted with much practical sense and shrewdness, and that he died rich. In bis will he left £350 in money, with a considerable amount of real estate and other property. There is in his life, certainly, no evidence that he shared the alleged incapacity of men of imaginative genius for practical affairs.
Along with this material prosperity, Shakespeare gained steadily in literary reputation. As early as 1598, Francis Meres, in his Palladis Tamia or Wit's Treasury, wrote “A Comparative Discourse of our English Poets with Greek, Latin, and Italian Poets; " and here be awards the highest praise to Shakespeare as both poet and playwright.
" As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweete wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous and hony-tongued Shakespeare ; witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, bis sugred Sonnets among his private friends, etc. As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines, so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love Labors Lost, his Love Labours Wonne, his Midsummer Night Dreame, and his Merchant of Venice; for tragedy, his Richard the 2., Richard the 3., Henry the 4., King John, Titus Andronicus, and his Romeo and Juliet.
“As Epius Stolo said that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin, so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English."
References by his literary contemporaries are fairly numerous, and are in general in this enthusiastic vein. Allusions to his personality reflect a kindly feeling in the speakers, and indicate a genial disposition in the poet, with a love of wit and good fellowship. Legendary gossip suggesting occasional extreme conviviality need not be taken too seriously, and probably implies nothing more than a fondness for making merry with his friends.
The documentary records of the later years of Shakespeare's life are concerned chiefly with law-suits and the investment of money. They are of interest chiefly as showing in Shakespeare some of bis father's tendency to litigiousness, and that carefulness of his pe