CHAPTER XIV. WILLIAM SHAKSPEARE.
The Power of Shakspeare. Meagre Early History. Doubts of his Identity.
What is known. Marries, and goes to London. “Venus” and “Lucrece.”
Retirement and Death. Literary Habitudes. Variety of the Plays. Table
of Dates and Sources.
THE POWER OF SHAKSPEARE.
We have now reached, in our search for the historic teachings in English literature, and in our consideration of the English drama, the greatest name of all, the writer whose works illustrate our position most strongly, and yet who, eminent type as he is of British culture in the age of Elizabeth, was truly and pithily declared by his friend and contemporary, Ben Jonson, to be “not for an age, but for all time.” It is also singularly true that, even in such a work as this, Shakspeare really requires only brief notice at our hands, because he is so universally known and read: his characters are among our familiar acquaintance; his simple but thoughtful words are incorporated in our common conversation; he is our every-day companion. To eulogize him to the reading public is
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To lend a perfume to the violet ...
The Bible and Shakspeare have been long conjoined as the two most necessary books in a family library; and Mrs. Cowden Clarke, the author of the Concordance to Shakspeare, has pointedly and truthfully said: “A poor lad, possessing no other book, might on this single one make himself a gentleman and a scholar: a poor girl, studying no other volume, might become a lady in heart and soul.”
MEAGRE EARLY HISTORY.—It is passing strange, considering the great value of his writings, and his present fame, that of his personal history so little is known. In the words of Steevens, one of his most successful commentators: “All that is known, with any degree of certainty, concerning Shakspeare, is—that he was born at Stratford upon Avon—married and had children there—went to London, where he commenced actor, and wrote poems and plays—returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was buried.”
This want of knowledge is in part due to his obscure youth, during which no one could predict what he would afterward achieve, and therefore no one took notes of his life: to his own apparent ignorance and carelessness of his own merits, and to the low repute in which plays, and especially playwrights, were then held; although they were in reality making their age illustrious in history. The pilgrim to Stratford sees the little low house in which he is said to have been born, purchased by the nation, and now restored into a smart cottage: within are a few meagre relics of the poet's time; not far distant is the foundation—recently uncovered—of his more ambitious residence in New Place, and a mulberry-tree, which probably grew from a slip of that which he had planted with his own hand. Opposite is the old Falcon Inn, where he made his daily potations. Very near rises, above elms and lime-trees, the spire of the beautiful church on the bank of the Avon, beneath the chancel of which his remains repose, with those of his wife and daughter, overlooked by his bust, of which no one knows the maker or the history, except that it dates from his own time. His bust is of life-size, and was originally painted to imitate nature—eyes of hazel, hair and beard auburn, doublet scarlet, and sleeveless gown of black. Covered by a false taste with white paint to imitate marble, while it destroyed identity and age: it has since been recolored from traditional knowledge, but it is too rude to give us the expression of his face.
The only other probable likeness is that from an old picture, an engraving of which, by Droeshout, is found in the first folio edition of his plays, published in 1623, seven years after his death: it was said by Ben Jonson to be a good likeness. We are very fortunate in having these, unsatisfactory as they are, for it is simple truth that beyond these places and things, there is little, if anything, to illustrate the personal history of Shakspeare. All that we can know of the man is found in his works.
DOUBTS OF HIS IDENTITY.—This ignorance concerning him has given rise to numerous doubts as to his literary identity, and many efforts have been made to find other authors for his dramas. Among the most industrious in this deposing scheme, have been Miss Delia Bacon and Mr. Nathaniel Holmes, who concur in attributing his best plays to Francis Bacon. That Bacon did not acknowledge his own work, they say, is because he rated the dramatic art too far beneath his dignity to confess any complicity with it. In short, he and other great men of that day wrote immortal works which they were ashamed of, and were willing to father upon the common actor and stage-manager, one William Shakspeare!
While it is not within the scope of this volume to enter into the controversy, it is a duty to state its existence, and to express the judgment that these efforts have been entirely unsuccessful, but have not been without value in that they have added a little to the meagre history by their researches, and have established the claims of Shakspeare on a firmer foundation than before.
WHAT IS KNOWN.—William Shakspeare (spelt Shackspeare in the body of his will, but signed Shakspeare) was the third of eight children, and the eldest son of John Shakspeare and Mary Arden: he was born at the beautiful rural town of Stratford, on the little river Avon, on the 23d of April, 1564. His father, who was of yeoman rank, was probably a dealer in wool and leather. Aubrey, a gossiping chronicler of the next generation, says he was a butcher, and some biographers assert that he was a glover. He may have exercised all these crafts together, but it is more to our purpose to know that in his best estate he was a property holder and chief burgess of the town. Shakspeare's mother seems to have been of an older family. Neither of them could write. Shakspeare received his education at the free grammar-school, still a well-endowed institution in the town, where he learned the “small Latin and less Greek” accorded to him by Ben Jonson at a later day.
There are guesses, rather than traditions, that he was, after the age of fifteen, a student in a law-office, that he was for a time at one of the universities, and also that he was a teacher in the grammar-school. These are weak inventions to account for the varied learning displayed in his dramas. His love of Nature and his power to delineate her charms were certainly fostered by the beautiful rural surroundings of Stratford; beyond this it is idle to seek to penetrate the obscure processes of his youth.
MARRIES, AND GOES TO LONDON.—Finding himself one of a numerous and poor family, to the support of which his father's business was inadequate, he determined, to shift for himself, and to push his fortunes in the best way he could.
Whether he regarded matrimony as one element of success we do not know, but the preliminary bond of marriage between himself and Anne Hathaway, was signed on the 28th of November, 1582, when he was eighteen years old. The woman was seven years older than himself; and it is a sad commentary on the morality of both, that his first child, Susanna, was baptized on the 25th of May, 1583.
Strolling bands of players, in passing through England, were in the habit of stopping at Stratford, and setting upon wheels their rude stage with weather-stained curtains; and these, it should be observed, were the best dramatic companies of the time, such as the queen's company, and those in the service of noblemen like Leicester, Warwick, and others. If he did not see he must have heard of the great pageant in 1575, when Leicester entertained Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth, which is so charmingly described by Sir Walter Scott. Young Shakspeare became stage-struck, and probably joined one of these companies, with other idle young men of the neighborhood.
Various legends, without sufficient foundation of truth, are related of him at this time, which indicate that he was of a frolicsome and mischievous turn: among these is a statement that he was arraigned for deer-poaching in the park of Sir Thomas Lucy, of Charlecote. A satirical reference to Sir Thomas in one of his plays, leads us to think that there is some truth in the story, although certain of his biographers have denied it.
In February, 1584-5, he became the father of twins, Hamnet and Judith, and in 1586, leaving his wife and children at Stratford, he went up with a theatrical company to London, where for three years he led a hard and obscure life. He was at first a menial at the theatre; some say he held gentlemen's horses at the door, others that he was call-boy, prompter, scene-shifter, minor actor. At length he began to find his true vocation in altering and adapting plays for the stage. This earlier practice, in every capacity, was of great value to him when he began to write plays of his own. As an actor he never rose above mediocrity. It is said that he played such parts as the Ghost in Hamlet, and Adam in As You Like It; but off the stage he became known for a ready wit and convivial humor.
His ready hand for any work caused him to prosper steadily, and so in 1589 we find his name the twelfth on the list of sixteen shareholders in the Blackfriars Theatre, one of the first play-houses built in London. That he was steadily growing in public favor, as well as in private fortune, might be inferred from Spenser's mention of him in the “Tears of the Muses,” published in 1591, if we were sure he was the person referred to. If he was, this is the first great commendation he had received:
The man whom nature's self had made,
To mock herself and truth to imitate,
With kindly counter under mimic shade,
Our pleasant Willie.
There is, however, a doubt whether the reference is to him, as he had written very little as early as 1591.
VENUS AND ADONIS.—In 1593 appeared his Venus and Adonis, which he now had the social position and interest to dedicate to the Earl of Southampton. It is a harmonious and beautiful poem, but the display of libidinous passion in the goddess, however in keeping with her character and with the broad taste of the age, is disgusting to the refined reader, even while he acknowledges the great power of the poet. In the same year was built the Globe Theatre, a hexagonal wooden structure, unroofed over the pit, but thatched over the stage and the galleries. In this, too, Shakspeare was a shareholder.
THE RAPE OF LUCRECE.—The Rape of Lucrece was published in 1594, and was dedicated to the same nobleman, who, after the custom of the period, became Shakspeare's patron, and showed the value of his patronage by the gift to the poet of a thousand pounds.
Thus in making poetical versions of classical stories, which formed the imaginative pabulum of the age, and in readapting older plays, the poet was gaining that skill and power which were to produce his later immortal dramas.
These, as we shall see, he began to write as early as 1589, and continued to produce until 1612.
RETIREMENT AND DEATH.—A few words will complete his personal history: His fortune steadily increased; in 1602 he was the principal owner of the Globe; then, actuated by his home feeling, which had been kept alive by annual visits to Stratford, he determined, as soon as he could, to give up the stage, and to take up his residence there. He had purchased, in 1597, the New Place at Stratford, but he did not fully carry out his plan until 1612, when he finally retired with ample means and in the enjoyment of an honorable reputation. There he exercised a generous hospitality, and led a quiet rural life. He planted a mulberry-tree, which became a pilgrim's shrine to numerous travellers; but a ruthless successor in the ownership of New Place, the Reverend Francis Gastrell, annoyed by the concourse of visitors, was Vandal enough to cut it down. Such was the anger of the people that he was obliged to leave the place, which he did after razing the mansion to the ground. His name is held in great detestation at Stratford now, as every traveller is told his story.
Shakspeare's death occurred on his fifty-second birthday, April 23d, 1616. He had been ill of a fever, from which he was slowly recovering, and his end is said to have been the result of an over-conviviality in entertaining Drayton and Ben Jonson, who had paid him a visit at Stratford.
His son Hamnet had died in 1596, at the age of twelve. In 1607, his daughter Susannah had married Dr. Hall; and in 1614 died Judith, who had married Thomas Quiney. Shakspeare's wife survived him, and died in 1623.
LITERARY HABITUDES.—Such, in brief, is the personal history of Shakspeare: of his literary habitudes we know nothing. The exact dates of the appearance of his plays are, in most cases, doubtful. Many of these had been printed singly during his life, but the first complete edition was published in folio, in 1623. It contains thirty-six plays, and is the basis of the later editions, which contain thirty- seven. Many questions arise which cannot be fully answered: Did he write all the plays contained in the volume? Are the First Part of Henry VI., Titus Andronicus, and Pericles his work? Did he not write others not found among these? Had he, as was not uncommon then and later, collaboration in those which bear his name? Was he a Beaumont to some Fletcher, or a Sackville to some Norton? Upon these questions generations of Shakspearean scholars have expended a great amount of learned inquiry ever since his day, and not without results: it is known that many of his dramas are founded upon old plays, as to plots; and that he availed himself of the labor of others in casting his plays.
But the real value of his plays, the insight into human nature, the profound philosophy, “the myriad-soul” which they display, are Shakspeare's only. By applying just rules of evidence, we conclude that he did write thirty-five of the plays attributed to him, and that he did not write, or was not the chief writer of others. It is certainly very strong testimony on these points, that seven years after his death, and three years before that of Bacon, a large folio should have been published by his professional friends Heminge and Condell, prefaced with ardent eulogies, claiming thirty-six plays as his, and that it did not meet with the instant and indignant cry that his claims were false. The players of that day were an envious and carping set, and the controversy would have been fierce from the very first, had there been just grounds for it.
VARIETY OF PLAYS.—No attempt will be made to analyze any of the plays of Shakspeare: that is left for the private study and enjoyment of the student, by the use of the very numerous aids furnished by commentators and critics. It will be found often that in their great ardor, the dramatist has been treated like the Grecian poet:
[Shakspeare's] critics bring to view
Things which [Shakspeare] never knew.
Many of the plays are based upon well-known legends and fictional tales, some of them already adopted in old plays: thus the story of King Lear and his daughters is found in Holinshed's Chronicle, and had been for years represented; from this Shakspeare has borrowed the story, but has used only a single passage. The play is intended to represent the ancient Celtic times in Britain, eight hundred years before Christ; and such is its power and pathos, that we care little for its glaring anachronisms and curious errors. In Holinshed are also found the stories of Cymbeline and Macbeth, the former supposed to have occurred during the Roman occupancy of Britain, and the latter during the Saxon period.
With these before us, let us observe that names, chronology, geography, costumes, and customs are as nothing in his eyes. His aim is human philosophy: he places his living creations before us, dressing them, as it were, in any garments most conveniently at hand. These lose their grotesqueness as his characters speak and act. Paternal love and weakness, met by filial ingratitude; these are the lessons and the fearful pictures of Lear: sad as they are, the world needed them, and they have saved many a later Lear from expulsion and storm and death, and shamed many a Goneril and Regan, while they have strengthened the hearts of many a Cordelia since. Chastity and constancy shine like twin stars from the forest of Cymbeline. And what have we in Macbeth? Mad ambition parleying with the devil, in the guise of a woman lost to all virtue save a desire to aggrandize her husband and herself. These have a pretence of history; but Hamlet, with hardly that pretence, stands alone supreme in varied excellence. Ambition, murder, resistless fate, filial love, the love of woman, revenge, the power of conscience, paternal solicitude, infinite jest: what a volume is this!
TABLE OF DATES AND SOURCES.—The following table, which presents the plays in chronological order, the times when they were written, as nearly as can be known, and the sources whence they were derived, will be of more service to the student than any discursive remarks upon the several plays.
Plays. Dates. Sources.
1. Henry VI., first part 1589 Denied to Shakspeare; attributed to
Marlowe or Kyd.
2. Pericles 1590 From the “Gesta Romanorum.”
3. Henry VI., second part 1591 ” an older play.
4. Henry VI., third part 1591 ” ” ” “
5. Two Gentlemen of Verona 1591 ” an old tale.
6. Comedy of Errors 1592 ” a comedy of Plautus.
7. Love's Labor Lost 1592 ” an Italian play.
8. Richard II. 1593 ” Holinshed and other
9. Richard III. 1593 From an old play and Sir Thomas
More's History. 10. Midsummer Night's Dream 1594 Suggested by Palamon and Arcite,
The Knight's Tale, of Chaucer. 11. Taming of the Shrew 1596 From an older play. 12. Romeo and Juliet 1596 ” ” old tale. Boccaccio. 13. Merchant of Venice 1597 ” Gesta Romanorum, with suggestions
from Marlowe's Jew of Malta. 14. Henry IV., part 1 1597 From an old play. 15. Henry IV., part 2 1598 ” ” ” ” 16. King John 1598 ” ” ” ” 17. All's Well that Ends Well 1598 ” Boccaccio. 18. Henry V. 1599 From an older play. 19. As You Like It 1600 Suggested in part by Lodge's novel,
Rosalynd. 20. Much Ado About Nothing 1600 Source unknown. 21. Hamlet 1601 From the Latin History of Scandinavia,
by Saxo, called Grammaticus. 22. Merry Wives of Windsor 1601 Said to have been suggested by
Elizabeth. 23. Twelfth Night 1601 From an old tale. 24. Troilus and Cressida 1602 Of classical origin, through Chaucer. 25. Henry VIII. 1603 From the chronicles of the day. 26. Measure for Measure 1603 ” an old tale. 27. Othello 1604 ” ” ” ” 28. King Lear 1605 ” Holinshed. 29. Macbeth 1606 ” ” 30. Julius Caesar 1607 ” Plutarch's Parallel Lives. 31. Antony and Cleopatra 1608 ” ” ” ” 32. Cymbeline 1609 ” Holinshed. 33. Coriolanus 1610 ” Plutarch. 34. Timon of Athens 1610 ” ” and other sources. 35. Winter's Tale 1611 ” a novel by Greene. 36. Tempest 1612 ” Italian Tale. 37. Titus Andronicus 1593 Denied to Shakspeare; probably by
Marlowe or Kyd.